Wednesday, February 8, 2012

An end to blindness is in sight!

The news coming out of the prestigious Moorfields Eye Hospital in London has been heartening for anyone suffering from vision problems. With an ageing population, that will include just about everybody over time. The radical use of retinal stem cells to cure macular degeneration and other irreversible eye diseases has shown promising results and this was recently reported in the world press and media to much acclaim and fanfare and rightly so.
It so happens that I was once referred to Moorfields (while I was living and teaching in London from 2002-2005) for possible eye surgery although I eventually opted for such treatment here at home in Australia. The Bionic eye is gaining in sophistication and effectiveness and has also undergone successful trials here and overseas.
Blindness is a scourge in under developed countries and here at home particularly impacts on Australia’s Aboriginal communities. Sometimes even cheap and easy procedures can save a person’s sight and anyone who has seen the Sir Fred Hollows foundation infomercials is aware of this.
Along with the rapid development of the bionic eye by several competing medical research teams around the world (most prominently in the US, the UK and Australia) there is tangible hope that blindness as we know it will be scaled back markedly if not banished altogether. Stem cell research promises to open up new vistas in all areas of medicine and the retinal stem cell trials are an important step along that path.

Days of futures past

Sometimes, like old friends and lovers that didn’t quite work out, life can have unintended or unforeseen consequences. Take the universal field of science and technology; what can seem to be a harbinger for future prosperity and happiness can be anything but.
Nuclear Fusion power was supposed to be generating electricity from ocean water at rates too cheap to meter yet even after decades of intense, global research a commercial reactor is still probably a century or more away. Putting “the sun in a box” as one frustrated scientist put it, is much easier said than done.
Fission power, which has shown much more than promise, has given several developed nations commercially viable power but at what cost? The ongoing problem with Iran’s program illustrates the point that reactors can also create weapons grade plutonium. Added to that is the vexing issue of the disposal of nuclear waste and you can see why Germany recently decided to scrap its entire program. The catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear reactors following the devastating earthquake and tsunami indicates many of the world’s 500 or so reactors are in need of an upgrade (with respect to safety measures at least) or even replacement. Only China is producing nuclear power reactors in numbers and their record for safety is spotty at best. Some like the inventor of Gaia theory James Lovelock look to nuclear power as a solution to global warming but I and many others are not so sure following the Fukushima fallout and blowback.
In the area of medical science stem cell research was hailed as a miracle cure for any number of ailments pertaining to every organ inside and outside (from the heart, lungs and brain to the skin and everything in between) the body. Like gene therapy it was and is seen as cutting edge and something within reach in real time. Gene therapy had a few false starts (ending in some cases in the death of the patient) and the medical science researchers and doctors have gone back to the drawing board so to speak. Stem cell treatment was also advertised as being just around the corner yet the truth was and is far different. Progress has been steady and welcome but there is a long way to go before a new heart or even brain is created to order around protein scaffolding. I have no doubts it shall eventually happen as advertised by promoters inside and outside the medical profession. The good news is that doctors and medical scientists at London’s renowned Moorfields Eye Hospital have achieved positive results following a trial of retinal stem cell treatment on several patients with seriously deteriorating vision leading to blindness.
The future is not always all it’s cracked up to be, just ask technocrats from the former Soviet Union. So while we are still not flying around in jet packs or taking vacations to the moon, science is progressing, only not exactly at the rate we would like. Advances in silicon chip design and electronics (and the large screen HD TV, the iPhone and iPad would be impossible without it) in general indicate that astounding progress can and will be made although just what areas of science and technology this is made in and at what rate is something beyond predictive analysis. I do believe in science and while we might not have fusion reactors or manned missions to Mars in my lifetime much that is good and useful will come to pass even as we speak.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Earthquake Prediction and Earthquake Science Fiction

Earthquake Prediction and Earthquake Science Fiction
or How Hollywood and the Usual suspects have crafted and morphed our view of planet Earth
The Tectonic Shift in our view of the world has increasingly come about through a weird combination of science fact and science fiction. Anyone who has seen “The Day After Tomorrow” or the even more extreme “2012” has some idea of how theories based on climate science or geophysics can be morphed by wordsmiths and Hollywood alike into a powerful meme that can and does capture the public imagination. This is generally a good thing but not always.
I must confess to have been a minor party to this re-imagining of an increasingly shaky planet both figuratively and literally speaking myself through Speculative narratives written while living in working abroad in Japan and the UK over a period of years.
In the late 1990’s I was a salary man living in Tokyo. During that time I experienced many large Earthquakes including one that threw me out of bed. It also happened that my father at the time worked as a noted US government scientist in the field of earthquake prediction. This work also had Cold war applications which are now presumably on ice, so to speak. Such prophetic powers to rival the Oracle of Delphi never reached the level aspired to because of the laws of physics (including the Quantum Uncertainty Principle and Chaos Theory) and other technical factors. One important tool for such prediction involving subduction of tectonic plates is an equation- Byerlee’s Law – named after my father Dr. James D. Byerlee. After the aforementioned major quake in Saitama Prefecture and elsewhere near Tokyo, I called my father at USGS in California and asked him about such matters. Whenever I phoned in a panic about the impending Big One he would patiently tell me that the time frame was within days, weeks, months and years yet would surely arrive sometime soon in the Geological near future. This can be measured in centuries yet I took it as a warning for what it was worth. As it happened I did avoid the mega-quake which so tragically struck the east coast of Northern Honshu in early March. The toll in human lives will probably top 30,000 and I do hope that some day a more comprehensive and accurate early warning system is devised so that a highly populated area such as this is better protected. Until then even the most well prepared for such a natural catastrophe (now severely compounded by the nuclear fallout from the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant), and the Japanese were certainly frequently and extensively drilled for such an event (I also participated in such drills in Tokyo as a city employee), will find such an ordeal to be a testing one in the extreme.
Which now brings me to the Science Fiction side of this essay; This naturally includes the influence of Hollywood and its ability to whip up paranoia bordering on hysteria, something of a speciality of theirs and undoubtedly in keeping with popular demand. I wrote a science fiction short story called “Precursors” which was then published in an in-flight magazine for ANA, All Nippon Airlines. The through line of this narrative was the use of animal life, including Dolphins, birds and other creatures, to predict Earthquakes. I won’t go beyond this brief explanation and shall direct those interested in reading it to my website where it is attached (along with another Tokyo based narrative “Karen Carpenter’s Last Song”) free of charge. This narrative naturally tapped into my experiences on the ground in Tokyo as well as my exposure to Geo-science.
The natural disaster genre with science fictional overtones has expanded exponentially in the New Millennium. Since the turn of the century there have been a plethora of such doomsday story telling which seemingly addresses widely held fears (one caveat, remember paranoia is the fear of something which doesn’t exist and such dangers including nuclear war were and are real in the most real sense) about Global Warming, Tsunamis, The Greenhouse Effect, Planetary Rupture of all kinds including Volcanos and the aforementioned Earthquakes, Global Freezing and so on.
In the movies physical reality is of course often bent completely out of shape so that you are left with a caricature or counterfeit of life. It might do to remember it’s only a movie; something which can get lost when a grain of truth is morphed into a myth (think of the film JFK in another context) then starts a life of its own as Urban Legend before eventually becoming Public Perception up to and including the highest level of government. The previous president of the US demonstrated on more than one occasion some very fuzzy thinking when it came to how to how the world worked in a geophysical or ideational sense. As with Ronald Reagan, I think he looked to Hollywood when it came to the harder points of natural and human history.
“2012” the movie was in fact voted one of the most misleading, scientifically speaking, by a panel of US government scientists. Paranoid, hysterical visions of the near future and future are nothing new when you look at the scores of Nuclear Holocaust flicks dating from the end of War 2 right up to the present. Sometimes the horror scenario in the genre is even amped up with the addition of aliens. I can hardly wait to see what they will come up with next.
Maybe Liz Hurly dressed up as sexy Wonder Woman will Save the Day before its too late. Stay tuned.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill ; Mission accomplished or The Tar Baby?

The disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has been capped and the great hope is that the extensive pollution can be contained with a minimum of environmental damage.
Some of the world’s most pristine natural wetlands such as the3 Florida everglades have been under threat.
Despite calls from Big Oil for a resumption of deep sea oil drilling the American federal government under the measured leadership of US President Obama has held firm and preventing more such drilling and another possible spill in the near term. On the surface at least the slick is fast disappearing and there is a greater sense of hope for the future.
No one really knows what the long term effects will be of this massive outflow of toxic material including dispersants, as well as ongoing oxygen depletion but history tells us that the Exxon Valdez oil spill 20 years ago in Alaska has left traces of pollution to this day. An improvement in clean up technology and oil disaster mitigation is one area that needs attention. A moratorium on future deep sea drilling should be linked to legislated new guidelines in the technology and its proper management.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Brave Dissenters East and West need your support

This is the anniversary of the death of Iranian martyr Neda Soltan. she gave her life in the cause for freedom and democracy. As a young woman she had no wish to be physically and psychologically imprisoned by a Burka under a brutal regime that enforces primitive Sharia Law.
There are those who say this is a cultural matter as if there were anything cultural or cultivated about this kind of unthinking slavery. Last night I saw footage on the news of a 13 year old girl being beaten by a whip wielding Mullah with murder on his mind. There should be a global collective outcry about this kind of dangerous abuse but the moral relativists are surely at work as we speak.
Even the cultural icon Germaine Greer has an apple in this basket and has explained it all away with some nonsense about a "woman's choice when it comes to what she wears" as though this were about fashion statements in a Reality TV (something our Germain is experienced in as all the world knows) . It is not. Even a person I much admire and have high hopes for, Us President Barak Obama, has fallen into the trap by saying the wearing of the hijab by Muslim women, is a "right", while criticising governments like France, Belgium and Switzerland who have sought to ban it.
This is the kind of political double-speaking that often passes for rational discourse in the West. I have a novel "London's Falling" (coming out in August in the UK with Caffeine Nights Publications" ) which details the use of the Burk or hijab to commit crime in addition to the arbitrary and illegal imposition of Sharia Law in some Western Islamic communities in a fictional context not unlike the present reality in cities like London, New York and Melbourne to list but a few. What it must be like to have close relatives impose this Iron Curtain of personal apparel on a daughter, wife, mother or significant other is probably beyond words. To engage in hand waving and armchair lecturing on this important issue so as it explain it away as some kind of endangered species of cultural artifact is morally weak and even life -threatening to those on the front lines of the battle in the Middle East and the vast Islamic diaspora circling the globe. It is not unknown for so-called "Honour Killings (an oxymoron if ever there was one)to occur within families (often but not always with the collusion of the mother at the behest of dominant males like the father, brother or husband)for such indiscretions. In these situations justice is a joke or a vaguely misunderstood part of Western Democracy seen as irrelevant to what amounts to the worst kind of tribal law. If you wouldn't want your own daughter , wife or self if female , to wear these this Antediluvian garb then don't make excuses for those who would suit up all available females with a smothering tent come the Universal Caliphate. People everywhere need to stand up for human rights and freedom of expression for those living under such brutality or these rights, constrained as they already are, could disappear as quickly as an ice block in the Saudi Desert.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sustainable Solutions

The world is running out of scant resources and it is up to us as individuals to conserve and slow our rate of consumption. This can mean using less water in the home and cutting down on power to reverse an alarming upwards trend.
Solar hot water and electrical power generation has been helped along with the government's renewable energy credits which go a long way towards making this an affordable and attractive option. Electric or hybrid cars will also play their part although I think many people are more excited about the new 3D TVs just along the horizon. Speaking of hybrids, I read recently about the next generation of nuclear reactors, some of which are fission/fusion devices that are designed to be both safe and economical. Even James Lovelock of Gaia fame has come out in support of technology which may have had a bad press over the decades but has reached a level of maturity that makes it preferable to coal fired power that is dirty and dangerous to humankind.
A techno fix is all well and good but history tells us that more individual sacrifice is required in order to rein in pollution and all that goes with it including Global Warming. So walk instead of taking the car when possible. Turn off all electrical appliances and lights when not in use and try to reduce your carbon footprint. Remember the old say; if you want something done, do it yourself.