Nobel Week

•October 9, 2007 • Leave a Comment

The Nobel Foundation has let the cat out of the bag for this year’s prize in Medicine and Physics, with Chemistry, Literature, Peace, and Economics prizes to be announced in coming days.

The Prize in Medicine was announced Monday, and went to Mario R. Capecchi, Sir Martin J. Evans, and Oliver Smithies “for their discoveries of principles for introducing specific gene modifications in mice by the use of embryonic stem cells.” In a telephone interview shortly after the award was announced, Capecchi told Nobelprize.org that he was thrilled his friends were able to share the award with him, and that he hopes to use their discovery to study other organisms and the development of evolutionary traits.

The Prize in Physics, announced today, was given to Albert Fert and Peter Grunberg “for the discovery of Giant Magnetoresistance.” Grunberg, who enjoys using computers to browse the internet, said in a Nobelprize.org interview that the discovery was not only important for computer storage capacity, but also for the magnetic separation of genetic material.

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Feynman solves Challenger mystery

•October 2, 2007 • 1 Comment

I know this is turning into a Feynman blog, but here’s a classic story:

Physicist Richard Feynman was reluctant to serve on the Presidential Rogers Commission to investigate the Challenger space shuttle disaster, but he complied, and it was a good thing he did. The goal of the 14-member Commission was simple: Find out what went wrong.

It doesn’t take Noble Prize winner to know that the best best place to start would be the place the shuttle was built, so off he went. The first thing Feynman found while talking to people at NASA, was a startling disconnect between engineers and management. Management claimed the probability of a launch failure was 1 in 100,000, but he knew this couldn’t be. He was, after all a mathematical genius. Feynman estimated the probability of failure to be more like 1 in 100, and to test his theory, he asked a bunch of NASA engineers to write down on a piece of paper what they thought it was. The result: Most engineers estimated the probability of failure to be very close to his original estimate.

He was not only disturbed by management’s illusion of safety, but by how they used these unrealistic estimates to convince a member of the public, teacher Christa McAuliffe, to join the crew, only to be killed along with the six others.

Feynman dug deeper, where he discovered a history of corner-cutting and bad science on the part of management. Management not only misunderstood the science, but he was tipped off by engineers at Morton Thiokol that they ignored it, most importantly when warned about a possible problem with an o-ring.

Feynman discovered that on the space shuttle’s solid fuel rocked boosters, an o-ring is used to prevent hot gas from escaping and damaging other parts. Concerns were raised by engineers that the o-ring may not properly expand with the rest of the hot booster parts, keeping its seal, when outside temperatures fall between 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Because temperatures had never been that low, and there had never been a launch failure, management ignored the engineers. The temperature on launch day was below 32 degrees.

Feynman had his answer, he just had to prove it.

The perfect opportunity arrived when he was requested to testify before Congress on his findings. With television cameras rolling, Feynman innocently questioned a NASA manager about the o-ring temperature issue. As the manager insisted that the o-rings would function properly even in extreme cold, Feynman took an o-ring sample he had obtained out of a cup of ice water in front of him. He then took the clamp off the o-ring which was being used to squish it flat. The o-ring remained flat, proving that in fact, resilliancy was lost with a temperature drop.

The last line of Feynman’s “Personal Observations on the Reliability of the Shuttle,” which was included as an appendix to the Rogers report was this:

“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

Science and religion: apples and oranges?

•September 28, 2007 • Leave a Comment

The other day, for a paper, I asked a number of scientists in the UNLV geoscience department whether or not they believe in God, and if they think science and religion can coexist. Most of them claimed they don’t believe in God, but, surprisingly, the general consensus was that science and religion are “apples and oranges,” making the debate irrelevant. In light of the attention the science vs. religion debate has been getting, I guess I expected more radical answers, but, most I talked to aren’t really bothered.

To get the full picture, it’d be great to interview some religious officials, but the assignment was to cover a beat on the geoscience building, and in true journalistic fashion, I didn’t have much time. Anyhow, I just stumbled upon some more Feynman media, this time, a video clip of him addressing his own views on science and religion. Good stuff.

MIT (in through the out door)

•September 27, 2007 • Leave a Comment

I just stumbled upon the site for MIT’s science writing program, and I got to thinking, could this be a loophole? I write. I have a science background. I could be the dumbest guy at MIT! It’s a one year program with an emphasis on, duh, science writing, but in addition to writing, you get to take an elective (I can’t even imagine the available classes at the place), and they set you up with an internship upon graduation. Graduate school plans have been kinda iffy, but who knows? If I had a niche way into a school that good for even basket weaving, it’d be stupid not to try. I’m gonna look into it.

Dust bowl down under

•September 25, 2007 • Leave a Comment

Being born in Sydney, my ears naturally perk up any time Australia is mentioned. An article in the latest Seed Magazine titled, “The Climate Crucible,” tells how Australia is being affected by global warming more so than most places, and how the Aussies are attempting to fight it.

It seems the main problem in Australia, other than the heat increase, is the fact that the country has, this year, seen less rain than it has in 100 years, leading to what is being called Australia’s “Big Dry.” The article states increased power prices (due to the closing of water powered generating facilities), water restrictions, and the threat of an agricultural collapse have been largely responsible for the 92 percent of people in favor of measures combating global warming.

Everyone knows it’s too bad we’ve waited this long to do something about climate change, but even now, after all we know about global warming, and all the future predictions, we still wait for things to get a little bit worse before we respond just a little bit more. Stay strong mates while I go drive my car.

Richard Feynman

•September 25, 2007 • 1 Comment

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I found this cool picture of Physicist Richard Feynman playing a drum. Feynman was cool because in addition to being one of the greatest physicists ever known, he was an extremely funny and personable guy. Feynman was one of the dying breed of scientist folk heroes I mentioned in my Seed essay. A must-read is a semi-autobiographical collection of anecdotes titled, “Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman.” Feynman is important because he, more so than anyone I can think of, is proof that being smart is cool.

Second annual Seed Magazine writing contest winners (not me)

•September 24, 2007 • Leave a Comment

So, the first and second place winners have been selected, and I’m not one of them. The contest was a response to the question, “What does it mean to be scientifically literate in the 21st century?” put on by Seed Magazine (a big influence on what I’m doing here) over the summer. At my dad’s suggestion, I decided to write an essay less than a week before the deadline, and although I was happy with what I came up with, apparently, it didn’t make the cut. Considering the winners were an ASU faculty member and a Miami nuclear medicine technologist, I can’t be too bummed. Anyhow, here’s my Seed essay if you wanna check it out.