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Astronomers Solve Puzzle of the Mountains That Fell From Space

KentuckyFC KentuckyFC writes  |  yesterday

KentuckyFC (1144503) writes "Iapetus, Saturn’s third largest moon, was first photographed by the Cassini spacecraft on 31 December 2004. The images created something of a stir. Clearly visible was a narrow, steep ridge of mountains that stretch almost halfway around the moon’s equator. The question that has since puzzled astronomers is how this mountain range got there. Now evidence is mounting that this mountain range is not the result of tectonic or volcanic activity, like mountain ranges on other planets. Instead, astronomers are increasingly convinced that this mountain range fell from space. The latest evidence is a study of the shape of the mountains using 3-D images generated from Cassini data. They show that the angle of the mountainsides is close to the angle of repose, that’s the greatest angle that a granular material can form before it landslides. That’s not proof but it certainly consistent with this exotic formation theory. So how might this have happened? Astronomers think that early in its life, Iapetus must have been hit by another moon, sending huge volumes of ejecta into orbit. Some of this condensed into a new moon that escaped into space. However, the rest formed an unstable ring that gradually spiralled in towards the moon, eventually depositing the material in a narrow ridge around the equator. Cassini’s next encounter with Iapetus will be in 2015 which should give astronomers another chance to study the strangest mountain range in the Solar System."
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Mathematicians Use Mossberg 500 Pump-Action Shotgun to Calculate Pi

KentuckyFC KentuckyFC writes  |  2 days ago

KentuckyFC (1144503) writes "Imagine the following scenario. The end of civilisation has occurred, zombies have taken over the Earth and all access to modern technology has ended. The few survivors suddenly need to know the value of pi and, being a mathematician, they turn to you. What do you do? According to a couple of Canadian mathematicians, the answer is to repeatedly fire a Mossberg 500 pump action shotgun at a square aluminium target about 20 metres away. Then imagine that the square is inscribed with an arc drawn between opposite corners that maps out a quarter circle. If the sides of the square are equal to 1, then the area of the quarter circle is pi/4. Next, count the number of pellet holes that fall inside the area of the quarter circle as well as the total number of holes. The ratio between these is an estimate of the ratio between the area of the quarter circle and the area of a square, or in other words pi/4. So multiplying this number by 4 will give you an estimate of pi. That's a process known as a Monte Carlo approximation and it is complicated by factors such as the distribution of the pellets not being random. But the mathematicians show how to handle these too. The result? According to this method, pi is 3.13, which is just 0.33 per cent off the true value. Handy if you find yourself in a post-apocalyptic world."
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Mathematical Proof That The Cosmos Could Have Formed Spontaneously From Nothing

KentuckyFC KentuckyFC writes  |  5 days ago

KentuckyFC (1144503) writes "One of the great theories of modern cosmology is that the universe began in a Big Bang. This is not just an idea but a scientific theory backed up by numerous lines of evidence, such as the cosmic microwave background and so on. But what caused the Big Bang itself? For many years, cosmologists have fallen back on the idea that the universe formed spontaneously; that the big bang was result of quantum fluctuations in which the universe came into existence from nothing. But is this compatible with what we know about the Big Bang itself and the theories that describe it? Now cosmologists have come up with the first rigorous proof that the Big Bang could indeed have occurred spontaneously and produced the universe we see today. The proof is developed within a mathematical framework known as the Wheeler-DeWitt equation. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle allows a small region of empty space to come into existence probabilistically due to quantum fluctuations. Most of the time, such a bubble will collapse and disappear. The question these guys address is whether a bubble could also expand exponentially to allow universe to form in an irreversible way. Their proof shows that this is indeed possible. There is an interesting corollary which is that the role of the cosmological constant is played by a property known as the quantum potential. This is a property introduced in the 20th century by the physicist David Bohm which has the effect of making quantum mechanics deterministic while reproducing all of its predictions. It’s an idea that has never caught on. Perhaps that will change now."
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Last Month's "Planet X" Announcement Was Probably Wrong

KentuckyFC KentuckyFC writes  |  about a week ago

KentuckyFC (1144503) writes "Last month, astronomers announced the discovery of the most distant body in the Solar System, a dwarf planet called 2012VP113. They also said this body's orbit was strangely aligned with several other dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt and that this could be the result of these bodies being herded by a much larger Planet X even further from the Sun. They calculated that this hidden planet could be between 2 and 15 times the mass of the Earth and orbiting at a distance of between 200 AU and 300 AU, an announcement that triggered excited headlines around the world. Now it looks as though these predictions were wildly optimistic. It turns out that the position of Planet X can be constrained more tightly using orbital measurements of other planets. And when this data is added into the mix, Planet X can only only orbit at much greater distances, if it exists at all. The new calculations suggest that a planet twice the mass of Earth cannot orbit any closer than about 500 AU. And a planet 15 times the mass of Earth must be at least 1000 AU distant. What's more, the New Horizons mission currently on its way to Pluto, should constrain the distance to beyond 4700 AU. So any Planet X hunters out there are likely to be disappointed."
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How To Build A Quantum Telescope

KentuckyFC KentuckyFC writes  |  about two weeks ago

KentuckyFC (1144503) writes "The resolving power of telescopes is limited by the diffraction limit, a natural bound on resolution caused by the way light diffracts as it passes through a lens. But in recent years, physicists have worked out how to use quantum techniques to beat the diffraction limit. The trick is to create a pair of entangled photons, use one to illuminate the target and the other to increase the information you have about the first. All this is possible in the lab because physicists can use their own sources of light. Indeed, last month, physicists unveiled the first entanglement-enhanced microscope that beats the diffraction limit. But what about astronomy where the light comes from distant astrophysical sources? Now one physicist has worked out how to use quantum techniques to beat the diffraction limit in telescopes too. Her idea is to insert a crystalline sheet of excited atoms into the aperture of the telescope. When astrophysical photons hit this sheet, they generate an entangled pair of photons. One of these photons then passes through the telescope to create an image while the other is used to improve the information known about the first and so beat the diffraction limit. Of course, all this depends on improved techniques for increasing the efficiency of the process and removing noise that might otherwise swamp the astrophysical signal. But it's still early days in the world quantum imaging and at least astronomers now know they're not going to be excluded form the fun."
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P=NP Problem Linked To The Quantum Nature Of The Universe

KentuckyFC KentuckyFC writes  |  about two weeks ago

KentuckyFC (1144503) writes "One of the greatest mysteries in science is why we don't see quantum effects on the macroscopic scale; why Schrodinger's famous cat cannot be both alive and dead at the same time. Now one theorist has worked out why and says the answer is because P is NOT equal to NP. Here's the thinking. The equation that describes the state of any quantum object is called Schrodinger's equation. Physicists have always thought it can be used to describe everything in the universe, even large objects and perhaps the universe itself. But the new idea is that this requires an additional assumption--that an efficient algorithm exists to solve the equation for complex macroscopic systems. But is this true? The new approach involves showing that the problem of solving Schrodinger's equation is NP-hard. So if macroscopic superpositions exist, there must be an algorithm that can solve this NP-hard problem quickly and efficiently. And because all NP-hard problems are mathematically equivalent, this algorithm must also be capable of solving all other NP-hard problems too, such as the travelling salesman problem. In other words, NP-hard problems are equivalent to the class of much easier problems called P. Or P=NP. But here's the thing: computational complexity theorists have good reason to think that P is not equal to NP (although they haven't yet proven it). If they're right, then macroscopic superpositions cannot exist, which explains why we do not (and cannot) observe them in the real world. Voila!"
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Single-Celled Organism Converted Into Electronic Oscillator For Bio-Computing

KentuckyFC KentuckyFC writes  |  about two weeks ago

KentuckyFC (1144503) writes "The single-celled organism slime mould, or Physarum polycephalum, is an extraordinary creature. It explores its world by extending protoplasmic tubes into its surroundings in search of food and it does this rather well. Various researchers have exploited this process to show how Physarum can find optimal routes between different places and even solve mazes. Now one researcher has worked out how to use these protoplasmic tubes as clock-like electronic oscillators. His experiment was straightforward. He encouraged the growth of protoplasmic tubes between two blobs of agar sitting on electrical contacts. He then measured the resistance of the tubes at various voltages. This turns out to be about 6 megaohms. But the results show something else too: that the resistance oscillates over a period of about 73 seconds. That's due to the tubes contracting as waves of calcium ions pass through them. So altering the period of oscillation should be possible by influencing the production of calcium ions, perhaps using light or biochemistry. Electronic oscillators are significant because they are basic drivers of almost all active electronic devices. But this guy's goal is bigger than this. The plan is to grow a "Physarum chip" that acts as a general purpose computer, a device that will need some kind of oscillator or clock to co-ordinate activity, just as in an ordinary processor, although speed will not be its chief characteristic."
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Data Mining The Web Reveals What Makes Puzzles Hard For Humans

KentuckyFC KentuckyFC writes  |  about two weeks ago

KentuckyFC (1144503) writes "The question of what makes puzzles hard for humans is deceptively tricky. One possibility is that puzzles that are hard for computers must also be hard for people. That's undoubtedly true and in recent years computational complexity theorists have spent some time trying to classify the games people play in this way (Pac Man is NP hard, by the way). But humans don't always solve problems in the same way as computers because they don't necessarily pick the best method or even a good way to do it. And that makes it hard to predict the difficulty of a puzzle in advance. Cognitive psychologists have attempted to tease this apart by measuring how long it takes people to solve puzzles and then creating a model of the problem solving process that explains the data. But the datasets gathered in this way have been tiny--typically 20 people playing a handful of puzzles. Now one researcher has taken a different approach by mining the data from websites in which people can play games such as Sudoku. That's given him data on the way hundreds of players solve over 2000 puzzles, a vast increase over previous datasets and this has allowed him to plot the average time it takes to finish different puzzles. One way to assess the difficulty of Sudoku puzzle is in the complexity of each step required to solve it. But the new work suggests that another factor is important too--whether the steps are independent and so can be attempted in parallel or whether the steps are dependent and so must be tried in sequence, one after the other. A new model of this puzzle-solving process accurately reproduces the time it takes real humans to finish the problems and that makes it possible to accurately predict the difficulty of a puzzle in advance for the first time. It also opens the way for other studies of human problem solving using the vast datasets that have been collected over the web. Indeed work has already begun on the Sudoku-like puzzle game, Nurikabe."
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Physicists Produce Antineutrino Map Of The World

KentuckyFC KentuckyFC writes  |  about three weeks ago

KentuckyFC (1144503) writes "The origin of the heat generated inside the Earth is one of the great mysteries of geophysics. Researchers know that almost all this heat is generated by the decay of radioactive elements such as potassium-40, thorium-232 and uranium-238. But what they don't know is how these elements are distributed inside the planet and how much heat each contributes. In the next few years, they hope to get some answers thanks to the emerging science of antineutrino geophysics. Since radioactive decay produces antineutrinos, an experiment that measures these particles coming out of the Earth should provide a detailed picture of the distribution of the elements within it. But there's a problem. Nuclear reactors also produce copious numbers of antineutrinos and these can swamp the signal from inside the Earth. What's needed is a map showing the distribution of reactor antineutrinos so that geophysicists can choose the best places to put their experiments. Just such a map is exactly what a team of nuclear physicists has now produced. The map shows that planned experiments in Hawaii and Curacao, off the coast of Venezuela, are in excellent locations and that Japan has recently become a much better site thanks to the shut down of the country's nuclear industry following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. But a European experiment currently being planned in south-east France doesn't come off so well."
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Last Week's Announcement About Gravitational Waves and Inflation May Be Wrong

KentuckyFC KentuckyFC writes  |  about three weeks ago

KentuckyFC (1144503) writes "If you've been living under a stone, you might not have heard last week's announcement that astrophysicists from the BICEP2 experiment have found the first evidence of two extraordinary things. The first is primordial gravitational waves--ripples in spacetime from the very first moments after the Big Bang. The second is that these waves are evidence of inflation, the theory that the universe expanded rapidly, by twenty orders of magnitude in the blink of an eye after the Big Bang. But that can only be possible if the gravitational waves formed before inflation occurred. Now critics have begun to mutter that the waves might have formed later and so provide no evidence of inflation. The new thinking is that as the universe cooled down after inflation, various phase changes occurred in the Universe which generated the laws of physics we see today. These phase changes would have been violent events that generated their own ripples in space time, which would look very much like the primordial gravitational waves that the BICEP2 team claims to have found. So the BICEP2 team must rule out this possibility before they can claim evidence of inflation. But the critics say the data does not yet allow this to be done. That doesn't mean inflation didn't occur. Indeed, the critics say this is still the most likely explanation. But until the phase change possibility is ruled out, the result must be considered ambiguous. So put the champagne back in the fridge."
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Algorithm Composes Music By Text Analysing The World's Best Novels

KentuckyFC KentuckyFC writes  |  about a month ago

KentuckyFC (1144503) writes "The recent development of vast databases that link words to the emotions they conjure up is changing the way researchers study text. Sentiment analysis, for example, is increasingly used to gauge the mood of society on topics ranging from politics to movies. Now researchers have used the same technique to measure the "emotional temperature" throughout a novel and then to automatically compose music that reflects the content. The key advance in this work is the development of rules that map the emotional changes into musical qualities such as tempo, key pitch and so on. The team has fed a number of well known books through the algorithm, which they call TransProse. These include lighter texts such as Peter Pan and much darker novels such as The Road and Heart of Darkness. And the music isn't bad (to my untrained ear). The teams say the new algorithm could lead to audio-visual e-books that generate music that reflects the mood on open pages. And it may even be possible to use the algorithm in reverse to recommend known songs that reflect the mood in a book."
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First Automatic Identification Of Flying Insects Allows Hi-Tech Bug Zapping

KentuckyFC KentuckyFC writes  |  about a month ago

KentuckyFC (1144503) writes "Entomologists have never been able to identify flying insects automatically. But not through lack of trying. The obvious approach is to listen out for the frequency of the wing beat. But acoustic microphones aren't up to the job because sound intensity drops with the square of the distance, so flying insects quickly drop out of range. Now a group of researchers has solved this problem using a laser beam pointing at a photosensitive array. Any insect flying through the beam, casts a shadow of its beating wings that can easily be recorded at distances of several metres. Using this new device, the team has created a dataset of millions of wing beat recordings, more than all previous recordings put together. And they've used the dataset to train a Bayesian classifier algorithm to identify flying insects automatically for the first time. That opens the prospect of a new generation of bug zappers that kill only certain insects or just females rather than males. That could have a big impact on human health since mosquitoes and other flying insects kill millions of people each year. It could also help in agriculture where insects threaten billions of dollars worth of crops."
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Algorithm Reveals Objects Hidden Behind Other Things In Camera Phone Images

KentuckyFC KentuckyFC writes  |  about a month ago

KentuckyFC (1144503) writes "Imaging is undergoing a quiet revolution at the moment thanks to various new techniques for extracting data from images. Now physicists have worked out how to create an image of an object hidden behind a translucent material using little more than an ordinary smartphone and some clever data processing. The team placed objects behind materials that scatter light such as onion skin, frosted glass and chicken breast tissue. They photographed them using a Nokia Lumina 1020 smartphone, with a 41 megapixel sensor. To the naked eye, the resulting images look like random speckle. But by treating the data from each pixel separately and looking for correlations between pixels, the team was able to produce images of the hidden objects. They even photographed light scattered off a white wall and recovered an image of the reflected scene--a technique that effectively looks round corners. The new technique has applications in areas such as surveillance and medical imaging."
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First Mathematical Model of 13th Century 'Big Bang' Cosmology

KentuckyFC KentuckyFC writes  |  about a month ago

KentuckyFC (1144503) writes "The 13th century thinker Robert Grosseteste is sometimes credited with predicting the Big Bang theory of cosmological expansion some eight centuries ahead of modern cosmologists. His theory, written in about 1225, is that the Universe began with a Big Bang-like explosion in which light expands in all directions giving matter its three-dimensional form. The expansion eventually stops when matter reaches a minimum density and this sets the boundary of the Universe. The boundary itself emits light towards the centre of the universe and this interacts with matter, causing other nested spheres to form, corresponding to the fixed stars, the elements of earth, fire, water and so on. Now a team of physicists and experts on medieval philosophy have translated Grosseteste's theory into the modern language of mathematics and simulated it on computer. They say Grosseteste's theory produces universes of remarkable complexity but that only a tiny fraction of the parameter space corresponds to a universe of nested spheres like the one he predicted. What's interesting is that modern cosmologists face exactly the same problem. Their models predict many different kinds of universes and have to be fine-tuned to fit the universe we actually live in. "The sensitivity to initial conditions resonates with contemporary cosmological discussion and reveals a subtlety of the medieval model which historians of science could never have deduced from the text alone," conclude the team."
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How Engineers Are Building A Power Station At The South Pole

KentuckyFC KentuckyFC writes  |  about a month ago

KentuckyFC (1144503) writes "One of the more ambitious projects at the South Pole is the Askaryan Radio Array, a set of radio antennas under the ice that will listen for the tell tale signals of high energy neutrinos passing by. This array will eventually be over a thousand times bigger than the current largest neutrino detector: Icecube, which monitors a cubic kilometre of ice next door to the planned new observatory. But there's a problem. How do you supply 24/7 power to dozens of detectors spread over such a vast area in the middle of the Antarctic? The answer is renewable energy power stations that exploit the sun during the summer and the wind all year round. The first of these stations is now up and running at the South Pole and producing power. It is also helping to uncover and iron out the various problems that these stations are likely to encounter. For example; where to put the batteries needed to supply continuous power when all else fails. The team's current approach is to bury the battery to protect it from temperature extremes. That works well but makes maintenance so difficult that scaling this approach to dozens of power stations doesn't seem feasible. That's a problem for the future but for the moment, green power has finally come to the white continent."
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First Study of the Evolution of Memes on Facebook

KentuckyFC KentuckyFC writes  |  about a month ago

KentuckyFC (1144503) writes "The way memes evolve on Facebook is startlingly similar to the way genes evolve on Earth. That's conclusion of a team of researchers who have analysed the evolution of thousands of memes that have appeared more than 460 million times on Facebook. The memes are ideas like: "No one should die because they cannot afford health care and no one should go broke because they get sick. If you agree please post this as your status for the rest of the day.”, which has been copied 470,000 times. However, the meme quickly mutated. A version that included the phrase “[Your Name] thinks that” appeared 60,000 times. And humorous versions appeared too: "No one should be without beer because they cannot afford one”. The team analysed how often variants appeared and how different they were to the original to get a measure of each meme's evolution. It turns out that this evolution follows the same mathematical evolution, called the Yule Process, that genes follow. And there are other similarities too. There is a small but clear preference for variants that are shorter than the original memes. That’s analogous to bacteria favouring small genomes because they allow fast replication. And the same advantageous sequences can appear in many different memes, probably transferred by a single individual from one meme to another. This process is analogous to lateral gene transfer in bacteria. There are some differences too. Evolution is a blind process in biology but not in social media there can be a conscious effort to create mutations that will spread more effectively. This leads to some memes evolving with very high replication rates that are not described by the Yule process. The team says the results should provide greater insight into the nature of information transfer in social networks. It also raises the interesting question of how far evolution might go when given a little time to play with memes."
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How Japanese Scientists Are Monitoring Fukushima Babies For Radiation Exposure

KentuckyFC KentuckyFC writes  |  about a month and a half ago

KentuckyFC (1144503) writes "Parents in the Fukushima region of Japan are intensely worried that their children may be consuming food and water contaminated with radiation. But whole body scanners used to monitor the internal radiation levels of adults don't work for children who cannot stand up inside them. What's more, the machines are not sensitive enough to detect problematic radiation levels in children. That's because children metabolise substances faster than adults and have a lower mass to start with, so the levels of radiation in their bodies tend to be lower. For example, if each adult ingests 3 Becquerels of cesium-137 every day, the internal levels would reach an equilibrium of about 400 Bq/adult body. But a similar intake for a 1-year old child would result in an equilibrium level of about 60 Bq/body, well below the 250 Bq/body sensitivity of adult scanners. Now a team of engineers has built a whole body scanner that is sensitive enough for the job and that children can play inside for the 4 minutes necessary to scan them. And they say the results of the first 100 scans of Fukushima children (average age 4.2 years) are reassuring--none show any evidence of cesium-137. So far."
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First Outdoor Flocks of Autonomous Flying Robots

KentuckyFC KentuckyFC writes  |  about a month and a half ago

KentuckyFC (1144503) writes "Aerial flocking has been a long standing goal for roboticists but the technical demands for autonomous outdoor flocking has always been too great. Now a European team has successfully demonstrated autonomous outdoor flocking for the first time with up to 10 flyers in the air simultaneously for up to 20 minutes. The flyer of choice is the MK Basicset L4-ME made by the German company MikroKopter. They modified this by attaching an extension board carrying a variety of navigational devices such as a gyroscope, accelerometer, GPS receiver and so on as well as a wireless communications unit and a minicomputer to calculate trajectories. To simplify these calculations, all the quadcopters fly at the same altitude to make the flocking problem two-dimensional. The team say the quadcopters can fly autonomously in lines and circles and even demonstrate self-organising behaviour when confined to specific volumes of space. Crucially, the flock does not rely on any centralised control for its behaviour.The potential applications are numerous. The researchers imagine using them for large-scale, redundant observations over wide areas, perhaps for farming, traffic monitoring and, of course, military purposes. They might even put on aerial displays for entertainment purposes."
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DARPA Funds Research Into A Network-Based Interpretation of Dreams

KentuckyFC KentuckyFC writes  |  about 2 months ago

KentuckyFC (1144503) writes "Despite the universal experience of dreaming, psychologists and neuroscientists have little understanding of its purpose and mechanisms or how it varies from one culture to another. So new approaches to oneirology, or dream research, are always welcome. Now a DARPA-funded research team is using network science to analyse dreams for the first time. Dreams have become amenable to network studies because dream reports and their interpretations are now widely available on the web in repositories such as UC Santa Cruz's Dreambank. The DARPA team crawled these databases in English, Chinese and Arabic for symbols that appear in dreams and their descriptions. They then created a network for each language by treating symbols as nodes and linking them to other nodes with similar descriptions. They then searched the networks for regions of more densely connected nodes that form communities. For example, in English, symbols such as 'ladder', 'hill' and 'goal" form just such a community representing 'achievement after a struggle'. Finally, they compared the communities from different languages looking for similarities. The results show that dream symbols seem to be connected in similar ways regardless of the cultural background of the dreamers. That provides a new window into the cultural links between dreams experienced by people in different parts of the world. But it also raises the question of how the work fits in to DARPA’s broader mission to create breakthrough technologies for national security."
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First Liquid Machines Promise New Era of Soft Robots

KentuckyFC KentuckyFC writes  |  about 2 months ago

KentuckyFC (1144503) writes "The technology behind the T-1000 assassin in the Terminator movies might as well be science fiction as far as modern manufacturing is concerned. But that may change thanks to some work by Chinese engineers who have perfected a way to make liquid metals assume various shapes and switch from one to another with the flick of a switch. These guys placed a thin film of gallium-indium-selenium alloy (melting point 10.5 degrees C) in water and apply an electric field. The balance between the surface tension of the metal and the electric forces on its surface then cause the metal to form a ball. They can move the sphere around, combine it with other spheres and even use it to rotate the water. The engineers say this is the first step towards smart liquid machines that can assume almost any shape. And since the alloy is biologically benign, these machines could be used with, and even inside humans. Their next goal is to create a set of parallel electrodes that cause the metal to form into an undulating worm-shape that can propel itself along."
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