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« December 2006 | Main | February 2007 »

Slime Time

Slime Ah, granulated chemicals—is there no end to your wonders? A British toy company has used them to come up with a solution to your kids' bath-time avoidance strategy: Turn the bath into thick pink slime with a dash of Gelli Baff, better known around these parts as sodium polyacrylate, a super-absorbent polymer also found in disposable diapers. If the young'uns are fond of Ghostbusters 2 (are kids still into those movies?), I can't think of a better way to get them psyched about jumping in the tub. And if you're wondering about the potential havoc the stuff might wreak on your plumbing, not to worry. Just toss in the "dissolver packet" to turn the slime back into the liquid form from which it came.

You can buy a four-pack of Gelli Baff for £20, or a full pound of good ol' sodium polyacrylate (table salt works fine for the dissolving agent) at stevespanglerscience.com. —John Mahoney

Link via our pals at Boing Boing.

Episode 31: Homemade Zamboni


Inventor Damian Renzello has been making portable skating rinks and related accessories for years, so it's not surprising that it's come to this: a homemade super zamboni that blows snow, shaves ice, and looks totally awesome. I love projects like this - the false starts, the dangerous accidents, the madness - I think those are the three ingredients that make up what they call "Yankee Ingenuity." I was a little disappointed to find out this wasn't a meaningless, self-destructive quest for a personal homemade zamboni, and instead the latest invention from a genuine entrepreneur. I should have known from the photo—it's far too well built to have been cobbled together by a crazy person.

Speaking of crazy people, I was surprised to learn from Damian that the zamboni was actually invented by a guy named Zamboni. I think I always thought that zamboni was an Italian word for "ice shaver" or something like that (you know, those Italians: crazy for hockey!). You learn something new every day—or in my case, once a week.

If you'd like your own Bambini Revolution, or if you want to set up a portable backyard skating rink (I know I do), you can find Damian's products at www.portarinxandbambini.com.

—Jonathan Coulton


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State of the Climate

200701232_v012307db0202w772v On page 13 of the introductory pamphlet “A Brief Guide to Alcoholics Anonymous,” the organization's famous 12 steps begin as such: “We admit we are powerless over alcohol—that our lives have become unmanageable.” Although President Bush maintains that he quit the sauce on his own, without the help of AA, he is evidently familiar with their directives, for on Tuesday night in his State of the Union address, Bush admitted that we have a problem: global warming.

The president first officially acknowledged the dangers of global climate change in the summer of 2002. Hindsight has rendered silly the breathless reporting of Bush's eureka moment nearly five years ago. But unfortunately, the solutions offered by his administration to solve this catastrophic problem have hardly evolved since that “historic” day of admission.

“Come to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity” is AA's step number two, and it's clear that our President has checked this one off his list as well. From the beginning, the administration has repeatedly assured us that it's only a matter of time before the high powers of technology swoop in to solve all the problems associated with global warming. “It's in our vital interest to diversify America's energy supply. The way forward is through technology,” Bush repeated on Tuesday night. “We must continue changing the way America generates electric power, by even greater use of clean coal technology, solar and wind energy, and clean, safe nuclear power. [applause]”

This rhetorical strategy is no accident. It is exactly the approach highlighted by Frank Luntz, the Republican strategist and spinmaster whose frighteningly Orwellian memo [PDF] detailing how to dance around the issue of global warming has become the basis for the GOP's talking points on the matter—even after Luntz acknowledged the errors of his ways last year. It's a good strategy—the president will be hard-pressed to find anyone on either side of the climate-change debate to disagree that technology can be part of the solution, but the truth of the matter remains: To truly make a difference, alternative energy technologies must be supported by smart federal regulations. And to say that this administration has been hesitant to impose such regulations would be a sizable understatement.

Without regulatory measures such as stronger “gas-guzzler” taxes for inefficient vehicles (the average fuel economy of American cars is less than half the average of the European Union and Japan), support for the organizations developing and improving alternative fuels and more stringent industrial emissions standards, technology will continue to fight this battle with one hand tied behind its back. Even applications of current alternative energy technologies could use some help: The greenhouse gases generated by the production and processing of the 35 billion gallons of green fuels Bush called for in his speech—a perhaps overly optimistic seven-fold increase over 10 years—would be roughly the same as those released by the burning of an equivalent amount of regular gasoline.

As the AA mantra goes, we hope the president will “keep coming” and follow through on the promise of technology, providing ample federal support for alternative energy to thrive. For more information, see popsci.com/energy to find out what our most innovative scientists can do to help with our addiction. —John Mahoney

Slip-Slidin' Away

Good thing the cars in this video are all moving slowly. Add a little more speed, and the scene would be a driver’s worst nightmare. Imagine a car pileup in front of you on a snowy day, your own skidding wheels and, seconds later, the inevitable crash…

Consider—the reason people can control their cars is that it’s very hard to slide a tire across pavement. Technically speaking, this is because tires are built to have a high coefficient of friction when pressed on a paved road. The coefficient of friction is essentially a ratio of the force it takes to slide two surfaces across each other to the force they’re being pressed together with. A high coefficient of friction means the two surfaces don’t like to slide; a low coefficient of friction means it’s easy. For example, let’s say you’re speeding down the highway and you see a police officer, so you step on your brakes. The amount of force it would take for your car to skid is the weight of your car (the force pressing the car to the road) multiplied by the coefficient of friction. When the pavement is dry, the coefficient of friction is high, so you can apply a lot of braking force without skidding.

On the fateful snowy day in our video, things worked a little differently. When these people pressed the brakes, the heat generated by the tire-on-ice friction created a thin film of water over the frozen surface. The coefficient of friction for tires on ice with a thin film of water between them is pretty much zip, resulting in—you guessed it—auto Ice Capades. It took almost no braking force for the cars to skid and, once skidding, they continued in a uniform motion, on a decline, until they found something that could apply enough force to stop them. The most convenient thing, as it all too often is, was another car.

There’s not a whole lot you can do in a situation like this besides try to steer out of the line of other cars and gently brake in the hopes that your antilock system helps the wheels grip again. What didn’t seem to work was when one guy jumped out of his car, grabbed the door, and tried to stop it himself. Maybe he can bench-press a few, but it’s doubtful he could have competed against the villainous combination of ice, rubber and a low coefficient of friction. —Katherine Ryder

Click here for more Breakdowns

Episode 30: Deep Brain Stimulation


Deep brain stimulation is like a pacemaker for your brain: it can stop tremors, wake you from a coma, and maybe even make you smarter. All these miraculous results, but nobody knows exactly how it works. Maybe I'm crazy, but I always find it reassuring when I talk to a scientist and find out that they don't know what's going on either.

For this episode I spoke with Dr. Michele Tagliati, a neurologist at Mt. Sinai, and a leader in the field of DBS. He's approaching the question from a clinician's perspective: tweaking parameters and discovering which techniques work best for patients suffering from Parkinsons and other movement disorders. I didn't have enough time to include it in the podcast, but we also talked about the researchers who are coming from the other direction, using computer models of brain circuitry to try and predict how certain kinds of electrical stimulation will affect actual brains. The idea is that these two lines of research will eventually meet somewhere in the middle: if we can understand enough about how it works, we may be able to apply this technique to all sorts of neurological disorders. I might even be able to do the Sunday Times Crossword without making up words.

He didn't ask, but my theory is that it has something to do with electricity. In your brain.

—Jonathan Coulton


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Minigames Get Big on the Wii

Even grandma loves the Wii. Photo by AZAdam

From the beginning, Nintendo's mission with the Wii console was simple—to use an innovative motion-sensing controller to open up the world of console videogames to an audience not exclusively composed of teenage boys. As a direct result of this mission, one particular genre seems to be getting a lot of attention in the console's first few months, from game developers and players alike: the minigame. Usually found in collections of tens or even hundreds of quick, skit-like sub-games in which players complete simple tasks, minigames have proved to be the perfect match for the Wii's more physical control scheme. Of the 10 most popular Wii titles now on Gamefly.com, a Netflix-like service for gamers, four are either entirely or partially based on minigames.

Currently at the top of the list is WarioWare: Smooth Moves, the latest addition (released last week) to the popular WarioWare franchise, all of which are collections of minigames. For WarioWare, though, “micro” seems to be the more appropriate prefix, since most of the individual games last no longer than a few seconds. Presented with the sense of humor and graphic style that can only come from Japanese videogame designers, Smooth Moves requires players to hold the Wii remote in various “forms” (between your fingers like a pencil, touching your nose like an elephant's trunk, etc.) and use it to complete any number of random tasks, from slicing barrels with an imaginary samurai sword to inserting imaginary dentures into an elderly woman's toothless mouth. [See the videos after the jump].

It goes without saying that a room full of people shouting “Grate that cellphone!” or “Interview that polar bear!” while flailing limbs and occasionally leaping up to do squats or a hula dance is, well, a unique scene. After witnessing such a scene, it becomes clear why the most viral of the Wii-related videos to sweep the Net almost always have the lens trained on the players of the games rather than footage of the games themselves.

Only a few months into its life, the Wii has managed to transform the spectacle of playing videogames (more often than not of the mini variety) into a form of entertainment in itself. I think it's safe to say that Nintendo might be on to something big.

For a closer look at WarioWare and the people who play it, click on through... —John Mahoney

Continue reading "Minigames Get Big on the Wii" »

Riding With Foam for Brains

Shortly before our crazy biker pulls the reverse-Knievel—jumping far past the landing area instead of far short—we hear one of his compatriots shout, “You can go twice as fast!” This is a faulty hypothesis, as it turns out, but to the layman it would seem to make sense. After all, our biker had previously executed a graceful flop straight into the giant pit o’ foam. Doubling the takeoff speed intuitively should double the distance he flies, putting him a little farther into the pit but still within its bounds. Right?

Not exactly. Though it’s impossible to tell from the video exactly how much faster the biker was going on the second attempt, any increase in speed would be liable to have unforeseen consequences. That’s because the best way to understand how the bike flies is not with the concept of speed, but with energy. Why? Energy, as the lab coats like to say, is always conserved—and it’s gotta go somewhere. In this case, all the energy the bike carries into the jump is used to lift the bike however many dozen feet into the air before gravity puts it back into the speed of the freefall.

The funny thing about energy, though, is that it increases with the square of speed. That means that an object going twice as fast has four times as much energy, one going three times as fast has nine times as much energy, and so on. And practically speaking, four times as much energy means our biker is going to fly four times as high and sail four times as far. Exponents, like landing distances, tend to increase quickly. It’s important to make sure your foam can accommodate them. —Michael Moyer


Flight of the Pole Dancer
Shake, Shake Chinook
Crane Overboard!
Goodbye, Moto
Stick That Landing
Yao: Rejected!
Why a Car on Skis Only Jumps So Far
Dude, Where's My Downforce?
Breakin' Circuits: The Electric Boogaloo

Episode 29: Internet Addiction


Dear PopSci readers:

Welcome to yet another of the PopSci blog's fantastic new features! Every Tuesday, starting now, contributing troubadour Jonathan Coulton will beam down an episode of his "Podcast from the Moon," along with a witty commentary on what the heck he was thinking when he called Dr. So-and-so (always a scientist or investigator featured in this month's issue of Popular Science) and teased him about his research. Just click on the "subscribe" button after the post below to get free episodes delivered to your iTunes account each week.


Do you find it hard to stay away from the Internet for several days at a time? Do you stay online longer than intended often or very often? Yeah, me too. I used to have a problem with the Internet, but then I got a phone that can be used as a Bluetooth modem: problem solved! I said, "Problem solved!" Is this thing on?

This week I rationalize my way out of my addiction to the Web. Some researchers at Stanford University conducted a study to find out whether there is such a thing, and their results suggest that at least some of us may want to scale back a bit. (Hey Agathon of Gorgamosh! Put down the broadsword and pick up your baby, OK?)

Sometimes I think this office-on-the-moon business might work against me. Maybe it's because they're "serious about their work" or whatever, but the scientists who ran the study didn't really want to answer my tough questions or laugh politely at my feeding-tube jokes. Instead I spoke to PopSci contributor Jebediah Reed (who was more than happy to do both) about his take on their results. —Jonathan Coulton

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PopSci's CES Blog

Ces_logo_170 Looking for our CES coverage? PopSci's editors are currently scouring the floor bringing you the best tech from the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Find photos, video and more at popsci.typepad.com/ces2007.

Grape Balls of Fire

Far be it from us to deride anyone’s childish fascination with blowing stuff up in a microwave—a foolhardy nerd rite of passage if ever there was one—and what better place to exhibit dangerous, potentially expensive shenanigans than YouTube? The experiment is simple. Take a seedless grape and slice it lengthwise, making sure (this part is important) not to cut all the way through, so you leave a little bit of skin connecting the two halves. Put it face-up in a microwave, and blam: fireworks!

So what the heck is going on in there? Grapes are chock-full of electrolyte, an ion-rich liquid (a.k.a. “grape juice”) that conducts electricity. Each grape-half serves as a reservoir of electrolyte, connected together by a thin, weakly conducting path (the skin). Microwaves cause the stray ions in the grape to travel back and forth very quickly between the two halves. As they do this, the current dumps excess energy into the skin bridge, which heats up to a high temperature and eventually bursts into flame. At this point, the traveling electrons arc through the flame and across the gap, ionizing the air to a plasma (which itself can conduct electricity) and creating the bright flashes you see.

And that notion about poisonous gas tainting your roommate’s Hot Pocket? Well, the guy’s talking about the ozone generated when the air inside the glass is ionized. “Poisonous” might be too a strong word in this scenario (a little ozone definitely won’t kill you), although high concentrations of ozone can oxidize lung tissue and have been known to cause asthma in urban inversion-bowls like L.A. and Mexico City.

Again, DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME. Microwave ovens + biological capacitors = bad news. —Martha Harbison.


Flight of the Pole Dancer
Shake, Shake Chinook
Crane Overboard!
Goodbye, Moto
Stick That Landing
Yao: Rejected!
Why a Car on Skis Only Jumps So Far
Dude, Where's My Downforce?
Breakin' Circuits: The Electric Boogaloo

Amazon-funded Spaceship Unveiled

Blueorigin We’ve known for a long time that Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos has been building a supersecret spacecraft in his remote Texas lair. We knew the company was called Blue Origin but didn’t really know what his vehicle looked like or what his grand plan was, other than to be a part of the nascent space-tourism business. But this week, a video- and image-rich bonanza suddenly surfaced on his Web site, cleverly disguised as a help-wanted ad. The fact that he unveiled his very smart-looking spacecraft is big news. The fact that he also demonstrated it with a successful test flight is startling and absolutely historic, given that nobody else in the current crop of private-sector, dot-com-funded space entrepreneurs has come anywhere close to test-flying a vehicle of that scale. The program is called New Shepard, and the first vehicle, modeled on the McDonnell Douglas DC-X Delta Clipper program from the early 1990s, is respectfully named Goddard. The first flight, on November 13, achieved an altitude of 285 feet and landed safely. Look for more info soon about the technology hidden inside that slick piece of ice-cream-coney rocketry in the pages of Popular Science.—Eric Adams

Link via Blue Origin

Study Deems Cloned Beef Safe

2cows A study published in the journal Theriogenology has found beef and dairy products derived from cloned cows to be safe for human consumption, clearing the way for FDA approval expected later this year.

Health implications aside, eating cloned beef still doesn't excite most people, according to a survey by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, which found that 64 percent of American consumers were uncomfortable with the whole notion of cloned livestock. A number of beef and dairy farmers have also expressed concerns over the decreased genetic diversity of food-producing animals and the vulnerability to disease that could arise. In any case, generating clones remains too expensive for large-scale applications. More realistically, clones will be made to preserve the genetics of favorable cows used for breeding.

What do you think? Would you eat a cloned T-bone? Sound off in the comments section below. But before that, check out PopSci's recent interview with a leading embryologist from ViaGen, a livestock-cloning lab in Austin, Texas, that is surely ecstatic with today's announcement. —John Mahoney

Cloned Beef: It's What's For Dinner

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