Right Now in Stuff to Blow Your Mind

This past summer, my toddler developed an MRSA boil on the back of her chubby leg. The pediatrician explained that Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus infections were common in schools and daycare facilities. She was remarkably blase about it. I, on the other hand, wasn't -- and neither was my husband a few months later when he developed (and recovered from) an MRSA infection in the lining of his eye. It was pretty scary. Bacteria are wily, as a host of big-time bacterial diseases like tuberculosis increasingly demonstrate. Multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR TB) or extensively drug-resistant TB (XDR TB), anyone? But here's the good news. Researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York are developing a new line of antibiotic compounds that don't spark bacterial resistance, according to a related press release. Instead of using antibiotics to kill the microbes that cause cholera and E. coli-related illnesses, these trial compounds permanently disable the nasty microorganisms.

Before you get busy tracking down the McDonald's Shamrock Shake or drinking green beer on Tuesday, St. Patrick's Day, take a moment tomorrow to celebrate Pi (?) Day. It's the only Greek letter that gets it very own annual celebration -- by math enthusiasts.

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station briefly evacuated to their Russian Soyuz escape pod today when NASA spotted space debris in the vicinity. Luckily for all concerned, 11 minutes and numerous panicky headlines later, everything was fine. The space junk passed within three miles of the station. Given the amount of damage that an orbital collision could inflict on the station, evacuations of this sort are standard operating procedure in space. In this case, the potential shrapnel was reportedly a small piece of an old spacecraft motor, but the amount of space garbage surrounding our planet is a growing problem. Some of these pieces travel at speeds as high as 17,500 miles per hour (28,164 kilometers per hour), and experts predict that there are as many as 40 million of them zooming around up there -- several thousand metric tons of cosmic litter. These bits range from abandoned launch vehicle stages to tiny flecks of paint.

Newton's Pseudonym: Jehovah Sanctus Unus

Lots of us have nicknames. My fellow science blogger apparently goes by Rob, although at work, he's strictly Robert. Some of you may even have a pet name for your partner that you'd rather not cop to. But do you have a private name for yourself? According to an interview with historian Bill Newman, Isaac Newton did, and it was awesome -- Jehovah Sanctus Unus, or Jehovah, the Great One. It turns out the man better known for his universal law of gravitation, three laws of motion and mind-blowing intellect was a bit of an oddity. Aren't we all, Newton? In his spare time, and he didn't have much because the guy worked way too hard, he pursued alchemy and Arianism. (I'm going to have to save the Arianism stuff for another post). Alchemy is the idea that you can transform something ordinary into something special, like lead into gold, say.

This was a big week for aficionados of vampirism and medieval corpse defilement, as archaeologists in Venice discovered the bones of a suspected vampire in a 16th century mass grave for plague victims. No, fangs weren't the giveaway -- it was actually the huge brick shoved into its mouth. The archaeologists suspect that the brick was inserted as a kind of exorcism for the corpse. Medieval Europe wasn't exactly a hotbed of medical science, and human decomposition was poorly understood. Superstition ran rampant. What might a denizen of such a demon-haunted world think upon discovering that a corpse had bloated, chewed through its grave shroud and dribbled bloody purge fluid down its chin? Exactly. You plug the corpse with a brick and move on. At the time, a little local panic was enough to see an entire graveyard exhumed in the hunt for bloodsuckers.

Cat Litter Goes Green

Last week I looked into the fascinating conflict between toilet-trained cats and sea otters, as well as the role cat litter choices may make in saving the planet. Whether you're flushing or trashing your used kitty litter, it's important to note that many varieties are 90 percent non-biodegradable clay, which we get through strip mining.

Every day, another story hits the wire detailing some newfound robotic ability. Today, scientists at Brown University happily reported that they trained a robot to obey nonverbal commands in environments previously thought to be difficult for our exceedingly competent robotic friends. Whether they're tending our tomatoes, as a bunch of MIT students turned farmers programmed them to do, zooming around your floor and picking up idle crumbs -- yes, I really want a Roomba! -- or patrolling borders in South Korea or Israel, robots are developing freakishly fast. And that scares philosopher A.C. Grayling, who's calling for robot regulation in New Scientist. Grayling isn't stressing so much about the domestically inclined robots so much as the surveillance, military or police robots. He's arguing for regulation that covers all robotic devices before it's too late. Maybe, as my fellow science blogger Robert pointed out, he recently rented "Runaway" or "The Terminator?"

How Your Brain Talks to God

Let's tread into controversial territory, shall we? If you believe a recent study from the National Institutes of Health, then your belief in God isn't all that special -- at least from a neurological standpoint. Researchers recently hooked 40 test subjects up to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) equipment and quizzed them about their beliefs, doubts and quandaries over the existence of a higher power, according to a story from NPR. This is the same technology that allows us to see what sections of the brain light up when we, say, contemplate the idea of beauty.

Do you remember that Suzanne Vega song that went: "My name is Luca. I live on the second floor. I live upstairs from you. Yes, I think you've seen me before." Yeah, not that Luca. Instead, I'm talking about our last universal common ancestor or LUCA. While some people think we can trace our human origins back to one common female ancestor from Africa, LUCA rides on the idea that all life, not just human life, derives from a single microorganism. We're talking plants, animals, bacteria, fungus -- the whole biological spectrum. Think about that for a second. It's pretty amazing. Estimates for the number of species on Earth vary wildly, but let's take birds, for example. According to Britannica, there are about 9,600 species around today. Now throw in reptiles, amphibians, insects and strange things like moss animals -- these tiny matlike filter feeders that look like their namesake -- and you start to realize how crazy it is that all these diverse organisms may have evolved from a single ancestor.

With the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over their heads, governments, companies and even individual families invested in fallout shelters during the 1960s. If worst came to worst, they could descend into their provisioned holes and hope to eventually emerge to reclaim a ravaged world. Yet even the worst scenarios for man-made Armageddon at the time couldn't hold a candle to what Earth endured approximately 3.9 billion years ago, during the Hadean Eon. Due to a little orbital readjustment among our solar system's gas giants, our planet was pelted with a barrage of meteor strikes. The damage was catastrophic, melting the surface to magma. Our oldest rocks formed in these days, and the earliest signs of life emerged in the wake of the destruction -- or so we've long believed.

With all this talk about stem cells and whether it's, in President Obama's words, "dangerous and profoundly wrong" to research human cloning, I can't help but think of the HeLa cell line that has played such a vital role in everything from eradicating polio to to early space shuttle missions. And talk about profoundly wrong -- the cells' owner was never told that her tissue was going to a medical center at Johns Hopkins for special analysis, much less the role she would unwittingly play in the future of medicine. Her name was Henrietta Lacks, a 31-year-old black mother of five in 1950s Baltimore, Md. When she went in for a routine biopsy, the doctors discovered a tumor with most unusual cell activity: they were essentially immortal. Normally, cellular samples have a limited shelf life in a laboratory. They'll only divide a certain number of times before the chromosomes reach their Hayflick limit.

Somewhere former First Lady Nancy Reagan is dancing a little jig. Reagan, along with legions of scientists and other advocates, lobbied hard to lift the federal ban on embryonic stem cell research. Today, President Obama obliged. According to the accompanying executive order, the president's action will "expand NIH support for the exploration of human stem cell research" among other things. MSNBC writes that reactions to the announcement fell predictably along party lines, with Reagan standing apart from critical Republicans. She might want to bond with Gov. Schwarzenegger, who calls the order a "huge win," according to MSNBC. Or Michael J. Fox, who writes on the Michael J. Fox Foundation Web site, "I could not be more thrilled to see President Obama live up to his commitment to get politics out of science." Other organizations, such as the Family Research Council, called the decision "misguided." And probably a whole lot worse.

Kepler: Don't Count Your Exoplanets Before They Hatch

As the countdown to the Kepler launch tonight nears its final hours, it's hard not to let your mind run wild with what the planet-seeking satellite will find. But don't. Kepler is just one, albeit awesome, step in a multiphase, multigenerational journey to discover if Earth is the only spot in the universe capable of supporting, well, life like us.

If you have trouble deciding whether your perfect day is spent stalking and slaying wild animals or recycling and reducing your carbon footprint, then there's a weapon you need to get your camo-clad hands on: "green" bullets. Green bullets are made of copper or other less toxic materials -- and they're starting to make in-roads with the lead ammo crowd. Take, for instance, the U.S. Army. According to a Kansas City Star story, the biggest producer of small-arms ammo just sent 600,000 rounds of green bullets for U.S. troops to test in fall 2008. The cartridges in question were made with brass casings and bismuth slugs, as opposed to lead. It's hard not to chuckle at the idea of hunters mingling with the granola crowd, but maybe it's not so crazy. Hunters, after all, tend to support the idea of land conservation.

When Black Holes Dance

Do you remember the part in Michael Jackson's "Beat It" video where the two rival gangs square up for battle, only for the situation to escalate into a full-blown dance number? Well, astronomers have long predicted that a vaguely similar relationship emerges when black holes meet in a cosmic standoff, and now they even have compelling evidence.

What the heck is a moonlet?

Why it's a diminutive moon -- a small natural or artificial satellite -- of course. Thanks to NASA's Cassini spacecraft, we know now there's one circling Saturn in its G ring. In the picture, it's that microscopic bright spot that NASA helpfully points out within the square. It truly is tiny, clocking in at about a third of mile across.

In yesterday's blog, I looked into allegations that efforts to toilet train cats were decimating the California sea otter population. A parasite called Toxoplasma gondii frequently shows up in cat feces (this is also the reason you shouldn't mess with litter boxes if you're pregnant) and, if flushed, can infect sea snails that the otters depend on -- with fatal results. Yet, according to a 2007 post on The Daily Green, flushing your cat's litter down the toilet can also save the planet. They argue that more than 4 billion pounds (almost 2 billion kilograms) of litter winds up in landfills every year and that the clay that it's made from originates in environmentally destructive strip mines -- all this on top of the potential stink.

Watch out "Us Weekly." Later camera-slinging, ambulance-chasing, privacy-invading paparazzi. A new robotic camera mount made by GigaPan Systems is allowing regular people and their point-and-shoot-cameras to capture some amazing panoramic shots. Instead of immortalizing one small split-second slice of life, you get the whole scene, whether it's the swearing in of a president, the Oscars or a lazy beach scene curving into the sunset. Photogs set their camera onto the mount, indicate the parameters of the panorama they're bent on snapping and then the unit figures out how many photos it needs to take to capture the gigapixel scene, be it ten or a thousand. The GigaPan Epic mount costs $379 and works with most point-and-shoot cameras. The best part? If you have a secure setup, you don't have to snarl at all the other people jostling to take the same shot you desperately want.

Toilet-Trained Cats Threaten Environment

Sure, the idea of cats using the toilet may sound efficient, but California sea otters and other marine animals could be paying the price for your scoop-free lifestyle. The parasite Toxoplasma gondii shows up in cat feces and, sadly enough, an alarming number of sea otter corpses as well.

Science is a subject that, for all its awesomeness, often turns off students. That's tragic because pretty much everything in life that's worth obsessing about has some science at its core. So it's always encouraging to see someone reaching out to students with new and exciting methods of fostering scientific zeal. As she recounts in a recent LiveScience article, Nalini M. Nadkarni happened on the notion of combining science with hip-hop while teaching a forest ecology class at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. During a field trip through the state's temperate rain forests, she overheard a student's eco-inspired freestyle rap and decided music might be a great way of connecting with urban schoolchildren.