Right Now in Stuff to Blow Your Mind

If you're growing a garden at home, you're probably doing it to save a little money, get some exercise and reap the healthy fruits (and vegetables) of your labor. Chances are you're not looking for a dose of lead poisoning. Unfortunately for the growing ranks of home gardeners (7 million more households planted plots this year over last year, according to the National Gardening Association), most urban and suburban soil is contaminated with lead. The dangerous residue is a legacy of lead-based paint, pesticides and leaded gasoline. According to the New York Times, if your garden's soil is near a busy roadway, an old orchard or a structure (standing or demolished) that was built before 1978 -- lead-based paint's last year on the market -- it's likely tainted with lead.

Last week, we plowed through five proposed methods of hacking the planet to counter the effects of global warming, and this week we have five more on our plate, again ranging from the seemingly mundane to the stuff of science fiction. I'll leave you to decide where today's entry ranks: a giant microwave called "Black Phantom." Have you ever overcooked a potato in a normal microwave? Well, according to the 80beats blog at Discover Magazine, Carbonscape's Black Phantom is essentially designed to carry out the same process, except it can cook enough wood to create an entire ton of biochar (also known as terra petra and agrichar) a day.

Air pollution's affect on your lungs is pretty obvious. Go out running on a Code Purple air quality day and you'll come home thirsty, coughing and tired (so please don't). Air pollution, especially particulate matter, also messes with your heart, affecting its electrical system and potentially causing or exacerbating heart disease. But it turns out air pollution might have even subtler -- and more disturbing -- ways of upending your health. Building off observations that the tissue and blood of lung cancer patients sometimes shows altered gene programming as a result of a chemical transformation called methylation, researchers out of the University of Milan did an experiment of their own. They found that certain particulates cause the reprogramming of genes -- changes that can lead to the development of cancer and other diseases. According to ScienceDaily, researchers took blood DNA samples from 63 healthy foundry workers near Milan, Italy, at the beginning of the work week.

You may have thought drug testing represented the only way for someone to find out if you'd been using illegal substances. Nope. As it turns out, air and water can tell tales about your illicit exploits. According to William Saletan's Human Nature blog post, so far Spanish scientists coordinating collective drug surveillance have revealed that Spaniards in Barcelona and Madrid prefer cocaine over amphetamines, opiates, cannabinoids and drugs with lysergic acid (like prescription pills and acid). And they seems to like heroin, too, according to the Spanish team who published their findings in the journal Analytical Chemistry. (By the way, I found a wealth of unexpectedly fascinating articles in the journal, like Christine Piggee's piece investigating a not-so natural high.) The researchers not only figured out what drugs Spaniards are doing, but when they're doing them more -- on the weekend, of course.

Can you make something useful for under a dollar?

This year, students at the Pratt Institute were treated to a special challenge: design something beneficial for one dollar or less. Fast Company reported on the challenge, which was part of the ICFF Design Schools' Exhibition. Students employed creative upcycling to the extreme.

10 Planet Hacking Schemes -- No. 6: Stratospheric Aerosols

Yesterday, we looked at the rather mad science-type method of using giant space mirrors to reflect solar radiation away from Earth. Today's scheme is similar, but less becoming of a Bond villain. Why don't we just fly some planes (or balloons) up into the stratosphere and dump tons of reflective particles into the upper atmosphere?

You've heard of hackers and trolls and all those people that Jonathan and Chris like to talk about on the TechStuff blog, but what about "biohackers"? They're do-it-yourselfers of a different variety, specifically the kind who like to experiment with biology outside laboratory walls, and not necessarily in a malicious way. Take Katherine Aull. According to Jeanne Whalen's Wall Street Journal story, Aull is just interested in making a customizable E. coli organism -- in her apartment. There's even an organization dedicated to making "biology a worthwhile pursuit for citizen scientists, amateur biologists and DIY biological engineers who value openness and safety." It's called DIYbio. Don't quite get it? These are the folks who are doing stuff like grafting a cranberry-apple tree (a crapple tree!) or building open-source lab equipment or examining their genome in the privacy of their own home, according to Mackenzie Cowell, one of the guys behind DIYbio.

Vauban, Germany: Suburban Life without Cars

Here in Georgia, there's a planned city outside of Atlanta that's known for its preferred method of local travel: golf carts. Many residents own their own carts, special paths crisscross between destinations and kids start manning the wheel at 12. Vauban, Germany does them one better, though with its carless (and cartless) streets.

Yesterday we talked about taking some of the heat out of global warming by planting reflective crops. The more solar radiation we reflect, the less is emitted as terrestrial radiation to heat up the green house gases in our atmosphere. But I know what you're thinking: Can't we just launch massive space mirrors into orbit and preemptively keep the sunlight from entering our atmosphere? Well, it's certainly one of the planet hacking options on the table. University of Calgary environmental scientist Dr. David Keith is a big supporter of this geoengineering approach to fixing the planet. Keith presented the idea at a 2007 climate change conference in Cambridge, Mass. Need to prevent ice from melting on Greenland? Simply throw some space mirrors up there to provide some shade. The potential cooling factor for this planet hacking scheme is immense, but the challenges and risks involved are obvious.

Scientists have taken a potentially monumental step in figuring out how life began on Earth. We've always known that life had to emerge somehow from the soup of chemicals that constituted the early days on our planet, but scientists were never quite sure how that happened. After all, it's not that easy to create life from purely chemical means. Or so we thought until now. But University of Manchester researchers seem to have given it a good shake. According to a study published online today in Nature, the chemists untangled a set of chemical reactions that could have led to the synthesis of RNA, or ribonucleic acid. So what? Well, there's this thing called the RNA world hypothesis that scientists have been kicking around for a few decades, according to Solmaz Barazesh's story in Science News. And in this theory, RNA-based life forms are the superstars who started it all, the reason why you're sitting at your computer right now reading this story.

Dubai's never-ending slew of conceptual architectural designs tends to run together in my mind. They usually feature an outsized silver building of unconventional shape (perhaps situated on also unconventionally shaped man-made land). The new designs for Dubai's latest eco-venture are no exception. According to Inhabitat, the Dubai Chamber of Commerce authorized the development of a free zone called Food City. Dubai's free zones are officially "offshore" no man's lands -- areas that fall outside of the UAE's legal code in order to attract international business. But with Dubai's economy looking more bust than boom, the emirate has decided to spin its latest venture toward sustainability instead of the gilded (literally) luxury it's known for. Not to be confused with Abu Dhabi's Masdar City project or Dubai's Xeritown, Food City is touted as an "off-the-grid, self-sufficient metropolis" featuring every energy-saving or alternative-energy technology under the sun.

10 Planet Hacking Schemes -- No. 8: Reflective Crops

So we're three days into a two-week look at geoengineering plans that might just allow us to counter the effects of global warming. The schemes we've looked at so far have involved planting both real and fake trees to suck up all that extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Today, we have another low-tech means of hacking the planet: reflective crops.

Quick. How many 2-by-2-by-2 cubes must be added to an 8-by-8-by-8 cube to make a 10-by-10-by-10 cube? Got your answer? Did you come up with it in less than a minute? Was it 61? If you didn't answer "yes" to those last three questions, then you lost out to Bobby Shen of Sugar Land, Texas, this year's winner of the 2009 Raytheon Mathcounts National Competition.

The Department of Energy calls it "funding opportunity DE-FOA-0000065." But I'd like to call it something more rousing -- a potentially enormous monetary prize! If you've been sitting on a great idea that could revolutionize the future of energy in the United States, today's the day to make something of it. The DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency -- Energy (ARPA-E) is offering up to $20 million in financing for energy-related technological concepts, according to the Wall Street Journal's Environmental Capital blog. May 12 marks the starting date for the three-week window of submissions. So what kinds of projects is ARPA-E looking for? Pretty much anything, so long as it's a "high-risk, high-payoff" "transformational energy-related technology" that helps overcome the nation's reliance on fossil fuels. Basically, something that's promising, needs help and isn't just an improvement on an existing technology. There are only four criteria.

Can science help us stave off global warming? Well, that's the whole idea behind geoengineering, also known as planet hacking. For two weeks, I'm going to be counting down 10 of the sensible- and crazy-sounding schemes that might just save the day for us. Yesterday, I looked at the decidedly mundane method of just planting a ton of trees to eat up more CO2. Of course, whatever nature can do, science can do even better -- right? Klaus Lackner, director of Columbia University's Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy, seems to think so. His solution calls for forests of giant, artificial trees that just suck the CO2 right out of the atmosphere and either store it in underground tanks or use it to make synthetic fuel. As you can see from the photo, one of these trees definitely looks more like a fly swatter than a mighty oak.

Who's on Hubble?

I'm sure you know all about the most famous eye in the sky and how it's been sorely in need of repairs. You might even have memorized some of the events slated for the long-awaited STS-125 mission to fix Hubble. But what do really you know about the six men and one woman on board space shuttle Atlantis entrusted with this space adventure?

What did your student fees pay for anyway? Library access? The student association? The health center? Chances are that unless you're a recent graduate (or you're in school now), they didn't include a mandatory "green fee," a small charge of about $3 to $5 per semester that helps the university finance things like renewable energy and energy conservation technologies on campus. I would have expected these extra fees to be a sore point with already maxed-out college students and their parents -- even though they're comparatively small when you stack them up against the majority of college expenses. Wrong. Today, Green Inc. featured a post on such fees and the rising number of students pushing to self-impose them. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education maintains a list of universities with "green fees," along with information about the fee rate, the percentage of students that approved the increase and details about where the money goes.

10 Planet Hacking Schemes -- No. 10: Foresting

Can humans break the planet's climate? Global warming proponents insist that we can. And if so, does that mean we can fix it, too? Forget conservation and clean energy! Science got us into this mess, and science can darn well get us out. In the nine days ahead, we're going to touch on some crazy-sounding ideas. For day one, however, we're going to start low-tech with a no-brainer: Plant a whole bunch of trees.

Poo, Round 2: Cosmetics Courtesy of Cow Poop

It's really hard to define what "natural" means in regard to beauty products. If you ever page though Julia Layton's great article on natural cosmetics, you'll find that "green" makeup and personal care items are awash in ambiguities and vague packaging (what does "inspired by botanicals" mean anyways?). That said, I'm really curious to see how L'Oréal will spin this tidbit on its lipstick tubes and shampoo tubs: One of the company's factories runs on poop.

Pants Full of Birds Wind Dong Behind Bars

Leggings covered with live, pooping exotic birds: They're not good fashion sense and, as it turns out, they're not the best way to smuggle rare Vietnamese wildlife into the United States.