Technology Archive

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iPhone vs Earthquakes

Another day, another major earthquake — this time, a magnitude 6.9 tremblor that killed at least 300 people in China’s Qinghai province. I’ve been talking to a lot of seismologists lately, and they all agree that the recent cluster of devastating earthquakes, including the jolt that shook northern Mexico earlier this month, do not point to some planet-wide upheaval; it’s all a statistical coincidence, they say. Well, that may be true, but it sure doesn’t feel that way. It feels like something is up. Not surprising, then, that a few days ago false rumors started proliferating in Southern California that the Big One would strike imminently.

Seismologists’ reassurances would be more soothing if they had a detailed, empirically verified understanding of how earthquakes work. Unfortunately, they’re the result of forces at work deep within the earth that are difficult to gather data on. So the science remains in its early stages. But progress is being made — and soon, you can be a part of the process. As I wrote recently on the Pop Mech website:

As part of their battle to understand and protect against the destructive force of earthquakes, seismologists have gone to extraordinary lengths. They have bored holes deep into the earth’s crust, laid out arrays of sensors hundreds of miles across, and built supercomputers capable of running simulations at teraflop speeds. But the most exciting new effort in cutting-edge seismology involves a piece of instrumentation that’s a good deal less exotic. It’s called an iPhone. Read the rest of this entry »

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Can Animals Detect Earthquakes?

Over at the always-excellent Discover magazine blog 80 Beats, a fascinating post from a couple of days ago on a topic that has fascinated natural historians for several thousand years now: can animals’ strange behavior provide forewarning that an earthquake is about to strike?

I’ve been reporting a story about earthquake prediction for Parade magazine lately, and spent a day talking with some of the nation’s leading seismologists at Caltech. I came away with a renewed appreciation for the difficulty of the scientists working toward that holy grail of earthquake research, figuring out how to predict the behavior of faults that lie invisible deep beneath the surface of the earth (and which may be fundamentally chaotic in their nature anyway).

All the more intriguing, then, to hear that biologist Rachel Grant, while studying the mating behavior of toads in Italy, may have stumbled upon the first scientific evidence of animals being able to foresee what seismologists could not:

Her team was studying common toads in Italy in April 2009 when the amphibians began to disappear from the study site. This didn’t make much sense to her, the toads abandoning a breeding site in the midst of breeding season. So the researchers tracked them. They found that 96 percent of males — who vastly outnumber females at breeding spots — abandoned the site, 46 miles (74 kilometers) from the quake’s epicenter, five days before it struck on April 6, 2009. The number of toads at the site fell to zero three days before the quake. Grant says her initial reaction to the mass toad dispersal was annoyance—their flight was holding up her research. However, when they began to return the day after the earthquake, things began to make more sense.

It’s an amazing story, a seemingly irrefutable case of cause and effect. But I’m still not buying it. Here’s why. Read the rest of this entry »

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Restoring The Power To Walk — With Exoskeletons

On Labor Day 2008, Ed Schuyler dove off a dock on Pennsylvania’s Van Sciver Lake, something he’s done hundreds of times over the years. He’d thrown a stick to his niece’s dog and sprinted after it to the dock. Arms outstretched, he dove into the water—but on his plunge downward, his head struck the bottom of the lake.

Although the 43-year-old rose to the surface just as he always did, he noticed something was wrong with his body. “There was no pain, but I couldn’t move my legs,” he says. “I kept myself up with only my arms, and I started panicking. I thought I was going to drown.”

Though he didn’t realize it yet, Schuyler had broken his neck. He’ll be paralyzed for life. But thanks to new exoskeleton technology, he’s learning to walk again, as I learned while reporting a story out this weekend in Parade magazine. Read the rest here.

UPDATE: On the occasion of the ReWalk’s appearance on Glee, I’ve posted some of my own video.