Strange New World: Picks of the Week

This week it's dead easy to see what takes the cake for strangeness here in the Strange New World: space travel.

Google is offering a big, fat prize to get private enterprise back on the moon, and teams are lining up to compete for the Lunar X Prize. Also this week, the Academy Awards may have been a dud, but books about the technology of movie making are anything but. And Apple put its laptop line on steroids. Going portable has never been more powerful.

Here are our picks for the top tech stories of the week:

Forget Web 2.0, Now It's Moon Landing 2.0: Sponsored by Google

The Chinese are funding an Apollo-style mission to the moon, and we have been curious to see how the rest of the world would respond. Would the United States park a shuttle up there? Would Russia claim that land rights from the North Pole extend to the moon?

Well, the wait is over.

Last week, the X Prize Foundation announced the first 10 teams entered in the Google Lunar X Prize competition. Unveiled in September 2007, the contest requires entrants to land a privately funded robotic spacecraft on the moon, explore the terrain for at least 500 meters and transmit results of the trip back to Earth. The grand prize is $30 million. So who are the early favorites? A very unlikely bunch indeed.

Odyssey Moon: The first team to register for the prize is located on Britain's Isle of Man. Odyssey Moon's team leader, Robert Richards, hopes to score business opportunities on the planet. No news as of yet if that includes fast food.

Astrobotic: Dr. William "Red" Whittaker's team from Carnegie Mellon did well in the 2007 Urban Challenge, the robotic car race sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Sure, these guys may be bright, but their team name sounds like something you use at the gym.

Team Micro Space: This Colorado team is led by Richard Speck, who also competed in the Ansari X Prize, a suborbital flight contest. From the sound of this team, it will be the smallest entry. Potentially sending tiny little robots and tiny little rockets to the moon.

FredNet: No, they are not the Flintstones of space travel, but they are close. Fred Bourgeois III, Richard Core and Dan Smith want to bring the open source model to space travel. FredNet hopes that the same co-operative strategies that got Linux off the ground will get them to the moon.

All we can say is: Godspeed, FredNet.

The Physics of Film

As we watched last weekend's Academy Awards, we once again lamented the short shrift given to the technical side of the film industry. Sure, the Academy threw the nerds a bone and had Jessica Alba preside over the Academy's technical awards luncheon, but come Sunday night an animated bee got more screen time. To delve into the science of the movies you'll have to check out the cool books listed below. You remember books? They're kinda like closed caption TV, but without the video.

"Don't Try This At Home: the Physics of Hollywood Movies," by Adam Weiner, basically breaks down and shows you how a ton of cool special effects get done. Great for the "Die Hard" fan.

"Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics," by Tom Rogers, points out what's dumb in the physics of Tinseltown.

"What's Science Ever Done for Us? What the Simpsons Can Teach Us About Physics," by Paul Halpern, does pretty much what the title says it does. In nearly two decades of animated cartoons, The Simpsons has touched on nanotechnology, time travel … and Mr. Spock.

And no coverage would be complete without the veritable Talmud of Trek tech: "The Physics of Star Trek," by Lawrence M. Krauss. Be sure to read about warp speed. Sure, traveling faster than light is possible … sort of.

Apple's New 'Fat' Laptops

In a move seen in multichildren households all over the world, Apple, which welcomed a new baby laptop to the family (the wafer-thin Macbook Air) a few weeks ago, has decided to buy the older kid a present before she gets jealous.

Apple has upgraded its Macbook and Macbook Pro notebooks. New Macbooks will come with Intel Core 2 Duo processors, 2 GB of memory in most standard models and larger hard drives. The Pro models will come with an NVIDIA GPU and up to 512MB of graphics memory.

The Pro will also have the fancy new multitouch trackpad first introduced in the Macbook Air. By multitouch we mean a trackpad on which you can do all that cool pinch-and-scroll manipulation of the screen that you can do on the iPhone and iPod Touch.

Jonathan Blum and Dan Evans co-host "Strange New World," a weekly syndicated radio show. Blum hosts the blog and Evans is a features editor at PC Magazine.