Thursday, November 30, 2006

Buzz buzz....

I have a headache! Mind you, I am not trying to figure out what is the meaning of life, nor am I pondering about the profound fact of whether life is worth living. I just bought a book for that question, not that I expect to find the answer there but no doubt I will read it because I was out US $15 paying for it.

No, I have a headache because of bees. No, more precisely, because of what I learned about bees from the news! I was forced to think so hard about these bees, my head hurts all morning even today. "New homeland security buzz: Bomb-sniffing bees" was the headline of a news article posted on line two days ago. That sure got my attention. The story highlights were:

• Scientists train honeybees to sniff out explosives from dynamite to C4
• Researchers say bees could spot car bombs, IEDs, suicide bombers' belts
• When a bee finds explosives, it sticks out proboscis, the tube it uses to sip nectar
• Similar research done with wasps in past, but scientists say bees do better

Hmmm... I don't know about you, but I was quite curious about this and wanted to know more. So what was the buzz all about?

After digging a bit more about this intrigue, my old memory rushed back with a vengeance. This is the kind of research I used to be involved with, not the exact same kind, but having the same flavor, that was being sponsored by a mighty US federal government that controls a huge annual budget that can be renewed yearly with ease. In particular, part of this bee research was/is sponsored by a famed branch of federal research agency named Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA.) Trust me, if you have any most outlandish, never heard of, out of this world, weird, inconceivable, unbelievable, far fetched idea to promote, you probably have a very good chance to get funding from DARPA. I know, I've been there, done that. I am not talking about chicken feed here. I am talking about BIG BUCKS, with lots of zeros in the check you'd receive monthly to do the proposed research. The kind I did was too embarassing to recount so I will spare you, and especially myself the embarassment for the explanation. So, let's just get to the honey bees.

As it is now the in thing in the US: preoccupation with terrorism and the like, it is not surprising to see this news coming from a prominent US weapons laboratory. With the aid of DARPA, this laboratory worked hard to train bees to sniff out explosives. Although I am not privy to the original proposal for this research, I am sure it contained something like this "This project could have far-reaching applications for U.S. homeland security and the Iraq war."

Here is an excerpt from the news article, used here in the context of "fair use" so I do not have to ask permission for reproduction:

"Researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico said they trained honeybees to stick out their proboscis -- the tube they use to feed on nectar -- when they smell explosives in anything from cars and roadside bombs to belts similar to those used by suicide bombers. The results of this Stealthy Insect Sensor Project was published a few days ago, on November 27, 2006.

By exposing the insects to the odor of explosives followed by a sugar water reward, researchers said they trained bees to recognize substances ranging from dynamite and C-4 plastic explosives to the Howitzer propellant grains used in improvised explosive devices in Iraq.

"When bees detect the presence of explosives, they simply stick their proboscis out," said one of the research scientist of the lab who is the project's PI (principal investigator.) These findings followed 18 months of research at the U.S. Energy Department's Los Alamos facility, the nation's leading nuclear weapons laboratory.

They said the bees could be carried in hand-held detectors the size of a shoe box, and could be used to sniff out explosives in airports, roadside security checks, or even placed in robot bomb disposal equipment; and that the next step would be to manufacture the bee boxes and train security guards in their use."

Lo and behold, I found another company ( that seemingly is in a more advanced state of affair. It is not American, but British! I am quite surprised to see that these two works do not reference each other. Apparently, the British company already has a prototype called "vapour detection instrumentation" that holds trained bees in a "safe" and "controlled" environment, which can be operated in a range of external environmental conditions. Sample air is delivered to the bees for recognition of specific odours. The bees are held in a special cassette and specially designed hardware and image recognition software monitors and records detection by the bees, converting their response into an electronic form. The electronic output can be given in a simple yes/no, green light/red light form.

From this small image, I hope you can see, so you can commiserate, how the bees are being treated! This seems to be worse than the French's cruel and unusually harsh treatment of geese for their "foie gras," or that of the veals. Although I did not spend anytime looking into this, I am sure that the recognition software they talk about is to catch the bees when they stick out their tongues.

I remain very skeptical about all this, knowing how DARPA works, so I did what came naturally, buzzing around the internet and look what I found in 2 minutes... which publishes on line articles from "The Journal of Experimental Biology." This is a LARGE organization with scientists from various countries such as Switzerland, Canada, the UK etc... so I think what they say may be very believable, and what one of their research project says is this: "FRUIT FLIES STICK OUT TONGUE TO BREATHE."

This study was about the question whether small insects like fruit flies, bees etc... breathe (or ventilate, speaking scientifically) and if they do, how. Its conclusion is that they do breathe, by sticking out their tongues, using them as pumps.

To me, this casts a giant shadow on the bee research. Could it be that these poor bees, when exposing to weird air environment, were simply suffocated and they were trying their best to BREATHE? If I were one of these bees inside my box at an airport, and they stick some shoes from some guys up my nose, I will stick out my tongue and that is no explosive that I smelled!

I am going back to my research mode and submit a new proposal to DARPA. Stay tuned as I will publish my research results here!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

I am so lonesome I could cry!

Some poets wonder if rocks feel pain. They think so especially when they are love sick and tend to project their suffering onto inanimate objects in hope that these objects somehow help shouldering their sorrow. Now, that is an obtuse way for me to justify the several hours spent last Wednesday, November 8, 2006 participating passively in the celebration of a rare celestial event: the transit of the planet Mercury. If you read on, you may see the connection.

In case you do not already know, Mercury transit is a real physical astronomical event, and not some bus or subway train in some city of some country in this world. If you remember the early days of your life when you were in grade school, you will recall that we live in the so-called Solar system, and we are "the third rock" from the sun. There are two more rocks, Mercury and Venus that orbit closer to the sun than our earth. For this reason, once in a while, sometime a long while, from earth, either Venus or Mercury can be seen streaking across the surface of the sun. That is called a transit. Last week, on November 8, the planet Mercury did just that.

Thanks to human's ability to perform complex mathematical calculations, we know when these events occur and where to look so we are always prepared to witness them in action.

Mercury transit is a BIG deal. Every astronomer in the world has prepared for this event for months and they were all ready last week. The last transit was on May 7, 2003 and the next one will not occur until May 2016. This year, the year 2006, a live webcast from Kitt Peak National Observatory's exploratorium was set up to let the world participate in this event. Of course, I took some time off my busy schedule of doing mostly nothing to watch this rare event. The webcast used a Mead 16" telescope with special solar filter as a main tool but it had two other telescopes with different viewing equipment.

Watching the sun is never an easy task. I remember as a kid, I was taught to watch solar eclipses by looking at a dimmed reflection from a bucket of water, or through a piece of exposed film. Nowadays, the world has grown much more sophisticated and we have more gadgets to fit our fancies to do these things. I do have a telescope, but not about to deploy it for this event because without special solar filtering equipment, I do not think my retinas will survive the ordeal. So the webcast was such a nice gift. Thank you, Kitt Peak observatory! Knowing this being a LONG event, I was prepared for a planned 5 hour+ session. Here is the story book:

Mercury Transit

As way of background, the time is UT ("Universal time") or GMT ("Greenwich Mean Time") which is five hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time (EST) for people who live in the Eastern seaboard of the US like myself. As seen here,

Mercury Transit

not everyone on earth could see the transit the same way. Most of the area surrounding the continent of Africa could not see it at all. Australia and Western Pacific saw the transit at sunrise while most of North and South America could view a portion of the transit during sunset. Kitt Peak was ideally positioned to see this Mercury transit in all its entirety.

The webcast was ably commented by expert astronomers who took turns explaining what was being shown. Even these seasoned professionals got all excited when the planet Mercury started its trajectory across the surface of the sun, called first, second third and fourth contacts. Three telescopes were fitted to display views of the sun in white light with orange filter, in hydrogen alpha visible light and in excited calcium wave length. Needless to say, all images seen during the webcast were excellent, one of which appeared like this:

Mercury Transit

Truthfully, after about an hour, the webcast looked pretty boring because all you see was a round dot inside an orange square. Every now and then, the experts would come back on line to engage the viewers. At one time, they gave a tour of the edge of the sun, which was great because I do not think you can get that kind of tour from any travel agency on earth. I went for the distance and stayed with the webcast until the bitter end when it signed off, after Mercury finished its final fourth contact, egressing the surface of the sun and bid it goodbye until the year 2016.

OK. So, how was it, you ask? Was it time well spent or a total waste of 5 hours plus? What's the point in all this? If you revisit one of my previous blogs, on September 17 of this year, you can watch a pool table trick shot. If you understand French, you may hear a comment by a woman spectator: "... the exhibition serves no purpose and it is an unbelievable waste of time," to which there are some potent male chauvinistic replies from the French men that will not be repeated here. So, the answer is "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," which on its own merit can be subject of another blog. I may do that in the future, who knows?

Scientifically speaking, many experiments were being conducted during the transit because it offered unique opportunites to use the sun as a backgroud that aids in the study, for example, of Mercury's sodium content in its atmosphere that is not possible otherwise. You didn't know that Mercury has an atmosphere, did you? See? Time NOT wasted!

Me? I have a totally different take. I felt so sorry for our poor planet Mercury watching its transit. Undoubtedly, many times in one's lifetime, one cannot help but to feel lonesome to some degree. Such potentially devastating condition of the human mind can be detected in many well known literary authors as reflected in their books, theatrical plays, movies and other art forms. One famous such work was a song written in 1949 by Hank Williams, bearing the same name as the title of this blog. If you listen to the rendition of that song by country singer Johnny Cash, you probably would want to die. If you think that human loneliness is bad, think about the poor planets in our poor solar system that includes our own poor earth. We are all but a collective mass of matter destined to wander eternally without hope of escape in the boundless, empty, cold and dark void of the universe until death dawns. The fact that we are a thinking species makes it much worse. Can we be better off being just rocks? Are we sure rocks do not feel pain?

So, please take a look at a composite of the now history Mercury transit that lasted 5 hours +:

.Mercury Transit

That is a LONELY trek that repeats for an eternity. How sad! Now that you can see it, perhaps you can feel it!