Monday, December 29, 2008

Blog Activity

I know I haven't been very good about posting on this blog lately... I could make all of the excuses about how my new job (started in August) takes up a lot more of my time, but the fact is that I could be doing more. And one of my resolutions for the new year is that I will do more in 2009.

But what do you want from SufficientlyAdvanced in 2009? When I first started this blog, I talked about cool advances and how people like you and me—non-scientists—could contribute to the advancement of science and technology. Then, after a couple of the blogs where I got my sci-tech news disappeared, I kind of changed direction and began focusing on providing and aggregating what I thought of as the coolest news.

But as this blog is intended to be a community forum for discussion, what would you, dear reader, like from SufficientlyAdvanced in 2009?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Bloomberg Wants NYC To Go Green

Mike Bloomberg, billionaire mayor of New York City, wants the city to invest heavily in a push to develop renewable energy The plan, still in its early stages, suggests placing wind turbines on buildings and bridges as well as in coastal waters near the city. Yesterday afternoon, the city issued a formal request for proposals to companies around the country for energy projects based on wind, solar and water resources in New York.

Whether or not the plan sees any action remains to be seen, and could be in doubt. Bloomberg is known for his ambitious proposals that later collapse. In addition, any plans would take years or decades to complete, and Bloomberg has only 18 months left in his term.

The plan also includes widespread use of solar panels, possibly by allowing companies to rent rooftops for solar panels and sell the energy to residents.

The Possibility of Interstellar Travel

There have been a number of blog posts over the last two days about interstellar travel and the difficulties involved therein. As reported in Wired, Robert Frisbee, group leader in the Advanced Propulsion Technology Group at JPL, conducted a study that designed an interstellar vessel with an antimatter-based propulsion system that could reach α Centauri in a mere 40 years. Brice Cassenti, associate professor in the Department of Engineering and Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute says that it would take between one and 100 times the current energy output of the entire world to send a probe to α Centauri. Many scientists at the recent Joint Propulsion Conference analyzed the proposed designs and largely agreed that traveling to even the nearest stars within the human lifespan is nearly impossible.

Randall Parker at FuturePundit points out that the development of therapies for rejuvenating people will make it possible to live long enough to travel to another solar system, but wonders if anybody would be willing to spend 50 years traveling to reach another star system if all we find there are planets like the ones (other than Earth) in our own solar system.

Paul Gilster, meanwhile, points out that thrust-based systems (ejecting mass backward in order to go forward) are not the only means of propelling a spacecraft, and remains positive in spite of his bet that an interstellar mission will not be launched before December 6, 2025.

Brian Wang agrees that newer technologies may change the basic assumptions Frisbee used and eventually make interstellar travel possible, but points out that advances are needed not just in propulsion but in materials. And people.

There are some very smart people hard at work on solutions to the interstellar travel problem, but I suspect that Paul is right... they won't find a good solution in the next few decades. I do think, though, that we'll solve the problem eventually. I very much hope that I'm around to see it (possibly with the help of the rejuvenation therapies Randall mentioned).

If you want to participate in the ongoing discussions, Paul's Centauri Dreams site serves as the discussion area for the Tau Zero Foundation. Also, The Ultimate Project has forums to discuss their 500-year plan for a massive interstellar colonization ship. I'm sure there are other sources as well, but those are the two that immediately come to mind.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Synthetic Molecules Based on Curcumin Show Promise Against Cancer

Centuries of anecdotal (and more recently, scientific) evidence shows that curcumin—a chemical found in the spice turmeric—is capable of protecting against multiple diseases, including cancer. When ingested, however, curcumin is not absorbed well by the digestive system, instead being mostly eliminated before it can be useful to the body.

Now scientists at Ohio State University have created synthetic compounds based on curcumin that, in the lab at least, kill cancer cells and stop cancer from spreading. The compounds have been tested in computer simulations and, in some cases, in human cells in the lab. The computer-based predictions indicate that the most effective compound developed so far by the Ohio State lab may be effective in up to 50 percent of all breast and prostate cancers. Some of the compounds also show potential to kill pancreatic cancer cells and inhibit cancer cell migration.

The team is planning to continue refining the compounds before advancing to animal studies to test their effectiveness. The scientists hope to develop a chemotherapeutic agent available in pill form.

Friday, August 15, 2008

California to Gain Two Gargantuan PV Plants

Two companies in California have announced plans to construct new photovoltaic (PV) power plants in that sunny state, each vastly larger than any photovoltain power facilities anywhere in the world. The plants together will cover 12.5 square miles of central California and will generate, at peak, 800 megawatts of power. While the actual capacity will be somewhat lower than that (because they won't always produce at their peak and at night won't produce power at all), they will be peaking during the part of the day when demand is the highest and energy the most expensive.

Both plants will supply power to Pacific Gas & Electric, which is under a California state mandate to deliver 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010. PG&E says that the two plants will help it reach a total of 24 percent of its energy from renewable sources, but not until they care completed, which should be around 2013.

Both plants will be in San Luis Obispo County. One, built by OptiSolar, will generate 550 MW of peak energy. The other, built by SunPower, will generate 250 MW of peak energy. The largest existing PV installation in the U.S. is a 14 MW facility at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. The largest in the world currently in use in Spain is a 23 MW facility. There are larger facilities under construction in several areas, but none that come close to matching these two new facilities.

The plants will not come close to the efficiency and pricing of fossil fuel-based power plants, but should be competitive with wind and solar thermal plants and far more cost-effective than existing PV installations, due to economies of scale.

The Nature of Time

You think you know something about Time? Here's your chance to prove it. Foundational Questions in Physics and Cosmology, or fq(x) for short, is having an essay contest with the topic being "The Nature of Time", including but not limited to: the arrow of time; the emergence of time in quantum gravity; time, free will and determinism; time travel; the beginning or ending of time; and timelessness.

The essays must be primarily concerned with physics, cosmology, or closely related fields. They must also be original and creative, and accessible to a diverse, highly-educated but non-specialist audience (the example they give is somewhere between Scientific American and a review article in Science or Nature). The maximum length is 5000 words of text or 10 pages, and entries must be submitted as PDF files (not sure why... that doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me; I would think that Word documents would have been a better choice).

Essays will be posted for all to read and voted upon by the community. Prizes will be awarded to the judges' top picks and to the community's top picks. So even if you don't have the writer's gift, you should go to the site to read the entries and vote for your top choice. And who knows? You may even learn something about one of the fundamental topics of physics and cosmology.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Robot Controlled By Rat Neurons

In some of the weirder news I've read lately, New Scientist Tech is reporting on a set of experiments being conducted at the University of Reading in the UK that involve using rat neurons to control a specialized robot. The neurons—about 300,000 of them—are in a nutrient-and-antibiotic bath in a control unit that controls the robot wirelessly via Bluetooth.

Because these are living cells, scientists are unable to program the robot. Instead, they are working on training it by sending electrical signals into the neurons in response to certain actions the robot takes. For example, an ultrasonic sensor on the robot can detect walls and other obstacles, and the brain cells receive an electrical input to let them know the wall is there. So far, they have "taught" the brain to avoid obstacles with about 80 percent reliability (another researcher at Georgia Tech has taught his robot to avoid obstacles with 90 percent reliability).

The results of this research could be interesting, in terms of re-training brains damaged by accidents, strokes, or diseases and allowing people who are currently disabled to live more active lives.

But could it also lead to rat brain-controlled robots taking over the world? That seems unlikely, but if it ever happens we can just give the robots mad cow (rat?) disease or Alzheimer's.

New Research on Quantum Entanglement

The idea of faster-than-light—even instantaneous—communication has been around for a long time. Pretty much ever since the concept of quantum entanglement was proposed. Albert Einstein, notably, did not believe in such behavior, as his Theory of Relativity showed that faster-than-light travel and even communication were impossible. He mocked quantum entanglement, famously calling it "spooky action at a distance."

Nevertheless, recent studies have confirmed the presence of this "spooky action" and now, for the first time, placed a limit on how quickly it happens. The experiment, conducted in Switzerland, confirmed that the entangled particles had exactly the same properties at the same time, even though they were 11 miles apart. In doing so, the research determined that the minimum speed at which the quantum information could be passing between the two particles was at least 10,000 times the speed of light.

There are several possible explanations, but a great deal of new work would need to be done before we really know what's going on. It's possible that some exotic particle that travels faster than the speed of light (a tachyon) could be emitted by one of the particles and absorbed by the other. Indeed, the theory of tachyons shows that a tachyon with no mass would have an infinite velocity, which in a way means that it would exist completely outside of time, capable of traveling to any (and every) point in the universe instantaneously, and would never exist in time (which is why we have never detected them directly).

It is also possible that nothing is traveling that fast at all, but rather that the act of observing the particles causes their wave functions to collapse, and because the particles are entangled they share the same wave function. If the collapse of the wave function happens instantaneously, then it would happen for both particles at the same time.

In any event, researchers are still quite a ways away from being able to give us a reliable ansible.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Joggers Live Longer, Healthier Lives

A new study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine has told us something we pretty much already knew: if you jog, or engage in any regular aerobic exercise, in middle or late life, you're less likely to have disabilities and will live a longer and healthier life. The study, conducted over 20 years from 1985 to 2005, included 538 study participants who were regular runners and 423 people in a control group who had never run. All participants were at least 50 years of age when the study began.

The data was compiled at the 8-year, 13-year, and 21-year marks and revealed—tada!—that the particpants who exercised had better aerobic capacity, better cardiovascular fitness, increased bone mass, fewer inflammatory markers, less physical disability, better response to vaccinations and even improved thinking, learning and memory. They also lived significantly longer. By the 19th year of the study, 34 percent of the non-runners had died compared with only 15 percent of the runners.

At the end of the study, the participants were assessed for ability levels in eight basic daily activities, such as walking, eating, and grip strength. The runners averaged one mild disability, while the non-runners averaged one-to-two disabilities and were more likely to have major disabilities.

None of this really comes as a surprise... we've seen studies for years telling us that if we exercise and eat right, we'll live longer, healthier lives. That's why I jog several times a week (I'll be completing my fourth half-marathon in October). And I hope to still be doing it when I'm in my 80s.

Company Engineers E. Coli to Make Fuel

Researchers at biotech company LS9, Inc., have engineered E. coli bacteria to produce a substance very similar to diesel fuel after consuming pretty much any agricultural product. The bacteria—a harmless strain of E. coli—can also be engineered to produce gasoline or jet fuel, the researchers say.

The fact that the bacteria can use any type of plant material is promising, as they will be able to produce fuel from waste materials, not just foor products. And because the bacteria are producing finished fuel products—instead of, say, ethanol—they can use the existing distribution system, such as pipelines and tankers. Ethanol cannot use oil pipelines because it will corrode them.

The company is working through issues of scaling up the process now, but hopes to have large-scale commercial production within three to four years. They do not, however, expect their product to do anything more than supplement oil as an energy source, not replace it.

Best of all was the title for this article on Lab Makes Renewable Diesel Fuel From E. Coli Poop. That made me laugh.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Orion First Launch Date Slips One Year

As part of the government's Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), NASA had proposed to create a new launch system called Orion to enter use by 2015 as part of the Constellation program. Whatever you may think of Orion (and there are plenty of detractors) this is the launch system that—for better or worse—NASA will be using post-shuttle. With the space shuttle retiring in 2010 (or 2011, depending on Congressional priorities and willingness to take risks with a 30+ year old launch system) there will be a gap in the United States' ability to launch astronauts into orbit until Orion is available.

The deadline in the VSE for Orion's first launch is March 2015, but NASA always thought they could get it done a little earlier, possibly as early as 2013, in an attempt to shorten the gap in launch capabilities. Unfortunately, their hopes have now slipped to September of 2014 as the earliest possible launch date for Orion due to insufficient funding from Congress.

My opinion, though, is that NASA won't hit that September 2014 date, or even the Congressionally-mandated March 2015 date due to the amount of work still to be done and the uncertainties that crop up along the way. A while back it was revealed that the Orion launcher has problems with vibrations that could possibly shake the astronauts to death. The solution they came up with involved—get this—using springs to dampen the vibration. That's right, it took them six months to come up with the idea of using the same technology that your car uses to reduce the amount by which you feel bumps in the road.

The bureaucratic nightmare that is the U.S. government takes six months to put springs under the astronauts' seats... figuring out the complicated parts of a launch system (and testing it until it works reliably) will likely take considerably longer.

Researchers Create Interface To Help Immune System Fight HIV

Roughly one percent of the antibodies in your blood are of a type known as anti-gal, a type of antibody that is used for fighting serious infections such as Salmonella and E. coli. If you're not fighting a serious infection... well, they don't really do all that much.

For people with HIV and other serious viruses, though, that may soon change. Researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden have created a new molecule that binds, on one end, to anti-gal. At the other end, the molecule binds to HIV. The result is that these powerful disease fighting antibodies are attached to the viruses that usually hide from them, allowing the disease fighting powers of the anti-gal antibodies to destroy the HIV viruses.

While the treatment did not eliminate the viruses' ability to infect the cells, in an in vitro test, 90 percent of the HIV viruses in the sample were unable to infect their target cells.

The group is now working to adapt the molecules so that they will bind to MRSA, an antibiotic resistant strain of staph infection that has been spreading for several years now.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Researchers Identify Trigger for Brain Plasticity

During childhood, the human brain is more readily able to learn than during adulthood. During this period, the brain has an improved ability to form new connections, a state called neuroplasticity. Now neuroscientists at Children's Hospital Boston have discovered a protein called Otx2, which appears to trigger this heightened state of brain plasticity.

Their research, conducted in mice, demonstrates that Otx2, which is created in the retina, travels into the brain in response to stimuli and triggers the brain's ability to form new neural connections. In a series of experiments, they showed that mice kept in the dark—thus not triggering the sensory receptors to create Otx2—the Otx2 remains in the retinas, not migrating to the brain, preventing a type of cell known as parvalbumin cells, which are responsible for visual processing, from maturing.

Further research will be needed to determine if these results are applicable to other parts of the brain besides the parvalbumin cells and whether these results are also applicable to humans.

The Future of Drug Development?

Pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly & Co. is taking an unusual step to help advance two drugs in its pipeline for treatment of Alzheimer's Disease—it is allowing a hedge fund, TPG-Axon Capital, to invest directly in the drugs. The investments, totaling $325 million, will help cover the costs to finish development and conduct clinical tests on the two drugs. In return for its investment, TPG-Axon will receive milestone payments as the drugs progress through the pipeline and a percentage of revenues if either of the drugs makes it to market. This is not the first time Lilly has taken this type of investment. Lilly allowed NovaQuest, an organization that helps drug companies manage the risks of developing and launching drugs, to invest in Cymbalta, an antidepressant. Since then, NovaQuest has reaped 8.25 percent of Cymbalta's sales.

Lilly has a history of thinking outside the box when it comes to drug discovery, development, and marketing. In 2001, the company spun off its eLilly initiative as InnoCentive (which I've blogged about here and here), an organization that uses the power of crowds to solve problems for companies whose own researchers have struggled to solve them.

Could investing in individual drugs be the future of the pharmaceutical industry? Would structuring a drug company in such a way allow people who are victims of an illness or family members of victims to drive development of treatments? But more importantly, is it possible that this could lead to drug companies whose motivation is to keep researching drugs rather than marketing them? For instance, if an illness has a low incidence, could a drug company make more money by stringing along treatment in exchange for further investment, rather than releasing and marketing the drug?

Those are tough questions to answer now, but as this business model spreads, answers will be revealed.

New Materials to Make Cars More Durable, Efficient

Speaking of automotive technology, Brian Wang over at Next Big Future has an article about advances in automotive materials and how they could impact such things as vehicle durability and efficiency.

A new process for working with titanium (which I blogged about back in May) could make it more cost-effective for manufacturers to make their parts out of the durable metal rather than using aluminum. Parts such as brake rotors made out of titanium should last longer than rotors made from aluminum, improving the durability of a vehicle.

Brian also talks about increases in production volumes of carbon fiber and its potential for use in automobiles. Carbon fiber is lighter than steel and ten times as strong as iron. If most of the steel in an auto is replaced with carbon fiber, the vehicle could be made to weigh 40 percent less. Doing so could improve fuel efficiency (and reduce carbon emissions) by as much as 30 percent.

But carbon fiber is currently vastly more expensive than steel and even aluminum, so it has not come into widespread use for auto bodies. That may be changing with the increased production, which will push down prices due to economies of scale, at the same time that prices of iron, steel, and aluminum have been rising.

Green Car Congress recently reported that Toray Industries has partnered with Nissan and Honda to develop a new carbon fiber material for use in auto bodies.

Thermoelectric Generators Improve Vehicle Fuel Efficiency

Internal combustion engines, like the one in your car, generate power by burning a fuel source (usually gasoline) and converting that heat into mechanical energy, usually by heating a gas or liquid and causing it to expand, using the pressure to move the pistons outward. But it turns out that the process is fairly energy-inefficient, resulting in most of the heat (about 70 percent) being lost to the atmosphere (that's why the hood of your car gets hot and the exhaust gas that comes out your tailpipe is, likewise, hot). But what if we could capture some of that waste heat and use it for energy? That would make cars more energy efficient.

It turns out that heat can be converted directly into electricity using devices called thermoelectric generators. The U.S. Department of Energy recently challenged researchers to use the wasted heat energy to make automobiles 10 percent more fuel efficient, and the researchers are coming through.

It turns out that if you wrap the exhaust pipe of a Chevrolet Suburban with thermoelectric generators, it will add about one mile-per-gallon (or about five percent) to the vehicle's overall fuel efficiency. It doesn't sound like much, but I'm sure most Suburban owners would love to get better mileage. And, it turns out, the improvement would be greater in smaller, more efficient vehicles.

Additional work with putting thermoelectric generators in other parts of the car could increase the efficiency further. While the devices don't generate enough energy to power the vehicle (or even just its air conditioner) yet, they can power electronic devices such as the radio or GPS. And if used in hybrids, the electricity generated could be used to more efficiently recharge the vehicle's battery.

If the DoE's goal of 10 percent improvement is met, it would reduce fuel demand in the U.S. alone by more than 100 million gallons per year, not to mention the amount of carbon that would be kept out of the atmosphere. Prototypes of the devices will be tested by GM and BMW over the next couple of years. Other manufacturers are also working on the technology.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Amateur Discovers Spacial Anomaly

Over the past couple of years, since I started this blog, I've encouraged you to get involved in science and technology, including pointing you toward Galaxy Zoo as a way to contribute to the advancement of knowledge.

Well, since then, one amateur using Galaxy Zoo—Hanny van Arkel, a schoolteacher from the Netherlands—has made a discovery that has stumped astronomers and physicists. The anomaly, a bright gaseous mass with a gaping hole in its middle, has come to be known as Hanny's Voorwerp (Voorwerp is Dutch for object). And now, thanks to Hanny's discovery, the Hubble space telescope will be pointed at the Voorwerp sometime in 2009 to help determine what it is.

So thanks to amateurs like Hanny (and me, and you, if you've been participating in any of the amateur science opportunities I've highlighted in the past) the amount that we know about our universe is growing. Are you doing your part?

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Help Improve Education

School teachers work hard for the education of our next generation. Without them, the next generation of science and technology visionaries may never get the education they need in order to create our future. And one of the tools that these teachers use to teach their students is classroom projects. But many (most) of these projects require materials for the students to use and learn from, and those materials cost money. Money that our all-too-often underpaid teachers just don't have.

That's where comes in. is a website that allows teachers to place requests detailing the projects they want to ofter their students, the materials that they will need, and what the total cost will be. And it allows the general public (that's you and me) to see these requests and donate to help fund them.

You can search for projects by a variety of conditions including keyword, geographic area (state, county, school district, and even specific schools), how much total money they need, whether they have already received donations, whether or not that particular classroom has ever received funding before, what types of resources are needed, subject areas, grade levels, and more.

Here's your chance to help the education situation and maybe help close the STEM education gap at the same time.

Robotic Surgery Lowers Risks of Side Effects

Technology has long been used to help people do their jobs more efficiently and effectively, and that's not going to change any time soon. A new advance in this area is robotic surgery. CNN reports on the growth in usage of robotic surgery devices made by Intuitive Surgical, Inc., and reveals that patients who undergo robotic surgeries have fewer side effects and faster recoveries.

The systems work by allowing a skilled surgeon to control the robotic arms using a joystick. The robotic arms are more precise than human hands and work with smaller incisions. As a result, robotic surgeries often have fewer complications. For example, when a patient's prostate is removed via normal surgery, there are risks of incontinence and impotence. Robotic prostatectomies, on the other hand, have much lower risks for those side effects, meaning that patients are less likely to suffer from decreased quality of life.

While the results look good so far, the American Urological Association has not pushed for an increase in robotic prostate surgeries. Experts there feel that, while there are advantages to robotic surgeries, the data is not overwhelmingly in the machines' favor.

Robotic surgeries are also available for hysterectomies, kidney surgery, and some heart procedures.

Vitamin C Injections Shown to Inhibit Cancer in Mice

Thirty years ago, a novel idea for cancer treatment was presented: vitamin C. But, it turned out, it was impossible to consume enough vitamin C to raise ascorbate concentrations to pharmacologically-active levels.

Now a new study funded by the U.S. Government shows that injecting high concentrations of vitamin C stops the spread of cancer and slows growth of tumors by 50 percent—in mice, at least.

The results were positive over a wide variety of cancers, but more research will be needed before human trials can begin.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Are High-Tech Clothes In Your Future?

It started with pants that repelled stains. Next we saw clothing that featured built-in insect repellent. Then along came clothes that can prevent colds and flu, never need to be washed, and protect against smog and air pollution.

Your clothes, it seems, are becoming pretty high-tech. Experts have long predicted that, as technology becomes more advanced, your clothing would be enhanced with high technology allowing us to, essentially, wear a high tech arsenal including computer equipment, communications devices, GPS, cameras, built-in cooling systems, and devices that generate electricity from your movement.

Some new fabrics may even be able to pinpoint medical problems before they reach dangerous levels. A smart sports bra under development at the University of Bolten in England may be able to detect breast cancer tumors before they grow large enough to be dangerous and spread. Other garments being designed may be able to monitor your body's vital statistics including temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, and the chemical composition of your sweat.

I'm forced to wonder, though, if many of these garments might end up being classified as medical devices, and thus subject to the clinical testing that medical devices have to endure. Otherwise, might we be faced with a bevy of clothing options that all claim to have health benefits, but which are completely untested? Do we really want our clothing choices to be even more confusing by adding in the claims that plague the dietary and nutritional supplement markets?

Researchers Attacked By Animal Rights Activists

I've never understood people who are willing to kill human beings in order to protect animals. I do understand that people like animals and feel that they need to protect them, but scientific research conducted on animals is essential to advancing our understanding of biological processes. We can't very well test drugs in the earliest stages on human beings, now can we?

Fire-bombing a home with small children in it shows reckless disregard for human life, and I hope when the culprits are caught the jury gives them the maximum possible sentence. Not only that, the people who issued the pamphlets encouraging such attacks and including the names and home addresses of researchers should be arrested and charged as co-conspirators. The authors knew very well what the people who received the pamphlets would do with that information.

The people behind these attacks are violent terrorists who are not only trying to harm the scientists involved in this research, they are trying to harm anybody who could eventually be helped by this research. Without animal testing, we wouldn't have many of the drugs we have today that are helping people beat cancer and survive other devastating diseases. And we wouldn't have the many drugs that will be available in the next several years for treatment of such debilitating conditions as Alzheimer's disease.

I know the people who are doing this probably think they're trying to make the world a better place. But just once I'd like to see them take a walk through the pediatric intensive care unit at a hospital and realize who these researchers are trying to help.

Breakthrough Treatment Could Halt Alzheimer's Progression

I've posted a couple of times lately about recent advances in understanding and treating Alzheimer's disease. Now researchers at the University of Aberdeen in the UK and TauRx Therapeutics in Singapore have announced a new drug, called RemberTM, which dissolves the tangles of tau fibers which form inside nerve cells in the brain and destroy neurons critical for memory.

In the trials of people with mild-to-moderate Alzheimer's, patients given 60mg of Rember over 50 weeks showed an 81 percent reduction in mental decline. Over 19 months, patients on Rember showed no significant decline in mental function, while patients on the placebo grew steadily worse.

Additional, larger trials are planned and Rember could be available as early as 2012.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Third Falcon 1 Fails To Reach Orbit

Yesterday, SpaceX attempted to launch a Falcon 1 rocket into orbit for the third time (I blogged about one of the payloads here). Unfortunately, they also failed for the third time, this time due to the failure of the two stages to properly separate.

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, issued the following statement:
It was obviously a big disappointment not to reach orbit on this flight [Falcon 1, Flight 3]. On the plus side, the flight of our first stage, with the new Merlin 1C engine that will be used in Falcon 9, was picture perfect. Unfortunately, a problem occurred with stage separation, causing the stages to be held together. This is under investigation and I will send out a note as soon as we understand exactly what happened.

The most important message I’d like to send right now is that SpaceX will not skip a beat in execution going forward. We have flight four of Falcon 1 almost ready for flight and flight five right behind that. I have also given the go ahead to begin fabrication of flight six. Falcon 9 development will also continue unabated, taking into account the lessons learned with Falcon 1. We have made great progress this past week with the successful nine engine firing.

As a precautionary measure to guard against the possibility of flight 3 not reaching orbit, SpaceX recently accepted a significant investment. Combined with our existing cash reserves, that ensures we will have more than sufficient funding on hand to continue launching Falcon 1 and develop Falcon 9 and Dragon. There should be absolutely zero question that SpaceX will prevail in reaching orbit and demonstrating reliable space transport. For my part, I will never give up and I mean never.

Thanks for your hard work and now on to flight four.

Friday, August 1, 2008

First Clinical Trials of Engineered Nanoparticles for Treatment of Cancer

The Houston Chronicle reports that clinical trials of gold nanoshells have begun in human patients in an attempt to treat a patient with head and neck cancer. The shells—which are about 120 nanometers in diameter and feature a gold shell over a glass core—are injected into the body intravenously over the course of a day. A small amount—about 1 percent—become embedded in tumors. The rest wash out of the body harmlessly.

The nanoparticles that become lodged in the tumors are then excited by infrared light, which causes the shells to heat up and burn away the tumor without damaging healthy cells nearby.

This trial marks the first time engineered nanomaterials have been tested on humans. I find this research to be truly exciting, and I hope the clinical trials go well as it could have promise for treatment of many kinds of tumors. It is not, however, a cure for cancer, as Congressman John Culberson once called it. Hopefully, though, it will bring us a step closer and improve survivability of some types of cancer.

Separating Water

A team of researchers from MIT have found a new way of separating water into hydrogen and oxygen at room temperature which is far more efficient than the currently used method. Currently, the electrolysis process requires a catalyst to separate the hydrogen from the oxygen, and platinum is the most commonly used catalyst. The problem is that platinum costs between $1700 and $2200 per ounce.

The new process uses deposits of cobalt and phospate on top of an electrode made of indium-tin-oxide, materials which are vastly cheaper. In addition, the use of cobalt and phospate allows the process to run under neutral pH conditions and requires relatively little electricity.

The results of this could be fairly exciting and have a wide range of applications, starting with possibly being an enablement technology for a hydrogen-based economy. Of course, the hydrogen economy has a number of other hurdles to overcome (storage and transport come to mind), but as hydrogen and oxygen are also the components of rocket fuel, this could enable less expensive fuel for space launches. What's more, a water refinery on, for example, Mars would be able to create fuel for the return trip to Earth usinig solar power and water from the Martian surface. By not having to transport fuel for the return trip, the trip to Mars would become far more economical.

Exercise in a Pill

So the big news today, if you've been reading science sites and blogs, is the so-called "exercise pill." Researchers have devised a couple of drugs that could affect how you exercise. The first drug—called AICAR—was given to sedentary mice—those that were not exercising. After four weeks on the drug, the treated mice burned more calories and had less fat than untreated mice, and were able to run on a treadmill about 44 percent farther and 23 percent longer than the untreated mice.

The second drug—called GW1516—was given to mice that were exercising. After a month of exercise and the drug, the mice were able to run 68 percent longer and 70 percent farther than mice that exercised but were not given the drug. And when those mice were dissected, the researchers saw that the number of high-efficiency muscle fibers in their bodies had increased by 29 percent.

On the one hand, I think perhaps I've been working too hard at this whole getting-in-shape thing. But on the other hand, I realize that exercise has benefits beyond just what these pills are providing. When I go out for a jog, I'm not just lowering fat and building muscle, I'm strengthing my joints and bones as well. Not to mention, I'm engaging in social interaction with the other joggers in my training program.

So, while these drugs aren't readily available now, I'm not sure I'd be that interested in AICAR even if it was. But GW1516—which would help me improve faster from my exercise—might be something I'd be interested in.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Falcon 1 to Launch Solar Sail

The next few days should be pretty exciting for advocates of space exploration. SpaceX's launch window for their 3rd Falcon 1 launch starts tomorrow (Aug. 1) and ends on the 5th. If this launch is successful, it will be the first time SpaceX has successfully put a payload into orbit aboard its low-cost Falcon 1 rocket, potentially ushering in a new era of less-costly space launches.

Not only that, the rocket will be delivering several payloads to orbit, but one of the most exciting (for space exploration advocates) is NASA's NanoSail-D, a 100-square foot solar sail created by NASA in just six months. Solar sails are an exciting technology, because they could allow spacecraft to accelerate without the need for on-board fuel, which greatly increases the costs. Also, fuel is the number one limiting factor in space travel, because the more fuel a spacecraft carries, the more mass it has, and the more mass it has, the more fuel it takes to move it. Every kilogram of fuel added provides less total thrust than the kilogram before it, so a system that can reduce or eliminate the amount of fuel needed could allow spacecraft to function further and longer.

Wikipedia has a pretty good page about solar sails.

I'm curious as to how well the NanoSail-D experiment will work, as Falcon 1 is not designed to lift payloads into high orbits. Lower orbits have increased drag, which is especially bad for solar sails given their surface area and the limited amount of pressure they receive from the solar wind.

You can watch the launch by going to the SpaceX website.

Is Solar Energy's Time Finally Near?

Yale's environment 360 thinks that solar energy's time is now (or at least in the next couple of decades). And while I think wind and nuclear will probably surge before solar, some recent advances in solar energy make me think that Yale might be right.

A couple of weeks ago, researchers at MIT announced that they had developed efficient new solar concentrators that could lower costs and increase efficiency by 10 to 15 percent. And today, New Scientist reports on new materials for solar cells that may increase the theoretical maximum efficiency of solar panels to 63% of the energy striking the panel.

The new materials achieve these results by embedding titanium and vanadium atoms into conventional semiconductors. These atoms can absorb photons in the lower-energy infrared range and have their electrons jump to a level that is half-way to what the visible light photons are reaching. Then, when another infrared photon strikes the material, the electrons make it the rest of the way to the higher energy state that is needed for producing photovoltaic electricity. In this way, panels made from the new material are capable of generating electricity from both the visible light and the infrared light striking them.

The 63% efficiency figure is, however, a theoretical maximum, and any panels actually made from this material will likely produce energy with lower efficiency levels. Additionally, some experts believe it may prove difficult to get enough titanium and vanadium into the silicon in order to properly reach the intermediate level without inhibiting the silicon's ability to do its job. So don't look for these new high-efficiency solar panels right away.

That said, when they figure out how to put this technology into SunSlatesTM, it might be time for my house to get a new roof....

The Politics of Space

Yesterday must have been the day to talk about politicians and space (and I missed it!) because both Jon Goff and Darnell Clayton posted about it on their respective blogs.

Jon's post is a response to Mark Whittington about Barack Obama's position on NASA's Constellation program (Obama had previously suggested delaying Constellation and using the money to fund increases in educational spending). When Whittington questioned whether Obama was flip-flopping on the issue, Jon pointed out that "it is quite possible to both believe in gutting Constellation and at the same time revitalizing NASA. The two are not mutually incompatible at all." Jon has made his position on Constellation quite clear in the past, and I generally agree that Constellation is the wrong way to go about the Vision for Space Exploration at this time.

Darnell, meanwhile, points two two articles from the Orlando Sentinel highlighting the two candidates positions on space exploration. Darnell (and the Sentinel) points out that McCain has come out in firm support of manned space exploration and the Constellation program. Obama, on the other hand, has been vague about his support, though in a statement released on the 50th anniversary of NASA's establishment he said he "believe(s) we need to revitalize NASA's mission to maintain America's leadership." He also suggests that NASA could be used to help get children more interested in STEM education paths (read my posts about STEM education here and here).

Fuel from Algae

As a general rule, I've been opposed to fuel sources made from food products... mostly because it diverts production from food at a time when people are starving around the world and food prices are soaring. But I don't object to biofuels in general, and that's why I'm excited by efforts to turn algae into diesel fuel.

Some strains of algae are ideal for fuel production because they produce higher concentrations of natural oils than other plants. Additionally, they don't take up land that could otherwise be used for growing crops, because algae grows on the water or in bioreactors. Oh yeah, and by using algae, we're not diverting food away from people (unless, of course, they're eating algae... ew).

Questions still remain about whether or not algae will be viable, both economically and environmentally. But either way, it's a lot better than using corn or soybeans.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Hey Buddy, Wanna Be a Superhero?

Dr. E. Paul Zehr of the University of Victoria in Canada has put together a book called Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero wherein he highlights what it would take for you to become Batman.

Zehr, a professor of kinesiology and neuroscience—as well as a martial arts expert—points to the work you'd have to do to improve your brain, vision, strength, speed, and reflexes. And then he goes into the equipment you'd need to have. While pulling all of this off would most likely be impossible, it might help to be a billionaire playboy with money to burn and very little demand on your time. Alas, I am no Bruce Wayne.

Maybe, in true Captain America-style, it will be the U.S. military's experiments that deliver us superheroes, or what I like to call Human 2.0.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Protect Your Heart, Protect Your Brain?

Doing something that's good for your heart may also be good for your brain. It turns out that a class of cholesterol-lowering drugs known as statins may halve the risk of dementia in populations already at high risk. The exact mechanism is not yet known, but high cholesterol is a known risk factor for dementia, along with high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity.

Another study has shown that autopsies of people who took statins before death showed fewer plaques and twisted nerve fiber tangles in their brains than people who did not. Yet another study showed that people taking angiotensin receptor blockers—blood pressure medication—had up to a 40 percent lower chance of developing dementia.

At the same time, a study performed by the University of Kansas Medical Center showed that patients in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease who performed cardiovascular exercises showed less progression of the disease than patients who did not exercise, possibly related to the fact that exercise can improve cholesterol and blood pressure.

The take-away from all of this, I think, should be that living a healthier life now can lower your risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease in the future—especially given that mental decline that often precedes Alzheimer's disease is on the rise.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Better Understanding of the Brain

Popular Science details new initiatives that have created, for the first time ever, virtual maps of neural connections in the human brain. The maps—created in two separate studies—used a brain scanning technique called "diffusion imaging," which can be easily done on living, breathing human beings. The method involves following the flow of water molecules along the axons—long fibers of nerve cells—in a subject's brain.

The two teams used basically the same technique to create their maps, one of which is higher resolution than the other, and both found the same clusters of connections in the cerebral cortex, in a region of the brain that uses the most oxygen and glucose, especially when the brain is at rest.

The results of this research will undoubtedly lead to a much greater understanding of the organization and function of the brain, which could lead eventually to better treatments for mental illnesses, paralysis, and brain damage, as well as to such future technologies as mind-machine interfaces.

The Future of Lighting?

A couple of interesting articles recently about the future of lighting. First, CNN examines the virtues and drawbacks of compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs). The mercury used by fluorescent bulbs has been a known problem for some time, and the article discusses ways of properly disposing of the bulbs.

The article features an interview with Ron Hui, who is chairman of the electronic engineering department at the City University of Hong Kong. Hui points out that not all CFLs are created equal, and highlights the differences between electronic CFLs (eCFLs, which are fairly common, and which I have throughout my house) and magnetic CFLs (mCFLs, which I'd never heard of before this article). The lifespan of an eCFL is 7,000-to-10,000 hours of usage, so if you left them on all the time you'd get roughly a year's worth of usage. If you average a few hours a day, they'll last somewhat longer. mCFLs, on the other hand, often have an operating lifespan of 15-30 years. So while they contain the same amount of mercury, you would use far fewer of them over time and thus generate less mercury waste.

The New York Times, meanwhile, has an article about light bulbs utilizing light-emitting diodes (LEDs). LED bulbs have several advantages over CFLs, including the fact that they do not contain mercury, they use even less energy and CFLs, and they are adjustable (including both dimming and changing colors). However, LED light bulbs are pretty new and, as a result, are rather expensive at the moment.

The article mentions that Philips Electronics will be launching its first LED replacement for a standard light bulb in a couple of months. Called the Ledino, the bulbs—equivalent to a standard 60-watt incandescent bulb—are expected to cost $107 per bulb. That's pretty expensive, so I don't think I'll be running out to replace all of my CFLs just yet. However, a quick search online shows that there are other manufacturers already selling LED bulbs for considerably less money.

Of course, if you are technically inclined and have the time, you can also make your own LED light bulbs if you want.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Putting the "Warp" in Warp Drive

Paul Gilster over at Centauri Dreams calls attention to a scientific paper reported in Spaceflight (the journal of the British Interplanetary Society) back in April and now available on arXiv that highlights an updated take on Miguel Alcubierre's 1994 proposal for a warp drive.

It is impossible for any object in the universe to travel faster than the speed of light (according to Einstein's theory of relativity). But, it turns out, space-time itself is expanding, and has been doing so ever since the Big Bang. What Alcubierre realized was that a spacecraft does not have to be moving itself through space-time (and thus will not violate Einstein's theory) if it can cause space-time to contract in front of itself and expand behind itself. Basically, the hypothetical craft creates a bubble of space-time around itself and uses the expansion and contraction of that space time to move, while remaining stationary with respect to the space-time inside the bubble.

What the authors of the paper—Richard Obousy and Gerald Cleaver—did was to combine Alcubierre's warp bubble with supersymmetry. Their work shows a theoretical maximum speed of 1032 times the speed of light, although moving that fast would required more energy than exists in the universe.

Of course, Cleaver and Obousy's approach will be meaningless if supersymmetry is ever proven to be invalid. And even if supersymmetry is validated, there are a large number of challenges ahead for the Alcubierre drive. But, as Paul points out in his write-up, this theoretical foundation is a first step on a long road. Much more research is needed, but perhaps the Tau Zero Foundation will be able to fund some additional steps along this road in the future.

Decisions With No Basis In Reason

Human beings are not creatures of logic and reason. We are ruled by our emotions—our fears, doubts, hopes, and dreams. That is why, even when presented with overwhelming scientific evidence of the veracity of something, people will often choose to deny that it could be so. We see this regularly with global warming deniers (ignoring the evidence and the experts) as well as with young-Earth creationists (ignoring scientific evidence about the age of the Earth).

NewScientist issued a special report a couple of days ago titled Seven reasons why people hate reason, and it's an interesting analysis of the underlying explanations for people's aversion to logic and reason. One of the biggest that is pointed out (by sociologist David Miller and linguist Noam Chomsky) is that governments and corporations often co-opt and pervert scientific results in order to further their agendas.

At the same time, Michael Shermer points out in an article for Scientific American how our brains are wired to apply anecdotal evidence to decision making, but not scientific evidence. This, Michael says, is the reason why people incorrectly associate vaccinations with autism in spite of scientific research repeatedly finding no link. In fact, people continue to put their children at risk of known diseases by avoiding vaccinations, even though thimerosal (the chemical they incorrectly believe causes autism) has not been used in vaccines since 1999.

Michael also highlights dubious claims about the natural health benefits of drinking wheatgrass juice, in spite of scientific evidence (and common sense) poking holes in the claims made by (of course) the people who profit by selling the juice. After all, scientists must have some motivation for wanting us to remain ill, and the people selling wheatgrass juice couldn't possibly have a motivation to get people to spend more money on it.

So the next time you are making a decision, ask yourself on what basis you are deciding: are you using reason, or basing your decision on fear?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Vacation Somplace... Warm

A while back, after some thinking about where in our solar system humanity could colonize, I had a realization. The most Earth-like place in our solar system (other than Earth, of course) is Venus. Brutally hot, super-pressurized, highly-acidic Venus. How could that be? Well, the atmosphere of Venus has a lot of pressure. In fact, to get the same pressure on Earth, you have to go underwater... deep underwater.

All of that got me thinking... we build stuff all the time that floats on the oceans. We even have balloons whose low density and pressure allow them to float through our atmosphere here on Earth. Could we build something that would "float" above Venus in the same way? And how high would it have to float in order to have Earth-like air pressure?

Fortunately, I don't have to do that math on that myself. Nancy Atkinson over at Universe Today reports that Geoffrey Landis of NASA Glenn agrees with me about colonizing Venus, and he's already done some of the calculations. Apparently, about 50km above Venus the air pressure is roughly the same as the surface pressure here on Earth. Even better, at that height, the temperature is also in a much friendlier range between 0°C and 50°C.

That doesn't mean that Venus is without it's problems. The atmosphere is still highly acidic, for one thing, and any floating structures we try to place there would need to be highly resistant to sulfuric acid. Not only that, but with still one atmosphere of pressure, the floating structures we could place there would likely be thoroughly battered by turbulence, constantly bobbing up and down as air pressures and currents bobble the bubble (so to speak).

For those reasons, it seems more likely that the first structures we would emplace at Venus would be more likely to be observatory facilities, unmanned scientific facilities to study the atmosphere in preparation for more advanced structures later.

In any event, and floating structures on Venus are decades (at best) or centuries (more likely) away.

New Prostate Cancer Treatment Works Wonders

The Los Angeles Times is running a story today about a prostate cancer study conducted in Britain that resulted in a dramatic shrinkage in prostate tumors, resulting in a survival rate that more than doubled for 70% to 80% of patients in the trial with aggressive cancers. The drug used in the study, called abiraterone, should be available by 2011.

The drug works by blocking an enzyme called cytochrome P17, which helps convert cholesterol to testosterone. By doing so, the drug blocks the ability of the body to produce testosterone, which fuels prostate cancer. The drug also blocks the production of estrogen.

The initial study consisted of only 21 patients, but a new study is underway involving 250, and early results seem to show the same progress. A study is also underway to evaluate the drug's use for breast cancer, but no results have been released yet.

Most patients diagnosed with prostate cancer die within six months. Some of the patients in the original study have been on the treatment for as long as 32 months and are still doing well, with smaller tumors and less pain. And considering that the patients used in these trials were at the end stage of the disease, with aggressive tumors in the worst stage of cancer, and for whom normal treatments such as chemical castration were ineffective, these results are spectacular.

When the drug is released to the market, I suspect that it will quickly become a first-line treatment for prostate cancer, replacing chemical castration. If that happens, the survival rate for prostate cancer should improve greatly.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Using Crowds to Solve Problems

The New York Times has an article today highlighting the growing trend toward prize-based science, especially highlighting InnoCentive, which I blogged about last year.

Award-based research turns out to be especially effective. Companies sponsoring the research only pay for research that delivers results, and they always come in at their budge—whatever value they place on the prize. In addition, you may get several competitors each performing research to attempt a solution to the problem at hand, but you only end up having to pay for the effort that succeeds.

The reason InnoCentive works is because often the best solution to a problem comes from somebody outside the field in question. Petroleum scientists, for example, specialize in their field and therefore do not have expertise that, say, a concrete chemist would have. But John Davis, a chemist specializing in concrete applied what he knew about keeping concrete from hardening to a problem set forth by the Oil Spill Recovery Institute in Alaska in order to keep oil in storage tanks from freezing.

The biggest organizer of research prizes right now is, of course, the X Prize Foundation, who currently has prizes active in genomics, automotive technology, and robotic lunar missions. But they're not the only ones. For several years now, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has used monetary prizes to encourage outsiders to develop technology it can use for military purposes, most notably with regard to autonomous automobiles. And NASA has sponsored a number of challenges related to space exploration, such as the Lunar Lander Challenge, the Astronaut Glove Challenge (won by an engineer from Maine working at his dining room table), and a couple of competitions related to space elevator technologies.

If you have any scientific or technical skills, maybe it's time you took a look at some of these challenges facing us.

Monday, July 21, 2008

One Long Elevator Ride

Alan Boyle over at MSNBC's Cosmic Log reports from the 2008 Space Elevator Conference, co-sponsored by Microsoft. For the most part, the attendees were—not surprisingly—very positive about the prospects of a space elevator within the next few decades. The only exception mentioned was Tom Nugent of LaserMotive, a company that makes laser power-beaming equipment used in the Space Elevator Games. Tom used to work for LiftPort Group, a failed company that had an overly-ambitious plan to build a space elevator.

A space elevator would be a massive enabling technology for human exploration and development of space by greatly lowering the cost of putting pretty much anything in orbit. But will it ever be feasible to do on Earth? There are a large number of technological hurdles to be overcome, including the creation of materials strong enough to support the weight of a 62,000-mile tether and whatever we decide to send along it. Plus somebody needs to figure out ways to deal with hazards such as space debris and radiation.

But with enough R&D, a space elevator should be possible. After all, nothing about it violates the laws of physics.

The Space Elevator Blog has a series of posts with more detailed updates throughout the conference, so if you're interested in space elevator concepts, you should check it out.

Help Greensburg, Kansas Re-Plant

Last year, a massive F5 tornado destroyed the town of Greensburg, Kansas. Discovery Channel has been running a series about the rebuilding of the town and the decision of the community's leaders to rebuild in a sustainable, green way (kind of appropriate, given the town's name).

But just rebuilding the buildings isn't enough. The tornado also destroyed 95% of the trees in Greensburg, and the townspeople need money to re-plant as well as rebuild. Discovery Channel and Sun Chips are sponsoring a fund-raising drive to help the community raise enough money to re-plant all of its trees.

They've already raised about 30% of the money they need, but that's only a start. Help the people of Greensburg out and, if you get a chance, watch the show. It's pretty interesting. By watching real people going through what these people went through during and after the tornado destroyed their community, you get a sense that the human spirit is enough to pull us through almost anything.

Several New Alzheimer's Studies Report Results

Some interesting Alzheimer's disease news recently. New Scientist reports that an old Russian allergy treatment, Dimebon, has yielded the best results of any drug ever tested against Alzheimer's, raising average scores of practical cognitive abilities almost seven points above the placebo. The study was placebo-controlled and used 120 patients over the span of a year.

At the same time, Alzheimer's patients given a vaccine to remove amyloid beta plaques from their brains successfully had the plaques removed, but doing so did not alleviate or reverse any symptoms. The results suggest that the plaques are causing inflammation in the brain, but removing the plaques after the inflammation does not appear to help. Preventing the amyloid beta plaques from forming, however, may help prevent some of the damage and protect cognitive function.

Speaking of inflammation, another study performed in Los Angeles revealed the possibility of dramatic and fast improvement in language recall in patients given an injection of the anti-inflammatory drug etanercept, marketed as Enbrel. This study was a follow-up to a single-patient study reported in January and involved only 12 patients. Critics caution that the small size of the study and the fact that it was neither blinded nor placebo-controlled call into question the validity of the results. They also point out that the only tests that have shown positive results come from the researcher who has patented the process and charges between $10,000 and $40,000 per treatment.

Still, if anti-inflammatory drugs can prevent, reduce, or reverse the inflammation caused by the amyloid beta plaques, it would be a remarkable breakthrough in treatment of this debilitating disease. Hopefully soon an independent lab will follow up this study with a large group, placebo-controlled, double-blinded study to confirm or debunk these results.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Texas Regulators Approve Wind Energy Transmission Project

One of the common problems associated with generating electricity is getting the power from the power generating stations to the places where people live. After all, nobody wants a powerplant in their back yard. And that turns out to be true for a lot of forms of power generation, including wind power. But now, the state of Texas has approved a $4.93 billion project to develop a network of transmission lines to carry electricity from the remote western parts of the state to major population centers in the eastern part of the state, such as Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, and Austin.

The new lines will be capable of handling as much as 18.5 gigawatts of electricity. For reference, the average household in the U.S. uses about 938 kilowatt hours of electricity in an average month (statistics as of 2005).

Texas is the largest producer of wind energy in the United States, producing about 5.3 gigawatts of wind energy—more than double California, which is the second largest producer in the U.S. In fact, Texas generates so much wind energy that the current transmission lines are unable to keep up and power producers are sometimes forced to disable their turbines even when the wind is blowing. The new transmission lines, to be completed by 2013, will help alleviate that problem.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Graphene Shown to Have Extreme Strength

NewScientist magazine highlights new research into graphene—single atom-thick layers of carbon atoms connected together in hexagonal patterns—that shows that graphene may be far-and-away the strongest material ever analyzed.

Graphene Sheet - Image courtesy Dr. Thomas Szkopek, McGill University The researchers arranged flakes of graphene over holes in a silicon wafer and pressed down on them with the diamond tip of an atomic force microscope to determine how much force the graphene flakes could withstand before rupturing. They found that they could push down about 100 nanometers with a force of up to 2.9 micronewtons before the graphene flakes would rupture.

That may not sound like much, but if engineers were able to produce a sheet of graphene as thick as ordinary plastic wrap that you use to cover your food dishes, it would take the weight of a heavy car to tear through it. Of course, that's an unrealistic analogy, as graphene is—by definition—only a single atomic layer in thickness, and therefore can't be as thick as a sheet of plastic wrap. But on the nano-scale, graphene has tremendous strength, and it could be added to polymers to form super-strength composites.

Besides its superior strength, graphene has a number of other interesting properties: it has unusually high opacity for an atomic monolayer, it is a zero-gap semiconductor, has remarkably high electron mobility at room temperature, displays an anomalous quantum hall effect in the presence of a magnetic field, and has unexpectedly high thermal conductivity.

Researchers Develop Nanorods for Better Nano-Scale Heat Transfer

Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have discovered a new method for growing single-crystal nanorods and controlling their shape using biomolecules which could enable more efficient heat transfer methods. These new methods could be useful in the development of more powerful and efficient nano-scale heat pumps and devices that harvest electricity from heat.

The researchers were also able to create structures that branched off in different directions by carefully controlling the temperature, time, and amount of biomolecular surfactant used during synthesis of the nanorods. The two-material nanorods consist of a single-crystal bismuth telluride core encased in a shell of single-crystal bismuth sulfide. These "core-shell" nanorods have attractive physical properties and are expected to one day enable the development of new nanoscale thermoelectric devices for power generation, as well as nanoscale heat pumps for cooling hot spots in nanoelectronics devices.

Clinton Foundation Works Out Deal For Cheaper Malaria Treatments

The Clinton Foundation has worked out a complex deal involving Chinese wormwood farmers, Indian chemical companies, and Indian pharmaceutical companies that will result in less expensive anti-malaria drugs. Malaria affects roughly 515 million people each year, with between one and three million deaths.

The deal will help to control the price of wormwood, the source of a compound called artemisinin that has been used since 2004 to treat malaria. Since the discovery of artemisinin, the price of wormwood has gone from $115 per pound to $500 per pound, then down to $70 per pound. The deal will control the price of wormwood at not more than $137 per pound, while also controlling the prices of the medication. That will make it easier for sufferers in poorer countries—where the disease is most common—to afford the treatments they need.

Malaria has an interesting history, having been a part of the human condition for at least 50,000 years. In the early parts of the twentieth century, patients with syphilis were intentionally inflicted with malaria to induce a fever, which was then controlled with quinine. This had a risk of causing death from malaria, but that was considered preferable to the almost-certain death from the syphilis.

Kudos to Bill Clinton and his Foundation for taking this important step to help alleviate suffering in the poorer parts of the world.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

STEM Education Follow-Up

When I reported yesterday that the U.S. is falling behind a set of goals for education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields set by a coalition of business groups, I apparently touched on a hot topic. There has been some aggressive discussion in the comments, enough to lead me to do some research of my own into the statistics.

All of the numbers that I'm going to use come from a study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) that tallied bachelor's degrees granted in 2005-2006.

From the numbers, I have broken down the results into the fields that I consider to be directly related to the STEM goals, and from my calculations there were less than a quarter of a million graduates in those fields in 2005-2006, or roughly one-sixth of all graduates from bachelor's degree granting programs.

By far the largest category was business degrees, granted to more than 318,000 students in that time period. That's more than for all STEM fields combined, and could possibly be attributed to people's desire for money or to get ahead in the world. Obviously business is a clearer path than science for financial gain.

But then how do you explain the fact that the second largest category is Social Sciences and History, with 161,485 graduates? And the third highest is Education, with 107,238. You'll never convince me that people are going into those fields for the money. Or the roughly 100,000 people that majored in English Language and Literature/Letters or Liberal Arts, General Studies, and Humanities.

So if it's not for the money, then why are American students going into fields other than science, technology, engineering, and math? I think there are several problems, but the biggest one is one that is endemic to our society. Most Americans want the easy path, and STEM fields are hard. There's no glamour, no glory, no high profile recognition or—as pointed out repeatedly—no massive paychecks. We haven't done enough to entice people to pursue these fields. It's cultural.

Want proof? The numbers are broken down by ethnic groups, and they're pretty telling. Here are the percentages for various ethnic groups in terms of what percentage of graduates in that ethnic group are graduating with degrees in STEM fields:
  • Whites - 15.00%
  • Blacks - 13.02%
  • Hispanices - 13.28%
  • Asians - 27.96%
  • Native Americans - 14.05%

There is obviously a cultural bias in Asian cultures toward STEM fields that we lack in American culture. You want something else that's telling? There are also numbers for non-resident aliens—students from outside the U.S. who are here just to get their education and then, generally, go home. 25.72% of them are in STEM fields, and more than a third are attending our business schools.

And right now, we're letting them get these degrees that our own citizens apparently have little interest in pursuing, and then we let them go back to their own countries to invent things, start businesses, and grow their local economies. Now, I'm all for growing economies around the world... a rising tide lifts all boats, after all. But the reason the business groups were pushing for increased enrollment and graduation in STEM fields was to keep America competitive in the future. If all of the new ideas and new tech are coming from other countries, then the U.S. may lose one of the few economic strengths we currently have.

One final point I feel that I need to make. In some fields—especially computer technology—college degrees don't mean as much as people, including this coalition of business groups, might think. I know a lot of people who work in Information Technology; I've been in the field for thirteen years myself. And many of those people don't have their degrees in a computer-related field. Heck, I don't have my degree at all (I know, sixteen years of college and 160 credit hours, I should have my MBA or Ph.D. by now), and neither do several of the other people I know. Some have degrees in English literature or psychology. One has a degree in math and two in electrical engineering. One programmer even has his degree in music.

At the same time, I know a woman with a degree in computer and electrical engineering from a prestigious school who currently, I believe, works the phone banks for a policital organization. My point is that just counting degrees granted does not accurately predict how many people are going to be working in what fields. And you might be surprised with the amount of creativity, ingenuity, and industriousness that Americans will continue to display in the future.

But more people studying STEM fields would certainly help.

Environmental Effects on Puberty

Kids. They grow up so fast these days. But that may not just be colloquially true; it appears that youngsters actually are reaching puberty at an earlier age than they used to, according to reports.

Part of the reason may be sedentary lifestyles. I know my son, for example, spends most of his time sitting around on the couch playing video games or chatting/text-messaging with his friends. My niece is pretty much the same way, spending all of her time on a computer. It turns out physical activity increases melanin in the body, and melanin—among other things—can act to delay puberty.

Other studies have shown that teens in the U.S. hit puberty a year earlier than Danish counterparts, or that wealthy South African girls reach full puberty a year later than their poorer counterparts. From these studies, scientists have concluded that perhaps synthetic chemical factors in industrialized countries and regions are interfering with the endocrine system, causing children's bodies to start the puberty process earlier than they would otherwise.

How much of a problem is this, really? Well, studies have shown that girls who go through puberty earlier have higher incidence of breast cancer, drug abuse, violence, unintended pregnancies, problems in school, and mental health issues. If you don't think those are problems... well, you need to have your head checked.

You can't do much about the chemical factors, unfortunately. But you can get your kids out and get them exercising. Get them in shape. You'll not only be improving their overall health, you may be delaying puberty for them and reducing the amount of time you have to deal with their "teen issues."

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

NASA Needs... Urine?

NASA needs a lot of things, but I never would have thought of this as one of them: apparently, NASA needs urine. It's okay, go back and read that again. It's not a typo.

Apparently Hamilton Sundstrand, who is working on the toilet system for the currently-in-development Orion launch system, needs urine in order to test their plumbing system and work on urine acidity issues. From July 21 to July 31, the company needs about 8 gallons of pee each day—even on weekends—in order to test the system.

But don't start bottling up your pee to send to them... the company is seeking contributions from employees at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. But if you do work there, I encourage you to go do your part by peeing for the future of technology.

U.S. Falling Behind STEM Education Goals

CNN is reporting that the U.S. is lagging behind goals set three years ago by a consortium of business groups to increase college graduations in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields by 2015. Apparently, the number of bachelor's destrees awarded in the U.S. each year in those fields has stalled at about 225,000, well short of the groups' goal of 400,000.

However, it's only been three years. The people graduating this year were already in college when these goals were set. So unless part of their strategy has been to get people to switch majors, we'd be unlikely to see much in the way of results by now. As Susan Traiman, director of education and workforce policy for the Business Roundtable, points out in the article, "It still takes a minimum of 17 years to produce an engineer if you consider K-12 plus four years of colleges."

Which begs the question of how these business groups thought that they'd be able to double the number of graduates in only 10 years. Now, I agree that we need to increase graduates in these fields in order to remain competitive on the world stage—and let's not forget that many of the 225,000 graduates we're producing now in these fields are actually foreign students—but I don't think we can expect a network of business groups to say that it needs to happen and have it magically happen overnight. It's going to take time and hard work, and both of those are going on right now.

The future is coming, and the U.S., I suspect, will continue to lead the way in these fields for quite a while yet.

Prospects of a Habitable Planet Around Proxima Centauri

Hot on the heels of his earlier post about discouraging prospects for habitable planets around α Centauri, Paul Gilster of Centauri Dreams has (as promised) posted a follow-up about the prospects of finding habitable planets around Proxima Centauri. Proxima, it seems, has no chance of planets larger than 2-3 Earth masses in circular orbits out to about 1 AU (which is way farther out than the habitable region around such a wimpy little star as Proxima Centauri), but could have Earth mass or smaller planets in close.

The habitable zone around Proxima is so tight that any planets in it would orbit the star in as little as 3.6 days or as much as 13.8 days. That's a pretty short year. But planets with low-enough mass to be habitable are really, really hard for us to detect, especially if they're in multiple-planet systems. We need more precise results in order to study the radial velocity of stars with sufficient precision to find small planets.

That's where new probes like Kepler (due to launch early next year) come in. And also where software like that being developed for the PlanetQuest not-for-profit group, which is making software to combine the results of multiple observations, come in. So over the next several years our ability to identify smaller and smaller planets will improve dramatically.

And who knows? We may then discover that Proxima Centauri, the closest star to us, has a planet friendly to life.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Can Gardasil Cause Medical Problems?

Could the HPV vaccine GardasilTM be causing medical problems ranging from nausea to death? Maybe, says the CDC, which is investigating. Over the past two years, 7,802 "adverse event reports" have been filed related to Gardasil. Fifteen of them claimed that the vaccine caused the death of the patient. Only ten of those cases were confirmed, and none of them were actually linked to the vaccine.

But what about the other symptoms? In one case, a girl developed fever and pain shortly after receiving the Gardasil injection. She was admitted to the hospital where she underwent two surgeries for pancreatitis and spent weeks recovering. But were her symptoms related to the vaccine or not? Could it be a coincidence? Did she just happen to get the shot as she was developing pancreatitis?

It's hard to say. Scientists and doctors are looking into it now to try to make a determination.

In the meantime, though, I feel I should point out that more than 8 million women and girls in the U.S. alone have received the injection over the past two years, which puts that 7,802 "adverse event reports" at a frequence below 0.1 percent. So even if they all do turn out to be related to the vaccine—which is highly unlikely—the likelihood of a negative reaction is extremely low, and must be weighed against the risk of HPV and cervical cancer. In some cases, the treatment can be worse than the condition it's meant to treat, but I don't believe this is one of those cases.

Solar Power from Your Windows

Researchers at MIT have developed a window coating that allows people to see through, while also collecting solar energy. The coating channels photons striking a pane of glass into solar collectors around the edge of the window.

The coatings are not perfectly transparent, but they can get pretty close. Alternatively, they are available in bright colors. However, you should expect to run out to Home Depot and buy new window coatings right now... the coatings are not yet commercially available. However, they are made from inexpensive materials and can be added to existing solar panels.

The technology could be commercially available in as little as three years.

Global Warming to Increase Indidents of Kidney Stones

The Chicago Tribune reports that incidence of kindey stones will rise dramatically over the next four decades—up to 2.2 million new cases a year—due to global warming. It is well known that poor hydration can lead to the painful stones forming, and global warming will likely lead to people sweating more, and thus developing more kidney stones.

Fortunately, the solution to the problem is fairly simple... drink more water. Unfortunately, even people currently at risk fail to heed this advice and end up getting kidney stones now.

I've never had kidney stones, but they run in my family so it's probably a matter of time. A friend of mine also got kidney stones—while she was pregnant—and says that the kidney stones were worse than giving birth. So I don't know about you, but I'm going to keep hydrating as well as I can and hopefully avoid getting them. I'm not a big fan of pain.

Monday, July 14, 2008

New Potential for Alzheimer's Vaccine

According to an article published Friday on the Scientific American website, a new Alzheimer's vaccine shows promise for preventing or restricting progress of the disease in a mouse model.

The research builds on an attempt several years ago by Elan Pharmaceuticals to create an Alzheimer's vaccine. That attempt failed after several of the subjects developed brain inflammations and two suffered strokes. The new attempt involves taking an inactivated Herpes virus to transplant a small amount of amyloid beta and a protein called interleukin-4 into subjects (in this case, mice).

By adding the amyloid beta to the virus, the immune system can begin to recognize the amyloid beta as a potential threat. The presence of interleukin-4, it is hoped, will prevent the brain inflammation that plagued the previous attempt at a virus.

While this research shows promise, it will be several years before a treatments is available. And there are several stumbling blocks to overcome yet. The original trials also showed great promise in mouse models, but unexpected results in human trials. And not all forms of amyloid beta are dangerous... indeed, some may be necessary for brain function, and if the vaccine causes the body to attack all forms, it may have unintended—and potentially dangerous—side effects.

Bad News for Those Looking for Planets at Alpha Centauri

Paul Gilster of Centauri Dreams reports on new scientific findings that suggest that planets would have a very difficult time forming more than about half an AU out from α Centauri A.

The problem is that the interaction of the relatively-close stars in the α Centauri system would have caused planetessimals (the large rocks that combine to form planets) to accelerate to speeds that would have precluded combining upon impact. Paul has the technical details, if you're in to that sort of thing.

So bad news if (like Paul) you were hoping for habitable, friendly planets in α Centauri... this research makes it less likely that they'll be found there.

Russian Arctic Researchers Evacuate Shrinking Ice Flow

Russian scientists are evacuating the North Pole-35 research station, built on an ice floe to study the arctic, because the ice it is built on is rapidly melting. When the station was established ten months ago, the ice floe was 1.5 miles by 2.5 miles in size. Today it is roughly 1,000 feet by 2,000 feet—less than two percent its size last September.

Russia uses Arctic research stations, such as North Pole-23, to monitor the environment as well as to study Arctic plant and animal life. The researchers had originally planned to end their expedition in August, but advanced warming and ice melt have forced them to cut their research short.

Back from Vacation

I'm back from vacation and ready to get you up-to-speed on the latest, coolest news in science and technology, so stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Future of Disease Fighting

Discover magazine recently published a brief list of five coming advances in antibiotics that reveals some interesting—and possibly life-saving—bio-technology on the horizon.

Some of these, such as phages and alligator blood, were not new to me. Phages have been studied for years, but they have certain drawbacks, such as the fact that every distinct strain of a bacteria requires its own phages. So not only would the doctor need to know that you have a staph infection, he or she would need to know exactly which strain of staph in order to use the right phages. Alligator blood and frog skin, though, are rather interesting. Both of these critters inhabits swampy areas that tend to have much higher concentrations of pathogens, and they have evolved defense mechanisms to protect themselves. Now scientists are working on ways to bring those same defense mechanisms to people.

Synthetic antimicrobial peptides have a lot of promise, and may be one of the first on this list to make it into commercial use. After all, they are based on natural peptides, but they are more effective and cheaper to produce. Plus, in a series of tests, the synthetic peptides (called peptoids) wiped out all six bacterial cultures to which they were exposed.

Finally, I'm fascinated by the discovery that cholesterol-lowering drugs may be useful in battling bacteria. And, when given to mice which were then infected with MRSA, the drugs showed a 98 percent reduction in bacteria concentrations versus mice not given the drugs. Good news for me, since I'm on cholesterol medication.

Ice Melting Faster Than Expected

Scientific American has an interesting article about the accelerating rate of ice lost in the arctic and antarctic. It seems we've warmed the air and sea enough now that ice in Antarctica is melting, even though it's currently the middle of winter there.

Ice near the poles, especially on the western Antarctic Peninsula, as melting faster than any climate scientists or advanced climate models predicted, suggesting the possibility that global warming alarmists have not been over-hyping the situation, but possibly the opposite.

As the floating ice shelves break up and drift out to sea, the massive glacial ice on land becomes free to flow toward the water. According to Ted Scambos of the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, within a year or two of an ice shelf breaking up, glaciers that it previously held back could be moving toward the ocean up to four times faster than when the ice shelf was in place. That could (and most likely will) result in more ice flowing into the oceans at a faster rate than expected, and that will raise sea levels.

Another suggestion that we have perhaps underestimated the effects of warming on our ice, the US National Snow and Ice Data Center has warned that the North Pole could be free of ice in the summer—not in forty years, as previously predicted, but as early as this year.