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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

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

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


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

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)

Innovation of the Year Winner Nanosolar Ships Its First Low-Cost Solar Panels

Powersheet_blog After years of development, Nanosolar has announced today that they have shipped their first batch of inexpensive solar panels to the site of their first real-world deployment, a megawatt solar plant being built on the surface of a landfill in eastern Germany.

Nanosolar's innovative process for "printing" thin, inexpensive solar panels has attracted several high-profile investors, including Google's co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. By simplifying the manufacturing process and eliminating pricey silicon, many see the new process as the breakthrough needed to drive cheap solar power into the mainstream (many including we here at PopSci—the Powersheet received our "Innovation of the Year" award in this year's Best of What's New).

The first production panels to roll off the assembly line are getting special attention—one's being exhibited at Nanosolar HQ, another is heading for the Tech Museum in San Jose, and a third has been put up for auction on eBay. The current going rate for a piece of green tech history is $1,095—get your bids in now!

For much more information on the Powersheet, including an animated movie detailing exactly how it works, see its entry in our Best of What's New 2007 list. —John Mahoney

(Image Credit: Brian Klutch)

2007 Registers As a Record-Breaker

Modis_larsb_mar05 Federal scientists released some of the annual average temperature data for 2007, revealing that this year registers as the eighth warmest since 1895, when records were first kept. The average temperature was 54.3 degrees Fahrenheit in the U.S. Worldwide, that number is slightly higher, and the preliminary details of the annual report suggest that 2007 was the fifth warmest year on a global scale. Seven of the eight warmest years have occurred since 2001. Armed with ever more convincing data, not to mention projections that suggest how grave events could become in the future should our current practices continue, scientists are also suggesting that we not only make a greater effort to cut carbon emissions, but work harder to remove existing carbon from the air.—Gregory Mone

Congressman Makes Virtual Appearance at Climate Summit

Bu_markey_avatar_bx103 Since Representative Edward Markey couldn't be in Bali for the United Nations climate change meeting, he appeared virtually instead. With the help of a staffer, Markey created an avatar in Second Life, and addressed the meeting via video screen, from his place in the virtual world. Sadly, he didn't get too adventurous with his dress. Even his avatar looks like a Capitol Hill insider.

Markey said he couldn't be there because he needed to be in the US to help pass a clean energy bill, but he should've taken a greener-than-thou route instead. Why did any of them waste the jet fuel going to Bali? They all should have stayed home, saved the fuel, and met in Second Life instead.—Gregory Mone

Via SFGate

Fish Farms Harm Wild Salmon

Index_clip_image002 Salmon farms along the Canadian coast are driving wild salmon toward extinction, according to a study published today in the journal Science. The study looked at the survival rates of wild pink salmon in British Columbia's Broughton Archipelago, where salmon farms have sprung up along the shoreline in recent years.

Earlier studies have found that the netted pens of salmon farms are breeding grounds for parasitic sea lice, and that these lice can infect and kill young wild salmon passing by the farms. However, today's study by fisheries ecologists at the University of Alberta and Dalhousie University is the first to show that sea lice are having population-wide impacts. If nothing is done, the scientists predict that 99 percent of the pink salmon will be gone within four years.

Sea lice attach themselves to the skin of fish and feed on their flesh. Adult fish can survive this onslaught but younger fish (such as the one pictured here) are more vulnerable because they are smaller and have thinner skin. Normally salmon encounter lice only in the open ocean where the adult fish live, but salmon farms have concentrated the lice near the rivers where wild salmon are born.

There are two possible solutions to the problem: Raise farmed salmon in self-contained pens, or move the existing pens away from the rivers and migratory routes used by young wild salmon. The fish farmers claim both options are too expensive. But losing an entire population of wild salmon would be even more costly.—Dawn Stover

Image: Alexandra Morton, Salmon Coast Field Station

Earth from Above

Yab_1 Google Earth today unveiled a new layer, called Earth from Above, featuring stunning images taken by the French nature photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand.

At left is one of those images, the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa in Iceland. Each image is accompanied by an interesting statistic: In this case, we learn that 90 percent of the homes in Iceland are heated by electricity produced from geothermal sources.

The photos are accessible from the Global Awareness folder in Google Earth.—Dawn Stover

Image: Yann Arthus-Bertrand/Earth

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