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« February 2006 | Main | April 2006 »

Flies Staying Fly With Microengineering

Image courtesy Micreon (click to enlarge)

In 1966, Hollywood envisioned a future world where a submarine and its crew could be miniaturized and injected into an ailing Russian scientist to repair a blood clot in his brain. Although the actual future reality of Fantastic Voyage has yet to be realized, the fields of micro- and nano-engineering are expanding rapidly—giving us 50-megahertz computer circuits built onto single carbon nanotube molecules, artificial red blood cells and tiny eyeglasses for houseflies. Wait, what?

It’s true. A German micromachining firm (no, not those Micro Machines) created the stylin’ two-millimeter shades—complete with a tiny engraved mu symbol on the bridge piece—to demonstrate its precise laser-fabrication abilities. More, ahem, practical applications of this technology could lead to ever-tinier computer processors and microscopic biomedical devices. While humans continue to wait for more miraculous scientific developments in microtechnology, near-sighted and style-concious houseflies everywhere can celebrate now. —John Mahoney

Link (via National Geographic).

Guess What: Neutrinos Have Mass

This is actually a nutria—not to be confused with
a neutrino, which would have far less mass

Scientists at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, announced yesterday the first results of the MINOS experiment, which corroborate an experimental result from 1998 that suggested that a class of subatomic particles called neutrinos have mass. This deviates from the Standard Model of particle physics—which predicts the number and behavior of subatomic particles and depends on a massless neutrino—and indicates that the model needs to be revised, or replaced with a more accurate one. Now, if we could only find the Higgs boson. —Martha Harbison

Cellular Idol

Istock_000001062003small Will a computer soon replace Simon Cowell? The Ring ‘n Sing demo, from British company VoxGen, rates your singing abilities by telephone. Dial +44 870 350 2560—as long as you don’t mind humiliation at international rates—and sing along to one of five songs. Speech-recognition software analyzes the pattern of your notes, compares it with the original, and issues a score. But be prepared: An automated judge isn’t necessarily a kinder one. My nervous rendition of “I’m So Excited” earned me a 1 out of 10 and a Cockney-accented “Oh dear! That was horrible!” —Lauren Aaronson

Who Made You Fat? Yer Mama

Petmice With about 60 percent of Americans officially fat, there's plenty of blame to go around. Scientists at Duke University have just found another factor to join the ranks of trans fats and fast food: your mother. Tweaking the diet of pregnant mice had a substantial influence on their offspring's gene expression—specifically, the expression of a gene responsible for obesity. And adding a soy isoflavone to the mothers' diets during pregnancy limited the expression of the gene in utero, leading to babies half the weight of their soy-starved counterparts. But keep your maternal grudge in check: The human variant of the gene doesn't seem to be susceptible to the benefits of prenatal soy. —Eric Mika

Building a Bigger Bird

Courtesy airliners.net

Having passed its emergency-evacuation test last weekend, the Airbus A380 is officially certified to haul a staggering 853 passengers—that's how many people safely escaped a darkened test aircraft in less than 80 seconds. The A380's capacity puts it well past its next-largest rival, Boeing's venerable 747, which has held the title of world's largest active commercial jet for almost 36 years. When the A380 takes to the skies on its first commercial flight with Singapore Airlines later this year, it will probably max out at around 500 people (800-plus is for a nightmarish single-class setup).

So how does an aircraft this big get itself built, let alone get in the air?  Check out this cool time-lapse video of an A380 assembly to find out, and stick around for the end—the double-time painting process is amazing to watch. —John Mahoney

A Change of Venue for the Armchair Astronaut

Istock_000001105615small Only six degrees separate you from zero gravity, or at least from its thrilling physiological side effects. According to recent research, lolling around for several weeks in a bed inclined six degrees—with your head at the low end—mimics the muscle atrophy and bone degeneration associated with spaceflight. This shortcut to zero gravity may help researchers study the physiological implications of a trip to Mars. Sure, muscle and bone loss isn't usually the highlight of a trip to space, but a few weeks in bed is a lot cheaper than a ticket on Virgin Galactic. —Eric Mika

Quaking in Our Boots

Quake Californians living in fear of the "Big One"—and Californians living in denial about it—should check out these new computer simulations of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Seismologists from the U.S. Geological Survey unveiled these very cool, highly detailed computer simulations that show the seismic waves propagating outward from the epicenter, which lies offshore from San Francisco, and all across the Bay Area. Download the movies here and be sure to watch one of the closeup simulations, say, of downtown San Francisco. According to the USGS Web site, the colors and shading indicate the maximum shaking intensity at each location and the current shaking at the time, noted in seconds on each movie frame. Scary. —Eric Adams

Kinder, Gentler Explosives

ExplosionApparently, this is oxymoron day. Healthy bacon. Silent snowmobiles... What's next—eco-friendly bombs? Well, sort of: Scientists have developed a novel substance that will blow things up without scattering the surrounding terrain with poisonous lead. Called nitrotetrazole, the chemical is good for use as a primary explosive—the highly sensitive, low-power compounds that set off ultra-powerful high explosives. Even better, the compound is inert when wet but recovers all its explosive punch once it dries out again. —Martha Harbison

The Sound of Silence... Almost

37067 These films aren’t quite silent, but they’re about as close as you can get for videos of snowmobiles. They star the competitors from the 2006 Clean Snowmobile Challenge, sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers in the snowy plains of Michigan. Teams from 15 colleges tricked out stock snowmobiles to cut back on noise and emissions. The resulting sleds got the green light from the National Science Foundation, which will drive the winner on a research trip to the sensitive ecosystem of Greenland’s polar ice cap. But speaking as someone who recently got snowed in at the Detroit airport, I’d rather keep one of these on hand in Michigan. —Lauren Aaronson

Martian Standard Time

Screenshot521 It’s possible to stumble upon NASA’s Web site via a random link only to emerge two hours later with a new ultra-high-resolution satellite image of Mt. Vesuvius for your computer’s desktop and a close familiarity with the inner workings of the Orion Nebula.

Proving that the stream of free space-related goodies is seemingly without end, NASA has made available a Mars Sunclock, a tool that tracks the current time of day on different parts of the red planet. Mars days (called "sols") are only 39 minutes and 35 seconds longer than Earth days, and the planet’s 25-degree tilt on its axis results in an Earth-like progression of the seasons. With the Sunclock, you can plot the location of the ailing Spirit and the still-functioningOpportunity rovers, as well as several other Martian landmarks, in relation to the time of sol on Mars.

It’s true, you don’t need the giant Vesuvius image, and you certainly don’t need to know whether it is day or night in the Valles Marineris on Mars (it’s the middle of the night, as of this posting). But as is the common rationale to all of the cool freebies NASA has to give: Why not? —John Mahoney

Link (also, check out a similar Sunclock application for Saturn’s moon Titan here).

Healthy Bacon (Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus)

Bacon I never thought I’d live to see the day: heart-friendly bacon. (Did the world just implode?) Scientists have created transgenic pigs that express omega-3 fatty acids—compounds that help reduce heart disease—in their bodies. I think this calls for a second breakfast. —Martha Harbison

Blogging at the Museum

Londonsciencemuseum Museums aren’t just for ancient artifacts—they’re also for blogs, wikis and podcasts. The Dana Centre at London’s Science Museum electrifies itself this week with a festival of “do-it-yourself media.” Researchers and artists will lead workshops (BYO laptop) showing novices how to mix their own digital music or use open-source publishing tools. Attendees will learn more about their newfound power at evening lectures on copyright protection, online communities and the like. Please, someone buy a ticket to London so that you can report back on what “Robotic Feral Public Authoring” is. —Lauren Aaronson

World's Most Inexpensive Rocket Lost

Falcon_1_finalDot-com “thrillionaire” Elon Musk and his company SpaceX of California suffered a painful setback today when their low-cost rocket Falcon I was lost somewhere over the Pacific Ocean just seconds after its maiden launch from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Musk, the founder and former owner of PayPal, aspires to build a new generation of affordable transportation to space. "We want to be the Southwest Airlines of space launches," he told PopSci in 2004. The $6.7 million launch vehicle, which was carrying a U.S. Air Force FalconSat-2 satellite, cost roughly two-thirds less than satellite-launching rockets made by big-name competitors like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. SpaceX has not yet reported the cause of the failure; check out their website for the latest updates. —Nicole Dyer

Put on your Baseball Thinking Caps

Rbi_baseballWith baseball season just a week and a half away, it’s time to think about the technological side of the game. And yes, it goes beyond steroids. Check out the essay “Geeks and Baseball,”  written by a couple of fans and, presumably, geeks.  One interesting idea that pops up: the artificial intelligence in baseball video games is so realistic that even major leaguers look to the XBox for tips. The essay also has the requisite section on statistics, which is turning into a philosophical controversy—for more info, see this article in Legal Affairs  that discusses whether or not players own their numbers. “Geeks and Baseball” does run off-base a couple of times, though. Much as we might hope otherwise, I doubt that Willie Randolph is going to pay attention to an online information market when he decides when to play Pedro… —Lauren Aaronson

Teeny Tiny Tongs

The orange "piston" is opened and closed by light, causing the red arms
on the other side of the blue joint to twist, operating the yellow pedals.
Courtesy NewScientist.com and Kazushi Kinbara

A working pair of scissors doesn’t sound interesting, but it is when those scissors are too small to see.Nanoscientists in Tokyo have just created the first working molecular machine that can act like a tool to alter another molecule. As reported in Nature, their nanoscale scissors grip and twist an even smaller molecule. When light hits a photosensitive chemical on the scissors, their iron-based hinge pivots. That flips two molecular paddles at the bottom of the scissors that hold the target object—in this case, a structure of nitrogen atoms—which obligingly changes its shape. That simple twist is the first step on the way to more useful nanoscale machines. Think cars, conveyor belts that deliver drugs, or anything else that depends on gears and levers prodding other pieces into action. —Lauren Aaronson

Whale Grammar

Humpbacks As if the Speech Accent Archive from yesterday’s blogging wasn’t fascinating enough, it seems humans aren’t the only creatures being subjected to linguistic analysis these days. A new study appearing in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America suggests that whales may be speaking a more complex language than previously thought.

The study offers new evidence that whales, like humans, communicate in a hierarchical language—that is, one that uses building blocks such as words to form more complex constructs like clauses, the clauses then forming sentences, and so on. The study’s authors analyzed recordings of Hawaiian humpback whales using a special algorithm to isolate patterns in the sounds and found that whale songs do appear to follow a hierarchical structure. Decoding the hierarchy’s meaning, though, is something else entirely. Will we ever know what whales are talking about? My guess is they mainly talk about food and the attractiveness of whales of the opposite sex, just like humans do. —John Mahoney

Link via New Scientist (check out the sound clips, too).


_41413054_family_bbc_203 Last week the BBC aired The Family That Walks on All Fours, a documentary that followed scientists as they studied a group of siblings in Turkey who exhibit an unusual form of locomotion. The sisters and brother are all mentally disabled and walk with the palms of their hands on the ground in what’s known as quadrupedal palmigrade location. A German research team showed that quadrupedal locomotion is a recessive trait linked to chromosome 17p and hypothesized that this family’s condition may provide clues to the behavior of our hominid ancestors. Another British researcher says that he believes the siblings are (literally) throwbacks to a bygone stage of human evolution. So what I want to know is, am I the only one who finds all this extremely creepy and dehumanizing? Watch this video of the family, and while you do, imagine the crew of gawking British videographers following them around their Turkish farm. In the opening scene, the BBC host calls them “spooky-weird,” and Jemima Harrison, the documentary’s maker, says, “You initially respond to them like they’re animals, which is a little disturbing.” Uh, yeah. My mentor in college, biological anthropologist Fatima Jackson, would probably keel over if she heard that sort of ethnographically insensitive language. I also just found a link to an article called "'Backward Evolution' Spawns Ape-like People" (!) in which a Turkish researcher, Uner Tan of Cukurova University Medical School, compares the siblings to lower primates:

“The sitting posture was rather similar to an ape ... They could not hold their heads upright; the heads were flexed forward with their skulls. They could not raise their heads to look forward. This head posture with flexed skull was rather similar to the head posture of our closest relatives, like chimpanzees.”

And he was so proud of his findings that he named the family’s condition after himself: Unertan syndrome. Incredible...as in, both unbelievable and not at all credible. —Megan Miller

Illusory Tomes

Istock_000001131038small_1Sometimes the Web is a glorious, glorious waste of time. Take, for example, the Invisible Library. It’s a site dedicated to books that exist only inside other books. Or, as explained on the homepage: books "unwritten, unread, unpublished, and unfound." Favorites therein include make-believe books mentioned as set pieces in other works, like Necronomicon, made famous by H.P. Lovecraft and the Evil Dead movies, and The Unabridged Princess Bride by S. Morgenstern. Author William Goldman invented the existence of the S. Morgenstern tome, then “abridged” it into his published book The Princess Bride. To this day, many readers don’t realize that the “unabridged” version never existed. —Martha Harbison

Alcohol-fueled Housework

Vinegar_2It’s time for spring cleaning, so I started looking around for the best technology to tackle my dirt. It turns out I may already have it in my refrigerator—or possibly in that half-drunk bottle of wine on the counter. Simple vinegar can apparently clean toilets, kill weeds, fight dandruff, scare off ants, lift deodorant stains, and keep the white from running out of a cracked egg. The acetic acid in vinegar—produced when alcohol ferments—turns into a grease-cutter as powerful as commercial cleaners, according to the Vinegar Institute. (The what? Seriously, there really is one.) Makes me wonder what my salad dressing is doing to my intestines, but I’m too caught up in vinegar trivia to care. —Lauren Aaronson

2006 Hugo Award Nominees

184149390202lzzzzzzzAttention, science-fiction and fantasy fans: The nominees for this year’s Hugos, one of the premier awards in the SF/F genre, have been announced. Although nobody will ever agree on each and every nominee, it’s still surprising to many fans that genre juggernaut Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys didn’t even make the final list—it was predicted to be a shoo-in for the top spot—while relative long shots got the nod. In no surprise at all, Charles Stross’s Accelerando (the beginnings of which we described in “Is Science Fiction About to Go Blind?”; August 2004) is among the finalists. I went 1 for 2 for my favorite gigantor novels in 2005 (apparently 2005 was an epic-fantasy year for me): George R.R. Martin’s A Feast for Crows is a finalist, but R. Scott Bakker’s The Warrior-Prophet isn’t. (Boo!) In the film category, everyone I’ve asked is stumping for Joss Whedon’s Serenity. In TV, Battlestar Galactica gets the American vote; the Brits are more keen on the new Doctor Who. The winners won’t be announced until August at WorldCon, where I’ll be hanging with people wielding broadswords (and, most likely, beer) and avoiding roving packs of Klingons. Let the sniping begin! —Martha Harbison

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