Archive for June, 2009

A Soul In A Jar

Posted by on Thursday, 25 June, 2009

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ReligioScientificStudies. A SOUL IN A JAR

In 1920 Dr. Duncan MacDougall weighed dying patients before and after death. He thought that the difference in weight was the soul. There was even a film about it – 21 grams. Others weren’t able to repeat the measurement and, from a scientific perspective, the soul remains unproven.

MacDougall took an idea that was (and still is) widely believed – that a mysterious organ called the soul is the seat of human cognition – and attempted to prove it using scientific principles.

What he did may sound silly to some, but it was an authentic search for the truth. He didn’t seem to recognize that his measurements were small compared to the error in his equipment but Science Ain’t So Bad applauds his effort.

How many today still believe in the acceptance of the elusive bit of tissue called the soul? Hard to say. Because what people believe is complex. Many people do believe in souls. And most would worry about a scientist or a doctor who showed them one in a jar.

Real. And not real.

Most Americans believe in the existence of a “Higher Being”. And pray at least occasionally. And believe there’s a “better place” to “pass on to”. But most also believe the evidence of their own eyes. And want their kids to study science. And believe in logic.

Is religion an impediment to science?

In this country where approximately 85% of the people believe in “something or other”, rapid developments in science and technology are the norm. Us poor bloggers can’t keep up. If this is how religion impedes science, I would hate to see the unimpeded version.

It is true that some religious individuals seem fixated on science in a bad way. And some adherents of science don’t trust religion. But the neighborhood’s gonna’ be OK.


You know those studies which show that praying can help you if you’re sick? People who get prayed for do better? It’s called “intercessory prayer”. A study published in The Journal Of Religion says that even the best of these – the ones that try to do everything right – don’t.

Conclusion. These studies aren’t getting us anywhere. Pray if it helps your heart. Don’t forget the pills.

Parallel Universes:

Flight Data Recorders. A Radical Solution

Posted by on Friday, 12 June, 2009


EngineeringDesign: AIR FRANCE FLIGHT 447


The Flight Data Recorders of Flight 447 are in the ocean. When the batteries for its “pingers” run down, that it.


I suggested, last time, that the data in those “Black Boxes” could have been broadcast or “streamed” to a receiving station (perhaps via satellite) for later use. My very knowledgeable nephew, Sean, questions the practicality of such a scheme. He doesn’t think “the bandwidth is there” But the Managing Director of the NSTSB seems to think something like that may be technically/scientifically possible.

If the “Black Box data” for the Air France flight could have been thus transmitted and stored, how would things be different now?

We would certainly know more. In fact, we might well have had enough information to begin reconstructing the accident without having to wait for recovery operations. Even more important, we might have captured the last known GPS coordinates of the airplane.

Had it come down in one piece, we would know where to go. Exactly where.

The Air France accident was probably unsurvivable. But, in some wrecks, knowing an exact location immediately could make a big difference.

I have not been able to get an “on the record” response from the Airline Pilots Association.

Not that I blame them. Science Ain’t So Bad isn’t NBC. But I continue to wonder if pilots are ready to allow in-flight data (and, maybe, voice communications) to escape the confines of the cockpit with all the implications for later scrutiny and second guessing.

What about airlines? How do they feel about a huge cache of discoverable records just waiting for the lawyers to find them on “discovery”?

Practical concerns vs safety. Technical achievement vs cost.

For now, the Black Boxes remain.

EarthquakeRescue: Sonic Beacon

See if you can recognize the very famous actor in this video which shows my team’s approach to the problems of earthquake survival.


This week, I discovered a free, weekly newsletter which is focussed on hearing loss and deafness. Edited by Larry Sivertson, it is carefully crafted, with a great mix of science and practical information. It’s called HOH-LD News. If you’re interested, send an email.


This may be a comfort for people with Type 1 diabetes (recently discussed here). Vitamin C. Doggone!

And I’m not neglecting Type 2.



I’ve been having discussions with Dr. Michael Bodo about some intriguing work he’s doing that has implications for brain health. Maybe early detection/prevention of stroke.


Airbus A330, Health Insurance, And A Bird’s Nest

Posted by on Wednesday, 3 June, 2009


by me

Biology: BIRD’S NEST

Sue and I watched a robin build a nest outside our window, lay her eggs, and nurture them. After the nest was abandoned, we carefully removed it.

I expected a bunch of haphazard twigs. But this was designed by smart little flappers. I betcha at least one of them had an engineering degree.

It was almost perfectly round. And the sides were a composite construction that’s firm, light and insulated. The materials were, no doubt, scrounged from the area around the nest. Birds are improvisors. Your pet’s hair is likely to wind up in a nest along with a touch of spider web for its sticky strength.

Nature is spectacular. Even in simple things.


Engineering Design: AIR FRANCE FLIGHT 447

Air France’s Airbus A330 disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean on its way to Paris this week. This is a reminder that we don’t really “conquer nature” but live hopefully around its edges. If an engineer designs for a 10 year storm, a 100 year storm can still show up. No matter how great the design, there’s always SOME possibility of a meteor, a rogue wave, an earthquake, a hurricane, or a tsunami. Flight 447 may have run into winds that were simply outside of its design parameters. One theory has it that lightening disabled the weather radar (which can’t be fully protected) just as the airplane was approaching monumental weather systems. Complicated by known problems with its air speed instrumentation, and without radar, it may have been blind to the thunderheads ahead of it. This may have been a “rogue wave” of the sky.

As of this writing, the black boxes have not been found and the investigation is continuing. But some critical data was received from an “automatic system” which provided important clues as to what may have happened.

An automatic system that can send data back?

According to Wikipedia, a system called ACARS was introduced by the airline industry in 1978 which sends a limited amount of telemetric data back automatically.

The idea of blackboxes seems SO clumsy and old fashioned. Couldn’t this ACARS system be expanded so that all the flight data currently collected in black boxes would be transmitted to a collection point? Why search deep oceans and snow covered mountains for lost black boxes after an air disaster, when a continuously streamed high speed data link could be fed back for later analysis? The Airline Pilots Association may view such a thing as a threat to its membership because some of this data could be used in disputes involving a pilot.

I won’t rant. I won’t rant. I won’t rant. (But maybe you would like to comment?)

Writing about science is writing about people. And caring about people. Science Ain’t So Bad offers its very sincere condolences to those who were affected by this horrible accident. Each case – each family, each close friend – is a tragedy unto itself.


There’s a “breakthough” in cancer every time you breathe. The air is crackling.

There’s so much this month that I won’t even try to summarize here but will save it for a separate post (or two or three). But think about this. What happens if, after all these years of seemingly inching along, we really do the thing – SLAY the terrible beast of cancer?

Could happen.

I don’t blame you if you’re skeptical. But in the next 5 to 10 years, I hope to write a lot of articles. One of them may start with “I told ya!'”

And, while we’re imagining good stuff, let’s say we kill off Alzheimer’s too (which is yet another long article that I will be writing). Will healthcare costs STILL keep going up and up and up? As honest-to-God cures start to arrive for cancer and dementia, the cost escalator could be thrown into reverse. Costs could (is such a thing even possible?) fall.

Many of you – those who feel we’re dealing with “simple greed” – won’t be impressed by my logic. Feel free to comment. I LOVE comments.


Randi Smekr is a zany young friend of ours who dresses like a space alien and dies her hair with – what is that stuff, anyway? food coloring? But she’s very bright and very curious about science. Today she explained to me why it’s much easier to get into a recession than to get out of one.

“Say you owned stock in a company.” Randi said, “which was worth $10,000 before this recession hit. And, say, the value of the stock has now been cut in half to $5,000.”

“So you’ve lost 50% of your investment,” she said. “To regain the value of those shares, it isn’t enough to regain 50%, you have to go up 100%. Therefore,” she explained, flipping her purple and green locks around, “It’s much harder to get back to where you were.”

“Is it?” I asked.“Suppose I had a tub with 100 gallons of water and I pumped half of it out. Fifty percent gone. Right?”

“Now I refill it right back to the same point. Hundred percent increase. Right?”

“Why didn’t it take twice as much energy to pump it back to its original level?”

I explained to her that, in order to compare the percentage change in two quantities you have to use a common base or the comparison is meaningless. It IS true that we tend to say I “made 50%” or “I lost 20%” comparing it to whatever the value was last. But you do have to be careful when you’re doing a comparison between TWO percentages.

Randi said I was just complicating things.

Since this is such a good story, I told it to one of my engineering friends, Arnie.

He agreed with Randi.

I told it to my wise Aunt Mildred.

She agreed with Arnie.

Now I’m explaining it to you. I suppose you will disagree too?

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