SLIDESHOW

Wackiest Stories of 2009

Bots, bombs and weird science: From iPhone app trouble to Colbert toilets and levitating mice, here's out-there at its best

Strangest Stories of the Year

When hard core high tech and humanity mix, you can count on some wacky or just downright cool things happening. What we have here is our list of 25 the wackiest stories from 2009 featuring everything from high tech toilet battles and 1000 mph cars to shape-shifting robots and levitating mice.

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Super Car Aims to Rocket Past 1000 mph

It looks like something NASA would aim at the sky and launch into orbit but no, it's a car. And by the time its builders' blast it across a desert in South Africa next year, they hope to set the land speed record by going well over 1000 mph. Known as the Bloodhound, the car is propelled by three engines a Eurofighter Typhoon jet engine, a hybrid rocket and a third engine that just pumps fuel to the other two. The combination should produce somewhere in excess of 135,000 horsepower, the Bloodhound group states.

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Do You Come Here Often?

Online dating just isn't what it used to be. Case in point: ScientificMatch this year offered a service that uses your DNA to maximize the chances of "finding chemistry -- actual, physical chemistry -- with your matches." The key to the service is the DNA collection kit you get when you join - the main component of which is a sterilized packet of cotton swabs, the company states. I don't know, maybe we can just exchange phone numbers?

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Will Twitter for Work

If you think dating has changed, try getting a new job. According to NetworkWorld's Buzzblog, Best Buy is now hiring based in part on the number of Twitter followers one has. A job posting earlier this year on the retail giant's Web site for a Senior Manager - Emerging Media Marketing position listed two preferred job qualifications: a graduate degree and 250+ followers on Twitter.

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No Poo in My Space Pot

Ah, life in space. No gravity, not much good food and oh, don't use the wrong bathroom. Rules set forth by the U.S. and Russian space agencies forbid astronauts from different countries to share food and strongly discourage bathroom sharing. Use your specific National Toilet is the decree.

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Colbert Loses NASA Toilet

OK, since we're on the subject, one of the wackiest stories of the year was the fight over what became known as the Steven Colbert toilet. After weeks of controversy, NASA said it wouldn't be naming its new space toilet after him, but did say it would identify a treadmill after the Comedy Central comedian. "We don't typically name U.S. space station hardware after living people and this is no exception," said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Space Operations. "However, NASA is naming its new space station treadmill the 'Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill,' or COLBERT."

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The Borg Lives?

Developing an artificial intelligence system that can read, learn, and develop knowledge about all manner of digital material in a quick, cost-effective way sounds like a bit of a pipe dream. But those are some of the lofty items that are now on BBN Technology's plate as the firm this year got $29.7 million from the Air Force to develop a prototype machine reading system that transforms prose into knowledge that can be interpreted by an artificial intelligence application.

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The Father Of All Bombs

Now this is one big bomb. The Pentagon was earlier this year rattling swords in the direction of North Korea and Iran by speeding the development a 20-foot, 30,000-pound bomb known as Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) meant to annihilate underground bunkers and other hardened (re: long range missile) sites.

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Air Force: Future Drones Make Their Own Attack Decisions

In one of the scariest stories of the year: By 2047 the Air Force says unmanned aircraft with blazing artificial intelligence systems could fly over a target and determine whether to unleash lethal weapons -- without human intervention. Such intelligent unmanned aircraft were described in the Air Force's wide-ranging "Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan 2009-2047" report which outlines the service's future use of drones. The report details major new responsibilities for unmanned aircraft from the ability to refuel other aircraft to the capacity to swarm multiple drones on a single target. And of course the capability to attack enemy targets on its own.

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Beer, Bras and Cows; Must be Science

The creation of diamonds from tequila, and the invention of a bra that converts into not one, but two gas masks were among the wacky achievements highlighted this year at the annual Ig Nobel ceremony put on by Harvard University. Also winning key awards: Research that showed cows who have names give more milk than cows that are nameless. Research that examined -- by experiment -- whether it is better to be smashed over the head with a full bottle of beer or with an empty bottle.

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Programmable Bombs

OK, this one sounds a little ambitious. The U.S. Navy this year offered a $10 million, five-year contract for researchers to build bomb technology that would let pilots in particular select a damage radius that a weapon would generate, or possibly even the type of effect the explosive would have on a specific target. In particular the Navy wants to develop and demonstrate technology that will enable a 500-pound class bomb with two or more cockpit selectable output modes (make one little boom and make one huge explosion I guess).

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Lean, Mean and Teeny-Weeny Fighting Machines

Scientists at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) want to fund the development of an unmanned aircraft that weighs less than 10 grams, uses less than 1 watt of power and can hover in place. The agency today said it was looking to develop a nano-scale aircraft dubbed the Tele-operated and Hover In Place (TeleHIP) that can be operated remotely in places where GPS is unavailable. DARPA said such a teeny-weeny aircraft would be used in buildings or other closed or small locations. The idea is that the plane could easily gather intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance in places that are very difficult to get at.

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Killer Asteroids Get Free Pass on NASA's Watch

NASA seems hamstrung on this one. Tasked with watching out for huge chunks of space rocks that could smash into the Earth, it has been denied the money to actually do the job. The problem is that while Congress mandated four years ago that NASA detect and track 90 percent of space rocks known as near earth objects (NEO) 140 kilometer in diameter or larger, it has not authorized any funds to build additional observatories, either in space or on the ground, to help NASA achieve its goals, according to a wide-ranging interim report on the topic released by the National Academy of Sciences this year.

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Airborne Military Laser Performs

The airborne military laser that promises to destroy, damage or disable targets with little to no collateral damage for the first time actually blew something up this year. Boeing and the US Air Force today said that on August 30, a C-130H aircraft armed with Boeing's Advanced Tactical Laser (ATL) blasted a target test vehicle on the ground for the first time. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is also looking to build a system known as the Fiber Laser Pulsed Source program that could end up using lasers in a number of applications from drone communications and targeting to weapons.

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Space Junk

Most folks said it would never happen, while others thought it was inevitable and likely a precursor to more problems in the future. Either way, when an Iridium satellite smacked into an inactive Russian Cosmos-2251 military satellite earlier this year it made an orbital metallic mess and started a more spirited debate about what to do about space junk.

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Texas-Sized Identity Theft

One would think if you were busted on identity theft charges you might not be eligible for another job working with people's personal information. Not in Texas, apparently. From Buzzblog via the Houston Chronicle: A former Texas lottery worker was arrested while training for a new job Tuesday -- his fourth with the state -- and charged with illegally "possessing" personal information on 140 lottery winners and employees. When arrested, the computer analyst was training for yet another job -- at the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation. The Travis County prosecutor said it was "concerning" that the man was still working for the state after being fired by the comptroller. Indeed.

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Colossal Spy Airships Get Real

Military scientists this year got the go-ahead to build a roughly one-third scale model of a stratospheric airship that, if completed in scale, will basically house a floating 15-story radar system capable of detecting and tracking everything from small cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles to soldiers and small vehicles under foliage up to 300 kilometers away. The model is no slouch, either, and will consist of an airship containing an X-band radar system that will be roughly 100 square meters in size (half the size of a roadside billboard) and a UHF-band system that will be approximately 600 square meters in size (roughly equivalent to the size of a soccer field).

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Turkey Poo and Lights Too

As we recently celebrated Thanksgiving, it's worth noting that at least one turkey farm in the Midwest is making more than just fat birds. Sietsema Farm produces more than 1 million turkeys a year. As you might imagine (or not), those birds produce a lot of waste. The farm, however, built a $3 million biomass system that will utilize 1.5 million turkeys to convert 70,000 pounds of turkey "litter" into 12,000 kilowatts of electricity and 206,400 pounds of steam each day for the surrounding community.

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The Shape-Shifting Bot

iRobot recently showed one of the first shape-shifting robots, or chembots as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency calls them. The company last year got a $3.3 million DARPA contract to build soft, flexible, mobile objects that can identify and maneuver through openings smaller than their static structural dimensions; and reconstitute size, shape, and features while delivering meaningful payloads or performing significant tasks.

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Smart Robot That Hunts its Own 'Food'

Meet Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot (EATR). EATR, according to researchers gets its energy by foraging, or "engaging in biologically-inspired, organism-like, energy-harvesting behavior which is the equivalent of eating. It can find, ingest, and extract energy from biomass in the environment as well as use conventional and alternative fuels (such as gasoline, heavy fuel, kerosene, diesel, propane, coal, cooking oil, and solar) when suitable." The purpose of EATR is to develop and demonstrate an autonomous robotic platform able to perform long-range, long-endurance missions without the need for manual or conventional re-fueling -- in other words it needs to "eat."

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VMware Exec to the Woodshed

In this industry you don't see this too often: an apology -- let alone one to Microsoft. We turn to NetworkWorld's Microsoft Subnet blog for this wacky story. In a guest post in the VMTN blog, VMware's Scott Drummonds publicly apologized for anonymously posting a YouTube video that misled viewers on the reliability of Hyper-V. He has 'fessed up that he was the one that posted the video, removed it from YouTube and offered a words of retraction. "I made a bad call," he stated.

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Baby Shaker

Speaking of apologies, a great big one came from Apple this year after its App Store accepted the Baby Shaker" app onto its site in April. That app involved shaking the iPhone to get an on-screen baby to stop crying. Never a good idea. The app was quickly removed and the apps developer, Sikalosoft, also sort of apologized as well.

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Going Up? Way Up

Developing what's known as a space elevator has been going on since 2007 but 2009 saw some serious developments. Space elevators are stationary tethers rotating with the Earth, held up by a weight at its end, and serving as a track on which electric vehicles called "climbers" can travel up and down carrying about 10 tons of payload, according to The Spaceward Foundation, which is working with NASA on this development. It may be years away but the technology being developed is cool.

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Mighty Mouse Redux?

During its research of reducing bone loss in space, NASA scientists this year created a super magnet string enough to levitate lab mice. According to LiveScience.com, the mice got a little disoriented at first but managed to deal with the conundrum in time, NASA said. Let's ask the mice about that.

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Flying Car

It would be hard not to include the flying car in an overview of 2009. Terrafugia in March said it had successfully flown its Transition Roadable Aircraft that can transform itself from car to plane version in less than 30 seconds. According to the company, the Transition cruises up to 450 miles at over 115 mph, can drive at highway speeds on the road, and fits in a standard household garage. The vehicle has front wheel drive on the road and a propeller for flight. Both modes are powered by unleaded gasoline from a regular gas station, the company said.

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Robot Armada

Could an armada of robots one day fly above the mountain tops of Saturn's moon Titan, cross its vast dunes and sail in its liquid lakes? Wolfgang Fink, a physics professor at the California Institute of Technology, thinks so. In a paper posted on NASA's Web site, he says the next round of robotic explorers will be nothing like what we see today. He envisions multiple robots on the ground and in the air, communicating with each other to explore far-away planets. Fink and his team members at Caltech, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the University of Arizona are developing software and have built a robotic test bed that can mimic a field geologist or astronaut, capable of working independently and as part of a larger team. This software will let a robot think on its own, identify problems and possible hazards, determine areas of interest and prioritize targets for a close-up look.

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