Archive for December, 2010

Rescuing the Economy – Proposal #3

December 26, 2010

My friend PN remarked, “Brian, what do astronomers get paid to do? I mean, what is the value of astronomy?” PN takes his Celeston with him when he leaves the light pollution of the “big city”. I remember wondering in the moment why he didn’t see the value of astronomy. He did in fact, but he was making a point that astronomy, and many fields of science had no immediate payoff, and therefore little allure for public funders and philanthropists. Look at the gloomy future for NASA to see that this concern is real.

I am afraid that many fields of science may lose significant funding and attention in the future, whether I like it or not – probably including astronomy. But not all fields of science are threatened like astronomy might be. Science that contributes to medical advances will flourish in the future. I think that with significant investment in lieu of the relatively more modest investment today, certain fields of science can be propelled so far forward so fast that they will radically reshape national economies such as our own and potentially improve the lives of everyone on the planet in a matter of a couple of years. But it’s a long shot.

I have been blogging on rescuing the US economy:

  • My Proposal #1 that predicts future medical consumption will be what saves the future US economy;
  • My Proposal #2 for more Federal investment in engineering projects by the SBIR;
  • A “China Playbook” of Seven Eco-Pillars that all require redefinition for the future.

The repair and modernization of the US economy is a difficult road for Congress to navigate. When was the last time your community added a stoplight before the tragic car wreck? Well, stand by for us all to trip and fall on the global stage tragically before Congress will act correctly.

So, what is the “long shot” that might overcome the tragic “trip and fall”? There must be a long shot with a high risk of failure, but potentially enormous returns. Scientific discovery changes the way we see the world, the problems in the world, and the solutions to those problems. My friend wasn’t looking at it from quite that perspective, but I was beginning to. My proposal – my long shot:

Invest $250 Billion in scientific research for a cure for cancer – all cancers – in five years.

My previous post that proposed a sharp increase in SBIR investment in engineering solutions to practical problems noted a structural error in public policy that has spurred a misapplication of talent in this country: Scientists in the US are “stooping” to a mission of invention and innovation in lieu of discovery. They do this today because invention and innovation or applied science receives significant funding from multiple sources, and because discovery or pure science receives far less funding, and because their Ph.D. credential beats out the credentials of most engineers who might do better invention and innovation. Where the previous proposal made a case for funding more invention and innovation by engineers instead of scientists, this post expands on the value of scientific discovery and the need to fund it and the essential role for scientists to pursue it.

Discovery is the “long shot”. Remember Rumsfeld’s muttering about “things you know you know”? Well, Discovery is all about the things you don’t know. There is undeniable value in things you don’t know. But this value is undeterminable, and therefore its cost is unjustifiable when things get tough. Scientists do discovery best – this is their big potential value contribution in our economy, and public policy today no longer encourages it very well. A little bit of Discovery spurs a disproportionately larger wave of invention and innovation – always.

The mission to the moon was a mission of discovery – it gave birth to the computer chip – and to a host of other commercializable inventions and innovations that have contributed remarkably to our economy.

The decoding of the human genome was a mission of discovery – it gave birth to the hard disk drive – and to a host of other commercializable inventions and innovations that have contributed remarkably to our economy. The hard disk drive? Yes – the problem was, “How do you store the human genome once you know it?” The answer was the hard disk drive – with microminiature magnetic molecules that store a one or zero – or “fairy dust” as coined by an IBM physicist…  And now, many of us have our offices littered by used disk drives mechanisms and boxes full of portable hard drives.

What is the next big discovery?  See this previous post on The Next Big Thing – but these things are really inventions and innovations, and not discoveries. So, what is the next big discovery that will drive large portions of our future economy? My own guess is a pico-machine that defeats or destroys cancer cells – or any other specific cell they are built for – by seeking them out in the body, attaching to them and rendering them harmless. Maybe this pico-machine is really a virus or a gene, but the point is that for all intents and purposes it is a molecule-sized machine that has a physical structure and a physical mechanism and a programmable behavior to accomplish its task.

These pico-machines will be the brain-children of scientists, and not engineers. Who will fund this pure science? Who will fund a $250 Billion cure for all cancers and potentially many other diseases – and other unimaginable applications? Congress? On the present course, I doubt it… It’s the “long shot”, and who in Congress is brave enough to invest large amounts of public funds today when times are tough in something their constituents might call science fiction?

Today, the US government tends to toss token amounts of money at quantifiable, low-risk problems. This is a sure bet strung out over as long a period of time as possible. I think that this strategy today yields relatively small returns. I have heard more than one scientific researcher remark in frustration, “I invest so many hours preparing so many proposals for such small amounts of money for such limited scopes of work…”

My proposal – one more time:

Invest $250 Billion in scientific research for a cure for cancer – all cancers – in five years.

And then, how about curing Alzheimer’s Disease… Or regrowing the retina of the eye to cure macular degeneration and blindness, or regenerating a failed pancreas to cure diabetes, or – well, there is a long list of discoveries waiting, and waiting, and waiting…

In case you aren’t looking at the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, $250 Billion amounts to about two years of the cost of those wars… I would rather bet some of my tax dollars on the “long shot”, wouldn’t you?

Smiling Cats Wish me Merry Christmas

December 25, 2010

My suburban neighborhood backs up against some wilderness areas that are protected by the Federal government. We have an abundance of wildlife here – owls, hawks, eagles, beavers, coyotes, armadillos, snakes (some poisonous), possums, field mice, foxes, bobcats, and who knows what else – a small ecosystem. Once in a while, I cross paths unexpectedly with an animal, and it is a treat for me to see this wildlife up close.

The other day, I was walking in a small canyon that my HOA maintains to assess the ongoing maintenance requirements when I heard a noise behind me.  I turned to see a line of six bobcats standing cautiously side by side about ten feet away from me watching my every move. The largest of the cats stood a bit taller than two feet up to the shoulder. I have seen these cats several times before – once I saw two in my back yard. My neighbors ask me now and then if the bobcats, in particular, are dangerous… I usually caution that if you keep your distance and take little notice of them, they will do the same. Here, though, I was in their habitat, and they were close enough for me to see that one had a severe cut over one eye, and another had a foot it was favoring. These cats were a family unit – two large cats and four small ones. I wondered right then whether my advise was sound!

And just as I was stepping back a few feet slowly, they started to walk toward me and past me in a line with a large cat in front and the other large cat at the end. All were smiling at me as they walked past. My brain made a fleeting association for the first cat with the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland. The smallest cat approached within about four feet of me, and then got quickly back in line. I half expected the last cat to wish me a Merry Christmas as it passed me! Funny what you think of during an unexpected experience…

So, why were all the cats smiling? I wished I had my camera with me, because it would have been a terrific photograph. Well, I know why they smiled – they were exposing their olfactory glands above their side teeth to taste the air – to taste me – to taste the molecules that my body gives to the air. I know cats – I have had cats all my life. I wonder if these bobcats tasted my own cats, too, as they smiled walking past me and out across the street.

Perhaps such an experience inspired the Cheshire cat for Mr. Carroll.

Merry Christmas everyone (meow)!

A Great Success Story

December 21, 2010

Over the weekend, I attended a little “shin-dig” at a warehouse location nearby our home – a ribbon cutting party for a young company’s new factory location. This company, Luraco Technologies, manufactures a number of products including a magnetically coupled water pump. This interesting invention includes an electric motor on one side of a bulkhead that spins a number of powerful magnets inside the motor housing, and a magnetic fluid “slinger” on a low friction spindle on the other side of the bulkhead. No penetration is required through the bulkhead for power or plumbing to pump water with this device.

This company was launched five years ago with a Federal grant to solve a military problem, and they satisfied the objectives successfully. Today Luraco has about 25 employees in about 23,000 sq-ft of factory space, and I suspect that their revenue will be in the low millions of dollars for 2011. Not bad for five years for hard work in this economy. A great success!

But, I like to “peel the onion” – I think I have the pertinent facts, here… Behind every success is a story – often a story of an even larger success, and that is the case here. The CEO and CTO of this company are brothers – two of five children. Two of the siblings (including the CTO) have Ph.D. degrees, and a third is working on an M.D. The father was at this little party beaming with pride – along with aunts, uncles, and more than 200 other relations and friends of the family. The family are Vietnamese immigrants who claimed refugee status and settled in the US more than a decade ago. The father was a driver for an officer in the US Army during the Vietnam war – poor and uneducated, he was imprisoned by the communist Vietnamese government for seven years for “crimes against the country” shortly after the US withdrew from the Vietnam. On his release from prison, he was an outcast with no opportunity in his homeland. He brought his entire family to the US to start a new life as soon as his refugee status could be determined. He and his wife worked two jobs each almost from their first month here to be able to afford to put their children through college as far as each would go. His children are all destined to be successful – every one of them – not just in the father’s eyes, but by anyone else’s measure, too.

This is a Great Success Story. I was proud to be there – I was beaming with pride alongside the father for a few moments. What a memorable evening.

Flying Saucers – Oh My…

December 3, 2010

On a airplane flight some years ago (the statute of limitations has expired by now…), I witnessed an intriguing chain of events. Crowd behavior in a small space can lead to any number of anxiety behaviors among individuals. But to see crowd behavior emerge first hand was just fascinating. Recently, I started to re-watch my X-Files DVDs, and one episode brought it all back. Flying Saucers – “The Truth is Out There”

An unusual light that seemed to be following the plane was spotted by a passenger (gulp – me). I remarked to the person next to me, “Hey, look at that… What do you think that is?” He said excitedly, “…looks like a UFO.” Then, in the row in front of me a second later, I hear, “Yeah – a UFO”, and the person in front of me gets up and turns around and says rather loudly to the two of us, “It’s a UFO – it’s a UFO!”

I see the first hint of panic in a crowded closed space.

So, I am a skeptic – I look again. This light follows us – it suddenly gets much closer to us, and then just as suddenly, it seems to get much farther away. And then, it disappears completely for a few seconds before I see it again. Now, it seems to be much closer to the ground. Well, I have to admit that this is just rather strange.

As I continue to look, out of the corner of my eye I notice a passenger from a few more rows forward gets up quickly and runs down the aisle to the back of the plane (in panic – red in the face – to find a crew member, I presume). A minute later, a startled crew member with the passenger passes us and stops at this fellow’s row to look out this fellow’s window, and passengers from a few rows up and down all get out of their seats to look, too.

More Panic. Now, it is panic. And some irrational behavior – that light would have been visible from any window on my side of the plane, but the best place to see the “flying saucer” must obviously have been way forward to those folk…

I look around, and now, there are clusters of passengers forming every few rows leaning way sideways toward the windows to look out my side of the plane. People are talking loudly and excitedly “There it is!” “It’s coming directly toward us!” “Oh, God…” People are audibly gasping – audible even above the roar of the engines.

The plane of strangers are forming groups and establishing bonds and acknowledging leaders. They are all reacting in unison.

And just at that moment, the pilot addresses the plane and instructs everyone to “sit down immediately”, or the plane will land at the nearest airport. “Remain calm and take your seats everyone” beckons a member of the flight crew. To this point, only a few minutes have past, and about a quarter of the passengers are out of their seats. It takes more time than that for the crew to get everyone seated, but everyone finally does sit down and glues themselves to their own windows.

People reluctantly follow instructions. They acknowledge authority, but without a tangible threat, compliance is slow and reluctant.

Now, I can clearly see that this is a reflection of the full moon on cloud layers below us, and then on a series of lakes on the ground, and then on more clouds. It is really apparent to me that this is the moon another minute later when we change to a lower altitude and fly through the top of a cloud layer, and the moon’s reflection gets extremely close and blurry. Yup – obviously the moon. And just at that time, the pilot announces that, “This is just the moon’s reflection on clouds, ladies and gentlemen. There is no reason to be excited.” Smart pilot!

A plea for reason from authority. Reassurance. Now, there is clear acceptance of authority by the crowd. And understanding of facts. Almost…

The person in front of us gets up out of his seat and says, “It’s not the moon – IT’S NOT! It’s a UFO”

Denial – clinging to the more exciting conclusion instead of the plausible one.

“Yes, it is.”, I say as calmly and confidently as I can. “It’s just the moon. It’s OK. Look, you can see that it’s the moon – see the clouds? Now, look way up in the sky – see the moon?” He sits down again, and really looks intently out his window. “Maybe you’re right.” he says. Now, he is calm and rational. So  are most of the other passengers. I look all around, and no one is standing, and the demeanor for most of the passengers looks more casual.

Fascinating. From observation to alarm in seconds. Obvious panic for a few in less than a minute. A whole population showing concern in another minute. Three minutes from first utterance to the peak of anxiety. And then a few more minutes for reason to reign again. And real calm? Not until the plane was disembarking and people could talk to each other and compare their feelings and their fears.

People must decompress as a group after experiencing anxiety together.

It was fascinating to watch. But, dog-gone-it, it was just the moon… I was genuinely disappointed it wasn’t the “real deal”.