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5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Engineers in Germany built the world’s first electric plane that can take off and land vertically, a team in California bred genetically engineered mutant wasps with red eyes, and a researcher in Holland built a miniature robotic cheetah. We see cat robot memes in our future. Read on.


World’s First Electric VTOL Plane Takes Flight

Top image: “Once airborne, the flaps gradually tilt into a horizontal position, leading the aircraft to accelerate.” Image credit: Lilium Aviation.

Germany’s Lilium Aviation introduced the world’s first battery-powered plane that can take off and land vertically. The maker says the “low-noise” vehicle has a range of 300 kilometers, can “fly as fast as a Formula One car,” carry five people and reach Paris from London in one hour. Electric engines embedded in tilting flaps along the wings power the two-seater plane. “At take-off, all flaps are tilted vertical, so that the engines can lift the aircraft,” the company says. “Once airborne, the flaps gradually tilt into a horizontal position, leading the aircraft to accelerate. When they have reached complete horizontal position, all lift necessary to stay aloft is provided by the wings as on a conventional airplane.” Oh, yes, the idea is that you will not need to own one. You will summon the aircraft to you and pay per ride with a smartphone app.

What’s Next, Total Recall?

A team of University of Pennsylvania neuroscientists showed for the first time that electrical stimulation delivered when memory is predicted to fail can improve memory function in the human brain. Here, the blue dots indicate overall electrode placement; the yellow dot (top-right corner) indicates the electrode used to stimulate the subject’s brain to increase memory performance. Image credit: University of Pennsylvania.

Neuroscientists at the University of Pennsylvania found a possible way to restore memory by stimulating the brain with electricity. The team took readings from electrodes implanted in patients’ brains and used machine learning “to understand and decode signaling patterns that correspond to highs and lows of memory function,” according to the university. “These recordings identified the biomarkers of successful memory function, activity patterns that occur when the brain effectively creates new memories.” Daniel Rizzuto, director of cognitive neuromodulation at Penn, said that “technology based on this type of stimulation could produce meaningful gains in memory performance, but more work is needed to move from proof-of-concept to an actual therapeutic platform.” The university wrote that “gaining insight into this process could improve the lives of many types of patients, particularly those with traumatic brain injury or neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.” The stimulation only works when memory is about to fail. It has the opposite effect when memory functions normally. The results were published in the journal Current Biology.


Seeing Red

The red-eyed mutant Jewel wasp, seen on the right, was created in the lab using CRISPR technology. An unmodified Jewel wasp is seen on the left. Image credit: Akbari Lab, UC Riverside

Biologists at University of California, Riverside used CRISPS-Cas9, the cut-and-paste tool used for editing DNA, to genetically engineer mutant wasps with red eyes. “We wanted to target a gene that would be obvious, and we knew from previous studies that if the gene for eye pigmentation was knocked out, they would have red eyes, so this seemed like a good target for gene disruption,” said Omar Akbari, assistant professor of entomology who led the research. “Big beautiful red eyes are something you won’t miss.” The university wrote that the goal of the project was “to better understand the biology of wasps and other insects, so [scientists] can find a way to control insects that destroy crops or spread diseases like malaria.” The results were published in the journal Nature.


This Cat Robot Is Clever, But Can It Start A Meme?

“I wanted to create a robot that runs the same way, with the aim of applying this knowledge to the development of new robots,” says Geert Folkertsma. Image credit: Geert Folkertsma.

A researcher at the University of Twente in Holland created a scaled-down robotic cheetah. “As you might expect of the fastest land animal in the world, the cheetah makes very efficient use of its energy,” the scientist, Geert Folkertsma, said. “I wanted to create a robot that runs the same way, with the aim of applying this knowledge to the development of new robots.” The university said that Folkertsma’s robot, which is 30 centimeters long and weighs 2.5 kilograms, needs only 15 percent more energy than the real animal. The researcher simplified nature’s design, replacing vertebrae and discs with springs. Alas, it can only cover 1 kilometer per hour. “That’s quite a pace for such a small robot,” Folkertsma says. He says “the aim was not to reconstruct a cheetah, but to reap the rewards of its efficient way of running.”


Is There Life On Super Earth?

Above: This chart shows the location of the faint red star LHS 1140 in the faint constellation of Cetus (The Sea Monster). This star is orbited by a super-Earth exoplanet called LHS 1140b, which may be best place to look for signs of life beyond the Solar System. The star is too faint to be seen in a small telescope. Image credit: ESO.

Astronomers working from the European Southern Observatory have discovered a new planet just 40 light years away from Earth that “may be the best candidate in search for signs for life.” This “super-Earth” orbits a red dwarf star LHS 1140 in the constellation on Cetus. “This is the most exciting exoplanet I’ve seen in the past decade,” said Jason Dittmann of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, lead author of the study. “We could hardly hope for a better target to perform one of the biggest quests in science — searching for evidence of life beyond Earth.”

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