These days, our artificial ears and eyes are better than ever—and more ubiquitous than ever. A business recently profiled by the New York Times seems to embody both what’s most promising about such pervasive surveillance and also what’s potentially disturbing.
ShotSpotter sells and helps run an automated gunshot-reporting system to police departments, for a cost of $40,000 to $60,000 per square mile. Recording equipment is installed in neighborhoods and linked software that records sounds that could be gunfire, analyzes them to identify which are actually shots, and then submits its findings for review by a trained employee in the company’s Mountain View office. If a human verifies that the sounds are indeed gunfire, the police are notified with the location of the shots, pinpointed to within 40-50 feet. All this can happen in well under five minutes, meaning police can be there right away.
A massive piece of malware, nicknamed “Flame” by security researchers at Kaspersky Lab, has been discovered attacking computers in Iran and the rest of the Middle East. The scale and sophistication of the malware suggests that it was commissioned by a nation-state, perhaps by the same parties that built StuxNet, which destroyed Iranian uranium centrifuges several years ago, and Duqu, a related Trojan that culled information from infected computers.
Flame doesn’t share any code with StuxNet or Duqu. But it is much larger—Duqu, for instance, was just 500 kilobytes, while Flame is 20 megabytes—and it impressed the Kaspersky researchers with its array of functions, which make it a kind of giant Swiss Army knife of malware.
Mount St. Helens eruption in 1980
Step aside, crystal balls—another kind of crystal could help scientists forecast eruptions. The structure of microscopic crystals in lava oozing out of volcanoes give clues into when and how a volcano will erupt, according to a study on Mount St. Helens just published in Science.
For six years after Mount St. Helens infamously blew its top in 1980, the volcano in Washington continued to spew and sputter, erupting periodically. Each eruption brought more magma to the surface, and crystals embedded in the magma are snapshots of what happened inside the volcano just before each eruption. They contain concentric circles of elements like iron and magnesium, just like tree rings. Volcanologists examined over 300 of these crystals from Mount St. Helens, each no more than 1/10 of a millimeter in size.
Two new reports on radiation doses received by workers and civilians near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown last year indicate that there will be very little, if any, increase in their cancer risk.
The reports, put together by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) and the World Health Organization and slated to be presented in Vienna this week, draw on all the available data about the crisis and include detailed information about exposure, according to Nature News, which has the exclusive:
[UNSCEAR] scoured anonymized medical data for 20,115 workers and contractors employed by the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which runs the plant. It found that 146 employees and 21 contractors received a dose of more than 100 millisieverts (mSv), the level at which there is an acknowledged slight increase in cancer risk. Six workers received more than the 250 mSv allowed by Japanese law for front-line emergency workers, and two operators in the control rooms for reactor units 3 and 4 received doses above 600 mSv, because they had not taken potassium iodide tablets to help prevent their bodies from absorbing radioactive iodine-131. So far, neither operator seems to have suffered ill effects as a result of their exposure.
The levels of exposure for civilians was much, much smaller, and neither employees nor civilians are expected to have statistically higher rates of cancer. But not everyone Nature News spoke to was totally at ease with the reports; after the way the Japanese government and energy utilities handled the disaster, many people are extremely distrustful of official estimates claiming that there is little risk:
Tatsuhiko Kodama, head of the radioisotope centre at the University of Tokyo and an outspoken critic of the government, questions the reports’ value. “I think international organizations should stop making hasty reports based on very short visits to Japan that don’t allow them to see what is happening locally,” he says.
Alvin during a deep sea mission.
As humans venture out to new corners of the world, so do invasive species. This story is old: mice hid out on Viking boats, plant seeds followed scientists to Antarctica, and, now, limpets have hitched a ride on the deep sea submersible Alvin. This last finding, published in Conservation Biology, surprised scientists, who didn’t think that limpets could survive drastic pressure changes as Alvin surfaced between dives.
Since 1964, Alvin, the little sub that could, has made thousands of scientific dives—from surveying the Titanic to exploring hydrothermal vents. The sub and its sampling gear are cleaned between each dive, but this new limpet discovery suggests a mistake happened somewhere down the line.
The digging motions of a razor clam.
The soft, pale foot of a six-inch long razor clam burrows through sand at an impressive rate of four body lengths per minute (video). When scientists put muscles in the razor clam to the strength test though, they found that its foot was only 1/10 as strong as it would need to be to dig so fast. What gives? The sand, literally.
Instead of relying on brute force, the burrowing razor clam turns the sediment around itself into quicksand, according to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology. And as Hollywood has taught us well, it’s easy to sink in quicksand.* The razor clam pulls its shell up, creating a vacuum that sucks water into the space surrounding its body. Quicksand is just sand with enough water between all its particles so that it no longer holds any weight, making it easy for the razor clam to tunnel down. Although most (big) pools of quicksand are created by earthquakes or flowing water, the razor clam’s small scale strategy is quite effective. In fact, the little buggers are so fast that recreational clam digging actually takes some practice.
*The human body is actually too buoyant to sink beyond the armpits in quicksand. So no, you can’t die of drowning in quicksand but you can get stuck and die of dehydration. Comforting thought, right?
Image via Winter et al. / J. Experimental Bio
Gallus gallus, the undomesticated ancestor of modern chickens
Chickens, the surviving descendants of once-mighty therapod dinosaurs, have come to dominate American dinner tables, where its meat is consumed at a rate of 80 pounds per person per year. How the wild grub-eating Gallus Gallus was tamed and commodified into frozen breaded cutlets is actually quite an epic story, one that involves (possibly) saving Greek civilization from Persians, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, and continues today with KFC’s remarkable invasion of China.
Jerry Adler and Andrew Lawler have written a cover story for Smithsonian magazine on the taming of the chicken that delivers these tidbits and gives plenty more food for thought. It was the Egyptians, for example, who first figured out how to artificially incubate eggs, so they could be hatched without the presence of hens—a method so important that their methods were kept secret for centuries:
Flukes that parasitize amphibians
The enemy of my enemy is my friend—especially if I’m a frog and my enemies are competing parasites. A recent study in PNAS found that frogs populations exposed to a more diverse set of flukes actually had lower rates of infection, with fewer frogs in the group afflicted with tiny hitchhikers.
Researchers at the University of Colorado-Boulder bred Pacific chorus frogs in a lab and put their tadpoles in different tanks with anywhere from one to six different types of flukes. On average, 40% of the frogs that came into contact with only a single fluke species developed infections, while 34% of frogs exposed to four flukes and 23% of frogs exposed to six flukes were infected (the numbers for two, three flukes followed a roughly similar trend). Additionally, some of the fluke species make frogs sicker than others, and oddly enough, the frogs exposed to a greater variety of flukes had a lower proportion of infections from these dangerous species.
This beautiful golden earring, decorated with figures of goats, was one of a trove of jewelry pieces that were wrapped in cloth and stuffed into a jar discovered by archaeologists at the Tel Meggido dig in Israel. When the team flushed the jar’s interior with water, earrings, a ring, and carnelian beads came tumbling out.
They aren’t sure why the jewelry was in the jar, but they posit that it could have been hidden there by the inhabitants of the home where the jar was found for safekeeping. The layer of soil where the find occurred dates from the 11th century BCE, a period when Meggido was under Egyptian rule, and the team believes the jewelry is either of Egyptian origin or inspired by Egyptian designs.
Image courtesy of American Friends of Tel Aviv University
Let’s face it, ketchup bottles suck. When you get down to an almost empty the bottle, plastic ones burp and splat all over your clothes, and glass ones have you awkwardly whacking the “57” on the Heinz bottle. That’s why this video of ketchup sliding effortlessly with a tip wrist is so impressive—even surreal.
This little bit of magic is the effect of LiquiGlide, a superslippery coating developed by physicists at MIT. The lab headed by Kripa Varanasi initially began researching coatings that could prevent clogs in deep sea oil pipes and ice from sticking to airplane wings. Other research groups have also come up with nonstick coatings that follow the same broad principle: the coating is actually a thin layer of liquid, which allows things to slip right off.