Category Archives: Science

Soft Autonomous Robot Inches Along Like Earthworm

 

 

From the MIT site:

Earthworms creep along the ground by alternately squeezing and stretching muscles along the length of their bodies, inching forward with each wave of contractions. Snails and sea cucumbers also use this mechanism, called peristalsis, to get around, and our own gastrointestinal tracts operate by a similar action, squeezing muscles along the esophagus to push food to the stomach.
Now researchers at MIT, Harvard University and Seoul National University have engineered a soft autonomous robot that moves via peristalsis, crawling across surfaces by contracting segments of its body, much like an earthworm. The robot, made almost entirely of soft materials, is remarkably resilient: Even when stepped upon or bludgeoned with a hammer, the robot is able to inch away, unscathed.

James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenger Reveals What Life Seven Miles Under the Sea is Like

The following is a guest post by Laura McKeever.

If you have ever wondered what it would be like to reach the darkest depths of the ocean, today you will find out. Thanks to an expedition conducted by James Cameron, the director of Titanic and Avatar, we have an insight into what life seven miles below sea level is like. The famous director has boldly gone where only two men have been before, but unlike them he was able to see the area in the Mariana Trench, an area that is larger than the Grand Canyon.

To many people, life that far beneath the ocean surface conjures up images of alien-like creatures and foot long anthropoids. The mystique of the sea has always been associated with monsters that us mere mortals have not yet seen, but Cameron’s trip has proved our imaginations wrong. Disappointingly, he reported after surfacing that the only living things he saw in the Marina Trench were inch long prawn-like specimens. Despite returning without any captivating stories about monsters from the deep, Cameron feels as though his journey was largely a success. The three hours that he spent cramped into a tiny capsule were just a fragment of the intended six hour journey, but at the same time he felt as though he had “ventured between two planets.”

Although Mr. Cameron’s lack of discoveries are a little dull, there is plenty to be excited about when it comes to the machine he went down in. The lime-green craft, known as the Deepsea Challenger, is a tremendous feat of engineering. It has been designed to withstand the incredible pressures that are often exerted on mechanical objects in the deep sea, which can reach eight tonnes per every square inch of material.

The design of the Deepsea Challenger also means that it is able to withstand high variations in pressure. Imagine rocketing between ranges of 100 degrees Fahrenheit to well below freezing within a matter of minutes, as that is what Cameron’s sub has been designed to do. As the vessel descends, the electrical circuits heat up while trying to meet the continuously strenuous demands exerted on it. This is eventually reversed as the ocean floor grows nearer, as the deepsea water temperatures maintain a constant below freezing level due to receiving no sunlight.

Unfortunately, Cameron’s trip has not even been able to provide us with any geological discoveries. The hydraulics on the vessel stopped working as he reached the ocean floor, which meant he was unable to retrieve any samples that could give us an insight into life seven miles below the surface of the ocean. Despite this, it is pretty clear that Cameron’s dedication to learning more about what goes on down there won’t stop him from making some truly astonishing discoveries. The dedicated director was faced with the decision of either missing the premier of Titanic 3D, or going ahead with his mission. As he chose to head for the depths of the ocean rather than the big screen, his dedication shows that the Deepsea Challenger may be dusted off in the future to bring avid biology and geology lovers news of what happens under the sea.

Author Byline:

Laura McKeever is a Medical Sciences student from the UK and freelance writer. In addition to having an avid interest in medicine, she is also fascinated by other areas of science, including geology.

The Earth is Full

Sick Earth

My friend Emily pointed out a recent TEDTalk on her twitter feed.

Check out TEDTalks: Paul Gilding: The Earth Is Full on @hulu: http://www.hulu.com/watch/334860/tedtalks-paul-gilding-the-earth-is-full –Awesome but scary video. So true, we are running out.

The presenter makes the case that “the earth is full” is not a philosophical statement but based on science. Basically our consumption of resources is outweighing the Earth’s ability to sustain it too far into the future.

My recommendation besides reduce your consumption and waste is to learn to survive so when your neighbors are freaking out, you’re thriving. Also helps in the Zombie Apocalypse.

Help Scientists Identify Orcas

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Fellow citizen scientists, the call is out asking for your assistance at whale.fm.

Did you know that Killer Whales (Orcas, which are actually the largest dolphin species) can talk to each other in quite sophisticated ways? Each family of Killer Whales has its own dialect and closely-related families share calls. We know this because biologists have begun to categorize the complex calls of Killer Whales and to try and understand what they mean.

Pilot Whales (again, actually a dolphin species) have dialects and calls similar to those of Killer Whales, but biologists have not categorized them. Scientists have assembled recordings of both species, and they’re asking us to help them put their sounds into categories. They want us to help them understand what Whales are saying.

After a little online training in their tutorial, you listen to the their recording of an Orca and find a similar one that matches it best. This helps categorize it as the same whale, or from the same family or region.

Check it out at whale.fm.

Sign-up For Free Stanford Game Theory Course

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Stanford University is offering a free online course on Game Theory, class starts in January 2012 and I’m signing up! If you’re not familiar with game theory and how it can be applied to everyday use, here’s the course’s intro:

Popularized by movies such as "A Beautiful Mind", game theory is the mathematical modeling of strategic interaction among rational (and irrational) agents. Beyond what we call ‘games’ in common language, such as chess, poker, soccer, etc., it includes the modeling of conflict among nations, political campaigns, competition among firms, and trading behavior in markets such as the NYSE. How could you begin to model eBay, Google keyword auctions, and peer to peer file-sharing networks, without accounting for the incentives of the people using them? The course will provide the basics: representing games and strategies, the extensive form (which computer scientists call game trees), Bayesian games (modeling things like auctions), repeated and stochastic games, and more. We’ll include a variety of examples including classic games and a few applications.

Visit the Stanford Game Theory course page here and lets sign up together.

How Woodpeckers Avoid Head Injury

woodpecker

Head injury is a leading cause of morbidity and death, it’s estimated that brain injuries account for 15% of the burden of fatalities and disabilities in people. It’s also a leading cause of death in young adults. However, the woodpecker does not experience any head injury at the high speed of 6 m/s with a deceleration of 1000g when it drums a tree trunk. It’s still not known how woodpeckers protect their brain from injury.

Slow-motion footage, X-ray images and computer simulations have shed light on how woodpeckers avoid injuries to their brains as they peck. The findings could help design more effective head protection for humans.

BBC Science has the details on the investigation, this is good stuff.

The BBC article is based on a paper “Why Do Woodpeckers Resist Head Impact Injury: A Biomechanical Investigation”. You can read the paper and it’s abstract here.

In Space News This Week…

 

Gale Crater next landing site for Mars rover [NASA]
NASA’s next Mars rover will land at the foot of a layered mountain inside the planet’s Gale crater. The car-sized Mars Science Laboratory, or Curiosity, is scheduled to launch late this year and land in August 2012.

Race to the Moon Heats Up for Private Firms [NYTimes]
Now that the last space shuttle has landed back on Earth, a new generation of space entrepreneurs would like to whip up excitement about the prospect of returning to the Moon.

Astronomers Find Largest, Most Distant Reservoir of Water [Int’l Business Times]
Astronomers found a reservoir of water measuring 140 trillion times the earth’s ocean water in space.  The reservoir of water is the most distant ever discovered in the universe. The water surrounds a giant feeding black hole called a "quasar" and is located more than 12 billion light-years away.

Scientists: Stinky Sock Smell Helps Fight Malaria

Virus-medicine

From Seattle Times:

The smell of old socks can help fight malaria by attracting mosquitoes to a trap outdoors, scientists have found, and on Wednesday donors announced new funding to help develop the device.

Traps scented with the odor of human feet attracted four times as many mosquitoes as a human volunteer, said Dr. Fredros Okumu, the head of the research project at Tanzania’s Ifakara Health Institute. Mosquitoes who fly into the trap are then poisoned.

This is a big deal because according to the World Heath Org there are 3.3 Billion people at risk of malaria infection. Of those, 250 Million malaria cases occur per year and about 1 Million deaths result from it.

‘Lost’ Bats Found Breeding, Today’s Ejaculation Advice, Energy Drinks Lead to Substance Abuse

I’m a fan of ScienceBlog, it covers everything from nanotechnology to entropy in the universe and everything in between. If you are into science in general I highly recommend this site. Here’s a sample of articles I read today from their RSS feed. I’m subscribed:

Energy Drinks Linked to Substance Use in Musicians

Frequent use of energy drinks is associated with binge drinking, alcohol-related social problems and misuse of prescription drugs among musicians, according to researchers at the University at Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions.

Is Today’s Ejaculation Advice Right for Our Species?

For the last half-century, Western sexologists have advised men to ejaculate as frequently as the urge arises, on a par with nose-blowing. But what if this advice is not supported by the data biologists are turning up?

‘Lost’ bats found breeding on Sicily

A University of Exeter biologist has discovered a ‘lost’ species of bat breeding on the Isles of Scilly (UK). A pregnant female brown long-eared bat is the first of its species to be found on the islands for at least 40 years. It was discovered by Dr Fiona Mathews, Senior Lecturer at the University of Exeter, a postgraduate student and a team from the Wiltshire Bat Group.

Robots Become Self-Aware

robot

Scientific American:

Cornell University’s Hod Lipson is developing robots that can reflect on their own thoughts by equipping them with two controllers. One controller was rewarded for chasing dots of blue light while avoiding red dots, and the second controller modeled how the first behaved and how successful it was. This technique, known as metacognition, enabled the robot to adapt after about 10 physical experiments, as opposed to the thousands of experiments needed using traditional evolutionary robots. "This could lead to a way to identify dangerous situations, learning from them without having to physically go through them–that’s something that’s been missing in robotics," says University of Vermont’s Josh Bongard.

Square Kilometer Array: Africa

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How far back in time can the Hubble Ultra Deep Field IR see? About 10 billion years, that’s approximately half a billion years after the Big Bang. Want to look back further? Try the SKA. That stands for the Square Kilometer Array.

The vision for the SKA will be an array of ~3000 dish antenna radio telescopes with a collecting area of about one square kilometer. This will make the SKA about ten times more sensitive than the largest single dish telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico.

The International SKA Steering Committee has whittled the possible locations for this array to one of two locations: South Africa and Australia are the finalists. If Africa wins the SKA bid, the core of this giant telescope will be constructed in the Karoo region of the Northern Cape Province near to the towns of Carnarvon and Williston, linked to a computing facility in Cape Town. Reasons why South Africa make an ideal location are:

  • Low levels of radio frequency interference and certainty of future radio quiet zone.
  • Best imaging – an ideal physical environment (little water vapor, calm stable weather conditions)
  • Very little light pollution
  • Affordable – Required land, labor and support services available cheaply

For a full list of facts on the SA bid, this SKA Africa site has all the details.

I’ve got my fingers crossed they win the bid 🙂

Links:

SKA Africa
SKATelescope.org
Wikipedia: SKA

Two Planets Found Sharing One Orbit

Astronomy 

Cool news from NewScientist on the discovery of two planets on the same orbit:

The two planets are part of a four-planet system dubbed KOI-730. They circle their sun-like parent star every 9.8 days at exactly the same orbital distance, one permanently about 60 degrees ahead of the other. In the night sky of one planet, the other world must appear as a constant, blazing light, never fading or brightening.

World’s Most Precise Clock Created

I’ve always had a fascination with Time. I enjoy reading and hearing about advancements in Time tracking technologies over the centuries. So this article from New Scientist piqued my interest:

The new record-holder for the most precise timekeeper could tick off the 13.7-billion-year age of the universe to within 4 seconds.

If you want the technical details you can find it in this paper (PDF) from Cornell’s Quantum Physics section of their library.

What I want to know is whether entropy will set in across the universe within 13 billion years and if so, will the clock maintain its accuracy as it count backwards? 🙂

Is There A Connection Between Albatrosses and Killer Whales?

Albatross

Graduate students attached still-image cameras to Albatrosses (a vulnerable group of seabirds) in the Arctic to monitor their habits as they travel hundreds of kilometers per day foraging. Retrieving and sifting through thousands of images leads us to believe there is a connection between these birds and Killer Whales of all things.

This is an interesting study, the results are not earth shattering by any stretch but I enjoy reading research articles from fields of study I’m not versed in yet are still readable.

A ‘Time Bomb’ for World Wheat Crop

 Wheat - Stem Rust

The Ug99 fungus, called ‘Stem Rust’, could wipe out more than 80% of the world’s wheat as it spreads from Africa, scientists fear. The race is on to breed resistant plants before it reaches the U.S and Europe. It’s called Ug99 because it was first discovered in Uganda in 1999.

Soon it’ll be poised to invade the crops of India, Pakistan and Russia. After reading the LA Times story, I have to admit, this is scary ‘end of the world’ stuff.

Here’s more on the topic:

Bee-Killing Parasite’s Genome Sequenced

Honey Bee

Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists have sequenced the genome of a parasite that can kill honey bees. Nosema ceranae is one of many pathogens suspected of contributing to the current bee population decline, termed colony collapse disorder (CCD). Researchers describe the parasite’s genome in a study published June 5 in the open-access journal PLoS Pathogens.

In 2006, CCD began devastating commercial beekeeping operations, with some beekeepers reporting losses of up to 90 percent, according to the USDA. Researchers believe CCD may be the result of a combination of pathogens, parasites and stress factors, but the cause remains elusive. At stake are honey bees that play a valuable part in a $15 billion industry of crop farming in the United States.

The microsporidian Nosema is a fungus-related microbe that produces spores that bees consume when they forage. Infection spreads from their digestive tract to other tissues. Within weeks, colonies are either wiped out or lose much of their strength. Nosema apis was the leading cause of microsporidia infections among domestic bee colonies until recently when N. ceranae jumped from Asian honey bees to the European honey bees used commercially in the United States.

The ARS scientists used genetic tools and microscopic analysis at the ARS Bee Research Laboratory (BRL) in Beltsville, Maryland to examine N. ceranae. They collaborated with colleagues at the University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, Columbia University, New York, New York, and 454 Life Sciences, of Branford, Connecticut.

Sequencing the genome should help scientists trace the parasite’s migration patterns, determine how it became dominant, and help resolve the spread of infection by enabling the development of diagnostic tests and treatments.

ARS is a scientific research agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Read more at PLoS Pathogens: http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1000464

[via ScienceBlogs]