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Why Liberia Needs Help NOW To Prevent 98,000 Ebola Cases

Thu, 10/23/2014 - 17:30

Ebola ward in Lagos, Nigeria. CDC Global via Flickr CC By 2.0

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is growing exponentially. The latest reports suggest that at least 9,915 people have been infected, and 4,555 have died. And this is just the beginning. Previously, the CDC estimated that a startling 1.4 million West Africans could be infected by January.  

The outbreak is already considered to be out of control, and according to a paper published today in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, the window of opportunity to avoid a total catastrophe is closing. They calculated that sending aid immediately to Montserrado, Liberia, could prevent up to 98,000 cases of Ebola. However, if the international community stalls for another two weeks, the same amount of aid would prevent 54,000 deaths at best.

The reason why comes down to some pretty simple math. (Don’t worry, you won’t need a calculator.)

The study authors -- epidemiologists from Yale as well as Liberia’s Ministry of Health and Social Welfare -- charted the spread of Ebola between June 14 and September 23 in Montserrado, a county in Liberia that has been one of the hardest-hit by the virus. The researchers used that growth rate to forecast how many new cases could be expected in the coming months. The model predicts a worst-case scenario of 170,000 new cases and 90,000 deaths in Montserrado by December 15.

Next, they estimated the impact various types of aid could have in preventing those new cases. Anti-Ebola measures include building treatment centers to care for the sick, identifying and monitoring people who’ve come in contact with Ebola patients, and distributing kits that help people set up at-home isolation wards for when hospital beds are not available.

Up to now, the U.S. has pledged the largest amount of Ebola aid, setting up 17 treatment centers that will isolate and treat 1,700 patients in total. Unfortunately, the researchers found that this level of aid is “woefully inadequate”.

To avert the worst of the epidemic, Montserrado would need nearly three times that amount of aid—setting up 4,800 new beds, while also scaling up contact tracing by five times its current levels and distributing home isolation kits. And that’s just to prevent 98,000 cases in Montserrado; it’s not enough to stop the outbreak in its tracks, and it doesn’t include the rest of Liberia, or Guinea or Sierra Leone where the outbreak is also raging.

To prevent those 98,000 cases, the aid would need to be sent by October 31, according to the researchers. To wait until November 15 would mean that the same amount of aid could only prevent 54,000 cases at best. The same aid, if it had been sent on October 15, could have prevented 137,000 cases.

That’s because every West African who contracts Ebola infects two people, on average. Then each of those two cases infects two more people, and so on, making the outbreak grow exponentially. Delivering aid sooner rather than later interrupts the exponential growth curve, preventing more cases in the long run.

“The key take-home message for readers is this: we have no time to waste,” epidemiology David Fisman, from the University of Toronto, wrote in a commentary. “The urgency of timely intervention in the Ebola epidemic cannot be overstated.” 

Ebola predictions This graph shows the number of Ebola cases that could be averted by building new treatment centers (ETCs) and increasing contact tracing (on a scale of 0 to 4B, 0= baseline, 4B=200%) in Montserrado, Liberia. The graph shows that deploying aid on October 31 (shown in black) can save thousands more lives than deploying the same aid on November 15 (blue). Click to enlarge. J.A. Lewnard et al./Lancet Infectious Diseases

It's unclear whether the predictions made for Montserrado could be extrapolated for the rest of Ebola-stricken West Africa. The region has been one of the hardest-hit, accounting for 1,600 cases and 1,000 deaths. But because 90 percent of Montserrado residents live in the capital of Monrovia, study author Joseph Lewnard explained in an email that controlling the epidemic there (and in other urban centers, such as Conakry and Freetown) could be more straightforward than in rural areas:

For instance, Lofa county in northern Liberia (where the first cases were observed) may present additional logistical challenges since villages are remote and inadequately served by roads and telecommunications infrastructure. It's not totally certain that the same interventions could scale to the (much smaller) population of a county like that, where the relative isolation of small rural communities and difficulty of traversing poor roads (especially because this is the rainy season) can make it very hard to identify cases, get them to treatment centers, or perform safe burials in a timely manner. Likewise, since the population and number of cases is smaller in Lofa county, it wouldn't make a whole lot of sense to infer the number of beds, etc. required based on our findings from Montserrado.

Lewnard also added that since September 23, Montserrado increased their number of hospital beds to 620 and scaled-up their distribution of protection kits, so the worst-case scenario is less likely now.  

Nevertheless, the study paints a bleak picture of the situation in West Africa. One ray of hope is in the form of two experimental vaccines, which will begin trials in West Africa in January. But unless those vaccines prove to be safe and effective, treatment centers and contact tracing will be the best bet in the fight against Ebola during the coming year.

Fisman, in his commentary, points out that ultimately, the international community will help itself by helping West Africa. CDC director Tom Friedan appears to agree:

We can’t get to zero risk in U.S. until we stop the #Ebola epidemic at its source in Liberia, Sierra Leone & Guinea.

— Dr. Tom Frieden (@DrFriedenCDC) October 22, 2014

Can Robots Help Fight Ebola?

Thu, 10/23/2014 - 15:30

Helping Hand Takao Someya Group/University of Tokyo

Engineers make disaster-response robots precisely because robots are able to work in situations that are too dangerous for humans. Now the humans have got a new idea: Perhaps robots could carry off waste from Ebola patients, or bury the bodies of people who have died from Ebola in West Africa. Roboticizing such tasks would keep people from having to touch bodies when they're most infectious.

Working with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, robot engineers will meet early next month to talk about whether they could repurpose existing machines for these tasks and more, Computerworld reports. The engineers will talk about how robots can work in both West African clinics and U.S. ones. The proposition faces many challenges, which Computerworld outlines. It may turn out that today's robots aren't sophisticated enough to help out in this Ebola outbreak at all—we'll see.

Of course, some hospitals do have a few simple robots already. There are telepresence robots, which let doctors check on patients from afar. That may be especially helpful for Ebola cases in the U.S., where few physicians have encountered the virus before. In both the U.S. and abroad, telepresence may make isolation and quarantine less lonely, and isolated folks more likely to stick to the rules. Earlier this month, there was a bit of coverage about a hospital "robot" that sends out powerful UV light to decontaminate rooms, although we would call it more of a wheeled machine. It doesn't move on its own and it doesn't seem to be able to take very sophisticated commands.

Defense One reports on more complex robots that may work for Ebola aid, including a robot, built for the Tokyo Fire Department in 2008, that's designed to carry bodies. It's unclear whether that robot will be useful, however. It depends on whether the friends and family of those who died would feel okay with it handling their loved ones. Engineers attending the workshops in November will focus on listening to what people on the ground say they need, Texas A&M computer scientist Robin Murphy told Computerworld. It sounds like they'll have a lot to talk about.

[Computerworld]

First Privately Funded Moon Mission Launched Today

Thu, 10/23/2014 - 14:23

To The Moon davejdoe vis Flickr CC by 2.0

The first privately funded lunar mission launched today. The mission involves sending a 31-pound spacecraft called 4M, fitted with an antenna, small computer, and radiation sensor, on a Chinese rocket to Earth's satellite. Funded by private company LuxSpace, the craft will fly by the moon transmitting a signal back to Earth that can be picked up by amateur radio enthusiasts. The project is hitchhiking on a Chinese rocket transporting China's latest lunar spacecraft, which is also scheduled to fly by the moon -- another step in their moon exploration program.

4M began broadcasting exactly 77.8 minutes after it's launch at 1:59 PM Eastern Daylight Time. LuxSpace is hosting a contest to see who can recieve the most messages from the private payload before the mission ends (You can compete either as an individual or as a team.). The messages sent from the payload will be sequences of tones broadcast at different frequencies. Even if you don't want to participate in the contest, you can track the mission's progress online. 

The mission is scheduled to last for eight days, but it could go on for longer. "The secondary power supply of 4M comprises solar cells and would extend the mission life to keep 4M operational in an orbital region where few spacecraft have been before," LuxSpace system engineer Hubert Moser told Space.com. "Nevertheless, this secondary power supply (therefore, life of 4M) depends strongly on the attitude of the last stage of the launcher, i.e. the availability of sunlight."   

4M stands for the Manfred Memorial Moon Mission, named in honor of Manfred Fuchs, who founded the company OHB, the parent company of LuxSpace. The payload was relatively inexpensive too; the entire cost of the mission is less than six figures

New Microscope Makes Gorgeous 3-D Movies Of Living Cells

Thu, 10/23/2014 - 13:01

Protist T. thermophila, Imaged with a Lattice Light-Sheet Microscope Click here to enlarge. Betzig Lab, HHMI

There's a new microscope in town and the images it produces are stunning. An international team of engineers and biologists is announcing it's made a microscope that's able to see phenomena such as single proteins diffusing through thickly-packed cells, and the movement of the fibers that pull cells apart when they divide. Everything remains alive and active under the microscope.

"The results provide a visceral reminder of the beauty and the complexity of living systems," the team wrote in a paper, published online today, that describes the microscope. In other words, biology is beautiful.

The cool thing about the new 'scope is that it's able to record both small features and swift movements. Normally those two qualities are trade-offs. If you want to make an instrument that sees in high resolution, it'll be slower, because it needs to take more measurements. In addition, powerful microscopes often pump tons of light radiation into the samples it images, killing living cells.

"The results provide a visceral reminder of the beauty and the complexity of living systems."

The new microscope, called a lattice light-sheet microscope, solves two problems at once by using one light beam that's divided into seven parts. Each seventh of a light beam covers its own portion of the sample, so users don't have to wait for a single light beam to sweep over the whole sample. The divided beam also ensures samples get a lesser dose of radiation than they normally would, although engineers didn't think of that when they first tested the divided-light idea.

"What was shocking to us was that by spreading the energy out across seven beams instead of one, the phototoxicity went way down," the microscope's lead engineer, Eric Betzig, said in a statement. (Betzig won a Nobel Prize this year for other advances in microscopy.) "What I learned from that experience is that while the total dose of light you put on the cell is important, what's far more important is the instantaneous power that you put on the cell," he said.

The light a lattice light-sheet microscope uses is also unusual. It uses a Bessel beam, which is a special kind of laser light that doesn't diffract, or splinter. (Learn more about that here.) The Bessel beam is arranged so that it makes a lattice of light—yep, like the top of a cherry pie—that's exceptionally thin. The thinness gives it its high spatial resolution.

Betzig and his colleagues made a Bessel-beam microscope in 2011, but recently improved the instrument by adding algorithms that fix blurry spots that used to appear in the microscope's images.

Okay, enough explanation. On to the images!

Here's a white blood cell squidging through a matrix of collagen fibers. (Pretty sure "squidging" is the scientific term for this.)

http://cf.c.ooyala.com/04a2JhcTpkR7PMraV2ovZ7NmHJCPkh05/3Gduepif0T1UGY8H... Please enable Javascript to watch this video

Here's a series of images that show an immune-system cell, called a T cell, approaching a target cell for destruction. (T cell in orange, target in blue. The scale bar represents 4 micrometers.) Go, T cell, go! 

T Cell Approaches Target Over 200 Seconds Betzig Lab, HHMI. Click here to see this image larger.

Here's a closer look at that T cell from different angles. Look at that gaping maw. The scale bar here represents 5 micrometers.

T Cell Betzig Lab, HHMI. Click here to see this image larger.

A fruit fly embryo, imaged while it's developing. Weird.

http://cf.c.ooyala.com/p2amJhcTqfaS8vfjxXgxfXf-wAdVw9oA/Ut_HKthATH4eww8X... Please enable Javascript to watch this video

Lastly, a cell in the middle of dividing. The orange stuff is the cell's DNA, which it is now dividing into two portions. The short strands all around the DNA are fibers called microtubules, which help pull everything apart. The microtubules are color-coded by how fast they're moving. The red microtubules are the fastest, moving at a speedy 1.5 micrometers per second.

Cell in Anaphase Betzig Lab, HHMI

Scientists who want to use the new microscope can apply here. The microscope is housed at Janelia Farm, a private research campus in Virginia, and it's free to use. There are also new lattice light-sheet microscopes at Harvard University and the University of California, San Francisco.

Scientists Retract Research On Dr. Oz-Endorsed Weight Loss Pill

Thu, 10/23/2014 - 12:23

Mehmet Oz Screenshot from doctoroz.com

The scientists who published sham research on a useless weight loss supplement once called a "miracle pill" on the Dr. Oz Show have retracted their study.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, host of the daytime medical show, is an Ivy League-trained heart surgeon who rocketed to fame through the endorsement of Oprah Winfrey. Oz is considered one of the most influential celebrities in America, according to Forbes, and he uses his television show as a platform to promote supposedly healthy products to his fans. But he has come under fire recently for his habit of endorsing weight loss pseudo-drugs with no actual benefits. Plus, many of these drugs may encourage users to give up exercise.

The retracted study purported to validate the sale of Green Coffee Extract, which was once the subject of an entire episode of Oz's show. A federal agency called the research "hopelessly flawed." The retraction followed a $3.5 million Federal Trade Commission (FTC) settlement with Applied Food Sciences (AFS), a Texas company that hawked the phony pills. An FTC press release summed up the damning charges against the company and researchers:

AFS paid researchers in India to conduct a clinical trial on overweight adults to test whether Green Coffee Antioxidant (GCA), a dietary supplement containing green coffee extract, reduced body weight and body fat.

The FTC charges that the study’s lead investigator repeatedly altered the weights and other key measurements of the subjects, changed the length of the trial, and misstated which subjects were taking the placebo or GCA during the trial. When the lead investigator was unable to get the study published, the FTC says that AFS hired researchers Joe Vinson and Bryan Burnham at the University of Scranton to rewrite it. Despite receiving conflicting data, Vinson, Burnham, and AFS never verified the authenticity of the information used in the study, according to the complaint.

Despite the study’s flaws, AFS used it to falsely claim that GCA caused consumers to lose 17.7 pounds, 10.5 percent of body weight, and 16 percent of body fat with or without diet and exercise, in 22 weeks, the complaint alleges.

The Dr. Oz Show has since removed nearly any hint of support for Green Coffee Extract from its website, including the full episode devoted to its benefits and Oz's own study of its effects. But a Washington Post report details what was said:

"You may think magic is make believe, but this little bean has scientists saying they found a magic weight loss cure for every body type," Oz exclaimed in the Green Coffee Extract episode of his show. "This miracle pill can burn fat fast for anyone who wants to lose weight. This is very exciting and it's breaking news."

Oz touted the "staggering newly released study" that showed participants lost an "astounding" amount of fat and weight … by doing absolutely nothing except taking the supplement.

Now, all that remains of those wild claims in the online land of Oz is a short statement that comes up in search -- but appears nowhere on the home page. (Also not found on his home page: his congressional testimony on weight loss fraud.)

In prior seasons, we covered Green Coffee Extract and its potential as a useful tool for weight loss. Recently the authors of the peer reviewed research paper on which our coverage had been partially based formally retracted their study. While this sometimes happens in scientific research, it indicates that further study is needed regarding any potential benefits of Green Coffee Extract.

The implication, as Abby Phillips notes at the Post, is that this is just another example of science taking a wrong turn and then righting itself. But serious scientists rigorously double-check their own work, and correct themselves when they get it wrong

Oz has the prestigious background to tell good science from quackery. Hopefuly his program will take advantage of that asset in the future.

Autonomous Cars May Change Our Lives In Unexpected Ways

Thu, 10/23/2014 - 11:00

One of the test vehicles for Google's Self-Driving Car project.

 

In the future, we may not be dealing with the hassles and frustrations that come with driving cars everyday. Autonomous automobiles can make our lives better! But are cars that drive by themselves all that it's cracked up to be?

The advertising agency Sparks & Honey has compiled a mess of data and research on autonomous cars into a report entitled "Driving Disrupted: Driverless Cars Change Everything." Besides the obvious things such as being safer for travel and freeing up time for other pursuits, there are some surprising things that will emerge in a world with intelligent cars.

Car Sharing

Pointing to an MIT study, the report states that whole cities could adopt a car-sharing program, not unlike bike sharing, which may make car ownership obsolete.

Entertainment on the Go

Beyond having extra time to work or read or do other hobbies, the report imagines autonomous cars as a place where the owner entertains a group of friends or colleagues, almost like a moving bar. And who knows where such drunkenness and debauchery will go...

Vehicles of Vice

And that means that bar-like autonomous cars could become the go-to place for illicit activities. Whether it is casual sexual encounters or drug use, the privacy and luxury of such cars could bring a spike in such activities.

We'll Need A New Source Of Municipal Income

With fewer traffic violations, cities and towns will have to find new ways to ticket its citizens to earn revenue or the penalties for existing violations will become more harsh. So you may want to reconsider your stance on jaywalking.

We'll Need A New Source Of Organs

Whether it is through growing them in the labs or through a form of 3-D printing, according to the report, artificial organs for health care will be in high demand because less traffic accidents means fewer natural organ donations.

You can view a slideshow of the report.

Throwback Thursday: Phrenology, Forks, And How To Live Forever

Thu, 10/23/2014 - 10:00

October 1889 Header Popular Science

As a magazine with 142 years of history, Popular Science sits on a treasure trove of vintage illustrations, perceptive predictions, obsolete technologies, essays by Nobel prize-winning scientists, and some seriously awkward advertisements. That's why we're using Throwback Thursdays as an excuse to dust off those back issues and share their stories with you. This week we dug way back, 125 years, to October 1889.

Something Out Of Nothing

An Early Neurological Illustration Popular Science

The history of science is littered with bad ideas. Today we have homeopathy and climate denialism. In the nineteenth century, phrenology was the pseudoscience of choice. Phrenologists taught that lumps on the human skulls reveal the secrets of personality and intelligence. They were deeply, almost hilariously wrong, and Popular Science Monthly knew it. What's fascinating from a modern perspective is the direction that false system led true scientists--into the nooks and crannies of the brain, where the true secrets of neurophysiology lay waiting:

The claims of Gall that each part of the brain presided over some mental faculty stimulated Flourens, the leading French physiologist of forty years ago, to a series of experiments which seemed to show the falsity of Gall's hypothesis. These experiments in turn were disputed and led to others, and thus interest in the brain and its action was stimulated, until in 1870 the subject was taken up in Germany, and facts were discovered which form the basis of brain function.

...These men noticed that when they applied an electric shock to the brain of an anesthetized dog, the result was a movement of the limbs. To cause this movement a certain part of the brain had to be irritated by the electricity, other parts being unresponsive; and it was even possible to distinguish the part which moved the fore-leg from that which moved the hind-leg, while, queerly enough, the irritation of one side of the brain always caused movements in the other side of the body. This was an important discovery, for it showed that one part of the brain governed motions while the other parts had nothing to do with motion.

The researchers went much further, as our writer detailed, taking great steps and many missteps toward the development of a "new phrenology" (a name now thankfully lost to history). Their experiments formed the basis of much of what we know about the brain today.

The History Of The Fork

Popular Science is fascinated by the role of gadgets in society. This was as true in 1889 as it is today, when our writer delved deep into the history of the fork:

The Duchess of Beaufort, dining once at Madame de Guise's with King Henri IV of France, extended one hand to receive his Majesty's salutation while she dipped the fingers of the other hand into a dish to pick out what was to her taste. This incident happened in the year 1598....When we reflect how nice were the ideas of that refined age on all matters of outer decency and behavior, and how strict was the etiquette of the courts, we may well wonder that the fork was so late in coming into use as a table-furnishing.

It was all the more odd because nobility ate with knives and spoons, and they even used forks in during cooking. But it wasn't until decades later that the fork made it into the dining room. Read the story to find out how.

And, as it turns out, the fork is still a work in progress. So perhaps our writer was ahead of his time.

Fighting Old Age

As long as scientists have poked and prodded the human body, they've sought tricks for making it live longer. In the nineteenth century, that concern was even more pressing than today: an infant born in 1850 might reasonably have expected to live into its late thirties. By 1890, that number had risen only a few years to the early forties. But our writer imagined a future of medicine that was not far from the truth:

Longevity, indeed, has come to be regarded as one of the grand prizes of human existence, and reason has again and again suggested the inquiry whether care or skill can increase the chances of acquiring it, and can make old age, when granted, as comfortable and happy as any other stage of our existence...The French naturalist, Buffon, believed that, if accidental causes could be excluded, the normal duration of human life would be between ninety and on hundred years.

Humans aren't quite to that point yet on average, but the developed world is filling up with octo-, nona-, and centenarians, largely to the credit of science that was pioneered in the late 1800s.

You can read the complete October 1889 issue here.

Seeking The Black Hole At The Center Of Our Galaxy

Thu, 10/23/2014 - 09:00

ALMA Probes The Sky courtesy Yuri Beletsky (Las Campanas Observatory, Carnegie Institution) The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) probes the sky for radio waves from the Milky Way (shown here) and beyond. But even ALMA can't see the supermassive black hole shrouded in ionized gas at our galaxy's center, Sagittarius A*.

"Any images we make are fuzzy, as though you're looking at a small light through frosted glass," says Shep Doeleman of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. So astronomers are linking 11 telescopes around the world into one Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), named for the spacetime boundary where the black hole's gravity prevents the escape of light and matter. When an upgraded ALMA joins in 2015, it should make EHT 10 times more sensitive and may help bring Sagittarius A*'s shadowy edge into focus.

This article was originally published in the November 2014 issue of Popular Science, under the title "Seeking The Point Of No Return."

The Surprising Science Behind The Movie 'Interstellar'

Thu, 10/23/2014 - 07:57

Interstellar Syncopy/Paramont Pictures

Asking a team of journalists to rally around a science fiction movie might sound ludicrous. Yet some combination of boundless vision, relaxing of natural laws, and enthralling story can prompt even the most disciplined Popular Science employee to daydream at his or her desk. To us, science fiction is a lens through which we can explore our place and future in the universe.

So when we found out director Christopher Nolan was making Interstellar, we couldn’t resist. The film promises to pull habitable alien worlds into reach, bring far-out spaceflight technologies within grasp, and test humanity’s mettle in spectacular fashion. We wondered aloud: What if?

You won’t find any spoilers here; we have yet to see the movie, which stars Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey and debuts Nov. 7. But in geeking out with experts over the limited information we extracted from the movie’s trailers (Nolan’s team, including theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, refused all interview requests), we rounded up the latest knowledge about wormhole travel, robotic companions, habitable exoplanets, and, of course, starships.

Without further navel-gazing, we present the science of Interstellar.

Sandia Labs Reveals New Sniper Sight [Video]

Wed, 10/22/2014 - 17:00

U.S. Special Forces Demonstrate RAZAR Photo courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories

In the tense moments of a long-range gun battle, unnecessary movements can give away a combatant's position, cause them to lose sight of the enemy, and possibly lead to fatalities. For America’s special forces, Sandia National Laboratories has developed a new sniper scope that, with the press of a button, adjusts focus. Called Rapid Adaptive Zoom for Assault Rifles (RAZAR), the lens has immediate uses on the battlefield, but in the future, it might just be a birdwatcher's best friend.

The adaptive zoom lens works, not by changing the distance between two lenses as in a traditional scope, but by changing the curvature of a given lens. This is similar to how human eyeballs switch focus. In humans, muscles in the eye pull the lens to flatten it for far-away vision, and contract to thicken the lens for objects up close.

RAZAR does this using minimal energy, with 10,000 focus changes burning through only two AA batteries. After the batteries are dead, the lens can’t adjust until new ones are put in. But unlike systems that use electronic cameras for zooming, the lens still works without power.

While Sandia Labs developed RAZAR to help special forces win gun battles, the technology is by no means limited to a military role. Most anything that uses lenses for zooming, rather than digital magnification, could use an adaptive lens. The birdwatchers of the future, hiding out in tall grass looking for whooping cranes, may very well owe their spectacular views to a scope designed for troops fighting battles abroad.

Watch a video about it below:

Coming Soon To A Coast Near You: Vertical Tsunami Shelters

Wed, 10/22/2014 - 16:15

TCF Architecture via GSA

What do you do in a tsunami? For people living in areas prone to tsunamis, the advice is simple: get to higher ground as fast as possible. But for one town in Washington, safety will soon be as close as the local elementary school.

The artist rendering above might look like an average school building, but it has a second purpose. When it is finished next year, the building in Grays Harbor County, Washington, will be the first vertical tsunami evacuation structure in the country, capable of holding the approximately 1,000 people living within a 20-minute walking distance of the structure.

TCF Architecture  

That 20-minute walking time is important. If the Cascadia fault in the western Pacific Ocean were to produce a large earthquake (such as a magnitude 9) then people on the northwest coast would only have about 20 to 30 minutes to get to safety. 

The problem with traditional evacuation methods is that they simply take too long, especially in metropolitan areas, where evacuation routes can become clogged with cars of people trying to get out of town. A community might only have 30 minutes of warning before a tsunami hits, and getting stuck in traffic while a wall of water is bearing down on your location is ... not ideal. Hence, the idea of moving on up. A building shelter in a central, densely populated area is more easily accessible than a distant high elevation only accessible by car.

Buildings that are meant to serve as vertical evacuation structures have to meet a lot of different criteria, including being able to withstand the forces of an earthquake and, obviously, a tsunami. That means that the foundation has to be strong, and the structural supports need to be able to handle the forces of water and debris crashing into them. Almost as important as the building itself is the location of the structure. In this case, the building is situated on a ridge, making the shelter area 55 feet above sea level. All those specifications require a significant amount of money to turn into reality, so Grays Harbor County passed a $13 million dollar bond to fund the construction of the new structure.

In the wake of the devastating Japanese tsunami in 2011 and the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, other communities on the West Coast have begun considering similar structures to shelter the thousands of people who live in low-lying areas. Other places around the world are also looking into vertical evacuation strategies. In Japan, a few different structures have already been built, and in Indonesia, researchers at Stanford are looking into reinforcing existing buildings to make them safe spaces in the event of a tsunami. 

Audi Claims Self-Driving Car Set Speed Record At 149 MPH

Wed, 10/22/2014 - 15:30

A 2014 Audi RS7 According to Audi, a driverless version of this car set a driverless speed record. Sarah Larson, via Wikimedia Commons

A major selling point of self-driving cars is what they remove from the road: human error, driver exhaustion, distracted driving because someone has to keep reminding the urchins in the backseat that "No, we’re not there yet, and if you keep asking I'm pulling the car over right now." Less attention has been paid to the new capabilities driverless cars will open up, such as traveling at much higher speeds than a human driver could manage. Carmaker Audi claims they just set a speed record for driverless cars, zooming 149 mph around a racing circuit in (of course) Germany.

There are upper limits on how fast a human can drive a car. Some are physical; at high enough speeds, the gravitational forces acting on the driver become dangerous and incapacitating. Others are neurological; nerves relay signals only so fast, and human response time to risks (like a stalled car on top of a hill) is limited by how fast the driver can receive this information and act on it. Driverless cars use a variety of sensors with their own limitations, but these can be engineered and improved on a wide scale. In addition, driverless cars should be able to communicate with each other, reducing the traffic blindness that human drivers fall prey to.

Most of the time, these features are touted as safety improvements. And, certainly, that’s a major part of the case for driverless cars: fast machines communicating with each other may very well make roads safer for the humans they carry. But it also means that, especially over long hauls at first, car travel can be faster, even making it competitive with short flight air travel.

Still, there is plenty of work to be done before we arrive at a future with self-driving cars. After Audi tested the autonomous car, they put a human driver on the same circuit. The human finished only five seconds slower than the robot, and NASCAR drivers regularly top out at over 200 mph.

New Fabric Softener Tech Promises Clothes That Never Stain

Wed, 10/22/2014 - 14:30

A Sofft Marketing Image Sofft

Detergent, prepare to be disrupted.

The makers of a new fabric softener, Sofft, say they want our clothes to join us in the fight against stink and stains. While mixing with your clothes in the washing machine, Sofft coats organic and plastic fibers in a thin protective layer of hydrophobic molecules. These chemicals cause common stains like oil and juice to slide right off clothes (at least, that's how it seems in their promotional videos). The company says clothes would remain breathable.

Sofft's protection does not last forever. Clothes still have to get washed as the coating wears off, but most users would be able to get a few more wears in between trips to the laundromat. Plus, fewer loads in laundry machines could also ease the strain of detergent chemicals and water consumption on the environment.

(All GIFs courtesy Vinod Nair)

Vinod Nair, founder and CEO of the Sofft company, calls the technique "prevention based laundry." In the manner of a Silicon Valley programmer hawking a revolutionary new app, he sells his product with the vision of a changed future. If Sofft succeeds, he says, "we would expect an ecosystem change. The washing machine would have to change." We would all do laundry less often, he argues, because our clothes would stay fresh longer. His company calls this imagined world "Laundry 2.0."

Sofft's hydrophobic qualities may also make it easier to filter out waste water than regular detergent. The molecules don't dissolve well, and Nair believes they could be extracted more easily than common laundry chemicals at waste treatment plants.

Sofft still faces challenges. Right now they have no large scale, efficient factories. Plus, 32-ounce bottles of the product cost $35 a pop, with enough fluid for about 15 light loads. The only way to order is through their Kickstarter campaign, which has already beaten its $25,000 goal by more than $10,000 with six days to go. They expect to ship in February 2015.

"Once we get to scale," Nair says, "our long term vision is to have this selling for $10 on the shelf at Walmart."

If that happens, he says mass use of Sofft and the competitors that would follow will require laundry machine makers to redesign their products as well.

"We're doing high performance chemistry in a washing machine," he says. Modern machines are very good at removing chemicals from clothing, but not great at adding others in their place. Clorox held patents now used in Sofft, Nair says, but balked at the expense of engineering an untested product. The laundry giant signed its rights over to retiring engineer Greg van Buskirk, who went on to design Sofft with Nair.

So now, the future of Sofft (and the future of laundry, according to Nair) is now in the hands of the Kickstarter-funding public.

 

Two Families Of Exocomets Found Circling A Nearby Star

Wed, 10/22/2014 - 13:48

Exocomets Around Beta Pictoris An artist's impression of the two families of exocomets surrounding Beta Pictoris ESO/L. Calçada

About 63 light years from our Sun, you’ll find a relatively young star called Beta Pictoris. A mere 20 million years old, Beta Pictoris is surrounded by a very active and eclectic mix of objects – including clouds of gas and dust, as well as a plethora of orbiting comets.

Now researchers are learning a little bit more about the cometary hoard that circulates around this baby star. Utilizing very precise instruments at the La Silla Observatory in Chile, French astronomers analyzed hundreds of exocomets orbiting Beta Pictoris. They discovered two distinct types of comets: an older class that have passed by the sun many times, and younger, rougher comets that are perhaps the products of a planetary breakup or collision.

Astronomers have been studying Beta Pictoris for nearly 30 years, documenting subtle variations in its light over time. It is thought that these light changes denote a comet passing in front of the star. “When the comet passes in front, there is a cometary tail which absorbs some of the starlight,” Flavien Kiefer, lead author of the study, tells Popular Science. “And when that light is absorbed, it has an impact on the light spectrum.”

Kiefer and his team of researchers reviewed more than 1,000 observations of light changes around Beta Pictoris, which were captured by the HARPS instrument on the European Southern Observatory’s 3.6-meter telescope in Chile. They selected a sample of 493 separate exocomets, sometimes analyzing them on multiple passes by the star.

Beta Pictoris In Infrared This composite image reveals the close environment of Beta Pictoris in near infrared light. The outer part shows the reflected light on the dust disc, and the inner part is the innermost part of the system. ESO/A.-M. Lagrange et al.

They noticed some distinct differences in how the comet tails warped the star’s light, which revealed a lot about the physical properties and the origins of the comets. They also observed differences in the comets’ orbits.

“The two families had different behaviors,” Kiefer explains. “One family of comet had a wide variety of orbits. The orbits have an orientation, and we saw a wide variety of orientation of this family. While in the other family, we saw one particular formation of orbit.”

Taking all these observations into account, the research team concluded that two very different types of comets surround Beta Pictoris. The first type of comets are much older and smoother, having passed by the star many times. Their wide variety of orbits indicates that a planet is controlling them. This object could very well be the giant planet Beta Pictoris b.

The second exocomet family consists of more active comets that evaporate a lot of gas and dust, much more so than the first family. Many comets are rich in ices, but as they get closer to a star, these ices evaporate. Since the second comet class is still giving off a lot of gaseous material, it means they are much younger than their older comet counterparts.

The uniform orbits of the young comets also reveal something very cool about their origin. It’s likely that these exocomets are the result of a breakdown of a larger object, possibly a planet. And now, that object’s fragments are in an orbit that grazes Beta Pictoris.

All of these discoveries provide clues as to how this planetary system formed millions of years ago, as well as how our own solar system formed. Just like around Beta Pictoris, there are many different classes of comets in our own system, some of which are similar to those in the study. “We see objects that are very analogous to what we know. Comets in our solar system are trapped inside by Jupiter,” Kiefer says, comparing them to the older family of exocomets. “This is just one of many similar behaviors we see.”

The researchers published their work in the journal Nature.

Sorry, Cat Haters, Science Isn't On Your Side

Wed, 10/22/2014 - 12:24

"Unfeeling" Cats Jetske via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Some people just don't like cats. That's okay. Some people don't like pizza. Or dogs. Or Harry Potter. But some cat-haters aren't satisfied with not owning cats themselves. They need to drag the rest of us down with them.

"Those who hate the cat hate him with a malignity which, I think, only snakes in the animal kingdom provoke to an equal degree."

The first thing you notice when you dig around in the seedy underworld of cat-bashing is that it's an old hobby. The haters have left their mark across poetry, literature, and art for centuries.

"There's always going to be someone in a group who's going to stand up and say cats are aloof, manipulative little devils," says cat researcher John Bradshaw.

In his 1922 cultural history of the domestic cat, The Tiger in the House, Carl Van Vechten notes, "One is permitted to assume an attitude of placid indifference in the matter of elephants, cockatoos, H.G. Wells, Sweden, roast beef, Puccini, and even Mormonism, but in the matter of cats it seems necessary to take a firm stand....Those who hate the cat hate him with a malignity which, I think, only snakes in the animal kingdom provoke to an equal degree."

Joseph Stromberg at Vox is only the most recent ailurophobe to launch a broadside against the feline species. His 28-paragraph essay on the supposed evils of Felis catus, published last week, tells readers that cats are "selfish, unfeeling, environmentally harmful creatures."

His argument breaks down into four simple points: "Your cat probably doesn't love you." "Your cat isn't really showing you affection." "Cats are an environmental disaster." And, "Your cat might be driving you crazy."

We called Bradshaw, an internationally recognized cat and dog researcher and author of several books on pet ownership, including Cat Sense, for his learned opinion on the "science" of cat-bashing.

Feline Love Isn't Needy

The Difference Between Dogs And Cats Raneko via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Haters want you to believe cats don't really care about their people. Stromberg points to a series of studies by Daniel Mills at the University of London and other researchers that show cats don't look to humans for guidance in unfamiliar situations. Abandon your dog (or child) in a place it's never seen before, and it's likely to run to you on your return. Cats are more likely to explore the space on their own terms.

Compared to a stranger, the dogs become more disturbed when their owners leave, and interact with them more when they return. By contrast, Mills' cat experiments — which are still ongoing and haven't yet been published, but were featured in a BBC special last year—haven't come to the same conclusion. On the whole, the cats seem disinterested both when their owners depart and return.

Meanwhile, other experiments carried out by a pair of Japanese researchers have provided evidence for a fact already known to most cat owners: they can hear you calling their name, but just don't really care. As detailed in a study published last year, the researchers gathered 20 cats (one at a time) and played them recordings of three different people calling their name—two strangers, plus their owners.

Regardless of the order, the cats consistently reacted differently upon hearing their owner's voice (in terms of ear and head movement, as graded by independent raters who didn't know which voice belonged to the owner). However, none of them meowed or actually approached the speaker, as though they'd be interested in seeing the person.

Bradshaw says this interpretation draws too much out of limited study—research similar to work he has done himself. "It shows something about cats, but it doesn't show you that cats are not affectionate," he says.

Dogs have evolved to be "almost obsessively" dependent on humans, Bradshaw says. In unfamiliar situations, they look to their humans as sources of stability and guidance, much like small children. Cats, on the other hand, "prefer to deal with things in their own heads." 

A creature that fails to run to your side in a strange situation does not necessarily have a cold, unfeeling heart. Some couples show up at parties and hold hands the entire time, talking mostly to one another. Others split up when they arrive, mingle, meet new people. But they still leave together when it ends. Your cat's a mingler—an explorer.

Your Cat Really Is Showing Affection

A Cat Not Faking It Travis Modisette via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

After wedging a seed of doubt into the emotional relationships between humans and their cats, the enemies of felinekind try to insert themselves into the physical expressions of human-feline love. Stromberg is no exception:

Many cats... will rub up against the leg of their owner (or another human) when the person enters a room. It's easy to construe this as a sign of affection. But many researchers interpret this as an attempt, by the cat, to spread his or her scent — as a way to mark territory. Observations of semi-feral cats show that they commonly rub up against trees or other objects in the exact same way, which allows them to deposit pheromone-containing secretions that naturally come out of their skin.

In other words, all the squirming and rubbing cats lavish on their owners are just the feline equivalent to a dog lifting its leg and peeing all over a fire hydrant.

Bradshaw says this notion is way off-base. "Superficially, [rubbing against humans] looks like scent marking," he says, but "the display that goes on when a cat raises its tail and rubs its sides against another cat, or a person, is a social action."

"Like all genuine affectionate relationships, [cat cuddling] is a two-way street."

Some researchers suggest the behavior has a its roots in the creation of a "clan scent" for packs of wild cats, but no one has published proof. What's important, Bradshaw says, is the interaction between creatures. The raised tail is a signal of good intent. When two cats know each other well they will rub their whole bodies against each other, including their sides, which have no scent glands. They often then lie down together and purr. Cats will do the same thing with their owners. Claiming this behavior is no deeper than a wild cat rubbing its face on tree bark is like saying that human handshakes are mostly about checking for secret weapons.

A 2013 study supposedly shows cats hate when humans pet them.

The research indeed found that cats pumped stress hormones into their bloodstreams when they were petted excessively. But Bradshaw points out that the research was conducted in Brazil, a country where house cats are far less common than small dogs. He thinks pet owners used to rough-and-tumble dogs might not prepared to handle cats in ways they enjoy. The cats grabbed and picked up for the study were reacting to a long history of unpleasant interactions, not simple human touch.

"Like all genuine affectionate relationships, [cat cuddling] is a two-way street," he says. "Dogs put up with harsher treatment. Yank on a choke chain, and the dog bounces back. Cats say goodbye."

Your Cat Is Too Clumsy To Threaten Wildlife

Threats To All Birdkind Tamboko The Jaguar via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Perhaps the most damning charge against cats is that they are natural murderers who can disrupt local ecosystems. Stromberg pounced gleefully once again:

In the US, domestic cats are an invasive species—they originated in Asia. And research shows that, whenever they're let outside, cats' carnivorous activity has a devastating effect on wild bird and small mammal populations, even if the cats are well-fed.

So what's an environmentally-conscious cat lover to do? Bradshaw says not to worry. It turns out, as long as your cat wasn't born feral or on a farm, it's probably a clumsy hunter. Birds and rodents zip away from its plodding, obvious approach.

Bradshaw says cats learn to kill from their mothers. In the wild, a kitten follows its mom on many hunts in the first eight weeks of its life. She teaches the skills of sneaking up on prey and pouncing with lethal precision. But housecats born at home or to breeders miss that crucial step. Kittens instead spend their first eight weeks yowling at cotton balls and bits of string. Unless you trained your pet in the art of war before the end of its second month—a crucial period in its development—it's probably next to useless against live prey (even if it does sometimes get lucky).

"Obviously there's some deep ancestral memory of stalking prey," he says, "but a cat by itself is usually not a very good hunter." 

Whenever local fauna succumb to feline hunting, he says, "it almost always turns out to be feral cats." Australian experiments with 24-hour cat curfews turned out to have minimal impacts. Still, the ASPCA suggests keeping cats indoors to prolong their lives, so it's probably a good idea. Also, spayed and neutered housecats will never birth feral kittens that could endanger wildlife.

If you really want to do right by the environment, Bradshaw says, cats are way better than dogs.

Okay, Your Cat May Give You A Parasite That Controls Your Thoughts

Toxoplasma gondii parasites form a cyst in a mouse brain. Jitinder P. Dubey via Wikimedia Commons Stromberg is wrong about cat love, but there's a chance he's right about horrible brain-controlling parasites in cat poop. Even Bradshaw can't defend your kitten now.

See, there's this parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. It enters the brains of prey animals like mice and alters their behavior to make them less afraid of predators. These bold, addled rodents ride their parasitic high all the way into your favorite pet's gnashing jaws, and some of those parasites make their way into your cat's litterbox. From there it's a short jump to a human owner's body.

Some reaserchers suspect that humans infected with T. gondii are susceptible to its nefarious mind control as well. Here's what Kathleen McCauliffe wrote about the parasite in her extensive coverage for the Atlantic:

The subjects who tested positive for the parasite had significantly delayed reaction times. [Parasite researcher Jaroslav] Flegr was especially surprised to learn, though, that the protozoan appeared to cause many sex-specific changes in personality. Compared with uninfected men, males who had the parasite were more introverted, suspicious, oblivious to other people’s opinions of them, and inclined to disregard rules. Infected women, on the other hand, presented in exactly the opposite way: they were more outgoing, trusting, image-conscious, and rule-abiding than uninfected women.

Infected men were more likely to wear rumpled old clothes; infected women tended to be more meticulously attired, many showing up for the study in expensive, designer-brand clothing. Infected men tended to have fewer friends, while infected women tended to have more. And when it came to downing the mystery fluid, reports Flegr, “the infected males were much more hesitant than uninfected men. They wanted to know why they had to do it. Would it harm them?” In contrast, the infected women were the most trusting of all subjects. “They just did what they were told,” he says.

Flegr goes on to note that even infected people may not be heavily impacted by the bug, and that cat poop is not the only way humans catch it. (In fact, it's incredibly common.) Not all researchers agree with Flegr's dire interpretations of the evidence, though T. gondii does turn dangerous when patients have damaged immune systems.

Ultimately, yes, your cat probably loves you, but that might just be the mind-controlling parasite talking.

Stegosauruses Were Champion Fighters With Their Spiked Tails

Wed, 10/22/2014 - 11:00

Kabacchi via Flickr

With it’s teeny-tiny head and massive spiked tail, the Stegosaurus is instantly identifiable to dinosaur fans. But to predators like the Allosaurus, the Stegosaurus would have been identifiable as lunch. 

Unfortunately for the Allosaurus, it turns out that those spikes on the Stegosaurus tail weren’t just for show. Even with a powerful tail, Stegosauruses were assumed to be fairly slow and lumbering, and none too bright, with a brain the size of a tangerine. But in a poster presented at the Geological Society of America conference, researchers found that in at least some interactions between the two species, the Stegosaurus had the last laugh.

The researchers examined the remains of an Allosaurus and found some pretty damning evidence that the carnivore died from the tail of a Stegosaurus. Namely, a hole in the pelvic bone that matched the shape of Stegosaurus tail spikes from the same period of time. 

“A massive infection ate away a baseball-sized sector of the bone,” paleontologist and author of the poster Robert Bakker said in a press release. “Probably this infection spread upwards into the soft tissue attached here, the thigh muscles and adjacent intestines and reproductive organs.” Because there was no indication of healing around the wound, it's likely the Allosaur died of the injury.

Scientists had known for a while that Stegosauruses had incredibly strong, flexible tails, which they were able to maneuver with ease. But direct evidence of the species fighting prowess has been lost in the fossil record, which typically only records traumatic damage to bones, not soft tissue, where presumably a lot of injuries to predators would have occurred. Now, there is finally proof that Stegosauruses were fantastic fighters. In this case, the researchers believe that the Stegosaurus would have had to twist its tail so the spikes were facing the right way and then deliver the blow upwards with a considerable amount of force.

Don't feel too bad for the Allosaur though. As the authors note in the abstract, "we interpret the Allosaur as a victim of herbivore defense."

With Xbox One, You'll Never Watch TV Alone

Wed, 10/22/2014 - 10:00

Live stream Xbox One users will be able to see tweets with hashtags related to the shows they’re watching. Microsoft. We've all done it: you watch the star of your favorite television show do something stupid in the new episode and you can't stop yourself from shouting at the screen, "Come on! She wouldn't do that!" Well, Microsoft is providing an easy way to really get that message out there.

In Xbox One’s newest software updates, which roll out in November, the gaming console's television functions will be integrated with Twitter. This means you can watch a show on the top portion of the screen and simultaneously send out tweets in the "Snap" sidebar. An optional bottom pane will show tweets that are tied to whatever TV series is being played.

An obvious use will be to enable fans to converse more easily during a television show's broadcast. People can yell about poorly written plot points, discuss theories for a mystery, or just applaud a particularly witty line from a sitcom. A TV series lives or dies on how big the ratings for the show are. Building up an invested fanbase on social media is one way for shows to grow and survive to another season.

But integrating TV and Twitter will have a larger impact on the news. Imagine being able to read everyone’s reaction in real-time as national news breaks. You could read live reports on a natural disaster from people who are actually there, see instant reactions to political debates, or even monitor the backlash of a celebrity’s faux pas. Reading such tweets adds a human and emotional component to the litany of happenings in the world.

And what would happen if television producers take notice of these features? Some news shows already pander to Twitter users, posing questions and discussing on-air some of the answers tweeted back. Such segments could become fully integrated on 24-hour cable news. And with live events like disasters, car chases, political debates, news outlets would not even have to ask for online responses, they could just grab those that are already being tweeted out.

As for dramas, sitcoms, and other televised fiction, there could be more fostering of a community discussing the surprises and mysteries in a show. Think of the fanatical Lost fanbase from years ago, but amped up by sharing theories about the show's riddles live while it airs. Of course, that could also mean live Game of Thrones spoilers, with book readers announcing what will happen on the show moments before it does. That would take trolling to a whole new level. Would television studios find ways to fight that? Would they ask Microsoft to filter out spoiler tweets?

The updates will also show users what the Twittersphere is watching at that moment. Thus, you can tune in to become part of the conversation.

Xbox’s senior director, Lisa Gurry, says, "With these added features, we’re making it easy for our fans to discover new shows to love."

Now trending. Don't know what to watch? Xbox One users will soon able to see what shows are trending on Twitter. Microsoft

Moon Robot Will Broadcast In Virtual-Reality Video

Wed, 10/22/2014 - 09:00

Virtual Rover Andy will send 3-D video back to Earth, which will be experienced through the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. Astrobotic

A team of scientists at Carnegie Mellon have built a robot that will send video from the moon to the Earth. And the robot will be controlled by the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, with the 3-D camera on the robot turning to match the head movements of the user.

"The vision was simple -- let anyone on Earth experience the Moon live through the eyes of a robot," team leader Daniel Shafrir told BBC News. "We weren't just going to go to the Moon. We are going to bring the Moon back."

This telepresence robot is named Andy, after Andrew Carnegie, the famed industrialist who founded the college. Currently, only the operator controlling this moon rover will be able to see through its "eyes" thousands of miles away.

The project is being worked on in partnership with Astrobotic, a company that was spun off from Carnegie Mellon. The company builds a variety of space robots for various purposes such as transportation, exploration, and mining. Astrobotic has a deal with SpaceX, the private space exploration company, to include Andy on a mission to the moon scheduled for 2016.

"Imagine the feeling of looking out and seeing rocks and craters billions of years old. Turn your head to the right and you see the dark expanse of space. Turn your head to the left and you see home, Earth," said Mr Shafrir.

Andy Lunar telepresence robot Andy leaves his mark during a test Astrobotic Ever wanted to be an astronaut exploring the moon? You may one day be able to live that experience through telepresence and virtual reality.

The project is competing with 17 others for the Google Lunar XPrize, a $30 million reward for the first team that can land a robot on the Moon, have it travel there for 500 meters, and beam video of the moon surface back to Earth.

While concrete plans on how Carnegie Mellon and Astrobotic will share this live VR experience with others has not been created, the creators want to make it a reality. The team behind Andy wants to have "hundreds of the robots on the Moon", said Mr Shafrir. "With an Oculus headset in every classroom, allowing kids to experience what, to this date, has only been experienced by 12 human beings."

The Oculus Rift headset currently only exists as prototype development kits for software developers to make virtual reality programs. The final VR headsets are expected to be released in 2015.

Smart Ice Skate Measures Force Of Intense Triple Axels

Tue, 10/21/2014 - 16:31

Ryosuke Yagi via Flickr

Of sports played on ice, hockey tends to get the most attention when it comes to injuries. But figure skaters are also pretty injury-prone, and because of the aesthetic nature of their sport, most figure skaters eschew pads and protective gear while on the ice. This means avoiding injuries can be difficult for practitioners of the sport, in which skaters can exert forces of more than six times their body weight during a jump.  

Figure skaters have been pushing for updated equipment (especially boots, the part of the skate that encases the feet) for some time, as injuries over the past few decades have soared. In a Wall Street Journal article from 2006, orthopedist Leisure Yu noted that skate makers were still using designs from the 1800s. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like much has changed, and there isn't a ton of data out there about figure skating injuries -- until now. In a new study in the journal Measurement Science and Technology, researchers describe a new way to measure the stresses of figure skating. They have figured out how to build an ice skating blade (pictured below) that directly measures the impact a skating routine can have on an athlete's body. 

IOP Publishing/Measurement Science and Technology

"Questions have been raised about boot design and how it affects a skater's impact forces, potentially causing injuries. However, very little is known about the actual impact forces on ice during jumping and other figure skating skills, "co-author Deborah King said in a statement. "This is because on-ice measurements of the forces associated with figure skating are fairly difficult to record due to the complexity of the sport and not wanting to interfere with the skater during their jumps. As such, we decided to develop a method that measures forces directly from the blade."

The sensors themselves are attached to the part of the skate that connects the blade holder to the boot. When force is applied to the blade (like when a skater lands a jump) the system records and calculates the overall force. The entire sensor system weighs less than a third of a pound and is designed not to touch the ice or interfere with a skater's movement. The researchers plan to further refine the instruments so that in the future, the device could be used by skaters to analyze their movement during their routines and hopefully prevent further injuries. 

A Genetic Mutation Renders One Family Unable To Sweat

Tue, 10/21/2014 - 15:19

The Importance Of Sweat Flickr CC by 2.0 In Pakistan, there lives a family of five with a unique – and tragic – condition. Several of their children cannot sweat. It’s an extremely rare disorder called anhidrosis, and while it may seem like a nice trait to have, the ability to sweat is crucial for regulating body temperature. In order to remain cool, the kids spend their days in their house’s cellar, because in daylight, they’d overheat and go unconscious. Too much sun could ultimately kill them.

Now a group of scientists are decoding the mystery surrounding this bizarre disorder. By mapping the genome of each individual in the Pakistan family, researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden identified a single genetic mutation responsible for the condition. Known as ITPR2, the gene is responsible for controlling sweat production, and knocking it out can stop sweat secretion altogether.

Lead researcher Niklas Dahl stumbled upon the rare family in his quest for understanding single-gene diseases, also known as Mendelian disorders. Dahl notes that anhidrosis has been seen before, but usually in conjunction with other skin defects. This family is the first he knows of to have anhidrosis as a primary isolated defect.

"Sweat glands made us develop this capability of walking and jogging for miles and miles without stopping."

After analyzing the genomes of the family members, Dahl and his team zeroed in on the culprit, ITPR2, which encodes a protein called IP3R2. This protein forms a calcium channel in the brain that releases calcium when opened, triggering a chain of events in the body that eventually result in sweat secretion. “In the brain, you have temperature sensitive cells, and they send signals to the nervous system, which send signals to the periphery, then to skin and to the sweat glands, and that induces sweating,” Dahl, a genetics expert at Uppsala, tells Popular Science.

For the members of the Pakistan family, their calcium channels never open. The researchers further demonstrated this defect by creating a series of genetically engineered mice without any IP3R2 production. Sure enough the rodents had reduced sweating.

Understanding the mechanisms behind sweating can actually help researchers develop drugs to reduce excessive sweating, a condition that affects two percent of the population. People with this disorder, called hyperhidrosis, start sweating in their palms, soles of their feet, chest, armpits, and other areas of the body without any provocation. Some patients will even wear plastic underneath their clothing to avoid an embarrassing situation.

Botox has proven to be somewhat effective against hyperhidrosis, but the treatments can be painful and awkward (getting injections in your armpits cannot be fun). Dahl says that lowering IP3R2 protein levels may be a much simpler solution. "We have found a way to inhibit production of this calcium channel," Dahl says. "It is targeted and very specific at least from a design point of view. We can reduce peripheral sweating by 60 percent."

Dahl also says their research highlights just how important our pungent skin secretions are from an evolutionary perspective. Humans have the highest capacity for sweating on Earth, in relation to our body size and lack of hair. This gives us the advantage of being able to exercise for very long periods of time -- up to 10 hours a day.

"Fast animals run faster than us, but they can only run for a few minutes. For humans, we could move over enormous areas because of this ability, making us very good hunters,” says Dahl. "Sweat glands made us develop this capability of walking and jogging for miles and miles without stopping."

So thank you, sweat, for helping to keep us at the top of the food chain.

The researchers published their work in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.