Yacouba Sawadogo – The Man Who Stopped the Desert

Posted on March 8, 2015  Comments (0)

Quote from the video

Yacouba single-handedly had more impact on the soil conservation in the Sahel than than all the national and international researchers combined.

Dr. Chris Reij, Vrije University of Amsterdam.

As is normally the case making improvements in the real world is challenging and visionaries often face setbacks. Even when they have success that success is threatened by those that want to take the rewards but ignore the lessons. The clip above is a excerpt from the documentary film on his efforts.

Meet Yacouba Sawadogo – The Man Who Stopped the Desert

The simple old farmer’s re-forestation and soil conservation techniques are so effective they’ve helped turn the tide in the fight against the desertification of the harsh lands in northern Burkina Faso.

Over-farming, over-grazing and over population have, over the years, resulted in heavy soil erosion and drying in this landlocked West African nation.

Zai is a very simple and low-cost farming technique. Using a shovel or an axe, small holes are dug into the hard ground and filled with compost. Seeds of trees, millet or sorghum are planted in the compost. The holes catch water during the rainy season, so they are able to retain moisture and nutrients during the dry season.

According to the rules of Zai, Yacouba would prepare the lands in the dry season – exactly the opposite of the local practice. Other farmers and land chiefs laughed at him, but soon realized that he is a genius. In just 20 years, he converted a completely barren area into a thriving 30-acre forest with over 60 species of trees.

Yacouba has chosen not to keep his secrets to himself. Instead, he hosts a workshop at his farm, teaching visitors and bringing people together in a spirit of friendship. “I want the training program to be the starting point for many fruitful exchanges across the region

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2014 Ranking of the World’s Best Research Universities

Posted on February 28, 2015  Comments (0)

Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University produces an annual ranking of research universities. The methodology values publications and faculty awards (Nobel and Fields) which belies the focus on ranking research not for example the quality of education provided.

You could argue one measure does partially address teaching as the Nobel and Fields prizes to alumni are created to the institution (that is separate from a measure of faculty that receive those honors). I would agree it partially measure the education though it also measures the ability of that school to attract the absolute best candidates (whether they would have been just as successful going elsewhere is a fair question).

Results from the 2014 rankings of top 500 universities with the number of schools by country:

location Top 100 % of World
Population
% of World GDP % of top 500
USA 52     4.5%   22.2%  29.2%
United Kingdom   8  0.9  3.5 7.6
Germany   4  1.1  5.0 7.8
Canada   4  0.5  2.4 4.2
France   4  0.9  3.8 4.2
Japan   3  1.8  7.8 3.8
Australia   4  0.3  1.5 3.8
China   0  19.2  11.7 8.8
Netherlands   4  0.2  1.3 2.6
Sweden   4  0.1  0.8 2.2
Switzerland   5  0.1  0.8 1.4
South Korea   0  .7  1.7 2.0
India   0  17.0  1.9 0.2

The top countries for top 100 and top 500 schools are listed above, but I skip over many after the top 7 or 8 to include a few countries I like to watch, see the ranking site for the full list. Country population and GDP data were taken from the World Development Indicators 2013, by the World Bank.

There is little change in top 100 since 2008, which I think is a good sign, it wouldn’t make much sense to have radical shifts quickly in this type of ranking. The USA lost 2 schools in the top 100, UK lost 3, Germany lost 2, Switzerland gained 2, Netherlands gain 2…

There is more change in the top 500 where changes are more sensible (there is probably not much separating schools ranked in the 300’s from those in the 500’s so variation and strong pushes (from countries like China) can have an impact. China gained 14 more schools in the top 500. China’s GDP also increased from 6.6% of global GDP to 11.7%.

University of Wisconsin – Madison is 24th, it was 17th in 2008 My father taught there while I grew up.
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3D Printing at Home: Today, Challenges and Opportunities

Posted on February 21, 2015  Comments (7)

Guest post by Noah Hornberger

The State of 3D Printing at Home

Rapid prototyping is very rewarding. Moving from an idea that you had during breakfast to an object you can hold in your hands by lunchtime feels like magic or science fiction.

Modeling tools are getting easier to use, making the actual process of designing 3D objects fairly intuitive and dare I say . . . easy. I suspect home 3D printing is empowering a silent revolution that will be more and more apparent in the coming years.

3d printed taco holder with tacos

Taco Shell Holder, a recent idea I had during breakfast was ready to test the next day.

Even so, there is a lot of quirkiness to the 3D print technology that an average consumer is probably not ready to deal with. In this post I want to give inside information I have learned by running my own home-based 3D print business. I have been there in the trenches, with a queue of orders, a few 3D printers and the drive to make it happen. And let me tell you that without the drive to push past the obstacles, it really would not be possible to run a 3D print-on-demand business this way.

3D printers have enabled me to pull off an impossible task of distributing my own artistic products to an international market. I have shipped to USA, Spain, Australia, Norway, Canada, and the UK. And this May of 2015 marks my first year of owning a 3D printer.

small 3d printed planters, 1 with a plant growing in it

Mini Dodecahedron Planters, my first attempt at designing and printing an idea from scratch. I was hooked.

So there is some magic I would say in being able to move through iterations of your ideas so fast. And magic in being able to post photos of your products that people can understand to be real and tangible things.

I have had ideas for products for many years and even tried to launch them (unsuccessfully). But now things are different. I do not have to convince people that an idea is good, I can show them a real example of finished art they can own.

I would argue that 3D modeling is the easiest part of the process. Getting a spectacular print can take some work and patience, because it can involve re-starting the printer with small changes in settings each time. As an American trained artist, I have a tendency to want things to be fast and easy. I want to press a button and it just works. 3D printers can kind of promise this ability, but most often, I am stepping in to keep the machines on track.

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Biomass Fueled Power Generator from All Power Labs

Posted on February 14, 2015  Comments (0)

All Power Labs produces biomass fueled power generators. They have grown from a open science and engineering foundation to their current position. I really like how they are focused on promoting understanding and encouraging collaboration.

They reject the copyright cartel closed science mindset; which is something I like. Their product takes waste biomass; for example walnut shells, coconut shells, hardwood chips (Oak, Beech), softwood chips (Douglas Fir, Pine). It also takes corn cobs, palm kernel shells and others but there are additional challenges to operation.

Their products use gasification which is most simply thought of as choked combustion or incomplete combustion. It is burning solid fuels like wood or coal without enough air to complete combustion, so the output gas still has combustion potential. The unburned gas is then piped away to burn elsewhere as needed.

The Power Pallet is a complete biomass power generation solution that converts woody biomass into electricity. It costs $29,995 which translates to a cost of $1-$2/watt which is more cost effective that alternatives. They have significant sales in developing markets where power is often problematic. It is specifically not suited to some fuel – wastepaper (could maybe work in pelletized form), municipal waste, coconut husk…

This webcast is the start of a presentation on the history and current state of their efforts (continue to view other clips for the whole presentation):

Related: Ethanol: Science Based Solution or Special Interest WelfareDo It Yourself Solar Furnace for Home HeatingKudzu Biofuel Potential Chart of Wind Power Generation Capacity Globally from 2005 to 2012Turning Trash into Electricity (2006)

Using The Building of Robots to Engage Students in Learning

Posted on February 7, 2015  Comments (0)

Fundi bots has a mission to use robotics training in African schools to create and inspire a new generation of problem solvers, innovators and change-makers. I believe strongly in this type of effort. We waste so much human potential by killing students design to learn. Instead we need to create systems that not only don’t kill that desire but allow it to flourish.

Fundi Bots focuses on the technological process of building robots as a way for students to look at the world around them from a practical, solution oriented perspective. By guiding students through problem identification, brainstorming, collaboration, construction, programming, final deployment and system feedback, we show them how the problems around them can be solved through a technological approach and persistent reductive analysis.

Fundi Made is an effort to create professional grade electronics right in our Fundi Spaces, and deploy the products in five core market segments; home-automation, agriculture, energy, security and health.

Related: Promoting Innovation in Sierra LeoneLetting Children Learn using Hole in the Wall ComputersGiven Tablets but No Teachers, Kids Teach Themselves (Having Never Seen Advanced Technology Before)Teaching Through TinkeringEncouraging Curiosity in Kids20th Annual US First Robotics Competition (2012)

Teixobactin – New Antibiotic Attacks Ability of Bacteria to Build Cell Walls

Posted on January 31, 2015  Comments (0)

New class of antibiotic could turn the tables in battle against superbugs

The antibiotic, called teixobactin, kills a wide range of drug-resistant bacteria, including MRSA and bugs that cause TB and a host of other life-threatening infections.

It could become a powerful weapon in the battle against antimicrobial resistance, because it kills microbes by blocking their capacity to build their cell walls, making it extremely difficult for bacteria to evolve resistance.

It would be great if the exciting results carried through to real world results similar to the hope. Medical research is full of promising initial results that fail to deliver, however. We are at great risk if some new miracle anti-biotic isn’t found. Many people are investigating potential solutions.

Most antibiotics are isolated from bacteria or fungi that churn out lethal compounds to keep other microbes at bay. But scientists have checked only a tiny fraction of bugs for their ability to produce potential antibiotics because 99% cannot be grown in laboratories.

Lewis’s group found a way around the problem by developing a device called an iChip that cultures bacteria in their natural habitat. The device sandwiches the bugs between two permeable sheets. It is then pushed back into the ground where the microbes grow into colonies.

Working with a Massachusetts-based company, NovoBiotic, and researchers at the University of Bonn, [Kim] Lewis’s group screened 10,000 soil bacteria for antibiotics and discovered 25 new compounds. Of these, teixobactin was the most promising.

Though promising, Lewis said that years more work lie ahead before the drug could be available. Human clinical trials could begin within two years to check its safety and efficacy, but more development would follow that.

It is wonderful to read about the great work so many scientists are making in researching potential life saving drugs. Hopefully this antibiotic will save us from what will be catastrophic harm if some new antibiotic is not available soon.

Related: Search for Antibiotic Solutions Continues: Killing Sleeper Bacteria Cells (2013)New Family of Antibacterial Agents Discovered (2009)Potential Antibiotic Alternative to Treat Infection Without Resistance (2012)

Ranking Countries by Scientific Publication Citations: USA, UK, Germany…

Posted on January 24, 2015  Comments (1)

The SCImago Journal and Country Rank provides journal and country scientific indicators developed from the information contained in the Scopus database. I posted about this previously (in 2014, 2011 and 2008).

The data in the post is based on their data from 1996 through 2013. The web site also lets you look at these ranking by very specific categories. For example biotechnology #1 USA, #2 Germany, #3 UK, #4 Japan, #12 China or human computer interaction #1 USA, #2 Germany, #3 UK #4 Japan, #13 China).

I like looking at data and country comparisons but in doing so it is wise to remember this is the results of a calculation that is interesting but hardly definative. We don’t have the ability to measure the true scientific research output by country.

The table shows the top 6 countries by h-index and then some others I chose to list.

Country h-index 2010
h-index
2007
h-index
% of World
Population
% of World GDP total cites
USA 1,518 1,139 793     4.5%   22.2% 152,984,430
United Kingdom 918 689 465  0.9  3.5 37,450,384
Germany 815 607 408  1.1  5.0  30,644,118
France 742 554 376  0.9  3.8  21,193,343
Canada 725 536 370  0.5  2.4 18,826,873
Japan 635 527 372  1.8  7.8 23,633,462
Additional countries of interest (with 2013 country rank)
16) China 436 279 161  19.2  11.7  14,752,062
19) South Korea 375 258 161    .7  1.7  5,770,844
22) Brazil 342 239 148  2.8  3.0 4,164,813
23) India 341 227 146  17.5  2.6 5,666,045

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Manufacture Biological Sensors Using Silk and Looms

Posted on January 18, 2015  Comments (1)

The fabric chip platform from Achira Labs in India uses looms to manufacture biological sensors.

Image of process for creating silk test strips

image by Achira Labs

Yarn coated with appropriate biological reagents like antibodies or enzymes is woven into a piece of fabric at the desired location. Strips of fabric are then cut out, packaged and can form the substrate for di erent biological assays. Even a simple handloom could produce thousands of these sensors at very low cost.

The resulting fabrics can be used to test for pregnancy, diabetes, chronic diseases, etc.. Achira Labs, an Indian start-up, received $100,000 in Canadian funding in 2013 to develop a silk strip that can diagnose rotavirus, a common cause of diarrhea and can be used in diapers.

The company is planing to start selling silk diabetes test strips using there process this year and expects costs to be about 1/3 of the existing test strips using conventional manufacturing processes.

Related: Appropriate Technology Health Care Solution Could Save 72,000 Lives a YearWater WheelUsing Drones to Deliver Medical Supplies in Roadless AreasAppropriate Technology: Self Adjusting Glasses

20 Most Popular Post on Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog in 2014

Posted on January 10, 2015  Comments (0)

Here are the most popular (by number of page views) posts on our blog in 2014.

I think it is interesting to see the distribution over the years of publication

2014: 1
2013: 2

2011: 2
2010: 5
2009: 3
2008: 4
2007: 2

2005: 1

Related: 10 Most Popular Posts on the Curious Cat Management Blog in 2014

Defying Textbook Science, Study Finds Proteins Built Without DNA Instructions

Posted on January 3, 2015  Comments (1)

Open any introductory biology textbook and one of the first things you’ll learn is that our DNA spells out the instructions for making proteins, tiny machines that do much of the work in our body’s cells. Results from a recent study show for the first time that the building blocks of a protein, called amino acids, can be assembled without blueprints – DNA and an intermediate template called messenger RNA (mRNA). A team of researchers has observed a case in which another protein specifies which amino acids are added.

“This surprising discovery reflects how incomplete our understanding of biology is,” says first author Peter Shen, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in biochemistry at the University of Utah. “Nature is capable of more than we realize.”

To put the new finding into perspective, it might help to think of the cell as a well-run factory. Ribosomes are machines on a protein assembly line, linking together amino acids in an order specified by the genetic code. When something goes wrong, the ribosome can stall, and a quality control crew is summoned to the site. To clean up the mess, the ribosome is disassembled, the blueprint is discarded, and the partly made protein is recycled.

Yet this study reveals a surprising role for one member of the quality control team, a protein conserved from yeast to man named Rqc2. Before the incomplete protein is recycled, Rqc2 prompts the ribosomes to add just two amino acids (of a total of 20) – alanine and threonine – over and over, and in any order. Think of an auto assembly line that keeps going despite having lost its instructions. It picks up what it can and slaps it on.

“In this case, we have a protein playing a role similar to that filled by mRNA,” says Adam Frost, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and adjunct professor of biochemistry at the University of Utah. He shares senior authorship with Jonathan Weissman, Ph.D., a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at UCSF, and Onn Brandman, Ph.D., at Stanford University. “I love this story because it blurs the lines of what we thought proteins could do.”

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Virgin Births in the Animal Kingdom

Posted on December 25, 2014  Comments (1)

Spectacular and Real Virgin Births

Scientists are discovering that virgin births occur in many different species; amphibians, reptiles, cartilaginous and bony fish and birds and it happens for reasons we don’t quite understand.

Initially, a virgin birth, also known as parthenogenesis, was thought to be triggered by extreme situations; it was only documented among captive animals, for example, perhaps by the stress, or isolation. A way to continue the bloodline when all other options had gone, when there was no other choice.

Not necessarily. It now appears that some virgin females produce offspring even in the presence of males.

Another interesting area of research for scientists. The value of sex to aid a species’ success is well understood. The value of being able to produce offspring when no males are around seems obvious also. But how this all works is quite interesting and again shows how much we have to learn.

Related: Fungus-gardening Ant Species Has Given Up Sex Completely (2010)Some Female Sharks Can Reproduce All by Themselves (2007)Amazon Molly Fish are All Female (2008)Bdelloid Rotifers Abandoned Sex 100 Million Years Ago (2007)

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