Archive for the ‘Science’ Category


August 29, 2010 2 comments

Lately, the last thing that I feel like doing is updating my blog. I can’t explain the reasoning behind this. I can comfortably blame it on laziness. I am a tremendously lazy person. I’ve made it a kind of Zen thing. More likely than the laziness is that I’ve lost a bit of the fascination wonder I had when I started this project. So, you know, that sucks.

Instead of not blogging, I’m forcing myself into it. Like pity sex, but for my blog. It’ll be fun. For you. The viewers. You voyeuristic bastards.

One of my fears of being a father is that my daughter will start asking me questions that I don’t know the answers to. I’ve toyed with the idea that everything is either the result of magic, a miracle, or the work of the devil. Generally, most of these explanations will involve a bizarre story involving some adorable woodland creature whose soul gets devoured in order to make whatever she’s asking about possible.

The reason I know that my daughter will ask me these sorts of questions is because her mother already does. Just the other day Samantha asked me why power lines make that annoying noise. After a long story involving a prairie dog that sacrifices its soul to Satan in order to travel at light speed, my wife called me on my bullshit and told me to google the real reason.

It turns out the reason that power lines make noise, besides Satan, is because of corona discharge, which will henceforth be what I call that little pfft that occurs when you mix up a Corona after putting lime in the bottle.

Well…good post, huh? Alright, see you later.

For those of you who (or is that whom? (no, no I’m pretty sure it’s who)) feel the insatiable need to know more, corona discharge is created by electric fields ionizing the air surrounding electric lines. The electricity traveling through the lines has enough energy to create a powerful enough electric field that the nitrogen and oxygen in the air start absorbing some of that energy and shooting off electrons. Now you’ve got  lot of  electrons and positive ions shooting around and bumping into neutral oxygen and nitrogen, this creates more electrons and positive ions, something called an electron avalanche.  Once you’ve got a bunch of free electrons and ions, you’ve got yourself a plasma.

The current going through the power lines gets transferred to the plasma surrounding it, which causes the plasma to vibrate at 60 hz, and makes an audible buzz. Beyond the buzz, corona discharge can also create a purplish glow, though not usually in power lines. This glow is the cause for the eerie St. Elmo’s fire (the phenomenon, not the crappy Schumacher movie) and is theorized to be one of the causes of Will-O’-the-wisps.


Pixels pixels everywhere

June 26, 2010 2 comments

Just found this article today and thought it was an amazing glimpse at the history of the digital photo. We’ve been in a pixel-rut and haven’t even realized it. For years most people have been led to believe that more megapixels is better. This is true, but only partially. The more pixels you throw into a picture, the better the chance of pixel noise, which degrades the quality of the picture. There are pictures that I’ve taken with my ancient 5 MP camera that I know would’ve come out looking better on my even more ancient 3 MP camera.

Instead of trying to squeeze more and more pictures into the image, we should’ve been trying to reinvent what the pixel is, which is what Russell Kirsch is doing. Technologically we get constrained in a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mindset. Unfortunately, the popular belief has been that pixels aren’t broken. While this may be true, it doesn’t mean that they can’t work better. This is a great article to show what innovation can do, and also how the lack of innovation can cause things to spiral out of control. Just because something works and has been good enough for past use, doesn’t mean that it has to stay that way and can’t be improved.

Also, the first digital image is 50 years old, holy flipping cow!

Categories: History, Science Tags:

Intraosseous Infusions

June 23, 2010 3 comments

Working in a hospital emergency room provides plenty of opportunities to see some amazing things. I’ve seen nurses place IVs into patients necks. Oddly, if I saw this in a movie, I would be squirming in my seat (see Permanent Midnight for an example of this, or not if you’re so disinclined), but while watching in real life, all I can think about is how cool it is that I get to actually see it being done.

Last week I got to see something that I had never even thought was possible, let alone got to see. A patient was brought in with severe blood loss, medics had tried but couldn’t get an IV into him.  To get the patient necessary fluids, the nurses gave him an intraosseous infusion. To paraphrase Lyle Lanley, Osseous means bone and intra means intra. Instead of giving fluid through the vein, they jabbed a needle (a giant freakin needle) into the bone marrow, and administered fluids that way. So instead of the normal tubing coming out of his arms, there was tubing leading to sockets in his shin bones. The IV fluid would go through the bone marrow, get picked up by veins coming out of the bone and reach the heart that way.

Despite never having heard of this before, it’s a technique that was discovered in the 30s. A couple of scientists (Tocantins and O’Neill) found that if they injected a dye into the long bone of a rabbit, within ten seconds the dye made its why to the heart. It was the first time that anyone realized that a liquid injected into bone would enter the circulatory system.

After some refining of the technique, they found that intraosseous infusions would be an easy and effective way to get fluids and medicine to those who critically needed it. Thank goodness they did, too because the technique was used by army medics during World War II. The reason that I had never seen it done before is because most people have enough blood to make IV access the best option, even if it takes quite a while. However, if you need to get someone fluids extrememly fast and can’t get IV access, this is the best option. It’s still used in combat situations. There’s a device called FAST1 which takes a lot of the danger and guesswork out of the procedure.

Scarily enough, the FAST1 is designed to be used in the sternum. That’s right, in true Pulp Fiction style, they inject something right into your freakin chest. The reason the sternum is the best site to go is because it has a uniform thickness in people. No matter what your body type, the width is going to be the same. The FAST1, when activated finds the top layer of the bone and inserts the needle a specific distance into the marrow. This way, one device works on everyone.

It’s also safe to use. So safe that army medics practice using it on each other. Despite looking freaky as hell, it also appears to be relatively painless. And by that, I mean it’s not going to cause the patient to jump up screaming in terror.

There’s also a really cool demonstration of how the dye works its way into the circulatory system.

In a normal, non-combat setting, intraosseous infusion is mostly used in pediatric patients, whose veins are hard to access to begin with, and if they’re sick and dehydrated it can make access impossible. However it’s only a temporary option, which should be left in for a few hours, until the patient can be better hydrated and intravenous options can be accessed.

Categories: Science

Somebody needs to clarify this for me, because I don't understand it

June 20, 2010 Leave a comment

According to this article there’s a group of researchers who have gotten around the faster-than-light problem. They managed this by changing the way electricity travels through a wire. Instead of electrons bumping into each other and sending the “message” down the wire, they managed to synchronize the electrons so that the message is sent instantaneously. The example the article uses is that sending an electronic message normally is a causal event (not to be confused with a casual event, which is what confused me initially about the article) like knocking over a row of dominoes one after another. The way they have the experiment set up is that circuit boards act as controllers, making it an acausal event, like knocking all the dominoes down at once using your hand.

What I don’t understand is how the message to make all the electrons synchronized is passed from one circuit board to another. You’d think that would still be constrained by the speed of light. The only way I can figure is that the circuit boards are primed before hand and fired sequentially within a few picoseconds, or maybe a femtosecond to allow the message to become synchronized. So when the last control is turned on, it is ready slightly before the first one so that the message is received instantaneously.

I tried reading the original paper that the article linked to here, but even the abstract made my brain hurt.

Categories: Science Tags:

You should definitely read Red Mars

June 15, 2010 2 comments

I just got finished reading Red Mars. It’s the first of The Mars Trilogy, followed by Green Mars and Blue Mars, both of which I plan on reading in the very near future. Red Mars deals with the first colonization of Mars, and is epic in every sense of the word. Author Kim Stanley Robinson surely did his homework here, as the book paints a very vivid picture of how the colonization would go. While it’s science fiction, there is a lot of plausible science there, from biology, sociology, physics, psychology, chemistry, meteorology and probably a couple of others that I’m missing. That right there is a wet dream for me, but the story surrounding all the science is incredible too. The novel is split up into a number of chunks, each chunk deals with a segment of the trip and colonization and follows a different character. Each main character is fully realized with their own flaws, strengths, weaknesses and motivations. One of the driving forces of the book is seeing how the main characters view each other. Each of the characters start off in the same boat, literally, with the first 100 taking the year long trip to actually reach Mars. Once they get to the surface, they start to go their separate ways. Some wish to terraform the planet, some wish to keep it the way it is, and some have other ideals. As the novel progresses, the group breaks and joins and breaks and joins while more and more colonists join the first 100.

While the first 100 were never perfect, they had enough room in which to not step on each other’s shoes. With more and more people on the planet, politics and ideals follow with them. Eventually the planet, which was seen as a possession of the world was seen as a place to dump those who were overcrowding the Earth, and became cash cow for materials which are quickly running out on Earth.  Unfortunately, the expansion happens faster than the planet can handle and things become…messy. Awesomely, awesomely, AWESOMELY messy. To put it another way, shit hits the fan. Then that shit hits another fan. And so on, and so on. It’s basically a matryoshka doll of shit hitting faniness.

The book makes a bold, but necessary move to explain how the main characters can do what they do through the duration of the novel. When the book starts, most of the characters are in their 40s, and the book ends about 40 years later. All long the way, there’s a number of adventures that they go through. It’s like watching Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull except instead of simply being very old, the first 100 go through an anti-aging treatment. Like the rest of the book, the treatment is steeped in realistic science, which allows you to forgive the slight deus ex machina. That’s really the only complaint that I had with the book.  I can’t wait to start the sequels.

Since we’re on the subject of books, I must plug As someone who bashed e-readers recently, it might seem odd for me to recommend reading books on a computer or palm device. The thing that I love about dailylit is that I can read while at work. The hook of dailylit is that you get books sent to your e-mail, a couple of pages each day.  Since I’m not allowed to surf the internet while working, but I can check my email, and having a book waiting for me can alleviate the boredom on slow days. Even for people who can easily access the internet, it provides an easy way to add another book to your reading belt. It’s not great for reading anything really long, or indepth, but it makes a great way to read shorter works that are a little less dense.

While a large chunk of the books on dailylit are “classics” which have fallen into the public domain, there are more and more books added each day which are released under the CCL. I’m currently reading Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom a book by Corey Doctorow of It falls in the shorter/fun category of books. It’s easy to pick up or put down at a moments notice and is short enough to be read in a reasonable amount of time, even if you’re only reading a couple of pages a day. I’m planning on reading the rest of his books on their as well as a couple of other interesting choices they have. As a film buff, it seemed my civil duty to add Leonard Maltin’s Best Movies You’ve Never Seen to my book queue. It only contains an excerpt of the actual book, but enough reviews to keep you interested.

So give it a try. If you don’t like it, you can always quit.

Categories: Science, Uncategorized

Man survives without food or water for 70 years.

May 16, 2010 Leave a comment

Part of me dismisses this as obvious hokum, but another part of me wants to believe that its possible, even though it’s so completely impossible.

I do like this line:

“You can hold a lot of water in those yogi beards. A sneaky yogi for certain,”

Like most Yogi’s I’m sure he gets most of his sustenance from pic-a-nic baskets.

Categories: Science

Cold, damn cold.

May 1, 2010 Leave a comment

After writing much of these posts and then showing off my work, my wife, more often than not, will ask questions of stuff that I never even considered. In telling her about water bears, she just had to ask how they managed to freeze the water bears to near absolute zero. This eventually led to me looking up how liquid nitrogen is made (it’s actually a really cool process, just you wait) and then I started looking at other stuff related to the cold. Which, unfortunately is going to lead to a meandering totally disorganized post. So strap yourselves in because in the words of Martin Lawrence, “Shit just got real.”

When looking stuff up about water bears, I wanted to learn more specifically about how they are able to survive being frozen. It turns out that when temperatures drop water bears and other cold-blooded animals make chemicals known as cryoprotectants. These cryprotectants lower the freezing temperature of cells to prevent the damage caused when cells freeze and crystallize. It’s crazy that these animals can go so far as changing their body’s chemical make up to survive.

Along with cryoprotectants many cold-blooded animals will bury themselves during winter months. Many will do this in the mud at the bottom of rivers or lakes. Cold water is more oxygenated than warm water and the animals actually get all the oxygen they need through their skin.

Cryoprotectants are actually administered to those who choose to be cryogenically frozen. This is to avoid cell damage when the water in the body freezes and crystallizes. Despite the widespread knowledge of the process of cryogenic freezing, only about 200 Americans have actually gone through the process in the forty years that its been around. Instead of being frozen before death occurs in hopes that future medicine will be able to cure whatever ailment the patient has, a person has to phyisically die in order to be preserved. The hope is that later science will be able to not only cure the ailment but also reverse the death. The theory behind all of this is that the brain may be able to retain long term memories for a short time after the body has died.

Unfortunately, one of the big problems with cryonic freezing, is that the cryoprotectants can protect the body from freezing, at the cost of essentially poisoning it. However, it’s assumed that the poisoning effect will be easier to undo than the cell damage that would otherwise occur.

Oddly enough, the best way to pay for the staggering costs of the initial freezing, not to mention the ongoing cost of storage, is to use life insurance to cover it. Apparently if you set up a plan when you’re young, freezing can actually be quite affordable. I’m setting up an account for my daughter first thing Monday. I can’t wait to see the look on my insurance agent’s face when I ask her about it.

Morbidly, I wanted to find out more about what happens to cells when they get frozen. it turns out that when people get frostbite, it’s actually the result of a defensive measure taken by the body. When the extremities are subjected to very cold conditions, the body will dilate the blood vessels going to those extremities. Hence, the extremities slowly undergo cell death due to a lack of oxygen and also freeze. The body will choose to kill off a portion of itself in order to keep the rest alive. While not exactly the same, this reminds me of the way that the body will sometimes cause a person to faint. If blood vessels dilate for some reason (say a dashing young southern gentleman chooses to call upon me and kisses my wrist), blood pressure will happen to drop. The brain will sense this and choose to cause the body to pass out so that the head (and the brain encased so deliciously within that head) will drop down. Less pressure is then required to drive blood to brain. The brain therefore saves itself by shutting down part of the body.

If the body is subjected to extremem cold for too long, the blood vessels will eventually tire out. This causes a surge of blood flow to the extremeties which makes people believe that they’re warmer than they actually are. This is combined with the hypothalamus shorting out. The hypothalamus usually regulates body temperature, and when it shorts out people think that they’re warmer than they are. A number of people who die of hypothermia are found having shed their clothes because of this.

So in much less depressing SCIENCE!, the way they make liquid nitrogen is awesome. If you like sauce it’s also awesomesauce.  First, they have to liquid air. You can do that by taking air air and cooling it down a bunch. The easiest way to do that is to compress it down a lot. But according to PVT, by lowering the volume, the pressure and temperatures have to go up. To counteract this, the air is cooled in a heat exchanger and then vented into another chamber to begin the process again. It’s repeated again and again until droplets are formed.

Once you have liquid air, all you have to do is distill off the other elements that make up air, and any hillbilly worth his moonshine knows how to distill. What you are left with is about 20% liquid oxygen and 79% liquid nitrogen and 1% other stuff. Once made, liquid nitrogen has to be kept in a special container that lets it vent occasionally. Liquid nitrogen will generally stay a liquid for quite a while if pressurized correctly. However, unless kept at -331 F, ambient temperature will slowly cause some of it to revert to its gaseous form. This can cause a bit of a problem since gaseous exerts a tremendous amount of pressure (nearly 700 times as much as liquid kind). Unless liquid nitrogen is kept in a ventable container, it can rapidly decompress and cause the container it’s in to explode, like a monkey in space.

Bonus! In searching for the answer to how liquid nitrogen is made, I found this neat little website which lets you run an applet that shows PVT in action. Go ahead and start wasting time with it.