Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Wheelchairs to be contolled by your mind

Voice-control is sooo twentieth century and besides, not everyone can use their voice. Thankfully then, technology has advanced enough to allow things like wheelchairs to be mind-contolled.

The japanese research institution RIKEN has built a wheelchair that reads the wheelchaired person's brainwaves using new brain-wave analysing technology. This new technology allows the wheelchair to be controlled with just a 125 millisecond delay, as opposed to conventional mind-readers that takes several seconds to react.

There are plans in the works for use of this technology in other fields too, like medicine and nursing care management. There's a host of future science fiction-y mind-control gadgetry that could use this technology. Personally, I imagine a future where you don't have to pain-stakingly, physically do things like driving a car. Instead you tell the car-or-whatever - with your mind - to take you where you wan't to go and then it does.

Ancient Europeans ate the children of their enemies

Archaeologists excavating the caves of Atapuerca in nothern Spain has found that the ancient europeans living there wre practising cannibals, AFP reports. The remains found ate the site are examples of Homo antecessor who lived there as long as 800, 000 years ago and so were probably among the first humans, before the Neanderthals and before the Sapiens, to arrive in Europe.

The Antecessors chose a good spot to settle too, with a comfortable climate, nearby rivers for water and a forest full of deer, horses and wild boars for food. The archaeologists also found two layers of cannibalised remains, suggesting that the cannibalism wasn't a one-time-only, desperate act of survival. Furthermore the AFP says:

A study of the remains revaled that they turned to cannibalism to feed themselves and not as part of a ritual, that they ate their rivals after killing them, mostly children and adolecents. 

"Sweet taste of victory", indeed. 

Monday, June 29, 2009

Galleries galore and zooooooooooooooooooooming

Another flurry of links heading your way: first, The Big Picture's set of photos taken on the ISS. Second, a New Scientist gallery of images (photos and illustrations) of next-generation rockets. Third, ever wanted to see an extreme close-up of an ant? So have I! Here you go. Zoom, zoom, zoom

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Real and virtual dissection of giants

See New Scientist's gallery of IRL and VR animal autopsies from the Inside Nature's Giants documentary series.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Soft-core pornography (with worms)

Elegant like dancer a male nematode worm circles his hermaphrodite lover. The male has taken charge and the hermaphrodite remains passive. With the front of his tail, the male pushes up against his mate, backing along and questing for the love canal with his scent. In loving embrace, his tail curled around his hermaphrodite partner, he finds it and enter with stiff spicules. A short but frantic while later, the male spills his seed.

Give your house rat some love

The Cracked comedy website lists "The 5 Most Hated Creatures on the Planet" that don't deserve it: rats, cockroaches, wasps and so on. Rats, which are abundant in any city, are mostly considered "sewer-dwelling, corpse-nibbling cornucopias of contagion", to quote Cracked, but, really, when was the last time you caught the plague?    

Robot displays emotion, robot-mime uprising is nigh?

Scientists at Waseda Univerity unveiled a robot that can display a wide array of human emotions, CBS13 reports. Fitted with 48 actuators, the robot - called KOBIAN - can use it's whole face and body to express emotions such as anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise. The scientists hope that in the future robots will be able assist people in their daily lives. The ability to display human emotions would then aid in human-cyborg relations. 

You might not worry too much about these miming robots, but then you have to consider thehunter-robots. Am I the only one envisioning a future of roving bands of robot-mimes stalking prey among the rubble of human civilization? Probably. But it would be awesome.   

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Sharks dying and robots feeding

It has not been a good week for sharks. First great white sharks are revealed to be serial killers, now a study shows that one-third of open ocean sharks are endangered. The gorgeous photos of sharks just serve to high-light what a loss it would be if they went extinct.

Less depressing, though hair-raising, are these robots that hunt and feed. One of the robots, created by the James Auger and Jimmy Loizeau designer team, is disguised as a table. Crumbs placed on the table lures unsuspecting mice to crawl up on the table and when the table-bot senses it's prey, it opens a trapdoor and the mouse fall in. The robot can digest the mouse with a microbial fuel cell, giving it energy to hunt more mice. 

(Note: none of the robots can eat human beings.) 

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Coins shrinking, spiders no longer ballooning and viruses that grow wings

The Intellectual Ventures Lab shrinks coins, for science!! They jack in a scary-big capacitor to a coin and then zzzap! Coin shrinkage. The coin, a US quarter gets hit with it with a 15, 000 joules bolt causing a magnetic field that shrinks the coin.

Mystery Rays from Outer Space talks about the bacteria that screws with ballooning spiders' favorite pastime for fun and profit. The spiders use their ballooning to find new hunting grounds where the competition from other spiders is less fierce. The bacteria (probably) hinder this so it can spread more efficiently.    

Cool, but not as cool as the virus that gives wing to aphids. The aphids are given the power of flight, allowing for greater motility, and in return the symbiotic virus gets free replication.  

Rapper Doc Rendezvous, aka Buzz Aldrin, release first video

Famed space man Buzz Aldrin has teamed up with some of his homies; Snoop Dogg, Soulja Boy and Quincy Jones, to produce a rap song called "Rocket Experience". Enjoy: 

I don't listen to much rap, but I think he's a natural, don't you agree? Anyway, the Buzzboy is a big promoter of science and exploration and he says: 

"[W]hen it comes to getting attention, comedy goes a long way". 

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Scientists shrink the dinosaurs

Scientists at the Colorado State University has found that the statistical models used to estimate the mass of large dinosaurs may be seriously flawed. The scientists looked  again at the reference sample used to set up the old statistical model and found that the math used may have caused an over-estimation of the size of dinosaurs. If true, this revelation means that they have now shrunk the dinosaurs by about half. The findings have a wide range of implications for the biology of dinosaurs. Theories on how dinosaurs moved around and their eating habits may need to be updated.   


Great white sharks accused of being serial killers

New Scientist reports that great white sharks hunting startegies are similar to that of human serial killers. This is another blow to the shark community, who already struggles with a reputation for blood-frenzied violence. 

A team of scientists from the University of Miami, Florida, studied how great white sharks hunted seals off the coast of Seal Island, South Africa. Using a technique more commonly used to catch serial killers, a technique called geographical profiling, the scientists found that the sharks modus operandi were far from random. The sharks, especially the older ones, would launch their attacks from "anchor points", which had a good balance of easy prey detection, lesser competition from rivals and favourable enviromental conditions. When a shark launched it's attack it would move in a quick, vertical motion, callously killing the seal and then happily munch it down.

A spokes-shark has not been available for comment. 

Photo by Terry Goss. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5  


Once again Star Trek science inspires real life science

It never ceases to amaze me what science fiction writers can come up with and scientists can realize. Like the forth-coming invisibility cloak. The humor website Cracked has compiled a list of the "7 Man-Made Substances that Laugh in the Face of Physics".

The sci-fi connoisseur might be interested in the transparent aluminum. As you know, transparent aluminum was used onboard the Enterprise (among other Federation starships) as windows. After all, Romulan disruptors shatters glass notoriously easy, and the crew can't very well see through duranium, can they? 

Present-day scientists has wisened up to the usefulness of a durable yet transparent material and has figured out how to make it themselves. Aluminium oxynitride is a material made of aluminium, oxygen and nitrogen, it's see-through and as strong as steel. Much like the Federation, the US Air Force is looking to using their "transparent aluminum" as as transperant armor for the windows on armored vehicles. A less glamourous use of aluminium oxynitride is as semiconductors and in retail fixtures. 

I'm still waiting for that Bio-Mimetic gel, though.   

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The egg came first. No, the chicken came first! No, wait...

"Which came first, the chicken or the chicken-egg?" Evolutionarily speaking, the chicken and the chicken-egg came at the same time. "Huh?", you say, but it's true. Let me explain: individual organisms don't evolve, populations of organisms do. Let me explain further: 

Once upon a time, non-chickens roamed free. Human hunted the non-chickens for they were tasty. To lazy to have to hunt, humans captured some of the non-chickens alive and started breeding them. The wild non-chickens and the captured ones both continued to live and breed, without intermingling. One day, the captured non-chickens were noticibly different from their wild cousins, they were now chickens. But in no specific point in the evolutionary history did a non-chicken lay an egg that hatched a chicken. 

Just like on a light spectrum, where you can easily point to green ("non-chicken") or yellow ("chicken") but you can't point to the exact spot where one end and the other begin, because that's subjective. It's the same with species. So, necessarily, due to the indefinite nature of species, the chicken and the chicken-egg evolved simultaneously.

Next time on Important Philosphical Questions Answered by Science: how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?  

I'm the greatest star, I am by far, but no one seems to know

4.6 billion years ago in a galaxy called the Milky Way, there was a gargantuan molecular cloud of hydrogen and helium (and some trace amounts of heavier elements). This molecular cloud was a stellar nursery, where stars formed. Many of these stars lived short lives and died in cataclysmic explosions. In this violent place, a certain famous star would be born. 

In the molecular cloud some regions had become denser than others and it would be in one of these dense regions that our star formed. Gravity caused that dense region to collapse in to a pre-solar nebula and as it collapsed, it started to spin. The interplay of it's rotation, gravity, gas pressure and magnetic fields caused an almost-star to form at the centre of the spinning nebula. Surrounding the almost-star was a disc of matter that would later klump together and form planets, asteroids and comets. Over the next 50 million years the temperature and pressure of the core of our baby star increased and when it became hot and dense enough it began the fusion hydrogen into helium. A new star was born.

That star is, of course, the Sun. The star brightest in our sky. The star that the Aztecs used to sacrifice to by ripping out the still beating hearts of their enemies. The star that supports almost all living things, barring some extremophile bacteria and possibly  a bunch of aliens.    

The Sun will not be with us for all eternity, however. The Sun, too, will die, and it will not go out in a blaze of glory like it's more massive, live-hard-die-young kind of brothers and sisters. As the Sun age it will burn through it's supply of fuel faster and faster, growing hotter and hotter, becoming brighter and brighter. In about 5.4 billion years the Sun's core will be so hot that it's surrounding shell will start fusing hydrogen, like in the core. The Sun will now swell into a red giant, becoming about 250 times as big as it is now, incinerating the Earth. 

Indiffrent to this, the core of the Sun will gain in mass and temperature, and when it's dense and hot enough it will start fusing helium into carbon. This precipitate another drastic change, where the red giant Sun shrink to only eleven times it's current size. For a hundred million years the Sun will remain like this, furiously fusing helium. But eventually it will have to resort to burning it's reserves of hydrogen and helium present in the outer layers. Again, the Sun will swell up. But after 30 million years, only a quick moment in the galactic reckoning of time, the Sun's remaining outer layers will fall away, leaving the Sun a white dwarf. The shedded matter will form a planetary nebula, fuel for future generations of stars.     

Too old and too weak the sun will not have enough temperature to fuse the elements remaining to it.  The Sun will only grow cooler and dimmer. And because it now lack the gravity to retain them, the planets and other orbiting bodies will start to fall away. Two billion years later what remains is a largely crystalline structure with a frozen core of degenerete carbon and oxygen. 

Trillions more years later, the Sun shines no longer, having become a black dwarf. It's planets has long been stolen away by the gravity of other stars and the Sun is all alone. The Solar System is no more. 

Image of the Sun as viewed by the Soft X-ray Telescope courtesy of NASA

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Do a little work, make a little test, get truth tonight

Basic question: What is science? The word comes from the Latin "scientia", meaning "knowledge". But science is more than a body of knowledge. Science is something you do and, at heart, doing science means testing ideas. The rest is just bookkeeping. Ask Zombie Feynman.

In reality, of course, science is done with more rigor than the Mythbusters do it. Doing good science requires intelligence, imagination and creativity. Scientists need to make careful observations, come up with good ideas and design crucial experiments. This is an ongoing process that develops increasingly more useful, accurate and comprehensive scientific theories.

"But doesn't scientists need to interpret evidence", you're wondering, "with brains known to be unreliable? What about observer bias?"

Science is not done by lone mad scientists, secluded from the world in their underground lairs. Science is a social enterprise. They cooperate and compete with other people. Also, a scientist's work is scrutinized in the peer-review process and experiments are repeated by other scientists. All to minimize the risk the something went wrong. It's not perfect, science is certainly not the Ultimate Quest for Absolute Truth, but it has this going for it: It works.

"Still", you persist, "what if the world is just one big illusion? Then it doesn't matter how many scientists agree".

Well, that's irrelevant. Science still works within the system; the underlying metaphysics of that system doesn't matter,
as long as it's consistent. The fact that matter is mostly empty space doesn't it less real, does it? Would you be less of a person, with thoughts and feelings, if you foung out you were living in the Matrix? If it looks like reality and behaves like reality, it's reality.

Consistency is the one assumption that science make. Consistency is important because today's experiment would be meaningless if tomorrow's physics were different. The consistency can be due to fixed natural laws, particularly lazy gods or just careful programming of the matrix, the nature of reality doesn't actually matter. Luckily, the consistency of reality is a hypothesis that can be tested like any other hypothesis. And every day the natural laws stay the same.

Science works.

Monday, June 15, 2009

I admit, I have a crush on science

The natural world is full of wonders. Science allows us to discover them and to understand them. Science allows us to peer into places previously unknown and unknowable, to uncover the secrets of the universe.

Humanity is a young species, a newborn as counted on a geological timescale. It was not long ago when we lived in little huts of wood and clay, and when the bow and arrow were the height of our technology. And science brought us out to space, allowed us to split the atom and showed how we are related to all life on the planet. Today we have vast towers of steel and glass, and the height of technology changes from day to day.

I have little doubt that it will be science that saves humanity when disaster strikes, whether it is the climate changing, an asteroid hurtling towards earth, or madness-inducing eldritch abominations invading.

Science is important and wonderful and I love it. It is my intent with this blog to show just how important and wonderful it is, and to inspire other people to love science as much as I.

For science!