Category Archives: Science Stuff

China’s Space “Conspiracy”

Conspiracy theorists can revel in the fact that cover ups do exist.  Maybe not to the extent to which some people believe, but to some extent at least.  This is the case with the Chinese government who sent an astronaut into space in 2003, and brought him back to Earth without any problems, or so it seemed.  In this case, I think that the Chinese government wanted to project a specific public image, instead of intentionally distorting or falsifying facts.

Yes, China really did send a man into space in 2003.  The astronaut, Yang Liwei, orbited the world 14 times before the capsule (known as Shenzhou 5 or the Divine Capsule) returned to Earth.  It is a truly remarkable, historical, and admirable feat for any country to successfully launch spacecraft, and even more so with a human passenger.  How events were publicized was something less than admirable though.

According to a recent NY Times article, a top official at Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, gave a speech to a group of journalism students in May in which he admitted that the Chinese media staged the capsule opening.

The official, Xia Lin, described how a design flaw had exposed the astronaut to excessive G-force pressure during re-entry, splitting his lip and drenching his face in blood. Startled but undaunted by Mr. Yang’s appearance, the workers quickly mopped up the blood, strapped him back in his seat and shut the door. Then, with the cameras rolling, the cabin door swung open again, revealing an unblemished moment of triumph for all the world to see.

The content of Mr. Xia’s speech, transcribed and posted online by someone who attended the May 15 lecture at Tianjin Foreign Studies University, has become something of a sensation in recent days, providing the Chinese a rare insight into how their news is stage-managed for mass consumption.

Truth has a way of rising to the surface over time, such as this case.  And it sometimes amazes me at the extent to which people try to change things to their own liking.  There are cases where information is withheld for a time from the general public to curb mass panic, extreme civil unrest, and the like.  However, the trade-off for intentionally reporting inaccurate facts is the erosion of self-integrity and trust among peers and followers.

Because the Chinese state media has practiced and documented (plus unintentionally leaked) how they mislead their citizens regularly (and train new journalists to continue this unethical behavior), there is a real lack of trust in the accuracy of their information.  While it remains unlikely that Chinese state media will change their routine in the near future, there is always hope they will do an about-face to become a world leader in reporting accurate information.

To be fair, Mr. Yang has published an autobiography, scheduled for release in 2010, which provides a fairly detailed account of his space mission, including many (not all) of the negative details.

Read more …

Your Cell Phone as Microscope

Yes, you’ve read the title of this post correctly.  An engineer at UCLA has created a cheap way ($10 of off-the shelf hardware) to turn ordinary cellphones into microscopes by using the camera function of cellphones and laptops.  While this technology won’t replace high tech microscopes, it will benefit those who collect samples away from laboratories. When I read this article, I had to post it!

Read the original NY Times article.

Costly Biologic Drugs

The New York Times published an article today about congressional discussion over the cost of overly expensive biotechnology drugs known as “biologics.”

Some examples that the Times cites include Avonex for multiple sclerosis, which is produced by Biogen Idec for roughly $20,000. Then there is Avastin, a drug for cancer, which is produced by Genentech can cost more than $50,000. Don’t forget the numerous Genzyme drugs for rare diseases that can cost $200,000 a year or more.

Why are these drugs so expensive? The reason is that current law prohibits other companies from produce these drugs. The companies are allowed to sell the drug at higher prices in order to cover the cost of research and development and manufacturing. Companies have 12-14 years from the time that the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) approves the drug to recoup and profit from their investment before a generic drug can be created and sold by competition.

The drug companies argue that fewer investors will want to invest in this market, which will slow down the overall scientific research into medicine. However, this argument makes a large assumption that may not be correct. It assumes that investors want to profit from the discovery and manufacturing of these drugs. Perhaps the investors provide financial backing in order to find and provide a general “cure” for a medical condition.

For example, lets say Michael J. Fox (actor) and Sergey Brin (Google Founder) provides financial backing for research into Parkinson’s Disease. They have both expressed interest in finding a cure and making it available to everyone. They are not interested in profiting from the drug.

It would be interesting to know how many of the private financial backers are truly in it for the money. And how many are providing funds to find a cure because either they or someone they know had a health problem?

According to the times,

In Europe, which has approved biosimilar versions of three biologic drugs, companies generally price their biosimilar drugs about 20 to 30 percent lower than the originals. The impact in Europe has been limited so far, but in Germany the biosimilars have captured about 30 percent of the market for anemia drugs and forced the brand-name manufacturers to lower their prices.

So the issue is being raised in Congress with the new Health Care Reform Proposal. According to the NY Times article, “seven years would be a ‘generous compromise.'” It will be interesting to see where this issue heads, as it appears that both the Senate and House are in favor of supporting the industry and against the generic competition.

Read the original article

Video Journals

As we see the proliferation of videos online, I continue to wonder how this will affect print resources. Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and many other technology corporations believe that print is on the way out. Humanity has has a long history of oral communication, and video is an extension of this form of communication. While video does not allow for automatic feedback as a person-to-person conversation allows, it allows for virtual presence that combines both audio & visual elements.

I recently ran across an older article from 2007 that I had read before about a peer-reviewed video journal called Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVE). At the time, I thought it was an intriguing concept, and something to keep an eye on in case it took off. I don’t know of too many small liberal arts colleges that subscribe to this resource, but I think this would be useful tool for larger research institutions in which time is a limiting factor among lab instructors and assistants.

There is a great educational value in this medium, since some videos already exist for lab instruction, and I am a little surprised that these type of videos are not already posted on YouTube. Some common techniques exist already such as frog dissection, but nothing overly technical. I see part of the reason as reliability (posting incorrect info that might cause harm), as well as controlling the flow of info (perhaps “secret” techniques from published sources).

At any rate, I really like the idea of a video journal. Click here to view a video from the video journal JoVE.

Science Portals on Your Browser

Search functions within the Firefox Browser

Search functions within the Firefox Browser

Internet Explorer and FireFox fans now have a way to search scientific and technical search engines directly from their browser. Deep Web Technologies released search plugins for several major science search applications, including the following.

* Mednar
* E-Print Network
* Scirus

To obtain the plugins, visit

Autopsies of War Save Others

This article caught my attention since it deals with “science” stuff. Why is scanning the bodies of those who died in battle matter?

From the title of the NY Times article, it is clear that if you learn how soldiers die in battle, others deaths may be prevent. Medical examiners created a virtual autopsy database via a CT scan for over over 3,000 bodies, in addition to standard autopsies, for each soldier that has died in Iraq or Afghanistan since 2004.

The combined procedures have yielded a wealth of details about injuries from bullets, blasts, shrapnel and burns — information that has revealed deficiencies in body armor and vehicle shielding and led to improvements in helmets and medical equipment used on the battlefield.

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Wolfram Alpha and other Search Engine

You might want to look before you leap, especially if you plan to use this for professional research, specifically the terms of use before using some of these new search engines. A faculty member at Willamette University pointed out the interesting term of use for Wolfram Alpha Search Engine, which was released on Monday.

Apparently, Groklaw, the Illinios-based company does not claim to be a search engine, but rather a number crunching machine. However, they “claim copyright on the each results page and require attribution” because the answers that are being created may not actually exist until the question had been asked.

Some sites, like Twine and hakia, try to personalize searches, separating out results you would find interesting based on your web use. Searchme offers an iTunes-like interface that lets users shuffle through photos and images. Kosmix bundles information by type—from Twitter, Facebook, blogs, the government—to make it easier to consume. Wolfram Alpha is more of an enormous calculator than a search: It crunches data to come up with query answers that may not exist online until you search for them….

Read the terms of agreement for Wolfram.

Read more about discussion on the terms of agreement for Wolfram.

Read more about complimentary search engines.

Forensic Science in High School

Forensic Science

This New York Times video shows that interest in forensic science by high school students across the United States is very high. The interest is likely due to the number of television shows about forensics.

Watch video