Sunday, April 30, 2017

A Walk in the Bluebells

The Blue Forest

Each spring, a dreamlike carpet of bluebells overtakes the forest floor of this Belgian woods. 

From: Atlas Obscura
Donar Reiskoffer/ Wikimedia [Creative Commons]

Visit this Belgian forest at just the right time in the spring, and you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped into a dream.

The Hallerbos — also known as the Blue Forest —is covered with millions of bluebells from late April into May. The otherworldly transformation of the 1,360 acre woods has a floral carpet brushing up against the lean beech trees as far as your eye takes you. Visitors can stroll the winding paths, and watch for rabbits and deer that wander through the green and azure woods. 

A footpath in Tourneppe, Belgium, through the bluebells by Vincent Brassinne 
While the woods, located in the Halle municipality between Flanders and Wallonia, is not far from Brussels, it’s often overlooked by visitors. The phenomenon of “bluebell forests” is not uncommon in Europe, particularly in its oldest woods, but the Hallerbos is unique for the density and beauty of its blooms. 

Mystical forest in Belgium  2 min.

 Image credit Jimmy De Taeye

Image credit Matthias Locker
If you enjoyed that, take a walk in the woods…

Published on May 1, 2015
(Shot locations - Horsetail Falls, OR / Cedar Grist Mill, WA, And somewhere North of Mt. Hood, OR) 31 min.

The Swish Stool

The Lowly Folding Chair, Reimagined with Algorithms

Wired  Margaret Rhodes Design  04.25.17

At a glance, the Swish resembles nothing more than a fancy folding chair—a glamorous, indoor version of a canvas camping stool. See it in motion, though, and you’ll notice that the Swish chair looks unusually beautiful as it goes from a flat, folded position to an open, seated stance. The wood stool kind of twirls open, as if doing a cartwheel.

The Swish chair’s 27 cherry wood pieces interlock with a series of hinges. Those hinges all conform to a slightly different shape. If Carlo Ratti, the director of MIT’s Senseable City Lab, had designed each hinge by hand, building Swish for Italian furniture company Cassina would have been a painstakingly slow process. But he didn’t: Ratti let algorithms determine the form of each hinge. “That allows you to create shapes and functions that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to do,” he says. “When you can control the material in a much more dynamic way, then you can create objects that are quite magical.”

Carlo Ratti Associati 

Algorithms have helped shape motorcycle parts, bridges, and even concert halls, but Swish is a new example of using parametric design to kinetic effect. Ratti built the chair by feeding a series of inputs into modeling software, a furniture-making technique he calls “programmable wood”. The stool needed to fit certain weight and height requirements, and to stand in a more unique configuration than an average folding chair. It also had to be comfortable, so Ratti designed the seat shape around a 3-D scan of a human body. With those requirements in place, algorithms were able to spit out design suggestions until Ratti picked the one he wanted to CNC-mill into reality.

The Swish stool is still a prototype, but it’s already noteworthy for how normal it looks—at least compared to other algorithmic designs. Last year, when Autodesk designers used algorithms to build the Elbo chair, the result looked skeletal, biological. This often happens when you let algorithms optimize the shape of the legs and back of a chair; they start to resemble animal bones, which have adapted over millions of years to carry loads stably and efficiently. The Swish stool, in contrast, looks less anatomical, less ornate. “Many people today are using parametricism to lead to some kind of baroque structure,” Ratti says. “We’re not interested in that.”

With Swish’s sleek, sculptural looks, Ratti says he’s exploring an aesthetic he calls digital minimal. It would seem at home in a modern apartment, and could still conveniently tuck away in a closet. That was Ratti’s goal: “The idea is to reinvent the folding chair,” he says. He’s done that, along with reinventing—or at least, seriously rethinking—how to do it too.

Martian Bricks

If Mars Is Colonized, We May Not Need to Ship in the Bricks

Soil designed to simulate Martian dirt can be compacted into disks like this, researchers say. Credit Jacobs School of Engineering/UC San Diego 

We often wonder if somewhere hidden on Mars are the building blocks for life. But what about building blocks for a civilization?

A new study suggests that the material humanity needs to one day construct houses, buildings and even entire colonies on Mars may already exist within the red planet’s own desolate soil. The research is still early and the technology is unlikely to be ready in time to meet President Trump’s stated goal of putting people on Mars by the end of his first term, but it could lay the groundwork for settlement of the planet if further study and testing confirms its findings.

“If this can indeed be scaled up for mass production on Mars, then I would say we are lucky,” said Yu Qiao, a materials scientist and engineer at the University of California, San Diego, pointing out that soil on the moon does not share that ability. He and his colleagues published their work Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports.

The researchers think that iron oxide, which gives the soil on Mars its red color, acts like a glue. Credit NASA 

Dr. Qiao and his colleagues experimented with a substance that is chemically and physically similar to what you might find on the surface of Mars, but is made from particles on our planet. They call it Martian soil simulant. Quite by accident, the team members found that with enough pressure they could mash the mock Martian dirt into bricks — no extraterrestrial kiln needed.

The technique, if it works with real Martian soil, could make it possible to develop building material on Mars without needing extreme heat, water or a binding agent. Though the bricks they created were small, they were stronger than steel-reinforced concrete, Dr. Qiao said.

His team had previously worked with an analogue for lunar soil, which needs a binding agent that acts like glue in order to be compressed into a brick. The idea behind that research was that one day astronauts would take the binding agent with them to the moon, mix it with the soil and then compact it into blocks that they could use to make structures.

After that work, his team set their eyes on Mars. They realized they could produce the same kind of bricks for the red planet with smaller and smaller amounts of their space glue, until they found they could make Martian bricks by using pressure without a bonding agent.

A brick made of simulated Martian soil, which the researchers say is stronger than steel-reinforced cement. It was cracked during strength testing. Credit Jacobs School of Engineering/UC San Diego 

“I thought, ‘What is going on?!’” Dr. Qiao said.

The team members think that the iron oxide, which gives the soil its red color, acts like a glue to hold the particles together after it is subjected to enough pressure. Dr. Qiao said his next step was to investigate whether the technique could create larger bricks that could potentially build a house.

“The paper is an interesting step in the right direction of development of building material for future explorers,” said Jon Rask, a research scientist at NASA who was not involved in the study. He said he would like to see this research conducted under extremely cold and dry conditions that mirror Mars’s atmosphere to see if the results would hold up.

Henning Roedel, a doctoral candidate at Stanford University who studies technology for construction in outer space, said in an email that scaling the method could prove to be a challenge. Still, he called the technique an elegant solution to the problem of building on other planetary bodies.

“Buildings are rarely made from a singular material,” Mr. Roedel said, “and as we learn about more options available for future explorers and colonists, the better chances I think we have at succeeding in our first extraterrestrial colony.”

Horses of the Scythians and Vikings

Ancient Horse DNA Shows Scythian Warriors Were Adept Domesticators

The New York Times  by KENNETH CHANG APRIL 27, 2017

A Mongolian horse breeder catching horses. Credit Ludovic Orlando/Natural History Museum of Denmark/Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique 

Horses sacrificed by fierce nomads living in Central Asia more than 2,000 years ago have provided new insights into how people tamed the wild animals and bred them to their needs.

The Scythians roamed over a vast swath of this region, from Siberia to the Black Sea, for about 800 years beginning about the ninth century B.C. They were known for their equestrian battle skills, including the ability to shoot arrows while riding, and for the brutal treatment of those they defeated. Herodotus, an ancient Greek historian, wrote that the Scythians blinded their slaves, and the warriors drank the blood of the first enemy they killed in battle.

In a study published Thursday by the journal Science, an international team of researchers deployed the latest genetic tools with 13 stallions that were buried in a mound in what is now Kazakhstan, well-preserved in the permafrost. (The Scythians appear to have only sacrificed male horses.)

The decoded DNA not only provides insights into the ancient horses, but also suggests the Scythians were more than warriors.

“Here we see them as breeders,” said Ludovic Orlando, a professor of molecular archaeology at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, who led the research. “We reveal part of their management strategy and part of their knowledge 2,300 years ago.”

The findings also fit an emerging theory of how domestication in general changes animals as they become intertwined with humans.

“It’s great stuff,” commented Greger Larson, director of the paleogenomics and bioarchaeology research network at the University of Oxford in England, who was not involved in the research. “It demonstrates the power of ancient whole genomes to understand the pattern and the process of domestication.”

Among the farm animals whose lives have become entwined with people, horses were a late addition.
Dogs were the first animal friends of humans — wolves that scavenged for food among garbage piles and turned docile about 15,000 years ago, or possibly much earlier. Cattle, chickens and pigs were domesticated by people in different parts of the world between 8,000 and 11,000 years ago.

It was only about 5,500 years ago that people in Central Asia started catching and keeping wild horses for meat and milk. Riding horses came later.

In the new research, the scientists used a bit of bone from the horse skeletons — less than half a gram in most cases — to extract DNA. They were able to decipher the genomes for 11 of the 13 horses from the Scythian mound. They also analyzed the DNA of two stallions from a royal Scythian tomb 400 years earlier, and one mare, dating to 4,100 years ago, that belonged to a nearby, earlier people, the Sintashta, who had already figured out how to use horses to pull two-wheeled chariots.

The site of a royal Scythian tomb where scientists assessed the DNA of two stallions. Credit Michael Hochmuth/German Archaeological Institute, Berlin 

From the DNA, the scientists found that the Scythians bred for certain characteristics: stockier forelimbs that were thicker. The horses also had genes for retaining water, perhaps indicating that the mares were milked for human consumption. Many, although not all, of the horses possessed genes associated with racing speed that are found in today’s thoroughbreds.

The genes also showed a variety of colorings — cream, black, spotted, bay and chestnut.

Many of the genetic changes were related to the “neural crest” — a line of cells along what becomes the spinal cord during embryonic development, but which migrate to various parts of the body. That fits in with an idea proposed in 2014 of how domestication and the initial goal of breeding tamer animals able to live and work with people also led to a series of other traits commonly observed among domesticated animals: smaller brains, floppy ears, curly tails, varied colorings.

“Most of them have a neural crest derivation,” said Adam S. Wilkins, a visiting scientist at Humboldt University in Berlin and one of the authors of the hypothesis.

The genetic changes may slightly reduce the number of neural crest cells, and that may lead to smaller adrenal glands, which produce “fight-or-flight” hormones. The result may be animals that are less likely to startle, and are more amenable to being handled by people.

“This begins to support a sort of grand unified theory of domestication,” said Daniel Bradley, a professor of genetics at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland.

What the researchers did not find is the gene that enables certain horse breeds today to “amble” — a gait that is faster than a walk but slower than a gallop.

Unlike modern horses, the Scythian horses’ DNA showed no signs of inbreeding. “This is extremely surprising in horses,” Dr. Orlando said.

The Y chromosome tells the genetic story of males of a species. The mitochondria — energy factories within cells — contains DNA passed down only from mothers. In modern horses, the Y chromosomes in stallions are almost identical, reflecting the breeding technique of using a single stallion with desired characteristics to father many offspring.

That indicates that the Scythians maintained the natural herd structure of horses, Dr. Orlando said. He said additional studies had revealed when and where the genetic diversity of stallions crashed later, but he would not say publicly until he finished the scientific paper that laid out the answer.

For Melinda Zeder, a Smithsonian Institution scientist who studies domestication, that fits in with other research that indicates the narrow genetic variation among many domestic animals — which sometimes leads to prevalent diseases — is a recent development, not an inevitable consequence of domestication.

“I think that’s a very important lesson for the future,” she said. “A red-flag warning we would do well to pay attention to.”

The findings also point to the profound impact that humans have had on the environment and the evolution of other species for millenniums. “It is something humans have been doing for a long time,” Dr. Zeder said. “It’s not always detrimental.”
Vikings Possibly Spread Smooth-Riding Horses around the World

The New York Times  by STEPH YIN AUG. 10, 2016

An ambling Icelandic horse. Credit Raimund Franken/Getty Images 

This week, equestrian athletes at the Rio Olympics are competing in an event called “dressage,” in which they guide their horses to perform complex combinations of different gaits, including the walk, trot and canter.

One type of footwork (or hoofwork, if you will) you likely won’t see is an “amble,” a sometimes comical four-beat gait that’s faster than a walk, slower than a gallop and well-suited for smooth, long rides.

Icelandic Horses Championships in Berlin, 2013 Video by Kristján Sigurjónsson 3 min.

Most horses can walk, trot, canter and gallop, but only certain breeds can amble. In a study published on Monday in Current Biology, scientists have proposed a hypothesis for how horses with this ability came to be found around the world. They suggest that ambling horses arose in Medieval England and then were brought to Iceland by Vikings, who subsequently spread the animals across Eurasia by trade.

The study is a follow-up to the discovery in 2012 that the ability to amble can be traced to a single gene mutation. It’s called DMRT3 or, colloquially, the “gaitkeeper” mutation.

In the new study, the researchers analyzed DNA from the remains of 90 ancient horses. They found the gaitkeeper signature in horse samples from England dating back to the 9th century. They also found the mutation in early Icelandic horses from the 9th to 11th centuries. When they looked at horses from the same time period in mainland Europe, however, they failed to find the gene.

In the 9th century, Vikings occupied parts of England that had ambling horses, said Arne Ludwig, an evolutionary geneticist at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, and an author of the paper.

He believes Vikings pillaged English horses and sailed to Iceland with them. There, horses with the ability to amble became dominant as people bred animals that were easy to ride for long distances across terrain without roads.

Icelandic horses like these may have been pillaged by Viking raiders in the 9th century. Credit Cuveland/Getty Images 

When Vikings brought these horses to trading destinations as far as the Middle East and the Caspian Sea, others possibly recognized the advantage of ambling horses and started to breed for the trait. “You have a fast and comfortable ride with these horses,” Dr. Ludwig said. “It’s a huge improvement compared to horses without this mutation.”

“This study is a good example of how horse and human history are inexplicably intertwined,” said Samantha Brooks, a professor of horse physiology at the University of Florida who was not involved with the study. “The success of the Vikings in a climate as challenging as Iceland was no doubt in part due to the advantage that the use of these horses gave them.”

The Viking story is the best interpretation of current data, but it’s still plausible that ambling horses were bred earlier than the 9th century, said Leif Andersson, a professor who studies the genetics of domestic animals at Uppsala University in Sweden, and an author of the paper.

It’s possible that the mutation “arose in East Asia and then spread westward,” he said, noting that some Chinese horse sculptures from nearly 2,000 years ago seem to depict an ambling gait. “We need more extensive sampling.”

Lindsay Blatt and Paul Taggart joined forces to shoot a documentary about Iceland's unique horse breed and its independent people.

By Lindsay Blatt and Paul Taggart on Publish Date June 25, 2012. 

Today, ambling horse breeds exist around the world — there’s the Missouri Fox Trotter from the United States, the Campeiro from Brazil, the Aegideinberger from Germany, and the Marwari from India, to name a few. In all these horses, the gaitkeeper mutation controls the expression of genes in certain neurons that coordinate muscle movement.

Horses with the gaitkeeper mutation can amble, or move at an intermediate pace with usually only one hoof off the ground at a time, but they have trouble transitioning from a trot to a gallop — which is why you don’t tend to find them in the Olympics.

But, if you go horseback riding and you’re a novice, there’s a good chance you’re riding an ambling horse. If that’s the case, consider thanking the Vikings.