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    Octobot Doubles Its Speed with Webbed Arms

    From the Foundation for Research & Technology's Institute of Computer Science: "Adding a soft silicone web to a small robotic octopus helps the machine hit the gas. The first robot shown propels itself by snapping shut rigid plastic legs. The second bot uses flexible silicone legs and moves at about the same speed. The third robot zips along faster, using silicone arms and a web that helps it push through water." Material science and animal biology come together in this robot's clever mimicking of an Octopus. Read more at Science News.

    In Brief: Stunning Macro Photos of Animal's Eyes

    Photographer Suren Manvelyan has shot unbelievable macro shots of different animal's eyes and posted them on his Behance portfolio. The shots are absolutely stunning, but as you browse through the three galleries of images, you'll start to see the different evolutionary paths that have shaped the eyes of a variety of creatures. I'm partial to this shot of a basiliscus lizard's eye, which could double as a planet in an upcoming sci-fi movie. (via Laughing Squid)

    Will
    The Secret to Smarter Robots: Ants

    Your cat is stuck in a burning building too dangerous for rescue crews to go inside, so off go the drones instead – five little unmanned aerial models that hover and flit through fiery beams and door frames without any human control. They know to spread out to cover more ground, and know how to adjust their search patterns when the communication links with the other drones go down. Their algorithms find and retrieve your cat in what rescue crews tell you is record time.

    Or that's the dream anyhow, to one day build artificially intelligent, self-organizing robot systems that can collaborate on complex tasks – or, at the very least, rescue imperiled cats. We're not there yet, but researchers have been getting closer, thanks in part to what we're learning from the collective behavior of ants.

    Photo credit: National Geographic

    Look back through artificial intelligence literature from the past few decades and you'll find ant-inspired algorithms are a popular topic of study. Of note, Swiss artificial intelligence researcher Marco Dorigo was the first to algorithmically model ant colony behavior in the early 1990, and Stanford University biologist Deborah Gordon published her own study on the expandable search networks of ants a few years after. Today, both have different but related ideas on how we might implement so-called ant-inspired swarm intelligence in robots – and perhaps soon, drones – outside of the lab.

    Consider, for example, how ants explore and search. Ants change the way they scour for things such as food and water depending on the number of ants nearby. According to Gordon, if there is a high density of ants in an area, the ants search more thoroughly in small, random circles. If there are fewer ants, the ants adjust their paths to be straighter and longer, allowing them to cover more ground.

    Photo credit: NASA

    This is all well and good in typical ant environments – but how do the ants adapt when interference is introduced, and their communication with other ants interrupted? To find out, Gordon sent over 600 small, black pavement crawlers to the International Space Station in January, and believes that studying how they react to the unfamiliar microgravity of space could help build better robots. Her research is especially prescient in the age of the drone.

    In a Stanford news release, Gordon likened the interference introduced by microgravity as "analogous to the radio disruption that robots might experience in a blazing building." Depending on how Gordon's space ants adapt, she thinks the results when applied to robotics and artificial intelligence could help us program more efficient algorithms for search and exploration – especially when our robots are faced with unfamiliar environments, and with little to no human control.

    In Brief: Why Your Best Thinking Happens in the Shower

    Wired Science has an interesting blog post about why our best thinking seems to happen when we're in the shower. According to psychologists, it's because the shower is a perfect situation for our brains to enter the "default mode network," a mental state in which the environment seems to fade and you become more aware of your internal thoughts. Kind of like an out-of-body experience. Activities like showering (or building LEGO!) engage a part of your brain to keep you just mentally active enough to be stimulated, but still allow for you to have an uninterrupted stream of thought for those eureka moments. It's also known in psychology as a state of "Flow." Earlier this week, we tested Birdly, a virtual reality apparatus that attempts to put your brain in that state of flow--by giving you the sensation of flying like a bird. We'll have video and a writeup recapping it soon!

    Norman 2
    In Brief: The Origins of the "10% Brain Power" Misconception

    Adam linked us to this good story on Gizmodo examining the origins of the common misconception that we only use 10% of our brains. Neuroscience and psychologists researchers in the early 20th century attempted to quantify how much of our brains (by mass) that we use for everyday activities, to find a correlation between brain mass and cognitive capacity. That line of thinking endures, as a means to explain latent cognitive potential. Of course, we actually use virtually all of our brain, and recent studies have shown that most of our brains are active over the course of a day, even if not all at once. Further reading on the topic here.

    Norman 1
    The Science and Mysteries of Booze

    We sit down with Adam Rogers, author of the book Proof: The Science of Booze, to discuss the what modern science and ancient history have to teach us about alcohol and humanity's complicated relationship with it. Grab a refreshing beverage and join us for a spirited conversation about society's favorite poison.

    Awesome Jobs: Meet Martin Nweeia, Narwhal Expert (and Dentist!)

    Martin Nweeia knows more about narwhals than almost anyone in the world. More specifically, he’s probably the world’s foremost expert on narwhal tusks. But Nweeia is only sort-of a marine mammal biologist. He’s actually a practicing dentist and a clinical instructor at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine. This guy knows from teeth. So, while it might seem weird that he studies narwhals, if you think about it, there’s some sense to his in-depth knowledge of these whales’ toothy protuberances. We chatted with Nweeia about why the narwhal tusk is one of the weirdest teeth in the world and what it’s like to wade into the arctic waters of Canada’s Northwest Territories with Inuit guides to get a closer look at the real-life unicorn of the sea.

    What exactly is a narwhal?

    It’s an arctic whale with an extraordinary tooth.

    So, maybe it’s not so strange that you’re a dentist studying a whale...

    For everybody else it’s unusual. For me it’s OK. At the heart of things I’m a curious kid. As I went through my dental education I was equally fascinated by people. I had a very strong interest in anthropology that went parallel with my interest in science. These two fields would intersect. For a long time I was interested in dental anthropology, but I happened on the narwhal because I used to give talks and give examples of how teeth would express themselves in nature.

    The narwhal seemed like a good example of an unusual tooth. But it didn’t make sense to me. And the more I read about it the less sense it made.

    Why doesn’t it make sense?

    This is a whale that eats pretty big fish and when you look inside its mouth it has no teeth. If i’m eating large fish, that might require chewing and biting, why give up all those teeth and put all of the energy into growing one giant tusk?

    But there are also lots of the little things that don’t make sense. When you think of teeth, on both sides of a mammal's bite you’d expect them to be the same size and have a mirror image morphology or shape. In narwhals it couldn’t be more opposite. It doesn’t even fall within any parameter of any creature ever known on the planet.

    If you look at the narwhal’s, its tusk comes out of the left side. When you see photos of them, they angle their body so the tusk appears straight in alignment with the horizontal axis. But if you look at them still, clearly the tusk is coming from the left side. The tooth on the right side often stays embedded in the skull.

    You’ve got a tooth on one side that’s between a foot and a foot and a half and on the other side it’s 9 feet. Even in the rare instance when the narwhal has two tusks, the right is usually less in length from the left. The erupted tusk is on the left side or on both sides, or none. Never on the right by itself.

    10 Strange Features Of Sea Creatures

    For all of our scientific advances, the ocean is still a place of incredible mystery. The overwhelming biodiversity of underwater life has spawned a panoply of organisms that can do things no other living thing can. Today, we’ll spotlight ten ocean animals that have completely unique features.

    Put a Camera On It: How Scientists Use New Tech to Study Sharks

    Researchers are totally obsessed with understanding sharks right now. One of the major reasons why is that the world’s most successful hunters have been elusive and difficult to study. They’re constantly on the move -- some species migrate thousands of miles every year. But thanks to all sorts of new technologies, and some innovative scientists finding unconventional ways to use that tech, shark behavior is finally starting to come into the light. Here’s a look at some of the more innovative ways scientists are using tech to study sharks.

    Image credit: Carl Meyer

    Underwater Cameras

    Scientists may have captured and tagged some sharks, and observed their behavior from the surface of the sea, but very little is known about how they behave when no one’s looking. The least studied part of shark behavior, for example, is how they interact with each other or other species of shark. So Carl Meyer and his team at The University of Hawaii worked with Japanese company Little Leonardo to build cameras small enough to fit on a shark’s fin without hindering their movement.

    What they found once the cameras were in the ocean shocked them. Local reef sharks -- just a few miles off the coast of their own research base -- were mingling with all sorts of different shark species, including Hammerheads. The team was able to see feeding behavior and even some frisky swimming as sharks chased around members of the opposite sex.

    Above: Camera-equipped male sandbar shark swims in close proximity to the reef, startling reef fishes, before heading across open sand to find and pursue a female sandbar shark. Credit: University of Hawaii (Carl Meyer)/University of Tokyo (Katsufumi Sato)

    Meyer calls the cameras “data flight recorders for sharks” and says that thanks to the research they now have the first true sharks-eye-view of the ocean. Going forward they’re hoping to gain a better understanding of sharks eating habits by seeing the hunt from the sharks’ perspective.

    Why Do We Laugh?

    From The Atlantic: "Laughter is universal, but we know very little about the reasons we do it. Dr. Robert Provine has been studying the social and neurological roots of laughter for 20 years, and has come to surprising conclusions about how we operate as human beings." (h/t LaughingSquid)

    We Are Made of Dead Stars

    From The Atlantic: "Every atom in our bodies was fused in an ancient star. NASA astronomer Dr. Michelle Thaller explains how the iron in our blood connects us to one of the most violent acts in the universe-a supernova explosion-and what the universe might look like when all the stars die out."

    Frank Reese Raises Heirloom Chickens

    Prior to the industrial food revolution of the last century, there were hundreds of chicken breeds. Now that a handful of companies produce the vast majority of chicken we eat, the diversity of poultry breeds has plummeted and many breeds are lost. Frank Reese is working to save rare breeds on his Kansas farm. (via The Plate)

    The Teddy Bear and Our Shifting Relationship with the Natural World

    "In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt legendarily spared the life of a black bear - and prompted a plush toy craze for so-called "teddy bears." Writer Jon Mooallem digs into this story and asks us to consider how the tales we tell about wild animals have real consequences for a species' chance of survival - and the natural world at large." Mooallem is the author of Wild Ones, a great book about the eccentric cultural history of Americans and our relationship with wild animals and the natural world. Mooallem also performed this lovely reading from his book in an episode of 99 Percent Invisible.

    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.

    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.

    Norman
    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 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: 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.

    Awesome Jobs: Meet Linda Gormezano, Polar Bear Poop Tracker

    Understanding the changing dietary habits of polar bears is the key to seeing how climate change and shrinking polar ice is affecting their lifestyles. And the best way to know what’s happening with their diet? Look at their poop, of course! Linda Gormezano, an ecologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, has trained her dog Quinoa to help her find the best samples left by bears as they cross the frozen Canadian tundra. Gormezano chatted with us about why poop is such a useful scientific specimen and what it’s like to spend months living in a camp in the heart of polar bear country.

    A grouping of adult male polar bears along the coast of western Hudson Bay in summer (photo credit: Robert F. Rockwell)

    What’s ecology and how does it apply to polar bear research?

    Ecology is the interaction between animals and the environment. What we’re studying is how polar bears behave on land with respect to available food -- what they eat and where they eat it. What I’m particularly interested in is how they hunt other animals and how the calories they gain from consuming them are going to affect their annual energy budget as their access to ice becomes more limited.

    We collect scat and hair samples non-invasively. After consuming food on the ice or on land some bears leave scat. Also some bears rest right along the coast, bedding down in sand and grass where they leave hairs behind, while others head further inland and leave hair in dens.

    Linda Gormezano and her dog, Quinoa. (photo credit: AMNH)

    What, exactly, is an energy budget?

    Nobody really knows how often polar bears in western Hudson Bay capture seals, but they get a certain amount of energy from consuming seals they hunt out on the ice and that energy allows them to survive on land for 4-5 months each year. If the ice melting earlier each year causes polar bears to have less time to hunt seal pups in spring, they may be taking in fewer calories over the course of the year.

    What we want to know is, now that they’re eating more of certain types of foods on land, what kind of energetic benefits might polar bears be experiencing? Up until now many have thought what they were eating on land wasn’t really helping them at all. To evaluate this, we are examining the energetic costs and benefits of capturing and consuming those foods as well as how often the behavior occurs. Only then can we determine whether these foods could help alleviate nutritional deficits that polar bears may come ashore with.

    Inside the Operations of the Cryonics Institute

    "We Will Live Again looks inside the unusual and extraordinary operations of the Cryonics Institute. The documentary short film follows Ben Best and Andy Zawacki, the caretakers of 99 deceased human bodies stored at below freezing temperatures in cryopreservation." The Cryonics Institute is one of only a handful of facilities in the world that offer cryonics services, in an industry estimated to have over 250 deceased humans currently cyropreserved. Wired explored those facilities in 2012. Cryonics is just one field of research being conducted by those to who hope to evade death; The Immortalists is a new documentary that follows the research of two scientists in search of a way to reverse aging.