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Leopards Wolf Down Fido in India Ag Area

Scientific American News - Tue, 09/16/2014 - 19:30
A study of leopard droppings in agricultural western India reveals that the cats primarily eat domestic animals, mostly dogs, but only a small amount of livestock. Steve Mirsky reports  

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Floods, Storms and Quakes Uproot 22 million in 2013

Scientific American News - Tue, 09/16/2014 - 18:18
The numbers uprooted could increase as urban populations grow, a refugee agency said

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Ditching Cars for Buses, Bikes Best Way to Cut City Pollution

Scientific American News - Tue, 09/16/2014 - 18:11
Encouraging people to abandon their cars and use public transport or walk or cycle offers the "least pain, most gain" way to cut air pollution from traffic by 2050, a new international...

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

Popular Science News - 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

New York State Denied Federal Funds for Flagship Bridge Project

Scientific American News - Tue, 09/16/2014 - 16:36
The U.S. federal government has rejected most of a $511 million loan request for the renewal of New York state's Tappan Zee Bridge

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Scientists Test Yacht As Miniature Research Vessel

Popular Science News - 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:

This Rare White Possum Could Soon Be a Ghostly Memory

Scientific American News - Tue, 09/16/2014 - 15:53
A ghost lives in the Daintree Rainforest in northeastern Queensland, Australia. There, on a single mountain range located 1,100 meters above sea level, scientists have recently found what may be the...

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Los Angeles Electricity Use Hits Record amid Heat Wave

Scientific American News - Tue, 09/16/2014 - 15:39
The LA Department of Water and Power urged customers to conserve electricity on Tuesday after customers the day before used record amounts of power for air conditioning to obtain relief from a heat...

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The Rise Of Open Source Hardware

Popular Science News - 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

Popular Science News - 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.


A Delicate Army of Franken-Fairies

Scientific American News - Tue, 09/16/2014 - 13:46
When tallying up a list of materials to use in assembling delicate fairy sculptures, bug parts might not be first on your average list. But for sculptor Cedric Laquieze, who is fascinated with...

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Diversity in Science: Where Are the Data?

Scientific American News - Tue, 09/16/2014 - 13:10
Global figures on diversity in the science and engineering workforce are hard to come by, but what we know is not flattering

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NASA Flies Over Lake Erie To Scan For Dangerous Algae Blooms

Popular Science News - 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.

You’re Invited: Help Change the World with Science

Scientific American News - Tue, 09/16/2014 - 13:00

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Study of Eastern U.S. Shows Wind Energy Could Stabilize the Grid

Scientific American News - Tue, 09/16/2014 - 12:17
Last month, General Electric (GE) consulting presented the results of a U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) sponsored study testing if wind turbines can be controlled to manage the...

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Visualizing 4-Dimensional Asteroids

Scientific American News - Tue, 09/16/2014 - 11:30
Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post from Jake VanderPlas, a data scientist who worked on the Graphic Science illustration in the October issue of Scientific American magazine.

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Google vs The DMV: How To Test A Self-Driving Car

Popular Science News - Tue, 09/16/2014 - 11:15

View from Google's 2012 Driving Test Nevada DMV

In May 2012, Google's self-driving car underwent a classic American teenage ritual. It took a driving test at a DMV. The car passed, but apparently not without a little lobbying from its parent.

As state officials have monitored the robot car's mileage on public roads, Google has lobbied for the car to get different tests and to report different accident figures than the DMV wants, a new series of reports finds. The reports come from U.S. Freedom of Information Act requests that technology journalist Mark Harris submitted to DMVs and other agencies. Turning to the government let Harris "sidestep Google's secretive PR machine," as he told the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, which recently collected his stories.

Harris' work offers a detailed sense of the car's abilities. It's also a look at Google's lobbying, the extent of which is maybe unsurprising, for a private company, but still interesting.

He published his latest—and most fun—article in IEEE Spectrum. You can see excerpts there of the car's 2012 Nevada driving test, with notes and checkmarks just like you might have gotten as a nervous 16-year-old. That's where you can see what situations the Google car is good at, and in what situations it will ask for help from its human driver.

For the Guardian, Harris wrote about how Google has asked regulators to allow the results of computerized driving simulations to stand in for tests on driving tracks or closed-off roads. For Quartz, Harris reported on Google's lobbying not to have to report how often its cars turn over the controls to their human drivers, as long as the handover occurs as expected. The car is designed to routinely cede control when it encounters situations it can't handle. That's the kind of handover Google doesn't want to have to report. The company also doesn't want to report when its cars get into accidents while a human, not its algorithms, is driving. The California DMV disagreed.

[Knight Science Journalism Tracker]


Scientific American News - Tue, 09/16/2014 - 11:15
Help paleontologists generate a more complete picture of ancient ocean life

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An Origami Microscope For Less Than a Dollar

Popular Science News - Tue, 09/16/2014 - 10:35

Little device, big magnification. Photograph by Brian Klutch

Imagine a world where every child owns a microscope. A clever new method to fold the instrument from a single sheet of paper may bring that dream closer to reality. 

In the Foldscope, invented by Stanford University engineers, creased paper creates a scaffold, which holds a lens and an LED in alignment. A microscope slide sits between them. As users peer at the sample, they flex the paper to adjust the lens and change the focus. The simple assembly can magnify objects more than 2,000 times. 

Lead developer Manu Prakash originally saw the Foldscope as an inexpensive way to diagnose disease in developing countries. But he soon realized it could also help excite a new generation of scientists. “You learn to appreciate the microscopic cosmos by actually exploring it yourself,” he says. 

To arm aspiring scientists with a crowd-sourced manual of experiments, the inventors launched a beta test. More than 11,000 applicants from 130 countries—ranging from six-year-olds to Nobel Laureates—volunteered to fold their own microscopes and use them for an original research project. They plan to study bee parasites, identify “micro-fossils” the size of sand grains, and more.

Reproducing those experiments, Prakash hopes, will inspire students to then make their own discoveries. “In my mind, every biology book should have a Foldscope as the last page,” he says. “Because you’re not just imparting knowledge, you’re also imparting the tools to gain that knowledge.” 

The Perks Of A Foldscope

Durable. Stomp on a Foldscope or drop one from three stories, and it will survive to magnify another day.

Affordable. When components are purchased in bulk, a Foldscope costs only 57 cents. High-magnification lenses add another 40 cents.

Portable. The paper microscope fits in your pocket and weighs less than a pencil.

Makeable. It takes about 10 minutes for a novice to assemble a Foldscope. The inventors can do it in just a few minutes.

For more information on Foldscope assembly, check out Prakash's PLOS ONE paper, or watch the video below.

What can you see through a Foldscope? Take a peek!

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

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