News for Nerds: April 22, 2011

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  • Posted by: Dom Testa|
  • 4/22/2011 |
  • 10:00 am
News for Nerds: April 22, 2011

Coming up in this week's edition of your favorite feature, News for Nerds: a brilliant teenage girl jumps into the deep end, the era of private spaceflight is well underway, and a mind-boggling variety of bonus humpback whale coverage. But first: let's fill 'er up!

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Ugh, gas prices. It's gotten to the point that I have to avert my eyes when I fill up at the pump. I just don't want to know what I'm spending on fuel anymore.

As a fan of all sorts of new technologies, I'm curious about what innovations in the automotive world might lead to more energy-efficient cars. So you can imagine how fascinated I was to learn that a team of Canadian college students won an international competition last week by developing a car that gets 2,565 miles per gallon.

Yes, you read that right: 2,565 miles per gallon. That's quite a bit more than the 22 mpg that the average American driver gets.

All of this took place at the Shell Eco-Marathon Challenge in Houston. It's an annual event sponsored by the well-known oil company, and this year's installment saw teams representing 30 universities and 18 high schools bring a total of 69 vehicles to the Texas metropolis for what some are calling a weekend of 'low speed, high mileage racing.'

The winning team was from Universite Laval in Quebec City, and they're no strangers to this event. They've now won it three years in a row, this time surpassing last year's mark by a full 77 mpg. So how do they do it? Primarily through creative approaches to design -- which, let's face it, also means trading off some of the comfort of your typical family sedan -- and by incorporating lightweight materials and aerodynamic design.

Shell has been sponsoring this competition publicly since 1985, and it now takes place on three continents. In fact, the European record for fuel efficiency is even higher: at last year's European event, a French team reached 6,973 miles per gallon!

To get the full scoop on what this might mean for your future commute, you should read the full story from National Geographic, linked above and also right here.

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And now a story about a very different kind of commute: one that involves whales.

An eight-year research study has concluded that humpback whales are migratory astronomers -- that is, they use a combination of Earth's magnetism, star maps and the position of the sun to guide them on their 10,000+ mile journeys across vast oceans.

Humpback whales spend their summers feeding near polar oceans, and then migrate toward warmer climates when the weather turns cooler. A one-way trip is about 5,000 miles, which is about as far as any animal in the world travels seasonally. In order to better understand these migration patterns, a team at the University of Canterbury embedded satellite tags in 16 whales and tracked their movements from 2003 to 2010.

What they found was that whales somehow manage an alarmingly direct route. Despite strong currents, storms, and other distractions, they never deviate more than 5 degrees from their migratory course. As one researcher says, "Humpback whales are going across some of the most turbulent waters in the world, yet they keep going straight. They're orienting themselves with something outside of themselves, not something internal."

Exactly how they do all of this is hard to pinpoint, but marine scientists are fairly certain that it has to do with a combination of the forces mentioned above, along with one other possible factor: long-distance songs that can carry for thousands of miles underwater, and which might provide some sort of navigational cues...

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...and speaking of whale songs, here's a bonus whale story for you this week. (How's THAT for good value!)

It appears that humans are not the only species to fall prey to a hit single. According to a study out of the University of Queensland, the songs of humpback whales spread rapidly across Earth's oceans, with popular tunes that begin in one place winding up in another with amazing swiftness -- and almost always from west to east. (Let's not mention that last part to California, okay?)

Whale songs are a bit of a mystery in the first place. Scientists know that they do exist, and that they likely have something to do with mating, but beyond that there's no clear evidence what function they serve. It could be to ward off rival male suitors, or to impress potential female mates.

If it's the latter, then singing a trendy new tune may help a prowling male to stand out from the crowd a bit. Says one researcher, "We think this male quest for song novelty is in the hope of being that little bit different and perhaps more attractive to the opposite sex. This is then countered by the urge to sing the same tune, by the need to conform."

If that turns out to be true, it could blow our current knowledge of humpbacks sky high. You might even say... boom, boom, boom, even higher than the moon. No?

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One of the big science news stories of last year was that NASA's future space programs will be largely reliant on private companies. The hope is that this will increase competition and stimulate newer, better, and more efficient innovations in the world of space exploration.

This past week, we got a more detailed glimpse of who some of those private companies are and what directions they might be headed. NASA has announced that it will dole out grants totaling nearly $270 million to four private firms this year, with the end goal being the development of new spacecraft capable of transporting astronauts to the International Space Station.

Boeing was the big winner, receiving more than $92 million of the allottment. Also on the list: SpaceX, the company founded by the brilliant and controversial Elon Musk ($75 million); Blue Origin, a Washington-based company established by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos ($22 million); and Sierra Nevada Corp., based in nearby Louisville, Colorado, which will receive $80 million.

This is all part of NASA's Commercial Crew Development program (CCDev), which began in 2009 and had already awarded $50 million in grants last year, largely to the same companies. NASA also has outside contracts for different projects with many of these same players, including a $1.6 billion deal with SpaceX that calls for 12 cargo flights to the ISS by 2016.

Okay, NASA. We're watching. Let's say how this thing shakes out, shall we?

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And finally, please allow me to introduce you to one very impressive young lady.

Her name is Jennifer Tilton, and she's a whopping 15 years old. At a time when most girls her age are concerned with picking out which electives to take for their upcoming sophomore year of high school, Jennifer's got some very different choices to make about next semester.

That's because Jennifer is headed off to the Massachussetts Institutue of Technology (MIT) next fall. But not before graduating as valedictorian of her senior class next month.

Jennifer has always been smart, and she's always had a knack for logic -- which made the selection of a prestigious university known for its math and science departments a natural fit. But beyond just being smart, it seems like Ms. Tipton has another key factor going for her: she's an avid learner.

"While my classmates were cursing the hours and hours of labs, I thought it was really interesting," she told ABC News. "I definitely want to stay in school for a long time. I want to get a masters degree or maybe even a Ph.D."

And while the thought of being so far away from her family at such a young age can be overwhelming, Tipton points out that many students her age go away to boarding school for the entirety of their high school careers.

Maybe so, but I'm guessing she's got a lot of huge adjustments coming her way this fall. Here's hoping that she hits the ground running and never looks back. It's hard not to pull for someone with such great ambition, and with such a great attitude to match.

(On a semi-related note, it's worth pointing out that Colorado's Preston Middle School, the first-ever in-school program partner for my non-profit foundation The Big Brain Club, made news this week as well. Preston won the Colorado state Science Olympiad -- in fact, they had three teams among the 31 competitors, and all three placed in the top 12 -- and Preston will now be headed to Madison, Wisconsin, next month to compete at Nationals. Way to go, Pumas!)

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That's it for another week's News for Nerds. Thanks to everyone who's following me on Facebook and Twitter. I love hearing from all of you! I'll be back with more NfN next week, but in the meantime, keep gettin' your nerd on!