Archive for October, 2011


What’s Magic About Mushrooms

In William Turner’s “Grete Herbal” (1576), the first popular, English-language guide to the vegetable kingdom, the botanist was blunt on the matter of mushroom taxonomy. There were, he reckoned, just two kinds: “one maner is dedly and sleeth them that eateth of them and be called tode stoles, the other doeth not.” Two centuries on, scientists were no wiser about the lives of these mysterious organisms that haunted the shadows and seemed to appear by spontaneous generation. Otto von Münchhausen (1716-74)—a real scientist, but with the same fervid imagination as his tale-telling namesake—had seen fungal spores but testified that he had witnessed them hatching into small insects. Mushrooms weren’t plants, he concluded, but the dwelling places of small animals.

[MUSHROOMS1]

The irony is that his wishful observation and skewed reasoning were halfway right. As Eugenia Bone notes in her engaging trawl through the labyrinths of mycophilia (“From the Greek, myco = fungus, philos = loving”), fungi are no longer regarded as plants. They’re now allocated to a kingdom of their own, which, in evolutionary terms, is more closely allied to the animal world. Fungal species outnumber plants by a ratio of 6 to 1. They make up a quarter of the Earth’s biomass, occurring on every surface and in, or attached to, every other living organism. The planet’s life-systems would close down without fungis’ ceaseless involvement as digesters, recyclers, biochemical enablers and a kind of exterior immune system for their hosts.

In less than a decade, that smartphone you’re holding could have 32 times the memory, 20 times the bandwidth and a microprocessor core no bigger than a red blood cell, the CTO of chip design company ARM said on Thursday.

ARM has already helped develop a prototype, implantable device for monitoring eye-pressure in glaucoma patients that measures just 1 cubic millimeter, CTO Mike Muller said at ARM’s TechCon conference in Silicon Valley Thursday. The device includes a microprocessor sandwiched between sensors at the top and a battery at the bottom.

Strip away those extra components, rearrange the transistors into a cube and apply the type of advanced manufacturing process expected in 2020, and you’d end up with a device that occupies about the same volume as a blood cell, Muller said.

ARM designs the processor cores used in most of today’s smartphones and tablets, and smaller cores are generally more energy efficient, he said. That helps to extend battery life.

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Smarter, more functional clothing made with wearable electronics may be possible in the near future.

“Creating transistors from cotton fibers brings a new perspective to the seamless integration of electronics and textiles, enabling the creation of wearable electronic devices,” says Cornell University fiber scientist Juan Hinestroza, who was part of an international team that developed transistors using natural cotton fibers.

The innovation represents a significant step forward because it lays the groundwork for creating even more complex devices, such as cotton-based circuits, Hinestroza says.

This would allow fabrics to sense body temperature, automatically heat up or cool down, or track heart rate or blood pressure in high-risk patients, as well as to monitor physical effort of high-performance athletes.

“Perhaps one day we can even build computers out of cotton fibers in a similar way as khipus—a recording device based on knots and used by the Inca empire in Peru,” Hinestroza adds.

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One of the most cherished principles in science – the constancy of physics – may not be true, according to research carried out at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Swinburne University of Technology and the University ofCambridge.

The study found that one of the four known fundamental forces, electromagnetism – measured by the so-called fine-structure constant and denoted by the symbol ‘alpha’ – seems to vary across the Universe.

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Download, sketch, and submit your map here.

Trust Us: The Secret You

With the help of a hammer-wielding scientist, Jennifer Aniston and a general anesthetic, Professor Marcus du Sautoy goes in search of answers to one of science’s greatest mysteries: how do we know who we are? While the thoughts that make us feel as though we know ourselves are easy to experience, they are notoriously difficult to explain. So, in order to find out where they come from, Marcus subjects himself to a series of probing experiments.

Researchers have used state-of-the-art machine translation software — and some old-fashioned hunches — to crack the code used by a secret society in Germany three centuries ago. The results shed light on the tricks of the cryptographic process as well as on the bizarre history of such societies, which were all the rage in the 18th century.

It turns out that the 105-page, 75,000-character manuscript, known as the Copiale Cipher, provided a detailed description for setting up initiation ceremonies — including the techniques used to throw a scare into the initiates. It also revealed the methods that members used to identify each other in the outside world, and delved into the comparisons and rivalries surrounding Masonic-like rites in different countries.

“This opens up a window for people who study the history of ideas and the history of secret societies,” Kevin Knight, a computer scientist at the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute, said in a news release issued today. “Historians believe that secret societies have had a role in revolutions, but all that is yet to be worked out, and a big part of the reason is because so many documents are enciphered.”

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Attention: Teachers and Parents… This is the best school answer message ever!

Flat facets that can be easily joined to cover any shape could make invisibility cloaks more practical.

The science of invisibility is rapidly moving from a focus on research to a focus on development. In other words, this discipline is changing from one of science to one of engineering

So we’re beginning to glimpse how engineers are turning the few hugely complex and expensive cloaks made so far into much simpler and cheaper devices.

Today, Oliver Paul at the University of Kaiserslautern in Germany and a few friends reveal an eminently practical way of making invisibility cloaks of any size and shape.

Their idea is simple. Creating a cloak that exactly follows the shape of the object it is intended to hide is hard because curve cloaks are hard to make.

Instead, Paul and co approximate the shape using flat facets. These ‘invisibility tiles’ fit together in the same way as the triangular facets in a computer animation. And since each flat tile is relatively simple and easy to make, it becomes much cheaper and easier to build complex cloaks.

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The Divided Brain

Please note, the whole “left side right side” brain thing is WRONG and we’ve known it has been WRONG for a very long time. Very. Long. Time. The reality is complex and interesting, but it is probably not what you think.

Chatbots are machines designed to emulate the conversational abilities of humans, conversing with a human user and generally attempting to convince the user into thinking that the machine is human. In such a scenario, if a sufficiently adept human on one end is fooled into thinking the machine is another human, the machine would be credited as passing the famous Turing Test for intelligence. Over 60 years after its proposal by Alan Turing, there are arguably still no machines capable of passing this test. The chatbot we initially used was Eliza, a prominent early milestone from AI’s infancy in the 1960’s. This tended to produce fairly boring conversations, so we switched to a much smarter, constantly learning chatbot: Cleverbot.  Publicly available on Cleverbot.com, this state of the art chat engine was created by AI researcher Rollo Carpenter, who can be contacted via his company, Existor. Cleverbot will continue to learn, and Existor are soon to add new capabilities aiming at a Turing Test pass sooner than you might expect.

“If there was a better way to go then it would find me
I can’t help it the road just rolls out behind me
Be kind to me or treat me mean
I’ll make the most of it I’m an extraordinary machine”

english-oatmeal-stout-under-alcohol-under-a-microscope
English Oatmeal Stout by BevShots

Have you ever wondered what your favourite libation looks like under a microscope? Picture a scientist, drunk off White Russians; staring into his glass and thinking — I bet this would look really cool if I magnified it! To the Lab-Mobile! A few years and a few sloshy nights later, BevShots was born. A company that sells beautiful magnified prints of your favourite alcoholic drinks. Below is a small collection of the prints being offered along with the photography technique used, enjoy responsibly.

whiskey-close-up-under-a-microscope
Whiskey Magnified

gin-magnified-image
Gin Closeup

HOW ARE THE IMAGES CAPTURED?

The images are made by first crystallizing the drink of choice on a lab slide. Using a standard light microscope with a camera attached, the light source is polarized and passed through the crystal. This creates the magnificent colors we see in our favorite drinks.

Each image is created by using a pipette of each particular drink and squeezing a drop onto a slide. Then the droplets are allowed to dry out and the slide is placed under the microscope and a picture is taken. It can take up to four weeks for the alcohol to dry out completely in an airtight container, and the whole process can take up to three months.

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“I work around the clock (1043 Planck times per second) providing the gravitational attraction to hold this galaxy cluster together. And some baryonic cosmologist wants to explain me away as a modification of Newtonian gravity?

“I have been silent for 13.7 billion years, but no more.

“I AM THE 96%”

By considering a proposal to put filling stations in the sky, NASA is looking to accelerate plans to send astronauts to distant destinations.

The filling stations — NASA calls them propellant depots — would refuel a spacecraft in orbit before it headed out to the moon, an asteroid or eventually Mars. Currently, all of the fuel needed for a mission is carried up with the rocket, and the weight of the fuel limits the size of the spacecraft.

Next month, engineers will meet at NASA headquarters in Washington to discuss how propellant depots could be used to reach farther into space and make possible more ambitious missions using the heavy-lift rocket that NASA is planning to build. The discussions grow out of a six-month NASA study of propellant depots, completed in July.

However, the space agency has rejected the study’s most radical conclusion: that NASA could forgo the heavy-lift and use existing smaller rockets, combined with fuel depots, to reach its targets more quickly and less expensively. Those targets, for the next two decades at least, include a return to the moon or a visit to an asteroid. (A trip to Mars is unlikely until at least the 2030s.)

“This study highlights some interesting benefits of depots, but it is too singularly focused,” William H. Gerstenmaier, the associate administrator for NASA’s human exploration and operations directorate, said in a statement. “NASA is actively studying depots and how they can be used with other proposed elements to provide the lowest cost, sustainable exploration plan.”

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Created by art duo of Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt, collectively known as Semiconductor, 20 Hz is a visualization of electromagnetic storms occurring in the Earth’s upper atmosphere as it is buffeted by solar winds. The data was gathered by the CARISMA radio array and interpreted as audio, making this an interpretation of an interpretation. The film itself is mesmerizing, the warbles and chirps causing intricate patterns to dance and echo across the screen — alien sounds come down from the cosmos and made visible.

Courtesy of AeroShot

Ever wish you could mainline your coffee? Well, here’s the next best thing: AeroShot, a new product that delivers “inhalable” caffeinated puffs, and has got productivity-obsessed technophiles buzzing.

AeroShot’s delivery system is a light, plastic inhaler that shoots lime-flavored puffs of powdered caffeine to the tongue, where they are instantly absorbed. Each inhaler contains three puffs, providing a total of 100 mg of caffeine — about as much as in a large cup of coffee.

The product also contains 100% of the recommended daily allowance of niacin, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12. It’s sweetened with stevia, an herbal sweetener that is up to 300 times sweeter than sugar and has no calories.

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Metalmorphosis is a stainless steel water fountain sculpture by Czech Republic artist David Cerny. It is located in Charlotte, NC.

 

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