Malaysia’s MH370. What makes it so valuable?

April 15, 2014 Posted by
Funny cartoon about motorcycles

Misplaced confidence


An airplane disappeared with 239 people on board.

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad hates to hear stuff like that. If you have any sort of connection to any of the passengers, you have my deepest sympathy.

What a horrible thing!

Crazy too.

The chances of dying in a fire are about 1200 to 1. From a car accident or from  poison, about 1 in 120. From an airplane accident? About 11 million to 1.

In other words, you are safer – much, much safer – in the seat of a stupid airplane than you are sitting in your own living room where you could get caught in a fire or accidentally eat rat poison thinking it was some new candy treat from the lunatic next door. The disappearance of that airplane – of any commercial airliner-  is unthinkable.

When Manilla’s flight MH370 disappeared from radar on March 8, 2014, it was a twelve year old Boeing 777.  An airplane like that isn’t cheap but you can pick one up for 40 to 50 million dollars.

Now that it’s (probably) in pieces at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, it’s worth a fortune. The airline industry wants it badly. Because airplane accidents are so amazingly rare, this is a remarkable opportunity to learn from an honest to God airplane accident – an extremely rare chance to improve air safety even more. Boeing needs that thing to figure out if there were any issues with design or manufacture. Insurance companies need a look to settle the many interwoven claims against various parties. The airline needs it so it can prove it wasn’t negligent and to improve its own practices. Malaysia and China need to find it for political purposes because so many citizens want to tar and feather certain leaders over the way the accident was (mis)handled. And even the US which wasn’t directly involved (just one US citizen) would like to have a look at those those black boxes and examine key pieces of the wreckage.

It sounds cold to focus on the “worth” of the wreckage. I don’t mean it that way. I really do feel awful about the accident. However, if you’re trying to figure out why so much national treasure and effort is being invested in the search for this wreckage in “the most dangerous place on the planet”, it may help to understand the importance of the secrets hidden within that wreckage.


Will the aircraft be found? Will it ever be possible to deduce exactly what happened?

If you haven’t tuned out by now, you probably know that the search area has been narrowed down. As of this writing, the use of robotic submersibles has just begun. In the opinion of MISTER ScienceAintSoBad, they aren’t exagerating about what a rotten location this is. This area is remote, has indescribably bad weather, and very deep and uncharted water. If the airplane had been lost even a few years ago, it might have been hopeless. This is more like a planetary expedition than sending some soldiers to comb through a wreck somewhere but I think the search will go on until something is found. It’s an “in for a dime, in for a dollar” deal. So much has already been invested, and so much is riding on the results, that I don’t think giving up is on the menu.

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The drawing is mine.


March 29, 2014 Posted by
Cartoon about Stephen Hawkings



Remember Lou Gherig, the baseball player?

He got very sick.

He couldn’t talk, couldn’t walk, couldn’t stand up. Eventually, he couldn’t even swallow. Gherig never got over it. And he died from the disease which is now called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS. In the US it’s also called Lou Gherig’s disease in honor of a great guy who got a tough break.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis attacks the motor neurons in the body. The most common form of it shows up in the extremeties – the arms and legs – first. Most people succumb to the disease in less than five years.

Physicist Stephen Hawking has had ALS for about forty years. In spite of being  paralyzed, he has managed to leave  his able bodied colleagues in the dust, physicswise. His story is an amazing one. However, no one doubts that Hawking would give up a bunch of his honors and awards to be able to scratch his ear.


Eva Feldman, University of Michigan neurologist (also President of the American Neurological Association) conducted a small human trial using stem cells to treat ALS. The results were fantastic. The stem cells, which were implanted in one of several locations along the spine, slowed the progress of the disease for some of the patients. Slowed, in this case, meant “no significant disease progression” for the entire two year study. That’s like halted, right? One of the participants put away his cane and took part in a two and a half mile walkathon.

Nine other patients with more advanced disease didn’t do so good. No significant benefit. Since the phase 1 human trial kept a strict lid on the allowed doseage, the real surprise is that so many patients did so well. The phase 2 trial (starting soon) allows a much bigger dose.

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad is excited about this.  Stephen Hawking could use a little good news. I think , maybe, that will happen soon.

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My drawing.

The Trouble With Guys’ Brains – Study.

March 22, 2014 Posted by
Most men have lousy memories.



Guys have a problem.

It’s their brains.

You knew that, of course. I’m talking about their memories here. We will defer the many other peculiarities of male thinking for another blog post if you don’t mind. A big honking study of 48,000 people in Norway was carefully done by a team from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Here’s what was discovered.

Guys can’t remember worth a damn. (I sure can’t.) They’re really bad at names. (I really am too.) The Norwegian study, called Hunt3, was led by Dr. Jostein Holmen. It was published in  BMC Psychology.

The participants were asked about names and dates, details of past conversations. All the stuff you would expect, right?

The surprise? Guys were awful! They did much worse than women. Nobody knows why. They were bad when they were young, they were bad when they were middle aged and they were bad (just a little worse, actually) when they were old.

The age thing was a surprise though. The expectation was that younger guys would do a lot better on names and dates and such than they did in real life. More education was a good thing as far as good memory goes. And chronic depression was a bad thing. Neither factor was a surprise as the roles of education and depression have been known for some time.

The researchers were stimied. They couldn’t figure it out.

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad has a theory however. Back in the days before we were too enlightened to stick women with all the child rearing and family duties, the guys went out and threw spears at oxen while the women busied themselves with keeping track of several generations of kids and adults. Maybe there was a selective advantage to being good at knowing the names and ages and personal details of all those people in your charge. This theory, courtesy of ScienceAintSoBad, isn’t without its flaws but the price is right.

Anyway, that’s it for today folks. You’ll forgive me if I forget your birthday.

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Sure. That cartoon is mine.



March 16, 2014 Posted by



People fall in love with their own ideas. This is a particular occupational hazard for science writers and I apologize in advance for doing this to you but I’m repeating one of my answers to a question on because, frankly, I am in love with my own answer. It is my blog. I get to choose. Sue me if you don’t like it. (No. Just kidding. Please don’t.)

The question (on Quora) was: Is it necessary for the universe to have a beginning?

I have two completely contradictory answers. You can take your pick.

Here’s the first one:

Life has become more complicated around here lately.

A few decades ago, the universe was a less ambiguous thing (no multiverses on the agenda) and little or no discussion of pre-big-bang physics. A currently hot topic is whether “something” (stuff) could have come from “nothing” (non-stuff). If you feel the origin of stuff is the beginning, then maybe that predates our particular “bang”.

My opinion? I suspect that there was always something and never nothing. I realize that’s hard to swallow. How could there have always been something? Didn’t it have to start? Where would it have come from? But, if the alternative is that the underlying paraphernalia of physicality – the laws of physics, space-time, and quantum principles – have to be initiated out of nowhere, maybe my version – always something – is less hard on the brain.

At some later point in time, I changed my mind:

The “universe” includes more now than it used to. We have started referring to the “known” universe for the part that we can see; the “rest of it” seems to be considerable and may even be “infinite”. The quotes are because of how infinite that infiniteness might turn out to be.

Projecting everything back to a real – if somewhat mysterious – beginning, a point of infinite density, seems to have become more difficult to accept. 30^-35 meters may be the smallest allowable size. It is called the “Planck length” and it appears to shut the door on anything being smaller than that. Even the early universe.

It now seems likely that the actual beginning may have been a small period of time after the unachievable “singularity” when a few grams of energy-matter condensed out of some still undefined process. The birth of the universe has gradually drifted away from a “who knows?” shoulder shrug to a legitimate area for scientific inquiry,

There’s been lots of back and forth about the difficulties (or not) of “something from nothing”. There are many “nothing purists” who insist we start with an utter void without even the occasional virtual particle and show how such a thing could have led to our present condition. They feel there should be no defined laws of physics in that void either. It would seem we have to choose between either a total and complete null or something that’s not much but has enough of somethingness to start things with random fluctations of virtual particles. If it’s the latter, you’re stuck defining something that’s “eternal” (eternal somethingness).

My own vote is that things really did start from nothing. Absolute, absolute nothing. It’s more logical than saying that things “always were”, don’t you think?

How did we get here then? The key is that it is hard to remain perfect if you have to be that way forever. So perfect nothings foul up eventually; they spit out just enough virtual particles or burps of energy to, occasionally, “start the clock” on a universe.

There’s certainly nothing at all illogical about a “nothing” that does lasts forever. However, we know that didn’t happen, don’t we? Look around you. Obvious, right? So the story of creation is the story of a rare and minor instability which, over eternity, yields a brief flicker in a near timeless void. That flicker was mother and father to all of us.

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The drawing which has nothing to do with anything is mine.



March 14, 2014 Posted by



We’re pregnant.

So happy to hear. Will you be wanting hard copy of that first ultrasound?  How about a 3D doll of the kid in utero?

3D Babies has announced a way to make plastic replicas of a fetus from the 3D ultrasound scans. Cute as all get out if you like that not-born-yet look.

Getting a good “shot’ ” of a fetus must be done v-e-r-y carefully. Xrays – any kind of radiation –  is pretty much out of the question, right? However, sound waves don’t hurt anything down there; so ultrasound (high frequency sound waves) is used  to harmlessly form a clear picture of  the infant .  Ultrasound is up around two million hertz. That’s like a hundred times more than the highest frequency anyone can hear . The  short wavelengths are the trick to making pictures with good detail. Some of the latest equipment also does a three dimensional version  which has information about width, height, and depth.

The founders of 3D Babies thought “Depth. Hmm.. With all that info plus a 3D printer, why couldn’t we make a real lifelike replica of the kid?

That’s what they did.

Cartoon of kid aghast at mom




The web site says the company uses studies from bioengineeing to create a sculpture that “resembles” your baby. How close is the likeness? It’s hard to say. You probably have to more-or-less take their word for it since, by the time you see junor, he.she will have changed quite a bit.

Here’s the thing.

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad doesn’t have a problem with science, right? That’s obvious. And, you know what? Good taste isn’t a big deal with scientists either.  Darwin’s stuff was so offensive to his contemporaries he wouldn’t let it be published til he was gone.

Gallileo? They busted him for anti-biblicality. He was lucky to get off with house arrest.

If you want to capture Billy in all his pre-delivery glory, why would I object on the basis of good taste? Just remember that there might be some “artistic license” involved in getting from the 3D ultraound data to the plastic baby sculpture thing.

I’m not saying this is the perfect shower gift but if you want to scandalize your friends with something a little different, this might be what you were looking for.

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The photo is a promotional photo from 3D Babies.

The drawing is mine.



Are Chiropractors For Real?

March 1, 2014 Posted by


Cartoon about science



You’ve been to a chiropractor, right? Everyone has.

They’re doctors. More or less. They take the sting out of a backache and they do other stuff too like headaches and such.

Nothing wrong with it.

Here’s the thing though.

They’re not really doctors. They don’t even like doctors. In fact, mostly they’re  not big fans of the scientific method that underlies medicine.

Still. They do something, right?

Paul Ingraham, Assistant Editor of Science Based Medicine, at, looks at this. He examines the history and the literature of chiropractic; he also looks at what users have to say about their experiences including a Gallup poll.

His conclusion?

Chiropractic techniques may make some people feel better for a little while but the evidence for long term benefits is pretty sketchy. The studies that appear to support chiropractic aren’t scientifically sound.Even the members of the profession seem to be locked into some kind of ideological dispute about what chiropractors are good for.

Ingraham is perfect for this role. He’s not a hater. He sometimes uses chiropractors himself and refers others for treatment. He modestly insists that he isn’t qualified to sit in judgment. He’s sharing what he has dug up from his own careful research of the literature. Which is why its harder to dismiss what he has to say.

Ingrham lays out the five “big” questions about spinal manipulation: 1) Do chiropractors oversell their services with distateful and overly agressive tactics? 2) Is the historical idea behind “spinal subluxations” as the cure all for countless disorders and diseases faintly ridiculous in a modern scientific era? 3) Are the possible risks of injury or death from spinal manipulations justified by the insufficient evidence for its efficacy? 4) Now that a major scientific review (2014) has failed to demonstrate a good case for chiropractic treatment of low back pain, does this weaken its most basic appeal? and 5) Should chiropractors be allowed to continue treating children and babies where, say some, the chances for harm to the patient are greatest?

Ingraham says the profession, itself, is divided by its response to these basic questions.

The idea  of “subluxations”, so basic to chiropractic treatments since its very beginnings,  is rejected, Ingraham says, by many chiropractors as unsupported by science. (If MISTER ScienceAintSoBad gets to chime in here – It sure is!!) In fact, chiropractors fall into categories. The “straight” chiropractors still cling to the original theory of subluxations. If I understand this right, they wouldn’t be shy about fixing gout and liver disease with spinal manipulation therapy.

The “progressives” are called “mixers”. They focus mainly on the spine where even some medical doctors concede that it might at least make sense to find a beneficial effect from SMT.

Ingraham says there’s very little high quality research that supports the idea that chiropractic spinal manipulation therapy works better than other treatments. But, he says, for some people the “joint popping” effect is pleasurable and may even temporarily relieve pain. For others – not so much. He calls attention to a 7 year old Gallup poll that rates chiropractors at the very bottom of the medical profession for honesty and ethics. Considering how unrealistic people are about their expectations for their doctors – how tough they are on them- patients must really think chiropractors are dirt bags! However, I should caution that medicine isn’t all about popular opinion. A single poll shouldn’t be taken out of context.

Paul Ingraham makes a strong case. He’s probably right. Yet chiropractors continue to have their defenders. Many of them.

Who knows?

Maybe a better study will come along. That’s what makes science fun, right?

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The drawing is mine.


Cat Bites An Unrecognized Danger

February 21, 2014 Posted by
Cartoon about cats



Cats are stunning things – amazing beings. If you have one in your house, you know. Please don’t mistake them for pets as they are visitors from another star system that just happen to favor fur coats.

THEY decide if they’re in the mood.

Or not.

Often they rub against arms and purr. However. Wind up toys, they are not. They’re willful, intelligent co-inhabitants of your life space and, if they get pissed off at you, they won’t hold it all in and give themselves ulcers.

Cats bite and scratch. If you haven’t had the pleasure, believe me, they can make their point.

Here’s the thing.

If a cat bites your hand, take it seriously, okay? One in three bites to the hand put the attached person into the hospital with a nasty infection that all too often needs surgery to debride the wound. Dr, Brian Carlsen (lead study author on the paper which was published in the  Journal of Hand Surgery) says this is because the needle-ish teeth of cats do a great job of injecting bacteria deep into structures that aren’t exposed to air. Once the tooth gunk is sealed off in there, the infectious organisms have enough privacy to engage in intimate behavior leading to many bacterial babies and a glorious explosion of infection.

No need to make them crazy in the emergency room. Don’t show up every time your cat brushes you lightly with a paw. But if you do get a puncture wound – especially if it looks red or inflamed - please don’t ignore it. Let a medical type have a quick look. If it’s nothing, you can go home and change the litter box. But – seriously – if that bugger is getting infected, the best time to act is now.

Do it for me. Okay?

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The drawing of the unsmiling kitty is mine.



February 17, 2014 Posted by
Cartoon about cancer surgery




You’ve been “scheduled” even though you’re not sure you heard everything they said and aren’t sure you made the right choices.

How did this happen? Will everything be okay? Will your kids be orphaned?  Nobody answers these questions for you. It’s all about practical next steps.

You’re on a gurney talking to a nice doctor.

Isn’t she a little too young? Shouldn’t she be more reassuring?  Less “We’ll know a lot more after we get in there”?

You think she said  ”We’ll take away the bad stuff and leave the good stuff.” 

That must be what she said. That’s what they do right?


The surgeon’s job is to get rid of the diseased tissue. How is that determined?


To see if all of the cancer has been successfully removed, a sample is put into a container with preservative. The sample is sent to the pathologist. After a gross exam ,  the sample is quickly frozen, stained, and sliced.  Other samples go into a cassette for a more complete analysis later. Those samples go into hot paraffin which, after a few hours of cooling, get sliced on a “microtome” for the eventual “thumbs up/thumbs down”.

This process is a cumbersome one. If the pathology lab says the quick frozen sample still has cancer, the surgeon has to take out more tissue, send a new sample, wait for the lab, and maybe even repeat again. When it’s all done, and the patient is supposedly recovering,  the lab gets a second vote based on the samples that were saved for further study.

The doctor wants to walk out to the waiting family and say things went great.  Good margins. All gone. Its embarrassing for the doctor and dispiriting for the patient and the family to find out that those margins might not have been so great after all.


Two tools are trying to make their way to the operating room that could add more certainty and reduce the “standing around” time for the surgeon.

One of them, I mentioned last July. It’s a “hot knife” that does an instant analysis of the vaporized tissue. In early testing, the results were in perfect agreement but there is more testing to be done before the instrument is submitted for regulatory approval.

Another way to get at the problem is a pair of special glasses that make cancer cells visible to the surgeon.  Dr.  Samuel Achilefu, PhD, professor of radiology and biomedical engineering at Washington University is the project head. The system uses a “heads up” display to see cancer cells as small as one millimeter. The cells look like they are glowing when you look at them with the goggles. The trick is a contrast agent that is injected beforehand into the tissue.

Like the iKnife the googles aren’t ready for approvals. More testing has to be done with humans.

For now, we’re still stuck with the painstaking path lab process but this would seem to be the future of cancer surgery.

The sooner the better, I think.

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The drawing is mine.



February 11, 2014 Posted by
Cartoon about robots inventing stuff



What’s the opposite of the crazy guy inventor?  How about the ROBOTIC crazy guy inventor?

Alan Porter (Georgia Institute of Technology) is the principal investigator on a way to bulk up technology by using information from patents and publications. His system looks at the way  the citations in various patents reference each other. His system then uses that information to figure out  where the holes are in a collection of patents – the “intersections for new technology”. 

Cell phones have sensors for acceleration and brightness and temperature? Maybe you missed something. Look through the stuff about sensors. Anything good there? A key patent for automotive suspensions expires next month? That’s an opportunity, right? Patents tend to “cluster” in certain areas. You can see where new areas are starting to emerge by noticing the density of new categories.

“Patent maps” aren’t new. It’s the way corporations  look for where there’s weakness in the patent “portfolios” they own. Patents aren’t inventions anymore. They’re bullets in a war against evil competitors who are also trying to figure out what has to be invented, bought, or stolen to bulk up their own side of the patent wars.  The old system grouped patents into eight major categories. The new system is much more granular and, according to Jan Youtie, director of policy research services in Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute, it works a lot better.


Do you want to know what MISTER ScienceAintSoBad thinks about a “systems approach” to inventing? Does he think a cold blooded technology based approach to invention is ever a real substitute for individual intuition, talent, and genius?

Not really.

In fact, I think it’s why big rich companies that have unlimited access to scientists and engineers, struggle so mightily to come up with the next biggie. They spend too much time gluing extra sensors and more pixels into their products.

They should spend more time in the garage.

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The cartoon is mine.

Caffeine Addiction

February 6, 2014 Posted by
funny cartoon about too much coffee

Conked By Caffeine


Caffeine is one of those counterintuitive things. You think it’s going to turn out bad for you  and it turns out good.

I recently wrote an article about coffee . I called coffee a “guilty pleasure”. I talked about how surprisingly good it seems to be  for you with good effects on blood flow, liver function, and diabetes.

I didn’t let myself get too carried away. Some inner birdie chirped in my ear to watch it. Don’t forget to tell them to use common sense, said the birdie.

So I did.

I ended with “Don’t get too carried away. I don’t want to hear you’re drinking back-to-back coffees all day.”

Good thing.

Now comes a new study  about “caffeine use disorder”.  This comes from Dr. Laura Juliano (American University) and was published in the Journal of Caffeine Research. Dr. Juliano did a literature review pulling in information about the habits of many drinkers of coffee and other caffeinated beverages.

What did she find?

Pretty much what the birdie  - the one who said I better stick that declaimer in my last article? – figured. If you douse yourself in the stuff,  you’re looking for trouble.

Okay. This doesn’t seem to apply to everyone. But, for some people, there’s a real chance you can get hooked on caffeine like you can get hooked on a drug. Withdrawal symptoms. Can’t cut down even when you know you have to.

A cup or two of coffee should be okay but three or more cups can, for some people, lead to trouble.  Any source of caffeine  that dumps 400 mg of caffeine into your system each day could make you a caffeine junkie. Pregnant women should keep it to about 200 mg a day. About a cup of coffee.


How right was the birdie? Does coffee fall from its pedestal? Not the healthy drink I triumphantly proclaimed in November? Or is this last study just making seeming science out of the obvious fact that if you’re one of those who gets too buzzed out on caffeine, you should use a cup of common sense?

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad thinks it’s a good study. It reminds us to keep some sense of proportion even when numerous studies seem to “give permission” for something we love. I guess we’ll tack this onto our Controversy Board for now and track developments  while sipping (in moderation) a cup of  java.

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The drawing is mine