Author Archives: Danny P

Cyborgs of Tomorrow

Remember that movie ‘I, Robot’ (2004) with Will Smith? He plays a cop in the near future who loses one of his arms in an accident and gets it replaced with a fully integrated robotic arm. By “fully integrated” I mean it has full range of motion of a normal arm and Will Smith can operate just by thought.

While this certainly is the work of science fiction, you may be surprised to know how close science is to actually achieving this kind of technology.

Back in 2008, a team of scientists from the University of Pittsburgh implanted micro-electrodes into a monkey’s brain that enabled it to move a rudimentary robotic arm. Two years later, the same group of scientists improved the technology as they were able to get the monkey to operate a more complex robotic arm just using its thoughts. Watch the video below.

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These scientists are not the only ones to pioneer this sort of technology. In 2009, Toyota had developed a wheelchair that could operate based on the user’s “thoughts”. This technology did not require any implants, but instead worked by picking up brain signals from the user (they had to wear a special cap) and transmitting those to a computer which controlled the wheelchair. This technology seemed to be limited to the most basic commands; left, right, forward and back. The emergency stop command was actually puffing out one of your cheeks in case the wheelchair went out of control.

So where does the technology sit today? Interestingly enough, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) had been funding scientists to develop a super complex prosthetic limb for a few years now. It’s one of the most complex ones to date capable of all kinds of fine motor control.

Much like the research from University of Pittsburgh, this arm relies upon implants in the brain to be fully integrated. The latest news is that the technology is about to begin its first round of human trials!

Considering the implications of this technology, there’s good and bad sides to it. For example; on the good side we may be able to turn Stephen Hawking into a cyborg. That side of the technology is both cool and good news for people who have suffered accidents or were born with the inability to use their bodies fully.

On the scarier side, this technology could be used to “replace” healthy limbs with stronger, more durable ones. Why else would the military be funding the research? Cyborgs may be just around the corner. Universal Soldier anyone?

Interested in reading more?

The monkey: /04/monkey-mind-control-evolves-with-elaborate-new-robotic-arm/

The Toyota wheelchair: /29/toyota-developing-a-mind-controlled-wheelchair/)

The DARPA arm: 2010/07/human-trials-ahead-for-darpas-mind-controlled-artificial-arm/

NASA probe MESSENGER is first to enter Mercury’s orbit

Humanity has just reached another milestone in space exploration. Yesterday, on March 17, NASA’s MESSENGER probe entered orbit around Mercury becoming the first spacecraft to ever do so.

MESSENGER probe approaching orbit around Mercury

MESSENGER (actually short for Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging) was launched almost 7 years ago in August of 2004. It was designed to examine the magnetic field around mercury, as well as chemical composition and geology of the surface.

Since then, MESSENGER has made three flybys past Mercury and has made some interesting discoveries that have puzzled scientists for years.

Evidence of Volcanic activity on the surface of Mercury

Back in July of 2008, MESSENGER made the startling discovery of water present in Mercury’s exosphere (the uppermost later of the atmosphere). It also found evidence of extensive volcanic activity on Mercury’s surface. Previously, scientists believed that the volcanic gases would have long ago exited Mercury or had been absent at its formation.

MESSENGER’s new mission will have it begin to throughly examine the surface for the chemical signatures of these gases with an array of seven instruments (set to be activated on March 24). The probe will also study the presence of water on Mercury and also examine the planet’s core.

MESSENGER's gravity assist maneuvers

What made MESSENGER’s voyage to Mercury interesting were some of the challenges that scientists had to overcome. Normally, a probe approaching the planet would become too accelerated due to the force of the Sun’s gravity and fly past the planet before it could maintain orbit. MESSENGER had to overcome this by using a series of gravity assist maneuvers to slow it down. These maneuvers utilize the gravity of a planet to change the path of the spacecraft. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Armageddon”, this was like the scene where the spaceship did the “roadrunner thrust move” around the Moon. MESSENGER had to utilize the gravity from Mercury, Venus and Earth to perfect its trajectory to orbit the planet.

What’s truly remarkable is that these series of gravity assisted moves mean that MESSENGER has traveled 7.9 billion kilometers through space since 2004.

The other challenge for scientists was thermal damage due to Mercury’s high surface temperatures. They solved this by making MESSENGER have a highly elliptical orbit around the planet. The trajectory takes the probe within 200 km of the surface then 15,000 km away, presumably when the temperatures are hottest. One of these cycles takes 12 hours.

The probe’s first set of measurements are scheduled to be sent to Earth on April 4. Who knows what’s waiting to be discovered beneath the surface of Mercury!

The original article can be found here.

The New Heavyweight Champion of the Universe

EDIT: added in another image of star cluster R136

Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you, to Hypergiant “blue” R136a1, “The New” Solar Mass Heavyweight Champ! Weighing in at an estimated 265 solar masses, he may very well be the most massive star in our universe! He’s  so big, that scientists are baffled by how he came to be.

Size Comparison for R136a1

You heard it folks, there’s a newly discovered star, that’s so heavy that it disputes current models of how stars may be formed. R136a1 was discovered last year with the findings published in July 2010. It’s found in a star cluster known as R136 that’s 165,000 light-years away.

In 2005 NASA had released an article which suggested that in our current era of the universe, stars cannot exceed 150 solar masses (i.e. 150 times the mass of the sun) otherwise they would violate the Eddington Limit. This limit is where the radiation force outwards of a star is equal to the gradational force pulling inwards. Stars bigger than this would have too much out flowing radiation that they would eject all their gaseous matter into space.

This may be the case for R136a1: scientists speculate it was actually much heavier at its formation and may have lost as much as 50 solar masses through continuous emission of stellar winds in the last million years due to its instability. So, how did R136a1 come to be? Scientists speculate that its ridiculous size may be attributed to several young stars colliding together to form a single object.

Size Comparison for VY Canis Majoris

One thing to keep in mind is that while R136a1 is the heaviest known star, at only 35 solar radii (i.e. 35 times the radius of the sun), it is certainly not the largest. The title of “biggest star” belongs to VY Canis Majoris that is 1800-2,100 solar radii in size! At the same time, it is only 30 times the mass of our sun.

As for its fate, R136a1 is too big to form a black hole and may instead explode as hypernova (an explosion equivalent to over  100 supernovae). Of course, that’s only if it doesn’t blow all of its matter into space before then..

The original article can be found here (#83, “The Biggest Star of All”):

NASA’s 2005 article can be found here:

For more general information on hypergiant stars, see:

Hubble - R136 - Stellar Nursery

A Deadly Plague Endangers Bats

We’re all familiar with our furry flying mammalian friends, the bats. You can hear their distinct chirps at night, even here at UBC, as they fly around in search for food. However, on the other coast of North America they’re not doing so well.

A new plague is devastating bats in 14 different states and 2 Canadian provinces in the North-eastern part of the continent. It has already killed more than a million bats across 9 different species since it was first discovered in 2006. The disease is a fungal infection caused by Geomyces destructans, commonly referred to as “white-nose syndrome” (WNS), because bats develop white patches on their muzzles and ears.

Photo by Alan Hicks

When the bats go into a state of hibernation for the winter, they lower their body temperature and subsequently reduce the power of their immune system, making them easy targets. The disease  seems to disrupt the normal hibernation patterns of the bats, often causing them to awaken too early. Many of the infected bats appear underweight because they go out in search for food in the winter where there isn’t any. Eventually, the infected bats end up starving to death. Research suggests that the disease is being spread from cave to cave by the bats themselves, since most have been closed down to humans and WNS continues to spread. The mortality rate is very high: about 85% of the bats in an infected cave will die from the disease.

A Boston University ecologist, Winifred Frick, suggests that little brown bats may be entirely wiped out in north-eastern United States in the next 16 years. For all the bat lovers out there, this news can come as a bit of shock, but there are also other repercussions to consider. A colony of bats can consume thousands of pounds of insects in a season. Imagine how many more mosquitoes and crop damaging insects there would be if WNS continues to spread unhindered?

There does seem to be a ray of hope; a bat with WNS was discovered in France last year, but it appeared to be of normal weight. Scientists have speculated that Geomyces destructans must be native to Europe and that bats there have resistances to it.

Hopefully more research in the future will provide a means to protect the bats from infection.

The original article can be found here:

For more general information on the disease, see: