When Wrong is Right
Sep24

When Wrong is Right

While it’s common for people in all types of endeavors to aim for perfection, many of the greatest innovations actually come from mistakes. To put it another way, what may appear to be wrong at first glance may in fact be very right, though not always in the way that was intended. If explorers had never gotten lost, many parts of the world would have remained undiscovered. The most famous example of this is Columbus stumbling into “discovering” America while trying to find an alternate route to the Orient. In a similar vein, many of the world’s greatest inventions and discoveries came about due to mistakes, misunderstandings, and miscalculations. For example, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin by accident. He found that mold growing in a petri dish he had put aside had consumed the bacteria surrounding it. In another classic example of a “happy accident,” two men named Penzias and Wilson received the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery of cosmic background radiation, but only after repeatedly trying to shoo away the pigeons – and sweeping away the droppings left behind – they thought were responsible for the noise in their signal. It’s not necessary to be an explorer or inventor to benefit from this principle. People in all lines of work, from graphic artists to chefs, often find that some of their best creations come from what first appear to be mistakes. In order to be open to this, however, it’s essential to have an open-minded attitude. It also helps not to be overly attached to a specific, predictable outcome. Another important reason to value mistakes is that they provide clues about how to do something correctly. Thomas Edison is famous for saying, before he had successfully created a working light bulb, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” This type of attitude requires quite a bit of persistence, but it often pays off handsomely in the long run. For these reasons, it’s best not to think in terms of right vs. wrong or success vs. failure in any endeavor. Every apparent misstep can either help people find the solution they were seeking or even open the door to a completely unexpected discovery. People who are too quick to dismiss something as a failure or error may deprive themselves of unforeseen...

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Throwback Thursday – The Antikythera Mechanism
Sep18

Throwback Thursday – The Antikythera Mechanism

The Antikythera Mechanism, an ancient, hand-crafted calculating machine featuring more than 30 bronze gears, is unlike anything of its time, many considering it to be more valuable than the Mona Lisa. The device was first discovered in 1900 by sponge divers sorting through an ancient shipwreck off the coast of Antikythera. Since then, scientists have been working to unlock the secret of its 80 known fragments. Researchers have determined that the Antikythera Mechanism was most likely the size of a shoebox and featured exterior dials and inner gears that allowed ancient Greeks to determine the positions of the sun, moon, Mercury and Venus for a given date. Furthermore, new research confirms claims that the machine could also indicate the positions of Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn. Using three-dimensional X-ray scanners, researchers unlocked the inner-workings of the device, and, with high-resolution surface imaging, faded inscriptions on the surface of the Antikythera Mechanism were brought to life.  On the device’s front dials, the analysis uncovered markings that corresponded with the zodiac calendar as well as pointers for the sun and moon called the “golden little sphere” and “little sphere.” In addition, the back dials seem to have been used as solar and lunar eclipse predictors. According to researchers, utilizing two overlapping gear-wheels, the device could also imitate the moon’s intermittent movements which are caused by its elliptical orbit. Interestingly enough, further analysis of this newly discovered lettering allowed researchers to date the device to around 150 to 100 B.C.  rather than the previous radiocarbon estimate of 65...

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Could a Real-life Iron Man Suit be Far Behind?
Sep17

Could a Real-life Iron Man Suit be Far Behind?

For our military to remain combat ready at all times, every vehicle, from helicopters to aircraft carriers, must be diligently maintained. This job requires sophisticated, heavy duty tools which quickly tax the energy of those using them. According to Adam Miller, director of new initiatives for Lockheed Martin, skilled works can only operate these tools for a few minutes before needing to rest. In a bid to remedy the high physical toll of using such equipment, Miller and a team of engineers have designed an industrial-use exoskeleton dubbed FORTIS. The suit, made from aluminum and carbon fiber, weighs about 30 pounds, and follows the contours of the user’s body. It includes fully-articulated joints to allow unhindered movement of the operator, allowing the wearer to move about normally while in the exoskeleton. To help mitigate the physical wear of industrial work, tools are mounted directly onto FORTIS, which redirects their weight through the joints in the exoskeleton and down to the ground. This alleviates stress on the entire body, allowing workers to wield their tools more efficiently. Initial tests report that the exoskeleton is capable of increasing productivity from between two to 27 times, depending on the tools being used and the task performed. One assessment of FORTIS’s abilities measured the time a worker could use a 16 pound grinder overhead without having to rest. The operator’s performance increased from three minutes of work without the exoskeleton to thirty when FORTIS-equipped – a ten-fold improvement. The initial process for developing FORTIS was simply observing how humans moved. According to Miller, “You have to look at the biomechanics of the person because it’s not just a stand; it’s really something they can move around in…”. By keeping this fundamental premise in mind, and by studying flaws in other exoskeletons, Miller and his team were able to design an ergonomic piece of equipment for relieving muscle fatigue. Recently the US Navy purchased two of these exoskeletons, and plans to test their utility further in the coming months. Take a look at the video below for an overview of this remarkable machine.  While you’re watching, ask yourself the question: “Is this the first primitive prototype of the Iron Man...

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Throwback Thursday – 9/11/2014
Sep11

Throwback Thursday – 9/11/2014

With all of today’s modern technology, it is tough to envision a time in which prospecting for various types of ore was done with nothing more than a few wooden and brass instruments. Even more surprising is the fact that some of the most advanced prospecting gear of the 19th century was, in fact, powered much like a musical instrument. These devices, referred to as blowpipes, helped miners, excavators, prospectors, and entrepreneurs throughout the world in their search for the mother lode. Mass-produced blowpipe kits were sold to mining engineers around the turn of the 19th century, but their use in this profession extends all the way back to 1751 when it was used to discover deposits of nickel. While the tools may seem crude by today’s standards, they were actually quite ingenious, and this is one of the reasons that they remained so popular in some areas all the way up through the 1960’s. What made these testing kids so invaluable was the fact that they were portable, and this meant deposits and veins could be tested right at the source. A mining engineer used their blowpipe kit by first removing a small sample of ore and then weighing it. The ore was then placed with lead pellets on a dish in which sat the end of the blowpipe. The engineer then lit a small alcohol lamp in order to heat the ore – and this is where the ingenuity of the blowpipe came into play – by consistently exhaling, the user was able to oxygenate the flame to an extremely high level, which drove the temperatures well above 2,000 degrees Celsius. By extracting various elements and reheating the lead pellets, pure metals were separated and the process was completed. It may seem odd that this technique was taught in classes all the way through the 1960s, but that is just a testament to the ingenuity of mining engineers in previous years. With simple tool kits made from brass, wood, bone, and glass, engineers kept prospecting and mining industries running for hundreds of...

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Cornell Scientists Creating Smarter Robots
Sep03

Cornell Scientists Creating Smarter Robots

In what could be a scene straight out of a science fiction blockbuster, scientists at Cornell University in New York are now developing what could be a quantum leap forward in service-oriented robots. “Robo Brain” is a large-scale computational system that uses publicly available resources to teach itself how humans interact with their environment and the various elements in it.  The cloud-based platform is being loaded with about 1 billion images, over 100,000 Youtube videos, and hundreds of millions of DIY, how-to, and appliance manuals. “Our laptops and cellphones have access to all the information we want. If a robot encounters a situation it has not seen before, it can query ‘Robo Brain’ in the cloud,” explained lead researcher Ashutosh Saxena. This ability to access relevant data in the cloud should enable robots equipped with a connection to Robo Brain to be more effective and efficient assistants for their human masters. For example, a robot that “sees” a coffee mug for the first time can learn from Robo Brain exactly what it is, including pertinent details like the fact it can be used to hold liquids, can be held by its handle, and must be upright when full in order to avoid spills. A robot that “sees” a non-working light bulb will “know” how to remove and replace it with the correct bulb, without the need for a human (or machine) to program the multiple steps needed to accomplish the task. “Robo Brain will look like a gigantic, branching graph with abilities for multi-dimensional queries,” explained Aditya Jami, visiting researcher at Cornell who designed the large-scale database for the brain. The list of possible uses for this evolving technology is virtually limitless. Robots can be sent to repair just about anything and be “trusted” to know how to make that repair simply by looking at the item. On the other hand, teams of robots can be sent out with blanket instructions to fix every broken widget they encounter. Makes one wonder about the viable future of the Maytag...

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