Thursday, February 28, 2008

Goodbye, Precious Lab Bench

Back in August I told you guys about how I had moved away from doing benchwork in my evil global biotech company’s R&D department and became a Technical Support scientist. However, all this time I have had one last R&D project looming over me, awaiting outside collaborators who would come in and do lab work with me. I had promised to help, and I’m a lab rat who honors his word, no matter how stupid the project turns out to be. So I kept a lab bench over in the lab, staunchly refusing to let anyone steal away my precious pipettors and other lab equipment, and growled like a dog over its food bowl when anyone wanted to take my “turf”.

The project was one of those super top-secret things, and all I can say is it involved a great deal of money. It went all the way up the food chain to the very top. Even the CEO got involved. They kept saying the project would happen, and just as I and the other folks involved would get things ready, the visit would be postponed at the very last moment. Finally the project fell through completely and was cancelled.

If I tell you any more about the project, they’ll chop off my head. I’d rather like to keep my head. I’d be a lot less handsome without it.

So after the project was cancelled, I finally went and cleaned off my bench and refrigerators, and handed everything over to the lab rats who really needed them. In the process I threw out years worth of needlessly-archived samples and reagents.

This was a surprisingly poignant action. Too many of the samples I threw out represented projects that were never finished, or had showed very promising results that could have led to good products that customers needed (and still need), but were “backburnered” due to the politics around that place. It made me reminiscent of the “good ole days” when researchers there were more free to explore novel techniques and develop products they felt were useful. Now projects have to go through too many committees, bureaucrats, and profit/cost projection studies before you can do any significant experimentation. That just kills innovation. Doing novel research requires some initial exploration. This is one of the reasons I left R&D at that company. All I do with the R&D folks now is advising on projects.

So I left my bench sparkly clean and walked away saying (as I have hundreds of times) how much more I love my new position. I don’t growl as much any more.

Addendum (3/3/08): Speaking of good projects killed by politics, today I was in a think-tank meeting populated with R&D scientists, product managers, and even a couple directors, to plan out the next year’s R&D activities and new product development in a particular product niche. One of the most promising product target areas turned out to match a product I led development on back in 2004, but was killed due to politics – by one of the very people in that meeting. It was satisfying to see him eat humble pie as I pointed out how the product would meet the necessary criteria and how he and others had killed it. To think, we’ve lost out on more than three years of potential sales on a product that currently has no competition in the marketplace! At least I have the satisfaction of knowing my hard work may not have been for nothing, and the product might still be released.

Image taken from HERE.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

African-American Scientists: Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson is arguably one of the most influential African-American Scientists alive today. He is basically an all-around astrophysicist extraordinaire, leaning more toward the public face of the field than the hard-core lab rat type.

Tyson grew up in New York City, attending public schools through graduation at the Bronx High School of Science. He went on to wrap himself in "ivy", graduating with a BA in Physics from Harvard and a PhD in Astrophysics from Columbia University, with an MA in Astronomy in the meantime from the University of Texas at Austin, and has been a visiting research scientist and lecturer at Princeton. He is currently director of the prestigious Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History.

Tyson isn't the geeky, shy sort of scientist. He's "out there" livin' large. He's handsome, muscular, and trades quips with talk show hosts. He makes frequent appearances on The History Channel's "The Universe" series and hosts PBS's "Nova ScienceNow" series, discussing everything cosmological, from black holes to the formation of the universe, our solar system, and even life on other planets. He analyzes images from the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as from telescopes from all over the planet, including Palomar and the Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico. He's edited or written nine books, and has another on the way, as well as chapters and articles in other publications, and about a dozen scholarly articles. I won't list here all the assorted honors, guest appearances, astronomy board memberships, and society memberships.

Twice (in 2001 and 2004) Tyson was named by President Bush to be a member of commissions to study America's role in space and to explore the future of space travel. I'll try not to hold it against him. In 2006, Tyson was appointed to the NASA advisory panel by the head of NASA.

He is the recipient of nine honorable degrees, the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, and even has an asteroid named after him ("13123 Tyson").

And if all that wasn't enough, Tyson made Time Magazine's "Time 100" of 2007 (HERE), and was named "Sexiest Astrophysist Alive" by PEOPLE Magazine in 2000. Just look at that picture!

Here is Tyson's official website, which contains just about anything you would care to know about the man:

Image taken from HERE, where you can also find a short interview with Tyson.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Space Is Getting Colder

Don't you miss the Cold War? Our government does. All that muscle-flexing and ball-grabbing as we and our opponent, the good ol' CCCP commies, traded insults and ominously positioned our forces across the iron curtain, awaiting with childish glee and fear the First Strike as we aimed our nukes at the other sides.

Duck and Cover!

Ah, those were the days.

But, hey, there are other bad guys out there, right? I mean, China is a rising world power, with a space program of their own, big guns, millions of shouting, goose-stepping commies marching through blood-soaked Tiananmen Square, stomping on the human rights of their people. Doesn't stop us from giving them favored-nation status for trade, but I guess they'll do for the next Cold War enemy.

Well, dig out that back yard bunker, boys and girls. They've gone beyond buzzing our warships with their fighters.

Remember last month, when China shot down one of their defunct weather satellites? Now that was a novel bit of Cold War-ness if ever I saw it. Remember the worldwide condemnation of the act, led by the U.S. and our allies? If they can shoot down their own satellite, they could shoot down ours (spy satellite or otherwise). Here's a taste, in case it's too hard to remember back a month:

What a furor that caused. Oh, how our government admonished China for breaking the treaty against militarization of space, chided them for failing to restrain themselves, shook our heads at their blatant disregard and aggression.

So now I'm chuckling. Surely you've heard the reports over the last week or two about how the U.S. is going to shoot down a defective spy satellite. It's supposed to happen today or tomorrow, depending on the weather:

But we aren't flexing our Cold War muscles! No way! Not according to Bush. We're protecting our civilians against the potential for the satellite to crash into the good ole US of A and getting poisoned and eaten alive by satellite fuel (hydrazine). Very thoughtful.

Don't believe the hype. This is posturing at its best. Gotta keep up with the Johnsons, don't you know, or the Jong's. And we don't want damaged military imaging components sold on EBay.

As for the deadly hydrazine, it's not really so deadly. You'd have to eat the stuff or swim in it before it could kill you. It's an irritant, sorta like gasoline is. Read it yourself:

So, when you look up at the sky tonight at the last lunar eclipse until 2010, cross your arms and try not to shiver. A space-based military arms race may have already begun.

Addendum (2/20/08): The Pentagon announced that the satellite has been successfully blown up. They are still sticking to the save-the-public-from-deadly-hydrazine story:

Update (2/21/08): See footage of the satellite's destruction:

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Watch Where You Point Your Top Gun, Flyboy

A recent study by Israeli scientists found that climbers on Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro who took the drug tadalafil were less likely to suffer dizziness and fatigue brought on by low oxygen levels near the top of the mountain.

Okay, you say, so what? But the story gets more interesting when you realize that tadalafil is the active ingredient in Cialis, that wonderful impotence-fighting, Viagra-like drug for erectile-dysfunction.

Now, after having read the results of that study, a retired Israeli general is proposing that the Israeli military give tadalafil to its fighter jocks in order to allow them better in-flight "performance" through increased blood flow while flying their jets, according to Bamahaneh (an official Israeli military magazine).

I don't know which study the retired general referred to, but HERE and HERE are two recent examples of research papers dealing with the effects of tadalafil on the physiology of climbers.

Wow. Cialis for pilots! That gives a whole new meaning to the word "cockpit"! It's tight enough in there already. Now these poor pilots will have to contend with two joysticks between their legs. Careful, boys, you don't want to eject prematurely.

But, hey, as the Cialis webpage claims, the pilots will "have the option of being ready fast, or have up to 36 hours to take their time." But does this mean that they'll have to seek a doctor if their sorties take more than four hours?

Image taken from HERE.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

An Atomic Energy Lab -- For Children!

Oh, to have lived in the early 50's! When Father Knows Best was the ideal for households everywhere. When racial discrimination was still a simmering norm. And when the secrets of the atom seemed to promise both everlasting energy and weaponized domination, not to mention fodder for so many titillating "B" sci-fi monster movies.

In 1950, the year America's Federal Civil Defense Administration released its movie, Duck and Cover, and even the atomic scientists still thought atomic radiation was no more harmful than sunlight, Gilbert Toys released the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab:


Yes, toy inventor (and record-breaking, Gold Medal Olympic athlete) Alfred Carlton Gilbert, the maker of the famous Erector Set, microscope sets, chemistry sets, and American Flyer toy train sets, released the most complete atomic energy detection set for children ever made.

Wait. For children?

Yes, this kit came complete with radioactive energy sources, including uranium ore, as well as detection devices, including a Geiger counter, cloud chamber (where atomic particles created shooting clouds of vapor), and the tongue-twisting-named spinthariscope (which showed alpha radiation particles using sparks of fluorescence). There was also a little nuclear model set and some manuals. For the not-so-low price of $50, little Johnie could examine simple nuclear phenomena and go search for new sources of uranium in the back yard.

Most humorous of all, though, was a comic book, entitled Dagwood Splits The Atom, featuring everyone's favorite deli-sandwich-eating, hollow-eyed comic couch potato, Dagwood's wife, Blondie, Mandrake the Magician, and even Popeye!

For one year, between 1950 and 1951, this kit was on the market, selling radioactive uranium ore to be marveled over by geeky young teens and preteens everywhere. And to think, today, the tiniest speck of nearly harmless radioactive dust used by scientists in biological fields has to be closely monitored, accounted for, and discarded according to strict Federal guidelines.

This was still several years before folks realized that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs had done more than kill with heat. The radiation eating away at the victims of those bombs, and numerous guinea pig American soldiers in Nevada ground zero sites, had yet to be understood. Heck, why not let little kids handle radiation?

Look at the cool sparks in your spinthariscope, Billy! That's American scientific eminence wavin' back at ya!

Image taken from HERE.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

African-American Scientists: Earnest Everett Just

February is Black History Month. It is a time for us to remember the sacrifices made by African American forefathers in building America, and the contributions they have made, and continue to make, toward making our nation great. When we think of those contributions, too many of us focus on the famous stereotypes: singers, sports stars, social and equal-rights figures, great though they are, but too often forgotten are those who contributed in the other fields. It is in this vein that I feature on this blog, each February, historical and contemporary African American Scientists.

Earnest Everett Just was born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1883. His mother was a teacher, and thus knew full well the importance of a good education and the challenges facing African Americans to get an excellent education at that time. At 13, he was sent north, to New Hampshire, to attend a college preparatory school, Kimball Academy. He finished in only three years (instead of four) and graduated class valedictorian. He went on to Dartmouth College, specializing in cell biology studies, earning degrees in biology and history. Again, he was class valedictorian, as well as magna cum laude. Next he went to Howard University, where he eventually became the head of the Department of Zoology, and stayed until his retirement, except for a brief period during which he earned his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.

Dr. Just's greatest contribution to science resonates even to my own career, studying live-cell physiology. Just believed in the radical notion of studying cells as close as possible to their natural state, looking at the whole, living cell rather than breaking it up into its component parts. He became well known for his studies of marine mammal reproduction and fertilization events, as well as cell division, parthenogenesis, effects of UV radiation on chromosome number, and studying the role of the cell surface in its overall physiological state, much of which took place at the Marine Biology Lab at Woods Hole (one of several marine science centers set up over a hundred years ago). Like me, microscopy was his chosen mode of observation.

Increasingly frustrated with the racial prejudice in the United States, Just studied abroad starting in 1929, eventually studying in Italy, Germany, and France.

In 1940, Just was briefly a prisoner of war when Germany invaded France. The U.S. State Department negotiated his release, but he grew ill just before being captured, worsened during the imprisonment, and never fully recovered. He died of pancreatic cancer in October of 1941. He was survived by his wife and three children.

Here are some additional resources about the life and accomplishments of Earnest Everett Just:

Picture taken from HERE.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Science Policies Of Presidential Candidates

Anymore it seems that if you are a Republican politician, your only interest in science topics is to oppose anything with the words “stem cell” or “evolution” and to support anything having to do with defense. If you are a Democratic politician, stem cells and evolution are back on the table, as well as protecting our environment and fighting global warming. So let’s hear it for the Dems, who wish to protect our health, fight for rationality in teaching science to our children, and actually want to protect the world we live in.

But don’t take my word for it. Below are three links to the stances of each of the candidates (including those who have stepped out of the running) on science issues, including their actual quotes and even videos. Enjoy!


Popular Mechanics “Geek The Vote 2008”:

The Huffington Post:

Image taken from HERE.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Remote-Control Insects

Oh my god. Be afraid and awestruck of your government.

In a move that makes the science fiction fan in my giddy with delight, I read today about how scientists in Arizona have successfully created live, remote-control insects:

They inserted electronic circuit probes into early stage pupae of the tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta), and by the time the moth emerges as an adult, the flight muscles have grown around the probes. The researchers are then able to stimulate the muscles to make the moth fly and to control which way the moth goes!

They may even have tried controlling beetles (HERE).

The research was showcased at MEMS 2008, an international academic conference on Micro-Electrico-Mechanical Systems that took place from January 13-17 in Tucson, AZ.

Wow. The idea was inspired by the science fiction novel, Sparrowhawk, by Thomas Easton, wherein giant insects are outfitted with electronic control systems for a variety of purposes, including transportation of humans.

The scary part is that the research was funded by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. That's right, the folks who bring us all those wonderful James Bond-esque devices that spy on terrorists and ordinary civilians alike or outfit the most advanced military commandos, used by our friends at Homeland Security, the CIA, Navy Seals, and snarling vice presidents.

The head of the research project, Dr. Amit Lal, suggests that the remote-controlled moths are for sniffing out bank robbers or detecting chemical traces of drugs or explosives. But given that this is DARPA, I'm thinking of darker uses. Like little mobile spy platforms, outfitted with listening or imaging "backpacks." Big Brother's watching! Or how about making them into tiny, one-man assassins by strapping little bombs on them, or poison needles. Just activate their wings, point them in the right direction, crash-land onto your hapless victim, and BOOM!

Someone call the Orkin man!

So the next time you see a big insect fluttering around your room, take a second look. If you see a little backpack on it, tell our pals in the government "Hello" and give them a good look at the bottom of your shoe.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Digital Abacus

So there I was in the San Francisco International Airport recently, blithely killing time by laughing at hapless travelers as they frantically undressed and redressed themselves at the security area, or rushed through terminals like sex-hungry salmon against a raging river, or, you know, lay in a helpless heap of eye-bleeding insanity from the nightmare that is often intercontinental travel. I had traveled to the City By The Bay to attend a science workshop, and now had two hours of down time before my delayed flight was to leave. With a shrug, I decided to walk through one of the concourses.

There, sandwiched between human conveyor belts on a particularly long corridor were largely-ignored display cases showcasing the process of making prototypes into nifty products. They featured useful things like mp3 players, artsy lamps, and modern game systems, and their early design phases. But amongst these great, utilitarian inventions was an oddity which made me stop dead in my tracks. In the case in front of me was a digital abacus:

It was like looking at a pile of snow in the middle of the Mojave desert in July. It was a freak of technology. "Digital" and "abacus" are two words I thought I would never find together. Like a Frankensteinian mutant, here before me was an unholy marriage of modern technology and ancient relics seen nowhere else in the world where electricity is common (except Japan, but what can one expect of a land where raw fish is eaten with gusto?).

Like beaming Beatles songs into space (which NASA did today), the digital abacus is a shining example of excellent technology used for non-excellent purposes, a glaring example of a waste of good mindpower and scientific intellect, more art than science acumen. A gag gift. If you're going digital, buy a freakin' calculator.

What's next? Talking slide rules for the blind? Electronic finger counters? Holographic rulers? The digital abacus LED readout mocks all that is noble and timeless. Its tickertape printer is a waving flag of innanity. The sleek, waveform shape defies the stark utilitarianism of its predecessors.

Oh, sure, the abacus (or the soroban, for you Japanese folks) is still used in many parts of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa (HERE is a video on how to use it, and HERE is a video of someone using one for complex addition). There are highly-trained people (abacists) who can use it faster than most people would use a calculator. There are people who stack cups faster than I can, too, but I wouldn't say I'm jealous when I put away my washed dishes.

But, hey, I shouldn't knock something that's still in use after 4500 years (apparently invented in Babylonia). And when the next asteroid knocks the Earth back into the Stone Age, guess which counting device will still be around. The digital abacus will still be useful, even if it doesn't have batteries for the LED readout.

But don't expect me to give up my Texas Instruments science calculator anytime soon!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Scale Of Things

My professional life has been spent attempting to see things not normally visible to the naked eye. Peering through magnifying glasses, dissecting microscopes, high-end light microscopes, even transmission electron microscopes, trying to see sub-cellular structures and even localizing individual protein complexes. I never tire of it. Yet no matter how small the structures are that we study, we find there are ever smaller magnitude objects to find.

The same goes for large structures. No matter how far out we look into the universe, galaxies continue to appear. We are such a tiny part of that universe that we easily disappear in the immensity of it. When I try to comprehend how individual proteins fit into that grand scheme, it makes my little, confused head whirl.

So it is with a great pleasure I recently discovered this nifty webpage devoted to comparing the sizes of everything from quarks up to the known universe, from Angstroms to light years. When you visit, feel free to click around on things and scroll back and forth:

And, while we're on the topic, here is a similar little journey called "Powers of Ten" which takes you from the edge of the universe down to the sub-atomic level (likely you have seen it, made in 1977 by Charles and Ray Eames, but still excellent): plugin is required, but it is worth it !)

So, if you have a hankering for feeling insignificant in the grand scheme of things, please, give these a click!