Right Now in Stuff to Blow Your Mind

Robot Performs Surgery on Turkey Breast

Everyone loves the idea of a robot surgeon. There's the GH-7 meddroid from "Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back," the lovable but butchering Medibot from "Look Around You," and the occasional robot psychologist or plastic surgeon on "Futurama." And I can only imagine Hajime Sorayama came up with some manner of silvery, sexy robot nurse, but I'm not about to Google that at work. At any rate, hey, it looks like work on real-life robotic surgeons is progressing nicely. They might not be ready to dump you into a Bacta tank or upgrade your face, but Discovery News reports that a robotic surgeon at Duke University has successfully used an ultrasound to find a sliver of steel shrapnel and guide a needle to it -- and all on its own to boot.

Today I brought in my "Michael Jackson Number Ones" to pay tribute to the King of Pop. While most of the catchy songs are also helping me get into vacation mindset, there's one track on the disc that's more likely to induce a severe case of eco-anxiety than the insatiable urge to dance. That would be "Earth Song," Jackson's 1995 environmental anthem, released years before there really was such a thing. Sure, there are earlier environmental songs like "Big Yellow Taxi" and "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)," but "Earth Song" holds nothing back. It has soaring choirs, crucifixion themes and a video with post-apocalyptic rainforests and dead elephants. I was surprised to learn in the Guardian's environment blog that "Earth Song" was also Jackson's biggest-selling single in the United Kingdom. Yes, it beat out other hits like "Thriller" and "Billie Jean" by selling more than a million copies and topping the '95 Christmas charts.

Opium-fueled Wallabies Create Crop Circles

What mysterious causes underlie the existence of crop circles? Alien spacecraft from beyond the stars? Pranksters from the next town over? Or are they actually the work of opium-addicted wallabies? Well, at least in Australia, doped-up marsupials may indeed be the ones to blame.

So my wife and I were discussing Josh and Chuck's recent podcast on our culture's dire need for innovators, teleportation and a universal language. We both agreed on the first count, but were split on the other two. Setting aside the ethical and possibly gene-splicing issues of teleportation, I just couldn't get behind the idea of a universal language. Recently, I finally got around to reading Neal Stephenson's cyberpunk classic "Snow Crash" and there's a great deal of interesting stuff in the book about human language as an operating system and how the trend toward divergence in language actually prevents and protects us from widespread harm. If a farmer grows only one crop, then his entire farm is susceptible to devastation from a single parasite. Stephenson makes a case that destructive movements such as Nazism are cultural viruses. If more of us had the same operating system in our brains, then something like that would be much harder to contain. So in that sense, a universal language might mean that a truly dangerous idea could spread throughout human culture, largely unchecked.

The prefix "micro" in no way fits the current utility-driven electric industry. The companies that supply power are big; the plants that make power are big; and the grid -- that collection of transmission wires that crosshatches the nation -- is massive. That's why I found Fast Company's recent article on the "microgrid" so interesting. Distributed power (the microgrid) is the antithesis of the behemoth utility company. While it might take years for a utility to build renewable energy power plants and connect them to the grid through miles-long, high-voltage connections, it's relatively easy (if somewhat expensive) for individuals to outfit their homes with solar panels or small wind turbines. Produce enough power, and you can start selling the extra juice back to the very same power plant that used to supply you. Running the meter backward is called "net metering," and it's of obvious concern to utilities that would rather send out bills than checks.

After decades of growth and sprawl, the economic recession is forcing some cities to downsize and turn their abandoned neighborhoods back over to nature. Flint, Mich., the original home of General Motors now facing a staggering 20 percent unemployment rate, began bulldozing derelict outlying areas -- a move that might save the city from bankruptcy. Now the U.S. government and several charities are reviewing such "shrink to survive" programs and are considering launching similar razzings in other areas. According to the Telegraph (via Inhabitat), 50 economically depressed cities could be "pruned" as it were and turned back into meadows and forest, potentially freeing up resources for the citizens who remain. Flint instituted the project after local politicians forecasted the city needed a 40 percent reduction in size to stay in the black. Amenities were stretched too thin over the 34-square-mile area.

As is sometimes the case with genetic anomalies and mutations, sirenomelia or "mermaid syndrome" conjures certain fanciful images that have nothing to do with the traumatic effects associated with the actual medical anomaly. Sirenomelia is so named because the birth defect involves the apparent fusing of the legs into a single lower limb, with the out-turned feet often resembling fish fins. The defect also commonly affects the kidneys, large intestines and genitalia. The condition sometimes affects the spine, brain and lungs as well. According to Healthline.com, this rare condition occurs when a fetus develops only one umbilical artery (which pumps blood from the fetus to the placenta) and one umbilical vein (which returns blood to the fetus), while normal fetuses develop two umbilical arteries and one umbilical vein. The altered arrangement causes less blood and nutrition to reach the lower body, leading to the fused limbs and underdeveloped array of organs.

Tree Week's Deadly Conclusion: "Wicked Plants"

Thus far, Tree Week has been kind to our arboreal friends, focusing on their value and overall inimitable perfection. But hey, since we're not living in a "Giving Tree" fantasy, where all trees are selfless providers to man, it's OK to talk about their darker (shadier?) side, too.

Robots Have a Hall of Fame

The Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science continues to honor both real and fictional bots with its Robot Hall of Fame. Who are your picks for 2010?

Fake trees are often creepy, or at best, unsightly. Think of the jovial yet unsettling talking tree at FAO Schwarz -- didn't it frighten you a bit? Or the far from disguised cell phone towers with bristly "branches" shooting off at right angels? Maybe it's the foliaged answer to the "Uncanny Valley" theory, but it's just plain hard to use the natural beauty of a tree as a convincing disguise. However, when the technologies in need of cloaking are 300-foot wind turbines or acres-wide solar power plants, I guess it's worth a try. According to Scientific American (via Fast Company), start-up Solar Botanic wants to combine a triumvirate of energy technologies -- photovolatics, thermoelectrics and piezoelectrics -- onto small leaf shapes that attach to artificial trees. The company estimates that the power generated by a 20-foot canopy would be enough to run a house.

Astronomers Lose Access to Government Satellites

Let the conspiracy theories run wild. For years, planetary scientists and astronomers have benefited from an unofficial arrangement with the U.S. Military. With access to data from the Defense Support Program satellite network (part of the Pentagon's early-warning system), they've had the ability to better study incoming meteorites -- but no longer.

Yesterday, fellow-science blogger Sarah Dowdey issued a challenge: If she tried to blog about trees all week and I tried to blog about bugs, which of us would get sick of it first? This scientific game of chicken continues today as she blogs about an African bagpipe forest and I discuss the U.S. government's plans for the nation's insects. Yes, we all saw the video of President Obama killing a fly on national television, but might he have also just squished a high-level government agent? According to Katie Drummond over at Wired's Danger Room blog, the Pentagon is giving serious consideration to fitting insect larvae with chemical weapon-sniffing gadgetry.

The Eco-friendly Bagpipes of Tanzania

I actually own a wooden clarinet, but I hadn't even heard of the African blackwood tree, also known as mpingo, until I read this article in National Geographic News. The slow-growing, dark-colored tree is used to make woodwinds and bagpipes. Turns out, it's also about to make life a little better for two Tanzanian villages.

It might turn into Tree Week here on the Science Stuff Blog, since I keep finding such neat articles about trees. (My excellent co-blogger Robert Lamb seems to be on more of a Bug Week trajectory between his posts on bed bug pheromones and "The Fly.") According to Inhabitat, the Bronx Grand Concourse is about to play host to the summer-long "Tree Museum," an oral history of the 4.5-mile boulevard's oldest residents. Each of the project's 100 trees will feature placards listing a phone number and a personalized extension. Call the number and the tree will tell you about itself, the neighborhood or the local ecology (as voiced by folks who grew up with the trees). Artist Katie Holten dreamed up the project by envisioning the Grand Concourse as it would have looked 100 years ago: no buildings, no cars, but still some of the same trees.

Smear Yourself in Bed Bug Pheromones

Indeed, what better way to ward off pesky bed bugs than to crush them up and coat yourself in their juices? It may sound like a tactic from a Guillermo del Toro film (seriously, he's used this in at least two separate films), but according to Discovery Channel News, it's actually the basis of a new tactic from entomologists at Ohio State University.

Nelson's Column, the famous center point of London's Trafalgar Square, is usually surrounded by museums, crowds and, until recently, hoards of pigeons. But for one week in mid-November, it will be ringed by the stumps of enormous African trees in a shocking display of environmental art. While artist Angela Palmer compares the stark exhibit to images of a post-World War I landscape, the installation highlights the present, not the past. According to BBC News, the gnarled roots and abbreviated stumps are meant to call attention to tropical deforestation, one of the biggest causes of man-made greenhouse gases. If that's not enough to drive the point home, green laser beams will shine into the night sky, marking the trees' phantom canopies. Although the trees in the exhibit are not actually victims of deforestation (Palmer sourced all of the stumps from naturally fallen trees), they hail from Ghana, a country that's suffered heavily from illegal logging.

Mad Science: Human Flora and 'The Fly'

In David Cronenberg's 1986 film "The Fly," brilliant scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) accidently splices his genes with a housefly stowaway. But what about all the foreign DNA that would have existed in Brundle's internal microbes?

How much does unappealing language hold back messages about global warming, um, I mean the "deteriorating atmosphere?" That's what the nonprofit PR firm ecoAmerica set out to study. Its findings suggested that no, people don't want to hear about "global warming," or even "climate change" -- it makes them freeze up and think about Al Gore -- but they wouldn't mind listening to a few value-focused "talking points." Although the ecoAmerica study was just released yesterday, it's already been around the block a few times. About a month ago, a summary meant for government officials and environmental leaders was accidentally e-mailed to several news outlets, including the New York Times. More recently, Grist reported on the document, which focuses on nearly every environmental buzzword out there.

Periodic Table Gets New Element

As my fellow science blogger and periodic table enthusiast Allison Loudermilk is out on maternity leave, I'll have to be the one to blog about the latest development in the bagging and tagging of elements. We have a new one, folks -- a super heavy, man-made metal with the temporary title of 112 or "ununbium," which is Latin for 1-1-2.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) cracked down on three companies Tuesday for making "false and unsubstantiated claims" that their products were biodegradable. According to Green Inc., the companies, which included Kmart, Tender and Dyna-E International, had mislabeled products like plates, moist wipes and the intriguingly titled "compressed dry towels." Initially, this seems like a case of an FTC crackdown on greenwashing of the outright lies variety -- something along the lines of blatant misrepresentation (i.e., you call it Styrofoam, we'll call it biodegradable!). But it turns out to be a little more complex than that. At least one company -- Kmart -- believed its vendor's claim that plates from the American Fare brand were really biodegradable. The FTC's problem is that while an object might be biodegradable in theory, it's not going anywhere if it's disposed of in the traditional ways: landfills, incinerators or recycling facilities.