Posts Tagged ‘Technology’

Frugal engineering for India’s Mars mission

November 6, 2013

India has been struggling to bridge the gap to more developed nations without necessarily having to follow exactly the same path as that followed by other nations. Especially to achieve the development objectives in less time than it has taken those who did it first. Doing more with less is the name of the game and “Frugal engineering” (or “frugal innovation”) is defining a new paradigm for development.

There may perhaps not be any better example of the dictum that necessity is the mother of invention than can be found in India. Whether it is a refrigerator, ECG device or an automobile, Indian engineers have brought innovative products to market by designing them outside-in. …….

It may seem a contradiction, but some infrastructure gaps in India have positively affected Indian innovation: they have forced entrepreneurs and companies to adopt technologies that make relying on existing infrastructure (creaking and unreliable as it is in many ways) simply irrelevant. Indian engineers have invented a battery-powered, ultra-low-cost refrigerator resistant to power cuts; an automatic teller machine for rural areas; and even a flour mill powered by a scooter. People in the West, with its constant access to electricity, have little motivation to pursue such innovations. The Indian mobile phone industry is the poster child for leapfrogging over infrastructural constraints. A limited fixed-line infrastructure created an opportunity for mobile phones to reach many more people. Mobile telephony is also relatively cheap, sharable, and easily repaired. And thus, a new frontier of global innovation opened in India. …… 

The Indian mission to Mars which launched yesterday is another example of frugal engineering at work.

Hindustan Times:

India’s successful Mangalyaan launch is as much a financial accomplishment as a technical milestone. The entire Mars mission has cost the Indian Space Research Organisation a mere around Rs. 450 crore ($75 million) and took 15 months to put together. Much of the Martian price tag is for ground stations and relay upgrades that will be used for other Isro projects. The actual satellite costs a mere $25 million ( Rs. 153 crore), says Pallav Bagla of Science magazine. Comparison: Nasa’s similar MAVEN Mars project will cost 10 times more and will take three times longer.

Isro is widely cited as an example of “frugal engineering” …..  A US state department scientific adviser once said that Isro had reduced satellite assembly costs to a tenth of Nasa’s.

Isro’s accomplishments are remarkable given its tiny budget: $700 million ( Rs. 4,270 crore) in 2012-13. Despite a space programme whose financial base is the ninth largest, India is generally rated the world’s number six space power.

Of this, only 7% is allotted for planetary exploration. Isro’s prime directive has and continues to be the finding of technical means to support socio-economic goals such as education, medicine, water and disaster management.

Isro also defrays government support through a commercial arm, Antrix. Through the sale of satellite imagery, satellite launches and so on, Antrix earned a pre-tax Rs. 2 billion in 2010 alone. …..

Noted in Passing 2nd February 2013

February 2, 2013

A weekly post on things that were interesting or which I would have liked to have blogged about …….

Science and Behaviour


Exercitationes de Vena Medinensis et de Vermiculis capillaribus infantium by G. H. Velschius (1674)

It seems that human infestation by guinea worms is sharply down pointing to the success of the program to eradicate them. Carl Zimmer writes an obituary for this creature which will not be missed (by humans) if it becomes extinct. But why is it that the intentional eradication of species inimical to man is perfectly OK, but the demise of other species which have failed to adapt and can no longer compete is considered a catastrophic loss of bio-diversity? In genetic survival terms the guinea worm or the mosquito might well be more important than tigers or panda bears.

There are those who would swear that the science of climate is well understood and settled. But it seems we know very little about clouds indeed and that bacteria which survive in the upper atmosphere could be one source for the nucleation of clouds.  In the same vein, it seems that irrigation in one area can cause storms elsewhere. A new study shows that agricultural irrigation in California’s Central Valley doubles the amount of water vapor pumped into the atmosphere, ratcheting up rainfall and powerful monsoons across the interior Southwest.

The British Museum and the Smithsonian teamed up to prove that their two crystal skulls, purportedly made by Aztecs in Mexico prior to Columbus’ arrival. are actually fakes. 

Kim Ryholt shows that in the ancient Egyptian city Tebtunis, 2,200 years ago, people voluntarily entered into slave contracts with the local temple for all eternity and they even paid a monthly fee for the privilege.

New findings suggest that free-ranging cats are likely the single greatest source of anthropogenic mortality for US birds and mammals.

Dienekes suggests that even with a generations long selective breeding program to select for Neanderthal genes, achieving a 100% Neandertal might be impossible.

Engineering and Technology

NASA will use the International Space Station that to test expandable space habitat technologyand will test a Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), which is scheduled to arrive at the space station in 2015 for a two-year technology demonstration.

As they become easier to acquire and use, one of the obvious benefits of 3D printers is their ability to distribute the tools of production and manufacturing to the masses. But what they’re used to produce can create legal, regulatory, and even ethical concerns.

The PowerBuoy is a “smart” ocean-going buoy that uses piston-like motion in the float relative to its stationary spar to mechanically convert energy into electricity as it rides the waves.

Bad Science

The status of Harvard College’s investigation of student cheating has been distributed to faculty, staff and students by Arts and Science Faculty Dean Michael D. Smith.

Academics at the Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence are at war with an anthropologist at University of California at Berkeley and alleging that he stole ideas. Needless to say the UC Berkeley investigation report exonerates their own.

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia’s national science agency, may face further scrutiny into accusations of bullying and harassment of scientists and other employees.

Funding agencies may be paying out duplicate grants, according to an analysis by Harold R. Garner, Lauren J. McIver and Michael B. Waitzkin.

Forbes dumps on the unfortunate Lisa Jackson.

With the rapid growth of misconduct cases, scientific rehabilitation may have to become a necessary tool for research-integrity offices.

Noted in Passing 26th January 2013

January 26, 2013

A weekly post on things that were interesting or which I would have liked to have blogged about …….

Science and Behaviour

Half a million DVDs of data could be stored in gram of DNA according to Harvard researchers. Unfortunately the credibility of the claim is severely impaired since this comes from the lab of Dr. George Church of Neanderthal baby fame and I have to take even the memory claim with a large bushel of salt. Dr. Church seems very keen on publicity just now. (This item almost made it to the Bad Science category but the memory item gets the benefit of the doubt). The Neanderthal nonsense was taken down comprehensively by Svante Pääbo and others of the  Neanderthal Genome Project.

Protons are 4% smaller than was thought and new particles are expected to be found.

Ferdinand Balfoort posts on Stockholm’s violent past from the peaceful present and a New Zealander is causing waves with his campaign to rid his country of cats.

One hundred and one year old Fauja Singh will run his last marathon in Hong Kong in February just before his 102’nd birthday, but plans to continue running for 4 hours a day.

Scrolls of 2,000 year old Buddhist texts have been found  preserved on long rolls of birch-tree bark and written in Gandhari.

Against conventional wisdom earthquakes can occur even at zones considered stable and this is what may have happened in 2011 when the magnitude 9.0 Tohoku-Oki earthquake was followed by a devastating tsunami.

Alarmist conservationists would like us to believe that humans are on the verge of causing a catastrophic loss of biodiversity but as with most alarmist dogmas, extinction rates of species are not as bad as has been assumed.

We all believe to some extent that looks reveal  traits and humans have been associating facial features with criminality for at least 2,000 years  (“Cassius has a lean and hungry look”) and “scientifically” for at least 300 years. But a new study debunks some of the myths.

Comet ISON was discovered by Russian astronomers Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok in Sept. 2012. It bears the name of their night-sky survey program, the International Scientific Optical Network and NASA reckons it could be spectacularly visible in broad daylight this year.  On Nov. 28, 2013, this “dirty snowball” will fly through the sun’s atmosphere little more than a million km from the stellar surface and if it survives it could be a grand display.

Are Asians disadvantaged in US academia and industry? Lilian Gomory Wu and Wei Jing think so. The makings of some new urban myths lies in that those who multi-task are least capable of multi-tasking.

Engineering and Technology

Being blinded by the sun low in the sky is a pretty common hazard while driving here during winter in Scandinavia. But the development of Haptic steering wheels which vibrate could help solve this problem until cars are built that drive themselves (and they are closer than one might think).

French car manufacturer PSA Peugeot  Citroen believes it can put an air- powered vehicle on the road by 2016. The system works by using a normal internal combustion engine, special hydraulics and an adapted gearbox along with compressed air cylinders that store and release energy. This enables it to run on petrol or air, or a combination of the two.

A team of scientists from Scotland and the Czech Republic has created a “tractor” beam – a la Star Trek – which for the first time allows a beam of light to attract objects.

Materials science has always been in symbiosis with the other sciences at the transition from science to engineering and the discovery of metamaterials which can bend light, X-rays and radio waves promise a wide array of new applications in radio communications, security and automotive safety and now in imaging.

Bad Science

Paul Brookes was forced to take down his Science Fraud website last week after receiving legal threats (from some who later retracted – or had retracted – the papers that ScienceFraud exposed). Now he is marshalling support to open a new web-site to expose bad science.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is accused of bowing to political pressure in a study of bee decline which implicates some specific insecticides. The insecticide manufacturers are not amused.

A study on the impact of banning affirmative action (a pseudonym of course for discrimination) seems not only misguided but also one with a high level of confirmation bias. It looks like advocacy posing as science.

Geoffrey K. Pullum takes bad science backed up by bad journalism at the New Scientist and the Washington Post severely to task.

Noted in Passing 19th January 2013

January 19, 2013

A weekly post on things that were interesting or which I would have liked to have blogged about …….

Engineering and Technology

A work of genius: Harry Beck's map of 1933

A work of genius: Harry Beck’s map of 1933

The London Underground is 150 years old and the iconic London Underground Map is a work of some genius – by an electrical draughtsman Harry Beck – in focusing on connections and ignoring geography.

Boeing is facing a torrid time with the 787 Dreamliner and has stopped all further aircraft deliveries. This is going to hurt their cash flow even before all the claims from the airlines come in for the grounding of their aircraft.

The advent of hydraulic fracturing and the consequent availability of shale gas means that new lines are drawn on the energy map of the world and many of the oldest and most stable geopolitical truths will be turned on their heads.

If graphene turns out to be the wonder material that it promises to be then it is time to invest in graphite.

Science and Behaviour

The dangers with blindly assuming that correlations represent a causal relationship is well demonstrated by this study on milk, chocolate and Nobel prizes. Derby Proctor believes that chimpanzees have a sense of fairness but her “ultimatum game” experiments were not strictly ultimate games at all and are not convincing.  Altruism among chimpanzees is – if it exists at all – strictly limited and only after basic needs are satisfied and restricted to a very few.

Matt Ridley joins the list and also dumps on Mark Lynas and green orthodoxy

The curious case of Zuma’s deputies deals with the intricacies of politics in South Africa and in the ANC today. An interesting post on the French need to be relevant in the world and Hollande’s adventures in Africa.

How much of the chatter on Twitter or postings on Facebook are real communication and how much is noise? Nandana Sengupta looks at the pluses and the minuses of the explosion of opinions via social media in India.

Having spent a lifetime with contracts I have always taken “terms” of “terms and conditions” to signify “limits of time” but terms and conditions have now converged in usage to be almost identical in meaning.

On where Tolkien may have found the word “hobbit”.

For Wodehouse fans and for the first time since Ralph Richardson as Lord Emsworth in 1967, BBC are showing a  new TV series centred around Blandings Castle. The reviews were not very kind:

“The performances weren’t bad exactly, but there was an impression that the cast had raided the charity shop and were merely having a spiffing time in vintage clothing.”

Bad Science

Michael Marotta describes four books on bad science.

The British Met Office makes yet another misstep and demonstrates that massaging science to get a desired result makes for bad science.

Climate models are hardly worth the paper they are printed on and they don’t seem to have any idea of how to handle the effect of clouds. Models – which are pushing the alarmist cause – generally assume they have a positive feedback on global warming but in reality the feedback is negative.

Professor Debora Weber-Wulff reports on Multiple Retractions of Articles by Computer Science Professor

Noted in Passing 12th January 2013

January 12, 2013

My hope is to make “Noted in Passing” a regular, weekly post but I am not sure if I will have the discipline to maintain it. I shall try to confine myself to 3 topic areas: “Science and Behaviour”, “Engineering and Technology” and “Bad Science”. I’m trying to avoid politics as a topic in its own right but politics may well creep in under “Behaviour”.

Science and Behaviour

Polar bear numbers world-wide are up and here’s  a marvellous image of a polar bear in winter.

polar bear aurora_borealis_3-t2 free

Polar bear and the aurora borealis (from polar bear science)

Some people apparently believe that  too much genetic information could be a bad thing. Virginia Hughes disagrees strongly and I am inclined to agree with her. Genetic sequencing is here to stay and even if interpretation may lead to new challenges and new dilemmas, this genie cannot be stuffed back into the bottle.

Why did our fingers eveolve wrinkles? Was it perhaps to better be able to grip smooth objects?

John Hawks begins his descent through Darwin’s Descent of Man and has posted his “introduction” which is fascinating and – especially for a layman like me – eminently readable. “Experts” in my opinion are those who explain and not those who try to mystify (usually to inflate their own egos).

David McNeil believes that a gesture-speech unity lies at the origins of language but I am not convinced. When speech began – and that is a story in itself – gestures may well have added to man’s vocabulary but I am skeptical as to the role of gesture in the development of language and the grammar associated with language. But what seems obvious to me is that for the origins of speech as well as the origins of language we have to look to the increasing need for communication as the driving force.

In the meantime miR-941 is now being slated as a specific gene that contributed to how early humans developed tool use and language (in contrast to the FoxP2 gene which is thought to be a more general enabler). A study by psychologists claims that language learning begins before birth but I think they jump far too quickly from sound recognition to language learning and the study does not convince.

Recent excavations at an Australian site provides evidence of inhabitation ” certainly” at 41,230 years ago with the dating of charcoal found at the site. However the earliest inhabitation was much older since stone tools were found in deeper layers than the charcoal, but these have yet to be dated. This seems more consistent with the main human expansion Out of Africarabia first happening before Toba.

Even bloggers on the right are questioning the US love affair with semi-automatic weapons but I don’t expect any significant change to the gun laws in the US anytime soon.

Good grief! Greg Laden believes that summer in the Southern Hemisphere must be a sign of global warming. It’s -6°C outside my window right now and its been snowing in Jerusalem and the Lebanon, so I suppose the Northern Hemisphere must be entering a Little Ice Age.

The luminosity of our Sun varies just 0.1% over the course of its 11-year solar cycle. There is, however, a dawning realization among researchers that even these apparently tiny variations can have a significant effect on terrestrial climate. Tony Phillips from NASA comments on  “The Effects of Solar Variability on Earth’s Climate”  issued by the National Research Council.

Engineering and Technology

The technology for drones that today are used to kill could have more peaceful purposes. A Dronenet for a human free package delivery service  is attractive and does not sound so absurd.

Livefist reports that Airbus has beaten out the Russians to win the Indian Air Force’s new generation of  mid-refuelling tankers while Boeing is still going through teething troubles with the 787 Dreamliner.

The pressures on the supply of neodymium, dysprosium, and other rare-earth metals for the manufacture of strong magnets is leading to a surge in the use of nanotechnology to find alternatives.

Bad Science:

  1. Another idiot study about how our fists evolved in response to fighting!  An excellent takedown by  T. Ryan Gregory. “The most impressive thing about this study is that it managed to gain so much attention with so little substance”. 
  2. ChemBark has this update on serial data fabricator Bengu Sezen who has been hired by the Gebze Institute of Technology.
  3. Simon Kuper has some sympathy for Diederik Stapel who now finds himself in an unforgiving Dutch society. His take on the Stapel affaire is in the FT.
  4. The American Psychiatric Association would seem to be in thrall to the pharmaceutical industry as DSM -5 is adjusted to sell more drugs.
  5. John Hawks has a scathing post about Mark Lynas as “someone who had never read a scientific study on the subject, purporting to be an advocate in the popular press, and having his ignorant statements printed widely by multimillion-dollar media organizations” and the shoe fits whether Lynas is pontificating about GMO or global warming.
  6. Further retractions of social psychology papers: “Fraud committed by any social psychologist diminishes all social psychologists” and reinforces the view that social psychology is mainly for headlines and is still a long way from being a science.
  7. Most junior scientists accept academic theft by their advisors as a way of life and only a very few decide to make any noise about it.

“Peak Oil” vanishes and even OPEC bows to shale fracking technology

November 9, 2012

The various catastrophe scenarios based on the depletion of a limited resource (peak-oil, peak-gas, peak-energy, peak-food……….) have a fundamental weakness – they fail to account for human ingenuity and technological advance. History has shown that such Malthusian scenarios just do not come to pass. New discoveries change the availability of the resource, innovation and technology find alternatives and economics changes pricing and the supply/demand dynamics.

Moving peaks

In February this year I posted:

In recent times the development of fracking technology and the discovery of huge deposits of gas-bearing shales together with the discovery of new deep-sea sources of natural gas have pushed the “peak” for gas production beyond the visible horizon and into the distant future (a few hundred years). When – rather than if – methane hydrates become available for gas production, the “peak” will shift further into the future.

Reuters now reports on Opec’s latest World Oil Outlook 

OPEC acknowledged for the first time on Thursday that technology for extracting oil and gas from shale is changing the global supply picture significantly ……

In its annual World Oil Outlook, OPEC cut its forecast of global oil demand to 2016 due to economic weakness and also increased its forecast of supplies from countries outside the 12-nation exporters’ group.

“Given recent significant increases in North American shale oil and shale gas production, it is now clear that these resources might play an increasingly important role in non-OPEC medium- and long-term supply prospects,” the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries said in the report.

OPEC has been slower than some to acknowledge the impact that new technologies such as hydraulic fracturing – known as “fracking” – may have on supply.

The Luddite shades of Green

August 5, 2012


The Leader of the Luddites, engraving of 1812: Wikipedia

This editorial in The Australian about shale gas got me to wondering how it has come to pass that what were once very laudable anti-pollution goals have morphed  into an anti-technology and essentially anti-human movement. Luddites have always been among us and always need – and have always needed – a cloak of righteousness under which to operate. The current demonisation of technological advance has its roots – I think – in the politicisation of the concern for “the environment” which probably began in the 1960’s. As long as “environmentalism” focused on improvement of local conditions it did much good. It has contributed much to the clean-up of air and water pollution which had resulted from the speed of industrialisation. While industrialisation and technological development were necessary for growth and to ensure that humans could put food on their tables, the drive against pollution did much to improve their quality of life. But then the Luddites – who have always been around – “found” evironmentalism. The destructive forces had found a new righteous cover – this time coloured green. Politicisation and globalisation have now transformed what was once a relatively simple anti-pollution campaign focused on improving the quality of life for humans into something else – a fanatical movement with religious overtones. A coercive, destructive, backward-looking, anti-development, anti-human Green Monster.

The Green movement has become the cloak under which modern Luddites can hide and operate.

The Australian:

POLITICAL parties preoccupied with environmental protection, including the Greens, should take on board the benefits of breakthrough technology that is already allowing easier access to shale gas in the US.

As environment editor Graham Lloyd reports today, with 250 years’ worth of gas reserves now in play, the shale revolution is cutting power costs and carbon emissions and increasing energy supplies. In the longer term, it promises energy security, export earnings and stability as the West’s dependence on Middle East oil diminishes.

The unexpected emergence of shale, foreseen by very few four or five years ago, underlines the folly of governments trying to “pick winners” by investing in various forms of renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, which will only be viable on a large scale if technology improves.

Too little attention has been paid to Australia’s vast shale reserves, which are potentially far bigger than coal-seam gas. Apart from the volume of water needed to access it, shale poses fewer environmental problems than coal-seam gas. The geological formations are more stable and located in more remote areas. Given the reluctance of our politicians to pursue nuclear power, shale has the potential to be an important energy source for decades.


Luddite – In modern usage, “Luddite” is a term describing those opposed to industrialisation, automation, computerisation or new technologies in general

Greenie – a person who campaigns for protection of the environment

the environment – the surroundings or conditions in which a person, animal, or plant lives or operates; the natural world, as a whole or in a particular geographical area, especially as affected by human activity


First private space flight to the ISS in November?

August 16, 2011

California-based rocket maker SpaceX said that it will make a test flight in late November to the International Space Station, now that NASA has retired its space shuttle program.The Dragon space capsule to be launched by a Falcon Heavy rocket has been given a November 30th launch date by NASA.

The Space X news release is here.

Space X Dragon capsule: image


“SpaceX has been hard at work preparing for our next flight — a mission designed to demonstrate that a privately-developed space transportation system can deliver cargo to and from the International Space Station (ISS),” the company, also called Space Exploration Technologies, said in a statement.

The mission is the second to be carried out by SpaceX, one of a handful of firms competing to make a spaceship to replace the now-defunct US shuttle, which had been used to carry supplies and equipment to the orbiting outpost.

“NASA has given us a November 30, 2011 launch date, which should be followed nine days later by Dragon berthing at the ISS,” the company said.

It said the arrival of the vessel at the space station would herald “the beginning of a new era in space travel.”

“Together, government and the private sector can simultaneously increase the reliability, safety and frequency of space travel, while greatly reducing the costs,” SpaceX said.

The company won $75 million in new seed money earlier this year, after it became the first to successfully send its own space capsule, the gumdrop-shaped Dragon, into orbit and back in December 2010.

3-D printing!! Cool

July 16, 2011

A 3-D printer.

Very cool!!

3D printing is a form of additive manufacturing technology where a three dimensional object is created by laying down successive layers of material. 3D printers are generally faster, more affordable and easier to use than other additive manufacturing technologies. 3D printers offer product developers the ability to print parts and assemblies made of several materials with different mechanical and physical properties in a single build process. Advanced 3D printing technologies yield models that can serve as product prototypes.

Geoengineering possibilities threaten the CO2 reduction advocates

November 11, 2010

The global warming brigade and their funding is dependant upon carbon dioxide being considered a villain and being banned. Global warming dogma does not like geoengineering solutions which may make doomsday scenarios irrelevant.

When geo-engineering – that is human intervention directed to adapting to climate  – suggests ways in which we could successfully keep climatic conditions suitable for human development, the global warmists are appalled. To suggest alternatives to banning carbon dioxide suddenly creates “ethical issues” whereas alarmism and doomsday scenarios do not!!

But if it is unintended human intervention which creates a problem then surely it is the only “right and proper” course to use intended human intervention to rectify the situation (even though man-made carbon dioxide is of little significance and totally irrelevant as far as climate change is concerned).

In fact – I would suggest – it is unethical to stifle human ingenuity and the march of technology.

Human development cannot be based on “not doing something”. Strategy must be based on the positive choice of “what to do” which may – as a consequence – lead to certain other things not being done. But when environmentalism or conservation or climate change lead only to lists of “what not to do” they degenerate into cowardice where actions are subordinated to “fear” and  lose credibility.

The Guardian tells us:

The problem is that proposals to geo-engineer the climate come loaded with social and ethical concerns. Is it acceptable to intentionally intervene in the volatile climate system? How would it be governed? What would prevent the abuse of climate-controlling technologies, and whose hand would be on the global thermostat?

Geoengineering or climate engineering solution to climate change: marine cloud whitening

A geoengineering solution:Spraying seawater droplets into marine clouds from ships could make them reflect more sunlight. Photograph: Nasa

The growing number of scientists working on different aspects of geo-engineering research – from climate modelling, to lab experiments with reflective particles that could be injected into the stratosphere – are anxious to emphasise that they are not geo-engineering cheerleaders. They simply want to understand the pros and cons of different technologies, in case the day came when they might be needed, a day they hope will never come.

The Royal Society itself has taken great care to indicate that it does not advocate geo-engineering – and certainly not in the place of deep global cuts in greenhouse gases. But it does advocate research on geo-engineering, and that’s where the dilemma for many scientists kicks in.

On the one hand, it is clearly prudent to understand more about geo-engineering – the worst of all scenarios would involve a government deploying a technology without knowing what its effects would be. Initial evidence suggests that spraying the skies with reflective particles of sulphate would have a major impact on patterns of rainfall. Surely it is better to know this sooner rather than later?

On the other hand, conducting research on geo-engineering is one of the main factors that will make the deployment of the technologies more likely. Most scientists are deeply sceptical about the use of such “remedial” action on global warming. But scientists won’t be the ones to decide whether the technology is used. So are they unwittingly clearing the path for future deployment?

%d bloggers like this: