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    Atom Sound Capture
    An artificial atom generates sound waves consisting of ripples on the surface of a solid.
    Philip Krantz, Krantz NanoArt

    If you talk to an artificial atom, it turns out the atom will say something back to you. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to hear it.

    Researchers at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden have communicated with an artificial atom in a lab. When they fed their atom extremely high frequency sound energy, the atom regurgitated the energy back to them in the form of sound waves. The researchers were then able to record these auditory rumblings with high-tech audio equipment, as the sounds were too high to be heard by human ears.

    This absorption/emission interaction is very similar to how atoms interact with light. When a photon of light gets close enough to an atom, sometimes the atom will gobble it up, absorbing the photon into its body. However, atoms aren’t very good at holding this energy for long, so they usually spit it back out in the form of a light particle.

    This concept has been extensively studied in the field of quantum optics, but it’s the first time scientists have demonstrated such an interaction between artificial atoms and sound. Their study, published in the journal Science, provides researchers with a better understanding of the laws of quantum physics, which they hope to harness one day for making extremely fast computers.

    Of course, these are artificial atoms doing the talking, not the natural ones -- but they get pretty close. Artificial atoms are like tiny electrical circuits that exhibit quantum mechanical properties. Technically, they are a collection of atoms, acting together as one big atom. Researchers like using artificial atoms for research, as they can easily change the atoms’ properties to suit their needs.

    Artificial Atom
    The artificial atom on the right can emit and absorb sound that moves across the surface of a microchip. The grey-blue structure on the left is the combined loudspeaker/microphone used to communicate acoustically with the atom.
    Martin Gustafsson and Maria Ekström
    For this experiment, the Chalmers researchers placed an artificial atom on a specialized microchip. “What’s unique about this microchip is it’s a crystal that’s able to convert electrical energy to sound energy,” Martin Gustafsson, one of the researchers, tells Popular Science. And vice versa. So when electrical signals were applied to the device, they were converted to sound waves, traveling like ripples on the surface of the chip.

    Then, when the waves reached the atom, the atom absorbed the energy and spit it back out, sending sound waves back across the microchip. The frequency of these sound waves was approximately 4.8 gigahertz; in musical terms, that translates to a D28, or 20 octaves above the highest note on a grand piano. To reach that note, you’d have to extend the piano 10 feet to the right.

    Although these sound waves are too high for us puny humans, they are actually 100,000 times slower than light waves. Because of this, Gustafsson says working with sound opens up new possibilities for controlling quantum processes. “That means you have some chance to change settings or retune an atom while the sound particle is spreading,” he says. “With light, it’s moving so fast, you don’t have that time, and it’s difficult to keep control.”

    Additionally, the artificial atoms are about 20 times larger than the wavelength of the sound used, affording the researchers much more control over the atom’s properties during experiments.

    For now, Gustafsson says there are no real-world applications for their work yet, and that their study is more of a “curiosity driven piece of research.” But ultimately, understanding how atoms interact with sound is just one step in the researchers’ larger goal: dominating quantum mechanics -- a branch of physics that involves studying physical phenomena at tiny scales. Some processes of quantum mechanics have already been tapped for making super fast computers, but the field as a whole is still very much a mystery to scientists.

    “What we have here is one tool in a toolbox for trying to generally get quantum mechanics to be something that we can control ourselves,” says Gustafsson.


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    Me And Comet 67-P, J-Chillin’
    The Rosetta spacecraft beamed this to Earth on Sunday: an over-the-shoulder selfie with its intended. Visible are the comet toward which Rosetta has travelled for more than a decade, the edge of the craft, and one of its ~46-foot solar panels. The mission team is now reviewing possible landing sites on the comet’s surface.
    European Space Agency/OSIRIS Team


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    Apollo 17's lunar rover on the Moon
    NASA

    480: weight in pounds of the Lunar rover on Earth. On the Moon, it only weighs a light 80 pounds.

    13: number of lactic acid bacteria stored in bees' honey stomachs that produce antimicrobial substances. Some researchers believe these bacteria can be used to fight antibiotic resistance.

    25: length, in days, of a special nutritional regimen biohackers are using to change their vision. They believe that replacing their regular consumption of vitamin A with vitamin A2, they can see infrared light with the naked eye.

    Biological samples in a freezer.
    Nick Smith/ALSPAC via Wikimedia Commons
    85 to 100: age, in years, of forgotten bottles of ricin found in an NIH lab search. The discovery occurred just one week after the NIH sent a memo to American scientists asking them to check for vials of pathogens. 

    40: number of 3-D printed polymer parts used to construct this drivable plastic car. The engineers working on the car hope to test drive it sometime next week.

    Design for the 3-D Printed Strati Car
    14: different species of plants grown in fake lunar and Martian soil. Martian soil simulant was found to be even better than some Earth soils for supporting plant life – yay!

    1 to 2.5: time, in milliseconds, it takes for new high-tech headlights to react to cars, raindrops, street signs and other stimuli in the surrounding area. Created by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, these headlights can cut through rain and illuminate without blinding other drivers.

    A new, detailed map of the Stonehenge area, including the newly-discovered "super-henge"
    © LBI ArchPro, Wolfgang Neubauer
    4,900: circumference in feet of a buried ‘super henge’ found underneath the prehistoric Stonehenge monument. The super henge holds dozens of new features, including 10-foot pillars and 17 newly discovered ritual monuments.

    100,000: number of ozone molecules that can be ripped apart by one chlorine atom. Researchers have found that by reducing the chemicals that damage the ozone, such as chloroflurocarbons and halons, the ozone layer may have thickened as a result.

    4.8: frequency, in gigahertz, of a sound produced by an artificial atom. In musical terms, that translates to a D28, or 20 octaves above the highest note on a piano.

    Atom Sound Capture
    An artificial atom generates sound waves consisting of ripples on the surface of a solid.
    Philip Krantz, Krantz NanoArt

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    In Beijing
    KatherineLegge.com/Amlin Aguri

    Popular Science has partnered with British electric racecar driver Katherine Legge, who will compete in the very first Formula E championship. Legge is a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) supporter and is blogging for us from the racetrack in Beijing -- the host city for the first round, which kicks off Saturday, Sept. 13.

    Hi everyone!

    It’s only a day until the start of the inaugural Formula E season in Beijing, and I am really excited to get going with team Amlin Aguri. We have done a number of test days at our home base at Donington Park in the U.K., which is very smooth, long, and fast. During the season, though, we race on street circuits--so this will be the first time we have run on proper downtown streets. Because of this, the way we approach the set-up of the car is very different.

    The straight-aways are shorter, the roads bumpier, and you have to navigate your way through tight and twisty walls. Let’s also not forget the potholes and the tire barriers! Regardless, Beijing looks to be one of the smoothest places we will race, so our initiation should be a tad more gentle.

    There is a lot of apprehension on the run up to the first race, but everyone is in the same boat. Nobody has been to this track before, especially not with this kind of vehicle, and the layout and setup of the race weekend is new. After the first race, I think everyone will breathe a sigh of relief -- we will know what to expect.

    Ten world-class racing teams are competing from across the globe, and they've all entered similarly world-class drivers from Formula 1 to NASCAR and sportscars to Indycar. Most have open wheel and street course experience, and they are all super fast, uber talented professionals. I’m certain it’s going to be a really competitive series.

    Now if you're not familiar with Formula E, we have two cars per driver. Instead of charging the battery or doing driver changes, we will actually change cars! We jump out of our first one and into the second car in the blink of an eye. As you can imagine, this could catch some people out; it’s not that easy jumping in and out of a racing car! We need to change our cars as we are only given a set amount of battery power to use per car during the race.

    Formula E also involves fans in a rather special way. It’s called 'Fan Boost,' and it allows our fans to vote for their favouomrite drivers, with the top three all getting an extra shot of power during the  race. The coolest thing: Fans can have an input in the outcome of the race. (So... who wants to help me and the team out this weekend?)

    Perhaps the biggest factor for us at this race will be energy management, and we have a combination of tools to help us do this. Energy mapping, push to pass/boost, regeneration on coast and on the brakes, and pre-programmed regeneration are things we can do. It’s a lot to get your head around, and doing it at 100 mph whilst you’re racing wheel-to-wheel with someone can be quite the challenge. The cars themselves look very similar to other big open wheel cars like an F1 car or an IndyCar. Under the body work, however, they are obviously very different. The battery, which is attached to the tub behind the driver, is really heavy. This makes for more rearward weight distribution than we would normally run. Because of this it can be really tricky to drive right on the edge, and we tend to get a little more snap oversteer that turns to understeer in the faster corners. The cars are a lot of fun to drive, and even though they are not as quick as an IndyCar, they are every bit as difficult and require a lot of tricky set up work to make them fast.

    Katherine Legge
    KatherineLegge.com/Amlin Aguri

    All in all, there is a lot to think about and study, both for the drivers and the teams heading into this weekend. We have tested and developed the car over the summer, but for our team, it’s an ongoing process that will allow us to lay solid foundations on which to build in the future. We are there to win, and we know it’s a great chance to make history -- so we’ll be aiming high for a podium result. It’s going to be a great race and a tough battle, but that’s why we love what we do. Being here to see how this new and exciting technology at Formula E is received by the public will be interesting. I hope you enjoy the race!

    Katherine x


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    Who Is Running Interceptor Towers?
    Homeland

    On August 29, Popular Science published a map of interceptor towers -- surveillance devices that masquerade as cell phone towers to intercept voice and data transmissions from every cell user in an area. 19 of the interceptors were found in the United States in August, and two more popped up on September 5: one in Garden City, NY, and another in downtown Las Vegas. They were spotted by owners of the CryptoPhone 500 device, a roughly $3,500 ultra-high-end phone that allows ordinary, if well-heeled, citizens to see surveillance invisible to standard phones.

    Though the F.B.I. has been using a basic mobile phone interceptor that tracks phone location, known colloquially by the brand name of "Stingray" since at least 2008, federal, state, and local officials have tried to say as little as possible about use of the technology, even in court proceedings. This angers civil libertarians such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who view the use of interceptors without a warrant as an unlawful search. The government's silence has helped generate an information vacuum filled by conspiracy theory: one fringe news site recently claimed that the interceptors are a source of "smart grid mind control" made possible by "voice to skull technology."

    Nathan Wessler, a staff attorney at the ACLU's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, says that while it's "impossible" for him to definitively determine ownership of any given interceptor, he can offer some informed speculation.

    "Two in Florida," he says, after taking a look at the 19 interceptors detected around the U.S. in August. "We know that a lot of Florida law enforcement agencies use these devices. A couple of sites right on the U.S.-Mexico border -- we know that U.S. Customs and Immigration uses these devices. A couple of pings in Arizona, California, one location near Seattle -- we know that law enforcement agencies in those areas have these technologies."

    August GSM Interceptor Map
    ESD

    Since filing an amicus brief with the EFF on the first case in the country challenging the constitutionality of "Stingray" surveillance in 2012, the ACLU has used press reporting and analysis of government records to establish that 43 different state and local law enforcement agencies in 18 states have the technology. On the federal level, at least 12 agencies have purchased interceptors, including the National Security Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, and all the branches of the U.S. military. But amidst this thicket of government and police surveillance, security experts cannot rule out the possibility that foreign spies or criminal hackers are also using the cell tower simulators in the United States. The most sophisticated interceptors cost roughly $100,000, though a skilled, determined hacker could cobble together a basic interceptor for less than $2,000.

    ESD America CEO Les Goldsmith says that we don't know for sure who's using the interceptors, but he speculates that owners might be the U.S. government, foreign spies, or possibly criminal hackers.

    When asked about the interceptor detected on July 30 near the Mayport Naval Air Station, in eastern Florida, near Jacksonville, the Navy declined comment.

    "We really don't have anything to say about that," says William Townsend, a spokesperson for the Mayport Naval Air Station.

    "I haven't seen evidence that the military is using [interceptors] inside the U.S., but it is more than plausible that they could be using them to protect bases," says Wessler.

    A shroud of secrecy surrounds the technology, with the government trying to avoid admitting usage of interceptors, even in criminal trials where cell phone surveillance has provided key pieces of evidence.

    In June, an ACLU of Florida public records request in Sarasota, Florida, showed that the police there had a policy to conceal the use of "Stingray" tech used to track suspects -- preventing "the criminal element," as well as judges and defense attorneys, from knowing the source of the surveillance. In March, police officers in Tallahassee admitted to using the technology at least 200 times since 2010 without telling a judge, due to a non-disclosure agreement signed with the technology manufacturer Harris Corporation. The Wall Street Journalreported in 2011 that the FBI has a longstanding policy to expunge any mention of "Stingray" use from official reports.

    "The justification [government lawyers] put forward publicly, is if they were to disclose their use of this technology, it would allow criminals to evade detection, and hamper their ability to fight crime," says Wessler. "To think that a savvy criminal won't have figured out that their cell phone might get tracked is kind of silly at this point."

    Given the proximity of some of the interceptors to military bases, the portability and sub-$100,000 price tag for sophisticated devices has raised fears of foreign governments using them for espionage. (Here are a range of interceptors offered to government and defense industry clients by a company based in Soghi, India). Many are small enough to be driven in a car or even carried by hand.

    "There's nothing preventing some foreign government from rolling these out throughout the United States," says Mathew Rowley, a mobile security expert for Matasano Security. "Who knows? I don't want to say that 'it is the case that it's foreign governments' -- but I can't say 'it's not the case.'"

    The Federal Communications Commission has formed a task force to investigate usage of interceptors on American soil by foreign spy services or criminal organizations.

    There is also the possibility that a particularly skilled hacker could build a DIY interceptor using off-the-shelf components. A rudimentary cell tower combined with a radio peripheral connected with a PC running open-source base tower software can be built for less than $2,000. Doing so might allow the theft of credit card numbers, or allow tracking of a famous person's subscriber number as she traveled near the interceptor.

    "It's possible for someone who has enough free time on their hands" to build a DIY interceptor using off-the-shelf components, says Rowley. "You have to understand how things are configured, how GSM networks work, how to communicate with backend systems legitimately. All the data is encrypted. And to decrypt it is the hard part. That's not to say it's not possible."

    So should we worry about interceptors?

    The most expensive interceptors are capable of sophisticated attacks that eavesdrop on calls or texts, push spyware to the phone, or even spoof calls or texts. But in court, Wessler has only seen the state introduce evidence from the simpler "Stingray" devices capable solely of geolocation tracking. In other words, the interceptor pairs with the suspect's phone's subscriber number and pings to see where the phone goes, so long as the device remains within the interceptor's range.

    As to the dangers to law-abiding citizens posed by police or government geo-location surveillance, Wessler points to the example of the interceptor found in downtown Las Vegas.

    "You can imagine quite sensitive information that the location of someone's phone can reveal," says Wessler. "You can tell it was my phone that was at the casino until 2 am, drove out to the brothel at 4 am, and then back to the casino at 6 am. Or someone goes to an abortion clinic. Or an NRA meeting. Or an AA meeting."

    It looks a whole lot like a dragnet search."

    Rowley, a security expert who studies the hacking of mobile phones, considers interceptor use more of an anomalous "edge case" than something the average person should fear.

    "I don't think this means that this means that our current model of how cell phone communication works is flawed. From what I know about GSM, it's pretty secure, assuming everything is configured properly. I think there [are] edge cases for just about everything in technology. In my opinion, this shouldn't bother the general public."

    Wessler also points out that it's impossible to target just one phone -- instead, the interceptor tricks all phones in the vicinity into connecting.

    "When police are using it to track the location of a phone, it inherently collects information not just about that phone, but about every phone in the area. It looks a whole lot like a dragnet search," says Wessler. "A second and related problem is they're not just sending signals out through the open air, but in houses, offices, other private spaces. So you end up tracking people to different rooms in the house or apartment building....within a meter or two of where the phone is."

    Oliver Day, the president of Securing Change, a privacy-minded non-profit that provides technology services to other non-profits?, objects to indiscriminate surveillance of all citizens -- what Wessler characterizes as a "dragnet search." Day makes a distinction between targeted surveillance of a particular suspect, and mass surveillance, in which the government gathers information about everyone, without a warrant, and then seeks usable intel after the fact.

    "My dad was in the Army, I totally understand the need for intelligence. The NSA needs to exist -- the CIA needs to exist. They just need to be controlled and monitored," says Day. "But targeted surveillance is a whole different thing. Everyone is a worthwhile target when you're doing mass surveillance."

     


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    Look Out Below!
    Philae will attempt a landing at Site J, shown here, in November.
    ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

    The European Space Agency has finally chosen a target for Rosetta’s lander.

    The Rosetta spacecraft arrived at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in August, after a 10-year journey. Since then the orbiter has been circling the comet, looking for the perfect spot to deploy a lander onto the surface of the comet. 

    Choosing a landing site wasn’t easy, and the process was made more difficult by the odd, rubber ducky shape of the comet.  

    Of the five potential targets, the team has decided to aim for "Site J," a relatively flat spot on the 'head' of the comet. The 220-pound lander, named Philae, is scheduled for touch down on November 11. 

    Scientists are warning that the landing may be a rough one, because the comet’s landscape is jagged, marked with deep depressions, cliffs, boulders, and fractures, the BBC reports

    Pre-mission analysis suggested the chances of a successful landing on roughly spherical body to be 70-75%. With 67P's rubber duck shape, those odds have surely lengthened.

    If the November landing is successful, it’ll be the first time mankind has dropped a probe onto a comet’s surface. Since comet 67P formed at the dawn of the solar system, the hope is that studying its nature and composition will reveal how Earth and the solar system formed. 

    If the lander fails, the Rosetta orbiter will continue to follow the comet as its elliptical orbit brings it closer to the Sun. As it heats up, the comet’s ice will vaporize. By tasting the gas that comes off, Rosetta and (hopefully) Philae will get a clearer picture of how the comet -- and the newborn solar system -- were built.

    The Philae Lander.
    An artist's impression of what Philae will look like once it anchors into the surface of comet 67P.
    ESA/ATG medialab

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    Nuclear energy provides 11 percent of the world’s electricity, but most reactors are now decades old. Many are approaching—or have surpassed—their initial 30- to 40-year lifespans (though upgrades can extend their lives to 60 years). Early nuclear adopters like France and Germany are curtailing their programs, even though analysts—including the authors of a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—say nuclear is necessary to keep worldwide carbon emissions in check. Emerging economies may take up the mantle: Planned reactors in China and Russia could keep the world’s inventory stable.

    Source: International Atomic Energy Agency; data current as of December 2013.
    Data Visualization by Giorgia Lupi, Simone Quadri, Gabriele Rossi, Davide Ciuffi, and Tommaso Renzini, Accurat

    Since late 2012, the U.S. has announced the retirement of five reactors, and several planned units are currently on hold.

    China is one of the only nations investing heavily in nuclear power—28 of its 49 reactors are under construction, and 35 more have been planned. It still has a long way to go: Nuclear accounted for only two percent of the country’s electricity in 2012.

    Just before the Fukushima disaster in 2011, nuclear power provided about 29 percent of Japan’s electricity. As of late 2013, all of its reactors were shut off and producing no power—though many were still technically operational. Japanese utilities are importing natural gas and oil to satisfy electricity demand.

    In June, the French prime minister introduced a bill that would cap nuclear at its current capacity.

    Russia has aggressively pursued nuclear power, following a post-Chernobyl hiatus that lasted more than a decade.

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


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    photo of the MIT Cheetah robot standing outdoors, on campus at MIT
    The MIT Cheetah Robot
    Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT, CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

    It bounds just like a rabbit, but it's not quite as cute. Check out the latest iteration of MIT's Cheetah robot. It's just received an algorithm update that allows it to run by itself on grassy terrain:

    The robot is now able to run, untethered, up to 10 miles per hour on a treadmill indoors, its makers report. It can also jump over short obstacles and continue running. This lab previously showed its Cheetah robot could run up to 13 mph, but only when tethered, indoors:

    As you can see, the Cheetah's new algorithm improvements make it more agile and able to handle real-life terrain. That's essential if humans want robots in the future to help them carry loads, or explore places that are too dangerous for people, such as the areas surrounding a nuclear disaster. In fact, that's why some labs focus on legged robots, instead of wheeled, which could drive more quickly. The idea is that legs could propel robots over rubble. One day, they may even be able to do so at a runner's pace.

    One other group that's made a running, legged robot is Boston Dynamics, a private company that originally grew out of the work of an engineering professor at MIT. Last year, the company posted a YouTube video showing a robot named WildCat running around in an asphalt parking lot. WildCat reached speeds of 16 mph and both bounded and galloped, two methods of running that real-life, four-legged animals use.

    The MIT Cheetah bounds, which is perhaps easiest to imagine if you think of how a bunny hops. Both forefeet go down first and push the animal off the ground. Then the hind feet both hit the ground at once, and continue to push the animal forward. Compared to galloping, bounding is easier to model mathematically, MIT mechanical engineer Sangbae Kim told MIT News. The lab will work on untethered galloping later.

    To run faster, the MIT Cheetah's newest algorithm controls the amount of force the robot's feet exert when they push off the ground. That force control also helps the bot jump over obstacles and maintain balance on slightly bumpy surfaces.

    In addition, the robot has an electric motor, which helps it run more quietly than the diesel-fueled, internal combustion engine that WildCat has. Running sneakily—that's exactly what I've always wanted robots to be able to do.


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    Students participate in hands-on learning at The Makery in New York City.
    Courtesy Makery NYC

    SparkTruck

    Frustrated with the decline of hands-on learning, Stanford University students created SparkTruck as a roving maker lab. They outfitted a Utilimaster van with tools like a laser cutter and hundreds of dollars worth of Popsicle sticks and miniature motors, then drove it across the country—twice—stopping at schools. It’s reached about 5,000 kids, plus inspired enough like-minded adults that the Stanford team created a “How to Make a SparkTruck” guide.

    MakerState

    MakerState got its start bringing hands-on projects to at-risk students around New Orleans and the Hudson Valley of New York. Now, it embeds instructors called “maker fellows” in summer camps and schools across the country, where they teach STEM-based workshops that serve more than 6,000 students a year. Fellows also throw maker-themed birthday parties (robot cupcakes included) featuring 90-minute projects, ranging from cardboard derby cars to light-up superhero wristbands.

    The Makery

    Cofounder Hsing Wei wants dropping by for an afternoon of creative engineering to be “as normal to people as walking into a store,” and so The Makery temporarily takes over some of New York’s most public spots. It runs pop-up workshops, such as “Create Your Own Simon Says,” in vacant storefronts, abandoned bodegas—even a former freight elevator. This spring, it turned an atrium at Rockefeller University into an air-propelled rocket-launching station.

    Maker Camp

    A virtual summer camp for kids age 13 to 18, Maker Camp presents a different project, based on themes such as paper circuits and DIY fashion, every day for six weeks. Students collaborate online through Google Plus or in person at local affiliates like public libraries. Maker Camp also takes teens on virtual field trips to some of the biggest names in making, including Lego, Disneyland, and Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.

    Maker Guild

    Los Angeles–based Maker Guild started three years ago by awarding digital badges for students who mastered skills like coding and soldering. Now, 17 guilds across eight states reach thousands of participants every year with projects like anti-tickle belts and wood-engraved playing cards. Kids between the ages of four and eight start out as Maker Sprouts, then graduate to Maker Tribes; the organization also runs programs for families, adults, and educators.

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

    Read the rest of Popular Science’s education feature.


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    Above: The T-1000; Below: Getting there
    Carolco Pictures and Michael Dickey

    A team of researchers report that they understand a property of a liquid metal that allows them to manipulate it like the T-1000 from Terminator 2 and even build "scale models" of the violent automaton.

    Chemists at North Carolina State University have observed that when they apply an electric charge to a gallium alloy (which is naturally liquid at room temperature) in water, they are able to manipulate its shape. After three years of studying the unusual reaction they figured out how it works: an oxide coating on the surface forms when the voltage is applied, then disappears without a trace when the voltage is removed. This coating changes the surface tension of the metal where it meets the water.

    "Scientifically this is one of the most exciting projects I've ever worked on because nothing in the literature explained it," Dr. Michael Dickey, an investigator on the study, tells Popular Science.

    "On a fluid droplet two primary sources dominate shape and behavior," Dr. Dickey says:  "Gravity and surface tension. If you can control surface tension you can control the shape of the liquid."

    Dr. Dickey says modifying the shape of liquid metals could have broad practical applications. Circuits could transform in real time to do different tasks. Mirrors in cameras and telescopes could change shape to refine focus. And, in the long run, similar techniques might be discovered in other materials.

    The gallium alloy's oxide surface is too strong in air to allow for the same effect out of water, but researcher believe a similar effect might be produced in other materials under different conditions.

    Don't expect a T-1000 marching (or slithering or galloping) down your block any time soon though. In the gallium alloy this effect is only possible on very small scales. Once too much mass gets involved, says Dr. Dickey, "gravity takes over" and the whole system collapses.

    You can watch a video of the process below:

     


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    Still From An Airware Video
    The idea is that the same red autopilot box works with all sorts of drone bodies.

    Drones soon may be bound together by a common code. Airware, a commercial drone software company with MIT roots, hopes to unify drones in a shared code architecture. Airware already makes an autopilot, but that’s just the first step to creating a drone operating system, allowing hardware from different manufacturers to communicate with one another.

    It’s an idea that hearkens back to the earliest days of Silicon Valley: splitting the hardware from the software. In theory, it means that a drone user can add a camera from one company to the body of a drone from another with a filming program from a third -- and have it all work out. In broader terms, it changes drones from limited products built for a specific task to much more versatile tools. An ecosystem of abilities rather than a single organism.

    Airware founder Jonathan Downey frames it thus:

    “We’re doing the same thing for the drone space,” Downey says. “There are 600 companies building differing versions of drone hardware. We think they need the Intel processor of the drones, if you will, and that operating system-level software component, too — like the DOS for drones.”

    In 2013, Google invested almost $11 million in Airware. The company's operating systems are light and cloud-storage friendly, which makes them a potentially great fit for Google’s drone delivery efforts.


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    photo of a pneumatic robot arm bent inside a maze
    Your Tentacle Friend
    Screenshot from "CSAIL Robotic Arm Slithers Like A Snake Through Pipes" by MITCSAIL on YouTube

    So Gizmodo found this morning a seafoam-green, pneumatic, snake/tentacle robot that's able to wiggle its way through a simple, walled maze. Let's take a look:

    Yep, that's impressive. But what is this for, exactly? And how does it work? The robot's makers, a team of computer scientists from MIT, wrote up a paper that explains.

    Researchers that build soft robots like this one hope that in the future, soft machines will be safer for humans to work with than hard metal ones. Softness and flexibility are also used in solving problems, such as snaking a robot through a complex space. 

    • This is not meant to be a standalone robot. Instead, it's a design for an arm on a larger machine. In the video, off to the left, you can see the arm needs to be connected to something that can do its computing for it. This machine provides it with the bursts of air it uses to bend.

    • The team wrote the robot arm's control algorithms as a series of optimization problems with two main goals. The robot tries to reach a destination through the plastic maze while minimizing the number of times it hits the plastic walls. In 30 runs, the robot was able to reach its destination 24 times. Failures included problems like getting stuck in the maze.

    • The robot itself is made up of six modules stuck together. Everything is 100 percent silicone rubber. Each of the modules has a core of stiff rubber, laid between two hollow cylinders of softer rubber. Filling one of the cylinders with air makes the whole module bend either left or right (depending on which module is filled).

    • To further reduce the friction between the rubber robot and the plastic maze walls, the scientists rubbed the arm with talcum powder, the main ingredient in baby powder.


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    An illustration of DNA
    via Pixabay
    Research published in the American Journal of Psychiatry shows that schizophrenia is not a single genetic disease, but in fact a class of diseases with variable symptoms.

    Schizophrenia is known to be passed in families, implying genetic origins, but no single mutation has ever been shown to cause symptoms to emerge. It turns out, that's because different "orchestras" of mutations working together cause a range disorders that until now had been understood as a single disease. These results emerged from a new approach to studying the illness. Scientists examined the DNA of 4,200 people with schizophrenia and 3,800 healthy controls, looking for places in the genome where a single nucleotide -- the smallest unit of data in DNA -- had mutated. They found that none of the individual mutations produce significant risk for the disorder on their own. However, particular clusters of mutations create risk of developing schizophrenia and different symptoms. Eight have been found so far, and they expect to uncover more.

    "This is better than saying that someone either has or doesn't have the disease," Dr. Igor Zwir, a lead on the study, tells Popular Science.

    The study could have broad implications for the severe mental illness, which appears in about 1 percent of the population. Sufferers can experience a range of symptoms from delusions and hallucinations to disorganized speech and apathy. The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published in 2013, called for interpretation of schizophrenia along a spectrum, but, according to Zwir, no comprehensive method for doing so existed, leading doctors to rely on trial and error for treatment.

    "You can have one patient on seven drugs," he says. "One doesn't work, so they try another, and another, and another, and another. The problem is no one knows how to divide schizophrenia into groups."

    By looking at the genetic roots of the disease instead of symptoms, Zwir hopes doctors will be able to be more direct in their treatment.

    According to Zwir, the next step is to develop inexpensive targeted tests for the groups of mutations that produce schizophrenic symptoms. That could lead to a future of quicker, more effective care.


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    Reshma Saujani's Girls Who Code aims to expose 1 million young women to computer science by 2020.
    Courtesy Girls Who Code

    When Reshma Saujani toured New York City schools during her 2010 primary run for Congress, the gender divide in computer-science classrooms shocked her. “I’d be in a robotics lab on the Upper East Side where there would be a hundred boys,” says the politician and lawyer. “And then I’d be in Queens and there’d be one girl in the basement of a church.” With jobs increasingly dependent on computer know-how, Saujani saw girls facing an economic disadvantage—particularly since the number of women earning computer-science bachelor’s degrees has actually dropped by more than a third since the mid-eighties. The key, she decided, was connecting them with computer programming early.

    Saujani lost the race, but the coding idea stuck. Within two years she launched Girls Who Code (GWC), a summer program that places female high school students at tech companies, including Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon. Today, GWC has expanded to 19 companies in four cities and the Bay Area, with more planned for 2015; similar programs have followed, including Google’s Made with Code, which launched in June. So far, 95 percent of GWC graduates plan to study computer science in college, compared with less than 1 percent of girls nationally. Saujani points out this isn’t just good news for women, but the industry too. By 2020, the Department of Labor calculates there will be 1 million more computer-science jobs than computer scientists to fill them. Says Saujani: “It is simply the right thing to do.”

    20.6: Percentage increase in science and engineering jobs projected between 2008 and 2018, double the overall growth rate

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

    Read the rest of Popular Science’s education feature.


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    Little device, big magnification.
    Photograph by Brian Klutch

    Imagine a world where every child owns a microscope. A clever new method to fold the instrument from a single sheet of paper may bring that dream closer to reality. 

    In the Foldscope, invented by Stanford University engineers, creased paper creates a scaffold, which holds a lens and an LED in alignment. A microscope slide sits between them. As users peer at the sample, they flex the paper to adjust the lens and change the focus. The simple assembly can magnify objects more than 2,000 times. 

    Lead developer Manu Prakash originally saw the Foldscope as an inexpensive way to diagnose disease in developing countries. But he soon realized it could also help excite a new generation of scientists. “You learn to appreciate the microscopic cosmos by actually exploring it yourself,” he says. 

    To arm aspiring scientists with a crowd-sourced manual of experiments, the inventors launched a beta test. More than 11,000 applicants from 130 countries—ranging from six-year-olds to Nobel Laureates—volunteered to fold their own microscopes and use them for an original research project. They plan to study bee parasites, identify “micro-fossils” the size of sand grains, and more.

    Reproducing those experiments, Prakash hopes, will inspire students to then make their own discoveries. “In my mind, every biology book should have a Foldscope as the last page,” he says. “Because you’re not just imparting knowledge, you’re also imparting the tools to gain that knowledge.” 

    The Perks Of A Foldscope

    DurableStomp on a Foldscope or drop one from three stories, and it will survive to magnify another day.

    Affordable. When components are purchased in bulk, a Foldscope costs only 57 cents. High-magnification lenses add another 40 cents.

    Portable. The paper microscope fits in your pocket and weighs less than a pencil.

    Makeable. It takes about 10 minutes for a novice to assemble a Foldscope. The inventors can do it in just a few minutes.

    For more information on Foldscope assembly, check out Prakash's PLOS ONE paper, or watch the video below.

    What can you see through a Foldscope? Take a peek!

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


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    photo taken from inside a Google Toyota Prius, showing Las Vegas outside of the window
    View from Google's 2012 Driving Test
    Nevada DMV

    In May 2012, Google's self-driving car underwent a classic American teenage ritual. It took a driving test at a DMV. The car passed, but apparently not without a little lobbying from its parent.

    As state officials have monitored the robot car's mileage on public roads, Google has lobbied for the car to get different tests and to report different accident figures than the DMV wants, a new series of reports finds. The reports come from U.S. Freedom of Information Act requests that technology journalist Mark Harris submitted to DMVs and other agencies. Turning to the government let Harris "sidestep Google's secretive PR machine," as he told the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, which recently collected his stories.

    Harris' work offers a detailed sense of the car's abilities. It's also a look at Google's lobbying, the extent of which is maybe unsurprising, for a private company, but still interesting.

    He published his latest—and most fun—article in IEEE Spectrum. You can see excerpts there of the car's 2012 Nevada driving test, with notes and checkmarks just like you might have gotten as a nervous 16-year-old. That's where you can see what situations the Google car is good at, and in what situations it will ask for help from its human driver.

    For the Guardian, Harris wrote about how Google has asked regulators to allow the results of computerized driving simulations to stand in for tests on driving tracks or closed-off roads. For Quartz, Harris reported on Google's lobbying not to have to report how often its cars turn over the controls to their human drivers, as long as the handover occurs as expected. The car is designed to routinely cede control when it encounters situations it can't handle. That's the kind of handover Google doesn't want to have to report. The company also doesn't want to report when its cars get into accidents while a human, not its algorithms, is driving. The California DMV disagreed.

    [Knight Science Journalism Tracker]


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    John H. Glenn Research Center At Lewis Field
    NASA
    What started as a small research project at NASA has become an important tool in a campaign to combat the toxic algae blooms that recently left 500,000 people in the Toledo area without drinking water.

    NASA is deploying flight missions equipped with hyperspectral imaging instruments similar to those intended to distinguish dust components on Mars. The technology is being used to identify the components of algal blooms affecting the Western Basin of Lake Erie. The highly sensitive imaging instruments use spectral signatures to assign unique markers to each element and allow scientists to distinguish harmful algae from beneficial algae.

    While the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has long used satellite imaging over Lake Erie, NASA Glenn's S-3 aircraft is now conducting flyover missions below the clouds to capture data that assists NOAA and local water treatment facilities in preparing for algal bloom threats, according to Frank Jennings, public affairs specialist at NASA.

    "We're checking for concentration of algal blooms and sediment in the water. We also look for new areas of algal blooms," said John Lekki, a NASA engineer in charge of the missions. "Sediment carries many of the nutrients that feed the blooms. The sediment load gives us an idea of how the algal blooms may change over time. If there is a lot of sediment, and conditions are favorable, then the algal blooms will grow."

    "Most recent flyovers seem to show very strong algal blooms in the southern half of the Western Basin," he said.

    Kelley Island
    NASA
    This uptick in toxic algae recently contributed to a well-publicized water contamination disaster in Toledo, Ohio. The Western Basin of Lake Erie, which provides drinking water to Toledo, is shallower than other areas of the lake, so the water tends to be warmer. Cleveland, in contrast, get its water from the Middle Basin, an area of the lake that's deeper, choppier, and less susceptible to algae growth, according to Dr. Michael Nichols, associate professor of chemistry at nearby John Carroll University.

    The Western Basin is also surrounded by agricultural land from which fertilizer runoff often leads to high levels of phosphorus in the water.

    "Any fertilizer runoff that is high in phosphorus is a problem, which is virtually any fertilizer," said Dr. Nichols. "If phosphorus gets into the lake it increases all forms of plant growth, including algae blooms."

    While algae form a pillar of the food chain in Lake Erie, Microcystis, a particular blue-green algae variety, contains microcystin -- the contaminant that prompted Toledo's water troubles. Microcystin is a toxic peptide that can interfere with liver function if you drink it.

    Ohio lawmakers are now working on legislation that would limit the amount of fertilizer used on nearby farmland, as well as updating water treatment facilities to deal with impending threats to the drinking water supply. 

    "Ohio is freeing up $150 million to update water treatment facility equipment in individual communities and bring them the best available technology," said David Hall, an Ohio state representative and chairman of the Agriculture Committee.

    In the meantime, area residents will have to depend on NASA's partnership with NOAA and area universities to provide consistent monitoring and early identification to help avoid another water contamination disaster.


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    photo of a police officer in a police car, holding up a speed-detecting radar gun
    Radar Speed Gun at Work at a Naval Base, 2006
    Photo by the U.S. Department of Defense. See it at the U.S. National Archives.

    ComSonics, a company specializing in cable leakage detection, is working on a device that would sense when drivers are texting, the Virginian-Pilot reports. The Virginia newspaper suggests the final product, designed for police to use, might look something like the "radar gun" gadgets that police currently use to log drivers' speed and give out tickets. The text-sensing device looks for the radio wavelengths that phones use to send and receive SMS messages. Busted!

    The device will even be able to distinguish between the radio waves used by texts and the waves used by calls, which are of a different frequency, ComSonics manager Malcom McIntyre told the Virginian-Pilot. That ability would be useful in Virginia and many other states, where it's legal for adults to talk on a cellphone while driving, but not to text. (Which seems silly. Research has found that having phone conversations while driving is dangerous, too.) It's unclear, however, how the device will be able to distinguish between texting on the part of the driver, versus passengers in the same car.

    ComSonics now makes a number of devices that detect electromagnetic waves, including a few radar-gun-shaped things that find signal leaks in cables.

    [Virginian-Pilot]


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    An open source 1-inch OLED screen.
    Emile Petrone founded Tindie for selfish reasons. “The basic idea was that there wasn’t a marketplace for the things I was interested in,” he says. At the time, those things were his latest DIY hardware obsessions—specifically, kits to support Arduino and Raspberry Pi. “Ebay’s not really right, and neither is Amazon. Hardware projects had no natural home.” 

    So in the summer of 2012, Petrone (then an engineer at a Portland startup) launched a site where flexible matrix boards and laser motion sensors could be sold alongside build-it-yourself weather monitoring kits and robot birds. Almost immediately, Tindie began attracting favorable attention from the indie hardware community—and then expanded from there. Today, around 600 inventors sell more than 3,000 different hardware products, which have shipped out to more than 80 countries around the world. Some customers are hobbyists like Petrone, but others are large entities like the Australian government, Google and NASA. These days, Petrone says, “NASA’s purchasing department just calls my cell phone.” 

    Just as Etsy became the go-to marketplace for craft creators, Tindie has become the primary hub for hardware aficionados.

    The site has also gained a strong following from hard-core DIY types. Just as Etsy became the go-to marketplace for craft creators, Tindie has become the primary hub for hardware aficionados. “We are definitely part of and supportive of the maker movement,” Petrone says. “We fill the hardware side.”

    While Petrone achieved his goal of creating a marketplace for hardware projects, Tindie also inadvertently made a second contribution to the hardware world: it now stands as the largest collection of open-source hardware on the planet. “Nothing on the site is patented, and the vast majority of sellers have their source code and documentation links available right there on the page,” Petrone says. “Open source has become very much a part of the brand and what people within the hardware world associate with us.” 

    An open source rolling robot.
    Petrone, who stands on the board of the Open Source Hardware Association, insists that this development was not intentional but rather just happened. Whatever the reasoning, it could be a boon for hardware. Unlike software, which has been open sourced for decades and includes hundreds of thousands of projects, hardware has lagged behind the open source movement, wherein the inner workings of a program or a product are openly available for anyone to see, edit or modify. Open source software projects demonstrate the value of this approach, having led to integral creations such as Linux, the operating system that vast majority of the Internet runs on today. “The more people who know about a project and have access to it, the better it becomes,” Petrone says. “We then all benefit from that collective development.” 

    Part of the reason software has led the open source charge is that it has the advantage of being “lightweight,” Petrone explains. “It’s a case of atoms versus bits.” 

    Historically, big companies have dominated hardware production for two simple reasons: manufacturing is both expensive and difficult. Hardware requires physical objects, which entail manufacturing costs and, usually, shipping. But a precipitous drop in prices—which some attribute to the rise of cell phones, which made components cheap—is helping to lower the barrier to open source entry for hardware, as are crowd-sourcing platforms such as Kickstarter.  

    For companies and makers, the revenue model for open source hardware is still being worked out, since a person could potentially exploit an open source platform and sell it for profit. But as Arduino— a micro-controller for DIYers, and the most successful open source hardware project to date—shows, people tend to buy the $30 original version rather than the $10 copycats. “Most people want to support those who are actually contributing and putting the sweat and time into the project,” Petrone says. “You don’t get the same warm fuzzy feeling when buying a closed product as you do when you support someone who is creating an open one.” 

    As for Tindie sellers, monetary support has so far not been a problem. There is so much demand for the open source products sold on the site that the waiting list alone contains nearly half a million dollars’ worth of orders. For Petrone, “This has been something incredibly interesting to see because, ultimately, it’s a totally new market that doesn’t exist anywhere else.” 

    Tindie, however, is likely only an early example of what is to come. 

    “I think open hardware will start coming into its own in the next ten years,” Petrone says. “Apple’s not going to open source their products anytime soon, but Tesla could.”

    This article was originally published in the October 2014 issue of Popular Science with the title, "The Etsy Of Hardware." It has been expanded in this web version. 


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