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« January 2007 | Main | March 2007 »

We Win!

Award Normally, we're not one to toot our own horn, but at yesterday's 2006 Magazine Publishers of America Digital Awards, we walked away with three prizes—more than any other magazine Web site. So, toot-toot! We won the shiny trophy pictured at left in the "Best Online Tool" category for our Best of What's New microsite. Contributing troubadour Jonathan Coulton got well-deserved props with second place in the podcast category for his PopSci Podcast from the Moon. And we also got second place for "Best Sports/Enthusiast Web Site," losing out only to Sports Illustrated's big-budget, big-staff SI.com. Not bad for a bunch of geeks, huh?  —Megan Miller

Episode 34: Spore

Spore. Spore, I said! Ever since that video of Will Wright's demo of this game appeared on the internet, I've been camping on the sidewalk in front of my local Best Buy waiting for its release date. As I lie here at night shivering in my sleeping bag, I can almost taste that succulent, procedurally-generated content, which is good because I am all out of food.

As you must know by now, Will Wright is the super genius behind a whole bucketload of games like The Sims, Sim City, and of course Sim [Insert Any Word Here]. He's currently working on Spore, a game he describes as "Sim Everything," in which you control the destiny of a species as it evolves from a single-celled organism into a race of interstellar travelers. One of the game's most exciting design elements is the use of procedurally generated content - you use the in-game editors to modify your species, and the game determines how it behaves based on your design. I spoke to Chaim Gingold, the game designer who created these editors, about the challenge of creating tools that are flexible enough to be powerful and still somehow smart enough to be fun—Jonathan Coulton

See also our extended interview with the man himself, Will Wright

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The Glamour! The Gold! The Green!

Beauty and the geeks: Maggie Gyllenhaal and friends

Last night Al Gore won an Oscar and didn’t announce his candidacy for president. It barely seemed to matter, though. With some stock footage and what amounts to little more than a KeyNote presentation (albeit a fancy one with some kickin’ graphics), Gore has gotten people to worry and care about the environment more than anyone in office ever did. Even the academy took up the appeal—boasting last night about their initiatives: partially recycled paper for their ballots! organic food at the Governor’s Ball! discussion of using hydrogen fuel cell buses for transportation next year! Okay, so it’s hardly a revolution, but it’s a start and more and more companies have been heeding the call and trying to clean up their act. Even we here at PopSci are brainstorming ways to lessen our carbon footprint. (Watch for an online environmental program in the coming months.)

Meanwhile, in all our excitement over the declining state of the world and the possibility of Gore2008, we neglected to report on those other, smaller-but-in-no-way-lesser Oscars—the Scientific and Technical Academy Awards, hosted this year by the lovely Maggie Gyllenhaal. These Oscars too ended up with a green tint, awarding a special commendation to those who worked on an industry-wide conversion of materials used in soundtrack printing from polluting and caustic silver-based emulsions to a harmless cyan dye.

Bummed `cause you’ve been using organic food and cyan dyes for years now and haven’t gotten jack? Screw the Academy and make your own little gold man or Sci-Tech plaque. Just don’t forget to thank all the little people who got you where you are today. —Abby Seiff

Check It Out! Wood-Chip Sludge!


In an effort to reinforce the energy initiatives put forth in his State of the Union address last month, President Bush made a stop yesterday at a North Carolina lab where wood chips and grasses are used to produce ethanol. Now, we already told you how we feel about said initiatives, but no matter which side of the political coin you may be on, you have to love this photo.

Have a good weekend everyone—I'm off to get my official PopSci lab coat monogrammed.—John Mahoney

Laser Tag

Photo by urban_data

Take a handful of international graffiti artists, an abandoned building in Rotterdam, a smattering of hot tech (a super-high-intensity 60-milliwatt green laser pointer, a 5,000-lumen DLP projector and a sensitive security camera) all crammed into an old RV; add a sprinkle of the DIY spirit, and what do you get? The coolest thing we saw on the Internet today, that's what.

Basically, the folks at Graffiti Research Lab ("Dedicated to outfitting graffiti artists with open source technologies for urban communication." Hmm, sound familiar?) cooked up the world's largest Etch-a-Sketch. Only instead of twisting those little knobs, you write on an 18-story building with a laser pointer that's capable of popping balloons and igniting match heads on contact. Their whole setup is fully documented (along with the source code to the software they wrote).

Basically, a sensitive security camera and a powerful DLP projector are both trained on the facade of a building. A laptop processes the camera's output and indicates the presence of the laser's cursor, which is then fed to the projector and onto the building in the form of a streak of "paint," all in real time. It looks too fun for words. 

Click ahead for an amazing video of the whole setup in action. —John Mahoney

Continue reading "Laser Tag" »

In the Solar System, 53 is a Crowd

Sednanasa_1SAN FRANCISCO--Caltech astronomer and planet hunter Mike Brown continued his assault on the recently-downgraded Pluto today during a lecture titled "How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming" at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science conference.

It was Brown's discovery of Eris, the Kuiper Belt Object slightly larger than Pluto, that finally forced the International Astronomical Union to define just what is and isn't a planet back in August. Under one IAU proposal, the number of planets in the solar system would have ballooned to 53, including Brown's find, Eris. However, that idea was deemed ridiculous by world class astronomers and kindergarten teachers alike, and a few days later the current eight planet ruling came down and kicked Pluto to the curb. Even though the ruling meant that Brown's find wasn't, in fact, a planet, he's a fan of the eight planet system. "Who says that 53 is too many? I do," Brown said. "I want my planets to mean something." Plus, he really seems to hate Pluto and surely took some twisted pleasure in knocking it down a notch.

Brown also took us on a tour of some other interesting Kuiper Belt Objects, including what he considers the "coolest object in the universe," a bright, rapidly-rotating oblong thingy (136108) 2003 EL61, also known as "Santa." Santa is one of roughly 800 known wonky KBOs, which many astronomers study to learn what the conditions were like when our solar system was pulling itself together. If Santa is any indication, there was a lot of ice and rocks.

Even further away from the Sun is the Trans-Neptunian object Sedna, which Brown was extremely lucky to spot back in 2003: Because the object takes 12,000 years to orbit the sun on its extremely egg-shaped path, there is only a 200-year-window each orbit during which it's close enough to Earth to be visible. Sedna runs about 75 percent the size of Pluto, and Brown estimates that there could be another 50 to 60 similarly-sized objects following a similar orbit. And, he continued, if there are that many Sedna-sized objects, there's a good chance that there are a dozen or so Mecury-sized rocks, and perhaps even a couple planets the size of Earth. Just when you thought memorizing the solar system's planets had gotten a little easier.--Bjorn Carey

Life on Mars: Hopefully It's Dead

083621862001If scientists or rovers ever do find evidence of life on Mars, it might be more convenient if it's dead, joked NASA planetary scientist Chris McKay today at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in San Francisco. McKay's reasoning? Well, there's the risk that we'll contaminate it (or vice versa). We'd also be responsible for keeping it alive, which could be quite tricky if it's discovered in ice a half mile below the planet's surface. And there's also the philisophical dilemma of setting the code of ethics of the proper ways to treat alien life.

But even if we do find some perfectly dead, well-preserved Martian critters, things won't be all peaches and cream, McKay said. There are two theories for how life might have originated on Mars. One says that it follows the same blueprint as life on Earth, the result of microbe-spreading asteroids pinballing between the two planets. The other possibility is that there was a "Second Genesis" on Mars, which scientists are crossing their fingers for because it increases the chance that it wasn't a one-time deal here on Earth and that the universe is sprinkled with life.

Scientists could run into trouble with "Second Genesis," though. Martian life might look so foreign that we'd skip right by it. And if we do spot it we might have trouble figuring out how it works. "If you always played with Legos, and someone gave you Lincoln Logs, could you make sense of it?" McKay asked. You can build a house with both toys, but the pieces and means for doing so are completely different. "Unfortunately, science doesn't know how Spock's tricorder works," McKay joked, referring to the Star Trek character's tool used to scan and identify alien life-forms and their composition. "Even worse, science fiction doesn't know how it works!"

Because of the current limitations of robotic explorers (their drills, for instance, can't reach the several-hundred-foot depths needed to do a thorough search for life or its remnants), it wil probably take a human mission to settle the Red Planet's greatest mystery. Before sending humans, McKay said, we should first determine whether Mars can sustain a human presence. A robotic vegetable-planting mission would be one good way to accomplish that, McKay said, because, like Valentine's Day, "if you can't be there in person, send flowers." - Bjorn Carey

Up Close and Personal with the Neo1973


We've been excited about the Neo1973—the world's first fully open-source smartphone—since chatting with its creator, Sean Moss-Pultz, at CES. As the time to unleash the Neo into the wild draws ever closer, Sean was nice enough to stop by and show us how things are coming so far. Although the OpenMoko software still needs some work, the phone itself is in its final form, and quite a nice form at that. So if you're the type of person who could stare all day at a cellphone screen showing a stream of startup code and the ol' Linux penguin up at the top (a category I'm not afraid to pledge allegiance to as well), click on over to our photo gallery of a working Neo1973 captured in the wild. We'll keep you posted as this groundbreaking phone continues to mature. —John Mahoney

Link - Photo Gallery

Episode 33: Into the Escape Pod

Of course you hope it never happens, but if you're going to escape from an exploding rocket just in time, you might as well have a good time doing it. NASA is looking at a few different options for how to get astronauts out of future spacecraft in an emergency, from roller coasters to slippery tubes, and most of them seem like pretty enjoyable rides.

The whole time I read this article in the magazine I was thinking space shuttle - boring! But I totally forgot about Project Constellation, the post-shuttle program to create a fleet of next-generation space craft for all sorts of crazy space missions. I spoke with Kelly Humphries at the Johnson Space Center about NASA's plans for the "Emergency Egress System," and he gave me the lowdown on some of the other features of the Constellation program. I was particularly jazzed about his description of the new and improved moon mission strategy. Believe me, when you actually live on the moon it's easy to get a little jaded about this stuff. But multiple space modules docking in Earth's orbit and then blasting out to the moon? Now I'm all excited about space again. Go space!

—Jonathan Coulton


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This Week in 3-D: Hot Babes and Moon Rocks!


This week, Sports Illustrated offers up its annual tribute to the OTHER thing guys care about—women. Specifically, women in swimsuits. And because women in swimsuits are best viewed in three glorious dimensions, the editors have thoughtfully provided pictures of some of their models in 3-D accompanied by the requisite pair of super high-tech (circa 1950) red-and-blue anaglyph glasses.

Anyway, we at SI’s corporate cousin Popular Science would like to offer you another thing to look at with your awesome new shades, and it's almost as dorky as a bunch of jocks donning colored glasses to check out chicks in bikinis. Behold: moon dirt. The picture above (you can check out several more here) are the only true stereoscopic images ever made of the moon. They were taken by the Apollo 11, 12 and 14 astronauts using a close-range (six-inch) stereo camera designed by famous—and famously feisty—Cornell University space scientist, Tommy Gold. Gold, who died in 2004 at the age of 84, had designed the camera and managed to get it onto the mission docket even though he had insisted very vocally prior to the moon missions that any vehicle that landed on the moon’s surface would instantly sink into quicksand-like dust and every astronaut on board would die horrible, ghastly deaths. He was a great scientist who had many theories that proved correct, but he got that little detail wrong.

When the pictures came back, Gold used them to study the fine texture of undisturbed lunar soil—though one image is a closeup of a track from the lunar rover. These pictures were converted from the original stereoscopic slides into single images that can be viewed with the glasses found in this week’s SI. Enjoy. —Eric Adams

The Moon in 3-D - Photo Gallery

It's Alive! It's Alive!

Crw_79052 When my old-timey 3G iPod bit it a few months back, I was lucky enough to have on hand (a) another broken 3G to harvest some working parts from and (b) the recklessness (some might say genius) to pry my precious 'pod open with a thin piece of scrap aluminum (from a broken Wii, no less). Fortunately, everything turned out fine, and I'm now the proud owner of a 3G Frankenpod that's still alive and clicking.

If you too are the keeper of an iPod that's fallen prey to a case of the ol' planned obsolescence, an easier fix may be at ipodhowtovideo.com, where not only will you find (as you might expect) helpful how-to videos illustrating how to more, ahem, responsibly open up your player, but also an online shop to buy all manner of replacement batteries, LCD screens, hard drives and opening tools at reasonable prices. Don't just stand there mourning—resurrect your iPod today! —John Mahoney

[via Lifehacker]

The Impossibly Bendy Bull's-eye

You may be asking yourself, "How in the world did this woman balance on a Y-shaped rod and shoot an arrow with her toes, while bent like a pretzel?" and "Why is David Hasselhoff still on television?" Contemplating the latter question gives me the shivers, frankly, so let’s focus our attention on the Spandex-clad archer, Lilia Stepanova. There are a number of factors at work in this stunt but Lilia’s Gumby-like maneuvers basically boil down to genetics. On the extreme and improbable end, Lilia may have been born with a rare genetic defect, such as Marfan syndrome or Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, that prevents her body from building adequate amounts of collagen—the tough, stringy fibers that strengthen cartilage, tendons and other kinds of connective tissue, such as bone.

Collagen is essentially the glue that holds us together. While having less of it may be handy for shooting arrows with your feet, it’s undesirable for maintaining bone, muscle and joint health. Symptoms range in severity but typically include hyper-mobile joints, thin, stretchy skin, easy bruising and scoliosis. Lilia obviously exhibits extra rubbery joints and tendons, as evidenced by the leg that bend backs at 180 degrees, the foot that rests comfortably beneath her chin and the spine that bends like a microwaved Twizzler.

Aside from that, though, our 19-year-old Moldavian (she’s Eastern European but lives in L.A., in case you were wondering) appears to be in exceptional shape. According to her MySpace page, Lilia enjoys a fulltime career as a contortionist and dancer, which suggests that she is endowed with a milder, less harmful genetic quirk that gives her soft, pliable muscles (notice the lack of bulk or tone) yet spares her the nastier side effects associated with more severe forms of hypermobility, such as chronic pain.

Beyond the bendiness displayed by Ms. Stepanova, there are also two other factors at play: balance and coordination. The former requires both skill and a trick of physics called “center of mass” (discussed here, in a prior "Breakdown" post). By engaging a series of muscles in her arms, abdomen, back and thighs, she is able to stack her body weight neatly over the point of the rod she’s balancing on. From there, proprioception takes over to allow her to maintain balance and shoot a perfect bullseye.

Proprio-huh? The word “proprioception” refers to a cluster of nervous-system functions that help the body to understand spatial relationships and coordinate the movements of muscles accordingly, whether—in this case— for imperceptibly shifting to maintain her crazy handstand, or for zeroing in on an archery target. Some people are gifted with better proprioception than others (Tiger Woods’s must be fine-tuned to allow him to play golf so well), but it’s possible to sharpen your proprioceptive sense with exercises like juggling, balancing on a wobble board, or practicing yoga.

If you’re looking to impress David Hasselhoff with a stunt like Lilia’s, don’t lose hope: she wasn’t born an expert foot archer. Genetic advantages or no, developing her levels of flexibility, balance and aim no doubt required intense practice. And a fishnet half-shirt. —Nicole Dyer

Wikipedia Gets the Scoop

Picture_2_3 In the space of a few minutes between 3:30 and 3:45 p.m. today, I trolled the usual news outlets to see what they were reporting about Anna Nicole Smith, who died today after collapsing in her hotel room in Hollywood, Florida. After reading an early report of the incident on TMZ.com, I cycled through CNN, MSNBC, the Miami Herald and TMZ again, all of which were reporting that she had been transported to a hospital and was unresponsive, but they had yet to announce her death. On a lark, I checked Wikipedia, to see if her entry was updated with this latest episode. To my shock, it not only had the story but had her birth and death dates modified (November 28, 1967—February 8, 2007) and all the tenses changed to past, along with the known details of her transport from the Hard Rock hotel to a hospital. I quickly scanned through the other sites again, and none of them were reporting yet that she was dead. So, as best as I can tell, Wikipedia was the first major site to break the story of her death, which occurred at 2:49 EST.

This should come as no surprise to anyone not living under a rock these days. As huge, traditional media companies struggle to adapt to the online world, the little guys—often with a widespread community of everyday users at their backs—are regularly beating the media companies at their own game. Even TMZ, technically a blog but still dependent on a limited staff of writers and reporters, was no match. They're busily making up for it as best they can, with a flurry of 17 posts as of this writing at 6:10 EST.

On the other side of the coin are the numerous and tasteless defacements of Smith's Wiki page that blipped to the surface as news continued to unfold (Gawker.com has a list). The fact that these were spotted and removed in such a timely fashion to only appear for the span of a few minutes—even seconds, in some cases—is an indication of just how tight a ship Wikipedia actually is. —John Mahoney

The High-Tech Hunt For a Scientist Lost at Sea

Gray On January 28, Jim Gray—one of the leading computer scientists in the field of database systems at Microsoft—set out on his 40-foot yacht Tenacious to scatter his mother's ashes on the shores of the Farallon Islands, 27 miles off San Francisco Bay. That evening, after her husband failed to return, Gray's wife reported him missing to the authorities. He hasn't been seen since.

A Coast Guard search failed to uncover any sign of Gray or the Tenacious and was abandoned last Thursday. But Gray's friends in the computer-science world were not about to give up hope so soon. Harnessing the power of the technologies they knew so well, his friends and colleagues have launched one of the largest and most comprehensive volunteer search efforts in history.

It all started with a mass e-mail describing the situation from a UC Berkeley professor, Joseph Hellerstein. One of the recipients happened to be Google's Sergei Brin, who soon helped convince DigitalGlobe—one of the satellite-imaging suppliers for Google Earth—to reposition a satellite for a special sweep of the Bay Area. The resulting images, covering 3,500 square miles of ocean, were then loaded into Amazon's Mechanical Turk, a Web application designed to efficiently use large groups of humans to perform the types of intensive data analysis that are particularly difficult for computers, such as finding a tiny dot of wreckage among a veritable ocean of satellite images. Images with potentially important information are flagged by volunteers and passed on to experts for a more thorough analysis. Today the first round of processing for all 560,000 satellite images was completed, less than a week after they were originally taken.

The massive search party is also using a blog created by Hellerstein to coordinate its efforts and hypothesize ways to expand the search—everything from putting up posters in marinas and airports along the coast to listing every piece of equipment known to be onboard Gray's yacht in hopes of finding new areas of technology to expand the search.

As of this writing, no sign of Gray or the Tenacious has been found. If any comfort is to be had in such situations for Gray's family and friends, it comes from knowing that the tech world's best and brightest are doing everything conceivable to find him. A truly impressive feat. —John Mahoney

"Tenacious Search" blog
Mechanical Turk project page



Episode 32: Plasma Converter

I read this piece in the magazine a couple of times to make sure I wasn't missing anything before I made the call. Let me get this straight: you put garbage into the machine—any kind of garbage, it doesn't matter—and this thing breaks it down to its component elements, generating only steam, a few harmless byproducts, and a synthetic gas that can be further refined into useful fuels like hydrogen, natural gas and ethanol? And the whole process generates enough energy to keep itself running plus a little extra that you can sell back to the grid? Come on! It sounds way too good to be true—also I'd like one in my kitchen, please. (I have a really big, garbagey kitchen.)

Joseph Longo, whose company, Startech, makes the device, appears to be yet another charming, humble supergenius who's changing the world. What's with these guys? I keep waiting to talk to someone who's doing great things but has a really bad attitude. But no evil genius here. Longo immediately won me over with his story about furry olives, and kept the hits coming with various philosophical musings about the nature of technological change.

Another detail you won't want to miss: the plasma conversion process uses manmade lightning three times hotter than the surface of the sun. Awesome!

—Jonathan Coulton


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Three Wrongs Make a Murder

Lisa Marie Nowak and William Oefelein, before the fall

No one ever said Cupid worked gently—the guy carries a bow and arrow, after all—but lately his orchestrations have been downright violent. In the month leading up to Valentine’s Day, three macabre love triangles have burst into the media: one involving residents of Second Life, one concerning skydivers, and today, perhaps the most gripping scenario, which entangled a trio of astronauts.

The characters in the latest twisted story were William Oefelein, who piloted the space shuttle Discovery, Colleen Shipman, a Patrick Air Force Base employee, and the apparently unhinged astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak. Nowak (sadly, a married mother of three) believed that Shipman was her competitor for Oefelein’s affections. When she heard that the woman was flying to Orlando to meet with her beloved, she strapped on an astronaut diaper (you know, so she wouldn’t have to stop for pee breaks) and drove 960-odd miles, nonstop, to confront the “other” woman. It’s unclear exactly what she planned to do with her rival once she found her, but it wasn’t going to be pretty. Before Shipman was able to call the police, Nowak sprayed mace into her car, and authorities later found a metal mallet, a Buck knife, a length of rubber tubing and a trash bag in Nowak’s car. I think that constitutes the entirety of the Fatal Attraction tool kit, probably available for purchase online for $19.99 (boiled bunny not included).

A couple weeks ago, an upstate New York man was dumb enough to bring both of the other two corners of his love triangle on a skydiving trip, thinking they didn’t know about each other. (We always know, dude.) One crazy lady cut the cords to the other one’s chute, sending her plummeting to Earth—all the while videotaping her own descent. Yeesh.

And in early January, two men and a woman who all lived in the same town became ensnared in an affair in Second Life (this means there was no actual touching, dig?). The virtual romance spilled into real-life jealousy that led one man to kill the other. Just as a side note, the woman and the killer were both in their 40s, pretending to be 18-year-olds (photos the woman showed the men were actually of her daughter). The man who was killed was 22 in real life. As a Second Life resident myself, I can confidently speculate that the affair—if there were any “physical acts” involved at all—that caused this murder was one of partially rezzed, clunky animation and furious button pushing, at best. Again, no actual touching. Sooo not worth shedding human blood over.

Obviously, love triangles happen every day, but not normally in such nerdy and bizarrely dramatic circumstances. Trust me, the tech community is stunned by these events. What’s next, a murder-suicide among furries at Google? —Megan Miller

Aqua Teen Hunger Force = Terrorism?!

Athf This morning, artist Peter Berdovsky and his partner Sean Stevens were arrested for placing magnetic light boards of the Aqua Teen Hunger Force characters the “Mooninites” [shown in the adjacent image, flipping the bird] around Boston, as part of a guerrilla marketing campaign for the Cartoon Network. As you may have heard on the news, the lights were mistaken for bombs—a gaffe that led to the closure of several major roads and the deployment of an anti-terrorism squad.

Turner Broadcasting, the parent company of the Cartoon Network and a division of TimeWarner (which just sold PopSci), has claimed responsibility for the marketing campaign. Humorless Boston mayor Thomas Menino has likewise vowed to “take any and all legal action” against Turner.

OK, so let’s step back for a second. The New York Times reported that similar light boards have been in placed in 10 cities (including New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Austin and Philadelphia) for two weeks, and none of the other cities called out bomb squads. What was it about the Boston incident that set off alarms? The boxes were placed in the Boston subway and on a bridge, which was kind of an idiotic idea. But it’s a shame that Berdovsky has become the scapegoat for this stunt. He’s an artist! He did installations (view a video of the ATHF “mission” here), which is what he was hired to do, and it’s perfectly understandable that he wouldn’t think of his art as a potential terrorist threat. Turner Broadcasting certainly should have considered that possibility when it approved the marketing plan—a fact the company has implicitly admitted.

The CEO of the marketing company who came up with the idea, Interference, seems to have skipped town. That firm is probably basically out of business now but protected from most of the lawsuits by virtue of not being the entity in this case with the deepest pockets. (Good job on the name, there, by the way, Interference.)

So right now, people are protesting outside a Massachusetts court while Berdovsky waits to be arraigned. And good for them, because this guy should not be spanked for making neat-o hackerish LED sculptures. Don’t shoot the messenger, folks. In support of the artist, we’re thinking it might be fun to make some light boards of our own. Anybody have plans? Tell us about it in the comments section. Just don’t, you know, hang them up on any bridges. —Megan Miller

UPDATE: This press conference video with Berdovsky and Stevens is not to be missed. Also, our friends over at MAKE have some detailed pictures of one of the offending devices. Check them out here.

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