PURPLE tomato juice from genetically modified fruit engineered for health benefits.


Purple tomato juice with extra health benefits is on the way to Britain.

The tomatoes, which are genetically modified, have been developed by UK scientists but grown in Canada, where restrictions on GM products are looser.

The crop has been produced in an Ontario glasshouse and is set to yield 2,000 litres of tomato juice, for use in research which could pave the way for it to be sold in shops.

Purple tomato juice with extra health benefits is on the way to Britain. The tomatoes, which are genetically modified, have been developed by UK scientists but grown in Canada, where restrictions on GM products are looserPurple tomato juice with extra health benefits is on the way to Britain. The tomatoes, which are genetically modified, have been developed by UK scientists but grown in Canada, where restrictions on GM products are looser

The first 1,200 litres will soon be shipped to Norwich, where scientists from the John Innes Centre will work on getting authorisation for commercial sale.

The purple tomatoes have anti-inflammatory effects and were shown to slow down cancer in mice.

They also have double the shelf life.

The colour of the tomatoes is derived from high levels of anthocyanins, compounds normally found in blueberries, blackberries and other deeply coloured berries.

Professor Cathie Martin, from the John Innes Centre, said: ‘We want to explore a way for consumers to benefit from our discoveries, as we are finding there is a demand for the added health benefits.’

Research so far has been funded by the EU and through the John Innes Centre’s strategic funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

The purple tomatoes have anti-inflammatory effects and were shown to slow down cancer in mice. They also have double the shelf lifeThe purple tomatoes have anti-inflammatory effects and were shown to slow down cancer in mice. They also have double the shelf life
The first 1,200 litres will soon be shipped to Norwich, where scientists from the John Innes Centre (pictured) will work on getting authorisation for commercial saleThe first 1,200 litres will soon be shipped to Norwich, where scientists from the John Innes Centre (pictured) will work on getting authorisation for commercial sale

Professor Martin has worked with Professor Jonathan Jones, from The Sainsbury Laboratory, to form the UK’s first GM crop spin-out company, Norfolk Plant Sciences, to explore the commercial potential of plants with increased levels of health-giving compounds.

The tomatoes and juice are set to be used to study the effects of a high anthocyanin diet on cancer, cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases.

Other varieties, high in compounds such as resveratrol normally found in red wine, are already being used to develop skin care products in collaboration with Essex company Biodeb.

Bringing the juice to the food market will require regulatory approval and may be possible in as little as two years in North America.

The John Innes Centre said tomatoes have been chosen for the trial because they are the world’s most popular fruit.

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9 Tips To Rest Your Brain.


Some times I feel like “I want to restart my brain” , I think all people feel this feelings but how to deel with this feeling , read these tips it may help you :

1- Get organized
If you have many things to do, decide what to tackle first, and clear all other projects off your desk and computer screen. “Out of sight, out of mind applies,” Kane says. “Get rid of memos, e-mails, and anything else that reminds you you’re behind.”
And go easy on your cubicle’s decor. “Even family photos are potential thought stealers,” Kane adds, because they’re people you’re prone to worry about.

2- Participate
If you daydream during meetings, challenge yourself by thinking of questions and actively joining the discussion, suggests Jonathan W. Schooler, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. You may miss a moment if you’re formulating a question, but you’ll stay focused on the current topic.

3- Tie a string on the steering wheel
When you think about the same things during your commute — anticipating the day’s workload, or what to cook for dinner — your brain begins to associate the car with zoning out, says Kane. A novel, visual cue such as a colored string or dashboard sticker can snap you out of your “dream-driving” habit.

4- Play a game
Those involving counting and geography are great ways for kids to pass the time en route — for good reason: The contests use items that you should be aware of while driving. Try tallying all the states represented by the license plates of the cars in front of you.

5- Take a break
Take time-outs to process the material; mentally recap plot points or a character’s motive, for example. “Periodically think over what you’ve read — it can improve comprehension, probably because it reduces mind wandering,” Schooler says.

6- Go backward
If you glossed over a few paragraphs, read them in reverse — reordering small packets of information can sometimes change how much of it you absorb. It may feel odd at first, but the extra effort required will force your brain back into focusing.

7- Join a club
A little peer pressure to finish a book by a certain date can go a long way, especially if you’re expected to talk about the content. Budget the number of pages you’ll need to read daily, and if you own the book, write notes in the margin and mark meaningful passages to boost both concentration and comprehension.

8- Get it off your chest
Talk about your worries with a friend or family member, either in person or on the telephone, to clear your head. Writing down your thoughts may be as effective as saying them out loud: List ways to address the problem and then move on, recommends Eric Klinger, PhD, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Minnesota, Morris, who has studied thought patterns during daydreams. “Committing a plan to paper helps put the problem on the back burner, so you can shift your attention to other things,” he explains.

9- Meditate
Meditation, a proven stress reliever, may also let you tune out distractions, found recent research. Amishi Jha, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, studied attention control in people before and after they learned mindfulness meditation (sitting quietly for 30 minutes a day, focusing on breathing; when the subjects noticed their minds drifting, they gently guided their thoughts back to their breath).
After 8 weeks, they showed significant improvements at “orienting,” or staying on task and quickly refocusing their thinking after being distracted. “Meditation trains you to put your attention where you want it and make sure it stays there,” Jha says.

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Why your asthmatic child should eat more fruits and vegetables and stay off fast food.


Asthma is a condition of the lungs, right? A recent study has revealed one aspect of the diet which helps protect against asthma: the consumption of fermentable dietary fibers found in vegetables and fruits.

In gist, research funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation found that, after the fibers in fruits and vegetables reach the intestines, bacteria in the gut ferment them, turning them into short-chain fatty acids. These fatty acids then enter the bloodstream, where they have an impact on immune cell development in the bone marrow. When there is an external trigger or allergen, these immune cells then make their way into the lungs, where they help regulate the immune response to the offending agent. In other words, they help moderate the allergic response.

Previous research had already revealed that gut bacteria play a big role in preventing intestinal cancer by digesting and fermenting fibers. “We are now showing for the first time that the influence of gut bacteria extends much further, namely up to the lungs,” says Benjamin Marsland from Lausanne University Hospital, the leader of the study team.

For the study, when mice which were put on a standard diet containing 4.0% fermentable fibers were exposed to an extract of house dust mites, they developed a milder allergic reaction with much less mucus in the lungs compared to mice which were fed a low-fiber diet containing only 0.3% fermentable fibers. This latter group mimics the standard Western diet, which contains only up to 0.6% of fibers on average.

On top of that, mice which were fed a diet enriched with more fermentable fibers also exhibited a more favorable response than those on a standard diet, further proving the protective effects of the dietary fibers.

Other than the low-fiber diet fed to the mice being proportionally similar to the Western low-fiber diet, another reason why the findings of this study are significant is that there is a large degree of similarity in humans and mice when it comes to the studied aspects of the immune system.

Research shows that unhealthy fats are problematic for asthmatics too

In other research conducted a few years ago, it was discovered that eating high-fat, high-calorie meals led to elevated airway inflammation hours after the meals. Further, the high-fat meals also seemed to lower the effectiveness of the asthma medication Ventolin (albuterol).

The high-fat meals in question comprised of fast food burgers and hash browns, while the low-fat meals being compared with comprised of low-fat yogurt.

“This is the first study to show that a high fat meal increases airway inflammation, so this is a very important finding,” said Dr. Lisa Wood, Ph.D., one of the researchers for the study. “The observation that a high fat meal changes the asthmatic response to albuterol was unexpected as we hadn’t considered the possibility that this would occur.”

Another large international study had also found that consuming three or more burgers per week could increase a child’s risk of being hit by asthma and wheezing. That study had looked at data from 1995 to 2005 on 50,000 children aged 8 to 12 from around the world.

On the flip side, it was found that a Mediterranean diet which contains lots of vegetables, fruits and fish helps lower that risk.

Conclusion

Putting the research together, it would seem that a diet high in fruits and vegetables and low in unhealthy fats is an important part of any asthma prevention and treatment protocol.

Sources for this article include:

Schweizerischer Nationalfonds zur Foerderung der wissenschaftlichen Forschung (2014, January 6). “Dietary fibers protect against asthma, study suggests.” ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 16, 2014, from http://www.sciencedaily.com.

American Thoracic Society (2010, May 17). “High-fat meals a no-no for asthma patients, researchers find.” ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 22, 2014, from http://www.sciencedaily.com.

British Medical Journal (2010, June 7). “Burger diet boosts kids’ asthma and wheeze risk, study finds.” ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 22, 2014, from http://www.sciencedaily.com.

Tesla Hyperloop Train Can Travel At 4000 mph.


The Tesla Motors co-founder called the fast train “a cross between a Concorde and a railgun and an air hockey table” at the D11 Conference earlier this year. The pneumatic tube train system will be “twice as fast as what an average aircraft can do.”

Once constructed, the Hyperloop will leave as soon as passengers board as opposed to running on a strict schedule. The train will also be weather immune which might put a damper on some people who still enjoy the occasional snow day.

Some are calling Musk’s idea pure insanity, but others including physicist Brian Dodson of Gizmag, are willing to give the Hyperloop a chance after examining all of its’ parts.

hyperloop

hyperloop-2

Dodson ruled out two theories that the Hyperloop will use a vacuum tunnel or a launch loop that accelerates vehicles electromagnetically along a cable system.

Instead, he believes Musk’s proposal is actually “a pneumatic transport system that consists of a closed tube making loops between Los Angeles and San Francisco” according to Discovery News.

English please? Essentially, passengers will ride in capsules within the tube similar to pneumatic tubes at bank drive-throughs.

“Even if I’m sort of wrong about the economic assumptions behind the Hyperloop, it would still be a really fun ride,” Musk said at the conference.

The Hyperloop still faces many challenges and hopefully questions will be answered come August 12

Stephen Hawking’s new theory offers black hole escape.


Stephen Hawking has a new mind-bending theory about black holes, the bizarre cosmic objects that cemented his reputation as the world’s most famous living scientist. Rather than getting sucked into a singularity of confusion, read our explainer.

Still causing black hole controversy <i>(Image: Harold Cunningham/Getty Images)</i>

What exactly is a black hole?
Good question. According to theoretical physicists, they used to be regions of space-time – the fabric that makes up the universe – that have become so dense that their huge gravity generates an event horizon, from inside which nothing, not even light, can escape. Then in 1974, Hawking added quantum mechanics to the black hole picture and sparked a row that has raged on until the present day.

What’s wrong with a bit of quantum?
Quantum mechanics doesn’t get along with the other grand theory of physics, general relativity, making it difficult to understand situations in which both are relevant, such as black holes. Hawking applied quantum theory to black holes and realised they aren’t quite black. Instead, they should emit small amounts of radiation, causing them to shrink and eventually evaporate.

OK, so black holes aren’t immortal. What’s the problem?
The theory of Hawking radiation also suggested that when a black hole dies, it takes everything inside with it, but that is a big quantum no-no. Quantum physics says that information about matter is never destroyed, even when it falls into a black hole. Other theorists suggested solving this “information paradox” by allowing information to escape from the black hole as it evaporated. Hawking disagreed – until 30 years later, when he showed how it might be possible and was forced to concede a seven-year-old wager with another physicist.

Meaning now everyone agrees about black holes?
If only. For the past 18 months the black hole community has been up in arms over a descendant of the information paradox, known as the firewall paradox. A group led by Joseph Polchinski of the University of California in Santa Barbara suggested information leaving a black hole would produce massive amounts of energy, creating a wall of fire at the event horizon that would consume anything falling in. This would break a rule of general relativity that says crossing a black hole’s event horizon should be uneventful – hence the paradox.

It’s yet another quantum versus relativity showdown!
Indeed. Firewalls mean that one of the two theories is wrong, so physicists have been scrambling to find a compromise that doesn’t produce these flaming problems. Now Hawking has waded in and says the solution is to give up the very thing that makes black holes so intriguing – the event horizon.

Wait a minute… does that mean you could actually escape from a black hole?
Potentially, although you would probably need to be travelling at the speed of light. “The absence of event horizons means that there are no black holes – in the sense of regimes from which light can’t escape to infinity,” writes Hawking in his new paper, which he posted online earlier this week. Instead, black holes have “apparent horizons”, surfaces which trap light but can also vary in shape due to quantum fluctuations, leaving the potential for light to escape.

Are the two horizons really that different?
It is unclear. The idea of an apparent horizon isn’t completely new, and Hawking – along with Roger Penrose of the University of Oxford – has previously used general relativity to prove that the two horizons are actually identical. In his most recent paper he is proposing that quantum mechanics might reveal them to be different.

Ah, so is that the new bit?
Not quite. The main contribution of the new paper is an attempt to use these ideas to resolve the firewall paradox. Removing the event horizon also kills off the firewall. That would normally suggest that quantum information must be lost – but Hawking says that needn’t be the case. He proposes that the structure of a black hole just below the horizon is chaotic, making it difficult to understand the information being released. In other words, the information is lost in the sense that it is almost impossible to interpret, but it isn’t actually destroyed. “It will be like weather forecasting on Earth,” he writes. “One can’t predict the weather more than a few days in advance.”

Is he right? Is the paradox solved?
Hawking’s paper is very short, just two pages of text with no calculations, making it difficult to draw any strong conclusions, but there is already some scepticism. “It is not clear what he expects the infalling observer to see,” says Polchinski. “It almost sounds like he is replacing the firewall with a chaos-wall, which could be the same thing.” Samuel Braunstein of the University of York, UK, who has waded into the firewall debate previously, also isn’t convinced: “I don’t see any evidence which really demonstrates that the thing he is talking about doesn’t have a firewall.”

Does it matter if Hawking is right?
If black holes are how he describes, it could lead to a better understanding of quantum mechanics and general relativity. “We might learn some new physics, which may have real implications about the non-trivial structure of the universe,” says Braunstein. But he also points out that we might not.

Does Hawking mind being wrong?
Everyone hates being wrong – and Hawking is human. On his 70th birthday, he told New Scientist that he regards his idea that information was destroyed by black holes, which later turned out to be wrong, as his “biggest blunder” – in science, at least.

Even boring collisions at the LHC tell us something – this time about cosmic rays | Jon Butterworth | Life & Physics


At the CERN Large Hadron Collider we spend a lot of time and effort trying to filter out the common collisions, so we can focus on the rare events. But even the supposedly dull stuff is helping to resolve some key questions about our universe.

cosmic rays
Artists impression of cosmic rays entering Earth’s atmosphere. Credit: Asimmetrie/Infn

By the time it finished its first run, at the end of 2012, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN was providing about 500 million proton-proton collisions per second to each of the two largest particle detectors, ATLAS and CMS. When it resumes operation in 2015, it will produce collisions at even higher rates. Because of this, those of us wishing to record and analyse the data have to be very selective about which events we are going to save. We spend a lot of time and effort trying to filter out the common collisions, so we can focus on the rare events, when a Higgs Boson, or something else amazing, is produced. But even the supposedly dull stuff is helping to resolve some key questions about our universe.

The particle collisions at the LHC are at higher energies than we have ever achieved before in a laboratory. However, they are not the highest energy particle collisions we have ever seen. That distinction belongs to collisions in the upper atmosphere. Mysterious astrophysical accelerators spray super-high energy particles across the universe, and some of these bombard the Earth. (The fact that some of them hit us must be an accident, since anyone capable of producing such beams deliberately could surely have zapped us into plasma by now if they really wanted to.) These particles hit the constituent atoms of the upper atmosphere, shattering them and leading to enormous showers of secondary particles, which can be detected on the ground, or in balloons, by various technologies. Some of the particles are even measured in space, before they hit the atmosphere, by experiments such as the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer on the International Space Station.

Such measurements allow us to estimate the energy of the incoming particle with varying degrees of accuracy. The rate at which they are arriving (in some rather bizarrely scaled units) is shown in this figure, as a function of the energy of the incoming particle.

Cosmic ray flux
The flux of high energy particles (so-called cosmic rays) arriving at the Earth as a function of the energy of the particle. The flux (on the vertical axis) has been scaled by a factor of the energy to the power 2.5. The equivalent centre-of-mass energies for various colliders are shown on the top axis. From: T. Pierog, EPJ Web Conf. 53 (2013) 01004.

You can see that there are a few interesting features in that distribution. At very high energies, between  10¹⁹ and 10²⁰ electronvolts, the spectrum turns over and drops dramatically. This is thought to be due to one of two reasons. The universe is filled with a bath of very low-energy photons – the quanta of light – left over from the big bang. Protons at the high-energy end of the distribution start to have enough energy that, when they collide with these very low-energy photons, they can produce a new kind of particle (called a Delta – a particle like the proton but with a higher mass). Because this becomes possible, the probability of the collision goes up, and that means the cosmic rays are attentuated – hence the drop in the distribution. The other possibility is that at these energies the unknown cosmic accelerators simply run out of steam.

The second feature is between 10¹⁵ and 10¹⁶ electronvolts, where the gradient of the distribution changes. Astrophysicists call this “the knee”. (There’s also an “ankle” between 10¹⁸ and 10¹⁹ ). The reasons for this knee were thought to be either that the type of cosmic ray, or the way they are produced, changes at that energy, or that something weird happens in particle physics. The energy available in those collisions is higher than anything measured in a laboratory before the LHC, so we did not really know what particles at these energies were doing, or even what particles might be being produced. It was possible that our models were wrong, and something unexpected could change inside the shower of particles in the atmosphere. Since the properties of the shower of particles are used to infer the energy of the initial cosmic rays, this would lead to a change in the measured rate and energy, potentially explaining the knee.

On the upper horizontal axis of the plot you can see the centre-of-mass energies of the particle accelerators which are equivalent to the incoming cosmic ray energies on the lower horizontal axis. Note that the previous highest-energy collider, the Tevatron, was just below the knee. The LHC is just above it. The most common collisions (so-called “minimum bias“) were measured by the main detectors at the LHC, and there are also relevant measurements from specialised detectors very close to the beam-line. The results have been compared to the expectations of our best models, and they agree – not perfectly, but pretty well. The models have been improved as a result, and that is important for the precision both of further LHC measurements and of cosmic rays studies. However, the main thing we learned was that nothing sudden or dramatic happens at these energies to cause the knee. So we know now that the knee has to be caused by a change in the type of particle (maybe from protons to alpha-particles or heavier nuclei) or something else to do with the cosmic ray source. So the LHC data, coupled with cosmic ray data, are telling us something about the violent astrophysics out there in the galaxy and beyond.

We also search for Dark Matter at the LHC, and the fact that we haven’t found it yet also tells us something about astrophysics and the very large-scale features of the universe. Not bad for an experiment designed to study the tiniest known things.

There was a nice summary posted on the arXiv on Friday by David d’Enterria, which prompted me to write this. You can find it here if you want to know more, and this is also good. Other good things on the arXiv this week include ten chapters on the future of US particle physics, of which this is chapter one. Like some previous studies, these chapters break topics down into an “Energy Frontier”, an “Intensity Frontier” and a “Cosmic Frontier”. These are useful categories for a discussion, but the above results illustrate that fact that there are many interconnections between them, too.

Genetic clue to how limbs evolved


Zebrafish
Zebrafish have the genes necessary to form digits but they are not switched on

Fish have the genetic machinery necessary to make fingers, but it is not switched on, a study suggests.

The research in Plos Biology journal sheds light on how fish evolved into the earliest land animals millions of years ago.

For fish to make the transition to land, an existing DNA architecture had to be “hijacked” in order to make digits, the researchers said.

In order to do this, they took genes from fish and inserted them into mice.

It was already known that the genes for limbs are found in fish but how they evolved to form digits remained unclear.

To unravel the genetics, the authors used the zebrafish as a model. But other scientists said that zebrafish were not a useful species for studying limb evolution.

Lead author Joost Woltering from the University of Geneva, Switzerland, said that he was interested in the “longstanding evolutionary question – how did limbs actually develop out of ancestral fish fins?”

In order to answer this, Dr Woltering and his colleagues looked at the genetics of fin and limb developments in zebra fish and mice.

He was particularly interested in the division of the hand and arm (or digits), which does not exist in fish fins and “is considered one of the major morphological innovations during the fin-to-limb transition”.

‘Architect’ genes

Tetrapods, the first four-legged creatures to walk the Earth, evolved from water to land over 380 million years ago in an era known as the Devonian period, often referred to as “the age of fish”.

Fish and land animals both have clusters of genes called HoxA and HoxD and both are known to be essential in fin and limb development.

These Hox genes are sometimes referred to as “architect genes” as they are involved in making many of the physical structures animals possess.

Tiktaalik roseae, artwork
The now extinct Tiktaalik is thought to be at a key transition between fish and tetrapods

However, when these Hox genes from fish were placed into mouse embryos, the genes that result in the arm were switched on but not the genes responsible for the hand or the digits.

This suggests that the genetic information needed to make tetrapod limbs was already present in fish before the tetrapods evolved.

“During embryogenesis it is key that developmental genes are switched on at exactly the right time and right place to ensure the development of a complete, coherent good functioning adult organism,” Dr Woltering told BBC News.

Modernised genes

“The most surprising result is we found [DNA in fish] which is almost identical to the higher order DNA structure that we found in the mouse.”

Another important conclusion of the study is that fish fins are not equivalent to the tetrapod hand and digits. Instead, the evolution of digits in land animals involved the repurposing of existing genetic infrastructure.

One of the co-authors of the study, Prof Denis Duboule, also from the University of Geneva, said: “Altogether, this suggests that our digits evolved during the fin-to-limb transition by modernisation of an already existing regulatory mechanism.”

Computer artwork of an Ichthyostega around 350 million years ago during the Late Devonian period Ichthyostega (artwork) was an early tetrapod which lived about 350 million years ago

Other researchers in the field say that the study contains some flaws.

Jennifer Clack, from the Cambridge University Museum of Zoology, who was not involved with the study, said using the zebrafish as a model for the experiments was a bad choice.

“We know that this animal, and by inference its relatives… lack some of the developmental stages that make digits in tetrapods,” she explained.

Prof Clack added that other finned fish such as Polydon [paddlefish] “do have that mechanism, operating in a similar way to that in tetrapods, to make a complex fin skeleton”.

This suggests, she said, that the zebrafish at some point lost the ability to make digits.

This view was echoed by Per Ahlberg from the University of Uppsala, Sweden. He said that the molecular analysis was of a very high quality but that the evolutionary conclusions were flawed.

“This entire inference is based on the assumption that the zebrafish fin skeleton is reasonably representative of the ancestral condition for tetrapods, and it just isn’t,” he explained.

“Essentially, modern-day sturgeon, gar and bowfin (living primitive ray-finned fishes) have fin skeletons that are reasonably close to the shared ancestral condition for mouse and zebrafish.”

The driverless car.


A Point of View: The ethics of the driverless car

Driverless car

Driverless cars are being heralded as the answer to all our motoring problems. But long-term backseat driver Adam Gopnik has a few moral questions to raise.

I do not know how to drive a car.

There – it’s out. In Britain, I think this is merely a little unusual. In the US, it is positively shaming. People give you strange looks when you confess this, as though you had confessed to not being able to perform some other, wholly natural function.

Like all people with a guilty secret, I have a perfectly good explanation. I grew up within a couple of blocks of the university where my pedestrian parents both taught, and I eventually went to school there, and then right out of university I went to New York, where no one has a car, and have lived here ever since (plus a few years in Paris, where no one in their right mind would try and drive).

Find out more

Adam Gopnik
  • A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 GMT and repeated Sundays, 08:50 GMT
  • Adam Gopnik is an American commentator and writes for The New Yorker
  • My wife, fortunately, grew up in a Canadian suburb and learned to drive there. She is a wonderful driver, and when we go up to Cape Cod in August for our annual three weeks by the beach, she drives the family up, and then around. And the sad truth is that by now no one wants me to drive a car – my reflexes are too aberrant, my tendency to daydream too marked. My 14-year-old daughter is firm: “I’m never getting in a car if you’re driving,” she says grimly. “You would be thinking about something you’re writing, and then bang, it’s over for us all.”

But the blow to my masculinity is real. I sense that I am, even in this properly post-feminist age, in the wrong seat. Not the one (the right front in your country, the left front in ours) where generations of fathers have sat, pressing down on pedals, and cursing the competition on the road. Instead, I occupy the traditional mother’s seat and fill her role – shushing the children when the driver is tired, or changing the music on the radio as the one listenable station fades out into static.

“Start Quote

Human drivers are engaged in making ethical decisions as they drive, and these will have to be programmed into the software of the self-driving car”

I feel, I’m afraid, the insult to my masculinity so much that when a cop or a garage attendant approaches the car and gives me what I take to be a slightly puzzled, pitying look, I immediately slouch down and scowl resentfully in an impressive impersonation of a veteran driver, whose licence has been taken away after a lifetime of high speed, recklessly entertaining “Dukes of Hazzard” style driving.

“Cursing the competition?” my wife just said, reading over my shoulder.

“The other cars on the road aren’t competitive. And is that why you get the weird look on your face? I can’t believe that your concept of masculinity involves that much petty vanity and pointless displays of competitive ego in some… self-invented contest,” she concludes – not seeing that if it were not for petty vanity and pointless displays of competitive ego, mostly in meaningless self-invented contests, we would have no concept of masculinity at all.

Reading at the wheel

So you can easily imagine how excited I was when I first read that Google, the great, good search engine company out west, is many years, and many hundreds of millions of dollars into the process of developing and road-testing, and some day soon selling, the thing in life I most desire – the self-driving car. And Google isn’t alone in the pursuit. Many companies are engaged in it. You will programme your destination when you set out, and the car will do the rest, even on the busiest motorway – find the exit, make the turn, maintain the speed, avoid the… well, the competition, and turn the fog lights on to penetrate the mist.

You can sit behind the wheel, if you like, and pantomime the act of driving, but the car will do all the work itself. Since self-driving cars never get tired, drunk, or distracted by their husbands trying to find a decent jazz station on the radio, Google and the other companies promise to bring road fatalities down to near-zero.

Google self-driving car

There is a problem, though, I’ve discovered, reading eagerly on. It is that human drivers are engaged every day not just in navigating roads, but also in making ethical decisions as they drive, and these too will have somehow to be programmed into the software of the self-driving car. Each self-driving car will have to have its own ethical engine.

Driverless cars: The latest

  • US states of California, Florida and Nevada have licensed autonomous vehicles to be tested on public roads
  • Google wants to launch driverless cars in 2017; rival Tesla Motors want to have vehicles ready by 2016
  • Other car manufacturers, including Daimler and Nissan have given a 2020 date for their own versions
  • Autonomous vehicles not yet allowed on European roads

Drivers, for instance, know that it is right to swerve to avoid an animal racing across the road, though not at any risk to their passengers. But they are also prepared to take a little more risk with the passengers to avoid a cat or a dog, which we instantly recognize as pets with human owners, than, say, a squirrel or raccoon.

Even graver ethical choices, often studied by philosophers and psychologists, regularly arise. What to do when faced with a choice between, say, mowing down a couple of bystanders and ploughing into a school bus packed with children? We compute these ethical costs and choices in an eye blink, and not just the choices but the moral reasoning behind them would have to be programmed into the self-driving car. And should there be a different module that switches on if the bus is packed not with children but with, say, ailing nonagenarians from a nearby hospice? And there are even simpler but still real ethical dilemmas that human drivers understand – say, that a speed limit of 50mph (80 km/h) on a fine day is really 60mph (96k m/h), while on a wet and foggy day, really 45mph (72 km/h). How do we programme this kind of flexibility into a machine?

It will not surprise the euro-sceptics among you that the European Union, in its own parallel self-driving car programme, is trying to solve this dilemma through a system of bureaucratically imposed obedience. What is called, almost unbelievably, the Sartre project – a joint research mission by Ricardo UK and Volvo among others and the EU – works on the convoy or “road train” model – a single truck with a human driver leading the way and up to five computerised self-drive cars following sheep-like behind. “Because they’re all taking the same orders,” the engineer explains, “the cars can travel just a few metres apart.” Sartre is an acronym for “Safe Road Trains for the Environment”, but it is a perfect tribute to the great French philosopher who ran his own ethical cafe-convoy, leading his zombie-like followers from absurdity to absurdity over many decades.

Jean Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre: Hell is other drivers…

But why only Sartre? It occurs to me that, given the huge market for customised niche products these days, there should be a variety of ethical engines to install in your self-driving car. There would be many ethical apps to develop and download into the software of your self-driving Volvo. You could choose, say, a Nietzschean engine, which would drive right over everything – why not? God is dead anyway. Or the Albert Camus model, which would stall and pause in the middle of the highway while the traffic backs up behind – and then suddenly shoot off, bang, because the existential leap must be made, and some pedal struck.

The Magazine on driverless cars

There would be an Ayn Rand model ethical engine, named after the Russian-American free market fanatic, which would use chip technology to scan the bank account of each pedestrian, calculating their net worth, swerving to miss the makers, and mowing down a taker or two – who needs ’em? And there would be its technical relation, the Richard Dawkins model, which would use portable MRIs to heat-seek and discover which pedestrians you distantly share genes with, while steering you directly into the ones who are, alas, no relation. There could even be a Woody Allen ethical engine, which would start apologising as you press on the gas, and continue all the way home, and a Ludwig Wittgenstein model, which would announce wearily that there is no motor in the car anyway – all there is, is the activity of driving.

Yet the one thing that all philosophers and engineers are agreed on, is that no one is yet nearly as good, as flexible, as vigilant – not to mention as perpetually self-justifying – at these things as people are. We are our own best ethical engines. And who more expert than those of us, that small persecuted class, the non-drivers, who have been watching the road without the distraction of actual driving for years?

Sheep on the road
To swerve or not to swerve

And here, I realise, is where I could really cash in. Instead of developing those ethical apps, I could become one myself. I will hire myself out as a full time on-call, ethical chauffeur, the moral rule-maker within your self-driving car. I will sit behind the wheel, just like a real driver, but making philosophical judgments rather than right turns – this raccoon lives, this bug dies, miss the school bus, run over these oldsters. I might even enforce more aesthetic ethical injunctions – say, to stop at every lookout on a scenic road, simply to admire the view.

There I will be, at last – right front or left front, depending on the country. For the first time, the guy inside, clutching the wheel – promoting the beautiful, saving the vulnerable, dooming the deserving, almost like a God… almost, for that matter, well, almost, like a man.

The first space-bound black African


Mandla Maseko: The first black African heading into space.

Mandla Maseko with his spacesuits

A 25-year-old DJ from a South African township is set to become the first black African to go into space. Mandla Maseko is one of 23 people who won a seat on an hour-long sub-orbital trip in 2015. He explains how he beat one million other people to the prize.

I first saw an advert for the competition on television and then heard another ad on the radio. I had to send a photo of myself jumping from anywhere, so I chose to jump off a wall and my friend captured me in mid-air.

I had to answer a couple of questions and explain why I wanted to go into space. My response was: “I want to defy the laws of gravity, and go down history as the first black South African in space.”

I was chosen to go to the local space camp in Parys in Free State – there were 30 of us there. I had to go through three challenges – two of them were compulsory. One was to skydive to earth from 10,000 feet, and the other was the vomit comet.

“Start Quote

I’m a typical township boy and I was taught to face all the challenges thrown at me head on”

The vomit comet is a room where you stand up against the wall and it starts spinning, and at some point the floor disappears so you end up being pushed against the wall by G-Force. The challenge in there was to pick up five flags from beneath your feet and put them above your head.

I nailed that one, and the group was narrowed down to six people and we had to do what we called the plane stunt.

We were taken up to about 3,000 or 4,000 feet in a plane and the pilot did all sorts of acrobatic manoeuvres like loops, turns and the Cuban 8.

When we got off the plane with all that adrenalin rushing around, we had to calm ourselves down very quickly, and do a written test answering questions about the flight.

Illustration showing the Lynx Suborbital Vehicle in space
The Lynx Suborbital Vehicle will take Maseko and the other winners into space

I made it to the top three, and we flew to Orlando in Florida on 1 December where there were 109 competitors from around the globe.

We did more challenges which were very, very, very tough, but I’m a typical township boy and I was taught to face all the challenges thrown at me head on, and I did. We had to do air flight simulation, air combat, the zero gravity flight, the assault courses – you name them. I completed them all successfully.

“Start Quote

Next time I want to go to the moon, to plant the South African flag there”

When they announced the winners and called out my name I wasn’t prepared, so the minute I realised that it was my name that got called out, my body ignited – it was an out of body experience. It still hasn’t really sunk in yet. I think it’ll sink in the minute I launch into space.

I will take my South African flag that has a map of Africa on it. I also want to take a song by PJ Powers and Ladysmith Black Mambazo called World in Union. “If I win, lose or draw, it’s a victory for all. It’s a world in union, the world as one. As we climb to reach our destiny a new age has begun” – those are the words that really speak to me in the song.

I will also play my national anthem as I go into the space craft – that goes without saying, I have to play my national anthem.

My family and friends are all excited and happy for me. I was born and raised in Mabopane and Soshanguve townships, so I’m a Pretorian to the core. Thanks to my Dad, I’ve never gone to bed without having eaten or without having a roof over my head.

And my Mum – I would go for an interview and then come back and not get the job and she would be like: “Ah don’t worry, something bigger is coming for you – this one was not for you.”

I would be like, “Ah you’re my Mum – you’re supposed to say such things.” But then when something happens, like me going to space then it’s like wow, my Mum really said it: “This is big.”

The winners of the competition with Buzz Aldrin
The winners of the competition with Buzz Aldrin, who has walked on the moon

Usually we hear about these kinds of achievements being accomplished by people who are not from our own surroundings, but then when it happens to someone that you can relate to, it becomes an overwhelming feeling, so people who live near me are happy.

I get stopped and people say: “We are proud and we are behind you all the way.”

Now space is reachable – it was a far-fetched dream for us township people. Now it is achievable and I am hoping and praying that people will be interested in it more.

I wanted to do something out of the ordinary – I like to explore things and this was a great opportunity for me.

I wanted to do something that will motivate and inspire the youth of South Africa and Africa as a whole, and hopefully to some extent, the youth worldwide, and show that it doesn’t matter what background you come from, you can have whatever you want as long as you put hard work and determination into it.

After I go into space I am hoping to finish my civil engineering studies. I had to put them on hold before the competition because I didn’t have enough money to fund them.

I would also like to study aeronautical engineering and hopefully qualify as a mission specialist, and then next time, go to the moon to plant the South African flag there.

Expecting? Cradle Your 3D Printed Fetus In The Meantime.


A startup offers to create a life-like replica of your gestating child from ultrasound images

Many parents consider cradling their newborn for the first time to be one of their most cherished memories.

 

But entrepreneurs Gerard and Katie Bessette are offering an intriguing new scenario to expectant couples: “Imagine,” they say, “holding your baby before he or she is born.”

The husband-and-wife team’s newly launched company, 3D Babies, is making the feat possible by printing three dimensional replicas of gestating fetuses. For $800, parents-to-be can order custom figurines of their 24-week baby, measuring a realistic eight inches from “crown to rump,” as the medical speak goes. Those who want to appreciate their unborn in this way, but don’t need the lifelike size, can opt for a 4-inch sculpture for $400 or a 2-inch version for $200.

After parents submit one to five 3D and 4D ultrasound scans of their baby, the company creates a computerized digital representation that accurately reflects the fetus’ facial features. Customers are then given a series of other options in the ordering process. They can choose the model’s skin tone—light, medium or dark—and position—either tucked or in a fetal position with arms and legs raised, the latter revealing the sex of the baby.

If anything, the process speaks to the 4D ultrasound’s remarkable ability to peek into the womb and produce detailed portraits. The technology, used by many obstetricians, is similar to a 3D ultrasound in that it uses data sets of 2D sound wave-generated images to build a more textured composite picture. The difference in 4D is that information is captured in real-time to create a kind of moving picture effect. Scans can be rotated to show the child’s appearance from nearly every angle, making it easy to identify the shape of a nose or other distinguishable features. I mean, take a look at these comparisons, between ultrasound images and newborn photographs.

What’s that? Still a bit too bizarre for you? Well, who’s to say when we’re living in an age when 3D printing technology allows people to express narcissism in some rather disturbing ways. For instance, a startup called Shapify prints 3D miniature doll replicas for anyone willing to pay $59. Cubify, a popular 3D printing service, even lets customers reimagine themselves as superhero and action figures. Heck, there’s even a company in Tokyo that takes scans of your face and prints a mold, for making chocolate sculpturesAnd I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that a Japanese engineering firm has already started printing knock-off fetuses encased in clear plastic, though the collectibles—the size of paper weights—are double the cost of the models from 3D Babies.

In any case, it’s unlikely that toting around fetus figurines will become any sort of real trend. The company’s attempt to generate crowdfunding on IndieGoGo raised only $1,225 over the course of two months. The final tally was a small fraction of their stated goal of $15,000.

If you ask me, for the price they’re charging, money may be better spent enhancing the life of the actual newborn when the day comes.