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Updated: 5 hours 45 min ago

Gut Microbes Take Over Your Body When You Die

6 hours 44 min ago

Catching Killers With Gut Microbes Via Scottsdale Community College You have around 100 trillion bacteria living in your gut — and that’s a good thing. Known as gut flora or the gut microbiome, these microorganisms help your body digest certain foods, aid the immune system, and maintain a healthy gastrointestinal tract, all in exchange for a constant food supply.

But when you die, your friendly gut flora quickly become your gut foe. Without food, the microbes escape your GI tract through the circulatory system and spread to your other organs, feeding on your dying cells and colonizing your body.

Now, forensic experts are finding that this macabre Manifest Destiny may provide crucial clues about a corpse. According to New Scientist, Peter Noble and his research team at Alabama State University analyzed organ tissue samples from 11 cadavers, between one to 10 days after death. From the spreading bacteria’s genetic material, they were able to figure out how long it took for the gut microbes to reach other organs, and which species traveled where.

Apparently, there wasn’t much rhyme or reason to this microbial takeover:

Contrary to the team's expectations, there was no predictable pattern of microbe distribution. This was a surprise, says Noble, as he had expected different microbes to thrive in different organs. For example, the team had thought that bile-tolerant species would flourish in the liver, whereas those adapted to iron-rich environments would do better in the spleen.

In fact, there was more variation between individuals and according to time since death than there was between the organs within a single cadaver (Journal of Microbiological Methods,

However, these findings do hold some benefit, especially in the field of forensics. Knowing how gut bacteria swarm throughout the body post mortem can reveal a body’s time of death or where the body has been lying, as the environment surrounding the body at death can have a significant effect on the spread of gut microbes. If a body has been moved to a second location after death, the bacteria of the internal organs can indicate where the person was originally killed. So, after you die, your gut microbiome is still working for you.

[New Scientist]

Flying Foxes, Rococo Toads, And Other Creatures Of Darkness

8 hours 45 min ago

After sundown, a completely different world comes to life. 

Photographer Traer Scott writes that her journey into darkness started with moths, "the mysterious, moonlit cousins of the perky, sunny butterfly--flitting wildly and ever frantically near our porch lights but never coming quite close enough to be truly illuminated." Then she got to thinking about the bats that eat the boths, and an idea hatched. Her book, "Nocturne: Creatures Of The Night," calls itself the first photography book devoted to nocturnal animals, and it goes on sale September 2.

Many of the animals pictured in the book were injured or orphaned, and wouldn't have been able to survive in the wild. Traer managed to get up close to the smaller animals with the help of a contraption that she calls her Little Black Box--it's essentially a box with lens holes cut in the sides, which provided a black backdrop and kept the animals calm. For the larger animals, she worked with zoos and wildlife rehabilitation centers. 

The book has a strong focus on conservation, and Traer reminds us that many of these fascinating creatures are threatened with habitat loss, poaching, and light pollution. 

The Last Passenger Pigeon Died 100 Years Ago Today

11 hours 44 min ago

Passenger Pigeon Exhibit Wikimedia Commons

One hundred years ago today, the scientific community mourned the passing of a very important bird. Her name was Martha (after George Washington’s wife), and she was the last known passenger pigeon to have existed.  She died in her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914, marking the end of the passenger pigeon species, Ectopistes migratorius.

Just a few decades prior to Martha’s death, the passenger pigeon flourished throughout much of North America; in the early 1800s, they were considered one of the most abundant species of bird in the world, with their numbers somewhere between 1 and 5 billion. They lived in giant colonies that stretched for miles in length, darkening the sky for hours as they passed overhead.

But a combination of over hunting and habitat loss caused the species’ numbers to dwindle, and between 1870 and 1890, the passenger pigeon suffered a “catastrophic decline,” with millions of birds slaughtered. After 1900, there were no longer any passenger pigeons in the wild, and only a handful (including Martha) remained in captivity at the University of Chicago. Their handler, zoologist Charles Otis Whitman, tried one last attempt to breed the birds -- without success.

After her death, Martha was frozen in a block of ice and sent to the Smithsonian, where she remained on display for 80 years. Now, she is considered somewhat of a cultural icon, symbolizing the threat of extinction for many other endangered species.

But at first, it was hard for many people to accept the end of the passenger pigeon. For years after Martha’s death, numerous people kept “seeing” the bird in the wild, and many experts tried to figure out where they might have gone. In the October 1930 issue of Popular Science, the magazine details one of these “sightings.”

Passenger Pigeon Shoot A flock of passenger pigeons being hunted. Wikimedia Commons “Extinct” Passenger Pigeon Seen Alive Popular Science, October 1930

Recent reports that the passenger pigeon, which supposedly became extinct in 1914, may not have perished after all have been given added weight by a scientific observer.

The first reports concerned the observations of two laymen. A Michigan publisher reported seeing a pair of passenger pigeons on the road sixteen miles from his Munising home. From a distance of only ten feet he could plainly identify them by the sheen on the neck and the red eyes. A Traverse City, Mich., physician, driving from Florida, observed a flock of about fifteen between Indianapolis and Kokomo, Ind. Both these men had hunted the birds in the years when they were common and were thoroughly familiar with them.

Now Dr. Philip Hadley, University of Michigan biologist, reports that he himself recently saw a bird that may have been a passenger pigeon; his companion, a veteran naturalist, obtained a better look and positively identified the bird. Doctor Hadley suggests that the species may be returning to the northern peninsula of Michigan, once a famous nesting ground for them.

Science has long considered the passenger pigeon as extinct as the auk or dodo. The last known specimen died in 1914 in a Cincinnati, O., zoological park. Previous to that, the last wild bird was seen near Detroit, Mich., in 1898, according to report.

The Week In Numbers: Hovercycles, Ashy Moon Smells, And A Disappearing Louisiana Coast

Fri, 08/29/2014 - 17:00

The Drone 3 In Flight I bet this would've caught Luke Skywalker on Endor. Malloy Aeronautics 15.4: combined weight in pounds of this robot riding a hovercycle.

-268: temperature in degrees Celsius of liquid helium when it is used in MRI machines and particle accelerators. Below that, liquid helium starts to demonstrate weird quantum effects.

10.8 million: the amount of money, in dollars, in a U.K. emergency fund, intended to bankroll Ebola research to help the current outbreak.

Researchers Investigate an Ebola Outbreak in Uganda in 2012 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

3,800: the speed in miles per hour the Army wants their advanced hypersonic missile to go. However, this goal may be further away than expected; during a weapons test, one of their experimental rockets exploded after liftoff.

56: percentage of fruits and vegetables grown for consumption that are actually consumed, worldwide. That’s compared to 44 percent of produce lost.

Food waste, by production stage and food type Click to see larger image. Katie Peek

43: percentage of oxygen in rock and soil on the Moon. Scientist Larry Taylor says that unsatisfied dangling bonds from oxygen in the lunar soil account for the Moon's ashy, gunpowder smell.

2: the number of hours Time Warner’s major Internet outage lasted early Wednesday morning. We spoke with a computer scientist to figure out what may have caused the issue.

761.2: the speed of sound in miles per hour at sea level. China is developing a supersonic submarine that may be able to travel at such a speed.

Supercavitating Submarine South China Morning Post

$25 to $1,250: price range (in real money) for purchasing virtual ships in the crowdfunded video game Star Citizen, which promises to be the most realistic spaceflight game yet.

48.1 million: Amount of money total that 498,500 players have spent on virtual ships in Star Citizen. These gamers are excited.

111: Number of juvenile Polypterus senegalus fish trained to walk on land for nearly a year. The idea was for researchers to better understand evolutionary processes that occurred 400 million years ago.

2,000: square miles of southeastern Louisiana that has disappeared into the Gulf of Mexico over the past eight decades.

The Week In Drones: Google Delivery, Reaper Gods, And More

Fri, 08/29/2014 - 16:00

Pumpkin King Scarecrow Imagine how much scarier this would be with a drone controlling it. SolarSurfer via Wikimedia Commons

Here's a roundup of the week's top drone news: the military, commercial, non-profit, and recreational applications of unmanned aircraft.

Drone Pilots Puppet

Disney, whose theme parks are known for their animatronic robots, recently filed a patent for “Aerial Display System With Marionettes Articulated and Supported by Airborne Devices.” The puppet is suspended from a six-rotor hexacopter drone. In addition to moving with the drone as it flies, three arms below the drone manipulate the puppet like a human puppeteer would. It’d make an ideal addition to the Haunted Mansion. 

Insurgents Drone Back

Drones made their name in wars against insurgent forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan, where long flight times and powerful cameras let conventional militaries find small bands of fighters. Now, the violent terror group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has a drone, and used it to scout out an attack against an airbase in Syria. The drone appears to be a commercial DJI Phantom, with a good camera. The aerial footage provided by the drone allowed the group to find weak points before attacking. 

USDA Wants A Robot Farmer

The Department of Agriculture posted a solicitation for a drone for “low-altitude imaging of crops.” The solicitation specifies that the drone be at least as good as a DJI S1000, can hover, carry over four pounds, fly for at least 15 minutes, and gimbal-mount a camera underneath. Agriculture is one of the low-hanging fruits of drone development, with winemakers using them to find ripe grapes and Minnesota farmers explorer the potential of cheap field photography. 

The Church Of The Flying Robot Metaphor

Pastor Ed Young heads Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas. For a sermon series on the all-knowing and all-powerful God, he’s seized on a strangely modern metaphor: drones. As noted by Vox, drones are neither omnipresent nor omnipotent, so perhaps it’s not exactly the best metaphor for a strictly defined Abrahamic deity. Watch a trailer for his lecture series below:

Drone Delivery In Australia

In the works for two years, Project Wing by Google X is a drone delivery system which has now been tested in rural Australia. Key to the system is a vertical-takeoff drone that flies like a plane. From our story on Project Wing:

The drone is a tail-sitter, taking off vertically with its body perpendicular to the ground. At rest, it looks like a tiny spaceship from a 1930s comic book. It’s a type of Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) rarely done with humans on board, because that transition, from vertical to horizontal and back again, is difficult for onboard human pilots to manage. For the drone it works fine, and the design lets the wing fly fast like a plane. It also means the drone can hover, and that’s where the delivery mechanism of Project Wing shines.

Project Wing Drone Google

Reno Reaps Rewards from the Drone Economy

Ashima Devices makes a strange-looking drone. Dubbed the “hexpuck,” it is six small rotors contained within a larger disk, looking as much like the magazine in a revolver as an aircraft. They have different versions for police, law enforcement, security, and marine needs. To further their business, the company announced this week that it’s moving its headquarters to Reno. Nevada, one of six test sites for drones selected by the FAA, became operational in June. Ashima’s move is expected to bring 400 jobs to the town, and hints at the economic potential of the drone industry for places that embrace it.

Hoverbike Harbinger

Malloy Aeronautics, a helicopter company founded in Australia and transplanted to England, wants to make a helicopter for people as nimble as a motorcycle in the sky. To fund it, they first developed a remote control drone version that’s one-third the size. Here’s how we reported the bike:

Malloy Aeronautics’s first hoverbike used two large ducted fans for lift, something it had in common with other hoverbike designs. The new version, as seen in Drone 3, is instead a quadcopter, using four rotors in a sleeker, more balanced fashion. The fans partially overlap, and the whole drone can fold up to fit within a special backpack carrying case. Drone 3 is remotely piloted, but the hoverbikes it finances will fly both manned and unmanned.

Did I miss any drone news? Email me at

Nautical Chimeras, Exploding Rockets, And Other Amazing Images Of The Week

Fri, 08/29/2014 - 15:20

Stunning Stinger The Portuguese man o' war is named after an 18th century warship. The creature may look like one organism, but it is actually a siphonophore -- a colony made up of different individual animals. That means each of its organs is composed of genetically distinct cells. National Geographic has more on the insane biology of these venomous creatures, as well as a collection of gorgeous photos. Aaron Ansarov

Google Already Testing Delivery Robots In Australia

Fri, 08/29/2014 - 12:16

Project Wing Drone Delivers Google

In rural Australia, a drone delivers dog treats to a farmer. The robot is a proof of concept, part of Project Wing by Google X. The program is designed to show that delivery drones are possible, and it seems to be doing just that. Next for Google: figuring out the path from proven prototype to everyday utility.

The drone is a tail-sitter, taking off vertically with its body perpendicular to the ground. At rest, it looks like a tiny spaceship from a 1930s comic book. It’s a type of Vertical Takeoff or Landing (VTOL) rarely done with humans on board, because that transition, from vertical to horizontal and back again, is difficult for onboard human pilots to manage. For the drone it works fine, and the design lets the wing fly fast like a plane. It also means the drone can hover, and that’s where the delivery mechanism of Project Wing shines:

Mechanical engineer Joanna Cohen, trained at Cal Tech and MIT, designed the contraption. It consists of a few key parts. The first is the winch itself, which spools out the hi-grade fishing line. The second is the “egg,” the little gadget that goes down with the package, detects that it has reached the ground, releases the delivery, and signals that it should be cranked back up to the hovering UAV. If something goes wrong, there is an emergency release mechanism at the top of the line—“basically a razor blade,” Cohen told me—that allows the UAV to cut and fly.

A working delivery mechanism is the first step for the service. With the prototype in place, the next challenge is creating an infrastructure for drones so that they can travel safely through skies without hitting other vehicles. Google’s driverless car program is an obvious touchstone for this project, but it’s a limited one. Cars on roads travel in close proximity and only move in two dimensions. Aircraft operate in vast, empty skies, and do so on three axes. Training a car to sense and avoid other cars is simpler than doing the same for an aircraft. Still, Google’s development and prior experience with cars is a strong sign that this work will continue and ultimately yield fruit. Michael Toscano, CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said that

Google’s announcement of its planned UAS delivery service further demonstrates the potential of UAS technology. It also highlights how this technology will revolutionize industries and the importance of the FAA keeping the integration process on track.

It’s worth noting that Google tested this technology in Australia first. While the FAA clearly wants drones to sense and avoid other aircraft, its been slow to implement changes and create a regulatory framework that lets innovation like this happen stateside. If the drone industry wants to change the world, it’ll need an FAA that lets it deliver. Watch the drone in action below, and read more about Project Wing at The Atlantic.

The Time I Got To Try On An Actual Space Suit

Fri, 08/29/2014 - 11:16 Please enable Javascript to watch this video

I was peering out through the helmet of my space suit, when something terrible happened: I got an itch. And with my hands unable to touch my face, scratching it the good old fashioned way was out of the question. Thankfully, the suit’s manufacturer’s had predicted this very scenario and planned accordingly. A strip of velcro was positioned inside the helmet for me, and I was able to rub my face against it, relieving the discomfort. Even in space, things can get a little itchy.

Alright, so I wasn’t actually in space, but I felt like I was; instead I was at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, at the studio of Final Frontier Design —a startup company that builds the next generation of space suits. For a few precious hours, I got to try on one of their suit prototypes, getting a feel for what it's like to be an astronaut (minus the zero-g).

When I first arrived for my space suit adventure, I was greeted by the company's founders: Ted Southern, an artist and costume designer, and Nik Moiseev, a Russian mechanical engineer. (Ted’s space-enthusiast dog, Milo, was also in attendance.) Before I could suit up, they explained that I had some important paperwork to sign. The first was a standard Non-Disclosure Agreement, basically prohibiting me from sharing any design secrets. The second was a Technology Control Plan, which requires me to comply with the International Traffic in Arms Regulations. You see, in the eyes of the United States government, a space suit is classified as a weapon, so discussing the design of the suit to a foreign national is technically considered arms trafficking. (On a related note, I’m now requiring all my friends to provide proof of citizenship.)

Suiting Up Dave Mosher Once the formalities were out of the way, the fun part began. I filled out a sheet with my measurements, and Nik took a pretty tight stencil of my hand so he could pick out my proper glove size. I then sat through a delightful presentation of the history of space suits, which detailed the apparel worn by Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard, as well as the suits needed for “extra vehicular activity” during the Shuttle missions.

Since I couldn’t go to space in my blouse and jeans, Ted handed me two small pieces of long underwear to change into. The material was unforgiving, to say the least, but it didn't matter, because it was time for me to put on the last suit I’d ever wear. (Okay, the one I’d wear for the next couple hours). Ted and Nik sat me down, as they pulled the orange suit up over my legs, waist and arms. They attached my specialized gloves and pulled the helmet over my head, all while oxygen pumped through the suit. At that point, it was official: I was wearing an actual space suit.

I strutted around the studio feeling a bit like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

Next, we needed to apply a little pressure. Space suits are meant to provide an earth-like atmosphere in the vacuum that is space, and an important part of that atmosphere is air pressure. Without it, the fluids in our bodies would boil, causing our body parts to swell up. So, essentially, space suits need to be pressurized to prevent astronauts from getting dangerously bloated. To simulate this experience, I turned a black knob on my suit, filling the suit with pressurized gas and raising the suit’s psi. My ears crackled and popped as the suit inflated like a big balloon, and I strutted around the studio feeling a bit like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

Doing pretty much anything in a space suit is hard, given the weight of the ensemble. Just walking around is a chore, and I was basically limited to moving my arms as I stood upright. I could bend over about halfway, but standing back up straight was a bit of a struggle, and when they had me do pushups, I pretty much just fell to the ground. Though that also may be because I lack upper body strength.

Simulating Flight Suited up, I flew a virtual F-16 over Texas and the Moon. Dave Mosher After a few failed attempts at mini golf, I got to test out their rudimentary flight simulator (essentially a sideways chair that looks up at a computer screen of Google Earth). Once I was situated, I used a joystick to fly around my hometown of Friendswood, Texas. That may have been the most difficult task of all. My finger dexterity was all but eliminated wearing those gloves, and trying to shift the joystick gently to the right resulted in my flipping the virtual plane over.

The entire experience gave me a newfound respect for astronauts and their ability to perform complex tasks while wearing those suits. To do any type of controlled movement, astronauts need a lot more muscle strength than I have. Plus, the suit I wore from Final Frontier Design is supposedly more maneuverable than the suits worn by the Apollo astronauts, which means they had even more obstacles to overcome. (Glove design was once found to cause some astronauts’ fingernails to fall off.) But despite these limitations, I loved every second of my space suit fitting, and my heart broke a little when it came time to take it off. Beforehand, Ted explained that putting on a space suit is a very personal experience, and I definitely felt that my fitting was unique.

Of course, I always have the option of purchasing my very own custom space suit -- for the fairly economical price of $65,000. Well, Christmas is around the corner...

Should've been an astronaut Dave Mosher

The Alien Whisperer: Jill Tarter On 38 Years Of Hunting For E.T.

Fri, 08/29/2014 - 08:45

Jill Tarter, co-founder of the SETI Institute and formerly the senior scientist for the Allen Telescope Array (pictured)—the only radio telescope dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial life. Brad Wenner In the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), people typically seek messages, not send them. Think Jodie Foster in the movie Contact as an alien signal pulses in her headphones. The inspiration for Foster’s character, astrophysicist Jill Tarter, wants to help make future humans the kind of talkative interstellar society she has spent the past 38 years trying to find. 

Popular Science: Why search for alien broadcasts if we’re not sending them ourselves?

Jill Tarter: Given the history of the galaxy, statistically, any civilization that we could communicate with is going to be much older. And since transmitting is harder than listening, we put the onus on them.

PS: What about the messages we sent on Voyager 1 and 2?

JT: Those are like messages in a bottle. If you’re serious about sending a transmission that has any chance of being received, you want to send out a billion bottles. You need to transmit continuously—not just for a year or a decade. Right now we’re not very good at making 10,000-year plans, but I definitely think transmitting is in our long-term future.

PS: If we are eventually able to broadcast, what should we say?

JT: Humans, as a species, need to decide. There’s now a project to crowdsource a self-portrait of Earth to send to the New Horizons spacecraft, which is headed for Pluto and then out of our solar system. At this point, we’re asking people to submit just one word. “Curiosity” and “hope” are prevalent, but “fear” and “war” are there as well. One of the most interesting questions is whether the crowd will tell the truth—how much of our dark side we will include.

PS: What do you think about sending actual living beings outside the solar system?

JT: I can envision smart, small probes being able to do amazing exploration. I don’t know about biological space travel. But that’s precisely why I signed on to the 100-Year Starship project, which aims to make travel beyond our solar system a reality within the next century.

PS: Is that realistic?

JT: I take science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke’s second law seriously: “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” 

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Popular Science.

Big Pic: Stunning Images From The World's Sharpest Commercial Satellite

Fri, 08/29/2014 - 08:00

Madrid From Space. DigitalGlobe

The WorldView-3 satellite, which launched on August 13, has sent back its first images. They’re gorgeous, and kind of creepy.

The new satellite can see to a resolution of 31 centimeters. That means each pixel of the camera captures one square foot of land, which is sharp enough to see home plate at Yankee Stadium, to map crops by pattern and type, to identify the type and speed of cars and trucks, and measure population density, all from 383 miles above the Earth’s surface. 

WV-3 isn’t the sharpest satellite ever--some military satellites have a resolution of 15 to 20 centimeters--but it does have the highest resolution of any commercial satellite in the world. (The previous record-holder, GeoEye-1, had a resolution of 46 centimeters.) 

But WV-3 is important for another reason. Up until now, U.S. regulations prevented companies from selling images with resolutions finer than 50 centimeters to anyone but the military. But WV-3’s maker, DigitalGlobe, has been granted tentative permission to break that rule. Starting six months from now, they’ll be able to sell images with a 30-centimeter resolution to anyone who’s willing to buy.

The images shown here have a resolution to 40 centimeters, because the company isn’t allowed to start showing the 30-centimeter images until the six-month waiting period is over.

Bayan Obo Mine, China DigitalGlobe

Airport in Madrid, From Space DigitalGlobe Madrid. You can even see the people in the swimming pool. DigitalGlobe

Throwback Thursday: Flip Phones, The Baby Internet, And A Stephen Hawking Essay

Thu, 08/28/2014 - 18:30

Cover, August 1989 Popular Science

As a magazine with 142 years of history, Popular Science sits on a treasure trove of vintage illustrations, perceptive predictions, obsolete technologies, essays by Nobel prize-winning scientists, and some seriously awkward advertisements. That's why we're using Throwback Thursdays as an excuse to dust off those back issues and share their stories with you, Dear Readers. Every Thursday we’ll bring you highlights from 25, 50, 75, or 100 years ago. 

This week we time travel back a quarter century, to the August 1989 issue of Popular Science.

The Internet Is Still A Toddler

In the days before AOL, CompuServe provided a gateway to a rudimentary Internet. This ad tries to explain all the cool things you can do online—including shopping at over 100 stores!

The Many Wonders Of The Internet. Popular Science Cold Fusion Is Controversial

If scientists could fuse atoms at room temperature, mankind would have a limitless and clean source of energy. It’s like the Holy Grail of physics, and in 1989, scientists Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann announced to the world that they had finally achieved it. The problem was, those results turned out to be bunk—other scientists couldn’t replicate the results. Popular Science covered the tumult that ensued, noting that “[T]he ongoing debate has turned nasty to a degree unsurprising to those familiar with past examples of scientific internecine warfare.” Despite all that, the article balances the skepticism with the hope that cold fusion may someday be possible.

Climate Change Heats Up

In “Playing Dice With Earth’s Climate, Part One”, Popular Science began a series on global warming which they claimed was “the first comprehensive overview of this worldwide threat in a major magazine.” 

Flip Phones Blow Our Minds

Here is Pop Sci’s original coverage of the flip phone, from an article titled “Beam Me Up” (of course). 

Better Than A Shoe Phone.
Popular Science Robert Weisshappel, corporate vice president of Motorola's North American Cellular Subscriber Division holds what appears to be a wallet in his hand at a demonstration in Washington, D.C. Then he proceeds to unfold the tiny container like Captain Kirk's "Star Trek" communicator. "It's the world's smallest cellular telephone," he says. "You can slide it into your pocket or purse. 

Called the Micro TAG Personal Cellular. Telephone, the minuscule—5.5 by 2.4 by 1.6 inches—pocket phone weighs just 12.3 ounces, including its 75-minute (continuous talk time) battery. The battery lasts for 20 hours in standby when you're waiting for calls to come in. 

"We were able to reduce the overall size through the design of advanced linear and digital ICs," says Weisshappel. Using the Micro TAG is as easy as any communicator: Flip the top open, speak to answer a call. You make calls by dialing the number or by speed dialing any of the 120 user-programmable numbers stored in its memory. An LED displays the name and number of the person you've selected. There's also a call timer to show how long you've been speaking, an electronic lock to prevent unauthorized calls, and a "call" message light, which I don't understand. According to Motorola, the light comes on to show that a call has come in "while the user was away." Away from what? His shirt?

The price: $3000.

Hello, You’ve Reached … The Age of the Digital Answering Machine

That, above, is the actual title of an essay that reminisces about a recent past when people didn’t know how to use answering machines, and portends that the future of answering machines will be tape-less.

Stephen Hawking Writes About Stephen Hawking 

The famed physicist explains some of the difficulties he faced in writing A Brief History of Time—including having a tracheotomy that left him voiceless. “For a time I could communicate only by raising my eyebrows when someone pointed to letters on a card. It seemed quite impossible to finish the book.” Thankfully he did, and it became one of the best selling science books of all time.

Stephen Hawking Popular Science You can read the entire August 1989 issue of Popular Science here.

Louisiana's Disappearing Coastline Threatens Entire U.S. Economy

Thu, 08/28/2014 - 15:55

An unholy trinity of forces – levees along the Mississippi River, sea level rise due to climate change, and fossil fuel extraction – have caused about 2,000 square miles of southeastern Louisiana to disappear into the Gulf of Mexico over the past eight decades. That's according to Losing Ground, a multimedia journalism collaboration between ProPublica and The Lens, offers an interactive, thorough, and thoroughly sobering look at it, with layered maps and satellite images, impressive photographs and first-person audio.

As Losing Ground reports, southeastern Louisiana continues to drown at the rate of about one football field an hour, adding up to 16 square miles annually. The wetlands and the species that depend upon them are already failing in many locations and local communities have fallen apart.  As well, Southeastern Louisiana supplies much of our domestic wild seafood, and contains "half of the country’s oil refineries, a matrix of pipelines that serve 90 percent of the nation’s offshore energy production and 30 percent of its total oil and gas supply, a port vital to 31 states, and 2 million people who would need to find other places to live." 

Local pols and the public largely shrugged off coastal land loss in Louisiana for years. Then came Hurricane Katrina. The shock of that storm finally propelled the state legislature to enact comprehensive coastal restoration in 2007, as Losing Ground notes: a $50 billion, 50-year master plan that would include attempting to undo many of the past century's ecological injuries. 

So far the plan is unfunded, however, and significant unknowns -- such as how much the sea level will rise in the next several decades -- could undermine its success if or when it gets underway.

Supersize Your DIY Computing With Tiny Titan

Thu, 08/28/2014 - 14:40

Tiny Titan runs a particle simulator. Each Raspberry Pi chip calculates the motion of one set of objects, communicating with its neighbors about the other particles’ locations. On a real supercomputer, this type of code can model galaxies or ocean wave Photo Courtesy of Adam Simpson

Oak Ridge National Laboratory is most famously home to the Titan supercomputer, capable of performing more than 20 quadrillion calculations every second. But the lab also houses the lesser known “Tiny Titan,” whose nine processing units, or “cores,” are made from Raspberry Pis. Making a small-scale supercomputer is relatively simple—just yoke together microelectronics to run in parallel. The hard part, explains Titan support specialist Adam Simpson, is writing the code for it. 

“There really is no adequate platform for do-it-yourself super-computing,” Simpson says. So he and two colleagues decided to create a set of software tutorials. By working together, parallel cores can solve complex problems, and the tutorials aim to demystify that process. For example, one lesson will show how to add two lists of numbers together, by dividing the problem into components that individual cores can attack simultaneously. The tutorials are available for free online. Start your journey to supercomputing stardom at

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Popular Science.

Evolution Video Game Tests Your Ability To Spot Camouflaged Bird Eggs

Thu, 08/28/2014 - 13:16

Egg Ancestors The evolution of a successful strain of egg camouflage. Project Nightjar

Call it a case of virtual selection. Testing out Project Nightjar's experimental video game, I peered through the world in mongoose-tinted glasses, looking for the eggs of a nesting nightjar -- a nocturnal bird in the family Caprimulgidae. The clock ticked as I made my selection, and then I found the nesting mother. While I played the game, the researchers behind the project gained a little more insight into just how well natural camouflage works.

Created by the Sensory Ecology Group of the University of Exeter and the Behavioural Ecology Group at the University of Cambridge, Project Nightjar consists of three games about the camouflage of three species of nightjar native to South Africa and Zambia. Specifically, it focuses on the camouflage of their eggs.

Hunting Nightjars In Mongoose Vision Still looking? Check the left third of the image. Project Nightjar

The project offers three games for players to explore. In the Nightjar Game, players choose to be either a mongoose or a monkey. That selection will determine the colors players see the world in; mongoose dichromatic eyes make the world mostly yellows and greys, while the monkey sees color on a similar spectrum to humans. In The Nest Game, players are either the dichromatic Gernet or the trichromatic Vernet Monkey, and they hunt for eggs that blend in with the ground. It’s like a game of I Spy, but the clue is always “another egg, hiding over there.”

Egglab is Project Nightjar’s most interesting game. Players choose to hunt the eggs of either the Mozambique nightjar, the pennant-winged nightjar, or the fiery-necked nightjar. Computer generated eggs are placed in pictures of nightjar nesting sites, and the game records how long it takes for players to find a particular camouflage scheme. The more successful egg color schemes are then mutated and tried again, evolving to blend better with the environment.

Egg Camouflage Pattern Evolution Project Nightjar

For players, the game is a fun diversion for a couple of minutes. For the researchers, the game provides more and more data about what makes certain camouflage patterns more successful than others. And for the virtual nightjar, it’s one more shot at successful cyber babies.

[The Guardian]

If A Fish Grows Up On Land, Will It Learn To Walk?

Thu, 08/28/2014 - 12:00

Walk This Way A Polypterus senegalus fish on land. Nature

The old idiom about “being a fish out of water” just lost some of its luster. Researchers from McGill University in Canada successfully trained a group of fish to live on land and strut around.

The idea was to simulate what might have happened 400 million years ago, when the first group of ancient fish moved from water to land, eventually evolving into the amphibians, reptiles, birds and other animals roaming the Earth today. The researchers wanted to see if their land-dwelling fish looked and behaved similarly to the ancient fish, based on what has been learned about them from fossil records.

For their experiment, the research team raised 111 juvenile Polypterus senegalus – African fish also known as the “dinosaur eel” -- on land. These fish already look a lot like the ancient fish that evolved millions of years ago, and they’re already capable of “walking” with their fins and breathing air.  According to the Verge, their terrestrial environment had mesh flooring covered in pebbles, as well as 3 millimeters of water, so the fish didn’t dry out completely.

Video analysis of the fish showed that they did indeed change significantly from the water-dwelling control group; they learned to place their fins closer to their bodies, helping them to walk more effectively, and they lifted their heads higher than fish in an aquatic environment.  Even their skeletons changed, becoming more elongated and forming stronger attachments across the chest (perhaps to increase walking support).

Many of these changes are similar to what has been inferred from fish fossil records, leading the researchers to "hypothesize that the behavioral changes we see also reflect what may have occurred when fossil fish first walked with their fins on land”, says Hans Larsson, a collaborator on the project at McGill. But are we sure teaching fish to walk is such a good idea? It's time we all revisited The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

The researchers published their findings in the journal Nature.

[McGill, The Verge]

This Weird Tumbleweed Robot Might Change Planetary Exploration

Thu, 08/28/2014 - 11:15

Super Ball Bot A prototype of NASA’s Super Ball Bot built by Ghent University’s Ken Caluwaerts ©NASA Ames/Eric James As the Mars Curiosity rover's "Seven Minutes of Terror" video showed us, landing on a distant world can be extraordinarily difficult. Now scientists are envisioning a robot that could just be dropped from space onto Saturn's largest moon Titan, a ball-shaped droid that wouldn't need an airbag to soften its fall, since its entire flexible body is essentially a cushion. Then, after the robot flattened on impact on Titan's surface, it could roll around like a tumbleweed to explore the alien landscape.

This "Super Ball Bot" is the vision of NASA roboticist Vytas SunSpiral — yes, that's his real name — along with Adrian Agogino and their colleagues, who plan to have a full prototype by mid-September. In the process of developing this droid, they may have helped pioneer a revolutionary new class of robots.

The Super Ball Bot looks a bit like a cat's cradle of wires and sticks. Motors, batteries, sensors and electronic control systems located at the ends of the rods can loosen or tighten the tension of the cables. By varying which wires are loose and which are tense over time, the robot can collapse, expand or roll. The robot would suspend its payload of scientific instruments in the middle of its body, and lower them to the ground to analyze surfaces and collect samples when necessary. Wireless communications systems in the robots will allow users to control the droids remotely.

The robot is a "tensegrity structure," or "tensegrity" for short — a structure that combines elements under tension, the cables, with elements that are rigid, the rods. This structural principle was first discovered by sculptor Kenneth Snelson in the 1940s and explored for use in architecture by inventor Buckminster Fuller in the 1960s. Subsequent research found tensegrities all throughout biology — for instance, the human spine relies on both the vertebrae and the muscles, tendons, and ligaments that surround and support the bones.

"We're pushing beyond the traditional approach of building rigid robots, where forces magnify around joints and other common points of failure, and relying on tensegrity, which dissipates forces throughout structures, to build cutting-edge robots," SunSpiral says. "By having a robot that has a very robust ability to absorb forces, you can have a system that both lands and moves, instead of, say, having an airbag you use once and throw away. That saves a lot of mass you would need to fly on a mission, which in turn saves on cost."

When it comes to Titan, the researchers envision dropping Super Ball Bots that are each covered by a heat shield to protect them from burning up in Titan's atmosphere. Titan has a surface gravity a little more than one-seventh that of Earth, which means the terminal velocity of the robots — the fastest they will fall in Titan's thick atmosphere — is about 33 mph, roughly equivalent to the speed reached after a 30-foot drop on Earth. "Early prototypes we dropped could survive that type of impact," SunSpiral says.

These robots would find it more difficult to survive a drop onto Mars, since the red planet has both a thinner atmosphere and stronger gravity than Titan, meaning they would reach a higher terminal velocity. "But maybe a simple parachute could slow them down enough for a safe landing," SunSpiral says. "We're still answering the question of what the highest speeds these robots can land at are."

Even if any parts of one of these robots breaks upon landing, the fact that each part of a tensegrity is interdependent on the others means that if a few parts get broken, the robot's other parts can pick up the slack. "We are anticipating that some parts might fail," says researcher Ken Caluwaerts, a roboticist at Ghent University in Belgium. "We're developing a distributed system of control so that if, say, a quarter of the motors fail, the structure should be able to continue rolling."

"You could roll them off the edges of cliffs or down lava tubes."

The potential robustness of these robots could mean they can take risks traditional robots might not dare — "you could roll them off the edges of cliffs or down lava tubes," SunSpiral says. Moreover, tensegrity robots can often be packed into compact shapes, which is vital on space missions where space is tight. In addition, the fact that all the control systems of the robots fit into caps at the ends of each rod "means we can build robots of a variety of scales — we can make the robots twice as big or half as small if we wanted to by changing the lengths of the rods," SunSpiral says.

"This is very fascinating work," says roboticist Sam Felton of Harvard University, who did not take part in this research. "These tensegrity robots have huge potential, and I'm looking forward to see what other tricks these robots can learn."

Although tensegrity structures get their strength from how each part is interdependent on every other part, this feature also makes designing and controlling robots with tensegrity structures extremely challenging, SunSpiral says. "Modeling all the way these structures can also interact with their environments is also very difficult," he added.

To control these biologically inspired robots, SunSpiral and his colleagues have developed a biologically inspired control system. They developed algorithms for controlling the robots that mimic central pattern generators, neural circuits in animals often vital to activities such as locomotion, chewing, breathing and digesting, which would allow the robots to automatically roll "in the same way that you or I can breathe without thinking about it," Felton says. In addition, the researchers also developed a way for the robots to learn how to roll on their own with the help of evolutionary algorithms, which is valuable for robots operating by themselves on another planet where the rules for movement might differ from those on Earth.

The prototype the scientists are developing is roughly spherical, approximately 35 lbs, and 5 feet across. SunSpiral and his colleagues anticipate having it ready to roll in an outdoor rover test facility by mid-September. But "a great deal more work is needed before this ever becomes a NASA mission," SunSpiral says.

To help make tensegrity robots a reality, SunSpiral and his colleagues have released the open-source NASA tensegrity robotics toolkit, which is online for free and built on the Bullet Physics engine, a game physics simulator. They are also developing "a low-cost, easy-to-use tensegrity robotics kits to make it easy for people to put together new tensegrity robots, for students and researchers to tinker around with them," SunSpiral says. "We want to get people around the world exploring this revolutionary concept to help break new ground."

Tensegrity Robot This robot was constructed from a DIY kit. V. SunSpiral

A Space Game Gets Real

Thu, 08/28/2014 - 09:46

The Gladiator, from the PC game Star Citizen 498,500 players have spent more than $48.1 million on virtual ships available for purchase. Courtesy Star Citizen The revelation of the hit PC game Star Citizen isn’t that people love space-flight—we knew that. It’s that they like their games as realistic as possible, with a universe obsessively hewing to Newton-ian physics for even the smallest detail. The crowdfunded Star Citizen features player-controlled spaceships that travel through a virtual universe governed by the same forces as our own. For example, designers modeled each ship’s landing gear to retract without interfering with the hydrogen fuel system that feeds the nuclear reactor. Then they have to animate heat shielding to close over the landing gear so that the ship can safely pass through an atmosphere. The same commitment to detail applies to piping, working gauges, cargo-loading equipment, Gatling guns, toilets (really), LCD screens with real-time readouts, and so on. The game—which will feature its own virtual economy in addition to events such as pirate attacks and planetary catastrophes—will gradually release over the next two years in successive modules, like chapters in a book. Here’s what players can expect:

1) Players can purchase virtual ships for $25 to $1,250 (in real money), depending on model and availability. In June 2013, Star Citizen became the most crowdfunded project ever, at $10 million. Many people who ponied up knew they would have to wait more than a year, in some cases, to play. 

2) Between six and 16 thrusters move the game’s ships, and each one is assigned its own max power, accuracy, condition, and response time. As a ship sustains damage and its cargo is loaded, unloaded, or lost, its center of mass changes and the thrusters no longer operate in harmony, which introduces yawing and other issues.

3) Realistic G-forces affect the arc of the game. Pilots who neglect to properly stow cargo risk having it bounce free during evasive maneuvers, potentially injuring crew and damaging or destroying the craft. Tempted to take on extra cargo to pad profits? That might strain the ship’s components. 

Evolution of a Megahit

2011 Developers begin building Star Citizen in secret, revealing just enough details to entice investors.

10/10/12 Crowdfunding campaign begins—and reaches its $2 million goal before the end of the month.

08/29/13 A hangar module launches, allowing backers to “walk around” inside their ships.

06/04/14 A dogfighting module releases that lets players battle the computer—and other players—in one of three ships.

Late 2014 A first-person shooter module is set to be introduced.

2015 A planet-side social module will be added, allowing players to explore cities.

2015 The single- player military campaign Squadron 42 is slated to release as a stand-alone game within the Star Citizen universe.

Late 2015 Early public testing of the universe will begin as the game’s designers pull together various modules.

2016 Star Citizen will become available as a seamless universe with modding tools and the ability for players to host custom servers.

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Popular Science.

Man 3-D Prints A Concrete Castle In His Backyard

Thu, 08/28/2014 - 08:00

Where Dreams Come True Andrey Rudenko, Total Kustom

This is a castle that a man 3-D printed from concrete, using a printer he built himself. We like how variations in the concrete's color stretch perfectly across the castle—the product of care and engineering on the part of the maker, Andrey Rudenko. As he wrote on his website:

Layering cement was an extremely difficult task- it required extensive tuning of the printer on a programming level, as well as using exact quantities for the cement mix. . . . I was able to calibrate the machine so that it prints nearly perfect layers now, and I played with various heights and widths of the cement layers. My current standard is 10 millimeters in height by 30 millimeters in width, but countless other options are available with just the click of a button.

But the castle, meant to be a kids' playhouse, is just a warm-up for Rudenko's ultimate goal: To print an entire house, in one piece.

Rudenko is not the only one with this idea. At least a couple of architects around the world have announced plans to make one-time 3-D printed house projects, while the Guardian recently reported on a Chinese company that aims to produce 3-D printed houses for mass sale. The Guardian's video of the Chinese printer even looks a lot like the below video of Rudenko's extruder, although argues Rudenko's house will be of better quality.



There's no doubt that Rudenko's project is the DIYest of them all. We salute his dedication and wish him the best of luck and speed.

Found: The Part Of The Mouse Brain That Motivates Exercise

Wed, 08/27/2014 - 17:09

Lab Mouse Wikimedia Commons

A team of researchers has found a part of the brain that controls how motivated mice are to exercise, according to a new study.

The researchers created genetically modified mice that lacked neurons in the dorsal medial portion of a region of the brain called the habenula.

The major difference was that the mice didn't like to run on mouse wheels, which normal mice love to do, the researchers reported in a paper they published in the Journal of Neuroscience. "They were physically capable of running, but appeared unmotivated to do it," Eric Turner, the study's lead scientist and a brain researcher at Seattle Children's Research Institute, said in a statement. The mice also had "minor" differences in their gait and balance, compared to normal mice.

Why mess with mouse habenulas? The team was seeking a target for future antidepressant drugs. They knew that some strong science indicates that exercise can help people with depression. What if a future drug could mimic the emotional effects of exercise on the brain?

Of course, there's a lot of work scientists will have to do before they know whether it's a good idea to target this brain area for depression. There's the straightforward issue of checking, with replicating studies, whether this brain region really is responsible for making mice want to exercise. Then scientists will have to see if the analogous region in human brains works similarly. They'll also want to study whether targeting this brain region improves depression. (What if it just makes you want to exercise, without resolving your depression?) Lastly, it's always a challenge to design drugs that are safe and effective, even if you've got all your targets lined up.

"They were physically capable of running, but appeared unmotivated to do it."

The lack of running the team documented in the mice may be related to depression, or whatever its murine counterpart might be. The dorsal medial habenula-lacking mice didn't like sugar water as much as normal mice do, which is a measure of mouse depression. However, dorsal medial habenula-lacking mice did perform the same as normal mice in the forced-swim test, which is another common, if weird, test for hopelessness and depression in mice.

The scientists performed one additional set of experiments that indicate the dorsal medial habenula might be a good target for antidepressants. They hooked mice up to a setup that allowed the mice to turn up or turn down their own dorsal medial habenula. (These are different mice from the mice who lacked dorsal medial habenulas altogether, of course.) The brain-controlling mice always chose to turn their dorsal medial habenulas up, suggesting it's rewarding to do so. Now if only you could ask the mice exactly what that felt like.

China's Future Submarine Could Go The Speed Of Sound

Wed, 08/27/2014 - 16:13

Supercavitating Submarine South China Morning Post

The submarine of the future may come to America in a super fast bubble, traveling under water. Researchers at China's Harbin Institute of Technology developed a new concept for submarine “supercavitation,” where an underwater vessel creates a pocket of air around itself. Inside this bubble, the submarine can travel much faster without friction of water creating drag and slowing it down. Theoretically, a supercavitated vessel using rocket engines could travel inside that air pocket at almost the speed of sound.

While the exact science of forming an air cavity within a liquid for submarines is complex, the phenomenon is easy to observe in a simple college prank. Clanking one full beer bottle on top of another compresses the beer in the bottom bottle, causing it to release air bubbles rapidly and overflow. For submarines, the bubbles come from a gas ejected out of a special nozzle at the nose, but the vessel has to be going a fast speed--thus compressing the air in front of it--in order for supercavitation to take effect. Once it's going super fast inside a pocket of air, steering becomes hard as the vessel behaves almost like a missile.

The Harbin researchers’ concept may help the submarine get up to the speed where supercavitation can start to happen. First, the vessel releases a special liquid membrane over itself, reducing drag before the supercavitation takes effect. Then, to steer the craft, the drivers alter how much and where the liquid membrane gets replenished, creating areas of lesser and greater friction that turn the vessel. (The finer details of the design and how it works are being kept secret by the military.) 

Membrane steering is a breakthrough for supercavitation, but the scientists at Harbin’s Complex Flow and Heat Transfer Lab acknowledge that it alone isn’t enough to make super fast submarines possible. Such a craft still needs a rocket engine that works underwater, and one that can last long enough to complete the cross-Pacific journey.

Supercavitation itself isn’t new. Military researchers from multiple countries started working on the idea decades ago. In the 1960s Russia started work on the Shkval supercavitating “underwater rocket,” which had a maximum range of about four miles. The United States started working on a supercavitating torpedo in 1997, and DARPA announced a program to develop a supercavitating mini-submarine in 2006. Range and steering posed problems for all of these projects, but the Harbin Institute’s liquid membrane might be the breakthrough needed that lets submarines fly underwater like rockets. With luck, the supersonic submarine will fare better than attempts at hypersonic missiles.