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Science + Technology

For the Druids, mistletoe was sacred. For us, it's a cute ornament and maybe an excuse to steal a kiss. And of course it's a Christmas tradition.

But for a forest, mistletoe might be much more important. It's a parasite, shows up on tree branches and looks like an out-of-place evergreen bush hanging in the air.

Opinion polls show 2012's extreme weather — producing wildfires, floods and drought — has more people making a connection with climate change. For Marti Andrews in southern New Jersey, a turning point was the summer's hurricane-like derecho.

"I don't want to say I freaked out about it, but holy crap, it scared me," she says. It packed winds up to 90 miles per hour and nonstop lightning, which Andrews says looked like some wild disco display in the sky.

"I've never seen anything like that," she says. "I sat there on the couch thinking, 'Oh my God, we're all gonna die!' "

An (Amazing) Interactive Tour Of Everest

Dec 26, 2012

Wow. Photographer David Breashears and his team at GlacierWorks are working on an interactive tour of Mount Everest. Basically, you start with a wide view, then click any of the hot spots — or little green boxes — and off you go.

That's all I'll say. Just go look at it and you'll see what I mean.

When a collective of female computer programmers in Kenya needed a name for their ladies-only club, they took their inspiration from the Japanese cult film Akira.

"So akira is a Japanese word. It means energy and intelligence. And we are energetic and intelligent chicks," says Judith Owigar, the president of Akirachix.

Sorry, Google. Sorry, NORAD.

Your online "Santa trackers" are cool.

But that jolly old elf has you both fooled.

Natural gas may have reshaped the domestic energy market in 2012, lowering energy prices and marginalizing the coal industry, but America's shale boom hasn't undermined renewables.

In fact, while analysts were paying attention to fracking this year, a record number of solar panels were being slapped on roofs — enough to produce 3.2 gigawatts of electricity.

Countless kids have grown up with the Girl Scouts, the Boy Scouts or Campfire Girls, but for some families, the uniforms and outdoor focus of traditional Scouting groups don't appeal.

In recent months, Scoutlike groups that concentrate on technology and do-it-yourself projects have been sprouting up around the country. They're coed and, like traditional Scouting organizations, award patches to kids who master skills.

An entrepreneur says he's got a plan to curb urban blight in parts of Detroit. He's buying up acre after acre of abandoned lots and planting thousands of trees. But where backers of the plan see a visionary proposal, critics see a land grab.

Entrepreneur and Detroiter John Hantz, owner of Hantz Farms and the tree-planting effort called Hantz Woodlands, wants to plant at least 15,000 trees on about 140 acres. Hantz promises to clear out all the trash and keep the grass cut, things the city cannot afford to do now.

If you're a student at the halfway point of the academic year, and you've just taken stock of your performance, perhaps you have reason to feel proud of yourself.

But a recent study suggests some of the pride you feel at having done well — especially in science — may be unfounded. Or at least your sense of your performance may not be a very accurate picture of how good you actually are.

We start with a pool of oil. We turn on a magnet. The oil travels up a superstructure and blossoms into a tree. Turn off the magnet, the branches, the needles, the tree melt away. It's a puddle again.

The perfect tree for an oil billionaire, no?

It was three, maybe four o'clock in the morning when he first saw them. Grad student Jeff Bowman was on the deck of a ship; he and a University of Washington biology team were on their way back from the North Pole. It was cold outside, the temperature had just dropped, and as the dawn broke, he could see a few, then more, then even more of these little flowery things, growing on the frozen sea.

According to countless prophecies, terrorizing people across the world, this will be my last contribution to 13.7. On Friday, December 21, the world will come to an end. I have been receiving dozens of concerned email messages from otherwise reasonable people, convinced that this time it is for real, that there is no escape.

More than 100 chimps retired from medical research are about to get a new home.

Most of the primates who have been living at the New Iberia Research Center will soon make their permanent residence at the Chimp Haven sanctuary, the National Institutes of Health said Wednesday.

At about 5:30 p.m. on Monday, two washing machine-sized space probes crashed into the surface of the moon. It was all by design and marked the end of NASA's GRAIL mission. The two probes had been orbiting the moon for almost a year, and they've sent back data that have given scientists an unprecedented look inside our nearest solar system neighbor.

Before the advent of refrigeration, Russians had a neat trick for keeping their milk from spoiling. They'd drop a live frog in the milk bucket.

The Russians weren't sure how this amphibian dairy treatment worked, but they were convinced it did.

Since then, researchers have discovered that the goo some frogs secrete through their skin has antibacterial and antifungal properties.

Childhood dreams of being an astronaut are easy. Actually blasting off is a little harder.

But now people who have longed to go into space can buy a ticket, if they've got the cash. Are they healthy enough to make the voyage, though?

That's becoming a pressing question as the options for leaving Earth multiply.

What do Jesuit priests, gin and tonics, and ancient Chinese scrolls have in common? They all show up in our animated history of malaria.

It's a story of geopolitical struggles, traditional medicine, and above all, a war of escalation between scientists and a tiny parasite. Malaria has proved to be a wily foe: Every time we think we have it backed into a corner, it somehow escapes.

Fifty years ago, on Dec. 14, 1962, reporters gathered for a press briefing at NASA headquarters and heard an unearthly sound: radio signals being beamed back by a spacecraft flying within 22,000 miles of Venus.

The Mariner 2 mission to Venus was the first time any spacecraft had ever gone to another planet.

These days, vivid photographs showing scenes from all around the solar system are so ubiquitous that people might easily forget how mysterious our planetary neighbors used to be.

There are more species of insects than pretty much anything else in the world. And scientists know there are millions they haven't even identified yet. Now, in a tropical rainforest in Panama, a multinational team of scientists has just completed the first ever insect census.

Scott Miller, an entomologist at the Smithsonian who worked on the Panama, shows off one of the species from the survey that's at the National Museum of Natural History's insect zoo in Washington, D.C.

Sputnik 1 just beeped. China's first satellite, launched more than a decade later, simply radioed a communist anthem back to Earth. So far, North Korea's first satellite appears to be less accomplished.

And that shouldn't be a surprise.

Given the history of first orbital space shots, North Korea's apparent struggle with its mission is fairly typical, says David Akin, an associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland.

Want to be more creative? Drop that iPad and head to the great outdoors.

That's the word from David Strayer, a cognitive neuroscientist who studies multitasking at the University of Utah. He knew that every time he went into the southern Utah desert, far from cellular service, he started to think more clearly.

But he wanted to know if others had the same experience.

Cartoonists have found many clever ways to depict the conventional wisdom that complex life evolved in the sea and then crawled up onto land. But a provocative new study suggests that the procession might be drawn in the wrong direction. The earliest large life forms may have appeared on land long before the oceans filled with creatures that swam and crawled and burrowed in the mud.

It may have something to do with all those Brontosaurus burgers everyone's favorite modern stone-age family ate, but when you think of a giant dinosaur with a tiny head and long, swooping tail, the Brontosaurus is probably what you're seeing in your mind.

Well hold on: Scientifically speaking, there's no such thing as a Brontosaurus.

Even if you knew that, you may not know how the fictional dinosaur came to star in the prehistoric landscape of popular imagination for so long.

The Next Workplace? Behind The Wheel

Dec 3, 2012

Brad Hines is a building contractor in Los Angeles who spends a good eight hours a day in his 2008 Dodge Ram. He talked to us from his truck — hands-free, of course.

"I do everything in my truck. I drive from job site to job site. I take calls. I try to get on the computer and clean up daily reports. I answer emails on my phone. I use my truck as a mobile office," Hines says.

The idea of the mobile office is far from new — Willy Loman; the Avon Lady; plumbers; electricians. Now, technology is taking the idea of working from the road to a whole new level.

On Dec. 21, 2012, some fear that a rogue planet will collide with Earth and destroy the planet, or that the supposed end of the Mayan calendar will lead to the obliteration of the universe.

When people have questions about these scenarios, they often turn to the Internet.

NASA astrobiologist David Morrison has taken it upon himself to enter that online conversation and answer hundreds of questions about the science of existential threats.

Have you ever wondered whether music conductors actually influence their orchestras?

They seem important. After all, they're standing in the middle of the stage and waving their hands. But the musicians all have scores before them that tell them what to play. If you took the conductor away, could the orchestra manage on its own?

What Is The Smell Of White?

Nov 26, 2012

As the delicious smells of Thanksgiving in my house slowly fade from the air, I'm intrigued by a new discovery: Researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel say they have created the scent of white.

A biologist who has been watching a dozen bottles of bacteria evolve for nearly a quarter of a century is hoping he can find someone to keep his lab experiment going long after he dies.

Meanwhile, just by coincidence, a botanist who works across campus is carefully tending an experiment that started before he was born, all the way back in 1879.

These two researchers, both at Michigan State University in East Lansing, represent different sides of an unusual phenomenon in science: experiments that outlive the people who started them.

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