October 2nd, 2018

The Carolinas are waging war against nickel-sized hurricane mosquitoes

Tornadoes may not bring sharks, but as North Carolinians are now discovering, hurricanes can bring giant insects. In the wake of Hurricane Florence, more than two dozen counties have been inundated with massive mosquitoes, creating what for many amounts to a nightmare scenario.

The scene was like “a bad science fiction movie,” according to Robert Phillips, a resident of the centrally located Cumberland county. “ I told my wife, ‘Gosh, look at the size of this thing.’ I told her that I guess I’m going to have to use a shotgun on these things if they get any bigger,” Phillips told The Fayetteville Observer.

But now North Carolina is fighting back against the invaders. Governor Roy Cooper dedicated $4 million in relief funds to combat the outbreak on Friday, and as of Monday morning anti-mosquito trucks were already rolling the streets of Cumberland, spraying the air with insecticide, The Fayetteville Observer reported. Health experts have labeled these particular insects as more of a nuisance than a threat, but are still encouraging people to wear long sleeves and mosquito repellant, as a small fraction of the bugs could carry diseases such as the West Nile virus.

Even among scientists who study mosquitoes for a living, Psorophora ciliata has a fearsome reputation. In addition to being one of the largest species in North America, the gallinipper, as it’s commonly called, also has an especially painful bite. It seems to know it too, with scientific literature recognizing its “legendary aggressiveness.” North Carolinians, understandably disturbed, have taken to social media to practice some amateur entomology.

Although they look like a subtropical nightmare, gallinippers actually live all over the eastern half of the U.S., their habitat stretching from Texas to New Hampshire. Females lay their eggs wherever they can find damp dirt, and the eggs lie in wait for a flood or heavy rain. Hurricane Florence provided both when it dumped dozens of inches of precipitation on North Carolina last month, triggering a hatching frenzy. After getting rehydrated, gallinippers reach adulthood in less than a week—bringing North Carolina to its current state.

Governor Roy Cooper moved quickly to combat the swarms, announcing that $4 million in relief funds were available to help more than half of the state’s counties control their booming mosquito populations on Friday. The first wave of counter-measures has already begun. Insecticide-spraying trucks started patrolling the streets of Cumberland County before 8 a.m. on Monday and will resume after the work day ends, The Fayetteville Observer reports. An aerial assault will follow in the upcoming weeks, with planes blanketing the affected areas. Individuals can also join the fight with items called “dunks,” small disks that release a mosquito-larva killing bacteria when dropped into pools of water such as birdbaths or small ponds.

Texas counties took similar actions last fall after mosquitoes erupted from the ground in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Harvey, using U.S. Air Force reserve cargo planes to spray a nearly Rhode-Island sized area around Houston. This unusually strong response came because hurricanes hit the two states with a one-two entomological punch. First, the rains soaked the buried eggs and raised dormant species like the gallinippers. These insects activate only during times of flooding and rarely carry disease. But then, since most mosquitoes need open water such as ditches to lay their eggs, standing pools left by receding floodwaters increased the likelihood that other species would be able to breed too.

“Because of the flood there’s going to be more water. There are going to be more mosquitoes, and so we have to do the best we can,” the director of mosquito and vector control for Texas’s Harris County Public Health, Mustapha Debboun, told The Scientist at the time.

While aerial sprays and bacterial bombs represent cutting-edge anti-mosquito weapons, the U.S. has been targetting the winged scourge for more than half a century with decidedly low-tech methods. After The Great Depression, New Deal-era programs put more than 200,000 people to work digging ditches to literally drain the swamps of the south. Public health historians estimate that by 1945, workers had dug enough ditches to reach around the globe and then some, drying well over half a million acres of land (one acre can hatch one million mosquito eggs).

The Office of Malaria Control in War Areas, initially founded in Atlanta to stop soldiers from getting mosquito-borne malaria on southern army bases, delivered the final blow in the 1940s when it coordinated a mass spraying of nearly five million southern homes over the course of two years. The organization, which we know today as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), declared the country malaria free in 1949.

North Carolina won’t require such a wide-scale intervention, however. Upcoming chilly temperatures should kill whatever gallinippers survive the sprayings, experts expect. And there’s another silver lining. Psorophora ciliata enjoys snacking on the mosquito larvae of other species, so much so that some entomologists have suggested intentionally cultivating them to keep other, more dangerous populations down. The notion of releasing big mosquitoes to eat the small mosquitoes hasn’t yet caught on, perhaps in fear of the sci-fi chain of unintended consequences it could unleash (now how are we going to get rid of the mutant swallows??), but North Carolinians are well-positioned to enjoy its benefits nonetheless.

Written By Charlie Wood

The physics Nobel Prize goes to high-tech lasers and honors the first woman in 55 years

Light is the primary way we gather information about the world, and every breakthrough in light manipulation lets researchers see new aspects of nature in new ways. Today, three scientists shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work developing powerful laser technology that has allowed biologists and physicists to lift the veil on the micro- and nano-realms.

The award honors the inventors of two influential laser tools: Arthur Ashkin, an American physicist, for developing a way to catch and hold objects using focused beams of light, and Gérard Mourou of France and Donna Strickland of Canada, for their creative solution for concentrating and amplifying laserbeams beyond what standard materials would otherwise permit. Strickland, a professor at Waterloo University in Canada, is the third woman to win a Nobel Prize in Physics, after Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963.

“Obviously, we need to celebrate women physicists, because we’re out there,” she said, according to NPR. “I don’t know what to say, I’m honored to be one of these women.”

Ashkin invented a real-life version of the tractor beam device from Star Trek, understatedly dubbed “optical tweezers.” While working at Bell Labs in the 1960s and 1970s, he discovered that laser beams could push clear, microscopic beads along, as well as nudging them toward the center, more intense region of the beam. By focusing the laser he succeeded in trapping first beads, and later living bacteria in place. The technology has proved invaluable for biologists since, you know, there aren’t too many ways to pick up bacteria and move them around at will.

After the invention of the first laser in 1960, physicists boosted their power rapidly for about a decade until they hit a wall in the ability of amplifiers to amplify without melting down. Mourou and Strickland hit on a clever solution—stretch a laser beam out, amplify it in its weakened form, and then compress it to get a super short, super powerful “pulse.” Known as chirped pulse amplification (CPA), these unimaginably short laser flashes now improve the vision of millions of people a year with corrective eye surgery and let scientists create super slow-motion movies of chemical and physical reactions that take place far faster than traditional high-speed cameras can capture.

The Nobel Prize in Physics usually recognizes advances in fundamental physics, but past recognition of technology include the inventors of the radio transmitter (1909), the transistor (1956), the OG laser (1964), the semiconductor (2000) and the LED (2014).

The 2018 award adds another entry to the exclusive list of Nobel-Prize-winning technology. “This year’s prize is about tools made from light,” the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said during the announcement from Stockholm.

Written By Charlie Wood

GoPro's new action camera fixes an annoying quirk with video stabilization

Lots of action footage is meant to give you a sinking feeling in your stomach. Whether it’s a mountain biker taking a leap of faith off a huge drop, or just a little kid in a home movie tackling the big slide at the playground for the first time, that POV view has a powerful impact when you watch the footage. Unfortunately, that kind of shot also can come with another stomach feeling: slight nausea from shaky, jiggly footage. For its new Hero 7 Black camera, GoPro has developed a technology it calls Hypersmooth, but behind the fancy name is an advanced image stabilization tech that it has been refining for more than four years.

Fighting the shakes

GoPro is using digital image stabilization, which means it does not rely on moving parts inside the camera in order to counteract shakiness.

Like any kind of shake-reduction, digital image stabilization requires a set of internal sensors including an accelerometer to determine how fast the camera is moving, as well as a gyroscope to observe the camera’s rotation. The camera’s processors then interpret that data to get a clear picture of how the camera is moving through space.

To translate this into smoother footage, the camera only uses part of its imaging sensor to capture video, which leaves a buffer of inactive pixels around the edges. If the camera senses movement to the right, it moves the window of active pixels to the left using that buffer. The sensor itself doesn’t move, but the window of active pixels does.

“We crop in about five degrees around the edges,” says Nick Gilmour director, product management at GoPro. That’s not an insignificant cut into the frame, but since GoPro is working with a lens that’s much wider than that on a typical smartphone, it still offers a massive field of view.

Smoothing the edges

This type of digital image stabilization has some internet limitations. For instance, once you hit the edge of that buffer, you can get an abrupt stop that feels unnatural. In order to combat this effect, GoPro considered the way the camera approaches those edges, creating a more gradual transition to the limit rather than a hard stop.

This ability to analyze a scene comes from GoPro’s GP1 chip, which is a piece of dedicated image processing hardware that performs some similar functions to Google’s Pixel Visual Core and Apple’s new chip in the iPhone XS Max. The new GoPro Hero 7 now has 2 GB of RAM dedicated to crunching imaging data and interpreting info collected from the sensors.

As a result, the image smoothing that once happened primarily in post-processing now happens in real-time during capture.

Above: A video shot on a GoPro in 2013 shows some choppy bumps as the rider goes over the rough terrain.

Soaking up the chatter

Where you really notice the difference in the GoPro 7 Black’s performance are situations with lots of little bumps, or “chatter” as some shooters call it. Imagine riding a mountain bike over a rocky trail or a road bike over some lumpy cobblestones. That kind of quick, twitchy shaking is the bane of action camera footage, which is why GoPro has concentrated so heavily on it.

That’s the kind of chop that mechanical image stabilization devices like lenses with built-in stabilization or gimbals that hold the camera struggle with. “There’s an operational limit on mechanical stabilization,” says Gilmour, “and when you reach that limit, it will need to reset, which creates something jarring and unnatural.”

Using digital image stabilization, however, you can select a camera mode that crops the active area on the sensor down even more and give the cropped sensor more room to bounce around to smooth things out even more.

Art and engineering

While there are certain aspects of a camera’s performance you can measure objectively, like sharpness and digital noise, other decisions are more subjective.

For instance, if the engineers building the HyperSmooth tech had tried to mimic the look of a mechanical gimbal, that sometimes creates what’s called a “false horizon,” where everything in the distance remains level, even if your body and the camera turn. This effect is what makes gimbals so effective for drones, but not ideal for action cameras. That takes some of the drama out of scenarios like leaning over in a turn on a motorcycle.

The line between just the right amount of smoothing and too much is also very thin. There were times in trying out the GoPro Hero 7 Black where the footage looked a little overly smooth, giving any motion a slightly floaty feel that isn’t necessarily representative of what I remember.

Still, when it comes to absorbing the small bumps that make older action camera footage unwatchable, the GoPro Hero 7 Black is truly impressive. Just beware: Without shaky footage, everyone will see just how slow the riding in your next mountain biking video really is.

Written By Stan Horaczek

The Apple Watch learned to detect falls using data from real human mishaps

The Apple Watch in 2018 is more than just a time-telling wearable that taps your wrist when you have a message or counts your calories as you walk around: it’s evolving into a type of consumer medical device. Not only can it take an ECG to possibly detect a heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation (although that feature isn’t enabled yet), it can also detect if you’ve fallen down, and then call emergency services.

It’s a feature that has the potential to help the general population: according to the National Institute on Aging, more than one-third of people over 65 tumble annually. If the wearable detects that someone has wiped out, it can call 911 if the person doesn’t respond. For users over 65, Apple automatically enables this feature.

The Watch detects falls using a similar mechanism with which it tracks another complex form of motion—swimming. In the water, the timepiece uses its accelerometer (which measures changes in motion) and the gyroscope (which detects the rate of rotation along three different axes) to detect which stroke the wearer is doing. It must be able to recognize the difference between freestyle and butterfly, for example—which look similar, sensor-wise, although they burn calories at different rates—and to notice when the swimmer has changed directions at the end of a lap.

To teach the watch to monitor swimming, Apple collected data from hundreds of swimmers. And to create the algorithms for detecting falls, they got their data from real-world, unplanned, gravity-fueled interactions between humans and the ground.

To do that, they gathered data from people wearing Apple Watches (running customized software) in a movement disorder clinic, assisted living facilities, and friends and family of Apple employees. That study involved more than 2,500 people and ultimately included more than 250,000 days of data. The data came from real falls—like a spill off a ladder, a trip on a walk, or just a fall while getting dressed (thanks, pants).

This type of information is much more valuable than the kind of readings Apple would have gotten if they’d asked someone—a stuntman, say—to purposely fall; those actions may not be representative of a real-world spill. Their studies also included data on what normal motion looks like, to differentiate between a fall and actions that could resemble a fall. The company wanted to make sure that activities like swinging a tennis racquet or flopping down on a bed don’t register as life-threatening spills.

“We learned that with falls, there’s this repeatable motion pattern that happens,” Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer, said during the company’s keynote in September when announcing the feature. “For example, when you trip, your body will naturally pitch forward, and your arms will go out involuntarily to brace yourself. However, if you slip, there’s a natural upward motion of the arms.”

Of course, both swimming and a fall involve your entire body, but the watch is measuring only the three-dimensional trajectories of your wrist through space to infer what’s happening.

The key sensors that make this possible are the accelerometer and the gyro. The accelerometer in the Series 4 gathers eight times more data per second than the previous version, and it can measure a higher amount of G forces (32 Gs, up from 16 Gs). When someone swings their hands during a fall, that creates G forces (the “G” stands for “gravity”), but the greatest spike in Gs happens when their hand smacks the ground. Because the accelerometer can now capture up to 32 Gs of force—which is a lot—that means that Apple can register the big impact spike a hard fall can create, as opposed to the sensor’s measuring abilities maxing out at 16 Gs.

Then there’s the gyro, which is now more power-efficient—an important point, since Apple needs it to be powered on to monitor for falls throughout the course of the day. (It can switch off automatically if your wrist is relatively still on a table.) That gyroscope measures rate of rotation, and to visualize the different ways it does this, picture an axis going horizontally across the screen (the X axis); another one going vertically up the display (the Y), and finally a third sticking straight out through, and perpendicular to, the screen (the Z).

If you’re wearing a watch right now, hold it in front of you and tilt it towards you: that’s a rotation along the X axis. Now, put your palm straight down on a table: the Z axis is shooting straight up to the sky when the screen is parallel to the table’s surface.

Fall detection requires data from a combination of these two sensors, the accelerometer and the gyro. A tripping fall may result in an impact recorded by the accelerometer, and the screen itself may then have a distinct orientation—likely vertical— compared to the ground. That’s because your palms may end up flat on the ground, your wrist and forearm may be vertical and the watch screen with it, and that X axis is thus oriented vertically, too.

It’s important to note, too, that the SOS function baked into this feature won’t be able to call 911 if you don’t have the cellular version of the watch and you’re far away from your phone, because the non-cellular timepiece needs your handset to be in Bluetooth range to make a call through it. (Here’s more info from Apple about the process.) In other words, if you go for a run and want the alert-the-authorities portion of fall detection to work, bring your phone with you, too.

Written By Rob Verger

Everything you need to know about ricin poison

Update: On October 2, 2018, news outlets reported that envelopes suspected of containing ricin had been found in the Pentagon’s Central Processing Center. The FBI is currently testing the suspicious parcels. What follows is an article originally published in April 2013, when envelopes addressed to Senator Roger Wicker and President Barack Obama were found to contain a white granular substance that was identified as ricin. While this latest incident is a breaking news story, the facts about ricin haven’t changed. Read on.

How poisonous is it?

Oh, man. Very. It’s dangerous in just about any way it gets into your system, though ingesting (eating) it is about the least dangerous way. Injecting or inhaling requires about a thousand times less ricin to kill a human than ingesting, and that’s a very small amount indeed. An average adult needs only 1.78 mg of ricin injected or inhaled to die; that’s about the size of a few grains of table salt—which ricin resembles visually.

How does it work?

Ricin, a toxic protein, infects cells, blocking their ability to synthesize their own protein. Without cells making protein, key functions in the body shut down; even in survivors, permanent organ damage is often the result of ricin poisoning. It’s a highly unpleasant way to be poisoned: within six hours, according to the Center for Disease Control, victims who have ingested ricin will feel gastrointestinal effects like severe vomiting and diarrhea, which can lead to serious dehydration. Then the ricin infects the cells of the vital gastrointestinal organs as they pass through the body, leading to the failure of the kidneys, liver, and pancreas.

Inhalation of ricin has a different effect since the ricin proteins aren’t interacting with the same parts of the body. Instead of gastrointestinal problems, you’ll develop a vicious, bloody cough, your lungs will fill with fluid, and eventually, you’ll lose your ability to breathe, causing death. Injection, too, is different, depending on where you’ve been injected, but will generally result in vomiting and flu-like symptoms, swelling around the place of injection, and eventually, organ failure as your circulatory system passes the protein around the body. Death from inhalation or injection usually occurs about three to five miserable, agonizing days after contact.

Interestingly, there aren’t any immediate symptoms, and indeed there can be a significant delay before symptoms show themselves, up to a day or two.

Exposure on the skin is generally not fatal, though it may cause a reaction that can range from irritation to blistering.

That sounds… horrible. Is there an antidote, at least?

No. The U.S. and U.K. governments have been working on an antidote for decades—here’s a nice article describing the progression of one such antidote—but there isn’t one available to the public. The CDC’s website states bluntly that no antidote exists. There are some steps you can take if you get to a hospital immediately; for ingestion, a stomach pump can sometimes prevent the ricin from reaching the rest of the gastrointestinal system at its full force. But… that’s about it, really.

How does it stack up against other poisons?

Well, that depends on what your aim is. Ricin is much easier to produce than other popular biological weapons like botulinum, sarin, and anthrax, but it is not as potent as any of those, which limits its effectiveness as a weapon. It also is not very long-lived; the protein can age and become inactive fairly quickly compared to, say, anthrax, which can remain dangerous for decades. There were experiments back around World War I attempting to make wide-scale ricin weapons, packaging it into bombs and coating bullets in it, but these proved not particularly effective and also violate the Hague Convention’s agreements on war crimes, so the U.S. discarded ricin.

It’s much more effective, weapon-wise, as a close-contact, small-target weapon—by injecting, as with Georgi Markov, or by putting small particles into an aerosol spray and blasting a target. It’s also not contagious, which limits its effectiveness as a tool of biological warfare. But it’s considered highly dangerous partly because it’s still outrageously toxic and partly because it takes no great skill to produce.

So it’s not hard to make?

Well… no. Like, not at all. It’s made from the byproduct of the castor oil manufacturing process. You take the “mash” of the castor oil seeds, which contain around 5-10 percent ricin, and perform a process called chromatography. Chromatography is a blanket term for a set of techniques used to separate mixtures, usually by dissolving in liquid or gas. The U.S. government has done its best to eradicate recipes for ricin from the internet, sort of; a patent was filed back in 1962 for ricin extraction, and the Patent Office took it off the publicly available server in 2004 for safety reasons. That said, the recipe is super easy to find; here at the PopSci offices, I’m blocked from listening to Rdio on my work computer, but I found a recipe to make an outrageously deadly poison in about a minute.

The techniques involved are undergraduate-level chemistry, creating a slurry with the castor bean mash and filtering with water and then a few easily-found substances like hydrochloric acid.

It comes from castor beans?

Ricin is a highly toxic protein that’s extracted from the seed of the castor plant, often called a “castor bean” or “castor oil bean,” despite not technically being a bean. The castor plant is extremely common; it’s used as an ornamental plant throughout the western world, prized for its ability to grow basically anywhere as well as its pretty, spiky leaves and weird spiny fruits. It’s also an important crop; the seeds are full of oil, and castor oil is used for lots of legitimate purposes. It’s a common laxative, for one thing, and since it’s more resistant to high temperatures than other kinds of vegetable oils, it’s a nice alternative to petroleum oil in engines.

Wait, but you can eat it? So how is this a poison?

Ah, yes. Castor oil is perfectly safe, according to the FDA and your grandma, but ricin is not castor oil. Castor seeds are still poisonous; this study says that a lethal dose of castor seeds for adults is about four to eight seeds. But the oil itself does not contain ricin; the ricin protein is left behind in the “castor bean mash” after the oil is extracted from the seed. Poisoning from eating the seed itself is rare.

Have there been cases of ricin poisoning in the past?

You mean, beyond the several times it’s been featured as a major plot point in Breaking Bad? Sure! The most famous is probably the assassination of Georgi Markov in 1978. Markov was a Bulgarian novelist, playwright, journalist, and dissident, and was murdered by the Bulgarian secret service, with assistance from the KGB, by ricin injection. He was crossing a bridge when he was jabbed in the leg with an umbrella, which delivered a ricin pellet into his bloodstream. He died three days later of ricin poisoning.

There are plenty of incidents of people arrested for attempting (or, more often, succeeding) to make ricin; it’s a pretty easy poison to make. In fact, there was even another ricin-in-the-envelope attempt made back in 2003—a person identifying as “Fallen Angel” sent letters filled with ricin to the White House, apparently as a result of some new trucking regulations (seriously). “Fallen Angel” was never found, but the letters were intercepted and did not cause any injury.

How dangerous are these envelopes filled with ricin?

The envelope strategy has more to do with potential ease of getting the poison close to targets than its strength as a delivery system. If you’re targeting a high-ranking government official, it’s easier and more anonymous to mail a letter than to try to get close to them with an umbrella modified for ricin-stabbing. But it’s not a great way to poison someone with ricin. Assuming the letter actually got into the target’s hands, of the three ways ricin can get into a person’s system (inhalation, injection, ingestion), only one—inhalation—is really possible, and it’s not that likely.

Inhalation as a weapon is best accomplished through a mist, ideally delivered through an aerosol. But that’s not possible in a letter full of powder. It’s possible that small granules of ricin could be released into the air and inhaled when handling the letter, but it is not an effective way to poison someone. And whoever’s sending these letters evidently doesn’t know that the government set up an elaborate mail-screening system after the 2001 Anthrax scare.

Written By Dan Nosowitz