Archive for category Air Safety

Malaysia’s MH370. What makes it so valuable?

Posted by on Tuesday, 15 April, 2014
Funny cartoon about motorcycles

Misplaced confidence


An airplane disappeared with 239 people on board.

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad hates to hear stuff like that. If you have any sort of connection to any of the passengers, you have my deepest sympathy.

What a horrible thing!

Crazy too.

The chances of dying in a fire are about 1200 to 1. From a car accident or from  poison, about 1 in 120. From an airplane accident? About 11 million to 1.

In other words, you are safer – much, much safer – in the seat of a stupid airplane than you are sitting in your own living room where you could get caught in a fire or accidentally eat rat poison thinking it was some new candy treat from the lunatic next door. The disappearance of that airplane – of any commercial airliner-  is unthinkable.

When Manilla’s flight MH370 disappeared from radar on March 8, 2014, it was a twelve year old Boeing 777.  An airplane like that isn’t cheap but you can pick one up for 40 to 50 million dollars.

Now that it’s (probably) in pieces at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, it’s worth a fortune. The airline industry wants it badly. Because airplane accidents are so amazingly rare, this is a remarkable opportunity to learn from an honest to God airplane accident – an extremely rare chance to improve air safety even more. Boeing needs that thing to figure out if there were any issues with design or manufacture. Insurance companies need a look to settle the many interwoven claims against various parties. The airline needs it so it can prove it wasn’t negligent and to improve its own practices. Malaysia and China need to find it for political purposes because so many citizens want to tar and feather certain leaders over the way the accident was (mis)handled. And even the US which wasn’t directly involved (just one US citizen) would like to have a look at those those black boxes and examine key pieces of the wreckage.

It sounds cold to focus on the “worth” of the wreckage. I don’t mean it that way. I really do feel awful about the accident. However, if you’re trying to figure out why so much national treasure and effort is being invested in the search for this wreckage in “the most dangerous place on the planet”, it may help to understand the importance of the secrets hidden within that wreckage.


Will the aircraft be found? Will it ever be possible to deduce exactly what happened?

If you haven’t tuned out by now, you probably know that the search area has been narrowed down. As of this writing, the use of robotic submersibles has just begun. In the opinion of MISTER ScienceAintSoBad, they aren’t exagerating about what a rotten location this is. This area is remote, has indescribably bad weather, and very deep and uncharted water. If the airplane had been lost even a few years ago, it might have been hopeless. This is more like a planetary expedition than sending some soldiers to comb through a wreck somewhere but I think the search will go on until something is found. It’s an “in for a dime, in for a dollar” deal. So much has already been invested, and so much is riding on the results, that I don’t think giving up is on the menu.

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The drawing is mine.


Posted by on Friday, 29 June, 2012




Ice can build up on airplane wings. When this happens, the airplane loses lift. When an airplane loses lift, it doesn’t fly so good.

What if were possible to make metal immune to icing?  What if this immune-to-icing metal  could also be used in compressors so that air conditioners and heat pumps and refrigerators and freezers didn’t ice up?   Actually? If you add it all up, the money saved, the energy that wouldn’t be wasted, the air fatalities that wouldn’t  happen – this would make the world a better place.


Guess what?

Two women at a college in Cambridge, Massachusetts developed  (ACS Nano) a treatment for metal that repels ice. Ice doesn’t have a chance. Anything – even “incipient condensation droplets” –  slides right off. Dr. Joanna Aizenberg and Dr. Amy Smith Berylson call the product SLIPS. The marketing department may call it something catchier. Whatever. The point is, this is a great idea. Potentially, this has lots of uses. It even  works for the blades of wind turbines which, if they get iced up, also lose “lift” and become inefficient.

The downside?   I sure can’t find one.

ScienceAintSoBadRating = 10


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Photo credits with appreciation to Frank Starmer, Associate Dean for Learning Technologies, Professor of Biolstatics and Bioinformatics, Duke University, Duke – National University Of Singapore Graduate School

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Posted by on Monday, 29 November, 2010



Be good if there was a green box with a red light and a buzzer. Bomb goes by? The buzzer buzzes, the red light blinks.

Like that.

Wouldn’t that be nice? It would change so many things and, maybe, tilt the advantage in the terrorism struggle back to the guys who call themselves the good guys.

Or is that the other guys?

Whatever! You know what I mean, right?

An Israeli team’s announcing an electronic explosives detector. Works for all SORTS of explosives. TNT, too. It’s very portable, very fast,  and can identify explosives that’re some distance away – a nice feature if you don’t wanna keep hiring new people to replace the ones that got exploded.  The lead researcher, Dr. Fernando Patolsky (Tel Aviv university), says there’s a need for this.

Well.. yuh!

Yer gonna find lots of troops in Afghanistan who think so. When you never know WHAT’S gonna blow, you get a little jumpy. This sounds like just the kind of device that could make a real difference . The nano sensor based device is the instrumentation equivalent of human/animal smell. I’ve called  this kind of thing an artificial nose, in the past,  because it “sniffs” the air that contains the molecules of the thing you’re looking for. No nostrils. No bump on the bridge. Probably no embarrassing hairs but nose-like in what it does.

Patolsky says it’s better at picking out explosives than dogs. That makes my eyes water. I happen to know how good dogs are at this particular job so that’s REALLY impressive!

You gotta think there’ll be interest from Homeland Security and the Military.


Photo credits Mark Watson (kalimistuk)’ photostream

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Putting Algae In The Tank

Posted by on Tuesday, 12 January, 2010


Energy: Riding The Algal Wave.

Jet engines decorate our skies with their sunlight sparkled contrails. While sharing, generously, their carbon dioxide with our oh so delicate atmosphere.

Airplanes, alone, contribute 2 to 3 percent of all of the CO2 emissions – a lot for just one single human activity. When you think of all forms of transportation including planes, cars, trucks, trains, ships, barges, and whatnot they (airplanes) are responsible for about one fifth of the total.

Do you worry about such things? Do you think global warming’s an over hyped pseudo scientific fraud?

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad doesn’t like to make a big controversial mess out of himself so if you think the whole carbon thing’s all nonsense, I will let you go. You probably have other stuff to do right now anyway. The rest of you can move up into the empty chairs while I explain what the airline industry intends to do about this.

First I should explain that airplanes have a little too much oomph to run on solar energy. And hydrogen fuel cell’s are still more dreamish than realish. The practical answer appears to be some form of fuel made from renewable substances and algae seems to the renewable substance of the moment.

But the fuel requirements for the turbine engines that run jet aircraft are pretty stringent.

You would think!

It get very cold in the stratosphere. And the pressure changes considerably from down here to up there. Diesel, with its high flash point and low volatility isn’t a very good fuel for jets. And early forms of biodiesel tended to get cloudy and clog up at low temperatures. At 30,000 feet, you really WANT a good fuel. Don’t you? Failure is not (a very desirable) option. And, by the way, the flammability of jet fuel is a terrifically important consideration in the event of an airplane accident where spilled fuel can change a survivable crash into a hopeless inferno.

The delays in implementing a new kind of fuel aren’t just foot dragging. This isn’t an easy problem. Because of all this, for the foreseeable future, any solution is likely to be a mix of conventional fuel with biofuel.

What are the real prospects for replacing (or at least reducing) reliance on kerosene? In 2008, Boeing figured we would be able to transition to a 30/70 biofuel/kerosene mixture within 3 to 5 years.

Are we on track?

I asked Adele C Schwartz, a well respected journalist with lots of professional experience in the air transportation industry (oh and my sister) where to find information on this topic and she pointed me to an article by Geoffrey Thomas in Air Transport World which is fairly encouraging about the prospects for the airline industry getting itself over to algae based “biodiesel”. Sapphire Energy seems to think it’s good for a million gallons of biodiesel and biojet by next year.

But Thomas’s article emphasizes that this isn’t likely to happen without government incentives playing a major role.

One would hope!

Where WOULD this country be if we didn’t look to government to take the lead in innovation and risk?

Airport Body Scanners: Good For Your Health

Posted by on Tuesday, 5 January, 2010

A Spur For Fitness?

Technology: The un-girdle.

After the attempted attack on flight 523, “body scanners” are finally getting some respect. Heathrow Airport will be using them and several hundred of them have been purchased for use in airports in and out of the US.

Good, right? Nobody want’s to get blown up.

Except for the radiation and the nudity. Overexposure on two fronts.

Let’s start with the nudity.

It doesn’t exactly make sense to say that photos like the one at the top of this article are obscene.

Proof? They’ve been run on the front pages of major newspapers and on family television stations in prime time. If you search for “body scanner” this photo shows up in Google with “strict search” on. So where’s the obscenity? Why the discomfort?

Well check out those love handles! Check out that saggy butt! No WONDER they’re throwing rocks at the scanners. I would be too.

This is the single greatest counterstrike against obesity since MacDonald’s decided against staying open all night.

I’m serious!

WEEKS before scheduled trips, travelers will be taking time off from work for exhausting river runs and torturous gym workouts. Lettuce and Tomato will be the new Big Mac.

THANK you L3 for saving our figures. And our hearts.


What about the radiation then?

According to Cnet News, there are two technologies in use. One of them uses low intensity radio waves. The other one uses backscatter radiation, an x-ray technology. And, yeah, the health benefits of x-rays are sometimes overstated.

But, according to Wikipedia, the backscatter technology amounts to .005 millirem of radiation. Since average background radiation is about 300 mrem per year, you would have to get exposed about 60,000 times by one of those backscatter doobies to get the equivalent of what you get in a year at the library. A traveler would have to make about 200 trips a day or about one departure every 3 minutes (assuming a 10 hour travel day) to achieve even that.

Imagine the air mile rewards.

So, weighing costs and benefits, for the price of some institutional indignity (and if you plan to do much flying, you might as well get over THAT), you’re gonna lose the flab and get there in one piece. But you will get enough radiation exposure to die .00003 seconds early.

Seems reasonable to MISTER ScienceAintSoBad. ScienceAintSoBadRating = 8 .

(Image above from From the Rapiscan Secure 1000(tm) Body Scanner manufactured by OSI Systems, Inc.)

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?

If you wish to leave comments on the blog, just scroll down to the end of this post. You will see where it says “Posted by David at.. “ and it will indicate how many comments are there. Click that and you can leave a comment too. Also, if you’re feeling REALLY generous, maybe you’ll answer a few quick questions (below) that’ll help guide my future postings.



Planes and Boats and Us Too

Posted by on Friday, 3 April, 2009

Bill Groves working his engineering magic


We hear from people (mostly relatives and friends) who want to try out our LectricLifter (US patent numb 7517221) to raise their electric outlets up conveniently. Only one request, so far, to protect puppies and such from electric shock (though that’s from a store). ‘Course it would help if we had some. And it would help even more if we got them approved and started marketing our inventions. In fact, three months have evaporated while we’ve been trying to figure out the best way to make the first set (called “pre-manufacturing prototypes” in case you wondered).

In our own defense, this delay is partially because we don’t have a budget for extruded plastic parts and custom circuit boards which forces us to spend extra time being ingenious. For example, we couldn’t justify the money for a custom housing. Instead, we went to a fence manufacturer and bought plastic fence posts of about the right size. You can see how it looks below with the “rotatable plug” poking through. Of course another reason for the delay is that we haven’t been on fire to get this thing to market in the middle of a recession. But with the economy (maybe) beginning to pull out of its dive, we’ve been running out of excuses so Bill Groves, one of the engineers on our team, (plug for Bill: [email protected] to get a quote on electronic or electromechanical projects) took over the work and things began to jell.

We spent lots of time “cad-ing up” the method of holding that plug in place. We tried several approaches till we could agree on a good way. Now we’re working our way through other details: wiring techniques, fastening methods for the cord management knobs, and so on. It shouldn’t be long now till we have enough prototypes to do some “sanity checks”, show them to retailers, and get safety approvals.Meanwhile, we have two more products that’re stuck in the patent office and STILL haven’t budged. Maybe the USPTO needs a stimulus.


As I’ve mentioned previously, the transformation of energy sources is now underway in a serious way worldwide. My sister, Adele C Schwartz, who writes about and has considerable knowledge about aviation and airports, says her industry is already working on the shift to biofuels which, she says, is “huge”. According to Adele, the motivation is that already ” .. some countries in Europe are penalizing airlines for emissions, even though commercial aircraft are just a tiny part of the problem.”. “Air New Zealand,” she says, “has done some successful test flights recently using part jatropha and part kerosene. A lot of different mixes are being tested, and all the reports I’ve seen are positive for all of them.”

And an NOAA study says that ocean going vessels produce as much polution in a year as ALL THE CARS IN THE WORLD do in six months. The shipping companies, like the airlines, seem to understand that change is inevitable. Sooner rather than later.

I’ll continue to expand coverage of developments related to energy.


Erin ( New England Cockapoos, her link), breeder to the stars AND breeder of our own Bella Luna, reminds us that it isn’t just stores that want the pet protecting version. She needs the LectricLifter too and quick. Before June.

Workin’ on it, Erin.