The Light Side: Senators Erase Party Lines in the Sand on Deserted Island

Plus: DARPA Circuit Breaks World Speed Record; and Chronic Fatigue: It Really Is All in the Head

Senators Jeff Flake (left) and Martin Heimrich. Credit: Discovery Channel Senators Jeff Flake (left) and Martin Heimrich. Credit: Discovery Channel

With just a few days left to Election Day, bipartisanship might be fleeting across the nation, but on an isolated tract of land in the Pacific Ocean recently, it was the most precious commodity for two purposely stranded U.S. senators. In Discovery Channel's new survival reality program, "Rival Survival," freshman senators Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Martin Heimrich (D-N.M.), hyped up as bitter enemies on the Hill, unconventionally agreed to rough it out together for nearly a week in the remote Marshall Islands, to send a message that Democrats and Republicans can work together.

"Party labels don't mean much out here," Heimrich said to the camera while taking a break from cracking open coconuts in the documentary, which chronicled him and Flake spending six days and nights surviving a torrential rainstorm, 106-degree midday heat, sharks, sharp coral reefs, giant crabs, and, most of all, each other. Their survival kit when they were suddenly told that they weren't going to be dropped off on an uninhabited island by boat but rather had to make a lengthy swim to shore: two pairs of goggles, two large hunting knives, and a slingshot. Naturally, the two men came together, as they attempted to build a fire, made a shelter, spear-fished in open waters, and walked around looking for drinking water.

Flake's and Heimrich's co-survival challenge was conducted in secret during Congress' summer recess, and the politicians from neighboring states -- both of whom are avid outdoorsmen -- had prepared separately at home by working out and learning survival skills. But not all of their practices paid off, and while the two men were trailed by a Discovery Channel camera crew, they did not receive any intervention. At one point in the program, Flake quipped, "We're members of the most exclusive club in the world," referring to the Senate, "and we're licking water from palm fronds."

Growing desperate after a few days without having as much as a fresh drop to drink, Heimrich and Flake combined wits to fashion a MacGyver-style contraption that filtered standing water they had collected into somewhat drinkable water. And, in the finale, the two senators, both former House members, solved one last challenge together that enabled them to get off the island and be picked up by a crew.

Over the six days, they managed to maintain good spirits and playful jabs at each other to the camera despite their increasingly stubbled faces and gaunt appearance. "I'd gladly vote for any of Martin's bills if he could just start a fire," Flake said. Flake, who professed to growing up on a ranch and thus a love of beef, lost 10 pounds eating coconuts and clams.

Just how much two critical high-government officials were in actual danger in "Rival Survival" could be questioned, of course, especially with interspersed edits showing Flake and Heimrich appearing to swim in waters teeming with sharks. Still, they were clearly not airlifted back to any five-star hotel each night Bear Grylls-style, and the program made a point to show that their last civilized meals before the adventure were airline lunches. There was a tactile air of tension, as either Flake or Heimrich didn't want to be the one to wilt and "tap out" on the challenge. Instead, they both came away with a healthy respect for each other if not friendship.

The political rivals want their time together to represent how Democrats and Republican officials should at least get together occasionally and  maintain a generally congenial tradition in the Senate. They pointed out that Republican senators hold three lunches together each week while Democrats have two, and they have sent a letter around Senate circles urging both sides to have a monthly informal gathering just to create a more social atmosphere.

"Rival Survival" premiered on Discovery Channel on Wednesday and is having repeat airings. Highlights of the show can be seen here.

DARPA Circuit Breaks World Speed Record

It's not often that Guinness World Records shows up to certify the performance of a likely top-secret project. Yet, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and partner Northrop Grumman have done just that, debuting a circuit that's redefined the benchmark for chipset speed.

Called the Terahertz Monolithic Integrated Circuit (TMIC) project, the new chipset didn't eke past its competition, it completely eviscerated it. With a peak operating speed of 1 terahertz (THz), or one trillion cycles per second, the TMIC is a full 150 billion cycles faster than the next fastest circuit.

Even with its inordinate increase in speed, the TMIC's most extraordinary achievement may be its simple ability to harness its own power. In most solid-state devices, frequency conversion -- the process of converting AC current of one wavelength to AC current of another wavelength -- is employed to achieve sub-millimeter band performance. However, this current stepping has forced most of the TMIC's contemporaries to be bulky, consume lots of power, and suffer from poor transistor performance. Of course, that isn't the case with TMIC. In fact, without having to labor through a series of wave frequency conversions, the TMIC exhibits gain levels that hover around 6 dB when humming away at 1 THz. That fact alone has tipped researchers toward the potential of their new device.

Terahertz circuits promise to open up new areas of research and unforeseen applications," said Dev Palmer, the TMIC's program manager. "This breakthrough could lead to revolutionary technologies such as high-resolution security imaging systems, improved collision-avoidance radar, communications networks with many times the capacity of current systems, and spectrometers that could detect potentially dangerous chemicals and explosives with much greater sensitivity."

Though a few applications for the TMIC have been offered, there's still no consensus on when Terahertz technology will make its debut in the wild.

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Chronic Fatigue: It Really Is All in the Head

People who have chronic fatigue suffer myriad symptoms that include, just to name a few, joint and muscle pain, headaches, food intolerance, and hypersensitivity to sensations. Chronic fatigue sufferers have so many symptoms that can last for decades, they often have been accused of being hypochondriacs. But now science has discovered at least three distinct physical traits in their brains that could potentially prove they're not making it all up.

According to researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine, advanced images of the brains of CFS patients show they have specific brain abnormalities, including reduced levels of so-called "white matter," and could lead to breakthroughs in treatments for a disease that has been a longtime enigma. White matter delivers information within different parts of the brain, while gray matter processes it.

"CFS is one of the greatest scientific and medical challenges of our time," said Jose Montoya, one of the Stanford researchers. "In addition to potentially providing the CFS-specific diagnostic biomarker we've been desperately seeking for decades, these findings hold promise of identifving the area or areas of the brain where the disease has hijacked the central nervous system."

Notably, Montoya and his fellow scientists have found that, in addition to reduced white matter, those with CFS have an abnormal-looking right arcuate fasciculus, which is a tract that connects the frontal lobe and the temporal lobe. Furthermore, the more abnormal this tract looked in patients, the more severe were their chronic fatigue conditions. And CFS sufferers also have a thickening of gray matter at the two areas of the brain that are connected by the right arcuate fasciculus.

Just about everything having to do with chronic fatigue syndrome has been a mystery. Between 1 million and 4 million Americans have CFS, which is diagnosed if they have had "crushing, unremitting fatigure" for at least six months, but the wide "ballpark estimate" of cases is owed to other symptoms that vary from patient to patient and overlap with other conditions. These include gastrointestinal issues, sore throat, and abnormal blood pressure. Even the specific function of the right arcuate fasciculus is unknown, unlike the left arcuate fasciculus, which is responsible for language and speech.

But thanks to diffusion-tensor imaging, an advanced technique, the days of medical researchers "throwing darts blindfolded" at chronic fatigue syndrome could be numbered, according to Montoya. "We asked ourselves whether brain imaging could turn up something concrete that differs between CFS patients' and healthy people's brains. And, interestingly, it did."

The Stanford group plans to initiate a larger study to substantiate these initial results. The findings are discussed in the latest issue of Radiology.

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