Gregory Mone

Pint-Size Scientists

Muppet heir Brian Henson creates a new digital-animation technology to get preschoolers pumped about science

Brian Henson, whose father, Jim, created the Muppets, wasn’t always convinced that he would go into the family business. “I went through a spell in my teenage years where I absolutely was going to be an astrophysicist,” he admits. Now the co-CEO of the Jim Henson Company is channeling that early love of the stars into a new show, Sid the Science Kid, that’s designed to inspire preschoolers to question and reason like real scientists.

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The Flying Car Gets Real

The team at Terrafugia is about to fulfill the fantasy of every driver pilot: a consumer vehicle that can take to the highways and the skies. All they have to do is finish the first one

Road-Ready: In Terrafugia’s Transition driving airplane, the canard wing doubles as the front bumper.  John B. Carnett
The Transition is not a flying car. The vehicle, set to go on sale next year, will cruise smoothly on the road and through the sky. It will have four wheels, Formula One–style suspension, and a pair of 10-foot-wide wings that fold up when it switches from air to asphalt. And when the engineers at Terrafugia in Woburn, Massachusetts, let me sit inside their just-finished proof-of-concept vehicle and grab the steering wheel, it’s easy to imagine piloting this thing up and out of traffic, into the open skies.

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Flying Cars, Jetpacks and Rocket Racers, Oh My!

Video from the Oshkosh airshow; including a plane that transforms into a road-ready vehicle, an intro to the Rocket Racing League and more

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Flight of the Jetpack

An innovative personal flying vehicle tests successfully and gives renewed hope for a Jetsons-like future

Today marked the public debut of the Martin Jetpack, a ducted-fan-equipped personal flying vehicle that could keep pilots aloft for 30 minutes or more. Inventor Glenn Martin has been working on the jetpack—which isn't technically a "jet" pack, given the fans—for 27 years, but he has kept it secret until now. Even his son, Harrison, the 16-year-old test pilot, wasn't allowed to tell his friends that he'd been cruising around the yard back home in Christchurch, New Zealand in a revolutionary flying vehicle.

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Capitol Hill's Nerd in Chief

A physicist in Congress weighs in on electronic voting, missile defense and why politicians tend to ignore science

Representative Rush Holt of New Jersey has served in Congress for a decade, but he’s not your average politico. The physicist is a five-time Jeopardy champion, an inventor of a solar collector, an arms-control expert and a former assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab. He likes to pop into science conferences so that he can drop terms like “impedance matching” and not catch weird stares.

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Unlocking Android

Google’s mobile guru, Rich Miner, describes what it takes to make a phone truly open-source

When Google squelched rumors of the all-powerful “G-phone” last November, we admit we were a bit bummed. Instead of an inexpensive smartphone that would free us from our carrier overlords, Google had been working on software—an open-source, mobile operating system called Android. Great name, but will unlocking cellphone code really change things for consumers?

Miner says that more than 750,000 developers have downloaded the tool required to write an Android-based program, four times as many as accessed the iPhone’s tightly regulated kit. That means Android users could have far more mobile applications to choose from. But we still don’t know how those apps will stack up next to Apple’s. Android-equipped phones—set to go on sale this summer—should be less expensive than the iPhone, since manufacturers won’t have to pay licensing fees for the software. But instead of getting free, ad-subsidized service, like Google’s e-mail, you’ll still shell out to carriers. Which makes us wonder: Is this really so new, or just another offering in the crowded mobile market? We spoke with Rich Miner, head of Google’s mobile-platform division, for some clarity.

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Did Pandas Sense the China Earthquake?

Reports surface that a group of the animals acted strangely prior to the big quake

The death toll from the Sichuan earthquake is reportedly upwards of 55,000 at this point. Many survivors are living outside, in tents, afraid that aftershocks will topple their homes. But officials are also trying to care for the animal population, sending food to the animals at the China Giant Panda Protection and Research Center, which is just about 20 miles from the epicenter of the earthquake.

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SpiderMan as a Window-Washer

Wall-climbing technique now used for robots could lead to tech that allows soldiers, window washers to scale sheer surfaces, too

There are a whole range of scenarios, from security- or surveillance-related situations to natural disasters, in which it could be really useful to have a robot that can climb walls. But the idea gets so much traction because it's also just flat-out cool.

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A Busy Hurricane Season? Maybe

Federal forecasters issue a prediction for the upcoming storm season, but caution that they could be wrong

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced yesterday that 2008 could be a busy hurricane season. Between twelve and 16 storms may be big enough to earn names, and six to nine should be intense enough to be qualified as hurricanes. And of those, two to five could be major.

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A New Player in the Search for Another Earth

ESA's COROT observatory discovers two more exoplanets, plus a strange new object astronomers can't quite explain

ESA astronomers announced this week that they've discovered two more exoplanets, or planets outside our solar system, using the space-based COROT observatory. The two new finds are Jupiter-sized gas giants that orbit close to their parent stars.

But the astronomers also reported that COROT has picked up another object that they can't quite explain. This space oddity, COROT-exo-3b, looks to lie somewhere between a brown dwarf and a planet. It may even be a star, though if that's the case, scientists say it would be among the smallest ever detected.

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Robot Drones Aren't Just For the Military

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are helping scientists understand the link between air pollution and climate

A team of scientists led by V. Ramanathan of the University of California, San Diego have begun using autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles, or AUAVs, to study the link between air pollution and climate change. While some of today's top robot drones are operated via remote control, this new fleet of eight-foot-long, sub-50-pound Manta AUAVs fly all on their own.

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Indiana Jones and the Quest for Improved Effects

The latest installment in the series promises to offer brilliant digitally-enhanced scenery and creatures

Remember those weird ghoulish souls coming out of the Arc of the Covenant in the first Indy flick? Well, Hollywood has come a long way since then. And while Indiana Jones himself may have lost a step since he last appeared on the big screen, the effects backing him up this time promise to be a vast improvement. In Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the fedora-wearing adventurer will encounter strange creatures, including an army of monkeys, race through some wild jungle scenery and face-down thousands of man-eating ants - thanks to Industrial Light & Magic.

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A Car-Crushing Motorcycle

The Monster Motorbike from Hell destroys everything in its path

Stuntman Ray Baumann is accustomed to vehicles that soar through the air, vaulting over rows of cars. But the Australian’s latest ride makes its bones on the ground. It’s the Monster Motorbike from Hell, a 10-foot-tall, 15-ton beast that drags vans around racetracks and flattens sedans as if they were soda cans.

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Monitoring Aftershocks in China

A scientist due to study the seismic activity near the Three Gorges Dam now turns to listening for the leftovers of the massive Sichuan earthquake

Texas Tech geophysicist Hua-wei Zhou touched down in Beijing just 40 minutes before the devastating Sichuan province earthquake struck. He and his colleagues were planning to embark on a project to set up 60 seismometers designed to listen for mini-quakes at the Three Gorges reservoir.

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The Physics of Animation

A new college course intends to teach future Hollywood artists the basic science necessary to make virtual worlds look realistic

San Jose State University is soon going to start offering a class called "Physics of Animation," that aims to teach future animators the proper way to render a leaf falling to the ground or a person walking with a realistic gait. Or a kung-fu fighting panda getting launched into the air by a furry little creature.

Physics is a key element of realism, says the course's professor, physicist Alejandro Garcia. Any movie-viewer can spot bad physics, though they might not always recognize what's bothering them. And for all the progress that has been made in animation in the last decade, and all the science homework that effects experts say they do prior to creating scenes, most movies still let through a glitch or two that makes the attentive viewer wince.

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