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.