Archive for September, 2012

Sep 10 2012

Science Debate 2012 Answers

Published by under General is a group dedicated to promoting the discussion of important scientific issues in American politics. They formed around the idea of holding a science-themed debate in the 2008 presidential election, and have continued since then. They were never successful in getting the two campaigns to agree to a live debate concerning scientific topics, but they did agree to submit written answers to questions. This time around, in the 2012 presidential election, it also appears that there will be no live debate, but both campaigns have submitted written answers to science questions.

The idea behind ScienceDebate is this – from their website:

“Whenever the people are well-informed,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “they can be trusted with their own government.”

Science now affects every aspect of life and is an increasingly important topic in national policymaking.

I remember Carl Sagan hitting this theme often, in Cosmos and in his interviews. He said, for example:

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”

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Sep 07 2012

Cheetah Faster than Humans

Published by under Technology

That may seem like a “Well, duh!” headline, until I add the extra tidbit that the cheetah in question is a robot.

The Cheetah Robot developed by Boston Dynamics recently reached 28.3 mph on a treadmill speed test, beating the world record for human foot speed attained by Usain Bolt at 27.78 mph. The Cheetah is a project backed by US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and is being developed for potential military applications.

The achievement is a significant milestone. Robots have traditionally not been very mobile, unless they are housed in some sort of vehicle. Even then, until recently real mobility required a human operator. Researchers have been making steady progress, however, in developing systems for vehicles that can drive themselves (a project also supported by DARPA).

Walking, on the other hand, has been a skill that has largely eluded robots, whether on 2,3 4 or more legs. We take bipedal mobility for granted, but it is a neurologically very complex feat that requires many of our neural subsystems working well in order to achieve confident and safe bipedalism. Walking is easily compromised by a number of neurological ailments, not just weakness, but also compromise in balance, vision, sensation, vestibular function, joint function, and extrapyramidal function (which regulates the smoothness of movement). Bipedal walking is a delicate moment-to-moment balancing act that we have not, so far, been able to reverse engineer.

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Sep 06 2012

Shuzi Magic Power Bracelet

Here we go – yet another magical bracelet claiming to improve balance, energy, and performance. This time you get to pay $100 for a black piece of cloth with a small chip inside. From the Shuzi website:

Shuzi (pronounced shoo-zee ) utilizes a proprietary chip from the United States, which is programmed to resonate with your cells’ natural frequencies and causes your blood cells to separate thereby creating a better blood flow which can lead to more oxygen through out the body.

“Resonate with natural frequencies” – they can’t even be bothered to make up their own ridiculous pseudoscientific technobabble. Improving blood flow by separating blood cells is also an old scam. We have evolved very robust mechanisms to ensure optimal delivery of oxygen to our tissues. There is no simple way to “improve” this in a healthy person. These mechanisms may not be adequate in someone with advanced disease affecting the pulmonary or cardiovascular systems, neither is a little wrist band going to have any effect in such serious conditions.

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Sep 04 2012

Bill Nye and Science vs Business Communication

Bill Nye recently produced a video as part of the Big Think series on YouTube, this one arguing that creationism is not appropriate for children. The video has sparked some debate, but not just about evolution and creationism – more so about tone and strategy. What is the purpose of the video, and is it successful?

One of the interesting corners of this discussion is two articles on Scientific American taking two very different views of the video. The first is an interview with Patrick Donadio, “a professional speaker and a communications coach to the leaders of Fortune 500 companies.” The second is essentially a rebuttal by Kyle Hill, which takes a more scientific view. Naturally, I related better to the second article.

Hill points out that there is actually some published evidence on communication that might inform this discussion – something missing from Donadio’s interview. I have had some experience with corporate-style communications “experts” and I have had the same reaction as Hill appears to gently be stating – that there is a culture of corporate speaking and self-styled experts that is not exactly compatible with scientific communication.

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