Ig Nobel Prizes: GoatMan, Volkswagen, and the Personalities of Rocks

Every year, the Journal of Improbable Research issues its prizes for the craziest (published) scientific research: the Ig Nobel Prize. The ceremony took place a couple nights ago, and if you want to see what you missed, we’ve embedded the (long) video below. (Trigger warning: Actual Nobel laureates being goofy.)

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The Stinker

It’s hard to pick the best of freaky research, and the committee did a stellar job this year. The trick is that they don’t give the prize away to quacks — you won’t ever get one with your perpetual motion machine, for instance. Nope, the Ig Nobels go to the kookiest science that could actually end up being useful. So we get projects like the effect of wearing polyester on the sexual activity of rodents in “reproduction” and a study on the perceived personalities of different rocks for marketing purposes in “economics”.

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Citizen Scientist Radio Astronomy (and More): No Hardware Required

We sometimes look back fondly on the old days where you could–it seems–pretty easily invent or discover something new. It probably didn’t seem so easy then, but there was a time when working out how to make a voltage divider or a capacitor was a big deal. Today–with a few notable exceptions–big discoveries require big science and big equipment and, of course, big budgets. This probably isn’t unique to our field, either. After all, [Clyde Tombaugh] discovered Pluto with a 13-inch telescope. But that was in 1930. Today, it would be fairly hard to find something new with a telescope of that size.

However, there are ways you can contribute to large-scale research. It is old news that projects let you share your computers with SETI and protein folding experiments. But that isn’t as satisfying as doing something personally. That’s where Zooniverse comes in. They host a variety of scientific projects that collect lots of data and they need the best computers in the world to crunch the data. In case you haven’t noticed, the best computers in the world are still human brains (at least, for the moment).

Their latest project is Radio Meteor Zoo. The data source for this project is BRAMS (Belgian Radio Meteor Stations). The network produces a huge amount of readings every day showing meteor echoes. Detecting shapes and trends in the data is a difficult task for computers, especially during peak activity such as during meteor showers. However, it is easy enough for humans.

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Fixing the Ampere: Redefining the SI Unit

We all know that it’s not the volts that kill you, it’s the amps. But exactly how many electrons per second are there in an amp? It turns out that nobody really knows. But according to a press release from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), that’s all going to change in 2018.

The amp is a “metrological embarrassment” because it’s not defined in terms of any physical constants. Worse, it’s not even potentially measurable, being the “constant current which, if maintained in two straight parallel conductors of infinite length, of negligible circular cross-section, and placed 1 meter apart in vacuum, would produce between these conductors a force equal to 2 x 10–7 newton per meter of length.” You can’t just order a spool of infinite length and negligible cross-section wire and have it express shipped.

So to quantify the exact number of electrons per second in an amp, the folks at NIST need an electron counter. This device turns out to be a super-cooled, quantum mechanical gate that closes itself once an electron has passed through. Repeatedly re-opening one of these at gigahertz still provides around a picoamp. Current (tee-hee) research is focused on making practical devices that push a bit more juice. Even then, it’s likely that they’ll need to gang 100 of these gates to get even a single microamp. But when they do, they’ll know how many electrons per second have passed through to a few tens of parts per billion. Not too shabby.

We had no idea that the amp was indirectly defined, but now that we do, we’re looking forward to a better standard. Thanks, NIST!

Thanks [CBGB123B] for the tip!

Laser Sequencer uses Arduino to Enable Super-Microscope!

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[Philip]’s Laser control Arduino shield.

[Philip Nicovich] has been building laser sequencers over at the University of New South Wales. His platform is used to sequence laser excitation on his fluorescence microscopy systems. In [Philip]’s case, these systems are used for super-resolution microscopy, that is breaking the diffraction limit allowing the imaging of structures of only a few nanometers (1 millionth of a millimeter) in size.

Using an Arduino shield he designed in Eagle, [Philip] was able to build the system for less than half the cost of a commercial platform.

The control system is build around the simple Arduino shield shown to the right, which uses simple 74 series logic to send TTL control signals to the laser diodes used in his rig. The Arduino runs code which allows laser firing sequences to be programmed and executed.

[Philip] also provides scripts which show how the Arduino can be interfaced with the open source micro manager control software.

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As well as the schematics [Philip] has provided STEP files and drawings for the enclosure and mounts used in the system and a detailed BOM.

More useful than all this perhaps is the comprehensive write-up he provides. This describes the motivation for decisions such as the use of aluminum over steel due to its ability to transfer heat more effectively, and not to use thermal paste due to out-gassing.

While I can almost hear the cries of “not a hack”, the growing use of open source platforms and tool in academia fills us with joy. Thanks for the write-up [Philip] we look forward to hearing more about your laser systems in the future!

HardwareX Is A Scientific Journal For Open Hardware

Disruption is a basic tenet of the Open Hardware movement. How can my innovative use of technology disrupt your dinosaur of an establishment to make something better? Whether it’s an open-source project chipping away at a monopoly or a commercial start-up upsetting an industry with a precarious business model based on past realities, we’ve become used to upstarts taking the limelight.

As an observer it’s interesting to see how the establishment they are challenging reacts to the upstart. Sometimes the fragility of the challenged model is such that they collapse, other times they turn to the courts and go after the competitor or even worse, the customers, in an effort to stave off the inevitable. Just occasionally though they embrace the challengers and try to capture some of what makes them special, and it is one of these cases that is today’s subject.

A famously closed monopoly is the world of academic journals. A long-established industry with a very lucrative business model hatched in the days when its product was exclusively paper-based, this industry has come under some pressure in recent years from the unfettered publishing potential of the Internet, demands for open access to public-funded research, and the increasing influence of the open-source world in science.

Elsevier, one of the larger academic publishers, has responded to this last facet with HardwareX, a publication which describes itself as “an open access journal established to promote free and open source designing, building and customizing of scientific infrastructure“. In short: a lot of hardware built for scientific research is now being created under open-source models, and this is their response.

Some readers might respond to this with suspicion, after all the open-source world has seen enough attempts by big business to embrace its work and extend it into the proprietary, but the reality is that this is an interesting opportunity for all sides. The open access and requirement for all submissions to be covered under an open hardware licence mean that it would be impossible for this journal to retreat behind any paywalls. In addition the fact of it being published in a reputable academic journal will bring open-source scientific hardware to a new prominence as it is cited in papers appearing in other journals. Finally the existence of such a journal will encourage the adoption of open-source hardware in the world of science, as projects are released under open-source licences to fulfill the requirements for submission.

So have the publishing dinosaurs got it right, and is this journal an exciting new opportunity for all concerned? We think it has that potential, and the results won’t be confined to laboratories. Inevitably the world of hackers and makers will benefit from open-source work coming from scientists, and vice versa.

Thanks [Matheus Carvalho] for the tip.

Bookbinding workshop image: By Nasjonalbiblioteket from Norway [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons.

Hackaday Prize Entry: Waterspace, A Floating Hackerspace Lab

It’s a boat! It’s a hackerspace! It’s a DIY research platform and an art gallery! It’s Boat Lab!

[Andrew Quitmeyer] lead a project in the Philippines that was nominally charged with making an art and technology space. After a few days brainstorming, four groups formed and came up with projects as wide-ranging as a water-jet video screen and a marine biology lab. What did they have in common? They were all going to take place on a floating raft hackerspace in a beautiful body of water in Manila.

This is a really crazy meta-project, and any of the sub-projects would be worth their own blog post. Even more so is the idea itself — building a floating hackerspace is just cool. The write-up on Hackaday.io linked above is pretty comprehensive, and the “Waterspace” book talks a bit more about the overarching process. Boat Lab is a great entry into the Citizen Science phase of the Hackaday Prize 2016.

But we also love the idea of hackerspaces in non-traditional places. The Cairo Hackerspace is working on a van-based space. And now we’ve seen a boat. What other mobile hackerspace solutions are out there? We’d love to hear!

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DIY Vacuum Chamber Proves Thermodynamics Professor Isn’t Making It All Up

[Mr_GreenCoat] is studying engineering. His thermodynamics teacher agreed with the stance that engineering is best learned through experimentation, and tasked [Mr_GreenCoat]’s group with the construction of a vacuum chamber to prove that the boiling point of a liquid goes down with the pressure it is exposed to.

His group used black PVC pipe to construct their chamber. They used an air compressor to generate the vacuum. The lid is a sheet of lexan with a silicone disk. We’ve covered these sorts of designs before. Since a vacuum chamber is at max going to suffer 14.9 ish psi distributed load on the outside there’s no real worry of their design going too horribly wrong.

The interesting part of the build is the hardware and software built to boil the water and log the temperatures and pressures. Science isn’t done until something is written down after all. They have a power resistor and a temperature probe inside of the chamber. The temperature over time is logged using an Arduino and a bit of processing code.

In the end their experiment matched what they had been learning in class. The current laws of thermodynamics are still in effect — all is right in the universe — and these poor students can probably save some money and get along with an old edition of the textbook. Video after the break.

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