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    Pollen: it's the burden of bees and the bane of allergy sufferers. But it may also be a way for us to effectively store energy.

    In a paper published in Scientific Reports, researchers figured out a way to turn grains of pollen into anodes, a component of batteries.

    “I started looking into pollens when my mom told me she had developed pollen allergy symptoms about two years ago,” co-author of the paper Jialiang Tang said. “I was fascinated by the beauty and diversity of pollen microstructures. But the idea of using them as battery anodes did not really kick in until I started working on battery research and learned more about carbonization of biomass.”

    The carbonization Tang is talking about is the key to the whole process. In order to turn the pollen into battery anodes, the researchers heated pollen to the point that it turned into carbon, using a process called pyrolysis, which chars biological material, kind of like turning wood into charcoal.

    The difference is, instead of just throwing it into a fire, the pyrolysis process happens in the absence of oxygen, and the pollen doesn't actually combust — it just turns into a pollen-shaped biochar. It's then heated again with oxygen, a process that increases the energy storage capacity of the anodes.

    The pollen anodes are designed to fill the place currently occupied by graphite anodes in typical lithium-ion batteries.

    The researchers tested two different types of pollen, pollen gathered from bees, which includes pollen from many different plants, and pollen from cattails, which have a more uniform structure. They found that cattail pollen performed slightly better than the bee pollen, but noted that bee pollen is much easier to gather. Future research will see how these anodes function in actual batteries.

    "We are just introducing the fascinating concept here," researcher Vilas Pol said. "Further work is needed to determine how practical it might be."

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    Geauga Lake By Drone

    Screenshot by author, from YouTube

    Geauga Lake By Drone

    Drones are at their very best when gently capturing human decay. Geauga Lake was an amusement park in Ohio, about 40 minutes from both Cleveland and Akron. Its roots go back to 1887, and it was open for the entire 20th century. Acquisitions and bankruptcies, as well as a weird merger with a former SeaWorld location, eventually led to the closure of the park, and the sale of its non-water-park assets. In 2007 it closed. Now, nothing but thousands of legless trunks remain.

    Earlier this month, DiJi Aerial Media used two Phantom 3 Advanced drones to capture aerial views of the former park. They describe their video as “a tribute to all the memories that this park helped create.”

    Watch drones explore the amusement park’s bones below:

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    NASA/David C. Bowman

    Boeing's Starliner splashes down in a test pool

    Boeing and SpaceX are racing to become the first private companies to carry astronauts into space, as early as next year.

    And although SpaceX is generally considered to be leading the race (it already delivers supplies to the space station), Boeing shouldn't be underestimated (the company built most of the International Space Station).

    After carrying astronauts to space, Boeing's crew capsule, the CST-100, a.k.a. "Starliner", would use parachutes to land softly on the ground. But in some emergency situations, it might need to land in water, which is why the company recently dropped the Starliner into the 20-foot-deep pool at NASA’s Langley Research Center.

    Boeing performed similar tests in August 2015--watch it get flung from a crane:

    Engineers like to do these tests from different heights and angles to account for all scenarios. No word yet on how the Starliner performed, but chances are, if it's built to handle going to space and back, it can handle a little water.

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    Overdoses from opioids like painkillers might become a thing of the pas--a vaccine to combat drug overdose is on the horizon.

    The U.S. is currently embroiled in an opioid epidemic—the drugs were involved in 28,647 deaths in 2014, up 200 percent from the year 2000. And while researchers have developed painkillers that are harder to abuse and medications that reduce the effects of opioids once a person has overdosed, there is currently nothing on the market to stop opioids’ effects altogether. Now a team of researchers is hoping to change that.

    They’ve developed a vaccine that could block the opioid high altogether, and eradicate the patient’s desire to seek it. The research was published yesterday in the journal Angewandte Chemie.

    In the study, the researchers worked with the drug fentanyl, an opioid sold in strong doses on the street and responsible for an uptick in overdoses. The researchers slightly modified the contents of a fentanyl molecule while keeping its structure intact so that the immune system would recognize it. Over the course of six weeks, mice were injected with these molecules three times, like vaccine booster shots to train the immune system. At the end of that period, the researchers found that it was impossible to get the mice high, no matter how much fentanyl the mice were given. When the researchers sampled some of the mice’s blood and combined it with fentanyl molecules in a petri dish, the antibodies killed the drug molecules, leading the researchers to believe that they would stop the drug in the bloodstream and before they could reach the brain. A month later, most of the vaccinated mice survived a lethal dose of the drug.

    Most of the vaccinated mice survived a lethal dose of the drug.

    Since the immune system is so precise, the fentanyl vaccine wouldn’t eliminate the high for other opioids like heroin or oxycodone. That’s a good thing if a patient needs painkillers for medical purposes, but it also means that an addict could still get high if fentanyl is mixed with another opioid, as it often is when bought illegally. In future studies the researchers hope to test a mixed vaccine for fentanyl and heroin.

    While these findings show that the fentanyl vaccine is promising, it’s not quite ready to be used in humans. But they might have come just at the right time, as President Obama just asked Congress for more than $1 billion to combat the opioid epidemic. An influx of new funding might mean that more scientists will work together to quickly develop a vaccine for opioids.

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    Torley, via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0


    Since the Soviet Union became the second nation with nuclear weapons in 1949, American presidents have tried to answer a very difficult question: how can they keep other countries from getting nuclear weapons, and can that be done without going to war. Responses have varied across the decades and administrations, with treaties and test bans shaping the process. It turns out that early in the Obama administration, when it appeared inevitable Iran would complete a nuclear weapon, the administration devoted resources to crafting a cyber weapon to halt the process, and they gave it a name straight out of a bad movie: Nitro Zeus.

    The revelations come from director Alex Gibney, who found evidence of the program while conducting research for Zero Days, a documentary about the tensions between Iran and Western countries prior to the nuclear deal negotiated last spring, and which entered into effect earlier this year. Zero Days was first shown today at the Berlin Film Festival. Several media outlets received advance materials from the film, including information from the trove of data that former NSA contractor Edward Snowden took with him when he fled the country.

    Here’s how the New York Timesdescribes Nitro Zeus:

    The plan, code­named Nitro Zeus, was devised to disable Iran’s air defenses, communications systems and crucial parts of its power grid, and was shelved, at least for the foreseeable future, after the nuclear deal struck between Iran and six other nations last summer was fulfilled.

    The Times notes that the plan included “the effort to infuse Iran’s computer networks with 'implants' that could be used to monitor the country’s activities and, if ordered by Mr. Obama, to attack its infrastructure.”

    From BuzzFeed News:

    The film’s sources said NITRO ZEUS involved hundreds of personnel over several years, and cost “hundreds of millions” of dollars — building programs ready to “disrupt, degrade, and destroy” Iranian infrastructure with code intended to leave no direct clues as to who was responsible for the attacks.

    NITRO ZEUS was not just some theoretical battle plan, Gibney reports. Operatives had already gained access to all the relevant systems to execute the attacks if the order was given, and checked back on a near-nightly basis to ensure all the access points were still live and operational, and that the attack code wouldn’t interfere with any other code on the systems, to reduce the risk of discovery — or accidental triggering. The number of implants in Iranian targets was reportedly in the hundreds of thousands.

    All of this describes a weapon built for an attack that stretches the very bounds of what counts as espionage and what counts as war. Much of what cyber deals with is infrastructure: the code and systems that power industrial projects, like power supply to nuclear reactors. We’ve already seen a similar practice in the works, with the Stuxnet computer worm created by the United States to target Iranian centrifuges used to enrich uranium.

    Nations treat acts of espionage differently than acts of armed conflict, and cyber plays into both. Sophisticated attacks on computer systems can steal information, disable systems, and in the case of Stuxnet cause actual, physical damage. Where is the line between hacking and war? The rules of war, agreed-upon norms roughly followed by most nations, don’t yet have a clear answer, but we have something close.

    The Tallinn Manual is a NATO-created body of legal scholarship that provides guidance, though no definitive answers, for how the law should treat hacking and cyberattacks related to war. In the fall of 2014, when former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich claimed a North Korean online attack on Sony was an act of war, scholars consulted the manual and found that the attack didn’t meet the threshold for war.

    To the best of our knowledge, Nitro Zeus has not yet been used, so we can’t examine an actual attack for context. Instead, the manual can indicate whether this is a shelved weapon or not. From the manual:

    An action qualifying as a ‘use of force’ need not necessarily be undertaken by a State’s armed forces. For example, it is clear that a cyber operation that would qualify as a ‘use of force’ if conducted by the armed forces would equally be a ‘use of force’ if undertaken by a State’s intelligence agencies or by a private contractor whose conduct is attributable to the State based upon the law of State responsibility.

    It appears Cyber Command, a military authority, put together Nitro Zeus, but even if it was just government workers employed by an intelligence service, like the NSA, or civilian contractors working or the government, using Nitro Zeus is probably, by this guidance, an act of war.

    Digging deeper into the manual, we get to the actual definition of an attack:

    A cyber attack is a cyber operation, whether offensive or defensive, that is reasonably expected to cause injury or death to persons or damage or destruction to objects.

    Conducted by an armed force, or at least on behalf of a government, it appears Nitro Zeus would have met the tentative guidelines for an act of war.

    There is some sense in the revelations about the program that the administration knew the implications of such an attack. The Times notes that presidential directives specify that “only the president can authorize an offensive cyberattack, just as the president must approve the use of nuclear weapons.”

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    Bad Robot

    Bad Robot

    How to keep robots from turning evil? With stories.

    Read a robot a story, and you will be known as a weirdo. Teach a robot to read, and you might prevent a robot apocalypse.

    At least that's the quixotic idea behind Quixote, a technique developed by Mark Riedl, director of the Entertainment Intelligence Lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Building on previous research with Scheherazade, the Quixote technique shows robots stories which demonstrate normal or accepted behavior (helping others, being punctual, not wiping out the human race). The stories are crowdsourced from humans on the internet who chose the correct or socially accepted actions for a character, just like a "choose your own adventure" novel.

    Then the technique assigns 'rewards' (basically robotic gold stars) to artificial intelligences that then make decisions that align with the good behavior in stories. They assign a negative reinforcement to behavior that doesn't align with the stories' morals.

    “We believe that AI has to be enculturated to adopt the values of a particular society, and in doing so, it will strive to avoid unacceptable behavior,” Riedl said. “Giving robots the ability to read and understand our stories may be the most expedient means in the absence of a human user manual.”

    Stories are also valuable to AI in other ways. Companies are exploring using children's stories to teach AI how to parse language in order to make them better virtual assistants. So from ethics to office work, basic stories could help robots fit in to our world instead of destroying it.

    And they all lived happily ever after.

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    Google Delivery Truck Illustration

    US Patent and Trademark Office

    Google Delivery Truck Illustration

    The 18 pages of Google’s recent US patent for an “autonomous delivery platform” aren’t as boring or as deeply technical as most patents—if you’re the kind of person who likes to read patents. If you’re not that kind of person, here’s the highlights of what the as-yet-to-be-built driverless delivery vehicle could do.

    First, though, here’s what the patent doesn’t cover: the driverless technology itself. That technology is nearly old hat for Google, now that it’s got test cars that have totaled nearly 2 million miles of driverless driving.

    This new patent covers everything else, from the kinds of vehicles that could deliver packages autonomously (cargo vans, minivans, panel vans, platform trucks, refrigerated trucks, and more) to the propulsion systems they might use (gasoline, electric, hybrid). The patent even gives examples of what could be delivered, from the obvious packages that you bought online to advertising circulars and even pizza.

    Whatever shape the delivery platform takes, it will have locked compartments to hold your packages or your pizza. You’ll be sent a PIN that unlocks the compartment, and the truck will let you know when it’s near its delivery point. When the truck arrives, it will “dwell,” or linger, for a bit at the curb to give you time to throw a robe over your working-at-home jammies and come out to retrieve your package. These compartments could also be equipped with credit card slots or chip readers so you can pay for your pizza when it arrives.

    The patent specifically states that these vehicles could replace the “last mile” delivery trucks that go from, say, your neighborhood post office or FedEx office to your house. But since the trucks can pick up packages as easily as they can deliver them, there’s also an opportunity to use them as couriers. Order a pick up at your office with a roving delivery truck and place a box of business cards in the compartment. Prepay there at the truck and send the retrieval PIN to the new hire across town, who receives her cards as soon as the truck can make it through traffic, which by this point is probably also autonomous.

    Google notes that “the two largest commercial delivery services in the US operate over 100,000 last mile vehicles—each of which requires a human operator.” Google expects that autonomous delivery vehicles will increase the efficiency of those last-mile operations as shipping demand increases, thanks to our late-night internet shopping sprees. Well, the patent doesn't say anything about our insomniac shopping habits, but we know.

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    Jun Mukai

    Neurons in mice with the genetic mutation (top) are stunted in growth, compared to the neurons in healthy mice (bottom).

    Schizophrenia, a disorder that affects more than 21 million people worldwide, has a complex set of symptoms and manifestations but among them, damage to memory is a key and difficult to treat component. For decades, scientists have known where in the brain the problems lie, but not the underlying cause or how to fix it. But researchers at Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute have unearthed a potential treatment for the disease’s toll on memory: A drug that disrupts a tiny genetic mutation that makes communication within the brain less efficient.

    The Columbia team, who published this work in Neuron today, successfuly used the drug to prevent neural damage in mice with the mutation.

    “With this paper and our previous work we can trace a pathway that leads from gene to behavior, and that’s really a first,” said Joshua Gordon, an author of the paper.

    In afflicted individuals, this mutation thwarts the development of neurons that connect two parts of the brain together, the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus, while the brain is forming. These parts help govern memory, and the team’s previous research last year found that this mutation can result in impaired memory in models of schizophrenic brains.

    Their new work focuses on repairing this by stopping a certain protein (caused by the genetic mutation) from interfering with brain development. Co-author Joseph Gogos says that this protein, called GSK3B, was essentially “clogging the brain” as it was trying to form.

    Without the “clogging” protein, the neurons of the brain are free to form as they normally would, restoring complete function to the brain. However, this needs to be done early in brain development. Researchers tested the protein inhibiting drug on mice between seven and 28 days after they were born--when the brain is still developing and is inhibited by the clogging agent.

    After, scientists tested the mice’s memory by inserting thin wires into the prefrontal cortexes and hippocampi of their brains, according to Gordon. Then, they used those wires to measure the independent electric signals of both parts of the brain. In mice that have the mutation, these electric signals fluctuate independently, while in a healthy brain they move in unison. By monitoring these in healthy mice, mice with the mutation, and “cured” mice, researchers were able to discern that the treatment improved performance in certain tasks by 89 percent.

    This genetic mutation is actually the most common marker of schizophrenia; those with the mutation have about a 30 percent higher risk of having schizophrenia, compared to a normal risk of one percent without the mutation. However, this mutation is only found in about one percent of patients with schizophrenia. Having the mutation also indicates a higher risk of autism, bringing an individual's chance to one in seven, opposed to one in 68 without the mutation.

    The Columbia team is now working to see other potential effects of the drug for those without the genetic mutation, and hopes to see how the model stacks up at similar developmental ages in human use.

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    Recipe for ice stacking: Take cold weather, a large lake, and mix thoroughly using a brisk wind. You should see piles of jagged ice panes appear on the edges. Best served while wearing many layers of clothing to keep out the chill.

    The visual feast in the video above was made possible by the weather on Lake Superior, which froze just enough to create a relatively thin layer of ice on the lake's surface. When the wind blew in at speeds of 12-15 miles per hour, the sheets of ice were flung towards shore, shattering or the edges and creating the pile of ice seen here.

    In her YouTube caption of the video, photographer Dawn M. LaPointe of Radiant Spirit Gallery wrote:

    While shooting in Canal Park, I noticed the ice had pulled away from shore and felt the breeze at my back. I anticipated there would be some ice stacking as the massive sheets of ice met the rugged shorelines, so I headed to Brighton Beach. The big lake did not disappoint! The seemingly endless ice sheets broke into large plates and stacked on shore, sounding much like breaking glass. The ice thickness ranged from about 1/4" to about 3" thick. The sights and sounds were incredible! As the water became exposed, the sea smoke was whisked across the surface by the breeze. The sparkles visible in some segments were from the sun gilding the frost flowers that had formed on top of the new ice overnight -- icing on the cake!

    While the above ice stacks make for a lovely diversion, ice heaves, their bigger cousins can be far more destructive. Ice heaves occur when the ice on the lake is thicker, and the wind pushes the large slabs onto land.

    Watch what happened in Minnesota in 2013, when a wall of shattered ice engulfed homes along the shore, causing massive amounts of damage:

    And this isn't the only weird ice occurrence in the Great Lakes region. Over in Lake Michigan in 2014, ice formed perfectly neat balls, sprinkling the frigid waters with boulder-sized spheres. The ice balls were formed in the rolling waves, growing from a nucleus of ice that slowly got coated with more and more frozen water, growing like very cold pearls in the lake.

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    Artist's concept of WFIRST

    With the James Webb Space Telescope finally looking like it might meet its 2018 launch deadline, NASA is already looking ahead to the next great telescope.

    The space agency is moving forward on the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). Slated to launch in the mid-2020s, WFIRST is designed to measure the effects of dark energy, while potentially discovering millions of galaxies and providing a glimpse into the atmospheres of alien worlds.

    WFIRST recently passed a key design review, allowing the scientists on the team to move forward with their mission planning. Although it's not an official mission yet, WFIRST has moved from being “a mission under study” to “a mission NASA is pursuing/intends to execute,” said a NASA spokesperson in an email to Popular Science. A 2016 spending bill provided $90 million toward developing WFIRST.

    WFIRST would be made in part from a leftover spy satellite. It's about the size of Hubble, allowing it to capture the same awe-inspiring depth and quality of images, but WFIRST's mirror design allows it to capture 100 times more of the sky in a single snapshot. Not bad, for a second-hand satellite.

    The scope also includes a coronagraph, which uses a disk to block out the glaring light of a star in the telescope's viewfinder, making it easier to spot smaller and dimmer planets that might be orbiting the star. The coronagraph will also make it possible to look for signs of life in the atmospheres of distant planets.

    Although WFIRST will surely provide an amazing new view of the universe, it won't see as deep into space or as far back in time as the James Webb Space Telescope. And there's at least one other proposed telescope, the High-Definition Space Telescope, whose inventors also hope it could become "the next Hubble." We shall see.

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    Ricardo Liberato

    Gizah Pyramids

    A new online game will enlist citizen scientists to speed up the process of locating what could be millions of undiscovered archaeological sites.

    A space archaeologist who uses satellite imagery to locate lost tombs and Egyptian pyramids plans to enlist the world's citizen scientists in her quest to discover and protect ancient sites. Sarah Parcak won the 2016 TED prize, the non-profit’s annual $1 million dollar award intended to help develop an idea with global impact, and this week she announced that she plans to use the prize to create an online platform that will enable anyone to join in the search for ancient sites.

    The platform, called Global Xplorer, will train users how to recognize potential archeological sites and looting pits and allow them to tag satellite pictures with descriptions. If an image has been tagged enough times, experts will evaluate it to confirm whether or not anything is there.

    Parcak has discovered 1,000 lost tombs and 17 potential Egyptian pyramids, according to TED. But she believes that millions of ancient sites remain undiscovered, leaving them especially vulnerable to looters, who often ravage sites before archaeologists can get to them. The game could serve as a key to speeding up the process of locating and protecting them.

    "The biggest problem we have when looking at satellite imagery is not the processing," she told NPR. "The hardest part is actually eye fatigue...Imagine hours and hours looking at satellite imagery. We miss things."

    And once users accurately locate sites, they’ll get to experience a virtual dig. The archaeologists will “have to take the world with them,” Parcak told National Geographic. “They have to use Google Hangout, Periscope, or Twitter and make the process more transparent. Essentially what we are talking about is the democratization of archaeological discovery.”

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    Seattle Streetcar

    Patrick Klacza

    Seattle's First Hill streetcars during the line's free soft launch in January.

    On January 23, Seattle’s new First Hill Streetcar made its initial descent down Broadway Avenue and into the heart of Capitol Hill while carrying a load of passengers. For public transportation enthusiasts and commuters alike, it’s been a long time coming.

    Capitol Hill, First Hill, the Central District, and the International District – four of Seattle’s most thriving neighborhoods – haven’t enjoyed regular streetcar service since the early forties, when, at the behest of the American automotive industry, the city abandoned its electric lines in favor of buses. Since then, some streetcars have returned to Seattle, but not in these busy neighborhoods.

    From 1982 until 2005, the Waterfront Streetcar serviced Seattle’s waterfront along Alaskan Way. Considered a “heritage streetcar,” the line employed trams built between 1925 and 1930. In 2007, Seattle’s first modern streetcar with newly built cars opened in South Lake Union (SLU). The SLU and First Hill lines are part of a citywide effort to modernize and improve public transportation over the course of the next decade.

    In an effort to better understand the streetcar’s role within the existing transit regime, and because I had many errands to run, I rode it probably a dozen times during its free soft launch. Here’s what I observed.

    When I took my first ride, I was immediately impressed by the car’s tranquil whirr, the way it glided toward the next station as if floating above the road. Those initial trips felt almost solemn to me—like we, the passengers, were participating in something monumental, though maybe I’m projecting. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but notice that as service continued, the allure of the streetcars’ novelty quickly wore off: Riders loosened up and resumed their usual commuting habits of staring at their phones, talking with friends, and even taking naps.

    Before we start taking the First Hill Streetcar for granted, though, let’s pause to remember how the city struggled to fund, build, and test it. In 2007, voters in Seattle and the surrounding counties rejected the Sound Transit 2 (ST2) ballot measure. If passed, it would’ve funded several ambitious mass transit projects in and around the city, including the First Hill street car line. A year later, voters approved a reduced version of it, allowing Sound Transit to move forward with its plan to build a streetcar on First Hill.

    Following the passed measure, in 2011, the Czech-based company, Inekon, inked a deal with the city to design and manufacture a unique fleet of cars that would be used on the First Hill line. The cars feature rapidly evolving technology that uses energy produced by regenerative braking. Getting this technology to work caused major delays, and resulted in fines for Inekon upwards of $750,000. In the end, though, I must admit that the company delivered six beautiful Trio Type 121 trams.

    Seattle Streetcar

    Patrick Klacza

    The First Hill streetcars feature regenerative braking, a technology new to modern streetcars.

    As they navigate the cars through intersections, the conductors will often sound a bell. This detail, which evokes an old-fashioned trolley, belies the streetcar’s innovative, site-specific technology. When traveling northbound, uphill, an overhead wire provides electrical power to the tram. For the southbound, downhill leg of the route, cars can detach from their overhead wires and run on energy produced by regenerative braking and stored in hybrid batteries. Though trains have used forms of regenerative braking since the early twentieth century, the technology is rapidly evolving, and is new to modern streetcars.

    While riding, I often admired the layout, and in particular, the attention paid to accessibility. The car’s low-floor center section allows passengers requiring wheelchairs to board without additional accommodation. Riders who can stand are encouraged to do so, as there are few seats. A prominent stainless steel bike rack is a reminder that the streetcar is part of a larger transit network that includes bike lanes.

    Unfortunately, during periods of heavy traffic, bicycling will probably be faster and less headache inducing than riding the streetcar. Because the streetcar shares a lane with cars and buses, the speed of service will suffer during rush hour, and when an accident occurs, it’ll grind to a halt. I once made the mistake of riding at 5 p.m. It was maddening to watch pedestrians outpace the streetcar, and it reminded me of what I really want for Seattle (which is currently in development): a broad light rail system with exclusive right-of-way. That system which will have two stations – one in Capitol Hill and one in the University District – is set to open in 2016. Two more streetcar lines – the Broadway Streetcar and Center City Connector – are scheduled to enter service by 2019.

    Seattle’s not alone in its quest to launch new streetcars. In fact, it’s not even the first American city to boast a modern streetcar. That honor belongs to Portland. Salt Lake City, Tucson, and Atlanta have all followed suit, and modern lines are currently in development in Washington, DC, Cincinnati, Detroit, and Kansas City. This month, New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to connect Brooklyn and Queens by streetcar. Proponents of his plan will be quick to point out that streetcars encourage economic development and drive up property values. They may even invoke the concept of “rail bias” – “the demonstrated willingness of people to make urban transit trips on trains that they would not take on equally fast buses.”

    If streetcars are proven to attract more riders than buses, then why doesn’t every American city make like Portland and start laying track? For one, streetcars are expensive. Seattle hiked its regional sales tax by 5 to 10 percent in order to pay for its transit projects. Second and perhaps most importantly, streetcars can only absorb a small fraction of any city’s daily transit load. King County Metro, the county’s transit authority, continues to operate 1,835 buses on 215 routes. So while streetcars are environmentally friendlier, quieter, and some say more aesthetically pleasing than buses, they remain something of an outlier, an experiment. And for every passionate defender of rail travel, an equally fervent – and probably more practical – advocate of improving existing buses waits in the wings.

    In other words, don’t expect any American city to embrace modern streetcars like cities embraced trolleys in the early twentieth century. Do expect to start seeing them in affluent or rapidly gentrifying areas, along retail corridors, and near tourist destinations. Ridership on the SLU line didn’t take off until Amazon moved its headquarters into the neighborhood. The implications of this could be disturbing. If lower-income residents continue to be priced out of Seattle’s neighborhoods, the city’s streetcars will serve an increasingly homogeneous population. But those effects remain to be seen. In the meantime, adult riders with incomes at or below 200% of the federal poverty level qualify for a $1.50 low-income fare. Standard adult fare costs $2.25, and seniors ride for a buck.

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    King Penguins

    King Penguins

    "Do these feathers make me look fat?"

    As slimming as a penguin's tuxedo-like markings are, some of them do have a tendency to gain weight. And with good reason. Male king penguins spend up to a month fasting, and have to eat enough before that to survive and keep their baby penguins safe and fed.

    While the additional weight (fish belly?) might be less noticeable in the water, once the penguins are on land, they have to figure out how to deal with the newly-acquired belly fat. Scientists noticed through observations that it seemed like the heavier penguins were falling down more often, but they wanted to figure out why. Were they walking differently?

    In a paper published in PLOS One Astrid Willener and colleagues describe how the addition of weight affects how King penguins walk on land. Naturally, to measure this, they needed a penguin-sized treadmill.

    No, really. Take a look:

    The video is sped up. In reality, the penguin, and its fellow test subjects were walking along at a steady pace of 0.75 miles per hour (1.2 km). Well, most of them were. In an e-mail to Popular Science Willener explained that while about two thirds of of the penguins got the treadmill concept quickly, walking on it immediately, some of the penguins were a bit more stubborn. Instead of walking on the treadmill, they would lean against the box surrounding the treadmill and 'ski' on the moving ramp. While a novel experience for the penguins, skiing wasn't as useful to the study.

    What was useful was having heavier penguins and more svelte penguins walk on the moving runway equipped with accelerometers to measure changes in their body orientation. Accelerometers measure acceleration but are also used in smartphones to measure the orientation of a screen, or in this case, they can be used to measure the angle of a penguin.

    While the 10 penguins used in the study all had relatively similar gaits, Willener and her colleagues noticed that the angle at which the heavier penguins leaned was slightly more pronounced, and that they tended to wobble more than their thinner companions.

    A wobbly penguin is in more danger from predators on the lookout for easily snatched prey. Luckily for the heavier penguins, they have about a month of dieting to work it all off.

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    Hybrid Wing Body Aircraft Concept

    NASA / Boeing

    Hybrid Wing Body Aircraft Concept

    Before NASA put people on the moon and robots on Mars, it was the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), a body created by a 1915 act of Congress to make sure the country that invented flight could regain the technical edge it had lost to Europe. Even after space was folded into its mission and NACA became NASA, it kept “aeronautics” in the name, and for years produced staggeringly bizarre, alien-looking aircraft. These were the X-Planes, and NASA’s new budget proposal wants to bring them back.

    The most iconic of the X-Planes is perhaps the most straightforward: the bright orange X-1, piloted by Chuck Yeager, which broke the sound barrier in 1947. It currently hangs inside the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. NASA’s X-15 hit a top speed of mach 6 and explored flight at the edge of space. The Forward-swept wings of NASA’s X-29 are rarely copied, but the X-29 program also tested a lot of new control surfaces for planes and automated systems for controlling flight. NASA’s own score sheet for the program, which flew planes from 1946 to 1995, it itself a history of what was possible at the time, what was impossible, and what needed other, further advancements to become real.

    Fittingly, NASA’s aims are both modest, such as better flaps:

    The demos included advancements in lightweight composite materials that are needed to create revolutionary aircraft structures, an advanced fan design to improve propulsion and reduce noise in jet engines, designs to reduce noise from wing flaps and landing gear, and shape-changing wing flaps, and even coatings to prevent bug residue buildup on wings. Researchers predict the tech could save the airline industry $255 billion accrued during the first 25 years after being put into service.

    ...and industry-changing, like a move away from the classic winged pointy tube.

    "We're at the right place, at the right time, with the right technologies," said Jaiwon Shin, associate administrator for NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate. “The full potential of these technologies can’t be realized in the tube-and-wing shape of today’s aircraft,” he explained. “We need the X-planes to prove, in an undeniable way, how that tech can make aviation more Earth friendly, reduce delays and maintain safety for the flying public, and support an industry that’s critical to our nation’s economic vitality."

    If NASA gets the funding to go ahead with a new X-Plane program, we at Popular Science couldn’t be more X-cited.

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    There are two drone-flying Americas, but there don’t have to be. As Congress debates the exact wording of the next act reauthorizing the FAA, a new proposal hopes to carve some room in between casual hobbyists flight of tiny aircraft and professional use of lawnmower-sized flying machines. It’s a modest change to proposed legislation, but could have a huge impact for drone pilots across America.

    The amendment comes from Illinois Congressman Rodney Davis, and is a proposed amendment to the proposed “Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act of 2016,” which would reauthorize the FAA. Before we can understand how Davis’ bill works, we need to look at how the law without it defines drones.

    First, the word “drone” never appears. Instead, we get the sterile “small unmanned aircraft," which more specifically are “unmanned aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds, including everything that is on board the aircraft.” The other categorical distinction is for model aircraft, which must be flown purely for hobby or recreational purposes. That category is great for people who want to fly just for fun, and a welcome addition to the law.

    But there’s a category missing. If people have a small drone, one weighing just a few pounds, and want to use it for anything besides hobby flying, they have to go through an extensive FAA exemption process and agree to a long list of conditions. This puts a burden on most drone users, who would like to get a small quadcopter and add it to, say, their wedding photography business, and could find themselves on the wrong side of the law for doing so.

    The proposed micro drone rule is designed to accommodate this use. The micro drone rule borrows from countries like Canada and Australia, which carve out different rules for drones weighing 4.4 pounds or less (2 kilograms). That’s big enough to carry a camera, but not so big that they pose any more of a risk to airplanes than birds already do. Here’s the rules Micro Drone pilots would have to follow:

    • fly below 400 feet above ground level;
    • fly no faster than 46 mph;
    • fly within visual line of sight of the pilot;
    • fly only during the day; and
    • stay at least 5 statute miles from the an airport, unless ​​the pilot notifies the airport operator and ​​receives prior approval from air traffic control

    Notably absent is any requirement for pilot certification, requirements that make some sense for people piloting larger unmanned vehicles but are excessive for those just putting a quadcopter into the sky. That’s a lot simpler than that exemptions normally required. Lawyer and drone user Peter Sachs, who once got the FAA to recognize his motorized paper airplane as a drone, writes of the rule:

    It would allow the countless beneficial non-hobby drones operations — including commercial, educational, and humanitarian — to openly flourish, rather than be conducted surreptitiously for fear of FAA enforcement action. It would also benefit the FAA, which is already burdened with reviewing and granting thousands of backlogged Section 333 Exemption petitions, the usefulness of which is widely questioned.

    If the Micro Drone amendment passes, and survives the bill intact, then hobbyists in their garages dreaming of taco copters will have a much easier time getting their business off the ground.

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    An image of the mysterious substance captured by Fox station WKBJ.

    A strange black substance that looks like black bird droppings has added an unwelcome decoration to one Michigan town. Residents in Harrison Township are concerned about a weird splattering covering their neighborhood and no one is sure what it is. They know based on the splash patterns it probably fell from the sky, and the fire department says that the strange, oily, ashy substance is not flammable.

    There are a few possibilities for what could have caused the gunk to fall from the sky. Bad weather like tornados or storms have been known to carry everything from golf balls to mud long distances only to deposit them on unsuspecting and unfortunate heads. In this case though, the weather in Harrison on Sunday, when residents first noticed the splatters, was clear, with a wind gust of up to 18 mph.

    It could be animals. One resident noted that it did look like bird excrament, and it wouldn't be the first time that birds have deposited unwelcome presents on people. In addition to their normal droppings, last year, seagulls dropped lampreys on an unsuspecting Alaskan town. Although right now, the sheer volume of the splatter would seem to rule out birds as the culprits.

    It could also be from an airplane. The neighborhood is very close to Selfridge Air National Guard Base but officials at the base looked over the matter and said that there was no way the substance came from their planes.

    Tests on the substance are being carried out by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. They hope to have an answer in roughly a week.

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    Pluto's moon Charon in New Horizons color-processed image

    Pluto's moon Charon, closer than ever

    When the New Horizons spacecraft returned the first closeup pictures of Pluto's moon Charon last year, scientists were surprised to see a huge chasm gouging across the moon's middle. Now they have a good guess as to what caused it: Charon is bursting at the seams.

    Or at least it used to be. When Charon was young, it had a radioactive core to keep it warm. Beneath its icy shell, that warm center may have melted a watery subsurface ocean. Later, when the moon's radioactive fuel ran out and the center cooled, that ocean may have frozen and expanded, splitting Charon across the middle.

    The New Horizons team arrived at this hypothesis after finding evidence that parts of the surface ice had melted and re-frozen.

    Charon's chasms are about 1,100 miles long, or about four times longer than the Grand Canyon, and 4.5 miles deep in some places.


    An elevation map of Charon's informally named Serenity Chasma

    Shape measurements in the colorful map indicate that parts of the surface melted and re-froze long ago.

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    Army Drone Printing Part One

    U.S. Army illustration

    Army Drone Printing Part One

    No plan survives first contact with the enemy, according to the old military adage, so military equipment is designed to work under a variety of circumstances. What if, though, the Army could know exactly what kind of drone scout they’d need tomorrow, and could print it in 24 hours near the battlefield, ready to use the next day? Earlier this month the Army selected on-demand 3D-printed drones as one of the technologies they’ll test in the 2017 Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiments.

    Technically, the program is called “On-Demand Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems.” It aims to combine the speed and flexibility of printing with the versatility of off-the-shelf parts. Here’s how the Army describes it:

    "Small components are procured and assembled into a vehicle," [project team leader Eric] Spero said. "The vehicle is relatively easy to repair or replace, or can be disposed of."

    Spero said the on-demand approach also avoids chasing obsolescence of electronic components. When newer components become available on the market, or when mission needs change, each can be incorporated into the software with little delay.

    "A small inventory of inexpensive, off-the-shelf electronics enables a wide range of UAS capability," he said.

    Like all branches of the American military, the Army already has drones, and they range from the Predator-sized Gray Eagle to the hand-tossed Raven and Puma drones. The Army has thousands of Ravens on hand: they carry high-quality cameras and are simple to launch, but they also cost up to $300,000 apiece when made to military specifications. A Raven-like drone, built from off-the-shelf parts, can cost as little as a few hundred dollars.

    Army Drone Printing Part Two

    U.S. Army illustration

    Army Drone Printing Part Two

    If the Army wants to look at some fixed defensive positions a few hills over, and they aren’t too concerned with getting the drone back, printing up a simple body and slapping in some electronics could be a very cost-effective way to do that. And 3D printing isn’t limited to just remaking what’s already been done. Say there’s a warehouse the Army wants to look inside, but the windows are wedged shut. A custom drone with a ram-like head could force open a window and then scout around inside. Single-use ram drones aren’t something one plans on bringing to every battle. Printing it as needed could, as it were, really open up a lot of opportunities for troops on the ground.

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    It's a conspiracy.

    The Zika virus continues to spread. Just this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention added new countries to its travel advisory. The total number of cases is predicted to be between 3 and 4 million, although those figures are far from certain.

    There are a lot of other unknowns about the virus. There’s some evidence, for example, that it may be linked to an increase in microcephaly cases in Brazil (although as Christie Aschwanden points out at FiveThirtyEight, that link will be hard to prove). And there are a lot of conspiracies, too, as Sarah Zhang points out at Wired: some claim the microcephaly cases are actually due to genetically-engineered mosquitoes, vaccines, and even the Rockefellers.

    Perhaps the most explosive of these conspiracies is the one that says the microcephaly cases are caused by a larvicide called pyriproxyfen (which, by the way, is misspelled in the report that launched this conspiracy—not exactly a vote of confidence for accuracy). The report also claims the larvicide is sold by a Japanese subsidiary of Monsanto, which also isn’t true. In reality, pyriproxyfen is fairly benign for humans. It acts as a hormone disruptor in insects, including Zika-spreading mosquitoes, screwing up their development. The Japanese company Sumitomo produces the chemical, and the company is not owned by Monsanto (and, by the way, “Sumitomo” is also misspelled in that original report).

    Still, the conspiracy has legs, as conspiracies about Monsanto do, and since then outlets including On the Media, USA Today, and more (as well as Zhang’s piece) have provided context for the claim, doing a good job of debunking it.

    But another piece came out this week that makes me wonder about how the media—especially science journalists, including me—cover stories like this. It’s an essay by Maggie Koerth-Baker at Aeon, and it explores some of the assumptions and realities of vaccine-hesitant parents. These lines especially struck me:

    “I don’t think experts intend to ignore what the debate over vaccines is really about. They care deeply about the public health implications of vaccine refusal. They’re worried about the health of their individual patients. But they personally think the trade-off between the small risks of side effects and the big benefit of herd immunity is a fair one. They decided this long ago, and that belief is built into every aspect of their work. For a lot of them—a lot of us, if I’m honest—it’s easy to forget that our perspective on the trade-off is a belief, and not a provable fact. We are uncomfortable with the idea that opinions on scientific topics could be influenced by philosophy, politics and other things that aren’t easily quantifiable.”

    Of course, the Zika-larvicide conspiracy theory is not nearly as established as the vaccine-autism conspiracy, which has been around far longer. And as Koerth-Baker points out, vaccine hesitancy doesn’t necessarily always have to do with the original autism conspiracy, but with broader beliefs and issues. If you look deeper into the larvicide conspiracy, however, you can see additional parallels. To me, it seems like the fear propelling the Zika-larvicide story is embedded within distrust of Big Ag and pesticides, even though this isn’t even an agriculture story. A lot of folks sharing the larvicide piece may be conspiracy-minded activists and others intent on pushing a very specific narrative that’s based more on politics than science. But you also might find a lot of people who are simply adding this story to a long list of reasons they’re uneasy about our food system, as well as how we use chemicals more generally.

    I think that we should debunk conspiracies—after all, it’s a bad idea to leave them zipping around the Internet with no reality check. It’s important to correct the record. I’ve written my fair share of such stories. And if the true culprit of the microcephaly cases is actually Zika, then it’s a shame to vilify a product that could help control the mosquitoes that spread the virus.

    But is there another sort of story we should be telling, too? Does simply presenting the facts help make a case? I don’t necessarily have the answers—I just think it’s worth thinking about. I'm reminded of a piece at the Washington Post that published last December. In it, Caitlin Dewey, who had been writing a hoax-debunking column, explained why she was ending the project. She said:

    "Walter Quattrociocchi, the head of the Laboratory of Computational Social Science at IMT Lucca in Italy, has spent several years studying how conspiracy theories and misinformation spread online, and he confirmed some of my fears: Essentially, he explained, institutional distrust is so high right now, and cognitive bias so strong always, that the people who fall for hoax news stories are frequently only interested in consuming information that conforms with their views — even when it’s demonstrably fake."

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    Robot Arm On Drummer

    Screenshot by author, from YouTube

    Robot Arm On Drummer

    The cymbalism of a three-armed drummer is obvious. Much of the focus on prosthetic limbs is about restoring ability, healing that which is broken or at least returning an injured limb to a semi-functional state. But the same technology that replaces a broken arm could also give a person with two arms a brand-new third limb, in a way transcending the simple limitations of the organic body. Like this:

    This robot drum arm comes from Georgia Tech, and was originally designed as a way to help a drummer who had lost an arm. (No, not the one from Def Leppard.) Here, the drum arm augments an existing drummer. While the user in question is wearing a headband with sensors, that part of the project isn’t ready yet. Instead, the robot arm is drumming of its own accord, with some awareness of what the human is doing. It listens, and it plays along.

    Here's how it works, according to Georgia Tech:

    The robotic arm is smart for a few reasons. First, it knows what to play by listening to the music in the room. It improvises based on the beat and rhythm. For instance, if the musician plays slowly, the arm slows the tempo. If the drummer speeds up, it plays faster.

    Another aspect of its intelligence is knowing where it’s located at all times, where the drums are, and the direction and proximity of the human arms. When the robot approaches an instrument, it uses built-in accelerometers to sense the distance and proximity. On-board motors make sure the stick is always parallel to the playing surface, allowing it to rise, lower or twist to ensure solid contact with the drum or cymbal. The arm moves naturally with intuitive gestures because it was programmed using human motion capture technology.

    Think of it less like a third human arm, and more like a friendly robotic symbiant that only wants to rock. Watch it in action below:

    [Via IEEE Spectrum]

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