Apple: Turning Science Fiction to Reality Since 1976

This might come to many readers as a biased post, since I a loyal Apple fan; but can you really blame for that? This week marked an important milestone in the history of Apple with the much awaited announcement and the big reveal of Apple Watch. As a bonus to all the spell-bound Apple followers came the Apply Pay. While smart watches have been in the development phase for many years now and many companies already have some on the market, like the Samsung smart watch, everyone seemed to be waiting what Apple would come up with. It is not a new concept, but the Apple tag on it makes it somewhat special and  more appealing to the masses who may not have seriously considered this option before. Just like tablets were not new when ipad came along, it just took the market by storm and revolutionized the tablet industry. I don’t think I am wrong in saying that the ipods and the ipads have made the things of science fiction a part of real daily life, so much that it is hard to imagine life without them. I often wonder what a person from early to mid 1900s would think if they somehow time travelled to our time period.

We are living in a rapidly evolving world. The evolution of humans, somewhere in the 20th century, seems to have switched from gene mutations to conscious mutation of our lifestyle using our own intellect. We are fast-forwarding to a time when anything and everything can be done with technology. With the advent of wearable technology as in the case of smart watches, life is going to take a couple steps towards getting more connected to the world around us and much more dependent of our gadgets for our day to day activities. Its is also going to render obsolete many things we thought were timeless, time pieces being one of them. Who wouldn’t want a watch that can be a calendar, alarm clock, reminder provider, fitness evaluator, messaging apparatus and a romance enhancer by sending our heart beats to our loved ones? Alright, I am not too sure about the last one, although I think if you have irregular heartbeats it might be good tool to use in collaboration with your cardiologist.

Starting soon, with Apple Pay physical credit cards will also be on their way to be part of the glorious history of humans on earth. I myself am a sceptic of this technology to some extent owing to the recent and some not so recent hacking attacks by malicious people to steal banking and credit card information from banks and stores. While you will have to be much more careful and keep close tabs on your expenses while using facilities like Apple Pay, it sure will be more convenient.

The next step, I would think, would be to transform these gadgets into house and car keys and we’ll have almost everything covered. Soon there will be a day when you just need your phone when you walk out of your house and nothing else. And soon after that, when smart watches take over you might be able to go somewhere empty handed, only with a high-tech watch on your wrist, but still have everything you need at your fingertips, quite literally.

Remembering Stephanie Kwolek, the Woman Behind Kevlar

As I sat on my couch reading my weekly Chemical and Engineering News magazine that I receive as a member of American Chemical Society, I turned a page to find an obituary for Stephanie Kwolek. Somehow I had missed the news from regular sources. I have never met her in my life but I felt a connection with her; I saw her as a role model for me, considering I am following a career path she mastered. She was a great woman of science who invented one of the most important polymers created in the last century. And she did it when there were very few women working in the field of polymers, let alone science in general.

Many of us may not know what Kevlar is or why it is so important; But all of us have used, touched, felt or at least heard about something made from it. Kevlar is the trade name of a liquid crystalline polymer, aramid to be specific, with extremely high strength and stiffness (yes, they are distinct terms!) and thermal stability, manufactured by DuPont. It is used for numerous applications requiring high performance materials like tire cords, parachutes, electronics, automobiles, even fibre optic cable to name a few; but it is probably most recognized for use in body armor or bullet proof vests for the military. While she wasn’t directly involved in the development of applications for her invention, she gave the world a material that in some way changed it for the better. She had not known that her invention would one day manifest as a protective guard for our troops in the form of body armor and save their lives. The applications of this exceptional polymer are constantly being further developed even today, as others try to come up with new polymers with competing properties. For her invention of Kevlar, Stephanie was honored with numerous awards, some of which she became the first woman to receive.

Any aspiring young woman scientist can learn a lot from Stephanie’s career graph. One thing I admire about her is that she loved what she did and she came in and conquered a male dominated field. Even today, as I look around, there aren’t as many women in engineering and material science when compared to the number of their male counterparts. I can only imagine that to work in a field that has historically been known to be a male domain, a woman must have felt like a fish out of water. But to take on such a job and to be extremely good at it is something to be proud of and what can aspire many others to venture in similar direction. But something else that I think, everyone can take a lesson from is her attention to detail. Kevlar was discovered because Stephanie decided to analyze the polymer’s sudden drop in viscosity with increasing concentration in solution, a point where others might have discarded that solution deeming it useless. Sometimes while experimenting, seeing something ‘weird’ is not the end but the start of a project, you just have to be attentive enough to recognize it; and Stephanie surely mastered that quality.

I have no information about her personal life but from what I hear, Stephanie was a fun-loving and enthusiastic person. I am sure she had fun doing what she did for her day job and it was probably her passion for her work that infused  a zeal in her life outside of work. All young scientists can learn  a lesson about dedication and passion for your chosen scientific field from the life of Stephanie Kwolek. Girls in particular can find a role model in Stephanie, the woman who invented Kevlar and unknowingly saved the precious lives of numerous soldiers around the globe.

Scientists and Forgotten Safety Protocols

Reading through the numerous news articles about the accidental exposure of about 75 scientists, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to anthrax reminded me of the lab safety trainings I sat in not so long ago (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/20/health/up-to-75-cdc-scientists-may-have-been-exposed-to-anthrax.html?hp).All of us, who work in the field of science are well aware of the atrocious safety training sessions we have to attend repeatedly over the course of our careers. But it is only on occasions like this one that we truly understand their value.

The department seems to be saying that the risk of exposure is “extremely low” and the bacteria were presumed  inactive before they were transferred to these new labs where their spores happened to get aerosolized. But why has this risk, however small or large, been brought upon the center or people at all? How, in this age of advanced scientific environment, was it wrongly concluded that the culture had been inactivated? And something that is the most bothersome is that why were the scientist handling anthrax, active or inactive, not using personal protective equipment that is meant to be used when dealing with a high risk level agent? This, to me, seems like a classic case of oopsie daisy, where someone or some people dropped the ball and now its is costing a fortune to get everything back in order. It is certainly not a cake walk to quarantine a large area and decontaminate it, not to mention watching these scientist and probably their close contacts for the possible onset of infection symptoms for weeks or even months.

There are a lot of accidents, both big and small, that can be prevented in the laboratory environment if the workers pay attention to details and follow the safety protocol. Yes, it is cumbersome to walk around the lab to fetch a specific pair of gloves required for a job and you probably can just do it very quickly with your bare hands since you have done it a million times and its relatively safe. But it can as easily go wrong and you may end up hurting yourself, others and probably wasting quite a bit of money to fix the situation created by your laziness and carelessness. There is always some incident that comes up in the news about lab accidents every so often and becomes the talk of the scientific community but is soon forgotten and we all go back to our old ways.

I don’t have all the details about how exactly this case of anthrax exposure went from start to end but it sure wreaks of negligence on the part of people working there. Why the bacteria were ineffectively inactivated or the tests to confirm their inactivation weren’t done properly or the scientists were not working with them with proper safety equipment is unknown. But this incident should be taken as a wake up call by the scientific community to follow safety regulations rigorously and pay attention to every single detail when performing an experiment. As a scientist, your negligence can lead you to not just  endangering yourself but also those around you and cost your institution a lot of money!