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.