Monthly Archives: September 2016

The best standalone smartwatch

When Google announced Android Wear 2.0 last May, we knew standalone/cellular-connected watches were going to be a major focus. For the last couple weeks, we’ve been testing the first of the bunch: the 4G LTE-ready LG Watch Sport. Is this hulk of a smartwatch worth buying? Read on for New Atlas’ review.

The first thing you’ll notice about the LG Watch Sport is its size: This is an enormous smartwatch. But what seemed like a divisive quality during my first few hours with it, later turned into part of its charm. The Sport would look like a monstrous sun dial on most women’s wrists, but for those searching for a substantial and masculine-looking piece of wrist tech that does everything you’d want a 2017 smartwatch to do, it’s a worthy contender for your dollars.

The addition of 4G LTE only makes practical sense to joggers, gym rats or anyone else prone to phoneless treks outdoors or to a favorite workout spot. (Where else would you not have your phone with you?) But if you fall into one of those niches, I prefer the Watch Sport over Samsung’s similarly-connected Gear S3 – simply because Android Wear 2.0 feels more mature and streamlined than Samsung’s oft-chintzy Tizen OS.

While Android Wear 1.X was something of a dumbed-down smartwatch OS, with notification cards and voice control making up the entire experience, Wear 2 makes Google’s wearable software feel closer to Apple’s watchOS. You still swipe up to see cards for notifications, but you now have a hardware shortcut to your apps list, NFC for Android Pay and a button-press to go directly back to home. There’s even an onboard version of the Play Store so you don’t need to install apps on your phone first (great for iPhone owners, as compatibility could be an issue if you needed companion phone apps).

New campus nears completion

Apple’s Foster + Partners-designed “spaceship campus” was originally revealed all the way back in 2011, and it’s finally nearing completion. The firm announced today that Apple Park, as it is now officially called, will open to employees in April this year.

Moving 12,000 Apple employees from the firm’s current campus into the new digs is obviously no small task, and the process will be phased over six months from Apple Park’s April opening.

Construction work and landscaping will continue for some time yet on the 175-acre (70.81-hectare) Cupertino plot, however. An on-site theater is expected to be finished sometime later this year. Named the Steve Jobs Theater in honor of the late co-founder, the 1,000-seat auditorium will be situated atop a hill and entered via a 20 ft (6 m)-tall glass cylinder. It will be topped by a metallic carbon fiber roof.

In addition, Apple Park will also include a visitor’s center with an Apple Store and cafe open to the public. A fitness center for employees and R&D facilities are also planned.

Apple Park’s sustainability is much-lauded by the firm and indeed seems significant. The project involved 5 million sq ft (464,515 sq m) of asphalt on the site being replaced with more sympathetic landscaping, including 9,000 native drought-resistant trees and grass, and walking and running paths for staff.

A 17-megawatt solar panel array will enable Apple Park to run entirely from renewable energy. Hailed as the world’s largest naturally-ventilated building by the firm, it’s also expected to require no heating or air conditioning whatsoever for nine months of the year.

According to Apple, the main building is clad in the world’s largest panels of curved glass. Featuring a total floorspace of 2.8 million sq ft (260,128 sq m) inside, it’s certainly an impressive piece of engineering and we’ll no doubt have more to say on its design once it’s complete.

All seasons to hedge against climate change

The last time food was rationed in England, Winston Churchill was still prime minister of the country. Earlier this month, however, Britons experienced a blast from the past as bad weather in Spain caused a severe vegetable shortage in the UK, leading some supermarkets to ration the number of greens that customers could buy. But could creating a new line of broccoli for all seasons help avert another veggie crisis, the next time the rain in Spain becomes a pain?

Though it might not look like it, the part of the broccoli plant we eat is actually a flower structure. In order for the plant to reach this flowering stage, the temperature has to be just right, and key to this part of its growth cycle is a process known as vernalization. Put simply, some plants need to undergo a period of cold weather before they can flower, and broccoli is one of them. If it doesn’t get cold enough, it flowers late, or worse, not at all, making it a high-risk crop for farmers.

It therefore goes without saying that erratic weather patterns are bad news for broccoli growers who can’t predict how much cold weather they are going to get each year. And because farmers have no idea when the plants will flower, this in turn creates a problem for crop scheduling.

To address this problem, crop geneticist and lead researcher Judith Irwin developed a new line of broccoli that is not only fast-growing – it goes from seed to harvest in just around two months – but is also resistant to the climatic whims of the season, since it can be grown all year round in protected conditions.

Based on past research conducted by John Innes plant biologist Caroline Dean, the road leading to this development involved crossing different lines together to find the gene responsible for flowering time (or “heading date” as it is known in the horticultural industry). In the course of their studies, Dean and her team found that small changes in a gene known as FCL result in a range of heading dates found in different broccoli varieties.

“We harnessed our knowledge of how plants regulate the flowering process to remove the requirement for a period of cold temperature and bring this new broccoli line to harvest faster,” explains Irwin. “This means growers could turn around two field-based crops in one season, or if the broccoli is grown in protected conditions, four to five crops in a year.”

Given that the UK grows only 23 percent of its own food, this new development could help address the problem of seasonality and the country’s dependence on imported crops by allowing broccoli to be grown year round in contained horticultural production systems such as greenhouses or vertical farms.

The healing secrets of Komodo dragon blood

Downing a vial of Komodo dragon blood to fight a bacterial infection might sound like something prescribed by a meister on Game of Thrones, but new research shows that the substance might have very real applications in our world. By analyzing the creature’s blood, scientists reporting in the Journal of Proteome Research say they’ve isolated 48 compounds that could help fight bacteria, including those resistant to traditional antibiotics.

Found on certain islands in Indonesia, Komodo dragons are the heaviest lizards on Earth, reaching lengths of up to 10 ft (3 m) and weights over 300 lb (136 kg). They are also fierce predators. Not only does the beast have sharp claws and shark-like teeth, its saliva is a toxic brew of over 50 strains of bacteria which infects wounds on its prey, causing the hapless creatures to eventually die of blood poisoning if the dragon doesn’t finish the job during the first attack.

Because Komodo dragons can harbor all of this bacteria without succumbing to it themselves, it caught the attention of researchers from the College of Science at George Mason University (GMU) in Virginia. Building on previous work they’d done with alligators, the team identified 48 substances known as cationic antimicrobial peptides (CAMPs) in the lizards’ blood, which are small chains of amino acids found in the immune systems of nearly all living creatures that can fight bacteria.

To spot the CAMPs specific to the dragons, a feat they say would have been impossible using normal CAMP identification processes, they employed a process called bioprospecting. First, they incubated the Komodo dragon blood with negatively charged hydrogel particles. Then, because the CAMPs are positively charged, the hydrogel particles attached to them, making them identifiable with mass spectrometry.

Of the substances identified, eight were synthesized by the team. Seven were found to be potent combatants of the Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus bacterial strains, while one fought off only P. aeruginosa.

“We have identified a host of novel peptides from Komodo dragon plasma that exhibit broad-spectrum antimicrobial properties, including anthrax and multidrug-resistant bacteria,” the team adds on GMU’s College of Science website. “These peptides would be virtually undetectable using conventional CAMP discovery methods.”

The researchers also mention that they’ve created a peptide known as DRGN-1 that showed wound-healing ability and the power to bust biofilms – super strong colonies of bacteria that are notoriously difficult to eliminate. They are hopefully that the newly discovered and synthesized compounds will eventually lead to potent therapeutic drugs.

The incredible SR

Even though it was built at the height of the Cold War and hasn’t flown in over 17 years, the SR-71 Blackbird still looks like it fell out of the future. The war plane with no weapons not only had the lines of a spaceship, it set the record for the fastest air-breathing manned aircraft in 1976 – a record that remains unchallenged to this day. So how was it built, and what was it like to fly this supersonic denizen of the edge of space?

Developed by Lockheed at its famously secretive Skunk Works in Burbank, California, the SR-71 was a derivative of the A-12 reconnaissance plane built for the CIA as a replacement for the U2 spy plane of the 1950s. It was the brainchild of American aerospace engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson who, like a real-life Tony Stark, came up with all sorts of remarkable design innovations that pushed forward aerospace engineering.

The SR-71 was built for the US Air Force and operated from 1964 to 1998. The Blackbird, or Habu, as it was also nicknamed after a venomous Japanese snake, could outrun any plane or missile that was sent against it. It set multiple speed and altitude records that have yet to be matched and was one of the first stealth aircraft. It also became stronger as it grew older, despite the fact that it was built by engineers using slide rules. That’s a bit like prying open your smartphone and finding a little man inside with an abacus.

So what motivated the development of this formidable flying dagger? The answer lies in the frostiest years of the Cold War. In the 1950s when NATO became aware of the vital necessity of keeping tabs on the Soviet Union, which since the end of the Second World War had been growing increasingly aggressive while deliberately cultivating the image of possessing an unstoppable war machine with a growing nuclear arsenal.

Fearing both a Soviet sneak attack and the equal nightmare of either side sparking off a nuclear holocaust by accident, President Eisenhower put forward his Open Skies initiative. This was designed to allow US and Soviet recon aircraft to fly over one another’s territory, but the Kremlin turned it down like a bed sheet, so the Americans started work on the U2 spy plane that first flew in 1955.

A jet-powered sailplane that’s still in service today, the U2 was designed and built for the CIA and its job was to soar over the USSR and Warsaw Pact countries to gather strategic information. Unfortunately, the CIA underestimated the state of Soviet anti-aircraft technology and on May 1, 1960, a U2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down by a salvo of SA-2 missiles. Powers miraculously survived and was captured by the Soviets, who convicted him of espionage in a show trial before exchanging him for the KGB spy Rudolf Abel in 1962.