Right Now in Stuff to Blow Your Mind

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.

Like many of my fellow obsessive-compulsive types, I routinely rifle through drawers and closets for unwelcome hangers-on. Once the offending garments have been found, it's off to the Salvation Army -- where it's hard not to do a little browsing. However, the selection at your local thrift store just got a whole lot slimmer, thanks to a new U.S. lead law that went into effect in February. Called the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, the federal law aims to limit the amount of lead and other harmful chemicals, like phthalates, in products geared at children under 12. But the law has been generated an angry uproar and landed lead in the headlines yet again. You don't need me to tell you that the U.S. economy is in the toilet. The Dow just dipped below 7,000 today for the first time in more than 10 years, and the global economy isn't far behind.

Among the many, many things your snazzy iPhone can accomplish, add one more: It can sniff out ghosts. Or pretend to. A company called Moderati Inc. released a simulated paranormal state EMF meter that you can download free on iTunes. It turns out the app is more of a promo for the A&E show "Paranormal State" than anything that will help you detect beings suspended between our world and the hereafter. It did get me curious about EMF meters and if I could buy one if were so inclined. Yeah, yeah, I'm the science editor, but I will admit to being fascinated by ghosts. Berate me if you will. An EMF meter or reader measures the electromagnetic fields in your immediate surroundings, be they haunted house or humdrum household. Ghosts supposedly have strong electromagnetic fields that will register on your handheld meter and confirm or deny your paranormal suspicions.

Scientists Test Galactic Hop-ons

Might ancient microbes have traveled to Earth aboard meteorites? Russian scientists plan to put this theory to the test by sending a canister of Earth life on a round trip to the Martian moon of Phobos. Will these life forms come back alive or potentially contaminate other worlds?

Human sexuality tends to provide us with enough complexity on its own, but the occasional glance at the rest of the animal kingdom helps put everything in perspective. Yep, according to a new study, the beetles with the "longest and spiniest genitalia" experience the most success in passing on their genes. National Geographic even provides a photo gallery of "bizarre beetle genitalia" if your boss isn't watching over your shoulder. Scientists believe these spines help to anchor the male in place for the duration of the coupling, internally injuring the female in the process. Don't drag all your anthropomorphic baggage into this, though. I think doomed mad scientist Seth Brundle put it best in "The Fly." "Have you ever heard of insect politics?" he asks. "Neither have I. Insects don't have politics. They're very brutal. No compassion, no compromise."