Blog

The danger of routine earthquakes

By the title and first sentences of the article, you could expect where it was going. We all heard about the catastrophic earthquake in Japan in 2011 and all of the consequences of it. However, this text takes an unexpected turn when focusing about a fault line that could potentially kill thousands of people in the near future. It also puts us in the shoes of some of Japan’s best seismologists in the moment of the disaster.

I can relate with the seismologist’s lack of concern about earthquakes. I am from Guatemala, a country with 37 volcanoes and 2 fault lines in just the size of one third of Texas. I used to get earthquakes twice a week there! For someone who grew up there, it is not a big deal. Is your bed shaking? Cool, turn around and go back to sleep, there is nothing to worry about. Or so we think. The danger in this way of thinking is obvious. We get so used to potentially hazardous situations that if a really extreme one would go off we would act carelessly until it was too late. The same thing is happening here at the West coast but in a larger scale. We know there is a huge chance that a massive earthquake followed by a tsunami will lay waste on the shores facing the Pacific Ocean in the near future. At this point everyone living nearby should have a doomsday kit in their homes and evacuation routes out of their cities. Even the government expects the worst but has no measures to evacuate and maintain the people that would get out. Is this risk worth taking?

Advertisements

A documentary about unstable researchers… and there is a chimpanzee in it too

My expectations of Project Nim were as you would expect from watching a poster with a monkey on it. I thought it was just going to be a goofy comedy. However, this is not one of those movies with a skateboard-riding chimpanzee. I know, I was disappointed too. Project Nim is actually about a research to find out the origins of language, or at least that is what it claims to be about. I would say this is the story of a family, a group of college students, an apathetic professor and a poor animal caught in our chaotic world.

Every single person in this documentary has a clear inhumane or right out mentally unstable characteristic. The research is compromised by people in conflictive romantic relationships, drug use habits, intoxication with power or dependable behavior. After all of that, how do they dare to ask why Nim behaves erratically? He was just following the example set by the alfas in his troop. Herb just used Nim for personal gain and engaged in inappropriate relations with every girl he brought on board. The mom of the family showed a subordinate behavior towards the chimp and Herb. The rest of the people were just unprepared to handle something that should be cared for as a baby. During his time in the facilities and Oklahoma he was mistreated and disciplined with electric shocks! It would seem as if the most human character in this movie is Nim. According to me, Project Nim is more a documentary on human behavior where a chimpanzee was caught in the cross-fire than one on how researchers tried to discover the origin of language using an ape.

How watching potatoes grow can be entertaining

Science fiction has really taken off in the past few years. Space dramas such as Gravity, Interstellar and The Martian are straight up hits with the critics and in the box office. These films use real science to portray fake situations beyond our Earth. We would all like the Mars missions to be a reality and have the cool tech that we see in these films. But how do you explain science to viewers with no previous knowledge and still manage to entertain them?

In The Martian, Astronaut Mark Whatney (Matt Damon) uses his knowledge in botanic, chemistry and mechanical engineering to come up with ways to survive in an inhabitable planet. At every step of the way he records a digital journey in which he describes every single thing he is doing. This is used as an exposition tool to explain to the audience what is going on. After all, if he would have come up with a crop out of nowhere we would all think that movie was pure fiction. Nevertheless, is amazing that the film was able to entertain its spectators by showing a guy grow potatoes.

In a reality where NASA is over funded, no piece of technology is too crazy. The movie appeals to us in the futuristic aspect just the Space Race did back in the day. During the 60’s everybody wanted to be an astronaut. Even I still want to be a one! The movie persuades us by going after our feeling of wonder. When you see one of those cool rovers in the movie you think: I would really love to drive one of those. Or maybe you ask yourself: How would living in Mars be like? If the film makes you say those things, then it is a successful Sci-fi.

How we steal ideas from the best engineer

Untitled.png

Survival of the fittest is what has ruled the existence of a species since the beginnings of life on Earth. The Tyrannosaurus Rex was a strong predator. Why is he not around anymore? Humbler species, such as some roaders, outlived them for millions of years. Strength is not the most important factor. At the end of the day, how well you can adapt to your environment is the difference between prosperity and extinction. Depending on your surroundings you need different things like speed, strength, intelligence, camouflage, etc. That is not to say that there aren’t any beings with amazing abilities. A good example is the cheetah. How is it possible that a cheetah can accelerate faster than my BMW?! He didn’t have a group of German engineers working relentlessly for generations to come up with his configurations like my car did. He had something similar though, nature. Nature is the best engineer. During the pass of millions of years, nature ran a trial and error process. Mutations in the genetic codes of animals gave them certain characteristics that would give them some kind of edge or disadvantage over their siblings. An animal is the result of millions of years of perfecting qualities that got passed down from generation to generation. We cannot beat that! We came to the realization that nature is better at this than us. That is why we are stealing ideas from it.

Biomimicry is the innovative methodology of using natures patterns in our own pieces of engineering. This multidisciplinary practice requires the help of a lot of scientist from different fields to come together, analyze, adapt and construct complex machines. Biologists and paleontologists examine the biomechanics of a certain animal or the efficiency of a specific niche in order to figure out what advantages their design provides. Mathematicians and physicists decompose every single aspect in algorithms, concepts and equations. Finally basing themselves on the previous studies, engineers and technicians build these awesome technologies using natures trademark. The Airbus A320, sonar navigation, Velcro and many more are the products of this practice.

THE WORD ASSOCIATION GAME

This is how it works. I’ll give you the name of an invention and you try to guess from where did we got the idea.

Power grids———————–⇒ Bee hives

Velcro————————⇒ Burrs

GT’s MuddyBot Robot—————–⇒ Mudskippers

zewaxa8

See! There are a lot of examples to choose from. Projects like the MuddyBot is just one of many.  There is no limit to how much we can get out of this relationship. We are being constantly reminded that nature is always one step ahead, but at least now we can get something in return. The real question now is: Which one of its big ideas are we going to steal next?

 

 

How mice save our lives

 

Since existence, humanity has been hunted by diseases. Cavemen struggled against infections and Middle Ages Europeans against the Bubonic Plague. We will not be the exception. Alzheimer’s, Cancer and HIV are our predators now. However, we have something that our ancestors did not, medicine. A hundred years ago, life expectancy was 30 years. Thanks largely to the advances in modern treatment, that number has almost tripled. Scientists try to stay ahead of diseases but every time medicine takes a step forward, nature takes two. We have tragically discovered that new pathogens will always emerge. There is an ally in our never-ending battle though. Mice.

Leaving aside the entertaining fact that when you call someone “a rat” you are being about 95 to 98 percent accurate, the genetic similarities between humans and rats are no joke. Scientists have played with the genetics of rats long enough to be able to breed “humanized” mice. There are even some strains of mice that can accept our blood! For decades we have been infecting these creatures with our diseases exchanging their lives for ours. Researchers look at the symptoms in the rodents and search for cures accordingly. We are creating these new species of mice with the only purpose to die at the hands of horrible pathogens. We need to ask ourselves if this does not constitute a case of animal brutality. To quote one of my favorite movies (Jurassic Park): “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should”. After all they are extremely similar to us. Remember the 95 to 98 percent? They even have our blood pumping through their veins sometimes. It is hard not to be sympathetic with them, we are making them pass for the same pain we want to avoid. But at the end of the day someone has to give in to the diseases, better them than us… right?

Why is it important to have organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists?

Why does UCS need my money? Every single tab, article, etc. on its webpage has a section to donate. Don’t scientists have funding already? The answer is *yes.

*Restrictions apply

A lot of the research conducted by scientists is funded by private investors such as companies. Sounds good, it means that private entities are interested in extending the barriers of progress, right? Actually, most of the times the companies’ intentions aren’t so noble. Scientists are usually assigned to research about the effects and/or origin of the companies’ products. This clearly represents a huge conflict of interests. You would not bite the hand that feeds you. Scientists end up in the same position. They are forced to align their results to the special interests of the entities. You might say this sounds too much as a conspiracy theory. However, what if I told you that this is a common practice since decades ago. About 50 years ago, when the first studies suggesting the link between tobacco consumption and lung cancer emerged; lobbyist from the giants of the industry, such as Phillip Morris, tried relentlessly to discredit the scientific evidence by funding contradicted research which maintained controversy around the subject. Many scientists were hired by tobacco companies to assess the bad effects of their products. None of them found a relation between smoking tobacco and lung cancer. What a surprise! This practice is being used more frequently that we would like to admit. Any similarities with the discussion about fossil fuels contributing to climate change are purely coincidental.

The importance of independent funded research cannot be undermined. It prevents conflicts of interests, promotes objectiveness and impartiality in the studies, and scientists don’t feel obliged to get to a certain result. The aspect I like the most about UCS is that it complies with this model. Respectable evidence is the basis to building a better tomorrow. We should not let special interests take tomorrow away from us.