Right Now in Stuff to Blow Your Mind

Chernobyl's Fallout Fauna May Pave Way for Space Crops

More than two decades after the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe, scientists continue to study the effects of radioactive fallout on local plants and insects. Might these adaptations lead the way towards radiation-resistant space crops?

Rainforest Proves Money Grows on Trees

From the beginning, the 914,289-acre (370,000-hectare) Iwokrama rainforest in Guyana was unusual. It's the largest swath of undisturbed rainforest in the world and neither a private nor traditional public parkland. Since 1989, an international board of trustees has administered the forest, while the Iwokrama International Centre manages the land and makes use of its assets. The publication of Iwokrama's 2008 financial report just made the forest a little more interesting. According to the Economist, the forest turned a profit of $800,000 by exploiting its sustainability -- assets that include ecotourism, forestry research and forest products, in addition to the more traditional timber extraction. Through this carefully managed array of services tuned to avoid deforestation, the centre has managed to put their forest in the black. But more ambitiously, the centre is looking to make use of its ecosystem services, services "a forest provides merely by existing." Ecosystem services might sound like a new term, but you're probably already familiar with at least one type: forestry offsets for carbon sequestration.

North Korea flexed its nuclear power yet again today, setting off two more short-range missiles following yesterday's underground nuclear bomb detonation, according to AP. Worldwide and U.N. condemnation of the nuclear tests, even from previous backers such as Russia, hasn't daunted the isolated country. But what is a short-range ballistic missile, or SRBM? Exactly what it sounds like: a missile that can travel up to 1,000 kilometers (620 miles). That's a lot farther than the 112 miles (180 kilometers) separating Pyongyang, North Korea, and Seoul, South Korea. Next up are medium-range ballistic missiles, which can cover 620 to 1,860 miles (1,000 to 3,000 kilometers). Say the state of Texas were serious about seceding from the United States and wanted to send a lob a nuclear missile at the U.S. capital from the state capital of Austin, this is the bomb that would cover those 1,500-odd miles, or 2,400 kilometers, with ease.

So, amid all the planet hacking content last week, I managed to miss out on an exciting bit of space news. Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) fired up the new $250 million wastewater recycling system and toasted their success with a tall glass of recycled urine. No microgravity spit takes were reported. According to Space.com, the system recycles daily urine and wastewater back into potable water for bathing, drinking and food preparation (such as putting some slush back in that bowl of dehydrated goulash). The system has actually been up and running since November, but technical problems prevented it from helping out with anything other than the station's oxygen generator, which uses electrolyzes to split H2O into hydrogen and oxygen.

Happy International Day for Biological Diversity...Now Watch out for 6-foot Lizards!

To a 30-pound (14-kilogram) lizard, a sunny tarmac in southern Florida looks like a pretty nice place to spend the day. But to the pilots who land and take off planes from those tarmacs, a lizard-dotted runway looks like a major safety problem -- and an issue of human health.

My father-in-law is a fan of the site and loves discussing article topics with me. A couple of months back, we wound up discussing methods of tinkering with the environment and brought up the ridiculous notion of setting off nuclear weapons to counter global warming. I blogged about this a while ago. Anyway, my father-in-law recommended another strategy: set off some volcanoes.

Attention Short People: Tall People Are Slow

George Costanza and other shorties listen up: This post's for you. The next time that someone ribs you about the view down there or suggests that you haven't grown since the sixth grade, throw this bit of research back in their face: You, my petite friends, may in fact be consciously quicker than the taller folks around you.

Remember space mirrors and reflective crops from last week? The principle is the same, only instead of using plants or shiny satellites to bounce solar radiation back out into space, we're using the natural reflective barrier of cloud cover. HowStuffWorks has an article on cloud seeding as a means of promoting rain, but this is slightly different. The goal isn't to make it rain but to fatten up reflective cloud cover (which, of course, leads to rain). According to BBC News, with a 3 percent increase reflectivity, we could make a serious dent in the global warming brought on by increased CO2 production. The snazziest proposed method of doing this involves the use of automated robot fleets. The brainchild of professors John Latham and Stephen Salter, each ship would busy itself solely with the task of spraying particalized seawater up into the air to form low-level cloud cover.

Wind Farm Kills Goats

Eventually I'm going to have to back away from these goat- or sheep-centered posts -- but I'm not ready yet. Leave it to the BBC to report on something truly bizarre: A Taiwanese farmer is claiming nearby wind turbines killed 400 of his goats. Don't compare this one to wind turbines killing birds, though.

10 Planet Hacking Schemes -- No. 3: Fertilize Some Ocean

For our next planet hacking scheme, we're taking geoengineering right back into the ocean. I know what you're thinking. What's next, right? Giant robotic squid that suck CO2 in with their tentacles of green fury? Some wonder chemical that makes the ocean more reflective? While I promise that the next entry will have robots in it, this entry is all about growing a ton of whale food in the sea.

You thought you were done with swine flu, but no. A new study conducted by the Dartmouth Medical School and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole reports that the water you're chugging may affect how well your immune system can fight off the influenza A (H1N1) virus. Healthy people (and mice) often can muster a counterattack in a snap or with a little help from some antibiotics. But the researchers found that mice who had been drinking arsenic-laced water (100 parts per billion) for five weeks were delayed in fighting the H1N1 infection. When their immune systems finally took charge, they went overboard, which led to bleeding and damage in the lungs, according to the related EurekaAlert press release. (You can read the full article for free in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.) I'd assume most people aren't intentionally flavoring water with a little arsenic, unless you're looking to enact a little revenge medieval style.

Boxed wine may seem synonymous with poor, imbibing college students and more specifically, the low-end brand Franzia. Until recently, that's a pretty on-base assumption. According to Forbes, Franzia has led case sales of wine for 14 years and monopolized the "don't mind if it's cheap; don't care if it's in a bottle" market. Apparently, though, there's room for change. As consumers with slightly more refined tastes become less concerned about packaging elegance and more interested in packaging efficiency, they're buying up new crate wines. Several small companies (including respected Italian labels) have begun packaging their products in boxes instead of bottles. While their superior quality chips away a bit at boxed wine's somewhat dodgy reputation, their lighter packaging and square size reduces transportation emissions by as much as four times. The only major challenge facing boxed wine (besides that cheapo stigma), is that plastic bags and cardboard aren't suitable packaging for wines that require long aging periods.

10 Planet Hacking Schemes -- No. 4: Add Limestone and Stir

So thus far we've looked at a number of land- and air-based planet hacking schemes to counter global warming. But what about the ocean? As I promised Friday, we're hitting the seven seas for the next couple of entries. First up: carbonate addition.

Evolution headlines may not pack the same punch that they once did*, but that hasn't stopped everyone from jumping on the "missing link" bandwagon on this particular slow news day in May. All the fuss is over "Ida," the 47-million-year-old lemur-like creature discovered in Germany in the 1980s. For most of that time, it lingered in a private collection, but now, decades later, this fossil is finally in the spotlight. Yep, there's already a book deal, a David Attenborough documentary, an American Museum of Natural History display and a snazzy website to help promote it. Can a Burger King promotion be that far off?

The Lost Cosmonauts and Astronauts

Do you remember where you were when Christa McAuliffe and the rest of the Challenger crew died in a fiery explosion? It was 1986. I'm almost certain I was sitting in my middle school English class when the news broke. We were watching the launch on one of those TVs they would wheel in from the library.

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.