Archive for the ‘Science & Technology’ Category

A deeper look at Peak Oil

June 10, 2008 3 comments

You’ve probably heard of “Peak Oil” as the condition where no matter what we do, world oil production begins to decline and prices begin an inexorable rise.  Arunn at Nonoscience has an excellent discussion of that concept in “A walk down Hubbert’s peak”.  This is several notches above the usual popular news magazine level.

Many articles I’ve read about Peak Oil suggest it will be an immediate disaster but I try to be a little more optimistic.  There won’t be a sudden point where all the world’s oil wells make a gurgling noise and the world’s leaders say; “Oh frack, we’re out of oil!”  As Arunn’s article suggests, it’ll just start being harder to find and prices will rise.

Now we’re into my decidedly simplistic analysis, and it is this: rising prices will put downward pressure on consumption, flattening out the curve somewhat.  They’ll also make oil alternatives more attractive, pulling in VC funding.  And oil companies are presumably not headed by stupid people; they are probably working on (economical) ways to make oil from sewage right now.

I will not say anything so kind about politicians, however.  Subsidies increase demand, which will steepen the curve of falling production.  The standard Republican solution, which is to drill the Arctic and invade oil-producing countries, will flatten it in the short term, encouraging more consumption, and causing a steeper, more catastrophic curve later as real supplies fail. Both are dumb plans. 

Anyway, go check out the article, it’s very good.  Hat Tip to John Wilkins’ Basic Concepts In Science.

Phoenix has landed

May 25, 2008 Comments off

BBC reports that they pulled it off!!!  W00T!!! Phoenix Mars probe touches down  Yee-Haw!!! 

New Scientist details the landing, which is about as complicated and risky as I can possibly imagine.  The craft separates from an orbital platform and enters the atmosphere (which even on the Mars surface is thinner than our atmosphere at the top of Everest) and burn off speed with its heat shield until it slows down to just supersonic speed.  Then it flips, pops its parachute (imagine deploying a 12-metre chute at supersonic speed) and slows down to a couple hundred KPH at 1 Km altitude.  The last Km to the surface it handles on thrusters – imagine doing that by automation! for a ‘smooth’ level touchdown.  At this writing it still needs to deploy its solar panels.

Phoenix cost around $530m all-told, and is a stationary chemistry and weather platform that will accomplish actual science on Martian conditions.  Just for comparison it costs about 1.3bn just to launch the Space shuttle up to ISS so they can blow bubbles and throw boomerangs.  Not that I’m making any sort of judgment on the science-worthiness of the ISS; I would never stoop that low…


Categories: Science & Technology

It’s all in your head

May 23, 2008 2 comments

Neurophilosophy delivers a number of x-rays of penetrating brain injury, including one chap who over a period of weeks drove 11 nails into his own head. Another whose cranium was penetrated by a large chunk of asbestos.  And another who wound up with a paintbrush inside his his head.  And more.  Analysis of treatment and outcome is included.

It’s always nice to learn something new from a post and here’s something I did not realize: intentional self-inflicted nail gun injuries are actually quite common.

Hydraulic brakes can fail

May 22, 2008 5 comments

A few years ago as I approached a busy intersection, the brakes on my Chevvy Astro went right to the floor.  I sailed through the red light and coasted to a stop on the other side.  A brake line had ruptured.  My survival was luck, not skill.

Then there’s today.  Two of my office mates and I were riding somewhat competitively back to the office after a coffee break, and I took a shortcut toward some stairs.  Though I was moving pretty fast, my bike has hydraulic disc brakes just like a car, so I knew I could drop a lot of speed before reaching them.


The brake handle collapsed and fluid gushed out.  NO front brakes.  On a bicycle, if you don’t know, the front brakes provide just about all of the stopping power.  Now I’m moving much too fast and about to go down some stairs… and then crash into a building.

It was a rough ride but I didn’t crash.  I don’t know how many thousands of hours I’ve spent on a bike in my life but they must have made a difference. And that (new) bike is going back to the shop.

Stop the bleeding NOW

May 12, 2008 5 comments

A few minutes have different meaning depending if you are at the office, or trapped in your wrecked car after a multi-car accident on the way home.  You were hit by a fully-loaded truck and would have been killed instantly except for the high-strength cabin of your modern car. But your liver is cut and in the time it takes to open that same cabin with Jaws Of Life, you will be a highway statistic. You are bleeding to death, fast.

The determined EMT reaches into the wreckage and inserts a tube into your wound, squeezing in a clear liquid from an envelope.  Your bleeding stops immediately. Despite the severity of the accident, you’re going to make it. 

When you are in recovery, you find out that the clear liquid contained a synthetic peptide that turns into a gel in the presence of blood, acting like a perfect bandage.  The gel even makes a good matrix for healing and is used in brain surgery too.  Be grateful to MIT where the discovery was made, and to Arch Thereputics, the startup company that is turning it into a product that can be used in surgery and emergency medicine.  This is HUGE. 

(By the way, I am available to write ad copy for a reasonable fee.  Or scripts for hospital soap operas.  Have your people call my people, Dr. Ellis-Behnke)

One other thing: the next time you see Ben Stein saying “Science leads you to killing people”, tell him we want all our stuff back. Science isn’t required for genocide to happen. There are endless examples of science doing exactly the opposite. The guy in his lab coat experimenting with synthetic peptides may not be thinking about emergency medicine; it’s in the application.

Volcano geeks

May 8, 2008 2 comments

Growing up in Central Washington I always found volcanoes fascinating.  It was fun to climb basalt cliffs, but just as much fun to contemplate the multiple enormous lava flows that piled up 3,500 meters of basalt in some places.  It was a blast to have all that igneous geology laid out where you could hike on it, touch it, and sense the scale of it all.  Yes, that’s a bit geeky, so how have I missed The Volcanism Blog until now?

The images of the pre-eruption lava dome in their 07 May post, and the river valley between it and Chaiten town (think pyroclastic flow) really make you wonder about the sanity of the few holdouts who are refusing to evacuate.  Getting roasted to death in a pitch-black cloud of superheated volcanic ash does not sound like a good way to go.  Anyway, here’s some video:

Given the scale of the images, it’s difficult to imagine how fast the gas plume is erupting.  Most things that are miles away appear to be moving pretty slowly even if they’re moving pretty fast.  The flow appears to be moving fast, which means it’s moving really fast.  When it blows laterally instead of vertically, I think people imagine they could run away in their cars or something. Well, … not.

When Mt. St. Helens pulled a similar stunt a few years ago my brother sent me a bag of volcanic ash that fell on Ellensburg, 45 miles to the E/NE.  It’s super-fine, very abrasive and very heavy.  People were wrapping panty hose around their cars’ air cleaners, and went through a hell of a lot of windshields.  A few roofs collapsed closer to the volcano, from the weight of the ash.

Here, longer video.  Starting about 2:26 is some footage shot by somebody who should have already gotten the frack out of there, conveying the sense of awful impending doom in a threatened community.  Does anyone know the name of the sad violin piece playing in the background?  Can anyone translate the muttered narration? You can also hear dogs barking, the narrator calling a dog, patting it on the side, and the dog growling strangely.

Categories: Science & Technology

“A little thrill in learning”

April 25, 2008 6 comments

It’s the fun surprises you find on the Interwebs:

The big switchoff
Most people don’t think much about what’s inside a switch.  If you take one apart, you’ll see some kind of spring-loaded contacts, usually copper.  The plastic body hides a small spark that happens every time you throw the switch. Then there are self-operating switches; circuit breakers that switch off automatically when the load exceeds a preset number of amps, say ten or twenty. 
But what if the breaker has to break a circuit carrying a thousand or two thousand amps, and maybe ramp up the voltage to, say, 35,000 volts?  Then there’s the possibility of very rapid erosion or even explosive vaporization of the contacts. Cajun published a picture of one such breaker switch and I asked him “How does that thing work?”  His response was a fascinating post ‘You ask, we answer’.  Be sure to click through to the original post with the pictures too.  (Some innovative broom repair techniques thrown in at no extra charge) If you’ve ever stood looking through the fence at a power substation and tried to dope out how it all works you’ll enjoy it as much as I did. 
That thing you have seen all your life and always wondered about
Les at Stupid Evil Bastard says; “I always get a little thrill from learning the history of things like the Giant Tire. It’s been there my entire life and I never fail to think about it whenever I drive past it, but only after 40 years have I ever been in a spot to learn about it.”
Yes, a giant tire!  And by ‘giant’, I mean big enough to hold a ferris wheel inside.  See his post; So that’s what the Uniroyal giant tire once looked like! 

It’s my contention that what’s missing from our politically-correct, NCLB-driven schools today is pretty much any possibility at all of ‘a little thrill in learning’.  It happens, but good teachers have to wedge it into the cracks where they can.  Yesterday morning I was surprised by an article about math education and I’m still turning it over in my head.  Will post about it tomorrow morning after breakfast.

What kind of things do you look at in everyday life, and wonder about?

Categories: Science & Technology

Go for a walk today

April 22, 2008 3 comments


I always appreciate seeing people move under their own power, however they do it.  One student at the College Of Business even carries a skateboard around.  Wouldn’t it be fun to see corporate executives riding to work on skateboards, rollerblades, bicycles?  We have muscles, folks; let’s use ‘em!

We’re OK… really! (Earthquake)

April 18, 2008 10 comments

A friend emailed MrsDoF from Florida (land of mammoth hurricanes) to see if we were OK.  Central Illinois had an Earthquake a few hours ago – a 5.4.  That’s enough to rattle windows, wake a few people up but most buildings are up to the challenge.  The quake was felt as far away as Wisconsin and Ohio.  But I must have been snoozing because I didn’t know about it.  Lucas is down in Urbana, a little closer to the epicenter; maybe he’ll give us a report.

Our region has had one real smack-down of a quake, though, in 1812.  (Actually two big quakes followed by one staggeringly enormous one) Estimated at an 8.0 on the Richter scale, it cracked sidewalks in Washington, DC and rang church bells in Boston.  Around here it changed the course of the Mississippi and even toppled resilient buildings like log cabins.

I can’t remember exactly how the Richter scale works and right now instead of geeking out over it I have to rush off to work.  But the New Madrid quake of 1812 was several thousand times as powerful as today’s quake. If the same quake happened today…

Anyone notice the quake?  Or been through another quake?  Tell us about it!

Notes & Updates:

Of no small importance to New Orleans, I would think

April 13, 2008 2 comments

We have been getting some serious tonnage of water in our county.  Luckily, McLean county drains well, but that’s not so lucky for our neighbors downstream.  The ground is saturated, lakes are full (and I wish we could send that water to Alabama!  They really need it.)

Robert E. Criss, Ph.D., professor of earth and planetary sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, says MidWesterners have not learned “the lesson of geologic reality”.  He says levees that support an unrealistic expectation of security when building on flood plains.  I bet he doesn’t get invited to many urban developer Christmas parties but someday people will ask; “Why didn’t we listen to him?!”