BARACK TO THE FUTURE 

President Obama called on Americans to "win the future" in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, repeatedly using the slogan as he urged the country to put aside its differences for the common good: beating everyone else. "We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time," Obama said. "We need to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world."

Obama proposed new investments on several fronts, including clean energy, high-speed rail, science education and Internet access. To help paint these as economic battles that must be won, he dusted off a reminder of last century's defining global showdown: the space race. "This is our generation's Sputnik moment," he said, recalling the Soviet spacecraft that inspired a wave of U.S. innovations in the 1960s. "We'll invest in biomedical research, information technology and especially clean-energy technology — an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet and create countless new jobs for our people." While the speech was generally short on specifics, Obama did lay out some big environmental goals, such as having 1 million electric vehicles on U.S. roads by 2015, ending subsidies for oil companies, and generating 80 percent of all U.S. electricity from clean-energy sources by 2035. He also pushed for better education — saying the country will need 100,000 new math and science teachers over the next decade — and transportation, explaining how high-speed rail can make life better. "Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail," he said. "This could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying — without the pat-down."

It was an upbeat rally for U.S. competitiveness worldwide, but the speech also included nods to political realities at home. Trying to strike a more centrist chord in the face of a newly empowered Republican Congress, Obama tempered his calls for innovation with calls for austerity. "Now that the worst of the recession is over, we have to confront the fact that our government spends more than it takes in. That is not sustainable," Obama said. "Every day, families sacrifice to live within their means. They deserve a government that does the same."

(Sources: White House, New York Times, Politico)

SHE BLINDED ME WITH SCIENCE 

It looks like the U.S. already needs those 100,000 new math and science teachers Obama promised in his State of the Union speech: According to a federal report released Tuesday, fewer than half of all American students are proficient in science. Only 1 percent of fourth-grade and 12th-grade students scored in the highest group on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, otherwise known as the "Nation's Report Card," which was the first installment of the test since 2005. Education experts across the country say the results are deeply troubling.

"It's disappointing," the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association tells the Washington Post. "Essentially, it says that science hasn't been part of the agenda. Science has had very little attention." The exam was given to 150,000 students from the fourth and eighth grades, as well as 11,100 high school seniors. Overall, science proficiency was achieved by just 34 percent of fourth-graders, 30 percent of eighth-graders and 21 percent of 12th-graders — while 40 percent of the seniors didn't even have a basic grasp of science. 

There were also demographic gaps in test scores: Only 10 percent of black students showed science proficiency in the fourth grade, compared with 46 percent of whites, while 71 percent of black 12th-graders scored below the basic knowledge level, and just 4 percent were proficient. "These are really stunning and concerning numbers," an official with the Education Trust tells the AP, pointing out that minority and low-income students represent the fastest-growing parts of the U.S. youth population, making it even more important that they understand science. "Our nation's long-term economic prosperity depends on providing a world class education to all students," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan tells the AP, "especially in mathematics and science."

(Sources: Associated Press, Washington Post)

OLD HOGS, NEW TRICKS 

Taiwan has a novel idea for dealing with the huge environmental problem caused by manure runoff at industrial hog farms: potty-train the pigs. They and other farm animals usually just defecate wherever they please, much as animals do in the wild, and the accumulation of this manure washes into waterways and creates foul-smelling air pollution that plagues nearby communities. But if the pigs can just learn to do their business in a single spot — say, a "toilet" featuring iron bars that funnel waste into a concentrated pile — they suddenly become much cleaner animals, especially if that waste is then recycled as fertilizer.

"To use the pig waste as manure is a very good approach within the spirit of green energy, much better than just letting it go to waste and pollute river water," Stephen Shen, Taiwan's environment minister, tells Reuters. "And I think that can help us a lot in decreasing CO2 emissions and fighting global warming." If Taiwan could train all 6 million of its pigs to use a toilet, the government estimates it could cut in half the 47 million gallons of water it currently uses to clean pig pens. 

Pigs aren't as easy to train as dogs are, but Taiwan's environment ministry has issued three suggestions for any hog farmers willing to try: 1) put some feces in the pen so pigs will follow the smell, 2) clean the rest of the pen so "the pigs are not misled to defecate outside the toilet," and 3) let the pigs "become familiar with the new environment." One farmer who has tried potty-training his pigs tells Reuters it improves the animals' health, too. "Because we don't need to flush the whole cage with water, the pigs are also less likely to catch colds," he says. "That helped us to raise the survival rate of our pigs from 70 to 90 percent." According to Taipei News, the idea of training pigs to use toilets originally came from a single farmer in southern Taiwan, who successfully trained 10,000 pigs in late 2009.

(Sources: Reuters, Taipei News)

A HORSE OF A DIFFERENT COLOR 

A seahorse is not a horse, of course, of course. But why do they look so much like them? That question has fascinated and frustrated people for centuries, but according to a new study published in the journal Nature Communications, we finally have an answer. Seahorses' uncanny resemblance to real horses, it turns out, was an evolutionary twist to help them strike at prey from longer distances. The fact that they ended up looking like horses is pure coincidence. 

Seahorses evolved from pipefish, which basically look like straightened-out seahorses. Their curled, horselike form most likely evolved as a way to help them lunge forward when snatching prey from the water, since they hunt using a "sit-and-wait" strategy. This isn't as important to pipefish, which swim around in search of food, allowing them to compensate for a shorter head-striking range by simply moving their entire bodies toward prey.

But since seahorses prefer to hold still and lunge as if from nowhere, any slight advantage in striking range can be a big boost, especially when food is scarce or scared. Having a coiled neck and tail, the researchers found, gives them just enough extra oomph in their attacks. "When you shoot a rifle, you get a recoil movement," says the study's lead author, Sam Van Wassenbergh from the University of Antwerp in Belgium. "The same thing happens with seahorses."

(Sources: Nature, BBC News)

THIS DAY IN HISTORY

A 9.0 mega-earthquake hits the U.S., Rocky Mountain National Park is born, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (wind farm in California): U.S. EPA

Photo (kid with science equipment): Sandia National Laboratories

Photo (hogs on a farm in Iowa): Scott Olson/Getty Images

Photo (longsnout seahorse in the Pacific Ocean): ZUMA Press

Daily Briefing: Wed. 1/26/2011
Obama pushes clean power, U.S. lags in science smarts, how to potty-train pigs, and an explanation of why seahorses look like horses.