FANNING THE FLAMES
Wind direction greatly dictates the spread of wildfires, and its fickleness
makes the behavior of these disasters difficult to predict. Supercomputer
modeling is helping, however.
Farsite, a computer model designed by Mark Finney, a U.S. Forest Service
researcher at the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula, Mont.,
crunches data such as terrain and weather factors—including wind,
humidity, and precipitation forecasts—to help determine where
a blaze is heading. But as Finney notes, just saying that the wind will
be coming out of the west is of limited value because wind patterns
change over complex terrain. So he's working with the Maui High-Performance
Computing Center to improve the model by plugging in gridded, three-dimensional
wind predictions that have a high resolution of one or two kilometers.
That allows the model to more accurately predict how a fire will burn
in the short term—say 24 hours—which greatly helps firefighters
plan their defenses or attacks.
The project looked promising, Finney says, but after a year's
funding, the money dried up, and no operational system has yet been
used in the field. That may be at least another five years away, he
says, depending on if and when another source of money becomes available.
Still, Finney remains optimistic. As supercomputers become faster and
more common, he anticipates that the National Weather Service will eventually
be able to routinely supply more precise wind data that will enable
wildfire forecasters to fine-tune their prognostications. And that could
spark a big advance in how we fight wildfires.
TROUBLE IN PARADISE
NEW ZEALAND—This South Pacific nation's universities are
increasingly worried about their ability to attract top administrators.
Proud of the high standards set by its education system, New Zealand
has supplied engineers, scientists, and other professionals to the United
States, Britain, and most often, neighboring Australia for years. With
education growing as an important New Zealand export industry, foreign
students represent a major source of revenue.
Of New Zealand's eight universities, two are seeking new vice-chancellors–a
position similar to that of a college president in the United States.
Two more universities are expected to launch searches in the next year
as incumbents retire. Vice chancellors at two universities—including
Massey University, which has an engineering school with an international
reputation—recently left for greener pastures in Australia. While
annual salary packages of around $119,000 are generous by local standards,
they look paltry compared with what administrators earn in the United
States or even in Australia, where New Zealand academics are highly
sought after. For example, the salary of John W. Shumaker, the University
of Tennessee's new president, is well over $700,000.
As homegrown candidates with the necessary expertise become hard to
find, New Zealand's schools have had to go headhunting offshore.
School officials believe that lifestyle factors—such as a peaceful
environment, low costs and high living standards, good school systems,
and leafy British-style campuses—are their strongest selling points.
They hope these factors will offset the higher pay that administrators
could earn elsewhere and point to the Cold War era when New Zealand's
peaceful image outweighed puny pay scales and enticed substantial numbers
of American academics to settle into jobs on campuses framed by scenic,
sheep-studded rolling hills.
TAKING OUT THE OUCH
Belonephobia–the fear of needles–and diabetes don't
mix. That's because many diabetics need a daily insulin injection
to protect against the ravages of the chronic disease–blindness,
amputation, organ failure, and death. But thanks to scientists at Penn
State, a matchbook-size device could replace insulin injections using
the power of ultrasound.
For years scientists have known that drugs could be pushed through
the skin using certain sound waves just out of the range of human hearing.
But the technique required unwieldy machines with 8-inch probes that
weigh about 2 pounds. Working with materials scientist Robert Newnham,
bioengineering professor Nadine Barrie Smith developed a prototype device
that does the same thing but weighs less than an ounce.
Smith replaced the heavy probe with an array of four dime-size cymbal
transducers that Newnham developed. A piece of piezoceramic material
sits within the tiny titanium cymbals. To deliver the insulin, the scientists
place a thin reservoir of the drug just in front of the cymbals. Then,
by applying an electric current, the cymbals produce ultrasonic waves
that silently and painlessly move the insulin through the skin and into
the bloodstream. Because the device is so small, it could be worn like
a patch on the body.
Experiments with human skin and rats have shown that it takes about
20 minutes of ultrasound exposure to deliver the right amount of insulin.
Smith and her team are currently trying to shorten that time to five
minutes or less.
The ultrasound technology also could be used to deliver other types
of medication. "I think this has an application in any area where
anything would have to be injected," Smith says. She sees potential
for the therapy to be used to deliver AIDS drugs, pain relievers, asthma
drugs, and hormones.
While she's seen good results from her patch so far, Smith doesn't
expect people to be using it for at least another five years. "We
think it has potential, but we also want to be careful," she says.
A FISH TALE WORTH TELLING
TOKYO—Environmental engineers have their hands full. From tropical
Okinawa to snowy Hokkaido, Japan's native flora and fauna are
being crowded out by exotic American invaders, in particular, the North
American largemouth black bass. White attempting to curtail the foreign
pests, the Japanese government has raised the ire of the country's
estimated five million sports fishermen.
Reputedly imported from California in 1925 by a Japanese banker to
indulge his sport-fishing hobby, the 22-pound black bass has become
Japan's kudzu. Comfortably ensconced in practically every body
of water in the country, the scaly invaders have snapped up the prime
piscine real estate, including the picturesque lake at the foot of Mt.
Fuji and the stately moat surrounding the Imperial Palace in downtown
The center of the fray is scenic Lake Biwa, Japan's largest
freshwater lake, located in the center of Japan's main island,
Honshu. With an ecosystem scientists have traced back 400,000 years,
the lake once brimmed with indigenous species such as carp and trout.
But Biwa is rapidly heading toward a real lack of piscine diversity.
A line cast there nine times out of ten will lure black bass or bluegill,
a second invasive species. This small but equally voracious fish is
believed to have come to Japan in 1960, a gift from the mayor of Chicago
to then crown prince Akihito. These gilled hooligans, which feed on
other fish voraciously and reproduce prolifically, frightened the Shiga
Prefectural Assembly–the Japanese governing body akin to our state
legislatures–into banning catch-and-release of exotic species
starting April, 2003. The move is expected to decimate sports fishing
tourism in the area.
Japan's fishermen say their beloved game fish is taking the
rap for problems not completely of its own making, namely declining
water quality and construction projects that have ruined habitat for
domestic fish. Anglers have called for setting up bass-safe zones, where
the aggressive fish could continue to be hauled in. But biologists and
officials at the Environment Ministry say quarantining the wily bass
is impossible and that retaining even a small number would be enough
to restore the fish's hegemony nationwide.
PLANTING A GREENER PLASTIC
Once upon a time, the soybean—an often integral part of a vegetarian
diet—had a very green image. But then along came genetically-modified
beans, and they ran afoul of some environmen-talists who don't
cotton to any sort of bioengineered foods. But a new use for the lowly
soybean could once again bolster its ecological bona fides. Urethane
Soy Systems Company (USSC), of Princeton, Ill., has developed a method
for making polyurethane—a widely-used plastic—out of soy.
Polyurethane's key ingredient is a polyol, derived from petroleum.
But USSC has devised a soy oil, it calls SoyOyl, that can replace polyols.
Currently, the process requires blending the SoyOyl with polyols. Depending
on the type of plastic being produced, the SoyOyl can replace as much
as 20 to 60 percent of the polyols. But within five years, polyurethanes
based entirely on SoyOyl will be feasible, says Tom Kurth, USSC president.
Ecological advantages are clear: Soybeans are a cheap, renewable resource,
and using less petroleum to manufacture ubiquitous plastics lessens
U.S. reliance on imported oil. Alas, Soy-based plastics are no more
biodegradable than oil-based ones. But, Kurth adds, they are potentially
easier to recycle, and the technology needed to commercially reclaim
soy plastics is perhaps no more than five years away.
Already manufacturers of heavy and farm equipment—including
John Deere, Case, and Caterpillar—are using the soybean polyurethanes
for such component parts as panels, hoods, and fenders. And Kurth says
the auto industry is a potentially big client, because it uses polyurethane
for everything from seats to fenders to dashboards to steering wheels.
Other possible applications include carpeting, bedding, foam insulation,
and shoe soles.
Competition may come from yet another cash crop: corn. Some manu-facturers
are making a polymer based on a modified enzyme that changes corn sugar
to lactic acid, which can be used to replicate all petroleum-based plastics.
Kurth applauds that tech-nology and admits it will one day prove useful.
But for now, he argues, his bean plastic is the cheaper product. And
that should make both manu-facturers and environmentalists oh soy happy.
TINY SPEAKERS, BIG SOUND
Forget about bookshelf speakers. How about flyspeck speakers—A
pair of engineers at England's University of Warwick has devised
a technology that will enable manufacturers to build speakers no more
than a centimeter wide yet that can fill a room with sound. Roger Green,
an electronics engineer and communications specialist, and David Hutchinson,
an ultrasound expert, have come up with a means of producing audible
sound from ultrasonic wavelengths. Since ultrasonic sounds are beyond
the human capacity for hearing, that's a pretty cool trick. And
trick is the right word because Green and Hutchinson's speakers
merely fool us into thinking we hear the sounds. They designed transducers
that synthesize ultrasonic sounds that our brains detect, but we are
not really hearing without our ears—we just think we are. If that
sounds, well, weird, one need only look to a TV set to be similarly
fooled. As Green explains, TV viewers perceive continuous moving images
in all colors. But cathode ray tubes can produce only three colors—blue,
red and green—and the images we "see" are densely
packed horizontal lines with pixels. Yet our brain and eyes are fooled
into thinking we see colors and movement that are not there.
Green sees all sorts of applications for his mighty-mite speakers,
from extremely small hi-fi systems to better-sounding laptops and cell
phones. The pair has started a company to commercialize the technology.
"Hearing" ultrasonic sound from supermini speakers has
other salubrious effects. Ultrasonic frequencies can't penetrate
walls, only bounce off them, so just two of the speakers give listeners
a surround-sound experience. That also means the sound can be isolated
to one room. So you'd never hear the thudding bass lines from
your kid's stereo upstairs or your neighbor's 3 a.m. party.
SMU TO GO HALF AND HALF
Engineering schools have not done a particularly good job of attracting
female students. Nationally, only 20 percent of undergraduate engineering
students are women, and women earn only 15.5 percent of engineering
doctoral degrees. Southern Methodist University in Dallas hopes to change
things. SMU's school of engineering has announced a five-year
plan to bring female student levels to 50 percent. The university already
does better than most schools: 30 percent of its nearly 500 undergraduate
and graduate engineering students are women.
Betsy Willis, director of student programs and outreach at SMU's
School of Engineering, says perhaps the biggest hurdle in recruiting
women is perception. The public image of what engineers do often comes
across as decidedly male and uncool, admits Willis, who holds a Ph.D.
in engineering. "They think it's all people in white coats
in labs working on widgets." Moreover, women tend to be more altruistic
then men, and it's often not clear to them that engineering is
more than just making things. A big part of the effort is a marketing
strategy to change these perceptions, Willis says. SMU wants to show
students that an engineering degree "prepares you for a whole
world of opportunities. Engineering teaches you critical thinking and
good analytical skills." Students can use these skills in many
ways, including food production, medicine, and patent law.
The effort will also use curriculum enhancements to show first-year
students how to quickly and practically apply the new skills they're
learning. This might include community-based efforts, like having students
design exhibits for local museums. The initiative also gives female
students support systems, professional development opportunities, and
the addition of new majors, such as engineering and the arts.
THE MUSIC MAN
- By Thomas K. Grose
It reads like the curriculum vitae of a 21st century Renaissance man.
George D. Stetten has an M.D. from SUNY-Syracuse, a Ph.D. in biomedical
engineering from Duke, a master's in neuroscience from New York
University, and an engineering degree from Harvard. He was involved
in the startup of MIT's Media Lab. And lately, he's getting
a lot of enthusiastic press for his "sonic flashlight,"
an ultrasound device that superimposes on the patient, in real time,
the internal image being scanned. But Stetten, 48, insists that his
"so-called career" is less than the sum of its parts, and
the variety of interesting jobs he's held and degrees he's
acquired resulted from indecision—he says he did not know what
he wanted to do.
False modesty? Perhaps, but Stetten says that music has really driven
and shaped his career. He calls it "an essential part of my life."
An accomplished musician—he sings, and plays the piano and guitar—music
has been the one constant in Stetten's life since his fingers
were first taught to dance over a piano keyboard 42 years ago. Now he's
recorded and produced a 10-track CD of his music, Asleep at the Wheel.
Stetten—whose musical influences include James Taylor, Joni
Mitchell, and Carol King—calls his music a "mix of folk,
rock, and jazz . . . thoughtful lyrics and humable tunes." An
apt description. His next goal is to sell a few thousand copies via
cdbaby.com, an online retailer of independent labels. That may take
awhile. As of press time, he's sold only 10 copies. But Stetten
calls his goal achievable, because the Internet can help talented unknowns
find a fan base outside the mega-marketing machines of the major labels.
He cheerfully admits to "piggybacking" his CD marketing
onto the publicity generated by his sonic flashlight. "I am not
allowed to, and would not want to, shamelessly sell the sonic flashlight.
But, if I can get somebody to listen to my music in the meantime, that's
great," says Stetten, whose soft-spoken demeanor belies a sharp
sense of humor.
Stetten says academia wrongly snubs pop music. The engineering that
goes into making music, from the instruments to the recording techniques,
"is very advanced, and it's something that should be taught
at universities." Not only would many students be interested,
he insists, but there's a huge market for those skills.
Although he studied classical piano for 12 years, Stetten preferred
pop music, partly because it offered more social interaction. "You
couldn't exactly sit down at a party, start playing Beethoven
and get a girlfriend." Tinkering with microphones and sound systems
while playing in rock bands generated his interest in electrical engineering.
After Harvard, he spent a year studying at the New England Conservatory
of Music. In the late ‘70s, Stetten was in Cambridge, Mass., working
at the MIT Music Lab—which eventually morphed into the Media Lab.
There he helped develop a touch-sensitive keyboard that just missed
getting a patent. Next stop was Woods Hole, Mass., where he played guitar
at a local coffee shop. That's where he met Jim Atkins—an
engineer who was involved with the Deep Submersible Alvin, a tiny, three-person
research submarine. Stetten developed the sub's first onboard
computer system. Next, he enrolled at NYU, and while getting his master's,
got involved in the fledgling field of biomedical engineering. "That's
when I realized I could do engineering and have a lot of fun with it."
Stetten eventually followed in his father's footsteps and got
an M.D. His first prognosis: "That I was clearly not a doctor."
He hated blood and making life-and-death decisions. So he focused on
biomedical engineering and got his doctorate from Duke. And still, the
music muse beckoned. He produced a CD, The Voices of D.U.M.E., that
featured songs by Duke students and faculty— including himself.
The album sold a few hundred copies at the campus bookstore. Today,
he specializes in visualization—putting images from scanning devices
on screens—and image analysis—getting computers to analyze
those shapes. He's an assistant professor of bioengineering at
the University of Pittsburgh and a research scientist at Carnegie Mellon
University. For one of his courses, he had students inventing new musical
instruments. One student's novel idea: a "grimace guitar"
whose sounds are shaped by the way the player scrunches his face.
Stetten clearly enjoys his work. Nevertheless, he hopes music provides
a career coda. "I want to retire on my songs. My dream is to go
to the mail box and pick up my royalty checks." But, he adds wryly,
"In the meantime, I'll keep my day job."
Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer based in Washington,
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.