Friday Science Returns!

Let the drums crash and the trumpets blare! Science returns to these pages, and it is about time, too. This is the last Friday in December, and the whole excuse reason that I was skimping on the science this month was that I was still recovering from the National Novel Writing Month and writing The Road To Amarlea.

But I am done editing the thing (for now, at least…) and so that excuse has expired, plausibility wise. So it is time I got back to doing the only vaguely organized thing I do of a week, and that is talk SCIENCE!

First off, let us talk about a Japanese robot boy.

No, not this one.

I love how charmingly amateurish that version of the theme is. But then again, that is the theme I grew up with, getting up early before school to watch Astroboy at the wee hours of the morning, before Canada AM, an hour of the day well suited for absorbing surreal Japanese content.

But no, nobody is making a real Astroboy… yet. Instead, it is more like this :

Admittedly, not much to see yet. But I am highly interested in the fact that it is an artificial tendon driven robot. As someone in the comments for the article said, no more stepper motors and servos. They are inefficient, bulky, clumsy, and insufficiently analogous to the best suited mechanisms for the sorts of jobs that we have in mind for robots…. namely human beings.

We humans, after all, are extremely adaptable and capable, and we don’t work on pulleys and strings. Our movement is via paired muscles. One pulls one way, the other pulls the other way, and voila, you get the amazingly complex and powerful articulation of the human species.

The Swiss scientists working on this robotic boy (rather minimally named “Ro-Boy) claim it will be able to assist the elderly in all manner of household chores, but I am fairly certain that this is simply the standard justification that all roboticists use to justify their research these days.

In reality, we make robots because making robots is fun. We are trying to make artificial people because we human beings have a strong urge to reproduce, and when that meets science, you get roboticists.

Practical applications are secondary. We want to build friends (lovers?) we can program.

Now some bad science news… it is looking increasingly like the US federal justice system is riddled with bad forensic science.

This would upsets me even if I was not watching three episodes of Bones a day. It is a black mark on both science and justice, and there could be hundreds of people who are in jail right now solely because of this bad forensics. One sloppy scientist alone has caused thousands of cases to be reopened for scrutiny, and there are signs that she might not be the only one.

In fact, the way she acted might be a lot closer to standard practice than any of us would like to think, in which cases society will suffer the terrible blow of having its faith in its ability to punish the guilty and protect the innocent undermined.

And almost as bad, you just know that scumbag defense attorneys will be using this as fresh ammunition to attack forensic science in general and the scientists in particular in the future.

It’s a bad business all around. Doctor Temperance Brennan and Special Agent Seely Booth would both me scandalized and enraged about this whole situation.

And what would Hodgins and Angela think? Not to mention Cam, and the Intern of the Week!

Also disturbing is this story that combines two things that never go well together : the Chinese government, and brain science.

Turns out that the Chinese government is planning on “treating” drug addiction by modifying people’s brains in order to dull the pleasure centers.

This is some seriously medieval shit, folks. Sure, I imagine that modification of the brain to “ablate” parts of the brain that light up when an addict gets a hit could work to make them less addicted.

It could also lead to a paralyzing anhedonia that would lead to depression, despair, and suicide, let alone all kinds of unknown side effects from messing with a hughly active and important part of the brain.

And that assumes this “ablation” only destroys what is intended!

As a brain nerd, I am appalled at such a callous and narrowminded abuse of brain science in this way, not to mention the human rights horror of invading someone’s skull and messing with the very stuff of what makes them themselves in order to punish them for being vulnerable to drugs.

So to sum up, I clearly do not approve. This is turn of the twentieth century thinking, no more enlightened than the lobotomy.

And like the lobotomy, I am sure it will be judged “effective” by the narrow and deceptive criterion of clinical utility. No doubt the “ablated” patients will initially test as far less susceptible to drug addiction, and all will celebrate the triumph of a cold new medical technique.

And whatever happens after that, well, you know… can’t make an omelet without breaking legs.

Finally, to end on a upbeat and cosmic note, next year there may be a truly spectacular light show in the sky thanks to a comet named Comet Ison.

It could be brighter than a full moon, and make for spectacular night sky viewing. Way more fun than that big tease Halley’s Comet, which if it wasn’t for good press would just be another moving dot in the sky.

Ison, on the other hand, is only recently discovered and if it manages to put on a big show for us this time, it could cement it as the really cool comet to watch for centuries to come.

Well that’s all, folks. The next time we meet to talk science, it will be the intensely ugly year 2013.

Can you believe we will have to put up with that shit for 12 months?

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