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    Engineering Fires in The Fire Lab

    From The Atlantic: "Massive wildfires cost billions of dollars and burn millions of acres in the U.S. every year, but we know surprisingly little about the basic science of how they spread. At the Fire Lab in Missoula, Montana, researchers reverse-engineer spreading fires using wind tunnels, fire-whirl generators, and giant combustion chambers. They're finding that fire is a mysterious phenomenon, and the physics behind it is often counter-intuitive." We previously wrote about the study of fire in our profile of combustion engineer Ruddy Mell for our series on awesome field scientists.

    Maker Faire 2014: How Quantum Levitation Works

    At Maker Faire 2014, we met Dylan Dixon, an 8th grade student who built a system to demonstrate quantum levitation for a school project. We chat with him to learn about how quantum levitation works with the manipulation of magnetic fields.

    Meet Terry Pappas, Ex-NASA and SR-71 Blackbird Pilot

    Aerospace technology is typically an incremental game of inches. Most new aircraft or spacecraft designs consist primarily of proven technologies sprinkled with a few new ideas to nudge the limits a little at a time. It is rare to unveil a design that leaps ahead by using numerous unproven concepts. The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird was one very notable exception. First flown in 1964, the Blackbird was an aircraft so advanced that it still had no peers when it was retired 34 years later.

    Photo credit: Lockheed Martin

    What made the Blackbird so unique was its ability to fly very fast (Mach 3.3) and very high (85,000 feet). This performance allowed it to overfly nearly any area of the world and take surveillance photos with relative impunity. Intercepting fighter pilots could only shake their fists as the SR-71 flew high above their reach. To escape surface-to-air missiles, Blackbird pilots would just ease the throttles forward and outrun them.

    Throughout its service life, the SR-71 was a very closely-guarded and coveted asset. Not only was it stuffed full of proprietary technology, it was also extremely expensive to purchase, maintain, and operate. The US Air Force wouldn’t let just anyone fly their prized machine. It implemented a very rigorous selection and training process for the pilots and Reconnaissance Systems Officers (RSO) that would fill the Blackbird’s seats.

    Terry Pappas was part of an elite group of pilots chosen to fly the SR-71 Blackbird. (Photo courtesy Terry Pappas)

    Terry Pappas was one of those pilots who earned the title “Habu” – the unofficial name given to the SR-71 and its flight crew in a nod to the venomous snake that the airplane is said to resemble. Pappas spent more than 5 years in the SR-71 program and flew numerous operational missions over hostile airspace. His book, SR-71, The Blackbird, Q&A, explains the full gamut of his time in the Blackbird.

    Here are some of the most interesting bits I learned from his book, as well as a few follow-up questions I was able to ask Pappas directly.

    The Pontiac Silverdome, Vacant Since 2012

    "The Pontiac Silverdome is a vacant sports stadium, formerly the home of the Detroit Lions football team, and the Detroit Pistons basketball team. Other major events included Wrestlemania III, which set a world record for attendance at an indoor event. The Lions left the stadium in 2002, after which some concerts and sports events were held. The Silverdome has been vacant since 2012, and the contents are being auctioned off." (h/t Laughingsquid)

    Regenerating Plastic Grows Back After Damage

    "Professor Scott White discusses the research breakthrough that allows [damaged] plastic to not only heal, but truly regenerate. Self-healing materials have been around for about a decade. But they have never been able to heal damage much larger than the width of a human hair. Now, White and his colleagues Jeff Moore and Nancy Sottos have developed plastic that can regenerate damage as large as a bullet hole. The plastic regenerates when two chemical channels in the material mix at a damaged area. This reaction forms a gel which fills in the hole and eventually hardens, similar to blood clotting in a wound."

    Tested Explains: How the Bionic Ear Works

    They call it the bionic ear – an implant in the cochlea that restores the sensation of sound to those who have lost their hearing, or those who could never hear at all. There's certainly a cyberpunk ring to the term, like an upgrade for the ear. The device augments human ability by introducing (or re-introducing) functionality where there was none before.

    And realistically speaking, while the notion of do-it-yourself biohacking may still be a ways off, it's tempting to think of the bionic ear as a present day glimpse into the future of human augmentation. A recent, fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal teased such a future, where brain implants and neuroprosthetics "will graduate from being strictly repair-oriented to enhancing the performance of healthy or "normal" people" – calling out the cochlear implant by name.

    Photo credit: Getty Images

    "What would you give for a retinal chip that let you see in the dark or for a next-generation cochlear implant that let you hear any conversation in a noisy restaurant, no matter how loud?" co-authors Gary Marcus and Christof Koch asked. It's a good question. And who wouldn't want that? But Marcus and Koch's "next-generation" caveat is key. Present day cochlear implants are amazing devices, but they're not designed to heighten an existing ability to hear – only approximate what has been lost.

    Cochlear implants have been used since the late 1970s to restore the sensation of hearing to those born without, or who have lost their ability to hear in later years. An oft-cited figure is that more than 350,000 people have had the operation worldwide. The implant works by bypassing damaged or missing hair cells that typically transmit sound vibrations to the auditory nerves, and uses a bundle of electrodes to stimulate those nerves directly instead.

    The electrodes run to a receiver implanted beneath the skin, and connect to an external system outside of the body via magnet – typically a microphone and speech processor that turns sound into signals that the brain can understand. (Some cochlear implants actually allow the user to plug an MP3 player or smartphone's audio output directly into their processor, like jacking a digital audio source straight into your brain. How cool is that?)

    But the result isn't exactly hearing – at least, not as most people know it.

    ArcAttack Explains How Giant Tesla Coils Work

    We visit the workshops of ArcAttack, a group of makers that not only builds their own massive Tesla coils, but uses them as musical instruments for live performances. ArcAttack shows us how they safely set up their coils to produce extremely high voltage electrical discharges, and we get a little close to the sparks.

    The Moons of Mars Explained

    Kurzgesagt is a wonderful YouTube channel that explains basic and controversial scientific concepts in concise animated videos. It was created by a team of designers from Munich, and the show's narration gives it a more than just a little bit of a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy vibe. Their videos this month explain facts about the moons in the solar system, and this video explaining the Stock Exchange is one of my favorites.

    In Brief: FDA Approves "Luke" Prosthetic Arm

    Last Friday, the FDA announced its approval of the DEKA Arm, a new prosthetic arm that is the first to respond to multiple electrical signals from the wearer's muscles to perform complex tasks. FDA approval--granted after a VA study in which 90% of testers were able to successfully use the device--means that the arm system is now allowed to be marketed and sold to amputees. The DARPA-backed arm, which is nicknamed "Luke" after The Empire Strikes Back, allows for wearers to perform six grip patters, which facilitate tasks like holding a cordless drill, picking up delicate fruit, operating key locks, and combing hair. It weighs as much as a natural arm, and is modular to be fitted to anyone who's suffered any degree of limb loss. DEKA research's next step is to find a commercial partner to manufacture and sell the prosthetic.

    10 Awesome Animal Self-Defense Mechanisms and Why They Work

    Mother Nature is a powerful lady, molding her children into a vast variety of forms. No matter what your place in the food chain, evolving a way to fend off predators is probably a good idea. Today, we’ll spotlight ten of the most amazing ways animals defend themselves and delve into the science behind them.

    The Weirdest Things The US Government Keeps Underground

    If you want to keep something safe, burying it deep in the ground is a pretty solid choice. The brain trust in Washington knows this, and they’ve commandeered many different caves and underground facilities around the Continental United States. Today, we’ll tour these subterranean bunkers and see what weirdness lies beneath our feet.

    The History of the Triage Tag

    I really enjoyed this Fast Company article about the history of the triage tag. Triage is used to categorize patients, victims of a disaster, or injured soldiers based on the level of care they need. The triage tag is was designed during the Cold War to convey each patient's triage status between first responders at a disaster scene when there's no infrastructure in place.

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    Tested Explains: Earth's Magnetic Field Wonkyness

    The Earth’s magnetic field is acting pretty wonky right now. That may be an indicator of big changes to come. Or it could just be business as usual. The truth is that the most consistent thing about our magnetic field is that it’s inconsistent over short periods of time (like the human lifespan). But when scientists look at it across millennia, they recognize that its behavior is actually fairly easy to predict if they can just get an accurate measurement. So what, exactly, is going on with the modern magnetic field? I asked Scott Bogue, a geologist at Occidental College in Los Angeles, and one of the leading experts on Earth’s geomagnetism. Turns out, was a bit of a controversial question.

    First, some background. If you know about the science, it makes sense that our field isn’t the most stable force on the planet. After all, it’s created by conditions in the most volatile place on Earth. The planet’s core is a spinning, stirring, moving glob of really excellent electricity-conducting liquid metal (iron-nickel alloy, to be exact). All the extreme heat energy down there, and the energy created by gravity, gets converted into the movement of the fluid. And energy from that fluid momentum gets converted into electromagnetic energy, which emanates from the core as our magnetic field.

    The field surrounds the Earth and extends out into space (far enough that it encompasses all our orbiting satellites, but not so far that it reaches the moon). Its most important role is that it blocks particles that shoot down to earth from the sun (solar wind) and faraway stars (cosmic rays) by pushing them away from the Earth’s center and directing them towards the poles. That’s why the Northern and Southern Lights, created when incoming particles from the sun interact with Earth’s atmosphere, aren’t visible to most of the planet’s population. If we didn’t have the magnetic field, we’d see lights all over the Earth.

    We won’t have Earth's magnetic field forever.

    We won’t have the field forever. As the core cools and eventually stops spinning, the field will go away. Mars, for example, has a solid, cold core and no field (all of our outer planets -- Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune -- still have fields). Scientists aren’t sure what, exactly, will happen to Earth when our field finally goes away. They think all that solar wind and cosmic rays bombarding us might create a bunch of small holes in our ozone layer at low latitudes. At the very least, we’d probably get a lot more skin cancer.

    So here’s where the controversy comes in.

    Simulating and Modeling the Hidden Cosmos

    "The team behind Hayden Planetarium's latest space show, Dark Universe, including Neil deGrasse Tyson, detail the developments in research and technology that have enabled the show's unprecedented views of our galaxy." I really enjoyed this brief behind-the-scenes look at the process behind modeling and animating the visualizations that go into a modern digital planetarium show, in this case the Dark Universe show currently playing at the Hayden Planetarium in NYC and the Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco.

    Tested Explains: How Scientists Prevent Whales from Exploding

    Exploding whales are all the Internet rage right now--there's a beached blue whale at risk of doing so in a small Canadian town right now. And as much fun as it may be to watch giant, rotting corpses spew guts all over innocent bystanders, that’s not realistically how a dead whale usually goes out. Scientists in every ocean-facing state in the US very closely monitor all mammals that wash up on our nation’s beaches. Every time a whale hits sand, stranding teams with specialized educations and government permits head to the scene and, if the whale is dead, take quick action to necropsy it (autopsy on an animal).

    A blue whale carcass washed up last week in Trout River, Newfoundland, Canada. Credit: NTV News

    And there are two important facts about beached whales that have been left out of most of the stories you've read. First: You can vent a whale before it gets severely bloated, which scientists do all the time. Second: A whale is not going to explode unless you poke it.

    To get a better understanding of what really happens when a dead whale ends up on a beach I called up Ari Friedlaender, an assistant professor at the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University. He spent six years coordinating North Carolina’s Marine Mammal Stranding Program. During that time Friedlaender necropsied about 500 marine mammals, roughly 60 of which were whales. He says the majority of the time, scientists take a whale apart before it has a chance to become too bloated. It’s important to necropsy a mammal within two hours of washing up on shore -- that’s when the organs are most intact and useful for science. After 24 hours of sitting, the carcasses have decomposed too much to be useful for research. At that point scientists will come in, measure and deflate the body, cut it up, and bury it so that people can get back to enjoying their beach. Of all the whales he’s necropsied, only about 12 were so far gone that they couldn’t be used for scientific purposes.

    It’s extremely unusual for a whale to explode without human intervention. “Whales don’t blow up unless we make them,” he says. “All the videos that you see isn’t a whale blowing up by itself, it’s someone poking it or putting pressure on it. Left to their own devices the whale will naturally deflate on its own.”

    So how do you degass a whale? It’s all about getting the right angle. But first, let's explain why whale carcasses explode in the first place.

    SpaceX's Falcon 9 Reusable Rocket Rises to 1000m

    My brain is still struggling to reconcile this footage of SpaceX's latest Falcon 9 Reusable rocket test. The cinematography for these test launch videos is amazing, especially the aerial footage tracking the rocket as it crosses the horizon (filmed by a multi-rotor copter). There's a hyper-realistic look to the video--partially because of how stable the aerial camera is, and also because of how slow the rocket is moving as it achieves 1000 meters. A reusable rocket is the central piece of SpaceX's next-gen spacecraft plans, which include a Dragon capsule that will eventually shuttle astronauts to the International Space Station. "No trampoline needed."

    In Brief: How to Win at Rock Paper Scissors

    MIT Technology Review has details about a recent study carried out at the Zhejiang University in China on rock-paper-scissors strategy. Conventional thinking was that the best strategy for not losing in the long run was to choose your play at random--as defined by the Nash equilibrium mixed strategies solution of game theory. But the research done with 360 students at the university indicated that play choices were conditional and patterns emerged. Specifically, winners of one round tend to stick with the same action, while losers switch to the next action in a sequence (in the order of rock, paper, scissors). The researchers are preparing future studies to determine whether this type of conditional response is a basic decision-making mechanism or a byproduct of fundamental neural mechanism. Gambit play was not taken into consideration.

    Advanced Materials Testing with Everyday Objects

    For its new YouTube channel, GE's Global Research Center recently opened its laboratory doors to demonstrate its various advanced material testing procedures. Bur for a bit of fun, they put baseballs, toy cars, ceramic cups, and 37 other everyday objects into the their Micro Erosion, Forge, and Drop Weight testing machines. This compilation video shows all of their tests in a supercut, but each demo can also be viewed individually on this page. My favorite is the crushing of the rubber band ball under 100,000 pounds of pressure.

    Deciphering Buran, The Soviet Space Shuttle

    There are countless magazine articles and websites that pit the American Space Shuttle against the little-known Soviet version, and declare a winner…usually the Soviets. This is NOT that kind of story. I understand that deep-seated national rivalries make it difficult to refrain from choosing sides in any kind of Soviet/American comparison. However a cage match between these two shuttles makes no sense in the first place, as I’ll explain. Furthermore, such comparisons only serve to fuel the emotions of commenters who substitute objective engineering analysis with overzealous and misplaced patriotism.

    Buran enjoyed a single unmanned flight in 1988. Economic meltdown and the fall of the USSR were death knells for the Buran program. (photo source unknown)

    The American Shuttle was a very mature system with well over 100 flights to its credit. During the program’s four decades of development and operation, the design continually evolved to include both enhancements and concessions. There is no question that the Shuttle failed to achieve several goals set forth in its charter (namely low-cost). At the same time, it accomplished feats that were unimagined at the start of the program, like staying in service for more than 30 years…oh, and that whole International Space Station.

    The Soviet shuttle was a ship that showed tremendous promise, yet it was not even completed when it flew its single (unmanned) test mission in 1988. That the Soviet shuttle program never advanced beyond its first flight is a result of the USSR’s political and economic turmoil of the time…not any shortcoming of their design. If the program had evolved into a long-term operation as planned, there is no doubt that it would have endured an evolutionary cycle much like the US Shuttle. Only then would we know how the Soviet design lived up to its billing. And only then would a “shuttle versus shuttle” comparison of abilities and accomplishments be valid and fruitful. Alternately, I want to illustrate some of the fundamental similarities and differences between these rival spaceships and attempt to understand why the Soviet shuttle appeared as it did.

    Kepler Finds First Earth-Sized Exoplanet in Habitable Zone

    Over the last ten years, astronomers have discovered hundreds of exoplanets using a handful of techniques, but until now, most of those planets are either outside the habitable zone or are much larger than earth--think gas giants. A newly discovered planet, Kepler-186f, is the first planet in the habitable zone, the orbits around a star where formation of liquid water is possbile, of a comparable size to Earth.

    We don't know much about the planet, but Kepler-186f is about 500 light years away, it's about 10% bigger than earth by volume, and it orbits its M-dwarf star every 130 days.