One summer a few years ago, I worked as a keeper at the Miami Metro Zoo. I may remember those halcyon days for the times that I spent scratching the belly of a tapir, petting bongo antelopes that made your hands look like you had eaten a bag of Cheetos, helping name a baby dama, or trying to quiet down a howler monkey that didn’t like me much. But the fact is, most of my days were spent dealing with crap. Shoveling crap. Scooping crap. Raking crap. Spraying down crap. Wheelbarrowing crap. Lots and lots of—well, you get the idea.
So it comes as no surprise that crap was fresh in the minds of the folks at the Miami zoo when they rolled out their new exhibit, “The Scoop on Poop.” Based on a book of the same name and the self-proclaimed “largest exhibition ever mounted about the science of scat,” the exhibit explores the many ways that animals—and people—use poop in their everyday lives. Visitors can learn the names of poop types from around the world, find out how long it would take (down to the minute) for an elephant to excrete a human’s body weight in poop, challenge each other to dung-beetle races, and even touch some fossilized dinosaur poop, all in the name of understanding a rarely talked about but important by-product of life.
One of the highlights of the exhibit is “Dung Boots,” in which visitors watch a rhinoceros kick and stomp its dung, marking its territory with a trail of smelly footprints. How do I know that the rhino is on to something? Its trail definitely won’t be disappearing anytime soon—rhino crap is some hard stuff to clean up, let me tell you.
In the pantheon of ubiquitous games (checkers, tic-tac-toe, etc.), Tetris is one-of-a-kind. For starters, there aren't too many members of that pantheon that are videogames, considering they've only been around for a few decades, compared with a few millennia for board games. Even more interesting, though, is the story of Tetris's viral rise from a puzzle-loving Soviet hacker's pet project in the1980s to your Grandma's favorite videogame, all during some fairly heavy Cold War years.
If you're thinking that the intriguing backstory behind one of the Soviet Union's most unlikely cultural exports is right in a BBC documentary filmmaker's wheelhouse, then you would be correct [see it on Google Video here (also embedded below), with props to the fine Kottke.org for the find]. At the core of the game's complicated story is the still-hot issue of intellectual-property rights, in particular the policies of the Soviet era, in which private ownership of an intellectual commodity was a completely alien concept. Seeing Alexey Pajitnov, the game's original creator, recounting in the doc's opening scenes how baffled he was to even think about how a piece of computer software could be sold or protected with a copyright gives an indication of just how crazy the ensuing licensing battle would become, as several international parties rushed to be the first to sell the impossibly addictive puzzle game to the West.
The documentary’s excellent Philip Glass–esque soundtrack and dramatically-lit Russian-official-in-his-office-type scenes make it well worth the 60-minute investment. You could even export it for viewing on your video iPod—that is, if you can stop playing iPodLinux Tetris long enough to watch. —John Mahoney
Having trouble reconciling your love of IKEA furniture with your nostalgia for futuristic, self-reassembling T-1000-like robots? Well, don't fret. Your problem has been solved by a team of engineers and artists at Cornell University who have created the Robotic Chair, a deceptively simple-looking wooden chair that collapses into several pieces and then proceeds to put itself back together.
Described as "the culmination of a 20-year-long investigation into the engagement between the individual and the object," the Robotic Chair is a fine example of computer-assisted robot autonomy. After the chair collapses, the images from a camera mounted above the chair's platform are digitized by a computer with software that converts the location of the chair's pieces from the video into points on a grid. This information is then transmitted wirelessly to the processing unit in the chair's seat, which uses 14 motors and an array of sensors to find its pieces in the correct order and reassemble itself.
This isn't the first time the Cornell folks have dabbled in robotic furniture. Their previous piece, the Table: Childhood, was a table with a brain. The Table, fully mobile thanks to a mechanical set of wheels, could express emotions and even display preferences toward an individual in the room by either following or avoiding a person. Perhaps one day the Table or the Robotic Chair will be honored to join the ranks of the Ig Nobels along with a previous winner, an alarm clock that runs away from you when you try to turn it off.
Whether you appreciate the chair for its artistic value or the engineering skill that went into its creation, or file it away with the rest of the YouTube videos you've been forwarded, just be thankful it was created by people calling themselves the D'Andrea Group and not an organization as ominous or clearly evil as Cyberdyne. —Dan Smith
Welcome to PopSci's newest blog feature, "The Breakdown." Each week, we'll pick a Web video that involves a minor crash, explosion or other nonfatal mishap and invite one of our experts to explain, in scientific terms, what went wrong. In this week's edition, physics whiz Michael Moyer analyzes the case of the tumbling pole dancer...
Newton’s First Law of Motion states that bodies in motion tend to stay in motion. The same holds true for rotating bodies and, as we see in this video, doubly true for rotating, gyrating bodies.
Consider the body of the body in question. After a quick shake of the head right and left, she leans backward to begin her rotation around the pole. Her pivot points include her right hand, held fast to the pole, and her left foot (disastrously clad, we will soon learn, in three-inch heels). She now has a sizeable amount of angular momentum moving counterclockwise around the pole, and this can be halted only by an external force.
Unfortunately for our young dancer, the outcropping of wall her rear end soon encounters does not provide that force. Instead it simply serves as a new fulcrum, shifting the center of rotation from her hand to her hip. This does two things: Like a figure skater pulling her arms in, shifting the center of rotation closer to her center of mass acts to speed the rotation up. More important, it also means that her right hand must begin to rotate around the wall as well.
The outcome is predictable. A hand rotating away from the pole cannot continue to hold onto the pole, and without that grip, our dancer loses her balance in a most sudden and undignified fashion. Lesson learned: Newton can still represent. Can you think of a YouTube video you'd like explained? Send us a link in the comments section. —Michael Moyer
There are a lot of unappealing science jobs out there—carcass cleaner, anal-wart researcher, Kansas biology teacher—and we at Popular Science have written about a lot of them in our annual “Worst Jobs in Science” feature. [Check out last year’s here].
My personal favorite is the ballerina NASA hired last year to help demonstrate the abilities of a remarkable new robotic skin, developed to allow robots to sense the presence of astronauts in space and move out of their way. The only problem is, the demo ‘bot looks a bit, well, phallic.
The space administration apparently thought better of its demonstration methods (the video was taken down from its site not long after our 2005 honors were announced), but luckily, I’ve discovered a reemergence of the seductive duet on YouTube (see below).
It's hard to top, but we’re going to try. Know of someone with an absurd, dangerous, painful, disgusting or otherwise humiliating job? Let us know below in the comments. He or she may even show up in our next installment, coming in spring 2007. —Kalee Thompson
Even though there’s war raging on several fronts and an election coming up, like many American males, I’ve spent the past few weeks thinking mostly about the Major League Baseball playoffs. The draw of our national pastime was seemingly the same in 1921, when, despite World War I finally coming to an end and the first successful BCG vaccinations against tuberculosis, the question on everyone’s lips was: How the heck can Babe Ruth hit so many home runs?
Thankfully, two graduate students at Columbia University, on behalf of Popular Science [read the original article here], conducted a series of tests on the slugger to find out. By measuring raw physical attributes, such as swing speed and power generated, as well as mental and physical agility and coordination, the scientists discovered that the Sultan of Swat’s eyes, brain, nervous system and muscles were able to work in almost perfect harmony, despite his voracious appetite for booze, cigars, food and prostitutes.
Recently GQ ran a series of similar tests on supernaturally gifted St. Louis first baseman Albert Pujols, who ripped yet another monster home run in the Cardinals’ game-one victory in the World Series on Saturday. And although the magazine’s crew were re-creating experiments based on very dated technology (you’ll see far more advanced equipment featured in Gatorade ads), they argue that any scientific inquiry applied to player recruitment and development is a step in the right direction for baseball, which, unlike other sports, mostly shuns science in favor of hunches and intuition.
So how did Pujols stack up? Well, the 6’3”, 225-pound hitting machine is certainly a gifted athlete, acing almost every test thrown his way. But surprisingly, the article goes on to explain, measures such as bat speed and bench-press max have less to do with creating great hitters like Ruth and Pujols than do proper swing mechanics and depth perception, also called “binocularity.” Yeah, no wonder baseball goes with gut feelings and overrated stats—how else are they going to sell $200 jerseys? “This Wily Mo Pena jersey was totally worth it. I hear his brain can reconcile disparate perspectives into a coherent three-dimensional image at a distance of four feet…” —Josh Condon
Space elevators, lunar landers and X-Racers, oh my! The first day of the 2006 Wirefly X Prize Cup blasted into New Mexico with rocket launches, stealth-jet flyovers, and two multimillion-dollar engineering contests to encourage innovation in the field of space exploration.
Competitive highlights included a successful flight of Armadillo Aerospace’s lunar-lander prototype and the triumphant ascent of the University of Michigan’s robotic space elevator on a 200-foot tether.
Practically every school-aged kid in New Mexico was in attendance (missing-child announcements over the intercom were frequent, but our editor in chief’s nine-year-old son Rex managed not to get lost), and representation from aerospace firms both large and small was top-notch.
There was some schedule confusion and an occasional, unfortunate overlap of events, but that was predictable, since the agenda was executed at the whims of weather, team readiness and New Mexico timekeeping.
Former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, NM governor Bill Richardson, and Rocket Racing League CEO Granger Whitelaw all gave speeches, but the standout was Anousheh Ansari, the first private female space explorer, who gave a moving address imploring kids to learn as much as possible and then dream beyond the boundaries of their education.
You really have to give X Prize founder Peter Diamandis, his crew and the enthusiastic participants in this nascent industry credit: that this visionary event exists at all is a tribute to their tenacity and dedication to making something—a privately funded space-exploration business—out of absolutely nothing.
Check out the following video for a tour of the day’s events with Future Girl Megan Miller.
In our October issue, we reported on the theoretical and practical work being done to make the fantasy of invisibility a reality [read the article online here]. Yesterday one of those teams of researchers—a Duke University group led by David Smith—announced that they had demonstrated the world’s first working invisibility cloak. And unlike other “cloaks,” which use images projected onto the surface of the item to be hidden, Smith’s actually bends light around the object, making the light behave as if the object isn’t even there.
The cloak, which is less than five inches long, is a synthetic structure composed of copper rings and wires placed onto sheets of fiberglass. Its applicability is limited: It works for only two dimensions and only against a microwave beam. The technology to create an invisibility cloak for regular light, which is made of many different wavelengths, is still decades away. See a video of the new cloak here. —Abby Seiff
Wednesday, President Bush announced the first official update to the National Space Policy in over a decade. Unsurprisingly, the standoffish document (download it here) is garnering negative reactions for its "with us or against us" treatment of space militarization. Most notable among these reactions was the one communicated by former vice president Al Gore during his lunch address at Thursday's Wirefly X Prize Executive Summit in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Here's a bit of what he had to say:
“Very few people have analyzed the insides of this new space policy. I urge all of you who are interested in space to analyze it very carefully. It has the potential, down the road, to create the [same] kind of fuzzy thinking and chaos in our efforts to exploit the space resource as the fuzzy thinking and chaos the Iraq policy has created in Iraq. It is a very serious mistake, in my opinion.
“We in the United States of America may claim that we alone can determine who goes into space and who doesn’t, what it’s used for and what it’s not used for, and we may claim it effectively as our own dominion to the exclusion, when we wish to exclude others, of all others. That’s hubristic.”
In the document's most telling passage, the United States pledges its commitment to the "use of outer space by all nations for peaceful purposes." Sounds pretty reasonable, right? Next sentence: "Consistent with this principle, 'peaceful purposes' allow U.S. defense- and intelligence-related activities in pursuit of national interests." The idea seems to be that everyone should use space peacefully, but if we happen to deem it necessary to destroy another nation's communications satellites with any one of the numerous anti-satellite weapon systems the U.S. is currently developing, well, tough cookies. Watch PopSci's exclusive video of Gore's speech below. —John Mahoney and Megan Miller
It’s comforting to know that our elected officials can really grasp a nuanced concept and break it down into terms we common folk can understand. Take global terrorism, for example: In comments made earlier this week, U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) equated terrorists to the “Eye of Mordor” trying to harass the hobbits scaling Mount Doom (no kidding—read it here) and went on to say that right now, the Eye of Mordor (ed.: Don’t you mean the Eye of Sauron, Rick?) has been drawn away from the U.S. to Iraq. Hooray! We’re safe! Mission accomplished!
First of all, if the terrorists are Sauron and the U.S. hobbits, then who the heck is Saruman? The Fighting Uruk-hai? Gollum? Where is Mount Doom? How does Gandalf fit in here, and what does Tom Bombadil really stand for?
And if this is the best analogy—the best thinking—a U.S. legislator can do on a subject, can we possibly trust his judgment when looking at such a nuanced and fraught issue as stem-cell research? I can’t wait to hear the analogy he comes up with for that (Perhaps the evil chest creature from Alien exploding out of the great stomach that is America?).
If you have any other ideas as to who belongs where (Osama bin Laden? Tony Blair? Poland?) in the Santorum LotR mythos, please let us know. And frankly, I’m dying to hear some more fantasy/sci-fi metaphors for the big issues of today. So we common folk can understand, see? —Martha Harbison
If you're a regular listener to the PopSci Podcast, you already know how proud we are of the reporting being done by Jonathan Coulton, our far-flung correspondent dutifully manning PopSci's satellite office on the moon, Lunar Base One. We're so proud, in fact, that we recently sent up Jonathan's first-ever live visitor in the form of Mr. John Hodgman—author of the all-purpose reference work The Areas of My Expertise, the Daily Show's expert-of-all-trades or, of course, that totally square PC guy. Aside from delivering a fresh shipment of Yoo-hoo and Doritos, Mr. Hodgman let Jonathan in on the real story behind those fuzzy undersea lobsters.
Looks like good ol' James Dyson got pissed off at something else that didn’t work properly: public-restroom hand dryers. Amen, brother. As Dyson’s legion of engineers discovered, the standard-issue dryers just suck up filthy air from the bathroom, heat it, and shoot it out at your hands in even filthier condition, which totally defeats the purpose of cleaning your hands in the first place. So on the brand-new Airblade dryer, air is drawn in through an iodine-resin purifying filter before it’s shot out of two hair-thin openings at 400 miles an hour. Yeah, that’s right, I said 400 mph, which is faster than the following:
2. the Delorean from Back to the Future 3. the speed at which a girl will run away from you when you bring up high-powered hand dryers in an attempt to get her number
Dyson says it will bring the Airblade to the U.S. in late 2007. Hopefully, that will inspire you to wash your hands after going to the bathroom. I’m wiping my hands on my jeans till it gets here.
We had a chance to test the thing way before you will. Check out what it does to the skin on my hand! —Joe Brown
Yesterday’s plane crash on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, which killed New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle, is puzzling in the sense that there are no obvious indications of what might have happened. Yes, Lidle was a new pilot, but his instructor was with him, minimizing (though clearly not eliminating) the chance that he would make an egregious and fatal error. The weather wasn’t ideal, but it also wasn’t unflyable. It wasn’t a redux of the John Kennedy, Jr., flight, in which inexperience, dwindling daylight and a thick, soupy haze combined to spell disaster.
It’s true that flying around Manhattan is not for the faint of heart; I’ve flown the same scenic route as Lidle did, in a light airplane, and was amazed by the volume of traffic in the area. But traffic was evidently not a factor in the accident. What’s left? Weather anomalies, such as a sudden gust of strong wind, could have toppled the aircraft. Or a sudden mechanical failure in his ultra-modern Cirrus SR-20 airplane—although no mayday was issued, and an outright engine failure would have resulted in a slow glide to the river.
The only other possibility I can imagine is some sort of conflict or miscommunication in the cockpit. Perhaps they were attempting to turn around or correct a premature turn over Manhattan and simply misjudged their proximity to the high-rise Belaire Condo. Perhaps the two pilots had conflicting solutions to whatever problem they had encountered, and each tried to execute it simultaneously.
Several years ago, I took an FAA course in aircraft-accident investigation. The main lesson was that accidents are almost always the result both of multiple errors or failures and of pilot error. The absence of an onboard flight-data and voice recorder, which light aircraft are not required to have, will make it hard to sort out precisely what transpired in the cockpit, but I expect that the National Transportation Safety Board investigators will be able to piece together a detailed sequence of events that led to this accident. Skilled investigators can learn an awful lot from what appears to be very little.
By piecing together interviews with witnesses and examining maintenance records, they can divine the general accident scenario. By assembling other evidence, some of which may be unprecedented in nature (one major accident was solved by analyzing a pilot’s groans captured on a voice recorder), they will inch closer. And by studying aircraft remains at an often microscopic level—for instance, different types of burn characteristics can provide clues about the order of events in an accident—they will home in on the crash’s probable cause. It takes time, but they rarely come up empty. —Eric Adams
Well, yesterday evening it was made official—Google bought YouTube for $1.65 billion, outbidding Viacom, Yahoo and News Corp. to acquire the Internet's 10th-most-trafficked site.
Harking back to a time when massive Web buyouts happened every time some crusty old big-money executive called his accountant to find out what this whole "e-mail" thing was all about, the GooTube deal touched on some familiar territory: the arbitrary valuations of unprofitable startups, the venture-capital payoff (big-time Silicon Valley firm Sequoia Capital's initial investment of $11.5 million netted it almost half a billion dollars in Google stock), the final offer of $1.6B being passed between Moons-Over-My-Hammies at a South San Francisco Denny's, the delirious "Holy #%@$, we're rich" announcement the next day, and so forth.
As my colleague has pointed out below, this week off in some place called Sweden, five prizes are being given out to a bunch of stuffy scientists, writers and peacemakers. And what do the winners receive? A hefty check for $1.4 million, a diploma and a shiny medal that is awarded to them by King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden. Boring.
Who cares about those prizes, when a much more important awards ceremony is set to take place tonight? The Ig Nobels, the bastard child of the Nobel Prizes, are awards presented to scientists for research that “cannot or should not be reproduced.” The raucous event is a chance for real Nobel laureates to throw paper airplanes as well as to recognize the work of cohorts in poorly publicized fields of research. Last year’s winners include researchers who studied the brain patterns of locusts forced to watch Star Wars and the guy who made Neuticles, replacement testicles for neutered dogs.
If you’re in the greater Boston area, you may still be able to get tickets for tonight’s 7:30 ceremony. For the rest of us, a live webcast is offered at the official Ig Nobel site. It promises to be a truly inspiring and magical evening. —Dan Smith
Yesterday’s announcement of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry completed an historic trifecta—American researchers managed to pick up all three science-related Nobel Prizes this year. On Monday, Andrew Z. Fire and Craig C. Mello claimed the Physiology or Medicine prize for their work in RNA interference, explaining how cells can regulate post-transcriptional gene expression (this phenomenon was first noticed—but not understood—in petunias back in the early 1990s). Then physicists John C. Mather and George F. Smoot snagged the Physics prize for finding evidence of the big bang by scouring the cosmic microwave background for telltale irregularities. And rounding out the science prizes, yesterday we heard that Roger D. Kornberg, whose father Arthur won a Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1959, grabbed the Chemistry prize for elucidating how genes are transcribed in eukaryotic cells and determining the physical structure of a key enzyme, RNA polymerase II. We’ll see how American interests fare for the other three Nobels. (Peace prize, anyone?) —Martha Harbison
I have to admit, it’s been kind of painful over the past two years to watch hometown hero Boeing get its bell rung by Euro-conglomerate Airbus. While the folks in Toulouse reveled in the imminent success of their two-deck A380 superjumbo, eclipsed Boeing in annual sales for the first time in history, and relentlessly slagged their competitor’s own biggie (the older but vastly more elegant 747), the Americans played it cool—and played their cards. They cut production of aircraft that weren’t selling, announced a new version of the 747, and unveiled the superefficient 787 Dreamliner.
Then they quietly began taking more and more orders for the Dreamliner. For the first six months of this year, Boeing has sold 496 airplanes in total, compared to Airbus's paltry 117. Now comes word—the latest in what is proving to be a terrible year for Airbus—that the A380 is delayed a full two years due to production problems at the European giant, which has also suffered multiple financial scandals this year.
The delay is huge news. It’s not like it’s merely a disappointment for the airlines that they won’t get their shiny new birds as soon as they thought. The airlines who have ordered them—Emirates, Qantas and Virgin among them—must put into motion many enormously complicated and hugely expensive systems to accommodate the beasts, including lobbying airports around the world to upgrade their facilities to handle the A380’s massive size and passenger complement, which will always be well north of 550. This is a politically volatile industry, and the airlines are furious. Many are canceling orders. Meanwhile, Boeing will happily be coughing up as many of its on-schedule Dreamliners and tried-and-true 747s as the industry wants to buy. Perhaps the tables have turned, non? —Eric Adams
In middle school I had a science teacher who would tell the class that, while we took tests, she could project herself above and behind the classroom and watch us to make sure we weren’t cheating. Seriously. We always thought she was just giving us an excuse to close her eyes and nod off during the test. That, or there were some loose wires in her head.
As it turns out, the latter theory might be pretty close to the truth. In recent studies, neuroscientists have been able to re-create an out-of-body sensation by stimulating specific centers of the brain electrically. When mild electric currents were placed on certain areas of their brains, epilepsy patients claimed not only to find themselves suddenly floating above their bodies, but also at times to feel a malevolent, shadowy presence right behind them, mimicking their moves. Scientists think such electrostimulus can copy the way the brain misinterprets signals to the point where it doesn’t quite know where the body is.
Although this could put the kibosh on any theories of ghosts or shadow people as a mere case of pareidolia, most supernatural stalwarts won’t be convinced. Ghost hunting—an attempt to scientifically explain the unexplainable—has been around for more than a century and has become prominent in books, television programs and movies. The paranormal is deeply entrenched in our society, and there have been too many seemingly unexplained occurrences to give up on it completely.
So if you see a ghost, who you gonna call? A bunch of neuroscientists to help fix your head? Or Ernie Hudson to bring over his proton pack? —Dan Smith
The PopSci staff is a diverse group with wide-ranging interests—our extracurricular activities include, in no particular order, hand-stand classes, sci-fi conventions, kickball, triathlons, furries…and we even have a factchecker who plays in a gamelan ensemble. But there are two things dear to every PopScier’s heart: robots and tasty alcoholic beverages. Perhaps you saw how we nearly peed our pants over the LazyDrinker—that beta-version of the ultimate robot bartender. Well, last month the latest in robotic drinking technology was unveiled in Japan, and we are once again freaking out.
Without further ado, allow me to introduce Winebot, the robot sommelier. Developed by researchers at Tsu-based NEC System Technologies and Mie University, the cute little green-and-white prototype “tastes” wines using an infrared spectrometer and identifies the variety and vintage, tells you about the flavor (“full-bodied shiraz,” “buttery chardonnay,” etc), and even recommends foods that would go well with the bottle.
There are still a few kinks being worked out—at the unveiling the bot identified a reporter’s hand as proscuitto—but, come on, whatever. This thing is amazing! The only problem I can foresee with owning a toy like this is that it might tell us how crappy Two-Buck Chuck actually is. Sometimes ignorance is bliss, you know. —Megan Miller