Right Now in Stuff to Blow Your Mind

Ah, the life of a termite queen. Once you've established a colony, your main job is to mate with the termite king and fill your subterranean halls with your squirming, wood-hungry brood. Apparently, however, all that baby-making takes a toll on your life span, while the king lives on. Enter the secondary queen, who picks up right where the dead primary queen left off. Scientists at North Carolina State University have made a fascinating discovery concerning just where this secondary queen comes from. While the primary queen produces the rest of the colony's young through sexual reproduction with the king, she goes it alone when it comes to spawning a successor. Yes, she produces asexually, producing an offspring that shares only her genes -- essentially cloning herself.

I enjoyed this NPR story about power lines and cows mostly because it created an amusing mental image of disorganized bovines. Apparently, cows have an internal magnetic compass -- something once thought to be exclusive to animals like bats and rodents. This compass keeps cows aligned toward magnetic north or south while they're resting or grazing, a tendency shared with deer. But when cows munch or nap under high-voltage power lines, something gets messed up. A team researchers at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany used Google Earth to observe animals under or near power lines. Instead of neat, linear cattle, the animals aligned in random directions. That is unless the power lines ran east-west, in which case the cows mustered in that direction. I'm not only fascinated that cows can sense magnetic fields, but that power lines can change the Earth's magnetic field -- at least on a local level. Do the electric and magnetic fields (EMF) from high-voltage lines affect us, too?

While there's still more space junk up there than anything, the human space population reached its peak at 13 today, according to an article on Space.com. This feat ties the record set in March 1995. Let's take a look at how it all breaks down in space. First, you have the space shuttle Discovery up there with a crew of seven astronauts. Three crew members from the U.S., Russia and Japan are hanging out on the International Space Station awaiting the pending arrival of the Russian Soyuz TMA-14 spacecraft and its three-person crew (one of whom is a space tourist), currently en route. Back in 1995, the situation was similar, with three cosmonauts bound to switch places with the three-man crew aboard the Mir space station -- all while the seven-man crew of the space shuttle Endeavour carried out its own mission.

So yesterday I wrote about Earth Hour and the effort to get unnecessary lights shut off at night -- especially those glittering away in office towers. Today I'll keep to the same vein, but turn my attention to another power suck draining the wallets of many companies: PCs left on all night. According to 1E, a software and services company, U.S. companies waste $2.8 billion a year and emit 20 million tons of carbon dioxide powering unused PCs. These whopping sums are a result of 50 percent of U.S. workers who use PCs at their job neglecting to shut off their computers at the end of the day. Why not hit the power switch at night? While some people share their computers or access their network remotely, many mistake the automatic sleep function to mean "off." Other folks, though, actually operate under the orders of their company or IT department -- something that seems counterintuitive considering that $2.8 billion a year.

NASA Continues Fight Against Bone Mass Loss

As you probably know, one of the problems with humans entering into weightless environments is that we've spent a heck of a lot of time evolving to do just fine WITH the force of gravity holding us down. Take that away from us and a host of things start to go haywire in our gravity-based bodies. Chief among these is bone mass loss. Quite simply, if you don't use it, you lose it -- and at an incredible pace. In fact, visitors to the International Space Station lose up to 10 times more bone mass each month than most postmenopausal women do on Earth do in the same time frame.* NASA has tried to address this issue in the past by having astronauts use treadmills, but according to a recent Science Daily article, the agency figured out a promising way to improve on the measure.

Liars have a hard time plying their trade these days. You can barely raise an eyebrow or try to tell Katie Couric that you've never used steroids without someone picking apart your facial movements for signs of deceit. Such is the world of microexpressions, which Josh and Chuck explored on their "Stuff You Should Know" podcast, as did our article by Tom Scheve. Even if you could mummify your face with Botox injections to guard against fleeting microexpressions, you'd still have to cover for the increased breathing rate, pulse, blood pressure and perspiration that may accompany telling a bald-faced lie. That's what polygraphs pick up. Now sweaty lying people have even more to fear, according to Dave Johns' story on Slate. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is nosing around the idea of analyzing your unique stink for signs of deception.

Darkness will hang over about 1,000 cities this Saturday night. But it won't be in a sinister, Gotham sort of way. Instead, a hoped-for 1 billion people across the globe will cut their lights at 8:30 local time to call attention to climate change. The event, called Earth Hour and staged by the WWF, calls for turning off all unnecessary lights for one hour. Monuments like the Empire State Building, the Great Pyramids and the Acropolis will participate. While Earth Hour is meant to be a symbolic gesture, a way to show support for taking action against global warming, it does raise some interesting questions about nighttime power use. Why are so many buildings lit up 24/7? Offices have different reasons for not hitting the switch regularly. It's often about cosmetics: A building manager might think towers simply look better with each bright square accounted for.

Co-blogger Candace Keener has written much of late about sheep, as well as a potential affinity for shepherding. Well, shepherding may have just become even more appealing with its debut into the arenas of both environmental and performance art. Today, Inhabitat ran a post on Baaa-Studs, a Welsh group that blanketed the backs of hundreds of sheep in LED lights and coordinated their movements. Judging from the group's video, they used sheepdogs to herd the flock into formation and remote controls to manage the light displays (as well as plenty of editing and perhaps some digital alterations). While shepherding itself sounds awfully green and pastoral, the introduction of energy-efficient lights throws it into a decidedly environmental realm. LED lights use considerably less energy than traditional bulbs. They also emit very little heat -- good when you're coating the backs of already wooly sheep.

Horror fans everywhere already know that "A Haunting in Connecticut" starring Virginia Madsen opens Friday. The "true" story centers around the unsuspecting Snedeker family who moves into a charming five-bedroom house that seems too good to be true. Is there any other type of family, house or story in the horror genre? No way!

Internet users know what they want and today, when they're not searching for info on celebrities and magazines about celebrities, they're doing Internet searches for "ovipositors." What's an ovipositor? The simple answer is that it's an egg-laying organ generally located on the tail end of an insect's abdomen. But ovipositors are far more than mere insect reproductive organs. Ovipositors have evolved to keep pace with the needs of their owners to place eggs in ever-more-secure or beneficial locations. For this reason, cicadas and grasshoppers developed spiked ovipositors to better deposit their young in the ground or in the stems of plants. Wasps took this concept even further, as their ovipositors are tailor-made to pierce the carapaces of other living creatures, thus laying their precious offspring inside their first meal. They even evolved to offer a venomous punch, so as to subdue their victim for this brutal surgery.

Let's say you're a female giant panda in captivity and you're experiencing physiological and behavioral changes that might indicate you're pregnant. Come on, just roll with me on this one. You'd be a pretty excited panda mom, given the prospect of impending parenthood and of helping to boost the population of an endangered species. But after lying listlessly on your side through a bunch of inconclusive ultrasounds and waiting fruitlessly for that bundle of black-and-white joy, you learn that you're not really pregnant. What you just went through was pseudopregnancy. Bummer. Panda pregnancy, it turns out, often isn't the real deal, according to Dr. Megan Wilson, the assistant curator of carnivores at Zoo Atlanta. Wilson gave an eye-opening staff enrichment lecture to a bunch of HowStuffWorks folks this morning. Pseudopregnancy isn't limited to pandas, Wilson says. Other animals, like tigers, mice and humans, too, face it.

This just in: Greenhouse gases endanger human health and welfare. That probably sounds like old news to most folks. After all, we've known about global warming and its dangerous effects for years now (everything from pollution-related asthma to temperature-related outbreaks of disease). But the obvious just became official with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's proposed "endangerment finding," a document sent to the White House Friday. According to Reuters, labeling greenhouse gases a threat to human well-being could be the first step to regulating U.S. emissions. The potential to do so, however, has been there for a while. Back in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA could regulate greenhouse gases -- if it determined the pollutants threatened human health. While the agency's scientists concluded that the gases did pose a risk, it kept mum with official findings until now.

Director Installs Camera in Own Eye Socket

Yesterday I blogged about Iran's ongoing concerns over squirrel and pigeon secret agents and the CIA's efforts to install a radio in a cat. I can't believe I forgot to mention a recent NPR story about a Canadian documentary director who is putting a video camera inside his skull.

Do you ever feel like animals are spying on you? Is that bird in the window listening to your conversations? Does the cat snoop through your e-mail while you're at work? Perhaps, in your calmer moments, you chalk it all up to paranoia and move on with your day, but I've got news for you: That squirrel may be wearing a wire. Don't believe me? Well, you need look no further than Iran. According to the Associated Foreign Press, authorities "arrested" two suspected spy pigeons near a uranium enrichment facility in October of 2008. And no, that's not intelligence slang -- they arrested actual birds, each with suspicious "metal rings and invisible strings." What's more, this was hardly an isolated incident. In 2007, Iranian authorities reportedly captured 14 squirrels armed with state-of-the-art espionage equipment along their borders.

Usually schools aren't too keen on cell phone use. And while most schools no longer take as hard of a line as outright confiscation, you'd be hard pressed to find many that actually hand out phones to their students -- fancy phones, too. But according to a recent All Things Considered, San Francisco's Urban School is doing just that, distributing 25 new phones to its students in collaboration with the Go Green Foundation, Nokia and AT&T. The phones are equipped with GPS technology that tracks the students' movements, logging their location every 30 seconds and compiling the information into a route map when hooked up to a laptop. By seeing the actual trail of that quarter-mile jaunt to a friend's house -- and the carbon footprint attached to it -- Go Green hopes kids will be moved to cut back on their driving.

The Mars Odyssey spacecraft has discovered a curious sight on the red planet's northern planes: mud volcanoes spurting methane gas and sediment up to the icy surface. Think about that for a second. What do you need to have mud? And what produces methane gas? That's right, water and animals. This is not to say the Martian underworld is overrun with jersey cows or giant sand worms. Animals aren't the only source of methane, but scientists theorize that the gas could indeed be due to thriving microbes several miles beneath the Martian surface. Down there, warmer temperatures could theoretically permit things like mud and life to exist. This news, reported in a New Scientist article, comes on the heels of a recent geological study on Earth supporting the notion that ancient, subterranean extremophiles might have survived the catastrophic celestial bombardment of the Earths' crust 3.9 billion years ago.

What would Sully do? Volcanic Eruptions in the Sky

After stewing quietly for years, an undersea volcano off the coast of Tonga in the South Pacific Ocean burst angrily onto the scene, according to AP. A truly impressive eruption plume shot through the sea's surface, and another rocketed 15,000 to 25,000 feet straight up to mingle with meteorological clouds on Wednesday.

We're Going to Venus -- With Balloons

NASA is currently formulating a plan to send several missions to Earth's other sister world, Venus, according to an article today in New Scientist. Numerous U.S. and Soviet spacecraft have made the journey in the past, including both unmanned satellites and unmanned surface probes. What sets this proposed Venus mission apart is the use of high-altitude balloons to study the planet's upper atmosphere.

Not to alarm any readers out there in the U.K., but according to a recent Telegraph article, there's a chance Satan may have walked through your backyard earlier this month. On March 5, 2009, a woman in Devon woke to find the bipedal cloven hoof marks in the snow. Check out the video from CFZTV to see actual footage. According to local legend, a very similar set of tracks appeared in the snow 150 years ago, in an incident known as "the devil's footprints." The February 1855 incident reportedly involved a 100-mile (160-kilometer) stretch of tracks, which even crossed 14-foot (4-meter) walls. While the devil explanation certainly captured the popular imagination, skeptics aplenty attributed the tracks to everything from electrical disturbances to runaway kangaroos and a rope-trailing hot air balloon. The cloven appearance, in turn, could have been due to a freeze-thaw action.

In fall 2008, the Minnesota Department of Health began reaching out to the sizable Somali community about the number of preschool children diagnosed with autism in the state's public school system. The numbers seemed a little high -- high enough to warrant calling in federal epidemiologists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate whether the numbers represented a bona fide outbreak or a weird anomaly. What are those numbers? They're not in yet. A summary report analyzing available data on young Somali children in the Minneapolis Autism Program is due by April 1, 2009, according to the Minnesota public health Web site dealing with autism in the Somali community, which numbers about 30,000 people. But that didn't stop the New York Times from sounding the alarm this morning in the related story.