Science and Optical Illusions

Posted on October 18, 2010  Comments (0)

illusion with color tiles on a cubeMore illusions by R Beau Lotto, lecturer in neuroscience, University College London

The middle tiles on the cube both have the same color, even though they appear very different to most of us.

The science of optical illusions

the two physically identical tiles do indeed now look very different.

Why? The information in the image strongly suggests that the dark brown tile on the top now means a poorly reflective surface under bright light, whereas the bright orange one at the side means a highly reflective surface in shadow.
… [from another illusion]
So why do they look so different? Because your brain takes the image on the retina and creates what it sees according to what the information would have meant in the brain’s past experience of interacting with the world.

In this case the angles suggest depth and perspective and the brain believes the green table is longer than it is while the red table appears squarer.

The beautiful thing about illusions is they make us realise things are never what they seem, and that our experiences of the world shape our understanding of it.

Studying illusions can teach us several things. We can learn that it is easy for our senses to be fooled. We can learn about how the brain works. We can also learn how to take into account how our brain works to try and adjust our opinions (to be careful we are not just interpreting things incorrectly). It is amazing to see some of the wild guidance our brains give us. Normally they do a fantastic job of guiding us through our day but they have weaknesses that can lead us to mistaken conclusions.

Related: Albert Einstein, Marylin Monroe Hybrid ImageWhy Does the Moon Appear Larger on the Horizon?Illusions, Optical and OtherSeeing Patterns Where None Exists

Monarch Butterflies Use Medicinal Plants

Posted on October 14, 2010  Comments (6)

Monarch butterflies eat toxic plants (that they have evolved to tolerate and make the butterflies themselves toxic to predators). They use medicinal plants to treat their offspring for disease, research by Emory biologists shows. When the butterflies are infected by certain parasites the butterflies have a strong preference to lay their eggs on a plant (tropical milkweed) that will help the caterpillar fight the parasite when it eats those leaves (it serves as a drug for them). Their experiments may be the best evidence to date that animals use medication.

Related: Monarch Migration ResearchMonarch Butterfly MigrationEvolution at Work with the Blue Moon Butterfly

Google’s Self Driving Car

Posted on October 12, 2010  Comments (7)

Google thinks big. Google thinks like engineers. Google is willing to spend money taking on problems that other companies don’t. They have been developing a car that can drive itself. They see a huge amount of waste (drivers lives and drivers time) and seek a solution.

Larry and Sergey founded Google because they wanted to help solve really big problems using technology. And one of the big problems we’re working on today is car safety and efficiency. Our goal is to help prevent traffic accidents, free up people’s time and reduce carbon emissions by fundamentally changing car use.

So we have developed technology for cars that can drive themselves. Our automated cars, manned by trained operators, just drove from our Mountain View campus to our Santa Monica office and on to Hollywood Boulevard. They’ve driven down Lombard Street, crossed the Golden Gate bridge, navigated the Pacific Coast Highway, and even made it all the way around Lake Tahoe. All in all, our self-driving cars have logged over 140,000 miles. We think this is a first in robotics research.

Our automated cars use video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range finder to “see” other traffic, as well as detailed maps (which we collect using manually driven vehicles) to navigate the road ahead. This is all made possible by Google’s data centers, which can process the enormous amounts of information gathered by our cars when mapping their terrain.

To develop this technology, we gathered some of the very best engineers from the DARPA Challenges, a series of autonomous vehicle races organized by the U.S. Government. Chris Urmson was the technical team leader of the CMU team that won the 2007 Urban Challenge. Mike Montemerlo was the software lead for the Stanford team that won the 2005 Grand Challenge. Also on the team is Anthony Levandowski, who built the world’s first autonomous motorcycle that participated in a DARPA Grand Challenge, and who also built a modified Prius that delivered pizza without a person inside.

Related: Larry Page and Sergey Brin WebcastEnergy Secretary Steve Chu and Google CEO Eric Schmidt Speak On Funding Science ResearchGoogle’s Ten Golden RulesCMU Wins $2 million in DARPA Auto Race

sOccket: Power Through Play

Posted on October 8, 2010  Comments (3)

In a fun example of appropriate technology and innovation 4 college students have created a football (soccer ball) that is charged as you play with it. The ball uses an inductive coil mechanism to generate energy, thanks in part to a novel Engineering Sciences course, Idea Translation. They are beta testing the ball in Africa: the current prototypes can provide light 3 hours of LED light after less than 10 minutes of play. Jessica Matthews ’10, Jessica Lin ’09, Hemali Thakkara ’11 and Julia Silverman ’10 (see photo) created the eco-friendly ball when they all were undergraduates at Harvard College.

photo of sOccket creators: Jessica Matthews, Jessica Lin, Hemali Thakkara and Julia Silverman

sOccket creators: Jessica Matthews, Jessica Lin, Hemali Thakkara and Julia Silverman

They received funding from: Harvard Institute for Global Health and the Clinton Global Initiative University. The

sOccket won the Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Award, which recognizes the innovators and products poised to change the world. A future model could be used to charge a cell phone.

From Take part: approximately 1.5 billion people worldwide use kerosene to light their homes. “Not only is kerosene expensive, but its flames are dangerous and the smoke poses serious health risks,” says Lin. Respiratory infections account for the largest percentage of childhood deaths in developing nations—more than AIDS and malaria.

Related: High school team presenting a project they completed to create a solution to provide clean waterWater Pump Merry-go-RoundEngineering a Better World: Bike Corn-ShellerGreen Technology Innovation by College Engineering Students

Watch a June 2010 interview on the ball:
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Green Building with Tire Bales

Posted on October 5, 2010  Comments (7)

Recycling is better than throwing things away. But reuse is better than recycling. And in fact, avoiding use is best. I was at dinner with Duncan Hagar last week when he talked about the house he and his wife built in Colorado. They use tire bales and took advantage of passive solar. They have a blog with interesting details on the green house built by 2 engineers. Tire bales area form of reuse (and while some tires are recycled into asphalt and such things, most waste tires go into landfills).

A tire bale is a “big square brick” of about 100 compressed whole tires. Each bale is approximately 5 feet deep by 5 feet wide by 2.5 ft. high and weighs about 2,000 lbs. (1 ton). A tire bale (by itself) has an energy rating of somewhere between R-40 and R-200 depending on which study you read and how it’s used. The tire bales are encased in concrete, effectively making the tire bale walls of our house about 6-feet thick.

Our house uses approximately 170 full bales and about 5 half bales or about 17,000 tires. Tire bales are FREE as long as one presents a building permit. All we had to do was get the bales hauled from Sedalia to Granby Colorado, a distance of about 135 miles.

The tire bales are stacked like bricks to make up all of the outer walls. These walls form the structural integrity of the house. Shot-crete (sprayed on concrete) is applied to finish the walls, effectively creating a minimum 6-foot thick wall. The entire south of our house is glass windows and doors. This creates a large, active thermal mass, which should maintain a relatively constant temperature of 65-degrees. Imagine the energy savings!

Tire bales are not that new. They have been used for quite some time for building barns, holding river banks, and road construction. Using them for house construction is a fantastic and practical idea whose time has come.

Tire Bale Home Keeps Us Toasty Warm

The house has been warm through the winter months on sunny days, it gets as high as 84 degrees even hotter when sitting directly in the sunshine. At night the temperatures hang around 60 degrees without a fire going in the wood stove and 70-74 degrees with a fire going when outside temperatures are above 10 degrees. We have noticed that when outside temperatures dip under 10 degrees or go sub-zero, we have to really boost the heat in the house either by a constant rip-roaring fire and/or using the baseboard heaters. Fortunately, we have had a mild winter. You see, it takes about 3 years for the thermal mass to completely “heat up” and we’re just now coming into the third year. The most notable difference in the temperature of the house seems to be how much sun we get during the day and are the window coverings closed as quickly as possible when the sun sets or when the sun goes behind clouds for too long.

Related: Concrete Houses 1919 and 2007How tire bales are madeHistorical Engineering: Hanging Flumeposts on mortgages

Wall street journal video on the house and difficulty of financing unique green homes:
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NHL Experiments with the Rules of Hockey

Posted on October 3, 2010  Comments (4)

The NHL’s ice-capades

The players—who were, in an attention-getting wrinkle, mostly top junior stars eligible for the 2011 draft—road-tested everything from two-on-two overtime to shallower nets to having the second referee view the play from an elevated off-ice platform. On day two, viewers were confronted with the bizarre spectacle of the traditional five faceoff circles being replaced by three, running up the middle of the rink.

Placed in charge of the R & D effort, and the sales job surrounding it, is retired hockey great Brendan Shanahan, now the league’s vice-president of hockey and business development. “There were some ideas that were adventurous and others that were subtle,” says Shanahan, about the recent camp. “I wanted to capture the full spectrum.” Shanahan, who had the final say on the testing schedule, takes the scientist’s view that a “negative” experimental result can be as useful and instructive as a “positive” one. “Sometimes you just have to see things play out to really satisfy your curiosity,” he says. “What I told people that got sort of frightened at some of our far-out ideas is that sometimes your goal is to breathe life into an idea—but other times, you try it out because it’s time to put it to bed.”

I applaud their willingness to try experiments. I am a sports fan who doesn’t find much interest in the NHL, but I do enjoy Olympic hockey.

Related: Teen Goalie Designs Camouflage PadsEngineering a Better FootballRandomization in SportsBaseball Pitch Designed in the Lab

The DIY Movement Revives Learning by Doing

Posted on September 18, 2010  Comments (8)

School for Hackers

The ideal educational environment for kids, observes Peter Gray, a professor of psychology at Boston College who studies the way children learn, is one that includes “the opportunity to mess around with objects of all sorts, and to try to build things.” Countless experiments have shown that young children are far more interested in objects they can control than in those they cannot control—a behavioral tendency that persists. In her review of research on project-based learning (a hands-on, experience-based approach to education), Diane McGrath, former editor of the Journal of Computer Science Education, reports that project-based students do as well as (and sometimes better than) traditionally educated students on standardized tests, and that they “learn research skills, understand the subject matter at a deeper level than do their traditional counterparts, and are more deeply engaged in their work.” In The Upside of Irrationality, Dan Ariely, a behavioral psychologist at Duke University, recounts his experiments with students about DIY’s effect on well-being and concludes that creating more of the things we use in daily life measurably increases our “feelings of pride and ownership.” In the long run, it also changes for the better our patterns of thinking and learning.

Unfortunately, says Gray, our schools don’t teach kids how to make things, but instead train them to become scholars, “in the narrowest sense of the word, meaning someone who spends their time reading and writing. Of course, most people are not scholars. We survive by doing things.”

I am a big believer in fostering kids natural desire to learn by teaching through tinkering.

Related: Build Your Own Tabletop Interactive Multi-touch ComputerHome Engineering: Building a HovercraftScience Toys You Can Make With Your KidsHands-on High School Engineering Education in MinnesotaAutomatic Cat Feeder

Friday Fun: Cat Parkour

Posted on September 17, 2010  Comments (8)

When people try to match cats parkour abilities:

Related: Friday Fun: Chimpanzee and SegwayTreadmill CatsNew Yorkers Help Robot Find Its Way in the Big City

Engineering Floating Wind Farms

Posted on September 15, 2010  Comments (2)

Webcast on floating wind turbines.

Related: Sails for Modern Cargo ShipsWind Power Capacity Up 170% Worldwide from 2005-2009Tidal Turbine Farms to Power 40,000 HomesWorld’s First Commercial-Scale Subsea Turbine

Understanding the Chemistry Behind Cooking

Posted on September 12, 2010  Comments (6)

Video either broken by bigthink or their system is extremely poor causing minutes of failure to load 🙁 Removed.

The science behind cooking is very interesting. I would have been more interested in cooking if I was exposed to more of this early on in my life.

Related: The Man Who Unboiled an EggDon’t Eat What Doesn’t RotRethinking the Food Production SystemThe Calorie DelusionTracking the Ecosystem Within Us

Friday Fun: A Cat Adopts a Squirrel

Posted on September 10, 2010  Comments (3)

A mother cat adopts a squirrel into her litter.

Related: Housecat Adopts Bobcat KittensBunny and Kittens: Friday Cat FunFriday Fun: Tortoise and a Cat