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Briefings

New Life For Roadkill, Voting Wrongs, Biosphere 3

More Salt, Please

Roads and bridges might some day be able to "tell" winter road crews the optimum time to apply salt to their surfaces. And buildings that might have sustained some damage, say those in areas jolted by an earthquake or a bomb, may be able to indicate how structurally sound they are.

Penn State engineers say they can accomplish these feats with the same technology that's used in the antitheft tags retailers attach to clothes and other goods. Those tags employ magneto elastic, thin-film strips that emit a mild magnetic field that sensors can pick up. Craig A. Grimes, an associate professor of electrical engineering at Penn State's Materials Research Institute, says the magnetic response of these strips changes when they are heated or cooled. Moreover, sensors can still detect the fields even when the strips are embedded as deep as 10 inches within concrete. Grimes envisions sensors, pulled along by a truck, that can determine when road temperatures make salt applications necessary. The strips are comparable to an acoustic bell that changes frequency in relation to changes in temperature, he says. The harmonics of the strips can also indicate if stress levels within concrete have changed after a catastrophic event. And they work even if they're placed within a building's iron structure.

It's certainly a cost-effective method. A roll of the material costs about $100 for 3,000 feet, and each strip is only an inch long. Because they're so cheap, Grimes sees another potential application: Disposable monitors used in neo-natal care. A strip, exposed to saliva, could be inserted in a hand-held device that measures the glucose, pH, and bacteria levels of newborns.

 

Your Cheatin' Hard Drive

AUSTRALIA—Plagiarism on campus is a major scourge down under, as it is throughout the rest of the world. In a recent study of papers in a variety of courses, including engineering, researchers discovered that nearly 9 percent of Australian college students had pilfered large quantities of text from the Internet. Now schools are trying to figure out what to do about it.

Sydney's University of Technology has become the first in New South Wales licensed to use turnitin.com, a U.S.-based plagiarism-detection tracking tool. And two others, Macquarie University and the University of New South Wales, are considering anti-plagiarism programs.

The University of Technology will let its faculty members decide how to use the service. Some may submit all student papers while others may run checks on a random selection or on those of which they are suspicious. "Web-crawling robots retrieve millions of documents from the Internet each day," says Shirley Alexander, director of the University of Technology's Institute for Interactive Media, of the turnitin.com system. The university also plans to introduce other methods to discourage plagiarism. One under consideration would require students to turn in an annotated bibliography weeks or months before a paper is due. Another includes a random check of essays. Students might be asked to sign a declaration acknowledging their work may be subject to plagiarism checks. Educators believe that once students become aware of a school's tough stance on plagiarism, they'll be less likely to turn in other people's work as their own.

 

Squeezing the life out of a tumor

Tumors are living things. And like all living things, they need to be nourished with blood or they'll die. Therein lies a promising way to combat cancer: Cut off the blood supply to tumors. Toward that goal, powerful computerized microscopes are now capable of generating live, three-dimensional images within tumors. Once the growth's blood vessels can be traced, it's possible to quantify the effects of new drugs on capillary growth. But the tracing, or mapping, of the capillaries that feed tumors has to be done manually, by manipulating a PC mouse. And that's not only time-consuming but sometimes less than accurate. The images are not always clear enough for humans to spot each vessel.

Now researchers at New York's Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have devised an automated system that accurately traces the blood vessels in tumors within two minutes. The RPI-Trace 3D system relies on algorithms and can be incorporated into electronic microscopes. It was developed by Badri Roysam, director of the school's Center for Subsurface Sensing and Imaging Systems, with work from two graduate students: Muhammad-Amri Abdul-Karim and Khalid Al-Kofahi. The algorithms also avoid the "shaky hand" problem that occurs when humans use a mouse to trace the vessels, Abdul-Karim says.

The system is now in use at the Harvard Medical School and at Northeastern University. Edward Brown, a researcher at Harvard's department of radiation oncology, says the RPI-Trace 3D system provides a road map that puts researchers on the right track for more-effective cancer-fighting drugs.

 

A Vote That Doesn't Count

Stanford University's David Dill is a professor of computer science and electrical engineering. So clearly he's no Luddite when it comes to high technology. Yet, he notes, "Engineers appreciate the appropriate uses of technology as opposed to inappropriate uses." And Dill thinks too many municipalities are rushing ahead with computerized voting systems that aren't ready for prime time. As such, Dill has gotten 88 computer scientists and technologists from across the country to sign his Resolution on Electronic Voting.

The gist of his manifesto is that computerized systems are fine, as long as they provide "a voter-verifiable audit trail," which means a backup, permanent record on paper. Dill mostly rails against touch-screen systems that cannot be audited. These machines are susceptible to fraud and mechanical errors that no one could ever discover, he says. Dill prefers systems that allow voters to check a printout of their ballot before it's electronically cast. His resolution says, "Without a voter-verifiable audit trail, it is not practical to provide reasonable assurance of the integrity of these voting systems by any combination of design review, inspection, testing, logical analysis, or control of the system development process."

Dill also applauds optical-scan systems that electronically register votes cast on paper ballots, much like the machines that record lottery-ticket slips. If local governments spend too much money on computerized systems that eventually are deemed flawed, it may take them a long time before they have the funds to upgrade yet again. That could lead to further disillusionment among American voters, he says. And that would take some doing.

 

Hair Today, Space Tomorrow

Taking a cue from biology, researchers have a "hair-brained" idea that could help NASA from losing some of its smallest spacecrafts. Imagine swarms of small satellites—called picosatellites—each the size of a tennis ball and weighing about two pounds, buzzing around a larger spacecraft. The picosatellites perform a variety of tasks, including observation, repairs, and maintenance. But occasionally, the little buggers will need to reconnect to the mother ship. They may need recharging. Or they may have to upload data. The problem, once they've docked, is to fine-position them to the precise alignments necessary for electrical connections. The solution envisioned by Karl Bohringer, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington, is a bed of "spacehairs" that guide the satellites into place. The hairs, or microcilia, mimic biology. They're a bit like the cilia, or tiny hairs, that line an esophagus and keep it clear of mucus. The space hairs are micromachined from a flat silicon plate that's received several coats of a polymer. At a half-millimeter in height, they're nearly microscopic. "You can just barely see them," Bohringer says. A titanium-tungsten heating element is embedded in each of the microcilia, and when a current is applied, the tiny hairs flatten. By turning the power on and off, the microcilia can be used to manipulate objects in several directions.

They were developed by researchers at Stanford University and Xerox Corp. Indeed, Bohringer was initially adapting them for feeding paper into copying machines and scanners. But when he heard of NASA's need to finely position its picosatellites it occurred to him that the microcilia could do the job. In lab tests, his team proved that a bed of microcilia could manipulate objects weighing as much as 88 pounds. The tiny space hairs require a lot of power, he says, but that's a solvable issue. The technology could also be used to position items inside scanning electronic microscopes. The cilia would create "a smart surface" that could precisely move small items within the microscope.

 

Canadian Geese Cross the Road

If an Edmonton-based company has its way, roadkill may become a thing of the past. Last fall, InTransTech installed two infrared photo sensors at the ends of a one-and-a-half-mile stretch of road in British Columbia's Kootenay National Park. The sensors were originally developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to detect incoming missiles and can read temperature differences of .01 degrees Celsius. When wildlife approaches the high-tech roadway, a software-recognition program triggers a flashing sign at each end of the stretch, warning drivers that an animal is on or near the road. "This is the first system in the world that doesn't just try to scare animals away with bells or whistles," says Margo Kaufmann, senior vice president of InTransTech's parent company, the Rainbow Group. "The onus is on the driver to slow down." The two-month-long trial of the Wildlife Detection Program proved a success. Doppler radar devices hooked up at the site recorded that the average traffic speed dropped from 70 mph to 40 mph when the signs were flashing. The cost of the system for the Kootenay stretch of road—a heavy-traffic area for such animals as bear and elk—was $150,000. Not cheap, but considering that accidents involving wildlife regularly cost the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia more than $10 million a year—and sometimes human lives—the system may pay off. Kaufmann says InTransTech is planning for further tests this summer in the United States and Canada.

 

Cell Phone Ground Traffic Helicopters

HELSINKI, FINLAND—Finland is a country deeply in love with cellphones. Around 80 percent of its citizens carry one, and the entire country is covered by a wireless network. Now the Finnish Road Administration (FINNRA) is working on a plan to monitor signals from mobile phones to base stations to keep tabs on traffic. Even when a cellphone is not in use, it sends signals to base stations. That way, the network knows where a handset is in case a call is made by or sent to the phone. FINNRA's monitoring of these signals, and how long it takes the phone to reach the next catchment area, allows it to factor the length of time a trip is taking. It need only read the signals of 5 percent of the phones to update traffic patterns every half minute. Trials conducted last November along a portion of a major highway, and along the beltway that rings the capital, Helsinki, proved that cellphone signals reliably documented fast-changing traffic patterns. The information was then broadcast in radio traffic reports and fed to roadside traffic-warning signs. The agency is now considering spending nearly $7 million to extend the trial service nationwide. Drivers don't have to worry about losing their privacy. The scrambling of codes ensures that FINNRA can't determine whose phones are being monitored. But if this system catches on here, won't we all miss those live chopper traffic reports?

 

Habitat for Humanity

ROKKASHO, JAPAN—If all goes according to plan, in two years a pair of Japanese scientists will "leave" this planet behind to check into Mini Earth, an artificial self-contained habitat based in Rokkasho, a seaside village in northern Honshu, Japan's main island. Scheduled for full-scale launch around April 2005, the officially titled "Closed Ecology Experiment Facilities" have been designed with the lessons of the ill-fated Biosphere 2 project—launched over a decade ago in Arizona's Sonora Desert—in mind.

For one thing, Japan's version of the self-sustaining isolation chamber will be far more modest in scale than its much-ridiculed U.S. predecessor. Instead of eight males and females of various nationalities, the Rokkasho experiment will support at least initially only the two Japanese males—Masanori Shinohara, an animal behavior specialist from Kyoto University, and a chemist employed with Japan Tobacco, Osamu Komatsubara, both in their thirties. In budget and scope, Mini Earth is only about a third as large as Biosphere 2. Perhaps most important is the fact that Keiji Nitta, director of the environmental simulation department at the Institute for Environmental Sciences (IES) in Rokkasho, is confident he has licked the problem of air supply, which plagued the U.S. project, by employing stainless steel construction instead of a glass dome buttressed by concrete. Central features of the facility include systems to recycle waste materials and tanks to store oxygen in the event supplies within the habitat fall low.

Unlike the first team of Biospherians, who struggled to survive in their air-tight chamber for two years, the Mini Earth team will dwell within for periods of only three to four months. They will raise goats and about 20 different crops, including rice and soybeans, says Nitta, who hopes to gradually expand the foodstuffs to local favorites like fish and shellfish. Nitta envisions the project lasting at least a decade, in order to monitor the long term effects of existing in an artificial habitat on flora and fauna. IES, one of the most lavishly funded ecology-related centers in Japan, studies the effects of low-dose radiation on the environment. The village of Rokkasho is home for a controversial nuclear fuel reprocessing plant, a uranium enrichment plant, and low-level radioactive waste-disposal center.

 

Turning Down the Bait

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently received unexpected attention when it turned down a $420,000 research grant from the government spy shop, the National Security Agency. The sticking point? The NSA wants to vet and help select any foreign nationals who might work on the project, says Julie T. Norris, director of MIT's Office of Sponsored Programs. Norris says that requirement was not in the original terms and conditions; otherwise the school would not have bid for the work. "It's our belief that we are best able to decide who should work on research projects," Norris explains.

It was not the first time MIT had rejected work over that issue, but this instance got publicized because, in an era of heightened security concerns after the September 11 terror attacks, there is increased government suspicion of foreign-born researchers. Norris says the issue of "foreign nationals is of particular concern for all universities, and they must all worry about how to handle it." The Bush administration has proposed research security guidelines that could designate some foreign nationals as "sensitive but unclassified," a term that was not defined. The White House, however, now seems to be backpedaling from that scheme. Norris says, too, that government intrusions into the nation's academic labs, in the name of homeland security, could interfere with the unfettered publishing of scientific findings, gumming up peer-review processes.

Last June, an ad-hoc faculty committee at MIT determined that the school should continue a policy of open intellectual exchange. It said the nation's security, health, and prosperity rely on the continuing advancement of science and technology, and that is "best served through the unconstrained sharing of information." Among its recommendations: That MIT not engage in classified research; that it eschew any material deemed "sensitive," and avoid requirements that would place restrictions on foreign-born researchers. It also said that in times of "national emergency," it may be appropriate for MIT to accept some restrictions, but only for a specified, short time period.

 
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