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The Disappearing Lake, Gecko Tape and the 5-Second Rule Debunked

Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Missing Lake: Scientists are on the hunt for a five-acre lake in the Andes (or not in the Andes, perhaps?) that's gone missing. The lake was last seen in March, but in May scientists only found a 100-foot crater with sheets of ice that originally used to float on the lake's surface. Some think the water from the lake may have leaked through cracks in the bottom of the lake into underground fissures, but they don't know where the fissures would have come from. My theory: David Copperfield. Just a hunch.

riverglow.jpgA Whole New Red Tide: It was 38 years ago this week that, in one of my city's proudest moments, Cleveland's Cuyahoga River caught fire, providing a startling visual reminder of how polluted the water had become. Now the WaterGlow project is giving us a more aesthetic and safe way to see how polluted our water is. Project creators Soo-in Yang and David Benjamin are installing pods in bodies of water to monitor how polluted the water is. The pods then signal LED lights to shine red if the water is unsafe or green if it checks out. The lights appear to float above the water and allow anyone to see how safe their H2O is. Not to burst their bubble, but I usually run when I see green water. Maybe that's just me, though.

Cow Dung alternative energy, reinventing the (intelligent) wheel, and how to walk on walls all after the jump!

More Fun Alternative Energy Sources: While the rest of the world works on generating energy from such drab sources like the sun and wind, some scientists are creating more innovative ways to power our lives. A few examples:
Cow Dung: Scientists are researching how to purify the methane gas present in cow excrement to turn feces into a feasible energy source. The theory simply proves that BS even has uses beyond writing papers.
Fruit: It turns out fuel made from fructose is actually better than fuel from ethanol.
Your Workout Routine: A gym in Hong Kong is placing generators in some of its machines, harnessing the power created when people worked out to power the fluorescent lights. It's only a little bit like being in a hamster wheel.

Reinventing the wheel: Speaking of wheels, it's not enough that cars can parallel park themselves now, butherbie.jpg a research team at University of Portsmouth in England is working on wheels that learn the routes you take and adapt to them. The microcomputers in each wheel communicate with each other and adapt to road conditions, tightening for familiar turns or adjusting the shocks for bumps in the road. The creators estimate that by 2012, a quarter of cars will be equipped with the technology. By my estimates, that means that by 2025, we can all be driving my dream car: Herbie.

Eat off the floor!: The 5-second rule, that old standby of nutrition, is off by at least five times, according to student researchers at Connecticut College. They tested a variety of foods to see how long it took for bacteria to infiltrate and found that wet foods took 30 seconds to attract bacteria, with dry foods taking even longer. Skittles are apparently a magical repellent, since it took at least five minutes for bacteria to show a bacterial presence. I'm still not sure this justifies me munching on the stray ones I just found under my bed, though.

Fighting Cancer, Fantastic Voyage-style: Chemo may be a thing of the past, as researchers have devised a new system of gold-coated glass nanospheres that can destroy tumors with bursts of heat. The nanospheres work like tiny Death Stars traveling through the blood stream and congregating near tumors. They then emit heat to destroy the tumors, reducing the time and toxicity of cancer treatments.
astaire.jpg

Geckos do more than just hawk car insurance: By imitating the nano- and micro-scale structures on gecko's feet, scientists have created an adhesive that's strong enough to allow robots to walk on walls. The "gecko tape", which could also be used to create gloves for astronauts, is reusable because it doesn't use glues. Instead, the microtubes conform to the molecular gaps on a surface. I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm going to hold off for a bite from a radioactive spider for my wall-climbing abilities.

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The Surprising Reason Why Pen Caps Have Tiny Holes at the Top
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If you’re an avid pen chewer, or even just a diehard fan of writing by hand, you’re probably well acquainted with the small hole that tops off most ballpoint pen caps, particularly those classic Bic Cristal pens. The reason it’s there has nothing to do with pen function, it turns out. As Science Alert recently reported, it’s actually designed to counter human carelessness.

Though it’s arguably unwise—not to mention unhygienic—to chomp or suck on a plastic pen cap all day, plenty of people do it, especially kids. And inevitably, that means some people end up swallowing their pen caps. Companies like Bic know this well—so they make pen caps that won’t impede breathing if they’re accidentally swallowed.

This isn’t only a Bic requirement, though the company’s Cristal pens do have particularly obvious holes. The International Organization for Standardization, a federation that sets industrial standards for 161 countries, requires it. ISO 11540 specifies that if pens must have caps, they should be designed to reduce the risk of asphyxiation if they’re swallowed.

It applies to writing instruments “which in normal or foreseeable circumstances are likely to be used by children up to the age of 14 years.” Fancy fountain pens and other writing instruments that are clearly designed for adult use don’t need to have holes in them, nor do caps that are large enough that you can’t swallow them. Any pen that could conceivably make its way into the hands of a child needs to have an air hole in the cap that provides a minimum flow of 8 liters (about 2 gallons) of air per minute, according to the standard [PDF].

Pen cap inhalation is a real danger, albeit a rare one, especially for primary school kids. A 2012 study [PDF] reported that pen caps account for somewhere between 3 and 8 percent of “foreign body aspiration,” the official term for inhaling something you’re not supposed to. Another study found that of 1280 kids (ages 6 to 14) treated between 1997 and 2007 for foreign body inhalation in Beijing, 34 had inhaled pen caps.

But the standards help keep kids alive. In that Beijing study, none of the 34 kids died, and the caps were successfully removed by doctors. That wasn’t always the case. In the UK, nine children asphyxiated due to swallowing pen caps between 1970 and 1984. After the UK adopted the international standard for air holes in pen caps, the number of deaths dropped precipitously [PDF]. Unfortunately, it’s not foolproof; in 2007, a 13-year-old in the UK died after accidentally swallowing his pen cap.

Even if you can still breathe through that little air hole, getting a smooth plastic pen cap out of your throat is no easy task for doctors. The graspers they normally use to take foreign bodies out of airways don’t always work, as that 2012 case report found, and hospitals sometimes have to employ different tools to get the stubbornly slippery caps out (in that study, they used a catheter that could work through the hole in the cap, then inflated a small balloon at the end of the catheter to pull the cap out). The procedure doesn’t exactly sound pleasant. So maybe resist the urge to put your pen cap in your mouth.

[h/t Science Alert]

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Big Questions
What Causes Sinkholes?
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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