Archive for January, 2011

To Help Reindeer Thrive in a Globally Warmed World–Castrate Them?

By Patrick Morgan | January 26, 2011 3:46 pm

The chain of cause and effect seems clear: climate change causes Arctic temperatures to fluctuate, which causes ice build-up as snow repeatedly thaws and refreezes. And to Arctic reindeer herders–who want their herds to continue to eat the nice lichen underneath all that ice–the next link in this chain is also clear: castrate your reindeer.

That’s what researchers have decided will help the Arctic’s indigenous people–the Sami–thrive as our world continues to warm up. As Reuters reports:

“Males castrated in the traditional way would have an increased chance of survival over other males since they maintain body weight and condition during the rutting season,” according to a research document by Eli Risten Nergaard of Sami University College.

But that’s not all. Researchers have found that castrated male reindeer are larger than their un-castrated brethren, are therefore better able to pound through the thick Arctic ice; they’re also more willing to share their food with calves. In other words, castrated male reindeers facilitate the survival of the entire herd–that is, assuming they’re not all castrated.

From Reuters:

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Robot to Human: Go Ahead, Smash my Hand With a Hammer. I Can Take It.

By Patrick Morgan | January 26, 2011 12:07 pm

Robots aren’t only getting smarter nowadays–they’re also getting stronger. Researchers have now created a robot hand that can withstand hammer hits and other hard blows.

Led by Markus Grebenstein, the researchers at the Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) created a robot hand that functions virtually as well as a human’s appendage. The dexterous hand has 19 degrees of freedom–considering that the human hand has 20 degrees of freedom, that’s pretty good. The hand’s delicate movements are controlled by 38 tendons, each linked to a separate motor on the forearm. From IEEE Spectrum:

Another key element in the DLR design is a spring mechanism connected to each tendon. These springs … give the tendons, which are made from a super strong synthetic fiber called Dyneema, more elasticity, allowing the fingers to absorb and release energy, like our own hands do. This capability is key for achieving robustness and for mimicking the kinematic, dynamic, and force properties of the human hand.

The tendons, when tensed, are what allow the hand to withstand hits. But just how strong of a hit can it endure? The hand remained resilient after receiving a blow of 66 G’s administered by a baseball bat. Researchers are pleased with the outcome and see it as a big step towards more widespread use of service robots. As IEEE Spectrum reports:

“If every time a robot bumps its hand, the hand gets damaged, we’ll have a big problem deploying service robots in the real world,” Grebenstein says.

Related Content:
80beats: The Robotic Right Stuff: What It Takes to Become the First Robot Astronaut
Science Not Fiction: Wall-E’s Right: The Next Small Step Might Be A Tough One
Science Not Fiction: Hungry Robots. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
Discoblog: Robot, Build Thyself: Machine Made of Lego Builds Models Made of Lego
DISCOVER: 20 Things You Didn’t Know About… Robots

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology Attacks!
MORE ABOUT: fingers, gadgets, hands, robots

NCBI ROFL: Hand surgery volume and the US economy: is there a statistical correlation?

By ncbi rofl | January 25, 2011 7:00 pm

“To the best of our knowledge, there have been no previous studies evaluating the correlation of the US economy and hand surgery volume. Therefore, in light of the current recession, our objective was to study our institution’s hand surgery volume over the last 17 years in relation to the nation’s economy. Read More

DIY Medicine: Motivated Engineer Designs His Own Heart Implant

By Patrick Morgan | January 25, 2011 5:25 pm

What to you do if a doctor says your heart’s aortic root had ballooned to nearly two inches, and that a heart attack is imminent unless you receive a mechanical valve–a fix that requires blood-thinning drugs for the rest of one’s life? Easy–just invent your own heart implant.

This was the scenario facing Tal Golesworthy in 2000. An engineer from Tewkesbury, England, Golesworthy has the same tissue disorder that afflicts over 12,000 people in the UK: Marfan syndrome. But Golesworthy decided that the valve wasn’t his only option. As The Engineer reports:

What excited him was the use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computer-aided design (CAD). He believed that by combining these technologies with rapid prototyping (RP) techniques he could manufacture a tailor-made support that would act as an internal bandage to keep his aorta in place…. “It seemed to me to be pretty obvious that you could scan the heart structure, model it with a CAD routine, then use RP to create a former on which to manufacture a device,” explained Golesworthy. “In a sense, conceptually, it was very simple to do. Actually engineering that was significantly more complex.”

The main difficulty was that the scanners had trouble imaging his beating heart, and since you can’t tell your heart to “hold still” for the camera, Golesworthy did the next best thing: he created multiple images of his heart at the same cardiac cycle. With CAD helping him design the implant, the next obstacle was how to translate a digital design to a workable heart implant. As The Engineer reports:

The team looked at a number of different processes, such as 3D embroidery, but ended up using a standard medical polymer, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) in a textile solution that allowed them to form a mesh directly onto the former. The mesh weighed less than 5g, was an exact fit for the ascending aorta and could be sutured into place by the surgeon. The process, from proposal to final product, took just under two years.

All the while, Golesworthy was working against the clock, knowing that a heart attack could rear its head at any point. From The Engineer:

“My aorta was dilating all through that period,” said Golesworthy. “When you’ve got the scalpel of Damocles hanging over your sternum, it motivates you into making things happen and so they do…”

And they did. Golesworthy created his implant and surgeons implanted it into his heart in 2004. Since then 23 other patients have had the same surgery, and the implant has the potential to become the standard for valve-surgery in the coming years–all thanks to a man who could have died from a big heart, but instead decided to share it.

Related Content:
DISCOVER: Young at Heart
DISCOVER: Can Stem Cells Save Dying Hearts?
DISCOVER: Vital Signs
80beats: Bill Clinton Got 2 Stents. What’s a Stent? Are They Overused?
80beats: Dick Cheney Goes to the Hospital with New Heart Problems

Image: flickr /Vintage Collective

It's the End of the Kilogram as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

By Patrick Morgan | January 25, 2011 12:32 pm

The speed of light may define a meter and atomic clocks may define a second, but a century-old cube of metal still defines the kilogram–at least, until scientists give this antique lump a 21st-century makeover.

As far as the kilogram is concerned, the year is still 1879, but scientists are meeting in London this week to discuss a change for this humble unit. As the Guardian reports:

“The kilogram is still defined as the mass of a piece of platinum which, when I was director of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, I had in a safe in my lab,” said Terry Quinn, an organiser of today’s meeting. “It’s a cylinder of platinum-iridium about 39mm high, 39mm in diameter, cast by Johnson Matthey in Hatton Garden in 1879, delivered to the International Committee on Weights and Measures in Sevres shortly afterwards, polished and adjusted to be made equal in mass to the mass of the old French kilogram of the archives which dates from the time of the French Revolution.”

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In the Name of Science, College Student Doesn't Wash Jeans for 15 Months

By Patrick Morgan | January 24, 2011 2:16 pm

Most people see filthy jeans as a sign of laundry time; others see them as a science experiment. In a someone scary example of DIY science, one student at the University of Alberta found that unwashed jeans worn for 15 months contain the same amount of bacteria as unwashed jeans worn for 13 days. While the science isn’t the most rigorous, we applaud the student’s commitment to experimentation.

Starting in September 2009, Josh Le began wearing a pair of untreated denim pants, eventually wearing them 330 times by December 2010–in other words, over 15 months of unwashed, filthy freedom. And like anyone who wears a specific article of clothing for days on end, Le got fairly attached. As ABC News reports:

“One time I was eating grapefruit, I’d finished the meaty part and was drinking juice and spilled it on my jeans, my heart stopped for a second,” Le said…. He got the stain out and said it didn’t leave an odor.

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MORE ABOUT: bacteria, clothing, jeans

Android… in… Space! A Smartphone Prepares for Blast-Off

By Patrick Morgan | January 24, 2011 11:45 am

Cell phones will soon make a giant leap for mankind–right into outer space. In the coming year, British engineers from Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) plan to send a cell phone into orbit to test whether cell phones are tough enough to withstand outer space, and whether they’re powerful enough to control satellites. As the BBC reports:

“Modern smartphones are pretty amazing,” said SSTL project manager Shaun Kenyon…. “They come now with processors that can go up to 1GHz, and they have loads of flash memory…. We’re not taking it apart; we’re not gutting it; we’re not taking out the printed circuit boards and re-soldering them into our satellite – we’re flying it as is,” Mr Kenyon explained.

The jury’s still out as to what cell phone model will be the world’s first orbital smartphone–but the scientists have already decided to pick one that uses Google’s Android operating system. That software is open source, allowing the engineers to tweak the phone’s functions. Not every phone, after all, comes off the shelf with the ability to navigate a nearly 12-inch-long, GPS-equipped, pulsed-plasma thruster satellite.

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NCBI ROFL: Whale ménage à trois: now with 1,000-kg testes!

By ncbi rofl | January 23, 2011 2:20 pm

“Given the huge size of their testes (approximately 1,000 kg [Ed. note: that’s equivalent to approximately two cows]), it has been hypothesized that North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) have a mating system that is based upon sperm competition. Herein, we report an observation which provides support for this hypothesis. Read More

NCBI ROFL: Apparently women (but not men) like monkey sex… literally.

By ncbi rofl | January 21, 2011 7:00 pm

A sex difference in features that elicit genital response.

“Previous research suggests that women’s genital arousal is an automatic response to sexual stimuli, whereas men’s genital arousal is dependent upon stimulus features specific to their sexual interests. In this study, we tested the hypothesis that a nonhuman sexual stimulus would elicit a genital response in women but not in men. Read More

Newsflash for Chatroulette Flashers: Your Days Are Numbered

By Patrick Morgan | January 21, 2011 1:06 pm

Online flashers could soon be out of a hobby, thanks to a team of software engineers from the University of Colorado and McGill University. The team is developing a system called SafeVchat, which is meant to detect and filter out obscene images, foiling even the fastest of flashers.

The team tested their algorithms at Chatroulette, the infamous online video-chat service that lets you communicate with randomly-selected strangers, and the results looked good.

As you can probably guess, the problem with seeing video images of random strangers is that some of these people are all-too-eager to show off their flesh. Despite the age restrictions on some video-chat sites and the noble-yet-feeble first attempts at creating filtering software, flashers still peddle their wares with ease and have seemed as unstoppable as a bad rash.

But not for long. Enter the engineers.

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