TIME animals

Scientists Claim GPS Data Has Finally Solved the ‘Sheepdog Mystery’

Sheepdog herds flock
Chris Hyde—Getty Images A sheepdog herd sheep at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in Brisbane, Australia, on April 5, 2012

Researchers say a trained canine turns a roaming flock into a cohesive bunch by following two simple steps

With a GPS tracking device attached to its back, an Australian sheepdog has finally revealed how a single canine can control a rebellious flock, according to a new study.

The “sheepdog mystery” has baffled scientists and mathematicians for generations, but a new paper in a journal by Britain’s Royal Society says the secret lies in the animal first bringing the sheep together by weaving side-to-side at their rear, then driving them forward.

“If not cohesive, it will make it cohesive, but if it’s already cohesive, the dog will push the herd towards the target,” Daniel Stroembom of Uppsala University in Sweden, co-author of Solving the Shepherding Problem: Heuristics for Herding Autonomous, Interacting Agents, told Agence France-Presse.

The study suggests that a talented sheepdog could use the technique to control a flock up to 100-strong.

Researchers hope that the new knowledge can be applied to future planning with regards to crowd control, and even guiding groups of exploring robots across remote terrains.

[AFP]

TIME technology

SpaceX Delays Launch Days After Test Mishap

SpaceX
Joe Raedle—Getty Images A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket sits on a lauch pad on Oct. 7, 2012 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. SpaceX is delaying this week's Falcon 9 rocket launch by a day following an explosion of a test flight of its experimental Falcon 9R rocket.

The company says it will review flight record details before the next test flight

SpaceX delayed the launch of a commercial communications satellite on Tuesday, days after an experimental rocket failed mid-flight.

The private space firm founded by Elon Musk was set to launch the AsiaSat 6 satellite on its Falcon 9 rocket early Tuesday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, but the launch was delayed 24 hours, the Los Angeles Times reports.

On Friday, a test flight of the Falcon 9R, an experimental reusable rocket, experienced an anomaly, SpaceX said in a statement. As a result, the flight was terminated–the rocket blew itself up.

No one was injured in the incident, and the company said that the experimental flight was “particularly complex.”

But SpaceX said at the time that it would review flight record details before the next test flight, and the LA Times reports that the space exploration company is taking extra time to review the case ahead of the AsiaSat 6 satellite launch.

[LA Times]

TIME

China’s Supersonic Submarine? Not Gonna Happen

Take your time, boys; you're not going anywhere fast
Mike Clarke—AFP/Getty Images Take your time, boys; you're not going anywhere fast

To hear Chinese military sources tell it, the country is on its way to developing a submarine that can travel 6,100 mph—which is why you should never listen to Chinese military sources

There are a whole lot of things that won’t be happening anytime soon. Pigs flying, for instance; that won’t happen. All of the raindrops becoming lemon drops and gumdrops; that won’t happen either. And despite what you have been reading practically everywhere today, no, China won’t be deploying a submarine capable of moving at 6,100 mph (9,800 k/h) and covering the distance from Shanghai to San Francisco in 100 minutes—at least not in anything remotely like the near future.

Let’s begin with the source of the story: engineer Li Fengchen, of the Harbin Institute of Technology, the project’s lead researcher. Mr. Li is surely an impeccably honest man and a very good engineer, but the Chinese government has not always covered itself in glory when it comes to candor and there’s no reason to believe they’d start with a program as sensitive as this.

“The idea that any Chinese research association would talk about its best ideas is ludicrous beyond words,” says physicist and naval weapons expert Norman Friedman, of the U.S. Naval Institute. “They simply don’t go public with this kind of project, though they do sometimes show off things that don’t exist.”

The bigger problem involves a couple of matters Friedman knows a thing or two about: physics and engineering. The technology that has caused all the buzz is something called supercavitation, and there’s nothing fanciful about it—it’s been around since the Cold War, though it’s been used only in torpedoes. Supercavitation involves agitating water in such a way that it forms a bubble of vapor completely surrounding the moving body, dramatically reducing friction, and dramatically increasing speed. Traditional propellors can’t be used to generate that speed, since they have to touch the water and all any part of the sub or torpedo touches is vapor. Instead, rocket engines provide the push, relying on the same action-reaction principle rockets use in space.

“It’s not a friction-free ride,” says Friedman, “but you do get some distance out of it and it can move at high speeds.”

But how much distance and how high a speed? There, it turns out, is the rub. The best-known supercavitating torpedo, the Russian Shkval—or squall—achieves a speed of around 200 knots (230 mph), according to Friedman, but it’s a short-range weapon, able to sprint only about 10,000 yards, since it must be stuffed with enough hardware both to churn water to vapor and run the rocket engines and still have enough room left over for an explosive charge. With all that, it can carry only a limited amount of fuel.

A submarine, Friedman estimates, could possibly stretch the range to 40 mi. (64 km). But as for somehow increasing the speed from 230 mph to 6,100 mph? Even the Chinese spokesfolks who are talking so freely don’t pretend to have an answer for that one.

Finally, there’s the problem of trying to point the sub where you want it to go. For both surface vessels and submersibles, that job is achieved by turning a rudder against the water, but poke a rudder into the water of a supercavitating vessel and you pop the bubble that surrounds the ship—not to mention snapping the rudder completely off when it suddenly encounters resistance. “Steering,” Friedman says, “wouldn’t be any fun.”

None of this is to suggest that these problems won’t be solved some day. But that’s true of almost any technical challenge you can name. Despite what China is saying, the submarine’s some day isn’t a soon day.

TIME natural disaster

How 10 Seconds Could Save Lives During Earthquakes

Napa Area Businesses Continue Recovery Effort From Earthquake
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images A crack runs down the center of an earthquake-damaged street in Napa, Calif., on Aug. 26, 2014

California eyes warning system after latest quake

Ten seconds could save your life. That’s the message from researchers developing an early-warning system in California that could eventually alert the public an earthquake is about to hit.

The research program, run by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in partnership with several California universities, is still in beta form, but was put to the test last weekend when an earthquake struck the Napa area. At the University of California, Berkeley, to the south, the system detected and sent out a warning signal to the scientists about six seconds before the tremor reached the area.

The technology behind the system uses sensors across the state that detect early waves from an earthquake before the main event strikes. While it’s not possible to issue warnings to those located right next to an earthquake epicenter, those further away could be warned seconds or even a minute in advance.

Doug Given, USGS’s early-earthquake-warning coordinator, says 10 seconds might not seem like a lot, but it could be enough for people to take cover before an earthquake hits and for public services and private industry to take precautionary steps. This might include systems that force elevators to let passengers off at the closest available floor and those that let first responders know they should open garage doors ahead of tremors so they can quickly begin search-and-rescue missions afterward. Given says other applications include letting hospitals know an earthquake is coming, so they can prepare doctors and patients. “If you’re in an MRI machine, you might want them to pull you out before it starts shaking hard,” says Given. Likewise, he says surgeons performing delicate operations — on eyes, for example — could have notice that their work is about to be interrupted.

“Imagine being a dental chair,” says Margaret Vinci, manager of the Office of Earthquake Programs for the California Institute of Technology, one of the colleges partnering with USGS. “Would you not want that dentist to pull that drill out of your mouth?”

Given and Vinci also say a statewide early-earthquake-warning system could tell rapid transit systems to slow trains to help prevent derailments. A similar alert program exists in earthquake-prone Japan, where earthquake warning alerts automatically slow bullet trains.

Japan and Mexico are two countries that already have the kind of earthquake-warning system California lacks. Devastating quakes in those countries prompted major public investments in such systems. As recently as April, residents in Mexico City had a full minute of warning before a 7.2-magnitude quake 170 miles away rocked the capital.

California’s program, though, is hobbled by lack of adequate funding, according to Given, who says the program needs an investment of $80 million over five years and about $12 million a year to maintain operations. California passed a law recently calling for a statewide early-earthquake-warning system to be set up, but did not provide funding. Given says the program currently includes about 400 sensors set up around the state, but needs at least double that figure for the warning system to be fully functional. “We hope we will be the first country that builds its system before the big earthquake rather than after,” Givens says.

Investments in the system itself wouldn’t include spending by local governments and private businesses that would need to establish response plans, and possibly automated systems, to take advantage of the USGS warnings. As for the public, earthquake warnings could be sent out via text message and through local television and radio stations, but that too requires advance planning and spending. Vinci says if the early-warning system was fully funded, it could be ready for public consumption in two years.

In the meantime, researchers involved in the project are asking public and private organization to test whether the alert system works and offer suggestions about how to improve it. Disneyland, the city of Long Beach and the Bay Area Rapid Transit system are among those serving as testers. Researchers are also studying which kinds of warning sounds and signals work best with the public. When activated, the existing system, which is called ShakeAlert and which runs on computers for those involved in the program or serving as beta testers, kicks in to tell users an earthquake is coming, how soon it will happen and how severe the shake will be. The warning includes a loud quick buzz with a speaker saying, ”Earthquake! Earthquake!”

“Right now the ShakeAlert we have now is kinda scary,” Vinci says.

TIME Physics

Supersonic Submarines Just Took One Step Closer to Reality

That would make San Francisco to Shanghai in two hours a possibility

Chinese scientists say there could one day be a high-tech submarine that crosses the Pacific Ocean in less time than it takes to watch a movie, the South China Morning Post reports.

Researchers at the Harbin Institute of Technology, in northeast China, have made dramatic improvements to a Soviet-era military technology called supercavitation that allows submersibles to travel at high speeds, the Post says.

Supercavitation envelops a submerged vessel inside an air bubble to minimize friction. It enabled the Russian Shakval torpedo to reach speeds of 230 m.p.h. — but theoretically, a supercavitated vessel, given sufficient power at launch, could reach the speed of sound (some 3,603 m.p.h.). That would mean crossing the 6,000-odd miles from San Francisco to Shanghai in just two hours.

One of the problems of supercavitation has been how to steer a vessel at such speeds. The Harbin scientists say they could have the answer.

According to the Post, they’ve developed a way of allowing a supercavitated vessel to shower itself with liquid while traveling inside its own air bubble. The liquid creates a membrane on the surface of the vessel, and by manipulating this membrane, the degree of friction applied to different areas of the vessel could be controlled, which would enable steering.

“We are very excited by its potential,” said Li Fengchen, professor of fluid machinery and engineering at the Harbin Institute’s complex flow and heat transfer lab. “By combining liquid-membrane technology with supercavitation, we can significantly reduce the launch challenges and make cruising control easier,” he told the Post.

Li stressed, however, that many technical problems needed to be solved before supersonic submarine travel could take place.

[SCMP]

TIME psychology

How to Drink Less and Still Have Fun

Set 'em up Joe—and pay the price tomorrow
Paul Taylor; Getty Images Set 'em up Joe—and pay the price tomorrow

A new study suggests using a smaller glass, keeping your glass on the table while you pour, and never filling it over half-full

If you’re like most people, your brain loves it when you drink—and it shows you its appreciation by rewarding you for it. A few sips of the right stuff and you feel funnier, smarter, more confident, and certainly more attractive to the opposite sex—even if not all of this stands up to later, sober scrutiny. Your body, however, was never consulted on the deal, which may be why it makes you feel absolutely lousy the day after a night on the tiles.

Down through millennia, drinkers have sought to thread that brain-body needle, drinking just enough to have fun but not so much as to be miserable in the morning, and there have been no shortage of strategies: take a glass of water between each drink; hold it to one drink per hour. Now, a study in the International Journal of Drug Policy, conducted by researchers at Iowa State and Cornell Universities, takes a new look at the cues and conditions that cause people to drink too much and, more important, suggests ways to avoid them.

For all its cultivated rep, it’s wine that can cause drinkers the most headaches—literally and otherwise—because in many situations it’s hard to gauge how much you’re consuming. Beer is typically served in bottles or cans, which are easy enough to keep track of. And liquor is often poured and mixed by the shot—one of the few units of measure that enjoys diplomatic recognition in both the imperial and metric scales. But wine? That comes in wide glasses and narrow glasses, stemless glasses and flutes; often as not you free-pour it—about the least precise method of portion control imaginable—and while wine frequently accompanies a meal, it’s just as often simply walk-and-talk party fuel.

To study what makes drinkers free-pour too freely, the investigators recruited 73 student volunteers (“all of legal drinking age,” the study stressed) and allowed them to serve themselves wine at a variety of testing stations. Sometimes standard wine glasses were made available, sometimes larger glasses, and sometimes extra wide ones. Red and white wine were both offered, and students were alternately instructed either to hold the glass while pouring or leave it on the table. Every one of these variables made a difference in how much the students served themselves.

Wide glasses caused subjects to pour 11.9% more than narrow ones—the same fill-the-space phenomenon that leads people to heap more pasta onto a big plate than a small one. Holding the glass as opposed to leaving it on the table resulted in a 12.2% bigger serving—perhaps because when the glass moves even a little it’s harder to gauge the level of liquid accurately. And when the glass sizes were the same, participants poured 9.2% less red wine than white because, the researchers theorize, the lower color contrast between white wine and a clear glass makes the glass look less full.

Gender made a difference too, as did body mass index (BMI). As in the world outside the lab, the men in the study poured more than the women did—about 9% more, the researchers found. And men with high BMI poured about 19% more than men with average BMI. For women, body mass didn’t make a difference. But there was a way for both sexes and all sizes to bring their intake down, and that was to establish—and stick to—simple rules of thumb.

For the purposes of consistency, the rule of thumb the researchers chose was the half-glass rule: drink as much as you want, but fill the glass only halfway up each time you pour. High-BMI men who didn’t use that rule drank 31% more than those who did, and men of average BMI drank 26% more. Women, on the whole, drank 27% less when they used the half-empty rule.

These aren’t hard and fast rules, of course. How much people pour in a single go is not the same as how much they drink, and it doesn’t take terribly sophisticated math to figure out that 16 half-glasses works out to a whole lot of wine. Rate of consumption—gulping versus sipping—makes a big difference too. Even the best rules of thumb can take you only so far. After that, it’s best just to leave the party early—without your car keys, thank you very much.

TIME animal behavior

What Are Animals Thinking? (Hint: More Than You Suspect)

The mind of an animal is a far richer, more complex thing than most people know — as a new TIME book reveals

Let’s be honest, you’d probably rather die than wake up tomorrow morning and find out you’d turned into an animal. Dying, after all, is inevitable, and there’s even a certain dignity to it: Shakespeare did it, Einstein did it, Galileo and Washington and Twain all did it. And you, someone who was born a human and will live your life as a human, will end your life that way too.

But living that life as an animal — an insensate brute, incapable of reason, abstraction, perhaps even feeling? Unthinkable. Yes, yes, the animals don’t recognize the difference, and neither would you. If you’re a goat, you possess the knowledge of a goat, and that can’t be much. But there’s more to it than that.

Human beings have always had something of a bipolar relationship with the millions of other species with which we share the planet. We are fascinated by them, often dazzled by them. They can be magnificently beautiful, for one thing: the explosive color and frippery of a bird of paradise, the hallucinatory variety of the fish in a coral reef, the otherworldly markings and architecture of a giraffe. Even the plain or ugly animals — consider the naked, leathery grayness of the rhino or elephant — have a certain solidity and equipoise to them. And to see an animal at what appears to be play — the breaching dolphin, the swooping raptor — is to think that it might be fun to have a taste, a tiny taste, of their lives.

But it’s a taste we’d surely spit right out, because as much as we may admire animals, we pity them too: their ignorance, their inconsequence, and their brief, savage lives. It’s in our interest to see them that way — not so much because we need to press our already considerable advantage over them; we don’t. But because we have certain uses in mind for them. We need the animals to work for us — to pull carts, drag plows, lift logs and carry loads, and stand still for a whipping if they don’t. We need them to entertain us, in our circuses and zoos and stage shows. And most of all, we need them to feed us, with their eggs and milk and their very flesh. A few favored beasts do get a pass — dogs, cats, some horses — but the rest are little more than tools for our use.

But that view is becoming impossible to sustain — as a new TIME book reveals. The more deeply scientists look into the animal mind, the more they’re discovering it to be a place of richness, joy, thought and even nuance. There are the parrots that don’t just mimic words but appear to understand them, for example, assembling them into what can only be described as sentences. There are the gorillas and bonobos that can do the same with sign language or pictograms. Those abilities are hard to dismiss, but they also miss the point; they are, in many way, limited gifts — animals doing things humans do, but much less well.

A better measure is the suite of behaviors the animals exhibit on their own: crows that can fashion tools, lions that collaborate on elaborate hunts, dolphins and elephants with signature calls that serve as names, and cultural norms like grieving for their dead and caring for grandchildren. There are the complex, even political societies that hyenas create and the factory-like worlds of bees and ants. There are the abiding friendships among animals, too — not just the pairs of dolphins or horses or dogs that seem inseparable but the cross-species loyalties: the monkey and the dog, the sheep and the elephant, the cat and the crow, members of ordinarily incompatible species that appear never to have thought to fight with or eat one another because, well, no one told them they had to.

Animals, the research is proving, are creatures capable of reflection, bliss, worry and more. Not all of them in the same ways or to the same degrees, surely, but all of them in far deeper measures than we’ve ever believed. The animal mind is nothing like the wasteland it’s been made out to be. And if it’s not the mind you’d want to have as your own, it’s one that is still worth getting to know much better.

(The Animal Mind is now available on newsstands.)

TIME space

NASA Spacecraft Reaches Neptune on Its Way to Pluto

Neptune's Great Dark Spot, accompanied by white high-altitude clouds as photographed by the Voyager 2 spacecraft.
NASA A color image of Neptune's Great Dark Spot, accompanied by white high-altitude clouds taken from the Voyager 2 spacecraft.

The New Horizons spacecraft is on its way to Pluto

NASA’s Pluto-bound spacecraft has reached Neptune, officials said Monday.

Passing through Neptune’s orbit is the last major crossing before the spacecraft, New Horizons, reaches its intended destination of Pluto. New Horizons is scheduled to be near Pluto on July 14, 2015. In a coincidence of timing, the spacecraft’s crossing through Neptune’s orbit has occurred on the exact same day NASA’s Voyager 2 encountered Neptune 25 years ago.

“It’s a cosmic coincidence that connects one of NASA’s iconic past outer solar system explorers, with our next outer solar system explorer,” Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said in a statement. “Exactly 25 years ago at Neptune, Voyager 2 delivered our ‘first’ look at an unexplored planet. Now it will be New Horizons’ turn to reveal the unexplored Pluto and its moons in stunning detail next summer on its way into the vast outer reaches of the solar system.”

New Horizons is the size of a piano and launched in January 2006. It reached Neptune’s orbit in a record of eight years and eight months. If the spacecraft’s journey continues successfully, it will be the first probe to reach Pluto.

TIME space

See the 10 Best Photos Taken by Voyager 2

Twenty-five years ago today the Voyager 2 spacecraft flew past Neptune, the furthest planet from the sun. The craft, which has been in operation for over thirty-seven years, continues to transmit data back to earth

TIME natural disaster

Northern California’s Napa Valley Rocked By Strongest Earthquake in 25 Years

A 6.0 magnitude caused power outages and structural damage north of the Bay Area

Updated at 1:20 p.m.

At least 87 people were injured early Sunday morning after the largest earthquake to hit California’s Napa Valley in 25 years struck near the Bay Area.

The 6.0-magnitude quake struck at 3:20 a.m. local time near American Canyon, about 6 miles southwest of Napa, at a depth of 6.7 miles. The earthquake is the largest to strike the Napa Valley area since the Loma Prieta earthquake almost 25 years ago, the U.S. Geological Survey said in a tweet:

A Northern California hospital treated more than 87 patients in the wake of the earthquake, the Associated Press reports. Three people were critically injured.

Widespread power outages in Napa and Sonoma were recorded and historic buildings in downtown Napa were damaged, CBS Local San Francisco reports. The town’s library and the historic Chinese laundry building were badly damaged, water mains had burst, and at least two homes were lit ablaze.

The foundation under Highway 37 was damaged between Interstate 80 and downtown Vallejo, and the road was shut down at Sonoma Boulevard to inspect for structural damage. A separate bridge entering American Canyon was damaged and will be closed.

Several injuries have been reported due to broken glass.

Governor Jerry Brown said Sunday morning that California had mobilized multiple resources to respond to the quake. Brown later declared a state of emergency following the quake.

“My Office of Emergency Services has been on full activation since early this morning and is working closely with state and local emergency managers, first responders and transportation officials to respond to impacts to residents and critical infrastructure,” Brown said. “These public safety officials are doing all they can to help residents and those living in affected areas should follow their guidance and instruction.”

Some California residents, meanwhile, made the best of the situation:

The USGS said that there is a 54% chance of a strong and possibly damaging aftershock in the next seven days, and a 5 to 10% chance that an earthquake of equal or even larger magnitude will strike in the next week. Weak aftershocks are likely in the coming days.

The causative fault of the earthquake is unknown, but the USGS said it suspected the Browns Valley section of the West Napa fault.

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