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    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.

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    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.

    Boiled Potatoes Make Ten Times Better Batteries Than Raw

    Far back in Tested's history, Will and Norm undertook a bold experiment: Harness the power of the potato. Many raw potatoes were wired together into a battery, providing a medium for the current to travel from one electrode to the other. The acidity of the potato turns it into a rudimentary battery cell. Alas, the Tested potato battery never came to life. It couldn't power an LED or a digital clock. Turns out, the Tested potato battery had one fatal flaw: Its potatoes weren't boiled.

    Researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem discovered that potatoes boiled for eight minutes can produce a battery that's ten times more powerful than a plain old raw potato. Of course, raw potatoes have worked in science experiments for years. The Tested battery could've functioned without boiled potatoes. But boy, would it have been better.

    Photo credit: Flickr user arselectronica via Creative Commons

    Good enough to serve as a substitute battery to those who can't afford the real thing, even. Smithsonian Mag writes:

    "Using small units comprised of a quarter-slice of potato sandwiched between a copper cathode and a zinc anode that’s connected by a wire, agricultural science professor Haim Rabinowitch and his team wanted to prove that a system that can be used to provide rooms with LED-powered lighting for as long as 40 days. At around one-tenth the cost of a typical AA battery, a potato could supply power for cell phone and other personal electronics in poor, underdeveloped and remote regions without access to a power grid."

    As the fourth most abundant crop in the world, potatoes could be a virtually limitless, dirt cheap energy source. Limitless in the sense that they'd be easily replaceable, that is--we're not going to be launching rockets into space or powering Teslas with potato batteries. "Compared to kerosene lamps used in many developing parts of the world, the system can provide equivalent lighting at one-sixth the cost; it’s estimated to be somewhere around $9 per kilowatt hour and a D cell battery, for another point of comparison, can run as much as $84 per kilowatt hour," writes Smithsonian Mag.

    Of course, the power of the boiled potato isn't a cure-all. Potato batteries will only be effective when they won't eat into a critical food supply, and the places where potatoes are grown aren't necessarily the places that need potato power. Still, if you could light a room for 40 days with a few potatoes, that could have an enormous impact on places where power is a rare commodity.

    Science Uncovers the Explosive Force Behind Beer Tapping

    Even if you really, really like beer, you've probably never compared drinking a brew to the dramatic impact of a nuclear bomb. That would just be...excessive, right? Pure exaggeration. Or not.

    While the act of drinking a beer doesn't have much to do with a nuclear explosion, the act of tapping a beer bottle on its top, hard and fast, does. If you've ever been the victim of a beer-tapping prank, you know the beer will basically explode out of the bottle, turning most of its contents into foam and fizzling away. Physicists say the effect is not so different from a nuclear explosion. Minus the nuclear part.

    Photo credit: NPR

    NPR writes that physicist Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez and his team at Carlos III University in Madrid "have figured out that a stiff hit on the bottle's top sets off miniature explosions inside the beer. These tiny blasts create mushroom clouds similar to those generated in the air by an atomic bomb."

    Rodriguez said that " the laws of physics that control the development of these beer mushroom clouds are the same as [those that drive] the development of the cloud in an atomic bomb."

    Rodriguez and his team filmed beers with high speed cameras to crack the case of the beer tap. Eventually, they broke down the chain reaction that was happening.

    A tap to the top of a beer bottle sends a wave traveling through the beer. The glass bottle can also compress, compounding those waves. Very small bubbles in the beer pulsate as they're hammered by the waves. Eventually, they can't take the impact, so the little pockets of gas collapse into clouds of smaller bubble fragments.

    Then things get exciting. Rodriguez says "The carbon dioxide has an easier time to get into the bubbles because of the increase in surface area. So they grow very, very fast." As the bubbles grow, they become lighter, so they float to the surface of the beer. "The faster the bubbles rise, the faster they grow, because the mixing with carbon dioxide is more efficient," Rodriguez says. And so the bubbles feed on their own energy, becoming an unstoppable foamsplosion. Once tapped, there's no way to stop the reaction.

    The Weird Science Behind Feline Clipnosis

    The loose skin around a cat's neck makes for a perfect hand-or-mouth grip, as evidenced by mother cats--from house cats to lionesses--carrying their cubs around in a gentle neck grip. After some impressive research, io9 discovered why that grip is so effective. The answer has to do a myth about cats called clipnosis, which io9 describes as " the phenomenon whereby a cat is rendered suddenly immobile by a gentle squeezing of the loose skin on the back of its neck." Despite the term sounding sketchy--anything invoking hypnosis is going to be a little suspect--it turns out that clipnosis is a very real effect.

    Scientists have studied clipnosis by placing a few binder clips along the loose skin of cats' necks. And then, bam, the cats are immobile. Clipnosis sounds like a myth, but it's actually true.

    Photo credit: Flickr user williamspictures via Creative Commons

    "Led by Tony Buffington, a professor of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at Ohio State University, the study examined the effectiveness of clipnosis by placing – what else? – standard 2-inch binder clips along the neck-skin of 31 cats," io9 explains. "Much to my relief, Buffington and his colleagues referred to the phenomenon not as 'clipnosis' but as 'pinch-induced behavioral inhibition,' or 'PIBI.' "

    PIBI, then, is a better way to refer to clipnosis. There's no hypnosis involved, but the pinching is creating a very real response in cats. They become passive and their tails curl up between their legs. And it's not like their bodies are frozen while their minds are freaking out. "The cats' pupils did not dilate – a physiological response often seen in fearful animals– and their heart rates did not increase," io9 writes. "Nor did their breathing quicken. The cats also remained responsive, in contrast with cats seen to exhibit what is called 'tonic immobility,' whereby the animal will freeze and become entirely unresponsive in the face of highly threatening stimuli."

    Buffington's conclusion was that the response was meant to make it easier for mother cats to pick up and carry their cubs. Young cats are easier to pick up and carry when they go limp. Buffington's study didn't answer why PIBI works, but other studies have found that the response isn't just present in cats. Similar responses happen in dogs, rabbits, mice, even humans. Researchers have found a number of systems contribute to the physiological response in mammals. We have evolved to experience a calming effect from being held by our mothers.

    Want to know more about PIBI? Check out this paper by zoologist Stephen C. Gammie.

    Scientific Mysteries We’re No Closer To Solving

    It seems like just about every day we read about a new breakthrough that shakes the world of science to the core. But, that said, there are some things that we’re still totally stumped on. Today, we’ll spotlight ten scientific mysteries that people have been working on for generations and we’re no closer to answering. It's stuff like this that keeps us curious about the world.

    The Weirdest Experiments Scientists Performed On Themselves

    It’s not science if you don’t test your hypotheses, but sometimes there’s no test subject in the lab. That didn’t stop these ten valiant men and women, who went balls-out in the name of scientific progress and used their own bodies as guinea pigs. Read along as we explore the ten weirdest experiments scientists performed on themselves.

    Cold War Science Had Ambitions to Weaponize the Weather

    In sci-fi, terraforming often runs hand-in-hand with weather control systems. Reshaped paradise planets offer changes in weather programming on command--constant bright, sunny skies, interspersed with the occasional pleasant shower or cool breeze. Weather control is even possible, to some extent, thanks to research that stretches back to the 1940s. When scientists first proved they could control the weather, both the United States and the Soviet Union's governments quickly came up with potential uses for atmospheric domination. They'd use the weather as a weapon.

    Paleofuture author Matt Novak writes that weaponized weather control was a popular notion during the Cold War. The idea began with an artificially created snowstorm in late 1946. General Electric Research Laboratory sent a plane up to 14,000 feet to release dry ice into the clouds. Their experimented resulted in snow falling from the clouds--not exactly sci-fi touch-a-button-to-make-it-rain weather control, but still a successful breakthrough. In 1953, the US established the "President's Advisory Committee on Weather Control" to analyze how the government could control the weather. And if it should.

    "Methods that were envisioned by both American and Soviet scientists—and openly discussed in the media during the mid-1950s— included using colored pigments on the polar ice caps to melt them and unleash devastating floods, releasing large quantities of dust into the stratosphere creating precipitation on demand, and even building a dam fitted with thousands of nuclear powered pumps across the Bering Straits," writes Novak. "This dam, envisioned by a Russian engineer named Arkady Borisovich Markin would redirect the waters of the Pacific Ocean, which would theoretically raise temperatures in cities like New York and London. Markin's stated purpose was to 'relieve the severe cold of the northern hemisphere' but American scientists worried about such weather control as a means to cause flooding."

    A man controlling the weather with the buttons and levers of a control panel made the cover of Collier's Magazine in 1954. Novak goes on to quote weather scientist Dr. Irving Langmuir, who compared the energy released by creating clouds with silver iodide to the power of the atomic bomb.

    And in 1958, a newspaper predicted that there will be satellite equipment for predicting (hey, not bad!) and controlling (hmm...) the weather. It also predicted that "huge solar mirrors five or more miles in diameter may be used to reflect radiation of the sun to specific areas on earth to increase evaporation and to prevent crop-killing frosts." That sounds pretty great. Why don't we have those?

    Well, here's one reason why. While the Cold War was still marching on, dozens of countries signed the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques in 1977. The treaty encouraged countries to push forward the science of environmental study, and to work together to do so. But that fun, dangerous planet-wrecking military stuff? That was out.

    Parties had to agree "not to engage in military or any other hostile use of environmental modification techniques having widespread, long-lasting or severe effects as the means of destruction." Those techniques were further defined as any technique for changing — through the deliberate manipulation of natural processes — the dynamics, composition or structure of the Earth, including its biota, lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere, or of outer space." And that was more or less the end of weather warfare.

    Urinal Dynamics: How To Avoid Splash

    BYU's Splash Lab (yep, a real department at the University) recently conducted a series of experiments in urinal dynamics--the study of the physics of bathroom usage. Using high-speed video and simulations of male urination in both toilets and urinals, the researchers prescribe the best angle of attack to reduce hazardous splash. Their recommendation: aim for a vertical surface and at a decreased angle to reduce bounceback, and stand close enough to the urinal to prevent the stream from becoming individual droplets before they hit the surface. Maybe it's time to move those urinal fly decals.

    RoboRoach Beta Released, Stirs up Controversy

    When we first linked to Backyard Brains' RoboRoach Kickstarter, you guys were divided over the ethics of a kit to control cockroaches with an electronic backpack to direct its movements. Well the Kickstarter was successfully funded (barely), and Backyard Brains has just put on sale the first batch of its beta kits at $100 each. That's spurred new protests and debate over whether the kit is cruel to the cockroaches, since it's unclear whether these insects can feel pain at all. BBC News reports on some critics' concerns, including the worry that this device will "encourage amateurs to operate invasively on living organisms", while Backyard Brains maintains that its goal is to get kids interested in neuroscience. To me, it sounds more like a precursor to the plot of Joe's Apartment.

    Norman