Do electric cars dream of software fixes?

22 Apr 2018, 12:15 pm

RECALL how Apple’s reputation took a knock after the firm admitted it had surreptitiously hobbled the performance of peope’s iPhones when their batteries started deteriorating with age. Toyota now faces similar opprobrium for throttling back the batteries of some of its older Prius hybrid cars, to prevent them frying their electronics. The software tweak—performed during a voluntary recall of Priuses sold in America between 2010 and 2014—forces the vehicle to rely more on its petrol engine and less on its electric motor/generators. That causes fuel economy to fall and exhaust emissions to rise. Prius owners, who bought their hybrid vehicles precisely because they were lean and clean, have not been best pleased.

More galling still, reports continue to come in of overheating problems that leave Prius owners in limp-home mode or stranded in traffic unable to move. Online forums (see have been abuzz with tales of woe from afflicted drivers. Apparently, owners of vehicles that are out...Continue reading

Robots can assemble IKEA furniture

19 Apr 2018, 2:48 pm

IN 1997 it was chess. In 2016 it was the ancient game of Go. Now it seems computers have mastered a task that stretches the human brain to its limit. In a paper just published in Science Robotics, a group of researchers at Nanyang Technological University, in Singapore, report having managed to get a pair of ordinary industrial robots to assemble most of a piece of flat-pack IKEA furniture.

The chair in question was a model called STEFAN. The robots’ job was to assemble the frame. This requires several pieces of dowelling to be inserted into pre-drilled holes before the parts are pressed together. In total, says Pham Quang Cuong, one of the paper’s authors, 19 components are involved.

The robots were off-the-shelf arm-shaped machines of the sort found in factories around the world, combined with a stereoscopic camera that can produce three-dimensional images. A pair of videos released by the researchers show the robot arms making various mistakes, dropping dowelling on the floor or misaligning components, before succeeding at their task after almost nine minutes of slow, careful work.

Even with that...Continue reading

Fossil tracks in the Alps help explain dinosaur evolution

19 Apr 2018, 2:48 pm

THAT the dinosaurs went out with a bang is well known. About 66m years ago a large space rock hit what is now southern Mexico. As a consequence, and with the assistance of some enormous volcanic eruptions on the other side of the planet, the terrible lizards were consigned to history. That left the world open for the rise of mammals. What is less well known is that the dinosaurs themselves rose in circumstances similar to those that felled them. The animals’ long reign through the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods was enabled by another, albeit smaller, period of mass extinction, which happened between 234m and 232m years ago during the Triassic period.

This extinction is thought to have been caused by a period of unstable climate called the Carnian Pluvial Episode (CPE), in which the climate went from dry, to wet, to dry again four times over the course of 2m years. As is often the case in matters palaeontological, the effects of such changes are easiest to see at sea, because most...Continue reading

Build a better bog roll

19 Apr 2018, 2:48 pm

A REPORT published last year by Water UK, an industry body, said that more than 90% of sewer-pipe blockages in Britain were caused by “non-flushable wipes”. Accumulations of these can clog up pumps. Worse, when they are gathered together by the adhesive power of kitchen grease, they can form giant “fatbergs” that choke the passage of effluent.

Some of the wipes in question were for cleaning surfaces or removing cosmetics. Most of those that could be identified, though, were for wiping babies’ bottoms. And probably not only those of babies. As people grow richer, they can afford more comfortable means of personal hygiene, so many adult nether regions are probably being tended to in this way as well.

Ordinary toilet paper is not a problem for sewers. It disintegrates rapidly, after being flushed, into the fibres from which it is made. Wet-wipes are different. To keep them intact while damp, before and during use, their fibres are held together by resins. But these...Continue reading

A group of people with an amphibious life have evolved traits to match

19 Apr 2018, 9:48 am

THE Bajau, a people of the Malay Archipelago, spend almost all of their lives at sea. They live either on boats or in huts perched on stilts on shallow reefs, and they migrate from place to place in flotillas that carry entire clans. They survive on a diet composed almost entirely of seafood. And to gather this they spend 60% of their working day underwater.

Unsurprisingly, their diving abilities are prodigious. They sometimes descend more than 70 metres, and can stay submerged for up to five minutes, using nothing more than a set of weights to reduce buoyancy and a pair of wooden goggles fitted with lenses fashioned from scrap glass that are resistant to distortion by the pressure at such depth. Since the Bajau have lived like this for a long time (historical evidence suggests at least 1,000 years), many researchers have speculated that they carry genetic traits which adapt them to their remarkable lifestyle. Now, as they report in Cell, Melissa Ilardo and Rasmus Nielsen of...Continue reading

The search for exoplanets moves to Earth’s back yard

19 Apr 2018, 6:54 am

BEFORE 1992 astronomers could only presume that alien planets existed. That was the year the discovery of the first such worlds, orbiting a pulsar called PSR 1257+12, about 2,300 light-years from Earth, was announced. These days, astronomers have more exoplanets than they know what to do with. The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia lists 3,767 confirmed worlds as of April 18th, with thousands more detections awaiting confirmation.

This torrent of discovery has made exoplanetology one of the most exciting fields in astronomy. But it is also frustrating, for the majority of those planets are so far away that, besides the fact of their existence, little can be learned about them. Data on most are limited to the orbits they trace around their parent stars, and estimates of their sizes and masses.

That is about to change. On April 18th a space telescope called the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), blasted into orbit from Cape Canaveral in Florida. TESS is designed to...Continue reading

An enzyme that digests plastic could boost recycling

16 Apr 2018, 7:00 pm

For bacteria, lunch

A MILLION plastic bottles are sold every minute. Many are not recycled and of those that are, only a small fraction become bottles again. That is, in part, because recycling polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the polymer used to make such bottles, back into material robust enough to hold, say, a fizzy drink, is hard. What would be helpful is a way to break down PET into the chemicals that made it in the first place. These could then be used to make new high-grade PET.

This week John McGeehan of the University of Portsmouth, in Britain, and his colleagues report details of a bacterial enzyme called “PETase” that can do just that. Furthermore, they have engineered a version of this enzyme that can digest plastic faster than the natural variety. Their work is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

PETase is secreted by a plastic-munching bacterium called Continue reading

Do adult human brains renew their neurons?

12 Apr 2018, 2:54 pm

The seats of memory

TWO papers with starkly contradictory conclusions, published three weeks apart, have reignited debate about whether adult human brains can grow new neurons. For over a century, neuroscientists believed brains have acquired all the neurons they will ever have shortly after birth. But research over the past two decades has questioned this, producing evidence that new neurons are indeed generated in the adults of several species, people included. The matter is of more than just theoretical concern. Understanding how neurons are generated might lead to new ways of dealing with cognitive decline in ageing, neurodegenerative disease and even depression.

The conflicting studies both involved inspecting post-mortem brain samples using a technique called immunostaining. The first to press, by Arturo Alverez-Buylla and Shawn Sorrells of the University of California, San Francisco, was published on March 15th in Nature. It claims that...Continue reading

Colonising the galaxy is hard. Why not send bacteria instead?

12 Apr 2018, 2:54 pm

SCIENCE fiction is filled with visions of galactic empires. How people would spread from star system to star system, and communicate with each other in ways that could hold such empires together once they had done so, is, though, very much where the “fiction” bit comes in. The universal maximum speed of travel represented by the velocity of light is usually circumvented by technological magic in such works. The truth is that, unless there has been some huge misunderstanding of the laws of physics, human colonisation of the galaxy will be hard.

A number of scientists reckon a more modest approach towards spreading life to other star systems might be possible. In the chill of deep space, bacteria somehow shielded from cosmic radiation might survive dormant for millions of years. Perhaps alien worlds could be seeded deliberately with terrestrial micro-organisms that might take hold there, jump-starting evolution on those planets.

There are many obstacles to directed panspermia, as this...Continue reading

Homo sapiens spread to Asia earlier than once believed

9 Apr 2018, 3:01 pm

This specimen (viewed in the picture from four angles) is the middle phalanx of a human middle finger. It was collected from the Nefud desert of Saudi Arabia by Huw Groucutt of Oxford University and his colleagues. In a paper just published in Nature Ecology & Evolution they report that uranium-thorium isotopic dating suggests it is 88,000 years old—a time when the Nefud was a semi-arid grassland much less hostile than it is now. The date is significant because, except for a few excursions along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, there was no previous evidence of Homo sapiens having left Africa before about 60,000 years ago. That exodus, DNA shows, led to the populating of Asia, Australia, Europe and the Americas. Dr Groucutt’s discovery implies that the early non-African history of Homo sapiens was more complex than previously known. It also suggests that it might be worth re-examining other old bones which some think are evidence of similar early non-Africans.

$15m is available to solve a burning problem

9 Apr 2018, 2:43 pm

THE X Prize foundation, based near Los Angeles, exists to encourage particular innovations that might be useful but from which conventional financial backers are likely to shy away. Previous X Prizes have been awarded for feats such as flying a reusable spacecraft to the edge of space, and designing cheap sensors to measure oceanic acidity. Those still on offer would, among other things, reward the mapping of Earth’s sea floor, and a way of extracting water from air using renewable energy for less than two cents a litre.

Another prize that is still up for grabs is for carbon capture and storage, a putative approach to stopping the rise of climate-changing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. To claim a share of the $15m on offer, winners will have to turn carbon dioxide extracted from power-plant flues into something useful—and do so profitably. On April 9th the ten-strong shortlist of those attempting this feat was announced.

At the moment, demand for carbon dioxide...Continue reading

An ambitious African-science project is getting into its stride

5 Apr 2018, 2:51 pm

AFRICA is home to what may be the world’s oldest counting tools. The Ishango bone from the Democratic Republic of Congo (both sides of which are pictured above) and the Lebombo bone from South Africa date from 20,000 years and 43,000 years ago respectively. Both are baboon fibulae that have been notched by human hand. Some archaeologists think they were used as tally sticks.

These artefacts were cited last week at a gathering of the Next Einstein Forum, held in Kigali, Rwanda, as examples of Africa’s historical role in developing mathematics. The forum seeks to promote both science in Africa and African scientists. Its meeting in Kigali was the largest general scientific gathering ever held in Africa. Nearly 1,600 people attended.

The forum exists because, regardless of how things stood in the upper Palaeolithic, in modern times Africa lags behind other continents in world-class scientific research. According to a report by the World Bank and Elsevier, a scientific- and...Continue reading