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    In Brief: Examining the Woodward Effect

    Have you heard of the Woodward Effect? It's a decades-old theory for a method of generating thrust without expending mass--basically limitless propulsion without the need to refuel. It's no wonder that this concept has been used to fuel theoretical engine designs for spacecraft. Steady acceleration without the need for propellants sounds too good to be true, so BoingBoing visited the office and laboratory of Dr. James Woodward to learn about his theory and see an application of it in an experimental thruster. Real-world science is sometimes stranger and more awesome than fiction.

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    ISS Astronauts Put a GoPro in a Floating Water Bubble

    We haven't posted a video shot by Astronauts on the International Space Station in a while, but that doesn't mean they're not shooting awesome stuff up there! Here's a recent one that is especially cool: "During Expedition 40 in the summer of 2014, NASA astronauts Steve Swanson and Reid Wiseman - along with European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst - explored the phenomenon of water surface tension in microgravity on the International Space Station." And because tours of the ISS are always fun to watch, here's the most recent one shot by Astronaut Reid Wiseman, travelling from the very back of the station to the very front!

    The Challenges of Hybrid Vehicle Design

    My recent article on the OverDrive flying car design, triggered some debate about the practicality of hybrid designs. The comments were primarily focused on flying cars and floating cars, but all aspects of modern civilization teem with examples of hybrids. It seems an inescapable human desire to combine two good things in an effort to make one great thing. Some amalgams have achieved stellar results, perhaps even becoming a defining cultural element (think cameraphones). Others fade into a purgatory of ridicule and obscurity.

    The OverDrive concept hybrid car.

    The conversation made me question why some hybrid ideas flourish when others fail, even if the base components are individually successful. It is not something that I had ever given much thought to, but I began to wonder if there is a common link between the failed hybrid attempts. Today, I want to compare a handful of successful and failed hybrid concepts and attempt to determine why their relative outcomes were so varied.

    What is a Hybrid?

    The first question to be answered is how to define a hybrid, and there are many meanings. In its simplest form, a hybrid can be two or more widgets combined into a single unit. Perhaps each part is still intended to perform tasks independent of the other parts (ex. Swiss Army knife), or maybe the parts work in unison (ex. eraser-tipped pencil). Either way, it is the combining of these otherwise discrete tools that creates the selling point of the item.

    In examining these types of hybrids, I think it is important to differentiate whether an aspect of a design is a fundamental element or just a feature. For example, most cars have clocks. We don’t call them clock-cars simply because the clock is a feature rather than a core facet of the design. It’s just a car, not a hybrid…unless it also has wings, or a hull, or two types of engines.

    Another form of hybrid is the combination of two different tools that are used for similar jobs. The point is to utilize the best attributes from each tool to improve some aspect of the end item’s overall performance, such as efficiency, power output, reliability, or dependability. In this column we find things such as the diesel-electric locomotive and turboprop engine. We could even include mules (yes, the animals) and genetically-engineered seeds.

    It doesn’t take long to figure out that hybrids of all types saturate our world. For the purposes of this examination (and at the risk of excluding pertinent data), I will focus on nuts and bolts machines. More specifically, I will stick to legacy military hardware, since such items tend to have well-documented requirements as well as performance data.

    In Brief: Startup Touts Working Hoverboard, Launches Kickstarter

    Let's hope this isn't like that Funny or Die hoax from earlier this year. Hendo is a startup that just launched a Kickstarter for a hoverboard, claiming to have created a working prototype of a hovering skateboard. Their hoverboard system using four focused magnets to keep the board and someone standing on top of it afloat over a designated surface. Yep, there's the catch: the Hendo hoverboard only works when placed above non-ferromagnetic conducting surfaces, like metal sheets spread over a half pipe. Hendo isn't being very forthcoming about how its "Magnetic Field Architecture" engines work, but Nerdist' Science Editor explains it as such: "Henderson’s MFA technology is then apparently creating and fluctuating a magnetic field above a metallic surface, and the induced current in that surface provides enough of a response that you can drop in on a metal [surface]." The Kickstarter is offering backers one of ten production boards for $10,000 each (already four sold!), and developer kits with the magnetic "engines" and metal surfaces starting at $300. Working hoverboards? Auto form-fitting fabrics? Everyone wants to get in on the promise of 2015. Put me firmly in the skeptical category.

    Norman 7
    Tested Asks: How are Holograms Made?

    While in New York, Norm stops by Holographic Studios, one the last remaining independent holography galleries and holography studios still operating. Its founder, Jason Sapan, has spent almost 40 years practicing the art of holographic imagery. We figure he's the best person to explain to us what exactly is a hologram, and how they're painstakingly made.

    In Brief: Skepticism about Lockheed's Fusion Reactor Ambitions

    Lockheed's announcement that its Skunk Works division had made a theoretical breakthrough in developing a compact fusion reactor got people very excited this week. The idea of a clean, safe, and compact way to produce nuclear power easily spurs the imagination (as well as Mr. Fusion references). And even though Lockheed's own engineers admit that it'll be 5-10 years before they can put their theories to practice in a viable reactor, they seemed confident in Lockheed's videos. Less optimistic are the nuclear physicists who want to remind us just how difficult it is to implement small-scale fusion. The dissenting voices are always worth reading to get a better understanding of breakthrough claims. I found a few here, here, and some good points on Reddit's thread on the topic. At least this seems more credible than the latest Cold Fusion claim.

    Norman 5
    MIT and Columbia Labs Run Cable Coiling Simulations

    "Engineers at MIT, along with computer scientists at Columbia University, have developed a method that predicts the pattern of coils and tangles that a cable may form when deployed onto a rigid surface. The research combined laboratory experiments with custom-designed cables, computer-graphics technology used to animate hair in movies, and theoretical analyses. The researchers say the coil-predicting method may help design better deployment strategies for fiber-optic cables to avoid the twisting and tangling that can lead to transmission glitches and data loss."

    University of Rochester's Optical "Cloaking"

    "Researchers at the University of Rochester Create a Three-dimensional,Transmitting, Continuously Multidirectional Cloaking Device Inspired perhaps by Harry Potter's invisibility cloak, scientists have recently developed several ways-some simple and some involving new technologies-to hide objects from view." I know the Rochester researchers and most of media are calling this "cloaking", but this clever optical trick is far from the invisibility cloak of science fiction and fantasy. The simplest version of this setup uses four off-the-shelf lenses to focus light around objects placed between them, but only for a specific region (eg. in a ring around the edge of the lens, but not at the center). And while the demonstrations in this video show a small lens system being used, it apparently can be scaled up as larger lenses are used. Neat stuff. Research paper here.

    In Brief: Death Valley's Sailing Stones Mystery Solved

    The mystery of Death Valley's famous moving stones has finally been solved. For almost a century, geologists have been puzzled by the movement of stoves along a dry lake bed called Racetrack Playa in the California desert. The moving stones, which weigh up to 700 pounds, travelled up to 3000 feet in their journey, seemingly without any human or animal assistance. To study their movements, geologists in 2011 tagged 15 rocks with GPS loggers and time-lapse cameras, and even buried magnetic triggers beneath some to test popular theories. They found the perfect combination of light wind and layer of thin ice on the lake bed was the cause of the movement. In the video below, Scripps Oceanography paleooceanographer Richard Norris describes the discovery.

    Norman
    In Brief: Physicists Make a Tractor Beam in Water

    Have you ever sat in the bathtub or swimming pool and made waves on the surface of the water with your hands to push or pull away a rubber duck? That's the basic idea behind what Australian physicists have been experimenting with in what popular media is calling "tractor beams" in water. Researchers at the Australian National University released a paper in Nature Physics describing how precise generation and manipulation of surface flows in a pool of water can force small objects to move against the direction of the resulting waves--returning to the source of the water disturbance. Computer models and tank experiments show how complicated and precise the movements have to be to get a desired result, but the researchers are hopeful that their discovery could be applicable for real-world tasks like collecting oil spills.

    Norman
    MIT's Gravity-Defying "Magnetic Hair"

    "MIT engineers have fabricated a new elastic material coated with microscopic, hairlike structures that tilt in response to a magnetic field. Depending on the field's orientation, the microhairs can tilt to form a path through which fluid can flow; the material can even direct water upward, against gravity." More information here.

    OverDrive: The Flying Car on Kickstarter

    Over the years, I’ve learned to expect the unexpected from my friend and former NASA colleague, Fitz Walker. I’ve long been aware of his engineering and fabrication talents from projects that I have collaborated with him. Fitz has a secretive side too. The true depth and breadth of his skills always seem to be revealed through random, casual conversations: “That thing? Oh, that’s my RC submarine…I’ve been building them for years.” “What? I didn’t tell you that I built an electric motorcycle?”

    Fitz’s most recent bomb was borderline atomic. He confided that he has spent years working with a team to create an honest-to-goodness flying car--which many consider to be the holy grail of engineering challenges! I was able to get him to divulge a few details, and later met with the project’s originator and driving force, Mitchell LaBiche. I caught Mitch just as he was preparing to launch a Kickstarter campaign for his project. He provided deep insight into his design as well as the regimented approach that he has taken to avoid the pitfalls that foiled so many other flying car entrepreneurs.

    The LaBiche Automotive OverDrive is a flying car project that looks more like an Italian supercar than airplane. Attractiveness was one of the development team’s primary design requirements.

    Tested: You call your flying car design “OverDrive”. How did the concept develop?

    LaBiche: During my early years of flying, I became stranded or delayed at a few destinations on multiple occasions. One such event was when I became stranded at an airport for three days and could not take off. However, just 50 miles away, the weather was clear. If I could have moved my plane down the road to the clear weather, it would have turned my disastrous weekend into a mere inconvenience. That event got me to start thinking of a better way to own, use, and integrate civil aviation/personal aircraft into everyday life.

    During that time, I was employed as an engineer working on the Apache helicopter program and had envisioned that what I (and others) wanted was some sort of vertical takeoff, personal air vehicle. The plan changed when I took a friend’s suggestion to ask a few people what they wanted…and possibly turn my personal project into a money making venture. I invested three years and lots of money in marketing questionnaires which produced over 3,000 data points. From that, I found that what most people actually wanted was a not a vertical takeoff machine, but a personal travel vehicle that could both fly fast and go down the road. That changed everything.

    OverDrive's proposed conversion from car to plane. (Click to play)

    The original R&D project (named the FSC-1, for Flying Sports Car #1 under the LaBiche Aerospace banner) was started to see if a marketable flying car could be designed and built. After nearly 20 years of continuous, low-level development, it was deemed ready to move on to the next phase as a real product in 2012. A new sister company was formed (LaBiche Automotive) and the FSC-1 became “OverDrive” to sell the vehicle under a new name indicative of a product for the advanced automotive market.

    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.

    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."

    How Scientists Visualize Sound with a Photography Trick

    You can actually see sound waves as they travel through the air thanks to a clever photographic trick. NPR's Adam Cole, who runs the the Skunkbear science Tumblr, produced this video explaining how scientists use a technique called Schlieren Flow Visualization--the combining of two mirrors, a barrier, and a high-speed camera--to visualize the effect of sound waves through space. It's the same technique used to visualize other "invisible" processes, like the turbulence around an airplane wing or rising heat from a hot surface.

    Tested Explains: What The Heck is Inflation Theory?

    If you were conscious on Monday you probably heard there was big news out of the physics community. So big, in fact, that there’s already talk of Nobel prizes and jokes about Einstein patting himself on the back for being proven right...again. Let’s be honest though, big physics news is always kind of hard to understand. There’s always GeV’s and B-modes and jargon and, well, math. So, in the event that you’d actually like to understand what the heck everybody is talking about right now I called up my favorite theoretical physicist, CalTech’s Sean Carroll, to help explain the theory of inflation for those of us that don’t do physics. Here it is, in the simplest possible terms.

    Image credit: California Academy of Sciences

    The universe is the same everywhere we look. No matter where we point our telescopes out into the 14 billion light years of space in all directions, we see the same density of stuff. Same amount of matter and number of galaxies. Same gravitational field. The universe is even basically the same temperature everywhere.

    The theory is that in the very first fraction of a second after the big bang happened, the universe expanded into existence.

    It’s awfully smooth, flat, and uniform -- and there’s gotta be a reason why. Inflation theory explains. Simply put, the theory is that in the very first fraction of a second after the big bang happened, the universe expanded into existence. In other words, everything, everywhere existed all at once and it happened faster than the speed of light.

    That’s it. Pretty simple, right? Well, it sounds simple. Until you try to prove that it’s true. Since we can’t go back in time to watch the creation of the universe (whomp whomp), the best way to know that theory is right is to look for leftovers of its aftermath. So scientists have been trying to spot evidence that the rapid inflation of the universe messed with gravity.