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Producing freezing rain and ice within an aircraft hangar is all in a day’s work at South Korea’s $91 million aircraft testing center, which opened last September in Seosan, south of Seoul, the capital. The climatic chamber shown here will test how fighter jets, attack helicopters, and other military equipment function when up against extreme temperatures, precipitation, and humidity, as well as solar radiation. The center also houses an anechoic chamber, an environment free of all external noise and vibration, which is useful for measuring electromagnetic compatibility and interference. The facility is intended in part to help South Korea develop its own weapons systems.


Boom times for civil engineering? Perhaps. President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress have completed an economic stimulus package worth $787 billion. One key focus of the two-year package will be rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure, from decaying highways and bridges to outmoded water systems and ports. It’ll be the biggest public-works undertaking since the Great Depression. But are there enough civil engineers to get the massive job done? Yes, says D. Wayne Klotz, president of the American Society of Civil Engineers. “The capacity is there to do that level of work.” But, he adds, it may require bringing back to the workforce retired or laid-off engineers. Klotz points out that around half of CE firms have recently axed or furloughed employees.

The stimulus package is also good news for students nearing graduation, says David Rosowsky, civil engineering department head at Texas A&M University, one of the nation’s 10 biggest schools. He’s long maintained that civil engineers will be in the forefront of growing efforts to develop alternative energy sources, provide more clean water, and improve transportation. That should result, he says, in a “renaissance era” for the discipline. Add in the new stimulus package, Rosowsky says, “and, forget about it: It’s going to be great.” –Thomas K. Grose


The brave new world of cognitive computing is getting a big boost. DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, recently awarded IBM and five universities $4.9 million to create a computer that simulates the human brain’s capabilities, including cognition, sensation, perception, and interaction. The schools involved are Stanford and Cornell, the Universities of Wisconsin-Madison and California-Merced, and the Columbia University Medical Center. Incorporating mathematics, computer science, neuroscience, and psychology, cognitive computing taps into the huge amounts of amassed biological data on how the human brain works. The aim is to “reverse engineer” the brain, says Dharmendra Modha, head of IBM’s cognitive computer program. The DARPA team members intend to build a low-power, compact computer using nanoscale devices that replicate the brain’s synapses and neurons. They believe that only such a machine will be able to monitor, analyze, and react to the ongoing explosion of digital data. –TG


They’re 4,500 years old and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Yet, scholars still don’t know how the pyramids of Egypt were built. So far, every theory, such as the use of an outside ramp, tends to collapse under the weight of contrary evidence. But French architect Jean-Pierre Houdin thinks he’s finally solved the mystery.

His theory — which got a full airing last November on the National Geographic channel — is that to get the stone blocks to the top, the pyramid builders used an internal corkscrew tunnel that’s now hidden within the monuments’ walls. Houdin’s research concentrated on the Great Pyramid at Giza, tomb of the Pharaoh Khufu, which comprises 2 million 2.5-ton blocks.

With help from Dassault Systèmes, a Paris-based manufacturer of engineering software, Houdin created a three-dimensional computer model to test his hypothesis. It’s compelling viewing. The simulation allows a virtual peek inside the walls of the Great Pyramid and brings Houdin’s concept to plausible life. Another bit of cool evidence: A microgravimetry survey of the pyramid conducted in the 1980s measured local gravitational fields, and it produced a spiraling image within the edifice’s walls. Conclusive proof? No, but Houdin may be tantalizingly close to finally solving one of history’s great riddles. –TG


A biomedical engineering professor who draws on the lessons of the Chinese philosopher Confucius is one of four winners of the U.S. Professors of the Year Award, 2008. Wei R. Chen of the University of Central Oklahoma won in the Master’s Universities and Colleges category. The annual awards are given each year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education to acknowledge excellence in undergraduate teaching. Chen and the other three winners were selected from a pool of 300 candidates. Chen, who has been teaching for 20 years, is director of the school’s biomedical engineering program, which he created nine years ago. He also conducts research into treating metastatic melanoma. The award noted Chen’s “inquiry-based” approach to teaching. He’s inspired by Confucius’s insight that hands-on learning works best, and, to this end, he regularly uses undergraduates as lab assistants. A “deeply honored” Chen credited students past and present with helping him win the award: “They are why I enjoy my work so much.” –TG

“No president since the days of Benjamin Franklin will ever have been so well served in matters scientific.”

–Lewis M. Branscomb, a physicist and emeritus professor at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He was referring in particular to President Barack Obama’s choices of Steven Chu as energy secretary and Belfer Center colleague John Holdren as science adviser.


Heavily armored humvees are formidable fighting machines in both Iraq and Afghanistan. But they also have an Achilles heel, er, wheel — that’s right, their tires. If their tires are flattened by shrapnel from mines or bullets, the mighty vehicles become vulnerable. The Army has used flat-run inserts to counter the problem, but their performance hasn’t been great. So now a Wisconsin company has been awarded an $18 million, four-year contract to develop an airless tire that can go 50 mph for 50 miles once hit and also offer a “ride feel” comparable to a pneumatic tire. A tall order, to be sure, but one Resilient Technologies expects to fill, and ahead of schedule. The company — working with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Polymer Engineering Center — has developed a promising prototype based on the six-sided cells bees construct within honeycombs. “The best design, as nature gives it to us, is really the honeycomb,” explains Tim Osswald, the mechanical engineering professor overseeing the two Madison graduate students working on the project. Not only does the design provide a strong and comfortable ride; the honeycomb holes allow bullets and shrapnel to pass through without causing damage. –TG


AUSTRALIA — Consumers complain loudly about utility bills but often have no idea how to cut back on electricity use efficiently. So Jugdutt Singh, an engineer heading the Center for Technology Infusion at La Trobe University in Melbourne, has developed a “smart meter” to show users which of their appliances and gadgets is the most power greedy. Singh says the device employs “an advanced interface using context-aware and persuasive software technologies.” It attaches to power points, giving information on a small screen about electricity use by all devices on the premises. Consumers can turn off appliances by cellphone. In places with peak and off-peak rates, the meter can be programmed to tell consumers both rates, what time lower prices start, and how much will be saved by waiting before using a particular piece of equipment. Thirty of the devices are already in use at the university, and negotiations are under way with potential commercial developers. – CHRIS PRITCHARD


Presidents of public research universities earned a median salary of $427,400 in the 2006-07 school year, a 7.6 percent increase over the previous year and nearly 36 percent more than the 2002 rate. Accordingly, they’re closing the pay gap with heads of private research institutions, whose salaries haven’t grown nearly as fast, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s annual survey of executive compensation. Private research schools paid their presidents a median salary of $527,172 last year, a slight decrease from the previous year’s rate. Over the past five years, the median salary for private schools’ heads increased by just 18.6 percent. The highest-paid private research university president was E. Gordon Gee, who was pulling in just over $2 million a year at Vanderbilt University. But Gee left in August 2007 to take over at the public Ohio State University, reducing his salary by half. OSU paid him a package worth $1.35 million last year. That was well beyond the total paid to his nearest public school rival, Mark A. Emmert at the University of Washington, who earned nearly $888,000. The highest-paid honcho currently at a private research school? Henry Bienen at Northwestern University, who took home $1.74 million.

The biggest paycheck of all, however, went to David J. Sargent, 77, head of Boston’s Suffolk University. Grand total: $2.8 million. He’s been at the school 52 years, and a compensation expert determined he had been woefully underpaid (he earned less than $400,000 in 2004). So the trustees gave him a one-time package to compensate. But Sargent’s no fat cat. He gave $700,000 back to the school to help fund financial aid. –TG


John and Jim graduated in the same year from the same high school and had similar scores on their standardized tests. Ten years on, however, Jim’s annual pay packet is fatter than John’s. What gives? Maybe Jim’s a bit more sociable. A new study finds that students who were rated by their high school teachers as conscientious, motivated, and cooperative go on to earn more money than their peers, equal test scores notwithstanding. Christy Lleras, a sociologist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, pored through data in the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988, which followed 11,000 10th graders until a decade after they graduated. Those with top social skills were, on average, earning $3,200 more a year. Says Lleras: “Good schools do more than teach reading, writing, and math. They socialize students and provide the kinds of learning opportunities that help them to become good citizens and to be successful in the labor market.” Schools that don’t foster good work habits and social skills do students a “disservice,” she adds. –TG


CANADA — A Canadian company hopes to capture part of the emerging market for all-electric cars. ZENN Motors (Zero Emission No Noise) is planning to launch a fully certified, highway-capable vehicle with a top speed of 80 miles per hour and a range of 250 miles in 2009. ZENN already manufactures a Neighborhood Electric Vehicle, with a range of up to 40 miles and a maximum speed of 25 mph, and has dealers in 20 U.S. states. The new vehicle, called the CityZENN, will be manufactured at the company’s plant in St. Jerome, Quebec, and will be sold first in Europe, where the certification process is quicker than in the United States. Company officials hope to start selling the U.S. model by 2010, the same year Chrysler and Chevrolet unveil their own electric cars. Power for the CityZENN will come from supercapacitors based on barium-titanate powders, built by EEStor of Cedar Park, Texas. ZENN officials claim that the CityZENN will operate at one tenth the cost of a typical internal combustion engine vehicle and will be rechargeable in less than five minutes.
—Pierre Home- Douglas


In the late 1990s, Japan’s trash incinerators spewed more dioxins — a chemical pollutant that’s highly carcinogenic — into the atmosphere than did those in any other industrialized country. Today, Japan still incinerates around two thirds of its garbage, but the dioxin problem has largely disappeared. Tough regulations put in place nearly a decade ago overhauled the industry. The worst-offending incinerators were shuttered, and others were either rebuilt or refitted with antipollution technologies, like gasification, which burns rubbish at such high temperatures that dioxins are destroyed and the residue is a glasslike ash that can be used to make concrete.

As the Washington Post noted recently, “Japan’s urban incinerators are not smelly, smoky, or deadly.” Some are architectural gems. Hiroshima’s was designed by world-class architect Yoshio Taniguchi, employing glass interior walls to give the public a chance to see how the technology works. –TG


A fitness instructor in your cellphone? Well, sorta. Engineers at the University of Washington have created a mobile-phone device they call UbiFit. A sensing device, an accelerometer, determines how much moving around you’re doing — running, walking, sitting — then shoots the data via Bluetooth to a program in the phone. It also includes a screen display to keep you motivated — and that’s the key. The display starts the week as an empty green lawn, but the more active you are, the more flowers grow. If you meet a goal, you’re rewarded with an on-screen butterfly. A field study of 28 people from November 2007 to January 2008 found that participants who used the display kept up with their workouts right through the heavy-eating holiday season. Those who used the device sans the motivational display let their workouts lapse. Personal computing has largely been desk based, says James Landay, a Washington computer scientist and engineer. “But the next wave will be these little computers that are with us all the time.” And they might nag us into better health. –TG



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