News for Nerds - November 2, 2012

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  • Posted by: Dom Testa|
  • 11/2/2012 |
  • 10:00 am
News for Nerds - November 2, 2012

Welcome back to News for Nerds! This week we'll take a look at some creepy cargo that's coming back from space, we'll meet the future of search and rescue missions, and we'll learn a thing or two about those mysterious Easter Island statues. But first: save the whales!

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The biggest story of the week clearly has been Sandy, the superstorm that wrecked the east coast. With all the attention being paid to hurricanes and tropical storms, News for Nerd fans Rick and Cyn wrote to me and asked a simple question: What happens to sea animals during a hurricane?

Thankfully, the National Science Teachers Association has already looked into this pretty extensively.

The short answer is that larger vertebrates, such as whales, are often (though not always) minimally affected by the actual storm. Smaller invertebrates, such as coral and sponges, generally don't fare as well. The direct impact of massive storms can cause high rates of breakage and die-off. More importantly, the indirect impact of mega-storms -- pollution, disrupted nesting sites, and increases in ocean water murkiness and sedimentation -- can lead to large-scale problems for animals of all shapes and sizes.

One interesting phenomenon is that some animals seem to sense the coming catastrophe and leave the area. Sharks are believed to notice subtle changes in inner-ear pressure and swim into deeper waters. Dolphins, too, are thought to have the ability react to salinity changes associated with heavy rainfall and move away from dangerous waters.

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One of the cool things about science is that it allows us to play detective with some of the greatest mysteries in the world. A particular favorite of mine is the mystery of the Easter Island statues.

If you're not familiar, here's a quick recap: Easter Island is a small Polynesian island in the southeastern Pacific Ocean. It's claimed to be the most remote inhabited island in the world. But more importantly, it's the home of 887 giant monumental statues, some of which weigh more than 80 tons.

Since these were all built hundreds of years ago by the ancient people of Rapa Nui (the island's Polynesian name), the question is: how did they build and transport these statues without the use of any modern technology? Some theories have centered on the use of log-rolling devices or other such ideas, but archaeologist Carl Lipo has a different contention.

He says they walked.

Watch the video below to get a better idea of Lipo's theory (and the experiment that followed), but the general idea is that the statues, which feature some unusual construction quirks, were built to rock from side to side, the way you would move a refrigerator. Check it out:

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From Science Daily: 'Cornell researchers have created an autonomous flying robot that is as smart as a bird when it comes to maneuvering around obstacles.' Just let that sink in for a minute. Then begin to imagine the possible applications.

The test vehicle is a quadrotor, which is a commercially-available flying machine roughly the size of a card table with four helicopter rotors. But the trouble with unmanned vehicles like that, even those outfitted with 3-D cameras and GPS, is that human controllers can't always react quickly enough to keep it from slamming into, say, a tree. And even if they could, radio signals may not reach everywhere the vehicle goes.

Enter the team at Cornell, which is taking flat video cameras and creating 3-D images of the environment using the sorts of cues that humans subconsciously use -- things like converging straight lines, the sizes of familiar objects, and what objects are in front of or behind each other.

The resulting set of rules for deciding what is an obstacle is burned into a chip before the robot flies. During flight, the robot breaks the current 3-D image of its environment into small chunks based on obvious boundaries, decides which ones are obstacles, and computes a path through them as close as possible to the route it has been told to follow. It makes constant, instant adjustments as the view changes.

It was tested in 53 autonomous flights in obstacle-rich environments, and succeeded in 51 of the 53. The two failures were both due to high winds. Its potential for search-and-rescue missions, and for the American military, is vast.

If you want to see some extremely cool video of these flying robots in action - and learn more from one of the chief architects in the program - check out this Ted presentation.

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And finally, I give you a slightly gross story (in the name of science).

The groundbreaking commercial space capsule Dragon returned (unmanned) to Earth earlier this week. Officials from Dragon's parent company, SpaceX, were excited to retrieve nearly 2,000 pounds of experiments and gear from the International Space Station.

What items were they most excited about? Scientific implements? Space boots? Tang?

Nope. What they really want to get their hands on is all of the blood and urine that astronauts sent back.

Yup, that's right. There are 384 syringes of urine and 112 tubes of blood packed aboard Dragon. The samples are not some sort of practical joke, but actually part of two very important experiments studying the nutrition of astronauts and how their diet can help protect against the negative health effects of long-term space travel.

"While it may seem very strange to some folks, my typical line is that, 'It may be urine to you, but it's gold for us,'" NASA nutritionist Scott Smith said. "There's a lot of science that comes out of this."

For the sake of those handling the astronauts' urine samples, let's just hope their space diet isn't too heavy on dried asparagus.

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That's all for now! I'll be back with more News for Nerds next week, but be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter, and to sign up for the free e-Newsletter so that you can properly get your nerd on every single month! And please send any juicy News for Nerds tips to me right here!

1 Responses to "News for Nerds - November 2, 2012"
  • linda lopez-sadaoui November 2, 2012 6:04 am
    Dom thanks for the interesting information enjoyed very much

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