Thursday, December 23, 2010

Chocolate helps eliminate cough.

Theobromine, an ingredient in over-the-counter chocolate bars, has shown promise as an anti-coughing agent. 

Researchers have discovered that a chemical compound, theobromine, a methylxanthine commonly found in dark chocolate and other substances derived from the cocoa plant have shown great promise as an anti-cough medication.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Zeppelins are cool again

Modern airships are quite amazing, check out this video of what a commercial flight over Long Beach, California looks like.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Fungi found growing in remains of the Chernobyl reactor.

Fungi have been found growing in the remains of the Chernobyl Atomic Energy Station and surrounding areas. Their secret: use the radiation to grow!

After nearly two weeks without writing anything of substance due to overbearing exams, I'm finally back in action! To jump directly back into science, we'll be discussing a very weird property of certain fungi that have been found living in the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. They've not only figured out how to live with radiation levels many times that of the normal background, but they've also found a way to use it as an energy source for growth!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Scientists create mice from two male parents

Reproductive researchers have created male and female mice, from parents that were both genetically male.

Considering all the controversy surrounding NASA's press release about arsenic-based lifeforms with different DNA structure, and because of my slowly approaching genetics exam, I thought I would write about an equally interesting genetic development that seems to have skipped the attention of the science tabloids. 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

24 Hours of Trauma

Experience first-hand the day-to-day life of physicians in South Africa's largest hospital, and the trails and tribulations they have to cope with.

As I write this I'm extremely exhausted from studying for my ever present, ever annoying examinations. However, during one of my 56 breaks throughout the day I managed to find time to look at some interesting medical videos.

This one is actually a series of videos that cover different specialists and the days (and nights) they spend working in Bara hospital, South Africa's largest hospital. It's a real treat to see how medicine is practiced in other countries, but more importantly it's a huge wake up call to how good we have it in the west.

In this video, you get to follow the emergency department staff for a 24-hour shift.

The amount of problems they have to deal with are astonishing: power outages, no beds, no ventilators, a large portion of HIV-positive patients.

I highly recommend watching the other videos in the series. They detail the lives of many other specialties, all of which are amazing to watch.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Inner Life of the Cell

Posted by Alexandru Nicolae

To commemorate the semi-finishing of my molecular cell biology course ( exams are still in progress), I thought I would show this cool video on the inner workings of a neutrophil. You can see everything from microtubule formation to lipid rafts and the extremely funny looking dyenin complex strutting its stuff while carrying a comically sized vesicle. If any of this interests you I highly recommend you take a cell biology course, if not then simply enjoy the video.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

How to Breathe Water...and Not Die?

Newly designed scuba suit allows diving to great depths, all by breathing in ...water?

Posted by Alexandru Nicolae

So a good friend of mine showed me this wonderful link to a news article discussing a new type of scuba suit. This one is quite different and allows the wearer to avoid decompression sickness, more commonly called the bends, when diving to extreme depths by allowing the user to breathe....a liquid?!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Two Week Hiatus

Posted by Alexandru Nicolae

Just to let my valued readers know, I'm entering exam week in my program so I won't have time to update regularly. I'll be back soon with more cool science as soon as my exams are finished. 

Stay posted!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Hatsune Miko. The Virtual Japanese Pop Star.

Posted by Alexandru Nicolae

In Japan, pop stars are now virtual holograms. I think that says enough about the situation at hand, enjoy the video ladies and gentleman.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Newly Released Wikileaks Documents Highlight US Foreign Diplomacy.

Posted by Alexandru Nicolae

  I know we normally write about upcoming developments in the scientific world, but I had to take a bit of time to talk about something that's taking the journalistic world by storm today. 

Wikileaks has recently released some MORE secret documents, this time on the United States' foreign relations and diplomacy with both their enemies and their allies. The documents discuss topics on everything from spy networks in foreign embassies to opinions on political leaders.

What Happened Before the Big Bang? ... A Big Bang!

Posted by Alexandru Nicolae

Image Credit: NASA/ WMAP team.

According to some shocking new findings, scientists may be one step closer to figuring out what happened before the big bang!

The current evidence states that the Big Bang that occurred 13.7 billion years ago gave rise to a universe that is constantly expanding, cooling, growing. As it does this it loses energy; at one point it will have lost all its energy resulting in a permanently cold and energy-less universe: a heat death.

Friday, November 26, 2010

We've Come A Long Way Since Tetris. DirectX11 and the CRYENGINE.

Posted by Alexandru Nicolae

I've always been interested in any advances in computer gaming graphics, primarily because one day it might lead to virtual reality that looks and feels just like real life (similar to a form of the Matrix). So when I was shown a tech demo of DirectX11 and what it could do, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to show you all. Here's what seems to be the manliest 3D video ever:

Now I'm not a computer scientist by the furthest stretch of the imagination so most of the software specs and features flew over my head for this one, but the main thing I noticed was how fluid and realistic it all looked.

Another really cool one (this one even better looking) is known as the CRYENGINE. The video below is the engine running the game Crysis. Check out the trees in the vast nature settings, even the leaves blowing in the wind look realistic; mind you, these ares all in-game graphics. For full appreciation, turn the video all the way up to 11 (ie. 720p).

We've come a long way since Tetris. Here's hoping that one day we get to wander strange worlds hooked up to a computer.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Facing Your Mortality

An examination of the chronically-critically ill. How end of life care occurs in a modern US hospital. And how it can teach us about our own mortality. 

Posted by Alexandru Nicolae

This is a 1-hour PBS documentary I stumbled on showing the growing issues faced by medical practitioners dealing with the chronicaly critically ill, and how their constant circling-the-drain health status impacts those around them. 

It's quite hard to watch at times because the patients are going through so much, as are their families, and they have minimal prospects of getting better.

The most interesting quote from the documentary, that these patients are in a state of limbo, a suspended animation, really outlined what modern medicine can do. It can keep people alive almost indefinitely, but is that necessarily an improvement on their quality of life? Millions of questions arise from this, hopefully we have answers one day, someday.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Flying Snakes....RUN!

Warning. If you're afraid of snakes, look away.

Posted by Alexandru Nicolae

I've been extremely busy lately with school, having barely enough time for sleep let alone writing proper blog entries. So until my exams are finished I'm going to be posting some short (but interesting) videos on the "wow" part of science.

I present to you flying snakes! In reality, the species shown here, Chrysopelea paradisi, is really gliding and not flying. They can glide about 10 meters and use their characteristic undulating motion for a bit of extra propulsion. And get this, they can use this to escape from predators, or even attack arial prey!

On a side note, for some reason DARPA is interested in this research. Are they planning to make arial undulating search-and-destroy drones? Only time and a lot of phobias will tell.

Video Credit: Dr. Jake Socha, youtube channel:


Socha JJ, Dempsey TO, LaBarbera ML. (2005). A 3-D kinematic analysis of gliding in a flying snake, Chrysopelea paradisi. J Exp Bio; 209: 1817-1833

Monday, November 22, 2010

Multiple Sclerosis patient dies after controversial new treatment

A controversial and yet unproven treatment has claimed the life of a Canadian patient suffering from MS.

There has been a lot of buzz recently over a suggested treatment for patients suffering from multiple sclerosis (MS). A recent, yet obscure, research paper published by Zamboni P. et al. (2009) has suggested that multiple sclerosis, a debilitating neurological disease that can leave one with severely impaired movement and motor function, is caused by blocked or impaired veins in the head / neck that lead to problems in blood flow. The paper thus suggests that treatment for MS would be possible by opening up these blocked veins.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Mosquitoes, Annoying As Hell and Saving Lives!

Using Mosquitoes to Stop Mosquitoes: The Awesomeness of GMOs

Image Credit: Alvesgaspar, Wikipedia commons. Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

As I walked to school today through piles of snow on the side of the road and sidewalk I was reminded of just one of the wonderful things about winter: there are absolutely none of those little bloodsuckers known as 'mosquitoes'. Not only do you have to deal with persistent whining next to your ear and an itch that won't quit no matter how much you scratch, mosquitoes are flying little hypodermic needles some of which are filled with pathogens that unbelievably may exceed the harm done by incessant biting.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Antimatter Successfully Trapped At CERN.

Scientists at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) have succesfully trapped an antihydrogen atom.

Posted by Alexandru Nicolae

Image Credit: False colour image of Omega Nebula. NASA, ESA & J. Hester(ASU).
The successful trapping of an antihydrogen atom by physicists at CERN has been published in an advance letter to Nature journal. Scientists have known about antimatter for quite some time, and CERN has been studying it since 2002. Using a magnetic trap (an array of magnets), they were able to successfully contain an antihydrogen atom for fractions of a second. The implications for theoretical physics are vast, and more work needs to be done to fully understand this form of matter that was around at the big bang. But just exactly what is this stuff and what does it explain?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Barack Obama Meets the Geminoid-F

Posted by Alexandru Nicolae

Video: NECN.

A short update on everyone's favourite humanoid-robot, the Geminoid-F (formerly the Actroid-F). She's been in the news a lot recently, from being "born" and mimicking human facial expressions (here), to being the first avatar-robot to star in a play (here), to meeting the commander-in-chief of the United States of America! I wouldn't be surprised if It becomes the first humanoid robot to set foot on Mars one day.

By the way, what is up with its new body? It looks like some futuristic space solider. Either way, it looks much better, so I'm not complaining.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Keepon Dances to the Beat

Keepon keeps on dancing, helping children while doing it.

Posted by Karen Cochrane

Greetings, earthlings. Alexandru here. Today I present our latest guest writer, the amazing Karen Cochrane who will be discussing a robot that not only helps children with developmental problems, but has rhythm too. Informative video inside:

Photo: Keepon robot by Marek Michalowski & Hideki Kozima
Even though it became popular in 2007, this litter creature isn’t loosing any steam. As this blog wasn’t around when this little guy was invented, I wanted to write an article about it and show the world. In reality, it’s gaining more popularity as time goes by. This little cutie came on my radar a few weeks ago and I thought it was important to write about him.

Monday, November 15, 2010


Robotic Radiosurgery. How robots are becoming a part of the cure for one of the most horrid of human ailments. Video Inside!

Posted by Alexandru Nicolae

Image Credit: Howie Blog.

Because it's Mustache November (for those that don't know, it involves growing a mustache in support of finding a cure for prostate cancer), I thought I would do a short piece on cancer treatment. But me being the tech-junkie that I am, I've decided to discuss a cool new piece of cancer-fighting technology that few people know about. It's called CyberKnife, and it's robotic, missle-guided, radiosurgery. Let that sink in before you read the rest, I'll wait here...

Sunday, November 14, 2010

An Invisible Killer Substance. How It's Creeping Around In Your Very Own Home.

How a silent killer may be closer to home than you think.

Posted by Alexandru Nicolae

I thought that I would finally post something in depth from my field of study. I've had trouble picking a topic (there are so many interesting ones), but I've finally settled on something that very few people seem to know about, yet may affect hundreds of thousands every year. I'm of course referring to lung cancer. We all know about the dangers of smoking and how it can vastly increase your chances of getting lung cancer, but can any other substances cause lung cancer? Did you know that another less well known substance can cause up to 10% of the reported lung cancer cases every year? Or, and here's the scary part, that you have probably been exposed to it sometime today? Or how about that this chemical is all-natural? In this article, we will take a look at the mysterious and deadly Radon.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Auditions Now Being Held. Robots Invade the Arts.

A brief update on an old robotic friend.

Posted By Alexandru Nicolae

If you read one of our earlier articles about the Japanese Actroid-F (found here) you'll know that its facial features were unmatched by any other current robot on the realistic robot "market". Another version of this amazing piece of robotics is now trying its hand at acting! During the play the Android was cosidered an avatar, that is it was being controlled though motion sensors and computers by a human operator. Once again, the video will do more talking then I ever could. Enjoy!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

New NDM-1 Positive Super Bacteria On the Rise

The growing spread of multi-drug resistant pathogens has many people fearing potential epidemics

Posted by Alexandru Nicolae

It all started when a Swedish-Indian citizen traveled to India for a simple visit. In New Delhi, she developed a urinary tract infection by an antibiotic-resistant pathogen called Klebsiella pneumoniae. This new strain was resistant to a specific type of powerful antibiotic called carbapenem, a drug used as a last resort in fighting especially drug-resistant infections. As of November, 2010, many other forms of bacteria including strains of E-coli have been found to possess the same resistance, and they've appeared in places around the world. As of this date, 8 cases have been reported in Toronto, Canada (a long way from India indeed). How exactly are these bacteria foiling our greatest weapons against them?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Are Text Messages Helping HIV Victims with Treatment?

Text messaging and its influence on HIV treatment.

Posted by Ari Morgenthau

Image Credit: Alton, Creative Commons 3.0.
Author's Update:
A recent study by Dr. Frank Scott is currently under dispute because of its small sample size relative to its conclusions, therefore the first part of this article covering that research was removed until the conclusions of the study are resolved. It is felt that the conclusions made in the study, that individuals who hyper-text and hyper network (send more than 120 text/day or spend 3 or more hours social networking) are more likely to engage in risky behavior including sex, alcohol, fighting, and drugs. The study was conducted in the Cleveland area and may not be representative of the general population. For more on the study please watch the video bellow.

Multisource political news, world news, and entertainment news analysis by

When Is A Human Not A Human?

Another look into the Japanese robotics industry, but this time on the more human side of things.

Posted by Alexandru Nicolae

Image Credit: Osaka University  Geminoid F developed by Osaka University and ATR
So once again we return to the mystical land of Japan, where robotics and intelligence research company Kokoro Co. Ltd and ATR have made a huge stride in human-robot interactions. Its newest product is a modification of the company's Actroid robot series which has been on the market for quite some time now. The new Actroid-F series is a more cost-effective, weight reducing, size limiting version of the previous design with even more life-like facial features. It has been voted as the world's first "true android avatar" by Guinness World Records. What does that mean exactly?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

We'll All Drink Blood After the Impact.

Why survivors of asteroid impacts may end up looking and living more like Edward Cullen.

Posted By Ari Morgenthau

Our latest contributor, Mr. Ari Morgenthau asks us if we've ever thought about adopting the lifestyle of a vampire, and why it could one day happen anyway.

Along with the large number of Halloween specials that have been on TV this week there was a fair number of Halloween parties with lovely people dressing up in a sorts of lovely costumes. So how many people dressed up as a vampire? I know of at least five. As we all know from the ever present Twilight series, or for those of us who are too old for that book and would prefer our vampires don’t sparkle, Dracula; vampires can’t live in direct sun light, they’re nocturnal so to speak. This leaves me with a puzzling scientific question: Are we likely to ever adapt the vampiric life style and become nocturnal?

Monday, November 8, 2010

What Do Streetcars Have In Common With Beaches?

Posted by Alexandru Nicolae

I've been a train enthusiast for quite some time, so I thought I would write an article to inform everyone about a very obscure piece of science that you probably encounter everyday if you live in a big city and use streetcars frequently, yet you've probably never even noticed it. Streetcars are amazing pieces of technology that we take for granted everyday, but one of their oddest features has to do with the physics behind their movement. So to skip ahead and answer the question, what do streetcars and beaches have in common? The answer is sand.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Nature is Totally Gay

The one, and only, Jonathan "Fox" Gray gives us a short story about a classy gentleman with a taste for fine drinks who boldly explains why nature is totally gay.

Posted by Jonathan Gray

Image Credit: Kabir Bakie at the Cincinnati Zoo May 2005
Our own contributing blogger Jonathan Gray gives his amazingly witty, informative and humorous introduction to the world of science, Enjoy:

It's just another Friday night, and you're in your usual place at the
local pub, the chaise-longue by the fireside, swirling a glass of '72
Janneau Armagnac and feeling the buzz of both it and the small crowd
your charm; magnetism attracts. They burst into frivolous giggles
when you finish arguing how most Shakespeare works could have been
solved by the availability of text messaging, and then all of a sudden,
there's a commotion at the bar! Some decibel-ignorant fellow is making
statement at great length and of greater vulgarity. This will not do.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

I See You

Could new microchips implanted in the back of the eye restore sight to the blind?

Image Credit: Iris
Can you imagine not being able to see? If you're not blind, this can be much harder to imagine than you think. As humans, former tree swinging apes really, our eyesight developed to help locate the most colorful looking fruit for consumption, or to judge the distance between trees; fatal consequences arising if not done properly. Unfortunately, blindness in various forms afflicts millions worldwide and is by no means a homogeneous condition, impaired eyesight below a certain threshold can be considered functionally blind and can leave one severely handicapped, even if minimal vision remains. Now, a new study by the Royal Society of Biological Sciences shows that certain forms of blindness can be cured guessed it, computer chips and implants!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Unorthodox Engineering.

Software engineer Matthias Wandel has some extremely creative ideas.

I was stumbling around on the internet today during a study break when I found some of the absolutely amazing gadgets and contraptions of Matthias Wandel, a software engineer and by the looks of it an amazing inventor. They're absolutely amazing to watch in action and they're really intuitive. He's even made a reciprocating engine purely out of wood; in fact, to the best of my knowledge it looks like a steam engine that runs on the negative pressure created by a vacuum cleaner! The above video is of an automatic domino loader that sets up domino blocks for you, and it's made out of Lego! I highly recommend you check out his youtube channel and website if you're interested in random gadgets and machinery, you won't be disappointed. Once again, this is one of those posts where I believe I should let the videos do the majority of the talking. Enjoy!


His website can be found here:

Saving a Life. A Simple CT Scan Away

How the NLST has found a breakthrough method to screen for lung cancer, and how it may save millions of lives. 

The National Lung Cancer Screening Trial (NLST) was a study performed by the National Cancer Institute to evaluate the efficacy of using CT scanning in the prevention and detection of lung cancer. In other words, it was trying to determine if medical x-ray imaging could be used to find lung cancer before symptoms even arose in patients. On November 4, 2010, before the trail was even complete, they revealed to the public a resounding "it works!". Now, why on earth is this so important, and more importantly why should you care?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Another Late Night....

How sleep deprivation is becoming all too common, and why you should be worried about it.

As I sit here writing this I noticed that I've been awake for a very long time. To properly estimate I don't think I got more than five hours of sleep last night, or the previous night for that matter. But have you ever wondered about how much you sleep? It's a necessity for proper functioning, but it seems that more and more people in today's society are not getting enough sleep, and it may seriously be impacting their health and performance.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Apple's Ipad has found a new use that nobody would have expected.

Image Credit: Apple Canada.
In keeping up with our current theme of technology assisting people, a recent article in the New York Times talked about something that I never expected would occur out of a fancy gadget that's primarily used to hold up other laptops or play games where you bombard houses with penguins. But it seems that Apple`s Ipad is useful as a device to assist the disabled! Who would've thought!

Glowing coral: Green fluroescent protein in action.

This cool video shows how underwater creatures express fluorescent proteins. When struck by ultraviolet light they emit green light back. Luckily we've managed to sequence the genomes of these proteins and express them in whatever we choose to make; like glowing mice. We've determined to a large extent how they function but why they exist in nature is anyone's guess. The video suggests that they may be a way of protecting against harmful UV light since the pigments absorb the radiation, thereby preventing harm to the creature that expresses the protein. Right now words will probably just take away from the beauty exhibited by these creatures, so enjoy the video!

Video credit: BBC Earth

Monday, November 1, 2010

Have you ever wanted to control things with your mind? Well now you can!

Imagine being unable to move. For many people with neurodegenerative diseases or who have become paralyzed, this is part of their day-to-day life. Simple tasks like turning on a computer or even eating became the most difficult of tasks; and up until now, there wasn`t much that could be done for those afflicted. Until now!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Magnetically levitated trains are the future, who needs all these highways?

Image Credit: 2010 Shanghai Expo, org.

The Beijing Times has announced that China has recently begun constructing Maglev trains, transportation that can go speeds of about 600 kilometres per hour. They have been around for some time and are already in use in Japan, or as everyone else knows it the land of futuristic everything.

Maglev trains, derived from Magnetic Levitation, work on the principle that trains can hover and propel themselves using magnets instead of using wheels, thereby reducing friction substantially and increasing the top speed from one hundred to several hundred kilometres per hour. The science behind their operation is actually quite simple. There are two motors, one to levitate the train and the other one to propel the train. The one levitating the train works like the magnets we all played with back in elementary school; put a magnet close to another magnet and it pushes it away. In the life-sized version the track is one of the magnets, and the other one is on the train. The propelling magnet is nothing but a good old electric motor that's been linearized: stretched out along the train, with the other part of the motor overlaying the side of the track. The ability to float and push itself along the track allows it to go phenomenal speeds.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

"Dis is 2 cool, im so hi up!!!", Twitter and Facebook now available from 30,000 feet.

Nordic telecommunications company TeliaSonera, and its Nepalese subsidiary, Ncell, have become the first company to provide a 3G high speed connection in the Mount Everest region. This includes access from the summit. This brand spanking new service will allow access to Facebook, Twitter, and Google for mountain climbers and mountain goats alike.

Now, the summit of Everest's peak is 29,029 feet above sea level (or 8,848 metres for my fellow Canadians). To give you some perspective this is almost equal to 16 CN Towers stacked one on top of another, that's a lot of glass floors to look through.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Take the bitter pill. How an accidental discovery may make asthma a thing of the past.

A new paper published by Nature Medicine has found that your lungs contain taste receptors, and they can specifically sense bitterness!

Dr. Stephen B. Liggett MD, a pulmonologist at University of Maryland School of Medicine, and his team of researchers discovered the bitter taste receptors (TAS2Rs) by accident while studying human airway smooth muscle (ASM) receptors. What's even more surprising is that the TAS2 receptors found in the lung's smooth muscle cells are identical to those found on your tongue. There are a few exceptions of course; the lung's taste receptors are not grouped together like they are in the tongue (better known as taste buds), and they have no sensory link to the brain, which explains why you can't taste awful bitterness every time you travel to a very polluted city and simply inhale.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Lights Out: how a Japanese robotics facility is changing the face of manufacturing.

The recent economic collapse and following recession has affected nearly everyone on the planet, nowhere is this more evident than in the manufacturing sector. The majority of the jobs lost in recent years (at least in the States and in Canada) has been technical labour, generally in auto assembly and other manufacturing positions. A new form of manufacturing, called Lights Out manufacturing, will most likely make this problem worse since it increases production efficiency. But before we discuss the social aspects, we`ll take a look at just how cool it all is.

One of the largest companies currently using this method of production is Japan based FANUC (Factory Automatic Numerical Control) Ltd. This company specializes in robotics manufacturing: servo motors, mechanical arms etc, all with a slight twist. There is minimal human involvement in the entire process. What they've essentially produced is robots, that build other robots. That is in a nutshell what Lights Out manufacturing is, a funny term stating that because there are no humans present in the factory the lights could technically be turned off without any change in operations.

As you sit here reading this, FANUC robots are building and assembling other robots at a rate of about 50 per day (remember, they don't need to take breaks) and can run unsupervised for as long as 30 days. The only time humans visit is to deliver the robots to their clients, primarily auto manufacturers. According to FANUC vice-president Gary Zywiol, "Not only is it lights-out, we turn off the air conditioning and heat too". These robots are so efficient, companies like Panasonic have been able to produce up to 2 million plasma screen televisions per month, all with a whopping 15 people monitoring the factory floor.

Here is the famed robot-robot factory. In this case, they're producing servo motors which will be used in moving the arms of their fellow brothers and sisters.

Notice the complete lack of human involvement, and the sweet sounding servo motors in action.

On the social side of things, it's almost inevitable to not think of the further job losses associated with this kind of production. It'll eventually replace almost all manual labour jobs in the manufacturing industry, probably contributing even more to the poor economic situation we've found ourselves in. I know that personally, I should be more worried and feeling bad about the future job losses associated with this new assembly method, but to be 100% honest, I'm really not. I realize that having so many people out of work will cause definitive social, political, and economic strife, not to mention that it's quite cruel to our fellow humans who rely on jobs like these to feed their families and live their day to day lives. but I also feel that the revolving wheel of technological advancement is something which cannot be ignored. To be brutally honest about the whole thing, these machines and the manufacturing methods make human laborours simply obsolete: we have machines that never take breaks and can work non-stop, require no income, no benefits, no health plans, and take no sick days; it's a no-brainer why manufacturing companies would prefer this method. Even so, the same was probably said of the printing press when it was first invented: it took away the well-being of priests and scribes who would traditionally spend time copying and writing by hand. And despite all that, I remain optimistic that although manufacturing jobs might disappear, computer programming jobs will take their place as more of these robots require complex programming. The jobs simply transfer from one venue to the next. Am I being too optimistic? Perhaps, but who knows, perhaps the blue-collar worker of the future will look like Bill Gates....just an amusing afterthought.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

You nearly died today and probably didn't know it ... here's how:

According to Wired magazine and the United States air force, on Saturday 23, 2010 (this past Saturday), the launch control officers of Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming lost communications with 50 LGM-30F-Minuteman II Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). If you don't have a clue what these are, here's a
short video of the resulting, minute, practically unnoticeable damage caused by the impact of this little toy.

Now, as this sinks in for you, this was such a serious matter that warranted the attention of many high-ups in the US Air Force, especially considering that it would be quite rare to loose communication and monitoring of all the missile silos in the entire base. It was even tweeted by an ex Air Force missile launch officer, reading "This is 50 ICBMs dropping off at once. I never heard of anything like it". It seems to me that if an actual nuclear weapon were to go off at a reasonable distance for us to somewhat survive, we'd probably be reading tweets about it before we even felt the explosion.

I'll leave the rest of the technical details about the situation for you to read over at Wired, right now I think what deserves our focused attention is the simple question "why?". Why do we even have these missiles still lying around? In an age of nearly constant worldwide communication, commerce, and business, why on earth would we need missiles (50 of them in one area to be exact, but there's plenty more around the world), that can obliterate small nations or large cities in the blink of an eye? I can't even imagine ever being so upset with someone that the last resort for resolving our issues would be to incinerate them and the land beneath them. The cold war is long over and my humble opinion is that these things have got to go. They have absolutely no use, not for defensive purposes, and not for offensive purposes (I doubt anyone would want to see WWII repeated). On top of that, they seem to be in the hands of people with very twitchy trigger fingers, something that should get everyone's red flags springing up. And finally, we have iffy control over them so they may launch without our direction, at any time, sort of like it almost did this past Saturday; it only takes one to start trouble and cause havoc after all.

So perhaps when my part time Benihana cooking instructor said " Stop twirling that knife, you'll hurt yourself or others", maybe he was right. I suppose if I'm the collective conscious of the western world, and the knife is a bomb with the power of 50 million tons of TNT ... well then touche Mr. Sakamoto, touche.

You can read the full details on the article here, at Wired:

Monday, October 25, 2010

Dean Karmen's robotic arm defeats the Segway...hands down.

Now, who would've thought that one of the oddest technological devices to ever grace our green and blue planet would help in the development of some of the world`s latest and best robotic prostheses?

Meet the "Luke" arm, named after Luke Skywalker's mangled robotic hand in the Empire Strikes Back (this is a tech and science blog, there will be lots of Star Wars talk, deal with it).

Developed by former Segway inventor, Dean Karmen (creator of the biggest what-were-you-thinking invention ever made), it could potentially revolutionize not only prostheses but human-robotic interactions; *cough* cyborgs *cough*. The first thing noticeable about the arm, and how it differs from the multitude of other robotic prostheses, is how fluid and precise the movements are. The arm's electronics are apparently designed to sense motor neuron signals in the upper arm, or in the case of a completely missing arm: foot and leg movements, or even neural signals! Integrating all this with complex computer processing yields arm motion that is extremely smooth and well coordinated even to finer movements, like eating a chocolate-covered raisin.

The arm itself seems so revolutionary simply because it seems to mimic human arm movement so well, down to the finest of movements. On top of that, it seems quite simple to control, although it's bound to have some learning curve. I sincerely believe that this is the direction biomedical science will be heading, towards more and more integration of humans with technological implants and "add-ons". Think of them as iphone apps for the body! It may sound far fetched, but recall some months back a story about a man with an RFID chip implanted in his arm being able to remotely access things (bank account, door access etc.). I suppose I should start saving up for those robotic wings I'll be purchasing sometime in the near future...I hear they'll be quite expensive.

Video Credit: IEEE Spectrum

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Haiti cholera outbreak and why we should be remembering Dr. John Snow.

The recent tragedy of the cholera outbreak in Haiti had gotten me thinking about water sanitation in the west and how much we take it for granted. It also got me thinking about one of the great founders of epidemiology, Dr. John Snow, a physician living in 19th century London.

Snow was famous for having done extensive research on anesthesia, primarily chloroform and ether (lovely smelling chemical by the way, reminds me of a dentist's office). He was also physically present and administering chloroform as a method of obstetrical anesthesia to good old Queen Victoria as she was pumping out two of her nine kids.

His greatest achievement, however was in founding the science of epidemiology. He did this through the study of a cholera outbreak that occurred in 1854 in a small town called Soho. He essentially got a map of the town and began visiting and interviewing as many people he could talk to about their health., their lifestyle habits etc. Through extensive probing, he discovered that all the towns folk who contracted cholera did so after drinking or bathing in water from one specific well: the Broad street pump. He eventually convinced those using the well to stop, and the cholera cases soon disappeared. Because of his proper mapping of the town's citizens who were affected by the disease, Snow was able to construct one of the first epidemiological maps, which again showed the cases of disease spread around the Broad street pump. It was later discovered that the pump was dug several feet away from an open sewage pit, with fecal matter entering the water supply.

His work not only founded an entire branch of science, but also helped solidify a link between contaminated water and disease. If you ask me, that's one of the finest discoveries of science that we take for granted every day.

Most of the world's population who are still affected by diarrheal diseases nowadays are from developing countries like Haiti, and the majority of those victims are children, the ones who can tolerate it the least. I once caught viral gastroenteritis: non stop vomiting and ...well, you know, the "other" thing. The treatment ended up being bed rest and some diluted gatorade, and I even complained about that. To image that many of these people may die from something similar either makes one feel really depressed or really lucky. Maybe it's a bit of both.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Milestone in History.

... and now you're awake, in the world of the future. That's right, the world's first spaceport has officially opened in New Mexico, USA! This is so absolutely amazing that I'm going to try my hardest to explain this without falling out of my seat.

The entire venture is backed by British billionaire Richard Branson (if you can recall, he was discussing doing this years ago), and is designed to take space tourists to the very edges of our atmosphere, effectively into outer space. The privately owned company is called, prepare yourselves.... Virgin Galactic. The spaceport itself consists of a 3km runway and (so-far) two spacecraft: a mother-ship called White Knight 2 that will take a smaller ship, Spaceship 2, to proper altitude before launching it into the darkness and beauty of space.

The price of one flight is over $200,000 and it lasts for a whopping three hours. Oddly enough, that seems like a good deal to me. Inside the spacecraft you don't have to just sit and stare out at darkness, you can literally get out and float around in the spacecraft! Here are a few pictures from the official Virgin Galactic website (be sure to check out the website below for more multimedia and articles).

Image Credit: Virgin Galactic.

Image Credit: Virgin Galactic

Now, I cannot possibly overstate the amount of sci-fi fantasies this will fulfill, not just to millionaires who can afford regular flights to space now but to many individuals who simply love pushing the frontiers of space exploration and human ingenuity. To think that in about 40 years since NASA's first test flights and overtly ambitious plans to get a man on the moon, we'd be one step closer to getting a much larger percentage of the population visiting space. Despite the fact that this isn't exactly the Millennium Falcon going into hyper drive, I still believe this moment is nothing short of a milestone in the history of our species. The sheer simplicity and reality of it all is far more beautiful than anything science fiction could have ever conceived for this moment.

To check out the latest news on this exciting new development, check out the Virgin Galactic website:

Friday, October 22, 2010

CT scans ordered for headaches?

For those who don't know, the CT scanner (Computed Tomography Scanner, or more famously the CAT scanner) is the big donut-shaped device seen in Gray's anatomy or House whenever the doctors have no idea what to do with a patient. It can magically view the insides of a person with great clarity by acquiring x-ray images from multiple angles and computer processing the data to create a salami-thin slice of your gooey insides. Although it is an invaluable tool (imagine hospitals without x-rays, it's practically impossible), the main problem in recent years has been the debate over how often these diagnostic tests should be performed.

Below is a youtube video of what goes on in the scanner as it`s spinning around you (I loved the "patient goes here" caption, hilarious!). It's simply for entertainment purposes.

Now back to the conversation at hand. The only problem is that the x-rays generated are a form of ionizing radiation: electromagnetic energy that can damage living cells and could lead to different forms of cancer. Now, despite sounding like a horror story where everyone will get cancer that undergoes medical imaging, the reality is that the dose of radiation received from a standard chest x-ray is about the same as the dose you get from being outside in the sun all day.

The dosage of radiation received by the CT scanner is a bit more pronounced however; it's the equivalent of getting 200 chest x-rays! And it accumulates, so the more scans you receive over your lifetime, the larger your risk of developing cancer. However, the risks and benefits need to be weighted according to the situation, if you're potentially going to die in the next few minutes from a heart attack, the benefits of getting a diagnostic image far outweigh the small risk of developing cancer 20 years down the road.

The main controversy over the use of these devices is that many physicians are over ordering these tests for minute complaints, such as headaches. A recent paper in the American Journal of Medicine showed that of 623 patients receiving scans for a complaint of headaches, fewer than 2% were found to have any relevant findings on their CT scans. However, there was one patient where the CT image and analysis showed a malignant brain tumor! Something that would be worth catching early on in any case.

What are your thoughts on this issue? Personally I'm quite divided. Being in the medical physics field I'm a huge proponent of medical imaging and it's ability to identify various diseases in patients (like brain tumors), however I think it needs to be used more responsibly on the part of those ordering the tests, many who (at least to the best of my knowledge) seem to have no formal training in the understanding of radiation exposure risks associated with medical imaging.

The paper from the American Journal of Medicine can be found here:

Water on the moon!

Now this one is just simply awesome.

NASA recently published several research papers on an experiment they conducted in 2009. The experiment consisted of bombarding moon craters and detecting the debris that was released from the impact using LCROSS (the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite). Spectrometers, radiometers, and several cameras were used to detect the presence of chemicals within the debris. What they found? water vapor, hydroxyl radicals (that nasty stuff that tends to damage human DNA), sulfur compounds, CO2, and various hydrocarbons. The satellite was even able to estimate the amount of water that was present in the ejection, nearly 155kg!

Now, before anyone jumps for joy and starts fantasizing about moon colonies and moon vacations to moon beaches, recall that the vast majority of that water is in the form of ice. Even when measured by LCROSS it was in the form of water vapour, not the familiar liquid we're used to. The NASA team conducting the experiment are saying however that around 11-12 gallons could be extracted from about 1 tonne of moon rock! That's a substantial amount, especially for visiting astronaughts.

It's interesting to note that frost-like water is not distributed equally but in "oases" across various parts of the moon, leading to the hypothesis that this is actually ancient water brought by asteroids or comets.

At that quantity of water though, one can't help but think of a moon resource-extraction colony supplying space travelers on their way to far off planets; to even think that in the next 10 years we could have dedicated structures operating on the moon makes one feel giddy. At worst the drill operations would simply break through the  moon causing havoc for the people of earth, not unlike that god-awful remake of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine.

Here is the link to the various scientific papers discussing the findings:

FSH receptor found on tumors

So it appears that a receptor for FSH (Follicle Stimulating Hormone), a hormone that stimulates follicle development in the ovaries and testes of humans,was found (to an extent) in the blood vessels of specific kinds of tumors!

This receptor was found in over 11 kinds of tumors, many at different stages of development.But here is the cool part: normal tissues located mere millimeters away from the tumor cells didn't express the receptors!

It's still really early in development stages but this could have some very profound consequences on cancer detection and treatment. The main problem with current methods of cancer treatment is that they have no specificity for cancerous tissues, but because this receptor seems to be so common to so many varied forms of cancer it makes development of specialized treatment methods a much more realistic possibility. My main question about any new treatments is if methods specifically target this receptor, what will they do to other cells that express these receptors, namely ovaries and testes? Only time and more research will show what they make of this new information.

Here's the link to the New England Journal of Medicine source: