Come fly with me

Boeing has joined a small group of technology bigwigs trying to test a theory that would let engineers negate some of the effects of gravity. The American aerospace giant is using the work of controversial Russian scientist Yevgeny Podkletnov, who claims to have developed a device that can shield objects from the Earth’s pull. Other researchers claim Podkletnov’s work is hokum, but considering the cost savings such a device would represent for air travel, Boeing seems intent on getting to the bottom of it all. The Russian says he found that objects above a superconducting ceramic disc rotating over powerful electromagnets lost weight, the BBC reports. “The reduction in gravity was small, about 2 percent, but the implications — for example, in terms of cutting the energy needed for a plane to fly — were immense.”

Slice that DNA carefully

The genome of the pufferfish, a Japanese delicacy, is teaching researchers about the more complex genetic makeup of humans. The pufferfish, or Fugu, has about the same number of genes as humans, but without most of the repetitive “junk” DNA found in naked apes, researchers at the Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, California, report. Fugu can pack a lethal tetrodotoxin whallop, but manages to do so with the smallest genome of any vertebrate. The findings were detailed in the journal Science and reported on by the Associated Press.

What a waste … of calamari

City work crews were busy Friday cleaning up 12 tons of dead and dying squid after what looks to have been the largest mass beaching of the rubbery mollusks in a century. Scientists say the squid were likely following prey, maybe grunion, when they ventured into the shallow waters off La Jolla Cove, California, and were washed up on shore. Locals were freaked. “It was just unbelievable,” Bill Halsey, 26, told Reuters. “They made these strange noises like a dolphin or a seal as they were dying.” Added Clif Williams: “The thing that weirds me out about the squid is that they have humanlike eyeballs.” The jumbo flying squid, aka Dosidicus gigas, usually call the eastern Pacific Ocean home, but have been turning up on beaches from Orange County to the Mexican Border. Researchers think warm water currents associated with El Nino are drawing the suckers north.

Congo town gets volcano double-whammy

Goma, a town in eastern Congo, has been hit with a volcano spurting molten rock 100 meters in the air, just a few months after a separate volcano devastated the area. “It was something like an explosion of the sun,” Dario Tedesco, a volcano consultant to the United Nations, told Reuters. “It was really spectacular, it was glowing everywhere, the sky was red, you could see the lava coming up from the fissure.” In January another volcano razed much of Goma, and researchers say they’re worried that hothead could blow again. According to the wire service, the winter eruption forced tens of thousands of people to flee into neighboring Rwanda — something few rational people would do by choice. Vulcanologists say the pool of molten rock bubbling in a 1.2-km wide crater at the top of the January volcano had risen rapidly in the last two weeks, but that it is devilishly hard to judge how much risk it poses.

Incidentally, the Granular Volcano Group runs a Web site that explains the physics behind much of a volcano’s activity. It’s a little math-heavy, but you can watch some neato supercomputer simulations of different kinds of gas clouds and debris flows.

Just wait til Lance Bass gets there

Stargazers this week may be surprised by the sight of a glowing orange object streaking across the night sky. It?s the International Space Station, which is making bright passes over the U.S. and Canada until mid-August. The ISS — which travels at 17,000 mph and circles the planet 16 times a day — crosses the sky in three to six minutes, and can shine more brightly than any planet or star except our sun and moon. (Its brightness depends on its orientation, your location and the sun.) Right now this impressive sight can be observed by the unaided eye if skies are clear. (A flyby near downtown Los Angeles on Wednesday night was clearly visible despite city lights.) To find out when the station will fly above your town, orbit over to NASA SkyWatch.

Who says chickens can’t fly?

The Associated Press reports materials researchers have begun experimenting with chicken feathers and soy resin to craft future computer processors. Researchers in the University of Delaware’s ACRES program — Affordable Composites from Renewable Sources — looked to chicken feathers because they have shafts that are hollow but strong, and made mostly of air, which is a great conductor of electricity. The feathers and resin are crafted into a composite material that looks and feels like silicon, according to program director Richard Wool. In initial tests, electric signals moved twice as fast through the organic chip as through a silicon chip, researchers said. “The first time, Dr. Wool’s response was, ‘Recheck,'” said post-doc Chang Kook Hong, who headed the research. “I repeated the test three times with the same results. Then he said, ‘You have a hit here.'” Don’t expect feather Pentiums any time soon, however. The natural bumps and irregularities that come from using an organic base are a big impediment to commercial use. “The microchip industry depends on materials that are ultrasmooth and ultraflat,” said one researcher. “This was anything but that.”

Break out the poison, boys

A panel of scientists has determined that poison is the best way to rid a Maryland pond of the carnivorous northern snakehead. The fish, a native of China, was introduced into the pond by a pet owner who tired of caring for the animals. Only problem is, the snakeheads are eating everything in sight, devastating the pond’s ecosystem. Worse, the insatiable critters can last three days out of water, often traveling short distances across land on their fins. And the Little Patuxent River is about 75 yards away. According to the Associated Press, “The panel considered several ways to get rid of the snakeheads, including removing them through trapping, netting and electroshock stunning. But those options would not ensure that every last fish was killed. The group also considered draining and filtering the pond, but that posed logistical difficulties.”

Looks like some kinda smart rodent

A single gene change that boosts the amount of a certain protein in early brain cells causes mice to develop abnormally large brains, Reuters Health reports. Normal mice have smooth, flat brains. But tinker with the gene in question and suddenly the little furballs develop brains so big they fold in on themselves, forming the wrinkles, ridges and crevices found also in the human brain. Study author Dr. Anjen Chenn of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard University in Boston said the finding might help researchers understand how humans came to develop brains so much bigger than those of other mammals. Whether or not more size means more smarts is uncertain, Chenn said. “It is quite an interesting question … and that’s something we want to look at in the future.”

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars Revisited

It’s hard to imagine that in what may be Big Oil’s political-clout highwater mark, anyone is talking about alternative fuel cars. But Wired does a
marathon out-take
in this month’s issue, delving deep behind the Oil Curtain in a mission to GM’s Detroit headquarters. The magazine takes yet another look at the possibility that hydrogen fuel cell cars will appear in our lifetime. Wired even has the humility to point out where its previously breathless boosterism may have been a wee bit premature.