From the NY Times, one of the more interesting science reports I’ve read lately: there exist a number of species of plants that thrive in metal-rich environments, soaking up the heavy elements that can then be harvested and used for industrial purposes (traditional farming has a lot of downsides, but perhaps not as many as mining operations?).
Slicing open one of these trees or running the leaves of its bush cousin through a peanut press produces a sap that oozes a neon blue-green. This “juice” is actually one-quarter nickel, far more concentrated than the ore feeding the world’s nickel smelters.
This quote is evocative of the “speculative fiction” sound this makes:
The language of literature on phytomining, or agromining, hints of a future when plant and machine live together: bio-ore, metal farm, metal crops. “Smelting plants” sounds about as incongruous as carving oxygen.
From Physical Review A, a new method for keeping precise (like nearly atomic clock precise) time using a diamond and a laser:
Frequency standards based on atomic states, such as Rb or Cs vapors, or single-trapped ions, are the most precise measures of time. Here we propose and analyze a precision oscillator approach based upon spins in a solid-state system, in particular, the nitrogen-vacancy defect in single-crystal diamond.
The recorded signals from the electrodes were eventually fed into an audio oscillator, with each recording representing a different frequency. By mixing the sounds generated from all of the recordings the researchers were able to create an eerie type of music – reminiscent of the sound effects used on early science fiction movies. As an added feature, the researchers report that they can cause different sounds to be generated by shining light on different parts of the mold, in effect tuning their bio-instrument to allow for the creation of different types of music.
In other insect news, a case of life imitating (well, at least acting similar to) network transmission protocols:
This feedback loop allows TCP to run congestion avoidance: If acks return at a slower rate than the data was sent out, that indicates that there is little bandwidth available, and the source throttles data transmission down accordingly. If acks return quickly, the source boosts its transmission speed. The process determines how much bandwidth is available and throttles data transmission accordingly.
It turns out that harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex barbatus) behave nearly the same way when searching for food. … A forager won’t return to the nest until it finds food. If seeds are plentiful, foragers return faster, and more ants leave the nest to forage. If, however, ants begin returning empty handed, the search is slowed, and perhaps called off.
Your random number generator not truly random enough for you? Maybe you should try some of the numbers coming off of the Australian National University’s quantum vacuum randomization server. Nothing like minute variations in a field of near-silence to get some unfettered randomness, I guess. They offer access to the vacuum through a few different forms of data – seen above is a chunk of their randomly-colored pixel stream. Science!
As an LED lights up, the human participant strikes the corresponding key on the xylophone. Piezo sensors are attached to each xylophone, so that they are able to sense when a note is played on the other xylophone. The Arduino for the receiving computer senses the note and then converts it back into hexadecimal code. And when the second computer sends a return packet, the order of operations is reversed.
The data can be sent at a rate of roughly 1 baud, which is still faster than the earlier, um, IP over Avian Carriers technology.
Assuming the musicians don’t get bored. It takes about 15 minutes to transmit a single packet, assuming the musician doesn’t hit any wrong notes. That’s rare, though, apparently. Geiger told NetworkWorld: “Humans are really terrible interfaces.”
Pedant note: yes, they are using a glockenspiel in the photo above, not a true xylophone, but I guess X is a cooler letter to have in your acronym…
Hey, that’s not a very nice thing to call game developers! Oh, you mean literal slime molds…
British computer scientists are taking inspiration from slime to help them find ways to calculate the shape of a polygon linking points on a surface. Such calculations are fundamental to creating realistic computer graphics for gaming and animated movies. The quicker the calculations can be done, the smoother and more realistic the graphics. …
Adamatzky explains that the slime mould Physarum polycephalum has a complicated lifecycle with fruit bodies, spores, and single-cell amoebae, but in its vegetative, plasmodium, stage it is essentially a single cell containing many cell nuclei. The plasmodium can forage for nutrients and extends tube-like appendages to explore its surroundings and absorb food. As is often the case in natural systems, the network of tubes has evolved to be able to quickly and efficiently absorb nutrients while at the same time using minimal resources to do so.
The Internet will some day be a series of (feeding) tubes?
DNA Sans, a typeface / character set of self-assembled DNA strands that have been shaped into pixel-like blocks. I know where I’m stashing my next steganographically-hidden secret message! (Or maybe this could be used as graffiti for the Fantastic Voyage crew?)
In our busy lives, almost all of us have to walk with a cup of coffee. While often we spill the drink, this familiar phenomenon has never been explored systematically. Here we report on the results of an experimental study of the conditions under which coffee spills for various walking speeds and initial liquid levels in the cup. These observations are analyzed from the dynamical systems and fluid mechanics viewpoints as well as with the help of a model developed here. Particularities of the common cup sizes, the coffee properties, and the biomechanics of walking proved to be responsible for the spilling phenomenon. The studied problem represents an example of the interplay between the complex motion of a cup, due to the biomechanics of a walking individual, and the low-viscosity-liquid dynamics in it.
We prove NP-hardness results for five of Nintendo’s largest video game franchises: Mario, Donkey Kong, Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and Pokemon. Our results apply to Super Mario Bros. 1, 3, Lost Levels, and Super Mario World; Donkey Kong Country 1-3; all Legend of Zelda games except Zelda II: The Adventure of Link; all Metroid games; and all Pokemon role-playing games. For Mario and Donkey Kong, we show NP-completeness. In addition, we observe that several games in the Zelda series are PSPACE-complete.
Translation: video games might provide interesting fodder for complexity theory, and possibly provide a model for novel ways of looking at difficult decision problems. In any case, I just like seeing Metroid mentioned on the arXiv.
Seen above is a green disc, wax on brass, with an early recording of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be…” soliloquy, that likely hasn’t been heard in over 125 years. Created by Alexander Graham Bell’s Volta Laboratory in the late 19th Century and sent to the Smithsonian for archiving as they were created, the paranoid Bell failed to provide a playback mechanism for these discs, for fear that his competitors would appropriate his innovations.
Researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories are working on recovering these early audio recordings with a system called IRENE/3D that creates 3D optical scans of the old record-like discs:
Using methods derived from our work on instrumentation for particle physics we have investigated the problem of audio reconstruction from mechanical recordings. The idea was to acquire digital maps of the surface of the media, without contact, and then apply image analysis methods to recover the audio data and reduce noise.
The nifty thing about this form of hands-off scanning is that it can accommodate many types of otherwise mechanically incompatible media, from discs made of metal or glass to wax cylinders (quick, someone set this up to scan the Lazarus bowl!!). The 18-second snippet of Hamlet audio from the green disc above (maybe the voice of Bell himself?) has been posted on YouTube, or you can download more examples from the project in WAV and MP3 format.
This tattooing had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last.
From the post Language of Food: Ice Cream, a fascinating article linking the history of gunpowder, ice cream, linguistics, and even a bit of marketing insight:
Something similarly beautiful was created as saltpeter and snow, sherbet and salt, were passed along and extended from the Chinese to the Arabs to the Mughals to the Neapolitans, to create the sweet lusciousness of ice cream. And it’s a nice thought that saltpeter, applied originally to war, became the key hundreds of years later to inventing something that makes us all smile on a hot summer day.
Nomography, truly a forgotten art, is the graphical representation of mathematical relationships or laws (the Greek word for law is nomos). These graphs are variously called nomograms (the term used here), nomographs, alignment charts, and abacs. This area of practical and theoretical mathematics was invented in 1880 by Philbert Maurice d’Ocagne (1862-1938) and used extensively for many years to provide engineers with fast graphical calculations of complicated formulas to a practical precision.
Along with the mathematics involved, a great deal of ingenuity went into the design of these nomograms to increase their utility as well as their precision. Many books were written on nomography and then driven out of print with the spread of computers and calculators, and it can be difficult to find these books today even in libraries. Every once in a while a nomogram appears in a modern setting, and it seems odd and strangely old-fashioned—the multi-faceted Smith Chart for transmission line calculations is still sometimes observed in the wild. The theory of nomograms “draws on every aspect of analytic, descriptive, and projective geometries, the several fields of algebra, and other mathematical fields” [Douglass].
I’ve heard that plants attract insects and other pollinators using nectar guides (nature’s own user interface!), but I’ve never heard of this adaptation: the plants depicted above manipulate sound rather than light to attract attention, a bit of floral acoustics.
Ralph Simon at the University of Ulm in Germany and his colleagues analysed the leaf’s acoustic properties and found that its unique shape produces a strong, constant echo across a range of sound-source angles. They then trained bats to seek a feeder hidden in artificial foliage. The animals found feeders topped with the cup shape in an average of 12 seconds — around half the time it took them to locate unadorned feeders or those under other leaf shapes.
NASA has teamed up with LEGO to blast the above three custom minifigs to Jupiter via an Atlas V rocket! There’s so much about this idea that excites the little kid in me. The three aluminum individuals going along for the ride are the goddess Juno (namesake of this NASA Jupiter probe project), bearing an outsized magnifying glass; Jupiter himself, with lightning bolts; and Galileo, with telescope and globe, who isn’t a god but made followers of one kind of angry back in the day when he started noticing and thinking about the moons circling the distant planet.
If these weren’t cast in metal, I’d like to think all three would be wearing the classic LEGO Space logo suit.
From Moby Dick, chapter 42, “The Whiteness of the Whale”:
Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows – a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues – every stately or lovely emblazoning – the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge – pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino Whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?
Many birds have a compass in their eyes. Their retinas are loaded with a protein called cryptochrome, which is sensitive to the Earth’s magnetic fields. It’s possible that the birds can literally see these fields, overlaid on top of their normal vision. This remarkable sense allows them to keep their bearings when no other landmarks are visible.
But cryptochrome isn’t unique to birds – it’s an ancient protein with versions in all branches of life. In most cases, these proteins control daily rhythms. Humans, for example, have two cryptochromes – CRY1 and CRY2 – which help to control our body clocks. But Lauren Foley from the University of Massachusetts Medical School has found that CRY2 can double as a magnetic sensor.
Researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology set a new record by transmitting 26 terabits of a data per second (“the entire Library of Congress in 10 seconds!” as the usual benchmark goes) using a single laser and a clever FFT and frequency comb technique to split the light into 300+ discrete colors:
The Fourier transform is a well-known mathematical trick that can in essence extract the different colours from an input beam, based solely on the times that the different parts of the beam arrive. The team does this optically – rather than mathematically, which at these data rates would be impossible – by splitting the incoming beam into different paths that arrive at different times, recombining them on a detector. In this way, stringing together all the data in the different colours turns into the simpler problem of organising data that essentially arrive at different times.
This futuristic method is based on a centuries-old observation that electric fields can do funnythings (videos) to flames, making them sputter and even snuffing them out.
The researchers’ early-stage prototype consists of a 600-watt amplifier hooked up to a electric beam-shooting wand, according to their presentation at the American Chemical Society meeting earlier this week. In tests, they were able to quickly zap out flames over a foot high.
I look forward to the day when I can dial 911 and get the ArcAttack guys over to put out the blaze!
In 1963, the Disney Studio learned just how wide and faithful a readership [Carl] Barks had. A letter arrived from Joseph B. Lambert of the California Institute of Technology, pointing out a curious reference in “The Spin States of Carbenes,” a technical article soon to be published by P.P. Gaspar and G.S. Hammond (in Carbene Chemistry, edited by Wolfgang Kirmse, New York: Academic Press, 1964). “Despite the recent extensive interest in methylene chemistry,” read the article’s last paragraph, “much additional study is required…. Among experiments which have not, to our knowledge, been carried out as yet is one of a most intriguing nature suggested in the literature of no less than 19 years ago (91).” Footnote 91, in turn, directed readers to issue 44 of Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories. … A year later, the Studio received a letter from Richard Greenwald, a scientist at Harvard. “Recent developments in chemistry have focused much attention to species of this sort,” Greenwald commented. “Without getting technical let me say that carbenes can be made but not isolated; i.e. they cannot be put into a jar and kept on a shell. They can, however, be made to react with other substances. Donald was using carbene in just such a manner, many years before ‘real chemists’ thought to do so.”
Mind-boggling stuff like this is why I keep reading science journals. We can already use photons to push and pinch things with their tiny mass (amazing enough), but new research is underway in how to pull with photons:
Light is pushy. The physical pressure of photons is what allows for solar sail space missions that ride on sunlight, and what allows for dreams of lasers that will push those sails even faster. And light can trap objects, too: Optical tweezers can hold tiny objects in place. Pulling an object with light, however, is another matter. … Jun Chen’s research team says that the key is to use not a regular laser beam, but instead what’s called a Bessel beam. Viewed head-on, a Bessel beam looks like one intense point surrounded by concentric circles—what you might see when you toss a stone into a lake.
From the Journal of Experimental Biology comes news that caterpillars are able to force air through their bodies to ‘whistle’ as a defense mechanism when they’re spotted by predators. These aren’t exotic bugs, either: they can be found all over the U.S., even here in Austin, Texas (guess I’d better listen carefully next time I’m in the backyard). From the Natureabstract:
When under attack, walnut sphinx caterpillars (Amorpha juglandis), whistle. An 1868 Canadian Entomologist paper, “Musical larvae,” first reported these shrieks, but their purpose wasn’t clear.
Jayne Yack at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and her team now show that the whistle, produced through openings along the body called spiracles, is a defence against predators. Simulated attacks with blunt tweezers caused the caterpillars to pull their heads back, forcing air through two of the spiracles in a succession of squeaks.
Scientists have been debating for years whether ice volcanoes, also called cryovolcanoes, exist on ice-rich moons, and if they do, what their characteristics are. The working definition assumes some kind of subterranean geological activity warms the cold environment enough to melt part of the satellite’s interior and sends slushy ice or other materials through an opening in the surface.
New research on the Antikythera mechanism hints that we might be looking at its use and meaning from the wrong perspective. From Nature:
Now, however, scientists delving into the astronomical theories encoded in this quintessentially Greek device have concluded that they are not Greek at all, but Babylonian — an empire predating this era by centuries. This finding is forcing historians to rethink a crucial period in the development of astronomy. It may well be that geared devices such as the Antikythera mechanism did not model the Greeks’ geometric view of the cosmos after all. They inspired it.
Ghostly photos from the Otis Archives depicting a novel circa-1885 piece of scientific analysis equipment: Apparatus for taking Composite Photographs of Skulls. Basically a wood and brass frame with a craniophore in the middle, the tool made it possible to position and align multiple skulls so composite photos could be taken accurately from the front, side, and rear views. The image on the right, for example, is a composite of five or six (or more?) separate skulls. From a contemporary anthropology journal describing the process:
Then the anterior frame and the lateral frame next to the window are lowered ; a black velvet background is hung on the posterior frame ; a large white cardboard is hung on the frame further from the window ; the brass-work is occluded with small velvet screens, and the picture is taken.
The photographs record composites of skulls from various Native American and Cook Island tribes (as seen in the archives of the Clark Institute), so I first thought that the measurements were sadly being undertaken for the sake of scientific racism, the darker side of physical anthropology, which was still in vogue in the 1880s.
That may be the case, but thankfully the full story is somewhat more complex: the inventor of the apparatus, Washington Matthews, an army surgeon-ethnographer-linguist, wrote extensively on the Siouan languages while stationed in the Dakotas, reportedly married and had a son with a woman from the Hidatsa tribe, was initiated into some aspects of the Navajo tribe, and also contributed substantially to the understanding and recording of the Navajo culture, which previously had been considered primitive by the Europeans:
Dr Matthews referred to Dr Leatherman’s account of the Navahoes as the one long accepted as authoritative. In it that writer has declared that they have no traditions nor poetry, and that their songs “were but a succession of grunts.” Dr. Matthews discovered that they had a multitude of legends, so numerous that he never hoped to collect them all: an elaborate religion, with symbolism and allegory, which might vie with that of the Greeks; numerous and formulated prayers and songs, not only multitudinous, but relating to all subjects, and composed for every circumstance of life. The songs are as full of poetic images and figures of speech as occur in English, and are handed down from father to son, from generation to generation.
These two methods clearly do not agree with one another, which means one of two things: either I’m terribly over-analyzing the content of the illustrations of a beloved children’s book, or the bunny’s bedroom is moving at extremely high velocity relative to the earth, so that relativistic time dilation makes the six-minute rise of the moon appear to take an hour and ten minutes. Calculating the necessary velocity is left as an exercise for the interested reader.
As a demonstration of the technology the researchers put LED arrays through any number of experimental implementations. They deposited LEDs on aluminum foil, the leaf of a tree, and a sheet of paper; they wrapped arrays around nylon thread and tied it in a knot; and they distended LED arrays by inflating the polymer substrate or stretching it over the tip of a pencil or the head of a cotton swab. “Eventually the students just got tired” of devising new tests for the light-emitting sheets, Rogers says. “There was nothing that we tried that we couldn’t do.”
To be filed under “research I like reading about even if I don’t quite understand how it works”, new studies from the University of Oregon into altering and controlling the color of light on the scale of individual photons in fiber optic signalling:
In experiments led by Raymer’s doctoral student Hayden J. McGuinness, researchers used two lasers to create an intense burst of dual-color light, which when focused into the same optical fiber carrying a single photon of a distinct color causes that photon to change to a new color. This occurs through a process known as Bragg scattering, whereby a small amount of energy is exchanged between the laser light and the single photon, causing its color to change. […]
“In the first study, we worked with one photon at a time with two laser bursts to change the energy and color without using hydrogen molecules,” he said. “In the second study, we took advantage of vibrating molecules inside the fiber interacting with different light beams. This is a way of using one strong laser of a particular color and producing many colors, from blue to green to yellow to red to infrared.”
The laser pulse used was 200 picoseconds long. A picosecond is one-trillionth of a second. Combining the produced light colors in such a fiber could create pulses 200,000 times shorter – a femtosecond (one quadrillionth of a second).
Almost everyone thinks “Greensleeves” is a sad song—but why? Apart from the melancholy lyrics, it’s because the melody prominently features a musical construct called the minor third, which musicians have used to express sadness since at least the 17th century. The minor third’s emotional sway is closely related to the popular idea that, at least for Western music, songs written in a major key (like “Happy Birthday”) are generally upbeat, while those in a minor key (think of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”) tend towards the doleful.
The tangible relationship between music and emotion is no surprise to anyone, but a study in the June issue of Emotion suggests the minor third isn’t a facet of musical communication alone—it’s how we convey sadness in speech, too. When it comes to sorrow, music and human speech might speak the same language.
Or to quote Nigel Tufnel: “It’s part of a trilogy, a musical trilogy I’m working on in D minor which is the saddest of all keys, I find. People weep instantly when they hear it, and I don’t know why.”
Another excellent short episode of Radiolab, featuring a conversation with two people I wouldn’t expect to hear on stage together:
Oliver Sacks, the famous neuroscientist and author, can’t recognize faces. Neither can Chuck Close, the great artist known for his enormous paintings of … that’s right, faces.
Oliver and Chuck–both born with the condition known as Face Blindness–have spent their lives decoding who is saying hello to them. You can sit down with either man, talk to him for an hour, and if he sees you again just fifteen minutes later, he will have no idea who you are. (Unless you have a very squeaky voice or happen to be wearing the same odd purple hat.)
A paper in the academic journal Palliative and Supportive Care analyzing perceptions of death and dying through the lens of New Yorker cartoons. Science!
“Personification of Death” (n = 38) included a subtheme of “Bargaining with Death.” The main theme included representations of death with human attributes, such as the Grim Reaper. Examples are the Grim Reaper sitting in a bar talking to another man; the caption reads, “Sometimes I give myself the creeps” (from 2005; Mankoff, 2006. p. 28). The subtheme involved people negotiating for more time to live. Many of the cartoons in this theme show the Grim Reaper standing at someone’s door as he or she tries to negotiate his or her way out of dying. For example, one such caption read, “Couldn’t I do a couple of hundred hours of community service instead?” (from 1990; Mankoff, 2006. p. 46). This can be seen as the legacy of death (Elgee, 2003), that we are all its slaves.
Moving things (very, very, very tiny things) using nothing but photons. Not immediately useful given the scale, but this is a first and could have applications in nanoelectromechanics and biology. Originally this same principle was thought to be what powered the nifty Crookes radiometer (that black-and-white vaned vacuum bulb thing that’s now usually sold as a novelty desk toy), but that device is actually moved by thermal transpiration or temperature differences.
(If the above link is behind a paywall for you, you might try the basic Nature writeup instead)
Music of the Large Hadron Collider. From Discover:
Lily Asquith, a physicist searching for the Higgs boson–the elementary particle believed to give everything in the universe mass–is using more than her eyes. With artists and other physicists, she started the LHCsound project to hear subatomic particles.
I’m rarely convinced that audio visualization (what’s the better term for this field?) makes patterns in data easier to find, but it sure can sound interesting.
For those of you with eyes that aren’t easily categorized as simply “brown”, “blue”, or “hazel”: researchers have written up a new genetic model for human eye color phenotyping, published in PLoS Genetics.
We measured human eye color to hue and saturation values from high-resolution, digital, full-eye photographs of several thousand Dutch Europeans. This quantitative approach, which is extremely cost-effective, portable, and time efficient, revealed that human eye color varies along more dimensions than the one represented by the blue-green-brown categories studied previously. Our work represents the first genome-wide study of quantitative human eye color. We clearly identified 3 new loci, LYST, 17q25.3, TTC3/DSCR9, in contributing to the natural and subtle eye color variation along multiple dimensions, providing new leads towards a more detailed understanding of the genetic basis of human eye color.
We’ve all been exposed to a glut of volcano videos lately, but this one has something I’ve never seen before. If you watch a few seconds in you can see the first of a series of visible shock waves rippling through the cloud of ash. Yikes.
A phenomenon called group glee was studied in videotapes of 596 formal lessons in a preschool. This was characterized by joyful screaming, laughing, and intense physical acts which occurred in simultaneous bursts or which spread in a contagious fashion from one child to another.
A Turing Machine. Possibly the nicest assembly I’ve ever seen of 35mm film, servos, motors, and dry erase markers that’s actually capable of demonstrating the foundational theories of computing. A bit slow on the maths, but who’s complaining?
Nuclear collisions recreate conditions in the universe microsecondsafter the Big Bang. […] We report the observation of antihypertritons — comprised of an antiproton, antineutron, and antilambda hyperon — produced by colliding gold nuclei at high energy. The production and properties of antinuclei, and nuclei containing strange quarks, have implications spanning nuclear/particle physics, astrophysics, and cosmology.
My layman’s understanding of this is that it’s a significant find, if verified. Basically they’ve created a particle that is neither matter nor antimatter, but lies just off the plane of strangeness (“strange” as in the quark), and might be the kind of thing only found at the cores of collapsed stars. The Register’s easy-to-read writeup has a good suggestion that this “negative strangeness” they talk about should be dubbed “hyper-boringness”.
Researchers from the Berlin Brain-Computer Interface project demonstrate their research into mind-control pinball, which is an important field of study if ever there was one. BUT HOW DO YOU NUDGE?
Also, the Addams Family table is a great choice for such a project (Fester would approve), but how cool would it have been if they’d hooked him up to the one-of-a-kind Sega/Stern museum table The Brain?
Saturn’s moon Enceladus transiting in front of its larger moon Rhea, as seen from a couple million miles away by the Cassini spacecraft, in photographs that span about one minute’s worth of time. That we can know to point cameras at this kind of event and get images this nice is a bit of a wonder to me.
From Nature’s review (sorry about the academic paywall) of the new book Not Exactly: In Praise of Vagueness:
Although scientists strive for increasing clarity in their measurements and concepts, it is often uncertainty that spurs new thinking. The haziness of the species notion set the young Charles Darwin pondering evolution. Francis Crick observed that if he and James Watson had worried about how to define the gene in the 1950s, progress in molecular biology would have stalled. “In research the front line is almost always in a fog,” Crick wrote in his autobiography. Even today there is no consensus definition of the gene.
“Sometimes,” confesses the computer scientist Kees van Deemter, “one just has to be sloppy.”
Converting heat energy directly into sound using tiny electrical conductors is a 100-year-old idea for an alternative to the mechanical voice coil wire + moving diaphragm design of traditional speakers, but new research recently submitted to Applied Physics Letters demonstrates a new, actually feasible approach to making these speakers-on-a-chip. Still way too quiet and underpowered for use as a loudspeaker, but might have some novel applications in the near future as research progresses.
I like the name given to the 100 year old invention, though: the thermophone.
There’s lots of conspiracy theory nutjobs talking about the HAARP research project lately (even Hugo Chavez is throwing his hat in), so the allegations of death-ray and mind control weapons tinges this science news a bit, but there’s something kind of beautiful about being able to generate your own version of the aurora borealis:
Artificial auroras can be created using an array of high-frequency transmitters. Researchers have previously done this by pumping a 3.6-megawatt beam of radio waves into the ionosphere, a region of the atmosphere a few hundred kilometres above Earth’s surface. The beam was powerful enough to break electrons free of their parent atoms, creating an artificial aurora similar to that of the Northern Lights.
It’s certainly an unusual way to leave your mark on the world, and I presume it’s harmless, given that we’re being constantly bombarded by the same kind of energy raining down from space (right?). Just so long as they aren’t cutting their way into heaven a la Lord Asriel in The Golden Compass, I guess…
(Found in Nature, which cites research in Geophysical Research Letters, but I can’t find the cited article anywhere. Maybe it was pulled? Aha, a conspiracy!)
Droplets emitting surface-active chemicals exhibit chemotaxis toward low-pH regions. Such droplets are self-propelled and navigate through a complex maze to seek a source of acid placed at one of the maze’s exits. In doing so, the droplets find the shortest path through the maze.
I don’t generally understand materials science (or even much chemistry, for that matter), and this I really don’t get. How do it know?
NASA plans to send a hot-air-balloon type probe to Saturn’s moon, the only other known body in our solar system to have liquid “seas” on the surface. In order to keep the balloon from crashing into any rocky outcroppings, the team at the JPL has designed an oxygen-burning “rapid buoyancy modulation system” that’s pretty clever:
The lack of any free oxygen in the ice-moon’s air means that the patio gas oceans, clouds etc won’t normally catch fire. Thus NASA’s plan for Titanian hot-air ballooning would reverse the situation on Earth: Rather than burning a stream of patio-gas using oxygen in the air, the moon balloons will burn a stream of oxygen using methane from the surrounding clouds.
A paper in Nature Photonics describing the waveplate mechanism found in the eye of mantis shrimp (stomatopods). These amazing critters can see hyperspectral color ranging from the infrared to the ultraviolet, can perceive different planes of circular polarized light, and have eyes that operate and dart about (saccade) independently. This paper is basically demonstrating that man-made material science has a lot to learn if we want to catch up with nature’s technology.
Personal side question: what are these shrimp on the lookout for that’s led to such a sophisticated eye??
NASA has launched (pardon the sorta pun) a new website for kids called Be a Martian, with various games that allow them to rack up points and earn badges as they learn about the red planet. The interesting twist? The games are actually crowdsourced work, real data sorting through the aligning of map images taken by Mars Odyssey explorer with elevation images from the Mars Global Surveyor project. Kids play a game, NASA gets useful data that’s otherwise hard to get computationally. The Register has a good writeup of the project.
Although it is increasingly difficult to gauge what people can be expected to know, it is probably safe to assume that most readers are familiar with Ockham’s razor – roughly, the principle whereby gratuitous suppositions are shaved from the interpretation of facts – enunciated by a Franciscan monk, William of Ockham, in the fourteenth century. Ockham’s broom is a somewhat more recent conceit, attributable to Sydney Brenner, and embodies the principle whereby inconvenient facts are swept under the carpet in the interests of a clear interpretation of a messy reality.
To elaborate that point briefly – While Ockham’s razor clearly has an established important and honourable place in the philosophy and practice of science, there is, despite its somewhat pejorative connotations, an honourable place for the broom as well. Biology, as many have pointed out, is untidy and accidental, and it is arguably unlikely that all the facts can be accounted for early in the investigation of any given biological phenomenon. For example, if only Charles Darwin had swept under the carpet the variation he faithfully recorded in the ratios of inherited traits in his primulas, as Mendel did with his peas, we might be talking of Darwinian inheritance and not Mendelian (see ). Clearly, though, it takes some special sophistication, or intuition, to judge what to ignore.
“In 1518, one of the strangest epidemics in recorded history struck the city of Strasbourg. Hundreds of people were seized by an irresistible urge to dance, hop and leap into the air. In houses, halls and public spaces, as fear paralyzed the city and the members of the elite despaired, the dancing continued with mindless intensity. Seldom pausing to eat, drink or rest, many of them danced for days or even weeks. And before long, the chronicles agree, dozens were dying from exhaustion. What was it that could have impelled as many as 400 people to dance, in some cases to death?”
Digging through academic journals from various fields I’ve found one element that they all seem to share: the occasional linking of an author’s specialized field with some element from the über-specialized world of current fan culture / pop culture. The links are often tenuous, but sometimes there’s a real gem hiding amongst the serious papers. Sometimes the research is dubious enough to appear on an academic humor blog like NCBI ROFL, but usually the research lacks the clout or audacity needed to garner an Ig Nobel Prize. For example, here are two papers from this week’s publication listings (I’ll add more if I find them this week):
Harry Potter’s Headaches, published in Headache: The Journal of Head and FacePain – an attempt to categorize the titular boy wizard’s symptoms using the “Muggle” International Classification of Headache Disorders, 2nd edition (ICHD-II). I’m pretty sure they’re having a good time with this one, thankfully. (Via NCBI ROFL)
How did reclusive monks living in the year 700 or 800 AD draw the intricate lines of the Book of Kells, rendered by hand at sub-millimeter resolution (about the same level of detail as the engraving work found on modern money), hundreds of years before optical instruments became available, hundreds of years before the pioneering visual research of Alhazen? According to Cornell paleontologist John Cisne’s theory, their trick was in the detail and pattern: by keeping their eyes unfocused on the picture plane, the monks could superimpose their linework and judge the accuracy against the template using a form of temporary binocular diplopia (sort of like willing yourself to view a stereograph or one of those Magic Eye posters).
“Harriot regularly corresponded with friends who were also trying out telescopes. One wrote to him saying that the full moon ‘appears like a tarte that my cooke made me the last week’.”
— A note from the “Cosmos and Culture: how astronomy has shaped our world” exhibit at London’s Science Museum, describing this first-ever drawing through a telescope, created circa 1610 by English mathematician Thomas Harriot.
Note to Austinites: the excellent Harry Ransom Center at UT will soon be opening their exhibit “Other Worlds: Rare Astronomical Works”, featuring some beautiful drawings by the likes of Cassini, Kepler, and Brahe. Can’t wait.
[Geneticist Danny Brower] explained that with full self-awareness and inter-subjectivity would also come awareness of death and mortality. Thus, far from being useful, the resulting overwhelming fear would be a dead-end evolutionary barrier, curbing activities and cognitive functions necessary for survival and reproductive fitness. […] In his view, the only way these properties could become positively selected was if they emerged simultaneously with neural mechanisms for denying mortality. […] If this logic is correct, many warm-blooded species may have previously achieved complete self-awareness and inter-subjectivity, but then failed to survive because of the extremely negative immediate consequences. Perhaps we should be looking for the mechanisms (or loss of mechanisms) that allow us to delude ourselves and others about reality, even while realizing that both we and others are capable of such delusions and false beliefs.
Seeing is believing — a naive assumption in the case of an illusion device proposed by Lai and colleagues at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and described1 in Physical Review Letters. The new device has the power to ‘act at a distance’ and therefore covertly alter an object’s appearance such that it has no apparent physical connection to the light scattered by the object — although this becomes increasingly difficult to achieve the farther the illusion device is from the object. Lai and colleagues1 outline a mathematical formalism proving that it is theoretically possible to grab the rays of light emitted by a given object and to reconstruct them so that they seem to come from a completely different object.
Using metamaterials with refractive indexes less than zero to disguise the origin or content of reflected light. Not sure that I entirely understand this idea, but it’s sort of like the fabled “cloaking device”, except that instead of rendering an object invisible it actually renders it as a different object. Things will be weird fifty years from now.
From recent research out of Japan: “The results suggest that humans share a mechanism for controlling the timing of blinks that searches for an implicit timing that is appropriate to minimize the chance of losing critical information while viewing a stream of visual events.” In simpler words, the researchers found that audiences watching movies with action sequences have a strong tendency to synchronize their blinking so that they don’t miss anything good.
I’m not sure that this is interesting in and of itself, but it’s, um, eye-opening to think that we have our eyes closed for nearly 10% of our waking life. That’s roughly 10 full minutes of every movie lost to blinking. I imagine that editors already take this phenomenon into account, at least to some extent?
Full text available available in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B – Biological Sciences. Thanks, Creative Commons!
Another paper from the upcoming SIGGRAPH 2009 conference: Dark Flash Photography. The researchers have developed a camera flash that uses a combination of infra-red and and ultra-violet light to illuminate a scene before capture, and an algorithm to denoise and color-correct the otherwise dimly-lit normal digital photo, producing a low-light image that is both noise-free and sharp (no need for long exposure, so no worry about camera shake or the subject moving). Seems like a killer idea, and immensely useful.
The image above is the creepy-looking multi-spectral version – be sure to click through to their site to see the final photo compared with the noisy ambient light version.
Mind-controlled Addams Family pinball! But can you do it with a lit lightbulb in your mouth?
Compared to invasive Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI), non-invasive BCI systems based on Electroencephalogram (EEG) signals have not been applied successfully for complex control tasks. In the present study, however, we demonstrate this is possible and report on the interaction of a human subject with a complex real device: a pinball machine.
The final footage from the Japanese JAXA KAGUYA/Selene moon probe’s telemetry camera before it crashed to the surface (as planned). There’s something poignant about these last bits of video – after the years of engineering, planning, and information-gathering, it’s got to be hard not to personify the things. See also my favorite science/UI video of all time: final telemetry from the NASA Huygens probe.
In honor of the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, Haynes (maker of popular do-it-yourself auto repair manuals) has published an “owner’s manual” for the various craft involved in the Apollo 11 mission. Includes information on the Saturn V rocket, the Command/Service module (the part that astronaut Michael Collins was stuck in while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin got to go play on the moon), and the Lunar module. If you want to get me something retroactively for my 10th birthday, I think this would be it. (Via El Reg)
Pioneer of medical instruments, photography, and cinema. Took some very interesting early photographs in his research of animal locomotion and physionomy, which led to his successor Muybridge’s famous collections of plates.
Gurney was still haunted by the Baroque search for a perfect vacuum, by the study of the phlogiston, as part of the philosophy of nature. So, like a mad Jesuit, he built a piano that played glowing bottles filled with burning hydrogen.