THIS ISSUE FEATURES our seventh annual “How It Works” dissection of complex and awe-inspiring machines. I’m always dazzled by the engineering prowess on display once we’ve opened these things up, as well as by the skill and ingenuity that our editors, designers and illustrators bring to the task of opening them.
Thank you for the excellent article about climate change and last year's tornado in Joplin, Missouri ["Did Global Warming Destroy My Hometown?" by Seth Fletcher, February]. Climate change is caused by pollution. People are responsible for pollution.
A rhesus macaque awaits a vasectomy at a wildlife rescue facility in Himachal Pradesh, India. The state's estimated 319,000 monkeys frequently ransack garbage cans and harass citizens. Last year, the state government announced a bounty of 500 rupees ($9.50) to anyone who captured and transported a monkey to a sterilization center, and program administrators estimate that they will neuter 200,000 monkeys, at 25 sterilization centers statewide, by June.
Compact sensors power the first truly smart headphones
Despite the landslide of smart devices in recent years, headphones have remained decidedly dumb, lacking the multitude of sensors found in everything from phones to watches. The ZIK Parrot is the first pair of headphones with the intelligence of a smartphone.
Most noise-canceling earphones contain their audio processing circuitry in a small box strung onto the cable, adding heft to otherwise lightweight pairs. Sony engineers downsized the drivers in the new XBA-NC85D earphones, leaving extra space for a silicon microphone and a quarter-inch noise-canceling processor in each bud.
How THX's new audio engine makes every seat the best one in the room
An audiophile can spend thousands of dollars on one speaker—a multi-driver tower that can produce a broad range of frequencies clearly at high decibel levels. But even the best speaker, or an entire home theater full of them, will typically sound its best in only one spot: the sweet spot.
Snowboarders can ride slopes year-round on the Descender. Designers equipped the 31-inch deck with rubber treads instead of skateboard wheels. More rubber means even more traction on grass. Riders steer by leaning, as they would on a snowboard. Rockboard Descender $120
The Solowheel propels riders perched on platforms on either side of the 26-pound device. When moving, a gyroscope-based motor helps keep them upright, similar to the way a Segway works. Riders tilt forward to accelerate up to 10 mph, stop by rocking backward, and steer by leaning. Solowheel $1,800
CycoCycle by Dynacraft
When seated on top of the CycoCycle's 20-inch front wheel, riders pedal and steer as on a unicycle, with balance provided by its two 12-inch rear wheels. To move along more quickly, users can stand on the 18-inch bar between the rear wheels and push off as on a kick-scooter. CycoCycle by Dynacraft $119
Since the Razor came out in the U.S. in the late '90s, inventors have tried, with varying success, to create the next generation of kickpowered conveyance. Now a Nevada start-up aims to beat the Razor in both maneuverability and stability.
Personal fitness monitors designed to encourage healthy habits typically involve uncomfortable gear, such as chest straps and armbands, that can discourage people from wearing them. As sensors shrink and software improves, health-tracking systems are becoming Less intrusive and capable of collecting more biometric data. One day, users may not have to don any equipment at all.
Susannah F. Locke
The Basis band is the first continuous health tracker that measures heart rate at the wrist, rather than the chest or arm. An LED on the underside of the watch shines green Light (which blood absorbs particularly well) onto the wearer's wrist, and a sensor detects how much light bounces back.
The electric-car movement enters a quiet, crucial phase
EARLY THIS YEAR, when it became clear that the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf had missed their 2011 sales targets, critics declared the electric-car revolution over. Yet at Detroit’s annual North American International Auto Show in January, plug-in cars abounded.
The path to a better Internet begins with engineers rethinking its networks
WHEN THE soon-to-be-defunct government of president Hosni Mubarak shut off Egypt’s Internet early on the morning of January 28, 2011, it proved the U.S. State Department’s working theory: that the arc of history bends toward democracy, but it needs Internet access to get there.
Since 1990, doctors have been regularly treating cancer patients using proton beams, which work similarly to radiation. Proton therapy is more precise, however, causing less harm to healthy surrounding tissues. Unfortunately, generating a proton beam requires a particle-accelerator facility that's the size of an airplane hangar and costs more than $100 million to build.
"We plan to retrieve the primordial ooze of the solar system"
HOW DO YOU GET a core sample from a comet? There’s so little gravity that if you used a scoop or a drill, you’d push yourself right off the surface. To solve this problem, we came up with a harpoon that collects samples. The concept is that the spacecraft flies next to the moving comet and fires from about 30 feet away, we would use a dampening system and propulsion to counteract the recoil.
To demonstrate what the Advanced Structures and Composites Center's new lab will do to wind blades, Larry Parent, an engineer at the University of Maine, takes out his bifocals and begins bending them. The 230-foot-long fiberglass composite blades will suffer greater strain; most will be bent until they begin to break.
Stockholm, Sweden, has plenty of cold, but not much in the way of snow or hills. So the members of a Stockholm ski club convinced architecture/firm Berg/C.F. MØller to construct the most energy-efficient indoor ski park in the world. Skipark 360° will be powered by sun, wind, water and heat from the EARTH.
Deep-sea microbes: At the bottom of the ocean, these "living batteries" move electrons across the metals on which they live. Oriental hornet: Brown pigments in the hornet's exoskeleton trap sunlight, while its yellow tissues convert the sunlight into electricity.
A thousand years ago, Vikings navigated with a sunstone, which they used to locate the sun on cloudy days . The stone—a calcite crystal called Iceland spar—funnels light into two beams. When the beams appear equally bright, the rock is facing the light, even if it's obscured .
John Amory, a doctor at the University of Washington, has been developing a male contraceptive for 15 years
Why is it taking so long to produce a birth-control pill for men? Women make one egg a month, but men make 1,000 sperm every second of every day, from puberty until the day they die. Turning that off is difficult. How does hormone contraception work?
What can a videogame tell us about how economies work?
ON OCTOBER 3, 2008, President George W. Bush signed the Troubled Asset Relief Program bill into law, delivering $450 billion to failing banks on the premise that it would prevent their collapse and stimulate a faltering economy. Like millions of Americans, Dmitri Williams, an associate professor of communications at the University of Southern California, found TARP troubling— not because the bill provided too much or (as many economists argued) too little, but because it was unscientific.
Since Nerf introduced its first dart gun, the Sharpshooter, two decades ago, the company's engineers have struggled to find ways to significantly advance their toys' range beyond the original 35 feet. They repeatedly refined the firing mechanism and even added motors, but even their best improvements only added about 10 feet.
Aircraft fires pose unusual challenges for first responders. Extinguishing jet fuel requires thousands of gallons of flame-smothering foam, and the fuel burns so hot (up to 2,500°F) that firefighters typically have only three minutes to respond before passengers would be overcome by heat and smoke inhalation.
Carmakers are responding to high oil prices and strict fuel-economy standards by replacing large gasoline engines with smaller, more-efficient ones. And frequently, they are using turbochargers to make the switch without sacrificing power.
To saw different materials, users often need to switch blades. A blade with big teeth, for example, cuts wood quickly because it scoops out a lot of material with each tooth. But those same big teeth make the saw kick back toward the user if applied to a harder substance such as steel.
Before Electric Blue sped across Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats at 175 miles an hour late last year, no one had made an official attempt to set a speed record for battery-powered racecars weighing less than 1,100 pounds. Other groups have been racing on the Salt Flats for years in electric cars with heavier batteries and larger motors.
The first commercial passenger elevator, installed by Otis Elevator Company in 1857, climbed 40 feet a minute. The elevators that Mitsubishi Electric are installing in China's 2,000-foot-tall Shanghai Tower travel 59 feet a second. When construction is complete in 2014, the elevators will whisk passengers straight from the basement-level entrance to the observation deck near the top of the tower, a 1,855-foot journey, in less than a minute.
At the turn of the 19th century, up to 16 million salmon and steelhead trout migrated up the waterways of the Columbia River Basin to spawn. Today, about one million salmon and an equal number of steelhead return, in large part because the rivers have been dammed.
In 1938, Simplex released the first cable-based bicycle gearshifts. Riders would move a lever near the front of the frame that tugged a metal cable attached to a chain derailleur. The shifts were often imprecise and, as debris collected on the cables, moving the levers could become difficult.
Conventional scuba systems have some major limitations. Divers using them must carefully monitor the depth and time they stay underwater and endure a series of lengthy decompression steps during resurfacing. Rebreathers recycle air, allowing divers to go deeper and remain underwater for longer, with shorter decompression on ascent.
Research libraries are facing an unexpected challenge: too many books. Despite digitization, bound collections continue to grow. Some libraries house their stacks offsite, which can create multi-day delays between request and retrieval.
AN ELITE TEAM OF NUCLEAR DIVERS ARE RISKING THEIR LIVES TO HELP SAVE A TROUBLED INDUSTRY
I first heard about nuclear diving while I was getting my hair cut in downtown Manhattan. My stylist seemed out of place in an East Village salon, so I asked her where she lived. Brooklyn? Queens? Uptown? "Upstate," she answered. "I commute two hours each way a few times a week"
Have engineers learned anything from the loss of the unsinkable Titanic? Will they ever?
THE HUNDREDTH anniversary of the wreck of the Titanic on April 15 provides a welcome moment to celebrate the many great strides made by engineers. In 2012, people move around the world more quickly and more safely than ever before. But the fate of the Costa Concordia, the cruise ship that ran aground off the coast of western Italy in January, reminds us that no matter how much progress we make, disasters still happen.
A street-legal three-wheeler that runs on nearly 2,000 batteries
HOW IT WORKS
NAP PEPIN HAD been waiting on the side of the highway near his Alberta, Canada, home for more than hour when the tow truck finally pulled up. The driver looked at the stranded electronics technologist and his homebuilt electric trike and asked, “Ran out of juice, eh?”
Clint Fishburne, a regional-airline pilot based in Atlanta, wanted to help his children develop the body movement and muscle memory necessary to fly and land a plane. With the cost of commercial flight simulators starting at $25,000, though, Fishburne, a longtime POPSCI reader, decided to make one from scratch.
When there's not enough heat for a chemical reaction, add a catalyst
THE COPPER EARRING you see here had already been glowing bright orange for half an hour when we took the photograph. There is no flame under it, no electric current through it. Underneath is a pool of volatile and highly flammable acetone, but the liquid is not on fire.
A fan-powered puck for playing giant-size air hockey
1 Cut a hole in a smoke-detector case. Make sure the hole is Large enough to mount the propeller and motor from a remote-controlled plane or helicopter. 2 To protect the entire outer surface of the smoke detector, cover it completely except for the bottom rim with a coat of PLasti Dip.
Don't wire a circuit—doodle it. To connect batteries to devices such as resistors and LEDs, a newly developed ballpoint pen uses silver-based ink that conducts electricity through lines drawn over paper, wood, plastic and even some textiles.
I'm no musician, but lately I've been experimenting with MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) in my projects. MIDI is a standard for controlling instruments that works by passing messages between pieces of connected equipment.
Q WHY DOES SOME FOOD TASTE BAD TO SOME PEOPLE AND GOOD TO OTHERS?
ARE YOU A SUPERTASTER?
Q Why do kids hate Brussels sprouts?
PEOPLE WHO HAVE a lot of papillae—the bumps on our tongue, most of which house our taste buds—often find flavors overwhelming. They’re “supertasters,” and as such they add cream to their coffee and order food mild instead of spicy. Subtasters, on the other hand, have low papillae density and prefer their chicken wings “atomic.”
The air-powered car on the cover of our December 1932 issue didn't look particularly rugged, but it was built for off-roading—climbing icy hills, traversing muddy roads, and generally driving on any surface where a conventional car would be unable to gain traction.