About That Earth-Like Exoplanet

It’s about 500 light years away, but Kepler-186f may have provided NASA a little shot in the search for extraterrestrial life arm.  The planet is the first planet the size of Earth that has been found in the habitable zone of its star.  The possibility of life on this planet is much, much higher than of any exoplanet found to date (The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia lists 1784 as of April 17).

While Kepler-186f is on the outside of the habitable zone, and slightly larger than Earth, it could still hold liquid water, an important characteristic for possible life.  Unfortunately, the Kepler telescope can only detect planets of that size indirectly – in this case by a shadow cast by the planet on its star.  Additional evidence will have to wait for other sensors to target the planet (like the New Mexico Exoplanet Spectroscopic Survey Instrument (NESSI)).

I expect that NASA will target Kepler-186f and any similar planets found with future exploration efforts.  That should be good enough to keep some money flowing for more launches of space instruments.  But since increased human spaceflight activity by China has not prompted new political support for NASA activity, I don’t think this discovery will do anything to get Congress to stop bickering about the asteroid mission and start agreeing on what to do in space.

It’s still really cool.

Not Every Innovation Prize Gets A Comic Book Tie-In

Next month is the deadline for submissions to the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize (If you haven’t already registered, you’re too late).  Thirty teams are working on a tool that can capture health information and diagnose a collection of 15 diseases.  Come September, 10 finalists should be selected to move on to building full versions of their devices.

In between now and then, there will be a promotional comic book.  Give the origins of the prize name, it’s not as surprising as it seems.  In a special Star Trek comic out in July, the six doctors from the Star Trek television series will join forces to fight a virus.  The special is called Flesh and Stone, and is published by IDW.  The XPRIZE Foundation is involved as well.  However, not many details are available, aside from a possible cover (which includes three tricorders).

I dig the Star Trek, so I’m interested.  But given how far along things are in the competition, I don’t know how effective the book will be in promoting the Prize.  I’ll have to wait and read it to see.

Nominations Corner – Health And Human Services

The recent resignation of Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius prompts a revisit of the slow march from nominee to confirmation.  While the President acted quickly to nominate Sylvia Burwell (current Director of the Office of Management and Budget) to replace Sebelius, the continuing paralysis of the Senate may mean it will be several months before she takes the job.

Normally the Secretary is, oddly enough, distanced from many of the science and technology functions the Department deals with.  But with the National Institutes of Health, Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Public Health Service (headed by the Surgeon General), the Presidential Commission for the Study of Biomedical Issues, and various research programs connected to Medicare and similar health programs, it would be tough for a Secretary to be completely detached from such actions.  In the case of Secretary Sebelius, perhaps her most controversial science and technology action is her decision to overrule the FDA in connection with the availability of emergency contraception.  While I doubt it will come up during the confirmation hearings, I think there will be an attempt to revisit the decision with a new person in charge of the Department.

(While we’re on the subject of Health and Human Services nominations, it’s worth noting that the latest attempt to nominate a Surgeon General has been blocked due – at least in part – on the refusal of some Senators to accept the nominee’s opinion that gun violence is a public health issue.)

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of April 14

This week is heavy on repeats.  Even the new editions of The Tonight Show and Late Night are on break.  Repeats of note:

Monday (tonight): Data Journalist Nate Silver on The Daily Show 
Tuesday: Host of National Geographic’s Brain Games, Jason Silva, on Last Call with Carson Daly
Thursday: Primatologist Jane Goodall on The Colbert Report
Friday: Melissa Rauch (she plays a microbiologist on The Big Bang Theory) on The Late Show, Wally Pfister (director of Transcendance) on Last Call

Not all the programs are in repeats this week.  Craig Ferguson, who could soon take the number two spot in terms of late night science and technology content, chats with Dominic Monaghan tonight.  A new season of Monaghan’s animal program (Wild Things) is airing on BBC America in the U.S.  I mention Monaghan, when I don’t usually mention animal experts, because his segments typically avoid in-studio stunts in favor of video clips and discussions of his travels.  Kunal Nayyar, who plays one of the scientists on The Big Bang Theory, comes by on Wednesday.

About that change in the rankings.  It was announced late last week that Stephen Colbert will take over for David Letterman sometime in 2015.  Regular readers know full well how often science and technology guests (and similar content) appea on The Colbert Report.  For instance, since the first of the month, Dan Harris plugged his science book, mathematician Edward Frenkel was a guest (and we saw a clip of Frenkel’s erotic math film!), and Stephen updated us on the continuing odyssey of shady dealings to obtain execution drugs.  Once Colbert begins hosting an hour-long program on a broadcast network, it’s unclear how much time he’ll be spending on these matters.  This Slate article anticipates a drop-off (and I find it interesting that the author approaches The Colbert Report in the context of other news programs), but I would note that of the broadcast late night programs, both The Late Show and The Late Late Show have on authors and scientific people more frequently than the others.

Missed Humor Opportunity – Thermal Hydrolysis In Washington

Even with a former comedy writer serving in the United States Senate, I would have expected someone to mine the humor potential in this energy project.

Washington D.C.’s water department is working on an enriched water (also known as wastewater) plant that uses thermal hydrolysis to generate, among other things, energy.  It’s the first effort of its kind in North America, and it will start operations this summer, with the goal of achieving full operation in January 2015.  Cambi, a company in Norway, developed the technology that is the heart of the new water treatment plant.  Here’s a time-lapse video of construction.

Thermal hydrolysis will take the solids generated in regular wastewater treatment and cook them so that microbes can digest them more effectively.  The resulting methane gas will power a turbine on site.  That turbine will generate steam that provides the heat to cook the solids.  A different take on the circle of life, but a cycle nonetheless.

The power generated in the effort will be consumed by other plant operations, but it certainly helps reduce the resource demands for water treatment.  An additional benefit of this process is that the biosolids produced by thermal hydrolysis are class A (the current output is class B).  Class A biosolids can be used for a lot more agricultural purposes as they are cleaner.  Producing Class A solids will reduce the transportation costs for the plant’s biosolids, further reducing the energy costs of the operation.

But, seriously, nobody has mined the comic vein of Washington producing something out of excrement?  Maybe that will change once operations start, but I’m just a little disappointed.

The Web Catches Up With the BRAIN Initiative

The National Science Foundation finally put up a web presence for its part in the BRAIN initiative.  Announced a little over a year ago, the BRAIN initiative is a multi-agency program that is also a public-private partnership with various companies and foundations.  The focus of the initiative is to develop tools and foundational knowledge for researchers to get a better picture of the activities in the brain.

Until recently the only federal agency involved with the initiative with a website on it was the National Institutes of Health.  I have yet to find a similar portal for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), though there is this press release.  But the National Science Foundation has finally opened a web presence for its part of the initiative (H/T SSTI).   Arguably it’s website is the most public-facing of the three agencies, but the bar is set quite low in that regard.

What would be nice, but is not likely to come, is some government-wide site that provides a broad picture of the activities in this initiative.  Each agency can speak effectively to its particular function within the larger project.  But with three agencies dealing with $200 million (the President has asked for double that money for the next budget), and private entities also involved, looking at the NIH and NSF websites can’t help but present an incomplete picture of what’s going on.  And that makes the promotion of this initiative, and of whatever results emerge from it, all the harder to explain – to funders and to the public.

Space Isn’t Special When It Comes To Russia

Noted here last week was the chilling of cooperation between the U.S. and Russia in space operations.  It was not the only instance where scientific exchange and cooperation has been stalled due to tensions between the two countries over military actions in the Ukraine.  As noted during this Science Friday segment on April 4, just because the NASA action was the only one made public at the time does not mean it was the only action of its kind taken concerning scientific cooperation.

Russian media (sure, consider the source, but still) are reporting that the Department of Energy has suspended visits of Russia citizens to Department facilities.  The report appears to be based on the leak of a letter sent to Energy Department scientists, and no official communication has been released to the public or received by the Russian government.  Much like the exceptions to the NASA restrictions, activities connected to nuclear security, weapons of mass destruction, or otherwise in the U.S. national interest.  Brookhaven National Lab comes up in these reports in part due to significant Russian involvement with Lab scientists, but Russian reports suggest other facilities received similar letters.

It seems reasonable to think that other agencies have been, or will be, affected by restrictions similar to those affecting NASA and the Energy Department.  The effectiveness of such measures can be debated, but there are some possible actions that could be coming.  One is retaliatory measures by the Russian government (for instance, not even allowing cooperation on those activities excepted by U.S. policies).  The other would be Congressional involvement in international science activities.  Remember how incensed a member of Congress got over cooperation with China?