Femto-photography

This is crazy:

More info and pics from MIT on visualizing the propagation of light.

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Driverless Cars

I was listening to this story on NPR today on my drive home from work, and the reporter said something like 30,000 deaths [a year, I assume] are from car accidents, 95% of which are attributable at least in part to driver error, and wouldn’t it be nice if driverless car technology could help reduce or eliminate all those deaths. Now, I don’t know how fuzzy his statistics are, but in general I agree.

But that’s where it gets interesting – this goes from solving a technological problem to more of an existential question about what freedoms and responsibilities we are willing to relinquish. Ideally, driverless cars would create a traffic network free of congestion or collision. However we know that machines are only as error-free as the people who program them, and that sometimes they are simply unreliable. That would mean that even in a world where computers control all traffic, some percentage of deaths would still occur. The question is – what is our threshold for computer-related deaths? From our 30,000 deaths per year baseline, would we accept 5,000 computer-fault deaths a year? 10,000? 20,000?

I think there is something in our nature that abhors a reality in which all of our personal responsibility and ability to react is taken away from us, even if lives can be saved. It could be argued that given the choice between driver and driverless, if the driverless option on average produced just one less death a year, then it would be preferable.

And then there’s the issue of car insurance. How would that work?

OMGZZ! Cell phones cause cancer!

Science!

No no no no no. This guy is a crank. The first thing he does is claim that the swine flu isn’t “real medicine.” And this is Fox News, where no facts are checked, ever. He cites an “increase in the incidence in brain cancer” as proof! Well, there is also an increase in the incidence of obesity, so maybe cell phones cause you to gain weight, too. Microwaves/radio waves are too long in wavelength to affect DNA. Longer wavelengths = lower frequency (ie, lower intensity). See the graph on this page.
Look at the size of the antenna on your phone (if your phone is from 1999) or radio. That’s the size of the wave, maybe a little smaller, but still nowhere near the intensity to affect DNA. They’re longer in wavelength than VISIBLE light. that would mean that your lightbulb causes even more cancer than your phone! The worst thing microwaves could do to the human body is warm it up. That said, don’t put your cat in the microwave.

The Fragmented Orchestra

This is one of the weirdest/coolest sounding events I’ve seen in a while:

The Fragmented Orchestra, winners of the PRS Foundation’s New Music Award 2008, presents 24 hours of music, neuroscience and performance at 24 sites across the UK. The London events include: 10am, at the Institute of Psychiatry, in Camberwell, a prerecorded debate on Music and the Mind is transmitted to the soundbox between (10 am-midday); Then, at the National Portrait Gallery (midday-1.30pm) the violinist Rolf Wilson plays excerpts from Bach’s Partita in E and Prokofiev’s unaccompanied Violin Sonata. Plus, the playwright/neurologist Paul Broks and actors present ‘The Fragmented Self’, exploring the human brain. The Stephen Lawrence Centre (Brookmill Rd, SE8, 1pm-2pm) hosts Howard Monk of The Local in an acoustic session featuring David Thomas Broughton and others. Followed (3pm-5pm) with an exmination of having a stroke, at the Rochelle School (Arnold Circus, E2). Including, Terry Riley’s ‘In C’ one of the paradigmatic pieces of contemporary classical music, and presented by South London Arts collective What They Could Do, They Did. St Andrew’s, Fulham Fields, the Stations of the Cross are walked liturgically between 6pm and 7pm with newly commissioned music and words of reflection. (See website for full details.)

Vision for all

Inventor’s 2020 vision: to help 1bn of the world’s poorest see better:

Silver has devised a pair of glasses which rely on the principle that the fatter a lens the more powerful it becomes. Inside the device’s tough plastic lenses are two clear circular sacs filled with fluid, each of which is connected to a small syringe attached to either arm of the spectacles.

The wearer adjusts a dial on the syringe to add or reduce amount of fluid in the membrane, thus changing the power of the lens. When the wearer is happy with the strength of each lens the membrane is sealed by twisting a small screw, and the syringes removed. The principle is so simple, the team has discovered, that with very little guidance people are perfectly capable of creating glasses to their own prescription.

Such an amazing idea. With self-adjustable glasses cheap enough, and with the right distribution networks, sight could be restored to massive numbers of poor people in the world.

RFK Jr. as Possible EPA Chief?

I’ve railed against RFK, Jr.’s conspiracy-theorist, anti-science, anti-vaccine ways before, as have many others. I only hope someone on Obama’s team is reading some science blogs out there. According to the WSJ, RFK Jr. is one of the names being considered for new EPA Chief (thanks to Orac for the heads-up):

So who’s on the short list? Plenty of names, starting with environmental lawyer and activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., according to Politico. That doesn’t have too many environmental types very happy—beyond Mr. Kennedy’s prior adventures in linking vaccines and autism, or opposing offshore wind power, many fear he doesn’t have the managerial expertise to handle a sprawling agency that will only get bigger.

As the WSJ suggests, an RFK, Jr. appointment would be a big mistake, and certainly wouldn’t indicate ‘change’ from a previous administration that was decidedly anti-science and anti-evdience. I’ll join Orac’s call to drop a line to Obama’s team and let them know you oppose this appointment.

Water on Mars

The Phoenix Lander has tested a sample and confirmed that water is on Mars:

“We have water,” said William Boynton of the University of Arizona, lead scientist for the Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer, or TEGA. “We’ve seen evidence for this water ice before in observations by the Mars Odyssey orbiter and in disappearing chunks observed by Phoenix last month, but this is the first time Martian water has been touched and tasted.”

MIT amps up solar cells

MIT is developing a new solar cell technology that results in a tenfold increase in power conversion, takes up less space, and can be added to existing solar panels.

Photo caption:

Organic solar concentrators collect and focus different colors of sunlight. Solar cells can be attached to the edges of the plates. By collecting light over their full surface and concentrating it at their edges, these devices reduce the required area of solar cells and consequently, the cost of solar power. Stacking multiple concentrators allows the optimization of solar cells at each wavelength, increasing the overall power output.

Monkeys brain controls robot arm

One step closer to monkey robot domination:

With the probes inserted into the monkeys motor cortices, computer software was used to interpret the brains electrical impulses and translate them into movement through the robotic arm.

This arm was jointed like a human arm and possessed a “gripper” that mimics a hand.

After some training, two monkeys – who had had their own arms restrained – were able to use the prosthetic limbs to feed themselves with marshmallows and chunks of fruit.

For some reason, the BBC is reporting on a 3-year-old story, but it’s still cool and there’s a video, so I’ll post it anyway.

The missing finger that never was

I read a really interesting article in BBC News not long ago about a guy who was given a substance extracted from pig’s bladder to grow back part of his finger. Sounds too good to be true!

The Guardian (warning: semi-gross pictures) sorts it out:

The patient is Lee Spievack. He was given the powder by Acell, a large and longstanding biotech firm founded by Alan Spievack. He is Lee Spievack’s big brother. Dr Badylak is Acell’s chief scientific adviser, and he can be seen bravely making the best of all this unwelcome media attention by showing TV cameras around his labs and giving lengthy interviews, both now and in February 2008, when this story made the US news, and also, interestingly, in February of 2007, when it made the news for the first time, in exactly the same form, with exactly the same characters, and many identical quotes, verbatim, in the Wall Street Journal, MSNBC, and more.

I’m glad someone besides Jon Stewart is fact-checking these trigger-happy news morons. In addition to being published in the Guardian, Ben Goldacre’s got a great blog entitled Bad Science.