For a friend's birthday present, Adam recently made this mock vacuum chamber and airtight space glove from scratch, and shows us how it works. The vacuum box is part prop and part puzzle--the user has to manipulate a set of nuts and bolts to complete a circuit and activate a sign. Best birthday present ever!
As we talked about on this week's episode of Still Untitled, Jamie and Adam visited the Gates Foundation to help Bill and Melinda Gates with a video to promote the 2014 Gates Annual Letter. The theme of this year's letter was exposing three myths that block progress for the poor, and it's an important read. Bill Gates, Bill Nye, and doctor Hans Rosling also starred in videos explaining each of the myths. You can find some behind-the-scenes photos from Jamie and Adam's trip here.
"The Infinite Hotel, a thought experiment created by German mathematician David Hilbert, is a hotel with an infinite number of rooms. Easy to comprehend, right? Wrong. What if it's completely booked but one person wants to check in? What about 40? Or an infinitely full bus of people?" A fun thought experiment to visualize the concept of infinity. Your brain starts to hurt at the two-and-a-half-minute mark. The full TED-Ed lesson is here.
What was most surprising about the cows last April in Camden, Australia was that they didn’t seem to care that what could have been a distant cousin to the Mars rover had strolled in from the lab and claimed authority in the paddock like it was the 4th rock from the sun. Apparently without allegiance to the humans who gave two hours a day moving them toward the milk barn or to the dogs who were cow-wranglers by trade, the robot that assumed the herding duties was simply accepted as a regular fixture in the daily routine of foraging, ambling, and evacuating milk.
The cows’ blasé response was the best possible outcome for University of Sydney researchers from both the Australian Centre for Field Robotics and the department of Veterinary Science, who had spent months considering how to mod the general purpose bot for interaction with the slow-moving livestock. Rounding up cows to for milking isn’t a particularly difficult chore for farmers, but it occupies an hour in the morning and another in the afternoon during an already jam-packed day. And in Australia, the task is often carried out on a quad bike, which is one of the leading causes of injury on a farm.
Kendra Kerrisk, an associate professor of veterinary science, whose work focuses the future of dairy farming, identified the cow-wrangling as ripe for automation: “In winter, it’s freezing and in summer it’s really hot and dusty. Farmers try to do the milking as quickly as possible and get the cows home faster than they’d go on their own, which is not a good situation.” See, a cow’s impressive 330-degree vision has a blind spot: the terrain just about to be explored with their hoof. Herded too quickly, and missteps could lead to stone bruises and lameness.
A day’s most admired quality, according to a heifer, is predictability. If programed to herd at a slow, consistent pace, thought Kerrisk, a robot could give cows the time they need to change locations, while also freeing up man-hours. So Kerrisk asked the Australian Centre for Field Robotics if they’d help her use their “perception research platform” for a test run.
Although the robot had been in agricultural service before, its previous post was in the orchard, surveying fruit trees to make judgements about ripeness and disease. Apart from getting one of its four wheels stuck in lumpy terrain or misjudging its proximity to a tree trunk (both unlikely), it was pretty low risk work. Working with cows would introduce new challenges.
Things I Won't Work With is a wonderful cautionary tale for chemists everywhere. Adam mentioned it in the latest One Day Build, while making a box for his stuffed beaver, but I've lost most of this morning to the horrifying tales of poorly understood, yet highly dangerous chemical compounds. Put another way, if you've read Phil Broughton's tales of radioactive horror and still wanted more, you'll like Things I Won't Work With.2
Genetic medicine is the bold new world that we’re just starting to explore, and people are pushing all kinds of boundaries within it. One of the most fascinating is transgenics – taking genes from one organism and putting them in another. It’s already been done with vegetables and simpler animals, but the time may come when humans will be getting genes from the entire animal kingdom. Here are the ten that we most crave.
"Meet RoboSimian, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's official entry at the DARPA Robotics Challenge in December 2013. Also known as "Clyde," the robot is is four-footed, but can also stand on two feet. It has four general-purpose limbs and hands capable of both mobility and manipulation. It came in 5th place out of 16 entries." The New York Times has a great overview (and video) of the competition and all the robots that competed. The winner of the competition was SCHAFT, a biped robot created by students from the University of Tokyo's Department of Mechano-Informatics.
Cinematographer Alan Teitel of UltraSlo gives us a macro perspective of a match head being lit, in slow motion. To get this clear 4000 FPS shot, Teitel had to illuminate his setup with over 2000 watts of light within 4cm of the match head, using mirrors. Teitel then shoots his footage using a Vision Research Miro 4 camera. (h/t Laughingsquid)
A big story we didn't get to cover last week was Google's announcement of its smart contact lens project, being developed by University of Washington engineering professors Brian Otis and Babak Parviz as low-power biosensors to detect low glucose levels in diabetics. The technology, described in detail in this Re/Code article, squeezes a tiny tear-activated glucose sensor and chip between biocompatible materials to make up contact lens. As Re/Code states, it's an application of Moore's Law that utilizes shrinking transistor sizes to make the tiny embedded chip possible. But as cool as a "smart contact lens" may sound, Techcrunch notes that it's a technology that researchers have been developing for a while, including Parviz himself in a collaboration with Microsoft Research. In terms of how this technology may be applicable to non-diabetics, Otis and Parviz says they're exploring embedding LED lights in their lenses for visual feedback--research we've written about before. And Om Malik's pragmatic analysis of Google's announcement is an opinion worth reading--as someone with diabetes, he wonders why Google's researchers didn't take alternate approaches that may be more accessible, like a smart patch. Malik points out that diabetic patients are actually recommended to not wear contact lenses at all.
North Korea has a volcano. About a millennium ago it had one of the largest eruptions in Earth’s history. You probably didn’t know. And that’s OK. Because North Korea is so closed off to outsiders, most people (even some scientists) had no idea. But science is really good at overcoming political roadblocks and recently a team of researchers made their way into the country to get a closer look at their active volcanic peak. Kayla Iacovino, a volcanologist and experimental petrologist on the team, chatted with us about how North Korean scientists differ from their Western counterparts and it was like to be the only American--and the only woman--trekking through the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
First of all, what the heck is an experimental petrologist?
A petrologist is a type of geologist that looks at the origins of rocks. Petra means rock. I specifically study the origins of volcanic rocks. I take rocks that I find in the field and I recreate the conditions in which they were formed. So essentially I make mini-magma chambers in the lab.
How do you do that?
I take rocks that I find in the field and I recreate the conditions in which they were formed. So essentially I make mini-magma chambers in the lab.
So, we have these big machines that essentially take a rock and put it under very high pressure and high temperature, which simulates the conditions in a magma chamber. Bubbles form and crystals grow. By looking at the chemistry we can understand the processes that happen in magma chambers to cause eruptions. It’s a field of research most people don’t know exist.
In order to say something about the real volcanic system, a specific one, we have to be able to have some kind of basic understanding of the volcano before starting the experiments. We have to go to the field and look at the rocks. The techniques are similar to structural geology. We look at the geometry of the rocks and how they’re related spatially and we can make hypotheses about the chemistry and then we can test them in the lab.
What exactly do you learn from reverse engineering the lava?
That part comes when we’re analyzing the rocks. We see what crystals are there and its chemical composition. We can make a hypothesis about the conditions under which it formed. And then we test the hypothesis by putting it under those conditions to see if what comes out looks like the rock we started with.
We can say: These are the conditions that it must have been under when it was in the volcano.
[Editor's note: This story was originally published on August 16, 2012. We're resurfacing it this week as part of our tribute to the great feature work that writer Wes Fenlon has done with Tested, as he embarks on his new career in games journalism.]
People tend to miss it, when they first walk into Robert Pearlman's office; their eyes are immediately drawn to the glass display cases full of astronaut flight suits, or the decades-old dehydrated food packets, or the bits of parachutes used to lower space capsules into the ocean half a century ago. He might tell them about the ballpoint pen he has that was used by astronauts on Skylab for two months in 1973, or a pressure glove worn into space by Russian cosmonaut Ulf Merbold in a 1994 Soyuz mission.
But at some point, visitors will turn around and see it resting against a wall: a four-foot-by-four-foot, 200 pound hatch built for the International Space Station.
The giant slab of metal "definitely monopolizes the conversation from that point forward," said Pearlman, whose home in Houston, Texas doubles as an office for CollectSPACE, a website he established in 1999. The ISS hatch--officially called a "common berthing mechanism hatch"--is one of only two in private hands. Pearlman is one of those two thanks to a CollectSPACE community member, who spotted the hatch in a Huntsville, Alabama recycling yard. Pearlman paid to have the hatch shipped to his home in Houston, Texas, where it now sits among 15 glass display cases and boxes of space artifacts there's simply no room to display.
Pearlman's collection comes with the job--or, perhaps more accurately, his job was born out of an endless passion for all things space. In 2003, he turned CollectSPACE into a full-time occupation, covering space history, current events (like the recent landing of Mars Rover Curiosity, which he witnessed from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California), and, of course, memorabilia.
CollectSPACE's message board serves as a home for space fans like Pearlman. Despite its attachment to one of the most important endeavors in human history, the hobby of space collecting had no real organization in the 70s, 80s and 90s. "There weren't conferences. There weren't conventions," said Pearlman. "[Collecting] really was in small pockets around the country."
Pearlman and I talked about how the Internet changed that, and how CollectSPACE grew to reach a readership of 4.5 million. But mostly he talked about artifacts of the space program, the rarest pieces every collector dreams of owning, and the magic ingredient that turns any relic into a must-have: moon dust.
We're fans of the application of science in all aspects of live, even in non-traditional venues. But there’s not a single element of human existence that can’t be improved by the addition of a little logical thinking – even the very illogical art of love. Today, we’ll share ten prescriptions backed by scientific research to improve your love life.
Silicon-based circuitry is so passé. Who wants to look at a circuit embedded in silicon when there are bendable, transparent, micrometer-thick circuits to gawk at? Such a thing exists, as a group of Swiss researchers have shown in their research paper "Wafer-scale design of lightweight and transparent electronics that wraps around hairs." As a proof-of-concept, the researchers have embedded a tiny transparent circuit in a contact lens. The circuit sits just over the pupil. You might need a magnifying glass to get a good look.
Smithsonian Mag explains that the circuit embedded in a contact lens could help monitor intraocular pressure of those who suffer from glaucoma, but this is just an early implementation of the tiny circuit. In the future, the researchers hope to use it in other areas of biometric science, implanted in the body after surgery to track blood pressure or unobtrusively attached to the skin.
The circuit's physical flexibility should make for wide-ranging implementations. The circuits "are printed on a one-micrometer thick layer of a substance called parylene" in a complex process, Smithsonian Mag writes. "To begin, the scientists deposit the parylene on vinyl polymer that provides support, then print the circuitry on top of the parylene. Afterward, the entire chip is placed in water, which dissolves the underlying polymer, leaving the ultra thin circuitry intact. The result is something that’s about one-sixtieth as thick as a human hair."
It's so thin, it can wrap around a human hair. Or a finger, in larger sizes. Now here's the bad news about this circuit's flexibility: It can't do everything by itself. It's a circuit, not a sensor or a battery, which means it needs to be paired with those things to read your blood pressure or serve any other biometric function. Before the circuitry is useful, it'll have to be paired with other similarly flexible and thin components.
That will take years. The good news, though, is those technologies are in the works, too. Remember that flexible battery we wrote about last year? Perhaps these two things are meant to be together. Converge faster, technology!
Here’s the thing about airplanes: In order to function at peak efficiency their wings have to be completely smooth. In engineering they call it optimal laminar flow--meaning air can move over the wings without any disruption. But there’s a big problem in achieving optimal flow when you take airplane wings out of an engineer’s wind tunnel and put them into use outdoors. Actually, it’s not a big problem. It’s a bug problem.
It’s kind of hard to believe, but even the smallest of bumps on a wing can mess up laminar flow. All those accumulated bug guts eventually mess up an airplane’s fuel efficiency by increasing drag. It’s a problem that folks have been attempting to solve for more than 60 years. The good news is NASA is on it. Their Langley-based bug team is working on finding the optimal material for repelling bug innards.
But why is this problem taking so long to solve? According to Mia Siochi, who heads up the team, when she was first tackling a similar problem more than 25 years ago their focus was on surface tension. They’d look at materials like those you use to create anti-stain surfaces on carpet or Teflon. “These materials let water bead on the surface. For things to stick they have to spread,” she says.
When a bug goes splat, its body goes through chemistry that thickens its fluids.
But the problem is that bug guts aren’t nearly as simple as water. Turns out, there’s some interesting chemistry that happens inside a bug when it’s about to die. “When the aircraft hits the bugs it’s going at around 150 miles an hour. That’s high impact dynamics. The components of the bug and the blood, it’s a lot of water, but there are a lot of biological components there too. The bug doesn’t know it’s been catastrophically destroyed. So it’s trying to heal. It goes through chemistry that thickens its liquids,” she says.
To counteract this problem, the team is now looking at more modern ideas. Specifically, superhydrophobic chemistry and biologically-inspired surfaces. By combining chemicals that repel water with surfaces that are textured on a microscopic level (like a lotus leaf) they have begun to have success.
To test how their new surfaces work, the team has reverse-engineered a vacuum pump to shoot instead of suck. It was a bit of a challenge because the bug has be alive until it hits the surface. If it gets smashed on the side of the gun on its way out the chemistry will be different once it hits its final destination. Once it smushes, they measure the characteristics of the bug residue--how big is the area that it spreads and how high it is?
According to Siochi: “This is uncharted territory in some ways. When we started we actually used bigger bugs. We thought: what’s alive and easy to get? It’s crickets. We started using a fan and a big opening and we’d drop the crickets in. But when you shoot too many you have bug splat on top of bug splat. And then we went to feeding a single bug in at a time.
We’re materials people. The aerodynamics expert told us our bug was too big. You wouldn’t be hitting a cricket with a plane. So we decided we had to go smaller, but how small? When I was doing the test 25 years ago we mounted samples to a car and drove around. This was at Virginia Tech and a professor of entomology there could look at the splats and tell which bugs were which. So for this project we went back to that table and tried to figure out what was the largest population of bugs that hit the car. So we got flightless fruit flies. And then we had to learn how to propagate them.”
There are so many cool things about this story. First, there’s the awesome fact that one of science’s biggest discoveries happened 1.5 miles below the icy surface of a frozen Antarctica glacier. Then there’s the fact that scientists detected a form of subatomic particle that passes right through solid matter. Actually, they didn’t just detect one, they detected 28 of them. It’s unprecedented. If you’re not familiar with a neutrino, they are subatomic particles released by fusion reactions happening in the sun (and other nuclear reactions around the universe). Trillions of them pass through us every second, but they never physically interact with matter, so it’s nearly impossible to know they even exist. Physicists at the IceCube observatory in Antarctica detected them by burying 5,000 sensors deep down in a glacier and looking for flashes of light released by debris that the neutrinos create. Now that science has been able to detect them, scientists say they are able to see the universe in a whole new way. In other words: we have just witnessed the birth of a new field of space science. How cool is that?!
Scientists have grown lots of human appendages in the lab over the years (remember that poor mouse with a giant ear on his back?) -- but this year’s growth was definitely the most miraculous. Researchers in Austria managed to coerce human stem cells to grow what they called “cerebral organoids.” In non-scientist-speak that means they grew braaaaaaaaains. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) The cerebral organoids are all only about the size of a pea (roughly equivalent to the size of a brain inside a nine-week-old fetus), but the cells self-organized into brain regions including an early hippocampus. They’ve already used the samples to recreate the development of a rare brain disorder. But there is so much more that science will learn from them going forward. Plus, in the case of an apocalypse, we can now synthesize little zombie snacks to avoid disaster! Woohoo!
OK, this was, like, a crazy amazing day. I barely know where to begin. Barely. But here goes.
Last night, as I was going to bed, I decided to see what kind of fun things there were to do with the gang while in Huntsville. I knew that Huntsville had a significant role in the American space program, so I looked up museums and found pay dirt: Space Camp! It's in Huntsville. I checked their hours and planned to bring the boys to the Space Camp museum when we all got up. Awesome.
I had no idea how awesome things were about to get.
At 9 a.m. Kelsey, one of our crew, knocks on the door. Turns out that Kelsey had been through Huntsville six years before and had been offered something really cool to do by one of the local crew, but she couldn’t do it then. He’d told her that the next time she came to Huntsville, she should look him up.
So she did. He remembered. What was his offer? To scuba dive in the astronaut tank at SPACE CAMP! And they were willing to take me and the boys. What? In the words of Keanu: "Woah!"
So we drove over there, and everyone at Space Camp couldn’t have been nicer. The tank we were to dive in was ideal: 95 degrees, 30 feet in diameter and 25 feet deep, with basically an underwater jungle gym inside.
The purpose of the tank is to give the kids at Space Camp a feeling of what it’s like to be an astronaut in 0-G. We spent about an hour underwater doing all sorts of great fun stuff like playing basketball with bowling balls, assembling some complex structures underwater, and generally swimming around and having a blast. The boys did great their first time SCUBA diving. They now are dying to get certified AND to come back to Space Camp next summer.
It gets better.
In 1971, two years after Apollo 11 landed the first men on the moon, Apollo 15 made a lesser-known historical footprint. Astronaut David Scott was the first to drive the lunar rover around the surface of the moon, but that wasn't his only achievement as the commander of the Apollo 15 mission. He also created a small memorial on the moon with a plaque dedicated to astronauts and cosmonauts who had died in service to the quest for the stars. Beside the plaque he places a small aluminum sculpture, three and a half inches tall, a human being in the abstract.
The sculpture came to be known as Fallen Astronaut, and was only briefly mentioned by the Apollo 15 astronauts as a tribute to their comrades when they returned to Earth. For decades, it was all but forgotten--but that was after it became the focal point of a controversy involving David Scott, NASA, and artist Paul van Hoeydonck, who created the Fallen Astronaut sculpture. Slate has the story about this forgotten piece of NASA history, told with interviews with van Hoeydonck and Scott, now in their 80s.
Fallen Astronaut started with an idea at the Waddell gallery in New York, where van Hoeydonck was exhibiting his work. The gallery's director proposed getting one of the artist's sculptures on the moon, and the idea stuck. Two years later, van Hoeydonck found himself rubbing elbows with astronaut David Scott in Cape Kennedy. Scott was interested in getting a sculpture on the moon, and van Hoeydonck had only two months before the launch to create it.
Perhaps more than most sculptures, Fallen Astronaut was formed by the demands of its environment. "There was the matter of fabricating a sculpture tough enough to survive on the moon, where daytime temperatures can hit about 250 degrees Fahrenheit and nights swing to about 250 below zero," writes Slate. "Van Hoeydonck approached Milgo/Bufkin, a Brooklyn-based foundry that started out making horse carriages but had evolved into a leading fabricator of metalwork for artists, to solve the dual aesthetic and technical challenge.
" 'The sculpture had to be small, and I was told by Scott that it was not allowed to be any race—not black, not red—not male, not female, and able to resist extreme cold and hot. So I had to design a thing like that,' van Hoeydonck says. The retro-futurist and spiritual overtones of his other sculptures mostly got weeded out in the process."
Fallen Astronaut made its journey to the moon in July 1971. But for months after, controversy was brewing.
For the seventh day of Tested Christmas, Norm shares something weird and wonderful that he first saw on the Internet. It's called Kinetic Sand, and it's like the Gak of sand: looks normal but has some truly funky properties. It holds its form but then falls apart like a fluid when you handle it. Just one of those things that we can't stop playing with!
Kids learn a couple basic truths about cats from a young age. They always land on their feet after a fall; they purr when they're happy; they chase mice. That last bit of common wisdom about cats may actually be the key to their domestication more than 5,000 years ago in China.
The setup: A new paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences includes archeological evidence linking together a chain of events that led to the domestication of cats. In the beginning, we were but two species. In the end, we were united in a mutual war against the mice.
"The story begins with agriculture," writes The Atlantic. "About 5,560-5,280 years ago in the Shaanxi region of central China, humans were experiencing an agricultural boom...They had small villages, with clusters of homes, cemeteries, and communal areas. They kept pigs and dogs and grew crops, primarily millet but a bit of rice, too, which they kept in ceramic vessels. Now, these farmers had a bit of a problem: rodents."
You can probably guess where this story goes. There were cats around, and those cats ate the rodents, which kept the farmers' millet safe. Humans realized keeping the cats around was advantageous, so they didn't kill them, and even began to offer them food and shelter.
So that's the end of the story. It's logical, and unremarkable. But something about it is remarkable, if you ask this question: How did archeologists figure all this out? That story's more involved.