Science Sunday Roundup – and an open thread

Once again friends, it’s time for this week’s science news round-up.

Cool Tech and Gadgets

Help for the nearly-blind: Researchers at Oxford University are developing a new kind of ‘smart’ eyeglasses to help those with extremely degraded vision see well enough to get around in the world. The majority of people designated ‘officially’ blind nevertheless have some residual ability to see light and motion. The idea is to tailor visual input to make the most use of what remains, helping those with blindness due to glaucoma, retinopathy, and macular degeneration.

Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles prototype

Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles prototype

Consumer-level and -priced virtual reality, sooner than you think: Oculus VR has been developing a new kind of virtual reality headset that right now is available for developers, but will soon (2014 projected) be available for consumers. Yeah, it looks incredibly dorky at present, like an immense pair of ski goggles, but they’re working steadily at miniaturizing the whole rig and making it lighter. In addition to science and tech applications, I have to let y’all know: Gamers like myself are drooling at the chance to go full-immersion in our gaming worlds.

What’s especially innovative is these have motion sensing built in, so that to change your viewing perspective, you don’t move a mouse or hold down a controller button, but just move your head. Price is expected to be around $300 (US) retail for the finished model, same as the developer version.

Step aside 3D printing — here comes 4D: University researchers aren’t satisfied with just unchanging 3D printing. Now there’s a push to develop 3D printed objects that can change over time (the fourth dimension). Some of the applications mentioned include self-assembling constructs (not sure I like the sound of that), bridges that can ‘heal’ cracks on their own, and pipes that can expand or contract as needed.

How to spot an ATM ‘skimmer’ device: Well, the truth is this one is simpler than it might sound. If something seems hinky about the point-of-sale card reader or ATM you’re about to use, the advice is not to use it. However, the linked story does include some helpful suggestions, including checking to see if the reader slot seems loose, or if the PIN number pad is thicker than seems right. Most often though, the card ‘skimmers’ (a device to read your card’s magnetic strip) is paired with a simple remote camera pointed the number entry pad. Easiest way to defeat it? Always cover or obstruct your hand when entering your number.

How you should never use an ATM

How you should never use an ATM

Earth Science

Fossilized tree stump at Mount Achernar, Antarctica (photo: Patricia Ryberg)

Fossilized tree stump at Mount Achernar, Antarctica (photo: Patricia Ryberg)

Antarctica once had forests: Most science students have heard this, that at one time, the continent of Antarctica wasn’t the barren, frozen wasteland it is now — due in large part because it used to be much closer to the equator until continental drift resettled it at the south pole. Patricia Ryberg of the University of Kansas has been examining the fossilized remains of tree trunks near Mount Achernar (Location: -84.2,160.933333). For a long time, they couldn’t figure out what these forests were like. Ryberg has found clear evidence they were mixed deciduous (leafy) and coniferous (pine).

Dog tail-wagging — it has meaning: A dog’s tail wag isn’t just “I’m happy.” The side to which it wags actually means something. On average, a dog wagging its tail to the right signifies positive emotions, such as seeing the Food Providing God come home. A wag to the left can signify anxiousness. Moreover, a dog seeing another dog wagging its tail to the left will also feel anxious, but when seeing a wag to the right, they remain calm.

Daylight savings time, ugh: I’ll admit I believe we should stop the whole DST nonsense and just keep the same clock time, year round. Anyway, don’t forget to set your clocks back an hour if you haven’t already done so, if you live in an area that observes it: “Spring ahead, fall backward.”

Space News

Solar eclipse!: By time you’re reading this, the only total eclipse of 2013 will likely be over, and in any case was visible only for people who got up at dawn on America’s east coast, or were watching from Africa, or happened to see it online. And it’s going to be a very short, fast-moving eclipse, lasting just 20 to 99 seconds (depending on location). Or you could do as I’m going to do: Sleep in, and watch the video coverage afterwards. What makes this one unusual is it’s a rare ‘hybrid’ eclipse in that it will appear total (full sun coverage) in some places, but annular (moon slightly smaller than the sun, so there’s a ring) in others. The eclipse this past May, seen by much of America, was annular.

(Oh, and by the way, the usual disclaimer: Do not EVER look directly at an eclipse or at one through an unfiltered telescope, binoculars, or even through a lens camera, or you may find yourself in need of one of those devices to help the nearly blind see with what little vision they have left.)

Shadow-rings from the May 2013 eclipse (photo credit: Me!)

Shadow-rings from the May 2013 eclipse (photo credit: Me!)

Supernovae are rare, but…: Ohio State University astronomers have developed a statistical model that have calculated the odds of an observable supernova (the most violent type of star explosion) in the Milky Way galaxy (our home) during the next 50 years to be 100%. Mind, they don’t have a specific star for this, and their definition of ‘observable’ means it can be picked up by neutrino detectors and, at minimum, infrared telescopes. Unfortunately, they put the likelihood of a supernova like the one in 1604 that was bright enough to be seen during the day at just 5%.

NASA powers up the Orion capsule prototype: Last week, NASA announced they’ve powered up their deep space craft, Orion, for the first time, in order to test its vehicle management computer, as well as its power distribution systems and buses. By this time next year, they’re hoping to have its first test flight. For more information, check out the official NASA mission page for Orion.

Orion crew module being worked on at the Kennedy Space Center (photo: Lockheed Martin)

Orion crew module being worked on at the Kennedy Space Center (photo: Lockheed Martin)

And finally, today’s video treat — and yet another my indulgences in all things Mars, the European Space Agency has released a super-cool 3-D (-ish) video using data and imagery from the ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft.

Generated 3D imagery from ESA's Mars Express probe

Generated 3D imagery from ESA’s Mars Express probe

For the last decade, the Mars Express has been circling the planet, taking photos, for nearly 12,000 orbits. It’s worth watching in full-screen mode if available; the good stuff starts about a minute in. And as always, consider this an open thread.

Published professional writer and poet, Becca had a three decade career in technical writing and consulting before selling off most of her possessions in 2006 to go live at an ashram in India for 3 years. She loves literature (especially science fiction), technology and science, progressive politics, cool electronic gadgets, and perfecting Hatch green chile recipes. Fortunately for this last, Becca and her wife currently live in New Mexico. @BeccaMorn

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18 Responses to “Science Sunday Roundup – and an open thread”

  1. rmthunter says:

    It seems as though every time there’s an eclipse, Chicago has cloud cover.

    Carnivorous squirrels — first hand observation. I was out in the back and saw a squirrel on the fence who had obviously just been in the alley raiding the garbage — he had a bone from a chicken drumstick in his mouth. He jumped up on the garage roof (it’s a high fence) and proceeded to strip the bits of meat off the bone and gnaw on the gristle.

    Sounds like the makings of a horror film parody to me — maybe a “Willard” take-off.

  2. Hue-Man says:

    I’d written a short personal anecdote but didn’t want it to get in the way of real reporting (and have a built-in distrust of personal anecdotes viz. the attacks on Obamacare that start “I know somebody who….”) Two decades ago, I worked on a 6-month project with two bookkeepers/accounting clerks from the Philippines. My biggest problem was getting them to go home at a reasonable hour! Their work was accurate and delivered on time, they fit in well with the group, and their accented English was never a problem in understanding or communicating. In fact, I wrote a glowing job reference for the more senior of the two.

    It especially struck me that these newcomers from the Phlippines are moving to a frontier land that my great-grandparents homesteaded a century ago. Although 21st century infrastructure is substantially better than its late 19th century version, the challenges and opportunities differ only in degree.

  3. Straightnotnarrow says:

    Becca I need to know what games you play. I can see you banging on a Draenei shaman or some such ;).

  4. mirror says:

    Fascinating. Thanks for posting.

  5. Hue-Man says:

    One newspaper article which holds two surprises for me, requiring a rewrite of some basic assumptions.

    1. “…[t]he Philippines pipped China and India last year as the greatest source of immigrants to Canada. Still, it is likely that many Canadians are not aware of this.”

    2. “Filipinos may be invisible to many Canadians because unlike other immigrant communities, which are heavily concentrated in urban centres such as Toronto and Vancouver, many Filipinos live in small towns all across Canada.”

    “About 32,000 Filipinos became permanent residents [=green card holders] in Canada last year. That’s about double the number that did so only eight years earlier.”

    “Robert Tanante joined this wave last month. The 22-year-old nurse has been “preparing for our future in a small town in Saskatchewan where he says there are lots of other Filipinos,” said his fiance, Jahmaica Oropesa.”

    Shrinking rural populations is a national problem – no employment opportunities mean that businesses, health services, and schools shut down which reduces further the number of employment opportunities. “Pioneering” immigrants from the Philippines may revitalize these disappearing small towns.

  6. Hue-Man says:

    Understood – I think we’d all like to be around for a “Goldilocks” supernova – close enough to be spectacular but not so close as to mess up our solar neighborhood! The “youngest” story was more about the importance of amateurs in astronomical discoveries and that there’s no real age barrier to the work. I personally can’t imagine comparing thousands of photographic images looking for a light that wasn’t on the first image.

  7. BeccaM says:

    Re: Supernova — the story was about whether or not we’d see one in our galaxy, the Milky Way, within 50 years. Spotting them in other galaxies is pretty commonplace.

  8. goulo says:

    About ATM security:
    The guy interviewed (Brian Krebs) has a great blog about that and many other computer security issues.

    Using ATMs actually at a bank is much safer since it’s harder for bad guys to mess with those ATMs than with ATMs in other places, which are watched less carefully and maintained less often.

    Also very important:
    Choose a good secure PIN! Some research on leaked password found that 10% of people literally use 1234 as their PIN! There are 10*10*10*10=10000 possible PINs, but a lot of people use very common PINs like 1234, 1111, 0000, 1212, etc, which makes it quite likely that someone who steals or finds their card can simply guess their pin, without even needing fancy ATM skimming technology. E.g. see this excellent article about commonly used PINs:

  9. karmanot says:

    I’m curious about the dog tail wagging. If the dog is already wagging when one sees it, how does one decide whether it started to the left or right? Bodhi dog has at least two modes: the usual wagging with sub sets left and right and the circle wag. I’m assuming the circle wag is because of his name. :-)

  10. Indigo says:

    Fascinating developments.

  11. Hue-Man says:

    “A 10-year-old boy in Nova Scotia has become the youngest person to discover a supernova, trumping his sister’s record.” I can’t tell if this piece of information is relevant or not…His father “is Former Royal Astronomical Society of Canada president Dave Lane [who] took the astronomical images.”

    Nothing bad can come from dumping our garbage into the oceans (and the atmosphere) can it? “The Vancouver Aquarium freed two sea lions trapped in marine debris on the west coast of Vancouver Island last week, marking the first time sea lions have been disentangled in the Canadian wild.” Video and disturbing photos.

    “A group of international scientists and conservationists travelled deep below the ocean’s surface off West Vancouver and Howe Sound this week, exploring some extraordinary glass sponge reefs. The glass sponge reefs are made by creatures that date back to the Jurassic era and are so rare in the world, until recently, they were thought to be extinct. The Vancouver-Whistler highway follows Howe Sound – I’ve driven that road hundreds of time.

  12. BeccaM says:

    Yep, that works great, too.

    Our hope eventually here is to build a proper observatory (amateur grade, of course) and get a decent 10-12 inch dobsonian — with a collection of solar filters. I love watching sunspots.

  13. Monoceros Forth says:

    I like the method of telescope projection; a pair of binoculars will serve just as well for this. Just aim the instrument at the sun (without looking through it of course!) and hold up a white screen behind the eyepiece.

  14. Monoceros Forth says:

    It’s been shown also that mixtures of amino acids can spontaneously form polymers that can then assemble themselves into membrane-bound spherules (Sidney Fox’s “microspheres”.)

    I don’t know too much about the clay hypothesis, though I have heard of it. That such fringe hypotheses can persist is some measure of the unfortunately speculative nature of this scientific field. Scientists are nibbling away at the edge of the problem but beyond those edges lies a great expanse of uncertainty.

  15. BeccaM says:

    I remember reading a few years back about lipid solutions and the way the phospholipids will spontaneously create little lipid spheres — just the thing a fragile combination of chemicals needs for protection from water and other solvents, as well as UV radiation.

    There’s been a competing theory about clays serving the purpose of stable matrix, but it never seemed terribly plausible to me.

  16. BeccaM says:


    And yep — the old ‘pinhole camera’ thing has always worked. Personally, one of my favorite things to do during an eclipse is find a tree with thick leaves and look at the shadows cast on the ground or on a wall, as with that photo in the post above.

  17. Monoceros Forth says:


    Some days ago Ars Technica posted a fascinating item dealing with one of my favorite chemical obsessions: how “chemical evolution” progressed from basic chemical reactions to the first self-organized, self-replicating entity. We’ve known for decades now that the essential components of living organisms–amino acids, nucleotides, and so forth–can be synthesized easily from simple inorganic precursors (water and methane and so forth) by many plausible means. We know also that some of the fundamental processes of life, most importantly the catalysis of biochemical reactions that is normally accomplished in living organisms by highly structured proteins (enzymes), can be carried out by simpler, cruder molecules, most notably by single-stranded RNA molecules. The gaps that remain to be bridged in our grasp of chemical abiogenesis are vast.

    At least one of those gaps may have been filled: The question addressed is: how did all the enzymes and other necessary compounds to carry out a complex biochemical synthesis manage to get themselves assembled into one place, the confines of a single cell? A team of Italian scientists tackled this problem by making up a mixture of eighty-three compounds that, when they’re all working properly in concert, synthesize “Green Fluorescent Protein”. (I’ve worked with this stuff a little because inserting a gene into a bacterium to synthesize GFP has become a routine and very cool undergraduate-level biology experiment.) All on their own, in a dilute solution, this mixture of compounds does not produce any GFP; they need to be concentrated in one place to do the job.

    Then the Italian scientists added a phospholipid, 1-palmitoyl-2-oleoylphosphatidylcholine (POPC), to the mixture. Phospholipids in dilute aqueous suspension spontaneously organize into nanometer-scale spherical aggregates called “liposomes”, small vesicles surrounded by a lipid bilayer just like that found in living cells. (Again I have some slight experience with this; I did some experiments in measuring the size of liposomes that were created by extruding phospholipid solutions through a porous membrane.) When the liposomes form they trap some of the compounds floating around in the bulk solution. To their amazement the Italian biologists found that five out of a thousand of the liposomes forms contained all eighty-three of the necessary components to make GFP. That is an astounding proportion. It suggests that a high degree of self-organization is inherent in such complex biochemical reactions.

  18. Indigo says:

    As for virtual reality, I’ll wait for the holodeck but my plans for the holodeck are far from virtuous.

    The solar eclipse was semi-visible at dawn here in Flaw’d, I use the two pieces of paper method. Stick a pin through one of the pieces (actually, I use index cards) to make a hole, turn your back to the sun, adjust the pierced piece until a spot of sunlight shines through onto the solid piece. Low and behold! The eclipse in miniature, approximately 1/4 eclipsed here on the peninsula.

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