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HexDrake — A Low Cost 2-DOF Hexapod

hexdrake low cost hexapod

[David's] been making robots since he was 16. After conquering the basics, he wanted to build something a bit more interesting than a simple wheeled-robot — he wanted to buy a hexapod but they were too expensive — so he decided to design his own low-cost version!

It’s made out of hand-cut wood, SG90 servos, an Arduino and a 16-channel servo controller. A 2.4GHz remote control sends commands to the Arduino which then communicates to the USC servo controller, allowing for intricate control of the 14 servos that make up the HexDrake.

He’s also added a few LED arrays for the eyes of his robot, which in the future will be animated to give expression to his little hexapod.

It’s an extremely well built little bot, and [David's] made a very in-depth Instructable for anyone who would like to follow in his footsteps. Stick around after the break to see it scurry around!

For something a bit scarier and bigger, check out this 16lb beast of a Hexapod! No where near low-cost though…


Filed under: Arduino Hacks, robots hacks

HexDrake — A Low Cost 2-DOF Hexapod

hexdrake low cost hexapod

[David's] been making robots since he was 16. After conquering the basics, he wanted to build something a bit more interesting than a simple wheeled-robot — he wanted to buy a hexapod but they were too expensive — so he decided to design his own low-cost version!

It’s made out of hand-cut wood, SG90 servos, an Arduino and a 16-channel servo controller. A 2.4GHz remote control sends commands to the Arduino which then communicates to the USC servo controller, allowing for intricate control of the 14 servos that make up the HexDrake.

He’s also added a few LED arrays for the eyes of his robot, which in the future will be animated to give expression to his little hexapod.

It’s an extremely well built little bot, and [David's] made a very in-depth Instructable for anyone who would like to follow in his footsteps. Stick around after the break to see it scurry around!

For something a bit scarier and bigger, check out this 16lb beast of a Hexapod! No where near low-cost though…


Filed under: Arduino Hacks, robots hacks

Building EL Displays On A PCB

ELElecrolumiscent displays have seen a huge swing in popularity recently, but only in limited forms like EL wire or flat EL panels. You can, of course, cut and bend these wires and panels to suit any purpose, but custom shaped EL displays are just the bee’s knees. They’re not hard to fabricate, either: with cheap custom PCBs, all it takes to make custom EL panels is just a few chemicals.

[Nick]‘s method of fabricating custom EL displays uses an exposed copper layer on a PCB you’d pick up from OSHpark or any of the random board houses in China. The process consists of designing a display – be it a few letters, pixels, or a seven-segment arrangement. The display ‘stack’ is a layer of painted-on dialectric, a phospor, and finally a translucent conductive ink that connects the display segments to ground. It looks like an extremely easy process, and from the pictures it looks like [Nick] is making some EL displays of reasonable quality.

[Nick]‘s work was inspired by the grand poobah of homebrew electrolumiscent displays, [Jeri Ellsworth], who managed to make a similar EL pixel on a PCB. [Nick]‘s display looks great, though, and with a little work some custom segment displays should be very possible.


Filed under: chemistry hacks

How Wearable Computing Could Change Marketing

Research predicts tellurian shipments of wearable devices, including smartwatches and glasses, will stretch 130 million by 2018, 10 times some-more than 2013.

VA seeks GIS to track and treat outbreaks, chronic disease

Esri's GIS technology is being used "to track the prevalence of chronic conditions and informing policymakers as to where interventions will be most successful based on spatial analysis.".

How To Fathom Pi: Amazing Visual Illustrations

Distribution of the first 123,201 digits of π mapped onto a red-yellow-blue Brewer palette and placed as circles on an Archimedean spiral by Martin Krzywinski

Distribution of the first 123,201 digits of π mapped onto a red-yellow-blue Brewer palette and placed as circles on an Archimedean spiral by Martin Krzywinski

Pi is, quite possibly, the most famous number known to man.* This fact is a little bit ironic, as we don’t actually have a number for pi. Well, not a complete number anyways, because pi never ends. If you try to pin it down to the decimal, you can’t do it—the decimal representation goes on endlessly, and it never settles into a repeating patters. Hence, all the fame.

If you are unfamiliar with this number, pi is the mathematical constant that represents the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, and it is typically written as 3.14159 .  But of course, this number isn’t entirely accurate because (as was previously mentioned) pi never ends. But why does pi matter? In short, because pi indicates that it is impossible to solve the ancient challenge of squaring the circle with a compass and straight-edge. Due to this impossibility, the number itself has plagued individuals since ancient times. In fact, many people have devoted their lives to working out pi as accurately as possible. A British mathematician, William Shanks (1812—1882), spent 15 years of his life working out pi to 707 digits. This is an impressive feat…unfortunately, he made a mistake at the 528th digit, which rendered all subsequent numbers inaccurate. 

However, (despite some minor set backs) the quest to understand pi continues. Today, pi has been computed to more than 10 trillion digits. In November of 2004, a chemistry student from China,  Chao Lu, attempted to recite as much of pi as possible. Lu practiced for over four years for the attempt and made it to an astounding 67,890 numbers. This feat earned Lu a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most places of pi memorized.

Recently, Cristian Ilies Vasile created an amazing way to visualize pi. He divided a circle in 10 segments, from 0 to 9. Then he traced a path going from the third segment to the first segment (representing the 3.1). Then he traced a segment from 1 to the 4 (so now we have 3.14). From here, he goes back to 1, then 5 (so now we have 3.14159). He goes on and on and on adding segments up to about 10,000 digits. After a while, π appears in front of your eyes. The final illustration is, well, amazing. 

This visual representation was created by a 41 year old individual who suffered brain damage after being attacked  by muggers. He was kicked in the had repeatedly, and amazingly, he was left with the ability to visualize complex fractal patters, which he used to represent pi.

Jason Padgett can produce a visual representation of the formula Pi, the infinite number which begins with 3.14

Jason Padgett can produce a visual representation of the formula Pi, the infinite number which begins with 3.14

*It is actually represented as “π,” but has become known as “pi” in popular usage.

Webinar tip – How to use google maps and big data in your business

TweetSome details on a webinar of interest via Clevertech … “We at Clevertech have implemented a number of GIS web applications based on Google Maps JavaScript API v3, and want to pass along our knowledge to YOU”. During this webinar … Continue reading

Sphere Morphing Hexabot Takes On The Wilderness

Morphex Ready To Roll

[Zenta's] sphere morphing hexabot, the MorpHex, continues to impress us. He’s just released a video showing it off — by having it roll down a hill!

We’ve been following the MorpHex since 2011, and it really is an amazing project — especially when it started to roll around on its own! In this latest update, [Zenta] was trying to get a good outdoor test video, as he’s never seen a hexapod robot roll down a hill. The video (and rolling) goes smoothly until about 3 minutes 36 seconds in, when the MorpHex experiences a catastrophic inner body servo failure!

Surprisingly, it didn’t fail during its tumble down the hill, but when it was just walking around afterwards. [Zenta] attributes it to a poor quality servo and had bad feelings about it breaking previously. Not fixing it earlier resulted in having to spend 10 hours of his Easter holiday taking Morphex apart and repairing it! Just goes to show… don’t wait until it’s too late to fix something!

And the clip of when the inner body servo fails:

[Thanks Joel!]


Filed under: robots hacks

How Black Holes Work:

Want To Know More About Black Holes?

Credit: D. Benningfield/K. Gebhardt/StarDate

Credit: D. Benningfield/K. Gebhardt/StarDate

 

US Copyright Law Doesn’t Apply Worldwide,”DVD Ripper” Tells Court

dvdfablogoAACS, the decryption licensing outfit founded by a group of movie studios and technology partners including Warner Bros, Disney, Microsoft and Intel, launched a crackdown on DRM-circumvention software earlier this year.

In the most prominent action AACS sued the makers of popular DVD ripping software DVDFab. Last month it won a preliminary injunction based on the argument that the “DVDFab Group” violates the DMCA’s anti-circumvention clause, since their software that can bypass DVD encryption.

The injunction barred the Chinese-based DVDFab from distributing its software in public, by allowing AACS to order the seizure of its domain names. In addition, the company’s social media accounts were blocked and bank funds frozen.

DVDFab initially did not respond to the court, so the order was entered by default. However, after the injunction was issued the company responded in the name of Feng Tao, with a request for the court to revise its earlier judgment.

The company informed the court that the injunction is too broad, as it basically shuts down the entire operation based on U.S. law. The anti-circumvention provisions the injunction is based on don’t apply worldwide, they argue.

“It is well-established that the Copyright Act doesn’t apply extra-territorially,” the company notes.

dvdfab

Since DVDFab’s domain names and bank accounts were seized the injunction also blocks DVDFab’s business in other countries, which goes too far according to the lawyers.

“For example, shutting down the DVDFab domain names and enjoining the payment processors prevents defendant Feng Tao from using such domain names and payment processors for sales of unrelated products, and for sales of DVDFab products outside the United States,” they note.

For this reason DVDFab asks the court to amend the injunction so it only applies to the United States. This would require the return of seized domain names and social media accounts, plus the lifting of payment processing restrictions.

In a response, AACS points out that DVDFab has violated the preliminary injunction from the start. The company immediately registered several new domain names that are not under U.S. control, and continued business as usual. DVDFab also allegedly launched a new “BluFab” brand under which it sells copies of its DVD ripping software.

dvdfabchange

Even more controversially, AACS claims that a DVDFab representative threatened them in an attempt to settle the issue. A person named “Frank” contacted an AACS lawyer and offered an “exclusivity delay” with all major circumvention software makers, if AACS agreed to lift the domain name seizures. If AACS declined this offer, DVDFab would give away its software for free, the company allegedly said.

“Frank said that DVDFab was the largest circumvention software maker and it could align all other major circumvention software makers to allow AACS LA a one to three weeks exclusivity delay on introducing circumvention software in exchange for AACS LA restoring the DVDFab Websites and business.”

“Frank stated that if AACS LA refused the deal, DVDFab Defendants would distribute the software for free, thereby rendering AACS LA irrelevant,” AACS lawyers adds.

AACS further points out that the scope of the injunction isn’t too broad at all. According to the company, the Copyright Act allows for such measures in cases where the actions of a foreign business are “felt within the United States.”

It’s now up to the court to decide who’s right in this case.

For the time being, all U.S.-controlled DVDFab domain names, social media accounts and payment processing services remain unavailable. However, the software maker is still operational through several new domains, which can be easily found through Google and other search engines.

Source: TorrentFreak, for the latest info on copyright, file-sharing and anonymous VPN services.

How Big Data Helps Chains Like Starbucks Pick Store Locations — An (Unsung) Key To Retail Success

ArcGIS Online is helping retailers ranging from Starbucks to Dress Barn fine tune how to pick a store location with the goal of driving more traffic and boosting sales.

Unexplained Intergalactic Radio Bursts Confirmed At Arecibo:

Four recently detected "blitzars" (red stars) have revealed that these sources of fleeting radio bursts are much more distant than known pulsars (black dots) (Image: C. Ng/MPIfR)

Four recently detected “blitzars” (red stars) have revealed that these sources of fleeting radio bursts are much more distant than known pulsars (black dots) (Image: C. Ng/MPIfR)

You  have almost certainly heard of quasars, white dwarfs, neutron stars, and pulsars. However most people don’t really know too much about the grouping of stars that are called “blitzars.” This isn’t too surprising, as the signals from these strange cosmological objects have only been detected rarely (fewer than a dozen times). In fact, up until recently, the signals had only been detected by one observatory—Parkes Observatory in Australia. Moreover, the signals are so distant and so powerful that they stunned astronomers, causing many to question whether the signals were really just a quirk in the telescope or something detected from the Earth itself.

If all that wasn’t enough, the exact source of the signals is unknown. That means that the signals could be coming from any number of objects (highly magnetic neutron stars, evaporating primordial black holes, large magnetic stars, colliding neutron stars, etc.). In short, blitzars might not even exist; however, we are coming closer to understanding these signals, and determining whether or not blitzars are real structures in our universe.

This week, scientists confirmed that the signals that had been detected by Parkes Observatory are authentic. They verified these signals through information that was captured by the Arecibo Observatory in 2012.

The signals themselves are interesting. They are pretty much the opposite of pulsars. Instead of beaming out near constant emissions of light or radiation like pulsars, they shoot sporadic beams of pure radio waves out into space. These extremely powerful bursts can generate more energy in milliseconds than the Sun does in over 300,000 years*. What’s more, the dispersal patterns indicate that these signals come from billions upon billions of light-years away (some estimates put the objects causing the signals at some 3 billion light-years distant). This ultimately means that the signals are extra-galactic in origin (they do not come from a structure located in the Milky Way).

Lorimer Burst

Site of the first burst found, in 2007. Via Lorimer et al., NRAO/AUI/NSF

As previously mentioned, the unique nature of these signals caused many to question the legitimacy of the detection. However, since scientists have verified that the signals are genuine, they can focus on pinpointing their exact location and (hopefully) determining what causes them. In the end, what astronomers really hope for is a way to find the bursts as they unfold. Once this is accomplished, they might be able to identify an optical source, like a host galaxy.

The Blitzar Proposal:

According to Heino Falcke (an astrophysicist from Radboud University Nijmegen) and Luciano Rezzolla (from the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics), these brief blimps of pure radio waves are created in a highly unusual manner—when a neutron star dies and its magnetic field snaps “like a rubber band.” If correct, this “magnetic snap” would make these objects unlike anything we’ve ever seen before (and give them weird physics to boot).

They propose that blitzars begin when a supermassive neutron star fails to turn into black hole due to its rapid rotation and becomes a pulsar. In essence, a pulsar spins so fast that its centrifugal force prevents it from collapsing into a black hole. But of course, this speed is not static. After a few million years, once the pulsar’s strong magnetic field has sufficiently radiated energy away, the spin slows and it turns into a black hole. Per Falcke and Rezzolla’s assertions, when this happens, the magnetic field sometime “snaps” as the source of the magnetic field (the pulsar) is now gone (turned into a black hole). It is this snapping that, they argue, causes the extreme radio signal that we are detecting. The scientists claim that other wavelength fall into the black hole that is created as the star dies, but radio waves (which are the longest wavelength) and able to escape.

They liken this event to the snapping of a rubber band. While this is an extremely intriguing possibility, it has yet to be peer reviewed or confirmed. So for now, we will have to just sit back and wait for more signals.

Image via NASA

Image via NASA


*Editor’s Note: The numbers on just how energetic these objects are varies wildly, ranging from 30,000 years to a million.

Simple Hack Creates an Inverted Watch Display

Before and after of a negative display watch conversion

Sometimes you have to bust out the wayback machine to find a good hack. Back in 2008, [Brian] performed this awesome negative display hack on his classic Casio G-Shock watch. The G-Shock, like most digital watches, uses a twisted nematic LCD. All Liquid Crystal Displays are made up of a layer cake of polarizers, glass, and liquid crystal. In non touchscreen displays, the top layer is a sheet of polarizing film glued down with an optical quality adhesive.

[Brian] disassembled his watch to reveal the LCD panel. Removing the glued down polarizing film can be a difficult task. Pull too hard and the thin glass layers will crack, rendering the display useless. After some patient work with an X-acto knife [Brian] was able to remove the film.

Much like the privacy monitor hack, the naked watch appeared to be off. Holding a sheet of linear polarizing film between the watch and the viewer reveals the time. If the film is rotated 90 degrees, the entire screen is color inverted. [Brian] liked the aesthetics of the inverted screen, so he glued down his polarizing film in the offset position. After reassembly, [Brian's] “customized” watch was ready to wear.

[Via Hacker News]


Filed under: wearable hacks

Esri Location Analytics Steers Growth at Bank of Clarke County

Bank of Clarke County has adopted Esri's Location Analytics platform to drive better performance and customer insight.

Behind the scenes at the DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials

The DARPA Robotics Challenge could spur the next stage in robot evolution: the ability to operate in the human world

The post Behind the scenes at the DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials appeared first on Popular Mechanics.

What Can We Learn From the Well-Preserved “Franklin Expedition” Mummies?

Some of the images below are of dead individuals. If you are easily upset, offended or "grossed out" by such things, please refrain from reading any further. Or you can see a safe version here.

In this day and age, there are seemingly millions of ways someone can drop dead. A few centuries ago, however, things were much more simplistic. Most people died from the same few things: malnutrition, plagues, like smallpox or tuberculosis, which were made more problematic by the unsanitary living conditions of the time. In yet another way that the past drastically differs from the present, when someone died, they were quickly laid to rest in an effort to staunch the spread of any such plagues that could wipe out a huge chunk of the population. Today, we cut the dead open and inspect every last organ in their bodies. Autopsies, as they are called, help medical examiners determine how and when someone died, while also telling us in good detail how that person lived.  In that sense, our bodies truly are scrapbooks.

Unfortunately, the human body is only viable for a short period of time after someone passes away. The process can be halted temporarily thanks to the practice of embalming (and the refrigeration of a corpse helps too), but nature itself always takes over and we revert back to the Earth from which we came. There are other way of preserving a body though. The ancient Egyptians pretty much mastered the art of longevity but even their methods are inferior to those that happen organically. In certain places around the globe, someone can die and remain just as they were in life for centuries to come. (not alive obviously, but there are some VERY interesting mummies that draw a fine line between looking dead and alive.) Some of those mummies have been found and unearthed, giving modern scientists an opportunity to understand our ancestors in ways they never even dreamed possible.  To that effect:

Meet the Franklin Expedition Mummies:

Rendering of the disaster (Credit: Owen Stanley)

Rendering of the disaster (Credit: Owen Stanley)

In one of the more fascinating examples, more than 150 years ago, a large group of explorers boarded a ship destined for the Northwest Passage (you may associate this route with Lewis and Clark, the legendary explorers). Following in the footsteps of other ships that set sail years before them with disastrous results, the 150 some crew members, along with their two ships and about 7 years of supplies, seemingly disappeared off the face of Earth. In life, the men that boarded the ship were never heard from again, but about 5 years later, one of many expeditions were sent out to determine the fate of the men and their ships, HMS Terror and the Erebus, who came across something rather curious.

On Beechey Island – an island located off the  Canadian Arctic Archipelago – the captain of the search crew discovered what remained of a makeshift campground, which still contained evidence of a human settlement (some empty tin cans, a stone hut and the like were found). Still not convinced that he had discovered the fate of the doomed Franklin Expedition crew, he searched further, eventually unearthing the icy grave stones of three men, who were on one of the two ships traversing the oceans between Asia and the Americas. Their gravestones revealed that the three men, John Torrington, John Hartnell, and William Braine, had all died within months of each other (two died within days of the other, while one lasted about 3 months longer), less than 7 months into their journey.  They also found some unfinished notes that indicated that the ships had hit ice in late 1846 and surviving crew members attempted to walk across about 100 miles of ice pushing a small boat, until they came across a river that they could cross to safety. Obviously, something went very wrong.

Rather than exploring further, the captain and his men left Beechey Island and the secrets it hid behind and journeyed back to England, carrying several pieces of the puzzle with them. The mystery remained for more than 100 years, only ending when a new crew of anthropologists were dispatched to exhume the bodies of the men buried in the graves on Beechy Island. When their dirt tombs were unearthed for the first time in 150 years, the scientists were surprised to find that the bodies were in such a pristine condition.  Each of the men still had toenails and eyebrows intact. Moreover, the team members were able to give a voice to three long-dead men, who died under horrific circumstances.

The First Expedition:

After digging through 6 feet of frozen permafrost, Owen Beattie and his team studied John Torrington; a 20 year old steam boiler attendant who hailed from Manchester, England. They were immediately hit with a repugnant odor, but its origin is a bit surprising. You see, the smell they reported didn’t come from Torrington’s corpse, but from a blue wool blanket that was buried with him. Said fabric was also responsible f0r the blackish-blue discoloration of his nose and face.

John Torrington

“It looked,” Beattie, remarked “like there was somebody in there looking out at the world looking in at him.”

The team then worked with several tools to remove some of the ice that encased his body; carefully removing and documenting the artifacts also found in his coffin. Once the body was freed, they carefully removed Torrington from the tomb – discovering that his body was still limp and flexible – they got a glimpse into the final chapter of his short life.

Not only was he severely malnourished  (only weighing about 88 pounds when he died), but they found evidence of tuberculosis and pneumonia. Both can be a death sentence even in modern times. So given the number of outside factors that could have contributed to his demise, it’s plausible that one of the other did kill him.  Furthermore, it looked as if his death was slow and quite excruciating. The team found that not only were his nails clean, but his hands did not contain any signs of blisters or callouses. This indicates that he was unable to work for months prior to his death

The Second Expedition to Beechy Island:

The team had to leave the island before they could examine the bodies in the other two graves. So they collected samples from Torrington’s corpse and took them with them back to their country.  They ventured back to the arctic the following year and a half to carry out the rest of the mission.

John Hartnell's body

John Hartnell’s body (Credit: Owen Beattie/UoA)

They were surprised to find that one of the bodies, belonging to seaman John Hartnell, had been disturbed following his death. Based on some suspect incisions and the fact that his organs had been removed, they team believed he was autopsied at some point. This was an obvious setback since internal organs are very important in determining a cause of death, but like with Torrington, they collected hair, nail and skin samples to study once they journeyed back home.

Next, they dug up the last corpse;  Private William Braine, who was the last of the three men to die. Of all of the bodies, Braine’s was in the worst condition. The team believed the reason for this was that Braine’s body was left out in the open for some time before he was buried. They came to such a conclusion based on the fact that it looked as if his body had been gnawed by rats. One of his arms was also missing, but once he was lifted from his coffin, they found his arm had been placed under his corpse. Similarly, unlike the other bodies, Braine’s showed  small signs of decomposition. Again, this indicates that his body was left exposed to the elements.

William Braine's body

William Braine’s body  (Credit: Owen Beattie/UoA)

His burial was likely hasty as well. Once they uncloaked his face , which was covered by a bright red handkerchief (you can see the remnants of it pulled above his forehead in the image on the right) , they saw that his nose was flattened and turned up at the tip — a clear sign that his casket was too shallow. The thin wood pushed against his face for almost 150 years, leaving behind an indention.

Once they were finished collecting the samples from the bodies of William Braine and Josh Hartnell, the team gently put both men back into their caskets and reburied them for what would be the final time. But before they left Beechy Island, they took the time fix up the grave sites. As the leader put it so delicately,  “I work with the bones of dead people every day,” “I’m sensitive to the fact that they were people. “

Finally,  they gathered some of the tin cans found nearby and headed home to analyze the data they collected and compare the results from Braine and Hartnell to that of their fallen friend; John Torrington.

What They Learned:

The bodies of all three men showed high-levels of lead in their system. So much lead that each would need to consume approximately 3.3 mg of lead each day over the course of 8 months to account for all of the lead found in their corpses. .At first, the team believed that the high concentrations came from the tin cans of food the expedition left with (and were subsequently found near the gravesite), but that conclusion has been marred in controversy in recent years. Now, many scientists believe the lead was an artifact of the water filtration system used on the ships; an assertion that can’t be proven without access to the ships themselves, which, to this day, have never been found.

Whatever the truth of the matter may be, our three men were likely the lucky ones.  The team members that carried out the exhumation and postmortem inspections came to the conclusion that the men died from tuberculosis. That seems favorable to the fate many of their comrades suffered, as lead poisoning is a particularly vicious way to die. Once exposed to so much of it, the men would feel extremely weak and nauseous. Soon after, they would be unable to make basic decisions (which would explain some of the absurdities that happened after their ships were compromised). Other skeletons found in the area showed that the men might have resorted to cannibalism when things got really bad.

It’s very awe-inspiring that it’s within science’s reach to uncover so many ancient mysteries. Don’t you agree?

How the Men Could Have Looked in Life:

R.I.P John Torrington, William Braine, John Harnell and all of the fallen members of the Franklin Expedition Crew. All images courtesy of Owen Beattie and the University of Alberta, Canada.


You can see a similar article I wrote for listverse.com for additional examples of interesting mummies here. Or, learn about the physics of death, or how death and decomposition differ in outerspace.

Mercedes-Benz C-Class 2015

Download wallpaper of the Mercedes-Benz C-Class 2015 to set as your screen's background

The post Mercedes-Benz C-Class 2015 appeared first on Popular Mechanics.

Esri ArcGIS Open Data Site Open (Beta)

Esri announced today the site is in open beta. --- original post April 7, 2014 ---- Back on March 10th I learned about, and wrote about, Esri's ArcGIS Open Data site.  Today, about a month later, I returned to the site to check on its status. Recall that initially visitors were... Continue reading

What Can We Learn From the Well-Preserved “Franklin Expedition” Mummies?

Some of the images below are of dead individuals. If you are easily upset, offended or "grossed out" by such things, please refrain from reading any further. Or you can see a safe version here.

In this day and age, there are seemingly millions of ways someone can drop dead. A few centuries ago, however, things were much more simplistic. Most people died from the same few things: malnutrition, plagues, like smallpox or tuberculosis, which were made more problematic by the unsanitary living conditions of the time. In yet another way that the past drastically differs from the present, when someone died, they were quickly laid to rest in an effort to staunch the spread of any such plagues that could wipe out a huge chunk of the population. Today, we cut the dead open and inspect every last organ in their bodies. Autopsies, as they are called, help medical examiners determine how and when someone died, while also telling us in good detail how that person lived.  In that sense, our bodies truly are scrapbooks.

Unfortunately, the human body is only viable for a short period of time after someone passes away. The process can be halted temporarily thanks to the practice of embalming (and the refrigeration of a corpse helps too), but nature itself always takes over and we revert back to the Earth from which we came. There are other way of preserving a body though. The ancient Egyptians pretty much mastered the art of longevity but even their methods are inferior to those that happen organically. In certain places around the globe, someone can die and remain just as they were in life for centuries to come. (not alive obviously, but there are some VERY interesting mummies that draw a fine line between looking dead and alive.) Some of those mummies have been found and unearthed, giving modern scientists an opportunity to understand our ancestors in ways they never even dreamed possible.  To that effect:

Meet the Franklin Expedition Mummies:

Rendering of the disaster (Credit: Owen Stanley)

Rendering of the disaster (Credit: Owen Stanley)

In one of the more fascinating examples, more than 150 years ago, a large group of explorers boarded a ship destined for the Northwest Passage (you may associate this route with Lewis and Clark, the legendary explorers). Following in the footsteps of other ships that set sail years before them with disastrous results, the 150 some crew members, along with their two ships and about 7 years of supplies, seemingly disappeared off the face of Earth. In life, the men that boarded the ship were never heard from again, but about 5 years later, one of many expeditions were sent out to determine the fate of the men and their ships, HMS Terror and the Erebus, who came across something rather curious.

On Beechey Island – an island located off the  Canadian Arctic Archipelago – the captain of the search crew discovered what remained of a makeshift campground, which still contained evidence of a human settlement (some empty tin cans, a stone hut and the like were found). Still not convinced that he had discovered the fate of the doomed Franklin Expedition crew, he searched further, eventually unearthing the icy grave stones of three men, who were on one of the two ships traversing the oceans between Asia and the Americas. Their gravestones revealed that the three men, John Torrington, John Hartnell, and William Braine, had all died within months of each other (two died within days of the other, while one lasted about 3 months longer), less than 7 months into their journey.  They also found some unfinished notes that indicated that the ships had hit ice in late 1846 and surviving crew members attempted to walk across about 100 miles of ice pushing a small boat, until they came across a river that they could cross to safety. Obviously, something went very wrong.

Rather than exploring further, the captain and his men left Beechey Island and the secrets it hid behind and journeyed back to England, carrying several pieces of the puzzle with them. The mystery remained for more than 100 years, only ending when a new crew of anthropologists were dispatched to exhume the bodies of the men buried in the graves on Beechy Island. When their dirt tombs were unearthed for the first time in 150 years, the scientists were surprised to find that the bodies were in such a pristine condition.  Each of the men still had toenails and eyebrows intact. Moreover, the team members were able to give a voice to three long-dead men, who died under horrific circumstances.

The First Expedition:

After digging through 6 feet of frozen permafrost, Owen Beattie and his team studied John Torrington; a 20 year old steam boiler attendant who hailed from Manchester, England. They were immediately hit with a repugnant odor, but its origin is a bit surprising. You see, the smell they reported didn’t come from Torrington’s corpse, but from a blue wool blanket that was buried with him. Said fabric was also responsible f0r the blackish-blue discoloration of his nose and face.

John Torrington

“It looked,” Beattie, remarked “like there was somebody in there looking out at the world looking in at him.”

The team then worked with several tools to remove some of the ice that encased his body; carefully removing and documenting the artifacts also found in his coffin. Once the body was freed, they carefully removed Torrington from the tomb – discovering that his body was still limp and flexible – they got a glimpse into the final chapter of his short life.

Not only was he severely malnourished  (only weighing about 88 pounds when he died), but they found evidence of tuberculosis and pneumonia. Both can be a death sentence even in modern times. So given the number of outside factors that could have contributed to his demise, it’s plausible that one of the other did kill him.  Furthermore, it looked as if his death was slow and quite excruciating. The team found that not only were his nails clean, but his hands did not contain any signs of blisters or callouses. This indicates that he was unable to work for months prior to his death

The Second Expedition to Beechy Island:

The team had to leave the island before they could examine the bodies in the other two graves. So they collected samples from Torrington’s corpse and took them with them back to their country.  They ventured back to the arctic the following year and a half to carry out the rest of the mission.

John Hartnell's body

John Hartnell’s body (Credit: Owen Beattie/UoA)

They were surprised to find that one of the bodies, belonging to seaman John Hartnell, had been disturbed following his death. Based on some suspect incisions and the fact that his organs had been removed, they team believed he was autopsied at some point. This was an obvious setback since internal organs are very important in determining a cause of death, but like with Torrington, they collected hair, nail and skin samples to study once they journeyed back home.

Next, they dug up the last corpse;  Private William Braine, who was the last of the three men to die. Of all of the bodies, Braine’s was in the worst condition. The team believed the reason for this was that Braine’s body was left out in the open for some time before he was buried. They came to such a conclusion based on the fact that it looked as if his body had been gnawed by rats. One of his arms was also missing, but once he was lifted from his coffin, they found his arm had been placed under his corpse. Similarly, unlike the other bodies, Braine’s showed  small signs of decomposition. Again, this indicates that his body was left exposed to the elements.

William Braine's body

William Braine’s body  (Credit: Owen Beattie/UoA)

His burial was likely hasty as well. Once they uncloaked his face , which was covered by a bright red handkerchief (you can see the remnants of it pulled above his forehead in the image on the right) , they saw that his nose was flattened and turned up at the tip — a clear sign that his casket was too shallow. The thin wood pushed against his face for almost 150 years, leaving behind an indention.

Once they were finished collecting the samples from the bodies of William Braine and Josh Hartnell, the team gently put both men back into their caskets and reburied them for what would be the final time. But before they left Beechy Island, they took the time fix up the grave sites. As the leader put it so delicately,  “I work with the bones of dead people every day,” “I’m sensitive to the fact that they were people. “

Finally,  they gathered some of the tin cans found nearby and headed home to analyze the data they collected and compare the results from Braine and Hartnell to that of their fallen friend; John Torrington.

What They Learned:

The bodies of all three men showed high-levels of lead in their system. So much lead that each would need to consume approximately 3.3 mg of lead each day over the course of 8 months to account for all of the lead found in their corpses. .At first, the team believed that the high concentrations came from the tin cans of food the expedition left with (and were subsequently found near the gravesite), but that conclusion has been marred in controversy in recent years. Now, many scientists believe the lead was an artifact of the water filtration system used on the ships; an assertion that can’t be proven without access to the ships themselves, which, to this day, have never been found.

Whatever the truth of the matter may be, our three men were likely the lucky ones.  The team members that carried out the exhumation and postmortem inspections came to the conclusion that the men died from tuberculosis. That seems favorable to the fate many of their comrades suffered, as lead poisoning is a particularly vicious way to die. Once exposed to so much of it, the men would feel extremely weak and nauseous. Soon after, they would be unable to make basic decisions (which would explain some of the absurdities that happened after their ships were compromised). Other skeletons found in the area showed that the men might have resorted to cannibalism when things got really bad.

It’s very awe-inspiring that it’s within science’s reach to uncover so many ancient mysteries. Don’t you agree?

How the Men Could Have Looked in Life:

R.I.P John Torrington, William Braine, John Harnell and all of the fallen members of the Franklin Expedition Crew. All images courtesy of Owen Beattie and the University of Alberta, Canada.


You can see a similar article I wrote for listverse.com for additional examples of interesting mummies here. Or, learn about the physics of death, or how death and decomposition differ in outerspace.

Measuring Light With ChipKIT

light meter showing LUX value

How does one go about measuring the amount of light in a given area? With a Light Meter of course! Maintaining proper lighting levels can be very important in places like schools, hospitals and even your own workbench.

[Raj] over at Embedded Labs has put together an excellent tutorial on how to construct your very own light meter based upon the chipKIT platform. The chipKIT Uno32 is similar to Arduino, but boasts a much more powerful PIC32MX320F128 microcontroller.  We’ve seen projects that feature the chipKIT Uno (pdf warning) here before. From playing pong to hosting several temperature sensors, it’s certainly a versatile platform.

The light meter uses an I/O shield and communicates to a BH1750FVI digital light sensor via I2C. The firmware divides the raw data coming off the sensor by a constant, and displays the light intensity data on an OLED display in Lux, foot-candles, and Watts/m^2 units. Be sure to check out the tutorial for full schematics and source.


Filed under: Microcontrollers, misc hacks