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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