January 19, 2008

Not So Great News

This is a little off topic, but my mind has been weighed down of late with the news that a person I sang with in college choir is dying of leukemia.

He and his family created a rich support network via an Internet journal, and I had been keeping tabs on things intermittently. Then today I get an email from a mutual friend: The last hope treatments are not working, and he has chosen to go home to spend his last days with his family.

This person and his wife are among the sweetest people ever to walk the Earth. If ever there was proof that life is not fair, this is it. I'm at a loss for what else to say, so...

January 18, 2008

My #23: Space Poem Chain

The velvet sky is embroidered with flowers;
galactic bouquets that whirl and collide.
But must they all have dark hearts forever inhaling the petals,
sopping up stardust, draining the light?
Once across the horizon, it makes no difference.

Anyone else want to share?

Almost as Romantic as a Holophoner

There are stars inside me
When I think about things from way way before
my whole body goes tingly
No doubt it's the stars, reminded of things
before they entered me, whooping it up.

— Yasunori Matugawa, Director, JAXA Space Education Center

What a freakin' sweet idea. The Japanese Space Exploration Agency (JAXA) is inviting submissions for a poem chain that will be compiled and flown to the International Space Station. JAXA writes on its website:

"The Space Poem Chain is the expression of our wish for chain poetry to become a cooperative space in which everyone can think together about the universe, about the earth, and about life, transcending boundaries of nation, culture, generations, specializations, and roles."

The first round of 24 poems has been recorded and will be sent up in February. The lines above make up the first submission for the second round, which has the theme "There are Stars."

It's a beautiful way of acknowledging that all people are actually made of stardust. At its start the universe was all hydrogen and helium—it took stars to provide the fusion engines that created heavier elements, including those necessary for life.

When the first stars went supernova, they seeded the cosmos with the ingredients for the galaxies, planets, comets, asteroids, etc. we see today.

Anyone from anywhere can submit a poem for the JAXA chain. The basic rules are:

#1) The Space Poem Chain is formed from the alternating repetition of 5 line and 3 line poems. If the immediately preceding poem is 5 lines, then the next is 3; if the immediately preceding poem is 3 lines, then the next is 5.

#2) The starting point of your own poem should be a word or a line from the immediately preceding poem.

The 22nd poem in the current chain is a three-line beauty from a man in Nepal. I'm gonna go ruminate over lunch and see what I would submit for Poem #23... will share when ready.

Happy (Almost) 50th, Explorer 1!

On January 31, 1958, the United States proved its unfailing love for one-upping the competition by launching its first satellite, Explorer 1, into Earth orbit.

The probe was a direct response to the Soviet Union's October 4, 1957, launch of Sputnik 1. Not to be outdone by "dirty Commies," the U.S. government went to the then military-focused Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California and charged it with getting our collective asses in gear.

"The successful launch of Explorer 1, followed by the formation of NASA in Oct. 1958, transformed JPL from a producer of ballistic missiles to a preeminent center for robotic exploration of our solar system and beyond," the agency writes in a press release.

Last fall media outlets the world over celebrated Sputnik as the 50th anniversary of the start of the space race—and how it impacted the current international race to the moon—with copious amounts of news articles, photo galleries, editorials, and videos.

Something tells me that last year's media blitz will keep a similar frenzy from getting whipped up over poor Explorer. But we're a space nut, so we say, "Who loves ya, baby?"

Tiger + Drunk Teens = Trouble

Okay, who's really surprised by this?

Police have announced that the teenage boys who were attacked by a tiger at the San Diego Zoo were in fact drunk, high, and gesticulating at the cat before it calmly leaped out of its pen and started clawing.

"As a result of this investigation, (police believe) that the tiger may have been taunted/agitated by its eventual victims," said Inspector Valerie Matthews, according to the Associated Press.

Kulbir Dhaliwal, one of the teens who survived, later told police that the three had smoked pot and each had "a couple shots of vodka" before heading over to the zoo, AP reports.

Of course it's tragic that a young man was killed in this incident, and the zoo needs to figure out exactly why its tiger enclosure wall was four feet shorter than it should have been.

But this is also a classic case of the way a human-interest piece can vilify wild animals. No one mourned the tiger, which was shot dead on the scene. Never mind the fact that it was a Siberian tiger, of which only 400 to 500 are believed to exist in the wild in the whole world.

It's also kind of damning of zoos in general. I have turbulently mixed feelings about facilities that host wild animals in tiny enclosures. Are they for education and conservation, or spectacle and tourism? Is money better spent on captive breeding (like many zoos do work on) or habitat conservation?

There're no easy answers here, other than anyone who taunts a tiger—no matter how high the walls are—is a candidate for the Darwin Awards.

January 17, 2008

OMG, I Am an Uber Nerd

The NerdTests' Space Test says I'm an Uber Space Nerd.  What kind of space nerd are you?  Click here!

Never would have seen that coming. But I guess that's cuz I dig astronomy, not astrology.

She Must Be Gunther's Girl...

Just when you thought Japanese robots couldn't get much weirder, along comes a humanoid mecha in Kyoto that's controlled by a monkey in North Carolina.

In an elaborate proof-of-concept experiment, a 12-pound lady rhesus monkey named Idoya walked on a treadmill while watching live video of a 200-pound robot's legs. Electrodes implanted in Idoya's brain sent "walking" signals to the robot over a high-speed Internet connection.

By focusing on the 'bot's limbs, the monkey got to the point where certain neurons in her brain became attuned to syching up her steps with the motion of the mecha. Even when the researchers stopped the treadmill, Idoya was so intent on manipulating the robot that she kept it walking for about three more minutes.


The NY Times has a nicely written explainer article with full multimedia components here (registration required).

Of course, this raises a host of issues, not the least of which is the immediate danger of monkeys taking over the world with their armies of mind-controlled killbots. For instance, why do articles like this *never* delve into the sticky wicket of whether the monkey likes having electrodes driven into her grey matter in the name of science?

But for now, here's my favorite quote from lead researcher Miguel A. L. Nicolelis at Duke University, as reported by the NYT:

"The body does not have a monopoly for enacting the desires of the brain.”

Inventions have a way of slipping past the necessities that birthed them. The drug warfarin, for example, is administered to people under several brand names as an anticoagulant—but it was first developed as rat poison. So what's to stop technology invented to help the paralyzed regain use of their limbs from morphing us into a real world version of Ghost in the Shell? Meh. I like this body better anyway.

Good News, Everyone!

Hello, and welcome to Measured Outcomes, a blog about the myriad interpretations of science writing.

The news is a harsh mistress, and things can get downright ugly once they've been put through the multiple filters that exist between bare facts and public perception.

Just like when a quantum physicist tries to pin down the exact location of a particle, uncertainty exists when people try to pin down the nuanced meanings of the flood of scientific findings reported every day. Each researcher, press officer, writer, editor, copyeditor, and reader changes the "outcome" every time they "measure" a piece of news.

But hell, that's the fun part! Science is meant to be interpreted, discussed, analyzed, and—more often then not—debunked. For all the routinely provable theories that might as well be rock-solid laws of nature (ahem, evolution) there must be a few million announced discoveries that are tenuous at best and deserve the utmost skepticism.

So let's see what's out there and—with open minds and a huge cup of java—discuss.