Pop Culture Link Round Up 12.21.14

Who likes spiders

Among Inspector Gadget’s many strange features—teeth that fly around on their own (go, go gadget teeth) and a flower that pops out of his hat (go, go gadget flower) and of course gadget Spanish translation—it’s his telescoping neck that seems to most defy conventional biology. But it’d be hard to argue that a super-long neck doesn’t come in handy in a pinch.Just ask the bizarre assassin spiders of Australia, South America, and Madagascar, with their craning necks and enormous jaws and general what-in-the-what-now appearance. These beauties (also known appropriately enough as pelican spiders) hunt other spiders, and by deploying their jaws out 90 degrees from their necks, they can impale prey, inject venom, and let them dangle there to die, all without getting bitten themselves. It’s a bit like the school bully holding a nerd at arm’s-length while the poor kid swings hopelessly at the air.

Now, spiders aren’t supposed to have necks, and in fact calling this a neck is a bit of a misnomer. The front bit of a spider is known as the cephalothorax, where you find its legs and mouthparts and eyes, and on top of that is a plate known as a carapace (these terms are a bit goofy so I’m going to keep calling it a neck for the sake of your brain, but now you know the score). So they don’t really have a head as we’d recognize it. But in the assassin spiders, that carapace has been extremely elongated into a kind of tube. The eyes and the jaws (scientifically known as chelicerae, so I’ll just keep calling them jaws if you don’t mind) sit up at the top. Perhaps most weirdly, though, the feeding mouthparts remain down at the base of the neck. So really they have necks in the middle of their faces.

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 Keeping with the spider theme, here’s some cool new tech:

A new kind of vibration sensor could us ‘Spidey sense’

Korean scientists are developing a powerful new sound and motion sensor that could someday give people, buildings and more the equivalent of “Spidey sense.” This isn’t some fantastical plot twist from a new Spider-Man movie, but rather a practical application of the discovery of how spider legs function in the real world.

These “crack sensors” (a.k.a. “nanoscale crack junction-based sensory systems”), which can be worn by people or placed on objects, were inspired by spiders’ crack-shaped slit organs. Residing on spider legs, these organs are made up of the spider’s stiff exoskeleton on the surface and a sort of flexible pad in the gaps, which connects directly to the spider’s nervous system.

Experts see almost endless possible applications of this new technology — for use in everything from sound recording and speech recognition to movement and sensing the earliest tremors before an earthquake. It could also be used as a wearable blood-pressure sensor and for other medical monitoring applications.

These pads are highly sensitive to sound and vibrations, and serve as an early warning system for spiders. It’s why a spider almost appears to sense when you’re going to swat it with a magazine and escapes before you can complete your swing. In other words, your tiniest movements probably triggered the creepy crawler’s built-in spider sense alert system.

In a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature, the researchers detail a remarkable example of biomimicry, which uses nature’s models as inspiration for solving human problems.

Specifically, the researchers show how to build a mechanical version of these slit-based sensors out of a 20 nanometer layer of platinum on top of a viscoelastic polymer. By deforming the platinum layer to create cracks that open to the soft polymer below, the researchers were able to measure the electrical conductance across the surface of their new sensor.

In tests comparing the sensor’s ability to recognize sound, the crack or mechanical spider sensor outperformed a microphone — at least in challenging audio conditions. When measuring a person saying “go,” “jump,” “shoot” and “stop,” the mechanical spider sensor accurately captured the words in a 92 decibel environment, while a standing microphone could not clearly record the audio.

The scientists achieved a similar result when they attached a sensor to a violin and plucked out a simple tune. It accurately measured the notes, which were converted into digital signals to recreate the tune. They also used the sensor to, when worn on a wrist, accurately measure a heartbeat.

The article goes on to discuss the science behind the sensors, which is a bit outside my wheelhouse, but others might enjoy reading it.

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Keeping with the tech theme…move over Jaws!  Here’s the Navy’s new robot sub:

The American military does a lot of work in the field of biomimicry, stealing designs from nature for use in new technology. After all, if you’re going to design a robot, where better to draw inspiration than from billions of years of evolution? The latest result of these efforts is the GhostSwimmer: The Navy’s underwater drone designed to look and swim like a real fish, and a liability to spook the bejeezus out of any beach goer who’s familiar with Jaws.

The new gizmo, at five feet long and nearly 100 pounds, is about the size of an albacore tuna but looks more like a shark, at least from a distance. It’s part of an experiment to explore the possibilities of using biomimetic, unmanned, underwater vehicles, and the Navy announced it wrapped up testing of the design last week.

The robot uses its tail for propulsion and control, like a real fish. It can operate in water as shallow as 10 inches or dive down to 300 feet. It can be controlled remotely via a 500-foot tether, or swim independently, periodically returning to the surface to communicate. Complete with dorsal and pectoral fins, the robofish is stealthy too: It looks like a fish and moves like a fish, and, like other underwater vehicles, is difficult to spot even if you know to look for it.

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In more tech news, who’s ready for a prototype flying car?

Apparently it can fly for 430 miles with a full tank of gas and reach speeds of up to 124 mph. In car mode, it’s designed to be driven on regular roads, to park at normal parking spots, and fill up at normal gas stations.  Neat-O!

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New record set for world’s deepest living fish

Researchers have observed a record for the world’s deepest living fish, found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest site on earth.

The new species was recorded at a depth of 8,145 meters (26,722 feet), breaking the previous depth record, set in 2008, by nearly 500 meters (1,640 feet), researchers said in a statement.

“This really deep fish did not look like anything we had seen before, nor does it look like anything we know of,” Alan Jamieson from the University of Aberdeen said. “It is unbelievably fragile, with large wing-like fins and a head resembling a cartoon dog.”

Click the link to see pics of the fish.

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Pop Culture Link Round Up 12.21.14
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