Monday, 19 November 2012

Fine. Go Extinct. We'll Make More.

Worried about animals going extinct? Afraid for the polar bear whose home is melting or the panda that simply refuses to fuck the other pandas? In all seriousness, these are important issues. Forget for a minute that more than 99% of all the species that have ever existed on the planet are already extinct, and remember that there are a few things that we more highly developed beings can do something to make things easier for our lesser evolved companions. All over the world, people are doing all sorts of things to help animals – they are prohibiting hunting and helping to preserve wild habitats and creating artificial habitats that are considerably safer and all sorts of other lovely helpful things.

But now Embrapa, the agricultural research agency of Brazil, has decided that, if those things do not work, then it is alright.

Because they are just going to make more. 

They have decided on a number of animals that are classed as “near threatened” on the IUCN list of endangered species to try to clone successfully, and hopefully push them into a safer zone. These include jaguars, the black lion tamarind, the bush dog, the coati, the collared anteater, the grey brocket deer and the bison. They set to begin work cloning the maned wolf very soon.

The maned wolf; cloning attempts will
begin within a month.
They acknowledge that cloning should be a last resort, but that does not mean that the potential of this plan is pretty damn cool.

What they need to be able to clone these animals is some living cells from each of them. Embrapa already have 420 wild tissue samples that they intend to use to create these clones.

Dolly the sheep, now stuffed.
I agree. It's sort of creepy. I love it.
This is not the first time that the cloning of endangered animals has been attempted. In 2009, an extinct species of mountain goat called the Pyrenean ibex was cloned, but it died at birth. Other animals that have famously been cloned include Dolly the sheep, as well as rarer ones including the ox-like gaur and the mouflon … whatever they are.

Since then, however, innovations in cloning have been much more advanced and, as a skill, cloning has vastly improved. The scientists working on this project have high hopes for it and are hopeful that it will serve as a bloody good back-up for when conservation just is not enough, and we will never have to say a permanent goodbye to these beautiful beasts.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Black People Officially Cool, Says Science

So, if this...

... when compared to this...

...isn't evidence enough that white guys have absolutely no innate sense of cool, then take a look at this evidence from genuine scientists that suggests that black people actually are the coolest people in the world.

Or, at least, in America. And on Twitter.

Jacob Eisenstein and his colleagues at the Georgia Institute of Technology examined thirty million tweets sent from various places within the US between December 2009 and May 2011 and watched for the emergence of new slang terms. They team built a mathematical model that precisely explains the flow of new words between cities.

It showed that areas with large African American tended to be the ones that generated the new terms. There was no conclusive evidence about why terms spread between certain places, and they could not pinpoint one specific area that produced new language more than any other.

But the overwhelming finding was the black people generally created and shared new words and phrases that were cool more than any other demographic in the world.

So, science has finally generated some evidence for the simple fact of the matter that black people are cool.

Plus, they've got the moves...

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Who Needs Hogwarts When You Have Science?

Scientists have been trying to create an invisibility cloak since 2006, following David Smith's theory of 'transformation optics', which explains how electromagnetic fields can be bent around an object and render it transparent. In the years between then and now, there has been some success, but they were not what you would call amazing.

Well, they were amazing, but they were not quite Harry Potter standard...

Now, David Smith and a graduate student called Nathan Landy have modified the old cloaks and have come up with one that they describe as being 'perfect'. As in, Harry Potter perfect.

Sadly, I can find no photos of Smith and Landy's prototype. This depresses me immensely. Then again, maybe there are pictures of it, but I just can't see it. In the mean time, I have found this, which is pretty fucking awesome:

When they originally composed the theory, they believed that it was highly unlikely that they would ever come close to perfect. They were wrong. I am deliriously happy.

With science this successful, really ... who needs Hogwarts?

Friday, 16 November 2012

Gingers More Susceptible to Cancer, Say Scientists

It shouldn't be funny. But it sort of is. First they have to be ginger, and now this.

David Fisher and his team at Massachusetts General Hospital did an experiment on mice with either red or black hair to see how they responded to the introduction of a gene linked with melanoma. They wanted to know more about melanoma after exposure to UV light; focussing on how much it damaged the fair skin of people - or creatures - with red hair.

But before they could observe anything relevant to their hypothesis - all the ginger mice got cancer.

This was completely unexpected, so they did some new experiments on ginger mice to find out what had actually happened. They bred some hybrid mice that were half-ginger and half-albino and tested them to see if it was the ginger gene or ginger pigment that was the issue. The specially bred mice had the ginger gene, but white hair, and they also tested on mice with both the ginger pigment and the ginger hair.

They tested again to see how they were affected by melanoma-inducing UV. All the white-haired mice were fine, despite carrying the MC1R (ginger) gene.

The mice with ginger hair all got cancer.


It's a shame really. Turns out Voldemort isn't the only thing this lot have to worry about...

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

One Step Closer to Cyborgs

Of all the cool gadgets and gizmos and random weird shit that sci-fi promises us will happen eventually, there are few that are expected to be achieved within our lifetimes. Given that I am younger than Game Boys, this means that there a good few decades of innovation awaiting us before we're all going around in hover cars.

But recently, it has been revealed that Federico Parietti and Harry Asada from MIT have brought mankind one step closer to cyborgs.

Remember when Bender sported these bad boys...?

Well, what was not made clear in that episode was that they were invented much closer to now than to then. And that they work on humans as well as robots.

Parietti and Asada have developed the prototype of a pair of semi-autonomous arms that are worn like a backpack and extend around the body. They are designed to be intelligent enough that they can be of assistance without needing a lot of tricky programming; they will learn and anticipate what their wearer wants them to do, having been programmed to perform specific tasks.

The work is being funded by Boeing and the prototypes were shown at the Dynamic Systems and Control Conference in Florida earlier on this year. The arms are being designed to help factory workers with jobs that require two pairs of hands; they are supposed to increase efficiency by letting that guy who would usually be the second pair do something more important with his time than just holding stuff.

They seem like they would be really useful once they have reached a point that they are available to industries. However, it is only a matter of time beyond that before they become commercialised and nerds like me get their hands on them and do awesome cosplays of this dude!

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

The New Contender in the Energy Market: Air.

Evironmentally, you really can't win. Statistically, I am kind of winning; my life is quite environmentally friendly - I am frugal with electricity, I walk most places and get the bus to all other places, I have a Friends of the Earth hoodie - but that it because I am a poor student and I live in expensive London and Tim Minchin was at the Friends of the Earth gig, so I don't really have much of a choice in these matters. For people who can afford choice, you're pretty much damned if you do and damned if you don't. Using technology is necessary, but bad. Driving a normal is bad, but driving an electric car makes you a pretentious prick. Also, electricity is bad. And electric cars are ugly as fuck.

But this could be about to change. The G-Wiz will still be hideous and you will still look like a douche if you even consider getting into one. But it won't be your only option.

Because of these dudes. These wonderful nerds - and I do love nerds - at Air Fuel Synthesis are making fuel out of air.

Out. Of. Air.

Earlier on in October 2012, they revealed the first successful demonstration of their techniques, showing how carbon, hydrogen and oxygen can be taken from carbon dioxide and water in the air to be converted first into methanol and then into petrol.

They didn't even have to go into any more detail to blow my mind. The idea has been around since the oil crisis of the 1970s, but it still feels a bit like science fiction to me. So they offer this helpful graphic to explain to nerd-groupies like me who have no real nerd credentials aside from enthusiam:

The problem with it at the moment is the energy efficiency of the process. Obviously, it would not be environmentally beneficial if more energy was put into it than is created by it, and this is still being smoothed out, but that makes it no less cool.

With funding, it will get there. Eventually. There are huge plans for the technology which could revolutionise the way that energy is created. The maths for its development on a much larger scale is already sorted out and, once it has some firmer backing from governments, it is hoped that it will be a contender against oil in the energy market.

Hopefully it won't make the same mistake as some of the other companies that have tried to save the world and will offer us some technology that isn't too ugly to touch.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

A trip to the moon for $150 million? Bargain!

Alright, so space tourism is not exactly a new idea. In 2001, an Italian-American engineer called Dennis Tito (the dude on the right) with more money than he can spend in many many lifetimes paid $20 million for the privilege of an eight-day holiday on the International Space Station. I don’t blame him for a second – if I could do it, I totally would – but, at the moment, it is somewhat out of my price range.

But hopefully not for long. Given that by "long", I mean a couple of decades. So ... hopefully not in the semi-distant future.

Starting in 2013, Virgin Galactic, as well as three other companies arranging similar ventures, will be taking paying passengers to the very edge of space that are arranging. But Virgin Galactic offers the swankiest deal for your money. The lowest price is $95,000, so it is still some time before I can afford it, but it is predicted that it will be a hell of a lot cheaper as it becomes a more common pastime. Over nine hundred people – including Ashton Kutcher – have already reserved seats on the space flights. In a matter of years, flights to the moon will become commercially available at a starting price of $150 million.

I don’t even care. I want to go. I mean, how fucking awesome does this thing look?

Regulations will state that passengers have to be over eighteen years old and have to “consent to the risk”, which essentially means that they have to agree not to sue if they have any awkward side effects. I'm weird enough not to care that much if anything else unfortunate happened to me, and I'm already over eighteen, so that's all good. Customers will be offered a medical exam beforehand, but the companies will not apply height or weight restrictions, so fat people can do it too!

In all honesty, my favourite thing about the comparative lenience of the regulations is the thought that the stag parties of very rich young men could well be held - one day - in space. Or hen parties. Or birthday parties. Or anything. As long as you and all your guests are over eighteen. But, then again, who invites anyone under eighteen out anyway? At least, not without offering them a fake ID. I accept that they are probably a bit more strict about letting me in than your average shitty club.

The trips can take anywhere between 35 minutes and 2 hours, but Virgin Galactic will put you up for five days in accommodation, during which time you will have training and medical checks with your trip on the fourth day. You also get free entry – but no coverage for the cost of travel, which sort of sucks – to exclusive events between the time you buy your ticket and go on your flight. That means you can go to parties and presentations and air shows and test flights with all the big shots and astronauts and scientists, which is pretty awesome, and probably well worth a big chunk of the ticket price. Not to mention the fact that the waiting time between buying the ticket and actually going into space could stretch to as far as a few years, so depending on how much you take advantage of this you could get a hell of a lot of awesome nerd times out of it.

And then ... this:

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation reckons that flights available from spaceports in the US will offer suborbital flights in the next couple of years and orbital flights picking up shortly after. Within ten years, prices are expected to drop to below $50,000.

It’s not impossible…