Archive for February, 2012

The Lunar Ranger: a New Long Read From the Atavist

By Veronique Greenwood | February 24, 2012 8:52 am

Moon Rocks Opener from The Atavist on Vimeo.

On December 13, 1972, on the surface of the moon, the astronauts of Apollo 17 paused in their lunar ramblings to pick up a chunk of rock about 10 centimeters long. After showing to their video camera, they brought the rock back to Earth, where it was named Sample 70017 and broken into hundreds of fragments, 366 of which were each embedded in plastic, glued to a plaque, and presented by the United States to the leaders of the world’s nations as a symbol of peace.

A new piece of narrative journalism published at The Atavist by Joe Kloc tells the story of that 10-centimeter rock and all its far-flung daughters, which, over the last 40 years, have variously disappeared in coups, been forgotten on museum shelves, or made their way by mysterious avenues to the black market. At the heart of the story is Joseph Gutheinz, a former NASA special agent driven by a kind of mania to return stolen moonrocks to their places of honor—even if few others see the value of his quest. I asked Kloc explain the power of these tiny fragments of the moon.

VG: What is it about moonrocks that exert this pull for some people?

JK: The answer isn’t the same for everybody. For [Gutheinz], I think it is about the time in history they capture. He sees them as a way to inspire kids to get back to that time, to become dreamer-scientist-explorers. And then the people who try to sell them for millions [on the black market] obviously want money. But in each case, the idea behind the desire is ultimately that sort of intangible fascination we all have with the moon.

But these particular moon rocks—the fragments presented to the nations of the world in 1973—seem bizarrely at odds with that kind of sacred viewpoint. They were a PR stunt, despite the stated purpose of giving them as emblems of peace. That they are embedded in plastic and glued to plaques makes them unlikely objects of worship.

Maybe the best way to think about it is that the moon missions were always two things: on the one hand a Cold War-sized political power play, on the other a monumental—perhaps the most monumental—human achievement. Now the rocks embody that same positive-negative duality. On the one hand they are a Cold War power play that some want to sell for millions; on the other, they are this relic of one of humanity’s greatest achievements.

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GPS Hacking Helps Thieves Steal Trucks, and Could Let Traders Cheat the Stock Market

By Sarah Zhang | February 23, 2012 5:20 pm

spacing is important

Tampering with GPS signals can cause big problems in both shipping routes and financial markets, warned experts at a conference on GPS security. The technology is routinely used in navigation and time synchronization nowadays, but signals are left vulnerable to jamming and spoofing.

This is partly because GPS signals are relatively weak: “A GPS satellite emits no more power than a car headlight, and with that it has to illuminate half the Earth’s surface,” said David Last, former president of the Royal Institute of Navigation, to the BBC.

Jamming devices work by broadcasting a signal at the same frequency as GPS, and can be bought for less than $100 online. When researchers set up 20 jamming monitors in locations around the UK, they caught 60 incidents in 6 months. They think most of these are from stolen trucks, where thieves jam the truck’s GPS to keep from broadcasting its location. According to Last, jamming GPS ships on ships isn’t much harder: Tests found that every major system was affected by a device with less than 1/1000 the power of a cell phone. The Financial Times reports:
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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math, Technology
MORE ABOUT: GPS, GPS jamming, security

Now That's Current Fashion: Power Your Phone With Clothes Made of Thermoelectric Fabric

By Sarah Zhang | February 23, 2012 1:41 pm

spacing is important

Each of us, just sitting in our chairs, is a little heat energy factory. So why not harness that body heat to power our phones and flashlights? Researchers have invented a thin, flexible “power felt” that can be worn as clothes, converting heat into an electric current. Dead batteries are so out in the future.

The thermoelectric fabric is made by stacking layers of plastic insulation with carbon nanotubes, one-atom-thick cylinders of carbon that are showing up everywhere from x-rays to fuel cells. The current version only makes about 140 nanowatts of power, so it’ll need some improvement before it becomes practical.

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Penguins Decimated by Greedy Blubber Merchant Bounce Back Impressively

By Sarah Zhang | February 22, 2012 2:56 pm

spacing is important
King penguin with chick.

Three squawks for conservation! After New Zealand businessman Joseph Hatch boiled down 3 million Macquarie Island king penguins for their blubber, public outrage helped make the island a wildlife sanctuary in 1933. The king penguins then flourished undisturbed, growing from the decimated population of 3,400 to half a million today. Those raw numbers look good, but to gauge the population’s viability, scientists needed to find out a little more. A new study has found that the population has also recovered to pre-slaughter levels of genetic diversity, just 80 years after their near-extinction.

Population bottlenecks like the one caused by Hatch’s steam digester mean not only fewer individuals but also less diversity in the gene pool. This makes it difficult for the population to adapt to any stresses—a disease, for example, that can wipe out the remaining population if everyone has the same immune system.

To compare pre- and post-bottleneck genetic diversity, the researchers sequenced DNA from 1,000-year-old penguin bones on the island. The ancient DNA samples had similar levels of diversity as modern samples from the foot of living penguins. The researchers were surprised by how the population had recovered and saw this as a testament to conservation efforts.

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A Big Blue Swirl in the Ocean is a Sign of Microscopic Life

By Veronique Greenwood | February 22, 2012 1:13 pm


Along the top of this satellite image lies the coast of South Africa, but follow the sheets of clouds south about 500 miles, and a beautiful, incongruous-looking blue swirl appears. That plankton-laced eddy, which is 90 miles wide, is the oceanic version of a storm, spun off from a larger current and caused by roiling of water instead of air. Eddies in this region bring warm water from the Indian Ocean to the South Atlantic, and they can even pull nutrients up from the deep sea, fertilizing surface waters and causing blooms of plankton in areas that are otherwise rather devoid of life. It is just such a bloom that lends this eddy its cerulean hue.

Image courtesy of NASA’s Earth Observatory

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Space

These "Worms" are Actually a New Family of Amphibians

By Veronique Greenwood | February 22, 2012 12:53 pm

wormsA caecilian from the newly discovered family, coiled over her eggs.

After thousands of hours of digging in the north Indian jungle, scientists have discovered a new family of amphibians. But they don’t look much like frogs: they resemble nothing so much as big, fat nightcrawlers.

There are about 180 species worldwide of legless amphibians, called caecilians (pronounced just like “Sicilian”), which can grow to be up to three feet long and live only in wet, tropical regions. This newly defined Indian family, which falls within that group, includes several species new to science. Caecilians have unusual nesting habits: the females lay eggs deep in the soil and stay coiled around them, apparently without eating, for the 2-3 months it takes for them to hatch. One of the most striking videos we have of the new creatures is of young almost ready to be born squirming and writhing within the clear globes of their eggs, like eyeballs filled with living jelly (watch below).

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New Mini DNA Sequencer, Size of a USB Stick, Is Fast and Cheap

By Veronique Greenwood | February 22, 2012 11:33 am


For years, the cutting edge technology for DNA sequencing has involved mincing DNA up into tiny pieces. Even as sequencing has gotten faster and cheaper, each new process has relied on chopping the DNA up to be analyzed, because, although this process can introduce errors in the readout and can be expensive, it was still the best we had. Now, technology unveiled at a recent conference in Florida could mean that the age of slicing and dicing is over, thanks to something called a nanopore.

A nanopore is a ring of proteins, made by a bacterium, through which DNA can be threaded, like a string through a bead. In the method of DNA sequencing just debuted by Oxford Nanopore Technologies, long, intact strands of DNA are shunted through nanopores on a chip, and the electrical conductivity of each nucleic acid as it comes through the pore lets scientists tell which DNA “letter” it is—A, T, G, or C. A long strand of DNA analyzed this way, importantly, isn’t destroyed, so it can be reanalyzed, and errors introduced in processes that use chopping are also avoided. Using such basic physical laws to deduce a DNA sequence is a simple, elegant solution to a tough problem. That’s perhaps why nanopore sequencing methods have attracted some significant investment in recent years: the UN National Human Genome Research Institute had, by 2008, given $40 million to groups pursuing nanopore sequencing.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

Google's Augmented Reality Glasses Could Be On Your Face This Year

By Veronique Greenwood | February 22, 2012 5:27 am

Like this…only on your face.

Wearing glasses that superimpose a layer of information—nearby pizza places, the local bus line, or, if you’re the Terminator, the amount of ammo left in your weapon—over reality is a long-held techie fantasy. Fighter pilots already use such “heads-up” displays to keep track of vital info while keeping their eyes ahead of them, but despite the constant low buzz about such augmented reality glasses for the rest of us, actual products have been few and far between. Now, though, Google employees speaking to the NYT’s Bits blog have confirmed that Google’s experimental lab is indeed building such a device. Due to come out at the end of the year, these “Google Goggles” are said to function basically as a smartphone you can wear on your face.

According the the Bits blog, users will be able to scroll around on the glasses’ tiny screen using small head motions. The glasses will also feature a low-res camera that monitor the world in front of the user and take pictures, but there are obviously privacy issues at stake with such a feature: apparently the team is currently discussing how to make it obvious to a bystander if the camera is on. The Google employees say that the glasses will not be released as a serious commercial product with a business plan, per se. At first, they will simply be an experiment that users can join. And if the glasses take off, well, then we’ll see about the money side of things.

Image courtesy of plantronicsgermany / flickr


"Flying" Squid Save Energy By Propelling Themselves Through the Air

By Sarah Zhang | February 21, 2012 3:15 pm

spacing is important
Humboldt squid

Hints that squid can propel themselves through the air have tantalized scientists for some time. When marine biologist Ronald O’Dor kept Northern shortfin squid in his lab, he’d sometimes be greeted with dead squid lying on the floor around their pool. When Julie Stewart tracked Humboldt squid, she found that they were somehow getting places much faster than anyone thought. And when retired geologist Bob Hulse was vacationing on a cruise off the coast of Brazil, he actually caught it on camera: little 2½-inch orange-back squid soaring through the air.

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How to Make Acres of Fake Snow

By Veronique Greenwood | February 21, 2012 1:13 pm


When winter doesn’t hold up its end of the snow bargain (we’re looking at you, this winter), ski areas often make their own, using devices like the one above and plenty of water. A short piece on the New York Times site describes the moment in 1950 when modern snowmaking was invented, when Wayne Pierce, an employee at Mohawk Mountain in Connecticut, improved upon the owner’s plan of trucking in tons of shredded ice:

He figured that a drop of water, propelled through below-freezing air, would turn into a snowflake, [colleague Arthur] Hunt recalled. Along with Dave Richey, their partner in a ski factory, they slapped together a spray-gun nozzle, a 10-horsepower compressor and a garden hose into something of a D.I.Y. snow gun. They experimented with it all night. “By morning,” Hunt wrote, “we had a 20-inch pile of snow over a diameter of 20 feet.” The contraption was later used at Mohawk Mountain.

Snowmaking has since developed quite a bit. While early attempts at snowmaking used just water, these days a special mixture of dirt and water is used to get natural freezing: as we’ve written before, ice crystals usually need a particle to coalesce around, which can be a bit of dirt or even bacteria floating in the atmosphere. These particles are called nucleators.

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