Right Now in Stuff to Blow Your Mind

I've been biding my time waiting for the chance to blog about Krakatoa. Ever since I stumbled across a PBS show on the great volcano the other night, I've been looking for my excuse. I've found it.

Where does the Earth end and space begin?

Have you ever wondered where the Earth ends and outer space begins? And how can scientists say definitively? One of the differences between Earth and space centers on how well particles are treated. We subject matter in the Earth's upper bounds to a nice, gentle wind. The Wild West of space, however, tends to be a more violent place.

The Maldives' Grand Plan

As members of Congress pour over a U.S. climate bill centered on a cap-and-trade system, a small collection of idyllic atolls in the Indian Ocean is busy with its own ambitious plan. According to the Economist, the president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, announced in March that his country would attempt to stop using fossil fuels by 2020.

Meat Holds Key to Chimpanzee Dating Success

Chimpanzees are fascinating, whether they're hanging out with Ronald Reagan, blasting into space or ripping someone's face off. They're frightening, they're cute and now we know a little more about the kind of work that goes into becoming a success in the chimp dating world.

There's no law that says you have to get along swimmingly with your father. But what if daddy happens to be a nameless sperm donor and his genetic material wasn't properly screened by the sperm bank? According to an article on New Scientist, a U.S. judge has ruled that 13-year-old Brittany Donovan, who suffers from fragile-X syndrome, can sue New York's Idant Laboratories for not screening out the debilitating genetic disorder. This is essentially a product liability suit -- the same as if you bought a car with faulty engineering. Some states (not New York) offer blood shield laws to protect companies like blood banks from lawsuit. If successful, how far will this legal precedent reach? While I think everyone can agree on the necessity for sperm banks to properly screen donors for conditions such as fragile-X, could we one day see suits over mild depression or male pattern baldness?

Another Reason Not to Marry Your Hot Cousin

Back in high school, I knew a girl who dated her first cousin. When prom time rolled around and they decided to go together, some people snickered at, among other things, what it would say on the invitation. The two of them had the same last name. As it turns out, researchers have come up with another strike against inbreeding and consanguineous marriage: susceptibility to infectious disease. According to a study published online in the Royal Society's biology letters on March 18, 2009, it may not be good for your health to be kissing cousins, let alone marrying them. We already know by studying animal populations that less genetic diversity can be a risk factor for infection from multiple pathogens. We also know that inbreeding isn't so great for noninfectious diseases, such as heart disease, multiple sclerosis, depression and asthma, according to the authors.

Here's the gist of ocean fertilization: You dump large amounts of iron into the sea. That iron encourages algae growth, and the algae, in turn, suck carbon dioxide -- a global-warming culprit -- right out of the atmosphere. The algae eventually sink to the bottom of the ocean, sequestering the CO2 beneath the deep. It sounds like a catchy plan, right? Letting algae do the work of capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide? But even when you put questions about the ocean's potential as a carbon sink aside, there's apparently a problem: "shrimplike animals." According to National Geographic, a team of German and Indian scientists staged a large-scale iron dump in Argentina's coastal waters. They mixed ferrous sulfate with the seawater before releasing it back into the ocean. It worked -- the algae grew -- but not the right type.

Upcycling: Turning Trash into Treasure (Or at Least Totes)

A co-worker passed on a blurb from Fitness Magazine detailing the trend of "upcycling," turning garbage into trendy clothing and accessories. Even if you're not familiar with the term, you'll probably recognize the idea, as well as some of the more ubiquitous designs: totes made from CapriSun pouches and clutches woven from water-bottle or soda labels.

Weird Science Roundup: April 1 Truths

We've had a week to recover from April Fool's Day and, while even HowStuffWorks.com jumped on the fake news bandwagon, it's worth looking back and seeing that, yes, some ACTUAL science news broke on April 1, 2009. Some of it was so strange that I'm just now convincing myself that these are actual articles and not something from the mind of John Hodgeman. Let's take a quick look at a couple of them...

Do you remember what you were doing back in 1994 when O.J. Simpson led the Los Angeles police on that made-for-TV car chase in Southern California? I do. It was the summer, and we all piled around a tiny television in someone's dorm, strangely captivated by what the Juice was doing. Since then, a lot of us have become pretty jaded about such scenes. But yesterday another crazy chase scene played out. The twist? The "driver" wasn't driving a White Ford Bronco. Nope, the suspect, Yavuz Berke, took to the skies in a stolen single-engine Cessna 172, flying it from Canada and across six U.S. states for roughly five hours, with the U.S. military hot on his tail, specifically two F-16 fighter planes. Why didn't they shoot him down? According to the ABC story, the U.S. military decided that the suspect wasn't a terrorist threat, just a psychologically troubled man with a death wish.

Slumbering Italians in Pescara experienced a rude shock around 3:30 a.m. when a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck the town and surrounding areas in central Italy. At least 100 people have died and 10,000 homes were damaged, according to the LA Times. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is saying that the earthquake resulted from "normal faulting on a NW-SE oriented structure in the central Apennines," in its event summary. The USGS has a cool feature called "Did You Feel It?" where you can report your location and what you felt at the time of the earthquake. So far, more than 500 people have weighed in on this natural disaster. Individuals from as far away as Nuremberg, Germany (801 kilometers or 498 miles away) and double that distance in Nottingham, U.K. are reporting that, yes, in fact, they did feel weak shaking.

Space Food: Orbital Curries and Lunchroom Politics

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.

Vampire Pacemakers Powered by Human Blood

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.