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    Rebuild
    Hackett is Popular Science‘s intrepid DIY ​columnist.
    Becky Stern

    English philosopher Thomas Hobbes believed that men living in anarchy would lead “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” lives. So as much as I’d enjoy rebuilding civilization from piles of trash after an apocalypse, I’d first worry about a way to send petrol-marauding punk rockers scrambling and make infectious zombies take a dirt nap. 

    A gun would do the trick. That is, until my ammunition ran out. Then I’d just have an awkward club. A crossbow, on the other hand, would mean business: The weapon has a fierce reputation for raw power and accuracy, and ammo can be made or retrieved with relative ease.

    Going into this build, my crossbow knowledge was limited, but I knew I wanted something quiet, compact, and powerful enough to punch through our contemporary version of armor: a car. If my crossbow could shoot through a car door, I reasoned, then it would be a success. 

    A bowed weapon’s strength is measured by its draw weight in pounds. The greater the pull on the prod (or bow), the more energy a bolt (or arrow) will deliver. I recovered a leaf spring from a truck chassis thinking it’d make a good prod. The power estimates I calculated seemed crazy, yet valid: Bending the 3/8-inch-thick bar just two inches could pull 500 pounds. That kind of tension, coupled with a dense bolt, would create a force to be reckoned with. 

     

     

    I fashioned whatever I could find in my scrap bin into functional parts. I made a receiver to hold the trigger from an old metal pipe, and a winch from a threaded rod and hoisting hooks. An aircraft cable served as a string, a six-inch chunk of rebar as a bolt, and a discarded bike seat as a shoulder brace.

    After days of tinkering, it was time to fire the crossbow—and that’s when the leaf-spring prod revealed a disastrous flaw. Years of bouncing along roads created hidden stress fractures in the metal, which, partway through cocking, burst into shrapnel. (Luckily, none of it hit me.) I plan to rebuild the crossbow with a new leaf spring, but the surest post-apocalypse plan is to raid a sporting-goods store for a bow and some arrows. I’d never give a medieval archer a run for his money, but at least I’d send the dimmest zombies lurching elsewhere.

    Warning: Don’t even think about attempting this project. You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.

    This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Popular Science.

     









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    The ship Okeanos Explorer set out last Thursday across the Gulf of Mexico for a three-week, deep-sea expedition… and you can follow along! The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is livestreaming the whole trip. So far, the expedition has explored some gas seeps on the ocean floor and snapped a photo of an underwater brine pool. In the coming weeks, Okeanos' crew will send out remotely-operated vehicles to examine coral beds, deep-sea canyons and 200-year-old shipwrecks. You can watch the expeditions three streams right here. The streams should show feed from the remotely operated vehicle's camera when it's underwater, views of Okeanos' deck when the expedition is not making a dive, and one view of the real-time data scientists are seeing streamed to their command center on dry land.

    As of this writing, Okeanos' science crew just dropped its remotely operated vehicle in to see some coral! Missed the coral bed dive? You can check what the expedition plans to do next under the "Latest Status Updates" section of the Okeanos site. Okeanos will make dives in the Gulf of Mexico until April 30.

    The Okeanos crew uses a remotely operated vehicle named Deep Explorer that's able to descend 6,000 meters under the sea. Last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ran a similar expedition with remotely-operated vehicles that explored a series of extinct underwater volcanoes off the New England coast.









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    photo of Robonaut 2 holding a handrail with one of its feet
    Robonaut Grips Handrails With Its Feet
    NASA

    Update, 4/14/14: The SpaceX launch that was supposed to bring Robonaut 2 its legs has been postponed. The Falcon 9 rocket has a helium leak, NASA tweeted. R2 responded to the news on Twitter:

     

    . . .

     

    The International Space Station's humanoid robot is getting a pair of legs. The fresh gams are scheduled to go up to space today aboard a SpaceX-operated resupply mission.

    Before this, Robonaut 2—the first humanoid robot in space—did not have legs. It was just a torso mounted on a short post. The new limbs will give R2 a decidedly spidery nine-foot "leg span." The legs are also a bit more flexible than most humans'. They have seven joints each, plus pincer-like feet that are able to grip handrails and sockets inside and outside the space station. The feet even have small cameras to help them identify grips. So now R2 will be able to move around the space station and work with both hands while keeping itself in place in microgravity using its feet.

    photo showing a Robonaut 2 with its legs
    Robonaut 2's New Legs
    NASA

    Researchers are developing Robonauts to perform repetitive or dangerous tasks aboard the space station, so human astronauts don't have to. Humans can tele-operate the robot or program it to do some things autonomously. Kind of like an intern, however, R2 is both working and learning at the same time. Since it first flew to space in 2011, it hasn't done a lot of helpful tasks. Instead, it's undergone a number of experiments checking its ability to push buttons, flip switches, and use tools that people normally operate. In 2012, NASA announced R2 did its first helpful bit of work, checking air flow in the ship. It's also used the station's RFID inventory scanner.

    [NASA]









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    Spring blooms
    Cherry blossoms in Japan, from trees whose seeds weren't taken into space.
    208236 / YouTube
    Japanese astronauts took hundreds of cherry tree seeds with them to the International Space Station in 2008-2009, after which they were planted in several locations throughout Japan. About 265 seeds were taken from a celebrated old tree outside a Buddhist temple in Gifu, in central Japan, that is thought to be 1,250 years old. One of the space seeds was sprouted near the temple, but oddly, shot up more quickly then other cherry trees of its variety (that weren't taken to space). And now the tree is blooming, at four years of age -- about six years ahead of schedule. "We are amazed to see how fast it has grown," Masahiro Kajita, chief priest at the Ganjoji temple, told AFP. The seeds were planted at a total of 14 locations, and blooms have already developed in four locations. 

    Flowers from the Ganjoji "space tree" also look a bit different, containing five petals, as opposed to about 30 like their parent trees. 

    The precocious pips have baffled the Buddhist monks and scientists alike. The project was not primarily a scientific one, rather "an educational and cultural project to let children gather the stones and learn how they grow into trees and live on after returning from space," said Miho Tomioka, a spokeswoman for the project's organizer, Japan Manned Space Systems (JAMSS). For that reason no "control" seeds were planted to contrast with the space-flown ones--although this cherry variety usually doesn't bloom until the age of 10.

    The reason for the early flowering is a mystery. One guess is that "exposure to stronger cosmic rays accelerated the process of sprouting and overall growth," said Kaori Tomita-Yokotani, a plant physiologist at the University of Tsukuba who took part in the project. But "from a scientific point of view, we can only say we don't know why," Tomita-Yokotani added. 

    [AFP]









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    Maglev train
    A maglev train in Japan.
    NTDTV / YouTube
    The Japanese rail operator JR Tokai said it would not charge the US to license its proprietary "maglev" technology, which allows trains to hover about 4 inches (10 centimeters) above tracks and travel at speeds of 310 mph (500 kph), according to Nikkei. It is hoping the US will use its train for a proposed high-speed rail line between Washington D.C. and Baltimore. 

    The magnetic-levitation technology works by creating magnetic fields with onboard superconducting magnets, which interact with ground coils in the rail, allowing the whole train to "float" just above the ground. And go really fast.

    On Saturday (April 12), Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy took a ride on a maglev train in Yamanashi Prefecture, according to the Japan Times. "The government is making arrangements so that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe can offer the technological assistance when he meets with U.S. President Barack Obama in Tokyo on April 24," the Times added.

    One group, known as Northeast Maglev, is hoping to bring just such technology to the US, to build a train from New York to Washington. Here's how Slate describes that idea

    The promise: New York to D.C. in an hour flat. That would be an hour and 40 minutes faster than today’s 150-mph Amtrak Acela trains, which are (rather pathetically) the fastest in the United States. In most cases, it would also be significantly faster than flying.

    This doesn't have the best chance of happening in the near future, given (in part) the difficulty of funding rail projects in the US. But perhaps Japan's offer will change things. As Nikkei reported, "the Japanese government intends to finance half of the estimated construction cost of 1 trillion yen ($9.75 billion) through the Japan Bank for International Cooperation."

    [Nikkei]









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    Sleeping
    Travis Rathbone
    How can you get over jet lag? There are hundreds of suggestions, but few of them have been rigorously tested. So some mathematicians from the University of Michigan created an app that can help you, which relies on new mathematical models and the latest science. 

    Jet lag occurs when your body's circadian rhythms fall out of sync with your surroundings, such as when you quickly move to an area that is 12 hours behind where you were previously. One thing that certain helps to adjust is exposure to sunlight--cells in your retina use this information to tell the brain that it is daylight, and that the body should be awake. But how much sunlight does the body need to adjust? And at what times? 

    Daniel Forger, a mathematical biologist at the University of Michigan who studies biological clocks and graduate student Olivia Walch created 1,000 possible trips, and combined them with studies on how light affects human circadian rhythms. They then used applied optimal control theory, a mathematical tool for finding ideal solutions. The results were published in PLOS Computational Biology, and the an app using the study's insights is called Entrain

    It turns out that to shift your clock, you really just need to adjust what your eyes and brain perceive as dawn and dusk, as explained in Scientific American

    Shifting your clock quickly just requires a new bedtime and long periods of bright light or complete darkness. These schedules significantly outperformed previous suggestions. Using this method, it takes only four days to fully sync after a 12-hour time zone shift. With other methods, it takes seven to 13 days or more. Even better, this method helps you “partially” sync in two days, which means you can sleep just fine.

    Olivia Walch, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, then developed an iPhone app with the model, called Entrain, which allows users to set tailored schedules. First, you enter your normal sleep schedule and then choose the area you’re traveling to and the type of light you’ll be encountering on your trip (Are you hiking outdoors? Or attending an indoor conference?). The app then provides a custom schedule, telling you when you should be in the light or in the dark as well as how many days it will take to fully adjust.

    Head over the iTunes store and try Entrain for yourself. It's free! 

    For more of the latest on high-tech snoozing, check out Popular Science's March 2014 issue on the science of sleep.

    [Scientific American]









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    photo of Regina Dugan giving a TED talk
    Regina Dugan, Former Director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Gave a TED Talk in 2012

    Think of it as a study of the natural behaviors of the troll. A team of information science researchers recently analyzed the comments people make on recorded TED talks. Actually, the researchers found that the majority of comments related to the content of the talks (progress!). But they also found that about six percent of YouTube comments on TED talks are insults and that female TED presenters are more likely to have commenters assess their appearance and style than male presenters (not progress).

    TED is a nonprofit dedicated to putting on conferences with short lectures. It also posts its lectures online. This analysis of TED comments comes at a time when news and science media are still trying to figure out what to do about commenters. This weekend, the Chicago Sun-Times announced it's temporarily shutting off comments while it puts in a new system designed to "encourage increased quality of the commentary." Here at Popular Science, where we have a small staff for the website, we decided to remove comments from our homepage about seven months ago. You can still reach us via email, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and snail mail.

    TED talks are supposed to be fun and good for you, kind of like chocolate-chip granola bars.

    In a paper they published in the journal PLOS ONE, the TED-analyzing researchers said they were hoping to gather some insight for science communicators. TED talks are 18-minute lectures about intellectual ideas, aimed at non-experts. They're supposed to be fun and good for you. Kind of like chocolate-chip granola bars? Anyway, the largest portion of the talks are about science and technology. As of November 2013, the researchers counted 917 science and technology TED talks, compared to 313 talks about design and 265 talks about entertainment. So the researchers, a team from the U.S., the U.K. and Canada, looked at TED talks as a proxy for, How do people respond to popular science media? They restricted their analysis to comments on science and technology talks only.

    One of their big findings was that the website people use matters. TED talks are posted both on ted.com and YouTube, but comment trends differed a bit on the two platforms. After analyzing comments for the same set of 595 talks, the research team found that people were more likely to talk about the content of the video—rather than, say, about the speaker's looks or themselves—on the TED website than on YouTube. That said, the ted.com comments weren't always that deep. Many comments just reiterated points from the talk, the researchers noted. And the majority of YouTube comments, 57 percent, still referred to the content of the TED talk. It's just that an even larger portion of ted.com comments were on topic, 72 percent.

    People were more likely to throw around personal insults on YouTube (5.7 percent of comments) than on ted.com (less than one percent of comments). YouTube did have one advantage. YouTubers were more likely to engage with one another than ted.com commenters. But if they're just insulting each other, maybe that's not so helpful.

    Commenters were more likely to discuss female presenters' looks than male presenters' looks. 

    Another major finding was that commenters react differently to male and female TED presenters. Commenters were more likely to discuss female presenters' looks (15 percent of comments) than male presenters' looks (10 percent of comments). Female presenters were also more likely to elicit both positive and negative comments about themselves than male presenters. People react really emotionally to lady TED talkers, I guess. Male and female TED presenters didn't have any statistically significant differences in the positive and negative comments they received about the content of their talks.

    So it sounds like TED-talk comments aren't necessarily super intellectual, but they aren't a cesspool, either. Yay? In addition, perhaps TED should keep a sharper eye out for off-topic or hateful comments about its female speakers. It might help if the organization had more talks led by women in general. Another analysis, published about a year ago, found that women give less than a quarter of TED talks. 









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    Before the Predator attached the name "drone" to an anti-terror war machine, many militaries flew unmanned planes as targets, so that pilots and anti-aircraft gunners could practice shooting moving objects. Target drones are still flown today, both specific target models and ones converted from old jets specifically for this purpose. In the past, targets were generally plane-sized, and militaries used anti-aircraft weapons to shoot them down.

    A group of hobbyists with a weirdly extensive machine gun collection decided to try a modern update to drone target practice. In this case, the targets were smaller drones ranging in size from remote-control toy airplanes to larger flying wings, about as big as the Army's hand-tossed RQ-11 Raven. Instead of special anti-air weapons, they tried a few different machine guns, which are more representative of the weapons insurgents might aim at drones. While many of the bullets fired hit the drones, it took direct hits to the tiny drone engines to make them stop flying. 

    Verdict: It's possible to bring down small drones with a machine gun, but it takes good aim and many shots—and it helps if the drone is just flying back and forth in front of you.

    This target practice was part of the Big Sandy Shoot, an event in Arizona put on by a group of machine gun enthusiasts. Their spring shoot was the first week of April. For added fun and insanity, there was a night shooting session, where people shot at drones bedecked with glowsticks.

    [The Aviationist]









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    Hoatzin
    Geoff Gallice

    Is a bird more worth saving from extinction if it is evolutionarily unique, as well as physically rare? That's one challenging question raised by newly published research that factors together the distinct evolutionary history of the world's bird species, with how healthy their population numbers and prospects for survival are in the present.

    Arne Mooers, a professor of biodiversity at Canada's Simon Fraser University, and colleagues worked for seven years to assess how much evolutionary history a specific bird represents compared to other bird species currently alive. In order to do it, the team developed an evolutionary tree containing all 9,993 known bird species, says Mooers, and then calculated the total amount of time evolutionary processes "worked" to create those species: about 77 billion years. They then ranked the birds by how much of that work each accounted for. The species that top the list go back furthest in evolutionary history, and share that history with few or no living relatives.

    The team calculated the total amount of time evolutionary processes "worked" to create those species: about 77 billion years.

    The title of "most evolutionarily distinct" goes to the oilbird, a Central and South American species that alone accounts for 80 million years of avian evolutionary history, Mooers says. Its name derives from the layers of fat on oilbird chicks, which have historically been rendered for use as torches.

    The average grackle or chickadee, by comparison, has so many close relations that they all "share" the same evolutionary effort.

    The research also sets evolutionary distinctness against the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, ranking the 575 bird species considered threatened or endangered on that list by their unique evolutionary histories. The Giant Ibis tops the list by this reckoning, followed by the Kagu, the New Caledonian Owlet-nightjar, the Plains-wanderer, and the California Condor.

    This information could help conservationists, natural resource managers, and policy-makers set priorities, says Mooers, when trying to figure out how to allocate resources to saving endangered bird species.

    The team has also created a compound metric that sets a bird's evolutionary uniqueness against how widely it can be found in the world.  "Some species may be distinct, but they may be spread over a very large range, like the osprey, which has the widest range of any bird in the world," says Mooers. "Or you could have something like a kiwi or a kakapo, which only lives in one place. You can think of that distinctness being concentrated in a very small place, for that species.”

    The project took seven years to complete in part because when it started, there was no single overarching analysis, or evolutionary tree, of bird evolution. "It seems like we have a single perfect tree here," says Mooers about the final result. "But there is no single perfect tree of birds. So we had to do this over, we had to create many millions of possible trees, and then take the average across those trees to get these metrics. Because there's still a lot of uncertainty as to who's related to who. We didn't even have genetic data for every species.”

    The project was risky enough by scientific standards, says Mooers, that the principal researchers opted to limit the potential for career damage. "We didn't want to have any graduate students doing their PhDs on it, because we didn't know if we could do it when we started. Nobody had attempted something this big, nobody had built a tree this big before. So we actually actively did not put any students on it."

    Mooers and team did the work in part to support the EDGE: Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered project. The project has already put the research to work with its list of "Top 100 EDGE Birds" that are at risk of extinction.

    "There is a growing realization," says Mooers, "that science has to start to become useful in the short term rather than the long term in this particular area because of the acute problems."

    Click here for a gallery of some of the world's most evolutionarily unique birds, including some of the most endangered.









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    portrait of Carl Sagan, taken by PBS
    Sagan on Cosmos
    Publicity photo of Carl Sagan, made by PBS

    When your dad is Carl Sagan, your first lessons on death aren't sugar-coated. But they are nevertheless sweet and compassionate. That's how Sasha Sagan, Carl's daughter, describes them in a recent essay in New York magazine. Throughout his career, Carl worked as a science popularizer and as a professor of astronomy and critical thinking. He stayed true to his understanding of the world even in tough times—like when his little girl asked him if he would ever get to see his dead parents again:

    He considered his answer carefully. Finally, he said that there was nothing he would like more in the world than to see his mother and father again, but that he had no reason—and no evidence—to support the idea of an afterlife, so he couldn't give in to the temptation.

    'Why?'

    Then he told me, very tenderly, that it can be dangerous to believe things just because you want them to be true. You can get tricked if you don't question yourself and others, especially people in a position of authority. He told me that anything that's truly real can stand up to scrutiny.

    But it's not all doom and gloom. Later in the essay, Sasha describes how her father tried to impart upon her the wonder of being alive. "We are star stuff, my dad famously said, and he made me feel that way," she writes. It sounds like Sagan was a great teacher at home as well as at work.

    Sadly, Sasha would soon have to apply Dad's life/science lessons. Carl died when she was 14, leaving behind a legacy that's only been organized recently, with the introduction of the new Cosmos show and the opening of an archive in Washington, D.C., for Carl's papers.

    Check out New York for the rest of the essay, including bits about Sasha's parents' relationship and some of the thinking that went into the new Cosmos series.

    [New York]









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    Photo of a Bluefin-21 autonomous submarine on the surface of the sea after a mission
    A Bluefin-21 AUV at the Surface of the Water After a Mission
    Bluefin Robotics

    The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 has moved underwater, but it's still not easy. A robotic submarine deployed yesterday returned to the surface sooner than expected because it encountered depths beyond its capabilities, Australian broadcaster ABC reports. The search is occurring in the southern Indian Ocean, northwest of the Australian city of Perth.

    BBC News has great graphics showing the sea-floor geography around the search area and the ocean-depth capabilities of different robotic submarines. It also has a graphic showing the workings of the robot sub used in this search, a model called Bluefin-21 by Bluefin Robotics. Bluefin-21 is able to operate in depths up to 4,500 meters. If it encounters depths greater than that, it's programmed to automatically return to the surface to protect itself, the BBC reports. As long as the weather is favorable, it's able to operate on its own 24 hours a day, The Boston Globe reports. But the vehicle searchers dropped into the ocean yesterday came up after only six hours underwater, ABC reports.

    Searchers plan to put the sub back into the water "later today," ABC reported about 10 hours ago.

    Searchers decided to use an autonomous underwater vehicle once they narrowed the search area enough for the vehicle, which moves more slowly than surface ships. Another driving factor was that searchers think the plane's black boxes ran out of battery and are no longer sending out pings that ships can pick up. Bluefin-21 is able to examine the seafloor using sonar and high-definition cameras.

    [ABC, BBC News, The Boston Globe]









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    Cliff Ransom
    Photo by Marius Bugge

    On December 8, 1903, Samuel Pierpont Langley set out to achieve the first manned, powered plane flight. Langley was an experienced designer of flying machines, the head of the Smithsonian Institution, and funded by the U. S. War Department. If anyone was positioned for success, it was he. But moments after he launched his Aerodrome A, the aircraft collapsed in midair and plummeted into the Potomac River. Nine days later, two bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, flew a gasoline-powered plane 852 feet over the dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and changed the world forever. 

    For 142 years, Popular Science has celebrated independent inventors. We have covered Tesla and Curie, Jobs and Zuckerberg. We even wrote about the Wright brothers shortly after their historic first flight, praising not only their accomplishment but how they went about it. “All this was done with their own hands, without financial help from anybody,” we wrote.

    This issue, we’re paying tribute to that heritage. We started by remaking a Norman Rockwell cover from October 1920, which showed an inventor at work. We remained faithful to the original save for a few strategic changes, namely the addition of actor Nick Offerman. Best known as the government-hating, straight-talking, steak-eating boss on Parks and Recreation, Offerman is also a lifelong wood-worker and tinkerer, a man who understands the joys of building things just for the heck of it. That’s why he was duly impressed when we gave him an early look at the centerpiece of the issue: the eighth annual Invention Awards. Among the winners, we profile a group of students in Philadelphia that developed an affordable exoskeleton arm, an entrepreneur who reconceived the bike helmet, and a mechanical engineer who is building a 12-rotor aircraft and gunning for his own Kitty Hawk moment.

    Left: our May 2014 cover, with Nick Offerman. Right: the classic Norman Rockwell cover we're paying tribute to.

    Whether or not any of our award winners will have as profound an effect on our lives as, say, Orville and Wilbur, is impossible to guess. And that’s precisely the point. Inventions don’t typically burst forth from the ether. More often than not, they are novel assemblies of existing parts whose impact is not felt for years. The Wright Flyer, for example, borrowed heavily from earlier glider designs at a time when flying machines as a class were speculative at best. “They will not materially upset existing conditions as has sometimes been predicted,” we wrote confidently. We sure missed that one.

    Thankfully, the Wright brothers did not. They saw potential where others didn’t. And that’s why we’re taking this issue to celebrate inventors like them—because through passion and personal sacrifice, they make the world a better place for us all.

    Enjoy the issue.

    Click here to read the May 2014 issue.









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    The average American flushes 24 gallons of water down the toilet daily, while—don't get me wrong, toilets; we appreciate all of your hard work—maybe some of the energy used in a flush could be put to an additional use.

    Here's one way: harvest some of the energy from the water and use it for power. A team of researchers in South Korea have created a transducer that translates water motion—from toilets, raindrops, or other water-based uses—into electricity. The technical side is wonky, but essentially, by using the motion from a tiny droplet of water—30 microliters—the team was able to power a small green LED. It's a proof-of-concept demonstration, but scale up to a flushing toilet or a rainstorm, and you can see the appeal. 

    You can watch the process yourself in the video above.









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    Dreamscience Propulsion

    Dreamscience Propulsion's snowboard thrusters are difficult to describe. It's like: if you stuffed airplane engines in American Gladiator batons? It's like: if you took a boom mic and used it to swat a drone out of the air? Words fail me.

    But, here they are: The thrusters, created by the U.K.-based company, let snowboarders—or surfers, or skateboarders—semi-automate their sport. Just hold on to the stick, and you get propelled along. The jet engine simile is probably appropriate, since the gadget uses tiny engines spinning at up to 30,000 RPM, sucking in air to hurtle the snowboarder forward.

    Here is a very funny diagram: 

    Dreamscience Propulsion

    And here is a video of a human being who has made the transformation into a cyborg airboat:

     

     

    [Dreamscience Propulsion via Laughing Squid]









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    photo of a dead centipede emerging from the body of a dead snake
    Bad Idea
    Arsovski et al., Ecologica Montenegrina, 2014

    We were entranced recently by a report of a young snake that tried to eat an old centipede. It seems the snake managed to swallow the centipede live, but then the centipede fought back, attempting to escape by eating its way out of the snake's body. Really. Read the full story at NBC News—and read the paper, too, which was published in the journal Ecologica Montenegrina. It's only a page long and worth every sentence.  

    This got us thinking about other predators that have tried to bite off more than they could chew. We found a number of examples in the scientific literature:

    Snakes eating snakes

    This coral snake (Micrurus ibiboboca) asphyxiated while trying to eat a cat-eyed night snake (Leptodeira annulata), which also asphyxiated because it was, you know, stuck inside the coral snake's body.

    photo of two snakes that died while one was eating the other
    Failed Ophiophagy
    Cavalcanti et al., Herpetology Notes, 2012

    While it seems too meta for a snake to eat another snake, apparently some snake species actively prey on others of their suborder. Lab studies show that when done successfully, the prey snake gets scrunched up in waves inside the predator snake's body. Among other things, it's possible the coral snake here failed to bend the cat-eyed night snake's body into waves, the snakes' discoverers wrote in the journal Herpetology Notes.

    Too big

    Here's a photo and an X-ray of an Oxyrhopus petolarius snake that tried to eat a house gecko (Hemidactylus mabouia). Researchers in Brazil actually received the snake alive one day in July 2012. They put the snake in a terrarium, where it tried, unsuccessfully, to regurgitate its too-large meal. Researchers found it dead the next morning.

    photo of a snake that ate a gecko that was too large
    Skin Damage On, and X-Ray of, a Snake that Ate a Too-Large House Gecko
    Nogueira et al., Herpetology Notes, 2013

    Apparently, among snake researchers, it's well known that snakes sometimes die trying to eat things that are too big for them. It happens most often to juvenile snakes. Scientists think the youngsters over-estimate their own abilities, or are forced to try larger prey when they can't find anything small, perhaps because their elders have already gobbled up the good stuff. Poor young snakes.

    Cane toads cause mass crocodile deaths

    In the mid-2000s, Australians living in the Victoria River Gorge began reporting seeing masses of dead freshwater crocodiles (Crocodylus johnstoni). It turns out the crocs likely died trying to eat cane toads.

    In 1935, Australian farmers released cane toads (Bufo marinus) into Queensland. They hoped the toads, which are native to South America, would eat cane beetles that were destroying sugar cane fields. The toads not only did not eat the beetles, they wrecked havoc on the island continent's unique ecosystem. They became a classic example of why it's a bad idea to introduce new animals into a delicate environment.

    Cane toads are venomous, but the poor predators of Australia didn't initially realize this. (Studies have found that some species have since learned to avoid the toads.) In 2008, a team of three University of Sydney biologists found the locations of crocodile mass deaths matched the "toad invasion front." As the toads moved inland, so did the crocodile die-offs. Croc populations plummeted by as much as 77 percent after toads arrived, the researchers reported.

    A spiny fish

    And here is the body of a grass snake (Natrix natrix), pierced by the spines of a brown bullhead fish it ate (Ameiurus nebulosus). Biologists discovered the snake, along with some of its unfortunate comrades, in a marsh in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The snakes are native to the region, but not the fish.

    photo of a section of a grass snake's body with spines piercing it
    Perforated
    Šukalo et al., Hyla, 2012








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    New York City health inspectors might soon be donning Google Glass as they head out to check restaurants for rats and other hazards, under a recently proposed legislation.

    New York City Councilman Vincent Ignizio (R-Staten Island) suggested a yearlong pilot program that requires 10 percent of the current 160 health inspectors to wear video devices — including Google Glass — last week, the New York Post reported.

    “I think it would limit the abuses on both sides of the table, and it would allow for a more objective view by the judge on the violations that have been cited,” said Ignizio.

    Currently, the bill has gained 22 out of 51 council members’ support. Many signed on because of complaints from both sides, inspectors and restaurants, that better documentation of inspections is needed. The photos and videos would serve as hard evidence for violations that lead to fines.

    Backers of the bill want the equipment to be around $200 apiece — Google Glass’s retail price of $1500 plus tax might make it harder to close the deal.

    A similar piece of legislation introduced by councilman James Vacca (D-Bronx) would require photographic evidence be present when the violation leads to fines, such as sanitation and health code violations as well as parking offenses, according to the NY Daily News

    “People have a right to insist that there be evidence of what they’re being charged with,” Vacca said. “People are basically found guilty until they prove their innocence. I want people to be innocent until proven guilty.”

    In related news, today (also Tax Day) Google is opening up registration to the Glass Explorer program for all U.S. residents over 18, giving the nation a one-day-only chance to purchase the $1500 (plus tax) device in various styles.









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  • 04/16/14--06:00: You're Not Highly Evolved
  • As humans, it’s tempting to think of ourselves as the pinnacle of evolutionary progress. But evolution can only work with what’s available, resulting in a body that’s a bundle of compromises. 

    FEET

    Our ankles and feet started out as flexible tree-climbing tools made of many small bones. But all of those tiny pieces amount to lots of opportunities to tear or twist something. And the way our shinbones and ankles are oriented to meet the demands of walking means that we can’t land on the sides of our feet safely, making sprained ankles a human specialty.

    IMMUNE SYSTEM

    Humans have a long history of living with parasites, such as hookworms, which have themselves evolved to tamp down our immune responses to protect themselves. But in the developed world, these kinds of infections aren’t as common as they used to be. The absence of parasitic infections may be one reason why many people’s immune systems now overreact to harmless things, causing skyrocketing rates of allergies and autoimmune diseases.

    METABOLISM

    Our love of calorie-rich foods was useful early in our evolutionary history, but now that food is plentiful, that same predilection may contribute to the obesity epidemic. Unfortunately, evolution won’t offer its own solution for a long time. For example, 9,000 years elapsed between when some cultures first domesticated cows and when 90 percent of those populations finally were able to digest the lactose in milk.

    PELVIS

    A woman’s pelvis is almost too narrow to give birth to big-brained human babies, which leads to deliveries more risky than that of other primates. But the pelvis can’t be any more spacious, or walking upright would be too difficult. Thankfully, evolution has equipped us with a social tool for handling difficult births: “We’re able to ameliorate the dangers using culture,” says Karen Rosenberg, a paleoanthropologist at University of Delaware. “That includes midwives and birth attendants.”

    This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Popular Science.









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    How M-Blocks would build a bigger bot
    Courtesy MIT

    M-Blocks look unassuming, but they can pivot and jump without external moving parts—a feat engineers have been trying to accomplish for years. Because they’re mobile, the robotic cubes can stack on top of one another autonomously. Their inventors are now working toward the ultimate goal: programming them to combine into a larger, adaptable robot that performs tasks.

    M-Blocks
    Courtesy: John Romanishin of MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory

    A: Printed circuit board, radio, and processor control movement.

    B: Brushless motor spins the flywheel up to 20,000 rpm.

    C: Flywheel stores angular momentum.

    D: Rubber belt slows wheel to transfer momentum to frame.

    E: Aluminum frame hops and joins with other blocks via 24 magnets.

    Watch the M-Blocks self assemble below:

    This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Popular Science.









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    illustration showing red blood cells
    Red Blood Cells
    A mass of our most common type of blood cell.
    Annie Cavanagh, Wellcome Images

    One team of researchers has created red blood cells that are ready to go into human study volunteers. When the clinical trial testing the cells' safety starts, it will be the first time humans have ever received red blood cells made from adult cells, according to the Wellcome Trust, the project's funder. The cells are made from skin cells taken from a human donor.

    Researchers have long been interested in making red blood cells in lab. The man-made cells could ensure that a steady supply of fresh cells is available for transfusions. Donated blood must be used within 42 days, so the donated supply isn't always steady… or available for sudden surges in demand. Engineered red blood cells would also be designed to be of the universal donor type, so they would be safe for almost all potential recipients. You can even imagine that, if the blood-making works exceptionally well, it would eliminate the need for human donors altogether—but that's a long way away yet.

    This U.K. effort represents the first time anybody has engineered red blood cells that meet safety and quality standards for transfusion into humans, the cells' lead creator, Marc Turner of the University of Edinburgh, told The Telegraph. The university is working with other U.K. schools, the Scottish National Blood Service, and other private and public U.K. organizations to develop the lab-made blood cells.

    Turner and his colleagues plan to test their cells by giving them to volunteers who have thalassemia, a blood disorder that gives people abnormal red blood cells. People with thalassemia must get regular blood transfusions. The research team hopes to start a clinical trial by late 2016, according to the University of Glasgow, one of the participating schools.

    Beyond just making the cells, one of the biggest challenges will be making enough of the cells. "Every single bag of transfused blood has about two trillion red blood cells in it. It's a ludicrously high number to make in the lab." Joanne Mountford, a researcher working on the project at the University of Glasgow, said in a statement. "We use two million of those bags every year in the U.K. alone. Ensuring that any industrially produced blood can be made economically viable is quite a task."

    [The Telegraph, University of Glasgow, Wellcome Trust]









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  • 04/16/14--09:15: Put A Camera On Your Eyeball
  • Contact Lens On An Eyeball
    Antonio Calossi via Wikimedia Commons

    What's cooler than Google Glass? Almost anything, really, but something that is both cooler and smaller and still eyeball-centric is a patent for a camera-containing contact lens, filed by Google in late 2012. The patent was published March 27. 

    Sensors on the contact lens would detect blinks and respond to commands based on those blinks. The camera sits below the pupil on the contact, so it shouldn't obstruct vision. Because the camera is on the eyeball, it follows the wearer's gaze, potentially recording anything he or she sees, as he or she sees it.

    One of the uses discussed in Google's patent is giving a sense back to blind people. While a blind person couldn't gain sight from the contact lens, the camera could, for example, detect approaching traffic and then wirelessly communicate with another device the blind person was carrying. When paired with facial recognition software, the contact lens could identify a nearby person and transmit that information to an earpiece.

    Right now, the patent is to secure future innovation and is not yet linked to a marketable product. 

    This isn't the first time Google has talked about putting a computer on an eyeball. Earlier this year, it announced development of a contact lens that checks tears for blood sugar levels and communicates with insulin pumps. These are just two of Google's contact lens patents; there are at least five more in the works.

    [Patent Bolt]









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