What happened when a room full of engineers watched 'The Martian'

Oct 13, 2015

In “The Martian,” Matt Damon stars as astronaut Mark Watney, who gets stranded alone on the red planet. The story is based on a book by the same name, in which Watney is separated from his crew and left alone on Mars when a dust storm forces them to evacuate early.

“This movie could stand on its own, even under Martian gravity,” says Don Pettit, a NASA astronaut and chemical engineer who has spent time aboard the International Space Station. 

“It drives like a regular car, operates like a regular car. You can refuel in three to five minutes and, you know, do 350 miles on a trip,” says Craig Scott, Toyota’s national manager for advanced technologies in the US. 

Scott is overseeing the US release of the Mirai, Toyota's hydrogen fuel cell car.  

“We're really excited,” Scott says. “This will be the first time for US consumers to get a chance to actually own a real live fuel cell electric vehicle.”

Is sneaker innovation changing how we move?

Oct 12, 2015

Sneakers are a relatively recent innovation that owe their existence, according to Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum, to the rubber tree. 


“Sneakers right from the beginning were part of the technological revolution that was happening in the 19th century. They were absolutely one of the newest forms of footwear ever created,” Semmelhack says. “The sneaker was reliant on rubber.”

Americans throw out way more trash than we previously thought

Oct 11, 2015

Americans dumped 262 million tonnes of municipal trash into landfills in 2012, according to a new study published recently in Nature Climate Change. That's more than double the EPA estimate for that same year.

Agatha Christie’s murders are enmeshed with real chemistry

Oct 10, 2015

Celebrated mystery writer Agatha Christie authored more than 80 detective books. In many, the plot features characters killed by poisoning — with ingredients as diverse as digitalis (foxglove), strychnine and thallium. 

“[Agatha] Christie, killed over 300 people,” says Kathryn Harkup, a chemist and author of the new book "A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie." "And at least 100 of those were killed by poisons.”

How generic medicines wind up costing nearly as much as their brand-name competitors

Oct 10, 2015

In August of this year, Turing Pharmaceuticals acquired the toxoplasmosis treatment Daraprim. They quickly hiked the price of the drug by more than 5,000 percent, from $13.50 per pill to $750 a pill, causing a public outcry.  

“Actually, there isn't any illegal, anti-trust reason why this company can't do this. Assuming that they receive their monopoly in a legal fashion ... it is within the company's rights, if they have a natural monopoly, to charge whatever they want for their product,” says Aaron Kesselheim, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. 

What it feels like to have Parkinson’s disease

Oct 6, 2015

In 1985, science journalist Jon Palfreman investigated a group of drug addicts who were struck with Parkinson’s-like symptoms after taking tainted heroin.

Thirty years later, Palfreman was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease himself. His book, "Brain Storms," describes his journey with the disease and new treatments for patients. 

A new map may help scientists figure out how Earth’s inner core formed

Oct 6, 2015

Right after the Big Bang, giant showers of neutrinos were spewed across the universe. These subatomic particles, produced by the decay of radioactive elements, are the focus of intense research by scientists in laboratories around the world. They are hoping these phantoms of physics could unlock mysteries about dark matter and about how the universe was formed.

Should scientists play a role in shaping global policy?

Oct 5, 2015

Albert Einstein knew scientists must be involved in determining domestic and global policy.

When he wrote a letter to President Roosevelt warning him about Nazi Germany developing the atomic bomb, he also wrote, “Those with the privilege to know have the duty to act.”

“Oh yeah!” That was Dava Newman’s reaction when asked if she’d be willing to jet off to Mars.

NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

NASA's announcement that they have evidence of still-existing liquid water on Mars raised eyebrows Monday, as well as renewed hopes that life might still be possible on the Red Planet. A local expert says the best chance of finding it there is by digging deeper.

Is biking in the city bad for your health? Researchers want to find out.

Sep 27, 2015

There are many things bikers have to worry about while out on the road: construction, potholes, adverse weather, unaware drivers and, of course, as one inner city cyclist pointed out, black snot. 

“It was just so much construction that, on top of the pollution of the cars and the construction pollution, I just couldn't take it anymore. I would come home and I would have like black snot. It was just nasty,” says Mirna Gatika, a cyclist who rides her bicycle daily from Queens to the Bronx and back over the Triborough Bridge. 

Tonight is the moon-viewing event of the year. When to head outside, and what to look for.

Sep 27, 2015

“This is going to blow people's minds,” promises Dean Regas, an astronomer at the Cincinnati Observatory and co-host of the PBS program, Star Gazers. 

And it did. Take a look at the lunar eclipse Sunday night.

Sunday evening, there was four major moon events to watch in the night sky. There was a total lunar eclipse, the closest full moon of the year, the harvest moon and the completion of the tetrad, the fourth in a series of four lunar eclipses back to back.

A new study finds that the text of children's books contains substantially more unique words than ordinary parent-child conversation, which may help explain why reading to children is so important to their development.

“We've known for a while that there are a lot of benefits to reading to kids, in terms of vocabulary and language development and later literacy. The real question is, why,” says Jessica Montag, an assistant research psychologist at University of California Riverside, and author of the new study in Psychological Science. 

A new book recounts the forgotten history of autism

Sep 20, 2015

In a new book, science writer Steve Silberman chronicles the mostly unknown history of how the diagnosis and treatment of autism was stymied by the Nazi invasion of Austria and subsequently hijacked by an American clinician with a limited understanding of the disorder.

In NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, Silberman takes us back to Vienna before World War II, where he introduces us to a young doctor named Hans Asperger.

A cure for 'colorblindness' may be in sight

Sep 20, 2015

A pair of researchers at the Univeristy of Washington have successfully cured colorblindness in two squirrel monkeys.

This may not sound like a big deal to you if you're not a squirrel monkey (or if you have normal vision), but for people with colorblindness, it could be life-altering.

The term colorblindness is actually something of a misnomer. A more accurate term is ‘color deficiency' — and it doesn't mean people see in black and white.

What happens to objects that enter black holes?

Sep 14, 2015

Scientists have long wondered what happens to information that enters black holes. Famed physicist Stephen Hawking thinks he has the answer.

Information entering a black hole may not be truly lost, he suggests. Instead, that information could still exist in a sort of hologram on the black hole’s event horizon. But this doesn’t mean you should design your next information-storage service around the use of black holes. “For all practical purposes, the information is lost,” Hawking says. That is, it exists “in a chaotic and useless form.”

LiFi? How your LED desk lamp could help you connect to the Internet.

Sep 13, 2015

Lighting has come a long way since Tom Edison lit his first incandescent bulb in the 1880s. LED bulbs are popping up everywhere, on planes, car headlights, in your phone. When you buy a new light bulb now, chances are it's going to be an LED.

At the heart of every LED is not a little wire. If you open up an LED, there's a semiconductor in there, and engineers are exploring more ways to use that semiconductor — everything from wireless data streaming to secure communication systems and in-flight networking. 

The coming years may be rooftop solar's time to shine

Sep 12, 2015

Rooftop solar power is booming. And as more and more consumers discover that prices for solar power are falling, they're slapping panels on their roofs and buying less energy from the power companies.

Are we really seeing a revolution in rooftop solar? “Yes,” says David Roberts, a staff writer at

“I think by any measure, the word revolution applies at this point,” Roberts says. “Just for perspective, the residential solar industry grew 76 percent in the last year in the US. ... It's exciting because I think we're right at the very, very beginning of it.”

What the birds in your backyard can tell you about the environment

Sep 11, 2015

The Baltimore orioles and yellow warblers are missing from the trees and bushes near the office of Emma Greig, a project leader for Project Feeder Watch at Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithica, New York.

“What I've noticed most in the past couple of weeks as I've walked into the office is actually a lack of [bird] songs,” Greig says. “It means that fall is here, or fall is on its way and winter is coming.”

Could urine be the perfect fertilizer for your garden?

Sep 6, 2015

Krista Wigginton has been working with the Rich Earth Institute in Vermont to figure out a way to not put human waste to waste. They have many reasons, but one big one is to save water. 

A new play explores science, faith and medical ethics

Sep 6, 2015

Playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer wants to know the answers to the ethical and religious questions raised by new scientific and medical discoveries. 

Gamifying the workplace: is it ethical?

Sep 5, 2015
Lucas Jackson/Reuters

A recent investigation by The New York Times revealed the ways Amazon measures and monitors employees at its headquarters, crunching data to sort out who is most efficient and deserving of promotion — and who isn't. But this gamification of the workplace is far from new.

UPS drivers, truckers, authors and retail clerks are also subjected to the tracking power of technology — and the outcomes aren't always effective or ethical. 

Murad Sezer/Reuters

“The vagina is cleaner than your mouth,” declared Sharon Hillier, addressing a group of journalists at the HIV Research for Prevention conference in Cape Town last fall. The audience squirmed, gasped and giggled.

The professor of obstetrics-gynecology and reproductive services at the University of Pittsburgh is known for her unabashed statements: She introduces herself as a vaginal ecologist and calls the vagina a “beautiful ecosystem.”

Museum of Science president to resign

Sep 1, 2015
WBFO file photo

After eight impactful years, the president of the Buffalo Museum of Science is stepping down.

Using forest fires to prevent forest fires

Aug 31, 2015
Max Whittaker/Reuters

The United States has a basic and intuitive policy when it comes to forest fires: put them out, and put them out as quickly as possible.

This policy of fire suppression is one the US has followed for over a century. Some scientists, however, are beginning to question this strategy. There is a growing consensus of researchers who believe suppressing forest fires might actually be causing more severe fires, and worsening climate change long-term. 

This octopus preys — and mates — a little differently

Aug 28, 2015

“I like other marine animals, but octopuses — they’re aliens on our planet. They're the closest thing we're going to get to that.”

So says Richard Ross, a senior biologist at the Steinhart Aquarium in the California Academy of Sciences. “They have eight arms, they have suckers all over the place, they have great eyesight, they can make ink, they can swim, they have jet propulsion…The more we learn, the more interesting they become,” Ross says.

Now, Ross has discovered, in the larger Pacific striped octopus, some new and unexpected practices.

EPA contractors caused gold-mine blowout that turned a river orange

Aug 27, 2015

Orange. That was the new color of the Animas River in Colorado.

Contractors working for the EPA caused the blowout at the Gold King Mine in Silverton, Colorado. That released a plume of toxic orange-yellow sludge that eventually reached as far as Utah and New Mexico.

Here's why they call this the corpse flower

Aug 26, 2015

A rotten stench has been wafting through a greenhouse at the Denver Botanic Gardens — and visitors are all too eager to breathe it in. Who knows if they’ll ever get a second chance? 

Pregnant panda? It's almost impossible to tell

Aug 24, 2015
Smithsonian's National Zoo

Pregnancy is not something that’s easy to hide. From expanding pregnant bellies, to morning sickness and ultrasounds, whether someone is pregnant, eventually, is usually not that hard to figure out.

When it comes to giant pandas, however, scientists are still often unable to detect pregnancy — sometimes up until the actual moment a panda cub is delivered. 

“Everything is complicated with giant pandas,” says Pierre Comizzoli, a research biologist with the Smithsonian National Zoo.