With SkinTrack, Your Arm is the Touchpad

By Nathaniel Scharping | May 13, 2016 2:18 pm

The SkinTrack in action. (Credit: Gierad Laput)

When smartwatches started appearing on store shelves, there was one nagging question about the devices: “How can anyone play Angry Birds on this?”

A solution is imminent.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Group have made the process of flinging colorful birds at evil pigs as simple as stroking your forearm. The SkinTrack system has two primary components: a signal-emitting ring that’s worn the index finger and a sensing band. The ring sends high-frequency electrical signals through the skin, and electrodes in the sensor band detect the signal’s phase differences to track distance and movement.  Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, top posts
MORE ABOUT: computers, gadgets

Computer Algorithm Turns Videos into Living Van Goghs

By Carl Engelking | May 12, 2016 2:25 pm


Computers are becoming rather versatile copycats, thanks to deep-learning algorithms.

Just last year, researchers “trained” machines to transfer the brushstrokes of iconic artists onto any still image. Now, Manuel Ruder and a team of computer scientists from the University of Freiburg in Germany have taken the technology a step further: They’re altering videos. The team’s style transfer algorithm makes clips from Ice Age or the television show Miss Marple appear as living paintings crafted by the likes of Van Gogh, Picasso or any other artist. And the results speak for themselves. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, top posts

In Movie Theaters, Suspense Literally Hangs in the Air

By Nathaniel Scharping | May 12, 2016 5:40 am

(Credit: CREATISTA/Shutterstock)

When someone says “suspense is in the air,” they’re being more literal than they realize.

A new study from German researchers shows that we exhale a unique mix of chemicals when experiencing certain strong emotions, such as fear or excitement, and that these invisible signatures can be monitored to track how an individual or crowd of people is responding. To test their theory, they went to the theater, where suspense, terror and laughter abound.  Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
MORE ABOUT: emotions

Watch: False Killer Whales Hunt Down a Shark

By Nathaniel Scharping | May 11, 2016 2:06 pm

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A high-speed chase off the coast of Australia claimed the life of a juvenile shark after it was hunted and eaten by a group of false killer whales.

Video of the hunt was captured by photographer Bruno Kataoka and broadcast on local TV station 7 News Sydney. The hunt went down off the coast of Cronulla, a suburb of Sydney. Kataoka spotted the whales chasing their prey while flying a drone with an camera attached, and he followed the hunt until a whale lunged from below and captured the shark in its jaws before dragging it down into the depths. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: animals, ocean

These Idioms Are Destroyed by Science

By Nathaniel Scharping | May 10, 2016 3:44 pm

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A recent study from two undergraduates at the University of Leicester has proven, once and for all, that Justin Timberlake doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

In a short paper, the students demonstrate that it is physically impossible for a person to cry a river. Even if we made every person on Earth watch Titanic while simultaneously listening to Sarah McLachlan, and then gathered the inevitable flood of tears, all of humanity still wouldn’t fill a river.

As a benchmark, they used the shortest river on the planet, the Roe River on Montana, which is 61 meters long and sees about 153 million gallons of water pass through a day. They then took the average volume of tears cried in a minute (yes, someone actually measured this) carried through to a whole day, and found that there just aren’t enough people on Earth to fill a river with tears of joy or sadness. They do say, however, that if everyone on Earth contributed a modest 55 tears, we could fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool with our sorrows. Someone tell Justin he needs to change the name of his song.

While most of us safely assumed crying was an exaggeration, someone finally took the time to give the lighthearted idiom the scientific scrutiny it deserves. And in the spirit of crushing popular sayings with science, and equipping you with pretentious cocktail party knowledge, here’s a look at how other turns of phrase stack up to the rigors of science.

Better Idiom: “Cry me an Olympic-sized swimming pool.”

Blind as a Bat


(Credit: Maksimilian/Shutterstock)

As Discover‘s Christie Wilcox pointed out in March, bats actually see just fine. Don’t worry though, even Neil deGrasse Tyson got tripped up by this one. Contrary to the popular assumption, all bats have working eyes, and some can even see better than we can. The stereotype likely arose due to bats nocturnal nature, and the fact that they use echolocation to hunt, an ability that lets them “see” using sound waves.

Studies have shown that bats’ eyes contain all of the structures necessary for sight, and that the role of opsins — light-sensitive proteins used in vision — has changed over time, indicating that sight is important to them. In addition, a family of bats called the megabats has very well-developed eyes that are likely a result of their habit of hunting at dawn and dusk, when eyesight is of even greater importance.

It seems that bats use a combination of both echolocation to navigate and hunt, rendering “blind as a bat” patently false. To be blind as a bat is to actually have pretty decent eyesight. Maybe the term could be repurposed as a compliment?

Better Idiom: “You’re as blind as a bat, which is to say your eyesight is pretty good, so congratulations on that.”

Skin of Your Teeth


(Credit: Lucky Business/Shutterstock)

While the phrase denotes a close call — making such a narrow escape that only the “skin” of your teeth separated you from disaster — the saying conjures up a decidedly odd image. As anyone can tell with a quick look, our teeth don’t have skin, at least not in the way we think of it. However, there is a connection between skin and teeth, even though it may not align with our own conceptions.

Our teeth are coated with enamel, a form of crystalline calcium phosphate that also happens to be the hardest substance in our bodies. This thin layer of minerals acts much like our own skin does, protecting the rest of the tooth from wear and damage. And, it appears that our enamel may have actually evolved from skin, millions of years ago. Looking at the North American gar, as well as extinct species of fish that evolved into land animals, researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden found a substance very similar to enamel coating their scales. They think that this substance went on to become a protective coating for our teeth — the “skin” if you will.

Better Idiom: “We made it out by the enamel of our teeth. So it was pretty close, and also very hard.”

A Leopard Never Changes Its Spots


(Credit: Blanka Berenkova/Shutterstock)

While a leopard may not be able to alter the pattern of its unique markings at will, their spots do undergo noticeable changes at one point in their lives. As a leopard develops, the simple baby spots on its coat morph into the intricate rosettes that distinguish the big cats as adults. A team of researchers at Chung-Hsing University in Taiwan modeled this  transformation, based on work by Alan Turing, better known as the “Father of Computing.”

Turing proposed a mathematical model for how a dye could spread through skin to produce repeating patterns, like those seen on leopards and cheetahs. His model produced startlingly accurate representations of animal coats. The Chung-Hsing researchers took his work a step further and proposed a two-step model that more closely mimicked how leopards developed, and produced leopard-like rosettes with their model. However, there is one caveat: the model as suggested by the researchers has never actually been observed in real cats, meaning that the secret of their spots is still unknown.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that leopards do change their spots, if only once. Perhaps there’s hope for us after all.

Better Idiom: “A leopard never changes its spots, except when it’s a teenager, and then just once and never again”

Once in a Blue Moon


(Credit: Yuriy Vahlenko/Shutterstock)

Although this phrase usually refers to something that’s an extremely rare occurrence, the actual event isn’t that rare at all. A Blue Moon is commonly held to be a second full moon in a month, which is a product of a 29-day lunar cycle. Eleven of the 12 months on the calendar are, of course, slightly longer. An older definition of the term posits a Blue Moon as the fourth full moon in a season, when most seasons usually only have three. Both events happen roughly every year, and some special years even get two Blue Moons — the last was 1999.

While either definition works, there is also a much more literal version of a Blue Moon, although this event is actually pretty rare. Moons that were literally blue have been reported after large volcanic eruptions and forest fires, both events that shot a large amount of soot and particulates into the air. The dusty air refracted light in a different way, giving the moon a bluish tinge. Such “Blue Moons” were reported after the eruption of Krakatoa, Mount St. Helens and after forest fires in Sweden and Canada in the 1950s.

Better Idiom: “Once in a blue moon, so not that rarely, except if we’re talking about volcanoes.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: animals

Kepler Planet Hunters Announce 1,200 New Exoplanets

By John Wenz | May 10, 2016 12:16 pm
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An artist’s rendering of Kepler-452b, the first near-Earth-size world to be found in the habitable zone of a star. (Credit: NASA)

Today, researchers on NASA’s Kepler planet hunting mission didn’t announce one new interesting planet, as they usually do. Instead, they announced about 1,200 of them.

That more than doubles the number of confirmed planets in the catalog. As of yesterday, the listed number stood at 1,041 confirmations. The new planets aren’t a result of the K2 mission, though. Instead, it’s about new software that enabled Kepler researchers to parse out the signal from noise in candidate planets.

Jeff Coughlin, a SETI Institute researcher who helps NASA put together the Kepler catalog, said that the 1,284 new planets are validated to 99 percent certainty. This means that they are all almost certainly planets.

“Adding in these 1,200 really doubles our sample of really high confidence planets,” Coughlin says.

Software Strength

The refinement techniques account for any star in the region that might give a false transit signal, as well as accounting for the size of any transiting object to rule out image artifacts or flaws in Kepler’s imaging.

But the new software’s true strength is its ability to sort through hundreds of candidates at once.

“People have done this for single targets in the past, but it was very computationally intensive,” Coughlin said.

While Kepler has often touted finding the latest “most Earth-like planet,” or systems of planets in strange orbital configurations, the sheer volume means the researchers are still combing through the dataset for intriguing planets. The paper, set to be published in the Astrophysical Journal today, puts the number of potentially habitable worlds in the dataset around nine total. Coughlin said the new catalog also includes long-period planets. One such planet, Kepler-1638b, has a period of 259 days, placing its year somewhere in between Venus and Earth.

Long and Short Of It 

Long-period planets are important because they’re more in line with what we know from our solar system. Kepler has a bias toward short period planets, those that complete an orbit within a few days. The original Kepler data set comes from a little under four years of observation. So if an alien civilization had been staring at our Sun with their own Kepler, they probably would have detected Mercury and Venus, maybe detected Earth and Mars, and not detected any of the larger planets, as some of the dips in light may have happened only twice, once, or not at all. Kepler requires three transits to prove a planet’s status as real.

When something is hard to detect, “those are also the hardest ones to get telescope time to follow up on,” Coughlin says.

Kepler-452b, the “cousin planet” to Earth, was found by better sorting through data, allowing a 385-day-period planet to be extracted. In that case, the planet was not only Earth-like because it was similar in size, but because it had an Earth-like year. There may be others like it in the data.

“The real importance is the prime mission of Kepler, which is to find out how many planets like Earth are out there,” Coughlin says.


There’s still more work to do. For instance, there are more than 3,000 candidate planets left in the Kepler data that are believed to be possible planets. This is in addition to a list of “Kepler Objects of Interest” that’s sort of the roll call of candidates-to-be-candidates. Using the new method, 428 candidates were validated as very likely not being planets.

Most of the 1,284 validated planets are mini-Neptunes, planets at the lower limits of gas giant size. The next biggest sample is super-Earths, with some planets found that are roughly Earth sized and about as many roughly Neptune sized.

Further refinement techniques could find more truly Earth-sized objects, rather than the bevy of super-Earths (and mini-Neptunes and hot Jupiters) in the catalog. Both NASA’s TESS and ESA’s GAIA mission, the next generation of planet finders, will bolster the cases for some of these planets.

But in the meantime, we have 1,200 more planetary neighbors. Say hi!

This article originally appeared on Astronomy.com. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter for more updates about the cosmos. 

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: exoplanets

Killer Eyes: How Crocodiles Stay Still and Scan the Horizon

By Nathaniel Scharping | May 9, 2016 2:23 pm

(Credit: underworld/Shutterstock)

Crocodiles are insidious hunters — they lurk just beneath the surface of the water with just their eyes and snouts poking out as they wait for unsuspecting prey to amble by. Their eyes function almost like periscopes on a submarine, allowing them to conceal their scaly mass while keeping an eye on the world around them. Read More

MORE ABOUT: animals

Image of the Day: The Transit of Mercury

By Ernie Mastroianni | May 9, 2016 12:26 pm

A photo mosaic taken at 8:15 local time shows Mercury, the sun’s limb, and the sunspots AR2542 (top) and AR2543. (Credit: Ernie Mastroianni)

As astronomical events go, Mercury’s solar transit was not as spectacular as say, a solar eclipse, but many observers on this sunny Boston day enjoyed the view of a relatively rare event last seen nearly 10 years ago. Some were getting their first-ever glimpse of the innermost planet. As seen through my telescope with a solar-safe filter, Mercury appeared to be little more than a diminutive dot as it drifted across the solar face, which is nearly 160 times its apparent diameter. The innermost planet is only 3,002 miles across, while the sun spans nearly 865,000 miles. The math doesn’t add up because Mercury is closer to the Earth than it is to the Sun.

The transit, viewable from most places in the world, began as a small indentation on the left edge of the solar disk at 7:12 a.m. Eastern time. A few minutes later, the entire disk was visible against the Sun’s face. Over the next several hours, the planet moved steadily across the lower third of the sun before disappearing entirely off the right edge by 2:42 pm. Because the telescope’s solar filter blocks out all but 1/1000 of 1 percent of the light, Mercury was invisible before and after appearing on the sun’s face.


The setup for photography: A vintage Questar 3.5 telescope with a solar filter and a high resolution webcam. Image processing and uploads through a Macbook Pro and a tethered iPhone. (Credit: Ernie Mastroianni)

Mercury orbits the sun in a speedy 88 days and takes its name from the fleet-footed Roman god. It’s visible a few times a year as a moderately bright star shortly after sunset or before sunrise, but never for more than a couple weeks at a time and never very far from the sun. If you’re searching for Mercury in the sky, knowing where to look is essential.

The last time Mercury passed between the sun and earth was November 8, 2006. It will happen again on Nov 11th, 2019, and occur a total of 14 times this century. During the seven-centuries between 1601 and 2300, Earth has seen or will see 94 such transits, with a third occuring in May and the rest in November.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts

MESSENGER’s Final Word on Mercury

By Carl Engelking | May 6, 2016 1:43 pm
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The full topographic map of Mercury with labeled features. (Credit:USGS)

When Mercury glides across the face of the sun Monday, you’re not going to see much more than a speck — if you have the right equipment.

But thanks to NASA’s MESSENGER, we can see the planet’s peaks, valleys and pockmarks in unprecedented detail. On Friday, the Planetary Data System released the first global elevation model of Mercury’s surface, giving scientists an opportunity dive deeper into the planet’s geologic history. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: solar system

Birds School Drones in a Wind Tunnel

By Nathaniel Scharping | May 5, 2016 2:41 pm

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For all of their high-tech accolades, drones are still easily batted around by capricious air currents. Drones, as they’re currently designed, aren’t nimble enough to adapt to split-second changes in air pressure and velocity, making flying in rough conditions something of a headache.

One Stanford researcher thinks he has a way to solve the problem, and to do so, he turned to animals that solved the issue of turbulence long ago: birds.

Using a specially designed wind tunnel, David Lentink is studying how birds fly under a variety of conditions using ultra-slow-motion cameras and motion capture technology. The wind tunnel simulates different levels and forms of turbulence, and Lentink studies how birds adapt their wing motions and speeds to deal with tricky situations.

He uses the generated data to model the tactics birds use to keep stable, which will help his team to create software and hardware that lets drones fly smoothly in rough conditions. Lentink says that he wants to build drones that use bird-like wings to fly so they can mimic birds’ mid-air maneuvers. Once he has a basic design, he’ll use his wind tunnel to further refine his models, cranking the wind speeds up to over 100 miles per hour.

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If robotic birds may seem a bit far out, or even unnecessary, consider the Bionic Bird, a drone made by a French company that flits about in a life-like fashion. Trying it out for the Youtube channel Tested, host Norman Chan mentions that it seems to falter in windy conditions.

Perhaps it should give the wind tunnel a go?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Technology, top posts
MORE ABOUT: animals, drones, robots


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