Book Review: The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Cixin Liu is the most popular science fiction author in China today and his books are finally becoming available in English translations and having just finished ‘The Three Body Problem’ I think that’s a good thing! ‘The Three Body Problem’ was the most intriguing novel I’ve read in quite a while and I’m looking forward to reading more of Mister Cixin’s work. The first installment in a three part series ‘The Three Body Problem’ is being published by Tor books here in the United States along with ‘The Dark Forest’ and ‘Death’s End’. The pictures below show the novel’s front cover for the original Chinese edition by Chongqing Press along with the edition by Tor Books.

Cover The Three Body Problem (Credit: Chongqing Press)
Cover The Three Body Problem (Credit: Tor Books)

The novel begins during the ‘Cultural Revolution’ in China, the violent suppression of all opposition that Mao Zedong used to reassert his absolute rule in China. The main character of the novel, Ye Zhetai is an astrophysicist and the daughter of China’s most famous physicist. When her father is beaten to death during one of the ‘struggle sessions’ Madam Ye is sent to a labour camp only to be denounced herself and left to die in a prison cell. She is rescued when her special knowledge is needed for a top secret military program, the ‘Red Coast Project’.

The novel bounces back and forth between China in the 60’s and 70’s and modern times but the changes are handled smoothly. This way we learn some of the consequences of Madam Ye’s before we discover just what exactly it is that she has done.

Now the Three Body Problem of the title is the famous gravitational problem still unsolved from Newton’s time. Using the calculus he developed Sir Isaac was able to find an exact, closed, analytic solution for the motion of two bodies under their mutual gravitational attraction. However, as soon as a third body is added to the problem there is in general no exact solution, only approximate, numerical solutions that require a great deal of arithmetic to solve. (It should be acknowledged however that with modern computers those numerical solutions can yield fantastically accurate results as demonstrated by the recent eclipse across the USA.)

Now the three bodies that make up the problem in the novel are three suns around which an alien planet orbits. The civilization on this planet has progressed through periods of stable orbits, and suffered through periods of chaotic orbits when their planet is either baked or frozen by being pulled too near or too far from one of its suns. Because of the harsh conditions these creatures have endured for millions of years the only creed by which they live is survival, the only goal they possess is to find a new world to inhabit.

I suppose you can guess that the plot of ‘The Three Body Problem’ is the trite old story of aliens from a dying world coming to conquer Earth but Cixin Liu really manages to inject a lot of fresh ideas into his version. One of the most interesting ideas is a virtual reality game developed here on Earth that simulates human cultures trying to survive on the alien’s world.

Now ‘The Three Body Problem’ is only the first part of the trilogy, I’m certainly looking forward to the rest of the story. Before I leave however I think I’m going to go out on a limb a little bit. At the front of the book there’s a list of characters; one of whom is Yang Dong, the daughter of Ye Zhetai and a string theorist! The problem is that Yang Dong has committed suicide before the modern day part of the story begins and although she is mentioned several times, and appears as a baby in the past sections, she never says a word! What is it that makes me think she’s not quite dead yet!

I’ll let you know if I’m right after I read ‘The Dark Forest’.




Concussions in Sports, the Danger Everyone is Trying to Ignore.

Football season is upon us once again and there are already stories during the sports segments on the news about players suffering injuries. Despite wearing the best protective gear sports science can provide Football is just such a highly physical, even violent sport that it is rare for a player to go an entire season without missing some action because of an injury.

(Note: When I refer to Football in this post I am speaking about American Football, the one where the ball is hardly ever touched by a foot. The game the rest of the world calls Football I will refer to as Futball.)

Now Football certainly isn’t alone in posing health risks to its athletes. Hockey, Rugby even Baseball and Futball all have their share of injuries. However it is Football that has become notorious for one kind of injury, concussions, repeated head injuries whose long-term health effects are severely impacting the lives of former players. We’re not talking about feeling woozy after a hard hit or ‘seeing stars’; this is major damage to the brain caused by multiple head injuries.

The condition has been given the name Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and the symptoms of this disease generally don’t begin to appear until 8-10 years after the repeated injuries that trigger the condition. The first signs of CET are actually similar to the initial effects of a concussion, dizziness, disorientation and headaches. As the disease progresses new symptoms begin to develop that can include memory loss, poor judgment and erratic, sometimes violent behavior. In its final stages CTE can cause dementia, speech difficulty, tremors and thoughts of suicide.

One of the biggest problems in treating CTE is that at present a diagnosis of the disease cannot be confirmed without a physical examination of the brain, something that cannot take place until after the patient is dead! Techniques are being developed using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI) but more research needs to be conducted before these techniques can be considered reliable diagnostic tools. The photo below shows a healthy brain and the brain of someone who died of CTE.

Normal Brain and Brain with CTE comparison (Credit: Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy)

A recent study of deceased NFL players whose relatives allowed autopsies to be performed revealed that 110 out of 111 of the subjects had CTE. Now the researchers who conducted the study caution that the deceased players had all shown symptoms of CTE while still alive so the high percentage of confirmed cases made sense. However it is still a horrific glimpse into the extent of the disease.

However the biggest difficulty in dealing with CTE is simply money. Pro-Football and the other sports with high rates of player concussions are big business and nobody wants to see the hard hits in Football eliminated, not the owners, not the fans and not even the players themselves.

Think about it, if you asked a group of 20-year-old boys if they’d be willing to risk their health in order to play a game they love for millions of dollars a year, oh, and you get to be famous and admired as well. How many do you think would say; nah, I’d rather be an accountant! That is a part of the paradox here, CTE is a voluntary disease, you choose to risk getting it just like drug addition or lung cancer from smoking.

The NFL has agreed to establish a fund of $765 million dollars to help with the medical costs of retired players with CTE. However this agreement came only after several years of legal fights in court. Nevertheless, simply paying the medical bills of people who get sick by working for you is not a solution.

Technology is not going to make CTE go away either, the protective gear worn by Football players is already the best in any pro sport but it obviously isn’t nearly enough. I don’t know what the final solution will be but this present situation cannot continue.

And before I go I want to state once again that this disease is not confined to pro-Football, many cases of people who only played college or even high school Football have been diagnosed. Nor is it confined to Football, cases have been found in every contact sport. If you like to read more about CTE click on the link below to be taken to the ‘Concussion Foundation’s’ webpage.

The Great American Eclipse of 2017, that’s a Big One off of my Bucket List.

Did you see it? Did you get to see the eclipse? The place I chose to travel to in order to see the eclipse was Sweetwater Tennessee and boy did I pick the right spot. Two minutes and thirty-seven seconds of totality in an absolutely cloudless sky. Those are two minutes and thirty-seven seconds that I will never forget.

Now Sweetwater is a pretty little town just about thirty miles south of Knoxville, Tennessee with a population of 5,764. The townspeople knew this was going to be a big event for them and they made sure that they were ready. The main street of the town had been blocked off for the eclipse and a small park across the street was laid out with food vendors, people selling souvenirs and artists with their goods.

Every available parking spot had been opened up for visitors at reasonable rates, I paid $20, and the money that was collected for parking mostly went to local charities. The pictures below shown the main street and park before the crowd really started coming.

Sweetwater, Tenn. Main Street (Credit: R.A.Lawler)
Sweetwater, Tenn. Park Area (Credit: R.A.Lawler)

I wanted to be certain to arrive early so I got to Sweetwater at 8AM, that’s when the pictures were taken. Finding myself a nice spot in the shade of a cafe to wait for the show to start, I quickly made friends with a father and son; both named Glenn, from Houston and Baton Rouge who had actually arrived in Sweetwater at 2AM. They really wanted to be sure to get a good spot! I also met people from Pittsburgh, Detroit and New York along with several from nearby Knoxville and Chattanooga. The town hasn’t yet published any estimate of the number of visitors, if they do I’ll add it later, but I’d say that at least 15,000 people came.

In the early morning there were no clouds of any kind so with the bright August Sun the day quickly became fairly hot. Soon anyone who wasn’t actually buying something was staying in the shade where a nice breeze made it fairly comfortable. A few clouds started rolling in about noon and by around 1PM as the partial eclipse was starting you could hear a few people whisper, ‘I hope it doesn’t get any worse’. Well, it got better, by 2:30 and the start of totality there was an absolutely clear sky. Perfect viewing for something I’ve wanted to see my whole life.

I did take my solar telescope and managed to get some decent videos of the partial eclipse. The videos are all too large to imbed so I’ll just have to add a single frame image from one video. (If you look closely on the Sun’s left side you can see a small Sunspot.)

Partial Eclipse through Solar Telescope (Credit: R.A.Lawler)

Once totality started however I didn’t want to waste time fiddling with the solar telescope and just took a few of images with the same camera I used to take the pictures of Sweetwater. The best image is below.

Total Eclipse of the Sun (Credit: R.A.Lawler)

As I said, Sweetwater got two minutes and thirty-seven seconds of totality, that’s just five seconds less than the maximum time for the eclipse anywhere in the US. That was enough time for me to find the four planets, Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter that became visible as the Sunlight was blocked by the Moon. Think of it, seeing four planets arching across the sky at 2:30 in the afternoon!

I have no doubt you can find better images of the eclipse very easily on the internet, I’ve never been much of a photographer and surely millions of people were taking pictures. These are mine however, and mean more to me than I can say. Yes I spent four days traveling to Tennessee and back and yes the traffic jam after the eclipse was the worst I have ever experienced. Nevertheless, I will always remember the town of Sweetwater because it was there I saw my first total eclipse of the Sun.



Science and Science Fiction Celebrates its First Birthday / My Patent

This week ‘Science and Science Fiction’ reaches the one-year milestone and I’d like to begin this anniversary post by thanking everyone who has visited my blog over the past year but especially to you my regular readers. I seriously could not have imagined a year ago that this blog would be averaging over 300 visitors a day and that over 4000 people would have become registered blog subscribers or that over 400 of you would leave some very flattering comments. I can only once again give you my thanks.

To celebrate Science and Science Fiction’s first birthday I hope you don’t mind if I’m a little egotistical and use this post to talk about some of my own research, my small contribution to progress. I’m going to talk about my patent.

It’s called a ‘Graded Resistance Solid State Current Control Circuit’ and its registered at the US Patent Office (Reg. US Pat Off: When I was a kid I always wondered what that meant) as US 2012/0243137.

The invention is a circuit that is a part of a design for a new ultra-fast electrical circuit breaker system. Now circuit breakers are needed in any electrical power system because if there’s ever a problem causing a short circuit the circuit breaker will open, eliminating the huge current rush that you get with a short circuit. The picture below shows the breadboard model of the entire circuit breaker. My patent is on the three green circuit boards clustered around the central metal can.

Breadboard Model of Graded Resistance Solid State Current Control Circuit (Credit: R.A.Lawler)

But there’s a problem, large amounts of current don’t want to just stop, electrons have inertia just like any other kind of matter. Trying to just stop a large current quickly in fact will generate a large voltage, the larger the current and the faster it’s eliminated the higher the voltage that is generated, this phenomenon is know as an inductive voltage spike.

The voltage that is generated when a circuit breaker opens can easily be thousands of volts causing huge electrical arcs that can be both dangerous and damaging. I have seen circuit breakers destroyed by doing their job but fortunately I’ve never seen a person injured.

My idea was simple enough, with modern high power solid-state switches instead of just breaking the circuit, as old fashioned mechanical circuit breakers do, we can insert a small resistance, first to control the rapid increase in the current, then add a little more resistance to control the current itself. Finally we insert enough resistance to eliminate the current entirely, hence a ‘Graded Resistance Solid State Current Control Circuit’.

The figure below shows a simplified schematic of the circuit and how it fits into the entire circuit breaker. The object at the top is an ultra-fast mechanical contact that is opened by the same mechanism that is being used in the US Navy’s new rail gun (It’s also the central can in the picture above). My patent is the parts in the figure numbered 1603 to 1610. The even numbers, 1604,1606, 1608 and 1610 are the high power transistors while the odd numbers 1603, 1605, 1607, and 1609 are the increasingly larger valued resistors.

Graded Resistance Solid State Current Control Circuit schematic (Credit: R.A.Lawler)

The breadboard model of the entire system has been tested with results similar to that shown in the figure below. The figure below shows the voltage spikes generated as each increase is resistance is inserted. The slanted line 1702 is the maximum voltage that the system can withstand as a function of time. It is easy to see that the voltage remains well below that line, well within safe limits.

Measured Test Data (Credit R.A.Lawler)

So that’s my little invention. The design is being finalized for production and research into improvements is still ongoing. Every engineer wants to invent something completely new and different during their career, and to have it recognized as such. You’ve just had a brief look at mine!

Now tomorrow I’ll be heading down to Tennessee for the total eclipse. I hope the weather’s good so I can grab some images to show you!

Paleontology News for Aug 2017

The very word Dinosaur means terrible lizard and ever since human science realized that huge reptiles once dominated the Earth the search has been on for paleontologists to find the biggest, the most awe inspiring dinosaur of them all. The first specimens of Brontosaurus stunned the public with their size but they soon gave way to the Diplodocus who in its turn was outclassed and outmassed by the Seimosaurus. These huge long necked, long tailed sauropod dinosaurs have even been given the group name of Titanosaurs to convey their immensity.

Now a new contender for the title of world’s largest animal has been announced and named. Based on fossils discovered in the Patagonian region of Argentina, Patagotitan mayorum is believed to have measured more than 35 meters in length and to have possessed a mass of greater than 60,000 kilos, about 12 times the mass of the current largest land animal the African Elephant. The picture below shows the assembled skeleton of Patagotitan mayorum in a warehouse.

Patagotitan mayorum skeleton (Credit: Museo Egidio Feruglio)


The bones of Patagotitan Mayorum were first discovered in 2014 by the Argentinean paleontologists Jose Luis Carballido and Diego Pol of Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council. The two scientists have spent the last three years carefully digging up and analyzing the bones before officially naming their prize. In addition to its extreme size the fossils of Patagotitan discovered are also an unusually complete skeleton and researchers hope this specimen will enable us to learn more about how the sauropod dinosaurs evolved into such behemoths.

As exciting as the announcement of Patagotitan Mayorum is I have to wonder why three different news stories insisted on proclaiming the find as “New Dinosaur bigger than T-rex”! That’s a bit like saying a new species of Elephant has been discovered and it’s huge “Bigger than a lion!” Yes, plant eaters are often considerably larger than their predators (Think Bison and Wolves) and T-rex is not the standard against which every dinosaur has to be measured.

Another important fossil discovery announced this past week concerns our own species and our closest relatives the great apes. Now to remind you, in the world today there are four species of great apes: chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and ourselves, along with one species of lesser ape the gibbons. That’s all that are left in the world today but 10 to 20 million years ago there were dozens of other now extinct species of ape in the world.

Recently a nearly complete 13 million year old skull of a baby ape was discovered in Kenya. Nicknamed ‘Alesi’ by its discoverer John Ekusi the creature was likely a fruit eating, climbing primate that resembled a gibbon. The image below shows the fossil skull of Alesi.

Alesi Skull (Credit: Fred Spoor)

According to the study’s co-author Craig Feibel, chair of the anthropology department at Rutgers University in New Jersey, the age and location of this fossil make it very important. “The…locality offers us a rare glimpse of an African landscape 13 million years ago.” It is hoped that Alesi will tell scientists a great deal about how the great apes, including our ancestors, split off from the many species of lesser apes.

An examination of the unerupted adult teeth indicates that Alesi belonged to an already established genus of apes called Nyanzapithecus but to a new species that has been named Nyanzapithecus alesi.

The authors of the study are unsure how Alesi died but a layer of volcanic ash from a huge eruption that occurred in eastern Africa 13 million years ago covered the skull and it is possible that Alesi died in that eruption.

If you’d like to read more about the discovery of Alesi click on the link below to be taken to the Scientific American article.








Technology has finally given us the ultimate Mad-Scientist Weapon; Humans can now CAUSE Earthquakes!

Back when I was young I liked to watch all of the spy shows. The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Mission Impossible, The Wild, Wild West, and Get Smart, I watched them all. Now sooner or later every one of those shows would broadcast an episode where a mad scientist or criminal organization would invent an Earthquake Machine with which they could threaten civilization. In fact season three of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. actually had two episodes where the bad guys were causing earthquakes.

(A quick aside about the way scientists measure the strength of earthquakes for those who aren’t familiar with the Richter scale. Each increase by +1, say from a 3 to a 4, means 10 times the amount of energy in the earthquake. So therefore a Magnitude 4 earthquake has 10 times the energy of a magnitude 3. A magnitude 5 has 10 times the energy of a magnitude 4 and therefore 100 times the energy in a 3. Now a magnitude 3 earthquake might actually be felt by someone right at the epicenter but most people would notice nothing. At the other end of the scale I lived through the Loma Prieta earthquake that killed several hundred people in the San Francisco area. That earthquake was a magnitude 8, or 100,000 times as powerful as a magnitude 3.)

I think of those old shows every time I hear about another earthquake occurring in the state of Oklahoma. You see up until some ten years ago Oklahoma was just about the most geologically stable place on Earth. Really, the nearest fault line is over 500 kilometers away and every since the United States Geological Survey (USGS) began monitoring Oklahoma the state had averaged about 2 tremors of magnitude 3 or more each year and the strongest earthquake ever measured in the state was a magnitude 5.5 way back in 1952!

No more, in the year 2015 there were over a thousand, that’s 1,000 earthquakes, 500 times as many as were recorded in the average year between 1972 and 2008! The quakes are getting stronger as well. In 2016, just one year there were 4 earthquakes of magnitude 5 or more including a magnitude 5.8 quake. The map below shows the levels of seismic activity in Oklahoma and surrounding areas.

Distribution of Recent Oklahoma Earthquakes (Credit: USGA, Public Domain)


So what happened? Where did all of this sudden increase in seismic activity come from? Well we’re doing it. That’s right human beings now possess the technology to cause earthquakes!

The technology is called hydraulic fracturing, or more commonly ‘fracking’ and fracking is used by the oil and natural gas industry as a means of rejuvenating oil wells and fields and that are no longer producing.

The technique involves the injection of large quantities of pressurized water, with various chemicals, deep into the ground that frees up trapped pockets of oil and gas enabling them to be economically pumped out. The US petroleum industry considers fracking to be nothing less than a miracle, vastly increasing domestic production and making the US once again energy independent.

But earthquakes are only one of the problems associated with fracking. Here in Pennsylvania the problems have included natural gas escaping into people’s homes along with the chemical laden water getting into the ground water. If you’d like to watch a YouTube video of a homeowner lighting her kitchen faucet on fire thanks to fracking click on the link below.

So here we have another case of a technology with great economic promise that also has definite drawbacks and again we have people taking a stand rather than trying to find a workable compromise. One major issue is the possibility of taxing the gas and oil companies so that everyone shares in the wealth being brought out of the ground. There also have to laws however that require petroleum companies to deposit a certain amount of money for the cleanup of their sites before they start fracking. Like mining companies, oil companies have a nasty habit of taking everything they can out of the Earth and then declaring bankruptcy so they don’t have to clean up anything.

So long as we continue the process of fracking the number and intensity of the earthquakes in Oklahoma will only increase. Of course we cannot even consider a reasonable solution where fracking is safely employed with monitoring and regulatory oversight. That would kill our economy or destroy the environment.

Anyone who has read a few of the posts on this blog knows that I am pro technology but I think it has to be used wisely. After all, we’re not just mad scientists in some stupid 1960s TV show are we?



Space News for August 2017

There were some interesting news stories related to the exploration of space over the last month reaching from right here on Earth to the very limits of the observable Universe. I’ll start with some news that is both shocking and saddening about the legacy of the first man to walk on the Moon, Neil Armstrong.

In Armstrong’s hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio there is the Neil Armstrong Air and Space museum. The museum was built by the State of Ohio as a place to honor Armstrong’s achievements and display for the public some of artifacts and tributes that were bestowed on the astronaut during his career. I’ve been there, it’s a wonderful little museum where you can learn about, or remember as the case may be, the early days of space exploration. I highly recommend it if you’re anywhere near northwestern Ohio.

Now on the night of Friday the 31st of July the museum was broken into and robbed by what authorities believe were three or four men. A number of exhibits were stolen including rare medals and coins but the most valuable item that was taken was a solid gold miniature model of the Lunar Module Eagle presented to Armstrong upon his return to Earth after his Moon landing.

Local police hope to recover the stolen items but right now they have no idea who the burglars were. The scariest thing is that the gold LM model could be melted down for the gold so that no one would ever know what it once was. Anyway it’s a sorry comment on our time that money and greed should in any degree tarnish the legacy of the greatest achievement in human history. The photo below shows Michael Collins’s model of the stolen LM replica.

LEM Replica (Credit: Nick Welsh)

My second story concerns our picture of the entire observable Universe and how much we’ve learned about it. A new study called the ‘Dark Energy Survey’ (DES) has released some very detailed results of the structure and distribution of matter in the Universe along with how the structure and distribution have changed over the past seven billion years.

The DES team employed a technique called gravitational lensing, a phenomenon first predicted in Einstein’s General Theory where the light from a distant object can be bent by the gravitational field of a closer object. This technique can be used to measure the mass of the closer object by how much it bends the light of the distant object. Using this technique 26 million galaxies, that’s right 26 million galaxies, had their mass measured allowing a map to be made of the mass distribution in a large section of the Universe, see photo below.

Mass Distribution in the Universe (Credit: Chihway Chang, DES Collaboration)

In previous posts (25Sept16 and 3Dec16) I have mentioned the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), the leftover heat of the Big Bang which gives us a ‘baby picture’ of our Universe about 380,000 years after the Big Bang. So with the addition of the new DES study we can now test our theoretical models of cosmic evolution. In other words, taking the CMB measurements as the initial conditions do our models give us the kind of Universe we see in the DES?

It turns out that the simplest model; known as Lambda-Cold Dark Matter (λ-CDM) is still an excellent fit. In the model the Dark Energy accelerating the expansion of the Universe is just a constant term (Einstein used the Greek letter λ in his equations) and the Dark Matter we can measure only by its gravity it composed of heavy particles of some kind.

This is a rather strange state of affairs. We don’t know what 95% of the Universe is (Dark Energy, Dark Matter) but when it comes to predicting how it behaves we’re spot on!

Finally, you may have heard that NASA has a job opening for a new Planetary Protection Officer. No, we’re not talking about fighting off the aliens, at least not with a ray gun. NASA has had a Planetary Protection Officer ever since the days of Apollo when there was a very real concern that Lunar microbes might be able to hitch a ride to Earth with our astronauts.

Today most of the Planetary Protection Officer’s job actually deals with protecting other planets, such as making certain that Earth bacteria don’t use one of our Mars Rovers to contaminate the planet before we can discover whether or not life originated there. (Imagine the first astronauts on Mars discover life!!!! Oh wait; it’s just a staphylococcus infection.)

Now if you think Planetary Protection Officer sounds like a fun job, well nine-year-old Jack Davis of New Jersey thought so to. He applied for the job in a hand written note which includes as a qualification “My sister thinks I’m an alien”. Anyway, Jack got a nice reply from NASA’s Director of Planetary Science Doctor James Green telling him to study hard and one day he can work for NASA. Hopefully one day he will.


Gene Editing in Humans: The Promise and the Peril

A collaboration of researchers at Oregon’s Health and Science University and the Salk Institute have carried out the first successful attempt at modifying the DNA inside human embryos. The team, led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov removed a genetic ‘mistake’ that causes a heart defect in humans from 42 out of 58 fertilized egg cells.

Doctor Mitalipov and his team used a gene editing technique known as CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) to cut the DNA of the fertilized egg, remove the disease causing gene section and replace it with a healthy one. Chinese scientists had already attempted this technique several times but the CRISPR editing always resulted in a small number of editing ‘mistakes’ know as mosaicism and that when the fertilized cells began to divide to form an embryo not all of the cells received the edited correction. The picture below shows the CRISPR process being carried out on a fertilized human egg cell.

Gene Editing (Credit: Oregon Health and Science University)

In the paper Mitalipov and his team have published in the journal Nature their results indicate that they have succeeded in avoiding the errors in previous experiments. This is obviously of critical importance since any ‘off target’ results could easily cause more harm than good and the ethical controversy around gene editing is already a hot topic.

In order to avoid any such ethical concerns Mitalipov and his team only allowed the embryos in their study to develop for five days and there was never any intention of implanting the embryos into a womb. In fact any attempt to implant a gene edited human embryo into a womb is illegal in the US, Congress having forbidden the US Food and Drug administration from approving any such clinical trials.

When it comes to the technology of gene editing let’s face it, it’s only a matter of time before we can directly modify the DNA structure to suit our pleasure. If you think about it, we’ve been modifying the DNA of living creatures ever since we brought wolves into our caves and turned them into dogs but gene editing is a big leap forward and great harm could result from any carelessness.

Now anyone who has read some of my posts on this blogsite knows that I am pro-science and pro-technology. Also, the possible good that could be achieved by eliminating genetic disorders such as Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Huntington’s disease, the blood condition beta-thalassemia or Down’s syndrome or many others is just so great that we cannot simply refuse to try.

On the other hand, the possible harm that could occur to the children of gene editing experiments that resulted in ‘off target’ effects is simply horrible to consider. Any gene editing technique that we even consider employing on ourselves must be as perfect as is humanly possible before any clinical trials are attempted. In other words we have to do this slowly and carefully, making certain that the good will far outweigh any harm before proceeding.

I think most people can agree on such a policy. The possible rewards of gene editing are so great that we have to try, but slowly and carefully to avoid as many errors as we can. The real thorny ethical questions arise when we begin talking about using gene editing to ‘improve’ human beings, to create ‘designer babies’ rather than just to eliminate birth defects.

The problem is in finding any consensus on just what an ‘improvement’ might be, let alone on whose children will be ‘improved’. Now I’ve never been any good at telling people what is ethically right or wrong. However I will say this; each of us, wherever we live in this world, needs to consider this issue and make up our own mind!

Gene editing could very well become the most contentious issue of the 21st century and only an informed and thoughtful people can even hope to make the right choices. If you’d like to read more on the work at Oregon Health and Science University, the link below will take you to MIT’s Technology Review’s story.

The US Navy’s Space age weapons development, Lasers and the Electromagnetic Rail Gun.

Over the past 5-10 years there’s been a lot of research and development into new weapons systems that can only be described as space age. These weapons include powerful lasers and projectiles launched by huge electromagnetic (EM) fields. If you think these weapons seem like something straight out of Star Trek or Star Wars you’re not alone.

For the past fifty years or so the state of the art in naval weaponry has been the guided missile. Whether launched from a ship or fired from a plane the increased range and deadly accuracy of a modern missile has almost made the old time naval gun a relic of history. Ships no longer fire their cannon in broadsides and planes no longer dogfight with machine guns, in today’s battle its launch a ‘fire and forget’ missile.

While missiles clearly have distinct advantages, they also certainly have disadvantages. One of these is the fact that being so much larger than shells or bullets a ship or plane can carry far fewer of them. Even more of a disadvantage is the far greater cost of a missile versus a shell or bullet.

The new technologies under development are intended to remedy those problems with systems whose launchers may be large and expensive but the projectiles they fire are much smaller and far cheaper than a guided missile.

The first system we’ll discuss is a ‘Laser Weapon System’ or LaWS in military speak. Now militaries have been trying to weaponize lasers almost since the laser was invented but have never quite managed to make them ‘battle ready’. In the 1980s the United States Navy (USN) tried very hard to develop an anti-aircraft system using chemical lasers but the system was never quite powerful enough to shoot down aircraft and the chemicals in the lasers made them almost as deadly to the seamen firing them as to their targets.

Modern solid-state lasers have changed that. In fact the Navy’s latest version of it’s LaWS system consists of an array of six high power solid state lasers that can deliver a total of 33kW of power. This prototype was fitted unto the U.S.S. Ponce (a amphibious transport type ship) for testing under operational conditions and deployed to the Persian Gulf in 2014.

During the past two years of testing LaWS has successfully destroyed airborne drones, detonated a rocket propelled grenade while in flight and disabled the motor of a rigid-hulled inflatable boat. One special ability of LaWS is that the system can reduce its output power, even down to the point of just dazzling the eyes of attackers without doing any permanent damage. Best of all, the ‘bullets’ for LaWS are literally limitless and cost less than a dollar per shot!

The system has performed so well that the Navy has declared it to be an operational asset allowing the captain of the Ponce to actually use it in combat at his discretion. An upgraded LaWS system, with a maximum power of 60-100kW that would allow it to shoot down helicopters and some aircraft is being readied. Over the next several years this new system will begin to be deployed on the Navy’s destroyers and Littoral Combat Ships. The picture below shows the current LaWS as mounted on the U.S.S. Ponce.

LaWS aboard the USS Ponce (Credit: Public Domain)

The second, and even more powerful weapons system being developed by the Navy is the electromagnet railgun. This weapon uses a short but tremendously powerful magnetic pulse to accelerate a metal projectile to seven times the speed of sound (Mach 7 as its know), or about 2.5km per second, and hurl it over 160km.

Now undergoing testing at the Navy’s Dahlgren Surface Warfare Center the Navy’s prototype railgun uses 32MJ (that’s 32 million Joules of energy) in the form of over a million amps of electrical current to fire its 3.2kg projectile. As with LaWS, the small size of the projectile, and the fact that only electricity is needed to fire it, are enormous advantages for the railgun. The link below will take you to some Youtube videos of the railgun firing.

This version of the railgun is now ready to undergo shipboard testing, probably on the USS Millinocket one of the Navy’s Expeditionary Fast Transport ships. Deployment of a 64MJ railgun onto the new Zumwalt class destroyers is planned to begin around 2020.

There are still problems are be solved before the railgun is completely battle ready however. The biggest problem is without doubt the tremendous wear and tear on the rails that the projectile slides down. Although the details are secret it appears that the Navy has managed to make considerable progress on solving this problem. They have informed congress of a successful firing of 400 shots with a single set of rails and expect to increase that to 1000 shots.

Another problem is guidance for the projectile. Any system to guide the projectile during flight will first have to survive the great heat, high magnetic field and gargantuan forces generated when it’s fired.

Still, I can remember when I made my first little coilgun (a relative of the railgun) in my basement and wondered if anybody would ever make a successful EM weapon.