The next time you enjoy the sight of a hummingbird in a garden, you might want to look twice–because it could be the government’s new avian-inspired drone. Dubbed “Nano Hummingbird,” this camera-toting, remote-controlled surveillance tool is the latest gadget to fly out the doors of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency).
Commissioned by the Pentagon in 2006 and designed by AeroVironment, this bird-drone’s abilities match its $4 million price tag: It flies forward, backward, and sideways, and it can even hover in mid-air. That’s not bad for a battery-powered, 6.5-inch long bundle of communication systems and motors that weighs in at two-thirds of an ounce. “We’ve achieved what our customer asked us to,” AeroVironment Vice President Steve Gitlin told TIME Magazine. But with the robot’s maximum speed clocking in at 11 miles per hour, natural hummingbirds can fly circles around this bot.
DARPA hopes Nano Hummingbird could eventually be used as an extra eye on the battlefield.
Samuel T. Cohen had a different view of warfare than most, and it’s no surprise—he invented one of history’s most controversial weapons, the neutron bomb. He died on Sunday.
Cohen’s ingenious, deadly device actually packed far less destructive power than typical nuclear weapons (which he worked on with the Manhattan Project during World War II). The neutron bomb’s detonation sent out a barrage of neutrons, the neutral subatomic particles in atoms, that passed right though inorganic material but killed living things within its blast radius.
All nuclear explosions produce a rain of potentially lethal neutrons, uncharged particles from an atom’s nucleus, and Mr. Cohen, by adjusting components and reshaping the bomb shell, limited the blast and released more energy as neutrons. [The New York Times]
After the Manhattan Project, Cohen went to work for the RAND Corporation, where he developed his bomb.
He said the inspiration for the neutron bomb was a 1951 visit to Seoul, which had been largely destroyed in the Korean War. In his memoir, he wrote: “If we are going to go on fighting these damned fool wars in the future, shelling and bombing cities to smithereens and wrecking the lives of their inhabitants, might there be some kind of nuclear weapon that could avoid all this?” [Los Angeles Times]
Traumatic brain injury has become the signature war wound for soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan–and new research suggests that soldiers may not be adequately protected against the explosions that cause these injuries. By modeling how blast waves propagate through a soldier’s head, an MIT research group found that current combat helmets don’t offer much protection, because the blast waves from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) can enter the skull through the face.
“There’s a passageway through those soft tissues directly into the brain tissue, without having to go through bone or anything hard,” said Raul Radovitzky, an aeronautical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. [LiveScience]
In the study, which was published online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers created their own computer model based on a real person’s brain scans; what they found actually contradicted findings from earlier, rougher models. A previous study, published in August, suggested that current helmet design actually increases brain injuries during an explosion by focusing and intensifying the blast waves inside the helmet.
“Hongerwinter,” or “hunger winter”—that’s what they called the end of 1944 in the Netherlands. As World War II lurched toward its end, Nazi Germany put up a blockade to prevent food from entering the Netherlands. According to a study by Dutch researchers, that famine is still felt all these years later in the brains of people who were born during those years.
Susanne de Rooij and colleagues looked at more than 700 people born during those years, 300 of whom experienced famine in utero, to see if that experience changed their brains.
In the study, 64 seniors who were exposed to famine in the early stages of gestation did worse on cognitive-function tests that required them to do tasks like name the color of the word “blue” when it was printed in yellow ink, than seniors who were exposed later or not at all to hunger in utero. The researchers also found that exposure to famine at any stage of the mother’s pregnancy resulted in a smaller head circumference at ages 56-59.”Head size is related to brain size and reduced size has been associated with decreased cognitive abilities in the elderly,” they wrote. [AFP]
“This is probably going to wind up being the first salvo in a pretty significant debate.” That’s what political scientist Cullen Hendrix told New Scientist in November of last year, when a study came out proclaiming the climate change would spur an uptick in civil wars in Africa. He was correct. This week, another study that will be published (in press) in the same journal—Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences—says there is no proof to back up such a connection.
The argument for a link between global warming and war came from UC-Berkeley economist Marshall Burke, who said that food shortages and drought brought on by climate change could cause 50 percent more armed conflict by 2030 under the scenarios that climate models predict. However, Norwegian political scientist Halvard Buhaug looked at sub-Saharan civil war over the last half century for this week’s study. When he compared the records of military conflict with the records of temperature and rainfall, did not see a correlation between the two.
[Buhaug] found that that there was a strong correlation between civil wars and traditional factors, such as economic disparity, ethnic tensions, and historic political and economic instability. [BBC News]
Chimps kill chimps. And according to a 10-year study of Ngogo chimps in Uganda, they do it to defend and extend their territory. John Mitani documented 21 chimp-on-chimp killings during the study, 18 of which his team witnessed. And when the chimps kill another, they take over its land.
Because of the 1 percent difference of DNA between us and our ape cousins, it can be irresistible to anthropomorphize them, referring to their deadly attacks upon each other with terms like “murder” or “crime.” And given the murders over territory that litter human history books, it’s hard not to see echoes of our ourselves in chimp “warfare.”
Chimpanzee warfare is of particular interest because of the possibility that both humans and chimps inherited an instinct for aggressive territoriality from their joint ancestor who lived some five million years ago. Only two previous cases of chimp warfare have been recorded, neither as clear-cut as the Ngogo case [The New York Times].
But not so fast, says DISCOVER’s own award-winning blogger Ed Yong. He contacted chimp expert Frans de Waal, who would like to dissent:
“There are many problems with this idea, not the least of which is that firm archaeological evidence for human warfare goes back only about 10-15 thousand years. And apart from chimpanzees, we have an equally close relative, the bonobo, that is remarkably peaceful… The present study provides us with a very critical piece of information of what chimpanzees may gain from attacking neighbours. How this connects with human warfare is a different story” [Not Exactly Rocket Science].
For much more, check out Yong’s full post on the study.
Not Exactly Rocket Science: Chimpanzees Murder for Land
80beats: How Chimps Mourn Their Dead: Reactions to Death Caught on Video
DISCOVER: Chimps Show Altruistic Streak
Image: John Mitani
The Iraq war and its aftermath have left physical and psychic wounds on both local residents who lived through the American invasion and many U.S. soldiers. But anecdotal reports suggest that another demographic may have suffered as well: unborn babies. Doctors in Fallujah, Iraq have reported a high number of children born with birth deformities ever since the massive battle between Iraqi insurgents and U.S. forces that raged there in 2004.
While no medical studies have been done or official reports have been issued, many Fallujah locals suspect that U.S. weaponry used in the assault has left a lingering effect.
A debate is expected to come up in the British parliament sometime next week on the subject. The call for debate came up after the latest report by BBC’s John Simpson, in which an Iraqi pediatrician said she was seeing two to three deformed babies each day; most of the children had cardiac complications. The doctor clarified that while she didn’t have any official figures, she had noted an increase in the number of cases since the American invasion. The current level of cardiac birth defects in Fallujah, said the BBC, is 13 times higher than that in Europe.
African chimpanzees know how to handle wildfire, as DISCOVER noted last month. But lava is a different deal. Nyamulagira, a volcano in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, began to erupt over the weekend and threatened not only the people nearby, but also the endangered primates that live in the area. The southerly lava flow appears to have spared most human settlements and the mountain gorillas of Virunga National Park, but the native chimps haven’t been so lucky.
The 40 eastern chimpanzees that live on Nyamulagira itself could still be at risk if they are surrounded by lava, and as the plants they rely on for food become coated by abrasive volcanic ash. Park officials hope animals in the lava’s path will simply move away from it [New Scientist]. United Nations peacekeepers, who are in the Congo to protect civilians from the seemingly unending war there, have offered the country’s leaders the use of UN planes and helicopters to monitor the situation.
Hot on the heels of the story of lab-built red blood cells that DISCOVER covered on Tuesday, a different team of scientists have announced another step forward. Bioengineer Erin Lavik announced that her team built synthetic platelets that, when given intravenously to rodents, could slow their bleeding after a cut. The study appears in Science Translational Medicine.
Your normal platelets exist in the bloodstream and use proteins to bind together and close off the bleeding when you get a cut. Lavik’s synthetic version is a nanoparticle that her team injected into the rodents intravenously. The synthetic platelets augment this process, bonding with natural blood platelets and acting as a nanostructure boosting the natural platelets’ ability to form a solid barrier that stops bleeding [Popular Science]. The rodents with synthetic platelets stopped bleeding 23 percent faster than those without.
For soldiers and civilians alike, insurgency wars are not only deadly but also frustrating in their apparently random spikes of violence. In a study in Nature, however, researchers put forth a mathematical model that shows terrorist attacks and insurgencies are not so scattershot as they seem.
The team searched for statistical similarities across nine historic and ongoing insurgencies including those of Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland [BBC News]. That meant compiling more than 50,000 acts of violence. And despite the fact that these events happened in different countries in different times, Neil Johnson and his team found a relationship between the size of an attack in casualty terms and how often it occurs.