I HAVE A credo that I've been road testing lately. Let me try it out on you: This is the greatest time in the history of the world to be alive. More discovery and innovation is happening now than ever before, and it's transforming everyday lives—our lives—such that they bear almost no resemblance, in hardship, pain, or danger, to the lives of our grandparents, or even our parents.
In “Walk Like a Man” [October], Theresa Klein describes her Achilles robot, which moves like a human leg. As a soldier wounded in Afghanistan, I face a partial leg amputation because of a bone infection. Robotic limbs for amputee patients have been pursued for some time.
In the cool of the early morning, insects like this dew-covered blue damselfly move slowly, making it the perfect time to capture them on film. Ondrej Pakan, a photographer fascinated by insects—he describes them as inhabitants of “a world of small monsters”—snapped this shot at Lake Dubnik in Slovakia.
Why the only secure password is one you don't even know that you know
HRISTO BOJINOV wants you to forget your password. More precisely, he wants you to never really know it in the first place. Bojinov, a computer scientist at Stanford, and his colleagues have developed a computer program that can implant passwords in a person's subconscious mind—and retrieve them subconsciously too.
For the first time, scientists have used an imaging technique that’s so precise that it’s possible to see the different lengths of individual atomic bonds. Using a method called non-contact atomic force microscopy, IBM researchers scanned a microscopic probe with a tip only an atom wide over a nanographene molecule and measured the forces between the probe and the sample.
Duchess, a 4.4-ton, 45-year-old African elephant at the Paignton Zoo in Devon, England, had already lost her right eye to glaucoma, and cataracts threatened to blind the other. So in September, veterinarians put Duchess under the knife for the second cataract operation ever performed on an elephant.
People around the world waste millions of tons of food every year. Carol Lin, a biochemical engineer at the City University of Hong Kong, is making something useful out of their leftovers: plastic. In a collaboration with Starbucks, she blends roughly two pounds of stale pastries with water into a milkshake-like consistency and then adds two types of Aspergillus fungi, which process the starch and protein into sugar.
Scientists turn the ocean into a controlled laboratory
When marine biologist David Kline, of Australia’s University of Queensland, set out for Heron Island in the Great Barrier Reef, he and his team were determined to help answer a pressing question: How will rising acidity from climate change affect coral reefs?
Scientists measure toxicity using the “median lethal dose,” or LD50— the dose (in milligrams per kilogram of body weight) that would kill half the people who receive it. The lower the LD50—represented by the relative size of the boxes below—the more toxic the poison.
Approximately 1,300 nonfunctional satellites sit in a graveyard orbit 22,000 miles above Earth—and Darpa has plans for them. Recycling dead satellite parts in space could be 10 times cheaper than building and sending up new satellites, says Darpa program manager Dave Barnhart.
"The faster the kite, the more energy it can capture"
"You know how a kite can pull its string from your hands? Airborne wind-energy systems like ours work on the same principle—the pull of the kite turns a generator and creates electricity. Kites are promising because they can go higher than a regular wind turbine, to altitudes where wind speeds are faster and more consistent.
A new organization pairs scientists with adventurers to bring data back from the wild
MORE AND MORE science takes place on computers, but hard data still comes from the material world. To learn about, say, harmful algae blooms or high-altitude flora, researchers must travel to some of the hardest-to-reach places on Earth.
Since we inaugurated these awards a quarter of a century ago, the pace of innovation has quickened with every passing year. Twelve months is now a very long time. It takes something greater to be revolutionary than it did when we first saw HDTVs, electric cars, or even the iPhone.
It seems innocent at first: Fire up the search app on a new Android phone, and the interface asks if you'd like to activate Google Now. “Sure,” you think "Google already has my calendar, location, and contacts; what’s one more thing?" Here’s what: Google Now draws a distinct technological line.
The Tesla Model S sets the standard by which all future electric vehicles will be measured. It's faster than any other street-legal EV: The Performance edition, propelled by motors that generate a peak 416 horsepower, darts from 0 to 60 mph in a Porsche-rivaling 4.4 seconds and hits a top speed of 130 mph.
Moisture destroys 82 million phones annually, yet manufacturers do little to safeguard against it. In January, California-based Liquipel launched the first aftermarket service that waterproofs phones and media players. Engineers place the phone in a vacuum-sealed chamber and inject a carbon-based hydrophobic gas.
It takes between 25 and 40 gallons of water to dye 2.2 pounds of fabric. Multiply that by the millions of T-shirts, track pants, and other textiles made each year, and you get two huge environmental problems: millions of tons of chemical-laden waste-water and depletion of freshwater.
ERIC STACKPOLE’S passion for discovery was originally directed toward outer space. As a mechanical engineering student at San Jose State University in 2007, he founded a campus club devoted to building mini satellites. That landed him a job at NASA’s Ames Research Center, which led to an emphasis on robotics in graduate school.
When a battleship needs repairs in the middle of the ocean, a semisubmersible vessel like the Dockwise Vanguard can provide offshore dry dock. The 902-foot-long and 230-foot-wide bowless Vanguard—the largest craft of its kind by nearly a football field—can submerge its deck below the waterline and move its above-water towers aside, allowing mammoth marine vessels to float aboard before the Vanguard rides back up underneath them.
A thermostat has tremendous power: It controls heating and cooling, the most expensive, energy-guzzling system in a house. Until the Nest, thermostats wielded that power blindly. The Nest learns a household’s schedule and preferences after just one week and programs itself (and if those preferences change, the Nest adapts accordingly).
Since 2008, roadside bombs and other IEDs have accounted for the deaths of more than half the U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Moving cargo in large convoys put many of those soldiers at risk. The Kaman K-Max autonomous helicopter removes the people from those supply lines.
“EVERYONE KNOWS the rover is named Curiosity,” says Adam Steltzner. “But we had our own name for the descent stage. We called it Audacity.” As the lead engineer for entry, descent, and landing on NASA’s most recent mission to Mars, Steltzner was responsible for getting Curiosity through the Martian atmosphere and onto the surface in one piece.
Reconnaissance robots have typically required elaborate engineering to overcome the challenges of urban surveillance; models based on hummingbirds, flies, and cockroaches are all in development. The engineers behind the Sand Flea, from Boston Dynamics, took the opposite approach.
Almost since Moore's Law was proposed in 1965, chipmakers have been wringing their hands over the day when they can no longer keep up—when they can't pack twice the number of transistors onto a square-inch of chip every two years. Transistors are the microscopic switches that make electronics work.
For better or for worse, electronics such as GPS devices, cellphones, and LED lights have become de rigueur in the backcountry. But keeping them charged isn’t easy. Solar panels don’t work well in heavily wooded areas, and spare batteries add weight to a pack.
Each year, about 1.5 million people in the U.S. suffer from aortic valve stenosis, a narrowing of the heart’s aortic valve that can lead to a heart attack. In severe cases, doctors perform open-heart surgery to replace the valve, but many patients are too frail to undergo such a procedure; fifty percent of those who don’t get surgery die within two years.
AS A DOCTOR, George Savage had the power to save lives, but part of his job still made him feel helpless: After patients left the hospital, he had no way of knowing if they were taking their medications. According to the World Health Organization, patients fail to use their prescriptions properly at least half the time.
Screen quality follows a simple rule: The larger the screen, the more pixels necessary to fill it. A high-def image is 1,920 by 1,080 pixels. On a 60-inch LCD TV, the image is flawless, but go any larger—say, 80 inches or a wall-sized projection—and the individual pixels become visible, degrading image quality.
TWO SUMMERS AGO, Easton LaChappelle thought it would be fun to build a robotic arm controlled wirelessly using a glove. LaChappelle, then 14, knew nothing about electronics, programming, or robots—but he was bored and desperate for a challenge.
Smart chemistry builds gluten-free bread with some bite
Every loaf of wheat bread contains a seeming contradiction: gluten, a gel-like protein that’s fluid when cool and solid when hot. Gluten forms elastic scaffolding around air bubbles when bread rises (bread is technically a foam) and traps moisture during baking to yield a soft and chewy end product.
Here's how a motorized sled from the POPULAR SCIENCE archives compares to a tricked-out DIY snowmobile today
THEN Gas-Powered Snow-Trac
NOW The Phantom
In 1963, PopSci described how to build a scrappy winter sports vehicle out of plywood, old farming equipment, and a 7.5-horsepower lawn-mower engine: “You’re in for a new kind of thrill if you’ve never plowed through powdery snow or flashed along shimmering ice at 25 to 30 m.p.h.
Kickstarter connects people with big ideas and zero funding to eager micro-investors around the U.S. But how are your town’s entrepreneurs faring? ThingsWeStart.com, an interactive map of Kickstarter projects, shows you at a glance. Zooming in on hotspots of ingenuity pinpoints individual projects.
Turn your favorite mitts into gadget-compatible manipulators
Winter gloves and gadgets don’t mix. Most touchscreens use capacitive sensing to complete a weak electrical circuit through skin and locate our tapping. And while wool, cotton, and leather gloves insulate hands from the cold, they block the body’s ability to shuttle electrons.
Why a strand of hair bends or falls the way it does may sound like a simple question, but the answer is rather convoluted. On one level, the texture of a person’s hair derives from his or her genes. A 2009 study looked at the genetics of waves and curls and reported a heritability of between 85 and 95 percent.
POPULAR SCIENCE has given out 2,500 Best of What's New awards over the last quarter century. In that time, some of the categories we cover have grown, some have died, and others have spawned new categories. Here, waves represent categories, and their heights the number of honorees in each.