Tag Archive: science fact


Review by C.J. Bunce

In Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, chemist and author Kathryn Harkup, author of A is for Arsenic, reveals the results of a thorough investigation into the scientific knowledge available to young author Mary Shelley at the turn of the 19th century when Shelley wrote the first science fiction novel (and basis for the first horror movie), Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus The result is a detailed, marvelously interconnected picture of notable minds of the Enlightenment and their theories, a useful history of science and technology, and a worthy supplement to any reading or study of the classic story.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was greatly influenced by noted authors of her era, beginning with her parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft (through her writings), and her long-time companion and eventual husband, the noted author and political thinker Percy Bysshe Shelley.  Mary Shelley lived in a world of scientific improvements, while also at only the barest beginnings of modern chemistry, biology, and medicine.  Author Kathryn Harkup looked back to writings of the late 1700s and earlier, where religion, politics, and culture were undergoing a radical shift, with old concepts like alchemy winding down its influence on the thinking world.  As Harkup writes, “Dark, discredited, ineffectual alchemy was contrasted with enlightened, rational, powerful science.”  She follows Mary Shelley’s travels as documented in letters and diaries Shelley and her contemporaries wrote to locate hundreds of opportunities that could have influenced the author’s story as well as Victor Frankenstein the character inside the world where he would create life from the dead.  In doing so the reader will get a snapshot of the world in 1800-1818 and a class in a major chapter of the history of science and technology–what someone in Shelley’s circumstances as a woman among affluent families living among vocal sharers of ideas including the likes of Erasmus Darwin, Luigi Galvani, Benjamin Franklin, and Lord Byron.

Harkup takes her research a step further in Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, locating the possible influences of not only Shelley but those around Mary Shelley like her father, her husband, and Byron, whose access to cutting edge science and free thought reached across the ocean and nations.  She references the ongoing relationships and likelihood of the sharing of ideas among these men and Mary Shelley, all leading to the famous trip during the rainy summer of 1816, where the world was overtaken by darkness thanks to the earlier eruption of Mount Tambora in far off Indonesia.  Mary Shelley, age 18, with boyfriend Percy visiting Byron and Dr. John Polidori at Lake Geneva, Switzerland, were hunkered down reading ghost stories to each other from the French book Fantasmagoriana, when Byron suggested each should write his/her own ghost story (Polidori’s story would become The Vampyre, the first vampire novel).  Along with the science, Harkup provides a complete background of each step of Shelley’s life before and after completion of her Frankenstein contribution.

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NASA space station photo

While we have all been busy here on Earth, the international assemblage of astronauts on the International Space Station have been moving on with their scheduled work week far up and away in Earth’s orbit.  The Expedition 45 crew has been busy this month with biomedical science, Cygnus mission preparations, and routine maintenance.

But this crew is not above letting its fanboy flag fly, donning the Jedi Knight look of Obi-Wan Kenobi, complete with lightsabers, for their NASA expedition poster.  What better way to keep the tie between science fiction and science fact?  You often hear about how many astronauts and NASA engineers and crew were influenced by Star Trek, but clearly Star Wars must have had a similar influence.

Expedition 45 includes flight Engineers Kjell Lindgren and Kimiya Yui, who both have been in space for more than 100 days.  Yui has been working on experiment hardware inside Japan’s Kibo lab module.  Lindgren is conducting research on growing food in space for the Veggie botany experiment.  Commander Scott Kelly is prepping for the December arrival of the Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo craft. Continue reading

Orion in space

Nichelle Nichols is partnering with NASA in its efforts to move forward with Earth’s exploration of outer space.  From inspiring countless future astronauts and scientists with her character Uhura in the original Star Trek to being part of the promotional efforts for the space shuttle program in the 1970s including NASA’s own Enterprise, Nichols is now continuing her inspirational role for the next generation of space travelers.

In a promotional video released this weekend by NASA via YouTube, Nichols is sure to generate interest in the new space capsule, called Orion, which is being engineered to take humans farther into space than ever before–eventually to Mars.  This is similar to the role played by Star Trek: The Next Generation actor Wil Wheaton with the Curiosity program that we reported on here at borg.com back in August 2012.

Scale photo San Diego recovery Orion module

Significantly smaller and with far less room to move around in than the space shuttles, Orion has the look of a giant version of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space capsules that are now displayed in the National Aeronautics and Space Museum at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.  Sitting atop a Delta IV rocket system like those old Redstone and Jupiter launch systems but bigger and more advanced, Orion is being tested to prepare it to take astronauts “farther into the solar system than ever before, including to an asteroid and Mars”.  Check out a great article about a test near San Diego a few weeks ago here.  After the break, watch Nichols’ new video about the Orion:

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It’s a bit like the return of the three astronauts in the Apollo 13 spacecraft to the Earth’s atmosphere as reflected in the last minutes of Ron Howard’s nail-biting film Apollo 13.  Literally at the time of this post, 12:10 a.m. U.S. Central time, August 6, 2012, white-knuckled NASA engineers, scientists and administrators are watching their computer monitors to see if their $2.5 billion gamble paid off.  The space rover Curiosity is just seconds from landing on the surface of Mars.  More than 150 million miles away, we won’t actually know the status of the mission landing for another 14 minutes because of the long communication lag.  If successful, the small car will roam the mountains of the Red Planet for the next two years, learning each day more than the sum total of knowledge amassed in the history of our distant study of the planet.

The Mars Science Laboratory Mission has been in its space travel phase for eight months now, leaving Florida’s Kennedy Space Center last November toward the solar system’s fourth planet from the Sun.  But now it actually has to achieve its descent successfully, and this will be more difficult than landing predecessor rovers Pathfinder, Spirit, and Opportunity.  The vehicle named Curiosity weighs much more, approximately a ton of material to gingerly float to the surface.  NASA is deploying an untested “sky crane,” which looks amazingly like the Nostromo or Prometheus.  Eight engines on each corner of the sky crane will fire to slow the descent of the equipment and rover in its last seconds, deploying NASA’s largest parachute yet in the process.

NASA’s website offers this video showing the stages of the landing, called Curiosity: Seven Minutes of Terror (which sort of sounds odd for NASA, since we’re talking about hunks of metal and wire and no lifeforms affected, but don’t miss this video, as it is well-made and shows engineers laying out computer graphics of the stages we never will be able to actually watch):

Even better, NASA asked Wil Wheaton and William Shatner to explain the landing process for Curiosity.  Very cool!  Here is Wheaton’s version:

And here is Shatner’s version:

It’s sort of funny that NASA chose to use the same script for each actor (I like Wheaton’s more).

What’s happening right now, 154 million miles away:

  • Curiosity enters the atmosphere of Mars at an altitude of about 81 miles and a velocity of 13,200 mph, about 390 miles and 7 minutes from touchdown.
  • One minute and 15 seconds after entry, the heat shield will face heat of 3,800 degrees Fahrenheit, which will slow the craft by 90 percent.
  • Ten seconds later, deceleration will reach 15 times the force of Earth’s gravity at sea level.
  • Four minutes into the atmosphere, the guided entry phase of flight end. Six 55-pound weights will be ejected to help ensure stability when a supersonic parachute deploys.
  • At an altitude of about seven miles and racing toward the Martian surface at 900 miles per hour, the gigantic chute will snap to a diameter of 51 feet, resulting in a 65,000-pound, 9 Gs jolt at about Mach 1.7–NASA’s largest parachute ever flown.
  • Five miles from touchdown and 24 seconds later, the heat shield is jettisoned.  The craft is now descending at 280 mph.
  • Curiosity and its rocket pack separate from the chute and its support.
  • The rocket-laden sky crane kicks in.
  • Four rocket engines shut down.  At 70 feet, Curiosity will be lowered on the end of a 25-foot-long tether.
  • The rover’s six motorized wheels will snap into position for touchdown at 1.7 mph.

Without manned space shuttles, this is the excitement we can expect from the new stage of NASA science and technology.

So did we succeed?  Or as one of the NASA engineers says, will it be “game over”?  Check out NASA.gov right now as the first video images are transmitted back to Earth.

1 a.m. update–Success!  The rover made it.  Good job, NASA!

C.J. Bunce
Editor
borg.com

By C.J. Bunce

From Transformers to soft tissue… can we connect the dots?

Remember not long ago if you wanted a home printer the then-big thing was the dot matrix printer, which printed dot letters on printer paper where you needed to then tear off the edges used to feed the paper from a roll?  It wasn’t long until we all used desktop inkjet printers–what many of us still use today, and then good ol’ laser printers.  But go back for a second and take a look at that inkjet printer.  The future of medicine is in its design.

Last June we reported on Maker Faire, a unique group of people all across the country that get together each year in different cities to discuss and share creative pursuits of any imaginable variety.  Maker Faires last year featured makers of art using paint, wood, ceramics, makers of science using computers and elaborate machines, car builders, fashion and costume makers, chefs, flower arrangers, electrical engineers, writers–designers of every kind set up displays and performances showcasing the past, present and future of technology and ideas.  It was and–at Maker Faires coming soon to a city near you–will be it’s own petri dish and melting pot, fertile turf to merge technologies to solve problems and think bigger.

The 3D printer at Maker Faire

I was amazed at a display at the Kansas City Maker Faire showcasing the printing of 3D models using printers.  These 3D printers not only printed objects that could be used in and of themselves–like components for fasteners in washing machines or circuit boards–they also printed the very components of the printer itself, more efficiently and quickly than something like injection molding.  Yes, you can build–and buy at the Faire for a few hundred dollars–a 3D ceramics printer that would use instructions from your computer to take plastic thread and melt it into various components that could be assembled for you to make more printers and sell them if you want.  Which came first, the chicken or the egg, or the 3D printer or the 3D printer?  At the time I was thinking about ways to make TV and movie props from CAD designs.  I wasn’t thinking big enough apparently.

In fact, between last June and last Fall I caught a re-run on the Science Channel of an episode of TV series Science at the Movies hosted by Nar Williams.  Williams introduced us to Fxperts, Inc., a prop house for Hollywood flicks building a larger than life Bumblebee Transformer for one of the Transformers movies, beginning with converting digital designs to three dimensions via printing technologies.   So Hollywood was already using this technology on a big scale, at least for some cutting edge (aka expensive) projects like this big budget summer blockbuster.

From drawing…

… to three dimensions.

But how can static 3D printed creations help human science?  You can print any static three dimensional project with even bigger and better printers.  But what about non-static objects?

Thursday, reader Susan Fourtané, a writer and journalist writing at EnterpriseEfficiency.com, made the connection between recent innovations in 3D printing in orthopedic research and the cyborg Six Million Dollar Man in her article “3D Printed Body Parts.”  In her article shes cites some incredible innovations, including the European Medical Device Technology (EMDT.co.uk) online magazine’s report on “Innovations in Rapid Prototyping and Additive Manufacturing” in its January 26, 2012 online issue and Orthotec.com’s February 7, 2012 report “First in Innovation: Designer Implant Replaces Patient’s Lower Jaw.”

The EMDT article discusses the rapid creation and deployment of technologies that can quicken research by creating 3D prototypes to beta test procedures, such as a mock surgery before an actual surgery using a fully mapped 3D replica of the area of the patient needing the procedure.  Using “additive engineering”–basically advanced printing methods of what the folks at Maker Faire were demonstrating last year–a  company is using 3D printing for “tissue engineering.”  The German company, envisionTEC GmbH, has developed a machine that can print soft tissues, the 3-D Bioplotter.  As quoted by EMDT, “The 3D-Bioplotter can process high-temperature polymer melts and ceramic materials for bone regeneration, as well as silicones for surgical restoration and finally very soft hydrogels for soft tissue regeneration, as well as organ printing,” said envisionTEC GmbH Dipl. Chemist Carlos Carvalho.

A printer used to print a biological heart.

The Orthotec.com article refers to a real-world successful implant last June of a 3D printed titanium lower jawbone, which completely replaced a bone damaged by infection in an adult woman. That woman could speak again and use the jaw within hours of the operation.  The implant was created under the direction of Jules Poukens, MD, a craniomaxillofacial surgeon at University Hospital Maastricht in the Netherlands, and a team of researchers and surgeons from Belgium and the Netherlands.

There is at least one surgeon taking the next step, from not just creating different bone types for replacement in the body (which is cool by itself), but to growing biological material, and not just growing it–he already created a bladder and other tissues from cell material–he now focuses on growing and regenerating tissues and organs.  It’s the stuff of Dr. Frankenstein and political and ethical debates across the globe.  That surgeon is Dr. Anthony Atala, the director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine.  His team engineered the first lab-grown organ to be implanted into a human–that bladder I mentioned above–and is working on experimental fabrication technology to print human tissue, on demand.  Dr. Atala has said his lab uses a desktop inkjet printer “but instead of using ink, we’re using cells.”

Do you want to know more?  Check out this video where Dr. Atala prints organs.  That’s right.  Prints organs.

Consider that 90% of people on organ donor wait lists need a kidney transplant.  Incredible stuff, and another step towards implementing borg technology in real life.

Thanks to Susan Fourtané for connecting the dots for us.