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    Ebola Virus
    As the Ebola outbreak continues to spread throughout West Africa, one thing is on everyone’s minds: finding a cure. But while many researchers are toiling away, trying to fulfill this desperate need, others are trying to capitalize on it. Various companies are claiming to have treatments that can cure or prevent Ebola, and those treatments can be yours! For a fee, of course.

    Sarcasm aside, there is no cure or treatment for Ebola yet, and anyone saying otherwise is just trying to swindle you.

    Well thankfully, the FDA is stepping in on this one. The agency has issued warning letters to three separate companies that are marketing Ebola cures, demanding that they cease the sale of their products. The letters were sent to the Natural Solutions Foundation in New Jersey, as well as dōTERRA International LLC and Young Living, both based out of Utah.

    "During outbreak situations, fraudulent products almost always appear."

    According to the letters, the companies’ websites all make claims that their products are therapeutic, but none is FDA-approved. That puts the companies in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which basically gives authority to the FDA to oversee the safety all foods, drugs, and cosmetics. 

    “Unfortunately, during outbreak situations, fraudulent products claiming to prevent, treat or cure a disease almost always appear,” the FDA said in a statement. And these particular products are pretty shady. The Natural Solutions Foundation purports to sell two products that can eliminate Ebola: Hemp Oil and Nano Silver. 

    In a YouTube video on the site’s homepage titled “None Need Die from Ebola,” a woman named Dr. Rima Laibow makes the claim that Nano Silver has been shown “to inactivate viruses like the HIV virus, the hepatitis B and C virus, influenza viruses like H5N1, and Ebola virus.” Dang, that’s one impressive resume. It should be noted, however, that Dr. Rima’s website also includes a section on the truth about chemtrails, claiming they’re “designed to cut off your genetic line.” Hmmm…

    "The Five Big Lies"
    Dr. Rima, founder of Natural Solutions foundations, claims to expose the truth on her homepage.
    Dr. Rima Truth Reports

    As for dōTERRA, things get even weirder. On their website, there’s a heading called 'Fight Your Virus with Essential Oils,' which makes some bold claims about oregano:

    Oregano is effective in inactivating MNV (non-enveloped murine norovirus) within 1 hour of exposure. Some of the primary uses for oregano include athlete’s foot, candida, canker sores, Ebola virus, intestinal parasites, MRSA, ringworm, staph infection, viral infections, warts, and whooping cough.

    Really? Athlete's foot, canker sores ... and Ebola? That escalated fast!

    While these efforts may be depressing, there are still many out there actively trying to find a treatment for Ebola, including generous benefactors that are helping to keep research funded. So during this terrible outbreak, the good outweighs the bad.

    Meanwhile, these companies have 15 days to respond to the warning letters and notify the FDA of corrective action taken. Failure to do so could lead to a number of reactions from the regulatory agency, such as seizure of the fraudulent products or even criminal charges.

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    Woolly Micron
    Arthur E. Smith made took this microscopic photograph of a sheep tick 110 years ago to exhibit in London as part of a large collection. The pictures would have been the first many people of the time had ever seen.
    Arthur E. Smith/

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    Satellite Image Of The Hollywood Sign
    United States Geological Survey, via Wikimedia Commons

    Here's a roundup of the week's top drone news: the military, commercial, non-profit, and recreational applications of unmanned aircraft.

    Unprepared Skies

    The future moves faster than bureaucracy. When the Federal Aviation Administration, responsible for the safety of America’s skies, started building its NextGen air traffic control system in 2003, drones were mostly limited to military targets and scouts flying over warzones. Since then, commercial drones and unmanned systems have experienced a great flourishing, but the NextGen system isn’t designed to handle them. While it means little for most small and low-flying drones, provided the FAA chooses to regulate them differently than other aircraft, this limitation could slow development of full-sized drones, like unmanned cross-country cargo carriers.

    Hollywood Drones

    On Thursday, the FAA granted six drone companies, all associated with the film industry, exemptions from normal prohibitions on drone flying, provided they accepted a specific set of safety standards. If this foreshadows other industry-specific exemptions, it’s good news for the drone economy.

    Iranian Armed Dronefighter

    Iranian Dronefighter

    Iran this week unveiled a new drone it says can fight air-to-air aircraft. That drone? A modified Mohajer drone with two man-portable anti-air missiles strapped under its wings. It is theoretically possible for such a drone to shoot down another aircraft, but in a dogfight against any armed fighter aircraft, it’s likely that the manned plane would win.

    Internet From Above

    In March, Facebook acquired drone maker Ascenta, whose solar powered drones can stay aloft for long stretches of time. This week, we got a peek into how Facebook plans to use these jumbo-jet sized internet relay machines to spread the web to unconnected parts of the world.

    The Hybrid Exploration Robot for Air and Land Deployment.
    Mod Lab/University of Pennsylvania

    Robo Rescue Squad

    Three robots are better than one. A project by the University of Pennsylvania’s Modular Robotics Lab combines two snake bots with a flying quadcopter. From our story:

    Together, this motley team of robots is known by their superhero-esque moniker H.E.R.A.L.D., which stands for Hybrid Exploration Robot for Air and Land Deployment. The drone is explicitly designed as an alternative to stronger, heavier robots that use force to power over rubble. A lighter approach leaves the rubble in place, and means rescue bots can find people where they are while not making the situation worse.

    Stopping Ebola

    In a seemingly strange twist, the United States sent military assets to Liberia to fight the still-raging West African Ebola outbreak. The Pentagon already has two bases for drones in Niger, and while the Liberia is too far for Reapers, if Global Hawks were based in Niger they could easily make the flight. Surveillance aircraft could help the fight against Ebola by looking for unusual human behavior, like a sudden vehicle exodus or overcrowded hospitals, which might give away an outbreak before its reported.

    Did I miss any drone news? Email me at

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    Clay Model.
    AMNH/D. Finnin
    165: number of pounds Lonesome George weighed at the time of his death, before scientists stuffed and mounted him for display.

    2: the number of rubber bands needed to build your own shoebox phone projector

    100,000,000: amount of money in American dollars the President of Korea pledged at the UN Climate Summit to help developing nations undertake low-carbon economic growth.

    Tumbling Alone

    25,000: number off seeds a tumbleweed can spread as it rolls. Scientists are researchingtwo species of fungi that can limit the reach of these troublesome weeds. 

    Packed up Crab Walker
    The Crab Walker is shown here with its rear and forward leg mounts retracted to enable movement over mountainous terrain with its main eight legs, as it keeps up with Chinese infantry., via Hongjian at China Defense Forum

    8: number of limbs the new cannon-carrying robot, called the Crabwalker, might scuttle around on, as designed by Chinese engineers.

    Laboratory Examination Of Ebola
    © Luchschen /

    1.4 million: number of people who possibly will contract the Ebola virus by January 2015, as predicted by the CDC.

    980,000: number of people who might die from the disease in the next six months.

    The Last Gladiator
    Evel Knievel didn't undersell his 1974 feat. "When I make that jump," he said. "I'll be competing against the toughest opponent of all -- and that's death."
    Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

    1,600: length in feet of the Snake River Canyon that daredevils are attempting to jump in homemade vehicles. Evel Knievel famously failed to jump the canyon in 1974.

    25,600: frames of video the new slo-mo camera Phantom v2511 can capture in one second.

    Why so pouty, Jon Snow?
    Home Box Office

    60: percentage chance that Jon Snow does not die, according to a Game of Thrones-themed mathematics paper. The paper's authors used the Bayesian method to predict plot outcomes in future Song of Ice and Fire novels.

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    photo of a small orangutan holding up an iPad nearly its size
    Orangutan Plays With iPad, 2012
    Orangutan Outreach

    Human-computer interaction is a fast-growing field of study that examines questions like how people feel about robots, or what people choose to click first when they visit a webpage. With some clever setups, researchers are even able to investigate scenarios aren't quite technologically possible, such as how people react to a robot that begs not to be put away. The results of human-computer interaction studies can be fascinating, even if some of them are not applicable to everyday life… yet. 

    Now, a new conference is looking to throw yet another participant in the mix. The Association for Computing Machinery plans to host a conference this year about animal-human-computer interaction research. Possible study topics include prototype systems allowing animals to interact with computers, and programs that improve non-human animals' quality of life.

    The new conference has already gathered research paper submissions. A review committee is deciding which papers to include. The conference will be part of a larger gathering this November, about computer entertainment technologies.

    We eagerly await the list of studies scientists will present at the International Congress on Animal Human Computer Interaction. Meanwhile, here are some animal-computer tools that we've seen over the past decade:

    • Zookeepers have used iPads to entertain intelligent charges such as dolphins and orangutans.

    • In 2012, researchers created a touchscreen game that humans are able to play with pigs remotely.

    • There are numerous studies investigating whether researchers who work with mice and rats can replace traditional tests of learning, such as mazes, with touchscreen-based tests. Studies with monkeys and apes already often use touchscreens to test what the primates have learned.

    • There are lots of apps for pet dogs and cats, but your (and Fluffy's) mileage with them may vary.

    The common denominator here is the touchscreen, which animals can tap with their noses, paw pads, and fingertips much more easily than they could manage keyboards and computer mice. One thing we'd love to see next is other ways for animals to interact with technology, perhaps by making noises or non-touch gestures that are natural to them. Oink recognition, anyone? 

    Below, frogs are enthralled by worms on an iPhone:

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    Screenshot Of EVIE Demonstration Animation
    Courtesy of the researchers

    Inspecting a ship’s cargo is a dull, tedious, time-consuming task. So a pair of researchers at MIT, including graduate student Sampriti Bhattacharyya and her advisor Harry Asada, created a small robot that resembles a squished foam ball to inspect ship cargo quickly, cheaply, and silently. They presented their findings earlier this month at the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems.

    Named EVIE, for Ellipsoidal Vehicle for Inspection and Exploration, the robot can swim as fast as three feet per minute. EVIE uses six jets to move underwater, with an algorithm determining which jets pump water and when. The half of the body that doesn’t house the jets is watertight and sealed, protecting EVIE’s controls, a battery that lasts for up to 40 minutes, an antenna, and inertial sensors.

    EVIE's Two Halves
    Courtesy of the researchers

    EVIE will inspect ships using an ultrasound scanner. The watertight half of the robot has a flat panel, so the robot can cozy up to the hull of a ship, and two of the robot’s six jets are directly opposite the panel, allowing it to stay in place against the hull. The current prototype lacks ultrasound, but the working version will use ultrasound to peer into cargo holds, possibly finding the panels and false doors used by smugglers for illegal transport.

    In future practice, swarms of EVIE-bots might collectively inspect ships in port, swimming and scanning underwater as a team. Bhattacharyya hopes to get the price of a functioning inspection gadget down to around $600, so that the swarms are cheap enough to be useful.

    EVIE On A Table
    Courtesy of the researchers


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    Spectacled Fruit Bat In A Tree.
    Wind turbines kill upwards of 600,000 bats each year. (As if bats didn’t have enough problems already…) But the good news is that there may be something we can do to cut down on turbine-related deaths. Paul Cryan, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and the lead author of a new study, says that raising the “cut-in threshold”—the wind speed at which turbine blades start to spin—could reduce the number of fatal bat collisions at wind farms.

    Cryan's research, published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that certain species of tree-roosting bats are more likely to be killed by wind turbines when the blades are moving at low speeds. By tracking the bats with thermal surveillance cameras, near-infrared video, acoustic detectors, and radar, the researchers discovered that bats tend to approach turbines from downwind, particularly when the turbines spin slowly relative to the wind speeds around them. This led researchers to theorize that the wind currents around slow moving turbines may resemble those created by trees, where the bats gather to roost and hunt insects.

    “We speculate that these are behaviors that evolved in trees, and the bats, basically, can’t tell the difference between wind turbines and trees,” says Cryan, the lead author of the study. “Bats have been around for billions of years and there’s nothing in their history to prepare them for something that looks like a tree, yet isn’t a tree, and has ‘branches’ that are moving.”

    Making the cut-in threshold higher should result in fewer of the slow-moving turbines that the bats confuse for trees. It’s a strategy that’s already been undertaken at some wind farms where endangered bats have been found dead. For example, in cases where a turbine usually starts spinning when the wind reaches 13 feet per second, then increasing its cut-in threshold to16 feet per second has reduced fatalities. 

    Although Cryan and his colleagues did not undertake a formal prescription in the published paper, he recommends further study of the cut-in threshold strategy for protecting tree-roosting bats. Other mitigation strategies include chasing bats away with acoustic devices, or tracking the bats and automatically disengaging the turbines as they go by.

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    Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser

    With the recent retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, NASA has been in desperate need of some space taxis -- vehicles designed to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station. For the past three years, the space agency has had to rely on Russia’s Soyuz rocket to fulfill this need, which hasn't been cheap or ideal.

    But rather than build these spacecraft in house, NASA decided to outsource the problem, soliciting private American companies to come up with their own designs for ferrying NASA astronauts to lower Earth orbit. SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada Corporation were the three top contenders for the coveted contract, and on September 16, NASA announced it would fund both SpaceX and Boeing’s designs. The two companies received a combined sum of $6.8 billion to build, test, and operate their own space taxis, which will hopefully be transporting astronauts by 2017.

    While the decision was mostly met with enthusiasm and praise from experts, not everyone was so pleased with the big announcement – notably, the “loser” of the competition, the Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC). Their Dream Chaser vehicle, which many experts thought was on par with SpaceX’s Dragon V2 capsule and Boeing’s CST-100, was overlooked for inclusion in the program. And they’re not letting it go without a fight.

    On Friday, SNC filed a formal bid protest with the Government Accountability Office over NASA’s decision, claiming that one of the newly awarded contracts would “result in a substantial increased cost to the public despite near equivalent technical and past performance scores.” SNC says that extra cost will be upwards of $900 million, to be exact. The press release also calls into question NASA’s rationale for making their choices, which has been somewhat of a mystery. The space agency said it would publish an official Source Selection document, detailing how the decision was made, but a date for that release hasn't been set.

    As of now, all we know is that when NASA solicited proposals for CCtCap, they placed a lot of emphasis on safety, reliability of the vehicles, and cost-effectiveness. SNC claims that their Dream Chaser fulfills the requirements of the first two criteria, but that the company can build and operate their vehicle for cheaper than one of the contract winners’ vehicles. “SNC’s Dream Chaser proposal was the second lowest priced proposal in the CCtCap competition,” the press release claims. “SNC’s proposal also achieved mission suitability scores comparable to the other two proposals.”

    It depends on how passionate NASA is about whether or not it made the right decision.

    In order to make an official protest with the GAO, companies must either be challenging the solicitation or the reward of a government contract. Most disputes are in regards to the latter situation, and when that’s the case, the protesting company must write in detail all the reasons their proposal was better.

    SNC has already listed out their grievances, so the ball is in NASA’s court now. According to the GAO, NASA has to “answer” SNC’s claim within the next 30 days. That means for the next month, NASA is required to put together all of the documents that are relevant to the selection decision that they made. Those documents include their original solicitation document, which lays out all the ground rules and priorities that they valued for the program, as well as its secretive Source Selection document.

    “All of those documents will be provided to us and to SNC and probably to the two winning companies that will intervene,” Ralph White, the head of the GAO’s bid protest division, tells Popular Science. “I would imagine both Boeing and SpaceX will participate in the protest process,” though they are not involved just yet.

    Once SNC gets those documents, the company has an additional 10 days to respond and file its comments on the report. After that, all sorts of things can happen. The protest could get amended, the GAO could conduct an alternative dispute resolution (somewhat like an out-of-court settlement), or the office could ultimately act as a referee, hearing both sides of the argument and ruling in favor of SNC or NASA. If that happens, the GAO is legally required to have a decision within 100 days of the protest being filed, which is January 5.

    However, White says the chances of the GAO actually having to make a decision are low. He notes that about four out of five protests are usually dismissed, “meaning a lot of agencies pull the plug on the protest instead of continuing to litigate it," he says. It's usually the case that the defending company will acknowledge one of the protestor's complaints and fix the problem rather than fight it.

    So really, it depends on how passionate NASA is about whether or not it made the right decision. And unless NASA and SNC figure out an alternative solution outside of the protest process, it’s possible that NASA will be forced to choose Dream Chaser over one of the other contract winners. That burden of proof, however, relies on SNC. Essentially, the company has to prove that its vehicle not only meets the criteria of the original solicitation, but that that Dream Chaser is a better option than what was picked. And as White noted, it seems unlikely that Boeing and SpaceX will want to let that happen.

    Unlike the teardrop-shaped design of the Dragon V2 and CST-100, the Dream Chaser has an appearance similar to a miniature Space Shuttle, having been based off NASA’s HL-20 spaceplane concept. SNC claims the design provides the Dream Chaser with “a wider range of capabilities and value including preserving the heritage of the space shuttle program through its design as a piloted, reusable, lifting-body spacecraft.”

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    The 2013 California Rim Fire
    U.S. National Forest Service via Wikimedia Commons
    There is something coming between Californians and their water, and according to a brand new report from the American Meteorological Society, man-made greenhouse gas emissions are likely at fault.

    Much of the American Southwest has been in drought conditions for more than a decade—harsher in some places than the dry spell that caused the Dust Bowl of the 1930's. Until recently, however, California had largely been spared. That changed when an air mass dubbed the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge appeared over the Pacific in the winter of 2013—an event Daniel Swain, lead author on the study and weather blogger, says is likely the result of human activity.

    The Golden State usually has clearly defined wet and dry seasons. In the summer, hardly any water falls and sunlight bathes the coast. When winter comes and much of the country lies under a frozen blanket, Californians await rainstorms that roll in on the jet stream from the Pacific to water their plants and fill their reservoirs. That atmospheric current is vital to the health of California. Without it, the state is vulnerable to crop failures, forest fires, and water scarcity. Researchers peg agricultural cost of the current drought at $2.2 billion and 17,000 seasonal and part time jobs--and that's just for 2014.

    Here's where the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge (RRR) comes in. Swain tells Popular Science that the high pressure air mass blocks low pressure, water-carrying storms from reaching the coast. "The ridge is sort of like a big boulder sitting in a very narrow stream," he says. Similarly, the mass is shunting away low pressure storm systems that normally carry water to California, often driving them away from the West Coast altogether and up into the Arctic.

    Ridges have appeared before, but the RRR is bizarre in how long it has held on. In Earth's shifting atmosphere, air masses usually last for periods of hours or days. The RRR showed up more days than it didn't in Winter 2013. Then it did something extraordinary: it lasted into a second winter.

    "This is a really rare event," said environmental scientist Noah Diffenbaugh, another researcher on the report. Such a multi-seasonal formation is unprecedented in the climate record.

    Swain and his colleagues studied the drought using a model that combines data about global air circulation patterns, greenhouse gas emissions, ice loss, and precipitation. The model allows the researchers to compare real world conditions to projections of a world without all the heat-trapping gunk humans have pumped into the air, and it showed that human-produced greenhouse gasses made the appearance of the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge at least three times more likely.

    As for what Californians can expect this winter, Swain doesn't have an answer. "We're comparing today to what might have been," he explains.

    Whether the Ridge will return for a third go-around in the 2015 rainy season is still a mystery, but the implications are clear.

    With the havok of drought and 2014 so far being the warmest Californian year on record, "Already we're seeing that we're in a different climate regime," Diffenbaugh says.

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    photo of a three-fingered robot hand with its fingers open
    The BarrettHand
    The researchers tested their robot-training regimes on this commercially available, three-fingered robot hand.
    Barrett Technology

    Some things are just harder for robots to do. You know, things like appreciating literature, or writing music. Or grasping objects with their fingers.

    There are a lot of elements that go into grasping. A general grasping robot has to first figure out the important properties of what it's trying to hold, using whatever sensors it has. Then it has to come up with different strategies for differently-shaped objects, making decisions about where to put its fingers and how hard to grip. Several robots are pretty great at grasping already, but researchers continue to try to find ways to improve robot grips.

    One way engineers deal with this problem is by writing a robot's algorithms to learn from experience. The robot spends some time in a lab, successfully and unsuccessfully picking things up and figuring out the rules for grasping on its own. Studies have shown this works well, but a team of engineers at Oregon State University decided they wanted to come up with a quicker and easier way to teach robots how to grab. Their solution: providing feedback to the robot from strangers online.

    The robot that learned from picking up actual objects did better than the robot that learned via crowdsourcing, but only by a little.

    The Oregon team paid Internet users to rate photos of possible grasps on a scale of 1 to 5 of how secure such a grasp would be. The grasps included 522 finger configurations for nine everyday objects. The team also had a commercially available, three-fingered robot hand try the different grasps, picking objects up and shaking them to check how secure their grips were.

    The robot that learned from picking up actual objects did better than the robot that learned via crowd-sourcing, but only by a little, the Oregon team reports. The lab-trained robot earned a score of 0.766 (by a measure of accuracy called the area under the ROC curve), while the crowd-trained robot earned a score of 0.659. A perfect score would be 1.

    This isn't the first time researchers have tried teaching robots using feedback from Internet strangers. We've previously reported on a team of engineers that taught their robots to make cute block shapes via Mechanical Turk feedback.

    The Oregon team members will present their work at a conference hosted by the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence in November.

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    Concept Art For A Space Weapon
    National War College, via Wikimedia Commons

    If humanity brings war into space, what will those battles look like? Well, if our understanding of physics is anything close to correct, they won’t look at all like Star Wars. In this six minute clip by PBS Digital Studios, host Joe Hanson explores the physics of space battles.

    Space battles in fiction, especially television and movies, resemble World War II aerial dogfights or naval battles more than anything else. That fixture on the past means they don’t do a great job modeling the future. But as Hanson points out, battles among the stars might actually resemble an even older form of combat. Because space battles are likely to be fought by vessels far away from each other, enemies will have to guess where their opponents are before firing off weapons. In this way, space war could be like 18th century battles, with limited communications and an unclear knowledge of enemy positions.

    Of course, the video only addresses the physics of space battles. When it comes to technology, it may be that robots will do all the fighting.

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    Chemicals in flasks
    When researchers are looking to treat a disease, a common method is to find a protein associated with the ailment and find a way to render it useless. Often, scientists will swamp the protein in thousands of chemicals and see what sticks--literally. However, a commentary in Nature warns that scientists are too easily fooled by these tests.

    Chemicals that bind to harmful proteins can shut down their activity, and disrupting the activity of a harmful protein is often the first step toward a cure. The problem is, a relatively small group of chemicals appear to disrupt many different and unrelated proteins, but they are actually useless. Or worse, they disrupt healthy processes as well. The authors of the Nature piece say these problematic chemicals (with obscure names like toxoflavin and isothiasolone) and their false positives gum up the works of drug research.

    These molecules — pan-assay interference compounds, or PAINS — have defined structures, covering several classes of compound … But biologists and inexperienced chemists rarely recognize them. Instead, such compounds are reported as having promising activity against a wide variety of proteins. Time and research money are consequently wasted in attempts to optimize the activity of these compounds. Chemists make multiple analogues of apparent hits hoping to improve the ‘fit’ between protein and compound. Meanwhile, true hits with real potential are neglected.

    The writers end their piece with a call for greater vigilance among chemists and biologists for problematic PAINS.

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    March for climate action
    Two days before the 2014 United Nations Climate Summit, UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon (right) joined over 300,000 people to march in New York City for action on climate change.
    United Nations

    As Climate Week NYC slips into the rearview mirror, what can we take away? Did anything, you know, happen?

    Yes ... sort of. From the sci-tech perspective, important energy and conservation agreements were announced. Now the hard work of putting them into action begins for the pledgers and signers, as well as those watchdogging that process.

    It may not sound like much, but intent must exist for action to ensue, right? So if you're into environmental conservation -- particularly, curbing climate change -- these agreements are worthy of some renewed optimism.

    Here are some developments that blipped our tree-friendly radars:

    New York Declaration on Forests

    It's impressive: 32 national and 20 local or regional governments, 40 companies, 16 indigenous peoples groups, and 49 non-profits have all pledged cooperation to halve current rates of deforestation by 2020. Beyond that, the coalition has promised to restore hundreds of millions of acres of former forestlands and to halt global forest destruction entirely by 2030.

    Razing and burning forests accounts for about 10 percent of present global carbon emissions, or 3.6 billion tons of CO2 a year. Currently eight football fields worth of forest is degraded or destroyed every ten seconds, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

    So if it's successful, the plan's impact on carbon dioxide emissions could equate to taking every single car on Earth off the road. In the U.S. alone, tailpipe emissions account for one-fifth of the nation's annual 5.833 billion tons of greenhouse gas pollution, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. It would also mean an awful lot to the dozens if not hundreds of animal and plant species that call these forests home now and will need room to move as temperatures rise in coming decades.

    Importantly, many corporations and indigenous groups are partnering on this effort, along with governments and conservationists. But so far, Greenpeace International is not among them, stating that the plan is neither ambitious enough nor firmly grounded in tangible action. Neither is the nation of Brazil, home to roughly 60 percent of the Amazon rainforest (although the government has stated it intends to cut deforestation roughly 25 percent by 2020).

    As part of the declaration, Norway, the U.K., and Germany among others pledged $1 billion to developing countries such as Liberia and Peru for preserving forests.

    Palm Oil Pledge

    As Popular Sciencereported live from the climate summit last week, a coalition announced a new commitment to stop tropical forest and peatland loss related to the palm oil industry. A widely used ingredient in processed foods, palm oil has become a lucrative industry that is helping millions escape poverty. But the enormous demand also drives rampant deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia as growers clear land for palm oil plantations.

    Major palm oil consumers Asian Agri, Cargill, Golden Agri-Resources, Wilmar, along with the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, say they'll work with the government of Indonesia, the world's largest palm oil producer, to plant new palms and conserve forests that have been cut down as a result of the palm oil industry. They have also pledged to stop buying palm oil from suppliers that destroy forests for the creation of plantations.

    Fossil Fuel Divestment

    The Rockefeller Brothers Fund announced that it is dropping all of its investments in fossil fuels -– about $60.2 million, or 7 percent of the total $860 million endowment –– in favor of renewable energy. While the greenbacks involved are a relatively small amount compared to the trillions invested in global oil, coal, and natural gas, the symbolic splash is huge: Heirs to a major oil fortune are pulling their money out of the industry. The move will likely put wind under the wings of the fledging international fossil fuel divestment movement, which has been targeted largely at universities and cities so far.

    ICYMI: A Quick Recap Of Climate Week 2014:

    On September 23, several dozen heads of state, including President Barack Obama, came to the United Nations for a one-day "climate summit." Scads of business and industry leaders, scientists, and non-profit advocacy and civil society groups also took part.

    It was the first time since 2009 that the U.N. secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, had nestled a day full of climate change-centric programming into the yearly schedule of the U.N. General Assembly. In 2009, official climate treaty talks were scheduled with the intention of producing a strong global climate treaty later that year -- one featuring defined and legally binding commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions by the U.S. and other industrialized nations. But the Copenhagen talks were a flop, leaving negotiators and climate activists flailing. 

    Five years later, many negativeimpacts of climate change have become even more visible worldwide, as Popular Science often reports. That fact helped get 300 to 400,000 people (including many scientists and the people who love them) from around the country and the world onto the streets of New York City just a couple days before the climate summit on Sunday, September 21. They marched to demand climate change action, and even the march's organizers claimed to be surprised by the heavy turnout.

    Hundreds appeared again the next day, September 22, for "Flood Wall Street," using the tactics of the Occupy Wall Street protests to keep media attention on climate change.

    polar bear arrest wall street nyc
    Polar Bear Arrested
    At "Flood Wall Street," a protester dressed as a polar bear -- a species already facing changes in its habitat and prey because of global warming in the Arctic -- gets arrested by the New York Police Department on Sept. 22, 2014. The demonstration was held to get attention on climate change.

    The science behind climate change is well-accepted in most nations, and the urgent need for action has been well-explained to heads of state by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the U.N.'s own climate science body). So this latest unofficial climate summit was more about staking out positions on contentious issues ahead of official climate treaty negotiations that will occur over the next 14 months. That process will culminate late next year in Paris at the 21st official U.N. climate conference, where a new international climate pact is supposed to be finalized.

    Climate finance is one of the most challenging issues negotiators will try to resolve in the coming year. A financial entity called the "Green Climate Fund" (GCF) has been set up to take in contributions from industrialized nations. (Richer emerging economies, such as China and Mexico, may end up contributing as well.) The fund will distribute money to developing nations to help those countries pay for low- or no-carbon economic development projects, such as expanding their energy generation capacity with renewables like sun and wind, instead of fossil fuels. These types of projects fall under the buzzword "mitigation." The GCF is also intended to help pay for resilience-related projects, such as strengthening infrastructure to withstand global warming impacts like sea level rise -- efforts that are termed "adaptation."

    Donor nations have been dragging their heels when it comes to putting money into the pot, however. There have been disagreements over how the funds will be managed. Many questions remain: Should donor nations have any say over how the funds are allocated? Will countries receiving funds be required to report back on how they're spent?

    Disagreements over emission cuts remain equally fraught. What share of curbing present-day pollution will be taken by the world's poorer nations as well as the richest? While there were unofficial side talks on this issue last week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's no-show at the summit (Modi pointedly arrived in New York afterwards, for the General Assembly and other events) underlines that India will be hard to bring around on cutting its greenhouse gas emissions, which are now the world's third-largest.

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    Nixie Concept
    Team Nixie

    Sure, Apple's new smart watch brings smartphone features to users' wrists, but can it fly free and take video in the air? The Nixie, which has none of the features of a watch other than wrist-wearability, is a drone for people who like robots as fashion statements, as well as aerial photography.

    Nixie is a quadcopter with flexible arms, letting it cling to a pilot's wrist like a scared mechanical flying squirrel. Created by Christoph Kohstall and a team of designers and engineers, Project Nixie is a finalist in Intel’s “Make It Wearable” competition. Here's how Kohstall wants Nixie to work:

    You should be able with a gesture to tell the quadcopter to unfold. Then it's going to take off from your wrist. It knows where you are, turns around, takes a picture of you, comes back. You can catch it from the air, [and] put it back on your wrist.

    Watch a video about Nixie below:

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    photo of a smartphone showing onion cells magnified 350X
    DIY Microscope at Work
    The phone screen here shows onion cells magnified 350X. On the right is a pile of 3-D printed plastic housings.
    Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

    The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has released printable files that will help turn your smartphone into a microscope of up to 1000X magnification. If you have access to an  3-D printer--which you may through your local library or community center--this is something you could put together in 15 minutes.

    You'll need that 3-D printer; materials for mounting the samples you want to look at on glass slides; and clear glass beads to provide the magnification. If your local community centers don't have a 3-D printer, here's a website where you can find people who own 3-D printers and are leasing printing time for a fee. You can find a list of mail-order companies from which to order beads near the bottom of this page. An order from this supplier costs $25 for a few thousand beads. 

    The free Pacific Northwest National Lab print files create plastic housings that will hold one bead against the camera lens of a smartphone or tablet. Different bead sizes will create different levels of magnification. There are different files for different devices and bead sizes.

    photo showing the plastic housing with a bead in it
    Housing and Bead
    The free 3-D print files create plastic housings to hold a magnifying glass bead to a smartphone or tablet.
    Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

    One file prints in about 10 minutes. Find each of the files on the same page as the bead-company list.

    Once you snap the plastic housing onto your phone and tuck the bead in there, all you have to do is turn on the phone's camera to make it start working as a microscope. Hold the camera over your prepared glass slide. Here's a video describing how to prepare a slide of onion cells.

    The Pacific Northwest National Lab suggests first-time microscope-makers start with the 100X magnification housing, which requires a three-millimeter glass bead. Aligning the bead against the smartphone lens can be a challenge, so start easy. You can find other troubleshooting tips at the lab's webpage.

    The DIY microscope design came from the lab's research into a cheap, disposable microscope that emergency workers could use on the scene. Say EMTs or police officers are called to a building where the residents have received a mysterious white powder. Could it be anthrax? Engineers at the lab wanted a device an EMT could use to take a microscope photo of the powder and send to an expert for identification. The smartphone add-on fit the bill.

    [Pacific Northwest National Laboratory]

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    2014 ESA ice sheet antarctica gravity dip
    Ice loss causes gravity dip
    Decreasing ice mass on West Antarctica between 2009 and 2012 led to dips in the region's gravity field, according to the European Space Agency. This image shows the "vertical gravity gradient change" based on data from two Earth-monitoring satellites. The redder areas experienced the greatest gravity shifts, but the overall change in gravitational force was very slight.
    ESA, DGFI/Planetary Visions

    Just when you wondered if climate change news couldn't get much worse, along comes proof that it's affected one of the fundamental forces of nature: The ice sheet covering West Antarctica lost enough mass between 2009 and 2012 to cause a measurable dip in the region's gravity field.

    As Eric Holthaus noted in Slate, it's a very small decrease in gravity, far from enough to send any penguins, sea lions, or research scientists floating into space. But the finding is especially troubling combined with the newsPopular Science reported back in May, that the collapse of some West Antarctic glaciers due to rising global temperatures is now very likely unstoppable. “The biggest implication is the new measurements confirm global warming is changing the Antarctic in fundamental ways,” Holthaus writes.

    According to the European Space Agency, scientists discovered the gravity change by combining readings from the ESA's GOCE satellite, which has been taking high-resolution measurements of Earth's gravity for the past four years, with those of the American-German orbiter GRACE, which uses gravity data to measure changes in ice mass. This animation shows the two data sets overlaid:

    Climate change is having other measurable impacts on the southern continent. Data from the ESA's CryoSat satellite shows that West Antarctica's seasonal ice melt has sped up by a factor of three since 2009, and that Antarctica has shrunk in volume by 233 cubic miles since 2011.

    It's true that the extent of Antarctic winter sea ice has grown over the past few years. It would be a relief if this suggested that global warming is ebbing, but no. As the ozone hole over the continent has shrunk, it's letting in less UV radiation -- which, along with complex ocean circulation factors, is a much more likely reason that there's a bit more sea ice encircling the South Pole.

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    Remember those old sea monkey kits, with the pictures that made it look like you could raise tiny mermen in a fish tank? My parents never bought me one (despite my best efforts), but apparently a lot of kids were severely disappointed when their freeze-dried eggs hatched and looked like this instead:

    This Is What Sea Monkeys Actually Look Like.

    Well, it turns out that we may have dramatically underestimated the sea monkey (a.k.a. “brine shrimp”). According to a new study, the movement of sea monkeys and other small sea creatures could influence ocean circulation patterns on a global scale—to an extent that rivals the wind and the Moon.

    Sea monkeys travel in large groups, and their movements are dictated by the Sun. During the nighttime, they come closer to the water’s surface, and in the daytime they swim deeper. Knowing that, researchers from CalTech used laser lights to manipulate the movements of sea monkeys in a tank, and recorded their motion. As the shrimp swam, microscopic silver-coated glass spheres in the water helped high-speed video cameras capture the water movements. Check out the video below:

    Each individual shrimp only generates the tiniest of currents, but when many shrimp swim in tandem, they generate a current that’s stronger than the sum of those created by each individual. "When a bit of water is pushed by one animal, that water moves downward by a small amount and then stops moving," study author John Dabiri explains to Popular Science. "If two animals are swimming close to one another, the downward 'push' they give to the water is more than what would happen if a single animal pushed the water twice." And when a larger group moves together, he says, they produce strong downward jets with swirling currents on the side.

    Here’s another video, just because it’s so flippin’ cool. In this one, the colors indicate particle velocity.

    Though the experiment took place in a fish tank, the researchers think that the collective action could be powerful enough to influence broad circulation patterns. And if other small sea creatures influence water flow in similar ways, it could mean that together they add a trillion watts of power to the ocean’s currents. That means that even the most minuscule organisms could drive the distribution of salt, nutrients and heat throughout the oceans, and they may even influence climate.

    The study was published in Physics of Fluids.

    Sea Monkey Swirls.
    This timelapse image shows the circulation patterns as the sea monkeys (white) move through the water and glass particles (yellow).
    M. M. Wilhelmus and J. O. Dabiri/Caltech

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    close-up photo of the face of a cicada
    Face of a Henicopsaltria eydouxii cicada

    Well, it certainly sounds nicer than real cicadas would otherwise. To help them analyze data they had recorded about when cicadas sing, a team of scientists set their data to music. The musical notes—which replace recordings of actual cicada screeching—make the pattern in cicada-calling clear. The little bugs sing less intensely at first, and in waves. Then they build up in a noisy, near-constant chorus. Finally, they fade off in waves again. Take a listen:

    These are Henicopsaltria eydouxii cicadas that a team of University of Uppsala biologists recorded in a half-square-kilometer patch of forest in Australia. The time period in the video covers 50 minutes, starting from sunrise at 5:30, local time. (The first group of cicadas to sing are the first to get the sunlight in the east, researcher James Herbert-Read notes in a blog post about the video.) The different colored circles in the video represent different recording stations the biologists set up.

    The recordings were a part of a larger study of the patterns of Henicopsaltria singing. Locals living in the eastern Australia had long noted that the cicadas seemed to sing in waves that travel through the forest. The Uppsala team wanted to record hard evidence of this apparent synchronization of cicada song. The team members found the waves are real—and even wrote math equations describing how they develop.

    The team theorizes that the waves are an emergent property, a phenomenon that arises from each individual singing insect following his own little rules, without consciously trying to synchronize with his neighbors. Other examples of emergent properties in nature include fish schooling and bird flocking. In the cicadas' case, each male is just trying to attract a mate.

    The team presented their work in August at a conference hosted by the International Society for Behavioral Ecology.

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    FBI Headquarters
    Aude via Wikimedia Commons
    Over the past few months, the terrorist group ISIS has shocked the world with the release of numerous violent videos, many of which prominently feature a masked man wearing all black and holding a knife. Heard speaking with a British accent, the man has been given the nickname "Jihadi John" -- but the FBI says they now know who he really is. It seems likely they uncovered the man's identity by analyzing his voice; British Ambassador to the U.S. Peter Westmacott told CNN that voice identification was being used in the investigation.

    What the FBI is not disclosing is how, exactly, they did it -- and when and on whom the technology might also be used.

    Voice identification technology is not new or particularly groundbreaking says DeLiang Wang, who works on training neural networks in voice analysis at Ohio State University. Unlike Siri or Android, which try to understand what a person is saying, speaker identification programs look for patterns in the waveform of a person's voice. Those patterns remain constant whether he or she is speaking English, Finnish, or random sounds. Computers compare audio samples with other recording of voices in order to match the sample with a speaker. The more voices a neural network has examined, the better it is at recognizing them in the future.

    "It's kind of like fingerprint matching," Wang tells Popular Science.

    The computer first compares a sample to every voice it knows to find a best match. Then it checks the sample against that result to see if they come from the same person.

    For at least a decade, computers have beaten human ears at recognizing voices in ideal laboratory settings, Wang says. But out in the real world, voice ID suffers. Background noise, poor recording equipment, or different tones of speech can all confuse speaker recognition programs. A person can also alter their voice to fool a machine. Wang says all of these flaws show the technology has a lot of room to grow.

    Of course, in order for software to detect a speaker, it has to have a recording to compare it to. "If they want to track known terrorists they have to have known databases of their voices," Wang says.

    Whether the FBI has such a database is an open question. The NSA has direct access to phone calls through security backdoors, and has used that access to record phone calls en masse according to revelations from documents leaked by Edward Snowden. The FBI has access to at least some of that data, however the agency would not comment on the use of voice identification technology for forensic purposes.

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    Nerf Combat Creatures
    The company’s first remote-controlled dart blaster has six legs, walks like an insect, and can shoot darts 360 degrees and up to 45 feet. Plus, it will almost assuredly scare any opponent into submission. $60
    courtesy Nerf

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

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