Saturday, April 28, 2007

"Quickly, Robin, Deploy The Batnet!!"

"Holey punctured tires, Batman, our clever plan to flatten the Gambler's whitewalls has failed. The Gambler and his double-dealing evil minions are getting away!!" Robin pounded his fist into his other hand, leaving a bruise. "Yes, Robin, I see the Gambler has hedged his bets." Batman slowly articulated each syllable, his progress impeded by the difficulty of coming up with the copious amounts of gambling-related verbiage the current caper required. "He's doubled down on run-flat tires, but he over-played his hand. He didn't wager we'd have upped the ante and developed a safe, quick and effective way to stop his winning streak. He doesn't know it yet, but he's tapped out. Quickly, Robin, deploy the Batnet. It's time for the Gambler to cash in his chips."

It only took Robin twenty seconds to stretch the barbed net across the route which the Gambler had chosen for his escape. "Hah," the Gambler chortled, "Jackpot!! No mere net can stop me!" Little did he know, he was playing a sucker's bet. As the high roller's tires spun over the harmless-looking net, it's barbs grabbed hold of their targets, and the stringy snare rapidly wrapped itself around the radials, bringing the rushing Rolls to a hurried halt, without harming the car or a single hair of its evil occupants. "The game's over, Gambler," Batman delved deeply into the few unused gambling terms left from Friday night poker with the other superheroes. "Looks like you lost a hard way bet, and now it's time to pay up. I'm sure the Commissioner will comp you to a prison cell, where Hold'em poker is the name of the game, and the house always has the edge."

"Holy snake eyes, Batman," Robin exclaimed to the Caped Crusader as they left the prisoners in the hands of the police and drove off to their secret lair, "talk about playing the odds. That net is a sure thing! What on Earth gave you the idea? It's sheer genius!" "Don't tell Alfred," Batman replied with a touch of chagrin. "He thinks I came up with this one myself, but I read about it in Gizmag, and thought it was so cool I just had to use it here in Gotham City for fighting crime. It's QinetiQ's X-Net vehicle arrest system. The UK and US defense departments are using it, and now they have a tool that can completely stop possibly dangerous vehicles without harming the passengers, and without having to shoot anybody. It's really bat-tastic. Here, I'll give you the link to the article I read, and here's another to the video demonstration. Now, Robin, to the Batcave. I think Alfred is making meatloaf for dinner."

Friday, April 27, 2007

Breaking The Laws Of Physics?

Picture this: You live in a world with unlimited energy resources and next to no pollution. No one freezes in winter, or roasts in summer anymore. No one starves either, because food production, transportation and storage have become almost universally affordable, due to those previously-mentioned unlimited energy resources. Cars not only cost less to make and drive, they run forever without needing the tank filled. In fact, there is no tank, because there is no gas, because the cars don't need it anymore. How's it sounding so far? It gets better. International relations are changed forever. There's no more kowtowing to tinpot dictators because their country happens to sit on top of abundant oil reserves. (There aren't even any more "evil" oil companies, because, as I mentioned earlier, there's no more need for oil and gas.) Space travel becomes commonplace with all that unlimited energy to lift us out of the gravity well. Humans settle colonies from the Moon to 581c, and unite to create a Federation of Planets that bring abundance and prosperity to far-flung alien worlds. Universal peace and brotherhood overcome all the conflicts of mankind, worlds without end. Well, okay, that last bit is just plain ridiculous; people will always find things to fight about, unless the whole sin thing goes bye-bye.

Does all this sound like some ultra-sappy massively idealistic science fiction plot? Of course it does. Everybody knows there's no such thing as unlimited energy. Or is there? What if some people have actually pulled off the impossible, and created a perpetual motion machine, that not only puts out more energy than is put into it, but actually puts out 400% more energy? Wouldn't that transform the world almost as completely as any massively idealistic science fiction plot could envision? (Let's put aside for now all the inevitable sci fi counter-plots that are sure to spring up, in which evil oil empires do everything in their petroleum-enhanced power to destroy the new technology and everyone who ever saw the plans for it. Let's just take it as a given that the oil people either aren't as evil as conspiracy theorists paint them, or that they are too incompetent to pull off the destruction of the future hope of all mankind. Anything else takes us too far down rabbit trails which don't fit into my desired scenario, and it's my blog, so I get to write what I want. You can complain and pose alternate options in the comments if you like.)

Okay, now that we've determined the outcome of the invention of the perpetual motion machine, let's talk about who would be loopy enough to announce to the world that they've accomplished something that flies in the face of physics as currently understood by the people who understand such things. The company making the claim of this breakthrough is an Irish enterprise called Steorn, headed by CEO Sean McCarthy. According to their website, "Steorn is a leading Intellectual Property development company. Our latest development is Orbo, our magnetic energy generation technology." It is this magnetic energy generation technology that Steorn claims, " a technology that produces free, clean and constant energy. It can be applied to power products ranging from portable music players to cars." The company says they will make it available, after scientific validation in July, for free, allowing developers to design products built around their promised physics-defying breakthrough. Is this a sci fi kind of scenario, or what? Not only does it seem that these people have developed the answer to many of mankind's problems, but they want to give it away. It's really not possible at this point not to ask, "What's the catch?"

The catch is that Steorn is claiming they have done something that most scientists insist absolutely cannot be done. Gizmag explains it like this:

In science, the term efficiency is used to describe the discrepancy between the energy that goes into a system and the useful energy output of the system. The first law of thermodynamics states that, because energy cannot be created or destroyed, efficiency cannot exceed 100%. The second law states that, since matter and energy are constantly progressing towards a state of equilibrium with the environment, the efficiency of a system will inevitably deteriorate. Steorn, however, asserts that the “meticulous” placement of magnets can allow a magnetic object to progress indefinitely along a path in such a way that when it returns to its starting position, it has gained energy. McCarthy claims that such an arrangement can result in up to 400% efficiency. This system breaks the laws of thermodynamics with such blatant contempt that, in a Newtonian universe, all Steorn members would be thrown in physics prison. Indeed the devil-may-care attitude Steorn’s prototype has towards the universal constants is part of the reason the company had such trouble in their initial attempts to persuade scientists to test it. McCarthy claims that 90% of scientists they approached refused to even acknowledge the possibility. As for the 10% dared to witness it in action, McCarthy states that all were convinced.

The consequences for the world, if McCarthy and the still anonymous 10% are correct, will be nothing short of epic. Not only would it be a falsification of the laws of physics, it would provide infinite, free, clean energy for the entire global population. It would almost eliminate pollution, provide power to the hundreds of millions of people who currently live without it and could feasibly construct a society where the essential needs of the people are automatically taken care of.

Wouldn't that pop the lid right off the popper? Many think this is a hoax or a scam, but Gizmag makes a good case for Steorn having little incentive to fool the public, and an established business to lose if they sacrifice their reputation for fifteen minutes of infamy. This one is worth reading for yourself, folks, so head over to catch the rest of the Gizmag article. Then we wait till July for the "public unveiling." Will July plant the seeds for a massively idealistic science fiction future, or will the laws of physics prevail? Tune in this summer for further developments.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Iraqi "Neighborhood Watch"

I'm not taking much time to write today, but I wanted to share this post from JD Johannes, writing from the Al Anbar province in Iraq, at Outside The Wire. He's got some encouraging local developments for those Americans who fear/believe we've already lost the war in Iraq. To the contrary, judging from the evidence in Al Anbar (one of the major insurgent strongholds of the last few years), Johannes says that it may be we've already won--but just don't realize it. The tribes and local Sheikhs have "flipped," and this place that used to be a haven for insurgent forces has become a home to neighborhood watches and volunteer check points--all working against the insurgency. Have a look.

Update: General Petraeus, the man now in charge of our forces in Iraq, spoke with Congress Wednesday (closed door, because of classified information) about how the surge is going thus far, and later gave a public briefing, minus the classified, closed-door stuff. He seems to share Johannes' encouragement about Al Anbar and what a difference the allegiance of the local sheikhs and tribesmen is making in the fight against Al Qaeda. He also spoke frankly of the challenges both the Coalition and the Iraqis are facing, and where he sees signs of progress. The Mudville Gazette has excerpts from the public briefing as well as the Democratic and Republican assessments of what they learned from the General. It's really interesting how two groups of people can hear the same words and draw vastly different conclusions. Fortunately, thanks to our friend the Internet, you can read the excerpts for yourself and draw your own.

Hat tip: Instapundit for the Mudville Gazette link.

Carbon Nanotubes: Web 2.0

In case you thought there's anything that carbon nanotubes can't do, have a look at this article at about the ongoing research into developing a fully functional carbon nanotube Spiderman suit. It'll have you climbing the walls.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

One More For The Space Destination Wish-List

European astronomers, star-gazing from the European Southern Observatory's telescope in La Silla, Chile, have found another space address for us astronaut wannabes to add to our destination wish-list. They've found a planet, a mere 120 trillion miles away, that could potentially be habitable, boasting balmy temperatures in the 32 to 104 degree range, with 1.6 times Earth's gravity (just right for promoting strong muscles and bones), and maybe even liquid water. The planet, dubbed 581c, by astronomers who clearly need to get some creative influences in their lives, circles a red dwarf star once every 13 days, likely without rotating, so the same side faces the star all the time. That lack of spinning is sad news for any inhabitants of the newly-discovered planet who would like to take time out of their busy day to watch a nice sunset, since no turning means there aren't any sunsets. It's a shame, really--they would have been spectacular. The star is much closer to 581c than the Sun is to Earth, on the order of 14 times closer, which, according to Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press, would make the red star "hang in the sky at a size 20 times larger than our moon." (Oooh, pretty.) Don't worry about getting too toasty at that proximity, though. Even at that distance things wouldn't heat up too much, since the red dwarf is much cooler than our Sun. All in all, this planet looks like it's got some potential, the kind of planet that scientists speculate could support life--ours, or some other totally alien species that we could finally confront about those crop circles and invasive medical probes in the mother ship.

Before we start packing for a nice long space voyage, though, we're still going to have to deal with the enormous distances. Even though the planet is circling a star that counts as one of our 100 closest neighbors, it's still 20.5 light years away. That's way too far for us to reach at our present level of technology, unless we wanted to do the generational ship thing, and die in space so that our great-great grandkids can inherit the as yet unexplored planet. The big problem with that (besides dying in space without ever reaching the big other-worldly destination) is that scientists really don't know what we would find once we got there. It could be a rocky planet such as our own, or it could be a big old ball of ice. Right now, it's best guess. You see, these astronomers have determined all of this information about the red dwarf and 581c by examining light wobbles that they can detect from their fancy telescope down in Chile. They are applying their extra-smart physics-savvy brains to exactly what these light wobbles mean, and this possibly-able-to-sustain-life planet is what they've come up with. Do not ask me how, because I don't have a clue. I'm sure it's something to do with gravity's effect on light, and Einstein probably comes in for a bit of the action, but that's as far as my non-physics-savvy brain can get me without going back for another college degree. The one I have in English Lit simply isn't very helpful in extrapolating how they know there's a possibly habitable planet circling this red dwarf, based on the wobbling of a little light. (Actually, that is something that frustrated me about both the articles I read about this planet. They both mentioned the light wobbles, but neither of them told me more of the science in detail. I will probably have to quest more to have that curiosity satisfied.)

In any case, now that they've found a planet just right for adding to the exploration-worthy list (is there any planet not worthy of inclusion on such a list?), there's still a lot for us to learn before we can head out to see it for ourselves and swap recipes with the local alien inhabitants. We still need to learn the basics of long distance space travel and colonization. We have to lick the problem of cosmic radiation and we need propulsion systems that can shorten the journey for us. We also need truly self-sustainable habitats and recycling systems that conserve every bit of air and water, so that a long journey without restocking our provisions with supplies from Earth is even possible. We need efficient energy generation systems, strong, lightweight ship designs, and thousands of other things that will have to be developed and perfected. Sadly, we're not even close. Don't give up hope, though. Our Smart People are working on all these things, and we'll start getting more familiar with how to overcome the problems of space by sending people out into our own solar system. Once we get the whole establishing colonies thing down, by practicing on the Moon and Mars, we're going to gain the expertise to head farther afield, and then we'll get to go exploring, maybe even to 581c. Hopefully by then they'll have come up with a better name.

Note: For a little more reading on the topic, here's a link to

Hat tip: Su

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

"Colony Collapse Disorder"

I'm just passing this one on--from Alexei Barrionuevo, at The New York Times:

More than a quarter of the country’s 2.4 million bee colonies have been lost — tens of billions of bees, according to an estimate from the Apiary Inspectors of America, a national group that tracks beekeeping. So far, no one can say what is causing the bees to become disoriented and fail to return to their hives.

According to Barrionuevo, 27 states in the U.S. have been hit by colony collapse, with some honeybee populations disappearing in as little as two days. Some European countries, as well as Guatemala and Brazil are also looking for explanations for beehive vacancies in their own regions. This could be a big deal--we all know how much our food supply depends on nature's pollinators. There are lots of theories right now, and lots of scientists looking for answers, using everything from DNA research to bee autopsies to narrow down the many possibilities. From what Barrionuevo writes, they're making progress. Let's hope the Smart People are in top form for figuring this one out. Bees are important.

Hat tip: Instapundit

Monday, April 23, 2007

Weird Science

Here's a bit of fluff to start your week. Justin Mullins, at, says that Phillips (you know, the TV manufacturer) is developing "Furry TV." Haven't you always longed for a pettable television? No? I can't say I have either. In fact, such a thing would never have entered my head, but apparently the folks at Phillips have actually been working on how to make it happen, and believe it should be possible to make a TV screen out of fabric, with hair-like strands acting as pixels. Ultimately this could lead to wearable television screens, and Mullins explains, "The company hopes to build furry displays into outfits." How weird is that?

I can "picture" it now--your favorite sweatshirt won't be the one that commemorates your trip to the Super Bowl, but the one that let's you watch the Superbowl. Of course, if you're watching television on your own shirt, instead of someone else's, the image better be upside down, and set somewhere down around your belly button, if you want to see and understand any of the action (which could give new meaning to the term "contemplating your navel.") Speaking of new meanings, this weird science could lead to a whole new set of vocabulary oddities. For example would a sweatshirt TV fitted out for the hearing impaired have "clothesed captioning?" Would a baby bib TV come equipped with a "video feed?" Would "volume control" suddenly have a double meaning--not only referring to turning down the sound, but maybe alluding to somebody's need to trim a few pounds so that they can fit into their wearable television?

I'm left wondering why Phillips wants to spend time and money developing this technology? I get the concept of developing flexible, portable TV screens; there are lots of practical applications, but what real purpose would clothing that can double as an idiot box serve? I wrote last week about how scientists are developing "electronic clothing for emergency personnel that can have updatable messages written across them in glowing letters." That I get, but furry fabric televisions sewn into clothing? That's too weird for even my extra-weird imagination to see the point. Anybody else have any "this is a great idea because..." solutions for me?

Friday, April 20, 2007

Happy Blogiversary To Me

Today is the one year anniversary of the birth of the Meow. To quote a cliche--time flies. I never would have expected to have written so much, nor enjoyed it as much as I have. I really only started it to give my husband a break from the two or three articles a day that I was sending to his Inbox that he just had to read, and at his very strong urging. (Don't think, however, that he wanted to escape the emailed articles. He had much more affectionate motives. He knew I would enjoy it.) If anyone, even just a couple years ago, had told me that one day I would put out this many written words on a voluntary basis, for anyone and their highly intelligent dog to read, I would have dismissed them out of hand. Obviously, I would have been wrong. How little we know ourselves sometimes, eh?

Anyway, just as people do not generally spend their birthdays (beyond the original) actually getting birthed, I will not be spending this blogiversary blogging. It's a beautiful day, and my husband has the day off work. We're planning to garden and hike and enjoy the sunshine. Whatever you're doing, I hope it's as pleasant.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Fun With Alternative Energy

Okay, this could be a lot of fun:

A thin film of plastic which conducts electricity and produces solar power could be the basis for a revolution in the way we light our homes and design clothes.

They're talking about OLEDs here--organic light emitting devices. How you ask, could that possibly be fun?
Because the devices are thin and flexible, lighting and electronic display screens could for the first time be created on almost any material, so that clothes and packaging can display electronic information.

What's not fun about that? Not enough information yet? Need some examples?

The devices' uses could vary from lighting that is many times more efficient than current bulbs to clothes whose colour can be changed at will and beer cans that display the latest football results.

Fun enough for you? So how is that possible?

The devices exploit a discovery made around 15 years ago that some polymers have the unusual property of either turning electricity into light, or light into electricity, depending on how the devices are made.

Are there cool and practical uses for this technology--amazing things like an alternative energy source that can be rolled up and carried along on a mountain trek, windows that double as lights at night, and electronic clothing for emergency personnel that can have updatable messages written across them in glowing letters? Yep. Wouldn't such clothing be fun at parties? Again, yep, but none of this stuff is really ready yet. Research happens.

Want to read more?

Science Daily

Have fun.

Hat tip: Futurismic

The Drinking Age

Some questions for you: How old were you when you had your first alcoholic drink? Was it legal or not legal? Were you with your parents? Friends? Was it an exciting adventure? Dangerous fun? Did you drive? Do you agree with the drinking age being set at 21? I'm not sure whether my answers will surprise you or not, but here goes. I was maybe 10 when I had my first drink. I don't remember exactly, but I'm pretty sure it was beer. I'm also sure I was with my mom. No doubt we were working at some sort of heavy manual labor and Mom popped open a can of Heidelberg to cool off, passing it on to my sister and me so we could take a sip or two as well. I don't remember specifically because, well, it just wasn't that big an event. My mom didn't build up any mystique about it. It was simply a beverage that at that moment served the purpose of refreshing us in our work. No big deal. I did not drive a car after the drinking occurred. Again, I was 10.

My mom had a definite agenda in introducing us to very small amounts of alcohol at an early age. She wanted to show us what alcohol felt like in limited quantities while she was there to monitor and protect us. She also wanted to take away the mystique. Her plan worked. My sister and I never saw alcohol as glamorous, or rebellious. (It also helped in removing the glamour factor that our father was an alcoholic, but that's a different tale.) I have some friends who will say the same. Their families always had wine with dinner, and the kids were allowed a small amount with their meal. No big deal. Interestingly, they, like I, didn't sneak about with their friends to drink subversive substances. I hung out with a very straight-laced crowd in high school, whose parents, interestingly, tended to share the same philosophy with my mom. Limited quantities. Controlled conditions. No sneaking off to experience the forbidden fruit of the vine. These kids mostly ended up staying good kids. Honor students and church choir members. No dropouts. No pregnancies. No drunk driving. No alcohol mystique.

I didn't see much of the party scene, but what I did see of unsupervised underage drinking mostly made me think the kids involved were stupid. It definitely did not make me want to go out and throw a kegger. Mom's lessons on moderation stuck. College was a big eye-opener for me. It was the first time I had extensive exposure to kids who were experiencing their first away-from-home-and-now-I-can-get-my-hands-on-alcohol frenzy. These were the kids who had heard the "do as I say, not as I do" line from their folks, and they definitely had the alcohol mystique firmly in place--almost enshrined. They also had unfettered access to mood-altering liquids. (Pills and powders as well, but, again, that's a different tale--let's stick with the legal-once-you-reach-a-certain-age mood alterers.) The not infrequent result of this sudden and uncontrolled freedom? Well, they were experiencing something able to change their behavior dramatically, and yet they had been given no lessons in how to handle it properly, or know when they'd had enough. The results were predictable. Binge drinking. Wild behaviour and bad grades. Pregnancy scares. This wasn't universal, of course, and it's anecdotal, but from my observation as an alcohol-mystiqueless college student, fairly accurate.

I acknowledge the complete lack of objectivity of my perspective. What I experienced was what I experienced, and nothing more, but it does leave me with some opinions about how American society handles "coming of age" and alcohol consumption. We make being allowed to drink alcohol this big event. When you're 21 you will have arrived. Of course, by this point you may have been married for three years, fought in a war, and, as with my in-laws, have three children already, but the big moment has finally come, and now you can drink beer. Good grief. Talk about building mystique. You want to make something more important than it is? Make it the very last thing a person is allowed to do upon becoming an adult. Make it the defining moment of adulthood. If you really want to complicate things, too, give those adults no training in how to do it properly. This is basically what we ensure by setting the drinking age at 21. Mystique thoroughly established, thank you very much. We also ensure that the first experiences with alcohol will either occur when people have long ago lost all parental supervision, or, more commonly, at a much younger age, illegally, with kids sneaking off to get loaded behind the high school gym (driving themselves, of course, because they can't admit to any responsible adults that they've had anything to drink).

How did this become the national standard? The reason I'm bringing this up is that George Will brought it up first. He's got an interesting piece at Townhall. com on the advantages of lowering the drinking age--one of the biggest advantages being the parental supervision of which I have been speaking. He also includes an explanation of how 21 became the universal drinking age in America, despite the autonomy each state has to set the number for themselves. I remember when Idaho's drinking age was 19. It used to be that lots of states had lower limits. So, why did that change? Would it surprise you to learn there is money involved?

Although all 50 states ban drinking by persons under 21, technically there is no national drinking age. Each state has a right to set a lower age -- more than half had lower age limits in the 1970s -- but doing so will cost it 10 percent of its federal highway funds and cause significant uproar from contractors and construction unions.

You can read Will's article to see the reasons for the federal government's financial pressure, the government's reasoning, some of the pros and cons involved, and alternate ideas about how to promote responsible alcohol consumption by young adults. (Okay, not promoting the consumption, promoting the responsibility. You knew what I meant, right?)

I will add that I know that one of the important questions here is whether parents will be parents in this day and age. My mom actually explained to me why she was letting me have alcohol before I was an adult. She talked with me about how big a deal some people make about drinking, how some kids get a distorted view of it, and that she wanted me to understand what it was and wasn't, and to understand the effect it had. Now, I know that Mom was exceptional in this regard. Many parents out there would not take that involved an approach to alcohol education, no matter what the drinking age. Many would not supervise their kids at all, but I would argue that those are the parents who are not supervising their kids anyway. Theirs are the kids getting drunk behind the school gym and in their friends' basements even now. This would not change if the law were altered. I also know that this whole topic is a big can of worms and there are valid arguments on both sides of it. In this case, I am speaking mostly from my own experience, and drawing my conclusions from what worked in my own life, but I still think my mom was right.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


I've been in a bit of a blog dilemma the last couple days. The shootings at Virginia Tech have been such a prominent story, and such a tragic waste of young human life and potential. I found myself pretty much unable to blog, because I didn't feel up to addressing the one thing that has the whole nation's attention (there are plenty of other people ready to weigh in anyway), but it seemed somehow frivolous and callous to babble on about nanotech, or the politics of global warming. I've also been pretty sick for the past week, from a bug my Darling suffered through first, and then lovingly passed on to me. I just don't really have the energy, physical or emotional, to jump into the fray about whether the shootings at the school prove the case for or against gun control. Don't get me wrong, I have my opinions, just no real need to articulate them at this point. I did find that this article from Glenn Reynolds summed things up well though, so I'm sending it your way, for what it's worth. Other than that, all I want to do is to express my sincere condolences for everybody who lost someone they loved.

I will add one more thing, on another topic. Some of you will know that the Supreme Court upheld the ban on partial birth abortion this morning. I have to say I'm glad. Readers of the Meow know that, while I am most definitely pro life, I understand that people on both sides of the abortion debate generally take their position from a belief that theirs is the right and compassionate position, not from any innate, evil, selfish desire for power, predilection for irresponsibility, or any of the other accusations that people fling at each other over this very emotional topic. Most people act from a true desire for our nation to make the right choice. At the same, how we think about children in the womb reflects who we are as a society, whatever our motives for the laws we make. Even as I was glad that the Justices have upheld the ban on what I believe is an unbelievably barbaric "procedure," I was saddened how calmly the AP writer talked about how doctors still have the option of "dismembering the fetus in the uterus." Dismemberment in the uterus. Wow. It hurts me right now to think about what that says about humanity. From the pro life point of view, that is just as tragic as the shootings at Virginia Tech.

Monday, April 16, 2007

More Nano Power!!

Last week I told you all about the thrilling new nanotechnology development that may soon let your walking shoes power your iPod. It was such an exciting thing to learn that I know that you are dying to find out what else is going on in the wonderful world of nanotech. The yearning for more nano-knowledge is probably gnawing at you even now, and you feel very much like the desperate person who has been given a single tantalizing bite of cheesecake, only to see the rest of the delightful dessert accidentally upended onto an anthill. The suffering is, no doubt, intense. I simply can't be responsible for that kind of discomfort. The mere thought pains me, so today I will ease our mutual misery by bringing you news of yet another new nanoventure, only this one will be "better, stronger, faster," like Steve Austin after the upgrade. Last week's nanopower invention could run a cellphone; today's nanopower invention could possibly run satellites, or other spacecraft.

Our old friends, carbon nanotubes, having achieved near-universal-usefulness status with their extreme strength and lightness, are trying to further their foothold on ubiquity, by making their way into the realm of solar power. John Toon, writing at Georgia Tech Research News, explains how 3D solar cells, constructed using carbon nanotubes, could change the shape of solar, and thus of spacecraft power:

Unique three-dimensional solar cells that capture nearly all of the light that strikes them could boost the efficiency of photovoltaic (PV) systems while reducing their size, weight and mechanical complexity.

The new 3D solar cells capture photons from sunlight using an array of miniature "tower” structures that resemble high-rise buildings in a city street grid. The cells could find near-term applications for powering spacecraft, and by enabling efficiency improvements in photovoltaic coating materials, could also change the way solar cells are designed for a broad range of applications.

“Our goal is to harvest every last photon that is available to our cells,” said Jud Ready, a senior research engineer in the Electro-Optical Systems Laboratory at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI). “By capturing more of the light in our 3D structures, we can use much smaller photovoltaic arrays. On a satellite or other spacecraft, that would mean less weight and less space taken up with the PV system.”

You caught how the 3D nature of the little solar towers catches more of the light, right? Not only is there more surface area to absorb the photons, but the grid "traps" the light, rather than letting it bounce off the surface, as occurs now with standard solar panels. Light can bounce within the towers, allowing the new system to capture more of the photons--"virtually all of the light that strikes them." The towers also absorb sunlight coming from any angle, so the sun doesn't have to be directly overhead for peak efficiency. In fact, according to Ready, these towers become more efficient when the Sun's light isn't coming directly at them.

Satellites could see a major upgrade as a result of this directional versatility. Since their solar panels would no longer have to face the light directly, the mechanisms wouldn't have to be in place to turn them all day long, like a giant photon-collecting rotisserie. This is a big improvement. The Air Force, aware of the advantage this new system could provide, has been funding some of the research related to this project. Satellites that don't need extra bells and whistles to keep their solar collectors turned to where the Sun shines could be smaller, lighter, and cheaper than their ancestors. ("Smaller, lighter, cheaper" is the carbon nanotube addendum to "better, stronger, faster.") All of the above applies to other Sun-fueled spacecraft as well. Probes, cameras, space stations, commercial spaceliners and space hotels could all benefit from harvesting more of those useful photons emanating from the Sun.

Space isn't the only place where this technology could improve photon collection. Earthly solar panels could get a big boost from the improvement to their efficiency. According to Maria Surma Manka, at Green Options, the new way of structuring solar cells could up their juice output significantly--"These three-dimensional panels produce about 60 times more current than regular solar cells. " Wow. 60 times more current? That could give solar power a much higher usefulness quotient, don't you think? All those panels mushrooming on the roofs of Californians might soon get a whole lot more effective at powering the houses below them. It might even make the mushrooming spread to other territories. I wonder if the nano-enhancements would make solar power have potential even in soggy places like Oregon? (Don't mushrooms like it damp?) Wouldn't that be an incredible feat? A solar-powered Oregon. Only carbon nanotubes could pull that off.

God did a good thing when He invented carbon nanotubes.

Hat tip: Green Options, via Bill Hobbs at Ecotality

Friday, April 13, 2007

Nano Power!!

It's been a while since I read anything fun about nanotechnology, so I went hunting today. Searching high and low, I combed the Internet for any signs of life in the nanoworld. Okay, that's a massive exaggeration. All I did was head over to and peruse their latest headlines. This one by Bill Christensen--"Tiny Generator Would Make Electricity While You Walk"--sounded promising. What's the first thing anyone learns about nanotech? It's tiny. So, I clicked my way on over to see whether these "tiny generators" were small enough to qualify for nano-status.

They do, indeed. What I found was a nifty new accomplishment by Professor Zhong Lin Wang of the Georgia Institute of Technology:

Wang has created a tiny nanogenerator that produces a continuous flow of electricity by harvesting mechanical energy from its surroundings. It can produce energy from ultrasonic waves, mechanical movement or even blood flow.

Christensen explains that Wang's tiny power plants are constructed of lots of little wires which flex with the motion around them. The flexing builds an electric charge in the wires, which when moved enough to contact a "collection plate," deposit their electric load. Enough of those wires added together can gather tiny amounts of direct current. We are not looking at lighting Chicago with this method of electrical generation. We're not even talking about lighting your house. However, some of the little electronic devices most of us rely on every day to ease our way through the modern world, like cellphones and iPods? These we might have a shot at juicing with nanogenerators.

So many things that we do every day create force that goes to waste. We stand up. We sit down. We turn our heads. We drum our fingers. We breathe and blink our eyes. All that movement could certainly wiggle a few wires. Of course, there's the question of how you place those wires and collection plates where they can reap this power whirlwind. No one is going to want eyelid power stations, are they? (Well, some people might, judging by the body piercing craze.) Running electronic devices off of various body implants might be edging us a little closer than we'd like into Borg territory--merging man with machine. However, there are other options. Putting aside the notion of implants, how would you like to charge your phone just by taking a stroll?

Wang and his group believe that the nanowires could produce as much as 4 watts per cubic centimeter. "If you had a device like this in your shoes when you walked, you would be able to generate your own small current to power small electronics," Wang noted. "Anything that makes the nanowires move within the generator can be used for generating power. Very little force is required to move them."

Here's a scenario for you: You crash your car in the middle of nowhere, barely escaping the Hollywoodesque inferno. Miraculously, you are completely unharmed. The miracle is not all-inclusive, however. You go to call for help, only to discover your cellphone is dead--no hope of charging it in your recently-exploded Subaru. (Oh wait, Subarus are supposed to be really safe. Let's make it a Pinto.) What do you do? Why, you start walking toward the nearest town, of course. The phone charges while you're hoofing it, and the rescue team meets you before you can make it a quarter of the way to the local hamlet. (By the way, the walking toward town is a good idea even if it's not going to charge your phone. I mean what else are you going to do, sit there listening to soothing music on your iPod? That's going to have to be charged eventually too, so you might as well get going.)

Needless to say, at some point we'll get over our Borgaphobia and submit to the implants. After all, eventually we're going to find it inconvenient to have those little generators limited to our shoes. What if we want to go for a walk on the beach--barefoot, of course--and we need to make an important call? No, the shoe thing just won't work long-term. Christensen did mention that the nanogenerators could collect power from flowing blood. I think the answer will be miniature floating power stations, circulating around in our bloodstreams. While they're at it, they can check our blood sugar, and clean our arteries, and balance our hormones, and... You get the picture. I think we should put them in dogs, too. The power they generate could run yet-to-be invented electro-gadget dog collars that keep Phydeaux from running away, and peeing on the carpet, and other important pet/pet-owner bones of contention. I'm sure if we think about it hard enough, we will also find a way to use these bloodstream nanogenerators to solve all the world's other problems, including terrorism and halitosis. There is just no limit to the benefits of nanotech.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

"It's Just Something Marines Do"

Ked and I just finished reading this account from a Marine who was one of the people held hostage by the Iranians from November 4th, 1979, to January 20th, 1981. He and his fellow Marines did our country proud.

Eye In The Sky

I've been playing with a site I stumbled upon via NASA's Earth Observatory website. Every week NASA sends out emails with links to various photos of Earth locations, and the stories about what's happening there. Today I followed a link to an Earth Observatory story about how satellite data is helping scientists investigate the extent of desertification in the Sahel region of Africa, an area bordered by the Sahara desert. There has been some suspicion that the desert is spreading. (To reassure you, long-term data indicates this isn't necessarily so, but I'll let you read the article if the topic interests you.) That article led me to another, which examines exactly what desertification is, which then led me to click on a hidden little link that took me to the really cool site which is the whole reason I'm writing this post. I clicked over to GeoEye, and was met with the most amazing set of satellite photos, and a nifty little scroll whereby I could call up each picture that caught my interest. (The scroll was actually a bit tricky. It wanted to move a little too quickly for me to always get where I was aiming to go, but I got the hang of it eventually.)

After I looked at every single photo on that scroll, I started nosing around the rest of the site, and discovered that GeoEye is a "commercial remote sensing company," and according to the website, "GeoEye is a leading producer of satellite, aerial and geospatial information." They have three satellites taking highly-detailed images, which they sell to customers who use them for "mapping, environmental monitoring, commercial fishing, urban planning, resource management, homeland defense, national security, and emergency preparedness." (They have a photo of Hurricane Katrina that made me say, "WOW." Out loud.)

All of these "planning the future of mankind" applications are worthy and beneficial I'm sure, but realistically, I personally have no use for the data as such. Nor, I suspect, do you. National security will just have to go on without our input, but the "highly-detailed imagery" is just so darn cool, that I had to tell you about it. Let the Smart People figure out how to use the pictures for the good of all mankind. I just think they're pretty. (They have a store if you want a poster, or calendar, or anything--and just so you know that there really can't be many secrets anymore, at least not above-ground, one of those posters they're selling is an image of Area 51. The government had better get to hiding those aliens.)

Robin Who?

Would you sacrifice some of your limited wealth, just to make sure that other people didn't have "too much?" Apparently, some people will actually do that, sacrifice what little they have in order to take something away from the rich--even when no one benefits from the reduction in the rich person's cache--under laboratory conditions, anyway. Roxanne Khamsi, at New Scientist, describes an experiment set up by James Fowler at the University of California in San Diego, in which 120 students were recruited to play a game. Each student played multiple rounds, anonymously, with various combinations of other anonymous participants. In each round, they were assigned tokens, from 12 to 36 of them. They then had some decisions to make:

The students had to indicate what they wanted to do with their tokens. Each token that subjects kept would contribute $0.05 towards the money they kept at the end of the game. So a subject who kept 20 tokens in a round would net $1. They could also use their tokens to reduce or increase the other three players' sums.

The subjects completed five rounds of the game, each time interacting online with three new anonymous players.

About 30% of the time, the richest players generously gave up tokens to help boost the accounts of the poor players. And 12% of the time they used tokens to make the poorer players even more destitute.

By contrast, in 44% of the rounds the poorest players gave up some of their tiny funds to see the rich become less wealthy. But even though these players acted somewhat like the legendary English bandit, Robin Hood, by taking from the rich, the money did not get redistributed to the poor. It simply disappeared.

What kind of small-mindedness does it take to give up something out of the little you have, just so somebody else who has more has to give something up too? As Khamsi indicated, the Robin Hood effect was only a first-stage phenomenon; the tokens were taken from the rich, but nothing went to the poor as a result. No one gained anything by this stealing-from-the-rich.

The scientists conducting the experiment interpreted this to mean that people have a natural tendency to desire "economic equality." I think this makes the situation sound a lot more positive than it is. If "economic equality" means "I don't want others to have more than me, even if that means we all have less than we could" that's just a sad and tragic kind of selfishness that doesn't bode well for society at large. At least Robin Hood had the reputation of stealing for a purpose. What was the point in this game, except for the poorer participants to make themselves feel better about their pitiable condition, by making sure everyone else was in as close to the same boat as possible?

This robbing from the rich was self-defeating in more ways than one. Not only did it cost the poor what they "spent" on bringing the rich down a peg or two, it also cost them because the rich, being less rich, would have had less ability to be generous. (You'll note that the "rich" had enough of a tendency to be generous that the poor might reasonably hope to benefit from their largess.) Did those "equality seekers" find this equality to be a good thing when the situation was reversed in another round? Whatever happened to "do unto others as you would have others do unto you?" This takes the "two Americas" concept made popular by the John Edwards presidential campaign to a whole new extreme, with any kind of economic state being an acceptable goal, as long as nobody else gets more than I do. I sincerely hope that this experiment does not carry forth into the real world with any degree of accuracy, although, to be honest, I fear it does, far more often than it should.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Go Read This

Bill Whittle at Eject! Eject! Eject! only posts once in a blue moon, but what he writes is ALWAYS worth the wait. He put out his latest a couple of days ago. I'll warn you up front: some of it is very harsh, but it's also very insightful. Whittle's posts are generally quite long, and this one is no exception. The topic warrants it, and his treatment of it is thorough. He addresses conspiracy theories and those who believe them, and he doesn't pull any punches.

(I know I've just thrown a bunch of links at you today. I'll try to come up with something more original soon, but I really do think the piece by Whittle is worth your time. Some of what he said makes me uncomfortable, especially his closing thought, but the rest is so very good that I just can't not pass it on.)

The Robots Are Coming! The Robots Are Coming!

I'll just toss this one at you. Robots are getting more sophisticated, and it won't be too long before they'll be putting away your dishes and shelving your groceries. At least, that's what they say at Science Daily and MIT.

HT: Futurismic

Show Me The Green

Here's a "money where your mouth is" opportunity for Al Gore. Rick Haglund, at, suggests that the former V.P., turned environmental advocate, could revolutionize the auto industry:

It's time for him to stop relying on the bully pulpit and the big screen, and put some skin in the game. He should buy Chrysler, which parent DaimlerChrysler put up for sale in February, and make it the greenest automaker on the planet.

Dump Chrysler's gasoline-fueled internal combustion engines altogether and replace them with fuel cells, electric motors and engines that run on biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel.

Haglund thinks Gore could raise the cash to buy Chrysler by tapping into all the celebrity eco-consciousness, and environmental activism, and that his political connections and Democratic union ties could serve him well in making a go of turning the auto industry green. The theory is that if one company can do it at a profit, the others will follow.

Interesting idea. I wonder if there's any chance that some such thing could ever happen, not specifically with Mr. Gore, but with any of the big money environmental champions who want to change the way America gets around? They say the best way to lead is to go someplace first yourself. If it really is possible for auto makers to "eliminate the internal combustion engine over the next couple of decades," as Gore contends, then what better way to prove it than to be willing to be the one taking the financial risks to make it happen?

HT: Instapundit

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

"Exploiting The Jet Stream"

Looking for something new on the energy horizon? How about something new from something old? For your economy-and-ecology-friendly power-producing pleasure, I offer you the flying generator. That's right--there are alternative energy ideas currently taking flight that give a twist to that merry childhood plaything: the kite. These flying generators are designed to take advantage of the fact the wind blows a lot harder and more steadily way up high, up where the weather moves. All that power blowing around over our heads could be lighting cities here on the ground--if we could only capture it--and has the story of more than one engineer who believes that he's found the answer to doing just that. Won't it be cool if they can pull it off--as long as they can keep the birdies and airplanes safe, that is?

Just as a side note, from a "decorating the sky" perspective, it would be extra cool if the flying generators can have streaming tails with colorful bows on them, too, just like real kites. They might as well make them pretty while they're at it, don't you think? Have you seen some of the land-based wind-farms? Visual blights, every one. I vote for flying generators with style. Anybody else agree, or am I flying solo?

Hat tip: Futurismic

Music Appreciation

One of Ked's and my absolute favorite things about Disneyland is the live music. The Land is bursting at the seams with professional musicians who work together all day, five days a week. All this stage and practice time together allows them to refine their performances to really wonderful levels, and Ked and I are constantly on the lookout for the next aural delight. The performers saunter among the Disney streets, or station themselves on restaurant stages, and whenever we can find them, the music becomes our primary focus. The rides can wait when there's really good jazz going on. We often plan our Disney days around where the next performance will occur, and we'll stay for the whole show, wherever it happens to be. If there's dancing going on to boot, so much the better.

What always strikes us as we indulge our taste for fine live music is how many people couldn't care less about it. People wander by in droves, never even turning their heads. A few will stay for a tune or two, talking the whole time, and then half-heartedly applaud when the music stops, even though they never really were listening in the first place. The silence is simply their cue to clap. It's weird. What always makes us sad, actually sad, even in Disneyland, is that these marvelous musicians, who barely exist for the average park hopper, will draw a crowd when they start handing out beads. Suddenly there will be a swarm of eager "listeners," all reaching and calling at the same time for the coveted prize of a ten cent necklace. Then, when the booty is all dispensed, the crowd quickly melts away, on to the thrill of Splash Mountain, or the delicious enticement of an ice cream sundae, fully satisfied that they have received their shiny prize. We've often talked to the performers after their shows. They tend to find it sad, too. They're pragmatic about it, but they recognize that very few people ever actually hear them. Park visitors are there to have fun, and the musicians merely make up a part of the mood. They are background, part of the ambiance.

They're not background to us, but that's also when we're on vacation, and have all the time in the world. It's not always like that when we're going about our real lives. Those of us who live in the city are used to seeing street musicians offering their wares in the public arena. Ked and I usually listen a bit, but seldom invest very long intervals when we have other things to do. Most people walk on by, some stop for a minute, maybe tossing a buck or two into an open guitar case. That's if the musician is good. When they're bad we scurry on by, not wanting to encourage someone who clearly should find another day job. What would happen, though, if the street musician in question was not only good, but considered the best classical musician in America? Would that make people pause in their tracks, put whatever they're rushing off to on hold, and really listen to the beauty being offered. How many of us would recognize the opportunity for what it was, and seize the moment?

This is not a hypothetical question. The Washington Post recently set up an experiment, wherein "one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made"--performed as a street musician in a Washington D.C. Metro station--violin case seeded with a few dollars "prompting money," nondescript clothing, the works. A friend sent me the fascinating article in which Gene Weingarten writes for the Post about the free concert given by Joshua Bell, a violinist "whose talents can command $1,000 a minute," and how he fared when playing for busy Washington commuters. It's rather long, but really interesting, and just to tempt you there, there are even some video clips with the audio enabled. Have a look. It's very culturally educational.

Hat tip: Scott

Friday, April 06, 2007

Saving Tokyo From Space Fungi!!

Advances in technology just keep making things smaller and smaller, don't they? We've all witnessed the "Tinier Is Better" revolution that has been sweeping the globe for decades now. Computers that could perform such impressive feats as calculating Pi to the 50th decimal place, storing and spewing pertinent facts about the solar system, or listing all the American presidents in order of birth used to take up entire rooms. Now your laptop can practically run the world. Video cameras used to require weight lifters with big suitcases to carry them around, and scaffolding to support them when in use. Now Tinkerbell can fit one in her pocket. Cellphones? Not only have they shrunk dramatically in size, now they will do everything from snapping photographs, to holding your date book, to doing your taxes. (Okay, the taxes part is a stretch, but not by much.) The further technology advances, the less space it takes. It's simply the way things work. This applies to everything but TV screen size, SUVs and jumbo jets. For some reason these three items are the exception to the smallification rule. (That is, unless you count iPods with video functions, but why get bogged down in exceptions to the exceptions?)

This Lilliputian trend is quite beneficial, actually. I love being able to take my entire music collection on the hiking trail with me, and I could never have blogged all those Disney World photos that kept you so enthralled in January if it weren't so easy to bring along a digital camera and computer on vacation. Little stuff is just easier to haul around, and that's especially useful when space is extremely limited, like on long journeys in cramped spaces. Where else could the journey be so long, or the spaces so cramped as in a ship flying off to distant planets? Don't think other galaxies distant. Think the Moon or Mars distant. Those are plenty far away at our current level of technology. Maybe one day our advancing tech will "shrink" the distances of space, but for now the other planets right here at Sol central are still a loooong way off, and we'll have to pack loads of stuff into little spaceships, so little stuff is good.

Little still has to be functional, though. There's a lot of important science to be done in space. For example, it'll be important during those long flights to have compact ways to accurately monitor the too-tiny-to-see stuff that will inevitably be hitching rides on our space vehicles, like what kinds of microorganisms are growing--in the astronauts as well as the ships. We've all seen those sci fi movies where some miniscule piece of space dust gets sucked through the ventilation system and later grows into something that lands the ship and eats Tokyo. As NASA plans for future journeys to the Moon and Mars, it's important that they have things covered on the detecting microorganisms front. Okay, really it's more about making sure their spacecrafts' electronic components and structural elements don't get corroded by little growing things, and the astronauts stay healthy, but space bacteria eating Tokyo is a time-honored tradition that is worthy of at least a friendly nod from the Meow.

Detecting fungi and bacteria is, of course, something that can already be done, even in space. Taking cultures and growing them in petri dishes has served humanity well over the years, but the process requires both space and time. So, naturally, in this age of shrink-to-fit technology, NASA has come up with a better way to do it. Trudy Bell, at NASA's science website, writes that a miniature biological laboratory went up to the International Space Station last December aboard the space shuttle Discovery, and Astronaut Sunita "Suni" Williams took the mini lab for a test drive on April 1st. The lab is called LOCAD-PTS, short for Lab-On-a-Chip Application Development–Portable Test System, which makes the lab itself much smaller than its name. This thing is dinky, but as we have seen with the iPod, good things come in small packages. The standard methods of growing cultures can take days, but the mini-lab gives accurate microorganism-detection readings in a matter of minutes, and the whole lab fits into the palm of your hand!! Nifty, huh? NASA is developing all sorts of different "cartridges" for the hand-held lab, which will be made to detect specific kinds of potential hazards, and the readings will be compared to the tried and true method of grow-it-in-a-dish:

Over the next few months, LOCAD-PTS and standard culture methods will be used to investigate different parts of ISS. "A second-generation of LOCAD-PTS cartridges for the specific detection of fungi are scheduled to launch to ISS on Space Shuttle STS-123," says Anthony T. Lyons, LOCAD-PTS project manager at Marshall, the NASA center that has overseen the project since its inception and supervised getting the equipment spaceflight-ready. "With each generation of cartridges, we are getting more and more specific in what we detect. Our ultimate aim is to provide the crew with a selection of cartridges for the detection of a wide variety of target compounds, biological and chemical both inside and outside the spacecraft—something that would be especially important for long-duration missions to the Moon or to Mars."

My only question here is, if they have all these cartridges designed to check for specific things, how will they test for the things they don't know about, like (drawing on my vast knowledge gleaned from old Star Trek episodes) silicone-based lifeforms, or crystalline structures that will grow to eat Tokyo when brought back into our oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere? Or tribbles. Will they have a tribble-detection cartridge? Ahh, you're right. They won't need a tribble-detection cartridge, since the astronauts could actually see said tribbles eating their quadrotriticale. What NASA's worried about is fungi or chemicals that will eat their wires, or their astronauts. Sounds like they're on the right path with this little pocket-lab. I would still feel more comfortable, though, if I knew they had a plan for saving Tokyo, and I'd really like it if their Tokyo-saving device could fit easily into my purse. The small one.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Pork Pancreas, Anyone?

So, how comfortable are you with the concept of animal tissue being transplanted into your body to replace your own failing organs? There are a lot of people on the "needing a transplant" list who really have no hope of a suitable organ becoming available. The list is too long for the number of human donors to keep up. However, according to Andy Coghlan at New Scientist, scientists right here in the U.S. are developing genetically engineered pigs to provide hearts, livers and kidneys to humans waiting for donor organs. People at the bottom of the list could find themselves with viable transplant options. They just can't be too choosy about the species of the donor!! I realize the whole pig thing makes this an out-of-the-question scenario for Muslims, but it is a decision that some of the rest of us may be called on to make at some point, as science progresses and global populations continue to live longer.

How about something a little less overwhelming than an entire organ? What if it were just a few cells to give a bit of help to a system that's falling down on the job? If you had diabetes, for example, would you let doctors implant pancreatic cells from a pig to help your insulin deficient system keep your blood glucose stable? Michael Helyer, a man from Auckland, New Zealand, was faced with that choice, and made the decision to be a guinea pig for medical science. (Sorry, the pun couldn't be avoided.) His doctors implanted the cells 10 years ago, hoping that they would produce the insulin his own pancreas was unable to supply. Their hopes did not go unanswered. The cells did not provide all the insulin that Helyer's body required, but the porcine cells did, indeed, set up their own little insulin-producing factory, helping to keep his blood sugar levels in check. Coghlan explains that the cells aren't putting out what they once did, but even now, 10 years later, at least some of Porky's cells are still bringing home the bacon, or the insulin as the case may be:

Though Helyer still has to inject himself with insulin, the amount he needed fell by up to a third in the year following the transplant. This effect then faded, but Helyer, who lives in Auckland, New Zealand, says his diabetes remains under better control - a claim supported by data showing that his blood glucose is more stable than before treatment.

The part I found most fascinating about this story is the way that the doctors kept the cells alive--and kept Helyer's body from recognizing the pig cells as foreign and moving in for the kill:

In 1996, LCT [Living Cell Technologies] injected 1.3 million capsules of alginate, a resin derived from seaweed, into Helyer's peritoneal cavity. Each capsule contained about 500 insulin-producing islet cells isolated from the pancreases of newly born piglets. "The alginate lets insulin out of the capsule and nutrients in, to keep the cells alive," explains Elliott. Importantly, it also hides the "alien" pig cells from the human immune system.
Coghlan goes on to add:

Recent samples taken from the capsules suggest that many of the cells are still alive, and a few were found to still produce insulin when exposed to glucose in the lab. Chemical analysis also showed that traces of pig insulin appeared in Helyer's blood shortly after he ate a large amount of glucose.

The fact that these cells are still kicking after all this time is giving doctors reason enough to do further trials. LCT is going to be implanting cells in 14 new people soon, and the new subjects could also receive a second dose of pig cells to see if this can counter the falling off of effectiveness experienced by Helyer.

It's pretty amazing that they found a way to hide the pig cells from Helyer's immune system. I found myself wondering whether the same technique might somehow prove useful in other transplants, even the ones where the donor is human. Naturally, it would be a lot harder to disguise a whole organ from all those pesky white blood cells. How do you take a heart, say, and convince the blood pumping through it that it really should pay no attention to the pig behind the curtain? You can't encase the innards of the heart in seaweed resin, after all.

It is encouraging, though, that they found a way to work around the whole immune system thing in this case, without turning the entire system down or off, as they currently have to do with human organ transplants. Perhaps they can learn from this technique, and come up with other solutions. The alternative is a never-ending regimen of anti-rejection medication. I have a friend waiting for a kidney right now, and she knows that when she gets it she'll be on a strict schedule of drugs to prevent her body from saying, "You don't belong here. Prepare to die." She's mentally prepped for the process though, because she gave one of her kidneys to her brother 20 years ago, and she's seen the routine first hand. One good thing about that is that, since she is a kidney donor herself, she automatically moves to the top of the recipient list as soon as she's medically cleared for transplant. So, she won't have to choose whether it's better to take a porcine kidney than wait for a human one that might never become available.

It's an interesting choice to face, don't you think? Apart from religious objections that would make accepting animal organs, or even a few cells, objectionable to some, for most of us there would probably be a certain "that's just not right" factor that would have to be reasoned through. Is it any different though, really, from human organ donation? Both are alien to you, right? So, what's the difference? I don't know, but for me, on an emotional level at least, there would be more to process if I received an animal organ, rather than a human one. I'm not saying I wouldn't take an animal organ--as my husband said when he read this, "If it work, it works." At the same time, I would be a tad more squeamish about it I suspect, however irrationally. Actually, I hope to circumvent the problem altogether, by never needing an organ transplant, but if I do, I'm hoping that science will have progressed to the point where they can simply grow me another organ in a lab, from my own stem cells, from my own bone marrow, or some such thing. I'd like to skip the whole "pig organ, or death" question. I don't really object to a few pig or cow cells in my body, but generally, I want to chew them as they go inside.

How about the rest of you? Any reaction?

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Power Of Hydrogen

I followed a link from Instapundit this afternoon about a new concept car from Ford that is, according to Popular Mechanics, "the world’s first working plug-in, fuel-cell, hydrogen-powered car." That was pretty cool--a real car with hydrogen fuel-cell power. I wanted a ride. The short little blurb about Ford's new hybrid then sent me on a rabbit trail to an article from the November 2006 issue of Popular Mechanics. It's a very interesting primer on the current state of Hydrogen fuel technology, examining hydrogen as a source of power, its transportation and storage, practical uses, and also the various sources for that hydrogen. I'm not going to synopsize the article; although it's not horribly long, there's an awful lot packed into it, and Jeff Wise at PM has already done all that work. It would be a shame to duplicate his efforts when I really have nothing useful or entertaining to add. I will, however, encourage you to read it for yourself. Wise explains lots of things I never knew before about the mechanics of getting energy from hydrogen, the environmental cost of current methods of hydrogen production, the history of hydrogen technology (it's been used on the space shuttle for decades) and where it's headed, including a look at infrastructure. If you're curious how close we are to a hydrogen economy, go have a look.

Note: Popular Mechanics is also promising a cover story in May on the future of plug-in hybrids that ought to be interesting. I'll try to keep an eye out for it. Let me know if you spot it first.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Pics In Space--The Saturn Series

Hey, Space fans. It's time for our monthly cruise around the heavens, courtesy of MSNBC's Space Slide Show! I'll tell you in advance; this trip starts out a little slowly, with a computer simulation of a dying star, and a snapshot of an empty spacesuit. Not the most thrilling launch of all time. Seeing these images first, I was afraid the ride had lost its magic. Neither of them made me long to head out into space, especially in that rather cumbersome-looking space getup, but I should have known better than to fret. Once the slide show made it off the home-world, things got a lot more interesting. You'll see. If you come with me this time, we'll shift as quickly as we can to a higher gear and speed off to explore some of the wonders of the universe, so take your Dramamine and let's go for a ride!

Among the other planetary spectacles we'll encounter this time around, our tour will feature a photo spread of pretty pastel Saturn, rings aglow and looking fabulous. I don't think I ever appreciated before how picturesque a planet the ringed beauty really is. I've always seen Saturn in black and white, but this time we get treated to color images. They reveal that the Designer used a lovely and soft set of spring hues, and since we have the opportunity, we really ought to pause to admire the view before we fly further out into space. For Saturn these days, it's all about looking good, with rings spread just so, and an ornamental moon or two, to add a little extra style. As part of this month's planetary fashion shoot, the Saturnine moon called Mimas makes a shy and retiring appearance in the distance, not one to mug for the camera, but still willing to add something of a decorative touch. Rhea is less shy, but still understated, providing some flair, but not looking to steal Saturn's thunder. They work well together. It's a nice ensemble.

Now that we've given Saturn's moons their moment in the Sun, let's move on to more distant wonders, shall we? The beautiful Crab Nebula isn't shy at all, and, posing for Japan's Subaru Telescope, shows off all its full color glory. Here's an interesting history tidbit for you--this sight has been wowing space observers here on Earth since the year 1054. I don't think astronomers got this good a look way back then, though, and they certainly didn't get to preserve the image for anybody with a computer and a modem to see and enjoy. We really do live in amazing times. Speaking of amazing times, you can judge for yourself whether a photo recently released by the French space agency is evidence of alien life, or some sort of freaky lighting. You can also make up your own mind whether the sand dunes of Mars look more like snake or alligator skin. I'm leaning toward snake, but I'm open to other interpretations. Closer to home, we'll visit a couple of terrestrial locations, including an ancient Peruvian solar observatory--now 2,300 years old--the oldest in the Americas. I wonder whether the Peruvians of yesteryear saw that Crab Nebula? For their sake. I hope they did, but I bet they didn't get to witness "cosmic bullets" piercing through the Orion Nebula the way we can on this month's space jaunt, or see a distant galaxy tearing apart at the seams. Those poor ancient Peruvians really missed out! You don't have to miss a thing, though, so head on over and climb aboard the Space Slide Show!

Monday, April 02, 2007

An X Prize For Fuel Economy

Y'all remember the X Prize, right? $10 million went to the team that built the first private spaceship to make it to space. The contest prompted big advances in the baby private-space-flight industry, and continued X Prize-type challenges keep spurring the new industry forward. Now there are not only private companies contracting with NASA to take payloads into space, but there are many companies working on various commercial space projects, from space hotels to space elevators. This financial incentive thing gets people involved--and gets results. $10 million can certainly give little guys with big ideas some incentive.

So, what about applying that principle for more Earthly goals? Nick Bunkley, at The New York Times is reporting that the X Prize Foundation is set to offer even more than $10 million to whoever can develop the first "commercially viable car that can travel 100 miles on a gallon of gasoline." They're not looking for pie-in-the-sky here. They want to prompt the development of vehicles that would work and be affordable in the real world.

...the organizers want to ensure that vehicles entered in the contest, which will compete in races in 2009 to determine the winner, are commercially viable. Entries must be production-ready, unlike many of the fantastical concept cars that are presented at auto shows. Each team must prepare a business plan for building at least 10,000 of the vehicles at a cost comparable to that of cars available now.

100 miles to the gallon of gas, and an affordable car to boot? That would make it possible for folks here in Portland to drive all the way to Disneyland (a very important destination) without stopping to fuel up. Wow. Sounds almost too good to be true, and if it weren't for the competition and financial incentive, I doubt this would go very far. Bunkley explains that the problem isn't making a car that can get 100 mpg, but in making that car at a price people can actually afford to pay. The industry is not currently geared for the rapid changes and big risks necessary to shift from the 20 mpg the average car gets today to the 100 mph that they're aiming to achieve with the impetus of the competition. That $10 million shot in the arm, though, could make all the difference. The X Prize approach has really produced results in reaching for the stars. It'll be exciting to see where this new prize can drive the automobile industry.

Hat tip: Instapundit