Category Archives: Technology

1.21 Gigawatts: Your Face, Close Up – Meet The Tiny and Mite-y

-Sarah Keartes

They nuzzle your nose. They cuddle cadavers. They suck down Sebum. The few, the proud, the face mites.

Yes, hiding in the hair follicles around your nose and forehead live microscopic mites—Demodex mites to be exact—and as it turns out, mine are quite shy.

Last February, I jumped at the opportunity to “meet” my mites by participating in a study conducted by Your Wild Life, an organization dedicated to exploring the biodiversity that lives “on us, in us, and around us.”

I signed the waiver excitedly, eager to donate some of my precious facial cargo to science. The lab tech sat me in her chair, lifted a metal scraper to my nose, and began the search. While my mites were nowhere to be found, Your Wild Life has  successfully scraped mites from many of more than 200 participants.

Over 48 thousand species of mites have been described—two of which, D.folliculorum and D. brevis, are found only on humans.

“Both species are sausage-shaped, with eight stubby legs clustered in their front third. At a third of a millimeter long, D.folliculorum is the bigger of the two,” science-writer Ed Yong said in a 2012 article for Discover. “Richard Owen gave the mite its name, from the Greek words ‘demos,’ meaning lard, and ‘dex,’ meaning boring worm.”

Before the image of “lard worms” hiding in your pores sends you into a Jabba the Hutt-fearing frenzy or running for a loofa, keep in mind that nearly every adult hosts these squidgy little squatters, and they most likely do you no harm.

“For the most part, it seems that they eat, crawl and mate on your face without harmful effects. They could help us by eating bacteria or other microbes in the follicles….Their eggs, clawed legs, spiny mouth-parts, and salivary enzymes could all provoke an immune response, but this generally doesn’t seem to happen,” Yong said.

Demodex mites are ectoparistites, meaning they do not burrow under the skin. They are not exclusive to the face, but because they feed on Sebum (the oily secretion of the sebaceous glands that keeps your skin moist) and the cells inside of hair follicles, each face is a piece of prime real estate.

Every generation picks up mites throughout their lifetime, and they have been found in nearly all races, something that intrigues the team at Your Wild Life.

“We aim to study the evolution and diversification of human-associated Demodex mites over time and space. Specifically, we want to map the mites’  “family tree” and see how closely that tracks our own human family tree,” the team said.

There is certainly much to be learned about these microscopic mooches, and their relationship to us. I find it all rather fascinating but taking a close look at what is crawling on our skin is not for everyone.

If this post has you nearing the edge of an emotional breakdown, chances are you have Acarophobia, the fear of Mites and small insects. Phobia here, phobia there, phobias, phobias everywhere!

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Image from Your Wild Life.

1.21 Gigawatts: Sci-Tube – A Bit of Microscopic Magic

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-Sarah Keartes

“We can look up at the sky and see the stars, and nebulas, and other galaxies with a telescope and be excited by the strange interesting patterns that the universe forms, but we can also look the other direction—down towards the small and see new, and strange, and exciting patterns that are formed by these pieces of the universe that we’re all made out of.”Christopher Lutz, IBM Research

#1 A Microscopic Music Video

 

Art, music, and science—not a triad of words you see together often, but this is exactly the type of discipline mash-up that The Creators Project searches for.

“We seek to inspire new and emerging artists by showcasing the infinite possibilities presented by the advancement of modern technology,” they said.

“Immunity,” one of their most recent projects, brings these words to life in an epic three-way collaboration. The music video, which is soundtracked by UK musician Jon Hopkins’ new album, is made completely of images produced by artist Linden Gledhill.

A trained biochemist, Gledhill is now a photographer who specializes in creating abstract images by photographing the microscopic world.

The 10,000 images needed for the Hopkins collaboration were shot using a 5D Mark II fitted onto an Olympus BH-2 research microscope between 200 and 1,000 times magnification. Each track of the video features a different chemical reaction, which thanks to art director Craig Ward, seamlessly fits the music.

“Jon’s music is organic and flowing, yet with a hard and rhythmic electronic edge,” Ward said. “The idea of delving down to explore chemical interactions under a microscope felt like the perfect solve to create the album imagery and our video for The Creators Project features much of the same—various immiscible liquids, dyes and chemicals interacting underneath the watchful eye of my collaborator on the project.”

The result is a captivating array of color, music, and science that you don’t want to miss.

#2 “A Boy and His Atom”: The World’s Smallest Movie

 

It might not look like much at first, but this stop-motion animation is far from something you’ve seen before. It was made by researchers at IBM and stars the world’s tiniest actors: individual atoms. The movie, verified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s smallest, can only be seen when magnified 100 million times.

The ability to manipulate individual atoms is crucial for the IBM team, who specialize in atomic memory advancement. Atomic Memory, sometimes called “atomic storage,” is a nanotechnology approach to computer data storage that works with bits and atoms on the individual level.

The atoms are moved using a variation on how the atoms are seen in the first place, IBM research scientist Christopher Lutz said.

Because atoms are so small, they cannot be seen using a light microscope. A Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM), a type of electron microscope that shows three-dimensional images of a sample, was used to capture the frames for the animation. By using the STM, researchers are able to move single atoms across a tiny piece of copper.

“We have a surface that we put an atom on so [that] it holds still, and then we take a metal needle close to the atom and in essence, sense it’s presence by measuring an electric current that flows. In order to move atoms, we bump into them under control,” Lutz said.

“By moving the tip close we start to form a chemical bond between the tip and the atom such that the atom likes to follow the tip around on the surface. That process repeated over and over is how we have created most of these structures.”

Live long and prosper little atom man—IBM hasn’t stopped there.  In the wake of their theatrical debut, the team has created some serious Trekkie fan art using the same techniques and equipment as for the world’s smallest movie. Their intergalactic masterpieces include images of the U.S.S. Enterprise, the Star Trek Logo, and the Vulcan Salute (which they call the “live long and prosper sign”…come on people).

“Even nanophysicists need to have a little fun,” they said.

For Nobel Swiss Physicist Heinrich Rohrer, the pairing made perfect sense.

“[Star Trek’s] claim to fame is that they’re dealing with the final frontier, with space. What we’re doing is dealing with the final frontier of engineering. The finest thing you’ll ever deal with in engineering is atoms. There’s nothing beyond that point,” he told Wired in an interview.

“The best thing that we can create is an interest in the general public, in kids, for science,” he said.

Rohrer, who co invented the STM, died May 16, 2013—just days after the interview. He is remembered not only by his family, but through research like this which would not be possible if not for his work.

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1.21 Gigawatts : NASA Snowmo-bot Takes to the Ice

GROVER

-Sarah Keartes

The Goddard Remotely Operated Vehicle for Exploration and Research (GROVER)  is a six foot tall, 800 pound, solar powered, autonomous NASA robot—and it’s bound for no-man’s land.

Comprised of two towering solar panels, an onboard computer, and rechargeable batteries, GROVER will not rely on wheels for locomotion like its famously cute Martian counterpart, CURIOSITY. Instead, the bot rests on two tracks of re-purposed rough-terrain snowmobile tracks—an important design element as it’s headed to Greenland.

That’s right! Earlier this month, our own Casey Klekas told readers about sending some of Earth’s finest on a one-way trip into space. Well, NASA is returning the favor by sending their newest scientific rover on a mission to the blue planet.

Greenland, the largest island on Earth, is located at the intersection of the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans (just east of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago). Despite its misnomer, over 85 percent of the island is covered in a thick sheet of ice, 3.21 km (two miles) thick at the center. This giant glacier represents about 10 percent of the Earth’s freshwater reserve, and like all polar ice, it’s heating up.

“Greenland’s surface layer vaulted into the news in summer 2012 when higher than normal temperatures caused surface melting across about 97 percent of the ice sheet,” the NASA team stated in a press release. A full melt of the glaciated island could result in a seven meter rise in the world’s oceans.

Until now, glaciological study on the island has been accomplished with radar towing snowmobiles or airplanes, but Glaciologist Laura Koenig, a science adviser on the project has high hopes for GROVER’s ability to outshine man-powered research.

“The hope is that GROVER can collect much more data than humans could on the ground. When we’re on snowmobiles, we could do 50 kilometers a day—that would be a difficult day. You get cold, and need to stop,” she said.

Once deployed at “Summit Camp,” a National Science Foundation (NSF) research station located on the highest point of Greenland, GROVER will cruise the ice at an average speed of 1.2 miles per hour, collecting data.

The onboard radar “sends radio wave pulses into the ice sheet, and the waves bounce off buried features, informing researchers about the characteristics of the snow and ice layers,” NASA explains.

Though GROVER travels far slower than a snowmobile, because the sun never sets in the Arctic horizon during summer, the solar-powered rover will work around the clock—something its human counterparts could never do in such a harsh climate.

NASA rovers have become quite accustomed to working long shifts in intolerable conditions. In this way, GROVER will operate much like any other spacecraft does.

“GROVER is just like a spacecraft but it has to operate on the ground…it has to survive unattended for months in a hostile environment, with just a few commands to interrogate it and find out its status and give it some directions for how to accommodate situations it finds itself in,” Michael Comberiate, a retired NASA engineer, said.

But don’t worry; poor GROVER won’t be completely alone. A ro-buddy play-date is set for early June when it will be joined on the glacier by Dartmouth University’s Cool Robot. This rover, also solar powered, will tow a variety of instrument packages to enhance the glaciological study.

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Image by Gabriel Trisca, Boise State University.

Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Obsessed Culture

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-Emily Fraysse

I play “Magic: The Gathering,” have a collection of all the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings DVDs, display a Where the Wild Things Are poster, read graphic novels such as V for Vendetta and Watchmen, and watch anime films like Spirited Away.

I believe that we are not only the “lost culture” in the ways of being glued to our cell phones and iPods, but that we are “lost” in the realm of these make-believe lands, characters, and stories. I find that today more people are open to reading graphic novels and comics, and are obsessed with pop culture, horror, sci-fi, anime, gaming, film, and fantasy in general. While the range of fantasy literature is vast, it usually involves a type of magic in an imaginary world and plays out stereotypes like clever thieves, wizards, dangerous monsters, and dark threats. The gaming industry has contributed to pop culture as well as advancing videogame technology. This has had a sociological, psychological, and cultural impact on the individuals who play, as well as the rest of civilization.

Men and women alike gather at Comic Cons around the world, dressed to the nines in homemade or store-bought costumes of sci-fi or fantasy characters. For that day, they get to look and live like their obsession or merely a favored individual.  Just as Michelangelo sculpted his iconic, muscular statue of David, many of the characters seen in these genres epitomize what the male and female bodies are supposed to look like. The men tend to look built, fit, and agile, while the women tend to look beautiful, thin, and wear revealing clothing.

Much of fantasy-themed literature and gaming emphasizes the male ideals of heroism, responsibility, and power. In the popular game Skyrim, the hero spends his or her time running around a vast world, going on daunting quests, collecting weapons, improving skills, and battling demonic animals in order to protect the relatively peaceful community that they live in. The same ideals are seen in J.R.R. Tolkien’s tales of the Ring or J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

The lands are spectacular, imaginative works of splendid beauty like ancient forests, forgotten caves, and little villages. Usually, years of thought and grueling work goes into them, as seen in the film The Indie Game, which highlights the history of gaming, the tedious process that gaming developers go through, and the effect that it has on consumers.

“It’s not just a game,” Phil Fish, creator of the game Fez, said in the film. “I’m so closely attached to it. This is my identity.” His game sold 20,000 units the first day it debuted and a year later hit the 200,000 mark.

In a society that constantly seems to be dealing with an overwhelming amount of unsolved problems and issues, gaming allows the user an escape to become a part of a different world. Despite the ideals of grandeur that the quirky tales and characters play out, the underlying grand themes are displayed in a sort of juvenile and child-like tenor. It is almost like regular gamers should be diagnosed with the Peter Pan effect—they reach out to these games to enter another world, where making a potion or combat have no serious consequence other than having the potion go wrong or losing a leg during the battle and grudgingly having to restart the game. But it also goes deeper than that. It is a way of communication, a relation with a character. Jonathan Blow, the creator of Braid, said his game was “making it was about ‘let me take my deepest flaws and vulnerabilities and put them in the game.’” And that was exactly what he did.

Image by Andy Simmons.

1.21 Gigawatts: Seahorse Armor Inspires Robotic Engineering

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-Sarah Keartes

Seahorses don’t exactly radiate toughness, but recent studies show that the bone structure of these delicate fish might be the key to unlocking a breakthrough in robotic armor. Iron Man á la seahorse?

First of all, yes, seahorses are in fact fish. Their genus name, “Hippocampus,” stems from the ancient Greek hippos meaning “horse,” and kampo meaning “sea monster.”

These tiny “sea monsters” (the largest reaching eight inches in length) face a multitude of challenges in open water, the most problematic being that they are poor swimmers. The fifty-four known species of seahorses must spend their days clinging to kelp, sea-grass, and coral so as not to be carried away by strong currents while feeding on crustaceans—something they must do constantly as their digestive tracts are extremely short.

What do the engineers at University of California San Diego (UCSD) Jacobs School of Engineering want with a teensy-tiny poor-swimming eating machine? The treasure is in the tail.

Seahorses use their prehensile (grasping) tails as anchors, holding them in place while they feed. The tails have to be strong enough to protect them, but flexible enough to wrap around rocks and move with the tide.

“The tail is the seahorse’s lifeline,” Michael Porter, a Ph.D. student in materials science said in an interview.

The typical tail is made up of thirty-six bony segments. Because most of their predators (including crabs, rays, turtles, and seabirds) capture seahorses by crushing them, the Jacobs team wanted to see if the bone segments  act as protective armor.

In order to study the bones’ structure more clearly, the team used a chemical process to strip them of their minerals and proteins. Amazingly, seahorse tail-bones contain a lower-than-most percentage of hard minerals (15 percent lower than cow bone). When we think of shielding materials, we often assume the stronger the better. But just like foam or other porous materials, the tail bones actually absorb energy during impact.

“The connective tissue between the tail’s bony plates and the tail muscles bore most of the load from the displacement,” the team said.

Each segment of the tail is composed of four L-shaped corner plates which are connected by small joints that allow the bone plates to glide and pivot freely over one another without being damaged. The structure is reminiscent of the Hoberman Sphere toys we all know and love.

 

“[In our tests] the tail could be compressed by nearly 50 percent of its original width before permanent damage occurred…even when the tail was compressed by as much as 60 percent the seahorse’s spinal column was protected from permanent damage,” the team found.

If the team is successful in recreating this structure, imagine the applications of armored plating that could withstand that kind of pressure.

The Jacobs team plans to use 3D printers to create artificial bony plates lined with polymer muscles, which will help them to better understand how to apply these structures to their robotics.

“The final goal is to build a robotic arm that would be a unique hybrid between hard and soft robotic devices. A flexible, yet robust robotic gripper could be used for medical devices, underwater exploration and unmanned bomb detection and detonation,” they said.

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Image by Jacobs School of Engineering.

“Tweets,” “Tweetups,” and “Tweeps:” Confessions of a Skeptical Student Turned Online Science-Writer

Infographic

-Sarah Keartes

After a four year hiatus, returning to college was an exciting venture. I was ready to learn—my mind was porous and ready to sponge up the liquid gold which I knew my professors would spew from their educated mouths. “Bring it on,” I thought to myself. I was ready.

Eager and anxious, I peered through the doors of Columbia hall, scanning the ridiculous sea of chairs for just the right spot. Professor Bill Ryan walked down the isles with a calm confidence and inquisitive brow, stopping only to say hello to familiar students, making his way to the front of the room. Though his back was turned to the class, I could just make out the side of his face, and that is when I saw it. The look.

The corners of his mouth crawled up slowly, as if in a Bane v. Batman battle against the muscles in his cheeks. They stopped in a wry smirk—he knew something I didn’t. Liquid gold. I was ready.

“How many of you are on Twitter?” he asked.

Twitter? I was ready for mind-blowing, earth-shattering brain food and this guy was talking about Twitter? My heart sank and I rolled my eyes the way adolescents do when they know they could never be wrong. Twitter was a waste of time, a wannabe Facebook that only allowed enough characters to say, well, nothing important—I knew that.

“If you are serious about journalism, you need to be on twitter, you need to be part of the conversation, find your community,” he explained.

Conversation, shmonversation. How could 140 characters help me become a science writer? The next day, I set out on a new venture—to prove Professor Ryan wrong. My science mind knew that I couldn’t disprove his claim without any data. I needed  working knowledge of the tweet-world—I needed research. I set up my account, ready to taste victory.

Well, Professor Ryan, to my enjoyment, I was wrong—horribly wrong.

Sure, Twitter is another social media platform, and just like Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, and many others can be a forum for pointless life play-by-plays. But what I didn’t realize, is just how useful a tool it is to connect to people who share your interests—people who can debate, brainstorm, advise, and share their experiences with you. In this way, social media can facilitate educational and professional growth.

“Today, social media go beyond personal connections to permeate professional interactions, including scientific ones,” Emily S. Darling, David Shiffman, Isabelle M. Côté, and Joshua A. Drew explain in their paper The role of Twitter in the life cycle of a scientific publication.

“Twitter provides a large virtual department of colleagues that can help to rapidly generate, share and refine new ideas.”

Within my first few weeks on twitter, I connected with Bora “The Blogfather,” Zivkovic, blog editor at Scientific American. He urged me to to register for ScienceOnline2013, an “un-conference” dedicated to connecting people interested in the intersection of science and online media—many of whom met on Twitter. I was unsure if I could hold my own at the event, as I was “just a student,” but I decided to register anyway.

At ScienceOnline I learned an immense amount about online media, writing, science, and networking—but I learned the most about myself. I am not just a student. You are not just a student. We are students with passions, interests, opinions, and unique perspectives. We each have something to say, and it is that something that connects us. We have something to say, and people want to hear it.

From the moment I walked into the conference center, I felt at home. I was surrounded by my Twitter community—my “Tweeps,” (twitter peeps) people who shared my love for science, and who wanted to connect, collaborate, and learn from others regardless of position.  My Tweeps have become, in essence, a family—a network of support, knowledge, and life-long friendships that would never have been had I not reached out to the online science community.

Perhaps you have never tweeted, or you have never thought to use Twitter to network with people in your field of study, perhaps you are uninterested. But if curiosity is calling here are some tips to getting started from a former nonbeliever:

#1 Find your conversation: hashtags are more than a fad.

With over 550 million active users on twitter, there is a conversation for everyone. Searching for hashtags (noted with a pound symbol) is a great way to find people with similar interests. For example, initially, I searched for tweets which had been tagged “#sciencewriters” and “#studentjournalism” in hopes of finding other science writers and student journalists who I could talk to about their experience.

#2 Find your voice: forget titles and don’t be shy.

Reaching out to professionals can be a bit daunting. Leave your fear at the door—er, homepage. The first step in successful networking is saying hello.

My search for “#sciencewriters” brought me to aviation and space journalist Miles O’Brien. I had recently seen one of his films, and had some questions about his experience working on it. He had 31,745 followers, so I assumed he wouldn’t respond, but I reached out anyway. To my surprise, he responded right away, and was happy to talk shop. Remember that most people are active on social media because they want to talk and share.

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#3 Find your “tweeps”

Once you find people who interest you, start looking at who they follow. What are those people saying? Who do they follow? By taking the time to see what your tweeps are saying, and who they are saying it to, you can quickly expand your network.

#4 Find each other elsewhere: “tweetup,” and “Hangout”

Yes, “tweetup!”  Just like ScienceOnline brought together 450 people from an online community, small-scale Tweetups (in person meetings with twitter friends and colleagues) are a great way to stay connected, and make new connections. Find people in your area who share you interests, and suggest a meeting to bounce ideas around, or talk about your work.

At ScienceOnline I was able to connect with the four other undergraduate students attending by sending out the following tweet using the conference’s designated hashtag “#SciO13:”

“Hey #scio13 undergrads, meet in the Marriott [hotel] lobby?”

Now that we are back in our home-states, we are able to stay connected with Google+ “Hangouts” (multi-person video-chats). Every two weeks we meet on Google+ to talk about internships, school, blogging, and science writing in general.  We share our questions, and comments by posting them on twitter using our hashtag “#sciyoung.”

 

@scifleur, @shanpalus and @sarahkeartes discussing the best way to handle rude comments on blog posts at the last #sciyoung Hangout

@scifleur, @sarahkeartes and @shanpalus discuss the best way to handle rude comments on blog posts at the last #sciyoung Hangout.

You can see how my twitter community is helping me achieve my goals. Get out there, get creative, and get connected.

Has social media helped your career? Let me know by commenting below!

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Infographic by Katie Ph.D.

Don't Worry Be Healthy: Turn Down the Music!

headphones

-Marissa Tomko

If I had a nickel for every time I got a text that said, “I just screamed your name and you didn’t answer me,” I’d be very rich. As it stands though, I don’t have any nickels for the times that I am oblivious on account of the fact that I don’t have a nickel guy.

But that’s another story.

I can never hear anything happening around me when I’m on campus because I, like many other students, wander from class to class with my earbuds in and the volume up. Way up. I love my music loud no matter what I’m doing: working out, studying, lying on my bed pondering life; none of it seems right without blasting my ears out. I’ve always known it isn’t a good idea, but lately I’ve been wondering how not-good of an idea it is.

According to a study published in Time, around 16 percent of adults in the US have a hard time hearing people speak, and over 30 percent of people over twenty have lost some high-frequency hearing. Doctors believe that hearing loss is contributed to by an increased use of headphones.

But how loud is too loud? Time suggests that if you’re listening to your volume at 80 percent for an hour and a half during the day, you should be fine. They suggest that full volume should be listened to for only five minutes a day—that’s crazy!

Even though hearing loss is a concern for everyone, no two ears are the same. What is going to affect you one way is going to affect that woman on the treadmill next to you in a different way—some ears are just stronger than others. But it’s hard to know whose are weaker until after hearing loss has happened, according to Brian Fligor in Time.

I’m no audiologist, but if you ask me, being conservative is probably a safe bet here. So for those of you who like to pulse music into your ears (see what I did there?), let’s vow to take it down a notch! That way, when we’re 80-years-old (Unless you’re already 80, in which case shout out to you!) we will be able to hear the things our kids say about us behind our backs with full clarity!

Image by Brainsonic.

I’m leaving on a spaceship, and I’ll never be back again

 Big Red Mars

-Casey Klekas

Putting a human footprint on Mars is possible within the next twenty years, scientists and Martian advocates say. But, if you don’t want to wait for the technology and funding to come through so you can get to and from the Red Planet, you can now bid for a one-way ticket. That’s right! Scientists say that a sending humans to Mars without the intention of bringing them back to Earth would cut the cost of a mission, just as a one-way ticket to Denver costs less than round trip. This would make the project more economically viable, which is one of the most deciding factors in what has become an ice-cold space race.

Discovery News reports that the ideal and lucky few would likely be past their reproductive prime and spend their retirement establishing a base camp and creating a sustainable environment for future planetary pioneers.

So what would be positive about spending your last years on Mars? On the plus side, you’d weigh 38 percent of what you do on Earth (I’d be past my summertime goal at sixty-nine pounds). Your Martian days would be thirty-seven minutes longer than Earth’s if you wanted to get in some extra reading. You’d also have 669 Martian days, the equivalent of 687 Earth days, in one Martian year. The average temperature measured on Mars is -67 degrees Fahrenheit. But, temperatures have ranged from -200 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit, well above Eugene’s shorts and tank-top level.

You could spend your slightly longer days on Mars mining for water, fossils, and precious metals. You may get sick of the monotonous hue of the Martian backdrop, with colors ranging from orange to darker orange. It’s surface is basically made of rust, or iron oxide, which gives it its red shading. At night you could gaze at Phobos and Deibos, Mars’s two irregular shaped moons.

Let’s say NASA went with the plan to send a few cosmonauts on a one-way trip. If that were the case, it would not just raise questions about cost and engineering, but ethics as well. I guess it depends on how you look at it: Shooting a couple of people in a rocket headed for a barren planet without any chance of bringing them home may sound like a cosmological form of exile. Or, maybe it doesn’t sound that different from the stories of pilgrims leaving the old world of Europe to establish a new life in America.

Let’s grant that the two to four people sent to Mars are going willingly. Does that mean it would dissolve our ethical responsibilities? Certainly not, because we would be the ones sending them to their eventual, lonely deaths (can you make it to heaven from Mars?). Without our consent, the consent of NASA, and the good ol’ tax-paying American citizen, the mission would not exist.

The effects of a thirty-five million to 250 million mile journey on the human psyche are also under consideration by the Mars-bound hopefuls. Russian researchers have been conducting isolation experiments on six poor devils that have been locked in a room for over 500 days. Their internal clocks never adapted to the office lighting, causing the men to suffer insomnia. Add this to the knowledge that you’re in friggin’ space and can never turn around and that your destination is also where you’ll be buried. Again, the troopers on the voyage will have full knowledge of what they’ve bargained for, but if they change their mind on the interplanetary flight or when tilling the Martian sand, expect the world’s first cosmo-mutiny.

Sending two to four people to stay on another planet for the rest of their lives would be an unprecedented event. I mean that quite literally. It would have no equal in human history. Of course, this will open the pod-bay doors (HAL) to further man-and-womanned-missions to Mars. It could possibly mark the first chapter in the story of human colonization on the fourth rock from the sun. Or we could find ourselves being made to listen to the cries for help by the sick and deranged trailblazers from the Martian surface. (Hypothetical newsflash: at least three dead on Mars, no source to confirm fourth). My hope is that we wait to do this the old-fashioned way, with government money, a NASA logo, and a return flight home. “Cheap and quick” is liable to land you on Venus or something.

Image by Kevin M. Gill.

1.21 Gigawatts: Robots to the Rescue

-Sarah Keartes

Camera one pans out as the injured victim is lowered from a helicopter to the blue truck that waits on the ground below. The music builds. His body swings with the wind, narrowly missing the bed of the truck. Finally, he is lowered to safety–but he is not safe yet. The victim must reach the hospital across the body of water, but the bridge has fallen. Enter the robot fleet.

While this scene could open the next installment of Transformers, it actually describes the real-life creation of engineering professors Vijay Kumar and Mark Yim. Kumar and Yim, who in connection with the Defense Advanced Projects research Agency  (DARPA), are heading a University of Pennsylvania team to create a fleet of autonomous robots that could provide global disaster relief and assistance.

The researchers have built one hundred scale models of what would be flat-top robotic boats the size of standard shipping containers. Once deployed, the boats can travel to a set location, and interlock using a hook-and-tether mechanism to form an above-water platform of any shape and size.

In order to avoid a literal crash-and-burn of the platform, Kumar and Yim needed to find a way for the robots to “see” each other. Each boat has been equipped with a marking, similar to a QR code that can be scanned using any smart-phone. Using these markings, a camera system transmits information to on-board computers which enable the robots to perceive their location and the location of their ro-buddies.

“We give them a structure, and then each boat figures out where to go and in what sequence to go to make that structure,” Yim said.

The real boats would rely on GPS to find each other, and could form temporary bridges, provide assistance during oil spills, or be used as a landing surface for sea-rescue much like much like US NAVY Aircraft Carriers.

The project, a leg of DARPA’s Tactically Expandable Maritime Platform (TEMP), aims to provide relief without relying on local infrastructure, which would free military vessels to perform other tasks with greater efficiency.

Further research must be conducted to determine how the TEMP fleet will handle the stress of large waves and bad weather at sea, but budget constraints leave full-scale development of these human helping ‘bots up in the air.

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1.21 Gigawatts: Glowing Plants – Lighting the Path into the Future?

Glowing Plants

-Sarah Keartes

Just two weeks ago, in what they call “the first step in creating sustainable natural lighting” a team of Stanford scientists headed by Antony Evans, a Singularity University alumnus, launched the “Glowing Plant” project—the first ever synthetic biology proposal to hit kickstarter.

Inspired by fireflies and aquatic bioluminescence (think Life of Pi), the project aims to create glowing plants that could eventually replace electric or gas lighting. What’s incredible is that all of the technology required to jump-start the plant production already exists.

“What is innovative and exciting about this project is not so much new application of  technology—it is that these three guys [in a DIY science lab] are bringing synthetic biology into the mainstream,” Lisa Smolenska PhD Molecular Plant Virology told Flux.

“They are taking an idea and bringing it to the public—and the public is listening and playing their part in scientific development for their future. That is what’s cool about it,” she said.

“Glowing Plants” (GP) builds on research dating back to 1986. The process started with isolating and sequencing the Luciferase-luciferin gene, which codes for an enzyme that allows organisms like fireflies and bioluminescent bacteria to glow.

Now sequenced, the genetic information can be manipulated using software like “Genome Compiler” to make it more readable by the plant’s cells. The newly designed plant friendly code is “printed”—after  it is synthesized to the correct length, lasers are used to cut out and throw away any  codes  that do not perfectly match the design.  This new DNA will eventually be introduced into the plant using a Gene Gun. Initially, transforming the plant will be done using the Agrobacterium method:

“Our printed DNA will be inserted into a special type of bacteria which can insert its DNA into the plant. Flowers of the plant are then dipped into a solution containing the transformed bacteria. The bacteria injects our DNA into the cell nucleus of the flowers which pass it onto their seeds,” the team explains.

Gene Guns, computer programs making DNA—and printing copies? If this is all starting to scramble your brain, fear not. Think of it this way: Genome Compiler, which was founded by GP team member Omri Amirav-Drory, works by viewing biological genetic code much like binary computer code (made of ones and zeroes). The program is able to “design, debug, and compile” the code to make it readable by chromosomes and genomes (the software)  that run in living cells (the hardware).

“Living things are just another form of information technology,” they explain. “We can design living things the same way we can design computer code.”

Using similar techniques, the University of Cambridge 2010 iGem team was able to create modified E. Coli bacteria which produced enough light to read by, and in several colors. Their creation, cleverly dubbed “E. Glowli” set the benchmark for synthetic bioluminescence, one which GP hopes to eventually meet.

“It’s certainly feasible…can you make something that is brighter than what is occurring in nature? That is the grand challenge—for now the challenge is making something beautiful,” Harvard University Professor of Genetics George Church said in an interview.

By choosing to launch their project on kickstarter, the GP team is getting the public involved.

Through funding platforms like these “scientists can practice science without having to go to large, highly competitive funding bodies or corporations, and highly technical projects now have visibility to the general public,” Smolenska said.

The project soared past its initial $65,000 goal, and has now raised over $190,000 pledged by 3342 curious supporters (myself among them). The funds raised will be used to print DNA—a process that costs a minimum of twenty-five cents per base pair. Sounds cheap enough, right? Keep in mind that the sequences used for the project are approximately 10,000 base pairs long, and multiple sequences will be printed for testing.

Pledges of forty dollars or more are being rewarded with a batch of GP seeds, which will be sent out in late 2014.

Luciferase is not a pesticide or known toxin, and the GP team is taking precautions to ensure this project is “as safe as we can get.” Still, as with all genetic modification (GM) centered projects, some debate has risen regarding the ethical implications and ecological risks of introducing these plants—as what could happen remains unknown.

The Glowing Plants project has roots in the past and eyes on the future—building on what was started by those before them, and turning to those around them. Nanos gigantum humeris insidentes:  Dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants.

“What you’ll be getting is more than a glowing plant…the glowing plant is a symbol of the future, a symbol of sustainability, a symbol to inspire others to create new living things,” Evans said.

Want to grow your own glow? Watch the Kickstarter video!

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Image by Jay Salamandras.