Notes about science

December 23, 2012 permalink

Slime Mold Music

What happens if you grow slime mold on electrodes hooked into a sound oscillator? This, evidently. Slime mold music. Science!

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.

I’ll picture the setup looking something like a Bleep Labs Bit Blob.

(Via arXiv)

July 16, 2012 permalink

Random Numbers Through a Quantum Vacuum

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!

(Via Science Daily)

July 6, 2012 permalink

Internet Protocol over Xylophone Players

Somehow I missed a lecture and demo of this new networking technology in Austin back in May: Internet Protocol Over Xylophone Players (IPoXP) (PDF whitepaper), which puts a human element in the middle of sending IP packets from one computer to another. From Wired UK:

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…

(Via ACM Tech News)

May 26, 2012 permalink

Walking with Coffee

Perhaps as a counterbalance to the recent “coffee makes you live longer” news from that wacky New England Journal of Medicine, here’s more important science + beverage work ripped from the pages of Physical Review: Walking with coffee – Why does it Spill?

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.


(The full paper is also available for your Friday night reading fun. Via NCBI ROFL)

January 23, 2012 permalink

Bell Labs Hamlet from 1885

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.

(Via PhysOrg)

December 12, 2011 permalink

Queequegs Tattoos

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.

The description of Queequeg’s tattoos quoted on the blog The Loom, the author of which has a new book out about science-inspired tattoos. It hadn’t occurred to me when reading Moby-Dick, but European sailors had only been decorating themselves with tattoos for some 80 years by the time the book came out — the first example of the word used in English was recorded in Captain Cook’s naturalist’s journals in 1769. 

(Here’s the original passage from Moby-Dick)

August 20, 2011 permalink

On gunpowder, ice cream, and sound symbolism

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.

If you like food, language, or science, the full post is worth a read.

(Via Language Log)

August 13, 2011 permalink


From a post titled The Art of Nomography on Dead Reckonings (a blog dedicated to forgotten-but-beautiful mathematical systems! I’d better subscribe to this one…) :

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].

More about nomograms and abacs on Wikipedia.

(Via O’Reilly Radar)

August 13, 2011 permalink

Floral Acoustics

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.

(Via Nature)

August 4, 2011 permalink

Lego Minifigs Rocketed to Jupiter

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.

June 24, 2011 permalink

Herman Melville on the Nature of Color

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?

June 23, 2011 permalink


Research continues on whether humans (and other animals) have the ability to perceive magnetic fields:

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.

Vision is amazing, even more so when you take into account the myriad other things that animals and insects can detect beyond just our “visible” EMF spectrum. See also: box jellyfish with their surprisingly complex (and human-like) set of 24 eyes.

March 15, 2011 permalink

Donald Duck Discovered Methylene

Actually, he does. Donald Duck accidentally (and somewhat accurately) described the chemical compound methylene nearly two decades before real-world scientists:

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.”

(Via Cracked’s 5 Amazing Things Invented by Donald Duck [Seriously])

December 28, 2010 permalink

Cryovolcano on Titan

Volcanoes spewing ice and slush instead of lava on Titan! From NASA: Cassini Spots Potential Ice Volcano on Saturn Moon

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.

I suddenly have a hankering to play Metroid…

November 22, 2010 permalink

Craniophore Compositing

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.

October 20, 2010 permalink

Physicist’s Goodnight Moon

What happens when a physicist considers the passage of time in Goodnight Moon? Chad Orzel, physics professor and blogger, attempts to measure it using the illustrated passing of the moon versus the wall clocks:

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.

(Photo credit: Chad Orzel)

September 6, 2010 permalink

Somewhere between Mozart and Bach

From Scientific American’s Observations blog, a report on a shared emotional code between music and speech:

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.”

July 3, 2010 permalink

James Joyce Synthetic Cell

To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.

The above quote from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was inscribed as a watermark into the DNA of the much-discussed synthetic cell created a couple of months back by Craig Venter’s team. From The Loom:

The scientists who produced the new synthetic cell copied the genome of a microbe, letter for letter, and then inserted the synthetic version into a host cell. To determine that their experiment worked, they needed a way to tell the genomes of their synthetic cells from the natural genomes that were their model. So they inserted “watermarks” into the artificial genome. These sequences of DNA (which spelled out the work of Joyce and others through the genetic code) sit in non-coding regions of the microbe’s DNA. As a result, these watermarks cannot disrupt any essential protein-coding genes or stretches of DNA that are vital for switching genes on and off.

May 8, 2010 permalink


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.

March 21, 2010 permalink

Mind Control Pinball

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?

(Via Make)

February 20, 2010 permalink

The Virtue of Vagueness

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.

Another excerpt:

“Sometimes,” confesses the computer scientist Kees van Deemter, “one just has to be sloppy.”

January 23, 2010 permalink

Artifical Auroras

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!)

January 23, 2010 permalink

From Maze Solving by Chemotactic Droplets in the

From Maze Solving by Chemotactic Droplets in the Journal of the American Chemical Society:

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?

November 23, 2009 permalink

NASA’s Be a Martian

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.

October 19, 2009 permalink

Ockham’s Broom

A new editorial series in the Journal of Biology, Ockham’s Broom:

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 [3]). Clearly, though, it takes some special sophistication, or intuition, to judge what to ignore.

Further commentary at Language Log.

October 11, 2009 permalink

Phillip Torrone Rides the Square Wheeled Tricycle

(video no longer available)

Phillip Torrone rides the square-wheeled tricycle from the Math Midway, a traveling exhibition of mathematics. Figuring out what kind of catenary curves would be needed for differently shaped wheels is a branch of mathematics that I’m happy  exists (as far as I know the problem dates back on some level to the 1960s, but for a good recent illustration of the math involved, check out this PDF from a St. Norbert College mathematical modeling class).

(Via Make)

September 27, 2009 permalink

Fandom in Academia

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):

September 12, 2009 permalink

Binocular Diplopia and the Book of Kells

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).

That’s amazing.

August 29, 2009 permalink

The Full Moon Appears as a Tarte

“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.

August 29, 2009 permalink

Human uniqueness and the denial of death

[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.

We humans are an odd lot.

From Nature’s Correspondance section, “Human uniqueness and the denial of death”, August 5, 2009. doi:10.1038/460684c;

August 8, 2009 permalink

Transformation optics as misdirection

From Nature, Optics: All Smoke and Metamaterials (subscription might be required, actual research publication available from the American Physical Society):

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.

August 1, 2009 permalink

The Timing of Blinks

Update 11/3/2009: RadioLab did a short piece in October on this phenomenon, even discussing the Mr. Bean test with the Japanese researchers:


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!

(Via NewScientist)

July 24, 2009 permalink

Dark Flash Photography

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.

(Via New Scientist. Photo: Dilip Krishnan, Rob Fergus)

June 27, 2009 permalink

Mind-Controlled Addams Family Pinball

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.

(Via GameSetWatch)

June 23, 2009 permalink

The Final Footage from the JAXA KAGUYA / Selene moon probe

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.

June 10, 2009 permalink

NASA Apollo 11 Haynes Owners’ Manual

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)