Archive for February, 2010

Underwater Communications: A 21st Century Upgrade

Posted by on Saturday, 27 February, 2010

A Cable Of Light For Undersea Exploration


Texting while driving a submarine? The captain should be so lucky.

Submarine communication is slow and dorky. If it works at all. Electromagnetic waves  get kinda sulky in the ocean; they dissipate too fast to be useful for underwater communications so subs rely on beeps and boops – audio signals – to keep in touch. Which is HOPELESSLY slow. You can’t do ANY of the things we surface dwellers are used to.  Like voice or video.

And, obviously, the cloud computing metaphor’s a little off down there with fish swimming by the porthole.

That’s why robot submersibles (remotely operated vehicles) tend to have an umbilicus – a stiff, heavy cable – which carries transmissions to and from the surface for data and for control of the submersible, itself.

"Squid" submersible (See all the cables?)

But a big cable isn’t exactly an invitation to live wild and free. It grossly limits how far the submersible can go and the kinds of missions it can undertake.

Norman E Farr, a senior engineer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has, with his team, worked out a  solution – an optical/acoustic network. It is high speed, wireless, and, apparently,  reliable. Farr and team expect to get started in July with the first large scale deployment of this VERY cool “underwater Internet”.

While “breakthrough” is an overused term, this project may just be one – a breakthrough in underwater communications.

ScienceAintSoBadRating = 10

Credits for photo of submersible: / CC BY 2.0

Lasers: Leaving Light Behind

Posted by on Thursday, 25 February, 2010

One NOISY Laser

Optics: The Phonon Laser


I guess you’re not impressed by lasers.

You’ve got an $8.95 laser pointer from Job Lot. You had some hair removed by a laser. There’s one in your CD player. And they’re inside of things that’re all over your house. You even use one to drive the cat WACKY. And I wish you wouldn’t.


I’ll take a minute here to explain the difference between a laser and, say, an electric light.

Until 1958, when the laser was invented at Bell Labs, all forms of artificial light were “incoherent”. Incoherent light consists of light waves that don’t “line up” particularly well. The crests and the valleys of the waves are “all over the place” as opposed to coherent light where all the crests and valleys DO line up with each other.

What’s the difference? When light is coherent, it behaves itself. Instead of spreading (converging), it remains packed into a tight beam.

Not much of  a difference, I admit. But it makes the light kinda “pure” and “monochromatic” (one and only one frequency)  as opposed to a flashlight which is a great big MESS of frequencies. And a laser light doesn’t spread out the way we’re used to a light beam behaving; instead it just stays in a tight beam.  The science behind it is NICELY described in an article in HOW STUFF WORKS. Which I appreciate because MISTER ScienceAintSoBad is in NO mood to go through all the details, this morning.

The fact that monochromatic laser light DOESN’T  dissipate its energy by spreading out like its more ordinary cousins means it can transmit great power over a long distance or offer real  accuracy for measuring stuff. Its nice tight beam is even useful for communications since it can illuminate light fibers or bounce off of distant targets and still hold onto its properties.

Who would a thought that a laser, which is, after all, just a humble beam of light, would turn out to be so important?


The length of a light wave is short.  It’s measured in billionths of a meter. Wanna see how the wavelength varies with color? (Probably not, but just in case, this is fun. )

Frequency, for frequency, the wavelengths of sound are even shorter.  Much, much shorter.  So sound  could be used for WAY more accurate measurements in medicine and other applications.  And a sound-based laser (phonon laser) would, no doubt, have other startling tricks it could do besides measurement, if we really had one.


Phonon lasers still aren’t available at Job Lot but the work’s movin’ along VERY nicely.  It’s described in Physical Review Letters (who NAMES these publications?)  and in Physics.

Mister ScienceAintSoBad thinks the emergence of the phonon laser is now likely.  Whole new industries will follow.

ScienceAintSoBad Rating= 10

Politics: SO Rigorous. SO Logical.

Posted by on Tuesday, 23 February, 2010

Jabber, Jabber, Jabber

Test: How is political debate different from science?

I will pick up your papers at the end of the class. I don’t want you looking at anyone else’s answers.

The Scientific Work Of Amy Bishop

Posted by on Sunday, 21 February, 2010

An Assertive Professor

Shoot! No Tenure.

“It didn’t happen. There’s no way … they are still alive.” – Amy Bishop, being taken to jail.


Amy Bishop (Assistant Professor Of Biology at the University of Alabama) figured out that  her colleagues weren’t gonna give her tenure.

So she shot them.

TOO assertive, we think. They say she also  shot and killed her brother in 1986, was a suspect in a bombing, may have assaulted someone in a restaurant and, supposedly, had a long history of hinkey behavior.


You, the readers of Science Ain’t So Bad, aren’t the SORT to be titillated by violence.

Or sex, for that matter.

If you’re here, you’re here to read about science and technology and, I’m sure your questions about Dr. Bishop are more about her scientific work.

Proud OF you!

Well, as a published author, Bishop isn’t prolific. R Douglas Fields (Psychology Today) took a look and says the list is short.

Her newest stuff is about nitric oxide, a compound that has multiple and important uses in human (and nonhuman) biology. Her research leads her to a radical view of the causes of MS –  a view which is still considered pretty “iffy”. Shooting her colleagues, obviously, might not add weight to her arguments, although, strictly speaking, scientific ideas should be evaluated on their own merits.


An article in the Boston Herald says Bishop included her minor kids on at least one of her papers.

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad thinks that’s nice. If she hadn’t done such awful things and if her contributions were solid, the “kids on the research paper” thing wouldn’t get counted as a foul here.

The article by Fields also describes a system for maintaining neurons in cell culture – an “automated Petri Dish” – for which Bishop had obtained a patent. If the device was getting lost in the noise of all the other patents, that should change now. (No such thing as bad news? Do I believe this?). But Fields sounds dubious about the prospects for the invention.


As far as Bishop’s teaching is concerned, her student reviews didn’t seem bad. Look for yourself.

Nobody’s  heartless enough to give a ScienceAintsoBadRating on this one.  Instead, we offer our sincere condolences to those who have suffered, including Bishop’s own family and we mourn the almost certain loss of her  potential contributions to the scientific world and to the community at large.

Bagged By Machine: A Robot Anesthesiologist?

Posted by on Saturday, 20 February, 2010


Anesthesiology: With A Battery Backup


Has anybody ever put you to sleep?

I KNOW you won’t be dozing while reading MY good-as-coffee articles , but have you ever been put to sleep by a white coated, caring individual who then proceeded to remove your tonsils?


For medical professionals, a visit to the “Ether dome” at Mass General Hospital in Boston’s like a visit to a holy shrine. (MGH is where anesthesia was introduced to the medical world in the 1840s, in case you didn’t know.)

Ether Dome

Try to imagine a modern operation underway with a slug of whiskey dripping down the patient’s chin and four big guys holding him.her down. The doc would have – what? – 30 seconds to drag that old heart out and stuff in the new one?

Not very bloody likely!

Most of the elaborate procedures that are part of medicine, as we know it, require a peaceful sedated patient that can be kept stable for a long time. In fact, many procedures take hours. Some even take days.

Anesthesia is really one of the HUGE successes of our time. Under the command of a doctor or a nurse anesthetist at the head of the operating table, the patient’s signs are carefully monitored and the “anesthetic agents” are carefully controlled. Often, the anesthesiologist manipulates a bag, manually “breathing” for a patient whose lungs are temporarily paralyzed, watching the patient intensely for signs of  “lightening up”.


For a fun surgical experience:

1. You don’t want it to hurt (at least I don’t).

2. You don’t wanna know (unconscious).

3. You don’t want to remember it afterwards. and

4. You (or at least your doctors) don’t want you to be jerking around while tissue near nerves and arteries is being cut with great precision. So it is important that your muscles be paralyzed.

Get it all right (as well as the timing of your wake up call in the surgical suite) and, all you need for a SUPER surgical day is a nice recovery without infection. Even better would be if the hospital sends the bill to the wrong customer and – this may be TOO optimistic, the surgeons managed to remove what they were SUPPOSED to,  instead of the one on the right side.

If only the surgery were as predictable as the anesthesia.

Deaths from anesthesia happen.Nothing’s perfect. But they’re rarer than typos on Science Ain’t So Baud. Less than 1 in 100,000 procedures. RIDICULOUSLY rare!

From time-to-time, however, things go wrong enough that one of the things I mentioned above ( pain, unconsciousness, recall, or paralysis) aren’t as controlled as they  should be and a patient can have a rotten time of it.

There ARE plenty of other issues, by the way, such as “anesthesia brain” which can leave a former patient with mental deficits. However, having scared the crap out of you,  that is ENTIRELY off topic. Another time, maybe.


Anyway, getting, finally, to the point, a group from the University of La Laguna (it’s in the Canary Islands) is reporting that it has an anesthesia machine that “closes the loop”, monitoring patients and adjusting the anesthetic as needed.

Adding control to an anesthesiology machine isn’t galaxy shaking. The idea’s been around. Cooper and Newbower (Mass General Hospital) were doing this stuff in the 1970’s and Aspect Medical has been selling “Bispectral Index Monitors”  for years. (They figure out if you’re sleepy enough).

But closing the loop – letting the machine take control – is a dramatic step.

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad doesn’t think’s anesthesiologists will be going out for coffee during the procedure for a few years.

Not if I’m on the damn table!

The way it’s shaping up is this. Computers are better at doing things fast and not losing track of details. But people have got that wisdom thing going and, of course, there’s STILL that Jobs, Jobs, Jobs thing to consider. So, I guess you could think of the anesthesia machine as a truly expensive set of antilock brakes that still need a driver.

This is just a beginning. The machine has only been tried with profol and on a small number of volunteers. But it makes sense medically and scientifically.

It’ll happen.

ScienceAintSoBadRating = 7 .


Credit for the Ether Dome photo: Uploaded by Swampykank to Media Commons.

More On Vitamin D. Forgive Me.

Posted by on Wednesday, 17 February, 2010


Did I mention that it may help reduce heart disease and diabetes in elders?

Don’t let this study from Loyola fool you though. The science isn’t indisputable.

Just hard to resist.

Take your D.

– MISTER ScienceAintSoBad

Smoking: Now The Tough Cases

Posted by on Tuesday, 16 February, 2010

What's left?


But you already KNEW that, didn’t you.

Of course you did.

Who, other than teenagers, is unaware that smoking ruins your heart, destroys your lungs, wrinkles your skin, and makes you look sophisticated.

Did I say that?

Anyway,you know it’s really, really bad for you and if you could quit, you already did.

Some people are tall and some are short. Some have REALLY blue eyes and some have watery, squinty brown eyes. And, although I’m “just guessing” here, almost surely, some people find it easy to quit and some find it really hard.

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad doesn’t want to discourage you from trying, of course, but, if you’re still a smoker after years of trying not to be, you CAN stop beating up on yourself . You’re one of the unlucky ones who finds it very, very hard.

As the President often says, if it were easy, he would have done it already. Ask him about HIS cigs.

Unless you’re a moron who just started in which case you SHOULD feel free to beat up on yourself plus I’m cancelling your subscription to Science Ain’t So Bad. You can go read somebody ELSE’S blog till you get your head on straight.

An article in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology describes some treatments that do seem to work – even, to some extent, for the hard cases. And it talks about some of the segments of the population that’re the most resistant.  Course it tends to cluster people by what kind of mental disorder they have.

Don’t get all huffy if you read it. Keep in mind that this is the work of psychologists. If the study had been done by engineers,  ease of quitting would, no doubt, have been clustered by type of smartphone.

ScienceAintSoBadRating = 5

It’s a useful study if all it does is to remind us that quitting’s harder for some than for others.

Monkeys Aren’t Such Bad People

Posted by on Tuesday, 16 February, 2010



You figured bonobos were tightwads.


This study in Current Biology describes bonobos with GREAT food, taking a key and unlocking a door to share it with a buddy.

Would YOU do that? MISTER Science Ain’t So Bad sure ain’t givin’ away HIS bananas.

Don’t even ask.

ScienceAintSoBadRating = 6

Probably a good study but the earth didn’t shake.

Photo attribution: / CC BY 2.0

Slipping A Little? How About A Spare Brain?

Posted by on Sunday, 14 February, 2010

Geriatrics: Project COGKNOW.


Every teenager I know thinks his.her parents are demented.

Knows it for a fact.

But dementia is real, not just a derisive term for parents who don’t “get it”.  And, when it happens, it’s always hard.  Out, goes the  fierce irascible mind you’ve known all your life replaced by  hesitation and uncertainty. Someone who NEVER questioned his own decisions, sits around with a fixed stare, writing a science blog and calling himself MISTER ScienceAintSoBad.

Not to make light of it. Because it’s not at all funny when dementia is real.

The Cogknow Project ( Europe – Sweden, The Netherlands, Ireland) did a VERY cool thing.

Its problem:  keeping people in the early stages of dementia independent.  MISTER ScienceAintSoBad is very impressed by the smart way touch screen devices were deployed, giving confidence and purpose to  those who would, otherwise, require full time human assistance.

Creating an effective interface for this population’s kinda impossible. At least, that’s what I THOUGHT till I saw this video.

This project goes in the “technology” bin here at Science Ain’t So Bad. So far, at least, no studies to prove it’s effectiveness.

So what? Not everything requires a peer reviewed article.  Did you  wait for one before you bought your cell IPhone or your Droid?

Cogknow’s work deserves funding and Science Ain’t So Bad hopes it happens.

Harvard, Ice Cream, and Quantum Mechanics

Posted by on Saturday, 13 February, 2010



A long, long time ago, Joel, Doug, and MISTER ScienceAintSoBad were in line for an ice cream cone in Harvard Square.

I can’t remember, exactly, why, but Joel said (not for the first time) that “People are morons.”

Mister (not at that time) ScienceAintSoBad sturdily defended you.

“Not all of them.”

“That’s what YOU think. They don’t know crap!”

“You do?”

Three guys in line for ice cream.. You don’t want the whole transcript. However, it led to a “test” (we were young, remember). We decided to ask people in the line about electrons.

We would be easy graders. The interviewee didn’t have to know a lot. The answer could be “part of an atom”, “a tiny something that’s part of stuff”, “a particle”, “some small shmatta from physics” – just some indication that he.she knew what we were talking about.

So we did the survey. We asked ten customers, one by one. And this is what happened.

Nobody knew the answer.

One person – a high school girl, I think – knew it was “something in science” so she got a passing grade.

Everybody else was stumped. Most of them shrugged their shoulders or looked confused or were afraid that they were on Candid Camera.

Why bring this up?

Not because Joel was right about people being stupid. THEY weren’t making idiots out of themselves in an ice cream shop. But if this shop, which was a few hundred yards from Harvard (gasp!) University was even a little representative of the intelligent beings that inhabit our planet, then they (those intelligent beings) certainly didn’t give a lime sherbert’s damn about physics. Or abstract theories. Or natural philosophy. Or what-have-you.

You’re gonna say you have some issues with my methodology. That is wasn’t scientific.

But that’s not the point.

The point is that the “deeper” more abstract things are a hard sell with the average person. It’s just not what people think about.


MISTER ScienceAintSoBad can tell when you’re interested.

You know that little shmagegge on the upper right of the screen? It counts the visitors.

When we do an article about PRACTICAL things like the effects of salt on your health or a new cancer drug or a new breakthrough in hypnotic suggestion that turns teenagers into sweet, docile, uncomplaining saints, that thing GOES! The individual numbers get blurry and it goes whirr, whirr, whirr.

BUT when we do something really INTERESTING, something of PROFOUND SCIENTIFIC IMPORT such as the continuing effort to understand dark matter or dark energy or research into the true nature of the universe (quantum mechanics or string theory, for example), it stutters, hesitates, shivers, and staggers like it’s developed a case of frozen neuron disease.

This tells me that if I want lots of customers (and, by the way, the readership of Science Ain’t So Bad has been growing and thank you) I should stay away from deep science.

Unfortunately, because of a contract I have with myself, that’s not gonna happen so you can either go away with something new or (more likely) just skip the good stuff.

I hope you’ll, at least, give me a chance on the esoterica. It’ll make you a better person.

And, how can you be sure it won’t come up in a job interview?

You’ll be SO happy to learn that I’m adding book reviews to Science Ain’t So Bad and the first review – not finished yet – is going to be Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe.

Which doesn’t have a THING in it that’ll relieve the symptoms of a cold.