Vol. 1 / No. 17 — Fishing Line Muscles, Expanding the Fiber Web, and a 19-Billion-Dollar Purchase

Photo Credit: Flickr user   mjtmail (tiggy), CC-BY-2.0
Photo Credit: Flickr user mjtmail (tiggy), CC-BY-2.0

A New Use For Fishing Line

A recent statement given by Dr. Ray Baughman of the University of Texas offers hope for lighter, stronger, and cheaper prosthetic limbs (among other things). The six-country team (Australia, Canada, China, South Korea, Turkey, USA) this week revealed a new high-tech material for making artificial muscles: no. 6 nylon fishing line. Simply twisting it until it coils upon itself creates a “muscle” fiber that contracts when heated and expands when cooled. Unlike human muscle, which only contracts by about 20% of its size, the new artificial muscle can contract by almost 50%. Moreover, according to some reports, it can lift 100x more than a comparable human muscle. The best part? It’s about $2 a pound. Compared with wire muscles that “remember” their shape, that’s less than a hundredth the per-weight cost. The article is in the February 21 issue of the journal Science. Check out the video below for a demonstration.

Ubuntu Phones Ready For Retail

If you’re as big a fan of open-source software as I am, then you’ve probably already heard that Canonical, the company that makes Ubuntu (a flavour of Linux), has been working hard on building an operating system for phones. Their goal is to claim the coveted spot as the so-called “third ecosystem” — not Apple, not Android, but something else (I mean there’s Windows Phone, but…) — and this year they’re taking the next big step. Last year the OS itself was released for users to install on their Android devices, and tech reviewers posted test drives. Now the company is poised to offer phones for sale with Ubuntu already installed. Chinese company Meizu and Spanish company BQ Readers will reportedly be selling the devices later this year. If they do well in China and Spain, they may well be coming to a carrier near you.

The Fiber Web Expands

Hard on the heels of the Comcast-Time Warner deal announcement, this week Google announced that it is considering nine different metropolitan areas and their 34 composite cities for expansions to the Google Fiber service. The announcement marks a change in strategy for the company, which had previously run competitions to see who would be the next city to go online. With the announcement comes a list of things Google would like to see happen in the cities — and if the conditions are right, they “genuinely would like to build in all these cities.” Already operating in Provo, Utah, Kansas City, Missouri, and Austin, Texas, the internet company’s gigabit service has shaken up the largely monopolistic ISP industry, and has pushed other cities to try to compete, to mixed results. All I can say is: can the Northeast get a little fibery love, Google?

In other Google news, in case you missed it last year, Ray Kurzweil (technological prognosticator, singularity advocate, and author of The Age of Spiritual Machines) is Google’s director of engineering now. This week Carole Cadwalladr over at The Guardian has an interesting article on how he’s fitting in to his first real job.

What Does $19 Billion Buy You?

If you’re a social media giant like Facebook, it’ll buy you a new, youthful appearance. This week Facebook bought social media company WhatsApp for a reported nineteen billion dollar price tag: $4 Billion in cash, $12 Billion in Facebook shares, and a further $3 Billion in restricted stock. Because fate is not without a sense of irony, WhatsApp then crashed three days later — quite possibly due to an influx of new users in the wake of the announcement. This is a yet another indication of the company’s response to the reports of user stagnation: it’s new news reader, Paper, is geared at an older, more mature crowd — more interested in news and select few status updates than in sharing selfies — while the WhatsApp purchase seems designed to capture some of its younger demographics. Wall Street seemed to agree that it’s a good idea (after getting over the initial price tag).

Resupplying the Space Station

In case you weren’t paying attention, Elon Musk’s SpaceX isn’t the only company running resupply missions to the International Space Station. This week Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Cygnus craft left the ISS after a resupply mission and, packed with waste from the station, burned up as planned over the Pacific Ocean. This makes room for SpaceX’s Dragon capsule to launch and dock there for its CRS-3 resupply mission, set to launch March 16.

The CRS-3 mission will be the first on which the Falcon 9 rocket will launch with its “legs,” in an attempt to test the soft-landing system designed to eventually allow rapid re-use of the rocket.

Don’t Stop

Just in case you needed another reason to be wary of geoengineering as a solution to the climate change crisis, a new study out this week suggests that an abrupt stop to certain temperature-reducing methods could actually cause even more harm than doing nothing at all. The researchers warn that if we use Solar Radiation Management (SRM), a series of techniques designed to reflect more of the sun’s rays and buy us some time to fix the atmosphere, we could do a lot of harm if we stop abruptly, potentially doubling the predicted temperature rise over a given time span without the engineering attempt. Just another suggestion that maybe the best way forward is to put less carbon into the air.

Celestial Show

We end this week with a video of the Northern Lights like you’ve never seen before. Shot in Iceland as a geomagnetic storm was taking place, it’s best viewed in full screen HD. It’s really something else.

Have a great week.