Archive for February, 2009


Posted by on Thursday, 26 February, 2009


Anonymous wants to know why a tiny virus can make such a mess of a person’s life and, by the way, wants to know how solar cells work. Look here, Anonymous. I’m not Mister Wizard! I don’t get PAID to answer questions. But I suppose I do have a moral obligation to try.

Well, like you said, viruses seem too small to cause all that trouble. A hundred BILLIONTHS of a meter, more-or-less, they’re a very primitive form of life. And it took a while to appreciate the fact that they are a form of life at all since they’re parasitic in nature and need to invade and take over a living cell, using it to reproduce; bacteria are independent life forms and don’t have this crazy behavior. Here’s a link if you want a clear and detailed explanation.

When people complain about “germs” they’re usually talking about both viruses and bacteria. Bacteria can often be controlled by antibiotics Viruses, unfortunately, can not.

What we think about these creatures has changed. We now realize that we are colonized by many thousands of different species of bacteria and viruses and that only a small percentage of them cause us harm. As a matter of fact, we rely on the friendly effects of many of them to function normally. We are walking bug colonies.

I’m sorry. I KNEW you didn’t want to know that.

Getting to why viruses and bacteria make us feel so wretched. Well, obviously, they don’t. Not, if we are the “big tent” for so many of them. But the occasional one that does cause trouble does so because our immune system reacts, believing it to be a “foreign” invader (probably from YOUR doggone body!) When that happens, our temeratures increase (fever) to create a hostile environment for the foreigner and a flood of mucus tries to wash it away, practically choking you to death till things are resolved. It is a totally miserable experience and you do feel like crap warmed over for a while.

Solar cells next time.

Oh BOY! Nontraditional Therapy Really Works! And Scientists? Just Stuffed Shirts!!

Posted by on Tuesday, 24 February, 2009

photo © lei for CC:Attribution-ShareAlike
EVERYBODY’S a scientist.

In Science News, there’s a description of work from the University of Missouri which says that 30 years ago the United States began embracing ancient medical practices and that now a study with over 90 patients has demonstrated the efficacy of NCTT ( “non contact therapeutic touch”). Click the title just above the photo for details.

The lead researcher, Guy McCormack (Occupational Therapy and Occupational Science, MU) qualifies his work this way: “There seems to be some subliminal aspects that we are not aware of that may have to do with the connectivity between people. People don’t question how you can text someone, transmit messages through computers, or visual images through television; thus the belief system is very powerful. If people believe that NCTT is going to be beneficial and are knowledgeable of it, it will be beneficial.” Thank YOU, Guy McCormack. You’re serious, right?

Now I get to talk about science which is the point of this blog. Science is us humans doing our best thing: critical thinking. Recognizing that it’s easy to fool ourselves (or have others fool us) techniques have evolved to allow us to work together as a community to improve our ability to separate the crap from the non-crap. We do this to protect ourselves from charlatans who want to intentionally mislead us as well as from misguided true believers who don’t or can’t submit their ideas for proper evaluation. We also do this because we really, really don’t want the wings to fall off of the airplanes or our computers to burst into flames. At least not too often.

Naturally, life being what it is, the purveyors of crap, have learned. Although it is often maligned, science really is gaining ground. Now, if you want to be believed, it helps to have studies. They may not be very good studies and, maybe, not subject to the usual constraints such as quality peer reviewed journals, replicated by others, etc. But studies. So everybody’s got a study now. And you gotta watch it.

I don’t want to bang up Guy McCormack’s work since that would be irresponsible (and unscientific and closed minded) of me. Like reviewing a book I haven’t read. Believe it or not, I have a responsibility to remain open to the idea that this dubious sounding approach of his is sound. Quantum mechanics isn’t exactly intuitive.

But a single study with “over 90” participants where the phenomenon under study, pain, is classically subject to placebo-like effects, is, at best, an ELEMENT of a scientific process. And his comments which suggest you gotta believe to really get the benefit should worry you a little. Oh and comparing radio communications and computer technology whose physical principles have been well studied and profoundly and objectively validated with “non touch therapy”? If that doesn’t worry you, you’re one of those lucky people who is going to go through life with few doubts about anything.

Are You Vaporous? Plus Bone Healing Plus Crohn’s Disease

Posted by on Saturday, 21 February, 2009

Left you breathless and hanging, didn’t I? You’ve been wondering how things made almost entirely of nothing get to rub against each other, bump into each other, slap against themselves, and reflect light and sound. Maybe, if you’re a bloodhound, you even wondered how you could smell things with so little substance.


Electrons, of course, surround every atom. And, I’m sure you remember that electrons have a negative charge and, therefore, repel other electrons. The electrons on the outer atoms of the baseball come first into “contact” with the electrons in the outer atoms of the wood in the bat. And, though they’re very sparse and occupy very little of the vast void that constitutes the bat, the strength of the surrounding electromagnetic field is unbelievable – at least at small distances. So you have the illusion of something “solid” coming into contact with something else “solid”.

No such thing, of course. There’s no contact at all. Nothing touches. Just the fields of two small things repelling each other in a big void.

Why do things LOOK solid? Light (photons) don’t really bounce off of things. If they did, they would be more likely to miss in that big void (being very little particles). They, instead, get captured by atoms, absorbed, and then ejected again. A very smooth operation. Looks like a bounce. Done with fields. Quite deceptive.

I thought you would like to know.


Unless you’ve worked in orthopedics (as I have), you might not know this but broken bones don’t always heal and that’s a big problem for those people who are unlucky enough to wind up with a nonhealing fracture. Various tricks have been tried. The one that we were experimenting with when I was at Beth Israel Hospital in Brookline, Massachusetts: electricity. If I didn’t have to run to the hardware store, I would explain more about this since there’s some interesting science in why electric current makes bones heal. Another time, OK?

But a group in South Korea figured out a way to borrow cells (called osteoblasts) from the patient’s own body and inject them right into the site of the healing (or nonhealing, in this case) fracture. The results look good and the bone healed faster. I can’t compare this work to electrical stimulation unless I blow off the hardware store, but I will tell you that you won’t have to worry about your carbon footprint with this technique. No batteries.

And one more thing I would like to mention is some work on CROHN’S DISEASE.

A group in Spain have reversed Crohn’s in almost all of the patients in a study with 80% of them in total remission. This, obviously, is sensational because a) it’s a wretched, painful, debilitating disease and b) it shows that stem cell research is something that has value beyond getting Republicans elected in Bible Belt states.

Another Patent, More On LectricLifter And Other Stuff

Posted by on Friday, 20 February, 2009

We “met” last night to discuss LectricLifter (c) (US patent numb 7517221) (See previous post, “LectricLifter (c)”), using the video conferencing abilities of Boy is THAT handy for a pick-up team of developers like us! I had created a 3-D CAD (Computer Aided Model) so that we could understand better how the pieces go together. It’ll continue to evolve as we hone in on a final prototype but this is what it looks like now There are “knobs” to wrap the cord up and a rotatable plug in the back side. Progress.

Note to our readers: PLEASE comment. Please. It’ll help make this a vigorous blog instead of the lonely ramblings of one person. MUCH appreciated.:)

Another product we’re working on- one that’s still in the patent office – is aimed at saving people buried in the rubble of a collapsed structure . Good thing to do, right? Imagine if we had such a thing in the Twin Towers. Studies show that it’s a bad idea to wait for the rescue teams with the dogs and the equipment to show up. The first 24 hours are the golden ones. After that, it’s close to hopeless. So. What to do?

Our Sonic Building Rescue Beacon’s a smoke alarm-ish module that gets attached to the ceiling. When its circuits sense that the structure has collapsed, it starts jabbering away (prompting) to see if anyone within audible range can respond. If it can verify a response (this is done verbally and a “response” can be as simple as tapping three times) than it goes into “beacon” mode, sending out audible pulses to rescuers. We chose sound, by the way, because rubble often has a lot of steel in it and can block radio waves. The system continues to alert rescuers even when the victims become too weak to respond so it really could be quite helpful. We do believe the system has the potential to save many lives but we might like to gain additional data. Maybe we’ll try to do a study next – maybe an SBIR grant if we can find an appropriate “Principal Investigator”. More on this one as it goes along.

As far as the chimp story is concerned, it’s starting to lose scientific interest as it deteriorates into a tabloid story. Maybe the owner made some bad choices. The chimp certainly did.


Another topic. Did you know that your impression of “stuff” (matter) is, mostly, an illusion?

The material that you’re made of – atoms ‘n all – is much more “space” than stuff. Tiny particles very, very far apart. If the space were taken away from your body and only the protons, electrons, and neutrons – the particles you are made of – were pushed into contact with one another, you would be so tiny you couldn’t be seen without a microscope. If you could REALLY see what you looked like, you would see emptiness with barely perceptible glitter here and there. So why do our lying eyes, ears, and minds perceive matter as solid? As a matter of fact, why is war a problem? Why don’t bullets pass right through us? Why is sex enjoyable? What’s to rub up against, anyway?

The answers to these important questions? Next post.

What Is It WIth Chimps And Faces?

Posted by on Thursday, 19 February, 2009

You may have read that a very, very civilized chimpanzee named Travis, “lost it” this week and attacked Carla Nash in Havilah, California. There are very extenuating circumstances in Travis’ case – sick and, probably on an inappropriate mood altering drug – but that’s not exactly the point. Like Mo, another very loved chimp who attacked St. James Davis in 2005 (remember that one?), Travis went for the face, causing damage too nasty to describe since I don’t want to upset my readers.

Nobody is arguing that chimps aren’t smart and sympathetic creatures. And nobody is arguing that humans are so safe to hang around either. But, clearly, when chimps get pissed, they get PISSED!

In both attacks, experts seemed nonplussed but I’ve got a hunch that other experts nodded wisely and said – “Yup. Chimps and faces. I know what THAT’S about.” If I have a chance, I’ll look into it and report back. I’m sure you want to know.

In the meantime, my heartfelt condolences to Ms Nash who is in very critical condition and to her family.

LectricLifter (c)

Posted by on Tuesday, 17 February, 2009

Our latest creative jolt is LectricLifter (c) (US patent numb 7517221) which “lifts” the electric outlet to a safe and convenient location. You plug it into the wall, shmushing the self-stick tape into position and there it stays. It’s advantages: easy on the back and, more important (some would say), it covers the outlet below and it has a way (see the cleats?) to wind up the plugged in cords so they don’t sag down. If you’re trying to protect a new pet or a baby, maybe this is a good solution.

‘Course we don’t have any for sale yet since we’re very slow about getting them made. But it’ll happen (won’t it Paul?)


Posted by on Friday, 13 February, 2009

As you may have read by now, a Russian satellite tried to occupy the same space at the same time as a satellite that is (was) part of the Iridium system. The collision (why am I going over all this if you’ve already read it?) spewed space junk – many thousands of pieces – into orbit and in one of the most used portions of near space for satellite deployment.

You might not think this matters much unless you are an astronaut/cosmonaut, but you would be surprised how much earth-bound life now relies on satellites. Our broadcast system, communications system, defense, and more. Aircraft carriers would suddenly rely on those few crewmen who still know how to use a sextant if we lost the ability to keep our satellites aloft. Sextants. Imagine.

Each little piece of debris is, potentially, very destructive because of the high speeds. Energy, (I’m sure you remember) is proportional to the SQUARE of velocity. So a l’il speedin’ fingernail sized piece of plastic can destroy about an Obama Stimulus worth of satellites. Slight exageration. But still..

Suddenly there’s talk of a “Space Situational Awareness” system to keep track of the stuff. Maybe we should loook into a self propelled craft that scoots around in orbit, sweeping up junk. Maybe it could compress it into bracelets. If billionaires pay small fortunes for a ride into space, what would an exotic space junk bracelet be worth?

Science And The Stimulus Bill

Posted by on Thursday, 12 February, 2009

The Senate bill had slightly less than 18 billion dollar for R&D and the House bill had a little over 13 billion (less for NIH but more for other stuff). I haven’t seen what’s in the compromise yet.
I’m sure some will be disappointed, but this sounds like it’ll do what it’s supposed to do – get the ball rolling.

Fusion + Fission. What’ve You Got?

Posted by on Wednesday, 11 February, 2009

could mean power with no nuclear waste to dispose of and no greenhouse gases.

This work is done at the University of Texas. It isn’t exactly something out of the blue. The idea’s been around. If it turns out to be practical, economical, and acceptable, it’s still only a partial answer. There’s only so much uranium after all. But there’re aspects of this thing that are technologically very neat indeed. Uranium in, energy out, and, far as we can tell, very easy on the environment.


Posted by on Wednesday, 11 February, 2009

Science has gotten beaten up in the past few years. It’s not just that it’s been starved for funds; there’s the feeling that it’s a crappy pursuit – opaque, dangerous, and inconsistent with the things that real people care about. I hope, with this blog, I can strike a small blow for the idea that science, though it most certainly CAN be complicated, is really a warm and lovely wind blowing us toward our destiny.

I, the blogger-in-chief, am an engineer. Not famous. Not a huge success. Just a guy. I’ve studied at Rensselaer Polytechinic Institute, Boston University, and, briefly, at MIT. I’ve worked in private industry and in healthcare (as a Biomedical Engineer). And I (with my team) hold one patent and, have two more “pending”. I’ll talk about the products, including the “LectricLifter”, which is in the prototype stage, as things proceed.

I also have a couple of “stores”. One of them is at where you can see (or even order) bookmarks with photos of our (Sue and my) lovely Cockapoo, Luna, as well as other dogs; other products are gradually being added. The second online store is at and, shameless self-promotion, some of the products are shown below. You can find some of my “Science Ain’t So Bad” stuff there – mugs, t-shirts, and so on..

With some of the introductory business out of the way, let’s get to recent development.

If you’ve been following NASA’s struggling efforts, you know that “manned” spaceflight has become the official mantra once again. Throughout NASA’s history, there’s been considerable tension between those who believe in the symbolic importance of getting our human butts out there and those who feel that the astronomical (good word here) costs and barely manageable risks aren’t justified when robots are proving themselves so capable.

We’ll get to that too.

But, anyway, Mars has been the official goal for awhile now. It was set, nominally, by President Bush and we seem to be stuck with it now. One of the greatest challenges is getting human type people there alive and healthy.

Scientific American, in its March 2006 issue, had an article by Eugene Parker, which was very pessimistic about the possibility of protecting humans from energetic cosmic rays and the whole project was starting to sound like a big waste of money and a real false start. But a team from Europe seems to have demonstrated that protection against cosmic rays really is possible.

If you’re a proponent of robotic exploration, as I am, you may have mixed feelings about this achievement.