Category Archives: Videos

This 1985 video of Carl Sagan warning Congress about climate is just as sobering now

In 1985, when Carl Sagan went to Congress, global warming seemed like a distant problem. Granted, the likes of Exxon, Shell, and other fossil fuel companies were well aware that their actions were causing climate change, and they did their best to hide this fact from the public — but to most regular folks, climate change wasn’t a concern at the time.

Sagan, known for his work both as a scientist and as a science communicator, went to Congress to “underscore that this is a real phenomenon.” In his trademark simple and elegant style, he presented the causes of climate change, how we know it is happening, and what we can do about it.

“The power of human beings to affect and control and change the environment is growing as our technology grows and at present time, we clearly have reached the stage where we are capable (both intentionally and inadvertently) to make significant changes in the global climate and in the global ecosystem. We’ve probably been doing things like that, on a smaller scale, for a very long period of time,” Sagan said.

Unfortunately, more than 30 years ago, Sagan also seemed to predict the main reason why mankind would be so slow to act on climate change.

“Because the effects occupy more than a human generation, there is a tendency to say that they are not our problem — of course, then they are nobody’s problem.” Then, like now, many people wrongly believed climate change is something for future generations to act on.

But, as Sagan points out, “if you don’t worry about it now, it’s too late later on. [..]We are passing down extremely grave problems for our children, when the time to solve the problems is now.”

Unfortunately, despite technological progress, our society seems to have one foot stuck in the same mentality that Sagan spoke of in 1985. Because climate change acts on such a long timescale and because humans (and especially politicians) think in much shorter timescales, climate change remains insufficiently addressed.

Sagan’s speech is worth listening to now just as much as it was then. Since 1985, we’ve gathered even more irrefutable evidence that climate change is happening, we are causing it, and we will suffer if we don’t address it quickly. We can’t say we’ve not been warned. Whether or not we will act in time to avoid catastrophic, planetary damage is still unclear.

Our favorite Google Earth timelapses show how nature is bowing to our cities and industry

A few days ago, Google unveiled its new feature: a timelapse of the entire planet. Over 30 years of satellite data, collated into a single interactive framework on Google Earth, consisting of over 24 million photos. We’ve already covered this here, but we thought it’s worth revisiting it just to share some of our favorite captures.

While the new timelapse feature highlights many features across the world, without a doubt, the most striking theme is how mankind is affecting nature. From cities growing from virtually nothing to climate change and deforestation, here are some of our favorite Google Earth timelapses.

Cancún, Mexico

Cancún is a popular tourist destination in Mexico, and it’s been popular for a long time. But in recent years, it expanded dramatically, rising its population by over 400% in the past 30 years. It’s striking to see how the city expands and takes shape over the years.

Los Cabos, Mexico

Cancún is far from the only Mexican city to grow dramatically in the past few years. In a far less lush environment, Los Cabos grew at a comparable pace — bonus points for watching the big pools showing up.

Dubai

Of course, when it comes to cities changing the landscape, few can compete with Dubai. From the skyscrapers to the water constructions, Dubai took a desert and made it into a mega-city.

Al Jowf

It’s important to know that Dubai isn’t a singular exception — several cities followed a remarkably similar trend, with oil money funding the development of desert megacities. Al Jowf is a bit different: it focuses much more on agriculture, and you can see just how irrigation-based agriculture takes shape in the area.

Las Vegas, Nevada

The US has its own experience with making cities from nothing. Seen from above, Las Vegas looks very different from how it looks at ground level.

Chongqing, China

No compilation about city growth could be complete without a mention of China. We could add dozens of dazzling city timelapses from China, but we’ve just chosen one of the most striking ones. There are over 31 million people in the Chongqing urban area, from under 3 million in 1980.

Hanoi, Vietnam

Another country showing explosive growth is Vietnam. Hanoi has been the capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam since 1976, and has turned into a sprawling metropolis in recent years.

Glen Canyon, Utah

Something a bit different: a bit of nature at Glen Canyon, in Utah. You can see the canyon almost “breathing” from year to year, shifting as the influx of water increases or decreases.

Aral Sea

The drying up of the Aral Sea is perhaps the most striking timelapse here. Formerly the fourth largest lake in the world with an area of 68,000 km2 (26,300 sq mi), the Aral Sea began shrinking in the 1960s after the rivers that fed it were diverted by Soviet irrigation projects. The shrinking of the Aral Sea has been called “one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters,” bringing a once-prosperous fishing area to ruin and marking a major environmental crisis.

Solar Qinghai, China

It’s not all bad, though. The Google Earth timelapses also showcase some of the world’s most ambitious environmental projects, such as the solar farm at Qinghai, China.

Alta Wind Farm

Another such ambitious project is the Alta Wind Farm in Tehachapi Pass of the Tehachapi Mountains, in Kern County, California. As of 2013, it is the largest wind farm in the United States.

Mato Grosso, Brazil

We only get a few eco-friendly timelapses though. Mato Grosso is a state in Brazil. In the north is the biodiverse Amazonian forest, which originally covered half of the state. Much of this has been disrupted and cleared for logging, agricultural purposes and pastures.

Rondonia Brazil

Deforestation also heavily affects Rondonia. Rondonia was originally home to over 200,000 km2 of rainforest, but has become one of the most deforested places in the Amazon. By 2003 around 70,000 km2 of rainforest had been cleared.

Santistevan Bolivia

In 1992, almost half of the people in Santistevan, Bolivia, were under 16; about a third of the city didn’t have access to electricity. The city grew tremendously in the years that passed since then.

Mina Escondida, Chile

Another area heavily affected by industrial activity is a copper mine in Chile. The main orebody does not outcrop on the surface but is ‘hidden’ by hundreds of meters of practically barren overburden. The lower open pit in the satellite image on the right is the main Escondida mine, but the upper two are Barrick Gold’s Zaldívar mine.

Dairyland, California

We’ve mostly focused on recent developments, cities and areas that changed dramatically in the past 30 years, often at the expense of the nearby environment (or global emissions). But it’s important to remember that in developed places, these changes happened even longer ago.

SpaceX rocket aced a landing, then exploded so hard it launched again for a bit

Luckily, nobody was injured and the company seems to be taking the events in good spirits.

Image credits Official SpaceX Photos / Flickr.

SpaceX is a company that’s definitely not afraid to take risks and try new things. And a natural part of such an approach is that things will often not go according to plan, and sometimes they fail spectacularly. Yesterday was one such day, after one of the company’s Starship rockets touched down in Texas.

Post-landing problems

SpaceX wants to make going to space cheap enough that it’s practical. A large part of that plan involves cutting down costs by making rockets reusable. They’re hard at work doing that.

So far, they’ve run into their fair share of trouble. Their approach involves using the rocket’s thrusters in flight to orient the craft upright before landing. Two of their previous test flights ended in fireballs though, because, while the rockets maneuvered as intended, they didn’t decelerate fast enough before touching down.

The test yesterday went much better than those two. It used a full-scale prototype of the rocket, which launched, traveled around 6 miles (10 kilometers), and then headed in for a landing. The maneuvers worked like a charm, and the craft flipped upright after descending close enough to the pad. “Third time’s the charm as the saying goes,” quipped SpaceX commentator John Insprucker, referring to the previous trials, as the rocket touched down successfully.

A few minutes later, however, the rocket would explode, briefly sending itself upon a new flight path.

SpaceX has not issued an official statement on the event yet, but CEO Elon Musk did comment on his personal Twitter account with good humor.

Technically speaking, it did. The first time.

It’s all good to make fun of a bad situation, but even considering that the rocket exploded after landing, this is quite the feat. SpaceX’s approach was under question given how the last two tests panned out, but yesterday’s shows that the plan was sound after all. Most importantly, nobody was injured, and rockets can be rebuilt. Even a result like this — which was arguably, ultimately, a failure — brings us one step closer to the days when rockets are reusable and don’t explode on the landing pad. Both extremely desirable traits, as the Spaceship is earmarked to ferry people to and from Mars for SpaceX.

“SpaceX team is doing great work! One day, the true measure of success will be that Starship flights are commonplace,” Musk added in a later tweet. It is not yet clear why the rocket exploded, but according to the Independent, “observers speculated that it was the result of a rough landing combined with a methane leak”.

This trippy timelapse of mushroom fruiting is the best thing you’ll see today

By some accounts, mushrooms (or rather, fungi) have been around for six hundred million years ago, even before plants emerged. They have their own kingdom, separate from both plants and animals because their biology is so different from both groups.

What we ordinarily call a ‘mushroom’ is just the fruiting body of the mushroom. The rest of the mushrooms’ life cycle is characterized by vegetative mycelial growth and asexual spore production. Believe it or not, mushroom blooming is quite the sight — except we’re not there to see it most of the time.

The timelapse was originally posted by Next Observer, as far as I can find. It became viral on several Facebook pages over the past year, but let’s face it, not everyone hangs on Facebook pages nowadays. So if you want to get your shroomy fix, it’s the best place to start. If you’re looking for more, check out our previous articles on the wonderful mushroom photographs of Steve Axford.

NASA cut short a “critical test” of its new rocket on Sunday

Would you like to go to the Moon? Good luck with the physical tests. But even those who have already made it as astronauts will need to wait around a little longer. One “critical test” NASA was running this Sunday has been cut dramatically short by an engine issue, which will likely push back the agency’s schedule for getting people on the Moon again.

NASA’s SLS. Image credits NASA / JPL-Caltech.

The test was meant to ensure that NASA’s massive new rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS) developed for the Artemis mission, would work without a hitch. Even a failed test is good news, since now we know what needs fixing before sending a crew out towards the void of space.

Space setback

Artemis is NASA’s upcoming mission to send humans back to the Moon for the first time since the ’70s. Development of the SLS took up the lion’s share of the mission budget, roughly US$18 billion (out of a total of 30 billion). The issue lies with the SLS’s core stage, the largest piece of the rocket and a lynchpin in its role.

The SLS was assembled and heavily stripped-down (elements that weren’t being tested were removed) on Saturday at the Stennis Space Centre in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, for a “hot fire” test. This consisted of firing all four of the rocket’s RS-25 engines, exactly as it would do during launch. Sadly, not all went well: these engines were supposed to work for eight minutes straight, but flight control had to turn them off one minute into the test.

According to a statement from NASA, controllers saw “a flash” forming next to the thermal-protection blanket of engine four. Shortly after, they logged an MCF, or “major component failure” and stopped the test.

The SLS’s core stage is the largest and most powerful rocket stage ever built into a rocket, according to NASA. It can hold up to 2 million (around 540,000 gallons) liters of liquid hydrogen fuel and 742,000 liters (around 195,000 gallons) of liquid oxygen (this allows the fuel to burn), alongside a suite of avionic and other subsystems that allow flight. Boeing is the lead contractor for the stage, while Aerojet Rocketdyne supplied its RS-25 engines. These engines are tried and tested on NASA’s fleet of space shuttles.

NASA is currently working on finding out what happened on Sunday, but at least everything turned on without incident, which isn’t that bad of an outcome. In a press conference after the test — which started at around 5:27 pm EST — SA Administrator Jim Bridenstine described the event as feeling “like an earthquake”.

“It was a magnificent moment. And it just brought joy that after all this time, now we’ve got a rocket,” he adds. “The only rocket on the face of the planet capable of taking humans to the moon was firing all four RS-25 engines at the same time.”

Bridenstine explains that the test was “not a failure”. Such failures are part of life, but noticing them early can help us prevent loss of life and ensure that our astronauts get where they’re needed. Still, the results mean more work is needed to iron out these kinks, which could push the current schedule of the Artemis mission back.

“At the time that they made the call [to shut the test down] we did still have four good engines up and running at 109 percent,” John Honeycutt, the SLS program manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre, said in the press conference.

NASA also recorded the whole test and braodcasted it live. You can see it here:

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Satire from South Park creators shows how eerily real deepfakes already are

The year is 2020 and Fred Sassy is a reporter for the Cheyenne News at 9, a local TV station in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Fred is looking out for the consumer, and this week, he’s uncovering the truth about deepfake videos. Except Fred is Donald Trump in a cheap costume and a wig.

Fred is himself a deepfake, produced by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of “South Park”. Welcome to 2020, where everything can be faked.

Deepwhat?

Deepfakes are sophisticated forms of image or video forgery in which the actor’s appearance is changed to resemble someone else. It’s a form of synthetic media with serious implications for the future. Just think how much we’re dealing with fake news — and that’s in written form; what if the next generation comes in audio or video format? The scariest part is that this technology is already here.

To see just how real deepfakes can be, you need look no further than the viral video “Sassy Justice”. Fred Sassy, the spitting image of President Trump, is here to tell you all about it. See, I could ramble on for a thousand words about the dangers of deepfakes and how experts have been sounding the alarm for years, but in true South Park fashion, this video does a way better job at it by just showing the dangers.

Sassy interviews the likes of Al Gore, Julie Andrews, and Michael Cain, there an unscrupulous Mark Zuckerberg running a shady dialysis center, there’s a puppet Tom Cruise, an eerie child-version of Jared Kushne — all deepfakes, of course.

It’s all so confusing it actually does a perfect job at conveying the desired message.

The child-like version of jared Kushner is played by Betty, the 7-year-old daughter of Peter Serafinowicz, a voice actor who worked with Stone and Parker on the project.

See, this is the thing about deep fakes: they don’t necessarily need to convince people that someone said something, all you need to do is sow confusion about it. It’s South Park energy applied to a very scary technology.

“Before the big scary thing of coronavirus showed up, everyone was so afraid of deepfakes,” Stone said in an interview for the New York Times. “We just wanted to make fun of it because it makes it less scary.”

“It really is this new form of animation for people like us, who like to construct things on a shot-by-shot level and have control over every single actor and voice. It’s a perfect medium for us,” Parker added for NYT.

Deepfake Zuckerberg, making an honest(?) living.

For the artists, it was a way to immerse themselves in the technology and maybe even start a new venture (they even started a new studio and spent “millions” of dollars to make the video).

At the same time, it’s a reminder that deepfakes are here, and they’re probably here to stay. The next ones might not be as lighthearted as this one.

How many people would a modern nuke kill?

This year has been a peculiar experience, hasn’t it? Our personal lives have been thrown into a weird limbo by quarantines, and there’s seemingly no shortage of meltdowns in everything from politics to economics to entertainment.

Plot of the effects of a 83 kiloton nuclear attack on Washington, DC (centered on the White House). From a briefing to the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy by the US Atomic Energy Commission, February 18, 1953. Image credits Flickr / RestrictedData.

But there’s one thing on the 2020 Bingo Card that so far hasn’t materialized — nuclear war. We’re still two months away from New Year’s, so fingers crossed that it stays that way. Because, as a pretty nifty project by filmmaker Neil Halloran shows, such an event would carry a massive death toll.

Big bomb

Video credits Neil Halloran.

The short documentary was created in partnership with the Nobel Peace Prize Research & Information (NPPRI), an “independently organized and funded research wing of the Norwegian Nobel Institute”. It aims to foster academic research and routinely invites various specialists to Oslo for conferences, seminars, and similar events.

The NPPRI provided the data, and Halloran put it on film. The scenario they looked at involved a “relatively large” warhead of 800 kilotons, detonated around 500 meters (roughly 1650 ft) above ground level in a city with 4 million inhabitants.

“No number could account for the devastation [such as strike would cause], but we can put a number on the deaths; at least, we can make an educated guess based on our understanding of what nuclear blasts do to city structures and people,” Halloran, the narrator, explains in the video.

Air-burst detonation maximizes the damage such a warhead can inflict, he explains. A nuclear detonation basically brings a star, for a fraction of a second, onto the surface of the Earth. The heat and pressure generated by this event would be monumental. Roughly 120,000 people in this scenario — 98% of those in a 2 km (1.2 mi) radius around the blast — would instantly perish, the team estimates. All buildings inside this area would be wiped clean off the face of the Earth, or crumble and be hurled outwards at great speeds.

Video credits Neil Halloran.

Outside the 2 km mark, the pressure generated by the explosion drops low enough that people would have a chance of surviving the shockwave (although slim). The temperatures involved, however, are still very deadly indeed. Heat released by a nuclear reaction can cause skin to spontaneously combust even outside this 2 km radius. Anyone exposed in an 11 km (roughly 6.8 mi) radius would suffer 3rd-degree burns. Even those who are inside or otherwise protected aren’t completely safe, either. The debris generated by the blast would “rip through buildings and rain down on city streets”, which is far from ideal.

Then, there’s fallout. Estimating the exact toll that radiation sickness would have is tricky. For starters, how the warhead is used matters a lot. Air-burst detonations generally lead to much less radiation contamination in the immediate area; a ground-level detonation would cause massive contamination. The presence of fallout shelters, and exactly how locals react to the event, also matter. Anywhere between 100,000 and 1.44 million people could lose their lives to radioactive fallout depending on these elements, according to Halloran, in the days and weeks following the strike.

All in all, the video (which I highly recommend you see, because it’s very well made) stands as a chilling reminder that humanity has managed to put stars themselves inside a weapon. We’ve placed terrible power into the hands of a few people, and trust that they won’t use it out of fear of retaliation. We’ve already had some hiccups in that regard. The world is in a very murky place right now, and there’s no better time to heed the lessons of the past.

This video shows what a single relatively high-yield nuclear warhead can do. As of 2020, there are approximately 9,500 active nuclear warheads globally, and around 13,500 total nuclear warheads left in the world, according to the Arms Control Association.

We’d do well to remember that these are not toys, and there will be no victors if they’re ever brought to bear.

This guy on Youtube makes knives from foods, sand, and other crazy materials

Every once in a while, you come across something on Youtube that makes you go ‘What?!’. This was exactly one of those cases.

I found kiwami’s channel randomly, from this crazy video on making a knife by microwaved sand. Yes, really. Yes, it works — and yes, it’s crazy sharp. Here’s the video, more follow below.

As if that wasn’t crazy enough, kiwami (whose channel has garnered almost 500 million views) has a wealth of videos on making sharps from… things (there’s really no better way to put it).

Among others, he made knives from candy, chocolate, fungi, seawater, tofu, teeth, bismuth, potatoes, and the list goes on. There’s really no way to describe how the Japanese Youtuber does it, but one thing’s for sure: this isn’t click bait, even his milk knife is crazy sharp.

There’s something about this application, dancing between physics, chemistry, art, and entertainment (because the vids are also funny and engaging).

The Japanese aesthetic is also very strong — there’s no music, no voiceover, just simple, descriptive videos of a person making sharp knives from things that have no business being knives. It’s strangely relaxing.

Here are a few other of his videos, there are plenty more on kiwami’s channel.

AI upscales iconic 1895 film to 4K 60fps and the results are amazing

L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat.

The year is 1896 and a huge crowd is gathered inside the back room of a Parisian café, where the famous Lumière brothers promised a spectacle of moving images. In effect, this was the world’s first movie theater, dazzling an audience that was still coming to grips with the idea of photography.

One of the earliest movies ever shot and screened by the Lumière brothers is the iconic The Arrival of the Train (L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat). According to some accounts, the audience was so overwhelmed by the moving image of a life-sized train coming directly at them that some people screamed and ran to the back of the room. However, this seems to be more of a myth than an actual account of what happened. Nevertheless, the film must have astonished many people unaccustomed to the illusion created by moving images.

The 1895 short black-and-white silent flick only lasts 45 seconds and features a train’s arrival in the station of the French town of La Ciotat. Though it might not look like much today, bear in mind that this was one of the first films ever produced, shot in a cinematic style pioneered by the two brothers known as Actualités, or ‘actualities’ — brief bites of film.

Cinematograph Lumiere advertisement 1895. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The short film was shot with a cinématographe created by the Lumière brothers, which was an all-in-one combination of a motion picture camera, printer, and projector.

Since then, camera gear technology has evolved tremendously. Novel AIs allow us to see what the film would have looked like if the French brothers had used modern filming equipment. Using several neural networks, Denis Shiryaev upscaled the iconic black-and-white film to 4K quality at 60 frames per second, and you can see the breathtaking results for yourself.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=21&v=3RYNThid23g&feature=emb_title

And here’s the 1895 original for a side-by-side comparison.

To upscale to 4K, Shiryaev used Gigapixel AI while adding FPS was possible thanks to the Dain neural networks.

That’s not all. On top of all of this, the YouTuber used the DeOldify Neural Network to colorize the film, which you can see below.

Splendid animation shows the Earth without water — it’s stunning

What would the Earth look like without its oceans? Surprisingly mountainous, a new animation reveals.

Image credits James O’Donoghue via Youtube.

The clip was produced by planetary scientist James O’Donoghue, formerly at NASA and currently working for the Japanese space agency (JAXA). O’Donoghue worked from a video created by NASA physicist and animator Horace Mitchell back in 2008, editing its timing and adding in a tracker to showcase how much water was drained throughout the animation.

All in all, the video is a great way to showcase Earth’s underwater mountain ranges — the longest ones in the world — and the now-submerged paths that took humanity across the continents.

Sans water

“I slowed down the start since, rather surprisingly, there’s a lot of undersea landscape instantly revealed in the first tens of meters,” O’Donoghue told Business Insider.

The landscapes O’Donoghue mentions here are the continental shelves and undersea edges of each continent. These are swathes of land with higher average altitudes than the rest of the ocean floor which surround the continents — they represent the transitional landscape between dry land and the deep abyss.

The land bridges that early humans used to migrate from continent to continent are part of these raised areas. They’re submerged right now but tens of thousands of years ago, when ocean levels were much lower due to an ice age that created huge volumes of ice at the poles, they were raised enough to walk across. In those days, you could just walk from Europe to the UK, to Alaska from Siberia, or from Australia to the many islands surrounding the land down under.

“Each of these links enabled humans to migrate, and when the ice age ended, the water sort of sealed them in,” O’Donoghue adds.

But the oceans are hiding more than the movements of our ancestors. Earth’s longest chains of mountains appear in the video once sea levels have dropped by 2,000 to 3,000 meters. These sunken mountains are known as mid-ocean ridges, and form in the areas where tectonic plates butt heads. Earth’s deepest areas also make an appearance — once all the water is taken away, understandably. These deep-ocean trenches form where tectonic plates move away from one another, creating deep gorges where magma pushes up from the Earth’s interior to generate fresh crust. To give you an idea of just how deep these gorges are, the Mariana Trench first pops up after 6,000 meters of water are removed in the video; however, its bottom only becomes visible after another 5,000-or-so meters.

“I like how this animation reveals that the ocean floor is just as variable and interesting in its geology as the continents,” O’Donoghue concludes.

Around two-thirds of the planet is covered by water. Since we don’t really have many opportunities to see the ocean floor, it is commonly imagined as a vast, flat, featureless expanse. But O’Donoghue’s work showcases the richness of underwater landscapes, and reminds us that the bottom of the ocean isn’t a boring place — it’s one of the most spectacular and untouched frontiers left on Earth.

Baby wolves like to play fetch too — what this says about your dog

Playing a game of fetch with a dog means they are following a human social cue to recover the ball. But fetch isn’t just for dogs, wolf puppies are down to play too, which means they can also understand human communication cues, according to a new study.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

The findings, published in the journal iScience, were made after researchers put 13 8-week-old wolf puppies from three different litters through a series of tests usually used to assess dog-puppy behavior. Three of the pups were interested in playing fetch with a stranger, which included bringing a ball back when encouraged to.

The discovery was quite a surprise for the team as it was believed that the cognitive abilities necessary to understand communication cues given by a human were presented in dogs only after humans domesticated them 15,000 years ago. Dogs differ from wolves physically, genetically and behaviorally.

“When I saw the first wolf puppy retrieving the ball, I literally got goosebumps,” said Christina Hansen Wheat of Stockholm University in a press release. “I immediately knew that this meant that if variation in human-directed play behavior exists in wolves, this behavior could have been a potential target for early selective pressures exerted during dog domestication.”

Wanting to learn more about the effects of domestication on behavior, Hansen Wheat and her team raised wolf and dog puppies from the age of 10 days and put them through various behavioral tests. In one of them, the pup was thrown a ball by an unknown person, encouraging the wolf to get it and bring it back.

Expectations of the wolf pups catching on weren’t high, with the first two litters showing no interest in the balls, let alone of playing fetch. But everything changed with the third litter. A few of the puppies went for the ball and even responded to the social cues and brought it back.

“It was very surprising that we had wolves actually retrieving the ball,” said Hansen Wheat. “I did not expect that. I do not think any of us did. It was especially surprising that the wolves retrieved the ball for a person they had never met before.”

In the past, other research showed that domesticated and non-domesticated species will follow human gestures if a food reward is given, Hansen Wheat and her team said. But in those cases, the animals were previously trained to follow the cues or knew the person conducting the study.

While the new research has a limitation over the size of its sample, it could reassess our interpretation that understanding human social cues came from domestication. Instead, it could be possible that this behavior can be traced back to an ancestral population before wolves were domesticated into dogs.

Stunning timelapses show volcanic lightning in the Philippines

It has been a few days since the Taal volcano in the Philippines started rumbling. Even as things seem to have mellowed down, many unfortunate creatures remain buried in the ash, testament to the strength of the volcano — even as a full-blown eruption has not taken place.

Another demonstration of that strength is the volcanic lightning captured by timelapse footage: a lightning storm, swirling dark clouds around the volcano’s peak.

Timelapse footage of the lightning storm around the peak of the Taal volcano in the Philippines.

Volcanic lightning is a somewhat common phenomenon (common relative to how often volcanic eruptions take place). Volcanic lightning arises from particles of volcanic ash (and sometimes ice) ejected in the atmosphere. These particles generate static electricity within the volcanic plume, triggering a “dirty thunderstorm.” The exact interactions that lead to this phenomenon are not fully known, but the process has been documented since ancient times.

Initially, officials said the plume from the Taal volcano stretched 1km (0.6 miles) into the sky, but has since grown tenfold — and the taller the plume, the more likely it is to generate a storm.

As for the Taal volcano, the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS) said Wednesday morning that the volcano remains at alert level four out of a possible five, meaning an “explosive eruption is possible within hours to days.”

The volcano is 37 miles (60 km) south of the Philippines capital Manila on the island of Luzon. It began erupting on Sunday, sending ash up to 9 miles (14 km) into the air, prompting large-scale evacuations for thousands of people and covering the volcano’s surroundings with a thick layer of ash.

In addition to the eruption itself, several hazards pose risks to the locals. Volcanic earthquakes have caused fissures on the sides of the mountain, and mudslides caused by rain washing unconsolidated ash can be devastating. There are also concerns about the sides of the volcano collapsing into the lake, causing a tsunami — which can also wreak havoc on the surrounding environment.

In addition, breathing in the toxic volcanic ash (which can carry microscopic shards of glass) can also be harmful.

There are currently half a million people directly at risk from the volcano, and out of that number, only 44,000 have been officially evacuated.

Even if the volcano doesn’t erupt anymore, it has caused considerable damage, coating everything in ash, destroying households and killing animals. The situation remains tense — another reminder that to the immense force that nature can unleash with the slightest of warnings.

This article refers to an ongoing situation and may not be updated regularly.

Frank Force wins Best Illusion of 2019 award with a simple, but effective shape

What was the greatest illusion of 2019? Was it that you’ll finally ‘get in shape at the gym’? Was it true love? Both have their merits but, according to the Best Illusion of the Year contest, it was actually a moving shape that (frustratingly enough for my brain) seems to rotate in all directions at once, created by game developer and artist Frank Force.

Image credits Frank Force via Youtube.

The contest is a yearly event run by the Neural Correlate Society (NCS), a nonprofit that aims to promote scientific research into the neural correlates of perception and cognition.

Seeing is believing

“How we see the outside world — our perception — is generated indirectly by brain mechanisms, and so all perception is illusory to some extent. The study of illusions is critical to how we understand sensory perception, and many ophthalmic and neurological diseases,” the NCS explains.

The contest is ran “democratically”, according to the NCS, with the first, second, and third places being awarded by an online vote.

Force’s “Dual Axis Illusion” won this year’s first prize, and it’s easy to see why: the more you look at it, the weirder it gets. Force helps inch the illusion along through the use of colored lines that highlight how his creation works.

So, without further ado, here it is in action:

Like all optical illusions, Force’s creation hijacks our brain’s tendency to cut corners when interpreting sensory data — sight is especially well-suited to this task. Our brain’s interpretation of sight is built on a huge amount of individual bits of information that the brain tends to treat as a meaningful whole to simplify the process. Force expertly abuses that process by adding and removing contextual information, such as the colored lines that temporarily appear on the screen, or by anchoring your perception on key elements of the shape — in this case, where the lines overlap.

It’s surprising to see the sheer extent to which these cues shape my perception of what is fundamentally a two-dimensional black line on a white background. Practically speaking, there is no volume to this image and no real rotation happening — but Force can still make me perceive them, and then turn that perception on its head.

And I love it.

Brits learn how much healthcare costs in the US — their reaction is priceless

Americans pay $10,000 a year on healthcare on average, double what the UK government pays for each of its citizens. You’d think that doubling the spending would also double the quality, but far from it. In fact, the reverse is true.

People living with the brutal reality of the American healthcare system on a day to day basis may be resigned with the situation. However, it’s worth noting that free, accessible, and quality healthcare is the norm in many developed countries. A viral video that interviewed random Brits on the street about US healthcare is representative in this respect — just take a look at their shocked replies.

“10 GRAND?! For a baby?” one British woman gasped during the interview. Actually, in some situations, it can be as much as $100,000, as a northern Virginia woman learned the hard way. According to the BBC, her largest expenses were:

  • Hospital stay for 30 days: $67,375
  • Gynaecologist: $4,100
  • Anaesthetist: $2,086
  • Ultrasounds: $1,200-$1,600 each
  • Blood tests: $750-$959 each

For comparison, Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William’s wife, delivered her baby in a private room in St. Mary’s Hospital’s Lindo Wing. Some of the perks she enjoyed was an “en suite” bathroom, a refrigerator, and a menu of “nutritious” meals. This ‘luxurious’ birth cost $8,900, which is much more than most Brits will be billed, but still well below what virtually anyone in the USA expects to pay.

Delivering a child in Spain costs about $1,950. In Australia, the price is around $5,000, and even in Switzerland, a notoriously expensive country, it’s under $8,000.

What’s more, if Kate and William had regular jobs, they would be entitled to 37 weeks of paid parental leave and up to 50 weeks of unpaid leave. American workers have no national paid family leave policy and no national mechanism to help parents stay afloat financially after bringing a child to the world.

“Is there a price for that?” asked one interviewee when asked how much calling an ambulance costs in the US (it is free in the UK). When informed it can cost as much as $2,500, the British man was left speechless.

“Shut the fridge!” was a woman’s reaction when she was told that two EpiPens cost $600 (free in the UK).

The video soon went viral after it made the rounds on Twitter, with NY congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeting: “To our friends in the UK: please cherish, protect, & continue investing in your healthcare system! Once Big Pharma & special interests get their hands on it, it could take generations to regain. Millions of people in the US are fighting to have a system half as good as the NHS.”

Despite healthcare costing so much — enough to push people into bankruptcy — many Americans do not enjoy premium services. In a 2017 analysis of 11 rich, Western countries by the Commonwealth Fund, the U.S. came in last in terms of health system performance. The U.K. came in 1st.

Bernie Sanders, Vermont senator, also commented, saying: “Remember that our outrageous for-profit system is not the norm in other countries. We can and we must do better. We need Medicare for All now.”

Fossil Friday: this meat-eating dino could grow a fresh tooth in 60 days

One meat-eating dinosaur from today’s Madagascar replaced all its teeth once every few months, according to a new study.

CT scan-generated models of the jaws of Majungasaurus (left), Ceratosaurus (center), and Allosaurus (right), with microscopic views of the interior of their teeth below.
Image credits Michael D’Emic et al., 2019, PLOS One.

Majungasaurus, a species of dinosaur that went extinct around 70 million years ago, could replace a tooth in around 56 days, reports a new paper. This rate of growth is similar to that of herbivorous dinosaurs — whose teeth see a lot of heavy use — but very quick for a meat-eater.

A gnashing of teeth

“This meant [Majungasaurs] were wearing down on their teeth quickly, possibly because they were gnawing on bones,” says paper lead-author Michael D. D’Emic, an assistant professor of biology at Adelphi University.

“There is independent evidence for this in the form of scratches and gouges that match the spacing and size of their teeth on a variety of bones—bones from animals that would have been their prey.”

D’Emic worked with Patrick O’Connor, professor of anatomy at Ohio University, to examine a collection of isolated fossil teeth for microscopic structures known as growth lines. These are fairly similar to tree rings but form on a daily basis rather than once a year.

At the same time, they used computerized tomography (CT) on fossil Majungasaurus jaws to see how unerupted teeth grew inside of the bone. Taken together, the two sets of data allowed the team to estimate the rate of tooth replacement. Several jaws were used for this step and the results cross-checked between them to avoid errors.

The team further looked at two related theropods, Allosaurus and Ceratosaurus, and performed the same analysis.

Majungasaurus definitely took the cake, with a tooth growth rate of roughly 56, 104, and 107 days per tooth, respectively. Judging from other animals that have elevated rates of tooth replacement today, such as rodents, the team believes this is evidence of Majungasaurus gnawing on bones. Such behavior is meant to secure access to certain nutrients that may otherwise be scarce or hard to acquire, the team notes, but also requires exceptionally strong teeth — which Majungasaurus didn’t have. Its softer teeth would get worn out very fast if used in such a way, they write, which would explain why it needed to regrow them so often, and so fast.

“That’s our working hypothesis for why they had such elevated rates of replacement,” D’Emic said.

For comparison, the team explains that Tyrannosaurus rex likely evolved “exceedingly robust teeth and slow replacement rates”

The paper “Evolution of high tooth replacement rates in theropod dinosaurs” has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Google’s Wing makes the first drone-borne delivery in the US

Wing, a subsidiary of Alphabet (the parent company of Google) is the first company in the United States to successfully deliver a package by drone.

Wing chose Christiansburg, Virginia, a city with 22,000 residents, to test their US drone delivery service. The company already operates in Helsinki and two cities in Australia. Locals in Christiansburg has the opportunity to have drones deliver goods to them — Wing lists Walgreens medicine, an assortment of candy from a local business, and products that would normally be shipped by FedEx among the options.

On Friday afternoon, the first purchase was made and then shipped to a lucky Christiansburger via drone, Wing told Medium.

The robots are coming! With your purchase

Customers can use an app developed by Wing to order goods via drone. One family had Tylenol, cough drops, Vitamin C tablets, bottled water, and tissues droned to their home, the statement added. Another customer brought a birthday present and, while delivery was handled by a FedEx truck for most of the way, a drone carried the package over the final mile-or-so stretch.

Walgreens thus becomes the first U.S. retailer to do a store-to-customer doorstep delivery via drone; FedEx will be the first logistics provider to deliver an e-commerce drone delivery with a separate shipment.

At Wing’s local operational center (called the ‘Nest’), the drones are packed with up to three pounds (1.3 kg) of goods at a time. From there, they can deliver the packages in a six-mile (10 km) range. The drones don’t land when they reach their delivery spot; instead, they hover above the building and lower the packages with a cable.

Other companies are working to launch similar systems in the US — Amazon, UPS, and Uber Eats are among the strongest contenders — but so far only Wing has obtained the necessary green lights from the federal government. For an economic actor to legally engage in such a business model, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) needs to issue a license allowing its pilots to fly multiple drones at the same time.

Wing and other drone-delivery companies hope to replace or at least reduce the number of vehicles on the road. Wing itself says their service is further aimed at people with limited mobility options and promises deliveries within “minutes” in Christiansburg’s designated delivery zones. A company spokesperson added that there will be no extra delivery fees.

Musk unveils SpaceX’s Starship on livestream

In a speech that was streamed live from SpaceX’s launch facility in Texas, Elon Musk unveiled the spacecraft that he hopes will make space travel a common affair.

Starship at SpaceX launch facility in Cameron County, Texas.
Image credits Spacex / Twitter.

This Saturday, Musk presented SpaceX’s Starship Mk.1, a prototype of the company’s towering reusable rocket, reports Business Insider. He spoke from a stage clad in a shiny metal fuselage. The craft is intended for reusable space missions where it will launch, take people to Mars, the Moon, or anywhere else in the solar system they need to go, and then land back on Earth.

The new version of Starship (and its Super Heavy booster) will be able to carry up to 100 people at a time, stand 387 feet (118 meters) tall, and be completely reusable, with quick turnarounds. This is the rocket that will launch billionaire Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa and a handful of artists on a trip around the moon in the 2020s.

“This is, I think, the most inspiring thing I have ever seen,” Musk told a crowd of about 200 SpaceX employees, guests, and reporters at the company’s site near Boca Chica Village, which is located just outside of Brownsville, Texas.

“What an incredible job by such a great team to build this incredible vehicle. I’m so proud to work with such a great team.”

Musk says this reusability is essential in order to increase humanity’s presence outside of Earth. The ship, he explains, is scheduled to take its maiden flight in about one or two months and reach 65,000 feet (19,800 meters) before landing back on Earth. Musk also adds that it’s important for humanity to work and extend consciousness beyond our planet — a nice way of saying ‘colonize space’.

“Starship will allow us to inhabit other worlds,” Musk wrote on Twitter Friday, Sept. 27.

“To make life as we know it interplanetary.”

The livestream was held to mark the 11th anniversary of a SpaceX rocket reaching orbit for the first time.

The rulers of every important European state from 400 BC to present day, in one amazing video map

The Old Continent has always been at the center of world politics, partly because Europe’s rich history has been documented much better than that of other regions. Today, the continent, particularly thanks to the European Union, is remarkably peaceful and affluent, but it hasn’t always been this way.

Throughout its history, Europe has seen its fair share of turmoil, violence, and political intrigue. One very diligent YouTube creator called Cottereau recently released a video that shows just how dynamic the European political landscape has been. Starting from 400 BC to 2017, the 20-minute video traces every state and names its ruler, be it a king, emperor, tsar, tribal leader, president or prime minister.

This is really a great visualization, so grab some popcorn and enjoy the rise and fall of empires.

New AI turns simple doodles into photorealistic landscapes — within seconds

Nvidia has released a new Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithm capable of producing stunning photos from only a few lines and shapes. Not only are the results strikingly realistic and quick to produce, but the AI also exhibits impressive adaptive capabilities, generating realistic reflections on water or modifying the sky if snow is present.

Image credits: Nvidia / Youtube.

Called GauGAN, the software is just a demonstration of what’s Nvidia’s neural network platforms have to offer. Its essential purpose is to produce an image as if it were painted by a human, and it seems to work as intended.

The AI uses generative adversarial networks (GAN) — a system in which two neural networks contest with each other, most often to produce different types of images. It’s an unsupervised learning technique: you feed a database into it and “teach” the AI how to progress. Of course, there’s much more to it in the actual process. Nvidia used 1 million images, mostly from Flickr’s Creative Commons.

“It’s like a coloring book picture that describes where a tree is, where the sun is, where the sky is,” said Bryan Catanzaro, vice president of applied deep learning research at NVIDIA. “And then the neural network is able to fill in all of the detail and texture, and the reflections, shadows and colors, based on what it has learned about real images.”

It has a simplistic user interface and only three tools: a paint bucket, pen, and pencil. But even with these limited means, the algorithm shows impressive performance. You simply select a tool, and then you click on the type of object you want to produce. Want to draw a tree? Just draw a few lines or a rough shape. Rocks or mountains? A rough shape will do. Waterfall? Yeah, that’s just a line.

To make things even more stunning, it does all this in a matter of seconds — of course, while running on highly performant hardware. But Nvidia developers say that with small tweaks, the algorithm can run on any platform.

The AI can generate thousands of different objects, learning from the real world. It also has a randomness figure embedded into it, so if you draw the same shape several times, the result will come out different each time.

It’s easy to see how this could be used for nefarious purposes like producing fake videos — and we’ve already seen how realistic fake videos can be —  but Nvidia says it wants to use this AI to make the world a better place, enabling anyone to become an artist and improving the workflow of people working in fields like architecture and urban planning; only time will tell.

If only this was around in the Paint days of yore, eh?

Here’s a quick demo of the AI’s capabilities:

Maldives.

Rising seas might mean more coral reef islands — if we don’t murder all the corals

There might be a silver lining to sea level rise — emphasis on ‘might’.

Maldives.

Coral reef rim islands, Huvadhoo Atoll, Republic of Maldives.
Image credits Prof. Paul Kench.

New research proposes that rising sea levels may help the long-term formation of coral reef islands, such as the Maldives. However, all the other bits of climate change may destroy any benefits it brings.

Climate change, island change

“Coral reef islands are typically believed to be highly vulnerable to rising sea levels. This is a major concern for coral reef island nations, in which reef islands provide the only habitable land,” says lead author Dr. Holly East of the Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences at Northumbria University, Newcastle.

Coral reef islands aren’t very keen on altitude; typically, they’re less than three meters (about 10 feet) above the water’s surface. This obviously makes them very vulnerable to rising sea levels. However, the same high seas might’ve also created the islands, the team reports.

The researchers studied five islands in the southern Maldives. By drilling out core samples, they were able to reconstruct when and how the islands formed. They report that storms off the coast of South Africa created a series of large waves (‘high-energy wave events’) that led to the formation of the Maldives. These violent waves dislodged large chunks of pre-existent reefs and transported them onto reef platforms. This stacking of reef material created the foundations of the islands we see today.

“We have found evidence that the Maldivian rim reef islands actually formed under higher sea levels than we have at present,” Dr. East adds.

“This gives us some optimism that if climate change causes rising sea levels and increases in the magnitude of high-energy wave events in the region, it may actually create the perfect conditions to reactivate the processes that built the reef islands in the first place, rather than drowning them.”

The seas were around 0.5 meters (1.5 feet) higher than today during the islands’ formations — this allowed the waves to carry more energy. Both the higher sea level and large wave events were critical to the construction of the islands. Now, (man-made) climate change is also pushing up sea levels; the team says that projected increases in both sea level and the magnitude of large wave events could actually lead to the growth of reef islands.

For that to happen, however, you need living, healthy coral in the region’s reef communities, Dr. East stresses. And we’re murdering them pretty fast right now.

“As these islands are mostly made from coral, a healthy coral reef is vital to provide the materials for island building. However, this could be problematic as corals face a range of threats under climate change, including increasing sea surface temperatures and ocean acidity,” she says.

“If the reef is unhealthy, we could end up with the perfect building conditions but not the bricks.”

She also cautioned that “the large wave events required for reef island building may devastate island infrastructure, potentially compromising the habitability of reef islands in their current form.” Factoring in higher sea levels as well, she says that reef island nations need to “develop infrastructure with the capacity to withstand, or be adaptable to, large wave events” — a task she summarizes as being a “challenge”.

Their paper, “Coral Reef Island Initiation and Development Under Higher Than Present Sea Levels,” has been published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.