Hav­ing ro­bots as far as the eye can see would be a ben­e­fit in some sit­u­a­tions

The Woolwich Observer - - LIVING HERE - WEIRD NOTES ABOUT THE AU­THORS Bill is a jour­nal­ist, Rich holds a doc­tor­ate in physics. To­gether the brothers bring you “Strange But True.” Send your ques­tions to strangetrue@com­puserve.com.

Q. Ads for the caramel­col­ored soft drink are al­most ev­ery­where: Coca-Cola, Pepsi Cola, RC Cola and oth­ers. But in the 1940s, the Co­caCola Com­pany pro­duced a dif­fer­ent-col­ored cola, in­for­mally called “White Coke,” for a spe­cific mar­ket. Which one and why? A. In Rus­sia, when Ge­orgy Zhukov, the high­est-rank­ing of­fi­cer in the So­viet mil­i­tary, took a lik­ing to Coca-Cola, he could not openly drink it, as it was con­sid­ered a sym­bol of Amer­i­can cap­i­tal­ism, says Dan Lewis on his “Now I Know” web­site. So Zhukov con­tacted his Amer­i­can coun­ter­part, who in turn con­tacted Pres­i­dent Tru­man, re­quest­ing that Coca-Cola de­velop “a cola which, vis­ually, re­sem­bled vodka.” Thus, as the “New York Times” re­ported, Zhukov could be seen drink­ing it when­ever he wanted, “with­out risk­ing the ire of Joseph Stalin.”

The ar­range­ment held for years, Lewis says, de­spite the red tape sur­round­ing USSR im­ports dur­ing that cold-war pe­riod. How­ever, White Coke was never in­tro­duced to con­sumers in the United States. Q. Bj 581, a Vik­ing-era grave at Birka – a UN­ESCO World Her­itage site in Swe­den – was strik­ing for its po­si­tion on a prom­i­nent ter­race and for its grave goods, in­clud­ing a va­ri­ety of weapons and two horses. What else was noteworthy about it? A. Us­ing an­cient DNA anal­y­sis, re­searchers con­firmed that the high-rank­ing war­rior was a woman at least 30 years old when she died, re­ports Gemma Tar­lach in “Strange Science,” a “Dis­cover” mag­a­zine spe­cial is­sue. Though other women of that pe­riod had been buried with weaponry, none had a grave of such high sta­tus as did Lady Bj 581, for among the grave goods was a game board and full set of game pieces, likely in­di­cat­ing that she was an of­fi­cer and in­volved in tac­tics and strat­egy. Her skele­ton showed no signs of com­bat trauma, in keep­ing with 47 of the 49 con­firmed males buried there. Cause of death could have been any va­ri­ety of ail­ments, in­fec­tion, or dis­ease.

Fur­ther ge­netic test­ing of her teeth also ruled out a Birka birth­place and in­stead con­nected her to present-day peo­ple of the Bri­tish Isles and Scan­di­navia. But that’s not sur­pris­ing, con­sid­er­ing that Birka was the site of a flour­ish­ing trade cen­ter at the time. Q. With ma­jor eye surgery just a few weeks away, you learn that a robot will be part of the pro­ce­dure. Should this be cause for com­fort or con­cern? A. You might be en­cour­aged by re­sults of a re­cent trial: Half the par­tic­i­pants un­der­went surgery man­u­ally, the other half had a robot with a mov­able arm fil­ter­ing out the im­per­cep­ti­ble vi­bra­tions from the sur­geon’s hand, says Ti­mothy Rev­ell in “New Sci­en­tist” mag­a­zine. Both pro­ce­dures were suc­cess­ful, but those who had ro­botic surgery ap­peared to ex­pe­ri­ence less dam­age to the blood ves­sels at the back of the eye over­all.

Ul­ti­mately, the goal is to per­fect a robot ca­pa­ble of per­form­ing op­er­a­tions that are im­pos­si­ble for hu­mans to per­form man­u­ally. For ex­am­ple, us­ing gene ther­apy on the retina of a per­son with some vi­sion would re­quire an in­crease in ac­cu­racy “that is be­yond hu­man ca­pa­bil­ity.” Even the best sur­geons pro­duce vi­bra­tions “of the or­der of a tenth of a mil­lime­ter at the tip of their in­stru­ments,” but parts of the retina mea­sure only 0.02 mil­lime­ters thick, a fifth of that size. A sur­gi­cal robot, on the other hand, can be moved in in­cre­ments of 0.01 mil­lime­ters to avoid dam­age to deeper eye struc­tures.

As Bradley Nel­son of the Swiss Fed­eral In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy says: Much more needs to be done, but one day “ro­bots will carry out surgery more quickly, less ex­pen­sively and with bet­ter out­comes.”

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