A smart knife for surgeons

Researchers at Imperial College London have invented an electric surgical knife that comes equipped with a built-in mass spectrometer. Electric knives cauterize wounds as they cut, which produces smoke. The iKnife will be able to analyze the chemistry of that smoke to determine, for instance, whether the tissue that was just cut was cancerous or not — allowing doctors to make decisions in the OR that would, today, require them to take samples, send those samples to a lab, and maybe schedule a second surgery.

Kickstarter for a multifunction wrecking bar with crowbar/hammer/angle measuring tool

The Cole-Bar Hammer is a multifunction wrecking bar on Kickster ($65 gets you an earlybird tool, with shipping). It unfolds and locks into place to serve as a crowbar; it also can be used as a hammer and as an angle-measurement tool, and it has a lovely, brutal elegance:

The Cole-Bar Hammer is essentially a hammer... ...with a full crow bar built in! Using it's patented locking gear mechanism, the Cole-Bar can be opened and extended from 0-180 degrees and locked in place at 15 degree increments. The only hammer in the world that turns into a full crow-bar! A patented gear/ratchet system that locks into place at every click! Further more, the Cole-Bar can be separated with a button release turning it into a demolition tool.

As mentioned previously, I love multifunction wrecking bars -- they're just the right blend of apocalyptic and functional. This looks like a promising addition to the genre.

The project looks exciting, but as with all Kickstarter projects, you should be prepared to get nothing for your money; the project founders' bios don't list any directly applicable manufacturing experience.

The Cole-Bar Hammer (via Core 77)

World's largest tunnel boring machine lands in Seattle

Known affectionately as Bertha, this tunnel boring machine has the widest diameter of any boring machine ever built; 57.5 feet. It's being used to dig a highway tunnel under downtown Seattle and it just arrived there today after being shipped from Japan.

I feel this warrants your attention for two reasons:
1) If you live near Seattle, you can actually go get a look at this massive beast before it starts chewing its way through the city. If you like looking at giant machines (or know someone who does) now's your chance. She's coming into the Port of Seattle, Terminal 46, as you read this and there will be ample opportunities to get a look as the pieces are assembled and moved into the nearby launch pit. The Washington State Department of Transportation has suggestions on places to go to get a good view.
2) If, for some reason, you were looking for a new way to lose massive amounts of time on YouTube, Bertha (and boring machines, in general) can help with that. Here's a cutaway animation explaining how boring machines work. Here's a video of Big Becky, another boring machine, breaking through to the other side of a tunnel at Niagara Falls, Canada. (In fact, boring machine breakthrough videos are, in and of themselves, a mesmerizing genre.) And in this video, you can watch the massively long line of support equipment go by in the wake of a boring machine.

Champions of wood planing

In woodworking, planing is the process of using a very sharp blade to shave off pieces of wood. The people in the video above are some of the best at it in the world. The shavings they skim off are less than 10 microns thick. For comparison, the thickness of a sheet of standard copy paper is about 100 microns. (via @colossal)

The bug killing tool preferred by mosquito researchers

Meet The Executioner.

Earlier today, I got a tour of the mosquito breeding facility at North Carolina State University. Basically, it's a small room — about the size of my bathroom at home — where scientists breed and grow the mosquitoes they use in scientific research. The downside: Mosquito enclosures are somewhat less than foolproof. Which means the mosquito breeding facility has a significant number of loose mosquitoes. That's where The Executioner comes in. There were multiple Executioners in that one small room. Then entire time I was talking with the scientists, they were simultaneously swinging around these electrified tennis racquets to zap any mosquito that blundered into their personal space.

Personally, I consider this a hell of an endorsement for any bug killing tool.

Why put magnetic paint on ants?

It seems like a weird past-time, magnetizing ants, but it has some practical purposes. At his blog, media engineer Andrew Quitmeyer explains how he mixed magnetic powder into insect-safe enamel paint, and what he was able to do with it.

The big benefit to something like this is that it could allow scientists to easily alter the populations of social insect groups. Each colony of ants functions, in many ways, like a single organism. So what happens to that hive mind if you remove all the ants doing one particular type of task? Instead of painstakingly picking out each worker with a pair of tweezers every time you want to try this, you could create a colony in which all the workers have had magnetic paint daubed onto their abdomens. Then, you could quickly and easily collect some of them, or all of them, using a magnet. Hunting ants with a tweezer once > hunting ants with a tweezer over and over and over.

Another, possibly less legitimate, use of the paint is demonstrated by Quitmeyer in this video. (Quitmeyer, for the record, is not a social insects researcher.) Using single painted ants in a population of unpainted ants, he plays around with the way colonies remove unhealthy members of their own community. When a magnetized ant starts flopping around erratically in response to a nearby magnet, nearby ants quickly react.

As Quitmeyer says in the video, this demonstration quickly passes from science into mad science (or, at least, YouTube science).

Thanks to Leah Shaffer!

Pedal-powered scroll saw

My little brother and I went to the Blue Ridge Parkway Folk Art Center in Asheville, NC, today and ran across this very cool piece of maker history — a scroll saw operated by a pulley powered contraption resembling a stationary bicycle. Pedal punk?

Read the rest

Science proves that you should wear glittens

They're the mullet of cold-protective clothing. Half glove, half mitten — really, fingerless gloves with a handy mitten flip-top.

They are also fantastic.

Now, partly, this is a matter of personal opinion. But partly, it's just good science.

Before you spend your weekend outdoors, or take your next chilly commute, let's talk briefly about glittens — and the science that makes them superior hand covering.

Read the rest

Leatherman multi-scissors for medics

Leatherman has announced the Raptor, a set of folding multi-scissors for medics, which include "a carbide glass breaker, a ring cutter, a ruler, an oxygen tank wrench and strap cutters that can be deployed one-handed." It'll be out in May 2013.

Leatherman Raptor For Medics

Dremel's EZ Drum sander mandrel -- about damn time


I have the Dremel tool drum sander mandrel on the left. I don't think the design has changed since 1962, and it sucks mightily. Sanding drums get stuck on it and new ones don't fit on it (at least not for me). I just read Stuart Deutsch's post on Make about the EZ Drum Sanding Mandrel, which sounds like a game-changing improvement on the black rubber mandrel.

Dremel has introduced a couple of new “EZ Lock” rotary tool accessories in recent years that allow for tool-free bit/disc/pad changes. The newest EZ-change addition, a sanding mandrel, has quickly become one of my favorites. With the old-style sanding mandrel, you must toil with a small screw before and after swapping in a fresh sanding sleeve, but with this one you just push and pull.

I have been quite pleased with the direction Dremel has been headed. They dominate the rotary tool and accessories market, so they don’t really need to upgrade little things like mandrels, but they have been doing it anyways. Recent models, such as the 3000 and updated 4000 series rotary tools, feature a built-on collet wrench, and it looks like the upcoming Dremel 4200 will feature a new completely tool-free collet-lock mechanism.

Tool Review: Dremel EZ-Change Sanding Mandrel

Beautifully made tiny miniature 18th century toolchest with tiny, working tools


On The Toolchest Site, an astounding miniature replica of the 18th century Hewitt chest at Colonial Williamsburg, created by miniaturist William Robertson. Robertson's work is mind-boggling in its detail and virtuosity. The article notes that this was a 1,000-hour project.

There are also cast brass Rococo drop handles as well as beaded backplates. It should also be noted that the miniscule lock actually works, and the label on the underside of the lid is printed on 18th century paper — in lettering to perfect scale of course.

As you would expect from something so masterfully created, the tool chest was made with the same construction as the original chest. Tool trays and drawers are fully dovetailed with hand-sawn dust boards. The dividers are v-notched and crosslapped and the lid sides are tongue and groove.

Robertson’s tool chest contains all the same tools that were found in the original. All the tools work, even the plane’s tote (handle) is set a scale 1/8″ to one side as the original. The saw has 160 teeth to the inch. Robinson says that the hardest tool to make was the folding rule with 5 leaf hinge. It is about .030″ thick and hand engraved on boxwood. Things like the shears and dividers also have nice little joints.

William Robertson Miniature Tool Chest (via Make)

Dubstep power tools

MysterGuitarMan's excellent "Dubstep Power Tools" video, a promo for a home improvement shopping site.

A directory of wonderful sounds

Carnegie Mellon University's Auditory Lab has a huge collection of high-quality audio recordings of random sounds—from a marble dropped onto sheet metal, to bubble wrap being popped, to crumpling newspaper, to the sound of a sponge being squeezed out over empty tupperware. I trust you all will come up with fun uses for this stuff. At the Annals of Improbable Research you can hear one of the lab's sloshing sounds. It is a very good slosh. (Via Marc Abrahams)

Homo erectus and the paradox of human tools

Over the weekend, at the Earth Day tweetup at the Science Museum of Minnesota, I heard an interesting fact: Human beings are now the dominant agent of landscape change on this planet, more than any natural process. (That's right. Suck it, glaciers!)

We tend to think of this kind of thing as a result of modernity. But I think that's only partly true. Modern technology has given us the tools that enable us to change the landscape of Earth in massive ways we weren't capable of in the past. But throughout human existence—even before we were technically human—we have made relatively large alterations to the world. It's not like human beings woke up one day and thought, "Hey, it's the 20th century, let's start messing around with stuff!" In reality, what makes our modern impact on the planet different from past—other than scale—is mainly that we've developed more self-awareness about our impact on the planet, and have actually started talking about whether we like the side effects those impacts bring.

Case in point: A recent study of ancient African animal species that suggests our ancestors drove a huge proportion of fauna to extinction basically as soon as they were technologically capable of doing so. Here's how Ann Gibbons described it at Science Now:

After comparing fossils of 78 species of carnivores that lived during five different periods of time between 3.5 million years ago (when large carnivores were at their peak) and 1.5 million years ago, Werdelin found that all but six of 29 species of large carnivores (animals that weighed more than 21.5 kilos) had gone extinct in that time. Moreover, the mass extinction began just before H. erectus appeared in the fossil record 1.9 million years ago. He also found that the community of carnivores alive 2.5 million to 2 million years ago ate a much broader range of food—with species within a community filling a wider range of dietary niches. By 1.5 million years ago, just hypercarnivores that ate only meat, such as lions and leopards, had survived while omnivores that scavenged and ate a wider range of foods, like civets, had disappeared. "Even I was surprised by the dramatic drop," Werdelin says.

Those omnivores that went extinct were in direct competition for scavenged carcasses with hominins.

This sounds kind of depressing, but I think it should actually make us feel a bit optimistic. Two million years ago, Homo erectus might have killed off 23 species of large carnivores. They had the tools to hunt and the desire to eat. But, even if they'd wanted to, those H. erectus wouldn't have had the tools necessary to organize other H. erectus' and better manage their own use of natural resources.

And that brings me to another interesting point that folks from the Science Museum of Minnesota kept making over and over at the Earth Day event. Modern life has created some pretty serious environmental challenges. But, at the same time, it's also put us in a much better position to deal with those challenges. Humans today are better educated, healthier, wealthier, and better connected with one another than any humans that have ever lived before. Our tools have helped us create some pretty big problems. But our tools are also exactly what we need to solve those problems.

Read the rest of the article at Science Now

Image: Homo erectus tools, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from hmnh's photostream

Inside Santa's science workshop

On Saturday, I spoke at an Earth Day Tweetup at the Science Museum of Minnesota. As part of the event, the museum took tweeters on a behind-the-scenes tour, including the exhibit workshop. (The Science Museum of Minnesota is one of the few science museums in the United States that designs and builds all its own exhibits from scratch.) Also on the tour: Science House, a nifty resource center for Minnesota teachers. That's where this photo comes from.

Science House is a separate, detached building, set in the Museum's "backyard", that's open to teachers during after-school hours and during the Summer. It's home to a vast array of science paraphernalia. Besides this collection of skulls and plastic biology models, there's also racks of microscopes and chemistry glassware, a bookshelf full of solar system models, a regiment of Van de Graaf generators, and a full human skeleton dangling from a hook in the ceiling. There's also dozens and dozens of intriguing red plastic tubs lined up on shelves. The tubs are full of equipment, tools, and books that aren't available in every school. Teachers can check out any of these things from the museum, like you'd check out a book from a library.

See more pictures from the tour at my Google+ account.

Find out more about Science House, and how teachers can use the space.