Just For The Tech Of It: Pig hearts, eating with electricity, and hiding Earth from aliens

Some of the world’s most prominent astronomers –including Steven Hawking– are concerned that if aliens find us before we find them, we might find ourselves in a bit of a predicament. So, in the spirit of laying low, a pair of astronomers from Columbia University have developed a clever plan to hide Earth from alien civilizations that might be spying on us from afar. How do they propose to do this? With frickin’ laser beams, of course!

Here’s the deal: So the easiest way to spot a planet in a distant solar system is through this thing called the Transit Method. When a star shines normally, it emits a more or less constant level of brightness. But, if there’s a planet orbiting that star, and that planet passes in front of the star, the brightness dips a little bit because the planet is blocking a small amount of the star’s light and preventing it from reaching the observer. So by detecting these periodic dips in brightness, astronomers –and potentially aliens spying on our solar system– can deduce that there must be a planet orbiting the star.

To prevent aliens from detecting Earth in this way, astronomers from Columbia argue that we could use an array of laser beams to sort of “fill in” the little brightness gap that we leave when Earth passes in front of the Sun. What’s more is that, according to their calculations, doing so wouldn’t even require that much energy. The proposed laser system would have to emit 30 megawatts of power for about 10 hours per year, which is roughly the same amount of power consumed by 70 homes over the course of a year. Head over to our full article to learn more.

Related: Just for the Tech Of It: Transparent wood, fly-bombing drones, a ninth planet

Next up: eating electricity. We don’t usually talk about products on this show, but this one is too ridiculous to pass up. It’s basically a fork that uses electricity to stimulate your tastebuds and make you perceive flavors that aren’t necessarily there. The device, which is still just a prototype at this point and doesn’t really have a name, is actually pretty simple. It’s really just a fork with a rechargeable battery and a button, so to use it, you just stab the food you’re trying to eat, press the button, and then place the food on your tongue.

When you do that, you complete the circuit, and a harmless amount of electricity will from from the fork, through your food, and onto your tongue – which in most cases will cause a false perception of saltiness.The idea seems to be that, with this device, you can make food taste salty — but without any actual salt, which is great for people with diet restrictions. Check out the original article to get the full scoop.

And finally: genetically engineered pig hearts. For the past few decades now, scientists have been trying to figure out the easiest way to make replacement hearts for humans in need of transplants. We’ve tried building mechanical ones, growing them with stem cells, and even making them with 3d printers — but now there’s a group that wants to solve the problem in a completely different way — they want to use hearts from genetically engineered pigs.

It’s a wildly complex process, but basically, scientists have figured out a way to breed pigs with a specific genetic mutation that makes their organs less likely to be rejected when transplanted into other animals. Researchers have been experimenting with the approach using baboons, and in just a few trials, they’ve managed to double the post-transplant lifespan of monkeys that were given pig hearts. If they keep up this trajectory, it stands to reason that pig-to-human heart transplants might become possible in the next few years — which would be awesome, because that way, when you eat so much bacon that you get congestive heart failure, you can just use the same animal to get a heart transplant. Problem: solution. Check out our full post for further details.

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