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AN ECLECTIC MIX OF SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, HISTORY AND THE ARTS

             

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Forget Iron Man: skintight suits are the future of robotic exoskeletons

Thanks to Jacki Thomas for suggesting this post.

Children with a rare neurological disease were recently given the chance to walk for the first time thanks to a new robotic exoskeleton. These devices – which are essentially robotic suits that give artificial movement to a user’s limbs – are set to become an increasingly common way of helping people who’ve lost the use of their legs to walk. But while today’s exoskeletons are mostly clumsy, heavy devices, new technology could make them much easier and more natural to use by creating a robotic skin.

Exoskeletons have been in development since the 1960s. The first one was a bulky set of legs and claw-like gloves reminiscent of the superhero, Iron Man, designed to use hydraulic power to help industrial workers lift hundreds of kilogrammes of weight. It didn’t work, but since then other designs for both the upper and lower body have successfully been used to increase people’s strength, help teach them to use their limbs again, or even as a way to interact with computers using touch or “haptic” feedback….

….To make exoskeletons more practical and appealing, we need innovations to make them more like a “second skin” than a giant robotic suit. Exoskeletons typically use heavy electric motors, but lightweight actuators such as pneumatic muscles are now being considered. These can produce similar forces to electric motors but at a fraction of the weight. The muscles consist of a rubber bladder surrounded by a woven sleeve. When pressurised, they increase in diameter and contract in length, pulling the joint. They are made from lightweight materials but can generate the force needed to lift many hundreds of kilogrammes.

However, even these lightweight actuators still need to be attached to a rigid mechanical structure mounted to the user’s body. Myself and my colleagues at the University of Salford’s Centre for Autonomous Systems and Robotics are developing another alternative: soft robotics. This technology uses physically soft advanced materials to carry out similar tasks to traditional rigid robotic devices. They are particularly well suited to interaction with humans as they are typically lightweight which means if they collide with a person they are unlikely to cause injury.

We recently developed a new “soft continuum actuator”, a joint that bends like an elephant’s trunk. Unlike a traditional rigid robot joint, if it encounters resistance in one part of its body it will still bend but at a different location elsewhere along its length. By equipping a skintight material suit with these actuators, we can create a soft exoskeleton that bends at the precise location of the wearer’s joints. This means the suit will fit a range of users comfortably without needing mechanical adjustment or calibration. Plus, the system is lightweight and can be worn like clothing rather than a bulky mechanical frame. Edited from Forget Iron Man

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The Bubble Nebula

The Bubble Nebula is 7,100 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cassiopeia.

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Triangle of Power

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Rosetta comet probe given termination date

The Rosetta probe will be crash-landed on Comet 67P on Friday 30 September, the European Space Agency has confirmed. The manoeuvre, which is expected to destroy the satellite, will bring to an end two years of investigations at the 4km-wide icy dirt-ball.

Flight controllers plan to have the cameras taking and relaying pictures during the final descent.Sensors that “sniff” the chemical environment will also be switched on. All other instruments will likely be off.

Flight dynamics experts have still to work out the fine details, but Rosetta will be put into a tight ellipse around the comet and commanded to drop its periapsis (lowest pass) progressively. A final burn will then put the satellite on a collision course with the duck-shaped object. Source: BBC News

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The most perfect day of the year

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First there was Pi Day (3/14). Then, this year only, was Square Root Day (4/4/16). Now today (6/28) you can celebrate “the most perfect day of the year,” according to Scientific American. The numbers 6 and 28 are both perfect numbers—they are the sum of their divisors (1+2+3=6; 1+2+4+7+14=28). If perfect numbers aren’t your thing, today is also Tau Day! In geometry tau is often denoted to represent pi multiplied by 2 (3.14 x 2 = 6.28). Source – Physics today

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Kaleidoscopic hills

Kaleidoscopic hills: This terrain looks like an artist’s impression of an alien planet. However, the spectacular landscape, found at the Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park in Gansu Province, China, is actually the result of red sandstone and mineral deposits being laid down over 24 million years

Source: Try not to double-take planet earth’s most bizarre natural optical illusions

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AI fighter pilot wins in combat simulation

An artificially intelligent fighter pilot system has defeated two attacking jets in a combat simulation. The AI, known as Alpha, used four virtual jets to successfully defend a coastline against two attacking aircraft – and did not suffer any losses.

Alpha, which was developed by a US team, also triumphed in simulation against a retired human fighter pilot. One military aviation expert said the results were promising.

In the simulation described in the study, both attacking jets – the blue team – had more capable weapons systems. But Alpha’s red team was able to dispatch the enemy planes after performing evasive manoeuvres. Source: AI fighter pilot wins in combat simulation

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Scientists want to use bacteria to clean up oil spills – and it could actually work

In 2010 the Deepwater Horizon oil spill released an estimated 4.2 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico – the largest offshore spill in US history. The spill caused widespread damage to marine species, fisheries, and ecosystems stretching from tidal marshes to the deep ocean floor.

Emergency responders used multiple strategies to remove oil from the Gulf: they skimmed it from the water’s surface, burned it and used chemical dispersants to break it into small droplets.

However, experts struggled to account for what had happened to much of the oil. This was an important question, because it was unclear how much of the released oil would break down naturally within a short time.

If spilt oil persisted and sank to the ocean floor, scientists expected that it would cause more extensive harm to the environment.Before the Deepwater Horizon spill, scientists had observed that marine bacteria were very efficient at removing oil from seawater. Therefore, many experts argued that marine microbes would consume large quantities of oil from the BP spill and help the Gulf recover.In a recent study, we used DNA analysis to confirm that certain kinds of marine bacteria efficiently broke down some of the major chemical components of oil from the spill. We also identified the major genetic pathways these bacteria used for this process, and other genes, which they likely need to thrive in the Gulf.

Altogether, our results suggest that some bacteria can not only tolerate but also break up oil, thereby helping in the cleanup process. By understanding how to support these natural occurring microbes, we may also be able to better manage the aftermath of oil spills. Source: Scientists want to use bacteria to clean up oil spills – and it could actually work

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Electric car sets world acceleration record

Thanks to Phil Krause for suggesting this post .

An electric racing car built by Swiss student engineers has broken the world record for acceleration by battery-powered vehicles. The grimsel car took only 1.513 seconds to reach 100kph (62mph) – slashing about a quarter of a second off the previous record time.

So far, no petrol-powered production car has managed to hit the same speed in a comparable time. The grimsel needed only 30m (98ft) of track to reach the landmark speed. The previous record of 0-100kph in 1.779 seconds was set by a team from the University of Stuttgart last year. By comparison, the fastest production vehicle, the Porsche 918 Spyder hybrid, takes 2.2 seconds to reach the same speed.

The car has been built and refined over the last year by 30 students studying at ETH Zurich (ETZ) and Lucerne’s University of Applied Sciences and Arts. Almost all of car’s parts have been custom built apart from its tyres, battery cells and the motor control units. In a statement, ETZ said the four-wheel drive system used by the grimsel was key to its swift acceleration. A powerful motor is mounted on each wheel and the car has a sophisticated traction control system that adjusts the performance of each one to maximise torque. Edited from: Electric car sets world acceleration record

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‘Darwinolide’ kills 98% of a drug-resistant bacteria

Researchers have discovered a compound in an Antarctic sea sponge that’s capable of killing 98 percent of the drug-resistant superbug, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus – better known as MRSA – which is rapidly spreading throughout the US. With more and more bacteria species becoming resistant to the antibiotics we have available, scientists are desperately looking for new ways to protect against infection, and early research suggests that the Antarctic sponge could be an option.

Staphylococcus aureus – or staph – infections are pretty common, particularly in hospital settings, and under normal circumstances they’re not particularly hard to treat. But MRSA is a strain that’s developed resistance to most of the antibiotics we have available, which means it can quickly spread from a superficial infection, such as a skin infection, to an invasive one, which can be life-threatening.

According to the Centres for Disease Control (CDC), around 80,000 MRSA infections are diagnosed in the US each year, and 11,000 people die from MRSA complications – and right now, we really don’t have many options to fight them. Which is why the discovery of this new compound, which has been named ‘darwinolide’, is so exciting. Researchers found it inside an Antarctic sponge, Dendrilla membranosa, and initial lab tests have shown that it’s able to kill 98.4 percent of MRSA cells. Source: Scientists just found a compound that kills 98% of a drug-resistant bacteria

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Hasselblad is the first mirrorless medium-format camera

Swedish camera-maker Hasselblad has unveiled the world’s first mirrorless medium-format model. By putting a larger-than-normal sensor in a relatively small body, the firm aims to make it easier to take “ultra-high quality” photos than before.

Professionals say the X1D should help them to capture images that feel more filmic, which many clients prefer. But until prices for the technology fall, medium-format photography may remain a niche activity.

The mirrorless designation refers to the fact that the camera does not use a mirror to bounce light through the viewfinder. This means its owner does not look through the lens, but must rely instead on a small electronic display built into the viewfinder or a larger touchscreen below.

The “medium format” terminology indicates that the sensor measures 43.8mm by 32.9mm (1.7in by 1.3in). The Sony-made part captures 50 megapixels and is said to be capable of recording a wider range of brightness values than the norm. That compares to 36mm by 24mm for “full-frame” cameras, and about 23mm by 15mm for APS-C cameras.

The camera costs £7,188 – including VAT – which is more than double the price of Canon’s full-frame 5DS R, which has the same megapixel resolution. “Medium-format cameras are better at capturing light because their sensors have bigger pixels, which means they won’t produce as much image noise in low light conditions,” explained Jon Devo, retailer Wex Photographic’s blogger. Edited from : Hasselblad is the first mirrorless medium-format camera 

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The most mysterious star in the universe

Something massive, with roughly 1,000 times the area of Earth, is blocking the light coming from a distant star known as KIC 8462852, and nobody is quite sure what it is. As astronomer Tabetha Boyajian investigated this perplexing celestial object, a colleague suggested something unusual: Could it be an alien-built megastructure? Such an extraordinary idea would require extraordinary evidence. In this talk, Boyajian gives us a look at how scientists search for and test hypotheses when faced with the unknown.

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Are Viruses Alive?

Thanks to Phil Krause for suggesting this video.

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Look up! This week’s solstice coincides with a strawberry moon

For everyone in the Northern Hemisphere, this Monday marks the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. And if that’s not enough of a reason to head outside and look up, for the first time in almost 50 years, the event will also fall on the same day as a full ‘strawberry moon’ – two events that only coincide roughly once in a generation.

On its own, a strawberry moon isn’t that rare – it’s the name given to any full moon occurring in June, and was named by indigenous Americans as it signalled the beginning of strawberry season. The June full moon has also been called the ‘honey moon’ because the summer month is so popular with Northern Hemisphere weddings.

The solstice also occurs twice a year – once in winter, once in summer – when the Sun stops travelling north and begins to head south again. But what is rare is for the strawberry moon to fall exactly on the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. Source: Look up! This week’s solstice coincides with a strawberry moon

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Physicists confirm there’s a second layer of information hidden in our DNA

DNA folding is an incredibly important control mechanism. That’s because every single cell in our body contains around 2 metres of DNA, so to fit inside us, it has to be tightly wrapped up into a bundle called a nucleosome – like a thread around a spool.

And the way the DNA is wrapped up controls which genes are ‘read’ by the rest of the cell – genes that are all wrapped on the inside won’t be expressed as proteins, but those on the outside will. This explains why different cells have the same DNA but different functions.

In recent years, biologists have even started to isolate the mechanical cues that determine the way DNA is folded, by ‘grabbing onto’ certain parts of the genetic code or changing the shape of the ‘spool’ the DNA is wrapped around. So far, so good, but what do theoretical physicists have to do with all this?

A team from Leiden University in the Netherlands has now been able to step back and look at the process on a whole-genome scale, and back up through computer simulations that these mechanical cues are actually coded into our DNA. The physicists, led by Helmut Schiessel, did this by simulating the genomes of both baker’s yeast and fission yeast, and then randomly assigning them a second level of DNA information, complete with mechanical cues.

They were able to show that these cues affected how the DNA was folded and which proteins are expressed – further evidence that the mechanics of DNA are written into our DNA, and they’re just as important in our evolution as the code itself. This means the researchers have shown that there’s more than one way that DNA mutations can affect us: by changing the letters in our DNA, or simply by changing the mechanical cues that arrange the way a strand is folded.

“The mechanics of the DNA structure can change, resulting in different packaging and levels of DNA accessibility,” they explain, “and therefore differing frequency of production of that protein.” Edited from: ScienceAlert

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“Bleeder” by Walter Oltmann 2007

Blood moves through the circulatory system as a result of being pumped out by the heart. Blood leaving the heart through the arteries is saturated with oxygen. The arteries break down into smaller and smaller branches in order to bring oxygen and other nutrients to the cells of the body’s tissues and organs.

As blood moves through the capillaries, the oxygen and other nutrients move out into the cells, and waste matter from the cells moves into the capillaries. As the blood leaves the capillaries, it moves through the veins, which become larger and larger to carry the blood back to the heart and to the lungs, where it gets reloaded with oxygen.

This way our body can continue to survive another day! Source: Facebook

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This is the end of the fossil fuel age as we know it, says report

Fossil fuels are holding on, but end of their reign is nigh, says a new report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, which predicts that wind and solar will be cheaper than coal and gas generators by 2027, and electric vehicles could make up 25 percent of the global car fleet by 2040.

The peak year for coal, gas, and oil looks to be 2025, and then it’s all downhill from there. For big oil guys, at least. “You can’t fight the future,” says lead researcher, Seb Henbest. “The economics are increasingly locked in.” Source: This is the end of the fossil fuel age as we know it, says report

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Earth’s Constant Companion

A small asteroid has been discovered in an orbit around the sun that keeps it as a constant companion of Earth, and it will remain so for centuries to come.

As it orbits the sun, this new asteroid, designated 2016 HO3, appears to circle around Earth as well. It is too distant to be considered a true satellite of our planet, but it is the best and most stable example to date of a near-Earth companion, or “quasi-satellite.”

“Since 2016 HO3 loops around our planet, but never ventures very far away as we both go around the sun, we refer to it as a quasi-satellite of Earth,” said Paul Chodas, manager of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object (NEO) Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “One other asteroid — 2003 YN107 — followed a similar orbital pattern for a while over 10 years ago, but it has since departed our vicinity. This new asteroid is much more locked onto us. Our calculations indicate 2016 HO3 has been a stable quasi-satellite of Earth for almost a century, and it will continue to follow this pattern as Earth’s companion for centuries to come.” Source NASA

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Bionic Leaf Makes Fuel from Sunlight, Water and Air

A tree’s leaf, a blade of grass, a single algal cell: all make fuel from the simple combination of water, sunlight and carbon dioxide through the miracle of photosynthesis. Now scientists say they have replicated—and improved—that trick by combining chemistry and biology in a “bionic” leaf.

Chemist Daniel Nocera of Harvard University and his team joined forces with synthetic biologist Pamela Silver of Harvard Medical School and her team to craft a kind of living battery, which they call a bionic leaf for its melding of biology and technology. The device uses solar electricity from a photovoltaic panel to power the chemistry that splits water into oxygen and hydrogen, then adds pre-starved microbes to feed on the hydrogen and convert CO2 in the air into alcohol fuels. The team’s first artificial photosynthesis device appeared in 2015—pumping out 216 milligrams of alcohol fuel per liter of water—but the nickel-molybdenum-zinc catalyst that made its water-splitting chemistry possible had the unfortunate side effect of poisoning the microbes.

So the team set out in search of a better catalyst, one that would play well with living organisms while effectively splitting water. As the team reports in Science on June 2, they found it in an alloy of cobalt and phosphorus, an amalgam already in use as an anticorrosion coating for plastic and metal parts found in everything from faucets to circuit boards. With a little charge, this new catalyst can assemble itself out of a solution of regular water, cobalt and phosphate—and phosphate in water actually is good for living things like the Ralstonia eutropha bacteria that make up the back half of the bionic leaf. Run an electric current from a photovoltaic device through this solution at a high enough voltage and it splits water. That voltage is also higher than what is needed to induce the cobalt to precipitate out of the solution and form the cobalt phosphide catalyst, which means when the bionic leaf is running there are always enough electrons around to induce the catalyst’s formation—and therefore no excess metal left to poison the microbes or bring the bionic leaf’s water-splitting to a halt. “The catalyst can never die as it’s functioning,” Nocera says, noting that the new artificial leaf has been able to run for up to 16 days at a stretch. Continue reading

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Jupiter: Into the Unknown

Secrets lie deep within Jupiter, shrouded in the solar system’s strongest magnetic field and most lethal radiation belts. On July 4, 2016, NASA’s Juno spacecraft will plunge into uncharted territory, entering orbit around the gas giant and passing closer than any spacecraft before. Juno will see Jupiter for what it really is, but first it must pass the trial of orbit insertion. For more information: http://www.nasa.gov/juno and http://missionjuno.swri.edu

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