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Main | March 2006 »

Mysterious Ferrari-Crash Caper

Swedish businessman Stefan Eriksson, who tried to take on Nintendo and Sony with his company's GPS-enabled Gizmondo portable video gaming system, wrapped his million dollar Ferrari Enzo around a telephone pole before spreading it across the Pacific Coast Highway like so much cottage cheese last Tuesday (he's fine). His far-from-credible story about the incident (he says a German guy known to him only as "Dietrich", whom no one can seem to find, was driving the car when it crashed at 162 mph) compounded with his money-pit gaming company, suggest that you don't need to be a genius or even have a decent product to become a millionaire gaming tycoon. The LA Times has an excellent story and an even better photo gallery about the case here. —Joe Brown

Way to "Incentivize"

Istock_000000773091small_1The Idaho Senate recently announced that, because it's so important to make improvements in math and science education, they'll be giving out bonuses to attract qualified educators to the state. Yay Idaho! But they also announced that the pay increase will be a mere 3.75%. The average starting salary for an Idaho teacher is $30,000, so that's a raise of just over $100 a month. The big kicker: Teachers won't even be eligible for the bonus until they've been working in the state for five years. Seriously? Ya think that's the way to lure teachers to Boise? Boo, Idaho. —Megan Miller

Just announced: iPod HiFi

IpodhifiToday Apple announced their iPod HiFi, an iPod-specific speaker system. It'll run off of two D cell batteries (good for shoulder-mounted hood-stompin) or an AC adapter, and charges your iPod (but not the oft-scorned runt of the litter, the iPod Shuffle—sorry) while it plays. The $349 HiFi packs three forward-firing speakers, one of which is a subwoofer. And it's white. So to summarize, it's another iPod speaker system, but designed by Apple for Apple. Which raises the question: Why is it so vanilla? —Joe Brown

The Enigma Code

Nsaenigma1Listen up, sleuths: The M4 Project is trying to break three undecrypted World War II Nazi Enigma cyphertexts (check out the photo of the creepy Enigma, at left) using a distributed-computing setup similar to SETI@home. As of today, one message has been decrypted. If you’re running Unix/Linux or Windows and want to lend a helping hand (or if you’re just curious about the project and its results), check it out here.

In other cryptography news, crime solvers are trying to decode a mysterious note left at the scene of a murder. You can help with that, too. —Martha Harbison

The X Prize Aims for the Moon

Landernewarrows4_hi For Peter Diamandis, boring old “space” just isn’t good enough anymore. After his foundation’s X Prize competition resulted in the first non-government manned space mission in world history, Diamandis apparently needs more.

Last week, the X Prize Foundation released the draft rules governing its new $2 million Lunar Lander Challenge. The competition has been designed to simulate the demands of a lunar voyage, including a landing and return flight. The rules for the most demanding of the two contest divisions call for a rocket-powered craft to take off, maintain a steady altitude for 180 seconds, then land at a second point simulating the lunar surface no less than 100 meters away. Teams will then have 30 minutes to refuel their craft before launching it again from the landing point, flying it for another 180 seconds before landing it at the initial launch area.

Since Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt pulled in the ladder on Apollo 17 in 1972, only a handful of spacecraft have touched down on the moon’s surface—none of them carrying human passengers. And while the competition rules do not call for living cargo, a privately-funded trip to the moon is slowly beginning to sound less like the ravings of 1950s pulp science fiction and more like an attainable reality. (Since PopSci last covered Space Adventures CEO Eric Anderson’s lunar tourism dreams, his company has announced plans to build private spaceports in Singapore and the United Arab Emirates).

The competition is scheduled to go down before the end of the year. So those readers with any spare liquid-burning rocket motors or Lunar Lander mock-ups laying around in the garage, now’s the time to dust them off and get to work. Check out the rules here. —John Mahoney

A Sad Day in Science Fiction

Octaviabutler_96dpi2Octavia Butler, one of the most original voices in science fiction of the past 30 years, died on Friday after suffering a fatal concussion. Although she wasn’t as well-known outside the genre as, say, Isaac Asimov, Butler’s works were as thought-provoking as any I have ever read, tackling religion, gender and race issues within the boundaries of some highly imaginative speculative fiction. Butler was the first SF writer to win a MacArthur “genius” grant (it has since been awarded to David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Lethem, both writers with loose affiliations to the speculative fiction and SF communities) and was one of the few African-American women writing SF in any form. Her novels and short stories won the Hugo, Nebula and James Tiptree, Jr., awards. Butler’s last novel, Fledgling, was published last year. —Martha Harbison

Ancient "Beavers"

Dn87591_500We know what you're thinking...but this isn't that kind of Web site. We're referring to a newly discovered fossil, for your information. It seems that early mammals were a lot bigger and more complex than paleontologists originally thought. The latest issue of Science reports that the Middle Jurassic–era fossil in question, Castorocauda lutrasimilis, turned up in Inner Mongolia. During its lifetime, the critter weighed around a pound—huge compared to other mammals of that era, which have been roughly the size of mice. C. lutrasimilis had—in addition to a warm-blooded metabolism and a fur pelt with guard hairs—a flat, beaver-like tail and webbed feet. These features indicate that mammals exploited aquatic habitats far earlier than previously believed. —Martha Harbison

Annihilating Universes

Istock_000000413823smallMight we suddenly be annihilated by a parallel universe? A NewScientist.com story answers with a definitive “maybe.” The theory that this might be possible comes from the fashionable “many-worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics, which posits the constant creation of a near-infinite number of universes. Many-worlds adherents have heretofore always specified that these universes are completely separate—that is, there is no way one could communicate with another. But a new theory, created to make the many-worlds interpretation fit the data of our existence, suggests that these universes might indeed interact in a meaningful way. And when you have interaction, you have the potential for problems. Like the complete destruction of everything in existence.

A few caveats: The many-worlds interpretation isn't really orthodox in the scientific community. I personally feel it’s nonsense—any solution that requires the constant creation of entire new universes to explain away our ignorance of fundamental quantum processes is really no solution at all. In addition, the gentleman who came up with the latest many-worlds-interacting theory is an economist, not a physicist. Earning a Ph.D. doesn’t make you an expert in everything.

[For a slightly lighter take on annihilation, check out Sam Hughes hilarious and disurbingly thorough Geocide site.] —Michael Moyer

Web App Motherlode

Picture_2Techcrunch is a blog solely dedicated to tracking new Web 2.0 applications. How embarrassing that my co-worker from the science silo (fellow poster Michael Moyer) had to bring it to my attention, but man am I glad he did. Techcrunch blogger Michael Arrington doesn't just list the latest Web apps, he provides thorough and smart reviews, often long before the apps get mainstream buzz and show up on one of our other favorite sites, Lifehacker. Check out Arrington's review of the not-yet-public airline price tracker, Flyspy—I'm drooling already.—Mike Haney

Nerdin’ It Up in Boston

EarthbWhile my esteemed colleague Michael Moyer traveled to St. Louis for the annual AAAS meeting, I spent my Presidents’ Day weekend in Boston, rubbing elbows with some of the best science-fiction and fantasy authors working today. Boskone  is primarily a writers’ and book lovers’ paradise, focusing on the craft of creating—and enjoying—SF and fantasy stories (other conventions focus a bit more heavily on gaming). Unfortunately, I am only one person, and I didn’t get a chance to see every reading, talk, panel discussion or presentation on my wish list. I enjoyed a panel with Charles Stross, Karl Schroeder, Edie Stern and Mark L. Olson on the Singularity and how authors of near-future fiction deal with the almost impossible task of predicting how humanity will live in 40 years. Most important, I learned that if one hopes to compete in an extreme-techie future, one should probably join a World of Warcraft guild now (immersive reality will be similar to interacting in an MMORPG of today). Also of note: a panel discussion with George RR Martin, Ginjer Buchanan, Esther Friesner, Melissa Scott and Paul Park focusing on why authors kill off their characters (and how it can make for a stronger story), an amazing slide show presentation by official artist Donato Giancola that detailed his technical and visual influences from Renaissance paintings, and an entertaining reading by PopSci contributing editor Cory Doctorow. I also now know how the Utilikilt company stays in business: There were a lot of bare male legs on display throughout the weekend. —Martha Harbison

Science Fights Back

279226_8723_2I had the good fortune to attend the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting this past weekend on behalf of the magazine. One symposium I missed, though, was "Science under Attack", which provided an overview of the current ideologically motivated attacks on both scientific research and science education in the U.S., and provided potential responses from the scientific community. (As I explained to a friend, I figured there was little reason to go to a debate about such matters, as there is really no scientific debate at all.) Looks like I missed a good one. As astronomer Phil Plait explains on his excellent Bad Astronomy weblog, the meeting served as a call to arms to scientists who are tired of having their empirical evidence equivocated with faith-based preconceptions. Specifically, he calls out some in the media who all too often serve as patsies in the fight:

To the media, please, don’t simply take what people say and repeat it. Don’t feel the need to get "balance" in your reporting by talking to "both sides". Sometimes there aren’t two sides! If someone builds a Holocaust museum, would you interview a white supremacist who says the Holocaust never happened to achieve "balance"? When a new vaccine comes out for a virus, would you interview a homeopath so that "both sides are heard"?

I’m curious to see whether this meeting, following closely as it does on the heels of the Dover decision (in which a federal court ruled that the Dover school district could not include Intelligent Design in its science curricula) and the ID retreat in Ohio, will mark a watershed moment in the willingness of scientists to stand up for themselves. Might this mark the beginning of 2006: The Year Science Fought Back? —Michael Moyer

Better Backup Tools—Free!

StatusA few months ago, a friend got his laptop stolen out of his checked bag somewhere between the gate and the carousel—an incident made all that much more painful by his failure to have backed up his system in the past six weeks. It reminded me that I don't back up enough either, mostly because I'm cheap and lazy. Apple's free Backup annoys me because it stuffs everything into a proprietary format that you need the program to unstuff again. Then I found Silverkeeper, a free application from hard drive-maker LaCie. No complicated fancy features you'll never use—just give it a folder to copy stuff from and a folder to copy stuff to. After the initial backup, it'll only copy new files (unless you tell it otherwise) on the schedule that you set. It'll even wake your machine from sleep to do a 2 a.m. backup while you rest peacefully, knowing that if your machine goes kablooey or gets snatched, a copy of the important stuff is safely stashed elsewhere. Silverkeeper is Mac only, but PC folks can check out Karen's Replicator, a similarly competent bit of backup freeware. (And if you don't have an extra hard drive to back up to, see our guide to building your own in the March issue.) —Mike Haney

Germ Warfare


A new study by University of Arizona microbiologist Charles Gerba (funded by the Clorox company) answers the question that no working stiff really wants answered: What is the germiest profession? (Teachers, accountants and bankers round out the top three of gross, if you really must know.) Gerba stopped by the offices of PopSci the other day and offered to test some of the work surfaces with a device that looks for metabolic activity. The idea was to determine if we degenerate journalists are as filthy as we’re made out to be in the movies. Turns out, we are. The copier's “Start” button was a cesspit of bacteria, and I’m never touching the editor-in-chief’s door-handle again. The toilet seats in the ladies’ room? Pretty clean! As for my desk…I’m not saying anything except I attacked it with disinfectant right after I showed my esteemed guest to the door. —Martha Harbison

Fossett Still Unfazed


I talked to crazy rich-guy adventurer Steve Fossett on the phone today. For those of you who like to keep abreast of his world record-breaking exploits, here’s the latest: Last week he set a new record in his Burt Rutan-designed Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer (check out the image of the plane below), zipping all the way around the world and then some for longest nonstop flight ever. Fossett flew 26,389.3 miles in 76 hours and 45 minutes. He took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on February 8, flew around the world and over the Atlantic again before landing in Bournemouth, England, on February 11. Apparently the flight was even more harrowing than his around-the-world stint last year: he had a dangerously long takeoff roll in Florida; hit two birds on his ascent; lost 750 pounds of fuel in a similar problem as last year’s (in which he lost nearly 3,000 pounds of fuel) saw his cockpit temperatures soar to 130 degrees because of a pressurization problem; and faced tailwinds over the Pacific that were slow enough to jeopardize the mission. But held up like a champ. Today he told me: “I expected a lot fewer problems than we actually had. The airplane was proven substantially with the first solo flight last year, but this flight offered a lot of surprises. The takeoff was really close—I had to use both my hands and my full body force pulling back on the control stick to get it to lift off.” And the landing was even worse: GlobalFlyer suffered a total electrical failure during his final descent, with only 200 pounds of fuel left. This caused a diversion from his intended airport, Kent, to Bournemouth, where, with ice forming on his windshield that reduced his visibility to nearly zero, he blew out two tires during an emergency landing. Whew—close call, fella. —Eric Adams

Beam Us Up


One thing is for sure: that guy at Blockbuster who yelled at me for repeatedly renting the Chronicles of Riddick is about to be looking for a new job, because the retail video rental store is officially an endangered species. First came Netflix, which started the “no late-fee” revolution. Well, now there’s MovieBeam, a set-top box that comes pre-loaded with 100 movies and automatically swaps out the 10 oldest movies for 10 new releases every week—and some of the content will even be available in HD. It’s basically your own personal pay-per-view-palooza. Here’s how it works: You buy the box at your local retailer for $250 (but you get a $50 rebate) and the next day they FedEx you a unit loaded with their newest offerings. The box automatically updated itself once a week, swapping out the ten oldest movies with ten new ones via a datacasting service that uses television and radio frequencies to push lots of data to multiple destinations simultaneously. The service costs $7 a month and between $2 and $5 per movie. —Joe Brown

30 Boxes of Scheduling Goodness


I'm addicted to Web 2.0 apps—those interactive Ajax-scripted Web sites such as Backpack and Remember the Milk. The release of a new one reminds me of the pre-Web days when a new version of Mac OS or Quark would suddenly appear and you got to waste your whole day fiddling with new features. 30 Boxes is my latest obsession—a supersmart online calendar that could finally be the free solution to shared scheduling we've been waiting for. The beta just went public Sunday and so far I'm very impressed.

Besides its slick, easy-to-use interface, 30 Boxes' schtick is that it integrates into the social Web scene, importing photos from your Flickr account, sites from your del.icio.us feed and content from several other sites. But it also lets you share your calendar with others in a very customizable way. Invite a "buddy" to join 30 Boxes, and decide what you want them to see—all or some of your appointments (you can set up individual filters), your bookmarks or Flickr photos, etc—and see theirs on your calendar. So you could share all your appointments with your spouse, only the weekly poker game with one set of buddies, and birthdays with all the relatives. Whenever you add something it shows up automatically on their calendars and vice versa. You can even drop Google maps into an appointment just by entering its address in brackets. Like any shared app, it requires everyone to participate to take full advantage of its potential, but even if none of your family and friends are on the Web 2.0 train yet, it's worth using just for your own schedule. —Mike Haney

The PalmBot


Like many of you, I'd imagine, I have at least three old Palm Pilots scattered about my place, collecting dust in drawers and boxes. I just never got into the habit of using one regularly. But all still work, so I've started hunting for alternate uses for them. Look for something in the May issue on this, but as a preview, here's one of my favorites: A kit from Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute for a fully autonomous robot that uses the Palm as a brain. It even has optical sensors to get around walls. Seems like a great way to get started on robotics projects. —Mike Haney

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