Archive for the ‘Science & Technology’ Category

Daily DC Item: Endeavour’s Delay And The End Of The Final Frontier

Courtesy Of Nasa

Courtesy Of Nasa

Yesterday my co-worker Lisa tweeted about the NASA’s updates as they attempted to launch the space shuttle Endeavour for the 4th time. Unfortunately weather once again delayed the launch.

However what interested me wasn’t the weather down in Florida, but the follow-up story The Washington Post had on the International Space Station, the reason the shuttle was going up into space in the first place. Construction on the station is almost complete but now there’s been talk that the station could be shut down and allowed to burn in Earth’s atmosphere as soon as 2016.

According to the article there’s no long term plans for the station past 2015.

I think that’s kind of ridiculous, I’m not a space aficionado by any means but to me Space Exploration has been something that has defined not only our country as a leader, but the recent accomplishments as a human race.

Now of course the de-orbiting of the ISS doesn’t mean that there isn’t another plan. With the space shuttle fleet to be retired in 2010, it’s only going to make way for the next generation of space travel vehicles. But so far I’m not hearing any plans for a replacement for the ISS, once it’s gone we’re going to lose a key presence in the heavens.

I agree with Senator Bill Nelson’s comments on the situation, “”If we’ve spent a hundred billion dollars, I don’t think we want to shut it down in 2015…My opinion is it would be a travesty to de-orbit this thing…if we get rid of this darned thing in 2015, we’re going to cede our leadership in human exploration.”

So my question is, what is the U.S. Government’s next plan post space station?

DC Based Earth Aid Wants To Pay You To Save Energy

case-studyI’ve recently become a fan of the Lifehacker blog, where I can find all sorts of tips and tricks for, “getting things done.”

So when I heard about Earth Aid (not to be confused with Live Aid), a website service that tracks your monthly utility usage, I thought it would be a good tool for analyzing and reducing costs. But when I heard that that the DC based service will also pay you when you do reduce your energy usage, it instantly caught my attention.

The service is simple enough, you sign up and register your home’s utilities info. Earth Aid then creates a baseline based on the past year’s usage and will continue to track and provide you with a one-stop shop of your home’s utility information. If you manage to reduce your energy usage, Earth Aid will mail you a check based on how much energy you managed to save! Not only do you get paid for reducing the amount of energy you use, the planet also benefits from reduced energy usage. Everybody is a winner in this plan! Also did I mention that using the service is free?

Sounds too good to be true right? A recent story on Earth Aid in the Washington Post explains where Earth Aid gets the money to offer this service:

The premise of Earth Aid is that reductions in household energy use are valuable not only to us in the form of lower utility bills, but also potentially to companies that want to buy credits to offset their own carbon footprints. Earth Aid bundles your energy savings over the course of a year and then sells them off — returning the profit to the consumer minus a brokerage fee.

As the person that manages the utilities at my home, this sounds like a service I may have to check out.

"Tin whiskers" sound harmless, don’t they?

I got a cold chill as I read this article yesterday on the Metro crash investigation:

“In the aftermath of the crash on the Red Line between the Takoma and Fort Totten stations, Metro officials analyzed track circuit data and found that one circuit in the crash area intermittently lost its ability to detect a train. The circuit would report the presence of a train one moment, then a few seconds later the train would “disappear,” only to return again.”

It sounded to me like the same problems that have been encountered on the Space Shuttle, nuclear power plants, and various military systems. And that problem is tin whiskers.

The backstory:  When people first started building electric circuits, they used tin metal to solder the interconnections between the copper bits.  It wasn’t long before they noticed the tin would get “furry”, growing spiky whiskers as the part was used.  These spikes could grow long enough to short out the circuits, and then were so weak that they would break off right after doing so.  A smart metallurgist figured out that adding a small amount of lead to the tin alloy stopped this behavior.  And so the electronics industry grew, and electronic circuits got so small and fast and reliable that they ended up in nearly every control system — with a bit of solder in every one of them.

In the early 2000’s two things happened:  Europe passed legislation that prohibited lead in consumer products, and at the same time, the production of interconnection technologies went global.  So even though only European markets mandated this change, producers all over the world had to comply.  And that means that consumers all over the world were getting lead-free electronics, many times without knowing it.  Many times the same part number started showing up with lead-free solder, making this trend very hard to track.

So yesterday, I dropped a note to one of my expert friends, who agreed with me that the circuitry in the Metro replacement part, more likely than not, contained lead-free solder.  And then, he pointed out the likelihood that the latest Airbus crashes had lead-free solder components in their flight controls.

Hence the cold chills.

Yes, it’s a bad thing to have lead where kids might put it in their mouths (especially drinking water).  Yet the activists admit that the amount of lead in electronics isn’t at dangerous levels; they say their ultimate goal is to shut down lead production entirely.   (In the interest of full disclosure, I facilitated a study back in 2005 that predicted this, and only now is the military starting to address those findings.) 

Hey, guys, maybe technology might need to trump politics for once?

Not Easy Being Green: Air


props to Jonathan Hoff on flickr

The thing about air, you see, is that there is a lot of it.  And it’s free — there’s no “DC Department of Air” that delivers clean, tested stuff to your door.  Then again, a lot of things (that we don’t pay for) affect our air quality.  In the city, it’s mostly heavy and off-road vehicles — trucks, buses, earthmovers — and that coal-burning power plant on Capitol Hill.  But regular cars and light trucks, heating, ventilatilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, manufacturing, and even human and animal digestion — all affect the air we breathe, as well as do sun, wind, and heat.  Air is both chaotic and complex, two things that make a system very difficult to model using our limited tools of mathematics and computer science. 

The upshot is that we don’t understand it very well.  We mostly know there is a problem with the air and that the changing composition means the air is overall a titch warmer than it used to be.  And we mostly agree that this is a result of people using the air.  And we mostly think this warming trend is Not Good.  What nobody knows very well is what to do about it. 

In a situation like this, looking at history is always interesting to me; I like the example of the government’s well-meant efforts to make cars more efficient by regulating the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE).  Instead of resulting in more small cars on the road, the car industry figured out how to sell us trucks (ie, SUVs) that weren’t covered by the rule.  These larger vehicles will finally be regulated in 2011, more than 35 years after the law was enacted.  This is a great example of unintended consequences and the need to reckon with clever capitalists.  Well-meaning people regulated lead of out gasoline back then, too.  Lead is pretty awful stuff when it ends up in drinking water and the easiest way to keep kids safe is not to use it at all.  But recent speculation points to lower lead levels as a precursor to global warming (thanks to @2020science for the links!). 

Unfortunately, eliminating lead also means none of those kids can use their XBOX 360s, but those consequences, they just keep coming.  And now we mean well when we talk about limiting carbon emissions.  I fear the unintended consequences.  Who knows, we could be stuck with a lot of boring sunsets…

Not easy being green: Water


Blue Plains water treatment facility at twilight.

Wednesday April 22 is Earth Day, so let’s talk green this week.   Today’s topic:  Water

Those of us blessed with municipal water systems have been somewhat insulated from the massive water issues that many predict will dominate the next century.   Most people still believe that clean water is cheap and reliable — that water will come down from the sky, be filtered through the ground and return as it always has to provide fresh water to my kitchen sink.

But that’s less and less true.  As population and industry have grown, water moves through the system differently and “fresh water” is less fresh.  In our overbuilt environment, the water we pull out of the Potomac doesn’t flow back as it used to.  Treatment plants adds all sorts of things to the water to minimize health risks, but also to minimize risks to infrastructure (ie, lead leaching or other pipe corrosion).  And treatment doesn’t take out all sorts of other things, like anti-cholesterol or birth control drugs. And don’t even get me started on the vulnerabilities of aging SCADA systems.

The real point is that moving water around, even when it’s clean, costs energy.  Our water treatment and distribution systems are aging and not adequately funded as populations have grown; and many small municipalities have privatized their water systems, meaning that people are going to start paying the real cost of water, both here in the city and in the extended suburbs.  And we use a LOT of water.

Awareness is growing, but it will be a few years before we really start seeing the impact.  In the meantime, there are lots of ways to use less water.

Still to come: Earth, Air, and Fire.

Aliens Always Welcome


I’ll admit it:  I’m a big old geek.  I’m not particularly good at it, but I think science is cool, fascinating stuff.  So, when I heard about Yuri’s Night — a worldwide collection of parties and celebrations, commemorating Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s April 12, 1961 launch as the first man in space — I thought it might be interesting.  Plus, as a former student of the Soviet Union, I was particularly interested in celebrating a cosmonaut.  Then, I saw the key, deciding factor:  the party’s web site stated that “Sci-Fi Attire is encouraged”.  So, on Saturday night, I went to NASA Goddard Space Flight Center to join the Yuri’s Night celebration.  It was a geek-fest of epic proportions!

Aliens Always Welcome

Aliens Always Welcome

DC’s party happened at the Goddard Visitor’s center, which usually plays host to schoolkids, with occasional visiting dignitaries (on Queen Elizabeth II’s most recent visit to the US, she stopped by for a few hours).  Saturday night, however, the place was filled with Jedi knights, cosmonauts and astronauts, Sith Lords, Anime babes, a giant Hubble-shaped cake, and NASA staffers wearing “I am a Scientist!” pins who wandered around the Center’s museum space answering questions and flirting.

Indeed, as soon as my friend and I pulled in to the parking lot, I knew it would be a great night.  There was a fully-armored Endor Storm Trooper waiting for the shuttle bus!  The Star Wars geek in me squealed with joy, but was sort of sad that I’d left my light saber at home (it didn’t fit in my purse).  When we got off said bus, more Storm Troopers were waiting with silent greetings, along with some Jedi knights and Darth Vader.  Once we got in to the building, we heard (over DJ Scientific’s spins from the dance floor and Middle Distance Runner rocking another room) the Lost In Space ROBOT warning Will Robinson.  Fantastic!

We wandered around, had some cake, and found our way into the Goddard’s theatre, where “Science on a Sphere” was projecting the Earth in all its blue glory.  This cool piece of tech consists of a carbon composite sphere on which four projectors around the room can display images of all kinds.  We got to see different satellite images of the Earth, Sun, Moon, and Mars, and the stars.  Outside, a few folks had set up their telescopes to share the real thing with anyone who wanted to see.  One of these kind astronomers let me have a look, and I got up close and personal with the man on the moon.

I highly recommend giving the place a visit.  And I hope to see you at next year’s Yuri’s Night celebration!

DC Science Fair – Wow!


The fair was (appropriately) held on Pi day. Pixprops to pauladamsmith on Flickr.

Enrollment in the DC public school system may be down, but participation at the 63rd Annual DC Mathematics, Science, and Technology Fair was clearly up.  As I said last month, I’ve been going to this fair for more than 10 years, and I found this year to be one of the best (if not the best) turnouts I’ve seen.  

The staff was great, getting the projects in the right slots and coordinating the judges.  Even the food was tasty!  The kids were enthusiastic and many were well-versed on some sophisticated topics. Several presented their projects in more than one language, which really impressed me.  I was particularly pleased to see the parents taking an interest in the fair and their kids.  Okay, they did need to get off the floor so the judges could, you know, talk to their kids, but we’ll take interest over obedience any day.

Kudos to the folks from WRAIR who organized it all, the folks from McKinley Tech (which looked great), and especially all the judges who took time to come talk to our best and brightest.  Oh, and check out this bit from the Post for some great pictures!

Making Science Fair

Props to DrBacchus on flickr

Props to DrBacchus on flickr

Do you remember your first science fair project?   All that research in the library, carefully printing your experimental procedure, plotting your results, and the nail-biting presentation for the judges — it’s all coming back, isn’t it?   Well, thousands of students are going through that same thing right now in preparation for the 2009 District of Columbia Mathematics, Science & Technology (DC MST) Fair on Saturday, March 14 at the McKinley Technology High School from 8:30 until noon.

One piece of this is still needed, and that’s judges.  For the senior projects that means very knowledgeable folks; trust me, these kids are sharp!  For the junior projects, more a more general background is needed.  And really, it’s not all robots!  Expertise is needed in animal sciences, behavioral and social sciences, biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology, chemistry, computer science. earth and planetary science, engineering, environmental sciences, mathematical sciences, medicine and health sciences, microbiology, physics and astronomy, and plant sciences. The two top winners here will go on to compete with students from all over the world at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

To be honest, the DC fair has been pretty dismal in the past, owing primarily to a lack of staff support.  I’ve judged science fairs across the region for several years and I can tell you that the DC fair has come a long way.  It was still worth going to even when you were lucky to get a printed list of projects, let alone the catered breakfast and lunch, packet and clipboard, and staff support that’s provided today (by the very generous and competent Walter Reed Army Institute of Research).  The reason it’s worth it is simple: the kids.  These are the ones who have the drive to make a career in science and technology and a difference in the world.  Many have had little or no exposure to the S&T community, so the 5 or 10 minutes you spend with them is priceless.

The deadline to register in DC is March 2, 2009.  See you there?

And on the theme of fairness, here are links to other 2009 area fairs and the hours they are open for judging: 

Northern Virginia Regional Science and Engineering Fair at the Wakefield High School, Saturday, March 7th, 9:30 AM until 1:00 PM

Montgomery Area Science Fair at the Reckord Armory Building at the University of Maryland, Saturday, March 21, 8AM until 5:30 PM

Fairfax County Regional Science and Engineering Fair at the Robinson Secondary School, Saturday, March 28th, 7:30 AM until noon

Prince George’s Area Science Fair at the Howard B. Owens Science Center at the PG Community College, Saturday, March 28th, 7:45AM until 1:00PM.

Quick and Dirty Weatherization

Antarctica, courtesy of MODIS

Antarctica on 12 Jan 08, courtesy of MODIS

Okay, it’s cold. Not quite Antarctica, but I turned a corner this morning and I swear it felt like it.

While it’s too late to take advantage of the Weatherization Assistance Program, here are some quick and dirty tips for staying warmer at home.

  • Find the one or two worst leaks and plug them.  The best way to figure out where the cold air is getting in is to do a walk around your house holding a tissue draped over a wire hanger.  You can tack up a blanket or plastic sheet during the cold snap, or roll up a towel against the door gap.
  • Optimize the fuel you’re using for heat. In general, you want to use more liquid fuel (natural gas, kerosene) and less electricity (baseboard heaters), and really, wood in the fireplace is not really for heat.  (Though wood is a lot better than storebought wax-and-sawdust logs, which are only for the pretteh.)  Whichever you choose, remember that convection (ie, a fan) can triplify the results.
  • Clean the dust of out intake and blower vent louvers.  This is a quick way to make your furnace work less hard.  Also, run a vacuum cleaner over your furnace filter.  Closing doors and covering some vents can also decrease the load on the furnace.
  • Put on a sweater.  You know that mom was right.  Put on some warm socks, too.  (I myself have been known to wear fingerless gloves when working on the computer.)

Finally, I recommend making soup — face it, going out to eat over the next few days is going to be traumatic.  A nice pot of hot soup on the stove can warm you inside and out.

Stay warm, DC!

Fight DC Crime With Your Cell Phone

I’ve written before about crime around DC and now it appears that there will be a new way of getting the latest alerts and information on your cell phone. Head on over to and you can sign up to receive text messages and e-mails informing you of breaking news crime alerts in The District.

Other nearby towns and counties have similar alert systems that inform users about traffic and weather but the “D.C. Police Alert” will also include summaries of recent crimes and suspects. Beats reading Police Log in the paper.

I read an article on this new technology in the Washington Post and I have to say that I’m rather impressed with the level of communication the Police are taking with the community. I think it’s a step in the right direction as they work on making the District a safer place. What really caught my eye is that this system was done not through a lawmaker’s bill or internal recommendation- but through Georgetown business owner Ed Solomon who was a victim of a robbery and decided to push the town into distributing information faster. Solomon’s efforts is a real example of what one person can do to contribute to the greater good.

What else does DC need to do to address the crime problem? Technologies like D.C. Police Alert will certainly be helpful but what other steps need to be taken to make our home a safer place?

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