Thursday, December 6, 2007

Launch Postponed

12/17/2007 - 9:28 AM - UPDATE: In order to give their staff some time off over the holidays, NASA has pushed the shuttle's launch date back again, this time to January 10. If they dalay much longer, the launch of Atlantis could impact the timeline for 2008's remaining shuttle launches. NASA has a pretty limited lifespan for these shuttles, which are supposed to be retired by 2010, so any delay in launching missions this year could have serious repercussions.

12/10/2007 - 8:11 AM - UPDATE: Still unable to find and correct the fuel sensor glitch, NASA has decided to postpone the launch until January 2, 2008. Doing so will hopefully give their people time to figure out why the sensors are failing (or replace them with a different set that will hopefully work better).

12/08/2007 10:26 AM - UPDATE: NASA has added a further delay, but odds are looking pretty good for a launch tomorrow. These sensors are a four-piece backup system, and when they fueled the shuttle on Thursday only two of the four registered. NASA's rules call for at least three to be functioning in order to launch, but they may relax that rule. They are also planning to shorten their launch window from the normal five minutes to just one minute to conserve a little extra fuel. The reason is that the sensors in question are designed to shut off the engines after fuel gets pretty low, and this way if they fail to shut off there will be a little bit more fuel left at the end of the burn.

12/07/2007 8:09 AM - UPDATE: It's not going to be today, either. NASA is going to spend a little time trying to figure out how to fix the wiring to the sensors. If they can't come up with a solution quickly, they may just launch tomorrow, anyway. These sensors are redundant systems, so not having them won't impact the launch unless the primary systems fail.

So the weather was perfect, but the shuttle wasn't. Two of four low-level fuel sensors on the Atlantis' external fuel tank malfunctioned, prompting a delay of at least 24 hours. Hopefully they'll get things fixed and launch the shuttle tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Shuttle Launch Tomorrow

So you probably know by now, but Atlantis is due to launch tomorrow at 4:31 pm EST (3:31 pm here in the Midwest) carrying the European Columbus laboratory to the International Space Station. The weather looks good, so barring any unforseen complications, the next step in space-borne science should be getting underway pretty soon.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grade Chimp?

Researchers from Kyoto University's Primate Research Institute created a working memory task that involved displaying a series of numbers on the screen for a fraction of a second then covering them with boxes. The subjects (chimps and university students) were tasked to touch the white squares in the correct numerical order.

What they discovered was that the nine university students performed progressively worse as the time the numbers were visible decreased from 0.6 seconds to 0.21 seconds, as they had expected. The explanation is that humans cannot scan the screen fast enough to see and mentally record all of the numbers.

One of the two chimps in the study, Ai, demonstrated the same results. The other chimp, seven-year-old Ayumu, however, demonstrated no decreased ability as the time interval shrank. In other words, Ayumu actually performed better on this task than any of the students. The students' performance was on par with Ai, the older chimp.

Is it possible that the average, young university student has roughly the same cognitive abilities as a middle-aged chimp, and that younger chimps have better cognitive abilities than younger people? Sure, anything is possible. But it's not likely. Rather, the researchers believe that chimps in general (or at least Ayumu specifically) have much stronger eidetic memory (more commonly referred to as photographic memory) than the average human.

It should also be pointed out that the sample size of this study was limited to nine students and two chimpanzees. That's a pretty small sample for any real scientific study. However, this could open the door to new areas of cognitive research.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Recent Inactivity

Okay, I know I haven't been blogging much lately. I've been extremely busy with work and a new business venture, but I am going to make an attempt to pick up the activity on this blog. I've been trying to write more feature-type entries and do less of just re-posting other people's news. Hopefully, I can put pressure on myself to write more by doing things like signing up for a Technorati Profile.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Failed Predictions

"Difficult to see... always in motion is the future." - Yoda, Empire Strikes Back

The future is hard to predict accurately. Some of the smartest people who've ever lived have tried their hands at it and failed miserably. To illustrate that, a poster on The List Universe recently posted a list of the Top 30 Failed Technology Predictions.

It's pretty interesting to see some of the predictions that have been proven wrong over the years.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Occam's Razor

entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem

For those of you who don't read Latin, that translates as "entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity," and it's one of the most important concepts of logical thinking - Occam's Razor.

Occam's Razor (also known as Ockham's Razor, since it was named after William of Ockham, the 14th century Franciscan monk who first postulated it) is more commonly phrased as, "all other things being equal, the simplest answer tends to be the right one." This is usually applied when multiple theories are used to describe a situation; the theory that makes the fewest assumptions and the fewest entities tends to be the most accurate theory.

One of the main reasons we prefer simpler theories (according to philosopher Sir Karl Popper) is because simpler theories apply more broadly than complex theories, and thus they are more easily tested (and refuted). Since valid scientific theories can never be proven, only disproven, a theory that can be more easily tested and refuted is preferable to one that cannot be tested and refuted (in fact, theories that cannot be disproven are not valid scientific theories).

Occam's Razor is not a scientific theory. Rather, it is a heuristic method used for choosing among competing theories. While there is some risk of eliminating valid theories, probability theory and statictics argue in favor of Occam's Razor on the basis that all assumptions introduce possibilities for error. Thus, theories with more assumptions are more likely to be incorrect. Additionally, simpler theories will be easier to test and refute, bringing us back to the more complex theories that we originally bypassed.

If you have trouble remembering Latin (like I do), you can just keep in mind the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Hey Buddy, Wanna Be an Astronomy Researcher (Again)?

Back in January, I posted my first Hey Buddy... post, introducing a service called systemic that allowed amateurs (like you and me) to contribute to astronomical research. I bring this up now to introduce a new program that will allow amateurs and school children to participate in a project to help map star visibility.

The program, known as the Great World Wide Star Count, allows citizen scientists and school children to record their observations of various constellations during the period of October 1-15. The event, which is free and open to everyone who wants to participate, is organized by the Windows to the Universe project at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), in conjunction with planetariums and scientific societies across the country and abroad. Funding is provided by the National Science Foundation.

Bright outdoor lighting at night is a growing problem for astronomical observing programs around the world. By searching for the same constellations, participants in the Great World Wide Star Count will be able to compare their observations with what others see, giving them a sense of how star visibility varies from place to place. The observers will also learn more about the economic and geographic factors that control the light pollution in their communities and around the world.

This is a great opportunity to get involved in scientific research by enjoying a fun, educational family activity with your kids. I know I plan to participate!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Garage Researcher Makes Possible Breakthrough Discovery

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know that I try to highlight opportunities for amateurs to help make advances in science and technology. A lot of people may think that the days of amateurs working on research in their basements or garages and making major discoveries is long past.

Those people would apparently be wrong. John Kanzius was trying to find a way to use radio frequencies to de-salinate saltwater more efficiently when he stumbled upon something rather surprising: the right combination of radio frequencies applied to the water caused the molecular bonds between the hydrogen and oxygen to weaken, releasing hydrogen gas. In other words, Kanzius found a way to allow salt water to become flammable.

The results were confirmed by Rustum Roy, a Penn State University chemist, and now Roy is seeking funding for the Department of Defense to conduct research into the possibility of using saltwater--one of the most abundant and easily accessible resources on the planet--as a fuel source. The scientists want to find out whether the energy output from the burning hydrogen - which reached a heat of more than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit - would be enough to power a car or other heavy machinery.

Monday, August 20, 2007

We're Here... Where are They?

If, as some science-fiction novels and movies would have us believe, the universe is teeming with intelligent aliens, that begs the question: where are they? If they're out there, why haven't they come to visit us yet (and please, for the love of God, don't refer me to stories of alien abductions and UFOs)?

That question has been pondered many times over the years (most famously by Enrico Fermi in 1950), by many scientists far smarter than a lowly computer geek like me. The heart of the matter comes down to one question: just how common is intelligent life?

In 1960, Dr. Frank Drake proposed a method for estimating the number of intelligent species present in the galaxy by use of a mathematical equation, as follows:

N = R* x fp x ne x fl x fi x fc x L

Okay, you're saying, but what the heck does that mean?

Well, N is the number of intelligent alien species currently in our galaxy with which we might hope to be able to communicate.

R* is the average rate of star formation in our galaxy.

fp is the fraction of those stars that have planets.

ne is the average number of earth-like planets that are capable of supporting life per star that has planets.

fl is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point.

fi is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life.

fc is the fraction of civilizations that develop advanced enough technology to release detectable signs of their existence into space.

L is the length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

By multiplying out the values you think are probably correct for those variables, you can get an estimate of the number of intelligent, advanced civilizations currently present in our galaxy. And the best part is, our knowledge of the universe is growing all the time, so we can refine the values used in this model as time goes on.

Drake and his colleagues used the following values in 1961:

R* = 10/year (10 stars formed per year, on the average over the life of the galaxy)
fp = 0.5 (half of all stars formed will have planets)
ne = 2 (2 planets per star will be able to develop life)
fl = 1 (100% of the planets will develop life)
fi = 0.01 (1% of which will be intelligent life)
fc = 0.01 (1% of which will be able to communicate)
L = 10,000 years (which will last 10,000 years)

If you work out the math, you'll find that Drake and his team estimated that there are 10 intelligent civilizations in the galaxy capable of producing advanced communication signals that we should be able to detect.

In the past 46 years, however, we've already learned enough to refine the model somewhat. For example, Drake estimated star formation (R*) at 10 stars per year, but studies by NASA and the ESA show that the number is closer to 6.

Drake himself wrote an article for Wired Magazine in 2004 about revising the information for his model as new data became available. Drake now believes that there are far more intelligent species in the galaxy than he did fifty years ago.

But if Drake is right, then Fermi's original question stands: Where is everybody?

Thursday, August 9, 2007

PlanetQuest Update

Another update from Dr. Laurance Doyle on the status of the PlanetQuest group:

...Our lack of progress at the moment is a funding issue which we feel could be solved if we can get initial funding to a point where we can finish the alpha test version of the software and thereafter sign folks up to be supporting-founding members of PlanetQuest.

We do have sufficient astronomical data (stellar light curves) at present for a thorough test of the system and could accommodate perhaps up to 100,000 users for a year. This was previously my main concern. We have also carried the problem through from data acquisition to light curve model fitting (the transit detection algorithm) and therefore see no technical issues in the way of proceeding.

Most of our personnel, however, are also extremely busy people working in other businesses and on other projects, and so PlanetQuest has not received the attention lately that it needs to move forward as quickly as it could, because it is largely (although not entirely) a volunteer project at this point.

I would like to see it take off this year-that is, that we are able to release an alpha version of the Collaboratory and start to post key parts of our educational web site on a daily basis. I am involved in fund raising for PlanetQuest at present, and also writing a comprehensive business plan.

The overall project in execution is quite complex, but the basic overview ideas are readily understandable. After about seven years now since the initial idea, we are still unique in offering a project like PlanetQuest (which surprises me a little). Computational speed (i.e., Moore's Law) has gone up over a factor of 25 in that time, so we have had to collect a lot more stellar data. Our team is ready to proceed, then, as soon as we can get support for the final phase of the programming...

PlanetQuest is a worthy project to allow desktop users (like me and you) to contribute to the search for extra-solar planets that may harbor life. But in order to get the software working and continue their science, they need money. I gave them some a while back, but they obviously still need more.

A Perfect Launch

Endeavour's launch last night went off on-time and without any problems, which apparently only happens about 40% of the time for space shuttles.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Endeavour Launches Tonight

NASA's space shuttle Endeavour launches tonight at 6:36:36 PM EDT. Unfortunately, that will be 5:36 my time, and I will be at the gym, so I won't be able to watch it like I usually do. If you want to watch the launch, however, you can see it at

Since the last time it launched, Endeavour has undergone a major overhaul replacing most of the key systems and updating the shuttle with the latest technology. When it launches, it will be the most advanced shuttle NASA has ever sent into orbit.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

The Scientific Method

You wouldn't think someone would have to define science, but in recent years, we've seen many things that pretend to be science which are not. Case in point: Intelligent Design. Supporters of ID think that ID should be taught in science classrooms alongside (or in place of) evolution. There's only one problem: evolution is science, and Intelligent Design is religion.

My favorite definition of science comes from Merriam-Webster: a : knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method b : such knowledge or such a system of knowledge concerned with the physical world and its phenomena

The important part of that definition is the words "scientific method." If you're not familiar with the scientific method, it is this:

  • Research (or Observation)
  • Description of the Problem
  • Hypothesis
  • Expermintation
  • Conclusion

In other words, you observe something about the universe that puzzles you. You review the relevant literature about the subject to determine if the problem has already been described and understood. If not, you establish a testable hypothesis about what you think is going on. Then you conduct an experiment controlled in a careful way as to remove all other influences from the results. After the experiment, you analyze your results to determine whether your hypothesis still holds merit or not.

That, in brief, is science. Science broadens our understanding of the universe by using the scientific method to teach us more about how our universe operates. Through the scientific method, we have advanced modern medicine, television, computer networks, space flight, and more.

In 1999, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences stated that "intelligent design, and other claims of supernatural intervention in the origin of life" are not science because they cannot be tested by experiment, do not generate any predictions, and propose no new hypotheses of their own. My only real problem with Intelligent Design is that it tries to pass itself off as science and to supplant actual scientific hypotheses and observations. If Intelligent Design's advocates would accept that ID is religion and promote it that way, I would have considerably less trouble with it.

Far worse, in my opinion, are the Young Earth Creationists, who assert that Earth and all life on it were created by God 6000 years ago. I have no objection to religion, and in fact consider myself to be a religious person. But let's talk about faith for a moment. My favorite definition of faith also comes from Merriam-Webster: firm belief in something for which there is no proof.

Faith is faith for a reason: God can never be proven to exist (or not). You either choose to believe in God, or you don't. That's faith.

Belief in something in spite of evidence to the contrary is not faith, it's stupidity. And that's the problem with Young Earth Creationism. I understand that there are arguments that fossils with an age of over 6000 years are suggested by YECs to have been placed there by God when He created the Earth, but that implies a God who is intentionally deceptive. Also, based on that argument, why would you believe the Earth is 6000 years old? Why not believe that God created the world twenty minutes ago?

The main argument for Young Earth Creationism is that the Bible basically traces a lineage from Adam and gives dates. The problem with that is that God did not sit down at a typewriter and type out the Bible. People did, and people make mistakes. Mistakes in translation, mistakes in transcription, and mistakes in re-telling of oral traditions that pre-date any written language. I know from experience that you can't pass a phrase around a room, one person at a time, between 30 people and have it come back the same. How much worse over the period of thousands of years and countless people?

Anyone who blindly believes that what is in the Bible is word-for-word correct has some serious flaws in their belief system (especially since it requires a decision about which version of the Bible to believe in, and also a belief that the men who picked which books were right and which were wrong 15-1700 years ago were right). Find your own beliefs, please.

But in doing so, don't buy into the belief that science is an attack on faith. Faith can guide you as to what to believe in the absence of evidence. Science provides us with the evidence of the wonders of our universe. Whether you attribute those wonders to God (or some other Intelligent Designer) or not is entirely up to you.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Clues to Why Exercise Helps You Live a Longer, Healthier Life

Researchers at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute have uncovered clues to suggest why living a healthier lifestyle will help you live longer. The answer, they say, is less insulin in the brain.

In their experiments, the researchers sought to understand the role of the insulin-like signaling pathway in extending lifespan. This pathway governs growth and metabolic processes in cells throughout the body. The pathway is activated when insulin and insulin-like growth factor-1 switch on proteins inside the cell called insulin receptor substrates (Irs).

In earlier work, the researchers had found that knocking out both copies of one of the Irs genes, Irs2, in mice reduces brain growth and produces diabetes due to pancreatic beta cell failure. However, in the new study, when the researchers knocked out only one copy of the gene, they found the mice lived 18 percent longer than normal mice.

Because reducing insulin-like signaling in the neurons of roundworms and fruitflies extends their lifespan, the researchers decided to examine what would happen when they knocked out one or both copies of the Irs2 gene only in the brains of mice.

Mice lacking one copy of the Irs2 gene in brain cells also showed an 18 percent longer lifespan, and the near complete deletion of brain Irs2 had a similar effect. “What's more, the animals lived longer, even though they had characteristics that should shorten their lives—such as being overweight and having higher insulin levels in the blood,” said Morris F. White, an investigator for HHMI.

However, both sets of Irs2 knockout mice exhibited other characteristics that marked them as healthier, said White. They were more active as they aged, and their glucose metabolism resembled that of younger mice. The researchers also found that after eating, their brains showed higher levels of superoxide dismutase, an antioxidant enzyme that protects cells from damage by highly reactive chemicals called free radicals.

White and his colleagues are planning their next studies to better understand how healthy aging and lifespan are coordinated by Irs2 signaling pathways in the body and the brain. White speculated that the insulin-like signaling pathway in the brain might promote age-related brain diseases.

Personally, I'll be most interested in seeing how this work meshes with the work being done on Sirtuin. Calorie Restriction methods have not been shown to be effective in humans yet, but there's no reason to think that they won't be. The research on brain insulin, on the other hand, is something that will have to be watched fairly closely. While mice may make an interesting model for early-stage testing, their brains are not that similar to ours and any type of alteration being done on the brain could have effects that would not be obvious in a mouse model.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Defending Science

As you well know by now, I am in favor of the responsible advancement of science and technology. But not everyone, it seems, shares my opinion. In particular, the current government administration in this country seems to put politics before scientific and technological advancement, and for that reason, the people at Defend Science are on the march.

From their latest e-mail:

No doubt you have heard of the recent testimony of former Surgeon General Richard Carmona to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on July 10, 2007. Dr. Carmona’s testimony was stunning exposure of the Bush Administration’s willingness to deny scientific truth in the pursuit of a political agenda. Defend Science is calling on people to voice their opinion to newspapers throughout the country with letters expressing outrage at not only the overt politicization of science to an unprecedented level, but its outright denial. As the Defend Science statement says, we must all “insist on an atmosphere where scientists are allowed to seek the truth, even when the truth conflicts with the views and policies of those in power... where science education and the popularization of the scientific method are valued...”

In his testimony Dr. Carmona stated that the discussion in the Bush Administration around stem cell research was “devoid of science” and that the policy around sex education was to “preach abstinence which I felt was scientifically incorrect.” He further revealed that his speeches were vetted for political content and his attempt to educate the public about issues ranging from stem cells to sex education “blocked at every turn.” In each case, Dr. Carmona indicated that science is denied in the face of political, ideological and theological considerations.

Check out for media coverage and links to excerpts from the testimony, and add your voice to the discussion. Dr. Carmona’s testimony alone is an indictment of the Bush Administration’s public health policy, but it also points to the broader issue of why we need to defend science. There is an unrelenting assault on people's access to scientific knowledge, to the scientific method and approach to knowing about the world, to the scientific spirit. The more letters we write to local papers exposing and opposing this agenda the bigger the impact on the public discourse around the critical issue of defending science we will have.

We at Defend Science would appreciate your help in keeping us abreast of this effort. Please send us copies of your letters (send to multiple publications if you can), any posting you make to blogs or comment sections, and similar public outlets--and be sure to identify where you submitted the pieces. And let us know if your letter is published!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Hey Buddy, Wanna Be an Astronomer?

Thanks to Phil Plait for turning me onto a new opportunity for amateurs like me (and, presumably, you) to participate in scientific research. In the past several years, advanced astronomical telescopes have collected vast amounts of data--more than can be reasonably processed by astronomers. The solution, of course, was to use advanced pattern-recognition algorithms to analyze the images.

That introduced a secondary problem... namely, that the most advanced pattern-recognition algorithms available today are still not advanced enough to catch everything. That's where amateurs, like me (and, presumably, you) come in. From the GalaxyZoo website:

Why do we need you?
The simple answer is that the human brain is much better at recognising patterns than a computer can ever be [EDITOR'S NOTE: I don't think this is acutally true... eventually computers will surpass our ability to recognize patterns, but certainly not anytime soon.] . Any computer program we write to sort our galaxies into categories would do a reasonable job, but it would also inevitably throw out the unusual, the weird and the wonderful. To rescue these interesting systems which have a story to tell, we need you.

The site includes a tutorial to explain what they're looking for and how to get started, and once you get used to it, it's pretty fun. After that, there's a trial that challenges you to identify galaxies, and if you get at least eight correct (out of 15) you'll be able to get started classifying galaxies and contributing to the advancement of our understanding of the universe.

Happy hunting!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Sufficiently Advanced Wireless

Arthur C. Clarke once said "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" (also known as Clarke's Third Law). That's obviously where the name of this blog comes from. A lot of technology in the modern era would pass as magic to someone from even several decades ago, let alone centuries.

Take wireless phones, for instance. The ability to communicate with someone else--to hear their voice, see their pictures and videos, and read their e-mail messages--when you are on opposite sides of the planet would seem truly mystical to people not inured in our modern culture.

With that in mind, thanks to the magic of modern technology, I'm happy to announce the launch of Sufficiently Advanced Wireless, a new wireless phone company. The marvels of modern technology have allowed Creativity Resources to partner with Sonopia and Verizon to offer wireless service to the world at a reasonable rate. All calls travel across Verizon's network, which I have personally found to be the most reliable network around.

Right now, we are offering a Motorola RAZR phone (a $299 value) for only $49.95 with the purchase of a two-year service agreement. In addition, we are offering an exceptional plan for only $39.95/month that includes:
  • 450 anytime minutes
  • Free nights and weekends
  • unlimited domestic long-distance calling (airtime applies)
  • No charge for domestic roaming (coverage not available in all areas)
  • Voice Mail (airtime charges apply when leaving/retrieving message and for setup)
  • Call Forward
  • Caller ID
  • 3-Way Calling
  • Call Waiting (airtime charges apply for each call)
  • Includes SMS, MMS and Data services. Web SMS is available at no extra charge when sent to other Sonopians or within the network
  • Free 911 calls

Other service plans are available with more minutes, including individual plans and family plans. Check out our plans today!

Monday, June 25, 2007

NASA's Vision for Antarctic Exploration

Monte Davis has an excellent guest post over at Space Cynics that compares space travel with the early explorations of Antarctica by Roald Amundsen.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Moment of Truth

C|Net's Michael Kanellos has an interesting article about how and why America is losing our scientific and technological edge over the rest of the world, and what we can do about it. It's definitely worth a read.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Scramjet Tested at Mach 10

Scientists and engineers from the U.S. and Australia successfully tested a supersonic combustion ramjet--or scramjet--aircraft high above the Australian outback, reaching speeds up to 11,000 km (6,835 miles) per hour, or 10 times the speed of sound.

Flight data will be examined over coming weeks and compared to ground tests conducted in the United States, DARPA chief researcher Steven Walker said in a statement.

Scramjets, in the shorter term, will allow more powerful military aircraft. Eventually, they will allow faster civilian air travel and cheaper satellite launches.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Blood Pressure Drug Offers Hope for Parkinson's Treatment

Tests on mice at Northwestern University in Chicago showed isradipine, a drug commonly used to treat high blood pressure, can rejuvenate the brain neurons which are dying in Parkinson's patients.

Isradipine is a calcium-blocker which is usually used to tackle high blood pressure, angina and stroke.

But researchers at Northwestern University found mice, who had been engineered to develop a progressive Parkinson's-type disease, did not become ill when their condition was treated with the drug.

Their dopamine neurons - cells which start to die in Parkinson's patients - appeared to revert back to their original, youthful form. Dopamine is a critical substance which affects the control of movement. When it is lacking, that movement becomes increasingly difficult and unco-ordinated.

While these results are still very preliminary, and nothing has been tested in humans yet, isradipine is a medication that is currently on the market and readily available, with safety studies having already been completed. That could allow human testing to proceed at a rapid pace, which is good news for Parkinson's patients and their friends and families.

Friday, June 8, 2007

IBM Releases Free Pandemic Modeling Tool

IBM announced today that it is releasing its Spatiotemporal Epidemiological Modeler (STEM), software for public health scientists worldwide to forecast how diseases will spread in the same way meteorologists predict the paths of storms, free of charge.

The program provides base information, such as road maps and macro-economics, and allows public health officials to "tweak" it with local details such as air traffic patterns. Information available from anywhere in the world can be added to customize programs that forecast how particular diseases will likely spread in local regions.

IBM's open-source software, a refinement of a program released three years ago, is available to scientists, researchers and public health protectors worldwide through the nonprofit Eclipse Foundation.

Atlantis to Launch Tonight

Space shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to launch this evening at 7:38 PM EDT, and NASA expects only a 20% chance of inclement weather interfering with the launch.

This launch, delayed three months by damage from a freak hailstorm, will be going to the International Space Station to attach two more pieces of structural framework and a new set of solar panels. The astronauts will also relocate an existing set of solar panels and install a rotary joint allowing the panels to track the sun.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Stem Cells Without Embryos

I've seen multiple reports in the past few days about lab work where scientists have turned adult tissue cells (usually skin cells from mice) into fully pluripotent stem cells, capable of differentiating into any type of cell in the body.

Three separate articles, according to the journal Nature, a fairly simple process can be used to reprogram skin cells into fully differentiating stem cells. What’s more, these reprogrammed skin cells can give rise to live mice, contributing to every kind of tissue type, and can even be transmitted via germ cells (sperm or eggs) to succeeding generations.

If this process can be applied to human cells (and so far, there's no proof that it can), it would be a major breakthrough for stem cell research. Those people who oppose embryonic stem cells on moral grounds--due to the destruction of embryos necessary for extracting the stem cells--will lose the basis for their arguments, allowing for greater research to be done than is being done now.

And let's face it, the potential for benefit from stem cells is probably greater than any other biomedical research being done today. Any single area of bio-technology that has potential for curing blindness, paralysis, certain forms of cancer, Parkinson's, and other diseases and disorders is an area of research we can't afford to not be investigating. Hopefully these breakthroughs will enable and encourage more research to be done in these areas.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

The Pope Gets It

The Vatican announced today that some Holy See buildings will start using solar energy, reflecting Pope Benedict XVI's concern about conserving the Earth's resources.

The first building upgraded to solar will be the Paul VI auditorium which, starting next year, will have its 6,000-square-yard flattened vaulted roof, currently covered with aging cement tiles in need of repair, replaced with photovoltaic tiles that will be capable of providing heat, cooling, and light to the auditorium. When the building is not in use (which is most of the time), that power will be redirected to other buildings in Vatican City.

The Vatican is considering the installation of photovoltaic cells on roofs of other Holy See buildings, although centuries-old landmarks like St. Peter's Basilica won't be touched.

I'm happy to see a world leader, like the Pope, taking the initiative to drive installation of solar power. I would like to see other world leaders, and other governmental bodies, drive toward alternative energy in a sustainable manner. There are a lot of roofs on government buildings and churches around the world, and it's time to put some of those to good use.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Global Warming "Is Three Times Faster Than Worst Predictions"

An article in the UK's Independent newspaper highlights our difficulties in predicting global warming:
...emissions of carbon dioxide have been rising at thrice the rate in the 1990s. The Arctic ice cap is melting three times as fast - and the seas are rising twice as rapidly - as had been predicted.

Not good news, and something we absolutely need to do something about, in spite of what NASA Administrator Mike Griffin seems to think.

Advances in Cancer Research

Some good news this week for people who are concerned about cancer (which is pretty much everyone, I would imagine). Over the past few days, a number of news articles have come out announcing the latest advances in treating and preventing cancer.

An Apple a Day
First, last Friday, researchers at Cornell University announced that they had found a dozen compounds, called triterpenoids, in apple peel that either inhibit or kill cancer cells in laboratory cultures. Three of the compounds had not previously been described in the literature.

Brush on the Marinade, Hold Off the Cancerous Compounds
Then yesterday, the Food Safety Consortium at the University of Arkansas announced that seasoning grilled meat with certain combinations of marinades and spices could not only improve the flavor, but could help fight cancer. Marinades containing rosemary and thyme had the greatest effect on reducing Heterocyclic amines (HCAs), but two other marinades with different herbs seasonings were tested and found to be almost as effective. The rosemary/thyme marinade also contained pepper, allspice and salt. Another marinade included oregano, thyme, garlic and onion. A third marinade had oregano, garlic, basil, onion and parsley.

Liver Cancer Breakthrough Found
Finally, also yesterday, the AP had an article about a breakthrough in treatment of liver cancer. For the first time, doctors said they have found a pill that improves survival for people with liver cancer, a notoriously hard to treat disease diagnosed in more than half a million people globally each year. Patients on the treatment, sorafenib, survived 10.7 months versus almost 8 months for those on dummy pills.

So good progress on the cancer front from all sides.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A Kinder, Gentler NASA

Reuters reports that NASA is more than willing to work with commercial partners when it comes to going to, and establishing a base on, the moon.

"If we could be in a commercial relationship with somebody who has the capability that's fine because in many cases they can do it for less money than we can," said Neil Woodward, acting director of NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, at the International Space Development Conference in Dallas.

Woodward also suggested that NASA would be very interested in an orbital fuel depot, an idea pushed heavily by Jon Goff and others. "One thing that keeps getting batted around is a fuel dump in orbit, in low Earth orbit. If someone was to build one of those and said do you want NASA to be a customer we would say yes because if you do the math it turns out that it would be an advantage to us," Woodward said.

"We're trying to help some commercial entities demonstrate that they can do low Earth orbit resupply to say the space station and once they can do that we can contract with them and then we don't have to do it ourselves anymore."

It's good to see that NASA is not only willing to work with private enterprise in space, but actively encouraging development of space. For many years, that was not the case, and it's a good sign for the future.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Hey Buddy, Wanna Be a Robot Designer?

iRobot Corporation, makers of the Roomba, Scooba, and a variety of bomb-defusing robots being used in Iraq right now, have announced the Create Challenge Contest, a new contest for robot hobbyists, developers and students that involves designing and assembling new robots for a chance to win $5,000.

Beginning on May 16, entrants may submit descriptions and photos of their robot creation built on the iRobot Create robot platform at The submissions will be posted publicly and will be judged based on merit. Final entries will be due Aug. 31, 2007. The grand prize winner will be announced in October. In addition, iRobot is offering a limited number of free scholarship robot packages for those who wish to enter the main contest, but do not have the ability to purchase an iRobot Create kit themselves. For detailed instructions and entry information, please visit Tom's Hardware.

iRobot Create is an affordable, programmable robot designed for aspiring roboticists, advanced high-school and college students, and serious robot developers. Create comes pre-assembled, so developers can design new robots without having to build a mobile robot from scratch. With Create, developers can begin designing new robot applications out of the box. The platform provides access to robot sensors and actuators via an open interface. Create also features standard connections for electronics and threaded mounting holes that allow users to secure their inventions to the robot, streamlining the integration of third-party electronics such as sensors, cameras, arms and wireless connections.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Are You Willing to Defend Science?

Over the past several years, scientific progress has been hindered somewhat by a concerted attempt to hide scientific results that don't conform to some person's or group's religious ideology. For example, NASA public affairs official George Deutsch attracted much heat (and eventually lost his job) after ordering that NASA websites be amended to change all references to the Big Bang to include the word "theory". Deutsch's reason for ordering the change was pretty simple: it did not mesh with his religious views of Intelligent Design.

Also notable in this debate was the 1999 vote by the Kansas State Board of Education to remove any mention of "biological macroevolution, the age of the Earth, or the origin and early development of the Universe", so that evolutionary theory no longer appeared in state-wide standardized tests.

Over the past decade, these attempts to force religion on people by attacking science (in clear violation of the First Amendment prohibition against the government establishing a national religion) have increased dramatically. Worse, the perpetrators of these actions have tried to argue that their religious beliefs are science (even though there are no testable hypotheses, and their "science" relies entirely upon faith). They argue that much of established science is only theory that cannot be proven to be true (ignoring the fact that it is virtually impossible to prove that anything is true, but rather easy to prove something false). They make their arguments in the face of (and fully ignoring) and observable evidence that argues in favor of the scientific theories.

If, like me, these kinds of things bother you, good. They should. But, you may be asking yourself, what can I do about it?

I'm glad you asked! (Even if it was only me putting words in your mouths).

You can sign the petition at or donate money to their cause in order to help make people more aware of the assault on science that is going on in this country every day.

As Brian Granz (one of the petition's signers) wrote: "All people must employ critical thinking, must understand thescientific method, and discern clearly between fact and opinion, between truth andtheory, and between understanding and belief. It is essential for the progress andtruly for the life of humanity that we educate and inspire with science. It is ourresponsibility to do so, as scientific and educated and motivated people. This fireis not a mystical gift we were given, rather it is of our making and in it humanityshould take its greatest pride. The fire of science as a gift will also not be givento others supernaturally, rather we must share the warmth, force, and light of it.When threatened by mass fear of the unknown, we must stand up with courage anddefend the bravery of discovery, the human will to demystify, to know, and tounderstand."

Do your part, please.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Genetic Switch Fixes Damaged Hearts

Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center have discovered a genetic switch that allows mice to repair heart muscles damaged by heart attacks, and the research may be applicable to humans as well.

Normally, heart cells in mice, and in humans, stop regenerating after birth. If the heart is damaged by a heart attack, it cannot create new cells to repair the damage and hearts become less efficient at pumping blood. The team at Columbia University Medical Center in New York found that by genetically manipulating a gene associated with cell growth--called cyclin A2--adult mice were able to make new cells to replace those damaged in a heart attack.

The researchers engineered mice that continue to express cyclin A2 throughout their lives (normally it is only expressed in embryos). Later, they induced heart attacks in the mice. At three months, the mice whose cyclin A2 genes had been switched on had 77 percent better heart function than the other mice.

Most of the mice that did not have cyclin A2 activated progressed to heart failure and died, while none of the mice that expressed cyclin A2 died.

The research needs to be tested in larger mammals and eventually humans before any therapies useful to us will be available, but this is great progress and hopeful news, especially for those of us with a family history of heart attacks.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

A Better Way to Deliver Chemotherapy

Reuters reports on an article from the May issue of Cancer Cell Magazine about Australian company EnGeneIC's plans to more precisely target chemotherapy.

The method involves using antibodies on their surface of bacteria-derived nano-cells to target and latch on to cancer cells. Once attached, the nano-cell is engulfed and the chemotherapy drug is released directly inside the cancer cell. This has the advantage of ensuring that the chemotherapy drugs don't affect any bodily tissues other than the tumor(s).

The EnGeneIC delivery vehicles have proven safe in primate trials and resulted in significant cancer regression, and the company hopes to carry out human trials later in 2007 if it gained approval from Australian, U.S., European and Japanese regulatory authorities.

This is good news for all cancer sufferers. Current chemotherapy techniques involve flooding the body with toxic chemicals, much of which poisons the healthy body tissues instead of the tumor. Additionally, current methods use more chemotherapy drugs than would otherwise be necessary due to the fact that only a portion of the drugs reach the tumor site(s).

Monday, May 7, 2007

Embryonic Stem Cells for Vascular Repair

Advanced Cell Technology announced today in a story printed in Nature Methods that the company has developed a method for treating vascular damage using human embryonic stem (hES) cells.

The researchers directed the stem cells into becoming what they believe are hemangioblasts, the blood vessel precursor cells, although other teams will have to replicate this for it to be accepted. When injected into the body, these hemangioblasts were capable of locating the damaged tissue and repairing it.

"When injected into the bloodstream, they homed to the other side of the body and repaired damaged vasculature within 24 to 48 hours," Robert Lanza, M.D., Vice President of Research & Scientific Development at ACT, said. "For example, we injected the cells into mice with damaged retinas due to diabetes or other eye injury. The cells (labeled green) migrated to the injured eye, and incorporated and lit-up the entire damaged vasculature. The cells are really smart, and amazingly, knew not to do anything in uninjured eyes."

When the cells were injected into animals that had damage to their retina due to diabetes or ischemia-reperfusion injury (lack of adequate blood flow) of the retina, the cells homed to the site of injury and showed robust reparative function of the entire damaged vasculature within 24-48 hours. The cells showed a similar regenerative capacity in animal models of both myocardial infarction (50% reduction in mortality rate) and hind limb ischemia, with restoration of blood flow to near normal levels.

This research shows great promise for treating a variety of injuries and illnesses. We'll have to wait to see how the politics and ethics of using hES cells plays out. Hopefully, someone will find a way to duplicate these results using adult stem cells.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

IBM Brings Nature to Computer Chip Manufacturing

IBM has announced that it has developed a means of creating faster, more efficient computer processors by putting tiny holes in the chips, using the natural pattern-creating process that forms seashells, snowflakes, and enamel on teeth.

In chips running in IBM labs using the technique, the researchers have proven that the electrical signals on the chips can flow 35 percent faster, or the chips can consume 15 percent less energy compared to the most advanced chips using conventional techniques.

The IBM patented self-assembly process moves a nanotechnology manufacturing method that had shown promise in laboratories into a commercial manufacturing environment for the first time, providing the equivalent of two generations of Moore's Law wiring performance improvementsin a single step, using conventional manufacturing techniques.

This new form of insulation, commonly referred to as “airgaps” by scientists, is a misnomer, as the gaps are actually a vacuum, absent of air. The technique deployed by IBM causes a vacuum to form between the copper wires on a computer chip, allowing electrical signals to flow faster, while consuming less electrical power. The self-assembly process enables the nano-scale patterning required to form the gaps; this patterning is considerably smaller than current lithographic techniques can achieve.

A vacuum is believed to be the ultimate insulator for what is known as wiring capacitance, which occurs when two conductors, in this case adjacent wires on a chip, sap or siphon electrical energy from one another, generating undesirable heat and slowing the speed at which data can move through a chip.

I may be a science geek, but computer technology is my livelihood, so I'm always stoked about any advances in computer processing. And since so much of scientific progress now is being fueled by more and more powerful computer systems, technological advances like this should have a ripple effect across all of science and technology.

The self-assembly process already has been integrated with IBM's state-of-the-art manufacturing line in East Fishkill, New York and is expected to be fully incorporated in IBM’s manufacturing lines and used in chips in 2009. The chips will be used in IBM's server product lines and thereafter for chips IBM builds for other companies.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Brewing a Sustainable Energy Solution

The Queensland, Australia, Government's Sustainable Energy Innovation Fund has granted $140,000(AU) to the University of Queensland for a joint project between UQ and Foster's to turn beer wastewater into electricity.

The project will use the waste water from the fermentation process--water that is rich with sugars, starches, and alcohol--to power fuel cells, generating energy and clean water in the process. The process won't generate much electricity--only about 2 kW. Basically it's a wastewater treatment system that also generates a small amount of free electricity.

And while generating electricity using alternative energy methods is a worthwhile goal in and of itself, this process also allows for efficient recycling of wastewater in an area (Queensland) that has been hit with serious droughts for many years. “Energy and water supply are among the biggest challenges we will face in the coming decades,” Dr Korneel Rabaey, a postdoctoral research fellow at UQ's Advanced Wastewater Management Centre, said, and this research project addresses both of those challenges.

I thought I'd blog about this because I'm pretty passionate about alternative energy technologies, and even more passionate about beer.

Another Way You Can Contribute to Science (Maybe)

I've blogged numerous times her about ways you can personally help advance science and technology, from tracking birds to looking for extra-solar planets to devoting your unused computing power. Those were all amateur opportunities, however.

If you have experience in chemistry and/or the life sciences, you can help advance science and technology (and make a little bit of money) through a website called InnoCentive.

The InnoCentive site allows businesses or non-profit organizations to post research "challenges" with a prize award. Registered users can view the details of the challenges and can attempt to solve them in order to win the offered prize (which, at this time, range from $10,000 to about a million dollars).

Challenges include such things as:
  • A method is needed to create a highly energetic crystalline polyethylene surface that has increased wettability properties. ($15,000)
  • Identification of a non-animal base water insoluble material for use as a shell, and processes to utilize such a shell to make crushable capsules, are desired. ($50,000)
  • A high yield process for the synthesis of 3-alkyl thiophene oligomer with a narrow molecular weight distribution is desired. ($15,000)
  • A biomarker for measuring disease progression in Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig's Disease/ Motorneuron Disease) is needed. ($1 million)
  • Plastic trays must be transferred from ambient conditions into and out of a pressurized, high temperature atmosphere at production speeds. ($20,000)

So if you have experience in any of these areas (and the equipment you'd need to do the work), you can earn some extra money, help a company prosper, and advance the state of science and technology, all at the same time.

Another Simple Step to Help the Environment

Thanks to this Reuters article, I've read about another very simple step you can take to help fight global warming. It was pretty obvious when I read about it, but sometimes the obvious things are the things we take most for granted.

The suggestion was to put less water in your kettle. Any time you're trying to boil water for anything (like, say, making tea or boiling pasta), you use energy to boil that water. The amount of energy is directly proportional to the volume of water you are trying to heat. So, if you use less water, it takes less heat to make it boil.

Again, it seems pretty obvious, but it's something I hadn't thought of. I don't make pasta very often (I'm on a diet and trying to lose about 30 more pounds), but when I do, from now on, I'll use less water to do it.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Potentially Habitable Planet Found Around Another Star

You've probably heard by now, but scientists at the European Southern Observatory have announced that they have found the smallest planet yet around another star (other than around pulsars, which would be completely inhospitable to life). It's still bigger than Earth, about five times our mass, which means it would have a surface gravity about 1.6 times ours.

Most exciting, though, is that this planet is relatively temperate. It orbits a weak, red dwarf star (Gliese 581), that doesn't give off much heat. But it orbits close enough--about 6.7 million miles--to its parent star that its surface temperature is estimated to be between 0 and 40 degrees Celsius (32 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit).

It's too early to tell if the planet would be hospitable to life or--and how exciting is this?--if it already has life on it. All scientists know for sure is the planet's mass and distance from its parent star... the planet could be icy, with a much larger diameter and lower temperature. Or it could be shrouded in a very dense atmosphere, like Venus, in which case it would be extremely hot. But so far indications are good for the planet to be capable of sustaining liquid water, and thus capable of supporting life.

Gliese 581 is one of the one hundred closest stars to Earth, at only about 20.5 light years distant, in the constellation Libra. More resources should be put into probing stars in our stellar neighborhood, as it is quite possible that there are many, many more Earth-like planets to be found.

Over the next several years, several space-based missions will join the terrestrial telescopes that are already searching. Earlier this year, the ESA's COROT went into service studying the accoustical waves that ripple across the surface of stars as a result of planets orbiting around them, similar to tidal effects in our oceans here on Earth due to the orbit of the moon. Astronomers expect to find between 10-40 rocky worlds, together with tens of new gas giants, in each star field that COROT will observe. Every 150 days COROT will move to a new field and begin observing again.

Next to launch will be NASA's Kepler mission, currently scheduled for launch in October 2008. Kepler will essentially be a super-powerful photometer that measures the brightness of stars. When a planet passes between Kepler and its parent star, it will block a portion of the star's light, and Kepler will register this difference. It will do this for 100,000 stars over the course of its 4-6 year mission.

No sooner than 2015 or 2016, NASA will launch SIM Planetquest (formerly known as the Space Interferometry Mission), which will use interferometry to amplify the light of any planets and negate out the glare of the parent star to look for planets. The launch date for this mission has already been pushed back five times, and with NASA's science budget continuing to be squeezed, it's likely that it will be pushed back farther, or even cancelled.

NASA is also planning a pair of missions, called the Terrestrial Planet Finder missions. The first of these, the Visible Light Coronagraph (TPF-C), will collect starlight and the very dim reflected light from the planets. The telescope would have special optics to reduce the starlight by a factor of one billion, thus enabling astronomers to detect the faint planets. TPF-C could conceivably launch as early as 2014, but I wouldn't count on it.

The second TPF mission, the Infrared Optical Interferometer (TPF-I), will small telescopes on a fixed structure or on separated spacecraft floating in precision formation would simulate a much larger, very powerful telescope. The interferometer would utilize a technique called nulling to reduce the starlight by a factor of one million, thus enabling the detection of the very dim infrared emission from the planets. TPF-I could conceivably launch by 2020, but I doubt NASA will let it get that far.

Also on the far horizon is the ESA's Darwin mission, which would use three space telescopes flying in formation as an interferometer, similar to TPF-I. In addition to detecting Earth-sized planets, Darwin would be capable of determining their atmospheric content. Darwin is currently slated for a launch no sooner than 2020.

Some of these missions will never be launched for political or economic reasons, but the ones that do manage to make it to launch will bring potentially hundreds or thousands of discoveries of worlds outside our solar system, many of which may be capable of supporting human life.

Then we'll just need to find a way to get there.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Stop the Nonsense

Messenger RNA is used by the body to encode proteins based on the structure of certain genes. In mRNA as in DNA, genetic information is encoded in the sequence of four nucleotides arranged into codons of three bases each. Each codon encodes for a specific amino acid, except the stop codons that terminate protein synthesis.

But what happens if the DNA of the genes mutates, or becomes corrupted? Sometimes it causes the wrong proteins to be encoded. Sometimes, the DNA mutates in such a way that the Messenger RNA is prematurely truncated.

Example (thanks to Wikipedia):
Protein: Met Thr His Arg Ala Arg Ser Stop

Now, suppose that a mutation occurs in the DNA:

The RNA derives from the DNA (where UGA derives from TGA) In this case, UGA is a stop codon, so the protein produced by this interaction looks like this:
Protein: Met Thr His Stop

"Okay," you're saying, "but why go into all this detail?"

The answer is fairly simple. The type of mutation described above is called a "nonsense mutation." It has been estimated that n most genetic conditions, between 5-15 per cent of cases are caused by these types of mutations.

But a new drug by PTC Therapeutics, now in Phase II clinical trials, allows the cellular machinery to read through premature stop codons in mRNA, and thereby enables the translation process to produce full-length, functional proteins.

The drug, known as PTC124, has already had encouraging results in patients with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (the most severe form of muscular dystrophy) and cystic fibrosis. The drug has excited scientists because research suggests it should also work against more than 1,800 other genetic illnesses, including spinal muscular atrophy, hemophilia, lysosomal storage disorders, retinitis pigmentosa, familial hypercholesterolemia and some forms of cancer.

PTC124 won't be a cure-all for these types of conditions, but if it can be effective in 5-15% of cases, this could be one of the most promising new drugs of the decade.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

51 Things: No Left Turn

Number 45 on TIME Magazine's list of 51 Things We Can Do to only make right turns while driving. It sounds strange at first, but when you think about it, it starts to make sense. How much time do you spend sitting at green lights waiting for your chance to turn left? While you sit idling, your car is burning fuel, which wastes your money and contributes wasteful carbon to the global warming problem.

According to TIME, in 2004, UPS announced that its drivers would avoid making left turns. In metro New York, UPS has reduced CO2 emissions by 1,000 metric tons since January. Today 83% of UPS facilities are heading in the right direction; within two years, the policy will be adopted nationwide.

So plan your routes ahead of time to avoid making left turns. You could save yourself some money and do your part to fight global warming at the same time.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Hey Buddy, Wanna Be a Research Test Subject?

Sometimes the easiest way to contribute to scientific advancement is not to be the scientist, but to be the lab rat. Research projects across the country and around the world need subjects for their test and control groups. The two means they have for getting subjects into their tests is by recruiting and by accepting volunteers.

Recruiting happens when the researchers target people with specific conditions, usually by working through a network of doctors who treat whatever condition they are trying to treat. The doctors recruit the patients and, if the patients consent, the doctors sign them up for the trials and are usually available to administer the treatments and provide follow-up care as part of the study.

Volunteers, on the other hand, take a proactive step to contact the research center or some agent in order to volunteer for the trial. I use the term "volunteer" loosely here, because in many of these studies, the volunteers are compensated (in cash, free medical care during the study, or both).

There are several ways to find out about opportunities for you to participate in a research study. The first (and best) is to ask your doctor. My doctor works at a clinic where they do clinical research, and she takes part in a couple of studies, one of which she considered signing me up for (until she discovered that the samples of a cholesterol medication she was giving me lowered my cholesterol by a massive amount in just two months).

You can also volunteer by checking with a local testing center, such as those run by Covance, or by searching for available studies at, a site run by the National Institutes of Health. If you're looking for studies outside the U.S., Thomson Centerwatch maintains a list of actively recruiting clinical trials around the world.

Even if you volunteer directly, though, you should still check with your doctor before volunteering for any study.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Studies Pinpoint Cause of ALS

Two studies published in Nature Neuroscience may show new ways to treat the degenerative nerve disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which slowly paralyzes its victims until they die.

Both studies showed that a specific type of nerve cells, called astrocytes, turn toxic when they carry a mutated gene called SOD1, which has previously been linked with ALS. When SOD1 is mutated in astrocytes, one of the nourishing proteins apparently turns toxic. When the researchers grew astrocytes with mutated SOD1, they killed the neighboring mouse motor neuron cells.

This research may lead to new methods of detecting ALS earlier, and eventually to options for arresting the progress of the disease by neutralizing the protein that causes the cells to die.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Hey Buddy, Wanna Be a Satellite Software Developer?

I know it's been a while since I wrote a post in this series, but I just found an exciting new opportunity for people like you and me to participate in the advancement of science and technology.

Wired Magazine reports on a new effort by NASA to develop software for satellites in the public domain through open-source software development projects.

The program was launched quietly last year under NASA's CoLab entrepreneur outreach program, created by Robert Schingler, 28, and Jessy Cowan-Sharp, 25, of NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. Members of the CosmosCode group have been meeting in Second Life and will open the program to the public in the coming weeks, organizers said.

I'm pretty excited about this opportunity, personally. Not only am I a science-and-technology nerd (as should be obvious from reading this blog), but I'm also a software developer. CosmosCode is my chance to take part in the creation of software for satellites and actually contribute my knowledge and skills--as opposed to just my idle CPU cycles--to the advancement of the human race.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

3D Solar Cells Boost Efficiency, Reduce Size and Weight

A team of researchers at the Georgia Tech Research Institute has designed new three-dimensional solar cells that absorb almost all of the light that hits them and could boost the efficiency of photovoltaic (PV) systems while reducing their size, weight and mechanical complexity.

The GTRI photovoltaic cells trap light between their tower structures, which are about 100 microns tall, 40 microns by 40 microns square, 10 microns apart -- and built from arrays containing millions of vertically-aligned carbon nanotubes. Conventional flat solar cells reflect a significant portion of the light that strikes them, reducing the amount of energy they absorb.

Because the tower structures can trap and absorb light received from many different angles, the new cells remain efficient even when the sun is not directly overhead. That could allow them to be used on spacecraft without the mechanical aiming systems that maintain a constant orientation to the sun, reducing weight and complexity – and improving reliability.

The researchers caution that there is still some work to be done on improving the designs. However, at least two efforts to commercialize this technology are already in the works.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

51 Things: Plant a Fence

Number 26 on TIME Magazine's list of 51 Things We Can Do to fight global warming now is to plant a bamboo fence. Bamboo makes an attractive fence, and it consumes more carbon than many other plants when allowed to grow.

Most homeowners have to restrict its growth, lest it get out of control. Do this, however, and you reduce bamboo's capacity as a carbon sink. Only large-scale plantings, which absorb CO2 faster than they release it, can favorably tip the scales.

Planting a fence also saves on the carbon production that would have gone into manufacturing a fence from wood, metal, or plastic.

If you have a homeowners' association, make sure you check with them before planting your fence.

New Promise for Diabetes Treatment Using Stem Cells

A new research study treated fifteen young diabetics in Brazil, all suffering from Type I diabetes, with stem cells drawn from their own blood. Though too early to call it a cure, the procedure has enabled thirteen of the young people, who have Type I diabetes, to live insulin-free so far, some as long as three years.

"It's the first time in the history of Type 1 diabetes where people have gone with no treatment whatsoever ... no medications at all, with normal blood sugars," said study co-author Dr. Richard Burt of Northwestern University's medical school in Chicago.

While the procedure can be potentially life-threatening, none of the 15 patients in the study died or suffered lasting side effects. But it didn't work for two of them.

Larger, more rigorous studies are needed to determine if stem cell transplants could become standard treatment for people with the disease once called juvenile diabetes. It is less common than Type 2 diabetes, which is associated with obesity.

Read the full article by AP Medical Writer Lindsey Tanner here.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Nanogenerator Provides Continuous Direct Current

Researchers at Georgia Tech have developed a prototype nanometer-scale generator that produces continuous direct-current electricity by harvesting mechanical energy from such environmental sources as ultrasonic waves, mechanical vibration or blood flow. Based on arrays of vertically-aligned zinc oxide nanowires that move inside a novel “zig-zag” plate electrode, the nanogenerators could provide a new way to power nanoscale devices without batteries or other external power sources.

The nanogenerators take advantage of the unique coupled piezoelectric and semiconducting properties of zinc oxide nanostructures, which produce small electrical charges when they are flexed. Fabrication begins with growing an array of vertically-aligned nanowires approximately a half-micron apart on gallium arsenide, sapphire or a flexible polymer substrate. A layer of zinc oxide is grown on top of substrate to collect the current. The researchers also fabricate silicon “zig-zag” electrodes, which contain thousands of nanometer-scale tips made conductive by a platinum coating.

This device could be a big step forward for self-powered nanotech devices and could help bring about the future of nano-machines.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

51 Things: Let Employees Work Close to Home

Number 13 on TIME Magazine's list of 51 Things We Can Do to fight global warming now is to let your employees work closer to home. Gene Mullins, a software developer in Seattle, created a program that helps firms slash the time employees spend driving by matching them with work closer to home.

By spending less time driving, employees use less fuel (and spend less time commuting). Using less fuel saves the employees some money and reduces the amount of pollutants going into the atmosphere.

Of course, an even better solution is to let employees work from home, and that's exactly what the Federal government is considering.

MIT Researchers Teach Computer to See Like a Person

A team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have created a computer visualization model that mimics the way humans see and interpret images. The computer model, designed to mimic the way the brain itself processes visual information, performs as well as humans do on rapid categorization tasks. The model even tends to make similar errors as humans, possibly because it so closely follows the organization of the brain’s visual system.

This new study supports a long–held hypothesis that rapid categorization happens without any feedback from cognitive or other areas of the brain. The results also indicate that the model can help neuroscientists make predictions and drive new experiments to explore brain mechanisms involved in human visual perception, cognition, and behavior. Deciphering the relative contribution of feed-forward and feedback processing may eventually help explain neuropsychological disorders such as autism and schizophrenia. The model also bridges the gap between the world of artificial intelligence (AI) and neuroscience because it may lead to better artificial vision systems and augmented sensory prostheses.

Importantly, the results showed no significant difference between humans and the model. Both had a similar pattern of performance, with well above 90% accuracy for the close views dropping to 74% for distant views. The 16% drop in performance for distant views represents a limitation of the one feed-forward sweep in dealing with clutter. Still, the researchers caustion that "We have not solved vision yet." With more time for cognitive feedback, people would outperform the model because they could focus attention on the target and ignore the clutter.

This model is a big step forward toward a real artificial intelligence (is that an oxymoron?). Computers that use a visual model to interpret what they are seeing could allow for computer systems that perform many of the tasks that are restricted to people today.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Mind-Machine Interface Takes a Step Forward

In a laboratory at the University of Southern California, a team of researchers has found a way to engineer a brain implant that can re-create thoughts, Popular Science reports. The revolutionary device could be used to treat brain damage or memory loss.

The chip represents a hardware version of the brain cells in your hippocampus that are crucial to the formation of memory. At the moment, the chip models fewer than 12,000 neurons, compared with the 100 billion or so present in a human brain. Still, even this small number represents a stunning achievement in the field of neuro-engineering.

The next big challenge, the researchers say, is to make the chip fully bidirectional, so that it can both generate and receive signals, just like a real cell.

For anyone (like me) who has a family history of memory loss (at least, I think I do... it's hard to remember...), a device like this could be just what the doctor ordered.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

PTO Invalidates Three Human Stem Cell Patents

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has invalidated three patents covering human stem cells that were issued to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. This is good news for anyone who hopes to develop treatments for illnesses and injuries based on human stem cells, because the three patents have been blamed for slowing research in the highly visible field of regenerative medicine.

The PTO ruled the discovery of embryonic stem cells from primates--including humans--was not worthy of patent protection because scientists had used similar methods to isolate embryonic stem cells from mice and other mammals, and described the cells' potential for producing medical therapies.

It's too early to say for sure what affect this is going to have, because these results are still preliminary. WARF's attorneys have two months to respond to the concerns; if they don't succeed they can take the case to the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences. If the patents are not reinstated, the foundation can file a claim in court.

When I hear more about the results of the legal proceedings, I'll post them here.

51 Things: Cozy Up to Your Water Heater

Number 21 on TIME Magazine's list of 51 Things We Can Do to fight global warming now is one of the simplest: wrap your water heater with a thermal blanket.

The cost? $10-20. The benefit? Your water heater will lose less heat over time, lowering your bill for electricity or gas (depending on your type of water heater), lowering your bills and your household carbon emissions (approximately 250 lbs. of CO2 per year).

For the price, I plan to do this for my apartment. There's not much I can think of that will have this much effect for such a small, one-time price.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Researchers Identify New Target for Blocking Cancer Cell Metastasis

Last week, the Van Andel Institute announced that its researchers have identified a protein involved in cancer cell metastasis, called DIP. DIP binds to and inhibits the activity of mDia2, a protein that works to control tumor cell metastasis, or the development of secondary tumors away from the primary cancer site.

When DIP binds to mDia2, it causes the affected cells to change shape and bubble, or bleb. This cell blebbing inhibits the control mDia2 has over tumor cell metastasis and may lead to development of secondary tumors.

If researchers can find a compound that will inhibit DIP, they believe it could prevent cancer cells from metastasizing, vastly improving the survivability of many forms of cancer.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Do Your Part to Fight Global Warming

I stumbled today on a website,, that offers information and action steps for reducing your personal or family carbon footprint. In addition, the site runs a carbon offset service whereby you can pay (donate) money to to offset your personal or family carbon footprint.

The money donated is used by on offset programs such as helping support alternative energy programs and buying (and retiring) carbon offsets on global and regional trading markets. When you make your contribution to their program, you get a choice of how you want your donation to be spent, including options such as alternative energy, energy efficiency, and re-forestation.

Improving the environment starts with individuals like you and me, and making a donation to is an excellent first step. In addition, Time Magazine has a list of 51 things you can do to personally help in the fight against global warming. I'm going to be highlighting some of the ones I find more interesting over the next week or two, so stay tuned here.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

SpaceX Falcon 1 Launched Successfully

Congratulations to Elon Musk and his team at SpaceX on the successful launch of their Falcon 1 rocket late yesterday (or early today GMT). Unfortunately, I lost the video feed and couldn't get it back, so I didn't get to watch the launch. So you'll have to get your launch information from Mr. Musk himself:

The second test launch of Falcon 1 took place today at 6:10 pm California time. The launch was not perfect, but certainly pretty good. Given that the primary objectives were demonstrating responsive launch and gathering test data in advance of our first operational satellite launch later this year, the outcome was great. Operationally responsive (ie fast) launch has become an increasingly important national security objective, so demonstrating rapid loading of propellents and launch in less than an hour, as well as a rapid recycle following the first engine ignition are major accomplishments.

We retired almost all of the significant development risk items, in particular:

  • 1st stage ascent past max dynamic pressure
  • avionics operation in vacuum and under radiation
  • stage separation
  • 2nd stage ignition
  • fairing separation
  • 2nd stage nozzle/chamber at steady state temp in vacuum

Falcon flew far beyond the "edge" of space, typically thought of as around 60 miles. Our altitude was approximately 200 miles, which is just 50 miles below the International Space Station. The second stage didn't achieve full orbital velocity, due to a roll excitation late in the burn, but that should be a comparatively easy fix once we examine the flight data. Since it is impossible to ground test the second stage under the same conditions it would see in spaceflight, this anomaly was also something that would have been very hard to determine without a test launch.

All in all, this test has flight proven 95+ percent of the Falcon 1 systems, which bodes really well for our upcoming flights of Falcon 1 and Falcon 9, which uses similar hardware. We do not expect any significant delay in the upcoming flights at this point. The Dept of Defense satellite launch is currently scheduled for late Summer and the Malaysian satellite for the Fall.

I'd like to thank DARPA and the Air Force for buying the two test flights and helping us work through a number of challenges over the past year. I'd also like to express my appreciation for the efforts of the Kwajalein Army Range (Reagan Test Site) and we look forward to many more launches in the future.

Finally, thank you to everyone at SpaceX for working so hard to make this a great test. This is a big leap forward for commercial spaceflight!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

SpaceX Launch to Re-Attempt Launch Today

EDIT (7:17 PM Central): They apparently fixed whatever went wrong (about 0.4 seconds before launch, if what I overheard was correct), and they are going to re-start the countdown for another attempt after un-fueling and re-fueling the rocket.

EDIT (7:06 PM Central): Another abort, this time at ignition. They actually ignited the rocket, and immediately aborted the launch. At this time, they are attempting to figure out what went wrong, and I suspect we'll know something by tomorrow or the next day.

EDIT: Launch time is now 5:05 PM Pacific time (which is 7:05 PM here in the Midwest).

EDIT: Elon Musk posted this update this morning:

The abort that occurred a few minutes before T-0 was triggered by our ground control software. It commanded a switchover of range telemetry from landline to radio, which took place correctly, however, because of the hardware involved, this transition takes a few hundred milliseconds. Before it had time to complete, our system verification software examined state and aborted.

Our simulations done beforehand all passed, because the simulator did not account for a hardware driven delay in the transition. We considered putting the vehicle into a safe state yesterday and updating the ground control software to make the very minor fix needed, but the safer course of action was to stand down.

Yesterday afternoon and evening (Kwaj time), our launch team updated the software to address the timing issue and verified that there were no similar problems elsewhere. We ran the software through several simulated countdowns and then once again with the rocket and range in the loop.

All systems are now go for launch with T-0 at 4pm California time today (Tues).

Original Post:
So yesterday SpaceX scrubbed their attempted launch of their Falcon 1 rocket. Reportedly, the scrub was due to a range telemetry problem.

No word on a reschedule yet, but when it happens I'll let you know.

Monday, March 19, 2007

SpaceX to Attempt Second Launch Today

SpaceX announced yesterday that all systems are go for their attempt to launch their second Falcon 1 rocket, and that the launch would be at 11:00 GMT (6:00 PM, if you're on Central Time, like I am) today.

The launch will be webcast on their site starting an hour before the slated launch time.

Due to their cautious nature (after their first attempt, last year, sprung a fuel leak and crashed), there is still a very real chance that this launch attempt will also be delayed. I'll post any updates as they become available.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

SpaceX Test Firing Successful

According to the SpaceX website, the company successfully completed its static test firing on Thursday with no engine anomalies found. They did, however, detect an anomaly from the GPS portion of the guidance system fifteen minutes after the static firing. The GPS is not a critical system, however, as it is only a backup to the inertial guidance system.

At this time, the company still expects to launch in the coming week, so keep your eyes open. They will be webcasting the launch when it happens.

They also have two videos of the static firing, one at medium distance and one up close.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

A New Way to Do Research from Home

I've blogged on a number of occasions about distributed computing, which allows you to contribute your unused computing power to advance scientific research, because I think that's the single biggest thing most of us can do right now to improve the state of science and technology.

But now you can do even more. The Folding@Home project at Stanford University has new client software for their protein folding simulation that will allow it to run on a Sony PlayStation 3.

According to the Folding@Home website, with about 10,000 PS3s online, the researchers would be able to achieve performance on the petaflop scale. With software from Sony, the PlayStation 3 will now be able to contribute to the Folding@Home project, pushing Folding@Home a major step forward.

Be More

Wired has an article today about the U.S. military's efforts to improve the capabilities of its soldiers. While the article mostly focuses on defense applications, the two main efforts they highlight have applications beyond the military.

One that I found interesting was a device called "the Glove", which is used to help regulate body temperature. Their researchers discovered that muscle fatigue turns out to actually be caused not by the loss of stored sugars, but rather because they overheat. The Glove cools the blood as it circulates, and their tests demonstrate that such a simple act can increase endurance dramatically (one of the researchers demonstrates by doing 600 pull-ups, and the other by doing 1,000 push-ups... on his 60th birthday).

A prototype of the Glove also can be used to warm the blood in frigid conditions, allowing for better regulation of body temperatures in extreme conditions.

The article also highlights research into a method of putting animals (and potentially humans) into stasis for short time periods. In one example, mice were put into stasis in a 5% oxygen environment and drained of 60% of their blood, a situation that should have been instantly fatal. Instead, the mice survived for ten hours or more.

The military's goal for this research, obviously, is to allow soldiers who've been shot to survive long enough for medical care to get to them, especially in an era when smaller units means troops are travelling without medics. But this technology could also be used for treating traumas, and I can foresee a time when all ambulances will be equipped with the necessary gear for putting a patient into a form of stasis until blood can be supplied and their wounds treated. It may even be useful as a viable alternative to anesthesia for surgery.

This sounds like some pretty cool technology, and I can't wait until it's available to the mass market. I'd love to have something like the Glove for when I jog my half marathon.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Engineers Create Micro-Factory

Engineers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have developed and demonstrated a one-square centimeter device they call the "micromanipulator station" that uses agile, human-like fingers that can assemble micromachines made of micron-sized parts.

The device still has a number of problems to overcome, such as adhesion of particles to the "fingers". It is, however, a step in the direction of creating nano-factories that will eventually be able to create machines at the nano-scale.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Exercise Helps Fight Aging-Related Memory Loss

A new study conducted by Columbia University Medical Center has uncovered direct evidence of the link between exercise and better memory.

Most people's memory begins to fade after age 30 due to degradation of an area of the brain known as the dentate gyrus. Exercise, the research shows, increases the flow of blood to this area of the brain, stimulating growth of new cells and allows for better memory retention.

So the next time you have something you need to remember, take a break from cramming and get some exercise... you'll be able to better remember the things you need to know.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Study Shows Stem Cells Useful for Treating Brain Diseases

According to a study reported in Nature Medicine, a test conducted recently on mice by researchers at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research shows that stem cells can be used to treat degenerative brain diseases.

For the study, the scientists implanted human stem cells (both embryonic and fetal) into the brains of mice inflicted with the equivalent of Sandhoff disease (which is similar to Tay-sachs). The stem cells spread through the brain, taking the place of neural cells killed by the disease.

The researchers noted no problems associated with the stem cell treatment. No tumors formed, the mice did not "reject" the foreign cells, and the treatment seemed to reduce inflammation.

The treated mice lived 70 percent longer than untreated mice. The disease eventually came back, but the researchers believe they could keep it at bay by giving booster injections of the stem cells to take over the functions of the mutated natural brain cells.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

A Low-cost, Home-built Rapic Prototyping Machine?

Rapid prototyping machines--or 3-D printers--use a small nozzle that scans back and forth across a surface, depositing tiny droplets of quick-hardening plastic. After each scan, the nozzle moves up a notch and scans again until it has built up the complete object, layer by layer. With multiple nozzles or a means of swapping supply cartridges, the machine can create objects made of many different materials. An electronic circuit, for example, can be made by combining an organic semiconductor, metallic inks and ceramic insulators.

Price tags for these machines average around $100,000, but you can now build your own for about $2,300 worth of off-the-shelf parts, thanks to the work of a Cornell University engineering professor. The prototype--called Fab@Home--is slower than commercial models and it doesn't have the same fine detail resolution, but for the price it definitely has its uses. Additionally, since the system is home-built from plans available online, you can modify the device to do whatever you want, unlike the commercial products.

You can download the plans to start building your own Fab@Home from this website. The site also includes construction hints, ideas for applications, notes on the history of 3-D printing and discussion groups. People are invited and encouraged to make improvements, and a sort of cult is slowly forming.