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    In Brief: Examining the Woodward Effect

    Have you heard of the Woodward Effect? It's a decades-old theory for a method of generating thrust without expending mass--basically limitless propulsion without the need to refuel. It's no wonder that this concept has been used to fuel theoretical engine designs for spacecraft. Steady acceleration without the need for propellants sounds too good to be true, so BoingBoing visited the office and laboratory of Dr. James Woodward to learn about his theory and see an application of it in an experimental thruster. Real-world science is sometimes stranger and more awesome than fiction.

    Norman 1
    In Brief: The Man Who Can hear Wi-Fi

    I'm deeply fascinated in the neurological phenomenon of synesthesia: the effect of experiencing one sense when another is being activated (eg. seeing colors in words or hearing music in colors). Equally interesting are the people who artificially augment their senses to simulate that effect. Artist Neil Harbisson is a notable artificial synesthete who implanted an antenna into his skull so he could perceive wavelengths outside the visible spectrum. He's also the world's first recognized cyborg. New Scientist has a story written by another artificial synesthete, Frank Swain, who built a system for converting the characteristics of wireless networks into sound.

    Norman 1
    In Brief: Rosetta's Philae Has Landed

    At about 8AM Pacific time this morning, the Philae lander made contact with the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.The first pictures have come back from the lander, including a gorgeous shot of the comet taken during the descent and this image of the landing site, Rosetta's ten-year journey wound through the solar system so the probe could match orbits with the comet. It will stay with the comet for the next 12 months, following its orbit around the Sun. Be sure to keep an eye on Phil Plait's excellent blog for more updates on Rosetta and Philae. Today's XKCD is also lovely, in both live updated form and GIF form.

    Will 1
    Pixar Explains the Math Behind Smooth Character Rendering

    Ready to give your brain a little workout? See if you can follow along in this Numberphile video as Tony DeRose of Pixar Research explains some of the mathematics behind the rendering and animation of characters in modern CG films. It went over my head at around the five-minute mark, but the gist is that the use of certain math principles and algorithms let rendering programs subdivide vertices in geometry for smooth curves and surfaces. Computer scientists know this as the Catmull-Clark algorithm.

    10 Biological Challenges Of Traveling To Mars

    Let’s face it: we’ve done just about everything we can do on the Moon. That hunk of gray rock doesn’t hold much romance anymore. The next big thing is going to be to get human boots on Mars. But it’s not as easy as you might think. Today, we’ll examine the obstacles that make it difficult for Earth lifeforms to endure the long trip to Mars and land on the planet’s surface.

    ISS Astronauts Put a GoPro in a Floating Water Bubble

    We haven't posted a video shot by Astronauts on the International Space Station in a while, but that doesn't mean they're not shooting awesome stuff up there! Here's a recent one that is especially cool: "During Expedition 40 in the summer of 2014, NASA astronauts Steve Swanson and Reid Wiseman - along with European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst - explored the phenomenon of water surface tension in microgravity on the International Space Station." And because tours of the ISS are always fun to watch, here's the most recent one shot by Astronaut Reid Wiseman, travelling from the very back of the station to the very front!

    In Brief: Why Do Most Pencil Erasers Suck?

    The Atlantic's technology blog recently tackled a question that I'm sure we've all thought about at some point--especially those of us who've taken Scantron tests in secondary school: why do pencil erasers suck? The little nubs we're familiar with started appearing on the end of graphite pencils in the US some 250 years ago, but the materials they've been made of have changed over the years. They used to be made of rubber, but were shifted to plastic polymers to lower cost. Those thermoplastics and synthetics just don't have the same abrasive quality of real rubber to scrape lead off paper. I was also surprised to learn that the eraser-tipped pencil is largely a US phenomenon. International readers--what did your school pencils look like?

    Norman 16
    Awesome Jobs: Meet Kevin Arrigo, Biological Oceanographer

    Kevin Arrigo studies some of the teeny tiniest organisms on the planet -- microscopic plants called Phytoplankton that scientists think might produce up to 50 percent of the Earth’s oxygen. To get at what makes these itty bitties tick he climbs aboard giant ice-breaking ships and heads out to the planet’s icy North and South where they are the most active. Arrigo chatted with us about what it’s like to work in the world’s polar regions and what it feels like to take a wrong step and get a boot full of freezing arctic water.

    Do you consider yourself a biologist?

    I’m a biological oceanographer. I study the biology of the ocean at a pretty large scale. I’m not a marine biologist. I look at really big ocean issues. One example is the organisms that are the base of the food chain, microscopic phytoplankton. They’re tiny plants that feed everything in the ocean and produce more than 50% of the oxygen we breathe. Most people think of trees, but it’s mostly the phytoplankton that are doing the work.

    They’re responsible for the coming and going of the ice ages, which is driven by changes in atmospheric CO2. When the winds pick up, the ocean gets fertilized by iron-rich dust blowing into it. This stimulates phytoplankton to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere and then the planet starts to cool. After thousands of years, the temperatures drop so far that the planet goes into an ice age.

    The place I study phytoplankton is in the polar regions. They’re places we don’t understand very well. The North Pole and the area around Antarctica are very different. Most of the climate change is driven by phytoplankton in and around Antarctica. The ones growing in the tropics have very little impact on Earth’s climate.

    Around Antarctica, the ocean is a big watery place full of microscopic plants and they need nutrients just like your garden – mostly nitrogen or phosphorus. Luckily the Antarctic has lots of nitrogen and phosphorus, but not much iron. The ocean can become anemic too. Warm times like now, the ocean is really anemic - not much iron is being blown into it.

    In Brief: Why Scratching an Itch Makes It Worse

    Through a series of experiments with mice, researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine think they have figured out why people scratch an itch to the point of bleeding. According to Dr. Zhou-Feng Chen, who is actually the director of the school's Center for the Study of Itch (seriously!), the cause of neural crosstalk and the brain's release of the neurotransmitter serotonin. We scratch itches because the pain induced by scratching inhibits the itch, but the serotonin released to control the pain makes more scratching required to keep soothing the itch. It's a feedback loop that our brains are helpless to resist.

    Norman 2
    In Brief: How to Photograph an Atomic Explosion

    The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently interviewed film archivist (and early ILM visual effects artist) Peter Kuran, who literally wrote the book about How to Photograph an Atomic Bomb. Kuran, who also directed a 1995 documentary about nuclear weapons testing, runs a website and YouTube channel dedicated to restoring and archiving films from American atomic history. Kuran talks about the current digitization efforts of nuclear research film, and what scientists and historians can learn from re-examining the footage. The HD video that Kuran and his team archive are also a resource Hollywood filmmakers tap into when needing to show footage of atomic explosions--like in this year's Godzilla.

    Norman 1
    What a Blaster Bolt Would Look Like in Real Life

    Physicists at the Laser Centre of the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Faulty of Physics, University of Warsaw (phiew!) used a photography trick to composite a video of a ultrashort laser pulse traveling down a hallway. They're calling it an approximation of what a science-fiction blaster bolt would look like in real life. While each bolt takes a few femtoseconds to traverse the hallway, the researchers were able to photograph multiple bolts at a framerate of 10fps, syncing the recording with the pulses to give the illusion that you're just seeing one pulse. There's more detail in the YouTube video's description as well. (h/t Cnet)

    The Challenges of Hybrid Vehicle Design

    My recent article on the OverDrive flying car design, triggered some debate about the practicality of hybrid designs. The comments were primarily focused on flying cars and floating cars, but all aspects of modern civilization teem with examples of hybrids. It seems an inescapable human desire to combine two good things in an effort to make one great thing. Some amalgams have achieved stellar results, perhaps even becoming a defining cultural element (think cameraphones). Others fade into a purgatory of ridicule and obscurity.

    The OverDrive concept hybrid car.

    The conversation made me question why some hybrid ideas flourish when others fail, even if the base components are individually successful. It is not something that I had ever given much thought to, but I began to wonder if there is a common link between the failed hybrid attempts. Today, I want to compare a handful of successful and failed hybrid concepts and attempt to determine why their relative outcomes were so varied.

    What is a Hybrid?

    The first question to be answered is how to define a hybrid, and there are many meanings. In its simplest form, a hybrid can be two or more widgets combined into a single unit. Perhaps each part is still intended to perform tasks independent of the other parts (ex. Swiss Army knife), or maybe the parts work in unison (ex. eraser-tipped pencil). Either way, it is the combining of these otherwise discrete tools that creates the selling point of the item.

    In examining these types of hybrids, I think it is important to differentiate whether an aspect of a design is a fundamental element or just a feature. For example, most cars have clocks. We don’t call them clock-cars simply because the clock is a feature rather than a core facet of the design. It’s just a car, not a hybrid…unless it also has wings, or a hull, or two types of engines.

    Another form of hybrid is the combination of two different tools that are used for similar jobs. The point is to utilize the best attributes from each tool to improve some aspect of the end item’s overall performance, such as efficiency, power output, reliability, or dependability. In this column we find things such as the diesel-electric locomotive and turboprop engine. We could even include mules (yes, the animals) and genetically-engineered seeds.

    It doesn’t take long to figure out that hybrids of all types saturate our world. For the purposes of this examination (and at the risk of excluding pertinent data), I will focus on nuts and bolts machines. More specifically, I will stick to legacy military hardware, since such items tend to have well-documented requirements as well as performance data.

    In Brief: NASA Releases Library of Space Sounds for Public Use

    Earlier this month, NASA posted to SoundCloud a large library of audio clips from its history of space endeavors. These aren't just vocal bytes from ground control or astronauts--they include the sounds of rocket launches, landings, and spacecraft exploring our solar system. The beeping of Sputnik and the chorus of radio waves in the Earth's atmosphere can now be downloaded and mixed into your own productions. Archive.org has 222 NASA public domain audio clips as well!

    Norman
    Research Robots Versus the Volcano

    The last time NASA scientists sent a robot into the crater of a volcano was 1994.

    It’s name was Dante II, an autonomous, eight-legged crawler packed with video cameras, lasers and other sensors. It was designed by scientists from Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute to rappel and hobble down the inside of the active Alaskan volcano Mount Spurr – a proof-of-concept for encounters with the types of hostile environments that NASA robots might deal with in space.

    Photo credit: Phil Hontalas/NASA

    But a tumble towards the end of Dante’s mission and subsequent helicopter rescue offered a stark reminder that “the possibility of catastrophic failure is very real in severe terrain,” the robot’s designers wrote. Even with today’s technology – we have self-driving cars now! – there hasn’t been another Dante since.

    “To get a robot to go over the varied and often difficult terrain is very challenging. Robotics has come a long way since Dante, but […] it’s just not quite at the level where they can handle volcanic terrain yet,” explained Carolyn Parcheta, a volcanologist and NASA postdoctoral fellow sponsored by Tennessee’s Oak Ridge Associated Universities. It’s part of the reason that the U.S. Geological Survey still believes that "experienced volcanologists are a better and more cost-effective alternative for monitoring dangerous volcanoes” than robots – at least, for now.

    In a volcanic environment, there are myriad materials of different sizes and shapes. You’ll find small round rocks where each step is like walking on the shifting sands of a beach. On the more extreme end of the spectrum is lava that’s sharp and jagged, making it near impossible to find space both flat and wide enough for a human foot. You’re always walking at an angle. In the middle, you have what Parcheta describes as “the slow, oozing, ropy looking stuff” that’s still difficult to walk on, but less so than the jagged stuff.

    Photo credit: Phil Hontalas/NASA

    “Volcanic terrain is much more complicated than just a set of stairs or an inclined slope, because it’s often all those different things combined,” Parcheta explains. “There’s no regular pattern to the landscape. It feels random. And to the robot it will be random. It needs to learn how to assess that before it can take its steps, and humans do this on the fly, naturally.” This is, as you might expect, difficult – and one of the big problems that Dante’s designers had. So, for years, humans have instead sufficed.

    But there’s also another reason that volcano crawling robots haven’t exactly been subject to pressing demand. According to Dr. Peter Cervelli, associate director for science and technology at the USGS Volcano Science Center, his agency has had “limited need for ground based robotics” – in large part because the majority of volcanoes in the United States don’t presently pose a threat to human volcanologists.

    In Brief: Startup Touts Working Hoverboard, Launches Kickstarter

    Let's hope this isn't like that Funny or Die hoax from earlier this year. Hendo is a startup that just launched a Kickstarter for a hoverboard, claiming to have created a working prototype of a hovering skateboard. Their hoverboard system using four focused magnets to keep the board and someone standing on top of it afloat over a designated surface. Yep, there's the catch: the Hendo hoverboard only works when placed above non-ferromagnetic conducting surfaces, like metal sheets spread over a half pipe. Hendo isn't being very forthcoming about how its "Magnetic Field Architecture" engines work, but Nerdist' Science Editor explains it as such: "Henderson’s MFA technology is then apparently creating and fluctuating a magnetic field above a metallic surface, and the induced current in that surface provides enough of a response that you can drop in on a metal [surface]." The Kickstarter is offering backers one of ten production boards for $10,000 each (already four sold!), and developer kits with the magnetic "engines" and metal surfaces starting at $300. Working hoverboards? Auto form-fitting fabrics? Everyone wants to get in on the promise of 2015. Put me firmly in the skeptical category.

    Norman 7
    In Brief: Research Shows Plants Can Detect When They're Being Eaten

    Don't worry, this isn't about plants having consciousness or anything like that. Modern Farmer reports on a new study conducted at the University of Miami, in which researchers found that a thale cress plant was able to physiologically react to its leaves being eaten. In the study, the researchers mimicked the vibrations made by a caterpillar when it chews on the plant, which caused the thale cress to excrete extra predator-deterring oils. The revelation isn't that the plant is self-aware, but that scientists can look into ways to spur plants to activate their natural defenses on command--which may be useful for farmers to better prepare crops against the elements.

    Norman 2
    Tested Asks: How are Holograms Made?

    While in New York, Norm stops by Holographic Studios, one the last remaining independent holography galleries and holography studios still operating. Its founder, Jason Sapan, has spent almost 40 years practicing the art of holographic imagery. We figure he's the best person to explain to us what exactly is a hologram, and how they're painstakingly made.