Popular Science Summer 2020

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4 Numeri

in questo numero

2 min
fun in the time of fear

THERE WAS A LOT WE DIDN’T know a year ago when we picked “Play” as the topic for this issue. We didn’t know that a pandemic would put much of the United States and the world on lockdown. We didn’t know the Olympics, one of the reasons we selected the theme, would be postponed. Heck, we didn’t know I’d be writing this letter, my first as PopSci’s editor-in-chief, let alone that I’d be typing in isolation in my apartment as the staff remotely stitched together a digital-only edition. With everything turned upside down—and so quickly!—I started to worry that 96 pages of riddles and sports and fart jokes would seem tone-deaf in a time when life by necessity is serious and grim. And when the stakes are so very high. The…

2 min

1. Bonnie Tsui Spotting the common denominator in Bonnie Tsui’s life is simple: It’s water. Her parents met at a pool in Hong Kong, she was a competitive swimmer as a teenager, and now she hits the waves in the San Francisco Bay Area with her surfboard. Being around the elemental substance calms her: “It makes you feel connected to something larger than yourself,” she says. Writing for Popular Science for the first time on page 60, Tsui explores how USA Surfing is embracing science and technology as it prepares for its eventual debut at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Tsui’s second book, Why We Swim, was published in April 2020. 2. Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber After they met in 2006 at Ohio University, photography duo Jenn Ackerman’s and Tim Gruber’s personal…

2 min
the most dangerous game

PLAYING SPORTS CAN TEACH teamwork, boost self-esteem, and improve health, but they’re not all fun and games. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there are about 8.6 million recreation-related injuries each year, ranging from hand fractures in boxing to head trauma from falling off horses. Few of these are fatal, but they can quickly turn even the friendliest match into a bloodbath. By analyzing the millions of incidents cataloged in the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System in 2018, we’ve pinpointed the most common—and surprising—athletic boo-boos and combined them into one über-dangerous event. 1/BASKETBALL Dribbling down the court can have consequences. Hand and finger fractures are common, but the real threat comes from footwork. Sidestep maneuvers and sudden stops contributed to 77,023 ankle sprains and 25,222 knee sprains in a…

1 min
computers for the win

HUMANS HAVE BEEN PLAYING games for centuries, but we’re still not perfect at them: We make mistakes, underestimate opponents, and can think only a few moves ahead. Computers have no such shortcomings. An artificial intelligence can master most of the classics if it runs enough simulations. As processing power has increased, machines have grown adept enough to trounce their creators at everything from tic-tac-toe to backgammon (though the programs still can’t compete at more creative pursuits like crosswords). Here’s a timeline of their march to victory. CHESS The history of AI arguably begins with chess. Around 1948, computing pioneer Alan Turing scribbled the first lines of an algorithm for pondering rooks and bishops. Nearly 50 years later, IBM’s Deep Blue program edged out world champ Garry Kasparov in a sweat-soaked competition. CHECKERS IBM whiz…

1 min
horseplay—or not?

HUMANS DON’T HAVE A MONOPOLY ON horsing around. Animals of all sorts use play to prepare for real-world situations—but their shenanigans can look pretty different from ours. You might catch baby rats mischievously battling to figure out how to fight, or Komodo dragons sticking their heads into buckets to learn about communal feeding. It’s also easy to anthropomorphize and misinterpret actions as gestures of joy that are actually signs of distress or just indifference. So biologists have to develop rules to try to establish what’s play and what’s not. This Venn diagram plots five basic criteria used in animal behavior research to reveal which critters are goofing off for real.…

2 min
one chair, five ways

THE PARALYMPICS—SO CALLED for the Greek prefix para, meaning “alongside”—give elite disabled athletes the chance to compete at the highest level. Not all contenders in the games, which typically run after the Olympics, use wheelchairs, but those who do showcase some of the most technologically advanced assistive devices in the world. Each sport requires different tweaks to the standard chair; we break down a few of them here. A/Daily life Every custom wheelchair has unique attributes tailored to the needs of the user, of which there are currently about 2.7 million in the US. This manual one weighs less than 20 pounds and has a foldable frame, so it’s easy to lift into a car’s trunk without injury. The handgrips collapse down so other people can’t push the chair without permission. A…