Just when you thought you could survive the coming robot revolution by outrunning them, Boston Dynamics have released video of their latest invention, 'Handle': a 6 and a half foot tall humanoid style robot which can travel 9mph via the wheels on the end of its legs. Oh, and it can jump 4 feet vertically while its motoring along too...
It uses electric power to operate both electric and hydraulic actuators, with a range of about 15 miles on one battery charge. Handle uses many of the same dynamics, balance and mobile manipulation principles found in the quadruped and biped robots we build, but with only about 10 actuated joints, it is significantly less complex. Wheels are efficient on flat surfaces while legs can go almost anywhere: by combining wheels and legs Handle can have the best of both worlds.
Joking aside though, this latest robot looks to have amazing potential for simple carrying/moving/delivery jobs.
In recent years there has been a surge in interest in the idea that human behaviour might be sometimes manipulated by microscopic parasites, as this has been observed happening in many other species. Perhaps the most famous example is the brain parasite toxoplasma gondii, which manipulates rodents' behaviour to make them less fearful of cats. It does this because toxo only reproduces inside a cat's stomach - by making the rodents less fearful, they are more likely to be eaten and 'deliver their payload' to where it needs to be.
Some have suggested that humans too might be affected by toxo, an idea that sounded even more plausible when last year researchers found that chimpanzees with toxo seem to be less fearful of a feline predator, the leopard. Previous to that study, other research had implicated toxo as the possible cause of a range of psychological effects in humans, from delayed reaction time right through to suicidal thoughts.
But a new piece of research has now thrown doubts over that idea, with scientists finding no evidence that cat ownership contributes to mental health problems in teenagers:
Congenital or early life infection with Toxoplasma gondii has been implicated in schizophrenia aetiology. Childhood cat ownership has been hypothesized as an intermediary marker of T. gondii infection and, by proxy, as a risk factor for later psychosis. Evidence supporting this hypothesis is, however, limited.
We used birth cohort data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) to investigate whether cat ownership in pregnancy and childhood (ages 4 and 10 years) was associated with psychotic experiences (PEs) in early [13yo] and late [18yo] adolescence, rated from semi-structured interviews. We used logistic regression to examine associations between cat ownership and PEs, adjusting for several sociodemographic and socioeconomic factors, household characteristics and dog ownership.
Cat ownership during pregnancy was not associated with PEs at age 13 years or 18 years. Initial univariable evidence that cat ownership at ages 4 and 10 years was associated with PEs at age 13 years did not persist after multivariable adjustment. There was no evidence that childhood cat ownership was associated with PEs at age 18 years.
The researchers concluded that while pregnant women "should continue to avoid handling soiled cat litter, given possible T. gondii exposure", overall the study "strongly indicates that cat ownership in pregnancy or early childhood does not confer an increased risk of later adolescent PEs."
So there's one less excuse to use when your child asks you for a kitten...
In our most recent Darklore release (Volume 9), I wrote about the history of the scientific anomaly/controversy known as "electrophonic meteors" (my full article, "Rocks In Your Head", is available at the Darklore website). In short, throughout history, people have reported hearing meteors at the same time as seeing them - despite this appearing to be impossible, given any sound originating from meteors should be delayed by a quite long period as they are generally many miles distant.
For a couple of centuries, respected astronomers rubbished such reports, but in recent decades the phenomenon has become more accepted, with some scientists suggesting that the sounds were caused by radio frequency emissions, possibly from the plasma of the meteor's fireball. Now, a new experiment - published in Nature, no less - has suggested that the mechanism creating the sounds is photoacoustic coupling:
The meteors of interest typically have initial speeds below 40 km/s and burn durations longer than 2 s. These optical pulse trains, if converted to sound, often have time characteristics consistent with the popping, swishing, or sizzling noises reported by observers1–3. We suggest that each pulse of light can heat the surfaces of natural dielectric transducers. The surfaces rapidly warm and conduct heat into the nearby air, generating pressure waves. A succession of light-pulse-produced pressure waves can then manifest as sound to a nearby observer.
...For fireballs, the sound pressure waves track the time history of the illumination, and the amplitude depend on the irradiance. Also important to the generation of sound are the thermal conductivity, specific heat, and density of both the dielectric solid and the air as well as the light penetration depth into the solid.
...[T]he most efficient light-to-sound transducer materials have high absorption coefficients, so the light is absorbed near the surface. They also have low thermal inertia characterized by low conductivity, which minimizes heat flow, and low volumetric heat capacity, which maximizes the temperature rise. This combination of properties is found in most dark-colored dielectric materials. Likely candidates for producing photoacoustic sound are dark paint, fine hair, leaves, grass, and dark clothing – all of which we tested.
Our test setup consisted of a 10 cm square white-light LED array producing a peak flux of E=5W/m2 on the test sample, the sample, and a scientific grade laboratory microphone. The setup was placed inside a plastic dome located in an anechoic chamber. Outside, we located a signal generator and linear amplifier to drive the LEDs and a spectrum analyzer to record the signal from the microphone.
Their testing was successful in producing sounds via photo-acoustic coupling (see their recording of the song "Greensleeves" being transmitted in this way), leading the researchers to conclude that their "calculations and experiments are consistent with how observers have described the concurrent sounds
associated with fireballs".
Further reading: Rocks In Your Head - The Strange History of a Scientific Anomaly
Think you know the night sky like the back of your hand? Around the year 2022 some astronomers are pretty certain a new star will join the firmament after two stars collide near the constellation of Cygnus.
A new paper submitted to The Astrophysical Journal concerns KIC 9832227, a contact binary, and how it will brighten ten thousandfold sometime in the near future. What's happening is this pair of stars are spiralling in towards each other, becoming so close that they now share the same stellar atmosphere. Lawrence Molnar and his colleagues reckon we'll witness this spectacular collision, and subsequent nova, within our lifetimes.
Right now KIC 9832227 is a magnitude 12 star, too faint for the naked eye, in the neighborhood of Delta Cygni. Even with perfect stargazing conditions, an observer will need at least an 8 inch / 203 mm telescope to catch its light. When KIC 9832227 finally explodes it will be as bright as Polaris, or Alpha Hydrae for our Australian friends, burning at second magnitude. While that brightness is hardly remarkable, unlike the immanent Eta Carinae supernova, keep in mind this pair is ~1,800 light years from us. KIC 9832227's aftermath as a luminous red nova will glow in our skies for only a few weeks, or months, before fading away. Best of all, it will be visible from both hemispheres.
For more details, check out the preprint for the Prediction of a Red Nova Outburst in KIC 9832227.
You might also enjoy:
- "The Paranormal Future is Now", by Darryl V. Caterine
- "Columbus-Come-Lately: An Overview and Update of the Ancient-Transoceanic-Contacts Controversy", by Stephen C. Jett
- "The Scientific Zig-Zag: On the Value of "Crazy" Ideas", by S. D. Tucker
- "Unequivocal Spontaneous Psi", by By Douglas M. Stokes
Grab the free PDF of EdgeScience 28 from the SSE website, or purchase a printed copy from MagCloud for just $4.95. Please consider a small donation to help the EdgeScience team continue with this excellent publication, via the link on the right-side of the webpage. And join the SSE if you want to keep up with the latest academic research into the 'edgier' areas of science.
Come on, let me see you shake your tail feather. Announcing their discovery in the journal Current Biology, scientists found a 99-million-year-old dinosaur tail covered in fine feathers, including bones and soft tissue, perfectly preserved in amber. While individual feathers have been found in amber, and other evidence captured in fossil impressions, this is the first time scientists have been able to study feathers still attached to a dinosaur.
We're extremely lucky palaeontologist Dr Lida Xing was searching an amber market in Myanmar last year, near the Chinese border, where he spotted the relic. The tail fragment is believed to be from a young sparrow-sized dinosaur that lived in the Cretaceous period.
More info and photos at National Geographic. And I managed to go the entire post without referencing Jurassic Park!
This article is excerpted from Darklore Volume 9, which is available for sale from Amazon US and Amazon UK. Darklore 9 features essays from Alan Moore, Mike Jay, Robert Schoch and others, on topics ranging from hidden history to the occult.
(Printable typeset PDF available here)
On the 15th of February, 2013, a meteor tore through the sky above the southern Ural region of Russia at a speed of roughly 40,000 miles per hour. As it descended to an altitude of about 15 miles above the city of Chelyabinsk, the massive air pressure being exerted on the 7000 ton object caused a spectacular air-burst – since estimated as the equivalent of a 500 kiloton explosion – that blew in doors and shattered windows in the city below.
We all believe that this incident occurred as described – not so much on the basis of 'hearsay' testimony from witnesses, but instead mainly because of the high number of Russian vehicles that now carry dash-cams. Unlike the Tunguska blast of a century previous – which remains an event shrouded in mystery – the Chelyabinsk fireball was filmed from multiple angles for much of its short but violent life, from its initial appearance to the later shockwave which threw amateur videographers to the ground in fear. What’s more, we also happily believe that a rock from space caused the incident, because through science we have come to understand and accept the fact that rocks from space, of various sizes and shapes, regularly bombard our planet.
It therefore comes almost as a shock to find out that the cosmic origin of meteors has only been an accepted fact in Western science for barely two centuries. Indeed, when Yale chemistry professor Benjamin Silliman proposed an extraterrestrial source for a meteor that exploded over the town of Weston in 1807, Thomas Jefferson is famously claimed to have retorted “I would more easily believe that [a] Yankee professor would lie than that stones would fall from heaven.” As it turns out, the exact quote may be apocryphal – an embellishment by Silliman’s son. But there is little doubt that, at that time, Jefferson was skeptical about the provenance of the Weston meteorite, writing that…
…a thousand phenomena present themselves daily which we cannot explain, but where facts are suggested, bearing no analogy with the laws of nature as yet known to us, their verity needs proofs proportioned to their difficulty. A cautious mind will weigh well the opposition of the phenomenon to everything hitherto observed, the strength of the testimony by which it is supported, and the errors and misconceptions to which even our senses are liable.
At the time, while sightings of fireballs streaking across the sky were common enough that they were accepted by science as occurring, they were believed to be a still-mysterious atmospheric phenomenon similar to lightning, unconnected to tales of rocks falling from the sky (indeed, the word meteor comes from the Greek word for ‘atmosphere’, hence the naming of the profession of ‘meteorologist’). One account attributed their appearance to “the fermentation of acid and alkaline bodies which float in the atmosphere…when the more subtle part of the effluvia are burnt away, the viscous and earthy parts become too heavy to be supported by the air, and then they fall.” Another theory suggested that meteors were “a collection of nitro-sulphureous and fiery vapors, into a sort of a rolling globe, or whirlwind of fire.”
Jefferson’s own leaning toward the ‘atmospheric’ assumption about meteors – and his skepticism that rocks could fall from the sky – is evident in a question he posed concerning the Weston meteorite: “is it easier to explain how it got into the clouds from whence it is supposed to have fallen?”
Jefferson’s view, however, would soon be a relic of the past. Just thirteen years before the Weston meteorite fall the ... Read More »
Ending the World, For Science! Should We Start Regulating 'Ultra-Hazardous' Research That Has the Potential to Destroy Us?Posted by Greg at 00:57, 28 Oct 2016
On July 16, 1945, some of the greatest minds on Earth gathered together in the New Mexico desert to watch the first test of a nuclear weapon. As the tension mounted prior to the 5.30am detonation, physicist Enrico Fermi joked with other scientists present - including Richard Feynman and Robert Oppenheimer - by saying "Let's make a bet whether the atmosphere will be set on fire by this test".
Fermi's joke was underpinned by a serious query, made during the first months of the Manhattan Project by Edward Teller: In exploding a nuclear fission weapon, was there a chance that the temperature of the blast could fuse together nuclei of light elements in the atmosphere, releasing further huge amounts of atomic energy (the reaction which would be used in later, larger nuclear weapons)? If so, a run-away chain reaction might occur, through which the entire atmosphere of planet Earth could be engulfed in a nuclear fusion explosion.
The proposition was taken seriously, even though subsequent calculations would show that the chain reaction was an 'impossibility'. It is said that was also one of the reasons the Nazis baulked at building their own nuclear weapon, also in 1942. According to Albert Speer:
Professor Heisenberg had not given any final answer to my question whether a successful nuclear fission could be kept under control with absolute certainty, or might continue as a chain reaction. Hitler was plainly not delighted with the possibility that the Earth under his rule might be transformed into a glowing star.
Hitler did see the macabre, surreal humour of needing to even pose the question though, sometimes joking that "the scientists in their worldly urge to lay bare all secrets under heaven might some day set the globe on fire".
The Nazi leader's off-hand joke glosses over an extraordinary insight: 1942 marks an important time in the history of humanity, a turning point - a moment when our quest for knowledge reached a point where we wondered whether we now had the god-like ability to destroy the entire Earth.
In the intervening three quarters of a century, the further advancement of science has provided more fears of humanity creating its own apocalypse: the advent of genetically engineered 'superbug' bioweapons; the 'grey goo' scenario of runaway molecular nano-machines consuming everything on Earth; the suggestion that particle colliders might destroy the Earth via the creation of black holes or strange matter; the advent of a malevolent, super-intelligent Artificial Intelligence (the 'Skynet' scenario).
And as time goes on, these scenarios will not only further proliferate, but the technology required to achieve them will move closer to 'off-the-shelf' rather than being rare and expensive. So is it time that research into some of these areas was carefully monitored and regulated?
These concerns are at the heart of a new paper posted at arXiv.org, "Agencies and Science Experiment Risk", authored by Associate Professor of Law Eric E. Johnson:
There is a curious absence of legal constraints on U.S. government agencies undertaking potentially risky scientific research. Some of these activities may present a risk of killing millions or even destroying the planet. Current law leaves it to agencies to decide for themselves whether their activities fall within the bounds of acceptable risk. This Article explores to what extent and under what circumstances
the law ought to allow private actions against such nonregulatory agency endeavors. Engaging with this issue is not only interesting in its own right, it allows us to test fundamental concepts of agency competence and the role of the courts.
Johnson notes that the Acts which govern much of this research were written in the 1940s, and thus "never comprehended today’s exotic agency hazards". Furthermore, he says, this legal gap "might be less troubling if it were not for insights from behavioral economics, neoclassical economics, cognitive psychology, and the risk-management literature, all of which indicate that agency scientists are prone to misjudging how risky their activities really are."
Johnson is astounded that, given "the exotic agency-science risks discussed here constitute a truly elite set of menaces", it is "all the more remarkable that our legal structure refrains from engaging with them."
As examples for discussion, he concentrates on two scenarios: particle colliders creating strange matter, and a plutonium-fueled spacecraft crashing into the Earth. Both of these have already had real-world public concerns about the possible dangers - the 1999 concerns over 'strangelets' being created at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC); the latter with the 'Stop Cassini' protest in the lead-up to that probe's 1997 launch. Johnson digs into the debates that occurred regarding the risks of both of these scenarios, and shows quite clearly that self-evaluation by the agencies involved can not be trusted: "when it comes to low probability/high-harm scenarios occasioned by an agency’s own conduct, that agency is unlikely to adequately safeguard the public interest."
For instance, NASA calculated the possible deaths resulting from a Cassini fly-by crash at 5000, while other notable scientists estimated numbers from 200,000 to 40 million. And Sir Martin Rees criticised a paper dismissing the risks of strangelets by saying the theorists “seemed to have aimed to reassure the public . . . rather than to make an objective analysis.”
In summary, Johnson notes:
These sorts of ultrahazardous-risk issues are unlikely to go away on their own. To the contrary, we should expect them to proliferate... Thus, a refusal of the law to deal with agency-created risk becomes
What other end-of-world scenarios should we be looking out for? And what are your thoughts on regulating these areas more carefully?
Ball lightning is weird. Not just in the capricious way it appears unexpectedly, and thus largely remains a mysterious phenomenon, but also in other strange aspects of its behaviour. For example:
- It can move independently of the atmosphere, such as gliding externally to an airplane traveling at many hundreds of kilometres an hour without being affected by the high level of air movement.
- It can move through windows and walls unimpeded.
- It sometimes causes no damage, and other times great damage.
- There appears to be little or no correlation between its appearance (size, colour, luminosity) and the energy it emits.
Most of the current theories about ball lightning struggle to explain at least some of the points above. So now Peter Sturrock, emeritus professor of applied physics at Stanford University, has suggested what seems to be a fairly off-the-wall idea: that ball lightning is just a portal to another 'space', through which the energy flows - like the power point in your house is not the source of energy, but just a port for energy from elsewhere.
(a) Since there is no known way for the required energy to be stored in the ball lightning, there must be a reservoir of energy remote from the ball lightning (presumably related to the electrical energy responsible for lightning).
(b) Since the reservoir is remote from the ball lightning, there must be some way to transfer energy from the reservoir to the ball lightning. We therefore conceive of a duct that connects the reservoir to the ball lightning.
(c) A ball lightning may now be regarded as a port through which energy in the duct can be released into the atmosphere.
These points, Sturrock says, "suggest the following hypothesis: A ball lightning is a port connecting our overt space to a covert space with with similar but not identical properties."
Seems a fairly out there idea - but even if you don't agree with it, it's still a worthwhile read simply for some of the weird ball lightning accounts it discusses.
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No the Moon and planetary bodies are not able to influence human behaviour, so shut up astrologists and full-moon fever theorists. They can only exert tiny forces, and thus can only be blamed for causing little things such as major earthquakes...
An almost-full, half-pie, waxing moon hanging lopsided in the night sky has long been a symbol of things to come. Now scientists have a new symbolism for the lunar phase we call first quarter: a looming risk of earthquakes.
...Studying data from the past two decades, Satoshi Ide and colleagues from the University of Tokyo measured the timing of high tides and reconstructed the amplitude of the moon’s pull at those times, focusing on the two weeks prior to large earthquakes. They measured the amplitude of the tides against the timing of those quakes, and found some of the largest and most devastating earthquakes in recent memory happened when the Earth’s crust was under the highest tidal stress.
...The mechanisms underlying this connection are not clear, however. The moon’s pull causes tidal disruptions that are orders of magnitude lower than those experienced in an earthquake. And not every change in tide comes with an attendant earthquake. Part of the problem is that scientists still don’t know exactly what causes a major earthquake. But one theory holds that they begin as smaller fractures that build up via a cascading process.