Science Archives

March 6, 2008

Design and the Elastic Mind

0803Flybot.jpgA new exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York takes a look at how cutting-edge science is affecting design, which may ultimately change our everyday lives. Most of the items in Design and the Elastic Mind might never reach that point. Some are just a step above novelty, like rings made from a loved one's bone tissue and a honeycomb vase made by bees. Others have more practical applications: Harvard's Flybot, developed with funding from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is the first microrobot to replicate insect flight. Robert Lang's innovative origami calculations have been applied to creating a compact telescope and folding airbags.

The sleek webpage itself is worth a look as it lets you glide through concepts according to several interwoven themes.

Design and the Elastic Mind

February 19, 2008

The Inventors Hall of Fame Class of 2008

LED-hand.jpgLast week the National Inventors Hall of Fame announced its 2008 inductees. To be inducted, inventors must hold a U.S. patent (sorry Leonardo da Vinci) and "the invention must have contributed to the welfare of mankind and have promoted the progress of science and the useful arts."

Take a look around you. Perhaps you see a digital clock, a solar-powered desk calculator, or your lunch in a Styrofoam container. Each was made possible by one of this year's inductees.

  • Nick Holonyak, Jr. invented the first LED (light emitting diode).
  • Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson were the first to convert the sun's energy into electricity using silicon solar cells.
  • Ray McIntire invented polystyrene foam while working at Dow Chemical.
Other important inventions include Sir John Charnley's low-frictional torque hip replacement in the 1960s and Malcom McLean's concept of containerized shipping. A personal thanks to Robert Adler (ultrasound TV remote) and Ruth Benerito (wrinkle-free cotton). Brief bios for all 18 inductees are available on the website.

The hall was created by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the National Council of Intellectual Property Law Associations in 1973. It now contains 371 inductees.

The 2008 National Inventors Hall of Fame Inductees

Image from joelogon's Flickr stream

December 10, 2007

Caring for Your Chicken

OK, this is a silly one but good fodder for any holiday party banter you might find yourself obliged to participate in the next few weeks.

Via the blog of Improbable Research (the group behind the Ig Nobels) comes news of advancement being made in human-chicken relations. Poultry Internet, a project of the National University of Singapore's Mixed Reality Lab, has developed a "novel cybernetics system to use mobile and Internet technology to improve human-to-pet interaction."

The owner pets a model chicken in the "office system." The owner's touch is remotely transmitted to the chicken, who is part of the "backyard system," via a device worn by the chicken. This device, referred to as a "dress" in the project summary (but resembling a pink boa scarf in project photos), "consists of electronics that simulates touch (or haptic) sensation."

Check out the video to see the system in action.

Poultry Internet (Mixed Reality Lab, National University of Singapore)
Improbable Research blog

November 23, 2007

Landsat—Earth From Above

Landsat_Greenland.jpg In my earlier entry "Forests Also Casualties of Katrina," I mentioned that scientists looked at satellite imagery to determine the amount of damage done by Hurricane Katrina. Following up on that entry, I wanted to spotlight the technology used by those scientists.

The source of the satellite imagery was the government's Landsat program. Since 1972, through a series of launched satellites, Landsat has been gathering information on Earth from above. The field of remote sensing was just emerging in 1972, but as of 2006, the program had accumulated more than 1.7 million "scenes."

Its collection continues to grow by more than 320 gigabytes every day. (Consider that a single-sided, single-layer DVD can hold 4.7 gigabytes, enough for most feature-length movies.) Landsat is jointly managed by NASA and the U.S. Geologic Survey (USGS).

The website Our Earth As Art hasn't been updated in awhile, but it allows visitors the chance to view the planet's magnificence as seen from space. Other images can be seen on NASA's and the USGS's Landsat websites.

The Landsat Program (NASA)
Landsat Satellites (USGS)
The Future of Land Imaging federal interagency study

Image: Greenland Coast, taken Sept. 3, 2000, by the Landsat-7 satellite. Image courtesy of USGS National Center for EROS and NASA Landsat Project Science Office.

November 13, 2007

Bad News Bears


Somewhere, Stephen Colbert is thrilled right now. But he's probably also pretty upset that the writers' strike is preventing him from covering the major bear news (none of it good for our ursine friends) that was published yesterday. The World Conservation Union released a report showing that 6 out of the world's 8 species of bears are vulnerable or endangered. The brown bear and the American black bear—both of which are found in North America—were the only two thought to have a low risk of extinction. Number one on the list was the Giant Panda, which is not technically a bear (rather, a "bearlike" mammal).

The bad news for the bearlike continued, with reports that the food supply for Giant Pandas in southwestern China is dwindling, forcing about 1,200 of the creatures (80 percent of the world's panda population) to migrate elsewhere in search of food.

World's Most Endangered Bears [Nat'l Geographic slideshow]
World Conservation Union Report
Panda Cam! [National Zoo]

Flickr photo of Tian Tian at the National Zoo by Scott Ableman

November 5, 2007

Secrets of Long Life

Mama Clam and Baby ClamNewsflash! Scientists have discovered the secret to living literally hundreds of years. The key ingredients? A sedentary lifestyle, slightly chilly climate, friendly neighbors, close proximity to the sea...

...And, uh, yeah: you have to be a clam.

The proof? Researchers from Bangor University in Wales found an Arctica islandica clam estimated at 405 to 410 years old, based on growth rings in the mollusc's shell. The new specimen shatters the previous official record for "oldest animal" of 220 years, and even the unofficial record of 374 years, both held by other Arctica clams.

The mollusc, which is thought to have lurked beneath the waves until at least the age of 405, would have been a juvenile when Galileo picked up his first telescope, Hamlet was first staged and the gunpowder plot failed to blow up King James I.
Scientists hope that studies of this species may shed light on the aging process in other animals, including humans. In the meantime, hit the jump for an abbreviated list of other animal lifespans, culled from the 2008 World Almanac (on sale November 13, for anyone who hasn't pre-ordered their copy yet).

Continue reading "Secrets of Long Life" »

November 2, 2007

Weird Science


Without innovative, creative critical thinking, scientific progress would grind to a halt. Still, when we checked in on this year's Ig Nobel winners recently, some of the subjects and hypotheses inspired more than a little incredulity. I had the same response when I read about an article in this week's New Scientist that documents the most bizarre and outrageous scientific experiments of all time. Some are more than a little cruel (the grafting of a puppy's head and front legs to an adult German shepherd that caused both animals' deaths comes to mind), but others are just bizarre.

For example:
  • Psychologist begins experiments on son to test if laughing is spontaneous when tickled.
  • Conclusion: Laughing is an innate response to tickling
  • To test if people can sleep through anything, volunteers have their eyes taped open and bright lights shone in their eyes.
  • Conclusion: The men dozed off in 12 minutes
  • Doctor rubs vomit from yellow fever patients into open wounds and drinks it.
  • Conclusion: Mistakenly claims it is not infectious
[Summaries from The Guardian]

Bizarre Experiments (with full details)

Flickr photo by practicalowl

October 31, 2007

Powers of 10

Powers_of_10.jpg I still recall seeing the short documentary Powers of 10 at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum as a kid. I hadn't realized until recently that the 1977 documentary was made by Charles and Ray Eames. The husband-and-wife team are perhaps best known for their furniture designs, but they also directed, produced, or wrote more than 100 short films.

For those not familiar with the film, the Powers of 10 was so called because it showed the following:

Starting at a one meter square image of a picnic, the camera moves 10 times further away every 10 seconds, reaching to the edge of the universe; then the journey is reversed, going 10 times closer each 10 seconds, ultimately reaching the interior of an atom.

In 1998, the Library of Congress selected Powers of 10 for inclusion in the National Film Registry of significant American works (and you can find a listing of the complete Registry in The World Almanac 2008, available Nov. 13).

Powers of 10 (documentary can be viewed on this official site)
Eames Office
The Work of Charles and Ray Eames (Library of Congress exhibition)
National Film Registry (Library of Congress)

Image: Production art for the Powers of 10, depicting 10^0.

October 25, 2007

The Ig Nobels

Every October, announcements are made revealing the year's Nobel Prize winners. Not as well known (but possibly of moderate importance to a few) is the release around the same time of the names of Ig Nobel Prize winners.

The magazine the Annals of Improbable Research first organized these awards in 1991 to honor "achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative—and spur people's interest in science, medicine, and technology." Among this year's winners were researchers who studied the side effects of sword swallowing (prize in medicine), the science of how sheets become wrinkled (physics), and the possibility of using a net to catch bank robbers (economics).

Previous recipients have included the "Internet entrepreneurs of Nigeria, for creating and then using e-mail to distribute a bold series of short stories, thus introducing millions of readers to a cast of rich characters" (literature, 2005); the Coca-Cola Company of Great Britain for its discovery of how tap water can be converted into Dasani (chemistry, 2004); and the inventor of karaoke (peace, 2004).

A full list of winners and links to their research can be found at, the website for the Ig Nobel Prizes.

Annals of Improbable Research (AIR) magazine
Nobel Foundation

Image: Poster advertising this year's Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, the theme of which was chicken.

September 5, 2007

Visualization of the Day #2: Boomerang!

Ah, Almanac season. Tomorrow is the second in a string of important deadlines for the next edition of The World Almanac, so I'm churning through final approval of a half-dozen chapters while also trying desperately to chip away at the small mountain of early-draft chapters that has quietly accumulated on my desk (thanks a lot, Sarah, Andy, and Lisa).

boomerang.jpgBut that doesn't mean I don't have time to catch up on one of my favorite blogs, information aesthetics—which drew my attention to today's earlier, rather heavy Superfund link, and also to this more enjoyable chaser, an article on the Science of Boomerangs at Popular Mechanics. Cool time-lapse photos of LED-tipped boomerangs at night, a nice visual explanation of boomerang aerodynamics (a small snippet, at right), and at least one truly terrible pun from Eric Darnell, holder of several boomerang world records:

Darnell has himself set world records for endurance (43 catches in 5 minutes) and maximum time aloft (1 minute and 44 seconds). He has also sold millions of boomerangs. He says he isn’t into the sport for the money, although he admits, “I make many happy returns.”


Science of Boomerangs at Popular Mechanics (via information aesthetics, again)

August 16, 2007

The World Almanac Wakes Up With Whoopi: #2

As promised last week, here's my second World Almanac for Kids visit with the Wake Up With Whoopi crew. We did this on August 2, but it makes sense to post it today because today is the anniversary of an event I mentioned on-air.

Yup, August 16 is the day that Capt. Joe Kittinger set a particularly astonishing set of records in 1960. And in my excitement to talk about inventors, parachutes, and insanely high-altitude free-falls, I mixed up a few key details. Most notably: Kittinger didn't jump from 18,000 feet, that was the height at which his main parachute opened; he actually jumped—out of a balloon dubbed Excelsior III—from an altitude of more than 100,000 feet. In the process, he set records for highest balloon ascent and highest parachute jump, and also set the record for fastest speed attained by a human without the assistance of an engine.

As penance for my fact-flubbing, I offer this video of his jump, which is far more interesting than listening to me talk. But you can still click here to listen to the show and catch up on some other facts (accurate ones!) about the first Census, National Inventors' Month, and how some of those off-the-wall "National [Something-Very-Strange] Month" holidays come about in the first place.

Kittinger speaking at the Kircher Society Meeting (Part 1; be sure to click on parts 2 and 3)

August 14, 2007

The Voyager Recordings

0708VoyagerCover.gif When Voyager I and Voyager II were launched in 1977, their purpose wasn’t limited to teaching humans about the universe. Aboard each is a gold-plated copper disk designed by astronomer Carl Sagan and other scientists. The disc is actually an audio record containing natural sounds, 90 minutes of music, and 55 spoken greetings. It also includes 115 images encoded in analog. The records were stored in aluminum cases along with a cartridge and needle. On each case is an extremely detailed diagram of how to play the record, starting with the rotation of a hydrogen atom.

While this NASA page has a good selection of pieces from the record, the Latvian electronic arts and media center E-Lab is hosting more.

Voyager I became the most distant human-made object from the Sun on February 17, 1998 and it's still traveling. It was 9,597,000,000 miles away on July 6, 2007. NASA still provides weekly reports on both crafts.

August 1, 2007

When a Mule Foals


A mule in Colbran, CO, reportedly gave birth to a foal in April. Genetic testing has verified that the as-yet-unnamed foal is indeed the mule's offspring.

A Denver Post article explains the significance of the event (believed to be so rare that the Romans apparently had the saying "when a mule foals"):

The foal is being called a miracle because mules aren't supposed to give birth. Mules are a hybrid of two species—a female horse and a male donkey—so they end up with an odd number of chromosomes. A horse has 64 chromosomes and a donkey has 62. A mule inherits 63. An even number of chromosomes is needed to divide into pairs and reproduce.

Testing done in a previous observed case revealed that the foal, the offspring of a mule and a donkey, was itself a mule, with 63 chromosomes. The outcome of testing to determine whether this latest foal is a mule, a donkey, or a mix of the two, is pending.

"Mule's Foal Fools Genetics" (The Denver Post)
"Morocco's Miracle Birth 'Confirmed'" (BBC News)
"Male Mule Foal Qualifies as the Offspring of a Female Mule and Jack Donkey" (Journal of Heredity, purchase required)

Photo: Horse and Mule by eliotphillips.

July 23, 2007


OLPC.jpg(That's One Laptop Per Child, on Your Personal Computer.) In the latest edition of the World Almanac for Kids, we gave a big shout-out to the XO computer, created by the One Laptop Per Child organization. Now it looks like curious geeks (and other parties interested in creating software for the innovative laptops) can play around with the XO's unique SUGAR operating system.

This is not for the faint-of-heart (or limited-of-disk-space), however: you'll need virtualization software like VMWare or Parallels, plus a disk image of the OLPC OS... altogether, at least 300MB of downloads. But if you're infatuated with the XO, this is the closest you're going to get to it for a while.

For download links and installation instructions, visit UneasilySilence [via Gizmodo]

Previously: The Other 90 Percent

July 6, 2007

Danger: Octosquid!

octosquid.jpgIt's not as fearsome as the giant squid (highlighted in The World Almanac for Kids 2008), but it's cool, nonetheless:

"It's kind of an 'octosquid,'" said Jan War, operations manager at NELHA [Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority] at Keahole Point. "It's got the body of a squid but the eight tentacles of an octopus."

. . . War, who fed the octosquid shrimp for breakfast Wednesday morning, said everyone was excited because it was still alive. "And we're also excited because we may have found a new species."

The foot-long creature was sucked up through a 3,000-foot-deep sea pipeline last week.

Scientists all agog at 'octosquid' (Hawaii Tribune-Herald)

June 18, 2007

The Perfect Sphere

prototype.jpgTomorrow, June 19, a representative of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) will deliver a big cylinder of silicon to a group of Australian scientists. This might not seem like the most thrilling event of the week, but over the next three months those scientists will whittle (so to speak) that cylinder into a perfect sphere. And that perfect sphere will be used to "improve" the definition of the kilogram.

The kilogram is the only standard unit of measure that is still defined by a physical object—the International Prototype (right), a lump of platinum-iridium metal that has been stored in a BIPM vault since 1889. The meter used to be similarly defined by a platinum-iridium bar, but is now defined as the length of the path travelled by light in vacuum during 1/299,792,458 of a second.

Just like the existing International Prototype, the new silicon sphere will be used to calibrate real-world equipment. But it will also serve another purpose: silicon_sphere.jpg

While a physical object will still be necessary for calibrating scales and balances, the silicon atoms in the sphere will always remain the same. It is for this reason that the scientists working on what’s known as the Avogadro Project are collaborating to determine what is effectively the number of atoms in a sphere. Once the number of atoms is known, the definition of the kilogram can be based on it from then on.

More news below, plus some historical background on standard measurements and their real-world reference points.

Australia Weighs In To Make The Perfect Kilogram (
Definitions and Historical Context of SI Base Units (National Institute of Standards & Technology)

Photos: BIPM (top), CSIRO Industrial Physics (bottom)

May 30, 2007

The Other 90 Percent

This morning on the New York Times website, the most e-mailed article spotlights the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum's new exhibit, "Design for the Other 90%." On view in New York through September 23, the exhibition focuses on the ways "designers, engineers, students and professors, architects, and social entrepreneurs from all over the globe are devising cost-effective ways to increase access to food and water, energy, education, healthcare, revenue-generating activities, and affordable transportation for those who most need them."

OLPC.jpgFor example, the Pot-in-Pot cooler—made of two clay pots, water, and sand—creates an affordable and accessible electricity-free refrigeration system for food transportation and preservation. The LifeStraw, a portable water-filtration device, aims to make water safe for 1.1 billion people in the world without permanent access to clean drinking water, at a cost of a few dollars per person. And the durable XO Laptop (at right), the basis of the One Laptop per Child program, costs as little as $100 and can produce its own electricity when its user cranks a handle, pulls a cord, or pushes a pedal.

View more of these ingenious solutions to critical problems at the links below. (Both the LifeStraw and XO Laptop are also featured in the World Almanac for Kids 2008, which will appear on bookshelves in June.)

Design For the Other 90% [Cooper Hewitt]
Design That Solves Problems for the World’s Poor [NY Times]

May 9, 2007

The Five-Second Rule

seconds.jpg With a nod to Vincent's earlier post on bacteria-eating maggots, some more food for (unappetizing) thought: the Five-Second Rule, a hallowed hallmark of elementary-school cafeterias everywhere, has officially been debunked. According to an article published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology, we really shouldn't be comforting ourselves with the notion that dropped food, picked up in less than five seconds, is clean enough to eat (unless you'd be willing to eat off the floor itself).

The authors of the article build on the work of Jillian Clarke, who as a high school intern pioneered research on the Five-Second Rule, for which she received the 2004 Ig Nobel Prize in public health. (The Ig Nobel is bestowed on scientists whose research "first makes people LAUGH, then makes them THINK.") Among Clarke's findings? Sweet treats are much more likely to be picked up and eaten than vegetables.

The Five-Second Rule, or How Dirty is That Bologna [NYT]
Clarke's Findings
Journal of Applied Microbiology [article abstract]

Photo from cavitationjunkie's flickr stream

May 3, 2007

Visualization of the Day (#1): Mammal "Supertree"

chart-mammals.jpg An international team of researchers has produced a new family tree for mammals, showing relationships between different mammal groups and when they diverged from each other. According to Kate Jones, from the Zoological Society of London:
The [supertree] is a new way of showing all the mammal species on the planet, starting with a common ancestor. Species relationships can be inferred from morphological characteristics and genetic sequences.

If we had done this from scratch, we would have had to get molecular and morphological data for 4,000 different species.

What we did instead was use already published information from hundreds of researchers around the world. We used a new technique called supertree construction which allows us to get all the information that's out there, re-code it and re-analyse it as if it's all part of one dataset.

Continue reading "Visualization of the Day (#1): Mammal "Supertree"" »

April 9, 2007

A Most Delicious Law

equation.jpgWe added a page of basic laws of physics to The World Almanac in 2007 (p. 277)...for the first time ever, I believe, though you might have to ask Rich Gruber to be certain. Newton's laws of motion? Check. Law of gravity? Affirmative. Law of electric power? Yes, sir.

Sadly, however, we went to press too early to capture this equation, the direct result of more than 1,000 hours of testing some 700 different experimental subjects:

N = C + {fb(cm) . fb(tc)} + fb(Ts) + fc . ta

Does this represent some exotic quantum-mechanical discovery? A revolutionary new find about the role of dark matter in the universe?

Naaah. Hit the jump for the key to the equation.

Continue reading "A Most Delicious Law" »

April 6, 2007

The X Prize and Beyond

ss1-wkMention the X Prize, and people might recall SpaceShipOne. In 2004, SpaceShipOne became the first privately sponsored craft to carry a person into space. Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen provided significant funding for the project, which was competing for and won the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

A slew of other challenges have since been established to encourage scientific innovation. This week, the X Prize Foundation announced an Automotive X Prize for the team that could "design, build, and sell super-efficient cars that people want to buy."

NASA also maintains a list on its Web site of challenges related to space exploration, including the Beam Power Challenge and the Tether Challenge. These annual challenges are part of the Elevator:2010 project. The project seeks the creation of a "space elevator" to transport material via a "physical stationary tether between the ground and an object in space, and a set of vehicles that can travel to space and back, moving on the tether using electric motors."

Automotive X Prize (X Prize Foundation)
Centennial Challenges (NASA)
Elevator:2010 (The Spaceward Foundation)
"X-Prize Sets Sights on 100 mpg Cars" (National Public Radio interview with Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize Foundation)

Photo: SpaceShipOne and White Knight by Beige Alert.

April 5, 2007

Size Matters

planetsize.jpg Via the always-enlightening Information Aesthetics, here are two different looks at the relative size of objects in the Solar System and beyond.

First is a straightforward lineup of objects in our astronomical neighborhood, from the Sun down to the 203-mile asteroid Davida (click at right to view the full image). I've seen graphics like this before, but can't recall seeing one that included so many moons and other small bodies. The zone from Callisto through Ceres was oddly surprising to me.

Second, a cool little video that sends you spinning in the opposite direction, from the smallest planets to the most massive stars. The first half left me thinking, again, "Seen it before," but once you pass the Sun, the leaps in size become truly mind-boggling.

March 20, 2007

Give and Take

lenny.jpg For the last month or so, nearly every day on my way to work, I've seen this advertisement on the subway, which reads: "Jerry Orbach gave his heart and soul to acting, and the gift of sight to two New Yorkers." The ad, which encourages people to register to become eye donors, includes a picture of the late song-and-dance man, best known for his long run on TV's Law & Order.

So organ donation was on my mind when I read this story last week. Apparently South Carolina lawmakers are considering offering inmates up to 180 days off of their sentences as incentive to voluntarily donate organs or bone marrow. Obviously, there is a shortage of viable organs donated for those in need—as of last Friday, there were about 95,000 people waiting for transplants in the U.S. alone—but there are clearly ethical issues concerning a program like this as well.

Click the links below for more information about organ donation and those waiting for transplants. (The myths link addresses serious concerns, in addition to that strangely pervasive urban legend about waking up in a bathtub full of ice...)

Organ Donation Statistics (customizable)
Myths About Organ Donation

Related: New Trend in Organ Donation Raises Questions

Jerry Orbach photo from kathryn's Flickr page

March 14, 2007

Visual Chemistry

Plutonium.jpgOne section of the Royal Society of Chemistry website is geared toward those in the general public with an interest in chemistry. Their Visual Elements Periodic Table is beautifully organized, with an image accompanying each element, and information about its date of discovery, name origin, and a brief description of its use.

There's also a visual timeline of significant events and advances in chemistry, from the Big Bang all the way to the possibility of thermonuclear fusion by 2050.

A Visual Interpretation of the Table of Elements
Chemsoc Timeline
Royal Society of Chemistry
Previously: The "Periodic Spiral"

Image: Plutonium (element 94), represented by the Hindu deity Shiva, from the Visual Elements Periodic Table.

March 5, 2007

Cefquinome and Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

cefquinome.jpg Cefquinome is an antibiotic (made by Intervet, Inc.) that the FDA may soon approve for use in cattle. Usually, this wouldn’t cause much of a stir outside the medical or veterinary industries, but according to the Washington Post, approval of cefquinome may have negative consequences on a global scale. Some doctors fear that overuse of the powerful antibiotic may speed the evolution of drug-resistant bacteria. Proponents argue that the risk outweighs the reward. But a curious point is that FDA’s own advisory board rejected approval of cefquinome last fall (in a non-binding resolution), and a number of health organizations, including the American Medical Association, have also come out against it. According to the Post article, a recently implemented “guidance document” called “Guidance for Industry #152,” codifies how the FDA should weigh the risk/reward of new animal drugs. In an excerpt from the article:
The wording of "Guidance for Industry #152" was crafted within the FDA after a long struggle. In the end, the agency adopted language that, for drugs like cefquinome, is more deferential to pharmaceutical companies than is recommended by the World Health Organization. Cefquinome's seemingly inexorable march to market shows how a few words in an obscure regulatory document can sway the government's approach to protecting public health.
It'll be interesting to see how or if this'll play out in a more visible public forum. It should be noted that no antibiotic from the class in which cefquinome belongs has been approved in the U.S. for animal use.

"FDA Rules Override Warnings About Drug," Washington Post, March 4, 2007
Reuters Synopsis of above article
"Introduction to Cefquinome (CEQ) and Overview of Microbial Safety Assessment" (FDA information page)
FDA Guidelines: Guidance for Industry #152" (PDF)

March 1, 2007

A Big Week for Big Planets

170592main_pia08362_full.jpgOn Feb. 28, NASA's New Horizons probe pulled off a planetary slingshot maneuver, using Jupiter's gravitational field to trim several years off the probe's journey to Pluto. That rendezvous won't occur until 2015, but in the meantime, New Horizons' close approach to the largest planet in the solar system is expected to yield some exciting imagery in the near future. Visit NASA's New Horizons page for past photos and new updates as the mission progresses.

If you absolutely have to have a fix of gas giant photos this week, you're in luck! NASA just released a slew of gorgeous photos from the Cassini spacecraft, offering never-before-seen views of the ringed planet (like the one at right).

And just for good measure, here's the full listing of The World Almanac's editors' picks for top celestial and space exploration events of 2007--including the New Horizons flyby at #2:

World Almanac Editors’ Picks
Top 10 Celestial and Space Exploration Events of 2007

  1. Perseid Meteor Shower: Aug. 13 peak coincides with the new Moon; excellent viewing throughout the night.
  2. New Horizons (NASA): probe slingshots past Jupiter, en route to Pluto in 2015; closest Jupiter approach on Feb. 28.
  3. Phoenix Mars Lander (NASA): scheduled to launch Aug 3, arriving on Mars in May 2008.
  4. Planck/Herschel (ESA): two new orbiting observatories, scheduled to launch July 2007.
  5. Chang’e-1 (China): first Chinese lunar orbiter, scheduled to launch in 2007.
  6. Waxing Crescent Moon paired with Jupiter, Nov. 12: One of the best dates to view this pretty pairing, due to close proximity of the two bodies and visibility soon after sunset.
  7. GLAST (NASA): Gamma Ray Large Area Space Telescope, launch set for Aug. 7; will study extremely energetic objects and phenomena.
  8. Waxing Crescent Moon between Venus and Saturn, June 18: One of the best dates to view this celestial grouping.
  9. NOAA-N Prime (NASA): new weather and climate satellite, scheduled to launch Dec. 6.
  10. Saturn at Opposition, Feb. 10: Saturn’s closest approach to Earth, and the best time to view and photograph the planet and its moons throughout the night.

February 22, 2007

Numerologists, Rejoice...

numbers.jpg...because I've got a site that will blow your mind: the rather unassumingly-titled What's Special About This Number? which offers up a handy, hyperlinked guide to...well, to what's special about most numbers from 0 to 9999.

Actually, it's not so much a resource for numerologists as it is for math geeks. No references to Nostradamus, Revelations, or Kabbalah here; instead, you get information like:

1246 is the number of partitions of 38 in which no part occurs only once.
1248 is the smallest number with the property that its first 6 multiples contain the digit 4.
1249 is the number of simplicial polyhedra with 11 vertices.
1250 is the number of lattice points that are within 1/2 of a sphere of radius 10 centered at the origin.
Yeah, yeah, I know what you're thinking—who doesn't know how many simplicial polyhedra have 11 vertices? But with hyperlinks on all the really cryptic terms, this makes a nice gateway into some advanced mathematical and geometrical concepts.

I stumbled across this one while doing research for the upcoming 2008 World Almanac for Kids, which will have some interesting new numbers-related material—including an introduction to game theory for kids ages 8-12. Now there's a challenge...

Link: What's Special About This Number?

Image: Squircled numbers from Claudecf's Flickr stream (CC)

February 21, 2007

New Visualizations

Hawaii_graphic.jpgYou may have noticed that some of us at The World Almanac are big fans of visualized data and the software involved. In that vein, I wanted to highlight the National Science Foundation's Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge.

Challenge organizers recognize that images such as those of the double helix or solar flares "have become part of the essential iconic lexicon." Through this competition, they hope to seek submissions that "communicate" science in a similarly accessible way. One of last year's winners was a team from the German Aerospace Center for the informational graphic "Hawaii, the Highest Mountain on Earth" (at right).

The deadline for this year's challenge is May 31, 2007. Winners will be chosen in each of five categories: photographs, illustrations, informational graphics, interactive media, and non-interactive media.

Links: Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge Home
Previous challenge winners

Graphic by Nils Sparwasser, Thorsten Andresen, Stephan Reiniger, Robert Meisner, German Aerospace Center (DLR).

February 15, 2007

A Private Zoo (Closer Than You Think)

giantmicrobes.jpg Researchers at NYU's School of Medicine just released a study of a large group of species with whom we are all intimately connected...but of whom we are also mostly unaware. Dr. Martin Blaser and his colleagues have identified about 182 species of bacteria that live on human skin, and estimate that there are probably at least 250:
"In comparison," Blaser added, "a good zoo might have 100 species or 200 species. So we already know that there are as many different species in our skin, just on the forearm, as there are in a good zoo."

"Microbes have been living in animals probably for a billion years. And the microbes that we have in our body are not accidental. They have evolved with us," Blaser said.

Link: Human skin populated by veritable zoo of bacteria (Scientific American)

Previously: The Air That We Breathe

Stuffed bacteria from

January 30, 2007

The Oklo Fossil Reactors

Oklo%20Natural%20Reactor.jpg Keeping with the nuclear power theme, apparently there were naturally-occurring nuclear fission reactors in Africa about 2 billion years ago. The 15 reactors were buried in what is now the Oklo uranium mine in southeast Gabon. They ran off of Uranium 235 (just like man-made nuclear reactors), generating 100 kilowatts for about 150,000 years. Groundwater evaporation and condensation kept them on a 3-hour cycle that prevented meltdowns. More recent research indicates a natural reactor probably occurred at Bangombé, about 22 miles away, around the same time.

While interesting merely as a phenomenon, scientists are more concerned with applying lessons learned from the natural reactors to the disposal of nuclear waste at places like Yucca Mountain. Visit the Department of Energy’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management for a detailed fact sheet.

Dr Robert Loss at the Curtin University of Technology in Australia
has also assembled an explanation but it has some dead links.

Link: "The Pulse of a Nuclear Reactor "
(American Physical Society’s Physical Review Focus)

January 24, 2007

Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Measurement? That's Sooo Corny

Each year in the Environment chapter of the World Almanac, we present the annual atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (for 2007, it’s on page 284). We get that information from the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, which is part of the Department of Energy. Pre-1943 levels are derived from air bubbles in ice core samples taken in Antarctica, and later measurements are taken directly from the atmosphere. corn_crop.jpgSoon though, you may see us presenting CO2 levels taken from corn samples. That’s right, good ol’ fashioned corn, the vegetable that can do anything from feeding the world, to fueling our cars, to giving us a tasty treat at movie theaters.

Scientists from U.C. Irvine measured levels of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels in corn samples taken from 31 locations across the U.S. They chose corn because it’s grown pretty much everywhere, and the carbon in it is collected during a single growing season (so it's just the carbon from the most recent growing season, and not seasons past). CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels doesn’t contain any radiocarbons, so the scientists can easily tell if the carbon dioxide came from fossil fuels or from natural sources (veeeery C.S.I.-type stuff). By measuring the corn, the scientists were able to accurately tell which areas of the U.S. had highest concentrations of fossil-fuel-derived carbon dioxide. The highest levels were in California, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. The lowest concentrations were in Colorado, Idaho, and New Mexico--because, as scientists found, the Rocky Mountains act as a sort of CO2 barrier.

There are lots of ways to measure CO2 in the atmosphere but this method may provide a cost-effective complement to other methods. If anything, it just goes to show that whatever is in the air can eventually end up in our popcorn.

Press release:Scientists map air pollution using corn grown in U.S. fields (U.C. Irvine)
Map: CO2 concentrations in the U.S. (Red areas have the highest, blue areas have the lowest)
Abstract: Regional patterns of radiocarbon and fossil fuel-derived CO2 in surface air across North America (Geophysical Research Letters, January 23, 2007)

January 12, 2007

Human Hairballs

If you’re a fan of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novel series, then you might remember reading about bezoars—in particular, trichobezoars, or human hairballs. I’d never heard of such things before and was surprised to learn that humans and other animals, not just cats, can produce hairballs. NMHM_Hairball_sm.jpg

Bezoar is a Persian word meaning “antidote,” and it was once thought that bezoars could neutralize poison. Trichobezoars can occur in people who suffer from compulsive hair pulling (trichotillomania) or compulsive eating of non-food items (pica). Trichophagia, or hair eating, is a type of pica. Children or young women manifest these disorders most frequently. Because hair cannot be digested, ingested strands can become twisted and matted as they accumulate in the stomach. Trichobezoars can grow to become quite large, in which case they must be removed surgically. When hair extends past the stomach into the intestines, the condition is referred to as the Rapunzel syndrome.

Online exhibit about hairballs (National Museum of Health and Medicine)
"Hair Apparent: Rapunzel Syndrome" (Case study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry)

January 8, 2007

Do You Ever Look Up in the Sky, and Wonder…

space_ritual.jpgSure, there are all sorts of facts about space in the new edition of The World Almanac, but we don’t say what would happen if a satellite fell to earth. We don’t contradict claims that the moon landing was really a hoax. And we also don’t explain your chances of being sucked up by a black hole. Go to Get a Straight Answer for facts on these and many other important space issues brought to you by retired NASA astrophysicist David P. Stern. One I found particularly amusing is after the jump.

Continue reading "Do You Ever Look Up in the Sky, and Wonder…" »

December 29, 2006

...And For Good Measure, One Last List

As a nice break from all the looking-back lists, here's one that looks forward to the 70 "products, services, and trends that will help to define 2007," according to advertising agency JWT Worldwide:
As globalization continues to make our world seem smaller, localization will come to a head in 2007. We'll put great emphasis on sourcing everything from food to textiles. Decadent and excessive consumption will fall to the wayside as we stress quality, minimal environmental impact and support of local producers.

I'd agree with many of these picks, and I expect some of them--VoIP, trans-fat fallout, nanotechnology, Barack Obama--will get a significant amount of news or statistical coverage in the next edition of the World Almanac. Others, I confess, leave me a bit bewildered: will 2007 really be the year of higher-waisted pants, party planning for teens, reunions of donor insemination siblings, and "binge chilling"? It's a brave new world...

What products and people do you think will define the coming year? Let us know in the comments... and bonus points for the first person to explain "kidults" and "Chindia" to me.

JWT's 70 Things to Watch in 2007

1. Skype/VoIP
2. Wii and the next-generation gaming systems
3. The business of social networking
4. Pop-up stores, restaurants and bars ... installation style
5. Shrinky Dink technology (TVs are flat and hidden, iPods are down to half an ounce, speakers are smaller and less visible, and so on)
6. The rise of nanotechnology
7. Sustainable construction/green buildings
8. Hydrogen fuel cell technology
9. Veggie-bus: school buses running on biodiesel fuel
10. Trans-fat fallout

Continue reading "...And For Good Measure, One Last List" »

December 27, 2006

The Air That We Breathe

bacsta_cr.jpg Think about this the next time you take a breath of fresh air: according to a "first-of-its-kind census" by scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, there is an incredible abundance of germ life in the air around us—which is teeming with as many as 1,800 types of bacteria. (Fortunately, most of the germs are harmless.)

There are several practical applications for this research. For example, it could lead to a nationwide bacteria census, which would show the normal levels and yearly fluctuations in the amounts of certain pathogens in the air. This could help the Department of Homeland Security identify abnormal levels of bacteria that could signal a bio-attack. It may also give scientists more insight into the role that climate plays in the amount of bacteria in the air.

If more surveys like this are done, you may one day see some World Almanac data showing nationwide bacterial levels in various U.S. cities. But that could be years away, so don't hold your breath.

Study Finds the Air Rich with Bacteria (Lawrence Berkeley National Lab)

Have a Heart!

heart-interior.jpgA friend recently brought up a question that had long nagged her: why are our hearts on the left side of our bodies instead of in the center? I thought I’d play Q&A columnist on this one.

While the human body on the outside appears symmetrical, internally it is not, and the primary reason seems to be space. The typical human torso exhibits left-right asymmetry because it can pack in only so much: for example, the heart, stomach, and spleen on the left, the appendix and gall bladder on the right. And actually, only about two-thirds of the heart is located left of the body’s midline. But we feel that side more strongly because our hearts’ left chambers pump blood to the rest of our bodies.*

Some people are born with their heart on the right. In others, all the organs are flipped—their bodies are basically mirror images of most people’s bodies, a condition called situs inversus. Symmetry can also occur. The heart can appear on the midline, in which case the person might have two left or two right lungs. These conditions aren’t life threatening unless "tubes and vessels don't connect properly," as this article puts it. The article states that about 35,000 birth defects every year are the result of organs growing in different places.

*The blood flow sequence is also responsible for the difference in size between the left and right lung. (That is, oxygen-poor blood enters the heart on the right and flows from there to the lungs, as you may all remember from biology class diagrams.)

Image from National Heart Lung and Blood Institute

December 21, 2006

Reflection and Self-Recognition in Elephants

184947867_c4108cda5f_m.jpgWho’s that elephant in the mirror? Maxine, Patty, and Happy seemed to know.

In experiments at the Bronx Zoo, three female Asian elephants (Maxine, Patty, and Happy) demonstrated mirror self-recognition (MSR), according to a study released in October by the National Academy of Sciences. (Full text of study available only to subscribers.) An elephant-sized mirror was placed in their enclosure, and researchers observed their interactions with it.

MSR was previously known to exist only in humans, apes, and dolphins, who all exhibit complex social behaviors. An animal that fails the MSR test reacts to its mirror image as if it’s another animal. But an animal possessing MSR will inspect the mirror as though it’s aware the image is of itself. Furthermore, Happy passed an additional “mark” test, in which she apparently recognized that a white mark had been drawn on her head based on her reflection in the mirror.

Photo by Janice Gelona (CC)

December 5, 2006

Discovery's 33rd Launch

Photo from Last night at 11 p.m. (EST), NASA began the countdown towards the launch of the Discovery space shuttle, its 33rd mission (find information on earlier missions in the Almanac's Memorable Moments in Human Space Flight section p.314-317). Due to launch at 9:35 p.m. (EST) Thursday, the STS-116 mission will be delivering and installing new pieces of the International Space Station including the $11 million, 4,000-pound P5 integrated truss segment. They will also be dropping off flight engineer Sunita Williams to replace Thomas Reiter as the third member of ISS’ Expedition 14.
Included in Discovery’s seven person crew is Sweden’s first astronaut, Christer Fuglesang. (Välkommen till världsrymd Christer!)
Extra cool bonus fact: that flood of water unleashed seconds before a shuttle’s launch isn’t meant to keep things cool. The water actually breaks up acoustic waves so they don’t damage the shuttle.

NASA will be blogging the launch starting at 3:30 on Thursday.
Or watch the whole thing in streaming video here.
Crew photo from

November 23, 2006

Changing Charts

ps.jpgBack in high school chemistry, I thought of the periodic table of the elements as something more or less set in stone. Found a new element? Just tack it onto that big, boxy chart of 100-odd substances. But as elements continue to be discovered (including, most recently, confirmation of the existence of element 118) some scientists have proposed a reorganization of the classic table. One of the most interesting of these is the Periodic Spiral — explained neatly here by the New York Times, and also available in a very snazzy, interactive format at

rps25-edit.jpgSomething else that I never thought of as possessing much potential for expansion or reorganization: Rock, Paper, Scissors. Fortunately, some people are much more creative than me, and also have waaaay too much time on their hands. For proof, look no further than the awe-inspiring RPS-25 chart, which illustrates all the possible "Paper smothers rock"-type equations in a game with 25 different hand symbols — from the classic trio, to bizarre new possibilities like "Sponge," "Alien," and "Dragon." If you can still concentrate through the post-Thanksgiving-dinner haze, print out the chart and have some fun creating conflicts like "Cockroach survives Nuke."

Interactive Periodic Spiral

R(ock) P(aper) S(scissors)-25

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