Vol. 1 / No. 35 — A Broken Air Brake, An Unethical Study, and a Capital-M “Machine”

Air Brake Broke?

NASA's LDSD, Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA’s LDSD, Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Yesterday, NASA tested out a new piece of technology being developed for future missions to Mars: the LDSD, or Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator. Past missions to the red planet have typically been lightweight — the heaviest being the Mars Science Laboratory, including the Curiosity rover, which weighs in at just under a ton. But future manned missions to Mars may need to be ten tons or more, and at present, NASA doesn’t possess the technology to land something that heavy. Enter the LDSD. A combination of two technologies — an inflatable heatproof “rim” that increases the surface area of the craft, and the largest supersonic parachutes ever designed — intended to work together as a giant air brake in Mars’s thin atmosphere. The problem is that these designs are too large and too high speed to test in any existing wind tunnel. That’s why yesterday, 160,000 feet above Hawaii, NASA used rockets to propel the LDSD to four times the speed of sound. The test didn’t go perfectly — the inflatable shield seems to have worked fine, but there may have been problems with the parachute — but, as Mark Adler, LDSD’s Project manager said before the test:

If it does exactly what we expected it to do, it exactly hits the targets that we want, it flies that way we want, it gets the data back exactly like we want, all the cameras work, all of that then I get an A. But if we have some failures, if we have some problems, if we see things that we learn from that we can apply to the next flight, then I get an A+.

They won’t be testing it again until about this time next year, but if you’re hurting for more NASA tests, the next one you can really look forward to is Orion’s EFT-1 mission (Exploration Flight Test) in December, one of two missions to test the agency’s new spacecraft before human flights planned for 2021.

Emotional Contagion

This week Facebook weirded out just about everyone who uses the service by revealing that they’ve been playing with what we see in our feeds to determine whether or not they could modify our emotions. Turns out, the answer is yes. From the abstract of the article, published June 17 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

When positive expressions were reduced, people produced fewer positive posts and more negative posts; when negative expressions were reduced, the opposite pattern occurred. These results indicate that emotions expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions, constituting experimental evidence for massive-scale contagion via social networks.

Questions have been raised about the morality of just such a study, given that there was no informed consent given. It is, however, likely to have been legal, because of the “agreed-to” terms of service, which state that facebook may use your data “for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement” (emphasis mine). Nevertheless there may be more to come of this, as the study was approved by Princeton’s Internal Review Board.

NWS Gets Crowdsourced (kind of)

If you’re anything like me, you love the National Weather Service. I spend most of the winter just about glued to the Northeast Sector Loop, being the most accurate gauge of when the giant masses of white evil will fall on my poor urban head. Since the 1930s, the National Weather Service in the US has been producing its data in large part from weather balloons, launched twice a day, from 69 different locations around the US. Soon, however, they’ll be joining the 21st century, and letting others collect the data for them — in a way. There’s already a massive fleet of vehicles going up into the air every day: passenger planes. Under the new system, the NWS will use data gathered by commercial airlines to improve their forecast models, which, in the end, should result in even better predictions. And who doesn’t want that?

Autism and Pesticides (no, not really)

Last week a story went around about a study that concluded with the existence of a link between organophosphate pesticide use and autism. I hesitated to link to it then because I felt that something was probably wrong with it. And I was right. The way the study links exposure to distance from the use of the chemicals — without taking into account other possible sources of exposure, or even testing for contamination at varying distances from the uses of the chemicals — provides very little in the way of significant data. If you want a complete takedown of the article, check out Orac’s post on the blog Respectful Insolence, or Steven Novella’s post on the NeuroLogica blog. The long and short of it is that we don’t even know if there is an “autism epidemic,” and even if there were, this study isn’t designed well enough to tell us what’s causing it.

HP’s Machine

In a piece of news that got a little buried for a number of reasons, this week Hewlett Packard announced that their latest project (codename: “The Machine”) will use memristors to completely revolutionize modern computing. Traditional computers make use of RAM — temporary, local memory — and more permanent, passive hard drives. HP’s “Machine” is designed to do away with the duality, and to revolutionize computing in doing so. But because the technology to do this — “memristors” — have been a little like nuclear fusion: always ten years away. But this time it really looks as if it’s going to happen. The first memristor-based RAM DIMMs are scheduled for commercial release in 2016, and (somewhat more distantly) HP’s “Machine” is set to be complete by 2019. I suppose we’ll have to wait and see.

Down Syndrome and Alzheimer’s

This is too interesting to be buried in this week’s Best of the Rest, but it’s not so much a story as a TIL. Down Syndrome and Alzheimer’s Disease share a lot in common, including the buildup of beta amyloid plaque and cells with three copies of chromosome 21. The relationship, at present, isn’t entirely clear, but this article over at Scientific American profiles the work of Huntington Potter and suggests that we may be getting close to understanding the relationship. Check it out!

Best of the Rest

There was still much more to see this week! Researchers have found a way to make solar cells more cheaply, and less toxically; a new inhaled insulin called Afrezza has been approved by the FDA; California’s brain research funding bill Cal-BRAIN has now been signed into law; Dolby Labs has unveiled a shift in TV tech away from “more pixels” to “truer colours” called Dolby Vision; and, if you’re in Michigan and like beer and space, get ready for their new one-a-month series based on Holst’s The Planets.

That’s all for now. Have a great week.