Archive for the 'Science' Category

Change we can believe in

November 21, 2008

In case you don’t already have enough to worry about:

KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) – People in a vast seismic zone in the southern and midwestern United States would face catastrophic damage if a major earthquake struck there and should ensure that builders keep that risk in mind, a government report said on Thursday.


The Federal Emergency Management Agency said if earthquakes strike in what geologists define as the New Madrid Seismic Zone, they would cause “the highest economic losses due to a natural disaster in the United States.”


FEMA predicted a large earthquake would cause “widespread and catastrophic physical damage” across Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee — home to some 44 million people.

That’s nothing we didn’t already know. What we don’t know is how likely such a catastrophe is, which they . . . don’t say. Thanks. If an airplane hits your house tomorrow, there will be catastrophic damage, so it would be best if your weren’t home! Chances of that happening — somewhere between zero and 100 percent. You’re welcome.


Now, THAT’S bonding

November 14, 2008


 As NASA prepares to double the number of astronauts living aboard the International Space Station, nothing may do more for crew bonding than a machine being launched aboard the space shuttle Endeavour on Friday.

It’s a water-recycling device that will process the crew’s urine for communal consumption.

Don’t even ask about the Soylent Brown.

In a galaxy far, far away

November 14, 2008

Never mind the economy, politics, all that Earthbound stuff. This is exciting:

Earth seems to have its first fuzzy photos of alien planets outside our solar system, images captured by two teams of astronomers. The pictures show four likely planets that appear as specks of white, nearly indecipherable except to the most eagle-eyed experts. All are trillions of miles away — three of them orbiting the same star, and the fourth circling a different star.

None of the four giant gaseous planets are remotely habitable or remotely like Earth. But they raise the possibility of others more hospitable.

Sure, we’ve known there were planets outside our solar system — more than 300 have been discovered in the past 13 years — but we’ve had to accept indirect proof of their existence. The photographs make them seem more real. I don’t think any of our UFO sightings have been anything other than explainable phenomena, but it’s comforting to occasionally think we might not be alone in the universe.

On the shoulders of giants

October 27, 2008

Here’s one of those lists that are fun to argue about: What are the 25 most important innovations in human history? No. 1 is hard to argue with:

spoken language — true semantic, syntactic, phonetic language. This idea allowed humans to transmit information about the world from one person to another. It underlies all cooperation, the economy, and clan relationships. Spoken language is the most important innovation we have ever come up with.

He also adds an Innovation Zero, intentional teaching, “the idea that humans can intentionally transmit culture and generalize knowledge from the specific instance to that which is teachable, and then intentionally give that knowledge to another person across time and space. From telling your child that the fire is hot and not to touch it to the internet itself, intentional teaching is the most important innovation of all time.” But that’s not so much an innovation as a part of the human condition.

At first glance, I’d probably put moveable type and paper a lot higher on the list (but perhaps I’m prejudiced), and I’d move law a little higher. I’d move farming from No. 7 somewhere into the top five, perhaps even at No. 2 or 3.

The simple things

October 23, 2008

It took 400 scientists to come up with this overstated version of “stop and smell the roses”?

Simple activities such as gardening or mending a bicycle can protect mental health and help people to lead more fulfilled and productive lives, a panel of scientists has found.

A “five-a-day” programme of social and personal activities can improve mental wellbeing, much as eating fruit and vegetables enhances physical health, according to Foresight, the government think-tank. Its Mental Capital and Wellbeing report, which was compiled by more than 400 scientists, proposes a campaign modelled on the nutrition initiative, to encourage behaviour that will make people feel better about themselves.

People should try to connect with others, to be active, to take notice of their surroundings, to keep learning and to give to their neighbours and communities, the document says.

Do five simple things a day? I’d rather go with the White Queen and believe six impossible things before breakfast. That’s a quicker road to sanity in a highly charged political season. And stay out of my garden, too!

Out there

September 26, 2008

Well, duh:

Mankind’s very survival depends on the future exploration of space, said NASA chief Michael Griffin in an interview with AFP marking the 50th anniversary of the US space agency.

This journey, said the veteran physicist and aerospace engineer, is full of unknowns and has only just begun.

“Does the survival of human kind depend upon it? I think so,” he said.

Griffin compared the first walk on the Moon with Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas.


Even as a conservative/libertarian penny pincher, I would have been OK with the government backing Columbus on his explorations, and I wish we were spending more on space. That’s not to say NASA has always spent money wisely, but does anybody honestly think private enterprise is going to get us off this planet? No matter how much the green movement extends the life of Mother Earth, our future is out there, not here. Humankind is meant to explore. Move it on, move it on.

Your brain says lie!

September 16, 2008

This is more than a little scary:

The New York Times is reporting that an Indian criminal court accepted a brain scan as evidence of guilt in a murder trial in India earlier this year. The developer of the the Brain Electrical Oscillation Signature (BEOS) test claims that it uses electrodes to detect when regions of the brain “light up” with guilty knowledge.

[. . ]

As the Times points out, most U.S. experts doubt that the BEOS technology has been propoerly validated. However, neuroscience researchers are working toward creating such a “truth machine.”

The potential for abuse is so great that it makes “1984” seem like a romantic comedy. Never lie to the Truth Machine!


September 8, 2008

My friend is suffering the effects of PTMD, and I don’t feel a bit sorry for her. We were at my sister’s in Indianapolis Saturday to celebrate my birthday. I got my amazon-ordered gifts and started playing with the new toys while the two of them toddled off to see the Bodies exhibit. Despite assurances from Nance in a comment here a while back that I could probably handle it, I decided not to risk it. This resulted in numerous amusing comments about my squeamishness, with my sister providing helpful background information about my getting faint at the sight of my own blood.

Well guess who insisted on having salad and vegetaraian pasta for dinner that nigtht? Guess who still gets queasy thinking about the exhibit? Guess who still can’t eat meat? Better get over it, gals. I ain’t making bean soup for Thanksgiving.

(* post traumatic meat disorder)

Brave New World

September 5, 2008

If deaf people could hear again, how many would choose to?

Deaf people could one day have their hearing restored through a ground-breaking gene therapy technique, scientists reported yesterday.

They showed that they can trigger the growth of new hair cells in the inner ear that are crucial to hearing as they pick up sound vibrations.

In tests on mice they showed that stimulating these usually irreplaceable cells to grow resulted in new cells that helped detect noise.

Researchers believe the approach could eventually be used to improve or restore hearing to the 9 million people in Britain classified as deaf or hard of hearing.

There is a deaf culture that consider deafness a difference worth celebrating rather than a disability to be “cured.” Those who are deaf should have the option of staying that way or hearing again, I think most would agree. But what if we have the ability to turn off the deafness gene so that no one ever had to be born without hearing again? What about the mentall illness gene, or the left-handed gene, or the gay gene? The Brave New World is just around the corner, so these aren’t just theoretical debates.

Ho, ho, ho

September 2, 2008

Oh, no! Global warming is letting us down:

Santa can rest easy.

It’s looking like the ice at the North Pole won’t melt to water next month, as had been feared. It would have been the first time in thousands of years that the most northerly place on the planet would have been ice-free.

“It’s quite unlikely at this point,” Walt Meier a research scientist at the University of Colorado’s National Snow and Ice Data Center, said today.

 Merry Cristmas, Mr. Gore.

Cell flipping

August 28, 2008

Is that sudden silence the disappearance of the stem-cell controversy?

Injecting a cocktail of proteins directly into the bodies of diabetic mice, researchers have converted normal pancreas cells into insulin-producing cells — a genetic transformation that could pave the way for treating intractable diseases and injuries using a patient’s own supply of healthy tissue.

The Harvard University scientists activated a trio of dormant genes that commanded the cells to transform themselves, much as a person might upload a new operating system onto a computer to change a PC into a Mac.

[. . .]

Doug Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and the study’s senior author, said the same approach could be used to generate motor neurons for patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, to make cardiac muscle cells for heart attack victims or to create other crucial cells that can repair damage wrought by a range of illnesses.

“We were able to flip the cell from one state into another,” Melton said, adding that the approach should be useful in treating disorders in “any case where there’s a cell type missing and there are neighboring cells that are still healthy.”

I think we all may get tired of reading words like “startling” and “unprecedented” and “completely unexpected” in the next few years.

Wounded walking

August 27, 2008

Technological advances just get more and more amazing:

HAIFA, Israel (Reuters) – paralyzed for the past 20 years, former Israeli paratrooper Radi Kaiof now walks down the street with a dim mechanical hum.

 That is the sound of an electronic exoskeleton moving the 41-year-old’s legs and propelling him forward — with a proud expression on his face — as passersby stare in surprise.

 “I never dreamed I would walk again. After I was wounded, I forgot what it’s like,” said Kaiof, who was injured while serving in the Israeli military in 1988.

 “Only when standing up can I feel how tall I really am and speak to people eye to eye, not from below.”

 The device, called ReWalk, is the brainchild of engineer Amit Goffer, founder of Argo Medical Technologies, a small Israeli high-tech company.

 Something of a mix between the exoskeleton of a crustacean and the suit worn by comic hero Iron Man, ReWalk helps paraplegics — people paralyzed below the waist — to stand, walk and climb stairs.

Asthma would have killed me in childhood except for the treatments that were avaialable because of drug-company research and development. I had a gum infection a few years ago that swelled one of my cheeks up about 300 percent; without the antibiotics that had been developed in my lifetime, I would have been disfigured for life.

Today, we’re making the unwalking wounded ambulatory. Who knows what we can do tomorrow, especially with nanotechnology and all the genome research going on? The biggest danger many people now alive face is that they might die just months or a few years before the cure that would have saved them.

Shot to hell

August 22, 2008

I had measles when I was a kid. It sucked. But I was lucky. We once had hundreds of thousands of cases a year in this country and hundreds of deaths. The disease has largely been conquered because of vaccinations. But now, it’s starting to creep back, in part because of parents who have listened to ill-informed hysteria about a phantom link between the vaccinations and autism:

The Academy of Pediatrics has made educating parents about the safety of vaccines one of its top priorities this year. That’s partly because busy doctors have grown frustrated by the amount of time they’re spending answering parents’ questions about things they read on the Internet or heard from TV talk shows.

Ah, the Internet — all the information in the world, some of it even true.

I had whooping cough as a kid, too. Coupled with my asthma, it almost did me in. Thank God . . . oh, wait:

At least one outbreak this year of another preventable disease was blamed on lack of immunizations. At least 17 children were sick with whooping cough at a private school in the San Francisco Bay area, and 13 were not vaccinated against the disease, which can be fatal to children.


August 21, 2008

Wonder how many people who still have religious or philosophical problems with stem cell research will be pulled over to the other side by this?

Scientists at Advanced Cell Technology Inc., the Worcester stem cell company that is running out of cash, reported yesterday that they have created large numbers of red blood cells from human embryonic stem cells.

[. . .]

Embryonic stem cells have been the subject of widespread scientific interest and social controversy. But the research has proved difficult, even as it continues to offer the tantalizing possibility of growing replacement tissues for patients.

Other scientists had shown that red blood cells could be created from embryonic stem cells. The signal accomplishment of ACT, working with researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Mayo Clinic, was proving that billions of cells could be produced.

The closer scientists get to repairing the ordinary ills of living and aging through stem cell research, the fewer objections there will be. Just as the abortion debate tends to change for people who are suddenly faced with real-life experience, so will the stem-cell debate when people no longer believe the science is just aimed at curing exotic diseases few people get. WIMBY (when it’s my back yard) is the opposite of NIMBY.

Just another big foot lie

August 18, 2008

I am soooo disappointed. I thought Bigfoot was really going to be uncovered this time, but it turns out to be just a Web-site promotion scam:

Emblazoned with the URL, a site devoted to their own Bigfoot tracking enterprise, (a site, incidentally, that declares that Bigfoot’s DNA has been taken away for ‘analization’), the baseball caps worn by Matthew Whitton (aka Gary Parker) and Rick Dyer said so very much.

[. . .]

These are businessmen who put most Web 1.0 enterprises to shame. Most of Web 2.0 too. They have a geneticist’s rigorous grasp of detail. And they have a clearly articulated business plan.

Messrs Whitton and Dyer are afraid of nothing, certainly not of the world’s press. After all, they have faced and sniffed the body of Bigfoot. They have dragged his five hundred pounds back to their pickup truck. They have resisted the urge of calling the police, or Animal Rescue. These are men smart and courageous enough to have run Webvan.

But a memo to Chris Matyszczyk: If you’re going to make fun of people for writing “analization,” you should probably be careful not to write about how “unphased” they were by their MSNBC interview.

Follow the sun

August 18, 2008

Correction of the year so far, from The New York Times:

An article on Friday about the planned construction of two large solar power installations in California described incorrectly the operation of the solar panels in one, to be built by SunPower. Its panels pivot from east to west to follow the sun over the course of a day — not west to east.

As the sun is revolving around the flat earth, no doubt!

The chorean war

August 18, 2008

As a persistent and strident critic of excessive federal spending, I feel compelled from time to time to comment on a national program that seems defensible. One of those is the “orphan products” program of the Food and Drug Administration.

Drug companies are reluctant to do research on diseases that won’t give them millions of customers for the drugs they produce. Given the billions they have to spend on research and development and government requirements, in order to make a profit they would have to charge a price no customer could afford. So they concentrate on things like cancer and heart disease and obesity that gurantee a steady customer base. (OK, your Big Pharma-bashing can go in here.)

Under the orphan-products program, the federal government gives financial incentives and patent considerations to companies that deal with diseases that affect fewer than 200,000 people. It’s been in the news lately because, under its provisions, the first drug ever for the treatment of Huntington’s disease has been approved: It won’t reverse the disease, but:

The disorder results in jerky, involuntary movements known as chorea.

The drug tetrabenazine controls the chorea, which affects about 90 percent of people with the disease.

This strikes me as a legitimate use of government funding to equalize opportunity, in much the way that state education spending is designed to give students in property-poor counties the same chance at an education as those in property-rich counties. The state determines a per-pupil cost that represents reasonable education spending, and makes up the difference for those counties that can’t raise that much in property taxes.

The disease is still fatal. People who are diagnosed usually live about 20 years. Since it’s usually diagnosed in the late 40s or early 50s, that’s not such a bad deal. But ontrolling the corea means that sufferers might use more of that 20 years going out and interacting with other people instead of just shaking in a dark corner of the bedroom.

Like Woody Guthrie did. That’s why I paid attention to this story, because he suffered from Huntington’s. Huntington’s may be the second-most-famous minor disease, after Lou Gehrig’s disease, simply because of who had it. None of the stories I read mentioned Woody, though. Fame is fleeting, I guess.

If one parent had Huntington’s, your chance of getting it is 50 percent. If none did, your chance is zero. If they develop a test to let you know if’ you’re gonna get Huntington’s, would you take it? Well, they did, and Arlo Guthrie, whose music I came to like as much as Woody’s, said, “No thanks, I’ll just wait and see.” I’ve thought about that a lot. If I could know, would I want to — if my time were limited, just how limited? I’ve gone back and forth, but mostly I come down with Arlo — just let each day come, until the next one doesn’t.

Woody Guthrie was pretty much a Communist — “This Land Is Your Land” says it all– so he would find the angst over federal spending at the beginning of this entry pretty amusing. Hey, hey, Woody Gutrhie, I blogged you a post . . .

Why do you think they call it digital, kid?

August 15, 2008

Are you people out there doping yourself up digitally every time I turn my back? First, Digital Goddess Kim Komando warns us that Web sites are targeting our kids with so-called digital drugs, audio files that have the same effect as drugs:

There are different slang terms for digital drugs. They’re often called “idozers” or “idosers.” All rely on the concept of binaural beats.

It is incorrect to call binaural beats music. They’re really ambient sounds designed to affect your brain waves.

For binaural beats to work, you must use headphones. Different sounds are played in each ear. The sounds combine in your brain to create a new frequency. This frequency corresponds to brain wave frequencies.

There are different brain wave frequencies. These frequencies are related to different states like relaxation and alertness.

Digital drugs supposedly synchronize your brain waves with the sound. Hence, they allegedly alter your mental state.

Binaural beats create a beating sound. Other noises may be included with binaural beats. This is intended to mask their unpleasant sound.

Then I see this:

Evidently the reason that Michael Phelps is so fast has nothing to do with his 6’7″ wingspan or his double jointed knees and ankles or his monster heart … according to Alexei Koudonov at The Doping Journal in an article from 2004 titled Doping by the pool and comments in a Baltimore Sun piece from earlier this week from several other scientists, Phelps is guilty of “doping” by using his iPod on the pool deck to artificially increase his performance.

If you didn’t feel like wading through that – the basic summary is that there is some research in human infants that shows that listening to music might help the blood carry more oxygen for some indeterminate period afterwords. How long that period of extra oxygen carrying capacity lasts could vary from seconds to minutes, no one is sure. In his original article, Koudonov opines that Phelps listening to his iPod is tantamount to using a product specifically designed to increase his performance.

These whippersnapper kids today, I tell ya. They have no idea how easy they have it. Why, when I was young, we had to take actual drugs, and we had to walk through the snow barefoot for two miles, and then the drug dealer would make us shovel his walk before we could score, and sometimes he even made us sleep with his girlfriend first. Boy, if all I had to do to get high or have turn my blood into an oxygen-carrying dynamo was pop on a set of headphones, I’d be wasted all the time, man.

Oh, well. Back when I was a yoot, there was a time or two when I just had to try something unknown, despite the risks, just to find out what it was like. I suppose I’m still a little bit like that today, because I just had to go to I-Doser, where they have “digital simulations” of drugs with a couple of free download doses. I’m playing the one called “Sedative” right now.

Man, what a rip-off. Nothing! It’s the digital equivalent of smoking oregano. I mean, I can see where some might feel, but you know, it’s just, well, I don’t know, it just seems that everywhere there is something, but some places just aren’t good enough, and the face is always there and I  daskl;fsdfuqweoprjdfkadsfjasd;lfkdjasfkl;djas

We are what we cook

August 15, 2008

Now we know why the county health police are cracking down so hard on outdoor cooking. It’s a plot to keep us stupid and controllable:

Humans are “strange” and smart animals, and according to a new study out in this month’s issue of Genome Biology, it may be because we’re such good cooks.

The authors compared apes and humans and found that the biggest, most important differences weren’t in brain size, but in metabolism.

We had huge heads, but were still making “the same very boring stone tools for almost 2 million years.” It wasn’t until we started throwing mastodon onto the BBQ that things really got rolling.

 And listen to this, carrot and radish munchers: Too much raw food can cause “very servere health problems.”

Born dumb

August 15, 2008

You say you’ve met more people that you’d like to remember who just kept making the same mistakes over and over again? There’s a reason:

If there is one thing experts on child development agree on, it is that kids learn best when they are allowed to make mistakes and feel the consequences. So Mom and Dad hold back as their toddler tries again and again to cram a round peg into a square hole. They feel her pain as playmates shun her for being pushy, hoping she’ll learn to back off. They let their teen stay up too late before a test, hoping a dismal grade will teach her to get a good night’s sleep but believing that ordering her to get to bed rightnow will not: kids who experience setbacks rather than having them short-circuited by a controlling parent learn not to repeat the dumb behavior.

But not, it seems, all kids. In about 30 percent, the coils of their DNA carry a glitch, one that leaves their brains with few dopamine receptors, molecules that act as docking ports for one of the neurochemicals that carry our thoughts and emotions. A paucity of dopamine receptors is linked to an inability to avoid self-destructive behavior such as illicit drug use. But the effects spill beyond such extremes. Children with the genetic variant are unable to learn from mistakes. No matter how many tests they blow by partying the night before, the lesson just doesn’t sink in.

The discovery, reported last December, is part of what is fast becoming the newest frontier in studies of why children turn out as they do.

Thirty percent sounds about right, although in some places I’ve been I’d have sworn it was a lot higher. New favorite insult for the blogosphere: You, sir, are obviously suffering from a paucity of dopamine receptors.

Out there

August 14, 2008

(Shameless “As Good As It Gets” ripoff follows.) My brother sent me an e-mail a few days ago wondering if I was worried about the possibility of Russia having sole access to the international space station for five years. “Well, not until now,” I replied.

Then I saw this today:

Russia’s invasion of Georgia is sending ripples right out into space, with NASA facing the possibility of no longer being able to hitch a ride to the International Space Station on Soyuz flights.

With the space shuttle due to retire in 2010, and the US not likely to have a replacement manned space flight option ready till 2015, Russian’s space fleet is the only interim option for the US to get people into space and onto the ISS.

Oh, troublesome, sure. But am I really worried? What could possibly go wrong? Think I’m still a paranoid Commie hater?

Cooling it

August 13, 2008

We don’t have the space to print letters to the editor from out of state (unless they’re commenting on something from our paper that the writers read online). Once in a while, I get one I’d like to run, however, such as this one from J. Andrew Smith of Bloomfield, N.J.:

Some ideas on global warming:
 1. Solve flooding issues too: create pipelines from rivers that flood all the time out to the deserts to irrigate them so we can grow plants for ethanol/oil: sugar cane, corn, and even industrial hemp — but keep some desert land for solar panels.
 2. Solve obesity and poverty issues too: create public gyms with treadmills hooked up to turbines, sell the electricity to utilities, and give people tax credits.
 3. Smoking is at an all-time low — replace half the tobacco crop with ethanol/oil plants.

Now that’s some creative thinking. The only thing he left out was gerbils on exercise wheels connected to windmills as a backup, but maybe he’s a member of PETA.

Bend it like Berkeley

August 12, 2008

Other people want to get in line to be one of the first to take a commercial space flight. This is what I’d like to reserve:

Researchers have taken the next step on the road to constructing a cloak of invisibility or a powerful “superlens” capable of capturing fine details invisible to current lenses. A group from the University of California, Berkeley, this week is publishing the first demonstrations of materials capable of bending visible or near-visible light the “wrong” way in three dimensions.

[. . .]

For invisibility, researchers need their metamaterials to have an index less than one (the index of air). That makes it possible to channel light around a region like air around an airplane wing. No light inside means no reflection to reveal the contents of the space, hence, invisibility.

The beauty of having an ivisibility cloak is that it would both amuse me and please a lot of people I know.

D for effort

August 12, 2008

Don’t go out in the sun — you’ll get cancer! OK, fine, I’ll stay indoors more. Oops:

Inadequate vitamin D could increase your risk of death by 26 percent, a new study concludes.

Yet many people are not getting enough vitamin D, which the skin makes naturally when exposed to sunlight. A nationwide survey found that 41 percent of men and 53 percent of women in the United States were not getting enough of this vital nutrient.

The importance of vitamin D may be underappreciated,” said lead author Dr. Michal Melamed, a clinical fellow at Johns Hopkins University. “There are studies that link low vitamin D levels to the development of heart disease, peripheral arterial disease, diabetes, hypertension and different cancers,” she said.

Guess we need to get our Vitamin D from supplements. No, wait:

Many recent studies have found that the amount of vitamins in most vitamin pills is way too much and may actually increase rates of cancer and heart disease.

That’s what Dr. Dean Edell says, and we all know the radio never lies to us. I forget — are coffee and red wine good for me this week or bad?

. . . but the face is familiar

August 7, 2008

Don’t judge a book by it’s cover. Be wary of first impressions. Appearances can be deceiving. Not so fast there, you trusting soul:

A pair of Princeton psychology researchers has developed a computer program that allows scientists to analyze better than ever before what it is about certain human faces that makes them look either trustworthy or fearsome. In doing so, they have also found that the program allows them to construct computer-generated faces that display the most trustworthy or dominant faces possible.

[. . .]

Common features of both trustworthiness and dominance emerged. A trustworthy face, at its most extreme, has a U-shaped mouth and eyes that form an almost surprised look. An untrustworthy face, at its most extreme, is an angry one with the edges of the mouth curled down and eyebrows pointing down at the center. The least dominant face possible is one resembling a baby’s with a larger distance between the eyes and the eyebrows than other faces. A threatening face can be obtained by averaging an untrustworthy and a dominant face.

That’s why I grew a beard. It distracts from my mouth, so it takes people longer to decide whether I’m trustworthy or not, and I’m therefore in more control. I was going for the warm-and-fuzzy Fidel Castro look, but I think I ended up looking more like Ted Kaczynski.

I notice that nowhere do the researchers claim that people are actually right in their snap judgments of who is or is not trustworthy, but I expect many people will take that to be so. That would make this a case of science being used merely to reinforce existing prejudices. Glad that’s never happened before.