Holiday Celebration: Robot Turtles, Poop-Snooping DNA Detectives

Fake fins on robot turtles are less destructive than propellers on marine ‘bots

News changes during holidays. It gets thinner and lighter and weirder as the hordes of writers and editors who produce the overwhelming flood of news, updates and infotainments go home to annoy friends and family rather than readers and advertisers.

PR people, marketers and salespeople go home, too, which causes the flood of press releases posing as news to dwindle, drastically reducing the number of press events, press releases, publicity efforts and educational opportunities that ordinarily flood the news channel.

Other things flow in to fill the gap, of course, but not the same things that compete for – and receive – coverage as part of the normal flow of news.

Holidays and times that most people take vacations create intense concentrations of weird news that isn’t swamped, marginalized or completely eliminated by stories that are less interesting, but far more Significant.

When the level of significance drops low enough, the value of interesting goes up. Stories that people will talk about, rush to tell each other about, remember for years and joke about – even if they turn out to have no impact on anyone or anything at all – only get their due when all the Significance is packed into a car and stuck on the highway on the way to relatives whose names no one can fully remember.

This year features a rich crop of the interesting and unusual. Many of them are also Significant, of course. For the purposes of this roundup, however, we’ll ignore most of those, or at least ignore the more significant aspects.

“Robot Turtle Will Help Underwater Archeologists Inspect Shipwrecks,” for example, has some obviously worthwhile things to point out about the development of autonomous unmanned underwater vehicles to explore dangerous environments more cheaply and safely than humans can manage.

The saving grace for this report from The Robot Safari in the London Science Museum, however, is the effort the announcement goes to – and trouble the designers obviously did as well – to not only build an autonomous underwater vehicle that swims like a turtle, but justify having done so (paddle-like fins stir up silt and debris to a much lesser degree than propellers or water-jet propulsion systems).

Of course, that’s Scientific American compared to “Robots may receive urine-powered artificial ‘hearts,” which tells the story of British researchers creating a pump that works like an artificial heart but is designed to help “EcoBots” gather, filter and process waste materials into energy. (Most of that energy will go into figuring out how to say “Eeeewwwww” as loudly as possible, in binary.)

A story about the intersection of physics and metaphysics as embodied by the sect of contemplative Muslim mystics called The Whirling Dervishes, on the other hand, is both ridiculous and serious at the same time.

Dervishes – a Turkish sect founded in the 13th century by Persian poet Rumi, worship in motion as did the American Shakers, but in much more colorful clothing.

As they spin at a fixed speed, the colorful skirts of the Dervishes create “long-lived patterns with sharp cusp-like features which seem rather counterintuitive,” according to a Virginia Polytechnic Institute physicist who thought the most interesting thing about the Dervishes was the role Coriolis forces played in creating patterns of color in their spinning skirts. He apparently thought it was interesting enough not only to calculate, but to publish the work and post a video about it.

There is less hard science and technology in“Reef Fish Find It’s Too Hot to Swim” than in much of the other ridiculous research published today, but the story compensates by allowing the rest of us to realize that fish can choose whether or not to swim and be made lazy if their tropical climes become a little too topical. (As ridiculous research the story loses points with relevance about global warming and the inability of fish to survive in a deteriorating environment if they become overheated enough to make long trips to the spawning ground seem like too much effort.

Top points in ridiculousness, however, go to the condo- and apartment-complex managers in Braintree, MA, who were inspired to become amateur zoo-geneticists by resident pet owners who not only refused to clean up after their pets, but challenged the apartment managers to prove it was their pets contributing the increasingly hazardous, unpleasant piles of doggie doo on apartment properties.

Rather than put up with a neverending supply of potential EcoBot fuel on marring the landscaping, facilities managers took cheek swabs of all the dogs on the property and sent them to A Knoxville, Tenn. that provided DNA profiles under a program with the dignified name “PooPrints.”

Now, for a fee of only $60 per pooch, residential managers can confirm the provider of a pile of PooPrintable material by comparing the DNA in the dog with the DNA in the pile.

“Now you don’t really have to worry about dog poop,” said one fan of the practical application of zoological genetic analysis. “The grass is now ours again, we don’t have to worry about it [poop], and that’s a good thing.”

Restraint is just as important as innovation, of course, so the building managers made a point of telling the AP reporter who wrote the story that they wouldn’t extend the effort to identifying which pooch peed on which bush and when.

“That’s a little more difficult. We are not going to tackle that.”

Finally, something to be thankful for.


Image: Tallinn University of Technology