Why Seals Can Hold Their Breath Underwater For Longer Than Me

Why Seals Can Hold Their Breath Underwater For Longer Than Me

Seals, dolphins, whales and other mammalian marine animals have evolved the ability to hold their breaths underwater for extended periods. Scientists have long been interested in how they achieve these underwater feats of endurance. In an article in Science this week a group from Liverpool University has proposed a molecular mechanism that accounts for this ability.

Oxygen is stored in muscles using a protein called myoglobin. Like most proteins you can only have myoglobin at certain concentrations because proteins in high concentration tend to form dysfunctional aggregates. This means that for you or I there is a theoretical maximum amount of oxygen our muscles can store.

So how do marine mammals manage to get around this? Simple, they have a mechanism that allows them to pack more myoglobin together without it forming aggregates. Proteins are made up of amino acids, there are 22 standard amino acids some of which have either a positive or negative charge. If the protein evolves enough of these charged amino acids on its surface it will have a high net electro-static charge and it will repel other copies of itself just like trying to bring together the negative poles of two magnets.

This is exactly what has happened to myoglobin as it has evolved in marine mammals. It’s gained a high electrostatic charge which means molecules of myoglobin repel each other and this in turn prevents aggregation.

This means that marine mammals can pack together far more myoglobin molecules and their muscles can hold far more oxygen allowing them to dive for much longer between breaths.

A Mote of Dust Suspended In Sunbeam


Earlier today I was having coffee with our village curate and as is normal our discussion ranged across a wide range of subjects from the history of the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 to a picture I remembered having seen and the associated quote. As Voyager left our solar system for deep space it turned and took a sequence of pictures; in one of these, the one above, you can see the planet earth as it appears from about 6 billion kilometers away caught in a reflection of light rays from the sun through the camera’s optics.

Carl Sagan in his book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space” said this about the picture:

“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

I suggested to our curate that there were probably several sermons in this particular quote but I suspect that if there is one lesson to learn from it then it is not to take yourself too seriously.

Microsoft Tells Customers The Offline Strategy for XBox One is XBox 360

In a recent interview Microsoft’s Don Mattrick told a reporter that if customers didn’t have an Internet connection then Microsoft has an offline device, it’s called Xbox 360. Whilst this was a heavy handed and perhaps unwise statement, it underlines the company’s position pretty clearly.

So has the Microsoft senior management team lost all understanding of their customer’s needs? Certainly the discussion of this feature has flared across the social media channels and much of the response has been negative. Bearing this in mind, why insist on Internet connectivity for XBox One? The answer is simple, Microsoft want to make money.

Now before you throw your hands up in the air and say “Well they won’t make money if everyone buys a PS4” take a moment to consider that Microsoft have almost certainly taken a good long look at their customers and have still decided to go down this route. The question is why?

On the face of it the PS4 is a better gaming platform, with a more open development strategy to encourage indy developers. It doesn’t have to be online and it has a lower price tag. Gamers at E3 certainly seem impressed with comments like “They’ve listened to us and given us exactly what we want” being frequently heard.

The answer to what Microsoft are doing is that they are not aiming at hardcore gamers. They’ve noticed four important trends:

1. The market for hardcore gamers is significantly smaller than the entire home entertainment market. Customers want games sure, and your gaming console better not disappoint, but the on-demand entertainment market is just starting to become mainstream.

2. Net-neutrality has become pretty enshrined in U.S. law with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approving new rules in 2010 banning Internet providers from interfering with traffic from “over-the-top” service providers like Netflix.

3. Networks are beginning to have the speed with fiber optic roll outs to reliably deliver high definition, on-demand content in a reasonable time-frame.

4. The Fremium model has shown that you can make millions out of in app purchases on mobile platforms and that some games with very limited scope can perform beyond expectations.

So what does all this mean when we look at Microsoft’s strategy? Simply, they don’t just want to be a gaming platform, they want to be a home entertainment platform and for this they need to be online. They want a bigger bite of the cherry and they don’t mind offending a few hard core gamers to do it.

Expect to see more on-demand video, TV channel packages, non-AAA title games with fremium models and other web based pay-as-you-go services.

There’s no doubt that Microsoft are taking a bit of a gamble with this approach but ultimately time will tell whether they manage to successfully position themselves as a media provider and quarterly financial reports will inform as to whether the strategy is a success. However, they’re in good company with taking an online purchasing approach; Apple makes as much money from apps now as it does from the hardware.

The Buccaneer 3D Printer – Affordable 3D Printing For Your Home

3D printing allows you to create a three dimensional object from a two dimensional plan by laying down multiple layers of material to build the object. Sometimes known by the snappy name of Stereolithography, the first 3D printer was produced by 3D systems in 1984. It’s become a valuable tool for design and development with industry being able to rapidly develop prototypes of ideas and test them before going to full development. Recently the technology came to the forefront in people’s minds when Defense Distributed tested and published its design for a 3D printed gun. Regardless of the ethics of this particular piece of design, 3D printing has a huge number of applications ranging from processor manufacture through to medical implants.

So what does this have to do with you and me? In recent years the cost of 3D printers has fallen significantly, you no longer need to be a large company to afford the technology. You can buy the UP! 3D printer on Amazon for just over £1000. However, this still puts it in a price range acceptable to only the most dedicated consumer 3D hobbyist. Where the folks over at Pirate 3D have scored big with the Buccaneer is that it will have a price tag under £300 in the UK. This puts it firmly in the hands of the interested enthusiast.

This technology is inspiring allowing you to run riot with your imagination building all sorts of fantastic creations. However, Pirate 3D’s innovation hasn’t stopped at the cost, the Buccaneer looks great having an almost Apple’esque elegant compact design. Loading of the substrate for building your models is easy, a circular cartridge that fits in the top and feeds through a small hole at the top of the device. Perhaps the smartest innovation though is the software; by creating a design suite that is easy to use and requires no knowledge of complicated computer aided design (CAD) systems, a complete novice can create great looking objects. The design suite will work on either your PC or tablet.

It seems that I’m not the only one excited by this technology, Pirate 3D’s Kickstarter campaign to fund development and commercialization of the Buccaneer 3D Printer has reached just over $850,000 raised of a $100,000 target. For anyone that enjoys tinkering the Buccaneer 3D printer is a valuable addition to the toybox!

Renault’s New TwinZ Electric Concept Car Turns Heads in Milan

Renault is making another effort to persuade us that electric cars are cool and they’re doing a pretty good job of it. The TwinZ was unveiled last week at Milan’s Triennale design museum, appropriate as the TwinZ does look more like a piece of art than a car.

The TwinZ has a range of range of 99 miles and a top speed of 81 miles per hour, pretty much the sort of performance that you’d expect from an electric car. However, that’s where the annoying stuff ends. The TwinZ is a beautiful piece of design work.

Renault invited British designer Ross Lovegrove to design elements of both the interior and exterior of the car. The result is a futuristic interior that takes its inspiration from natural forms that seem to flow around you. The controls are all touch screen and there is liberal use of composite materials for the seats and fittings.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the car is the swath of LEDs that run from the headlights across the roof and to the rear of the car that not only provide the normal lighting functions but can also be coloured to the user’s preference.

The TwinZ is firmly a concept car but some of its features may make their way into next years Renault Twingo release.

Personally I love the idea of the TwinZ, it reminds me of the cars we used to see in science fiction art of the 21st century when I was a kid, but electric cars still have a long way to go before we’re all driving them. Granted they have the advantages of great torque (the twisting force that drives the wheels), no harmful emissions and no gear changes; unfortunately that needs to be balanced off against poor range, long charge times and poor internal heating. If these issues can be addressed by emerging technologies…sign me up for a TwinZ!

Colossus Could Look For Extra Terrestrial Civilisations (ETCs)

Colossus Could Look For Extra Terrestrial Civilisations (ETCs)

Ever since we realised that space travel was possible mankind has been intrigued by what has become known as the Fermi paradox. In 1950 Enrico Fermi posed the question in an informal discussion on the subject of extra terrestrial civilisations (ETCs) “If they exist, where are they?”. To bring this a little more into today’s context, we now know that rather than being an exception, planetary solar systems seem to be the norm in our neighbourhood.

To date 891 extra solar planets have been discovered including 262 that might be habitable. Planets are identified by looking at the light from a star and searching for transits or more specifically, the dimming of a star caused by a planet passing in front of it from our viewpoint.

So if there are all these potentially inhabitable planets out there in our galactic neighbourhood, why hasn’t anyone come to see us or at least said “Hi!”?

Until now The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project has looked for ETCs using radio telescopes. Other than the now famous “Wow!” signal picked up in 1977 by the Big Ear Radio Telescope at Ohio State University, we haven’t heard a peep out of E.T. However, radio frequencies may not be a great way to look for ETCs. We assume that because we use radio frequencies to communicate then CETs would as well. This may be entirely erroneous for a couple of reasons:

– Radio frequencies travel at the speed of light and as such, aren’t a great method for communicating over stellar distances because a signal from the nearest star other than our Sun would take years to arrive.

– Civilisations may only use radio frequency communication for a very short time during their technological development. The chances of us just happening on that period in history during which they’re using that form of communication are probably infinitesimally small.

The Colossus telescope is interesting because it will look for variations in the infrared spectrum which indicate the thermal signature of a civilisation. In other words, people use power and this power can be seen from space as heat. The problem is that this thermal signature is really hard to pick out with current technology because the heat of the host star tends to mask it. Build a big enough telescope with powerful enough optics and some very clever software and you can disentangle the planet’s thermal signature from that of its host star. If a planet has an unusually high thermal signature it’s good evidence that an ETC may exist on its surface. As the technology progresses we might even be able to see the distribution of heat across the planet’s surface.

The only snag is that building a football sized telescope costs quite a bit of money…around a billion US dollars. So whether Colossus ever gets enough funding remains to be seen. If it is ever built though, the resulting data could at last provide us with evidence as to whether or not we’re alone in the cosmos.

Virtuex Omni – Shut Up and Take my Money!

Ever wanted to know what it feels like to really be in a video game? Virtuix has teamed up with the folks over at Oculus Rift to develop the Omni. The Omni is essentially a gaming platform that allows the user to move around freely whilst exploring a 3D environment and when combined with the Oculus rift VR head set it creates a very immersive experience. Not quite a Star Trek holodeck, but the next best thing!

Currently the Omni is fundraising on Kickstarter and has raised 650 K against a 150 K target with 45 days of fundraising left. The idea that you can actually physically move around in a game, walking, running, jumping, crouching and turning as necessary has obviously caught gamers’ imaginations. It also has great potential as a fitness platform allowing users to run through a variety of beautiful environments without ever leaving the comfort of their homes.

The technology consists of a circular concave base with carefully designed grooves that fit studs on the shoes that come with the Omni. These enable the users feet to slip over the surface of the Omni but still have good grip in the grooves enabling stability. A support belt with flanges that extend down to the base of the Omni provides further safety.

The technology works with Xbox Kinect and will support accelerometer and magnetometer solutions. Given that one of the features of XBox One will be a much more sophisticated version of Kinetic, Omni will probably be able to support an even wider range of actions at launch than the current prototypes. Currently the projected retail price will be somewhere between $499 and $599.

The Pebble Smart Watch – Another Must Have Accessory.

Wearable tech is currently all the rage, Google Glass is probably the most talked about piece of tech since the iPhone and other exciting products like Recon Jet’s sports sunglasses are capturing our imagination. Into this exciting mix enter the Pebble Smart Watch. Marketed as an E-Paper watch for iPhone and Android the Pebble Smart Watch allows wireless access to your mobile phone to control music, get notifications, use as a sports device or answer calls. The watch face can be fully customized with a range of different displays and the device will run for seven days between charges.

Pebble ran a phenomenally successful Kickstarter campaign generating over $10 M in funds to get the project off the ground. The watch has an SDK allowing developers to create apps specifically for the Pebble. It can currently be purchased from Pebble on pre-order for $150.00.

Space Rat Found on Mars!

You know, when it comes to other planets it would seem that there’s always someone with too much time willing to come up with a conspiracy theory. The latest involves a rock photographed by the NASA Curiosity Rover in a region on Mars that has been named “Yellow Knife Bay“.  A keen UFO enthusiast was trawling through 100’s of NASA Curiosity pictures when he discovered a picture with a rock central frame that does bare a startling resemblance to a rodent of some description. Theories of the nature of the rock ranged from a fossilized mammal  to a bizarre NASA experiment to see how long a  rat could live on Mars.

Sadly, and much to the chagrin of ufologists, the rock is just…well…a rock. Seeing forms we think we recognise in seemingly mundane objects happens due to a psychological phenomena known as pareidolia. It was proposed by Carl Sagan that human beings are hard wired to see forms we recognise in random patterns. From a survival perspective this is potentially a very useful trait, the thing lurking in the bush that looks like a leopard may actually be a leopard! From the perspective ufologists and those of us with the time to stare up at clouds on spring mornings,  it means that we see shapes in seemingly unusual places that we associate with real life objects.

Joy Crisp, a project scientist from NASA’s JPL told reporters yesterday that “Clearly, it [the rock] results from, you know, a lot of things like wind erosion and mechanical abrasion and breakdown chemical weathering of the rocks, as to why they get these weird shapes,”

In an odd but predictable twist to this story “@RealMarsRat” can now be found micro-blogging on twitter.

Curiosity is about to start it’s long journey to the base of Mount Sharp, a martian mountain that reaches 3.4 miles into the Martian Sky. NASA scientists are hoping to find more signs of liquid erosion as they study a region that they hope will be rich in visible sedimentary layers. Curiosity has already found striking evidence for ancient stream beds on Mars and conditions that could have suited microbial life in Mars’ past.

Forget Google Glass – Take a Look at Recon Jet Sunglasses!

With all the hype around Glass it’s easy to overlook other players in this market. Recon Jet’s sunglasses are really built with sports in mind. Their sleek design and the fact that sports sunglasses tend to be more chunky means that you can wear this device, ski down a mountainside or leap out of a plane and not look geeky doing it. You can even be relatively certain your glasses won’t fall off because Recon Jet have thought quite carefully about balance placing the devices’ batteries on the opposite side of the glasses to the electronics.

The Recon Jet Sunglasses utilize a dual core processor and dedicated GPU. They have WIFI, ANT+, Bluetooth, a HD camera and GPS integrated. Much like Glass, the sunglasses are controlled by swiping on the right hand side of the device and the display, when not in use resides on the bottom right of your screen in your peripheral vision. The choice of a dedicated GPU means that the graphics are sharp and compelling.

Much like Glass, many of the applications for the Recon Jet Sunglasses are still in development but most of the applications are likely to cater to the sports enthusiasts if the marketing is anything to go by: heart rate monitors, timers, geo-location, sports performance enhancement information, etc. They will also include social media integration and audio/video download and upload from other devices.

At a predicted retail price of $300 – $400 dollars this device would certainly make me think twice about purchasing Glass.