Vol. 1 / No. 12 — Ball Lightning, a Bitcoin Auction, and a Bandaid for Your Heart


Picture of the Week

We’ll start this week with this lovely bit of pretty: a beautiful shot of Saturn’s moon Enceladus taken by the Cassini probe. Taken in 2010, it’s been making the rounds recently, and is definitely worth taking a look at in higher resolution.

Google News

Google made headlines three times this week. First, it acquired “smart-home” technology company Nest for $3.2 Billion. Then, it (technically it was Ryanair founder Michael O’Leary) announced it would take on travel-comparison sites like Kayak, Expedia, and others, with its own service. And finally, news circulated about its new in-development blood-glucose-monitoring contact lenses, which Cade Metz over at Wired reminds us is actually Microsoft’s idea (but why it’s good that Google’s doing it now). Between these, the company’s recent acquisition of robotics company Boston Dynamics, its ongoing work on driverless cars, and the further development of Google glass, it makes you wonder what the search-engine giant plans for the future (and whether we can come up with a better term for it than “search-engine giant”).

Accidentally Filming Ball Lightning (with a spectroscope)

Chinese scientists from Northwest Normal University (西北师范大学) in Gansu Province published their findings on ball lightning this week in the journal Physical Review Letters. The team had been studying lightning outdoors with a pair of slitless spectrographs when they accidentally captured video and readings of ball lightning. The key here is that with the spectrographs, they were able to determine that some of the elements from the soil where it struck were present in the ball itself, leading to the supposition that ball lightning may be a result of ground-strike lightning. New Scientist has more on the discovery, and the Huffington Post has the admittedly rather un-spectacular video. Now if only scientists could accidentally film ghosts, UFOs, or bigfoot.

Elastic Heart Bandaid

CBC Radio’s science program Quirks and Quarks this weekend interviewed Dr. Jeffrey Karp, a Harvard scientist, about the development of a new kind of adhesive for use in heart surgery inspired by slugs. An alternative to staples, the adhesive patches are activated by UV light, so only stick where required, are water- (and blood-) proof, are stretchy enough to accommodate the contractions and expansions of the heart muscle, and dissolve over time so they never need to be removed. Check out the article from Boston Children’s Hospital for more details, or if you have access, in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

“Silk Road” Bitcoins to be Auctioned Off

In Bitcoin news this week, the US Attorney’s Office announced that the 29,655 BTC (worth roughly $24.5 Million USD today) seized in October as a part of the raid that took down the illegal goods and services website “Silk Road,” will be auctioned off in the coming months. Meanwhile the alleged proprietor of the site, Ross Ulbricht (alleged to be the “Dread Pirate Roberts” who ran the site) will be contesting in court the seizure of his personal Bitcoin wallet, holding an estimated 144,000 BTC (roughly $118.8 Million today). Ulbricht maintains that he is not the Dread Pirate Roberts, and that his personal bitcoins are not subject to court seizure and should be returned (though since federal authorities have seized everything from boats to artwork to intellectual property, it seems unlikely he’ll be seeing those back any time soon). Ars Technica has the full story.

Rosetta Wakes Up

The ESA’s comet-chasing probe Rosetta wakes up tomorrow at 10am GMT, ending years of deep-space slumber that saw it saving power for this final leg of its mission. Once awake, the probe will warm up, reorient its communications dish, and send a message home — by which its handlers will know whether it’s worked or not. If all goes well, the probe will then circle the comet, which is currently almost as far away as the orbit of Jupiter (45 minutes at the speed of light), and then drop a lander, Philae, which will cling to the comet and study it in a series of scientific firsts. There’ll be a lot of scientists holding their breath this week. Check out the ESA’s website for first-news details.

Homebrew Brain Scan

If you thought scanning your brain was something only scientists could do, think again. Two guys, Conor Russomanno and Joel Murphy, with a little help from DARPA, are building an open-source, 3-D printable brain scanner. Founding the open-source EEG (electroencephalogram) company OpenBCI, Russomanno and Murphy have just completed the first printing of a spider-like armature to hold all the bits and pieces that will one day allow anyone with the time, patience, and interest, to develop technologies based on brain-computer interfacing. I wish them all the best of luck — maybe someday we’ll even be able to figure out what’s going on inside the heads of the members of the US congress (or is that too optimistic even for here?).

The Rest of the Best

What else did we see this week? Too many things! A sexy Slovakian car-plane hybrid; the 6,000 gas leaks in Washington, DC; SC Johnson’s no more tears formaldehyde shampoo; how the Nintendo Duck Hunt gun worked; the difficulty of donating orgasms to science; and an explanation of why the TV show Cosmos is being remade (with Neil DeGrasse Tyson as host!). Check it all out, and I’ll see you back here next week.

Have a great week.