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Praise for the blind man who invented cruise control

THE INVENTION: Cruise control's that (wonderful, wonderful) thing that helps you avoid speeding tickets. Yup, everybody loves cruise control. Unlike many of the other ignored inventions, this handy accessory does get some acknowledgement. Unfortunately, that's only when it's either impossible to find on that little stick that turns on the blinkers, or when it's broken.

WHO TO THANK: a blind man. No, seriously! His name's Ralph Teetor, and he spent his whole life inventing things to make cars better. Teetor was blinded in a shop accident at age five, but apparently harbored no resentment for sharp tools. He went on to attend college and became one of the most respected mechanical engineers of his era. Although he was responsible for a lot of vehicular improvements, including automatic transmission, he's best known for making it possible for even lead-foots to stick to one speed. Inspiration struck during World War II, when the government set a 35 mph speed limit to conserve gas and tires—which is great and all, but some people just can't drive 35. Like, for instance, Teetor's lawyer. After a particularly bad trip during which the lawyer's jerky driving made Teetor carsick, the inventor came up with a device that could regulate car speed without the driver touching the gas pedal. A few tweaks and many dubious names (including "controlomatic" and "speedostat") later, cruise control premiered in selected 1958 Chrysler models. It was then an $86 option known as "Auto-Pilot."

BUT THE TRULY AMAZING THING IS THAT:
Teetor's blindness actually improved his ability to invent new things. In the process of learning how to function in a world he couldn't see, he developed an exceptional ability to visualize objects and guide himself via touch. In 1902, he built an automobile that let him tool around town at up to 25 mph. A neat feat by itself, but he was only 12 at the time. Later, he applied his skills to engineering and was able to solve problems sighted engineers couldn't. During World War I, he developed a new technique for balancing steam turbines on torpedo boat destroyers. Other engineers had tried for years to solve the problem, but Teetor's heightened sense of touch gave him the advantage. His expertise was so well known that he later became president of the Society of Automotive Engineers.

--note-- if you liked this entry, it's thanks to Maggie Koerth and her wonderful Inventions Cover story. I believe that issue's sold out, but other back issues of the floss are available at our online store.

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NASA, JPL-Caltech
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Space
It's Official: Uranus Smells Like Farts
NASA, JPL-Caltech
NASA, JPL-Caltech

Poor Uranus: After years of being the butt of many schoolyard jokes, the planet's odor lives up to the unfortunate name. According to a new study by researchers at the University of Oxford and other institutions, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, the upper layer of Uranus's atmosphere consists largely of hydrogen sulfide—the same compound that gives farts their putrid stench.

Scientists have long suspected that the clouds floating over Uranus contained hydrogen sulfide, but the compound's presence wasn't confirmed until recently. Certain gases absorb infrared light from the Sun. By analyzing the infrared light patterns in the images they captured using the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii, astronomers were able to get a clearer picture of Uranus's atmospheric composition.

On top of making farts smelly, hydrogen sulfide is also responsible for giving sewers and rotten eggs their signature stink. But the gas's presence on Uranus has value beyond making scientists giggle: It could unlock secrets about the formation of the solar system. Unlike Uranus (and most likely its fellow ice giant Neptune), the gas giants Saturn and Jupiter show no evidence of hydrogen sulfide in their upper atmospheres. Instead they contain ammonia, the same toxic compound used in some heavy-duty cleaners.

"During our solar system's formation, the balance between nitrogen and sulfur (and hence ammonia and Uranus’s newly detected hydrogen sulfide) was determined by the temperature and location of planet’s formation," research team member Leigh Fletcher, of the University of Leicester, said in a press statement. In other words, the gases in Uranus's atmosphere may be able to tell us where in the solar system the planet formed before it migrated to its current spot.

From far away, Uranus's hydrogen sulfide content marks an exciting discovery, but up close it's a silent but deadly killer. In large enough concentrations, the compound is lethal to humans. But if someone were to walk on Uranus without a spacesuit, that would be the least of their problems: The -300°F temperatures and hydrogen, helium, and methane gases at ground level would be instantly fatal.

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Feeling Anxious? Just a Few Minutes of Meditation Might Help
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iStock

Some say mindfulness meditation can cure anything. It might make you more compassionate. It can fix your procrastination habit. It could ward off germs and improve health. And it may boost your mental health and reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and pain.

New research suggests that for people with anxiety, mindfulness meditation programs could be beneficial after just one session. According to Michigan Technological University physiologist John Durocher, who presented his work during the annual Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, California on April 23, meditation may be able to reduce the toll anxiety takes on the heart in just one session.

As part of the study, Durocher and his colleagues asked 14 adults with mild to moderate anxiety to participate in an hour-long guided meditation session that encouraged them to focus on their breathing and awareness of their thoughts.

The week before the meditation session, the researchers had measured the participants' cardiovascular health (through data like heart rate and the blood pressure in the aorta). They evaluated those same markers immediately after the session ended, and again an hour later. They also asked the participants how anxious they felt afterward.

Other studies have looked at the benefits of mindfulness after extended periods, but this one suggests that the effects are immediate. The participants showed significant reduction in anxiety after the single session, an effect that lasted up to a week afterward. The session also reduced stress on their arteries. Mindfulness meditation "could help to reduce stress on organs like the brain and kidneys and help prevent conditions such as high blood pressure," Durocher said in a press statement, helping protect the heart against the negative effects of chronic anxiety.

But other researchers have had a more cautious outlook on mindfulness research in general, and especially on studies as small as this one. In a 2017 article in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, a group of 15 different experts warned that mindfulness studies aren't always trustworthy. "Misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled, and disappointed," they wrote.

But one of the reasons that mindfulness can be so easy to hype is that it is such a low-investment, low-risk treatment. Much like dentists still recommend flossing even though there are few studies demonstrating its effectiveness against gum disease, it’s easy to tell people to meditate. It might work, but if it doesn't, it probably won't hurt you. (It should be said that in rare cases, some people do report having very negative experiences with meditation.) Even if studies have yet to show that it can definitively cure whatever ails you, sitting down and clearing your head for a few minutes probably won't hurt.

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