Our models of where storms are going have gotten much better, but we can’t really predict how strong they’ll be once they get there.
By Shaunacy Ferro
Hurricane Katrina NOAA
“It’s not a straight mass equation, where you say solve for x and that’s the answer.”
At 6:10am on August 29, 2005, the eye of Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Buras-Triumph, La., going on to devastate much of the Gulf Coast. In a report only a few months later, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) called it one of the strongest storms to hit the U.S. coast in the last 100 years.
Katrina didn’t start out that way. After entering the Gulf of Mexico, it intensified rapidly, going from a Category 1 hurricane when it passed through southern Florida on August 25, 2005, then gaining momentum and jumping from a Category 3 all the way up to Category 5 status over the span of about a day later that weekend.
Thanks to evolving technology, including better satellite data and faster computers, as well as an increasing knowledge of what actually goes on inside a hurricane, the computational models we use to predict hurricanes have gotten much better. Meteorologists have gotten reasonably good at figuring out where a tropical cyclone is headed. What we’re not so good at is figuring out how strong it’s going to be when it gets there.
Hurricane prediction involves a number of different computer-generated models. Each is a little bit different, and has different strengths. “It’s not a straight mass equation, where you say solve for x and that’s the answer,” explains John Cangialosi, a hurricane specialist at NOAA’s National Hurricane Center. “There are a lot of assumptions being made. There is no exact answer.”
Current models are fairly accurate at forecasting the track of a hurricane–that is, where it’s going to go. For this, we can use global dynamical models, which take real-time atmospheric data from all over the world and solve physics equations to predict what will happen next.
“We can come within 80 miles or so. That’s actually pretty good,” says Cary Mock, a geography professor at the University of South Carolina.
These global models are good at figuring out where things are generally heading, but they don’t have the resolution to tell you much about the hurricane itself. For instance, they can’t predict very well when a storm like Katrina will suddenly intensify. “It can’t really tell you how strong the hurricane is even at the current time,” Cangialosi says.
“It’s still somewhat mysterious. We observe them, but we don’t actually understand them to a large factor.”
When it comes to modeling the intensity of a particular storm, we tend to turn to less sophisticated statistical models. They compare basic information from the current storm, like location and time of year, to historic storm behavior, and spit out an averaged prediction. Cangialosi says a statistical model is “not trying to resolve and model what this storm is going to do, but it will tell us… a storm in this location and this environment, on average it will do this.” They’re quicker to run and don’t require as much data or computational power.
There are more complex forecast models, and they are generally more accurate than their simple counterparts. “I’m amazed we can shove a whole world’s worth of weather data into a computer,” Mock says. “We couldn’t do that 15 years ago.” One drawback: they can take hours to run on a supercomputer. So when storms pop up or change quickly, researchers have to rely on quicker statistical models that can crunch the numbers fast.
Another reason we can’t run more accurate, dynamic models on the intensity of hurricanes is that we don’t entirely understand how hurricanes function. “It’s still somewhat mysterious,” Cangialosi says. “We observe them, but we don’t actually understand them to a large factor.”
For example, it was only recently that we learned that the wall around the hurricane’s eye can deteriorate, and a new one will form around it. This can affect the intensity of the hurricane, but not always in the same way. Sometimes it makes the hurricane stronger, sometimes weaker. “Those are the things we can’t quite model. We can’t take into account all the dynamics of the eye wall,” Mock says.
That’s why hurricane forecasting still relies not just on a computer crunching numbers, but on human intervention–an actual forecaster who looks at the details of the storm and determines whether the model seems to be painting an accurate picture that makes sense based on the conditions. And that’s why sometimes, a storm predicted to be a doozy barely seems like a blip in the radar, or vice versa.
We have begun to learn a little bit more about hurricane dynamics by flying planes into the eye of the storm. Besides sounding badass (INTO THE STORM, FOR SCIENCE!), sending aircraft straight to the source to drop weather balloons and sensors to collect data on aspects like wind direction, pressure, water vapor can help us learn more about how storms work.
A surgeon transmitted the first Google Glass video of a live surgery to colleagues and med students across town.
By Shaunacy Ferro
Glass Surgery Ohio State University
We’ve been waiting for a while to figure out what practical uses will come out of Google Glass, besides, of course, making dudes look silly. And aha! A surgeon at The Ohio State University used his Google Glass to beam a colleague into an ACL repair surgery, plus allow medical students to watch the surgery from his particular point of view.
Christopher Kaeding, Ohio State’s director of sports medicine, got a hold of the futuristic eyewear through Ismail Nabeel, an assistant professor of general internal medicine at the school. Nabeel was one of the 1,000 elite applicants chosen to participate in the Google Glass Explorer program, and decided to partner with Kaeding to test out his new toy.
Seeing a live feed of a surgery from the surgeon’s perspective seems a whole lot more useful to a medical student than observing in-person, where much of the nitty-gritty of the procedure is obscured by the people actually operating on the patient. It could potentially be used by a surgeon to bring up x-ray images or patient reports during an operation, too.
And apparently, it’s pretty unobtrusive. Kaeding reported it “seemed very intuitive and fit seamlessly.”
Check out the video below for more:
The first human brain-to-brain interfacing has been used to play a video game.
By Shaunacy Ferro
Brain To Brain Interface University of Washington
Hello, mind control! Researchers at the University of Washington say they’ve created the first non-invasive brain interface between two humans–i.e., they’ve basically achieved telepathy.
Previous work has allowed basic communication between two brains, but this is the first time it’s been shown in two humans. In February, a Duke University team managed to link the brains of two rats, one in North Carolina and one in Brazil, to solve basic puzzles together. Then, earlier this summer, Harvard University researchers demonstrated a brain-to-brain interface between a human and a rat, allowing a man to control the rat’s tail with his mind.
Here, Rajesh Rao, a UW computer science and engineering professor, used his thoughts to control the actions of Andrea Stucco, a research assistant professor in the school’s psychology department. Rao wore an EEG cap that read his brain’s electrical activity, while Stucco had a transcranial magnetic stimulation coil, which can stimulate brain activity, placed over his left motor cortex, the region of the brain that controls hand movement. A code translated brain signals from the EEG into commands for the brain.
Rao imagined moving his right hand (without actually moving it) to click the “fire” button that would shoot a cannon in a video game. Across campus, Stucco, who wasn’t looking at the computer screen in his lab where the video game was unfolding, involuntarily moved his right hand and pushed the space bar on his keyboard to fire the cannon, as if experiencing a nervous tic.
“This was basically a one-way flow of information from my brain to his,” Rao said. “The next step is having a more equitable two-way conversation directly between the two brains.”
One day, the researchers would like to develop technology that could allow a person who can’t speak to communicate their needs, for instance. But a true mind meld is still the work of science fiction. It can only interpret very simple brain signals, and this experiment occurred under ideal conditions with equipment that no one wants to strap on outside the lab. And no, you can’t control someone’s body against their will, Rao says. But maybe one day?
Jupiter, as seen by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Despite its gusty reputation as a “gas giant,” Jupiter’s blood-red clouds hide a dense, rocky core that’s perhaps 20 times as massive as Earth. That core blocks any spacecraft’s passage through the center of the planet, but even a detour through the clouds would be a disaster.
Knowledge of Jupiter’s innards is scarce, mostly coming from the Galileo probe, which in 1995 plunged 100 miles into the Jovian atmosphere and relayed data until it vaporized an hour later. But here’s what we know: First, any spacecraft would need to make it through Jupiter’s instrument-scrambling radiation belts, the harshest of which extend 200,000 miles from the planet. Then it would face winds of up to 230 mph tearing across the surface of the planet’s turbulent hydrogen-cloud atmosphere and, if it survived those, gusts of nearly 400 mph starting about 28 miles into the atmosphere. In the first 100 miles, temperatures run to around 306°F, and scientists suspect that it’s up to 50,000° closer to the core. The atmosphere likely ripped apart the 1.2-mile-wide Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet when it hit Jupiter back in 1994. Just saying.
Some 9,000 miles farther in, sandwiched between the atmosphere and the hot, rocky core, the interior most likely consists of liquid metallic hydrogen. The highly conductive fluid can exist only under space-shuttle-crushing conditions like the planet’s 44 million pounds per square inch of pressure.
This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue of Popular Science magazine.
By Dan Nosowitz
Greyhound Running, Mid-Stride Wikimedia Commons
The cheetah, the world’s fastest land animal, can race up to 75 mph for short bursts. The greyhound is the fastest canid, and the second-fastest land animal, with a peak speed of about 43 mph. Cool facts! Now let’s watch them run in super slow motion.
Note that while cheetahs and greyhounds are very, very different animals, they’ve independently evolved to have very similar running styles. Both animals use what’s called a rotary gallop, in which the leg hitting the ground moves in a circle: front left leg, then front right, then hind right, then hind left. This is the natural running style of dogs, cats, and some ungulates like deer and elk, but different than that of horses (which are built for endurance rather than sprinting speed).
They also have a similar two-phase gait: in the first, the body is elongated, parallel to the ground with both pairs of legs extended also parallel to the ground. The spine is stretched out, and the animal, in slow motion, looks like it’s flying. Then there’s the compression phase, in which the front and hind legs actually overlap underneath the animal, and the spine is crunched up, getting ready to pound the ground and push forward. It’s a pretty amazing video of some pretty amazing animals.
The agency released an Armageddon-style video to explain
By Colin Lecher
New telescope technology is helping scientists better detect asteroids, but what happens after we find them?
One of NASA’s goals has been to latch astronauts onto space rocks and take samples for studying, and the agency has just released a rough video-sketch of a plan for how they’d do it. Using the Orion spacecraft, a team could launch from Earth, pick up speed by whipping around the moon, and attach to an asteroid in about nine days. After that, they could dig inside, take a sample, and launch back, once again making a pitstop in the moon’s orbit for speed.
The plan is subject to change, and could end up being a lot different from what you see in the video here, but it’s cool to think about. Although it doesn’t quite solve that one issue with asteroids.
Workaholics of the world, rejoice? We’ll all be just as unhappy with a shorter work week.
By Shaunacy Ferro
“While people’s satisfaction with their working hours increased, there wasn’t a significant effect on overall life or job satisfaction.”
When it comes to working hours, less apparently is not more. Proponents of the six-hour workday will be saddened to hear that, as delightful as shorter days sound, decreasing work hours might not make anyone any happier.
At least that’s what new research in the Journal of Happiness Studies suggests. The 10-year longitudinal study examined the impact of the reform South Korea instituted in 2004 reducing working hours on Korean workers’ happiness. While people’s satisfaction with their working hours increased, there wasn’t a significant effect on overall life or job satisfaction.
The Five-Day Working Policy decreased the country’s official work week from 44 hours down to 40 hours, and made Saturdays officially non-working days. The policy aimed to combat the low rates of productivity and high rates of on-the-job injury associated with Korea’s long work hours, as well as bolster the country’s leisure industry. Over the years the study looked at, 1998 to 2008, average working hours declined by 10 percent.
Partially, the lack of impact on overall happiness could be due to companies reducing the number of hours their employees worked, but not the amount of work they were required to complete. As author Robert Rudolph writes, “many companies responded with increased work intensity and downward adjustments of employee’s leave and holidays to fill the gap.”
Women had a greater increase in satisfaction with their work hours, which Rudolph attributes to the conflict Korean women face in balancing work with traditional family duties like childcare and household chores. (The study only examined married or cohabitating couples with children, so how all the single ladies feel we don’t know.) One study Rudolph cites found that while men used their newfound free time for leisure and recreation, women largely used it to catch up on housework.
Rudolph concludes that either long work hours aren’t as intimately tied to personal happiness as we thought, or whatever positive effect reducing working hours might provide is just completely obliterated by the increased intensity of companies trying to fit in the same amount of work into fewer hours. And of course, since this study only focused on a specific subset of people–South Korean couples with children–it’s possible the results may not extend to everyone in the world.
An armadillo-inspired micro car from South Korea can shrink itself down to just 65 inches.
By Rose Pastore
This absolutely awesome all-electric car, created by engineers at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, can fold itself completely in half when parking. Inspired by a certain leprosy-carrying mammal, the Armadillo-T seats two adults and has a top speed of 37 miles per hour.
The video is probably all of the future you can handle in one day:
By folding up its rear half, the 992-pound prototype shrinks from its original length of 110 inches down to just 65 inches. Once a driver has gotten the car near the desired parking space, he or she can get out and use a smartphone to activate “Transformer Mode” (my coinage, someone should pay me for this stuff) and then remotely steer the folded car the rest of the way into the spot. So cool.
A 13.6 kWh lithium-ion battery pack powers four in-wheel motors. By putting the motors inside the wheels, the designers freed up space in the car for people. It charges in 10 minutes and can drive about 62 miles on a full battery. Cameras in place of side mirrors reduce blind spots.
The Armadillo-T would be ideal for urban car-sharing and near-distance travel within tourist areas or large buildings, says lead researcher In-Soo Suh, associate professor of the Graduate School for Green Transportation at KAIST. This thing will totally tide us over while we wait for our flying car.
Barraging ancient beads with tests tells archaeologists that jewelry came from space-rocks–and that iron-working was an older job than we thought.
By Colin Lecher
Egyptian Beads Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. Photo by Gianluca Miniaci
If you want to track down meteorite debris, UCL Qatar professor Thilo Rehren explains in a phone interview, you have a couple options: your best bet is to scour for the black chunks of rock in the white plains of Antarctica, “but the second best place to hunt meteorites is the Sahara Desert,” where it’s relatively easy to find space rocks amid the expansive, light sands. About 5,000 years ago, that’s where the Egyptians likely looked.
Rehren and a team of archaeologists have been studying Egyptian jewelry first uncovered from a grave in 1911–specifically, a set of beads from around 3,200 B.C. (The markings on ceramics and other finds at the site indicate the general time period.) The beads don’t look like much more than decaying chunks of metal (which they are), but they were ceremoniously strung together on a necklace and wrapped around the deceased inside the tomb.
The beads are the earliest known iron artifacts ever found. So old, in fact, that the beads pre-date iron smelting, where metal is produced from raw ore. That technique is what ushered in the Iron Age, when stronger tools and weapons altered the course of human history. It’s long been suspected that iron trinkets from well before the Iron Age came from meteorites, and now it’s been confirmed “beyond reasonable doubt,” Rehren says. That means iron working was practiced thousands of years before it was widespread.
The beads have been undergoing tests since the 1920s, when archaeologists first did a destructive (!) test that melted down one of the beads to analyze its components. Inside were nickel and cobalt in proportions that suggested the jewelry was made from meteorites. But the analysis was still only suggestive of meteorites–not quite a smoking gun that would prove it.
That changed recently, when advances in technology allowed for more intensive (and not priceless-bead-destroying) tests. Back in May, a different team examining one of the beads from the same set used electron microscopy and computer tomography to confirm the high amounts of nickel in the bead, and also found a crystalline structure called a Widmanstätten pattern, which is found in iron from meteorites.
The final nail in the mystery’s coffin, however, is Rehren et. al’s work. Using techniques like neutron radiography, where the reactions from neutrons beamed into a sample is picked up in a black-and-white image, the team was able to get a look at not only the surface of the beads, but the interior and its composition. Inside, along with the expected ingredients, they also found something that hadn’t been seen before: a tiny, tiny amount of the element germanium. (“We’re talking about roughly 1 percent of 1 percent,” Rehren says.) Even that minuscule amount of the substance suggests that the jewelry originated from meteorites; germanium isn’t found at all in metal from iron smelting.
Neat. And you can look at this finding as the fun, high-tech resolution to an archaeological curio, but when you put it in historical context, it’s bigger than that. After these beads were made, it was another 1,500 years before iron smelting was used, and another 500 before iron replaced copper as the dominant metal for tool-making, meaning iron-working was an older profession than expected. It takes a certain level of skill, too, to hammer out sheets of metal and form them into tube shapes like these beads–“You need to invent blacksmithing, basically,” Rehren says.
So there were a skilled set of people working with metal hundreds of years before the process became widespread. (Not many, since meteoritic iron is rare, but still some.) Instead of iron-working being completely invented, then, there were likely smiths from generations before who could pass the the technique down to younger workers.
Plus, iron falling out of the sky might have inspired ancient religious beliefs, so imagine how excited they were when they’d figured out how to mimic the process on solid ground.
By Dan Nosowitz
Quantum Teleportation of Light Waves A Schrödinger’s cat is a quantum superposition of two light waves. The two light waves are interpreted respectively as a living cat and a dead cat. Their quantum superposition hints to a “quantum” cat paradoxically alive and dead at the same time. The figures shown are numerical functions reconstructed from the measured light amplitudes at the input and output of the experiment. © Science/AAAS
Quantum teleportation has taken another step forward, thanks to two complimentary experiments, one from ETH Zurich and one from the University of Tokyo. The researchers have demonstrated the most reliable yet version of quantum teleportation–what Nature is calling “quantum teleportation on demand.”
A quick explanation of quantum teleportation, from the Nature abstract:
Quantum Teleportation: Fig. 1: via Nature
Quantum teleportation has some pretty significant implications for communications; it works in a way not that dissimilar from the PGP-secured email we outlined here, except there’s literally no physical link between the sender and receiver. (Read more about the implications for communications in Rebecca Boyle’s excellent explainer.)
In the new experiments, conducted at the 100-micrometer scale and at temperatures of around 20 millikelvins, “Alice” and “Bob” from the example above are separated by about 5 mm. The University of Tokyo experiment managed to induce entanglement deterministically, which had only been done before at distances about 1,000 times smaller. And those previous experiments had only managed to do so reliably about 1 percent of the time, compared to this experiment, which teleported a qubit about 40 percent of the time (and reproduced it on the other end with about an 88 percent accuracy). So this is a huge leap forward!