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Breakthroughs and trends in the world of technology
The Bridge at Hoover Dam
PHOTO BY Jamey Stillings


The Hoover Dam Bypass over the Colorado River posed both aesthetic and construction challenges. The bridge’s proximity to what a prospectus dubbed “one of the engineering wonders of the world” inevitably would invite comparison with the tourist icon. Moreover, any span across the spectacular 800-foot-deep Black Canyon had to complement an “incredible mosaic of colors and forms on the cliffs.” Completion took two years longer than planned. The high-line cable crane required to lift materials into place collapsed in 2006 and had to be replaced. The desert heat meant concrete had to be mixed and poured at night, and cooled with liquid nitrogen in summer. But after the bridge opened to traffic in October 2010, Duke University’s Henry Petroski pronounced the Western Hemisphere’s longest concrete arch span a “magnificent engineering achievement.” Photographer Jamey Stillings followed the construction over a two-year period and collected his pictures, including this one, in a recent book, The Bridge at Hoover Dam. (See Petroski’s take on another distinctive bridge.)

album coversArtificial Intelligence
Rock the House

Pop-music charts are a showcase for chaos theory. How else to explain a market that can place Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” on the same hit level as “Mistletoe” by Justin Bieber? That’s why predicting a song’s success is a sucker’s game. Or was. A Bristol University researcher has devised machine-learning algorithms that can forecast which tunes will hit the top five — as well as those destined to peak at 30 or lower — with a 60 percent accuracy rate. A team led by Tijl De Bie, an expert in artificial intelligence, scoured Britain’s top 40 music charts since 1961 and scored each song using a variety of musical features, including tempo, time signature, duration, loudness, and harmonics. Songs then were checked against the actual weekly charts over that 50-year period. Among hits the system accurately predicted: 1971’s “Get It On” by T-Rex, Gnarls Barkley’s 2006 smash “Crazy,” and “Just Dance,” a 2009 Lady Gaga hit. Hits it missed include Alicia Keys’s 2010 smash, “Empire State of Mind.” Because the system constantly “learns” what’s hot, it also tracks how musical tastes have changed over the decades. Danceability became important only in the 1980s. And since the ’90s, loudness and simple rhythms have gained in importance. De Bie has set up a website ( detailing the research and is working on a Web app that will allow budding hit-makers to score unreleased tunes. Will De Bie’s algorithms make the pop charts less chaotic? Perhaps. But that could also make for overly homogeneous music. – THOMAS K. GROSE

Edward Linacre

Desert Air

A few years ago, when Australia was hit by a bad drought, Edward Linacre was dismayed that many farmers faced with failing crops and mountains of debt were committing suicide. So Linacre, a graduate industrial design student at Australia’s Swinburne University of Technology, designed an irrigation system that extracts water from air. His inspiration: a desert rhubarb that’s efficient at harvesting water and the Namib beetle that lives off minute droplets of dew that collect on its back. Linacre’s low-cost, low-maintenance device channels air into underground pipes, where moisture condenses and is stored in a tank. That water then is pumped directly to plant roots so it doesn’t evaporate. Linacre’s solar-powered Airdrop system recently beat out 500 other entries from 18 countries to clinch the United Kingdom’s $15,500 James Dyson Award. Linacre’s prototypes, tested in his mother’s backyard, have been small so far. With prize money in hand and an industrial partner pending, Linacre now hopes to demonstrate that Airdrop can work on a larger scale. If he succeeds, farmers hit by future droughts may stave off disaster. – TG

FACTOID: 27% - The proportion of American multinational companies’ research-and-development workforce located outside the United States in 2009, up from 16 percent a decade earlier. - Source: National Science Board, Science and Engineering Indicators 2012


Jump Shot

As breathtaking as large, panoramic photos often are, the process of creating them is, to many photographers, a much less attractive prospect. While painstakingly stitching together images from a recent vacation, Technische Universität Berlin graduate Jonas Pfeil came up with a better idea: a spherical camera, called a camera-ball, that can take 360-degree panoramas in a single snap. Once the softball-size sphere is tossed into the air, a built-in accelerometer tells when the ball has reached its zenith. Then a microcontroller triggers simultaneous action by 36 two-megapixel cellphone cameras, capturing a mosaic of images.

Pfeil, a computer engineer, and his research team have built a prototype with an exterior protected by small blocks of foam and a flexible interior made of a resilient nylon material that can be 3-D printed. A lithium-polymer battery is housed in a protective cage in the center of the ball. Once the panorama has been captured, users can transfer it to their personal computer via USB cable.

So, next time you want to preserve a gorgeous mountaintop view or photograph your whole family reunion, just throw up a ball. Don’t forget to say “cheese.” – Alison Buki

photo from camera-ball
photos courtesy jonas pfeil, jonas pfeil de/ballcamera

Renewable Energy
Waste Not

Laugh if you must, but poop power is gaining serious attention as a clean (really) energy source. Human waste typically is dried into biomass and either buried in landfills or turned into fertilizer — and both solutions have major environmental drawbacks. However, if the 7 million dry tons of sewage generated by American treatment plants were converted into energy, some estimates claim it could produce 7 million to 7.6 million megawatts of power, reports Scientific American. A year-old study published in an American Chemical Society journal, based on samples of wastewater taken from a plant in northeast England, determined that the estimated amount of potential energy in sewage was 20 percent higher than previously thought. Last May, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave $100,000 to two University of Calgary engineers researching ways to make the conversion of feces to energy more efficient. And Scientific American recently profiled a Florida company, Earth, Wind & Fire Technologies, that produces both electricity and biodiesel from sewage and is in the process of setting up operations at 50 different sites worldwide. Another benefit: Human waste is one energy source the planet will never run out of. –TG

Materials Engineering
Invisibility Cloak

Current stealth-aircraft technology uses shape to scatter electromagnetic waves and render planes “invisible.” But a “magic black cloth” developed by researchers at the University of Michigan could someday be used as a camouflaging paint. The coating, made from carbon nanotubes, absorbs 99.9 percent of any light that hits it and can make a three-dimensional object look like a flat, black sheet. Against a black background, the coated object is essentially invisible, though it still casts a shadow. Night-flying aircraft would blend into a dark sky. Human eyes see an object because of the way it reflects, or scatters, light. But this coating, which is about half the thickness of a sheet of paper, absorbs so much light, there’s none left to scatter. Led by Jay Guo, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science, the Michigan team achieved “perfect black” by creating a forest of tubes with just the right amount of space between them to push the light-absorbing capacity of carbon nanotubes to its highest level. The coating also might one day be used to give display screens a much higher contrast and thus sharper images. – TG

3-D Printing3-D Printing
Pillars and Planes

Euromold, an industrial-tech trade show in Frankfurt, Germany, bills itself as a world’s fair for moldmaking, tooling, design, and application development. That’s not as yawn-inducing as it sounds. The event also showcases advanced-manufacturing technologies, and the latest exposition in late November highlighted some very cool additive manufacturing — aka 3-D printing. On hand was Neri Oxman, an MIT assistant professor of media arts and sciences, who displayed her technology for printing concrete that makes building columns that are lighter and stronger than those made from traditional concrete, and in shapes that could not be made using molds. She showed a load-bearing column based on plant stems that use bundles of concrete filaments. Meanwhile, researchers from the University of Southampton showed off their unique drone, the world’s first printer-constructed aircraft. Last year, a team led by Jim Scanlan, who heads Southampton’s Computational Engineering and Design Research Group, printed and then flew the drone, which has a geodesic structure that’s very stiff yet lightweight, and also highly complex. Indeed, it’s too complicated to be built economically using traditional manufacturing methods. Southampton’s drone team was aided by U.K. start-up 3T RPD, another fair participant; it demonstrated a lighter, more efficient gearbox that uses 3-D printed-hydraulics. The printer-produced lightweight products on display at Frankfurt should hold heavy-hitting appeal. – TG

Research Frontiers

Research Frontiers
Japan’s New Wave

Six years and some $1 billion later, Japan’s experimental Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) is well underway. Accredited in November, the graduate school will accept its first 20 students this fall, with a goal of building to 100 within five years. OIST offers a very different blueprint from Japan’s rigid, hierarchical institutions of higher education, which have few ties to campuses or industries outside the country. Foreigners will make up half the institute’s students and researchers — there now are 200 on board — and English is the school’s lingua franca. OIST’s president, Jonathan Dorfan, a physicist recruited from Stanford University, already has had great success in attracting top-notch researchers to the beautiful new campus overlooking the East China Sea. OIST has no departments, in part to foster cross-fertilization of ideas among disparate researchers, including physicists, biologists, engineers, and computer scientists. Moreover, its labs were designed to force researchers to mingle and share equipment. Japan’s economy has been moribund for decades and needs the kind of jolt high-tech start-ups could provide. Entrepreneurial academics are a rare breed in Japan, and that’s a situation that OIST hopes to remedy. – TG

Brain Science
Seizure Sensor

Brain implants that map where epileptic seizures originate require so much wiring that a sensor array can accommodate only about eight sensors per square centimeter. The resulting images are murky, at best. But a new flexible, ultrathin implant that packs silicon nanomembrane transistors into the array itself needs so much less wiring, 360 sensors can fit into that same square centimeter. Built by Brian Litt, a bioengineer at the University of Pennsylvania, in collaboration with University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, materials engineer John Rogers, the device eventually could help physicians better understand and treat seizures. In a test of the implant on an epileptic cat, the Litt-Rogers team discovered that seizures may originate from “microdomains” within the cortex. That’s a big discovery if proved accurate, because it’s currently assumed that large sections of the brain are involved in causing seizures. – TG

Calling Cards

First cellphones got smart. They soon may be flexible as well. Developers have unveiled a so-called PaperPhone made from a thin-film plastic using an electronic ink display. “This is the future. Everything is going to look and feel like this within five years,” boasts Roel Vertegaal, director of the Human Media Lab at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, who developed the device with researchers at Arizona State University and E-Ink Corp., a maker of e-book displays. A video released by Queen’s shows how the “flexible iPhone” can be manipulated by bending or squeezing it to read books, play music, or make calls. It also can be written on with a pen. Vertegaal says the PaperPhone’s flexibility and thinness make it even more portable than current mobile devices. Tech trend followers will be watching to see how this technology unfolds. – TG



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