To view the latest innovations of designers, scientists,
and engineers from across the globe, join the crowds at “Design
and the Elastic Mind” (February 24 to May 12). The hot
new exhibition at New York’s Museum
of Modern Art highlights the role of design in transforming
cutting-edge technology into objects and systems that people
can use—and understand. Check out the interactive online
exhibit at http://www.moma.org/exhibitions/2008/elasticmind/
AUSTRALIA—The deaths of three Indians
in a Melbourne house fire in January exposed a dark side of
Australia’s foreign-student boom.
The three who died were “hotbedding”—not
a morbid pun on the cause of death, but rather, student slang
for crowding into cheap accommodations. It derives from the
practice by some impoverished workers of crawling into still-warm
beds after their housemates leave for a later shift. In this
case, the students slept side-by-side on the floor of a shared
room. Their mattresses provided ample combustible material
for a blaze caused, investigators suspect, by an old computer
in constant use.
The deaths highlighted the conditions many endure to get
a prized Australian education. While some immigrant students
live comfortably in apartments purchased by their parents,
many South Asians are cash-strapped. “Indian students
often borrow money for fees, so they arrive with substantial
debt. There’s enormous pressure to pay it back,”
says National Union of Students President Angus McFarland.
The fire has brought pressure on universities from student
groups demanding decent, affordable accommodations. It occurred
a month after two Indian students drowned off a Melbourne
beach. Together, the two tragedies focused new attention on
this fastest-growing segment of Australia’s foreign-student
Hot tar roads may burn your feet, but a Dutch civil
engineering firm has figured out how to capture and store
that heat, then put it to use. Noting how well asphalt
absorbs solar heat, Ooms Avenhorn Holding devised an asphalt
for paving roads and parking lots that is embedded with a
network of water pipes. After the asphalt heats the water
to 68 degrees, it’s piped into underground reservoirs.
Come winter, the warm water is returned to the pipes, heating
the road surface.
That means that much less salt is needed to keep roads ice-free.
Less salt means less maintenance and longer-lasting roads
that are not sodium-corroded. Once Ooms Avenhorn realized
that it was collecting more energy than needed to keep the
roadbeds toasty, it developed a second system to pipe the
water to nearby buildings to warm them, as well. The asphalt-heated
water needs help from an electric heat pump to heat the buildings,
and the cost to install the waterworks is double that of a
conventional gas heat system. But the system uses just half
the energy of a gas heater, so it halves carbon emissions
and is cheaper to operate. We’re talking street smarts,
here. —Thomas K. Grose
Beneath Antarctica are at least 150 subglacial lakes.
Now a group of 14 British universities is leading an effort
to explore one of them, the large Lake Ellsworth in West Antarctica.
Earlier this year, a four-man team from the British Antarctic
Survey conducted seismic experiments in the area and measured
the lake’s depth at 492 feet.
“It’s a very deep lake,” says Martin Sieger,
the principal investigator, who is based at the University
of Edinburgh. That makes Ellsworth an ideal candidate for
exploration, as it is likely to have microbial life and sediment
rich in scientific clues.
The technical and environmental challenges of tapping into
a subglacial lake are huge. And with Lake Ellsworth located
about 2 miles beneath the surface, this project has been 10
years in the planning. “No one’s ever drilled
that deep using the technology we’ll be using,”
Usually drilling deeply into ice requires coating the drill
bit with antifreeze. But “that’s completely out
of the question,” since the drill and probe will be
entering a pristine environment. Instead, the British team
will use a hot-water drilling method, essentially a high-pressure
shower that melts the ice. It’s a technique that’s
been used before, but only to a depth of one mile, so it will
require new engineering, says Sieger. —TG
It makes sense: to reach more students of technology,
India is turning to technological tools—television broadcasts
and the Internet. Only a handful of students who
apply to the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, actually
get in. But now, thousands more are gaining access to the
school’s engineering courses through interactive TV
transmissions made available to a pan-Indian network of schools
via EDUSAT, the educational satellite.
Launched into orbit four years ago by the Indian Space Research
Organization, EDUSAT enables IIT-Bombay to telecast to 50
schools, with plans to reach 2,000 schools.Those who participate
remotely won’t take exams or be graded, but they’ll
benefit from being able to sample the school’s rigorous
LIFE-IMITATING robotic pets are becoming more affordable—that
is, if paying several hundred bucks for a toy fits your budget.
When Sony debuted the Aibo line of robo dogs nine years ago,
the price was around $1,500. Now comes Pleo, a robot dinosaur
from Ugobe. The
company was started by Caleb Chung, co-creator of Furby, the
children’s robot fuzzy that was a big hit a few years
ago. Not only does Pleo mimic such emotions as surprise, sadness
and happiness, and move with near-natural fluidity, the dino
also develops a personality shaped by environment and treatment.
Sticker price: $399. Meanwhile, Tomy of Japan is marketing
i-Sobot, a robot with a more classically industrial—though
humanoid—look, with metallic arms and legs. i-Sobot—which
costs $299—stands 6.5 inches, plays a guitar, dances
the hula, throws karate-style punches and kicks and does push-ups
and somersaults. It’s mouthy, too, with a vocabulary
of more than 200 words and phrases.—TG
Three years ago, auto enthusiasts hailed the imminent
arrival of a General Motors driverless car by 2008.
Not quite. But this year, GM announced the aim of marketing
such a car within a decade. Last November, GM’s robotic
Chevy Tahoe, nicknamed “The Boss,” autonomously
drove through 60 miles of urban streets to win the Defense
Department’s annual robotic car competition, the Urban
Challenge. Developed with the help of engineers from Carnegie-Mellon
University, the Tahoe was one of only six finalists from an
original field of 35, demonstrating how the technology still
needs quite of bit of refinement.
Yet, as GM’s chief technologist Larry Burns told reporters,
“This is not science fiction.” Indeed, most of
the required material is already at work in cars: radar-based
cruise control, motion sensors, satellite-delivered digital
mapping. Sebastian Thrun, who co-led Stanford University’s
Challenge team to second place, thinks self-driving cars will
eventually become a reality, which is a good thing since 95
percent of highway deaths result from driver error. —TG
Houdini would be pleased: Mind reading, once the
realm of charlatans, may soon become a reality. Researchers
blending scans from functional magnetic resonance imaging
(fMRI) machines with the budding science of machine learning
are proving that human thought patterns can indeed be read.
A new arm of computer science, machine learning uses algorithms
capable of detecting subtle patterns from reams of data. Employing
this technique, computer scientist Tom Mitchell and cognitive
neuroscientist Marcel Just of Carnegie-Mellon University recently
targeted where in the brain thought processes occur when people
view a specific object, like a hammer, a drill or a castle.
They learned that looking at familiar objects activates several
areas of the brain. Moreover, different people’s brains
reacted in much the same way, indicating commonality in how
all humans process everyday images. They’ve also learned
how the brain represents concepts described by concrete words,
Mitchell says. Next, Mitchell and Just want to see if they
can decode how the brain reads abstract thoughts, like truth,
freedom and beauty. Makes you think, doesn’t it?—TG
America’s publicly funded colleges and universities
got a big fiscal boost in the 2007-08 budget year.
Money from state legislatures totaled $77.5 billion, up 7.5
percent over the previous year, the largest annual increase
in more than 20 years. The figures come from Illinois State
University’s Grapevine Project, which provides an annual
compilation of state funding for higher education. Of the
50 states, only Rhode Island cut university monies; its appropriation
of $180.2 million represented a one-year drop of 1.2 percent.
Even hard-hit Michigan managed to increase spending by 0.1
percent, to just over $2 billion.
Overall, 15 states increased higher education spending by
at least 10 percent or more. North Dakota topped the list,
with a 19.1 percent increase to $256.8 million. The study
warns that these may be the last big gains schools see for
some time, should the credit crunch and stalled housing market
push the country into recession. Indeed, in November, the
National Conference of State Legislatures reported that state
revenues during the first trimester of the 2008 fiscal year
were clearly softening.
With harder times looming, Harvard University’s recent
decision to make more student aid available has eased the
burden on middle-class families. Yale, Princeton, and Stanford
have followed suit and announced similar plans. —TG
The United Kingdom is the world’s fifth biggest
economy, but unlike most other global players, it’s
had little involvement with the International Space Station
(ISS). Now, supported by the British Interplanetary
Society, a group of engineers and scientists is hoping to
change that. They’re lobbying the government to build
and launch two modules with expanded living quarters for astronauts.
The backers made their pitch in the society’s magazine,
Spaceflight, through an article by Mark Hempsell, a senior
lecturer in astronautics at Bristol University’s aerospace
engineering department. The proposed modules would include
a communal area for a permanent crew of six. Hempsell estimates
that the cost to design, build and launch the modules aboard
a Russian Souyuz/Fregat rocket—as well as conducting
an onboard science program—would be $1.2 billion, spread
out over five or six years. While the argument has always
been that the U.K. can’t afford to join ISS, Hempsell
demonstrates that they can participate for a reasonable investment.
If the U.K. doesn’t join the Space Station team, Hempsell
argues, Britain’s science community risks exclusion
from microgravity experiments and breakthroughs in fields
ranging from materials science to medicine. —TG
this year, University
of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow won the coveted Heisman
Trophy. But only a year ago, his future in football
was threatened by a persistent ache in his throwing shoulder.
Fortunately for Tebow, the Gainesville campus is home to the
Biomechanics and Motion Analysis Lab, one of only two sports
motion laboratories in the U.S. The lab uses a motion-capture
technology first devised to render the movement of animated
more realistic. Employing a network of high-speed digital
cameras, strobe lights and reflective markers taped to a subject’s
body, researchers create a computerized 3D image to help them
analyze a problem. In Tebow’s case, it revealed that
he was relying too heavily on his shoulder and not using his
hips enough when throwing. With that input, the Gators’
offensive coordinator coached Tebow on passing motions, and
the pain abated. The lab, which has recently landed a grant
from Major League Baseball to study pitching techniques, can
analyze everything from golf swings to tennis backhands. And
that’s good news, since 10 percent of 40 million U.S.
youngsters who play team sports suffer sports-related injuries.
massive and massively historic. Built in the mid-1930s at
Columbia University, the hulking, 30-ton cyclotron split atomic
nuclei using an enormous electromagnet to hurl and smash particles
at the breakneck speed of 25,000 miles per hour. The
information gleaned from these experiments helped the U.S.
build the first atom bomb.
The cyclotron has long been eclipsed: Next month, when the
world’s most powerful particle accelerator is activated
outside Geneva at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear
Research, particles will fly around the track of the Large
Hadron Collider at nearly the speed of light—approximately
670 million m.p.h. But Columbia is again supporting a new
threshold of nuclear research in joining an international
consortium of 1,800 physicists involved with CERN. The school
has also purchased a high-speed online connection to this
premier atom-smasher, gaining access to CERN data at the rate
of one gigabit per second. Though some Columbia faculty petitioned
for the original cyclotron to be preserved for historical
value, refurbishing it proved to be too costly. So America’s
smashing cultural icon is headed for the scrap yard.—TG
elite schools are growing ever more popular. Many
of the most selective colleges are seeing applications reach
new highs. Harvard, for instance, received 27,278 applications
for its 2008 freshman class, up 19 percent over 2007. Other
top-tier schools—including the University of Chicago,
Dartmouth, and Northwestern University—also report that
applications are soaring. Demographics is one big reason as,
in recent years, there’s been a surge in the number
of college-age students. That’ll peak next year, when
a record 3.2 million 18-year-olds graduate from high school.
Top schools are also casting a wider recruitment net for students,
marketing themselves not only in far-flung states but overseas.
And they’ve made a concerted effort to target more low-
and middle-income students. Of course, with the increase in
applications, rejection rates will skyrocket, too.
At some colleges, more girls than boys may face rejection,
as schools seek to balance their male and female student populations.
Fifty-seven percent of today’s undergraduates are female,
a big change from 1980, when male-female student populations
were roughly equal. The new numbers make it harder for universities
to maintain a gender equilibrium, so some schools are giving
male applicants more weight. A recent U.S. News &
World Report study of 1,400 schools found that at many
schools, boys have a 10 percent greater chance of getting
in than do girls. —TG
2006, the National Academy of Engineers convened a panel of
international experts to identify the century’s greatest
challenges—those essential to future health, safety,
planetary sustainability and quality of life. Their
unranked list of 14 Grand Challenges was announced this February.
Members of the public are invited to join the discussion at
the website http://www.engineeringchallenges.org,
where they can learn more, add comments and vote on the issue
they believe to be most pressing. The Challenges:
- Make solar energy affordable.
- Provide energy from fusion.
- Develop carbon sequestration methods.
- Manage the nitrogen cycle.
- Provide access to clean water.
- Restore and improve urban infrastructure.
- Advance health informatics.
- Engineer better medicines.
- Reverse-engineer the brain.
- Prevent nuclear terror.
- Secure cyberspace.
- Enhance virtual reality.
- Advance personalized learning.
- Engineer the tools for scientific discovery.
National Science Board is raising the alarm about America’s
global position in science and technological innovation.
Every two years, the board releases a comprehensive, policy-neutral
study of the state of academic, industrial and governmental
research and development. Among the new findings: American
grade school students continue to perform poorly compared
with peers elsewhere, the United States has a shrinking proportion
of world bachelor’s degrees, and since 2002, the U.S.
trade balance in advanced technology products has gone from
a surplus to a deficit.
Because of the disturbing trends, the NSB released a companion
and Development: Essential Foundation for U.S. Competitiveness
in a Global Economy. It calls for more funding for
basic research, “intellectual interaction” between
industry and academia and better tracking by government agencies
of globalization trends. —TG
cancer cells metastasize, they often hitch a ride through
the lymph system, which collects fluids that drain from tissues.
To test if cancer cells have spread, blue dye and radioactive
material are injected near a tumor to locate the closest lymph
node. It’s then surgically removed, in a process that
is both risky and time-consuming. Now, working with experts
at the school’s cancer center, bioengineer Stanislave
Emelianov at the University of Texas, Austin, is testing a
new method to determine if metastasis has occurred, using
a laser, ultrasound and light-sensitive gold-based nanoparticles.
If it works, a quick, noninvasive diagnosis could be made
at a doctor’s office. Backed by a $1.3 million National
Institutes of Health grant, the Austin team is engineering
the gold nanoparticles to glom onto specific proteins found
in head and neck cancers. Once clumped together, the nanoparticles
will absorb the red in a laser light’s color spectrum.
And the color change will show up in an ultrasound scan. Although
the four years of research will focus on head and neck cancers,
if it’s successful, the technique could be applied to
Wayne Clough, 66, president of the Georgia Institute of Technology
and a civil engineer, has been named the new chief executive
of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. He takes
over the mammoth science, art and research complex July 1.