Category Archives: Science

What a Great Idea!

2011_08_07-U-Socket

Now here’s a great idea. Wall sockets with USB ports so we can charge our gear. Wonder where I can get a few of these……

 

More info here.

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The Last Chapter?

At 5:56 AM this morning I watched the Atlantis touch down for the final time. As a child of the 60s and 70s, I grew up with the space program. I was a callow 16 year old trudging through the mountains of North Carolina with Outward Bound when our team leader told us that we had landed on the moon. I remember, like yesterday, driving down the highway when the shuttle exploded as it climbed toward orbit. I remember the men cavorting on the surface of the moon, swinging golf clubs, driving recklessly in their lunar rovers, and bobbing over the dusty surface while singing and conducting their scientific experiments.

And, now, no more. No trips to low earth orbit, no plans to revisit the moon or make an attempt to get to Mars. We have taken our eyes away from the stars, with all of the attendant hopes and dreams, to stare at the mundane. In focusing on the near, we have lost our vision.

A sad, sad day.

UPDATE:

Bloggers and media types have taken to the internet today to praise the end of the shuttle program, noting that other space strivers like the Russians and Chinese shelved their shuttle designs due to the extreme cost and limited utility of the model. They observe that it is appropriate that private enterprise steps into the breach, and that efficiency and entrepeneurial spirit will provide the next burst of activity. Having had some time to reflect on that position, I can’t disagree.

So, come on Bert Rutan, et al! Let’s go to Mars and mine the rare minerals and make a huge profit!

Synthetic Biology

These are either the scariest words ever written or the announcement of our impending immortality…

"We make a genome from four bottles of chemicals; we put that synthetic genome into a cell; that synthetic genome takes over the cell," said Dr. Gibson. "The cell is entirely controlled by that new genome."

The scientists didn’t give the new organism its own species name, but they did give its synthetic genome an official version number, Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0.

To set this novel bacterium—and all its descendants—apart from any natural creation, Dr. Venter and his colleagues wrote their names into its chemical DNA code, along with three apt quotations from James Joyce and others. These genetic watermarks will, eventually, allow the researchers to assert ownership of the cells. "You have to have a way of tracking it," said Stanford ethicist Mildred Cho, who has studied the issues posed by the creation of such organisms.

In case you missed it, scientists working for Craig Venter have created, for the first time, a completely synthetic organism by writing computer code to create the desired gene sequences, made the DNA from the code, and then transplanted the DNA in an empty cell, which was taken over by the DNA.

This is literally a turning point in the relationship between man and nature," said molecular biologist Richard Ebright at Rutgers University, who wasn’t involved in the project. "For the first time, someone has generated an entire artificial cell with predetermined properties.

Read the whole story here and ponder what this means for mankind.

The Biggest Day in Motorsports

Jenson Button continued his unlikey conquest of Formula One at Monaco today. Billed as a race with little passing (overtaking for the knowledgable), the thrill comes from watching the drivers push their cars through the narrow, tortourous turns of the city squeezed between the mountains and the sea. As we saw this morning, the merest slip in focus and attention can wreak havoc with both car and driver. What a race!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This was sent by my brother-in-law from the Speedway:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

His seats are in the Turn 2 Tower suites, perhaps the best seats in the house. The cars will come tearing down the front straight, reaching 240 miles per hour, and then take a 90 degree turn to the left. There is virtually no banking, so the drivers will depend on the tremendous downforce created by aerodynamics and what grip remains in their tires to keep the car on the correct path through the turn. Then there is the "short shute" and another 90 degree turn. The wayward driver who errs in the entry to Turn 1 will pay the price on the exit of Turn 2. We will be watching from the comfort of our den. Although we will have great views throughout the race via our television, the only life-sized aspect of the race experience will be this:

 

Here’s hoping Paul Tracy gets the justice he deserves today.

Of Man, Pigs, and Bacteria

 

Those brave few who find their way to this blog know that I have no truck with most of the columnists writing for the New York Times. But Nicholas Kristof, writing in today’s New York Times, reports on the rampant overuse of antibiotics in commercial pig-farming operations.

It is both terrifying and outrageous. To wit:

We don’t add antibiotics to baby food and Cocoa Puffs so that children get fewer ear infections. That’s because we understand that the overuse of antibiotics is already creating “superbugs” resistant to medication…

Yet we continue to allow agribusiness companies to add antibiotics to animal feed so that piglets stay healthy and don’t get ear infections. Seventy percent of all antibiotics in the United States go to healthy livestock, according to a careful study by the Union of Concerned Scientists — and that’s one reason we’re seeing the rise of pathogens that defy antibiotics…

Yet the central problem here isn’t pigs, it’s humans. Unlike Europe and even South Korea, the United States still bows to agribusiness interests by permitting the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in animal feed. That’s unconscionable.

The peer-reviewed Medical Clinics of North America concluded last year that antibiotics in livestock feed were “a major component” in the rise in antibiotic resistance. The article said that more antibiotics were fed to animals in North Carolina alone than were administered to the nation’s entire human population.

“We don’t give antibiotics to healthy humans,” said Robert Martin, who led a Pew Commission on industrial farming that examined antibiotic use. “So why give them to healthy animals just so we can keep them in crowded and unsanitary conditions?”

The answer is simple: politics.

Read it all. This is behavior that is so short-sighted, so selfish, and so wrong as to beggar description.

Here’s why:

Approximately 80 percent of the atmosphere is nitrogen gas (N2). Unfortunately, N2 is unusable by most living organisms. Plants, animals and microorganisms can die of nitrogen deficiency, surrounded by N2 they cannot use. All organisms use the ammonia (NH3) form of nitrogen to manufacture amino acids, proteins, nucleic acids and other nitrogen-containing components necessary for life. Biological nitrogen fixation is the process that changes inert N2 to biologically useful NH3. This process is mediated in nature only by bacteria.

Did you get that last bit? Without bacteria, all life forms on this planet would not be able to process Nitrogen. Without bacteria, all life forms on this planet will die.

More detail here. And this explains it nicely, with some pictures…

Nitrogen comprises 78.08 % of the atmosphere making it the largest constituent of the gaseous envelope that surrounds the Earth. Nitrogen is important in the make up of organic molecules like proteins. Unfortunately, nitrogen is inaccessible to most living organisms. Nitrogen must be “fixed” by soil bacteria living in association with the roots of particular plant like legumes, clover, alfalfa, soybeans, peas, peanuts, and beans. Living on nodules around the roots of legumes, the bacteria chemically combine nitrogen in the air to form nitrates (NO3) and ammonia (NH3) making it available to plants. Organisms that feed on the plants ingest the nitrogen and release it in organic wastes. Denitrifying bacteria frees the nitrogen from the wastes returning it to the atmosphere.

Nitrogen Cycle

 

We live in, and are part of, an enormously complex eco-system. Yes, there are many levels of redundancy built into our biological systems, but there are also pieces of Nature’s plan that provide important functions which can be easily destroyed if Man continues to act stupidly and selfishly. I’m not a tree hugger, and I’m not an environmental wacko, but we are playing with fire when it comes to antibiotics…..

At My Age…..

…..I can’t do the things I used to be able to do. Or so the saying goes. But now comes the news that things might not be so inevitable:

The question of what causes aging has spawned competing schools, with one side claiming that inborn genetic programs make organisms grow old. This theory has had trouble gaining traction because it implies that aging evolved, that natural selection pushed older organisms down a path of deterioration. However, natural selection works by favoring genes that help organisms produce lots of offspring. After reproduction ends, genes are beyond natural selection’s reach, so scientists argued that aging couldn’t be genetically programmed.

The alternate, competing theory holds that aging is an inevitable consequence of accumulated wear and tear: toxins, free-radical molecules, DNA-damaging radiation, disease and stress ravage the body to the point it can’t rebound. So far, this theory has dominated aging research.

But the Stanford team’s findings told a different story. “Our data just didn’t fit the current model of damage accumulation, and so we had to consider the alternative model of developmental drift,” Kim said.

If aging is not a cost of unavoidable chemistry but is instead driven by changes in regulatory genes, the aging process may not be inevitable. It is at least theoretically possible to slow down or stop developmental drift.

“The take-home message is that aging can be slowed and managed by manipulating signaling circuits within cells,” said Marc Tatar, PhD, a professor of biology and medicine at Brown University who was not involved in the research. “This is a new and potentially powerful circuit that has just been discovered for doing that.”

Kim added, “It’s a new way to think about how to slow the aging process.”

Where do I sign up?