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Breakthroughs and trends in the world of technology
Machu Picchu - PHOTO CREDIT: By Martin St-Amant, via Wikimedia Commons
PHOTO CREDIT: By Martin St-Amant, via Wikimedia Commons

Walking Wonder

The Inca Road system wends some 14,000 miles through the Andes from Ecuador to Chile, via Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. It reaches heights of 16,500 feet and has to withstand freezing temperatures, heavy rains, and fairly frequent earthquakes. Yet, 400 to 500 years on, it’s still trekkable. So as civil engineering accomplishments go, it’s pretty amazing. Last summer, a team of 24 academics and students – mainly civil engineers and a few archaeologists – from the United States, Peru, and Argentina spent three weeks “reverse engineering” the Inca Road. “We were trying to figure out the engineering processes the Incas used,” Christine Fiori, the Virginia Tech civil engineer who led the expedition, tells Prism. Fiori came back singularly impressed with the Incas’ ability to control water. They channeled it under the road or into ditches and canals to keep erosion to a minimum. Additionally, the grade of the road “was built in harmony with nature,” rising and falling naturally, Fiori says. The Incas had a “profound respect for nature,” she adds, which was in keeping with the road’s main purpose: spiritual journeys, or pilgrimages. The research – which began three years ago and will continue into this summer – will also be used for a 2015 Smithsonian Institution exhibition on the Inca Road. –THOMAS K. GROSE

Courtesy of the University of Strathclyde

Smart Coatings

The St. Anthony Falls Bridge in Minneapolis (pictured below) may be one of America’s safest structures, thanks to $1 million worth of sensors – 323 of them – embedded in its concrete that keep tabs on corrosion and structural weaknesses. Now researchers at Scotland’s University of Strathclyde have developed a “smart paint” containing carbon nanotubes that could provide an even lower cost way to monitor big structures for cracks, long before they’re visible. Minute structural faults cause the paint’s nanotubes to bend, which changes their conductivity. Wireless communication nodes attached to a structure would pick up those changes and sound an alert. Power for the nodes could come from kinetic energy harvested from vibrations made by passing traffic or trains. Meanwhile, a 10-year-old European project called PICADA (Photocatalytic Innovative Coverings Applications for Depolluting Assessment) has successfully developed another type of paint that helps concrete facades fend off airborne pollutants like nitrogen oxide. Air pollution in urban areas can cling to concrete, degrading the buildings over time while causing respiratory problems in people. The mixture contains nanosize particles of titanium dioxide. Its electrons become supercharged in sunlight and then react with water molecules in the air, a process that breaks down the pollutants, allowing them to be harmlessly washed away by rain. An ongoing field test of the coating in Milan has seen concentrations of nitric oxides reduced by 60 percent. That should have residents breathing easier. – TG

Meeting of the Minds

Scientific discovery may be a largely collaborative effort, but researchers still find it hard to communicate and keep up with colleagues who live and work far away or toil in other disciplines. German start-up ResearchGate thinks the answer is a Facebook-like online oasis where academics can trade information, post research, and find like-minded investigators. It may have hit on something. ResearchGate already has 1.4 million members in 193 countries and is signing up academics at a clip of 50,000 a month. Two Silicon Valley VCs – Accel Partners and Benchmark Capital – gave it a first round of funding in 2010, and in February it received a second round from Founders Fund. “Science and innovation could go so much faster if it has the same collaboration that we have for our social lives,” Founders partner Luke Nosek told the Financial Times. Membership is free, so ResearchGate hopes to make money selling ads for jobs and lab equipment, and also from setting up private social networks. Soumitra Dutta, dean of Cornell University’s Graduate School of Management, writes on BBC News’ website that “older scientists who are reluctant to share their findings will soon make way for younger scientists who have grown up with MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and other sharing mechanisms.” – TG

FACTOID: 555,329 - The number of veterans who received post-9/11 GI Bill educational benefits in fiscal year 2011 - Breakdown of the $4.43 billion paid to colleges and universities from 2009 to 11: Public nonprofits = $1.68 billion, Private for-profits = $1.65 billion, Private nonprofits = $1.08 billion. Sources: Chronicle of Higher Education; U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. numbers don’t add up due to rounding.


Park ’n’ Fold

The Hiriko is a tiny city car with a big difference: Once parked, it folds itself up to reduce its length from 100 inches to around 60. So three Hirikos can easily squeeze into one on-street parking space. The electric Hiriko weighs a mere 1,609 pounds, or 60 percent less than a Smart car. The car can also almost literally turn on a dime, thanks to its “robot wheels” system. Each wheel has its own motor, actuators, suspension, and brakes, all controlled by a drive-by-wire system. As a result, it can spin itself around 360 degrees, which makes it highly maneuverable. Its lithium-ion battery pack gives it a range of 75 miles. The Hiriko began life as the CityCar on the drawing boards of MIT engineers a dec-ade ago. It’s now being produced by Spanish company Denokinn and a consortium that includes MIT and Spanish businesses. It goes on sale next year with an estimated sticker price of $16,000 to $17,000. – TG

‘Super Ant Invasion’

Scientists and engineers often worry that the media will distort their findings. But nothing could prepare McGill University Prof. Ehab Abouheif and colleagues for the way the tongue-in-cheek Weekly World News described their ant research. The team had found that applying hormones to ant larvae could create a “supersoldier” variety with much larger heads and mandibles than regular ants. World News turned this into a feature story on “Super ants invading Phoenix,” causing 21 fatalities in two days. It claimed the event occurred “after a McGill University researcher induced the growth of supersoldiers in his lab and showed this Incredible Hulk-like potential exists in all species.” Abouheif took all this in stride: “My colleagues who actually know about the Weekly World News think it is really cool, while those that don’t are still bemused, I believe.” – Pierre Home-Douglas

Vindicating Einstein

The saga about those pesky neutrinos that supposedly travel faster than light has taken two new turns. A loose fiber optic cable may have given a team of particle physicists at Switzerland’s CERN, the world’s largest collider, a false reading ­­— an error that, when corrected, puts the superfast neutrinos back within Einstein’s universal speed limit. The team stunned the science world last November when it clocked neutrinos traveling 60 seconds faster than the speed of light. Einstein’s relativity theory posits that nothing is faster than light, because if it were it would demolish the concept of cause and effect; a train could arrive at its destination before it left the station. In theory, then, time travel would be possible. Skepticism about the November test deepened in mid-March, when a second CERN team announced that new experiments found neutrinos traveling at roughly the speed of light, consistent with Einstein. More tests in Europe, the United States and Japan are set for later this year, and it’s hoped those results will finally settle the matter. Meanwhile, the physics set is keeping a sense of humor: According to Reuters, one joke goes something like this: “What can I get for you, buddy?” asks the bartender. A neutrino walks into a bar. –TG

Virtual Dive

Google’s Street View service has brought photographic images of much of the world to our computer screens. Now the search-engine franchise is taking its cameras to a much deeper place – 330 feet below the seas, where they’ll snap panoramic photographs of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, an aquatic world of great natural beauty. The Catlin Seaview Survey is actually a scientific project. Come September, specially made 360-degree cameras will undertake three surveys around the nearly 1,400-mile-long coral reef, such as one that studies the effects of rising seawater temperatures on a variety of ocean fauna, including tiger sharks and green turtles. The study is the first comprehensive effort to discover the composition and health of the reefs. But the public gets to swim along. Initially, the images will be posted at, but eventually will be added to Google Earth. Google’s partners are the University of Queensland and Catlin Group, an insurance company. The researchers will also shoot videos of the reefs, eventually screening them on a dedicated YouTube channel. We click “Like.” – TG

Early Symptoms

Epidemiologists want to track outbreaks of infectious diseases as quickly as possible. Official reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta can lag outbreaks by a week, so disease trackers increasingly are putting the Internet to use. Data culled from online search engines and social networks are proving to be real-time early-warning indicators. One pioneer is HealthMap, a five-year-old interactive website based at Boston’s Children’s Hospital that gathers information globally at very local levels to track contagious diseases. It now draws on data collected from social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Meanwhile, according to NPR, Johns Hopkins University researchers have found that Google’s Flu Trends, which monitors flu-related searches, accurately predicted surges of people showing up for flu care at Baltimore hospitals. Still, one of the Johns Hopkins researchers told Nature there’s not yet much evidence that online chatter can consistently and accurately predict outbreaks. –TG

Power Brakes

Ever wonder how much fuel passenger jets use firing up their engines just to taxi between the gate and the runway? An engineering team at Britain’s University of Lincoln has an alternative that would not only conserve fuel but also cut down on airport noise and pollution. It would capture and store the heat produced by the friction within a plane’s landing gear when brakes are applied after landing. This energy, currently wasted, would be converted into electricity by motor generators built into the landing gear. The electricity would then be supplied to motors in the wheels of the plane when it needed to taxi. “Currently, commercial aircraft spend a lot of time on the ground with their noisy jet engines running. In the future this technology could significantly reduce the need to do that,” says Paul Stewart, professor of control engineering, who led the government-funded research.

Clean Space One

A New Broom

After five decades of space launches, the heavens have acquired a perilous cloud of orbiting clutter. NASA is tracking more than 16,000 softball-size bits of defunct satellites, old rocket bodies, and other waste now hurtling around Earth, all of which pose hazards for satellites and the international space station. There’s so much litter that researchers think collisions — which can create thousands more pieces — could swell the debris cloud even if no new spacecraft took off. Enter the Swiss Federal Institute for Technology at Lausanne (EPFL) with what might be modern times’ most ambitious spring cleaning. CleanSpace One, the $10.8 million satellite EPFL plans to create, will track, capture, and “de-orbit” space junk into the atmosphere, where both will burn upon re-entry. Design challenges include adjusting the cleanup satellite’s trajectory to match that of its quarry, and developing a gripping mechanism inspired by a plant or animal to trap the junk. Although CleanSpace One will be a single, kamikaze-style mission, EPFL eventually hopes to release families of janitorial satellites. Launch could take place in as little as three to five years, EPFL claims. – Alison Buki



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