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The (New) New Einsteins: Marin Soljačić

In the current issue of mental_floss magazine, Erik Vance profiled nine "New Einsteins"—visionaries who are discovering how to grow organs, peer into black holes, levitate food, cure plagues, and let blind men see. This week, Mr. Vance will be anointing five additional New Einsteins here on mentalfloss.com, one per day. Let's begin.

Who He Is: Marin Soljačić, assistant professor of physics at MIT

What He Did: Soljačić invented "WiTricity," the first steps toward wireless electricity. That is, moving electricity without cables. It all started when Soljačić awoke in the middle of the night for the umpteenth time to his chirping cell phone, reminding him to plug it in. It occurred to him that in this day and age, cell phones should be able to plug themselves in and save him the hassle.

There are two primary ways to transmit energy without wires. The first, electromagnetic radiation, is given off by charged particles. It's hugely wasteful when diffuse and potentially dangerous when concentrated (like in a laser). The second is electromagnetic resonance. This is a magnetic version of what happens when an opera singer blasts the right note and shatters a glass partially filled with water (similarly called acoustic resonance). The idea is if you can get a coil to magnetically resonate in the right way, another specially formatted coil across the room will pick that up, with no interference from whatever is in between. Using this technique in 2007, they were able to power a 60-watt light bulb from 7 feet away.

Why You Should Start Idolizing Him Immediately:

The short answer is, because Nikola Tesla is dead. Tesla was the guy who came up with AC power and was constantly bickering with Thomas Edison a century ago. He was the first to propose the idea that electricity could be transmitted without the use of wires. In fact, he even conducted several well-publicized experiments where he supposedly transmitted 100 million volts of power 26 miles using the resonance of the Earth. Sadly, he was less proficient as a manager/businessman and his secrets for wireless energy were either discredited or died with him.

So idolize Soljačić instead. If it works, wireless energy transfer would change everything. Imagine walking into your house after a hard day, watching a little wireless TV, turning off your wireless lights, and waking up the next day with you phone, laptop, and iPod fully charged. That's the first generation of wireless power. Now imagine using your laptop in a conference center or hotel without a battery. Then imagine powering the whole world without a single wire.

Although his work has just produced the first step toward the first step, the idea has quickly been broadly picked up and investigated by industry, using a swath of different platforms. Of course, with any wireless power technology comes health concerns. But most technology watchers agree that at some point, in some form, your Roomba will no longer need batteries.

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Animals
Why Tiny 'Hedgehog Highways' Are Popping Up Around London
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Hedgehogs as pets have gained popularity in recent years, but in many parts of the world, they're still wild animals. That includes London, where close to a million of the creatures roam streets, parks, and gardens, seeking out wood and vegetation to take refuge in. Now, Atlas Obscura reports that animal activists are transforming the city into a more hospitable environment for hedgehogs.

Barnes Hedgehogs, a group founded by Michel Birkenwald in the London neighborhood of Barnes four years ago, is responsible for drilling tiny "hedgehog highways" through walls around London. The passages are just wide enough for the animals to climb through, making it easier for them to travel from one green space to the next.

London's wild hedgehog population has seen a sharp decline in recent decades. Though it's hard to pin down accurate numbers for the elusive animals, surveys have shown that the British population has dwindled by tens of millions since the 1950s. This is due to factors like human development and habitat destruction by farmers who aren't fond of the unattractive shrubs, hedges, and dead wood that hedgehogs use as their homes.

When such environments are left to grow, they can still be hard for hedgehogs to access. Carving hedgehog highways through the stone partitions and wooden fences bordering parks and gardens is one way Barnes Hedgehogs is making life in the big city a little easier for its most prickly residents.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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Big Questions
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?
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Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


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Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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