Archive for July, 2012

Watch This: To a Computer Program, Your Heartbeat is Visible in the Color of Your Face

By Veronique Greenwood | July 24, 2012 11:57 am

Did you know your face actually turns slightly red each time your heart beats, when fresh blood pumps through it? Neither did I, and that’s because it’s so slight that our visual perception system doesn’t pick up on it. Ah, but what if you could use a computer program to magnify the changes so they become visible? That’s just what computer scientists at MIT did, and the result is fascinating: watch the video above (starting at 1:25) and see how with every heartbeat, a man’s face turns tomato red, then fades to a pallid yellow. The program is so precise that it can accurately calculate a person’s heart rate from the color changes.

[via Technology Review]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

The World in Miniature: How Tiny Creatures Help Mosses Get It On

By Veronique Greenwood | July 23, 2012 12:51 pm

moss

Those lush little wads of greenery in your yard have it hard. To reproduce, male mosses must release their sperm into the dew and wait for them to trickle into a female moss, which is a separate plant altogether. Perhaps, if they’re lucky, the sperm might be given a lift by tiny arthropods called springtails, making their way through the moss patch.

Why the springtails get involved in this slow-motion seduction hasn’t been clear. But now researchers have found that just as flowers release scents that attract bees, butterflies, and other pollinators, so too does the humble moss lure in the springtail with its own special secretions.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World

Meet the Humans Behind the Mars Rovers

By Sophie Bushwick | July 22, 2012 10:00 am

spacing is important
Concept art of Curiosity on Mars

With any luck, NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity will land successfully in August and trundle off across the surface of the Red Planet. Headlines will laud the brave little robot travelling so far from home. But behind Curiosity, and its predecessors Spirit and Opportunity, is a team of human operators.

Over at Popular Science, Rebecca Boyle looks into the experiences of the rover drivers.

Scott Maxwell stared at his bedroom ceiling in the hours after his first drive, restless with excitement. All systems were go, and he’d sent the commands by the time he left the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Now he was supposed to sleep before his next shift on Mars time. But he knew that on the fourth planet from the sun, the Spirit rover’s wheels had started to move.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology

What's the Temperature Today? Your Answer Depends on Your Political Beliefs

By Sophie Bushwick | July 21, 2012 9:00 am

spacing is important

Have you noticed that it’s been hotter than usual lately? Your answer might reveal your ideology.

Now, it’s old news that American acceptance of global climate change is closely linked to political affiliation: As of 2011, 77 percent of Democrats thought the Earth was getting warmer, but only 43 percent of Republicans agreed. We also already knew that when it gets hotter, more people of both affiliations say the Earth is warming.

But it isn’t necessarily a one-way street. A new study flips it around: Researchers have found that ideology can skew how people perceive local temperature trends. In other words, your answer to “Has it been hotter lately?” can reveal whether you’re an individualist or more community oriented.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Mind & Brain

Look at This: The Sun's Corona in Vivid Color

By Veronique Greenwood | July 20, 2012 9:53 am

sun

The Sun’s atmosphere, or corona, is spectacularly hot—far, far hotter than the Sun’s surface. Why this is is still something of a mystery, and scientists watching the Sun’s surface have built software that looks at the heating and cooling occurring in the corona in an attempt to understand how fast temperature changes happen.

Above is an ultraviolet image of a small patch of the sun’s corona. The right half has been processed with a computer program so sections that are growing cooler over a 12-hour period are colored yellow, orange, and red, while heating sections are labeled blue and green.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space

The Dodgy, Disorderly, Dangerous Trade in Human Tissues

By Sophie Bushwick | July 20, 2012 8:58 am

anatomical model

For many people, organ donation is an opportunity to use their own death to extend another person’s life. Hearts and lungs can be transplanted directly into another patient, while other tissues are first processed into medical products such as bone screws and skin grafts. But while repurposing human remains may be charitable, it is also an industry, an industry that sometimes prioritizes profit over safety and dignity.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has gathered information on the tissue trade for eight months, and published a disturbing exposé in the Sydney Morning Herald. The need for human body parts and lack of regulation means that not all tissue-derived medical products are obtained through legal channels, and not all remains are treated with respect.
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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

Watch This: 5 Men Knowingly, Intentionally Stand Directly Under a Nuclear Explosion

By Sophie Bushwick | July 19, 2012 2:24 pm

On this date in 1957, five Air Force volunteers and one photographer stood next to a sign labeled “Ground Zero. Population: 5” and watched a two-kiloton nuclear bomb explode 18,500 feet over their heads. (The height listed at the beginning of the video is incorrect.) Before the dangers of radiation exposure were fully understood, the government undertook many such tests to determine the effects of atomic weapons. This particular trial was an attempt to prove that exploding nuclear missiles in the atmosphere could be relatively safe. While the men in this video were not greatly affected by the blast—at least three, including the cameraman, lived past age 80—many other people exposed to fallout from nuclear tests developed cancer. Check out the full story behind the video at NPR.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Technology

The Smells of Space: Burned Steak, Gunpowder, Raspberries

By Veronique Greenwood | July 19, 2012 12:09 pm

space
Space!

You’ll never get to take a deep breath and smell the roses in Earth’s orbit. The distinct lack of air there means you’d die a gruesome death sans space helmet, probably without smelling a thing.

Ah, but what about once you get back in your ship? As many places around the Web have been discussing recently, astronauts have said that upon coming back from space walks and taking off their gear, a certain specific scent seems to hang in the air…some think it smells like charred steak, or maybe like something metallic.

Here’s how astronaut Don Pettit put it nearly ten years ago:

Each time, when I repressed the airlock, opened the hatch and welcomed two tired workers inside, a peculiar odor tickled my olfactory senses. At first I couldn’t quite place it. It must have come from the air ducts that re-pressed the compartment. Then I noticed that this smell was on their suit, helmet, gloves, and tools. It was more pronounced on fabrics than on metal or plastic surfaces. It is hard to describe this smell; it is definitely not the olfactory equivalent to describing the palette sensations of some new food as “tastes like chicken.” The best description I can come up with is metallic; a rather pleasant sweet metallic sensation. It reminded me of my college summers where I labored for many hours with an arc welding torch repairing heavy equipment for a small logging outfit. It reminded me of pleasant sweet smelling welding fumes. That is the smell of space.

What sounds like a similar smell—astronauts describe it as something like gunpowder—also emanates from moondust.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Space

Why Do You Get Tired After Taking a Test?

By Veronique Greenwood | July 18, 2012 12:17 pm

test
So. Tired. From reading email.

A day of hard mental labor—writing emails, taking the SAT, competing in the national crossword competition—can leave you beat. But how, exactly, is that possible? You haven’t done any heavy lifting, at least not with your muscles.

Ferris Jabr at Scientific American MIND takes a crack at investigating this phenomenon, exploring the science on whether thinking really hard burns calories, or whether the exhaustion is coming from something else. He writes:

Although the average adult human brain weighs about 1.4 kilograms, only 2 percent of total body weight, it demands 20 percent of our resting metabolic rate (RMR)—the total amount of energy our bodies expend in one very lazy day of no activity.RMR varies from person to person depending on age, gender, size and health. If we assume an average resting metabolic rate of 1,300 calories, then the brain consumes 260 of those calories just to keep things in order. That’s 10.8 calories every hour or 0.18 calories each minute. (For comparison’s sake, see Harvard’s table of calories burned during different activities). With a little math, we can convert that number into a measure of power.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain

FDA Spied on Dissenting Scientists, Potentially Violating Federal Laws

By Sophie Bushwick | July 18, 2012 10:29 am

surveillance

It all started when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of new imaging instruments for cancer screening, despite some FDA scientists who thought that the machines produced excessive radiation. Five scientists blamed flaws in the review process, and began drafting complaints to other authorities, such as members of Congress and oversight committees. Worried that the employees were leaking information and undermining the FDA, officials began secret surveillance of the scientists’ government laptops, which they used both at work and at home. Spy software recorded keystrokes, snapped screen images, and copied personal e-mails and documents, including communications between the scientists and members of Congress, journalists, and lawyers.

Eric Lichtblau and Scott Shane reported on the FDA’s surveillance in the New York Times.

While federal agencies have broad discretion to monitor their employees’ computer use, the F.D.A. program may have crossed legal lines by grabbing and analyzing confidential information that is specifically protected under the law, including attorney-client communications, whistle-blower complaints to Congress and workplace grievances filed with the government.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Technology
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