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« May 2006 | Main | July 2006 »

The Transformers’ Revisionist History

Beagle Although it’s a year before the movie is scheduled to hit theaters, the first trailer for the Transformers movie is now online. The basic premise: Even though we were all told that the Beagle 2 Mars rover crashed on the Red Planet in 2003, it was actually destroyed by marauding alien robots. (Quoth the preview, “It was the only warning we would ever get.”) Most of the trailer is an extended sequence of the rover rolling down the ramp for the first time and going through instrument checks, ostensibly taken from an onboard video camera. The detail on the craft is stunning—if you look closely, you can even spot the little “USA” graphic emblazoned on its wheel hubs.

All fine and good, except the Beagle 2 wasn’t a rover at all. It wasn’t even American. It was a low-cost British probe designed to flop onto the planet and drill directly into the soil. No wheels, no airbags, not much of anything that’s shown in the trailer. That’s probably because the rover in the trailer was clearly based on the design for NASA’s twin Mars Exploration rovers, which have been happily roaming the planet for the past two and a half years. Of course, happy, healthy rovers couldn’t have been destroyed by evil robots, now could they? And so director Michael Bay uses arguably the most successful space mission in history as an implicit example of failure. Sometimes you just can’t win. —Michael Moyer

Mars In Focus
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter: Best of What's New 2005

Fourth of July YouTube Roundup

Firecrackers_1 Yes, the July Fourth weekend is upon us, which means that all across this great nation of ours, the recreational-explosives industry is hitting on all cylinders. Makeshift fireworks stands have sprouted around highways and shopping malls. Giant novelty Godzillas have been inflated and “BUY ONE GET TEN FREE!” signs placed in their hands. All in the name of one of America’s noblest pursuits—blowing stuff up.

As you’re putting the finishing touches on your backyard show’s grand display, consider these Internet video gems for inspiration. And let me tell you, YouTube is filled with about 80 million videos of Cletus throwing lit fireworks at his unresponsively passed-out-drunk cousin Clyde. You can thank me for finding these delicious morsels of wheat among so much chaff:

  1. Indiana’s Firecracker Bill. I’m from Indiana, and whenever you buy fireworks, you have to sign a card promising to light them off in the state’s “designated fireworks areas.” Needless to say, these cards are usually the first thing to go up in smoke come the Fourth. This video chronicles a guy named Bill’s semi-pro-level annual show done in his own “designated area,” a.k.a. in front of his house, which people apparently travel from nearby states to see. Complete with Apocalypse Now-style slow motion and a finale that’s not to be missed.
  2. The Amazing Firecracker Roll. This one shows what happens when you light a giant roll of 16,000 firecrackers—without unrolling it. It is, in fact, pretty amazing.
  3. Cai Guo-Qiang. This is neither American nor on YouTube, but still well worth your time. Guo-Qiang is a Chinese artist whose medium of choice is explosives, and his Web site documents his incredible large-scale explosion projects, including his ongoing “Project for Extraterrestrials” series. “Transient Rainbow” and “The Earth Has Its Black Hole Too” are highlights. If your backyard show is anywhere near this level, be sure to have a few ambulances standing by.

Happy exploding, blog readers! —John Mahoney

Update: A Dark Day For Net Neutrality

Netneutrality You may have read about the threat to the open Internet here on PopSci.com. Well, it’s cry-in-the-beer time now. We’ve moved one step closer to an Internet where only the rich will get access to bandwidth. The U.S. Senate Committee for Commerce, Science and Transportation has approved a bill that will allow broadband providers to give preferential service to certain high-paying customers—leaving the rest of us in the dustbin. The bill—which opponents have vowed to filibuster—would allow telecom companies to prioritize Internet traffic according to how much the Web sites were willing to pay for access. I can’t wait for the day when I type into Google “healthy dinner choices” and the first page served is McDonald’s. —Martha Harbison

Things Powered by Candy...Other Than Children

Demoreactor Researchers at the University of Birmingham in England must go through a lot of Dairy Milk. So much so, even, that they’ve teamed up with Cadbury Schweppes (the makers of numerous chocolaty treats) to use the by-products of candy production as an alternative source for hydrogen power.

The scientists fed leftover caramel and nougat (mmm, nougat) to sugar-loving bacteria, which release hydrogen and organic acids as they eat. The organic acids were then fed to a second type of hydrogen-producing bacteria, and the combined hydrogen production of the two (when converted into electricity by a fuel cell) was enough to power a small electric fan. You can view a video of the experiment here.

The research team hopes that, in five to 10 years, the process will be refined enough to provide enough hydrogen to produce industrial electricity and to power waste treatment. Research leader Lynne Macaskie predicts that homes of the future will come with “eco-pods,” so every family will have its own mini bacteria-power plant running off food scraps. Plus, researchers found that additional waste products left by the bacteria can be used in an altered form to remove specific pollutants from the environment. For these researchers, success doesn’t just smell sweet, it tastes sweet too. —Nicole Price Fasig

Link via New Scientist

Rocket Food: Launch a model rocket with Oreo cookies
Why do breath mints make your mouth feel cool?


Egokast You’re walking down the street, and you know something isn’t right. People keep giving you that look. Is your fly unzipped? Hilarious “Kick me” sign taped to your back? Perhaps people are just staring at your brand-new video belt buckle.

Yes, that’s right. No longer is the giant brass Texas-shaped clasp the pinnacle of belt-closure fashion. Now we have the EgoKast—a belt-mounted video player that displays music clips, slideshows of photographs or ripped DVDs on a 3.5-inch screen mounted right above your crotch. The wearer of the EgoKast (“Disclaimer: This gets more attention than some people can handle,” warns the device’s Web site) can load video, music and photographs via the built-in SD-card slot. If you're feeling a bit more modest, unclip it and use it as a standard portable music and video player. 

I personally can’t imagine someone walking down the street with a color LCD screen on their belt buckle broadcasting highlights from the recent family vacation to SeaWorld. But rocking a waist-mounted 50 Cent video in the club? That just might work. —Carla Thomas

The Goods: July 2006

The New York Times Discovers PopSci

Nytimes_blog2 Well, I’m sure they’ve known we were around before, but this article in today’s science section about high-tech solutions to the climate crisis reads like it could have been ripped straight from our pages. In fact, it nearly was! Our August 2005 issue (cover line: “Saving a Scorched Earth: 6 Spectacular Technologies to Halt Global Warming”) showed the orbiting sunshade on its cover. Inside, we examined cloud-creating yachts, described a plan to create carbon-dioxide–sucking algae blooms by fertilizing the ocean with iron powder, and took a close look at those space-based reflectors—all of which are featured prominently in the Times article. Our cover story this month, “The Energy Fix: 10 Steps to End America’s Fossil-Fuel Addiction,” presents yet another set of technologies (these more near-term) that could end the country’s dependence on foreign oil and reduce our total carbon footprint to nil (check out popsci.com/energy to read online). I’m thrilled that the Times is bringing more attention to innovative solutions to the climate problem, but please, guys, a little credit where credit is due, eh? —Michael Moyer

The Older Brother Effect

Family_1 Step up to the plate, nature-versus-nurture combatants. New research suggests that male homosexuality is determined in the womb—and that fraternal birth order may be the key. A study done by Anthony Bogaert of Brock University in Ontario shows that men with multiple biological elder brothers were more likely to be homosexual (about a 30 percent higher chance per brother) than those who merely grew up around a lot of older nonbiological male siblings. In fact, only the number of biological older brothers predicted homosexuality in men, regardless of their upbringing, which suggests that the triggering factor is prenatal. Just one more thing to fight about at the family Fourth of July picnic. —Martha Harbison

Where's My In-Flight Big Mac?

Mcdobanner_1 After reading about the JetBlue flight that was rerouted home to Newark last night after an all-female brawl broke out at 30,000 feet over the Atlantic, I got to thinking: With inexpensive, somewhat gimmicky airlines like JetBlue  (no offense, JB, I still love you) taking over the skies in the U.S. and Europe, you'd think there would be more carriers playing an angle to capture market share, sans catfights. My suggestion: Air McDonald's. What better way to start your vacation in America than with a Big Mac, a bucket of fries and a jug of soda, served up by the Hamburgler himself? Would you be "lovin' it"? Or would you be "throwin' up" in the bathroom with the flight attendants who had to serve fast food in recirculated air for 14 hours a day? After Hooters Air ceased all non-chartered operations earlier this year, I see a wide-open market. Anyone have any other ideas for a more succesful theme airline? —Joe Brown

Gone to a Greater Galápagos

Harriet, photgraphed with her loving crocodile-hunting
overseer on the occasion of her 175th birthday

To all our Australian-turtle-loving evolutionary-biologist readers, I would like to express condolences on behalf of all of us here at PopSci on this grim day: Harriet, the giant Galápagos tortoise supposedly captured by Charles Darwin’s famous expedition that you have grown to love like your own son or daughter, died today at home in the Australia Zoo at the spry (estimated) age of 176, ending her reign as the Earth’s oldest known living animal.

It’s been a wild ride, Harriet. You were plucked from your luscious home in the Galápagos Islands to be studied by one of the greatest minds of modern science (well, maybe—Harriet belonged to a species indigenous to an island Mr. Darwin never personally visited. Mercifully, Harriet died still believing she was Charles’s best girl). You’ve seen world wars come and go like mere hiccups of time. You recovered nicely from the psychological trauma of being mistaken for a male tortoise (Harry) for more than half your life. Your biggest daily concerns included which type of exotic and delicious flowers to dine on. And in your golden years you were owned by Steve Irwin, TV’s “crocodile hunter,” whose despair we can’t even begin to fathom.

Unsurprisingly, her keepers attribute her advanced age to a “stress-free life.” It’s indeed been a good one, Harriet, and we’ll miss you. But hopefully, somewhere in that great archipelago in the sky, Mr. Darwin can’t wait to take precise measurements of your dinner-table-size shell. —John Mahoney

The Complete Notebooks of da Vinci, RSS Edition

Leonardo_1 With Really Simple Syndication, better known as RSS, you can get content from most of your favorite sites (including PopSci’s blog) delivered to you every day simply by copying an RSS feed’s URL and pasting it into a newsreader (download one for Mac or Windows). And although it’s cool to get all your blog reading consolidated into a single place (Brangelina update, check! Gadget porn, check!), why not relive the life of Leonardo da Vinci while you’re at it?

The very definition of a Renaissance man, da Vinci filled his notebooks with everything from shopping lists to sketches for future paintings to prescient thoughts on future inventions like tanks and submarines. His collected daily writings total 1,565 pages, but thanks to the RSS feed on this Web site, you can take it all in slowly, one day at a time. Just subscribe to the feed to get a single page of LdV’s innermost musings delivered to your computer daily. Growing your hair long like Tom Hanks and combing Leo’s grocery lists for world-changing ciphers remain optional. —John Mahoney

Link from Lifehacker.com (part of an extensive list of cool things to do via RSS).

Angie's Asymmetry

1_21_jolie_angelina_012905 Lately, it seems you can’t toss a handful of birdseed into a newsstand without hitting a cover shot of Angelina Jolie. (Though why you’d want to throw birdseed into a newsstand is beyond me.) What is it, exactly, about the philanthropist-vixen’s face that makes her so alluring? In the name of science, I decided to investigate.

First, I visited Beautycheck, a German university-run site devoted to studying human facial attractiveness, and learned that the study of pretty people is one rife with socio-perceptual complications. For their long and involved study, scientists from Regensburg U. evaluated a bunch of hypotheses, including: “averageness is attractiveness,”“attractive faces show a combination of signs of sexual maturity and babyfacedness,” and “attractive faces are symmetrical,” in addition to a couple of weirdly Aristotelian ones I won’t address here about whether beautiful people are more likely to be perceived as “good.” 

Off the bat, it’s evident that Angie’s crazy alien eyes and outsized lips are anything but average, so I decided not to bother testing the first hypothesis. (Okay, so this wasn’t such a scientific investigation after all.) Next, I moved on to sexual maturity and babyfacedness. “Sexy” face characteristics are said to include suntanned skin, fuller lips, narrower eyebrows and higher cheekbones. Four gold stars for Ms. Jolie. “Babyfaced” characteristics include large, curved forehead (check), large, round eyes (check), round cheeks and small chin (not sure about these last two traits ). Although I don’t have the digital-mapping tools to rate her sexy/baby characteristics mathematically, it seems pretty clear that Angelina is more woman than girl, with a longer list of “sexy” traits than “babyfaced” ones.

Now for the most interesting part. If I had to guess where on the symmetry spectrum Ms. Jolie would fall (where, presumably, asymmetrical equals goony and symmetrical equals hot), I would put my money on the fact that her face would display a high degree of symmetry. But it turns out this isn’t necessarily the case. Using a symmetry-measuring software application, courtesy of symmeter.com, I tested two photos of Jolie—you have to use a pic in which the person faces perfectly straight ahead, which is trickier to find than you'd think—and found that the right side of her face is somewhat broader than the left, making the symmetrized (is that a word?) versions of her photos look like a starving Maggie Gyllenhaal and Sandra Bullock on steroids, respectively (see below).


Then, as a control, I uploaded a photo of myself. To my dismay, I actually found the symmetrized photo prettier than the real me. Go figure. So what did we learn here? Well, human beauty may still be a mystery, but it’s kind of comforting to know that the most desired woman on the planet is lovely because she’s a little bit flawed. —Megan Miller

The Science Behind the Beautiful Game

Becksred If it’s not clear already, I can’t get enough of the World Cup. I’ve been catching as much action as possible during lunch hour, I’ve installed a Firefox extension that instantly notifies me of any goals scored, I’ve been scouring YouTube for fun nuggets (like this amazing Tiger-esque clip of Ronaldinho showing off his crazy skills), and I wrote about Adidas’s advanced new ball a few days back.

Today webmistress Megan pointed me to another trove of Cup-related goodness from our friends at NewScientist.com. They’ve assembled a number of soccer-related studies and papers produced by like-minded football-crazed scientists the world over. So check it out—and learn why we humans may never be able to accurately make offsides calls, why teams with red shirts (Spain, Iran, Switzerland) might be the teams to watch this year, advanced synthetic materials (previously covered by PopSci) making better goalie gloves and plenty of other interesting tidbits. As for me, if I’m going to do any uniform-based betting, my money’s on the Netherlands’s sweet orange crush. —John Mahoney

Better Headgear Through Chemistry
A Rounder Ball For the World Stage

The World's Best Paper Airplane?

Paperairplane Everyone has that one paper airplane they are able to make. And most will claim that the one kind of paper airplane they are able to make is the best one known to man. I know I’ve got mine, and it flies like a dream. This one, though, has been getting a lot of attention from bloggers today for its claim to be the best in the world. It’s a slow day at PopSci HQ today, so I guess there’s only one way to find out... —John Mahoney

Fountains of Maine

FountainsWeb-video fans may have noticed the recent spate of clips featuring guys dropping Mentos into Diet Coke bottles. The resulting geysers make for hilarious, sticky fun and have been the subject of some scientific enquiry. Steve Spangler explains on his site that the explosions are caused not by a chemical reaction between Mentos and Diet Coke (so you can breathe easy about consuming the two together) but a physical one: Mentos are the right shape and weight to break the surface tension of the bottled soda. All the little bubbles that form around the candies create a gas pocket that forces the liquid through the small opening of a liter bottle, resulting in an explosive plume of pop. Read Spangler’s page for a more detailed explanation.

The main objective of this blog post, however, is to draw your attention to the newest and best of the geyser videos—this one shot in Buckfield, Maine, where folks evidently have lots of free time on their hands. In it, two guys in lab coats (Fritz Grobe and Stephen Voltz, of eepybird.com) re-create the audio-synchronized fountains at the Bellagio in Las Vegas using Coke bottles and Mentos. Highly entertaining stuff, and it even has a cool soundtrack. —Megan Miller

The Rocket That Runs on Oreos
Sugar: Future Fuel?
Sweet Mystery of Life, At Last I've Found You

Jacko's Jetpack

Jetpackjacko Michael Jackson has owned at least one pet chimpanzee. He lives in an amusement park of his own design. He has dangled his veiled child over a hotel balcony in Berlin. He has faced multiple accusations of child molestation. His face has undergone such a complete cosmetic reconstruction that he now resembles not a normal human but some type of hybrid cheetah-man. And some witnesses to what may have been his finest hour, the 1994 Dangerous world tour, probably claim that he can fly.

Well, this Web site—one of thousands of Jacko fansites that range from comprehensively interesting to heartbreakingly earnest—manages to debunk that last one, at least (also check their bit on how he pulled off that 45-degree lean trick). The site reveals that the flight was performed each night by a stuntman from Powerhouse Productions, home of the self-proclaimed “one and only” Rocketman, famous for stunts at the 1984 Olympics, a P. Diddy promotional appearance for MTV and many other events of international importance. (Someone should clearly introduce the Powerhouse people to Juan Lozano, the amazing DIY rocketeer profiled by PopSci earlier this year.)

But if you still need to believe it was Michael in that jetpack all those years ago, achieving the miracle of human flight before your very eyes, I’m guessing it will take more than a Web site to shatter that belief. Heck, even I still believe he’s capable of morphing into a jaguar. Keep the dream alive. —John Mahoney

Ready For Takeoff? Juan Lozano, Backyard Rocketeer

Graphic, Indeed

GraphicWriter David Axe, who reported from Iraq for our June feature about networked warfare, has penned an amazing, haunting graphic novel about his experiences covering the war. Illustrated by Steven Olexa, the semi-autobiographical War-Fix follows small-town reporter Axe as he gradually realizes that the war is calling him. With no experience in combat journalism and only scant preparation, he leaves his distraught girlfriend and makes his way to Iraq, where he becomes both a participant and voyeur in the horrifying action that unfolds there. The carnage consumes his consciousness and becomes something like a drug to him—a fix. It's by far the most unique and compelling narrative I've yet seen of this entire dismal affair and an honest, self-effacing personal journey. The black-and-white illustrations are dark, violent and undoubtedly all too real. Amazon link. —Eric Adams

PopSci's Iraq Tech Report Card
Winning and Losing the First Wired War
Iraq, Science and the Elusive WMD

Buying a New Car? Get Stability Control!

Stability We've known for decades about the benefits of antilock brakes and traction control, but consumers are still relatively unaware of the precise benefits of the latest application of those technologies: stability control. A new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety suggests that up to 10,000 fatal accidents can be prevented every year if the system were on all vehicles, instead of the current 25 percent. That's a huge number, given that there are 34,000 car-crash deaths a year. Read this article for a good explanation of how the systems work, and don't let dealers convince you that stability control isn't necessary just so you'll drive out with a car that isn't equipped with it. According to David Champion, head of auto testing for Consumer Reports, "a big part of the problem is that, since many customers are unaware of the technology or don't fully understand it, it's easier for car dealers to tell consumers they don't need it." Eric Adams

And here's a list, by Consumer Reports, of all the brand names for what are actually virtually identical systems:

Active Handling: Chevrolet
AdvanceTrac: Ford, Lincoln, Mercury
Dynamic Stability Control (DSC): Saab, Hyundai, Land Rover, Jaguar, Mazda, Jeep, Kia, BMW, Mini
Dynamic Stability Traction Control (DSTC): Volvo
Electronic Stability Program (ESP): Audi, Volkswagen, Mercedes, Chrysler, Dodge, Suzuki
Mitsubishi Active Skid and Traction Control System (M-ASTC): Mitsubishi
Porsche Stability Management (PSM): Porsche
StabiliTrak: Buick, Pontiac, Cadillac, GMC, Saturn, Hummer
Vehicle Dynamic Control (VDC): Nissan, Infiniti
Vehicle Dynamics Control (VDC): Subaru
Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA): Acura, Honda
Vehicle Stability Control (VSC): Lexus, Scion, Toyota 

In 2026 You'll Own a Car That Can't Crash
PopSci.com tries out the 2007 Porsche Turbo

Bow Wowzzzzz...

Narcodog Don’t just let sleeping dogs lie. Study them! A video of a narcoleptic poodle named Skeeter has been making the Internet rounds. Skeeter falls asleep every time he gets excited, which means he collapses before he even finishes his dinner. But it turns out that his sadly hilarious struggles aren’t new. Scientists at Stanford University’s Center for Narcolepsy have been studying doggie dozing for 30 years in an attempt to uncover the causes of human sleep disorders. Their work helped determine that narcolepsy may be linked to the lack of a brain chemical called hypocretin. Now they’re trying to find out exactly why the chemical disappears and if there’s any way to replace it. Maybe someday narcoleptics of all species will benefit from the unrousable Dachshunds and sleep-fighting Dobermans who lend their talents to Stanford's research—as well as to videos of their own. —Lauren Aaronson

Aminos, Say Ho!

KampaiAmino acids are having a moment. They’re nutrition’s new black, if you will. Not that you shouldn’t keep taking your antioxidants and bioflavanoids or whatever, but those supplement bottles lined up on your kitchen counter just reek of 2005. This season’s miracle micronutrients don’t need to be taken in pill form—they’re already in everything from your favorite energy drink to your trusty hangover remedy.

Exhibit A: A new study conducted at Cincinnati’s Genome Research Institute indicates that leucine, an amino acid found in meat and dairy, may be responsible for regulating the neural circuits that control appetite. Does this explain why eating a big steak is so satisfying? Maybe. But my money’s on the fact that it’s just plain delicious.

Exhibit B: For reasons unknown, the folks at Red Bull recently installed a fridge full of their trademark jitter-inducing soft drinks at PopSci HQ—right outside my cubicle. And you wouldn’t believe how quickly the staff is putting them away (our general manager, in particular, has a real problem). Although I suspect the drinks’ heavy dose of caffeine has a lot to do with their popularity, they also contain taurine, a basic building block of protein, which may or may not live up to the company’s claim of giving you a superhuman boost of energy.

Exhibit C: On Friday evening, a group of friends and I tested out Kampai, a powdery supplement that contains L-glutamine and L-alanine and is purported to stop hangovers in their tracks. You just suck down a packet of the stuff before you begin drinking, and it’s supposed to dramatically reduce the adverse effects of alcohol consumption. I felt groovy the next morning after drinking four beers and sleeping only five hours, so my unscientific opinion is that the stuff definitely helped. My friends, however, went overboard with the beer drinking and reported feeling as lousy as ever on Saturday. —Megan Miller

A Rounder Ball For the World Stage

Teamgeist When the strikers for either Germany or Costa Rica kick off the first game of the 2006 World Cup today in Munich, they will be doing so with what Adidas is hailing as the roundest soccer ball ever produced. The +Teamgeist (“team spirit”) ball, as the New York Times deftly explained yesterday, was engineered with a “free-flowing” set of 14 pre-shaped panels—fewer than the traditional 32—resulting in a smoother, more consistently round surface that supposedly responds more accurately to the force of a kick. Adidas backs up this claim with its own experimental data, including tests with a robotic kicking machine that diligently shot the +Teamgeist against a wall a few hundred thousand times.

The changes are also being felt on the field. “It’s very goalkeeper unfriendly,” England’s keeper Paul Robinson told the Times. “It’s very light and moves a lot in the air.” Oddly enough, the ball is actually on the high end of FIFA’s maximum weight specifications, meaning this apparent lightness must be attributed to its new aerodynamic profile. And while the goalies don’t love the new ball, spectators will probably be hearing “goooaaaaaaal” a bit more often this year, making the transition for us Yanks, accustomed to watching the Phoenix Suns score 120+ points a game, a bit easier to take.

If all this talk of robot kicking legs and aerodynamic profiles has worked you into a consumerist lather, you can get your own +Teamgeist for $129.99—John Mahoney

Bend It Like Nimbro

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