- Op-Ed: Tornado Scientist Risks Life for Ph.D.
- Courtroom First: Brain Scan Used in Murder Sentencing
- Adults Fooled by Visual Illusion, But Not Kids
- Building a Better Alien-Calling Code
- Internet Intercedes to Make Solar Cheaper
- Cute New Chameleon Discovered While Being Eaten by Snake
Posted: 23 Nov 2009 05:00 PM PST
On June 17, 2009, we were out intercepting tornadoes just west of Aurora, Nebraska, as part of my doctoral research. We thought we were looking at weak tornadoes that day, but as it turned out, a freakishly intense storm almost cost us our lives even as it gave me the data I needed to complete my dissertation.
From the Fields is a periodic Wired Science op-ed series presenting leading scientists' reflections on their work, society and culture.
Reed Timmer is working on his Ph.D. in meteorology at the University of Oklahoma. He's a co-star of the Discovery Channel television show "Storm Chasers," which airs Sundays at 10 p.m. eastern. Follow him on Twitter @TornadoVideos.
Thanks to a TV deal with the Discovery Channel, based on my recordings at TornadoVideos.net, we had been developing an armored vehicle designed to drive into tornadoes. The Dominator, as we semi-jokingly call it, is a modded 2008 Chevy Tahoe with bullet-proof Lexan windows, steel armor and a roll cage (in case things really get ugly inside a tornado).
The aerodynamic outer shell can drop to the ground via a hydraulic system, and is lined at the base with a rubber sheath to prevent wind from getting underneath and rolling the vehicle. On the roof, we installed a vertically oriented radar to measure the updraft winds inside the parent tornado and suction vortices contained within, and an anemometer to measure the horizontal rotational winds. We also mounted an HD camcorder on the roof inside a bulletproof glass bubble.
We were feeling pretty safe in the Dominator, but we knew the vehicle likely couldn't handle wind speeds stronger than around 150 mph, so we'd visually assess the tornado's strength before intercepting. Our worst-case scenario was driving into an initially weak tornado, which then intensifies rapidly with us inside the circulation. At high enough wind speeds, the storm could roll or loft the Dominator like a massive steel/Lexan kite.
And that's almost what happened that day.
We'd been out intercepting some tornadoes spawned by an incredible supercell out on the plains. Most of them had weak ground circulations, so we weren't too worried about them. Late that day, we approached a tornado that looked like the ones we'd been seeing, and positioned the Dominator just to the east of the funnel on a state highway.
We dropped the armored shell to the ground with the hydraulics to brace for what we thought would be a relatively weak impact. As the tornado drifted toward us, I reached out the driver's side window to lift up and latch the bullet-proof glass. The window was stuck though, and instead of panicking and struggling with it, I just rolled up the regular glass window and fired up the instruments to record data. I thought the tornado would remain relatively weak.
As soon as the tornado hit us, my ears popped from the low pressure, and we were engulfed by the dusty debris cloud. I looked around and noticed the dust was moving faster and faster, and the sound of the strengthening wind became deafening like a jet engine or massive waterfall. At that moment, I knew we might be in trouble as this tornado was intensifying rapidly with us inside!
Ever since I got my driver's license 12 years ago, I've devoted my life to seeing as many tornadoes as possible. Being within a few hundred yards of their violent winds is a feeling that's hard to describe. They're beautiful and powerful. As a poor meteorology student at the University of Oklahoma, the only equipment I could afford was a video camera and a beater car held together by duct tape. Juggling school and storm chasing, I would drive over 30,000 miles a year from Mexico to Canada to get as close as possible to this most powerful atmospheric force on the planet. I've captured over 150 tornadoes on camera since 1998.
For the last several years, I've been working on my Ph.D. in meteorology at OU, combining my passion for the science with my obsession for getting extremely close to tornadoes. In May 2007, we documented a strong, photogenic tornado in northwest Oklahoma from close range in HD video, and noticed the incredible mini-tornadoes rotating around the parent funnel pictured below.
University of Oklahoma meteorologist Brian Fiedler contacted me and said the helical structure and distinct "kink" in these mini-tornadoes, also called suction vortices, closely resembled what he had simulated with his high-resolution computer model, and he had never seen them so clearly photographed in real life.
Fielder said the winds inside these suction vortices theoretically could be two to four times that of the parent tornado with astronomical horizontal and vertical speeds, but they had never been directly measured. He said that a crucial piece of data for tornado science was to determine the true ratio of horizontal and vertical wind speeds between these mini suction vortices and the main tornado. This quickly became an obsession of mine and the ultimate goal of my research career.
Back in the center of the tornado, the wind dropped to an eerie calm for a few seconds that seemed like eternity. Then, a mini suction vortex developed right in front of the vehicle and rotated around to the left before surging in our direction. I yelled to Chris Chittick in the passenger seat and radar operator Mik Wimbrow in the backseat to hang on, and right before the suction vortex slammed the vehicle I looked away from the window just as it came crashing into my face. The driver's side window also shattered, hitting Chris in the left side of the face. A 100 mph wind was blowing through the inside of the Dominator!
A second later the suction vortex and the backside of the tornado moved off to the east, we were in the clear. Chris and I both had blood streaming down the side of our faces. Thankfully, it was only from a few cuts from the shattered glass.
The horizontal wind speed and direction data recorded inside this tornado was very interesting, as seen in the plot below, with a minimum wind speed of 8 mph measured inside the "eye" of the tornado before quickly accelerating to near 140 mph a few seconds later as the suction vortex hit the vehicle. The wind speeds inside the parent tornado were relatively weak (averaging around 70-80 mph) but were substantially stronger inside the mini suction vortex that slammed into the Dominator.
While this situation was clearly very dangerous, the data recorded inside this tornado is a huge step toward accomplishing our research goal of measuring the winds contained in these suction vortices. Needless to say, we have some substantial improvements planned for the Dominator during the off season to prevent similar mishaps.
I've been in some intense storms — like the time we got covered in mud by an F5 tornado in Oklahoma, or the time our windshield was blown out by softball-sized hail in Texas, or the time we watched a tornado rip trees out of the ground a mere 100 yards away from us. However, none of those helped me finish my Ph.D. It might be risky, but documenting tornadoes at extreme close range is just what I love to do.
Images: Reed Timmer. Video: Discovery Channel/Reed Timmer.
Posted: 23 Nov 2009 04:42 PM PST
A defendant's fMRI brain scan has been used in court for what is believed to be the first time.
Brain scan evidence that the defense claimed shows the defendant's brain was psychopathic was allowed into the sentencing portion of a murder trial in Chicago, Science reported Monday. Brian Dugan, who had been convicted of the rape and murder of a 10-year old, was sentenced to death, despite the fMRI scans.
"I don't know of any other cases where fMRI was used in that context," Stanford professor Hank Greely told Science.
While the possibility of using fMRI data in a variety of contexts, particularly lie detection, has bounced around the margins of the legal system for years, there are almost no documented cases of its actual use. In the 2005 case Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court allowed brain scans to be entered as evidence to show that adolescent brains work differently than adult brains.
That's a far cry, though, from using fMRI to establish the truth of testimony or that specific structures within an individual defendant's brain are legally relevant.
It's difficult to tell whether the Dugan case will be a watershed moment in the use of brain scan evidence in court, or if the evidence impacted the decision in this case.
"The penalty phase of a capital case … is a special situation where the law bends over backwards to allow the convicted man to introduce just about any mitigating evidence," Greely noted.
Earlier this year, Wired.com reported on another attempt to use fMRI evidence in which Greely's MacArthur Foundation Law and Neuroscience Project was involved. In that case, fMRI evidence was entered into a juvenile sexual abuse case in San Diego, but was withdrawn without being admitted.
The debate over whether or not to use fMRI evidence has several dimensions. The first is whether reliable evidence can be obtained. On that score, fMRI appears to perform well. In a very small number of studies, researchers have identified lying in study subjects with accuracy ranging from 76 percent to over 90 percent (pdf). The real doubts begin to surface about whether the data will be good outside the laboratory in real settings.
"When you build a model based on people in the laboratory, it may or may not be that applicable to someone who has practiced their lie over and over, or someone who has been accused of something," Elizabeth Phelps, a neuroscientist at New York University told Wired.com in March. "I don't think that we have any standard of evidence that this data is going to be reliable in the way that the courts should be admitting."
Even if the data isn't perfect, some law theorists say it might be on par with traditional lie-detection carried out by human beings, if not better.
"It's not clear whether or not a somewhat reliable but foolproof fMRI machine is any worse than having a jury look at a witness," Brooklyn Law School's Edward Cheng said. "It's always important to think about what the baseline is. If you want the status quo, fine, but in this case, the status quo might not be all that good."
Others like Greely argue that until studies are conducted under realistic settings, the technology should stay out of the courtroom.
One thing seems clear: If brain scan data has even a remote change of helping a defendant's case, defense lawyers will keep to try to enter the evidence into court.
Posted: 23 Nov 2009 02:06 PM PST
Sometimes seeing means deceiving before believing, depending on your age. Children and adults size up objects differently, giving youngsters protection against a visual illusion that bedevils their elders, a new study suggests.
This unusual triumph of kids over grown-ups suggests that the brain's capacity to consider the context of visual scenes, and not just focus on parts of scenes, develops slowly, say psychologist Martin Doherty of the University of Stirling in Scotland and his colleagues. Even at age 10, children lack adults' attunement to visual context, Doherty's team concludes in a paper published online November 12 in Developmental Science.
As a result, visual context can be experimentally manipulated to distort adults' perception of objects' sizes. But Doherty's group finds that children, especially those younger than 7, show little evidence of altered size perception on a task called the Ebbinghaus illusion.
"When visual context is misleading, adults literally see the world less accurately than they did as children," Doherty says.
This pattern holds for Scottish children and adults in the new study as well as for Japanese children and adults who participated in other investigations conducted by Doherty's team.
Some researchers argue that East Asians focus broadly on the context of what they see while Westerners focus narrowly on central figures. Doherty says the new findings instead indicate that adults in both Scotland and Japan can't help but track visual context, although this tendency was stronger in the Japanese adults.
Other investigators have noted that children with autism don't succumb to visual size illusions, consistent with the idea that autism involves an excessive focus on details. But visual context largely eludes all young children, not just those with autism, Doherty asserts.
Even if the new findings hold up, it's still possible that further research will show that children with autism develop a susceptibility to size illusions more slowly than those without it, remarks psychologist Danielle Ropar of the University of Nottingham in England.
Psychologist Carl Granrud of the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley calls the new study convincing but "somewhat surprising." Children exhibit sensitivity to visual context on some other visual tasks, he says, such as one in which two equal-sized horizontal lines are perceived as differing in length when flanked by diagonal lines.
Earlier research has yielded conflicting evidence that children fall prey to the Ebbinghaus illusion, partly because of weaknesses in study designs, Doherty says.
His team studied 151 children, ages 4 to 10, recruited from a Scottish primary school and nursery school. Another 24 volunteers, ages 18 to 25, were college students.
Participants viewed a series of images containing pairs of orange circles in which one circle was 2 percent to 18 percent larger than the other. An experimenter asked participants to point to the circle that "looked bigger."
Control images showed only two orange circles. In other images, each orange circle was surrounded by gray circles intended either to hinder or aid accurate size perception.
Misleading images showed the smaller orange circle surrounded by even smaller gray circles to boost its apparent size. Large gray circles surrounding the larger orange circle were intended to shrink its apparent size.
In helpful images, large gray circles surrounded the smaller orange circle to make it appear smaller than it actually was. Small circles surrounded the larger orange circle to magnify its apparent size.
Four-year-olds correctly identified the larger circle in 79 percent of control images. That figure rose with age, reaching 95 percent in adults.
For 4- to 6-year-olds, accuracy of size perception for misleading images remained at about what it was for control images. Misleading images increasingly elicited errors from older children and tricked adults most of the time. Adults made almost no errors on helpful images. Kids from age 7 to 10 erred on a minority of helpful images, while 4- to 6-year-olds performed no better than chance.
Posted: 23 Nov 2009 11:18 AM PST
Alien-seeking researchers have designed a new, simple code for sending messages into space. To a reasonably clever alien with math skills and a bit of astronomical training, the messages should be easy to decipher.
As of now, Earthlings spend much more time searching for alien radio messages than broadcasting news of ourselves. We know how to do it, but relatively little attention has been paid to "ensuring that a transmitted message will be understandable to an alien listener," wrote California Institute of Technology geoscientist Michael Busch and Rachel Reddick, a Stanford University physicist, in a study filed online Friday on arXiv.
According to Busch and Reddick, neither the Arecibo message, beamed at star cluster M13 in 1974, nor the Cosmic Calls sent in 1999 and 2003 were tested for decipherability. So the pair devised their own alien-friendly messaging system: Busch invented the code, and Reddick role-played the part of an alien trying to decode it.
Like the earlier codes, Busch's used radio to send a string of ones and zeroes. But whereas those messages were meant to be translated into pictures, Busch's code is supposed to be turned into mathematical equations.
Reddick received the code, minus a chunk at its beginning and fragments throughout its body, as if she'd tuned in late to a signal slightly distorted by its passage through space. Knowing nothing about the code, and using nothing but a pencil, paper and a computer's search-and-replace function, she decoded its start: descriptions of gravity and atomic mass ratios, which are "dimensionless numbers that should be universally recognized." Once Reddick worked those out, the rest of the message — descriptions of atoms, chemical formulas for the elements required for life on Earth, and descriptions of our solar system — came quickly.
The code does presume that alien listeners have "at least an equivalent knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, and physics," wrote Busch and Reddick. But even five undergraduate students needed only an hour to figure out a few of Busch's mathematical and grammatical basics, so it can't be that hard.
For now, it seems unlikely that the code will actually be sent into space. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence runs on a shoestring budget, and doesn't directly receive national funding. But if it's this cheap and easy to talk to aliens, perhaps humanity should try more often.
Images: 1) Flickr/armigeress
Citation: "Testing SETI Message Designs." By Michael W. Busch, Rachel M. Reddick. arXiv, Nov. 20, 2009.
Posted: 23 Nov 2009 11:00 AM PST
While researchers have struggled for half a century to push down the cost of solar photovoltaic modules, an innovative web service is creating communities of customers who pay less for solar panels through collective bargaining with installers.
One Block Off the Grid collects groups of would-be solar purchasers in cities with good solar access and brokers a deal between them and a local installer. It's internet-based environmental organizing, and it appears to be working.
In a campaign running in San Diego, their customers will pay just $5.29 per watt of power capacity. Even after paying for an inverter to convert the DC power the panels generate into the AC power appliances use, the total One Block Off the Grid price is substantially lower than the San Diego County average. According to California Energy Commission statistics, the average total cost of a solar photovoltaic system is almost $8 per watt.
Now, they are launching a new tool that will provide instantaneous solar price estimates, the first online tool to do so. The new interface went live Sunday.
"The power of the internet has not been harnessed by the solar industry," said Brad Burton, who heads up products and strategy at 1BOG. "The components of viral growth and immediate person-to-person contact haven't been explored at all."
The Bay Area company Sungevity provides cost information via an online form, but they are ultimately parsed by a human being, so the quotes are not real-time. Sungevity's solar price estimator does allow for a lot more system customization, while One Block Off the Grid's setup is clearly designed for accessibility. Nonetheless, some questions in 1BOG's tool require some knowledge about your house, such as the material out of which your roof is made.
The ease of either system, though, is impressive relative to earlier methods of getting solar panels. Usually, getting a quote required that a contractor come to your house. Not only was that a hassle for homeowners, but it cost the solar installers money, too. Many people asked about solar but few ended up installing it. One Block Off the Grid participants are different, said Scott Gordon, whose company Helio Power worked with the company on the San Diego project.
"The leads from One Block Off the Grid are probably twice as good," Gordon said. "They have twice the close rate from the sales perspective of the leads you get from anywhere else."
1BOG's Burton claimed some of their installers are closing 25 percent of the leads that emanate from their company.
"We do eliminate a lot of their marketing costs and cost of acquisition and the other thing that we're able to do is verify the quality of the deal as an independent objective third party," he said.
The arrangement, all facilitated by the internet, helps squeeze some of the soft and difficult-to-quantify costs that help make distributed solar power more expensive than centralized fossil fuel-based electricity.
There are two big components to the cost of installing solar panels on a house. The one technologists talk about is the solar module itself, the hardware. Researchers can push that cost down by increasing the efficiency of the cells or using less or cheaper materials. Early solar cells were something like $200 a watt, not including installation costs. Now, the average solar module costs $4.34 per watt, according to SolarBuzz, a tracking service.
But all the other stuff that goes into putting that module at your house costs money, too. Solar people call this the "balance-of-system" cost and that's where One Block Off the Grid is making an impact. By creating volume for solar installers and doing some of the sales and marketing work, they can get those installers to offer lower prices to their customers. The net result is cheaper solar power, even if the technology doesn't shift at all.
"These costs do vary so it's hard to say how real the cost savings might be, but their story is credible," said Chris Marnay, who researches distributed energy systems at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in an e-mail to Wired.com.
Still, there's a ways to go. Analysts estimate that to be as cheap as electricity coming out of the socket and produced by fossil fuels, the total installed cost of a photovoltaic system would have to be $3.50 per watt.
To get there, the solar industry will have to change. Much like home building before the 1950s, solar installations are put in one by one. The personalized service might be nice, but it's a costly way of doing business.
After the war, major home building companies, like the iconic Levitt and Sons, rose to prominence. They standardized parts, equipment, procedures and marketing. It led to a lot of homes that looked the same, but were cheaper than anything that had been available before. Larger solar companies doing many, many installations would presumably benefit from similar economies of scale and push the total cost down.
Marnay said solar installing has been a cottage industry with many installers doing small amounts of business, but he expected that to change as solar installations grow.
Still, One Block Off the Grid isn't big enough yet to change the economics for a whole region or state. It has only facilitated about 500 solar installations since they were founded in summer of 2008, though the company plans to "really, really scale up our operation," Gordon said.
And that could be wise, too, because unlike most internet startups, One Block Off the Grid is already profitable.
Posted: 23 Nov 2009 10:42 AM PST
A new species of chameleon, measuring just 6 inches from snout to tail, has been discovered in east Tanzania's mountains.
Differentiated from other species by the pattern of scales on its head and the flat shape of its nose appendage, it was first spotted while being eaten by a tree snake. The snake dropped the reptile, and it was collected by scientists.
"I found it by chance doing conservation surveys looking at monkeys and threats to trees," said Andy Marshall, an ecologist at the University of York. "While doing this work, I often see things that might be quite interesting, and this one turned out to be a new species."
While some newly described species take their names from celebrities like James Brown, Marshall and his co-author Michele Menegon, gave the creature a more serious name, Kinyongia magomberae, after the forest where it was discovered.
The Magombera forest near the Udzungwa Mountains National Park in Tanzania is one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth. Marshall and the team there have discovered a multitude of new species from frogs and a shrew to mollusks and millipedes.
But the forest isn't currently protected, and Marshall described it as "under threat" from further destructive development.
The description of the new species was published today in the African Journal of Herpetology.
Images: Andy Marshall.
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