Stories tagged senses

It's Friday, and y'all know what that means. Yup, time for a new Science Friday video.

Science Friday
Science FridayCourtesy Science Friday

This week,

"Many mammals have whiskers but not all whisk. Cats don't. Rats do. To whisk, rats use special muscles in their face to brush their whiskers against an object. From the bending bristles, rats seem to be able to decode an object's shape and texture and Mitra Hartmann, engineer at Northwestern University, wants to understand how. This week, Hartmann and colleagues published a 3D whisker model, which she says will help quantify what information the brain receives from a whisk."


Tasting light
Tasting lightCourtesy ARTiFactor

Tasting the Light

Just as blind people read words by touching braille bumps, some are now able to "see" objects via a special lollipop that stimulates their taste buds. Images from a video camera control which of the 625 low voltage shocker buttons fire on a one inch square lollipop.

This device, which I wrote about more than 3 years ago (Tongue ESP), is now being submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approval.

Robert Beckman, president and chief executive officer of (Wicab) notes that the device (called Brainport) could be approved for market by the end of 2009 at a cost of about $10,000 per machine.

Learn more about Wicab's Brainport

Bet you didn't even know there was a contest, did you? Well there is.

Mmmm, that smells good: New research concludes that T-rex dinosaurs had an excellent sense of smell.
Mmmm, that smells good: New research concludes that T-rex dinosaurs had an excellent sense of smell.Courtesy ArthurWeasley
One of the first things I learned in my time here at the museum is that everything we know about dinosaurs we learn from the fossil record. Since then, we've posted numerous stories here about non-fossilized factors to dinosaurs. Here's another story that challenges the fossil record assertion. Researchers have discovered that T-Rex dinosaurs very likely had an extraordinary sense of smell. Click hear to learn how they've figured that out.


Roborat 1.0: Future models, I expect, will have teeth. Lots of teeth.
Roborat 1.0: Future models, I expect, will have teeth. Lots of teeth.Courtesy The Weizmann Institute of Science
The way that scientists seem to be able to read my mind, or at least predict the things I’ll want, is frightening to me sometimes. Frightening in the best way, of course, like how a birthday party is frightening.

See, just the other day I was lying on the floor of my room, thinking about rats. I was thinking about how great rats are, and wishing that there was some way to increase the ratty-ness of the world. Because, for all the great things about rats, they still have their drawbacks. Their size, for one—rats can get pretty big, but, in my opinion, not nearly big enough. Also, rats die. Could there possibly be a way, I wondered, there on the floor, to create a rat that can’t die? Maybe a whole race of undying rats? Dreams, I thought, just dreams…

Not so. Scientists have done their thing (science) and created a robotic “whiskered” rat (and remember, robots can’t die, not really). And don’t change your pants just yet, not until you hear this—the robo-rat is also four times the size of a real rat! Where dreams end and reality begins is no longer obvious to me!

The “whiskers” of the robot are intended to allow it to identify objects through touch (an angle largely ignored in robotics). Using this powerful sense, researchers say, “the whiskered robot will be able to quickly locate, identify and capture moving objects.” Wonderful! All that sentence needs is for a “kill” to be inserted, and we’ll have perfection.

Oddly enough, the creation of a giant, blind, robotic rat is not the ultimate goal of this research. By building a robot to that mimics an animal’s senses, scientists hope to learn more about the way the brain processes and interprets data gathered by these senses. The step-by-step construction of this “brain like system” allows scientists to find the most efficient and accurate methods of interpreting sense data, and the result is likely very similar to the brain’s own processes. The results of a project like this one might eventually be applied to the construction of machines, for instance, that could be used “in rescue missions, as well as search missions under conditions of restricted visibility.” Or, ideally, to fill the nights of the future with huge, metal rats.


But, in Smellovision,: it would be beautiful
But, in Smellovision,: it would be beautifulCourtesy Kaptain Kobold
It’s amazing how the scientific process works out. I, for instance, have spent many years attempting to test the statement regarding killing two birds with one stone. Progress made towards the main research question (How good, in fact, is killing two birds with one stone? Pretty good?), has been, well, convoluted: more than anything else, I have uncovered obstacles. It turns out that many birds can fly, and that I am very poor at throwing, both factors significantly complicating the stoning process. This sort of things is only to be expected in science, but it means that one problem (at least) must be dealt with before another can be dealt with fully. In my own research, I’m thinking that it might be best to fasten both birds, somehow, to a plank, where a single stone can more easily be applied to each. Then, perhaps, I can see how things are different after they are dead.

Anyhow, the point is, research can take you all kinds of interesting places, and it seems that the work of scientists at Rockefeller University has mirrored my own in this respect.

Like so many other scientists, the Rockefeller researchers are studying flies (approximately sixty-five percent of all science performed today is fly-related). They are interested in how flies navigate by use of smell. Flies, or at least the variety observed at Rockefeller, have two olfactory organs, two noses, essentially, and the scientists are able to genetically modify the bugs so that one, two, or neither of the noses work. When they then observed the way fly larvae move towards a certain controlled smell, they found that one-nosed flies could still sense the source of an odor, but not nearly so well as those flies with two noses. The flies were smelling in stereo.

Stereo smell would be great, I think. Our stereo vision gives us depth perception, and our two ears allow us to pinpoint sounds; with stereo smell there would never again be a question as to who dealt it. Nor would there be if the other product of Rockefeller’s research were marketed: a little something no one is calling Smellovision.

In order to fully understand how the flies were reacting to odors, the scientists needed a way to observe the exact dynamics of the smell, to see how and where it was concentrated at all times. So that’s just what they did – they created a way to see the smells. They developed “a novel spectroscopic technique that exploited infrared light to create environments where they could see, control and precisely quantify the distribution of these smells.” Smellovision. That would also be pretty rad – if you were really stinky, you could look like a cartoon character, with stink lines and green clouds and everything, qualities that I believe we all aspire to.

It’s an inspiring story all around, I think. I mean, there’s no reason for me to get frustrated with my research. Sure, some of the work feels like sidetracking, but maybe it will lead to my discovering a great, efficient new way of killing birds with stones. You just never know!

We have posted previously of what kinds of super powers you would like science to deliver but I never saw this one listed. Wired is reporting on people who claim they gain a sort of magnetic sixth sense by having tiny rare-earth magnets implanted in their fingertips.


Tongue ESP: The tongue can be used to sense input from machines via a grid of electrodes placed on the tongue which is stimulated with electricity.

Using Tongue ESP?: She probably isn't but could be in the future.
Courtesy Creap

What extra sensory perceptions would would you like? Seeing behind your back? Smelling odorless gasses like carbon monoxide? How about seeing in the dark? Sensors already exist that can do these things. All that is needed is a way to input what they sense into our brains. The most common way to input information from external sensors is visually. We can use our eyes to see distant airplanes or weather clouds on a radar scope. We can read how much carbon monoxide is in the air we breath by looking at a meter.

Suppose we need to sense things without using our eyes. Most often when we cannot see, we use our fingers to get information. Blind people use a cane to feel thier way around. Sometimes they tap their cane and listen for echoes to sense a barrier.

Another way to sense data about our environment is with our tongue. Suppose a ten by ten grid of electrodes were placed on the tongue and small voltages were used to create various patterns of sensation on the tongue. Just like bumps on paper can create thousands of words for people trained to read braille, the hundred electrodes on the tongue can allow trained people to sense data from sonar, radar, toxin detectors, or any other data measurable by various sensors.

At the institute for Machine and Human Cognition (IFHMC) Anil Raj is principle investigator in research titled: Adaptive Human/Machine Multi-sensory Prostheses. They are working on TSAS: Tactile Situation Awareness System. The research is exploring how electrodes on the tongue or in a body suit can allow users to receive input from external devices. Such input is desirable when your hands and eyes are already too busy or when they cannot be used.