Some Of The Many Things We Are Interested In:

The Sunscreen Pill?

Coral could hold key to sunscreen pill

By Michelle Roberts Health reporter, BBC News

Scientists hope to harness coral’s natural defence against the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays to make a sunscreen pill for humans.

The King’s College London team visited Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to uncover the genetic and biochemical processes behind coral’s innate gift.

By studying a few samples of the endangered Acropora coral they believe they can synthetically replicate in the lab the key compounds responsible.

Tests on human skin could begin soon.

Before creating a tablet version, the team, led by Dr Paul Long, plan to test a lotion containing the same compounds as those found in coral.

To do this, they will copy the genetic code the coral uses to make the compounds and put it into bacteria in the lab that can rapidly replicate to produce large quantities of it.

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Once we recreate the compounds we can put them into a lotion and test them on skin discarded after cosmetic surgery tummy tucks”

Lead researcher Dr Paul Long

Dr Long said: “We couldn’t and wouldn’t want to use the coral itself as it is an endangered species.”

He said scientists had known for some time that coral and some algae could protect themselves from the harsh UV rays in tropical climates by producing their own sunscreens but, until now, they didn’t know how.

“What we have found is that the algae living within the coral makes a compound that we think is transported to the coral, which then modifies it into a sunscreen for the benefit of both the coral and the algae.

“Not only does this protect them both from UV damage, but we have seen that fish that feed on the coral also benefit from this sunscreen protection, so it is clearly passed up the food chain.”

Acropora coral sample The reef samples provide clues to how the coral protects itself from the sun

This could ultimately mean that people might be able to get inbuilt sun protection for their skin and eyes by taking a tablet containing the compounds. But for now, Dr Long’s team are focusing their efforts on a lotion.

“Once we recreate the compounds we can put them into a lotion and test them on skin discarded after cosmetic surgery tummy tucks.

“We will not know how much protection against the sun it might give until we begin testing.

“But there is a need for better sunscreens.”

Another long-term goal of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council-funded study is to look at whether the processes could also be used for developing sustainable agriculture in the Third World.

The natural sunscreen compounds found in coral could be used to produce UV-tolerant crop plants capable of withstanding harsh tropical UV light.

 

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Space Junk and Collisions in Orbit

Space debris: Time to clean up the sky

 Fortunately, there have been very few collisions in orbit so far

The US National Research Council’s report on space debris is not the first of its kind.

A wide range of space agencies and intergovernmental organisations has taken a bite out of this issue down the years.

The opinion expressed is always the same: the problem is inescapable and it’s getting worse. It’s also true the tone of concern is being ratcheted up.

There is now a wild jungle of debris overhead – everything from old rocket stages that continue to loop around the Earth decades after they were launched, to the flecks of paint that have lifted off once shiny space vehicles and floated off into the distance.

It is the legacy of more than half a century of space activity. Today, it is said there are more than 22,000 pieces of debris actively being tracked.

These are just the big, easy-to-see items, however. Moving around unseen are an estimated 500,000 particles ranging in size between 1-10cm across, and perhaps tens of millions of other particles smaller than 1cm.

All of this stuff is travelling at several kilometres per second – sufficient velocity for even the smallest fragment to become a damaging projectile if it strikes an operational space mission.

Gravity ensures that everything that goes up will eventually come back down, but the bath is currently being filled faster than the plug hole and the overflow pipe can empty it.

Orbital objects

Man and nature are also conspiring in unexpected ways to make the situation worse. The extra CO2 pumped into the atmosphere down the years has cooled some of its highest reaches – the thermosphere.

This, combined with low levels of solar activity, have shrunk the atmosphere, limiting the amount of drag on orbital objects that ordinarily helps to pull debris from the sky. In other words, the junk is also staying up longer.

DLR DEOS conceptual artwork The German space agency’s DEOS spacecraft could capture rogue satellites

Leaving aside the growth in debris from collisions for a moment, the number of satellites being sent into space is also increasing rapidly.

The satellite industry launched an average of 76 satellites per year over the past 10 years. In the coming decade, this activity is expected to grow by 50%.

The most recent Euroconsult analysis suggested some 1,145 satellites would be built for launch between 2011 and 2020.

A good part of this will be the deployment of communications constellations – broadband relays and sat phone systems.

These constellations, in the case of the second-generation Iridium network, can number more than 60 spacecraft.

By and large, everyone operating in orbit now follows international mitigation guidelines. Or tries to.

These include ensuring there is enough propellant at the end of a satellite’s life so that it can be pushed into a graveyard orbit and the venting of fuel tanks on spent rocket stages so that they cannot explode (a major source of the debris now up there).

Space junk

The goal is to make sure all low-orbiting material is removed within 25 years of launch.

I say “by and large” because there has been some crass behaviour in the recent past. What the Chinese were thinking when they deliberately destroyed one of their polar orbiting satellites in 2007 with a missile is anyone’s guess. It certainly defied all logic for a nation that professes to have major ambitions in space.

The destruction created more than 3,000 trackable objects and an estimated 150,000 debris particles larger than 1cm.

It was without question the biggest single debris-generating event in the space age. It was estimated to have increased the known existing orbital debris population at that time by more than 15%.

A couple of years later, of course, we saw the accidental collision of the Cosmos 2251 and Iridium 33 satellites. Taken together, the two events essentially negated all the mitigation gains that had been made over the previous 20 years to reduce junk production from spent rocket explosions.

There are lots of ideas out there to clean up space. Many of them, I have to say, look far-fetched and utterly impractical.

Uncertain futureIdeas such as deploying large nets to catch debris or firing harpoons into old satellites to drag them back to Earth are non-starters. If nothing else, some of these devices risk creating more debris than they would remove.

It has been calculated that just taking away a few key spent rocket stages or broken satellites would substantially reduce the potential for collision and cap the growth in space debris over coming decades. And in the next few years we’re likely to see a number of robotic spacecraft demonstrate the rendezvous and capture technologies that would be needed in these selective culls.

The German space agency, for example, is working on such a mission called DEOS that is likely to fly in 2015.

Dr Robert Massey, Royal Astronomical Society: “It is a serious issue”

These approaches are quite complex, however, and therefore expensive. Reliable low-tech solutions will also be needed.

There is a lot of research currently going into deployable sails. These large-area structures would be carried by satellites and rocket stages and unfurled at the end of their missions. The sails would increase the drag on the spacecraft, pulling them out of the sky faster. Somehow attaching these sails to objects already in space is one solution that is sure to be tried.

“There are a number of technologies being talked about to address the debris issue – both from past space activity and from future missions,” says Dr Hugh Lewis, a lecturer in aerospace engineering at Southampton University, UK.

“I think we are a long way off from having something which is reliable, relatively risk-free and relatively low cost.

“There are number of outstanding and fundamental issues that we still have to resolve. Which are the objects we have to target and how many do we remove? Who’s going to pay?

“It is also worth remembering there are a lot of uncertainties in our future predictions. Reports that you read typically present average results; we tend to do ensembles in our simulations and some outcomes are worse than others. So, many issues still need to be addressed, but that dialogue is taking place.

“This report paints quite an alarming picture but I think we can be a bit more upbeat, certainly if we are contemplating removing objects.

“Fortunately, space is big and collisions are still very rare. After all, we’ve only had four known collisions and only one involving two intact objects. It’s still not a catastrophic situation, and we need to be careful about using phrases like ‘tipping point’ and ‘exponential growth’.”

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Your Feet as a Power Source? We Are Just Steps Away

Walking could power your next cell phone, researchers say

By Doug Gross, CNN

(CNN) — Will you be able to charge your next mobile phone simply by walking around?

A group of researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison hope so.

In an article this week in the journal Nature Communications, they unveiled a technology that would harness part of the energy people generate when they walk and push it to a phone or other mobile device.

“Humans, generally speaking, are very powerful energy-producing machines,” Tom Krupenkin, a UW-Madison professor of mechanical engineering, said in a news release from the school. “While sprinting, a person can produce as much as a kilowatt of power.”

He said harvesting even a small fraction of that power is enough to power a cell phone, laptop, flashlight or other electronics.

Under the system, an “energy harvester” that would be installed in a person’s shoe would capture some of the mechanical energy that typically burns away as heat and convert it to up to 20 watts of electrical power for a personal device.

The harvester would act as an intermediate transceiver, or Wi-Fi hot spot, to serve as a “middle man” between a mobile device and a wireless network, thereby reducing the amount of energy the phone needs to send and receive signals.

Researchers call the process “reverse electrowetting,” transferring the energy via nano-tubes containing thousands of liquid “micro-droplets.”

(We’re pretty sure that’s a good description, at any rate. Read the report, by Krupenkin and J. Ashley Taylor, for yourself here.)

The researchers say making their technology widely available would have a positive environmental impact, reducing society’s need for batteries and the pollution that ensues when they are disposed of improperly.

It would also have an impact in poor and developing countries, where charging electronics is often either impossible or expensive, and could benefit soldiers and police officers needing to power things like communications equipment and night-vision goggles, they say.

But what about everyday smartphone users who are tempted to yank their hair out after a few hours of using their phone without a charger handy?

Krupenkin said “reverse electrowetting” would conserve enough energy to make a typical cell phone battery last 10 times longer.

“You cut the power requirements of your cell phone dramatically by doing this,” he said.

The technology was developed with a grant from the National Science Foundation. Now Krupenkin and Taylor hope to make some money with it through a company they’ve created, InStep NanoPower.

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Hurricane Wind and Water Surges, Tech that can Help You Prepare

Tech to keep you safe from hurricanes

By Doug Gross, CNN

(CNN) — For East Coast residents keeping a worried eye on Hurricane Irene, there’s a host of mobile apps, Twitter feeds and other digital tools available to help.

Here are a few of them, including suggestions for how to stay plugged in if weather knocks out power in your area.

HurricaneHD ($3.99 in Apple Store)

HurricaneHD provides exclusive video, blog posts from weather experts and other tools for folks watching Irene and other future storms.

It has a tracking map that can display multiple storms at the same time, sends active storm bulletins and contains an archive of information about past hurricanes.

It can also use GPS to tell you how far away you are from various points of a nearing storm.

Weather Channel (free for Apple and Android devices)

Both the Android and Apple versions feature animated radar, video, local forecasts and the ability to upload photos and videos of local weather.

Weather Channel Max, free for the iPad, adds full-screen, customizable weather maps, in-motion radar and real-time Twitter feeds from Weather Channel meteorologists.

Hurricane Hound ($1.99, Android)

Based on Google Maps, Hurricane Hound tracks storms in the Atlantic and east Pacific, as well as passing along National Weather Service advisories and warnings.

StormPulse

StormPulse is a website that uses date from the National Hurricane Center, cloud imagery from the NERC Satellite Station and basic imagery from NASA.

Users can click back and forth to show radar, cloud cover, watches and warnings and other features on a real-time map.

Twitter Feeds

In the face of emergency situations, the fast-paced, minute-by-minute updates you can get from Twitter are handy. Whether you’re a Twitter user or not, you can pull up and read individual feeds as long as you have Web access.

The ocean service from NOAA, the federal government’s science agency for oceans and coasts, has a Twitter feed to follow.

NOAA also runs @stormprediction — a feed specifically tailored toward sharing severe weather alerts. And FEMA has a feed to share preparation tips and news about emergency response efforts.

Of course, we’re also inclined to suggest you follow CNN’s huge team of folks following the storm. Here is a curated list of Twitter accounts for the CNN team dedicated to Irene.

Staying Powered

Assuming mobile networks are up and running, folks in areas hit by a storm like Irene could be affected anyway by persisting power outages.

To stay plugged-in, it will be important to have a power source to recharge your mobile devices that doesn’t depend on plugging into the wall or desktop.

The gadget reviewers at CNET are fans of the Solio Universal and CPS Cellboost chargers. Battery companies like Energizer offer multiple chargers, and the store where you bought your phone (or tablet) very likely sells batter-powered or solar chargers from the phone-maker or a third party.

The Axis is a multi-purpose device sanctioned by the American Red Cross. In addition to a USB charger for mobile phones and other devices, the $70, hand-crank-powered device has an AM/FM/NOAA radio and flashlight.

Think of it as the techie Swiss Army Knife for power-out disasters.

A couple of things to keep in mind: solar chargers will need sunlight, so will probably be more useful in the aftermath of a storm than during the heart of it.

And, obviously, battery-powered models are most handy with a backup supply of dry batteries.

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Science of Smiles

Our Social Nature: The Surprising Science of Smiles

By Danielle Venton

All hail the powerful smile. The right smile, at the right time, wins friends and calms enemies. The smile held for too long, not long enough, flashed too intensively or too dimly, arouses suspicion, fear or anger.

Far from being a straightforward show of joy, the language of smiles is filled with subtlety: a meld of our inner state, surroundings, social training, conscious and unconscious.

The new book Lip Service: Smiles in Life, Death, Trust, Lies, Work, Memory, Sex, and Politics, published August 8, explores the nuances and effects of an expression we use often, but rarely think about. Wired.com spoke with author, Marianne LaFrance, an experimental psychologist at Yale University, about why we smile, how we do it, and the rise of the emoticon.

Wired.com: Are we able to intuitively tell when someone is faking a smile?

Marianne LaFrance: Yes, often, but not always. When experimental studies are done in which fake and apparently spontaneous smiles are shown in pictures or brief videos, to both adults and kids, and the only thing they have to do is mark a smile as genuine or not, people are pretty good at telling the difference.

On the other hand, in more complicated real-world settings most people are not very good.

 

Wired.com: Why the difference?

LaFrance: In many interactions we’re not paying very close attention. Details that we might catch as not exactly right if we paid attention, we miss because we’re not looking. Also there are a lot of theories about what a real smile looks like. Some of those are patently wrong.

People think they can tell by looking at what the overall face looks like, but in fact there is one muscle [that shows sincerity]. It’s a muscle, called the obicularis occuli, that encircles the eye socket. Most people don’t pay very close attention to and it’s very hard to deliberately adopt. So when people genuinely smile, in a true burst of positive emotion, not only to the corners of the mouth, controlled by the zygomaticus major, but this muscle around the eye also contracts. This causes the crows feet wrinkles that fan out from the outer corners of the eyes and its also responsible for folds in the upper eyelid. Most people can’t do that deliberately.

Wired.com: What about actors and con men?

LaFrance: The muscle doesn’t seem to be under voluntary control normally, but with training and practice, people can learn to use it, some better than others. And of course your garden variety psychopath or Machiavellian personality tends to be better at it. A characteristic of con men is that they somehow manage to exude a positive, good feeling to get themselves into your good graces, only to exploit it.

Wired.com: Are many muscles involved in smiling?

LaFrance: Two, the obicularis occuli and zygomaticus major, are the primary muscles involved in the so-called genuine smile. But the so-called mouth smile can co-occur with a number of other muscles on the face at the same time. So the mouth may be smiling but the brows could be showing anger, the eyes could be showing surprise or fear, the upper lip could be showing contempt, the nose could be showing some disgust. So the smile is interesting to those of us who study it because it’s not just one thing. It’s multiple and complicated.

Even the temporal pattern is important. Genuine smiles tend to come on the face relatively languidly and go off the face in the same kind of way. Fake smiles often seem to snap on the face and snap off.

Wired.com: Humans have always been captivated by smiles. When did smile science get its real start?

LaFrance: In the late 1800s Charles Darwin published his famous book The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. He devoted some time to smiling, but was more interested in other facial expressions. His colleague across the channel, Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne, was doing experiments where he would zap single muscles on the face with electricity and then look at the changes. His primary distinction was between smiles that came from the soul, non-deliberate smiles, and the ones put there consciously. That’s why people who study smiles call the spontaneous smile the Duchenne smile.

Left, non-Duchenne or social smile; right, Duchenne or genuine smile. Image: Megan Mangum.

Wired.com: What does a person’s tendency to smile tell us about them?

LaFrance: Some people are inclined to smile more, and that tends to indicate they are a more upbeat personality. But it’s not a perfect correlation. Some people don’t smile often and are quite content. Others smile a lot of the time, but it is out of anxiety.

Most smiling is social. There are a kazillion situations that, as we become socialized, we learn that many situations call for a smile. Kids learn early on — girls learn much faster than boys — that it is good to fake a smile in some circumstances. Imagine you are given a tacky or disappointing gift; it is a mature behavior to smile and thank the person, because that is the socially appropriate thing to do.

When people are by themselves, believing they are not being observed, there isn’t a lot of smiling. We might think that if we’re reading a book by ourselves and we come across a funny passage we’d break into a smile, but it’s actually pretty rare. But if that same passage is being read to us, or other people are in the room, we’re more likely to smile.

Wired.com: Are there differences in the way males and females smile?

LaFrance: On average girls and women smile more. This appears to be a function of two things. Boys are encouraged not to smile very much. Expressivity is taken by some as sign of emotionality, of femininity, something many men, wouldn’t be caught dead being associated with.

Now women, even when they are not feeling much, are strongly encouraged to look and sound as though they are. Spend some time around young teenage girls and you hear a lot of, “Ooh! Oh, that’s wonderful! Love it! That’s fabulous! Fabulous!” Women who are not very expressive are regarded with some suspicion. They seem cold, withholding, depressed. Acquiring the rules of how expressive one should be with their face is a very socialized process.

Wired.com: Are there differences in the way men and women interpret smiles?

LaFrance: Yes, in general women are more accurate than men in detecting what is really going on with someone by looking at their face and listening to their voice. Women are more likely to tell the difference between a felt and a fake smile.

But there’s another big difference between the perception of smiles. When a woman smiles, men tend to see it as flirtatiousness, even when it has nothing to do with flirtatiousness. Whereas when a woman sees a smile on anybody’s face, man or another woman, she is much more likely to make differentiated judgments and see it as a happy, nervous, embarrassed or fake smile.

Wired.com: Smiles have two ways of getting to our faces, a voluntary and an involuntary way. Why is that?

LaFrance: We don’t really know. Some things we do intentionally, other things spontaneously. Some facial expressions can probably be taken at face value. However, we are also great con artists. It makes evolutionary sense to show expressions that we don’t always feel, and not to show expressions that we do feel. If we always showed exactly what we felt then others could potentially see through to our souls and take advantage of us. But we also occasionally reveal our emotions spontaneously and genuinely, that keeps us on our toes.

Wired.com: Do animals smile?

LaFrance: People often ask me if dogs smile and I have to answer, not exactly endearingly, that dogs don’t smile. Now sometimes it looks like the outer corners of their mouth go up, and it looks like a human smile so it’s interpreted as one. But if smiles are meant to be a display of positive emotion, or a gesture of social recognition, then no. Now, non-human primates do show facial expressions, similar to what we call a smile, that are associated with greetings and camaraderie.

Wired.com: Some medical conditions erase a person’s ability to smile. What do they go through when that happens?

LaFrance: It can be just traumatic. Smiling is so central to our feeling of comfort in the world that, when you’re unable to smile, we are made uncomfortable by that. Or, if you’re with someone who adopts an impassive persona and doesn’t smile, it can be really unnerving.

Recently a woman whose face and eyes had been torn off by a 200-pound chimpanzee had a face transplant. Doctors are now reporting that the transplant seems to be taking hold, because she is able to smell and smile. This woman will be blind for the rest of her life, but it’s remarkable that she’s able to smile. It’ll be important for her life.

Wired.com: What is it about unsmiling people that is unnerving?

LaFrance: People convey by their faces that they acknowledge us, that we’re alive, that we matter, that we are not just objects to be dispensed with.

Wired.com: Why can smiles mean such different things in different cultures?

LaFrance: We acquire ways of knowing who is us and who is them. There have been fascinating studies where Australians and Americans were shown a bunch of face shots of other Australians and Americans. Their task was to identify which nationality, Australian or American, the person was. Shown neutral expressions, accuracy was no better than chance. But shown smiles, they were very good at guessing a person’s nationality. Subtle difference in a person’s smile are detectable, even if we can’t describe why.

Now there are also vast cross-cultural differences in the rules for smiling. Who is it OK to smile at, who not? For how long? For example, often when New Englanders go to the South, they wonder why Southerners are smiling all the time. Sometimes they feel everyone is charming. Sometimes the difference is met with dismay.

Rarely do we think, “Isn’t it interesting that another culture has different smiling rules?” We view them as being a different type of person. Now, at home, judgments based on a person’s smiling habits might be warranted. But when you’re talking about cross-cultural boundaries, those judgments can be really off-base.

Wired.com: Did you come across anything surprising while researching this book?

LaFrance: I found that in obituaries people often, more than any other attribute, mentioned their loved one’s smile. Why is it that, after a person is dead, they are described as someone with a smile? It is one more indicator that smiling is a way we connect with other people, in a way that can be easy to underestimate, but in fact I don’t think its importance can be underestimated.

Wired.com: What do you think about emoticons?

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Spiders Help Create Skin Graphs

The secret to creating artificial skin might be spider silk, researchers now suggest.

Skin grafts are vital for treating burn victims and other patients. For instance, chronic wounds such as bedsores in hospitalized patients afflict 6.5 million in the United States alone for estimated costs of $25 billion annually.

Instead of using skin from a body for a graft, scientists are investigating artificial skin. Ideally such a graft would be of a material tolerated by the body, have skin cells embedded within it to replace lost tissue, degrade safely over time as the new skin grows in and be strong enough to withstand all the rigors ordinary skin experiences. Materials investigated until now did not seem strong enough for the task, said tissue engineer Hanna Wendt at Medical School Hannover in Germany.

Now Wendt and her colleagues suggest silk might be up for the job.

Spider silk is the toughest known natural material. Moreover, there is abody of folklore dating back at least 2,000 years regarding the potential medical value of webs — for instance, in fighting infections, stemming bleeding, healing wounds and serving as artificial ligaments.

The extraordinary strength and stretchiness of spider silk “are important factors for easy handling and transfer of many kinds of implants,” Wendt said. In addition, unlike silk from silkworms, that from spiders apparently does not trigger the body’s rejection reactions.

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New Display for Your Heart

New Health-Monitoring Mirror Displays Heart Rate

Stuart Fox, InnovationNewsDaily Assistant Editor

VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA — Mirror, mirror on the wall, who has the lowest resting heart rate of them all?

OK, so it may not be enough to provoke revenge plots against Snow White, but that doesn’t mean the Cardiocam mirror isn’t useful in its own way. The reflective device, which debuted here at the SIGGRAPH interactive technology conference, measures and displays the heart rate of whoever gazes into its shiny surface, allowing users to review some of their health metrics during their regular morning hygiene routine.

The Cardiocam mirror, designed by students at the MIT Media Lab, uses a webcam to record the minute changes in skin tone that occur as facial capillaries fill and empty with the beating of a heart. A computer analyzes the facial color change, and then displays the user’s heart rate on the mirror. Over time, the mirror establishes a baseline resting heart rate, allowing the user to monitor changes in their cardiac health over time.

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