Stories tagged Scientific World View


I don't see any spikes at all: that a tiny flamethrower? Oh, no, it's just its little tummy.
I don't see any spikes at all: that a tiny flamethrower? Oh, no, it's just its little tummy.Courtesy rcoder
Well, I think robots should be scarier, anyway. And I mean classically, empirically scarier. A robot shouldn’t get a press release unless it could be nicknamed “crusher,” or “mecha-death,” or “slaughterbot.” Some crap like that, anyway. Even if a robot’s sole purpose is to, say, drop eggs into a carton, it should still have a buzz saw arm installed on it. For the sake of appearances.

I’m not suggesting that there aren’t scary robots out there. There are scary robots out there, very scary robots, but they’re full of the wrong kind of scary. Check out this little dude. For those of you who can’t access links, or something, here’s the dope: we’ve got a horrible little robo-creature that makes me think Casper the friendly ghost has been having sex with Volkswagen Beetles. iCub is what they call it, which is short for “iCub is designed to lay eggs in your mouth and burst out of your chest. iCub!” Ostensibly it’s designed to learn human language from the ground up, like a human baby, but look at the thing: those big eyes already have language, and they’re saying “I can’t wait to get my ovipositor down your esophagus.” Brrr.

No, I’ll take the T1000 over that any day.

Or, here, we have a little robot that was clearly designed to relate to its human coworkers. How can you look at a face like that and not think, “Oh, here’s something I can talk to.”? You can’t. But this robot will keep staring at you long after the interaction becomes uncomfortable, and then it will whisper things to you, like how it knows where you sleep, and how sad you’d be if something happened to your dog. Don’t argue—I’ve seen the schematics.

Now, with the new generation of walking robots we’re just starting to move in the right direction. Not this little guy, obviously. Robots that are just learning to walk should try to take attention away from the fact that they can barely do something that I’ve been able to do by myself for, like, ten years. The little MIT robot (linked to above), however, looks like something I might “accidentally” back over with my car. Whoops! Back to the drawing board.

A new robot out of the Netherlands seems to be stumbling towards where I want my robots. The name, “Flame,” needs some focus grouping, but it has potential, despite the fact that, as far as I can tell, there is no actual flame involved in the machine. It’s head looks sort of flamey, but they again so do teardrops. : (

Flame is upright, however, and approaching human size, both good signs. Again, though, its sole purpose is learning how to walk smoothly, which isn’t super scary. Unlike the stumpy shamble of man y other walking robots, Flame employs the human walking style of “falling forward in a controlled fashion” (how’s that for a metaphor for life). The hope is that Flame will provide insight on the mechanics of human walking; that it might aid in treatment and rehabilitation in people who already have leg injuries. Ironic, really. Not because humans should be teaching robots to walk, but because robots should be crushing their human creators, not teaching them how to walk. What a funny world.

Still, we can always dream.


Hurricanes and global warming: The debate over their connection continues.
Hurricanes and global warming: The debate over their connection continues.Courtesy NASA

In 2005, Dr. Kerry Emmanuel, a climate scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published a paper claiming there was a link between rising global temperatures and increases in hurricane strength.

This year, Dr. Emmanuel has published another paper in which he reconsiders the evidence. He found that the models used to predict hurricane activity were not matching up with what was happening in the real world. The link between hurricanes and global warming may not be as strong as originally suspected, or may not exist at all.

This is precisely how science is supposed to work – examining evidence, coming up with theories to explain the evidence, testing those theories, and adjusting the theories if necessary.

In another three years, Emmanual may write another paper showing that he was right the first time. Or that the whole hurricane-warming link is a dead end. Or perhaps some other conclusion. But the important thing is to keep looking, and to report honestly what you find.

As economist John Keynes famously said, “When the facts change, I change my mind.” A good approach to any debate.


The mouse knows why: But she's not telling.
The mouse knows why: But she's not telling.Courtesy d ha rm e sh
News broke this week that the Kremlin guard—the security service of the Russian government—has been looking to acquire 3,200 female mice.

Why? They aren’t saying. “If [the mice] were ordered then that means they are needed,” was all a Kremlin guard official would reveal. That, at least, is a relief. I’d hate to think what they’d do with all those mice if they didn’t need them.

Some Russia/mice enthusiasts guess that the mice may be intended for feeding the Kremlin’s falcons, which are kept to scare off crows from the government seat. Others think that the rodents will be used to test toxic chemicals, or as indicators for the presence of dangerous gases. I am inclined to believe that the Kremlin is simply attempting to corner the world mouse market.

It was revealed Friday that the Kremlin has already found a mouse supplier, and will be paying approximately $20,000 for the rodents.

Strange plans are afoot, Buzzketeers. Any thoughts on just what they might be?


Red blood cells infected with Plasmodium falciparum: This thin film Giemsa stained micrograph reveals ring-forms, and gametocytes of Plasmodium falciparum.
Red blood cells infected with Plasmodium falciparum: This thin film Giemsa stained micrograph reveals ring-forms, and gametocytes of Plasmodium falciparum.Courtesy cdc

  • Malaria is both preventable and curable.
  • A child dies of malaria every 30 seconds.
  • More than one million people die of malaria every year, mostly infants, young children and pregnant women and most of them in Africa.

A recent article in the NY Times discussed if it is possible to eliminate malaria. They need more money, better health systems and a vaccine. Some experts feel the big push to eradicate malaria is counterproductive or even dangerous. Dr. Arata Kochi, the W.H.O. malaria chief stated in the article that, “… enough money, current tools like nets, medicines and DDT could drive down malaria cases 90 percent. But eliminating the last 10 percent is a tremendous task and very expensive.” He doesn’t want people to have false hope.

A new vaccine
In spite of the debate, research is progressing to reach the goal of eliminating malaria. The Seattle Biomedical Research Institute (SBRI) is home to one of the largest malaria research programs in the United States. SBRI's Malaria Program is focused on vaccine discovery for malaria during pregnancy, severe malaria in children and liver-stage malaria. SBRI scientists are working on a vaccine that uses genetic engineering to render malaria parasites harmless. According to an article in the Seattle Times SBRI is looking for volunteers to be bitten by malaria-infected mosquitoes to aid in the quest for new vaccines and drugs. Scientists will analyze blood from the human volunteers to learn more about the body's immune response to the disease.

What do we do?
Economists believe that malaria is responsible for a ‘growth penalty’ of up to 1.3% per year in some African countries. When compounded over the years, this penalty leads to substantial differences in GDP between countries with and without malaria and severely restrains the economic growth of the entire region. Malaria costs Africa $12 billion every year in lost productivity alone.

What do you think? Where should we be putting our resources?

  • Developing a vaccine (the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation alone has spent $258 million
  • More money to distribute long-lasting insecticidal nets (each net costs $5-7)
  • Mosquito control with indoor residual spraying like DDT (costs nearly $4 per person)
  • Getting effective drug treatments to the infected (effective therapy costs $2.40 for a round of treatment)

Since 1998 there has been a serious public health problem in South East Asia of counterfeit antimalarial drugs containing no or minimal amounts of the active antimalarial ingredient, this has led to deaths from untreated malaria, reduced confidence in this vital drug, created large economic losses for the legitimate manufacturers, and led to concerns that this antimalarial drug might cause resistance. As the situation continues to deteriorate, a group of police, criminal analysts, chemists, palynologists (people who study pores, pollen and certain algae), and health workers collaborated to determine the source of these counterfeits.

What did they find?
Red blood cells infected with Plasmodium falciparum: This thin film Giemsa stained micrograph reveals ring-forms, and gametocytes of Plasmodium falciparum.
Red blood cells infected with Plasmodium falciparum: This thin film Giemsa stained micrograph reveals ring-forms, and gametocytes of Plasmodium falciparum.Courtesy cdc
They analyzed a total of 391 samples of genuine and counterfeit artesunate (the anti-malarial drug) collected in Vietnam (75), Cambodia (48), Lao PDR (115), Myanmar (Burma) (137) and the Thai/Myanmar border (16). They found sixteen different fake types of the drug. High-performance liquid chromatography and/or mass spectrometry confirmed that all specimens thought to be counterfeit (195/391, 49.9%) contained no or small quantities of artesunate (up to 12 mg per tablet as opposed to ∼ 50 mg per genuine tablet). Chemical analysis demonstrated a wide diversity of wrong active ingredients, including banned pharmaceuticals, such as metamizole, and safrole, a carcinogen, and raw material for manufacture of methylenedioxymethamphetamine (‘ecstasy'). Evidence from chemical, mineralogical, biological, and packaging analysis suggested that at least some of the counterfeits were manufactured in southeast People's Republic of China. This evidence prompted the Chinese Government to act quickly against the criminal traders with arrests and seizures. Go to PLoS Medicine for the full scientific article and a very well written editor’s summary.

What Do these Findings Mean?
From the PLoS editor’s summary…
The results were crucial in helping the authorities establish the origin of the fake artesunate. For example, the authors identified two regional clusters where the counterfeit tablets appeared to be coming from, thus flagging a potential manufacturing site or distribution network. The presence of wrong active pharmaceutical ingredients (such as the older antimalarial drugs) suggested the counterfeiters had access to a variety of active pharmaceutical ingredients. The presence of safrole, a precursor to the illicit drug ecstasy, suggested the counterfeits may be coming from factories that manufacture ecstasy. And the identification of minerals indigenous to certain regions also helped identify the counterfeits' origin. The researchers concluded that at least some of the counterfeit artesunate was coming from southern China. The Secretary General of INTERPOL presented the findings to the Chinese government, which then carried out a criminal investigation and arrested individuals alleged to have produced and distributed the counterfeit artesunate.
The collaboration between police, public health workers and scientists on combating fake artesunate is unique, and provides a model for others to follow. However, the authors note that substantial capacity in forensic analysis and the infrastructure to support collaborations between these different disciplines are needed.


She's safe, but for how long?: As you read this, government agencies are developing mind-invasion technology that not even aluminum foil can stop.  (photo courtesy of jspaw on
She's safe, but for how long?: As you read this, government agencies are developing mind-invasion technology that not even aluminum foil can stop. (photo courtesy of jspaw on
The Washington Post has given me something new to try not to think about during every waking hour in a recent article on robotic insects and their potential uses as spies.

At recent political events and rallies in New York and Washington there have been several suspiciously similar sightings reported of large, robot-like insects hovering just above the participants, sparking paranoia that the Department of Homeland Security might be using high-tech surveillance tools to spy on American citizens.

That last paragraph was a very long sentence, with at least one extended example of alliteration.

It has also been argued that these are, in fact, sightings of dragonflies. And, as strong as my inherent distrust of governments and insects is, when you compare the number of tiny government robots out there to the number of actual insects, this second theory seems pretty likely. Nonetheless, the Post article offers a pretty interesting look at some of the developing “robobug” technologies out there.

The Defense Department documents at least 100 models of flying robots in use today, ranging in size from something like a small plane to a songbird. The conventional rules of robotics, however, don’t work very well on a smaller scale, so making a robot as tiny as an insect is much more complicated. The CIA developed a four-winged dragonfly-like device as early as the 70s, which flew under the power of a tiny gas engine, but was abandoned due to its inability to cope with crosswinds. Several universities have since created palm-sized fliers, and a team at Harvard got a tiny fly-like robot airborne in July, its tiny, laser-cut wings flapping at 120 beats per second. It weighed only 65 milligrams, but it couldn’t be piloted, and was tethered by a power-supply cord.

Other researchers, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, have directed their efforts towards creating cyborg bugs, inserting microchips into the pupae of moths. The thought is that the nerves of the moths could grow into the chips, and that they could then be controlled and fitted with a tiny camera (or whatever). DARPA also has a similar project with beetles, where the muscles of the insects would generate the energy needed to power the various instruments they could carry. At a symposium in August, a DARPA project manager said of the research, "You might recall that Gandalf the friendly wizard in the recent classic 'Lord of the Rings' used a moth to call in air support. This science fiction vision is within the realm of reality." Even assuming that the DARPA spokesman wasn’t referring to a giant magical eagle when he mentioned “air support,” this is a very funny statement.

There are even rumors that the CIA and other organizations have developed insect robots that exist in your brain and prevent you from being productive by forcing you to think about them constantly. These robots are manufactured and reproduced by your own imagination, and, reportedly, can only be dealt with by chemical abuse and other hobbies.


The recipient of the Old European Man Lifetime Achievement Award makes his way to the stage: very slowly. (image courtesy of masochismtango on
The recipient of the Old European Man Lifetime Achievement Award makes his way to the stage: very slowly. (image courtesy of masochismtango on
One hates to be a JGordon-come-lately, but it’s about time that someone acknowledged that we are well into the scientific awards season. We ought to pay a little respect to the winners.

The Nobel Prizes have just been given out, of course. It was truly a dynamite season (if you will) for the laureates, with jaw-dropping upsets in the “Confusing Egghead” and “Meta-meta” categories, and a Cinderella story sweep of the "Intrapersonal Relations," "Fruity Drinks Studies," and “Ghosts, Goblins, and Ghouls” awards by the Chinese team. And naturally everyone was pleased to see the Old European Man Lifetime Achievement Award given to a truly ancient European man – he really deserved it. As usual, each winner received a valuable statue, free drinks for the evening, and an extra ticket for the door-prize raffle.

More importantly, October has brought us the announcement of the Ig Nobel Prizes, the achievements that “first make people laugh, and then make them think.” The complete list of winners can be found here (including those from past years), but some of my favorites are the Aviation Prize, for research into curing hamsters of jetlag with Viagra; the Chemistry Prize, for extracting vanilla flavor from cow dung (one hates to waste it); and the Ig Nobel Peace Prize, for the proposed Gay Bomb, a non-lethal weapon that would make enemy soldiers “sexually irresistible” to each other. I don’t fully understand the reasoning behind that last one. At worst, I think it would just mean the end of camouflage uniforms.

It’s an exciting time we live in!


Crocs: Bright, definitely.  But dangerous?  Image courtesy roland via Flickr.
Crocs: Bright, definitely. But dangerous? Image courtesy roland via Flickr.
As both someone who has enjoyed reading previous posts about how dangerous shoes such as flip-flops and Heelys can be, and also someone who finds “Crocs” to be one ugly pair of shoes, a recent article about the dangers of wearing Crocs on escalators caught my attention.

Apparently, the grip and softness that Crocs are known for are the perfect combination to get feet caught in the teeth at the top or bottom of an escalator, or along the sides as you travel up or down. The Washington Metro has even gone so far as to post signs warning riders about wearing Crocs (and Croc knock-offs) on its escalators. Apparently the soft grippy shoes can grip the sides of the escalators and get twisted and pulled under. Or they get caught if the person wearing them does not step over the teeth at the end of the escalator ride.

Makes me wonder though – in all these cases…is the shoe really to blame? Or is it the owner? Or is it just bad luck?


Brendan Fletcher and Emma Nicholas: At the end of their road.  Courtesy Brendan Fletcher and Emma Nicholas.
Brendan Fletcher and Emma Nicholas: At the end of their road. Courtesy Brendan Fletcher and Emma Nicholas.
With all of this talk about world wonders lately I thought I should post about some fellow museum bloggers who have just completed an amazing feat. Brendan Fletcher and Emma Nicholas, working with the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia just finished their 3000km (1864 mile) walk along the entire length of the Great Wall of China. Blogging the entire way, they were helping to add a unique perspective to the Powerhouse Museum's exhibit on the Great Wall and I should say they were quite successful.

Make sure to check out their Walking the Wall blog, which has some very interesting stories about what they found along the way.

I'd like to see more museums trying out adventurous blogs like this. We've featured some of our staff out in Antarctica, Madagascar, and I even got to bob along on a scientific drilling ship in the Pacific. What sort of web journals would you like to see from science museum folks, out in the world, adventuring along? Dino dig blog? Astronaut blog? Underground science blog (science of spelunking)? Nuclear reactor blog?