Posts about Students

Appropriate Technology: Washing Clothes by Machine Instead by Hand

Hang Rosling provides great presentations exploring economics and human well being. I agree with his point that we should be thankful for economic and engineering progress that has freed us from menial tasks and allowed us to spend our time in higher value ways.

We need to remember (as he shows) there are many in the world that still do not enjoy these advances. For example, a majority of the world must hand wash their clothes. Engineers should continue to focus on the mass of humanity that needs fairly simple solutions.

He is also right that we need to find solutions to the extremely heavy use of fossil fuels by the rich countries. If the rich countries don’t reduce the pollution there will be great problems. And if the costs of clean energy are not decreased (which they should do) fast enough (which is the question), those that start to be able to afford the rich lifestyle, will add to the dangers we face economically and environmentally of continuing the unsustainable energy footprint the rich countries have been making.

Related: Washing Machine Uses 90% Less WaterClean Clothes Without SoapHans Rosling on Global Population GrowthAutomatic Dog Washing Machine

Google Art Project – View Art from the Hermitage, the Met…

Google Art Project lets you view art from the Hermitage, Van Gogh Museum, the Met, Tate Britain, National Gallery and more museums around the world. The site lets you navigate the museum (similar to Google street view) and zoom in for very close looks at the the works of art.

close up of the Face of Venus, Birth of Venus by Botticelli

The image above is a close up view of the Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli. In the lower right of the image you can see the portion of the painting that this view is zoomed into.

You can create your own artwork collects, which is a cute feature. Unfortunately it is tied to the still incredibly broken Google ideas on social Internet applications. I find it amazing that a company that does so many things so well, can have such continuously bad ideas about social applications.

Related: Van Gogh Painted Perfect TurbulenceGet Your Own Science ArtMetropolitan Museum of Art photosMuseum of Modern Art photosArt of Science 2006

11 Year Old Using Design of Experiments

This reminds me of great times I had experimenting with my father when I was a kid. Though, to be honest, Sarah is much more impressive than I was.

Catapulting to Success with Design of Experiments

photo of Sarah and her trebuchet

Sarah Flexman with her trebuchet at the Storm the Castle science challenge in North Carolina.

At the end of 2010, Sarah had decided to take part in Storm the Castle, one of the events offered in the statewide science Olympiad competition. This particular challenge was to design, build and launch a model trebuchet, which is a medieval-style catapult for hurling heavy stones…

Here’s Sarah’s whole process: She built the trebuchet, tested it, used JMP for DOE during optimization, changed the hook angle and sling to improve performance, did more tests, entered this new data, reran the model, and made her final prediction graphs. The variables in her DOE were string length, counterweight and projectile weight, and she optimized for distance – that is, how far the projectile would go.

“Rather than doing 125 tests because we have three variables with five levels each, DOE found a way for us to perform only 26 tests and get approximately the same results. I typed in the results, ran the model and used the JMP Profiler. I understood how the variables predicted the outcome and found several patterns,” she explained.

“I hadn’t done any building like that. The whole day was fun. It was a very open learning environment. You were experimenting with things you had never done before. I would definitely do it again,” Sarah said. And she will – next year.

I have collected quite a few design of experiments resources, for those who are interested in learning more. Here is a nice webcast by brother: Combinatorial Testing – The Quadrant of Massive Efficiency Gains, discussing the incredibly efficiency designed combinatorial testing (very similar ideas to design of experiments) can provide.

Related: Learning Design of Experiments with Paper HelicoptersPlaying Dice and Children’s NumeracyStatistics Insights for Scientists and EngineersSarah (a different one), aged 3, Learns About SoapStatistics for ExperimentersMulti-factor designed experimentsCombinatorial Testing for SoftwareWhat Else Can Software Development and Testing Learn from Manufacturing? Don’t Forget Design of Experiments (DoE)Letting Children Learn

Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Science

As the writer of this blog (which is located at I am a strong believer in the importance of scientific literacy. Neil Degrasse Tyson stated the importance very well, as I mentioned in a previous post, the scientifically literate see a different world

If you are scientifically literate the world looks very different to you. Its not just a lot of mysterious things happening. There is a lot we understand out there. And that understanding empowers you to, first, not be taken advantage of by others who do understand it. And second there are issues that confront society that have science as their foundation. If you are scientifically illiterate, in a way, you are disenfranchising yourself from the democratic process, and you don’t even know it.

The Financial Times has complied a list of the 10 things everyone should know about science

  1. Evolution – previous posts: Evolution is Fundamental to Scienceposts tagged: evolution
  2. Genes and DNA – tags: genesgeneticsDNARNA
  3. Big bang – tags: physics, posts mentioning big bang
  4. Relativity – General Relativity Einstein/Essen Anniversary Test – posts mentioning relativity
  5. Quantum mechanics – Quantum Mechanics Made Relatively Simple Podcasts, Quantum mechanics
  6. Radiation
  7. Atoms and nuclear reactions
  8. Molecules and chemical reactions – posts on chemistry
  9. Digital data – I must admit, even reading their comments, I don’t understand what they are thinking here. There certainly is a great deal of digital data and the future certainly going to involve a great deal more, but this just doesn’t fit, in my opinion.
  10. Statistical significance – Seeing Patterns Where None Exists, Statistics Insights for Scientists and Engineers, Correlation is Not Causation post on statisticsexperimentation

It is a challenge to create such a list. I agree with most of what they have. I would like to look at changing the last 2 and radiation, though. I would probably include something about the scientific method rather than statistical significance. Another area I would consider is something about bacteria and/or viruses. You can maybe include them under genes, but viruses and bacteria are amazing in the very strange things they do with genes and I think that is worthy of its own item. Another possibility is thinking of separating out a second spot for things related to the scientific method – causation, randomized testing, multivariate experiments… I would also consider one, or more of the following or something related to them biology – chlorophyll, the the life of bacteria in our bodies, something related to human health (how drugs work, medical studies…), etc..

The Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Science

Evolution through natural selection remains as valid today as it was 150 years ago when expressed with great elegance by Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species. The mechanism of evolution depends on the fact that tiny hereditable changes take place the whole time in all organisms, from microbes to people.

An important feature of Darwinian evolution is that it operates at the level of the individual. There is no mechanism for natural selection to change the species as a whole, other than through the accumulation of changes that lead to the survival of the fittest individuals.

The rate of evolution varies enormously between different types of organism and different environmental circumstances. It can proceed very quickly when the pressure is great, as, for example, with bacteria exposed to antibiotics, when drug-resistant mutations may arise and spread through the bacterial population within months.

Why does it matter? Evolution is coming under renewed assault, particularly in the US, from fundamentalist Christians who want creationism to be taught in schools. Although evolution has had virtually unanimous support from professional scientists for at least a century, polls show that American public opinion still favours creationism.

Related: Poor Results on Evolution and Big Bang Questions Omitted From NSF ReportNearly Half of Adults in the USA Don’t Know How Long it Takes the Earth to Circle the SunScience Knowledge Quiz

Evidence of Extraterrestrial Life Discovered?

Has evidence of extraterrestrial life been discovered? In Fossils of Cyanobacteria in CI1 Carbonaceous Meteorites , Richard B. Hoover, Ph.D. NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center, puts forth his evidence on the discovery of evidence of cyanobacteria in meteorites.

Dr. Hoover has discovered evidence of microfossils similar to Cyanobacteria, in freshly fractured slices of the interior surfaces of the Alais, Ivuna, and Orgueil CI1 carbonaceous meteorites. Based on Field Emission Scanning Electron Microscopy (FESEM) and other measures, Dr. Hoover has concluded they are indigenous to these meteors and are similar to trichomic cyanobacteria and other trichomic prokaryotes such as filamentous sulfur bacteria. He concludes these fossilized bacteria are not Earthly contaminants but are the fossilized remains of living organisms which lived in the parent bodies of these meteors, e.g. comets, moons, and other astral bodies. The implications are that life is everywhere, and that life on Earth may have come from other planets.

The importance of this claim is hard to ignore. The journal includes a statement from Dr. Rudy Schild, Center for Astrophysics, Harvard-Smithsonian, Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Cosmology:

Dr. Richard Hoover is a highly respected scientist and astrobiologist with a prestigious record of accomplishment at NASA. Given the controversial nature of his discovery, we have invited 100 experts and have issued a general invitation to over 5000 scientists from the scientific community to review the paper and to offer their critical analysis. Our intention is to publish the commentaries, both pro and con, alongside Dr. Hoover’s paper. In this way, the paper will have received a thorough vetting, and all points of view can be presented. No other paper in the history of science has undergone such a thorough analysis, and no other scientific journal in the history of science has made such a profoundly important paper available to the scientific community, for comment, before it is published. We believe the best way to advance science, is to promote debate and discussion.

Read the full paper.

The filaments have been observed to be embedded in freshly fractured internal surfaces of the stones. They exhibit features (e.g., the size and size ranges of the internal cells and their location and arrangement within sheaths) that are diagnostic of known genera and species of trichomic cyanobacteria and other trichomic prokaryotes such as the filamentous sulfur bacteria. ESEM and FESEM studies of living and fossil cyanobacteria show similar features in uniseriate and multiseriate, branched or unbranched, isodiametric or tapered, polarized or unpolarized filaments with trichomes encased within thin or thick external sheaths. Filaments found in the CI1 meteorites have also been detected that exhibit structures consistent with the specialized cells and structures used by cyanobacteria for reproduction (baeocytes, akinetes and hormogonia), nitrogen fixation (basal, intercalary or apical heterocysts) and attachment or motility (fimbriae).

These studies have led to the conclusion that the filaments found in the CI1 carbonaceous meteorites are indigenous fossils rather than modern terrestrial biological contaminants that entered the meteorites after arrival on Earth. The δ13C and D/H content of amino acids and other organics found in these stones are shown to be consistent with the interpretation that comets represent the parent bodies of the CI1 carbonaceous meteorites. The implications of the detection of fossils of cyanobacteria in the CI1 meteorites to the possibility of life on comets, Europa and Enceladus are discussed.

Has life been found in a meteorite? by Phil Plait
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Lobopodians from China a Few Million Years Ago

image of a lobopodian fosil nicknamed the walking cactus

image of a lobopodian fosil from Nature

Cactus Walking On 20 Legs Found In China

There was a wild period — roughly 520 million years ago — when life, for no obvious reason, burst into a crazy display of weird new fantastic forms — producing creatures in shapes never seen before or since. Consider this animal, the newest fossil discovery from Jianni Liu in China. She calls it “the walking cactus.”

This is not a plant, not a sculpture. It was a live animal, with no eyes, what may or may not be a head, mostly a gaggle of limbs, armor-plated, covered in thorns, attached to a stomach.

What is it? Taxonomically, Jianni Liu thinks it’s a lobopodian, a group of animals described as “worms with legs.” Lobopodians are about the craziest looking critters that ever lived. A whole zoo of them appear in the rocks around Chengjiang, China.

All we know, says Richard Fortey in his classic history Life, is that a long time ago, the first of these strange animals popped into view and for a short while “there was a chain reaction, unstoppable once it started, a bacchanalia of zoological inventiveness, which has never been matched again.”

Every living thing on earth today is what’s left over from that amazing burst of forms. It’s true we now live on land and in the air, not just in the sea. We have grasses and flowers and beetles in more varieties than you can imagine, and yet, in some deep architectural way, the developmental paths were set way back then, 500 million years ago. The Walking Cactus is just another souvenir of that crazy moment.

Very cool. Actual science is so full of such interesting things. The Cambrian explosion of life, about 540-490 million years ago, marked the beginning of complex life on earth. Before Cambrian, the sea floor was covered by microbial mats. By the end of the period, burrowing animals had destroyed the mats through bioturbation, and gradually turned the seabeds into what they are today. Generally it is accepted that there were no land plants at this time, although it is likely that a microbial “scum” comprising fungi, algae, and possibly lichens covered the land.

Complex organisms gradually became more common in the millions of years immediately preceding the Cambrian, but it was not until this period that mineralized (readily fossilized) organisms became common. Before about 580 million years ago, most organisms were simple, composed of individual cells occasionally organized into colonies. Over the following 70 or 80 million years the rate of evolution accelerated by an order of magnitude (as defined in terms of the extinction and origination rate of species) and the diversity of life began to resemble today’s.

Related: 500 Million-year-old Stromatolite FossilFossils of Sea MonsterDinosaur Remains Found with Intact Skin and TissueAncient Whale Uncovered in Egyptian DesertSouth African Fossils Could be New Hominid Species

Great 3D Printing Presentation

Very fun presentation by 10 year old on 3D printing and the open source Makerbot at Ignite Phoenix.

Related: 3D Printing is Here (2009 post looking at 3D printers)Open Source 3-D PrintingExpensive Ink (for regular printers)

Why Do People Invest Large Amounts of Time and Money?

According to Neil deGrasse Tyson the reasons people/societies take on huge expenditures (Great Wall of China, Manhattan project, Apollo space missions, Spanish ocean exploration, TVA, Egyptian pyramids, Cathedrals):

  1. defense/war
  2. economic return
  3. veneration to power

“The urge to discover is not there, I wish it were it is just not.” Many countries have figured out the economic benefits of large investments of science and engineering: China, Singapore, Korea… Europe and the USA are limiting such investments while continuing less useful spending. I think the results will be very obvious 20 years from now. It isn’t that the USA and Europe are not making such investments, they are, but at a much lower rate than probably is wise economically.

Related: Neil Degrasse Tyson: Scientifically Literate See a Different WorldVaccines Can’t Provide Miraculous Results if We Don’t Take ThemNanotechnology Investment as Strategic National Economic PolicyEconomic Strength Through Technology Leadership

Robots That Start as Babies Master Walking Faster Than Those That Start as Adults

In a first-of-its-kind experiment, Bongard created both simulated and actual robots that, like tadpoles becoming frogs, change their body forms while learning how to walk. And, over generations, his simulated robots also evolved, spending less time in “infant” tadpole-like forms and more time in “adult” four-legged forms.

These evolving populations of robots were able to learn to walk more rapidly than ones with fixed body forms. And, in their final form, the changing robots had developed a more robust gait — better able to deal with, say, being knocked with a stick — than the ones that had learned to walk using upright legs from the beginning.

Bongard’s research, supported by the National Science Foundation, is part of a wider venture called evolutionary robotics. “We have an engineering goal,” he says “to produce robots as quickly and consistently as possible.” In this experimental case: upright four-legged robots that can move themselves to a light source without falling over.

Using a sophisticated computer simulation, Bongard unleashed a series of synthetic beasts that move about in a 3-dimensional space. “It looks like a modern video game,” he says. Each creature — or, rather, generations of the creatures — then run a software routine, called a genetic algorithm, that experiments with various motions until it develops a slither, shuffle, or walking gait — based on its body plan — that can get it to the light source without tipping over.

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Friday Fun: Audio Engagement Ring

Fun, an engagement ring that plays a 20 second audio clip “Shelina, I’ll love you forever. Marry Me!…Shelina, I’ll love you forever. Marry Me!” made by artist and inventor Luke Jerram.

100 lbf/in² of pressure was required to cut the silver ring, using a vibrating diamond stylus. The ring is also a homage to Thomas Edison who made the first sound recording machine – the phonograph in 1877.

Using the ring, I proposed to Shelina in a hot air balloon over Bristol in 2005. We’ve since got married and had 2 children Maya and Nico.

Much better than marketing driven expensive diamonds, in my opinion.

Related: Camera FashionGet Your Own Science ArtLow-Cost Multi-touch Whiteboard Using Wii RemoteCellphone Microscope

Changing Life as We Know It

Update: Independent researchers find no evidence for arsenic life in Mono Lake

NASA has made a discovery that changes our understanding of the very makeup of life itself on earth. I think my favorite scientific discipline name is astrobiology. NASA pursues a great deal of this research not just out in space but also looking at earth based life. Their astrobiology research has changed the fundamental knowledge about what comprises all known life on Earth.

photo of Felisa Wolfe-Simon

Felisa Wolfe-Simon processing mud from Mono Lake to inoculate media to grow microbes on arsenic.

Carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur are the six basic building blocks of all known forms of life on Earth. Phosphorus is part of the chemical backbone of DNA and RNA, the structures that carry genetic instructions for life, and is considered an essential element for all living cells.

Phosphorus is a central component of the energy-carrying molecule in all cells (adenosine triphosphate) and also the phospholipids that form all cell membranes. Arsenic, which is chemically similar to phosphorus, is poisonous for most life on Earth. Arsenic disrupts metabolic pathways because chemically it behaves similarly to phosphate.

Researchers conducting tests in the harsh, but beautiful (see photo), environment of Mono Lake in California have discovered the first known microorganism on Earth able to thrive and reproduce using the toxic chemical arsenic. The microorganism substitutes arsenic for phosphorus in its cell components.

“The definition of life has just expanded,” said Ed Weiler, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate. “As we pursue our efforts to seek signs of life in the solar system, we have to think more broadly, more diversely and consider life as we do not know it.” This finding of an alternative biochemistry makeup will alter biology textbooks and expand the scope of the search for life beyond Earth.

In science such huge breakthroughs are not just excepted without debate, however, which is wise.

Thriving on Arsenic:

In other words, every experiment Wolfe-Simon performed pointed to the same conclusion: GFAJ-1 can substitute arsenic for phosphorus in its DNA. “I really have no idea what another explanation would be,” Wolfe-Simon says.

But Steven Benner, a distinguished fellow at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, FL, remains skeptical. If you “replace all the phosphates by arsenates,” in the backbone of DNA, he says, “every bond in that chain is going to hydrolyze [react with water and fall apart] with a half-life on the order of minutes, say 10 minutes.” So “if there is an arsenate equivalent of DNA in that bug, it has to be seriously stabilized” by some as-yet-unknown mechanism.

It is sure a great story if it is true though. Other scientists will examine more data and confirm or disprove the claims.

“We know that some microbes can breathe arsenic, but what we’ve found is a microbe doing something new — building parts of itself out of arsenic,” said Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a NASA Astrobiology Research Fellow in residence at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif., and the research team’s lead scientist. “If something here on Earth can do something so unexpected, what else can life do that we haven’t seen yet?”
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