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Mark Grossman: What Einstein didn’t Say about Bees

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10 April 2014

THE SHORT ANSWER

In 1994, a quote attributed to Albert Einstein appeared in popular circulation:

“If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.”

Einstein didn’t say that. If the great scientist ever said anything about bees, publicly, he was probably quoting someone else. The statement above was made by whoever circulated the quote in 1994 and “creatively” attributed it to Einstein.

But, then, who said it?

The prize for the closest match goes to Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck who said in his 1901 book, “The Life of the Bee”:

“[You’ve seen the bee] to whom we probably owe most of our flowers and fruits (for it is actually estimated that more than a hundred thousand varieties of plants would disappear if the bees did not visit them), and possibly even our civilization, for in these mysteries all things intertwine.”

While not packing quite the punch of the modern (apocryphal) Einstein quote, Maeterlinck is perhaps the oldest commentator to link the disappearance of bees with a dire result for humanity.

While there’s no record of Einstein ever saying anything about bees, there is a short history of bee quotations attributed to him.

The Canadian Bee Journal” included a bee quotation attributed to Einstein, in 1941, but no one has ever been able to actually link the quote to Einstein. Even the writer says that he or she is quoting from memory:

“Remove the bee from the earth and at the same stroke you remove at least one hundred thousand plants that will not survive.”

Not until 1966, did “The Irish Beekeeper” attribute a bee quotation to Einstein that mentioned the end of mankind:

“Professor Einstein, the learned scientist, once calculated that if all bees disappeared off the earth, four years later all humans would also have disappeared.”

But no one can find any source of, or reference to, the quotation above. “The Irish Beekeeper” attributed the quote to a 1965 issue of a French periodical, Abeilles et fleurs.   Unfortunately, despite a thorough search of that periodical’s contents, no such quote, attributed to Einstein or anyone else, could be found.

In his 1992 book, The Diversity of Life, Biologist Edward O. Wilson wrote:

“[I]f all [the bees] were to disappear, humanity probably could not last more than a few months.”

But this is, certainly, Wilson’s statement and not anyone else’s.

Finally, during a 1994 demonstration by beekeepers in Brussels, members of the National Union of French Apiculture handed out pamphlets attributing the following quotation to Albert Einstein:

“If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live. No more bees, no more pollination … no more men!”

Again, Al never said that.  And we may never know who did.

Mark Grossman: Finally! A Robot Spider You Can Ride!?

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3 April 2014

Just what we’ve always dreamed of . . . a spider you can ride? One of the few dreams I think almost nobody has had is the one about “riding the wild spider.” When I first saw an article about this, I cocked my head and just looked at the picture for a minute – involuntarily muttering, “Wha?”

VIDEO

But, ready or not, the ride-able spider is here. And just in time for . . . some holiday, . . . I guess.

Beginning in 2009, Matt Denton, founder of Micromagic Systems, undertook the building of what has come to be called a giant spider. But for those of us who are aficionados of spider factoids, spiders have 8 legs.   The fact that the ride-able spider robot has only 6 legs is just a bit of a disappointment. The designers, also, recognized the credibility gap that would develop if their invention were actually called a spider.  So, they gave it the formal name: mantis — naming it after the six-legged praying mantis.

By the way, if you ever get a close look at a praying mantis . . .   Well, let’s just say that, in terms of “looks,” it can give the creepiest spider more than a run for its money.

COMPARE: SPIDER FACE vs PRAYING MANTIS FACE

Anyway, reportedly, the construction of a giant walking robot that could carry around a human being was a long-time dream of Denton’s. The finished product isn’t just big, it’s the biggest hexapod built “so far.” At a height of over 9 feet with a weight of 4,188 pounds, it’s “the biggest all-terrain operational hexapod robot in the world.” A Perkins 2.2 liter turbo diesel engine is required to operate the hydraulics that moves its many legs.

And I wasn’t kidding when I talked about riding the wild spider, either. Micromagic Systems is actually making the Mantis available for rent. It doesn’t move fast, but it’s quite sure-footed and capable of traversing terrain that would stop a wheeled vehicle. In fact, Micromagic Systems shouldn’t be surprised if DARPA comes “a calling.” The Mantis has clear military applications along the same lines as other robots being developed for the military by the defense industry.

DARPA SPONSERED PROJECTS; “BIG DOG” & “ROBO-RAVEN

The Mantis’ rugged performance is all the more surprising because appearance, rather than performance, is the chief characteristic of the animatronic devices Micromagic Systems has always produced. “Animatronic devices” are machines that simulate the movement of living creatures and are most often built for the production of special effects for the film industry. It was Denton’s team that created the six-legged turtle for a Harry Potter film.

WAS THERE A SIX-LEGGED TURTLE IN A HARRY POTTER FILM?

Although the Mantis is a fantastic achievement, I can’t help asking: It’s always six legs with you at Micromagic? A six-legged turtle. Then, a six-legged mantis. We spider-lovers are waiting for the first, eight . . . (count ‘em!) . . . eight-legged spider robot.

MICROMAGIC SYSTEMS

Engineers unveil giant robot spider that you can drive

Mark Grossman: What is Bionics?

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3 April 2014

THE SHORT ANSWER

A simple internet search brought many results. But the first was a definition of bionics: “having artificial body parts, [especially] electromechanical ones.”

The term bionic is most often used in medicine to mean the replacement or improvement of human organs or other body parts with mechanical imitations. Bionic imitations are designed “to work” like the original part or even better. This is different from prosthetic replacements, which are only designed to “look like” the missing organ or body part. However, one does not have to exclude the other. A “working” bionic replacement can also be prosthetic or “look like” the missing body part or organ.

Many researchers in the field of robotics are working on many different projects. And each group of researchers knows what they are doing. But this field has, and continues, to develop so quickly that there is a lot of actual confusion about words: what to call what you are doing. And the word bionic is an example of change and confusion.

In the late 1950’s, a psychiatrist and engineer named Jack E. Steele invented the term bionic. But his “bionic” had a much broader meaning than the term has today. Steele used the term to describe the imitation of nature, natural processes, and living organisms in the design of mechanical systems – as solutions “to engineering problems.”

And the definition might be the same, today, if a science fiction writer named Martin Caidin hadn’t used the term in his novel, Cyborg. Again, the definition of the word bionic might not have been affected if the novel had been unpopular.   Not only was Cyborg popular, but it was adapted into the television show, The Six Million Dollar Man.  I’d guess the show’s developers thought the word “bionic” sounded cool, but the word “cyborg” sounded creepy. The rest is not only TV history, but narrowed the meaning of the word bionics to focus on the design of functional, mechanic organ replacements and body parts.

Maybe the spectacular success of the television show and a spin off or two, made the word bionic just too trendy for the technological community. “Bionic,” with its original meaning, disappeared from technical literature in favor of Otto Schmitt’s term, “biomemetric” meaning the solution of engineering problems by imitating nature in the design of mechanical devices. Then, Janine Benyus popularized the term, “biomimicry” in her 1997 book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.

Technically, the rather long phrase, “bionical creativity engineering” still retains the broad meaning of the original term bionics.   But you’re more likely to hear the terms biomemetric or biomimicry when robotic marvels like Boston Dynamics’ “Big Dog” or UVD’s Robo-Raven are discussed.

A final note on word usage. Bionics is the study of incorporating mechanical organs and body parts into living human beings. When you actually incorporate the mechanical organ or body part, you have something called a cyborg. To take some of the creepiness out of the name cyborg, remember that a heart patient with a pacemaker is, technically, a cyborg. A kidney patient, actually using a dialysis machine to assist kidney function, is a cyborg, as long as they are connected to the machine.

Mark Grossman: What is a Cyborg?

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3 April 2014

SHORT AND SIMPLE

A cybernetic organism is called a cyborg (for short). A cyborg is a being with both organic (living) and mechanical parts. And it sounds just as creepy to say that a cyborg is part living animal and part machine. But, TV’s The Six Million Dollar Man brought one idea of a cyborg into public awareness. The “The Six Million Dollar Man” is a fictional vision of normal human functions increased and improved by robotic or mechanical technology.

VIDEO CLIP INTRO: The Six Million Dollar Man

WIKIPEDIA: The Six Million Dollar Man

But a few years before the airing of the pilot episode of the TV show, most everyone already knew about cyborgs. As a matter of fact, most of us have met a few. Simply, the cardiac pacemaker, introduced in the 1960’s, turns the wearer into a cyborg. The pacemaker’s action as it regulates the beating of the human heart is enough to make the user, together with the device, into a cyborg. Also, a variety of medical and life-saving technology may, technically, combine together with the user to form a cyborg.

But if “The Six Million Dollar Man” was a cyborg, why did they call him “bionic?”

Because “bionics” is the study of how to use mechanical technology to replace human organs or improve the way human organs work. So, the study is bionics, but the actual combination is called a cyborg. By the way, the TV show, “The Six Million Dollar Man”, was based on a science fiction novel by Martin Caidin titled Cyborg.

Mark Grossman: Dance Talkin’ – How the Bees Say It

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13 February 2014

Bees?  Are they dancing or are they talking?  Are they talking or are they dancing?  But wait!  They’re doing both! . . . at the same time!  It’s called the waggle dance.  It’s, at least, one of the ways bees talk to each other.  What is the dance like?  Well, it involves waggling.  And, before the dance was understood to be a kind of language, at least one person who saw it, Nicholas Unhoch, thought the bees’ danced just for a good time —  enjoying “jollity.”  Then, Karl von Frisch got the idea that the bees were talking with the waggle dance.  He was a patient man.  He spent years observing and cataloging the “language” of the dance.

The dance is called a “recruitment” dance because the dancing bee is trying to get other bees in the hive to travel to a particular location at which, the waggle-dancer promises, the bees will be rewarded with loads of honey.

The dance language goes like this.  Imagine one of those old dance-step charts, showing footprints, which would be put on the floor to train would-be dancers.  The bee-version would be tacked up on the wall of the hive — actually, attached to the front of the honeycomb.  With bees, dancing is more of an “up and down” affair – unlike the human “back and forth” dance movement.

On the chart, you’ll see one straight line up the center; then, two lines curve out to the right and left at the top and, then, bending down and back inward to reconnect to the bottom of the straight center line. The bee dancer may follow this circuit more than 100 times.

The dancing bee follows that straight center line upward from the bottom to the top waggling all the way. This is called the waggle phase.  Then, when the waggle-dancer reaches the top of the straight center line, it stops waggling and goes to the right and back down to the bottom of the center line.  Then, it waggles its way back up to the top and, turning left this time, stops waggling as it goes back down to the bottom and repeats its climb to the top waggling all the way.

The Waggle Dance

But what does the dance say?  Well, first, it’s about direction.  If the bee waggle-dances absolutely straight up from bottom to top, before turning left or right, it means that, when the recruited bees leave the hive, they will find the honey by going in the exact direction of the sun in the sky.  If the “waggler” dances upward at even the slightest angle to the right side or the left, that is the exact angle to the right or left of the sun in the sky that the other bees must fly to find the honey.

Not only are waggle-dancing bees really good with angles, but these bees know how the sun moves.  Even if the bees linger in the hive for a long time after seeing the dance, it won’t throw the waggle dance directions off a bit.  The bees will compensate for the sun’s change of position by making the precise corrective adjustment necessary to locate and, then, follow the correct direction.

But knowing the direction of the honey is only half of what the recruited bees need to know.  To find the honey, they also need to know how far they’ll have to travel in that direction..  The distance is just as precisely communicated by the waggle-dancer but, now, with the timing of the waggling performance.  The longer the waggle-dancer takes to dance up the straight path from bottom to top, the farther away the honey will be found.

There are many small variations in the waggle dancer’s moves and each one means something.  But the dancer isn’t a commander, but a recruiter.  So, the message in the waggle dance isn’t a command.  The waggler is just “selling” it’s find of honey to the other bees in the hive.  But if this is salesmanship, do the bees in the hive ever “pass” on whatever the waggle- dancer is “pitching?”

Yes, just because a bee waggles doesn’t mean that the other bees must follow.  The first and greatest challenge is competition.  When I first heard this description of what happens in the hive, it reminded me of a row of pitchmen at a circus or fair.  There may be several, or something like a row of, bees each doing its own waggle dance, at the same time.  Each hoping to recruit it’s fellows to the hoard of honey that particular dancer has discovered.

As long as were discussing sales, you might wonder if there’s an art to sales even among bees.  Do some pitches work better than others?  Do some wagglers not just offer the steak, but “sell the sizzle?  (Better: Do some bees not just offer the honey, but sell the sweetness?)  But, even with bees, enthusiasm sells.

The more excited the bee is about the honey source, the more rapidly it will waggle, communicating its excitement about its find to the recruit-able bees in the audience.

Somehow, I can’t help imagining that I’ve seen this excited waggle in other . . . creatures.  When my dog hears the jangle of its leash, he runs back and forth between where I’m standing and the door, excited to be going outside.  I think I’ve seen him definitely waggling.

But back to bees.

There are “Do Bees” and “Don’t Bees.”  Bad behavior isn’t restricted to humans.  Overly enthusiastic waggling bees occasionally get out hand when it comes to sales.  When competing with their fellow wagglers, the dancers will, sometimes, disrupt their competitor’s dance.  Their competitor, in turn, will fight off the disruptor.  I can imagine the whole hive dissolving into the bee version of a barroom brawl.

But what about the potential recruits?  Do they watch dutifully to determine the best source and carefully note the direction and distance to the honey.   Surprising, like children in school, a few do, but most don’t.  Whether day-dreaming or quietly buzzing with their friends about hive gossip, many miss the waggle message completely.

Then, what happens when these inattentive bees are jostled from their distraction by the need to search for honey?  Well, they may lag, just a little, until the swarm forms.  When it takes off to find the next meal, these less informed bees will just follow along behind the swarm to find the honey.

What happens if a bee lags even longer and misses the direction of the departing swarm?  Not to worry.  Some bees just fly out of the hive and look around on their own hoping to catch a lucky break and find some honey by chance.

In spite of the “Don’t Bee” slackers, the waggle dance is important to the survival of hives when honey is hard to find.  When supplies are short, the scouts who come back to the hive to waggle-dance are the chief sources of information about honey location and, often, the only available sources of honey for the hive.  Only in good times can some bees slack off and others go their own way when gathering honey.

After the swarm follows the waggler and gathers a lot of honey, the bees will return to the hive loaded down.  Then, the returning bees pass their honey to receiver bees.  The receivers, in turn, seal the honey in the comb for storage.

But what happens if a swarm comes back loaded with honey to find all the rest of the bees are leaving to gather yet more honey, themselves?  Well, the load-carrying bees have to stop the departing bees from leaving because they are needed as “receivers.”  How do the loaded bees get the message across?  Another dance.  The “tremble dance” is used to recruit receiver bees for unloading and storing the honey brought back to the hive by bees carrying a full load.

And there are more dances.  If a bee gets infested with mites, or just covered with dust, it can do the “grooming dance.”  That dance recruits other bees to help the mite-infested or dusty bee get rid of its mites or clean itself up.

M Grossmann of Hazelwood, Missouri & Belleville, Illinois

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3 April 2014

SHORT AND SIMPLE

We move faster and faster into the future. Every day, we meet an endless stream of terms and phrases that have suddenly appeared to describe the new, the amazing and, sometimes, the almost indescribable.

Biorobotics is a word with a problem. No one has decided exactly what it is or what it isn’t. For sure, it’s used to describe three things.

First, biorobotics is the study and practice of making robots that imitate biological organisms. Robots like Boston Dynamics’ Big Dog, UMD Robotics’ Robo-Raven, or ROBOTNOR’s Wheeko the robotic snake are all examples of biorobotics.

But some biorobotic devices imitate things as small as, or smaller than, living cells. Imagine being able to build small robotic devices, or “nano” robots, that could be injected into a person’s bloodstream. These tiny robots would be designed to work like super antibiotics.   Once inside the body, these nano robots could cure infections almost instantly. Other nano robots of the same kind could clear clogged blood veins or even repair damaged blood vessels. These tiny ‘bots could allow a person to live years longer.

Second, biorobotics includes what is sometimes called “bionics.”   The word bionics is now used to describe the study of how to integrate mechanical robotics into human beings — like TV’s Six Million Dollar Man.   When mechanical devices are actually used to replace or improve the function of human organs, the result is a “cyborg.” Technically, something as simple as a heart patient’s pacemaker makes the user and device, together, into a cyborg.

WIKIPEDIA: Six Million Dollar Man

            Third, biorobotics also is used to describe to the study of genetic engineering. This has little to do with machines, mechanics or devices. Instead, genetic engineering is the actual design and development of new and unique living organisms. This requires an understanding of genetic material, DNA.   This, also, requires a very precise technology for arranging DNA “parts” it into new patterns or designs to produce new life forms or old life forms with new and different characteristics.  No one is able to genetically engineer even small life forms at this time.   But researchers are working toward that goal.  As a gardener, I would look forward to a really, really blue rose. (The roses on the market now that are called “blue” are actually sort of purple).