I’m Ready For My Close Up, Mr DeMille!

January 16, 2009

A technological breakthrough that may “revolutionize the way we look at viruses, bacteria, proteins, and other biological elements” hasn’t received the press I think it deserves.   IBM have developed an MRI that is one hundred million times better than today’s standard MRIs.  I can’t even count that high!

By extending MRI to such fine resolution, the scientists have created a microscope that, with further development, may ultimately be powerful enough to unravel the structure and interactions of proteins, paving the way for new advances in personalized healthcare and targeted medicine. This achievement stands to impact the study of materials from proteins to integrated circuits for which a detailed understanding of atomic structure is essential.


In addition to its high resolution, the imaging technique has the further advantages that it is chemically specific, can “see” below surfaces and, unlike electron microscopy, is non-destructive to sensitive biological materials.

Odds & Sods #4

January 4, 2009
  • jim-bradyDavid Kamp has written a fascinating detective story surrounding the legendarily prodigious eating feats of Diamond Jim Brady.  He suspects some exaggeration, but the reality is probably close enough.
  • Gertrude Baines, daughter of slaves and Obama voter, takes on the most dangerous job in the world.  The previous job-holder survived just four months in the position.
  • How do salmon find their way back home after years in the ocean?  The open sea part still seems a bit iffy, but once they reach the river, it’s the schnozz that leads.  Maybe Jimmy Durante is their patron saint?
  • The earliest artificial eye has been discovered at an archaeological dig in Iran.

What Detroit Needs

November 29, 2008

Stop the presses!  Hold the front page!   I have found the solution to Big Auto’s problems.

I present to you — the renewable, recyclable, no-gasoline motor:


With a $25billion loan from the American taxpayer, Ford, GM and Chrysler could probably corner the global market in suitable cows.

[Thanks to Peter Greenberg for the image]

Synchronizing the Details

November 10, 2008

A century or more ago when I was in my early teens at school, I recall going caving with my class on more than one occasion.  England’s West Country is riddled with wonderful nooks and crannies if you can get over the early stages of claustrophobia.   I remember not being too impressed with stalactites and stalagmites and such like.   Luckily, others had more sense.

monsoon-climate-change-chinese_21Via Anthropology.net, I learn of work that has been done on a stalagmite in Wanxiang Cave, China, that allows researchers to figure out the detailed climatic conditions back more than a thousand years at intervals of just 2.5 years.  In particular, they can pick out the drought of the ninth century that seems to have contributed to the collapse both of the Tang Empire in China and of the Mayans in the Americas. The researchers have also found evidence of low rainfall at the times of the end of the Yuan and Ming dynasties.

In all cases it seems, the carrying capacities of their agricultural systems couldn’t handle the pressures caused by years of low rainfall, and the civilizations crashed.

We usually look at the histories of empires, their rise and fall, as a confluence of human emotions, power, technology, military advantage, economics.  We often forget that climate is a truly global player that can cause history-changing effects simultaneously on both sides of the globe; effects that no human power has yet figured out how to tame.

I Didn’t Mean To Do It. It Is A Disease!

October 24, 2008

Charles O’Byrne is the top aide to New York Governor David A. Paterson.  He is being forced to resign because he didn’t file his income taxes between 2001 and 2005.  His defence?  According to his lawyer, Richard Kestenbaum, Mr O’Byrne suffered from “late filing syndrome“.  No, I’m serious.

They even have an “academic” tome to support them. In 1994, an article titled ” ‘Failure to File’ Syndrome: Legal and Medical Perspectives,” was published in the New York Law Journal by Eliott Silverman, a lawyer, and Dr. Stephen J. Coleman, a practicing psychiatrist.

“These people are not evading their taxes for personal gain,” the authors conclude. “Rather, they are suffering from a psychological condition that makes them unable to function normally.” In an interview, Dr. Coleman acknowledged that the affliction had not been recognized as an official syndrome, but he said he had treated 25 to 30 patients for it over the years. Most of them were lawyers, he said, including tax lawyers. “It really is a subset of obsessive compulsive disorder with people who have serious procrastination,” Dr. Coleman said. “You still see it. I think it is still quite valid today in a subset of people who are well-educated and know better, but put off dealing with their personal business.”

Money can’t buy you love, they say.  But it can sure buy you some fancy justifications.

Muons For Mayans

September 1, 2008

OK, I’m excited.  Particle physics and archaeology are coming together to investigate Mayan mounds, most of which have not been excavated.  No-one really knows what is inside these impressive structures.  But now, scientists working with muon detectors are coming to help.

The first major experiment of the Maya Muon Group will bridge the disciplines of physics and archeology. The particle detectors and related systems are designed specifically to explore ruins of a Maya pyramid in collaboration with colleagues at the UT Mesoamerican Archaeological Laboratory. The Maya Muon Group will travel to La Milpa in northwest Belize to make discoveries about “Structure 1” – a jungle-covered mound covering an unexplored Maya ruin.

Pointing out that dense materials block more muons, Patel explains that a muon detector can actually detect rooms, spaces, and caves inside what seems to be solid:  A detector next to a Maya pyramid, for example, will see fewer particles coming from the direction of the structure than from other angles: a muon “shadow.” And if a part of that pyramid is less dense than expected – containing an open space for, say, a royal burial – it will have less of a shadow. Count enough muons that have passed through the pyramid over the course of several months, and they will form an image of its internal structure, just like light makes an image on film. Then combine the images from three or four devices and a 3-D reconstruction of the pyramid’s guts will take shape.

Fascinating stuff.  The article at BLDGBLOG goes much further and is well worth the read.

Sleep Is Great

August 2, 2008

I had an interesting and busy day yesterday.  I wrote some, I painted some, I read some, I watched a lot of cricket.   My glorious wife baked some of the finest bread it is possible to eat, and we generally had good food the whole day through.  I thoroughly enjoyed all those activities — but the best thing of all was the nap I took in the afternoon.

My better half  likes to snooze on the couch, life going on around her.  And I somehow manage to snooze on the bus most mornings and evenings.  But a real nap is a serious business for me.  It is a take-off-all-your-clothes-get-into-bed-and-under-the-covers-with-the-blinds-drawn affair.  Given the right conditions, I don’t expect to be awake longer than a few seconds after my head hits the pillow, and it is hard to have a decent nap in under two hours.  Yesterday, I slept from about 2:30 until 5.  Wonderful.

It is gratifying, therefore, to find that modern scientific research is beginning to understand and appreciate the value of sleep.  It is good to know that sleep helps to strengthen memories, that the brain gets a chance to sort and file, and that sleep can help you think through problems.

Over just the past few years, a number of studies have demonstrated the sophistication of the memory processing that happens during slumber. In fact, it appears that as we sleep, the brain might even be dissecting our memories and retaining only the most salient details … During sleep, the brain reactivates patterns of neural activity that it performed during the day, thus strengthening the memories by long-term potentiation … Adding to the excitement, recent discoveries show that sleep also facilitates the active analysis of new memories, enabling the brain to solve problems and infer new information … It is now clear that sleep can consolidate memories by enhancing and stabilizing them and by finding patterns within studied material even when we do not know that patterns might be there.

But even more gratifying is to find a piece like Jenny Diski’s Diary:

[S]leeping, for all its inherent dangers and waste, is and always has been my activity of choice. Inexpert though I am in all other fields, I am a connoisseur of sleep … Sleep, while it is happening, is nothing to the sleeper. To an observer all kinds of things are happening to the sleeper while she sleeps … Watch sleeping people smile, or mutter, fidget, laugh and shriek. So the observer knows about it, watching you; you do not. Later, you can remember or feel, but the only actual experience of sleep is not-knowing. And not knowing thrills me.


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