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    Weird Ways Your Brain Triggers Pleasure

    The brain is a fascinating thing. Over our lifetimes, it makes billions of unique neural connections to guide our behavior towards pleasure and away from pain. But pleasure is a fascinating thing, and some very unlikely stimuli can make us feel it. Today, we’ll explore nine things that scientists, doctors and mindhackers have done to give themselves good feelings.

    Awesome Jobs: Meet Ann Ross, Forensic Anthropologist

    When someone is murdered, the medical examiner isn't always able to discover the cause of death. Sometimes, especially in cases where a body has been buried for a long time, they have to call in a scientist that specializes in understanding how bones work. Ann Ross is a forensic anthropologist and the co-director of the Forensic Sciences Institute at North Carolina State University. It's her job to help authorities find buried bodies and inspect their bones to help puzzle out what brought about their demise. Ross chatted with us about what it's like to adapt tricks of the archaeological trade to find success in her unconventional field work.

    What's a forensic anthropologist?

    That's a good question because I always ask people what they think it is and I get so many different answers! It's the applied discipline of biological anthropology or skeletal biology. We are experts on bones. A lot of skeletal biologists are dealing with prehistoric or past populations but we apply that to contemporary issues or issues of the law.

    What kind of law? Is it crimes that have happened recently?

    Not necessarily recent. A lot of time we're experts in the tools that make some kind of pattern on the bone or a trauma. The medical legal community, the medical examiner, or law enforcement need our help in identifying the class of weapon that make the wound. Or was the fracture made at around the time of death or post mortem.

    The skeleton can tell us so much. We can tell everything that you do in life--it's almost mapped on your bones.

    Where is your lab? Do you work out of police offices?

    Most of us work in the university context. Quite a few of us work in medical examiner offices. There are other government agencies that contract forensics or have one on staff. I work at North Carolina State and when there's a case I get a phone call or an email. It can be from a medical examiner's office or the sheriff's department or the SBI. Generally it's remains that I need to see. I either go pick them up or bring them to the laboratory. A lot of times we reexamine cold cases. So it can be as old as the 70s or as recent as a year ago.

    10 Weird Ways Inventors Want To Harness Energy

    As fossil fuels dry up and human consumption continues to increase, scientists are starting to get a little worried about how we’re going to power our civilization moving forward. Sure, alternative energy sources like solar and wind are already gaining a foothold, but we need more. Today, we’ll examine ten inventors who want to get juice from some very unusual sources.

    Watch SpaceX Rocket Launches in 4K

    SpaceX just uploaded this montage of its recent rocket launches (but not landing attempts) which were shot in 4K resolution. YouTube 4K is pegged by some reports at around 15mpbs, though Google recommends that 4K source files are encoded at 35-45mbps. Regardless, the footage looks spectacular, even if you're viewing it on a 1440p monitor. Happy Friday!

    In Brief: The Mystery of Dancing Droplets

    Back in March, Stanford researchers announced that they had found an explanation for an interesting phenomena: droplets of food coloring on glass spontaneously move and interact with each other. From the Stanford Report: "A puzzling observation, pursued through hundreds of experiments, has led Stanford researchers to a simple yet profound discovery: Under certain circumstances, droplets of fluid will move like performers in a dance choreographed by molecular physics." Super cool, thoughtfully explained, and the video (below) is beautiful.

    Norman
    In Brief: Stanford's High-Performance Aluminum Battery

    Stanford University recently revealed the work of scientists and students at its Precourt Institute for Energy. Their invention: an aluminum battery that they claim is fast-charging, inexpensive, flexible, long-lasting, and resistant to damage. These are all advantages over Lithium-based batteries we use in electronics today, but the experimental Aluminum batteries are only capable of outputting low voltage--about 2V. That's still more than an AA battery, and about half the output of typical lithium ion batteries. The researchers' breakthrough was pairing graphite for the battery's cathode with aluminum for its anode. A brief video explaining their battery is below.

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    In Brief: Apollo Flight Control Consoles Explained

    An oldie but a goodie: Ars Technica's Lee Hutchinson explains the role and purpose of each control station in NASA's Apollo-era Mission Control room, which was restored in 1992. Lee, a friend of Tested, interviewed retired NASA Flight Controller Sy Liebergot to go through every console and panel in the hallowed operations room. We've previously shared photos of other Mission Control Centers from space agencies around the world and taken photos at JSC's MCC during our visit back in 2013.

    Norman
    10 Upcoming Products That May Change Modern Life

    It’s an exciting time to be alive – the pace of human progress is faster than it’s ever been, with fantastic scientific innovations hitting the market seemingly every day. Just as the Internet and other technologies have changed the world in our lifetime, some upcoming products might just do the same. Here’s our guide to ten technologies that could be near-future gamechangers.

    10 Weird Things About Traffic And Your Commute

    Although more and more people are working from home, the telecommuting revolution hasn’t extended to everybody quite yet. Most of us still have to hop in our cars and commute to work every day. Today, we’ll dive deep into your daily drive to reveal some unexpected elements that influence your commute.

    The 10 Foods That Make Your Urine Smell The Most

    The human digestive system is a truly wondrous machine, capable of processing a wide range of inputs into just a few outputs. One of those necessary waste products is urine, a normally clear or yellowish liquid secreted by the kidneys that helps clear out the nitrogen and other byproducts created by cellular metabolism. Typically, urine has a mild odor, but your diet can affect it in a number of ways. Let’s take a trip through your kitchen to find the foods that do a number on the odor of your liquid waste.

    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)