Space dreams and harsh realities
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Interesting features, opinion and analysis from around the web The Browser

Our pick of the week’s science and technology stories include a trip to the stars, deadly viruses, and gun control and 3D printers.

Death at Yosemite
Bruce Barcott | Outside | 18 December 2012

The story behind the outbreak of deadly hantavirus in summer 2012. The park had upgraded its accommodation to offer hard-sided cabins as well as tents for visitors. In doing so, it had unwittingly provided the perfect environment for a killer virus. Three people were to lose their lives, but it messed with the psyche of the rest of us, too.

Crazy far
Tim Folger | National Geographic | 17 December 2012

Will humans ever travel to the stars? To get an idea of the challenge, it would take the fastest spacecraft ever built 17,000 years to reach the nearest star. "It's Mars or nowhere," say some space experts. Others believe a form of interstellar exploration may be possible within 100 years. This piece investigates what it would take.

When you swallow a grenade
Carl Zimmer | Loom | 18 December 2012

We've come a long way in medical terms from the time when a scratch from a rose thorn could lead to death. The discovery of penicillin saw to that. But antibiotics also had unintended consequences, which scientists are now having to come to grips with. In the future, we'll need new antibiotics, we'll use them more sparingly and we may even learn to fight bacteria with bacteria.

Self-driving cars can navigate the road, but can they navigate the law?
Russell Brandom | Verge | 14 December 2012
The great American question: Whom do you sue? If accident victims are incentivised to sue developers and manufacturers of driverless cars, companies won't make the cars. If liability rests with owners of cars, people won't buy them. It would be a shame if genuinely good ideas get stymied by legal issues. So what is the future of the fully automated, self-parking car?

Imitation of life
Brian Hayes | American Scientist | 13 December 2012

Can a computer program reproduce everything that happens inside a living cell? A program with exactly that goal was published last summer. It included all the major processes of life. So are we on the threshold of “completing” molecular biology? This is how the researchers' simulation worked.

Gun control and 3D printers
Devin Coldewey | TechCrunch | 16 December 2012

You can download a file and fabricate a toy gun on a 3D printer. How long will it be before you can make a real one? "Like the digitization of music, the digitization of objects, guns or otherwise, is a one-way street. Every step forward is ineffaceable." What, if anything, should we do about it?

No flying cars, but the future is bright
Virginia Postrel | Bloomberg | 16 December 2012

This is a rejoinder to tech commentators and investors who evoke 1950s visions of the future — including space colonies and flying cars — as evidence that we used to think big, and no longer do. But life has advanced in ways that weren't even imaginable in the 1950s.

Bonus read: Special report on the Mind and Brain
The Browser's report
collects reading on everything you wanted – or perhaps didn't want – to know about your mind. From how we make memories and how many friends we can cope with, to zombie brains, head injury and what we can learn from psychopaths. Start your weekend reading here. 

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