Martina Caironi, Paralympians and prosthetics

martinacaironi

Last weekend I had the pleasure of talking to the Italian paralympian Martina Caironi. For those of you who might not know her, she won a Gold Medal in London in the 100 mtr T42 category in a new World Record time, Gold in the World Championships in the long jump and again in the 100 mtrs, and just last month took the World Record over 200 mtrs. This is her in the photo above, she is the fastest para-athletic woman on Earth.

I have long had an interest in prosthetics and the borderline between human and machine. Readers might remember the review of the film Fixed that I wrote last year, and some may even remember my first post here about elective amputation in favour of prosthetics.

So as you might imagine I had a lot to ask. Regarding where the human body ends and the prosthetic begins, Martina told me that the question is very much down to your own point of view. She said that she knows where her prosthesis is without looking, so it seems very much an extension of her body. She can stand on one leg. You would not even realize she was wearing it if you saw her walk across the street.

I wonder whether it actually becomes part of your body though, but I am not sure that this is the case. She explained that you have to learn how to use it, how much you can push without causing injury, and a great deal is down to the quality of the prosthesis. It definitely seems to be an instrument for her.

We also talked about parity between para and non para athletes. She said that in the UK there is parity, and the races have prizes. This is not however the case in all countries, and she gave me some examples where the race organizers “don’t even pay your hotel bill”. This was a debate that really took off in the UK after the London Olympics and Paraolympics. It was noted that gold medal winners in the Olympics go on to make a lot of money through sponsorship, but that paralympians do not always have the same opportunities.

If you search the Internet you find many examples of countries that offer the same prizes to both sets of athletes, but you also find articles that explain that paralympians are paid less because the governing bodies find it difficult to raise the same amount of sponsorship. I am pleased to say that Martina makes a living from her athletics today, and rightly so given her dedication.

If you would like to watch Martina winning her gold medal here it is.

I should tell you that I have known Martina for some years, she was one of my students when I was an English teacher in Italy. She lost the bottom half of one leg in a scooter accident, and for a while was on crutches as the wound healed and the prosthetic was prepared. The fitting process took some time, and was uncomfortable when it was not quite right, so we are dealing with a precise instrument that has to be well fitted. While running she uses a blade, if you are interested in learning how they work take a look here.

Most of Martina’s interviews that we find on the web are in Italian, which doesn’t say much for her charlatan English teacher, but one of the things that she maintains is that sport gives people who have lost some mobility the chance to push their limits. Instead of accepting limitations, it pushes the athlete into going ever further, acting as a positive force for well-being. It has given her the possibility of experiencing things that many of us might dream of, with the fortune of having access to such technology through a fine center of excellence here in Italy.

Readers might also want to take a look at the Robohand website. They use 3D printers to make prosthetics, and recently unveiled a project that aims to commercialize a prosthetic leg. I think this type of technology could bring vast improvements to the prosthetics world.

I also urge you to read this article by Erin Strait that is a free download. It describes the development of artificial legs in developing countries, the materials used and the costs. Some solutions are ingenious and not costly. See below for an artificial leg made from used bike parts, they cost less than a dollar each to make.

bike foot

Ocean Cleanup

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We have all heard about the problem of the oceans getting cluttered up with plastic. Unfortunately, solving the problem of marine plastic pollution is not as simple as picking up all of the pieces of plastic. While a lot of plastic pollution is concentrated in the gyres, it is not floating in a single mass on the surface. Pieces of plastic are distributed vertically, through the water column. Plastic breaks down into tiny particles in the ocean, making clean-up efforts very difficult. One of the many challenges of cleanup is how to remove the plastics from the ocean without also removing or damaging marine life.

The Natural Resources Defense Council website has lots of information related to the problem. They also describe some of the possible solutions as also being problematic. This is what they say about bioplastics and their marketing:

“The term “bioplastics” is increasingly being used to refer to a wide range of products, some of which are primarily or entirely plant-derived, others of which contain fossil-fuel-derived plastic, and all of which might be biodegradable, compostable, recyclable, some combination, or none of the above. While many companies are marketing these products as “green” alternatives to traditional plastics, the reality is more complex. Even biodegradable and compostable plastics are typically designed to break down efficiently only in commercial composting systems; on land or in water, these plastics generally persist long enough to cause potential hazards to water systems and wildlife. Any plastic, regardless of whether it is derived from plants or from fossil fuels, should be properly disposed of, and ideally should be recyclable and/or compostable to avoid the need to landfill.

Besides the issues related to improper disposal, production of bioplastics is also potentially problematic. Corn-based bioplastics are some of the most widely available bioplastics today — while these represent a positive step in the growing market toward finding alternatives to non-renewable, fossil-fuel-derived plastic, they rely on the production of corn, which raises concerns about agricultural impacts on land use, food production and global warming. These production impacts are all significantly reduced by specifying bioplastic products made from waste-based agricultural residues (residues left over after harvest from an existing agricultural land use which would otherwise be treated as waste). Replacing some current plastics with renewable bioplastics (especially those made using agricultural residues) is a promising way to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, but more research is needed to develop better products which will reduce the reliance on non-renewable resources and address concerns associated with marine plastic pollution”.

Interesting food for thought, so bioplastics do not seem to offer a solution. What we need to do is stop putting plastics into the oceans and try to get the plastic out that is already there.

The Ocean Clean up organization believe they have found a viable way to proceed with the removal part of my great plan, and have launched a crowdfunding appeal to raise the money to put their idea into full production. 19-year-old Boyan Slat has been leading a team that have designed a system that helps the ocean to clean itself. The system uses a series of solid floating barriers that are placed in the ocean. The currents and wind force the ocean to pass under the barriers, but anything that floats or is neutral in the water (plastic for example) cannot pass and so is collected in the boom. The plastic collected can then be reused. The website has a more detailed explanation and a glossy video.

This concentration of the waste means that it can then be removed from the booms easily, and at much lower cost both economically and environmentally that using other methods. Check out the concept here.

So all they need is to raise $2 million to step up into the next phase. At the time of writing the crowdfunding campaign has raised more than $765,000, and with 80 days to go it looks hopeful to me. If you have a few quid to spare it might be a good investment.

Readers might like to have a look at a post I wrote earlier this year about the INSS meeting in Charlotte. The post includes a review and photos of an art installation called “The Real Toy Story”, that includes a giant baby stuffed with waste plastic taken from the sea.

Nanofoods

This week I want to put two of my little pets together. Nanotechnology and food might sound like two very different topics, like a cat and a gerbil to use the pet metaphor, but you would be surprised. Many products in fact have manufactured nanoparticles in them, and we eat them.

Now we might ask if this is safe, and some would say of course it is. Some have great reservations about it, and some point to the fact that there has been little research done into the matter and that it might be better not to eat them anyway.

Friends of the Earth US have recently published a report entitled Tiny Ingredients, Big Risks, and it is free to download here.

To give you a flavour of what is on offer, I just take a few lines from the report:

A ten fold increase in unregulated and unlabeled nanofoods over the last 6 years

Nanomaterials are found in a broad aray of everyday food (cheese, chocolate, breakfast cereals etc)

Major food companies are investing billions in nanofood and packaging

An increasingly large body of peer reviewed evidence indicates that nanomaterials may harm human health and the environment

Nano agrochemicals are now being used on farms so entering the environment

US regulation is wholly inadequate

Public involvement in decision-making regarding these problems is necessary

The products containing unlabeled nano-ingredients range from Kraft American Singles to Hershey’s chocolate. They are made by major companies including Kraft (KRFT), General Mills (GIS), Hershey (HSY), Nestle (NSRGY), Mars, Unilever (UL), Smucker’s (SJM) and Albertsons. But due to a lack of labeling and disclosure, a far greater  number of food products with undisclosed nanomaterials are likely currently on the market.

To give you an idea we are talking about silver, titanium dioxide, zink and zink oxide, silicon and copper, as well as the traditional carbon nano tubes that are found in food packaging and freshness labelling technologies.

The report documents 85 food and beverage products on the market known to contain nanomaterials — including brand name products, and points out that the nanofood industry will soon be worth $20 billion.

This is a detailed report, it lists the products that have been found to contain these materials, the health problems associated with ingestion of such materials in animals and calls for action. It does not make for light reading, but it appears to me to be a technology that is being sneaked in through the back door, and soon like genetic modification will be difficult to avoid.

Take a look back at my food series for more tasty stuff.

Discover a New Planet

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The days of discovering planets by pointing a telescope at the skies are long gone. If you are interested in discovery you can join the Galaxy Zoo project.

The Galaxy Zoo project has been running for several years, and involves hundreds of thousands of people. One of the problems for scientists today is the analysis of the enormous amounts of scientific data generated. This example is that of The Hubble telescope. It captures such a large amount of images that they risk never being studied, but one way of getting round this problem is to invite non scientists to view the pictures online and classify what they see. The tutorial on their website is simple to follow and in a few minutes you are away and participating in scientific discovery.
There is always the possibility of finding something new too, as in the example of the dutch primary school teacher Hanny Van Arkel who now has an object known as “Hanny’s Voorwerp” named after her, an object that would probably never have been noted had it not been for Ms Arkel’s lay interest in star gazing.

When looking for planets and other objects scientists rely on mathematics to determine where they may be located. Incredibly enough they have been doing it for many years too, and Neptune was in fact discovered after its position was mathematically predicted.

The planet Neptune was mathematically predicted by Urbain Le Verrier, with telescopic observations confirming the existence of a major planet made on the night of September 23–24, 1846, working from Le Verrier’s calculations. It was a sensational moment of 19th century science and dramatic confirmation of Newtonian gravitational theory.
By 1846 the planet Uranus had completed nearly one full orbit since its discovery by William Herschel in 1781, and astronomers had detected a series of irregularities in its path which could not be entirely explained by Newton’s law of gravitation. These irregularities could, however, be resolved if the gravity of a farther, unknown planet were disturbing its path around the Sun.

So nowadays there is an algorithm that helps us of course, and an educational game, and you can play with it if you like. It is fantastically titled Super planet crash. The site that hosts this game is a portal to an entire series of worlds. Planet exploration worlds.

But back to the game. Using Newton’s laws of gravity the game allows you to place planets in orbit around a sun. Each planet has its correct gravitational pull (they are different sizes of course) and this pull effects the orbits of the other planets. The objective is to build a solar system that functions for 500 years without the planets crashing into each other or falling out of orbit.

Once you get involved in putting large planets into orbit the game gets quite difficult. It’s fun for kids and adults and educational, and might lead you into becoming a discoverer yourself.

Deep Sea Mining Agreement

bbc bulk cutter

Time moves like molasses as they say here, but it moves.

Almost exactly a year ago I wrote a post called Mining the Seabed. Almost exactly a year before that I wrote a post about the possibility of sending robots to mine asteroids. All science fiction I heard you say, but oh wait.

A couple of weeks ago Nautilus Minerals, a Canadian mining corporation, signed a deal with the Papua New Guinea government to start digging (mining) the seabed just off their coast.

The mining will be done from the surface. A series of large machines (310 tonnes), one of which we see in the photo above, will be operated from ships, placed on the seabed and will effectively break up the top layer so that the ore can be pumped up as slurry (muddy stuff).

Now this doesn’t sound too good to me, but the operators claim that “It’s a resilient system and studies show that life will recover in 5-10 years. An active venting site 1km to the south East has the same bugs and snails and the current will carry the bugs and snails to the mine site. We expect it to recover quite quickly.”

Greenpeace don’t agree. The truth is we don’t really know who is right. What we do know though is that there is big money involved. The bed is rich in gold and copper, and we need this stuff for far more than wedding rings and rheumatism charms.

Now as some of you will know, my mission in life is to promote responsible innovation through my work at the Bassetti Foundation, and we can take a look at the developments above from this perspective. We all use gold and copper, and it is in great demand. My computer won’t work without electricity, copper cables, solder, silicon etc, so we can be as forthright as we like but we are the ones creating the demand.

Companies are looking to supply us and make a profit, there now seems to be a viable mining approach that will involve getting it from under the oceans. Nobody will be able to stop them doing it, so we need to think about how they are going to do it, and where.

There is probably no real way of knowing how quickly the seabed will reform or how much damage is going to be caused, there are no qualified experts in mining to conduct the operations (it’s a first time gig) and international regulation still needs to be drawn.

There does not seem to have been much public debate, we won’t be able to monitor proceedings ourselves and at the best of times, mining is a dirty affair.

So this could be a disaster waiting to happen, or it could be a fantastic opportunity to create a framework that could address all of the problems above and be applicable in other fields.

Last year some academics published an article about their experiences working in a geoengineering project. Similar set of problems as described above, but social scientists were involved in the project and participated in the decision-making process. The outcome was extremely interesting, the project scientists decided to suspend their research and rethink their positions. The article is free to download here, where there is also a more precise description. It’s easy to read and very interesting.

Going Dutch, Heated Cycle Paths and Glowing Roads

glow roads

As regular readers may know, I am currently living my life straddled between two continents. I am based in Boston in the USA, but technically resident of Italy. To add to the confusion I am going to live in the Netherlands in June.

Why the Netherlands? I hear you all ask in unison. Bikes and technological advances in road safety might be one reason (although there are also others).

So first to bikes. I am a cyclist myself, I ride a 1973 Triumph 3 speed, it is a lovely machine. This winter has been a harsh one though, even for Boston standards, and the roads and pavements were covered in ice for long periods of time. As in many other places the city council sends trucks out to throw salt all over the place, which is not very good for the roads, cars, or water supply.

So to the Netherlands. They certainly know how to treat cyclists there. The Dutch city of Wageningen is experimenting with an innovative system that will help keep cyclists safe without the salt problem. A 50 metre stretch of cycle path has been replaced with concrete plates that are heated with stored thermal energy, preventing the path from becoming icy and slippery.

Yes, a heated cycle lane. It is fully recyclable, maintenance free and the system is carbon neutral. Here is the story in Dutch. Sorry but I can’t find anything in English so you will have to try a translation tool.

And while they are at it (the Dutch) they have developed a paint for their new heated paths that also stores energy during the day so that it can glow at night. There is no need for street lights in some areas if the sides of the roads light up so it could offer a great energy saving benefit. They are trialling it out on a short stretch of motorway at the moment, and have other ideas for its use. How about painting snowflakes into the road that only illuminate when the temperature drops and could create ice? Temperature sensitive paint is also undergoing testing, also a Dutch development. Check out this report on the BBC.

I very much look forward to my move to the Netherlands, spending the winter days on my bike, riding home on an ice free path through the woods, lit by painted strips down either side and all without the need for any electricity.

Earth Day

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Today is Earth Day. It is the 44th time that we celebrate this planet that we call home. The celebration started in 1970, and is the brain child of US Senator Gaylord Nelson.

Nelson asked Denis Hayes to organize a day of awareness, on April 22nd, and by the end of 1970, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had been established, and efforts to improve air and water quality were gaining political traction.

Today is a time of celebration, of love for our little speck in space. And it is a lovely speck, there are some quite beautiful places to see and experience dotted across the surface.

This year’s Earth Day boasts an organization that includes more than 22 000 organizations and hopes to conduct 2 billion acts of awareness and improvement. It is an education day, that has green schools and a Leadership Center.

Why not have a look at the organization’s website, and look around your little piece of the speck to see what you can do to raise awareness of the problems faced by our world and maybe plant a tree, collect some plastic for recycling, weed an invasive species or get into a debate with your kids?

There are plenty of opportunities!