Learn to Fly a Jetpack. Yes, a Jetpack!

I figured when I wrote about flying cars last year that it would only be a matter of time before I got to write about…jetpacks! OK, I had no idea I was going to be writing about jetpacks because I had long believed they were but a figment of a weak, collective, futuristic imagination. Indeed, while flying cars were inevitable, jetpacks…well, you’d have to be a compete idiot. Unless you’re the Martin Aircraft Company of New Zealand. Which has created a working jetpack.

And is now inviting anyone over 18 with a valid driver’s license to join its “test squadron.” (Catch: You will need to go to New Zealand. And that age-limit seems solid, even though, as the video below attests, the 15-year-old son of Martin Aircraft’s founders has been allowed behind the controls.) Mind you, this isn’t the jetpack of sci-fi yesteryear. It’s not even jet powered. Instead, it features rotor blades driven by a V4 engine, so it’s actually more of a heli-pack. And it’s kinda…large, if your visions of jetpacks are formed by the type of units seen in movies from the Star Wars series.

via Learn to Fly a Jetpack. Yes, a Jetpack! | The Big Money.

The Recent Future / March 9, 2010 / SciFi, Tech / 0 Comments

Google leaps language barrier with translator phone

GOOGLE is developing software for the first phone capable of translating foreign languages almost instantly — like the Babel Fish in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

By building on existing technologies in voice recognition and automatic translation, Google hopes to have a basic system ready within a couple of years. If it works, it could eventually transform communication among speakers of the world’s 6,000-plus languages.

The company has already created an automatic system for translating text on computers, which is being honed by scanning millions of multi-lingual websites and documents. So far it covers 52 languages, adding Haitian Creole last week.

Google also has a voice recognition system that enables phone users to conduct web searches by speaking commands into their phones rather than typing them in.

via Google leaps language barrier with translator phone – Times Online.

The Recent Future / February 8, 2010 / SciFi, Star Trek Did It!, Tech / 0 Comments

Water Freezes When Heated

Usually water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit and temperatures below that. But now scientists – reporting today in the journal Science — have found a way to keep water in a liquid form at -40 degrees F. What’s more, the scientists have found another way to make the water freeze when it’s heated. It’s a curious phenomenon to say the least, but the results could have implications for computer climate modeling. Igor Lubomirsky and his colleagues from Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science achieved this unusual feat using dust-free water on materials called pyroelectric amorphous solids, which change their electrical charge depending on their temperature.

One of the materials the scientists looked at was lithium tantalate. At 12 degrees F, the material has a negative charge. But raise the temperature to 17.6 degrees F, and it has a positive charge.

When the scientists put dust-free water on the material, the freezing point no longer was the normal 32 degrees. In fact, the freezing point depended on the charge. The scientists were able to supercool the water down -40 F without it freezing.

A negative charge did the opposite. So when they applied a negative charge to the surface, thereby raising the temperature to 17, the “heated” water froze.

via Water Freezes When Heated : Discovery News.

The Recent Future / February 5, 2010 / Nature, SciFi / 0 Comments

Electric Icarus: NASA Designs a One-Man Stealth Plane: Scientific American

A super-quiet, hover-capable aircraft design, NASA’s experimental one-man Puffin could show just how much electric propulsion can transform our ideas of flight. It looks like nothing less than a flying suit or a jet pack with a cockpit.

On the ground, the Puffin is designed to stand on its tail, which splits into four legs to help serve as landing gear. As a pilot prepares to take off, flaps on the wings would tilt to deflect air from the 2.3-meter-wide propeller rotors upward, keeping the plane on the ground until it was ready to fly and preventing errant gusts from tipping it over. The Puffin would rise, hover and then lean over to fly horizontally, with the pilot lying prone as if in a glider. When landing, the extending spring legs would support the 3.7-meter-long, 4.1-meter-wingspan craft, which is designed with carbon-fiber composites to weigh in at 135 kilograms, not including 45 kilograms of rechargeable lithium phosphate batteries.

In principle, the Puffin can cruise at 240 kilometers per hour and dash at more than 480 kph. It has no flight ceiling—it is not air-breathing like gas engines are, and thus is not limited by thin air—so it could go up to about 9,150 meters before its energy runs low enough to drive it to descend. With current state-of-the-art batteries, it has a range of just 80 kilometers if cruising, “but many researchers are proposing a tripling of current battery energy densities in the next five to seven years, so we could see a range of 240 to 320 kilometers by 2017,” says researcher Mark Moore, an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. He and his colleagues will officially unveil the Puffin design on January 20 at an American Helicopter Society meeting in San Francisco.

via Electric Icarus: NASA Designs a One-Man Stealth Plane: Scientific American.

The Recent Future / January 21, 2010 / SciFi, Tech / 0 Comments

Green Sea Slug Is Part Animal, Part Plant

Green Sea SlugIt’s easy being green for a sea slug that has stolen enough genes to become the first animal shown to make chlorophyll like a plant.

Shaped like a leaf itself, the slug Elysia chlorotica already has a reputation for kidnapping the photosynthesizing organelles and some genes from algae. Now it turns out that the slug has acquired enough stolen goods to make an entire plant chemical-making pathway work inside an animal body, says Sidney K. Pierce of the University of South Florida in Tampa.

The slugs can manufacture the most common form of chlorophyll, the green pigment in plants that captures energy from sunlight, Pierce reported January 7 at the annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. Pierce used a radioactive tracer to show that the slugs were making the pigment, called chlorophyll a, themselves and not simply relying on chlorophyll reserves stolen from the algae the slugs dine on.

“This could be a fusion of a plant and an animal — that’s just cool,” said invertebrate zoologist John Zardus of The Citadel in Charleston, S.C.

Microbes swap genes readily, but Zardus said he couldn’t think of another natural example of genes flowing between multicellular kingdoms.

Pierce emphasized that this green slug goes far beyond animals such as corals that host live-in microbes that share the bounties of their photosynthesis. Most of those hosts tuck in the partner cells whole in crevices or pockets among host cells. Pierce’s slug, however, takes just parts of cells, the little green photosynthetic organelles called chloroplasts, from the algae it eats. The slug’s highly branched gut network engulfs these stolen bits and holds them inside slug cells.

Some related slugs also engulf chloroplasts but E. chlorotica alone preserves the organelles in working order for a whole slug lifetime of nearly a year. The slug readily sucks the innards out of algal filaments whenever they’re available, but in good light, multiple meals aren’t essential. Scientists have shown that once a young slug has slurped its first chloroplast meal from one of its few favored species of Vaucheria algae, the slug does not have to eat again for the rest of its life. All it has to do is sunbathe.

But the chloroplasts need a continuous supply of chlorophyll and other compounds that get used up during photosynthesis. Back in their native algal cells, chloroplasts depended on algal cell nuclei for the fresh supplies. To function so long in exile, “chloroplasts might have taken a go-cup with them when they left the algae,” Pierce said.

There have been previous hints, however, that the chloroplasts in the slug don’t run on stored-up supplies alone. Starting in 2007, Pierce and his colleagues, as well as another team, found several photosynthesis-related genes in the slugs apparently lifted directly from the algae. Even unhatched sea slugs, which have never encountered algae, carry “algal” photosynthetic genes.

via Green Sea Slug Is Part Animal, Part Plant | Wired Science | Wired.com.

The Recent Future / January 11, 2010 / Nature, SciFi / 0 Comments

Alcohol substitute that avoids drunkenness and hangovers in development

The new substance could have the added bonus of being “switched off” instantaneously with a pill, to allow drinkers to drive home or return to work.

The synthetic alcohol, being developed from chemicals related to Valium, works like alcohol on nerves in the brain that provide a feeling of wellbeing and relaxation.

But unlike alcohol its does not affect other parts of the brain that control mood swings and lead to addiction. It is also much easier to flush out of the body.

Finally because it is much more focused in its effects, it can also be switched off with an antidote, leaving the drinker immediately sober.

The new alcohol is being developed by a team at Imperial College London, led by Professor David Nutt, Britain’s top drugs expert who was recently sacked as a government adviser for his comments about cannabis and ecstasy.

He envisions a world in which people could drink without getting drunk, he said.

No matter how many glasses they had, they would remain in that pleasant state of mild inebriation and at the end of an evening out, revellers could pop a sober-up pill that would let them drive home.

via Alcohol substitute that avoids drunkenness and hangovers in development – Telegraph.

The Recent Future / December 26, 2009 / SciFi, Star Trek Did It! / 0 Comments

Splitting Time from Space – New Quantum Theory Topples Einstein’s Spacetime

Was Newton right and Einstein wrong? It seems that unzipping the fabric of spacetime and harking back to 19th-century notions of time could lead to a theory of quantum gravity.

Physicists have struggled to marry quantum mechanics with gravity for decades. In contrast, the other forces of nature have obediently fallen into line. For instance, the electromagnetic force can be described quantum-mechanically by the motion of photons. Try and work out the gravitational force between two objects in terms of a quantum graviton, however, and you quickly run into trouble—the answer to every calculation is infinity. But now Petr Hořava, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, thinks he understands the problem. It’s all, he says, a matter of time.

More specifically, the problem is the way that time is tied up with space in Einstein’s theory of gravity: general relativity. Einstein famously overturned the Newtonian notion that time is absolute—steadily ticking away in the background. Instead he argued that time is another dimension, woven together with space to form a malleable fabric that is distorted by matter. The snag is that in quantum mechanics, time retains its Newtonian aloofness, providing the stage against which matter dances but never being affected by its presence. These two conceptions of time don’t gel.

The solution, Hořava says, is to snip threads that bind time to space at very high energies, such as those found in the early universe where quantum gravity rules. “I’m going back to Newton’s idea that time and space are not equivalent,” Hořava says. At low energies, general relativity emerges from this underlying framework, and the fabric of spacetime restitches, he explains.

Hořava likens this emergence to the way some exotic substances change phase. For instance, at low temperatures liquid helium’s properties change dramatically, becoming a “superfluid” that can overcome friction. In fact, he has co-opted the mathematics of exotic phase transitions to build his theory of gravity. So far it seems to be working: the infinities that plague other theories of quantum gravity have been tamed, and the theory spits out a well-behaved graviton. It also seems to match with computer simulations of quantum gravity.

More via Splitting Time from Space—New Quantum Theory Topples Einstein’s Spacetime: Scientific American.

The Recent Future / November 25, 2009 / Nature, SciFi / 0 Comments

NASA Develops Tricorder: Adapts iPhone to Detect Dangerous Chemicals

iPhone Tri-CorderA researcher at the NASA Ames Center has developed a proof of concept device which can convert an iPhone into a chemical sensor capable of detecting ammonia, chlorine gas, and methane. The chem sniffing device is a small silicon chip (no bigger than a stamp) that plugs into the phone. Upon detection, the chip uses the phone to alert others. It was developed as part of Homeland Security’s Cell-All program. The US hopes that one day a small, inexpensive, and portable chip such as this one could be used to turn thousands (or millions) of mobile phones into a means of quickly detecting hazardous chemicals in public environments. That detection could save lives and help direct first response units. Of course, for the nerds out there the device’s true importance is easy to see: it’s the next step to developing a tricorder from Star Trek.

For those of you who don’t regularly attend conventions wearing pointy ears, a tricorder is a fictional device from the Star Trek universe. It’s the go-to scientific field instrument that identifies…well pretty much anything – alien life forms, rare minerals, the composition of the air. Your tricorder probes and samples its environment and tells you what’s around you. The NASA device does the same thing, albeit for a much smaller set of substances. Still, it’s the first of many steps to developing a handheld device that can measure the world in a scientific way. Right now, Homeland Security has plans to use the chem sniffer in an anti-terrorist detection program (more below) but one day we could see advanced versions helping us measure air quality, determine UV exposure, or tell us if there’s any dairy, nuts, or gluten in our meals. The tricorder would put scientific examination in the palm of our hands.

Currently, the device is only able to detect a limited range of gases using a 64 nanosensor array (16 on each side of the chip). The range of gases it can identify will likely expand and be refined as nanosensors are developed for new substances. A small “sampling jet” collects air from the environment and directs it onto the array. The multiple channel silicon chip also knows how to use the mobile phone to connect, via WiFi or Telecomm, to other phones or a central hub to alert them in case of detection. That’s a nifty piece of engineering, and something we didn’t really see in Star Trek. The connectivity of detection devices is going to affect the way we use chem sniffers long before they become as complex as tricorders.

via NASA Develops Tricorder: Adapts iPhone to Detect Dangerous Chemicals | Singularity Hub.

The Recent Future / November 19, 2009 / SciFi, Tech / 0 Comments

The Vatican joins the search for alien life

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences is holding a conference on astrobiology, the study of life beyond Earth, with scientists and religious leaders gathering in Rome this week.

For centuries, theologians have argued over what the existence of life elsewhere in the universe would mean for the Church: at least since Giordano Bruno, an Italian monk, was put to death by the Inquisition in 1600 for claiming that other worlds exist.

Among other things, extremely alien-looking aliens would be hard to fit with the idea that God “made man in his own image”.

Furthermore, Jesus Christ’s role as saviour would be confused: would other worlds have their own, tentacled Christ-figures, or would Earth’s Christ be universal?

However, just as the Church eventually made accommodations after Copernicus and Galileo showed that the Earth was not the centre of the universe, and when it belatedly accepted the truth of Darwin’s theory of evolution, Catholic leaders say that alien life can be aligned with the Bible’s teachings.

Father Jose Funes, a Jesuit astronomer at the Vatican Observatory and one of the organisers of the conference, said: “As a multiplicity of creatures exists on Earth, so there could be other beings, also intelligent, created by God.

“This does not conflict with our faith, because we cannot put limits on the creative freedom of God.”

via The Vatican joins the search for alien life – Telegraph.

The Recent Future / November 14, 2009 / History, SciFi / 0 Comments

NASA Discovers Large Lunar Ice Field

A team of NASA scientists announced Friday the discovery of a large amount of water on the moon’s south pole.

“Indeed, yes, we found water. And we didn’t find just a little bit, we found a significant amount,” said Anthony Colaprete, a principal project investigator at NASA’s Ames Research Center.Just weeks after NASA’s Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) mission analyzed a plume of debris generated by the impact of a satellite into a crater near the moon’s south pole, scientists said the findings suggest the presence of frozen water at the site of impact.”We are ecstatic,” said Colaprete. “Multiple lines of evidence show water was present in both the high angle vapor plume and the ejecta curtain created by the LCROSS Centaur impact. The concentration and distribution of water and other substances requires further analysis, but it is safe to say Cabeus holds water.” Over the last decade, scientists have found some hints of underground ice on the moon’s poles, but this is the best evidence yet.

via NASA Discovers Large Lunar Ice Field – News Story – KTVU San Francisco.

The Recent Future / November 14, 2009 / Nature, SciFi / 0 Comments