An Air-powered Balloon Car


First, we did the classic egg drop project. Then we created our own private phone line. And now for our most recent elementary school project: an air-powered balloon car.

The rules were as follows:

  • The car had to be 100% air-powered.
  • It could compete in the categories of speed, distance, or just aesthetics. (We went for distance.)
  • The vehicle had to use wheels, and the wheels had to be made out of objects that were not intended to be wheels. (My daughter instantly decided we were going to use CDs—a curious and quaint technology to today’s 5th-grader.)

This is how we built it:

  • The body is conical floral foam from a craft store.
  • The axles are wooden skewers from the grocery store.
  • The wheel bearings are six straws shoved through the hole in the CD—five around the parameter, and one through the center.
  • Plastic twist ties ensure the wheels don’t come off.
  • Thrust is provided by a balloon attached to a straw, then threaded through a hole I drilled in the body.

So how did it do? Unfortunately, we didn’t win. The car performs really well on the right surface (once it gets going, it coasts a very long way), but if the surface isn’t right, or if you don’t have enough room (it has a tendency to curve), performance suffers. Here are a few lessons we learned that you might want to take into consideration if building your own air-powered car:

  • I found it really difficult to get the axles straight. The foam wanted to guide the skewers off-center as I pushed them through, and any misalignment costs you dearly both in friction and in the car’s ability to hold a straight line.
  • If I were starting over, I’d try to find plastic axles rather than wooden. Cheap wooden skewers splinter easily and generate much more friction than a smooth plastic surface would.
  • The CDs were really difficult to work with. My daughter was insistent that we use CDs as wheels (actually, these are DVD-Rs), but they tend to dig into soft surfaces and slip on hard surfaces that are too smooth. You might consider wheels that are a little broader so that they have larger contact patches. (The wheels are the one place you want a little friction.)
  • If you really want to win, find the most minimalistic body you possibly can (toilet paper tube, for instance), some extremely light and basic wheels (foam balls, perhaps, since they’re grippy and should provide excellent contact on any surface), and just tape the biggest balloon to it that you possibly can. If it only has to last a single race (plus a few trials), building something elegant and robust will cost you dearly in weight. Keep is simple, minimal, and most important of all, lightweight.

But if you want to build something that I think strikes a good balance between robustness, elegance, and performance—something that teaches the basic principles of Newtonian physics—this guide is a good place to start.

The Ultimate Irony of Climate Change: Before We Created It, It Created Us


The picture above was taken at one of the best exhibits I’ve ever seen in any museum: the Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The chart in the lower right-hand corner shows the correlation between brain size in humans and drastic changes in climate with an emphasis on the period between 800,000 and 200,000 years ago. (A nicer version of this chart is available on the exhibit’s website.)

It makes perfect sense that greater intelligence (as evidenced by larger brains) proved advantageous during times of unpredictable weather since the more humans were able to plan ahead, communicate, and work collaboratively, the more likely they were to survive. In fact, I’ve even read that the cranial capacity of fossilized skulls gets larger the further away from the equator they occurred, suggesting a correlation between larger brains and harsher weather. In other words, in terms of natural selection, everything here appears to be in perfect working order.

But while there are no surprises in the relationship between brain size and climate change, there certainly is plenty of irony. The eventual result of all of that hard-fought intelligence were both the agricultural and industrial revolutions — precisely the technological advances that are most closely associated with modern climate change. Therefore, one could theorize that surviving rapid climate change bestowed upon humanity just enough intelligence to create even more rapid and dangerous climate change. One might even go so far as to say that the human brain is attempting to self-perpetuate continued growth.

I’ve read conflicting predictions of how this latest wave of climate change will ultimately affect brains size. Since equatorial temperatures will continue to expand latitudinally, it’s possible that the human brain could suddenly stop growing; on the other hand, due to all the challenges humanity faces as a result of rapid climate change, the size of our brains could continue to grow — perhaps at an even faster pace. Personally, I’m hoping for a future where we learn to use technology, intelligence, and even a little empathy to finally take control of our own evolutionary paths. Although it’s a little late for me to be genetically engineered, I wouldn’t mind a few multi-core petaflop processors embedded in my brain and at least one robotic arm.

The Miniaturization of Warfare


Growing up in the 80s, we were taught to fear a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. Today, I think it’s fair to say that most people believe cyberwarfare is probably a greater threat than a full-scale nuclear holocaust.

What many people don’t fully grasp about nuclear weapons (in particular, those who object to reducing our stockpiles) is that they constitute a tremendous expense without all that much benefit — primarily due to the fact that governments can’t actually use them. Whereas the U.S. currently deploys conventional weapons on a weekly and sometimes daily basis, it’s very difficult to imagine a scenario where the United States could justify launching a nuclear attack of even the smallest scale.

This concept is critical to the plot of my story The Epoch Index, and is probably best described by the following passage:

After centuries-old rivalries finally escalated into full-scale nuclear conflicts, the United Nations drafted and unanimously voted into effect a resolution unequivocally banning any sized nuclear arsenal anywhere on the planet. The U.S. and other early nuclear adopters were happy to back (and help enforce) the new international law, having long ago anticipated the nuclear backlash and invested heavily in Prompt Global Strike systems: networks of launch vehicles and hypersonic cruise missiles designed to deliver warheads filled with scored tungsten rods twice as strong as steel and capable of ripping any structure anywhere on Earth to shreds in less time than it takes to have a pizza delivered. Thermonuclear hydrogen bombs were old news, as far as most world powers were concerned. The only reason to unleash 50 megatons of destruction is if you have very little faith in the accuracy of your delivery mechanisms. Modern weaponry can target down to the square centimeter, and since it uses real time topographical guidance, it can do so even when your entire GPS satellite network is compromised. Besides, what’s the point of defeating another nation if your great grandchildren can’t even set foot in it, and just about everything worth looting, pillaging, or oppressing is either incinerated or radioactive? Nuclear weapons are clumsy and inelegant. High-tech conventional is the new thermonuclear. Modern militaries say less is more.

In my upcoming novel Kingmaker, drones are a central theme:

It wasn’t special operations teams that concerned him; he was confident he could see a takedown coming in plenty of time, and even if he didn’t, he probably stood as good a chance of walking away from a team of Navy Seals as any one of the Seals themselves. What Alexei feared was death from above. With a well coordinated drone strike, you were simply there one moment, and everywhere but there the next. It didn’t matter how quick you were, or how smart, or how well trained. If you were on the CIA’s radar, they knew how to get you off of it and still be home in time for dinner and to kiss the kids goodnight. All it cost them was barely an hour’s worth of classified paperwork that everyone already knew would never see the inside of either a civilian or military courtroom.

As a deterrent, maintaining a nuclear arsenal equal to (or slightly greater than) those of one’s rivals still makes some strategic sense, however the reality is that weapons which can be relatively inexpensively and surreptitiously deployed are far more menacing than weapons that everyone knows you cannot actually use. In other words, the world has much more to fear from weapons that can — without due process — target buildings, vehicles, and even individuals than indiscriminate warheads that can destroy entire cities.

Just as in the world of technology, we are now witnessing the miniaturization of warfare.

The Soviet’s Obsession with Venus


Since information didn’t exactly flow freely between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, it isn’t widely known that the Soviets took quite an interest in Venus in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. In fact, thirteen Venera probes (Venera is the Russian name for Venus) successful transmitted data from the atmosphere of Venus, and ten probes successfully landed on the planet’s surface. It’s easy to be somewhat dismissive of the Venera missions today until you consider how long ago it was that the Soviets were pulling this kind of thing off, and the fact that the pressure on the Venusian surface is 92 times that of Earth’s. (The longest any of the probes survived was two hours with the earliest spacecrafts being destroyed in only about 23 minutes.)

The Soviets accomplished several firsts with the Venera missions including:

  • The first man-made device to enter the atmosphere of another planet.
  • The first soft landing on another planet.
  • The first probes to return images, radar maps, and even a sound recording from another planet.

The pin in the picture above was created by the Soviet Union in 1961 to commemorate the initial Venera 1 mission. It was an incredibly thoughtful gift from my publisher (47North) after the release of my novel Containment in which Venus plays a key role. (They also gave me a bottle of tequila, but that’s a different story.)

Venera 1 successfully launched on February 12th, and successfully transmitted data back to Earth on three different occasions. However, the fourth telemetry session was a failure, and the probe was essentially lost — probably due to the overheating of a solar-direction sensor.

Below is a picture of Venera 1 which I think has a great retro look to it. One could even be forgiven for mistaking the interplanetary probe for a Soviet robot assassin from an early James Bond film.


Genetic Data Storage Technology From Containment Becomes a Reality


In my novel Containment, I write about a computer scientist (Arik) and a biologist (Cadie) who work together on a project to use human DNA as a general data storage medium. They call the project ODSTAR for Organic Data Storage and Retrieval, and the first big piece of data they store and successfully retrieve is an image of earth known as The Blue Marble (one of the most famous photographs in history taken by the crew of Apollo 17). Their ODSTAR technology eventually gets used to store critical research which they discover can actually get passed down to future generations.

As was the case with artificial photosynthesis and the proposal to use light pollution from distant worlds to detect the existence of extraterrestrials, technology proposed in Containment has again become a reality. Researchers at Harvard University encoded a 53,426-word book into DNA and then decoded it again with an error rate of only ten bits total.

If you have a subscription to the journal Science, you can read the paper here. Otherwise, you can find more details on Mashable. And, of course, you can find Containment on Amazon.

Inspired by the Past

Not long ago, I took my two daughters out of school for the day and the three of us went on a field trip to Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum. I made a deal with them: they could miss school for the entire day if they promised to listen to everything I told them, read everything I asked them to read, and answer questions at the end of the day. I wasn’t taking them out of school to ride simulators and eat freeze-dried ice cream; we were going in search of inspiration.

The idea was prompted by the arrival of Discovery (which I also took them out of school to watch). I was about the age of my youngest daughter when the Space Shuttle Columbia first launched on April 12, 1981, and now, thirty-one years later, we were witnessing the (hopefully temporary) end of manned space flight in the United States. It suddenly occurred to me that without adequate education, children today might never know that:

  • Putting astronauts into low Earth orbit was once considered almost routine (the Space Shuttle fleet flew a total of 135 missions);
  • Forty-three years ago — more than four years before I was even born — man first walked on the moon, accomplishing a feat that doesn’t seem even remotely possible in today’s economic and political climate;
  • As children, we frequently saw the Concorde — a supersonic transport jet capable of traveling at over Mach 2 — fly overhead as it landed or took off from Dulles airport, conveying passengers from New York to Paris in only 3.5 hours — over twice as fast as brand new passenger jets being built today.

While I recognize that there’s a lot of fantastic innovation going on right now, we also appear to be in an era when the best way to inspire future generations is to look to the past.


The retired Space Shuttle Discovery.


The retired Space Shuttle Discovery.


The retired Space Shuttle Discovery.


The nose of the Concorde.


The unmistakable delta-wing configuration of the Concorde.


The SR-71 Blackbird.


Probably the best view in the entire museum. The SR-71 Blackbird in the foreground, and the Space Shuttle Discovery in the background.


The top of the SR-71 Blackbird.


Some of the toys that inspired me as a child.

4th Grade Egg Drop Project

My 4th grade daughter was recently given the customary elementary school egg drop project. I was out of town for the week leading up to the event which meant I couldn’t help her with the design, so we took a separate but collaborative approach. She designed a solution on her own, and when I got back into town (the day before the event), I designed my own solution. The plan was to take the best ideas from each design and combine them into one.

The rules of the challenge were as follows:

  • No parachutes, streamers, or balloons.
  • No bubble wrap or Styrofoam.
  • No food products (other than the egg, of course).
  • Each project had to have an easily accessible door so the teacher could load the egg.
  • The entire project couldn’t be more than 1.5 pounds (including the egg).

My daughter went with an empty peanut butter jar lined with foam squares:


I went with a plastic food container suspended by rubber bands inside of a 6″ x 6″ box:


Both seemed to be sound concepts, so we combined them into one:


It turns out the box we used wasn’t deep enough and the rubber bands weren’t quite secure so the egg broke when dropped off the roof of the school. So the next iteration used a 12″ x 12″ box, popsicle sticks to hold the rubber bands in place (on the outside of the box), and velcro to keep the lid closed:


Both her project and mine were thoroughly tested, and both were a success. We celebrated with a lunch of scrambled eggs:


Space Shuttle Discovery’s Final Flight

Today we watched the Space Shuttle Discovery land at Dulles Airport on the back of a 747 for its final flight. It made two passes overhead, and I was well positioned for both.

Update (4/26/2012): I got a good look at Enterprise at Dulles airport today. It’s all loaded up and ready to leave for its new home in New York.


Update (4/9/2012): I went to visit Discovery in her final resting place this morning. Absolutely magnificent.


Scientists Propose Detecting Extraterrestrials Through Light Pollution (as Described in “Containment”)

alien_light_pollutionAstronomers Avi Loeb and Edwin Turner recently published a paper proposing a technique for detecting extraterrestrials: use telescopes to look for light pollution from alien cities. From the paper’s abstract:

This method opens a new window in the search for extraterrestrial civilizations. The search can be extended beyond the Solar System with next generation telescopes on the ground and in space, which would be capable of detecting phase modulation due to very strong artificial illumination on the night-side of planets as they orbit their parent stars.

I was thinking the same thing when I wrote Containment:

The telescope assembled on the far side of the Moon succeeded in capturing some stunning images, including a few faint pixels of possible light pollution originating from a small rocky planet in the habitable zone of a nearby solar system…

The SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is already using arrays of Earth-based radio telescopes to search for evidence of alien technology (as dramatized in Carl Sagan’s excellent novel, Contact). Since we’re already detecting exoplanets, it seems reasonable that within the foreseeable future, the technology could exist to measure light pollution on extrasolar planets, providing the first hard evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. Perhaps alien civilizations have already detected us.

It’s fascinating to watch technologies dreamed up for the sake of science fiction gradually become reality. For instance, the idea of using the LHC for time travel, and artificial photosynthesis.

The Best Air-filtering Houseplants

peace_lilyI recently came across a list of the best air-filtering houseplants compiled primarily by NASA while researching the use of plants to clean air and provide oxygen on space stations. It inspired me to purchase a peace lily for my home office. From here, I’ll work my way up to the 15 – 18 good-sized house plants that NASA recommends you use to help keep the air in your house clean. I have no idea if they will really make a difference, or even if the air in my house contains the kinds of impurities that these plants excel at removing, but I figure they can’t hurt.