Archive for July 2008

The Solar System Is All Washed Up

July 31, 2008

Surface Liquid On Titan, Water Vapor On Mercury and Water Ice On Mars

This is a major discovery, even if it isn’t completely unexpected.

In a discovery that could qualify as one of the most important in the history of space exploration, NASA’s Phoenix Mission may have confirmed the presence of water ice on the planet, Popular Mechanics has learned. The scheduling of a press conference for Thursday at 2 p.m. Eastern by NASA and the University of Arizona has raised hopes in the space community that scientists will announce the breakthrough. When pressed for details, a spokesperson for the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory refused to elaborate beyond saying that the Phoenix team would unveil new findings from the ongoing robotic mission to Mars. If the rumor holds true, it would be the first direct confirmation of water ice beyond Earth.

Oh, it’s true, alright.

UPDATE (2:13 p.m., July 31): As first reported here, scientists from NASA, the Canadian Space Agency and Texas A&M have just officially announced at a press conference that soil samples taken by Phoenix on Mars is water ice.

UPDATE (2:16 p.m.): Researchers described champagne corks popping in the downlink room yesterday as the data indicated that the sample was water ice.

UPDATE (2:18 p.m.): “We’ve now finally touched and tasted it,” oven instrument’s lead scientist William Boyton, of the University of Arizona said. “From my standpoint it tastes very fine.”

It is, of course, most significant that it was right below the surface, covered only by a thin layer of Martian surface dust that blew off in places when the Phoenix landed on top of it. And oh yes, the chances of finding evidence of (past?) microbial life on Mars just went way up.

Here’s a preview, though. Assuming the evidence for life, past or present, on Mars is found, then the next big question will be “From where did it come – the earth or outside the Solar System?” My guess is that my granddaughter will know the answer. Not I.

Even still, raising the possibility of finding life is not the most important aspect of this story.  You see, water can be broken down into exactly two components – hydrogen and oxygen.  They have other common names – rocket fuel, for instance.  Getting to Mars is hard, but returning from there just got a whole lot easier.


There’s been concurrent news from deep space. The Cassini mission orbiting Saturn has provided proof that the radar-dark places detected on the surface of the Solar System’s largest moon, Titan, are lakes. That is, they are liquid – not water, but quiescent liquid, made of ethane mixed with propane and butane. Don’t strike a match there. And in case you’re keeping count, the number of places in the Solar System known to have surface liquids is now — two.


And if that wasn’t enough, The Baltimore Sun reported traces of water were found by Messenger in it’s January flyby of Mercury.

Instruments aboard a Maryland-built spacecraft that soared past the planet Mercury in January have provided a real surprise: traces of water molecules in the hot little world’s extremely thin atmosphere, scientists reported yesterday.

It’s not clear where they came from yet, but astronomers suspect that the water molecules are being blasted from the planet’s surface by the solar wind, along with ions of sodium, calcium and magnesium – all clues to the chemical composition of surface material.

“This water is clearly there,” said Thomas H. Zurbuchen, a member of the Messenger science team from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

The discovery is among the first formal findings from Messenger’s initial flyby of Mercury, on Jan. 14. They’re contained in 11 papers published today in the journal Science.

Pretty cool for a planet with a surface temperature of about 750 deg. F.


TQM In Intensive Care

July 30, 2008

What Happens When Quality Is Job 1?

The metrics say he's the best.

The metrics say he's the best.

Edward Deming redesigned Japanese industrial methods in the aftermath of WWII. When the Ford Motor company struggled to overcome the debacle of the Pinto and compete with the rising Japanese auto industry, his Total Quality Management became their operating principle, and “Quality Is Job 1” their slogan. The profitable Taurus-Sable line was the result.

Now the Quality Movement is about to be applied to medicine. Perhaps it’s time.

From what has been called a perfect storm of disgruntled patients, legislators and medical professionals, the quality movement in health care has been born.

Thanks to its efforts, those hospital walls are slowly becoming transparent. Revealed is a world of tangled routines, many obsolescent, many downright stupid, that no one had carefully examined. The reformers are out to streamline the routines, retrain the workers and keep them permanently on display — an ant farm behind clear glass — to make sure things never get out of control again.

Would you care? Would it help if you could directly compare hospitals, the comparisons made using numerical metrics that together revealed the quality of care a patient might receive? I suspect that in many cases, the answer is “You betchya!” Abigail Zuger, M.D. tells us more as she reviews the book The Best Practice How the New Quality Movement Is Transforming Medicine By Charles Kenney.

That is just the first installment of such data on display. Soon both hospitals and individual practitioners will be publicizing their own report cards. Insurers will be paying them for good grades, penalizing them for bad. Incentives to minimize errors, complications and inefficiency will mount. Health care will become perfectly safe, perfectly smooth, perfectly perfect.

But yes, of course this is just a bit too good to be true. Consider that NASA too adopted TQM methodologies in the aftermath of the Challenger explosion. It did not – could not – prevent the Columbia tragedy. Ford survived the Pinto, but would you really want a Fusion over a Civic?

But readers should be aware that Mr. Kenney’s story ignores a wide array of questions that have some thoughtful members of the health care world a little troubled by the quality evangelism.

What does quality care mean, for instance, in cases of hopeless illness? When the outcome of care will not be good, how should good care be redefined? Suppose patients sabotage their own care, as so many unwittingly do. Who takes the blame?

And most important, what does it mean when science impudently undercuts accepted quality benchmarks

That last is interesting. What does it mean for – not only health care, but for patient confidence and for TQM itself when it’s discovered that they’ve been measuring the wrong thing with their metrics? Or when (not if, but when) the science tells them that they’ve been giving the wrong treatment perfectly?

Carbon Craziness

July 29, 2008

Catch The Fever!

Dire Straits?

Dire Straits?

Or not.

[C]onsider how things look to one very knowledgeable energy analyst, Vinod K. Dar, who runs Dar & Company, a consultant to the energy industry, in Bethesda, Md. What follows is my own gloss on Dar’s analysis. Everything he says, however, squares with all that I’ve seen and learned in the 30 years I’ve watched energy markets here and abroad.

A number of influential people in Russia, China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam say the planet is now entering a 30-year cooling period, the second half of a normal cycle driven by cyclical changes in the sun’s output and currents in the Pacific Ocean. Their theory leaves true believers in carbon catastrophe livid.

Well that’s interesting. Even more interesting is the fact that most of the world, and certainly the vast majority of the world’s governments, are acting like they already understand that.

To judge by actions, not words, the carbon-warming view hasn’t come close to persuading a political majority even in nations considered far more environmentally enlightened than China and India. Europe’s coal consumption is rising, not falling, and the Continent won’t come close to meeting the Kyoto targets for carbon reduction. Australia is selling coal to all comers.

But what about the developing nations, especially China and India. Wasn’t it reported that they will be able to bypass the extremely dirty, early stage of power technology and industrialize themselves using much cleaner wind and solar power? Um… no.

On the far side of the environmental curtain China already mines and burns more coal than any other country. Together, China and India control more than one-fifth of the planet’s vast coal reserves. Dar predicts–very plausibly, in my view–that the two countries may fire up a new coal plant as often as once a week for the next 25 years, adding about twice as much coal-fired generating capacity as the U.S. has today. Persian Gulf states are planning significant coal imports, because coal generates much cheaper electricity than oil or gas.

Vinod K. Dar has his own opinion of how to handle the vagaries of the world’s climate, be it cauldron or new ice age. “Contingency planning should entail strategic responses to a warming globe, a cooling globe and a globe whose climate reverberates with laughter at human hubris.” That’s an opinion I agree with.

H/T to Simon at Classical Values.

This Is Close To Perfect

July 27, 2008

What A Day The Lord Has Made

Oh yeah – it was that good.

It’s a fine Sunday morning, and I got up early for a reason. I wanted to go to early Mass so that I would have time to eat a decent breakfast and ride my bike for a while. Little did I know that the weatherman had predicted “severe” thunderstorms for most of today.

So in my ignorance, I executed my plan. 7:30 Mass, eggs and (turkey) ham on toast with coffee, and by 10:30, I’m off riding in the sunshine of a cloudless sky. Nice. I took it just a bit easy, not pushing the pace, and I finished 10 miles in the park in about 1 hour, feeling very comfortable all the while.

Sometimes you can let everything else go, and just smile because you feel good. It’s a gift I’ve been given today, and (for a change) I noticed it, and I’m grateful.

One hour later, the clouds have closed in, and thunder is booming. That’s good too, because the lawn needs the rain.

Randy Pausch – RIP

July 26, 2008

The Last Lecture

Apologies for not posting this sooner. I’ve been restoring my system.

Randy Pausch, made famous by his marvelous entry to the Last Lecture series, has died. We seem to be losing a large number of our best and brightest, lately. He will be missed.

Links to his lecture (from my earlier post) here.

Cassini Views of Saturn

July 23, 2008

Cassini Images Saturn\'s South Pole, July 14, 2008Cassini has been busy orbiting Saturn for the past month, but because of it’s current orbit (once around in almost exactly 7 days; highly elliptical, crossing Saturns poles on each trip) the spacecraft is not getting very close to too many of Saturn’s moons.

It is, however, getting great views of Saturn’s polar regions.

Click on the thumbnail for a much larger view of Saturn’s south pole.

Big hat tip to Emily at The Planetary Society.

Rafferty Was Rong

July 23, 2008

You’ve been as constant as a Northern Star
The brightest light that shines

Right Down The Line
Gerry Rafferty

Back when the song was popular I used to use that lyric as an example of “Bad Astronomy”TM. (Yeah, yeah – I know. Dating myself.) The Northern Star, Polaris, is neither the brightest star, nor is it “constant”. It’s light varies over a period of 4 days.

I had to stop using that line because Polaris seemed to be on the verge of stopping that kind of activity. It was becoming more constant.

Polaris is a well known Cepheid variable, but its periodic brightness variations have been steadily decreasing in amplitude for the last hundred years. Around the beginning of the 20th Century, Polaris’ brightness fluctuated every four days by 10%. Only ten years ago this variation had dropped to 2%, leading astronomers to believe this steady decline in the variability of the star was about to end.

Guess what. It’s started up once more.

That was until recent observations uncovered an increase in variability to 4%. Polaris is an odd star in that it is a Cephid variable with a declining variability, and now astronomers are baffled as to why the brightness fluctuation has been revived.

One wishes it would make up it’s mind!