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Popular Science January/February 2018

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United States
Camden Media Inc.
4 Issues

in this issue

2 min
the many axes of power

A READER NAMED JOHN just emailed me about PopSci’s November/December issue. He liked that it let him “match up the innovations and breakthroughs in science to what we know and use in our daily life.” That got me thinking about the breadth of our next edition: the Power Issue. (Thanks, John! You just influenced a 146-year-old magazine.) Power can come in many forms. It’s strength, force, and energy—the ability to move machines as massive as aircraft carriers and as humble as our own bodies. It’s in the wind turbines, Formula One engines, and nuclear plants you’ll soon read about. But power is also the ability to move minds. John, through the innovations of the internet and email, was able to guide my thinking on Popular Science, a publication that reaches millions. The…

3 min
hack the grid

LAST SEPTEMBER, NEWS BROKE that hackers had laid siege to the U.S. power grid, probing deep into dozens of energy firms, looking for weaknesses to exploit. The Department of Homeland Security issued a threat warning about an ongoing stream of malware attacks that could one day lead to a Black Sky event, crippling cellphones, erasing bank accounts, devastating hospitals, and disrupting every sector of the economy. Girding our grid (some of which dates back to 1917) could cost $500 billion—too pricey for the more than 3,200 private companies that own its hardware. To shore up defenses, the feds are funding small and nimble teams of experts to develop security and detection patches that will (hopefully) protect the system and help it recover should the Black Hats succeed. Here are some…

2 min
what is a horsepower?

IN 1781, THE STORY GOES, JAMES WATT NEEDED TO CONVINCE skeptics to ditch their draft horses and buy his new steam engine. To prove his machine’s superiority, he measured a horse walking in circles to turn a grindstone in a mill. He multiplied the distance it walked by its roughly 180 pounds of pulling force and came up with a new measure: horsepower. (His new engine did the work of 3 5 nags, about the same as today’s riding mower.) We still use his math to sell F-150s, but it can feel kind of abstract. So we came up with a few new ways to visualize one horsepower. One bicycle burst In the momentary dash of a flat-out sprint, the average cyclist can eke out a single horsepower. Pro pedalers can generate…

2 min
the price of luxury

THE SAFFRON WAR OF 1374 LASTED 14 WEEKS, DRIVEN BY A NOTION THAT THE spice could cure plague. It can’t. But people lost their heads over it. It’s not just gold, diamonds, and oil we cherish and plunder. Seemingly benign commodities—whether it’s medicinal tea or stinky fungus—have exerted power over us for centuries. Here’s just a taste of their recent history. WHITE TRUFFLE Italy’s Tanaro river basin produces prized white truffles. In 2016, excess rains yielded bumper crops and sank wholesale prices 30 percent. New cultivation tactics involving careful irrigation and seed selection from known truffle-producing trees could further devalue the fungus. That is, if they can survive blight. SAFFRON The choice between Spanish and Iranian saffron is a matter of opinion. The complexly flavored pistils both come from the laborious harvest of the…

2 min
what’s in your electricity?

LIKE ANY GOOD CONSUMER, YOU’VE FILLED YOUR HOME WITH POWER-THIRSTY screens and toasters. And they make your average American abode chug 30 kilowatt-hours of electricity every single day. (A kilowatt-hour, by the way, is 1,000 watts used over one hour. But you knew that.) Producing your daily juice requires various amounts of gas, coal, oil, wind, solar, water, or nuclear fuel, depending on your energy sources. But what if your home relied on just one of these? Here’s how each of them would measure up. SOLAR PANELS 450 SQ FT One 300-watt, 18-square-foot solar panel can transform an average day of California sunshine into 1.2 kilowatt-hours. So you’d need to screw about 25 of them onto your Hollywood roof to cover one spin of the globe. NATURAL GAS 234 CU FT This stuff burns cleaner and…

2 min
strength, in numbers

IN A BATTLE ROYALE FOR MOST POWERFUL ANIMAL, A RED KANGAROO MIGHT TAKE the martial-arts belt, thanks to a bone-shattering kick that delivers 759 pounds of force. Evolution has nudged wild creatures to hone their blows, bites, and brute strength for survival. For humans to even measure up, we must methodically shape our bodies with specialized practice and diet. But what if you pit all of us brutes against each other? That’s just what we did, creating the following four competitions to find out who puts the “king” in animal kingdom. 80 Degrees a Tasmanian devil can open its jaws to chomp carrion snacks or rivals’ faces. This gives its bite a force 3.6 times its weight. 150,000 Muscle units in an Asian elephant’s trunk. Its nose has the strength and flexibility…