May 24, 2013
Summer in America unofficially begins this weekend, and with it come the late afternoon and middle-of-the-night thunderstorms that are Nature’s version of shock and awe. But as common as they are, much about thunder and lightning remains a mystery. In fact, scientists are still debating what actually causes those amazing flashes across the sky.
Here are eight recent findings related to storm-watching:
1) Come to the dark side: The dazzling thunderbolts get all the attention, but within each thunderstorm are invisible intense bursts of gamma rays, which have become known as “dark lightning.” Scientists recently discovered that the two types of lightning seemed to be connected, that there’s a gamma ray discharge immediately before a bolt shoots through the sky, although no one’s quite sure what that connection is. The good thing about dark lightning is that it dissipates quickly so it can’t really hurt anyone on the ground. But if you should be so unlucky and fly through a thunderstorm, a release of dark lightning nearby could expose you to a significant dose of radiation. Which is just one more reason for pilots to fly around them.
2) When planes go bump in the night: By the middle of the century, transatlantic flights could get a whole lot bumpier if a team of British scientists is right. They’re projecting that, because of climate change, the chances of encountering significant turbulence will increase by between 40 and 170 percent. Most likely, they say, the amount of airspace where nasty turbulence occurs will double. But wait, there’s more. They predict that the average strength of turbulence will also increase by 10 to 40 percent.
3) The pain in rain lies mainly in the brain: A study published earlier this year concluded that lightning could actually trigger migraines and other headaches. The researchers asked 90 chronic migraine sufferers to document when they developed migraines during a three-to-six month period, and then tracked that data against lightning strikes within 25 miles of the migraine victims’ homes. Their analysis found a 28 percent increased chance of a migraine and a 31 percent chance of a non-migraine headache on days when lightning struck nearby. So what’s the connection? Not absolutely clear. Some have suggested that high pressure increases the risk of migraines, while others have argued that low pressure can increase the risk. And still other research has failed to show that there even is a definite connection.
4) Hi, I’m Big Data and from now on I’ll be doing the weather: IBM obviously is big on Big Data–it’s pretty much building its future around it–and not long ago it launched a weather analysis project it calls “Deep Thunder.” Using complex algorithms and massive computing power, the company is compiling data around the physics of the atmosphere over a number of major cities. With the resulting mathematical models, the company says it should be able to predict up to 40 hours ahead of time how much rain will fall in a particular location—with 90 percent accuracy.
5) Now if it could only get the lightning to charge your phone: In case you can’t figure it out on your own, there’s now an app that tells you when lightning is nearby. Called Spark, it’s a product from WeatherBug, available on Android and iPhones, that tells you where the nearest lightning strike is, based on data from the Total Lightning Network and your phone’s GPS. And this isn’t just about getting the lowdown on lightning near you. It also allows you to check on what’s happening at GPS locations you’ve saved on your phone–such as your favorite golf course.
6) And now, time for a cosmic interlude: Two Russian researchers say they have more evidence that lightning is caused by the interaction of cosmic rays with water droplets in thunderclouds. Their theory is that cosmic rays–which are created in deep space by star collisions and supernovae–zoom across space and the ones that pass through Earth’s upper atmosphere create showers of ionized particles and electromagnetic radiation. And that, the scientists contend, causes lightning when it passes through a thundercloud. The other popular theory is that lightning occurs when collisions between ice crystals and hailstones in storm clouds separate enough electric charge to cause a high electric field. The debate goes on.
7) Now that’s shock and awe: The U.S. Army is developing a weapon that allows it to shoot lighting bolts along a laser beam directly into a target. So, basically, they’ve figured out how to fire lightning. Called the Laser-Induced Plasma Channel, it can be used to destroy anything that conducts electricity better than the air or ground surrounding it.
8) Just don’t name the kid “Flash:” And just in case you wondered, 70 percent of Americans who responded to a survey by Trojan Brand Condoms said that they’ve had sex during a nasty storm.
Video bonus: You’ve never seen lightning quite like this, slowed down so that one flash is drawn out to last six minutes. You can watch every incredible step of the way.
Video bonus bonus: And here’s what it’s like to have lightning strike next to you.
Video bonus bonus bonus: That’s right, a bonus bonus bonus because you can never watch enough lightning strikes. Here’s a collection of lightning shooting upward.
More from Smithsonian.com
October 15, 2012
The International Association of Police Chiefs held its convention in San Diego earlier this month and one of the booths drawing a lot of attention belonged to a California company called AeroVironment, Inc.
It’s in the business of building drones.
One of its models–the Raven–weighs less than five pounds and is the most popular military spy drone in the world. More than 19,000 have been sold. Another of its robot planes–the Switchblade–is seen as the kamikaze drone of the future, one small enough to fit into a soldier’s backpack.
But AeroVironment is zeroing in on a new market–police and fire departments too small to afford their own helicopters, but big enough to have a need for overhead surveillance. So in San Diego, it was showing off yet another model, this one called the Qube.
The camera never blinks
AeroVironment likes to tout the Qube as just what a future-thinking police department needs–a flying machine that fits in the trunk of a cop car–it’s less than five pounds and just three feet long–can climb as high as 500 feet and stays airborne as long as 40 minutes.
Outfitted with high-resolution color and thermal cameras that transmit what they see to a screen on the ground, the Qube is being marketted as a moderately-priced surveillance tool ($50,000 and up) for keeping fleeing criminals in sight or being eyes in the sky for SWAT teams dealing with hostage situations or gunmen they can’t see.
A few police departments have already taken the plunge into what are officially known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)–big cities like Miami, Houston, and Seattle, but also smaller towns, such as North Little Rock, Ark., Ogden, Utah and Gadsen, Ala. Most used Homeland Security grants to buy their drones and they all had to be specially authorized by the FAA to fly them.
So far, they haven’t flown them all that much because the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) doesn’t yet allow drones to be used in populated areas and near airports, at an altitude above 400 feet, or even beyond the view of the operator. But that’s going to change, with the FAA estimating that by the end of the decade, at least 15,000 drones will be licensed to operate over the U.S.
I spy a pool party
So how is this going to work? What’s to keep all those unmanned aircraft from hitting planes or helicopters or crashing into buildings? And what’s going to prevent them from spying on private citizens or shooting video of pool parties?
The FAA is wrestling with all that now and, given the need to ensure both safe skies and individual privacy, the agency may have a hard time nailing down regulations by August, 2014, the deadline Congress set earlier this year with the goal of opening up public airspace to commercial drones in the fall of 2015.
The feds are already behind schedule in selecting six locations in the U.S. where they’ll test drones to see if they can do what their manufacturers say they can do and, more importantly, if they can be kept from flying out of control. Later this month, however, at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, the Department of Homeland Security will start grading different drones on how well they perform when lives are at stake, say with a hostage situation, or a spill of hazardous waste or a search and rescue mission.
For a technology still largely seen as a deadly, and controversial, weapon for going after suspected terrorists, it couldn’t hurt to be able show how a drone can help find a lost kid or save an Alzheimer’s patient wandering through the woods.
Not so private eyes
Still, the idea of police departments or government agencies having access to flying cameras makes a lot of people uneasy. This summer, when a rumor started on Twitter that the EPA was using drones to spy on American farmers, it shot through the blogosphere, was repeated on TV, and then in condemning press releases issued by several congressmen–even though it wasn’t true.
As Benjamin Wittes and John Villasenor pointed out in the Washington Post earlier this year, the FAA isn’t a privacy agency. It’s loaded with aviation lawyers. Yet it will be dealing with some very dicey issues, such as how do you define invasion of privacy from public airspace and who can get access to video shot by a drone.
To quote Wittes and Villasenor:
“The potential for abuses on the part of government actors, corporations and even individuals is real — and warrants serious consideration before some set of incidents poisons public attitudes against a field that promises great benefits.”
Judging from a pair of surveys on the subject, the public is already pretty wary. Of those recently surveyed by the Associated Press, about a third said they are “extremely concerned” or “very concerned” about how drones could affect their privacy.
Another national poll, taken this summer by the Monmouth University Polling Institute, found that while 80 percent of the people surveyed like the idea of drones helping with search and rescue missions and 67 percent support using them to track runaway criminals, about 64 percent said they are “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about losing their privacy.
And they definitely don’t like the notion of police departments using them to enforce routine laws. Two out of three people surveyed said they hate the idea of drones being used to issue speeding tickets.
When robots fly
Here’s more recent research on flying robots:
- No crash courses: NASA scientists are testing two different computer programs to see if they can help drones sense and then avoid potential mid-air collisions. In theory, an unmanned aircraft would be able to read data about other flying objects and change its speed and heading if it appeared to be on a collision course.
- What goes up doesn’t have to come down: Two recent innovations could dramatically increase the flight time of both giant drones and handheld ones. Lockheed Martin has found a way to recharge its huge Stalker drones wirelessly using lasers, allowing them to stay airborne for as long as 48 hours. And Los Angeles-based Somatis Technologies is working on a process to convert wind pressure and vibrations into energy and that could triple the battery life of hand-launched drones to almost three hours.
- Get your protest souvenir photos here: Russia is stepping up its drone program and will continue to use them to monitor street protests.
- The face is familiar: The Congressional Research Service released a report last month suggesting that law enforcement agencies could, in the near future, outfit drones with facial recognition or biometric software that could “recognize and track individuals based on attributes such as height, age, gender and skin color.”
- Talk to me when it makes honey: Harvard researchers have been working on a tiny–not much larger than a quarter–robotic bee for five years and now it can not only take off on its own power, but it can also pretty much fly where they want it to go.
- Two blinks to get rid of red eye: Chinese scientists have designed quadcopters that can be controlled by human thought and be told to take a photo by the blink of an eye.
Video bonus: This promo video by AeroVironment sure makes it feel like the Qube drone could have its own TV series.
More from Smithsonian.com
October 20, 2011
Used to be that when you heard “3D,” you thought of goofy gimmicks and glasses that would go well with a lampshade on your head. Not any more. In just the past week, news articles detailed important advances made with 3D laser scans: Scientists concluded that teenage T. rex were pretty hefty. Engineers identified which parts of Venice are most at risk of sinking. And police have recreated accident scenes.
But the coolest thing happening with the third dimension involves printers. Yes, printers. A 3D printer works much like your inkjet printer does, only instead of creating a two-dimensional image on a sheet of paper, it builds a physical object by stacking one very thin layer of material on top of another. That’s the idea, anyway. But to me it’s like electricity—let’s call it magic and leave it at that.
The printers are already having an impact in manufacturing. Companies are no longer using them just to create prototypes; they’re making actual parts. In fact, it has been estimated that by 2020, half of the parts used in machines will be designed on a computer and then built by printers. And why not? Printer-produced objects are lighter, cheaper, more energy efficient, result in less waste and can be made from a wider range of materials. They’re also much easier to customize, which has led some to foresee the day when we’ll download products as we now do music, then print them out at home. But first we’ll be able to tweak them into our own special versions.
That flexibility is likely one reason some artists have started using printers to express themselves. Laurie Anderson has included a 3D printer piece in an exhibit now showing in Philadelphia. Micah Ganske is has integrated small plastic printed sculptures into his artwork, which is featured in a show opening next month in New York.
The artist needs only to provide the original design on a computer. The machine does the rest. This raises the prospect of being able to download designs an artist has made available and printing out our own 3D sculptures. That’s happening already on the website Thingiverse, which is loaded with what’s described as “open-source art.”
3D printers are making waves in medicine (prosthetic limbs) food (customized candy) fashion (the first printed bikini) and even the military. (The U.S. Army has reportedly experimented with a mobile printer that could crank out tank or truck parts on the battlefield.) Still, this replication revolution won’t really take hold until we have 3D printers in our homes, just like the PC transformed the Internet into a daily obsession.
That’s where an outfit like MakerBot Industries comes in. Started in Brooklyn almost three years ago, the company hopes to make 3D printers so affordable and personal they’ll become part of our daily lives. It sells a basic model of its Thing-O-Matic, aka the MakerBot, for under $1,000. It fits on a desktop.
MakerBot, which helped launch Thingiverse, has been a big driver in getting artists to dabble in printer sculpting. And it’s the impetus behind a new crowdsourced science project called Project Shellter, where it’s asking people to come up with a design for a shell hermit crabs can use for homes.
But the real sweet spot of makerbotting, as the process has come to be known, may be in schools. Bre Pettis, one of MakerBot’s co-founders and a former teacher, sure thinks so. His take: Let kids design their own things and then actually watch them take shape, and you’ve opened a door to technology and engineering much more personal than any Lego could ever be.
I think he’s on to something.
Prepare to be amazed
Here’s are videos that will give you a taste of what’s possible with 3D printers:
- Little Lady Liberty: Watch a mini Statue of Liberty take shape on a MakerBot.
- You can print chocolate: British scientists fulfill a chocoholic’s dream.
- Back to nature: The MIT Media lab is looking at ways to create 3D products from recycled stuff.
- Such a tool: Check out this clip on making a wrench set on a printer.
- Anything goes: Here’s a sampling of things a 3D printer can produce.
Bonus video: You don’t want to miss this BBC report on two guys who set out to make a working bicycle from parts created by a 3D printer.
August 22, 2011
As campuses begin to fill, it seems fitting to ask: When so many corporate execs say they want employees who are creative, critical thinkers who know how to collaborate, why are the chief measures of future performance standardized tests for which there is only one right answer for every problem and working together is, to put it mildly, frowned upon?
Education has always been a laggard to innovation. That reality is made clear in a new book about attention and the brain, Now You See It, by Cathy Davidson. She estimates that as many as 65 percent of the kids now in grade school will likely end up in jobs that don’t yet exist. And yet most schools still follow a model not all that different from when Henry Ford was pumping out Model Ts and Pittsburgh actually had steel mills. Education then—and now—is geared to serve an industrial economy, one in which conformity and punctuality kept the engine running and creativity gunked it up.
To Davidson, a professor of English and interdisciplinary studies at Duke University, this makes about as much sense as teaching kids how to make wooden barrels. There was a reason her students who turned in lame term papers could also churn out perfectly fine blogs. The latter was about writing for the world in which they lived, a highly social place where ideas bounce around like marbles in an empty bathtub, feedback is immediate and sharing trumps syntax.
Davidson is big on teaching digital literacy, not so much how to use the tools—the kids could teach that—but how to use them to develop ideas and express themselves responsibly. For instance, starting in grade school, students would be expected to collaborate on wikis and award points to classmates who move projects forward. The idea is to encourage students to take all this sharing and turn it into a productive way to solve problems and shape their world.
Not that Davidson is the only one thinking imaginatively about education. Plenty of people are, such as advocates for deep-sixing the standard lecture.
Ten years ago, the big thing was STEM, the initiative to keep the U.S. competitive, both by merging Science, Technology, Engineering and Math into one mega-discipline and shifting the focus from teacher talk to problem-solving and collaborative learning. Meanwhile, though, a lot of schools dealt with budget-slashing by eviscerating arts programs to the point where arts education became little more than reminding kids when “Glee” was on.
But now, with companies looking for creative thinkers and multimedia communicators, the arts—particularly media arts—are being worked back into the mix. Or, as they say in the land of acronyms, STEM is becoming STEAM. This has inspired no one less than Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart to quote Einstein.
As for phasing out the exercises in ennui more commonly known as lectures, that’s the mission of Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur, who thinks the conventional arrangement should be flipped: students learn material on their own time, with classes saved for making sense of how it applies in the real world. Mazur has created his own interactive software, Learning Catalytics, to ease the transition for skittish professors.
Let’s go to the video
Allow me to recommend a few relevant videos, some of which are, admittedly, lectures.
- Let’s start with Ken Robinson, one of the few people who can call himself a creativity expert without a whiff of arrogance. He’s been writing and speaking about creativity in education and business for more than 20 years now and nobody does it better. After a high-ranking British government official once told him that while creativity in education was important, the country’s schools needed to focus on literacy first, Robinson replied, “That’s like saying we’re going to bake a cake and if it works out, then we’ll put the eggs in.” His lectures are all over the web, but my favorite is this TED talk, made that much more entertaining by the work of RSA Animate.
- The aforementioned Cathy Davidson weighs in on the need to “unlearn” much of what we know about education if we want it to be relevant in the 21st century.
- Management guru Tom Peters—a bit over the top, as always—lays into the U.S. educational system in this 2008 talk, in which he implores audience members never to hire someone with a 4.0 GPA.
- It took place eons ago in Internet years, but this 2002 TED talk by Mae Jemison, a physician and the first African-American woman in space, is right on point. She warns against the consequences of keeping science and the arts separated.
- And finally, here’s a TED lecture by Brian Crosby, a Nevada elementary school teacher, who shares how his classes of low-income kids, most of whom speak English as a second language, have flourished in the world of wikis and blogs.
All of us have at least one teacher who knew how to hook us in, even before there was an Internet. My favorite was my 7th grade teacher, Roberta Schmidt. I will never forget the day she explained how ancient Egyptians mummified a body, especially the part about removing the brain through the nostrils. For a 12-year-old boy, that’s gold.
What about you? What teacher do you wish you could have cloned? And why?
July 26, 2011
I’d like to say that my fascination with driverless cars has nothing to do with my son having a learner’s permit. I’d also like to say my hand gestures to other drivers are meant as a sign of peace.
Not that my son’s a bad driver; he’s actually pretty good. But there still are times when we’d both be happier if the potential for human error wasn’t in the mix. I wouldn’t be pushing my phantom brake pedal to the floor. And he wouldn’t have to keep reminding me that my co-braking was helping neither his confidence nor his ability to slow down the car.
So I was intrigued to read that Nevada has passed a law requiring the state’s Transportation Department to develop regulations for the operation of “autonomous vehicles.” This is not about the altered states of visitors to Vegas, but rather a way for Nevada to get a leg up in becoming the proving ground for robot cars.
Google hired a lobbyist to push for the law. The company built on fine-tuning technology to help us navigate modern life is now mobilizing machines to take on more daunting challenges, things like gridlock, drunk driving and road rage. Quietly, over the past few years, Google has become a leader in designing vehicles in which humans are along for the ride. And its models do way more than parallel park.
To see just what’s possible with a car outfitted with the latest sensors, cameras, lasers, GPS and artificial intelligence, watch the recent TED talk by Sebastian Thrun, who’s been refining the systems since his Stanford team of students and engineers won a self-driving car contest organized by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency back in 2005. To see a tricked-out Prius, sans driver, winding down San Francisco’s Lombard Street, is to believe.
When robots rule
So the technology works. But now comes the tricky part, where innovation runs the gauntlet of cost/benefit analysis, legal murkiness and, in this case, fear of robots—or more accurately, the fear of them making us lesser humans.
Thrun, now working with Google, says his motivation was the death of his best friend in a car accident. His goal is to someday save a million lives a year by taking our hands off the wheel. But he sees other benefits, too, such as making cars and trucks more energy efficient and traffic jams less likely.
Others suggest Google’s motives are less altruistic. Free my hands, the thinking goes, and I have that whole long commute to go online and use some Google product. Still others speculate that the search behemoth is thinking bigger, preparing to build a fleet of shared robot cars, like Zipcars without drivers.
Wherever this goes, it’s likely to take a while to get there. Lawyers haven’t even started to get involved. What happens to the car insurance business? Would the carmaker be liable an accident? Or, since a human occupant would have the capability to take over in an emergency, would he or she be on the hook?
Then there’s this thing a lot of us Americans have about driving. Taking the wheel on the open road is still seen as some kind of a personal declaration of independence. I mean, would Thelma and Louise have blasted off in a Google convertible?
Or imagine Steve McQueen doing this in a robot car?