PRISM Magazine On-Line  -  January 2000
Shark Bait No More

SOUTH AFRICA—Among a shark's finely tuned senses is a sixth sense that picks up weak bioelectric fields, given off by fish—or people—particularly when they are in distress. It's part of what makes sharks such effective hunters, but thanks to South African scientists, it can also make swimming with sharks a lot safer.

Researchers at the Natal Sharks Board have developed a device that envelops the wearer in an electromagnetic field pulsing at the precise combination of frequency, voltage, and current that repels sharks. Divers who have tested the device claim that even if a shark is about to sink its teeth into bait, it will turn tail the moment the device is activated. The battery-operated repeller consists of two electrodes, one attached to the diver's air cylinder and the other to a fin.

The protective equipment is popular with abalone divers and spear fishermen, who are particularly vulnerable to attacks, and fish farming companies in Australia are buying a similar device to protect their tuna from predation. The company marketing the repeller hopes to release a version that will protect surfboarders and even entire beaches, without resorting to shark-killing nets that are used in much of the world.

Don Boroughs

University of the World

AUSTRALIA—Globalization has achieved more than buzzword status at some major universities here and abroad. Three leading United States schools are poised to join a global grouping called Universitas 21 early next year, according to Chris Robinson, director of its secretariat based at Australia's University of Melbourne. The U.S. universities will not be identified until ongoing talks conclude.

Founded with 12 members in 1997, Universitas 21 currently includes 18 universities in North America, Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. The aim, Robinson says, is "to be a network for higher education, a group of major universities in a number of key countries achieving more together than we could separately." Member institutions consider "the fit" when deciding whether to add a new institution, with some schools applying to join while others are invited. Their next meeting will be in Shanghai in April, when the University of Shanghai will be enrolled (its Beijing counterpart already belongs).

Among the activities under the Universitas 21 umbrella have been meetings of science deans in New Zealand this year and heads of academic IT departments in Hong Kong last year.

Areas of cooperation being studied include the portability of professional qualifications, so that degrees offered by a member university in one country are recognized in other member countries. Robinson contends that Universitas 21 differs from other university link-ups that have a regional or curricular base, because "we encompass entire institutions and have no geographic barriers."

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Chris Pritchard

Tale of Two Cities

LONDON—Cambridge, England, is of course the namesake of Cambridge, Massachusetts. And both cities have for centuries been bastions of higher education. But that link may soon become more formal. Plans are afoot for a $116 million joint venture between England's Cambridge University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that would create a new, technology-driven business school.

Most of the funding for the Cambridge-MIT Institute, as it would be called, would come from the British government, though it's hoped that corporate sponsors would contribute about $16 million of the total cost. Susie Baker, a Cambridge University spokesperson, says that discussions involving government officials and the two schools are well underway, but a formal announcement is still months off. The plans are said to have the backing of Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is keen to see British researchers become more entrepreneurial. British research is often world-class, but it has only been within the last decade that academics here have sought to turn their ideas into successful businesses.

MIT is globally renowned for spawning research with real-world applications, and Blair's government is clearly hoping that transferring a bit of the school's DNA to Cambridge will supercharge efforts underway at the British school. Cambridge is already the focal point of a fledgling tech industry in England. Indeed, Microsoft's Bill Gates has poured millions of dollars into the university's projects in recent years. If the Cambridge-MIT Institute becomes a reality, there would be an ongoing exchange program between the schools' faculty and students, Baker says. "The idea would be an institution that fosters entrepreneurial, tech-led business."

Thomas K. Grose