Blog Society 14 August 2014

Svati Kirsten Narula at Quartz has used the New York Times' online tool Chronicle, which measures how frequently any given word or phrase has appeared in the paper since 1850, to track diet fads.

It’s possible to pinpoint exactly when the New York Times first used the phrase “gluten free” (1978) and to see that the number of articles mentioning that phrase in 2014 was triple the number in 2010.

Narula notes how fickle our nutritional fears can be:

The chart above represents a succession of diet trends from 1990 to today: first fat was the enemy, then carbohydrates were, and now gluten is the most controversial substance in America’s ongoing nutrition hysterics.

Earlier, the New York Times economics reporter Neil Irwin examined the rise and fall of the popularity of certain specific foods - 1996 was the year with the most mentions of "fried calamari", a phrase that first appeared in the paper in 1975.

Blog Space 13 August 2014
ROGR the robot is put through his paces at the University of Colorado
NASA/Bob Granath

Researchers at the University of Colorado have produced a robot that could be both gardener and butler to pioneering astronauts.

The Remotely Operated Gardening Rover (ROGR) will tend plants on a space station or colony on Mars as well as doing the cleaning and delivering food to the astronauts.

ROGR is a small wheeled robot designed to wander a space station tending to remotely monitored plants that would be scattered throughout a space station, placed wherever there is room for them. This concept earned the overall project its name: "Plants Anywhere: Plants Growing in Free Habitat Spaces." But that system would require automated control as Nature World News explains:

The idea of having plants virtually everywhere - making use of forgotten nooks and crannies - is also more easily integrated into a space station, as opposed to crafting a whole new facility or section... Of course, no one astronaut would ever be asked to keep track of every plant, especially if they would be so scattered.

Roger is part of the university's contribution to NASA's eXploration HABitat (X-Hab) Academic Innovation Challenge – an initiative to prepare for future deep-space missions.

Our next issue of Cosmos magazine is devoted to the wonderful world of robots that is about to revolutionise almost everything we do.

Blog Mathematics 13 August 2014
Stanford's Maryam Mirzakhani makes history today.

Maryam Mirzakhani, a professor of mathematics at Stanford, has been awarded the 2014 Fields Medal – often dubbed the "Nobel Prize of mathematics". She is the first woman to win the prize since it was established in 1936.

Officially known as the International Medal for Outstanding Discoveries in Mathematics, the Fields Medal will be presented by the International Mathematics Union at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Seoul later today.

Mirzakhani's specialises in the fields of geometry and dynamical systems, particularly in understanding the symmetry of curved surfaces, such as spheres, the surfaces of doughnuts and of hyperbolic objects. While mostly theoretical, it has implications for physics and quantum field theory, Stanford said in a news release.

The work ... could have impacts concerning the theoretical physics of how the universe came to exist and, because it could inform quantum field theory, secondary applications to engineering and material science. Within mathematics, it has implications for the study of prime numbers and cryptography. Despite the breadth of applications of her work, Mirzakhani said she enjoys pure mathematics because of the elegance and longevity of the questions she studies.

Mirzakhani was born and raised in Tehran and at first wanted to be a writer until her mathematical talent became plain in high school.

"It is fun – it's like solving a puzzle or connecting the dots in a detective case," she says.

Blog Space 12 August 2014
Perseid Visibility Map for 2014

The early hours of tomorrow morning is the best time to see the Perseid meteor shower as the Earth travels through the debris that lies in the path of the Swift-Tuttle comet. But where is the best place?

The show is so named because the meteors appear to radiate from the constellation Perseus and it happens every year from mid-July, peaking between 9 and 14 August when more than 60 meteors an hour streak through the night sky.

Here's a handy map from NASA which shows where you can see the fireworks – unfortunately for Melbourne, the home of Cosmos, there will be none. You'll have to tell us what it was like.

The Perseids are best seen in the Northern Hemisphere or the higher latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere – further south than about Brisbane and Perseus is just too close to the horizon to see much of anything.

But for the REAL ringside seat you have to go to space. Astronauts aboard the International Space Station see the meteors streak past almost at eye level.

NASA analysed Ron Garan's photo of a fireball below and believes it was caused by a piece of debris only 1 centimeter in diameter colliding with the Earth's atmosphere at more than 200,000 kph.

A Perseid meteor as photographed by Ron Garan while aboard the International Space Station on 13 August 2011.
Ron Garan/NASA

Blog Technology 12 August 2014

What with years of research – not to mention Discovery Channel's Shark Week coming round with such regularity – you'd think we knew all there was to know about sharks. But it seems there is still a lot we have to learn about even basic behaviour of the animals.

A new project by biologists from the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology and the University of Tokyo's Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute follows the lead of the GoPro brigade – they strapped a camera on a shark's back to see what happened. The results are "as awesome as you’d expect".

The cams recorded Hawaiian sandbar sharks diving in close formation (see video) with other species (including hammerheads and blacktip reef sharks) and chasing members of the opposite sex. The team had never seen multiple shark species congregating. “This is our first ever shark's-eye view,” says ecologist Carl Meyer.

Blog Geoscience 11 August 2014

New Zealand's Earthquake Commission has tested structural systems that would stabilise the soil to stop the liquefaction that can cause so much damage to buildings during an earthquake. They set off a a fake quake in a Christchurch suburb, abandoned after the devastating 2011 disaster, by packing the earth with 400kg of gelignite and blowing it up.

The commission tested four foundation types – mixing soil with cement; using a grid of stone pillars; an underground concrete perimeter wall; and soil compaction.

Gizmodo reports that the results were promising, quoting environmental and town planning group NextCity

The methods appeared to work. The liquefaction that was produced after the explosions seemed less intense than without the stabilisation system. The columns confined the effects of liquefaction, and the denser ground meant the houses appeared to be stable on the earth.

The final results are still being internationally peer reviewed but the methods have already been transferred to a pilot program for landowners who have been stuck in limbo. Both insurers and builders have been reluctant to risk rebuilding on unstable land. For some, these techniques should change that.

Blog Technology 11 August 2014
The iKnife in a demonstration as it sucks in the smoke from the cauterised tissue
MTI/AP/Sang Tan

And you thought that surgery was the biological equivalent of carpentry… Maybe, but it is getting more sophisticated.

When it comes to cancer surgery the goal is to remove the entire tumour, but no more. The difficulty is that at the edges of the tumour it is difficult to distinguish cancerous tissue from normal tissue, so after the operation the surgeon sends the tumour to the pathology lab for inspection under a microscope.

If the edges are not clean the patient often needs repeat surgery or additional radiation therapy. It is estimated additional surgery is needed in one of five cases after partial mastectomy to treat breast cancer.

Imperial College UK has developed an electrosurgical knife – known as the iKnife – that can determine whether the tissue being cut is cancerous.

The technology is a novel combination of two well established techniques. The first, developed in the 1920s and known as electrosurgery, uses a high frequency high voltage electric current to rapidly heat tissue, simultaneously cutting through it and sealing the blood vessels so that there is minimal blood loss. The second, developed in the early 1900s, is mass spectroscopy, an exquisitely sensitive means to identify proteins in samples.

The electrosurgical knife generates a smoke trail as it burns through the tissue. The iKnife rapidly sucks in the protein rich smoke and determines within three seconds whether there are protein traces unique to the cancer cells or not.

With this information, the surgeon can precisely remove just the right amount of tissue at the edges of the tumour to maximise the likelihood of eliminating the cancer without removing any more healthy tissue than is absolutely necessary. Bringing together two well-established technologies, the iKnife is another effective weapon in the war against cancer.

Blog Society 11 August 2014
Australian Academy of Science

Women in science often get little recognition for their work but the the Australian Academy of Science is hoping to change that this Thursday 14 August with a "wikibomb".

Participants will gather at the academy's HQ in Canberra and build pages for those Australian women in science who’ve made an outstanding contribution but have scant or no presence on Wikipedia.

"As well as publicly acknowledging their work, we want to inspire today’s children," the Academy says.

Registration is now closed unfortunately but you can follow the event on Twitter Follow us through Twitter on @Science_Academy #ozwomensci

Blog Technology 08 August 2014

IBM has unveiled a new kind of computer chip that mimics the way the human brain works, using a fraction of the energy of a conventional microprocessor. It's not as good at crunching numbers as a conventional chip, but much better at processing images, sound, and other sensory data, MIT Technology Review reports.

In a demonstration at IBM’s Almaden research center, MIT Technology Review saw one recognize cars, people, and bicycles in video of a road intersection. A nearby laptop that had been programed to do the same task processed the footage 100 times slower than real time, and it consumed 100,000 times as much power as the IBM chip. IBM researchers are now experimenting with connecting multiple SyNapse chips together, and they hope to build a supercomputer using thousands.

Named "SyNapse", the chip uses silicon transistors but processes information using a network of a million or so “neurons” and "synapses", which communicate with each another using electrical spikes in a similar way to real neurons. It doesn’t have separate memory and processing blocks, because its neurons and synapses combine the two functions.

The new processor requires an entirely new approach to programming, however, which the MIT Technology Review says could be a drawback to it becoming commercially viable.

IBM’s Dharmendra S. Modha, who heads up SyNapse, discusses the new approach, system architecture and programming in the video above.

Blog Mathematics 08 August 2014

Our friends over at RiAus have produced a great short video this week, which explains those mysterious traffic jams when everything stops dead but there is no accident or other visible reason for the hold-up. As with most things the answer lies with mathematics.

They also have some interesting links from their website to further information about the science of traffic jams, a discipline known as "jamology".