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 Instructables.com. 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 DefendScience.org 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.