Kilobots swarmingphotograph: harvard

swarms of small robots in their thousands that collectively complete complex tasks are now possible – and could be the future of robotics, according to researchers.

the kilobots are a team of 1,024 simple robots that operate as a collective, much like the borg in star trek or termites in a termite mound, and been shown to demonstrate the ability to swarm together to form complex shapes like the letter “k”, or a starfish.

“the beauty of biological systems is that they are elegantly simple — and yet, in large numbers, accomplish the seemingly impossible,” said prof radhika nagpal from the harvard school of engineering and applied sciences. “at some level, you no longer even see the individuals; you just see the collective as an entity to itself.”

read more:

Luc Besson
photograph: vittorio zunino celotto/ getty images

lucy, a loopy blast of kinetic energy, is perfect modern multiplex fodder. there’s eye candy (a lot), brain food (a bit), an ass-whupping antiheroine (an abundance thereof), and an 89-minute running time that means you can still fit in a jamie’s Italian before bedtime. in other words, it’s a welcome return to the luc besson of the 1990s.

playing on the old myth that we use only 10% of our brains, scarlett johansson is the partying student and reluctant drug mule who becomes an action hero, then superhero, as the narcotics involuntarily stuffed in her stomach seep into her bloodstream, that 10% rising rapidly to 100%. the film hurtles along as her brain goes full-throttle. the drug, says besson, is inspired by “a molecule that pregnant women create after six weeks – a super atomic bomb for a baby”. he knows the 10% brain capacity theory is hokum. “what’s true, though, is that we only use 15% of our neurons at the same time,” he says. “but it’s never the same 15%. so we can ask ourselves, what happens to us if we can suddenly have 30%, 40%, 50% of our neurons working at the same time? i changed the reality a little to help the story.”

as a director besson has had an iffy 21st century, and Lucy, while not his best, is a good reminder of why he made such an impact in the first place. 1988’s the big blue was a plaintive, pretty paean to his love of deep-sea diving, but 1990’s nikita introduced besson as a turbo-charged action director: with anne parillaud as a murderer-turned-spy, it boasted a no-nonsense female shit-kicker a year before james cameron brought us terminator 2. besson went bigger and better with léon, giving natalie portman her first role as a 12-year-old apprentice assassin in love with a taciturn middle-aged hitman; then he went huge with the fifth element, an arty, bonkers sci-fi featuring an arty, bonkers alien (milla jovovich). the French critical consensus was that he was a crass sell-out in thrall to Hollywood; Hollywood welcomed him with open arms.

read more:

live in Soest: kraftwerk, 1970.

Supermoon, Mdina cathedral, Maltaphotograph: darrin zammit lupi/ reuters

look out of your window over the next few days and – cloud cover permitting – the moon will appear bigger and brighter than usual. this is not romance, nor even a harvest moon, which is something quite different. the moon does indeed hang larger in the night sky, because it is a supermoon. muse to astronomers and poets alike, a supermoon occurs when the moon is at its closest approach to the Earth, known as at full perigee, some 221,765 miles away, while simultaneously coming to a full phase. this gives it the appearance of being 14% larger and 30% brighter than usual. there will be three supermoons this year but this week’s will be the brightest, dominating the night skyline all around the world. it can be seen to a lesser degree over the week as the moon wanes, giving ample time for would-be poets to draw inspiration from our nearest neighbour. the last supermoon of the year will be on 9 September.

frank: lenny abrahamson, 2014.

frank: lenny abrahamson, 2014.

 Chess Olympiad
photograph: rune stotlz bertinussen/ afp

the most prestigious international tournament in chess, at which the world’s top players compete alongside amateurs to win honours for their country, has ended on a sombre note after two players died suddenly within hours of each other, one while he was in the middle of a match.

hundreds of spectators attending the 41st chess olympiad in Tromsø, Norway, and countless others watching live tv coverage on Norway’s state broadcaster, reacted with shock after kurt meier, 67, a Swiss-born member of the Seychelles team, collapsed on thursday afternoon, during his final match of the marathon two-week contest. despite immediate medical attention at the scene he died later in hospital.

hours later, a player from Uzbekistan who has not yet been named was found dead in his hotel room in central Tromsø. Norwegian police and the event’s organisers said on friday they were not treating the deaths as suspicious.

"we regard these as tragic but natural deaths," said jarle heitmann, a spokesman for the chess olympiad. "when so many people are gathered for such a long time, these things can happen."

the olympiad involved 1,800 competitors from 174 countries, accompanied by more than 1,000 coaches, delegates and fans.

the event sees players compete in national teams over 11 rounds, often playing matches that last for up to six hours, and claims a worldwide online audience of tens of millions.

there were brief scenes of panic in the hall after meier’s collapse, when spectators reportedly mistook a defibrillator for a weapon. play was briefly suspended before his death was marked with a minute’s silence during the closing ceremony.

while the causes of the two men’s deaths are still unknown, they will raise questions about the mental and physical stress that tournaments place on players.

meier is not the first player to die in the middle of a match; in 2000 vladimir bagirov, a Latvian grandmaster, had a fatal heart attack during a tournament in Finland, while in the same year, another Latvian, aivars gipslis, suffered a stroke while playing in Berlin from which he later died.

one of Australia’s leading players, ian rogers, retired abruptly from chess in 2007, saying he had been warned by his doctors that the stress of top-level competition was causing him serious health problems.

tarjei j svensen, a reporter for who attended the olympiad, said the event had a reputation for heavy drinking. “there are two rest days during the competition, and particularly the night before the rest days there tends to be a lot of drinking,” he said.

a favourite attraction for delegates was the now-legendary “Bermuda party”, he added, hosted at each olympiad by a member of the Bermudan delegation.

the olympiad was big news in Norway, with the state broadcaster, nrk, carrying hours of live coverage each day, and the country’s government paying 87m kroner (£8.5m) for the privilege of hosting the event.

last week the women’s team from Burundi were disqualified after failing to show up for their round six and seven matches; they remain unaccounted for, heitmann said on friday.

"it has been an eventful olympiad, certainly," said svensen.

Fields Medal winner Maryam Mirzakhani
photograph: stanford university

it will go down in history as the moment one of the last bastions of male dominance fell. a woman has won the world’s most prestigious mathematics prize for the first time since the award was established nearly 80 years ago.

maryam mirzakhani, an Iranian maths professor at stanford university in California, was named the first female winner of the fields medal – often described as the nobel prize for mathematics – at a ceremony in Seoul on wednesday.

the maths community has been abuzz with rumours for months that mirzakhani was in line to win the prize. to outsiders her work is esoteric, abstract and impenetrable. but to more qualified minds, she has a breathtaking scope, is technically superb and boldly ambitious. she describes the language of maths as full of “beauty and elegance”.

the prize, worth 15,000 Canadian dollars (£8,000), is awarded to exceptional talents under the age of 40 once every four years by the international mathematical union. between two and four prizes are announced each time.

three other researchers were named fields medal winners at the same ceremony in South Korea. they included martin hairer, a 38-year-old Austrian based at Warwick university in the UK, manjul bhargava, a 40-year old Canadian-American at Princeton university in the US and artur avila, 35, a Brazilian-French researcher at the institute of mathematics of Jussieu in Paris.

there have been 55 fields medallists since the prize was first awarded in 1936, including this year’s winners. the Russian mathematician grigori perelman refused the prize in 2006 for his proof of the poincaré conjecture.

mirzhakhani, 37, was among a number of women tipped for the prize in recent years and her success won immediate praise from fellow mathematicians.

Clothes on a washing linephotograph: julie habel/ corbis

washing lines, strung up in back yards or criss-crossing courtyards, have become an image of a domestic past. according to the energy saving trust we are all using our washing lines less and tumble dryers take a bigger share of the load. washing lines, they argue, should not be a thing of the past but have a vital energy saving role in the future. but is the humble line still a useful tool in modern Britain?

if you take a look at the earliest images of laundry, there is not a washing line in sight. instead clothes are spread out to dry upon meadows or draped over bushes. an elizabethan map of London shows Moorfields in the days when it was still an area of open land on the edge of the city; little figures sit on the ground next to pegged-out clothes, the shape of shirts clearly visible. the best published advice on laundry matters, such as henry mascell’s profitable book of 1597, suggested drying your washing over lavender bushes for an additional bleaching effect.

the washing line is a child of coal fires. medieval and tudor laundry relied on wood ash to remove grease, after which the laundry was taken to a local river or stream and beaten to drive out the dirt. but from the 1660s onwards, wood for fires was slowly replaced by coal. coal ash did not take the grease out of clothes as wood ash did, so people had to turn to soap, and early forms of soap only activated in hot water. the age of the washing copper heater and the washing line had begun.

gradually more and more people did their laundry at home, far from the drying fields that had lined the rivers and streams of Britain’s towns and cities. outdoor drying, however, remained the preferred option. back yards were too small, and generally too dirty for a family’s wash to be laid out flat, but draped over a line, and pegged in place, sheets and shirts could still benefit from sun and fresh air.

read more:

a deadly disease is set to hit the shores of the US, UK and much of the rest of the northern hemisphere in the coming months. it will swamp our hospitals, lay millions low and by this time next year between 250,000 and 500,000 worldwide will be dead, thousands of them in the US and Britain.

despite the best efforts of the medical profession, there’s no reliable cure, and no available vaccine offers effective protection for longer than a few months at a time.

if you’ve been paying attention to recent, terrifying headlines, you may assume the illness is the ebola virus. instead, the above description refers to seasonal flu – not swine or bird flu, but regular garden variety influenza.

our fears about illness often bear little relation to our chances of falling victim to it, a phenomenon not helped by media coverage, which tends towards the novel and lurid rather than the particularly dangerous.

ebola has become the stuff of hypochondriacs’ nightmares across the world. in the UK, the daily mirror had “ebola terror as passenger dies at Gatwick” (the patient didn’t have ebola), while New York’s news outlets (and prominent tweeters) experienced their own ebola scare.

even intellectual powerhouses such as donald trump have fallen into panic, with the mogul calling for the US to shut off all travel to west Africa and revoke citizens’ right to return to the country – who cares about fundamental rights during an outbreak? not to be outdone, the endlessly asinine “explanatory journalism” site vox informed us that “if the supercontinent pangaea spontaneously reunited, the US would border the ebola epidemic”.

MDG : A man lies in a newly-opened Ebola isolation center, Monrovia, Liberiaphotograph: john moore/ getty images

the magnitude of the ebola outbreak in west Africa, which has killed more than 1,000 people, has been vastly underestimated and will require “extraordinary measures, on a massive scale” if it is to be contained, the world health organisation has warned.

the admission came as médecins sans frontières (MSF), the medical charity, said the disease was spreading “faster than we can respond to”, and accused the who of being too slow to react.

the outbreak, which is the worst to date, has killed 1,069 people, with 1,975 cases recorded in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. however, the who fears the figures are unreliable.

“staff at the outbreak sites see evidence that the numbers of reported cases and deaths vastly underestimate the magnitude of the outbreak,” it said.

“who is coordinating a massive scaling up of the international response, marshalling support from individual countries, disease control agencies, agencies within the UN system, and others.”

it was using “practical, on-the-ground” intelligence to map the outbreak, pinpoint the areas of ongoing transmission, and decide where health workers and new isolation facilities were most needed.

the who said the US centres for disease control and prevention were equipping the hardest-hit countries with technology to enable real-time reporting of cases and analysis of trends.

efforts are under way to help those trapped in quarantined areas, with the world food programme seeking to deliver food to more than 1 million people trapped on the borders of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

such steps, said the who, had been taken in “recognition of the extraordinary measures needed, on a massive scale, to contain the outbreak in settings characterised by extreme poverty, dysfunctional health systems, a severe shortage of doctors and rampant fear”.

read more:

frank: lenny abrahamson, 2014.

frank: lenny abrahamson, 2014.