Friday, May 30, 2008

Discovery on Schedule for Launch Tomorrow

According to NASA, all systems are go for tomorrow's launch of space shuttle Discovery to the International Space Station. Discovery will be transporting additional pieces of the Japanese Kibo laboratory module—including the large Japanese Pressurized Module and a robotic arm—as well as a new toilet pump to replace on that has failed (talk about trouble getting a plumber out to your house!). Additionally, Discovery will deliver Greg Chamitoff and return Flight Engineer Garrett Reisman, who has spent the past three months on the space station.

This mission will be the largest payload ever transported to the ISS and includes three spacewalks to install equipment.

With launch scheduled for 5:02pm EDT, NASA expects an 80 percent chance of favorable weather at launch time. And since this launch will be happening at a time when I'll be awake, I expect to watch the streaming webcast of it.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Tesla Roadster Gets Powertrain Update

JB Straubel over at Tesla Motors have provided an update on the "Touch" blog about the new, enhanced Powertrain 1.5 for the Tesla Roadster. It seems that the very talented engineers working at Tesla have managed to improve the Powertrain in just about every possible way, and along the way reduced the weight and complexity of the system while improving torque and efficiency!

If you haven't seen it, the Tesla Roadster is about the coolest looking, highest-performance electric vehicle out there. The Roadster is an all-electric vehicle with the performance and styling of a top-of-the-line sports car, but it doesn't use any fuel. The car has a 0-to-60 time of under 4 seconds and , with the new powertrain, a quarter-mile time in the 12.9 second range.

Sure, the Roadster will set you back a cool hundred grand, but that's not out of line with other top-performance cars. And when their WhiteStar sedan comes out (probably in 2010 or 2011) with a price tag in the $50-65,000 range, I expect it to signal the beginning of the end for fossil-fueled vehicles, at least in the U.S.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Cold Fusion on the Comeback Trail?

Cold Fusion (in physics, not in web development) became a taboo expression nineteen years ago after Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons were unable to replicate their experiment that supposedly produced fusion in a glass jar at room temperature. And, since nobody else was able to duplicate the results, cold fusion has since become a synonym for pseudo-science. But that may be about to change.

Jon Cartwright of the physicsworld blog reports that Yoshiaki Arata, a retired physics professor at Osaka University and his partner, Yue-Chang Zhang, have demonstrated what appears to be a repeatable experiment that involves forcing deuterium into an evacuated cell containing a sample of palladium dispersed in zirconium oxide. According to Arata, the deuterium is absorbed by the sample in large enough amounts to force the deuterium nuclei to become close enough to fuse.

It's way, way too early to say whether or not these results have any validity, as (like with Fleischmann and Pons) they will need to be replicated by several other teams and the results fully understood. Additionally, the temperature of the sample only rose to about 70°C. While that is significant and notable, it is not enough to produce steam to turn a turbine, so more work would need to be done.

Also, there appears to be some debate as to whether the heating was actually caused by fusion or whether it was purely chemical. However, if deuterium is fed into the sample and helium comes out, I don't see any other process that could explain that. But more research will reveal the truth.

Kavli Prizes Awarded

The Kavli Prizes were awarded today by the Kavli Foundation, and as promised, here are the winners:

The Kavli Prize for Astrophysics was awarded jointly to Maarten Schmidt, of the California Institute of Technology, US, and Donald Lynden-Bell, of Cambridge University, UK, for their work on Quasars. During the 1960s Schmidt analysed the visible light spectra of quasars and used the results to explain just how distant these extraordinarily bright galaxies are, while Lynden-Bell demonstrated how they were powered by the collapse of material into massive black holes.

The Kavli Prize for Nanoscience was awarded jointly to Louis E. Brus, of Columbia University, US, and Sumio Iijima, of Meijo University in Japan for their respective discoveries of colloidal semiconductor nanocrystals, also known as quantum dots, and carbon nanotubes. Major advances being predicted in fields as diverse as electronics, the environment, energy and biomedicine would not have been possible without Brus and Iijima’s contributions in explaining the unusual properties of particles so small that electron motion is confined to zero or one dimension.

The Kavli Prize for Neuroscience was awarded jointly to Pasko Rakic, of the Yale University School of Medicine, Thomas Jessell, of Columbia University, and Sten Grillner, of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden for work that helped decipher the basic mechanisms that govern the development and functioning of the networks of cells in the brain and spinal cord.

In addition to a scroll and a medal for each recipient, the award recipients for each of the three areas will split a $1 million prize.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Shortage of Cadavers for Research and Education

The Los Angeles Times reports that organizations that distribute cadavers for medical schools and research are suffering shortages. It seems that more people are being cremated or donating their tissues piecemeal rather than donating whole corpses for research or educational purposes.

As a result, medical schools are not receiving enough corpses for students to practice and learn on, and are having to turn students away from important classes. The next time you're in the hospital for surgery and you see your young surgeon getting ready, think about whether or not he or she has had enough practice before getting to you.

For as long as I've been writing this blog, I've encouraged people to dedicate part of their time and/or resources to help advance science and technology. If you donate your body for research or educational purposes, you can continue to contribute to advancement even after your death. Plus, it could save your loved ones from having to spend money on burial.

Kavli Prizes to Be Awarded Tomorrow

Fred Kavli hopes to leave behind a legacy that will have a positive impact on humanity for centuries. And he's doing it the same way as Alfred Nobel. No, not by making better explosives (although Kavli did get his start developing technology for the military). Kavli is dedicating his fortune to the advancement of science through the formation of Kavli Institutes for science, and the Kavli Prizes, a set of very focused scientific prizes in the amount of $1 million for advances in astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience.

The prizes are awarded by the Kavli Foundation, and the first awardings of these prizes will be announced tomorrow morning in Oslo, Norway. Kavli's goal is to promote scientific research that will benefit mankind not in a few years but in a hundred years. The funds provided by the foundation are for basic research in the three target areas, not for quick results.

Check back tomorrow for information about the Kavli Prize winners.

Doctors Attempt to Re-Grow Soldier's Missing Finger

In a major new medical study of regenerative medicine, Pentagon researchers, Army doctors, and a team of researchers at several of the nation's top medical facilities are attempting to help a soldier re-grow a finger that was lost to a bomb attack in Baghdad last year, according to a top story from CNN. The procedure, which involves applying a specially formulated powder to the wounded body part, was inspired by the regenerative abilities of salamanders.

The powder—nicknamed "pixie dust" by some of the people at Brooke Army Medical Center—is made from tissue extracted from pigs, and works by forming a microscopic lattice that attracts stem cells and convinced them to grow into the tissue that used to be there. The researchers consider re-growing a finger to be the first step which, if successful, could lead to further tests to grow replacement organs for patients in need of transplant.

This is another example of technology being developed for the U.S. military that could have far-reaching implications for civilians around the world. For example, since I'm not eligible for laser eye surgery, I've been telling people I'm willing to wait about fifteen years until the doctors can just grow me new eyes. With this technology, that timetable may even be possible.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Phoenix and Mars

NASA's Phoenix probe has landed on Mars, where it will begin a three-month mission to study the northern polar region for the presence of water. Remember, though, that the Spirit and Opportunity probes also landed on three-month missions five years ago. So when NASA puts together a three-month mission, that doesn't necessarily mean it will stop in three months... it will stop whenever they're done collecting useful data.

Phil Plaitt over at Bad Astronomy has posted some of the photos that Phoenix has already sent back of the surface.

Friday, May 23, 2008

NASA Schedules Hubble Repair Mission for Oct. 8 Launch

NASA has announced the new target launch date for the fifth (although it's called Servicing Mission 4) and final mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope. Atlantis will launch for STS-125 on October 8 of this year, if all goes well. The mission was previously delayed due to NASA's need to build fuel tanks and for Endeavour to get ready. Endeavour is necessary as a back-up if a problem happens with Atlantis, as the shuttles trajectory to Hubble will make it impossible to make an emergency trip to the ISS.

If everything goes well and Endeavour is not needed for a rescue mission, then that shuttle will fly on November 10, 2008, to deliver a Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) to the ISS.

When Servicing Mission 4 is complete, not only will Hubble's useful life be extended, but the quality of science it can achieve will be enhanced. These enhancements include new batteries to replace the batteries that have been in use since 1990 and replacement of some of the gyroscopes that keep Hubble pointed at its targets for observation.

The crew will also be repairing the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph and some of Hubble's insulation, as well as installing a new cooling system, the Wide Field Camera 3, and the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Hey Buddy, Wanna Be an Archaeologist?

I have long been a proponent of citizen-involvement in science. Today, Alan Boyle over at MSNBC has a new blog post about opportunities that allow ordinary people like me and you to participate in archaeological expeditions. Alan has some good information about the expeditions and a list of ten places to go online to learn more about available opportunities.

So unleash your inner Indiana Jones or Lara Croft. Get out there and get your hands dirty (literally)!

TVA Facilities Vulnerable to Cyber Attacks

CNN reported yesterday afternoon about a new study conducted by the GAO that shows that the TVA is inadequately protected from cyber attacks. The TVA operates 52 power plants in the southeastern U.S., including nuclear, hydropower, and coal facilities.

The GAO found that:
  • The TVA's firewalls have been bypassed or are inadequately configured
  • Passwords in use by TVA personnel are not effective
  • Servers and work stations lack key patches and effective virus protection
  • Intrusion-detection systems used by the TVA are not adequate
  • Some locations lack enough physical security around control systems

Rep. James Langevin, a Rhode Island Democrat, is chairing an Emerging Threats, Cybersecurity, and Science and Technology subcommittee hearing Wednesday afternoon. Representatives of the TVA, the GAO, the federal commission and the electric reliability corporation are to appear before the subcommittee.

I find these results to be a little disturbing, but not terribly surprising. Information Systems security is a massively complex field, and changes on a daily basis. I also find it a little disturbing that we publish results detailing the exact vulnerabilities, almost as though we were trying to provide detailed attack plans to terrorists.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Lab-Grown Meat Could Be Coming to a Grocery Store Near You

Slate has an interesting—and somewhat disturbing—article about artificial, lab-grown meat. Now, I like meat, and I'm all for things that can make it more eco-friendly and less expensive. But I'm just not sure about the idea of eating meat that was grown in a vat from stem cells.

According to the post, the current ranching and slaughtering process for beef means that for every pound of beef we consume, 36.4 pounds of carbon dioxide—the same amount as driving an average car 155 miles at 50 mph—are released into the atmosphere. Raising cattle is also horribly inefficient... it takes seven calories of grain to produce a single calorie of beef. By not having actual cows, we can eliminate waste products and free up a bunch of land that is being used for ranching right now.

However, the author of the article does make one mistake, when he suggests that we can free up the food needed for the cattle. Obviously, in order to grow protein (even in a vat) the labs will need to provide a source of glucose and amino acids. True, the process will likely consume fewer calories than actual cows, but not as little as you might think.

But I'm not sure how I feel about the idea of eating meat grown from a vat. They can probably produce something similar to beef in taste and texture, and probably even come reasonably close to the nutritional content. But we learn new things about our food all the time, and we often discover that, somewhere along the way, we've lost something that was fairly important. For example, it turns out that whole grains (like whole-wheat flour) are better for us than refined grains (like bleached flour). It would be fairly easy, I think, to make the same kind of mistake with synthetic meat.

Still, I'm willing to try just about anything once, and if I can get a fine filet for considerably less money than I'm currently paying, and with environmental benefits to boot, I'll have to really think about mixing some of this into my diet. It will be a while yet, however, as the technology is in its infancy and rather expensive. In the case of one Dutch team, the lab-grown pork would currently cost about $45,000 per pound.

Nanotubes May Be Hazardous to Your Health

Both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times are running articles today highlighting a study reported in Nature Nanotechnology about the possible dangers of carbon nanotubes. These nano-scale structures, discovered in 1991, have potential for a massive number of industrial and commercial uses in the decades to come, but apparently come with some risks.

The researchers conducted a pilot study by injecting both long (20 micron) and short (5 micron) nanotubes into the abdominal cavities of mice. While the short nanotubes had little or no effect, the longer nanotubes caused lesions similar to those caused by asbestos, which the researchers believe would likewise cause mesothelioma, a form of cancer commonly caused by asbestos.

The results are preliminary, and the investigators point out that they did not study how easily nanotubes can become airborne or whether they become lodged in the lungs if inhaled. More research is needed into the harmfulness of nanotubes.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Replacement Bladders Work Effectively

Popular Science reports on new artificial bladders made by a company named Tengion. The bladders are grown on biodegradable scaffolds using the patient's own cells, collected via a biopsy from the patients natural bladder.

According to the report, the neo-bladders created and implanted during their testing, after re-implantation, grew to the same size as the original bladders and functioned effectively. The company hopes to start clinical trials in 2009.

Hopefully the company will be able to extend this technology effectively to other organs, allowing the growing of replacement organs for which people currently have to spend time on a waiting list for donors.

New Process Improves Cost, Usefulness of Titanium

Researchers working with the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory have devised a new system for creating objects using titanium powder that could dramatically reduce the cost of using the material. The process uses considerably less energy for constructing parts from titanium powders because it does not involve having to melt the powders.

The researchers see new applications in armor for soldiers and vehicles, new alloys for brake rotors, more durable artificial join replacements, and more. The clearest gain is in armor for military vehicles. The titanium alloy armors do a much better job of stopping bullets and shrapnel, but are also lighter. By being lighter, the vehicles become more responsive and mobile, making them more useful to the military. And obviously, by stopping more bullets, the vehicles are clearly more useful to the soldiers inside.

Similarly, new corrosion-resistant alloys could make their way into automobiles, making them lighter and more responsive and helping improve their fuel efficiency.

Texas Oilman Bets on Wind

T. Boone Pickens, a billionaire Texas oilman, thinks that the U.S. needs to reduce its dependence on oil. That's why he's putting billions of dollars of his own money into building down in Texas what will be the largest wind farm in the world.

Pickens is starting with 600 wind turbines from GE which will be capable of producing a gigawatt of energy. This is the first stage of a massive project to build a four gigawatt network of wind turbines by 2015.

In some areas, people object to wind turbines because they think they are ugly and detract from the natural beauty. Personally, I like them, as I see them as a sign of progress and advancement. For the local farmers down in Texas, though, Pickens plan brings something better... money. Each wind turbine that a farmer puts on his or her land brings in approximately $20,000 per year in royalties.

My favorite part of this CNN story is the last paragraph, where Pickens says, "But we are going to have to do something different in America. You can't keep paying out $600 billion a year for oil."

It's clear to me that this Texas oilman gets it.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Boeing Fires High-Energy Chemical Laser

According to a report from the New Mexico Business Weekly, Boeing has for the first time fired its high-energy laser weapon from a C-130H aircraft, demonstrating its ability to precisely hit targets on the ground with minimal collateral damage.

I haven't seen any video footage of the event, but that's okay. I saw the movie a long time ago. One has to wonder if they went through extra precautions to make sure that Val Kilmer was nowhere near the site of their test....

Are You Sure That Avatar You're Talking to in Second Life is a Person?

From the Associated Press comes an article yesterday about how researchers at Rensselaer Polytech have created an artificial intelligence that can operate a Second Life avatar. The avatar even has a name, Edd Hifeng.

Edd has a limited ability to converse, but what really makes this AI entity interesting is its ability to make inferences. In one example, Edd witnessed a different avatar switching a gun from one briefcase to another. Edd was able to infer that another avatar not currently in the room would believe the gun to still be in the first briefcase.

It may seem fairly simple to you and me, but this ability to make inferences has long been a weakness of artificial intelligence. Bridging this gap is a big step toward creating artificially intelligent entities.

I'm all in favor of this type of research into artificial intelligence, as long as it can be done responsibly. As a software developer myself, I do have some concerns about the days when computers become smarter than us. The Matrix and the Terminator are entertaining (but not very realistic) scenarios about what could happen if our creations decide that we have become obsolete. So while this type of research is continuing to advance, I'm going to be paying close attention to it and stopping by occasionally to check out how the Lifeboat Foundation's AIShield project is coming along.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Obesity Promotes Global Warming...?

As if those of us who are overweight needed another reason to feel bad about that fact, it seems that we're also helping cause global warming. How?

According to an article quoted by John Tierney over at the New York Times the obese population consumes 18% more calories than the general population. And because we weigh more, it takes more energy to transport us in vehicles. Thus global warming.

That's all I'm going to write about that for now. I have to go do some sit-ups....

Friday, May 16, 2008

Vitamin D Deficiency Linked to Breast Cancer Risk

From the L.A. Times and Mount Sinai Hospital comes a report that breast cancer patients who had below-normal levels of vitamin D when diagnosed were a staggering 94% more likely to have their cancer metastasize, and 73% more likely to die within 10 years of diagnosis.

These results are preliminary and it is far too early for doctors to begin advising women to take vitamin D to help combat cancer. That said, striving for 100% of the daily recommended amount would be wise anyway. Vitamin D has a number of beneficial effects on the body, although taking too much can also cause problems. The best form of vitamin D, D3, is produced naturally in the body due to exposure to sunlight, and is considered the most useful form.

So spending more time in the sunlight may have beneficial effects for helping fight breast cancer or preventing its spread. But be careful not to get skin cancer from over-exposure!

Robotic Exoskeletons

From CNN comes news of a robotic exoskeleton being developed for the military. This isn't the first time I've seen reports about the military's plans for this sort of thing, but it is the first time I've seen an advanced demonstration and up-to-date information.

Technology like this could go a long way toward keeping our soldiers alive in dangerous situations, but it could also do more. Imagine if a group of a hundred or a thousand relief workers equipped with this technology could be deployed following a major disaster, such as the recent earthquake in China. Combing through the rubble in a powered exoskeleton would be much faster, and could save a large number of lives by getting to trapped people sooner.

Happy Birthday, Laser

Forty-eight years ago today, Theodore Maiman used a synthetic ruby to create the world's first laser. Maiman didn't invent the theory, but he did build the first working laser.

A number of brilliant minds have worked on laser technology over the past half-century, and without them we wouldn't have such things as DVD players, laser eye surgery, laser range-finders, laser welding, or optical computer mice. Sometimes it still amazes me how a single scientific or technological advance can lead to such great advances in our understanding of the universe and our quality of life.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Blog Purpose

When I first launched this blog a couple of years ago, I began by compiling daily science/tech/future/space/medical news and summarizing them here. Then I discovered that there were other blogs that were doing the same thing, often better. So I shifted the focus of this blog to have fewer, higher-quality (in my mind) posts of original, often educational, content.

But over the past several months, a couple of the blogs that were aggregating the latest cool news seem to have disappeared. I keep waiting for them to come back, but they haven't. So I'm wondering, should I start doing that again, or is that a service that's even in demand? Is it beneficial to you to go to a blog that aggregates that kind of stuff so you don't have to go look for it in a hundred places yourself?

Please let me know your opinion as to what you think this blog should focus on going forward.

WorldWide Telescope

In case you missed it, Microsoft released its WorldWide Telescope software for free yesterday. This is an application that combines their Photosynth technology with astronomy images and data to create an interactive view of the universe around us.

It's a pretty cool application, and even cooler that they released it for free. Check it out.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Answering Fermi

In a post last year, I talked about the Drake Equation (for predicting the number of intelligent species in the galaxy). In that post, I also mentioned the Fermi paradox, which begs the question, if there are as many intelligent species in the galaxy as the Drake Equation seems to predict, then where are they all?

Theoretical answers to the question have been proposed and, in many cases, explored through science fiction, and I'm going to discuss them further here. Really, the possible answers to the Fermi paradox fall into one of two categories:
  1. There is no other intelligent life in the universe
  2. They're out there, but we haven't found them yet

Each of these two categories has several sub-examples that might be applicable. In the first case, the most obvious answer might be that we are, in fact, the only intelligent life in the universe. Scientifically this answer is both unplausible and unpalatable. We know that conditions in our universe are right for the formation of life, and for that life to reach intelligence. After all, we exist (though some might argue about our "intelligence"). The scale of the universe is so incredibly vast that it's impossible to believe that intelligent life would form in one and only one location.

But maybe intelligent life develops and doesn't flourish, for one reason or another. Perhaps it gets wiped out by some natural catastrophe, such as asteroid impacts, gamma ray bursts, supernovae, or other natural disaster. Or maybe it wipes itself out through catastrophic climate change, nuclear war, engineered pathogens, self-replicating nano-machines, or through other means we haven't been clever enough to come up with yet ourselves.

Maybe they are out there, though, and we just haven't found them yet. Maybe they have such advanced technology that they could be watching us silently right now. Or maybe we're so beneath their notice that they don't attempt to communicate with us anymore than we attempt to communicate with cockroaches. It's likely that they're communication systems are so advanced that we would not detect their signals.

The final possibility I'm going to mention falls under the first category, but I saved it for last: maybe the first intelligent species to expand out into the universe has gone on a rampage and destroyed every other species that has attempted to expand off its home planet. This possibility has been thoroughly explored in science fiction, from swarms of self-replicating nanites to ginormous robotic destroyers to swarms of human-eating critters. And maybe they just haven't gotten here yet, or maybe they sweep through each sector of space every ten thousand years or so, and they'll be returning soon.

Which of these do I believe? Lacking any scientific evidence, I have to remain skeptical. The one that seems most likely to me is that they're out there, but we're not smart enough to notice. Maybe they're waiting for us to find them.

What do you think?