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.

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.

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of April 7

He may be in repeats a good chunk of the week, but a brief word on the announced retirement of David Letterman.  He will step away from his program sometime next year.  No word yet (and not likely for a while) as to who may succeed him.

Letterman may not have had on science guests with the frequency or the stature of his junior colleagues Stewart, Colbert and Ferguson.  But he was no slouch in the department.  Climate change is a particular concern of Letterman’s (he’s pretty convinced we’re screwed), and that motivated the appearances of many guests, including John Holdren – twice (once prior to his current position) – and James Hansen.  Letterman has two entries this week.  Jamie Edwards, a young British lad that managed to perform nuclear fusion in a school lab, visits on Wednesday.  On Thursday we have a repeat of the visit last month from Sgt. Brendan Marrocco and the lead surgeon on his double arm transplant, Andrew Lee.

In other news, this is a busy week.  The cast of the new HBO series Silicon Valley makes the rounds of various programs. Kumail Nanjiani sits with Conan Tuesday night, and Thomas Middleditch will be on Late Night with Seth Meyers Wednesday.

The cast of Transcendence, a movie focused on artificial intelligence, is also on the circuit.  That film premiers on April 18 in the U.S., and the director, Wally Pfister, talks with Carson Daly Wednesday night.  Paul Bettany talks with Jimmy Kimmel, and Morgan Freeman returns to talk with Craig Ferguson on Thursday.  Johnny Depp and Bettany will stop by to see Ellen Degeneres on Friday.

Tonight (heck, as I type this) mathematician Edward Frankel Frenkel visits Stephen Colbert to talk about his book on the beauty and elegance of math.  Fellow mathematician Danica McKellar will visit The Tonight Show Thursday, but that’s likely due to her current stint on Dancing With The Stars.  On Tuesday Jane Goodall talks with Stephen, and this is the longest late night listings post in an age.

More On The Drama Of Science

This perhaps falls between a collection of news items and an extension of yesterday’s post.

As seems to be customary with all AAAS events, news of them drips out for weeks and months after.  There’s an article in Scientific American on Alan Alda’s keynote presentation from the February meeting in Chicago.  If you’re already familiar with the science communicator career Alda has built over the last 2 decades, you can skip the first section of the article and get to the speech.

Relating directly to yesterday’s post about the theater show, Alda demonstrates how simple actions can be compelling to watch if the stakes are significant – and understood by the audience.  Explicitly linking the risks and/or rewards of the experiment/research/engineering project to the doing of that activity can help grab and keep an audience’s attention.

Another approach is seen in the Intergalactic Travel Bureau, a touring group educating the public on space tourism.  (It’s Kickstarter campaign has just been funded, so please disregard the pleas for money.)  It’s putting the audience in the imagined future that they want to have happen, and demonstrating the benefits they see.

If you’d like to try this for yourself, check out the recently announced science fiction contest by Issues in Science and Technology.  Treatments are due June 1, with semi-finalists given 3 months to write the 2,500 to 5,000 words.

The Drama Of Experiments

The Science Museum in London has just started this year’s run of The Energy Show, a theatrical production targeted at kids.  It will soon tour England and Wales (H/T BBC News).

The premise of the show requires the protagonists perform a series of science demonstrations to resolve the conflict of the show.  Imagine an episode of MythBusters where confirming (or busting) a myth provided a reward or surmounted an obstacle that prevented any of the Fantastic Five from meeting their goal.  Heck, the finale of the MacGyver special fits this bill – except in The Energy Show there are explosions.

This entertainment model could well work elsewhere.  Heck, I’d argue it’s an important element of two touring shows – the MythBusters Behind the Myths Tour and Alton Brown’s Edible Inevitable Tour.  And those shows are kid-friendly, but not targeted to them.  Cost may be the only thing making it tough to do too many of these productions.  That’s a shame.

Now It’s Extra Awkward….In Spaaace!

Dependence on Russian access to space has always been a bit of a problem in the United States, at least from a geopolitical perspective.  You might credit the antagonism between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Space Race for some of this, but I suggest that were we dependent on any other country to gain entry to the International Space Station (ISS), NASA would find it frustrating.  And it wouldn’t be alone.

While NASA Administrator Bolden has been pushing Congress to fund NASA at a level to allow for independent access to the ISS, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.  To remove any doubt that activities in space are often driven by foreign policy, the United States has suspended space cooperation with Russia due to its activities in the Ukraine (H/T The Wire and The Verge).  The only exceptions are activities involving the ISS or multilateral activities outside of Russia that involve Russian officials.  That’s not quite the empty gesture it seems, as NASA categorized this action as affecting the majority of its activities with Russia.  Will this faceoff prompt a change in NASA’s funding?  Doubtful.  But I would expect a lot more speechifying on that front.

Should things get (more?) heated between Russia and the United States, we could have a real-world imitating art moment.  The 1984 film 2010, based on the book by Arthur C. Clarke (both of which were sequels to 2001: A Space Odyssey) had a similar conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union while both countries had space personnel in close quarters.  At one point war is threatened, requiring the two nations to retreat to their respective spacecraft.  There is no discernible chance that the resolution of the conflict in the film will happen in this case.  But if it does, we’ll all notice pretty quickly.

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of March 31

No major swaths of repeats to report, aside from The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.  Tuesday’s repeat involves Jim Parsons’ latest appearance.  Parsons plays a scientist on The Big Bang Theory.

In the new programming this week, the usual suspects come to play.  Tonight (Monday) on The Colbert Report, Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter and found at the beginning of several other Internet companies, stops by.  Tuesday on The Daily Show author Michael Lewis will discuss his latest book, which involves high-frequency trading.  We go back to Stephen Colbert on Wednesday, when Dan Harris come to discuss his book about meditation.  Also on Wednesday, Simon Helberg, who plays an engineer on The Big Bang Theory, stops to visit with Conan O’Brien.

Science As Motive For Crime – Elementary Season Two

Science fiction and Sherlock Holmes are things that have kept my interest since childhood.  So the current situation – with two recent movies and two current television programs focused on the Great Detective – has been enjoyable.  While most of the attention has focused on Sherlock (the BBC adaptation that drops three episodes every couple of years), the American program Elementary has prompted me to post.  Not about the methods of this modern-day Holmes and Watson, but of the motivations of the criminals they seek.

In the second season, currently running on the CBS network, there have been four episodes (so far) involving science or technology.  I am not talking about the use of science and technology as devices to advance the plot (or to kill in new ways).  They happen most every episode.  But four times this season crimes were committed over stakes dependent on science or math.  While the following list is technically spoilers, there is no disclosure of who did what

In “Solve For X” a possible solution to the mathematical challenge of P versus NP (worth at least $1 million to whomever can develop a solid proof) drove the crimes involved.

In “Tremors” a case discussed during the episode focused on a woman who was participating in a clinical trial.

In “Dead Clade Walking” the crimes revolve around a museum and the discovery of a fossil that could strengthen a theory about how organisms did (or rather didn’t) survive mass extinctions.  Brian Switek at Laelaps offers a helpful history of the title phrase, even if he throws cold water on the plausibility of it as a motivation for murder.

In “Hound of the Cancer Cells” a scientist is conducting research on a device that was supposed to be able to detect cancer via breath.  If that wasn’t enough to qualify for this list, the scientist’s research is subject to a fraud claim by an anonymous whistleblower.  I suspect, but have not been able to confirm, that the recent case of Clare Francis inspired that part of the story.

In it’s first season, there weren’t any epsiodes of Elementary that used science and/or technology as motivation (rather than mechanism) for crime.  Whether season two is an aberration or part of a shift in focus is unclear.  Though there will be plenty of data coming to test that question.  The show has been renewed for a third season, and there are six episodes left in season two.

Science On Screen Goes National

On Monday, March 31, the Science on Screen program has a national night of screenings.  Seventeen different theaters will screen a variety of films with science and technology informing the themes and/or plots of the films.  Relevant experts will present the film, and in some cases, participate in a panel discussion.

This is a new program for Science on Screen, which is a partnership between the Sloan Foundation and the Coolidge Corner Theater Foundation.  The program has been around for nearly nine years, and offers grants to art-house theaters to present three science-oriented films (including one supported by the Sloan Foundation) during the 10 months of the grant.  Many of the participating theaters on Monday night have received grants from Science on Screen.  If you know a theater that might be interested, the deadline for this year’s program is July 16.