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Science notes / Cetology, technology

Noise may stress whales

Researchers say an ocean experiment that was accidentally conducted amid the shipping silence after Sept. 11 has shown the first link between underwater noise and stress in whales.

The analysis was led by a New England Aquarium researcher. It showed a drop in the stress-related hormone in right whales following the attacks.

The drop coincided with a period of significantly lower ocean noise after ship traffic came to a near-standstill for security reasons after the terror attacks.

The analysis combined data from two experiments that happened to be going on simultaneously. One involved acoustic recordings of right whales in Canada's Bay of Fundy. The other collected samples of whale feces, which contain stress-indicating hormones.

It wasn't until 2009 that a researcher realized the data existed for the analysis.

-- Associated Press

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Giving the wheel to a robot

Tom Vanderbilt recently hit the road to test a self-driving car: a fully autonomous vehicle that can pilot itself with more precision and efficiency than any human driver. In his article, "Let the Robot Drive," in the February issue of Wired, he says the car, which is being developed by Google, provides a smooth and safe, if slightly surreal, ride, even at highway speeds, by using a laser-driven rooftop sensor and a GPS tracking system. "We are driving close to 70 mph with no human involvement, on a busy public highway -- a stunning demonstration," he marveled. Established car companies -- BMW, Mercedes, VW and Audi among them -- are polishing up their own models.

We may have the technology to live like we're in an episode of "Knight Rider," but the lawyers need time to catch up. According to Vanderbilt, one of the holdups in marketing a self-driving car is liability. "What happens, for example, when a highway patrol officer pulls over a self-driving car? Who gets the ticket?"

Another drawback: People who love cars won't want to give up the wheel to a robot. What about the romance of the open road? Google roboticist Chris Urmson -- who was sitting behind the wheel of (but not driving) Vanderbilt's test car -- thinks that the days of that freewheeling sentiment are numbered. "The average American commutes 52 minutes a day from Point A to Point B," he told Vanderbilt. "Not with the purpose of winding through the mountains and enjoying 'The Sound of Music.' "

-- Washington Post