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What we saw when we sent a cell phone through a pneumatic tube system

Pneumatic tube systems — little canisters shot through a series of tubes via the power of compressed air — have been around since the 19th century when they were briefly popular as a way to quickly deliver mail in big cities. Today, they're probably most familiar from their use in drive-through banking, but the tubes also turn up at libraries (the one at the main branch of the New York Public Library is particularly steampunky), in scientific laboratories, and in hospitals.

Last month, I spent an inordinate amount of time in one Minneapolis area hospital, waiting for an induced labor to kick in. How do you entertain yourself between the insertion of the IV line and the beginning of serious contractions? Turns out, you go on a lot of short walks, you watch some TV, and (if you're lucky) you convince the nurses to let your husband "mail" his cell phone from the labor/delivery department to the post-natal department, using the hospital's pneumatic tube system.

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Do you have what it takes to get in bed with NASA?

Are you the kind of person who could lie in bed for 70 days for science? If so, you could make $18,000 in a NASA study of microgravity. The catch (because lying on your back for 70 days wasn't already enough of a catch): The bed will be tilted 6 degrees towards your head, forcing bodily fluids upwards and replicating what happens to your cardiovascular system in microgravity environments. Maggie 18

Kids learn butter-making and chemistry with "Crazy Aunt Lindsey"

I'm loving the "Doing Stuff with Crazy Aunt Lindsey" series of hands-on science YouTube videos for kids. I can't find the host's full name on the YouTube page or her website, but she's a fantastic presence and so are the kids that appear with her. The result is a series of videos that are adorable, high-spirited, creative, and fun—full of great, simple projects that pack a surprising amount of science "oomph" behind them.

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Science in 6 seconds: The best of Vine

GE hosted a contest to make super-short science videos for Vine and the results feature some really clever, nifty little clips.

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Great moments in pedantry: Double Stuf Oreos not actually double stuffed

In fact, the Double Stuf Oreos tested by a high school math class in Queensbury, N.Y. contained only 1.86x the amount of stuff that was in a regular Oreo. A Nabisco spokeswoman, responding to the scandal, says the measurements must have been inaccurate. Maggie 14

Exploding things for science

Earlier this month, volcanologists blew 12 holes in an otherwise peaceful meadow in Ashford, New York. It's not that they had anything against the meadow, per se, it's just that it was a convenient place to do some real-world experiments in how explosions affect the Earth and what we can do to monitor and predict volcanic eruptions. Maggie

Are red flowers all red for the same reason?

Science Buddies has an interesting, springtime-themed experiment in the chemistry of color that you can do at home, using plants you've gathered from your yard or a park. It looks like a great activity for curious folks of all ages. Maggie

A spaceship that tastes like Grape-Nuts

This morning, Marketplace Tech Report had a story on a new cellulose-based building material that could be made by genetically engineered bacteria — altered versions of the bacteria that naturally make stuff like kombucha. This tech sounds like it's got a long way to go from laboratory to the real world, but if they can perfect the process and make it large enough quantities, what you'd end up with a strong, inexpensive goop that could be used to build everything from medical dressings, to digital paper, to spaceships. Yes, you could theoretically use this stuff to make rocket casings, according to R. Malcolm Brown, Jr., a professor of cell biology at UT Austin. And if you can build a rocket from this stuff, you could also break the same material back down into an edible, high-fiber foodstuff. Maggie

What happens when you wring out a washcloth in space?

For hand towels, astronauts get those little vacuum-packed pucks that you kind of have to unravel into a towel. But what happens when you actually put the towels to use?

Two Nova Scotia high school students, Kendra Lemke and Meredith Faulkner, submitted this experiment to Canadian Space Agency and got to see astronaut Chris Hadfield actually test it out on the ISS. The results are seriously extraordinary and you need to see them.

Thanks, Dean!

Cats and optical illusions: Now with control experiments!

Last week, I posted about a YouTuber who thinks his he might have tricked his cat with an optical illusion that's based on very human psychology. He asked other people to test the illusion on their cats, just to get some more data points. Now, the psychologists who created the illusion have pitched in to help out, posting a modified version that doesn't elicit the sensation of motion. Show your cat both versions and see whether it's the paper she's trying to kill, or the "rotating" circles. (Thanks to Diana Issidorides!) Maggie

Medieval Europeans knew more about the body than we think

Medieval Europe is generally known for its animosity toward actually testing things out, favoring tradition over experimentation and earning a reputation as being soundly anti-science. In particular, it's easy to get the impression that nobody was doing human dissections at all, prior to the Renaissance. But it turns out that isn't true. In fact, some dissections were even prompted (not just condoned) by the Catholic Church. The knowledge medieval dissectors learned from their experiments didn't get widely disseminated at the time, but their work offers some interesting insight into the development of science. The quest for knowledge in Europe didn't just appear out of nowhere in the 1400s and 1500s. Maggie

Pizza and beer on Mars

Living on Mars time is making Katie Worth fat. The journalist is attempting to live, on Earth, as if she's operating in a Martian time zone and blogging about the experience for Scientific American. On the 15th day of her experiment, she writes about how Mars time has changed her eating habits ... and made her drinking habits a whole lot sketchier-sounding. Maggie

Why put magnetic paint on ants?

It seems like a weird past-time, magnetizing ants, but it has some practical purposes. At his blog, media engineer Andrew Quitmeyer explains how he mixed magnetic powder into insect-safe enamel paint, and what he was able to do with it.

The big benefit to something like this is that it could allow scientists to easily alter the populations of social insect groups. Each colony of ants functions, in many ways, like a single organism. So what happens to that hive mind if you remove all the ants doing one particular type of task? Instead of painstakingly picking out each worker with a pair of tweezers every time you want to try this, you could create a colony in which all the workers have had magnetic paint daubed onto their abdomens. Then, you could quickly and easily collect some of them, or all of them, using a magnet. Hunting ants with a tweezer once > hunting ants with a tweezer over and over and over.

Another, possibly less legitimate, use of the paint is demonstrated by Quitmeyer in this video. (Quitmeyer, for the record, is not a social insects researcher.) Using single painted ants in a population of unpainted ants, he plays around with the way colonies remove unhealthy members of their own community. When a magnetized ant starts flopping around erratically in response to a nearby magnet, nearby ants quickly react.

As Quitmeyer says in the video, this demonstration quickly passes from science into mad science (or, at least, YouTube science).

Thanks to Leah Shaffer!

You can be a loser at the game of social ostracism

Now you can play Cyberball — a computer game that psychology researchers use to study the effects of social ostracism and hurt feelings. Normally, the game is played by test subjects who are hooked up to some kind of brain scanning system and who are told that they are playing against other test subjects in other rooms. In reality, they (and now you!) are playing against a computer program that is designed to exclude you and make you feel unwelcome. Why would someone design such a thing? For science! Of course. (Via Rowan Hooper) Maggie

Fun family science project — electric lighting from trash

The Joule Thief is a way of producing enough electricity to run small, but useful, electric lights using cast-off trash like pop-can tabs and "dead" batteries. It's especially handy in the Himalayas, writes inventor and Google Science Fair judge T.H. Culhane. There, electricity is a precious resource. But the components needed to build a Joule Thief are abundant, thanks to climbers and tourists who leave behind all sorts of surprisingly useful litter.

Last week, Culhane joined a G+ hangout sponsored by National Geographic and Girlstart to talk about the value in things we throw away and walk viewers through the construction of their very own Joule Thief. You can watched the video of the event, or read the instructions for building a Joule Thief at Culhane's blog.

The fact that the Joule thief allows one to run a 3V LED from a 1.5 or 1.2 Volt battery would itself be astounding, because it means you only need half the number of batteries to get the same light.

Some of you are thinking "wait, maybe it enables you to use a single 1.5 volt battery to light a 3V LED instead of the usual two, but doesn't it just make that battery last half as long? Great question, but the answer is that the Joule Thief, which works by building up and collapsing a magnetic field around the torus (which acts as an electromagnetic inductor) actually is more efficient than using a battery directly because it PULSES the energy to the LED. You see the lightbulb shining brightly, but in fact it is turning on and off very rapidly as the magnetic field of the inductor builds up and discharges again and again. That means that though the light appears to be on all the time it is actually turning on and off and saving energy because it isn't on all the time.

It turns out that the Joule Thief enables the battery to keep supplying electrons to the light long after the battery is normally considered DEAD. So the battery actually lasts much much longer than a normal battery. I've observed "dead" batteries working down to about 0.5 Volts. Normally a 1.5 V battery is considered dead when it reaches 1.0 volts. But the Joule Thief can "steal" the remaining energy much below that. And that got me thinking -- could I use other sources of between 0.5 and 1.0 Volts to run a 3V LED?

T.H. Culhane's post on The Joule Thief (includes instructions for making a Joule Thief with batteries and alternative electricity sources)

Watch the video at National Geographic Newswatch