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September 18, 2005

Rice Wins Again!Email This EntryPrint This Article

rice seal.gif No, not on the football field, silly.

(The original Rice seal, to the right, dates from 1911, and carries its own story, including Confederate gray "warmed into life by a tinge of lavender.")

I'm talking about the laboratory, where Rice is successfully managing the transition from Dr. Richard Smalley's "Buckyball foundation" generation with new research into the link between optics and electronics.

Professor Peter Nordlander has announced "a universal relationship between the behavior of light and electrons" which "can be exploited to create nanoscale antennae that convert light into broadband electrical signals capable of carrying approximately 1 million times more data than existing interconnects."

This is big. In many ways it's as big as the original BuckyBall discovery, and more readily exploited.

More after the break.

Continue reading "Rice Wins Again!"

September 13, 2005

Meanwhile, back in spaceEmail This EntryPrint This Article

earth from space.gifOne good thing about covering space is that it puts what's happening to this Big Blue Marble into proper perspective.

See if you don't agree:

  • Closer to the Big Bang -- Space is a time machine. When you detect light that has been traveling 13 billion years to reach Earth you're really reaching back that far in time. And now we have. The particular picture on offer is of a supernova that occurred 12.6 billion years ago, or 1.1 billion years after God likely said "let there be light."
  • The third "space tourist," Greg Olsen, is scheduled to go up on a Soviet rocket October 1. Olsen founded Sensors Unlimited, and is paying $20 million for the trip, which helps keep the Soyuz program going. American astronaut William McArthur says Olsen's engineering background makes him a real asset on the Space Station. (In more ways than one.)

    Continue reading "Meanwhile, back in space"

July 14, 2005

The Finnish ExampleEmail This EntryPrint This Article

finland.gifThere's a long, admiring story in today's Washington Post extolling Finland as a possible model for European development.

Finland has invested heavily in scientific research, especially since it backed a big winner during the early 1990s in Nokia. Nokia stock held by the government is one source of funds, but overall the country puts a whopping 3.6% of its income into research, well ahead of the U.S., and nearly twice as much as the European average.

The result is that, while Finland does have substantial unemployment, and the problems of an aging population threatening its ample social safety net, the 5.5 million people there are nearly as happy as those in the Monty Python song. (All together, Finnophiles!)

One respondent at the Dave Farber list expressed the view that the U.S. actually does better than the figures indicate, and that government is mostly out of the picture.

He's half-right.

Continue reading "The Finnish Example"

May 29, 2005

Von Neumann's Science LessonEmail This EntryPrint This Article

scientistsfdc_f.jpgThe Post Office is issuing four stamps honoring scientists.

One pictures John Von Neumann.

Von Neumann made major contributions to quantum mechanics, he practically invented game theory, but what got him on the stamp was his "invention" of "modern computer design."

It's now obsolete.

Von Neumann architecture required that a computer do one thing, then the next, and on through the program. It led to things like the Cray Supercomputer, a huge, very expensive machine that could do this very, very quickly.

The solution to really amazing speed was to break up the work into parts and run those parts in parallel. This was first done in the 1980s, it was applied to networks in the 1990s, and now it's being applied to chips as "dual-core."

Continue reading "Von Neumann's Science Lesson"

May 27, 2005

A Predation StoryEmail This EntryPrint This Article

elmer fudd.gifOne of the most common, and most damaging things civilized man has done to the environment is to pre-empt predation.

Predators are a vital part of any environment. They remove the sick from the herd. They keep the genetic line of prey strong. And they keep prey species from overpopulating.

It's natural that we don't want our oldsters or little kids eaten by wolves (which was a major theme of the old fairy tales). So in most of the civilized world we've removed predators from the scene.

Outside the cities and suburbs, of course, we've replaced the predators with hunters . One big difference, however. While animal predators prey on the old, the sick, and the stupid young, hunters (or sportsmen) want big antlers to hang on their walls.

But let's take off our orange vests and get back into town....(I found this guy at NASA. Heh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh.)

Continue reading "A Predation Story"

May 18, 2005

Always On Is RFIDEmail This EntryPrint This Article

gesture pendant.jpgI didn't blog much yesterday because I was researching the state of play in Always On. (The illustration is from Georgia Tech.)

I had a book proposal before Wiley rejected out of hand. But when I then suggested to step back and do a book on RFID for the home, I got real interest. Just make it a hands-on book, I was told.

Thus, the research.

As regular readers here know well there are many Always On application spaces, that is, functions fit for wireless networking applications.

  • Medical monitoring
  • Home Automation
  • Entertainment
  • Inventory

Absent this understanding that a unified platform already exists so that all these applications can be created together, what is the state of play specifically regarding Radio Frequency Identification? (Or, if you prefer, spychips, although since I'm talking about home applications you're spying on yourself.)

Continue reading "Always On Is RFID"

April 28, 2005

Stepping Toward a Space ElevatorEmail This EntryPrint This Article

richard smalley.jpgAmid all the recent stories about the U.S. abandoning basic science I offer a counter-example.

Rice University, my old school has an $11 million deal with NASA to develop carbon nanotubes that will, at first, be big enough to act as power cables and could, with time, produce the technique for a space elevator.

Last year a team under Nobel Prize Winner Dr. Richard Smalley (right) found that nanotubes assume the properties of metals in the presence of a magnetic field, Smalley has always been excited about tubes' superconducting properties. The problem has been manufacturing.

The contract emerged following a successful workshop in Boerne, outside San Antonio, co-sponsored by NASA and Rice. The Rice manufacturing technique is called HiPco, and originally involved growing tubes on catalytic iron in chambers of carbon monoxide, producing carbon dioxide and nanotubes at a rate of nearly a half-gram per hour.

The idea is to expand on on this by starting with "seed" tubes that "teach" the carbon around them how to grow into the required shape. The specific goal is to produce one yard of nanotube "wire" after four years. Dr. Smalley describes the final result as looking like a fishing line.

By starting the process with the desired shape in the chamber the scientists hope to avoid the problem of having to "sort" whatever tubes emerge from the HiPco process.

Continue reading "Stepping Toward a Space Elevator"

April 25, 2005

Tear Down The Great Wall of SilenceEmail This EntryPrint This Article

mao zedong.jpg On the surface, the current upset between China and Japan seems ridiculous. (Illustration from Paulnoll.com. Mr. Noll was a corporal during the Korean conflict.)

That the heirs of Mao , that the Butchers of Beijing should lecture anyone about human rights seems absurd.

China puts more people to death each year than any country in the world. (Yes, even more than Texas.) China is a brutal dictatorship that oppresses its people as no other country, the most Totalitarian regime on Earth. My mentioning this may get Corante blocked to all of China, by the state's firewall system, the most extensive Internet censorship regime on the planet.

By contrast, Emperor Hirohito and the brutal system he led are dead. Japan acknowledged its sins in the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco and has since been a functioning democracy where politicians must accomodate the views of voters. Japan's Constitution forbids it to make war on its neighbors. Japan contributes more to good causes than any other national governnment.

This is power politics. China is pushing Japan out of the world power picture, letting Taiwan know that resistance is futile, and successfully challenging America's status as a Great Power. Just 12 years ago we were The Hyperpower. Now we're becoming second rate, losing our status to tyrants.

The reaction in the U.S. to all this has been silence. Deafening silence.

Few U.S. outlets have covered the story. The right-wing Cybercast "News" Service actually offered a balanced perspective. The New York Times offers only a fearful editorial on possible Chinese revaluation of the Yuan -- at another time this would be called appeasement.

The reason for this silence is not subject to dispute.

Continue reading "Tear Down The Great Wall of Silence"

April 19, 2005

Old Girl NetworkEmail This EntryPrint This Article

I declined to get involved in the Larry Summers sexism affair. (That's Larry at left, along with other future cast members of Saturday Night Live.)

But an opportunity has come to make a relevant comment, and brag on the old alma mater at the same time.

One big difference between Harvard, where Summers is President, and Rice, where I went to school, is that Harvard has an extensive Old Boy Network and Rice does not.

As an alumnus it pains me to admit this. Rice offers a high-quality education, better than Harvard in many ways, but once you're out you're on your own. There's no big power network in New York and Washington waiting to give you a leg-up.

But we're now seeing the flip side of this. Rice is a pure meritocracy. If you've got the goods, the Owl will shine his light on you. Harvard openings often go to those in the know, or those who know those in the know.

This may be why Larry Summers has trouble finding high-quality female scientists. Rice has had no trouble at all in that regard. In fact, the new Rice engineering Dean is Dr. Sallie Keller McNulty. The science dean is Kathleen Matthews, who chaired the search committee.

That is not all. Far from it. Dr. Rebekah Drezek and Dr. Jennifer West of the biochemistry department have recently found that silica-gold "nanoshells," another form of the Buckyball first found at Rice 20 years ago, can help cure cancer through imaging. They were following up on pioneering work on nanoshells by Dr. Naomi Halas, an electrical engineer. Dr. Halas, in turn, is currently being featured on PBS' Nova.

Continue reading "Old Girl Network"

April 01, 2005

The Issue of Our TimeEmail This EntryPrint This Article

The following appeared today in my free weekly e-mail newsletter, A-Clue.Com, now into its 9th year of publication.

You can get it free any time.

Science is the political issue of our time.

It will surprise many to hear it's controversial. But to those with an historical perspective it's no surprise at all.

Continue reading "The Issue of Our Time"

March 13, 2005

The Yank At the Heart of Your MobileEmail This EntryPrint This Article

Of all the American entrepreneurs you read about a decade ago, which do you think is doing the best today?

Which one, do you think, is kicking back, living the life, doing what he wants, and bringing in tons of money on something that's relevant to 2005?

The answer: Thomas Dolby Robertson. He blinded them all with mobility.

As Thomas Dolby (his oeuvre is at ArtistDirect, along with this picture), Robertson had a brief vogue on the pop charts in the early 1980s. He even had a pop hit, She Blinded Me With Science.

Then, a decade ago, he morphed into an entrepreneur, doing stuff at the intersection of virtual reality and gaming. The media left him behind and left him alone. (I met him at a few trade shows during the dot-boom. He should have been a pathetic figure. He wasn't.)

It seems Robertson has a talent rare among entrepreneurs, the ability to make lemonade out of lemons. He explained what happened to the Onion AV Club. It was a piece of blinding entrepreneurial insight.

Continue reading "The Yank At the Heart of Your Mobile"

March 11, 2005

Dean Kamen Gets ItEmail This EntryPrint This Article

What should a rational U.S. technology policy include? Very simple:

  • Honor education.
  • Pay educators.
  • Invest in Big Science, big dreams.
  • Turn scientists and engineers (even young ones) into stars.

Fortunately, someone gets it.

Dean Kamen (right) gets it.

Yeah, the Segway guy. Here's how he puts it on the home page of the educational organization he founded, US First:

"Create a world where science and technology are celebrated... where young people dream of becoming science and technology heroes..."

I can't say it any better.

Best of all, his words are backed by action. What follows is my personal testimony to this:

Continue reading "Dean Kamen Gets It"

Doerr Doesn't Get ItEmail This EntryPrint This Article

A delegation from the TechNet lobby, including John Doerr (Rice '73) and Cisco chief John Chambers, were on Capitol Hill today warning legislators that the U.S. is in danger of losing its technology lead.

By some measures, it has already happened.

TechNet wants more spending on math and science education, especially in middle schools, and more tech-oriented retraining for displaced workers.

Amen to that. Both my kids felt math was fun in 4th grade, but neither is pursuing it anymore. My son's school refused to challenge him in 7th grade, resorting to a curriculum he'd already learned, and he lost interest. My daughter was bedeviled by reading difficulties and her strength in math was ignored.

Then Doerr went off and spoiled it all by saying something stupid.

Continue reading "Doerr Doesn't Get It"

March 10, 2005

Gates Feeling Groovy, or a Microsoft OzFestEmail This EntryPrint This Article

Bill Gates has finally hired himself a new CTO.

It's Lotus Notes inventor Ray Ozzie. While Ray may think he sold a company to Microsoft, Groove Networks, in fact his world is about to get rocked like never before.

Groove does collaboration tools, and Microsoft (an early investor) is interested in those things. But I don't think Gates signed off on this deal to get Groove's technology, otherwise he never would have un-retired Nathan Myhrvold's title. (Microsoft currently has three people with the CTO title, meaning no one really has the power.)

The bottom line is that Gates needs Ray Ozzie, and he needs him bad.

Microsoft puts more dollars into new technology development than just about anyone else in the world, but it gets less bang for its buck than any outfit since Xerox PARC. Microsoft Research has a ton of high bandwidth people, they're doing all sorts of high bandwidth things, but when was the last time Microsoft introduced anything of real importance?

That's what Ray will be tasked with sorting out.

Continue reading "Gates Feeling Groovy, or a Microsoft OzFest"

March 02, 2005

Alzheimer Result Is Its CauseEmail This EntryPrint This Article

The last time we were on the trail of Alzheimer's Disease, which killed Ronald Reagan, my next-door neighbor, and doubtless several great friends of yours, we learned that its risk factors were just like those of heart disease, high cholesterol which causes plaque to form in the brain's blood vessels.

Now scientists at UC San Diego have found a precursor condition that's just as important. Before symptoms are even apparent, proteins start clogging the pathways of axons, the nerve cells whose connections and re-connections represent actual thought. (The axon above is from a Coventry, England pain clinic.)

Continue reading "Alzheimer Result Is Its Cause"

February 28, 2005

Gates Gets A ClueEmail This EntryPrint This Article

I was at the YMCA yesterday, pushing the old bones through another workout, and a crowd gathered around a TV where Bill Gates was giving a speech.

He was reading the speech the way he does, one shoulder slumped down like a hipster from the 50s. The expensively-crafted words did his work for him. He didn't need to work to sing. It's good to be king.

And his message was simple. High schools suck. The words were repeated gleefully as far away as Beijing. "When I compare our high school with what I see abroad I am terrified for our work force of tomorrow."

Both my kids are in high school, Bill, and I'm terrified too. But platitudes won't get it done. Neither will all your money.

Continue reading "Gates Gets A Clue"

February 25, 2005

One Word: PlasticsEmail This EntryPrint This Article

That's right, gang. The old joke from The Graduate is here again, aiming to drive silicon into the ground.

Nanomarkets, a market research outfit with a beat that looks like tons of fun from here (call me) has a $2,000 report out with a hockey stick chart for plastic semiconductors, estimating the market at $5.8 billion in 2009 and $23.5 billion three years after that.

Plastic electronics -- chips built on conductive polymers and flexible substrates, will be cheaper, take less power, and (obviously) be more flexible than silicon circuits. This makes them perfect for, say, mobile phones.

It will also bring a bunch of new suppliers to the electronics market, names like Dow Chemical, DuPont, Kodak, and Xerox, along with the usual suspects.

What does this mean?

Continue reading "One Word: Plastics"

February 24, 2005

Academic FreedomEmail This EntryPrint This Article

Academic freedom is the great issue of our time, because it's not a one-way street.

Just as the GPL carries with it, as one of its "freedoms," the obligation to give back your finished tools under the GPL, so academic freedom also carries an obligation.

That obligation is to the scientific method. (The illustration is from a great discussion of bad science from Frankfurt, Germany. Use the link and then tell me who's pictured in the comments.)

The scientific method does not deal in truth, but in theories. All theories are constantly tested and adjusted by new observations or experiment. They are measured by whether they work, in engineering or in creating new lines of inquiry.

Academic review works similarly. Anyone who has done a dissertation knows the drill. You have to defend your work before people who understand it, and only after you withstand the scrutiny do you get the robe.

Politics exists in both science and academia, but politics doesn't control the whole process. The check on campus politics is the presence of other campuses, and the wider world of the discipline.

This is precisely what is under threat in our time.

Continue reading "Academic Freedom"

February 17, 2005

Photonic UnityEmail This EntryPrint This Article

One of the nastiest open secrets in the Internet is the switching bottleneck.

Optical fibers move data at, well, light-speed. But electricity moves data much more slowly. Getting between the two is like trying to get onto a freeway from an old cloverleaf junction -- there's not enough of an acceleration lane.

Many companies, including Intel, have been working this problem for a long time. Photonic switching is already a reality. But linking silicon directly to optics remains elusive.

That's the heart of Intel's claimed breakthrough, announced yesterday. Intel managed to produce a full Raman effect on silicon. This should enable Intel to build lasers just as chips are built.

Right now electronic signals have to be multiplexed, and packaged, before getting into the optical net. It's a very expensive, complex process. It's one of the chief capital costs a telecommunications provider faces.

But if PCs had their own photonics, they could plug directly into fiber and, as their processing speeds increased, take full advantage of what fiber can do. You could even have photonic processing inside silicon chips. Voila -- no bottleneck.

That's the hope, anyway. As Alan Huang, a 20-year veteran of this silicon laser business points out, "it's a neat science experiment" and there's a long way to go before this shows up on your desktop.

Still, imagine the implications, as Intel is now doing. Tom's Hardware Guide reports:

Continue reading "Photonic Unity"

February 14, 2005

Is Science Politics? Gilder Thinks SoEmail This EntryPrint This Article

One way I can tell that America's conservatives have become ideologues, akin to Communists, Fascists, and other idiots, is how they have turned everything into politics.

Even science.

I'm not talking about the ongoing debate over teaching science or religion on the schools. It's easy to see how so-called "intelligent design" is religion because you can't do anything with the insight "God did it" -- it leads to no experiment, and ends questioning. Evolution, on the other hand, constantly brings new questions with it. Theories are used to stimulate questions, not end them.

I'm talking instead about how, when you get some of these advocates in a corner, they will flat-out admit that the whole thing is politics, just another way to fight the liberal impulse on behalf of their ideology.

The canary in this coal mine is named George Gilder, (above, from Forbes), and in Wired this month he sings this tune like Sinatra.

Watch him build (then knock down) his evolution straw man:

Continue reading "Is Science Politics? Gilder Thinks So"

February 08, 2005

Pull My Finger (Or Pull My Leg)Email This EntryPrint This Article

The digirati are in a fury today over claims by an outfit called i-mature which claims to have solved the problem of age verification with a $25 device that checks a finger's bone density to determine just how old you are.

The image, by the way, is from Vanderbilt University, which has no affiliation with either Corante, i-Mature, or this blog. It describes x-rays of a finger taken at different power settings. Go Commodores.

RSA announced "a joint research collaboration" with the company. But there is skepticism over exactly how precisely a bone scan can measure age, and the more people investigate, the more questions they raise.

Continue reading "Pull My Finger (Or Pull My Leg)"

More On CellsEmail This EntryPrint This Article

Nick Blatchford has come up with an analysis of IBM's new cell technology, and it's as neat as I said it was yesterday. Maybe neater.

Think of it as a LAN on a chip. Not just the network itself, but the computers on the network and, to some extent, the people behind the computers as well. (The illustration is from the first section of Blatchford's report.)

Software programs on the chip, called apulets, portion work out among the computing sections, then recompile the results, the way an editor does at a newspaper desk. (Only without the coffee and the yelling and the pressure or the beer after work for a job well done.)

The result is true multi-tasking. As good as some teenagers, who will listen to music, watch TV, and gab on the phone while allegedly doing their homework, and still get As. (You know who you are.)

The best thing, though, is that this thing scales. You have 8 cells on the chip now. You can have more.

I'm no electrical engineer. I just went to school with some fine ones and picked up some of the lingo by osmosis. But it does seem to me that the "dual core" ideas Intel has committed to are merely extended here, in a way very consistent with Moore's Law.

The key point Moore missed (because it wasn't relevant to the paper, hadn't been discovered, and don't you dare criticize Mr. Moore for this) is that the exponential improvements he saw in silicon fabrication apply elsewhere. As I've written many times here, they apply to fiber, they apply to storage, to optical storage, to radios.

And now, for the first time, they may apply to chip design.

A few more points:

Continue reading "More On Cells"

February 07, 2005

Let's Do LunchEmail This EntryPrint This Article

Now that Star Trek is officially dead (no new shows or movies, even in production) the time has come for a new idea.

Here's one.


It's an anthology series, built around various scientific "principles" that define the Star Trek franchise.

Think of it as Science made into Drama.

Yes, it's an excuse to make science exciting. (Just think of the educational spin-offs we can produce!) And the production costs are low enough to put this on the SciFi channel (where Enterprise should have been all along). Or might I suggest a pitch to Discovery Networks, which has got proven talent in making science fun with shows like Mythbusters?

For host, might I recommend Stephen Hawking? Playing the role Alistair Cooke made famous, he opens each show by describing the science (and the Star Trek technology) on which the show will be based. (I might recommend getting several scientists for this role, perhaps one for each specialty. But Hawking is a name. He'll do great for starters.) Or, with confidence this show will last for decades, Lance Armstrong, who's already under contract to Discovery, who knows how to read a cue card, and who owes his life to science?

More after the break.

Continue reading "Let's Do Lunch"

January 27, 2005

The Music of Wolfram SpheresEmail This EntryPrint This Article

One big difference between IBM and Microsoft today is that, while both are filled with "high bandwidth" people, those at IBM seem to have a greater creative freedom.

Here's an example. It's a great little piece by IBM engineer Paul Reiners about turning Stephen Wolfram's cellular automata into music, using Java.

This presses all kinds of buttons for me. I'm a Wolfram fan. I like open source (and IBM is still rumored to be working on an open source JDK). I like music. I love the link between science and art. And the idea of an engineer learning to play music (or tap dance) is also attractive. Something else to think about is how Reiners pushed most of his links into a resources sub-head at the bottom of the story.

Now where does this take us?

Continue reading "The Music of Wolfram Spheres"

January 24, 2005

Bush's Robot ArmyEmail This EntryPrint This Article

I've been re-reading the last in Harry Turtledove's Worldwar series, called Homeward Bound, and I'm once again struck by the similarities between the U.S. military in Iraq and the Lizards of the story.

The Lizards (not to give the story away) invade Earth i 1942, at the height of World War II. They have the weapons of 2000, Earth has what it had. The overall theme of the piece (which has now run into its seventh 500-page book) is human ingenuity vs. reliance on technology.

I don't know what they're thinking with this latest battle robot. (The picture, which I'm confident betrays no military secrets, is from the BBC.) But I'm pretty certain we're going to have some captured, disabled electronically and then grabbed under covering fire. The wireless link between the operator and the bot is the weak link.

And what happens then?

Continue reading "Bush's Robot Army"

January 13, 2005

Tastes Like ChickenEmail This EntryPrint This Article

Sometime in the distant, distant past, an animal like my dog Blackie apparently ate some other animals like the chickens we used to keep in the backyard, and it was good.

Proof comes in the form of some fossils from China, which indicate that our common attitude of the mammal-dinosaur relationship (mouse-like things hiding in the nooks and crannies of the dinosaur world) needs some major revision.

Continue reading "Tastes Like Chicken"

January 05, 2005

Knowing The Next TimeEmail This EntryPrint This Article

How many lives would have been saved had people been warned about the giant tsunami off Sumatra? (Image from Thinkquest.com.)

Not all of them, obviously.

This was a once-in-a-lifetime event, a 9.0 quake (and remember the Richter scale is logarathmic) close to land that shifted the seabed 10 feet, displacing megatons of water in a wave that spread outward at 500 kph.

Banda Aceh was too close to the epicenter to use a warning, even if it came as the quake happened. (The quake hit the town, too, so there actually was a warning of a sort.) But the resort town of Phuket in Thailand could have gotten maybe 15 minutes warning, long enough for most swimmers to reach high ground, and Sri Lanka could have gotten even more warning. (It's what happened there that seems most tragic, since they barely felt the quake and could have have had over an hour's warning of the wave.)

The key to giving warning isn't having a seismometer. You can build a good seismometer for $34 that will could have detected the Sumatra quake from your living room.

Continue reading "Knowing The Next Time"

January 03, 2005

Back To Balls For BuckyEmail This EntryPrint This Article

For some time interest in Buckminsterfullerene, the unique form of carbon created at my alma mater, has focused on Buckytubes, not Buckyballs.

A Buckyball is a single carbon-60 molecule, shaped like a tiny soccer ball. If you don't cut off the ends, and instead extend the shape into a tube, you have a molecule of almost limitless size, and with enormous strength. A space elevator, as I conceive it, is basically a circled Buckytube that reaches from a point at the Equator to geosynchronous orbit, so that a cab coming up one way is matched by one going down.

But in the short run that's science fiction. There is a lot of proof-of-concept work to do before you can really go after the money, and there we're talking of billions-and-billions.

What Buckminsterfullerene needs, more than anything, is a profitable market that will spur further development.

And now it has found one.

Continue reading "Back To Balls For Bucky"

Wolfram for DummiesEmail This EntryPrint This Article

As regular readers here know, I'm a big Stephen Wolfram fan.

Wolfram is a genius. His ideas for using the real power of computing for science are first-rate. His Mathematica program is a vital tool. He has succeeded as both a scientist and entrepreneur, a trick I've only seen pulled off one other time, by architect-developer John Portman.

But just as Portman eventually over-reached, with his One Peachtree Center (right), so has Wolfram, I'm afraid, now that I've gotten his A New Kind of Science.

NOTE: For those who don't remember, Portman had to hock everything to build his One Peachtree masterpiece. Tom Wolfe fictionalized it but as with Citizen Kane the truth may have been even a bit better.

Wolfram's problem was he didn't hire a ghost writer. His book is brilliant, but it's terribly overwritten. He doesn't know how to put a period at the end of a sentence. He writes on a college level where high school would do.

Continue reading "Wolfram for Dummies"

November 29, 2004

Wolfram For The 21st CenturyEmail This EntryPrint This Article

Stephen Wolfram is one of the most amazing people of our time.

He is known to the lay person, if at all, for a program called Mathematica, which has done as much for the acceleration of change as Moore's Law itself.

By boiling down what you can do with mathematics into a computer program, Mathematica freed science from waiting on mathematics to analyze data. The program helps you devise formulae that work, so the results you get are proven. When people would say "it's not rocket science" they were often referring to the combination of math and science required to launch a rocket. Now, thanks to Wolfram, even rocket science isn't rocket science anymore.

Not only that, but Mathematica made Wolfram's Wolfram Research a going concern, a real business. It freed him from the demands of academe. He truly became the elephant that could tap dance. (He's no Gates, but he's pretty good at it.)

Still, as they always say, what have you done for me lately?

Something quite amazing, actually.

Continue reading "Wolfram For The 21st Century"

September 29, 2004

Permanent Nuclear Storage?Email This EntryPrint This Article

AMEC, which has part of the contract for restarting Iraq's water and energy, is behind a move to re-launch the nuclear power business through what's called planar geomelting. (Image from the Los Alamos Nuclear Lab.)

The idea is that the subsurface of the waste is melted, at high heat, leaving a sturdy coating from which gases have been expelled. The waste then becomes stable for over 200,000 years, AMEC claims, by which time the material is no longer radioactive.

Continue reading "Permanent Nuclear Storage?"

August 03, 2004

Population Bomb Defused?Email This EntryPrint This Article

Remember The Population Bomb? This was Paul Ehrlich's Mathusian nightmare scenario from 1968, the idea being that population was growing so fast the Earth would be unable to sustain it.

Well, a funny thing has happened on the way to Armageddon. While the world now has nearly twice the population it did when Ehrlich wrote his book, the rate of growth worldwide is slowing. Some places are even de-populating.

That's the conclusion of Nicholas Eberstadt, of the American Enterprise Institute (from which the picture was taken). And it's not just happening in Japan and Europe, either.

Continue reading "Population Bomb Defused?"

July 21, 2004

Oram's RazorEmail This EntryPrint This Article

Andy Oram has a long story at O'Reilly today detailing the problems with universal service and public policy.

It's a great historical overview.

But it's missing one key ingredient. And it's a surprising ingredient for Andy to miss.

That ingredient is Moore's Law.

Continue reading "Oram's Razor"

July 16, 2004

Hawking Smashes More BarriersEmail This EntryPrint This Article

One of the great things about science, as opposed to religion or ideology, is how ready science is to change its mind.

Of course, it's not science that changes its mind. It's scientists who change their minds, who admit they were wrong, and who then come up with new theories. That's how science progresses.

All this is prelude to the amazing news that Stephen Hawking no longer believes black holes violate quantum theory.

"A black hole only appears to form but later opens up and releases information about what fell inside. So we can be sure of the past and predict the future," is the way he is said to have explained it. Kind of like a cosmic tornado.

All will be revealed, with the appropriate mathematics, at the 17th International Conference on General Relativity and Gravitation in Dublin, Ireland next Wednesday.

Oh, and one more thing.

Continue reading "Hawking Smashes More Barriers"

June 25, 2004

Science As Freak ShowEmail This EntryPrint This Article

There's a kid in Germany right now being treated as a freak by the world's press.

The reason is that he was born without the genetic code for producing a protein called myostatin. Scientists hope that, by turning off myostatin production in people with muscular dystrophy, they can overcome the muscle wasting in the disease. A closer study of myostatin, its production and what happens when it's not produced, could also help in studies of aging.

But don't tell that to the world's press. Get your tickets to the freak show. He's somewhere in Berlin. Step right up!

Sometimes I'm ashamed to be in this profession. No picture with this item.

June 12, 2004

Why Are Programmers So Down?Email This EntryPrint This Article

I've been looking at this story for days, wondering what to make of it. (That's a Techtoon from a happier time.)

First, it's true. My dear wife is a programmer and morale is down at her place. There's real fear out there. There's fear of India, but more than that, fear of being replaced by someone younger and cheaper.

"Do you know they don't even call themselves programmres?" she asked me one night. "Now they're developers."

Continue reading "Why Are Programmers So Down?"

June 01, 2004

Barrett's Next ChallengeEmail This EntryPrint This Article

I'm still a Craig Barrett fan.

Barrett has a year left to run Intel before turning it over (most likely) to Paul Otellini. It's a reflective time. And in a recent talk with News.Com, he reflects on the "complacency" of America.

As Intel CEO this doesn't matter much to Barrett. The company can grow anywhere. But as an American it must upset him, especially since, before joining the company he was an assistant professor of materials science at Stanford. He's walked the walk of education.

So what should Craig Barrett do next? I have a few ideas.

Continue reading "Barrett's Next Challenge"

Smoking Gun For EnvironmentalismEmail This EntryPrint This Article

The Day After Tomorrow is a silly movie that wastes Dennis Quaid, one of my favorite actors. (The illustration is from the movie's official home page.

But the scientific principles that underlie it are sound, and here's the proof.

A team from the University of Maryland tested air over the areas affected by last year's blackout, and found huge differences in the level of pollutants.

Sulphur dioxide levels decreased by 90 per cent, there was around half the amount of ozone and visibility increased by 40 kilometres.

Continue reading "Smoking Gun For Environmentalism"

May 04, 2004

The Wages Of An Anti-Science PolicyEmail This EntryPrint This Article

Science is not to be believed. (That's Bill Nye the science guy.)

Science is about proof, and more important, it's about use. The best answers are those that result in new questions, new experiments, new discoveries, new inventions.

Science is filled with ambiguity. We don't know what we don't know. And science can "change its mind." It has many times, in our lifetime, and it will continue to do that.

But while science is not to be believed, those who don't believe in science, those societies that don't value it, nurture it, and embrace it, are doomed.

Science doesn't care about Jesus, or Jefferson. So when you read that the U.S. is losing its lead in science, be very, very afraid.

Continue reading "The Wages Of An Anti-Science Policy"

April 19, 2004

How Science Got Estrogen WrongEmail This EntryPrint This Article

The results are in.

Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) is bad for women. It should only be used for short periods, or when bone loss is a real fear. (The picture of actress-model Lauren Hutton is from Blunt Graphics, which had her speak at an event on behalf of Indonesian orangutans.)

How did we get it wrong? People compared women who did take the therapy with those who didn't, and didn't adjust for the fact that those on HRT were generally healthy and taking care of themselves, when many who weren't, didn't.

Think back to the pro-HRT commercials of a few years ago, starring Lauren Hutton (pictured) and Patti LaBelle. Both subjects were well-off, physically fit, busy -- the whole idea of the commercial, to other women, was you want to be like them.

Well, you can be like them. Exercise, diet, stay busy, treat yourself right. You won't be like them just taking a pill.

But there's more to consider here.

Continue reading "How Science Got Estrogen Wrong"

April 07, 2004

New Test For Einstein, New Proof For DarwinEmail This EntryPrint This Article

Einstein's theory is getting a new test, while Darwin's theory of evolution has gotten new proof.

The Gravity Probe B, due to launch April 17, will test Einstein's theories on the nature of space and time by measuring slight changes in gravity from 640 km (400 miles) up. (Picture of the probe is from a BBC story on the mission.)

Once the four quartz balls inside the satellite start to spinning, there should (if Einstein was right) be slight changes in their orientation or "spin axis." This twisting effect, called frame dragging, has yet to be measured, but if it exists this experiment should (assuming the quartz spheres are as perfect as claimed) find it.

And what of Darwin?

Continue reading "New Test For Einstein, New Proof For Darwin"

February 16, 2004

Science Is All Around UsEmail This EntryPrint This Article

The problem with science education lies in how it's taught.

The fact is science is all around us.

Take that jar of M&Ms, for instance.

Paul Chaikin of Princeton (pictured, from his Web site) was given a huge jar of them as a joke, because he likes them. M&Ms, unlike most other candies, are "oblate spheroids," thin, wide, and solid.

Chaikin started thinking of them in terms of his specialty, physics. It sure seemed like you could get a whole bunch of them into that jar, more than you could, say, gumballs (which are spheres).

Chaikin did the math. Dump gumballs into a jar at random and they take up 64% of the available room -- there are many spots where the balls run up against each other. (Want to see this pattern on a large scale? Go to any Toys R Us and look at the cage where they store the cheap rubber balls they sell to kids.) An M&M, however, will turn and take up 71% of the space. Best of all, how about something that's not circular on top, say, an almond M&M? Now you're taking up 77% of the space. (Mars, which makes M&Ms, donated 125 pounds of almond M&Ms for this stage of the research.)

So take these two guys on the right, taken from the official M&M site. For 50 points, kids, who packs better into a 50-pound drum?

What does this have to do with anything? A lot. As things cool into a solid, they come together. If they're not coming together in a crystal or lattice, if they're coming together randomly, they're going to pack in as tight as possible. If you want to build high-density ceramics, say to make better planes, this kind of knowledge is vital. Simply replace the M&Ms with some other material, say a plastic, whose molecules share the shape, and you have the strength you need to get off the ground with less weight.

Physics, not boxing, is the sweet science.