MySci Round-Up, August 23: The Flight of the Gossamer Condor

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On August 23, 1977, a 24-year-old bicycle racer named Bryan Allen climbed onto the pilot’s seat of the Gossamer Condor, one of the oddest-looking flying contraptions ever created. It had a wingspan of 96 feet but weighed just 70 pounds, since it basically was just an aluminum frame with a thin skin of Mylar stretched across it. It had no engine. Instead, the pilot had to power its rear propeller himself by peddling, recumbent bicycle style, at a furious pace. Humans had dreamed of using their own muscles
to fly since ancient times, as evidenced by the Greek legend of Icarus, who flew by flapping wings built by his father, the master craftsman Daedalus. Unfortunately, Icarus got too close to the Sun, causing the wax in his wings to melt, and plunged to his death.

The Gossamer Condor, which stayed closer to the ground, didn’t entail any such risks. It wasn’t actually the first muscle-powered aircraft to take off and land under its own power—famous glider pilot Derek Piggott had managed to stay aloft for 710 yards in 
Southhampton University’s Man-Powered Aircraft (SUMPAC) in 1961—but it was the first to be able to maneuver in the air deftly enough to fly a figure-eight course.

The Gossamer Condor was designed by aeronautical engineer 
Paul MacCready, who was looking for a way to pay off a $100,000 debt from the failure of a sailboat building company that he had started. MacCready remembered that a British industrialist, Henry Kremer, was offering a $300,000 prize to anyone who could build a muscle-powered airplane capable of navigating a figure-eight, 1.15 mile course with 10-foot-high hurdles at each end. MacCready studied hawks and vultures, and calculated the amount of lift that they needed to stay aloft. He concluded that if he created an an extremely light aircraft with super-large wings, a well-conditioned cyclist could keep it aloft for extended periods by generating just two-fifths of a horsepower. Conventional turning apparatus such as ailerons or a vertical rudder would have added too much weight, so he designed the Gossamer Condor to use wing warping, a turning technique first employed by the Wright Brothers, in which the aircraft’s entire wings gently twisted, like a bird’s.

According to 
an account in the next day’s Modesto Bee, the Gossamer Condor’s historic flight lasted six minutes and 23 seconds. Despite rough winds, the aircraft managed to achieve a top altitude of 14 feet, and an air speed of 10 miles per hour. Afterward, an exhausted Allen gulped a victory toast from a bottle of champagne that a colleague had been carrying around for months, in anticipation of the feat. And with that, here are the unusual science stories of the day.

Scientists develop nanotechnology “cluster bomb” to attack cancer. 
This is going to be huge. 
Dr. Dan Peer and Professor Ramona Margolit of Tel Aviv University have developed a nano-sized vehicle that can deliver chemotherapy drugs directly into cancer cells while avoiding interaction with healthy cells.

Do we need an even weirder theory than quantum physics to explain reality? 
Physicists say the lack of mathematical underpinnings for the theory makes its often bizarre predictions difficult to accept. They’re trying to come up with a better, more airtight explanation for the nature of existence, but it may be even more mind-boggling.

Global plant growth on decline because of lengthy drought. 
This is bad news for anybody who hoped that an increase would help to counteract human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases, and it has longterm implications in terms of food security, too.

Jailbreakers watch out—Apple files patent for technology for remotely identifying you and turning off unauthorized users’ iPhones. 
If you’re thinking of hacking an iPhone to run apps not authorized by Apple, or so that it’ll work on another carrier besides AT&T, think again. “A photograph of the current user can be taken, a recording of the current user’s voice can be recorded, the heartbeat of the current user can be recorded, or any combination of the above,” the patent application states.

New method of stem-cell processing promises to speed up research into cures. 
If you’ve got someone in your family with a spinal-cord injury or a wasting neurological disease, this is very good news.

Giant algae blooms in ocean can be seen from space. 
The photos are way cool.