March 31, 2007

Peanut Butter, Creationism, and Categories

Via boing boing comes an entry by Mike the Mad Biologist linking to a YouTube video of a Creationist explaining how, since life doesn't spontaneously arise in jars of peanut butter, evolution can't be true.

My favorite part isn't the video itself (which is staggeringly inane), nor the observations by Mike and his many commenters, but rather the blog categories into which Mike has placed this entry (edited here):

  • Creationism
  • F***ing Morons
  • Religion
  • The War on Science
  • We're Really F***ed
Now those are some cool categories. Mine just seem boring now.

May 23, 2006

"The Singularity Is Near"

My seventh book of the year (I'm still catching up from a couple of months ago) was Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.

I've heard it said that anyone in high technology has to read this book -- that Kurzweil's arguments now come up so often in discussion that to be literate in our field, one has to be conversant with them. I tend to go along with that theory. Kurzweil makes dramatic claims about the future of technology and backs them up with 500 pages of charts and citations. We can't afford not to read what he has to say, debate it, and think about its implications for our future.

The key idea underlying the impending Singularity is that the pace of change of our human-created technology is accelerating and its powers are expanding at an exponential pace...

This book will argue... that within several decades information-based technologies will encompass all human knowledge and proficiency, ultimately including the pattern-recognition powers, problem-solving skills, and emotional and moral intelligence of the human brain itself...

The Singularity will represent the culmination of the merger of our biological thinking and existence with our technology, resulting in a world that is still human but that transcends our biological roots. There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine or between physical and virtual reality.

Is what Kurzweil is saying true? I don't know. The statistics he cites in the book on exponential growth -- in microprocessor cost and performance, DNA sequencing cost, the decrease in size of mechanical devices, resolution and speed of brain scanning, and many more -- are undeniable. The question is, where are those trends leading us? Will a machine pass the Turing test by 2029? Once intelligent, will machine intelligence increase exponentially? Will humans augment their biological intelligence with machine intelligence? Kurzweil believes all this will happen, and has a schedule for it, based on extrapolating the exponential growth curves he cites.

If I had to guess, I'd say that Kurzweil is on the right track, but his dates might be off. He believes that once we have low-cost computers with raw processing power equal to that of the human brain, and with a deep understanding of the brain's "architecture" in hand thanks to neuroscience advances, it won't take long for human-level intelligence to develop in machines. My hunch is that it will take longer than he thinks. For one thing, software development is much less predictable than hardware development. For another, even with the necessary hardware and software at our disposal, we will have to teach our would-be intelligent machines about the world. That process could turn out to be time-consuming. It might be that, at first, the only way to effectively bring about a human-equivalent intelligence will be to create a physical entity and allow it to explore and experience the world around it, just as we do with human children. This process alone could take years, and we might get it wrong many times before we get it right.

But agree or disagree with him, Kurzweil can't simply be dismissed. He makes a comprehensive case for his beliefs, and if his forecasts come to pass -- on whatever schedule -- they will change our world more profoundly than anything since the development of language and tool-making.

March 09, 2006

Cancel that Call to Jodie Foster... Contact moment today. But it's interesting nonetheless. From Drudge, via Fark:

NASA's Cassini spacecraft may have found evidence of liquid water reservoirs that erupt in Yellowstone-like geysers on Saturn's moon Enceladus. The rare occurrence of liquid water so near the surface raises many new questions about the mysterious moon.

"We realize that this is a radical conclusion -- that we may have evidence for liquid water within a body so small and so cold," said Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team leader at the Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo. "However, if we are right, we have significantly broadened the diversity of solar system environments where we might possibly have conditions suitable for living organisms."

High-resolution Cassini images show icy jets and towering plumes ejecting huge quantities of particles at high speed. Scientists examined several models to explain the process. They ruled out the idea the particles are produced or blown off the moon's surface by vapor created when warm water ice converts to a gas. Instead, scientists have found evidence for a much more exciting possibility. The jets might be erupting from near-surface pockets of liquid water above 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit), like cold versions of the Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone...

"Other moons in the solar system have liquid-water oceans covered by kilometers of icy crust," said Andrew Ingersoll, imaging team member and atmospheric scientist at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif. "What's different here is that pockets of liquid water may be no more than tens of meters below the surface."

So, obviously, no evidence of life beyond Earth, but still fascinating, and worth investigation.

Has Anyone Heard About a NASA Announcement?

I hesitate to post this, because I don't have access to the source, but via EmBlog comes some interesting news:

NASA is planning to make a huge announcement today, about possible life in our own solar system.

Exact details of what we can expect to hear have not been released. We do know that evidence has been found that could point to life relatively close to the earth.

Official word is expected this afternoon at 2 p.m. We’ll have complete coverage of today’s big news when it is released. Tune to News 13 for the complete story.

Unfortunately, the source of the story is down, possibly under server load. A whois search is inconclusive, pointing to an ISP in Florida. Google has a cached version of the site that appears reasonably non-fake.

March 06, 2006

Cosmic Rays and Space Travel

I don't know if I was misinformed, or misinterpreted something, or whether it was nothing more than watching unscientific science fiction, but I've thought for some time now that we had solved the cosmic ray problem -- extended exposure to dangerous radiation faced by astronauts who venture outside the protection of Earth's atmosphere. As it turns out, I was wrong. From "Shielding Space Travelers" (fee required) in this month's issue of Scientific American:

Outside the atmosphere, the cosmic-ray bombardment is intense... A week or a month of this radiation should not have serious consequences, but a couple of years on a jaunt to Mars is a different story. One estimate from NASA is that about one third of the DNA is an astronaut's body would be cut by cosmic rays every year...

In a report published last August, [Wallace Friedberg of the Federal Aviation Administration's Civil Aerospace Medical Institute in Oklahoma City and his colleagues] estimated that Mars astronauts would receive a dose of more than 80 rems a year. By comparison, the legal dose limit for nuclear power plant workers in the U.S. is five rems a year. One in 10 male astronauts would eventually die from cancer, and one in six women (because of their greater vulnerability to breast cancer). What is more, the heavy nuclei could cause cataracts and brain damage.

The author describes three options for protecting against cosmic rays: material shields, magnetic shields, and electrostatic shields. Problems with the latter two would seem to make them impractical, leaving material shielding. A water shield would have to be five meters deep, meaning that a spherical water tank encasing a small capsule would weigh 500 tons -- in comparison to the space shuttle's lift capacity of 30 tons.

February 05, 2006

"Science Is Respected and Protected and Highly Valued..."

This is from a New York Times story on openness at NASA:

In October... George Deutsch, a presidential appointee in NASA headquarters, told a Web designer working for the agency to add the word "theory" after every mention of the Big Bang, according to an e-mail message from Mr. Deutsch that another NASA employee forwarded to The Times...

The Big Bang memo came from Mr. Deutsch, a 24-year-old presidential appointee in the press office at NASA headquarters whose résumé says he was an intern in the "war room" of the 2004 Bush-Cheney re-election campaign [and who was a] 2003 journalism graduate of Texas A&M.

In October 2005, Mr. Deutsch sent an e-mail message to Flint Wild, a NASA contractor working on a set of Web presentations about Einstein for middle-school students. The message said the word "theory" needed to be added after every mention of the Big Bang.

The Big Bang is "not proven fact; it is opinion," Mr. Deutsch wrote, adding, "It is not NASA's place, nor should it be to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator."

It continued: "This is more than a science issue, it is a religious issue. And I would hate to think that young people would only be getting one-half of this debate from NASA. That would mean we had failed to properly educate the very people who rely on us for factual information the most." ...

The Deutsch memo was provided by an official at NASA headquarters who said he was upset with the effort to justify changes to descriptions of science by referring to politically charged issues like intelligent design. Senior NASA officials did not dispute the message's authenticity.

Mr. Wild declined to be interviewed; Mr. Deutsch did not respond to e-mail or phone messages. On Friday evening, repeated queries were made to the White House about how a young presidential appointee with no science background came to be supervising Web presentations on cosmology and interview requests to senior NASA scientists.

The only response came from Donald Tighe of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. "Science is respected and protected and highly valued by the administration," he said.

The wrongheadedness of this is difficult to measure. In fact, it's exactly NASA's place "to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe," given that such a declaration is supported by overwhelming scientific evidence and has the support of the vast majority of the scientific community. Were NASA to do anything else, it would in fact be making this a religious issue.

What's next? NASA press releases giving equal space to the Big Bang, Intelligent Design, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

(Now that I think about it, though, were the scientists at JPL to give their press briefings in pirate regalia (FSM adherents find it offensive to teach their beliefs while dressed any other way), it would probably increase their viewing audience.)

September 01, 2005

Intelligent Design as a Hoax

Via Boing Boing, a brilliant opinion piece by philosopher Daniel Dennett (available on Edge here or at The New York Times here) on "intelligent design" as, essentially, a hoax.

One highlight is Dennett's destruction of the creationists' use of the eye as a structure that must have been designed because it's too complex to have evolved:

Brilliant as the design of the eye is, it betrays its origin with a tell-tale flaw: the retina is inside out. The nerve fibers that carry the signals from the eye's rods and cones (which sense light and color) lie on top of them, and have to plunge through a large hole in the retina to get to the brain, creating the blind spot. No intelligent designer would put such a clumsy arrangement in a camcorder, and this is just one of hundreds of accidents frozen in evolutionary history that confirm the mindlessness of the historical process.
Then he goes on to show the clever forensic trick that creationists use to demonstrate why they should be taken seriously:
To date, the proponents of intelligent design have not produced... experiments with results that challenge any mainstream biological understanding. No observations from the fossil record or genomics or biogeography or comparative anatomy that undermine standard evolutionary thinking.

Instead, the proponents of intelligent design use a ploy that works something like this. First you misuse or misdescribe some scientist's work. Then you get an angry rebuttal. Then, instead of dealing forthrightly with the charges leveled, you cite the rebuttal as evidence that there is a "controversy" to teach.

Note that the trick is content-free. You can use it on any topic. "Smith's work in geology supports my argument that the earth is flat," you say, misrepresenting Smith's work. When Smith responds with a denunciation of your misuse of her work, you respond, saying something like: "See what a controversy we have here? Professor Smith and I are locked in a titanic scientific debate. We should teach the controversy in the classrooms." And here is the delicious part: you can often exploit the very technicality of the issues to your own advantage, counting on most of us to miss the point in all the difficult details.

But my favorite part of the piece is when he challenges creationists to, in effect, put up or shut up:

[N]o intelligent design hypothesis has even been ventured as a rival explanation of any biological phenomenon. This might seem surprising to people who think that intelligent design competes directly with the hypothesis of non-intelligent design by natural selection. But saying, as intelligent design proponents do, "You haven't explained everything yet," is not a competing hypothesis. Evolutionary biology certainly hasn't explained everything that perplexes biologists. But intelligent design hasn't yet tried to explain anything.

To formulate a competing hypothesis, you have to get down in the trenches and offer details that have testable implications. So far, intelligent design proponents have conveniently sidestepped that requirement, claiming that they have no specifics in mind about who or what the intelligent designer might be.

To see this shortcoming in relief, consider an imaginary hypothesis of intelligent design that could explain the emergence of human beings on this planet:

About six million years ago, intelligent genetic engineers from another galaxy visited Earth and decided that it would be a more interesting planet if there was a language-using, religion-forming species on it, so they sequestered some primates and genetically re-engineered them to give them the language instinct, and enlarged frontal lobes for planning and reflection. It worked.

If some version of this hypothesis were true, it could explain how and why human beings differ from their nearest relatives, and it would disconfirm the competing evolutionary hypotheses that are being pursued...

[T]here is not the slightest shred of evidence in favor of this hypothesis.

But here is something the intelligent design community is reluctant to discuss: no other intelligent-design hypothesis has anything more going for it.

I had never thought of it this way. Intelligent design isn't a competing hypothesis, it's just inflated naysaying by people with an agenda driven by their faith. (How many atheist intelligent design advocates can you think of?)

The saddest thing about this ongoing debacle is that it is drawing attention and resources away from our schools when they are so critically in need of every bit of help they can get. Every dollar spent on creationist curriculum, every hour spent by a school board debating intelligent design, is a dollar and an hour that could have been spent on actually improving our schools. Meanwhile, in 2003, our 12th graders scored 19th out of 21 surveyed nations in science and math proficiency.

May 25, 2004

New Spinal Cord Injury Treatment

This story from describes the results of animal trials of a new spinal cord injury treatment regimen. Hopefully we're getting close at last to being able to truly help people with such injuries:

Rats with spinal cord injuries regained 70 percent of their normal walking function with a three-part treatment hailed as a breakthrough in paralysis research at the University of Miami School of Medicine.

The study at the university's Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, to be published on Monday in the June issue of the journal Nature Medicine, produced results "by far greater than what we've seen in anything else," said the principal researcher, Dr. Mary Bartlett Bunge.

"It opens up a potential new avenue of treatment for human spinal cord injury," said Bunge, who declined to speculate when human trials might be attempted...

The Miami study involved hundreds of animals with crushing injuries to the thoracic region of the spinal cord, which mainly causes loss of control of the legs and is the most common form of injury among the 243,000 people in the United States living with spinal cord injuries, the researchers said.

They transplanted cells known as Schwann cells from the peripheral nerves, where regeneration does occur, to create a bridge across the damaged area of the spinal cord and promote the growth of axons, the nerve fibers that transmit messages...

After eight weeks, the rats that did not receive the treatment could occasionally take a halting step but could not take one step after another, Bunge said. Those that received the treatment had regained 70 percent of their walking function, "a striking improvement," Bunge said. They could step consistently, and had better fine motor control and coordination.

March 22, 2004

Cymothoa exigua

From, by way of boing boing, comes word of a disturbingly parasitic sea creature:


Tongue-eating isopod, Cymothoa exigua

This isopod causes degeneration of the tongue of its host fish the rose snapper, Lutjanus guttatus, and it then attaches to the remaining tongue stub and floor of the fish's mouth by hook-like pereopods. In this position the isopod superficially resembles its host's missing tongue. Brusca & Gilligan (1983) hypothesize that these isopods serve as a mechanical replacement for the fish's tongue and represent the first known case in animals of functional replacement of a host structure by a parasite. This relationship is so-far known only from the Gulf of California.

As someone wrote:

I wonder if a fish can dream and if so, then I bet a fish has nightmares. And if a fish has nightmares, then he probably has them about that tongue parasite.
I'm not even a fish, and I might just end up having nightmares about that tongue parasite.

February 24, 2004

The Rosetta Mission

The New York Times has a good article today on the European Space Agency's Rosetta mission, which sounds like the most complex robotic space mission ever attempted:

The 8,000-pound robotic spacecraft is to be launched on Thursday by the European Space Agency from Kourou, French Guiana, on the northeastern coast of South America, by Europe's most powerful rocket, the Ariane 5.

Two hours after the spacecraft enters Earth orbit, an upper stage will send the Rosetta off on a roundabout decade-long journey through the solar system on a mission to find and chase Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

The Rosetta will have to travel hundreds of millions of miles on a path that requires four planetary flybys to build momentum and eventually sling it to a point 420 million miles from the Sun for a rendezvous with the small incoming comet, around May 2014.

By August 2014, the spacecraft is to go into an orbit 15 miles from the nucleus of the two-and-a-half-mile-wide comet. Three months later -- after surveying the chunk of ice, dust and other debris for suitable sites -- the Rosetta will move within a couple of miles of the surface and release a 270-pound craft, Philae, that will try to make the first landing on a comet.

Because the comet is so small and its gravity extremely weak, the lander has to drift down and touch the surface at a speed of no more than three feet a second or it could bounce away, researchers said. To hold it down, Philae's three legs have special shock absorbers to cushion its touch. Each is fitted with ice pitons that quickly bore into the surface. The lander will immediately fire a harpoon into the ground to anchor it...

Scientists will use a suite of 21 instruments, some never flown on a deep-space mission. The instruments, 11 on the orbiter and 10 on the lander, will seek to measure the comet's composition, age, temperatures, interaction with solar radiation and other characteristics as it approaches the Sun.

The article mentions the expected $1.25 billion cost of Rosetta. According to New Scientist, a manned mission to Mars is expected to cost $40-80 billion. I, for one, would rather have 32-64 Rosetta-class missions rather than one mission to Mars.

Mark your calendars for May 2014, when Rosetta will first arrive at the comet. (The lander won't be released for another six months.)

January 30, 2004

Business Week on the Future of NASA

Last September, I wrote:

I myself have wondered what would happen if the X Prize were not for suborbital flight, but for true orbital launch capability, and if the prize were $500 million -- or even $1 billion -- instead of $10 million. Who would be competing? What would they build?

Another way to do this would be for the US government to announce that, beginning in, say, 2008, it is going to select vendors to contract out all future astronaut launches (probably beginning in 2009 or 2010). Make the announcement non-rescindable and set simple, easily measurable requirements: astronaut capacity, on-orbit mission length, compatibility with existing orbital docking systems, safety proven through a series of successful launches (with safety board review afterwards), and so on. Announce how many launches the government will contract for and on what schedule, and that the government will choose as few as one and as many as three of the most inexpensive vendors whose vehicles and systems meet all the requirements. Then sit back and let visionary entrepreneurs like Burt Rutan, John Carmack, and Jeff Bezos do their thing.

Now Business Week has weighed in on this issue:
Since man last set foot on the moon in 1972, NASA has enjoyed a monopoly on U.S. manned space missions, doling out contracts to its aerospace cronies. As a result, the cost of putting people into orbit is about the same now as 30 years ago -- roughly $10,000 per pound, although cheaper commercial launch vehicles are available.

To get more boost for everyone's buck, NASA should gracefully exit the space-ferry game and get back to the future of exploring new frontiers...

There's no telling what such newcomers could achieve if Washington were to encourage private enterprise. Already, the entrepreneurs have been showing up NASA and its heavyweight contractors, says James W. Benson, the ex-software entrepreneur who founded SpaceDev. NASA's attempts to come up with something better than the aging Space Shuttle "have been billion-dollar boondoggles," he notes.

I hope that momentum for this sort of idea continues to build. Set clear, measurable criteria, and then let the private sector work its magic. If the Federal government promised to pump tens of billions of dollars into private launch vehicles in the coming years, we'd see venture capital pouring into the private space launch community, and a flowering of approaches to the problem of getting people and equipment into space and back cheaply and safely.

September 13, 2003

Sanswire's "Stratellite"

Wireless Week has a story on Sanswire Technologies:

Sanswire Technologies is keeping its dream alive of creating a national wireless broadband network with a re-designed satellite-like, high-altitude airship, the Statellite [sic].

Rather than orbiting like a traditional satellite, a Statellite is stationed in the stratosphere. At an altitude of 13 miles, the ship can provide a wireless transmitting platform that can see an area of up to 300,000 square miles.

The company plans to launch a series of the units in the United States to create a national wireless broadband network, enabling subscribers to access the Internet wirelessly at high speeds anywhere in the United States, as well in parts of Canada and Mexico.

"The new design will give us much more flexibility. Not only will we be able to offer wireless broadband services to our subscribers, but the platform can also be used to transmit other wireless services such as cellular, MMDS, fixed wireless telephony, HDTV and 3G/4G mobile," said Michael Molen, Sanswire's CEO.

The figure of 300,000 square miles struck me as quite large. It implies a radius of 309 miles, which -- though I'm most definitely not a wireless engineer -- seems far for inexpensive, bidirectional, broadband communications.

To get some idea of the size of 300,000 square miles, here's a circle of that size centered on downtown Chicago (click on any image for a larger view).

Here's the same circle from a continental view.

13 miles equals 68,640 feet; I presume they're really talking about 70,000 feet and rounding to the nearest mile. A handy calculator tells us that from 70,000 feet, the distance to the horizon is actually 356 miles.

Now, even at a distance of only 309 miles, an object at 70,000 feet is going to hang low on the horizon. From the table found on this page, at 70,000 feet, the elevation from 300 miles away is 0.4 degrees -- in other words, slightly less than the width of the Sun or a full Moon in the sky (see here for more on estimating angles in the sky). That's not much -- easily less than treetops or nearby buildings. (As a point of reference, DirecTV's satellites 1, 2, and 3 have elevations of up to 21 degrees above the horizon throughout Alaska, and many Alaskans must buy larger-than-DBS dishes in order to have a hope of receiving a signal.)

10 degrees above the horizon -- the width of one's fist (with thumb tucked in) at arm's length -- seems more reasonable to me. That equates to a range of just under 75 miles. A radius of 75 miles equals a coverage area of 17,671 square miles, which doesn't sound nearly as impressive as 300,000, but if they're just talking about covering major cities, it's not bad at all.

Here's a circle with a radius of 75 miles centered on the Empire State Building.

With a range of 75 miles, it would take only three stationary airships to cover the Boston-New York-Washington corridor.

I may be wrong about this, and the true range may be 309 miles, but even at 75 miles, it's an interesting proposition, at least for well-populated areas. The "BosNYWash" corridor has an estimated population of 40 million, and is the largest, most densely populated megalopolis in the US, and why not start with the best case? Three hovering airships to serve a total available market of 40 million people sounds great to me.

On the other hand, Sanswire claims that it will only take 12 airships to provide coverage "anywhere in the United States and parts of Canada and Mexico." I've played with my mapping program, and I just can't get this to work -- I can't make 12 circles with a radius of 309 miles each completely cover the continental US. The area of the continental US is 2,870,084 square miles, but the US is irregularly shaped, and a circular coverage pattern implies overlap in any case.

So, at the end of all this, I'm intrigued by Sanswire, but I have a few questions:

  • By a coverage area of 300,000 square miles per airship, does Sanswire mean to imply a range of 309 miles?
  • At an airship altitude of 70,000 feet and a range of 300 miles, the airship will be only 0.4 degrees above the horizon. How will users experience reliable communication at such a low elevation?
  • At a line-of-sight distance of 309 miles, what sort of power will be required to transmit to the airship? What does this imply for portable communications devices?
  • How can Sanswire provide service to anywhere in the continental US with only 12 satellites, each with a range of 309 miles?
I'm interested in the answers to these questions, both from readers with technical knowledge and from the Sanswire people themselves (whom I'll invite to respond here).

September 06, 2003

The Economist on the Shuttle

The Economist published a withering editorial on the Space Shuttle last week:

[T]he shuttle has never adequately done what it was meant to do. It has always been a bad design: expensive, inherently risky and -- as two fatal accidents have demonstrated -- unsafe. It cannot launch satellites at a sensible price, and it lifts people into orbit only because of America's very deep pockets. America and its taxpayers need a better way to continue the development of space transport...

Despite many attempts, and many billions spent, NASA has failed to come up with a convincing alternative. And later this year, while the shuttle is still firmly grounded, China may launch astronauts for the first time. A situation could arise where China, Russia and an entrepreneur called Burt Rutan, based in a shed in the Mojave desert, constitute the world's entire potential for launching astronauts.

The Economist goes on to argue -- wisely, I think -- for a true privatization of human launch capability:

Getting people on and off the space station is not, actually, rocket science any more. It should be a routine job, and its replacement, as NASA concedes, could easily be built using cheap off-the-shelf technology. So this is the ideal moment to extract NASA completely from the business of routine space transport. NASA should have no involvement in building a replacement vehicle to visit the station: the agency has no incentive to solve the problem with a simple solution...

[W]hile NASA has been throwing money at the shuttle, a new generation of entrepreneurs and companies has been trying to enter the space business. Some, such as Mr Rutan, are competing to build the first privately financed craft to take people into space -- for an award of $10m. In five years' time, private enterprise may well be putting more people into space than governments can. There is a great deal of demand for short, tourist rides into space.

Indeed, if private enterprise can create astronauts with only millions of dollars, what might it achieve with a fraction of NASA's wasted billions? The space station is a mere 380km (240 miles) above the Earth. That is about four times further than any of today's private suborbital craft are trying to reach. But, if NASA were a customer, and not a competitor, in the business of building spacecraft, companies might have the incentive to extend their craft all the way into orbit...

[T]he existence of the shuttle doubtless inhibits the development of a private space industry and the new private companies face regulatory restrictions that do not apply to the shuttle. Remove some of these barriers, scuttle the shuttle, and a private industry may bloom. Then, some of those who once watched Columbia's perfect landing might experience the thrill of going into space for themselves. And NASA could explore the real frontiers.

I myself have wondered what would happen if the X Prize were not for suborbital flight, but for true orbital launch capability, and if the prize were $500 million -- or even $1 billion -- instead of $10 million. Who would be competing? What would they build?

Another way to do this would be for the US government to announce that, beginning in, say, 2008, it is going to select vendors to contract out all future astronaut launches (probably beginning in 2009 or 2010). Make the announcement non-rescindable and set simple, easily measurable requirements: astronaut capacity, on-orbit mission length, compatibility with existing orbital docking systems, safety proven through a series of successful launches (with safety board review afterwards), and so on. Announce how many launches the government will contract for and on what schedule, and that the government will choose as few as one and as many as three of the most inexpensive vendors whose vehicles and systems meet all the requirements. Then sit back and let visionary entrepreneurs like Burt Rutan, John Carmack, and Jeff Bezos do their thing.

September 04, 2003

LEDs Replacing Light Bulbs

An article from the Boston Globe on the effort to replace light bulbs with LEDs:

Three local companies think it's about time to change Edison's light bulb. They say that light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, are the future of illumination. Most people are familiar with the glowing red LEDs used as indicators, to show that there are messages waiting on your answering machine, for example. But today's LEDs can be used to light up restaurants, Broadway stages, and even bridges.

They're essentially microchips that manipulate electrons to produce light. Unlike Edison's bulb, there's no filament to burn out, and they don't get especially hot when they're on. Other plusses: They can last 10 times times longer than an incandescent bulb, and they require much less electricity -- up to 80 percent less -- to produce the same amount of light. And here's a stunning projection: If the world switches over to LEDs rapidly enough, it could obviate the need to build more than 100 power plants between now and 2020.

The problem is cost. Like early computer chips, today's LEDs are still too expensive to spark mass adoption. "You could replace a 100-watt light bulb with a 60-watt LED, and get the same brightness," says John Fan, chairman and founder of Kopin Corp., a Taunton company that makes LEDs. "You'd save 40 percent on power, but it would cost about $100. We need to bring that price down." ...

No one knows how quickly the shift to LEDs will happen -- the technology has been around since 1962 -- but most experts consider it inevitable. And this is an overwhelmingly positive tech trend: By some estimates, LEDs could reduce global energy use for lighting by half by 2025.

Found on Slashdot.

August 29, 2003

Could Columbia's Crew Have Been Saved?

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board has released its report (available here). In one of the more interesting passages, the authors write of the possibility of rescuing Columbia's crew, had requests for inspection of possible tile damage been heeded. Two possible strategies are mentioned, on-orbit repair and rescue by another shuttle, but only the latter is considered viable. A hypothetical timeline is presented:

Following the debris strike discovery on Flight Day Two, Mission Managers requested imagery by Flight Day Three. That imagery was inconclusive, leading to a decision on Flight Day Four to perform a spacewalk on Flight Day Five. That spacewalk revealed potentially catastrophic damage. The crew was directed to begin conserving consumables, such as oxygen and water, and Shuttle managers began around-the-clock processing of Atlantis to prepare it for launch. Shuttle managers pursued both the rescue and the repair options from Flight Day Six to Flight Day 26, and on that day (February 10) decided which one to abandon.

The NASA team deemed this timeline realistic for several reasons. First, the team determined that a spacewalk to inspect the left wing could be easily accomplished. The team then assessed how the crew could limit its use of consumables to determine how long Columbia could stay in orbit. The limiting consumable was the lithium hydroxide canisters, which scrub from the cabin atmosphere the carbon dioxide the crew exhales. After consulting with flight surgeons, the team concluded that by modifying crew activity and sleep time carbon dioxide could be kept to acceptable levels until Flight Day 30 (the morning of February 15). All other consumables would last longer. Oxygen, the next most critical, would require the crew to return on Flight Day 31...


Accelerating the processing of Atlantis for early launch and rendezvous with Columbia was by far the most complex task in the rescue scenario. On Columbia's Flight Day Four, Atlantis was in the Orbiter Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center with its main engines installed and only 41 days from its scheduled March 1 launch. The Solid Rocket Boosters were already mated with the External Tank in the Vehicle Assembly Building. By working three around-the-clock shifts seven days a week, Atlantis could be readied for launch, with no necessary testing skipped, by February 10. If launch processing and countdown proceeded smoothly, this would provide a five-day window, from February 10 to February 15, in which Atlantis could rendezvous with Columbia before Columbia's consumables ran out. According to records, the weather on these days allowed a launch. Atlantis would be launched with a crew of four: a commander, pilot, and two astronauts trained for spacewalks. In January, seven commanders, seven pilots, and nine spacewalk-trained astronauts were available. During the rendezvous on Atlantis's first day in orbit, the two Orbiters would maneuver to face each other with their payload bay doors open. Suited Columbia crew members would then be transferred to Atlantis via spacewalks. Atlantis would return with four crew members on the flight deck and seven in the mid-deck. Mission Control would then configure Columbia for a de-orbit burn that would ditch the Orbiter in the Pacific Ocean, or would have the Columbia crew take it to a higher orbit for a possible subsequent repair mission if more thorough repairs could be developed.

This rescue was considered challenging but feasible. To succeed, it required problem-free processing of Atlantis and a flawless launch countdown. If Program managers had understood the threat that the bipod foam strike posed and were able to unequivocally determine before Flight Day Seven that there was potentially catastrophic damage to the left wing, these repair and rescue plans would most likely have been developed, and a rescue would have been conceivable.

So there it is. Had the e-mail messages been heeded, and the shuttle been inspected -- first from the ground, then from space -- then the crew could likely have been saved.

August 11, 2003

The Public Library of Science

Via, a Washington Post story on free access to medical research:

[T]he vast majority of the 50,000 to 60,000 research articles published each year as a result of federally funded science ends up in the hands of for-profit publishers -- the largest of them based overseas -- that charge as much as $50 to view the results of a single study online...

Why is it, a growing number of people are asking, that anyone can download medical nonsense from the Web for free, but citizens must pay to see the results of carefully conducted biomedical research that was financed by their taxes?

The Public Library of Science aims to change that. The organization, founded by a Nobel Prize-winning biologist and two colleagues, is plotting the overthrow of the system by which scientific results are made known to the world -- a $9 billion publishing juggernaut with subscription charges that range into thousands of dollars per year.

In its place the organization is constructing a system that would put scientific findings on the Web -- for free...

The PLoS plan is simple in concept: Instead of having readers pay for scientific results through subscriptions or other charges, costs would be borne by the scientists who are having their work published -- or, practically speaking, by the government agencies or other groups that funded the scientists -- through upfront charges of about $1,500 an article.

The shift is not as radical as it sounds, the library's founders argue. That is because government agencies and other science funders are already paying for a huge share of the world's journal subscriptions through "indirect cost" grants to university libraries, which are the biggest subscribers. The new system would radically increase the number of people who would have access to published findings, though, because results would be freely available on the Internet. By contrast, people today who do not subscribe to these journals must pay charges, typically $15 to $50, to get a reprint of -- or online access to -- a single article.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder the same thing: why should I have to pay to read the results of scientific research funded with my tax dollars?

The first PLoS journal, PLoS Biology, starts in October, with PLoS Medicine to follow in 2004. PLoS can be found on the Web here.

May 30, 2003

CWT's CEO Calls

Last month, I wrote a blog entry (and a follow-up) on thermal depolymerization, a potentially revolutionary new process:

The process is designed to handle almost any waste product imaginable, including turkey offal, tires, plastic bottles, harbor-dredged muck, old computers, municipal garbage, cornstalks, paper-pulp effluent, infectious medical waste, oil-refinery residues, even biological weapons such as anthrax spores... [W]aste goes in one end and comes out the other as three products, all valuable and environmentally benign: high-quality oil, clean-burning gas, and purified minerals that can be used as fuels, fertilizers, or specialty chemicals for manufacturing.
The first comment on my original entry didn't come for five days, but then the flood started. Within a couple of weeks, a Google search on "thermal depolymerization" listed my blog entry first (it's now down to third), and by yesterday, the entry had accumulated 250 comments.

With that, I wrote to Changing World Technologies (CWT), the company behind thermal depolymerization, and invited them to submit a guest entry for the blog. Somewhat to my surprise, a comment appeared today apparently written by the CEO of CWT, Brian Appel. I immediately made a call to his office to confirm its authenticity. Less than an hour later, my phone rang -- it was Brian himself calling to confirm the what he had written. Here's his comment in full:

Dear Frank,

Your web site is an interesting tool to review in part public opinion regarding our process. It provides some hope since the majority of the comments were positive and correct, but like all open forums you realize there is another very small group whose anger blinds their ability to see things clearly and who impede breakthroughs. Basically they fail to see the positive impact companies like ours will have on our environment. We were not looking for any public exposure but it certainly has found us. This exposure was not meant to be disruptive to anyones business or to be a surprise.

We have received thousands of inquires with the majority of those looking to make an investment. We are flattered by the interest. We have no current plans to hype a market or to go public, although we are asked daily to do so.

Some of the comments we received are very amusing, in particular the ones where the armchair engineers and scientists are guessing the mass and energy balances for a process that they know nothing about. It underscores why we have environmental problems because these are the same people we are counting on to find solutions to a growing concern. I think some still think the world is flat.

In any event we offer some comments to your audience. Right now we can only offer you "hope" that a more peaceful world is within our reach. Once we shortly begin operations and confirm our process we can deploy many facilities that will impact our waste markets in a more dramatic fashion.

CWT's process is for real. The plant in Missouri is complete and we are in the start-up phase. The energy efficiency is correctly stated. How we do this is our business but it is standard within many industrial applications. This is not transesterficatin, incineration, gasification or the biodiesel. Our first out plant is competitive with a small E&P company. Our diverse talented team has developed a business model that can be quickly replicated. I suggest you visit MIT's science publication web site at and to pull up the article "Garbage into Oil". They have cleverly provided an animation of a turkey going through the process. This will help provide a visual as to what happens in our multi-step system.

You can expect additional articles in the near future regarding what we do. The SEC already opened and shut an investigation regarding our company. They also thought we were hyping something here. The goods news for all of us is that they appear pro-active in protecting the public. I applaud their efforts. To some we know that is disappointing but to the majority of you it is one more step to validate that a paradigm shift is blowing in the wind.

We are committed and focused on cleaning up waste, validating renewable energy, and helping to minimize global warming. Our partners and our staff are committed to making the world a better place.

We can not respond to all of the letters and e-mail. Most we can only say thank you for your kind words. To the negative ones this is our only comment. No statues erected for critics. Stand aside and get out of the way of real progress. The world needs solutions not town criers.

Frank, we do thank you and most of the writers for you support and comment. We know hope is resting on our shoulders. We will not let you down, as we are committed to our business, our environment and to all the worlds' well being.

Best Regards,
Brian Appel
Chairman & CEO

One more thought, some of the questions we received was from teachers looking for teaching aid information to educate our children. I taught my 11-year-olds science class the other day. They are studying the environment and effects from pollution people have created. They we all glowing with excitement. They were interested in what we could all do to make the world a better place. They didn't take the position of what we are not and what we could not do. It was refreshing to hear out of the "mouth of babes" this perspective. It gives me hope!

I had an extremely pleasant talk with Brian. He's passionate about what his company is doing and is an extremely effective spokesperson. It's clear that many people are interested in the possibilities raised by thermal depolymerization, and that we're going to be hearing much more about it in the coming weeks and months.

Brian, thanks for the call, and rest assured you and your team have a great many fans cheering you on.

[The Technology Review article and animation Brian referred to can be found here.]

April 27, 2003

More on Thermal Depolymerization

My entry on thermal depolymerization has engendered more comments than any other entry of mine to date -- 23 as of this writing. There seems to be fairly serious disagreement about the practicality of the technology and whether the claims made for it are entirely true.

The company behind this version of thermal depolymerization is Changing World Technologies of West Hempstead, New York. I couldn't find any technical information their site more detailed than what was in the Discover article, but one story on their site mentioned "scientist Paul Baskis." A USPTO search turned up the following patents for Paul T. Baskis:

6,109,123 Rotational inertial motor
5,825,839 Method and apparatus for converting radioactive materials to electrical energy
5,543,061 Reforming process and apparatus
5,360,553 Process for reforming materials into useful products and apparatus
5,269,947 Thermal depolymerizing reforming process and apparatus
The first patent, 5,269,947, would seem to be the critical one:
I'm not a chemist by any stretch of the imagination, so I'm hoping that others more knowledgeable than me will investigate these patents and report back on what they find.

April 20, 2003

Atkins' Worst Week

As if it wasn't bad enough for Dr. Robert Atkins that he died this past week, by coincidence, an article published in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association claimed, in examining 107 previous studies, to find no consistent correlation between low carbohydrate intake diets (as he so famously espoused) and weight loss:

There is insufficient evidence to make recommendations for or against the use of low-carbohydrate diets, particularly among participants older than age 50 years, for use longer than 90 days, or for diets of 20 g/d or less of carbohydrates. Among the published studies, participant weight loss while using low-carbohydrate diets was principally associated with decreased caloric intake and increased diet duration but not with reduced carbohydrate content.
Found on Slashdot here (press release here).

April 19, 2003

Thermal Depolymerization

Via boing boing comes a story from Discover on a truly revolutionary new technology:

In an industrial park in Philadelphia sits a new machine that can change almost anything into oil.


"This is a solution to three of the biggest problems facing mankind," says Brian Appel, chairman and CEO of Changing World Technologies, the company that built this pilot plant... "This process can deal with the world's waste. It can supplement our dwindling supplies of oil. And it can slow down global warming."

Pardon me, says a reporter... but that sounds too good to be true.

"Everybody says that," says Appel. He is a tall, affable entrepreneur who has assembled a team... to develop and sell what he calls the thermal depolymerization process, or TDP. The process is designed to handle almost any waste product imaginable, including turkey offal, tires, plastic bottles, harbor-dredged muck, old computers, municipal garbage, cornstalks, paper-pulp effluent, infectious medical waste, oil-refinery residues, even biological weapons such as anthrax spores. According to Appel, waste goes in one end and comes out the other as three products, all valuable and environmentally benign: high-quality oil, clean-burning gas, and purified minerals that can be used as fuels, fertilizers, or specialty chemicals for manufacturing.

Unlike other solid-to-liquid-fuel processes such as cornstarch into ethanol, this one will accept almost any carbon-based feedstock. If a 175-pound man fell into one end, he would come out the other end as 38 pounds of oil, 7 pounds of gas, and 7 pounds of minerals, as well as 123 pounds of sterilized water...

[A] large chunk of the world's agricultural, industrial, and municipal waste may someday go into thermal depolymerization machines scattered all over the globe. If the process works as well as its creators claim, not only would most toxic waste problems become history, so would imported oil. Just converting all the U.S. agricultural waste into oil and gas would yield the energy equivalent of 4 billion barrels of oil annually. In 2001 the United States imported 4.2 billion barrels of oil. Referring to U.S. dependence on oil from the volatile Middle East, R. James Woolsey, former CIA director and an adviser to Changing World Technologies, says, "This technology offers a beginning of a way away from this."


Like the reporter, I can't help but think that this sounds too good to be true... but if it is true, it will be revolutionary in the true sense of the word.

I've wondered if and when future generations would not only recycle their own waste, but go back and clean up the messes left by previous generations (including ours). Could thermal depolymerization be a first step toward the repair of our planet?

April 11, 2003

SARS, Aircraft, and Evolution

From a New York Times story filed from Hong Kong:

Health officials announced here tonight that a man infected with a new respiratory disease had flown from Hong Kong to Munich, Barcelona, Frankfurt, London, Munich again, Frankfurt again and then back to Hong Kong before entering a hospital.

The Hong Kong Department of Health appealed for passengers and air crews from all seven flights to consult medical professionals. A health department spokeswoman said it was not yet known whether the man, who is 48, had infected anyone else on the flights with the disease -- severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.

All the flights were on Lufthansa. The airline said in a statement tonight that it had disinfected all the planes and was contacting the air crews and passengers...

Airlines have been saying that the filters aboard modern planes do a good job of removing viruses from the air. But according to the health department here, at least 13 people have fallen ill with SARS so far after they shared a flight from Hong Kong to Beijing last month with an elderly man who had been infected with the disease while visiting his brother in a hospital here...

Travelers have continued to board planes while feeling ill despite strenuous warnings from the World Health Organization and national health agencies that they not do so.

In the case that was announced tonight, the man flew on Lufthansa Flight 731 on March 30 from Hong Kong to Munich, and traveled the next day on Flight 4316 to Barcelona, according to an itinerary that was released here by the health department. He developed symptoms while in Barcelona.

The man then traveled on Flight 4303 to Frankfurt on April 2 and on to London the same day on Flight 4520. He went to Munich the next day on Flight 4671, then headed for Frankfurt on April 4 on Flight 265. He connected with Flight 738 the same day back to Hong Kong, arriving on April 5.

The man checked into a hospital here on April 8 and was confirmed today to have SARS.

Some years ago, I had the great pleasure of meeting the evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins over dinner at his house in Oxford. At the time, the Ebola virus was in the news. I had just read The Hot Zone by Richard Preston, whose first chapter -- in which a Kenyan man in the near-final stages of Ebola, vomiting blood as his internal organs begin to disintegrate, boards a flight to Nairobi to seek treatment -- is the scariest thing I've ever read.

"Would it be possible," I asked Dawkins, "for a virus to evolve specifically to take advantage of modern aircraft ventilation systems? Could a virus evolve that would use aircraft as more than just transportation for its human hosts?"

Dawkins thought for a moment, then replied.

"Yes, I believe it would be possible."

I hope people listen to the warnings and stop flying if they have symptoms of SARS. I understand well the desire to go home when one is sick, but to do so is to put the world at risk.

April 06, 2003

SARS Growth

Via David Smith, a statistical graph and predictions for the SARS epidemic by Ted Kaehler:


The number of reported cases of SARS in the world is doubling every 11 days. This is implied by the slope of the blue curve, using the data available on April 5, 2003. There will be 100,000 cases on about June 1, 2003. A million cases will be reached on about July 6, 2003, and ten million on about August 11, 2003. These predictions will change every day as new data changes the slope of the curves. Only world cases after March 25, 2003 are used to compute the slope, because that is when China began reporting...

Epidemics usually follow S-shaped curves. The predictions here are based on pure exponential growth. When the middle of the S-shaped curve is reached, the rate of infection will slow, and exponential growth predictions will no longer be useful. The reported data shows that the epidemic is still in an exponential growth phase.

The $64,000 question is, when will SARS transition out of its current exponential growth phase and into the middle of the S-shaped curve? After 10,000 cases? 100,000 cases? 1,000,000? 10,000,000?

The page with the graph and all the statistical forecasts can be found here.

March 19, 2003

The Economist on Nanotechnology

The Economist has a story in the current issue on the state of nanotechnology. The story describes key obstacles towards the mass commercialization of nanotechnology:

[T]here are two big obstacles to overcome. The first is coming up with an interface between living entities and electronic devices -- ie, between carbon and silicon. It does no good to have a fuel cell made of carbon nanotubes if it cannot communicate when it is about to run out of fuel. While scientists at IBM, Hewlett-Packard and elsewhere race to release their latest atomic transistor or nanostorage device, they have yet to work out how to integrate such components. At Hewlett-Packard, Stan Williams and Phil Kuekes recall hearing as boys that soon even toasters would run on nuclear power. Despite such false dawns, they still think nanotechnology will be everywhere within 20 years. But until the integration issue is solved, nanocomputing will be as likely as nuclear-powered kitchen appliances.

Solving the integration issue will create another problem: how, in fact, to design and build nanodevices. The unpredictable behaviour of nanoscale objects means that engineers will not know how to make nanomachines until they actually start building them. Such a conundrum could take years to solve -- and even then, it will be by trial and error and a lot of luck.

But the story ends on what is, by Economist standards, a remarkably upbeat note:

In time, nanotechnology could, indeed, change all of materials science, all of computing and much of biology. A transformation of that scope could generate serious concerns over nano-ethics. It is unlikely, though, that anything would cause the nanotechnology baton to drop. We are watching a classic technological revolution unfold.
The article also contains an interesting graph:
Taking the graph at face value, by one measure at least, nanotechnology's hype surpassed its research in 1996, but as of late last year, research has once again taken the lead. If true, this is excellent news.

February 11, 2003


The day after Columbia was lost, I wrote this:

My hope is that our government will treat this tragedy as the impetus to build a new launch vehicle. The first space shuttle contracts were awarded in July 1972 -- over 30 years ago. Much progress has been made since then in spacecraft design. Instead of trying to save money by extending the existing shuttle fleet, as has been done since 1997, we should commit to building a new orbital transportation system. I can't help but think that the men and women who gave their lives yesterday would think it fitting to see the first operational X-33 named Columbia II.
This just goes to show you how out of it I am when it comes to the latest news from NASA. The X-33 program was cancelled long ago. NASA is now focused on the Orbital Space Plane (OSP), a passenger-only shuttle designed to be launched atop a conventional multi-stage rocket. This isn't the breakthrough that the X-33 -- a Single Stage To Orbit (SSTO) vehicle -- would have been, but goodness knows we need something to replace the current shuttle, the design of which is now over 30 years old. More information on the OSP can be found here, here, here, and here.

February 04, 2003

"...We Just Weren't Sure When"

An interesting take on Columbia on David Harris' Science and Literature blog:

[W]hat happened and what does it all mean? One answer is that it means pretty close to nothing. Although this may sound overly dismissive in light of increasingly-hyped media-fuelled public tragedies, there is good reason to think that this accident is neither unexpected nor ominous...

[F]rom a scientific point of view, we already knew this accident was going to happen. Of course, we hoped we could ride a wave of good luck as long as possible but sometimes the dice fall the wrong way. Continuing to rely on decades-old technology is unlikely to have helped...

What really changes in light of this event? From a scientific viewpoint, nothing. This is a redundant data point. We already knew it would happen, we just weren't sure when. Does this mean we should make changes to the space shuttle program? Not really. Well, we shouldn't make any changes that we didn't need to make before the event. Going up in a shuttle today is just as safe as it was on Saturday, and as safe as the launch before that.

David is right when he says that "we shouldn't make any changes that we didn't need to make before the event," but then what if we didn't know we needed to make them? NASA believed that its procedures to ensure the integrity of the shuttles' heat tiles were sufficient, and NASA also believed in the adequacy of its processes for reviewing any incident that could compromise tile integrity. Yet -- based on highly preliminary evidence -- it would appear neither was the case. It was too easy for tiles to be damaged during takeoff, and the review of the incident while Columbia was in orbit may have led NASA to the wrong conclusion (that the launch incident didn't pose a significant risk to the orbiter).

Did these procedures need to be changed before Saturday? Yes. Was that clear to people? If so, it doesn't seem to have been clear to the right people.

10 Emerging Technologies That Will Change the World

Technology Review's "10 Emerging Technologies That Will Change the World":

  • Wireless sensor networks. "Networks of wireless battery-powered sensors that monitor our environment, our machines, and even us."
  • Injectable tissue engineering. Injecting the body "with specially designed mixtures of polymers, cells, and growth stimulators that solidify and form healthy tissue."
  • Nano solar cells. Using "nanotechnology to produce a photovoltaic material that can be spread like plastic wrap or paint."
  • Mechatronics. The "integration of familiar mechanical systems with new electronic components and intelligent-software control."
  • Grid computing. Protocols giving "home and office machines the ability to reach into cyberspace, find resources wherever they may be, and assemble them on the fly into whatever applications are needed."
  • Molecular imaging. "Shorthand for a number of techniques that let researchers watch genes, proteins, and other molecules at work in the body."
  • Nanoimprint lithography. "Stamping a hard mold into a soft material... [to] imprint features smaller than 10 nanometers across."
  • Software assurance. "Programming tools for making software development... more like an engineering discipline."
  • Glycomics. The "effort to understand and ultimately harness sugars."
  • Quantum cryptography. Transmitting "information in such a way that any effort to eavesdrop will be detectable."

February 03, 2003

Sleeping When Overtired

From Popular Science, a question and answer on sleep difficulties:

Why is it so difficult to fall asleep when you are overtired? ...

There is no one answer that applies to every individual. But many people fail to note the distinction between fatigue -- physical tiredness -- and sleepiness, the inability to stay awake. It's possible to feel "tired" physically and still be unable to fall asleep, because while your body may be exhausted, you don't feel sleepy. To fall asleep, you need adequate time to unwind, even if you feel fatigued. It's not so easy to simply "turn off."

According to Carl E. Hunt, director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research in Bethesda, Maryland, most people do not allow themselves sufficient deceleration.

Lack of sleep complicates matters even more. Experts say adults need at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night to function properly. When you get less sleep than that on consecutive nights, you begin to accrue "sleep debt." As sleep debt increases (and functionality decreases), your body experiences a stress response and begins to release adrenaline. Now a vicious cycle has been created: You experience the feeling of being more and more tired, but your body is increasingly stimulated. "Power sleeping" for more hours on weekends is only a temporary solution. "There is no substitute for getting a good night's sleep on a regular basis," says Hunt.

Most of us, however, don't get the sleep we need. According to the 2002 National Sleep Foundation, Americans sleep an average of 6.9 hours per night during the week, and 58 percent of adults experience symptoms of insomnia a few nights a week or more.

This sounds like the story of my life, except for the "power sleeping" part, which I'm unable to do. Last week, after a night of poor sleep at home followed by another on the road, I arrived back home at 1:00 AM after a five-and-a-half-hour drive. I was falling asleep in the car (while taking a turn as a passenger, thankfully), but I couldn't for the life of me sleep once I got home. There are few things in the world more frustrating than being exhausted and wanting to sleep but unable to do so.

February 02, 2003

Challenger, Columbia, and Next Steps

The morning of 28 January 1986, my then-wife and I were sleeping in, having returned home to San Diego from our honeymoon the night before. Next door, just outside our window, construction workers building a house turned on a radio, which woke us up. I heard the words "space shuttle Challenger" and "explosion." I jumped out of bed and turned on the television, with Karin just behind me. The anchor was talking about how it was feared that all were lost, and then they showed the video and I started crying, knowing they were gone.

Yesterday, 1 February 2003, I was watching a show on the TiVo, taking a break from chores, when my daughter called me from her mom's house. "Daddy? Did you hear about the space shuttle?" I switched to live television and, along with the rest of the country, once again found myself watching video of the end of a shuttle and the loss of its crew. Though an awful tragedy, it wasn't quite as personally wrenching for me this time -- I don't know whether because the video this time wasn't so obvious, because after Challenger it wasn't so much of a shock, or both.

What do we do next? The "why do we need to be in space" lobby will certainly use this as an opening, at least according to Time:

Representative Dave Weldon, Republican from Florida and co-chair of the House Aerospace Caucus, foresees a catfight in Congress over any new space expenditures, especially in an era of again ballooning deficits. "The people who opposed space-flight funding are going to come forward again and voice concerns that we should spend the money on something else," he says. "But we are a nation of explorers, and we'll continue to explore the unknown."
The "why do we need humans in space" lobby will use this as well. From CNN this morning:
Rabbi Marc Gellman: We are really at a point where we have to look at not only the expense of manned space exploration, but its effectiveness. The most wonderful thing that we've ever put in space was the telescope, and there isn't a human being on it. And I think we have to look again at whether this is worth the risk of human life.
I find this attitude astonishing -- and thankfully rare. The seven astronauts who died yesterday knew the risk they were taking and did so not only willingly, but enthusiastically, as have explorers throughout the millennia.

My hope is that our government will treat this tragedy as the impetus to build a new launch vehicle. The first space shuttle contracts were awarded in July 1972 -- over 30 years ago. Much progress has been made since then in spacecraft design. Instead of trying to save money by extending the existing shuttle fleet, as has been done since 1997, we should commit to building a new orbital transportation system. I can't help but think that the men and women who gave their lives yesterday would think it fitting to see the first operational X-33 named Columbia II.

February 01, 2003

Not Again

Not again, not again, not again...