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Alt-week 27.10.12: ancient texts, super-Earths and special-ops mice


Alt-week peels back the covers on some of the more curious sci-tech stories from the last seven days.

If, like us, you struggle to read the front of the Corn Flakes box of a morning, you likely gave up any hope of cracking ancient codes long ago. If you didn't, however, then your time might be now -- as one of the oldest scripts know to man is still up for grabs. Prefer just to observe? No problem, as we've got super-Earth-searching satellites, military mice and vertical farms, all for your viewing reading pleasure. If you hadn't guessed already, this is alt-week

Ancient civilizations, and cracking the code of long-lost languages is usually the reserve of Hollywood, or a good old-fashioned book. So, you might be surprised / pleased to discover that there are still some real-world ancient mysteries to be solved, and technology could play a leading role. Proto-Elamite is the oldest known undeciphered writing system. It's estimated that only 10- to 20 percent of it is truly understood. It dates from between 3200 to 3000 BC, and although bearing some similarities to Mesopotamian, and coming from a region not too far away (what is now South West Iran), it has experts stumped. Now, a team of researches from the University of Oxford and the University of Southampton in the UK has developed what they are calling the "Reflectance Transformation Imaging system," which uses 76 lights to illuminate different sections of the ancient artifacts, one at a time, while an image is taken. All of the component pictures are then stitched together to form one fully illuminated high-resolution representation of the object -- allowing scientists to observe details that might otherwise be missed. If you fancy yourself as a bit of a Robert / Roberta Langdon, then you'll be glad to know that the images will be made available to the public, also. The other discovery no one noticed? Surely this will be the oldest high-res tablet known to man?

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The hunt for life-supporting planets has to be one of the most exciting, yet painfully difficult, of current scientific endeavors. A new program set up by the European Space Agency, however, hopes to up the ante a little bit more, by sending a satellite with the specific task of studying such candidates. The Characterising Exoplanets Satellite -- or Cheops -- will target nearby, stars already known to have potential targets in their orbit. As well as using high-precision monitoring to check for fluctuations in the star's brightness, the satellite will also determine the planet's radius. In cases where the mass is known, scientists can determine the density, ultimately hinting at the internal structure (gas, rock and so on). While this is similar to how distant planets are discovered already, much like satellite telescopes, the vantage point of space will deliver much clearer and more detailed information. The project was chosen from a list of 26 submitted proposals, and is the first in a potentially new class of small missions that could become a regular part of the ESA's space program.

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It's been going on in our cities for years, but now the humble farm might also be going up in the world -- literally. Singapore has just seen its first commercial vertical farm open, making thrift use of the country's sparse real estate. By growing crops upwards -- in more ways than one -- it means heavily developed areas can decrease dependence on imports. The prototype was developed back in 2009, but has now finally gone commercial. As it currently stands, there are 120 vertical towers, with three types of vegetables being grown. The bunk-bed crops only cost about 10 - 20 cents more than their conventionally grown cousins, and Channel News Asia reports that despite the extra cost, demand for the locally sourced produce has been high. Sky Greens, who developed the project, hopes that with investment, and more installations, the price of the vegetables will come down, and the whole venture can really start to make an impact to local diets and economies. Sounds good to us, but we're not expecting corn or sunflowers any time soon.

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Mice, they don't often get the best jobs in science. Unless they've got a special vocal talent perhaps. So when you hear of a project involving the plucky rodents, and land mines, things don't bode well. In reality, the news might not be that bad. Researchers, at Hunter College of the City University of New York, have genetically engineered mice to be 500 times more sensitive to TNT, with the hope that they might be able to effectively "sniff" out landmines. This isn't the first time rodents have been used, a Belgian team successfully taught rats to discover the explosives, but the training is resource heavy. By genetically modifying the mice to be hyper-sensitive, no training is needed. The little chaps don't get off the hook entirely though. It's possible that with such intense sensitivity to the chemical, that reactions to it could be involuntary, or worse, result in seizures. One small consolation, however, is that the animals themselves are likely too light to actually set off the explosives. There are a few drawbacks to the mouse-method though, as the release of vapor from mines can depend on conditions in the ground, leading to detection some meters from the actual device, or no detection at all. So at best they'd need to be part of a two-pronged approach.

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Seen any other far-out articles that you'd like considered for Alt-week? Working on a project or research that's too cool to keep to yourself? Drop us a line at alt [at] engadget [dot] com.

[Image Credits: University of Oxford, Channel News Asia, ESA, MIT]

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