Grossmann: The Bee’s Brain — the Zombie Apocalypse, but with Bees?


19 December 2013

The New York Times broke the story in late 2012.  There are zombie bees.  So, Night of the Living Dead might be a true story!?  Yeah, but with bees instead of people and . . . substantial script revisions.

If zombie bees were going to “appear” somewhere, California does seem like the most appropriate place.  Then, the zom-bees spread to Washington state.   But why did they avoid Oregon?   When they suddenly arrived in a third state, North Dakota – that seemed odd.   The zombie horror genre just hasn’t conditioned me to think of North Dakota as a sort of hotspot for zombie anything.  Still, the bees can go where they will.  If, as zombies, they still have their own will.

Anyway, the short answer: zombie bees are with us.

When you say you’re going to talk about zombies, the next question is, “What kind of zombies?”  It’s not so much that there are different varieties of zombies as different versions.  There are horror movie zombies, the zombies in folklore, and the real zombies – or at least “real” in the sense that a lot of people alive today absolutely believe in the reality of zombies.

On the top of the heap, in terms of popularity, is the Hollywood horror version of the brain-eating zombie.  However, many of the characteristics of these, oh, so familiar, zombies were made up by Hollywood writers.

Digging deeper, we reach the cultural folklore of zombies together with anthropological explanations of that folklore.  Many believe that what are taken to be zombies are persons who are drugged with a special concoction that, either by its very nature or through precision dosing, so depresses vital functions that the victim is mistaken for dead and buried.  The perpetrator, then, digs up the depressed, but still living body of the victim and either fools or drugs them into a life of servitude.

However, the true believers in zombies will tell you that specially trained and/or gifted “voodou” (voodoo) practitioners have the ability to reanimate a dead body and control it like a robot.  They believe that the victim’s soul, consciousness, or spirit has permanently departed, but their body remains as a biological robot under the complete control of its “bokor.”

What about our bee zombies?  Well, actually their zombification resembles none of the above.  However, the result is so reminiscent of the zombies of folklore that, perhaps, there no better and readily understandable term to describe what’s happening to the poor bee victims.

Unlike the zombie of actual tradition, the zombie bee falls victim to a parasitic fly, Apocephalus borealis.   The fly lays its eggs physically inside the bees body, the eggs affect the bees behavior not too unlike what was presented in the 1982 film, StarTrek: The Wrath of Khan, in which “indigenous eels” of Ceti Alpha V are introduced into the brains of the crew members, characters Chekov and Terrell, by the character Khan — maddened by his years in exile.  The film’s eels enter the ears of their victims and, reaching their brains, render them susceptible to mind control.

However, unlike Star Trek’s eels, the eggs and larvae of the Apocephalus borealis fly actually control the bee’s “mind” only briefly before causing its death.  Then, they consume the bee’s physical remains.  From another angle, the action of larvae in “eating their way out” of the dead bee’s body reminds one of another Hollywood creation, the mythical earwig.

The earwig is a real and mean-looking insect, but it doesn’t enter the human ear, burrow into the human brain and lay its eggs.  All of that was an old and almost forgotten “urban legend,” until it was featured in a 1972 episode or Rod Serling’s Night Gallery (Season 2, Episode 60, “The Caterpillar”).  However, even the apocryphal earwig had no ability to control the mind of the host.  So, zombification was not part of the earwig repertoire.

But the New York Times story that revealed zombie bees to the world, asked, “Whose in charge in [the bee’s] head”? Because the fly larvae, inside the bee’s body, directly affect the honeybee’s behavior in disturbingly zombie-like ways.  Under the influence of the developing fly larvae, the honeybee abandons its exclusively daytime routine and does something bees don’t do  — flies at night.  Just before, and during, this “last flight” into the night, the bee begins to move erratically.  And it ends its flight in death.  Only then, do the fly larvae eat their way out of the dead bee to continue their growth to maturity.

Hollywood has never quite dealt with this specific kind of zombification.  Of course, the zombie bee might be a good subject for a (not so) new and (not so) different kind of zombie movie.  Maybe the zombie creating flies enter the hive of apiarist, Ms. Red Queen, owner of Raccoon Apiary.  Realizing the problem, she uses an insecticide to kill all the possibility infected bees in a particular hive.  However, these particular flies are “mutants” and have laid mutant eggs in the bees’ bodies.  The larvae don’t grow to eat the infected bees, but reanimate them into murderous zombie bees worthy of any respectable (or not so respectable) Hollywood production.

One bee, Alice, is accidentally outside the hive (or something) during the spraying of insecticide.  She survives and re-enters the hive to discover zombified bees trying to escape and infect the apiary’s other hives.  She engages in a heroic struggle to contain the zombie bees and the infection they carry only to awaken from a coma outside the hive days later.  She sees only a single obviously dysfunctional bee flying repeatedly into a tree while repeating a message: “The dead buzz.”

Many sequels could follow.

Grossmann: The Nano Hummingbird – The Original Bird ‘Bot


12 December 2013

[Nano Hummer Video]

On 17 February 2011, DARPA announced the development of the first fully functional robotic bird. [1]  The “Nano Hummingbird” or, as it is also less imaginatively called, the “Nano Air Vehicle” (“NAV”), was the successful result of a project started in 2006 by AeroVironment, Inc. under the direction of DARPA. [1] Robots, by definition, must “do work.”  And the Nano-Hummer was the first fully functional bird-drone designed and able to perform surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

This robotic hummingbird can remain aloft for 11 minutes and attain a speed of 11 mph. [1]   With a skeleton of hollow carbon-fiber rods wrapped in fiber mesh, coated in a polyvinyl fluoride film, [5] and carrying “batteries, motors, and communications systems; as well as the video camera payload,” the robo-hummer weighs just .67 ounces. [1]

Designed to be deployed in urban environments or on battlefields, this drone is can “perch on windowsills or power lines” and even “enter buildings to observe and its surroundings” while relaying a continuous video back to its “pilot.” [video] [1]

In terms of appearance, the Nano-Hummer was, and is, quite like a hummingbird.    Although larger than the typical hummingbird, Nano-Hummer, is well within the size range of the species and is, actually, smaller than the largest of real hummingbirds. [1]   With a facade both shaped and colored to resemble the real bird, the Nano-Hummer presents the viewer with a remarkable likeness of a hummingbird. [1]

The Nano-Hummer isn’t stealth in the sense of evading radar.  Nor is it “cryptic,” that type of camouflage that blends, or disappears, into the surrounding terrain.  Rather, with the appearance of a hummingbird, the designers used a type of camouflage called “mimesis,” also termed “masquerade,” as concealment.  A camouflaged object is said to be “masqueraded” when the object can be clearly seen, but looks like something else, which is of no special interest to the observer.  And such camouflage is important to a mini-drone with the primary purpose of surveillance and reconnaissance. [1]

Designing this drone on the “hummingbird model,” however, was not done only for the purpose of camouflage.  The project’s objective included biomimicry, that is, biologically inspired engineering. [8] With the hummingbird, its amazingly diverse flight maneuvers were the object of imitation.  However, UAV’s head researcher, Matt Keennon, admits that a perfect replica of what “nature has done” was too daunting. [5]  For example, the Nano-Hummer only beats its wings 20 times a second, which is slow motion compared to the real hummingbird’s 80 beats per second. [video] [5]

Whatever the technical shortfalls, this bird-bot replicates much of the real hummingbird’s flight performance. [5]  Not only can it perform rolls and backflips [video] but, most important of all, it can hover like the real thing. [video] [5]  Part of the importance of the ability hover relates to its reconnaissance and surveillance functions.  Hovering allows the video camera to select and observe stationary targets.  However, the “hover” of both hummingbirds and bees attracts so much attention from developers of drone technology because it assures success in the most difficult flight maneuver of all — landing.  In fact, landing is the most complex part of flight, and the maneuver most likely to result in accident or disaster.

When landing, a flying object must attain the slowest speed possible before touching down.  Hovering resolves the problem neatly by assuring that the robot can stop in midair and, therefore, touch the ground or perch as zero speed.  Observe the relatively compact helicopter landing port in contrast to the long landing strip required by an airplane which must maintain forward motion when airborne.

The drone has a remarkable range of movement in flight much like the real hummingbird. [1] Nano-Hummer “can climb and descend vertically; fly sideways left and right; forward and backward; rotate clockwise and counter-clockwise; and hover in mid-air.” [1]  Both propulsion and altitude control are entirely provided by the drone’s flapping wings. [video] [1]

This remote controlled mini-drone can be maneuvered by the “pilot” without direct visual observation using the video stream alone. [1] With its small camera, this drone can relay back video images of its location. [1] The camera angle is defined by the drone’s pitch.  In forward motion, the camera provides a continuous view of the ground.  Hovering provides the best camera angle for surveying rooms. [video] [5]

To DARPA, it was particularly important that this drone demonstrate the ability to hover in a 5 mph side-wind without drift of more than one meter. [1]  The CIA’s “insectothopter,” a robotic dragonfly was developed in the 1970’s. [image] [3] This unmanned aerial vehicle “was the size of a dragonfly, and was hand-painted to look like one.” [3]  Powered by a small gasoline engine, the insectothopter proved unusable due to its inability to withstand even moderate wind gusts. [video] [3]

The Nano-Hummingbird was named by Time Magazine as one of the 50 best inventions of 2011 [4] and has paved the way for the development of a whole generation of bird inspired ‘bots, including Prioria’s “Maverick,” [image] [video] and, the even more “bird-like,” Robo-Raven, which is still in development by the Army Research Laboratory. [image 1] [video] [video] Also, the development of this first small bird-bot brought the U.S. Air Force one step closer to one of the goals on its wish list: “flocks of small drones.” [7]

A flock of small drones sounds really cool – as long as the flock isn’t after me.

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Grossmann: Our Collapsing Planet – Aquifers & Sinkholes in Florida — the Season of the Sinkhole


5 December 2013

On Friday, March 2, 2013, most of the residents of a suburban Tampa neighborhood were getting ready to go to bed when Jeremy Bush heard something that sounded like a car crashing into his home.  He said, later, that he thought he heard his brother, Jeff, calling for help as the concrete floor began to give way under Jeremy’s feet.  As he moved toward his brother’s voice, he fell into a hole where, a moment before, the home’s floor had been.  Sliding down, Jeremy couldn’t see his brother, but only “the cable wire running from the TV going down into the hole” and, also, one corner of the box springs from his brother’s bed.

He would never see or hear his brother again.  When Jeremy tried to get out of the hole himself, he was unable to do so.  Eventually, firefighters arrived the extracted the surviving brother from what would turn out to be a sinkhole.  Rescue efforts were hampered by uncertainty as to whether the ground around the home was stable enough to serve as a base of operations for rescue workers and their equipment.  Jeff Bush’s body has never been recovered.

Although the tragic death of Jeff Bush is unusual, sudden collapses of the ground under the feet of Floridians are not.  Sinkholes in Florida are frequent and have swallowed, at one time or another, almost everything including homes, swimming pools and even a whole shopping center. Although the motto would never be chosen for a license plate, Florida might be called “The Sinkhole State.”

Florida comes by its sinkholes naturally.  Sinkholes are formed when a limestone bed deep beneath the surface layers of soil is gradually eroded away by groundwater.  The sole above, eventually, but suddenly, falls into the gap in the limestone bed.  Areas with this type of subsurface strata are often known for caves, which are formed in limestone, directly, by the action of water passing through the porous rock.

Florida’s subsurface layer of limestone is so full of cavities and pockets that it has been compared to a giant piece of Swiss cheese.  Beneath the surface of the entire state is soil and stone “riddled” with holes that might cause a sinkhole at any time.  “How riddled is riddled?” asks one writer.  “Anywhere you drill you’ll find them!”

In fact, sinkholes or, at least, the results of sinkholes have created some of Florida’s most prominent features.  However, most of these are now known by different names.  If the ground sinks slowly, Florida’s sandy soil and water continually fill the sinking area of land.  Instead of calling these sinkholes, they’re called bog swamps and estuaries.  In time these features spread out to form caves and wetlands, which, in turn, were responsible for what is now known as Florida’s Everglades.  Robert Brinkmann, a geologist at the University of South Florida in Tampa, says, “Every little wetland is a little sinkhole.”

When the New York Times reported the tragic death of Jeff Bush, it began by explaining that it was “sinkhole season” in Florida.  That’s a new one.  Sinkhole season?  Since when do unpredictable collapses of the earth’s surface happen seasonally?  They do in Florida.  And that takes some explaining.

An aquifer describes an area of ground water.  It’s a kind of earth-filled lake.  There’s an aquifer beneath most of our feet right now.  Early settlers would establish a homestead by digging a well.  In many places, when you dig down far enough, you reach water.  If you dig down just a little deeper than the water level, you have a well.  An open well is a hole, a shaft, going directly down into the ground to a point a bit beneath the water table.  Because the shaft extends a bit beneath the level of the ground water, a small pool of water forms at bottom of the shaft.  Then, all you have to do is lower a bucket and bring up some water.

Later, pumps displaced the simple wells.  Nowadays, water is piped into our homes directly from reservoirs in which the water is treated and purified.  Where does the water in theses reservoirs come from?  Well, it depends on where you live.  If, like me, you live at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, large quantities of available water are no problem.  As a matter of fact, seasonally, we often have more water than we need or want.  When that happens, it’s called a flood.

Florida does not have an abundance of natural water sources.  Although the state is surrounded by water, it’s the wrong kind of water.  Oceans and seas can only provide salt water.  And, regularly consumed, salt water is fatal to human beings.   Why not remove the salt?  Salt removal, or desalinization, is too costly.  Use of the water in inland swamps and bogs not only presents conservation issues but, also, purification issues that are too costly to resolve.

Florida does have one substantial source of water for human and agricultural use: groundwater from its aquifers. Most of the fresh water used by Florida’s population is pumped out of the ground — right out of the state’s aquifers.  But what does all this have to do with sinkholes?

Well, eroding limestone deep beneath the ground isn’t the only thing that causes sinkholes.  The water in saturated soil provides support for that same soil.  Just as large bodies of water create a tremendous pressure near their bottoms, so water in the soil exerts a pressure that supports the ground around and above it.  Groundwater fills the tiny spaces between particles of earth and gives the ground, at the surface, a strength to bear more weight than it could without the water’s pressure.

So, what happens if a normally moist region has a dry spell or pumps a good part of the groundwater out of the ground?  The ground dries out and, as it does, becomes filled with tiny air pockets.  Air provides little, if any, support at all.  So, the sudden drying of the normally moist ground can cause something, very much like sinkholes, called “subsidence”.  However, the differences in terminology seem less important in Florida, because the two, dry earth subsidence and the collapse of subsurface pockets in the deep limestone, work together.  Many sinkholes are a combination of the both: the sudden loss of support in the dry soil near the surface weakens the very support preventing the collapse of an empty pocket in the deeper limestone below.

So, does pumping groundwater for residential and agricultural uses cause sinkholes?  Well, a little.  Remember that Florida has always experienced an exceptional number of sinkholes — long before human beings arrived.   And groundwater depletion was always part of the problem.

On the good side, Florida’s aquifers are not depleting in the way that these are in other states.  Kansas is trying to implement conservation measures to preserve its groundwater and hope to extend its aquifer’s life for another century.  In Texas, the chronic depletion of groundwater is severe.  But Florida isn’t experiencing chronic groundwater depletion.  The average yearly level of groundwater is quite stable.  But within each year, Florida’s ground water levels go up and down like a rollercoaster.

In a sense, Florida’s aquifers are substantially depleted every year.  Then, they are completely rehabilitated a few months later with a period of abundant rainfall — only to be depleted, again, later that same year.  And the cycle continues.  In other words, in Florida, your open well will be full of water for part of the year and bone-dry during the rest of the year.

The long-term strength of Florida’s aquifers is good news, but the extreme seasonal variation is bad news if you want to avoid sinkholes.  The reason why other regions of the country don’t have sinkholes with every draught is that these areas don’t have such moist soil to begin with.  Sinkholes, from loss of groundwater, happen when the water leaves the soil suddenly.  And that’s just what Florida’s climate assures.  Each and every year, a season of heavy rainfall is followed by a dry season.  The ground is filled with water and, then, dries out completely.  In fact, Florida’s climate and geology seem designed to produce the a continuous stream of sinkholes.

So, what did the Times mean by Florida’s sinkhole season?   Late spring and summer tends to be quite wet.  But Florida winters are dry.  And, after the winter dry season, comes early spring — sinkhole season.

However, climate and the pumping of ground water aren’t the only contributors to the Florida’s sinkhole problem.  Human development of the land as well as the use of groundwater aggravates the already substantial risk of sinkhole development.  How does “development” contribute to the formation sinkholes?  It does so in two ways.

First, housing and commercial developments as well as roadways are being built to cover a greater proportion of Florida’s total available land.  Even if the frequency and distribution of sinkholes remains the same, with more of the land’s surface covered with structures and pavement, we can expect more frequent “collisions” between human-built structures and sinkhole occurrences.

Second, human-built surface structures actually increase the incidence of sinkholes by (1) increasing the weight load on the earth’s surface and (2) blocking the flow of rainwater to the soil beneath the structures.  In other words, the structures, themselves, aggravate the groundwater depletion immediately beneath their foundations and increase the likelihood of the formation of a sinkhole immediately beneath the structure itself – just where we don’t need a sinkhole.

Another aspect of the problem is determination of where sinkholes are most likely to form.  There really is no way to know.  Ground penetrating radar equipment can sometimes detect large underground cavities.  But subsidence from dry earth is extremely difficult to detect . . . until it happens.  And when it happens, the inability to know the extent of the undermined area substantially affects rescue and other related remedial efforts.  In other words, when a sinkhole forms, the last thing anyone should do is approach it.  It may suddenly grow larger and swallow you up (or, rather, down).  Or another adjacent sinkhole may open beneath your feet.

If a sinkhole causes injury or creates a dangerous condition, there is a real and immediate danger of the failure of adjacent ground support.  This assures that emergency crews really cannot safely approach the area and render immediate assistance.   And that may be one of the biggest problem with sinkholes.

Florida used to require that all homeowners’ insurance policies cover sinkhole damage.   However, a number of years ago, enterprising lobbyists convinced the Florida State Legislature to repeal that requirement.  This measure was supposed to provide lower premiums, which would make insurance policies more attractive to purchasers.  Unfortunately, these same purchasers will be financially devastated if their homes are ever damaged or destroyed by the formation of a sinkhole.

The state has a variety of measures in place, and in development, to deal with the sinkhole problem.  Unfortunately, even the best available measures are limited.  Ground-penetrating radar equipment is regularly used throughout the state to attempt to locate subsurface cavities that might lead to sinkhole formation.  Special drainage equipment is being developed and installed to direct rainwater to areas beneath existing construction in an effort to avoid dry soil conditions and reduce the danger of future sinkhole formation.

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Grossmann: A Different Flavor – Just How Smart Are Octopuses?


28 November 2013

Octopuses have a rather creepy reputation. Let’s just say that, what the creeping spider is to dry land, the eight-tentacled octopus is to the sea — a “monster” of the deep. These creatures have thousands of suckers on their eight “arms,” squirt dark ink, change color, and can squeeze their, sometimes, large bodies through amazingly small holes. Also, they can move when they want to move having the ability to propel themselves by producing a jet of water in the same way jet engines propel aircraft through the air.

The octopus is a celebrated predator. Well equipped for the hunt, the octopus has a parrot-like beak, a tongue covered with teeth, and poisonous venom. Superficially, there’s nothing about the octopus that would put anyone in a warm or cuddly mood. But like some seemingly forbidding people you may have met, it seems that the better you get to know the octopus, the more favorable (and friendlier) your opinion becomes.

Scientists have recently discovered that octopuses might be intelligent – much more intelligent than anyone had ever suspected. However, this is one of those discoveries that seems like “yesterday’s news.” When you read accounts of octopus behavior, the fact that octopuses are intelligent is like the proverbial “elephant in the living room.” How could anyone have missed it?

Consider Otto, an octopus resident at the Sea Star Aquarium in Coburg, Germany. Otto shares a large tank with hermit crabs, which he probably traumatizes on a regular basis with his ideas of fun. Among other activities, Otto likes to juggle the helpless crabs, throwing them, not in the air, but up above him into the tank’s water. Being repeatedly tossed by a two-handed juggler would be bad enough, but you can only cringe at the thought of the experience with eight-hands.

Otto’s behavior isn’t particularly unusual. In an experiment, Roland Anderson, gave octopuses small pill bottles, each of a different color, to evaluate the creatures’ color preferences. Most of the octopuses lost interest when they realized the bottles weren’t food, but one blew a “modulated” jet of water at the bottle sending it swirling to the other end of the tank and back to the sender – repeating this action 20 times. Anderson compared the action to the human version of bouncing a ball. Another octopus, in the same group, was caught using its water jet to propel its bottle back and forth over the surface of the water.

What’s so significant about all this? It’s play. Anderson’s observations appeared in the Journal of Comparative Psychology. “Only intelligent animals play—animals like crows and chimps, dogs and humans.”

Although, sometimes, Otto seems more like a candidate for the staring role in an upcoming documentary, “When Good Octopuses Go Bad,” he demonstrates a mastery of tool-use when he throws stones into front glass of his tank (damaging the aquarium glass several times). In spite of Otto’s disruptions and vandalism, his behaviors are clearly intelligent.

Octopuses gather building materials as part of what is, sometimes, called their fortress behaviors. These creatures tend to settle in a location and fortify the perimeter with a variety of building materials. And, in the act of collecting these building materials, the octopus displays one of its most amazing characteristics. Most animals either use or discard an item that is of no immediate use. In other words, most animals have no ability to delay gratification and, therefore, do not appreciate the need to find, hold, or transport items that may be of value at a later time.

The Veined Octopus, however, retrieves discarded coconut shells, transports them over a distance, and reassembles them to build a shelter. This behavior demonstrates selection of a tool and, then, holding the tool exclusively for a later use.

You might think of this behavior as resembling grocery shopping. When you go to the store, you don’t eat the food you want straight off the shelves and, then, leave without taking any food with you. Rather, you gather food, groceries, and take it home for future use.

And, it so happens that octopuses often gather food in a way not so different from human grocery shopping. As it hunts, this creature picks up all the food it can carry and transports the load home. It will eat the food, at its leisure, later. With eight arms, an octopus can carry a lot of food, but sometimes its eyes are bigger than its eight-armed carrying capacity. If it finds its load is too heavy for the trip home, it simply makes an unscheduled stop, eats its “groceries” down to a portable volume and, then, continues home with what’s left.

But octopuses demonstrate other intelligent behaviors. They are also problem solvers. Wilson Menashi designed a puzzle consisting of three plexiglas cubes each with a different type of latch. When food was placed in the first box and given to an octopus, the creature quickly managed to figure out how to open the box. Then, the first box was locked in the second box. Again, the octopus quickly learned to open both boxes to get to the food. The same swift mastery followed the addition of a third box. Sadly, when the octopus’s food of choice, crab, is unavailable, some octopuses turn their problem solving abilities to crime. That is, octopuses sometimes rob lobster traps, which they learn to open with relative ease.

So, you would never want to snooze on the beach with a crab in your pocket. That crab would be awfully tempting to passing octopus. Oh, . . . you thought you’d be safe because you weren’t in the water? Surprise! Many octopuses seem never to have learned that they are sea-dwelling creatures. They tend to jump onto land at the least provocation.

An octopus was recently, not just caught on land, but also caught on video grabbing a snack on the beach — completely out of the water. These creatures like to eat crabs so much that they have been known to climb on board fishing boats, jump into containers of dead crabs, and pig-out. As a matter of fact, aquariums sometimes have difficulty keeping these creatures in the water.

Otto, for example, thought the overhead light in the Sea Star Aquarium was too bright, and his irritation was only relieved by occasional mysterious power failures. While the failures gave Otto a break from the bright light, the cessation in the filtration systems in the aquarium’s tanks was a positive danger. When the power outages became more frequent, the staff organized a stake-out of the area, day and night, to find the cause. On the third night, Otto climbed out of his tank and directed his jet-stream of water at the irritating light above his tank and continued to do so until the system shorted and the power failed. The light has been re-installed in a location beyond the range of Otto’s water-jet.

Octopuses frequently put their water-jets to other creative uses. Octopus Truman of the New England Aquarium developed an aversion to one volunteer and used his water-jet to soak her with salt water at every opportunity. She eventually quit her volunteer position, but returned for a visit a few months later. As she entered the lab she was drenched in saltwater by Truman’s jet. Apparently, Truman remembered her. He had not sprayed anyone with water since her departure months earlier.

Researching her senior thesis in the octopus lab at Middlebury College, Alexa Warburton often struggled to remove reluctant octopuses from their tanks. The creatures had mastered all the skills I employed on a particular day when I tried to avoid attending the first grade. The octopuses would hide in the corners of their tanks or hold on to objects and not let go. In fact, octopuses in captivity escape their tanks with great frequency. When the creatures were removed from their tank, a few used the net as a kind of trampoline bouncing off the net and onto the floor. Then, they’d make a run for it. And they’d “run,” Warburton emphasized, “You’d chase them under the tank, back and forth, like you were chasing a cat.” “It’s so weird!”

When you understand how octopuses behave, it’s tough to understand how their intelligence could have been overlooked for so long. Perhaps, in the past, science has been too physiologically minded.

For example, several species of birds have recently demonstrated remarkably high levels of intelligence and even self-awareness. The last common ancestor of human beings and birds roamed the earth about 300 million years ago. During the last 300 million years, the brains of birds and mammals developed along separate lines. Scientists were sure that the mammalian brain’s neocortex made certain species, including human beings, self-aware (i.e., conscious). Problem. Several species of birds pass all the self-awareness tests with flying colors, but their brains are the size of walnuts and they have no neocortex.

Then, there’s the octopus. Octopuses are mollusks, invertebrates, closely related to the clam. Clams don’t even have brains. The last common ancestor of human beings and octopuses lived between 500 and 700 million years ago. From that point on, human and octopus brains developed along separate lines in quite different environments. The octopus brain is about the size of a walnut with only about 130 million neurons compared to the 100 billion of the typical human brain. However, you don’t need these numbers to see some staggering differences. For example, humans have one brain, but “three-fifths of the octopus’s neurons” are in the octopus’s arms and not their “head.” It seems that intelligence doesn’t have as much to do with brain size as was once supposed.

Perhaps, the intelligence of octopuses was overlooked because of their lack of social behavior. These creatures are one of the most unsocial animals you could imagine. Their contacts with their fellow creatures result in either one octopus eating the other or mating. There are no other social encounters with their peers. Period. In the first instance, predation, one octopus dies when it’s eaten. In the second, mating, both octopuses die because disorientation and death follow swiftly.

Much of our appraisal of the intelligence of any animal is based on observation of social interaction. But, in the case of the unsocial octopus, you have to observe its relationship with its inanimate, physical environment to appreciate its intelligent behavior and evaluate the scope of its intelligence. Strangely, the captive octopuses that are the subject of study in laboratories seem to enjoy a richer relationship with their human captors, than any of their own species. But, perhaps, even this relationship is the simple result of the dependence of the captive octopuses on their human captors for survival (food).

Maybe it’s the plain strangeness of both the octopus and its intelligence that so long delayed the “discovery” of the creature’s intelligent behavior. Philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith compared encountering the octopus with “meeting an intelligent alien.” And, indeed, everything seems so “out-of-whack” when you learn about the octopus. For example, octopus communication is limited to changes of color. An octopus uses color changes to camouflage itself, express emotions, and warn off (frighten) predators. But the octopus’s use of a wide range of color displays becomes confusing when you discover that these creatures are colorblind. But, then, you discover that octopus “skin contains gene sequences usually expressed only in the light-sensing retina of the eye.” So, octopuses may be able to see color with their skin.

In the end, what can we say about the octopus as an intelligent being? It is an alien. An immensely ancient alien that evolved on the ocean floor — the oldest and most enduring environment provided by the hydrosphere we call Earth. However, “alien” is a relative term. Compared to the octopus, we are the newcomers. We are one of a group of strange, and relatively new, life forms that live on those limited peaks that rise above and beyond the more natural aquatic environment. Those peaks rise up into a strange rarefied level of atmosphere—a level, not of water, but composed entirely of gases, nitrogen and oxygen.

As intelligent beings, we continue to confront the all too obvious evidence that “we are not alone.” But I’m not talking about intelligent life on other planets. “We are not alone” on our own planet. The creatures around us have developed intelligence and self-awareness but, often, not “on our terms.” These “others” have developed out of their own environmental and physiological roots. Our planet is home to more and stranger environments (worlds) than we regularly or comfortably imagine. It seems that intelligence and self-awareness are not a single, defined point at one end of a yard stick. Rather, as Dr. Jennifer Mather of the University of Lethbridge suggests, intelligence and self-awareness may come “in flavors.”


Grossmann: What Would DARPA Do Without Bees?


21 November 2013

The fate of bees, generally, is a matter of great concern these days.  Bee populations throughout the world, and particularly in the United States and Europe, are dropping rapidly and mysteriously.  Why are bees so important?  Agricultural production. Without the bees’ unique service as pollinators, the value of yearly agriculture output would drop by billions and billions of dollars.  But dollars aren’t the worst part of the problem.  Agricultural production is food.  Without bees, we’d have much less food than the minimum required feed the Earth’s population.  So, without bees, a good portion of the people on earth will begin to starve – quickly.  What would we do in a world without bees?  You’re probably hearing more and more discussion on the topic, but not in this article.

Let’s ignore that pesky food production/global starvation issue for a moment and consider another bee-related question:

What would DARPA do in a world without bees?

What does DARPA need with bees?  Well, these amazing insects are a seemingly endless wellspring of unique abilities.  When the DEA isn’t planning to use bees for security-related activities, DARPA is studying this insect’s unique flight capabilities.  But, I hear the reader asking, “security-related activities?”  Yes, bees are being groomed to replace those large cumbersome flea traps on four legs — drug-sniffing dogs.  A small hive of honey bees is so much easier to carry and care for than those hounds with their endless vaccinations, flea powder, and licensing requirements.

The bees don’t even have to leave home, but live in a mobile home or, rather, a box.  When air is blown through their “buzz box,” their responsive behavior alerts officers to the presence of drugs.  UK researchers beat everyone to this adaptation, but someday soon, there may be a canine unemployment issue as man’s best friend starts pounding the pavement looking for work after losing out to the new, cheaper, and less care-intensive honeybee.

As bees are drawn out of our agricultural fields to secure our borders (and other places) against drugs, it’s interesting to note that, even as bee populations decline, demand for the amazingly diverse talents of these critters keeps increasing.  But let’s leave the story of the bees’ role in the war on drugs for another time and get back to DARPA.

DARPA’s first interest is drones.  Not the bee kind of drones – male bees — but mechanical drones.  More precisely, flying drones.  What’s so special about bees when it comes to flying drones?  Well, DARPA is trying to build a drone that is about size of a bee.  Just as important, this bee-sized mini-drone must maneuver like a bee.  What’s so special about the flight of bees?

There are two special things.  The first thing is not only characteristic of the flight of bees, but of the flight of all insects.  After bird-sized flying drones were developed, the next step was an insect-sized drone.  Simple enough.  You just shrink the bird drone down to insect size and – voila – you have an insect sized drone.  But you don’t — because the shrunken drone won’t fly.  UCLA Roboticist, Ronald Fearing, explains, “the rules of aerodynamics change at very tiny scales and require wings that flap in precise ways — a huge engineering challenge.”

Apparently, the relatively large bird can afford to be a bit sloppy with its wing movements, but insects must be much more precise.  Of course, it would help to know exactly how insects fly.  Contrary to the popular perception that science “knows everything,” only recently have researchers begun to understand insect flight.

Just a few decades ago, you’d sometimes hear the inaccurate assertion that scientists “said” that insect flight was impossible.  Although probably no scientist ever said that, there was a grain of truth in the statement.  In fact, until recently, scientists didn’t know how insects flew.  That is, there was no theoretical description that could account for how these tiny creatures remained airborne.  The relatively recent development of high speed microphotography together with the more recent intense technological interest in the flight of insects has led to substantial advances in the understanding of insect aerodynamics.

Dragonflies have been studied to determine how their front and rear wings coordinate to perform certain maneuvers, most notably, how they hover.   And butterflies are the subject of intense study with the surprising discovery that even though many insects fly, different varieties use their wings in very different ways to accomplish maneuvers that have yet to be robotically duplicated on any scale – large or small.

Why all of this interest in insects all of a sudden?  Because DARPA wants drones with certain, new capacities that were missing in past drone technology.   To meet DARPA’s requirements, drones must be built to perform more like . . . wildlife.

In the 1950’s, the sci-fi vision of robotic technology was both exotic and strange.  The technology of the future was envisioned and presented as something completely different and contrary to our natural biological surroundings.  However, when technology confronted reality, we biological organisms seem to have had the last laugh because we could (and still can) do a whole lot of extremely useful things that our most sophisticated technology cannot.

The jeep took a basic automobile and raised the center of gravity, increased the size and scale of the automotive suspension system and produced spectacular off-road performance for a machine with wheels.  But the wheel, itself, was limited.  Every Rover we’ve sent to Mars ended its life when it got stuck.  Human beings aren’t the strongest animal in the forest, but if just two of us were with those Rovers on Mars, we’d have extended their useful lives by getting them “un-stuck” in short order.  Why?  Because we have a repertoire of movements and leverage that we can use to apply force in almost any direction.  The best of those early sci-fi ’bots looked high-tech but, in fact, were functionally stunted.

When sci-fi was still dominated by those inhuman and unnatural versions of mechanistic technology, a new technological methodology was, quietly, born.  “Biomimetics” was a term used to describe the development of technology designed to imitate and replicate the activities of biological systems and organisms.   Then, the term “bionic” was coined to describe a technology incorporating a “function copied from nature.”  When Hollywood got a hold of the term “bionic,” the “Six Million Dollar Man” hit the small screen.  But Hollywood’s version of the term “bionic” was just too interesting to be seriously “scientific,” and the term “bionic” fell into scientific oblivion.

The gap was finally filled with the introduction of the term “biomimicry,” which has been widely adopted to describe any technology imitating (copied) from nature.  But, in some contexts, biomimicry is more of a necessity than a choice.  If you want drones that work in a particular way, and the only known example of such performance is a biological organism, you’ll either have to imitate it or forget the project altogether.

And this brings us back to the bees.

The second special thing about bees is their flying ability.  Among their fellow insects, bees are the virtuosos of flight.  These insects can fly faster than most other insects.  They can also fly slower, hover, in a way that most other insects cannot. And bees are remarkably precise in their flight.  They maneuver with a precision almost unparalleled in the insect world.  If you were DARPA and wanted to develop an insect-sized drone, you’d want its capabilities to be as close to those of a bee as possible.

Harvard’s “Micro Air Vehicles Project” is developing a robot that is intended to duplicate the functions of a honeybee.  One day, it is hoped, these robo-bees will be engineered to fly in swarms, live in artificial hives, and locate sources of honey.   But that goal is a long, long way off.  If you believe some of the stories you read on the internet, the robo-bee is waiting like a vulture to take over when our natural biological honeybees die out.  But, alas, it isn’t so.

Robo-Bee is a sensation because it can fly.  But the word “fly” is used in the most restricted and technical sense.  For most of the last few years, Robo-Bee has been able to flap its wings, and rise into the air – “fly.”  However, when it does, it shoots from its starting position across the room and crashes into the nearest wall.  Flight over.  Total flight time – about a second.

Recently, however, researchers have figured out how to guide the robo-bee in flight.  Now, with the latest guidance breakthrough, the robo-bee can be made “to pitch and roll in a predetermined direction” and, then, it crashes into the nearest wall.

While Harvard is working on Robo-Bee’s flight, you’ve got to wonder whose working on the crashes?  Put another way, Robo-Bee crashes because it can’t land.  And landing is the most challenging maneuver of successful flight.  What insect, do you suppose, displays the most precise and graceful skill in landing?  You guessed it.  Landing is, perhaps, the bee’s most amazing talent.

Not only are bees remarkable for their landings, but where they land sets them apart from other airborne insects as well.  They can land anywhere – not just on flat, surfaces, but on irregular, ridged, and vertical surfaces. But knowing that the bees “can do it” is one thing.  Understanding “how they do it” is another.

What bees can do that so many other insects can’t is land almost anywhere smoothly.  In order to land smoothly, a flying object must slow down almost to a stop at the landing location.  So, landing isn’t just about the bee putting its, er, ah, . . . feet (or whatever) onto the ground.  Landing is about speed and distance.  To do it right, you have to estimate your distance from the place you intend to land and vary your speed so that you have just about stopped by the time you reach your intended landing spot.  At least, you have to do all this if you want the bee’s characteristically smooth landing.  A crash is a landing too.  Just not a smooth one.

In the old days, human pilots made these estimations using nothing more than their vision.  As human beings, we have two eyes set slightly apart.  Each eye relays a slightly different image to the brain.  Our brain compensates so that we are aware of only one image.  But, without even realizing it, the slight differences in the images are translated by the brain into an awareness of the relative distances of the objects around us.  Everything from navigating around objects in our home or apartment to driving on the roads would present difficulties, and even dangers, without our “stereo” vision.  And, with nothing more than this vision, aviators used to gauge their speed relative to the distance of the chosen landing strip to bring aircraft to as slow a speed as possible at the point at which the landing gear made first contact with the ground.

However, pilots don’t use plain old vision these days.  Sophisticated computers estimate distances for professional pilots.  This can be done with or without the aid of global positioning signals.  Computers can use no more than bits of data, distance from the destination, direction, and speed, to decelerate an aircraft to the slowest possible speed at the moment the landing gear touch the ground.

Bees, however, don’t have the equivalent of human “stereoscopic” vision.  And they don’t have the benefit of computers.  So, how do the bees land so well?  The fact that bees seem to be able to land almost anywhere has provoked extensive study.  A new discovery about just how bees accomplish their remarkable landings has been reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Professor Mandyam Srinivasan at the University of Queensland explains that bees “watch” an object, their destination, as they fly toward it.  The rate at which their intended landing place “zooms in” tells the bee when to slow down and stop.  However unfamiliar this method must seem to human beings, it allows bees to make almost perfect landings most of the time without any other information about distance or speed.

Professor Srinivasan uses an analogy from simulated interstellar space travel.  As you approach a particular star, two things happen.  First, the other stars, around your destination, seem to move away, while your destination star appears to become larger.  In bees, nature has parlayed these simple observations into an amazingly sophisticated navigation and flight methodology.  And researchers have been able to reduce the bees’ landing strategy to a mathematical model for guiding landings.

Professor Srinivasan added that this newest research can produce a substantial savings in the design and production of drone technology.  An insect-sized mini-drone would not need radar, sonar or laser beams to determine surface speed and distances for landing.  Dropping this expensive equipment would not only make the mini-drone cheaper, but the lighter weight would extend the drone’s range.  Also, the same radar, sonar or laser beams creates detectible electronic signatures, which can compromise the drone’s stealth.  In contrast, the “vision-based system” needs nothing more sophisticated than a video camera of the type “found in smart phones.”

So, someday, with further development, our bee-sized drones will be able to fly, maneuver, and land smoothly.  But there’s still another question.  Why do we need bee-sized drones at all?

Well, if you’re DARPA, you want these drones for reconnaissance and surveillance.  Our bee-like drones would be useful in both departments.  Because of their size, they are stealthy – small is more difficult to see.  Also, because they are small, they can squeeze into and under objects and examine places too small for human beings and, therefore, not accessible to traditional aerial or satellite reconnaissance cameras.  These small drones could examine areas and locate obstructions, unusual terrain, explosives and other potential dangers.

The other side of the reconnaissance and surveillance coin is search and rescue.  Drones of this size are invaluable aids and can be used to examine the interior of collapsed building squeezing into the tightest spaces.  They can locate injured victims as well as potential dangers to be avoided by search and rescue personnel.

One of DARPA’s high priorities is the development of mini flying drones.  But what would a DARPA representative have said if, starting from scratch, they were asked how they wanted their new mini-drone to work?  I can imagine a long silence.  Then, catching sight of a nearby honeybee, they would point directly at the bee and say, “exactly like that.”  If there had never been any bees, who would, or could, even imagine the performance capabilities of these amazing insects?

We aren’t “thinking-up” new technologies.  Actually, we’re figuring out ways to technologically imitate an extremely old “technology,” organic life.  Bees aren’t just useful workers in our agricultural fields (and soon, perhaps, our boarders and airports), but an inspiration for what would, otherwise, remain unimagined technologies.  Today, we often hear the question: What would we do in world without the work of the honeybee?  But no one asks, a perhaps less important, but more surprising question: What would DARPA do without the inspiring model of that same bee?


Grossmann: The Bumblebee and Robo-Snake on Mars – The Fantasy


14 November 2013

Both NASA and ESA (European Space Administration) are planning a mission to Mars.  But, in this day and age, who isn’t?  India is planning a Mars mission.  A Dutch company named, Mars One, isn’t just planning a mission, but a colony.  What’s interesting is how they plan to finance the mission.  The Mars One colonists’ transportation to, and colony on, the red planet will be financed by a reality show starring – you guessed it – the colonists, themselves, on Mars.  If this seems kind of “out there,” so is the planned departure date.  Their first group is scheduled leave about twenty years from now.

However the NASA and ESA missions are serious business because their potential colonists certainly have the right stuff.  NASA is considering bumblebees and the ESA is considering a robotic snake.  Amazingly, of all the possible candidates, the bees and the robotic snake seem most naturally suited to the challenges of life on Mars.

The rather rotund bumblebee wouldn’t “cut a good figure” in the astro-insect selection process, but appearances can be deceiving.  When NASA discovered that the ideal atmospheric pressure for space facilities was considerably below the normal pressure found on Earth, the search was on for the most adaptable contestants.  At the ideal atmospheric pressure of 52 kilopascals (kPa), human beings were burdened because this is only about half the sea level atmospheric pressure here on Earth.  Honeybees gave up completely at 62 kPa.  But “Bumbles” kept right on going – gathering honey and pollinating flowers at the ideal 52 kPa.  Below that pressure, “Bumbles” slowed down, but didn’t stop.  And when, at a meager 30 kPa, the bumblebees finally lost their ability to fly, they went on working!  Crawling from bloom to bloom, the bumblebees went on pollinating and gathering honey.  What can we say?  The few, the proud, the bumblebees!

Of course, Robo-Snake, as a robot, has few issues adapting physically to an alien environment.  A robotic snake will bring a specific skill to the red planet that a biological snake enjoys on earth – the remarkable ability to travel over and through certain types of almost impassable terrain.  Robo-Snake’s amazingly snake-like movement allows it to explore and investigate places that no human, conventional robot, or vehicle could go.  This ‘bot’s serpentine motion produces a kind of locomotion that allows it to travel almost anywhere without getting stuck.

While writing a previous post on this subject, my mind kept wandering to the sci-fi and fantasy possibilities.  Every time I though of a bumblebee and a robotic snake on Mars, I couldn’t help thinking what a good Disney movie that mission would make.  Of course, in actual fact, if they make the cut, “Bumbles” and “Robo-Snake” would be traveling to Mars on different missions sponsored by different space agencies.

But let’s forget the facts and stick to the fantasy.  I had to wonder: what if Bumbles and Robo-Snake teamed up on Mars to form one of those classic duos that are the stuff of sci-fi fantasy?  As I thought about the pair and their possible adventures on the red planet, I couldn’t help thinking in terms of those famous sci-fi fantasy teams of the past.

I imagine Bumbles and Robo-Snake wandering the Martian landscape in a feature film (or weekly episodes of a TV series) struggling to survive.  Of course, they stumble into adventure after adventure as they explore, not only the physical terrain, but discover unknown and exotic Martian flora and fauna.  Perhaps, other interplanetary visitors from other star systems would pop-in, from time to time, and confront the bee-snake team with novel challenges in which the duo’s unique relationship would lead them to a successful resolution.  Sort of like . . .

Sort of like the relationship between the Robinson family and the “General Utility Non-theorizing Environmental Control Robot, Model B9.”   The television show was the 1965 series, Lost in Space. Model B9, unimaginatively referred to as “Robot” by the cast members, had one of the most memorable lines in television, history — “Danger! Will Robinson! Danger!”

Maybe Bumbles and Robo-Snake could be stranded on Mars with a group of much less well adapted human companions (like the Mars One colonists).  Because Bumbles and Robo-Snake are uniquely adapted to the Martian environment, they would be well suited to the job of rescuing their hapless human companions who would, on a weekly basis, manage to fall into some kind of trouble or involve themselves in some kind of misadventure.

Maybe one of the colonists would play the role of Lost in Space’s subversive and, then, eccentrically silly Dr. Smith.  The new version of the Dr. Smith character might arrive with the Mars One colonists.  However, this Dr. Smith might be an agent from a rival TV network featuring a rival reality show.   His job is to assure that Mars One colonists’ own reality show suffers dismal ratings and cancellation.  Or, maybe even more darkly (but realistically), the new Dr. Smith might be an agent from Mars One itself.  If the Mars One reality show’s ratings don’t climb fast enough, the new Dr. Smith has been sent to “eliminate” the colonists swiftly and completely in order to accomplish a de facto cancellation.

Of course, Bumbles and Robo-Snake will be there to foil Dr. Smith’s mission and rescue the colonists while forging an even more successful TV series about a bumblebee and robotic snake.  This assures the survival of the human colonists after the unexpected cancellation of their reality show.  However, “Danger, Bumbles.  Danger.” might be too cliché to recycle, so there needs to be some work on a new script for this new “non-reality” show.

Lost in Space’s Model B9’s fame was great, but its career was limited.  Like the original Star Trek cast, B9 found itself hopelessly typecast.  After suffering a relatively short downward spiral, rescue and repair came from TV and film producer Kevin Burns with whom the B9 enjoys a comfortable, private and, even, reclusive retirement.   Because of the attention and adulation B9 receives from nostalgic fans, Kevin Burns commissioned the creation of a B9 “clone” – a replica that is displayed on tours and at conventions.

Less known is the story of B9’s stunt man or, rather, stunt robot.  In fact, two versions of B9 were built for the original TV series.  The other, just as imaginatively, termed “stunt robot” was featured in distance “or hazardous shots.”  Like the star, after the series ended, the stunt double fell into a downward spiral of disrepair until it was rescued and refurbished by the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame, in Seattle Washington, where it enjoys a more public retirement to this day.

B9 was created by mechanical designer Robert Kinoshita.  With such talents, wouldn’t it have been great if Kinoshita had designed other movie robots?  It would, and he did.  In fact, Robert Kinoshita designed, perhaps, the première sci-fi robot of all time.

Right after the brooding and reclusive Dr. Mobius unlocked the most basic secrets of the Krell, in the 1956 film, Forbidden Planet, he built Robby the Robot.  But let’s not get too far ahead of our story.

How could this play out with our own film duo? In our version of the story, Bumbles, with the help of Robo-Snake, discover the secrets of an ancient and extinct Martian civilization.  In the process, they unleash a mysterious force of which they, themselves, are unaware.  After the human colonists fall victim to a mysterious predator, Bumbles is left alone, with her faithful robot snake sidekick, to pursue her investigations in the solitude she loves.

Years later, a rescue ship arrives with a small crew of humans and (appropriately) a contingent of bumblebees.  “Bumbles” warns the rescue ship’s crew not to land on the surface because of a mysterious danger – the nature of which Bumbles herself does not consciously understand.   Of course, there could be a romantic subtheme.  Perhaps, like Morbius, Bumbles could have a single daughter bee who is wooed by a drone bee from the rescue ship.

However, I don’t know if Robo-Snake could equal the sheer range of Robby.  That robot could do almost everything.  Certainly, Robby kept pace with Star Trek’s replicator when it created a large quantity of hard liquor at the request of one of the rescuing crew members.

Whatever the storyline, Robo-Snake faces a major challenge if it is to step into the shoes of the famous Robby the Robot.  After raising the bar for all movie robots with his first 1956 performance, Robby went on to a remarkable career.  He escaped being typecast in Forbidden Planet (although, with robots, some typecasting is unavoidable).  To his credit, Robby has worked consistently in Hollywood including appearances on The Doby Gillis Show, The Twilight Zone (3 episodes), Hazel, The Addams Family, Lost in Space, The Monkeys, Wonder Woman, Mork and Mindy, The Love Boat, a cameo appearance in Gremlins and, most recently, in a 2012 General Electric commercial.

Robby enjoys a semi retirement in the collection of William Malone.  Robby’s early career was marred by the same harassment from adoring fans that so many other stars have suffered.  Souvenir-hunting fans, twice, roughed Robby up so badly that he had to be refurbished.  On both occasions, original spare parts created for the film Forbidden Planet were called into service to restore Robby to the perfect physical health typical of a well maintained robot.  But back, again, to our bee-snake team.

Let’s not limit our vision.  What if the Bumbles and Robo-Snake combination generates a successful film or series?  What next?  Would a spin-off be in order?  The real Robo-Snake is being considered as a sidekick, but not to a bee or human being.  Instead. Robo-Snake is being developed to assist another robotic device — The Mars Rover.

To its credit, the Mars Rover is an amazingly well-engineered vehicle.  However, no matter how serviceable, it has a daunting task — to be operated by remote control as it navigates a rough and rocky terrain.  The result is that Mars Rovers usually end their serviceable careers by getting permanently stuck.  Is there a solution?  Enter Robo-Snake.

The Robo-Snake that may eventually go to Mars will have one of two possible configurations.  It will either travel with the Rover as a portable robot to be released to investigate nooks and crannies too small for the Rover as well as areas in which the Rover is more likely to get stuck.  The other design would permanently attach Robo-Snake to the Rover as a kind of arm – or more picturesquely – a kind of tentacle.  The Robo-Snake arm, if long enough, could reach out to examine all those nooks and crannies, while also performing other functions as well  Maybe, the most important “other function” would be as an arm to help the Rover get un-stuck, after it squeezes itself into too tight a spot.  In fact, the tentacle-like arm could grab nearby objects to help pull the Rover free of an obstruction or push the Rover out of a tight spot.

However, from an entertainment standpoint, the Rover and his pet Robo-Snake, as a team, would defy the conventional wisdom that robots are not all that interesting in leading roles.  With only two robots, how interesting could the relationship be?  When have just a couple of robots, alone, entertained anyone?

Well, it happened at least once.  R2-D2 and C3PO formed the ideal, model relationship for our Rover – Robo Snake team.  With the Rover designed as an all terrain vehicle and the Snake designed to behave . . . like a snake, there are bound to be temperamental or, rather, programming differences between the two, just as there were differences between the effervescent R2-D2 and the diplomatic C3PO.  I can imagine a constant dialog between the Snake and Rover warning, admonishing, and critiquing (if not nagging) each other over every petty detail of their mission in a style uniquely pioneered by the Star Wars robotic duo.

Aside from the progressive improvement in the quality of special effects, the introduction of R2-D2 and C3PO brought an entirely new dimension to the portrayal of robots on screen.  While sci-fi aficionados will point, quite accurately, to the distinct personal eccentricities and mannerisms of almost every movie and television robot, the robotic Star Wars duo left subtlety out of the equation displaying quite decidedly dimensioned personality traits.

R2-D2, the small message carrying droid of the first (or is it the IVth) Star Wars film, introduced Luke Skywalker to, at least, the image of Princess Leia.  Then, R2D2 led the future Jedi Knight to his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi.  R2-D2 is always accompanied by C3PO, a “protocol droid” developed to assist in matters of “etiquette, customs, and translation”   And it is this last ability, translation, that defined C3PO’s role in relation to R2-D2 who, while occasionally uttering surprisingly understandable whistles and chirps, had no human language capabilities.  C3PO translated R2D2’s statements for the benefit of human listeners (and audiences).  The two displayed an almost childlike relationship.  They engaged in busy conversations and seemed to be on the verge of bickering rather than chatting most of the time.

The rather sophisticated character development of these robots, in contrast to earlier robotic film stars, was illustrated by actor Anthony Daniels’ refusal to take the offered role of C3PO.  After all, what actor would want the limited role of a robot?  However, after reading the script, Daniels accepted the role realizing the substance and range offered by the robotic performance.

Likewise, R2D2 was more than a prop — even behind the scenes.  Portraying Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ewan McGregor said, “As soon as R2-D2 comes on the set, everyone goes a bit silly.”  McGregor said that the small robot inspired affection.  It surely did with no less than George Lucas who has said that R2D2 was his favorite character.

The Robot Hall of Fame was created in 2003 by Carnegie Mellon University “to recognize excellence in robotics technology.”  Since then, a number of real and fictional robots have been induced:

Robby the Robot inducted 2004

R2-D2 inducted 2003

C3PO inducted 2004

To its shame, the Robot Hall of Fame has yet to induct B9 of Lost in Space.  In my opinion, this is a glaring (and almost unforgivable) omission.  B9 was not even among the candidates considered in 2012.  However, in an NBC People’s Choice Poll, B9 received many write-in votes.  More surprising was a respectable showing in the same poll by the animated robot “Bender” from Futurama.  Even as a fan of that series, I must confess that, to win induction, a robot should at least rise to some standards.  Unfortunately, Bender takes pride in sinking below them all.

What would my favorite Cinderella robotic candidate be?  Well, if I had to pick, it would be Red Dwarf’s “Kryten” portrayed by Robert Llewellyn.

And so, dear reader, I will end with the obvious question:  What or who is your pick as the best sci-fi fantasy robot of all time?

Grossmann: Our Collapsing Planet—Aquifers & Sinkholes in Salty Kansas


7 November 2013

“Aquifer” is a sophisticated name for what we used to call groundwater.  You dig down, and you find water at a certain depth.  That’s the water table – the underground “water level.”  That’s what makes water wells possible.   Groundwater is found in formations called aquifers.  And aquifers are a little like lakes.  But, unlike lakes, the water doesn’t rest in a depression on the surface of the land.  Rather, groundwater permeates the land like water permeates a sponge.  You can’t see or feel an aquifer even when you standing on the ground right above it.

Aquifers are also like lakes because they are bodies of water with a bottom and distinct “sides” or boundaries.  So, you can dig in one place and find water near the surface.  However, in a second place, just a few miles away, you might dig and dig, but find no water at all.  In the first place, you were above an aquifer but, in the second, you weren’t. [1]

In Kansas, farming was very difficult until they discovered ground water in 1911. [2] They didn’t just find some water.  They found a lot of it.  Relative privation gave way to agricultural prosperity.  At the time, the best “explanation” for the water was that there was an “underground river.”  And, from that “river,” water was drawn for irrigation.  Kansas farmer Rodger Funk remembers that there was also a conventional wisdom:  They said the river was inexhaustible.  Now, Funk laments, “they were wrong.” [3]

What “they” called an underground river was, in fact, the Ogallala Aquifer, a massive reservoir of groundwater covering a substantial part of eight states from Texas to South Dakota.  The water accumulated in the ground thousands of years ago as the last glaciers from the last ice age melted. [4] Replenished by light yearly rains, the water remained intact until it was discovered, but misidentified as an underground river in 1911.  Pumping water from the aquifer for agricultural and, later, residential use began.  Then, slowly, the groundwater began to disappear.  Slowly, but surely.

The history of groundwater use in Kansas was the focus of a recent study by researchers from Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  In 1960, the Kansas aquifer’s water reserves had declined only 3% as a result of systematic use. However, by 2010, the reserves had declined by 30%.  And, with projected usage, we can expect a 69% decline by 2060. Aquifers can run dry and, with the modest rainfall in the region, it would take hundreds, if not thousands, of years to replenish this massive aquifer once it was “tapped out.” [5]

The study’s lead researcher, David Steward, Professor of Civil Engineering at Kansas State University explained that no one can be sure how long the aquifer’s waters will last.  The study proposed a plan to reduce water usage through more efficient use in the hope of maintaining the aquifer, as a water source, indefinitely.  That would be a positive step, but the challenge is to actually reduce water use.  While not all states touched by the aquifer have such a positive prognosis, there is reason for cautious optimism for the future of the Kansas portion of the Ogallala Aquifer. [6]

However, low water production is only one of the dangers posed by a depleted aquifer.  Pumping aquifers dry can create another problem: Subsidence. Perhaps a more familiar term would be sinkholes.

An aquifer’s waters provide internal support for the soil around the groundwater deposit.  When the water disappears too quickly, air fills the void left in the pores of the rock and the earth.  And air is anything but good supporting material.  So, a dry aquifer may not only mean a sudden lack of water for agriculture and residential use.   It also can “result in land subsidence, cracking house foundations, and changing drainage patterns.” [6.1]

Strictly speaking, sinkholes form in lands with substantial limestone strata beneath the surface.  Water permeates and flows through limestone and, very gradually, erodes it away.  This is how the typical cave is formed.  Over extremely long periods of time, the limestone bed become thin and finally collapses.  When it does, the soil above it also collapses.  Suddenly, a small but significant area of the earth’s surface disappears into a roughly circular hole.  The effects are sudden and sometimes devastating. [7]

Quite specifically, subsidence might be the more technical term to apply to a collapse caused by air in the soil resulting from depletion of an aquifer.  With subsidence, everything just starts to sink. [8] Mexico City, for example, was built on an old lakebed resting above a large underground aquifer.  Because the city has no other cost effective source of water, this aquifer, though not dry, was substantially depleted by heavy use during the last decades of the 20th century.  The resulting land subsidence is so severe that whole areas of city are sinking rapidly.  Not only are foundations undermined, but the sewer system is subject to continual damage.  In spite of constant repair efforts, fresh and contaminated water become mixed spreading contamination to the city’s drinking water. [9]

Last summer, Kansas was in the middle of a draught.  On July 31, 2013, Wyatt Hoss noticed a 90 foot deep roughly round crater in the pasture north of Sharon Springs in Wallace County, Kansas.  The sinkhole was 200-300 feet across.  The discovery turned the area into a tourist attraction or in the words of Wyatt Hoss’s 82 year old mother, Margaret, “a three-ring circus.”  A local commentator, Kate Wilkins-Wells, was amused to see a TV reporter on the scene standing within the concentric fissures near the rim of crater while soberly warning would-be visitors that the place the reporter was standing was too dangerous for curious visitors. [post] The pasture became a local tourist attraction much to the chagrin of property (and sinkhole) owner Margaret Hoss who valued her privacy. [10]

The sinkhole was in an area of the county with little oil, gas, or groundwater extractions.  But there was a draught in progress.  And the sinkhole was quite near the Ogallala aquifer which is noticeably thin or absent in that area.  So, could the Wallace County sinkhole be the result of aquifer depletion? [11]

Probably not, The Director of the Kansas Geological Survey, Rex Buchanan, quickly noted that, in spite of the closeness of a relatively depleted portion of the aquifer, both water extraction and activities related to oil or gas extraction had been scarce in the area.  [12]

But if the cause wasn’t a depleted aquifer or the extraction of oil or gas, what happened?   And, unlike most areas vulnerable to frequent sinkholes, Kansas doesn’t have underground limestone deposits or the caves that go with them.  So, it had to be something else.  To find that “something else,” you need to look at the history of sinkholes in Kansas.

Not only have there been a lot of sinkholes in the past, but Wallace County is famous for its “collapses” including the Smoky Basin Cave-in that developed about 5 miles east of Sharon Springs in 1926 and grew to an estimated 350-by-250-foot irregular oval.  [13] And, in the more distant past, another sinkhole, the circular Old Maid Pool, is located about 6 miles northwest of Sharon Springs. [14]

But what could be causing these sinkholes?

Salt.  Kansas is unusually rich in halite deposits.  Halite is rock salt.  The presence of a 200 foot thick bed of rock salt about 2,000 feet below the surface likely led to the formation of the old sinkholes as well as this newest addition in Wallace County. [15]

Why is salt so important to the development of sinkholes?  Well, you have to see the effect of water on salt to understand.  Exposed to water, salt dissolves almost instantly.  And I mean instantly.  In other words, it was the presence, rather than the absence, of groundwater “penetrating through fractures in overlying layers” of soil that dissolved the salt and “eventually created a substantial void.” “When the rock above could no longer sustain the weight, everything from the surface down suddenly collapsed.”

So, before we look for water depletion or imprudent oil or mineral extraction, subsurface salt deposits are a notoriously “usual suspect” in sinkhole formation.   Indeed salt has been mined around nearby Hutchison, Kansas for decades.  And past sinkholes have been definitely linked to the dissolution of underground salt, gypsum, or other sedimentary mineral deposits. [16]

The Wallace County sinkhole presented a little mystery because the area’s subsurface geology is not so well known.  Among Kansas counties, Wallace County is “short on oil and gas and its salt is too deep to mine economically.”  So less data is available on the subsurface geology of the area, but it is assumed to be no different than the areas all around and, so, is vulnerable to sinkhole formation. [17]

Meanwhile, Margaret Hoss was offended that her pasture turned into to tourist attraction, and the visitors ignored the family’s pleas to stay away.  Barricades didn’t work, and Hoss was afraid the traffic would damage her pasture’s grass, which was needed for their cattle.  Still, she made no reports about the trespassers to County Sheriff Townsend.  Hoss explained that, while she was angry about the trespassing, she still didn’t believe in “petty arrests.”  [18]