Thursday, 31 December 2015


Standout science and technology in 2015
By Noel McKeegan,
Gizmag, 30 December 2015.

The blistering advance of technology we are experiencing in the 21st century is nothing short of mind-boggling, and the rate of change being exponential, 2015 was by definition the busiest year yet. So before the Gregorian calendar keels over into 2016, let's take a wander through some of the year's most significant, salutary and attention-grabbing examples of scientific achievement, technological innovation and human endeavor.

1. From the lab


It's been over a century since Einstein postulated the wave/particle duality of light, but it wasn't until earlier this year that was directly observed by EPFL researchers, who captured the phenomena by using a sophisticated electron imaging technique.

Across the Atlantic geochemists discovered that life on Earth started hundreds of millions of years earlier than previously thought, engineers figured out how to make 3D objects from the much-vaunted wonder material graphene, and physicists set a new distance record for quantum teleportation of information over optical fibres.


Audi created a stir with the creations of synthetic diesel from just water and carbon dioxide, as did UAB researchers when they created the first experimental wormhole that links two regions of space magnetically. But perhaps the oddest thing to emerge from the lab in 2015 was an unboiled egg, which may or may not go well with a newly discovered strain of seaweed that tastes like bacon.

2. Getting quite brainy


While the ability to fully map the human brain may be some way off, if it's even possible at all, our ability to both understand and imitate its complexities took some serious strides forward in 2015. Examples include the development of a brain imaging tool that can see all of the brain's cellular objects and many of their sub-cellular components, a lab grown "brain organoid" equivalent in size and structure to that of a five-week old foetus, intelligence boosting gene therapy (for mice only at this stage), successfully using brainwaves to help a paralyzed man walk again and an array of new approaches to combating cognitive disorders like Alzheimer's disease.


Fifty years after Moore's Law was conceived, there were many advances that could ensure computing power continues to accelerate exponentially, including the use of memresistors to create advanced computers that function like the human brain. News of the first biologically-powered computer chip emerged just this month and the long-sought goal of practical quantum computing also crept closer on several fronts, with breakthroughs such as photonic processors, quantum hard drives and silicon-based quantum logic gates.

3. Celebrating space


2015 saw a string of stunning achievements in space exploration, but it is most likely to be remembered as the year we got to Pluto - at least, the New Horizons probe did, sending back beautiful, invaluable images and data from the dwarf planet and its moons some 3 billion miles away.


Some significant space anniversaries also passed in 2015, namely 25-years since the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope and half a century since the first space walk.

But the biggest thing in space this year was the biggest thing in space - a newly-discovered ring of nine galaxies 7 billion light years away and 5 billion light years wide that covers a third of our sky.

In skies closer to home, the age of commercial space flight rolled on with SpaceX providing the clear highlight by successfully nailing the first landing of an orbital space booster rocket earlier this month.

4. Printing the future


While 3D printing had already moved well beyond plastic trinkets, 2015 saw it begin to show its true potential as an industrial process. Perhaps more accurately described as "additive manufacturing" in this context, we saw this process used to create the first 3D-printed jet engine, the first FAA approved jet engine part, and a jet-powered unmanned aerial vehicle that can reach speeds of up to 150 mph (240 km/h). Add in a variety of body parts, including replacement titanium sternum and rib cage, teeth, hair, houses, bricks and cars, and you begin to get the picture of just how far-reaching this technology is set to become.


Our pick for the most thought-provoking object to emerge from a 3D printer this year is Mushtari - a 3D-printed photosynthetic wearable embedded with living bacteria designed to produce sugars or bio-fuel when exposed to light. Conceived as a kind of living spacesuit, this wearable microbiome would act like an organ system to ingest biomass, absorb nutrients, and then eject waste products when exploring other worlds.

5. Robots evolve


Perhaps the most unnerving news from the world of robotics this year came from the University of Cambridge, where researchers created a mother robot that can not only build its own children, but mimic the process of natural selection to improve their capabilities with each generation.


Despite this slightly depressing news, watching the world's most advanced robots struggle to open doors at the DARPA robotics challenge finals does suggest we have a little way to go before robot armageddon strikes - though we shouldn't dismiss that scenario, as we were reminded in July when over 1,000 robotics and artificial intelligence researchers urged the UN to ban on the development of weaponized AI. We also saw the beginnings of another, somewhat surprising element of AI begin to take shape - the creative potential of robots as painters, musicians, architects and storytellers.

6. High energy


This year saw renewable energy overtake coal in the UK's energy mix, Portland install water pipes in that generate their own electricity, the Wendelstein 7-x experimental fusion reactor fire up and solar energy - particularly cheap Perovskite cells - continue to advance, but innovations in the energy storage arena also grabbed our attention at Gizmag. Tesla unveiled its home battery storage system, Daimler and Nissan gave used EV batteries a second lease of life and solar energy and a number of promising new battery technologies made headlines, including lithium-air batteries, flow batteries and energy dense hybrid supercapacitors.

7. Recorded history


Finally, let's see out the year with a quick look at some of the record-breaking feats that 2015 delivered. The world's thinnest light-bulb was created using (surprise, surprise) graphene, the largest astronomical image of all time - at 46-billion pixels - was complied, a robot walked 83 miles in 54 hours, a maglev train hit 375 mph (603 km/h), Stuttgart University students took an EV from 0-62 mph (100 km/h) in a blistering 1.779 seconds, and a Canadian cyclist clocked 85.71 mph (137.9 km/h) to set a new world record for human-powered speed.

Of course, we've only just scratched the surface when it comes to significant moments in science and technology, let alone the biggest news of the year across the many fields that Gizmag covers, so for a closer look at more of the best 2015 had to offer, follow these links:

Top image: Super-close-up reconstructed view of a mouse brain with the synaptic vesicles (little white dots that store neurotransmitters) visible. Credit: Harvard University.

[Source: Gizmag. Edited.]


10 Terrifying Ways To Become Trapped In Your Own Body
By Ellen B Weiss,
Listverse, 31 December 2015.

Most of us are accustomed to having control of our physical selves. We take for granted that we can make our bodies move about the world as we command them to. But what if that wasn’t the case? What if you remained conscious but were unable to move, communicate, or even breathe on your own?

We’ve talked about sleep paralysis before, a condition that subjects victims to horrifying hallucinations. And today, we’re looking at 10 more terrifying ways that you can become trapped in your own body.

10. Periodic Paralysis

Periodic paralyses are genetic disorders characterized by episodes of sudden muscular paralysis. These frightening attacks are caused by abnormal ion channels in muscle tissue. Due to these malfunctioning channels, potassium is unable to flow into or out of cells, leading to low (hypokalemic) or high (hyperkalemic) blood levels.

Muscles then become flaccid and useless, leaving sufferers immobilized for minutes to hours. Attacks are caused by common triggers - heat, cold, exercise, and high carb or high sodium meals - that affect potassium movement into cells. Although these frightening episodes can start within minutes, sufferers who adjust their lifestyles can limit the frequency of attacks. Fortunately, episodes are reversible with treatment of abnormal potassium levels, and most cases aren’t fatal.

9. Tick Paralysis


Lyme disease has taken center stage when it comes to awareness of tick-borne illnesses. However, there’s another terrifying disorder than can result from a tick’s bite: tick paralysis. Unlike other tick-related diseases, this one isn’t caused by infectious organisms. Instead, it’s caused by a neurotoxin released by the parasite’s saliva.

Weakness begins to set in within several days after the initial bite. Soon, the victim starts to suffer from profound paralysis, respiratory failure, and possible death. Tick paralysis is ascending, beginning in the lower limbs and moving upward toward the trunk. Removal of the tick causes complete and rapid reversal of all symptoms...if it’s discovered in time.

Tick paralysis is most common in children, but it can strike at any age. This disorder is actually found in many places around in the world. As for North America, tick paralysis is most common in the northwestern, southeastern, and Rocky Mountain states.

8. ALS

Skip to 2:20 to hear Hawking discuss his condition.

One of the most feared and gruesome of all progressive illnesses is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, after the famous baseball player who died of the condition. ALS causes irreversible loss of control of the body over the course of months or years. The degeneration is due to the death of motor neurons, the cells that signal movement to muscles.

Early symptoms may only involve mild weakness, slurred speech, or twitching. However, patients are slowly locked inside their bodies, losing their ability to control any movement. In the inevitable conclusion, unlucky victims are unable to even speak or swallow. They’re completely dependent upon others for total care.

Devastatingly, both sensation and the mind are left intact, leaving the patient helplessly aware of their imprisonment. Most victims eventually succumb to the inability to breathe. Aside from supportive care, there is no effective way to treat, cure, or reverse ALS. However, not everyone succumbs to ALS so quickly. Despite the common name of the disease, the most famous sufferer is renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, who has surpassed typical survival expectations by decades.

7. Transverse Myelitis

Transverse myelitis is an inflammation of the spinal cord. Horrifyingly, it can cause devastating paralysis within mere hours. Early symptoms include weakness, tingling, and loss of both bowel and bladder control. These continue to worsen in the following hours, days, and weeks until the patient may be totally paralyzed. Causes of the inflammation vary from infections to immune disorders that trigger the body to attack the spinal cord. On some rare occasions, the condition is caused by the body’s reaction to certain vaccines.

Treatment involves supporting the patient’s breathing and functioning while waiting for the inflammation to subside. Steroids and anti-inflammatory medications may assist in recovery. Most patients go on to recover some functioning, but others are left seriously disabled for life.

6. Curare Poisoning

Photo via Wikimedia

Curare is a paralyzing poison long used by natives of Central and South America. The substance is applied to arrows and used to fell game. Humans also succumb when exposed to the poison. Chillingly, victims experience total relaxation of the skeletal muscles while remaining completely aware of their situation. In other words, they’re unable to gesture or call out for help.

A fatal dose causes death by respiratory failure in less than half an hour. Curare is extracted from the bark of certain South American plants. Fortunately for enterprising hunters, it has no effect when eaten, so animals killed with poisoned arrows remain edible.

The paralyzing effects of curare were exploited by anesthetists in the 20th century. They used the toxin to relax muscles and immobilize patients during surgery. In fact, the poison induces such dramatic effects that it has made frequent appearance in mystery novels, such as the work of best-selling mystery writer Agatha Christie.

5. High-Level Quadriplegia


The spinal cord is responsible for relaying messages from the brain to nerves throughout the body so that movements and functions are made possible. If the spinal cord is damaged by injury or illness, sensation and bodily control are limited or destroyed. Lesions can be found anywhere on the spine from the lumbar (lower back) to the torso (thoracic) to the cervical (upper back and neck) vertebra. The higher up the lesion is on the spine, the more body area is affected.

In the worst cases of quadriplegia (when cervical vertebrae are seriously damaged), patients can be left unable to move, unable to control bodily functions, or unable feel any sensation except in limited regions of the head or face. The condition is often permanent, and victims must rely on caretakers and medical devices. Ventilators breathe for those who can’t, and aides assist with daily living tasks such as eating and toileting. In most instances, the mind is unaffected.

4. Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning


A succulent meal can turn dangerous when biotoxin-producing algae accumulate in the bivalves on our plate. Paralytic shellfish poison is created by some species of microscopic algae, which are then eaten by hinged shellfish such as oysters, clams, and mussels. When consumed by humans, the toxin’s effects on the nervous system can cause symptoms from minor tingling to complete paralysis. In deadly cases, the unlucky patron is rendered totally unable to move or breathe in 30 minutes to 12 hours.

Unfortunately, there is no antidote to shellfish poisoning, so sufferers can only receive supportive care such as CPR and artificial ventilation until the toxin is naturally cleared by their body.

3. Succinylcholine


Succinylcholine is safely used each day during surgical procedures to paralyze patients. This drug causes total muscle relaxation. Unfortunately, when insufficient doses of sedatives are used, paralyzing agents like succinylcholine are also the drugs responsible for anesthesia awareness.

But exposure to succinylcholine and its terrifying effects has a sinister history. In the 1960s and 1970s, this drug was used as an experimental form of aversion therapy. In the ’60s, patients in Atascadero State Hospital - a maximum security clinic for mentally ill and criminally insane males that is still open - were chosen for therapy if they exhibited “acting out” behaviors. Succinylcholine was administered with the goal of initiating paralysis...and a brief (one-minute) period of apnea (breathing cessation). Patients remained completely conscious but totally helpless as doctors lectured them about their behavioral issues.

2. Akinetic Mutism


A rare result of brain diseases such as strokes and brain tumors, akinetic mustim causes patients to remain conscious but unable to will movement or speech. Patients appear to be apathetic, mute, and expressionless. However, they are actually alert and may visually follow the movement and instructions of their care givers. A patient interviewed by the famous Dr. Oliver Sacks explained that for each attempt to will movement, a “counter will” rose to meet and foil them.

The condition results from damage or disease in the frontal lobe, the part of the brain necessary for decision making and fluent speech. It is also a symptom of the infamous Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, otherwise known as human mad cow disease.

1. Locked-In Syndrome

Photo via Wikimedia

Like a dreadful nightmare, people with locked-in syndrome can appear to be completely comatose despite retaining their cognitive abilities. Due to brainstem lesions, locked-in patients can be permanently rendered unable to even open their eyes, trapped in their own mind by a useless and stubbornly unresponsive body.

Sometimes, victims remain able to communicate by blinking or moving their eyes. In one famous instance, journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby suffered a stroke and awoke from a coma 20 days later to find himself unable to move save for his left eyelid. By blinking when the correct letter was reached by an aide reading the alphabet, Bauby was able to methodically write his acclaimed autobiography about his experiences: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

Modern technology - such as CT scans, MRI, and EEG - has allowed the discovery of consciousness in some patients who were previously assumed to be comatose. Researchers are hopeful that future advances will allow patients to communicate more effectively via brain computer interfacing, a process that would allow a person’s mere thoughts to manipulate a computer.

Top image: Sleep paralysis. Credit: Gerard Van der Leun/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

[Source: Listverse. Edited. Top image added.]


What Happens to the Human Body in Space?
What Happens to the Human Body in Space?
By Casey Chan,
Sploid, 30 December 2015.

Gravity does a number on your body. But in space with zero gravity, your body changes and reacts differently than it does on Earth. So what happens to your body in Space? As astronaut Leland Melvin tells it, you actually gain an inch of height! Also, your heart gets a little bit smaller while changing shape, your bones become brittle, and your eyesight gets all funky. But it’s all absolutely worth it because like, space.

[Source: Sploid.]


Top 10 Weirdest Animal Stories of 2015 - Editors’ Picks
By Christine Dell'Amore,
National Geographic News, 14 December 2015.

From real-life sea monsters to vampire crabs, 2015 was legendary for odd science.

For our biggest fans of the bizarre, we've selected the year's weirdest animal stories, which you can explore in this gallery. (See the weirdest animal stories of 2014.)

Number ten on our list is Geosesarma dennerle and Geosesarma hagen, two new species of vampire crab found on the Indonesian island of Java (map).

So named because of their glowing yellow eyes, vampire crabs have become popular pets, but the origin of some of these spooky-looking crustaceans had previously been cloaked in mystery, according to a March study. (Also see "Pictures: New Purple Crab Species Found.")

Read on for more of Mother Nature's odd phenomena.

10. New Vampire Crabs


A newfound species of vampire crab, Geosesarma dennerle, is an aquarium pet. In March, researchers announced they'd traced the freshwater crab, as well as a related species, back to its wild source in Southeast Asia.

9. Snake Escapes Snake


A snake remarkably escaped from a larger snake that swallowed it whole on the Greek island of Corfu, revealed by photographs published in January but taken in 2011. Such a getaway is rare - herpetologist Andrew Gray knows of only one other example.

8. Real-Life "Sea Monster"


A mysterious deep-sea creature called an oarfish washed ashore on Catalina Island, California, on June 1. Although oarfish were likely the source of many historic tales of sea serpents and monsters, they are not dangerous to people.

7. Dancing Peacock Spiders


In March, scientists identified three new species of peacock spiders in eastern Australia, two of which got amusing nicknames of Skeletorus and Sparklemuffin (pictured). Peacock spider males are known for their bright colours and a rolling-shaking mating dance.

6. Lizard Grows a Third Tail


Spotted in June in Kosovo, this blue-throated keeled lizard has three tails, likely a glitch in its regeneration process. The freak individual, besides being a first in the species, is among only a handful of triple-tailed lizards recorded worldwide.

5. Rare Moonfish Sighting


A photographer got a lucky shot of an opah, or moonfish, off southern California in 2014, we reported in February. The manhole-size fish is little known and rarely seen, though more have been mysteriously appearing recently in California, experts say.

4. "Kermit" Frog Found


A new species of see-through glass frog found in Costa Rica looks just like Kermit, scientists announced in February. Dubbed Diane's Bare-hearted glass frog, the amphibian has an insect-like whistle, which may be why it went unnoticed for so long.

3. "Corpse Bride" Lizard


A scientist stumbled upon a male black-and-white tegu trying to mate with a dead female in Brazil, we reported in February. Necrophilia occurs in other lizard species, but it's the first recorded instance in this common South American lizard.

2. Sea Bunnies


No, this isn't a tiny ocean-dwelling rabbit. The creature that elicited "awwws" on the Internet in July is a type of sea slug called Jorunna parva. Less than an inch (2.5 centimeters) long, they live in the Indo-Pacific Ocean.

1. "Teddy Bear" Rediscovered


For more than 20 years, the Ili pika, a type of tiny, mountain-dwelling mammal with a teddy bear face, had eluded scientists in China's Tianshan Mountains. In 2014 a team rediscovered the unbelievably cute critter, we reported in March.

Photo gallery by Yodith Dammlash.

[Source: National Geographic News. Edited.]


8 forward-thinking vehicles to propel us into 2016
By Nick Lavars,
Gizmag, 29 December 2015.

The continued minituarization of electronics, advances in materials technology, a growing emphasis on clean, sustainable modes of transport and imaginative thinkers with out-of-the-box ideas have converged to give us some truly audacious vehicle designs over the past 12 months. Some are certainly more practical than others, but from personal tricopters to amphibious motorcycles this new breed of personal mobility solutions offers a tantalizing glimpse into how we might be getting from A to B in the future. As we head into a new year with new possibilities, let's take a look at some that could have a role to play in shaping the future of transport.

1. The WalkCar electric rolling pad


Imagine an aluminium pad not much larger than your laptop that can be easily lugged around in your bag, and then when you encounter a stretch of smooth concrete you can whip it out and be zipped along at up to 10 km/h (6.2 mph). Granted that's not a great deal faster than walking speed, but with a built-in battery, small footprint and four tiny wheels, the ultra-portable WalkCar from Japan's Cocoa Motors shows what might be achieved with a less-is-more approach.

2. The world's lightest electric skateboard


Electric skateboards came thick and fast in 2015. While different manufacturers have focused on different characteristics, be it power, all-terrain ability or range, one of the more important aspects is undeniably weight. A featherlight electric skateboard that weighs no more than an unpowered one might not be possible yet, but the Stary is the closest thing you'll get at the moment. It weighs just 3.9 kg (8.6 lb), goes 16 km (10 mi) on each charge and can hit speeds of 30 km/h (18.6 mph).

3. The Gogoro battery-swapping Smart Scooter


Brimming with 30 sensors and accompanied by a smartphone app where users can customize things like throttle control and regenerative braking, the electric Gogoro Smart Scooter is impressive in itself. But there's some big-picture thinking behind this particular urban vehicle. It cannot be charged via a wall outlet, rather it stays on the move through a network of battery exchange kiosks placed strategically around urban centers. In the year since debuting at CES in January, Gogoro has been successfully been trialed in Taiwan and then expanded into Europe. One to watch.

4. The auto-folding INU electric scooter


Another approach to electrical two-wheelers, the INU scooter counts on a smartphone-controlled folding system that packs the vehicle down into a transport-friendly, golf buggy-like form in just 4.5 seconds. We spied this funky little number at the Frankfurt Motor Show in October and though it is far from the only foldable scooter doing the rounds, its 40 km (25 mi) range, 25 km/h (15.5 mph) top speed and polished, user-friendly design make for a tastefully packaged commuting option.

5. All kinds of adventure squeezed into a single backpack


Those taking to the great outdoors are not safe from the clutches of transformative vehicle design either. The Klepper Backyak can be hoisted over the shoulder when en route to a range of adventurous activities and be converted into a kayak, sailboat, snow sled or floating sun deck when you reach your destination. Now that's versatility.

6. A motorcycle you can ride straight into a lake and out again


What do you get when you combine a 55-horsepower motorcycle and a small jet ski in the one machine? Probably a whole lot of fun. The Biski from serial amphibious vehicle maker Alan Gibbs can hit speeds of 129 km/h (80 mph) on land and then when you roll up to shore, switch to jet ski mode in around five seconds to bound across the water at up to 60 km/h (37 mph).

7. A jetpack you could buy and fly now (well, technically)


Our collective pursuit of personal, backpack-powered flight received a nice little nudge in November, when aviator David Mayman circled the Statue of Liberty in his JB-9 jetpack. It burns through fuel at around a gallon (3.8 L) a minute to offer a flight time of over 10 minutes, and though Mayman says he has had multi-million dollar offers for the jetpack and could technically start selling a modified version in the ultralight category tomorrow, he feels a certain responsibility about where it might take over-enthusiastic pilots.

"I'd wanna feel like we have an infrastructure to train them," Mayman told us last month. "We could technically just send them the unit in a box and say 'good luck' but it's not necessarily going to end well if you're doing 200 km/h (124 mph), 5 feet (1.5 m) off the ground, you know? It could be a monster. But we're working on it. We'll get there."

So the wait continues, but it appears there's a light at the end of the tunnel.

8. A flying bicycle


Just like the maker of the JB-9, the a team of Hungarian researchers are looking to the skies to usher in a new form of transport. Its Flike tricopter is designed to allow 15 to 20 minutes of hover flight or 30 to 40 minutes of cruise flight. In manned testing back in May, the team took an important step forward demonstrating the vehicle's ability to hover, perform manoeuvres and compensate for wind. Though a market-ready tricopter is still a ways off, the team is buoyed by its early success and is now working towards a second prototype that will feature similar capabilities to that of its planned commercial model.

Where to from here?

So there you have it, a look at some of the more eye-catching developments in transport to cross our desks over the past year. Some can be ordered now, some may be available soon and some may just continue to tease us (we're looking at you, jetpack). But all of these demonstrate an imaginative approach to moving people around and with that, contribute to progress in their own way. What will that mean for 2016? Perhaps an affordable, functioning hoverboard? A working Hyperloop? Let us know your thoughts on the future of urban transport in the comments below.

[Source: Gizmag. Edited.]