Right Now in Stuff to Blow Your Mind

Happy Earth Day

It's that time of year again. Magazines put out their "green" issues. Comic-strip characters reveal their inner conservationist leanings. "The Price Is Right" features all eco-friendly products. Late April means Earth Day, and while environmental action has expanded far beyond the confines of one day, it's still the symbolic head of the movement -- the day most groups and businesses choose to highlight their efforts.

Could it be? Dare we hope? Nope, but we're definitely getting closer. Michel Mayor, an exoplanet researcher from the European Southern Observatory (ESO), shook the planet hunting world today with two pieces of potential good news. First, add another exoplanet to the count: Planet Gliese 581 e, but you can call it "e" for short if you're hanging out in the planetary 'hood where it was found, right after planets "b," "c" and "d." The cool thing about "e" is that it's roughly the right size and makeup to be an Earth-like competitor. The bad news is that it's not in the habitable zone. Second, Mayor and fellow researchers revised the orbit of the planet Gliese 581 d, and this world IS thought to reside in the habitable zone, thanks to the keen observations of the scientists manning the ESO telescope at La Silla, Chile.

Avert the Apocalypse with Quantum Denial

Common sense tends to dictate that, if you want to avoid impending disaster, you need to get up and do something about it. On a head-on collision course with a dump truck? Swerve out of the way. Considering a future bout with lung cancer? Quit smoking. Whatever fate is staring you down, everyone knows that you can't solve your problem by pretending it doesn't exist. Unless you're a quantum physicist, of course.

LEDs may be great for spotlights, Christmas decorations and sheep adornment, but they do have their drawbacks. Laserlike LEDs are always on high beam (thus those blinding headlights). They light but they don't illuminate. Organic LEDs (OLEDs), on the other hand, do. Already a TV-lover's fantasy, OLEDs are flat light sources, only as thick as their substrates. However, as films replace thicker substrates like glass, OLEDs could become even thinner, more versatile and a whole lot cheaper, according to Optik & Photonik. Scientific American speculates that it will become possible to create not only illuminated ceiling panels out of flexible OLEDs, but energy-efficient, translucent windows. While I wouldn't mind if my cubicle window gave off a soft glow as the sun set, any OLED technology is, as of now, well outside of most consumers' budgets.

The Vatican Is Going Solar

Have all the world's smallest countries decided to go green in the past month? I recently wrote about the Maldives' plan to stop using fossil fuels by 2020; now it seems the Vatican will follow suit, investing in a solar power plant.

Best Bots Battle at FIRST Championship Saturday

With our complimentary safety glasses firmly protecting me and my family from flying robot parts, we ventured down to the FIRST FRC qualification rounds at the Georgia Dome on Saturday morning. Downtown Atlanta was an odd mix of robots and their makers, as well as highly caffeinated people competing for the title of the world's best barista at the adjacent Georgia World Congress Center.

So, last week we learned that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency had 10 favorite means of forcibly extracting said intelligence from detainees in the war on terror. Widely condemned as a checklist of U.S.-approved torture techniques, the list included water boarding. Now news has broken that a 2005 CIA memo states that water boarding was used 266 times on two detainees. For those unfamiliar with the practice, water boarding involves pouring water over a victim's face to simulate the sensation of drowning -- a terrifying and anxiety-ridden experience to say the least. If you need a more visual idea of what this entails, click to view the full post and watch the video clip from Amnesty International. WARNING: Features a disturbing recreation of torture.

In the northern Pacific, there's a confluence of currents; and in the middle of the spiraling waters float two enormous masses of trash: the Western and Eastern Pacific Garbage Patches, or, collectively, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Most sailors steer clear of the gyre -- it's filled with trash, not fish, and the air currents aren't pleasant. But the patch is about to get a high-profile visit from banking heir David de Rothschild and his catamaran made from bottles. De Rothschild and his team plan to launch their summer expedition across the Pacific Ocean (San Francisco to Sydney) in a recycled-waste vessel. According to National Geographic Adventure, the twin-hulled boat is made from 20,000 plastic bottles, meticulously selected and all clear. The New Yorker reports that the voyage's highlight will be the stop by the Eastern Garbage Patch, where de Rothschild will gather water samples and take photos for his environmental organization, Adventure Ecology.

By now, you guys have heard about the four memos that the U.S. Department of Justice released yesterday detailing and approving interrogation techniques for use by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. If you want to read the memos in all their horrifying detail, the ACLU has posted them on its Web site here. It's scary and surreal to see 10 U.S.-government approved torture techniques in cold, hard PDF print. But there they are, detailed in Jay Busbee's (then Assistant Attorney General, OLC) Aug. 1, 2002, memo to John A. Rizzo (General Counsel CIA). Without further ado, here are the 10 methods: 1. Attention grasp, which consists of "grasping the individual with both hands, one hand on each side of the collar opening, in a controlled and quick motion." 2. Walling, which, as best as I can understand it, consists of slamming a person against a wall. The wall is false, and the person's head and neck are supported to prevent whiplash. Great. Plus eight more.

Robots and Teens Invade Atlanta for FIRST Championship

The FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) World Championship brought more than 10,000 students and 533 custom-built robots to Atlanta's Georgia Dome this week. Friday morning, my wife and I braved the horrors of Atlanta commuter traffic to make the witness the FIRST robot parade in all its geeky splendor. Check out the photos!

A few weeks ago, an old friend of mine was bemoaning her inability to understand men. I told her to take a close look at insects and everything will begin to seem a lot more cut-and-dried. Not to say you can solve all gender-related issues by looking at a beehive, but the more I look at insects, the more it becomes clear that the females are the real members of any given species and the men are essentially an adaptation necessary to breeding. A little while ago, I posted about termite queens that produce asexually to make a clone of themselves, who carry on mating with the termite king after they've reached the end of their shorter life span. Well, the same publication, the UK's Royal Society B, has hit us with another whopper: Amazonian ants that have given up on sexual reproduction altogether. Yes, they're an all-female species.

When you're watching a herd of sleek caribou crunch across the Arctic landscape, animal migration seems preordained, predestined -- a massive, well-coordinated movement that occurs thanks to internal cues and clocks. And that's true, except for animals raised in captivity, like the whooping crane. (Am I the only one who can't help but think of Tom Robbins' book "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" whenever these tall, leggy creatures are mentioned?) How do you teach a whooper to migrate? Well, you borrow a lightweight aircraft, get it airborne and broadcast the bird's call on the craft's handy MP3 player, according to Catherine Schwanke's story at Popular Science. The aviators and wildlife enthusiasts at Operation Migration first got the idea to teach birds migratory behavior and lead them on safer migration paths after watching geese follow a boat. Keep reading to see a video of them departing.

We all know eco-consciousness has a thorough stronghold in the beauty industry. But it's usually paired with a powerful message to buy -- throw out your concealer and replace it with mineral makeup; get rid of your shampoo and buy organic; choose natural sunscreen because nothing else will do. It's a lot more surprising to come across an eco-conscious beauty directive that urges you to give up a product. But that's the gist of the "no 'poo" movement, short for "no shampoo." According to NPR's "Morning Edition," some folks are giving up what is, for most of us, a daily ritual. Jeanne Haegele, a woman featured in the NPR story, went three whole months without shampooing in an effort to buy fewer plastic items. Baking soda took the place of shampoo while vinegar filled in for conditioner. I figured such a routine would quickly result in a really bad, greasy hair day. Dermatologists, however, say no.

NASA and Colbert = Fast Friends

NASA didn't name the node after him, but Stephen Colbert did learn that at least one piece of space hardware will bear his name: the combined operational load bearing external resistance treadmill. Astronaut Sunita Williams broke the news to Colbert on his late-night TV show yesterday.

U.S. Declares War on Bed Bugs

We thought we'd defeated them during World War II -- driven them from our mattresses and couches with powerful pesticides. But bed bugs are making a comeback, and you won't just find them in squalid environments and cheap motels. Climate change, decreased use of powerful pesticides and increased international travel have brought them back to dorms, hospitals and even upscale hotels in various major cities.

A Mushrooming Industry in Insulation?

I like mushrooms in my omelets, or sautéed with wine or on a pizza. Who knew they could also insulate my home or compose my to-go box at my favorite kabob restaurant? According to Green Inc., Ecovative Design has developed an organic alternative to fiberglass insulation and Styrofoam using -- you guessed it -- fungi. While still students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre observed how the fungal mycelium of mushrooms (basically mushroom roots) bound wood chips together. They adapted this process -- called microbinding -- in order to make a strong, natural product. The process goes something like this: Fungi cells are mixed with local agricultural wastes high in lignin (such as buckwheat and rice hulls), as well as water, recycled paper and hydrogen peroxide. The mycelium digest the lignin in about a week leaving behind "a strong biological matrix."

Bummer of a Day for Nuclear Arms Nonproliferation

Today wasn't such a good day in the effort to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. You probably heard that North Korea told United Nations inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to pack it up. Adding insult to injury, President Kim Jong Il and company said they'd be resuming operations at a factory responsible for producing weapons-grade plutonium.

As I enjoy my first day working from home as part of HowStuffWorks.com's new telecommuting policy, I thought it only proper to take note of this piece of news: The World Wildlife Fund, that panda-logoed environmental powerhouse, has determined that teleworking is a viable carbon solution. In a study I found via TreeHugger, the WWF posited on four scenarios of future worlds featuring telecommuting. At the top of the game is the so-called "smart world" -- a collision of both the IT industry and policymakers working together to create climate friendly solutions. At the bottom is the "carbon world," with weak climate change policy and little input from the IT industry. The disparity between the scenarios is vast: Nearly 1 billion tons of CO2 differentiate the two by 2030, and nearly 3.5 billion tons by 2050. That's more than half of the United States' current total.

Remember when other kids used to tell you that if you swallowed seeds, that a tree would grow out of your belly? Sure, it might have sounded traumatic at the time, but you eventually grew up... all so you could read a news story about a Russian man who may or may not have a fir tree growing out of his lung. Yep, according to Mosnews.com, a 28-year-old man from the central Russian city of Izhevsk reported to the hospital with chest pains. The doctors detected what they thought was a tumor and removed it. Tucked inside the lump of bloody lung tissue was a 2-inch (5-centimeter) fir tree sapling. And yes, you can view a color photo of the alleged lung tree. Needless to say, this whole story is a bit fishy. Accidental inhalations can pose a problem, but they tend not to result in internal plant growth -- and I say that with God knows how much pollen in my lungs right now. FOX News has already run with the story, but I'm very curious to see if this one gets shot down in the days to come or simply disappears, kind of like that British guy who grew back his finger.

Tick tock, Tick Tock, TICK TOCK, the female biological clock practically screams as we female mammals age. Unlike male mammals, like, say, Indian farmer Nanu Ram Jogi, who fathered a child at 90 (his 21st), according to Mental Floss, females are born with a limited cache of eggs, which diminishes with age. Once the last one's gone, menopause grimly marches forward and the prospect of bearing a child vanishes forever. Or so we thought. Not so, according to fascinating research headed by Ji Wu at Shanghai Tong University and published online by Nature Cell Biology. Wu and his team removed mice ovaries, searching them for a specific type of stem cell capable of growing into eggs or sperm. They found them, grew them in the lab, injected them in sterile female mice, let the females get busy with the males, and -- ta-da! -- healthy mice babies emerged.