All posts by Edward Willett

I'm a freelance writer in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. I've written more than 30 books (I've lost count) on a variety of topics. My nonfiction titles include books on computers, diseases, genetics, and the Iran-Iraq War, some for children and some for adults. I've also written several biographies for children, on individuals as diverse as J.R.R. Tolkien, Orson Scott Card, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and the Ayatollah Khomeini. I've loved science fiction and fantasy since I was a kid (thanks, Andre Norton, Madeleine L'Engle and Robert A. Heinlein!) and have also written young adult fantasy and science fiction. More recently I've turned to adult science fiction. My first adult SF novel, Lost in Translation, was published by Five Star in hardcover in 2005 and reprinted in paperback by DAW Books in 2006. My new SF novel for DAW, Marseguro, will be out in February, 2008. I write a weekly newspaper science column, I love good wine and good food, I'm married and have a daughter, and I'm a professional actor and singer when the opportunity presents itself, and act and sing just for fun when I can't find anyone to pay me for it. My website is at, and my blog is at edwardwillett.blogspot. com. And that is probably more about me than anyone could possibly want to know...

Robot and human surgeons compare micro-gravity operating skills

Robot surgeon at work in Aquarius underwater habitat

Good news for future space travelers: the world’s first demonstration of robotic surgery in a simulated micro-gravity environment takes place this week, in a collaborative effort between SRI International and the University of Cincinnati.

On four parabolic flights September 25 to 28 aboard a NASA C-9 aircraft (nicknamed the "Weightless Wonder"), a human surgeon will match suturing and similar skills with a robot surgeon tele-operated from thousands of miles away. The robot surgeon is equipped with special software that is designed to help it compensate for "errors in movement" (what you might call those pesky "oops!" moments that surgeons–and patients–just hate) due to turbulence or lack of gravity. The human surgeon is equipped with an airsickness bag.

The remote-surgery robot has already been tested on the Aquarius Underwater Laboratory, 60 feet under the water off the coast of Key Largo, where SRI demonstrated the robot could operate successfully even with a two-second latency, similar to that an Earth-based surgeon would experience if operating such a robot on the moon. Future beneficiaries of such tele-operated surgery could include not only astronauts and military casualties but anyone who needs attention by a surgeon when the hospital is a long way away.

Those who believe they’ve been abducted by aliens and subjected to medical testing, however, might wish to ask for a sedative or a blindfold before a knife-wielding robot is positioned above them.

(Via MedGadget.)

(Photo from NASA via SRI International.)

[tags]robots, medicine, space travel, surgery[/tags]

Pulp-based computing

Computer chip embedded in paper In computers, we have software and hardware. Jokingly, the human brain is sometimes called wetware. Up next: pulpware!

OK, technically it’s hardware–wires, sensors and computer chips–embedded in paper or cardboard. A spiral of conductive ink can be a speaker, or a touch sensor. Two layers, and a page can tell when it is being bent. Among the possible creations are books that talk or light up when their pages are turned (personally, I can’t think of anything more annoying!), or boxes that can tell you how much their content weighs. (Maybe with voice messages. "Don’t even try it, buddy! I’m a hernia-in-waiting!")

The project was outlined at the recent International Conference on Ubiquitous Computing in Innsbruck, Austria. Here’s a video of the production process and some applications. Here’s the original paper. And here’s the research project’s website.

(Via New Scientist Tech.)

(Photo from MIT.)

[tags]computers, MIT, technology, paper[/tags]

Genetic modification of large animals just got easier

Diagram illustrating the process of gene therapyEfforts to genetically modify large animals have been hindered by the fact that the two methods currently used to effect it, somatic cell nuclear transfer or pronuclear injection, are costly, inefficient, difficult, and carry a risk of producing abnormal offspring. Now researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine have successfully produced genetically modified mice and goats by transferring modified genetic information via a harmless virus to male reproductive cells, which then passed the modification on naturally to about 10 percent of the offspring. In other words, genetic modification via gene therapy.

Of course, using this technique on humans in combination with in-vitro fertilization and careful weeding of the resulting embryos in order to create a genetically modified super race with abilities surpassing normal humans’ would be completely illegal and unethical, and only a deranged science fiction writer such as myself whose next book features genetically modified humans would even think of it as a possibility.

So, no worries.

(Via PhysOrg.)

(Illustration from Wikimedia Commons.)

[tags]genetics, gene therapy, genetic modification[/tags]

A new use for satellite imagery: boosting sales!

Sample GeoPrism Data

New technologies have a tendency to develop unintended side effects, for both good or ill–just look at how automobiles changed society. Satellite imaging gave us better weather forecasts and more accurate military surveillance–and now, stronger sales leads for home contractors!

A company called Geosemble is using artificial intelligence combined with satellite imagery to direct companies toward local residents whose houses and grounds are in need of repair. The National Science Foundation in the U.S. has given them a Phase I grant to further develop the process.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go wrap my house in aluminum foil.

(Via Gizmag.)

(Photo from Gizmag, too.)

[tags]satellite, satellite imagery, privacy[/tags]

The Brain from Planet X

The Brain from Planet X CD cover In my initial post, did I not threaten you with promise you the occasional post combining my love of SF and musical theatre?

Behold (and listen to excerpts from) The Brain from Planet X. It is, indeed, an SF (well, sci-fi) musical! It invaded Los Angeles last year, and now it’s invading New York.

Read about the creator’s, um, brainwave, here.

(Via BroadwayWorld.)

UPDATE: Also playing at the New York Musical Theatre Festival: a musical version of the 1980s SF flick The Last Starfighter!

[tags]science fiction, music, musical theatre[/tags]