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A CRASH COURSE IN SAFETY

A new, state-of-the-art automotive crash-test facility is expected to open in 2005 at the George Washington University's (GW) Ashburn, Va., campus. The $16 million center will be the world's first university-based full-scale indoor crash test lab. It will also be part of an 80,000-square-foot Transportation Research Institute at the university's Virginia campus, operated by the National Crash Analysis Center (NCAC).

“The new facility will allow us to run the high-quality tests with sophisticated instrumentation that is required for advanced safety research but without enormous costs,” says Nabih E. Bedewi, a professor of engineering and applied science at GW, and the director of NCAC. The new facility will rely heavily on computer simulations. The center conducts engineering research in three main areas: vehicle safety and biomechanics; highway and infrastructure safety; and advanced computer modeling and simulation. It pioneered research that led to the phasing out of two-point seat belts, which were found to leave wearers prone to liver lacerations even in minor crashes. The center has also designed improved highway safety barriers that have cut injury and fatality rates in auto wrecks. Currently, it's working with several government agencies to improve the design of security barriers outside important buildings.

NO NEEDLES NEEDED

Diabetics must resign themselves to being human pincushions because they require daily insulin injections to keep their blood-sugar levels under control. But an artificial pancreas designed by Tejal Desai, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University, may one day let diabetics throw away their syringes. The device, designed by Desai for her Ph.D. project at the University of California-Berkeley, is a microscopic silicon container arrayed with holes and filled with pancreas cells, which produce insulin. Passive diffusion allows the insulin to secrete out of the device's holes. But the holes are too small for the cells to leak out, or for immune agents to flow in and attack them. And, it happens that silicon is a medium on which pancreas cells thrive.

Desai conservatively estimates that the artificial pancreas may be ready for human use in about five years. She's now turned her attention to creating artificial blood vessels that can constrict and dilate like natural ones. The idea is to manufacture vessels at the microscopic level that would act as scaffolds on which cells could grow and produce natural replacements. Once that occurs, the architecture of artificial vessels would biodegrade, leaving the natural replacements intact.

Desai, 31, is the daughter of a chemical engineer who tried to dissuade her from pursuing an engineering career. And she admits she always had a keen interest in all things medical. Fate intervened when she was in high school and attended a “women in science” career fair and met a researcher who was designing hip implants. Although the still-burgeoning field of biomedical engineering was in its infancy back then, she immediately realized the discipline would enable her to combine her love of engineering with her fascination with biology. For a woman “interested in the healing applications of technology,” Desai would seem to have found her true calling.

BEATING PAIN VIRTUALLY

Burn patients have to endure often excruciating pain during physical therapies. And only so much of that pain can safely be deadened with drugs. Researchers at the University of Washington's Human Interface Technology Laboratory in Seattle have devised a virtual reality machine that works to distract patients undergoing painful cures. The program, called Snow World, is an icy, three-dimensional canyon. As calming music plays in the background, the patient glides through its frosty terrain and launches virtual snowballs at various targets with the push of a button. Hunter Hoffman, the research scientist who led the team, says studies have shown that patients hooked into Snow World experience “huge drops” in pain.

Hoffman often works on projects with medical applications. He recently devised a virtual reality program called WTC World to help survivors of the World Trade Center disaster. In virtual reality, patients undergo “exposure therapy.” The theory is that by helping them relive a traumatic event they learn to deal with their memories sans anxiety and other physiological symptoms. Within WTC World, the horrors of 9/11 are replayed to a fairly realistic extent: the planes hit the towering buildings, there's fire and thick smoke and debris, and people are seen jumping or falling to their deaths. Hoffman developed the treatment with Joann Difede, a psychiatrist at Weill Cornell, in New York. The initial case study involved a 26-year-old woman who'd had a harrowing escape from the area. Her symptoms included emotional outbursts, depression, and sleep disruptions. After six weeks of virtual reality therapy, her stress symptoms were reduced by 90 percent and she had an 83 percent reduction in symptoms of depression.

GETTING THE DIRT ON HYDROGEN

Energy's great, green hope is hydrogen. In the so-called Hydrogen Economy of the future, hydrogen—a nonpolluting, renewable gas—will largely replace fossil fuels in providing energy for cars and buildings. Converting fossil fuels to energy results, of course, in toxic emissions, particularly carbon dioxide. The only byproduct from hydrogen fuel cells is a small amount of water. But hold on. Research conducted mainly at the California Institute of Technology indicates that while a hydrogen-based energy system would be cleaner, it may still cause environmental problems. In two recent studies, scientists estimate that as we begin to rely on hydrogen for our massive energy needs, as much as 60 trillion to 120 trillion grams of anthropogenic hydrogen would leak into the atmosphere each year. That's four to eight times the amount currently being released. And the results may not be to our liking, especially if it heads for the stratosphere. There, it could mix with high-altitude air, creating more water. And the dampening of the stratosphere could have a cooling effect that depletes the ozone layer.

Scientists have determined that most released hydrogen today is absorbed by soil, where it's probably consumed by microbes. But the trouble is, as more and more hydrogen leaks into the air, it's not certain whether the microbes can consume it all. Here's an analogy: Trees and plants absorb carbon dioxide, but there's no way they can keep up with the huge amounts released by cars and fossil-fuel-burning energy plants. John Eiler, a Caltech geochemist, says ongoing experiments should within two years determine if soil can indeed suck up the anticipated increase in released hydrogen. But even if it can, that might not be the end of the story. Although researchers suspect that the absorption of hydrogen by soil is a benign process, that's not a given. The process, Eiler says, is a complicated one, and once it's changed by the addition of extra hydrogen, “maybe we'll like the consequences...and maybe we won't.”

The pollution problems associated with fossil fuels didn't become apparent until long after they were in use. And that's made them harder to solve. So, even if hydrogen proves to be less environmentally friendly than thought, it's good to know what troubles it could cause before it's widely produced and used.

WHERE THE MEN AREN'T

AUSTRALIA—As in the United States, there are more women in college in Australia than men. Overall, there are 75,000 more females among the 829,571 students enrolled in the nation's 41 universities—11 of which now have female vice-chancellors (the equivalent of college presidents in this country). Moreover, there are 80,000 more women than men with university degrees in the 25-34 age group. Of 145,000 students awarded degrees last year, 6 in 10 were female.

Women became a student majority 16 years ago. Now, female students dominate in almost every field except in engineering and information technology, where 70 percent of the students are males. Young women have been particularly attracted to medicine and law, along with agriculture, architecture, and business. The number of women in engineering has increased slightly.

Educators believe that programs aimed at girls espousing the benefits of a college education in grade school and high school are at least partly responsible for the increase. Now, says, Bob Birrell, a researcher at the Melbourne-based Monash University Center for Population and Urban Research, there's a need for similar programs directed at boys. But he admits that educators don't really know if efforts to persuade boys to aim higher than part-time courses and service industry jobs will actually work. Educators agree that it's just as important to have a male presence on campus as it was earlier to have a substantial female population.

A HEADS-UP ON WHO'S PACKING HEAT

An airport crammed with people. A huge crowd at a political rally. A stadium filled with sports or music fans. There are many scenarios in which law enforcement officials would like to know who in those throngs might be carrying concealed weapons. New technology called “image fusion” may someday give police that much needed information. Lehigh University electrical engineering professor Ricky S. Blum led a team that developed a merging of digital photography with images provided by a millimeter-wave camera. That's a device that detects how much heat materials emit. Metal objects, like guns, give off very little heat, and that's picked up by the millimeter-wave camera, even if the weapon is covered by clothing. Blended with a digital video or snapshot, the device's images can alert police to individuals in crowds who might be armed. And do it quickly. “It's not exactly real time but it's pretty close,” Blum says.

What the technology doesn't do is differentiate between guns and any other metal objects someone might be carrying. That initially bothered Blum, who knew that algorithms could be created that could make such a differentiation. But law enforcement officials interested in the technology didn't want that much detail. “They want to draw on their own experience to ultimately decide whether someone is a security risk,” Blum explains. Also, by keeping the image imprecise, it allows police to consider whether someone is carrying a metal weapon that's not a gun. Computers are logical, he says, “but they don't have the understanding that people have.” Although the current generation of millimeter-wave cameras produces very grainy images, Blum says the technology works well enough that it could be used in places like airports. But such a device would cost tens of thousands of dollars. Ultimately, he says, the technology should be portable and cost less than $1,000, so local police departments can afford to buy it. But that will take a few more years of development.

WIDENING THE WORLD WIDE WEB

There is no shortage of ideas among researchers for new Internet applications and services. But testing those applications is difficult because of the size of the Web: more than 600 million users as of September 2002. A possible solution comes from a virtual laboratory called PlanetLab, which involves more than 60 universities worldwide, as well as researchers from the private sector. The goal of PlanetLab is to create, within two years, a globe-spanning network of 1,000 computers that will be used as a “test bed.” By the end of this year, it expects to have linked 300 computers in nearly 20 countries. PlanetLab's network piggybacks on the Internet: It's an overlay network that uses current Internet connections. PlanetLab head Larry Peterson, a professor of computer science at Princeton University, likens it to the early days of the Internet when it was overlaid atop the global telephone network.

Peterson says its 1,000-node network is big enough to rigorously test an application under realistic conditions to prove that it can comfortably be scaled up to work on the full network. Researchers will use PlanetLab to test content distribution networks, network-imbedded storage facilities (which entails giving the Internet a “memory” so that data would be accessible “forever,” even if the computer on which it was first posted were long ago junked), and diagnostic applications that will check the Internet for viruses and worms. Other potential applications would help users adapt to viruses and worms by routing them around failures. PlanetLab receives about $1 million a year for three years from the National Science Foundation—about a third of its estimated budget. But Peterson says financing from such industrial partners as Intel, Google, and Hewlett-Packard is picking up the slack and keeping PlanetLab in orbit.

THE BEST OF TIMES

The word “modern” is used mainly as an adjective. But in his new book Inventing Modern (Oxford University Press, 292 pages), John H. Lienhard takes the liberty of re-coining it as proper noun. Modern, in Lienhard's lexicon, is an epoch that began roughly around 1901 and lasted until the late 1950s, though its antecedents were planted in the last half of the 19th century. Prior to the mid-1800s, he writes, a visitor transported from Europe's high middle ages to the American West would have seen much that was familiar: “windmills, waterwheels, the western saddle, hard liquor, and death by hanging.” But life began to change after 1846 with the advent of steamships, trains, the telegraph, electricity, and photography. But those inventions were only the precursors of the “tsunami of change” that hit the world, and America in particular, at the beginning of the 20th century. Those fin de siècle events—including the discovery of quantum mechanics, the formulation of relativity theory, and the invention of things such as the X-ray machine—ushered in the modern epoch. In the modern era, technology was seen as a tool for good. Optimism and a feeling that all things were possible dominated the zeitgeist. And the thread linking all things modern, he says, was science.

Inventing Modern is a highly subjective and idiosyncratic journey through that age. In it, Lienhard—a professor of mechanical engineering and history at the University of Houston, and the host of the National Public Radio show, “The Engines of Our Ingenuity”—discusses everything from cars and airplanes, to skyscrapers and design (especially Art Deco), to advertising (Burma Shave signs) and art (including Alexander Calder, the sculptor who was an engineer). Lienhard makes shrewd use of anecdotes and biographical sketches, especially the latter. The book is jammed with interesting portraits of the era's innovators, some of them famous, some of them infamous, but many of them long lost to history's dustbin. A prime example: Sylvester Roper of New Hampshire, who built a steam-powered motorcycle and a steam-driven car in the 1860s but was never given proper credit for his inventions.
Not a few of the life stories he recounts are poignant. Consider Gene Bullard, an African American born in 1894 Georgia. As a young man, he made his way to France, joined the French Foreign Legion and was wounded in the leg at Verdun. No longer fit for the infantry, he learned to fly, joined the flying service, and shot down at least two German planes. He later ran a nightclub in Paris but had to flee in 1940 before the Germans entered the city. Ultimately he wound up back in the United States, where the only job he could get was operating an elevator in the RCA Building in New York.

Lienhard's ever evident intelligence and curiosity roam far beyond the realms of engineering, science, and history. The book is nicely seasoned with literary references, ranging from Goethe's Faust to the Bible. For him, Modern ended in the late 1950s. Since then, he says, technology has become at times suspect, especially with the advent of atomic weapons. The information age brought not awareness but cynicism. In our postmodern era, Lienhard says, the notion that all can be achieved through science has become as quaint as the tailfins of a “modern” ‘50s Cadillac.

 
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