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    Harnessing the Energy of a Man-Made Tornado

    From The Atlantic, in collaboration with The Adapters podcast: "A Canadian inventor named Louis Michaud has spent decades building a machine—a tornado machine—that he thinks could solve the world's energy problems. According to Michaud, his "Atmospheric Vortex Engine" may someday generate mile-high columns of warm air, heated by the sun or waste heat from power plants, which could turn turbines and produce power. Lots of power, he believes. All he has to do is prove it."

    The State of Computer Vision Research

    At the recent TED conference, computer vision expert Fei-Fei Li explains how she and the researchers at the Stanford Computer Vision Lab are developing ways to teach computers visual perception by studying human vision. Her breakthrough a decade ago: instead of simply improving object recognition algorithms, her team increased the quantity and quality of input fed to the program to the tune of 15 million photos.

    Adam Savage's Navy Mark IV Helmet

    We've shared Adam's passion for NASA spacesuits, including his Mercury era spacesuit replica that he wore at Comic-Con. The helmet for that suit was based off of B.F. Goodrich's Navy Mark IV design, and Adam has recently come into possession of an original Mark IV helmet. Time to geek out about it!

    Biomimetics: Studying Bird Flight for Flying Robots

    There’s an entire field of science that believes nature and evolution have already solved some of humanity’s most complicated problems. Called biomimetics, the field focuses on studying these natural solutions and attempting to copy them, rebuild them, and use them in ways that can benefit mankind. This past month, we’ve been profiling US laboratories that specialize in biomimicry and highlighting how the animal kingdom is helping humans innovate.

    When you’re trying to perfect robotic flight the obvious biological animal to mimic is, of course, the bird. But what’s less obvious is just how exactly you go about quantifying the physical capabilities of motion and engineering while in flight. At David Lentink’s lab at Stanford he is combining specially trained animals with high-tech motion capture to puzzle out just what it is about bird wings that make them such fantastic flyers.

    Photo credit: Stanford

    Lentink has trained hummingbirds and parrotlets to perform special maneuvers -- flying from point A to point B -- so that he can capture images of them in motion. With high-speed cameras he can capture 50 images for each wing beat. In addition, using two high-speed lasers that flash from 1,000 to 10,000 times per second, Lentink is able to create an image of how the air flows behind the birds as they fly.

    “Our goal is to understand the flow and the forces they generate when they fly and we developed special instruments to do that. You can’t work with a bird like an airplane. We train our birds based on food rewards. So now we point to perch where they need to fly to and they will fly there,” says Lentink. “We’re trying to discover how birds manipulate air to fly more effectively and move better.”

    In addition to studying wing movement and the manipulation of air, Lentink and his team have started to research the bird’s vision and how it combines with their wing movements to determine direction. “What do they see and how do they use what they are seeing to control their flight? The main thing we’re looking at is optical flow, something that robots also use. How images move over the retina, the intensity of images over the retina, and how birds use that to decide to go left, right, or stabilize,” he says.

    It may sound like very fundamental research, he says, but it’s essential if there’s any hope of building a future robot that can fly like a bird. Especially when you consider the limitation of current flying robots. Quadcopters, according to Lentink, aren’t good at maneuvering through turbulence, around buildings, or through trees and narrow spaces. Yet at the moment they’re our most popular flying bot. Birds, on the other hand, don’t have any trouble performing any of those difficult tasks.

    Biomimetics: Learning about Camouflage from Cuttlefish

    There’s an entire field of science that believes nature and evolution have already solved some of humanity’s most complicated problems. Called biomimetics, the field focuses on studying these natural solutions and attempting to copy them, rebuild them, and use them in ways that can benefit mankind. Over the next few weeks, we’re profiling US laboratories that specialize in biomimicry and highlighting how the animal kingdom is helping humans innovate.

    Few animals in the world are better at camouflaging themselves then the cephalopod. A family of ocean-going invertebrates that include the octopus, the squid, and the cuttlefish, these squishy little guys are better than anybody at disappearing into their surroundings. And that makes them the ideal candidates for biomimicry.

    In Woods Hole, Massachusetts, biologist Roger Hanlon is focused on puzzling out the cellular systems that make quick color changes possible. This is done both inside the lab and outside in the field. By watching octopi morph their appearance in their native environment and observing cuttlefish perform quick adaptation in controlled experiments, Hanlon has been able to learn not only about the makeup of their skin that allows them to change, but also how they use their sensory organs to determine which pattern they’ll mimic next.

    “The field work allows us to frame the big questions. By immersing myself in their sensory world, not mine, seeing them behave normally lets me see the wider scope in an evolutionary context,” says Hanlon.

    But it’s not just the animal itself that is giving insight into the physics of camouflage, he says. “It’s extremely important to measure the light field -- how much is there and how does it change. Because what a predator does or doesn’t see depends on what kind of light is available and it’s own visual system. That brings us to visual perception. What I’m really studying is the visual perception of the many predators that eat the cuttlefish and the visual perception of the cuttlefish themselves. A cuttlefish can change its appearance because it has to look around its environment to create the pattern that works.”

    Because cuttlefish are genetically predisposed to remain camouflaged at all times until they hit sexual maturity, they make the perfect lab “rats.” Hanlon and his team “capitalize on that strange situation” by giving them a series of different backgrounds to mimic -- from images of sand and pebbles to checkerboards -- and capture images of their color change.

    A Brief Explanation of Gravitational Lensing

    From the New York Times' "Out There" astronomy column: "A century after Albert Einstein proposed that gravity could bend light, astronomers now rely on galaxies or even clusters of galaxies to magnify distant stars." The use of gavitational lensing has allowed astronomers to observe the same supernova nine billion light years away four times since 1964. (h/t Laughingsquid)

    Biomimetics: Lessons from MIT's Sprinting Cheetah Robot

    There’s an entire field of science that believes nature and evolution have already solved some of humanity’s most complicated problems. Called biomimetics, the field focuses on studying these natural solutions and attempting to copy them, rebuild them, and use them in ways that can benefit mankind. Over the next few weeks, we’re profiling US laboratories that specialize in biomimicry and highlighting how the animal kingdom is helping humans innovate.

    The best movers in the world are animals, so why do all of our transportation modes rely on wheels and not legs? That’s the question that inspires the work at MIT’s Biomimetics lab. According to Sangbae Kim, an associate professor at the lab, their main goal is to develop walking robots that move as well as any animal -- and shape how all robots move in the future.

    They decided the best inspiration for locomotion would be to find the fastest moving animal on Earth and mimic its makeup in robot legs. Enter the cheetah. Capable of speeds up to about 64 miles per hour, the big cat outpaces all other running animals in the world (except, perhaps, the Paratarsotomus macropalpis -- a beetle the size of a sesame seed that can run 322 body-lengths per second compared to the Cheetah’s 16.)

    “Each animal has their advantage, but the cheetah uses speed as a survival skill. It doesn’t have many other skills -- it’s jaws aren’t very strong -- the only thing it’s good at is speed. And that’s why we can identify it’s mechanical features. We’re looking at it’s leg shape, mass distribution, the joints they’re using, and their gait,” says Kim.

    The cats are also incredibly good at changing direction at high speed. Their unique muscular makeup allows them to use their tail to pivot at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, says Kim, cheetahs are endangered so they can’t study one in the lab. The team has learned about the cats’ unique abilities by watching nature videos and reading studies by the few scientists that have had the chance to study them.

    “We read papers about them. Researchers at Royal College in England they recorded forces and slow motion in a captive cheetah. We take inspiration from videos and learn mechanical aspects like how they achieve a stable running,” he says.

    What they’ve learned is that the animal’s leg shape is essential: it has a slender leg and all of its muscles are concentrated up next to its body. That way they minimize their energy use and maximize the swing of their legs.

    10 Weird Things That Happen When It Gets Too Cold

    What a winter, huh? The East Coast has been deluged with snow for what seems like months, and people are just beginning to dig themselves out. Low temperatures can have effects beyond making it impossible to get to work, though. Today, we’ll examine ten phenomena that only manifest when the mercury falls to extreme levels.

    Biomimetics: Studying the Striking Power of the Mantis Shrimp

    There’s an entire field of science that believes nature and evolution have already solved some of humanity’s most complicated problems. Called biomimetics, the field focuses on studying these natural solutions and attempting to copy them, rebuild them, and use them in ways that can benefit mankind. Over the next few weeks, we’re profiling US laboratories that specialize in biomimicry and highlighting how the animal kingdom is helping humans innovate.

    Not many folks would look at a shrimp and call it the “crown jewel” of their research, but that’s exactly how David Kisailus refers to the Mantis shrimp, a crustacean that’s famous for its ability to, well, punch stuff to death. The unique properties of the animal’s boxing glove-like claw make it the perfect subject for unraveling the complex problem of impact resistance.

    Kisailus, who runs UC Riverside's Biomimetics and Nanostructured Materials Lab, explains: “The organism is smacking with more than 500 newtons of force and it’s only 4 inches long. It’s accelerating underwater faster than a 22 caliber bullet. It’s one of the fastest striking organisms on the planet. It impacts thousands of times. How can it do that and resist failure? That’s why we started studying it.”

    The mantis shrimp isn’t actually a shrimp, it’s actually a crustacean that earned its name from its shrimp-like body. The non-shrimp evolved 400 million years ago as a spear fisherman. It would hunt by shooting barbed spears at its soft-bodied prey. But its prey eventually evolved to avoid the dangers of the pointy killing method by growing shells and exoskeletons. So the Mantis shrimp had to evolve too, splitting off into a group that could use its elbow to smash open the prey that its cousins couldn’t spear. Though some still spear, the clubbing verson’s boxing glove (which still has a vestigial barb at the end) is made up of a series of highly complex and organized internal parts.

    Photo credit: Flickr user wwarby via Creative Commons.

    “It’s not your standard biological composite, which has just one component,” says Kisailus of why he is studying the material makeup of the shrimp’s punching claw. “Within the club are three separate regions and each has its own function.”

    Show and Tell: Seek Thermal Imaging Camera

    For this week's Show and Tell, Norm tests out a thermal imaging camera accessory for his Android phone. The Seek Thermal camera connects to a smartphone over microUSB to gauge the temperature of anything in its sights--like Predator vision! The image resolution is a little low, but we've been using it for laptops, tablet, and phone testing.

    In Brief: Why M&Ms are the Perfect Space Snack

    Smithsonian magazine has a fun little feature about the history of chocolate in the space program. Chocolate has been a choice treat for cosmonauts and astronauts since the very first manned space flights, but has travelled in many different forms: tubed sauce, pudding, brownies, and of course, M&Ms. We were privileged to be able to see some of these freeze-dried and vacuum-sealed snacks during our visit to JSC in 2013. I can neither confirm nor deny that I have a sealed package of space travel-ready 'candy-coated chocolates'. (Sort of related: the contents of Neil Armstrong's Apollo 11 stowage bag 'purse', recently discovered and brought to the National Air and Space Museum. Its incredible contents here.)

    Norman 2
    In Brief: Optimal Search Strategy for Finding Waldo

    Remember those Where's Waldo books? (They even made a TV show about them.) Slate ran a story back in 2013 showing you the location of Waldo in all seven books in the series, but the interesting part of that story was that the authors claimed to have devised the best search strategy for finding the character. AI researcher and data visualization geek Randy Olson took Slate's data one step further, putting Waldo's locations through a genetic algorithm to devise an optimal search path. Of course, you and I know that the point of those books was never really to find Waldo. It was to admire the art of illustrator Martin Handford. Handford, like cross-section artist Stephen Biesty, worked in a uniquely dense visual style that I most associate with 90s' children's books. They were the Quentin Blake for millennials. (h/t Laughingsquid)

    Norman
    10 Little-Known Achievements Of Space Explorers

    We all know the big space records – first man on the moon, first dog in space, the usual. But of the hundreds of brave men and women who have traveled outside of Earth’s atmosphere, some hold more unusual records. Today, we’ll run down ten pretty awesome achievements that don’t always make the history books.

    What Makes a Coin Toss Random?

    Numberphile interviews Stanford professor Persi Diaconis about the factors that make a coin toss seemingly completely random, and how he and his colleagues determined what factors most affect the outcome. And some of you may already know this, but theoretical analysis of the physics of coin flipping shows that the odds aren't actually exactly 50-50. There's an ever-so-slight bias toward the side that was facing up during the toss.

    Behind-the-Scenes at the Explorers Club Headquarters

    From Science Friday: "Tour the unique artifacts, including a yeti scalp and 4-tusked elephant, collected by Explorers Club members during research expeditions over the last century. Executive Director Will Roseman reveals the remarkable science and stories of the collection at the Club Headquarters in New York City."

    Awesome Jobs: Meet Chris Buddle, Arachnologist

    Chris Buddle spends a lot of his time crawling around on his hands and knees in the high arctic. He’s one of the world’s very few experts on the eight-legged creepy crawlies that send a shiver up the spine of most folks. Buddle is an arachnologist and an associate professor of forest insect ecology at McGill University. And he loves spiders. He chatted with us about how the heck he goes about finding teeny tiny animals scuttling around the northern Tundra and why spiders aren’t scary, they’re absolutely fascinating.

    Why study spiders?

    They’re predators almost entirely within their own food web. They have a significant impact on whatever system they’re in. Whether they run down beaches as tides go out and catch invertebrates or live in the high tundra. No matter where they are, they are always eating other things and sometimes each other. They’re always eating. They have an impact on other animals around them.

    They also have very interesting applications as pest control agents. Think of how many pests they eat -- mosquitoes around our houses or crop pests -- they have an impact on pest species.

    They have all kinds of uses in the biomedical field. The silk they produce has interesting properties, people use it in the wound care industry as bandages and they use biophysical properties as a model for the development of new fabrics or ropes.

    The other thing is that they feed all kinds of other animals. In the high arctic a lot of birds, and when they first arrive to breed, after the snow and ice starts to melt the first thing they encounter as food is spiders.

    Do we have any idea how many spiders there are in the world?

    We don’t know the number in the world but I’ve done the calculation in individual habitats. It’s true that you’re almost always close to a spider. Density estimates in the arctic show there’s half a spider per meter squared. That’s 4,000 wolf spiders per hectare [about 2.5 acres]. It’s a lot. And that’s just one system. There’s a lot of spiders out there wandering around. So everyone should be an arachnologist!

    9 "Lost" Inventions That Could Come In Handy Today

    The march of progress is fairly linear – scientific discoveries build on each other and life on Earth slowly gets better, or at least easier. But sometimes there are hiccups in this timeline. One thing that’s happened more than we like to admit is inventions and discoveries simply being lost, whether taken to the grave by their inventors or otherwise vanished to the mists of time. Today, we spotlight nine lost inventions that we’d really like to see rediscovered.

    Strange Things Buried In Time Capsules

    The experience of opening up a time capsule is unreal – it’s like your ancestors are reaching forward from the past to share what was really important to them. But, as more and more capsules are opened, we’re starting to find that what was important was also really weird. Here are some bizarre things that we thought were worth sharing with the future.