Archive for March, 2009

Economics. Dismal Science?

Posted by on Monday, 30 March, 2009

BlastingThruDgDr copyDr. Bella Luna, World Economics Chair at the London School of E.

DNA shmee-n-a. Particles shmarticles. This is the year of the buck.

Biology, physics, all the rest are taking a back seat to economics this year. The “Dismal Science” is crowding everything out as the public tries to figure out how we got into this “mess” and how we get out.

Economics. That’s a science right? Dismal. But science?

To answer this vexing and, sometimes, elusive question, I talked with someone who should know. When you think of science, who do you think of first? Bella Luna, of course. London School of E. Dr. Luna’s work, “The Cosmological Constant of The Political Economy”, is still regarded as the seminal work in this field. I asked Dr. Luna for a few minutes of her time.

“Ugh! You want to cover economics on a blog about science?”

“No huh? So economics doesn’t qualify as serious science?”

“It does.”

“It DOES?”

“Sure. A scientific proposition merely has to be capable of being proven false. That applies. There’re plenty of assertions about economics that can be shown to be wrong. In fact, practically all of them are wrong.” Dr. Luna, searching in her drawer for a grooming comb, blinked at me. “They call it dismal because we can’t DO much about the big stuff like the economy. ”

“ECONOMICS can’t do anything about the ECONOMY?”

“Can meteorologists do anything about the weather? Do we call weather forecasting the dismal science? Heck no. Because they’re on TV all the time with blond hair and neat blazers. And they have interactive maps. ”

“But if economists can’t do anything about the economy, what good are they?”

“What good are cosmologists? In fact, what good is this crappy blog of yours? ”

Dr. Luna was getting a little heated up so I thanked her for her time and said we would pick up this matter another time.

Tentative conclusion: Economics shouldn’t be called the dismal science anymore.

Maybe the useless science.


A long-enduring metaphor for the unachievable has always been “Finding a cure for cancer”. And the hallmarks of cancer, itself, are its abilities to spread and to overcome our meager drugs. Of course, another hallmark of cancer, is how easily our hopes rise and fall when a new promising “breakthrough” occurs. Still, I will risk that by calling attention to two stunning developments.
Come on tumor. Make my day! , Critical understanding of metastasis .


This is probably SO 2001, but evidently we still don’t have much scientific basis for evaluating buildings . Which reminds me, I will shortly, publish our solution for high rise evacuation (if anyone cares anymore about such things).

Theoretical Frustration plus The Battery Thing

Posted by on Sunday, 22 March, 2009

Bella Luna, Principal Investigator, Higgs Phenomena


Matter consists of electrons, protons, neutrons, a passel of quarks and neutrinos, and some other stuff. 19 different different particles in all, according to the (slightly cheesy) “Standard Model”. Unfortunately, the particles it describes are ephemeral things with no mass. They would float right through you. YOU would float right through ME. This redoubtable theory describes something. But it could use a touch of realism.

To that end, Peter Higgs (and others) made a lot of physicists happy by proposing that particles are swimming in a “soup” (a field) which, lucky boy, got named after him. The Higgs field. According to Higgs, particles that DO have mass, acquire it by moving through this field. To me, this sounds far fetched. Some kinda aether. But physicists like it. They say it’s elegant.

Why I’m not a physicist.

Anyway, they’ve been searching for the particle (Higgs Boson) which is responsible for the Higgs field for years. The searching is done with particle accelerators. And the largest of them all, the Large Haydron Collider in Switzerland. will start looking as soon as it recovers from the temporary embarassment of shutting down after its Grand Opening ceremony.

So far, no luck. There are still, however, places (energy levels) left to look. What if, ultimately, they come up dry? If there’s no Higgs, either our national obesity problem is solved in a flash (no mass, no weight), or the Standard Model may be in trouble which (my opinion) is a good thing. Science thrives on disappointment. Maybe this is good for M-Theory (another time).


It’s hard to get it right as far as energy is concerned. We’ve had several big energy crises and society’s misfired each time, either failing to react with enough resources or entering politically popular cul de sacs such as corn ethanol.

But the last round of oil price rises made a real impression. The cure for cancer may be delayed for a while because everyone’s working on windmills.

This week saw two announcements about advanced battery technology (needed to provide storage for renewable energy schemes):

The Maryland NanoCenter says it’s found a way to make batteries that’re up to 10 times more efficient using nanotechnology. And Gerbrand Ceder (MIT, Materials Science & Engineering) has gotten astonishing press play with his technique for speeding up charging/discharging of batteries.

Give Dr. Gerbrand’s battery a 9. Give the MIT Press Office a 10. Gerbrand’s Battery

Three things that I would like to give brief mention to:
COLD FUSION: Remember this? Pons and Fleischmann weren’t able to back up their claims of a simple fusion device and their reputations suffered for it. They just couldn’t prove that neutrons were present. But Lo, Behold, The Space And Naval Warfare Systems Center (Mosier-Boss and others) found a way to prove that electrons ARE being produced. Science. You NEVER know, do
ya? Low Energy Nuclear Reactions

CANCER FRONT: Dr. Joseph Bauer reports a fundamentally different way to approach cancer. The extremely preliminary results, 4 dogs, look fascinating. But stay calm. Curing cancer’s a long, long road. Lots of ways to be disappointed. Still. Best of luck with this wonderful work. Trojan Horse Approach

GENE FOR WEIGHT LOSS: Back to getting rid of mass. Gene Therapy For Obesity

Taking A Moment To Explain What I MEAN By Science

Posted by on Thursday, 19 March, 2009

It’s lovely.

To some people science is a good thing. Progress. A comfortable future. Cell phones, Twitter. New exciting work. To others science is incomprehensible giberish which makes people feel ignorant and helpless. And to others still (a very important group) scientists are helping secular society to undermine the traditions and beliefs that are and have been the psychological support for their families and their communities.

The stuff of science may seem dry but science – the thing itself – is drenched in emotion-juice.

Threatening and upsetting to some, it’s the hope of the future to others. I don’t think I can make the juice taste sweeter for those who don’t like the taste but I CAN offer my own understanding and excitement about the scientific enterprise, trying to remember, however, that maybe I’M the one who’s wired wrong. (By the way, I’m over my cold. Thanks for asking. If you did.)

Science is the way that the inhabitants of a whole planet have developed to cross-check each others’ discoveries and make sure they’re right.

A whole planet.

We don’t agree on politics, religion, culture, or much else but we agree that there’s a correct WAY to keep each other honest about our observations of “natural phenomena”. We argue about the results. We’re ‘sposed to do that. It’s part of the process. But we agree on what the process (ideally) should be. The method used is called “the scientific method”.

How it works:
1. You observe something.
2. You figure out what’s going on (it’s called a hypothesis)
3. Based on this, you predict something else that you haven’t seen yet
4. You find out if your prediction was right
5. After you check yourself to make sure you haven’t screwed up, you submit it to a scientific journal where professionals review your work and publish it (you hope)
6. Other skilled people read about what you’ve done and see if they can accomplish the same thing. If they can, you’re golden. If they can’t, you got some explaining to do.

Doesn’t sound like much. But it changed the world. And it’s our purest example of international cooperation.

New Science Ain’t So Bad products

Hoarse Guy Blogs

Posted by on Thursday, 12 March, 2009



I’ve been under weather for several days and my voice sounds like a broken harmonica. But I’m now well enough to undertake a few bloggerly thingees.


First, before I forget, I want to plug a course by Mike Beach (who happens to be one of my secret weapons in turning crazy ideas into real products). Mike’s a fine and insightful engineer and a gifted teacher. Course: ieeeboston . If you do happen to be an engineer and in the area, don’t miss a chance to add to your practical knowledge.


HEADACHES & STORMS: When there’s a front moving in, I get a headache. The next day, Sue gets hers. I’ve Googled this many times. My conclusion? I’m alone in the universe. Nobody else gets headaches from storm systems. BUT a new study from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center says we’re not (that) crazy. Temperature and barometric pressure are the triggers. Good job, Ken Mukamal.

SCIENCE: I write about the fruits of science – discoveries, products, methods, general knowledge. But what is “The big S?” – science, itself? I ask because, in spite of the general stuffiness that surrounds it, I believe that there’s something great there. I think Science is us at our best. Do you agree? I would appreciate it if you would tell me what you think Science is, exactly. Just leave it as a comment here. I will be glad to give my own opinion, but you go first, OK? Rant’s are OK too. Maybe you’ll win the big prize. :)

SEPSIS: We just heard that the daughter of one of our great friends developed (and, thankfully, recovered from) sepsis a couple of weeks ago. Sepsis is a medical emergency that gets out of control and kills. This ain’t Pepsi spelled backwards; don’t let anyone tell you it is. It’s a very dangerous disease. Hundreds of thousands die. A group at the University of Rochester Medical Center has found a way to modify the rush of white blood cells which is at the heart of it. Not a cure but it does improve the odds.

THE MARS BRATS, Rover and Opportunity, recently returned from an unchaperoned spring break somewhere near the Mars equator where they and the other robotic hotties danced and got plenty of rays (Gamma – but who’s countin’) . They’re back on the job now exploring and NASA enegineers are more stunned than ever that these rover/robots which are now 43,000 years old in dog years are still producing real science. As real, anyway, as some of the government bureaucrats back at headquarters. Spirit’s still in the vicinity of “Home Plate” and things are going slow because there’s loose sand there and she had to take a roundabout route. Still a little hung from Break, I gather. I’m not sure all her wheels are turning in the same direction.


Posted by on Thursday, 5 March, 2009


The only ones in the WHOLE universe..
This might not be my best post. But what’s the point of HAVING a blog if you can’t rant about intelligent life in the universe. No need to indulge me. If it’s boring, you can tune out. It’s OK.

Even MY cynical friends will have tears in their eyes when the day finally arrives and – amid plumes of smoke and dust – large ships, perhaps scraped and dented from too many light years of interplanetary traveling, start settling down by the Super Stop & Shop, displaying emblems from their own culture, intended (I hope, I hope) to assure us of their peaceful intentions. Earth has yearned for that day for a long time and, when I was a young earthling, we didn’t think it would take long. In fact, we thought they were already here. The tabloids were totally hot for UFO’s. Sausages, saucers, and all kinda’ lights, flying in formation, decorated the National Enquirer and the Star, crowding out everything but Elizabeth Taylor. Lots of ships came from Mars or Venus.

After we got ourselves into orbit and had had a look around, we realized that any intelligent civilizations in our solar system must be very shy. If they’re here, they’re hidden in planetary cores and have pulled the antennas in after them. So, pragmatists that we are, we turned the search for company outward and started a systematic radio search (called SETI) of other solar systems . This has continued for decades and has been completely fruitless; it is, frankly, discouraging.
Some time ago, Enrico Fermi asked a question. Pointing to the large number of solar systems much older than our own where civilizations should be much more advanced than ours, he asked why we haven’t had a single contact. After all, they’ve had time to send radio signals over galactic distances or to even travel great distances themselves. So why no aliens? Could it be that we are truly alone?

You betcha.

The more we study our plight here on earth, the more we understand how lucky we have been. The parade of life-snuffers is amazing. Rocks and ice (asteroids and comets) rain down. Some of this debris is larger than a mountain and would explode with enough energy to cleans all surface life. We are quite sure this has happened before. Add gamma rays, volcanic eruptions, tidal waves, planetary wobble, and other threats that are much too numerous to list, and “miracle” isn’t too strong a word to describe the fact that we’ve had a more-or-less continuous civilization hereto. Is this the hand of God? Or luck? If it’s luck, it could run out any time.

So, generalizing from our own planet (always iffy), though there’s reasonable evidence that life can get started spontaneously and with some ease there’s also good evidence that evolution is frequently “reset” by unwelcome events. Could be lots of bugs out there in the universe. Not so many smarties.

Unless such luck is widespread in the universe, our rivals may not have made it past the last surface cleansing blast. It may be rarer than we ever imagined to survive till you figure out rockets.

Still. As we look for planets, we’re finding out they’re SO very common that at least a few of them should have some lucky survivors like us. So what’s the deal then? Where’re or buddies? Here are some thoughts on this matter that could explain “Fermi’s Paradox”:
1. We want to know if we’re alone. It’s an obsession with us. Alone, alone, alone. Where IS everybody???? But maybe other civilizations don’t think about it this way? Maybe a “normal” civilization doesn’t FEEL so lonely. Although we romanticize the concrete benefits of contacting another civilization, imagining that they will teach us about perpetual life and the meaning of existence, our first encounter’ll probably be a big fat disappointment. Could be another government boondoggle. And..

2. we might actually regret the contact. We ( again, romanticizing), think that they, being old and wise, are probably gentle and loving. But they might want to eat us. Or, at least, steal our food. Perhaps a “normal” civilization is more cautious about putting its address out all over the galactic Internet the way we do; they may not fall all over themselves to answer our signals.

3. Here’s a good one. Our progress toward becoming a technical civilization, capable of communicating with others, seems tied to our mastery of science. We tend to assume that other smarties would share this cultural feature. But science seems to have been “discovered” just once on our planet. It was “lost” for many (dark) generations and then, eventually, rediscovered (as opposed to reinvented). Is science really inevitable? Maybe smart civilizations focus on art, poetry, or philosophy. THAT’LL cut down the competition for rocket fuel. Technical civilizations may be very, very rare.

4. Maybe space travel between stars isn’t realistic – even for advanced civilizations. While there’s a common perception (Star Trek, Asimov, etc) that you need some kinda “warp drive” to scoot around the universe at great speeds, this is really a misunderstanding of Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity. As a matter of fact, you CAN keep your foot on the throttle all right, going faster and faster, and faster. While it would look to an observer on the planet from which you departed as though you can’t quite reach light speed, you could, in fact, reach speeds that would propel you across galaxies. Just don’t plan on going back . The clock on your planet of departure will have raced into the future while you’re gone and all your contemporaries will pass away before you finish breakfast. THAT’S the impact of “The Special Theory”.

So why not then? If they’re willing to cut the ties with their home planets, why wouldn’t they have shown up here?

Some reasons. 1) I don’t know what THEIR politicians are like, but imagine getting ours to fund a big, expensive expedition that has ABSOLUTELY no payback for the home planet because we vanish and are never heard from again. They pay, we play. I don’t THINK so. 2) I said relativity wouldn’t prevent the trip. I didn’t say there are no obstacles. As a matter of fact, once you boost up your speed relative to the debris you are passing by, you are in terrible danger. The collision energy is a square of the collision speed. We don’t see too many objects going by us at faster than about 100,000 mph. I wonder why? Could it be that very fast objects, inevitably, hit SOME li’l fragment of rock and get blowed up? That would be my guess. Add to this, gamma radiation and God knows what else, and intergallatic travel may be more romance than realism – even for very advanced civilizations.

As far as communications go, maybe, once again, advanced civilizations don’t see much POINT in “communications” that take hundreds or thousands of years. Could you blame them? The more I think about it, our own desperation for confirmation that we’re not alone, may very well not be common. If it isn’t, don’t look for “them” to be appropriating large funds for “radio beacons”.

There’s also the “zoo” theory – that they want to protect us from ourselves till we’re “ready”. But the zoo theory implies coordinated behavior and shared goals by beings thousands of light years away from one another – tough to believe in this. Much easier to believe, however, is the self-preservation theory. Assuming that most beings got that way by some form of natural selection, they, like us, may have some degree of surviving predatory behavior. A wise civilization might be more intent on HIDING it’s presence than advertising it.


Posted by on Monday, 2 March, 2009

Courtesy of, photo by Gaetan Lee


Nonrenewable energy’s going fast so we’re trying to get on top of renewables such as wind, tide and sun. Of these, the sun is the hardest to ignore. It’s REALLY out there. Only about 1 astronomical unit – EXACTLY one astromical unit, actually – away but that’s the equivalent of about 90 million miles. Crows don’t fly fast – especially once they leave the atmosphere. So a long, long way as the crow flies.

How can the sun send energy so far? And what is it sending? I hope you weren’t wondering about that before I brought it up. If you were, you may be at risk of becoming a physicist, God help you.

Radiant energy from the sun is electromagnetic radiation which consists of streams of photons. Depending on its frequency, electromagnetic radiation can be light, radio waves or heat. The radiation from the sun includes visible light as well as infrared (heat).

Photons are a form of “messenger particle”. They taxi light, heat, radio, tv – all forms of electromagnetic radiation across the entire universe unless stopped by something which can capture them. There are also messenger particles for gravity (gravitrons) as well as for the other fundamental forces. Anyway, photons deliver the goods – the energy from the sun – in small packets of energy which are captured by plants. Plants make air. We breath air. All is well.
You know this stuff. I’m just winding up for the pitch and… here it comes! A lazy slider right under home plate! I try not to rely excessively on links, but this is clear and will, I know, explain both forms of solar, thermal and photovoltaic, better than I would.