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Popular Science Fall 2018

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United States
Camden Media Inc.
4 Issues

in this issue

2 min
look closer

ONCE A YEAR, THE WHOLE staff meets to brainstorm ideas for new issue themes. I recently started wearing eyeglasses, and right before our latest planning session, I decided to tighten them up (so they’d stay on my face during bouts of extreme editing). I reached for my trusty mini-stuff tool kit, figured I’d clean the hinge while I was in there, disassembled my specs, and promptly lost one of the screws that held them together. Mission not accomplished! I marveled at how such an insignificant (and basically invisible) widget could make such a big difference in my day. Later, during the free association portion of our brainstorm, I wrote the word “screws” on a sticky note, smiling to myself because the world had presented us with such a wonderful subject to…

2 min

The Voorhes Adam Voorhes and Robin Finlay are partners—in more ways than one. Collectively known as The Voorhes, the husband-and-wife duo have produced the 10 most recent covers of Popular Science from their Austin, Texas, studio. For this issue, photographer Adam devised a custom lens kit to capture microscopic details of objects, like a zip per, shown in the “Small Wonders” series, which begins on page 60. Prop stylist Robin has brought past covers to life by crafting a cosmic clock and wrangling a movie-trained crow. For the issue you’re holding now, she coaxed live ants into the proper poses. Sarah Scoles On page 70, contributing editor Sarah Scoles checks out a 2-foot-tall instrument and its potential for a very big mission; the micro scope, known as Shamu, might someday visit the Jovian…

3 min
you mean the world to microbes

THEY CAMP OUT ON SKIN, HIDE BETWEEN TEETH, DWELL in stomachs, and make us all stink. Meet your microbiome: the bacteria, fungi, and viruses that inhabit Planet You. Up to 50 trillion tiny beings occupy the average body—outnumbering the 30 trillion or so indigenous human cells in and on your person. And just like flora and fauna have divvied up Earth, different microbial groups inhabit various regions of our bodies. From topknot to toenail, they form entire ecosystems that keep their world (that’s us) healthy, or make it terribly sick. Here are some of the groups we host, from noble knights to villainous scum. [1] Snowy Scalp Up north, a wild clan of fungi sometimes makes a living in the snowy tresses on your head. Malassezia eat the oils on your scalp,…

1 min
shrinking act

The chip powering your smartphone is teeming with transistors. These Lilliputian gates open and close to control the flow of electrons, forming binary zeros and ones that tell the device what to do. Smaller gates mean more transistors—and faster chips. In 1975, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore predicted counts would double biennially. (Yes, this is Moore’s law.) Analysts debate whether transistor counts will continue their exponential rise, but so far the trajectory has held steady. In 1971, the Intel 4004 chip had just 2,300; the ones inside ’90s-era personal computers sported millions; and today’s silicon can contain billions. But running that many transistors takes a lot of power. So in the mid-aughts, engineers began devising more-efficient chips by segmenting processors into cores, groupings of transistors that each handle their own parallel tasks…

2 min
where the wild things are

TRACKING WILDLIFE HAS improved our understanding of animal activities such as migration and hunting. Yet most species remain invisible to biologists. Transmitter devices that exceed 5 percent of an animal’s body weight can negatively impact its behavior and chances of survival. Size concerns put the vast majority of animals—including an estimated 75 percent of the world’s mammals and birds—off-limits. Martin Wikelski, head of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology near Konstanz, Germany, hopes to change that. This summer he started distributing tags weighing just 5 grams, or 0.17 ounce, to researchers ready to place the trackers on thousands of birds, baby sea turtles, and even eels. Dubbed ICARUS, for International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space, the project could also create what Wikelski calls “an internet of animals.” In the same way…

1 min
keeping track over the decades

1900 Bird banding Scientists systematically wrapped engraved metal bands around birds’ legs but relied on others to recapture the avians to provide info on where they went. 1950s Acoustic telemetry To track fish, seals, and whales, these tags emit pulses of sound, which are picked up by microphones positioned throughout the animals’ habitat. 1960s VHF-radio transmitters Researchers using this high-frequency tech to track animals like feral horses had to stay within a few miles of them to pick up signals. 1980s Argos An early satellite-based system used to follow dolphins, albatross, and other creatures, the initial versions couldn’t be reprogrammed from afar. 1990s Isotopic analysis By scrutinizing the chemical composition of feathers, scales, or hair, scientists can determine the rough origin of the migrating animals they are studying. 1990s Cellphone tags Though effective for transferring large amounts of information like real-time…