Archive for October, 2013


Posted by on Wednesday, 30 October, 2013


funny cartoon of kid squeezed into school desk



You just bought yourself a nice ergonomic chair for your desk. It wasn’t cheap, but who needs back pain?

Meanwhile, back at school, guess what’s happening to junior? He’s doing contortions to squeeze into his crap school desk.

Is this bad?

You bet!

Ana Assunção is in the Biomechanics and Functional morphology Lab at the University of Lisbon. She was the lead in a project to figure out why so many students (two thirds of the ones she studied) have back pain. It didn’t seem right that so many kids between 12 and 15 years old were gimping around like their elders.

What she discovered is that poor fitting  school desks and too heavy backpacks are a lethal combo. What she didn’t discover is where school systems will find the money to do a better job with the furniture.


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The drawing is mine



Posted by on Saturday, 26 October, 2013
Funny cartoon about worms



Science ain’t so bad but – well –  sometimes it’s nothing to rave about.

This is from Professor Fritz Vollrath and colleagues from the Oxford Silk Group at Oxford University’s Department of Zoology . Vollrath has been working on silk. Silk is important because it’s so strong. For some industrial and scientific uses there’s nothing better. The problem is that when silkworms are organized into modern “forced reeling” operations they aren’t the most focused of workers. Some days they’re terrific and other days they’re listening to sports radio and breaking their own silk strands which are supposed to roll smoothly onto reels. When silk is being “farmed” from worms they (the worms that is) aren’t inclined to just lay there and watch their silk being drawn away. They pull back and “interfere” with the process, breaking the strands and screwing up the hopes and aspirations of the silk farmers.

Well leave it to science.  Dr. Fritz Vollrath and his team came up with the execrable idea of paralyzing the worms so that they have to lie there all day and night without twitching.

It was a brilliant thought in a Dr. Mengele sort of way.  Production soared and the program became, for the first time, a practical operation. The benefits to our particular (human) race are great. Not only is the quantity of silk increased but new varieties with enhanced properties become possible.

As for the worms? Worms are worms, right? We stick them on hooks, we trod over them with our boots. They’re dumber than dumb and we just don’t worry about stuff like that. Is worrying about worm abuse an absurd idea?

I suppose.

The article is in the journal Biomacromolecule .

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The cartoon is mine and, don’t worry Dr. Vollrath, I know you’re no Dr. Mengele. Just advancing the art of silk farming. But somebody’s got to speak up for the little wiggly ones.


Closing In on Cures: MS and Type 1 Diabetes

Posted by on Thursday, 24 October, 2013

funny cartoon about medical breakthroughs

Mister SASB is happy.

It isn’t often I get to say that we are closing in on a cure for a major disease. Much less on two. But if you or someone you care about has either diabetes or muscular sclerosis, I can tell you things are looking a heck of a lot better.

Let’s start with Diabetes.


In type 1 diabetes your body  can’t make its own insulin; in  type 2 it can but the insulin doesn’t get metabolized right  so your blood sugar goes out of control.  Neither one is great but, for my money, I would take my chances with type 2. I just would not like to live my life with type 1 diabetes.

Well guess what? Habib Zaghouani, PhD, J. Lavenia Edwards (Pediatrics at MU School of Medicine) has been working on a cure. He (and his colleagues) already figured  out how to get the immune system to stop destroying the islet cells in the pancreas that makes insulin.

The idea worked. But it didn’t work.

Yes, they were able to get the immune system to stop attacking islet cells, but, somehow, that wasn’t enough. Something else was killing those cells. After some deep thinking, Dr. Zaghouani realized that the immune system wasn’t attacking just the islet cells. It was also attacking their blood supply. Without a supply of blood, there can be no islet cells and the patient is still hosed.

Too bad, huh?

So Dr. Zaghouani tried injecting adult stem cells from the patient’s bone marrow into the pancreas. This stopped the immune system from attacking he blood vessels – an utterly amazing and flabbergasting result, don’t you think? Even Dr. Z was surprised but he didn’t seem too sad about it either. He’s off to the patent office with an application on the process.

Great, great news.


Here’s what’s happening.

Your nerves are protected by a sleeve or “sheath” made out of myelin which insulates it so it won’t “short out” and malfunction. If your immune system is confused enough to attack this sheath, you have  multiple sclerosis.  “Sclerosis” means the tissue is changing – becoming “sclerotic” or hardened. People with MS have trouble controlling their muscles or may have trouble with their senses. If things get bad, it can also affect the heart or lungs. It would be good if the immune system didn’t do that, right?

Dr. Stephen Miller (Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and one of the senior authors of the article in Science Translational Medicine) thinks so too. His team has developed a treatment which “resets” the immune system. At the end of a “phase 1 clinical trial”, the results looked startling. The drug seems to be safe and well tolerated (the main purpose of phase 1 drug trials is to figure out if there will be side effects) and the drug cut down the immune systems tendency to attack the nerves dramatically. In the next trial – phase II – for which they are currently trying to raise money now, the goal is to stop the progress of MS in its tracks.

What does MISTER ScienceAintSoBad think of this? He thinks it’s cool beans.  I don’t know the total enrollment for the first human trials but Phase I trials aren’t usually huge so we’ll have to hope problems don’t crop up as more people are pulled into the studies. But this is great work.

ScienceAintSoBadRating = 10 for both of  these good applications of medical science.


Note: This isn’t the last time I will write about huge progress about either of these diseases. Other researchers are taking different and equally interesting tacks.

I’ll keep on it, okay?

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Drawing by me






Posted by on Sunday, 20 October, 2013


Cute cartoon about fusion energy


Nuclear fusion is nuclear fission upside down. Instead of splitting the atom into pieces, fusion fuses smaller pieces into a whole. The process liberates a lot of energy.

After fifty years of work on nuclear fusion, not a single Christmas tree gets lit that way. Members of Congress  don’t see the point in spending money on things they can’t brag about on the stump.  They’re even a little wiggly about paying the bill for funerals of soldiers.

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad understands the frustration. Years pass with (seemingly) little to show for all the effort. Have we invested too much to back off? Should we? When do we know we’ve got a loser on our hands?

The Director of Fusion Energy at the National Ignition Facility  says people have the wrong idea. Things are going good – at least at his facility which uses “intertial” techniques (lasers instead of magnetics). It did take a long time but what did you expect? This is b-i-g science and, like the  President always says, if it were easy, it would have already been done.

In Journal of Physics and Plasma, John Edwards, an Associate Director, says they are this close to break even.



Break even would mean the process actually produces some energy.  That’s been the  goal all along. Here’s how things stand.  The researchers have the x-ray intensity right; they’re hitting the target right, the target compression is right. Just one problem now – the way the  capsule (that holds hydrogen, deuterium and tritium) disintegrates is still off. They have to work on the timing.  This isn’t the easiest thing in the world do (or else – right – it would have been done). Some intense engineering is needed  on the capsule and the lasers.

The “why bother” part is because fusion sounds so great. A fusion power plant should have no  carbon emissions (no global warming) , no need for fossil fuels, be ultra safe, and not be a worry for nuclear proliferation.  It might be cheap energy too though it’s too early to say.

It’s easy to make fun when all you have to do for a living is make fun.  The scientists working on this stuff didn’t feel so great when they missed their own deadline for “break even” last year. But what-the-hell! The ground did keep getting cut out from under them. Congress didn’t come close to “keeping faith”. Money  was chopped out over and over. Let’s be a little fair. Fusion power isn’t for sure. It’s just one horse. And the race is a long one. But we’re further along than some think. Don’t shoot the project now.

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My drawing above. My fingers in the photo.









Posted by on Friday, 18 October, 2013

funny cartoon about self driving cars

Gasoline Direct Technology Looks Promising

Holy slide rule!

Automotive engineers have no end of tricks.

Car makers had to jack up the fuel-efficiency under federal (and California) rules that keep getting tougher. After messing around a little, they came up with a way to inject fuel directly into the combustion chamber. MISTER ScienceAintSoBad is good with that but what about emssions? The newest emissions standard is even lower than the one for 2017 – 2021.

A study in ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology suggests that they are on the right track with the new GDI (gasoline direct injection) technology. The study says the emissions are at or below what’s required.

Matti Maricq is lead author.

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The drawing is mine




Posted by on Thursday, 17 October, 2013
cute cartoon showing member of congress




Researchers are closing in on Alzheimer’s Disease. I spoke recently about some great research but I”m not ready with a new  Alzheimer’s update because  my stuff is supposed to be an easy read (my rules). What’s going on in Alzheimer’s isn’t (an easy read). If I can sprinkle some ScienceAintSoBad Magic Dust on my huge folder labeled Alzheimer’s, you’ll get an article.

It’ll take a lot of dust.

In the meantime – and before there’s anything better – the best chance of beating Alzheimer’s might be to catch it before it gets too far. There are some blood pressure drugs (angiotensin -1 recetor blockers and angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors) that do a decent job of protection.

Interested? If so, I might be able to sell you on the idea of early detection.

Shiri Stempler (TAU’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine) and Professors Eytan Ruppin and Lior Wolf  (TAU’s Blavatnik School of Computer Science) found a very easy way to know if your wits are at risk.  They found metabolic changes that are a very accurate (90%) predictor of the disease. They’re working on a blood test. Another group, at the Washington School of Medicine, has a candidate test using biomarkers.   And there’s also an eye test that has possibilities.

Please talk this over with your doctor who may think that odd little brain of yours is worth holding on to.

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Drawing by Mister ScienceAintSoBad



Posted by on Monday, 14 October, 2013


A cute cartoon about fuzzbals


We shouldn’t be here.

 For the universe to have life in it,  the force that holds particles together, the charge on the electron and  the  mass of the proton have to be just so. If not, there would be no life – just some zany physics experiment.There are an awful lot of physical “properties”  that scientists say have to be close to perfection to wind up with life.

What is behind this curious coincidence?


My cousin Eric says it was a creator  – a creator who set things up so that, after a few billion years (assuming everything goes just right), there would  be all kinds of living things – worms and crabs and monkeys and stuff.

It’s possible, right?

But why not just  “POOF! You’re a world and “POOF! Here’s a firmament to go with it”?  A firmament, in this case,  is  a ceiling full of lights as described in Genesis and it seems like the most straightforward way to make a good looking  sky.

I’m not saying you couldn’t tune the thing up and let ‘er  rip  but that’s pretty indirect.


An alternative explanation for why there’s life is parallel universes.

Maybe our universe got this way while a ton of other tries didn’t work out. Maybe  there are an infinite number of universes,  each with its own set of physical laws. Some have only negative gravity.  Some have a very, very weak “strong” force. Lots of them are too weird to describe. If  each one represents a different roll of the dice,  doesn’t that explain  why eventually things might come out this way?

 Well it might.

Except we don’t know if there are other universes. So that’s a stupid argument. right?


And it’s too complicated. Who needs all those attempts? What’s the difference what the odds are? A zillion trillion to one?  So what? Those critical  physical properties had to have some values,  right? If they had turned out different and had  allowed for only  anti-matter tomatoes,  would  tomatoes  be standing around in wonder at the strange coincidence of a world tuned for anti-matter tomatoes?

The universe we know may be just one of a large  number of possible outcomes. But that doesn’t mean you have to keep trying and trying until things look the way they do. This could have been the first roll of dice. Our universe  only seems like  someone arranged it this way if you think life has some sort of  importance to the cosmos and matters more than some other thing.

Actually? It doesn’t.


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Drawing is by me



Posted by on Sunday, 13 October, 2013
Cartoon about turning sewage into hydrogen fuel



Wastewater contains lots of energy. It’s a shame. We could use that energy.

Here’s the thing.

Someone – Yat Li, a professor at  the University of California – came up with a way to get the energy back from wastewater and, at the same time, clean up the water. His team’s energy reaping device takes in sunlight and wastewater and puts out hydrogen gas.

Very “Spaceship Earth”, right?

Does it work?

It seems to. The prototype worked. It was more or less a glorified lab experiment but the developers feel confident that it can be scaled up for commercial use.

But your car won’t run on hydrogen. The main use of hydrogen fuel is in fuel cells which convert it to electricity. Me? I would love a fuel cell standby generator. If the power goes down, I stay up. But my wife would k-i-l-l me if I blew $25,000 on a clean, quiet fuel cell generator just in case the lights ever flicker. So, although we know how to do this stuff, we have to solve some practical problems, lower manufacturing costs, and design a distribution system before fuel cells become common.

I think Dr, Yat Li is on to something. If it is priced right,  his energy reaper could be great – at least in areas with abundant sunshine. But it’s just a piece of the puzzle of a hydrogen economy.

Li’s study is published in ACS Nano and, by the way, for a nice overview of what’s up with hydrogen, have a look at Hydrogen Fuel News

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The drawing is mine.



Posted by on Thursday, 10 October, 2013
Cartoon shows guys talking about running.




Nothings perfectly safe, right? If you’re a runner, you know you can screw up your knees (it’s not as bad as you think though), twist an ankle, or catch pneumonia. But one thing you never considered is that it running might be bad for your heart.

A study in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology says it is if you run marathons.  Don’t take this wrong. Nobody’s saying you should sit around and veg. In fact, if you use a little common sense, you’re probably fine. What the authors(lead author:  Eric Larose, , Institut universitaire de cardiologie et de pneumologie de Québec)  figured out is that running very long distances (marathons) causes inflammation, changes in heart muscle, and reduced blood flow  –  especially in runners who weren’t in good condition.  The changes seem to just be temporary. The runners’ hearts got better after some rest. But it’s a little scary,  isn’t it?

Is there enough here to scare you away from an exercise that’s probably good for you? There have been well publicized cases (very rare) of top runners suffering a heart attack in a race. Still,  I’m thinking that when this gets all figured out, the advice will be to use  common sense. If you have some reason to worry about your heart, don’t be an idiot. And don’t run marathons without proper training and preparation and the right running shoes and such.

This is a good study. But more work needs to be done to understand if it changes anything.

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Drawing by me







Posted by on Monday, 7 October, 2013
Cartoon showing Bullock and Clooney in the movie Gravity



MisterScienceAintSoBad saw the movie Gravity.

It was magic.

George Cloony and Sandra Bullock give us a view of space that should be impossible from a chair on this planet. Almost too vivid to bear. Nobody can figure out how it was done.  I looked at 28 movie reviews. Not a negative thing to say. The reviewers  loved it. So did I.  If I weren’t already so jaded , I would have fainted. Great,  great work.

And yet,  the film had no soul.

And  the physics is wrong.

Here’s the thing.

The idea was to show off how breathtaking and amazing and very dangerous it is up there.  As I say, the movie makers  know their business. But the life story of  Doctor Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) didn’t seem to interest the filmmakers as much as her emotional range when near death. The little we know about her life is because she tends to talk to herself when under pressure. The movie doesn’t show us Stone as she matures, as she falls in love, as she has a child, as she loses the child through a stupid playground accident, or anything else. In fact we see such a small wedge of  her actual life that she got away with a space suit and some underwear as her wardrobe for the whole film. We’re only interested in having her hop scotch through space from one hazard to the next, dodging , weaving, improvising, whimpering, screaming, and emoting until, ultimately, the movie runs out of pixels.

Astronauts are portrayed as a little more colorful and less serious (and a little less professional) than they actually are.  And although the introductory stuff reminds us that there are no sounds in space, being consistent about it would have wasted an entire wall of theater woofers.  Movie license, right? Every time something moved in that movie frame, my seat vibrated. Boom, boom, boom!.

That’s okay. Sci fi wouldn’t be sci fi without a little juice for  a teenager.

My problem was the premise. The basic idea is that the Russians accidentally fired a missile into their own satellite which exploded, leaving debris to ping pong off of other satellites until there was a “chain reaction” of debris that battered every space platform up there. You can see the debris “bullets” raining through the dark sky in several of the escape-from-death scenes.

The volume of space is enormous – even the small piece of it surrounding our tiny planet. Space debris is always a concern when  you’re out there, but there’s much too much space and much too little aluminum to “fill the air” with projectiles. No serious scientist has ever raised the possibility of a chain reaction of debris. It was just a convenient plot invention.

The key scene –  the one with Kowalski (Clooney)and Dr. Stone (Bullock)  trying to save themselves at the Russian space station, was gripping. In trying to implement a sketchy scheme to get themselves safely back to earth, they find their way, traveling in unprotected space suits, to the Russian space station. On their arrival, they try to grab a handhold – anything at all – as they tumble past. The gloves really weren’t meant for one handed grabs like that. If  Dr. Stone’s boot hadn’t gotten tangled in some straps, they would have been lost.

But her boots did get tangled. And as the straps slow her motion, she manages to grab Kowalski and the two buckle together. As the  straps stretch more and more under the strain, Kowalksi realizes that the straps won’t hold their combined weight. He tells her that she has to let him go. She begs him not to open his latch, but he bravely reminds her that it isn’t her choice, unbuckles, and glides heart-breakingly out of the reach of her outstretched arms.

Okay. But what was pulling them outward? What force was dragging them away from the space station? They were moving because – what’s that thing? – objects in motion tend to stay in motion unless they are subject to an external force? So their momentum was moving them. Until that strap imposed a new force. Then they snap back toward the space station, right?

Only it didn’t happen that way. Some force kept dragging them outward. And dragging Kowalski away from Dr. Stone.

Before you say it, they weren’t being flung out by some rotational force. The star field wasn’t rotating.

What was the mysterious force that doomed Kowalski? I’m pretty sure it was merely slow motion cinematography making something out of nothing. By slowing the action enough, it is possible to experience what happens as the force from the straps start to tug backward and Kowalski’s mass tries to continue forward as a simulation (more or less) of a tractor beam dragging him into the ether.

The physics in the scene didn’t exactly make sense but, look,  Dr. Stone had to come home alone and Kowalski had to go. From a scientific standpoint, I think Kowalksi died in vain. And, although I’m glad that Sandra Bullock survived as I would miss her very much, she spent the rest of the movie in a  really, really, really peculiar war with the theory of probability, overcoming enormous  odds time after time after time,  eventually saving herself by propelling herself to the Chinese space station with a fire extinguisher. When, after way too many improbable brushes with death,  she, eventually,  lands a few feet from a welcoming beach in temperatures comfortable enough to collapse with relief in her adorable but nonstandard NASA underwear, I knew for a fact that some people have all the luck.

In the end, Gravity is a smash ’em up special effects film that doesn’t mind its silly side.

Reviewers didn’t mind and audiences won’t either.

Some movies don’t need a great plot.

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The drawing is mine.