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    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: The Science of Designing Slot Machines

    Among all the artifice and constructs in a Las Vegas casino, none may be more engineered to entrance visitors and suck their wallets dry than the venerable slot machine. The evolution of the one-armed bandit is the topic of this Vox feature, which chronicles the many innovations and psychological tricks that slow machine designers employ to keep players in those ergonomic stools. These games are another example of activities that tap into psychological "flow"--even the architecture of the casino floor is designed to make the most persistent players feel like they're holed up in a private nook, free from the outside world. It's pretty scary stuff. MIT cultural anthropologist Natasha Dow Schull, who was interviewed for Vox's report, has written a book about the ongoing manipulation of human-[slot]-machine interaction, and was previously featured in this 2013 episode of 99 Percent Invisible.

    Norman
    10 Dirty Secrets Of Big Cruise Ships

    Cruises are popular options for vacationers who like to get rid of the stress and uncertainty of traveling. But all’s not well below-decks on these massive cruise ships. Today, we’ll expose ten dirty secrets of the big cruise ships.

    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.

    The Case for Leaving Shipwrecks at the Bottom of the Ocean

    For over 500 year historians have wondered: where in the world is Christopher Columbus' lost ship? The Santa Maria was the largest of three ships to sail across the Atlantic on Columbus' first voyage, but the only one to sink.

    In May, a well-known undersea explorer by the name of Barry Clifford announced he may have found the missing ship off the coast of Haiti. It's there that records say the Santa Maria hit reef and met its watery end. But if that turns out to be the case, don't expect to see the Santa Maria's salvaged remains on display in a museum anytime soon. Removing a wreck from the ocean floor – particularly a very old wreck such as this – is often the last thing that archaeologists and historians want to do.

    An artist's interpretation of the grounding of the Santa Maria.

    In 2001, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) published a document with the aim of strengthening the protection of so-called underwater cultural heritage sites – environments that have traces of human existence with cultural, historical or archaeological character, and have remained in water for at least 100 years.

    As far as wrecks are concerned, "The preservation in situ of underwater cultural heritage shall be considered as the first option before allowing or engaging in any activities directed at this heritage," the document states. The short version is that leaving the ship and its artifacts where they were found – in situ – might actually do more to preserve and conserve the site than raising them from the water. But there are and have been exceptions.

    "The principle is that, yes, you can still recover things if they're threatened," says Marc-André Bernier, chief underwater archaeologist for the government agency Parks Canada. "If there is a research question that you can only answer by excavation then it's justified. But the principle is that if it's somewhere, it has a sense in that place, so if you can, you should try to leave it there."

    In other words, context is important. And once you excavate a shipwreck, you lose details about its history and fate. "The site or the shipwreck has a story to tell. And when you excavate it's like reading a book, which is the story of a ship. But the pages disappear as you read them," Bernier says. "And if you don't take notes and record everything, you're only relying on your memory."

    But leaving a shipwreck in situ can sometimes be just as damaging as recovering the remains.

    10 Awesome Museums Not Open To The Public

    Most museums out there you can get in for a couple bucks (or even free), but the ten repositories of knowledge in this list are a little trickier. They’re museums that close their doors to average Joes like you and I, only allowing entrance to a lucky few. Full of secrets and mysteries, these are 10 awesome museums not open to the public.

    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."

    The Weirdest Things The US Government Keeps Underground

    If you want to keep something safe, burying it deep in the ground is a pretty solid choice. The brain trust in Washington knows this, and they’ve commandeered many different caves and underground facilities around the Continental United States. Today, we’ll tour these subterranean bunkers and see what weirdness lies beneath our feet.

    Tested: Grinding Coffee at 2000 Frames Per Second

    We're testing high-speed cameras this week, and to kick things off, here's a test of the Edgertronic camera, shooting coffee being ground at 2000 frames per second. That turns a ten-second clip into 10 minutes of awesome slow-mo goodness. So grab a cup of coffee, put on your favorite adult contemporary album, and enjoy action.

    In Brief: Uploading Our Brains

    The trailer for Wally Pfister's upcoming movie, Transcendence, worries me. It's not just because despite a prestigious cast of Christopher Nolan collaborators (Pfister was Nolan's cinematographer for years and this is directorial debut), the film looks pretty derivative. It's because of how the film portrays and sensationalizes the idea of artificial intelligence singularity, a concept popularized by current Google engineering director and A.I pioneer Ray Kurzweil. Since 2008, Kurzweil's notion of a computing singularity has been creeping into the public consciousness, with a high-profile Hollywood movie being a potential tipping point for awareness. It either becomes something the public starts to take seriously or brushes off as science-fiction fantasy. The former can be a slippery slope to controversy. But the concept of uploading our consciousness is not new at all, even in pop culture. Star Trek has explored the idea numerous times, notably in the original series episode The Ultimate Computer. The idea has its own TV Tropes page. In real life, neuroscientists are investigating the idea of a "Connectome"--a complete mapping of a single brain's synaptic connections. A snapshot of the brain, if you will. There's even a startup that wants to develop a non-invasive and cost-effective procedure to do it, lowering its cost to that of gene mapping. This Motherboard interview explores some of those concepts with Brain Backups' founder. One interesting assertion: mapping all the connections in a single brain would take between 1,000 and 10,000 terabytes of storage. Seems appropriate for the Petabyte age.

    Norman
    Collapsing Soda Can at 4500 FPS

    Youtuber Grant Thompson, who runs the King of Random channel, demonstrates a soda can immediately collapsing on contact with ice water. The trick is that the soda can was filled with a small amount of boiling-water-turned-steam, which cools so fast when the can hits the ice that it creates a vacuum that crushes the can. It's a neat demo, which also makes a good time to remind you that we're soliciting ideas for high-speed video ideas as well to test a new high-speed camera. Post what you'd like to see filmed at high-speed (~1000fps) in the comments below!

    In Brief: The Origin of Sherlock's Mind Palace

    Series three of the BBC's Sherlock has come and gone, and yes, it was fantastic. (Despite an uneasy relationship with fandom). This season of the show leaned heavily on the concept of Sherlock's "mind palace," which while ripe for pop culture adoption as a novel symbol of the titular character's quirkiness, also turns out to be a real memory technique. The Smithsonian explores the Greek origins of the memory palace, which was used by orators to recall long speeches. Cognitive psychologists have historically pegged human working memory as able to store around 7 (plus or minus two) objects. This TED talk by a winner of a US Memory Championship (a real thing!) covers similar ground, and offers more practical advice. Videos from these competitions is intense. I learned about the memory palace concept as part of my cognitive science studies in school, but have never found it personally effective. My preferred memorization technique: chunking.

    Norman 1
    Surprising Things Scientists are Learning about Memory

    The human body is relatively well-understood. The human mind? Not so much. That lump of gray matter sitting in our skulls has millions of mysteries waiting to be unlocked, and one of the biggest is memory. We have a general idea of how memory works on a macro level – individual neurons get connections strengthened or weakened – but there’s a lot going on under the hood. Today, we’ll examine ten fascinating new discoveries and theories in memory science.

    10 Genes We Would Want from Animals

    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.

    What Science Prescribes for Your Love Life

    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.

    At NASA, Bugs Get Splattered for Science

    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.

    Photo credit: Flickr user tabor-roeder via Creative Commons

    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?

    Photo credit: NASA

    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.”

    12 Days of Tested Christmas: Super Weird Sand

    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!

    Was That Robotic Telemarketer Actually a Lifelike Soundboard?

    Is Samantha West a robot? If you haven't heard of Samantha West, she's the owner of the bubbly voice that recently called TIME Washington Bureau Chief Michael Scherer's cell phone. She was selling cheap health insurance. But despite the very human inflections in her voice, her questions and responses sounded canned. When Scherer asked Samantha "What vegetable is found in tomato soup," she couldn't answer.

    TIME did some reporting, calling Samantha's number back, and confirmed she was a robot, responding with the same pleasant lines, the same pleasant laugh, and the same insistence "I am a real person." She definitely wasn't. But is Samantha West actually a robot? The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal had a different theory.

    "I wondered: where could I buy such an interactive voicebot?" he writes. "This query led me down a strange rabbit hole. And along the way, I discovered that Samantha West may be something even stranger than a telemarketing robot. Samantha West may be a human sitting in a foreign call center playing recorded North American English through a soundboard."

    The Mechanical Turk.

    Madrigal decided to look for a way to buy a robot like Samantha West, if such a thing exists. If Samantha is a voicebot, he reasons, we'd be getting way more calls like this way more often, because as soon as a new, efficient type of spam is possible, it's widely used. With some smart Googling he landed on the phrase Outbound IVR, or interactive voice response. He also discovered outbound IVR is usually pretty simple--the kind of robotic voice that calls you up and tells you you have an appointment, but not one that can hold a whole conversation.

    After talking to some sources in the outbound IVR business, the conclusion seemed obvious: Samantha West was not a robot. She was too fast, and too good at responding correctly, even with a limited dialogue set. Check out Madrigal's full article for a great quote section from someone in the industry, who lays out exactly why Samantha couldn't be a robot.

    Photo credit: Flickr user spikenzie via Creative Commons

    So Samantha West isn't a person, but she's not a robot, either. What is she? The most logical answer: She's both. Samantha West is likely a person in a foreign country, or someone with a foreign accent, using a soundboard with pre-recorded responses to interact with customers. They understand English well enough to process what people are saying more quickly than a machine could, but they respond with the pre-recorded voice because most Americans will likely respond more positively to the recorded voice than one with a strong accent.

    And, in many situations, the soundboard will be good enough. They won't always need to deviate from the script. It's a more logical explanation, and perhaps a bit sad, since it implies there's a higher success rate selling insurance with a canned voice than a real person speaking with an accent. It's also a little disappointing, because it means Samantha West almost certainly isn't a robot. And how cool--if scary--would that have been?

    Taking Photos Can Make Us Forget What We Photographed

    When you go to a concert and take a photo or video of the band playing your favorite song, are you preserving that moment, or wasting it? Maybe you never take your phone from your pocket and hate the people who do, or maybe you think that you'll look back at that photograph, years later, and use it to focus your memory on a moment you really loved.

    Well, according to a new study, taking a photograph may not help you remember a moment. In fact, it's more likely to make you more forgetful, according to an article published at Fast Co.Design on Thursday.

    "Fairfield University psychologist Linda Henkel believes...the more easily people can take and access pictures...the less inclined they may be to remember the moment itself," Co.Design writes. " 'You're just kind of mentally discounting it--thinking, 'Well, the camera's got it,' " Henkel tells Co.Design."

    Photo credit: Flickr user omcoc via Creative Commons

    Henkel performed a study to test out her theory, which she calls the "photo-taking-impairment effect." She sent out a group of people to check out specific pieces in the Bellarmine Museum of Art at Fairfield University. Some pieces the participants were asked to observe and do nothing else. Others they were asked to photograph, and a few more came with instructions to photograph specific details. The next day, Henkel showed the participants the names of pieces they'd seen, and some they hadn't. She asked if they remembered seeing the pieces, and whether they photographed them.

    "Simply put, they took the picture and missed the moment."

    "Test participants recognized fewer objects they'd photographed whole than those they'd observed on their museum tour (from both the list of names and the roster of pictures)," Co.Design writes. "They were also much less accurate in recalling visual details of museum objects they'd photographed whole, compared with those they'd only observed. Simply put, they took the picture and missed the moment."

    But there was a catch to the experiment.

    Science Looks to the Butterfly to Develop Advanced Hydrophobic Surfaces

    The Lotus effect is one of those elements of nature science has envied, and attempted to copy, for many years. The surface of the lotus leaf is incredibly water repellant, and hydrophobic coatings are based on studies of the lotus leaf and other elements in nature that demonstrate a similar effect. And now science has discovered an even more impressive hydrophobic surface in nature: a butterfly's wings.

    And not just any butterfly, those butterflies do, in general, have hydrophobic wings that can help them survive a downpour. Smithsonian Mag writes that the blue morpho butterfly of South America's rainforests has special ridged patterns on the surface of its wings. Their wings are even more adept at staying dry than the lotus leaf.

    How does the lotus effect work, anyway? In both the blue morpho butterfly and the lotus leaf, a ridged surface is responsible for casting off unwanted water droplets. Ask Nature offers a deeper explanation:

    "Lotus leaves, for example, exhibit extensive folding (i.e., papillose epidermal cells) and epicuticular wax crystals jutting out from the plant's surface, resulting in a roughened microscale surface. As water and air adhere less well than water and solids, roughened surfaces tend to reduce adhesive force on water droplets, as trapped air in the interstitial spaces of the roughened surface result in a reduced liquid-to-solid contact area. This allows the self-attraction of the polar molecule of water to express more fully, causing it to form spheres. Dirt particles on the leaf's surface stick to these droplets, both due to natural adhesion between water and solids and because contact with the leaf surface is reduced by over 95% from the leaf's micro-topography. The slightest angle in the surface of the leaf (e.g., caused by a passing breeze) then causes the balls of water to roll off due to gravity, taking the attached dirt particles with them and cleaning the leaf without using detergent or expending energy."

    MIT engineering professor Kripa Varanasi, whose research team developed LiquiGlide--known for helping ketchup ooze freely out of a bottle--has written about the potential of making even more hydrophobic surfaces by reducing the contact time between water droplet and surface. His latest paper explains how a greater number of tiny surface ridges will cause droplets to break into smaller droplets, which bounce off a surface more quickly. That minimizes surface contact and makes for a dryer pair of Dockers. Or airplane wings that won't build up dangerous frost, or perhaps windshields that clean themselves.

    Varanasi's latest study reduced the surface contact time by about 40 percent. He's shooting for a 70 - 80 percent reduction.