The Last Word

3861636375_c282289566_bOctober 20-24, 2014

In his third post, Colin Norman faces a daunting prospect: heart surgery. “The operation isn’t as simple as snipping out the piece of aorta that includes the aneurysm and sewing in the Dacron tube. Because my aneurysm is right at the root of the aorta, the surgery would involve the left ventricle itself.”

Richard Panek treats us to more bad science poetry. Here’s my favorite line: “The Higgs is a boson, not something with clothes on.”

Karen Masterson explores the US’s history of ham-handed attempts to “help” Liberia, and wonders whether the effort to get the ebola outbreak under control will be the latest example. “Don’t step in again with a big foot and then leave. There’s no pill to make Ebola go away; it will come back.”

Helen Fields catalogues all the times that she has been pooped on by birds in the past decade. The list is extensive. “An informal poll of Facebook friends finds that I have been pooped on more in the last decade than everyone but a dog walker and a biologist.”

And on Friday, Ann Finkbeiner calls on Geoff Brumfiel and Sharon Weinberger to discuss Lockheed Martin’s announcement that the company is a decade away from having a fusion reactor. Geoff and Sharon are skeptical. “Couldn’t you just assert that you, Ann Finkbeiner, are going to build a fusion reactor ‘within 10 years.’ That’s what everyone else does,” Sharon says. Ann agrees to try.

Photos: “Fusion Reactor” by Annabeth Robinson, via Flickr


Conversation with Sharon & Geoff: Starship Fusion

Last week, Lockheed announced it had a small team working on what it calls a Compact Fusion Reactor.  Fusion is the opposite of fission that’s used in nuclear plants today; it can produce enormous amounts of energy; the fuel for  itis cheap and plentiful; a small fusion engine would solve the world’s energy problems. I first wrote about fusion energy maybe 30 years ago; the saying then was “fusion is always 20 years away.” Lockheed now says they’re “as little as 10 years” away.  So my fusion-knowledge is clearly out of date.  I asked my friends and colleagues, Geoff Brumfiel who has written a lot about fusion, and Sharon Weinberger who writes about national security and technology, to explain what Lockheed could possibly be talking about.

3861636375_c282289566_bAnn:  So  Lockheed is saying its airplanes could run on fusion, or something like that. How can aircraft run on fusion anyway? Given that fusion is what powers the sun and h-bombs, wouldn’t that be a little dangerous? or just hot?  Anyway, didn’t the Starship Enterprise already run on fusion?  While I pondered these questions, Geoff sent along the Lockheed press release which ends with, “Do you have any questions?”  Well, Geoff, do you?  I trust they’re better than mine.

Geoff: To really know whether a fusion device like this will work requires a detailed understanding of the technology and geometry of the machine. And because the interactions of the fuel inside a machine like this are so complex–you also have to review some real data. To say whether this new concept will work, I’d want to ask lots of questions along those lines.

And yet, I don’t want to ask those questions, because narratively this fits the classic mold of a fusion machine that won’t work (or at least won’t work without a lot of money):

  1. It’s being developed by people outside the field of fusion research.
  2. They think they can make it compact, which is notoriously hard to do.
  3. And they’re promising to do it quickly, but they haven’t done it yet.

I’ve seen this story too many times before: In roughly chronological order, we have the Huemul Project, the British Z-pinch, The Farnsworth Fusor, Cold Fusion, The Polywell Machine, Bubble Fusion, General Fusion…  Just writing that list makes me feel tired.

Ann:  So because this is a classic failure story, does that mean it won’t happen this time? Continue reading

On a Decade of Getting Pooped On By Birds

I know you're planning something, bird

1. Washington, D.C., 2004 or so

A bench around a circular planter, with a tree in it. I was eating my lunch. I felt something on my arm.

We call it poop, but the stuff that comes out of birds’ behinds is more complicated than that. Birds, like most vertebrates that aren’t mammals, have a single all-purpose exit called a cloaca. From that hole they expel eggs, the leftovers of their meals, and the products of their kidneys.

I assume that’s why the waste is two-toned.


Continue reading

Guest Post: Bobby Gborgar Joe Speaks From His Bones

2145430329_18c81a0514_oOctober 14, 2014:  At a heady, expert-packed Ebola forum assembled at Johns Hopkins University, a Liberian man said more in a minute and half than everyone else said in five hours. He summed up the United States tainted history with Liberia and begged for respect, this time around.

The expert forum was the best, yet. Top thinkers on the Ebola problem shared views and experiences; mapped the bioethics of green-lighting vaccines (getting approval to use them, provided people sign consent forms); talked about the bone-chilling exponential growth of this freak of nature, and how it could murder a million Africans by next year; and concluded that the global community is incapable of slowing its spread because of poor infrastructure.

Michael Osterholm, an outspoken biosecurity exert, called the World Health Organization’s response impotent, and questioned its future. “This outbreak is W.H.O.’s 9-11,” Osterholm said. “This will be a really very, very important time for reconsidering global health and how we respond to global health crises.”

At the end of many hair-raising presentations, this panel of all white men, but for one white woman, opened the microphones for questions.

That’s when Bobby Gborgar Joe spoke. Continue reading

Guest Post: Affair of the Heart: III. Facing Reality, Finally

This is the third post in Affair of the Heart, a series that takes place at the intersection of a highly-experienced science writer and the medical system.

by Colin Norman

Heart_and_blood_vessels_by_da_Vinci (1)When my aortic aneurysm could no longer be ignored,  and my cardiologist recommended a consultation with a specialist, I finally began to act like a science journalist.

I  scanned the literature and called medical experts and physician friends, who put out feelers to others in the medical profession. I got some reassuring responses:  There are several excellent centers and surgeons who specialize in repairing diseases of the aorta.  Among them is Duke Cameron, chief of cardiac surgery at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.  Johns Hopkins is a national center for the study and treatment of Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by, among other features, long limbs and a predisposition for aortic aneurysms.  Duke Cameron has probably seen more aortic aneurysms than almost any other surgeon in the world.  He sounded like the man for the job.

My wife Anne and I first met Dr. Cameron on a Saturday morning in April.  He had had to cancel an appointment earlier in the week because he was sick, and came in on Saturday to see me and another patient in the otherwise empty cardiology offices.  It was a good sign.  A calm man with a reassuring demeanor, he certainly didn’t fit the stereotype of the swashbuckling heart surgeon.  We liked him immediately. Continue reading

The Last Word


October 13-17, 2014

Colin Norman continues his exploration of the medical system through his own familial cardiovascular condition, and Cameron finds a universe in a small window pane.

Michelle celebrates the day now dedicated to Ada Lovelace, patron saint of gifted women.

A midnight encounter with a beaver leaves Chris Arnade in a standoff between cuteness and destructive nuisance. He takes the only logical way out: the Way of the Assassin. I organize a conference on traditional knowledge, TED-talk style.


Image: Burgruine honberg fenster web by Sebastian Kirsche via Wikimedia Commons

Few Words with Much Meaning


tlicho drum

In 1972, Chief Jimmy Bruneau of the Tłı̨chǫ First Nation attended the opening of the school that would bear his name. As part of the ceremony, many dignitaries got up to the microphone before him and gave long-winded speeches. Bruneau was an old man and very ill (he would die three years later), so when his turn came, he told the crowd he would only be able to speak for a short time.

In this short speech he laid out the plan for a new educational system that would see native youth become “strong like two people” – with confidence both in the wage economy and in traditional skills. His vision was so clear and powerful that it formed the basis of much of the Tłı̨chǫ territory’s direction for the next 40 years.

In the local language, this speech is known as Įłàà Katı̀, or “few words with much meaning”. When I began to work with a team organizing a conference on traditional knowledge and its place in the modern world, we realized that Chief Bruneau’s address on the topic was akin to the present-day TED talk. We decided to invite anthropologists from around the world to speak about traditional knowledge – heretofore a fairly inaccessible, complex and long-winded field – in 17-minutes or less. Continue reading