Scientists baffled

September 16, 2008

As much as I like “scientists confident” stories, I LOVE “scientists baffled” ones even more. Why? Because scientists, much like every other profession, can become hidebound and set in their ways and need shaking up from time to time.

I refer of course to the whole “hey, I think the continents are floating and actually move!” discussion which got very nasty for very many years.

But I digress.

This story is all about a new object in the sky (sorry, Juha, universe) that has them… baffled.

I like that word. It implies having cotton wool in your ears AND not having the faintest idea what something means. It’s a win win.

The object … appeared out of nowhere. It just wasn’t there before. In fact, they don’t even know where it is exactly located because it didn’t behave like anything they know. Apparently, it can’t be closer than 130 light-years but it can be as far as 11 billion light-years away. It’s not in any known galaxy either. And they have ruled out a supernova too. It’s something that they have never encountered before. In other words: they don’t have a single clue about where or what the heck this thing is.

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Large Hadron Collider

September 12, 2008

This story gives a great background piece on the LHC, why it’s important, why spending GBP5bn on a device to look for “the god particle” is a good thing and why we should all stop fretting and learn to love the CERN.

CERN is perhaps the only hotbed of pure science research in the entire world. Where once we used to relish the opportunity to dream about the world about us, now it seems if there’s no direct application, you should forget about it. Too costly, too pie in the sky.

Instead we should focus on building a slightly better dishwasher, a slightly lighter material for our cars, a slightly more efficient way of propelling our cars.

If we’re going to take a quantum (ha) leap over what we know, we need to be exploring the world we don’t know. Dark energy makes up a huge percentage of the universe around us. Why is it dark? Because we haven’t got the faintest idea what it is.

The Victorians believed they discovered everything discoverable and that science was pretty much done. Are we saying the same thing?

EDIT: Check out the webcams… very entertaining.

I’ve complained before about The Listener, and about its coverage of science in general.

I should point out here that The Listener just won the Qantas Media Award for newsstand magazine of the year, so my views are somewhat in the minority (although readership is in freefall (although curiously missing from the ABC figures) so maybe not a complete minority).

The Listener’s approach to science and to rigour has been somewhat lacking, in my opinion. Imagine my surprise when I read on page 45 of this week’s issue that The Listener, in conjunction with the Royal Society of NZ, is sponsoring the Manhire Prize for creative science writing.

Either, The Listener takes its science journalism seriously, despite all evidence to the contrary. Or they’re taking the more liberal interpretation of “creative” (as in “He was an accountant who believed in ‘creative accounting’.”) or perhaps they’re just having a joke. All I can say is I’m glad the RSNZ has appointed the International Institute of Modern Letters to judge the award.

Amusingly, the topic of this year’s award is “evolution”.

Let the games begin.

Science. Still working.

November 27, 2007

When my parents were born, antibiotics were yet to be mass produced. When I was born, the CT scanner was yet to be used on a human. In 1977 we saw the first full body MRI scan. My wife had her Stealth scan in the early 2000s before our youngest daughter was born.

What’s next to be developed I wonder?

Today the Herald carries this story (from the UK Independent) about Philips and a new generation of CT scanner. The pictures are amazing and I was stunned to see the suggestion that EMI managed to invest in the first CT scanner simply because the company made so much money from The Beatles. Who knew!

Science. It [still] works.

Science. It works…

November 14, 2007

I’ll endeavour not to finish that thought ala XKCD although I would like one of those t-shirts (the green ones… you’ll see).

In the mean time I’d just like to point to a variety of science stories in the field of health that have caught my eye lately.

I like health. I have one, and my wife is a big user of it. Through the last decade we’ve had between us: MRI scans (mostly her), CT scans (both), bone marrow biopsy (me), radiation treatment (also me), tonsils out (me again), fractured pelvis (her), Caesarian section (her), hip replacement (her), stealth scan (her) brain surgery, brain surgery and brain surgery (her, her, her).

So I think you’ll agree, we know whereof we speak.

First up, one of my favourite areas of medical advancement: prosthetic limbs.
Gone are the days where having your foot chopped off below the knee meant you had to sit out the spring formal in a wheelchair, slowly growing cankerous sores the size of a chihuahua on your ass. Instead, these days they’ll fit you with a funky chunky robo-foot that will make you the envy of your friends.

Just so long as it’s my left leg they come after I really don’t think I’d have too much of a problem. If both feet were squashed by a falling piano (for instance) I’d like to think I’d come out the other side of surgery with a cheery “wahoo, now can I be six foot tall? huh, can I?”.

Incidentally, if ever I’m killed by a falling piano my wife will at least know I died happy. Can you imagine going out like a cartoon character? Once they’d cleared away the debris they’d find my crushed scull and face still sneering in an “oh the irony” kind of grin.

But I digress.

One of the problems of prosthetics is that sometimes you need to use them in place of arms and hands and that blows. It took me months to learn to touch type. While losing my left leg would mean great fancy dress opportunities (arrrrr), losing a hand would be problematic at best.

Enter the prosthetic that responds to your thoughts.

Seriously, how cool is that? Two words: freakin’ laserbeams. If I can think “open” and “close” why not “crush” and “gesture” and “my eyes, the goggles they do NOTHING!” as well?

Next up (and continuing the cartoon theme) we have the wacky team at University of Tokyo which has genetically engineered a mouse that is not afraid of cats.

Seriously, this pressure to come up with new PhD ideas is producing some weird results.

Finally, and kudos to Slashdot for producing the Best Headline of the Day we have a ham radio operator told he has only months to live who has built his own nanotech device to deliver radio waves into his cancerous cells.

“Kanzius did not have a medical background, not even a bachelor’s degree, but he knew radios. He had built and fixed them since he was a child, collecting transmitters, transceivers, antennas and amplifiers, earning an amateur radio operator license. Kanzius knew how to send radio wave signals around the world. If he could transmit them into cancer cells, he wondered, could he then direct the radio waves to destroy tumors, while leaving healthy cells intact?”

The short answer is yes, it can. Clinical trials with humans are about three years away but already it’s being discussed as a way of dealing directly with tumours as they arise without the invasive surgery part.

Oh and incidentally, as a byproduct, there’s some research using the same technique that allows scientists to extract hydrogren from salt water cheaply and cleanly. Potentially it can unlock access to using salt water as a fuel.

Not bad for an amateur. That’s what I like about science – amateur participation is still possible.