ENVIRONMENTALISTS GIVE FAKE SNOW THE COLD SHOULDER
AUSTRALIA—Artificial snow ensures adrenalin surges on the slopes
and boosts the profits of ski resorts that can extend the season—but
there's a downside. The manipulation of snow is harmful to the
environment, according to Australian researchers.
Catherine Pickering, an environmental scientist at Brisbane-based
Griffith University, has found that snow grooming, snow moving, and
snow making all have an adverse impact on the habitat of native animals
and plants. Researchers in other countries have reached the same conclusion. "Engineers
involved in evaluating proposed new resorts should consider the potentially
adverse impact of their decisions—particularly in delicate environments," says
co-researcher Wendy Hill, another environmental scientist at Griffith.
That may mean trying to keep the need for snow manipulation to a minimum—or
even advising against construction of a resort in a sensitive location.
Many people don't realize that a rich but fragile ecosystem
thrives beneath even the thickest drifts of snow, Pickering says. The
animals and plants that are generally invisible to skiers survive on
an ecological knife-edge, even without the intrusive heavy machinery
increasingly used to improve skiing conditions.
Such activities have "a dramatic effect on vegetation, soil,
hydrology, and the animal communities within the areas manipulated," Pickering
says. "Snow manipulation results in a cascade of changes that
can negatively affect native flora. Slope grooming can involve extensive
modification of the environment, including removal of native vegetation
and reformation of slope topography that results in changes to hydrological
Snow grooming "not only physically damages plants through direct
contact but compacts the snow, increasing density and reducing porosity
and permeability. This retards spring snow melt and limits the ability
of the snow pack to slow water run-off, thus increasing the risk of
erosion," Pickering adds.
BRAIN SURGERY WITHOUT ALL THE MESS
Patients undergoing brain surgery understandably want the operation
conducted by an experienced physician. Surgical training involves years
of theoretical learning, as well as time spent in an operating theater
either assisting or being guided by a veteran surgeon. But because
some types of procedures are used only rarely, that limits opportunities
to give hands-on training in all techniques to budding brain surgeons.
So, researchers at the University of Nottingham are developing a virtual-reality
simulator that will allow surgeons to hone their skills before working
on patients. The device will actually allow surgeons to—virtually
speaking—cut and move gray matter, and experience how the techniques
they use "feel." The tactile feedback comes from advanced
mathematical formulas used in engineering analysis. The project will
require input from mechanical engineers, computer scientists, and neurosurgeons.
Simulators now in use mostly offer three-dimensional graphics, which
help students learn anatomy, but cannot replicate the experience of
slicing into someone's brain. This simulator "may be a
step forward toward resolving this training issue," says Michael
Vloeberghs, a consultant pediatric neurosurgeon at the university.
It could also be a useful tool for experienced surgeons who want to
plan a procedure before actually operating, as the simulator could
be loaded with images from an individual patient's brain.
A newly developed baseball bat may help even the scrawniest of players
become Sultans of Swat. Thanks to clever engineering and new composite
materials, the new F2 aluminum softball bat from DeMarini Sports greatly
increases a batter's hitting power. "It's like putting
on 30 pounds of muscle," claims Mike Eggiman, researcher and
co-founder of the company, which is now a division of Wilson Sporting
DeMarini first revolutionized bats about a decade ago when Eggiman,
an engineer, developed aluminum bats with a double wall construction
that gave them more spring, as well as increased durability. The F2
uses a carbon fiber composite in the handle.
That allows the bat's weight to be more evenly distributed,
instead of being top heavy. By reducing the amount of weight in the
barrel, a batter can swing with more power. "If you hold a bat
by the barrel and swing it, you can swing much faster and harder," Eggiman
Moreover, the carbon fiber is more flexible and can be adapted to
more easily accommodate the natural vibration frequency that occurs
when a bat hits a ball. Versions of the bat for Little League baseball
and adult fast-pitch are in the offing. While technology may help batters
hit balls harder and farther, it can only do so much to improve hitting
skills. Even the most technologically advanced bats can't stop
a bad hitter from whiffing.
Genetically modified fish certainly offer myriad benefits. They grow
up to six times faster than their cousins in the wild and are 20 percent
more effective at bulking up after eating. They can also grow up to
11 times larger than wild fish. Farming these transgenic fish could
be less polluting and more economical, which is especially beneficial
in third-world countries. But what if the slippery devils escape?
A recent report by the National Research Council determined that
the greatest potential risk posed by bioengineered animals is the likelihood
they'll be freed into the wild. And GM fish and shellfish top
the list of animals causing the most worry. That's because they
can become feral easily and are highly mobile. The report states that
it is "a case of immediate concern." That's because
commercial farming of transgenic fish is expected to win approval soon,
if not in the U.S., then elsewhere in the world.
Scientists worry that transgenic fish could reproduce with wild fish
of the same species. The big unknown is whether the modified fish are
fit enough to thrive and successfully reproduce in the wild. That's
up to natural selection. If they prove less fit than wild fish, they'll
simply die out. If they prove more fit, they'll eventually replace
their wild brethren. If they're of similar fitness to wild fish,
both species are doomed and a mixed breed exhibiting the traits of
both would emerge. Their fitness in the wild can only be guessed at
for now. But given the growth potential of transgenes, the suspicion
is they" might show increased fitness." Then what? Well,
the worst-case scenario is that supersalmon will upset the stable predator-prey
environment. But scientific understanding of what could happen is so
limited, according to the report, that a conclusive assessment is not
possible. That's about as comforting as it is worrying.
William Muir, a Purdue University geneticist, helped develop a model
that theorizes that as GM and wild fish mated, both their populations
would shrink, eventually to oblivion. But other researchers say the
model is unreliable. Commercial developers say the hoo-haw is overbaked
because the GM fish will be sterilized while still eggs. But Muir and
others worry that at the industrial level the sterilization process
will be less than 100 percent effective.
About the only known in this controversy is that farmed fish don't
always stay down on the farm. Cautions the NRC report: "Clear
containment of these aquatic organisms will be difficult, and they
are likely to escape."
WHOLE LOT OF SHAKING GOING ON
Despite advances in science, earthquakes can neither be predicted
nor prevented. So earthquake engineering allows us to do the next best
thing: design and construct bridges and buildings more capable of withstanding
major temblors. An ongoing effort to advance this discipline began
in 1999 when the National Science Foundation launched the George E.
Brown Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation, or NEES, which
will allow engineers, geologists, seismologists, and oceanographers
from around the world to collaborate on research. NEES is a geographically
distributed, online network that will enable researchers around the
United States and the world to share resources for experimentation,
computation, model-based simulation, data management, and communication.
The network, which becomes fully operational in October 2004, will
connect labs at nearly 20 U.S. universities, among them, Oregon State,
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the University of Colorado– Boulder
and the University of Nevada–Reno. Far-flung researchers will
be able to interact and share data and cutting-edge equipment and instruments
(including shaking tables, reaction wall facilities, geotechnical centrifuges,
tsunami wave tanks, and mobile field gear), as well as to retrieve
information from digital libraries.
Thalia Anagnos, a civil engineering professor at San Jose State University,
says NEES will also be a beneficial classroom tool at both undergraduate
and graduate levels. For example, students taking classes in steel
or concrete design will be able to view online either a live or archived
shaking table experiment. They can then compare their analytical models,
which rely on a lot of assumptions, to an actual performance. Or, Anagnos
points out, students can use tsunami visualization software to better
comprehend how a tsunami moves in a bay and the kinds of flooding it
can create. Clearly, the NEES project will shake up civil engineering
classrooms for the better.
Top fictional investigators like Sherlock Holmes and Columbo can be
counted on to figure things out no matter the complexities of a case.
But real-life accident and crime investigators might welcome a bit
of high-tech help, especially when there are literally tons of information
to sift through. Researchers at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett
Field, Calif., are developing the Information-Organizer, a web-based
tool that can store, manage, disseminate, and help analyze information
collected in an investigation. Yuri Gawdiak, manager of the Engineering
for Complex Systems Program, which is developing the software, says
it places information into logical categories. "It's a
good way to organize information as you add more and more, and guides
you toward the information you should have." This is particularly
useful when an investigation has numerous teams working in tandem.
But up until now, he says, the only information technology tool investigators
have used is e-mail. That makes it difficult for teams to share information,
especially since they're not always using standard methods for
storing and managing data.
Suppose investigators of an air crash find an engine part; the software
helps them organize such important information as when and where it
was found, other objects found nearby, what lab tests were run on it,
and the results of those tests. The software not only helps investigators
link data, but also prioritize their probes and spot inconsistencies
of fact. Eventually, it will use intelligent agents to help test hypotheses.
While the Information-Organizer was initially been set up to investigate
mishaps, it could easily be used in criminal investigations by adding
such parameters as motives and alibis.
Eventually, NASA wants to work with private-sector partners to commercialize
the software, Gawdiak says. Perhaps if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were
alive today, his fictional hero Sherlock Holmes would be tapping on
a laptop, not puffing on a pipe.
WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS
James Landay, an assistant professor of computer sciences at the University
of California–Berkeley, recalls the time he asked his graduate
students to make a presentation using power point slides. All the students,
save one, combined text and graphics in their slides. But the slides
made by Hesham Kamel, who was blinded by a surgical accident 17 years
ago, contained only text. The person who usually helped Kamel make
graphics wasn't available, and people who are visually impaired
find conventional drawing and animation software almost impossible
to use on their own. Landay, Kamel's thesis advisor, said a solution
to that dilemma would make a good thesis topic.
Kamel has since developed a prototype software—Integrated Communications
2 Draw (IC2D)—that enables the visually impaired to create and
color computer images when used in conjunction with screen readers
and voice synthesizers. By using the grid to select various points,
the user can connect them with lines and arcs. Each grid can then twice
be divided into nine more grids to allow for more elaborate tools and
colors. Segments of a drawing can also be labeled. For instance, by
placing the cursor on the rear tire of a car drawing, the computer
will tell the user it's a rear tire. The labeling not only allows
the artist to later "see" what he or she has drawn, but
allows other blind users to visualize the picture, too.
Landay says even those people blind from birth have a pretty good
sense of what common, everyday objects look like. For instance, by
handling toy cars, they can develop a mental image of a car. And this
software will allow them to share that image with others. Giving the
visually impaired the ability to make computer graphics and animate
them will further increase their ability to communicate with one another
and the sighted world, Landay says. And that's a big step forward.
As Landay notes, "We often communicate with pictures."
It was the darkest day in the history of Canadian universities: Dec.
6, 1989. Late in the afternoon, a crazed gunman named Marc Lépine
entered the building that houses the University of Montreal's
engineering school—the École Polytechnique—and opened
fire on students. By the time he turned the gun on himself, 14 students
lay dead. All were women. Lépine had applied earlier to the
school to become a student and was refused. "Feminists have wrecked
my life," he wrote in a suicide note.
If one of Lépine's deranged goals was to scare away
women from studying engineering at the École Polytechnique,
he failed. The year after what has come to be known as the Montreal
Massacre, the number of women enrolled at the school jumped from 18
to 25 percent, an increase that some credit to young women wanting
to show collectively that they would not be intimidated by the actions
of one lone madman. Still, "increasing the number of female students
today remains very much a long-term process," according to Esther
Caouette, recruitment coordinator at the École Polytechnique. "It
seems that society will have to change if we want to encourage more
women to become engineers," she adds.
École Polytechnique has set up a special chair to encourage
women to enroll in the school. Called the Marianne-Mareschal Chair
for the Promotion of Women in Engineering, the program invites universitybound
students to spend a day with an engineer. A scientific summer camp
is offered for girls 10 to 15 years old. There is also a daylong event
sponsored every year for high-school students, which includes conferences
with women engineers and workshops. Co-holder of the Marianne-Mareschal
Chair and mechanical engineering professor Marie Bernard says, "It's
a question of education. Often I find young women are looking for jobs
where they can help people and work with others. Somehow they don't
see how much engineers help society and how the job involves a lot
of personal interaction."
Bernard says that many of the women who enter engineering at the École
Polytechnique recently have no recollection of the terrible events
of Dec., 1989. "After all, some of my students were only 8 or
9 years old at the time." Still, she says the spirit of the young
women who were slain lives on. Every year across Canada, ceremonies
are held on Dec. 6 to pay tribute to the 14 women. The city of Montreal
has also created a permanent memorial to their memory. On Dec. 6, 1999,
the 10th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre, a memorial was dedicated
in a rectangular park at a busy Montreal intersection across the street
from the entrance to the École Polytechnique. Called the Place-du-6-décembre,
the memorial consists of a stone path that bisects seven arcs of dark
granite set in the ground, creating 14 smaller arcs—seven on
each side of the tree-lined path. Next to each arc stands a two-foot-high
polished steel pedestal that features a three-dimensional rendition
of the first initial of the victim's name. The family name is
printed in metal in the granite next to the pedestal, along with the
birth and death dates of the student.
According to Danielle Savard, the project's director, the memorial
was designed to create a place for both reflection and prayer. One
of the most poignant times to view the memorial is in winter, when
snow drifts across the park creating a scene where the arcs appear
or disappear depending on snow conditions, and slight undulations frequently
form where snow drifts cover the steel pedestals.
Pierre Home-Douglas is a freelance writer based
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org