Right Now in Stuff to Blow Your Mind

Own Everything, Advertise Everywhere

Like a lot of you, I recently watched the season finale of AMC's "Mad Men," the absolute best television show in which nothing actually happens. I got to wondering what a modern day Don Draper might apply himself to (aside from, obviously, sleeping around, drinking and smoking). Perhaps he'd use cutting-edge science for the good of advertising? Consider these two real-life possibilities. Each takes high-tech science and uses it to shill a product.

A New Way to Smell Old Books

I love the smell of old books. It's just one of the reasons they'll have to drag me kicking and screaming into the world of Kindles, Nooks and BeBooks. So it's rather amusing that while the forces of technology and science seem intent on carrying out a kind of print holocaust, some scientists are hard at work creating new ways to smell books.

As you busy yourself this fall raking leaves, sipping cider and experiencing the Great Outdoors, you may want to consider ditching all that outside stuff, plopping down in your La-Z-Boy and flipping on "Gearing Up." The new one-hour documentary premiering right now on public television takes you behind the scenes of the 2008 FIRST robotics competition, serving up a healthy dose of suspense, teenagers and, of course, robots. The FIRST Robotics competition, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is an annual event held in Atlanta in which teams of students are all given an identical kit and challenged to build a robot that can rock some task, such as, say, slam-dunking balls into some nets. "Gearing Up" trails four teams as they're readying their bots for the 2008 regional competitions. The documentary follows Miss Daisy, a bunch of old hands at robot building from Ambler, Pa.; the RoboDoves, a rookie all-girl troupe from Baltimore; the Ratchet Rockers from Wentzville, Mo., and, potentially my favorite, the Rambotics, an all-boys team from a Colorado correctional facility.

A New Ocean is Ripping Through Ethiopia

Thought the "Seven Seas" were static? Nope, they've gone through many incarnations since the ancient Greeks started grouping their local bodies of water into one convenient moniker. European explorers expanded the definition a bit to include a wider sampling of world waters, and today we'd probably list the Arctic, North and South Atlantic, North and South Pacific, Indian and Southern Oceans in the big seven -- if we used the phrase at all. But it turns out, there's a new ocean in the making, rending the African continent right through the middle of Ethiopia.

Invasive Species Tire of Bad Press; Sue

Invasive species are gotten tired of all the bad press and have finally appealed to the U.S. judicial system for respite. Until I read Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow's "Don't Sweat the Invasion" post on Slate, I, too, was a hater. In my defense, as an amateur gardener and resident of the South,* it's hard to like kudzu or English ivy -- both notorious invasive plant species in the Southeastern U.S. -- when they maintain a death grip on your tulip poplar.

Cold War Dreams of Paranormal Warfare

Imagine a different world grew from the Cold War's thawing soil, one defined not by a decades-long space or arms race, or even by oil-fueled expansionism -- but by the rise of the psychic soldier.

Depending on where you live, you may not think too much about malaria. And that's a ridiculous luxury, considering that every 30 seconds a child dies from the infectious disease, according to the World Health Organization. Despite favored interventions such as using bed nets treated with insecticides, spraying the inside of dwellings, getting rid of standing water and, of course, drug treatments, about 250 million people get sick and 1 million people die every year from malaria, reports the WHO. Given those numbers, it's hard not to be interested when a malaria vaccine apparently shows promise -- even if it is years away from reaching the people who need it. The candidate in question is RTS,S, a vaccine developed by the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals, working with the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative, an organization funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (You know, the same foundation that gives money to people for things like figuring out how to detect tuberculosis with an electronic nose.)

Inhibit Hormones, Eat Soft-shell Crabs Year Round

Love soft-shell crab sandwiches? Wish you could have them all year? Well, a team of University of Alabama scientists may just have a way to make that happen.

Vampire Bats Will Bite You -- In the Amazon

One of my favorite tabloid headlines from the now-defunct Weekly World News was this: "Vegan Vampires Attack Trees." I can just see it -- a particularly menacing vegan vampire, perhaps draped in an organic cotton cloak (wool would be inappropriate, right?), lurching toward a helpless tree, preferably maple. But I'm here to discuss something nonvegan and decidedly bloody: the vampire bat.

Guns for Girls

I'm knee-deep in firearms this week editing an article on the 5 most popular guns. Yep, firearms fall under the science umbrella here at HowStuffWorks.com, but until this week, I really had no idea how little I knew about them. It got me thinking, maybe I should try one out (on a shooting range, of course). This, in turn, got me wondering, are there guns designed specifically for women?

Jonathan Coulton Talks Music, Technology and uPlaya.com

It's possible I went a little overboard in writing this week's Discovery News piece about uPlaya.com, the Web site that lets musicians upload a track for quick evaluation by music-savvy algorithms. The whole thing deals with AI's designed to judge a song's hit potential, and it goes a little into algorithmic musical composition as well. So I thought, "Who better to give a musician's perspective on the whole deal than former programmer and overall Internet music sensation Jonathan Coulton?"

Depressed in the West: Cultural Neuroscience Chimes In

Grasping: Buddhism has decried it as the source of all human suffering for millennia while the West built an entire culture around it. We want more money. We want more life. We live our self-centered lives with the demon of impermanence breathing down our neck. The idea that we might feel better if we forgot about ourselves for a little bit should seem like a no-brainer.

The Talking Genetics Glossary: A Gentle Way to Get to Know A, C, G and T

I'm not usually one for "Wow, look at this neat site" blog posts, but there's a cool new talking(!) genetics glossary in town, compliments of the National Human Genome Research Institute. If you can't remember the various types of RNA (messenger, transport and ribosomal, thank you, glossary) or you use genotype or phenotype interchangeably, then, by all means, check it out.

Burmese Pythons Retire to South Florida

What scares the bejesus out of you? Your in-laws? Freakishly big bugs? What about snakes? Because if it's this last one, then stop reading, or for goodness sake, don't move to South Florida. The sunny home of Gloria Estefan ("C'mon baby, do the conga!) is also home to tens of thousands of Burmese pythons, according to a newly released report from the U.S. Geological Survey.

Plume Hunters and the Everglades

You probably don't see many enormous plumed hats on the street anymore, but you will see them in Paris fashion shows (John Galliano used them liberally for spring 2010), or glued onto glitzy dresses meant to impress Bob Mackie on a reality show. But if it were the turn of the 20th century, chances are, you'd see them everywhere.

Space Music: Carl Sagan - "A Glorious Dawn"

In another installment of space music, I have to help spread the word about this marvelous audiovisual creation by John Boswell, AKA melodysheep of Color Pulse Music. What he's done here is take samples and footage from Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" and Stephen Hawking's "Universe" and mixed it all into a musical tribute. What might have come off as parody in the hands of a lesser artist really conveys a sense of cosmological awe and wonder.

Biomass Bunny Fuel: Has it come to this?

I usually treat biomass fuel with a bit of levity. In fact, let's be honest: I've only written about it when it's centered on cow poop, leaving out all the groundbreaking, somewhat boring stories of other organic matter like wood pulp or alcohol fumes. That's about to change, because while the biomass story below is about cute, sometimes ridiculous animals producing energy, it's also rather gruesome and difficult to joke about.

Thailand: AIDS Vaccines, Cabbages and Condoms

I've been back from Thailand three weeks now (two of them flu-free!), so this is pretty much the last chance I have to get away with posting a few vacation photos. As with last week's post on Bangkok sinking into the ocean, I'm wrapping this one around a relevant scientific topic: the battle against AIDS in Thailand.

Lawn Chair Balloonists: Some People Will Do Anything to Fly

If you could have any super power, what would it be? I love asking this question. My friend Ben said he'd like to be able to talk to animals. He's a softie. Robert reports that he's torn between wanting to talk to cats (another one!) and wanting to manipulate atmospheric heat. Sarah's also digging on the Dr. Dolittle and the flying. I'm a little surprised.

Science is Scary (Steampunk isn't)

Sure, steampunk makes for adorable costumes and some snazzy-looking gadgets, but is it really the stuff of haunted houses? Pittsburgh's ScareHouse seems to think so, but just when is science terrifying and when does it merely promise us jazzy retro bikes?