10 Mind-Blowing Discoveries This Week

1. What the hack?

You’d think scientists from the University of Oxford in Geneva and the University of California would be making big enough salaries not to have to hack into people’s brains and get their PIN numbers.

Yet that’s what they’re working on, using stuff even probably you could afford and anyone can buy. The researchers “took an off-the-shelf Emotiv brain-computer" interface which lets users interact with computers by thought and costs around $299, according to CBS Seattle’s Peter V. Milo. They sat their subjects in front of images -- banks, PIN numbers and people -- then “tracked the signals coming off the brain, specifically the P300 signal,” given off when when people recognize something meaningful. Michael Harper, writing in redOrbit says, “To test this new hack, researchers showed their subjects images of Barak Obama. The P300 wave spiked shortly after the subjects saw this image, confirming recognition in the subjects’ brains.

“Next, the subjects were shown an image of their own house, which also caused the P300 wave to spike shortly thereafter.”

They were able to get the subject’s PIN 60% of the time. 

This sounds pretty scary and the team said it was concerned about making information so easily obtainable. Two things in this writer’s opinion that make it slightly less worrisome: a) you’re not rich enough for someone to go through this trouble to get your PIN; and b) by the time this is a common form of robbery your personal information will be written into your DNA or on the inside of your urethra or something less hackable. It doesn’t seem worth sweating right now.

2. If you don’t believe in evolution maybe you should try it.

Having your brain broken into is exactly the kind of scary thing that could make a person afraid of technology and science along with it. There are other things, like cloning and genetic engineering that make people leery of sci and tech progress. Then there’s religion which has certainly found itself at odds with both scientific and social progress.

Bill Nye, the Science Guy, had something pretty direct to say about that in a video on Big Think in which he talks about the problem of people who don’t believe in evolution. Evolution denial “holds everybody back” he says, and that if adult creationists want to do so, fine, but, “don’t make your kids do it, because we need them,” to be the “scientifically literate voters and taxpayers,” and the problem-solvers of tomorrow. 

He won’t get any argument here. As Douglas Adams put it, “God used to be the best explanation we'd got, and we've now got vastly better ones.” I’ll put it this way: it’s lovely to believe in the spirit of Santa’s round-the-world journey but I’d be dubious about the physics.

This video actually went up in March but only went viral this week, showing up on sites from CNN to io9 to the New York Daily News. Guess it, I dunno...evolved an audience. 

3. Forever in amber.

Here’s a perfect example of how that whole Earth-is-6,000-years-old belief might mess you up. Scientists just found some microscopic bugs trapped in droplets of amber found in Italy --  and the amber is 230 million years old. Seth Borenstein of the AP writes that the bugs would be from the Triassic period (which puts them before the Jurassic period and well before Jurassic Park).

Scientists looked through 70,000 droplets of amber from northern Italy and found two tiny mites and part of a fly which was smaller than a fruit fly. David Grimaldi of the American Museum of Natural History in New York was surprised to find the mites so strongly resembled their descendants, saying “they’re dead ringers for modern gall mites." Modern mites (sounds like a magazine, doesn’t it?) now live on flower plants: the ancient mites were here before flower plants.

They’re not the oldest fossils found -- “older insects have been found in rock fossils,” Borenstein writes, but they are the oldest to be found in amber -- 100 million years older than the previously prettily preserved specimens. 

Amber is fossilized tree resin that sometimes traps and preserves insects; it also makes beautiful jewelry and is my favorite stone. Consider that a birthday hint. 

4. Test: Will exploding pig manure pits be a great little ratings-grabber?

From the lovely, ancient, jewel-like artifact of the insects trapped in amber we go waaaaay to the other end of the spectrum to another trapped substance, this time methane trapped in bubbles that arise from pig manure and cause explosions. 

Not quite as elegant as the bugs, but something tells this click-seeking journalist that “exploding pig crap” is a crowd-pleaser. 

What happened was this, writes Joseph Bernstein of Discover magazine: the Minnesota Pork Producers Association came to agricultural engineer Chuck Clanton to see if he could figure out why the manure pits on pig farms were suddenly exploding and doing various levels of damage including knocking down structures and killing 1,500 pigs.

“Shortly prior to explosion, each pit had developed a viscous foam that stored and then expelled huge amounts of highly flammable methane, produced by bacteria in the pits.” The explosions started increasing around 2007, around the same time farmers started using a “livestock feed called Distillers Dried Grains with Solubles (DDGS), a cereal-like byproduct of ethanol distillation.” The thing is that a variety of manufacturing processes come into play in making DDGS, which makes all the DDGS different. 

Clanton’s theory hasn’t been proven yet but here it is: “Long-chain fatty acids are a precursor for soaps,” Clanton says, “and soap makes bubbles.” The tiny fibers the pigs digest strengthen these bubbles, which leads to more foam and trapping the natural methane.

Bernstein writes that, “Trials based on different variety of feeds are about to begin.”

I hope it doesn't escape anyone that this problem is yet one more byproduct of our horribly cruel system of factory farming; pigs weren't designed to spend their entire lives confined in tiny concrete-lined crates being fed chemical feed. They never get to see the sky, feel the earth under their feet or eat anything delicious. No wonder their poop is exploding.

5. Hoax gone wrong.

Speaking of escapism, I love Bigfoot, Nessie and all things cryptozoological as much as the next person, which brings us to  LiveScience’s Bad Science columnist Bejnamin Radford and the news that a Bigfoot hoaxer was killed after being struck by two cars while donning a costume meant to make him look like the elusive beastie. Randy Lee Tenley of Montana was wearing a “military style ghillie suit, which is a type of camouflage that resembles vegetation or foliage” (here are some pictures from a Web site that sells them, Ghillie Suit Source). Jim Mann of the  Daily Inter Lake.com quoted Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Jim Schneider as saying, “Alcohol may have been a factor.” Tenley, 44, was in the right-hand lane at about 10:30pm and a 15-year-old girl coming down the road was unable to avoid him; another girl, 17, then hit him “as he lay on the highway.” 

Bradford says that Tenley’s death will cause folks to revisit the debate that goes on in cryptozoology circles over whether it would be ethical to shoot a Bigfoot and kill it, thus once and for all being able to prove its existence -- or gunning down one of a potentially small-if-indeed-extant population of Bigfeet. A May 2012 blog from Outdoor Life asks, “If a hunter encounters a Bigfoot (not a hairy guy or someone dressed up in a gorilla suit) while afield should he or she shoot it?” The question Tenley’s fatal buffoonery raises is, “How do you know it’s not someone dressed up in a Halloween outfit?” 

The answer can only be, “Put the gun away.” 

That and, to all the hoaxers out there, get another hobby. Yours isn’t just old hat, it’s too dangerous.

6. A new window on gardening.

In fact, why not just do some nice gardening? 

Almost anyone can do it thanks to a clever new innovation from French designers Nicolas Barreau and Jules Charbonnet that allows even someone with no outdoor space to have a window garden. The Daily Good says the Volet Vegetal is kind of like a drawbridge: oblong pots are set into holders that are set into a frame which is cranked down (there’s video on the link), allowing plants to get sun during the day; then you crank them back in at night and the frame becomes an indoor plant stand. Even with the smallest amount of space you could grow herbs, flowers, maybe even a pepper or two. And I can vouch for the fact that homegrown is best (I’m referring to tomatoes, oregano and basil, a nice pizza garden...what were you thinking?)

7. You never know what’s gonna grow.

It seems entirely possible that one of these days you might be able to grow a flower in your garden that, until now, hasn’t been seen on earth for 32,000 years.

Brace yourself: this is spiffy. 

A team of scientists studying ancient soil composition in Sibera in 1995 discovered “70 fossilized Ice Age squirrel burrows, some of which stored up to 800,000 seeds and fruits,” writes Eric A. Powell on Discover Magazine. The tissue of the narrow-leafed campion plant was extremely well preserved so researchers from the Russian Academy of Sciences cultured the cells and recreated Siberian conditions in the lab, then watched as the tissue “sprouted buds that developed into 36 flowering plants within weeks.”

You can see the lovely, delicate, white blooms that haven’t been seen on Earth in 32,000 years on the links. Talk about a comeback. And seriously, it’s pretty metaphoric. How many times do we find ourselves saying something is “Never going to happen,” or that we feel we’ve been “waiting forever,” and despairing of a desired event coming to pass. If this plant could rebloom after 32,000 years, I’ve got some advice for you: wait. 

8. Water for everyone.

Having had only backyard and balcony gardens I’ve never had to think about them not getting enough rain; I’ve been lucky to always live where there was a tap and clean water handy. But many people don’t.

Now, as Carrie Halperin of ABC News reports, a French inventor might make an immense change for the 20% of the world without access to drinkable water. Marc Parent lived in the Caribbean where he was subject to water shortages; it was there he was inspired to work on a system that would collect moisture out of the air and turn it into water. Back in France he founded Eole Water and built a system, the WMS1000 in which electricity generated by a wind turbine collects water -- no lake, river or well required. 

Eole spokesperson Thibault Janin told Halperein, “Each unit can create 1,000 liters of drinking water using only moisture and powered only by wind....Our technology integrates water creation, water collection, water treatment and water local distribution. The WMS1000 can produce and distribute water everywhere.”

The system is being tested in France and Abu Dhabi with that location being running and open to the public by the end of 2012. The WMS1000 costs $600,000 but is designed for remote areas and thus to need little maintenance and last about 20 years. 

9. Confirm request for 'diagnosing via Facebook.'

Technology has become so prevalent and second-nature to us that we sometimes forget, until a story like that last one comes along, exactly how brilliant it can be. Take Facebook, for example. It’s become so normalized now that all I’ve done is bitch about it lately, specifically Timeline, which I believe to be Mark Zuckerberg’s Jar Jar Binks (I’ve never met a fan who liked it, it’s obnoxious and you can’t get rid of it). But that’s not a big deal when you take a second to remember all the good things about Facebook.

Lawrence LeBlond, writing in redOrbit, says that doctors at the Mayo Clinic were trying to diagnose a 56-year-old woman who had had an ischemic stroke but needed to know what caused the blocked arteries that caused the stroke. They noticed her right eye drooped and her right pupil was smaller than her left but she couldn’t tell them whether that appearance was normal for her or not. Dr. Manoj Mittal, who led the team, needed to see an older photo of the woman and ended up having to refer to her Facebook photos. They found in earlier photos that her eyes were more symmetric than they were post-stroke. They diagnosed the stroke as having been caused by trauma due to that finding. Turns out she had had chiropractic work, and “there is some association between chiropractic manipulation and stroke,” though the link isn’t definitive.

Dr. Mittal said they had treated her before seeing the Facebook photos, but figuring out what caused the stroke is “more comfort for the patient,” and helpful in preventing another. 

10. Goodbye, Neil Armstrong.

Finally, it was especially poignant that just as we’ve taken a huge stride in planetary exploration with Curiosity -- and have even played music from the surface of Mars -- that we should lose the first man to walk on the moon. Neil Armstrong died last Saturday at the age of 82. I was 3 when the Apollo 11 mission took Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to that first moonwalk, so thanks to those great explorers I’ve never known a world in where space exploration didn’t exist. 

T.C. Stottek of the Verge covered Armstrong’s passing and the magazine’s Louis Goddard rounded up some of the best pieces celebrating the life of the American icon, most notably a gallery of photos on Time’s Web site from Life magazine's “To the Moon and Back." There are spellbinding pictures from the Apollo 11 mission, and what a stark, scary, exciting prospect these pictures make the moon appear to be...as does the William Safire speech Richard Nixon would have delivered if they hadn’t made it. 

This makes us wonder what it will be like to see the photos of the first person to set foot on Mars and watching Curiosity’s progress makes our debt to Armstrong that much more poignant. In remembering his contribution it might do well to remember the words of Isaac Newton, who said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” 

As Armstrong's family asked, “Honor his example of service, accomplishment, and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down on you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink."

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