Archive for November, 2008

So Simple It's Brilliant: A Machine that Makes Drinking Water from Air

By Boonsri Dickinson | November 26, 2008 3:33 pm

water1.jpgAt a time when only one in six people on the planet have access to water and bottled water is not always the most practical (or environmentally sound) option, inventors are busy trying to turn just about anything into water. If you thought astronauts drinking water from urine was a bit gross, then drinking water made from air might sound like a far more appealing option. And now, the Canadian company Element Four’s Water Mill has determined a way to take moisture from the air and turn it into drinkable water.

The machine is the size of a large golf ball cut in half , and it runs off the “electricity of about three light bulbs.” It works by pumping air through filters to get rid of dust and other particles, and then cools the purified air until water starts to condense. Then the condensed water goes through a UV light unit to clean it so bacteria won’t get in it and cause infections or disease.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology Attacks!

Thanksgiving Dinner in Space!

By Melissa Lafsky | November 26, 2008 11:42 am

turkeyTomorrow, most of America will gather in front of a table to ingest massive quantities of carb- and fat-driven foodstuffs. But what about the few Americans currently in space? Not to worry: Lest the seven astronauts aboard the space shuttle Endeavour go without their requisite servings of turkey, stuffing, and candied yams, NASA is providing a Thanksgiving meal.

The six Americans on board and one Russian—who, in the spirit of inclusion, is also joining the meal—will float through their feast (literally), eating their feast from individual pouches with Velcro tags, which they can affix to metal trays that can be attached to their laps or the wall. Each tray is equipped with a tethered spoon, fork, knife, and pair of scissors for cutting open the food pouches.

While the flavor ranges in space are somewhat limited, NASA works hard to engineer a varied menu. Of course, the results aren’t always so successful, according to reports:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Aliens Therefrom
MORE ABOUT: astronauts, holidays, NASA

Worm Glue May Hold the Key to Fixing Broken Bones

By Melissa Lafsky | November 25, 2008 6:34 pm

boneDespite all the amazing advances in recent medicine, there are still plenty of simple problems lacking a clear solution. For one, we still haven’t found a great way to heal fractures in the top of joint bones—any mistake in alignment when the bone is being repaired, and you wind up with a useless joint—not to mention terrible arthritis.

Enter a team of bioengineers at the University of Utah, who had an ingenious idea: If sandcastle worms can produce natural glue strong enough to hold together a tiny sand-home against the intertidal surf, why not copy that glue and use it on broken knees?

Now, the first generation prototype of the so-called worm glue has been tested on cow bone pieces (from groceries, meaning the cows were already deceased) and has performed 37 percent as well as commercial superglue. The results will be published online in next week’s edition of Macromolecular Biosciences. Lead author Russell Stewart projects that they’ll be testing the glue on live animals within a year or two, and on humans within the next five to 10 years. While the glue won’t be able to fix your broken femur, it could be very useful for small bone fragments in fractured knees, wrists, elbows, and ankles, as well as the face and skull.

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MORE ABOUT: medicine, worms

Puerto Rican Lizards Do Push-Ups to Communicate

By Melissa Lafsky | November 25, 2008 1:35 pm

kimodo dragonWho’d have thunk the Puerto Rican forest could resemble a Gold’s Gym in Queens? According to researcher Terry Ord at the University of Chicago California, Davis, the forest-dwelling lizards in the region use large movements like “elaborate displays of push-ups” to nab other lizards’ attention.

Ord attached robot replicas of real lizards to trees in the forest, and programmed them to imitate the push-ups and head-bobbing displays of their real-life counterparts. His team then observed the reactions of around 300 flesh and blood lizards to the motorized fakes. The researchers found that the bellicose displays of physical prowess are used only when another lizard is far away or there’s not enough light to see clearly.

In the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Ord and his co-author Judy Stamps claim their findings confirm a 30-year-old hypothesis that “free-living animals enhance the efficiency of long-range communication through the modulation of signal design and the facultative addition of an alert”—in other words, when it’s noisy, dark, or busy, lizards will resort to big visible gestures, including but not limited to agro exercise techniques, to get each others’ attention.

Disco: On the Darwinian Fast-Track: Lizards Evolve Away Limbs
Disco: Komodo Dragons Attack Villagers; Villagers Blame Environmentalists

Image: iStockPhoto

MORE ABOUT: lizards, puerto rico

Research Center Auctions Paintings Done by Apes

By Melissa Lafsky | November 25, 2008 11:20 am

bonoboWho says the art world is suffering from the downturn? A project by the Great Ape Trust of Iowa involves an exhibition and auction of original painting, with the proceeds going towards wildlife conservation efforts. The only catch: The artists are all apes.

These simian painters consist of a group of orangutans and bonobos who reside at the Trust for behavioral study. Lest anyone think the captive apes’ work is forced labor, the artists are given a choice over whether they’d like to paint—though experts say the cognitive challenge of making art ups the apes’ life enrichment—and are allowed total discretion over which canvases, colors, and brush strokes they use. The results are a Pollock-esque mix of bright colors and shapes—as well as a couple self-portraits that look a little too detailed to be done by ape hands alone. Not that we’re suggesting anything. (For a slideshow, go here.)

Last year, when the auction debuted, it raised $16,725 for the Great Ape Trust’s two major conservation initiatives, the Gishwati Area Conservation Program in Rwanda and the Ketambe Research Center on the island of Sumatra. Bidding for this work is already up to $1,200—more than what the average human makes for a piece of art these days.

Disco: Facing a Terrible Economy, Japanese Restaurant Uses Monkeys as Waiters
Disco: The Top 5 “Crazy” Michael Crichton Ideas That Actually Came True
Disco: All the Last Gorilla in India Wants Is a Date

MORE ABOUT: apes, art

Facing a Terrible Economy, Japanese Restaurant Uses Monkeys as Waiters

By Melissa Lafsky | November 24, 2008 5:06 pm

monkey waiterYes, it’s true: The economic crisis has not only clobbered the restaurant industry, but now it’s brought at least one business to hire monkeys. CNN reports that a sake house in Tokyo has “recruited” two Japanese Macaques as waitstaff. Yes, you heard right—they’re using trained monkeys as employees.

The monkeys’ job duties—which can last no more than two hours a day to avoid violating animal rights regulations—include offering hot towels to diners, delivering change, and serving beers. While health regulations in the area are as strict as anywhere else, the monkeys have been “deemed sanitary” by health inspectors so long as they wear their (adorable) checkered kimono uniforms.

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British Security Firm Wants to Fight Pirates with…an MP3 Player

By Boonsri Dickinson | November 24, 2008 12:11 pm

piratesLast week a band of Somali pirates hijacked a Saudi Arabian tanker in just 16 minutes using Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers. This was just one of around 100 attacks in the area this year—leaving plenty of fear that the pirates are on their way to sabotaging one of the most important sea trade routes in the world. But the days of pirate victories may soon be over, thanks to a little scientific ingenuity. A British company called Anti-Piracy Maritime Security Solutions thinks the outlaws can be taken down using none other than a high-tech “sonic laser.”

Their plan is this: Hook up a long-range acoustic device (LRAD) to an MP3 player, and raise the volume to painful sound levels whenever pirates approach. The noise from the satellite dish-sized LRAD can get so loud that it causes permanent hearing damage. If threatened ships blast oncoming pirates with “precise beams” of warning messages, sirens, etc., it could be enough to cause “absolute agony” to any ambitious pirates, according to APMSS chief executive Nick Davis, and could make them turn back.

While anti-pirate sound doesn’t come cheap—the team and equipment costs $21,000 for three days of use—the technology is in high demand, with APMSS sending 10 teams out on on ships in the Gulf of Aden this week. Let’s just hope they’re armed with good ear plugs.

For everything you’d ever want to know about what’s going in pirate attacks, check out the Weekly Piracy Report.

Say What? Japanese Whaling Ships Accuse Animal Planet of Ecoterrorism
Chatting With Aliens? Researcher Aims to Create Alien Translator
Better Meat Through Bach: Classical Music Makes Piglets Less Stressed

Image: iStockPhoto

MORE ABOUT: music, pirates, security

Weekly Science Blog Roundup

By Nina Bai | November 21, 2008 6:55 pm

Yee-haw! It’s the blog roundup.• It’s all in the hands: Did early humans stone the Neanderthals into extinction?

• “Debby was a great bear. She acted like a grumpy old bear a lot of times. It was great. She had a lot of life in her, a lot of feistiness.” The world’s oldest living polar bear is no more.

• The Great Ape Trust is having an auction of ape paintingsthat’s paintings done by (non-human) apesto raise money for conservation. Is it just us, or these look suspiciously like those elephant paintings?

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Astronaut Taste Test: The Truth about Water from Recycled Urine and Sweat

By Nina Bai | November 21, 2008 3:18 pm

waterThe Endeavor shuttle shot into space last week carrying loads of fancy equipment for the International Space Station. Among the new gadgets to be installed is a water recovery system that promises to recycle 93 percent of astronaut urine, sweat, exhaled water vapor, and other waste water back into drinkable water. The whole shebang cost about $250 million to develop, but that’s still cheaper than having to send periodic shuttles to the station to deliver fresh water.

Of course, the question on everyone’s mind is, what does it taste like?

New York Times reporter John Schwartz took it upon himself to find out. He went to the Kennedy Space center where NASA officials offered him a bottle of water made from a 2005 prototype of the system. (The scientists generously “donated” their own liquids for the test run.) The label on the bottle read, “We use only the finest ingredients! Urine, Perspiration, Food Vapors, Bath Water, Simulated Animal Waste, and a touch of Iodine. No Carbs or Calories Added.”

And Schwart’s verdict?

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MORE ABOUT: ISS, space, urine, water

Dancing With the Scientists: Researchers Express Findings in Interpretive Dance

By Nina Bai | November 21, 2008 1:31 pm

danceWhat does it take to get scientists to dance? A Youtube contest, of course. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) announced yesterday the winners of its Science Dance Contest, which called on science graduate students, post-docs, and professors to create and videotape a dance about their research.

Out of 36 entries, the four winning dances used contorting bodies to explain protein-DNA interactions, neuron firing, hemoglobin, and the role of vitamin D in beta cell function. Other submissions ranged from ballet to tango, hoola-hooping to traditional Indian dance, as well as scientists just jiggying in their labs. View them all here.

The idea for the contest came from John Bohannon, a science journalist who started a Dance Your Ph.D. contest last year.

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MORE ABOUT: contest, dancing

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