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Observations

Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from guest experts and from the editors of Scientific American

Flexagon but Not Forgotten: Celebrating Martin Gardner's Birthday

October 21 is the anniversary of Martin Gardner's birth. Gardner (1914-2010) is a legend in recreational (and professional) mathematics circles. Although he had little mathematical training, his 1956-1981 Scientific American column "Mathematical Games" has had a huge impact on the way people view math...

October 19, 2012 — Evelyn Lamb

Votes by Mail Are Less Likely to Be Counted

The biggest challenge to voting accuracy in the U.S. isn't hanging chads or hacked voting machines—it's the mail. A new report by the Voting Technology Project (VTP)—a joint venture between the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—finds that even though absentee ballots account for about only a quarter of all ballots cast during an election, the number of uncounted absentee and election-day ballots may be roughly the same.The researchers estimate that up to 3.9 million absentee ballots were requested but not received by voters in the 2008 presidential election...

October 19, 2012 — Larry Greenemeier

What Are the Warning Signs of Tipping Points?

Predictions of tipping points in ecology, climate change, medical outcomes and other complex systems are a primary goal for many researchers. The pursuit of insights into the timing of critical transitions is no easy way to make a living, particularly because random events can trigger such changes and warning signs are easily missed or misinterpreted.Perhaps the best approach to studying tipping points is to combine two different approaches—one that explores the architecture of systems that change drastically and another that homes in on telltale signs that a system is on the brink...

October 18, 2012 — Larry Greenemeier

Can a Burst of UV Bust Hospital-Borne Infections?

About 1.7 million Americans each year acquire new infections during hospital stays—and hospital-acquired infections are one of the top five causes of death overall, killing 44,000 to 98,000 people in the U.S...

October 18, 2012 — Katherine Harmon

Ancient Armored Fish Had First Bad Bite

The ancient ocean was a frightening place. But the emergence of the armored placoderm fish would have made it even more terrifying. These fish were no great whites—some weren't much bigger than a goldfish...

October 17, 2012 — Katherine Harmon

Space Out: NASA Faces More Budget Cuts in 2013

No matter who is elected president of the United States on November 6, there are bound to be new cuts to next year's federal budget. The question is whether they will be really really big or just sort of big...

October 12, 2012 — Christine Gorman

NASA Plans to Commercialize a Nasal Spray for Motion Sickness

A new product designed to fight motion sickness promises to put the “NASA” back in “nasal spray.”The space agency announced October 12 that it had signed an agreement with a pharmaceutical company to develop, test and bring to market a nasal gel designed to ward off queasiness from spaceflight, as well as from more mundane travel.The active ingredient, scopolamine, is about as effective as antihistamines (such as dimenhydrinate, used in Dramamine) in preventing motion sickness, but carries less risk of common side effects such as drowsiness, according to a recent Cochrane Review...

October 12, 2012 — John Matson

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