Saturday 17 September 2016

Weekend Challenge: Name Your New Discovery

Here's a great story from the Graun that confirms several aspects of my outlook on life, of which more below.  
An inhaler that protects the lungs against air pollution has been developed by scientists and could help the many millions of people affected by toxic air to avoid its worst effects. The inhaler delivers a molecule, first found in bacteria in the Egyptian desert, which stabilises water on the surface of the lung cells to form a protective layer. It is expected to be available as an inexpensive, over-the-counter product...based on a molecule called ectoine, discovered in the 1980s in a desert bacterium which uses the compound to conserve water in 60C heat. “It is quite an inert molecule that does one main thing, which is bind water, which stabilises cell membrane tissues against physical or chemical damage ... It supports the natural barrier.” When inhaled, this helps prevent the damage caused by air pollution particles that can lead to asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer ... Ectoine does not interact with cell receptors, so it is classed as a medical device rather than a drug. This means large clinical trials are not required for official approval ... “It could potentially do so much more. It is actually quite exciting and there is clearly a lot more to come from this story.”
Neat, eh?  And echoes of penicillin: discovered decades before anyone figures out how to do something useful with it.  There's something wonderfully random about when discoveries are made and, in parallel, when actual inventions are perfected and realised.  It certainly doesn't always happen in a logical sequence of  search - discovery - deliberation - application - invention - product, as naive accounts sometimes suggest.  (The actual, functioning steam engine disproved the 'science' of the time.)  I always think television was an invention rather ahead of its time.  Then again, there are things that should have been invented already ... 

I reckon this marvellous ectoine thingy / discovery / application illustrates a number of maxims that I carry around with me:
  • there's always more stuff out there than anyone realises; ('if in doubt, go short')
  • technology solves problems (to give another example: geo-engineering is a whole lot better for tackling GW than banning travel or electricity or keeping warm in winter);
  • the next generation always has more resources than its forefathers; (which is not the same as life necessarily getting better - our perennial C@W debate)
  • there are sometimes step-change improvements that completely transform a situation - progress doesn't move in straight lines, it behaves more like the long-jump record (see also the 'phoenix phenomenon');
  • the latency period for effectively harnessing something new can be surprisingly long (and I don't think we've done much more than scratch the surface as regards microprocessors / digitisation / www etc)  
So.  Weekend challenge - what urgently needs discovering / inventing?  My candidates:
  • synthetic blood - this is so obvious and so slow in coming: I can scarcely believe it still hasn't happened
  • corbynite, a mysterious substance that will finally account for the folly of socialism, in every sense of 'account for'
Your carefully devised inventions, dear readers ..?



Sackerson said...

I can't track down the quotation, but someone was talking to J D Salinger about another man at a party, saying how wealthy and successful he was (? hedge fund manager); Salinger replied, "I have something he will never have." "What's that?" "Enough."

In context, that could just be writer's smarts. But something that helps people genuinely feel that way, would be good.

Demetrius said...

My grandad always said that all these petrol/oil carriages would never catch on, horses would always be more reliable, simpler to maintain and easier to handle.

Peter Whale said...

When joining a philosophy group we were asked what we wanted from it."I want to be able not to want" was I thought the best reply.

Anonymous said...

The Israelis are doing neat things with desalination - apparently they've cracked the issue of membranes clogging up and needing cleaning at intervals, can now produce clean water at cheaper than the price LA and SF consumers pay. When you power the lot with solar you have a great thing for hot places (I'm just returned from a small hot island where all the water is brought in by boat).

"the next generation always has more resources than its forefathers"

Is that true? Did eighth-century Britain have more resources than Roman Britain in any meaningful sense? And in terms of mineral and energy resources we have less, as the low hanging fruit's been picked (if the AGW theories are right this is a blessing in disguise of course).

andrew said...

Lots of cheap power.
The next generation can work out how to reach the stars with that.
Cheap housing where people want to live
Probably more unlikely that star travel.

nemesis said...

On a similar theme; Someone recently said to me that 50% of the jobs, 20 years from now have not yet been invented. The problem is that the way we are heading, those jobs are more likely to be 'plastic bag re-usage inspectors' than 'space marshalls'

dearieme said...

A layer of water to protect the cells on the surfaces of the lung presumably means that the lungs will not now be vulnerable to alpha-emitters. Hurray! Just in time before nuclear bombing restarts. You can vote for Hellary after all.

Ravenscar. said...

Fusion, the end of the darkness: would solve energy supply and pollution in one.

Great stuff from the Israelis, solar desalination could be a great boon for mankind.

I've always been on the polar opposite of the Malthusian keening, Club of Rump attitude to 'finite resources' and too many.
For, there are almost endless possibilities and resources - on earth and we have barely started scratching the surface of the crust! Plus, then the Solar system and interplanetary travel, after that who would care to speculate but we need to find some physics first - there are more than a few things [Dimensions] we have not 'invented' yet.

Only one problem - mankind itself.

Unless nuclear MAD or, death by regression - either via the ideological yokes of Communism/Islamism - we could be....... almost great..... huh almost coz, remember the seven deadly sins - and we'll never cure ourselves of they.

Electro-Kevin said...

Luminous loo seat.

Then all we need is someone to invent a pill to make luminous piss.

Nick Drew said...

isn't that asparagus?

Sackerson said...

@ Electro-Kevin: your wish is granted -

Anonymous said...

Calls for unlimited cheap energy ignore the fact that the earth has to get rid of the heat produced. We can't have a 100Kw reactor in every back yard worldwide, even if they were free, because a few trillion watts extra would make it very warm indeed. You'd have to look at the physics of the earth's heat radiation.

We need cheap carbon-free energy, but not too much of it !

Nick Drew said...

"the next generation always has more resources than its forefathers"
Is that true? Did eighth-century Britain have more resources than Roman Britain in any meaningful sense?

fair play anon, but, well I also said progress isn't linear. Sometimes it even goes backwards! (the Roman invention / discovery of cement that sets underwater was lost for more than a millenium)

but in this day and age of communication & continuity, advances don't tend to get lost quite like that

generally, I'm a bit surprised no-one mentioned efficient electricity storage, widely viewed as the Holy Grail (at least in energy / CC)

as they say: if you invent the efficient means of electricity storage, you can name your university after yourself ..

Anonymous said...

I muse, that "efficient means of electrical storage" is rather improbable and here we go all physics if not metaphysics.

From Wiki:

The conservation of energy is a common feature in many physical theories. From a mathematical point of view it is understood as a consequence of Noether's theorem, developed by Emmy Noether in 1915 and first published in 1918. The theorem states every continuous symmetry of a physical theory has an associated conserved quantity; if the theory's symmetry is time invariance then the conserved quantity is called "energy". The energy conservation law is a consequence of the shift symmetry of time; energy conservation is implied by the empirical fact that the laws of physics do not change with time itself. Philosophically this can be stated as "nothing depends on time per se". In other words, if the physical system is invariant under the continuous symmetry of time translation then its energy (which is canonical conjugate quantity to time) is conserved. Conversely, systems which are not invariant under shifts in time (an example, systems with time dependent potential energy) do not exhibit conservation of energy – unless we consider them to exchange energy with another, external system so that the theory of the enlarged system becomes time invariant again. Since any time-varying system can be embedded within a larger time-invariant system (with the exception of the universe), conservation can always be recovered by a suitable re-definition of what energy is and extending the scope of your system. Conservation of energy for finite systems is valid in such physical theories as special relativity and quantum theory (including QED) in the flat space-time.

It gets complicated.

Storing energy it's done - a tank of petrol, Gas, and a heater/cooker/car - we do it already.... OK in a non variant linear sort of way.

Nick Drew said...

Thanks, anon - a fulsome contribution

it really is electricity we are talking about - hard to beat uranium etc if it's just 'energy' that needs storing (and, on the mundane level, diesel is pretty good too, in its way. but deffo not natural gas!)

By 'efficient', I "only" mean 80-90% - enough to merit taking cheap offpeak electricity and turning it round into costly peak elctricity with all costs etc taken into account

we can of course do this quite satisfactorily already on a fair scale with pump-storage (water uphill at night) BUT only where the geology + grid-system permits, which turns out to be not so common

the view is forming within the industry, that a good pragmatic answer will be increasing the size of hot-water tanks (heavily lagged) in homes and offices, and going for night-time water-heating

this won't be terrifically efficient, but it could be quite cheap, fairly practical, and potentially VERY large-scale

Anonymous said...

I'd like an umbrella which worked even when it was windy.

Anonymous said...

the view is forming within the industry, that a good pragmatic answer will be increasing the size of hot-water tanks (heavily lagged) in homes and offices, and going for night-time water-heating

this won't be terrifically efficient, but it could be quite cheap, fairly practical, and potentially VERY large-scale [/quote]

OK Nick, and interesting reply, we could talk long about this, shame we cannot.