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The Week In Numbers: Crunchy Crickets, Food Poison Twitter Bots, And A Whole Lotta Ice

Fri, 08/22/2014 - 16:00

Crunchy and delicious. Science Photo Library/Getty Images

6: the number of weeks it takes to raise your own edible crickets. The cost: $22.

121.5: the calories in one serving size of crickets, which is 100 grams or roughly 22 crickets. 

1,300: average thickness, in feet, of the glacier that currently buries the Bárðarbunga volcano in Iceland, which may erupt very soon.

60,000,000,000,000: approximate weight, in pounds, of the ice over the volcano.

A Glacial Lake Near The Eyjafjallajökull Volcano Paul Clement via Flickr By CC 2.0  

4.6 billion years: age of recently-discovered meteorites that were made by volcanoes on a small asteroid.

Asteroid Contrail This cellphone photo shows the contrail left by asteroid 2008 TC3, from which researchers gathered evidence that early Solar System bodies could be volcanically active. Image by Shaddad, accessed via NASA

2,241: number of food poisoning-related tweets collected by the Chicago Department of Public Health's Twitter bot between March 2013 and January 2014. 

133: number of restaurant inspections the bot's work led to, including 21 shutdowns.

Food Poisoning From an infographic for Foodborne Chicago by Payal Patel Designs

3,150: number of high-resolution photos that comprise a newly-released mosaic image of Antarctica.

New map of Antarctica CSA/Univ. of Waterloo

0.15 inches: the average increase in elevation across the Western U.S., caused by extreme drought.

GPS Station A network of GPS stations like this one near Lone Pine, California, helped scientists discover that land in the West is rising. Shawn Lawrence, UNAVCO

4: kilobytes of data that can be stored in a hard drive built by players in the game Minecraft. The hard drive is also "covered in torches to keep zombies from attacking it at night."

Minecraft HDD Controller Top View The0JJ/

U.S. Copyright Office Denies Monkeys Rights To Their Selfies

Fri, 08/22/2014 - 15:09

Smile Wikimedia Commons

In 2011, British wildlife photographer David Slater was traveling through the jungle in Indonesian when a crested black macaque grabbed his camera and started snapping selfies. Somebody posted the images in Wikipedia Commons, meaning anybody could use them for free. A legal battle ensued, with Slater claiming the images belong to him, and Wikipedia countering that the images belong to the public since they weren't created by a human.

The U.S. Copyright Office addresses the dispute in the latest draft of its “Compendium Of U.S. Copyright Office Practices”, which was published on August 19. The previous compendium stated clearly that “Materials produced solely by nature, by plants, or by animals are not copyrightable.” The new 1,222-page report makes their stance on animal artwork abundantly more clear by referring specifically to photographs taken monkeys. “[T]he Office will refuse to register a claim if it determines that a human being did not create the work.”

Other fun and somewhat-related highlights from the new report:

  • [T]he Office cannot register a work purportedly created by divine or supernatural beings.
  • To be copyrightable, musical works, like all works of authorship, must be of human origin. A musical work created by solely by an animal would not be registrable, such as a bird song or whale song. Likewise, music generated entirely by a mechanical or an automated process is not copyrightable. For example, the automated transposition of a musical work from one key to another is not registrable. Nor could a musical composition created solely by a computer algorithm be registered.
  • To qualify as a work of authorship a choreographic work must be created by a human being and it must be intended for execution by humans. Dances performed or intended to be performed by animals, machines, or other animate or inanimate objects are not copyrightable and cannot be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.
  • To qualify as a work of authorship, a pantomime must involve “the real pantomime of real men.” Kalem, 222 U.S. at 61-62. Pantomimes performed by animals, robots, machines, or any other animate or inanimate object are not copyrightable and cannot be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Not everyone is smiling over the new rules. Circa reports that the photographer is facing some $17,000 in legal fees, and they quote Slater: "Photography is an expensive profession that's being encroached upon. They're taking our livelihoods away… For every 100000 images I take, one makes money that keeps me going. And that was one of those images. It was like a year of work, really."

But since Slater is a British citizen and there are no international copyright laws, it's not clear how the case will pan out or whether Slater will continue to press the matter. The Telegraph notes that, “In the U.K., under the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988, a photographer can claim rights over an image even if he or she did not press the shutter button if the results are their “intellectual creation”... However, such a case has never been tried in court and the outcome would be uncertain.”

For now, at least, Wikipedia continues to list the photos under public domain.

Ask Anything: Why Don’t Woodpeckers Get Brain Damage?

Fri, 08/22/2014 - 14:17

Woodpeckers have one heck of a cranium Illustration by Jason Schneider One day in 1976, psychiatrist Philip May asked his colleague at the University of California, Los Angeles a peculiar question: “Why don’t woodpeckers have headaches?” May specialized in treating schizophrenia, but proposed a radical shift: How, he wanted to know, might an animal that repeatedly slams its head into a tree trunk at 16mph keep from getting brain damage?

May started his research with a pair of pickled woodpeckers borrowed from a zoologist. In studying their cranial anatomy, he and his collaborators found a patch of spongy bone at the front of the skull, which they thought might act like a shock absorber. Woodpeckers also have a bone called the hyoid, which supports the tongue and then winds all the way around the bird’s head. A researcher later argued that the hyoid could function as a sort of cerebral safety belt.

Additionally, the UCLA team discovered that a woodpecker’s brain is packed tightly into its cranium, leaving little room for it to slosh around in cerebrospinal fluid, as a human brain can. But as with their other findings, it wasn’t clear if this feature was unique to the woodpecker, or common to many birds—including those that don’t routinely smash their beaks into wood. 

To find out, in 2011, a group of Chinese researchers led by Lizhen Wang compared the head of the great spotted woodpecker to that of the similarly sized Mongolian skylark. Indeed, the woodpecker’s cranial bones looked to be stronger, its brain more snug, and its beak more elastic than the skylark’s. 

But not all of May’s conjectures proved true. For example, based on high-speed films he shot in the late-1970s, May argued that the woodpecker keeps its beak perpendicular to the surface it’s striking to avoid the twisting and shearing forces thought to be responsible for concussive injuries in humans. In fact, Wang later found that a woodpecker’s peck actually has a curving trajectory.

Whatever the source of its resilience, the woodpecker brain is not immune to cerebral trauma. In 1979, shortly after May’s second published paper on the topic, a neurologist in Albuquerque wrote a letter to the Archives of Neurology. “A recent personal experience may have some relevance to these findings,” he began. “A yellow-bellied sapsucker woodpecker inadvertently flew into a closed window of my house, was rendered unconscious, had repetitive seizures, and died several hours later.” Evolution has its limits: Neither a spongy bone nor a tightly packed brain could have saved that bird.

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Popular Science.

Google Testing Its Self-Driving Cars In A Complete Virtual "Matrix California"

Fri, 08/22/2014 - 12:23

Google's Self-Driving Car Flickr CC by 2.0 The idea of sharing the road with one of Google’s autonomous cars can be a bit unnerving.  What if one of them malfunctions mid-drive and turns right into the middle of a busy intersection? Plus, who do you get to yell at if one cuts you off?

Well, in order to minimize these problems on the streets, Google has created what it’s calling a “Matrix-style” simulation of  the entirety of California, to test the self-driving vehicles before they mingle with the normal human-operated ones. According to the Guardian, this virtual world is housed inside computers at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, and provides a complete map of California’s entire road network. It even throws in some real life obstacles to trip the cars up, like overzealous motorists and jaywalking pedestrians. And Google has asked state officials to permit the virtual California to serve as an official proving ground for the cars, in place of physical driving tests.

"In a few hours, we can test thousands upon thousands of scenarios."

In a letter obtained by the Guardian, Google’s safety director, Ron Medford, says Google wants to make sure testing regulations are “interpreted to allow manufacturers to satisfy this requirement through computer-generated simulations.” He goes on to say that simulations are actually more valuable, “as they allow manufacturers to test their software under far more conditions and stresses than could possibly be achieved on a test track.”

So far, Google claims the cars have “driven” more than 4 million miles inside the simulator. In the real world, the autonomous cars have driven approximately 700,000 miles over 2,000 miles of test roads. Researchers have then taken data from these tests and incorporated them into the simulator, creating various situations that can be tested over and over again, e.g. Google used the Matrix to test a new emergency braking system over 10,000 miles.

"In a few hours, we can test thousands upon thousands of scenarios which in terms of driving all over again might take decades,” according to the letter.

How Deep The Rabbit Hole Goes From The Matrix, copyright Warner Bros. Pictures However, it seems unlikely that Google’s simulator can plan for the nearly infinite possibilities that can happen on the streets. And Google still has some more work to do before they can unleash their cars into the wild. When Google first debuted their prototypes this May, the cars lacked a steering wheel and a working gas pedal.  Yet California rules stipulate that a person has to be “capable of taking over active physical control of the vehicle at any time,” meaning Google has to rework their design.

In the meantime, Google has asked the DMV to clarify its rules for testing autonomous vehicles, and the DMV sated that the virtual simulation is not prohibited.  Yet the state says that physical testing is still required and that the simulator alone isn’t going to cut it.

Now what we want to know is, if a car crashes in Matrix California, does it die in the real world too? What even is the “real world?”

[The Guardian, The Verge]

The Future Of Urban Planning: Zoning For Drones

Fri, 08/22/2014 - 11:15

Drone Zones At Human Level Mitchell Sipus

A century ago, as cars first emerged into the world, cities and laws that were designed for horses suddenly had to adapt to a whole new presence in their space. Cities didn’t know how to handle these fast machines, and fatal accidents in the early age of cars led to legal battles between pedestrians and cars over who had the right to the road. Now,  commercial drones are approaching their Model-T moment, and planners can get ahead of this by plotting out their cities in color-coded three-dimensional blocks of sky.

Urban designer Mitchell Sipus, who’s done work for the mayors of both Kabul and Mogadishu, has sketched out a rough idea of possible zoning laws for drones. Sipus draws an explicit parallel between traffic law and drone law. He tells Popular Science:

“It’s not really that different than regular automobile traffic. Back in the day, cars were invented, people who could afford them started driving like crazy, getting drunk, driving off the road, driving into trees, causing all sorts of chaos. But clearly there were a lot more benefits to having automobiles than sticking to the old horse and buggy system. So instead of banning cars altogether, people were reasonable in trying to develop traffic laws, and infrastructure to support those traffic laws, like four-way stop signs, lanes on the road, speed limits, don’t get drunk. If we think of this the same way, for a pilot, ‘don’t drink and drive’ becomes ‘don’t drink and drone.’”

Sipus says that presently we're risking implementing a set of drone ‘laws that crush opportunity.” For example, a law considered by Hawaii  would restrict how police could use drones, and at the same time prevent anyone else from using a drone at all. That’s a shame, because then the world would lose out on great aerial photography of the islands. The answer is creating laws that allow for the good potential. “There are new markets this could create. Why are creating regulatory frameworks to hinder that? We should be creating frameworks that encourage that.”

Sipus’ system would let cities plot out volumes of space where drones are okay, places where there are restrictions, and places where they’re forbidden without special approval. For his concept, he used the familiar colors of traffic lights: “green areas are free-use, yellow and orange maintain various restrictions according to the time of day and day of week, while red areas are restricted at all times.”

Here’s what that model looks like in a slice of Chicago:

Zones For Drones Along the Chicago waterfront. Mitchell Sipus

The green area covers an open space near a park and a fountain, where people are likely not too crowded together, and where there’s a body of water.

Orange and yellow spaces represent buildings where it would be okay to fly drones some of the time but not all the time. The yellow covers a large block of housing, which could restrict drones during the day but allow them above a certain altitude at night. One of the buildings in orange is an observatory, where daytime flights might be fine but nighttime droning could obstruct the telescope.

The red area in the example is Soldier Field, where the Chicago Bears play. Here, personal drones with cameras would be explicitly banned for privacy and licensing concerns, unless explicitly authorized by the stadium and the NFL.

If done responsibly, a system like this could protect the privacy and safety of the community while allowing for exciting innovation. Done poorly, it could fail to provide even one part of that. “I like laws, I like taxation, I like regulation, but I like it when it serves a purpose,” said Sipus. Zoning for drones could be a gentle way to give necessary control over just how flying robots enter the daily lives of millions of Americans.

Check out more of Sipus's drone zone design at Humanitarian Space.

Superwhite Beetles, Spongy Brain Models And Other Amazing Images Of This Week

Fri, 08/22/2014 - 09:45

Unfathomably Pasty Beetles Imagine the color white. Make it whiter. These beetles are even whiter than that. Natives of Southeast Asia, the Cyphochilusbeetles camouflage to the white of the fungus commonly found in their habitat. But they do the color white so much better than any engineer has been able to. Their bodies are made of chitin, the same compound in a lobster shell with a function similar to that of keratin in the human body (it's in your skin, hair and nails). The filaments are tiny and arranged in such a way that they reflect light back all in one direction, which makes their scales very reflective and lightweight. WENN Ltd/Alamy via New Scientist

Gamers Reveal The Inner Workings Of The Eye

Fri, 08/22/2014 - 08:45

The human retina at 480x magnification. A player's map in EyeWire is 4.1 micrometers wide -- 1/20 the width of a human hair. Louise Hughes/Science Photo Library

The human retina allows the eye to follow the path of a moving object, such as a Ping-Pong ball in play. Neuroscientists have been toiling for 50 years to explain how, but they lack the processing power to map the eye’s neural network. (With today’s cutting-edge modeling software, 100 people would have to work 24/7 for half a million years.)

An online game called EyeWire, developed at MIT, harnesses the power of gamers instead. Each player navigates a single nerve’s path across a tiny section of mouse retina. “It’s actually extremely challenging,” says Amy Robinson, EyeWire’s creative director. “No computer program can do it automatically.”

Some 135,000 gamers have spent a year and a half connecting retinal dots, which scientists then used to reconstruct the neural wiring in 3-D and hypothesize how the retina processes observed motion. They published their findings in Nature in May. 

Now the team is working on a game that traces nerves in the olfactory cortex to find out how the brain associates emotions with particular smells. 

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Popular Science.

How Droughts Are Drying Up Your Breakfast

Fri, 08/22/2014 - 08:00

Mmm, breakfast Avid Hills via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Some parts of your complete breakfast are about to get pricier. Or, at the very least, they’re about to get pricier than they already are. With droughts raging in agricultural powerhouses like California and Brazil, the dreaded water conflicts of the future are starting to make their presence known right now. Because of the severity and long-term nature of these droughts, food prices are starting to rise for consumers -- in America and beyond.

Below are some of the breakfast favorites whose prices will rise as droughts and other environmental catastrophes make supplies scarce around the world.  


Russell James Smith via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Where's the shortage? Brazil...for now.

Details: As if your morning caffeine hit wasn’t expensive enough. According to NPR, drought in Brazil (the world’s largest producer of coffee) could wipe out 10 percent of the country’s coffee by 2020, potentially raising prices on the commodity.  

Breakfast prognosis: There are still other areas of the world that produce coffee, but climate change experts are predicting that over the course of the next decade, warmer temperatures could impact coffee growers around the world, leading to even more coffee shortfalls. For now, coffee production levels are rising, but it’s still too early to tell whether or not that trend is sustainable over the long term. 

Omelet Fillings 

sylvar via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Where's the shortage? California

Details: Avocados, tomatoes and peppers grown in sunny California have been getting a bit too much sun and not enough rain recently, creating shortages of these delicious veggies and causing prices to jump

Breakfast prognosis: If you’re a fan of domestic vegetables, the outlook is grim. California-grown produce is likely to be expensive, but luckily, other areas of the world, including Chile and Mexico could make up the difference on supermarket shelves, according to EcoWatch.  

Wheat And Flour

Bagel Steven Depolo via Flickr

Who's to blame for the shortage? Southern Plains of the United States, Russia, Ukraine

Details: Drought is hitting the breadbasket of the United States for the fourth year in a row, driving up prices. But Americans aren’t the only ones facing expensive prices on wheat. According to the Wall Street Journal, in addition to the drought, the conflict between Ukraine and Russia (both wheat producers) could cause prices to rise even more, as future sanctions could target Russia’s wheat and violence could disrupt Ukrainian production.  

Breakfast prognosis: Prices of flour are still in flux, but with much of the world’s breadbaskets in turmoil (environmental or political) your whole wheat toast could get more expensive. 


Cereal Kim Piper Werker via Flickr

Where's the shortage? California

Details: California’s drought means less alfalfa for dairy cows, forcing farmers to import feed from other states. This makes dairy farming an expensive enterprise. 

Breakfast prognosis: Milk prices have declined this year from a high of $3.74 per gallon in May to $3.65 in July. But overall, prices have been climbing since mid-2009, when milk dipped below $3 a gallon. Interestingly, an article from ABC earlier this year points out that other dairy products like yogurt or cheese aren’t quite as volatile, as they don’t tend to have the same short shelf life as fresh milk.  


Janine via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Where's the shortage? Turkey

Details: In this case, cold, not drought is the main issue for hazelnuts, one of the key ingredients in the chocolatey goodness that is Nutella. Turkey, which produces 70 percent of the world’s hazelnut crop, was hit hard by an unseasonable frost and hailstorms wiped out a huge portion of their supply; these episodes caused hazelnut prices to rise by 60 percent, according to the Guardian.  

Breakfast prognosis: For Nutella in particular, the prognosis is good. The brand consumes about 25 percent of the world’s hazelnut crop, but in July, their parent company, Ferrero, announced that they’d purchased one of Turkey’s largest hazelnut producers, effectively buying out the middleman. There will still be fewer hazelnuts all around, but the world isn’t likely to completely run out of Nutella. 

Bacon and Ham

Jonny Hunter via Flickr, CC BY 2.0 Where's the shortage?  The United States and Canada

Details:  A nasty virus that causes severe diarrhea in pigs has killed off an estimated 5 - 10 percent of pigs in the United States, causing prices to rise dramatically. The virus is incredibly unlikely to spread to humans, and pork is still safe to eat, but the disease is deadly to piglets.   

Breakfast prognosis: Pricier pork products are definitely here, but, as Bloomberg Businessweek reports, the higher prices haven’t deterred bacon fanatics from their morning ritual. And some groups are even estimating that prices could fall this autumn, as producers adjust to the new reality. 

Orange Juice 

Dion Henchcliffe via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Where's the shortage? Brazil

Details: In addition to drought affecting coffee, Brazil has other problems. Back in February, the FDA banned imports of frozen concentrated orange juice from Brazil, because they found traces of fungicide in the product. The fungicide was in low enough concentrations, so the orange juice is still safe to drink, but that wasn’t enough to stop it from being banned.

Breakfast prognosis: Grim. In addition to the shortfall from Brazil, orange growers in Florida and elsewhere are facing the disease known as citrus greening, which is already forcing some of them out of business.

Dandruff Fungus Found In Deep Sea Vents, Lobster Guts, And Other Random Places

Thu, 08/21/2014 - 16:15

Malassezia lores Janice Haney Carr/CDC

What do human scalps, deep sea vents, and Antarctic soil have in common? As it turns out, all of these places are home to one weird group of fungi. A study published today in the journal PLOS Pathogens found that fungi of the genus Malassezia are just about everywhere. And we do mean everywhere.  

Scientists have known for quite a while that some species of Malassezia were associated with dandruff and other skin conditions like eczema, and they had long assumed that these fungi were specialized to live on skin. The fungus, which relies on a host to provide fatty acids, is incredibly difficult for scientists to cultivate, or grow in a lab, and it flew under the radar for years. Now the fungus has turned up in the guts of lobster larvae, hydrothermal vents, the roots of orchids and many other incredibly different places. 

Says study author Anthony Amend: “What I think is so exiting is that there’s this exceptional diversity that’s been under our noses." (...And, literally, inside them.)

While studying reef-building corals, Amend found evidence that this fungus was present in the marine environments he was focused on. He soon started searching through scientific papers and genetic sequencing datasets and found that the fungi kept turning up in results on numerous projects, including many marine environments. He speculates that one reason that the fungus was overlooked in these cases is that, because of its close association with skin diseases, it was easy to dismiss the presence of Malassezia as contamination during the research process, a bit of skin or dandruff that somehow got into the sample.     

But he concluded that contamination in a lot of these cases was very unlikely. For the most common strain, M. restricta, Amend says, “That single strain is found in staggering diversity of habitats where there clearly is no mammal skin.” 

In addition to restricta being incredibly widespread, Amend found that there was substantial genetic diversity within the Malassezia he looked at, indicating a broad evolutionary history, not one confined to mammal skin. In fact, some members of the genus appear to have transitioned back and forth between marine and terrestrial environments during their evolutionary histories. 

There are plenty of mysteries still to be uncovered about the genus, including one very large one: how it manages to show up in such a wide variety of environments, but is so difficult to cultivate in a lab. Amend plans to continue to study the fungi in the future. 

As the paper concludes: “Clearly, considering Malassezia a mere epidermis-commensal is a definition that is only skin deep.” 

Fighter Pilot Films First Person View Of Flight Over Fjords

Thu, 08/21/2014 - 15:30

DYE Radar Station 2 From A Freaking Fighter Jet Window The snow is also Greenland. Screenshot of video by John Kristensen, YouTube Being a fighter pilot is a lot of work. Maintence, years of training, planning for missions, paperwork -- all just to pilot one of the faster, deadlier machines ever created by human hands. Seems like a real hassle, right?

Fortunately for everyone who isn't a fighter pilot, John Kristensen, a Danish Air Force pilot who flew missions in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2003, brought along his GoPro for a flight in an F-16 Fighting Falcon over Greenland. The resulting video is stunning, as he races past icebergs, glaciers, ice floes, snow-covered plains, and fjords. There's a lot that's frozen on the Greenland ice sheet, it turns out. He also flies in formation with other pilots from Fighter Wing Skrydstrup

Watch the video below:


Interested in more headspinning flight captures? Check out this Slovenian airplane undergoing a spin test.

Extreme Drought Is Causing Land In The Western U.S. To Rise Upward

Thu, 08/21/2014 - 14:45

GPS Station A network of GPS stations like this one near Lone Pine, California, helped scientists discover that land in the West is rising. Shawn Lawrence, UNAVCO

The drought permeating the western United States has gone from bad to worse over the past year and a half -- especially in California. As of two weeks ago, more than half of the state is considered to be in an “exceptional drought,” and the conditions are predicted to cost California $2.2 billion this year, as well as more than 17,000 jobs in the agriculture industry.

If that wasn’t enough, researchers are now reporting yet another consequence of the severe water loss in California and its surrounding states. The entire western U.S. has actually started to rise up. No, not in protest -- but geographically.

Scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography have found that the recent water shortage has caused an “uplift” effect of approximately four millimeters, or about 0.15 of an inch, in the West. The rise is especially pronounced in California, causing the state’s mountains to rise 15 millimeters, or more than half an inch.

The phenomenon all has to do with the amount of weight being applied to the Earth in a given area. Water in reservoirs and lakes can be pretty heavy, and as the West loses more of it, there’s less weight pushing on the land.

“Think of the Earth as a big rubber ball,” Duncan Agnew, a geophysics professor at Scripps who specializes in studying earthquakes, tells Popular Science. “It’s made of material that is elastic, and if you push on it, it goes in a little bit. If that push is taken away, by water evaporating, there’s less weight on that part of the earth, and it goes up.”

Following The Drought As of July 29, more than 58 percent of California is considered to be in an "exceptional drought." U.S. Drought Monitor

Agnew says they discovered this upward shift after sifting through tons of data collected by their network of GPS stations located in the western U.S., which were set up eight years ago to measure tectonic plate activity. The stations record both horizontal and vertical movements, and the researchers noticed that within the last 18 months (coinciding with the drought), many of the sites had moved up relative to where they had been in previous years.

While all this expanding land may seem scary, Agnew says not to worry. “This will change the stress on faults, but by an amount that’s really small,” he says, not enough to cause any unwanted seismic activity. Plus, land goes up and down all the time for other reasons every day, e.g. from tidal forces or intense monsoons.

Instead, the findings mostly reveal just how much water has been lost within the past year. Through their elevation measurements, the researchers estimate that the western U.S. has suffered a deficit of nearly 62 trillion gallons of water.

“If you had a volume of water the size of the western U.S. that was 10 centimeters thick, that’s how much water has been removed,” says Agnew.

The researchers published their findings in the journal Science.

Weapons Can Be Carried Easily Through The TSA's Full-Body "Naked" Scanners

Thu, 08/21/2014 - 14:07

Hovav Shacham, one of the security researchers who conducted the study, poses for a full-body scan. Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Publications Since 2010, the Transportation Security Administration has largely dismissed the public's worries about the use of full-body x-ray security scanners. The official line is that the “naked scanners,” despite privacy and health concerns, are crucial to prevent individuals from sneaking weapons, explosives, and other dangerous materials onto aircraft or into a government building.

As it turns out, the scanners are actually pretty easy to fool.

On Thursday, security researchers from UC San Diego, the University of Michigan, and Johns Hopkins presented results from a months-long study that show how someone can hide weapons from the scanners through a number of simple tricks. From using Teflon tape to cover an object or just strategic placement of an object around the body, to more cunning approaches like installing malware onto the scanner's console, a person could get away with a concealed weapon or explosive with little trouble.

Although the scanners the researchers tested – the Rapiscan Secure 1000 machines – haven’t been used in airports since 2013, they are still widely used in federal buildings like jails and courthouses. It cost taxpayers over $1 billion to have them installed in more than 160 airports.

Wired has more details on the study. One of the more striking aspects is how the researchers approached their testing, which differs from past experiments:

Unlike others who have made claims about vulnerabilities in full body scanner technology, the team of university researchers conducted their tests on an actual Rapiscan Secure 1000 system they purchased on eBay. They tried smuggling a variety of weapons through that scanner, and found—as [blogger Jonathan] Corbett did—that taping a gun to the side of a person’s body or sewing it to his pant’s leg hid its metal components against the scan’s black background. For that trick, only fully metal guns worked; An AR-15 was spotted due to its non-metal components, the researchers report, while an .380 ACP was nearly invisible. They also taped a folding knife to a person’s lower back with a thick layer of teflon tape, which they say completely masked it in the scan.

If all it takes is some money spent on eBay to acquire a full-body scanner, there’s no telling what a motivated group of would-be attackers with time on their hands could learn, especially if they had access to more advanced physical and digital equipment. The researchers are imploring the TSA and other security agencies to conduct more of the type of aggressive, "adversarial" testing the researcher's themselves ran.

“These machines were tested [by the TSA] in secret, presumably without this kind of adversarial mindset, thinking about how an attacker would adapt to the techniques being used,” says [study-coauthor J. Alex] Halderman […]“They might stop a naive attacker. But someone who applied just a bit of cleverness to the problem would be able to bypass them. And if they had access to a machine to test their attacks, they could render their ability to detect contraband virtually useless.”

So far, the TSA has yet to comment substantively on the study or its results.


Weird Microbes Thrive In Asphalt Lake And Sunless Glacial Water

Thu, 08/21/2014 - 12:30

Drilling on Lake Whillans Researchers and technicians lived in orange tents while drilling into Lake Whillans in January 2013. Reed Scherer, National Science Foundation

Over the past week, scientists have published the results of studies analyzing two very strange -- and very different -- lakes. One is Pitch Lake, a lake made of asphalt and filled with hydrocarbon gases on the Caribbean island of Trinidad. The other is Lake Whillans, a freshwater body located 800 meters under the surface of a glacier in West Antarctica. You might say the lakes seem unearthly, although they're located right on our home planet. Titan, Saturn's moon, has hydrocarbon lakes like Pitch Lake, and several moons in our solar system are thought to host liquid water underneath a thick layer of ice.

Both lakes, separate teams of researchers found, contain microbial life. The little ecosystems in each provide more evidence of the extremes in which life can chug along.

So what could possibly live in pitch/super-cold, super-dark South Pole water? We took a closer look at the two recent studies about the lakes to find out.

Lake Whillans

Microbes from Lake Whillans The yellow arrow points to a rod-shaped bacterium. The white scale bar represents 2 micrometers. This image was taken with a scanning electron microscope. Image courtesy of WISSARD

Lake Whillans hasn't received energy from the sun in at least 120,000 years. Some scientists think it may have been as long as 1 million years since the creatures living there got any sunlight. Yet a team of scientists from the U.S., Italy and the U.K. has found almost 4,000 species of bacteria in Whillans water. The density of bacteria in the water is similar to the bacterial density deep in oceans, Nature News reports.

Many of those bacteria metabolize ammonium. That's ammonium that likely came from organisms that lived in the lake millions of years ago, when it had been a shallow sea in a warmer climate, according to Nature News. When those creatures died, they formed ammonium-rich sediment at the bottom of the lake.

Researchers have long wanted to drill into Lake Whillans, and into its neighbors -- some 400 subglacial lakes underneath the Antarctic ice sheet identified by satellite imaging. It's not easy to make it through so much ice, however, and the researchers had to develop techniques that would keep their drilling equipment from contaminating the water with microbes from the surface. The Lake Whillans project represents the first time anyone has been able to sample subglacial Antarctic lake water directly.

[Nature, Nature News]

Pitch Lake

Sampling from Pitch Lake Rainer Meckenstock

The microbes in Pitch Lake live in tiny droplets of water present in the asphalt. Each droplet is about 50 times smaller than a typical raindrop. (And you thought New York apartments were small.) A paper published last week in Science describes what the droplets are like:

When oil samples [from the lake] were spread on aluminum foil, small bubbles were visible beneath the oil surface. Many bubbles contained gas and collapsed upon puncturing, whereas some contained entrapped water droplets of 1 to 3 μl [microliters]. Sampling and microscopic inspection of single water droplets showed that they indeed harbored microorganisms, some of which were actively motile under the microscope.


When the research team analyzed the water droplets for DNA, they found genetic material belonging to numerous types of bacteria. The most abundant material came from an order of bacteria called Burkholderiale. There were also a number of bacteria known to break down methane, as well as salt-tolerant bacteria of the order Halobacteriales. The water itself was about as salty as seawater, so researchers think it likely didn't enter the pitch as rain, but instead mixed with the pitch from some salty underground deposit.

This isn't the first time researchers have found microbes in an Earthly hydrocarbon body. Previous studies have found a lot of Burkholderiale bacteria living in oil. However, scientists previously hypothesized that water droplets as small as those that appear in Pitch Lake wouldn't be able to support life, so it's cool to see diverse critters trucking on inside their tiny bubbles of saline.

[Science, Washington State University via EurkeAlert]

A Visitor to Pitch Lake "Mother-of-the-Lake" by

Russian Cosmonauts Report Sea Plankton On The Outside Of The ISS

Thu, 08/21/2014 - 11:43

Plankton In Space. Note: This isn't what it actually looked like. Popular Science/NASA/Nickelodeon

Cosmonauts have apparently discovered plankton and other microorganisms on the outside of the International Space Station’s windows, according to an announcement from a Russian official.  NASA has not yet confirmed or denied the findings. 

"As far as we're concerned, we haven't heard any official reports from our Roscosmos colleagues that they've found sea plankton," NASA spokesman Dan Huot told Roscosmos is Russia’s Federal Space Agency.

The Russian cosmonauts allegedly found the plankton during a routine window cleaning. The plankton were not visible to the naked eye––a machine detected the particles when it analyzed the contents of the window wipes.

It’s not clear whether the plankton were living or dead, but there is evidence that microorganisms can survive the freezing conditions and harsh radiation of space.      

Scientists also don’t know how the microorganisms could have strayed so far from home, but theories abound. It’s possible that the plankton rode up with the parts of the ISS as it was being assembled in the late 1990s; that they were carried up during a resupply mission; or, maybe they were living inside the ISS and escaped during a spacewalk. The Russians are positing that the microbes floated up on air currents … which is actually not entirely crazy, since scientists know that bacteria live in Earth’s upper atmosphere.

Or maybe the plankton are actually ALIENS sent to destroy humans. Just kidding. But if the findings are confirmed, they could have major implications in the search for life on other worlds.

We’ll keep you posted as more details come to light.

Bill Nye Fights Back

Thu, 08/21/2014 - 11:00

Photographs by F. Scott Schafer

Let’s say that I am, through my actions, doomed, and that I will go to hell,” Bill Nye said. He was prepping for a Super Bowl party and making pizza dough from a recipe given to him by his friend, Bob Picardo, who played The Doctor on Star Trek: Voyager. He ducked beneath the countertop, pulled out a KitchenAid mixer and a bag of flour, and then returned to the topic at hand, which was religion and science and what he believed.

“Even if I am going to hell,” he continued, “that still doesn’t mean the Earth is 6,000 years old. The facts just don’t reconcile.” He turned back to the mixer, sighed, and slumped a little. For a moment, Nye looked weary at the thought of ill-informed parents undoing his life’s work. “So,” he said, straightening, “the worst that can happen in this debate is I lose my temper, Ken Ham is suddenly empowered, his Ark Park gets built, and it’s all my fault.” Then he poured the flour into the mixer, along with some sugar, salt, and a packet of yeast, and flicked the switch. In a little more than 48 hours he would walk onto a stage in Petersburg, Kentucky, to debate Ken Ham, founder and leader of Answers in Genesis, a ministry most famous for owning and operating the Creation Museum, which displays animatronic dinosaurs next to Adam and Eve. Preparing for the debate—the responsibility he felt defending reason in the face of extreme faith—had weighed heavily on Nye. But now, making pizza dough, he was just a guy wowed by science, which was currently happening right in that bowl.

Over the mixer’s low hum, Nye explained that the yeast, a fungus, was slowly eating the sugar and excreting carbon dioxide and alcohol, which would eventually cause the dough to rise. He said this with the same Aww, shucks, isn’t this incredible? delivery that made him who he is today: the Science Guy, star of the 1990s megahit television show and friendly explainer of all things scientific. Nye turned off the mixer and removed the dough, working the sticky ball on a lightly floured counter before dropping it on a plate and walking around the corner to the den, where he placed it atop a cable box. He said the warmth of the electronics would speed the reaction of the yeast enzymes, making the dough rise more quickly. Next to the box, a small bookshelf contained the DVD set of all 100 episodes of Bill Nye the Science Guy. A few were missing, actually, on loan to some kids from his Los Angeles neighborhood. A framed sheet of paper hung above the shelf—the single-page mission statement Nye wrote while creating the show. At the top, he’d typed “Objective: Change the world!” He took it down and stared at it for a moment. Nye holds a deep fascination, a reverence even, for all we don’t fully understand. “We are literally made of the stuff of stars,” he said. “It gives me the willies—how can this be? How can we know our place in the universe?”

It was a rhetorical question. Nye had been setting up the same punch line for so long the answer had become his calling card, his signature shout-out: “Science!” But Nye is the first to admit that science in America is in a bad way. He said he felt that despite issuing more patents and Ph.D.s than any other nation, the country was drifting closer and closer toward scientific illiteracy. Just a few weeks earlier, a PEW research poll found that nearly 45 percent of Americans believed humans came to be by a process other than evolution. A similar poll found that one in two Americans don’t believe that humans are causing climate change, despite the fact that about 98 percent of all scientists do (a greater consensus than supports the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer). To Nye, science is under siege, and he is not about to sit back and watch the thing he loves and staked his career on suffer. 

He re-hung the framed printout, but not before repeating its message: “Change the world.” The world had changed since the show ended in 1998, and not necessarily for the better. So Bill Nye was venturing back into the fray to change it once more.


What kicked off the debate at the Creation Museum was simple. The whole business started in New York a few years ago. His publicist had scheduled a bunch of interviews, and Nye, up since 2 a.m., arrived at the last one, for a website called Big Think, in late morning. He was jet-lagged, tired. You can see it in the video—the way his head bobs, struggling to stay aloft. You can hear it, too. His voice comes from way back in his throat, all gravelly. The interviewer asked him about Pluto and dark matter, and then about creationism. Bill sighed and said, “When you have a portion of the population that believes in that, it holds everybody back.” The guy on screen looked so different from the funny, warm Science Guy known to a generation. He wasn’t at all funny, for starters. And his exasperation struck a chord. To date, the Big Think video has nearly 7 million views, and it prompted Ham to ask for a debate.

He looked so different from the funny, warm Science Guy known to a generation. He wasn't funny at all, for starters.

This new, angrier, more-adult Science Guy hadn’t been there all along. His evolution goes back to the late 1970s in Seattle, when he first met Steve Wilson. Nye was an engineer at Boeing, fresh out of college, designing screws for the hydraulics systems of 747s, working on a stand-up routine at night, and volunteering at the Pacific Science Center on weekends. Wilson was a floor director on a show called Seattle Tonight Tonight, and Nye came on after winning a Steve Martin look-alike contest. When Wilson helped launch a show called Almost Live!, Nye started hanging around the writers’ room. “We kind of felt sorry for him,” Wilson says. “He’d make these jokes. We called them jokes of the future because they weren’t funny.” Nye learned that if he dipped a marshmallow in liquid nitrogen and popped it in his mouth, smoke came out of his nose, which got laughs. He could entertain people using…science!

Almost Live! was a local-access Letterman knockoff hosted by a fellow named Ross Shafer. One day a guest canceled, and Shafer mentioned to Nye that he had seven minutes to fill. “Why don’t you do that science stuff?” Shafer asked. “You can call yourself Bill Nye the Science Guy or something.” Nye thought: “Hey, that’s pretty good! It even rhymes!” 

Almost Live! went national in 1992. By then it had morphed into a sketch comedy show, and Nye had quit Boeing and joined full time as a writer and actor who starred in recurring bits. The next year, Bill Nye the Science Guy premiered as a stand-alone show on PBS. It was zany and smart. It ran five seasons, won 18 Emmys, and is to this day watched by millions of children. Local PBS stations still air it, and Disney sells the complete DVD set to junior highs and elementary schools across the U.S., where kids are all but guaranteed to watch Bill Nye the Science Guy any day a substitute teaches.

As the Science Guy, Nye became famous in the rare and intimate way a person only can when a generation grows up with him. Everywhere he goes, he gets stopped for photographs, autographs, hugs, high-fives. In 2004, he moved from Seattle to Los Angeles to further his career and shortly thereafter he started another show, Eyes of Nye, in addition to hosting several television specials. In 2006, he nearly ended up married, but it didn’t work out. His fun-loving fianceé turned out to be, in his words, “less than stable.” 

For many celebrities, it can be hard to separate the public persona from the private one. But in Nye’s case, science has always been more than a stage prop. Some of his earliest memories, he says, were of the wonders of his brother’s home chemistry set. Though he grew up in the Episcopal Church, he eventually drifted from it. At one point, he sat down and read the Bible all the way through, twice, taking notes and following the story with maps, only to arrive at the conclusion that people had pretty much made the whole thing up. 

At Cornell University, Nye studied engineering. While there, he took Astronomy 102 with Carl Sagan and became one of the first members of The Planetary Society, which Sagan founded in 1980. Today Nye is CEO of the organization, the largest space-focused nonprofit in the world, and Sagan is often on his mind, mostly because his friend, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, recently rebooted Cosmos. He speaks with Tyson at least once a week, about wine and women and science and, lately, the show. When I called Tyson to ask about Nye’s newfound fight, he said it was in part an aspect of his role helming The Planetary Society. Nye has always had a public platform, he said, but now he was standing up for something bigger than the Science Guy, something that was true not only to him, but to all the scientists he represented. 


While we waited for the dough to rise, Nye showed me around his home. Evidence of Bill, the engineer, was everywhere: a backlit map of the sun and Earth with a hacked on/off switch, a wall-mounted hook he’d made for his phone headset, a copy of Mechanical Engineering on the nightstand—he was proud that it had recently published his letter to the editor. Padding around in socks, Nye couldn’t take two steps before picking up a replica of the smallest steam engine ever made, pointing out a Nest smart thermostat, or showing off the energy-saving pump and sensor system under his sink. He is obsessed with his energy consumption; he installed solar panels over his garage several years ago.

That weekend, Nye had houseguests, Steve Wilson and his wife, Julie Lin. Like a lot of his friends from Seattle, they love swapping the cold drizzle of the Pacific Northwest for sunny Studio City. And, of course, it was Super Bowl Sunday and the Seahawks were playing. Everyone—Nye especially—was pumped. A week ago he’d installed a new TV for the sole purpose of watching the game in the living room (the den, he said, “didn’t have the big game vibe”). The neighbors were coming. He was making his grandmother’s onion dip and Bob Picardo’s pizza. Out on the porch, where we’d gone to talk, Nye interrupted our conversation every few moments, waving and shouting, “Go Seahawks!” at anyone who passed by.

Bill's Loves: Dancing. A few nights a week, Nye goes out swing dancing. He was one of the most popular celebrities ever on Dancing with the Stars (until he tore his quadricep). He even patented a new kind of toe shoe for ballet.

As with his gadgets and his football team, Nye loves his yard. He pointed out a camphor tree and said it would start to smell like Vicks VapoRub in a few weeks when it bloomed. He then noted some tufts of feather grass and scraggly blue fescue sprouting beneath it. In the two-lane street in front of his house, Nye pointed out a white square: home plate. He’d painted it for summertime games with the local kids.

Just then Nye noticed a car barreling down his block. He leaned forward and bellowed, “Sloowdoooown!” He put his hands on his knees, all pointy-jointed and long-limbed. He looked like a figure from a Norman Rockwell painting, there on his porch, coffee cup in hand, rocking in his chair and defending his neighborhood.

It's a knock-down, drag-out brawl. Photograph by F. Scott Schafer

Nye made a sweeping gesture and uttered another phrase he favors. “We would not have this”—he paused—“all this, without the body of knowledge of science.” He added, “And to have people suppress that, ignore that, it’s certainly their First Amendment right, but it’s not in our best interest. And I don’t just mean the people of Kentucky or America, I mean humanity.” 

Nye abruptly asked if I wanted to go inside. It was getting cold, plus he had that dip and pizza to make. He dashed out to his backyard garden and pulled a few carrots from a bed, pointing out a new compost container he’d installed, bruising his thumb black in the process. As game time neared, the Wilsons returned from a drive, a few neighbors showed up, and everyone crowded into the living room. From the start, the Seahawks just killed. Nye whooped and hollered, high-fiving Steve and Julie and saying, again and again, “Oh, this is very, very satisfying.” The next morning, he rose, did his morning workout of 250 sit-ups and 150 push-ups, picked out a few bow ties among the hundreds hanging from his closet door, and caught a plane to Nashville for a quick stopover en route to the debate. 


As Nye flew from Los Angeles to Tennessee, he passed over some of America’s fiercest battlegrounds for science education. In the past few years, a handful of charter school systems have sprung up in Texas, Arkansas, and Indiana that use textbooks that call evolution “an unproved theory” and explain that “supernatural intervention created the first cell.” Between them, the schools account for at least 17,000 students and $82.6 million in taxpayer funds. Scientific literacy among U.S. grade school students has flat-lined since at least 2003, according to a 2012 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The same survey, conducted every three years, found that U.S. 15-year-olds consistently placed in the middle of a 65-nation pack—far behind superstars like China and Finland. The troubling trends are matched with increasingly harsh immigration policies that make it more difficult for foreigners to attend American universities and stay after graduation, and a concerted effort to deny the scientific validity of human-caused climate change. Nye speaks on all these topics, but it’s early science education that worries him most. A population with no foundation in basic science, he says, is a population of uninformed voters who face limited career prospects.

"I want to destroy him," Nye said of Ham in the days leading up to the debate, "and I'm in a unique position to do so."

Scientists seem powerless to stem this rising tide, and that’s largely because they fare so poorly at rebutting dubious ideas. “Scientists are trained to review an exhaustive list of literature and information, gather all the evidence, then cautiously make their way to reasonable, logical conclusions,” says Ginger Pinholster, the director of public programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “The public wants to know the headlines, the punch line, and what’s in it for me. It flips the scientific communication process on its head.”

When creationists have lured scientists into debates, the result is usually unsatisfying. They unearth slide after slide of unfounded ideas and data with just enough of a whiff of truth to seem plausible. The scientists then spend most of the time arguing about the ideas on the various slides—in the process, giving them weight—rather than addressing the greater point: that the entire logic is flawed. Better to avoid debates altogether. Unless, of course, you’re Bill Nye. Back in California, he had told me, “I want to destroy him, and I’m in a unique position to do so.” By him he meant Ham. By his position, he meant that, while he may be the Science Guy, he’s not a scientist. He can engage, and so—damn it—he will.

Petersburg, Kentucky, lies within rifle shot of the Ohio River, which runs along the Ohio and Indiana border. Cincinnati is 20 minutes away. The hills here are low, rolling and Midwestern, the landscape exurban. Smokestacks from a coal plant across the Ohio River are the most prominent feature until, turning onto Bullittsburg Church Road, a gate with a stegosaurus appears. The grounds of the Creation Museum lie on the other side. At the entrance, folks were already lining up at 2:45 p.m. for the 7 p.m. debate.

Inside the museum, the atmosphere was hushed, almost solemn. The docents wore tight smiles as they directed guests. Many of the exhibits were extraordinary: dinosaurs (a velociraptor, a tyrannosaur) alongside a Who’s Who of Old Testament characters (Methuselah, Adam, Eve, Noah). Packs of visitors wandered the halls, and some—men, always—proselytized before congregations of three or four. Children kept close to their parents. In one grim hallway on the fall of man, a little girl clutched the folds of her mother’s floral-print dress.

Pre-debate, Ham politely refused to answer several questions from the press related to his proposed Ark Park, a full-scale replica of Noah’s Ark to be built on 800 rural acres 40 miles to the south. The estimated cost is $73 million, and Ham was raising money by issuing junk bonds. Ham said he wasn’t allowed to talk about the bonds but was happy to discuss the debate. When asked if Nye could say anything that might change his mind, he answered, “You know what? I’m a Christian, and I know God’s word is true, and there’s nothing he could say that will cast doubt on that.”

As guests filed into the auditorium, Nye’s face greeted them from a large screen. It was his old show—the episode on geology. Ham’s people had asked Nye to send some clips to play before the debate, so he’d chosen ones that would fly in the face of their beliefs. He was already competing. 

The debate got underway. There were introductions, opening arguments, and 30-minute presentations from each man. Nye looked energetic in a suit and his signature bow tie. Two hours in, Ham asked Nye the reverse of what the press had asked him: What might change his mind? “We would need just one piece of evidence,” Nye said. “We would need the fossil that swam from one layer to another. We would need evidence that the universe was not expanding. We would need evidence that the stars appear to be far away but they’re not. We would need evidence that rock layers can form in just 4,000 years. We would need evidence that you can reset atomic clocks and keep neutrons from becoming protons. Bring on any of those things and you would change me immediately.”

Toward the end of the debate, the audience had a chance to ask questions of both men, and those directed to Nye seemed designed to trip him up. One asked: How did the atoms that created the big bang get there? “This is the Great Mystery!” Nye replied, shrugging his shoulders and raising his hands. “You’ve hit the nail on the head. What was before the Big Bang? This is what drives us. This is what we want to know. . . . To us, this is wonderful and charming and compelling. This is what makes us get up and go to work every day! To try to solve the mysteries of the universe!” 

Ham smiled and said, calmly, “Bill, I just want to let you know that there’s actually a book out there that actually tells us where matter came from.” Much of the audience laughed in agreement. Nye stared intently at his opponent, holding his tongue, and that was about it. Ham’s strength came from his faith and his flock. Nye’s came from the mystery and wonder of the universe. As the audience shuffled out of the museum, they exited to find a howling winter storm. It was blizzarding and icing over mightily, and there was a traffic jam in the stegosaurus parking lot.

He's not down for the count. Photograph by F. Scott Schafer

A day after the debate, the evangelical preacher Pat Robertson went on television to scold Ham. “Let’s be real, let’s not make a joke of ourselves,” he said. “We have skeletons of dinosaurs that go back about 65 million years. And to say it all came about in 6,000 years is just nonsense.”  

Yet in the weeks that followed, the fallout continued. Ham announced the debate had helped his ministry raise tens of millions of dollars, and that he now had the $62 million required to break ground on the Ark Park. Nye fired back with an article in Skeptical Inquirer magazine that concluded: “We’ve already traveled a long way, but with projects like the Ark Park still in play, there is quite a journey yet ahead.” 

Then, as if taking his own advice, Nye picked up and moved from Los Angeles to a New York City apartment with a view of the Empire State Building. He says he wants to position himself at the center of the media capital of the world, so he can walk to the national news channels. Recently, he debated climate change with an economist on CNN and joined John Oliver on Last Week Tonight for a spoof mocking false balance in climate-change reporting. He also completed a book, Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation, which comes out this fall, and has started talks about a new show. 

Bill's Loves: Family. His mother was likely a codebreaker in World War II and his father was a traveling salesman, who in his earlier years played a banjo ukulele and billed himself as Ned Nye, boy scientist. His father also wrote a book on sundials.

But before any of that, Bill Nye woke up the morning after the debate and did something he will do, again and again and again, for the rest of his life: He went to school.

At 8 o’clock in the morning, a parent with his kids in the back of a minivan picked up Nye and drove him to the Schilling School for Gifted Children, just north of Cincinnati. Nye took the stage to a roar and began pacing. He looked loose: a stand-up doing crowd work, telling jokes that his longtime agent, Betsy Berg, who sat in the back row, has heard about a million times. Still, she cackled at each one. His voice, slightly raspy, grew stronger with the laughs and applause. Then kids came up onto the stage, one by one, with questions for the Science Guy. A seven-year-old girl in a penguin hat, Bell Page, asked about platypuses. It wasn’t a question, actually. She just loves platypuses. “Why are they mammals?” Nye asked her, drawing her in. 

“Milk,” she replied softly.

“Yes! And why is it important that we know what’s what? Because there are two questions, really, that all of us have—are we alone in the universe, and where did we come from? By figuring out that these animals have these unusual characteristics, we figure out who came from where.”

A boy in a long blue T-shirt approached. Nye greeted him with: “The man in blue!” 

The boy asked, “What was the biggest explosion, in all of your experience?”

“Great question!” Nye said. “Probably at a quarry, once, where we exploded a bunch of rock, but the scariest explosion, which is more important, came from a little piece of sodium dropped into water, which creates a huge reaction. You know sodium?”


“You ever had salt?”


“So, salt is sodium . . . chloride,” he paused before the word, inviting an answer from the audience. Several kids leaned forward in their seats. “In pure form, both sodium and chloride are poisonous, but bonded together you can’t live without it.” He paused again before letting the punch line land. “It’s not magic, it’s . . .” And then everyone in the small auditorium on a cold, bright Midwestern morning shouted in unison, “Science!” 

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Popular Science. 

Scientists Have No Idea Why U.S. Teens Are Having Fewer Babies Than Ever

Thu, 08/21/2014 - 08:45

Babies Nebraska Early Development Network

The U.S. National Center for Health Statistics released today its latest report on American teenagers having babies. The results are both happy and strange. American teens are having babies at their lowest rate ever -- and that rate is falling fast. Yet, as Vox discovered, nobody knows why this is happening. One of the steadiest trends in American life is inexplicable.

Here's the first graph in the NCHS report, showing a peak in teen births in the late 1950s, followed by general decline. The drop has been especially rapid since 2007:

Births and Birth Rates for American Teenagers Aged 15 to 19 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

In addition, the decreases seem to be in teen pregnancy, not just in teen births. Since 1991, the rate of teen abortions has plummeted 59 percent, and the rate of teen pregnancies is down 44 percent. Teenagers seem to be stopping the problem before it starts, as it were.

This is great news. Girls who become pregnant are less likely to finish school and more likely to struggle with money, so staying baby-free opens up opportunities for them. Kids born to teen moms are more likely to be born premature, which, in turn, is associated with health problems -- so a lower U.S. teen pregnancy rate means a greater proportion of Americans having a strong start in life. And if you're really cold-hearted, think about it this way: The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy estimates that teen births cost U.S. taxpayers $9.4 billion in 2010 alone.

Vox's Sarah Kliff talked to social scientists about changes in the U.S. that could have led to these declines -- especially the 36 percent drop in teen births since 2007. She found several interesting hypotheses (increase in birth control access, better sex education, etc.), but none completely explains the movement. It can be frustrating to hear questions without answers, but the Vox story is a satisfying read. It's a traipse through some of the major recent forces in American culture, with a stop at 16 and Pregnant along the way.

The bottom line is: This is weird, and because it's weird, these sharp yearly drops in teen births may not continue, although more moderate declines may occur. Another takeaway is that while it may be weird, it really is happening. Nearly half of American adults -- 49 percent -- believe the teen birth rate has increased over the last two decades, according to a poll conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Don't be so faithless! At least in this corner of American life, things are getting better.

[U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Vox]

Players Build Working Hard Drive Inside Minecraft

Thu, 08/21/2014 - 08:00

Minecraft HDD Controller Top View The0JJ/

Over the hills, across the stone bridge, past the giant pony, around the lake of questionable test, and beyond the giant rainbow barrier sits a work of great artifice on a grey plain. Far larger than any single inhabitant of this virtual world, the contraption is a complete, working computer, run entirely within the rules and universe of Minecraft. The hard drive stores up to 4 kilobytes of data, and it is covered in torches to keep zombies from attacking it at night.

It's an impressive set-up, with platters capable of 256 positions and each position storing 16 bits of data, but the creators of the hard drive have given no indication of what information it presently stores. However they'd need roughly 1021 more of these hard drives to equal what the NSA is storing in Utah.

This is hardly the first computer built within a video game, nor the first computer built within minecraft. Here's a simple calculator in the game "Little Big Planet:"

And here's another computer, built inside minecraft:

Explore more of the minecraft HDD here.

This is What Curiosity Looks Like After Two Years On Mars

Wed, 08/20/2014 - 18:02

Curiosity Rover, Then And Now. Who turned the sepia filter on? The Verge/NASA

While the Mars rovers’ drivers sit in relative comfort here on Earth, the rovers themselves do get beat up a bit. In honor of Curiosity’s second anniversary on Mars, The Verge put together a cool story showing the before and after pics of the toll the harsh environment has exacted on the rover. Scroll through for yourself to see some of the dents, scratches and holes that Curiosity has accumulated over the years. Oh, and all the dust it picked up. There’s a lot of dust. 

Luckily, Curiosity isn’t doomed to live in this condition forever. While the holes and scratches are pretty much a foregone conclusion, there’s a chance that the dust will get blown off by the winds on Mars. That’s exactly what happened to the Opportunity rover earlier this year. In March, NASA had the 10-year-old rover take a picture of its remarkably clean solar panels earlier this year. According to NASA, they're cleaner than they’ve been since the rover spent its first winter on Mars in 2005.  

Opportunity Rover, 2010. Nice and clean NASA/JPL-Caltech/CornellUniversity/Arizona State University

But NASA isn't just relying on the wind to deal with its dust problem. It’s also started work on dust shielding technology that it plans to test in space in 2016.  

An Electronic Camouflage Cloak Inspired By Color-Changing Octopus Skin

Wed, 08/20/2014 - 16:28

Octopus Flickr CC by 2.0 An octopus evading a predator has one of the coolest evolutionary adaptations up its (eight) sleeves; in a matter of milliseconds, its skin can change color and opacity to blend in with the surroundings, rendering the creature nearly invisible.

This camouflage trick is a trait shared by all cephalopods – squids and cuttlefish included -- but now humans are getting in on the color-changing action too.

A team of researchers from the University of Houston and University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign has created an artificial skin that can sense when light is being shined on part of it, and then change its color accordingly. The sheet can selectively go from black to white, depending on where the light is pointed. Check out a video of the process below: Please enable Javascript to watch this video

The design is loosely based on the skins of cephalopods, which are comprised of special pigment cells called chromatophores.  A group of muscles controls the size of these chromatopheres, changing their colors and creating different patterns.  It is also thought that light-sensing molecules called opsins help cephalopods use their skin to “see” light, triggering their complex adaptations.

The new artificial material, detailed in the journal PNAS, mimics this biological process in a way.  The top layer of the sheet is made up of heat-sensitive dye, which is black at room temperature and colorless at 116 degrees Fahrenheit (similar to the color-changing properties of the chromatophores).  A second layer underneath is made up of numerous reflective silver tiles, creating the white background.  And the third layer contains a silicon circuit, responsible for controlling the temperature of the sheet.

The fourth and final layer contains an array of light-sensing photodetectors that work kind of like the cephalopod’s opsins. These detectors sense when and where the light is being shined and tell the circuit to heat up in the right spot.  This action causes the top layer to go colorless, and, in turn, the white background shines through.

Another interesting tidbit? The layered sheet is less than 200 microns thick, only twice the size of a human hair, and a silicone rubber foundation makes it super flexible.

However, cephalopods still have the upper hand in the camouflage department.  Octopuses and squids can change into a variety of colors in a split second, whereas this new material can only go from black to white – and, as seen in the PNAS video, it takes a little bit longer to change.  “This is by no means a deployable camouflage system but it’s a pretty good starting point,” John Rogers, one of the lead researchers on the project, told National Geographic. (Rogers is also known for creating transient electronics.)

Of course, if Rogers and his team fine-tune the system to adapt to more colors, such a camouflage skin could almost make a person disappear, making it useful for a number of military applications. Or, you know, for sneaking around Hogwarts.

[PNAS, National Geographic]

Welcome To Mars. Here's Where You'll Be Staying

Wed, 08/20/2014 - 15:44

Martian Pyramid Rendering Valcrow

NASA has plans to put humans on Mars in the 2030s or 2040s, and the private company Mars One is already interviewing applicants to for its one-way trip to the Red Planet. But a couple of crucial questions remain. One is, How do we get there? And another is, How the heck will we survive once we’re there?

Mars is a pretty hostile environment. Astronauts who go there will need to contend with the lack of oxygen, high radiation levels, dust storms, and temperatures that average out at 76 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. Over the years, NASA has tested out a few designs for Martian habitats, but this year the space agency teamed up with MakerBot to challenge anyone and everyone to come up with a creative solution.

The winners of the Mars Base Challenge aren’t engineering or aerospace experts, so the designs aren’t necessarily realistic, and they probably won’t ever be built to scale. But it’s still fun to think about what life on Mars could be like. Here’s what an imaginary real estate agent might say about the three winning designs.  

The Queen B

The Queen B (Bioshield) Noah Hornberger

This fabulous 2-bedroom, 2-bath ranch-style dwelling includes a garden, laundry, and decompression chamber. The recently renovated roof is shingled in depleted uranium panels that will shield your family from 99.9 percent of damaging radiation, while 2.5-foot thick walls help you save on energy bills during those harsh Martian winters. This home’s beehive-like, hexagonal shape provides structural support against strong winds, and will surely make the whole neighborhood buzz with excitement.

The Mars Acropolis

The Mars Acropolis Chris Starr

This gorgeous three-story Metropolis-style home includes a garage for your all-terrain vehicle AND a landing dock for shuttles. A collector on the roof harvests water vapor from the Martian atmosphere, and the home’s three greenhouses ensure you’ll always have food to eat and oxygen to breathe.

The Martian Pyramid

Martian Pyramid Valcrow

Drawing inspiration from the Great Pyramids of Egypt, this glass-paneled home lets in loads of Martian sunlight and boasts a large aquaponics facility for growing food. A mirrored solar collector provides energy and heat, with a small nuclear generator in the basement for backup.

Congratulations to the finalists! All of the competing designs' blueprints are downloadable from the Thingiverse, so if you’ve got a 3-D printer you can build an entire Martian village in your living room.