Mice and a slice

Raman brain sliceA new methodology for fibre-optic Raman mapping and FTIR imaging of secondary cancer cells, metastases, and detecting tumour cells has been developed by researchers in Germany. The technique facilitates imaging of samples thicker than 50 micrometres and could be used in detecting cancer cells, as a tool for molecular histopathology, in metabolic fingerprinting, general disease diagnostics.

Team member Christoph Krafft is currently in the Department of Materials and Natural Resources, at the University of Trieste, Italy, but will be returning to Dresden University of Technology with a new research grant in September. I spoke to him about the research and he told me that, “This fibre-optic Raman method will allow detecting tumour cells and tumour tissue in vivo and enable studies of tumor development.” You can read more details in the latest issue of SpectroscopyNOW.com in the Raman ezine.

Acronyms and abbreviations

Acronyms and abbreviations have always been a hobbyhorse of mine. Too many publications use them almost randomly without bothering to define. I suspect I’ve been guilty of that on occasion, but I try not to slip up. I was reading a thesis the other day that had so many acronyms and abbreviations without definition that I felt like failing the candidate there and then. Of course, I didn’t, it wasn’t my call.

If you’re looking for chemical and technical definitions then there are a couple of excellent acronym and abbreviation lookup services you can access, I’ll leave it to you to Google them…indeed, I think Google has a built in define acronym search logic.

Six degrees of privacy

Six dimensions of privacy

Worried about keeping your private details private on Facebook? Do you know what information Google stores on each and every search you do? What about your bank, do they track your online purchases and send that information to direct marketing agencies? These are all questions each and every one of us should know and want the answers to, but privacy issues are not clearcut. As more and more social interaction takes place on the Internet they have to be addressed. But, who, when, and how?

There is currently no common framework for communicating and discussing privacy issues, according to Nicholas Harkiolakis of the information technology department, Hellenic American University, in Greece. He hopes to change all that and has introduced the concept of an Information Privacy Unit (IPU). But, why should we worry about something so seemingly esoteric?

Well, Professor Harkiolakis has been involved in software development for a quarter of a century and has focused on applications in business and academic settings where issues of privacy are paramount. With the advent of the internet, we have seen an explosion in social interaction that crosses borders and allows people to communicate in ways that were undreamt perhaps as recently as when Harkiolakis began his career in IT. Social structure is changing from the level of the individual to corporations and to governments. “We have seen a major shift in power regarding control of personal data from the individual to public organisations and public bureaucracies,” Harkiolakis says.

He points out that companies that hold databases of personal information from our banks and clubs to internet service providers, websites and search engines are monitoring us all with very little regulation, and that is not taking into account the illicit monitoring of organisations of which we may not even be aware, such as those that infiltrate our computers with spyware and other nasties. “Other forms of monitoring could eventually be used to discriminate against individuals,” adds Harkiolakis, “not because of their past but because of statistical expectations about their future.” In particular, he says, we are simply unaware of what personal data has been captured and how it might be manipulated and used against us in some shape or form. If we, says Harkiolakis, we would never allow that data to be captured in the first place.

Writing in the International Journal of Technology Transfer and Commercialisation (2007, vol 6, 56-63) in a special issue on data protection, trust and technology, Harkiolakis explains the possible ways of addressing privacy concerns. He suggests that there six angles, or dimensions, to privacy that basically follow the journalistic mantra of What, When, Who, Where, Why and How. By taking this six-dimensional approach to privacy, Harkiolakis explains that it becomes possible to define strict guidelines for implementing privacy policies, specifically within software that will act as mediators (in web browsers, for instance) or as representatives (in other programs and on computer servers) between you, the user, and the proverbial them.

Cyberspace is vast, the amount personal information “out there” is enormous, just look at the rapidly growing number of web pages, ecommerce sites, Facebook and MySpace users, Diggers, bloggers and others. This growth has multiplied our abilities to manipulate and aggregate information beyond imagination, terabyte upon terabyte of data oscillates across the wires. Now that exchanging data across these wires, fibre optics, and satellite connections is entirely the norm and so privacy is a significant issue. The six-dimensional approach to privacy proposed by Harkiolakis looks at the manipulation of data from six different angles: Personal data (What) would have been collected with a variety of methods (How) by different entities (Who) at different times (When), at different websites or servers (Where) and for different purposes (Why). In a dispute, legal or otherwise, an investigation of each of these points in the transaction or use of data would allow both parties to examine whether any breaches of privacy, trust, or the law was made.

A breach at any of those six points would represent a breach however you look at it. Conversely, by developing software that can analyse and assess each of these individual dimensions and how they mesh together during a transaction it might one day be possible to produce a program, a browser plugin, for example, that monitors your activity on the Internet for you and warns you much more effectively than displaying a locked padlock in the status bar when a transaction is about to compromise your privacy.

Nicotine high hinges on sugar molecule

Nicotine structureWhen nicotine binds to a neuron, how does the cell know to send the signal that announces a smoker’s high? A recently determined crystal structure of a key player in the process suggests that a sugar molecule has a simple mechanical role acting as a hinge to open a gate in the cell membrane. The research might one day lead to new treatments for drug addiction, depression, epilepsy, schizophrenia, and other disorders.

I discussed the issue with Lin Chen of the University of Southern California and you can read the full story in the X-ray crystallography channel on SpectroscopyNOW.com

Bad motor scooter

Scooter computer

I received an intriguing press release the other day. It arrived with a photo of someone on a pink motor scooter touting a new service: London-based Scooter Computer. At first, I thought the release was alluding to a new built-in gadget for sexually ambivalent bikers, but it turns out not to be anything of the sort. So, forgive me for having such a politically incorrect thought.

In fact, the press release is about a UK startup company who ride to the rescue of those bewildered by IT problems at home, in the office, or SOHO. According to the release, the high-tech scooter cavalry come to the rescue on “quirky pink scooters” and will help fix your computer, install software, sort out your digital camera and even set you up on Facebook or help you download from iTunes and other sites if you are unsure as to how to go about that. Now, there have always been peripatetic quick fix tech people around almost since the moment the first person had a PC delivered to their home and discovered they couldn’t figure out which wire went where and broke their coffee cup holder on day one.

So, what makes the pink scooter computer guys any different, apart from the fact that they ride gaudy bikes? I figured that any technically inclined assistant charging a plumber’s rate could help set up a silver surfer with a Facebook account just as easily as shove a big chunk of RAM into a bored housewife’s computer…without getting bogged down in small talk.

Apparently, unlike plumbers and cable guys, the Scooter Computer mob will save you money on tech support lines and will talk you through what they are doing to fix or setup your gadget or computer so that you have the information to hand for future reference. I suspect this means that you would not need to call them out again for the same problem, again, very unlike a plumbing problem. Mark Dixon, a spokesman for Scooter Computer, says this is “the ideal service for anyone with IT/Tech/gadget problems.”

I have to admit, one thing I never do if I have a problem with a computer or gadget is call the technical support line, which should I call and expensive toll number and essentially pay the manufacturer to fix something that shouldn’t have been broken in the first place. The next thing I don’t do is take it back to the point of purchase, if that happens not to be an e-shop.

Finally, the last thing I do is not to read the manual. A much quicker solution is simply to Google the problem and if that doesn’t produce an answer, then there is always the manufacturer’s press office. But, then that’s probably not accessible to most users outside the world of journalism. But, it often helps, as regular readers who remember my Dell Inspiron laptop problem, the ntl netguard issue, and the VirginMedia OpenDNS debacle will recall.

One thing I almost always do when I figure out what’s wrong with a gadget, computer, or website is to blog it on Sciencetext.com, that way I have a record of what I did to rectify the situation for future reference. Moreover, since many of the problems I come across and ultimately solve turn out to be quite common, Sciencetext.com also acts as a repository for other people who may suffer from tech fallout too.

Scooter Computer founder Will Foot said: “We spotted that people did not have the knowledge or the time to get the most out of their computers and gadgets. With iPods, Blackberrys, digital cameras and millions of home computers it was clear that there was a demand for reliable IT support in the home.”

The team offer computer testing, installation of parental controls, virus protection advice, data backup and general troubleshooting. They will also sort out your digital photo needs, iPod storage questions and even offer training in your own home. It’s likely that the idea if it is truly successful will be hijacked by other companies. Foot adds that big American companies and large retailers are looking to move in on this area of business and he’s happy for the competition, having found a way to bring the helpdesk right to your home or SOHO with no traffic or parking problems, a deliberate lack of jargon, all on seriously gaudy motor scooters.

Nuclear Threats

Earlier this week I highlighted the views of Jesse Ausubel, who argues that renewable energy sources will not be sufficient to fulfill global energy demand and that nuclear power is the only viable option for powering the world. See Renewable Myths and Nuclear Heresies. Almost left unsaid, in his argument, although alluded to, are the inherent security and safety issues that surround the maintenance of a widespread nuclear industry. This week, a trio of security serious vulnerabilities surrounding the use of nuclear power have been published.

The first threat is at the source of the raw material for nuclear power itself, the uranium mine, processing plant, and transport route. Here, physical protection and security are at a much lower level than at a nuclear installation in the developed world, according to Austrian scientists writing today in the International Journal of Nuclear Governance, Economy and Ecology.

The second threat is from saboteurs with expertise in the industry and the security of nuclear installations. Researchers from the US Environmental Protection Agency suggest that such saboteurs on the inside could wreak havoc and cause a serious environmental and health threats with only small, shaped explosives or even no explosives at all.

Finally, at the waste end of the nuclear industry, a second US team point out that the significant quantities of spent radioactive fuel could also represent a security nightmare. The team from environmental health and safety consultants S. Cohen and Associates, in Montgomery Alabama, point out that there is no secure central repository for nuclear waste. Any one of the waste storage or processing plants could be vulnerable to a terrorist attack.

Friedrich Steinhäusler and Lyudmila Zaitseva of the Division of Physics and Biophysics, at the University of Salzburg, Austria, have investigated the potential security threats facing the industry at the initial mining and milling end of the nuclear process. They explain how there are several points at which someone intent on terrorism or other purposes might intercept highly radioactive material. For instance, terrorists or saboteurs might instigate illegal mining of an officially closed uranium mine or diversion uranium ore from a mine or mill, or more obviously demolition of facilities with the intention of causing environmental harm.

The Austrian team believes such threats are very real. Uranium mining has been carried out in almost twenty countries, although 90% of world production takes place in ten of these, with seven of these states having been associated with clandestine nuclear activities.

“The current control system is inadequate as it could allow rogue nations or terrorist groups to traffic uranium or enriched yellow cake in at least 24 countries on three continents,” say the researchers, “There is a critical need to counter the threats resulting from an uncontrolled acquisition of these radioactive materials in a coordinated manner.”

Anthony Honnellio of the Emergency Response Branch OSSR and Stan Rydell of the Pesticides Toxics and Radiation Unit, both divisions of the US Environmental Protection Agency in Boston, realised that have been many reports on nuclear security that focus on terrorist attack from outside. However, they explain that sabotage by individuals with a detailed knowledge of security procedures, plant layout and the functional nature of the critical components of a nuclear power plant, could exploit their knowledge to catastrophic effect.

They speculate on how small explosives might be brought into secure areas and reveal that despite post-9/11 security improvements, banned items nevertheless slip through the metal and explosive detection equipment at airports, so could just as readily be brought into a nuclear installation. But, their concern does not lie only with the impact an explosion at a carefully chosen site my cause. They suggest that damage to a critical component could disable a power station and lead to widespread power outages, with significant civil disruption to those dependent on the supply.

In their consideration of security at the waste end of the nuclear industry, Edwin Sensintaffar and Charles Phillips of S Cohen and Associates point out that a recent review of safety and security at commercial spent nuclear fuel plants suggested that such facilities are vulnerable to terrorist activity. A deliberate fire at such a facility could cause widespread radioactive contamination, which could affect the local and wider population as well as cause serious environmental damage.

Sensintaffar and Phillips describe a scenario based on such an event to demonstrate the potential impact resulting from the release and dispersion of spent fuel products. “The radioactive contamination that could be released into the environment from such an event could contaminate thousands of square kilometres, result in billions of dollars in economic impact and large numbers of both early and latent cancer deaths,” the researchers say.

The three papers are in International Journal of Nuclear Governance, Economy and Ecology

Vol. 1, No. 3, 2007, p 286 – “Uranium mining and milling: material security and
risk assessment” by Friedrich Steinhäusler and Lyudmila Zaitseva

Vol. 1, No. 3, 2007, p 312 – “Sabotage vulnerability of nuclear power plants” by Anthony L. Honnellio and Stan Rydell
Vol. 1, No. 3, 2007, p 278 – “Environmental impact resulting from a fire at a spent nuclear fuel storage facility” by Edwin L. Sensintaffar and Charles R. Phillips

Renewable Myths and Nuclear Heresies

Electricity pylon

Renewable does not mean green. That is the claim of Jesse Ausubel of the Rockefeller University in New York. He explains that building enough wind farms, tidal power stations, hydroelectric dams, and electric generators running on biomass to meet global energy demands will wreck the environment rather than save it.

Ausubel has analysed the amount of energy that each so-called renewable source can produce in terms of watts of power output per square metre and compared this with what might be possible using nuclear power instead. “Nuclear energy is green,” he claims, “Considered in watts per square metre, nuclear has astronomical advantages over its competitors.”

While vast sums of money are being invested in alternative energy sources based on wind, water, and biomass, nuclear industry expertise is being squandered. “In order to grow, the nuclear industry must extend beyond its niche of electric power generation,” says Ausubel. He suggests that the nuclear industry could form an alliance with methane suppliers to produce green power in the form of hydrogen for powering electricity-generating fuel cells, not only in vehicles but in other areas inaccessible to the conventional electricity grid. Such technologies will succeed when economies of scale form part of their conditions of evolution, Ausubel explains. In contrast, there are, he suggests no economies of scale involved in simply erecting more and more wind turbines.

Underpinning Ausubel’s argument is the need for “decarbonisation”, by which he means our reliance on producing energy by converting carbon compounds, coal, oil, and gas, into carbon dioxide and water. Hydrogen, in contrast, is as innocent as an element can be, ending combustion as water, with no carbon dioxide greenhouse gas emission. The intrinsic problem in developing a hydrogen-based power economy as opposed to one that relies on carbon compounds, is that energy is required to produce hydrogen. Hydrogen production could be the future role of the nuclear power industry, Ausubel explains – the use of its entirely renewable and almost endless energy supply in the production of hydrogen.

Ausubel considers each so-called renewable in turn. He points out that hypothetically flooding the entire province of Ontario, Canada, about 900,000 square km, with its entire 680,000 billion litres of rainfall, and storing it behind a 60 metre dam would only generate 80% of the total power output of Canada’s 25 nuclear power stations. Put another way, each square kilometre of dammed land would provide the electricity for just 12 people.

Similarly, biomass, which produces less than a fifth of the USA’s renewable energy, is almost as energy inefficient. Most biomass comes from the liquor of paper pulp mills, which is burned to economise the heat and power of paper factories. But, in terms of decarbonisation, this biomass, which initially comes from farmed trees, represents a 10 to 1 ratio of carbon atoms per hydrogen atom, which is less than oil at 1 to 2.

Some people would argue that the use of biomass would be carbon neutral because trees absorb carbon dioxide to grow. However, in order to fulfil the energy requirements of a large proportion of a nation based on biomass, a large proportion of the land area would have to be planted to biomass forest. To obtain the same electricity from biomass as from a single nuclear power plant would require 2500 square kilometres of land working at optimal efficiency. Growth, harvesting and collection are not 100% efficient, relying as they do on high yields and powered equipment and vehicles.

Offshore wind turbines

Turning to the issue of wind, Ausubel points out that while wind farms are between three to ten times more compact than a biomass farm, a 770 square kilometre area is needed to produce as much energy as one 1000 Megawatt electric (MWe) nuclear plant. Moreover, wind farms can only be operated at two of the four wind speed ranges. Calm air means no power, of course, but gales faster than 25 metres per second (about 90 kilometres per hour) also means shutting down the turbines to prevent serious damage. To meet 2005 US electricity demand and assuming round-the-clock wind at the right speed, an area the size of Texas, approximately 780,000 square kilometres, would be needed.

Economies of scale stop with wind. One hundred windy square metres, a good size for a Manhattan apartment, could power an electric lamp or two, but not the laundry equipment, microwave oven, plasma TV, and computer. New York City would require every square metre of Connecticut to become a wind farm to fully power all its electrical equipment and gadgets.

Ausubel gives short thrift to solar power too, which he points out still operates at less than 10% efficiency despite three decades of research. A 1000 MWe photovoltaic solar cell plant would require about 150 square kilometres plus land for storage and retrieval.

The energy density of nuclear fuel is between 10,000 and 100,000 times as great as the most “efficient” carbon fuel, methane. While the full footprint of uranium mining might add a few hundred square kilometres and there are considerations of waste storage, safety and security, the dense heart of the atom has much more to offer than so-called renewables in terms of powering the world, Ausubel believes.

Cooling towers

“My conviction is that our best energy doctrine is decarbonisation, and let us complete it within one hundred years or sooner,” he says, “this will happen only if we abandon wishful thoughts of a renewable Eden.

Ausubel, who is Director of the Program for the Human Environment and Senior Research Associate at The Rockefeller University in New York City, provides details of his analysis in Int. J. Nuclear Governance, Economy and Ecology, 2007, 1, 229-243

Open Access Science

John Wilbanks, executive director of the Science Commons, and his colleagues are now focusing on access to the literature, obtaining materials, and sharing data. Science Commons recently introduced a set of tools to allow authors greater control over papers published in scientific journals.

This week, they have launched the Neurocommons project, an open-source research platform for brain studies. This system uses text-mining tools and analysis software to annotate millions of neurology papers, so that researchers worldwide can find relevant information in a matter of minutes. Other sciences will follow. Wilbanks spoke with Popular Science magazine about his vision for open access science.

Blogging tips

For readers who don’t already know, I thought I’d let you into a little secret, I’ve been unfaithful to the Sciencebase Blog. While bringing you a regular daily dose of science news and views on Sciencebase I’ve also been running around with a frisky little site that goes by the name of Significant Figures. Here’s a summary of what I’ve been getting up to with that site lately:

  • Boost Your RSS Subscribers With Easter Eggs

    The Internet Duct Tape site offers blogging, programming, technology, and lifehacks as does Significant Figures, but IDT is way ahead of the game when it comes to attracting RSS subscribers. One of the neat little ideas the site describes is how to create a secret Easter eggs page for your blog’s…

  • Click an Orange, Feed the World

    Ever wondered what those little orange icons that litter blogs and websites are all about? If you have, where have you been, those little oranges are the key to the amazing world of newsfeeds.With this post we’re launching Click an Orange Day with the slogan – Click an orange and feed the world,…

  • Season of Compliments

    Just a few recent comments from our regular readers for your delectation:Great work with this one, nicely done!Your site is very interesting, very calming effect just reading it. Will spend more time with certain areas. Well done and good luck with your work.Hello everyone. Nice to meet you here!The…

  • Accepting Comment Spam

    In the past, you have focused on avoiding comment spam on your blog using tools like Bad Behavior and Akismet. These coupled with wary moderation allow you to stave off the cr*p flood of phentermine, tramadol, lager breast, and bigger member spams that hit your comment queue in a regular tsunami of…

  • Feedburner Competition

    Now that Google has acquired Feedburner and we can all use MyBrand for free, I would like to open up a little competition for Significant Figures readers who have their own blog running a Feedburner feed.Here’s the deal. Look up your Feedburner subscriber number and leave a link to the counter…

  • Dump the Blogroll

    Wayne Smallman over on the technology news site BlahBlahTech dumped his blogroll this week. He had several very good reasons, not least was that a lack of context for all those links to external sites means the blogroll has had its day and is no longer providing a service to readers. Shame, he tells…

  • Converting a WordPress Blog into a Static Site

    Some time ago, I built a simple little website for UK hydroseeding company CDTS Ltd. Cambridge Direct Tree Seeding convert brownfield and other sites into lush landscaped areas.Initially, I suggested to the company that there would be several advantages to running their site as a blog, allowing them…

  • How to Boost Your Feed Readers

    Recently, I left a comment on a fellow blogger’s site suggesting he add a small link to a ‘What is RSS?’ post close to his feed subscription button. My rationale was based on my experience with Sciencebase subscriber numbers and some insider knowledge on web surfing habits and how these might…

Digital Cameras and Imaging

Advanced Imaging subscription

If you’re in North America, you can sign up for a free subscription to Advanced Imaging. The magazine is published monthly and provides some 55,000 imaging professionals in industry, science, medicine, the arts, broadcasting, and the media with the latest news on imaging hardware, software and peripherals (digital cameras, CCD etc) that are used in capturing, displaying, manipulating and storing images.

According to the magazine’s blurb, if you are working on a daily basis with all forms of digital imaging for various applications, on any computer platform, then you can get a free subscription and find out about the available imaging tools and techniques used by fellow professionals in their work.

For more freebies and offers, grab the Sciencebase Science Newsfeed where you can gain access to additional offers, including invites to web 2.0 sites, such as Pownce (Twitter on steroids) and Joost TV, as well as the chance to get a free text link on Sciencebase.com Be sure to add the newsfeed to your reader ASAP and check back for updates to the Sciencebase secret subscribers’ page.