Friday, September 29, 2006

Shuttle Atlantis and the ISS

How about these suckers for cool astronomy photos: The Space Shuttle Atlantis performing its inspection just off of the International Space Station in transit across the sun!

From Thierry Legault: Image of the solar transit of the International Space Station (ISS) and Space Shuttle Atlantis (50 minutes after undocking from the ISS, before return to Earth), taken from the area of Mamers (Normandie, France) on september 17th 2006 at 13h 38min 50s UT. Takahashi TOA-150 refractor (diameter 150mm, final focal 2300mm), Baader helioscope and Canon 5D. Exposure of 1/8000s at 50 ISO, extracted from a series of 14 images (3 images/s) started 2s before the predicted Transit duration: 0,6s. Transit band width on Earth: 7.4 km. ISS distance to observer: 550 km.

It's worth checking out the full-resolution photo here.

peed: 7.4km/s. ISS size: 73m. Distance between ISS and Atlantis: 200m

Sports As Education

Many people, myself included, consider sports to offer invaluable lessons in discipline, commitment, delayed gratification, and teamwork. "A Healthy body breeds a healthy mind."

But apparently, whether the sport makes the individual or the already-defined individual picks the sport, the following table shows some interesting correlations.

Division I Graduation Rates for Entering Classes of 1996-99, by Sport

Men’s Sports


Federal Rate







Cross Country/Track















Ice Hockey
























Water Polo






(Note that GSR is an adjusted rate which corrects for transfers)

With a proper disclaimer to differentiating between correlation and causality:

JUST IN CASE THERE MIGHT BE A CAUSAL RELATIONSHIP: Unless you are completely convinced you are the next NFL superstar in the making, if you want to graduate from college you should probably steer clear of Baseball or Football. Invest that time in your studies instead!

Rocketbelt Convention 2006


More photos and links here.

The Torture Bill

This issue will continue to damn our country until we substantially change course. It evokes incredible passion because it is so central to the notion of fair play, rationality, and reasoned law that have been the American brand worldwide for centuries. Now, we have traded that core value for a double standard, where the US executive branch can stand outside both US and international law, and deny due process to ANYONE arbitrarily. Imagine our founding fathers facing that sort of enviroment in Britain of the 18th century. Taxation without representation is mild by comparison.

The liberal blogosphere is full of vehement disclaimers which, while extreme, certainly echo much of my own frustration and shame at the passage of the latest Bill.

Here is one example from John Scalzi:

I'm proud to be an American, but I'm tired of being ashamed of my government. I'm tired of having to count the seconds until this bilious waste of a president is shoved out the door in January of 2009. I'm tired of hoping that some members of the president's political party might actually put principle over political expedience, particularly when it concerns the Constitution. And I'm tired of waiting for the opposing party to actually grow a goddamned spine and become an opposing party. I'm tired of wondering why the people we elect to lead us don't seem to actually understand what it means to be American, and to be moral, and to do what it right for us. And I'm tired of having to look so hard for genuine leadership as opposed to the sham idiot version we have now. I feel like Diogenes, and I'm coming up short.

I'm tired of being led by moral cowards. I want better for myself, and for my country.

Here is a more reasoned post From Sean Carroll over at Cosmic Variance:

The Senate has voted 65-34 in favor of S. 3930, “A bill to authorize trial by military commission for violations of the law of war, and for other purposes.” Here, “trial by military commission” means that, if you are an unlawful enemy combatant, you have no right to a trial by your peers or any other basic protections of the Bill of Rights. (Who counts as an “enemy combatant”? Whomever the government says. Even U.S. citizens who haven’t even left the country, much less engaged in combat? Yes.) And “other purposes” means torturing people.

I remember when Republicans used to look at government with suspicion. Now the motto of the Republican Party is “Trust us, we’re the government, we know what’s best and we don’t make mistakes.”

Acording to Glenn Greenwald: During the debate on his amendment, Arlen Specter said that the bill sends us back 900 years because it denies habeas corpus rights and allows the President to detain people indefinitely. He also said the bill violates core Constitutional protections. Then he voted for it.
To my surprise, I actually completely agree with the following statement from Senator Hillary Clinton:

"The rule of law cannot be compromised. We must stand for the rule of law before the world, especially when we are under stress and under threat. We must show that we uphold our most profound values…

The bill before us allows the admission into evidence of statements derived through cruel, inhuman and degrading interrogation. That sets a dangerous precedent that will endanger our own men and women in uniform overseas. Will our enemies be less likely to surrender? Will informants be less likely to come forward? Will our soldiers be more likely to face torture if captured? Will the information we obtain be less reliable? These are the questions we should be asking. And based on what we know about warfare from listening to those who have fought for our country, the answers do not support this bill. As Lieutenant John F. Kimmons, the Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence said, “No good intelligence is going to come from abusive interrogation practices.”…

This bill undermines the Geneva Conventions by allowing the President to issue Executive Orders to redefine what permissible interrogation techniques happen to be. Have we fallen so low as to debate how much torture we are willing to stomach? By allowing this Administration to further stretch the definition of what is and is not torture, we lower our moral standards to those whom we despise, undermine the values of our flag wherever it flies, put our troops in danger, and jeopardize our moral strength in a conflict that cannot be won simply with military might.

I find this evolution to be a horrific corruption that strikes at the very heart of American values in being above reproach, and in having checks and balances on Executive power.

Unsurprisingly, almost every Republican voted for the Bill. My only consolation is the hope that perhaps with the upcoming mid-term and Presidential elections enough Democrats will be elected to force the Republicans to live with that uncomfortable balance weilded by a liberal administration long enough to want to eventually overturn this corruption. Of course then we will have a whole set of additional problems to manage fom liberal excesses, but at least the moral double standard, and the shame that goes with it, might be retired.

Now Even The Teenage World is Flat

Having trouble in your math class? Physics problem sets getting you down? Behind on that term paper?

Just do what most American companies are doing these days. Outsource your Homework.

For $2.50 an hour (or $100 per month for unlimited hours) you can receive live, personal, online tutoring from a trained educator holding at least a Master's degree in your field of study through TutorVista of Bangalor India. This obviously spells trouble for the American companies struggling to demand rates of over $40 an hour.

"We've changed the paradigm of tutoring," said Krishnan Ganesh, founder and chairman of TutorVista, which offers subjects ranging from grammar to geometry for children as young as 6 years old to adults in college.

"It's not that the U.S. education system is not good. It's just that it's impossible to give personalized education at an affordable cost unless you use technology, unless you use the Internet and unless you can use lower-cost job centers like India," he said over a crackly Internet-phone line from Bangalore. "We can deliver that."

Many of the tutors have masters degrees in their subjects, said Ganesh. On average, they have taught for 10 years. Each undergoes 60 hours of training, including lessons on how to speak in a U.S. accent and how to decipher American slang.

"It's made the biggest difference. My daughter is literally at the top of every single one of her classes and she has never done that before," said Robison, a single mother from Modesto.

"I like to tell people I did private tutoring every day for the cost of a fast-food meal or a Starbucks' coffee," Robison said. "We did our own form of summer school all summer."

What does it say about our country that India can do a better job educating American kids than we can, and for one 1/15th the cost to boot?

And I bet that even with kids benefiting from international economics, the Teachers' Unions will complain within the year because money that could be going into their failing system is heading offshore.

More on this topic here.

NASA's Oportunity Rover Reaches Victoria Crater

From NASA:

NASA's Mars rover Opportunity reached the rim of "Victoria Crater" in Mars' Meridiani Planum region with a 26-meter (85-foot) drive during the rover's 951st Martian day, or sol (Sept. 26, 2006). After the drive, the rover's navigation camera took the three exposures combined into this view of the crater's interior. This crater has been the mission's long-term destination for the past 21 Earth months.

A half mile in the distance one can see about 20 percent of the far side of the crater framed by the rocky cliffs in the foreground to the left and right of the image. The rim of the crater is composed of alternating promontories, rocky points towering approximately 70 meters (230 feet) above the crater floor, and recessed alcoves. The bottom of the crater is covered by sand that has been shaped into ripples by the Martian wind.

The position at the end of the sol 951 drive is about six meters from the lip of an alcove called "Duck Bay." The rover team planned a drive for sol 952 that would move a few more meters forward, plus more imaging of the near and far walls of the crater.

Victoria Crater is about five times wider than "Endurance Crater," which Opportunity spent six months examining in 2004, and about 40 times wider than "Eagle Crater," where Opportunity first landed.

This view is presented as a cylindrical projection with geometric seam correction.

Image Credit:

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Bush Administration Caught in Science Censorship and Cover-up

According to Paul Thacker at Salon:

In February, there were several press reports about the Bush administration exercising message control on the subject of climate change. The New Republic cited numerous instances in which top officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and scientists at the National Hurricane Center sought to downplay links between more-intense hurricanes and global warming. NOAA scientist Thomas Knutson told the Wall Street Journal he'd been barred from speaking to CNBC because his research suggested just such a link.

At the time, Bush administration officials denied that they did any micromanaging of media requests for interviews. But a large batch of e-mails obtained by Salon through a Freedom of Information Act request shows that the White House was, in fact, controlling access to scientists and vetting reporters.

When NOAA press officer Laborde was contacted to discuss the e-mails, he denied that interviews were subject to approval from White House officials. Confronted with his own e-mails, however, he said, "If you already knew the answer, why did you ask the question?"

UC Berkeley Courses On Google Video For Free

From this release:

The best of college is now available, for free, without unpleasantries such as 8 a.m. classes, pop quizzes or term papers.

In a new deal with Google Video, the University of California-Berkeley is sharing with the public, via the Internet, dozens of videotaped seminars, speeches, special events and even entire courses taught by some of the campus' leading professors.

``It's click and play,'' said Dan Mogulof, director of public affairs at the university.

Easy to view and accessible to everyone, the Web site offers more than 100 introductory-level lectures in subjects such as physics, biology, chemistry, information systems and bioengineering. Viewers can't earn credit, but they don't have to find a parking space either.

You have to love that Berkeley attitude. Their non-major's intro Physics-light class is entitled "Physics for Future Presidents."

Curriculum reformers take note of the syllabus implicit in the class lists and descriptions! It clearly shows that high school AP curricula are failing to keep up with the trends in Physics (or even the trends in college Physics courses). Note that this INTRODUCTORY Physics class includes 4 lectures on Quantum Mechanics, 2 on Relativity, and 2 on new discoveries about our Universe. 8 out of 24 lectures, or 25% of the class is focused on NEW physics as opposed to 4% of the traditional AP curriculum.

Any of my biology, chemistry, or health-sciences colleagues want to take a crack at comparing those topic areas?

Start learning right now! Here is the link to all the Cal content on Google.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Easy on the Eyes, Easy on the Mind

Remember the studies back in the nineties about what makes someone's face attractive? Judith Langlois et. al. discovered that the most attractive faces turned out to be the ones that were the average composite of all the faces in a large population study.

Images were posted across Newsweek and other trade magazines about how beautiful was really only average. Now web sites have sprung up like Beautycheck with all the details.

Das durchschnittliche FrauengesichtDas durchschnittliche Männergesicht
Left: averaged female face, made of 64 female faces; right: averaged male face, made of 32 male faces.

But wait, there's more. In a recently published paper Piotr Winkielman, Jamin Halberstadt, Tedra Fazendeiro, and Steve Catty report that this notion of average beauty simply arises through the fact that the repeated stimulus of a series of patterns presented to the eyes condition a person to recognize the expected average easily, efficiently (in terms of energy) and rapidly, and that the ease in recognition eventually translates from familiar into beautiful.

"What you like is a function of what your mind has been trained on," Winkielman said. "A stimulus becomes attractive if it falls into the average of what you've seen and is therefore simple for your brain to process. In our experiments, we show that we can make an arbitrary pattern likeable just by preparing the mind to recognize it quickly."

"Critically, the less time it took participants to classify a pattern, the more attractive they judged it."
So easy on the eyes really is easy on the Brain.

Swarms of Autonomous Flying Robots

MIT's Jonathan How and his grad students Brett Bethke and Mario Valenti have managed to design and build an actual flock of autonomous flying robots that coordinate their actions.

Brett Bethke, Mario Valenti

The craft are pretty neat in and of themselves, complete with sensors, adaptive control, and inertial guidance on top of the quad-rotor design. And their independent cooperation promises some really interesting future missions around surveillance, support, and rescue applications. Until Cyberdyne Systems mounts weapons on them and Terminators descend from the sky anyway.

Jonathan How, Brett Bethke, Mario Valenti
Notice that they are already surrounded by flying aircraft and are holding up their hands in surrender.

Seriously though, coordinated autonomous flying is definitely high cool.

Compound Eyes Find New Planets

Have you ever wondered what makes it so hard to swat a fly? Well, one of the reasons is that they have evolved compound eyes that can look in thousands of directions at once, and a neurological framework connecting those compound eyes to specialized portions of their little fly brains tuned specifically to detect motion. So they see you coming from every direction.

The anatomy of these compound eyes is really quite amazing, with each segment (see the micrograph above, credit to the University of Oulu Institute of Electron Optics) comprising an individual single-lens photo-sensor pointing in a different direction, with a dedicated neuron for each sensor tuned to detect variations in brightness.

As it turns out, these are precisely the characteristics that astronomers find themselves emulating in order to conduct a comprehensive search for planets circling other stars. Not knowing which of the billions of stars in the sky might harbor means that they have to look in all directions at once, and the technique of detecting the minute variations in a star's brightness due to a tiny planet transiting across its face requires extreme sensitivity to brightness changes.

So it probably wouldn't surprise you to discover that the latest planet-finding champion is the new SuperWASP compound telescope.

The latest news from the UK's leading extra-solar planetary detection program is that they just detected two new planets circling other stars, and are hot on the trail of others. The SuperWASP scope was used to find the planetary candidates and determine their radii, and then the SOPHIE spectroscope at the Observatoire de Haute-Provence confirmed the candidates and weighed them by detecting the slight wobble of the star due to the planet's gravitational pull (through the Doppler shift of the star's spectrum in it's tiny orbit around the planet).

In contrast to our 200 or so earlier extra-solar planetary discoveries which required extreme telescopes costing hundreds of millions of dollars and laborious one-at-a-time planetary searches, SuperWASP looks at hundreds of thousands of planets at a time using rather modest small-diameter wide-field optics and CCD cameras.

Here's to hoping that SuperWASP's record of finding two new planets in its first four days of operation continues!

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

If Only My Biology Teacher Had Drawn This Well

A DaVinci Blackboard Lesson in Multi-Conceptual Anatomy
Check out this blackboard photo of Caryn Babaian's anatomy lesson at Bucks County Community College.

Monday, September 25, 2006

New NASA Global Warming Study

NASA has just released the results of a new Global Warming study that was led by the notorious James Hansen of recent government censorship fame.

"The study, led by James Hansen of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, N.Y. along with scientists from other organizations concludes that, because of a rapid warming trend over the past 30 years, the Earth is now reaching and passing through the warmest levels in the current interglacial period, which has lasted nearly 12,000 years. An "interglacial period" is a time in the Earth's history when the area of Earth covered by glaciers was similar or smaller than at the present time. Recent warming is forcing species of plants and animals to move toward the north and south poles."
This color coded map shows how temperatures changed on average from 2001 through 2005. 2005 was the warmest ranked year on record.
Because of a rapid warming trend over the past 30 years, the Earth is now reaching and passing through the warmest levels seen in the last 12,000 years. This color-coded map shows how temperatures changed on average from 2001-2005. 2005 was the warmest ranked year on record. Dark red indicates the greatest warming and purple indicates the greatest cooling. Click image to enlarge. Credit: NASA

This color coded map shows a progression of changing global surface temperatures from 1880 to 2005, the warmest ranked year on record.
Because of a rapid warming trend over the past 30 years, the Earth is now reaching and passing through the warmest levels seen in the last 12,000 years. This color-coded map shows a progression of changing global surface temperatures from 1880 to 2005, the warmest ranked year on record. Dark red indicates the greatest warming and dark blue indicates the greatest cooling. Click image to view animation. Credit: NASA

Chart showing data from this study which reveals that the Earth has been warming approximately 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade for the past 30 years.
Data from this study reveal that the Earth has been warming approximately 0.2 degrees Celsius (.36 Fahrenheit) per decade for the past 30 years. This rapid warming has brought global temperature to within about one degree Celsius 1.8 Degrees Fahrenheit) of the maximum estimated temperature during the past million years, when sea level was about 25 meters (82 feet) higher than today. Click image to enlarge. Credit: NASA

Book Review: The Republican War On Science

The new paperback version of Chris Mooney's New York Times bestseller sat on my night stand for a while before I managed to muster enough intestinal fortitude to wade into the battle. I had seen a few high-level reviews of the book, but almost all of the people touting it belonged to what the far right would term the liberal intelligentsia, and the very title itself led me to anticipate a rather partisan view of the situation. Moreover, due to my own intermittent brushes with THE WAR through friends in academia and the news, I knew in advance that if well done, the book would just piss me off.

Sure enough, it did.

"The Republican War on Science" is an exhaustively researched and presented work of political AND scientific reporting. To Mooney's credit, while the political perspective is certainly skewed and occasionally tiresome in its repetitiveness, it becomes clear in short order that there is a reason for the obvious bias.

Starting with the anti-intellectual Goldwater campaign for President, Mooney explores, through an extensive series of personal interviews and well-documented research, the implacable advance of a distorted and flawed view of Science that has grown to permeate today's Republican platform (though the Democrats are also tainted in the process, there is really no comparison in the scope of offense). In short, Mooney's research shows that it has become common practice for politicians to co-opt whichever scientific result happens to support a favored policy, regardless of whether that scientific result happens to agree with the general consensus of the international scientific community. Political concerns have grown to eclipse the actual scientific data in terms of formulating policy. And when the march of science has diverged from the Republican positions on such critical topics as Global Warming, Stem Cell research, Evolution vs. Intelligent Design, dietary guidelines, and Sex Education, instead of using the latest science results to inform and update policies based on outdated historical hopes, the Republicans have chosen to undertake political and procedural attacks on the science and stick with a platform that is now becoming ever more analogous to pre-enlightenment philosophy which insisted that the world was flat and orbited by the sun.

Sadly, electrons, neutrons, and protons are not all that susceptible to political rhetoric. And while the political battle rages with "sound science" used as a political tool instead of as a bi-partisan source to inform and direct policy, Mother Nature marches on unattended.

Mooney highlights several of the most prominent tactics employed in THE WAR, ranging from siding with individual scientists far outside the general consensus, to purposefully highlighting and misrepresenting even minuscule uncertainties of the mainstream view, to stacking advisory committees with detractors and industrial representatives who opposed mainstream theories, all the way to exercising censorship of published results. Here's an example of some of the text concerning climate change.

"Every good scientist is a skeptic through and through," notes Harvard biological oceanographer James McCarthy, an expert on the impacts of climate change.

But not every skeptic is a Galileo.


"Consensus as strong as the one that has developed around this topic [anthropogenic global warming] is rare in Science," wrote Science executive editor-in-chief Donald Kennedy in a 2001 editorial.

As editor of one of the scientific community's flagship journals, an outlet that publishes papers on climate regularly, Kennedy ought to know. And in a 2004 interview, he told me something quite striking: Science does not exclude contrary arguments about the role of humans in causing climate change; rather, there simply isn't anything to consider publishing. "There is no example of a paper that disagreed strongly with the general consensus that has been peer reviewed and failed," Kennedy told me. "The fact is, they're just not being sent. And of course, then our opposition would say 'Well, that's because they know you'll never take them.' Well, hell, if there's been no case, how could they know that?"

The willful dismantling of the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, in particular, struck me as one of the most ill-informed and portentous decisions our country could have ever made. Mooney's research highlighted the evolution of Republican ire when the bi-partisan body's science research presentations began to diverge from the dominant party's platform. It wasn't long before that annoying voice (a political thorn really) reminding congress of nature's realities was removed from the playing field so that ill-informed policies could proceed unhindered. There is a fair amount of diatribe such as that listed in the next paragraph, but after reading the evidence laid out in such detail, even the most pedantic passages are hard to ignore.
"If this situation is maddening, it is also tragic. There may be no other issue today where a corruption of the necessary relationship between science and political decision-making has more potentially disastrous consequences. And together, James Inhofe and the Bush administration has made that corruption systematic and complete. Not only do they strive to prevent the public from understanding the gravity of the climate situation, but in sowing confusion and uncertainty, they help prevent us from doing anything about it."
With today's politicians exercising control over the scientific budgets and regulatory agencies, the consequences of this divergence between hope and reason are increasingly dire and long-lasting. At some point the divergence will become too large to ignore any longer, but by that time, it just might be too late for some species and land masses.

I strongly recommend this book to any voting adult. Please read it, and help change the leadership of this country to empower a more informed and forward-looking administration that can restore a proper balance and consideration of reality as we measure it. We have all derived incredible benefits from the age of reason. We need more of that, not less.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Visible Gene Expression

Yao and Webb just published an awesome article in Nature vol. 442 that included some incredible photos that resolved the actual activation of a gene in real-time. Webb, a physicist from Cornell, pioneered the multi-photon fluorescence microscopy that made the images possible.

Chromosomes in living cells

The results were stunning. "Within two weeks we had spectacular pictures," said Lis. The images included pictures of the genes (hsp70 genes) that protect flies from the effects of extreme heat. By cranking up the heat, the researchers could activate these genes, and by using fruit flies specifically bred to carry fluorescent proteins on HSF, they could watch the transcription factors in action.

"This is the first time ever that anyone has been able to see in detail, at native genes in vivo, how a transcription factor is turned on, and how it then is activated," said Webb.

I couldn't imagine a more fantastic application of new optical imaging technology than to look into the very fundamental mechanisms of life and actually see them unfold before our eyes.

Electro-magnetic Propulsion

For those of you that dream of one day owning your very own X-34 Land Speeder, the Force is indeed with you, for there is new hope that such a levitating craft might actually be possible.

There is an interesting article in the September issue of New Scientist that describes a new type of not-quite-rocket engine that uses a novel closed microwave resonant cavity with a geometry that exploits relativistic frames of reference to generate thrust without actually expelling anything.

At first blush, the idea would seem to violate what we know about Newton's laws and the "equal and opposite reactions" that have historically driven traditional rocket engines. But according to this theoretical paper by Roger Sawyer, Einstein's rules of relativity can be exploited to generate thrust without a traditional propellant. The general idea is that the momentum transfers calculations between the trapped resonating microwaves must be done in the photons' frame of reference. When you work out the math around the truncated cone cavity shape, you end up with thrust in the cavity's frame of reference despite the fact that nothing is emerging from the cavity.

European scientists are generally skeptical, but the initial laboratory tests have demonstrated greater thrusts than the recently launched ESA Smart satellite's ion drive. Better yet, the so-called EM drive reached this performance level without requiring any fuel other than electricity to power a magnetron (a source of microwaves, common to any microwave oven), and all that from an engine that weighs about one tenth of even the very latest ion-engine alternative plus propellant payload.

Indeed, it sounds too good to be true, but NASA is taking a serious look. Here is a diagram from the article:

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While a great deal of work would certainly remain in order to improve the new engine efficiency and output to levels useful on Earth, the prospect of having electronically controllable thrust without any emitted blast or heat is an awesome prospect that could change the face of transportation overnight.

If feasible, I would expect the principle challenges to be in managing high energy densities inside a resonant cavity without expansion, warping, slagging, or other mechanical failures that would ruin the Q (or peak resonance and energy storage capability) of the cavity.

Definitely worth a look.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Biology Jokes: part 1

From The World's Fair at Science blogs, though originally published in Science. The Y chromosome sequenced at last!


Putting His Money Where His Math Is

Check out this story on Seed about billionaire ex-mathematician Jim Simmons who has committed $50 million to improving math education across the US.

Science Under Attack: CDC Woes

If the science community in the UK is noticing the embarrassing state of our public science offices, something must be seriously wrong. Helen Pearson has published a scathing story about the politicization of science at the CDC in the UK's premier science journal Nature.

...But privately, CDC employees say they are demoralized by the reorganization because it has introduced extra bureaucracy, lowered the status of science and placed too much emphasis on 'spin'. They say these changes, and the new corporate management style, are ill-suited to an agency that is supposed to investigate and protect public health. "The message from the current leadership is that the important scientific issues are decided elsewhere; we just have to look good to the media and not challenge conventional wisdom," says one senior public-health researcher at the CDC.

The sour situation is thought to be one reason behind a wave of high-level departures: at least eight directors of the former national centres of expertise have left since 2004. The repercussions are being felt both nationally and internationally, because the CDC plays a central role in coordinating public health across state and local health departments, as well as international responses to emerging infectious diseases. "Most people in public health are very concerned to see this level of a brain drain in the CDC," says Jeffrey Levi, head of Trust for America's Health, a non-profit organization based in Washington DC that works to promote disease prevention.

Observers lay some of the blame on the Bush administration, which they say encouraged the agency to focus on preparation for bio-terrorism at the expense of other needs. "All the emphasis was on terrorism, without willingness to recognize that the public-health infrastructure has been getting weaker for years," says Anthony Robbins, a professor of public health at Tufts University in Boston. In the 2006 financial year, the CDC received funding boosts for bioterror and pandemic-flu planning while many chronic-disease prevention programmes were cut.

The accusation that politics is usurping science has also reared its head. Critics say pressure from the administration stops the agency from investigating pressing public-health issues, such as whether abstinence-only programmes work in the fight against HIV or whether junk food is fuelling the obesity epidemic. "There is not a feeling that science drives the agenda," says a senior official who left the CDC more than five years ago. Others are critical of Gerberding herself for not resisting these political pressures and fighting for the agency's agenda.

The fear now is for what would happen if the country had to deal with a public-health crisis. Many in the field draw parallels between the CDC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the organization so heavily criticized over its inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina. "Our preparedness has been deteriorating in fairly dramatic and drastic ways," says Phyllis Freeman, who specializes in public-health policy at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

Innumerate Americans

Jo Anne over at Cosmic Variance just posted a truly sad statement on our country's reputation, even within itself.

from her post:

I arrived in the San Francisco airport on Monday night, passed passport control, picked up my luggage, and went to hand in my customs form, which is the last step in the arrivals process. The customs agent stopped me dead in my tracks. He first asked, “Are you an American.” Obviously I answered “yes” straight-away. Then he asked, “OK, then, what is the square root of 98?”

So, after I gave my intelligent answer of “HUH,” the guy burst out laughing and said, “Yes, of course you’re an American. You don’t know anything!”

I wonder what would have happened if I had been awake. My normal, instantaneous response would have been “7 times the square root of 2”. I wonder if I would have been arrested if I said that….

Little Engines that Really Go!

I must confess that I've a great weakness for the very latest gadgetry of all sorts. My fascination with technological advance often outweighs my common sense, and then I usually end up owning the widget and have fiddled with it a few days before I ever get around to admitting that I'm unlikely to use it regularly because while pretty darn cool, it's just not all that practical. But you know, it might just come in handy for some future project!

So to my wife's ongoing dismay, my collection of electronics, tools, kits, parts, and assorted books seems inevitably to grow. (She was, however, warned in the spirit of fair disclosure concerning what is clearly a genetic trait when she saw my Dad's workshop in Atlanta for the first time.)

Occasionally, I am vindicated when some household repair project becomes a 30 second exercise because I happen to have the right tool at hand. But my real heroes are those folks who can use whatever is lying around to do wondrous things, and I think I have a new idol.

The Make blog just posted a story about a fellow named Iqbal Ahmend, a machinist for hire in Nagpur India. For any of you inclined to pine for the latest numerically controlled gadgetry, check out his workshop.

And now check out the incredibly cool WORKING engines he makes using just his one ancient lathe!

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A Complete 4-cylinder Engine
3 different sizes of a Victoria Engine.
The smallest of the three Victorias.

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A "Mary" beam engine from the 19th century

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A small vertical engine complete with boiler.

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A very nice image of the Victoria engine and boiler.

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Iqbal's World Record-holding 1.72 gramm working steam engine

So now, I'm looking to see if he will sell any of them, or better yet, share some of his lathe secrets!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

More Thin Ice Data from Envisat

For all you Global Warming doubters out there, assuming there are any of you left outside of our government:

The European Space Agency has posted some of the latest data from their Envisat spacecraft which confirms the results of last week's NASA postings on thinning arctic ice cover. Note the before and after photos between 2005 and 2006. (The black dot is the North Pole.)

Arctic ice concentration in 2005

Arctic ice concentration in 2006

"The images on the left are Envisat ASAR mosaics of Arctic ice acquired on 24 August 2005 and August 24, 2006 respectively. (Courtesy: Polar View) The images on the right are EOS Aqua AMSR-E ice concentrations acquired on the same days. (Courtesy: Leif Toudal Pedersen).

The uniform grey area in the upper ASAR image and the pink colour in the upper AMSR-E image are both consistent all the way around the pole (black hole), indicating pack ice with 100% ice concentration. In the lower images, there is a significant extent of leads – fractures and openings in the sea-ice cover – just below the pole in both the ASAR image, seen as splashes of dark grey and black, and the AMSR-E image (with British Isles shown for scale), seen by the high concentration of yellow, orange and green colours, signifying low ice concentrations."
So if there is a global warming hype conspiracy, it would now have to be an international one that truly strains the credibility of our current administration.

"People Don't Know What They Really Want."

Another great talk by Malcolm Gladwell, author of two excellent books Blink and The Tipping Point, has been posted on the TED Blog. This one covers the falacies of focus groups as applied to Pepsi, mustard, and spaghetti, among other things, and mirrors many of our findings at MobiTV.

Malcolm Gladwell

Gang Economics

The TED blog has posted a great video of Steven Levitt's talk on the economics of drug dealers. Levitt is the author of the NYT best seller Freakonomics, which I highly recommend.

Steven Levitt

Better Than Batteries: A Personal Power Plant

The rapid evolution of the electronics industry is certainly one of the world's unique industrial marvels. For over 20 years, the electronic design industry has managed to reliably followed the trajectory charted by Moore's law, which holds that microcircuit technology development will drive increases that double the density and power of integrated electronics every 18 months. The resulting industry of every smaller and more powerful consumer electronics is stunning in retrospect, with today's wristwatches computationally outperforming literally building-filling computers of 30 years ago.

There is one aspect of personal electronics, however, that is failing to keep the pace, and that is the battery. While electronics technology is doubling in capability every 18 months, batteries governed by chemistry are doubling in capacity on a time scale of roughly 30 years. And while advances in microelectronics are helping manage power consumption, there is an ever increasing demand for faster computing, higher resolution displays, and more powerful radios to transmit and receive data increasing amounts of data, audio and video over mobile handsets (miniature computer, really.) So the poor battery has become one of the largest bottlenecks in the development of the entire consumer electronics industry.

Prof. Alan EpsteinBut if MIT Professor Alan Epstein has his way, everyone will soon have a turbine in their pocket, and batteries will become obsolete. Usually, the idea of a turbine engine evokes images of jet planes and locomotives. But Alan's Gas Turbine Technology group in the MIT Microsystems Technology Lab has created a tiny engine which promises to outperform traditional battery technology in terms of power generation and fuel density.

"How can one make a tiny fuel-burning engine? An engine needs a compressor, a combustion chamber, a spinning turbine, and so on. Making millimeter-scale versions of those components from welded and riveted pieces of metal isn't feasible. So, like computer-chip makers, the MIT researchers turned to etched silicon wafers.

"Their microengine is made of six silicon wafers, piled up like pancakes and bonded together. Each wafer is a single crystal with its atoms perfectly aligned, so it is extremely strong. To achieve the necessary components, the wafers are individually prepared using an advanced etching process to eat away selected material. When the wafers are piled up, the surfaces and the spaces in between produce the needed features and functions.


Inside a tiny combustion chamber, fuel and air quickly mix and burn at the melting point of steel. Turbine blades, made of low-defect, high-strength microfabricated materials, spin at 20,000 revolutions per second—100 times faster than those in jet engines. A mini-generator produces 10 watts of power. A little compressor raises the pressure of air in preparation for combustion. And cooling (always a challenge in hot microdevices) appears manageable by sending the compression air around the outside of the combustor."

The real beauty of the new micro-engine technology is that it is based on the same traditional wafer-scale manufacturing technology used in computer microchip fabrication. Epstein's group has already routinely assembled over 100 microengines on a single wafer. When you apply the realization that we can now purchase a complete microcomputer on a chip for under a dollar (and the price is dropping about 20% per year) to the idea of portable engine and power production, Moore's law might soon apply to power generation as well as the electronics, and recharging cords could go the way of the dinosaur.

In this case, bigger is hardly better at all.

Shuttle and ISS Photos: Day 9

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Hurricane Gordon from the Shuttle Bay

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Location, Location, Location!

The view from this place is to die-for!

It is starting to look like a respectable long-term space habitat.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Looking Backwards in Time

Since my Extra Terrestrial Update post last week, several folks have asked me about the notion of looking backwards in time by looking farther away. This week, those questions are even more relevant, as scientists have just managed to look farther back in time than ever before, through more than 13 billion years, or to within 700 million or so years after the big bang. How can this be, you ask?

The fact that light can only go so fast, and in fact, goes a very specific speed, turns out to be a very powerful tool. When we see something while standing on earth and project backwards along the light's incoming path, if we can determine how far away something is, we can also, by knowing the speed of light, determine how long that light took to get here. The further away the source, the longer the light was in transit. So by looking far away we are also looking backwards in time.

As with much of astronomy, the real trick to figuring out how long ago some celestial event occurred turns into a problem of figuring out from how far away that event originated. The whole story of how we determined successive distance measurement metrics ranging from parallax, to apparent stellar brightness, Cephied star brightness variations, and at the long end of the scale, red-shift is a fascinating one. And while I might be convinced to talk about them all in future blog posts, I wanted to concentrate here on the Red-shift idea which allows us to look farther away, and farther back in time, than any of the other methods.

Red-shift is just another name for the Doppler effect in action. When a source of waves is receding from us, we hear or see a decrease in the pitch (or frequency) of the sound or light relative to its original wavelength. This effect is common and familiar from cars driving by with horns and sirens sounding; we hear a higher pitch when the car approaches, and a lower one when the car receds. Astronomers use this same effect, combined with the fact that stars emit most of their light from hydrogen fusion which produces a very characteristic spectral pattern, (i.e. burning hydrogen produces a unique set of colors at known wavelengths) to figure out how far away that star or galaxy of stars might be. The faster a star is receding from us, the more red it's spectrum appears.

Redshift of spectral lines in the optical spectrum of a supercluster of distant galaxies (right), as compared to that of the Sun (left). Wavelength increases up towards the red and beyond, (frequency decreases)
Redshift of spectral lines in the optical spectrum of a supercluster of distant galaxies (right), as compared to that of the Sun (left). Wavelength increases up towards the red and beyond, (frequency decreases) (From Wikipedia)

Wait a second, you say? red-shift and Doppler effects seem obvious in terms of bodies moving away from each other, but how do you go from how fast a star is cruising by, to how far away it is? Good catch.

It turns out that in around 1929, Edwin Hubble, the very fellow after which the Hubble Space Telescope is named, discovered that there was a relationship between the red-shift of nebulae (now known to be galaxies) and their distance from earth. This relationship eventually became known as Hubble's Law. Simply stated, the farther the source, the faster it receds from us.

Hubble's original data from his 1929 paper.
This is the original data from Hubble's 1929 paper.

In fact, Hubble's was some of the very first hard data that has led us to the inevitable conclusion that the universe is expanding all around us. Since all the galaxies in every direction seemed to be receding similarly, and because the velocity dependency only seemed to correlate with the distance from Earth, the only reasonable conclusion was that the apparent motion of distant stars was not just a matter of everything moving away from us in normal space, but more likely because the very fabric of space-time itself was stretching and expanding, taking the stars with it. Over the years, astronomers have verified and fine-tuned Hubble's initial hypothesis in numerous ways, and have used these sorts of tools to establish a reasonably definitive time line (and size) of our universe, shown graphically below.

The recent Hubble Space Telescope results using the Ultra Deep Field imaging techniques I highlighted in that last post have now reached all the way back in time to the age of the very first galaxies.

Using infrared filters, Bouwens and Magee were able to discover a most distant galaxy, that was so far away (and redshifted all the way to a z= 7.4) that it was only detectable in the infrared spectrum, and would have been completely missed in the visual spectrum survey.

Images of a galaxy at redshift 7.4 (inside white box) in the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. This galaxy is seen just 700 million years after the Big Bang. The galaxy disappears at optical wavelengths (left), but is seen clearly in the infrared (right), as shown in the image boxes at the bottom. Credit:Bouwens/Magee
We're now getting to the point that if we want to see the first stars, even farther back in time than when the first galaxies formed, we're going to have to build a bigger telescope. But that is what the James Webb Space Telescope will be for!

This post has given you a high-level overview, but for additional details, I strongly recommend checking out the First Galaxies web page, from which I have excerpted a few images here.