Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Simple Space Pleasures

Space Station Urine Recycler

"Not to spoil anything, but I think up here the appropriate words are 'Yippee!',". This is an actual quote from the ISS, from space station Commander Mike Finck. 'Yippee' is a positive term, not one used very often with regards to space exploration. What, you may ask, has brought about this restrained jubilation that invokes the somewhat archaic term of 'Yippee'?

Have they discovered extra-terrestrial life? I, personally, think that would call for more than 'Yippee', assuming it's good alien life. If they've just stumbled upon a Borg Cube dwelling behind the moon, that would definitely not call for a yippee, or any celebratory term. Perhaps they've cracked the secret of faster than light travel, or teleportation. Again, yippee seems somewhat limited, even if they have only made some massive discovery in theory, and the practice is still to come.

So it must be something more mundane but still positive. Maybe they've finally managed to grow some carrots or get the filter coffee working (water doesn't boil the same way in zero gravity, something to do with the reduced pressure I'd guess, but knowing water it's probably something more surreal). Give up.

They've fixed the urine recycler. That's right, 'Yippee' is because people on board the ISS can now drink their own piss to their hearts content. Only in this situation would having to drink your own waste liquid be cause for celebration. And it's not just a 'yippee'. Here's some other quotes;

- "There will be dancing later," (mission controllers): So piss drinking is a cause for actual dancing too. Even if you factor in the difficulties of dancing in zero gravity, where even the most basic dance steps become hideously elaborate (imagine the Hokey Cokey in zero-g, you put your left arm in, all your other bits will go with it), dancing is done either in groups or with a partner. The confines of the ISS probably make dancing in groups very impractical, but there's only 3 people on board at any one time, so if dancing in pairs is opted for, some poor bugger will be left out every time. Maths, that is.

- "Urine passes Nasa taste test": Not sure if this is a BBC elaboration or a genuine NASA quote, but either way it's worrying. Taste test for urine? This implies that they've had times when urine hasn't passed the test. Is there a flavour scale for urine? How bad does urine have to be before it's recognised as unpleasant urine, by people who celebrate being able to drink it?

I'm being stupid of course. The machine recently fixed takes urine and other waste water and scrubs it thoroughly (with what? More water? Chemicals, I beleive, let's leave it at that). It actually "
distils, filters, ionises and oxidises" all water fed into it. I used to work with machines that sort of did that, not to the same scale degree of thoroughness, but close. We weren't supposed to drink from them, but I'd assume that's to do with taste, rather than actual hazards. How dangerous can utterly pure water be? It's like saying some air is dangerous because it's too fresh. Maybe our systems are more adapted to buggy tap water and anything without the background level sof chemicals would upset us, like when you go to Spain and you can't drink the 'hard' tap water because of the ionic content that screws up our weedy British systems. But if there's nothing there but pure H2O molecules, how could that be dangerous? It's probably not. This is moot anyway as I never drank any.

But those poor buggers on the ISS can celebrate their urine drinking future all they like (speaking of which, if the International Space Station is meant to represent all the countries involved in it's construction and maintenance, how much of an effective representation can 3 astronauts provide? I hope they're mixed race at least). If the water on this planet keeps getting used up, we'll come to depend on this technology. Unless of course they can get hold of one of those big Ice asteroids wandering around the solar system. Again, for such a thing to happen, we'll need to ISS to be involved. Here's hoping they keep up the good work. All that training and hard work and their reward is the opportunity to drink urine? It's not exactly a fine wine, is it. But if urine was a fine wine, what would you eat that would go with it?

Oh, God....

Monday, 24 November 2008

Sore throat? Get a new one...

Stem Cells used to rebuild throat!

Spanish woman gets her damaged trachea replaced by a stem-cell developed new one? Admittedly, I've twice used the word 'throat' now without actually being technically accurate, as it's the windpipe that feeds into the lungs that's been replaced. This isn't technically part of the throat, in my limited experience, although it does connect to it. Still, it's an impressive feat.
The article mentions several drawbacks though. The holy grail of stem-cells seems to be taking a clump of stem cells from the person who needs a transplant, put them in a dish of some sort, then grow whatever organ or tissue is needed by said patient, then stick it back in them. Sort of like some squidgy but biologically advanced herb garden, perhaps? That would understandably be great, preventing the need for this whole opt in-opt out organ donor malarkey.

I'm firmly in the opt-out camp myself, if organs from my mangled carcass can be used to save lives why the hell wouldn't I approve? A lot of people I've heard are just uncomfortable with the idea for no discernible reason. "It's not natural" apparently. Of course not, it's medicine. The natural thing to do would be just to let everyone die when they get ill, even if it's something easily curable, but we don't do that, because as thinking, rational beings we don't have to submit to natures whim's. Nature doesn't have whims either, it's a concept, or a process or whatever you like. Some people don't allow themselves medication because of their ultra religious beliefs which state that illness is the work of God, so by treating themselves they are going against his will. Unlike most scientists, I support this viewpoint. If I was God, and I'm at least a close second, the first thing I'd do is kill off all the people that stupid. So good luck to them. Or not.

So, back to the point, his trachea surgery is brilliant, but not quite perfect. For starters, someone still had to die for the surgery to go ahead. Without getting into the whole aborted -foetuses debate, this is a less than desirable pre-requisite for any surgery. Before they've begun, it's already got a 50% mortality rate. But there's potential for improvement, as they needed a donor trachea to provide a 'framework' for the stem cells to grow around. I guess it's beyond our means to make false ones at the moment, but still, here's hoping. We obviously can't control the way the stem cells develop in spatial configurations at the moment, but it's a start.

Also, I like the way the article states that the use of stem cells 'tricked the body into thinking the donor trachea was part of it'. If we're being honest, the stem cells are technically part of her body, so it's not really a trick. The trachea structure is donated, but does that make up the bulk of the donated tissue after every donor cells has been scrubbed off? But that's just being pedantic.

So, the scope for this is endless, but as always I worry about such procedures being abused, or used for less than noble purposes. If we can make safe, reliable organs to order, would people be happy with the ones they've got? My initial throat confusion was genuine, and lead me to wondering if the Spanish lady had the same voice as before. Obviously a trachea transplant wouldn't effect that, but what if it was the larynx and voice box?

Say some well-to-do person wanted to be a singer, so they get specially designed voice box made that allows them to sing well. But of course, a voice is nothing if you don't have the lungs to use it right. So they get a new pair of those too, bigger and better and fresher than the old ones, which are taken out and thrown in the bin, as no-one needs donor's anymore. Theoretical person can now sing very well. But being a famous singer is more than just vocal ability these days, it's about image. So person gets all ugly parts of her, or his, but lets say her, her body removed and replaced with specially designed better ones. Lets say for arguments sake that said person is horrifically ugly, so all bits of her body, bar skeleton and brain and some connective tissue, get replaced. Now we have basically the bulk of a person sat squelching in the corner. Rap it around a skeleton, bung in a rudimentary brain and it could be used to perform very simple tasks, like digging holes, pushing buttons or working for Virgin Railways. All unskilled labourers could be made redundant, replaced by the flung-off semi-carcasses of the wealthy.

So what happens to our now attractive singing person? She becomes a star for a brief period, but then people start doing the same and redesign themselves to be more talented and better looking and ever on to the point where she gets left behind in the race to be the next new superhuman celebrity star person thing. She gets depressed and sinks into drink (seriously damaging 8 Livers before the money runs out) and drugs (4 septums lost to coke and 2 arms lost to repeated use of infected needles, all replaced before money runs out). After a lengthy spell in 'rehab' where she's chained to a wall for 23 hours a day and gets hosed down regularly (proper comfy rehab is for people with money, which as we've established, has run out), she attempt to re-launch her career by appearing on 'I'm a celebrity, get me out of here', but in this day and age the horrific trials involve eating massive, swollen organs like anuses and bladders grown from her own cells, while being watched and laughed at by Ant & Dec (versions 4.8).

This combination of copious autocannibalism while being mocked by small Geordie clones finally destroys the last vestiges of her sanity. She tries to get a brain replacement, but that's the only organ that can't be replaced as it would mean she's not the same patient anymore, and medical malpractice insurance doesn't cover that. But she's adamant, so they put her under anaesthetic and just remove her brain and launch it into space. Not for research, just to get rid of her because she's getting on everyone's nerves.

So what I'm saying is, stem cells, not necessarily a good thing.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Problems with Star-Gazing, an absence of Navel gazing

I'm back! Thesis progress has a directly inverse relationship to that of blogging, I've found. Which is good for the future career, bad news for the regular readers. Hello both! Long time no see.

So, done a bit of scouting around the news sites. Well, the various subjects offered by the BBC news site. I know I tend to stick to the BBC news for my links, but it does seem fairly comprehensive and fairly non-partisan. Also, I pay my license and seldom watch tv, so I wanted to get my moneys worth somehow. So, what's been happening?

Supermodel has no belly-button!

On the front page, not in the Science section. Although it is fairly scientific in a way, so I can use it. Apparently, there's this supermodel named Karolina Kurkova. Not being into fashion or the more 'physical' men's magazines, I'd never heard of her. But I don't think anyone could describe her as unattractive. Indeed, if anyone did, I would assume they were lying. Or Gay. Or a lying Gay person, it does happen. But apparently, she has no belly button. Although, looking at the pics, she does have a belly button, just not one as deep as you'd normally expect. There's a lot of speculation as to why this is the case, with many possibilities such as it being the result of some unspecified abdominal surgery, or some umbilical after effect from birth, or even re-shaping after cosmetic surgery. There are many questions people are asking, and so far the lady in question is not saying anything.

But I have a question; How is this in any way important to anything or anyone ever? Could there be a less relevant issue to take up front page space? I'm sure there are many physiological procedures that could affect the appearance of a belly button, or navel if you will, but are any of them an issue. The article has many comments from people with the same problem, as if it's some sort of support group. Is it a problem ever? Has anyone's life been ruined by the lack of navel? And what's up with our media when, confronted by around 6' foot of physically perfect blonde demi-goddess, the first thing people pick up on is the shallow indentation.

I don't really mind the article that much, it just got to me for persistent use of the terms 'belly button' and 'tummy'. I always find them incredibly patronising, despite them being 'acceptable'.

(Tools) Lost in Space!

This made me giggle. Apparently, some astronauts were fixing some faulty mechanism on the ISS when a tool bag came loose. Now, I once dropped a screwdriver while trying to fix a light fitting on the ceiling. I had to get down from the ladder and get it. I found this very annoying, so I have no idea how enraged these guys must be, but I'm guessing a lot. I would love to be a fly on the wall on the way home, it's bad enough when something goes wrong on a car journey, with recriminations flying everywhere, never mind when you're travelling at supersonic speeds through atmospheric temperatures that could melt lead whilst high enough so that people in aeroplanes look like ants. Stress must be something these guys are coached for, right?

And I have to wonder, how much were the tools worth? It costs about $10,000 a kilo to send things into space, so no wonder they didn't take a spare, but do they get the best possible tools or do they claim some money back by buying cheap ones, like the ones round the corner from the entrance at Hyper Value. Either way, I assume they'll just drift out in Space for ever, or if they do return to earth they'll burn up in the atmosphere. If they don't then they could hit the ground at supersonic speeds and kill someone. Here's hoping it's Peter Stringfellow, so we could see the headline 'Tool Killed By Tools'.

Interesting point, the ISS (International Space Station, just so you know), is 10 years old today. And it's not finished. Which begs the question, when you have a whole planet of builders to choose form, why pick the guys who built Wembly Stadium?

A Mammoth Task

Russian scientists have mapped the genome of the woolly mammoth! They think. About 80% maybe. Or not, they're not sure how big it is really. The genomes, not the mammoth, they're about the size of elephants, that much is obvious from the intact frozen remains. Speculation abounds of a Jurassic Park style cloning resurrection (which they may try to do with Michael Crichton, now that he's popped it). However, the killjoy scientist at the end of the article tries to quash any hopes of this with petty rationalisations such as 'it's not possible'. I jest of course, I always approve when someone in the know acts all reasonable and well thought out. And even if it were possible, if we could start producing new mammoths, where would they go? They're as big as elephants and we're running out of room for the ones we've got, and I don't think they'd make good pets or cattle. I suppose there might be a market for mammoth wool clothes, but it looks itchy to be honest.

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