Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Folks, It Was Only 8 Years!

Thursday, March 12th, 2009

I was amused by Bush May Have Set Back ‘Clean Coal’ Efforts by 10 Years, Report Says in today’s Washington Post.

The Bush administration’s decision to halt production of an experimental power plant that would capture and store carbon dioxide emissions underground may have set back “clean coal” technology in the United States by as much as a decade, according to a congressional report released at a hearing yesterday.

Also, cost estimates used as justification for killing the commercial-scale project known as FutureGen were grossly exaggerated because Energy Department officials did not account for inflation, according to a Government Accountability Office report, also released yesterday.

The two reports, commissioned by the House Committee on Science and Technology, represent the latest efforts by the Illinois congressional delegation to revive the plant, which would be built in the small Illinois town of Mattoon. President Obama took part in the delegation’s efforts when he was in the Senate.

Now I know that may liberals feel as though the country has emerged from interminable darkness, but, folks, it was 8 years. So I am having difficulty in understanding how Bush’s decisions could possibly set back “clean coal” by 10. The article explains that Bush killed the project just a year and a half ago

The Bush administration killed plans to build the plant in December 2007, just hours after Mattoon was chosen over two sites in Texas, triggering allegations that the move was political.

So, if the plans were on track in December 2007, how can we be 10 years behind today, when the project was killed less than a year and a half ago? Oh, this was a Congressional report. That explains it.

And how gauche was it of Bush to be, gulp, political? I mean, politics couldn’t possibly have come into play with, say, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s decades long effort to scuttle funding for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository (in Nevada)?

The article accuses the Bush administration of failing to properly factor inflation when comparing initial cost estimates with more recent cost estimates

The GAO report disputed the Bush administration’s contention that the costs had nearly doubled, from $1 billion to $1.8 billion, saying the figure would be $1.3 billion if adjusted for inflation.

Presumably, this was the excuse given in 2007 when the plans were killed. However, now the financial landscape has changed a little

The ultimate cost of the plant continues to be a matter of debate. Energy Secretary Steven Chu reasserted his desire yesterday to build the plant but cautioned that price estimates now range as high as $2.3 billion and that he would like to bring down the cost. He plans to meet soon with the FutureGen Industrial Alliance, private companies involved with the project, to determine how best to move forward. The alliance hopes to compete for $1 billion set aside in the economic stimulus package for “fossil energy research and development” projects.

The article ends with

Victor K. Der, acting assistant secretary for the Energy Department’s Office of Fossil Energy, said the technology needs to be tested at a commercial scale. He also said FutureGen is the only project of its kind close to the construction phase, calling it “near shovel-ready.”

So the project has been “killed” since December 2007 and is “near shovel-ready” today? I still don’t see where this technology could have been set back a “decade”. I’m going to chalk this one up to Bush Derangement Syndrome.

Clean Dream

Clean Dream

Embryonic Stem Cell Funding

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

The Washington Post article Obama opens up stem cell work, science inquiries tells of President Obama’s reversal of Bush polices regarding federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. This was one of Obama’s campaign pledges, so there is no surprise here. But what is disappointing is the lengths to which Obama went, when announcing the order, to jettison ethical judgement.

“Our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values,” Obama declared as he signed documents changing U.S. science policy and removing what some researchers have said were shackles on their work.

This reminds me of the false choice between national security and our constitutional rights. I hope Obama doesn’t keep using “false choice”; it’s already getting trite. What Bush did in 2001 was attempt to find a middle ground. He permitted federal funding of embryonic research, but limited this funding to the use of existing cell lines. Of course, this did not prevent private funds from paying for this promising research. In fact, if it was so promising, one would think that private funds would have been flowing in. It seems to me that Bush did what Obama claimed he would do; listen to the two sides and then reach some compromise. When Bush permitted funding of embryonic stem cell research, it was the first time that the federal government had funded any embryonic stem cell research at all.

If science is science and moral values are moral values, and if there is no need to consider the latter when funding the former, then, for example, why would the National Institute of Health have a Department of Clinical Bioethics? Why would the NIH provide a guide to Research Ethics and Stem Cells?

The article continues

“It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology,” Obama said.


Science, politics and religion have long intertwined and conflicted with each other. In his actions Monday, especially with the stem cell decision, Obama is emphasizing more the science than the religion, when compared with his predecessor, science policy experts say. But they acknowledged politics is still involved.  [emphasis added]

Of course politics is still involved. Politics is mostly involved. Let’s stop pretending that Obama is not another politician!

Giving Irrational Exuberance the Finger(s)

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

In today’s Washington Post, there is an article called Born to be a Trader? Fingers Point to Yes. According to the article, one contributing factor to the meltdown of the economy is … testosterone

A new study has found that men who were programmed in the womb to be the most responsive to testosterone tend to be the most successful financial traders, providing powerful support for the influence of the hormone over their decision-making.

Apparently, Alan Greenspan was familiar with this phenomena

“Testosterone is the hormone of irrational exuberance,” said Aldo Rustichini, a professor of economics at the University of Minnesota who helped conduct the study, being published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “The bubble preceding the current crash may have been due to euphoria related to high levels of testosterone, or high sensitivity to it.”

According to the abstract in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Prenatal androgens have important organizing effects on brain development and future behavior. The second-to-fourth digit length ratio (2D:4D) has been proposed as a marker of these prenatal androgen effects, a relatively longer fourth finger indicating higher prenatal androgen exposure. 2D:4D has been shown to predict success in highly competitive sports. Yet, little is known about the effects of prenatal androgens on an economically influential class of competitive risk taking—trading in the financial world. Here, we report the findings of a study conducted in the City of London in which we sampled 2D:4D from a group of male traders engaged in what is variously called “noise” or “high-frequency” trading. We found that 2D:4D predicted the traders’ long-term profitability as well as the number of years they remained in the business. 2D:4D also predicted the sensitivity of their profitability to increases both in circulating testosterone and in market volatility. Our results suggest that prenatal androgens increase risk preferences and promote more rapid visuomotor scanning and physical reflexes. The success and longevity of traders exposed to high levels of prenatal androgens further suggests that financial markets may select for biological traits rather than rational expectations.

Prenatal androgen is another way of saying prenatal exposure to testosterone. A marker for this exposure is a relatively long ring finger of the right hand. In fact, the key measure is the 2D:4D, which is the ratio of the length of the second digit (index finger) to that of the 4th digit (ring finger). A low 2D:4D is a ring finger that is longer than the index finger and suggest greater exposure to testosterone in utero. A higher 2D:4D occurs when the ring and index fingers are about the same length, and this suggests lower exposure to testosterone.

According to the Post article

When the researchers looked at the traders’ profits over a 20-month period from 2004 to 2007, they found that the most experienced traders who had been exposed to the most testosterone in the womb earned about six times as much as those exposed the least. They also tended to have the longest careers, surviving about three years more on average.

And this

When the researchers looked at 14 of the traders in the original study, they found that those exposed to the most testosterone in the womb were the most likely to make more money on the days when the amount of the hormone in the blood was highest, indicating that their profitability was driven by their sensitivity to the hormone as well as the amount of it.

The researchers also found that those exposed to the most prenatal testosterone tended to make the most money on days when the market was most volatile and decisions had to be made especially quickly. That indicates that in addition to the hormone’s tendency to boost confidence and increase the appetite for risk, the sheer mental ability enhanced by early testosterone exposure is probably a key factor. Earlier research had found that those exposed to higher prenatal testosterone as indicated by 2D:4D measurements tended to be better athletes and musicians.

The article even goes so far as to say that the 2D:4D might be used as part of job screening for traders. Well, if it would work to screen traders, why wouldn’t it be good for, ahem, women to screen potential mates?

Numeracy or Literacy?

Numeracy or Literacy


Hold on a minute.

I just looked at my right hand and I would say that my 2D:4D is … gulp … slightly greater than 1. Oh, great!!!

Great White Wimp

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

This article on sharks caught my eye recently.

Sharks have wimpy bites for their size and can crunch through their prey only because they have very sharp teeth — and because they can grow to be so big…

I think for us humans, who like to spend time in the water, the operative phrase there is “crunch through their prey”. And the operative word in the phrase is “crunch”. The great white shark has about 3000 serrated, triangular teeth, arranged in several rows. The teeth in the first two rows do the honors. When they are worn down, chipped, or fall out, the teeth in the back rows rotate into place. So, basically, no bridges, no root canals, and no crowns. That’s a dentist’s nightmare.

“Pound for pound, sharks don’t bite all that hard,” Daniel Huber of the University of Tampa in Florida, who led the study, said in a telephone interview.

Huber and colleagues had trouble collecting data for their study, “due to the experimental intractability of these animals,” they wrote dryly in their report, published in Physiological and Biochemical Zoology.

You have to admire marine biologists when they manage to write “dryly”. But seriously, does Huber have trouble collecting data because of “experimental intractability”, or is it because there isn’t much left of the victims? Actually, according to the National Geographic

…new research finds that great whites, who are naturally curious, are “sample biting” then releasing their victims rather than preying on humans. It’s not a terribly comforting distinction, but it does indicate that humans are not actually on the great white’s menu.

Sample biting? My daughter affects this shark-like behavior whenever there is a cheese and veggie tray.



Huber and the the group at University of Tampa use novel techniques for measuring bites

They also measured the bites of small sharks such as sand sharks, and tested larger sharks by knocking them out and using electricity to stimulate the jaw muscles.

How’d you like to be simulating the jaw muscles of a shark, with electricity, and have it come out from the anesthesia a little early? That would be good on Letterman.

If I am ever attacked by nature’s greatest predator, I will be able to take some comfort in knowing that lions and tigers have more powerful jaw strength than the white death.

What Did Waldseemueller Know and When Did He Know It?

Friday, November 21st, 2008

In this past Monday’s Washington Post, there was an article by David Brown that I found quite interesting: 16-th Century Mapmaker’s Intriguing Knowledge. It started like this:

How was it that a German priest writing in Latin and living in a French city far from the coast became the first person to tell the world that a vast ocean lay to the west of the American continents?

The story is one of Martin Waldseemueller. Not only did Waldseemueller seem to know about the ocean (i.e., the Pacific), he also seemed to know something about the shape of the west coast of South America. According to the article, the evidence of this knowledge is contained in Waldseemueller’s world map of 1507 (Universalis Cosmographia, for short), which was purchased by the Library of Congress for $10 million in 2003.

Universalis Cosmographia

Universalis Cosmographia

As can be seen to the far left, what are now North and South America appear relatively distorted compared to the continents of Africa, Europe, and Asia. Still, the article states that the general shape of the west coast of South America is surprisingly accurate.

The 1507 map is described as the oldest document to use the term ‘America’ to the land mass between Africa and Asia.

America On The Map

America On The Map

In 1516, Waldseemueller published a second great map, called Carta Marina. In this map, according to the article, South America is no longer shown as an “island”. Instead, “The continent disappears off the left of the page, implying it is attached to Asia, which is on the right edge.”

Carta Marina

Carta Marina

So, there are at least two mysteries:

  1. How did Waldseemueller know about the general shape of South America’s west coast in 1507?
  2. What transpired in the intervening years to prompt Waldseemueller to recant?

John W. Hessler of the Library of Congress is a researcher in these matters. His new book, The Naming of America, might be on my Christmas Wish List this year. Hessler’s blog can be found here:

More information and comparisons of the two maps are available from the Library of Congress, here.

A Successful Crash-Landing?

Monday, November 17th, 2008

Congratulations to India and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) for their recent unmanned mission to the moon, called the Chandrayaan-1. The spacecraft, currently in lunar orbit, is also called Chandrayaan-1.

Artists Impression of Chandrayaan-1

Artists Impression of Chandrayaan-1

From Chandrayaan-1, the ISRO has launched probes to the moon. An article on CNN reports

India probe successfully crash-lands on moon.

The article describes the landing as “hard” and then states that the probe was traveling at 3,579 mph. Wow, I’m assuming the airbags deployed! To be fair, the probe is known more precisely as the Moon Impact Probe. Impact? Mission Accomplished!

Moon Impact Probe

Moon Impact Probe

According to Bangalore Ramachandra Rao Guruprasad of the ISRO

One of the objectives of this probe is to understand the moon for future soft landings

I thought that this was a done deal with the Surveyor program back in 1966-1968. I guess there’s no harm in being doubly sure that a landing at 3,579 mph is too fast.

I think I know why the ISRO sent the Moon Impact Probe into the moon’s surface as they did. I think the ISRO has projected the “12 Rules of the Indian Road” onto their space program. Article X of the 12 Rules states

Nirvana may be obtained through the head-on crash.

Welcome to Nirvana, Chandrayaan, welcome!