Right Now in Stuff to Blow Your Mind

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.

Cat Parasites Wrecked My Automobile

No seriously, I'm fine -- as is my car and (presumably) my cat. But this is just the sort of claim you might hear a lot of in the future if researchers at Charles University in Prague are really onto something.

Genetic Breakthrough May Let You Saddle up a Zebra

Want to ride a zebra like Tanya Roberts in "Sheena, Queen of the Jungle?" Well, a little genetics stands in the way of that, and a team of scientists claim to have discovered the very genes responsible.

Air pollution isn't good for any of us, but it's especially bad for children and babies. So bad in fact, that economists Michael Greenstone and Kenneth Chay set out to study the correlation between infant mortality and air quality. Their paper, "Air Quality, Infant Mortality, and the Clean Air Act of 1970" compared the reduction of total suspended particulates (TSPs) with changes in infant mortality in parts of the United States. Because the TSP count fell more in some U.S. counties than in others, the researchers were able to use the difference as a variable, and draw a connection between infant health and particulate matter. They found that 1,300 fewer American infants died in 1972 than if the Clean Air Act had not existed -- a change that worked out to a 0.5 percent decline in infant mortality per 1 percent decline in TSPs. The Economist wanted to see if the global recession -- and the likely drop in urban air pollution -- has had a similar effect on infant mortality.

Weedy Greens the Latest in Gourmet Produce

I recently wrote about the self-proclaimed "Wild Girl," a woman foraging for wild food (not just Dumpster-diving) in Portland, Ore. She made it to day six before succumbing to Thai food and energy bars -- turns out late May is slim pickings in Portland. But if her stint eating weeds cultivated a taste for dandelion greens and nettles, she won't necessarily have to go through the hassle of finding them herself anymore.

Space Elevators Out, Inflatable Bouncy Towers In

There's just something terrifyingly iconic (and awesome) about the notion of establishing a solid, manmade tether between the surface of our planet and an orbital satellite. But what if the space elevators aren't so much composed of futuristic nanotubes, but are more like towering, inflatable bouncy castles?

Beer-swilling Molecular Archaeologist Recreates 9,000-year-old Brew

I like beer. I'm also a fan of a glass of red wine or of something froofy and sparkling in the summer, but having been pregnant for the last, um, eternity, what I've really missed is a frosty cold Sweetwater 420 extra pale ale from Atlanta's little hometown brewery. Or maybe a Sierra Nevada pale ale. Ooh, or a cool, golden hefeweizen with a slice of lemon drifting lazily on top.

Can moons have moons?

You guys know we're a curious bunch here at HowStuffWorks.com. Just the other day the moon-moon question was gnawing at staff writer Jessika Toothman. Normally she fixates on stuff like the smallest pigs in the world, so I did a little digging on her behalf. The idea of a moon's moon (not to be confused with a man's man) has a few strikes against it.