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myscienceacademy.org
27 Science fictions that became science facts in 2012.
  1. Quadriplegic uses her mind to control her robotic arm.
  2. DARPA robot can traverse an obstacle course.
  3. Genetically modified silk is stronger than steel.
  4. DNA was photographed for the first time.
  5. Invisibility cloak technology took a huge leap forward.
  6. Spray-on skin.
  7. James Cameron reached the deepest known point in the ocean.
  8. Stem cells could extend human life by over 100 years.
  9. 3-D printer creates full-size house in one session.
  10. Self-driving cars are legal in Nevada, Florida, and California.
  11. Voyager I leaves the solar system.
  12. Custom Jaw transplant created with 3-D printer.
  13. Rogue planet[s] floating through space.
  14. Chimera monkey’s created from multiple embryos.
  15. Artificial leaves generate electricity. 
  16. Google goggles bring the internet everywhere.
  17. Higgs-Boson Particle discovery.
  18. Flexible, inexpensive solar panels challenge fossil fuel.
  19. Diamond planet discovered.
  20. Eye implants give sight to the blind.
  21. Wales barcodes DNA of every flowering plant species in the country.
  22. First unmanned commercial space flight docks with the ISS.
  23. Ultra-flexible “willow” glass will allow for curved electronic devices.
  24. NASA begins using robotic exoskeletons.
  25. Human brain is hacked.
  26. First planet with four suns discovered.
  27. Microsoft patented the “Holodeck”.

Learn more about each of these scientific break-throughs and discoveries here.

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Why is it Dark at Night?


Elements in Fireworks via Milky way scientists via About.com  By Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D.

Fireworks are a traditional part of many celebrations, including Independence Day. There is a lot of physics and chemistry involved in making fireworks. Their colors come from the different temperatures of hot, glowing metals and from the light emitted by burning chemical compounds. Chemical reactions propel them and burst them into special shapes. Here’s an element-by-element look at what is involved in your average firework:

  • Aluminum - Aluminum is used to produce silver and white flames and sparks. It is a common component of sparklers.
  • Antimony - Antimony is used to create firework glitter effects.
  • Barium - Barium is used to create green colors in fireworks, and it can also help stabilize other volatile elements.
  • Calcium - Calcium is used to deepen firework colors. Calcium salts produce orange fireworks.
  • Carbon - Carbon is one of the main components of black powder, which is used as a propellent in fireworks. Carbon provides the fuel for a firework. Common forms include carbon black, sugar, or starch.
  • Chlorine - Chlorine is an important component of many oxidizers in fireworks. Several of the metal salts that produce colors contain chlorine.
  • Copper - Copper compounds produce blue colors in fireworks.
  • Iron - Iron is used to produce sparks. The heat of the metal determines the color of the sparks.
  • Lithium - Lithium is a metal that is used to impart a red color to fireworks. Lithium carbonate, in particular, is a common colorant.
  • Magnesium - Magnesium burns a very bright white, so it is used to add white sparks or improve the overall brilliance of a firework.
  • Oxygen - Fireworks include oxidizers, which are substances that produce oxygen in order for burning to occur. The oxidizers are usually nitrates, chlorates, or perchlorates. Sometimes the same substance is used to provide oxygen and color.
  • Phosphorus - Phosphorus burns spontaneously in air and is also responsible for some glow-in-the-dark effects. It may be a component of a firework’s fuel.
  • Potassium - Potassium helps to oxidize firework mixtures. Potassium nitrate, potassium chlorate, and potassium perchlorate are all important oxidizers.
  • Sodium - Sodium imparts a gold or yellow color to fireworks, however, the color may be so bright that it masks less intense colors.
  • Sulfur - Sulfur is a component of black powder. It is found in a firework’s propellant/fuel.
  • Strontium - Strontium salts impart a red color to fireworks. Strontium compounds are also important for stabilizing fireworks mixtures.
  • Titanium - Titanium metal can be burned as powder or flakes to produce silver sparks.
  • Zinc - Zinc is used to create smoke effects for fireworks and other pyrotechnic devices.

Learn more about fireworks by clicking the following links:

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See the world through the eyes of a catBy Shaunacy Ferro | PopSci | Image Credit: Nickolay Lamm

An awesome, disorienting look at kitty vision.

What does the world look like through a cat’s eyes? The basic structure of feline eyes is pretty similar to what humans have, but cats' vision has adapted to very different purposes, so the world they see looks familiar, but isn’t quite the same as ours. As predators, they need to be able to sense movement well in very low light. To make that work, they have to sacrifice some of the finer detail and color perception that humans have.

Artist Nickolay Lamm, who has previously brought us visualizations of urban heat islands and sea level rise projections, took a look at the world through kitty eyes for his latest project. Lamm consulted with ophthalmologists at the University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary school and a few other animal eye specialists to create these visualizations comparing how cats see with how humans do. How we see things is represented on top; how a cat standing next to us would see the same scene appears below. 

Some of the cat-eye facts he took into account: The blurry edges of the pictures represent peripheral vision. Humans have a 20 degree range of peripheral vision on each side. Cats can see 30 degrees on each side. Their visual field overall is just bigger—they see 200 degrees compared to our 180 degrees.

Cat vision isn’t so great at a distance. What we can see sharply from 100 feet away, they need to see at 20 feet. From what researchers can tell, cats can see blue and yellow colors, but not red, orange or brown, which is why all the images look a little washed out. Your kitty sees in Instagram, it seems. Not so good for looking at far-away, lush landscapes.

But the last image above shows how much better cats’ night vision is.

Cats can see some six to eight times better than us in the dark, partially because they have more rods, a type of photoreceptor in the retina. Their elliptical pupils can open very wide in dim light, but contract to a tiny slit to protect the sensetive retina from bright light. And like other animals that evolved to hunt at night, cats have a tapetum lucidum, a reflective layer of tissue that bounces light that hits the back of the eye out through the retina again for a second chance to be absorbed by the rods. It’s also what gives them those terrifying glowing eyes in pictures.

Now go stare deeply into the eyes of a beloved feline.

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British Columbia’s Science World [TELUS World of Science] museum provides some unique scientific facts through their public advertisements. See more, including some videos like the one below, here and here.

Captions of images from left to right, starting at top:

  • You fart a balloon’s worth of gas a day.
  • Your body contains enough carbon to fill 9,000 pencils.
  • Cat pee glows under black light.
  • You have 20sq. feet of skin.
  • You swallow a litre of snot every day.
  • Mosquitoes love the colour blue.
  • You see better when you’re scared.
  • A blue whale’s heart is the size of this car
  • Two most common fears: clowns and heights.
  • You eat 430 bugs every year.

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Time to turn your brain to mush with these amazing new science facts!

 

cracked.com
7 Man-Made Substances that Laugh in the Face of Physics Read more: 7 Man-Made Substances that Laugh in the Face of Physics.

The universe is full of weird substances like liquid metal and whatever preservative keeps Larry King alive. But mankind isn’t happy to accept the weirdness of nature when we can create our own abominations of science that, due to the miracle of technology, spit in nature’s face and call it retarded.

That’s why we came up with…

#7. Ferrofluids

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What do you get when you suspend nanoparticles of iron compounds in a colloidal solution of water, oil and a surfactant? Did you guess Zima? The real answer is ferrofluids, though you should be proud if you just knew what “surfactant” was.

A ferrofluid is a liquid that reacts to magnetic fields in trippy ways that make you think that science is both magical and potentially evil. They have multiple real world applications, many which are pretty badass, and none of which you will care about after seeing this:

Tell us that didn’t look like the birth of the most sinister dildo ever.

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What happens is that when a magnetic field is applied to the fluid, the particles of iron compound inside align to it. Once that happens, the fluid becomes a fluid-solid. That’s right, ferrofluids are first generation T-1000s, only metallic black and thus 10 times as badass.

What the Hell is it Used For?

Ferrofluids have a lot of pretty mundane uses, from lubricating and protecting hard drives to providing heat conduction in speakers, but their primary use is in looking cool.

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The ability to become solid or liquid with the application of a magnetic field also makes them perfect for computer assisted shock absorbers in Ferraris; NASA uses them for high-tech flight altitude assistance, and like a gyroscope in spacecraft. The Air Force uses their magnetic field absorbing properties to make aircraft invisible to radar and we like to think someday they’ll be able to make super hot, futuristic robot dominatrices that we can store in a cup in the pantry when not in use.

#6. Aerogel

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It’s not the brick in the picture up there, it’s the stuff under the brick. Aerogel, also called “Frozen Smoke,” is very much like Ben Affleck’s appeal: practically non-existent, but still there somehow. It is 99 percent air, with the other percent being silicon dioxide or fudge or whatever, and looks like fucking magic. Its structure makes it a piss-poor conductor and thus makes it an excellent insulator. In other words, aerogel is also fireproof.

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In addition to being awesomely heat resistant, aerogel can also hold insane amounts of weight proportionate to the size of the aerogel being used, up to 4000 times, which shames regular air something fierce. To put it in totally nonsensical terms, if air had a party, while aerogel was busy getting hummers in the back, loser oxygen would be making sure everyone was using a coaster. That’s how much cooler aerogel is. Fuck you, oxygen.

What the Hell is it Used For?

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The suits astronauts use are filled with it to keep the cold of space from, you know, killing them. More transparent aerogels are being made to insulate windows, or the world’s lightest ping-pong ball, as you can see in this clip at 0:36:

Every once in a while, science rules.

#5. Perfluorocarbons

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Remember that scene in The Abyss, before you fell asleep, when Ed Harris was put in a diving suit that was filled with pink goo that he then breathed? It turns out James Cameron wasn’t blowing pink goo-laced smoke up our ass; that stuff really exists. Perfluorocarbons are fluids that contain shitloads of oxygen, making it possible to breathe liquid. They originally tested it back in the 60s on mice, with a certain degree of success… sort of.

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The mice ended up dying after being submerged in it for a few hours, possibly due to the gut wrenching horror of drowning, but not dying, while trying to scream in their tiny mouse voices. Rather than manning up to the fact that breathing liquid destroyed the mice’s diaphragms, the scientists blamed the deaths on impurities in the liquid (most likely horrified mouse shit).

What the Hell is it Used For?

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Aside from slow, tortuous rodent murder, perfluorocarbons are used for ultrasounds, and even artificial blood. But before you go out and fill your pool with some for a leisurely four-hour swim at the bottom, be aware they are also awful pollutants. The worst offenders have a half life of 50,000 years and warm the atmosphere 6,500 times more effectively than carbon dioxide, and God knows how many cow farts that would be. Supervillains of the world, we hope you are taking notes.

#4. Elastic Conductors

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Odds are pretty good that some of you are reading this on an LCD screen while the rest of us are trying to make it out on the 13-inch monochrome monitor that came with our garage sale Commodore 64. But even with the LCD, some laptops still weigh over 10-pounds. And while that doesn’t seem like much, the level of muscle atrophy experienced by the average Warcraft addict makes that weight a thousand times heavier. However, elastic conductors could fix that and make smuggling your porn collection into church even easier.

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Also, oooohhh.

Elastic conductors are made of “ionic liquid” mixed with carbon nanotubes. We shrugged when we read that too, but scientists are very excited about it because you can run a current through it and it will stretch to double its original length, and snap back into place as if nothing happened. The point being you can wind up with the roll out, paper thin computer pictured above.

What the Hell is it Used For?

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In addition to making screens that can be rolled up and stuck in our back pocket, a lot of scientists and doctors want to use elastic conductors to make flexible-lensed cameras… to be fitted to the back of the eyeball.

Girlfriends the world over will actually start recording their boyfriend’s every word and guys at urinals will become infinitely more paranoid if they catch another guy’s eye. On the plus side, the market for hidden camera porn will probably experience an unprecedented explosion in content.

#3. Non-Newtonian Fluids

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A non-Newtonian liquid, in practical terms, is a liquid that turns solid when sufficient stress is applied. Like, say, the impact of feet:

They have the power to make dorks walk on water like Jesus (which is exceptionally cool for about the first 30 seconds of the video, and then sad for the remainder).

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What the Hell is it Used For?

Our friends in the military want to use them for body armor. The idea is that the fluids will allow fabrics to be soft and supple, but harden on the impact of a bullet. It would be like wearing a Jell-O sweater that doubles as a bulletproof vest.

#2. Transparent Alumina

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You may remember from Star Trek IV that Scotty orders some transparent aluminum so that they can steal whales for the future (it made a lot more sense at the time). Anyway, in the movie the material baffled the present-day engineers he described it to, since it’s a miracle substance from centuries in the future.

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In reality, transparent alumina has been around for a while. Originally, it was just boring old sapphires and rubies (both are transparent aluminum crystals), but as we have seen, mankind is not happy to let nature have the last laugh and we are now able to make transparent alumina, which is a clear metal that is as strong as steel. Our dreams of building Wonder Woman’s invisible jet have taken another glorious step toward reality.

What the Hell is it Used For?

The military (again) wants it for see-through armor, probably so that every time a soldier standing behind a clear wall gets shot at and flinches in life-flashing-before-the-eyes terror, his buddies are justified for punching him and calling “two for flinching.”

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Also, something with lasers.

Transparent alumina could usher in a new world where windows deflect bullets, or airplane windows don’t shatter when they hit a goose at Mach 4. The downside being that if they make car windows out of it, people who don’t wear their seat belts will no longer live the dream of being “thrown clear” of the accident, and more likely wind up as “that guy whose nose shot out his ass.”

#1. Carbon Nanotubes

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These things are a miracle material that will someday power our homes, launch us into space, and make love to us whenever and wherever we want. That last one isn’t planned yet, but it better be. Carbon nanotubes were the accidental leftovers of an arc-welder experiment, and they have nerds and scientists foaming at the mouth with their possible uses.

They are the strongest material ever found by mankind. Ever. Even stronger than Lou Ferrigno and he was the fucking Hulk, man. A hair-thick strand can bear the weight of an entire car, assuming it wouldn’t cut straight through the chassis. Although that would possibly be even cooler than lifting a car with artificial hair.

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There is the small, some might say major, issue that carbon nanotubes are only microns long, and pasting them together end to end has so far proven impossible. But physics can’t hold back mankind, and recently a New Hampshire based company made a man-sized blanket out of nanotubes, showing that science will always say “Fuck you” to Mother Nature when she sets boundaries.

What the Hell is it Used For?

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So far, they have managed to make super-small computer processors and low-resistance circuitry. In the future, all bets are off. Everything from tiny supercomputers to even tinier, super-efficient batteries, to more efficient solar panels to paper-thin materials that can stop a bullet, to freaking space elevators.

Sunglasses hinges that never break, toasters that get the toast right every time, TV remotes where the numbers don’t wear off the buttons, ceiling fans that don’t vibrate. Bags of chips that never get stuck in the vending machine. Carbon nanotubes will fucking solve it all.



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Ever wondered how food tastes in space?

Canadians have a well-known love affair with maple syrup. So, naturally, when Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield took the reins as commander of the International Space Station, it was only a matter of time until the matter of Canadian cuisine came up. But what does food taste like in space? One student from Airdrie, Alberta asked that question during a "Let’s Talk Science” event sponsered by the Canadian Space Agency. And Commander Hadfield has the answers.

The most interesting thing to take away from this video – other than the endless pleasure of watching objects float around in zero gravity – is Hadfield’s description of what sounds like an outer space-induced head cold. The human body is so used to the pressures of gravity that it is constantly working to keep blood in the upper part of the body. But in space, the lack of gravity means blood is free to flow in any direction, something the body has to adjust to, resulting in excess fluids in the head. The result is stuffy sinuses and food that, “doesn’t taste like anything.”

After a few days the body adapts, and Hadfield assures the student audience that food tastes just the same as it does on Earth. He then proceeds to break out the contents of a Canadian goody bag recently brought to the station. Maple syrup in a tube? What will the Canadian Space Agency think of next?“


Why Do Particles Have Flavors?


“ In this regular series, LiveScience explores some of the wildest, weirdest parts of our universe, from quantum oddities to hidden dimensions.

The building blocks of matter — fundamental particles — come in many more flavors than the basic few that make up the atoms we’re familiar with.

Flavor is the name scientists give to different versions of the same type of particle. For instance, quarks (which make up the protons and neutrons inside atoms) come in six flavors: up, down, top, bottom, strange and charm. Particles called leptons, a category that includes electrons, also come in six flavors, each with a different mass.

But physicists are baffled as to why flavors exist at all, and why each flavor has different characteristics. ”
Source: Milky way scientists 

http://www.livescience.com/18141-wacky-physics-particle-flavors.html

Mars Rovers Spirit & Opportunity by the Numbers. | Image Credit: NASA’s Mars Exploration Program

Spirit:

  • Life Span: 6 years
  • Raw Images: 128,000
  • Miles Traveled: 4.8
  • Degrees by Steepest Slope: 30

Opportunity:

  • Life Span: 10 years
  • Raw Images: 187,000
  • Miles Traveled: 24
  • Degrees by Steepest Slope: 31

• See more Spirit & Opportunity Rover Highlights here.
• View Mars Rover maps here.
• Learn more about all the Mars Rovers here.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines astronomy as “the science of objects and matter beyond the Earth’s atmosphere”, and astrology as “divination based upon the supposed influence of the stars upon human events”. Now let’s break this down below, not too much, but enough for you to see, through pure language, how obvious the difference is. 

Astronomy: “The science”[also defined as “an area of knowledge that is an object of study”, or “knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained through the scientific method”. Scientific method is, to put very simply, “finding and stating a problem, the collection of facts through observation and experiment, and the making and testing of ideas that need to be proven right or wrong.”] “of objects and matter beyond the Earth’s atmosphere."  So, to generally state, astronomy is a science based off of facts and findings, that are continually tested until proven true or false, concerning very real and solid objects and matter within the universe outside of our own planet. 

Astrology: "Divination” [defined as “the art or practice of using omens or magic powers to foretell the future”] “based upon the supposed” [with supposed defined as “mistakenly believed”] “influence of the stars upon human events.” Which is very simply stated as practicing with superstitious and immensely exaggerated “magic” and/or “omens” to make generalized, and baseless, predictions for universally microscopic humans depending on our perceived position[s] of the [annual and daily] stars, constellations, and “heavenly bodies” of our night skies/celestial sphere.

In comparison, on one hand you have a science concerning the stars, and other celestial bodies, outside of Earth’s own atmosphere and how they exist and coexist within their respected “systems”. On the other hand you have an “art”, of sorts, based upon superstitious and fallible predictions of individual human lives that are assumably determined by the stars and planets in relation to their positions within our skies. 

In ancient times astrology was so commonplace during the beginnings of astronomy that astronomers and astrologers were usually one in the same, and “well versed” in both subjects and practices. Although nowadays, thanks to the continuous advancements of  the science world and our growing knowledge of the universe, astrology may seem a bit silly and childish, but it’s quite easy to understand, when looking into the origins of astronomy, why astrology was originally so popular and quickly accepted by our ancestors. 

The sun and moon in our sky clearly influence our lives in many ways, from determining seasons to causing the tides, as well as determining the daily amount daylight and darkness. The lunar phases even happen to coincide with many biological cycles, such as crops. Of course, when looking into the night sky, our ancestors observed the planets alongside the plethora of stars, including our own, and to them it seemed reasonable to assume they influenced our lives in just as many ways, if not more. Unbeknownst to them, their initial assumptions were correct, aside from positions of stars and planets directly effecting the social/personal aspects of human life, and would remain undiscovered for many years until our understanding of our solar system, and astronomy itself, evolved on many levels. 

Now we recognize the ideas of things like energy and gravity that explain the influences of our Sun and Moon, which also prove, with modern science, that the other planets are too far from us astronomically to have any significant infleunce on our own planet, or anything biological including ourselves and our lives. The data is shown below via this post here:

ON THE GRAVITATIONAL EFFECTS OF THE PLANETS, FROM NASA’S WEBSITE:

Here is a table of tidal forces of the Sun, Moon, and Planets. With the Sun’s tidal force equal to 1.00, the following values are given in Thompson (1981):

  • Moon: 2.21
  • Sun: 1.00
  • Venus: 0.000113
  • Jupiter: 0.0000131
  • Mars: 0.0000023
  • Mercury: 0.0000007
  • Saturn: 0.0000005
  • Uranus: 0.000000001
  • Neptune: 0.000000002
  • Pluto: 0.0000000000001

ON THE MAGNETIC EFFECTS OF THE PLANETS, FROM WIKIPEDIA:

Others have proposed conventional causal agents such as electro-magnetism within an intricate web of planetary fields and resonances in the solar system. Scientists dismiss magnetism as an implausible explanation, since the magnetic field of a large but distant planet such as Jupiter is far smaller than that produced by ordinary household appliances.

Astrology has fallen by the wayside and has become a children’s topic compared to modern scientific endeavours and achievements. With the constant testing and re-testing associated with true science, astrology fails to meet the constantly-questioning requirements of scientific thinking and skepticism. 

While it’s roots are easily understandable, considering the limited resources our ancestors had access to, you can now hopefully see why scientists, teachers, and science enthusiasts alike get upset when one mistakes astronomy for astrology and vice versa. With the ever advancing evolution of science, particularly astronomy, astrology became known as a “pseudo-science” of laughable proportions due to it’s archaic basis that did not evolve respectably over the course of history through solid scientific methods. Now that you know the difference, I hope you continue to improve your own personal methods of scientific thinking, questioning, and skepticism, as well as straying from taking pseudo-sciences such as astrology as seriously as many people mistakenly still do. 

The Science of Flaming Farts. By Esther Inglis-Arkell | io9 | Image Credit: Gif made by The Science of Reality, video via Youtube.

You know you’ve always wondered why farting on a lighter causes a brief burst of flame. Believe it or not, there is rarely any methane in farts, and so methane is not what’s burning when farts are ignited. Find out what does, and why some farts ignite and others don’t.

It’s a commonly-held belief that farts contain methane, which is why they smell and they can ignite. And this would be true, if people were cows. Actually, the gut bacteria of humans generally don’t produce methane. There are certain kinds, which live in a certain percentage of the population, that do produce methane, but it’s far from in the majority of farts.

What actually makes it through your body will depend on many things, including what you put in. Eggs, cauliflower, and meats are often more sulfur-rich and so add a little hydrogen sulfide to the final, ah, product. As for the rest, the largest component is often nitrogen, which is already a good portion of the atmosphere, and so doesn’t ignite all that readily.

What will? Mostly it’s the hydrogen in the hydrogen sulfide that’s released. Occasionally, if the person does have the lucky gut that produces methane, it will burn along with the hydrogen. In order to get the most flammable fart, people will generally eat sulfur-rich foods. It’s not a good idea to hold them in and store them up, as to those who have tested the technique a held-in fart is less likely to catch fire.

A typical breakdown of the chemical composition of farts via About.com’s Chemistry section:

  • Nitrogen: 20-90%
  • Hydrogen: 0-50% (flammable)
  • Carbon dioxide: 10-30%
  • Oxygen: 0-10%
  • Methane: 0-10% (flammable)

Oh, but don’t go for the matches just yet. About a quarter of the fart igniters get burned in the process. There is no way to stress how little anyone likes to get burned in that area. Worse, the ignition of the released fart can ignite gasses higher up the intestinal tract, and sometimes, high in the intestinal tract, there will be swallowed oxygen. Oxygen is swallowed daily, but generally doesn’t make it out of the body because it is so readily absorbed into cells.

Oxygen is also likely to ignite explosively if heated, and this has happened during surgical procedures carried out in the intestinal area – though there is no record of it happening when someone tried to ignite their farts. Still, it’s a bad idea to take even the most remote chance on an internal Hindenburg. Just let this knowledge seep into your mind, and keep your downstairs area well clear of it.

Via Fart Sounds

io9.com
Biggest Scientific Breakthroughs of 2011.

“From law-violating subatomic particles to entirely new, earth-like worlds, 2011 was an incredible year for scientific discovery. In the past 12 months, scientific breakthroughs in fields ranging from archaeology to structural biochemistry have allowed humanity to rewrite history, and enabled us to open to brand new chapters in our development as a species.

Here are some of our favorites.”

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 The world’s lowest density material

With a density of less than one milligram per cubic centimeter (that’s about 1000 times less dense than water), thissurprisingly squishy material is so light-weight, it can rest on the seed heads of a dandelion, and is lighter than even the lowest-density aerogels. The secret — to both its negligible weight and its resiliency — is the material’s lattice-like structural organization, one that the researchers who created it liken to that of the Eiffel Tower.

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"Feeling” objects with a brain implant

It could be the first step towards truly immersive virtual reality, one where you can actually feel the computer-generated world around you. An international team of neuroengineers has developed a brain-machine interface that’s bi-directional — that means you could soon use a brain implant not only to control a virtual hand, but to receive feedback that tricks your brain into “feeling” the texture of a virtual object.

Already demonstrated successfully in primates, the interface could soon allow humans to use next-generation prosthetic limbs (or even robotic exoskeletons) to actually feel objects in the real world.

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Astronomers get their first good look at giant asteroid Vesta

In July of 2011, NASA’s Dawn spacecraftentered the orbit of Vesta — the second largest body in our solar system’s main asteroid belt. Just a few days later, Dawn spiraled down into orbit. Upon reaching an altitude of approximately 1700 miles, the spacecraft began snapping pictures of the protoplanet’s surface, revealing geophysical oddities like the triplet of craters on Vesta’s northern hemisphere — nicknamed “Snowman”— featured here. Dawn recently maneuvered into its closest orbit (at an altitude averaging just 130 miles). It will continue orbiting Vesta until July of 2012, when it will set a course for Ceres, the largest of the main belt asteroids.

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NASA’s Kepler Mission changes how we see ourselves in the Universe

2011 was a fantastic year for NASA’s Kepler Mission, which is charged with discovering Earth-like planets in the so-called “habitable zone” of stars in the Milky Way. Kepler scientists announced the discovery of the first circumbinary planet (i.e. a planet with two suns, just like Tatooine); located the first two known Earth-sized exoplanetsquadrupled the number of worlds known to exist beyond our solar system; and spied Kepler-22b — the most Earth-like planet we’ve encountered yet. And here’s the really exciting bit: Kepler is just getting warmed up.

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Heartbeat-powered nanogenerators could soon replace batteries

In a few years, you may never have to recharge your phone again — provided part of you keeps moving. Back in March,scientists announced the world’s first viable “nanogenerator” — a tiny computer chip that gets its power from body movements like snapping fingers or - eventually - your heartbeat.

The researchers can already use the technology to power a liquid crystal display and an LED, and claim that their technology could replace batteries for small devices like MP3 players and mobile phones within a few years.

Neuroscientists reconstruct the movies in your mind

Back in September, UC Berkeley neuroscientists demonstrated their ability to use advanced brain-imaging techniques to turn activity in the visual cortex of the human brain into digital images. So far, the researchers are only able to reconstruct neural equivalents of things people have already seen — but they’re confident that other applications — like tapping into the mind of a coma patient, or watching a video recording of your own dreams — are well within reach.

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100,000-year-old art kit found in South Africa

Researchers investigating Blombos Cave in Cape Town, South Africa uncovered the oldest known evidence of painting by early humans. Archaeologists discovered two “kits,” for mixing and forming ocher — a reddish pigment believed to be used as a dye. The find pushes back the date by which humans were practicing complex art approximately 40,000 years, all the way back to 100,000 years ago.

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Online gamers solve a decade-old HIV puzzle in three weeks

Foldit is a computer game that presents players with the spatial challenge of determining the three-dimensional structures of proteins, the molecules comprising the workforce that runs your entire body. In diseases like HIV, proteins known as retroviral proteases play a key role in a virus’s ability to overwhelm the immune system and proliferate throughout the body.

For years, scientists have been working to identify what these retroviral proteases look like, in order to develop drugs that target these enzymes and stymie the progression of deadly viral diseases like AIDS. It was a scientific puzzle that managed to confound top-tier research scientists for over a decade… but Foldit gamers were able to pull it off in just three weeks.

“The ingenuity of game players,” said biochemist Firas Khatib, “is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems.”

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Ancient settlement upends our perception of human evolution

Tools discovered during an excavation in the United Arab Emirates were found to date back at least 100,000 years, indicating that our ancestors may have left Africa as early as 125,000 years ago. Genetic evidence has long suggested that modern humans did not leave Africa until about 60,000 years ago, but these tools appear to be the work of our ancestors and not other hominids like Neanderthals. That being said, our understanding of how and when humans really evolved continues to take shape…

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Confirmed: Neanderthal DNA survives in Modern Humans

Some of the first hard genetic evidence that early Homo sapiens got busy with Homo neandertalensis actually came in 2010, but it was experimental findings published in July of 2011 that really drove the point home. But don’t worry — there’s still plenty of research to be done on everything from the details of human/neanderthal culture, to the enduring significance of Neanderthal genes in the modern human genome, to the mysterioushumanoids, Denisovans.

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IBM unveils brain-like “neurosynaptic” chips

Back in February, IBM’s Watson made history by trouncing Jeopardy champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in an intimidating display of computer overlord-dom. But to compare Watson’s computing power to the complexity of a brain would still constitute a pretty epic oversimplification of what it means to “think” like a human, as the way each one processes information could not be more different.

Watson is impressive, to be sure, but in August, IBM researchers brought out the big guns: a revolutionary new chip design that, for the first time, actually mimics the functioning of a human brain.

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NASA launches the most advanced Martian rover in history

Currently in transit to the Red Planet, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory — aka theCuriosity rover — was launched on November 26th. The rover is scheduled to touch down on Mars inside the mysterious Gale crater in August of 2012. Once it’s made landfall, Curiosity will make use of one of the most advanced scientific payloads we’ve ever put in space to assess whether Mars ever was, or is still today, an environment able to support life — a mission that could redefine the way we think about life in our solar system and beyond.

A device that lets you see through walls

Radar systems that can see through walls (aka “wall-through” radar systems) aren’t unheard of, it’s just that most of them are burdened by limitations (like a prohibitively low frame rate, or a short range of operation) — that make their use in real world settings pretty impractical. But that could soon change in a big way. The team of MIT researchers featured in this video has developed a device that can provide its operators with real-time video of what’s going on behind an eight-inch-thick concrete wall — and it can do it from up to 60 feet away.

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Electronics and biometric sensors that you wear like a temporary tattoo

Engineers John Rogers and Todd Coleman say that their epidermal electronic system (EES) — a skin-mountable, electronic circuit that stretches, flexes, and twists with the motion of your body — represents a huge step towards eroding the distinction between hard, chip-based machines and soft, biological humans.

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Culling senescent cells postpones age-related disease in mice

In the latest effort to make mice immortal, researchers revealed that flushing out so-called senescent (aka old and defunct) cells from the bodies of mice genetically modified to die of heart disease extended the health span of the mice significantly. If you can imagine taking a pill that could stave off the effects of age related disease, then you can appreciate why science and industry alike have demonstrated considerable interest in these and other age-related findings. [Photo by Jan M. Van Deursen Via NYT]

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Scientists engineer highly virulent strains of bird flu

Two independent teams of researchers recently engineered highly virulent strains of H5N1, more commonly known as the avian flu virus. On one hand, the researchers’ work is absolutely vital, because it allows us to get a head start, so to speak, on understanding viruses that could one day pose a serious risk to public health. On the other hand, there are many who fear that findings from such research could be used to malevolent ends were they to wind up in the wrong hands. Included in the latter camp is the federal government, which went to unprecedented ends to make sure that the experimental methods behind creating the strains never made it to the pages of either Nature or Science.

Regardless of your position, the development of these strains raises important questions about the nature of dual-use research, transparency, and censorship.

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The hunt for the Higgs boson nears its conclusion

It’s been a long, long time coming, but earlier this month, representatives from the Large Hadron Collider’s two largest experiments — ATLAS and CMS —announced that both research teams had independently uncovered signals that point to the appearance of the Higgs boson — the long-sought sub-atomic particle thought to endow all other particles with mass. “Given the outstanding performance of the LHC this year, we will not need to wait long for enough data and can look forward to resolving this puzzle in 2012,” explained ATLAS’s Fabiola Gianotti. If the puzzle is resolved with the discovery of the Higgs, it will represent one of the greatest unifying discoveries in the history of physics.

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Faster-than-light Neutrinos

By now, the neutrinos that were supposedly caught breaking the cosmic speed limit in Gran Sasso, Italy need no introduction. Scientists the world over continue to offer up critiques on the OPERA collaborative’s puzzling results, especially in light of the team’s most recent findings — acquired from a second, fine-tuned version of the original experiment — which reveal that their FTL observations still stand.

Of course, the most rigorous, telling, and important tests will come in the form of cross-checks performed by independent research teams, the results of which will not be available until next year at the earliest. And while many scientists aren’t holding their breath, the confirmation of FTL neutrinos could very well signal one of the biggest scientific paradigm shifts in history. “

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Scientific Terms & Definitions: A

I finally made a page of a list of scientific terms & definitions that I compiled from multiple sources. [Many of the terms and definitions concern astronomical and cosmological branches of science.] Over the next few weeks I will be making posts for each letter grouping, starting today with the A group. The best way to learn about anything is to start with the basics, and one of the largest basics is vocabulary, so I hope you enjoy some science vocab!!

A

  • Absolute Magnitude - “A scale for measuring the actual brightness of a celestial object without accounting for the distance of the object. Absolute magnitude measures how bright an object would appear if it were exactly 10 parsecs (about 33 light-years) away from Earth. On this scale, the Sun has an absolute magnitude of +4.8 while it has an apparent magnitude of -26.7 because it is so close.”
  • Absolute Zero - “The temperature at which the motion of all atoms and molecules stops and no heat is given off. Absolute zero is reached at 0 degrees Kelvin or -273.16 degrees Celsius.”
  • Absorption Line - “A more or less narrow range of wavelengths in aspectrum that is darker than neighboring wavelengths. Absorption lines are seen in stars.”
  • Ablation - “A process by where the atmosphere melts away and removes the surface material of an incoming meteorite.”
  • Accretion - “The process by where dust and gas accumulated into larger bodies such as stars and planets.”
  • Accretion Disk - “A disk of gas that accumulates around a center of gravitational attraction, such as a white dwarfneutron star, or black hole. As the gas spirals in, it becomes hot and emits light or even X-radiation.”
  • Achondrite - “A stone meteorite that contains no chondrules.”
  • Albedo - “The reflective property of a non-luminous object. A perfect mirror would have an albedo of 100% while a black hole would have an albedo of 0%.”
  • Albedo Feature - “A dark or light marking on the surface of an object that may or may not be a geological or topographical feature.”
  • Altitude - “The angular distance of an object above the horizon.”
  • Angles - “Are measured in degrees or arcminutes (denoted by a single quote) or arcseconds (denoted by a double quote) or radians. 1 radian = 180/pi = 57.2958 degrees, 1 degree = 1o = 60 arcminutes = 60’ = 3600 arcseconds = 3600”.”
  • Antimatter - “Matter consisting of particles with charges opposite that of ordinary matter.  In antimatter, protons have a negative charge while electrons have a positive charge.”
  • Antipodal Point - “A point that is on the direct opposite side of a planet.”
  • Apastron - “The point of greatest separation of two stars, such as in a binary star system.”
  • Aperture - “The size of the opening through which light passes in an optical instrument such as a camera or telescope. A higher number represents a smaller opening while a lower number represents a larger opening.”
  • Aphelion - “The point in the orbit of a planet or other celestial body where it is farthest from the Sun.”
  • Apogee - “The point in the orbit of the Moon or other satellite where it is farthest from the Earth.”
  • Apparent Magnitude - “The apparent brightness of an object in the sky as it appears to an observer on Earth. Bright objects have a low apparent magnitude while dim objects will have a higher apparent magnitude.”
  • Arc minutes - “There are 60 minutes (denoted as 60’) of arc in 1 degree. In the sky, with an unobstructed horizon (as on the ocean), one can see about 180 degrees of sky at once, and there are 90 degrees from the true horizon to the zenith. The full moon is about 30’ (30 arc minutes) across, or half a degree. There are 60 seconds (denoted 60”) of arc in one minute of arc.”
  • Asteroid - “A small planetary body in orbit around the Sun, larger than a meteoroid but smaller than a planet. Most asteroids can be found in a belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. The orbits of some asteroids take them close to the Sun, which also takes them across the paths of the planets.”
  • Astrochemistry - “The branch of science that explores the chemical interactions between dust and gas interspersed between the stars.”
  • Astronomical Unit (AU) - “A unit of measure equal to the average distance between the Earth and the Sun, approximately 93 million miles.”
  • Astronomy - “The branch of science that deals with celestial objects, space, and the physical universe as a whole.”
  • Astrometry - “The careful, precise measurement of astronomical objects, usually made with respect to standard catalogues of star positions. For comet orbit computations, astrometry good to 1” or 2” (1 or 2 arc seconds), or better, is the standard nowadays.”
  • Atmosphere - “A layer of gases surrounding a planet, moon, or star. The Earth’s atmosphere is 120 miles thick and is composed mainly of nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and a few other trace gases.”
  • Aurora - “A glow in a planet’s ionosphere caused by the interaction between the planet’s magnetic field and charged particles from the Sun. This phenomenon is known as the Aurora Borealis in the Earth’s northern hemisphere and the Aurora Australis in the Earth’s Southern Hemisphere.”
  • Aurora Australis - “Also known as the southern lights, this is an atmospheric phenomenon that displays a diffuse glow in the sky in the southern hemisphere. It is caused by charged particles from the Sun as they interact with the Earth’s magnetic field. Known as the Aurora Borealis in the northern hemisphere.”
  • Aurora Borealis - “Also known as the northern lights, this is an atmospheric phenomenon that displays a diffuse glow in the sky in the northern hemisphere. It is caused by charged particles from the Sun as they interact with the Earth’s magnetic field. Known as the Aurora Australis in the southern hemisphere.”
  • Axis - “Also known as the poles, this is an imaginary line through the center of rotation of an object.”
  • Azimuth - “The angular distance of an object around or parallel to the horizon from a predefined zero point.”
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6 Important Things You Didn't Know We're Running Out Of.
#1. Water

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Humanity’s fight for scarce water is a staple of dystopian fiction (and the plot of one shitty Bond movie), but in the end, that’s all it is: fiction. Because come on – water? It’s like … right there, and plenty of it. There of course are Third World countries where clean water is a precious commodity, but you don’t see Western multinational companies and businessmen actually investing millions of dollars in it. But that’s only because they have been really quiet about it.

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“Ahem: Yee-haw.”

T. Boone Pickens is a Texan ex-oilman and currently the biggest private owner of water in the United States, with access to most of the Texan portion of the Ogallala Aquifer, which holds more than a quadrillion gallons of the liquid. Pickens has invested more than $100 million and eight years of work in acquiring the rights to this much “blue gold” and now plans to sell it to Dallas or some other major U.S. city desperately running out of water. There are plenty to choose from.

If you’re hoping that Pickens is just some crazy rich guy, it’s worth mentioning that he wasn’t the first to have this idea. To become a water baron, Pickens had to fight for 15 years with the Canadian River Municipal Water Authority, which tried to buy his reserves out from under him. Water drilling is serious business.

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T. Boone Pickens

Furthermore, what the man is doing is pretty old-hat by American standards. For years, New York has been getting its water from the Catskill Mountains, while Southern California has to reach all the way to the Sierra Nevada range – hundreds of miles in both cases. Then there is Russia diverting its Siberian water surplus to China, and Alaska selling its H2O to India of all places. Either these multi-million-dollar companies and huge governments are paranoid as hell, or they know something that we don’t. Something horrifying.

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But even if fresh water is running out, we can take comfort in the fact that, as rational people, we at least won’t be going to war over it all Mad Max-style, right? How about we just leave you with these links about water supply-related conflicts between Pakistan and IndiaIndia and China or Israel and the rest of the Middle East, and let you answer that question yourselves. Sleep tight!

 
#2. Phosphorous
 

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You might not even know what phosphorus is or what it does, but the life of every single person on Earth depends on it. Phosphorus is used to make fertilizer, and without it, there is virtually no way to produce enough food for the world’s population. As you might have guessed, we are quickly approaching “peak phosphorus” and might run out of it in as little as 30 years.

Researchers from Australia, Europe and the United States agree that the worldwide focus on production of biofuels (jump-started by the U.S.) can in all reality use up all of the planet’s phosphorus. And when guys from three continents can agree on anything other than their mutual hatred for one another, you know they have to be right. The situation is getting so desperate that Sweden has actually started designing toilets that will extract the precious phosphorus from our piss.

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“Fifty bucks a vial.”

China is already hoarding all the phosphorus it has, which hasn’t exactly done anything to calm the global markets. From 2007 to 2008, phosphate rock prices went up 700 percent, and the demand might continue to rise 2.3 percent a year, seeing as the majority of nations aren’t too keen on starving to death in the future. The remaining phosphorus is located chiefly in Russia and Africa, whose reserves might one day basically give them the keys to the planet.

The only alternative is extracting phosphorus from the seabed but the costs would be staggering, and we’d risk running into and pissing off Cthulhu.

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#3. Tequila

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The Mexican cactus booze has been in trouble for the last couple of years, and high demand and diseased crops have seriously threatened its supply in the past. But now, we might actually be looking at a possible eradication of tequila as a worldwide commodity.

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In 2006, the Bush administration introduced new regulations to begin substituting gasoline with biofuels made from corn-based ethanol, the idea being to ease America’s dependency on foreign oil. One side effect was that ethanol prices skyrocketed to the point that farmers in Mexico started abandoning their old crops in favor of corn to ship off to the U.S.

Unfortunately, this included destroying crops of agave cactus (from which tequila is made) by setting them on fire, because that’s how they roll in Mexico.

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“Yeah, fuck you, my previous livelihood!”

But whatever – we can just plant more of that cacti, right? About that … you see, the blue agave cactus is what you would call the Chinese panda of the plant world, in that it’s insanely particular about how it reproduces. It’s prone to diseases and will grow only in a very specific climate – on very high altitudes and preferably in red volcanic soil. This pretty much confines it to the Mexican state of Jalisco and surrounding areas, the only places in the entire world where Mexican law allows for the production of “tequila,” a name to which Mexico holds exclusive rights.

In 2007, Mexican farmers planted 35 percent less agave than in the previous year, and the remaining cacti were given the red-headed stepchild treatment: mistreated and generally ignored, causing global tequila production to drop significantly. Basically, when one region in Mexico goes sober, the entire world gets the tequila shakes.

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Vomit may never taste the same again.

Here’s the best part: Tequila is made by removing the fructose at the core of the plant in its 12th year. So basically, if they’re replanted tomorrow, you might have enough for one very basic crop in 2023, assuming the plants aren’t harmed by diseases, weird weather patterns or anything else in the next dozen or so years. In short, you might want to start developing a taste for wine coolers.

    #4. Medical Isotopes

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Medical isotopes are substances that give off short bursts of radiation, after which they decay and become useless. They’re used in medical scanners, and each day, more than 50,000 people in the U.S. go through procedures involving medical isotopes to detect bone cancer or diagnose kidney and brain disorders. So if we would ever start running low on those radioactive health thingies – like right now, for example – it could mean having to pay more for inferior hospital care in the future.

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“Here you go. That will be a million dollars.”

About 80 percent of medical isotope procedures make use of a substance called technetium-99m, which has a life span of about 12 hours, meaning it cannot be stockpiled and has to be produced fresh over and over. Naturally, because this is such a crucial part of nationwide healthcare, there’s only one major company in North America that makes technetium-99m – Chalk River Laboratories. And because it hasn’t been operational since May 2009, we are now in year two of a massive medical isotopes shortage. As the old saying goes, “Don’t have all of your eggs laid by the same radioactive chicken.”

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That’s what grandma always used to say.

CRL actually produced one-third of all medical isotopes in the world, so all the other companies today simply cannot keep up with the demand. Both the U.S. and Canada are hurrying to build new nuclear reactors needed to safely produce technetium-99m, but they won’t be ready for some time.

Meanwhile, because of this shortage, your doctor might be using radioactive isotopes that are what scientists call “less than ideal” for medical testing. “Less than ideal,” depending on the type used, can mean anything from not as effective to more radioactive, more unstable and generally less predictable. This is great news if your highly radioactive isotope testing gives you mutant powers that turn you into Wolverine, but what if you become someone stupid,like Toad?

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Goodbye, showers!

 

#5. Chocolate

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Without even checking the actual stats, we’re 100 percent sure that about half of all the commodities available on the free market include chocolate. With such an amazing demand for the product, surely there must be a sophisticated system in place to ensure that the world never runs out of the stuff. Because if, say, the whole chocolate industry was based entirely on Third World back-breaking manual labor, slave wages and actual child slavery that would be reason enough for a worldwide panic.

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Oh shit …

Actually, the majority of the world’s cocoa supply comes from West Africa, where the plantations are often tended to by slave children, but there is such thing as fair trade cocoa beans, with guaranteed “No slave labor!” certificates and stuff. Problem solved, right? Nope. (And it’s a little depressing when taking slavery out of the equation doesn’t immediately fix something.) The fact of the matter is that, currently, cultivating cocoa beans just isn’t worth it to the average West African farmer.

Not only is tending to cocoa trees insanely time-consuming (it takes up to five years to grow a new crop), but everything has to be done by hand in often unbearable heat. And at the end of the day, the average cocoa farmer can expect to earn about 80 cents a day for his trouble. That satisfying feeling that his product is contributing to America’s obesity epidemic is just not enough anymore, so in fewer than 20 years, chocolate might become an expensive rarity, like caviar. When was the last time you had caviar?

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“I … once saw a picture of caviar.”

Cocoa beans can be produced outside West Africa, but only within 10 degrees of the equator, an area that you might quickly recognize as including some of the most politically unstable regions on the planet. It would explain why chocolate prices have doubled in the last six years and will only continue to go up.

The only way to keep chocolate dirt-cheap is to remove cocoa butter from it (which, to us, is completely defeating the purpose), just like Hershey did a few years back. Now the FDA is telling Hershey that it can’t even call those products “chocolate.”

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“How about we drop the pretense and go with ‘Fat & Sugar’?”

  #6. Helium  

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The world is running low on helium? Big freaking deal, right? Worst-case scenario, future kids won’t ever experience the joy of shelling out $7 for an amusement park balloon, then immediately tripping and seeing it fly away.

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If only it were ever actually this much fun.

Actually, if you have benefited from a piece of technology more complex than a sharp rock tied to a stick, it was probably made with the help of helium. Helium has the lowest boiling point of all materials on Earth, which means it’s cooler than a ninja Fonzie in sunglasses. Basically every high-tech industry imaginable has uses for helium, from chilling MRI magnets to producing fiber optics and LCD screens.

Think of it as the Batman of gases – known for its playful public persona as the stuff that makes you talk like Jennifer Tilly, but secretly a badass vigilante keeping the modern world in one piece. And just like Batman, the government completely doesn’t understand it.

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All metaphors work best with Batman.

After all, if the stuff is running out, the price should be going up, right? And we sure as hell shouldn’t be putting it in party balloons.

But according to Nobel Prize winner Robert Richardson, the problem is that the U.S. government is giving away helium like a discount VCR warehouse: as much as it can, as cheap as it can. In 1996, Congress passed a law requiring the U.S. government to sell off our helium stockpile by 2015. This has forced the price of the gas way, way lower than it should be, considering how little of the stuff is actually left in the world (Richardson says a balloon’s worth would cost $100 if the market were allowed to set the price).

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Above: The world’s greatest helium baron plans her next acquisition.

The U.S. controls more than 80 percent of the world’s helium supply, so Richardson says all this sell-off and waste means there’s a very real chance we will run out of the gas in fewer than 25 years. If you’re one of those people who buys into this whole “technology” fad, that’s something to be concerned about.

Fortunately, there’s a backup plan: If we run out of mined helium we can always recover it from the atmosphere. That will run us only 10,000 times the current costs.

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“Next up for sale, an early 2011 red helium balloon. Starting price is $10 million.”