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« March 2007 | Main | May 2007 »

To Fly or Not to Fly?


Photo: Shea Roggio/NYT

The New York Times yesterday on the dwindling numbers of aviation hobbyists:

The number of student pilots is down by about a third since 1990, from 129,000 to 88,000. The number of private pilots is down from 299,000 to 236,000, according to statistics kept by the Federal Aviation Administration. And they are aging.

Some longtime private pilots fear that an industry is withering and a bit of Americana is slipping away, along with a bit of freedom and joy. And it is happening in part because of lack of interest; Walter Mitty doesn’t want to fly anymore.

The story explores a number of reasons for the decline—a more risk-averse society, female breadwinners causing men to have less disposable income (must admit I'm a little baffled by that one), a lack of modern, inexpensive hobbyist planes (the beautifully named Beechcraft Bonanza, still a go-to for most weekend pilots, has been around for 60 years), and a general lack of do-it-yourself spirit among younger Americans (can't say that's a problem for me).

But as an unabashed tech nerd who grew up living and breathing airplanes, I've naturally always wanted to do some flying of my own. Having the funds to do so, however, has yet to become a reality. The FAA's sport-license program—essentially, a way to get a watered-down license at a lower flight-hour and cost commitment to fly the smallest planes—piqued my interest last year, but I've read conflicting information on whether a sport license is worth it or not.

Basically, I want to hear from any hobbyist pilots out there: Should I get my license? How and when did you get yours, and what has been the payoff? Let me know in the comments below. I feel like it's probably something that's going to have to happen eventually, reduced private-pilot numbers or not. Maybe if we get enough people chiming in, I can convince the PopSci brass to foot the bill. You guys would read a day-by-day account of someone getting their pilot's license, right? Here's hoping...—John Mahoney

NASA's Threesome

Suns_4 Prepare to be astounded: the image on the right is in . . . three dimensions

Seven months after its launch, NASA's STEREO satellite has sent back 3-D images of the sun. The Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory (guess STRO wasn't a cool enough acronym) charts the flow of matter and energy between Earth and the sun, and maps out things like solar storms and coronal mass ejections--actually useful for us, since these storms and CMEs will be used to better predict the next blackout-inducing maelstrom.

So what's NASA been up to while its probe undertakes a two-year photo shoot? Well, it's been typing up the instructions on how to make your own 3-D glasses. (Hint: it's exactly what you'd imagine.) —Abby Seiff

Related Links:
Solar storm
Make your own specs
The sun in 3-D

With the Greatest of Ease . . .

Watch as the theoretical physicist pirouettes through the air! Marvel as the greatest brain of our time floats through space! Be astounded as his iron stomach appears to withstand the rigors of the "Vomit Comet"! 

On Thursday, Stephen Hawking boarded a zero-gravity flight for the honor of being shot up and down on eight nauseating parabolic dives. The flight was potentially just the first step toward an actual trip to space. Last year, after announcing his firm belief that the human species would not survive unless it found a way to leave Earth, and expressing a desire to try space himself, Hawking was offered a spot on the yet-to-exist Virgin Galactic spacecraft.

"Space, here I come," Hawking said at the end of his flight. And if Richard Branson ever manages to build the thing, maybe we'll get to see our favorite physicist kickin' it zero-g style for more than 25 seconds. —Abby Seiff

Astronomers Find a New Earth-Like Planet

Photo courtesy ESO

This week, scientists announced the discovery of what some believe is the most promising earth-like planet yet found outside of our solar system, some 20.5 light-years away in the contellation Libra. 

By measuring the miniscule amount of “wobble” a star has, astronomers can conclude the amount of gravitational pull an orbiting planet is exerting on the star and where and how massive that planets may be. One such star, Gliese 581, has a wobble that indicates the presence of a planet—Gliese 581-C—stuck right in the “Goldilocks zone” where the conditions are neither too hot nor too cold but "just right" to potentially have not only habitable temperatures but, more importantly, liquid water.   

The star itself is much smaller and cooler than our own sun, but the planet orbits at a comparatively close distance—seven million miles compared to the earth's 91 million-mile solar orbit. However, too many factors remain unknown, including the makeup of the atmosphere, the actual size of the planet (only its mass is calculable from the star's wobble) or if the planet's water may have dried up when the star was warmer than it is now. And yet, it’s the most promising earth-like planet found so far, and its relative proximity to our solar system suggests that many more may exist beyond the reach or current instruments.

The current uncertainties, however, haven’t slowed the gambling community from putting money down on the findings.  Enterprising British bookies (is there anything they don't have a line on?) have put the odds at extraterrestrial life being found on this planet somewhere between 1,000-1 and 100-1. The only parameters of the bet are that the British Prime Minister must admit to the existence of extraterrestrial life within one year of the bet being placed. Gambling junkies might want to hold onto their money a bit longer, since the technology to accurately detect such things does not yet exist, not to mention the planet is 20.5 lightyears away, which, while relatively close, is still 20.5 lightyears away. —Dan Smith

Robotic Falcons Take on English Pigeons

Pigeons_in_flight_opt_2 Pigeons—easily the most universally despised bird, right?. Likened to flying rats and considered harbingers of all sorts of ailments, the poor disease-bags rarely get any respect. Now their reputation is taking an even bigger hit in Britain, as the mayor of London attempts to control the birds' numbers in the city in what has been dubbed the Pigeon War. The feral rock doves, as they are technically known, are famous for flocking in the thousands to Trafalgar Square in the heart of London, where Mayor Ken Livingstone has decreed it illegal to feed the pigeons, giving them less reason to keep coming back to perch happily on the heads of statues and people alike.

Meanwhile, Liverpool is taking the war to the next level. That city's government has decided that the most sensible pigeon deterrent may be... robotic falcons. Called Robops (short for "robotic birds of prey"), the devices are meant to be installed in pigeon-populated areas and imitate the predatory shrieking and wing-flapping of a peregrine falcon, hopefully in a matter convincing enough to drive the pigeons elsewhere.

But just wait until you see the Robop’s official Web site. Not only does it include an unexplained and under-construction page called “Applications: Churches,” the pages that are already finished are no less mind-boggling—indicating that the English tech nerds behind the Robop either have the most extreme example of the legendary dry British wit the world has yet seen, or have simply lost their minds altogether.

The Liverpool city council has pledged to purchase 10 such Robops (at $4,000 a pop!) in an attempt to humanely deal with the pigeon problem. But just try explaining the humane angle to tourists once these robotic falcons become self-aware and the home of the Beatles gains even more fame as the staging ground for a real-life sequel to The Birds that Hitchcock didn’t live to make. —Dan Smith

This Month's Megapixels

Each month, one wall at PopSci HQ gradually accumulates the best in sci/tech imagery from around the Web and beyond, which after much impassioned debate (and maybe even a little dart throwing), is whittled down to two stellar choices that end up in the magazine's opening pages. Here, the cream of the crop this month:


Blue Crush: In Australia, bluebottle jellyfish invade in striking numbers

Sailing ashore on blustery northeast winds, vast armadas of half-foot-long bluebottle jellyfish took Australia’s Gold Coast beaches by storm this year. The smaller, electric-blue cousin of the Portuguese man-o’-war (both species are technically polyps) commonly blows in to southern beaches during the summer months—November to February, Down Under—in dense packs. (This flotilla was photographed on Terrigal Beach in New South Wales.) But seldom have they arrived in such nettlesome droves: In a single January weekend, Queensland lifeguards treated 600 stings, a stunning increase over the 476 stings recorded for that entire month in 2006 (though painful, stings are almost never deadly). It’s unclear whether there has been a population spike among the sail-shaped, gelatinous invertebrates or if the wind patterns are simply bringing more of them ashore, says Lisa-Ann Gershwin, a jellyfish expert at James Cook University in Queensland. “They live way out in the central gyres in the middle of the great oceans,” she explains, “but so far nobody’s bothered to go out there and count them.” —Tom Colligan. Photogaph by Belinda Curley


Water Buggy: A prototype watercraft is designed to go almost anywhere, bump-free

It’s known as Proteus, and its performance is just as unusual as its appearance. The creation of California company Marine Advanced Research, this leggy craft is the helicopter of boats, explains designer Ugo Conti, who says Proteus clones could someday be used for quickly deploying research equipment to far-flung locales or for ocean search-and-rescue operations. The range of conventional craft is limited by their ability to take the pounding of huge swells in the open ocean and by the depth of the boats’ draft in shallow water. Proteus’s catamaran-style hulls displace only 18 inches, so it can operate safely close to shore. And the vehicle is designed to surf on top of the waves, rather than cut through them, allowing it to travel safely and efficiently in rough seas. The ride can’t be beat: The cockpit is suspended on four aluminum legs attached to the hulls by titanium springs. Which means no bumps—and a view 12 feet above the waves. —Mark Schrope.   Photograph by Toby Thiermann

The Green Smackdown: Gaining Speed

How better to go green?

Listen carefully, blog readers, and you will hear the swishing sound of sharp, protracted claws slicing through the air. Let the eco-friendly catfight begin! MegaCarbon Emitter takes issue with my "diversion tactic" and in the next breath books a cross-country flight to San Francisco? Sorry, sister, but your flirtation with vegetarianism and canvas shopping bags will do nothing to compensate for all the damage your frequent business flying inflicts on the environment. You might as well drive a Hummer to the farmers market. Truth is, as long as you continue to fly as often as you do, your carbon footprint will grow like an unchecked tumor, with every flight making it bigger and nastier until eventually your mere presence will spark droughts and floods.

Meanwhile my carbon footprint continues to shrink. I've made good on my promise to eat locally, which means I'm now packing my own lunch (in Tupperware bins, of course) and, frankly, hating it. (Sandwiches, sandwiches, sandwiches.) The upside is that I'm sort of losing weight, maybe. And that's gotta be good for the environment. Plus, I plan to start bicycling to work once or twice a week in May, which is Bike Month in New York And while I'm making the 22-mile round trip I'll keep an eye out for Talking Heads front man David Byrne's stolen bike, which may or may not still bear a MOST space telescope sticker, more evidence of his supreme dreaminess. But I digress. Back to the green cat fight . . . —Nicole Dyer

The Ab Master

Ah, so that's what they teach you in those Buddhist monasteries. Meditation? A clear mind and heart? Whatever. To achieve oneness with the universe, you need to learn how to stick a rice bowl to your stomach.

The miniature monk in this clip has two things working in his favor: his munchkin-like stature and basic physics. By sucking in his midsection, then pressing the bowl to his stomach, he creates a partial vacuum in the space between the bowl's inner surface and his skin. Since the seal is tight and there are fewer molecules of air per cubic inch inside the bowl/stomach space than there are outside, the bowl sticks.

Now, as for how it stays there while he's being lifted clear off the ground, that's where the apparent lack of McDonald's hamburgers and soda in his diet factors in. Let's assume he weighs about 50 pounds, and the bowl covers about 30 square inches of his belly. In this case, University of Virginia physicist Louis Bloomfield explains that for the seal to hold, the boy only has to reduce the air pressure inside the bowl by a little more than 1.6 pounds per square inch of bowl-bound skin. (Which shouldn't be too hard.) That way, the pressure force pushing him upward against the bowl will reach 50 pounds, balancing the downward pull of his own weight.

Add a video and presto, millions of people across the world get to watch him hanging inverted and upside down, while staring at their monitors thinking . . . huh?—Gregory Mone

Live From the Nest

Picture_14 You know how much we here at PopSci HQ love animal-related live web cams— well, I spotted another one today that takes the herds of drinking wildebeests we couldn't stop watching last fall and raises them an adorable newborn symbol of our nation. That's right, a spiky-haired baby bald eagle recently hatched in California's Santa Cruz Island National Park, and the good folks at the Nature Conservancy have a 24-hour streaming nest cam to monitor the proceedings. Bets on how long it takes for Stephen Colbert to pick this up? —John Mahoney

Link [nature.org]

Yuri's Day (and Night)

Photo by O.P.Kopchevsky

On this day 46 years ago, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to be blasted into space. Naturally, Russians have celebrated this anniversary with vigor since its first occurrence the year following in the form of Cosmonautics Day, an annual holiday with an accompanying bevy of commemorative coins, stamps and magnificent pieces of authoritarian architecture like the Moscow monument pictured here.

While the rest of the world will naturally have a hard time matching the coolness of a towering, 100%-titanium Gagarin/Voltron hybrid (O to be an architect in the Soviet era!), an impressive international tribute has begun to emerge in the form of Yuri's Night. Since its foundation in 2001 by three lovers of all things space, the affair has sprouted parties in over 35 countries attracting space luminaries such as Ray Bradbury, Peter Diamandis and, ahem, Lance Bass. And if you're worried about being labeled a godless Commie, don't worry—April 12 is also the anniversary of the first Space Shuttle mission back in 1981.

From the website:
"Whether in someone’s living room, a swinging nightclub or a world-class science museum, Yuri’s Night events all have one thing in common - people who are excited about space exploration and who want to join together to celebrate it."

Check it out to find a party near you. —John Mahoney

Secret of the Miracle Pitch

It breaks faster than a Mariano Rivera cutter. It's harder to hit than Rick Vaughan's fastball in the movie Major League. The gyroball is so elusive, in fact, that some speculate that it might not even exist. The gyro, which originated in Japan, is causing consternation in American baseball broadcast booths these days. But since science is fairly used to dealing with things that may or may not exist (extra dimensions, anyone?), we figured we'd give it a look.

This video shows Daisuke Matsuzaka, the new Boston Red Sox hurler, supposedly striking out a batter using the gyro. Before we get into how it works, let's look at two other popular pitches. For a normal fastball, the pitcher puts backspin on the ball, so air flows faster above the ball than it does below. The ball doesn't drop as quickly as it would if it were following a normal, gravitationally influenced path, so the batter's brain gets the impression that it's rising. And... he whiffs.

A curveball has the opposite effect: Topspin causes it to fall faster. And again, if all goes well, he whiffs.

The gyroball is said to move with a bulletlike rotation that prevents it from dropping like a curve or staying high like a fastball. In effect, it's a fastball that listens to gravity, following a trajectory unaffected by turbulence in the air.

Japanese scientist Ryutaro Himeno is widely credited with creating the pitch using computer simulations [see the published paper and video clips of the computer models here] with the help of baseball instructor Kazushi Tezuka. They published their work in a book, currently available only in Japan, called The Secret of the Miracle Pitch.

As for whether Dice-K, as he's known in the U.S., is actually throwing a gyroball in this video, that's hard to tell. Following Occam's Razor, the easiest way to find out would be to just ask him, right? That's not so easy, though. Numerous interviewers have tried to do just that, but he’s played coy, allowing the miracle pitch to remain a mystery. —Gregory Mone

Behind the Scenes at the American Museum of Natural History


Ever wonder what a museum's nebulous "permanent collection" looks like when it's not hanging on the gallery walls? Especially a permanent collection as intensively taxadermied as the American Museum of Natural History's? Photographer Justine Cooper's "Saved by Science" series  shows us—one drawer full of dead Yellow Honeyeaters (Lichenostomus falvus) at a time. —John Mahoney

Link - Via Neatorama (and Dan)

The Green Smackdown: Talkin' Trash

Madame Trashheap got nothin' on me.

Boy, Nicole’s last post sure was a lulu, huh? Way to divert attention from the ol’ energy-sucking light bulbs by randomly pointing to some awesome new vertical farm. “Hey, look over there, guys. A giant skyscraper full of vegetables….” Come on, girl. Put your dukes up!

Anyhoo, enough about her, let’s talk about me. My meat-reduction plan has been going swimmingly. Over the past three weeks, I’ve consumed no animal flesh save yesterday’s helping of Easter brisket (legal under my meat-is-a-celebration clause), which was of the succulent, slow-braised with vinegar and onions variety, from a free-range, grass-fed, locally raised steer—i.e., totally worth it. Other than that, it’s been a very Asian diet of veggies, rice, and tofu for me, pretty much. But here’s a tip for anyone thinking of becoming a vegetarian: If someone offers you a banh mi made with “vegan chicken,” run away. Blech.

While I work on mastering such pratfalls of my new nutrition plan, I’m also moving on to the next step of my carbon diet: reducing the amount of trash I create in the world. Living in NYC, this is a pretty tricky thing to do. Every time you buy anything in New York, a well-meaning cashier tries to give it to you in a plastic bag. Since most people don’t have cars, it’s a pain in the butt to shop here, so everything under the sun (including beer, cigarettes, groceries, prescriptions, and random purchases from The Container Store) can be delivered—usually in several layers of cardboard boxes.  Lunch is generally a carryout affair, complete with individual Styrofoam trays, plastic containers, and wooden chopsticks. All in all, this amounts to a massive amount of unnecessary waste. And only a small portion of it gets reused, because NYC recycling is restricted to paper, aluminum, and numbers 1 and 2 plastic. (Also because PopSci’s cleaning team throws the contents of our recycling bins in the trash dumpster. Yeah. We’re working on this.)

I’m finding that the only real way to combat this tidal wave of waste is to do it on a very personal level: I try to remember to carry reusable tote bags with me to the grocery store, and when I’m there, I do my best to choose products with minimal packaging. Whenever I can, I refuse bodega bags (“No thanks! I can just put this, um, pint of ice cream in my purse…”) and when I get up early enough to prepare something, I bring my lunch to work in Tupperware (this one is tough for me because our office is located smack in the middle of the Korean/Indian/Japanese food corridor, and the takeout is oh-so-gratifying). And I skip the plastic bag for my wet workout clothes, and just put ‘em in a different compartment of my gym duffle.

I’m not giving up toilet paper like No-Impact Man or anything—although there’s a certain appeal to the Japanese washer-dryer toilets. I’m just trying to be less… trashy. How ‘bout you, Nicole? —Megan Miller

TGV Sets High-Speed Train Record: Extrêmement Spectaculaire!

To anyone who might still doubt the raw power of electric vehicles, consider this: A French bullet train—which draws its power from overhead lines—set a world speed record for conventional rail trains yesterday, hitting 357.2 miles an hour with two locomotives and three passenger cars. It used a 25,000-horsepower engine and specially modified wheels to accomplish the feat.

Let’s think about that for a moment. It’s 100 mph faster than the Bugatti Veyron, the fastest production car in the world. At 357.2 mph, you cover six miles each minute, a tenth of a mile each second. The effect on spectators was thunderous (check out the video above at the 3-minute mark as the train whooshes under an overpass at the moment the record falls, much to the delight of the French TV newscaster live on the scene). I can’t imagine what would have happened if, say, a cow had wandered onto the track; it probably would have just been vaporized. If anything had happened to the train itself, it would have been curtains for everyone—and one of the most terrible, protracted crashes in history.

By the way, it’s still not the fastest train on Earth. A Japanese maglev (magnetically levitated) train hit 361 mph in 2003. —Eric Adams

The Green Smackdown: Growing Up

Vertical farm design by Chris Jacobs

Truth time: The weekend has come and gone, and I’ve yet to make good on last week’s promises to swap out my incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescents. I still can’t find CF bulbs that work with dimmer switches. (Hit me with suggestions, folks.) As an alternative, I’m skimping on electricity, keeping the lights on low or off altogether. Let it be known that I enjoy reading in bed with a camouflage Petzel LED headlamp in lieu of bedside lighting. The white light is easier on the eyes, and the whole effect is rather cozy. It feels like camping, except without the funky tent smell.

Speaking of funky smells, last week’s carbon-reducing efforts also included wearing a pair of socks twice—the average washing machine consumes about 40 gallons of water per load, the energy equivalent of leaving the fridge door open for an entire day—and I reduced the number of times I ran the dishwasher from four to two times during the week. Humble measures, to be sure, but like MegaCarbon Emitter says, it’s about making sustainable lifestyle changes. On that score, I applaud MCE’s efforts to ease off the meats. We all know that raising livestock is tough on the planet. But sadly, so is raising sweet little crunchy vegetables. Industrial farming is particularly brutal, using 939 million pounds of pesticides each year and consuming 70 percent of our annual freshwater supply. (You can learn more about the hazards of agriculture at oxfamamerica.org.) For those reasons among others, I’m particularly intrigued by a concept recently featured in New York magazine known as vertical farming: basically, a giant skyscraping hothouse. Its chief proponent, Columbia University microbiologist Dickson Despommier, says that a 58-floor “farm” building with eight million square feet of growing area built on 140,000 square feet of land, can produce the same amount of food as 1.6 square miles of traditional farmland—enough to feed 35,000 people year-round. If these statistics hold true, vertical farms may be all but mandatory come 2050, when the number of humans roaming the planet will increase by three billion and more than 90 percent of the world’s population will reside in cities. Imagine the resources saved if the majority of those people ate local produce? Which brings me to this week’s carbon-reducing goal: to eat locally. And by that I don’t mean ordering from Bo Bo’s Chinese takeout two blocks from my apartment, as tempting as that is. No, it means shopping for produce grown within 250 miles of me. Or, more likely, skipping the vegetables altogether.  —Nicole Dyer

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