Archive for December, 2009

How To Find (Nasty) Invisible Mines

Posted by on Thursday, 31 December, 2009


Engineering: Mine Detection.

I wasn’t sure about bothering you with this.

Pardo Seco, Paula Lopez, and others, (who work for several different European institutions) did something tough. They made a device to find nonmetallic land mines using temperature differences.

Nonmetallic (plastic) land mines remain behind after the soldiers go home and the world loses interest. They are virtually undetectable by the usual methods so how DO you find them? Running a tricycle over the spots where they’re buried works pretty well.

Algorithms into code. Code into hardware. Hardware into useful instruments. It’s the way things are ‘sposed to happen.

This IS wonderful. SO many children may not be maimed if this, ultimately, leads to a practical instrument.

But should I have bothered you with it? Am I doing the right thing to disturb you on a winter night with this? Is it a fundamental breakthrough in science? A new principle of engineering? A great new tech toy?

This is SO Third World.

But I just thought, maybe, you would care about it.

I do.

ScienceAintSoBadRating = 10

Einstein’s Musical Career and The Clever Octopus

Posted by on Sunday, 27 December, 2009


Physics: Notes.

Albert Einstein.

I realize he didn’t exactly invent the Universe. But SUCH a scientist! They don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Just walking around in his own mind (“thought experiments”) he could see the way things MUST work. What others thought were the rules, were only a special case. He took a few inches off of the height of Isaac Newton, his only real rival for the Great-God-Of-Science prize, showing that Newton’s achievements, amazing as they were, were only a door to the true mysteries of the universe.

Einstein guided us through that door.

I have to recyle my “Newton Spinning In His Grave” drawing here (below).

Still Spinning

Still Spinning

Einstein came to realize that light has special properties. For some crazy reason, when you measure its speed, it is always the same. No matter how fast or slow you are going.

So he thought about it.

And the ramifications.

When he worked it all out, he saw that the sizes and masses of things follow unexpected rules, depending on how fast you’re going (Special Relativity). He looked at time differently too. And he found an explanation for how gravity works (General Relativity). And he described atoms. And photons (the photoelectric effect) and helped kick off Quantum Mechanics, a bastard child which he had some second thoughts about later in life.

I’ll stop. You can read the Wikipedia article. But what’s funny about this funny guy is that he liked things or he didn’t like them based on some inner aesthetic. If it was beautiful it had to be right.


So that’s interesting, isn’t it? Our greatest modern scientist was an aesthete. He played the violin. And the piano.

He loved Mozart; he loved Bach.

Indifferent to Brahms.

He began playing the violin as a little child. Real serious.

Once, he was supposed to give a physics lecture to his students (Geneva University). Instead he decided to play his violin for them. He figured they would like it better than a physics lecture.

And understand it a LOT better.

No doubt.

So would he have become a musician if he hadn’t become the greatest physicist of modern times?


He already had a job in the patent office. Maybe he LOOKED like a dreamer with his long flowing hair, but Einstein wasn’t THAT dumb!

After all. He was Einstein.

BehavioralEcology: Tool Use By Octopuses

What has eight legs and.. eight hammers?

Used to be that we had a franchise on intelligence. We were the smart guys. Apes and monkeys chattered mindlessly in trees. Elephants munched at the bottom of them. And octopuses were too dumb to grow a proper set of arms and legs.

Used to be.

We used tools. We had language. We wore clothes. We did karaoke.

The creatures we ate didn’t do any of those things.

But observation by observation, study by study, our distinctions over other species have shrunk.

We still out gun our nearest biological competitors when it comes to dumping carbon into the atmosphere, but we now know that chimpanzees can sign and understand extensive human language as can various apes, dolphins, and parrots. Even walruses.

And the use of tools is definitely out there. We’ve seen it in chimps and other primates as well as birds and even elephants (which have very large brains, as you might expect, with very large “thinking surfaces” as you might not expect).

Now a paper in Current Biology describes the use of tools by Octopuses.

Octopuses are Cephalopods which means non hat wearing ink squirters. If you follow their comings and goings, you know already that their dopey looks are deceptive. They have good memories and are good learners. They routinely solve their way out of mazes and Dr. Maury Schlaffer (University of Teheran) claims he has observed them scavenging old electronic components on the ocean floor and reassembling them into devices such as OPhones and OPods for their own uses.

We would LIKE to believe Schlaffer’s work but, unfortunately, the evidence is kinda weak and we have to give it a ScienceAintSoBadRating of less than 2. The Current Biology paper, however is good. It’s got the “pusses” dragging around shells which they use for protection (“tents”).

That’s thinking ahead.

If I ever DO become a vegetarian, it’ll be because of a scientific study – one like this.

Homeopathic Medicine. It Can’t Hurt.

Posted by on Thursday, 17 December, 2009

Watered down to something?

Homeopathic Medicine: Safe As The Water You Drink

Jange Spengstre is a ballet dancer who lives in East Flatbush (N. Y.) She had a question for the homeopathy expert at Science Ain’t So bad.

“My drugstore sells homeopathic medicine right beside the other stuff and I can’t really tell the difference. The labels look official. Should I be leery of the homeopathic drugs? They claim to be very safe.”

According to Wikipedia, Homeopathic medicine is a form of alternative medicine in which the patient is given a drug which is diluted with water over and over again and “Dilution often continues until none of the original substance remains.”

Which is strange.

If nothing’s left but water, is it.. is the medicine WATER? Is that what they’re selling as a cure?

That’s legal?

Well, Dana Ulman, an “expert in homeopathic medicine” says (Huffington Post) that homeopathy’s fine. Don’t pick on it.

Those who say homeopathic cures are just water are “proving their ignorance”. There’s lots of proof, he says, that very small doses of substances can be efficacious. Why not, he says, think of the homeopathic enterprise as “nanopharmacology” to emphasize the small doses used?

Admitting that the scientific basis for “nanopharmacology” is a mystery, he reminds us that nature is full of mysteries.


Practitioners of the art of homeopathy realize that they are diluting the original substance so much that nothing may be left but water. The traditional explanation is that water has a “memory” of the original drug.

Ulman does suggest a couple of novel explanations for how water could have this memory. Could be that “fragments of silica” flake off of the sides of the bottles when they are shaken and those fragments play some role in the mystery. Or maybe it’s the unexpected temperature or pressure effects. You have doubts? What about Brian Josephson, a winner of the coveted Nobel Prize in Physics? He supports Homeopathy. (No offense if you’re a fan of very edgy ideas, but Dr. Wilson’s credibility should be viewed in light of the fact that he also supports ESP.)

You can get a little bit of the other side of this debate from a posting by Paul Wilson.

Not to be a curmudgeon BUT Ulman’s article seems like an effort to confound the facts with a lot of conjecture. And he seems a little confused about the difference between a LITTLE of something and NONE of something. Homeopathy’s fine by me for those who want to believe. But its methodologies aren’t consistent with evidence based science and I, for one, think that there IS something wrong with marketing its products on the same store shelves with drugs whose manufacturers had to spend millions to prove they work.

To Ulman’s fascinating and creative article in the Huffington Post, we give a ScienceAintSoBadRating = 0 . And that’s generous.

PHYSICS: Dark Matter


This is sensational.

Dark matter has been identified finally. Or so it seems. We are waiting for confirmation.

ScienceAintSoBadRating = 10

Bin Laden. Let’s Google Him

Posted by on Saturday, 12 December, 2009
The Ever Elusive Osama

The Ever Elusive Osama

GoogleStuff: Anti-terrorism For Dummies.

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad was watching the President of the United States announce his new Afghanistan policy – the one where he decided not to lose right away.

And I thought to myself, “Why not help? Those young cadets are going to fight the Taliban and what am I doing about the situation? Writing about Physics and Phrenology?

So I decide to undertake my own search for Osama Bin Laden, using the resources that are available to me as a man or woman (OK if I say just man here?) of technology and I naturally turn to Google maps.

Although it’s still early in the 21st century, Google has already revised every conceivable part of the life experience from how we comb our hair (Google Part) to how we practice looking impressive in the mirror (Google HamItUp) so it is only natural that I turn to Google for help in finding the arch demon of all time.

I notice immediately that if you go to Google maps and type in “Pakistan” you get a picture of something brown.

View Larger Map

Is this his infamous place of refuge?

Then I think, “Why don’t I…It couldn’t be THAT easy!”

I type in “Bin Laden”.

At the top of the search it says “Osama Bin Laden, Possible sightings”.

Oh my!

I look but I can’t make him out at all so maybe he’s moved. But it is definitely a powerful feeling to be looking down on the dusty mountains and rocky deserts of the most mysterious place in the world.

I’m not counting the space under our deck where that rabbit lives.

I zoom in as close as the map allows and start sliding around. (The military’s probably got much better resolution , but it spends more.)

I can’t find “Street Views”. No tricycles with cameras driving around this popular tourist area?

I do see quite a few “walled compounds”. Easy to make them out. But I would be lying if I said this is an easy job.

Do you think, maybe, the pros already thought to look carefully over every square inch of this ground and with better and more up-to-date photos?

That’s the kind of negative thinking that keeps you from winning the lottery. This is the People’s Tool. Go get ’em!

I will do this again. I hope you will too.

I’m not gonna find him, of course. But it’s awfully good practice just in case I get drafted. And if YOU find him, I hope you’ll mention which blog put you up to it.

A Lifeline For Heart Failure

Posted by on Wednesday, 2 December, 2009
Heart Failure. Not The End Of The World

Heart Failure Isn't The End Of The World

Image based on a model from Google 3D Warehouse by

Cardiology: Breakthrough Getting Noticed. Slowly.

This is a big deal. A big, big deal. But it’s early days.

Congestive heart failure’s ANOTHER disease you don’t want.

There are many.

You REALLY don’t want to struggle, weak and breathless all your days, till, eventually, nauseous, and coughing, you expire.

I’m right, aren’t I?

About half of CHF patients are gone within 5 years,

So I was VERY happy to run across a snippet of information about an obscure instrument that’s giving cardiologists the information that they need to change things.


Ah science. Always a maybe.

Still. This is the kind of thing a blogger like me LOVES to find. It’s so important and so little known that it’s practically a scoop!

Listen to this.

“In a previous study of 43 patients with the BVA-100, heart failure patients who were treated to a normal blood volume showed a 100% survival rate over a two-year period, in contrast to patients who remained volume overloaded – who showed only a 45% survival rate.” That’s from a statement by Daxor, the maker of the instrument.


Heart Failure Patient

In other words, you use this piece of equipment, figure out what the patient’s blood volume is,  if it isn’t normal, you do stuff to the patient till it’s OK again and, instead of most patients dying, everybody lives.

Does this make sense? Is the company spinning?

I talked to Stephen Feldschuh, the Chief Operating Officer (and a cousin of the actress Tova Feldschuh ).

I asked him about this “previous study” and how all this ties together. (If you’re following closely, the “study” is a paper published in the American Journal of Cardiology .  That link won’t do you much good unless you’re a medical pro. Here’s one by one of the authors that’s a LITTLE more accessible.)

According to Feldschuh, When the Docs “used their traditional measures to guess the volume status of the patient vs. using the BVA-100 to measure the volume status…the Dr’s were correct only 51% of the time.”

He said that “The most important part of the paper was to look at the mortality rates for these patients.  They were split into two groups (group one was patients who were hyper-volumic and the second group were patients who were normal or hypo-volemic).  They followed these patients for two years and extrapolated the third year…and what they found was that the normal/hypo group had 100% survival…while the Hyper group had a 39% death rate at year one and a 55% cumulative death rate by year two.”

The conclusion? The way you can sort out if a patient’s developing heart failure should be based on blood volume. Docs who think they’re going to pick it up on the physical exam by looking at swollen tissues (peripheral edema), venous pressure, or fluid around organs (ascites) are kidding themselves; a physical exam isn’t reliable for this stuff and may lead to the wrong people being treated.

And how do you get the blood volume?

Not easily. Which is probably why physicians have tended to shy away from doing so. It’s a long, tedious test which is considered inappropriate for many patients.

Which is where Daxor’s instrument comes in. It automates the test and shortens it to a tolerable one and half hours.

Which makes it practical. Which makes those near-perfect survival numbers within reach.

So why is MISTER ScienceAintSoBad still twitchy? Cause this IS science. And a single study, no mater how provocative, needs to be replicated by others.

I asked Mister Feldschuh when we would see more data.

“The follow up to this study is starting now (It is called TEAM HF) and the goal for this study is to do blood volume on these patients, determine who is in the hyper group and treat them down to normal status and see how they respond…this will be contrasted against a control group who will be measured to determine that they are hyper but their physician will not have the benefit of the knowledge of a measured blood volume to guide their therapy…the doctor will just have to use his current traditional guidelines to treat the patient.”

And the future for this technology?

“As the existence of the test becomes more wide spread I think it will reach critical mass and make ‘standard of care’.”

ScienceAintSoBadRating = 9

FULL DISCLOSURE: By the time you read this, MISTER ScienceAintSoBad may have bought a few shares in this publicly traded company.
Think what you will! :)

(attribution for photo of patient: / CC BY-SA 2.0 )