What is an itch? Scientists have speculated that it is a mild manifestation of pain or perhaps a malfunction of overly sensitive nerve endings stuck in a feedback loop. They have even wondered whether itching is mostly psychological (just think about bed bugs for a minute). Now a study rules out these possibilities by succeeding where past attempts have failed: a group of neuroscientists have finally isolated a unique type of nerve cell that makes us itch and only itch.
In previous research, neuroscientists Liang Han and Xinzhong Dong of Johns Hopkins University and their colleagues determined that some sensory neurons with nerve endings in the skin have a unique protein receptor on them called MrgprA3. They observed under a microscope that chemicals known to create itching caused these neurons to generate electrical signals but that painful stimuli such as hot water or capsaicin, the potent substance in hot peppers, did not. (via Scientists Identify Neurons That Register Itch: Scientific American)
Google’s Plan To Fight Human Trafficking With Big Data
A collection of tech and data companies are working together to track, map, and fight the criminal underworld that ships people around the world.
Google announced this week that it’s giving a $3 million Global Impact Award (part of a series of grants given to nonprofits changing the world with technology) to help three anti-trafficking organizations—Polaris Project, Liberty Asia, and La Strada International—create a Global Human Trafficking Hotline Network. While these organizations operate effective trafficking hotlines across the world, they don’t share their information. That’s the kind of big-data problem that Google can help with.
Nine months ago, Google Ideas convened a summit on exposing, mapping, and disrupting illicit networks—the kind that organize human trafficking. This is a big problem that’s often hidden from public discourse; last year, over 20 million people were trafficked across the globe, generating over $32 billion in profits.
Many of you have likely heard about the bombing at the Boston Marathon today. I’ve created this downloadable wallpaper to raise money to benefit the victims. All money raised will be evenly distributed between Boston Children’s Hospital and Red Cross of Boston. You can donate here.
Please spread the word, not only for this one, but for all charitable endeavors, including blood donation. The people of Boston need our help. Let’s give it to them.
Comet Lemmon: A preview for April
As Comet 2011 L4 PanSTARRS moves out of the inner solar system, we’ve got another comet coming into view this month for northern hemisphere observers.
Comet C/2012 F6 Lemmon is set to become a binocular object low to the southeast at dawn for low northern latitudes in the first week of April. And no, this isn’t an April Fools’ Day hoax, despite the comet’s name. The comet is on an extremely long elliptical orbit, with a period of over 11,000 years. Comet Lemmon just passed perihelion at 0.74 astronomical units from the Sun on March 24th.
Binoculars are your friend in finding this comet. In early April, begin slowly sweeping the southeast horizon about an hour before local sunrise looking for a fuzzy “star” that refuses to reach focus. Comet Lemmon will get progressively easier in the dawn sky for latitudes successively farther north as the month of April progresses.
Comet Lemmon will continue to gain elevation as it crosses from Cetus into the constellation Pisces on April 13th. An interesting grouping occurs as the planet Mercury passes only a few degrees from the comet from April 15th to April 17th. Having just past greatest elongation on March 31st, Mercury will shine at magnitude -0.1 and make a good guide to locate the comet in brightening dawn skies. The pair is joined by the waning crescent Moon on the mornings of April 7th and 8th which may also provide for the first sighting opportunities from low north latitudes around these dates. Comet Lemmon will then slide across the celestial equator on April 20th and cross the plane of the ecliptic on April 22nd as it heads up into the constellation Andromeda in mid-May.
Image credit: Nightscape Photography
Snapshots of TEDxKids@Chiyoda, a TEDxKids event in Tokyo, Japan.
TEDxKids@Chiyoda brought over a hundred youngsters to the Chiyoda-Ku district of Tokyo for a day of talks, performances, and activities. The event was brimming with great ideas, but here are just a few highlights:
- TED Talk subtitles in kid-friendly Japanese: “As many Japanese kids doesn’t speak English yet,” organizer Ryuta Aoki said, “and many Japanese subtitles for TED Talks are too difficult for kids to understand, we made subtitles for kids and used them for TEDxKids@Chiyoda. The translation team got a lot of words of thanks from participants, especially their parents.”
- Live Japanese sign language interpretation: The event was streamed online with Japanese sign language interpretation, so that hearing-impaired kids and adults could join in on the action.
- A giant cardboard stage set: TEDxKids@Chiyoda’s design team created an over-sized table, chair, hat, shoes, and even a muffler made completely out of cardboard for a stage that even grown-ups couldn’t help but be wowed by.
- The TEDxKids@Chiyoda Kids’ Talent Search: The TEDxKids@Chiyoda team sent out a call for hopeful speakers before the event, eventually receiving over 10,000+ hits to its social media, and, in the end, two talented youth speakers — recipients of hearty applause on the big day.
Future Farms - with people concentrating more in cities than ever, here are several fascinating concepts of bringing food production into an urban environment. The image shows the Dragonfly concept (modeled after the translucent wings of a Dragonfly), a 600 meter high vertical farm building designed for New York City’s Roosevelt Island. There are several more detailed illustrations over at designboom, showing the concept to include both agricultural and livestock farming, together with human living spaces. No word yet if this building will become real, but it would certainly make for a stunning addition to the existing skyline.
To ensure the social diversity and a permanent life cycle (24h/24) in the tower, the mixed programmation is mainly laid out around two poles of housing and work places. Around housings, offices and research laboratories as well as the most private to the most public agricultural and leisure spaces are designed in gardens, kitchen gardens, orchards, meadows, rice fields, farms and suspended fields.
The distribution of flows is made around a true safe spine spreading in loop the numerous elevators, the goods elevators and stair wells serving all the levels by separating simultaneously the inputs and the outputs recycled from plants, animals and human beings.
The Mercury-bound MESSENGER spacecraft captured several stunning images of Earth during a gravity assist swingby of its home planet on Aug. 2, 2005. Several hundred images, taken with the wide-angle camera in MESSENGER’s Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS), were sequenced into a movie documenting the view from MESSENGER as it departed Earth.
Comprising 358 frames taken over 24 hours, the movie follows Earth through one complete rotation. The spacecraft was 40,761 miles (65,598 kilometers) above South America when the camera started rolling on Aug. 2. It was 270,847 miles (435,885 kilometers) away from Earth - farther than the Moon’s orbit - when it snapped the last image on Aug. 3.
As Galileo receded from its second flyby of Earth on December 16 and 17, 1992, it captured this sequence of Earth rotating as the Moon zipped by on its orbit. There are 56 frames in total, each separated by 15 minutes, spanning about 14 hours.
Credit: NASA / JPL / Doug Ellison
Horrifying footage of the Exxon Pegasus pipeline spill in an Arkansas neighborhood last week. As Sally Kohn put it in Salon, “the only difference between the Pegasus pipeline that leaked and the proposed Keystone XL? The proposed Keystone XL is longer — over 300 miles longer than the pipeline that leaked in Arkansas on Friday. That means the Keystone XL pipeline is even more likely to leak.”
Hey, why is this Keystone XL Pipeline such a big deal? What’s the controversy? Don’t we want clean energy and a booming economy full of jobs and opportunity? Or have I just been listening to my - parents, peers, relatives, mainstream media outlets - without doing any of my own scientific inquiry into the issue as a member of the human race and steward of the planet?
Astronauts on board the International Space Station don’t have a lot of free time, which means the last thing they want to do is expend energy on mundane chores like vacuuming. Enter Robonaut 2, the first humanoid robot in space that takes on these everyday tasks.
R2, which has been on the ISS since 2011, has a mission: clean handrails, vacuum air filters and take air-flow measurements. The problem is it doesn’t yet have the ability to learn and complete the work. So NASA is looking for someone to teach the bot. The Robonaut Challenge calls on contestants to write algorithms that allow R2 to interact with a training dashboard the space agency built.
“R2 is meant to contribute back to the ISS by freeing the astronauts up to do more scientific research and the more difficult tasks,” Allison Thackston of the Robonaut team tells Mashable via email. “We measure our cost savings in crew hours saved, which translates into more important scientific and engineering research being done.”
Competitors will start by writing code that enables R2 to “see” and recognize the state and location of LED-illuminated buttons and switches on the dashboard. Building on that successful algorithm, contestants will write control software that manipulates the objects that Robonaut can recognize and locate.
The contest started on Monday morning and will run for three weeks. However, the Robonaut team says it won’t take long for solutions to start trickling in.
“While there is no requirement for contestants to submit their solutions early, we usually begin seeing the first solutions within a week of launch,” says Robonaut’s Julia Badger.
NASA may eventually use the Robonaut 2 to prepare or clean up work sites for astronauts outside the ISS. However, as sophisticated as the technology is, R2 won’t likely replace humans in space.
“Robotics technology has a long way to go,” says Badger. “But having a robotic assistant is a great way to push that technology while still having the benefit of human interaction and supervisory control.”
NASA is hosting its Robonaut Challenge with TopCoder, the world’s largest open platform for the computer science community.