Strange but True: Chill out with robotic air conditioner


Q: Today 17 percent of homes worldwide have air conditioning but experts predict that by the end of the century, the number will rise to 70 percent as a growing global middle class demands it. How might a robotic air conditioner, an office chair on ice, and cool insoles provide some super-cool technological relief?

A: Air conditioning is energy-intensive but highly inefficient, cooling an entire structure when only a person's immediate microclimate needs it, says Evan Ackerman in "IEEE Spectrum" magazine. Enter the U.S. government's DELTA program with cutting-edge technologies for "Delivering Efficient Local Thermal Amenities."

RoCo, the robotic personal conditioning device, has "a heater and air conditioner on top of a mobile base that can lock into your smartphone's signal and autonomously follow you around, gently blowing warm or cold air to keep you at a comfortable temperature." For a commercial building, up to 30 percent of energy costs could be saved.

Then there's a wirelessly powered climate-controlled office chair with heating elements and small fans built into the back and seat. It uses only 14 watts for heating and about four watts for cooling, and when the seat is empty, the system is turned off.

Finally, consider thermoregulating footwear. Since the soles of your feet are part of "the body's radiator," a work boot known as ReBoot has a thin insole with water channels running through it. "Cool water absorbs heat from the glabrous tissue at the bottom of your foot and gets pumped to a heat sink and fan hidden in the boot's sole."

Stay tuned. These technologies may be commercial reality within the next two years.

Q: Why, in the early days of space travel, did NASA take a major interest in rectal gasses?

A: As it turns out, zero gravity makes it impossible for astronauts to belch, thus pushing gas to the lower intestine, says David Brown in "Mental Floss" magazine. This methane gas was "a fire hazard in an oxygenated capsule, so NASA had to study rectal gasses and diets to reduce them."

Q: It's the stuff of science fiction: Scientists conduct brain operations that implant a memory of something that never happened. What's the true story here?

A: The actors were a team at the French National Center for Scientific Research, the brains those of five mice, reports Teal Burrell in "Discover" magazine. First, the researchers monitored the brain of each mouse as it wandered in a large, open arena, noting the "place cells" that lit up. Later, when the mouse slept, "its place cells lit up again as the brain replayed the memory of roaming the chamber. (It's believed the sleeping brain rehashes waking experiences to create long-term memories.)"

Then, when a place cell denoting one particular spot lit up, researchers simultaneously stimulated one of the brain's pleasure centers, connecting that spot to a reward like a chunk of cheese. Outcome: Upon awakening and re-entering the arena, the mouse headed straight for the stimulated spot ("Nature Neuroscience").

Scientists think that during sleep, replay memories are malleable, perhaps providing a way to treat anxiety disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder. But, project co-director Karim Benchenane cautions, "reversing bad memories is trickier than creating positive ones."

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