Launched on March 2, 2004, this week the space probe Rosetta reached its destination, a comet known as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (Cherry-Gerry to its friends). Right now the probe is in a 100km, thruster-assisted triangular “orbit” of the comet while it maps out its gravity more closely. Over the coming weeks it’ll inch closer, to about 50km. By November it should hopefully be around 30km from the comet. According to the schedule, on November 11 Rosetta will deploy her lander Philae, which, if it lands successfully, will be the first robotic lander ever on a comet. The ESA team is hoping to have picked the landing site by mid-September. You can read more about the probe at the ESA website, as well as following all the latest news at the Rosetta blog.
If you’ve been following the news of the Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria (so far), you may have heard of the two Americans returned to the US to be treated with an “experimental serum,” which has seen media outlets raising all kinds of concerns about why Americans but not Africans should get this treatment. What they fail to mention is the legal and bureaucratic nightmare researchers would find themselves in if they tried to use a treatment which has never before been used in humans on poor and desperate people in a foreign country. If it had had negative side effects the news stories would have spent three or four weeks accusing them of using Africans as human guinea pigs and the US would have been in political trouble for allowing its citizens to experiment on other countries’ citizens. So when the opportunity arose for them to test the serum (Zmapp, actually a kind of manufactured antibody) on Americans, where the legal framework for the use of untested treatments is much clearer, they jumped at the chance. In answer to everyone’s questions, the CDC has said that no, there isn’t enough to treat more than two people, and the companies responsible are trying as hard as they can to produce more and to set the legal groundwork for using it. According to the New York Times, those responsible are working on ramping up production. Most likely they’re hoping that the outbreak will be well and truly over by the time they have enough doses to be of any use (at least three months or so), but if the worst happens and the Ebola outbreak is continuing then, there may be a treatment available. You can read more about the treatment itself and the companies involved — where else? at Wikipedia. Who now take donations in Bitcoin, if you’re interested.
Impossible Engine Update
If you remember last week’s news about NASA scientists “confirming” the impossible engine (which I described perhaps unfairly as “an inexplicable self-propelling microwave“), then you’ve probably also read just about everyone’s follow-up articles this past week explaining how everyone should just cool their jets and hold their horses and other such “stop jumping to conclusions” metaphors. Because, you see, there’s still two options: one, it works, in violation of all we know about physics, or two, physics still holds true, and someone made an error. And that latter one is much, much more likely. Paraphrasing CalTech physicist Sean Carroll, Robbie Gonzalez over at io9 sums it up pretty well:
Carroll’s final point – that the researchers measured thrust not only when the drive was configured to produce it, but also when set up to do nothing at all – may be the most important takeaway of all.
Third Breast Cancer Gene
Everyone’s likely aware by now of the consequences of having a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes — hereditary breast cancer. A new study has confirmed that a third gene, PALB2, may have a comparable effect. It had long been understood that PALB2 was linked to higher rates of breast cancer, but the extent to which it was the case was less well known. The new study out of the University of Cambridge ranks the gene in a close third to the other two, with rates of developing breast cancer by age 70 at 50-70% for BRCA1, 40-60% for BRCA2, and roughly 35% for PALB2 (with the control rate at about 12%). The New York Times has more on the study, or you can check out the study itself in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Burying the Hachette?
In the past months there’s been quite a storm brewing between the king of online convenience, Amazon, and one of the “big-five” publishers, Hachette, over who makes money (and how much) from the sales of Hachette’s authors’ books. Long story short, Amazon wanted to pressure Hachette into giving it a better deal on e-books, so it decided not to offer fast delivery (think 2-3 weeks) or discounted prices on Hachette’s books. This strategy seems to be backfiring, with Hachette author Douglas Preston (an author who has reached what I like to refer to as “airport paperback successful”) leading the charge and taking out a massive NYT ad today to protest the internet giant’s unfair treatment of the authors. Smelling blood in the water, Google has now teamed up with Barnes and Noble (in select cities) to offer same-day delivery of Hachette titles. It may not be the end of the game for Amazon, but when it comes to online sales, your competitors are only a click away.
In case you missed it (like I did), the Electronic Frontier Foundation had their inaugural “Stupid Patent of the Month” post on July 31, as part of their ongoing campaign to rid the world of terrible, stupid, awful patents. The first patent to receive the dubious honour is patent number 8,762,173, which goes a little something like this:
a. take a telephone call from patient
b. record patient info in a patient file
c. send patient information to a doctor, ask the doctor if she wants to talk to the patient
d. call the patient back and transfer the call to the doctor
e. record the call
f. add the recorded call to the patient file and send to doctor
g. do steps a. – f. with a computer.
And to top it all off, the patent office rejected it without step g. It’s an existing patent that was granted “new” status by adding “do it with a computer.” Check out the post at the EFF website for more.
The Best of the Rest
Another week, another list of things you should totally check out even though I’m not going into much detail here: Slate has a great piece on why fish oil may not be all it’s cracked up to be (and why we all think it somehow is); Science has a piece about how the Muon g–2 Ring (that’s “g minus two”) made it to its new home; New Scientist has a piece about Daewoo’s new robot suit that makes its employees stronger; Gizmodo has another announcement about the next big thing in solar (hint: it’s layers), as well as a piece about a big old block of copper foam being the next big thing in cooling your computer; and the Guardian tells you why, if you’re 50-64, you should really be taking an aspirin a day (under supervision).
That’s all for now. Have a great week.