Latest StoriesLife
    Octopus-Inspired Robots Can Grasp, Crawl, and Swim

    Video of a robot developed by The BioRobotics Institute in Italy, which explores high-dexterity soft-bodied robots that mimic the movements of an Octopus. It's not just the form of the robot that takes inspiration from Octopuses, but also the way its limbs are controlled. From IEEE Spectrum: "Rather than relying on top-down instructions from the central nervous system, many of an octopus’s movements happen almost spontaneously–the result of the physical interplay between the animal’s body and its surrounding environment." Read more about this robot and its biomimicry lessons here.

    Beastcam Photogrammetry Rig Scans Live Animals

    Biology processor Duncan Irschick of UMass Amherst introduces the Beastcam, a four-camera rig that can rapidly take photos of live animals for generating 3D photogrammetry models. The rig, which was conceived of when Irschick found it challenging to 3D model a live shark, can shoot 60 photos in about 15 seconds. The photos are sent through software like Autodesk's 123D Catch and used to study body form in animals and complex movements. Irschick hopes to take it back to Florida to test it on a shark!

    Competition to Make Real-Life Star Trek Tricorders

    The technology imagined by science fiction has driven lots of innovation and interesting research. The Tricorder XPRIZE is a competition to create a device that replicates the functionality of Star Trek's medical Tricorder--one piece of hardware that can diagnose and monitor health conditions.

    Meet Pleurobot, an Amphibious Salamander Robot

    We meet Pleurobot, a Salamander-like robot that can both walk on land and swim in the water (with a wetsuit!) Kishore, our new science correspondent, chats with professor Auke Ijspeert of the EPFL about how Pluerobot's movements were programmed and how biorobotics engineers studied the physiology of salamanders in making this robot.

    Photo Gallery: The Dinosaurs at the Royal Tyrrell Museum

    Much of my past two weeks was spent in Calgary, Alberta where some of you suggested a visit to the Royal Tyrrell Museum in nearby Drumheller. I'm so glad I made that trek--it ended up being one of the highlights of my trip. The paleontology museum is filled with incredible displays of dinosaur fossils and skeletons, including quite a few T-Rex's. The exhibits are beautifully arranged and lit, making them really fun to photograph as well. Here are a few of my favorites from the visit.

    Aging Suit Simulates Experience of Old Age

    Speaking of conceptual transhuman experiences, here's video of an "aging suit" that simulates the experience of being 75 years old. The Atlantic's James Hamblin tests this exoskeleton, which limits movement, impairs hearing, and blurs vision (to approximate cataracts). It's the latest invention of technologist (and ex-Imagineer) Bran Ferren's Applied Minds, and is intended to get people talking about issues around aging and long-term care.

    In Brief: Real Life Goat Simulator

    Our buddy and former writer Matt Braga reports on an experiment by English speculative designer Thomas Thwaites, who recently investigated what life would be like living as goat. As in, Thwaites donned custom limb prosthetics and lived among goats for a few days in the Swiss Alps. The bizarre experiment is more performance art project than scientific endeavor, but totally worth it for the surreal photographs.

    Norman
    I'm Fascinated By the Tree of 40 Fruit

    I've been into the idea of grafting, attaching a branch from one tree to another similar species, since I was introduced to the technique as a kid. Sam Van Aken grafts branches from 40 species of fruit tree to make a single gorgeous tree that bears 40 different kinds of fruit. Horticulture meets art! (via kottke)

    How Life Finds a Way in Earth's Extreme Environments

    "Life will find a way." That mantra isn't just true in Jurassic Park; nature's resilience is particularly noticeable in some of Earth's most extreme environments. From super-high flyers to super-deep swimmers, there's no shortage of strange evolutions on our planet that allow animals to perform some truly bizarre and nearly impossible feats in order to survive. A new exhibit at New York City's American Museum of Natural History rounds up some of the world's most extreme adaptations. Here's a look at just a few examples of the bizarre behaviors of Life At The Limits.

    Extreme Temperatures

    Frilly Leech — Even though it's own habitat almost never freezes, the frilly leech can survive 24 hours submerged in liquid nitrogen (-320f) in the lab. They can be stored up to 9 months at -130F and one was once revived after 2.5 years in the deep cold.

    Tardigrades — These tiny organisms, also known as water bears, can survive being completely dehydrated. They make proteins that revive their cells when water is introduced, coming back to life in as little as 4 minutes. They also can survive temperatures down to near-absolute-zero (-458F) and more than 302F.

    Ice Worm — Just like it's name says, this worm lives its entire lifecycle inside the glaciers of Alaska. If they get too close to the air and they feel sunlight warming the surface they burrow down deep to get away from the heat.

    The 10 Weirdest Creatures Hidden Deep In Earth’s Oceans

    A little over 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered with water, and because of our useless, clumsy lungs we can’t really explore it as much as we’d like. The sheer diversity of ocean life is unbelievable, especially when you head down 20,000 feet or more below the surface. Let’s commandeer a metaphorical bathysphere and discover some of the most bizarre animals living down in the depths of the ocean.

    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.

    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
    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.