Right Now in Stuff to Blow Your Mind

With recent news of Earth's orbital population reaching an all-time high of 13 again, I'm sure a lot of you were wondering the same thing: Are there any good places to eat up there? Fine dining above the exosphere is certainly looking up, so now's as good a time as any to look at what kind of grub astronauts, cosmonauts and taikonauts can stuff into their free-floating bellies.

It's not your typical most-wanted list. You won't see a copy of it tacked up in the post office or hear John Walsh addressing its nefarious members as you flip the channels. Nevertheless, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has its own list of fugitives -- people believed to be responsible for smuggling ozone-depleting coolants, discharging tons of oil-contaminated grain into the ocean and even contributing to the crash of ValuJet flight 592 in the Everglades. The EPA established the list -- complete with mug shots, case profiles and bold red-lettered "captured" stamps across select faces -- in order to draw attention to environmental crimes. The New York Times reports that rashes of such crimes are the result of strengthened regulations: Suddenly, noncompliance can be very profitable. And while some of the alleged violations sound fairly intricate (Denis L. Feron installed a secret pipe in his copper refinery in order to dump pollutants into a Mississippi River tributary), others, like the grain dumping, are disturbingly simple.

The robots are coming. We've covered the inevitable technological singularity at HowStuffWorks.com and it seems like news of computer advancement is making the headlines with increasingly regularity. While the situation isn't yet as dire as "Battlestar Galactica" made it out to be (or as unevenly written), it does seem like the robots are indeed getting smarter. In fact, according to the Guardian and Reuters, scientists at New York's Cornell University have a super computer named Adam that has already surpassed scientific legend Isaac Newton. Adam observes regularities in the natural world and devises laws based on the data. In a manner of hours, the computer managed to figure out Newton's laws of motion. The researchers insist that the bot's main skill is in cracking tons of data to spot underlying natural principles and, while this wouldn't replace human scientists, it could seriously speed up advancements across the entire spectrum of scientific research.

Road trips are pretty much ingrained in the mythology of the United States -- like some last holdout of frontier days when the whole country was open to exploration. And from the way they're treated in books, movies and songs, you'd think every long-haul jaunt by auto was destined to be a life-changing bildungsroman. But the fact is, lots of road trips turn into monotonous hours spent on interstates with concrete walls and nondescript scenery whipping by at 70 mph (or what have you). Not for Boaz Frankel, a traveler I found via TreeHugger who's planning an "Un-road Trip" beginning this April. Frankel will explore the United States for 10 weeks -- an ambitious road trip even if we left it there -- expect there's one catch. He won't be taking a car.

Earth's Magnetic Field Of Weird Dreams

You've probably noticed by now that sometimes your dreams are very day-to-day and other times they're far more bizarre. One night you might dream you're at work or that you forgot to drop a college course and the next you're hanging out with the squid emperors of Xakatu 7 and chatting about the finer points of all-cowboy jazz quartets. What determines the weirdness of our dreams? One psychologist believes the planet's magnetic field may play a crucial role.

I wasn't on the math team in high school. My gray matter stalled out after entering the shadowy territory of trig and calculus. I certainly wasn't a member of the robotics team -- largely because we didn't have one. And let's be honest, I'm not sure I would have a valuable addition. But in 2002, the UberBots were born, and according to the team motto, they "eat kryptonite for breakfast!" Even better, the UberBots, along with many other U.S. and international robotics teams are headed to Atlanta to duke it out at the 2009 FIRST Championship. And we're going to check it out. Here's the scoop, according to the FIRST Web site: Eligible teams compete in short games played by remote-controlled robots. A team of 10 to 20 high-school students and a handful of mentors design and build the bots in six weeks out of a set of common parts, with the students guiding the robots on the field.

Yep, I know it's April 1 and everybody's a little suspicious of their Internet headlines, but you're going to have to trust me on this one. According to New Scientist, a team of Canadian researchers are championing a new technology that could one day see implants such as pacemakers feed on the glucose in human blood.

Last month, National Geographic featured a striking picture of the Science Barge, a hulking metal platform with an unusual cargo: a carbon-neutral hydroponic farm. The floating laboratory produces tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, strawberries and pumpkins all while docked in the Hudson River. New York Sun Works, a nonprofit that promotes sustainability, launched the barge as an educational tool. The project incorporates solar and wind power, biofuels and rainwater reclamation while producing no carbon emissions or wastes. It saves even more energy by reducing the food miles (the distance food travels from field to table) of fresh produce for city dwellers. The barge's creators hope it will also serve as a test ground for the type of hydroponic farm that could exist on city rooftops someday. Since hydroponic farming doesn't require as much water and land as field methods, it's considered a good alternative to urban farming in areas where space is tight and the soil isn't always the best.

Are they moving the Alps to Dubai?

You've heard about Dubai's indoor ski slope. You've wondered exactly what luxuries a seven-star hotel like the Burj Al Arab affords. Both are trifles compared to what the Las Vegas of the Middle East has planned next -- moving the Alps to Dubai. Don't worry, snow bunnies and mountain goats. The Swiss aren't parting with all of their prized mountains.

Genetic engineering has already enriched our produce isles with such wonders as the seedless watermelon and herbicide-resistant soybeans. Now, according to a study published this month in Nature Biotechnology, a team of plant geneticists at the University of California at Berkeley have come up with an alternative to organic produce: more banana peels.

The National Ignition Facility is ready to do something pretty crazy: create a star on our planet, with the help of 192 lasers trained on a gold cylinder the size of a pencil eraser. The idea is to simulate the environment inside an exploding nuclear weapon or a star's core. The payoff (and it's huge if it succeeds) is fusion, more specifically "a nuclear fusion reaction in a safe, controlled setting," according to the NIF video and the Discover blogs. If the football-field-sized facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is successful, we could kiss our oil dependency good-bye because we'd ostensibly have an unlimited supply of clean energy provided by the fusion reaction. We'd also have a handy facility for testing nukes. But there are so many if's, many of which Charles Seife outlined in his recent book "Sun in a Bottle." Here's one: Scientists aren't 100 percent certain that the pencil eraser will reach breakeven.

Pack your bags, invasive species. We're going on the road in 2010...unfortunately. That's according to an article in Science Daily, predicting that June 2010 will be a banner month for invasive plants, animals and insects to globe hop aboard planes. The prediction is part of a study performed by Andrew J. Tatem for the journal Ecography. By studying global climate models for 2009 and 2010 and comparing them to models predicting airline traffic volume, Tatem was able to pinpoint June 2010 as the perfect month for invasive species to hop aboard flights -- and invade cozily at their destination. Basically there will be high airline traffic between geographically distant places that have a similar climate that time of year. So what should we do about it? According to the Convention on Biological Diversity, it's important that the public knows how destructive invasive species can be.

I am not a fan of licorice and, quite frankly, I'm suspicious of anyone who is. Perhaps it's simply my upbringing. My dad's a dentist, so we tended not to have bowls of death-black candy sitting around. In college, I was never part of the Jägermeister crowd. As it turns out I'm not the only one with an aversion to this foul candy treat. This just in: Transplanted organs hate licorice.

Our house is on the market right now. Before we hightail it for work, we make sure the dishes are done, the flowers aren't drooping and the fresh-baked cookies are out. It's been about two months, and it hasn't sold. Now I know why. Because the economy is tanking, and it's a bad time to sell our house? No. Because our floors are a little warped upstairs? No. It's because we haven't had a home clearing. Home clearers are helping real estate agents erase bad vibes from homes that aren't budging, according to a recent Denver Post story and the James Randi Educational Foundation blog. Such real estate or space clearings are performed for all sorts of reasons Just one wouldn't be a very good business model, would it? Say you get divorced and want to get rid of the remaining dark energy, a real estate clearing might be the answer.

Ah, the life of a termite queen. Once you've established a colony, your main job is to mate with the termite king and fill your subterranean halls with your squirming, wood-hungry brood. Apparently, however, all that baby-making takes a toll on your life span, while the king lives on. Enter the secondary queen, who picks up right where the dead primary queen left off. Scientists at North Carolina State University have made a fascinating discovery concerning just where this secondary queen comes from. While the primary queen produces the rest of the colony's young through sexual reproduction with the king, she goes it alone when it comes to spawning a successor. Yes, she produces asexually, producing an offspring that shares only her genes -- essentially cloning herself.

I enjoyed this NPR story about power lines and cows mostly because it created an amusing mental image of disorganized bovines. Apparently, cows have an internal magnetic compass -- something once thought to be exclusive to animals like bats and rodents. This compass keeps cows aligned toward magnetic north or south while they're resting or grazing, a tendency shared with deer. But when cows munch or nap under high-voltage power lines, something gets messed up. A team researchers at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany used Google Earth to observe animals under or near power lines. Instead of neat, linear cattle, the animals aligned in random directions. That is unless the power lines ran east-west, in which case the cows mustered in that direction. I'm not only fascinated that cows can sense magnetic fields, but that power lines can change the Earth's magnetic field -- at least on a local level. Do the electric and magnetic fields (EMF) from high-voltage lines affect us, too?

While there's still more space junk up there than anything, the human space population reached its peak at 13 today, according to an article on Space.com. This feat ties the record set in March 1995. Let's take a look at how it all breaks down in space. First, you have the space shuttle Discovery up there with a crew of seven astronauts. Three crew members from the U.S., Russia and Japan are hanging out on the International Space Station awaiting the pending arrival of the Russian Soyuz TMA-14 spacecraft and its three-person crew (one of whom is a space tourist), currently en route. Back in 1995, the situation was similar, with three cosmonauts bound to switch places with the three-man crew aboard the Mir space station -- all while the seven-man crew of the space shuttle Endeavour carried out its own mission.

So yesterday I wrote about Earth Hour and the effort to get unnecessary lights shut off at night -- especially those glittering away in office towers. Today I'll keep to the same vein, but turn my attention to another power suck draining the wallets of many companies: PCs left on all night. According to 1E, a software and services company, U.S. companies waste $2.8 billion a year and emit 20 million tons of carbon dioxide powering unused PCs. These whopping sums are a result of 50 percent of U.S. workers who use PCs at their job neglecting to shut off their computers at the end of the day. Why not hit the power switch at night? While some people share their computers or access their network remotely, many mistake the automatic sleep function to mean "off." Other folks, though, actually operate under the orders of their company or IT department -- something that seems counterintuitive considering that $2.8 billion a year.

NASA Continues Fight Against Bone Mass Loss

As you probably know, one of the problems with humans entering into weightless environments is that we've spent a heck of a lot of time evolving to do just fine WITH the force of gravity holding us down. Take that away from us and a host of things start to go haywire in our gravity-based bodies. Chief among these is bone mass loss. Quite simply, if you don't use it, you lose it -- and at an incredible pace. In fact, visitors to the International Space Station lose up to 10 times more bone mass each month than most postmenopausal women do on Earth do in the same time frame.* NASA has tried to address this issue in the past by having astronauts use treadmills, but according to a recent Science Daily article, the agency figured out a promising way to improve on the measure.

Liars have a hard time plying their trade these days. You can barely raise an eyebrow or try to tell Katie Couric that you've never used steroids without someone picking apart your facial movements for signs of deceit. Such is the world of microexpressions, which Josh and Chuck explored on their "Stuff You Should Know" podcast, as did our article by Tom Scheve. Even if you could mummify your face with Botox injections to guard against fleeting microexpressions, you'd still have to cover for the increased breathing rate, pulse, blood pressure and perspiration that may accompany telling a bald-faced lie. That's what polygraphs pick up. Now sweaty lying people have even more to fear, according to Dave Johns' story on Slate. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is nosing around the idea of analyzing your unique stink for signs of deception.