Thursday, January 27, 2011

Book of the Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices

al-Jazari lived in the late 12th and early 13th century, near modern-day Iraq, and was a marvelous mechanical engineer and scientist who built some amazing machines, which you have to see to believe:

Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art
Lest you think these are merely fanciful illustrations, al-Jazari wrote complete instructions on how to build the machines in his, "Book of the Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices (Kitáb fí ma'rifat al-hiyal al-handasiyya)" in 1206 at the request of the sultan.

Donald Hill, translated the text into English in 1974, and a book review of the translation from New Scientist magazine is available online.

The science of automata, as such devices are called, is felt to be the precursor to the modern science of robotics.  al-Jazari's book was written centuries before the famous sketches of Leonardo Da Vinci, and clearly establish al-Jazari as the father of robotics.

Furthing reading:
1. Research by Malaysian scientists on al-Jazari's water supply system
2. Listing of books, via Google Books, showing al-Jazari's importance
3. YouTube videos showing how al-Jazari's inventions would have worked

Friday, January 14, 2011

Residents, Supreme Court says you're not students (8-0)

Mayo Clinic lost a law suit against the government in which Mayo tried to argue that housestaff, or physicians completing residency training, are students under the law rather than employees, or workers.

The case wended its way through the legal system, all the way up to the Supreme Court, which made a 8-0 ruling on January 11th, against Mayo Clinic, firmly establishing housestaff as employees rather than students.  An interesting editorial on the events leading to the decision is available at the New England Journal of Medicine.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Myosin dancing on actin

Those of you who remember biochemistry, however vaguely, may recall learning about the sliding dance of myosin over actin filaments, a funky sequence of molecular machinations that allow for cells to move.

Turns out, some scientists have caught this sequence on camera:

Original citation from: N. Kodera et al., Nature, 468:72-6, 2010 via The Scientist.

Tughra of Sultan Sulayman the Magnificent

Another beautiful piece from the Islamic exhibit at the Met:

This is the official signature of Sultan Sulayman the Magnificent, ruler of the Ottoman Empire.  Sulayman was truly remarkable, a poet, a warrior-king who remains known to this day as the Lawgiver. 

His system of law endured for centuries after his death and a sculpture of him actually hangs in the United States House of Representatives, as one of 23 famous lawmakers in history.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Suleymaniye Masjid restoration completed

Image via Sunday's Zaman newspaper
The Suleymaniye Masjid in Istanbul completed a three-year restoration process in November 2010 and will be open to the public again for prayers and tourism.  The masjid was commissioned by Suleyman the Magnificent and was built between 1551-1558 by the renowned architect Mimar Sinan.

Awe-inspiring from its opening, the Suleymaniye Masjid was a center of learning, service, as well as worship, and continues to play an active role in the lives of Turks today.

Many new discoveries were made during the restoration process, both artistic and scientific, such as new panels of calligraphy and an understanding of how the masjid achieved its amazing acoustics.

If you can't quite make it to Istanbul, there is a beautiful, online virtual tour of the grounds via the Aramco World website that dates back to 2006 (the latest restoration project started in 2007).  

Full story via the Sunday's Zaman website.

Sunday, January 09, 2011


I'm terrible at multi-tasking: I like to, um, "uni-task?" Turns out, it's probably the right thing to do according to Harvard Business Review blogger Peter Bregman, in his article, "How (and Why) to Stop Multi-Tasking." My favorite line from his article:

We don't actually multitask. We switch-task, rapidly shifting from one thing to another, interrupting ourselves unproductively, and losing time in the process.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

ICDs: non-evidence-based implantation

Important study in JAMA revealed that 1 in 5 ICDs are being implanted against the recommendations of current guidelines.  ICDs are basically mini defibrillators that are put into your chest wall, with leads going directly to your heart, to provide potentially life-saving shocks if you develop a life-threatening arrhythmia.

via NHLBI website; image on left is an ICD, right is pacemaker

There is plenty of evidence about which patients benefit from these devices, but also clear evidence about those who do not benefit.  What was surprising about the study is the number of people getting the ICD implanted in groups that are known not to benefit from it.

A really good perspective on why this might be the case is offered by Harlan Krumholz, a cardiologist on the Board of Trustees at the American College of Cardiology.   Of course, guidelines cannot cover all circumstances, and there are cases where going against guidelines could be a reasonable decision if the patient is given full disclosure and understands the risks and benefits.

This study also highlights how important patient registries are becoming in monitoring outcomes.  The federal government, through Medicare/Medicaid, pays for a lot of ICD implantations and thus required the formation of a registry to track these outcomes.

The results of the study may prompt stricter criteria from CMS on the implantation of ICDs or perhaps stricter controls on who can implant them.  I assumed the majority of ICDs were being implanted by electrophysiologists, but it turns out quite a few cardiologists, thoracic surgeons and even other specialists are implanting them.

As with any procedure, it is always best to go to someone who does a high volume of cases.  Ultimately, the decision to implant an ICD is best made in consultation with a physician who knows you well and when you are clear on the risks and benefits of the procedure given your particular situation.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Napping, good life practice

I'm a huge fan of naps.  Seems business people and scientists are catching up to the idea too, as Harvard Business Review blogger Tony Schwartz writes in his post, "Why Companies Should Insist that Employees Take Naps."  Best line?

 naps are a powerful source of competitive advantage.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Aydakin al-Bunduqdari

I was viewing an exhibition of Islamic art on the Met's website and came across this beautiful lamp:

The lamp is from around the year 1285, and decorated the Khanqah al-Bunduqdariyah, a small mausoleum of Aydakin al-Bunduqdar located in Cairo, Egypt. As far as I can tell, Aydakin was a nobleman of the court, who earned his rank as a crossbowman.  A picture of the tomb is accessible via the Eternal Egypt site below:

The time period of the lamp and mausoleum date to the Bahri Mamluk dynasty of Egypt, less than 10 years after the death of Sultan Baybars, a ruler who established the Mamluks as a major world power. Sultan Baybers rose from slave to sultan and defeated both Crusader armies on the west and Mongol armies from the east, including the epic battle of Ayn Jalut, which ended the expansion of the Mongols.

The lamp came from the collection of J.P. Morgan and was donated to the Met. How he ended up with a 13th century lamp from a tomb in Cairo would probably also make a good story...