10 Amazing Discoveries You Missed This Week

Here are 10 amazing things research revealed this week. 

1) When I’m An Old Crab I Shall Wear Purple

We’re glad someone found this guy but we have to wonder -- how did he ever get overlooked? 

Bright purple crabs with big red claws were one of four species recently discovered on the Phillipine island of Palawan during a study by the Senckenberg Research Institute in Germany and De La Salle University in Manila. Our Amazing Planet calls Palawan a “major biodiversity hotspot” and about half its species are found nowhere else on earth. So of course the crabs’ habitat is threatened, in this case by mining activities. 

Of course it is. When was the last time you read a story that said, “Wow, look at these awesome animals and people are leaving them alone”?

“It is all the more important to do research in this region and show that the biodiversity of these islands is unique and worth protecting,” said Hendrick Freitag, leader of the study.

To that end we call upon their discoverers to name them after Prince. You know...the Purple One. Call them Principa Pinchytoes or Cancera Controversy or The Crustaceans Formerly Known as Prince. The power of a celebrity name to draw attention is immense and with a little more attention, maybe their habitat will be spared.

It’s worth a shot. We don’t want to know what it sounds like when crabs cry. 

2) This Might Change Your Mine

There is a kind of mining that can be done without wrecking earthly landscapes: asteroid mining. Getting gold, platinum and rocket fuel out of the fastballs of space is the intention of a group of high-profile tycoons who plan to launch a series of telescopes to find the targeted asteroids within 24 months and have a space-based fuel station by 2020, the AP says. 

Film director and ocean explorer James Cameron, Google brass Larry Paige and Eric Schmidt and company founders Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis (who pioneered commercial space tourism) plan “commercially built robotic ships,” sans humans, for the mining gathering process. 

Asteroids -- rocks that didn’t quite make the jump to becoming planets -- can be up to 10 miles long and some contain rare earth metals and water, the latter of which can be “broken down in space to liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen for rocket fuel.” Since water is expensive to carry out to space, finding it on asteroids, converting it in space and shipping it back to refill satellites and spaceships is the group idea for an alternative.

Bryan Lufkin of Innovation News Daily writes that asteroid mining has been the stuff of sci-fi since “Edison’s Conquest of Mars,” (with Thomas Edison as the hero) in 1898 on to today’s British sitcom "Red Dwarf." If the “tech tycoons” achieve their vision the future may not be as we far as we think.

3) The Doctor Is So In

It’s not just asteroid mining -- more and more of the stuff of our favorite sci-fi shows seems to be popping into real life every day. Recently, researchers at the University of Dundee went and invented a real-life version of the Sonic Screwdriver, a multi-purpose device Dr. Who uses for everything from disarming aliens to scanning for diseases. The real version could offer doctors “a new level of control over ultrasound beams which can also be applied to non-invasive ultrasound surgery, targeted drug delivery and ultrasonic manipulation of cells," said Dr Mike MacDonald of the Institute for Medical Science and Technology at Dundee,” on BBC.com.

The Dundee team has invented a device that uses ultrasound waves to rotate objects rather than just push them. 

But, "Like Doctor Who's own device, our sonic screwdriver is capable of much more than just spinning things around," MacDonald said.

That’s pretty cool, but what really makes us feel all skwirly is hearing scientists talk about sci-fi. Tell us the culture of dreaming, fiction and fantasy doesn’t inspire innovation that improves real life. More about that later.

Being able to steer ultrasound waves more precisely can help make the noninvasive technique of ultrasound surgery more effective and, “The ultrasound waves could also be used to guide a drug capsule through the body and activate it, for instance right inside a tumour,” the BBC says. Read more about how the device works on Phys.org.

Today a Sonic Screwdriver; tomorrow a TARDIS in every driveway. 

4) Let There Be Lightsabers

Sci-fi fans can be competitive. Almost as if Star Wars was subconsciously aware (by the use of some force or other) that it might be upstaged by Dr. Who, news of the sonic screwdriver was shortly followed by this headline on Science Daily: “Medical Lightsabers: Laser Scalpels get Ultra-Fast, Ultra-Accurate and Ultra-Compact Makeover.” 

These lightsabers are so tiny they might only be used by either your Lego Luke Skywalker…or better yet, a surgeon of the future who will be able to remove cancer cells without “collateral damage,” cutting into surrounding healthy cells which can happen with traditional scalpels or surgical lasers. 

Researchers at the University of Austin, Texas developed an endoscope probe package “thiner than a pencil and less than half an inch long,” from “off-the-shelf parts” whose remarkable speed -- it generates light pulses at 200 quadrillionths of a second -- helps it more effectively target cells: “These bursts are powerful, but are so fleeting that they spare surrounding tissue.” 

Coupled with a mini-microscope, surgeons can penetrate “up to one millimeter into living tissue,” making them able to target even smaller parts cells. 

Ben Yakar, the project’s principal investigator, says the new system is ready to move into commercialization but “the first viable laser scalpel based on the team's device will still need at least five years of clinical testing before it receives FDA approval for human use.”

So it’s a wait but we’re excited about that pinpoint lightsaber. The ones they have now will take off your whole freaking hand.

5) Restoring Mobility via Mind Control

Speaking of Jedi, some Swiss scientists have taken a big step toward harnessing the power of moving things with your mind…and you don’t have to worry about all that tedious swamp-based training with little green gurus who their words transpose. Confusing that gets.

RedOrbit, using staff and wire reports, says a Swiss team’s mind-controlled robot is potentially beneficial in giving paraplegics back some of their mobility.

To test the device Mark-Andrew Duc, a partial quadriplegic, wore an electrode cap and “used his thoughts to send a mental command to a computer in his room, which transmitted the thoughts to another computer that moved a small robot 60 miles away in the city of Lausanne.” The technique isn’t entirely new, RedOrbit says, but other experiments have involved the use of “invasive brain implants,” whereas when Duc thought of moving his paralyzed fingers those signals in his brain were interpreted by that hospital laptop and the command was sent to the distant robot. The technology is the brainchild of brain-machine interfacing specialist Jose Millan from Switzerland’s Federal Polytechnic School.

The RedOribt story details developments like “electric skin” for amputees — a glove fitted with tiny sensors that "sends information directly to the user’s nervous system,” also being developed in Switzerland and technologies enabling paraplegics to walk by implanting electrodes in their spinal chords. 

Reading about these advances is enough to make your eyes pop out…but now that we know all this we are confident that someone in the world is making way better robot eyes to replace them with. 

This Slate video about the robot says it was more difficult to move when Duc was distracted or in pain. The “wandering mind” is one of a few problems that have to be sorted out if the technology is to go commercial. One promising note: to get around distractions the team programmed the decoding computer to work like the brain’s subconscious so that if the user loses focus the robot won’t stop doing what it was initially told to do, so it would keep walking if told to walk, even amidst distraction.

6) The Martha Stewart of the Avian Set

Love -- or mating, whatever you want to call it --  will distract us from the most important tasks and yet inspire us to do amazing things. 

It certainly has done that with the male bowerbird, whose bower was called "one of the wonders of the natural world" by naturalist David Attenborough on the BBC and if you click the video here you’ll see why.

Not only are these birds brilliant decorators, but Science Daily reports that international researchers from the Universities of Exeter, Potsdam, Deakin and Queensland have recently discovered the birds also cultivate plants in their efforts to spiff up their place and they especially like to decorate with bright things that attract females. The females like fruit and researchers were finding lots of potato bushes -- with bright purple flowers and bright green fruits -- around the male bowerbirds' nests. The males were collecting the fruit to draw the females but as the fruit would go bad the males would discard it close enough that the seeds spread and plants grew near their bowers. Since the bowerbirds weed around their bower it seems like they’re actually sort of…well, gardening. 

Dr. Joah Madden, lead researcher on the study, said up until now humans were the only species known to grow plants for reasons besides food…we use them for drugs, clothes and to attract mates (he used the example of roses). Now we’re not the only ones.

“We do not believe the bowerbirds are intentionally growing these plants,” he said, “but this accumulation of preferred objects close to a site of habitation is arguably the way any cultivation begins.”

7) Can’t We Move into the Future Without Desecrating the Past? 

An accumulation of preferred objects close to a site of habitation…when we find such an accumulation, especially of ancient objects, especially on an archeological dig we marvel at the sudden closeness and intimacy of bygone cultures, years, maybe even eons away, but present at our fingertips through the clues they left behind that tells us about their lives and by extension ours. 

How important are those finds in the face of some modern innovations?

That’s just the question reported by Louis Shahagan of the LA Times who wrote that the Colorado River Indian Tribes were concerned about massive, multiple, rushed renewable energy projects taking place in the Mojave, projects that would disrupt Native American cultural areas. Amidst their concerns, high winds uncovered what archeological surveys didn’t -- a human tooth and some charred bone, possibly denoting an ancient cremation site, “in the shadow of new solar power transmission towers.” While digging a grave for those artifacts more bones were found near the the $1 billion Genesis solar energy project. Work has stopped on 125 acres of Genesis since the discovery of the artifacts.

“Backed by the legally powerful Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the Native Americans say Genesis and the transmission line corridor are proof of damage to sacred lands. They are readying court challenges that could alter solar and wind energy projects across the desert.”

It’s a complicated, emotionally and culturally charged issue (and the full story is a great read) but what it comes down to, Shahagan writes, is “a single question: Does the cultural importance of long-buried Native American remains outweigh the need to rapidly build solar and wind energy projects to meet the enormous threat of global climate change?”

8) Can We Just Call Neil deGrasse Awesome?

You’ll get an idea of where we sit on the whole “how important is the intangible influence culture?” thing when we swoon over a speech made by Neil deGrasse Tyson over the role space exploration has played in our culture and how much better it has made all our lives. 

Tyson’s speech was the keynote address (via Robert T. Gonzales on io9) at the 28th National Space Symposium. You will see that it’s over an hour long and you’ll think “Well, I’ll watch a few minutes.” Then you’ll keep watching. After the hour mark you’ll be ready to run to the moon on your own power, you’ll be so inspired by the past and potential of space. He’s especially eloquent on the subject of the photograph Earthrise taken on the Apollo Mission in 1968 and all the environmental legislation and cultural interest it inspired. 

“We went to the moon,” Tyson said, “and we discovered the earth.” 

We know the '60s and '70s were considered a dreamy, naive era by some, but Tyson reminds us that dreaming is not just good, it’s essential. 

Besides, what’s wrong with a little dreaming? Especially now we badly, even achingly, need it. 

9) Easing the Fear of Death: Not So Far Out After All

One of the things associated with the '60s and '70s that makes that time look a little more light-headed than it was, was the cultural rise of psychedelic drugs. They still have a stigma but now some researchers are finding a profound use for them: helping terminally ill patients enjoy their lives by reducing their fear of death. 

In a detailed New York Times story, author Lauren Slater describes the experiences of two cancer patients who did drug trials with psilocybin, “the active ingredient in magic mushrooms.” The psilocybin was administered in a specific dosage and in a soothing space, with carefully chosen music, the use of eye shades and some of the patient’s chosen personal effects around. In the research of Dr. Charles Grob of the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center “the results show that administering psilocybin to terminally ill subjects could be done safely while reducing the subjects’ anxiety and depression about their impending deaths.”

The research is preliminary and Grob is pragmatic, but he also says, “We saw remarkable and sustained changes in cancer patients’ spiritual dispositions. People’s entire sense of who they are has been altered in a positive manner.” 

So how does psilocybin come to have this effect? In a study using MRI imaging, David J. Nutt of Imperial College found that psilocybin is associated with deactivating “regions of the brain that integrate our senses and our perception of self. In depressed people, Nutt explains, one of those regions, the anterior cingulate cortex, is overactive and psilocybin may work to shut it down.” Nutt is also doing a study to see if psilocybin will help treatment-resistant depression patients.

It’s about time psychedelics got a makeover. Tye-dye never looked good on anyone. 

10) Think Tank

If you love makeover reveals as much as we do, you’ll go nuts for this: a popular military vehicle, repurposed and ready to invade neighborhoods with...free novels? Short stories? Non-fiction? Where do we enlist?

Argentinian artist Raul Lemesoff has built a "book tank," a revamped 1979 Ford Falcon. It’s a car that, according to the AFP in this video about the vehicle, was a popular model with the Argentine army during the dictatorship of that era so there’s lots of symbolism in this vehicle, which Lemesoff calls a “Weapon of Mass Instruction.” The book tank holds 900 publications (all donated) that Lemesoff gives away to anyone who wants them. It has toured the country, and often reaches “remote towns where half the children may not have gone to school.” 

Now that’s intelligent design.  

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