Bird on the Ice Age National Scenic Trail

Posted on March 22, 2017  Comments (0)

close up photo of a bird

Bird on the Ice Age National Scenic Trail in Wisconsin. Please comment if you know what type of bird this is.

Related: Backyard Wildlife: Blue JayBird Using Bread as Bait to Catch FishFriday Cat Fun: Cat and Crow FriendsBackyard Wildlife: Sharpshinned Hawk

The Amazing Reality of Genes and The History of Scientific Inquiry

Posted on March 4, 2017  Comments (1)

cover of The Gene

The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee is a wonderful book. He does a great job of explaining the history of scientists learning about genes as well as providing understandable explanations for the current scientific understanding of genes and how they impact our lives.

As I have mentioned before, I find biology fascinating even though I found biology classes utterly boring and painful. I wish everyone could learn about biology with the insight people like Siddhartha Mukherjee provide. I realize not everyone is going to find the history and understanding of genes to be fascinating but for those who might this book is a great read. And don’t rule the idea out just because you found biology classes painful.

Life may be chemistry, but it’s a special circumstance of chemistry. Organisms exist not because of reactions that are possible, but because of reactions that are barely possible. Too much reactivity and we would spontaneously combust. Too little, and we would turn cold and die. Proteins enable these barely possible reactions, allowing us to live on the edges of chemical entropy – skating perilously, but never falling in.
– page 134

Whether it is the physics of our solar system or our biology there is a precarious band that allowed beings such as ourselves to evolve.

most genes, as Richard Dawkins describes them, are not “blueprints” but “recipes.” They do not specify parts, but processes; they are formulas, not forms. If you change a blueprint, the final product is change in a perfectly predictable manner: eliminate a widget specified in the plan, and you get a machine with a missing widget. But alteration of a recipe or formula doesn’t not change the product in a predictable manner: if you quadruple the amount of butter in a cake, the eventual effect is more complicated than just a quadruply buttered cake (try it; the whole thing collapses in an oily mess).
– page 454

The is a powerful idea. And when combined with turning genes on and off it is understandable how complex determining genetic impacts on biology and disease are. A few diseases or results (e.g. blue eyes) are nearly as simple as 1 or a few genes being altered in a specific way but most are not nearly so easy. And it isn’t like even that is so easy but with the amazing efforts scientists have made and the advanced tools those scientists created it can now seem simple to identify some such diseases.

The genetic code is universal. A gene from a blue whale can be inserted into a microscopic bacterium and it will be deciphered accurately and with near perfect fidelity. A corollary: there is nothing particularly special about human genes.
– page 480

This is something I have known and understood but it is still amazing. Genes and proteins and how they act to create the incredible diversity of life is something that is awe inspiring.

This book is a wonderful adventure for those interested in life and scientific inquiry.

Related: Epigenetics, Scientific Inquiry and UncertaintyHuman Gene Origins: 37% Bacterial, 35% Animal, 28% EukaryoticUnexpected Risks Found In Editing Genes To Prevent Inherited DisordersEpigenetic Effects on DNA from Living Conditions in Childhood Persist Well Into Middle AgeWhy Don’t All Ant Species Replace Queens in the Colony, Since Some Do

Female African-American Mathematicians at NASA in 1961

Posted on February 24, 2017  Comments (0)

Hidden Figures is a film based on the experiences of female African-American mathematicians at NASA in 1961 including Katherine Johnson. It is easy to forget our history if we don’t make an effort to remember.

Popular movie adaptations are not the best source for completely accurate history but they are a great way to raise awareness when they hold somewhat close to historical events.

It is amazing to see what was accomplished and also remember how badly mistaken our society was in important ways. We have made strides as a society, but we still have significant problems we need to address. Movies like Hidden Figures are a positive reminder of what can be accomplished when we give people opportunities. We need to remember that lesson and do what we can to remove the barriers that continue today.

NASA video on Katherine Johnson’s career:

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Backyard Wildlife: Large Lizards

Posted on February 2, 2017  Comments (0)

large thin lizard

Close up of the large, thin, lizard

These photos were taken across the street from my condo in downtown Johor Bahru, Malaysia. From my window I could see Singapore.

It is at least a meter long from head to tail (probably longer, the tail is really long). Still it isn’t huge since it is very narrow (more like a very thick snake with legs than anything else).

A few months before seeing the lizard in the photos I saw a really big lizard 1 block from the Johor Bahru Customs Immigration and Quarantine complex. It was easily 2 meters long (head to end of the tail) and quite large (stout). It was a different species I am pretty sure.

I was standing for awhile looking at a cool patch of wild greenery. All of a sudden I heard a noise and looked down; this large lizard probably got tired of me standing so and moved quickly into the brush. I hadn’t seen it. I would guess it was sunning itself, before I wandered over. Too bad I didn’t have my camera ready.

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WindTree – Harnessing Breezes for Electricity

Posted on January 22, 2017  Comments (2)

This style of wind power looks cool. The WindTree turns small breezes into electricity. Its production varies with the wind speed and its average output ranges between 1,500 kWh and 2,000 kWh. Peak power is 3,500 kWh.

But I don’t see how it can be effective given the large cost. The WindTree is being offered for installation late in 2017 in the USA and Canada at $67,500 – excluding delivery, installation and taxes (they estimate almost $100,000 total). It really seems to me the prices would have to come down by more than 75% to make any real impact in the market.

An average household in the USA uses 901 kWh per month.

The tree is 36 feet tall and 26 feet in width. The first trees were installed in France in 2015, the company is based in France.

It is good to see us investigating numerous ways to generate clean energy. But unless the price of this drastically reduces over time it doesn’t seem likely to contribute much to our energy needs.

Related: Chart of Wind Power Generation Capacity Globally 2005-2012Capture Wind Energy with a Tethered Turbine (2007)Engineering Floating Wind Farms (2010)Sails for Modern Cargo Ships (2008)

14 Year Old Signs $700,000 MOU for a Drone to Detect and Defuse Land Mines

Posted on January 14, 2017  Comments (3)

Harshwardhan Zala, from Gujarat, India has signed an agreement worth Rs. 5 crore (US$733,940) to explore the possibility of commercial production of a drone created by him which can help in detecting and defusing landmines.

Harshwardhan started work on the prototype of the landmine-detecting drone last year after reading in newspapers about high army casualties due to landmines. Aerobotics7 is the company founded by the 14 years old.

Harshwardhan Zala, 14-year-old trends for Rs 5 crore deal at Vibrant Gujarat Global Summit 2017!

Explaining more about the drone, the zealous 14-year-old said, “The drone is designed to send out waves that cover eight sq. mt area while flying two feet above the surface; the waves detect land mines and communicate their location with a base station. The drone also carries a bomb weighing 50 gram that can be used to destroy the landmine.” Harshwardhan Zala’s proud father Pradhyumansinh is an accountant with a plastic company in Naroda, and his mother Nishaba is a homemaker.

[missing video – removed 🙁 ]

The video has Harshwardhan speaking a bit of English but mainly some other language that I don’t understand. If I understand right, his drone is 98% accurate at identifying mines (where the current solutions are 92% accurate – and much more dangerous for those having to walk around testing). His solution is 17 times faster and 22 times cheaper than the current solutions. Once the mine is detected by the drone through an infrared sensor, a 50 gram detonator will complete the task of defusing it (blowing it up).

This video shows a bit of the drone itself (non-English audio)

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Pepper – A Social Robot from Softbank

Posted on January 8, 2017  Comments (2)

Pepper is a social robot developed in France and part of the Japanese conglomerate Softbank.

Pepper robots are at work in retail stores in Asia and Europe as sales associates. The first personal robots have been available in Japan for 2 years now and may be available elsewhere soon.

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Unexpected Risks Found In Editing Genes To Prevent Inherited Disorders

Posted on January 1, 2017  Comments (0)

Mitochondrial replacement seeks to remove genes known to cause genetic defects from embryos in order to allow for a baby to avoid inheriting the defect.

Mitochondrial Replacement Techniques: Ethical, Social, and Policy Considerations from the USA National Academy of Sciences

Accordingly, the committee recommends that any initial MRT clinical investigations focus on minimizing the future child’s exposure to risk while ascertaining the safety and efficacy of the techniques. The recommended restrictions and conditions for initial clinical investigations include

  • limiting clinical investigations to women who are otherwise at risk of transmitting a serious mtDNA disease, where the mutation’s pathogenicity is undisputed, and the clinical presentation of the disease is predicted to be severe, as characterized by early mortality or substantial impairment of basic function; and
  • transferring only male embryos for gestation to avoid introducing heritable genetic modification during initial clinical investigations.

Following successful initial investigations of MRT in males, the committee recommends that FDA could consider extending MRT research to include the transfer of female embryos if clear evidence of safety and efficacy from male cohorts, using identical MRT procedures, were available, regardless of how long it took to collect this evidence; preclinical research in animals had shown evidence of intergenerational safety and efficacy; and FDA’s decisions were consistent with the outcomes of public and scientific deliberations to establish a shared framework concerning the acceptability of and moral limits on heritable genetic modification.

The research in this area is interesting and our ability to help achieve healthy lives continues to grow. The path to a bright future though is not without risk. It requires careful action to pursue breakthrough improvements while minimizing the risks we take to achieve better lives for us all.

Unexpected Risks Found In Editing Genes To Prevent Inherited Disorders

Earlier this month, a study published in Nature by Shoukhrat Mitalipov, head of the Center for Embryonic Cell and Gene Therapy at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, suggested that in roughly 15 percent of cases, the mitochondrial replacement could fail and allow fatal defects to return, or even increase a child’s vulnerability to new ailments.

The findings confirmed the suspicions of many researchers, and the conclusions drawn by Mitalipov and his team were unequivocal: The potential for conflicts between transplanted and original mitochondrial genomes is real, and more sophisticated matching of donor and recipient eggs — pairing mothers whose mitochondria share genetic similarities, for example — is needed to avoid potential tragedies.

“This study shows the potential as well as the risks of gene therapy in the germline,” Mitalipov says. This is especially true of mitochondria, because its genomes are so different than the genomes in the nucleus of cells. Slight variations between mitochondrial genomes, he adds, “turn out to matter a great deal.”

Related: Gene Duplication and EvolutionThe Challenge of Protecting Us from Evolving Bacterial ThreatsOne Species’ Genome Discovered Inside Another’s (2007)Looking Inside Living Cells

20 Most Popular Post on the Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog in 2016

Posted on December 26, 2016  Comments (0)

These were the most popular (by number of page views) posts on our blog in 2016.

photo of John Hunter with snow covered mountain peaks in the background

John Hunter, Olympic National Park (where the mountain peaks are colder and covered in snow)

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Engineering Mosquitos to Prevent the Transmission of Diseases

Posted on December 20, 2016  Comments (2)

Mosquitos are responsible for huge amount of suffering and death. In 2015 200,000,000 people were infected with malaria and 500,000 died.

It is amazing what knowledge science has provided about the causes of human disease. It is great to have videos like this available that let us learn a bit about it from a short and understandable video.

Using our scientific knowledge to design and implement solutions offers great possibilities. But we also have to worry about the risks of such attempts. Making decisions about what risks to take requires well informed people that are able to understand the opportunities and risks and make intelligent decisions.

Related: Video showing malaria breaking into cellScientists Building a Safer Mosquito (2006)Engineering Mosquitoes to be Flying Vaccinators (2010)

PISA Science Education Results Show Singapore, Japan and Estonia Leading

Posted on December 14, 2016  Comments (2)

The most comprehensive comparison of student achievement in math and science around the globe is completed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) focuses on science understanding of 15 year olds (the 2012 report focused on math).

2015 results for the science portion (rank – country – mean score)(I am not listing all countries):

  • 1 – Singapore – 556
  • 2 – Japan – 538
  • 3 – Estonia – 534
  • 4 – Taiwan – 532
  • 5 – Finland – 531
  • 6 – Canada – 528
  • 7 – Vietnam – 525
  • 8 – China – 520*
  • 9 – Korea – 516
  • 13 – Germany – 509
  • 13 – UK – 509
  • 23 – USA – 496
  • 26 – Sweden – 493 (this is also the OECD average)
  • 56 – Mexico – 416
  • 61 – Brazil – 401

* I am merging several distinct Chinese locations reported in the official report.

The 2015 PISA include 72 participating countries and economies. From the PISA report:

On average across OECD countries, 25% of boys and 24% of girls reported that they expect to work in a science-related occupation. But boys and girls tend to think of working in different fields of science: girls envisage themselves as health professionals more than boys do; and in almost all countries, boys see themselves as becoming information and communications technologies (ICT) professionals, scientists or engineers more than girls do.

Related: 2009 results of science education student achievement around the globe2012 results for the science portion (math was the focus in 2012)The Economic Consequences of Investing in Science EducationCountry H-index Ranking for Science Publications

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