Right Now in Stuff to Blow Your Mind

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.

Enhanced Geothermal Energy & Earthquakes

I thought that nothing got the Swiss riled up. Not wars. Not secret bank accounts. Not vast quantities of fine chocolate. But apparently an old-fashioned earthquake will do the trick. Specifically, one with a magnitude of 3.4 and its accompanying sonic boom that scared the pants off Basel, Switzerland back in early 2007. You see the Swiss were building an enhanced geothermal energy system and several minor earthquakes occurred, as is common when you're working on developing this kind of energy. Artificial or enhanced geothermal energy works along the same premise as natural geothermal energy. All geothermal power originates when cracked hot rock heats water into steam. With natural geothermal energy, the Earth provides the cracked rock and steam to power a generator. With artificial geothermal energy, we have to coax the rock to crack with some water, setting the stage for some earthquakes to occur. And that's what happened to the Swiss.

The oceans are getting saltier, and it's apparently in direct response to man-made climate change. Peter Stott, head of climate monitoring and attribution at the Met Office in Exeter, England, determined this after studying 50 years' worth of data and comparing it to climate models "that correct for naturally occurring salinity variations," according to ScienceDaily. Stott and his team found that global warming resulting from man-made emissions (as opposed to emissions from natural sources like volcano eruptions) were likely responsible for the increasing salinity of the North Atlantic. Slight rises in salinity -- less than 1 percent -- have already been recorded in subtropical regions of the Atlantic. Stott hypothesizes that global warming is changing the patterns of rainfall across the planet: As high temperatures zap away water in subtropical zones, the atmosphere carries that extra moisture toward the poles, as well as toward the Pacific via the trade winds.

Archaeologists Map Roman Catacombs with Lasers

Forget hand drawn maps and guided tours, our knowledge of the Roman catacombs is getting a major technological upgrade. A team of 10 Austrian and Italian archaeologists, architects and computer scientists just finished a three-year program to create a 3-D map of the Saint Domitilla catacomb system using laser scanners.

Last fall, the United Nations Environment Program started bandying about the term "Global Green New Deal." The idea referenced President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Great Depression-ending efforts; only this time around, those efforts would invest in green technology to mitigate both the global economic crisis and global warming. Many national governments have climate regulation timetables that could go by the name "Green New Deal." Such efforts feature plans for cap-and-trade systems and incentives to encourage green-collar jobs. Australia's plan, though, has been shelved for now -- ironically a casualty of the very economic crisis it's meant to help soften. According to Green Inc., Kevin Rudd, Australia's Prime Minister, announced Monday that the introduction of a cap-and-trade system would be delayed until mid-2011 and modified to allow new concessions to certain industries (like close-to-free emissions permits). Businesses had protested regulations during the current economic state, and it seemed unlikely the Australian senate would back the bill.

Jeff Kemper of Augusta, Ga., continues to recover in stable condition following his groundbreaking surgery on Monday: the first double hand transplant in the United States. According to NPR and the Associated Press, surgeons at the University of Pittsburg Medical Center (UPMC) wrapped up the procedure in just under nine hours, attaching both hands simultaneously. If all goes to plan, Kemper will get to hold his 13-year-old daughter for the first time since a bacterial infection destroyed his hands and feet a decade ago. Transplant patients have to spend the rest of their lives taking a number of medications to suppress immune functions that would otherwise reject foreign tissue and organs. Those medications, in turn, open the floodgate for higher chances of diabetes and infections. However, UPMC used a procedure aimed at reducing the amount of medications Kemper will have to take.

Goatscaping: Google Uses Rent-a-Goats

For me, the word "goatscaping" conjures up images of goat-shaped topiaries -- an idea that couldn't be further from the decidedly unfussy, low-maintenance reality. According to the Huffington Post, Google is using goats in place of lawn mowers at its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters.