Prism Magazine - February 2003
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REALLY BIG FISH, BETTER BAT, HIGH-TECH SLEUTHING

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 patterns."

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.

 

BATTER UP

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 Goods Co.

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 explains.

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.

 

FRANKENFISH

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.

 

DIGITAL DETECTIVE

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."

 

LETTERS OF REMEMBRANCE

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 in Montreal.
He can be reached at pdouglas@asee.org

 

 
 
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