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Once Thought Impossible, Scientists Create Cold Fires In Space

July 28, 2014 Tech Comments Off

Lighting fires within a contained environment shared with considerable amounts of highly flammable materials that also happens to be traveling 200 miles above Earth may not seem like the wisest pastime. Nonetheless, a group of researchers based at UC San Diego has been hard at work igniting large droplets of heptane and methane fuel in a wide variety of environments aboard the International Space Station, ranging from ones typical of Earth to those saturated with helium, carbon-dioxide, or nitrogen. 

The result: We observed something that we didnt think could exist, Forman Williams, the research team’s leader and co-author of a new open-access paper describing the findings, said in a statement from UCSD.

As the researchers watched the flames seemingly extinguish themselves—within the safe confines of the station’s Multiuser Droplet Combustion Apparatus—as they would on Earth, what they discovered is that their fires continued to burn, albeit invisibly, for a would-be impossible period of time. This extension is what’s referred to as “cool flame.” What’s more, the toxic byproducts of the combustion reactions are also in turn burned away. Rather than releasing carbon monoxide and formaldehyde into the atmosphere, the cool flames stick around long enough to burn those away along with the proper fuel sources. 

“After the visible hot flame radiatively extinguished around a large heptane droplet, the droplet continued to burn with a cool flame,” the paper summarizes. “This phenomena was observed repeatably over a wide range of ambient conditions. These cool flames were invisible to the experiment imaging system but their behavior was inferred by the sustained quasi-steady burning after visible flame extinction.”

The secret to the cool fires is in the “spherical symmetry” afforded by microgravity environments. Imagine a fire burning here on Earth with Earth gravity. As the reaction continues and byproducts are released, those byproducts are in turn pulled downwards and away from the flame itself. As such, these byproducts cease to be as available to the reaction, which ends before those released materials can themselves be burned up. In microgravity, however, the byproducts stick around the flames longer, allowing time for further chemical reactions. It’s a simple enough idea. 

And while the result points the way to future internal combustion engine technologies that are vastly cleaner and more efficient, at the moment it’s difficult to imagine the reactions occurring outside of the microgravity environment. Things can happen out there that cant happen here, Williams noted.

Cool flame in itself is not a phenomenon limited to space. It’s uncommon on Earth, but it does happen. The differences between “hot” and “cold” varieties are fairly plain: When a cold flame ignites, it might only kick out heat hotter than its surroundings by a few tens of degrees Celsius, while a hot flame spikes the temperature by thousands. What’s more, compared to hot flame, cold flame kicks out byproducts that are larger and more complex. Cold flame byproducts then tend to recombine with each other, leading to the release of less light, carbon dioxide, and, indeed, heat. As such, a cool fire might persist for far longer periods of time than its hot counterpart; cool flame might even be considered more of an extended chemical reaction that produces some heat rather than proper fire.

“The difference and exciting part of the ISS experiments is that the typical progression on Earth is that a cool flame leads to a hot flame,” Daniel Dietrich, a NASA engineer and study co-author, told Motherboard. “The chemical by-products that form in the cool flame burn off in the hot flame. While they burn off, these low temperature or cool flame chemical reactions are of significance in that they are determine engine efficiency and pollutant formation.”

Cold flame also happened to be a concept instrumental to the Allied victory of World War II, Dietrich notes. Likely its most applicable concept here on Earth is in “engine knock.” This is where, due to a suboptimal fuel mixture, cold flame sneaks ahead of the desired hot flame progression through an engine cylinder, in essence causing an extra combustion event. Given enough time (a very small amount of time actually), this will ruin an engine. 

“The Allies, specifically the British I think, understood that certain fuels resisted engine knock more than others and therefore allowed them to have higher performance aircraft engines,” Dietrich said. “This was critical in achieving air superiority during the war.”

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Why So Few Hepatitis C Patients Get Access to “Miracle Drug” Treatments

July 28, 2014 Tech Comments Off

An illustration of the hepatitis virus. Image: Shutterstock/xrender

On World Hepatitis Day—an awareness-raising initiative that falls today, July 28—any optimism about new treatments for the infectious disease should be tempered by an overriding dismal report on the current extent of the problem.

The most crushing stat from a report out today by Public Health England is that, against a fanfare for new, improved, and in some cases near-“miracle” treatments, the number of those chronically infected with hepatitis C that are actually starting treatment each year is very low. For the year of 2011 in the UK, it was approximately three percent. That’s single-figure, less-than-five-in-a-hundred, three. 

That figure is taken from a 2014 study that predicted the number of people undergoing treatment from the amount of hep C drugs supplied nationally. The researchers estimated that 5,000 patients were treated in 2011, and a total of 28,000 (17 percent of chronic cases) from 2006 to 2011. Those figures are obviously poor, and even more so considering that the viral infection is a) incredibly damaging, killing one million people a year globally according to the World Health Organisation, but b) perfectly treatable. 

“Hepatitis C is a curable disease and to have so few people accessing treatment is simply not acceptable,” researcher Helen Harris, who led the PHE report, told me over email.

It’s even more curable thanks to some recent breakthrough treatments now available in the UK and elsewhere. The NHS agreed to fund sofosbuvir, which has been found to treat the disease much faster and more effectively than past treatment options. Researchers at the University of Texas trialled another new treatment and announced an over 90 percent cure rate in a paper published in April (though the NHS is cautious about those claims, noting a lack of comparison group in the study). Even today, a study in The Lancet reported a highly effective new treatment that combines sofosbuvir with another drug, simprevir.

These breakthroughs are of course very promising, and will no doubt help improve treatment rates. They’re poised to be easier (often just requiring taking a course of pills), less time-consuming, and have fewer side effects—addressing drawbacks that could be deterring some from treatment.

But the low rates of treatment in the UK and elsewhere aren’t just down to the medications themselves, and cutting edge drugs can only work their “miracle” if people actually take them. The mixed messages of an optimistic future and the pessimistic reality is a reminder that translating scientific breakthroughs into an actual benefit for society requires as much work outside of the lab as inside it.

One of the main issues is availability. The PHE report notes that hepatitis C “predominantly affects marginalised groups of society, including those who inject drugs, and minority ethnic populations.” It quotes a survey that found 50 percent of people who inject drugs in England are infected. 

Harris told me that to tackle the low treatment rates, treatment has to become more accessible. “This means expansion of treatment into non-traditional settings, such as primary care, drug treatment centres, and prisons,” she said. “This would help us to tackle hepatitis C and address health inequalities by reducing the excess premature deaths from hepatitis C-related liver disease that are concentrated in marginalised populations.”

Access to treatment is hardly a problem limited to the UK. In the US, there’s controversy over the cost of the new sofosbuvir drug, which goes under the brand name Sovaldi. The BBC reported that it’ll cost $ 84,000 for a 12-week course, which obviously puts it out of the reach of many, and particularly those in the marginalised communities most affected. Its prohibitive pricing has led the US Senate Finance Committee to launch an investigation into pharma company Gilead Sciences. Of course, not treating the disease is likely to incur even greater costs in the end, with some patients requiring a liver transplant.

And before you even get to the treatment phase, there’s a widespread problem of lacking awareness and therefore low diagnosis rates. Harris explained that many people are unaware they’re infected because of the condition is often asymptomatic, at least at first: symptoms often occur after there’s already been damage to the liver, and even then it’s easy to miss the cause as they include flu-like and other non-specific symptoms.

Part of the point of today, then, is to raise awareness so people know they may be at risk and might want to get tested; as with most conditions, the earlier you start treatment, the better. With improved treatments, rising death rates—deaths from hepatitis more than quadrupled in the UK from 1996 to 2012—are only more depressing.

As Charles Gore of the Hepatitis C Trust said in a statement, “Deaths from hepatitis C are now eminently preventable. It is up to us to see that we do prevent them.”

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Eprom, ‘Center of the Sun’: An Exploding Star of Digital Anxiety

July 27, 2014 Tech Comments Off

Image: YouTube

First off, if the combination below (an XLR8R premiere) doesn't make the listener/viewer super-eager to click through to the full world of West Coast beatsmith Eprom, don't be deterred. With more room to stretch out, dude's post-trap sludge-electro becomes a rather more satisfying experience, albeit just as fuck-all odd and sketchy. To be honest, I'm still getting aquainted, starting with 2013's Halflife

If "Center of the Sun" feels like being buried alive beneath pixels as dense as diamonds, Eprom's collaboration with Amsterdam producer Akka below feels more like drifting down through the atmosphere beneath the wide canopy of a parachute, supported by pixels as dense as air.

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So Neuroscientists Have Found a Way to Stop It, But What Exactly Is Tinnitus?

July 27, 2014 Tech Comments Off

Image: Pig Destroyer/Josh Sisk/used with permission

At my music critic peak, I was going to probably five or six shows in any given seven days, and probably more than that taking into account nights where it might be possible to drop in on two or three in a single go, or maybe even more if you include wasted afterparty DJs in suddenly rather bleak warehouse spaces. This seemed about as reasonable then as my current evening equivilent of reading textbooks about data structures and microarchitecture, or parsing papers about single-dimensional Bose gases and mystery photons in the intergalactic medium. One nice thing about the latter pastime is that I don't tend to wake up the next morning enveloped by the piercing high whine of tinnitus.

I saw "high whine" because that's how it manifested for me, though the condition can take many forms, including phantom buzzing, ringing, whistling, hissing, humming, or whooshing. The basic idea of tinnitus is that it's some sound not present in the real world that invades your ears and won't go away, usually the result of some sort of ear damage caused being around loud noises or of age-related hearing declines. In rare cases, it might have a distinct physical cause (as in, it's a real sound), typically high blood pressure, but mostly not so much. It's just there and, while talk therapy can be helpful, tinnitus is moreso just a thing that sufferers have to deal with until it goes away on its own—or doesn't.

In more severe cases, tinnitus can even be rather devastating, leading to chronic insomnia, stress, anxiety, memory problems, and depression. When a more drastic intervention is called for, doctors may prescribe devices or hearing aids that produce white noise specifically calibrated to mask the tinnitus ringing. Even more advanced devices might adapt to an individual's own tinnitus, creating a pitch that not just masks the sound but retrains the ear to ignore it. In still even more severe cases, doctors might prescribe antidepressants or antianxiety meds like Xanax.

A new treatment currently undergoing testing in the US, marketed as the "Serenity System," however, gets to the very root of the condition in a new way, literally plugging into the vagus nerve, the big one connecting the brain to the body's myriad organs, and releasing pulses that help the auditory cortex of the brain "retune" itself in such a way as to eliminate the bothersome sounds. (Hat tips: New Scientist, FACT.)

The proposed treatment exploits what's known as "neuroplasticity," or the brain's (marvelous) ability to remake parts of itself in response to changing conditions or behavior. In concert with plasticity-fostering stimulation, patients are subject to brief bursts of noise, degrading the "frequency tuning of auditory cortex neurons," according to a 2010 Nature paper that found significant success with the technique in rats. "Repeatedly pairing tones with brief pulses of vagus nerve stimulation completely eliminated the physiological and behavioural correlates of tinnitus in noise-exposed rats," the paper reported. "These improvements persisted for weeks after the end of therapy." The current round of trials hopes to replicate this in human subjects.

Perhaps the most popular theory of common tinnitus, e.g. the sort that might result from being blasted with dangerous sound levels, is that damage to the tiny hairs lining the inner-ear's cochlea produces long-lasting auditory effects. That is, when your cochlea is blasted with noise, those hairs get bent or flatten, affecting the electrical signals transmitted to the brain's auditory cortex by the inner-ear. With skewed signals, a tinnitus sufferer experiences a skewed perception of sound—up to and including hyper-annoying, persistent sounds that aren't there.

Image: harvard.edu

Those cochlear hairs might in time correct themselves, but it might also not make much difference. The brain by then may have already reorganized itself in the image of that sound. The illusion then has become a "phantom phenomenon," in the words of a 1998 study finding high degrees of reorganization in the auditory cortices of tinnitus sufferers. The paper found that amounts of neural reorganization increased in tandem with the reported degree of the phenomenon. These neural changes are similar to those seen in amputees reporting phantom-limb pain; that is, phantom limbs are likewise tied to physical reorganization within the brain resulting from apparent increases in plasticity within the brains sensory cortex.

I suppose I got lucky with tinnitus and the whole standing-in-front-of-an-amp lifestyle generally (to say little of a full-on ruptured eardrum incurred in a highly ungraceful diving board accident), though I know at least a few of my peers in the music writing/music making words haven't been so lucky. Take heart, middle-age metalhead, science hasn't forgotten about you or the phantom tones that keep you awake at night.

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The Majority of US States Currently Don’t Have a Death Penalty

July 26, 2014 Tech Comments Off

Image: tacomabiblio/Flickr

Support for the death penalty has dropped in recent years, but a shrinking majority of Americans remain in favor of it. However, as the Death Penalty Information Center laid out this week, a shrinking number of states are actually able to practice capital punishment.

Add up the 18 states where the death penalty is abolished, the three western states where the governors have placed formal moratoriums on executions, and the four states where lethal injection legal challenges have put a de facto moratorium on executions, and the states are split evenly. There are also seven states that, even without holds in place, haven't executed anyone in at least five years.

Add to that Ohio, Oklahoma, and now Arizona, where botched executions have at least temporarily halted the practice while the states review their procedures, and you're looking at 70 percent of the states where the death penalty can't happen, for the moment anyway.

Image: Death Penalty Information Center. For a clickable version, click here.

Which isn't to say that states that have the death penalty are in danger of having to give it up; it's just to point out that no one on any side of the debate—pro or against capital punishment—should be happy with how capital punishment “works” now. Because, obviously, it doesn't.

Thus far the US Supreme Court has been doing its damnedest to avoid weighing in on the lethal injection debate, instead just lifting stays of execution in Missouri and then in Arizona without explanation, and letting whatever happens happen.

But with four botched executions this year, capital punishment being called unconstitutional in California, and federal judges making absurd suggestions in their dissenting opinions, one imagines the highest court in the land won't be able to stay above the fray for much longer.

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Sometimes a Typo Means You Need to Blow Up Your Own Spacecraft

July 26, 2014 Tech Comments Off

This is the story of how a tiny mistake became a big mistake—and how, decades later, we continue to make a tiny mistake when talking about said tiny mistake. 

On July 22, 1962, and about 300 seconds after the Mariner spacecraft lifted off on its mission to study Venus and win the next volley against Russia in the nascent space race, the craft began to spin wildly out of control. Back on the ground at NASA, a concerned engineer pressed a button and blew the $ 80 million Atlas rocket to smithereens over the Atlantic. 

The decision to blow it up was simple: if he hadn't pressed that button, the ship might have crashed, possibly in the shipping lanes of the North Atlantic or in an inhabited place.

The explanation for the error, according to numerous accounts in the weeks and years that followed, was more complicated: a combination of system failures destabilized the spacecraft, and one of them appeared to originate with a "missing hyphen" or bad FORTRAN code somewhere in the software.

But a funny thing happened on the way to space history: FORTRAN wasn't being used for the rocket guidance system, and a missing hyphen wasn't really to blame.

The missing character was actually an overbar, a mathematical figure meant to indicate an average value. When transcribing by hand the code for the guidance program, some unknown engineer at NASA had missed the overbar in 

\bar{\dot{R}_n}

which means "the nth smoothed value of the time derivative of a radius R." Without the smoothing function indicated by that overbar, the rocket's software interpreted normal minor variations of velocity as if they were serious. This caused mistaken corrections that sent the rocket off course and into oblivion.

Still, five days later, a front-page New York Times headline blared "For Want of Hyphen, Venus Rocket is Lost." Arthur C. Clarke would call it the "most expensive hyphen in history." The dropped hyphen would become central to the unfortunate story of Mariner for years to come, parroted even by officials at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The official NASA account says that Mariner was doomed by "a combination of two factors": a faulty beacon on board the Mariner caused the craft to lose the ground guidance signal, at which point the rocket's own computer kicked in—with that missing "hyphen."  

During the periods the airborne beacon was inoperative the omission of the hyphen in the data-editing program caused the computer to incorrectly accept the sweep frequency of the ground receiver as it sought the vehicle beacon signal and combined this data with the tracking data sent to the remaining guidance computation. This caused the computer to swing automatically into a series of unnecessary course corrections with erroneous steering commands which finally threw the spacecraft off course.

Chalk up the long-running confusion over an inability by Congress, the media, and the public to comprehend complex math. This is, after all, rocket science.

But NASA was responsible for the confusion too: a year after John F. Kennedy had startled NASA with plans to go to the moon within the decade, officials were under pressure to quickly move on to the next Mariner mission, leaving little time for investigations or recriminations before the next launch, just over a month later. The official accounts—including mentions of a missing hyphen—were the results of an investigation that was conducted in less than a week.

The confusion over the "hyphen" bore echoes of Mariner's doomed voyage: stupid mistakes are easily made even by the smartest people. And even the tiniest ones can be catastrophic.

Mariner was meant to be a bold sign of the four-year-old space agency's ability. But its engineers were on a very tight schedule, with a narrow launch window of just 45 days. 

The Mariner I incident wouldn't be the last time NASA lost a mission due to a simple mistake. Priceonomics reports that

In 1999, the $ 125 million ($ 172 million in 2014 dollars) Mars Climate Orbiter flew off course and disintegrated after spacecraft engineers forgot to convert from English to metric measurements. While Jet Propulsion Laboratory's navigation team used the metric system (millimeters and meters) in its calculations, Lockheed Martin Astronautics, which built the craft, provided measurements in inches, feet, and pounds.

For other people who regularly deal with hyphens, like us writer-reporters, or writer-editors, or editors-at-large (do hyphens belong there?), we are often luckier. We have spell check, and autocorrect, and editing after the fact (though this is generally frowned upon). But we aren't always lucky: this very article was nearly downed by a dumb mistake: while writing this, my computer nearly crashed and I hadn't saved my work, despite the fact that I've lost plenty of work this way before. The spinning ball eventually stopped though. Praise be to the gods of blogging. 

Kennedy with NASA officials and a model of Mariner 2. Photo: National Archives

But in these little mistakes is another lesson: the more complex and ambitious our endeavors get, the harder it becomes to predict all eventualities.

Such eventualities would destroy two other Mariners too: Mariner 3 was disabled by a malfunction and Mariner 5 was hit by micrometeroites. It "joined its sibling, Mariner 3," the space historian Rod Pyle wrote, "dead … in a large orbit around the sun."

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