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Under Light, Chameleon-Like Material Changes Color And Shape

3 hours 6 min ago

Humans are good at making things that are one color. But if you want to really blend into your surroundings, it would be best to have a material that can change its appearance based on its surroundings--like a chameleon. University of Michigan researchers have created a material imbued with a special type of crystal that can change its shape and color when different wavelengths of light are shone on it, that could be used in the future to create active camouflage

As you can see in the video below, when the light is on, the crystal particles come together to form an "M," a process that is reversed when the light switches off. 

The material is made up of a semiconducting metallic sheet made of indium tin oxide, which is transparent and used in many types of displays, monitors, and screens, explained Michael Solomon, a chemical engineer at Michigan. Above that rests a layer of solution full of the aforementioned crystals, which are chemically similar to the particles in latex paint and synthesized in Solomon's lab. When the light turns on, it creates a positive or negative charge in the metallic layer, which the particles either rush toward or away from, causing a visual change in the surface.

Before, this was impossible to do without having some sort of template or pattern on the underlying material, Solomon told Popular Science. But with this technique, the material is the same, and adjusts its shape to the light. "There's nothing on the surface that locks you into a certain kind of shape, and it can be turned on and off," he added. 

Right now the patterns are created by the shape of the light (for example, the M was created by an M-shaped pattern of light). But it may be possible to modify the system so that the colors are reflective of their surroundings, for example. "Though we haven't done that... I think it's possible," Solomon said. The technology could also be used to create signs or fabrics or other materials that change their display or color when they encounter different wavelengths of light.

The chemistry of the crystals is described in a study co-authored by Solomon, doctoral student Youngri Kim, and Aayush Shah, and published today (April 23) in the journal Nature Communications

Unique Mineral Discovered In Australia

Tue, 04/22/2014 - 16:15

Purple mineral Crystals of putnisite, in purple. P. Elliott et al A previously unknown mineral has been discovered in a remote location in Western Australia. The mineral, named putnisite, appears purple and translucent, and contains strontium, calcium, chromium, sulphur, carbon, oxygen and hydrogen, a very unusual combination.

While dozens of new minerals are discovered each year, it is rare to find one that is unrelated to already-known substances. "Most minerals belong to a family or small group of related minerals, or if they aren't related to other minerals they often are to a synthetic compound--but putnisite is completely unique and unrelated to anything," said Peter Elliott, co-author of a study describing the new substance and a researcher at the South Australian Museum and the University of Adelaide, in a statement. "Nature seems to be far cleverer at dreaming up new chemicals than any researcher in a laboratory."

It appears as tiny semi-cubic crystals and is often found within quartz. Putnisite is relatively soft, with a Mohs hardness of 1.5 to 2 (out of 10), comparable to gypsum, and brittle. It's unclear yet if the mineral could have any commercial applications.

Putnisite was discovered during prospecting for a mine at Lake Cowan in southwestern Australia, and is named after mineralogists Andrew and Christine Putnis. Mineral names are usually proposed by the discoverer, as in this case, but must be approved by the International Mineralogical Association.

Use Your Tongue To Check Your Smartphone

Tue, 04/22/2014 - 15:00

Check Your Email While Here Screenshot from "World's Fastest Electric Superbike – Mojave Mile!" by Chip Yates on YouTube

Among the muscles in the body, the ones in the tongue are probably the most overlooked. You don't go to the gym to work out your tongue. (Please do not tell me about your tongue workouts, thx.) Still, it's strong and dexterous. That's why engineers are looking into making tongue-controlled wheelchairs for people who aren't able to steer themselves with their hands or arms. A tongue-driven electric wheelchair could be an alternative to sip-and-puff wheelchairs, which users control using their breath.

Now one team of engineers has taken the principle for tongue-controlled wheelchairs and applied it to some other vehicles. Engineers at Osaka Prefecture University in Japan are developing a device that goes inside helmets and senses pressure from the tongue inside the mouth, New Scientist reports. Using the device, motorcyclists and skiers can check their smartphones while their hands are otherwise occupied.

Why not? Maybe one day we'll all control our various electronics with our tongues.

[New Scientist]

Watch A Solar Plane Fly Over Milan Countryside [Video]

Tue, 04/22/2014 - 14:32

Airplane wings are broad, flat surfaces that almost always face the sky, which means they are ideal mounts for solar panels. Built by Solar Flight, a team of European engineers, the Sunseeker Duo is a two-seater airplane that flies purely by solar power. On December 17, 2013, it completed its first flight powered solely by its own battery. Earlier today, Solar Flight released video of that flight.

The airplane has the lithe profile and shape more commonly associated with an unpowered glider, and for good reason. It's the latest prototype in a long line of exclusively solar powered airplanes, all descended from gliders. The very first Sunseeker flew across the U.S. in 1990, and every evolution of the design has retained good gliding ability. As seen in the footage of the flight over the countryside outside of Milan, once the pilot reached a comfortable altitude they were able to turn off the engine and continue gliding, before landing comfortably on the ground.

The Sunseeker Duo's propeller is located on the tail behind the wing, and when the plane switches to gliding the propeller blades fold back until they are flush with the engine, minimizing drag. It also has a tricycle arrangement of three landing gear, which fold compact inside the body. 

[Sunseeker Duo test flights from Solar Flight on Vimeo.]

The Invention Of The Solar Cell

Tue, 04/22/2014 - 12:19

The Ivanpah Solar Farm At the Ivanpah solar farm, 347,000 software-controlled mirrors that track the sun’s movement throughout the day. They direct light toward one of three towers, where a water boiler creates steam that powers a generator. Ethan Miller/ Getty Images

The great Scottish scientist James Clerk Maxwell wrote in 1874 to a colleague: “I saw conductivity of Selenium as affected by light. It is most sudden. Effect of a copper heater insensible. That of the sun great.”

Maxwell was among many European scientists intrigued by a behavior of selenium that had first been brought to the attention of the scientific community in an article by Willoughby Smith, published in the 1873 Journal of the Society of Telegraph Engineers. Smith, the chief electrician (electrical engineer) of the Gutta Percha Company, used selenium bars during the late 1860s in a device for detecting flaws in the transatlantic cable before submersion. Though the selenium bars worked well at night, they performed dismally when the sun came out. Suspecting that selenium’s peculiar performance had something to do with the amount of light falling on it, Smith placed the bars in a box with a sliding cover. When the box was closed and light excluded, the bars’ resistance — the degree to which they hindered the electrical flow through them — was at its highest and remained constant. But when the cover of the box was removed, their conductivity — the enhancement of electrical flow — immediately “increased according to the intensity of light.”

Discovering the Photovoltaic Effect in a Solid Material Let It Shine Buy it! by John Perlin

To determine whether it was the sun’s heat or its light that affected the selenium, Smith conducted a series of experiments. In one, he placed a bar in a shallow trough of water. The water blocked the sun’s heat, but not its light, from reaching the selenium. When he covered and uncovered the trough, the results obtained were similar to those previously observed, leading him to conclude that “the resistance [of the selenium bars] was altered...according to the intensity of light.”

Among the researchers examining the effect of light on selenium following Smith’s report were two British scientists, Professor William Grylls Adams and his student Richard Evans Day. During the late 1870s they subjected selenium to many experiments, and in one of these trials they lit a candle an inch away from the same bars of selenium Smith had used. The needle on their measuring device reacted immediately. Screening the selenium from light caused the needle to drop to zero instantaneously. These rapid responses ruled out the possibility that the heat of the candle flame had produced the current (a phenomenon known as thermal electricity), because when heat is applied or withdrawn in thermoelectric experiments, the needle always rises or falls slowly. “Hence,” the investigators concluded, “it was clear that a current could be started in the selenium by the action of the light alone.”5 They felt confident that they had discovered something completely new: that light caused “a flow of electricity” through a solid material. Adams and Day called current produced by light “photoelectric.”

The First Module

A few years later, Charles Fritts of New York moved the technology forward by constructing the world’s first photoelectric module. He spread a wide, thin layer of selenium onto a metal plate and covered it with a thin, semitransparent gold-leaf film. This selenium module, Fritts reported, produced a current “that is continuous, constant, and of considerable force[,]...not only by exposure to sunlight, but also to dim diffused daylight, and even to lamplight.” As to the usefulness of his invention, Fritts optimistically predicted that “we may ere long see the photoelectric plate competing with [coal-fired electrical-generating plants],” the first fossil-fueled power plants, which had been built by Thomas Edison only three years before Fritts announced his intentions.

Fritts sent one of his solar panels to Werner von Siemens, whose reputation ranked on a par with Edison’s. The panels’ output of electricity when placed under light so impressed Siemens that the renowned German scientist presented Fritts’s panel to the Royal Academy of Prussia. Siemens declared to the scientific world that the American’s modules “presented to us, for the first time, the direct conversion of the energy of light into electrical energy.”

The blessed vision of the Sun, no longer pouring unrequited into space.

Siemens judged photoelectricity to be “scientifically of the most far-reaching importance.” James Clerk Maxwell agreed. He praised the study of photoelectricity as “a very valuable contribution to science.” But neither Maxwell nor Siemens had a clue as to how the phenomenon worked. Maxwell wondered, “Is the radiation the immediate cause or does it act by producing some change in the chemical state?” Siemens did not even venture an explanation but urged a “thorough investigation to determine upon what the electromotive light-action of [the] selenium depends.”

Few scientists heeded Siemens’s call. The discovery seemed to counter all of what science believed at that time. The selenium bars used by Adams and Day, and Fritts’s “magic” plate, did not rely on heat to generate energy as did all other known power devices, including solar motors. So most dismissed them from the realm of further scientific inquiry.

One brave scientist, however, George M. Minchin, a professor of applied mathematics at the Royal Indian Engineering College, complained that rejecting photoelectricity as scientifically unsound — an action that originated in the “very limited experience” of contemporary science and in “a ‘so far as we know’ [perspective —] is nothing short of madness.” In fact, Minchin came closest among the handful of nineteenth-century experimentalists to explaining what happens when light strikes a selenium solar cell. Perhaps, Minchin wrote, it “simply act[s] as a transformer of the energy it receives from the sun, while its own materials, being the implements used in the process, may be almost wholly unmodified.”

The scientific community during Minchin’s time also dismissed photoelectricity’s potential as a power source after looking at the results obtained when measuring the sun’s thermal energy in a glass-covered, black-surfaced device, the ideal absorber of solar heat. “But clearly the assumption that all forms of energy of the solar beam are caught up by a blackened surface and transformed into heat is one which may possibly be incorrect,” Minchin argued. In fact, he believed that “there may be some forms of [solar] energy which take no notice of blackened surfaces[, and] perhaps the proper receptive surfaces” to measure them “remain to be discovered.” Minchin intuited that only when science had the ability to quantify “the intensities of light as regards each of [its] individual colours [that is, the different wavelengths] could scientists judge the potential of photoelectricity.”

Einstein’s Great Discovery

Albert Einstein shared Minchin’s suspicions that the science of the age failed to account for all the energy streaming from the sun. In a daring paper published in 1905, Einstein showed that light possesses an attribute that earlier scientists had not recognized. Light, he discovered, contains packets of energy, which he called light quanta (now called photons). He argued that the amount of power that light quanta carry varies, as Minchin suspected, according to the wavelength of light — the shorter the wavelength, the more power. The shortest wavelength, for example, contains photons that are about four times as powerful as those of the longest.

Einstein’s bold and novel description of light, combined with the discovery of the electron and the ensuing rash of research into its behavior — all happening at the turn of the nineteenth century — provided photoelectricity with a scientific framework it had previously lacked and that could now explain the phenomenon in terms understandable to science. In materials like selenium, the more powerful photons carry enough energy to knock poorly linked electrons from their atomic orbits. When wires are attached to the selenium bars, the liberated electrons flow through them in the form of electricity. Nineteenth-century experimenters called the process photoelectric, but by the 1920s scientists referred to the phenomenon as the photovoltaic effect.

This new legitimacy stimulated further research into photovoltaics and re-vived the dream that the world’s industries could hum along fuel- and pollution-free, powered by the inexhaustible rays of the sun. Dr. Bruno Lange, a German scientist whose 1931 solar panel resembled Fritts’s design, predicted that, “in the not distant future, huge plants will employ thousands of these plates to transform sunlight into electric power...that can compete with hydroelectric and steam-driven generators in running factories and lighting homes.” But Lange’s solar battery worked no better than Fritts’s, converting far less than 1 percent of all incoming sunlight into electricity — hardly enough to justify its use as a power source.

The pioneers in photoelectricity failed to attain the goals they had hoped to reach, but their efforts were not in vain. One contemporary of Minchin’s credited them for their “telescopic imagination [that] beheld the blessed vision of the Sun, no longer pouring unrequited into space, but by means of photo-electric cells...[its] powers gathered into electric storehouses to the total extinction of steam engines and the utter repression of smoke.” In his 1919 book on solar cells, Thomas Benson complimented these pioneers’ work with selenium as the forerunner of “the inevitable Solar Generator.” Maria Telkes, too, felt encouraged by the selenium legacy, writing, “Personally, I believe that photovoltaic cells will be the most efficient converters of solar energy, if a great deal of further research and development work succeeds in improving their characteristics.”

With no breakthroughs on the horizon, though, the head of Westinghouse’s photoelectricity division could only conclude, “The photovoltaic cells will not prove interesting to the practical engineer until the efficiency has increased at least fifty times.” The authors of Photoelectricity and Its Applications agreed with the pessimistic prognosis, writing in 1949, “It must be left to the future whether the discovery of materially more efficient cells will reopen the possibility of harnessing solar energy for useful purposes.”

The First Practical Solar Cell Bell executives presented the Bell Solar Battery to the press on April 25, 1954.

Just five years later the beginning of the silicon revolution spawned the world’s first practical solar cell and its promise for an enduring solar age. Its birth accidentally occurred along with that of the silicon transistor, the principal component of every electronic device in use today. Two scientists, Calvin Fuller and Gerald Pearson of the famous Bell Laboratories, led the pioneering effort that took the silicon transistor from theory to working device. Pearson was described by an admiring colleague as the “experimentalist’s experimentalist.” Fuller, a chemist, learned how to control the introduction of the impurities necessary to transform silicon from a poor to the preeminent conductor of electricity. As part of the research program, Fuller gave Pearson a piece of silicon containing a small concentration of gallium. The introduction of gallium had made the silicon positively charged. When Pearson dipped the rod into a hot lithium bath, according to Fuller’s formula, the portion of the silicon immersed in the lithium became negatively charged. Where the positive and negative silicon met, a permanent electrical field developed. This is the p-n junction, the heart of the transistor and solar cell, where all electronic activity occurs. Silicon prepared this way needs but a certain amount of outside energy for activation, which lamplight provided in one of Pearson’s experiments. The scientist had the specially prepared silicon connected by wires to an ammeter, which, to Pearson’s surprise, recorded a significant electrical current.

While Fuller and Pearson worked on improving transistors, another Bell scientist, Daryl Chapin, had begun work on the problem of providing small amounts of intermittent power in remote humid locations. In any other climate, the traditional dry-cell battery would do, but “in the tropics [it] may have too short a life” due to humidity-induced degradation, Chapin explained, “and be gone when fully needed.” Bell Laboratories had Chapin investigate the feasibility of employing alternative sources of freestanding power, including wind machines, thermoelectric generators, and small steam engines. Chapin suggested that the investigation include solar cells, and his supervisors approved.

In late February 1953, Chapin commenced his photovoltaic research. Placing a commercial selenium cell in sunlight, he recorded that the cell produced 4.9 watts per square meter. Its efficiency, the percentage of sunlight it could convert into electricity, was a little less than 0.5 percent. Word of Chapin’s solar power studies and dismal results got back to Pearson. He told Chapin, “Don’t waste another moment on selenium,” and gave him the silicon solar cell that he had made. Chapin’s tests, conducted in strong sunlight, proved Pearson right. The silicon solar cell had an efficiency of 2.3 percent, about five times greater than the selenium cell’s. Chapin immediately dropped selenium research and dedicated his time to improving the silicon solar cell.

His theoretical calculations of its potential were encouraging. An ideal unit, Chapin figured, could use 23 percent of the incoming solar energy to produce electricity. However, he set a goal of obtaining an efficiency of nearly 6 percent, the threshold that engineers of the time felt it was necessary to reach if photovoltaic cells were to be seriously regarded as electrical power sources.

Chapin, doing most of the engineering, had to try new materials, test different configurations, and face times of despair when nothing seemed to work. At several junctures, seemingly insurmountable obstacles arose. One major breakthrough came directly from knowledge of Einstein’s light quanta (photon) work. “It appears necessary to make our p-n [junction] very next to the surface,” Chapin realized, so that the more powerful photons belonging to light of shorter wavelengths could effectively move electrons to where they could be harvested as electricity. To build such a cell required collaboration with Fuller. Chapin also observed that silicon’s shiny surface reflected a good deal of sunlight that could be absorbed and used, so he coated its surface with a dull transparent plastic. Adding boron to the top of the cell permitted better photon harvesting by allowing for good electrical contact on the silicon strips while keeping the p-n junction close to the surface. Chapin finally triumphed, reaching his 6 percent goal. He could now confidently call the cells he built “power photocells...intended to be primary power sources.” Assured of the cells’ reproducibility and sufficient efficiency, the trio built a number of arrays and demonstrated them at a press conference and the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences.

Proud Bell executives presented the Bell Solar Battery to the press on April 25, 1954, displaying a panel of cells that relied solely on light power to run a 21-inch Ferris wheel. The next day the Bell scientists ran a solar-powered radio transmitter, which broadcast voice and music to America’s top scientists gathered at a meeting in Washington, DC. The press took notice. U.S. News & World Report speculated excitedly in an article titled “Fuel Unlimited”: “The [silicon] strips may provide more power than all the world’s coal, oil and uranium....Engineers are dreaming of silicon-strip powerhouses.” The New York Times concurred, stating on page one that the work of Chapin, Fuller, and Pearson, which resulted in the first solar cell capable of generating useful amounts of power, “may mark the beginning of a new era, leading eventually to the realization of one of mankind’s most cherished dreams — the harnessing of the almost limitless energy of the sun for the uses of civilization.”

From the book Let It Shine. Copyright © 2013 by John Perlin. Reprinted with permission from New World Library.

Miniature Roomba-Like Printer Hits Funding Goal

Tue, 04/22/2014 - 11:34

Pocket Printer

The printer, if you even own one, is likely your most despised device. It's loud; it jams; it requires a fountain of ink that is literally more expensive than imported Russian caviar. Any forward progress on that front is appreciated.

The latest is a tiny robot from a startup called ZUtA Labs, called the Pocket Printer: a fist-sized, Roomba-like robot that rolls across paper, trailing letters behind it like Hansel and Gretel dropping breadcrumbs. With 17 days to go, the project has reached its $400,000 funding goal, with pre-orders of the devices going for about $200 a pop. 



The printer's still in the prototype phase; you can see it eke out a little printed Hello in the campaign video above. So, we have a while before we can see what it can really do. That said, the about section lists a 40-second print time for an "average" page, which doesn't seem especially efficient. Maybe we'll recoup that time from all the jams we won't have to deal with?

'Mafia' Cuckoos Rule By Fear, Foisting Young On Other Birds

Tue, 04/22/2014 - 11:01

A great spotted cuckoo Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikimedia Commons

Great spotted cuckoos lay their eggs in other birds' nests, and the host does all the work of raising the impostor. But if the new foster parent doesn't cooperate and ditch the new arrival, the  the cuckoo sometimes retaliates, destroying the poor birds' other eggs. Brown-headed cowbirds behave similarly. Whaddaya gonna do about it? 

Scientists have puzzled over this behavior. This retaliation doesn't at first appear to improve the chance of the cuckoo reproducing, and is slightly risky in that it could lead to a confrontation. One theory to explain it is that the cuckoos are acting like "the mafia," as described in a study published in Scientific Reports--if the host birds fear retaliation, they may raise the cuckoo because it's better than having all their eggs broken. The same reasoning explains why a shopkeep might unwillingly pay for protection from the mafia, for fear of being roughed up. 

In the new study, researchers mathematically modeled the cuckoo-retaliation and the "mafia" hypothesis, and found that this theory does appear to explain the behavior, as long as two conditions are met: that the cuckoos visit the same nest repeatedly, and that the host birds are capable of learning. The cuckoo makes an offer that can't be refused, as it were. 

The cuckoo makes an offer that can't be refused.

“We tested and confirmed the mafia hypothesis, which was controversial among scientists,” said study lead author Maria Abou Chakra, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology, in a statement

But the parasites don't always get their way. According to the new model, the interaction between parasite and host is cyclical. Cuckoos do not all exhibit this mafia-like behavior. When non-mafia behavior predominates, hosts who only conditionally-accept cuckoo eggs (after their other eggs are destroyed) are evolutionarily favored. As the researchers wrote:

[But] as the frequency of these conditional accepters increases, it becomes beneficial for the parasites to retaliate against these [conditional-accepting] hosts, and thus, mafia parasites increase in frequency. As soon as mafia parasites are common, it is optimal for hosts to give in without delay, leading to an increase in accepter hosts. This, in turn, makes it needless for parasites to retaliate, leading the parasite population back to the non-mafia strategy.

And so it goes, the circle of life. But darker than the Lion King version.

Another recent study published in Science suggested a different reason why hosts sometimes seem to accept cuckoo eggs: The young impostors excrete a smelly substance that protects hosts from predators

South Korea May Try To Curb Smartphone Use With Mobile Gaming Curfew

Tue, 04/22/2014 - 09:00

Korean consumers test the Galaxy S4 at an event held by Samsung Electronics in April 2013 ahead of the launch of the latest smartphone device / Samsung Electronics

South Korea is a country known for its absurdly fast internet access, whether it's on smartphones or desktop computers. It’s also home to Samsung, the native-Korean tech conglomerate that sweeps a whopping 30 percent of the global mobile device market.

But the South Korean government is now worried that people’s love for their smartphones may have turned too extreme, becoming a menace to society. To tackle the burgeoning problem, the government is already enforcing a midnight curfew for online computer gamers under 16 years old, according to the Global Post, and is looking to expand the curfew to smartphone gamers.

Currently, about 70 percent of South Koreans use smartphones, according to the Global Post, while only 58% of American adults own one. (If you just count "mobile phones," the number is actually more than 100 percent, with some people carrying multiple phones.) Having unveiled its searing-fast LTE network last summer, South Korea announced earlier this year that they will be introducing a new 5G mobile internet service—while the rest of the world is still adjusting to the 4G/LTE service—that will allow users to download an 800-megabyte movie file in one second. The country's science ministry aims to bring the technology to market within six years. A New York Times article from a while back described in-depth how interconnected the South Korean society is with smartphones. Mobiles phones equipped with integrated circuit chips can be used as credit cards, student ID cards, or storage for “T-money” (a type of electronic cash shored and refilled with SIM cards on the phone).

The government has deemed the use of smartphones an epidemic, with one in five students qualifying as "addicted" for using their phones seven or more hours a day. Even if we don't know the full effects, it certainly could be causing health issues. Whether expanding a government-mandated curfew will help, we'll see.

How To Turn A Clothespin Into A Matchstick Gun

Tue, 04/22/2014 - 08:00

DIY enthusiast Grant Thompson, who previously made a 10-penny battery that powered a small light for almost two weeks, is at it again. Inspired by another project tutorial, Thompson created seven variations of a mini-pistol that can fire matches over 20 feet.

You'll need:

  • Clothespins
  • Wood glue
  • Utility knife
  • Matches

Take apart the clothespin by removing its metal spring, then hold the two wooden clips back-to-back. With the utility knife, carve out a barrel for the matchstick ammunition. Then glue together the two parts, back-to-back. After allowing time for the glue to dry, slide one end of the metal spring through the space between the clips, and place the other end over the outside notch. Now load a matchstick, and there you have it: a mini-sized pocket pistol that shoots matchsticks and toothpicks. 

Watch the video for the full how-to. 

Warning (via Grant Thompson): "Projectiles should never be shot at any living thing. Injury or damage may result. Lighting match heads and firing them indoors is strongly discouraged. Competent adult supervision is advised when using the device. There may be other risks associated with these projects that have not been disclosed, or of which I am not aware. Use of video content is at own risk."

Meteors May Have Brought Vitamin B To Earth

Mon, 04/21/2014 - 16:40

Made in Space Karen Smith crushing meteorites with a mortar and pestle in Goddard’s Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory to prepare them for analysis. Vitamin B3 was found in all eight meteorites analyzed in the study. Karen Smith

Did life here begin...out there? We don't yet know and may never. But there is compelling evidence that I might not be sitting here writing this today, or you reading it, if not for meteorite-enabled distribution of a simple vitamin billions of years ago.

Scientists funded by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center have found vitamin B3, a.k.a. niacin, in a group of eight ancient, carbon-rich meteorites. And the more pristine a meteorite is, the more B3 it contains.

The amount of niacin in the eight meteorites ranged from 30 to 600 parts per billion.

The finding suggests that a lot of the Earth's initial niacin supply may have originated in space, during the cosmic events that created the Solar System, and been brought to earth by meteorites. Once here, natural processes like erosion degraded the meteorites, leeching that B3 into the environment.

Why is this a clue to the origins of life on Earth? Well, niacin, also called nicotinic acid, is a precursor to an amine called nicotinamide adenine dinuclotide (NAD). Amines are substances that are key to the formation of amino acids, which in turn are building blocks for molecular proteins. Molecular proteins are crucial to the functions that comprise living organisms, essentially the chemical bits within our cells that act upon the other, relatively inert bits.

The researchers are careful not to overstate the case, which was published this week in the journal Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta. "It is always difficult to put a value on the connection between meteorites and the origin of life,” says lead researcher Karen Smith of Penn State, in an article on the NASA website. “For example, earlier work has shown that vitamin B3 could have been produced non-biologically on ancient Earth, but it's possible that an added source of vitamin B3 could have been helpful."

However, Smith and her colleagues also also found niacin isomers—related substances with the same chemical formula as niacin but with atoms attached in different formations—in the meteorites, at similar concentrations to the niacin. These variants are not used in or created by living processes, so are very unlikely to exist in the meteorites if the B3 they contain came from exposure to Earth-bound life.

LTE Will Let Your Car's Computer Update Like Your Smartphone

Mon, 04/21/2014 - 15:15

Chevrolet 4G LTE-Enabled Console Corinne Iozzio

Carmakers seem to want to shout one simple phrase when they talk about adding high-speed 4G LTE radios into their cars: "Apps! We have apps now, too!"

Yes, guys, you can have apps now, too. But that's not the half of it. Streaming Pandora and getting live weather reports is great and all, but let's be honest, we could already do that by connecting our smartphones to the console over Bluetooth (or plugging them in, a la Apple's new Carplay setup). What makes a high-speed cellular connection really interesting is one simple idea: It could let you update the computer in your car quickly and easily. 



Think about it: The average person hangs onto a car for about 11 years. The average lifespan of a computer or tablet or smartphone is, what, three at the high end? So that super-slick infotainment setup in the center console is gonna feel pretty dated long before you're ready to trade up for a new set of wheels. But what if the carmaker could push updates to the system anytime they wanted? We're not there just yet, but it's an intriguing idea. 

This year at the New York Auto Show, Chevrolet rolled out LTE features on several of its new models, including the Traxx SUV. For the time being, the system's applications are fairly simple. There are apps like iHeartRadio and The Weather Channel, and the car can also serve as a Wi-Fi hotspot for up to seven devices. 

A Test That Quantifies Basic Language-Learning Ability

Mon, 04/21/2014 - 14:30

Teaching An Old Dog New Words A U.S. Air Force Academy cadet at the board in Chinese class. U.S. Department of Defense

Until recently, it's been used exclusively in U.S. government agencies and military schools. But now, a test for how easily a person will become fluent in a foreign language could be made available for civilians. Nautilus calls the test "one of the first civilian benefits to come out of America's war on terror."

Nautilus looks at some of the science—and yet-unproven theory—behind the test, called the High Level Language Aptitude Battery, or Hi-LAB. In short, some of the latest thinking posits that some people have better brain hardware for reaching high-level fluency in another language as an adult. You've probably heard a lot about how the brain is primed for learning languages in childhood. There's even evidence that a pill could induce that childlike learning state in adult brains. The Hi-LAB researchers found, however, that certain adults naturally seem to learn language similarly to the way kids do. Hi-LAB is designed to find those adults.

The U.S. military got especially interested in this research after 9/11. Suddenly, military leaders found themselves in dire need of translators for languages quite unlike English, such as Arabic and Pashto. They wanted to train American translators quickly and they didn't want to waste time on people who were never gonna get there.

Now, the military and Hi-LAB's creators have released details about the test to the public for the first time, Nautilus reports. Outside of the military, Hi-LAB could pinpoint different adults' optimal language learning strategies. You could get language lessons tailored just for your brain… whether or not you have the architecture to make you so fluent, your government would want you translating intercepted terrorist messages. But will it work? Even in the military, it's still too soon to know whether Hi-LAB has helped the American government find and nurture the best adult language learners, Nautilus reports.


How To Make Powdered Booze At Home

Mon, 04/21/2014 - 13:57

N-Zorbit courtesy Modernist Pantry Some truths we rarely question. The sky is blue. The sun rises in the east. Cocktails are wet. But a new product, called Palcohol, aims to crumble our everyday expectations. It's an alcoholic beverage -- in powder form. Carry a convenient lightweight packet of powder with you anywhere, and reconstitute it with water whenever you want a drink.

Palcohol will be available in vodka and rum varieties, as well as mojito, margarita, and other premixed cocktail flavors. It was officially approved by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) earlier this month, and Mark Phillips, its creator, says we can expect to see it in stores this fall.

But how does one make powdered alcohol? I contacted the company, but "due to the proprietary nature of it" they were unwilling to provide any details. As an incorrigible culinary experimenter, though, I happen to have some firsthand experience in this realm, so I'll tell you how I make powdered booze.


Palcohol Palcohol How To Make Powdered Alcohol

The only way to make unadulterated alcohol into a powder would be to freeze it solid. The temperature required to do that would destroy your tongue when you ate it though, not to mention certain other logistical concerns. The trick, therefore, is to start with a highly sorbent powder as a base, and add alcohol to it -- just enough so that the alcohol is fully soaked up, but the powder remains powdery.

The best easily obtainable powder I've found for this purpose is a specially modified starch, a maltodextrin made from tapioca and sold under the name N-Zorbit M. Each granule of this light, fluffy starch has a micro-fuzzy texture that gives it a great deal of surface area so it adsorbs liquids very well. It's popularly used in high-tech cooking to soak up fats, for instance in the "olive oil powder" recipe that appears in Modernist Cuisine. But it can also soak up alcohol pretty well.

It used to be hard to find in reasonable quantities for home use, but now you can buy it affordably from suppliers like Modernist Pantry or WillPowder. There's plenty of other maltodextrin out there, but those won't work for this purpose -- N-Zorbit is the one you want. (Other starch derivatives, such as cyclodextrins, would probably be even better for this task than maltodextrin, but those aren't as easy to find. Yet.)

1. Weigh out 100 grams of N-Zorbit into a mixing bowl. Because the powder is so fluffy and light, this will be a sizeable mound.

2. While whisking steadily, drizzle in 30 grams of high-proof spirit. I use Lemon Hart 151-proof rum. After you've stirred it in completely, the powder should be dry, but somewhat chunky. If it's still moist, sprinkle in a little more N-Zorbit.

3. Sift the dry liquor through a fine sieve to break up the chunks and make a nice powder. If you're making a larger batch, you can do it in a blender and step 3 won't be necessary.

Voila! You've got powdered booze. You can stir it into water or another mixer to taste, to make a delicious sippable; sprinkle it on food (rum powder is great on desserts); or just lick a little bit of powder off your finger for the novelty. Be careful: it's highly flammable! Don't get it anywhere near a flame.

You may be able to use a lower-proof spirit, but that will require significantly more N-Zorbit to soak it up. And the more powder you add, the more weakly the flavor of the spirit will come through. On the other hand, if you have access to 190-proof neutral grain spirit, you can make a very strong powdered booze indeed.

I don't know if this is similar to Palcohol's secret method, which (according to the leaked label above) has close to a 1:1 ratio of alcohol to non-alcohol content by weight. But I look forward to trying their product when it's ready!

Britain's Main Nuclear Waste Site Almost Certain To Leak In Near Future, Agency Says

Mon, 04/21/2014 - 12:30

Sellafield nuclear site The Sellafield nuclear site in northwest England. About six kilometers (4 miles) to the south is the nuclear waste site, the Low Level Waste Repository, where material from Sellafield and elsewhere is stored. For the last 55 years, most of Britain's low-level nuclear waste--the kind of material used in nuclear power stations and the like--has ended up at a repository in northwest England, on the coast near the Irish Sea. Some areas of the site are only 16 feet above sea level. Not the best place to store radioactive waste, especially with rising sea levels, right?

Right. The United Kingdom's Environment Agency has determined in a reported released to The Guardian that the "dump is virtually certain to be eroded by rising sea levels and to contaminate the Cumbrian coast with large amounts of radioactive waste." The report also noted, in a somewhat underwhelming fashion, that "it is doubtful whether the location of the [dump] site would be chosen for a new facility for near-surface radioactive waste disposal if the choice were being made now." Tanks for nuttin', EA! JK.

It concluded that the 35 million cubic feet (1 million cubic liters) of waste will start leaking on to the shoreline and the coast in "a few hundred to a few thousand years from now." Environmentalists and some citizens aren't happy about it, arguing that use of the site is "unethical, unsustainable and highly dangerous." But the site's operator says the risks are insignificant. As The Guardian noted

[The] operator, LLW Repository Ltd, said it had introduced new restrictions on the amounts of radioactivity that can be disposed of at the site in order to make sure that radiation doses to people will be "very small" if the wastes are exposed by coastal erosion. 

The company's head of science and engineering, Dr Richard Cummings, accepted that erosion could start "in a few hundred years." But he added: "The radioactivity in the wastes will largely have decayed away by this time."

There is, however, some concern that not all of the waste deposited in the past was "low-level"--meaning it could have come from nuclear submarines and weapons, and thus present a greater hazard. The Environment Agency has already asked the consortium of companies that manage the site to "start preparations to defend the site against floods and erosion," The Independent reported

[The Guardian

The Best Of The 2014 New York Auto Show

Mon, 04/21/2014 - 11:48

High-School-Age Heroes Create Ketchup Lid That Doesn't Squirt Water

Mon, 04/21/2014 - 11:09



What is one of The Worst Things In The World? (In the listicle sense, not the human tragedy sense.) Answer: when you empty the first squirt of ketchup from the bottle and it's a watery, brown, puddle-like mess, and you can feel each individual shard of your slowly shattering heart as the liquid dampens your fries.

Thankfully, a group of young heroes has a solution: a mushroom-shaped 3-D printed cap insert with an opening that lets water collect at the bottom of the bottle, while the nozzle squirts out only pure, thick ketchup. See the video for details. There was a solution all this time! We have been fools.

The inventors, students at Liberty North High School in Missouri, say they don't plan to patent and market the invention right now. But I would implore them to do so; if not for themselves, for all of humanity.

Hunting For The Genetic Secret To A Rare Disease

Mon, 04/21/2014 - 10:00

Geneticist Ohad Birk Consults with a Doctor in a Bedouin Village Before Birk discovered the genes responsible for PCCA, he worked on uncovering the genetic causes of certain birth defects among Bedouin people. Dani Machlis

It was more than ten years ago that Dr. Tally Lerman-Sagie first saw babies with PCCA, a genetic disorder that causes severe mental and physical disabilities and brain atrophy—all before age three. Parents would bring in months-old infants with these unexplained seizures. Lerman-Sagie tested the babies as fully as she could in the pediatric neurology clinic she heads, just outside of Tel Aviv. At first, the test results would come up normal; only as the afflicted babies grew older would their MRI scans show their brain atrophy. Then, one family had a second child afflicted with the same mysterious symptoms. That made Lerman-Sagie realize she must be dealing with a genetic disease... but knowing that wasn't much help, either. She didn't know the gene, so she couldn't test potential parents for it. She certainly couldn't cure the disease. 

She recalls one couple that had one baby who had died and one living with PCCA, which is short for progressive cerebello-cerebral atrophy. The parents wouldn't believe the doctor when she told them their living baby's condition was genetic. She didn't have a test that could say, Here's the gene, here's what's wrong. All she knew was that the condition showed up in families in such a way that it must be inherited. 

"They were very religious Jews and they wanted to have very many children," Lerman-Sagie says. Here their doctor was telling them that every kid they had was at risk for this devastating condition and there was no way for them to prevent it. The family never returned to Lerman-Sagie's clinic in the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, Israel. "It's very hard when you can't offer them genetic counseling," she tells Popular Science.

Now, however, improving DNA technology has helped Lerman-Sagie discover the culprit genes behind PCCA, offering families a chance at prevention.

Affected children may never reach any baby milestones beyond learning to smile.

As genetic sequencing technologies have advanced, scientists are finding the genes behind more and more diseases. Ohad Birk, a geneticist at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba, Israel, has been doing just that. Popular Science met Birk during a trip hosted by his university. Lerman-Sagie turned to Birk because she knew he had a "gene-hunting" lab, she says. In the mid-2000s, Birk made the news in Israel and in the U.S. for uncovering the genetic causes of severe birth defects among the semi-nomadic Bedouin living in Beersheba. Genetic testing has since reduced the birth defect rate in Bedouin families from 17 per 1,000 births to about 12 per 1,000 births, Birk says.

Lerman-Sagie and her friend and fellow neurologist Bruria Ben-Zeev found seven families with PCCA for Birk to study. The families came from all over Israel.

The research team first thought the villain behind PCCA would be one mutation in one gene. After all, so far, they've only found the disease in families of Moroccan and Iraqi Jewish descent. That made the scientists think the faulty gene could have stemmed from one founder—the predecessor to these populations—long ago. But they soon realized the picture was much more complex. That's not an uncommon discovery, Birk says.

"Now, with massive DNA sequencing, diseases that were classified classically as similar are turning out to be different," he says. "On the other hand, sometimes you see that diseases that seem to be different and were in different chapters in the textbook, they're actually caused by different mutations in the same gene."

In the case of PCCA, the families that have it may have one of two mutations in one gene called SepSecS, or one mutation in an unrelated gene, called VPS53. People with mutated SepSecS genes can't incorporate the mineral selenium into their bodies. It doesn't matter if they have enough selenium in their diet. People with mutations in their VPS53 genes, on the other hand, aren't able to move cell structures called vacuoles out of their cells. Essentially, their cells can't take out the trash. Waste accumulates inside them. Because these mutations are in two unrelated genes, PCCA is actually considered two diseases, PCCA and PCCA2. Birk's team published a paper defining PCCA2 and its cause in February, in the Journal of Medical Genetics. Team members think it's likely there's a "PCCA3," too. They're investigating.

"Now, with massive DNA sequencing, diseases that were classified classically as similar are turning out to be different," Birk says.

Figuring out that what looks like one condition is actually several, or that several illnesses are one, can make a big difference, Birk says. The former scenario may explain why treatments for a single disease sometimes don't work for a fraction of patients. Perhaps they have a different disease that looks the same. Birk offers an example. "Autism is probably many different diseases caused by many genes," he says. "Now you're beginning to see that."

On the other hand, if seemingly disparate diseases are caused by the same gene, doctors could transfer a working treatment from one disease to the other.

Unfortunately, PCCA and PCCA2 have no cure. Still, knowing their causes is a boon. Clinics can now test parents to see if they're carriers for the disease, before they have children. Birk recommends testing among couples who are both of either Moroccan Jewish or Iraqi Jewish descent. People of those ethnicities have roughly a 1 in 40 chance of being carriers, which means they have one of the gene mutations, but don't have symptoms. (The mutations are much rarer in people of other ethnicities.)

Parents who are both carriers are at risk for having children with the disease. But they have options. One relatively new option: Parents may use in vitro fertilization technology to create embryos and choose those that don't have PCCA or PCCA2.

Embryo selection can be controversial. There's a lot of debate about whether parents should be able to choose embryo traits such as breast cancer risk, mild disability, or gender. The way is clearer with PCCA and PCCA2, however. The diseases are devastating and strike early in life. Affected children may never reach any baby milestones besides learning to smile, Lerman-Sagie says. Plus, those with two copies of the faulty genes always get PCCA. That contrasts with the more uncertain chances tied with breast-cancer risk genes.

Finding the genes sometimes isn't much comfort to families who already have kids with PCCA. "They always ask, 'If you find the gene, will it help my child? Will it cure my child?' And the answer is no," Lerman-Sagie says. For now, knowing the genes can only help families plan future children.

But at least one family Lerman-Sagie treats has already seen the benefits of her research. That family has two healthy older children. They didn't see PCCA until they had their youngest daughter. "Their son is going to marry someone with same ethnic background," Lerman-Sagie says. "So they're happy they can be checked."


Left To Their Own Devices, Robots Evolve Into Diverse Populations

Mon, 04/21/2014 - 08:00

Eat or Mate? Two robots spot one another across a field of six batteries. Stefan Elfwing and Kenji Doya, PLOS ONE, 2014

There are a few different ways you can study evolution. You could live for months at a time in a tent on tiny island with an isolated population and no fresh water. Or you could program a computer model and some squirrel-sized robots to act out a thousand generations of sex and death in the comfort of your own lab.

Two researchers from the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology recently chose the latter option. With their model and robots, they were able to demonstrate how two different mating strategies arise in one population. Upon first glance, you would think that "survival of the fittest" would eventually create one optimal strategy. That doesn't always happen, of course. Individuals within certain animal species are known to employ different mating strategies. Take the North American sunfish, for example. Some sunfish males build nests and care for their young, while others don't build nests and fertilize other males' clutches of eggs instead, leaving the other guy to care for his young. What a cad.

Among some of the experiments the Okinawa researchers conducted, the fittest population really did all converge on one answer. But in other experiments, a diverse population arose with a three-to-one ratio of little robots with two different mating strategies. There are many ways of answering the same question, it seems.

So what does a robot have to do to survive in an Okinawa evolution lab? Let's first look at what the robots were working with:

The robots were equipped with two wheels, an infrared port for the exchange of genotypes [This means mating. Boom chicka wow wow. –FD], and a camera that could detect energy sources, and tail-lamps and faces of other robots.

The researchers put these little robots on a stretch of floor space scattered with round batteries—"food sources"—where the robots could charge up.  The researchers also programmed the robots to make decisions based on different factors, such as how much energy they had, how far away the nearest battery was, and how far away the nearest face or tail-lamp of another robot was. (The robots mate face-to-face.)

At any given time, each robot could choose to forage for food, wait around for a mate, or mate with another robot. The number of offspring each robot created after a mating depended on how much energy it had at the time it mated. The robots also passed on their preferences for food or love. By the way, the robots were, effectively, hermaphrodites; any robot could mate with any other, and they both were able to produce offspring after an encounter.

After 1,000 generations, the final robot populations had some combinations of Eaters and Lovers.

The researchers first performed their experiments using four robots. After that, they performed further experiments virtually, in a computer program, because they found studying 1,000 generations of life and death in physical robots "infeasible" (Boo!).

After 1,000 generations' worth of experiments, the researchers found the final populations had some combinations of, let's say, Eaters and Lovers. Eaters never waited for a mate to arrive. They would always choose to recharge themselves unless they saw another robot face (Well, if he's right there waiting for me…). Lovers would sometimes wait for mates, depending on the situation. The experiments resulted in some populations composed predominantly of Eaters and some predominantly Lovers. Among the fittest populations, however, were those with a three-to-one ratio of Lovers to Eaters. One fit population even had sub-categories of Lovers, with some more strongly inclined to mate than others.

This study shows that robots are possible tools for studying evolution, the study's authors wrote in a paper published in the journal PLOS ONE. The next thing they want to tackle is programming their robots to be males and females—that is, to take on different risks and costs with each mating encounter.

Over Meal Of Whale Meat, Japan Announces Plan To Restart "Scientific" Whaling In Antarctica

Fri, 04/18/2014 - 17:00

Harpooned whale A whale captured by the Yushin Maru, a Japanese harpoon vessel, in February 2008. Customs and Border Protection Service, Commonwealth of Australia On March 31, Japan was ordered to halt its whaling program in Antarctica by a United Nations court, which ruled that the activity amounted to a commercial operation and was not for research purposes as stated. Now, less than three weeks later, Japan announced it will re-launch its whale-killing "research" operation next year, while addressing objections raised by the UN's International Court of Justice. 

The court's decision gave Japan a golden opportunity to ditch a practice that has brought international condemnation, and which doesn't appear to be that popular in Japan itself, as the country no longer consumes much whale meat. “We are revising the contents of the research to take into consideration the court’s decision to the greatest extent that we can,” the Minister of Agriculture, Yoshimasa Hayashi, told reporters. “We want to gather scientific data in order to resume commercial whaling as soon as possible.”

Japan "says its 26-year-old research program is needed to monitor recovering whale populations in the Southern Ocean, but opponents call it a crude cover for continued commercial whaling," the New York Times reported. Crude indeed. By its own admission, Japan's hunt isn't really about research--or if it is, it's about research geared toward restarting commercial whaling, which has been outlawed since 1986 (for the record, Norway and Iceland openly defy that moratorium). It's hard to believe anybody could possibly believe that Japan needs to kill scores of whales--in the past, up to 950 minke, fin and humpback whales each year in the Southern Ocean, but presumably less in the future--to keep tabs on the animal's populations. But so goes the absurd argument.

Yesterday (April 17) officials and lobbyists in Japan hosted a whale buffet to protest the UN court's decision and celebrate the harvest of the large mammals. 


An Invisible Barn And Other Amazing Images From This Week

Fri, 04/18/2014 - 16:08

Invisible Barn What do you get when you wrap a barn in mylar? You get nothing. stpmj via Co.Design