Alaimo: A brilliant shooting star

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Of course, the big science news this month is Comet ISON (officially C/2012 S1) which will be skidding around the Sun at a whopping 800,000 miles per hour on Thanksgiving Day. NASA has just about every space camera pointed at it and the big question is whether or not it will hold together as it passes around the sun — too close and it will crack up. In any event, we should get a pretty good show. And unlike many comets which have orbits bringing them back into our solar system periodically, ISON (or whatever is left of it) will exit our solar system and our lives never to return except in our memories.

And, as is so often the case, Science can be a metaphor for our lives here in Ouray County.  After all, Thanksgiving is a time of thankfulness. For many of us it is a time of remembrance as well. We remember those we have lost while we live in gratitude for those we have with us. Ouray County has been hit especially hard this month. I haven’t visited with anyone this week that hasn’t been affected or doesn’t know someone who has. So I dedicate this month’s Science to Zina Lahr. She came into our lives like a comet, dazzled us and then left us too soon — but with brilliant memories. You can see a short bit of Zina’s Animation work at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8dq-kHW4HhE

Today I wanted to mention Universal Robots. They are a company out of Odense, Denmark that makes small light industrial robot arms which can be unpacked and set up on a tabletop. These robots can be programmed by means of a simple computer interface to perform almost any small task. In addition, built-in safety mechanisms make them able to work near people without safety guarding. These two features make these “handy” devices theoretically ideal for, say, people who need repetitive medical or job related help in their homes. There are other companies that have small light industrial robot arms but Universal Robots has some special ties to Ridgway. Their chief technology officer is cousin to Torben Hallundbaek of Ridgway Café a la Mode and it turns out that Torben is quite the science guy and tinkerer as well. He told me this week that he is putting the finishing touches on his mobile science lab (complete with solar panels) that he can install on his ice cream bicycle. But robot arms are not the only parts of robots you can find these days. Full-on robots like Honda’s Asimo can greet people at the door to a business while simultaneously holding a number of conversations. It seems that Robots like this are ready for “prime time” since a few new television series that are actively exploring the idea of social implications of human machine interactions.

In the world of computing, this past year, physicists have been able to trap light in a silicate crystal of yttrium for a whole minute. This will no doubt be useful in quantum communication networks and quantum computing protocols. And while I'm not clear about the Math (or the Science) of that last sentence I have been assured that the upshot will be a dramatic increase in the speed of computers. These advances plus advances in flexible screen materials and stretchable conductive materials mean that computers will soon no longer be boxes on the table but wrist bands, clothes and anything else you can think of.

Finally, I have to put some Thanksgiving related items in and here they are. First, Archaeologists have discovered the largest, oldest wine cellar in the Near East. Apparently this wine cellar is 3,700 years old and held over 200 liters of spiced wine. The researchers found molecular traces of compounds typically found in wine as well as traces of spices in the bottles. In other alcohol related news, physicists have determined the reason that beer foams up when you tap the top of the bottle. Hmm. I wonder how you write up that research grant proposal without sounding like you are just looking for free beer.  And finally, researchers in Duke University's Fuqua School of Business have found that being politically correct can make you fat. That is right. It turns out that people who are tasked with getting snacks for themselves and someone else (say at a buffet line) will change their choice of snack food so as not to offend the other person if the other person is overweight.  Personally, I don’t need more help making bad food choices.

Well, that is all for this month. By the time you read this hopefully I will be eating a politically correct portion, enjoying a cold untapped beer, looking up in the sky and being thankful for the memories. Happy Thanksgiving.

Dr. Joe Alaimo is the owner of Ouray Vet and partner of Trail Town Still. The savior of small animals, thirsty people everywhere and a fairly dangerous man with a garlic press.

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