Science and Engineering: Innovation, Research, Education and Economics
August 21, 2008

Engineers Should Follow Their Hearts

Steve Wozniak, Apple co-founder is a great engineer and full of wonderful quotes for engineers to take to heart. The autobiography of the Woz is certainly a good read for any engineer. Woz urges engineers to follow their hearts

Wozniak talked about a life driven by his passion for the electronics and computing. And passion can be a more important incentive than money, he said.

“Sometimes when you’re short of resources it forces you to do better work,” he said. To design the Apple’s logic circuitry, “I couldn’t afford an online timeshare computer system. I had to write down ones and zeros (and simulate the computer’s operations). It was all done by hand, never once on a computer.”

He offered his computer designs to HP five times, but they never were interested. “I would not sell something for money without my employer getting a cut of it.”

Related: Interview of Steve WozniakProgrammers at WorkThe Woz SpeaksCurious Cat Science and Engineering books

Life in a bubble

Life in a bubble

Hundreds of insect species spend much of their time underwater, where food may be more plentiful. MIT mathematicians have now figured out exactly how those insects breathe underwater.

By virtue of their rough, water-repellent coat, when submerged these insects trap a thin layer of air on their bodies. These bubbles not only serve as a finite oxygen store, but also allow the insects to absorb oxygen from the surrounding water.

“Some insects have adapted to life underwater by using this bubble as an external lung,” said John Bush, associate professor of applied mathematics, a co-author of the recent study.

Thanks to those air bubbles, insects can stay below the surface indefinitely and dive as deep as about 30 meters, according to the study co-authored by Bush and Morris Flynn, former applied mathematics instructor. Some species, such as Neoplea striola, which are native to New England, hibernate underwater all winter long.

Related: Swimming AntsFish Discovery: Breathes Air for Months at a TimeGiant Star Fish and More in Antarctica

August 20, 2008

Autism and the MMR vaccine

Science Tuesday: Back into the hornets nest is a thoughtful follow-up post on the decision of a scientist to vaccinate his child.

Autism isn’t like tuberculosis, there’s not a bacteria that causes the disease. In fact,most researchers believe that “autism” is not a discrete disorder, rather “autism is a clinically defined pervasive developmental disorder with phenotypically diverse neuropsychiatric symptoms and characteristics. These manifest as a spectrum of social and communicative deficits, stereotypical patterns and disturbances of behaviour.”¹

If a particular trait’s heritability is 100% then the trait is due entirely to genetic variation, if the heritability is 0% then the trait is due entirely to environmental variation. By some estimates, heritability of autism spectrum disorders exceeds 90%

repeated studies have found that autism diagnoses continue to rise even after the removal of thimerosal from the vaccine.

Finally, when thinking about the environmental influences on autism, it’s important to explore the role of the environment on genetics. Many of the types of genetic changes that have been identified as causative in autism are indicative of some sort of DNA damage – DNA damage that may result from exposure to an environmental toxin. Many scientists, and I count myself in their number, feel that the recent autism ‘epidemic’ is due primarily to improved screening and diagnosis. In other words, prior to the 1980’s, many people suffering from autism were diagnosed as “slow” or misdiagnosed with another type of mental retardation. Unfortunately, there is no way to quantify this hypothesis.

This is one of the examples of what is so good about blogs. Great content that probably would not be available but through a blog.

Related: Scientists Reconsider AutismAutism, Science and Politicsposts on vaccination

August 19, 2008 Invests $10 million in Geothermal Energy

Google is investing huge sums in renewable energy with the aim of cheaper than coal renewable energy. (the philanthropic arm of Google) announced $10.25 million in investments in a breakthrough energy technology called Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS).

EGS expands the potential of geothermal energy by orders of magnitude. The traditional geothermal approach relies on finding naturally occurring pockets of steam and hot water. The EGS process, by comparison, replicates these conditions by fracturing hot rock, circulating water through the system, and using the resulting steam to produce electricity in a conventional turbine.

A recent MIT report on EGS estimates that just 2% of the heat below the continental United States between 3 and 10 kilometers, depths within the range of current drilling technology, is more than 2,500 times the country’s total annual energy use.

“EGS could be the ‘killer app’ of the energy world. It has the potential to deliver vast quantities of power 24/7 and be captured nearly anywhere on the planet. And it would be a perfect complement to intermittent sources like solar and wind,” said Dan Reicher, Director of Climate and Energy Initiatives for

Google’s Renewable Energy Cheaper than Coal initiative focuses on solar thermal power, advanced wind, EGS and other potential breakthrough technologies. Google has set a goal to produce one gigawatt of renewable energy capacity, enough to power a city the size of San Francisco, in years, not decades.

Huge Ant Nest

Very cool webcast. The ant nest covers 538 square feet and travels 26 feet into the earth. The nest is engineered with vents to promote the flow of air, bringing in fresh air and expelling carbon dioxide created by the large fungus gardens. The scientists filled the ant next with concrete to excavate it: 10 tons of concrete were needed.

Related: Symbiotic relationship between ants and bacteriaAnts on Stilts for ScienceGiant Nests of Yellow-jackets

Using Spice-based Compound To Kill Cancer Cells

Synthetic molecules, derived from curcumin, a naturally occurring compound found in the spice turmeric have been killed cancer cells, in lab settings. Centuries of anecdotal evidence and recent scientific research suggest curcumin has multiple disease-fighting features, including anti-tumor properties. However, when eaten, curcumin is not absorbed well by the body. Instead, most ingested curcumin in food or supplement form remains in the gastrointestinal system and is eliminated before it is able to enter the bloodstream or tissues.

James Fuchs, assistant professor of medicinal chemistry and pharmacognosy at Ohio State University and principal investigator on the project, and colleagues are continuing to refine compounds that are best structured to interact with a few overactive proteins that are associated with cell activity in breast and prostate cancers. Blocking these molecular targets can initiate cell death or stop cell migration in the cancers.

A major component of their strategy is called structure-based, computer-aided design, a relatively new technology in the drug discovery field. Before ever working with an actual compound, the scientists can make manipulations to computer-designed molecules and observe simulated interactions between molecules and proteins to predict which structural changes will make the most sense to pursue.

“Most of the interaction between our compound and the overactive protein comes from what are called hot spots on the protein’s surface,” said Chenglong Li, assistant professor of medicinal chemistry and pharmacognosy at Ohio State and an expert in computational chemistry. “For each spot, we can design small chemical fragments and link them together to make a molecule. This is what computer-aided design and modeling can do.”

Some of the most effective compounds have been tested for their effectiveness against human cancer cell lines – as well as whether they might be toxic to healthy cells. So far, the molecule favored by the researchers has a nearly 100-fold difference in toxicity to cancer cells vs. healthy cells, meaning it takes 100 times more of the compound to kill a healthy cell than it does to kill a cancer cell.

Related: Full Press Release from Ohio State UniversityCancer Killing Ideas From HoneybeesCancer Deaths, Declining TrendCancer Cure, Not so FastInnovative Science and Engineering Higher Education

August 18, 2008

Lake Superior vs. Silicon Valley Hot Spots

Nice post from Rich Hoeg – Lake Superior vs. Silicon Valley Hot Spots:

Recently I had the opportunity to visit friends in Silicon Valley. While riding the light rail in Mountain View, I experienced a moment of revelation of how life differs between the shores of Lake Superior and Silicon Valley. Six young men boarded the train … all obviously geeks in their young 30′s … their laptops (all Apples) were already fired up and ready. They proceeded to have a LAN party while riding the light rail on the way to work. Why was this possible?? You need to understand that Google provides free wireless to the entire town on Mountain View. The world is connected … and interacts in different ways … at least in Silicon Valley.

Thus, life is different on the shores of Lake Superior. I am a lone software nerd looking for a wireless hotspot … not a light rail rider with free unlimited access anywhere in my community. Out in Silicon Valley I tried Google’s connection; it worked fine and did not ask for anything beyond my normal Google account.

This is one small example of why Silicon Valley is so successful. To be economically successful, countries need to focus on big things (investing in infrastructure, sensible laws relating to innovation, creating and maintaining good capital markets, investing in science and engineering education, encouraging entrepreneurs, transportation systems…) and the small stuff like this. Silicon Valley continue to be a bright light (as do other places, like Boston) but overall the USA seems to be trailing, not leading, far too often lately.

Related: Engineering the Future EconomyUSA Science Losing GroundDiplomacy and Science ResearchUSA Broadband is Slow. Really Slow.

August 17, 2008

Science Sortof Explains: Hiccups

photo of Red Hot Pepper by John Hunter

I love spicy food (Indian food is my favorite food). In my garden, this year, I am growing some spicy peppers (which honestly I don’t really like on their own – I have discovered). Still I eat them some and I get the hiccups almost every time. So I finally used Google to find out why. That lead to – MayoClinic on Hiccups:

A hiccup is an unintentional contraction of your diaphragm – the muscle that separates your chest from your abdomen and plays an important role in breathing. This contraction makes your vocal cords close very briefly, which produces the sound of a hiccup.

Although there’s often no clear cause for a bout of hiccups, some factors that can trigger acute or transient hiccups include: Eating spicy food. Spicy food may cause irritation to the nerves that control normal contractions of your diaphragm.

I must say the internet is great. Still that is hardly a great explanation for me. I almost never get the hickups eating spicy meals but every time I eat a hot pepper on its own I seem to (which happens very quickly and then ends pretty quickly – under 5 seconds). I guess somehow the other food in my mouth disrupts the potential nerve irritation so that it doesn’t cause a hiccup? It doesn’t seem like the raw pepper is hotter (higher Scoville Heat Unit) than the food, so I don’t think it is just a matter of more “heat” causing the hiccups.

Photo by John Hunter, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike (see requirements for use).

Related: The World’s Hottest ChiliScience Explains: Flame Colorposts on scientific explanations for what we experienceBackyard Wildlife: BirdsSave Money on Food with a Gardenfood related posts

Superbugs – Deadly Bacteria Take Hold

Superbugs by Jerome Groopman, New Yorker:

“My basic premise,” Wetherbee said, “is that you take a capable microörganism like Klebsiella and you put it through the gruelling test of being exposed to a broad spectrum of antibiotics and it will eventually defeat your efforts, as this one did.” Although Tisch Hospital has not had another outbreak, the bacteria appeared soon after at several hospitals in Brooklyn and one in Queens. When I spoke to infectious-disease experts this spring, I was told that the resistant Klebsiella had also appeared at Mt. Sinai Medical Center, in Manhattan, and in hospitals in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Cleveland, and St. Louis.

Unlike resistant forms of Klebsiella and other gram-negative bacteria, however, MRSA can be treated. “There are about a dozen new antibiotics coming on the market in the next couple of years,” Moellering noted. “But there are no good drugs coming along for these gram-negatives.” Klebsiella and similarly classified bacteria, including Acinetobacter, Enterobacter, and Pseudomonas, have an extra cellular envelope that MRSA lacks, and that hampers the entry of large molecules like antibiotic drugs. “The Klebsiella that caused particular trouble in New York are spreading out,” Moellering told me. “They have very high mortality rates. They are sort of the doomsday-scenario bugs.”

Great article. Related: Bacteria Survive On All Antibiotic DietBacteria Can Transfer Genes to Other BacteriaNew Yorker on CERN’s Large Hadron Colliderposts on health related topics

August 16, 2008

Ruby on Rails Job Opportunity

Just a note that the Ruby on Rails job opportunity I posted about earlier is still available. ASEE has a RoR contractor working now, but is still looking to hire a full time employee.

Dolphin Kick Gives Swimmers Edge

photo of Michael Phelps diving

Dolphin Kick Gives Swimmers Edge

Rajat Mittal, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the George Washington University, was studying dolphins for the U.S. Navy five years ago. “We were asked to understand how fish swim so efficiently,” Mittal says, “and it seemed like a natural extension to apply this to human swimming.”

They decided to “essentially compare these swimmers to the dolphin, assuming that the dolphin is the ultimate swimmer,” Mittal says. “And the thing that we found is that Michael [Phelps] is able to use his body in a way that is very, very different from the other athletes, and also seems to be much closer to dolphins than we have seen for any other swimmer.”

The dolphin kick first hit Olympic swimming big-time 20 years ago, after Harvard backstroker David Berkoff figured out something fundamental. “It seemed pretty obvious to me that kicking underwater seemed to be a lot faster than swimming on the surface,” Berkoff says.

That’s because there’s turbulence and air on the surface of the water, and they create resistance. The “Berkoff Blastoff,” as it was called, was used at the start and after turns, with long stretches of that underwater undulating kick.

Follow the link for a video of Michael Phelps demonstrating the technique and more interesting details. Photo by A. Dawson shows Michael Phelps diving into the water at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials.

Related: Science of the High JumpSports EngineeringPhysicist Swimming RevolutionSwimming Robot Aids Researchers

August 15, 2008

Buckminster Fuller at the Whitney

The Whitney in NYC has a Buckminster Fuller Exhibit through September 15, 2008.

One of the great American visionaries of the twentieth century, R. Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) endeavored to see what he, a single individual, might do to benefit the largest segment of humanity while consuming the minimum of the earth’s resources. Doing “more with less” was Fuller’s credo.

Fuller’s innovative theories and designs addressed fields ranging from architecture, the visual arts, and literature to mathematics, engineering, and sustainability. He refused to treat these diverse spheres as specialized areas of investigation because it inhibited his ability to think intuitively, independently, and, in his words, “comprehensively.”
The results of more than five decades of Fuller’s integrated approach toward the design and technology of housing, transportation, cartography, and communication are displayed here, much of it for the first time. This exhibition offers a fresh look at Fuller’s life’s work for everyone who shares his sense of urgency about homelessness, poverty, diminishing natural resources, and the future of our planet.

Related: Buckminster Fuller, Everything I knowBuckminster Fuller: Dymaxion ManBuckminster Fuller $100,000 ChallengeMetropolitan Museum of Art photos

August 14, 2008

Engineering TV

Engineering TV offers some nice videos. The site needs more content and some better usability (almost no webcasts are returned on clicking the tags – though they can be found by searching, videos play with sound automatically (without user approval), the ad sounds are way too loud…) but it is another site that might provide some interesting webcasts. I am still most hopeful about SciVee (based on the tie to PLoS) – though the progress has been slow so far.

Related: doFlick Engineering Instructional WebcastsScience and Engineering Webcast LibrariesGoogle Tech Webcasts #3

The PI lacks the experience with the proposed methodology…

A nice post from ScienceWoman: The PI lacks the experience with the proposed methodology…

Well, no kidding. I’m 3000 miles from my old stomping grounds. I’m trying to start an independent research program in a place where the geology/climate are not at all the same. I’m applying for $ for that are specific to Mystery State. Damn straight I’m going to need to learn a few new techniques. (And we’re not talking rocket science here.) But was there nothing in the proposal to suggest that I didn’t understand the techniques or wasn’t properly applying them. Just a lack of a publication record that explicitly used those techniques or occurred in this part of the country.

I suspect that this is a criticism that I’m going to see a few more times before tenure. And I suspect that it’s a criticism that’s not uniquely being leveled at me.

In this case, this criticism isn’t the reason the proposal wasn’t funded. But it’s the one reviewer critique that I can’t surmount on the resubmission. It’s like that itch I can’t scratch. So I guess the resubmitted proposal is just going to have to be so kick-ass in all other respects that there’s no way they can deny me these funds. Better get to work.

Related: Funding for Science and Engineering ResearchersHMMI Nurtures Nation’s Best Early Career Scientists$1 Million Each for 20 Science Educatorsposts on funding in scienceAdvice on Successfully Applying for Science and Engineering Scholarships and Fellowships

USA Broadband is Slow. Really Slow.

Surprise, surprise: U.S. broadband is slow. Really slow.

The U.S. comes in 15th on a worldwide scale, far behind the leaders Japan, South Korea and Finland.

A file that takes four minutes to download in South Korea would take nearly an hour and a half to download in the U.S. using the average bandwidth. Japanese users leaves U.S. users behind with an eye-popping 63.60 Mb/s download link. This means that Japanese can download an entire movie in just two minutes, as opposed to two hours or more here in the U.S. Just in case you are wondering: No, Japanese users do not pay more for their broadband connections. In fact, U.S. broadband cost is among the highest in the world.

Japan dominates international broadband speed with a median download speed of approximately 63 Mb/s, more than enough to stream DVD-quality video with surround audio in real time. Next on the list is South Korea where download speeds achieve an average of 49.50 Mb/s. Finland and France follow with 21.70 Mb/s and 17.60 Mb/s, respectively. Canada ranked eighth with an average download speed of 7.60 Mb/s. The U.S. came in 15th with 2.35 Mb/s.

I see this as an economic issue. Countries that have provided an investment in internet infrastructure to provide broadband to the home at reasonable prices will be rewarded.

Related: Speed Matter Report (pdf) – PhD Student Speeds up Broadband by 200 timesPlugging America’s Broadband GapThe Next Generation InternetYouTube Access Deniedinternet related posts

August 13, 2008

How Humans Got So Smart

Cooking and Cognition: How Humans Got So Smart

For a long time, we were pretty dumb. Humans did little but make “the same very boring stone tools for almost 2 million years,” he said. Then, only about 150,000 years ago, a different type of spurt happened — our big brains suddenly got smart. We started innovating. We tried different materials, such as bone, and invented many new tools, including needles for beadwork. Responding to, presumably, our first abstract thoughts, we started creating art and maybe even religion.

To understand what caused the cognitive spurt, Khaitovich and colleagues examined chemical brain processes known to have changed in the past 200,000 years. Comparing apes and humans, they found the most robust differences were for processes involved in energy metabolism.

The finding suggests that increased access to calories spurred our cognitive advances, said Khaitovich, carefully adding that definitive claims of causation are premature.

Nice example of scientific discovery in action. The direct link from cooking to brain development is far from proven but it is interesting. I also like “the same very boring stone tools for almost 2 million years” – maybe that is because I am too cynical (but while evolution is amazing – sometimes it is amazing how slow progress is).

Related: Brain Development Gene is Evolving the FastestMapping Where Brains Store Similar Informationposts on science and out brains

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