What it's like to wear a brain-stimulating "thinking cap"

Science writer Sally Adee provides some background on her New Scientist article describing her experience with a DARPA program that uses targeted electrical stimulation of the brain during training exercises to induce "flow states" and enhance learning. The "thinking cap" is something like the tasp of science fiction, and the experimental evidence for it as a learning enhancement tool is pretty good thus far -- and the experimental subjects report that the experience feels wonderful (Adee: "the thing I wanted most acutely for the weeks following my experience was to go back and strap on those electrodes.")

We don’t yet have a commercially available “thinking cap” but we will soon. So the research community has begun to ask: What are the ethics of battery-operated cognitive enhancement? Last week a group of Oxford University neuroscientists released a cautionary statement about the ethics of brain boosting, followed quickly by a report from the UK’s Royal Society that questioned the use of tDCS for military applications. Is brain boosting a fair addition to the cognitive enhancement arms race? Will it create a Morlock/Eloi-like social divide where the rich can afford to be smarter and leave everyone else behind? Will Tiger Moms force their lazy kids to strap on a zappity helmet during piano practice?

After trying it myself, I have different questions. To make you understand, I am going to tell you how it felt. The experience wasn’t simply about the easy pleasure of undeserved expertise. When the nice neuroscientists put the electrodes on me, the thing that made the earth drop out from under my feet was that for the first time in my life, everything in my head finally shut the fuck up.

The experiment I underwent was accelerated marksmanship training on a simulation the military uses. I spent a few hours learning how to shoot a modified M4 close-range assault rifle, first without tDCS and then with. Without it I was terrible, and when you’re terrible at something, all you can do is obsess about how terrible you are. And how much you want to stop doing the thing you are terrible at.

Then this happened:

The 20 minutes I spent hitting targets while electricity coursed through my brain were far from transcendent. I only remember feeling like I had just had an excellent cup of coffee, but without the caffeine jitters. I felt clear-headed and like myself, just sharper. Calmer. Without fear and without doubt. From there on, I just spent the time waiting for a problem to appear so that I could solve it.

If you want to try the (obviously ill-advised) experiment of applying current directly to your brain, here's some HOWTOs. Remember, if you can't open it, you don't own it!

Better Living Through Electrochemistry (via JWZ)

Prospecting for wind

Before the Lights Go Out
is Maggie’s new book about how our current energy systems work, and how we’ll have to change them in the future.

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Water bubbles orbiting a knitting needle on the ISS

Astronaut Don Pettit is a national treasure. He's been to space three times—once for a six-month stay on the ISS. On every mission, he's found time to make huge contributions to the public communication of science, including making a series of amazing "Science Saturday" videos and inventing (from spare parts he found lying around the ISS) a system to help the space station take clearer, sharper pictures of the Earth at night.

Pettit went to space with an international crew in December 2011 and is currently in space. This new video—where he demonstrates the way a small electric charge can manipulate the behavior of water droplets in microgravity—is a great addition to his oeuvre!

Thanks for Submitterating, James!

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Does light make people safer? Maybe. Maybe not.

One of the cool things about LED lighting is that it provides opportunities to bring some of the benefits of big, modern infrastructures to developing countries without having to actually build the big, modern (and expensive) infrastructure.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a story for ArchitecturalSSL magazine about people installing solar-powered LED streetlights in remote villages in southern Mexico. Tying these places into the larger electrical grid would have been extremely difficult. But solar LED streetlights allowed the people who lived in those places to get the night light they wanted.

Now there's similar work happening in refugee camps in Haiti, where many people displaced by the 2010 earthquake still live. The change is undoubtedly useful: LED streetlights don't have to be powered by expensive gasoline generators, they're better on the lungs than fires, and the light level is bright enough to allow people to work and live far more easily. But what about physical safety? Surprisingly, there turns out to be a decent amount of debate over whether or not the extra light actually reduces violence and makes people safer. It's an interesting case study in how "common sense" doesn't always match up with reality and how difficult it is to attribute cause and effect in complicated social environments. From at story Txchnologist:

In recent months, the lights have come on at two camps through the efforts of aid groups, the Haitian government and the particular expertise of the Solar Electric Light Fund, or SELF, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that uses renewable energy to provide light and power in developing countries.

The nexus between public lighting and safety is hotly debated in Western countries.

Some studies show a decline in crime after an area is illuminated while other research has found that crime actually increases after lights are installed, though it may be because crime is more visible. These studies are of little value, however, in places with collapsed infrastructure like Haiti, which plunged into darkness after the magnitude 7.0 earthquake flattened entire neighborhoods and killed untold thousands.

The security improvements were immediate. The lights function at full power from 6 p.m. to 12 a.m. and at 50 percent between 12 a.m. and 6 a.m. Reported acts of violence, including sexual assault, declined from about six per week when the installations began in June to one or zero per week when streetlights came online in August, according to J/P HRO data provided by SELF. While it’s possible to attribute this drop to other factors – the population of the camp had declined to 23,000 by September and community-based “protection teams” have increased patrols – residents reported feeling an increased sense of security. Increased usage of the latrines also improved Sanitary conditions “significantly,” according to J/P HRO.

HOW TO: Make silver ink that conducts electricity

This custom silver ink, developed by materials researchers at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, allows you to draw working circuits out on paper. It's extremely cool, and the video shows you step-by-step how they make it. Bonus: This ink provides an actual reason to use cursive.

Video Link (Via Aaron Rowe)

The ongoing mis-adventures of Thomas A. Edison

Yesterday, Thomas Edison set W. H. Vanderbilt’s house on fire. Today, America’s most prolific inventor terrorizes the horses of New York City, and gets propositioned by unscrupulous businessmen.

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How Thomas Edison set W. H. Vanderbilt's house on fire

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This anecdote, taken from Edison's autobiographical notes, may well be one of the most awkward moments in the history of public relations.

So, William Henry Vanderbilt was an early investor in Thomas Edison's electric lighting endeavors, and it wasn't terribly surprising that Vanderbilt wanted to be one of the first kids on the block, so to speak, to get the new lights installed at his own house. This was prior to 1882—and the opening of the first centralized power plant—so the lights were run by an on-site generator installed in the basement. Sadly, the first demonstration of Vanderbilts' lighting system went a bit awry.

About 8 o'clock in the evening we lit it up and it was very good. Mr. Vanderbilt, his wife and some of his daughters cam in and were there a few minutes when a fire occurred. The large picture gallery was lined with silk cloth interwoven with fine metallic tinsel. In some manner, two wires had got crossed with the tinsel, which became red-hot and the whole wall was soon afire ... [the fire is put out] ... Mrs. Vanderbilt became hysterical and wanted to know where it came from. We told her we had the plant in the cellar, and when she learned we had a boiler there, she said she would not occupy the house; she would not live over a boiler. We had to take the whole installation out.

Lessons learned: Better insulation on your electrical wiring = good. Tinsel in your wallpaper = bad. Mrs. Vanderbilt = totally freaked out by the wrong thing.

Image courtesy Flickr user cocreatr, via CC

Quote from "The Papers of Thomas A. Edison, Volume 6". Edited by Paul B. Israel, Louis Carlat, David Hochfelder, Theresa M. Collins and Brian C. Shipley. Published by Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.

The Young Man's Book of Amusement

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newdrownedfly.png From the title of this Victorian science book it's not out of line to assume that there might be at least a few diy methods for accidentally electrocuting yourself, but that's just the beginning.

The tome in its entirety is supposed to be available for free as a hi-res e-book sometime this month, but for now you can see a full list of some actually really beautiful sounding demonstrations, (like how to make phosphorescent displays using oyster shells), and some other cool heirloom science excerpts at Lateral Science.

Thanks to Tim O'Reilly for the link.

Making good use of hot air

Thermocells based on carbon nanotubes (and, thus, cheaper and more efficient than the kind based on platinum) could help capture the wasted heat put off by everything from car exhaust pipes to power station generators, and turn it into electricity.

Saturday Morning Science Experiment: Static is funny

What do you get when you combine Mr. Wizard, Harpo Marx and "Adventures with Bill"? I'm not sure exactly, but the exploits of Dr. Ernest Otherford get pretty close.

In this segment, the good Dr. Otherford explores the power of static electricity.

Thumbnail image courtesy Flickr user johnwilson1969 via CC

Highlights from the AAAS: Food allergies, superheroes, electric cars and Opie

Now we’re getting into the thick, juicy part. I spent Friday in a flurry of tweeting and note-taking, bopping from one two-hour symposium to another.

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Science Question from a Toddler: The color of light

Why does a glow-in-the-dark Frisbee glow green? Why does a spark from a light socket look blue? Two different questions, but one intertwined answer.

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Flex-fuel electricity production

Bloom boxes are fuel cells that create electricity using a variety of energy sources. Powered by natural gas, they could produce cleaner power for Western homes. Running on plant waste, they could bring grid-less power to developing countries. And they could also be used as storage/backup for solar and wind generation.

Weird, New Electricity Generator Takes Baby Step Into Real World

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Yesterday, in Mark's post about new technology that could one day generate power from slow moving currents in rivers and oceans, commenter SamSam wondered whether "any weird and new generators ever get out of the lab and start providing meaningful amounts of power?" It's a fair question, and I think a lot more technologies are announced than do (or ever will) make it to market. Partly, that's just the nature of invention. Partly, it has to do with the fact that it takes a long time to develop this stuff and we're still kind of at the beginning of the alternative generation industry. But sometimes, the crazy ideas do work, at least well enough to move out of the lab and into beta-testing. For instance, today, Norway's state-owned utility opened a prototype generator that produces electricity via osmosis.

The plant is driven by osmosis that naturally draws fresh water across a membrane and toward the seawater side. This creates higher pressure on the sea water side, driving a turbine and producing electricity. The main issue is to improve the efficiency of the membrane from around 1 watt per square meter now to some 5 watts, which Statkraft says would make osmotic power costs comparable to those from other renewable sources.

The prototype is very small--it only produces about a coffee-pot's worth of electricity--but if the kinks with the membrane can be worked out at this small scale, the utility could have a full-scale plant powering 30,000 homes by 2015. Also, I have to give a shoutout to the Norwegians for not claiming that their osmosis-based generator will magically solve the world's energy problems--instead describing it as part of a mix of different technologies that, together, could make a difference.

Norway Opens World's First Osmotic Power Plant in Reuters

Image courtesy Flickr user neogabox, via CC

Mishap at the Electrical Substation

As a little kid, I used to think electrical substations would make really awesome jungle gyms. This video helpfully demonstrates why 5-year-old Maggie was an idiot.

This is the Eldorado Substation near Boulder City, Nevada. What you're seeing: A substation like this one is connected to long-distance transmission lines and electricity has to be very high voltage to travel on those. The substation "steps up" the voltage so the electricity can travel. Everything at a substation is hot, in that shock the bejeezus out of you sense. So that maintenance can be done, substations are built with switching functions that allow you to disconnect and reconnect various parts of the system in modular sort of way. The big, crazy spark in this video happened when some of the switching mechanisms failed. The Arcs 'n Sparks page at Stoneridge Engineering explains what happened next...

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