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« November 2007 | Main | January 2008 »

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Statistics

1180024127_2 This image depicts eight million toothpicks. According to Seattle artist Chris Jordan, that's how many trees are harvested in the U.S. each month to make paper for mail-order catalogs.

The images are part of Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait, a series depicting the excesses and inequities of contemporary American culture. Each image portrays a specific quantity of something, such as the number of American children without health insurance, or the number of disposable batteries produced every 15 minutes. Many of the images are mosaics of common objects.

"My hope is that images representing these quantities might have a different effect than the raw numbers alone," Jordan writes. "Statistics can feel abstract and anesthetizing, making it difficult to connect with and make meaning of 3.6 million SUV sales in one year, for example, or 2.3 million Americans in prison, or 426,000 cell phones retired every day."

We can't vouch for all of Jordan's statistics, but his pictures certainly help put them in perspective. Although the images can be viewed on Jordan's website, they are best experienced in person, where their sheer size helps to convey the enormous quantities represented.—Dawn Stover

Image: Chris Jordan

Getting Crowded in Space

Uars_cover NASA's Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS), an observatory that was launched in 1991 and decommissioned in 2005, may have collided with another large object in space, according to a report on LiveScience.

U.S. Air Force Space Command first cataloged four pieces from the satellite in November. Around that time, debris from Russia's Cosmos 1275 was headed towards it. A collision wasn't a given, but the objects were close enough to raise suspicion. We've written about the dangers and oddities of space junk before, but it might become a more important issue in the future.—Gregory Mone

Beware Holiday Email Scams

It's the time of year for parties, sitting around the fire, relaxing with the family and, for many people, opening strange email attachments and allowing their machines to become infected. Last year, security researchers identified an enormous botnet—a network of infected computers controlled by hackers - that built much of its illicit network through holiday-themed emails. An infected computer might then be used to spam other users, potentially implicating the innocent owner of the machine in cybercrime. We should all know better than to click on or open something suspicious, but, for this holiday season, the computer forensics research team at the university of Alabama Birmingham has put together a helpful list of suspect subject lines. Check it out here.—Gregory Mone

Via NewsWise

The End of Long Coffee Lines

Coffee Apple has filed a patent for a wireless system that would let users skip lines at fast-food joints, coffee shops and more by submitting orders through a handheld device, then receiving a notice when the double tall latte is ready to go. The system would work through a music player, a phone or a PDA and, ideally, allow the tech-saavy crowd to save some time. It would also track customers' buying behavior, keep note of their favorite stores, and what they like to order.

Granted, this is just an application, and the system might never come to be, but there could be interesting implications if it does. For instance, one blogger speculates that it could transform the iPhone into a kind of mobile wallet.—Gregory Mone

Science "Shopdroppers"

Niklaas04_2 A recent article in The New York Times reported on the growing practice of "shopdropping," in which people who are promoting a product or message surreptitiously plant items in retail stores. It's the opposite of shoplifting.

Shopdroppers reportedly include religious groups that have been slipping Christian cartoons into the pages of science magazines at Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon. In retaliation, other shopdroppers have been moving Bibles from the religion section to the sci-fi/fantasy section.—Dawn Stover


Apple and Fox Poised for Movie Deal

Fantastic_four Twentieth Century Fox and Apple are set to announce a new online movie distribution deal, according to the Financial Times. While Apple has reportedly been trying to land such a deal for a while now, most studios have resisted the plan to offer their films as digital rentals.

At this point, Apple does sell movies through its iTunes Store, but reports suggest that sales haven't been growing as briskly as expected. This new deal with Fox could give customers another, less expensive option for watching flicks. Fox has also agreed to use Apple's digital rights management technology in future DVDs, which would let buyers copy the movies to their Apple devices.—Gregory Mone

Biodiesel Speed Boat to Go For Record Once More

EarrthEarthrace, the environmentally-friendly speedboat that recently abandoned two attempts to break the round-the-world speed record, has just announced plans to go for it again. The boat, designed and developed by a former oil industry engineer turned environmentalist, runs completely on biodiesel and should have a net zero carbon footprint. A wave-piercing, trimaran hull design helps it slice through the water. And if the swells get too big? Supposedly the boat has the ability to duck through the waves instead of rolling over them.

As we noted previously, though, the first attempt ended in tragedy. And the second didn't go so well, either: the crew discovered a crack in the hull and had to end the trip early.

Now the team will set out once more, this time from Valencia, Spain in March.—Gregory Mone

Golf Channel Goes High-Tech

Trackmandisplay Tennis has the Hawkeye system, hockey tried out that weird streaking puck display, and now golf is going high-tech, too. The Golf Channel is going to start using the TrackMan Tour System, a radar technology that measures golfer's swings and the flight of the ball, for certain tour events.

Trackman records the golfer's swing motion in 3D space, then tracks the launch, flight and spin of the ball with unprecedented precision. The USGA used it this past summer to track and analyze pros's swings, and now Golf Channel viewers will be able to see virtual replays of certain shots.

The first showing will be at the Mercedes-Benz Championship on December 3rd.—Gregory Mone

Via Yahoo News

New York's Greenest

Greengoods_485 Electric scooters may get a kick-start from an unusual source: The NYPD. Starting in January, four scooters will be added to the city's police motor fleet. Though their number hardly makes for a revolution, the Vectrix scooters (the first plug-in vehicles legal on any highway or road) are part of a larger mission to green the department. Already, it boasts a number of hybrid and flex-fuel cars.

We've covered Vectrix's stateside arrival in the past. An $11,000 price tag puts it out of the reach of most consumers, but if the NYPD test is successful, it may popularize the scooter enough to help bring down the cost. Meanwhile, the department insists long-term fuel savings will offset a higher price.—Abby Seiff


Re-Thinking Addiction

Fmri Addicts form thoughts in a fundamentally different way than those without addictions, according to a report published in today's Journal of Neuroscience. The study, led by scientists at the University of North Carolina and the University of California, compared the brain activity of recovering alcoholics and non-addicts. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), they recorded neural activity of both groups while they made a hypothetical financial decision: Less money now or more later? The impulsive "now" option, one demarcated by increased activity in certain brain sites, was chosen by the recovering addicts three times more often than by others. The ones who decided to hold off, however, had more activity in their orbital frontal cortices—the "brakes" area of the brain, which allows us to consider future consequences and weigh them against short-term gain.

The study, the first to identify such differentiation in brain activity, could be the key to discovering viable treatments for addiction.—Abby Seiff

Via EurekAlert

Is Santa a Physicist?

Image_about_santa Ever wonder how Santa and his reindeer get around the globe so quickly? Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory aren't sure but they say "ion shielding, personal magnetic fields and multi-dimensional travel concepts show promise." The lab's satellite tracking group plans to keep tabs on the jolly old fellow on Christmas Eve using ground-based antennas along with sensors aboard the FORTE and Cibola Flight Experiment satellites (including optical and infrared sensors that detect Rudolph's glowing nose). You can follow Santa's progress on the group's website.

And why doesn't Santa appear to age despite being more than 15 centuries old? That's "our biggest clue that he does not work within time, as we know it," according to sources at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) who have been tracking Santa since 1955. "His Christmas Eve trip may seem to take around 24 hours, but to Santa it could be that it lasts days, weeks or months in standard time. NORAD's Santa tracker uses a ground-based radar warning system, satellites that normally watch for missile launches, jet-fighter escorts, and digital Santa Cams positioned at strategic locations around the world.

What if NORAD and Los Alamos spot Santa in two different places at the same time? I'm sure physics has a good explanation for that too.—Dawn Stover

Image: NORAD Tracks Santa

The Breakdown: I Am Legend

We're going to deviate briefly from the physics of strange stunts on YouTube, and look instead at the new movie I Am Legend. Yes, there's a virus-based cure turned scourge that infects the vast majority of humanity, and plenty to think about along those lines, but we're going to stick to what happens to New York City.

In the beginning of the movie, the main character, Robert Neville, played by Will Smith, hunts deer in an almost entirely empty Manhattan. (Well, it's devoid of humans, anyway.) The filmmakers clearly put some thought into what the crowded metropolis would look like if people disappeared and the infrastructure shut down—they brought in at least one scientist for advice. Large weeds spring up everywhere from cracks in the sidewalk. But they're not too large, since Neville's only been alone on the island for about three years. There's at least one herd of deer, too, which isn't all that odd. They could have swam over to the island, or crossed one of the remaining bridges. Still, this version of people-free New York isn't as dramatic as the one imagined in Alan Weisman's bestseller The World Without Us. In the book, which reveals what would happen to Earth if humans simply disappeared, Weisman details the long-term changes to the city. He reminds us, first of all, that it wasn't always a concrete jungle: "Once, Manhattan was 27 square miles of porous ground interlaced with living roots that siphoned 47.2 inches of average annual rainfall up trees and into meadow grasses, which drank their fill and exhaled the rest back into the atmosphere." We don't want to give away the ending to I Am Legend, but as for The World Without Us, it's pretty predictable: Nature wins.—Gregory Mone

Nanotech Squeezes Bible onto a Pinhead


In a move that would have made Gutenberg's head explode, Israeli scientists have printed the entire Old Testament onto a silicon chip that is only 1/1000th of an inch square—tinier than a pinhead. This "nano-Bible project," developed at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, demonstrated a nanotech building process that might someday be used to store a person's medical history in his DNA.

Scientists wrote the Bible by utilizing a focused ion beam (FIB) generator shooting tiny Gallium ions that etched the manuscript onto a gold surface, guided by a newly developed computer program written at Technion. Developing the program took more than three months, but writing the full text took only 90 minutes.


"The nano-Bible project demonstrates the miniaturization at our disposal," explains Professor Uri Sivan, the head of the University’s Russell Berrie Nanotechnology Institute, who conceived it. "This research could lead to the creation of more advanced miniature structures—and imaging—on a nanometric scale, advances in storing information in very small spaces, and the use of DNA molecules to store information."—Robert E. Calem

Galaxies Form a Giant Bird

Phot55a07normal Astronomers have spotted a rarity in space: two previously known galaxies merging with a newly discovered third galaxy of roughly the same size. Together they form what the astronomers have dubbed "The Bird." (Some also see a resemblance to Tinker Bell.)

The astronomers photographed the galaxies using the ESO's Very Large Telescope. One of the telescope's instruments is able to peer through dust clouds surrounding the colliding galaxies, using adaptive optics to get a clear look.

Two of the galaxies met a couple of hundred million years ago, astronomers estimate. But the third galaxy, which forms the bird's "head," is a new arrival and is already moving away from the others at about 850,000 miles per hour.—Dawn Stover

Image: European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO)


Despite the high cost of powering cargo freighters, it doesn't look like viable alternatives are appearing anytime soon. Instead, the enormous ships  are increasingly turning to innovative ways of lessening fuel consumption. One promising possibility is massive sails—kites really—that can be retrofitted onto ships and aid in propelling them across the ocean. Earlier this month, Beluga Shipping christened its  MV "Beluga SkySails"—a cargo ship with a 520 square foot propulsion kite; the first to utilize the system. A transoceanic voyage  is imminent, but  unfortunately for PPX buyers, the  date has been pushed from mid-December to January.  Most traders guessed correctly, however: The SKYSAIL stock (Will the sail-assisted Beluga freighter depart by December 20, 2007?) was halted at $35.75 and closed at $0.—Abby Seiff

40th-Anniversary Hot Wheels Rope in Big Designers From Detroit and Beyond

Ford_036The ubiquitous Hot Wheels brand of toy cars is releasing a 40th-anniversary collection designed by real automotive car manufacturers. Designers from Chevrolet, Dodge, Honda, Lotus, Mitsubishi and Ford were invited to submit drawings for the limited edition set. The winning 1/64 scale models were selected by a panel of executives and writers from automotive publications like Car and Driver. Though most of the designs appear to be free of any rigorous DOT road-worthiness constraints, each entry had to pass the "one lap" test on Hot Wheels' own oval test track.

The Gangster Grin (shown here) was the winning entry from the Ford family. Its 1950s influence and low-slung appearance led co-workers of designer Steve Glimor, a former Hot Wheels intern, to suggest it was smiling. It's good to see that form doesn't always have to follow function.—MotoMatt Cokeley

Shell Tries to Turn Algae into Fuel

Solix_ss_algae Last week, the oil company Royal Dutch Shell announced plans to build an algae biodiesel plant in Hawaii. The project will progress in stages: first, the company will build a small research plant, with hopes to build a full-scale commercial plant within two years. Algae is an incredibly tantalizing yet frustrating potential fuel source, as PopSci's Elizabeth Svoboda found out earlier this year when writing the tale of an algae biodiesel startup in Colorado. The microbes can create enormous amounts of oil from very little in the way of nutrients and land, but extracting the oil and converting it to biodiesel remains extremely difficult.

Shell is partnering with Hawaii-based HR Biopetroleum on their project, and hopes to produce 8.5 million barrels of biodiesel a year at the commercial plant.—Michael Moyer

(Image Credit: Dan Bihn)

Squirrels That Smell Like Snakes

Squirrel chewing on shed snakeskin then applying it to its tail fur. Filmed by Barbara Clucas, UC Davis.  http://link.brightcove.com/services/link/bcpid1348280050http://www.brightcove.com/channel.jsp?channel=1274168784

California ground squirrels and rock squirrels have evolved a sneaky strategy to avoid being eaten by their worst enemy: They create a rattlesnake "perfume" that masks their squirrelly scent.

Barbara Clucas, a graduate student in animal behavior at UC Davis, watched how the squirrels do it (check out her video, above). First they chew up skins shed by rattlesnakes. Then they lick themselves to spread skin pieces and snake-flavored spit on their fur. Some squirrels even gather snake odor from dirt where snakes have rested. When the squirrels curl up for their own naps, they sleep more safely.

Clucas and colleagues at UC Davis, Sam Houston State University and New Mexico State University published their findings in the journal Animal Behavior.—Dawn Stover

Video by Barbara Clucas, UC Davis

The Annual Google Zeitgeist

Teenstars_large Google just released its annual summary of the hottest topics on the Web, the 2007 Year-End Zeitgeist. In the U.S., the fastest-rising search was—surprise, surprise—the iPhone. But besides that obvious winner, the other winners are certainly interesting. Kids clearly had some influence, as Webkinz grabbed the number two slot, and Club Penguin, a Disney-owned, child-safe online community, wasn't too far behind. The most popular lawsuit? That honor belongs to Borat. It's an interesting compilation to sort through, though not always reassuring for science-minded type. After spotting "Who is Keppler?" on the top ten list of "Who is" questions, I wondered if 2007 had brought a sudden surge of interest in the history of cosmology, even if the name wasn't spelled quite right. Alas, that's not the case. All those Internet sleuths were looking for the Keppler of CSI fame.—Gregory Mone

Turning Manure Into Power

Huckabay7860cropped A company called Environmental Power is building the country's largest facility for converting cow manure into natural gas. The company is constructing eight enormous tanks outside Stephensville, Texas, that will each be able to hold 916,000 gallons of manure. The plan: Add high-carb materials, cook to above 130 degrees Fahrenheit, and let the bacteria start converting all that refuse into methane. There's a great, detailed piece on the company's plans for turning poop into profit on Xconomy.—Gregory Mone

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