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"Bristlebots" with Space Explorer Anousheh Ansari

National Air and Space Museum
STEM in 30 hosts, Marty and Beth build simple painting robots out of the heads of toothbrushes with a special guest, Anousheh Ansari. For more FREE teacher resources from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum visit STEM in 30, the museum's Emmy nominated TV show for middle school students:

"Get Your Kicks" at This Route 66 Museum

Smithsonian Magazine

In decades past, travelers along Route 66 might stop for a bite at The Mill, a Lincoln, Illinois, restaurant built in the shape of a Dutch windmill. The little eatery was among many attractions that once dotted the iconic highway, and its ever-changing menu offered an eclectic selection of dishes: wiener schnitzel sandwiches, ham and peanut butter on toast, ice cream, and the occasional squirrel dinner. 

The Mill shut down in 1996, but an 11-year restoration project has given the restaurant a new life, John Reynolds reports for the State Journal Register. Over the weekend, The Mill reopened as a museum dedicated to exploring Lincoln’s ties to Route 66.

The Route 66 Heritage Foundation of Logan County, a non-profit group, raised $90,000 to restore the derelict building. The Mill’s crumbling roof and broken windows have been fixed, and the original flooring has been restored.  Inside, visitors can find transportation-themed displays—like a robotic replica of a former Lincoln gas station— and items from other local restaurants that once thrived in the area.

“Route 66 is one of the most iconic, special places anywhere in America,” Governor Bruce Rauner said during The Mill’s opening ceremony, according to Reynolds.  “It is what America is about—the freedom of the road, exploring our communities ... and coming to the local tourist destinations.”

The now-defunct 2,448-mile highway was a diagonal road that ran between Chicago and Los Angeles, according to The National Historic Route 66 Federation. When it opened in the 1920s, Route 66 provided a vital route to the Pacific coast for America’s burgeoning truck industry and linked hundreds of rural communities to Chicago.

During the Depression era, thousands of migrants traveled to California along Route 66, trying to escape the drought-ridden Dust Bowl of the Great Plains (Steinbeck famously referred to the highway as the “mother road” in Grapes of Wrath). Automobile traffic on the highway proliferated during the postwar years, and restaurants, gas stations, and motels began cropping up along Route 66, offering travelers a place to rest and refuel. The highway became a fixture of pop culture, inspiring—among other things—Nat King Cole’s classic 1946 song and an ambitious 1960s TV show.

The Mill dates back to the early years of Route 66. In 1929, Paul Coddington opened his Dutch-inspired restaurant, which he called The Blue Mill. The manager’s children dressed in Dutch costumes, while waitresses served the decidedly non-Dutch dish of fried ham, peanut butter, and mayo sandwiches, according to an Indiegogo fundraising page for the restaurant. Soon, Coddington established a reputation for serving up sandwiches "at any hour of the day or night," writes Kevin Barlow at the Pantagraph.

In 1945, the restaurant was purchased by Albert and Blossom Huffman, who attached an old army barracks to the building.  They painted it red and converted it into a dance hall, where live country bands would play on the weekend.

Between the '50s and '80s, Route 66 was gradually replaced by larger, multiple-lane superhighways that could better accommodate heavy traffic, according to Robert McHenry of Encyclopedia Britannica. The Mill soldiered on for a few years, reinventing itself as a museum of oddities complete with a 20-pound stuffed catfish, a noise-making toilet and a mechanical leg that dangled through a hole in the ceiling. But The Mill shut down in 1996, and the building fell into a state of disrepair.

Now, curious patrons can visit the historic building that offered up food and fun to many Route 66 travelers. The team behind the restoration has preserved much of the Mill’s flavor: the building is still bright red, a windmill sail still churns outside and if you look up, you'll see a disembodied, robotic leg still dangling from the ceiling.

"Ghostrider" Robot Motorcycle

National Museum of American History
“Ghostrider” is a robot motorcycle that drives itself, with no human intervention once it is underway. The motorcycle was the only two-wheeled entrant in the autonomous vehicle races of 2004 and 2005 sponsored by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The goal of the races was to stimulate invention for a future fleet of driverless military ground vehicles. Congress funded the competitions to support its directive that one-third of U.S. military ground vehicles be unmanned by 2015.

The robot is based on a Yamaha 90cc-engine racing motorcycle, a small vehicle designed for teenagers. For the 2004 race, the motorcycle was modified to carry two arms to right the vehicle after a fall; video cameras; computers; a GPS receiver; inertial measurement units (IMUs) to measure the angle of the vehicle; and motors to actuate the throttle, clutch and steering. For the 2005 race, cameras and GPS receiver were upgraded. “Ghostrider” covered with sponsor decals and race number: 7.

The group developing “Ghostrider,” originated at University of California, Berkeley, and called itself the Blue Team. Team members included leader Anthony Levandowski, who specialized in developing the robot’s software for obstacle avoidance; Charles Smart, in charge of programming the GPS and stability; Andrew Schultz, in charge of programming the electrical engines; Bryon Majusiale, team mechanic and frame fabrication; and Howard Chau, mechanical design .

"Holy Grail" of Spanish Treasure Galleons Found Off Colombia

Smithsonian Magazine

Ask a modern-day treasure hunter what ship they’d most want to find and many would say they’d give their right arm to discover the wreck of the San José, a Spanish treasure ship that went to the bottom of the Caribbean Sea in 1708.

Well, as it turns out, researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), the Colombian Navy, Maritime Archaeology Consultants and Switzerland AG did find the “Holy Grail” of shipwrecks in 2015, and only recently received permission to tell the world about the find. The treasure trove of gold, silver and gems it holds is worth an estimated $1 to $17 billion, reports Lauren Landrum at CNN.

According to a press release an expedition to find the legendary treasure galleon was launched in 2015 with researchers combing the seas using the Colombian Navy’s research ship ARC Malpelo. WHOI provided an autonomous underwater vehicle called REMUS 6000, which surveyed the Barú Peninsula during a first expedition in June of that year. The team returned to the location for a second go-around, locating the San José on November 27. “During that November expedition, we got the first indications of the find from side scan sonar images of the wreck,” WHOI expedition leader Mike Purcell says. “From those images, we could see strong sonar signal returns, so we sent REMUS back down for a closer look to collect camera images.”

REMUS got within 30 feet of the wreck, close enough to image the ship's unique canons. In later dives, researchers captured images of dolphins engraved on the canons, positively IDing the wreck as the fabled ship.

WHOI research engineer Jeff Kaeli was alone in his bunk when images of the cannons first appeared. “I just sat there for about 10 minutes and smiled,” he tells CBS News. “I'm not a marine archaeologist, but...I know what a cannon looks like. So in that moment, I guess I was the only person in the world who knew we'd found the shipwreck."

Now, of course, the whole world knows, but the researchers aren’t giving out many details. One reason is that the ownership of the treasure is already being disputed by Spain, which owned the ship; Colombia, in whose waters it sits; and marine archaeologists, who found the ship. However it pans out, Colombia is preparing for the contents of the ship to be salvaged and has already committed to building a state-of-the-art conservation lab and museum to process the wreck, pointing out that there’s much more than treasure at stake.

“The San José discovery carries considerable cultural and historical significance for the Colombian government and people because of the ship’s treasure of cultural and historical artifacts and the clues they may provide about Europe’s economic, social, and political climate in the early 18th century,” WHOI states in the press release.

Per the Associated Press, the United Nations cultural agency Unesco has stepped into the ownership dispute, and it recently called on Colombia “not to commercially exploit the 300-year-old wreck.”

You might be surprised to learn that it was a stupid mistake that led to the sinking of the San José in the first place. Laura Geggel at LiveScience reports that every year, the treasure galleon laden with precious metals and gems from mines in the Potosi region of Peru would depart South America, bound for Spain and flanked by a fleet of warships.

In 1708, however, the escort squadron was delayed. Nevertheless, fleet commander admiral José Fernandez de Santillan decided to sail the San José for Europe, despite the ongoing War of the Spanish Succession.

Sure enough, the treasure ship met four English warships off the coast of Colombia. Its 62 highly decorated cannons weren’t enough to fend off the royal navy, and during a firefight the San José's powder magazine was hit. The ship, which had approximately 600 people aboard, went down—too quickly for the British to salvage the treasure.

"March for a Robot"

National Museum of American History
This sheet music is for the song “March for A Robot,” by Ada Richter. It was published by M. Witmark and Sons in New York, New York in 1935.

"No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man" - Aaron Taylor Kuffner

Smithsonian American Art Museum
Aaron Taylor Kuffner’s Gamelatron is a fully robotic gamelan orchestra featuring traditional bronze-forged instruments that he has retrofitted with mechanical mallets.

"Stanley" Robot Car

National Museum of American History
This vehicle can navigate for itself, without a human in the driver’s seat or at remote controls. The robot’s creators nicknamed the modified Volkswagen Touareg “Stanley.”

In a brief but spectacular racing career, Stanley beat twenty-two other robot vehicles for the $2 million prize in the Grand Challenge, held in October 2005 on a demanding 132-mile desert course near Las Vegas, Nevada. The goal of the race, sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), was to stimulate invention for a future fleet of driverless military ground vehicles. Congress funded the competition to support its directive that one-third of U.S. military ground vehicles be unmanned by 2015.

Stanley represents a promising research direction in artificial intelligence, or machine thinking. Through sophisticated programs in onboard computers, the vehicle decides how to navigate mapped terrain and unmapped obstacles in real time. It integrates a course map expressed in about 3,000 points of latitude and longitude, stored memory of past experiences, and new information about the road ahead gathered from roof-mounted laser sensors, video cameras, radar and GPS receivers.

Behind Stanley’s driverless accomplishment is the work of nearly 100 people at Stanford University and Volkswagen’s Electronics Research Laboratory (ERL), both in Palo Alto, California.

DARPA’s Grand Challenge of 2005 pitted autonomous vehicles against each other and a ten-hour limit on a punishing dirt course with steep cliffs, sharp turns, and countless obstacles. Only Stanley and four other competitors finished the course. The race’s experimental robots—all sponsored by businesses, universities and individuals—emerged from research for military purposes and demonstrated the feasibility of self-navigating vehicles.

Like the impact of integrated circuits, the Internet, and other technologies with strong military connections, the impact of the robot race is likely to be felt in other areas of American life, especially automotive safety.

"Termites of the Sea" Found Munching Wood Near Arctic Shipwrecks

Smithsonian Magazine

Øyvind Ødegård spends a lot of time around very cold water, looking for the remains of well-preserved shipwrecks along the coastlines of central Norway and in the Baltic Sea. One thing he never hopes to see are shipworms, long slimy creatures with an insatiable appetite for wood.

So the discovery last month of an enormous timber filled with them—in a place much farther north than they’d ever been found—now has Ødegård wondering if the wrecks’ days are numbered. As first reported last week in Science, the crew of the research vessel Helmer Hanssen was plying Arctic waters when they hauled up a 21-foot log loaded with the mollusks, which are so efficient at tunneling their way through wood that they can annihilate an entire ship in a matter of years.

As a marine archaeologist with the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Ødegård has been using semi-autonomous marine robots to look for wrecks near Svalbard, a remote, treeless collection of islands near the high Arctic. There he hopes to find and study as many of the hundreds, possibly thousands, of 17th-century European whaling wrecks, casualties of fighting and the crushing polar ice.

In good conditions, the frigid temperatures help protect Ødegård’s study subjects from archaeological bogeymen, including microbes and shipworms. Ships should remain preserved for hundreds of years with little evidence of decay, so Ødegård had expected that Svalbard would be a benign environment for the wrecks. “I was surprised and quite depressed to find these creatures so far north," he says. "If there’s a climate dimension, things could be deteriorating faster than we thought.”

Geir Johnsen, Jørgen Berge and Øyvind Ødegård with part of the tree trunk they brought aboard the Helmer Hanssen in Rijpsfjorden, Svalbard. (Geir Johnsen)

Investigation last September on the wreck of the whale-oil processing ship Figaro showed limited evidence of shipworms—but the ship lies in a fjord on Svalbard’s western coast that is regularly flushed with warm Gulf Stream waters.

“Our theory was that with warmer temperatures, the coast exposed to Atlantic waters could see an increase in the presence of shipworms with time,” Ødegård says. “We could see evidence of the presence of shipworm, but it was very limited. The wreck we found [the Figaro] is in very good condition.”

Then in January, Jørgen Berge, a marine biologist at the University of Tromsø, was trawling for bottom-dwelling fish on the Helmer Hanssen on the north side of the northernmost island of Svalbard. That's when the team snagged the worm-filled log. Such driftwood is fairly common, arriving from elsewhere on currents, but finding the shipworms took both the crew and scientists aback because this area is flushed with cold Arctic water.

“Then of course, the story changed quite a bit,” Berge says. “In the high Arctic, in a cold fjord, it was far from where we’d expect to find such a species.”

Jutting narrowly northwards past the west coast of Norway and curling up towards the lonely Svalbard archipelago, the Spitzbergen current of the Atlantic Gulf Stream carries the remains of warm water from the south before circling past Greenland. Berge’s first thought was that the shipworms came on the current as hitchhikers, except the larvae in the log were at various stages of development. That meant they’d been there for some time.

The origin of the log and the shipworms’ identity are still under investigation. So far, it’s not known whether they’re a previously unidentified species, or if they are a southern species that has been able to expand their range northward because of warming water.

A scan of the wreck of the Figaro in Svalbard, taken by Øyvind Ødegård with a submersible research robot. The cold waters of the Arctic act as a preservative, so this 100-year-old ship is in relatively good condition. However, the Figaro also shows limited evidence of shipworms. (Øyvind Ødegård)

The shipworms wouldn’t be the first harbinger of a warming trend around the archipelago. Blue mussels, which can’t survive in very cold water, thrived on the archipelago during a warming period that began somewhere around 10,500 years ago. They winked out during the Viking age, when global temperatures dipped. In 2004, Berge discovered they’d again returned to Svalbard after a 1,000-year hiatus.

Mackerel have expanded their range to include Svalbard, as have herring and haddock, other species formerly found much further to the south. Atlantic cod, too, have made their way to the Arctic, challenging the native polar cod for space and resources.

“Working in the high Arctic, you get the first signal of how a changing, warming climate is affecting the biological environment,” Berge says. “For some species, it may be a battle on two fronts.”

For Berge, the discovery of shipworms represents a bit of a double-edged sword: intrigue at the possibility of a new endemic species of Arctic shipworm, and consternation that if it is a new species, it’s only been spotted because previously ice-locked regions are becoming more accessible due to warming.

“Before we can say anything about what sort of threat this might be, we simply need to know what we’re dealing with,” Berge said. “But as the Arctic oceans open up and have less and less sea ice, we’re likely to get more new discoveries about the ocean that until now have remained more or less off-limits. Our knowledge of the central Arctic Ocean is extremely limited.”

Ødegård seems resigned to the possibility that the outlook for underwater cultural heritage might not be so cheery under either circumstance. A new species could move southward and hit up wrecks. Southern species migrating northward in warming waters could do the same. And with an increase in shipping traffic as the oceans become more reliably ice-free, other organisms released from ballast water could potentially become established as well.

Still, because so much is still not known about whether climate is to blame and whether the worm is a newfound species, Berge is reluctant to cast the find in a hard light.

“I don’t think it’s a one-off find, certainly not,” he adds. “But my gut feeling is that once we get more data and insight, this will be a different kind of story.” 

"Tortoise" Mobile Robot

National Museum of American History
Among the first electronic mobile robots were the experimental machines of neuroscientist W. Grey Walter. Walter studied the brain’s electrical activity at the Burden Neurological Institute (BNI) near Bristol, England. His battery-powered robots were models to test his theory that a minimum number of brain cells can control complex behavior and choice. Soon after World War II, electronic motors and computers made possible such experimental robots that imitated living intelligence. Researchers like Walter then sought to answer a question that still occupies their successors: How close can machines come to human intelligence?

In the late 1940s Walter built his first model animals—simple, slow-moving, tortoise-shaped machines he named Elmer and Elsie. In 1951, Walter enlisted BNI engineer W. J. Warren to build the robot displayed here.

The machines are designed to explore their environment and react to it with two senses—sight and touch. A rotating photoelectric cell, the machine’s “eye,” scans the horizon continuously until it detects an external light. Scanning stops and the machine either moves toward the light source or, if the source is too bright, moves away. An external contact switch, sensitive to touch, causes the machine to retreat if it encounters obstacles. The robots retreat to a recharging station when their batteries were low.

'Hamilton' Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda Joins the War Against Bots

Smithsonian Magazine

Over the last year or so, Lin-Manuel Miranda has become a runaway star on the Broadway circuit thanks to the roaring success of his musical, Hamilton. Since the show hit Broadway, Miranda has helped sparked new interest in the titular Founding Father, sung showtunes on Carpool Karaoke and even beatboxed with President Obama. But now, the playwright has stepped into the ring to try and take on a new challenge: fighting bots.

Now, Miranda isn’t about to leap into action to fight the Terminator: he’s taking up arms against automated computer programs designed to swoop in and buy up swaths of tickets to popular concerts and performances as soon as they go on sale. These bots are run by scalpers who flip the tickets on third-party websites like StubHub, often at exorbitant prices.

“I want the thousands of tickets for shows, concerts and sporting events that are now purchased by bots and resold at higher prices to go into the general market so that you have a chance to get them,” Miranda wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times this week.

Earlier this year, an investigation by New York state attorney general Eric Schneiderman’s office found that in many cases where large concerts sell out in minutes, tickets often quickly appear on the resale market shortly after, for greatly inflated prices. While many venues limit the number of tickets that a single person can buy, it’s easy to program or purchase vast fleets of internet bots to get around these restrictions, Jim Zarroli reports for NPR. In some cases, thousands of tickets to shows by musicians like U2 and Billy Joel have sold out in seconds only to appear on the resale market immediately after. Even free events where tickets are given out via lottery, like the Pope’s visit to Central Park in September 2015, have found themselves stricken by swarms of bots.

"The average fan vying to purchase a ticket to a popular concert has little hope of competing against brokers, many of whom use illegal and unfair means to purchase tickets," a report released by Schneiderman’s office says.

Under New York state law, using bots in this way is illegal. However, reselling tickets can be so lucrative that the fines levied against scalpers who get caught using them are often treated as the cost of doing business, Miranda argues. But while lawmakers are struggling to figure out the appropriate response to help give fans a fair shot at buying tickets to see their favorite shows, venues, promoters and even the artists themselves can take more steps to ensure that their biggest fans get to see their shows, Robin Levinson King reports for the Toronto Star.

While some artists have taken to issuing paperless tickets that require the holder to show the credit card used to buy them at the door or to keep an eye out for large lots of tickets being bought by users from the same IP address, which would suggest that a person is using bots, some argue that more artists should take these steps. As Pascal Courty, a University of Victoria economist who studies the secondary ticketing market tells King, the entertainment industry has a habit of conducting business in ways that make it easier for boosting the resale price of popular tickets. For example, some artists set aside large sets of tickets for friends and family members of the band, the promoter and the venue owners, which can end up in the hands of scalpers and hide just how many tickets are available.

“Nobody knows how many tickets are in the market,” Courty tells King.

Meanwhile, legislators are looking at ways to toughen punishments to prevent ticket resellers from treating fines like a business expense. New York state lawmakers have responded to the problem by making it illegal for sites like StubHub to knowingly sell tickets bought by bots and have made repeat offenders subject to criminal punishments like imprisonment, Miranda writes.

“You shouldn’t have to fight robots just to see something you love,” Miranda writes.

'Robotic Worm' Could Be the Future of Stroke Care

Smithsonian Magazine

MIT researchers have created a super-thin robotic thread capable of carefully winding its way through a tangle of tubes. In the future, it could move through blood vessels in the brain to help clear blockages, according to a new the study in Science Robotics.

Currently, when a person is diagnosed with a blockage or aneurysm in the brain, surgeons insert a thin wire into an artery near the leg or groin, according to an MIT press release. Then, guided by X-ray images from a fluoroscope, a surgeon manually threads the wire through the body, up into the brain and maneuvers it to remove the blockage. It’s a highly specialized skill and surgeons are often exposed to excess radiation due to the imaging. In general, there are not enough trained surgeons to meet the need.

“Stroke is the number five cause of death and a leading cause of disability in the United States. If acute stroke can be treated within the first 90 minutes or so, patients’ survival rates could increase significantly,” says Xuanhe Zhao, an MIT engineer and study co-author. “If we could design a device to reverse blood vessel blockage within this ‘golden hour,’ we could potentially avoid permanent brain damage. That’s our hope.”

The new robot is essentially an upgraded version of the guidewires currently used by surgeons. Those wires are typically metal alloys coated in polymers. If they get stuck in a tight spot, they could cause friction and damage blood vessels.

For the new robot, the team combined their expertise in magnetically actuated materials, or those that can be moved via magnets and hydrogels, a biocompatible material made primarily of water.

The new brain worm is coated with hydrogel to produce a smooth, frictionless movement. The guidewire is made of a bendy nickel-titanium alloy called nitinol covered in an ink studded with magnetic particles and is only 0.6 millimeters in diameter.

The result is the robo-worm, which the team was able to steer through a series of plastic hoops just using the push and pull of a magnet. They also guided the little thread through silicon replica of brain vasculature, finding that the slippery hydrogel kept the wire from getting stuck better than conventional guidewires.

The hope is that a specialized magnetic machine could be built to guide the thread through the body. That type of platform would allow surgeons to control the process using a joystick in a spot away from the fluoroscope radiation—or even from a different city.

The team also says it would be possible to delivery clot-reducing drugs using the robot or even clot-busting laser pulses. In another experiment, they replaced the nitinol core with an optical fiber and found they could still steer the robot and activate a laser.

Co-author Yoonho Kim, a graduate student in MIT's Department of Mechanical Engineering, acknowledges that the idea is not particularly groundbreaking. Other teams have experimented with other soft robots to clear blockages in the heart. The brain, however, was a tougher organ to crack.

“The reason why robotics couldn’t go into this domain before is the existing robots that can navigate through a blood vessel were too large in diameter,” Kim tells Chris Stokel-Walker at New Scientist.

While the system is in its very early stages, it appears viable. “I think it’s really interesting – and the clinical implications are there, if at a very early stage,” Eloise Matheson who studies robotics at Imperial College London tells Stokel-Walker. “The system, how they tested it and what it shows, is really promising.”

The next step is to try the robo-worm out on animals, and the team is currently in negotiations to set up those experiments.

10 Weird Things Humans Have Sent Into the Stratosphere

Smithsonian Magazine

Since October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 into orbit, people have been sending up all sorts of things into outer space. Laika, the Soviet space dog, went into orbit a month later on Sputnik 2. Unfortunately, she didn’t survive the trip. Monkeys, chimpanzees, some more dogs and even a few cats all made the journey, with some animals faring better than others.

The first humans traveled into space in 1961, and it didn’t take long before things started to get a little strange. In 1965, astronaut John Young smuggled a corned beef sandwich aboard Gemini III. A few years later, when Apollo 12 was headed to the moon, the backup crew hid pictures of Playboy Playmates in the astronauts’ lunar checklist. On a more sentimental note, astronaut Shannon Walker brought along Amelia Earhart’s watch when she boarded the International Space Station in 2010. The watch, which Earhart wore on two trans-Atlantic flights, still works.

Other items that have traveled into space include Luke Skywalker’s Lightsaber from Star Wars and a Buzz Lightyear action figure that spent more than a year floating around the International Space Station.

If you don’t have an “in” at NASA, the Russian Space Agency or SpaceX, no worries—you can still launch just about anything into the stratosphere for a near-space experience. Everything you need for a “high altitude balloon kit” can be found on the Internet. You’ll need to notify aviation authorities, but for as little as a few hundred bucks, you can join the ranks of hobbyists, budding scientists and elementary school students who’ve sent some pretty weird things flying high:


In 2012, five Harvard students launched a stale hamburger (it was also shellacked) to 98,425 feet. It descended back to Earth and landed high up in a tree 130 miles away from the launch site. The students tried—and failed—to shoot the burger down with a bow and arrow, so they had to wait for a storm to knock it free a few days later.

Radio-Control Airplane

In Sweden, David Windestål, a radio-control equipment enthusiast, sent a radio-control airplane into the stratosphere. The plane reached about 100,000 feet before the helium balloon popped. After allowing the bundle to free-fall for four minutes, Windestål released the plane from the balloon—but it lost one of its antennas. Twenty minutes later, Windestål regained control and used the on-board video camera to help land the plane. It didn’t land right at his feet, but it ended up pretty close.

Toy Robot

If you’re looking to give your music video an edge, why not add a near-space scene? That’s what U.K. resident James Troshy had in mind when he launched a toy robot 95,000 feet in 2010. The footage appears in the music video “Edgar” by Lucky Elephant. The robot landed 11 miles from the launch site intact. 

Hello Kitty

When seventh grader Lauren Rojas had to come up with an idea for her Science Fair project, sending Hello Kitty flying wasn’t the initial plan. “Originally, I was going to just send up the silver rocket, but I wanted to have a mascot for my project. My Dad had just gotten back from a business trip and brought me a little Hello Kitty eraser that happened to fit perfectly into the rocket,” said Rojas.

A rocket that looks like a Sanrio design and the Hello Kitty mascot made it 93,625 feet before descending to Earth and landing in a tree. Rojas said, “It took us approximately three hours to find the project in the tree. We launched it in Livermore, and it landed in San Jose, 47.5 miles away.”


In an effort to promote a new flat screen TV, Toshiba hired JP Aerospace to launch and film an armchair. While the apparatus made it to 98,000 feet, the chair fell apart on descent. Fortunately, the camera gear survived as it parachuted back to Earth, landing within 12 miles of the launch site.


In 2013, Bemidji State University in Minnesota prepared a weather balloon launch and invited middle school students to send up something too. While the college kids sent up boxes with equipment to measure radiation and acceleration, the middle school kids sent up paintballs (and some junk food) in a container. The balloon made it 98,000 feet, but the paintballs never popped—so no chance of getting a glimpse at what near-space splatter art might look like.

LEGO Minifigures

Best friends Jon Chippindall and Ian Cunningham launched a homemade probe with two LEGO astronaut minifigures affixed to it. The probe made it 90,000 feet before heading back to Earth.

Two Canadian teenagers sent a patriotic minifig to about 80,000 feet in 2012.

And minifigs have flown on the space shuttle and visited the International Space Station as part of official missions. Right now, three custom-made aluminum minifigs are on their way to Jupiter aboard NASA’s Juno spacecraft.


In 2012, an eighth-grade science class at Indian Valley High broke into teams to send up crickets, grapes and water balloons. Unlike the other items sent to the stratosphere, this voyage employed six balloons instead of just one giant helium balloon and only made it 62,720 feet. The grapes didn’t turn into raisins, and the water balloons didn’t pop. But for some mysterious reason, all the crickets died—as did all the crickets in the control group back on Earth. 


Before sending things to near space became all the rage, someone used a helium balloon to send up an iPhone. It survived, and the resulting video became a bit of inspiration for lifelong friends Rich Toma and Danny Burns.  “We thought that was a bizarre thing to send into space. We were drinking ‘Natty Light’ when we watched that video,” said Burns. They looked at the beer in hand and thought, “It’s a small, portable, light payload… a perfect little space object.”

In 2011, the two turned to the Internet and learned everything they needed to fling beer toward space, including a tip that they should wrap everything in hand warmers. They bought a Styrofoam cooler and packed it with a Web-based GPS unit, a handy cam, encapsulated foam and an unopened can of Natural Light beer. Burns and Toma also affixed an empty can to the side of the cooler to get footage of the beer’s voyage. They never even thought of sending up a craft beer. “Nobody pays attention to Natty,” said Toma. “It deserves its day in the sun.” It got it after soaring about 90,000 feet above Earth.


You can sip a bacon martini and spritz on some bacon cologne, so why not dine on high-altitude bacon? In early 2013, a few gentlemen in the U.K. sent a popular barbeque recipe known as the bacon explosion into the heavens on board their homemade craft, Pigasus I. After ascending to a height of nearly 100,000 feet, the precious cargo returned to Earth via parachute, where it was retrieved, cooked and eaten.

This article was originally published by the editorial team at XPRIZE, which designs and operates incentivized competitions to bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity.

11 Heart-Pounding Moments at Kennedy Space Center

Smithsonian Magazine

There's power in place—and when it comes to space flight, Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex℠ in Florida is truly the center of the universe. Since 1962, the site has been host to some of NASA's most important launches, including all human missions to space, the Hubble Space Telescope, Mars rovers and New Horizons probe, which entered the Pluto system in January 2015. The Space Launch System, which will bring astronauts to Mars, is set to launch from launch pad 39-B in the coming years.

And trips to space are just the beginning: In addition to its space flight programs, Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex welcomes 1.5 million visitors a year. From meeting astronauts to seeing historic spacecraft up close, here are 11 heart-pounding moments from the epicenter of American space travel:

1) Watch a Live Rocket Launch

The fact that a rocket weighing thousands of tons can travel from the Earth's surface into orbit is staggering in and of itself—but witnessing takeoff is unforgettable. As engines ignite in a burst of flame and sound waves rip through the air, your heart skips a beat. 

Four locations at the visitor complex offer launch viewings accompanied by live commentary. From the viewing room of the four-story LC-39 Observation Gantry, watch rockets take off from the same launch pad that launched the Apollo and space shuttle missions while sizing up the Vehicle Assembly Building, where the center assembles its largest rockets. From the lawn of the NASA Causeway, enjoy an up-close view of the launch pads across Indian River, or watch from the comfort of the Apollo/Saturn V Center and main complex. Whatever the location, the anticipation is palpable as the countdown reaches 3…2…1.

2) Launch Into Orbit

While very few people have experienced the thrill of space travel, veteran astronauts say the Shuttle Launch Experience® is the next best thing. In this simulation, travel from four hours before launch to the final seconds in a matter of minutes. Following a prelaunch briefing by veteran Space Shuttle Commander and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, your seat shifts back into a vertical position to prepare for takeoff. The final countdown commences, engines rev up and suddenly you’re flying at simulated speeds of 17,500 miles per hour. Eight-and-a-half minutes later, a feeling of weightlessness settles over you. The payload bay doors open to reveal Earth—a shifting mass of vivid greens and blues, set against a starry sky only astronauts can recount.

3) Walk the Apollo 11 Gantry

(Image Credit: Aaron Sheldon)

On July 16, 1969, the crew of Apollo 11 left Earth to complete the first crewed mission to the moon. Four days later, Neil Armstrong took the first step on the moon, proclaiming: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” In the Rocket Garden, relive the historic mission by walking on the very same gantry that Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins used to board the Saturn V rocket. Outside of the gantry, walk among rockets that span the history of space flight. Or climb inside replicas of capsules from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo eras to understand the conditions experienced by America’s first astronauts.

4) Touch the Moon in the Apollo Treasures Gallery

The Apollo/Saturn V Center is a trove of items commemorating the Apollo missions. Held up by support beams and spanning a football field in length is the sister rocket to the one that transported the crew of Apollo 11 to the moon. After walking its length, stop by a replica moon buggy used to train astronauts on Earth, or peer inside a full-size model of Skylab, the precursor to the International Space Station. The Apollo/Saturn V Center is also one of the only places on Earth where you can touch a piece of the moon. As you glide your fingers over a sample of moon rock, the fact that man traveled 238,000 miles to the moon and back—a round trip almost 20 times the circumference of the Earth—sinks in.

5) Meet an Astronaut

No one tells the story of space travel quite like the people who have been there themselves. Each day in the Astronaut Encounter Theater, a featured astronaut shares his or her experiences training for and living in space, followed by a tell-all Q&A session. “If you’re bold enough to ask, I’m bold enough to answer,” says astronaut Bob Springer, who served as a mission specialist on the STS-29 Discovery and STS-38 Atlantis shuttle flights. He enjoys the Q&A sessions for the chance to inspire a new generation and share what NASA releases leave out – “the emotional part” and “stories behind stories." After the Q&A, visitors can meet and take photos with featured astronauts, who range from commanders to pilots, mission specialists and payload specialists.

6) See the Space Shuttle Atlantis® Up Close

In 2011, the space shuttle Atlantis completed its 33rd and final mission since 1985, the last of space shuttle era. The legendary orbiter, whose missions include the final servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009, traveled a total of 126 million miles and transported 146 astronauts. It is now on display at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex with payload bay doors open and robotic arm extended, the way it would have appeared after undocking from the International Space Station. Sixty state-of-the-art multimedia presentations surround the orbiter, bringing to life its systems and components. Adding to the effect are the building’s orange and gold hues, which emulate the colors of re-entry, and gray floor tiling, mimicking the tiles used to protect the orbiter from heat.

7) Relive the Daring Feats of Early Space Pioneers

High-tech special effects will bring the adventure and danger of America’s earliest space missions to life in the Heroes & Legends exhibit, opening November 11. Featuring 360-degree visual presentations, a 4D multisensory theater experience and interactive exhibits, Heroes & Legends will present the stories of pioneering astronauts while exploring how Americans define heroism. Interact with the nearly 100 astronaut heroes inducted to date in the new U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame® and watch a hologram reenact Gene Cernan’s hair-raising “spacewalk from hell," during which his goggles fogged up and he struggled to reenter the Gemini 9 capsule.

8) See Footage Shot by Astronauts in 3D IMAX®

The world’s only twin IMAX® screens, each a jaw-dropping five stories tall, bring footage shot by astronauts to life in two motion pictures. Journey to Space, narrated by Sir Patrick Stewart, explores groundbreaking plans to land astronauts on Mars and introduces the team selected for the task. Interviews with commander of the final shuttle mission Chris Ferguson and Serena Aunon, an astronaut selected for future flight, emphasize how these future plans would not be possible without the contributions made by the Space Shuttle program. A Beautiful Planet, narrated by Jennifer Lawrence, casts Earth in a new light from the perspective of the International Space Station. Using Canon 4K cameras, International Space Station astronauts captured all manner of breathtaking natural phenomena, from lightning storms to volcanoes, coral reefs and even the Northern Lights. At night, they documented city lights, a gripping visualization of how humans have shaped the planet.  

9) Remember Fallen Heroes of Space

Forever Remembered is a powerful tribute to the 14 astronauts who lost their lives in the STS-51L/Challenger and STS-107/Columbia space shuttle missions. As you enter the memorial, mission patches and personal items, such as Michael Anderson’s Star Trek lunch box and Rick Husband’s cowboy boots and Bible, highlight the astronauts’ passions and achievements. An adjacent gallery displays recovered sections of both orbiters: a large section of the Challenger’s left side body with the American flag intact and the framework of Columbia’s cockpit windows. Other galleries emphasize the importance of learning from the past. “The crews of Challenger and Columbia are forever a part of a story that is ongoing,” says NASA administrator Charles Bolden of the exhibit. “It is the story of humankind’s evolving journey into space, the unknown, and the outer-reaches of knowledge, discovery and possibility. It is a story of hope.”

10) Train Like an Astronaut

Astronauts spend years preparing for missions to space. The Astronaut Training Experience® is an exhilarating, hands-on, half-day program designed by veteran astronauts that walks you through how they prepare for the rigors of space flight in the months before launch. Following a mission briefing, space flight experts instruct you on how to execute a high-Earth orbit, dock and perform crucial repairs. Next, test your strength and stamina on the Micro-Gravity Wall and 1/6th Gravity Chair, or dare to enter the Multi-Axis Trainer, which rotates in multiple directions up to 360º. After receiving your mission role, enter a full-scale mock-up of a space shuttle orbiter or mission control room to conduct a mission simulation. A final graduation ceremony includes an inspiring debriefing on the future of the U.S. space program.

11) See the Farthest Reaches of the Universe in 4K Resolution

For over 25 years, the Hubble Space Telescope has orbited the Earth, affording us invaluable views of deep space, including stars, nebulas and black holes. Five grueling repair missions and dozens of hours of spacewalks have kept the telescope in service, allowing scientists to continue to answer fundamental questions of our existence: How do stars form? What are galaxies made of? What does our cosmic neighborhood look like? Now you can traverse 13.4 billion years through the eyes of the telescope in stunning 3D, 4K resolution during the “Eyes on the Universe: NASA’s Space Telescope 3D” live presentation at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. The presentation also discusses what may be the next great observatory: NASA's James Webb Telescope, set to orbit the sun in 2018.

11 Heart-Pounding Moments at Kennedy Space Center

Smithsonian Magazine

There's power in place—and when it comes to space flight, Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is truly the center of the universe. Since 1962, it has launched some of the American Space program’s most significant missions. In addition to its space flight programs, the center is home to a visitor complex that welcomes 1.5 million people a year.

From meeting astronauts to seeing historic spacecrafts up close, here are ten of the most heart-pounding moments from the epicenter of American space travel:

1) Watch a Live Rocket Launch

Witnessing takeoff is an unforgettable experience. As rocket engines ignite and sound waves rip through the air, your heart is sure to skip a beat. Four locations at the visitor complex offer launch viewings accompanied by live commentary.

2) Launch Into Orbit

Veteran astronauts say the Shuttle Launch Experience® is the next best thing to space travel. View Earth from outside the atmosphere at simulated speeds of 17,500 miles per hour.

3) Explore Future Spacecraft

Thrill in the spacecraft of current missions to the International Space Station and upcoming missions to explore deep space. NASA Orion, SpaceX Dragon, Boeing CST-100 Starliner Crew Capsule Pressure Vessel, NASA Space Launch System (SLS) Scale Model, and the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser Cargo Vehicle Scale Model are all on display in the NASA NOW hall.

4) Touch the Moon—Literally

The Apollo Treasures Gallery in the Apollo/Saturn V Center, one stop on the Kennedy Space Center bus tour, is one of the only places on Earth where you can touch a piece of the moon. Glide your fingers over a sample of moon rock and savor the fact that man traveled 238,000 miles to the moon and back.

5) Meet an Astronaut

No one tells the story of space travel quite like people who have done it. Each day in the Astronaut Encounter Theater, a featured astronaut shares his or her experiences training for and living in space. Following a Q&A, visitors can take photos with the astronauts.

6) See Space Shuttle Atlantis® Up Close

In 2011, space shuttle Atlantis completed its 33rd and final mission, the last of the space shuttle era. The legendary orbiter is on display at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex with doors open and robotic arm extended. State-of-the-art multimedia presentations and hands-on simulators highlight its systems and components.

7) Remember Fallen Heroes of Space

Forever Remembered is a powerful tribute to the 14 astronauts who lost their lives in the Challenger and Columbia missions. As you enter, mission patches and personal items highlight their passions and achievements. An adjacent gallery displays recovered sections of both orbiters. “The crews of Challenger and Columbia are forever a part of a story that is ongoing,” says NASA administrator Charles Bolden of the exhibit.

8) Relive the Daring Feats of Early Space Pioneers

High-tech special effects bring the adventure and danger of America’s earliest space missions to life at the new Heroes & Legends building. Explore the interactive U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame® and watch a hologram reenact Gene Cernan’s hair-raising “spacewalk from hell.”

9) Explore Life on Mars

Simulate landing a manned rover on the surface of Mars, drive it to its destination, and explore the surface of Mars all at Mars Base 1, coming soon to Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Participants work as part of a team to direct Base Operations after a simulated drone crash, study the growth of plants using materials other than Earth soil and sunlight, and program physical robots to clear debris from solar panels.

10) Work in Mission Control

Teams of 12 guests, or astronauts-in-training, work together to launch the SLS rocket and dock the Orion capsule with a Mars Transit Ship in a simulated Mission Control Room within the all new Astronaut Training Experience®, coming soon. Trainees get to experience what it’s like to live and work on the International Space Station in a microgravity simulator. Then you’re off to explore the surface of Mars on foot using a combination of virtual reality and full-motion simulators.

11) See the Farthest Reaches of the Universe in 4K Resolution

For over 25 years, the Hubble Space Telescope has orbited the Earth, affording us invaluable views of deep space, including stars, nebulas and black holes. During the “Eyes on the Universe: NASA’s Space Telescope 3D” live presentation, traverse 13.4 billion years through the eyes of the telescope in stunning 3D, 4K resolution and learn about NASA's James Webb Telescope, set to orbit the sun in 2018.

*   *   *

Discover more heart-pounding moments at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

11 Strange Science Lessons We Learned This Summer

Smithsonian Magazine

test tube burger

Are test-tube burgers transformative science? Photo courtesy of the Cultured Beef Project

A few days ago, scientists in London unveiled the first lab-grown burger created from stem cells taken from the muscle tissue of cow. The small strips of synthetic meat were collected into pellets and ultimately shaped into the hamburger patty rolled out before the cameras.

Although food critics on hand agreed that the burger felt like real meat in their mouths and tasted okay, most of the coverage of the event came with a heavy dose of snark, usually accompanied with shots of people chomping on big, thick, juicy burgers straight from the cow.

But there was science behind it all–with the research funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who was motivated to help find more imaginative and planet-friendly ways to produce food. As he put it, “If what you’re doing is not seen by some people as science fiction, it’s probably not transformative enough.”

This summer has been full of stories like that, where on the surface the science may seem strange, but it’s spurred by innovative thinking that finds out something new about the world or may make a difference in the way we live some day. Here are 10 more of them:

1) So much for minty breath: Last week, Chinese scientists shared the latest example of why science often isn’t pretty. They reported that they’ve been able to grow rudimentary teeth from human urine. Technically, they transplanted stem cells from urine into mice and those cells were able to grow into knobby things resembling teeth–they had pulp, dentin and enamel-forming cells. While they were only about a third as hard as the real thing, one day, as the researchers wrote in the journal Cell Regeneration, dentists may be able to plant little buds in your jaw that started out in urine.

2) I love the sound of slot machines in the morning. It sounds like…winning: And scientists from the University of Waterloo in Canada say that based on their analysis, the cacophony emanating from slot machines not only makes gambling more exciting, but it also can cause gamblers to think they’ve won more times than they actually have. All that noise, the scientists suggested, can make losses feel like wins.

3) How else would we show how big was the one that got away?: One of the highlights of the annual meeting of the Society for Experimental Biology in Spain last month was the presentation of Cornell University Andrew Bass, who contends that talking with our hands may have its roots in fish. That’s right, fish. Bass, aptly named, said his research indicates that the evolutionary origins of the link between speech and gesturing can be traced to a compartment in a fish’s brain. And that part of its brain, notes Bass, allows a fish to vocalize and gesture with its pectoral fins simultaneously.

4) When rocks scream: Who knew that volcanoes “scream” before they erupt? Okay, it’s not a blood-curdling wail–more like a harmonic vibration–but in some cases, such as Alaska’s Redoubt Volcano, the mountain makes a sound so loud it can actually be heard by humans. A study published in July says that in Redoubt’s case, the sound–high-pitched and increasing in volume–is produced by a succession of small earthquakes caused by quick movements of magma pushed by building pressure before an eruption.

5) I’m too sexy for this cave: While we’re on the subject of nature noise, give props to the male bat. It apparently is quite the romantic singer, according to research by Texas A&M biology professor Mike Smotherman, at least when it comes to enticing a mate. In short, a male bat needs to cut to the chase–he has less than a second to grab a female’s attention as she flies by at 30 feet per second. If he gets her to stop by, he then mixes up his songs to keep her entertained long enough to get to the matter at hand.

6) They need to listen to some slot machines: A Duke University study of chimps and bonobos not only found that apes are quick to throw tantrums when things don’t go as expected, but that they can become particularly agitated when they gamble and lose. In one part of the research, the apes could choose to accept a very small portion of food or wait longer for a larger serving of a meal they weren’t able to see. If the gamble paid off, the apes were able to chow down on a large helping of their favorite fruit. But if it didn’t work and they ended with a big heaping of something like cucumbers, they flipped out, or tried to switch their choice at the last minute. The researchers also found that chimps were both more willing to wait for food and much bigger gamblers than the bonobos.

7) But wait until they get a load of their first kangaroo: Okay, go with me on this: If Martians did exist and if they wanted to take a getaway vacation, but to a place that still felt a little like home, they would head to the Australian outback. So says University of Sydney geologist Patrice Rey, who believes that the red dirt in the central part of the continent might be very much like what’s found on Mars. He has researched why precious opal can be found all over the place there, but hardly anywhere else on Earth, and believes that it started forming when a giant sea that covered much of Australia began drying out about 100 million years ago–conditions similar to those seen on the surface of Mars.

8) The first nano smile: Scientists at Georgia Tech have recreated the world’s most famous painting–the Mona Lisa–on the world’s smallest canvas–a surface about one-third the width of a human hair. The nano-art, titled “Mini Lisa,” is meant to demonstrate a technique in which an atomic force microscope is used to vary the surface concentration of molecules. Da Vinci the scientist would be thrilled, da Vinci the artist, not so much.

9) Show me you care: Humans have much more positive feelings about a robot that cares for them than one they have to take care of. According to a study by an international team of scientists, people think a robot that seems to look out for them is smarter and more human than one that appears to need help. The researchers say this helps them better understand how to get humans to trust robots.

10) When there aren’t enough brains to go around: And finally, researchers using a zombie-themed game found that people under pressure tend to make dumb decisions when evacuating a building. In fact, the more pressure players were under, the more likely they were stick to evacuation routes they knew, even if they meant it took longer for them to escape. The study, reported last month, was part of real science incorporated into a ZombieLab event held at London’s Science Museum earlier this year.

Video bonus: Here’s a clip of the taste test of the first in vitro burger. And an animation that explains how a cow’s muscle tissue grows into a burger, although it sure doesn’t make it very appetizing.

Video bonus bonus: And here’s a look at how science and zombies mix.

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136,000 Varieties of Rice Are Now Protected in Perpetuity

Smithsonian Magazine

According to some estimates, half the world depends on rice as its staple food. But as the climate changes, rice cultivation is increasingly under threat by record-breaking temperatures, drought and flooding. That’s why, as Michael Taylor at Reuters reports, a group called the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) has collected and conserved 136,000 varieties of rice and recently received a commitment of $1.4 million in annual funding to maintain the collection.

Keeping an inventory of all those rice varieties isn’t just an academic exercise. While gene editing and synthetic biology get a lot of attention for their potential to develop more nutritious and resilient crops, the IRRI says the traits needed to survive a changing climate are already present in the seed bank. “It is really important to the future of food security,” Matthew Morell, IRRI’s director general tells Reuters. “Within those rice varieties are genetics that will allow us to preserve the ability to produce rice in the face of climate change.”

The new funding comes from an endowment fund set up by an organization called The Crop Trust, which was established in 2004 to provide ongoing support to the 11 genebanks of CGIAR, an international organization dedicated to food security and poverty reduction, which preserves 1 million varieties of food crops. “Today’s announcement validates 20 years of work and 50 years of thinking on how the international community can safeguard crops used for food and agriculture,” Marie Haga, executive director of the Crop Trust, says in a press release.

Researchers have already used rice held at the genebank to develop specialized varieties of the grain. One new variety, dubbed “scuba rice,” has food scientists particularly excited. Currently, about 49 million acres of rice fields in Asia are susceptible to flooding. If rice is flooded at the wrong time of year, however, it will not survive more than a few days. The new variety can withstand floodwaters for two weeks and is already being grown by 5 million farmers in Asia. A variety suited for Africa is currently under development.

Taylor at Reuters reports that researchers are also investigating the rice genebank to find varieties that can withstand salt water. “In Asia we have areas which grow rice along coastal zones, where typhoons bring sea water into the rice fields,” Morell says. “So those genetics for salinity resistance is important.”

Helen Briggs at the BBC reports that rice seeds can last for hundreds of years in storage, as long as they are properly packaged and stored at low temperatures. But maintaining those conditions takes resources and money. The funding for IRRI will begin will allow the seed bank to cover operating expenses and regenerate some of the rice varieties held in its collection as well as develop robotic techniques to manage and sort their huge collection.

3D Print Your Own Breakfast

Smithsonian Magazine

Imagine coming down for breakfast and, instead of popping a piece of toast in the toaster and boiling an egg, you stick a cartridge in a printer. A minute or two later, you’ve got a freshly printed banana and flaxseed muffin.

Thanks to a new kind of 3D food printer, the printed breakfast is several steps closer to reality for the average consumer.

 "Food printing may be the 'killer app' of 3D printing," says Hod Lipson, who’s led the creation of the new printer. "It's completely uncharted territory." 

Lipson, a professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia University, has been studying 3D printing for nearly 20 years, working on printing things like plastics, metals, electronics and biomaterials. His work on 3D food printing came out of his research on printing complete 3D robots that could, in theory, “walk off the printer.”  

To achieve something like this, a printer must be able to print with many materials at the same time. While experimenting with making multi-material printers, Lipson noticed the students in his lab were beginning to use food as a test material.

“They were using cookie dough, cheese, chocolate, all kinds of food materials you might find around an engineering lab,” he says. “In the beginning, it was sort of a frivolous thing. But when people came to the lab and looked at it, they actually got really excited by the food printing.”

So Lipson and his team began to take a more serious look at just what they could do with food. There are two basic approaches to 3D food printing, Lipson explains. The first involves using powders, which are bound together during the printing process with a liquid such as water. The second—the approach used by Lipson’s lab—is extrusion-based, using syringes that deposit gels or pastes in specific locations determined by the software’s “recipe.”

Lipson’s prototype involves an infrared cooking element, which cooks various parts of the printed product at specific times.

“We’ve used all kinds of materials, with different levels of success,” Lipson says. “Sometimes the materials are conventional—eggs, flour, cookie dough, cheese, pesto, jam. Cream cheese is something students like to work with a lot.”

The printer prototype (Timothy Lee Photographers, Columbia University)

They’ve also recently collaborated with a New York culinary school, letting chefs play around with the prototype to see what they’d come up with.

“They kind of broke the machine by really pushing it to its limits,” Lipson says. “One thing we’ve learned is printing in cream cheese is very easy, but printing in polenta and beets is very hard. It has these granules in it, so from an engineering standpoint it’s much more challenging.

It’s also difficult to predict how different foods will fare when combined. It’s easy enough to create recipes based on single items like chocolate, whose properties are well-established. But when you start to mix things together—mixing, of course, being fundamental to cooking—the mixtures may have much more complex behaviors. Another challenge is figuring out when to cook what during the printing process. If you’re printing a pyramid of salmon and mashed potatoes, the salmon and the potatoes will need very different cooking times and temperatures. The team is tackling this problem with software design, working with computer scientists to create software that will predict what the final product will look like after cooking.

The printer Lipson's team has made is not the only food printer to be developed in recent years. But while products like Hershey’s chocolate-printing CocoJet or the Magic Candy Factory’s 3D gummy printer are single-ingredient, limiting their use for the general public, Lipson’s printer is unique for being able to handle many ingredients at once, and cook them as it goes.

Lipson sees the printer as having two main uses for consumers. First, it could be a specialty appliance for cooking novel foods difficult to achieve by any other process. You could print, say, a complex pastry designed by someone in Japan, a recipe you’d never have the expertise or equipment to make by hand. Lipson says he could imagine digital recipes going viral, spreading across the globe. The second use is about health and targeted nutrition. People are already increasingly interested in personal biometrics, tracking their blood pressure, pulse, calorie burn and more using cell phones and computers. In the future, it may be possible to track your own health in much greater detail—your blood sugar, your calcium needs or your current vitamin D level. The printer could then respond to those details with a customized meal, produced from a cartridge of ingredients.

“Imagine a world where the breakfast that you eat has exactly what you need that day,” Lipson says. “Your muffin has, say, a little less sugar, a little more calcium.”

As for when the printer might be available to consumers, Lipson says it’s more a business challenge than a technology one.

“How do you get FDA approval? How do you sell the cartridges? Who owns the recipe? How do you make money off this?” he says. “It’s a completely new way of thinking about food. It’s very radical.”

A recent redesign of the prototype may bring the product closer to being something the average consumer would accept. Previous versions of the printer were very high-tech, full of tubes and sticking-out nozzles. People had a hard time imagining it on their kitchen counters.

Then, one of Lipson’s students named Drim Stokhuijzen, an industrial designer, completely redesigned the machine, giving it the sleek look of a high-end coffee maker.

“His design is so beautiful people are saying for the first time, ‘oh, I can see the appeal of food printing, this is something I might actually use,’” Lipson says.

Although Lipson doesn’t think 3D food printing will replace other cooking techniques, he does think it will revolutionize the kitchen.

“For millennia we’ve been cooking the same way,” he says. “Cooking is one of the things that hasn’t changed for eternity. We still cook over an open flame like cavemen. Software has permeated almost every aspect of our lives except cooking. The moment software enters any field—from manufacturing to communications to music, you name it—it takes off and usually transforms it. I think that food printing is one of the ways software is going to enter our kitchen.” 

5 High-Tech Ways to Scare Anyone This Halloween

Smithsonian Magazine

Credit: The Exorcist (Warner Bros.)

There might have been a time when throwing on a white bedsheet with two little round holes for Halloween could pass as quite scary. However, the very nature of celebrating those “things that go bump in the night” has always been about making the supernatural as super-realistic as possible. At parties, for instance, awards for the best costume typically go to the most detailed and impressive fabrications. A costume, after all, is only as frightening as it is believable. Even haunted houses today have become extravagant and sophisticated showcases that rival some Hollywood productions.

“In the beginning, people would joke about spaghetti for brains and grapes for eyeballs,” haunted house producer Steve Kopelman told NBC News in a recent report. “Now you have animatronics dramatic advances in technology … so you get the realism you couldn’t have until the last decade.”

But since we can’t all go all out like that neighbor with the Wi-Fi networked robotic zombies in his front yard, here are five high-tech suggestions for keeping up with the Uncle Festers this Halloween:

1. Meet the Ghost Drone

If your neighbor happens to be YouTube user Alton Porter, then good luck figuring out how to out-creep the locals. He recently gave everyone a preview of how he plans to greet trick-or-treaters this year when he uploaded a video showing a R/C quadrocopter drone dressed up as a flying (remote-controlled) ghost, complete with led lights for glowing eyes. And as he mentions on his YouTube page, it didn’t cost much at all—that is if don’t already own a quadrocopter, which would run you about $500.

“I was shopping at Target and saw the complete ghost hanging up on the Halloween rack for $10.00,” he wrote. “I installed the led lights. The ghost is very light.”

2. When Being Yourself is Creepy Enough

For those who are all out of costume ideas, the website has an idea that lets anyone get away with showing up at Halloween parties as just themselves—without coming off as “lame.” The startup, based in Beaverton, Oregon, offers a service in which customers can send in a photo of themselves to be used to manufacture a wearable 3D printed mask. Comprised of a material the company describes as a “hard resin composite in full 24-bit color with a matte varnish,” the $299 facial replication features holes through the eyes and nostrils and, as you can see from the video, is eerily lifelike. Customers can also order action figures of themselves and, for the extremely vain, a full bust can be printed for $2,000.

With, customers can also thoroughly freak out their friends. Surreptitiously order a mask, using a photo of a friend, and dress as that friend’s doppelgänger.

3. For When Rubber Body Parts Just Don’t Hack It

Need something more convincing than those contrived gushing wounds with rubber organs poking out? Well, there’s an App for that. NASA engineer Mark Rober has recently released iWound, a fake-wound latex insert that cleverly features a slot for a smartphone. Once placed securely inside, the smartphone’s touchscreen can create the illusion of a real-life beating heart by running a free app that plays video of the live organ in a continuous loop. The entire set-up also includes a selection of bloody stab wound T-shirts for $23.50. The iWound insert itself costs $34.50.

4. Turn Your Room Into a Horror Movie

If you’re the type who thinks spooking someone out is worth any price, look no further than the “Exorcist bed.” ScareFactory, a haunted house warehouse, packages the steel-frame bed as an elaborate fright gag setup, with an optional levitator and grip switch, for upwards of $5,000. Spastically-possessed actor is sold separately.

5. …Like a Really Scary Horror Movie

Fans of the Exorcist bed might also like to double up on the fright factor with a rigged door that creates the illusion of zombies violently trying to break in. Hi-Rez Designs sells a HD quality video panel that can be installed on any entrance to make it appear as if there is a clear window in the door; in this particular video, a vicious nurse touting a menacing syringe approaches the window from a hallway. The company also offers full prop kits ($149) that feature mechanical hands reaching through the door to enhance the effect. With gorifying your own home becoming so much easier these days, who needs to go to a haunted house?

Use the Force, But What Ever You Do, Don’t Take It This Far!

A company named WickedLasers, has taken the concept of science fiction movie props into a perhaps all-too-realistic realm. Their Spyder S3 is the first mass-market product to feature a 445 nanometer wavelength direct blue diode portable laser that projects a powerful 1 Watt beam, which is enough heat to burn skin or blind someone. For $299, anyone can start wielding one of these babies and what’s perhaps even more surprising is that the company guarantees that the Arctic Spyder S3 is “100% legal under U.S. federal law and federal safety requirements.” The company also sells a Star Wars-inspired light saber for $200.

As frightening as an ultra-realistic light saber can be, this is one case where it may just be best to stick to fake guts or simple facepaint.

7 Ways Technology is Changing How Art is Made

Smithsonian Magazine

Where would the Impressionists have been without the invention of portable paint tubes that enabled them to paint outdoors?  Who would have heard of Andy Warhol without silkscreen printing? The truth is that technology has been providing artists with new ways to express themselves for a very long time.

Still, over the past few decades, art and tech have become more intertwined than ever before, whether it’s through providing new ways to mix different types of media, allowing more human interaction or simply making the process of creating it easier.  

Case in point is a show titled “Digital Revolution” that opened earlier this summer in London’s Barbican Centre. The exhibit, which runs through mid-September, includes a “Digital Archaeology” section which pays homage to gadgets and games that not that long ago dazzled us with their innovation. (Yes, an original version of Pong is there, presented as lovable antiquity.) But the show also features a wide variety of digital artists who are using technology to push art in different directions, often to allow gallery visitors to engage with it in a multi-dimensional way.

Here are seven examples, some from “Digital Revolution," of how technology is reshaping what art is and how it’s produced:

Kumbaya meets lasers

Let’s start with lasers, the brush stroke of so much digital art. One of the more popular exhibits in the London show is called “Assemblance,” and it’s designed to encourage visitors to create light structures and floor drawings by moving through colored laser beams and smoke. The inclination for most people is to work alone, but the shapes they produce tend to be more fragile. If a person nearby bumps into their structure, for instance, it’s likely to fall apart. But those who collaborate with others—even if it’s through an act as simple as holding hands—discover that the light structures they create are both more resilient and more sophisticated. “Assemblance,” says Usman Haque, one of the founders of Umbrellium, the London art collective that designed it, has a sand castle quality to it—like a rogue wave, one overly aggressive person can wreck everything.

And they never wet the rug

Another favorite at “Digital Revolution” is an experience called “Petting Zoo.” Instead of rubbing cute goats and furry rabbits, you get to cozy up to snake-like tubes hanging from the ceiling. Doesn’t sound like fun? But wait, these are very responsive tubes, bending and moving and changing colors based on how they read your movements, sounds and touch. They might pull back shyly if they sense a large group approaching or get all cuddly if you’re being affectionate. And if you’re just standing there, they may act bored. The immersive artwork, developed by a design group called Minimaforms, is meant to provide a glimpse into the future, when robots or even artificial pets will be able to read our moods and react in kind.

Now this is a work in progress

If Rising Colorspace, an abstract artwork painted on the wall of a Berlin gallery, doesn't seem so fabulous at first glance, just give it a little time. Come back the next day and it will look at least a little different. That’s because the painting is always changing, thanks to a wall-climbing robot called a Vertwalker armed with a paint pen and a software program instructing it to follow a certain pattern.

The creation of artists Julian Adenauer and Michael Haas, the Vertwalker—which looks like a flattened iRobot Roomba—is constantly overwriting its own work, cycling through eight colors as it glides up vertical walls for two to three hours at a time before it needs a battery change. “The process of creation is ideally endless,” Haas explains.

The beauty of dirty air

Morozov built a device, complete with a plastic nose, that uses sensors to gather pollution data. (Dmitry Morozov)

Give Russian artist Dmitry Morozov some credit—he’s devised a way to make pollution beautiful, even if his purpose is to make us aware of how much is out there. First, he built a device, complete with a little plastic nose, that uses sensors which can measure dust and other typical pollutants, including carbon monoxide, formaldehyde and methane. Then, he headed out to the streets of Moscow. 

The sensors translate the data they gather into volts and a computing platform called Arduino translates those volts into shapes and colors, creating a movie of pollution. Morozov’s device then grabs still images from the movie and prints them out. As irony would have it, the dirtier the air, the brighter the image. Exhaust smoke can look particularly vibrant.

Paper cuts you can love

Eric Standley, a professor at Virginia Tech, is one artist who doesn’t use technology to make the creation process simpler. Actually, it’s just the reverse. He builds stained glass windows, only they’re made from paper precisely cut by a laser. He starts by drawing an intricate design, then meticulously cuts out the many shapes that, when layered over one another, form a 3-D version of his drawing. One of his windows might comprise as many as 100 laser-cut sheets stacked together. Standley says the technology allows him to feel more, not less, connected to what he’s creating. As he explains in the video above, “Every efficiency that I gain through technology, the void is immediately filled with the question, 'Can I make it more complex?'” 

And now, a moving light show

It’s one thing to project laser light onto a stationary wall or into a dark sky, now pretty much standard fare at public outdoor celebrations. But in an art project titled “Light Echoes,” digital media artist Aaron Koblin and interactive director Ben Tricklebank executed the concept on a much larger scale. One night last year, a laser they mounted on a crane atop a moving train projected images, topographical maps and even lines of poetry into the dark Southern California countryside. Those projections left visual “echoes" on the tracks and around the train, which they captured through long-exposure photography.  

Finding your inner bird

Here’s one last take from the “Digital Revolution” show. An art installation developed by video artist Chris Milk called “Treachery of the Sanctuary,” it’s meant to explore the creative process through interactions with digital birds. That’s right, birds, and some are very angry. The installation is a giant triptych, and gallery visitors can stand in front of each of the screens. In the first, the person’s shadow reflected on the screen disintegrates into a flock of birds. That, according to Milk, represents the moment of creative inspiration. In the second, the shadow is pecked away by virtual birds diving from above. That symbolizes critical response, he explains. In the third screen, things get better—you see how you’d look with a majestic set of giant wings that flap as you move. And that, says Milk, captures the instant when a creative thought transforms into something larger than the original idea.

78 Years Ago Today, BBC Aired the First Science Fiction Television Program

Smithsonian Magazine

Doctor Who may be the world’s longest-running science fiction television series, but it’s not the oldest sci-fi program to have been broadcast on television. That honor goes to another BBC production, which first aired 78 years ago today: a live recording of Karel Čapek’s seminal play, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots).

Written by Čapek in 1920, R.U.R. is a cornerstone not just for science fiction, but also real-life technological advancements – famously, Čapek coined the Czech word “robota” to mean an artificially created person, which was later translated into English as “robot.” On the surface, however, Rossum’s robots have very little to do with the various machines that use the term today.

As Noah Berlatsky writes for the Atlantic:

[R.U.R.] imagined its artificial servants not as metal men of nuts and bolts, but as biological products, much like clones. Domin, the robot-factory manager in the play, cheerfully gives a tour pointing out "the spinning mill for nerves. The spinning mill for veins. The spinning mill where miles and miles of digestive tract are made at once." These first robots were fleshy, goopy beings that grew like biological critters. In the play, robots are basically human bodies borne of mechanical production and process.

Rossum’s robots may be biological in nature, but they set the blueprint for all of science fiction’s robot uprisings, from The Terminator to The Matrix. At first, most of the human characters in R.U.R. see the robots as little more than appliances made in human shape, but as the robots become fed up with their place in society, they rebel. Eventually, they drive humanity toward extinction only to learn that they themselves cannot reproduce without the aid of their former masters.

While the play has fallen into relative obscurity over the decades, it was controversial when it first premiered. The New York Times panned the play when it started its run in the United States, but it curried favor with writers and poets who found power in Čapek's allegory of politics, power and technology, Erin Blakemore writes for Mental Floss.

“In its various windings, R.U.R. is significant, important, teasing, quizzical, funny, terrible, paradoxical," poet and writer Carl Sandburg writes in a letter to the editor for the New York Times, defending the play.

Just two years after the BBC Television Service launched, R.U.R. was adapted into the 35-minute-long production that aired on February 11, 1938 at 3:20 p.m. It’s unclear whether any recordings survived the decades, but it’s worth noting that the play's special effects made it a natural fit for the television format. A week before BBC first aired the program, the Radio Times advertised R.U.R. as “a play that should lend itself very well indeed to television from the point of view of effects.” Granted, the effects were probably rudimentary and the production may have used more than its fair share of tin foil, but a marketing first is still a first.

R.U.R. might have peaked in popularity in the 1920s and '30s, but it remains the bedrock that much of modern science fiction draws on. To this day, the play is occassionally adapted and revived, and its themes run through many television shows and movies now in production. Whether it is Doctor WhoThe Terminator or The Matrix, each of these science fiction franchises has a piece of Rossum's Universal Robots at its core.

9 Percent of People Would Have Sex With a Robot (And 42 Percent of Them Would Consider It Cheating)

Smithsonian Magazine

Image: mikecogh

Robots are getting better at everything. Including sex. Vibrator technology is advancing swiftly, with products like Vibease, which adjusts its speed based on voice cues from erotic e-books, and teledildonic apps that can control a vibrator from afar. It won’t be long until sex robots move from being experimental, fringe-bots to widely available technology—and nearly 10 percent of people are ready for it. In a survey by YouGov and the Huffington Post, 9 percent of participants said they would have sex with a robot if they could. 

But there is a whole suite of questions that arise when sex robots become a reality. For instance, is having sex with a robot cheating? Forty-two percent of respondents said that it would be, while 31 percent said it wouldn’t. A quarter of people, however, were unsure. Which is characteristic of these sorts of questions. At FastCo Labs, Michael Grothus writes about this weird conundrum:

Sex with a vibrator = not cheating.

Sex with a vibrator that has legs and eyes and a face = cheating.

Ironically, it’s the possibility of sex with inhuman robots that reveals something very human about our concept of what sex is. To humans sex is more than mechanics and pleasure; it’s emotion and connection, which are primarily conveyed through human-only traits, like eye contact, empathy, and a partner’s careful observation. But one day machines will be able to convey those traits, and when that happens is when the real debate over sex and technology begins.

Once sex robots become available, it’s likely that more than 9 percent of people will at least consider trying them out. And when they do exist, we’ll have to face these questions of machine infidelity head on.

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The Jetsons Lunch Box

National Museum of American History
This domed steel lunch was manufactured by Aladdin Industries in 1963. It features images from the popular television series, The Jetsons. The lunch box features images of the whole Jetson family, George, Jane, Judy, and Elroy, as well as Rosie the Household Robot and Astro the Dog. This box is one of the most coveted by collectors because of its great design, colorful art, and scarcity. Aladdin Industries profited from the success of The Jetsons television cartoon series in the fall of 1963 by introducing a domed lunch box featuring that space-traveling suburban family and their robotic maid. American notions of family life in the 1960s traveled effortlessly outward to interplanetary space on this fanciful box. Domed metal lunch boxes traditionally were carried by factory employees and construction workers, but Aladdin and other makers found the curved shape made an excellent young person's landscape, ocean scene, or starry sky. Despite the more earth-bound adult concerns of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and the Kennedy assassination, The Jetsons box and bottle showcase the metal lunch box at the zenith of its design life and its popularity among school children.
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