Throwback Thursday: The First Drone Selfie, A 150-Foot Centrifuge, And A Simple Solution To A Deadly Problem
Looking through the Popular Science archive reminds a reader that everything we do now was once a new idea, and that sometimes, even our most advanced technology was imagined years before it was possible. On this Throwback Thursday, we go back 50 years to the Popular Science of October 1964.VHS In The Lab The Videocorder And Its Designers Popular Science
Those old videotapes of M*A*S*H episodes collecting dust in your basement may look pretty outdated, but the technology that brought them into your home was once cutting edge. In 1964 we covered a new entry in the "red-hot race" to bring video recording to home televisions. The inventors already had a strong sense of how consumers would one day use the technology:[Stewart] Hegeman, a pioneer in high-fidelity equipment and audio tape-recorder design, predicts that home videocorders will do much more than just record broadcasted programs for later viewing. He foresees a time when you will buy prerecorded shows across the counter, the way you now buy recorded music tapes. Pretaped TV shows may be more practical than pay-TV. You'll also use your videocorder to record home "movies"—a simple closed-circuit TV camera will photograph the action."
Of course, cable and pay-per-view have had their day, but Netflix, HBO, and other providers are already showing that a digital descendant of that model is the future of television.The First Selfie Drone Photo Ball Clicks From Above Popular Science
Nowadays, computerized flying drones are available for all your aerial selfie-taking and other photographic needs. But what was one to do in 1964 to get that shot from above? We discussed a genius device, not yet built, that could be tossed in the air or dangled, and used mercury to trigger a shot when the lens pointed down.Big Spinner The Dizzy Maker Popular Science
Back in 1964, no one knew how long-term spaceflight impacted human beings. In advance of the Gemini missions, North American Aviation planned the construction of an enormous centrifuge with a living capsule ripped from a KC-97 cargo plane on the end. Four astronauts would have lived inside for up to 30 days, experiencing the spinning, dizzying sensations of spaceflight as they went about their business.
As far as we can tell, the swinging monstrosity was never built. (Perhaps the challenge of building plumbing systems in a giant centrifuge was a contributing factor.) NASA does use smaller, but still quite large, spinning machines to train astronauts for the immense stress of launch on the body.Wrong-Way Warnings Warning Signs Popular Science
Signs warning drivers not to enter exit ramps may not seem like the most advanced technology, but in 1964 they were introduced to combat a serious problem. Eight percent of fatal freeway accidents at the time were head-on collisions resulting from a confused driver, often driving the wrong way on an exit ramp. With wrong-way signage now a ubiquitous feature of American roads, that number mostly hovers between two and three percent, according to the NTSB.
You can read the complete October 1964 issue here.
Can you tell the difference between robot fish and real ones? You can take this online test to find out. Here's the catch: For every question, both fish schools are rendered as green dots on the screen. It's just that one set of dots corresponds to the actual movements of Pacific Blue Eye fish researchers filmed. The other set of dots moves according to algorithms researchers wrote.
The algorithms are based on everything the researchers know about how Pacific Blue Eyes school. Testing whether people can tell the algorithmic fish apart from real fish movements is one way to evaluate how well the team understands schooling behavior, mathematician Maksym Romensky wrote in a blog post. Romensky and his colleagues at Uppsala University in Sweden study the movements of large animal groupings, such as bird flocks and cicada plagues.
If you take the online test, the site will log how well you fare, data that Romensky and his colleagues will presumably analyze later. That said, I would guess many suburban and city folk are too removed from nature for tests like this to be meaningful. Might they not also be fooled by a poor algorithm? People have been able to tell older animal-group simulations are not real, Romensky writes. His colleague, biologist James Herbert-Read, pointed me to this bird-flock simulation, from 2011:
Did that strike you as obviously wrong? It seemed a bit strange to me, but I still felt uncertain.
Romensky, Herbert-Read, and their colleagues also tested their algorithmic swimmers on researchers who study fish behavior. On average, the fish experts got 4.5 out of 6 questions right per game, which is slightly better than chance. They also got better over time. So there's still room for improvement for the algorithms, even if I can't see it. My score was 3/6, exactly chance.
Science chases progress. Researchers live under pressure from grant agencies, their peers, and the public to produce exciting results. New finds make headlines; checking old work usually does not. But when a recent study of human behavior by Sarah Brown-Schmidt and Sid Horton failed to reproduce a result from the authors' earlier research, they published a paper in the online journal PLOS ONE saying so. The response has been almost unanimously positive.
The researchers got a celebratory write-up from the journal (that topped Reddit's r/science section Tuesday) for their trouble:Considering our current scientific environment, in which the most novel, positive findings are lauded, many researchers might hesitate to report a failed self-replication for fear of interfering with their research trajectory or compromising their reputation. However, Brown-Schmidt and Horton (2014) has served as an exemplar of transparency in scientific reporting, and the authors’ open sharing of their null findings has been received with overwhelming positivity from the scientific community.
Verification and reproducibility are basic tenets of scientific research. Old results are rejected all the time but usually not by the scientists who found them in the first place. A survey of 53 outlandish claims in clinical cancer research published in Nature in 2012 only managed to replicate six studies' original results. (That shocking ratio is a product of the chosen studies and the unpredictability of cancer research. Other fields are far more consistent.)
In general, the scientific community is vigilant about weeding out bad research from its ranks. It makes sense then that researchers who take the extra step of shooting down their own work recieved this response.
More than 30 people who have been paralyzed by spinal-cord injuries could soon get an experimental treatment that involves sending electric currents to their spines. The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation is raising funds to add volunteers to an ongoing study of the treatment.
The treatment took a strong step forward recently, when the study's scientists published a paper showing that electrically stimulating the spinal cord, alongside intense physical therapy, helped four completely paralyzed young men to move again. Whenever the men visited the lab and had their electrode implants turned on, they were able to move their legs, knees, ankles, and toes on their own. The men also reported they had improved bladder and sexual function after starting the electrical stimulation therapy — important components to their quality of life.
Researchers are now seeking to expand the study to 36 additional volunteers, whom they'll follow for five years. The scientists "need to test more patients that will be a little more diverse to get a better idea of who will be responsive," lead researcher Reggie Edgerton of UCLA wrote to Popular Science in an email. The current participants are active men in their early 30s or younger. Edgerton and his team want to test study participants who are older, as well as women. The team remains focused on people who have a complete paralysis diagnosis and have been paralyzed for a year or more."There are more volunteers than we can accommodate," Edgerton says.
The study has no trouble recruiting participants. "There are more volunteers than we can accommodate," Edgerton says.
What's happening now is that the Reeve Foundation is seeking donations for the research at its website, ReeveBigIdea.org. Matthew Reeve, actor Christopher Reeve's son, visited New York City Comic Con last week to talk about his famous father and about the foundation's work. Christopher Reeve became paralyzed after a horse riding accident in 1995 and died 10 years ago on October 10.
"My father used to say that nothing of consequence happens unless people get behind an idea and they share that idea with others and eventually it becomes a movement," Matthew Reeve told Popular Science in a phone call before Comic Con. "We want to rally everyone in the community and beyond."
After more than 10 years of traveling through space, the Rosetta spacecraft -- the first space vehicle to travel to a comet -- is finally taking a load off. Well, part of it is, anyway.
This morning, the European Space Agency confirmed the landing site for Rosetta’s lander, Philae, on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Out of five potential areas for touchdown, a region known as Site J was picked for the historic landing, which is currently scheduled for November 12. Site J is located on the smaller of the comet’s “lobes” (or the “head” of the rubber ducky-shaped comet).
The landing will mark the first time a spacecraft has touched down on a comet. But the mission won’t exactly be a cakewalk. There’s still a lot more to be done before the landing can happen, and comet 67P’s weird shape means there’s a significant chance the 220-pound lander will more crash than land.Philae An artist's rendering of Philae touching down on 67P ESA/ATG medialab
On November 11, the day before the expected touchdown, the flight dynamics team will have to make a series of “Go/No-Go” decisions in order to determine that Rosetta is where it needs to be to deliver Philae safely. Since Rosetta arrived at the comet on August 6, it has been moving closer to the comet body every day. Right now, it’s about 10 kilometers away from 67P, which is only 4 kilometers wide itself. But on landing day, the spacecraft will need to be 22.5 kilometers away from the comet’s center.
Two hours before Philae is released, Rosetta will perform a short maneuver to ensure the lander is on the right trajectory to land (and not crash). As of now, Philae’s separation is scheduled for 8:35 am GMT, or 3:35 in the morning for those on the East coast. The landing will occur about seven hours after that, but because of the travel signal time between Rosetta and Earth, we won’t know if it made it down safely until 28 minutes later.
During its descent to 67P, Philae will take pictures and even perform a few experiments, testing the dust and plasma environment surrounding the comet. Once it makes it to its new home, Philae has about 64 hours of primary battery life to conduct its first sequence of science experiments.
After that, lengthier experiments kind of all depend on how much longer the batteries can last. Philae has solar panels for generating energy, but the team expects that dust will eventually settle on them, complicating the process. Man, if only 67P had an outlet...
Finally, in March 2015, the comet will have moved along its orbit, bringing it much closer to the sun. By that point, Philae will be so hot that it can’t continue with its work, and the whole operation will come to an end. But though we will have lost a lander, hopefully we will have gained a significant understanding about the evolution of comets -- and the origins of our Solar System.Site J Philae's primary landing spot ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Of course, calling it a “working” iPhone is overselling it, but the device that’s been built here does have a surprising amount of functionality. You won’t be using it to make phone calls any time soon, but it does have several apps, including a calendar, photos, a camera, and even YouTube. (And if your brain isn’t tied into knots at the idea of watching a YouTube video on your phone about a game in which someone built a phone with a YouTube app, then you are a better person than I.) There’s even an interactive painting app and a few games, including a slot machine and blackjack—the payouts, however, are on the meager side.Minecraft iPhone Slot Machine
Like the Minecraft hard drive, which stored only a paltry 4 kilobytes, an iPhone constructed out of pixelated blocks isn’t exactly the most useful of contraptions. Most of the apps are largely static constructions with the occasional “button” that can react by changing color when jumped upon. Of course, when you think about it, how is that much different from much of the software we all use on a daily basis? It’s largely a matter of scale.
The preponderance of experiments of this sort certainly raises questions about just how far a few dedicated people can go. What if, for example, you could build a hard drive in Minecraft that’s large enough to contain a copy of Minecraft in which you could build another working hard drive that could contain a copy of…you get the picture.
Minecraft isn’t the first environment to provide this kind of experimentation, though it does have the advantage of being a highly visual medium and existing in the age of YouTube, where those creations can be thoroughly disseminated. A couple decades ago, my friends and I were building simple machines like this in MUSHes, multiplayer online text-based games that contained their own engines for interpreting in-game code.
The Minecraft iPhone isn’t about to replace your existing phone, though it does have a screen large enough to give the iPhone 6 Plus a run for its money—and the Minecraft iPhone probably won’t suffer from bending, since you can’t really fit it in your pocket anyway.