Archive for November, 2009

Uncle Europe Wants YOU!

Posted by on Sunday, 29 November, 2009
First Humans On ... Earth

First Humans On ... Earth

Image based on a model (Lunar Electric Rover) by Google 3D Warehouse.

SpaceScience: Mars Without The Gamma Rays. The European Space Agency’s looking for volunteers to spend 520 days pretending they’re on a trip to Mars.

Was TOO Locked-In Syndrome!

Posted by on Thursday, 26 November, 2009

Looks Like A Finger. Could Be A Neuron.

Looks Like A Finger. Could Be A Neuron.

Neurology: A Case Of Facilitated Communication

Rom Houben was nearly killed in an accident 23 years ago.


Couldn’t move, couldn’t speak, couldn’t wiggle a finger.

They figured he was in a type of coma, a persistent vegetative state. But he wasn’t.

He could think. And he could hear. And he could listen to visitors as they walked around his bedside, discussing the fact that his brain was ruined.

Drove him nuts.

Until a miracle came along.

New technology was applied to his case and it was discovered that he had a mental life. And more new technology gave him a way to communicate.

And communicate, he did, going on to explain, with unexpected eloquence, the frustration and angst of being locked inside a body that had no means to tell the world “I am HERE!”. An inspiring and wonderful story.

Except some people don’t believe it.

Steven Novella’s a neurologist. And he’s also an excellent blogger. Don’t worry, nobody’s as good as MISTER ScienceAintSoBad. But Dr. Novella’s pretty darn good AND he’s a Doc.

Here’s his reaction.

On the other hand Steven laureys, Mr. Houben’s neurologist, is aware of the skepticism and he says he did some tests to show that the communications are not fraudulent.

Certainly, everyone has an agenda. As Dr. House likes to say, “Everyone lies.”

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad doesn’t think this is a case of pseudoscience. Everyone seems well intentioned and sincere. And Science Ain’t So Bad wishes Rom Houben a complete recovery, no matter what the odds, and congratulates him on having such a devoted family.

I will give Dr. Novella a ScienceAintSoBadRating = 8 for asking the right questions and trying so hard to be fair. But the controversy isn’t over.


Posted by on Monday, 23 November, 2009
Fighting Robots

Fighting Robots

Robots: They’re Indispensable Now.

Buying AA batteries for the toy robots in your gift bags?

Enjoy the fun. But don’t imagine that the serious version is a plaything.

At least, not on the battlefield.

Milbots are flying, rolling, and walking for us in Iraq and Afghanistan. Humans still do most of the fighting and, sorry to say, take most of the hits.

But that may change.

The hellish beings in this video from 2008, give some idea of how advanced robotics has become. Watch how they handle themselves on ice.

Freaky enough?

These robots have got the “I’m alive” thing down but, at least, they aren’t killing anybody. To see the lethal stuff, you have to look at the things we’re buying from companies like IRobot and Foster Miller.

Foster Miller’s selection of military robots includes a shrunk-down “Man-Portable Talon” which makes for easy (if you happen to a very fit soldier) transport over Afghan mountains.

Foster Miller's MAARS System

Foster Miller's MAARS System

On my last visit to the company, I stepped quickly out of the path of one of its rolling weapons, remembering that these aren’t consumer products. Maybe (since they kill people) they aren’t as polite as elevator doors.

For some perspective, I called a friendly embedded systems developer in New Hampshire. (Embedded systems are the computers that’re buried inside things –  including robots. They do the thinking and control the movements.)

A little bashful about using her name so we’ll call her Betsy.

Could one of these fighting machines get away from its handlers and just take off after someone?

She snorted.

These robots would be helpless without a human ‘driving’ them.

You DAMN well don’t want to be in front of one when it’s pissed but they don’t have a pigeon’s worth of real brains. A bigger danger is that there’s a screw-up and the robot does something dangerous.

Don’t forget, these machines are working in battlefield conditions.

What about the chances of this hardware falling into the wrong hands?

That depends on which ‘wrong hands’ you’re referring to. The guys we’re currently ‘not getting along with’ like asymmetric warfare.

Simple weapons. Make it up as you go along

I don’t think they have the infrastructure to manage this kind of weapon. But, in time, I have no doubt that they will find ways to acquire some robotic systems, maybe from states like Iran or North Korea.

That’s one of the reasons we can’t allow our technology to stagnate.

No ScienceAintSoBadRating on this one.

Portable Peanut Detector

Posted by on Saturday, 14 November, 2009



AllergyResearch: Personal Peanut Alarm

Chase has an idea.

He explains that his nephew is allergic to peanuts which, I know, is a VERY bad thing. The slightest granule can do unspeakable things.

I tell him I’m familiar with the problem.

“What,” Chase asks, “if we come up with a cheap, portable instrument that can pick up the presence of nuts in food? Something that could be carried along to a restaurant or a dinner party or to the cafeteria? Could it be done? “

We’re sprawled in the modernistic lobby of Venture Technology which, long time ago, was started by Chase and his partners, Don and Angelo . A few lifetimes later, Venture has exceeded all reasonable expectations. Far as I know, it’s now the biggest contract engineering design firm in New England.

Chase is saying “Why can’t we come up with an instrument that would find even a minute amount of peanuts in a meal? After all, one thing we’re good at is making things small, portable, cheap, and fast. All you gotta do is come up with a foolproof detection scheme.”

My first reaction is “Now THAT’s nuts! Think about the risk of missing a tiny smidgen of the stuff – anaphylactic shock. You’d never get over your guilt.”

“OK. But, for argument’s sake, tell me why it’s a harder problem than some of the other esoteric instruments we’ve made here? Convince me it can’t be done”

I know, immediately, that sticking probes in the food will fail. Too much risk of missing something. But how else could we solve the problem?

Somehow, a detector’s gotta deal with the food (the about-to-be-eaten meal) “as a whole”. If there’s nuttiness in there ANYWHERE, the detector has to “know”.

We talked about “electronic noses” which are used for detecting explosives. Could an “E-nose” sniff out a nut buried in lamb stew or pie crust?

It wasn’t long till we dragged dog noses into the discussion.

I told him that I had read somewhere that a bloodhound can detect a day old “shoe print” by smelling the faint odor of foot sweat THAT HAS PENETRATED (seriously) THE SOLE OF A SHOE!

Chase pointed out that the sensitivity of a bloodhound’s nose is 1000 times greater than it needs for most tracking activities. So could a dog’s amazing nose smell a nut fragment in a meal? “And if it could, does that mean an instrument – an “E-nose” – would work?

We agreed that I would look into it which, these days, means Googling your brains out.

Which I did.

Which led me to and to Sharon Perry who breeds dogs for exactly this purpose at the Southern Star Ranch in Texas.

A few days later, we gave Sharon a call.

An avid Bass fishing enthusiast (like Chase), Sharon and Chase did some telephonic bonding about fishing while I muffled my snores. Eventually, we got back to her Peanut Dogs. We learned that they aren’t just GOOD. They’re perfect. I kept trying to trip her up with questions about “false positives” and “false negatives” but that only works when a thing’s a little bit wrong one way or the other.

In fact, Sharon seemed shocked by my questions and seemed anxious for me to understand the consequences of being wrong where peanuts and kids are involved. Mistakes would be intolerable, she said (rightly). She insisted that her trained dogs HAVE to be relied on with complete confidence.

This is what we wanted to hear.

Excited, we figured it was time to contact our local “nose guy”.

Joel White’s a neuroscientist at Tufts University School Of Medicine as well as a founder of Cogniscent, Inc. which develops applications for its proprietary E-nose.

In fact, we did MORE than contact him. We met, we discussed, we phoned, we considered, and we strategized. And here’s how the project stands at this point.


We either have to find a particularly lucid Peanut Dog and ask how it does the trick or we do our own study. Mind you, a dog’s nose is more sensitive than most of the equipment found in a lab.

We do know the chemistry of peanuts and which compounds the dogs might be sniffing. And, with the help of a chemist, I suppose we could work out the steps/procedures needed to design a test protocol to narrow it down with the kind of precision necessary for an electronic nose project.


According to Joel, we’re looking at a 3 to 5 year project and over a million dollars in cost. That’s a big ixnay for Chase and his partners who have way too many ongoing projects for clients, to take on such an ambitious and unfunded project.Their experience is in private consulting and they’re not in the business of chasing and administering government grants. And I couldn’t convince them to change their ways.

So we’re stuck.

It’s a good idea for someone.

What are your thoughts?

Any ideas for carrying on this worthy project? Or a way to fund it?

Please leave a comment or email the information to us ([email protected])


Posted by on Thursday, 12 November, 2009
A Planet-happy Star

A Planet-happy Star

SpaceScience: Stars Give Themselves Away

How do you know if a star has planets?


In fact, it wasn’t until 1995 that we nailed the first such planet (I’m not counting the one we’re standing around on, or its neighbors, of course).

Even “neighboring” stars are so far away and so bright that you can’t really make out their planets with a ‘scope. So two indirect methods are used to find out if a planet’s present: We look for a slight reduction in starlight as a planet passes in front of its star. Or we try to observe the miniscule wobble of the star due to the orbiting planet.

We’ve been, it seems, doing it the hard way.

An article in Nature (lead author, Garik Israelian) says that stars with planets seem to use up more lithium than stars that don’t. The authors figured this out using the European Southern Observatory’s ability to analyze starlight as well as to detect (the hard way) planets.

This is amazingly fantastic news as it will greatly speed the time that we can say, for certain, that the only Republicans in the entire universe are on this planet.*

Very, very nifty piece of work.

ScienceAintSoBadRating = 10

* I’ll make fun of liberals in my next post, OK?

Cancer Superweapons

Posted by on Tuesday, 10 November, 2009


RadiationTherapy: A Life Worth Living


It seems so somebody-else-but-not-me.

And yet.. you’re the one in the back-flapper gown.

Crappy, expensive, uncomfortable, inconvenient, and, potentially deadly, cancer is just a THING now. It CAN take you down but, mostly, it’s a bunch of medicine that you’re not gonna like; you’ll still get to see your grandkids.

At least I hope so.

The five year survival rate shows that the  Odds are now with you for most cancers.

This jibes with my own experience. MISTER ScienceAintSoBad knows several people – quite a few, actually – who have had cancer. One of them succumbed (too early) at ninety. The others? All here. All fine.

My sister’s husband, R – a fine dad and an unbelievable grandad – had a nasty oral cancer.

Things looked bad.

But R went to Israel and took advantage of some experimental stuff.

I don’t want to minimize it. It was rough.

But the cancer’s long gone and R’s doing great.

His taste buds and salivary glands, however, are good and fried. He REMEMBERS what it’s like to enjoy food.

That’s about it.

It’s a side-effect of the radiation.


Getting rid of cancer’s good. Reducing collateral damage is better.

New, more refined techniques, such as IMRT , which splits the high energy beam into hundreds of much smaller beams for finer control, and the Gamma Knife. which can even adjust to movements such as respiration or a beating heart are aimed at reducing the side effects of cancer survivors.

The newest weapons are a recognition that quality of life matters.

Unconservation of UnEnergy

Posted by on Monday, 9 November, 2009



Lying Sack Of Pseudoscience

Isaac Newton’s law of conservation of energy was lovable.

So simple.

So perfect.

Energy can neither be created or destroyed.

Till Einstein muddied it up some.  “It’s not ENERGY, you doofus! It’s mass-energy. ”

Ok, ok.

But, for those of us who aren’t traveling at light speed,  Newton’s idea worked pretty good for over 400 years.

Till Magniworks .

Its zero point magnetic power generator creates LOTS more energy than it consumes and the World Wide Web is BOILING with testimonials to its effectiveness.

Feel free to Google it. You’ll see what I mean.

The company hasn’t had time to complete and publish its peer reviewed studies in the traditional scientific journals but I can wait.

In advance, ScienceAintSoBadRating = 0 (sorry Magniworks. No offense.  But poop on you for trying to deceive the gullible amongst us.)

And, thanks Danny, for mentioning it.



Because I have received several comments/emails suggesting that I need to be stronger and clearer to counteract the very powerful impression made by Magniworks, allow me to be VERY precise here.


There’s no evidence at all that the product can do what it claims and the many “testimonials” sound – shall we say? – suspicious.  You can’t violate the fundamental laws of physics.

Even if you’re Australian.

Qian Xuesen – A Genius. An Engima

Posted by on Sunday, 8 November, 2009
Qian_Xue-SenImage by Gang Lee

AeronauticalEngineering: OK foot. Hold still or I’ll SHOOT!

Quian Xuesen died.

Don’t feel bad.  I didn’t know the name either.

He was born in 1911 in Hankzhou and – long story – managed to come to the US.  He got a Masters Degree in Mechanical Engineering at MIT and then received his Phd at California Institute of Technology.


He was one of the top rocket scientists in the United States in the 40’s (You  guessed, right?). He helped us develop the technology for jet aircraft and he was part of the Manhattan project (Atomic Bomb). Xuesen is said to have left his mark on our current space program. At the end of World War II,  he was one of the ”chosen” who negotiated with famous German (then Nazi) rocket pioneer Wernher Von Braun about coming to work for the good guys in America.

A delicate assignment

But he was Chinese.

And he scared some people.

And, of course, he may have been a spy. Mister ScienceAintSoBad wouldn’t know about that. The record’s a little sketchy but, supposedly, someone came up with a communist party document that had his name on it.

It was enough for the FBI.

He was booted back to China in 1955 which the Undersecretary of the Navy said was the stupidest thing this country ever did.

Could be.

Qian Xuesen was warmly welcomed in China where he spent the rest of his life helping them catch up with us. He headed up their missile development program and his individual contributions to Chinese technology were vast.

What can I tell you?

He died on October 31st.

App Phones NEED Physical Keyboards

Posted by on Saturday, 7 November, 2009


Verizon’s new Droid app phone

First of all, thanks for dropping by at the new place.

I appreciate Google’s free and easy blogger but, comes a time when it’s nice to drop the “blogspot” moniker.

More control over how things look this way too.

WirelessTech: App Phones

App phones (“smartphones”, like the IPhone and the new Droid, which have access to an open marketplace of applications) are taking us somewhere.

I’m trying to figure out where.

An article in PC World which describes 10 nice apps for the  Droid  is instructive.

According to the article, you can capture the cards you carry around in your wallet with your Droid and then you get to leave them home. The Droid’ll be glad to display their readable bar codes at the food store and the library and the gas station. Where they can be scanned by the clerk.

Another of the “apps” lets the phone configure its features when you walk into your office. Or return to your  home. Why not? It knows its location.

And, of course, turn-by-turn GPS software. For free.

You’re not catching on yet? This is ANOTHER earthquake. Just when you think you can’t endure another one.

How? And how much?

That’s another article. This one’s on a topic  that I’ve managed to wander away from – keyboards

Verizon’s introduction of the Droid stirred up a lotta word dust. What’ll this mean for the IPhone? Are traditional “dumb” phones out? Is Motorola undead?

All that stuff.

And there have been numerous reviews of the new guy including some disappointment about its keyboard. Some feel a virtual (on screen) keyboard would have been better. Others like the idea of a “real” keyboard.

This is where I saw my opening; I am now pouncing.

This may seem a little too narrow and techie to you. And if so, I apologize. I know I usually keep an eye out for  possible solutions to the ravages of arthritis or for indications of a new and likely mass extinction but I don’t HAVE another soapbox for my rants and I can’t STAND the fact that nobody in the world but MisterScienceAin’tSoBad seems to have noticed the fact that WHEN YOU HAVE A VIRTUAL KEYBOARD ON A PHONE, YOU USE UP MOST OF THE SCREEN AREA FOR THE KEYBOARD.

I feel better.

And this is why I do appreciate the achievement of Motorola here. At the cost of a very small increase in size and weight, the Droid has managed to preserve the screen area for useful stuff. And, having tried it out, yesterday, I was surprised to see how well the compromises were managed. Not such a bad little keyboard at that.

My hands are small.

Anyway. That’s that. I’ll get back to more traditional (for me) articles now.

Oh. ScienceAintSoBadRating = 5 (I get to rate myself). Not the most gripping article in the world, but, being the Blogger-In-Chief, I do cut myself considerable slack.