Engineers at MIT have designed an autonomous robot with "socially aware navigation," that can keep pace with foot traffic while observing these general codes of pedestrian conduct.


Science Over the Edge

A Roundup of Strange Science for the Month

September/October 2017

In the News:

New Robot Rolls with the Rules of Pedestrian Road - Just as drivers observe the rules of the road, most pedestrians follow certain social codes when navigating a hallway or a crowded thoroughfare: Keep to the right, pass on the left, maintain a respectable berth, etc. Now engineers at MIT have designed an autonomous robot with "socially aware navigation," that can keep pace with foot traffic while observing these general codes of pedestrian conduct. "Socially aware navigation is a central capability for mobile robots operating in environments that require frequent interactions with pedestrians," says Yu Fan "Steven" Chen, who led the work as a former MIT graduate student and is the lead author of the study. "For instance, small robots could operate on sidewalks for package and food delivery. Similarly, personal mobility devices could transport people in large, crowded spaces, such as shopping malls, airports, and hospitals."

Study Suggests that the Sun is Indeed a Typical Solar Type Star-- resolving an ongoing controversy about whether the star at the center of our Solar System exhibits the same cyclic behavior as other nearby, solar-type stars. The results also advance scientists' understanding of how stars generate their magnetic fields. The Sun's activity -- including changes in the number of sunspots, levels of radiation and ejection of material - varies on an eleven-year cycle, driven by changes in its magnetic field. Understanding this cycle is one of the biggest outstanding problems in solar physics, in part because it does not appear to match magnetic cycles observed on other solar-type stars -- leading some to suggest the Sun is fundamentally different. Here, by carrying out a series of simulations of stellar magnetic fields, Antoine Strugarek and colleagues show that the Sun's magnetic cycle depends on its rotation rate and luminosity. This relationship can be expressed in terms of the so-called Rossby number; they show that the magnetic cycle of the Sun is inversely proportional to this number. Comparing the results of their simulations with available observations of cyclic activity in a sample of nearby solar-type stars, the authors further find that the cycle periods of the Sun and other solar-type stars all follow the same relationship with the Rossby number. The results demonstrate that the Sun is indeed a solar-type star.

Bronze Age Box My Help Trace Ancient Food Supply - A Bronze Age wooden container found in an ice patch at 2,650m in the Swiss Alps could help archaeologists shed new light on the spread and exploitation of cereal grains following a chance discovery. The team of archaeologists were expecting to find a milk residue left behind in the container -- perhaps from a porridge-type meal wolfed down by a hunter or herder making their way through a snowy Alpine pass. But instead they discovered lipid-based biomarkers for whole wheat or rye grain, called alkylresorcinols. The team say the discovery of these biomarkers in the residue could be used as a new tool to help archaeologists map and trace the development of early farming in Eurasia. Dr André Colonese, from BioArCh, Department of Archaeology, University of York, said : "We didn't find any evidence of milk, but we found these phenolic lipids, which have never been reported before in an archaeological artefact, but are abundant in the bran of wheat and rye cereals and considered biomarkers of wholegrain intake in nutritional studies. This is an extraordinary discovery if you consider that of all domesticated plants, wheat is the most widely grown crop in the world and the most important food grain source for humans, lying at the core of many contemporary culinary traditions."

Galactic David and Goliath - The gravitational dance between two galaxies in our local neighborhood has led to intriguing visual features in both as witnessed in this new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image. The tiny NGC 1510 and its colossal neighbor NGC 1512 are at the beginning of a lengthy merger, a crucial process in galaxy evolution. Despite its diminutive size, NGC 1510 has had a significant effect on NGC 1512's structure and amount of star formation. Galaxies come in a range of shapes and sizes, and astronomers use this fact to classify them based on their appearance. NGC 1512, the large galaxy to the left in this image, is classified as a barred spiral, named after the bar composed of stars, gas and dust slicing through its centre. The tiny NGC 1510 to the right, on the other hand, is a dwarf galaxy. Despite their very different sizes, each galaxy affects the other through gravity, causing slow changes in their appearances. The bar in NGC 1512 acts as a cosmic funnel, channeling the raw materials required for star formation from the outer ring into the heart of the galaxy. This pipeline of gas and dust in NGC 1512 fuels intense star birth in the bright, blue, shimmering inner disc known as a circumnuclear starburst ring, which spans 2400 light-years. Both the bar and the starburst ring are thought to be at least in part the result of the cosmic scuffle between the two galaxies -- a merger that has been going on for 400 million years.

New light-activated catalyst grabs CO2 to make ingredients for fuel - Scientists have developed a light-activated material that can chemically convert carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide without generating unwanted byproducts. The achievement marks a significant step forward in developing technology that could help generate fuel and other energy-rich products using a solar-powered catalyst while mitigating levels of a potent greenhouse gas. When exposed to visible light, the material, a "spongy" nickel organic crystalline structure, converted the carbon dioxide (CO2) in a reaction chamber exclusively into carbon monoxide (CO) gas, which can be further turned into liquid fuels, solvents, and other useful products. An international research team led by scientists at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore published the work July 28 in the journal Science Advances. "We show a near 100 percent selectivity of CO production, with no detection of competing gas products like hydrogen or methane," said Haimei Zheng, staff scientist in Berkeley Lab's Materials Sciences Division and co-corresponding author of the study. "That's a big deal. In carbon dioxide reduction, you want to come away with one product, not a mix of different things."


Science Quote of the Month - “The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it.” - Neil deGrasse Tyson


What's New at the Museum:

The Universal Monsters - The year was 1923 and the film was "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." The movie, based on the classic book by Victor Hugo, was made by a studio named Universal and would be the first of a series of films that for more than the next three decades would, in equal measure, horrify and delight filmgoers. Full Story

Mysterious Picture of the Month - What is this this?

Ask the Curator:

A WOW in SETI - What do you know about the WOW signal, and have scientists found any possible source (other than aliens)? Could it have even been faked? Or is it more likely to be a genuine signal from aliens? If that's the case, why haven't we heard any more? - Jonathan .

This signal (called the "WOW" signal because that's what the scientist who first saw the data wrote on the printout) was observed by the "Big Ear" radio telescope at Ohio State University on August 15, 1977. The Big Ear was part of a SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project run by the college for almost 30 years. The signal was the closest thing to an alien contact that the project - or anybody else involved in SETI - has ever found.

There are several things that make the signal so interesting. The first is the strength. It is extremely high: The most powerful signal ever received from space from an unknown source. Second is its duration. Almost exactly 72 seconds. This is significant because the Big Ear was a fixed radio antenna which swept the sky as the earth turned and 72 seconds was exactly the length of time it would take for the antenna to sweep by a pinpoint source in space. Also the growth and decay pattern of the signal is exactly what one would expect for a fixed celestial source, making it unlikely it was an earthbound transmitter. Third is its frequency: It is very near the frequency of hydrogen and very concentrated. The hydrogen "line" is considered to be by most scientists the logical frequency to choose if you where trying to broadcast to another civilization. The fact that that signal did not extend much above or below that frequency is a strong indication that the broadcast was artificial, as natural sources a rarely so concentrated.

Another intriguing aspect of this signal is that is that it was only observed from one of the Big Ear's two "horns" but not the other. They scanned the same section of sky about two minutes apart, so in that short period something, or somebody, stopped the transmission.

As fascinating as the signal was, it has never been found again despite many researchers revisiting that location in the sky using, in many cases, much more sensitive equipment. This both deepens the mystery and makes it almost impossible to hope for a solution. The follow up surveys have almost eliminated the possibly of some weird natural source. However, the lack of any additional signals also makes it seem very unlikely that aliens are trying to contact us. Most scientists believe that they definitely would try more than once (although we ourselves have only sent a sent an outbound signal once). The only way we may have missed their additional signals, if they exist, is if they are being repeated at very long intervals (at least 14 hours apart).

In science, unless something is repeatable, it doesn't count for much. Some have suggested that the signal may have been a man-made space probe that the SETI team wasn't aware of, but there is no way of proving that one way or another. So, the mystery continues. We can only hope that if E.T. was trying to contact us, he tries to phone again, soon.

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In History:

Historic High Flight Almost Ended in Disaster - On September 5th of 1862, an ascent was made by balloon to a height of 7 miles by metereologist James Glaisher and his pilot Henry Tracey Coxwell. The flight was nearly a disaster when because of the height Glaisher fainted (for this reason the altitude obtained is only estimated based on earlier measurements). Coxwell saved both the men's lives by taking the balloon down immediately. At the time it held the record for the highest manned balloon flight.


In the Sky:

Orionids Meteor Shower - On the night of October 21st be sure and look for the The Orionids meteor shower. This shower is the result of debris left behind by Halley's Comet. The shower's radiant (where the shooting stars appear to come from) will be located above Orion's bright reddish star Betelgeuse. Viewing conditions should be ideal as there will be a new moon.



Photo May Not Cast Light On Earhart Mystery - The History channel documentary on Amelia Earhart suggests she might have survived her plane coming down and eventually died in a Japanese camp. The evidence for this is a blurry photo at experts on the documentary said they believe shows Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan in the Marshall Islands sometime after her plane disappeared. The problem, it looks like the photo might have been taken 2 years before the aviator went missing. The photograph was discovered by former US Treasury Agent Les Kinney in the National Archives, supposedly shows Earhart and Noonan among a group of people on a dock on Jaluit Atoll. Earhart has her face to the back of the photo, but the hairstyle in the picture is very similar to what she was known to have worn at the time. Noonan is facing the camera and some features seem similar to known photos of him, but it isn't clear that it is a perfect match. It has long been suggested by some that the pair were captured by the Japanese before they war and treated as spies. A blogger named Kota Yamano, however, says that the photo also appears in a Japanese coffee-table book from 1935 which was published two years before Earhart went missing, a fact he discovery after just 30 minutes of research on the internet. The History Channel theory also conflicts with other theories, such as promoted by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) that her plane crash landed near on Gardner Island, a remote atoll in the southwestern Pacific, and died a castaway.


Zeep and Meep are on a well deserved vacation. In their place we feature highlights from their past adventures.

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