Hubble IMAX 3D

March 21, 2010

Go See It.

The movie is only 45 minutes long but contains more science than most American school children receive in a year.  (And if they’re in Mississippi or California or Hawaii,  more than they will probably get from K-12).

Avatar and Alice in Wonderland have given the world a new appetite for big screen effects.  Done right, 3D adds immersion unapproached by flat projection.  Hubble 3D combines those effects with reality in a way that the imaginary worlds of Pandora and Wonderland cannot.  Yet so many Americans will ho-hum this because it’s about science.

Go See It Anyway.

The Innovation Center

May 21, 2009


I got a chance to tour the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus Innovation Center – part of the former Trico complex – to see how progress is being made on turning the building into business and lab space for the fledgling Life Sciences industry in Western New York.

It looks, um, nice.  Inside it will be clean, bright and modern.  I only wish they would have gone for the “Thomas Edison” open laboratory look, but with various tenants doing super-secret bio-science stuff, walls are needed.  It is unclear what the exterior will eventually look like.  The only things apparent were the replacement windows and a bowed-out atrium.

The Innovation Center is a 100,000 square foot, 4-story add-on adjacent to the monstrous half-million square foot, 6-story Trico building that was essentially abandoned by the late Stephen McGarvey when he took ill, but not before he had the roof taken off.  Years of rainwater distributed Trico toxins throughout the building and the cost to clean up the mess means that the Innovation Center may be the only portion of the complex that is ever renovated.  So we’ll have a small, nice-looking building full of state-of-the-art laboratories servicing brilliant medical minds next door to a dilapidated poisoned edifice that is in such bad shape they’ve had to cordon off the sidewalk around it for fear of falling bricks.

Urban renewal comes slowly, in very small increments, to Buffalo.

E = MC²

March 18, 2009

mr-fusionMy undergraduate degree was in Bio-medical Engineering.  As part of the curriculum I had to do a “senior project” which many of my peers regarded with disdain and did whatever they could to get the lamest assignment and do the least amount of work.

My advisor – who thought nothing of pulling a bottle of Jack Daniels out of his desk and sharing it with people he liked, had aspirations for me.

“Plasma physics,” he said.

Now, I did okay in physics.  I loved learning about things like torque and the coriolis effect and relativity.  But I had expected my focus to be in something bio-medical.

“Nonsense,” my advisor said.  “You need to expand your horizons.”

So I spent the better part of my senior year in the plasma physics lab, learning about deriving energy from seawater using the same process the sun uses:  Nuclear fusion.

That was long ago.  Energy from controlled fusion was just around the corner, maybe 20 years off.  Last summer the news was that it was still 20 years off.  Fusion is a lot harder to control than everyone thought.  Uncontrolled fusion – Hydrogen bombs – have been around since the Cold War.  Controlled fusion, that’s another story.  Most of the world has given up believing that it could be REAL SOON NOW.

This past month the National Ignition Facility announced that it had reached a milestone in the simultaneous firing of 192 laser beams focused on an inert target, signaling the end of the facility’s massive construction phase.  The facility is huge:  A 10-story building that takes up about 3 football fields, designed to implode a tiny tiny pellet of deuterium with such force that virtually its entire mass is converted to energy, releasing many times more energy than it took to implode it.

With the completion of the facility and one in France using a technique identical to what I studied, commercial production of energy from fusion is just around the corner, if just around the corner means sometime around 2050.

That’s like 40 years from now, and not a moment too soon.  The world’s supply of easily-extracted fossil fuel is estimated to run out in about 75 years.

Like the pyramids, controlled fusion will take many lifetimes of careers to build.  I am more optimistic that it will happen within mine.

About that Satellite Collision…

February 16, 2009
Space debris in low-Earth orbit (courtesy NASA)

Space debris in low-Earth orbit (courtesy NASA)

So, what was that satellite collision really like?

Glad you asked.

Two satellites with a combined weight of 3200 pounds met in a broadside collision at a closing speed of about 5 miles per second.  The kinetic energy of that collision generated around 18 billion joules, the equivalent of 4 tons of TNT.

Most of that energy was imparted on all those pieces that are now dispersing in the most crowded orbital volume, increasing the likelihood of another collision and an eventual chain reaction that creates a 500-mile high debris cloud dense enough to render that volume unsafe for any spacecraft.

I frankly don’t care if the U.S blames Russia or Russia blames the U.S., but imagine the consternation had this happened in 1985!  Today it’s merely a serious inconvenience; tomorrow it could completely change the way we launch and protect our billion-dollar satellites.

High-Def: Ready for Prime Time?

January 18, 2009

So the switch to all digital television will take place across the U.S. in a few weeks.  I mentioned previously that I thought this was long overdue.

Yet over the past week HD reception at my home has been, in a word, terrible.  Sound out of sync with picture (which is really spooky-looking!).  Picture breakup as the signal is lost, then regained, then lost again.  Picture with no sound.  Frozen frames.

High-def on Time Warner, sometimes

High-def on Time Warner, sometimes

And I have cable.

Saturday’s Buffalo Sabres’ game was a hoot while the same four measures of some song were substituted for a period’s worth of out-of-sync announcing.  While that was probably a programming error at MSG, it nonetheless leaves me questioning if the technologists running the system have their act together and are ready with all their new toys.

We have been led to believe that reduction in quality is the price we pay for technology gains.  That’s so much crap yet the first question we ask when a friend has computer problems is “Did you reboot it?”  Cell phone reception generally sucks, as do most earbuds and MP3 audio compression. Refrigerators may be more feature-rich and efficient but they last what, five or six years tops?  One only needs to walk through the aisles at Walmart (and be over 30) to see how complacent we’ve become with low quality products.

Anyway, it doesn’t have to be that way yet the switch to high-def will demand acceptance of a television system that works well far less than close to perfect; and that it will take a long time – with lots of head-banging – before HD becomes everything we expect of it.

It’s still long overdue.

R.I.P. Analog Television

January 11, 2009


The Obama Administration has proposed delaying the abandonment of analog television beyond the current February 17th date.  President-elect Obama expressed concerns that America just wasn’t ready.

Analog TV in its current form dates back to 1939 (and 1953 for color broadcasts) and has essentially been obsolete for almost 20 years.  I recall articles in EE Times from the late 1980’s declaring that digital encoding standards and microelectronics had advanced to the point where high-definition signals would be ready for public broadcasting by 1992.  That never happened, and it took another 10 years before other countries – Japan and Germany in particular – leapfrogged the U.S. in establishing digital television as the standard.  The last official cutover date before this one was December 23, 2006.  Before that there were others.  [The FCC had hopeful expectations, unmatched by either the electronics industry or Congress.]

Half a decade later the U.S. is ready to forsake a 70-year-old technology and embrace a much more versatile broadcast media.  The transition will never be perfect no matter how hard Obama and Congress might want it to be, but it’s still long overdue.

If only we would move to eliminate the incandescent light bulb.  The tungsten filament will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year.  It too had a good run but really, it’s time to move on.

R.I.P. Donald Hess

November 14, 2008


Don Hess, the Hauptman-Woodward Institute’s board chairman, entrepreneur extraordinaire and friend, died last night in a private plane crash in Florida.

What a tragic loss for Buffalo.  Don was a techno-geek like me, someone who successfully co-founded one of Buffalo’s better-known companies.  Amherst Systems is now a division of Northrup-Grumman, but before its eventual purchase was grown from a couple of employees to one of the largest engineering firms in the area.

I don’t think Don ever forgot his roots.  Whenever we met we would discuss science, or engineering, or business, or any other matter of curiosities.  He was always willing to provide advice to me and, I’m sure, other local start-ups.  He was easy to talk to:  We had the same comfort zones.

He will be missed.