1 comment on “Invent The Future @Creative Reactions Bristol, Hamilton House”

Invent The Future @Creative Reactions Bristol, Hamilton House

How do you save the world from the debris of satellites made of dogs? Or help children hooked on baby-steroids? Or come to terms with the Earth becoming flat? These lot had the answers.

More than 70 people crowded into the Rising Ape Corp Imagination Solution Nexus (the top of Hamilton House) to first create the pressing problems and then solve them (or at least make money off them) out of bits of scrap.

Pitches were pitched, bonus points handed out and, after a parade through the building, the winners announced in the Creative Reactions Gallery itself.

The enthusiasm and creativity shown by the teams made this one of our favourite events so far.  Enjoy the gallery below to get a sense of the chaos, we can’t wait to Invent the Future with you all again soon.

Thanks to Matt Lee of Creative Reactions Bristol for the photos.

 

1 comment on “Rising Ape Presents: Invent the Future w/ Creative Reactions”

Rising Ape Presents: Invent the Future w/ Creative Reactions

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Join Rising Ape and Creative Reactions for an evening out with a difference at Hamilton House, Thursday 17th May.

Ever thought that a pub quiz needed less questions and more masking tape? What if Dragon’s Den had a love child with Scrapheap Challenge?

The year is 2025. Apecorp have invited the finest creative minds in Bristol to their new imagination solution suite for one purpose: competition.

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Your team will cut, tape and glue. You will laugh, cheer and argue. But will your team come out on top?

Bring your pals, grab a drink and get stuck in as we challenge you to solve the problems of the future with your fantastic inventions, and most of all, enjoy yourselves!

Get your FREE tickets (limited) now →

0 comments on “Design, Naturally: Precious pearls inspire super-strong glass”

Design, Naturally: Precious pearls inspire super-strong glass

By Anwen Bowers

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The Duke of Buckingham’s frankly over-the-top bling held some fascinating material properties. | Image: Art Gallery of South Australia

Take a stroll through almost any art gallery and the cultural value of pearls as a status symbol through time is inescapable. From the intricately laced clothes in Elizabethan portraits to the long strings worn by chic youth in the early 20th century photographs, pearls have been a symbol of wealth and glamour. However, shifts in technological capabilities mean that pearls could soon have a much broader range of uses than being merely decorative.

Starting life as a humble piece of grit, pearls gain their ethereal shimmer from nacre, a biological substance secreted by oysters, which eases the discomfort once grit enters their shells. Nacre is produced by a number of different molluscs, and can also be found inside snail shells and coating mother-of-pearl. This material has long been of interest to materials scientists due to its incredible toughness.

Scanning electron microscopy has been used to reveal that the structure of nacre is similar to that of a brick wall, with “bricks” in the scale of micrometres being glued together by an organic adhesive. The bricks themselves are made of aragonite, a form of calcium carbonate with a similar structure to sea shells.  These bricks overlay each other, and when pressure is applied they are able to slide against each other which prevents the material from snapping. If any cracks form in nacre then the adhesive acts as a barrier, dissipating the energy along the channels between the bricks and preventing the crack from propagating through the material.

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Layers of aragonite, held together with a natural glue, make up the intricate structure of nacre. New techniques are developing super strong glass from man-made nacre, or ‘facre’ if you will | Image: Fabian Heinemann

This structure gives nacre the very desirable properties of strength and toughness combined, and a number of strategies have been proposed to create a synthetic material that mimics this brick and mortar structure. Most of the proposed methods have involved a “ground up” strategy of assembling component parts, but this has only ever produced materials that have too high a proportion of adhesive and not enough solid bricks. Nacre itself is 95% aragonite, with only a tiny amount of adhesive holding everything together.

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Take it from the experts: oysters have been making better glass than us for over 100 million years. Still haven’t figured out how to make windows though. | Image: USEPA Environmental Protection Agency

A more recently proposed “top down” method involves a laser which carves into glass and fills the channels with polyurethane glue. This technique has created a material that strongly mimics the properties of nacre. It can be applied to glass or ceramic, both strong materials that are normally limited by their brittleness. By treating them with the polyurethane, scientists have created composite materials that have 700 times the toughness of the original glass!

Biology has been evolving materials for millions of years, to make structures for protection, support, buoyancy, cutting and grinding food, even building organic homes. Whereas slow evolution in the natural world means that each material has tailored properties making it the best choice for different functions, as humans we apply a relatively narrow range of materials to a very broad range of uses. As some materials become depleted, and others face environmental issues, it is vital that we explore other options, and tapping into the wisdom of nature seems like a good place to start.

0 comments on “Natural Cycles: Part 1 – The circle of life and waste”

Natural Cycles: Part 1 – The circle of life and waste

By Anwen Bowers

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Circulation patterns in the North Pacific have created a vast plastic continent | Image: Steven Guerrisi

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a vast area in the Pacific Ocean where huge amounts of plastic and other slow-to-degrade waste has accumulated over the past half century. Rubbish from all the rivers in North America and Asia gathers here and then becomes trapped by the swirling waters of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.

The plastic has nowhere else to go, and so it circles around the oceans, breaking down into smaller and
smaller pieces; small enough to be consumed by the plankton, fish, birds and mammals of the Pacific Ocean. This poses a huge environmental threat, and it is a result of the linear processing of waste that is a uniquely human phenomenon.

In nature, everything is processed in cycles *cue famous Disney soundtrack*. As animals feed, the basic building blocks of life are passed up the food chain, and when the top predators die or defecate, the cycle starts again. Every single atom in our bodies has already passed through a number of incarnations, already been part of an ant or a daisy or a rock, and has the potential to become so again.

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They may look sinister, but vultures are nature’s recyclers; they are vital in many ecosystems | Image: Hugh Lunnon

Many organisms have carved out an ecological niche for themselves facilitating this cycle. Animals like vultures and dung beetles may not have the most glamorous rep, feeding as they do on dung and rotting corpses. But in so doing they remove a source of harmful bacteria and disease, turning it instead into bioavailable nutrients, promoting growth, habitat, and life. Unglamorous it may be, but an invaluable service nonetheless.

Where nature operates on complex, closed systems that generate zero waste, humanity tends to operate on a linear system. In this system, materials are processed into products that are useful for a time, but once they reach the end of their life span the waste is packed into crevices in the earth’s crust, or swept into oceans, never to be useful again.

This is unsustainable not only because these endpoints will eventually become saturated, but also because by taking the materials out of circulation, we are effectively putting an end to their reincarnation cycle. The more stuff that is floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the less stuff we have to use, and logic follows that we will eventually run out.

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Turning empty cardboard boxes into gourmet dishes: restaurants could have a lot to gain from the circle of life | Image: Lebensmittelfotos

Luckily, more and more business models are starting to see that that by following nature’s example they can simultaneously increase productivity, whilst decreasing harmful output. Cardboard to Caviar is an initiative set up by the Green Business Network (GBN) in West Yorkshire. Inspired initially by the problem of waste cardboard packaging from the restaurant industry, GBN’s solution was to collect the cardboard, shred it and sell it as bedding for horses.

A good solution, but what about the waste that then came from the stables? GBN started to collect that too, feeding it into giant composters, where the cardboard and manure were broken down by worms. The worms, in turn, are fed into GBN’s fish farm, where they are eaten by sturgeon, which produce caviar that is sold…to the restaurant industry!  

The number of businesses that process waste into something useful appears to have increased exponentially over the last few years. They’re turning chopsticks into furniture and plastic bags into bricks.

However, a word of caution: Whilst these examples should be credited for their innovation in extending the life of waste materials, they are still, in essence, linear. The risk is that whilst storing plastic in bricks is better than storing it in the ocean, we could ultimately also be storing up the problem for future generations. Plastic, in particular, can only be recycled into a useful product once; any further processing deteriorates the quality too much.

To effectively transition into a low waste society, there also needs to be a parallel shift towards sustainable, natural materials that can either be cycled in themselves or converted into new materials, continuing the circle of waste.

0 comments on “The Audience gets Bristolians talking with algorithms”

The Audience gets Bristolians talking with algorithms

‘Really clever concept, good fun and I really liked the way the science is woven in!’ – Audience member

‘I feel grotty’ – Another Audience member

ALIC at the Bristol Improv Theatre
ALIX meets her latest data input devi- sorry, latest colleagues. | Image: Nick Moylan

After a busy 2016, Rising Ape squeezed one more event in before the end of the year. A freezing, foggy 1st of December saw a small, boisterous crowd weathering extreme elements, limited visibility and the Conan Doyle-ish Capital D dread of it all to make it down to the Bristol Improv Theatre. There, together they became the audience for, well, The Audience.

Guided by courtroom algorithm ALIX, the Audience became shaped into a cohesive unit, passing judgement on the sentence for a dramatic court case, and getting a glimpse into what justice in the future might be like. The immersive experience aimed to get people thinking about the consequences of trusting machines with our thoughts and biases. And all through the brandishing of LED lights and making friends with a slightly sarcastic A.I.

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“I, for one, welcome our new AI overlords” proclaims controversial, yet out of shot, audience member, to everyone’s amusement. | Image: Nick Moylan

After the interval, the energised group began a passionate discussion with a panel consisting of:

  • Dr Sabine Hauert, Lecturer in Robotics at the Bristol Robotic Laboratory
  • Andrew Charlesworth, Reader in IT & Law at the University of Bristol
  • Dr Rosie Clark, Research Associate in Experimental Psychology at the University of Bristol
  • Antony Poveda, Producer for Rising Ape Collective and member of the cast.

Together the experts and audience discussed how far we are willing to trust algorithms with important decisions, personal experiences of the effectiveness of juries, and how little society is aware of the companies behind the technology we give data to. The engaging and highly productive session was filmed and we’ll be publishing the full video later in the New Year.

This production of The Audience was also incredibly valuable from our viewpoint. Learning from the performance at Green Man, we took the opportunity to tighten the script, take advantage of the new venue to really up the atmosphere (the mist certainly helped a bit there), choreograph new immersive moments, and, best of all, discover how well the performance works as a stimulus to get an audience talking with experts about these timely issues.

Want to experience The Audience for yourself? Follow us using the button below and look out for news of performances in 2017, as well as the film of the panel discussion, coming soon.

0 comments on “The Audience is in session – 1st December, Bristol Improv Theatre”

The Audience is in session – 1st December, Bristol Improv Theatre

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Your voice is ‘important’ to us.

MSG FROM: Ministry of Justice PLC
SUBJECT: Have you RSVP’d?

MSG BEGINS: Dear Citizen. Fresh from being the most packed, “disturbing”, and ethically confusing interactive show of the Green Man Festival Einstein’s Garden tent, The Audience is hitting Bristol with a heady mix of mob rule, computer smart-arsery and LED lights.

In the latest immersive show from Rising Ape Collective you’ll meet ALIX, the friendly courtroom AI, and get to have your say on what society thinks is morally right and wrong.

The show will be followed by a Q&A with the writers and a panel of local researchers ready to discuss your questions on the future of AI, our legal system, and whether robots will take all our jobs.

Attendance is voluntary, yet strongly advised. Please respond to your video invite, ALIX can’t wait to meet you.

Vote Justice. MSG ENDS.

More details, and RSVP on the event page.
Tickets available at  improvthreatre.co.uk

 

0 comments on “Design, Naturally: Wasps take the sting out of brain surgery”

Design, Naturally: Wasps take the sting out of brain surgery

By Anwen Bowers

“I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars …”

This statement from Darwin is often quoted in discussions about his changing relationship with religion as he developed his theory of evolution. 150 years later, the ichneumonidae in question are taking a step towards shedding their demonic reputation by inspiring a new approach to neurosurgery.

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Pretty deadly. We could look at ichneumonidae ALL DAY.| Image: Sean McCann

The ichneumonidae are a subfamily in possibly the largest group of animals in the world – the parasitoid wasps. Estimates of the total number of ichneumonidae species alone reach up to 100,000 – more than all the vertebrate species in the world. The wasps gain their name because they brutally kill their host species, as opposed to parasites which drain the resources of an organism without causing significant harm. Indeed, life histories of the parasitoid wasps are close to the stuff of nightmares.

The extremely high diversity of ichneumonidae has arisen because each species of wasp has evolved to target just a single type of prey, and to do it as efficiently as possible. Each species is distinguished by its specialised weaponry or tactics that allow them to tackle their prey in their niche habitat or lifestyle. For example, Lasiochalcidia igiliensis’ chosen host is the antlion larva, a ferocious predator in its own right with vicious jaws that it uses against a range of arthropod prey, even spiders.

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A badass Antlion larva clearly has only one thing to fear. Fear of L. igiliensis itself. | Image: Larah McElroy

The seemingly fearless L. igiliensis has been observed to bait the antlion larva, encouraging it to attack the wasps itself. At the point of attack, the wasp will use its powerful legs to prise the jaws of the antlion open, whilst simultaneously depositing an egg into the antlion larvae’s throat. There the egg will incubate, feeding on the antlion from the inside, until the time for metamorphosis comes. At this point the wasp will burst out from the antlion, not unlike the infamous scene from Alien.

Strategies in other species include a fibrous mesh that traps air allowing the wasps to dive down and reach caddis fly in their underwater habitat, and a hormone invisibility cloak that allows the wasps to live within an ants nest, even up to adulthood, without detection. These guys are the Q Branch of the insect world.

M. macrurus prepares to drill. | Image: Evan Kean
M. macrurus prepares to drill. Just look at that ovipositor. Stunning, and inspiring… | Image: Evan Kean

Here at Rising Ape we can vouch from experience that great ideas happen when you put a bunch of scientists from different backgrounds in a room, and maybe give them a bottle of wine. This seems to be what happened in the case of Dr Ferdinando Rodriguez y Baena, a medical engineer who found himself inspired by a serendipitous dinner party conversation with zoologist and biomimetics expert Julian Vincent.

Vincent described how the parasitoid wasp species Megarhyssa macrurus, is able to use her egg laying tube to drill down into tree bark, where she deposits her eggs onto the larvae of the pidgeon tremaz horntail (how did this come up as a topic?! Over dessert?). This is possible thanks to a complex structure of three tubes that can bend and flex as the wasp drills, allowing her to position her eggs with pinpoint precision.

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The three parts of this needle echo the ovipositor of the drilling wasp and give it unparalleled flexibility. | Image: UCL

This elegantly specialised structure gave Baena the idea for a new style of needle that mimics the ovipositor. The design allows surgeons to control and manoeuvre the needle inside the patient, navigating around sensitive and fragile parts of the brain. This minimally invasive surgical procedure could even allow surgeons to deliver drugs to very specific areas in the brain, potentially treating diseases such as brain tumours and Parkinson’s. By saving lives for a change, the ingenious ichneumonidae wasps could be about to improve their reputation.  Who knows, even Darwin may have approved.

0 comments on “Design, Naturally: Sharkskin V Superbugs”

Design, Naturally: Sharkskin V Superbugs

By Anwen Bowers

Antimicrobial resistance is one of the biggest challenges faced by the healthcare industry. The evolution of superbugs such as MRSA is evidence that the arms race between antibiotics and bacteria is not a sustainable strategy for preventing infection and keeping patients healthy. Bacteria are able to make infinite changes to their DNA, but there isn’t an infinite supply of new drugs available to target them. Scientists looking for alternative methods to tackle the spread of disease causing bacteria have turned to the natural world for inspiration.

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Opens doors, spreads diseases, can be opened by velociraptors. | Image: Public domain

Bacteria in hospitals spread through contact. If a person touches a surface that hosts bacteria, they can pass it along next time they touch a piece of equipment, or a patient. So could making surfaces inherently resistant to bacteria be an effective way of stopping the transfer and spreading of disease?

Traditional approaches to keeping surfaces sterile involve using some sort chemical agent, for example treating socks with silver to keep smelly feet at bay (equally effective against vampires). The disadvantage of chemical treatment is that protection is short lived, and needs constant renewal. Research suggests that silver nanoparticles in socks last not much longer than a few washes, as the silver is rinsed out into the environment where it becomes a poisonous threat to wildlife.

In a paradigm shift in strategy, scientists have proposed a new mechanical approach to keeping surfaces clean. Taking inspiration from the sea, they want to develop a texture that prevents bacteria from spreading by discouraging microbes from settling in the first place.

dirty boat hull
Hull is filthy. The boat’s hull that is. | Image: Glenn Batuyong

Place almost anything underwater and it won’t be long before a thin film of green slimy phytoplankton will start to settle. This plankton is the trigger for a chain reaction of settlement, as larvae of adhesive animals such as anemones and barnacles will soon follow. This has long been a problem for the shipping industry as fouling like this on ship’s hulls creates a huge amount of drag, slowing down the vessel and adding fuel costs. Even whales, despite their constant movement, will succumb to the nuisance of barnacles and parasites.

But scientists observed that sharks remain clean and crust free, even into old age. For a long time it was thought that sharks move too quickly through the water to give anything any time to settle. Closer inspection of the surface of their skin provided an alternative answer. Sharks are covered in specialised scales called dermal dentacles.

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Sharks: Creating the worst place for bacteria to hang out for 100 million years | Image: Pascal Deynat/Odontobase

Dentacle means “small tooth”, a name derived the dentine tissue from which they’re made and the same found in your teeth. Dermal dentacles are highly textured, and when meshed together they form an extremely complex surface, full of micro mountains and canyons. This surface appears to be too unstable for any bacteria to settle and establish a community effectively.

Without the base layer of microscopic organisms, the bigger problem of larger, fouler organisms cannot develop, and the shark remains clean and smooth. This evolutionary advantage then helps the seas’ top predators move swiftly through the water in pursuit of their prey.

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‘Phelps who? Bet I’m cleaner and faster.’ | Image: Mark Conlin

Shark skin is already well studied, and has inspired a range of products, famously the Olympic grade swimwear that can reduce drag and shave milliseconds of a swimmer’s time. To use it as a surface for hospitals was the idea of Anthony Brennan, founder of the company Sharklettm , who have trademarked a textured pattern based on the structure of sharkskin. The company claims that Sharklettm surfaces harbour 94% less bacteria than standard worktops and equipment.

Installed in places such as drawer handles and even surgical equipment, Sharklettm could be a cost effective way of reducing the spread of bacteria, as well as use of antiseptic and not to mention the time staff spend cleaning surfaces. What has evolved over millions of years could be a solution to a very pressing 21st century issue.

0 comments on “Asimov’s Amazing Assertions”

Asimov’s Amazing Assertions

by James Riley

“What will the World’s Fair of 2014 be like? I don’t know, but I can guess.”

Could you predict the future? In the wake of the 1964 World’s Fair, Isaac Asimov, prolific sci-fi writer, made some startling predictions about life in 2014. Published in The New York Times on August 16, 1964, Asimov’s article “Visit to the World’s Fair of 2014” gives us real pause for thought about our life in the Information Age. Let’s explore some of his scarily accurate speculations about the future, and today’s technologies which helped realise these prescient predictions.

“Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence [ . . . ] In fact, the I.B.M. building at the 2014 World’s Fair may have, as one of its prime exhibits, a robot housemaid.”

Robotics has snowballed in the last decade, but the discipline is still in its infancy. What is really interesting here is the housemaid that Asimov speaks of. One such example would be the Roomba autonomous robot vacuum cleaner, sold by iRobotics, which detects dirty spots of floor, avoids falling down the stairs by detecting steep drops and actively avoids obstacles. However there are more novel robots, like TOPIO, made by TOSY, which (/who?) played ping pong at the Tokyo International Robot Exhibition in 2009.

Isaac Asimov predicts future 2014 1964

(Isaac Asimov. Image Credit: “New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection”/Taken by Phillip Leonian)

“General Electric at the 2014 World’s Fair will be showing 3-D movies of its “Robot of the Future,” [ . . . ] (There will be a three-hour wait in line to see the film, for some things never change.)”

This one is scary. Not only did Asimov predict 3D cinema becoming commonplace (the original 3D film technology being patented in the 1890s), but by a strange act of fate it happens that General Electric bought the controlling stake of Universal Studios in 2004. Universal being the company responsible for the last film in The Cornetto Trilogy, The World’s End, depicting ‘robots’ taking over the world, available in 3D. Of course, the film came out last year, and the invaders weren’t really robots (according to themselves), but it’s still a remarkable prediction.

“As for television, wall screens will have replaced the ordinary set; but transparent cubes will be making their appearance in which three-dimensional viewing will be possible.”

This two-fold prediction is an extension on the last. The wall screens Asimov speaks of have become common place across developed nations with newer variants of screen, such as LCD, taking over the clumpy cathode ray tube displays of the past. Many of these new variants are available with 3D technology.

“Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone. The screen can be used not only to see the people you call but also for studying documents and photographs and reading passages from books.”

The emergence of Skype and FaceTime have revolutionised the way in which we communicate, but the end of this statement is really quite startling. I’m sat in a coffee shop, using a tablet computer screen to read Asimov’s 50-year-old passages of predictions about me sitting here in 2014 using a screen to read passages; and simultaneously writing a document about the predictions, on the same screen which I am studying the documents containing the predictions which Asimov made. The very act of writing this article is one of validating Asimov’s claim. Baffling.

“Much effort will be put into the designing of vehicles with “Robot-brains”*vehicles that can be set for particular destinations and that will then proceed there without interference by the slow reflexes of a human driver.”

The Google driverless car project is doing just that. Using sophisticated laser radar technology, the car’s software creates a detailed 3D map of its environment. Many other companies have created road-worthy driverless cars. In 2010, a European Union backed initiative took four prototype electronic autonomous vans 8000 Miles, from Italy to China, proving that this technology is close to commercialisation.

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(Google Driverless Car. Image Credit: Steve Jurvetson)

“Gadgetry will continue to relieve mankind of tedious jobs. Kitchen units will be devised that will prepare automeals, [ . . . ] Complete lunches and dinners, with the food semiprepared, will be stored in the freezer until ready for processing.”

Microwave ready meals and frozen pizza: who’d have thought the future would taste so bland? Although, he didn’t predict the obesity epidemics that this would contribute to.

“In 2014, there is every likelihood that the world population will be 6,500,000,000.”

Asimov underestimated the size of the population (only(?) by around 600 million), but he did foresee the potentially disastrous effects of this exponential rise.

“There are only two general ways of preventing [civilisation’s collapse due to overpopulation]: (1) raise the death rate; (2) lower the birth rate. Undoubtedly, the world of A>D. 2014 will have agreed on the latter method. Indeed, the increasing use of mechanical devices to replace failing hearts and kidneys, and repair stiffening arteries and breaking nerves will have cut the death rate still further and have lifted the life expectancy in some parts of the world to age 85.”

The end of last year brought about an easing of China’s one-child policy. A policy originally implemented to curb a population explosion. Asimov does correctly predict the great leaps forward that medicine has taken, furthering life expectancy in some places, such as Monaco, to almost 90 years old.

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(Photobioreactor producing microalgae, can be used for food or biofuel production. Image Credit: IGV Biotech)

“Ordinary agriculture will keep up with great difficulty and there will be “farms” turning to the more efficient micro-organisms. Processed yeast and algae products will be available in a variety of flavors. The 2014 fair will feature an Algae Bar at which “mock-turkey” and “pseudosteak” will be served. It won’t be bad at all (if you can dig up those premium prices), but there will be considerable psychological resistance to such an innovation.”

A trip to any high street health store will confirm the use of algae as a food product, though it is not yet an international dietary staple. As for the “pseudosteak”, products such as fungi based Quorn and other meat replacements have been around for years. Last year, however, brought us the World’s first lab-grown burger; and Asimov was right about the price, with the patty coming in at ÂŁ215,000. Would you like supersize?

“The world of A.D. 2014 will have few routine jobs that cannot be done better by some machine than by any human being. Mankind will therefore have become largely a race of machine tenders. [ . . . ] Mankind will suffer badly from the disease of boredom, a disease spreading more widely each year and growing in intensity. This will have serious mental, emotional and sociological consequences, and I dare say that psychiatry will be far and away the most important medical specialty in 2014.”

Asimov foreshadows our seemingly inevitable path towards unskilled labour here, and also to mentally unstimulating work. He would probably be right about the psychiatry part as well, if it wasn’t for the overwhelming abundance of cat videos on the internet (which was one thing he did fail to predict). But on a more serious note, the field of psychiatry is en route for greater leaps forward, and larger public dependence, with more and more people being diagnosed with mental health issues each year.

Asimov leaves us with a salient warning about nuclear warfare, a warning that still applies today. Let’s hope that today’s predictions of the next 50 years are allowed to be realised just as Asimov’s were, without the threat of total annihilation.

“The New York World’s Fair of 1964 is dedicated to “Peace Through Understanding.” Its glimpses of the world of tomorrow rule out thermonuclear warfare. And why not? If a thermonuclear war takes place, the future will not be worth discussing. So let the missiles slumber eternally on their pads and let us observe what may come in the nonatomized world of the future.”

0 comments on “The sun has got its spot on, hip-hip-hip-oh-no!”

The sun has got its spot on, hip-hip-hip-oh-no!

by James Riley

Imagine having a giant spot moving across your face, making its way around the back of your head over a 27-day period. I’m sure most of us might start thinking about contacting the doctor (or even consider investing in some facial scrub).

As the spot comes closer to circumnavigating your face it explodes violently with a burst of radiation – now you’re worried. But this is far from over. On the morning of the 28th day you wake up and see the spot has made its way, from the rear, around to the front of your head again. You hold tight for another slow 27-day trip, hoping another explosion doesn’t come. Your hopes aren’t answered. Another massive magnetic explosion of radiation spews from the spot. After frantically grabbing inside your pocket for your mobile to call the doctor, you see that the screen is blank. The spot’s explosion has destroyed the electronics inside.

This isn’t a nice image, but it is close to what the sun has been experiencing early in 2014 with the emergence of a new sunspot AR11944. Sunspots are dark areas of the solar surface. They are cold, well, colder than the rest of the sun in any case. At around 4000c they are around 2000c less than the rest of the solar surface, giving them their dark characteristic. Sunspots have strong magnetic fields which cause massive solar flares and coronal mass ejection (CME) events, the most powerful explosions in the solar system.

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(A giant sunspot appeared on Feb. 25, 2014, for its third trip across the face of the sun. This blend of two images from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory shows the sunspot in visible light and an X-class flare observable in ultraviolet light. Image Credit: NASA/SDO/Goddard Space Flight Center)

As we used to have no telescopes monitoring the far side of the sun, it was hard to fully establish that the old sunspots which disappeared over the sun’s horizon were the same as the new ones emerging on the opposite side. This meant astronomers renamed the sunspot on each full navigation, even if the new emerging spot was thought to be the same as the old one.

The new sunspot which appeared on the 25th Feb 2014 has been labelled AR11944, it’s previously trip was labelled AR11967, and it was originally christened AR11990. And this multi-named sun-trotter hasn’t made its journey quietly. During its voyage it has released two of the strongest classes of solar flare which can be produced – the (incredibly Star Trek sounding) X-Class.

The regularity of these events raises questions over our technological infrastructure. High intensity solar flares don’t only cause the beautiful auroras which people flock to see, they can disrupt electronic systems, and we rely on an abundance of electronic systems every day. We are so dependent on electronic communications – from phones to pylons, computers to cars, submarines to satellites, and not forgetting the internet – if a massive solar flare wiped out a large chunk of our electronic communications, the world may very well come to a standstill.

This apocalyptic sun-ray isn’t just the spouting of hard-line conspiracy theorists. Research published in Space suggests that we have a 1 in 8 chance of experiencing a catastrophic solar mega-storm within the next decade.

The last huge event which we had, dubbed the Carrington Event, caused widespread damage to the telegraph system. Being the most widely depended upon communications system at the time, this was quite worrying. It was also reported that people awoke in Australia thinking it was morning, and others could read their newspapers by its light in New York.

If this kind of event happened today, it is no doubt that our infrastructure would suffer serious damages. Almost every communications channel we depend upon is based on electrical systems, and without developing solar flare resistant electronics, we place ourselves at risk of a communications breakdown. Is it time to have a rethink?