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IRIS Satellite Images Shake up Solar Science

The first images from NASA’s latest solar observing satellite are in, and they show unprecedented detail—and unexpected complexity—in the roiling lower layers of the Sun’s atmosphere. Already, the images have revealed a previously-unseen fibrous inner structure of many solar features, including the familiar earth-size prominences that can erupt into solar flares and the less-well-known, 500-kilometer-wide spicules that jet up into the corona at speeds of 20 km/s.

Although the data has just started to come in, the early results are enough to challenge the current numerical models of solar behavior.

The pictures from the IRIS (Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph) Observatory, launched 27 June this year, capture images that are sharply defined in space, time, and wavelength. The instrument combines an ultraviolet telescope with a high-precision spectrograph. The imager can resolve solar features 250 km in diameter (see the comparison photos below). The spectral data is used to calculate the atmosphere’s temperature and, thanks to Doppler shifts, its detailed motion (to within one kilometer per second).

Photo: NASA
This image compares the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) at 1600 Angstroms (on left) to the IRIS' Si IV (on right).

The spectrograph can record targeted transition emissions over the range of temperatures from 4500 K to 10 000 000 K, focusing on specific emission lines of magnesium, silicon, carbon, oxygen, and iron, which vary with temperature. The imager also takes pictures—covering an area about 170 arc-seconds (equal to 124 000 km at the sun)—at wavelengths corresponding to a temperature range between 4500 K and 65 000 K. This allows the researchers to separately image the photosphere, chromosphere, interface region, and corona.

Because the spectrograph is fast, IRIS can combine big images with very fine spectra of every 240-km-wide slice of the scene. This reveals the temperature, density, composition, and motion of the solar atmosphere with detail previously unachievable.  (IRIS's design is described in a 2012 IEEE Aerospace Conference paper.)

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Plastic Lasers Starting to Shine

Organic lasers could be tuned to emit a broad range of wavelengths, could be built on sheets of plastic, would be flexible enough to bend, and very inexpensive to make. But while organic LEDs are a big part of the smartphone display market and are making inroads in solid-state lighting and flexible solar cells, the laser remains elusive.

“The OLED display works so well, it would be really nice to have a laser as well,” says Karl Leo, who heads the Institut für Angewandte Photophysik of TU Dresden and the Solar Center at King Abdullah Unhiversity of Science and Technology, Saudi Arabia.  Leo, who spoke at the Fall Meeting of the Materials Research Society (MRS) in Boston last week, says his lab has come up with a possible path toward an electric-powered organic laser by adding some metal to the laser cavity.

Optically pumped organic lasers, which use light from another laser as a power source, already exist. At another MRS session, a German company, Visolas, described an optically pumped organic laser they’re close to commercializing as part of a mobile blood analysis system. But lasers are usually considered viable only when they can run on electricity, and that’s Leo’s goal. The trouble is that such electrical pumping requires a high density of excited charge carriers, on the order of kiloamperes per square centimeter. Such levels are not a problem in an inorganic material, such as gallium arsenide, but the carriers would create additional detrimental absorption and the heat generated could damage the organic materials.

Metal, too, is usually a bad thing to have in a laser cavity, because the metal absorbs photons to such an extent that it kills the lasing effect. Leo’s team built a vertically oriented laser cavity that consists of an organic “active layer” between two mirrors. The mirrors are reflective gratings made from alternating layers of titanium oxide and silicon dioxide. In between the bottom mirror and the active layer they placed stripes of silver, 40 nanometers thick and 1110 nm wide.

Placing the metal grating on top of the reflective grating caused the creation of so-called Tamm plasmon polaritons. Plasmon polaritons are oscillations of electron density that can exist at the interface between metal and other materials and amplify light, so the placement of the metal actually increased the lasing effect. “It’s possible to include a highly conductive metal contact into the cavity,” Leo told the meeting. “If you pump it hard enough, it can lase.”

He says, though, this is only an early step toward an organic laser. Reaching the threshold where the device begins to lase still requires very high currents that wouldn’t be practical in a real device. Therefore, he says, a useful organic laser could still be a decade in the future.

Still, he believes the pursuit is worthwhile. A cheap, broadly tunable laser would certainly be welcomed in optical communications, and it’s likely people will develop other applications, just as they did once inorganic lasers were created. “I’m sure if somebody makes an electric organic laser there will be a use for it,” says Leo.

New Industry Group Hopes Open Source Framework Can Propel the Internet of Things

The days of sitting in your driveway to listen to the end of your favorite song or compelling news broadcast may be over soon. Ditto on worrying about where you put your house keys.

A newly formed industry consortium, the AllSeen Alliance, wants to advance the adoption of the “Internet of things” through an open source framework. The Internet of things is based on the idea that devices and objects can connect to each other for seamless sharing of information and coordinated operations.

In such a connected world, you could turn the car off, open your front door and have the same song or radio show playing in your home. Additionally, when you drive up to your house, the doors could unlock automatically.

The AllSeen Alliance involves leaders in home appliances and computing, including the Linux Foundation, LG Electronics, Panasonic, Qualcomm, Sharp, Cisco, D-Link and others. The software framework comes from a project originally developed by Qualcomm called AllJoyn, which allows products to communicate over Wi-Fi, power line networks, or Ethernet. The alliance members plan to expand the standard and take input from the open source community.

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Spy Games: Spooks Infiltrated Online Games

“Tracking terrorists” may represent the best official excuse ever concocted for U.S. and British spies to play online games at work. But it remains unclear whether such cyber-sleuthing efforts have paid off, according to new revelations from the Snowden documents.

The Guardian, New York Times and ProPublica jointly reported on a U.S. National Security Agency document written in 2008 and titled "Exploiting Terrorist Use of Games & Virtual Environments." The document revealed the NSA's strong interest in extending surveillance of potential terrorists and other intelligence targets to World of WarcraftSecond Life and Microsoft's Xbox Live service—online gaming spaces already being infiltrated by FBI, CIA, and Pentagon spies back in 2008.

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Silicon Valley Fans of Nikola Tesla Assemble to Unveil A Statue

On Saturday, under a crisp, blue, Silicon Valley sky, geeks of all sorts gathered to honor an inventor they believe should be the symbol of Silicon Valley. They believe Nikola Tesla is special not just for the countless advances he made in developing alternating current, wireless energy, wireless communications, and more, but because of his modesty, and the fact that he was far more interested in moving society forward than in accumulating wealth.

Earlier this year, one Tesla fan, Dorrian Porter, launched a Kickstarter campaign to create a tribute to Tesla to stand in Silicon Valley, in the belief that the inventor should be a symbol for the valley’s entrepreneurial spirit. The campaign sought  US $123 000; and raised $127 260 from 722 supporters. The last chunk of that money, a $20 000 donation that put the campaign over its goal just hours before the Kickstarter deadline would have terminated the effort, came from an anonymous family. Said Porter, “It’s fitting for Tesla to have had this kind of anonymous support—because it’s what he would have done.”

The statue, designed by artist Terry Guyer, rests on land offered by local building owner Harold Hobach, at 260 Sheridan Ave. in Palo Alto. It contains a time capsule, to be opened in 30 years, and a free Wi-Fi hotspot. This isn’t the only monument to Tesla in the world—in September, a monument went up at the Tesla Science Center in Shoreham, N.Y., and monuments are also standing in Croatia and in Niagara Falls. It is, however, the first in Silicon Valley, so its unveiling brought out the local Tesla fans.

Greg Leando, a local banker, says he came because, he says, he found that, growing up in Silicon Valley, “Tesla is an inspiration to al ot of young entrepreneurs. We are at the epicenter of technology and innovation, so it is a fitting tribute.”

Engineering technician Konstantinos Georgiou came to honor a “little fellow with a big brain.” Georgiou is a big fan of Tesla, he says, “not only because of the things that he invented, but also because of the fact that he was humble, and that’s admirable as well.”

Aeronautical engineer Ana Rosic came because she feels a special connection to Tesla. She, like Tesla, is Serbian, and, she says, “We Serbians always had a lot of respect for Tesla. I was delighted that someone thought of this idea; he’s done so much for the world, this honor is overdue.”

 At the Saturday’s unveiling, attendees crowded around to put their own special items in the time capsule—an iPhone, a 2013 penny, and cards on which they’d scrawled their predictions for the future. Scenes from the unveiling follow.

The wraps come off of a bronze statue of Nikola Tesla, in front of 260 Sheridan Ave. in Palo Alto. Tesla fan Dorrian Porter, standing with his daughter on his shoulders, used a Kickstarter campaign to fund the statue, created by artist Terry Guyer, standing to next to Porter.

A time capsule, inserted in the base of the statue, is slated to be opened in 30 years. Those attending the event contributed memoriabilia from the present—including a 2013 penny and an iPhone—and their predictions of technology's future.


Tesla fans crowded tables selling T-shirts and souveniers, like these magnetic miniatures of the monument.

Photos: Tekla Perry

Neural Prosthetic Is a "Bridge" Over Damaged Brain Areas

A new idea for treating brain injury doesn't involve fixing the damaged regions. Instead, researchers want to detour neural impulses around the damage. 

Scientists used to think of the brain as an collection of discrete parts, with different regions taking charge of different neural functions. Today's emerging model of brain activity indicates that even a simple act of perception or cognition involves many different brain regions. Several projects are devoted to mapping those complex webs of interconnections, collectively known as the connectome.

The current experiment on brain injury banks on the idea that a lesion in the brain may be disruptive partially because it interrupts some neural circuit. The researchers, from Case Western Reserve University and the Kansas University Medical Center, thought that a little judicious rewiring could solve the problem. 

In the study, researchers caused brain injuries in rats' caudal forelimb area, which is involved in the movement of the rats' front legs. That brain region typically processes information from a sensory area that provides information about the limbs' positions, and it sends on the command to the premotor cortex, which in turn conveys the command to the spinal cord. In these injured rats, though, the signal couldn't make it past the sensory area. A rat presented with food pellets will still try to grab them, but it will grope around almost at random, and will have little success in nabbing the food.

To restore function, researchers implanted a microdevice in the rats. One set of electrodes recorded and digitized the signals in the sensory area, then the signal was routed to another set of electrodes in the premotor cortex, where they delivered precise electrical pulses. When these cyborg rats were tested for their pellet-grabbing skills, they performed almost as well as uninjured animals. 

The video below tells the tale. Warning: Don't watch if you don't want to look at post-brain-surgery rats. They have a somewhat Frankenstein-like appearance.

Such technology could one day help a broad swath of people who suffer from traumatic brain injury, including football players, war veterans, trauma victims, and stroke patients.

Image and video: David J. Guggenmos et al.

NSA Collecting Cellphone Location Data Worldwide

Millions of Americans who travel abroad every year with their cellphones end up becoming data for a powerful set of surveillance tools used by the National Security Agency, the Washington Post reported yesterday. The NSA gathers almost 5 billion cellphone location records every day and uses the data to search for intelligence targets worldwide, according to the Post.

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Radio Pulse Gun Aims to Stop Modern Cars

When an ordinary police stop becomes a dangerous high-speed car chase, a new kind of radio pulse gun might come in handy. The device aims to stop fleeing suspects by disabling their modern cars' electronics. At least that's what the maker of the device, a British company called E2V, claimed during a recent demonstration. The company is marketing the radio pulse gun as a non-lethal weapon for law enforcement and military customers, but the device is far from perfect: it won't do much to stop older vehicles—and it might even prove dangerous for the newest drive-by-wire cars.

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Volvo to Test Self-Driving Cars in Traffic

Volvo and a consortium of Swedish research institutions will test self-driving cars in street traffic in and around Gothenburg starting in 2017, they announced yesterday. The project begins next year with customer research and hardware development. It will culminate in a fleet of 100 cars that will alternate between driving themselves and allowing their human occupants to drive, depending on where they are.

The Swedish initiative has the support of Gothenburg's city authorities. U.S. regulators are also working on how to handle self-driving cars. Cities stand to benefit from reduced traffic and, if self-driving cars join car-sharing schemes, less demand for parking. US regulators have not yet indicated how they will handle self-driving cars, but this Swedish announcement suggests one way of easing self-driving cars into the traffic flow: partial access. Only certain roads will be designated for the Gothenburg test, according to Volvo.

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