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: