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Breakthroughs and trends in the world of technology
next-generation space telescope

Space Science
Mission Continued

Some $5 billion over budget and counting, the next-generation space telescope has won a $530 million lease on life from congressional appropriators. Targeted to launch in 2018, Hubble’s successor will, NASA says, use innovative new optics, detectors, and thermal control systems to study every phase in the history of the universe, from the afterglow of the big bang to the evolution of our solar system. Its overruns would not have startled James Webb, for whom the new telescope is named. Coping with rocketing space-program costs as NASA administrator from 1961 to 1968, he once told President John F. Kennedy: “We have got a real job to do to make this thing come out without a scandal.”

The Toll From Trolls

The America Invents Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Obama earlier this year, was largely hailed for being the first big overhaul of U.S. patent law in 200 years. It drops the old “first to invent” requirement for “first to file,” and gives the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office the power to determine if an invention merits a patent, removing the burden of proof from filers. But many critics remain unimpressed with the act because it failed to deal with “patent trolls,” companies that buy as many software patents as possible for the sole purpose of suing over possible violations. A Boston University School of Law study determined that legal battles against trolls cost companies around $500 billion between 1990 and 2010. Software patents are tricky things, because software coding typically builds upon established mathematical formulas and practices, and new ideas are often small and incremental. Moreover, too many cover “inventions” that are vague and hardly unique. Software patents, the Boston study authors note, often have “fuzzy boundaries.” Critics argue that too much money is spent on either buying vaguely worded software patents or defending them in court. And that’s money that would be better used to finance truly new innovations. James Bessen, one of the study’s authors, says one helpful fix would be raising the price of renewing a patent from $1,000 to tens of thousands of dollars – an amount that would make it too costly for trolls to warehouse patents they have no intention of using. – THOMAS K. GROSE

video of a levitating discQUANTUM PHYSICS
Flying Saucer

When a magician makes someone levitate on stage, we all know it is a trick. But when researchers at Tel Aviv University’s Superconducting Group released a video of a levitating disc, it wowed an audience of millions on YouTube precisely because it clearly wasn’t a trick. Physicist Boaz Almog calls the technology quantum levitation. His team uses a pancake-size wafer of sapphire that’s coated in yttrium barium copper oxide and frozen with liquid nitrogen, making it a superconductor. Placed over a circular magnetic track, it hovers above the track and zooms around it, sans engine. It floats because superconductors and magnets repel each other. But because the oxide layer is very thin, some of the magnetic field penetrates it via microscopic weak spots called flux tubes, which agitates them. And that propels the disc. Now the trick will be to find a practical application for a technology that certainly is very cool. – TG


Sneak Peek

Researchers at Georgia Tech have developed software they say can turn your iPhone into a spiPhone. Essentially, they’ve figured out how to use an iPhone’s accelerometer – the gizmo that detects how the phone is tilted – to pick up the vibrations of someone typing on a computer keyboard, track the keystrokes, and decipher complete sentences with up to 80 percent accuracy. So, how would a hacker use this technology to steal passwords or send fake E-mail from your account? Well, the tracking software could be built into some innocent-sounding app that would corrupt your phone with the spyware. If you then left your phone right next to your keyboard as you typed, the malware would kick in. Patrick Traynor, a computer scientist who codeveloped the app, says if you’re worried that your phone is spying on you, keep it more than 3 inches from your computer, or stash it in a pocket or a purse. He also admits that the likelihood of a spiPhone attack “right now is pretty low.” Not only are there a lot of “ifs” in the theft scenario, it requires the bad guys to master some very tough procedures. Still, Traynor adds ominously, “could people do it if they really wanted to? We think yes.” –TG

Stefano Boeri’s Bosco Verticale

Verdant High-Rise

This is no pie-in-the-sky urban farm design. Italian architect Stefano Boeri’s Bosco Verticale, or Vertical Forest, is actually being built, and will soon add a splash of green to the Milan skyline.

The design features two residential towers with staggered balconies that allow an array of trees and shrubbery to grow outside each abode. Advantages of such a setup, beyond adding verdant beauty to a city, include shading inhabitants in the summer while permitting more sunlight in the winter, protection from noise pollution, and air purification.

Called “the most exciting new tower in the world” by the Financial Times, Bosco Verticale will eventually grow the equivalent of over 100,000 square feet of woodland. The FT adds that the buildings are to be the first in a series of eco-friendly renovations planned for the city. Boeri has dubbed the project BioMilano, and his vision features more green housing, the restoration of abandoned farms on the city’s outskirts, urban gardens, and Metrobosco, a ring of trees to encircle Milan. – Alison Buki

If You Can Make It There . . .

The race is on. Seven proposals involving 17 institutions from three continents are vying to open a new engineering and applied science graduate school in New York. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s gambit: The city would provide around $300 million worth of land, plus $100 million in subsidies, to the winning proposal. The competition’s goal is the nearly instant creation of a top-tier school to help transform the Big Apple into Silicon Valley East, spin off new companies and industries, and create a lot of high-paying, high-tech jobs. Most of the submissions came from partnerships or consortia proposing to invest $800 million to $2.5 billion. Stanford University partnered with City College of New York in the $2.5 billion proposal. Cornell University joined with Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. One proposal came from six schools: New York University, the Universities of Toronto and Warwick, the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, City University of New York, and Carnegie Mellon. Stanford and Cornell have positioned themselves as the leading contenders, but Bloomberg insists there are no front-runners. Hizzoner also has said the city might opt to pick two winners. And it’s possible that New York’s attraction is so great that some also-ran schools may decide to go ahead on their own. Indeed, Columbia University’s proposal is ostensibly a reworking of a planned campus expansion already underway. Biggest surprise? A bid from Amity University, a private school little known outside India. A committee named to evaluate the proposals includes National Academy of Engineering President Charles Vest. City officials say the winner will be announced before year’s end. – TG

Virginia “Ginnie” RomettyCORPORATIONS
Tiny Sorority Taps Big Blue

Given the dearth of women in top jobs in corporate America, the appointment of Virginia “Ginnie” Rometty to lead IBM made headlines. Rometty, 54, has managed her rise to the top of Big Blue without much external exposure, forging her career largely in technical, strategy, and sales jobs. She joined the firm in 1981 as a systems analyst after earning a degree in computer science and electrical engineering from Northwestern University. She climbed the ranks as IBM jettisoned its hardware business to focus on software and services, the New York Times notes. Rometty actively lobbied for IBM’s $3.5 billion purchase of PricewaterhouseCoopers Consulting in 2002, and then won plaudits for successfully overseeing its integration.

While she is IBM’s first female CEO, the Times notes that the 100-year-old company has a long history of hiring and advancing women executives. Rometty joins a tiny group of female high-tech leaders that includes Meg Whitman at Hewlett-Packard and Ursula Burns at Xerox. – TG

Cute Protection

Of the more than 500 people killed this year in Thailand’s worst floods in a half century, 27 died from electric shocks when downed power lines or submerged appliances electrified surging waters. After two young brothers were fatally shocked while wading, Dusit Sukawat felt he had to act. He’s a professor of engineering at the leading King Mongkut Institute of Technology at Lat Krabang on Bangkok’s outskirts. Dusit gathered a half-dozen third-year engineering student volunteers and within a week developed Flood Duck, a floating device with red LED lights that flash when it detects electricity in floodwaters. Made from materials he found at home costing less than $10, the gadget is a small plastic container filled with circuitry and topped with a toy duck. It’s now in routine use by rescue teams. While Dusit negotiates with potential manufacturers, he has enlisted students and volunteers in a makeshift production line and has donated 1,000 of the devices to cash-strapped hospitals. – Chris Pritchard


Late Riser

The dough used to make French pastries like éclairs is a concoction that’s as temperamental as it is tasty. Once made, it has to be quickly baked. Otherwise the dough becomes infested with microorganisms that stop it from rising. So it has to be made on the premises, and the dough machine must then be thoroughly cleaned. But now, with a dollop of European Union funding, researchers at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology have built a self-cleaning pastry machine engineered to produce sterile dough that doesn’t need to be baked immediately. The prototype is so finicky that it even monitors the final rinse water to ensure it’s free of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and cleaning fluids. Because of its longer shelf life, the pastry dough can be made centrally in larger quantities and delivered to individual patisseries for baking later. The developers are now hoping to commercialize the machine – and make a lot of dough. –TG

Engineering a New Libya

Even before a longtime University of Alabama professor (and former ASEE member) became Libya’s interim leader, engineering played a role in ending the 42-year dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi. Example: To gain intelligence on the colonel’s whereabouts, the rebel Transitional National Council (TNC) turned to Aeryon Labs Inc. of Waterloo, Ontario, and its Scout Micro drone helicopter. Weighing 3 pounds and small enough to fit into a backpack, the “spycopter” is equipped with a five megapixel still and video camera and a thermal vision night camera. It’s designed to operate in wind-driven sand and temperatures up to 122 degrees Fahrenheit. Operation is by a simple touch-screen interface that rebels learned to operate in two days.

The interim prime minister tapped by the TNC is Abdurrahim El-Keib, a 1973 University of Tripoli graduate who came to the United States to pursue a master’s in electrical engineering from the University of Southern California. He subsequently earned a Ph.D. from North Carolina State University and went on to teach power systems and electrical and computer engineering at Alabama from 1985 to 2005. More recently, he developed undergraduate and graduate programs at the Petroleum Institute of the United Arab Emirates. His mandate now is to appoint and lead an interim government that will draft a new constitution and schedule a general election. – PIERRE HOME-DOUGLAS


Power Walk

The idea of capturing ambient kinetic energy and putting it to use as electricity is not new. But a young British inventor says the technology behind his Pavegen tiles is the first application with huge commercial potential. His rubber, waterproof tiles are made from recycled tires, and 80 percent of their inner workings are made from recycled materials, too. The tiles harvest energy from footfalls and convert it to electricity. Five percent of that juice is used to light up an LED light in the tiles’ center; the rest can be used to light signs, streetlights, and pedestrian markings, and to power alarms or speaker systems. Founder Laurence Kemball-Cook – a 25-year-old recent engineering graduate – says Pavegen is getting its first big commercial test at Europe’s biggest mall, the newly opened Westfield Stratford City mall in east London, which is next to the still-under-construction Olympic stadium. Twenty PaveGen tiles are being laid into a walkway that more than 30 million people will use this coming year. And the tiles will most likely provide enough power for half the mall’s outdoor lighting needs. Kemball-Cook says he’s already getting queries from architects and designers from across Europe and the United States, and the tiles also have won several design and innovation awards. Time will tell if the Pavegen tile is a big step toward green lighting, or a small step toward a fun niche product. –TG

FACTOID: 8.3/4.5 - Percentage increases in tuition and fees in 2011-12 at public vs. private nonprofit four-year institutions - Source: college board, trends in college pricing



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