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Updated: 3 hours 24 min ago

The Digital Cameras NASA Sent Into Space In The 90s

3 hours 53 min ago

Kodak Hawkeye II Tethered Imaging Accessory Credit: James McGarvey

In December 1975, a Kodak lab engineer created the first fully digital camera—and snapped a 100-by-100-pixel image to a cassette tape in 23 seconds.

Fast forward a couple decades and the CCD--charge-coupled device--started to emerge as the go-to technology for digital imaging. The image sensor converts light into electrical charges, thus replacing film inside traditional cameras.

To catch on the trend, folks at NASA started sending early CCD cameras up into space. In 1991, the Kodak’s Hawkeye II mounted on a Nikon F3 (developed by Kodak engineer McGarvey) went on shuttle mission STS-44 while the NASA H.E.R.C.U.L.E.S. module on a Nikon F4 (developed by NASA’s lab) went on shuttle mission STS-48, and both went up to space. They were among the earliest digital units up in space, PopPhoto reports.

Click through to PopPhoto for video footage of the cameras in operation on board the Space Shuttle.

Did Iapetus's Mountains Fall From Space?

4 hours 47 min ago

The ridge of Iapetus NASA/JPL If you could hike to the equator of Saturn's moon Iapetus, you would find a strange sight: a sudden mountain range jutting out of the ground, more than 12 miles high. Images from the Cassini spacecraft show that the ridge is a narrow 12 miles in width, and extends for more than 800 miles along the middle of the moon. But where did this narrow ridge come from? Iapetus appears to lack the signs of volcanism or geologic activity that seem likely to create such peaks. 

Scientists have suggested that the mountain range did not come from forces within Iapetus--they rather fell from the sky. In a new study, published online in arXiv (but yet to be peer-reviewed), researchers created 3D images of the peaks, working with Cassini data. They found that most of the triangular-shaped peaks were near their "angle of repose," the fixed angle a material reaches as it erodes and falls toward the ground. This idea is suggestive of an "exogenic" origin (meaning, from outside the moon). "The evidence of slope angles close to the angle of repose make the case for an exogenic origin more plausible," they wrote. Presumably the peaks would have a different shape, or a wider variety of shapes, if they were created by forces within Iapetus. 

The working hypothesis is that the material that fell out of the sky, so to speak, came from an impact with some large planetary body, like the collision that likely created our moon. This material then formed a ring around Iapteus that proved to be unstable, and then fell toward it, creating the ridge we see along its equator. A collision would also help explain why Iapetus has a lopsided orbit, and may help explain why one side of it always faces away from Saturn

In case you're wondering how peaks on Iapetus compare to those on Earth or elsewhere in our planetary neighborhood, here's a helpful guide to the mountains of our solar system

[via Medium]

Found: The Most Potentially Life-Friendly Exoplanet So Far

6 hours 21 min ago

What Kepler-186f Might Look Like If It Has Clouds and Seas NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-CalTech

Five hundred light-years away, Earth has a cousin. Kepler data has revealed there's rocky planet out there that's similar in size to Earth and may have the right conditions for liquid water on its surface. It's the first planet ever discovered with both these Earth-like qualities.

Astronomers are constantly seeking more Earth-like exoplanets because, well, Earth is the only planet we know of that has life. So the more Earth-like a planet is, scientists hope, the more likely it is to be able to support life—or perhaps already be home to living things. "The idea is that this is a step on the path for looking for life in the universe," says Thomas Barclay, an astrophysicist who analyzes exoplanet-hunting data for the NASA Ames Research Center in California. He worked on the discovery of this planet, which is called Kepler-186f.

While Kepler-186f is the first exoplanet of its kind ever discovered, scientists think it won't be the last.

"We expect there to be more out there," Barclay tells Popular Science. The fact that such Earth kin have never appeared in the data before doesn't mean they're rare, he says. They're just difficult to find with today's tools. "We're pushing the boundaries of what we're doing right now. This discovery is a major milestone."

Barclay thinks future NASA projects, such as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite and the James Webb Space Telescope, will make such discoveries easier…  and more detailed. Because Kepler-186f is so far away, many things about it will have to remain unanswered, for now. For example, it's impossible to know whether it truly has liquid water on its surface. Astronomers only know there's nothing to indicate it can't have liquid water.

"We expect there to be more out there," Barclay says.

Here's what we do know. Barclay and his colleagues determined Kepler-186f is just 10 percent larger than Earth, which means it's too small to be made entirely of gas, like Jupiter. "It's probably composed of some proportion of iron, rock, ice, water, just like our own [planet]," Barclay says. "The exact ratio of those different properties isn't something we can measure."

The astronomers also figured out how much energy the planet receives from its star, which is a red dwarf. The radiation not so much that water would boil away. It could be enough to maintain liquid water, so long as Kepler-186f has an atmosphere to keep it warm, like Earth does. The data can't say whether the planet has an atmosphere, however.

Lastly, the team was able to guess at the planet's colors—which may not be really sophisticated science, but it's fun to know. The light Kepler-186f gets from its star is redder than Earth's sun's light. That means any water oceans it has would appear a duller blue than Earth's own seas. If the planet has icebergs or clouds, those will look orange.

There aren't any immediate followup studies planned for Kepler-186f. Instead, astronomers are hoping the future will reveal Earth cousins closer by, and thus easier to analyze. One great thing to find would be an Earth "twin," instead of an Earth "cousin." The twin would have to orbit a sun-like star, instead of a dwarf, like Kepler-186f does. A bigger, brighter sun would give the planet more energy than Kepler-186f's dwarf—energy that life needs.

Barclay and his colleagues published their work today in the journal Science.

Land Rover's New Concept SUV Doesn't Have Door Handles

7 hours 24 min ago

Discovery Concept Land Rover

Look closely at Land Rover's latest SUV concept and you might be able to see something missing: the door handles. The Discovery, you see, has evolved beyond the need for human hands—it will now allow you to enter and exit the vehicle only when its anatomically superior petrol-brain decides it is time. 

No, kidding. The doors are gesture-controlled—you open them with a wave of the arm. Although, along with that, Land Rover does have some major plans for a fleet of SUVs all based around the Discovery: gesture-controlled augmented reality windshields, an "invisible" hood drivers can see through—even, one day, eye-tracking controls. Please enable Javascript to watch this video


Of course, we haven't seen any of those features in action yet. The concept you see in the video above is only a baseline for SUVs yet to be released—the first of which, the just-announced Discovery Sport, we don't have any images of. (Will it have door handles? These are the Big Questions.)

But we want to believe in a future where we can flick our wrists and have a digital sun shade fall over the windshield. At the New York Auto Show, we caught up with David Saddington, studio director of interior design at Land Rover, so he could tell us more about the company's plans. In the meantime, we have that and some tantalizing digital demonstrations. 




Toyota Has A Tron Bike

8 hours 24 min ago

I have made this comparison before, and perhaps will again, but, damnit, this is a Tron bike, right? That is, inarguably, what this is.

The FV2 is a concept motorcycle from Toyota, set up only a little ostentatiously at the New York Auto Show. Instead of a steering wheel, the cycle turns when a driver leans into a curve. Instead of tires, it has flashing UFO discs. 

And it'll probably never hit the road. The plans for it are—we'll say ambitious. The cycle would learn about traffic ahead of jams, and give the driver the data through an augmented reality windshield. The cycle, according to Toyota, would eventually use facial recognition and heart monitoring to determine a driver's mood, and track usual destinations to help the driver get where they're going faster. 

It's likely more a sort of automotive think-piece than a real plan for a manufacturable vehicle. But, we can dream. 

Beard Fashions Are Governed By Darwinian Selection

9 hours 23 min ago

Darwinian whiskers Darwin had a righteous beard. Julia Margaret Cameron via Wikimedia Commons By the beard of Darwin! Some studies have shown that women generally like beards, while others show that whiskers make men appear older and more aggressive. New research suggests that it's all relative, though, and that men's beard fashions follow a pattern of Darwinian selection, becoming most attractive (to both women and men) when they are rare. 

In the study, published in the journal Biology Letters, the scientists asked 1,453 women and 213 men to rate the attractiveness of men with four different levels of "beardedness," with the extremes being clean-shaven and fully bearded. Study participants were either shown mostly full beards, mostly clean-shaven countenances, or a mixture of all four (with intermediate levels of light and heavy stubble). Both women--and men--said that heavy stubble and full beards were most attractive when they were rare, the BBC reported. Clean-shaven faces were also judged most desirable when they were not common. 

This is an example of negative frequency-dependent selection, in which traits are most desirable when they are rare. This "rule" explains why male guppies develop different bright colors, for example, the BBC noted. "Negative frequency-dependent preferences may therefore play a role in maintaining variation in men's beards and contributing to changing fashions," the researchers wrote. 

Does this imply that hipsters--infamous for doing the opposite of what's generally seen as cool--may be on to something? I'd tell you, but the answer involves some obscure filmmaker you probably haven't heard of. 

Turn A Tea Bag Into A Lantern

10 hours 24 min ago

The tea bag lantern Trevor Johnston

Every plain, paper tea bag conceals an exciting crash course in lift. In a six-second video on Vine, user “oh so tracy” empties a tea bag, folds it into a tube, and lights it on fire. After the bag burns down, the remains of the still-flaming tube flies into the air to create a miniature Chinese lantern. We asked Mark Drela, an aerodynamics professor at MIT, how it works. 

Cost: A few cents
Time: 2 minutes


1) Igniting the top of the tea bag warms air inside and above the paper tube, making that air less dense.

2) The hot air rises and draws in cooler air (primarily through the tube’s base).

3) Once most of the paper burns, the tea bag is light enough for the cool updraft to buoy it skyward.

WARNING: Burning paper can ignite other flammable objects, especially indoors. Kids (and pyromaniacs), please seek supervision before attempting.

Watch the results from the original Vine below:

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

Survey Reveals What Today's America Thinks The Future Looks Like

12 hours 23 min ago

A 1910 Vision Of A Future Helicopter This image comes from an excellent series of French postcards made in the ealy 1900s about life in the 21st century. Villemard, via Wikimedia Commons
In the next 50 years, Americans think they probably won't ride in driverless cars, that robots flying outside will have made everything worse, and that humans will be nowhere close to colonizing the solar system. Those are some of the conclusions from a Pew Research Center survey of 1,001 American adults on the future of technology and science, conducted this February and published today.

The trends reveal less about how technology will progress and more about how comfortable people are with different ways it could progress. Generally, people think technology will make life better in the future, with 59 percent of respondents seeing a brighter future. But they're either hesitant or ignorant about changes already under way, with 63 percent stating that opening the sky to personal and commercial drones will only make the future worse. Bad news for those respondents, as the FAA is already working to authorize drones in commercial airspace by 2020.

People are okay with putting lab-grown meat into their bodies, so long as it doesn't come through the mouth. Sixty-two percent of respondents think people will get new custom organs grown from them in a lab, but only 20 percent said they would eat meat grown in a lab. Americans are also wary of implanting computers in bodies, with 72 percent saying they wouldn't get a brain implant to improve memory and 53 percent saying implantable or wearable computers could only make the world worse. 

Survey respondents were also skeptical about space colonization, once a powerful theme in American fiction and futuristic thought, with only 33 percent seeing space colonies within our solar system in the next 50 years. Similarly intractable is weather: only 19 percent think we will control the weather. (Of course, that question ignores how human-caused global warming is already shaping weather, but that's less control than it is effect). Fifty-five percent of respondents also doubt teleportation will happen in the foreseeable future, which, combined with the lack of space colonies, keeps "Star Trek" further and further out of reach.

Whence Life? Receptors Responsible For Fertilization Found

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 16:21

A fertilized human egg Wellcome Images Where do babies come from? If your kids ever ask, just tell them the story of Izumo and Juno, receptors found on the surface of sperm and egg cells, respectively. In a study on mice published today in the journal Nature, researchers found that these two proteins allow the sperm and egg to recognize one another, leading to fertilization--and life as we know it. These receptors are found in many mammals, including humans. 

It previously wasn't known how sperm and egg recognized each other. Researchers have dubbed the egg's receptor Juno (previously known as folate receptor 4, which definitely doesn't have the same ring), in honor of the ancient Roman goddess of fertility and marriage, Reuters noted. The term Izumo derives from the word for a Japanese marriage shrine.

The Verge explains the study: 

To validate their findings, researchers bred mice that didn't produce Juno on eggs or Izumo on sperm. In both cases, these mice were unable to reproduce. Moreover, researchers realized that the Juno disappears from the surface of the egg moments after fertilization — an event they think reveals why eggs aren't usually fertilized by more than one sperm cell at a time. "This explains a 50-year-old mystery as to how eggs fuse with one — and only one — sperm so that there aren't too many chromosome contributed by the male which would result in a nonviable embryo," said [study co-author Gavin] Wright.

The study results could help infertile (human) couples have kids. The scientists are already screening infertile women to see if they have problems with their Juno receptors. If that is the case, these women may be able to undergo a procedure called intracytoplasmic sperm injection, which involves injecting the sperm into the egg and then re-implanting it. "It is remarkable that about 20 percent of infertility cases have an unexplained cause," co-author Enrica Bianchi of the Sanger Institute, told Reuters. "We are now asking whether Juno is involved in these cases of unexplained infertility."

[The Verge]

A Proposal To Save Electricity By Brightening The Moon

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 14:09

Before and After Moon Brightening Foreo

Well, it gets points for creativity. Some pranksters—or perhaps just PR folks—at Foreo have put up a page proposing humankind solve its energy crisis by brightening the moon. A brighter moon would eliminate the need for nighttime streetlights, Foreo proposes. Super-moonlit streets would thus save electricity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the page says.

Now, I know Foreo is not serious, not least because it's a cosmetics company, not a space technology one. Nevertheless, I thought it'd be fun to look at some of the consequences of brightening the moon that the folks at Foreo might have missed:

1. It would probably take a lot of resources and emissions to ship any moon-brightening technology to the surface of the moon. It's not clear the environmental footprint of such a project would be smaller than its emissions savings. 

2. Nighttime light exposure is bad for human health. There's a lot of evidence that people who work night shift—those who spend their nights under artificial light—are at higher risk for certain cancers. Nighttime lighting has also been linked to obesity and depression, as Aeon reports. Keeping the world lit as bright as New York City at night would expose even more people to nighttime lights than already are.

3. Nighttime light is bad for the environment. Many animals also suffer from nighttime light exposure. It disrupts the navigation of species that travel at night. It also alters hormone production, which could lead to altered development and disease. In fact, instead of protecting the Earth's ecosystems, brightening the moon could disrupt them terribly.

Foreo proposes a 30-year-long phase-in period to allow people and animals to adjust to a brighter moon. That's not enough time for creatures to evolve, however. After all, Earth has had electric streetlights since the late 1800s and Earth's animals are still feeling the consequences.

The next question is, Why would a cosmetics company advertise with a weird space-tech proposal? I thought of a few possibilities:

  1. Someone at Foreo is a proponent of alternative energy technologies and this is brilliant satire.
  2. Someone at Foreo reads a lot of eager-beaver Kickstarter campaigns and this is brilliant satire.
  3. Foreo makes a face-scrubby thingy (?? This is why I'm not a beauty journalist) called "Luna." So maybe the message here is that while Foreo cannot make the moon brighter, it can make your face brighter. (?? Can you truly make your skin more reflective without putting, like, glitter on it? Maybe this is something I can actually answer in the future, as a science journalist.)


Put A Camera On Your Eyeball

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 11:15

Contact Lens On An Eyeball Antonio Calossi via Wikimedia Commons

What's cooler than Google Glass? Almost anything, really, but something that is both cooler and smaller and still eyeball-centric is a patent for a camera-containing contact lens, filed by Google in late 2012. The patent was published March 27. 

Sensors on the contact lens would detect blinks and respond to commands based on those blinks. The camera sits below the pupil on the contact, so it shouldn't obstruct vision. Because the camera is on the eyeball, it follows the wearer's gaze, potentially recording anything he or she sees, as he or she sees it.

One of the uses discussed in Google's patent is giving a sense back to blind people. While a blind person couldn't gain sight from the contact lens, the camera could, for example, detect approaching traffic and then wirelessly communicate with another device the blind person was carrying. When paired with facial recognition software, the contact lens could identify a nearby person and transmit that information to an earpiece.

Right now, the patent is to secure future innovation and is not yet linked to a marketable product. 

This isn't the first time Google has talked about putting a computer on an eyeball. Earlier this year, it announced development of a contact lens that checks tears for blood sugar levels and communicates with insulin pumps. These are just two of Google's contact lens patents; there are at least five more in the works.

[Patent Bolt]

First Red Blood Cells Made From Adult Cells Ready For Human Transfusions

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 10:45

Red Blood Cells A mass of our most common type of blood cell. Annie Cavanagh, Wellcome Images

One team of researchers has created red blood cells that are ready to go into human study volunteers. When the clinical trial testing the cells' safety starts, it will be the first time humans have ever received red blood cells made from adult cells, according to the Wellcome Trust, the project's funder. The cells are made from skin cells taken from a human donor.

Researchers have long been interested in making red blood cells in lab. The man-made cells could ensure that a steady supply of fresh cells is available for transfusions. Donated blood must be used within 42 days, so the donated supply isn't always steady… or available for sudden surges in demand. Engineered red blood cells would also be designed to be of the universal donor type, so they would be safe for almost all potential recipients. You can even imagine that, if the blood-making works exceptionally well, it would eliminate the need for human donors altogether—but that's a long way away yet.

This U.K. effort represents the first time anybody has engineered red blood cells that meet safety and quality standards for transfusion into humans, the cells' lead creator, Marc Turner of the University of Edinburgh, told The Telegraph. The university is working with other U.K. schools, the Scottish National Blood Service, and other private and public U.K. organizations to develop the lab-made blood cells.

Turner and his colleagues plan to test their cells by giving them to volunteers who have thalassemia, a blood disorder that gives people abnormal red blood cells. People with thalassemia must get regular blood transfusions. The research team hopes to start a clinical trial by late 2016, according to the University of Glasgow, one of the participating schools.

Beyond just making the cells, one of the biggest challenges will be making enough of the cells. "Every single bag of transfused blood has about two trillion red blood cells in it. It's a ludicrously high number to make in the lab." Joanne Mountford, a researcher working on the project at the University of Glasgow, said in a statement. "We use two million of those bags every year in the U.K. alone. Ensuring that any industrially produced blood can be made economically viable is quite a task."

[The Telegraph, University of Glasgow, Wellcome Trust]

Robotic Cubes That Stack Themselves

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 09:00

How M-Blocks would build a bigger bot Courtesy MIT

M-Blocks look unassuming, but they can pivot and jump without external moving parts—a feat engineers have been trying to accomplish for years. Because they’re mobile, the robotic cubes can stack on top of one another autonomously. Their inventors are now working toward the ultimate goal: programming them to combine into a larger, adaptable robot that performs tasks.

M-Blocks Courtesy: John Romanishin of MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory

A: Printed circuit board, radio, and processor control movement.

B: Brushless motor spins the flywheel up to 20,000 rpm.

C: Flywheel stores angular momentum.

D: Rubber belt slows wheel to transfer momentum to frame.

E: Aluminum frame hops and joins with other blocks via 24 magnets.

Watch the M-Blocks self assemble below:

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

You're Not Highly Evolved

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 08:00


As humans, it’s tempting to think of ourselves as the pinnacle of evolutionary progress. But evolution can only work with what’s available, resulting in a body that’s a bundle of compromises. 


Our ankles and feet started out as flexible tree-climbing tools made of many small bones. But all of those tiny pieces amount to lots of opportunities to tear or twist something. And the way our shinbones and ankles are oriented to meet the demands of walking means that we can’t land on the sides of our feet safely, making sprained ankles a human specialty.


Humans have a long history of living with parasites, such as hookworms, which have themselves evolved to tamp down our immune responses to protect themselves. But in the developed world, these kinds of infections aren’t as common as they used to be. The absence of parasitic infections may be one reason why many people’s immune systems now overreact to harmless things, causing skyrocketing rates of allergies and autoimmune diseases.


Our love of calorie-rich foods was useful early in our evolutionary history, but now that food is plentiful, that same predilection may contribute to the obesity epidemic. Unfortunately, evolution won’t offer its own solution for a long time. For example, 9,000 years elapsed between when some cultures first domesticated cows and when 90 percent of those populations finally were able to digest the lactose in milk.


A woman’s pelvis is almost too narrow to give birth to big-brained human babies, which leads to deliveries more risky than that of other primates. But the pelvis can’t be any more spacious, or walking upright would be too difficult. Thankfully, evolution has equipped us with a social tool for handling difficult births: “We’re able to ameliorate the dangers using culture,” says Karen Rosenberg, a paleoanthropologist at University of Delaware. “That includes midwives and birth attendants.”

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

New York City Restaurant Inspectors May Be Issued Google Glass

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 16:53

Google Glass Flickr/giuseppe.costantino

New York City health inspectors might soon be donning Google Glass as they head out to check restaurants for rats and other hazards, under a recently proposed legislation.

New York City Councilman Vincent Ignizio (R-Staten Island) suggested a yearlong pilot program that requires 10 percent of the current 160 health inspectors to wear video devices — including Google Glass — last week, the New York Post reported.

“I think it would limit the abuses on both sides of the table, and it would allow for a more objective view by the judge on the violations that have been cited,” said Ignizio.

Currently, the bill has gained 22 out of 51 council members’ support. Many signed on because of complaints from both sides, inspectors and restaurants, that better documentation of inspections is needed. The photos and videos would serve as hard evidence for violations that lead to fines.

Backers of the bill want the equipment to be around $200 apiece — Google Glass’s retail price of $1500 plus tax might make it harder to close the deal.

A similar piece of legislation introduced by councilman James Vacca (D-Bronx) would require photographic evidence be present when the violation leads to fines, such as sanitation and health code violations as well as parking offenses, according to the NY Daily News

“People have a right to insist that there be evidence of what they’re being charged with,” Vacca said. “People are basically found guilty until they prove their innocence. I want people to be innocent until proven guilty.”

In related news, today (also Tax Day) Google is opening up registration to the Glass Explorer program for all U.S. residents over 18, giving the nation a one-day-only chance to purchase the $1500 (plus tax) device in various styles.

When Predators Bite Off More Than They Can Chew

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 15:53

Bad Idea Arsovski et al., Ecologica Montenegrina, 2014

We were entranced recently by a report of a young snake that tried to eat an old centipede. It seems the snake managed to swallow the centipede live, but then the centipede fought back, attempting to escape by eating its way out of the snake's body. Really. Read the full story at NBC News—and read the paper, too, which was published in the journal Ecologica Montenegrina. It's only a page long and worth every sentence.  

This got us thinking about other predators that have tried to bite off more than they could chew. We found a number of examples in the scientific literature:

Snakes eating snakes

This coral snake (Micrurus ibiboboca) asphyxiated while trying to eat a cat-eyed night snake (Leptodeira annulata), which also asphyxiated because it was, you know, stuck inside the coral snake's body.

Failed Ophiophagy Cavalcanti et al., Herpetology Notes, 2012

While it seems too meta for a snake to eat another snake, apparently some snake species actively prey on others of their suborder. Lab studies show that when done successfully, the prey snake gets scrunched up in waves inside the predator snake's body. Among other things, it's possible the coral snake here failed to bend the cat-eyed night snake's body into waves, the snakes' discoverers wrote in the journal Herpetology Notes.

Too big

Here's a photo and an X-ray of an Oxyrhopus petolarius snake that tried to eat a house gecko (Hemidactylus mabouia). Researchers in Brazil actually received the snake alive one day in July 2012. They put the snake in a terrarium, where it tried, unsuccessfully, to regurgitate its too-large meal. Researchers found it dead the next morning.

Skin Damage On, and X-Ray of, a Snake that Ate a Too-Large House Gecko Nogueira et al., Herpetology Notes, 2013

Apparently, among snake researchers, it's well known that snakes sometimes die trying to eat things that are too big for them. It happens most often to juvenile snakes. Scientists think the youngsters over-estimate their own abilities, or are forced to try larger prey when they can't find anything small, perhaps because their elders have already gobbled up the good stuff. Poor young snakes.

Cane toads cause mass crocodile deaths

In the mid-2000s, Australians living in the Victoria River Gorge began reporting seeing masses of dead freshwater crocodiles (Crocodylus johnstoni). It turns out the crocs likely died trying to eat cane toads.

In 1935, Australian farmers released cane toads (Bufo marinus) into Queensland. They hoped the toads, which are native to South America, would eat cane beetles that were destroying sugar cane fields. The toads not only did not eat the beetles, they wrecked havoc on the island continent's unique ecosystem. They became a classic example of why it's a bad idea to introduce new animals into a delicate environment.

Cane toads are poisonous, but the poor predators of Australia didn't initially realize this. (Studies have found that some species have since learned to avoid the toads.) In 2008, a team of three University of Sydney biologists found the locations of crocodile mass deaths matched the "toad invasion front." As the toads moved inland, so did the crocodile die-offs. Croc populations plummeted by as much as 77 percent after toads arrived, the researchers reported.

A spiny fish

And here is the body of a grass snake (Natrix natrix), pierced by the spines of a brown bullhead fish it ate (Ameiurus nebulosus). Biologists discovered the snake, along with some of its unfortunate comrades, in a marsh in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The snakes are native to the region, but not the fish.

Perforated Šukalo et al., Hyla, 2012

Snowboarder Glides With Handheld Airplane Thrusters

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 15:00

Dreamscience Propulsion

Dreamscience Propulsion's snowboard thrusters are difficult to describe. It's like: if you stuffed airplane engines in American Gladiator batons? It's like: if you took a boom mic and used it to swat a drone out of the air? Words fail me.

But, here they are: The thrusters, created by the U.K.-based company, let snowboarders—or surfers, or skateboarders—semi-automate their sport. Just hold on to the stick, and you get propelled along. The jet engine simile is probably appropriate, since the gadget uses tiny engines spinning at up to 30,000 RPM, sucking in air to hurtle the snowboarder forward.

Here is a very funny diagram: 

Dreamscience Propulsion

And here is a video of a human being who has made the transformation into a cyborg airboat:



[Dreamscience Propulsion via Laughing Squid]

Finally, A Way To Harvest Hydroelectric Energy From Toilet Flushes

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 13:53



The average American flushes 24 gallons of water down the toilet daily, while—don't get me wrong, toilets; we appreciate all of your hard work—maybe some of the energy used in a flush could be put to an additional use.

Here's one way: harvest some of the energy from the water and use it for power. A team of researchers in South Korea have created a transducer that translates water motion—from toilets, raindrops, or other water-based uses—into electricity. The technical side is wonky, but essentially, by using the motion from a tiny droplet of water—30 microliters—the team was able to power a small green LED. It's a proof-of-concept demonstration, but scale up to a flushing toilet or a rainstorm, and you can see the appeal. 

You can watch the process yourself in the video above.

The Editor's Letter From The May 2014 Issue Of Popular Science

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 13:00

Cliff Ransom Photo by Marius Bugge

On December 8, 1903, Samuel Pierpont Langley set out to achieve the first manned, powered plane flight. Langley was an experienced designer of flying machines, the head of the Smithsonian Institution, and funded by the U. S. War Department. If anyone was positioned for success, it was he. But moments after he launched his Aerodrome A, the aircraft collapsed in midair and plummeted into the Potomac River. Nine days later, two bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, flew a gasoline-powered plane 852 feet over the dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and changed the world forever. 

For 142 years, Popular Science has celebrated independent inventors. We have covered Tesla and Curie, Jobs and Zuckerberg. We even wrote about the Wright brothers shortly after their historic first flight, praising not only their accomplishment but how they went about it. “All this was done with their own hands, without financial help from anybody,” we wrote.

This issue, we’re paying tribute to that heritage. We started by remaking a Norman Rockwell cover from October 1920, which showed an inventor at work. We remained faithful to the original save for a few strategic changes, namely the addition of actor Nick Offerman. Best known as the government-hating, straight-talking, steak-eating boss on Parks and Recreation, Offerman is also a lifelong wood-worker and tinkerer, a man who understands the joys of building things just for the heck of it. That’s why he was duly impressed when we gave him an early look at the centerpiece of the issue: the eighth annual Invention Awards. Among the winners, we profile a group of students in Philadelphia that developed an affordable exoskeleton arm, an entrepreneur who reconceived the bike helmet, and a mechanical engineer who is building a 12-rotor aircraft and gunning for his own Kitty Hawk moment.

Left: our May 2014 cover, with Nick Offerman. Right: the classic Norman Rockwell cover we're paying tribute to.

Whether or not any of our award winners will have as profound an effect on our lives as, say, Orville and Wilbur, is impossible to guess. And that’s precisely the point. Inventions don’t typically burst forth from the ether. More often than not, they are novel assemblies of existing parts whose impact is not felt for years. The Wright Flyer, for example, borrowed heavily from earlier glider designs at a time when flying machines as a class were speculative at best. “They will not materially upset existing conditions as has sometimes been predicted,” we wrote confidently. We sure missed that one.

Thankfully, the Wright brothers did not. They saw potential where others didn’t. And that’s why we’re taking this issue to celebrate inventors like them—because through passion and personal sacrifice, they make the world a better place for us all.

Enjoy the issue.

Click here to read the May 2014 issue.

Robot Sub Searching For Malaysian Jet Finds Itself Out Of Its Depth

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 12:15

A Bluefin-21 AUV at the Surface of the Water After a Mission Bluefin Robotics

The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 has moved underwater, but it's still not easy. A robotic submarine deployed yesterday returned to the surface sooner than expected because it encountered depths beyond its capabilities, Australian broadcaster ABC reports. The search is occurring in the southern Indian Ocean, northwest of the Australian city of Perth.

BBC News has great graphics showing the sea-floor geography around the search area and the ocean-depth capabilities of different robotic submarines. It also has a graphic showing the workings of the robot sub used in this search, a model called Bluefin-21 by Bluefin Robotics. Bluefin-21 is able to operate in depths up to 4,500 meters. If it encounters depths greater than that, it's programmed to automatically return to the surface to protect itself, the BBC reports. As long as the weather is favorable, it's able to operate on its own 24 hours a day, The Boston Globe reports. But the vehicle searchers dropped into the ocean yesterday came up after only six hours underwater, ABC reports.

Searchers plan to put the sub back into the water "later today," ABC reported about 10 hours ago.

Searchers decided to use an autonomous underwater vehicle once they narrowed the search area enough for the vehicle, which moves more slowly than surface ships. Another driving factor was that searchers think the plane's black boxes ran out of battery and are no longer sending out pings that ships can pick up. Bluefin-21 is able to examine the seafloor using sonar and high-definition cameras.

[ABC, BBC News, The Boston Globe]