Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee, Listen Like a…Fly?

the flyNature has once again proven that whatever humans can conceive, it has already been achieved. We humans can more or less tell where a sound is coming from because our ears are placed relatively far apart, so sound will be weaker in one ear than the other. This gives us a clue where the sound is coming from, which is why we tend to turn towards the ear where the sound is louder. But what if sound hits a receptor such as a head on all sides at the same time?

A close investigation of how a tiny, yellow parasitic fly (Ormia ochracea) can so exactly pinpoint the source of the mating call of a male cricket (which the flies use as a living buffet for their young) revealed the ingenious mechanism of its ear structure. Its design is the basis for a hypersensitive hearing aid made of silicone which mimics what engineers refer to as a “teeter-totter.”

This teeter-totter in the fly’s ear is about 1.5 millimeters long and tilts towards the source of sound vibrations. The silicone replica is only a little larger at 2 millimeters, and the tips are made of piezoelectrical material which transmits mechanical energy, i.e. sound waves, into electrical signals. The invention can enhance and isolate specific sounds as well as filter them out. The practical applications of such a finely-tuned sound locator are many, ranging from military tactics to smart phone improvements. And while they won’t turn you in to a Jeff Goldblum-esque monster, they do stand to dramatically improve the quality of life for many who experience hearing impairment.

Whoever Said Lying was Lying was Lying

lyingFrom as far back as most of us can remember, we were taught that lying was a bad thing. And whenever we try to justify it, we are told that “lying is lying.” As it turns out, however, lying might not be such a bad thing overall. According to the study Effects of deception in social networks, people who told the most lies were pivotal in keeping a social group together and in expanding it.

It would probably be important to mention that the study differentiated between prosocial lies (white lies, or lies you tell to promote goodwill) and antisocial lies (lies you tell to get the better of others). It is the prosocial lies that foster positive social interaction, while antisocial lies serve to eventually fragment social groups.

Apparently, society as we know it today would not have been the same if we all told the truth all the time. White lies serve to smooth down ruffled feathers and encourage lagging spirits. For example, if a colleague comes in looking like death, saying so can only make things worse for the poor thing. A judicious white lie would be something like “You look great!”

It doesn’t mean that you should start teaching your kids to lie, though. You can tell them that they should be polite and discreet; those sound better.

Scientific Study, Which Was Probably Expensive, Proves What Everybody Already Knows

mixed drinkCollege students and 20-somethings around the world were in no way shocked to find out that an Australian research team now has scientific proof that drinking a combination of booze and energy drinks makes you want….you guessed it….more booze. The study found that something in the makeup of energy drinks increased a person’s desire to continue drinking more than if they were drinking alcohol combined with other mixers. While an increased desire to continue drinking does not necessarily mean that a person will continue drinking, researchers note that this hazard does pose a notable threat to the public.

Even before these findings were established, several countries across the world took steps to try and eliminate some of the dangers that can result from combining energy drinks and alcohol. New regulations were recently imposed on caffeinated beverages in Canada that capped the amount of allowable caffeine in these drinks, and quite notably, the United States required a recipe change in a wildly popular malt beverage, Four Loco, that combined alcohol and caffeine in a 23.5 oz tallboy can. While such recipe changes may alleviate the concerns of everyone from law enforcement officials to Austin personal injury lawyers to medical professionals, who regularly have to deal with the negative consequences of binge drinking, the aforementioned Australian study revealed that despite such regulations, the number of individuals coming into emergency rooms after consuming energy drinks had increased notably. Not surprisingly, many of these instances involved individuals who had consumed energy drinks in combination with drugs and/or alcohol.

 

Light Sabers Technology a Reality

Light SaberCome on! Who among us wouldn’t kill for a real-life light saber of Star Wars fame that makes that cool sound? Thanks to the prequels, even kids today know what a light saber looks like, and if the MIT and Harvard geeks get it right, they might actually get to see one. Maybe even (gasp!) get one!

Did we get you all excited? Well, maybe we exaggerated a little. Okay, a lot. The brains from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University that make up the Harvard-MIT Center for Ultracold Atoms really have collaboratively stumbled upon a way to make photons interact with instead of simply passing through each other.

Photons, in case you didn’t know, are light particles that have no mass. This is the reason they don’t interact; they don’t actually have anything to work with. But researchers found that with the use of laser beams, the photons cooled down enough to harden and bounce of each other, much like light sabers, in fact.

The applications of a hardened and interactive photon molecule are yet to be determined, and the light saber is certainly one of those being considered. However, the main focus of researchers was using this new development to finally crack the concept of quantum computing.

Not as exciting as a light saber, but it is still in the cards, never fear. Researchers call this a “new state of matter.” Well, it is light made solid, after all. That’s pretty cool in itself.

We’re Not Vampires, but We Will Take Your Blood

blood testingOver the recent 4th of July weekend, police officers in Austin, TX once engaged in a highly controversial law enforcement practice aimed at curbing incidents of drunk driving: no refusal weekends. These weekends usually take place on weekends that are prone to higher than normal rates of drunk driving, usually holiday weekends and special event weekends, and when in place, individuals who refuse to submit to a breathalyzer test are taken to mobile blood-testing clinics where they are required by law to submit a blood sample for BAC testing. If individuals refuse to submit to blood testing, their blood will be forcibly taken from them.

When these weekends were first announced in Austin, they were met with great uproar and protest, with some protesters claiming that law enforcement officers were basically “Vampire Cops,” taking blood from and violating the rights of those they suspected of drunk driving. Arrests made on no refusal weekends also pose new and particular challenges to Austin criminal defense lawyers who may have clients who not only stand accused of driving while intoxicated, but who also may claim that their rights have been violated.

Only time will tell how these controversial practices are handled in Austin, but at least for now, similar practice have not spread across the country.

Biotech Here Now; Robocops and $6 Million Dollar Men Coming Soon

A remarkable new technological breakthrough at Ohio State University shows how close we are to actually being able to, you know, rebuild people, make them better, stronger, etc. According to a CBS News report, researchers and surgeons at the University have successfully allowed a quadriplegic man to use his hands again through the implantation of a computer chip in his brain.

The technology, which relies on the chip to sends signals from the brain through a cable attached to a port in the skull to a computer, which decodes the messages and sends the information to a sleeve covered in electrodes, allows users to regain more or less full functioning of the hand, though its applications could theoretically extend to almost any part of the body. While still in the early stages, it is widely seen as a hopeful sign of our future ability to repair what have until now been permanent, life-altering disabilities.

One interesting thing to consider is the types of impact that these developments could have for future insurance and lawsuit costs. Because the costs of these treatments is likely to be quite high, he suggested, injury victims may become entitled to increasingly significant financial damages to pay for their treatment.

Robot Trucks Are Now a Thing in Nevada

Robot trucksIn another development indicating how close we really are to Skynet becoming operational, a fleet of robotic trucks has successfully been tested in Nevada. Though the vehicles are not yet fully automated, proponents are excited about the potential these vehicles offer in terms of enhanced safety and reduced fuel costs.

According to an article published in Popular Science, the way the system works is that a lead truck, fully operated by a human driver, is followed by a computer-assisted truck which is also operated by a human driver but which only requires the operator to steer. The computer in the following truck keeps the vehicle exactly 33 feet behind the other truck, braking or accelerating as needed.

There are a number of important benefits for this. For one, it can substantially reduce fuel costs. According to those involved, a total of 7% fuel cost reduction can be achieved through this system, 4.5% for the lead truck and 10% for the one in back. Additionally, it may also help save lives. According to the website of Williams Kherkher, Houston truck accident attorneys, more than 3,400 truck accident fatalities occurred in 2010 alone. By reducing the role of human drivers, the errors that lead to these accidents occurring are much less likely to be a problem.

Another Star Trek Gadget on the Threshold

stethoscopeIt may not be obvious to non-Trekkies, but quite a few technologies that were mere whims of fancy of the creators of the television show Star Trek have actually segued from fiction to reality. This is largely thanks to talented Trekkies who can speak Klingon and would really love to bring those cool gadgets to life.

Qualcomm is really pushing the envelope here by offering big money to anyone who can come up with an honest-to-goodness medical tricorder that can really scan for vitals and diagnose some diseases without so much as a pinprick. For the clueless, a medical tricorder is a handheld device, not unlike a barcode scanner, that functions as a mobile one-stop diagnostic tool. Much like what the smartphone is to a desktop computer today.

The Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize is offering $10 Million to the team that can satisfy minimal requirements established by the company for the winning prototype. It has attracted more than 200 teams from 30 countries, and small wonder. So far, the biggest contender is the Scanadu Scout, which does not precisely fit the bill for the XPrize yet, but development is well underway.

Body, heal thyself!

DNAIt is hard to believe, but what those New Age believers say about the power of self-healing may actually be true. Studies in cellular biology indicate that ribonucleic acid (RNA), the translator molecule of genetic information, may carry the key to successfully treating some of the toughest human health problems including, but not limited to, cancer, diabetes, and some infectious diseases. Big words right there. Essentially, RNA-based drugs are telling the body to heal itself through what is called “RNA interference,” rather like the misbehaving cells in the body being told to go to their room.

An even newer development is using messenger RNA (mRNA) to activate healing proteins. A carefully designed mRNA sequence is injected into the patient’s body which then acts on the cells, telling them what to do to get better. This is different from gene therapy, where modified deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is used to change the patient’s own DNA; RNA-based therapeutics will not permanently change the patient’s genetic information.

These drugs have recently been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and we expect that the large biotech companies will soon be making a bundle on these products. Well, it will be worth it the body heals itself. What could be better? Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Fold Me a Robot

Engineers with too much time on their hands have figured out how to make origami robots that one day will actually function.Origami

A robotics team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology came up with a way to make self-folding shapes by inserting varying thicknesses of flat plastic between two sheets of paper which are then precisely creased according to a computer-generated template. When heated, the plastic between the two outer sheets contracts into predetermined angles to form the desired shape. Aside from a human shape, the team had made an origami house, rabbit, and egg, and eventually, a robot complete with parts.

The long-term aim of the team is beyond thumb-twiddling, however.

The new technology is to be presented in Hong Kong at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation happening in the second week of June, 2014. The purpose of the self-folding paper is to eventually help DIY-ers build their own robots at home even if they have no knowledge of engineering or robotics. The next step in the process is to make self-folding robot parts such as capacitors and figuring out how to construct it so that a few minutes in the oven and hey, presto! Working robot!