Tag Archives: 1.21 Gigawatts

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: Artist Spotlight – John Conway, Bringing Dinosaurs Back


-Sarah Keartes

London-based artist John Conway spends his time in many walks of life—prehistoric life, that is.

Conway focuses on two genres of art: “paleontological reconstruction and, well, everything else,” a combination which allows for breathtaking imaginative overlap.

“John’s art melds illustrative skill and a variety of approaches with scientific detail and imagination,” science writer Brian Switek, who specializes in evolution, paleontology, and natural history, told Flux in an interview.

The path to creating accurate representations of prehistoric flora and fauna is riddled with challenges—the biggest perhaps being the initial research.

“Things are particularly difficult for artists here, even the most scientifically minded of us,” Conway said. “Scientific literature simply isn’t written with the problems of artists in mind; the crucial information on the appearance of fossil animals and environments can be spread across hundreds of papers, and even then there are huge gaps.”

Reconstructing plant life is particularly difficult as a decent-sized painting might have dozens of species, and gathering information on each is a daunting task.

“I’ve been putting a lot of effort into this over the last couple of years, and I’m still nowhere near where I’d like to be,” he said.

Conway’s fascination with paleontology began during childhood. Sparked by Bob Baker’s book The Dinosaur Heresies, his love for dinosaurs quickly intertwined with his passion for art.

“Certainly by the time I was fifteen, I was very into painting—especially nineteenth century landscape painters, and some modernists, as well as the paleontological artists,” he said.

It didn’t take long for Conway to dive into his own paleo-art career. At seventeen, he went to work for a museum in his hometown of Canberra, Australia, where he painted life-sized murals behind the dinosaur skeletons. Six years later, it was time for bigger and better.

“I grew up in a very dull city,” he said. “I left [Canberra] at age 23, while halfway through a philosophy/biology degree, to take up a very glamorous job working in Hall Train Studios making pterosaurs and dinosaurs.”

Hall Train, located in Ontario, Canada, is one of the leaders in the design and creation of exhibit paleo-environments, which are featured in natural history museums, science centers, and theme parks around the world, as well as one of the world’s foremost suppliers of dinosaur animation for television.

Credit: John Conway
“A year later, I moved to London and have been freelancing successfully (and mostly unsuccessfully) ever since…the money is terrible” Conway said.

On occasion Conway is challenged with completely reconstructing animals from the fossils, up. To do this, he must first draw all of the individual bones and assemble the skeleton, then comes the challenge of reconstructing muscles and other soft tissue using relatives through phylogenetic bracketing.

Greg Paul and, more recently, Scott Hartman have done an amazing job recreating dinosaur skeletons—I use those where available,” he said.

Conway’s non-paleo-art spans a vast variety of subjects, from alien life forms, to abstract representations of lyrics and mythologies, to beautifully obscure portraits of musical instruments.

“I’m very jealous of music and its apparently privileged connection to emotion in our brains. I have the rhythm of a drunken caffeinated turkey,” he said jokingly. “It has recently dawned on me that I will not live long enough to become a composer, an architect, a city planner, a singer-songwriter, an academic philosopher, a filmmaker, a paleontologist, a novelist, an engineer, a rock-star programmer, a shipbuilder, and a Lego-set designer.”

Though there is a distinct separation between Conway’s paleontological art and the rest, all of his work shares a similar aesthetic. He has an incredible ability to create life and motion is his computer-native art, much of which is still life recreation.

“He does far more than try to get the dinosaurs right: he gives them a kind of vitality that is sometimes lost in attempts where technical details trump the goal of trying to restore the animals as they once lived,” science writer Switek said. “People want to know what these animals looked like, and so it warms the cockles of my petrified heart to see John and other artists really do their homework while pushing the boundaries of what we can imagine about dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals… Their work helps bring new science out to the public, and I am very thankful for that.”

Conway’s art has been featured worldwide, in countless blogs, publications, and in documentaries for National Geographic, BBC, and the Discovery Channel. Most exciting was the internet response to his book, All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals.

“In 2012 I decided to pursue a direct-to-people strategy of selling my work… All Yesterdays seemed like the most complete, and best suited of our various projects,” Conway said.

The beautifully illustrated book, which was co-written by C.M. Kosemen and Darren Nash, helped define a new paleo-art movement and is recognized as a celebration of Mesozoic life.

“It’s been amazingly well received critically and got heaps of coverage,” Conway said. “Though we are far from the only artists to produce the kinds of reconstructions you see in the book, I think it has come at just the right time, giving articulation and focus to what many of us have been feeling about paleontological reconstruction latterly.”

For Conway, paleontological art is about more than simply science communication.

“Honestly, such a goal would bore me. I think it should also have another goal, which has to do with enriching our lives through aesthetic experiences—shifting our feelings of the world,” he said

Want to know more about John Conway and his art? Visit his website or contact him on Twitter.

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1.21 Gigawatts: “Mermaids, New Evidence” – When Faux-cumentaries Attack…Again.

-Sarah Keartes

Described as the “rotting carcass of science TV,” Mermaids: the Body Found was the most appalling piece of docu-fiction I had ever seen—until last week.

Up from the depths of the Animal Planet sludgy abyss swam a new “documentary:” a follow up to The Body Found which originally aired as part of “Monster Week” (telling).

Mermaids: The New Evidence, which set an all-time ratings record for the network (3.6 million viewers), has the internet abuzz once again as scientists around the world desperately try to expose the film for what it is—not real.

The sister films combine documentary filmmaking techniques such as narrated reenactments, interviews, and vlogs, with debunked “evidence” and “theories” to drive home the main point: mermaids are real, and they are being concealed by marine biologists and the government.

“After watching this I said to myself ‘if the videos are real then it’s not a matter of it being a theory, it’s actual fact – ‘mermaids’ DO EXIST’. But that was the big ‘if,’” one viewer said.

“Ninety percent of the ocean is unexplored and you’re telling me #mermaids don’t exist,” said another, a statement which has been retweeted more than 800 times.

Firstly, there is no debate to whether or not either faux-cumentary is fake; the disclaimer at the beginning of both films clearly states:

“None of the individuals or entities depicted in the film are affiliated or associated with it in any way, nor have approved its contents. Any similarities to actual persons living or dead are entirely coincidental.”

Most (if not all) of the scientists, government officials, and professors in both films are in fact, actors, including the returning “Dr. Paul Robertson” (played by Andre Weideman) flaunted as “a former researcher for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration” (NOAA).

After The Body Found aired in 2011, NOAA released an official statement to clear up their implied contribution to the film.

“The belief in mermaids may have arisen at the very dawn of our species…But are mermaids real? No evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found. Why, then, do they occupy the collective unconscious of nearly all seafaring peoples? That’s a question best left to historians, philosophers, and anthropologists,” they said.

NOAA was not notified that the second documentary would be aired.

“They [NOAA] handled it beautifully—with aplomb,” Animal Planet GM Marjorie Kaplan said of NOAA’s response to the first mermaid special.

She added she was “pleased to note [that] you can’t be sued by the government” even for implying that they are spending billions concealing the entire cast of The Little Mermaid.

With so much previous evidence, why then are people still being dooped?

“The fact that the mermaid shows are fiction was easy enough to miss. Animal Planet certainly played up how authentic the illusory evidence was, including faked vlogs that didn’t bother to say that they were scripted,” science writer Brian Switek said in his National Geographic blog post.

“The channel’s page about Monster Week—of which the mermaids sludge was a part—likewise touts ‘physical evidence linked to the existence of mermaids’ without saying the show is a fantasy,” he said.

Like many people who have “Mocked the Doc,” I have taken some flak for my involvement in the “#mermaids” twitter conversation.

“Just because you have no imagination, doesn’t mean you have to bring us down with you, scientists and science people have no appreciation of fantasy—it’s sad really,” one person, let’s call her “Ursula” said in an email.

Anyone who knows me well  knows that I am more into fantasy than the average Joe—hell I’m still waiting for Robb Stark to come back from the dead and swoop me up riding Falkor so that we may run off into the double Tatooine sunset together.

I do not take issue with mermaids. I do not take issue with mermaids on television. But masquerading fiction as fact using debunked information—and on a network with a reputation (or at least a former one)—is fundamentally wrong.

“It’s not satire. It’s not parody. It’s a giant middle finger to the public,” Marine biologist Andrew David Thaler said.

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Image by Pets Advisor.

1.21 Gigawatts: Do U(O) Know? WTF Evolution!


-Sarah Keartes

Is it possible for a cute, cuddly, normal land mammal to smell underwater? Forty students were polled, thirty-nine answered no.

“Sure it is, right before it drowns,” one student told Flux.

Ninety-eight percent: that is a pretty cohesive answer, but once again University of Oregon Students, you are incorrect. To the one student who answered yes, I commend you.

Enter the first star in a lineup of five creatures that have evolved unbelievable abilities, the Star Nosed Mole.

#1 Underwater Smelling: Star Nosed Mole (Condylura cristata)


It’s certainly not the most beautiful rodent, but when it comes to strange abilities, the Star Nosed Mole has one for the charts: underwater smelling.

The tiny mole uses it’s strange twenty-two-tenticled sniffer to blow and re-inhale air bubbles underwater. Five to ten bubbles per second (about the same speed a rat sniffs a suspicious odor) are aimed at potential prey items when the mole is submerged.

Each fleshy tentacle of the nose is covered in 25,000 sensory receptors called Eimer’s organs that the mole uses to find food in its marshy habitat.

“When these bubbles come into contact with an object, it is almost inevitable that odorant molecules will mix with the air and be drawn into the nose when the bubble is inhaled,” Kenneth Catania, assistant professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt University, said.

#2 Mountain Dive: Venezuelan Pebble Toad (Oreophrynella nigra)


Measuring only a few centimeters long, this teeny toad has picked quite a dangerous place to call home—the flat, table-like Tepui Mountains, which rise thousands of feet above the Northern edge of the Amazon rainforest.

Luckily the Pebble Toad has no problem with falling—in fact, it relies on it. Only able to hop a maximum distance of one inch, the toad has developed an alternate mode of escape.

When threatened, it curls in its limbs, tenses its muscles, and hurdles itself down the nearest cliff face, bouncing down the rocks like a rubber ball.

Because it is so small, and weighs so little, the forces of impact are too light to cause it any harm. Watch high-speed video of this amazing escape artist here!

#3 Bloody Eyed Bandit: Texas Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum)


The Texas Horned Lizard, introduced to the western United States through the pet trade, is native to the southeastern coastal plains, a desert environment made mostly of sand dunes.

Like most dune-goers, ants and small insects make up the majority of the reptile’s diet. Foraging for ants (about 200 per day) means spending long periods of time in the open. In order to protect itself, the lizard has developed quite a few defense mechanisms, but one is far stranger than the rest.

Should a predator not be deterred by its camouflaged coloring, playing dead, or spiked back (which can be used to pierce the throats of birds and small predators), the Horned Lizard will squirt an unexpected foul tasting blood excretion from the sinuses behind its eyes.

Taking this extreme action doesn’t hurt the lizard, but it consumes up to a quarter of the body’s blood so it is only deployed when absolutely necessary.

#4 Now You See Me, Now You Boom: Harlequin Mantis Shrimp (Odontodactylus scyllarus)



Credit: Perry Aragon

The Harlequin (or Peacock) Mantis Shrimp is undoubtedly one of the most beautifully colored animals in the ocean, but don’t let that fool you. This crustacean packs a mean punch—the fastest in the world, in fact.

Reaching speeds over fifty mph and delivering approximately 160 pounds of instantaneous force with its spring loaded clubs, the mantis shrimp can easily crack the shells of clams and other mollusks—but has also been known to TKO aquarium glass without causing any damage to itself.

Studies show that the club structure is made up of three layers of differing hardness, stiffness, and orientation, which allow small cracks to form in the club but prevent them from growing or spreading. The outermost layer is made of highly crystallized form of the mineral hydroxyapatite, a key component of human bone and teeth.

Not only does the Mantis Shrimp boast some of the most effective arsenal in the world, but it also has the most complex vision system currently known to science, able to detect circular polarized light, something no other creature can do.

#5 Take a Deep Breath: Spanish Ribbed Newt (Pleurodeles waltl)


What do Xmen’s “Wolverine” and this small nondescript newt have in common? Skin piercing spikes, of course—but for the Spanish Ribbed Newt, using them is a last resort.

Newts’ skin is moist and quite slippery, so squirming away to escape predation is quite effective. But should the Spanish Ribbed Newt find itself cornered, it moves on to phase two.

When attacked or threatened the Newt will rotate its ribs forward, increasing their angle to the spine while holding the rest of its body still. When the force becomes too great, the sharp spear-like ribs actually pierce through the newt’s skin. As the ribs come through, a toxin, which is bothersome to humans but potent enough to kill small rodents, is excreted through pores in the skin.

The newt not only appears to be immune to its own poison, which seeps into the body tissue when the ribs are exposed, but also displays extraordinary skin regeneration.

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

madscientist sci-tube-01

-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


-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.

1.21 Gigawatts: Seahorse Armor Inspires Robotic Engineering


-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.

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: Giant Snails do Demo in Florida

african land snail

-Sarah Keartes

South Florida residents have begun a battle with public danger in the form of . . . snails. Giant Snails, to be exact. Precisely when the thousands of Giant African Land Snails invaded the Sunshine State is unknown, but the new neighbors are posing real problems for the local flora, fauna, and—architecture?

Not only do these snails grow to approximately eight inches in length and consume more than five hundred species of plants, but they can also eat through plaster and stucco, which provides the calcium needed for shell restoration.

Unknown to most, snails feed using a radulae, tiny (or in this case, not-so-tiny), toothy organs. No chewing necessary—the teeth on a radula (which can number in the thousands) are used to tear, grate, and grind, and are replaced as they wear down. Some species of snail also produce an acidic secretion to break down calcium sources like the shells of other mollusks.


Florida certainly has a knack for accumulating visitors. In fact, about one thousand people move there every day. Why Florida? Perhaps it is the promise of low taxes, competitive school districts, and affordable housing—perhaps it is the allure of the beach. For Florida’s most recent set of squatters, it is most certainly the weather.

Native to east Africa, the giant snails thrive in warm climates, and have already settled their brigade of mobile homes in Barbados, the Hawaiian Islands, and India.

What have the southerners done to combat the hungry home-wreckers? Enter the snail-hunters. The Agricultural Department of Miami-Dade County has a staff of fifty dedicated to nothing but slimey search-and-destroy.

“Nearly one thousand snails per week are being rounded up” using a bate made with iron phosphate, Denise Feiber, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, told BBC.

Is the mollusk mass-murder really necessary? This question has caused some conflict among the locals.

“They’re huge, they move around, they look like they’re looking at you … communicating with you, and people enjoy them for that,” Feiber said. “…But they don’t realize the devastation they can create if they are released into the environment where they don’t have any natural enemies.”

A fertile Land Snail can lay up to 1,200 eggs per year, and can live up to nine years. One snail becomes over 10,000 before it bites..no wait…grinds the dust? It’s certainly a problem that needs solving, but I can’t help but cringe at the thought of sending 117,000 (and counting) of them to an oozy grave.

This isn’t the first exotic invasion Florida has had to face. A recent invasion of Burmese pythons sparked “The Python Challenge.” Sponsored by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the challenge presented locals with the opportunity to “competitively harvest” Burmese pythons. In other words? After paying the $25 entry fee, and signing the extensive waiver, locals plunged into Florida waters to wrangle and kill the exotic snakes—hoping to nab the $1,500 grand prize.

Sure, we’re thinking up creative ways to deal with new “pests,” but the underlying problem behind these exotic “invasions” lies within our own exotic pet trade, which makes up a multi-billion dollar black market industry in the U.S. alone.

The US Department of Agriculture has already confiscated illegal Giant African Land Snails from commercial pet stores, schools and private breeders Wisconsin, Illinois, and Ohio, and Michigan.

As officials continue to round up the sunshine-snails, the fate of the far-from-home mollusks and closer-to-home drywall remains to be seen.

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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.