Environment

10 Amazing Things You'll Want to Know About This Week

Scientists have done it again...this week there's robot fish, inflatable bike helmets, invisibility cloaks, the first prank call and so much more.

Heard there was something going on with Facebook and the stock market this week, but since I can’t afford stockings much less stocks, that sort of thing is hard to pay attention to. It’s especially tough to notice when scientists are offering up robot fish, inflatable bike helmets and a new door swung wide open into the future with the first commercial firm sending a rocket to the International Space Station. Here are 10 amazing things you’ll want to know about this week. 

1. Light rider.

About a week ago, on the very dark corner of my street I ran across a cyclist….

God forbid! No one wants to hit a cyclist, except maybe with the palm of one’s hand when they ride at night without a light, any reflective wear and very little to distinguish themselves from the darkness around them. Which some of them do. 

Enter the Monkey Light 8-Bit LED bike light by ThinkGeek (as seen on Nerd Approved), which consists of a battery pack that snaps into your wheel hub and a light unit on the tire rim that gives you many options to light up the night. Wheels on fire, indeed…the demo video shows a variety of light displays. If you won’t wrap yourself in blinking Christmas lights on your night rides (as I wish you would) this might help you be more visible to motorists. 

Cycling safety is on a lot of people’s mind’s lately -- quite literally in the case of the Hovding, a scarf worn around the neck that doubles as an inflatable bike helmet. Laura Laker writes about her experience wearing the Hovding on the Guardian’s Bike Blog and says it was overall "comfortable -- and even comforting,” though a slight heaviness and potential discomfort in warmer weather were concerns. The Hovding has built-in motion censors that detect crash-scenario movement and inflate the helmet in .1 seconds. Though the video on the site makes getting hit on a bike look terrifying even if you were wearing a Macy’s parade balloon. 

You ride for your health, after all. Why not protect yourself from cars as well as heart disease? 

2. To intuit, get out of it. 

Sometimes we find it hard to see the cyclists right in front of us and sometimes we find it hard to see the solutions right in front of us, especially when we’re trying our hardest. Why is it that when we’re racking our brains for an idea we come up snake eyes, but all of a sudden when we’re doing the dishes a solution comes to us that might as well be gift-wrapped?

Psychologists at UC Santa Barbara must have been allowing their minds to wander because they came up with a great bit of research showing that “zoning out” is really helpful when you need a creative solution to a problem. Matt Kaplan wrote about the space-out study in Nature: Psychologists presented 145 undergrads with problems requiring “unusual uses” solutions, i.e., how many uses can you think of for various household items like a clothes hanger or a brick in just two minutes?

In between these problems the researchers divided the students into four groups, one of which rested, one of which had no break, one of which engaged in a demanding mental task and one of which engaged in a mind-wandering activity. Students who did the undemanding activity showed 41 percent improvement when they tried the unusual uses task again; the other groups showed no change.

But(you knew this was coming) they only improved in the tasks they had already encountered. When given new puzzles they showed no change. So, "The implication is that mind-wandering was only helpful for problems that were already being mentally chewed on. It didn’t seem to lead to a general increase in creative problem-solving ability,” says Benjamin Baird, one of the psychologists. 

That’s a limitation I can live with. I think. What were we talking about again? 

3. Plasmonics is not an '80s punk band.

Zoning out is a sort of mental evasion, a way of being there without actually being there. If only we could do that physically once in awhile, like Harry Potter and his invisibility cloak. Most of us wouldn’t mind the option, if only to be able to pick and choose the people we want to run into at a cocktail party.

Such cloaking devices for humans aren’t quite available yet, but researchers from Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania are using nanotechnology to create an invisible photodetector, a device that senses light and other electromagnetic energy. The device will allow for much better clarity of images in digital and medical photographs and works with “silicon nanowires covered by a thin cap of gold.” Using a technique called "tuning the geometries,” engineers balance the ratio of metal to silicon in the device so the “light from the two materials cancel each other to make the device invisible,” Science Daily says. The technique is called “plasmonic cloaking” and the Stanford device is the first time it has been used to render such a device invisible. 

Okay, so photodetectors have it now, but I dream of a human-grade version, liquified and sprayed on like a tan, if only so I can sit in a theater and watch Dark Shadows over and over again without being asked “Can I see your ticket?” You bet I would. 

4. “Hey! I’m looking for Amanda Hugginkiss!”

Prank callers have to remain invisible, something that’s not as easy as it once was, what with caller ID and before that Star 69 (remember Star 69?).

Both services were miracles of avoidance when they graced the public in the late '80s. Finally you could dodge unwanted calls. But you could no longer comfortably make them.

Prank callers in the 19th century still had the luxury of anonymity. Buzzblog’s Paul McNamara says the year of the very first prank call was 1884. It’s still, we believe, an unsolved case. McNamara credits Paul Collins, Literary Detective, with finding the notation of the original prank call, wryly nothing that “All it took was eight years for some 19th-century Bart Simpson to cast aside any respect or wonderment there may have been for this technological marvel and transform the telephone into an instrument of tomfoolery.” 

And the prank was a lulu. Bart would be impressed. An 1884 newspaper report described it thus:

“A GRAVE JOKE ON UNDERTAKERS - Some malicious wag at Providence R.I. has been playing a grave practical joke on the undertakers there, by summoning them over the telephone to bring freezers, candlesticks and coffins for persons alleged to be dead. In each case the denoument was highly farcical, and the reputed corpses are now hunting in a lovely manner for that telephonist.”

Oh, for the days when terms like “malicious wag,” “denoument” and “highly farcical,” were common verbal currency! But it just goes to show you that using technology for dippy things is nothing new. Bonus: 128-year-old-prank, and the perpetrated as yet undetected. Not bad for a wag. 

5. You can’t go! You just got here.

We want cyclists to be visible. Another thing we’d like to be visible, since we’ve only just gotten to see it recently, is the saola, also called the "Asian unicorn,” because of its reclusive, elusive nature. The saola is actually a bicorn, a two-horned animal. It’s related to cattle, but looks like a cross between a deer, a cow and an antelope with a pair of horns any good Halloween Satan would envy. Here’s video on LiveScience of the saola and efforts to protect it.

The saola was discovered just 20 years ago. The Guardian reports that it was the first large mammal to be newly revealed to the world in over 50 years -- and it’s now on the brink of extinction, thanks to poaching. Saolas live in the Annamite mountains between Laos and Vietnam. World Wildlife Fund Asian animal expert Barney Long says the poaching is a “byproduct of economic development,” in which a growing middle-class likes to be seen ordering “status meats.” The saolas aren’t even the animals being hunted -- they just get caught in the poacher’s snares and poachers can set out 1,000 snares at a time. 

Long also appears on the LiveScience video saying this region is one of the most biodiverse in the world, and that there are only an estimated 200 to 250 saola left and they can be saved -- but it “needs to happen now.” 

We hope so. Otherwise, this would be a really sad and vivid example of “Now you see it, now you don’t.” 

Don’t forget the saola, but if it makes you feel a little better you can check out LiveScience’s photo gallery of the Top Ten Species of 2012 by Jeanna Bryner, including a sneezing monkey, a blue tarantula and a fungus called Spongiforma squarepantsii. You know you’ve made it as a cartoon sponge when they start naming species after you.

The list is issued every year by the International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State, writes LiveScience’s Wynne Parry, and species are chosen for their ability to capture public attention. Part of the list’s purpose is to highlight Earth’s biodiversity “which is declining due to extinctions. In fact, scientists have said we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction event triggered by human activities.”

Did I say something about making you feel better? Or was that bitter?

6. Jurassic ink.

If only the saola had an ink sac like squid, octopi and cuttlefish; something that might not only let it get away but would mark the poachers like those exploding dye packs used to foil would-be thieves. 

The ink clouds cephalopods produce are not only bizarre and cool, they have stood the test of time. Lots of time. In fact, there’s evidence that that mechanism hasn’t changed in 160 million years. 

Science Daily reports on a rare opportunity researchers from England, Japan, India and the US had to examine organic material from 160 million years ago -- two ink sacs found, one intact from giant cephalopod fossils in an area near Bristol by Phillip Wilby of the British Geological Survey. The ink sacs contained the pigment melanin which degrades slowly compared to other organic materials and which, when compared to the melanin of a modern-day cuttlefish, was found to be a match. 

John Simon, one of the authors of the study on the melanin comparison, which appeared in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said of the match, "It's close enough that I would argue that the pigmentation in this class of animals has not evolved in 160 million years," and "The whole machinery apparently has been locked in time and passed down through succeeding generations of cuttlefish. It's a very optimized system for this animal and has been optimized for a long time."

So while the rest of us are furiously (or slowly) trying to evolve and get things right, cephalopods nailed at least a good part of it 160 million years ago. No wonder they often look pretty relaxed, even during a spectacular costume change.

7. Who says you can’t have it all?

If there are still human beings -- and archeologists among them -- 160 million years from now, you know what they’ll probably find intact? Ketchup coating the inside of condiment bottles. You never can get it all out of there, can you?

Well, you will be able to soon. MIT doctoral candidate Dave Smith has invented a food-safe coating called LiquiGlide that allows condiments to slide out of the bottle without a trace left behind and without you hurting the palm of your hand banging the bottle. Austin Carr at Fast Company reported on the new product and there’s video comparing the bottles coated with LiquiGlide as opposed to the kind we’re stuck with now -- the food in the LiquiGlide bottles seems to float on a cushion of air and slides out as easily as water.

If you think getting ketchup out of a bottle is a trivial thing to use lots of brain power for, this is why it matters: if all the bottles in the $17 billion condiment market had his coating, Smith says, “we estimate that we could save about one million tons of food from being thrown out every year."

Smith wouldn’t say what’s in the product (all materials were FDA approved) and it’s not on the market yet, but “we’ve patented the hell out of it,” he says. Request: please start putting this stuff into bottles of hair conditioner, specifically travel-sized ones. The bottles are so tiny most of the conditioner adheres to the inside, like small, freshly scented stalactites and the result is that you can’t get enough product out of them to condition the three hairs of Homer Simpson. 

8. Snoring isn’t just annoying -- it’s dangerous.

I have a snorer in my house whose nocturnal audio emissions could shake loose any stalactite, conditioner or stubborn ketchup wad even it if was 160 million years old. It's annoying. But it’s also a potentially serious health problem.

Serena Gordon from US News & World Report’s Health Day reports that sleep apnea -- the suspension of breath during sleep -- causes snoring and also causes the lowering of oxygen levels in the blood. It’s also linked to a whole host of serious problems, including sleepiness throughout the day which leads to accidents, as well as “cardiovascular disease, heart disease, strokes, hypertension and cardiovascular mortality" which we take to mean heart attacks. Now research is showing it causes an increase in cancer mortality for those who have cancer.

Gordon interviewed Dr. Javier Nieto, chair of the department of population health sciences at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, in Madison and author of the study. Nieto said the study came about when researchers at the University of Barcelona found that skin cancer tumors grew faster on mice deprived of oxygen. Lab-grown cancer cells deprived of oxygen stimulate the growth of more blood vessels in an attempt to get oxygen. 

To test whether the effect would be the same in humans Nieto’s team reviewed 22 years of data from 1,500 subjects at the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort. After adjusting for other factors that increase the risk of cancer death they found sleep apnea also increases that risk. “They also found that the more severe the sleep apnea, the more likely someone was to die from cancer,” Gordon writes. 

And the more severe the apnea the greater the risk. People who had 14.9 episodes of low to no oxygen an hour had a 10 percent increased risk of cancer death while the worst cases, more than 30 episodes an hour, had 4.8 times the risk of cancer death. 

“Nieto said the study didn't prove a cause-and-effect relationship, but the association was quite strong.”

The association goes back to those lab-grown cancer cells. When you have episodes of low or no oxygen the cancer cells grow more blood vessels as a defense mechanism, making the tumor bigger, Nieto says.

So if you love a snorer don’t just scream “Shut…UP!!!!” a dozen times a night. Get him or her to see a doctor to be evaluated and treated for sleep apnea. You’ll both sleep a little easier.

9. Robo fish.

I don’t care how sound your friend is sleeping…this’ll wake him up: there are robot fish in the sea in northern Spain that hunt pollution, are smarter than some people and, at current cost $31,600 a pop, are a little less than an order of bluefin tuna. 

Reuters says the robot fish developed by European scientists have cut the time of water pollution detection from weeks to seconds and the developers believe anyone interested in water quality, from aquaria to port authorities will want them. They’re fitted with sensors to detect pollution from leaking pipelines and ships, swim independently and coordinate with each other, “transmit their readings back to a shore station up to a kilometer away,” can avoid obstacles, map their location and know to go back to the base when their batteries are low. They provide real-time analysis of water conditions rather than traditional sample collection and transport back to a lab.

So that’s pretty amazing but what we want to know...so we can kiss them...is, who thought to make it look like a fish? It probably could have looked like any other dull old piece of monitoring equipment, but then some imaginative soul thought “You know what would be really cool?"

And now there are robot fish. And they have jobs. 

Think they’ll evolve like Professor Farnsworth’s toxin-eating nanobots in Futurama? We’ll see. Soon they may be crawling up on land and starring in classic Disney films (at about 1:40).

10. SpaceX’s Falcon 9: First private rocket launched into space.

As if robot fish weren’t enough, this week we saw, for the very first time, a private business put a rocket into orbit to the International Space Station. Welcome to the future.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 unmanned rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral on May 22 carrying its Dragon capsule filled with cargo for the Space Station, making commercial space flight a reality. And, as the AP’s Seth Borenstein reports it also brings into much sharper focus other advances and ways for companies to do business in space, like inflatable space stations, hotels and space tourism. Companies that are out to seek their fortune among the stars now number eight, Borenstein says, more “than major U.S. airlines still flying.”

As of this writing, Irene Klotz of Discovery News reports that Dragon “aced its orbital driving test,” and is on its way to being the first private firm to reach the Space Station.

Michael Lopez-Alegria, the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation and a former astronaut told the AP that Dragon’s launch is “the spark that will ignite a flourishing commercial spaceflight marketplace.” NASA is pushing other companies along the commercial route while it gets on with exploring asteroids and Mars. 

Bonus: The Falcon 9 may have been unmanned but that doesn’t mean there weren’t people on board. The Huffington Post reports that the cremated remains of 308 people, including James Doohan, Star Trek’s Scotty, and Gordon Cooper, Mercury astronaut, were launched on Falcon 9. The ashes were not on Dragon but on a second stage that separated from the capsule about 10 minutes into the flight. The launch of the cremains was part of an agreement between SpaceX and Celestis which has been shooting the departed into space since 1997.

Well, that’s one way to get there. 

Anyone else just considering spiffing up their resume?