Science & Technology


The future of fully autonomous vehicles: Heaven or hell?

heaven/hell sign
© shutterstock
When my city-raised son was two, he'd scream bus! with full-bodied delight whenever he saw one. It's quite possible that his yet-to-be-conceived youngest child won't learn that word, nor ever ride in a "taxi," "shuttle," or "vanpool." These fine gradations for types of shared vehicles will disappear much like telephone booths from city streets - and not to be replaced by the likes of Zipcar, Car2go, or Lyft. Rather, it is the fully autonomous car that is going to be game-changing. But it is a future with two trajectories: heaven and hell.

Let's start with the hell scenario, in which we all own driverless cars that do all our errands for us. To see the impact of our worst nature, consider a typical day owning an autonomous car. I have a breakfast meeting in Harvard Square, so my fully autonomous vehicle - my FAV - drops me off then sends itself back home to park for free. I schedule the FAV to return at 9:30 a.m., but I don't rush out because the car will just circle the neighborhood until I tell it "I'm here!" Later on, my son decides to go to a friend's house two miles away, but instead of riding his bike the family FAV takes him there and comes back. As I get a friend a gift at a hand-made jewelry shop, my FAV circles the block for 15 minutes. Rather than trip-chaining to get the dry cleaning, we send the FAV out anytime to pick it up (an employee places the cleaned and pressed clothes in my car for me). Ditto for our take-out dinner.

Astronauts' hearts take on spherical shape in space

A trio of Expedition 36 flight engineers including NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy (left) and European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano (right), are assisted by NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, as they prepare for a "dry run" in the International Space Station's Quest airlock on July 3, 2013. Attired in their Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) spacesuits, Cassidy and Parmitano gear up to participate in the first of two sessions of extravehicular (EVA) scheduled for July 9 and July 16, 2013.
As NASA doctors had predicted, the results showed average astronaut heart become rounder by a factor of 9.4 percent

The hearts of astronauts begin to take on a spherical shape after too much time in space.

That's one of the conclusions from a recent health study of 12 astronauts, the results of which were presented at this past weekend's American College of Cardiology's 63rd Annual Scientific Session.

The study is part of NASA's larger effort to better understand the health risks associated with extended periods of time spent under zero-gravity conditions.

"The heart doesn't work as hard in space, which can cause a loss of muscle mass," explained study leader Dr. James Thomas, who serves as the Moore Chair of Cardiovascular Imaging and Lead Scientist for Ultrasound at NASA. "That can have serious consequences after the return to Earth, so we're looking into whether there are measures that can be taken to prevent or counteract that loss."
Comet 2

New Comet: C/2014 F1 (HILL)

Cbet nr. 3840, issued on 2014, April 01, announces the discovery of a comet (~ magnitude 18.6) on CCD images taken on 2014, March 29.4 by R. E. Hill with the Catalina Sky Survey's 0.68-m Schmidt telescope. The new comet has been designated C/2014 F1 (HILL).

We performed follow-up measurements of this object, while it was still on the neocp. Stacking of 10 unfiltered exposures, 60-sec each, obtained remotely on 2014, March 30.4 from H06 (iTelescope network - New Mexico) through a 0.50-m f/6.8 astrograph + CCD + f/4.5 focal reducer, shows that this object is a comet: coma about 5" in diameter elongated toward PA 215.

Our confirmation image (click on it for a bigger version).
C/2014 F1
© Remanzacco Observatory
M.P.E.C. 2014-G02 assigns the following very preliminary parabolic orbital elements to comet C/2014 F1: T 2013 Oct. 27.18; e= 1.0; Peri. = 13.93; q = 3.62; Incl.= 108.91

High cortisol levels may be a biomarker linked to greater risk-taking in night owls

Night Owl
© Thinkstock
Are you a night owl who likes to stay up to study or watch late-night talk shows? Or an early bird who likes to get a head start on the competition?

According to a new study from a University of Chicago professor, your personal sleeping habits are related to your propensity for taking risks - with night owls being higher risk takers than early birds.

The study, which was published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, also found that sleeping preferences are linked to other personality traits.

"Night owls, both males and females, are more likely to be single or in short-term romantic relationships versus long-term relationships, when compared to early birds," said study author, Dario Maestripieri, professor of comparative human development at UChicago. "In addition, male night owls reported twice as many sexual partners than male early birds."

To reach his conclusion, Maestripieri used information from an earlier study of over 500 graduate students at the University of Chicago. That study examined financial risk aversion for male and female students and discovered men tended to take more financial risks than women. However, females with relatively higher testosterone levels were comparable to males with respect to financial risk-taking, the earlier study showed.

To expand on that study, the Chicago professor looked to see if sleep patterns have any effect on these risk-taking tendencies by looking at an association with differences in personality and in thrill-seeking. Maestripieri began by collecting saliva samples from 110 males and 91 females to determine their levels of the stress hormone cortisol and testosterone. The levels were determined before and after participants completed a computerized assessment of their predilection for financial risk aversion. The participants also talked about their own eagerness for risks and gave information about their sleep habits.

Tobacco plant shows cancer-fighting potential

nicotiana alata
© Wikimedia Commons
Nicotiana alata
A molecule found in the tobacco plant could be useful in killing cancerous cells in humans, Australian research has found.

The molecule, found in the pink and white flowers of the ornamental tobacco plant Nicotiana alata, is a key part of the plant's natural defence mechanism, allowing it to fight off fungal and bacterial infections.

After isolating the molecule, known as NaD1, La Trobe University biologists found that it also had the ability to identify and destroy cancer cells while leaving healthy cells unscathed.

"This is the holy grail - to develop specific agents which will only target cancer and not the normal healthy cells," cancer biologist Mark Hulett said.

Comment: See also:

Health Benefits of Smoking Tobacco


Scientists have developed living muscle tissue that can heal itself

engineered muscle fiber
© Duke University
Long, colorful strands of engineered muscle fiber have been stained to observe growth after implantation into a mouse.
Scientists at Duke University announced they have developed living muscle tissue that can heal itself in an animal just as natural tissue would, raising hopes that more research will lead to self-healing muscles to help humans recover from injuries.

Biomedical engineers discovered that the test skeletal muscle developed at the Durham, North Carolina school was able to integrate into lab mice quickly, and then heal itself quickly once inside the animal. They also measured the muscle's strength by shocking it with electric pulses, discovering it was more than 10 times stronger than any previously engineered muscles, according to Quartz.

Lead researcher Nenad Bursac told the site that perhaps the most exciting development was that they were able to isolate stem cells from mouse muscle and then grow them into muscle fibers.

"We got them to grow into strongly contracting fibers," he said. "This is the first time we've seen muscle fibers contract so strongly in the lab. It was comparable to the contracting forces you'd see in an actual mouse muscle."

Possible Nova pops in Cygnus

Nova in Cygnus_1
© Stellarium
The location of the possible nova discovery in Cygnus is marked. The object is about 1.5 degrees west of the magnitude +4 star 41 Cygni. Its temporary designation is PNV J20214234+3103296. See below for detailed map.
A newly-discovered star of magnitude +10.9 has flared to life in the constellation Cygnus the Swan. Koichi Nishiyama and Fujio Kabashima, both of Japan, made their discovery yesterday March 31 with a 105mm f/4 camera lens and electronic camera.

They quickly confirmed the observation with additional photos taken with a 0.40-m (16-inch) reflector. Nothing was seen down to magnitude +13.4 in photos taken the on the 27th, but when they checked through images made on March 30 the star present at +12.4. Good news - it's getting brighter!

Solar flare eruption unusually strong, fast

An immense solar flare burst from the sun Saturday, and as of Monday there were "several coronal mass ejections in play," according to NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center.

A coronal mass ejection is a huge release --billions of tons -- of solar material and magnetic fields that, if it reaches Earth, can create beautiful auroras as well as cause problems with the power grid.

Arrow Up

Mom's harness invention allows disabled children to walk for the first time

A mother's invention that gave her wheelchair-bound son the chance to walk has been launched onto the worldwide market.

A Northern Ireland company has turned Debby Elnatan's idea for a walking harness into a product that could transform the lives of countless disabled children.

Mrs Elnatan, a music therapist, came up with the concept to help her young son Rotem, who has cerebral palsy.

She designed a support harness that would enable Rotem to stand upright and, by attaching it to herself, let parent and child take steps together.
Upsee harness

Miracle steps: From left, Claire and Daniel Smyth, Louise and Bethany Watson and Cameron and Charlotte Taylor take the Firefly Upsee for a test run

After a global search for a company to mass-produce her "Upsee", the Israeli mother chose Northern Ireland-based manufacturer Leckey, which has a long track record in making equipment for children with special needs.

Beneficial tobacco: Monoclonal antibodies derived from tobacco thwart West Nile virus

ASU researchers Qiang "Shawn " Chen and Huafang "Lily " Lai infiltrate a tobacco plant to produce monoclonal antibodies against West Nile virus.
An international research group led by Arizona State University professor Qiang "Shawn" Chen has developed a new generation of potentially safer and more cost-effective therapeutics against West Nile virus, and other pathogens.

The therapeutics, known as monoclonal antibodies (MAbs) and their derivatives, were shown to neutralize and protect mice against a lethal dose challenge of West Nile virus---even as late as 4 days after the initial infection.

"The overarching goal of our research is to create an innovative, yet sustainable and accessible, low cost solution to combat the global threat of West Nile virus," said Chen, a researcher at Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute and professor in the Department of TEIM.

West Nile virus is spread by infected mosquitoes, and targets the central nervous system. It can be a serious, life-altering and even fatal disease and currently, there is no cure or drug treatment against West Nile virus, which has been widely spread across the U.S., Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean.