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 BRIEFINGS

SMART SPEED BUMP + DIGITAL ANTS + HARD ROCK


Large Hadron Collider

PARTICLE PHYSICS
Just Bad Luck?

More than a year after faulty wiring caused a shutdown and required $40 million in repairs, the Large Hadron Collider, located 300 feet beneath the Swiss-French border, has finally started probing mysteries of the universe. But no one could be certain until the last minute that another mishap wouldn't halt its process of slamming subatomic particles into one another to simulate big bang conditions. Just weeks before the restart of the world's biggest physics experiment, an LHC scientist was arrested on suspicion of terrorist links and baguette crumbs dropped by a bird caused a short circuit. Now two physicists - one in Denmark, another in Japan - are suggesting that the $9 billion machine might even sabotage itself rather than create the long-sought Higgs boson, the giant so-called God Particle.



BASEBALL
Well-schooled Skipper

Joe Girardi, manager of the 2009 World Series champion New York Yankees, is something of a rarity in Major League Baseball - and not because he was an All-Star catcher who spent 15 years in the Bigs despite a so-so batting average (.267 lifetime). What truly sets him apart is his B.S. degree, which is in industrial engineering and from a top school, Northwestern University. In baseball, academics are more scarce than triple plays. But Girardi's engineering orientation and problem-solving skills have served him well. As a player with the Chicago Cubs, Colorado Rockies, St. Louis Cardinals, and Yankees (where he was on three World Series-winning teams), Girardi gained a reputation as a catcher who knew how to call for a mix of pitches to keep batters on their toes. As a manager, Girardi is detail-driven, winning praise for his time-management skills and attention to statistics. "The key for me is preparation. That's what helps me handle everything that comes my way," he told the Chicago Tribune.

He's also a good man in a pinch. Driving home from his recent World Series win this October, Girardi stopped to aid a woman whose car had smashed into a concrete barrier. Dashing across a dangerous stretch of parkway, Girardi put his own life at risk. But, as he later told reporters, helping others is "the most important thing we can do in life." Who says nice guys finish last? - THOMAS K. GROSE



Thorkill Sonne
HUMAN RESOURCES
Hidden Talent Pool

Six years ago, when 3-year-old Lars was diagnosed with ASD, or autism spectrum disorder, his father, Danish executive Thorkil Sonne, joined a local support group. As he learned more about the developmental disorder, Sonne was impressed by how methodical, focused, and precise many autism sufferers are - not to mention their remarkable abilities with memorization and routines. He realized these skills could be applied to the mundane, intense, and highly repetitive chore of checking information systems. So in 2004, he quit his job with Danish telecom TDC and started Specialisterne, or "Specialists." The company trains and then employs autistics - who face difficulty obtaining jobs - as software engineers. Today Specialisterne employs 60 consultants and works for major companies like Cisco and Microsoft. Last year it earned revenues of around $3.3 million. Clients rave about the work, reporting that the firm's employees rarely make mistakes. As Specialisterne expands into Scotland and Iceland, knockoff companies have sprung up in Sweden, the Netherlands, and Belgium. And that's OK with Sonne, who has started a foundation to encourage more companies to adopt the business model. Hiring autistics for this type of work isn't charity, and it isn't cheap, he told Wired magazine: "We simply do a better job." -TG



New antimicrobial dressing for wounds called Anticoat
NANOTECHNOLOGY
Micro Treatment, Macro Prize

CANADA — Acticoat is a revolutionary antimicrobial dressing for wounds. When applied to a wound, the strips of silver-coated dressing build atom by atom, forming crystals 15 nanometers in size. Acticoat’s nanoparticles not only keep infection at bay; they also reduce inflammation. And they correct a flaw in traditional antiseptic treatments, which attack both inflammatory cells and cells essential to healing. Now used in more than 40 countries, Acticoat represents the first commercially available therapeutic application of nanotechnology and has been hailed as the biggest wound-care breakthrough in four decades. Its inventor, Robert Burrell, chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Alberta, is getting his due. He’s won both the $100,000 EnCana Principal Award from Canada’s Manning Innovation Awards Foundation and the Engineering Materials Achievement Award from ASM International, an organization of materials scientists and engineers. – PIERRE HOME-DOUGLAS



Digital London Cloud consisting of complex, interconnected, inflatable plastic bubbles

ARCHITECTURE
Bright and Cloudy

U.K. —A group of engineers, artists, and architects, led by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has unveiled plans for a digital cloud that would seemingly hover over London. It’s actually a complex of interconnected, inflatable plastic bubbles attached to the tops of three 400-foot meshlike towers. The bubbles form an observation deck, but they would also act as a giant LED screen onto which data could be projected. The plan is to erect the Cloud for the 2012 London Olympics. Google, one of the sponsors, says it could provide a custom feed of data for the screen, everything from Olympic results to weather forecasts. An elevator, stairs, and a ramp — each housed in one of the towers — would provide access to the Cloud.

Carlo Ratti, a professor of engineering and architecture at MIT, promises “it would be a zero-power Cloud.” Solar cells would provide some power, but so would energy harvested from the elevator’s brakes and created by the footfalls of folks using the stairs and ramp. The raisethecloud.org website has been set up to collect millions of microdonations to fund construction, the BBC reports. The Cloud’s ultimate size will depend on how much is raised. London endures plenty of overcast days, but this is one cloud that Londoners will most likely welcome. –TG





ants
BIOMIMICRY
Cyber Swarm

When ants scurry about, it looks chaotic. Yet there is a “swarm intelligence” at work: If one ant detects danger, it emits a stronger scent trail, which alerts other ants to rush to the scene. Glenn Fink, a researcher at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, realized that armies of digital ants could be deployed in a similar fashion as they race through networks scouting for cyberthreats, including computer worms and viruses. If one digi-ant finds a problem, it ramps up its digital scent trail and its virtual comrades come a-swarming. That, in turn, alerts human operators to investigate. If swarms of digi-ants can quickly adapt to changing threats, security programs won’t need near-constant updates to keep ahead of malware writers; and that should make computers run faster. The system is undergoing tests at Wake Forest University by a team led by Errin Fulp, professor of computer science. Fulp explains: “Our idea is to deploy 3,000 different types of digital ants, each looking for evidence of a threat.” The ultimate ant trap. –TG



QUOTED
“Scientists and engineers ought to stand side by side with athletes and entertainers as role models, and here at the White House we’re going to lead by example. We’re going to show young people how cool science can be.”

- President Obama, Nov. 23, announcing "Educate to Innovate," an initiative to improve education and student interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics

SOURCE: White House Transcript




Sea Lions

NATIONAL SECURITY
Climate Snoops

Last year, the National Intelligence Council reported that climate change could create dangerous security risks for the United States. Food shortages, rising sea levels, pandemics, and competition for dwindling resources may increase poverty, destabilize governments, force mass migrations, and, ultimately, spark wars. Accordingly, the Central Intelligence Agency announced creation of a Center on Climate Change and National Security. That rankled Wyoming’s freshman Republican senator, John Barrasso, who introduced a measure to thwart the funding. The CIA, he said, “should be combating terrorists, not spying on sea lions.” There are enough agencies monitoring climate change, Barrasso argued, and the CIA can get all the information it needs from them. CIA Director Leon Panetta defended the plan, saying “decision makers need information and analysis on the effects climate change can have on security,” both tasks appropriate for the intelligence-gathering agency. The Senate went with Panetta, rejecting Barrasso’s amendment. –TG





New York's Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art Building
ENDOWMENTS
Cautious but Lucky, Too

New York City’s Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art was founded 150 years ago by inventor Peter Cooper to give working-class students a “first-rank” education at no cost. Today its 1,000 students still pay no tuition, thanks to endowment income. By hedging against stock-market declines, investment managers have kept the school’s endowment at around $600 million since June 2008, according to the Wall Street Journal, while other schools’ investments have plunged. At Massachusetts’s Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, endowment is down 22 percent, so tuition-free days are over. Next year, students will start paying $18,000 annually. But the Fates also smiled on Cooper Union when it cut two prerecession real-estate deals. It owns the land beneath the landmark Chrysler Building and in 2006 negotiated a rent increase from the current $7 million a year to $32.5 million in 2018 and $55 million in 2038. Cooper Union also sold a building in 2007 for $97 million – twice what it would fetch today. For universities, Cooper Union’s lesson is that playing safe brings rewards, especially if luck is on your side. –TG



FACTOID
$1,598,247

The fiscal 2008 pay package for Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the highest-paid executive at a private university. Altogether, 23 private college presidents each made more than $1 million.

SOURCE: The Chronicle of Higher Education




TRAFFIC ENFORCEMENT
Smart, Smooth, and Slow

'Smart' Speed Bump

Few cities have more speed bumps than Mexico City. It is home to at least 18,000. They’ve proliferated, in part, because local police rarely enforce traffic laws – or are willing to accept small bribes from speeders, according to Jose Luis Camba, a professor of civil engineering at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. The government, he told USA Today, “takes the easy way out and builds a speed bump.” But a 2006 study at the university found that as cars negotiate speed bumps, braking and re-accelerating, they waste gas and increase emissions in a city already choking on pollution. So Mexico’s Decano Industries is developing a “smart” speed bump fashioned from two steel plates set into the pavement in a triangular shape. If a car is driving the speed limit or slower, the plates collapse to let it pass unimpeded; if it’s going too fast, they lock in place and the car receives a jolt. Thus, drivers who maintain the proper speed are rewarded. Decano’s technology is entirely mechanical and relatively inexpensive. It’s designed to handle traffic at 25 mph speeds, but the company is working on an electric version for higher speed limits. Of course, the additional technology will likely bump the price up. —TG



CANCER SCREENING
Early Detection

Cancers are easier to combat in their earliest stages. But that’s also the hardest time to detect them, because the biomarker proteins released by tumors are still at extremely low concentrations. Now, researchers at Stanford University, led by Shan Wang, professor of materials science and electrical engineering, have developed a magnetic biosensor 1,000 times more sensitive than any other technology now in use. It can detect proteins at levels of concentration as low as one part out of a hundred billion. Moreover, in tests on mice, the biosensor chip worked equally well with any bodily fluid, including blood plasma, urine, and saliva. The magnetic biosensor attracts the antigens produced by cancer cells with antibodies that naturally bond with them. The outer layer of antibodies is coated in magnetic nanotags that disrupt the ambient magnetic field – an alteration the sensor can detect. Despite the seeming sophistication of the technique, the sensor is actually an off-the-shelf technology used in hard drives. “It can be made relatively cheaply,” Wang says. His team will now test the technology using human blood samples. Wang is confident that the sensors will demonstrate that the cancers could have been spotted 3 to 12 months earlier than they actually were. –TG




Hard Rock Touch Screen

DIGITAL MEDIA
This Touch-Screen Rocks

Anyone who has ever eaten at a Hard Rock Cafe knows they’re crammed full of cool rock memorabilia: guitars once played by virtuosos like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, handwritten lyrics to timeless Beatles songs, and countless platinum and gold records. Hard Rock International claims it has the biggest rock collection in the world, and it rotates the more than 70,000 items among its 150 restaurants worldwide. But now, it’s also gone digital. When the new Las Vegas cafe opened this summer, visitors were treated to the “Rock Wall”: a giant 18-by 4-foot interactive touch-screen that displays digitalized images of the chain’s massive collection. Moreover, at each booth, a 19-inch touch-screen lets diners view the collection, zoom in to inspect details, and read a history of each item. The tableside screens – which had to be designed to withstand rib-sauced fingers and spilled drinks – double as digital jukeboxes that let customers select music videos. If the interactive booths prove successful, Hard Rock hopes to incorporate them in upcoming outlets and may also retrofit existing cafes with them. Meanwhile, it’s possible to check out the HRC collection online at http://memorabilia.hardrock.com – ribs, beer, and loud music, optional. –TG.





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