Posts about cool

Hyperloop – Fast Transportation Using a Better Engineering Solution Than We Do Now

Elon Musk (the engineer and entrepreneur behind Tesla electric cars and before that he helped create PayPal) has a very cool idea of how to provide fast long distance transportation (faster than a plane). Essentially it is a big version of pneumatic tubes that used to be used to send small packages around a building, as seen in the movie – Brazil :-) Details are scheduled to be released August 12th.

This Is How Elon Musk Can Build the Hyperloop for a Tenth the Cost of High-Speed Rail

Having a elevated Hyperloop main line also completely avoids or reduces many of the pitfalls of ground-level right-of-ways, and opens up some new opportunities as well:

  • The crossing of other right-of-ways, like roads and railways, will be a breeze.
  • Rivers and other terrain obstacles will only be a 10th the problem of rail construction.
  • Hyperloop can avoid tunnels completely by having more flexible choices of right-of-way.
  • An elevated right-of-way opens up new route options, like leasing farmer’s fields using contracts similar to what wind-power companies sign.
  • That could be paid for by leasing Hyperloop’s right-of-way to communications companies for fiber optic cables, cell phone towers, etc.
  • …and let’s not forget the solar power that a couple of square miles of surface area can generate!

Hype Builds Before Elon Musk’s August Alpha Plan for Hyperloop

The Hyperloop would transport passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in about 30 minutes and at about twice the average speed of a commercial jet. The system would be on-demand, cheaper than current alternatives, impossible to crash, and potentially, run entirely on solar power.

Travelers ride in pods magnetically accelerated and decelerated into the main tube (like a rail gun) where the air circulates at speed. The air between pods acts as a cushion, preventing crashes, while more air injected through perforations in the tube levitates the pods and reduces friction, much as it might on an air hockey table.

Elon Musk has some very good ideas but what really sets him apart is turning them into functioning enterprises. Great ideas are wonderful but a huge number never go anywhere. Those people that can actually get ideas into the marketplace are the people that provide a much greater standard of living for all of us. And many of them are engineers.

Update: link to his blog post announcement.

More examples of cool extreme engineering: Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-TunnelTransferring Train Passengers Without Stoppingtransatlantic tunnelWebcast on Machine That Bores Subway Tunnels

Learn About Biology Online

Very cool site for learning about biology. I have tried the courses offered by Coursera but they are too structured for my taste. I want to be able to learn at my pace and dip into the areas I find interesting. Coursera is more like a real course, that has weekly assignments and the like.

Survivebio is a resources that matches my desires exactly. You can go and learn about whatever topics you desire, when you desire. The site offers webcasts, games, flashcards, chapter outlines, practice tests and a forum to discuss the ideas.

In this webcast, Paul Andersen discusses the specifics of phylogenetics. The evolutionary relationships of organisms are discovered through both morphological and molecular data.

The aim of the SurviveBio web site is to aid AP (and college) biology students. But it is also a great resource to learn about biology if you are interested in that topic. Hopefully they will add more webcasts. The site uses webcasts from Bozeman Science which has a huge number of very good videos on biology and also, chemistry, physics, earth science, statistics, anatomy and physiology.

Related: Great Webcast Explaining the Digestive SystemsCell Aging and Limits Due to TelomeresHuman Gene Origins: 37% Bacterial, 35% Animal, 28% Eukaryotic

Loon – Balloon Enabled Internet

Project Loon, from Google:

The Internet is one of the most transformative technologies of our lifetimes. But for 2 out of every 3 people on earth, a fast, affordable Internet connection is still out of reach.

We believe that it might actually be possible to build a ring of balloons, flying around the globe on the stratospheric winds, that provides Internet access to the earth below. It’s very early days, but we’ve built a system that uses balloons, carried by the wind at altitudes twice as high as commercial planes, to beam Internet access to the ground at speeds similar to today’s 3G networks or faster. As a result, we hope balloons could become an option for connecting rural, remote, and underserved areas, and for helping with communications after natural disasters.

Google testing out this system now in New Zealand. If they can get it to work they plan to use ballons to provide wireless internet access to hundreds of millions, or even billions, of people that don’t have access now. These ballons would float about 20 km above earth in the stratosphere (so well above where commercial airline traffic) and they are really working somewhat like to satellites.

Though ballons are much cheaper to put in place than satellites they also offer significant problems as they get blow around by wind (which is why they haven’t been used before and why Google is going to experiment to see if they can get it to work). The ballons will use solar power and be controlled by a mission control to move into different wind zones to position themselves.


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Given Tablets but No Teachers, Kids Teach Themselves – Having Never Seen Advanced Technology Before

In a repetition of an experiment I have posted about here on the Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog before (Letting Children Learn – Hole in the Wall Computers): Given Tablets but No Teachers, Ethiopian Children Teach Themselves

The experiment is being done in two isolated rural villages with about 20 first-grade-aged children each, about 50 miles from Addis Ababa. One village is called Wonchi, on the rim of a volcanic crater at 11,000 feet; the other is called Wolonchete, in the Great Rift Valley. Children there had never previously seen printed materials, road signs, or even packaging that had words on them, Negroponte said.

Earlier this year, OLPC workers dropped off closed boxes containing the tablets, taped shut, with no instruction. “I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android,” Negroponte said. “Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera, and they figured out the camera, and had hacked Android.”

Nicholas Negroponte has tendency to overstate the fact from what I remember. I don’t think what he claims as “hacking Android” here is what a real scientist would claim as than is a write up of the results of the experiment. He could well mean they updated a setting or some similar thing. It is a shame to mislead when the bare facts are so cool. And possibly he isn’t misleading – I just am worried he is.

Also what does 47 apps per day mean? I can’t understand how you can usefully (including entertainment do that in any sensible way) – I doubt I use 15 applications in a month and I use the computer hours every single day. Makes me worry that “using” is not a very enlightening piece of data – instead just trying to make it seem like using 47 must mean they are engaged; it seems more likely to me to mean they are not used successfully so they have to go try something else or they are counting “used” in ways we wouldn’t.

Once a week, a technician visits the villages and swaps out memory cards so that researchers can study how the machines were actually used.

These kinds of experiments are very cool. They show how intrinsically curious we are are. Sadly our schools often beat the curiosity out of kids instead of engaging it.

Related: What Kids can Learn (look at the same idea in 2006)Providing Computer to Remote Students in Nepal (2009)$100 Laptops for the World

Many Great, Free, Online Courses in Science, Engineering and More

The video, above, provides an overview of an online course, Calculus: Single Variable, via coursera from the University of Pennsylvania. This course provides a brisk, entertaining treatment of differential and integral calculus, with an emphasis on conceptual understanding and applications to the engineering, physical, and social sciences.

Robert Ghrist is the Andrea Mitchell University Professor of Mathematics and Electrical & Systems Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. Coursera offers many courses in all sorts of disciplines including: Introduction to Genetics and Evolution (Duke), Scientific Computing (University of Washington), Principles of Economics for Scientists (California Institute of Technology), Game Theory (Stanford University and The University of British Columbia), A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior (Dan Ariely, Duke University), The Modern World: Global History since 1760 (University of Virginia), Microeconomics for Managers (University of California, Irvine), Data Analysis (Johns Hopkins University), Fundamentals of Human Nutrition (University of Florida), Algorithms, Part I (Princeton University), The Ancient Greeks (Wesleyan University), Astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life (University of Edinburgh) and Epigenetic Control of Gene Expression, (University of Melbourne).

All the classes are free. These courses, and many more, are extremely appealing. I signed up for 2. I would be interested in signing up for much more but I worry about having the time to commit to keeping up with the coursework. I hope the first two go well and I can sign up for more in the future.

Related: Top Online Graduate Engineering Programs in the USAOpen Source Education CurriculaScience and Engineering Education ResourcesExploring Eukaryotic Cells

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Make Crosswalks More Visible

Good simple idea. And then executed well – for nighttime at least. Crosswalk lights up when in use giving drivers a more visible clue to stop.

Related: Ministry of Silly WalksKindergarten Students Pedel Their Own Bus to SchoolPassion for Mechanical Engineering Nurtured as a ChildBird Feeder That Automatically Takes Photos When Birds FeedEncouraging Curiosity in Kids

Promoting Innovation in Sierra Leone

Another inspirational kid that shows that the potential for human good is much greater than the talking heads and politicians that litter the TV screen so often.

In the video Kelvin says, “That is my aim: to Promote Innovation in Seira Leone, among young people.” See another video as Kelvin explains his homemade battery.

Support these young engineers in Sierra Leone via innovate Salone.

Related: Inspirational Engineer Build Windmill Using TrashSupporting the Natural Curiosity of KidsWhat Kids can Learn If Given a ChanceI was Interviewed About Encouraging Kids to Pursue Engineering

Science Explained: Cool Video of ATP Synthase, Which Provides Usable Energy to Us

This webcast shows animations of ATP synthase structure and the mechanism for synthesizing ATP. Biology is incredibly cool. Too bad they didn’t have stuff like this when I was in school, instead biology was mainly about memorizing boring lists of stuff.

ATP (adenosine tri-phosphate) transports chemical energy within cells. When one of the phosphates is released by ATP energy is given off (and ATP becomes ADP (adenosine di-phosphate) + Pi (inorganic phosphate). And then the synthase structure can then turn it back into ATP to be used again.

The human body, which on average contains only 250 grams of ATP, turns over its own body weight equivalent in ATP each day.

Related: ATP synthase lecture notes University of IllinoisWebcast on the makeup and function of eukaryotic cellsScience Explained: PhotosynthesisVideo showing malaria breaking into cell

Pay as You Go Solar in India

Farmers Foil Utilities Using Cell Phones to Access Solar

In October, Bangalore-based Simpa Networks Inc. installed a solar panel on Anand’s whitewashed adobe house along with a small metal box in his living room to monitor electricity usage. The 25-year-old rice farmer, who goes by one name, purchases energy credits to unlock the system via his mobile phone on a pay-as-you-go model.

When his balance runs low, Anand pays 50 rupees ($1) — money he would have otherwise spent on kerosene. Then he receives a text message with a code to punch into the box, giving him about another week of electric light.
When he pays off the full cost of the system in about three years, it will be unlocked and he will get free power.

Across India and Africa, startups and mobile phone companies are developing so-called microgrids, in which stand- alone generators power clusters of homes and businesses in places where electric utilities have never operated.

Very cool. Worldwide, approximately 1.6 billion people have no access to electricity and another 1 billion have extremely unreliable access. The poorest spending up to 30% of their income on inefficient and expensive means of providing light and accessing electricity. Solutions like this, finding engineering solutions for basic needs that are market based, are great.

That the poor end up owning their solar system after just 3 years is great.

Creating great benefit to society with the smart adoption of technology and sustainable economics is something I love.

Related: Solar Power Market Solutions For Hundreds of Millions Without ElectricityAppropriate Technology: Solar Hot Water in Poor Cairo NeighborhoodsEngineering a Better World: Bike Corn-ShellerWater Pump Merry-go-Round

Bacteriophages Enter Bacteria Using an Iron Tipped Spike

Bacteria-Killing Viruses Wield an Iron Spike

Forget needles in haystacks. Try finding the tip of a needle in a virus. Scientists have long known that a group of viruses called bacteriophages have a knack for infiltrating bacteria and that some begin their attack with a protein spike. But the tip of this spike is so small that no one knew what it was made of or exactly how it worked. Now a team of researchers has found a single iron atom at the head of the spike, a discovery that suggests phages enter bacteria in a different way than surmised.

Wherever there are bacteria you will find bacteriophages; digestive tracts, contaminated water, and feces are usually a good start. These viruses begin their dirty work by drilling into the outer membrane of bacteria. Once completely through all of a bug’s defenses, the phages inject their DNA, which essentially turns the bacterium into phage-producing factories. Eventually, the microbes become filled with so many viruses that they burst, releasing a new horde of phages into the environment.

Bacteriophages are amazing. It is so interesting to learn about amazingly creative solutions that have evolved over time. Real-life science is not easy to match with fiction that springs from our imaginations.

Related: Bacteriophages: The Most Common Life-Like Form on EarthViruses Eating BacteriaWhere Bacteria Get Their Genes

How Bee Hives Make Decisions

The Secret Life of Bees by Carl Zimmer

The decision-making power of honeybees is a prime example of what scientists call swarm intelligence. Clouds of locusts, schools of fish, flocks of birds and colonies of termites display it as well. And in the field of swarm intelligence, Seeley is a towering figure. For 40 years he has come up with experiments that have allowed him to decipher the rules honeybees use for their collective decision-making. “No one has reached the level of experimentation and ingenuity of Tom Seeley,” says Edward O. Wilson of Harvard University.

Enthusiasm translates into attention. An enthusiastic scout will inspire more bees to go check out her site. And when the second-wave scouts return, they persuade more scouts to investigate the better site.

The second principle is flexibility. Once a scout finds a site, she travels back and forth from site to hive. Each time she returns, she dances to win over other scouts. But the number of dance repetitions declines, until she stops dancing altogether. Seeley and his colleagues found that honeybees that visit good sites keep dancing for more trips than honeybees from mediocre ones.

This decaying dance allows a swarm to avoid getting stuck in a bad decision. Even when a mediocre site has attracted a lot of scouts, a single scout returning from a better one can cause the hive to change its collective mind.

“Bees are to hives as neurons are to brains,” says Jeffrey Schall, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University. Neurons use some of the same tricks honeybees use to come to decisions. A single visual neuron is like a single scout. It reports about a tiny patch of what we see, just as a scout dances for a single site. Different neurons may give us conflicting ideas about what we’re actually seeing, but we have to quickly choose between the alternatives. That red blob seen from the corner of your eye may be a stop sign, or it may be a car barreling down the street.

To make the right choice, our neurons hold a competition, and different coalitions recruit more neurons to their interpretation of reality, much as scouts recruit more bees

Very cool stuff.

Related: Honeybees Warn Others of RisksWasps Used to Detect ExplosivesStudy of the Colony Collapse Disorder Continues as Bee Colonies Continue to Disappear

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