Category Archives: Engineering

Scientists Say There’s Plenty Of Wind Over Oceans To Power Entire Planet

If humans have enough turbines running in the ocean, we could generate enough electricity to power the entire human race, says new research from the National Academy of Sciences

In a paper titled Geophysical potential for wind energy over the open oceans authored by two scientists at the Department of Global Ecology at Carnegie Institution for Science in Standford, California, the researchers provide strong evidence that there is quite a bit of potential for greater downward transport of kinetic energy in the overlying atmosphere. As a result, they write, “wind power generation over some ocean areas can exceed power generation on land by a factor of three or more.”  

Three or more is more than just significant when it comes to searching for renewable energy to replace fossil fuels and nuclear power, both which have had disastrous effects on the environment over the past 100 years, the former contributing to global warming at an alarming rate.

While naysayers might point your attention to the fact that the cost of developing, building and deploying floating turbines is most likely going to be very high, the fact remains that MIT scientists have been working on floating turbines for at least the past 4 years, even floating turbine technology that can produce power when there is no wind.

The downside to these findings is that using all that wind energy means it could drastically alter the climate, since wind has a great effect on how plants and animals live.  But considering the high cost, the researchers say the study really only provides enough evidence for those already in the wind turbine tech arena to expand, rather than replace current energy generation.

The paper makes a comparison of a theoretical floating wind farm consisting of almost 2 million square kilometers and situated in the same amount of space on land in the U.S. versus that of the Atlantic ocean, finding that covering much of the central U.S. with wind farms wouldn’t quite be enough energy to power up both the U.S. and China, some 7 terawatts annually, or seven trillion watts of power.

However, floating turbines in the North Atlantic could theoretically power those two countries and a whole lot more, considering the amount of potential energy that can be extracted over the ocean in the same amount of area.


Getting more energy from the sun: how to make better solar cells

Global demand for energy is increasing by the hour as developing countries move toward industrialization. Experts estimate that by the year 2050, worldwide demand for electricity may reach 30 terawatts (TW). For perspective, one terawatt is roughly equal to the power of 1.3 billion horses.

Energy from the sun is limitless – the sun provides us 120,000 TW of power at any given instant – and it is free. But today solar energy provides only about one percent of the world’s electricity. The critical challenge is making it less expensive to convert photo-energy into usable electrical energy.

To do that, we need to find materials that absorb sunlight and convert it into electricity efficiently. In addition, we want these materials to be abundant, environmentally benign and cost-effective to fabricate into solar devices.

Researchers from around the world are working to develop solar cell technologies that are efficient and affordable. The goal is to bring the installation cost of solar electricity below US$1 per watt, compared to about $3 per watt today.

At Binghamton University’s Center for Autonomous Solar Power (CASP), we are investigating ways to make thin film solar cells using materials that are abundant in nature and nontoxic. We want to develop solar cells that are reliable, highly efficient at converting sunlight to electricity and inexpensive to manufacture. We have identified two materials that have great potential as solar absorbers: pyrite, better known as fool’s gold because of its metallic luster; and copper-zinc-tin-sulfide (CZTS).

Seeking the ideal material

Today’s commercial solar cells are made from one of three materials: silicon, cadmium telluride (CdTe) and copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS). Each has strengths and weaknesses.

Silicon solar cells are highly efficient, converting up to 25 percent of the sunlight that falls on them into electricity, and very durable. However, it is very expensive to process silicon into wafers. And these wafers have to be very thick (about 0.3 millimeters, which is thick for solar cells) to absorb all of the sunlight that falls on them, which further increases costs.

Silicon solar cells – often referred to as first-generation solar cells – are used in the panels that have become familiar sights on rooftops. Our center is studying another type called thin film solar cells, which are the next generation of solar technology. As their name suggests, thin film solar cells are made by putting a thin layer of solar absorbent material over a substrate, such as glass or plastic, which typically can be flexible.

A CASP center fabricated CZTS solar cell on a flexible glass substrate made by Corning.
Tara Dhakal/Binghamton University, Author provided

These solar cells use less material, so they are less expensive than crystalline solar cells made from silicon. It is not possible to coat crystalline silicon on a flexible substrate, so we need a different material to use as a solar absorber.

Although thin film solar technology is improving rapidly, some of the materials in today’s thin film solar cells are scarce or hazardous. For example, the cadmium in CdTe is highly toxic to all living things and is known to cause cancer in humans. CdTe can separate into cadmium and tellurium at high temperatures (for example, in a laboratory or housefire), posing a serious inhalation risk.

We are working with pyrite and CZTS because they are nontoxic and very inexpensive. CZTS costs about 0.005 cents per watt, and pyrite costs a mere 0.000002 cents per watt. They also are among the most abundant materials in the Earth’s crust, and absorb the visible spectrum of sunlight efficiently. These films can be as thin as 1/1000th of a millimeter.

Testing CZTS solar cells under simulated sunlight.
Tara Dhakal/Binghamton University, Author provided

We need to crystallize these materials before we can fabricate them into solar cells. This is done by heating them. CZTS crystallizes at temperatures under 600 degree Celsius, compared to 1,200 degrees Celsius or higher for silicon, which makes it less expensive to process. It performs much like high-efficiency copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) solar cells, which are commercially available now, but replaces the indium and gallium in these cells with cheaper and more abundant zinc and tin.

So far, however, CZTS solar cells are relatively inefficient: they convert less than 13 percent of the sunlight that falls upon them to electricity, compared to 20 percent for more expensive CIGS solar cells.

We know that CZTS solar cells have a potential to be 30 percent efficient. The main challenges are 1) synthesizing high-quality CZTS thin film without any traces of impurities, and 2) finding a suitable material for the “buffer” layer underneath it, which helps to collect the electric charges that sunlight creates in the absorber layer. Our lab has produced a CZTS thin film with seven percent efficiency; we hope to approach 15 percent efficiency soon by synthesizing high-quality CZTS layers and finding suitable buffer layers.

Structure of a CZTS solar cell.
Tara Dhakal/Binghamton University, Author provided

Pyrite is another potential absorber that can be synthesized at very low temperatures. Our lab has synthesized pyrite thin films, and now we are working to layer those films into solar cells. This process is challenging because pyrite breaks down easily when it is exposed to heat and moisture. We are researching ways to make it more stable without affecting its solar absorbency and mechanical properties. If we can solve this problem, “fool’s gold” could turn into a smart photovoltaic device.

In a recent study, researchers at Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley estimated that solar power could provide up to 45 percent of U.S. electricity by 2050. To meet that target, we need to keep driving down the cost of solar power and find ways to make solar cells more sustainably. We believe that abundant, nontoxic materials are key to realizing the potential of solar power.

The Conversation

Tara P. Dhakal, Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Binghamton University, State University of New York

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Sorry Nerds, There’s No Warp Drive

It makes for a sensational headline but NASA didn’t even come close to discovering warp technology.

The mechanism behind their fuel-free propulsion has no clear link to warping space-time. In fact, space-time is not proven or understood to exist as a material substance able to warp. It’s all nonsense. So what really happened?

Richard Feynman once said: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”

You should have been suspicious when the story made the rounds on social media. The headlines were claiming NASA successfully tested something called the EM Drive. The EM drive is awesome, and it’s real science. It’s a propulsion engine doesn’t use propellant, which seems to violate the laws of physics by creating a reaction with no initial action.

First, let’s examine the actual finding. NASA has developed a hollow device that can be  pumped full of electromagnetic radiation which reflects back-and-forth, tapped inside the chamber, generates thrust, causing the device to accelerate in a direction based onthe shape of the chamber. You might ahve seen the story or similar reports over the last year because iterations of it have been built by Roger Shawyer (the EM Drive), one from a Chinese group led by Juan Yang, and one from Guido Fetta (the Cannae Drive), all claiming successful thrust. The stories on science news sites claim the acceleration created is caused by warped space of an Alcubierre Drive, the completely fictional “Star Trek” design.

Here are some problems. First off, none of the tests showed results from gadations in power. If this is a viable prototype for an engine, the science behind it hasn’t proven why a tiny acceleration in relation to a huge amount of relative power is worth any sort of real consideration for space travel. It’s a weak engine with no sign of how it can be scaled.

Secondly, the thrust they created is so small it might just be a mistake in mathematics or caused by an unknown factor, unrelated to warp tech. A true test requires an isolated environment, with atmospheric, gravitational and electromagnetic effects removed from the equation.

Thirdly, good science is reproducible. These tests lack a transparent design so no one else can verify that this actually works.
Finally, a real report has to be created that can be peer-reviewed and understood before irresponsibly publishing the claims.

Optimism of this sort, claiming to be able to put people on mars with a warp engine, is not scientifically valid. This latest group declared they have broken the previously-held laws of physics. They assume we can scale up and implement this engine for space propulsion just because of some questionably positive results. They claim to be distorting space, they claim they might be causing light to go faster by approximately 10^-18 m/s. They made these claims without actually proving them, and told the general public, spreading misinfo.

Harold “Sonny” White at NASA, has made extraordinary claims about warp drive in the past. He is totally the kind of guy who would jump to warp drive as a conclusion. There is nothing in NASA’s report that shows they’ve created a warp drive. Sorry, Star Trek and Star Wars fans. Most likely this is a public relations move to get America and the world science communities more excited about space travel and science education.

Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY

Understanding Cognitive Bias Helps Decision Making

noun: intuition
  1. the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning.

People tend to trust their own intuition. Has there been much formal study about the veracity of intuition?

Brain science itself is a young field, and the terminology has yet to mature into a solid academic lexicon. To further increase your chances of being confused, modern life is rife with distractions, misinformation, and addictive escapisms, leaving the vast majority of society having no real idea what the hell is happening.

To illustrate my point, I’m going to do something kind of recursive. I am going to document my mind being changed about a deeply held belief as I explore my own cognitive bias. I am not here to tell you what’s REALLY going on or change your mind about your deeply held beliefs. This is just about methods of problem solving and how cognitive bias can become a positive aspect of critical thought.

Image: "Soft Bike" sculptiure by Mashanda Lazarus

Image: “Soft Bike” sculptiure by Mashanda Lazarus

I’m advocating what I think is the best set of decision making skills, Critical Thought. The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking defines critical thinking as the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. (I’m torn between the terms Critical Thinking and Critical Thought, although my complaint is purely aesthetic.)

Ever since taking an introduction to Logic course at Fitchburg State college I have been convinced that Logic is a much more reliable, proven way to make decisions. Putting logic to practice when decision-making is difficult, though. Just like a math problem can be done incorrectly, Some logic can even counter-intuitive. My favorite example of intuition failing over logic is always chess. Even as I write this I can’t convince myself otherwise: I have regretted every intuitive chess move. It’s statistically impossible that all my intuitive moves have been bad moves yet logic works in the game so much better that my mind has overcompensated in favor of logic. In the microcosm of chess rules, logic really is the better decision-making tool. Often the kernel of a good move jumps out at me as intuition but then must still be thoroughly vetted with logic before I can confidently say it’s a good move.

In high school, I was an underachiever. I could pass computer science and physics classes without cracking a book. My same attempt to coast through math classes left me struggling because I could not intuitively grasp the increasingly abstract concepts. The part of my mind that controls logic was very healthy and functioning but my distrust for my own intuition was a handicap. I would be taking make up mathematics courses in the summer but getting debate team trophies during the school year.


Photograph of Marcel Duchamp and Eve Babitz posing for the photographer Julian Wasser during the Duchamp retrospective at the Pasadena Museum of Art, 1963 © 2000 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris.

I’m not just reminiscing; everyone’s decision making process is an constantly-updating algorithm of intuitive and logical reasoning. No one’s process is exactly the same but we all want to make the best decisions possible. For me it’s easy to rely on logic and ignore even a nagging sense of intuition. Some people trust intuition strongly yet struggle to find the most logical decision; everyone is most comfortable using a specially-tailored degree of intuition and logic. People argue on behalf of their particular decisions and the methodology behind them because a different method is useful in for each paradigm.

In chess, intuition is necessary but should be used sparingly and tempered with logic. It’s my favorite example because the game can be played without any intuition. Non-AI computers are able to beat the average human at chess. Some AI can beat chess masters. So, I’m biased towards logic. Chess is just a game, though. People are always telling me I should have more faith in intuitive thinking.

“But,” you should be asking, “Isn’t there an example of reliance on intuition as the best way to decide how to proceed?”

At least that’s what I have to ask myself. The best example I found of valuable intuition is the ability to ride a bike. It is almost impossible to learn to ride a bike in one session; it takes several tries over a week or longer to create the neural pathways needed to operate this bio-mechanical device. Samurais trained to feel that their weapon was part of themselves, or an extension of their very arm.  The mechanical motion of  the human body as it drives a bicycle becomes ingrained, literally, in the physical brain. The casual, ubiquitous expression, “It’s like riding a bike”, is used to idiomatically describe anything that can be easily mastered at an intermediate level, forgotten for years, but recalled at near perfect fidelity when encountered once again.

The Backwards Brain Bicycle – Smarter Every Day episode 133

Destin at Smarter Everyday put together a video that shows the duality of intuitive thinking. It is completely possible to train the human mind with complicated algorithms of decision making that can be embrace diversification and even contradictory modes of thinking.

Cont. below…

After watching this video, I embraced a moment of doubt and realized that there are very positive and useful aspects to intuition that I often don’t acknowledge. In this case of reversed bicycle steering, a skill that seems to only work after it has been made intuitive can be “lost” and only regained with a somewhat cumbersome level of concentration.

The video demonstrates the undeniable usefulness of what essentially amounts to anecdotal proof that neural pathways can be hacked, that contradictory new skills can be learned. It also shows that a paradigm of behavior can gain a tenacious hold on the mind via intuitive skill. It casts doubt on intuition in one respect but without at least some reliance on this intuitive paradigm of behavior it seems we wouldn’t be able to ride a bike at all.

This video forced me to both acknowledge the usefulness of ingrained, intuitive behaviors while also reminding me of how strong a hold intuition can have over the mind. Paradigms can be temporarily or perhaps permanently lost.  In the video, Destin has trouble switching back and forth between the 2 seemingly over-engaging thought systems but the transition itself can be a part of a more complicated thought algorithm, allowing the mind to master and embrace contradictory paradigms by trusting the integrity of the overall algorithm.

Including Confirmation Bias in a greater algorithm.

These paradigms can be turned on and off and just as a worker might be able to get used to driving an automatic transmission car to work and operating a stick shift truck at the job site and drive home in the automatic again after the shift.

This ability to turn on and off intuitive paradigms as a controlled feature of a greater logical algorithm requires the mind to acknowledge confirmation bias. I get a feeling of smug satisfaction that logic comprises the greater framework of a possible decision making process anytime I see evidence supporting that belief. There are just as many people out there who would view intuition as the the framework of a complex decision making process, with the ability to use or not use logical thought as merely a contributing part of a superior thought process. If my personal bias of logic over intuition is erroneous in some situations, can I trust the mode of thinking I am in? Using myself as an example, my relief at realizing data confirms what I have already accepted as true is powerful.

That feeling of relief must always be noted and kept in check before it can overshadow the ability to acknowledge data that opposes the belief. Understanding confirmation bias is the key to adding that next level to the algorithm, in the video example from Smarter Everyday, steering a normal bike is so ingrained in the neural pathway that the backwards steering’s inability to confirm actually fill in the blank and the mind sends an incorrect set of instruction of the mechanical behavior to the body. Understanding the dynamics of confirmation bias would enable the mind to embrace the greater thought system that would enable the mind to go back and forth between those conflicting behavioral paradigms. I’m positing that it should be possible to master a regular bike and the “backwards bike” and be able to switch back and forth between both bikes in quick succession. The neural pathways between both behavior paradigms can be trained and made stronger than the video shows.

I believe that with practice, someotrciksne could alternate steering mechanism quickly and without as much awkwardness as we are seeing in the video just as my initial confirmation bias, now identified, doesn’t have to dictate my decision and I might be more open minded to an intuitive interpretation leading to the best decision in certain situations.

An inability to acknowledge that one’s own mind might be susceptible to confirmation bias paradoxically makes one more susceptible.  Critical thinking is a method of building immunity to this common trap of confidence. Identifying the experience of one’s own confirmation bias is a great way to try and understand and control this intuitive tendency.  No matter what your thoughts are regarding logic and intuition, examining one’s confirmation biases and better embracing them should lead to better decision making skills.

Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY

biomimicry and the search for new tech

Biomimicry is the study of nature as inspiration for human designs in effort to fit  human technology into a more efficient and workable, sustainable model. Each organism alive today has the potential to teach humankind about the systems and rules it follows. Natural solutions aren’t just about having better materials.

They are about making products that might empower mankind against dwindling resources. Ecosystems aren’t just where we all live and consume resources but they are a resource of information as well. The ecosystem is self-replenishing and efficient and can be channeled and worked with in a way that has yet to be attempted. Potential new materials come with  side effects that warrant equal consideration. Biomimicry is a paradigm that fits many emerging techs. Take a look at spider venom’s effect on the drug industry, for example:

A peptide found in spider venom might lead to a safer class of painkillers. What other drugs, chemicals and designs are being inspired by biology and newly-studied species?

Biomimicry is a relatively young term, describing designs that derive inspiration by emulation of designs found in nature. The movement is focused on sustainable human endeavors and projects that will compliment the environment humans share with the rest of the natural world and thus better humanity’s chance for survival. Check out this video, the most recent by Janine Benyus, one of the idea’s most vocal proponents.

You might wonder why these chemicals are found in nature at all? There are many functions and motivations behind the diverse, unfound substances found in the Eco-system. Plants develop poison to discourage predators. some develop drugs to encourage other species to assist with seed dispersal. Evolution has provided the earth with highly diversified species of plants fungi and animals the vast majority of which have yet to be explored.

French researchers discovered a painkiller as powerful as morphine in the venom of e infamous African black mamba snake. Then there is a potential psoriasis treatment derived from the venom of the Caribbean sun anemone, undergoing testing in the U.S. might help sufferers with psoriasis, autoimmune disorders, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.gecko

Textures and surface patterns of geckos have been studied for stickiness. Skin textures of some animals have been proven to possess antimicrobial properties, in that bacterial colonies can’t find a way to attach to surfaces, making water currents and frequent rinsing enough to eliminate infective agents.

Artificial limb design and development has been greatly advanced by designs mimicking the weight-bearing capacity of other animals. New technologies are being developed to grant disabled people the ability to feel touch, as the natural mechanisms controlling pain, touch and movement are further understood.


In recent biomimetic news, we may see a mastery of understanding the human eye lead to a leap in ocular and immersive tech. MHOX is an Italian design firm who would like  synthetic replacement eyes.EYE to become an affordable, regular upgrade people opt for. Their work could restore sight to the blind and be the missing link to allow locative tech and a lot of web 2.0 concepts to become workable mainstream realities.

There is an initial shock in some people when these concepts are explained. Something about the current trends over the last few decades favoring straight, clean lines that are inspired by lifeless geometry over bio-inspired,  flowing shapes.

The drugs and prosthetics discussed, theorized and predicted in the biomimetics industries doesn’t have to turn humans into cyborgs, although some proponents wouldn’t be against that. It is likely that the public will be more inclined to accept these advancements as they are developed. Decades back people might have been less receptive to plastic hip replacements and artificial hearts, but the medical community has become very good at installing these prosthetics as minimally invasive, outpatient procedures.


Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY

Why is it so difficult to think in Higher Dimensions?

Humans can only perceive three dimensional space but theoretical math works out just fine when manipulating objects in four or more spacial dimensions. Mathematicians, scientists and philosophers still debate whether higher spacial dimensions actually exist.

It’s hard to imagine higher dimensions. Even one additional spatial dimension is hard to see with your inner mind’s eye. If you want to imagine six, seven or eight spacial dimensions it isn’t just hard – no one’s even truly conceptualized hyperspace. It’s what makes the subject compelling but also what makes it frustrating to talk about. The examples theorists are able to use to help people “visualize” what can’t be seen must work within human limitations, and are thus second and third dimensional examples of a higher dimensional concept or object.

“Wait a second,” some of you are wondering, “Isn’t TIME the fourth dimension?”
This article is about spacial dimensions only. Personally, I agree with Amrit Sorli and Davide Fiscaletti’s work which I feel adequately proves that time is NOT a spacial dimension. If you want to debate this issue further, you can read my reasoning in my follow up piece, Time: fourth dimension or nah?, also available on

One of the most basic exercises in multidimensional theory is to imagine moving in a fourth. The distance between you and everything around you stays the same but in some fourth dimension you are moving. Most people can’t truly do this imagination game because there in nothing in our three spacial dimensions to compare the experience to.


In the famous book about spacial dimensions, Flatland, living, two-dimensional beings existed in a universe that was merely two dimensions.  A being with three dimensions, such as a sphere, would appear as a circle able to change circumference as it moved through a third dimension no one in flatland has ever conceptualized.

Humans evolved to notice changes in our three-dimensional environment, inheriting our ancestors ability to conceptualize space in three dimensions as a hardwired trait that actually stops us from conceptualizing other aspects of reality that might nonetheless  exist. Other people see hyperspace as a theoretical construct of mathematics that doesn’t describe anything in reality, pointing to the lack of evidence of other dimensions.

Tesseracts Predate Computer-assisted Modelling.

A Tesseract. Many people in the advanced math classrooms of my generation of high school students struggled to wrap their heads around tesseracts without moving diagrams. If a picture is worth a thousand words are we talking animated gifs and words used to describe three dimensional space or should we make up a new saying?

We are able to conceptualize three dimensions in the abstract when we watch TV, look at a painting, or play a video-game. Anytime we look at a screen we watch a two dimensional image from a point outside that dimension. Having an outside point of view for a three dimensional space could give us a way to artificially understand a higher spatial dimension. Until that time comes, we are sort of stuck explaining fourth dimensions by demonstrating how it would look on a two dimensional screen which we view from a third dimensional viewpoint.

It’s kind of like imagining “one million”; you can prove it mathematically to yourself, you can count to it and you know how valuable it is but you can’t truly picture one million of anything. Trying to explain this conceptualization problem with words is pretty tough because your brain is not equipped to handle it. Humans try to wrap their minds around it and dream up ways to explain hyperspace to each other anyways.

4D Rubix Puzzle

A rubix cube is particularly compelling as a multi-dimensional teaching tool, because it puts spacial dimensions in the abstract in the first place, and then gives the cube the ability to change the dimensional orientation of a third of it’s mass. It’s hard to wrap your head around a normal three dimensional rubix puzzle. By adding another dimension and using the same principle, one can ALMOST imagine that fourth spacial dimension. Most people can’t solve a three dimensional Rubix puzzle but if you think you are ready for the fourth dimension, you can download it and play it on your two dimensional screen, here: Magic Cube 4D

If you don’t think you’re ready to try and solve that puzzle but you want to know more you can watch this roughly 1/2 hour video about it:


While Miegakure is still under development, it’s set for release in 2015. Interactive games like this can spur collaborative thinking from a larger pool of collaborators – and make game developers tons of money.

If you want something a little less abstract than Rubix, check out this prototype for Miegakure, the surreal PlayStation 4 game that lets the user explore a four dimensionally capable world through three dimensional spaces that connect to each other through higher dimensions. It’s a great idea that makes everyone have the initial thought of wondering how the heck they coded it. Then the idea sinks in and you realize they wrote the code first and played with the visual manifestation as they went. It’s a great metaphor for the idea in the first place; begins as a concept rather than an observation. The essence of the argument against hyperspace actually existing is the lack of physical evidence. Unlike a ghost story or a spiritual, religious attempt to explain the supernatural, there is actually mathematical evidence that seems to make higher dimensions possible. It has logical evidence as opposed to empirical data. There are ways to observe without using human senses but it’s difficult to prove an observation of something the majority of humans have trouble even seeing with their mind’s eye, so to speak.

One day we might be able to use technology to increase our understanding of this abstract concept, and manipulate an entirely new kind of media. For now we are stuck with two and three dimensional visual aids and an mental block put in place by aeons of evolution.

 Read More about Hyperspace on!
Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY



In a demented kind of way, when either a missile or a meteor strikes Earth, as much havoc as it can cause, it is pretty exciting. While the destruction it can cause above ground is fairly apparent, there is a whole three-ring circus going on underground that is a bit more difficult to see. But physicists at Duke University have come up with special techniques that have fitted them with the means to simulate high-speed impacts in artificial soil and sand, and observe the underground ramifications in slower-than-slow motion.

One discovery that they have come up with via their lab experiments is that upon such forceful impact, soil and sand indeed become stronger the harder they are struck. This unearthing serves to explain why efforts to force ground-penetrating missiles deeper underground by just shooting at them more quickly and with greater impact don’t really pan out. In reality, projectiles come against resistance to a greater extent and will actually stop before their strike speed has a chance to reach full throttle.


In order to replicate the occurrence of a missile or meteor thrashing into soil or sand, the scientists plummeted a metal projectile with an orb-shaped tip from 7 feet above into a pit of beads. Upon impact, the kinetic energy of the projectile was taken on by the beads and dissipated as the beads bumped into one another below the surface, absorbing the energy and force of the collision.

To visualize this force as it moved away from the point of the crash, the researchers employed beads that were made of clear plastic which transmit light differently when compacted. When observed through polarizing filters such as those found in regular sunglasses, the portions of greatest stress showed up as branching chains of light referred to as “force chains” that move from one bead to the next during the impact, akin to lightening bolts that zig-zag their way across the sky.

The metal projectile plunged into the vat of beads at a speed of 6 meters/second, or close to 15 MPH. Via the use of beads of varying hardness, the researchers made it possible to trigger pulses that rippled through the beads at speeds ranging from 67 to 670 MPH. At low speeds, a small number of beads carried the brunt of the force, and at higher speeds the “force chains” grew more extensive, resulting in the energy of the crash to move away from the point of the collision a lot more quickly than predicted by previous models. New contacts are generated between the beads at higher rates of acceleration as they are pressed together, and that is the cause for strengthening the material.


Said co-author Abram Clark, currently a postdoctoral researcher in mechanical engineering at Yale University:

“Imagine you’re trying to push your way through a crowded room…If you try to run and push your way through the room faster than the people can rearrange to get out of the way, you’re going to end up applying a lot of pressure [to] and ramming into a lot of angry people!”

Mars isn’t a One Way Trip Anymore

150 Cubic Meters of Ice Means a powerful rocket fuel can be synthesized on Mars – powerful enough to escape Mars gravity for the return trip to Earth.

Turns out Mars has 150 billion cubic-meters worth of ice that’s been frozen for so long it’s covered with Mars’ ubiquitous red soil. NASA knows this because of  radar measurements from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The ice is spread out among a few ginormous belts made of countless glaciers.

There’s been evidence of a once liquid ocean on Mars’ surface.  Curiosity rover found riverbeds back in September 2012 with NASA able to estimate two pints of water for every cubic-foot of soil. In early 2014, Spanish researchers were able to prove glaciers dug canyons 3.7 billion years ago. Water leaves chemical byproducts of various reactions and residues.

No one expected such a big find, except maybe anyone who saw the Arnold Schwarzenegger version of Total Recall.

If you are wondering where Total Recall got the idea for underground glaciers, scientists  have suspected glacial activity below the Martian surface for decades. The debate centered around formations that would not be abel to hodl their particular shape without glacial activity but was the frozen material water ice, dry ice, or a muddy mix of red dust and water or some other frozen gas or liquid.


Using logic and science, the evidence available can now be interpreted to be enough to cover Mars with a meter of liquid water, if it melted – and if Mars was completely smooth.

Glaciers of Mars Image: Mars Digital Image Model, NASA/Nanna Karlsson


“We have looked at radar measurements spanning ten years back in time to see how thick the ice is and how it behaves. A glacier is after all a big chunk of ice and it flows and gets a form that tells us something about how soft it is. We then compared this with how glaciers on Earth behave and from that we have been able to make models for the ice flow.”

Read Nanna Bjørnholt Karlsson entire press release on the subject.

Water can easily be separated into hydrogen gas and oxygen, making breathable air and a powerful rocket fuel that can be used for other space missions, including a return trip to Earth. Water can also be used to cultivate food and animal crops on Mars, making colonization a hell of a lot more appealing.

Oh, and one more thing:

Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY

Revisiting the Death of Michael Hastings

Could emerging tech present new forensics in the suspicious early demise of controversial Rolling Stone reporter, Michael Hastings? How cheaper hardware and open-sourced coding could shed new light on a murder as the possibility of remotely hacking today’s cars gains traction.

Hacking your car might already be possible. This tweet by NYT tech writer, Nick Bilton, is a great example:

Weeks back, I wrote a short piece about CANtact, a $60 device that enables you  to interface with a car’s onboard computer through your laptop’s USB port. Eric Evenchick presented CANtact at Black Hat Asia 2015 security conference in Singapore. The onboard CPU of a motor-vehicle is called the CAN, for Controller Area Network. Evenchick hopes his device’s affordability will spur programmers to reverse engineer the firmware and proprietary languages various CAN systems use.

Read more about CANtact: CANtact Device Lets you Hack a Car’s CPU for $60

I got feedback on the CANtact story about a seemingly unrelated topic: The Death of Michael Hastings. Hastings was Rolling Stone and Buzzfeed contributor who became very vocal about the surveillance state when the  U.S. Department of Justice started investigating reporters in 2013. Hastings coined the term “war on journalism” when the Obama Administration sanctioned limitations on journalists ability to report when the White House considered it a security risk. Buzzfeed ran his last story, “Why Democrats Love to Spy On Americans”, June 7, 2013. Hastings is considered suspicious by many Americans after he died in an explosive, high -speed automobile accident, June 18, 2013, in Los Angeles, CA.

Check out one of the last interviews with Michael Hastings and scroll down for a description of the oft repeated conspiracy theory surrounding his untimely death.

The Michael Hastings Conspiracy Theory:

Unlike a lot of post-millennium conspiracy theories, which usually start online, this one actually began on television. Reporters were already contentious about the limitations the Obama admin. were attempting to impose and it seemed like extremely suspicious timing that one of the leaders of the criticism against censorship was suddenly killed. The internet ran with it and some Americans considered the crash as suspicious at the time. Public opinion is often without the merit of hard evidence, though, and this case was no different. Not everyone considered the media coverage unbiased, considering the political stake journalists had in the issue.

The first solid argument that Hasting didn’t die by accident came from Richard A. Clarke, a former U.S. National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-terrorism(what a title~!), who called the crash “consistent with a car cyber attack”. The conspiracy theory gestating around water coolers and message boards was truly born when Clarke went public with this outright accusation:

“There is reason to believe that intelligence agencies for major powers—including the United States—know how to remotely seize control of a car. So if there were a cyber attack on [Hastings’] car—and I’m not saying there was, I think whoever did it would probably get away with it.”

Next, WikiLeaks announced that Hastings reached out to a Wikileaks lawyer Jennifer Robinson only a few hours before the crash.

Army Staff Sergent Joe Biggs came forward with an email he thought might help in a murder investigation. The email was CCed to a few of Hastings’ colleagues, stating he was “onto a big story” and planned to “go off the radar”. Perhaps the most incriminating detail is that he warned the addressees of this email to expect a visit from the FBI. The FBI denied Hastings was being investigated in a formal press release.

LA Weekly admitted Hastings was preparing a new installment of what had been an ongoing story involving the CIA. Hastings’ wife, Elise Jordan, confirmed he had been working on a story profiling CIA Director John O. Brennan.


The case against foul play:

I have to admit, I got sucked in for a second but Cosmoso is a science blog and I personally believe an important part of science is to maintain rational skepticism. The details I listed above are the undisputed facts. You can research online and verify them. It might seem really likely that Hastings was onto something and silenced by some sort of foul play leading to a car accident but there is no hard evidence, no smoking gun, no suspects and nothing really proving he was a victim of murder.

The rumor online has always been that there are suspicious aspects to the explosion. Cars don’t always explode when they crash but Frank Markus director of Motor Trend said the ensuing fire after the crash was consistent with most high-speed car crashes. The usual conspiracy theorist reaction is to suspect this kind of testimony to have some advantage or involvement thus “proving” it biased. It’s pretty difficult to do that in the case of Frank Markus, who just directs a magazine and website about cars.

Hastings’ own family doesn’t seem to think the death was suspicious. His brother, Jonathan, later revealed Michael seemed “manic” in the days leading up to the crash. Elise Jordan, his wife told the press it was “just a really tragic accident”

A host of The Young Turks who was close with Hastings once said Hastings’ friends had noticed he was agitated and tense. Michael often complained that he was being followed and watched. It’s easy to dismiss the conspiracy theory when you consider it may have stemmed from the line of work he chose.

Maybe the government conspiracy angle is red herring.

Reporting on the FBI, the Military, the Whitehouse, or the CIA are what reporters do. People did it before and since. Those government organizations have accountability in ways that would make an assassination pretty unlikely.

If it wasn’t the government who would have wanted to kill Hastings?

A lot of people, it turns out. Hastings had publicly confirmed he received several death-threats after his infamous Rolling Stone article criticizing and exposing General McChrystal. Considering the United States long history of reactionary violence an alternate theory is that military personnel performed an unsanctioned hit on Hastings during a time when many right wing Americans considered the journalist unpatriotic.

Here’s where the tech comes into play:

Hastings had told USA Today his car had recently been “tampered with”, without any real explanation of what that means but most people in 2013 would assume it means physical tampering with the brakes or planting a bug. In any case he said he was scared and planned to leave town.

Now it’s only two years later, and people are starting to see how a little bit of inside knowledge of how the CAN computer works in a modern vehicle can be used to do some serious harm. We might never know if this was a murder, an assassination or an accident but hacking a car remotely seemed like a joke at the time; two years later no one is laughing.

Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY

CANtact Device Lets you Hack a Car’s CPU for $60

Right now, Eric Evenchick is presenting CANtact at Black Hat Asia 2015 security conference in Singapore. Cantact is a hardware interface that attaches to the car’s CPU at one end and a regular laptop at the other. He’s already figured out how to do several simple hacks. It may sound like a simple device but the pricey commercially-available on-board CPU interfaces have been a consistent obstacle to car security research.

Car Companies have a huge security hole that they have not publicly addressed. The only reason people don’t regularly computer hack motor-vehicles is a lack of commercially available hardware. Hacking a car’s electronic system is something only a few people would even have the equipment to learn. To become a specialized security researcher in this area you would have to have a car you are willing to seriously mess with, which is expensive in and of itself. Some people might have access to a clunker that was made recently enough to have a CPU but they can’t afford the $1,200 stock cable that your local car mechanic would have to run the pre-fab software provided my the manufacturer. Eric Evenchick spent the last year figuring out exactly what makes the hardware tick, so he could put it int he hands of security researchers for the price of a dinner at a fancy restaurant.

24-year-old Eric Evenchick calls the controversial device CANtact, and he’s going to present it today at Black Hat Asia security conference in Singapore, whether car companies like it or not. The code that comes on the board attached tot he cable is open source. He can get it as cheap as $60 and maybe it will sell through third parties for $100.  CANtact uses any USB interface to adapt to a car or truck’s OBD2 port at the other end. OBD2 ports usually connect under the dashboard and talk to the car or trucks CPU. In most modern vehicles, the complicated Controller Area Network, or CAN, controls  the windows, the brakes, the power-steering, the dashboard indicators and more. It’s something that can disable your car and most people shouldn’t mess with it just yet. Once peer-collaborated info breaks into the mainstream, Evenchick hopes customized CAN systems will be common practice.

“Auto manufacturers are not up to speed. They’re just behind the times. Car software is not built to the same standards as, say, a bank application. Or software coming out of Microsoft.” Ed Adams at Security Innovation, 2014

Is can hacking a security threat we’ll see in the future? Quite probably. Back in 2013 security researchers Chris Valasek and Charlie Miller used DARPA funding to demonstrate how possible it really is to affect steering and brakes once the CAN system is accessed.

In the controversial death of journalist Michael Hastings, some people suspected car-hacking. It’s never been proven but you can read a detailed examination of the evidence in the article: Revisiting the Death of Michael Hastings

Evenchick is not trying to allow hackers to more easily hack cars. Instead he claims more affordable gadgetry will improve security, which seems to be the way tenuous relationship of security culture and hacking has always gone. In the test described in the link to the forbes article above, Valasek and Miller rewired a $150 ECOM cable to access and test vehicles’ OBD2 ports. CANtact comes out of the box ready to do what Valasek and Miller had to stay up late nights perfecting.

Anyone who attended Black Hat Asia, or can get a hold of any video of Evenchick’s presentation can contact Jon Howard:
Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY