October 2009

Gray Matter: The Hidden Uses of Everyday Explosives

When you stop and look, you may be surprised to find yourself surrounded by all kinds of explosives--some that detonate easier than dynamite

The explosive C4, a favorite for everything from demolition to terrorism to action movies, is in fact one of the safest explosives. How can an explosive be safe? If it’s hard to set off by accident. C4 is so stable that you can light it with a match (it burns but does not explode) or shoot it (it splatters but does not explode). To go bang, it requires a detonator that produces both heat and shock.

At the other end of the spectrum are mixtures that ignite simply from being scratched or knocked. There are obvious challenges in mixing, storing, and handling these substances so that they explode only when intended, yet they’re surprisingly common.

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Instant Expert: Dark Flow Revealed

The Big Question: Why are galaxies moving toward the same point, as if pulled by an unknown force?

As if the universe weren’t strange enough, scientists have recently discovered that entire galaxy clusters—the largest known structures in the universe, consisting of thousands of galaxies—are moving toward the same area. And we have no idea what mysterious phenomenon is drawing them along. Whatever it is, it’s huge. So far, cosmologists’ best guess is that it’s the gravitational pull from something beyond the visible universe. NASA scientist Alexander Kashlinsky and a team of researchers discovered the mystery motion, dubbed “dark flow,” last year.

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Instant Expert: the Return of Swine Flu

The Big Question: How many people will it infect this year?

Flu season in the Southern Hemisphere is almost over—and now it’s heading back our way. At the time this issue went to press, there were more than 162,000 confirmed cases and 1,154 deaths worldwide from “novel H1N1,” a.k.a. swine flu, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes this figure is a gross underestimate, especially since only a fraction of people who have the flu go to the hospital.

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This Month's Innovations For a Greener Future: Megakites, Solar Flowers, and More

Up and Away: The kite generates electricity as it ascends.  © 2009 KiteGen Research S.R.L. All contents copyrighted. All Rights Reserved

A kite flown in a strong breeze will quickly unspool string as it climbs higher. KiteGen Research in Italy aims to turn that action into electricity. The company developed a prototype that flies 200-square-foot kites to altitudes of 2,600 feet, where wind streams are four times as strong as they are near ground-based wind turbines.

As the kite’s tether unspools, it spins an alternator that generates up to 40 kilowatts. Once the kite reaches its peak altitude, it collapses, and motors quickly reel it back in to restart the cycle. This spring, KiteGen started building a machine to fly a 1,500-square-foot kite, which it plans to finish by 2011, that could generate up to three megawatts—enough to power 9,000 homes.

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Is it Possible for a Spacecraft to Fly Straight Through Jupiter?

Despite its gusty reputation as a “gas giant,” Jupiter’s blood-red clouds hide a dense, rocky core that’s perhaps 20 times as massive as Earth. That core blocks any spacecraft’s passage through the center of the planet, but even a detour through the clouds would be a disaster.

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Robots That Eat Bugs and Plants for Power

Controversial robots devour biomass to gain energy independence

No matter how intelligent a robot might be, it’s nice knowing you can pull its plug to halt the anti-human insurrection. Whoops, not anymore. A new cohort of ’bots that make energy by gobbling organic matter could be the beginning of truly autonomous machines.

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The World's First Image of an Entire Sunspot's Structure

Supercomputing gives us the first picture of a sunspot's structure

The first computer-generated model of an entire sunspot—a magnetic anomaly on the surface of the sun—tracks the magnetic fields in the area, helping researchers figure out how the sun releases energy around the spots. At the dark center, or umbra, the field is so strong—about 1,000 times the solar average—that it blocks the solar gases that typically bubble to the surface.

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Humanscale Humanair Purifier Brings Industrial Strength to the Desktop

A desktop air purifier with industrial strength

A new technology has made giant air cleaners in Swedish factories smaller and more energy-efficient, and now it’s doing the same for filters in your home. The innovation: paper.

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Ask a Geek: Can I Use One Number For My Home, Work and Cellphones?

You can. And now that Google has launched its Google Voice service (google.com/voice), it’s free. At press time, the service was invitation-only, but when it becomes more widely available, here’s how it will work: You get a new universal phone number with your choice of area code, along with a Web-based inbox to manage your voicemail, text messages and call history.

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What Does a Star Sound Like?

Observing a star up close (putting aside for a moment how you’d get there or withstand its heat) is probably like sitting beside an enormous silent fire. Sounds—which are simply pressure variations in a medium such as air or water—can’t propagate in the vacuum of space, so the roiling surface of a star would make an impression on the eyes, but not the ears.

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You Built What?! The Shopping Go-Kart

A grocery basket that can blaze down the aisles at 48km/h

Who needs brakes? When you’re converting a junk-stuffed shopping cart into an electric joy-ride-mobile, they’re the last thing you worry about. MIT undergrad Charles Guan’s LOLriokart—the name is a mash-up of Web and videogame-speak—grew out of his membership in the MIT Electronics Society, a student engineering club. With no plans to build a vehicle, he looked around the club’s shop and spotted the shopping cart, some discarded wheels and an electric engine normally used in high-performance golf carts.

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Asteroid Hunters

A network of space buffs is learning to track asteroids more accurately than ever to predict exactly when and where the next killer meteorite will strike

On October 7, 2020,shortly before dawn in northern Sudan, a trucker named Omar Fadul el Mula was praying at a remote teahouse in the Nubian Desert when a bright flash lit up the landscape. It was as if the world had switched from night to day. He sprung to his feet, ran around the small building, and saw a huge trail of dust and debris stretched high in the sky.

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Instant Expert: Alien Hunting

The Big Question: How do we find life outside Earth?

How to Find Life: When starlight passes through a planet’s atmosphere, certain elements absorb specific wavelengths of light, and these show up as dips in the spectrum.  McKibillo
If aliens are out there, the best shot at finding them—assuming they resemble the life-forms on Earth—is to look for planets like ours. E.T.’s home will probably require an atmosphere to have liquid water and keep out solar radiation, so astronomers search for perfectly sized and situated planets surrounded by blankets of life-supporting gases like oxygen and water vapor. Now they know how to recognize that ideal atmosphere.

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October 2009 Issue: The Race to 1,000 MPH


The Race to 1,000 MPH

In the Black Rock Desert, a band of misfits is going up against the land-speed record holder to make history, and break the sound barrier—all while keeping the car and driver in one piece.
By Mike Spinelli

Meet the Asteroid Hunters

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The First Hybrid Sport Boat Cruises With More Peace, Less Pollution

Boaters like spray and sun in their face, not exhaust. The first hybrid sport boat, courtesy of a co-designer of the Aptera electric car, delivers cleaner thrills.

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