The USS Enterprise, that is, not the Starship Enterprise, although as a child I often got them conflated since my father logged many months — years, actually — on “The Big E,” the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, back in the 1960s and ’70s. Before returning to homeport at Naval Station Norfolk, Va., this week, the Enterprise sailed around the globe for more than five decades and served in every major military conflict since the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s hard to comprehend what a monumental piece of engineering an aircraft carrier is, and even today the concept of one with eight nuclear reactors boggles my mind. It will take four years to dismantle her for scrap metal, which despite my support of recycling and misgivings about nuclear power, just seems a sad ending for a fine lady. But she did serve us well. Notice in this picture, taken in the Mediterranean in 1964, what’s spelled out on the flight deck.
“Science is too much coffee and Birkenstocks and bad hair, but that’s not what people want to hear.”
That from bioethicist Debra Matthews, joking last night about the disconnect between the tedious work of sitting at a lab bench waiting for some cells to grow and then trying to get the public excited about the results (or lack thereof). Speaking at Busboys and Poets for a DC Science Café discussion of “Synthetic Biology: Life as You Know It and As You Don’t,” Matthews, a geneticist at Johns Hopkins University’s Berman Institute of Bioethics, was joined by Todd Kuiken of the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. They gave a thought-provoking overview of what has become an incredibly contentious area of science, touching on the chilling litigation that had put federal funding of embryonic stem cell research in jeopardy, and on the burgeoning field of bio-security.
Take-home point: In five or ten years, you’ll be able to sequence anything you want in your own home, so we better gin up STEM education in this country. A great place for kids and adults alike to start is the comic “Adventures in Synthetic Biology,” which runs in the journal Nature.
The Italians have come a long way since they imprisoned Galileo for heresy, but today’s absurd verdict goes too far, assuming scientists can predict the future. Galileo’s apocryphal muttering, “And yet it moves” takes on new meaning.
When I started covering sustainable design ten years ago, Marybeth Shaw of Shaw Jelveh Design was a wonderful sherpa. It was an honor for me to pen the intro to her new portfolio. You can read more and see photos on my website, laurafisherkaiser.com.
Take a good look. This is the only time in my life I will post a picture of my breast on the Internet. When I went for the dreaded and overdue mammogram, I decided to pop for the newish tomosynthesis procedure, which produces three-dimensional views of breast tissue. Can you tell which is which? The conventional 2D image is on the left; a 3D slice, composed of multiple exposures at different angles, is on the right.
To a layperson, the 2D image might look sharper, but the 3D one tells a more complete story. This better visualization helps doctors spot abnormalities that might be hiding under overlapping tissue, aiding early detection, and reduces callbacks for more testing (or biopsies) because doctors can better distinguish harmless abnormalities from tumors. Although FDA-approved, this procedure is not covered by most insurance companies, including mine, so Washington Radiology Associates charges a nominal fee of $50. Even though my medical history does not put me in the high-risk category, falling into the the modern “what if” paranoia trap of high-tech health care, I thought, what the heck; that seems like a cheap date if it saves my life, right? If you figure that each 1mm slice of a breast is composed of up to 200 digital exposures, that works out to pennies per picture. Even less when you consider that this cutting-edge equipment takes conventional 2D and the new 3D images simultaneously.
My results were “benign with no signs of breast cancer.” That’s comforting, but I do find it disconcerting that this procedure exposes women to slightly more radiation than the 2D version alone. And can’t someone invent a contraption that does not subject women to the pain and indignity of having their breast squashed like a panini? As it turns out, someone has. In researching this story, I came across an alternative technology invented a few years ago called computed ultrasound risk evaluation. CURE (such a convenient acronym) does not use radiation, lasts one minute, and is completely pain-free. With the breast suspended in water, ultrasound sensors transmits sound waves through the water and measure how those waves travel through the breast tissue, generating computer images that help doctors pinpoint problem areas. One patient quoted on Science Daily described it as relaxing, like “a little sauna” on the breast. Given that the discomfort of mammograms deters many women from their recommended annual or biannual test, it’s perplexing that the medical establishment has not embraced this technology as well.