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« June 2007 | Main | August 2007 »

Cell Phones to the Rescue

Celllighthand Last week, 29-year-old Leonardo Molina was undergoing an emergency appendix operation in a small city hospital outside Buenos Aires when the power went out. The hospital had a generator, but something went wrong, and it didn't switch on, leaving the surgeons to work in the darkness.

Luckily, one of Molina's family members had the bright idea of gathering a few cell phones from people outside the operating room. Using the lights from the phones, the surgeons were able to complete the operation successfully. The patient's brother said power was out for a good hour, but hospital officials claimed it was no more than 20 minutes. This isn't the first such case of cell phone lights saving the day. Not too long ago, Vietnamese doctors used them to finish delivering a baby.—Gregory Mone

Via Reuters

Targeted Morphine on the Battlefield

Mock_injured_soldier Nanotech expert James Baker of the University of Michigan is now turning his attention to the battlefield, hoping that tiny drug-carrying particles could one day help injured soldiers. Baker, who has also been exploring the use of nanoparticles as diagnostic tools for astronauts on missions to Mars, thinks nanotech could be used to deliver painkillers to injured troops as they wait for medical attention.

Morphine, one of the military's preferred painkillers today, is far from ideal because trained medical personnel need to administer it - the soldier, or someone in his group, can't just give it to himself. What Baker envisions is a pen-like device that a soldier would use to inject a stream of drug-bearing nanoparticles into an injured area. The nanoparticles might deliver a slow release of morphine, keeping the soldier comfortable and stable until he or she gets proper care. But it would also be able to counteract one of the dangerous side effects of morphine, the suppression of regular breathing. If necessary, the particles would release a drug that fights these negative effects, keeping the soldier stable. For now the work will be limited to lab studies, but it could be tested in animals before too long.—Gregory Mone

The Power of Footsteps

Sapcrowd Doesn't it seem like we're looking for energy everywhere these days? While scientists are still working hard at harvesting power from the sun, wind and waves, they're also turning to unexpected sources such as human locomotion. Two MIT architecture students recently unveiled what they're calling the "Crowd Farm," a setup that would derive energy from pounding feet in crowded subway stations or rock concerts.

In each case, there would be a sub-flooring system consisting of independent blocks. When people walk across this surface, the forces they impart will cause the blocks to slip slightly, and a dynamo would convert the energy in those movements into electric current.

To prove the idea would work, the students built a stool that's connected to a series of four LEDs. When someone sits on the stool, the action transfers energy to the LEDs, which light up. The students say that moving from this proof-of-concept device to a large-scale Crowd Farm would be expensive, but it certainly sounds fun. One possibility: Concert-goers could boost the volume at a show. The setup would capture the energy of their pounding feet and transfer it to the speaker system, cranking up the sound.—Gregory Mone

Batman's Newest Toy

Some things haven’t changed since PopSci awarded Bruce Wayne with the “Most Acute Case of Gadget Addiction” movie award. Videos posted on the website Superhero Flix (check it out for some more citizen-paparazzo shaky-cam clips) show Batman tooling around with his new Batpod while filming The Dark Knight in Chicago. The militarized version of the Batmobile also appears to be hanging around.

Speaking of things that have changed, Heath Ledger’s transformation into the Joker is also sounding more and more stunning…or scary – Jeremy Hsu 

IPHACK Becomes Our First PPX Payout

Hellonetkasjpgic9 PPX Traders:

Today is a special day for PPX—our first proposition has reached its endpoint. As screenshots, binaries and source code for the iPhone's "hello world" application surfaced late Sunday, the necessary verifications was there to finally confirm that the iPhone Dev team has indeed succeeded in running a simple third-party application. Trading is currently suspended on IPHACK, and pending final approval, the stock will officially delist sometime in the next 24-48 hours. Holders of IPHACK rejoice—you just made some money (POP$100 per share, to be exact). For the record, PPX called it from the beginning: the price reached POP$80 (80% probability) less than a week after the iPhone's release and didn't look back.

As you can see, the application doesn't do too much yet (other than display a greeting to "netkas," one of the hackers responsible - see more on his blog), but "hello world" is the necessary first step for any programming platform to grow. The door is open—now it's only a matter of time until more full-featured apps start to pop up.

The interesting question now is how will Apple respond? Will they attempt to plug the hole via a software update? Fully embrace the move and release an official software development kit for programmers? Or simply ignore it? My money, for now, is on the latter—with the iPod, anyway, Apple has been fairly tolerant, allowing the iPod Linux crew for instance to hack away in relative comfort. But the iPhone is a decidedly different beast, so it will be interesting to see what happens. Hmm, do I smell PPX prop potential? —John Mahoney


Science Porn on YouTube

Antibodyposter If you've ever felt your brain approach the point of implosion while reading about the workings of an advanced new drug or medical device, the wild and imaginative animations from Nucleus Medical Art could be the right cure. Granted, they're not purely educational; the whole point is to help companies sell their products through flashy videos, but that doesn't mean you can't learn something from them, too.

One of the best animations shows how antibodies fight pathogens in the bloodstream. As pathogens start attaching themselves to a white blood cell, a series of Y-shaped antibodies swarm in to the rescue, locking up with the proteins on one of the pathogens. Since the pathogen uses these proteins to bind to the cell, when they're blocked, it's rendered useless. Eventually, a macrophage acts as the garbage truck of the blood, sucking up the impotent pathogen for good.

Now, wouldn't you rather watch all that happen than read about it? And listen to a little techno in the background while you're at it? Thought so. Check out the company's greatest hits here.—Gregory Mone

(Image credit: Nucleus Medical Art)

Via Medgadget

Prosthetics in Ancient Egypt

Toe Today, prosthetics is a booming research area, as scientists are edging us closer to a Star Wars future of fully functional artificial hands, but the field has a long history, too. In fact, it may have just gotten a little longer. Scientists from the University of Manchester in England report that an artificial toe attached to the foot of a mummy in the Cairo Museum could be the oldest known functional prosthetic body part.

Previously, an artificial leg dating to 300 BC held that honor, but this ancient construction, known as the Greville Chester Great Toe, could be as many as 700 years older. Attached to the mummy's foot via leather, the toe itself is a cosmetically impressive creation of a kind of paper mache. And though it does look realistic, the Manchester scientists think it may have been functional, too. The toe itself shows some wear, suggesting that the mummified female, who was roughly 60 when she died, used it for some time.

To test this part of their theory, the group is working with the Human Performance Laboratory at the nearby University of Salford. They will test precise replicas on human subjects with missing toes, and determine based on that whether this ancient prosthetic was used for more than just looks.—Gregory Mone

(Image credit: University of Manchester)

Via ScienceDaily

Electrics hit the Drag Strip

Killa_cycle A lucky and wealthy few drivers will soon be speeding around town in Tesla Roadsters, but fast electric vehicles are also tearing up amateur racetracks across the country. This past weekend, a rider pushed a lithium-ion-battery-powered motorcycle to 156 mph at the Portland International Raceway in Oregon.

The bike, known as the KillaCycle, cranks out 350 horsepower, and squeezes all that juice out of 990 laptop-like batteries made by the power pros at A123 Systems. The KillaCycle gets from 0 to 60 in just under a second. In other words, it's already catching up to the quickest drag motorcycles, which do it in about 0.7 seconds.

Yet this could just be the start. One battery expert even thinks that electrics could challenge the toughest drag-racing records within five years.—Gregory Mone

Via AP

More Bad News From NASA

Iss Yesterday's strange news that astronauts may have been allowed to fly drunk on several shuttle launches wasn't the only good space gossip of the day. (And it certainly wasn't the best stuff of the year. That award still goes to the diaper-wearing astronaut who attacked her rival in a strange love triangle.) While deflecting questions about the boozing space travelers at a news conference intended to cover the upcoming shuttle launch, space operations chief Bill Gerstenmaier revealed that someone working for a NASA subcontractor had cut some wires in a computer that was slated to fly up on the next shuttle.

Gerstenmaier stressed that this wasn't a safety issue, and that NASA would have caught the problem if the subcontractor had not informed the agency first. Still, it's a serious issue, especially because space on the ISS is so hard to come by these days. Sending up a junked computer might not have endangered the astronauts on board, but it could have caused some logistical migraines. Add a little pre-launch boozing to the mix, and who knows what could have happened.—Gregory Mone

Via AP

How to Write a Book Using Your Thumbs

2007_07_26t184312_277x450_us_commut Though the standard text message typically consists of no more than a broken sentence or two, some people don't mind thumbing out a bit more. A whole bunch more, actually. An Italian IT professional who commutes to work each day decided to use his spare time to write an entire book on his mobile. The result, Compagni di Viaggio (Fellow Travelers), clocks in at 384 pages.

The writer, Robert Bernocco, used the T9 function on his phone, but opted for normal Italian rather than text-message shorthand. Bernocco would type out a few short paragraphs, save them on the phone, then transfer them to his computer at home. He kept the master file, and did most of his proofreading and editing, on this machine, but we're still amazed that he could crank out all of that material using only his thumbs.

Details on the plot of the science fiction novel are not available, in English, that is, but the process he went through has to make you wonder if the story includes a race of fast-typing aliens with tiny, tiny thumbs.

The book, which has not been translated into English, is available on Lulu.com.—Gregory Mone

Via Reuters

Man vs Machine at the Poker Table

Poker Machines have mastered chess, and they’re skilled at checkers, too. But poker? For 16 years a group of artificial intelligence researchers at the University of Alberta, Canada, have been working on a program called Polaris that could allow a computer to out-class humans at poker, and they’re starting to see some impressive results. The program, which can run on a normal laptop, recently lost close matches to two of the world’s top poker players.

The researchers say that poker is more difficult than chess, for example, because there is unknown information. On a chess board, everything is right out there in front of it for the computer to see. The machine can take all the information that exists and run algorithms to determine the best strategy based on that information.

But in poker, the other player or players are deliberately withholding critical information – their cards. One thing they won’t have to worry about developing is its poker face, which is already killer. How in the world are you going to guess the strength of a laptop’s hand? —Gregory Mone

Think a computer will beat a human at poker sometime soon? Bet on it in the Popsci Predictions Exchange (stock ID: AIPOKER).


Going High-Tech at the Beach

Ocean_city Imagine yourself down at the shore, your toes in the cool sand, the sun shining down, the natural world all around you. Oh, and there’s an RFID-embedded bracelet around your wrist.

Ocean City, New Jersey is planning to setup an advanced wireless system that will ease the beach access process, allow parents to keep track of wandering kids, and enable sunbathers to purchase drinks or food without taking out cash – the money will be automatically debited from their bank account thanks to the RFID chip.

Currently, beachgoers have to wear a badge proving that they paid their way down to the sand. And that means the town has to employ a whole crew of people to go around checking those badges. The new system will streamline that process, but it will also have other advantages. Parents especially might like the setup. They will be able to link their bracelets to their kids, so that if one of them slips through an exit, Mom or Dad will receive a text message on the phone informing them that Junior is on the run.—Gregory Mone

Via AP

Space Tourism Claims Its First Lives


Aerospace designer Burt Rutan talks as Kern County fire chief Michael Cody looks on during a news conference near the site of an explosion. Mark J. Terrill/AP Photo 

An explosion at Mojave Spaceport in southern California claimed three lives yesterday and critically injured at least three more individuals. The blast occurred at 2:45 p.m. Thursday during a rocket-motor test being conducted by Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites.

Scaled is currently developing SpaceShipTwo for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. It’s an up-scaled version of the aerospace firm’s SpaceShipOne, which in 2004 won the X Prize for the first successful privately funded suborbital spaceflight.
Rutan told reporters yesterday evening that the explosion occurred not during a rocket test launch, but during testing of rocket motor components, including an injector, through which nitrous oxide was flowing under pressure at room temperature.

"We were doing a test we believe was safe. We don't know why it exploded. We just don't know," the Associated Press' Alicia Chang reported Rutan as saying.

Like SpaceShipOne, SpaceShipTwo will be powered by a hybrid solid-fuel-and-liquid-oxidizer rocket motor. SpaceShipOne's fuel, and likely SpaceShipTwo's as well, was synthetic rubber.  Both ships use nitrous oxide as the oxidizer--required because rocket engines burn too rapidly to use atmospheric oxygen for sustained combustion. Rutan and his team chose this design over purely liquid or solid fueled motors because of its relative safety. The fuel and oxidizer are generally considered safe to handle, and the rocket can easily be shut down in flight in the event of a problem.

Still, any space program, public or private, is inherently risky.  "An unfortunate truth is that spaceflight, particularly human spaceflight, is hard," Eric Anderson, CEO of space tourism company Space Adventures told attendees at the NewSpace 2007 conference in Washington just last week. "It's not an easy industry, and we cannot kid ourselves about that."

Virgin hopes to launch paying space travelers into space by 2009, charging them $200,000 each for the flight. SpaceShipTwo is due to be unveiled by Scaled this fall. 

How this will affect Scaled/Virgin’s plans is at the moment unclear—as are details about the incident, how it happened, and whose lives were claimed (see update below) at the small, tightly knit company.

But these three deaths constitute the first lives claimed by the nascent space tourism industry, and the explosion is going to make it considerably harder for those advocating the ventures around the world to convince an already deeply skeptical populace that the flights will be reliable and safe. 
-Eric Adams and Michael Belfiore

UPDATE (1:05 PM EST): The deceased have been identified as 38-year-old Eric Blackwell of Randsburg, 45-year-old Charles May of Mojave, and 33-year-old Todd Ivens of Tehachapi. Their roles at Scaled Composites are currently unknown.

There's Nothing Like a Stiff Drink Right Before Liftoff


Sure, it's easy for some independent health panel to poo-poo what turns out to be a high incidence of pre-flight cocktails among NASA astronauts. (The study, obtained by Aviation Week & Space Technology and published on their website, found that on at least two occasions, astronauts were so intoxicated that flight surgeons warned that the crew members were a risk to the safety of the flight.)

NASA's standard 12-hour "bottle to throttle" minimum evidently isn't as strictly observed as the space agency would like (NASA said it will issue a reaction to the findings on Friday), but here's the thing, Mr. Health Panel: You try facing a Monday spent atop 47,000 gallons of rumbling jet fuel, and see if you don't need an extra Bloody Mary before reporting for work. —Jacob Ward

Science in The Simpsons


There are countless reasons to go see the long-awaited Simpsons movie this weekend, but for geeks, one of the big draws of the show has always been the sometimes obscure, always intelligent references to science and mathematics. At least a few editors of this magazine are devotees of the famous Halloween episode in which Homer ventures into the third dimension. It’s practically a primer on cosmology and extra-dimensional physics. And über-nerd Professor Frink is featured heavily, which is always a bonus.

Thanks to a writing staff that includes ex-computer-scientists and former mathematicians, the show also has cachet among real scientists. Renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking—whom Homer refers to as “that wheelchair guy” in the 3D episode—even guest-starred at one point. Other science types making guest appearances have included Steven Jay Gould, who visited Springfield to investigate Lisa's angel skeleton ("Can I use your bathroom?") and astronaut Buzz Aldrin ("Homer, no!").

We’re hoping the movie will include some equally delightful geek goodies, perhaps even an obscure guest star or two. The details of the plot have been kept secret, but the general idea – that Homer has to save the world – is encouraging. Let’s hope he appeals to an egghead for help.

So what's your favorite geeky Simpsons moment or quote? I'll start with a classic:

"Lisa, in this house we OBEY the laws of thermodynamics!"

Leave your own favorites in the comments. —Gregory Mone


(Image credit: Twentieth Century Fox)

Google Earth Reveals Oddities and Secrets

Face The editors at PC World spent some time using Google Earth to scour the surface of the planet, and they turned up some incredibly strange sights. The giant portrait of Oprah cut through a field by an Arizona farmer is one thing – you almost expect something like that – but the apparently natural phenomena are the truly mind-boggling ones. The image at left, for example, is an overhead view of a natural geological formation in Alberta, Canada. Locals call it The Badlands Guardian, but based on the ear phone, I’d prefer something more along the lines of The Early Adopter. And is it just me, or does that look like Sigmund Freud sitting atop the Guardian’s head?

In less entertaining news, Google Earth may have put the company on China’s bad side after the circulation of a satellite shot of what appears to be a new Chinese sub made the rounds on the web, according to IDG News.—Gregory Mone 

(Image credit: Google Earth)

MySpace Deletes 29,000 Sex Offenders

Predator Ever wonder if sexual predators might make use of social networking sites like MySpace? Well the answer is a big, enormous, resounding, Yes. The site, which pulls in 60 million unique users each month, and has 180 million profiles, announced just a few months ago that it had kicked 7,000 sex offenders out of the community. But yesterday the company revealed that they have actually knocked out 29,000 convicted sex offenders using the system—a number that authorities say will continue to grow. This isn’t the first scary news of this sort for the site. In an article covering the MySpace news, the Boston Herald reports that on Monday, a Virginia man pleaded guilty to kidnapping a 14-year-old girl he met through the site. But now a coalition of several state attorneys general is leading the charge to keep MySpace safe, and possibly require kids to get verifiable permission from their parents before they register on the site. Yeah, that seems like a pretty good idea.—Gregory Mone

James Cameron Picks Game Publisher for Upcoming Film

James_cameron Director James Cameron, the man behind Titanic and the Terminator films, has selected a publisher to develop the game for his upcoming movie, Avatar. The $190 million, roughly half-CGI, half-live-action movie, which is about an ex-Marine who exists as a human mind in an alien body, has generated tremendous buzz over the last year—science fiction fans are excited to see Cameron step away from doomed romances and back to futuristic battles. The director is also going to shoot it in 3D, using advanced new technology that he has claimed is the future of the movies.

For the game, he took a year to choose from among four major publishers. The winner, Ubisoft, is also developing the game portion of the upcoming movie Beowulf. (Though one could argue that all hero-battles-the-monster games are based on Beowulf.) The only downer is that none of the Avatar-related material is going to be available for a while. The movie isn’t scheduled for release until the summer of 2009.—Gregory Mone

How Today’s Kids Relate to Technology

Kids_computer A massive new study of 18,000 kids from 16 different countries revealed some surprising details about how the next generation thinks about technology, and how it’s impacting their lives. Conducted by Nickleodeon, MTV and Microsoft, the survey was obviously intended to figure out how to sell more stuff to today’s youth, or tomorrow’s adults, but the findings are fascinating from a purely sociological perspective, too. Consider this: the average young person in China has 37 online friends he or she has never met. Globally, the average is 20, which is surprising enough. But in tech-savvy Japan, a teen will only have 7 such online friends. One reason for the much larger number in China, the report’s authors suggest, is that home life is vastly different for these kids. They have few or no siblings, and reach out to others over the Web through social networking sites, blogs, and instant messaging. China also stood out because its kids were the only group that preferred going online to watching TV—everywhere else in the world, the old-school screen still rules. More details can be found here.—Gregory Mone

Who is the Face Behind Facebook?

Facebookbigshot1 This could be a good one. For the Internet business crowd, it's the equivalent of the custody battle over Anna Nicole Smith’s baby, though without the playmates and strange judge. Today, after years of back and forth, and with a whole lot of money on the line, a Boston judge will oversee a hearing to dismiss a lawsuit filed by social-networking site ConnectU against the founders of the much larger, and potentially more valuable Facebook.

The squabble stretches back to the major players’ days at Harvard, when the group that started ConnectU came up with the idea for a group of linked social networks focused on a single college. At one point, they had Mark Zuckerberg, the eventual founder of Facebook, work for them, and they allege that he effectively stole their idea, launching his own version before theirs went live. Attempts to appeal to school administrators failed, Facebook expanded, and in September 2004, the ConnectU founders filed their lawsuit. Basically, ConnectU wants to shut Facebook down. And Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, really needs to get this little lawsuit out of the way if, as rumored, he plans to either take the company public or sell to the highest bidder—a deal that some have speculated could be worth more than $1 billion. Read more about the history of this high-stakes, Harvard-based fight here.—Gregory Mone

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