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Metal has no DNA; machines have no genes. But that doesn't mean they don't have pedigrees — ancestral lines every bit as elaborate as our own. That's surely the case with the Ares 1 rocket. The best and smartest and coolest thing built in 2009 — a machine that can launch human beings to cosmic destinations we'd never considered before — is the fruit of a very old family tree, one with branches grand, historic and even wicked.
With the flick of a switch, Philips Electronics may have just dramatically lowered America's electric bill. In September the Dutch electronics giant became the first to enter the U.S. Department of Energy's L Prize competition, which seeks an LED alternative to the common 60-watt bulb. Sixty-watt lights account for 50% of the domestic incandescent market; if they were replaced by LED bulbs, the U.S. could save enough electricity per year to light 17.4 million households. If Philips wins the L Prize, it will claim a cash award and federal purchasing agreements worth about $10 million.
Inching our reality ever closer to Star Trek's, scientists at the University of Maryland's Joint Quantum Institute successfully teleported data from one atom to another in a container a meter away. A landmark in the brain-bending field known as quantum information processing, the experiment doesn't quite have the cool factor of body transportation; one atom merely transforms the other so it acts just like the original. Still, atom-to-atom teleportation has major implications for creating super-secure, ultra-fast computers.
Arena, an Italian waterwear brand, has created the unthinkable: a high-tech swimsuit that outraced Michael Phelps — and it doesn't even have some kind of motor. At the world championships in Rome this summer, German Paul Biedermann, wearing Arena's Powerskin X-Glide racing suit, handed Phelps his first major individual international defeat in four years, in the 200-m freestyle.
The light, polymeric surface of Arena's full-body supersuit traps air to boost a swimmer's buoyancy, reducing drag in the water. Biedermann admitted the suit gave him an advantage, and Phelps' coach threatened to pull the phenom from future meets if it wasn't banned. Starting Jan. 1, the X-Glide and other swimsuits made from plastic derivatives are no longer permitted in international competition.
Man has yet to master nature, but now he can make it turn left. Armed with funding from the Pentagon's research wing, an engineering team at the University of California, Berkeley, has devised a method of remotely controlling the flight of beetles. By attaching radio antennas and embedding electrodes in the insects' optic lobes, flight muscles and brains, professors Michel Maharbiz and Hirotaka Sato can manipulate their subjects into taking off, hovering in midair and turning on command. The trick? Wirelessly delivering jolts to a microbattery fastened to a circuit board atop the hapless insects, whose agility and capacity to tote valuable payloads could make the tiny creatures the ultimate fly on the wall.