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Updated: 41 min 10 sec ago

Solar Car Powers Your House When It's Parked

1 hour 41 min ago

Stella Kristen Hall-Geisler Her flat roof, squashed teardrop shape, and low profile don’t scream “showroom-ready family car,” but Stella, which I saw at the 2014 Intelligent Transport Systems World Congress in Detroit,  is indeed the world’s first four-seat solar-powered car.

A team of twenty students at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands entered the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge 2013, a six-day solar race across Australia’s Outback, in the new Michelin Cruiser Class. Practicality was paramount for these entries, though energy use, payload capacity, and speed counted as well. The question to answer, according to Jordy de Renet, one of Stella’s drivers, was, “Do you want it in your daily life? Would you want to take it to get groceries?”

Well, would you? De Renet grinned and opened the sloping rear compartment, where the car's guts -- motors, controller, etc. -- were housed in little more than a couple of glorified wooden cigar boxes, leaving vast amounts of empty space between the rear wheels. Plenty of room for groceries, and no need to sneak around in the dark of night to go shopping, though the car does have headlights and strips of red LED taillights.

"Would you want to take it to get groceries?”

There are a few bugs to work out before Stella is ready to take the kids to school. The gullwing doors only open about chest-high for an adult, so getting in and out requires an ability to fold oneself into the low seats. It’s a maneuver reminiscent of climbing in and out of Nascar stock cars through the window: butt first, and watch your head.

Stella is made from mostly aluminum and carbon fiber, and she doesn’t have any insulation, so when the motors first crank up, it’s a noisy ride. At about 14 km/h, the system settles into cruise mode, which is as quiet as the whir of any electric vehicle. Slowing down engages a regenerative braking system, which is also quiet, but coming to a full stop unleashes the grinding symphony of traditional disc brakes.

The unusual shape was a compromise between aerodynamics and comfort for at least two people, as required by the cruiser class specifications. It also allowed for more surface area for solar cells, which cover 6 square meters. The 60-kw battery, sheathed in a bright yellow casing, runs down the center of the vehicle and provides up to about 400 km of range, or 800 km when the solar panel is providing maximum juice. On Stella’s best day during the competition, Solar Team Eindhoven was able to drive 500 km at an average of 100 km/hr.

Stella is CO2-neutral and the first energy-positive car in the world. The solar array charges while the car is in motion as well as when it is parked. “We get more energy out of the car than is needed to drive it,” said de Renet. That power, as much as twice what the car uses, can be returned to the grid.

Stella, Rear View Kristen Hall-Geisler Stella and her travelling team of ten students are on an American road trip of sorts this fall, with a September stop at the 2014 Intelligent Transport Systems World Congress in Detroit. Stella showed off not only her solar power but also the vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure systems by NXP, a Dutch semiconductor company and sponsor of Solar Team Eindhoven. These cutting-edge systems, known as V2V and V2I, allow cars to “talk” to other cars and to wireless-enabled infrastructure like traffic lights, stop signs, and more.

The system uses a Wi-Fi protocol for vehicles, 802.11p, to see where the driver cannot. While some of the newest cars available at dealerships today use radar and cameras to detect other cars and objects, they can’t transmit around corners. Wi-Fi, as you probably know from using it in your house for phones, laptops, and gaming systems in different rooms, can.

Stella’s sensors picked up on the signal being transmitted by a nearby speed sign and alerted the driver on a screen fixed to the clean, knob-less dashboard that the limit was 25 mph. A tall van blocked the view of a traffic light, but the V2I system onboard Stella alerted the driver to the red light before anyone in the car could see it.

As of July, Stella has a permanent license plate and permission to drive on public roads.

Boeing's NASA-Funded Space Taxi Saves A Seat For Tourists

2 hours 35 min ago

This Could Be You An interior view of Boeing's CST-100 Boeing When I first heard about NASA’s new partnership with Boeing and SpaceX, I went through a range of emotions. Hooray, I thought initially, we are finally getting back into space on American-made vehicles. Go U.S.A.!

Of course, it wasn’t long before reality sank in. I’m not really part of this proverbial “we.” The rides are for NASA astronauts only, not for us mere mortals, fated to only walk on one planet for the rest of our lives. My excitement soon became mixed with a reinvigorated longing to explore the celestial frontier.

Well now there’s hope for the wannabe astronaut who is lacking flight experience and a PhD (a.k.a. me). As part of Boeing’s proposal with NASA, their CST-100 vehicle will include a seat for paying tourists, allowing members of the general public to visit the International Space Station along with the pros.

"Part of our proposal into NASA would be flying a Space Adventures spaceflight participant up to the ISS," John Mulholland, Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program Manager, tells ReutersSpace Adventures is a Virginia-based space tourism company founded in 1998. Since 2010, they have been offering a number of spaceflight-related experiences, including spacewalks, suborbital spaceflights and launch tours.

Mulholland added that the price of the seat would be competitive with what the Russian space agency charges for its space tourists -- which is a lot. According to Tom Shelley, president of Space Adventures, British singer Sarah Brightman is currently training for a 10-day stay at the station. In January, she'll become the eighth paying passenger to visit the ISS, hitching a ride on the Russian Soyuz rocket, and it looks like the trip is going to cost her roughly $52 million.

Oh. I guess it’s back to pretending.


How Tweets Can Save Lives

4 hours 26 min ago

Patrick Meier Meier's open-source software is constantly evolving as it is applied in different contexts. For example, it was used to create maps showing population displacement during the humanitarian crisis in Libya. Photograph by Douglas Sanders

Natural disasters and political unrest trigger torrents of tweets and posts—chaotic snippets of what could be valuable information. Patrick Meier, director of social innovation at the Qatar Computing Research Institute, applies artificial intelligence to this crowdsourced data, organizing digital photos and messages into dynamic maps that can guide real-world relief efforts.

Popular Science: You work in crisis mapping—what is that exactly?

Patrick Meier: In disasters, there are a lot of eyewitness accounts on social media. But the overflow of information can be as paralyzing to response teams as the absence of it. During Hurricane Sandy, there were more than 20 million tweets and several hundred thousand pictures. We’re developing solutions to quickly identify needles in the haystack and chart them visually.

PS: What do the needles look like?

PM: For example, before typhoon Haiyan made landfall in the Philippines, we got a request from the United Nations to look for all tweets that said, “I need help,” or “The bridge has just collapsed.”  

PS: In what way are they used?

PM: On the MicroMappers app, volunteers classify and geolocate these calls for help. Once people tag between 50 to 100 examples, an algorithm then classifies similar tweets with 90 percent accuracy. The result is a map with metadata that says, “In this area, 20 people have expressed a need for food,” or “There are 17 reports of flooding.” That’s the scale at which humanitarian organizations operate.  

PS: How does this improve and hasten disaster response?

PM: Disasters are not static; they evolve. With these new technologies, we can get information in close to real time that helps support decision-making.

PS: What’s the next step?

PM: We want to apply machine learning to aerial imagery. Once we know what huts without roofs look like from a bird’s-eye view, we can run algorithms on photos to accelerate damage assessments.

PS: How about other applications?

PM: We’re creating a clone of the platform that enables election monitors to identify tweets related to intimidation, bribery, corruption, or violence. We’ve also partnered with a wildlife reserve in Namibia to identify animal species in aerial images so managers know which populations need protection.

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

Pop Culture Mentions Of Global Warming Have Plummeted Since 2007

6 hours 41 min ago

We Don't Talk About That Anymore

Since about 2007, American pop culture has stopped talking about climate change -- at least in TV shows and movies. That's according to a new analysis of mentions of the words "global warming" and "climate change" in the two mediums since 1980. See:

Mentions of 'Global Warming' and 'Climate Change' in 87,000 Movies and TV Shows, Over Time Graph created with Bookworm: Movies. Click here to see this image larger.

The analysis comes from Ben Schmidt, an assistant professor at Northeastern University, who works with large historical datasets. We've written about his cool work before. For this project, he obtained the scripts from closed captioning and subtitles for about 87,000 movies and shows. Then he wrote a program to calculate how frequently a searched word or phrase turns up each year, as well as a way to graph those frequencies for users. A click on the graph will show in which movies and shows the world appeared. For example, in 1931, "biology" appeared in the movies Frankenstein and Arrowsmith, which featured a bubonic plague outbreak. You can do your own searching here.

We conducted a few Popular Science-related searches and found some interesting trends.

"Science" has always been moderately popular, while people didn't often say "technology" on-screen until after 1970:

Mentions of 'Science' and 'Technology' in TV and Movies Over Time Graph created with Bookworm: Movies. Click here to see this image larger.

Mentions of "physics," "chemistry," and "biology" have all generally trended upward over time. "Chemistry" was usually the most popular, but since the early 1980s, "physics" has caught up. Will it eventually overtake the science of bonds, atoms and reactions?

Mentions of 'Physics,' 'Chemistry' and 'Biology' in TV and Movies Over Time Graph created with Bookworm: Movies. Click here to see this image larger.

This is not related to Popular Science, but it's a funny thing we found: While trying to compare boy bands of recent generations, we found it's impossible to specify a definition for your search phrase, if there's more than one. However, it does appear that since the mid-1990s, contemporary TV and movies have become ever more... directional:

Mention of 'Backstreet Boys' and 'One Direction' in TV and Movies Over Time Graph created with Bookworm: Movies. Click here to see this image larger.

[Sapping Attention]

Washington D.C. Is Littered With Phony Cell Towers

Wed, 09/17/2014 - 17:15

The White House Wikimedia Commons

Continuing a sort of cross-country tour to detect phony cell towers, also known as interceptors or IMSI catchers, researchers associated with the security firm ESD America have detected 15 of the covert devices in Washington D.C., plus three more in nearby Virginia.

The company used their ultrasecure CryptoPhone 500 to search for the interceptors, which can compromise phones through baseband hardware and are believed to have a range of roughly 1 mile. ESD America's phones allegedly detected telltale signs of call interception in the vicinity of the White House, the Russian Embassy, the Supreme Court, the Department of Commerce, and the Russell Senate Office Building, among other landmark buildings.

Les Goldsmith, ESD America's CEO, stresses that he can't be sure who runs these surveillance devices. But he points out that the U.S. government already has the ability to listen to or track calls through domestic networks, thanks to the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA).

“The U.S. government can listen to calls without deploying interceptors on the street,” says Goldsmith. “That’s why I think these are from foreign governments.”

Popular Science previously reported that the CryptoPhone 500's builders had detected 17 interceptors around the country in July. Security experts said that at least 12 different federal agencies own versions of the technology, along with 43 state and local police forces in 18 states.

Precisely because of the shroud of secrecy around the devices, security experts cannot rule out the possibility that a foreign government is running at least some of the interceptors. Essentially a radio peripheral attached to a computer, interceptors or IMSI-catchers can be placed in a vehicle for portability, or in some cases, carried by hand.

The less complex of these devices, known as “IMSI catchers,” briefly connect with any phone that comes within range, collect the mobile subscriber number, and then ping periodically to see where the phone (and the person carrying it) goes. In short, they can be used as tracking tools. More sophisticated interceptors, which cost roughly $100,000, are capable of eavesdropping on calls or texts, or even carrying out exotic over-the-air attacks that install spyware. Advanced attacks can even take control of phone functions.

The CryptoPhone 500 is capable of discerning between an IMSI-catcher and an interceptor, Goldmsith says. An IMSI catcher connects only briefly, and looks fishy to the phone because -- unlike a normal cell tower -- it has no neighboring towers on its network. An interceptor, on the other hand, will stay paired with a phone as long as it is in range, and will try to force the phone down to a less secure 2G protocol, and also turn off encryption.

“If I was an embassy, I might use an IMSI catcher for counter-surveillance, to see if there were a certain cell phone constantly nearby,” says Goldsmith. “And once I pulled that number, that’s when I’d turn on the interceptor.”

Goldsmith says that ESD America is cooperating fully with the Federal Communications Commission’s investigation of the possible use of interceptors and IMSI catchers by foreign governments or criminal enterprises.

The D.C. Hive The red circles suggest 1 mile of effective range. ESD America

D.C.'s Interceptors The red circles suggest 1 mile of effective range. ESD America

White-Dominated Medical Studies Put U.S. Minorities At Risk

Wed, 09/17/2014 - 16:50

Glassware in a medical laboratory Rafi Letzter

When medical research focuses on white people, things get missed, and people die.

That's the essence of a commentary published this week in Nature. In it, bioengineer Esteban Burchard, from the University of California at San Francisco, argues that medicine has more or less excluded minorities from studies, with dangerous results.

"Since 1993, the National Institutes of Health has funded 10,000 studies, and of those, 150 dealt with minority populations,"  Burchard told Popular Science. "That's less than two percent."

According to Burchard, researchers tend to focus on white populations because it's easier. The reason: Compared to groups like African Americans and Latinos, the genetic makeup of white patients tends to be more uniform. That means their bodies respond similarly to treatments, which cuts out noisy data and makes scientists' lives easier. And as more white patients are studied, more is known about their drug responses, making it even easier to study white populations in the future. So the vicious cycle of exclusion keeps on turning.

The Dangers Of White-Dominated Studies

In 1997, while Burchard was a resident at Harvard Medical School, a black teenager died of an asthma attack -- with an inhaler in hand -- just a few blocks from the teaching hospital. Later that year, Burchard's team discovered a gene that caused more severe asthma in white people. Then he discovered that it is 40 percent more common in black populations.

A survey of asthma statistics from 2001 to 2010 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that black people are more likely to contract asthma, and less likely to respond well to treatment. Still, studies into asthma treatments in minority populations are rarely proposed and less likely to be funded, Burchard says.

Another case, which Burchard expects will be a victory for medical diversity, is making its way through the courts now. For more than a decade and a half, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Sanofi-Aventis have marketed the blood thinner Plavix as a powerful alternative to aspirin for treating heart disease. The drug costs as much as $175 for a one-month supply, and national sales hit $6.6 billion in 2011 before generics hit the shelves.

David Louie, the state attorney general of Hawaii, filed a lawsuit against Bristol-Myers Squibb and Sanofi-Aventis in March. Louie alleges that the companies withheld data indicating that a significant fraction of patients carry a gene that prevents Plavix from working effectively in their bodies. Research quoted in the complaint suggests 38 to 79 percent of Pacific Islanders and 40 to 50 percent of East Asians get no benefit from Plavix. Since those ethnicities make up nearly half of Hawaii's popultion, Louie thinks many of his state's patients may have received Plavix prescriptions instead of treatments that would have actually worked.

"They marketed this stuff, and they marketed it at a huge markup when its essentially a placebo," Louie says. "We consider this bad conduct."

Louie says he expects to win the case, and hopes the financial loss will push companies to more responsibly investigate and publish information on how their drugs could harm particular groups.

"They owe it to people, if they're going to be selling drugs that people are going to be putting in their bodies," he says.

Bristol-Myers Squibb declined to comment on the ongoing litigation, but noted that Plavix "is one of the most studied medicines."

Obstacles To Progress

While Burchard spoke on the phone for this story, he received a call from the National Institutes of Health, a major funder of medical research. When he got back to Popular Science, Burchard told us that he "just got a call from the the NIH saying 'Your study of [minority] populations would be a lot better if you studied white people.'"

Burchard singles out the NIH as a source of disparities in research funding. But Richard Nakamura, Director of the NIH Center for Scientific Review, says that including minority populations in research is a priority for the institution. "We look for research that's going to have the broadest impact," he says.

The NIH has modified its practices over the years to ensure that minority populations are included in research, according to Nakamura. In addition to reminding grant reviewers of the importance of seeking out research that focuses on minority populations, he says the advent of computerized data has enabled the NIH to make sure studies include diverse populations.

He also says that efforts to bring a range of voices into the review process make a difference, noting that Burchard has served on review panels and "has received a fair amount of NIH funding for exactly the kind of research there should be more of."

Diverse Researchers, Diverse Research

When the Centers for Disease Control found that Hispanics in the American Northeast contracted and died from asthma three times more often than Hispanics on the West Coast, Burchard's Hispanic background led him to the root of the disparity.

Mexicans and Puerto Ricans are the two largest Hispanic populations in the United States. Mexicans tend to live farther west, while Puerto Ricans tend to live in the Northeast. That knowledge pointed him in the right direction, he writes, and he soon found that the most important factor in asthma drug response is not age, sex, or disease severity, but ethnic background. I.e. The drugs that often worked for Mexicans and African Americans did not work the same for Puerto Ricans.

Burchard argues that if minority researchers had a fair shake at funding, their knowledge and skills could bring about better understandings of medical problems that minority groups face. But a 2011 study in Science found that Asians are four percent less likely and African Americans 13 percent less likely to have their studies funded by the agency.

"In short," Burchard writes in Nature, "investigators who want to focus on minorities face extra challenges."

Nakamura says that putting more minority researchers "into the pipeline" is a goal for the NIH. (Nakamura himself has been called a leader on this issue.)

Improving Access To Funding

One scientist interviewed for this article expressed concern that Burchard's views might be interpreted as a call for quotas that could hinder research. But Burchard says he has no interest in any sort of mandate. "I'm not calling for affirmative action," he says, "No one likes that term."

Instead he says would like to see the NIH take steps to ensure minority-focused research has access to funding. He suggests weighting the grant review process in a way similar to what is already done for newer applicants. "It's not a politically correct issue," he says. "It's a scientifically correct issue."

Lockheed Laser Brings Turrets Back To Airplanes

Wed, 09/17/2014 - 15:00

ABC Laser Turret In Test Flight Air Force Research Laboratory

In World War II, mighty bombers came equipped with gun barrels, manned by gunners at the ready to protect the plane from attacking fighters. The B-52 Stratofortress even came with a tail gun for self defense and last used it in combat over Vietnam in 1972. The change in fighter weapons from guns to missiles made tail guns obsolete, but now Lockheed and DARPA are bringing them back. As freakin’ lasers.

Named the Aero-adaptive Aero-optic Beam Control, or ABC for short, the laser is a directed energy weapon in a 360-degree turret. Its claim to fame? It fries incoming missiles. Controls and cameras in the turret make sure the laser stays locked on to the missile while being fired from an airplane. On Monday, Lockheed announced that a converted commercial jet with the ABC laser attached completed eight test flights over Michigan.

When Popular Science spoke with Lockheed CTO Ray Johnson about the future of war, Johnson was keen to highlight lasers. He told Popular Science at the time:

[Lasers] can operate with the electrical power that could be generated on an aircraft. You could certainly see it go on bomber-sized aircraft and as the technology develops and size/weight/power are reduced, our notion is to see it get to the point where it can go on fighter-sized aircraft. Whether it's a special-purpose fighter, or how that would work, I don’t have the details. Maybe he’s a wingman to an F-35 or a flight of F-35s.

Defensive lasers on airplanes could make it much harder for anti-air weapons to shoot down aircraft. And presently, anti-aircraft missiles, especially ground-launched systems, are much cheaper than state-of-the-art warplanes. For the past 20 years, new American warplanes were built stealthy to protect themselves from radar-guided missiles, but there are limitations to size, shape, and cost that come with stealth design.

As an alternative, shooting down missiles in mid-air with an electric-powered weapon might be a lot cheaper. And as America looks to future warplane design, it means the venerable tail turret might just come back -- as an airborne anti-missile laser.

A B-17 Flying With A B-52 In the foreground in the B-17 Flying Fortress, iconic World War II bomber. In the background is a B-52 Superfortress, iconic Cold War bomber still in service. U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Michael A. Kaplan, via Wikimedia Commons

[Foxtrot Alpha]

Help Scientists By Marking Penguins In Pictures

Wed, 09/17/2014 - 14:15

Mark Those Birds! Zooniverse Penguin Watch

Check out this latest citizen-science project. It's a site where you can look at photos gathered by an Antarctic network of wildlife cameras and mark if there are penguins in the photos. In other weo you get to look at cute animals online and help environmental science! Sounds like a win-win to me.

A warning: When I went to try the site, the first photo I got showed an overwhelming number of penguins. After all, penguins often huddle together in large groups. But don't give up! The site will let you move on from a photo whenever you wish. It will even prompt you to move on after you mark 30 penguins in one photo. Just mark the picture as unfinished, and the site for further tagging.

The photos come from 50 cameras that Antarctic scientists set up in areas away from human camps. Penguin populations in those areas are less well studied than the ones that happen to hang out near people. Scientists want to find how these populations are doing now, answering questions such as, "How many are there?" and "What percentage of chicks make it to adulthood?" (You mark eggs and chicks as well as adult penguins. Double cute.) It even seems possible that volunteers may eventually run into photos of adults and chicks getting injured or killed by predators, although all the photos I saw showed resting adults.

From these data, scientists may determine whether factors such as proximity to people and boats affect penguin health. In the future, this data will help them determine whether global warming affects penguin populations.

The research team, including penguin biologists and computer scientists from the U.K. and Australia, took to the Internet because the camera network simply generates too many photos for the team to classify on its own. Each camera takes between eight and 96 photos per day.

In the future, researchers hope they won't even need online volunteers to process their penguin data. Each volunteer's annotated photo goes toward a training set for a computer program that's able to learn from examples. The team hopes that with enough examples, the program will eventually be able to recognize penguin adults, chicks and eggs on its own. So yes, click by click, you're rendering yourself obsolete as a penguin-spotter. Better get in while the going is good.

[Zooniverse Penguin Watch]

Spooky Action In Threes: Physicists Entangle Three Particles Of Light

Wed, 09/17/2014 - 13:30

Weird Light This is the University of Waterloo lab where a team of physicists conducted their photon entanglement experiments. It's kept dark to help the equipment sense small amounts of light. Shalm/NIST

As if it weren't hard enough already to imagine it in twos, physicists have entangled three photons with each other. Entanglement is a counterintuitive quantum physics phenomenon, in which a particle influences all the others with which it's entangled -- even if the particles are far apart. If one particle is in one state, for example, the others might be in the same state. In this case, however, each photon, which is a particle of light, had the same polarization -- either horizontal or vertical.

Usually, it's easier to entangle only two photons at once. A few research labs, including this team, have entangled three or more photons before. This new effort created triplets that were more stable than previous entanglements, however. That stability means the entangled photons are one step closer to practical use (although they're still a long way from that). Researchers are hoping that in the future, entangled photons might work in quantum computers, or in communications technologies.

To make the entangled triplets, researchers from Canada, the U.S. and Sweden started with a single blue photon that was polarized both horizontally and vertically. Being able to hold two states at once is another property of quantum particles, and it's why computer scientists are interested in quantum physics. Particles that are able to hold two states at once potentially can hold more information than classical computers with machinery that can only hold one state at a time.

Photon Detector The physicists used chips like this one to detect single photons of light. Verma/NIST

The research team sent this quantum blue photon through a crystal that turned it into two less energetic, red, entangled photons with matching polarizations -- either horizontal or vertical. Next, they sent one of those red photons through another crystal that transformed it into two less energetic, infrared, entangled photons. The infrared photons happened to still be entangled with the remaining red photon, and voilà: three entangled photons.

Further tests demonstrated the triplets were truly entangled, and getting that to work correctly is rare. There's only a one-in-1 billion chance that the first step of the process creates two entangled photons. Then, there's a one-in-1 million chance that the second step of the process will create the entangled triplet.

The international team published a paper about their work this week in the journal Nature Photonics.

Big Pic: A Texas-Sized Algae Bloom

Wed, 09/17/2014 - 12:00

The Arabian Sea's Algae Bloom, As Seen From From Space. Norman Kuring/NASA Lake Erie has gotten a lot of attention recently because of its toxic algal blooms, and all that attention seems to have made the Arabian Sea green with envy. 

A paper in Nature Communications reports that a phytoplankton named Noctiluca scintillans has invaded a dead-zone off the coast of India, where it's threatening to disrupt natural foodchains as well as the local fishing industry.

Noctiluca are tiny algae that eat other plankton and can also harness the sun's energy. These microalgae thrive in low-oxygen conditions like the Arabian Sea's growing dead-zone, which is roughly the size of Texas. The researchers think sewage runoff from the region's cities is fueling the dead-zone, and thus the bloom. The press release explains why that's a bad thing:

Until recently, photosynthetic diatoms supported the Arabian Sea food chain. Zooplankton grazed on the diatoms, a type of algae, and were in turn eaten by fish. In the early 2000s, it all changed. The researchers began to see vast blooms of Noctiluca and a steep drop in diatoms and dissolved oxygen in the water column. Within a decade, Noctiluca had virtually replaced diatoms at the base of the food chain, marking the start of a colossal ecosystem shift.

The problem is, not a lot of other creatures want to eat Noctiluca, apart from sea salps and jellyfish. “In 10 to 15 years’ time I wouldn’t be surprised if we see jellyfish along the coast, and people may not be able to swim in the waters,” Joachim Goes, an author on the study, told The New York Times.

Light Forms Crystal-Like Structure On Computer Chip

Wed, 09/17/2014 - 11:15

Visible light shining The study used microwaves. Zouavman Le Zouave via Wikimedia Commons Princeton researchers have managed to cause light to behave like a crystal within a specialized computer chip, according to a recent paper. This is the first time anyone has accomplished this effect in a lab.

Here's why it's so hard: Atoms can easily form solids, liquids, and gasses, because when they come into contact they push and pull on each other. That push and pull forms the underlying structure of all matter. Light particles, or photons, do not typically interact with one another, according to Dr. Andrew Houck, a professor of electrical engineering at Princeton and an author on the study. The trick of this research was forcing them to do just that.

"We build essentially an artificial atom, using lots of atoms acting in concert," Houck tells Popular Science, "What emerges is a quantum mechanical object that [at about half a millimeter] is visible on the classical scale."

For their study, that great big artificial atom sat on a computer chip, and researchers shined microwave photons on the system. The light particles were then trapped in the atom, forcing the photons to stay in one place. This, in turn, forced the photons to interact with one another, forming an organized crystal-like structure (or lattice).

Once the lattice formed, however, the researchers ran into two challenges: the system was hard to detect, and it was unstable. Light trapped in the lattice couldn't be observed directly without disrupting the entire system, so the researchers relied on indirect measurement of photons that escaped to "visualize" the event. But those escaping photons presented their own problem; as they left, the system degraded. In order to keep it going, more photons had to be constantly added in. This means the system was in a continuous state of change.

"We researchers are really good at studying static equilibriums," Houck says. He says there is value in studying dynamic, evolving physical phenomena. In the long term, he says this research, accomplished using components of a quantum computer, could pave the way for more advanced machines.

23andMe Decides It Won't Automatically Reunite Long Lost Relatives

Wed, 09/17/2014 - 10:30

DNA 2.0 Synthetic genetic code could give biology a sci-fi makeover. Hybrid Medical Animation/Photo Researchers

23andMe, a service offering personal DNA testing, announced over the weekend that it is canceling a planned change to its online privacy settings, according to Vox.

The firm had recently notified around 350,000 customers that as of Sept. 12, they would be automatically “opted-in” to recieve notifications if their genetic profiles closely matched others in the service. As in, closely enough to be related.

But just before the change was to take effect, CEO Anne Wojicki posted to the firm's online community that it wasn't “the right call to promise that we would automatically opt-in those customers. Core to our philosophy is customer choice and empowerment through data...[C]ustomers need to make their own deliberate and informed decision if they want this information.”

Since late 2013, the Food and Drug Administration has prohibited 23andMe from making any health claims from its genetic testing, because the firm failed to provide the agency with evidence that it had scientifically validated their tests. That leaves 23andMe's ancestry-related features as its primary offerings, and a reported $126 million in outside investors to satisfy.

23andMe may have reversed course due to the attention it got on Sept. 9, when Vox ran a feature by reporter Julia Belluz detailing the emotional turmoil that resulted when two adult siblings discovered each other via the service. Initially the siblings, Neil and Pearl, were thrilled to find each other, but things got strained when it turned out that both children were fathered by the same man:

[Neil's] presence underscored longstanding tensions within the family...Pearl's mother was not happy that they made this connection. "(My mom) began to get very agitated and angry, I think out of embarrassment," [Neil] said. Maybe it was the uncomfortable fact that she gave up one child and kept the other. "It's very common in adoption reunions that things don't work out, and that's what happened here," he said. Pearl would not comment on their falling out.

Pearl told Belluz that while 23andMe did provide “this little message that pops up and says – 'want to find your closest relative?'” and “warned her that the information she might find could be upsetting,” she found the message “innocuous” and didn't hesitate to accept. In retrospect she wished 23andMe had made the warning a lot less innocuous. The Vox article is great, and you should definitely read the entire thing. Also, don't overlook this accompanying interview with “George Doe,” a stem cell and reproductive biologist whose parents divorced after genetic testing by 23andMe uncovered a long-held family secret.

Wojicki also announced that 23andMe intends to hire a chief privacy officer to help guide how the company manages customer information.

Texas Considers Textbooks That Contain Climate Change Denial

Wed, 09/17/2014 - 09:30

Texas State Flag Courtesy of Little Black Spot on the Sun Today via

Oh Texas. All that juicy low-carbon windpower you're generating – and wiring into the grid – makes us love you.

But then you have to go and deny anthropogenic climate change. Such a turn-off.

Several news outlets -- including The Guardian,  the National Journal, the Huffington Post, and others -- are reporting that the state's board of education is considering middle-grade textbooks that misleadingly teach students that there is scientific disagreement about the causes of climate change. Some of the information is attributed to staff of the Heartland Institute, a libertarian-oriented non-profit that has long included climate change denial among its public policy positions.

Bad Science. 97% of climate scientists agree that human-propelled greenhouse gas emissions are causing climate change. But this section from a textbook being considered by the Texas state board of education puts that science on equal footing with the discredited idea that it is a result of natural causes. Click to enlarge. National Center for Science Education

The articles are based on a new report (PDF) from the National Center for Science Education, which found that the texts prioritize fringe views on climate change including:

  • “Scientists agree that Earth's climate is changing. They do not agree on what is causing the change.”
  • Regarding the primary cause of climate change, human-propelled greenhouse gas emissions, “Many scientists disagree with the IPCC [United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] on this key issue.”
  • “Some scientists say it is natural for the Earth's temperature to be higher for a few years. They predict we'll have some cooler years and things will even out.”

The report also notes a section where the text confuses the causes of climate change with those of the ozone hole (and describes neither correctly):

  • “The forest burning and the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, gasoline) release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Holes in the ozone layer allow sunlight to come through and be trapped beneath airborne pollution. The sunlight is absorbed, warming the earth's atmosphere.”

As bad as all this might become for the developing minds of young Texans, it gets worse. Because as Gail Collins wrote in The New York Review of Books a couple years ago, Texas has over 5 million schoolchildren. This makes the state such a significant market for textbook publishers that Texas' choices affect books used around the nation. Further, “the State Board of Education is selected in elections that are practically devoid of voters, and wealthy donors can chip in unlimited amounts of money to help their favorites win."

"Approval of environmental science books was once held up," writes Collins,

over board concern that they were teaching children to be more loyal to their planet than their country. As the board became a national story and a national embarrassment, the state legislature attempted to put a lid on the chaos in 1995 by restricting the board’s oversight to “factual errors.” This made surprisingly little impact when you had a group of deciders who believed that the theory of evolution, global warming, and separation of church and state are all basically errors of fact.

According to Associated Press reporting published in today's Houston Chronicle, the Texas state education board heard arguments against these books today, but will not vote to approve textbooks until a meeting in November.

Where Is This Comet's Tail?

Wed, 09/17/2014 - 08:30

Comet 67P ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM

Here's a refresher from middle school science class: An asteroid is a huge rock tumbling through the solar system, and that's pretty much all it looks like--a big rock. Meanwhile, a comet is a ball of ice and dust that has a long bright tail, which is caused by the Sun blasting that ice and dust off of the comet's surface as it zooms around.

The European Space Agency's Rosetta mission has sent back some amazing photos as it approaches comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and prepares to land on its surface. But we have a question: Where's the tail?

Gerhard Schwehm, former manager of the Rosetta mission, tells Popular Science that the tail as we see it from Earth looks very different up close. "It's like being in fog," he says. 

Looking at a foggy city from far away, the buildings can seem smothered in a thick gray cloud. But walk the streets and it's a different story. Clouds of particles can reflect and refract a great deal of light over long distances while still being completely transparent up close.

In a comet's case, the cloud isn't very thick at all.

"We're talking about fewer dust particles than are in the room with you right now," Dr. Schwehm says. "If the Sun comes in in a bright beam you can see them, but it's not that thick."

Comet 67P's tail will become thicker as it moves closer to the Sun in the next several months, but it will never grow to a thick obscuring cloud. Instead, larger chunks will increasingly be visible on camera, beginning around the neck, or narrowest point on the comet. Rosetta will analyze those dust and ice clouds, to better understand how the comet formed.

The Brilliant Ten of 2014

Wed, 09/17/2014 - 07:30

The 2014 Brilliant Ten. Illustrations by Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo Each year, Popular Science goes through a six-month selection process to identify the most inspired young scientists and engineers—researchers whose ideas will transform the future. Here are 2014's best and brightest. Nicole Abaid: Studies Bats To Make Drones Smarter

Studies how animals swarm in order to glean insights that will improve robotic drones, such as underwater vehicles that rely on sonar.

Prabal Dutta: Fuels The Internet Of Things

Creates tiny sensors that scavenge energy from their surroundings so that they can run forever, ushering in the Internet of Things.

Roxana Geambasu: Exposes How Companies Use Your Data

Teaches the cloud to forget personal data by building software that allows the public to see where the information they share goes.

Jordan Green: Trains Immune Systems To Fight Cancer

Designs biodegradable particles that teach the human immune system how to fight even the most elusive cancers.

Michael Habib: Uncovers The Secrets Of Pterosaurs

Uncovers the secrets of dinosaurs by creating simulations that reveal, for example, how pterosaurs flew and how large they could grow.

Katia Koelle: Models How Viruses Turn Deadly

Models how viruses mutate and spread in order to predict why emerging diseases turn deadly—and how we can best contain them.

Christopher Mason: Sequences Genes Everywhere

Sequences the genes of everything from subway microbes to NASA astronauts to learn how the environment affects genetic code.

Manu Prakash: Brings Science To The Masses

Invents scientific tools from everyday materials like paper that anyone can use to explore the world or improve global health. 

Katharina Ribbeck: Makes Antibiotic Alternatives Out Of Mucus

Makes surprising discoveries about the sophisticated role of mucus, information she’s using to create an alternative to antibiotics.

Jonathan Viventi: Builds Devices That Decode Thoughts

Builds devices that decipher the brain, work that’s poised to transform the way scientists understand and treat neurological disorders.

To read about the Brillliant Ten winners from previous years, click here.

This article was originally published in the October 2014 issue of Popular Science.

Want A Ride To The ISS? SpaceX And Boeing Will Take You

Tue, 09/16/2014 - 17:20

CST-100 Boeing will receive $4.2 billion to develop its CST-100 spacecraft. Boeing

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner – well two, actually.

Today, NASA announced that two private companies will be tasked with taxiing NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station, beginning in 2017. And the spoils go to Boeing and SpaceX.

The companies will sign contracts with NASA to further develop their spacecraft to deliver astronauts to and from the ISS. Boeing will receive $4.2 billion to build its CST-100 spacecraft, a vehicle it has been working on for the past four years, while SpaceX will receive $2.6 billion to create an upgraded rendition of its Dragon spacecraft, aptly named Dragon Version 2. The original Dragon is currently being used to ferry cargo from Earth to the ISS.

The CST-100 and Dragon V2 outwardly look similar to NASA’s Orion capsule, but they can both hold up to seven crewmembers each. To get to the ISS, Boeing’s CST-100 will be launched on the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket, and SpaceX will launch the Dragon V2 on its own Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket.

“This was not an easy choice,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said at the Sept. 16 announcement, “but this is the best choice for NASA and the nation.”

The partnership is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which was established in 2010 to foster the “development of a U.S. commercial crew space transportation capability.” The idea was to make trips to space both safe and cost effective, and private companies have demonstrated for some time that they can send rockets to space for a fraction of the cost.

Most importantly, though, is that the program will end bring an end to NASA’s reliance on Russian spacecraft to ferry astronauts from Earth to the ISS. Since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, NASA astronauts have been hitching rides on Russian Soyuz rockets. The arrangement doesn’t do much for the American ego, especially since the recent Ukraine conflict has soured the relationship between Russia and the United States. Plus, rides on the Soyuz don’t come cheap, costing about $70 million a pop. We don't know for sure how much it will cost to launch the Dragon or the CST-100, but Bigelow Aerospace estimates the cost per ride may be cut almost in half.

SpaceX and Boeing beat out a number of other private companies for the NASA gig, including another big contender, the Sierra Nevada Corp. All three companies had been involved in an earlier phase of the program, in which NASA awarded them a total of $1.4 billion in Space Act Agreements and contracts to get their ideas up and running. Despite not being chosen for the program, Sierra Nevada plans to further develop its Shuttle-esque vehicle, the Dream Chaser, perhaps as a resupply vehicle or for commercial space flight.

Dragon V2 It's like the original Dragon, only better. SpaceX

Scientists Test Yacht As Miniature Research Vessel

Tue, 09/16/2014 - 16:00

Indigo V On Leg Three Of The Journey Indigo V Expeditions

The ocean is vast and full of data. Getting that data, however, is tricky. A new paper published in the journal PLOS Biology argues that there’s a cheap and easy way to get more information about more of the ocean: citizen scientists. Equipping the people already travelling the ocean with simple tools to document the world around them could mean more data and a better scientific understanding of the ocean.

Scientists, being scientists, wanted to see if the idea works in practice. The predominantly sail-driven yacht Indigo V sailed from South Africa to Thailand, sampling water (and the things living in it) along the way. Almost everywhere, the crew was able to do science. From the paper:

In all but the heaviest seas, the crew was able to inventory the surface water population of bacterioplankton using a simple pump and filtration apparatus and make basic measurements of ocean physics and chemistry. DNA and RNA were successfully recovered from samples preserved using a nontoxic salt solution (RNAlater, Qiagen, Valencia, California).

The Indigo V carried a small lab on board. Building and prototyping the lab still cost $200,000. That’s a pittance compared to the $30,000 per day operating cost of a dedicated research vessel, and a fraction of the price of many yachts. If the idea takes off, citizen scientists could turn pleasure cruises into research expeditions. If it doesn’t, well, there are always robots willing to do the job.

Watch a video about monitoring the ocean with yachts below:

The Rise Of Open Source Hardware

Tue, 09/16/2014 - 15:00

An open source 1-inch OLED screen. miker on Tindie Emile Petrone founded Tindie for selfish reasons. “The basic idea was that there wasn’t a marketplace for the things I was interested in,” he says. At the time, those things were his latest DIY hardware obsessions—specifically, kits to support Arduino and Raspberry Pi. “Ebay’s not really right, and neither is Amazon. Hardware projects had no natural home.” 

So in the summer of 2012, Petrone (then an engineer at a Portland startup) launched a site where flexible matrix boards and laser motion sensors could be sold alongside build-it-yourself weather monitoring kits and robot birds. Almost immediately, Tindie began attracting favorable attention from the indie hardware community—and then expanded from there. Today, around 600 inventors sell more than 3,000 different hardware products, which have shipped out to more than 80 countries around the world. Some customers are hobbyists like Petrone, but others are large entities like the Australian government, Google and NASA. These days, Petrone says, “NASA’s purchasing department just calls my cell phone.” 

Just as Etsy became the go-to marketplace for craft creators, Tindie has become the primary hub for hardware aficionados.

The site has also gained a strong following from hard-core DIY types. Just as Etsy became the go-to marketplace for craft creators, Tindie has become the primary hub for hardware aficionados. “We are definitely part of and supportive of the maker movement,” Petrone says. “We fill the hardware side.”

While Petrone achieved his goal of creating a marketplace for hardware projects, Tindie also inadvertently made a second contribution to the hardware world: it now stands as the largest collection of open-source hardware on the planet. “Nothing on the site is patented, and the vast majority of sellers have their source code and documentation links available right there on the page,” Petrone says. “Open source has become very much a part of the brand and what people within the hardware world associate with us.” 

An open source rolling robot. Ryantech LTD on Tindie Petrone, who stands on the board of the Open Source Hardware Association, insists that this development was not intentional but rather just happened. Whatever the reasoning, it could be a boon for hardware. Unlike software, which has been open sourced for decades and includes hundreds of thousands of projects, hardware has lagged behind the open source movement, wherein the inner workings of a program or a product are openly available for anyone to see, edit or modify. Open source software projects demonstrate the value of this approach, having led to integral creations such as Linux, the operating system that vast majority of the Internet runs on today. “The more people who know about a project and have access to it, the better it becomes,” Petrone says. “We then all benefit from that collective development.” 

Part of the reason software has led the open source charge is that it has the advantage of being “lightweight,” Petrone explains. “It’s a case of atoms versus bits.” 

Historically, big companies have dominated hardware production for two simple reasons: manufacturing is both expensive and difficult. Hardware requires physical objects, which entail manufacturing costs and, usually, shipping. But a precipitous drop in prices—which some attribute to the rise of cell phones, which made components cheap—is helping to lower the barrier to open source entry for hardware, as are crowd-sourcing platforms such as Kickstarter.  

DIY Ghost Low Voltage Labs on Tindie

For companies and makers, the revenue model for open source hardware is still being worked out, since a person could potentially exploit an open source platform and sell it for profit. But as Arduino— a micro-controller for DIYers, and the most successful open source hardware project to date—shows, people tend to buy the $30 original version rather than the $10 copycats. “Most people want to support those who are actually contributing and putting the sweat and time into the project,” Petrone says. “You don’t get the same warm fuzzy feeling when buying a closed product as you do when you support someone who is creating an open one.” 

As for Tindie sellers, monetary support has so far not been a problem. There is so much demand for the open source products sold on the site that the waiting list alone contains nearly half a million dollars’ worth of orders. For Petrone, “This has been something incredibly interesting to see because, ultimately, it’s a totally new market that doesn’t exist anywhere else.” 

Tindie, however, is likely only an early example of what is to come. 

“I think open hardware will start coming into its own in the next ten years,” Petrone says. “Apple’s not going to open source their products anytime soon, but Tesla could.”

This article was originally published in the October 2014 issue of Popular Science with the title, "The Etsy Of Hardware." It has been expanded in this web version. 

A New 'Radar Gun' May Spot Drivers Who Text Behind The Wheel

Tue, 09/16/2014 - 14:00

Radar Speed Gun at Work at a Naval Base, 2006 Photo by the U.S. Department of Defense. See it at the U.S. National Archives.

ComSonics, a company specializing in cable leakage detection, is working on a device that would sense when drivers are texting, the Virginian-Pilot reports. The Virginia newspaper suggests the final product, designed for police to use, might look something like the "radar gun" gadgets that police currently use to log drivers' speed and give out tickets. The text-sensing device looks for the radio wavelengths that phones use to send and receive SMS messages. Busted!

The device will even be able to distinguish between the radio waves used by texts and the waves used by calls, which are of a different frequency, ComSonics manager Malcom McIntyre told the Virginian-Pilot. That ability would be useful in Virginia and many other states, where it's legal for adults to talk on a cellphone while driving, but not to text. (Which seems silly. Research has found that having phone conversations while driving is dangerous, too.) It's unclear, however, how the device will be able to distinguish between texting on the part of the driver, versus passengers in the same car.

ComSonics now makes a number of devices that detect electromagnetic waves, including a few radar-gun-shaped things that find signal leaks in cables.


NASA Flies Over Lake Erie To Scan For Dangerous Algae Blooms

Tue, 09/16/2014 - 13:03

John H. Glenn Research Center At Lewis Field NASA What started as a small research project at NASA has become an important tool in a campaign to combat the toxic algae blooms that recently left 500,000 people in the Toledo area without drinking water.

NASA is deploying flight missions equipped with hyperspectral imaging instruments similar to those intended to distinguish dust components on Mars. The technology is being used to identify the components of algal blooms affecting the Western Basin of Lake Erie. The highly sensitive imaging instruments use spectral signatures to assign unique markers to each element and allow scientists to distinguish harmful algae from beneficial algae.

While the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has long used satellite imaging over Lake Erie, NASA Glenn's S-3 aircraft is now conducting flyover missions below the clouds to capture data that assists NOAA and local water treatment facilities in preparing for algal bloom threats, according to Frank Jennings, public affairs specialist at NASA.

"We're checking for concentration of algal blooms and sediment in the water. We also look for new areas of algal blooms," said John Lekki, a NASA engineer in charge of the missions. "Sediment carries many of the nutrients that feed the blooms. The sediment load gives us an idea of how the algal blooms may change over time. If there is a lot of sediment, and conditions are favorable, then the algal blooms will grow."

"Most recent flyovers seem to show very strong algal blooms in the southern half of the Western Basin," he said.

Kelleys Island NASA This uptick in toxic algae recently contributed to a well-publicized water contamination disaster in Toledo, Ohio. The Western Basin of Lake Erie, which provides drinking water to Toledo, is shallower than other areas of the lake, so the water tends to be warmer. Cleveland, in contrast, get its water from the Middle Basin, an area of the lake that's deeper, choppier, and less susceptible to algae growth, according to Dr. Michael Nichols, associate professor of chemistry at nearby John Carroll University.

The Western Basin is also surrounded by agricultural land from which fertilizer runoff often leads to high levels of phosphorus in the water.

"Any fertilizer runoff that is high in phosphorus is a problem, which is virtually any fertilizer," said Dr. Nichols. "If phosphorus gets into the lake it increases all forms of plant growth, including algae blooms."

While algae form a pillar of the food chain in Lake Erie, Microcystis, a particular blue-green algae variety, contains microcystin -- the contaminant that prompted Toledo's water troubles. Microcystin is a toxic peptide that can interfere with liver function if you drink it.

Ohio lawmakers are now working on legislation that would limit the amount of fertilizer used on nearby farmland, as well as updating water treatment facilities to deal with impending threats to the drinking water supply. 

"Ohio is freeing up $150 million to update water treatment facility equipment in individual communities and bring them the best available technology," said David Hall, an Ohio state representative and chairman of the Agriculture Committee.

In the meantime, area residents will have to depend on NASA's partnership with NOAA and area universities to provide consistent monitoring and early identification to help avoid another water contamination disaster.