Good stuff at Scientific American this past week. Let’s check out a few:
A bill barring employers and insurers from discriminating against people based on their genetics won unanimous passage in the U.S. Senate on Thursday, moving one step from final congressional approval.
The Senate voted 95 to 0 to pass the bipartisan bill. It is supported by the White House and health insurers but opposed by business interests including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Scientists are learning increasing amounts about the genetic basis of illnesses ranging from cancer to diabetes to heart disease, and tests are being developed to assess a person’s predisposition to them.
Bill supporters sought to make sure these test results are not be used against people by employers or insurers unwilling to accept the burden of paying to treat costly diseases.
“Discrimination based on a person’s genetic identity is just as unacceptable as discrimination on the basis of race or religion,” said Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, calling it the century’s first major new civil rights bill.
Congress has done very little in the past two years to inspire much confidence, but on this issue they got it right.
Which is a big relief to me, since 95% of my chronic diseases have a genetic familial component to them. As long as this bill gets signed, I won’t have to worry so much about being a genetic minority (ala Gattica) and the chances of getting cured through genetic medicines are greatly increased.
Even if it doesn’t benefit me directly, at least my children and grandchildren have a chance of being cured if need be.
A new high-resolution study of the hot, charged gas spouting from an enormous black hole provides the most direct evidence yet that such plasma jets are powered by corkscrew-shaped magnetic fields. Researchers say the finding helps clarify the inner workings of blazars, extremely energetic galaxies that flare up unpredictably, driven by central black holes millions of times more massive than the sun.
Researchers believe that large galaxies such as the Milky Way contain supermassive black holes in their cores that drag dust and gas toward them in a disk and fling it back out via jets of ionized gas or plasma moving at up to 99.9 percent of the speed of light. If that jet points toward Earth, researchers call it a blazar, and it is “one of the most impressive high-energy natural laboratories” in the universe, says astronomer Alan Marscher of Boston University’s Institute for Astrophysical Research.
Among the consequences of these near light-speed or relativistic jets are flashlightlike beams of high-energy x-rays and gamma rays as well as the illusion of superluminal (faster-than-light) speeds when viewed straight on …
I’m not a cosmologist, but the idea of twisting magnetic fields to control particle streams as a natural process seems a little too pat for me. I guess it’s because black holes and super-dense neutron stars spin at a pretty good clip. But these objects are touted as being natural particle accelerators. How does anyone know they’re natural? Maybe it’s just my normal nature of questioning dogma poking out, but I’m reminded of a recent discussion about how we could recognise mega-engineering projects by potential Kardeshev Type III Civilizations.
I’m not too confident we could.
Designed nearly 150 years ago but never actually built until recently, the Difference Engine No. 2 designed by Charles Babbage (1791 to 1871) is a piece of Victorian technology meant to tussle with logarithms and trigonometry long before the first modern computer. Technophiles have a rare opportunity beginning May 10 to see one of these devices (only two exist) on display at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.
Babbage’s automatic computing engine consists of 8,000 bronze, cast iron and steel parts, weighs five tons, and measures eleven feet (3.4 meters) long and seven feet (2.1 meters) high. Museum guest curator Doron Swade used Babbage’s own plans to bring the engine to life.
Learning about Charles Babbage is one of the very first items of study in any computer programming course. I’d forgotten that he never built his metal monster. The size of this thing almost matches ENIAC, its great-grandchild!
Watch the slideshow, it’s interesting.