Right Now in Stuff to Blow Your Mind

10 Planet Hacking Schemes -- No. 8: Reflective Crops

So we're three days into a two-week look at geoengineering plans that might just allow us to counter the effects of global warming. The schemes we've looked at so far have involved planting both real and fake trees to suck up all that extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Today, we have another low-tech means of hacking the planet: reflective crops.

Quick. How many 2-by-2-by-2 cubes must be added to an 8-by-8-by-8 cube to make a 10-by-10-by-10 cube? Got your answer? Did you come up with it in less than a minute? Was it 61? If you didn't answer "yes" to those last three questions, then you lost out to Bobby Shen of Sugar Land, Texas, this year's winner of the 2009 Raytheon Mathcounts National Competition.

The Department of Energy calls it "funding opportunity DE-FOA-0000065." But I'd like to call it something more rousing -- a potentially enormous monetary prize! If you've been sitting on a great idea that could revolutionize the future of energy in the United States, today's the day to make something of it. The DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency -- Energy (ARPA-E) is offering up to $20 million in financing for energy-related technological concepts, according to the Wall Street Journal's Environmental Capital blog. May 12 marks the starting date for the three-week window of submissions. So what kinds of projects is ARPA-E looking for? Pretty much anything, so long as it's a "high-risk, high-payoff" "transformational energy-related technology" that helps overcome the nation's reliance on fossil fuels. Basically, something that's promising, needs help and isn't just an improvement on an existing technology. There are only four criteria.

Can science help us stave off global warming? Well, that's the whole idea behind geoengineering, also known as planet hacking. For two weeks, I'm going to be counting down 10 of the sensible- and crazy-sounding schemes that might just save the day for us. Yesterday, I looked at the decidedly mundane method of just planting a ton of trees to eat up more CO2. Of course, whatever nature can do, science can do even better -- right? Klaus Lackner, director of Columbia University's Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy, seems to think so. His solution calls for forests of giant, artificial trees that just suck the CO2 right out of the atmosphere and either store it in underground tanks or use it to make synthetic fuel. As you can see from the photo, one of these trees definitely looks more like a fly swatter than a mighty oak.

Who's on Hubble?

I'm sure you know all about the most famous eye in the sky and how it's been sorely in need of repairs. You might even have memorized some of the events slated for the long-awaited STS-125 mission to fix Hubble. But what do really you know about the six men and one woman on board space shuttle Atlantis entrusted with this space adventure?

What did your student fees pay for anyway? Library access? The student association? The health center? Chances are that unless you're a recent graduate (or you're in school now), they didn't include a mandatory "green fee," a small charge of about $3 to $5 per semester that helps the university finance things like renewable energy and energy conservation technologies on campus. I would have expected these extra fees to be a sore point with already maxed-out college students and their parents -- even though they're comparatively small when you stack them up against the majority of college expenses. Wrong. Today, Green Inc. featured a post on such fees and the rising number of students pushing to self-impose them. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education maintains a list of universities with "green fees," along with information about the fee rate, the percentage of students that approved the increase and details about where the money goes.

10 Planet Hacking Schemes -- No. 10: Foresting

Can humans break the planet's climate? Global warming proponents insist that we can. And if so, does that mean we can fix it, too? Forget conservation and clean energy! Science got us into this mess, and science can darn well get us out. In the nine days ahead, we're going to touch on some crazy-sounding ideas. For day one, however, we're going to start low-tech with a no-brainer: Plant a whole bunch of trees.

Poo, Round 2: Cosmetics Courtesy of Cow Poop

It's really hard to define what "natural" means in regard to beauty products. If you ever page though Julia Layton's great article on natural cosmetics, you'll find that "green" makeup and personal care items are awash in ambiguities and vague packaging (what does "inspired by botanicals" mean anyways?). That said, I'm really curious to see how L'Oréal will spin this tidbit on its lipstick tubes and shampoo tubs: One of the company's factories runs on poop.

Pants Full of Birds Wind Dong Behind Bars

Leggings covered with live, pooping exotic birds: They're not good fashion sense and, as it turns out, they're not the best way to smuggle rare Vietnamese wildlife into the United States.

Enhanced Geothermal Energy & Earthquakes

I thought that nothing got the Swiss riled up. Not wars. Not secret bank accounts. Not vast quantities of fine chocolate. But apparently an old-fashioned earthquake will do the trick. Specifically, one with a magnitude of 3.4 and its accompanying sonic boom that scared the pants off Basel, Switzerland back in early 2007. You see the Swiss were building an enhanced geothermal energy system and several minor earthquakes occurred, as is common when you're working on developing this kind of energy. Artificial or enhanced geothermal energy works along the same premise as natural geothermal energy. All geothermal power originates when cracked hot rock heats water into steam. With natural geothermal energy, the Earth provides the cracked rock and steam to power a generator. With artificial geothermal energy, we have to coax the rock to crack with some water, setting the stage for some earthquakes to occur. And that's what happened to the Swiss.

The oceans are getting saltier, and it's apparently in direct response to man-made climate change. Peter Stott, head of climate monitoring and attribution at the Met Office in Exeter, England, determined this after studying 50 years' worth of data and comparing it to climate models "that correct for naturally occurring salinity variations," according to ScienceDaily. Stott and his team found that global warming resulting from man-made emissions (as opposed to emissions from natural sources like volcano eruptions) were likely responsible for the increasing salinity of the North Atlantic. Slight rises in salinity -- less than 1 percent -- have already been recorded in subtropical regions of the Atlantic. Stott hypothesizes that global warming is changing the patterns of rainfall across the planet: As high temperatures zap away water in subtropical zones, the atmosphere carries that extra moisture toward the poles, as well as toward the Pacific via the trade winds.

Archaeologists Map Roman Catacombs with Lasers

Forget hand drawn maps and guided tours, our knowledge of the Roman catacombs is getting a major technological upgrade. A team of 10 Austrian and Italian archaeologists, architects and computer scientists just finished a three-year program to create a 3-D map of the Saint Domitilla catacomb system using laser scanners.

Last fall, the United Nations Environment Program started bandying about the term "Global Green New Deal." The idea referenced President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Great Depression-ending efforts; only this time around, those efforts would invest in green technology to mitigate both the global economic crisis and global warming. Many national governments have climate regulation timetables that could go by the name "Green New Deal." Such efforts feature plans for cap-and-trade systems and incentives to encourage green-collar jobs. Australia's plan, though, has been shelved for now -- ironically a casualty of the very economic crisis it's meant to help soften. According to Green Inc., Kevin Rudd, Australia's Prime Minister, announced Monday that the introduction of a cap-and-trade system would be delayed until mid-2011 and modified to allow new concessions to certain industries (like close-to-free emissions permits). Businesses had protested regulations during the current economic state, and it seemed unlikely the Australian senate would back the bill.

Jeff Kemper of Augusta, Ga., continues to recover in stable condition following his groundbreaking surgery on Monday: the first double hand transplant in the United States. According to NPR and the Associated Press, surgeons at the University of Pittsburg Medical Center (UPMC) wrapped up the procedure in just under nine hours, attaching both hands simultaneously. If all goes to plan, Kemper will get to hold his 13-year-old daughter for the first time since a bacterial infection destroyed his hands and feet a decade ago. Transplant patients have to spend the rest of their lives taking a number of medications to suppress immune functions that would otherwise reject foreign tissue and organs. Those medications, in turn, open the floodgate for higher chances of diabetes and infections. However, UPMC used a procedure aimed at reducing the amount of medications Kemper will have to take.

Goatscaping: Google Uses Rent-a-Goats

For me, the word "goatscaping" conjures up images of goat-shaped topiaries -- an idea that couldn't be further from the decidedly unfussy, low-maintenance reality. According to the Huffington Post, Google is using goats in place of lawn mowers at its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters.

I figured you guys needed a break from swine flu, economic recessions and torture, so today I bring to you bogeying birds. Special thanks to green blogger Sarah Dowdey, who flagged this story as worthy of a post. By the way, if you haven't checked out Sarah's posts on ScienceStuff, do. She might know more about the planet right now than Mother Nature. Onward. Egocentric species that we are, most of us assumed that humans were the only animals that could dance, whether spastically like Elaine on "Seinfeld" or smoothly like Steve-O on "Dancing with the Stars." Not true. Birds got rhythm, too, according to Mark Kaplan's story for National Geographic. Don't believe me? Have a look at Snowball the Dancing Cockatoo kicking it to Queen's classic "Another One Bites the Dust":

When hair falls on the wrong side of the scissors, it typically ends up in the trash. It could end up in the ground, though, cozying up to the roots of your veggies and providing them with nutritious, hairy doses of nitrogen. According to Marketplace, a company called Smart Grow based out of South Florida uses hair -- yes, human hair -- to weave all-natural mats that crowd out weeds and act as organic fertilizers. The boiled, sanitized hair is imported from China (since it's generally less treated than Western hair), then stitched into rolls, circular mats or cubes that are placed at the bottom of pots or around the stems of plants. The product laces crops with nitrogen and other micronutrients while squeezing out weeds and helping to retain water. University of Florida plant pathologists found that the mats eliminated weeds better than the leading herbicides.

NASA's new Kepler telescope will help us pinpoint Earth-like planets spinning around distant stars, but now astronomers have something else to watch out for when eyeing other cosmic neighborhoods. Over the last 20 years, we've discovered hundreds of extrasolar planets, all orbitally bound to central stars like chicks to a mother hen. However, just like hamsters and mythological titans, sometimes these distant suns wind up chowing down on their young. Recent computer models indicated that it was possible for a parent star to pull a planet in with its gravitational pull and absorb it. As you might imagine, this is extremely important data for planet hunters to keep in mind. After all, who wants to go to all the trouble of exploring, colonizing and maybe even terraforming a distant world all so its sun can gobble it up?

You made it to the No. 1 super surprising recyclable item: your shoes. Unless you're a women's size 7 and want to donate them to me (I tend to be on the receiving end of my more fashion-forward friends' castoffs), plenty of places will happily accept your kicks, whether they're stilettos or sneakers. If you're short on cash but long on style, you could always sell them. Down-and-out socialites might fare better with this approach, as consignment stores tend to look for brand names. A pair of well-heeled vintage Chanel pumps = score. Your scuffed black boots from Target = not so much. The organization Soles for Souls seems to be less discriminating on the label front, but the folks behind it are still looking for new or gently used shoes. If you have a few laying about, you can ship them to one of its three U.S. warehouses or drop them off at one of its participating locations.

Electronics-Free, Chemical Robot Paves Way for Shoggoth Hordes

OK, so maybe not -- but when I read that scientists at Tokyo's Waseda University have created a mindless automation out of a polymer-based "color-changing, motile gel," forgive me if I grab an H.P. Lovecraft anthology and start flipping through some of my favorite tales for talk of blasphemous, amorphous horrors.