Friday, December 28, 2007

Mad Scientist

Ah, the scientist is a quiet creature, given to working long hours in a sterile lab. Humming equipment and bubbling concoctions are his only company as he contemplates his experiments and reviews reams of data. He adjusts his taped-up glasses then shuffles to his office for a momentary caffeine break before returning to his diligent work. He is a humble being whose greatest excitement comes with those rare eureka moments when experimental results come together.

NOT. Is that really what you think we're like?

Well, okay, maybe a little. Fine, maybe a lot. But most scientists I know are cynical beasts who work when they have to, long into the night amidst noisy machines, piles of hastily organized papers, and scribbled lab books, but enjoy a good beer as much as the next fellow and can be prone to all the weaknesses, passions, and emotions as the next guy. And you've got to watch out for those "quiet types," don't ya know!

Take for example one biochemist gone bad. Larissa Schuster ran a chemical company with her husband, Timothy. Their marriage went south back in 2003, so logically the only option she had was to KILL HIM WITH ACID!!

Yes, that's right. For the low, low price of $2000 she hired a lab technician, James Fagone, to help her taser her husband and knock him out with chloroform. Then they dumped him into a barrel and, while Timothy was still alive and breathing, poured hydrochloric acid over him, dissolving him alive! Yikes!

But they screwed it up. Not only did they fail to dissolve all of the body, but Schuster rented a storage unit in her own name and put the half-dissolved body (legs still sticking out of the barrel) into the storage unit where it rotted and attracted attention. Thus she and the lab assistant were caught.

Too many late nights in the lab breathing fumes! Tsk, tsk. Typical chemist – thinks she can solve (or dissolve) her problems with chemical reactions. Better living through chemistry!

But the real moral of the story is this: there are a lot of really, really desperate lab assistants out there! Can you imagine how that conversation went?

Schuster: "Hey, Fagone, you wanna make some extra money on the side?"

Lab Tech: "Hmm. I don't know. I'm underpaid, like all lab rats, but your tone makes me think twice."

Schuster: "I'll pay you $2000, and you'll get to dissolve stuff with acid."

Lab Tech: "Cool. I'm in."

First degree murder may not be worth playing with acids and solvents, but I'll bet their fellow prisoners will be giving them plenty of breathing room as they serve out their life sentences!

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got some lab work to attend to…. and there's acid around.... Mwa ha ha ha ha!

Image of John Carradine from Invisible Invaders taken from HERE.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Nuclear Reactor In Your Garage

Are you tired of living on "The Grid"? Do those pesky electric bills get you down? Is solar energy just too "'80's"? Well now Toshiba has the answer to your energy woes! Introducing the Micro Nuclear Reactor:

Yes, that's right! At only 20 feet by 6 feet, this 200kW nuclear fission reactor can fit in your own garage. Now that's handy! Handling dangerous nuclear material is as easy as flipping a switch. Nifty. And it can power an entire city block or apartment complex. Why, you'll be the envy of your entire neighborhood. How's that for empowerment? What's more, you won't even have to be on the electrical grid. Sell it back to the city. Snap!

But wait, there's more! Using reservoirs of radioactive lithium-6 instead of those snarky uranium rods and cooling towers we're used to seeing, the entire process in the Micro Reactor is self-contained and can produce energy for 40 years. When it's finished, just ring up Toshiba on the iPhone and they'll come and pick it up. Why, that's disposable energy to you and me! Who cares where they take it after that! At half the cost of standard electricity, you'll be singing all the way to the bank.

Power your own little island or impenetrable fortress like a James Bond villain if you like. We'll help! You'll be seeing this radioactive dream in Japan in 2008 and in Europe and America in 2009. But don't wait! Order yours now!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Happy Holidays, Damn It!

What's all this nonsense I hear from political candidates and radio talk show hosts upset about how "Christ is being taken out of Christmas"? One radio DJ lamented that he hated to hear "Happy Holidays" said to him at the check-out line. "Say Merry Christmas, Damn it!" he said on air, and loudly proclaimed that he says so to those people. And then there is presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, neo-conservative extraordinaire, and his pal Mitt Romney, who refuse (like the current president) to recognize that there is a separation between Church and State, endorsing "Christian values" as a political agenda and, to paraphrase Mr. Romney, people who aren't of a prominent faith would not be included in his presidential cabinet (as if Mormons are so prominent - little more than Muslims, to whom he was really referring). These same pundits are getting torqued all out of shape because certain town squares have decorations of all faiths instead of just Christian on the town Christmas tree.

Well excuse me for being an atheist.

I have close friends who celebrated Hanukkah, and other close friends who celebrate Kwanzaa and the Winter Solstice, instead of Christmas. Saying "Merry Christmas" doesn't get them bent out of shape, but it isn't exactly a meaningful compliment to them, is it? "Happy Holidays", general as it is, at least gives some measure of pleasant holiday feeling.

Now, I celebrate Christmas. Not because I apply any belief at all to the idea of virgin birth, God, or miracles, but because it gives me a good excuse to celebrate the meaning of love, friends, and family, and to express that true blessing with gifts and, of course, massive quantities of glorious food.

Nobody's taking "Christ out of Christmas" for the Christians. The neo-cons just want to maintain control. But our government is at least giving some measure of our constitutional right to be protected from others' religious intolerance by either keeping religious symbols out of the public square or being all-inclusive, and those (like myself) who work in public relations sorts of positions are being tolerant and inclusive by using a more generic yet still festive greeting. In my job, I work with people from cultures and religions from all over the world. If I say "Merry Christmas" to all of them, I'd bet at least a third of them would shrug and say thanks even though it had no real meaning to them, and some of them would be outright offended.

To you, my merry blog reader, I extend my warmest holiday feelings. However you celebrate the season, please go out and party hardy, open your gifts, and keep your family in your thoughts and arms at all times.

But if you wish to challenge yourself, and those you should happen to meet in public, I'd like to extend also this special assignment: Greet everyone you meet or respond to them with "Happy Solstice" and see what the result is. Sure, you'll get some odd looks and the occasional evil eye, but most people will probably give a wary thanks and shrug it off. Maybe a few of them will stop to think about how very personal the holidays are to each different religion, and thus how very special their own celebration is. Maybe, just maybe, there will be one or two who embrace diversity. At the very least, the "fake" feeling you get by doing this assignment will highlight how much the season means to you and how personal it is to you and your loved ones.

Happy Holidays!

P.S., if you are wondering what the heck this image is about (which was on my favorite holiday card sent to me this year), visit information about the Flying Spaghetti Monster and His Holy Noodly Appendage HERE or HERE.

Image taken from HERE.

How Many Trees Die Because You're Divorced?

Ah, life is grand. I'm livin' the nuclear family dream. I've got my 2.1 children and 2.1 cars. I've got my average house with its average (slave debtor's) mortgage. I'm working a stable career with a heartless company. I've spent too much for Christmas. And, despite being short, round, forgetful, and hairy like a beast, I haven't been awful enough for my lovely wife to leave me yet. We've been married for over 12 years. Yeah, over 12 years! Can you believe it? And neither of us have been married (or divorced) before.

In this day and age when, in the United States, we have an average divorce rate of about 50%, most ending within the first 15 years, young folks tend to be a bit jaded on the whole marriage thing (statistics information). Many of their parents were Baby Boomers, the "Me Generation", who suffer the highest divorce rate of all demographics. Maybe it's a good thing Americans are marrying later, on average.

Shakespeare wrote in Twelfth Night, "Journeys end in lovers meeting," but as Pauline Thomason said, "Love is blind – marriage is the eye-opener."

When the honeymoon is over, the love handles start coming on, and the enthusiastic and oh-so-Leave-It-To-Beaver "Honey, I'm home!" hug is replaced with a quiet shutting of the door, a couple aspirins, and a "Hey, what are you getting out of the freezer for supper?" Sadly, some folks open their eyes and discover that the snoring lump sleeping next to them on the Posturepedic isn't quite what they bargained for, or worse. All too often they give them the boot, the Big D, the marital sayonara. DIVORCE.

But wait! If this is you, my fellow blog reader, you may want to add one more thing to the social, emotional, economic, religious, parental, and physical strains that await (or afflict) you, your spouse, and your children around the dark corner along the divorce path. A recent study found that divorce actually hurts our environment:


Research abstract: HERE

That's right. If you are divorced, you are likely contributing to the misuse of our planet's precious few resources, thus forever increasing your already sky-high guilt factor. According to the two authors of the paper, which studied individuals from a number of countries, households of divorced individuals have more rooms per home per individual, thus requiring more heat and light, and thus more resources to power them.

To quote the paper: "In the United States in 2005, divorced households spent 46% and 56% more on electricity and water per person than married households. Divorced households in the U.S. could have saved more than 38 million rooms, 73 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, and 627 billion gallons of water in 2005 alone if their resource-use efficiency had been comparable to married households. Furthermore, U.S. households that experienced divorce used 42–61% more resources per person than before their dissolution."

Yikes. So, what does that equal in terms of pollution? How much greenhouse gases were made by all the coal that was burned? How much acid rain? How many dead trees and tumerous fish? Come on, I've got to have a figure for our angst to feed upon!

And that doesn't even take into account the growing numbers of single adults who have yet to marry, or widowed individuals who live longer and don't remarry. Just think what the neoconservatives will say about this one! All those ultrareligious Focus On The Family nutjobs and preaching presidential candidates. The authors also found that when divorced individuals remarry or return to their previous cohabitating married lifestyles, their energy consumption returns to average.

But, unfortunately, we don't all marry wisely, and people change. And there are a lot of really, really bad people out there who hide their true natures. Sometimes divorce is simply unavoidable. So what are all you divorced people to do to reduce your impact on the Earth and save your environment? Wear tie-dye and join a commune? Move back in with Mom? Go crawling back to their deadbeat or philandering spouse? Jump back into the hot, smarmy date circuit in search of a ring again?

No, of course not, dummy. Just live wiser. Living alone without the benefit of someone nagging at you doesn't mean you have to forget to turn off the lights or use less water, and now that you no longer have an extra person to throw away your money for you, do you really need that third bedroom for all those craft projects you never had time for while you were slaving away for that slug you used to be married to, a formal dining room to collect dust bunnies, or a second bathroom frequented only by your cats and the occasional tub spider? No. Live simply. Live in a smaller space. Let your hair hang down and live a little more like a hippie. Dig it?

As for me, I'm going to sit with my 2.1 children and my lovely, long-term wife tomorrow night, drink hot chocolate, and turn off all the houselights except for the Christmas tree. And as I enjoy my Leave It To Beaver life in the flickering woodstove flames of my energy-conscious lifestyle, safe in the self-riteous assumption that my marital bliss will last forever, I'll drink a toast to all you divorced-types and hope you'll be reducing your energy consumption this fine holiday season as you write out your alimony checks by holly-scented candlelight. Cheers.

Image taken from HERE.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

To The Moon, Alice (And Everyone Else)!

So what's up with everyone wanting to go to the moon again? Why did it take thirty years for nations to suddenly perk up their collective ears and decide to go back? Is it just a question of technology catching up with the will to go? Honestly, I'm confused.

On Christmas Eve you will be able to walk outside in that nippy cold air and see above you a brilliantly-lit full moon. It will be riding at its highest point between now and 2023, making it gorgeous to view (not far away in the sky you'll see Mars, at its closest point to Earth for the next nine years). When you see the cratered surface of that great rock in the sky, I urge you to put aside your concern about frostbite on your fingers and ponder the value of going back to the moon. How much is it worth to us to return? And what are the implications of our friendly and not-so-friendly allied nations returning there with us (or without us)?

Recently China orbited the moon with its Chang'e-1 lunar probe. It has returned its first image of the lunar surface, but already there are allegations that the image is a re-touched photo taken by NASA in 2005. Go figure. And as for sending men back to the moon, China may actually beat us there, aided by the European Space Agency. It'll be close.

Surely you are well aware of the United States' plans to go to the moon again, and then mars (I posted on this topic about a year ago). I considered it a diversion from more serious issues, and still do, but we can't let other countries one-up us, now can we, and give up our dominance of space? NASA's contractor, Pratt and Whitney Rocketdyne Inc., is this month beginning the testing phase of the old Saturn rocket J-2 engines in preparation for final design work for the new J-2X engines that will power the ARES rockets. We've sent lunar probes in the meantime, though, including the Clementine and Lunar Prospector missions.

But are you aware of the other countries with their eyes on the moon? If you don’t follow space news, you may not have heard it all. Japan, for instance, just put its Kaguya SELENE-1 probe in orbit around the moon, and there has been talk of setting up a lunar base, perhaps by 2030. India, too, will be launching a lunar orbiter, Chandrayaan-1 (Indian government video), next year, and has just installed tracking antennae for the mission. Russia, too, has revived it's long-dormant plans to put cosmonauts on the moon.

The question remains: assuming any of these nations are serious about returning humanity to the moon, will it be another space race, or a joint international endeavor?

Personally, I don't have a lot of faith in government programs to take us to the moon. It takes too much political capital to keep up that kind of funding. I don't doubt that some nations may succeed in getting to the moon and even setting up a small base, but I doubt they could maintain it for long. It'll be another Apollo, basically – heroic, but short-lived and poorly justified.

Rather, I have more faith in private enterprise. The Ansari X-Prize showed us that, with a little financial encouragement, a private company could launch a manned spacecraft (Spacecraftone) into orbit without the assistance or overbearing bureaucracy of government entities like NASA. Now, as you may have heard, Google has joined with the X-Prize Foundation to sponsor a new competition, the Google Lunar X-Prize, for private ventures to successfully land a rover on the moon, roving at least 500 meters, and returning images. It's worth $30 million to the winner. Additional millions can be won if they rove further, take images of Apollo hardware, discover water ice, or survive the lunar night (about 14.5 Earth days). This month the first entry for the X-Prize was announced. Odyssey Moon, based in the Isle of Man, the tiny crown-dependency of England (which has structured its tax laws to attract space exploration businesses), was the first private organization to pay the $10K registration fee. Odyssey Moon has hired Canadian technology firm MDA as its prime contractor on the project.

Said Ramin Khadem, chairman of Odyssey Moon, "Explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries who set out to find new worlds were probably asked why they were doing it," Khadem said. "Look at the riches and wonders they discovered." He added, "We are out to complement, not compete with, China, Russia and the US."
I wish them luck, as well as the other entrants. I wonder, though, how far it will go. My hope is that private enterprise will find a good balance with national enterprises. As with any other program, only the proper balance (where private enterprise has the greater share of freedom) will, in my view, lead to a successful and lasting venture. Thinking back to the last great phase of mankind's exploration, one can call up examples of the Hudson Bay Company or the Dutch East India Company, where such private entities were able to profit while furthering the needs and rewards of their representative nations.

Only time will tell if any of these folks are serious, or if they're just lunatics. In any case, enjoy the full moon on Christmas Eve. There's a decent chance that when it rides that high again, brave men and women will be living there.

Update (12/26/07): Today Japan’s Kaguya lunar orbiter went into full operation:

Image taken from HERE.

Been Sick

I'm on the upshot after suffering a rather nasty stomach bug, with all the most horrendous symptoms (gut pain, fever, nausea, diarhhea, exhaustion, loss of appetite). God, I hate throwing up! I'm the sort who would rather endure stomach pain for days rather than just ralph and get it over with.

As I write this I'm eating a few spoonfuls of "Amazon Valley Chocolate" ice cream from Haagen-Daz, my first "meal" in over two days other than a small apple yesterday.

Then this morning my little daughter woke up with half her face swollen from an infected lymph gland. Now my lovely wife is coming down with the same symptoms I've had. Umpff. At least I'm on vacation. 'Tis the season.

Update (12/22/07): Other than a little lingering appetite loss and minor stomach pain, my wife and I are back to the usual state of disfunction, and my daughter's swollen jawline is returning to its normal beauty.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Get Mooned To Get Healthy

"By the light of the silvery moon,
I want to spoon, to my honey I'll croon love's tune.
Honeymoon, keep a-shining in June,
Your silvery beams, will bring love dreams,
We'll be cuddling soon,
By the silvery moon."

"By the Light of the Silvery Moon" by Ray Noble with Snookie Lanson
(hear the music

In honor of Tantalus Prime, from his spacey comment to my last post, I will bring you not one, but two posts on Earth's nearest celestial neighbor, the Moon. Lucky, lucky you, Tantalus. This is the first of those.

Yes, the Moon, that wonderful, lifeless, rocky sphere up in the sky that shines down like a magnanimous eye, spawning lunatics and poets alike. Some even believe that the moon possesses a special supernatural power that can be tapped to heal us.

Consider, for instance, my own mother. In a previous post I reported how she had once cast a sort of spell to help remove a wart on my finger. Whether it was the magic or not, I do not know, but the wart soon disappeared after being there for over a year. How fitting, then, that my Mom found this interesting little story:

A couple in Arizona have built a 5-story tall parabolic mirror which they use to collect and focus the moon's light, with the intention to heal those who bask in that light:



That's right. For a mere $10 each, over a thousand people so far from all over the world have paid to stand up to 15 minutes in their underwear in the focused light of the moon, soaking up its "healing rays". According to the article, people with conditions as serious as cancer and asthma have gotten shone upon by the couple's "interstellar light collector" and claim that their symptoms have lessened. The Chapins (who built the device) shelled out $2 million (yes, million) of their own money to build this monolithic mirror.

Said the inventor, "If it could affect plants and animals ... I thought, 'what could the amplification of that light do?"'

Well, Mr. Chapin, here's what it can do, from my skeptical scientist's viewpoint: it reflects light. Nothing more, nothing less. But, hey, if it makes people feel good, more power to them.

Said one "moonlighter": "You feel almost like you are in heaven," said Aranka Toniatti, a cancer patient who has driven from Colorado twice to stand in the moonlight. "It's a gorgeous feeling."

I have to admit, if I lived near the big moonlight contraption, I'd be tempted to shell out ten bucks just to say I stood in focused moonlight. It's a novelty, after all. And I have enough of an open mind (as do all good scientists) to give it at least a moonbeam's width of serious consideration. But that's a pretty thin width, and I think I'd have to be on moonshine to believe it.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

One Year Of The Angry Lab Rat

Yay! Today marks the one-year anniversary for The Angry Lab Rat blog.

It's been a fun year. I never imagined I would so greatly enjoy serving up a mulligan stew of bizarre science, odd inventions, nutty nature, medicine on the edge, and my own ramblings about doing science while working in an evil global biotech conglomerate, and having you enjoy this dreck in return. Science has presented no shortage of interesting stories to bring you, if you don't mind seeing it through the warped, Monty Python-esque binoculars of a somewhat near-sighted and grumpy lab rodent. 168 posts worth! The site has been hit almost 26,000 times (mostly Google searches by, I'm certain, scantily-clad women who have a fetish for short, hairy men) from an amazing 122 countries. Wow. People will read anything!

Which stories have been hit the most? According to my blog tracker, among the most popular have been Be Stung By Jellyfish – For Fun!, Fish That Will Eat You Alive And Make You Healthier At The Same Time, China Is Trying To Kill Us, How To Remove Your Gall Bladder, and, one of my favorites, The Beer Launcher.

But bullocks to the hit counters! It's Reader's Choice time. Tell me, my loyal readers, what subject (such as those listed to the lower right of your screen) would you most wish me to write about in my next post?

Image taken from HERE and made into a poster HERE.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Space Bacteria Will Slime You Harder

It sounded like a B-rated science fiction movie plot: Microbes Return From Space Three Times Deadlier Than On Earth.

Back in September, results were announced (and scientifically published) from an experiment where infectious Salmonella bacteria, sent on the shuttle and cultured in space for only 24 hours, then returned to earth, were three times more deadly to lab rats than their non-astrobacterial counterparts:

ABCNews audio article:

Yes, my antibacterial-soap-washing friends, don't handle uncooked chicken in space. Those buggers are trouble!

My latest issue of Scientific American has a great article on page 34 ("Deadly Orbits") about this case. The researchers, based at the University of Arizona, closely examined the bacteria and found that the space bacteria had much higher levels of an RNA-regulating protein, called Hfq. Hfq caused many key genes to activate, which made the bacteria more infectious.

But what turned on the Hfq? Micro-gravity? Gamma rays? Little green men? Galactus?

No, sorry, something much less impressive: "low-fluid-sheer". When Salmonella grow in an environment where there is little fluid sheer, or turbulence, such as in a glob of fluid floating in the weightless environment of space, a slowly-turning flask on Earth, or "sheltered corners of the digestive track", they form what is called a biofilm, a colony of bacteria that work together to protect themselves from antibiotics, soap, and the body's immune system, often creating the sort of slime that forms on your meat or, for other bacteria, on your shower doors, baby pacifiers, your teeth (plaque), or nasty bacterial infections. Thus formation of a biofilm makes them more deadly and harder to eliminate.

And what are the implications? Will the Salmonella quickly spread from space to your cutting board and become The Blob, oozing through your home and neighborhood to kill you and all your other non-vegetarian friends? No, but long-term astronauts may need to be more careful, and perhaps the medical community will be better able to treat bacteria that infect our gut.

I can see Hollywood going crazy with this: The shuttle returns to Earth, and a single bacterium from a space-borne biofilm, mutated in space, takes a ride on the shoe of an intrepid astronaut, then into some corner of a Cape Canaveral locker-room where it grows and divides until it spreads across the world, infecting and killing any living thing it comes in contact with, until the astronaut hero teams up with a sexy know-it-all blonde scientist and an awkward science geek to find a quick fix that kills all the bacteria for good.

You'd watch that, wouldn't you? No? What if I cast Bruce Willis as the astronaut? I think it would make a great "bio" film.

Image from HERE, altered for my amusement.