NASA Glenn Keeps X-57 Cool

NASA Glenn Keeps X-57 Cool

NASA is preparing to explore electric-powered flight with the X-57 Maxwell, a unique all-electric aircraft which features 14 propellers along its wing.

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Brazil-endemic plant genus Mcvaughia highlights diversity in a unique biome: The new genus is found exclusively in the recently recognized Seasonally Dry Tropical Forests biome

Brazil-endemic plant genus Mcvaughia highlights diversity in a unique biome: The new genus is found exclusively in the recently recognized Seasonally Dry Tropical Forests biome

A new species of the Brazil-endemic small genus Mcvaughia is described as part of a extended revision of this unique group. The study was published in the open access journal PhytoKeys.

Mcvaughia is a genus of the plant family Malpighiaceae comprising just three known species, all of which endemic to the unique Seasonally Dry Tropical Forests biome found in the Atlantic Forest and Caatinga domains in northeastern Brazil.

In fact, Seasonally Dry Tropical Forests have only been recognized as a worldwide biome recently and taxonomic studies focusing on its endemic plant species are imperative for conservation management.

In their newly published monograph, the team of scientists from Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Universidade Federal de Viçosa, Universidade Federal do Amazonas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México & Smithsonian answer the need for a deeper understanding on this unique biome, starting with genus Mcvaughia and hoping to continue with other endemic plant groups in the future.

“We are truly fascinated by the members of this new and exciting biome and when during a visit in Brazilian herbaria, we found a third species of Mcvaughia endemic to seasonally dry forests from the state of Piauí, Brazil, we couldn’t miss the chance to improve knowledge on this unique genus and the biome where it is only found,” explains lead author, Dr Rafael F. Almeida from the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Brazil.

The name of the newly described species Mcvaughia piauhiensis pays tribute to Dr. Rogers McVaugh, an American botanist, expert in the Mexican flora.

“The results presented in this study are the second step towards a complete taxonomic revision of the Mcvaughioid clade using several additional methods in biosystematics. The macro and micromorphological data presented here are promising for future taxonomic and phylogenetic studies focusing on understanding the morphological evolution in the Mcvaughioid clade, and in Malpighiaceae, as well,” conclude the authors.

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GrubHub now delivers Taco Bell to couch potatoes nationwide

GrubHub now delivers Taco Bell to couch potatoes nationwide


Taco Bell

For those whose food cravings can only be sated by Taco Bell’s “unique” brand of “Mexican” dishes, we have some good news: the chain is now offering delivery across the US through a partnership with GrubHub. Taco Bell has dabbled in delivery before, in collaboration with DoorDash, but today’s partnership will greatly expand that delivery area — basically, if you live near a Taco Bell, you can get food delivered. Not all restaurants are participating, but it sounds like it shouldn’t be hard to find one.

After putting your zip code or address in on Taco Bell’s website, it’ll let you know if delivery is available in your area; if it is, you’re then sent over to GrubHub’s site to place your order. GrubHub says that it is adding extra drivers in areas near a Taco Bell to make sure deliveries happen fast (because few things sound less appealing than a lukewarm Crunchwrap Supreme). Oddly enough, it doesn’t look like ordering delivery is an option in Taco Bell’s own app, but you can presumably just use GrubHub’s own app and cut out the middleman. If all of this is making you hungry, Taco Bell and GrubHub are offering free delivery on orders more than $12 as an introductory offer. Do let us know how it all works out for you.

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Riddle of a unique fish solved

Riddle of a unique fish solved

A great mystery around a unique fish species has been solved by researchers at The Australian National University (ANU).

Scientists knew Lungfish shared some traits with humans — such as the ability to breathe air through lungs — but a new study proves they also have a similar life span, potentially up to 80 years.

Dr Stewart Fallon from the Research School of Earth Sciences said Lungfish have been on the threatened species list in Australia for decades, but this new research could help change that.

“One of the main issues is no one knew their longevity,” Dr Fallon said.

“A lot of fish have what’s called an Otolith — basically a solid stone in their inner ear. As the fish grows, the stone grows as well and there’s usually little annual marker bands on there, so we can count them and know how old the fish is — but the lungfish doesn’t have that stone.

The other main issue is that to get an ear stone you usually have to kill the fish — so obviously you wouldn’t want to do that to a threatened species.”

Dr Fallon and his team, in collaboration with Griffith University, Seqwater, the Queensland Department of Natural Resources, Mines and Energy, and the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, came up with a new approach.

Their technique involves measuring the amount of Carbon 14 in Lungfish scales to pinpoint how old the fish is.

The group discovered they were able to place the fish on the “bomb curve,” which is used to chart the amount of carbon 14 in the atmosphere.

The curve has a distinct shape, starting to rise in the mid-50s with the advent of nuclear weapons and peaking in 1963, when the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty came into effect.

“That carbon’s been basically mixing in with all the carbon in the Earth since then,” Dr Fallon said.

“So we have this distinct curve, and when we tested the fish we were able to reproduce that curve, and tell when the fish was born.”

The ANU team did around 1200 radio carbon measurements over several years and found fish aged from around three years to 78.

It’s an important breakthrough, as previously researchers had struggled to find any evidence of juvenile fish, leading to concerns there was an ageing population and the fish would eventually just disappear.

“People have been doing research on these fish for 80 years or more. There’s anecdotes about some of the fish in the Brisbane River being translocated from one of the other rivers in the early 1900s because they were already worried about the population then,” Dr Fallon said.

Dr Fallon and his colleagues also noticed there were long time periods where no fish were born at all.

“For example in the Mary River in the 1970s and 80s we didn’t see many fish born.”

“I actually don’t know how they’ve survived in Australia for so long. They like to lay their eggs in the shallow parts of the river where there are plants for the eggs to cling onto. Whenever we have big floods it just wipes everything away, so in these time periods we may find there were big floods just beforehand, and then it takes several years for the plants to grow back.

“If you’re trying to understand a certain population this kind of information is pretty critical and gives us a whole nice background of information that wasn’t there before.”

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Microsoft expands its programming language for visually impaired kids

Microsoft expands its programming language for visually impaired kids

Back in 2017, Microsoft unveiled Project Torino, a unique physical programming language that taught visually impaired kids the basics of coding. It was a huge step forward for accessibility, but it was also just an experimental program limited to the UK. Now, that project is becoming a bit more real: Microsoft announced today that it’s handing over the research and technology behind Torino, now called Code Jumper, to the American Printing House for the Blind, a non-profit dedicated to helping the visually impaired. They’ll do the heavy lifting of bringing Code Jumper to more territories — including the US, Canada, Australia and India — by the end of the year, with plans to deliver it across the world over the next five years.

Torino and Code Jumper give visually impaired students an experience similar to block coding, a drag and drop interface for introducing young children to coding. Instead of manipulating things on a screen, Microsoft’s physical language involves connecting large plastic pods together to create programs. Similar to the XBOX Adaptive Controller, Code Jumper is a way to bridge the technology gap for visually impaired and blind children.

Code Jumper

“It is very specifically about building up concepts that will enable them to become computer scientists, programmers, software engineers, computational thinkers,” said Cecily Morrison, one of the Microsoft Researchers behind Project Torino, when it launched in 2017. “It gives them that computational base to whatever direction they go, and a shared vocabulary about what computing is.”

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Obesity surgery leads to emergence of new microbial strains in the human fecal community

Obesity surgery leads to emergence of new microbial strains in the human fecal community

Using a unique bioinformatics technique developed at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, UAB researchers have detected the emergence of new strains of microbes in the human fecal microbiota after obesity surgery. These new strains emerged after surgical disruption of the stomach and upper small intestine. In contrast, the researchers found that strains of the human gut fecal microbiota resembled those found pre-surgery following surgery in the colon, which is the lower part of the gastrointestinal, or GI, tract.

The UAB researchers studied patients undergoing two types of obesity surgery — Roux-en-Y gastric bypass and sleeve gastrectomy. In sleeve gastrectomy, the size of the stomach is reduced. Roux-en-Y gastric bypass also reduces the size of the stomach that receives food, but it additionally creates a surgical bypass of the rest of the stomach and the first part of the small intestine.

“Our results show that, when you change the upper GI tract with obesity surgery, you also change the gut environment, resulting in the emergence of new strains of microbes,” said Casey Morrow, Ph.D., leader of the research team and professor emeritus in UAB’s Department of Cell, Developmental and Integrative Biology. “In the microbial competition for nutrients and space in the GI tract, the winners are new strains that are more competitive in the new GI tract environment.”

The ability of the informatics technique to discriminate among individual strains of the same species advances analysis of the human gut microbiota and how surgery may alter the microbial community. The human microbiota largely consists of 500 to 1,000 bacterial species that have a mainly beneficial influence on human health, including modulation of the immune system and influences on host metabolism and organ development. Previous studies of the microbiota have been able to determine changes in the relative abundance of various species after obesity surgery, but they could not discern whether this could be due to the replacement of one strain of a particular species by another strain of that same species.

In 2017, the UAB researchers had used their technique — called window-based similarity single-nucleotide-variant, or WSS — to show the first direct demonstration that fecal donor microbes remained in recipients for months or years after fecal transplants to treat patients with recurrent Clostridium difficile infections.

For the report published in the Human Microbiome Journal in December, Morrow and colleagues analyzed fecal samples taken from patients before and one to two years after obesity surgery. The study included 18 patients undergoing Roux-en-Y gastric bypass and six patients undergoing sleeve gastrectomy.

When the pre- and post-fecal samples for the two groups of obesity surgery patients were compared, only 65 percent of the Roux-en-Y WSS scores and 75 percent of the sleeve gastrectomy WSS scores were above the boundary cutoff that identifies related pairs. This meant that, for 35 percent of the Roux-en-Y microbiota pairs and 25 percent of the sleeve gastrectomy pairs, changes from one microbial strain of a bacterial species to another strain had occurred, and in some cases these changes in the microbial community persisted one to two years after the operations. Multiple changes in microbe strains of various bacterial species were identified in most, but not all, of the obesity surgery patients.

In contrast, for five surgery patients who lost segments of the sigmoid colon, which is near the end of the GI tract, 97 percent of the WSS scores comparing pre- and post-surgery samples were above the cutoff, indicating stable strains over time, despite the operations. Three of those patients showed a single new microbe strain in a particular bacterial species. The other two had no new strains. This 97 percent is similar to the stability of gut microbiota seen over one or two years in people who have not had an operation.

“Our study describes, for the first time, the emergence of new microbe strains in the fecal community following alteration of the upper gastrointestinal tract,” Morrow said. “Most probably, the origins of the new strains in the fecal community are the tissue-associated microbe communities of the small intestine. Since the surgery resulted in a permanent physiological alteration, the new microbe strains reflect the response to these environmental changes in the GI tract.”

“In a broader implication,” Morrow said, “the realization that humans can harbor multiple strains of the same microbes provides us with a new appreciation for the complexity of the human GI microbe community. It reinforces the importance of our ongoing studies to examine the impact that other microbiome disrupting treatments, such as antibiotics and cancer chemotherapy, have on the structure of the GI tract microbe community.”

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2019 Chevy Bolt review: No longer unique, still something special

2019 Chevy Bolt review: No longer unique, still something special

Chevrolet’s far-roaming Bolt EV hit the ground running when it debuted in 2016 with a class-leading 238 miles of EPA estimated range. In a world where its biggest competitors included the 150-mile Nissan Leaf and Hyundai Ioniq on one side and the much more expensive Tesla Model S on the other, the Bolt shone brightly and uniquely in the sweet spot of high-tech and low-priced.

Two years later, the Bolt still shines, only now, it faces stiff competition from all directions as the rest of the electric car industry catches up. Kia, Hyundai and, of course, Tesla have all either debuted or announced affordable 200-mile electric cars with more on the radar. How does the Chevy stack up in the face of this new opposition? Let’s revisit the 2019 Chevrolet Bolt EV to find out.

Big-batteried Bolt

The heart of a traditional car is the engine, but it’s all about the battery when you’re talking EVs. The Bolt’s battery is a 960-pound, 60-kWh lithium-ion pack located in the floor beneath the seats. This configuration gives the Bolt its elevated seating position; the hatchback’s passengers sit about a head taller than they would in, say, a Chevy Spark. Because of this, Chevy feels it’s okay to call the Bolt a crossover. Not sure I agree.

The EV crams electricity into that battery pack via a 7.2-kW onboard charger that, when connected to a 240-volt home or public charging station, adds about 25 miles of range per hour on the plug. So, from flat, the Bolt takes a maximum of 10 hours to charge. (You could also plug the Bolt into a standard 120-volt wall outlet but, with an extremely slow charging rate of about 4 miles per hour on the plug, you’d only do that if you didn’t have another option.)

If you’re in a rush, an optional DC Combo Fast Charging system can rapidly juice up the battery to 90 miles of range in just 30 minutes. (After that initial boost, DC Fast chargers revert to the slower standard charging speed.) With 238 miles of range to work with, I never ran into a situation where I needed an emergency fast-charge, but I’d still recommend this $750 option as it adds a lot of convenience and flexibility for very long trips.

All those kilowatt-hours of electricity the Bolt stores are used to power its electric motor, a 200-horsepower unit that sends up to 266 pound-feet of torque to the front wheels via a single-speed reduction gear. That much instantaneous torque in a car this size gives the Bolt very responsive performance at low speeds and a peppy around-town feel. Floor it, and the 3,580-pound hatchback will do an eerily silent, sub-7-second sprint to 60 miles per hour. Of course, that’s not how you want to drive to reach the full 238-mile range at an EPA-estimated 119 mpge.

Chevy offers an optional DC fast-charging setup that’ll get you 90 miles of range in just 30 minutes.


Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Regen on demand

Like every modern electrified car, the Bolt uses regenerative braking to recapture energy when decelerating to maximize its range. To maximize the energy recaptured, the Bolt has pretty neat feature: a “regen on demand” paddle on the steering wheel. Pulling this paddle shifter triggers maximum regenerative braking, slowing the EV significantly, as if you’d pressed the brake pedal. The brake lights even illuminate if the deceleration from regen is strong enough.

The regen paddle is a great way to make sure you get as close to the Bolt’s optimal range as possible but, in practice, it’s not a very good way to drive. Pulling the paddle is an all-or-nothing affair; there’s no way to modulate or smooth out the regenerative braking pressure. I found this made for jerky deceleration as I attempted to feather the brakes by tapping the paddle. On top of that, the amount of deceleration you get from the paddle varies depending on the battery’s charge state, which makes getting used to the already unnatural-feeling paddle even weirder.

I ended up mainly defaulting to just using the trusty foot pedals, preferring the Bolt’s hidden “one-pedal driving” mode. Pull the shifter past D into L, and the Bolt’s accelerator begins to operate like the Nissan Leaf’s e-pedal, giving strong regeneration when the driver lifts a foot from the accelerator. In this mode, it’s possible to drive without ever touching the friction brake pedal, maximizing range and control. This method is much smoother, more natural-feeling and easier to modulate than pulling the paddle.

Chevrolet should draw attention to or label this mode better, which could easily be overlooked by owners. I’d at least like the option to set “one-pedal mode” as the default.

2019 Chevrolet Bolt EV

Because of its high seating position, Chevy classifies the Bolt as a crossover.


Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

MyLink smartphone-powered tech

Front and center on the Bolt’s dashboard is the large, 10.2-inch color touchscreen display that is home to a unique version of Chevrolet’s MyLink infotainment system. The software has been stripped down to the essentials. There’s satellite and terrestrial radio, Bluetooth calling and audio streaming and USB connectivity for audio playback, but no onboard navigation or even the option to add it.

Instead, Chevy leans heavily on the driver’s smartphone to fill MyLink’s functionality gaps with standard Android Auto and Apple CarPlay connectivity. Why pay for navigation when you’ve already got a phone in your pocket? These smartphone-mirroring technologies bring navigation, audio streaming and messaging apps to the dashboard via a simple USB connection. Chevrolet’s betting that the sort of tech-forward drivers who are the Bolt’s key demographic will find this phone-centric setup preferable to more conventional upgrade models.

However, this pared-down approach to tech brings a few unexpected drawbacks. With no onboard maps, there’s no way to, for example, search for or navigate to charging stations from the Bolt’s dashboard, and neither Android nor Apple’s software offers a solution.

If I wanted to find somewhere to charge on the road, I’d have to pull over, unplug my phone, open ChargePoint or EvGo and find a station. Then I’d have to set that station as a destination in Google Maps, plug my phone back in and resume navigation with Android Auto. That’s just too much work.

The Bolt’s MyLink infotainment system relies heavily on your smartphone for functionality.


Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

You could take advantage of the onboard OnStar 4G LTE data connection to beam turn-by-turn navigation (sans maps) and concierge services into the dashboard. This connection also powers portable Wi-Fi hotspot connectivity, remote monitoring and telematics control of the EV via Chevrolet’s MyLink app for smartphones and smartwatches. However, turn-by-turn navigation is part of the most expensive “Unlimited Access” subscription plan and most drivers will be better off just sticking with their phone’s software after the Bolt’s three-month free trial expires.

Driver aid upgrades

The Bolt’s suite of available driver aid technology is solid, but not nearly as advanced as you’d expect from a car with such a high-tech powertrain.

In my loaded-up Premier model with all of the bells and whistles, there’s a Surround Vision system. This evolution of the rear camera stitches together feeds from four strategically located cameras to provide a 360-degree view of the area around the car at low speeds. This sort of bird’s-eye view is very helpful when squeezing into tight spots, but it’s not as impressive as an autosteering parking system would be.

An optional Driver Confidence II package adds Lane Keeping Assist, which uses the electric power steering to help keep the Bolt between the lane markers at highway speeds. The package also brings with it a forward precollision alert system with low-speed automatic emergency braking. The system can even detect and brake for pedestrians. However, while the Following Distance Indicator can let you know when you’re too close behind the car ahead, there’s no adaptive cruise control option that can automatically maintain a safe cruising distance for you.

Many of the Bolt’s competitors offer better driver assistance tech.


Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Here, the competition starts to really make up ground and surpass the Bolt. The Tesla Model 3’s Autopilot suite, for example, is significantly more advanced today and promises a degree of future-proofing for tomorrow with over-the-air software updates. However, even more modest competitors like the the Hyundai Ioniq, Nissan Leaf and BMW i3 feature more full driver aid suites with available adaptive cruise control that better meet the higher tech expectations of savvy EV buyers.

How I’d spec it

The 2019 Chevrolet Bolt starts at $37,495 (including an $875 destination charge) for the base LT model, but my Premier model climbs to $41,780. Stepping up gets you blind-spot monitoring, a surround-view camera, and a helping of quality-of-life upgrades, like leather perforated seats.

While you’re checking boxes, grab the $495 Driver Confidence II package to round out the safety tech suite — that’ll require also getting the $485 Infotainment package — and don’t forget the $750 DC fast-charging port; it’s a lifesaver. Spec it like me and you’re looking at $43,510 before subtracting any federal/state electric car tax rebates or dealer incentives.

If you’re feeling saucy, maybe pick a more interesting hue than this example. I recommend the new-for-2019 highlighter green color called “Shock.”


Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Patient prospective EV owners have the option of waiting for Hyundai’s Kona Electric, Kia’s 2019 Niro EV and 2020 Soul EV, or the upcoming long-range Nissan Leaf e-Plus model, all of which are expected to fall in the same price range with similar cruising range and slightly better tech. Also on the horizon is the $35,000 “standard” Tesla Model 3, which should arrive sometime in 2019. (Of course, drivers willing to stretch the budget a bit can get in the door on a “midrange” Model 3 sooner for around $46,000 to $51,000.)

The 2019 Chevrolet Bolt is still a solid value and my of our favorite EVs in its class, but it’s not as uniquely good as it used to be. Then again, a little competition is a good thing, especially for electric car consumers.

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Human environmental effects favor cosmopolitan species over local iconic species

Human environmental effects favor cosmopolitan species over local iconic species

Human habitat modification is favouring the same species everywhere, while unique species are disappearing, finds a study publishing on December 4 in the open-access journal PLOS Biology, led by Tim Newbold at University College London and Andy Purvis at the Natural History Museum in London.

“As humans, we place great value on animals and plants that are confined to particular locations,” says author Tim Newbold. “We travel around the world to see animals like tigers in Asia or rhinoceroses in Africa, and animals and plants are often our national emblems.”

But by using data from 81 countries, provided by more than 500 researchers across the world, the authors of the study show that when humans modify a natural habitat — for farming, or for our towns and cities — animals and plants that are unique to that particular location are lost, and are replaced by others that are common to many places.

The researchers estimated the area inhabited by nearly 20,000 different species of animals and plants, finding that species occupying a large area tend to increase in places where humans use the land, while those species that occupy a small area are lost. This is important because it means that human actions are favouring the same species everywhere, while the many species that are unique to specific places are disappearing.

“We show around the world that when humans modify habitats, these unique species are consistently lost and are replaced by species that are found everywhere, such as pigeons in cities and rats in farmland'” says Newbold.

The findings are important for efforts to conserve the world’s species. They are also suggest a disruption to the healthy functioning of ecosystems, which support our natural environment and are critical in our efforts to grow food, since other studies have shown that animals and plants that occupy small areas also provide distinct and important roles within ecosystems.

In the future, the researchers aim to investigate how climate change may add to the losses of unique species.

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Algae testbed experiment yields data useful for future projects

Algae testbed experiment yields data useful for future projects

A unique experiment that explored how well algae grows in specific regions of the United States yielded data that could prove useful as the industry moves forward, according to research from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Arizona State University (ASU).

Researchers established identical raceway-style ponds in five outdoor locations to cultivate and harvest three strains of algae during the four seasons. The project originated from a 2012 DOE award to ASU to lead the Algae Testbed Public-Private Partnership, a collaborative effort that includes NREL and focuses on providing year-over-year data on algal cultivation.

“This data is extremely valuable to anyone interested in growing algae outdoors in different regions of the United States,” said Eric Knoshaug, a senior scientist in NREL’s National Bioenergy Center and co-author of the newly published paper, “Unified Field Studies of the Algae Testbed Public-Private Partnership as the Benchmark for Algae Agronomics.”

Published in Scientific Data, the paper’s other co-authors are Ed Wolfrum and Lieve Laurens of NREL; Valerie Harmon of Harmon Consulting Inc.; and Thomas A. Dempster and John McGowen from the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation at ASU.

The testbed sites were in the Southwest desert, in Mesa, Arizona; the California coast, in San Luis Obispo; the inland Southeast, in Atlanta, Georgia; the Pacific tropics, in Kona, Hawaii; and the coastal Southeast, in Vero Beach, Florida. Ponds holding about 1,000 liters of water were installed near the end of 2013. Harvesting operations started in mid-2014 and continued through the middle of the next year. The data — everything from temperature and pH of the water to the amount of algae harvested and ambient weather conditions — were collected continuously.

Wolfrum and Knoshaug curated the resulting data. “Other researchers can take a look at this and use the data to quantify the effects of humidity, the effects of temperature, and the effects of light intensity because we kept all the variables we could constant,” said Wolfrum, a principal researcher in NREL’s Biosciences Center. “The only thing left is the geography and the environment.” The paper goes into detail about how researchers collected the data and determined the quality of the information.

The 19-month experiment ended with Florida proving to be the best of the sites for algae production, with its humidity and year-round temperatures that don’t dramatically swing between hot and cold. But not everyone interested in growing algae can do it in Florida, so the data enables others to make predictions on possible sites and to develop crop protection strategies.

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Bose’s $199 audio AR sunglasses ship in January

Bose’s $199 audio AR sunglasses ship in January


James Trew/Engadget

Bose’s unique, audio-only AR sunglasses are about to become a practical reality. The company has announced that Frames will be available in January for $199, with pre-orders starting now. The eyewear is available in squarish (Alto) and rounded (Rondo) styles to suit your fashion sensibilities. Don’t expect the glasses to live up to their full potential right away, though.

Out of the box, they’ll let you privately listen to music, answer calls and talk to your preferred voice assistant without having to wear earbuds (albeit with only 3.5 hours of continuous playback). What you won’t get, though, is Frames’ signature Bose AR feature — audio augmented reality apps won’t be available until sometime in 2019, with more details coming at Austin’s SXSW festival in March. You’re buying these shades as much for their long-term promise as their current capabilities, so you may want to think carefully before committing to a purchase.

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Move over Rover: There’s a new sniffing powerhouse in the neighborhood: Researchers study animals’ unique sense of smell to develop improved chemical sensors

Move over Rover: There’s a new sniffing powerhouse in the neighborhood: Researchers study animals’ unique sense of smell to develop improved chemical sensors

Some animals have a superpower in their sense of smell. They explore, interpret and understand their world with such sensitivity that people have enlisted canines to help solve crime and detect cancer on the breath. Scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology are now homing in on the secrets behind animals’ super sniffers to develop an artificial chemical sensor that could be used for a variety of tasks, from food safety to national security.

“We turned to animals to understand what nature has already figured out,” said Thomas Spencer, a doctoral candidate in David Hu’s lab at Georgia Tech. “We are applying the underlying principles that we learned about these mechanisms to design a better sensor.”

Spencer will present the group’s latest design for an electronic nose that concentrates odors for improved chemical sensing at the American Physical Society’s Division of Fluid Dynamics 71st Annual Meeting, which will take place Nov. 18-20 at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Georgia.

Their work began inauspiciously at a competition to develop a sensor that could identify different varieties of cheese. Turning to nature to guide their work, they traveled to the Atlanta Zoo to compare the way different animals sniff, from mice to elephants.

“We wanted to measure the sniffing frequency of animals when they are trying to identify a new source of food or something that interests them,” Spencer said.

After reviewing the data, they found that sniffing speed decreases as body size increases; put another way, mice sniff faster than elephants. Using their findings, they designed a customized pump that oscillates back and forth at the same frequency that animals sniff. The design of their device moves airflow around the chemical sensor in a more controlled fashion.

“These findings are important because it gives us insight into the physics of sniffing,” said Hu, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and biology at Georgia Tech. “This information will affect how we scale up sniffing machines.”

Because odor is invisible, the team used wind tunnel experiments and computer simulations to analyze how the odor particles moved through the air. In addition, they gathered sensor information in real time to see how the chemical compounds vary throughout the air in space and time.

While the team initially designed the electronic nose to distinguish different varieties cheese, the fundamental principles behind their device could be used in many different applications.

“This is still a fairly new study,” Spencer said. “Our hope is to get a snippet of that ability and replicate it for ourselves.”

Adams Clark joined Spencer and Hu on this study. They received funding from the National Science Foundation.

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Unique study shows how bats maneuver

Unique study shows how bats maneuver

For the first time, researchers have succeeded in directly measuring the aerodynamics of flying animals as they manoeuvre in the air. Previously, the upstroke of the wings was considered relatively insignificant compared to the powerful downstroke but, in a new study, biologists at Lund University in Sweden have observed that it is on the upstroke of the wings that bats often turn.

“Until now, we have not known very much about what animals actually do when they fly, since we have focused on steady flight. Steady flight is in fact not very common for animals flying out in the wild. We have now conducted direct aerodynamic measurements on bats and we can see how flexible they are. They turn in several different ways depending on where they are in the wing-beat,” explains Per Henningsson, a biologist at Lund University.

“It is really fascinating to see how complex and elegant the pattern of movement is, and how the bats choose the best solution just as they decide to start a manoeuvre,” he continues.

For the bats, flight technique with fast manoeuvres at high speed is important to successfully capture insects in flight, as well as to avoid collision with various obstacles such as trees and buildings.

The results could be significant in the development of the next generation of drones.

“One of the main challenges for the industry is about control and stability and enabling drones to avoid obstacles easily. In that context, our results are very relevant,” says Per Henningsson, who does not exclude the possibility of future drones being equipped with flapping wings.

The study was conducted on two long-eared bats that were trained to fly in a wind tunnel. As prey, the researchers used mealworms attached to a device that could be moved laterally. By moving the device to the right or to the left, the researchers made the bats turn to follow the direction of the prey. The researchers visualised the air flow and filmed the animals with high-speed cameras. This allowed them to link the aerodynamics to the movements.

The researchers behind the study are biologists from Lund University and the University of Southern Denmark.

Watch bat in flight: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j2zR37vo7Ss

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Unique immunity genes in one widespread coral species: Study may help explain how corals deal with stress under future climate change scenarios

Unique immunity genes in one widespread coral species: Study may help explain how corals deal with stress under future climate change scenarios

A new study led by researchers at the University of Miami (UM) Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science found that a common coral species might have evolved unique immune strategies to cope with environmental change.

Roughly 30 percent of the cauliflower coral’s (Pocillopora damicornis) genome was unique compared to several other reef-building corals. In this 30%, many of these genes were related to immune function. This diversity of genes related to immune function, the researchers say, may be important for the long-term survival of coral reefs as climate change and ocean acidification continue to alter the environment to which corals are adapted.

“This coral is traditionally thought of as a weed, and yet it may be one of the last corals to survive environmental changes such as climate change,” said senior author of the study Nikki Traylor-Knowles, an assistant professor of marine biology and ecology at the UM Rosenstiel School.

To conduct the research, the scientists extracted and sequenced the genomic DNA from two healthy fragments and two bleached fragments of P. damicornis, which is one of the most abundant and widespread reef-building corals in the world. Their genome was then compared to publicly available genomes for several other coral species and several other cnidarian species.

“The study shows that this is an important coral with a very complex and unique immune system, which may explain why it is able to survive in so many different locations,” said the paper’s lead author Ross Cunning, who conducted the research as a postdoctoral scientist at the UM Rosenstiel School and is now a researcher at Shedd Aquarium.

These results suggest that the evolution of an innate immune system has been a defining feature of the success of hard corals like P. damicornis, and may help facilitate their continued success under climate change scenarios.

The immune system of corals, like humans, is vital to protect its overall health and deal with changes in its surroundings. If an animal has a stronger immune system then it will be better equipped to deal with environmental changes. These new findings suggest that some corals have many more and diverse immunity genes than would be expected, which is the hallmark of a very robust immune system.

“This study helps us better understand how corals deal with stress,” said Traylor-Knowles. “Its complex immune system indicates that it may have the tools to deal with environmental change much more easily than other corals.”

The study, titled “Comparative analysis of the Pocillopora damicornis genome highlights role of immune system in coral evolution,” was published in the October 31, 2018 issue of the journal Scientific Reports. The paper’s coauthors include: Nikki Traylor-Knowles, Andrew Baker, and Phil Gillette of the UM Rosenstiel School; UM alumnus Ross Cunning of Shedd Aquarium; and UM alumna Rachael Bay of the University of California Davis.

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How the world’s fastest muscle created four unique bird species

How the world’s fastest muscle created four unique bird species

When the male bearded manakin snaps its wings at lightning speed, it’s more than part of an elaborate, acrobatic mating ritual. The tiny muscle doing the heavy lifting is also the reason this exotic bird has evolved into four distinct species, according to new research published in the journal eLIFE by Wake Forest University biologist Matthew Fuxjager.

Fuxjager’s previous research showed that the tiny bearded manakin, which measures a little more than four inches long and weighs about half an ounce, has one of the fastest limb muscles of any vertebrate. During an elaborate courtship dance, it uses this muscle — the scapulohumeralis caudalis — to make a unique “roll-snap” movement at speeds so fast it’s undetectable to the human eye. The roll-snap creates a mechanical popping sound when the wings connect above the back, all to catch the female’s attention.

“The ability of this muscle to develop different speeds has shaped the way these manakins have evolved — allowed for one species to become two, and two to become four,” said Matthew Fuxjager, one of the world’s few experts on manakin physiology. “This is some of the first work that shows how this happens.”

Fuxjager’s new study, “Physiological constraint on acrobatic courtship behavior underlies rapid sympatric speciation in bearded manakins,” is funded by the National Science Foundation. The research team includes Wake Forest doctoral student Meredith Miles.

Fuxjager, assistant professor of biology at Wake Forest and the study’s principal investigator, looks at how the manakins shared a common ancestor 300,000 years ago, but then quickly split into four species: white-bearded manakins to golden-collared manakins, and then to white-collared and orange-collared manakins. The core goal of all his research is to understand how and why animals produce remarkable behaviors.

This study does something that others rarely if ever do: It examines not only how a small group of animals evolved, but also how they behave overall and how a specific muscle in these organisms performs. This three-pronged approach showed the researchers how muscle speed and performance influenced the split into four species.

Fuxjager traveled to Panama and Costa Rica to measure how fast the manakin’s scapulohumeralis caudalis expands and contracts when stimulated, and compared recordings of the manakin roll-snap sound display to note variations in speed and duration among species. The patterns show changes in physiology led to changes in behavior — and then the evolution of four manakin species.

The study of superfast muscles such as the bearded manakin’s scapulohumeralis caudalis may inform research into how diseases such as ALS attack muscles in humans, Fuxjager said.

“Humans are interested in motor control and muscle performance — what makes a muscle fast, what makes it strong, and what might make it both fast and strong,” he said. “Understanding how the super-performing muscle in this bird works could lead us to a better understanding of muscle diseases and how to treat them.”

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Here’s What the Quantum Internet Has in Store

Here’s What the Quantum Internet Has in Store

future ‘quantum internet’ could find use long before it reaches technological maturity, a team of physicists predicts.

Such a network, which exploits the unique effects of quantum physics, would be fundamentally different to the classical Internet we use today, and research groups worldwide are already working on its early stages of development. The first stages promise virtually unbreakable privacy and security in communications; a more mature network could include a range of applications for science and beyond that aren’t possible with classical systems, including quantum sensors that can detect gravitational waves.

The quantum difference

The researchers argue that the technology, which would complement rather than replace the existing Internet, could eventually become widespread both for large users, such as university laboratories, and for individual consumers, although they do not give a time scale.

This stands in contrast with quantum computers, they say—another futuristic technology that physicists are feverishly working on, aiming to build machines that can outperform classical computers. “In the quantum-computing domain, it’s much more all or nothing,” says theoretical physicist Stephanie Wehner, who co-authored the paper with her Delft colleagues David Elkouss and Ronald Hanson.

Stefanie Barz, a quantum physicist at the University of Stuttgart in Germany, agrees. It’s difficult to predict which technology will come first, she and others say—a widely adopted quantum internet or useful quantum computers. But quantum networks have a big advantage, Barz says, in that “such a network can be built step by step, and different functionality can be added in each step”.

The roadmap also aims to establish a common language for a field that involves researchers with disparate backgrounds, including information technology, computer science, engineering and physics. “People talk about quantum networks to mean vastly different things,” says Hanson, an experimental physicist who is co-leading the Delft group’s push to build a quantum-internet demonstration that will link four Dutch cities.

Rodney Van Meter, a quantum network engineer at Keio University in Tokyo, says that the paper helps to clarify the field’s goals. “It gives us a new vocabulary for understanding what we are developing.” And the way the document spells out the applications can also help researchers explain their proposals to potential investors, he says. “With this roadmap, we can have this conversation.”

Six stages

Quantum networks and quantum computing share many concepts and techniques. Both take advantage of phenomena that have no analogue in classical physics: for example, a quantum particle such as an electron or a photon can be in one of two well-defined states of spinning, clockwise or anticlockwise—but also in a simultaneous combination of both, called a superposition. And two particles can be ‘entangled’, in which they share a common quantum state. This makes them act in seemingly coordinated ways (such as spinning in opposite directions) even when they are separated by vast distances.

The Delft team has laid out six stages for the evolution of the quantum internet.

The first—which they say is a sort of stage 0 because it does not describe a true quantum internet—is a network that enables users to establish a common encryption key, so that they can share their (classical) data securely. The quantum physics occurs only behind the scenes: the service provider uses it to create the key. But the provider also knows the key, which means that users have to trust it. This type of network already exists, most notably in China, where it extends over some 2,000 kilometres and connects major cities including Beijing and Shanghai.

In stage 1, users will start getting into the quantum game, in which a sender creates quantum states, typically for photons. These would be sent to a receiver, either along an optical fibre or through a laser pulse beamed across open space. At this stage, any two users will be able to create a private encryption key that only they know.

The technology will also enable users to submit a quantum password, for example, to a machine such as an ATM. The machine will be able to verify the password without knowing what it is or being able to steal it.

Stage 1 has not been tried on a large scale, but it is already technologically feasible at the scale of small cities, Wehner says, although it would be very slow. A group led by Pan Jian-Wei at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei made the world record for this kind of transmission in 2017, when they used a satellite to link two laboratories more than 1,200 kilometres apart.

In stage 2, the quantum internet will harness the powerful phenomenon of entanglement. Its first goal will be to make quantum encryption essentially unbreakable. Most of the techniques that this stage requires already exist, at least as rudimentary lab demonstrations.

Stages 3 to 5 will, for the first time, enable any two users to store and exchange quantum bits, or qubits. These are units of quantum information, similar to classical 1s and 0s, but they can be in a superposition of both 1 and 0 simultaneously. Qubits are also the basis for quantum computation. (A number of laboratories—both in academia and at large corporations, such as IBM or Google—have been building increasingly complex quantum computers; the most advanced ones have memories that can hold a few dozen qubits.)

Getting to the final stage will require several breakthroughs. Hanson’s team has been at the forefront of these efforts, and is among those working to build the first ‘quantum repeater’—a device that can help to entangle qubits over larger and larger distances.

Clocks and ballots

The early adopters of the highest-stage networks will probably be scientists themselves. Labs will get to connect to the first advanced quantum computers remotely, or to link up such machines to work as a single computer.

They could then use these systems to perform experiments that aren’t possible with classical machines, for example, simulating the quantum physics of molecules or materials. Networks of quantum clocks could dramatically increase the precision of measurements for phenomena such as gravitational waves, and distant optical telescopes could link up their qubits to sharpen images.

But there could be applications outside of science, too. In an election, a stage-5 quantum internet could allow voters to select not just one candidate, but a ‘superposition’ of candidates, which includes, say, their second-favourite option. “Quantum voters,” says physicist Nicole Yunger Halpern at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, could use “strategic-voting schemes that classical voters can’t implement”. And quantum techniques might help large groups to coordinate and reach a consensus, for example, to validate electronic currencies such as Bitcoin.

Liang Jiang, a theoretical physicist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, says that the roadmap will be useful to the broader quantum community, but that it focuses mostly on the types of technology that the Delft group has adopted. For example, theoretical work published last year by Jiang and collaborators suggests that small- or medium-scale networks could be based on microwaves rather than laser pulses.

Researchers’ opinions are not unanimous as to whether these applications will truly be useful, or whether a quantum internet will ever be sophisticated enough to make them broadly available. But some are optimistic. “I have no doubt that it will exist at some point,” Wehner says. But, she adds, “I think it is going to take a long time”.

This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on October 23, 2018.

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