schools across the country are taking to the trenches in the fight against
terrorism, using the weapons they know best: their research facilities.
House was calling. Tom Ridge, the President's new Director of Homeland
Security, approached the engineering faculty at Pittsburgh's Carnegie
Mellon University recently with a simple request. As a former governor
of Pennsylvania, Ridge knew all about the university's expertise in
fields such as computer security and robotics. But when he came calling
last fall, he was looking to find specialists he could rely on in a
crisis. So the university passed along a list of some dozen faculty
members with special expertise who could help Ridge and the nation in
the fight against terror.
the horrific attacks of September 11, the engineering community has
been asking how technology might have averted the tragic eventsand
whether scientific know-how might help prevent other catastrophes in
the future. Perhaps not surprisingly, the list of almost-ready fixes
is a long one. And it is no wonder that former Gov. Ridge turned quickly
to engineering educators for ideas. Across the wide spectrum of engineering
disciplinesfrom civil engineering to materials to computer sciences
and beyondwork in the labs offers promise that the unthinkable
can be anticipated and that new threats to America's infrastructure
or to the public health and safety can be averted.
technology is not a cure-all. Engineers know this better than most in
the scientific community. One of the definitions of engineering
is the application of science to solve real problems, says Carl
Locke, Jr., the dean of engineering at the University of Kansas. We
can dream up all sorts of structures, but we can't always afford them.
Recent technology has revolutionized society, and in the process, the
scientific world is being reshaped in three dimensions at once, as knowledge
is advanced in the fields of information technology, biotechnology,
and nanotechnology. The wizards of the laboratories can conceive of
and invent devices that might detect biological pathogens or that might
prevent a fully-fueled airliner from collapsing a skyscraper. But engineers
know that the challenge is to devise technologies that can be used to
solve real problems, and that is a different matter entirely.
task is not merely to invent the latest and greatest gadget. The technology
already exists to equip airports with advanced systems to detect weapons
or explosives (one version, for example, called ion mobility spectrometry,
is not unlike CT scanners used in hospitals). And civil engineers who
have studied the collapse of the World Trade Center towers are already
brainstorming to discover ways to make the skyscraper invulnerable (imagine
reinforced concrete plates bolted onto steel walls). But there is no
way to predict whether airports or building developers will be willing
to pay the premium to avert an ever-so-unlikely but truly catastrophic
all, the events of September 11 were not the first hint that America
was vulnerable. Three years ago, after bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorists
struck two American embassies in Africa, the engineering community engaged
in the same debate. Engineering has a unique role to play in advocating
appropriate policies [in the defense against terrorism]... and in encouraging
the public to assess intelligently the issues of cost versus risk,
wrote George Bugliarello of Polytechnic University in, The Bridge, which
is published by the National Academy of Engineering. At that time, the
nation remained willing to take its chances. But after the attacks on
the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the calculation may have changed.
The task for engineers, however, remains the same: to offer technological
solutions to combat terrorism that can find their way into everyday
use rather than languish on a white board.
not a new mission. In times of crisis, the university has always rushed
to serve the country's aid, says Ilene Busch-Vishniac, the dean of engineering
at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. We also have served
by identifying key scientific and technical obstacles that could be
turning points in wars and working to overcome those barriers,
she said in a speech shortly after the attacks. There is a long history
of such assistance, dating at least to the Manhattan Project during
World War II. Postwar science policy was born from the significant
contribution science made in winning the war and from the recognition
that a vibrant research enterprise could equally serve the nation's
needs in peacetime, explained Rita Colwell, the director of the
National Science Foundation, in a recent lecture.
days following September 11, a number of engineering schools mobilized
to offer Washington advice and expertise. We do try to provide
critical rapid response for the government as needed, says Busch-Vishniac.
After deans and directors at Johns Hopkins held an emergency session
in September, the university established its own counter-terrorism program,
headed by the director of Hopkins' Applied Physics Laboratory. Even
before the terrorist attacks, a university department had been awarded
a Hazardous Substance Research Center by the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency. The center had planned to study the propagation of aerosols
in urban areas; now the research can be tailored to consider how a crop
duster might deploy airborne anthrax spores. At Carnegie Mellon, Dean
John Anderson tapped one of his professors to head the small office
that serves as a clearinghouse for any government requests, whether
they come from Ridge's Office of Homeland Security or from members of
Congress. Anderson named electrical engineer Ken Gabriel to the post
because the professor served the Pentagon as an official at the Defense
Advanced Research Projects Agency prior to joining CMU four years ago.
He knows Washington, says Anderson.
and engineers in Oklahoma, it turns out, are particularly well equipped
for a quick response. The 1995 attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal
Office Building in Oklahoma City jolted the community there. That is
one reason, says David Thompson, an associate dean at Oklahoma State
University's engineering school, that his school is the world's largest
publisher of emergency personnel training materials and can quickly
help train disaster response personnel in the latest techniques. We're
in a unique position to look at training, preparation, and materials,
says Thompson. This is not something that takes five years; within
months, this will have an impact.
critical solutions are still in the lab, and the task for engineers
will be to turn smart ideas into practical applications. The surprise
nature of the attacks of September 11a low-cost, low-tech effort
in which hijacked jets were used as guided missileshas forced
engineers (and government officials) to recognize that terrorists determined
to do harm to America will not oblige and attack where the defense is
strongest. That means the hunt for answers cannot be limited to fixes
for what has already happened. I think there are other kinds of
terror we're vulnerable to that we're not paying attention to,
says Janie Fouke, the dean of engineering at Michigan State University.
We're always acting in a way that made sense for the last event.
Overcoming that is the most difficult challenge.
is right that engineers must do more than guard against another anthrax
scare, then the political and technological challenge is as vast as
the list of potential targets. There is the nation's transportation
infrastructure: the bridges, train stations, and tunnels that carry
people safely to and from work everyday. There is the national power
grid, which must be centralized enough to deliver power efficiently
but not too centralized lest an attack shut down the system. There is
the water supply, which must be protected from contamination. And there
are information networks, which are still vulnerable to cyber attack.
Something that brought down electronic networks could bring horrific
economic damage, says Fouke.
of the challenge means that every engineering discipline has a part
to play in the search for solutions. Civil and mechanical engineers
have already studied the collapse of the World Trade Center to discover
why the towers collapsed and to learn whether the catastrophe might
offer insights into how to safeguard buildings in the future. Environmental
engineers will study means to protect water supplies from contaminants.
Electrical engineers will be studying new ways to transmit data; another
lesson of September 11, after all, was that more traditional methods
of communication, like land phone lines, were unreliable. Instead, people
communicated by BlackBerry, a handheld wireless e-mail device. Computer
scientists, for their part, are renewing efforts to ensure that information
networks are robust. (At the University of Kansas, a new course on the
Internet and security is wildly popular. You may see more courses
like that develop, says Dean Locke. There were concerns
about terror before, but not like now.)
schools are discovering that work that was already underway can, without
much trouble, be refocused to help in the war on terror. That was true
of research on the propagation of pollen at Johns Hopkins, which was
undertaken to help inform the debate over genetically modified corn.
Now it has other applications: The research doesn't change much
if you refocus on crop dusters releasing anthrax and ask how it would
propagate, says Dean Busch-Vishniac. You can typically adapt
without a major shift in focus. At the University of Kansas, faculty
members had traveled to Turkey to examine damage after devastating earthquakes
there. What they learned may help as they work now on the problem of
strengthening structuresand not only skyscrapersto withstand
attack. It is rare that you start research activity from zero,
says Dean Fouke. You start from somewhere, take something that
is known, and look at something that is unknown. That is what innovation
is; it is different from discovery.
many of the ideas getting attention do involve technological answers
to the questions of the momentwhich means that much of the work
now underway involves making air travel safer or averting biological
terror. One approach, according to Dean Anderson involves what he calls
data-mining in real time. In other words, computer scientists can help
spot patterns that could alert officials to danger. If people
were simultaneously infected with smallpox, and two got to one emergency
room and two go somewhere else, how do you connect that information
so you see a pattern? Anderson asks. How do you get that
first alert quickly? Carnegie Mellon is studying that very problem
at its Center for Automated Learning and Discovery.
the current research, however, involves finding ways to detect an attack.
That is why the development of new sensors is a critical part of the
anti-terror effort. Sensor technology is a hot area for research
in a number of areas, says the University of Kansas's Locke. Among
them: the detection of biological threats, the detection of explosives,
and even the detection of computer viruses. The fascination with sensors
is not new. Locke recalls plans for the development of sensors during
the Vietnam War that the military intended to use to spot infiltrators
on the Ho Chi Minh trail.
being considered now are more promising. Detection of biological agents,
such as anthrax, is at the top of the list. Envision if we'd had
a sensor in place at the postal service that could sense anthrax,
says Locke. The trick will be to develop a sensor sophisticated enough
to detect the wide range of chemical and biological agents that can
be lethal. The question, says Carnegie Mellon's Anderson,
is how to combine [sensors for all threats] in a small element
and then to get the information out. Cutting edge research, combining
the fields of nanotechnology and distributed detection systems, holds
promise. The canary on a chip concept marries detection
systems with computing and networking. You can detect something
and get information to somebody, says Anderson.
also are being developed to detect bombs and explosives; there are almost
as many approaches as there are engineers working the problem. At the
University of Louisville, for example, says dean of engineering Thomas
Hanley, the faculty is undertaking a Biomems program, which
could result in the use of microdevices to diagnose or treat biological
problems. You could use it in a variety of ways, says Hanley,
including as a sensor device that could detect explosives.
Other approaches include ion mobility spectrometry, a technology that
can spot the distinct electrical properties of explosives; such systems
are already being built.
sensors, whether they are intended to detect bombs or smallpox, are
still not entirely practical solutions to the terrorist threat. Some
cannot identify a wide enough range of biological pathogens. Others
require large quantities of support equipment to process the results.
And then there is the matter of cost. The Federal Aviation Administration
recently told Congress that it will cost at least $4 billion to acquire
advanced bomb scanners, a move that new air safety legislation passed
in November requires. Others argue that the cost could be more than
double that. So far, despite the new law, no one has stepped up to determine
what technology will be selected or how to pay for it.
buildings that might withstand terror assaultseven attacks as
destructive as flying a jet into a skyscraperpresents perhaps
the starkest example of the dilemma engineers face as they seek ways
to prevent future catastrophe. Almost immediately after the planes brought
down the World Trade Center towers, civil engineers began seeking to
understand why the buildings toppled. Early on, of course, it was discovered
that the heat from the fires, not the impact of the planes, was the
cause of the collapse. But scientists and
engineers are seeking to learn much more. The National Science Foundation
is providing $300,000 in grants to eight research teams to learn critical
details about what actually happened on September 11. The NSF wants
the researchers, among other things, to: evaluate how the structural
steel at the towers performed; develop a land-based laser to map the
site; examine the seismic effects of the collapse on nearby buildings;
and learn about the interplay between systems, so that the organization
can understand what happens to the rest of the building, for example,
when electrical power is lost.
who received an NSF grant has already conducted on-site research at
Ground Zero. Abolhassan Astaneh-Asl is a professor of civil engineering
at the University of California-Berkeley, and barely a week after the
attack he visited the Trade Center site as well as the scrap yard in
Jersey City where the twisted remains of the building are being brought.
His initial observations support the theory that the heat of the fires
(which may have ranged from 1,000 to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit) brought
the building down; he has found, for example, pieces of structural steel
that show signs of having been sliced by the airplane; other pieces
are still bolted together, which suggests they bent, under the heat,
but didn't break from impact. Other pieces of evidence indicate that
the columns of the building remained sturdy but that the floor supports
gave way, which helps explain why the building pancaked, rather than
tipped over. Astaneh wants to develop a computer model that explains
how the buildings fell.
engineers like Astaneh understand what happened, they will try to find
ways to prevent such a thing from happening again. Astaneh's work on
steel structures in the past has led him to design a unique system that
involves bolting reinforced concrete plates to sheer steel walls. But
will developers, governments, or taxpayers be willing to endure greater
construction costs to make buildings safer? After all, the World Trade
Center had been designed to withstand the impact of a Boeing 707; no
one anticipated an attack by a larger, fully-fueled jet. It's
not that we couldn't have figured it out, says Thomas Hanley,
the dean of engineering at the University of Louisville. What
we're looking at here becomes a real expensive proposition. What kind
of materials would you use? Are there ways to reinforce buildings? If
it's too expensive, we may see a move away from large buildings.
Other solutions might be less drastic but more practical: Better sprinkler
systems, for example, might have suppressed the fire and kept the steel
from losing integrity. Other solutions might simply allow buildings
to stand longer, so that more people might escape.
the exercise is not purely academic. When the Iranian-born engineer
came to the United States in 1978, his first stop was New York City,
where he visited the Twin Towers. Later, he studied the bombing of the
Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The reason: He had been a professor
at the University of Oklahoma, and the Alfred P. Murrah building was
the location where he began the process that made him a naturalized
American citizen. While Astaneh's story is unique, in one way it is
typical: Many engineering students at American universities were born
overseas. Locke guesses that about half of his graduate students at
the University of Kansas come from abroad.
deans, therefore, worry that the anti-terror campaign may have perverse
consequencesand perhaps even undermine the openness that is a
hallmark of education. Universities have always been the epitome
of open institutions and, in light of terrorist activity, the first
question is should we continue to be so open, says Busch-Vishniac.
I'd argue the answer is a resounding yes. If the university loses
its openness, then we wreck the very institution that has promoted understanding
and built bridges between people.
after September 11, a number of universities worked to ensure that Muslim
students were not targeted or discriminated against. But the risk remains
that a backlash against foreign-born students could prevent academicians
like Abolhassan Astaneh from helping to safeguard the nation against
terrorism. We have serious concerns that Congress might take action
to limit students coming to us to do graduate study, says Kansas's
Locke. I think we get a decided advantage from students who come
to study here. One solution might require universities to screen
and track foreign students more closely, to be sure that if they are
in the United States on a student visa, they really do study. I
think universities are willing to cooperate, says Locke, with
agencies such as the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
engineering community does take on the terrorists, the only limit on
what is possible will come from outside the lab. Engineers can
do anything you ask, says Louisville's Hanley. It's
usually the corporate world and the public that determine what's the
tradeoff. It doesn't make sense to design a system that's cost prohibitive.
That's not an engineering decision, that's a cultural decision. Once
those parameters are set, we engineers respond.
end, the events of September 11 may well mark the momentas the
Manhattan Project or Sputnik did long agowhen science, technology,
and engineering embraced a new challenge and reinvented the world. Things
long neglected, like the roads and bridges of America's physical infrastructure,
may be modernized; aging power plants may be upgraded. Ten years
from now we will see it was the long-term responses that were most important,
says Busch-Vishniac. Only in the fullness of time will we look
back and say, Aha.'
Auster is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
He can be reached at email@example.com.