Author Archives: Henry Conrad

About Henry Conrad

Henry Conrad is an avid technology and science enthusiast living in Albuquerque, New Mexico with his four dogs. Aside from being a science geek and playing online games, he also writes poems and inspirational articles and short stories just to dabble on his creative side.

Newly developed polymer can shapeshift and “remember” its shape

3D printing has developed fantastically this year, but there are still some areas where it struggles. For example, if you’d want to create complex shapes like in origami, paper is much better than the plastic polymers 3D printers use; but while origami doesn’t seem like much of a stake, industrial origami is much more important.

Research by Qian Zhao and colleagues, published in the journal Science Advances, just took industrial origami to the next level. The material they designed reconfigures itself on temperature cues. In other words, after the polymer is programmer, you can heat it and transcribe it into a desired shape, but when it cools down, it will return to its programmed shape.

“This allows you to produce permanent shapes that are extremely complicated,” said Tao Xie, a senior scientist on the project team at China’s Zhejiang University in Hangzhou.

This is the latest addition to a class of materials called “programmable matter” that blurs the line between materials and mechanics.

Smart origami structure from Meta on Vimeo.

In order to demonstrate its capabilities, the team programmed a flat, square-shaped film to assume the shape of an origami bird. When heated, the bird became elastic, and changed its shape into several predetermined ones. With repeated heating, the shape went from a boat into a bird, then into a pinwheel, before returning to its original configuration. They made another experiment, in which they programmed a film five consecutive times. Each deformation built on the previous one, creating more and more complex shapes. In the last shape, the film was turned into  tube so that the surface pattern lined the inside of the tube.

Shape memory polymer with thermally distinct elasticity and plasticity enables highly complex shape manipulations. Credit: Dr. Qian Zhao and Dr. Tao Xie

“The method revealed in this study allows numerous cycles of manipulation,” said Dr. Xie.

“Our new study shows that you can access a variety of much more complicated permanent shapes,” he said. “This opens up possibilities.”

Among the main potential applications are medicine and aerospace. Prosthetic 3D printing is already taking off, and just imagine being able to print things like skeletons and then unfolding cartilage on them. In fact, all areas of 3D printing could benefit from this.

Journal Reference.

Move over, toys: scientists create LEGO replica of a nuclear spectrometer

A new model of a spectrometer was unveiled by Australian national nuclear research and development organisation (ANSTO); but this one is made of LEGOs.

Image via ANSTO.

Bbuilt by John Burfoot of Macquarie  ICT Innovations Centre (MacICT), the replica is absolutely stunning, and one of the goals is to get kids more interested in science.Burfoot, a science and robotics facilitator at MacICT, spent the model over several weeks. He said:

“About a third of the time went on the design, another third on building it and the final third on the programming,” said Burfoot, who has designed many robots for school education previously but not a scientific instrument until now. He described the experience as exciting, inspiring and a little bit scary. “It recaptured the flow or synergy you feel during the creative process—something that children who build robotic models can also experience.” When he encountered technical problems, he consulted with student engineers at Macquarie University to find solutions.

It’s also another reminder that LEGOs aren’t just toys – they’re educational tools as well. Six local school kids whose parents work at ANSTO will construct another Taipan model themselves, adding their own improvements and refinements.

Instrument Scientist, Kirrily Rule, who operates Taipan (the spectrometer) is very enthusiastic about this new resource:

”It’s very different than the LEGO I used as a kid. Much more than a toy, education officers can use the model to demonstrate physics to children and hopefully stimulate their interest in science,” said Rule. Like the original instrument, it has moving parts. “You can control how it moves, just like our Taipan, which bends like a snake,” said Rule.

Taipan is a triple-axis spectrometer developed for the study of collective motions of atoms in solids – and the replica mimics it almost exactly (with the obvious limitations of LEGO pieces). It even has a small glass prism used as a sample.

“We are using the prism to split the white light into the colours of the rainbow – which each have different wavelengths (and energies) – to show how the neutron’s energy can change during the interaction with the sample,” said Rule.“So instead of thermal neutrons in the LEGO model, we are using light. The concept is very similar.”

Instrument scientist Kirrily Rule (second from right) explains how ANSTO’s real triple axis spectrometer Taipan works to kids who have an interest in LEGO robotics. Image via ANSTO.

They also used a mirror-like material for the model to reflect the light from the prism.

“We used offcuts from the silicon panels that came from our Emu instrument, which brings another level of accuracy to the model,” explained Rule.

Dr Damien Kee, an education technology expert said that creations such as this encourage kids to think more creatively and to actively engage in scientific activities.

Now, ANSTO plans to build even more instruments from LEGOs – and personally, I think this is a great initiative.

Here’s what jobs robots will be taking over in the near future

The automation of a system or process by use of robotic devices is not a new thing. We see it already in factories and processing plants throughout the world. But in recent years, more and more jobs are being taken over by robots. Now, a new report created by Dr Carl Benedikt Frey and Associate Professor Michael Osborne from the University of Oxford assesses the probability of jobs being taken over by robots in the next 20 years.

Image via Salon.

The report highlights the key challenges, explores some of the new technology brought on by the digital age and sets out an agenda for change, arguing that this will be a key to avoid stagnation and continue to develop as a society.

“In this paper, we address the question: how susceptible are jobs to computerisation?” they write. To assess this, we begin by implementing a novel methodology to estimate the probability of computerisation for 702 detailed occupations, using a Gaussian process classifier. Based on these estimates, we examine expected impacts of future computerisation on US labour market outcomes, with the primary objective of analysing the number of jobs at risk and the relationship between an occupation’s probability of computerisation, wages and educational attainment. According to our estimates, about 47 percent of total US employment is at risk. We further provide evidence that wages and educational attainment exhibit a strong negative relationship with an occupation’s probability of computerisation.”

Some professions, of course, are more at risk than others. For example, occupational and recreational therapists have almost a 0 percent chance of being replaced, as do teachers, engineers and archaeologists. But clerks and tellers are among the likeliest to lose their jobs. Up to 87% of jobs in Accommodation & Food Services are at risk of automation, and even in some relatively skilled industries, such as Finance and Insurance, up to 54% of jobs could be displaced over the next decade or two. According to the authors, there is a key trend here. Carl Frey, Co-Director of the Oxford Martin Programme on Technology and Employment, explains:

“So far the digital age has not created very many new jobs. According to our estimates only 0.5% of the US workforce is employed in industries that did not exist at the turn of the century. Digital companies need very little capital to get started and not much labour to grow their financial value. For example, WhatsApp had just 55 employees when it was acquired for $19bn. While new technologies create new occupations, they are higher skilled jobs and are not created at scale.”

Hollie, a robot developed by the FZI Research Center for Information Technology at the Karlsruhe.

It may seem hard to believe that this might happen in merely 20 years, but change is already happening, and the pace is accelerating. Michael Osborne highlights this speed:

“The successes of autonomous driving, speech recognition and machine translation have, in the space of little more than a decade, disproved long-held ideas about the distinction between human and machine. Many of these advances, that enable better data and networking, are improving our ability to innovate. This is likely to lead to further acceleration in the rate of technological change.”

[Also Read: Beer delivering robots and Robot bartender]

Here are some of the jobs, and their probability of being taken over by robots, according to the report. I will focus on the extremes:

  • Less than 2%: Physicians, surgeons, teachers, therapists, curators, anthropologists, archaeologists, pharmacists, engineers, material scientists, soil and plant scientists, biologists, chief executives.
  • Between 2% and 5%: Orthodontists, photographers, health and safety engineers, lawyers, craft artists, veterinarians, writers and authors, astronomers, architects, mathematicians, editors, political scientists.
  • Between 5% and 20%: Travel guides, financial managers, graphic designers, police patrols, travel agents, physicists, chefs, urban planners, firefighters.
  • Over 98%: telemarketers (actually the biggest chance at 99%), hand sewers, abstract searchers, watch repairers, new account clerks, tax preparers, order clerks, loan officers, legal secretaries, radio operators, tellers, procurement clerks, referees, bookkeeping and auditing clerks.
  • Between 95% and 98%: Hotel and restaurant hostesses, cashiers, real estate brokers, polishing workers, dental technicians, pesticide sprayers, telephone operators, cooks (not chefs), rock splitters, gaming dealers, mapping technicians, bill and account collectors.
  • Between 80% and 95%: Cement masons, budget analysts, tax examiners and collectors, butchers and meat cutters, retail salespersons, geological and petroleum technicians, traffic technicians, roofers, gaming and sports book runners, riggers, furnace operators, parking lot attendants, floor sanders, correspondence clerks, power plant operators, marine oilers, brickmasons, medical secretaries.

You can read the entire list in the report starting at page 57.

Are you seeing the trends? Jobs where humans have an advantage over robots, where human input is required, where creativity is a factor are the safest. Jobs where you actually do something, where the way you do your job matters most. Repetitive jobs which just involve checking numbers and figures or doing repeated motions are the most threatened. Social interactions are also still highly-desired, and robots won’t fill that niche anytime soon.

This doesn’t mean that in the next 20 years, robots will definitely take over all these jobs. It’s just an indication of what jobs will eventually be threatened to be automated. The value of this study is that it highlights the jobs which actually don’t add any value – and that’s definitely something to think about.

Sustainable yoga mat from algae is clean and healthy

When you’re doing your yoga or workout routine, the last thing on your mind is if your mat is sustainable – but two companies have exactly that in mind. They’re designing a comfortable and sustainable mat from the unlikeliest of materials: algae.

Algix and Effekt has developed a flexible foam made from algae harvested from waste streams in the US and Asia, so not only are they creating a new, useful and sustainable material, but they’re reducing pollution. The algae is of course renewable, doesn’t require any pesticides or toxic treatment, so harvesting and using it has no negative environmental impact; and the best news? It will reduce the need for non-renewable petroleum chemicals!

“Flexible foams have been overwhelmingly made out of non-renewable petrochemicals for decades,” says Rob Falken, Effekt’s and Bloom Holding’s Managing Director. “Over the past year we’ve worked really hard to create a suitable algae biomass alternative that doesn’t compromise performance and that delivers tried–and–true characteristics for all sorts of demanding applications” he continued.

The company is also targeting other similar products, such as pads for surfboards, footwear, toys etc. The foam contains 15-60% algae, depending on the type of product, and can be produced with a wide variety of colors.

The products will hit the shelves in early 2016, under the name of Bloom.

Intel invests $50 million in quantum computing

Today, Intel announced a 10 year collaboration with Delft University of Technology and TNO, the Dutch Organisation for Applied Research, to accelerate and enhance the advancements in quantum computing: the new type of computing which promises to revolutionize the world as we know it. For this purpose, Intel will be investing $50 million.

Quantum computing studies theoretical computation systems (quantum computers) that make direct use of quantum-mechanical phenomena to process. Quantum computers use qubits (quantum bits) instead of bits; these qubits can exist in multiple states simultaneously thanks to the effects of quantum physics, and this offers the possibility to compute different things in parallel, dramatically speeding up processing time. Quantum computers would also solve complex problems that are practically insurmountable today, including intricate simulations such as large-scale financial analysis and more effective drug development.

Photograph of a chip constructed by D-Wave Systems Inc., mounted and wire-bonded in a sample holder. The D-Wave processor is designed to use 128 superconducting logic elements that exhibit controllable and tunable coupling to perform operations. Image via Wikipedia.

We wrote about quantum computers in the past – Intel are in no way the pioneers of the technology. IBM has been involved for years in research, UCSB and Google have also been working together for quite a while, and a company called D-Wave claim they’ve already developed several quantum computers. Performant quantum computers are at least a decade away, but I’m glad to see more and more companies taking a step towards their development.

“A fully functioning quantum computer is at least a dozen years away, but the practical and theoretical research efforts we’re announcing today mark an important milestone in the journey to bring it closer to reality,” said Mike Mayberry, Intel vice president and managing director of Intel Labs.

I’m especially thrilled by partnerships between companies and universities – Intel believes that no one company or organization will be able to untangle the secrets of qubits, so they’re trying to branch out and partner.

“Expertise in specialized electronics combined with advanced physics is required to move quantum computing closer to being a reality,” said Mayberry. “While qubit development has been the focus of quantum computing research to date, low-temperature electronics will be required to connect, control and measure multiple qubits, and this is where we can contribute. Our collaboration with QuTech will explore quantum computing breakthroughs that could influence the industry overall. In the next five to 10 years, progress in quantum computing will increasingly require the combination of excellent science with high-level engineering,” said lead scientist Lieven Vandersypen from QuTech. “For the realization of complex circuits containing large numbers of quantum bits, the know-how from the semiconductor industry is essential, and QuTech is thrilled to partner with the leading semiconductor company in the world.”

It’s unclear what the state of the art is for quantum computers, as the first ones to make a breakthrough will have a huge advantage over the others. As mentioned above, D-Wave claim to have the most advanced quantum computers, but this has not yet been confirmed. In 2014, a group of researchers from ETH Zürich, USC, Google and Microsoft reported a definition of quantum speedup, and were not able to measure quantum speedup with the D-Wave Two device, but did not explicitly rule it out.

Tesla’s new model is so good it just broke the Consumer Reports rating system

Apparently, the best car in the world is now electric. Tesla’s new Model S P85D, a fully electric Sedan, is so good that the world’s largest independent product-tester, Consumer Reports, had to change its score system because they gave the car 103/100.

“It’s a combination we’ve never really seen before,” the director of automotive testing Jake Fisher told The New York Times, referring to its unprecedented achievements in performance and fuel efficiency. “It’s not perfect, but in terms of the way the car performs, it’s the closest to perfect we’ve ever seen.”

The car received spectacular ratings on all counts. That means that in terms of speed, safety, comfort and driving experience, it fared extremely well, better than anything that’s come up until now. It’s not the first Tesla car to take ratings by storm. Recently, the first Tesla Model S received a 99/100, detroning the BMW M235i, the previous leader with 98/100. This happened back in 2013, and since then, no car was rated better than the Model S… until the Model S P85D came along.

The first thing that stood out was the speed.

“The P85D is brutally quick, with instant acceleration. The car’s thrust is forceful and immediate. Its near-instant g-forces can otherwise be achieved only by leaping off a building – literally,” says the magazine. “That this electric car accelerates from 0 to 60 mph (96 km/h) in 3.5 seconds without an engine’s roar makes it frighteningly eerie in its silent velocity. It’s so explosively quick that Tesla has created an ‘insane’ driving mode.”

In terms of driving experience, the guys said it’s the best they’ve driven – period; and it’s so good without using a single drop of gasoline, which also makes it more eco-friendly.

The biggest downside is the price: the S P85D comes in at US$127,820, and the inside isn’t as opulent as it is for similarly priced cars. Also, you’re going to have to charge it every 320 km (200 miles) or so, which means that it’s not really suitable for long drives without charging stations. For all its quality, those are pretty big flaws for the price tag. But the fact that the two best rated cars are both electric, and both come from Tesla is a serious indication that electric cars are coming, and they’re here to stay. No wonder 98% of Tesla car owners say they’d buy a Tesla again!

Consumer Reports publishes reviews and comparisons of consumer products and services based on reporting and results from its in-house testing laboratory and survey research center. They accept no advertising, pay for all the products they test, and, as a not for profit organization, they have no shareholders. It also publishes cleaning and general buying guides. It has approximately 7.3 million subscribers

Scientists have discovered the first new human prion in 50 years

In a new study published August 31 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers claim to have discovered a new type of prion – the first one after 50 years. Their work strengthens the idea that degenerative diseases are caused by prions.

Buildup in brain cells of the protein alpha-synuclein (dark spots) occurs in the neurodegenerative disorder Multiple System Atrophy (MSA).
Jensflorian/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Prions are misfolded proteins that multiply themselves by causing other proteins to misfold. It is this form of replication that leads to disease that is similar to viral infection. However, a protein as an infectious agent stands in contrast to all other known infectious agents, like viruses, bacteria, fungi, or parasites—all of which contain nucleic acids (either DNA, RNA, or both). Therefore prions are not considered living organisms – but that doesn’t mean they’re not scary.

Prions are actually extremely scary – they are basically untreatable and generally fatal. While the incubation period for prion diseases is relatively long (5 to 20 years), once symptoms appear the disease progresses rapidly, leading to brain damage and death. However, in recent years, some hope has emerged. Antiprion antibodies capable of crossing the blood-brain-barrier and targeting cytosolic prion protein (an otherwise major obstacle in prion therapeutics) have been described and in the last decade, some progress dealing with ultra-high-pressure inactivation of prion infectivity in processed meat has been reported. In 2011 it was discovered that prions could be degraded by lichens – though no lichen treatment has yet emerged.

It wasn’t until 1982, that Stanley Prusiner coined the term prion (for “proteinaceous infectious particle”) to describe the self-propagating protein responsible. Prusiner and his team showed that prions can cause a myriad of diseases and conditions, and suspicion emerged that many degenerative diseases are caused by prions. In 2013 a team in Prusiner’s lab, including neuroscientist Kurt Giles, were trying to transmit Parkinson’s disease to mice genetically engineered to produce a human protein involved in Parkinson’s. Ironically, they failed – but in the process, they found the process works mice with MSA (Multiple system atrophy – a progressive neurological disorder).

“The controls were the ones that worked,” Giles says. “So we got lots more samples.” For the new study, the team obtained 12 more MSA samples from three brain banks in London, Boston and Sydney.

Presumably, whatever makes MSA happen also makes proteins more likely to misfold, and this might apply for several types of prions. Some prions took longer to develop than others:

“The time it took to get disease when we used the spontaneously sick animals was very different,” Giles says. “That’s clear evidence these are two different strains of prion.” The fact that Parkinson’s didn’t transmit suggests that if alpha-synuclein prions are involved in Parkinson’s, they are a different strain again to those causing MSA.

Much evidence now supports the idea that many neurodegenerative diseases share this core mechanism of self-propagating proteins that accumulate and ultimately kill cells, so it makes sense to suspect that prions lie at the bottom of things, but this also leads to another challenge: define when proteins actually become prions.

“I think Prusiner’s concept is valid—it’s just important to be a bit careful about what you call a prion,” says Lary Walker, a neuroscientist at Emory University who was not involved with the study. “All these other diseases arise spontaneously within the brain; there’s no evidence they’re infectious by any standard definition of the word.”

Either way, the fact that they manage to discover a new type of prion (50 years from the discovery of the next one) is remarkable – and who knows, maybe one day, we’ll find that this is the missing puzzle piece from understanding degenerative diseases.

This Monday, 1 billion people logged on to Facebook

Facebook has reached an impressive milestone: this Monday, on the 24th of August, 1 billion people signed into the social network – one billion! That’s basically 1 out of every 7 people using Facebook on a given day. CEO Mark Zuckerberg marked the achievement on his personal page, stating:

“We just passed an important milestone. For the first time ever, one billion people used Facebook in a single day.

When we talk about our financials, we use average numbers, but this is different. This was the first time we reached this milestone, and it’s just the beginning of connecting the whole world.”

Mark Zuckerberg. Image via Digital Trends.

This comes as no surprise to anyone that’s followed Facebook’s recent progress. Their userbase has been growing steadily, averaging 968 million daily active users, and 1.49 billion monthly active users, in the second quarter of 2015. The new Messenger app is also growing, at over 500 million user. Zuckerberg went on to praise the community he hosts.

“I’m so proud of our community for the progress we’ve made. Our community stands for giving every person a voice, for promoting understanding and for including everyone in the opportunities of our modern world. A more open and connected world is a better world. It brings stronger relationships with those you love, a stronger economy with more opportunities, and a stronger society that reflects all of our values.”

However, amidst all this Facebook success, a warning also looms: Facebook has a rich history of being unethical, having security and privacy issues, sharing personal data and so on – there’s quite a lengthy Wikipedia page on the shady stuff that Facebook has done. At the end of the day, they’re still a for profit company, and one with long record of mishaps; it’s good to keep that in mind as you share personal information.

nasa engine

NASA successfully tests engines for Mars mission

If we want to send people to Mars, we’re going to need some bigger engines – and that’s exactly what NASA’s building right now. In fact, we’re going to need the most complex engine ever built by mankind.

“It is the most complicated rocket engine out there on the market, but that’s because it’s the Ferrari of rocket engines,” said Kathryn Crowe, RS-25 propulsion engineer.

nasa engine

The RS-25 engine. Image via NASA.

The 2020 mission will be NASA’s biggest and most ambitious since Apollo 11’s landing on the surface of the Moon in 1969 – that’s a big statement to NASA’s commitment to ushering in a new age of space exploration. But first, they need to make sure the engine is working properly.

At 4:30 p.m. EDT on August 13, 2015, NASA conducted a developmental test firing of the rocket’s engines at its Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, and everything played out as expected.

Test project manager Gary Benton said:

“There are probably some people in the control centre high-fiving, because that was a very successful test.”

The RS-25 produces 512,000 pounds of thrust, which is over 12 million horsepower. It’s powered by 4 turbopumps that each generate 100 horsepower for each pound of weight, with a main shaft that rotates at a rate of 37,000 rpm, compared with 3,000 rpm for a car engine traveling at 60mph (96.5km/h).

“The RS-25 is about the same weight and size as two F-15 jet fighter engines, yet it produces eight times more thrust. A single turbine blade the size of a quarter — and the exact number and configuration inside the pump is now considered sensitive — produces more equivalent horsepower than a Corvette ZR1 engine,” Burkey wrote.


But all that strength has also been optimized in every conceivable way to ensure maximum power.

“When you’re looking at designing a rocket engine, there are several different ways you can optimise it. You can optimise it through increasing its thrust, increasing the weight to thrust ratio, or increasing its overall efficiency and how it consumes your propellant. With this engine, they maximised all three,” Crowe continued.

 

This book can clean murky waters and save lives

Books and education save lives – but the Drinkable Book takes things to the next level. Using the bacteria-killing properties of silver and copper, a US researcher has developed a low cost, light and cool way of purifying drinking water: through a book.

Each year, 3.4 million people perish because they don’t have access to clean water; 99 percent of these cases happen in the developing world, and could be avoided. Several innovative ideas have already been revealed (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), but there’s always room for another, especially as the problem continues to persist. This is there the Drinkable Book enters the stage.

Each page is impregnated with bacteria-killing metal nanoparticles, and printed on each page, there are instructions in English and another language (the native language where it will be delivered) on how to use the filter. Their website writes:

“This technology (pAge drinking paper) uses a thick, sturdy sheet of paper embedded with silver nanoparticles, which are lethal for microbes.  This paper was created and shown to be highly antibacterial during Theresa’s Ph.D. at McGill University.    Additionally, these filters meet US EPA guidelines for bacteria removal to produce safe drinking water.”

Dr. Theresa Dankovich, now a postdoctoral researcher at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, developed and tested the technology for the book over several years, working on her PhD.

“It’s directed towards communities in developing countries,” Dr Dankovich said, noting that 663 million people around the world do not have access to clean drinking water. “All you need to do is tear out a paper, put it in a simple filter holder and pour water into it from rivers, streams, wells etc and out comes clean water – and dead bacteria as well,” she said in an interview.

A single page can clean up to 100 liters of drinking water; the entire book can ensure clean drinking water for one person for four years.

Corinne, a MS engineering student from Carnegie Mellon University, also collaborated on the project.

The idea of using silver and copper to clean water is not new – on the contrary, it’s been used for more than a century. However, no one’s ever thought of actually putting them into paper to purify water.

“In Africa, we wanted to see if the filters would work on ‘real water,’ not water purposely contaminated in the lab,” she said. “One day, while we were filtering lightly contaminated water from an irrigation canal, nearby workers directed us to a ditch next to an elementary school, where raw sewage had been dumped. We found millions of bacteria; it was a challenging sample,” Dankovich noted. “But even with highly contaminated water sources like that one, we can achieve 99.9 percent purity with our silver- and copper-nanoparticle paper, bringing bacteria levels comparable to those of US drinking water,” Dankovich said.

Since then, she’s started her own company and teamed up with the nonprofit WATERisLIFE organization and Brian Gartside, a designer formerly with DDB New York.

The Drinkable Book shows great promise, but is still a prototype and some more time and support for continued development before it is ready to be a commercially available product.

Reinventing the shower: new shower head uses 70% less water

Shower heads are generally not very different one from another. Sure, you can get a different pressure, a different type of water jet, some have temperature control, but all in all, they’re the same thing. But now, a San Francisco start-up wants to change that: they’ve developed a new shower head that consumes 70% less water, while cleaning you up just as well.

Image via Nebia.

According to Nebia, they’re designing products that the world needs – starting with the shower. Instead of one focal point up top, they’ve got three, and a second output of water that can be adjusted to hit you squarely in the back or stomach. They explain:

“Our technology uses nozzles designed to atomise water under extreme pressure, so that a stream of water is broken up into millions of droplets. The surface area of these droplets is 10 times that of a normal shower water droplet, enabling the shower to use much less water but get you just as wet.”

The average man uses 20 gallons (75 liters) of water, and the figure seems to be going up. In 1999, we only used 6 gallons (23 liters) on average, so finding a way to reduce wasted water is extremely important, especially as more and more areas of the world are experiencing water shortage.

So far, Nebia’s initial tests have been very promising – people don’t experience any discomfort.

“We have tested Nebia with over 500 people, optimising for the greatest diversity of hair type and length. Our results show that people with this hair type have no problem rinsing their hair with Nebia.”

Much more time and testing is still necessary before this product can be declared a success, but any attempt to reduce wasted water is a laudable effort.

In the mean time, you can check out their Kickstarter and support it, if you deem it worthy.

 

 

A drug used for decades for liver diseases could effectively slow down Parkinson’s

It seems like re-purposing drugs can be a gold mine for future drug development. Now, scientists have discovered that a drug used for decades in liver treatments might effectively slow down Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system mainly affecting the motor system. It’s a nasty condition, and there is no effective treatment for it – we don’t even fully understand why it occurs in some people. But now, medics might be getting an unexpected ally: ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA).

I say unexpected because UDCA has already been in clinical use for decades, but for a completely different problem. Also, since it’s been used in treatments, we already know that it’s safe, so this new treatment could hit the markets much sooner. Dr Heather Mortiboys, Parkinson’s UK Senior Research Fellow from the University of Sheffield, explained:

“We demonstrated the beneficial effects of UDCA in the tissue of LRRK2 carriers with Parkinson’s disease as well as currently asymptomatic LRRK2 carriers. In both cases, UDCA improved mitochondrial function as demonstrated by the increase in oxygen consumption and cellular energy levels.”

The rest of the team echoed his optimism. Oliver Bandmann, Professor of Movement Disorders Neurology at the University of Sheffield added:

“Whilst we have been looking at Parkinson’s patients who carry the LRRK2 mutation, mitochondrial defects are also present in other inherited and sporadic forms of Parkinson’s, where we do not know the causes yet. Our hope is therefore, that UDCA might be beneficial for other types of Parkinson’s disease and might also show benefits in other neurodegenerative diseases.”

There is a tremendous need for Parkinson treatments, especially as it affects approximately seven million people globally and one million people in the United States. We need something to happen in years, not decades. Dr Arthur Roach, Director of Research and Development at Parkinson’s UK, which part-funded the study, said:

“There is a tremendous need for new treatments that can slow or stop Parkinson’s. Because of this urgency, the testing of drugs like UCDA, which are already approved for other uses, is extremely valuable. It can save years, and hundreds of millions of pounds. It’s particularly encouraging in this study that even at relatively low concentrations the liver drug still had an effect on Parkinson’s cells grown in the lab.”

Journal Reference:

  1. H. Mortiboys, R. Furmston, G. Bronstad, J. Aasly, C. Elliott, O. Bandmann. UDCA exerts beneficial effect on mitochondrial dysfunction in LRRK2G2019S carriers and in vivo. Neurology, 2015; DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000001905

 

Simple device shows where your patient’s veins are

No one likes to take a shot, and if there’s one thing we hate more than taking a shot is having to take more shots because someone missed your vein. But as any doctor will tell you, finding a vein is sometimes difficult – here’s where VeinViewer enters the stage.

Image credits: Christie Medical Holdings.

Designed by Memphis-based company Christie Medical Holdings, the device finds veins up to 0.4 inches deep (1 cm) in real time and then projects them onto the skin. The machine projects light onto the vein which is then projected back to the skin, either in ‘normal mode’ or in ‘detail mode’, which highlights more detailed patterns and helps practitioners locate the best place to put the needle in.

“Only VeinViewer can provide pre-, during and post-access benefits throughout the entire vascular access procedure,” said Christie Medical Holdings’ president, George Pinho. “It is also the only device of its kind that has been shown through clinical studies to increase both first-stick success and patient satisfaction by up to 100 per cent while reducing medically unnecessary [catheter] lines by over 30 percent.”

I couldn’t find a price tag for this technology, but if it’s affordable, then I’d expect it (or something like this) to become relatively common in hospitals.

Tesla reveals new robot snake that will charge your car

Tesla released a video in which they unveil a crazy new prototype – a robotic arm that automatically moves and charges your car, without having to move a single finger. Elon Musk (Tesla’s founder, CEO and mastermind) teased the concept on Twitter back in December 2014, when he said the company is working on a snake-like charger “for realz”, and now… it’s finally here!

Ironically, Elon Musk has recently expressed worries that robots might one day overcome us, saying last year that robots could become dangerous in the next five to 10 years. Also, just last month, he joined the likes of Steve Wozniak and Stephen Hawking, signing an open letter calling for the end of an AI arms race. But the irony wasn’t lost on Musk, who tweeted:

I mean, it does look kind of eerie, doesn’t it? I’m absolutely thrilled to see this kind of technology developed, but it does look a bit scary.

In terms of a release date, nothing has been announced yet. The device is still in prototype stage, with no clear date in sight. Well, if robots do overcome us one day, we’ll know who to blame; but hey – at least we won’t have to charge our cars all by ourselves.

We finally get to see the Lexus hoverboard in action

After 2 months of speculation and unanswered questions, we finally get to see Lexus’ hoverboard in action – yes, it’s a real hoverboard, and it works. It’s not Back to the Future, but it’s cool, and it’s here. No CGI, no fakery.

As it turns out, riding this hoverboard is no easy feat. Professional skater Ross McGouran took plenty of spills even trying to do the simplest of movements, and it seems like it takes quite a lot to master it. So the future’s here, we have hoverboards… but how does it work?

Well, the technology is similar to Maglev trains. Lexus actually hired a group of maglev train researchers to design it, and everything relies on magnets. Maglev trains are a transport method that uses magnetic levitation to move vehicles without touching the ground. With maglev, a vehicle travels along a guideway using magnets to create both lift and propulsion, thereby reducing friction by a great extent and allowing very high speeds. However, with this Lexus technology, if you use enough magnets, you’re not limited to a track and you can use it everywhere you want. The only issue with this is that it needs to be cooled with liquid nitrogen; the liquid nitrogen is fairly inexpensive, but still – you’d only be able to use it for so long before cooling it again.

There’s also another condition – you need to run it on metal for the magnets to work. If you’ll watch the video closely, you’ll see that McGouran rides it over things with metal. Over most of our cities’ infrastructure, it would simply be an immobile board. Furthermore, the physics behind this design has been known for years, but even a not-very-original, functional hoverboard is still a functional hoverboard. Even if it is just a marketing stunt.

Lexus made a video explaining the physics behind the design:

App that could help endangered species is backed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

If you want to help protect endangered species, there’s a new app that might facilitate that. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) said Monday it’s teaming up with Sweden-based FishBrain to develop a social, free-to-use app that might make a difference for local wildlife.

The app can be downloaded for Apple and Android devices.

Anglers are among the most likely people to encounter endangered species, and this app is aimed at them and people who spend a lot of time outdoors. The app already tracks weather, wind direction, water quality and other data points of interest and will now include a feature to identify endangered species.

Users can log up to 50 “at-risk species” and help conservationists and researchers figure out exactly where these creatures live, as well as what sort of habitat they need and perhaps the reasons for their decline. It’s basically a crowdsourcing effort that could take advantage of people’s outdoor time and their interest in helping protect endangered species.

“The first step towards conservation is always education and engagement, and we are excited to work with FishBrain to help us reach a new audience. Anglers are extremely important to protecting and maintaining healthy aquatic habitats. This is a unique opportunity to synthesize recreational anglers’ information and knowledge in local waterways and expand our understanding of various species.” said Gary Frazer, Assistant Director of the Service’s Ecological Services Program.

The FWS provided a list of threatened or endangered species as well as possible candidates for protection under the Endangered Species Act. It might seem odd to target anglers as conservationists – but that’s actually normal. Most fishermen today catch and release, and the last thing they want is a shortage of fish. Also, spending so much time in nature, you almost can’t help but developing a sense of admiration and respect for it.

As Gary Frazer added in a statement:

“Anglers are extremely important to protecting and maintaining healthy aquatic habitats. This is a unique opportunity to synthesize recreational anglers’ information and knowledge in local waterways and expand our understanding of various species.”

 

World’s first Braille smartwatch is a gamechanger for the blind

Many of the things we take for granted can be challenging and difficult for blind people – smartphones especially have much less utility for them, as do smartwatches. Enter the stage Dot – the world’s first Braille smartwatch could close that gap, allowing people without sight to use and interact with smart devices.

Image credits: Dot.

The Braille alphabet is a tactile writing system used by the blind and the visually impaired. It is traditionally written with embossed paper, but now, it could move to the electronic area. The device uses a refreshable Braille display composed of an array of active dots that are capable of projecting four Braille characters at a time and can be customized.

“Ninety percent of blind people become blind after birth, and there’s nothing for them right now – they lose their access to information so suddenly,” said Eric Ju Yoon Kim, Dot’s co-founder and CEO, in an interview with Colin Moreshead from Tech in Asia. “Dot can be their lifeline, so they can learn Braille and access everyday information through their fingers, which is the goal of Braille literacy.”

Image via Dot.

According to the creators, the Dot has all the features you’d expect from a smartwatch, and more – if you can read Braille, that is. It includes time-keeping, an alarm, a messenger app, navigation capabilities, and Bluetooth 4.0 to wirelessly connect to other technology. It has 10 hours of active refreshing, which should give users up to 5 days of battery without recharging.

 

You can also change the refreshing speed for the text, so this means that the Dot can also act as an ebook reader – something which other smartphones can’t. It can even help you learn Braille or improve your proficiency.

To make things even better, the price will be quite affordable – just under $300 – which makes it a perfect gift and an affordable tool. Shipping will start in December and preorders are open.

For more information, check out their website.

Hitchhiking robot meets unfortunate end in Philadelphia

A year ago, we were telling you about the Canadian robot that successfully hitchhiked Canada from east to west all by itself – a spectacular achievement which prompted its inventors to attempt the same thing in Europe and the US. However, hitchBot was vandalized beyond repair and abandoned in Philadelphia.

Canada’s most famous (and from what I can find, only) beer-cooler turned hitchhiking robot completed a spectacular 3,600 mile trip in Canada, just through hitchhiking; hitchBOT is a chatty, social media-savvy robot, about the size of a six-year-old child which relies on human kindness to get from one point to another. It has no way to move by itself.

After Canada, the droid made its way through Germany, had a small vacation in the Netherlands and then moved on to the US… where things didn’t go so smoothly. After only 300 miles, hitchBot reached Philadelphia, and met a most unfortunate fate. The robot’s creators were sent a photo of their vandalized robot collapsed among trash and dead leaves on the Philadelphia pavement; its arms were ripped from its body and its head is nowhere to be seen.

Creators announced on their Web site that they’d like to have more information about what happened to the bot, but they have no interest in starting an investigation and pressing charges. The project was a social experiment from the start. Frauke Zeller of Ryerson University and David Smith of McMaster University created hitchBOT and kept its adventures going, constantly posting updates from the robot. With the immense support they’ve received over Twitter and other social media, creators will likely re-build the robot.

Zeller said many people have reached out with offers to rebuild hitchBOT, and her team will make a decision on whether or not they will bring the robot back to life in coming days.

“We were taken quite by surprise because it’s been going so well so far,” she said. “We don’t really know what to do, so we have to sit down with the whole team and really see where we are and what can be done.”

But with all the talks about humans trusting robots and artificial intelligence, maybe it’s time we ask ourselves another question: can robots trust humans? Mostly, they can – just maybe not Philadelphians.

Scientists find highest melting point ever

Using computer simulations, Brown University researchers identified the material with the highest known melting point. The material, made with just the right amount of hafnium, nitrogen, and carbon would have a melting point of more than 4,400 kelvins (7,460 degrees Fahrenheit). That’s almost as high as the temperature at the surface of the Sun, and more than the highest temperature ever achieved by humans.

Pictured above, hafnium was a key element in the mixture. Picture credits: Images of Elements.

The melting point is pretty much what the name says: the temperature at which a solid becomes liquid at atmospheric pressure; at exactly the melting point, the solid and liquid phases exist in equilibrium.

Mixing different materials together dramatically changes the melting point, but predicting what materials will have the highest melting point is like looking for a needle in a hay stack – this is why researchers didn’t just blindly start mixing substances.

“The advantage of starting with the computational approach is we can try lots of different combinations very cheaply and find ones that might be worth experimenting with in the lab,” said Axel van de Walle, associate professor of engineering and co-author of the study with postdoctoral researcher Qijun Hong. “Otherwise we’d just be shooting in the dark. Now we know we have something that’s worth a try.”

The technique they used analyzes the melting dynamics on a small scale, in blocks of 100 or so atoms. The technique is more efficient than traditional methods, but requires massive computational resources.

Having materials with high melting points is crucial in a number of industries, from plating for gas turbines to heat shields on high-speed aircraft. But researchers won’t know if the material is actually a useful one until they create it – and that’s the next step. There are other properties worth considering.

“Melting point isn’t the only property that’s important [in material applications],” he said. “You would need to consider things like mechanical properties and oxidation resistance and all sorts of other properties. So taking those things into account you may want to mix other things with this that might lower the melting point. But since you’re already starting so high, you have more leeway to adjust other properties. So I think this gives people an idea of what can be done.”

Researchers find rare marine reptile fossil in Alaska

Fossils of an elasmosaur, a rare type of plesiosaur were discovered in Alaska by Anchorage-based fossil collector Curvin Metzler. Researchers have confirmed this discovery and identified the species.

Artistic reconstruction of the Elasmosaurus. Image via Wikipedia.

Plesiosaurs were an order of marine reptiles that roamed the seas and oceans during the Mesozoic, from approximately 200 to 66 million years ago. Plesiosaurs had a broad flat body and a short tail, and they came in two morphological types: the “plesiosauromorph” build had extremely long necks and small heads. They were slow and hunted small marine creatures. Meanwhile, the “pliosauromorph” build with a short neck and a large head were much bigger and faster, basically on top of the food pyramid. Elasmosaurus belongs to the former group; it has a very long neck, reached 14 m (46 ft) in length and weighed over 2,000 kg (2.2 short tons), making it among the largest plesiosaurs.

“Picture the mythical Loch Ness monster and you have a pretty good idea what it looked like,” said Patrick Druckenmiller from the University of Alaska Museum of the North.

The species lived in the late Cretaceous, some 70 million years ago. It’s not the first plesiosaur found in the area, but it is the first elasmosaur reported in Alaska. Metzler has uncovered several interesting fossils in the area, which is quite spectacular for an amateur fossil hunter. He discovered the dinosaur bones as he was actually searching for something else.

Curvin Metzler (left), who discovered the elasmosaur fossil, and UAMN earth sciences curator Patrick Druckenmiller examine the spot where bones were found sticking out of the cliff in the Talkeetna Mountains.
Photo by Pat Druckenmiller

“I’m mostly interested in finding invertebrates, so when I saw the first vertebra I knew it was a bone from something,” Metzler said. “I didn’t want to disturb anything in the cliff so it was exciting to talk to Pat [Druckenmiller]. We are lucky to have someone in the state who works with fossils.”

Druckenmiller is one of the foremost experts on marine reptiles, and he too appreciates this collaboration.

“I was really excited the first time Curvin showed me one of its bones,” he said. “I recognized it as a vertebra from the base of the animal’s neck and wanted to visit the site to see if we could find more. Based on the size of the bones we excavated, the animal should be at least 25 feet long.”