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INFORMATION BLACKOUT

The House Hearings on the August blackout that plunged the northeast into darkness highlighted Congress's need for unbiased analysis and interpretation of technical data. Testimony from power company technicians and engineers was often contradictory and always esoteric. And the blackout is a relatively small issue. Global warming, Internet security, and airline safety promise to bring hordes of experts and lobbyists to Congress for years to come.

“Everybody and his brother has a proposal to deal with these issues,” M. Granger Morgan says. Morgan, head of the department of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, adds that congressional members and their staffs have neither the time nor technical expertise to analyze these proposals effectively.

Morgan, who has written extensively on the topic, recently co-edited and contributed to a book on the issue of providing Congress with unbiased technical analysis. Entitled Science and Technology Advice for Congress, the book was given out to all members of Congress.

The problem, Morgan says, is twofold: The issues facing Congress are becoming increasingly complex, and members, most of whom have non-technical backgrounds, have few resources to sort through the flood of information. The solution, he says, involves, among other things, a bipartisan analysis agency serving Congress. “I'm advocating the creation of an institution that could provide the same service as the old OTA [Office of Technology Assessment],” Morgan says. The OTA was a congressional agency that provided consultation on technical issues for 23 years before mid-'90s cost-cutting measures killed it. Morgan says this new agency should work more rapidly than OTA did, better acknowledge the minority party viewpoint, and utilize interactive Web-based technology. The ultimate goal, Morgan says, is to “raise the minimum standard of debate within Congress so everyone can participate.”

GETTING IT RIPE

Next time you're sipping on a particularly good glass of wine, give a bit of thanks to soil moisture. The best grapes are grown in earth that has the right amount of water. Too much water tends to encourage leaf growth in vines, and berry ripening suffers. Too little and the vines wither and die. So grape-growers are careful in irrigating their crops. Technologies currently used for monitoring soil moisture are expensive and not very exact. Now researchers led by the University of California-Berkeley have devised a much more precise technology using GPR, ground penetrating radar. The device, which has two antennas, is dragged between rows of vines. One antenna shoots a radar beam into the ground, the other retrieves the signal after it's gone through several layers of soil. The time between the transmitted and reflected signals can be used to determine moisture levels, says Yoram Rubin, the Berkeley professor of civil and environmental engineering who is the chief investigator. “The instrument is off-the-shelf,” he says. It's the same sort of machine used to find metals, like munitions or pipes, in the ground. “We've added an interpretive algorithm.” Typically, a plot within a vineyard is watered uniformly. But more precise moisture monitoring will require irrigation systems that can water with pinpoint accuracy, Rubin says. The technology can also be used to help vineyards space their vines and to locate ideal areas for planting vines. The result should be more and better wines. We'll drink to that.

RIDE 'EM ENGINEER

When University of Alabama sophomore Brian Wheat graduates with a degree in civil and environmental engineering, he ultimately wants to work on large construction sites: buildings, bridges, or roads. That should be a well-paying career. In the meantime, he's earning a pretty good living on weekends as a professional bull rider in rodeos throughout the southeast. Wheat, 21, says he's earned enough as a bull rider to so far pay for three full years of tuition. He's a member of the Southern Pro Bull Riders Association.
Wheat was a 17-year-old high school student when a buddy talked him into trying it at a practice area. He was a latecomer. Many riders start when they're 12 or 13. “But I picked it up really quick. I was a natural at it,” he says. Indeed, Wheat was once one of the top four high school riders in the state. Bull riders need to remain on the back of a bucking, snorting bull for 8 seconds, and are then awarded points. Wheat's best ride so far garnered 89 out of a possible 100 points. It's a dangerous sport, however. He's suffered a dislocated shoulder, and in fall 2001 his face was sliced open when it scraped across a bull's horn. That injury required major reconstructive surgery. But, Wheat says, he wasn't scared to start riding again, though he now wears a protective helmet. This year, he says, his injuries have been few: “Only three broken toes.”

JET WITHOUT WINGS

There is fast, and then there is fast—like a car that travels faster than a passenger jet. That's what the designers of the North American Eagle are aiming to achieve in late 2004 or early 2005. A joint U.S.-Canadian entry, the $10 million project will attempt to reach a speed of 800 miles per hour, eclipsing the land speed record of 763 miles per hour—Mach 1.02—set in 1997. High speed requires high power, and the Eagle's engine packs a whopping 39,000 horsepower, gulping 10 gallons of jet fuel every second. The engine is actually a J-79 General Electric engine that once powered an F-4 Phantom jet, stripped down and completely refurbished by S&S Turbine Services Ltd. of Fort St. John, British Columbia. Company owner Robin Sipe has rebuilt more than 30 J-79 engines for projects like natural gas compression and electrical generators. He points out that British Petroleum uses the same engines on the North Slope in Alaska to pump sea water into oil wells to force out the oil.

Sipe buys his engines from the Davis-Montham air base in Tucson, a huge graveyard for old military planes. Prices for engines from the defunct planes range from $800 to several hundred thousand dollars. Compare that to the price of a new
J-79 engine—$4.5 million—and you have a pretty good deal. Sipe admits he spent two months working on the engine, stripping it down to nuts and bolts and recoating all critical parts with a ceramic thermal covering that allows the engine to operate at higher temperatures. The refitting increases the engine's power from 17,800 pounds thrust to 20,000 pounds. It all adds up to a car, doesn't it? Or is it a plane?

MEDALS OF HONOR

Leo L Beranek, a retired engineer and an authority on acoustics, was one of eight leading scientists and engineers to receive a 2002 National Medal of Science. The awards were presented by President George Bush in a White House ceremony last October. The award honors top researchers who have accomplished ground-breaking achievements in science and engineering. The 2002 honorees are: Engineering: Baranek, who designed new communications and noise reduction systems for World War II aircraft. Moreover, his 1962 book, Music Acoustics and Architecture, has long been considered the field's definitive text. Chemistry: John I. Brauman, Stanford University; Biology: James E. Darnell, Rockefeller University; Mathematics: James G. Flimm, Stony Brook University; Physical Sciences: W. Jason Morgan, Princeton University.

The National Medal of Techology laureates were also honored. They are: Calvin H. Carter Jr., of Cree Inc.; Haren S. Gandhi, Ford Motor Co.; Carver A. Meand, California Institute of Technology; John J. Mooney and Carl D. Keith, Engelhard Corp; Nick Holonyak Jr., University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; M. George Craford, LumiLeds Lighting; and Russell Dean Dupuis, Georgia Tech; and DuPont.

http://www.nationalmedals.org

SOUPED UP SUPERCOMPUTER

BUILDING ONE OF the world's fastest supercomputers using readily available components, and on a budget of $5.2 million, is an amazing achievement. But doing it within a three-week period is nothing short of phenomenal. Yet faculty and students at Virginia Tech's school of engineering accomplished both feats late last year. Using 1,100, 64-bit Apple Macintosh computers, the team's cobbled-together cluster was certified as reaching a speed of 10.28 teraflops (one teraflop equals a trillion operations a second), a velocity surpassed by only two other supercomputers. “It's also the first academic computer to break through the 10 teraflop barrier,” says Hassan Aref, the school's dean. The school approached Apple last June, shortly after the company introduced a new desktop, the G5 Power Mac. Apples don't come cheap, but the company gives academic purchasers a discount, and that made them affordable. The Virginia Tech cluster uses Apple's Mac OS X operating system; most supercomputers run on Linux or Unix systems.

The low-cost triumph is sure to shake things up in the land of ultra-speedy computing. Most supercomputers take years to manufacture and cost between $100 million to $250 million. Even other cluster machines tend to cost much more. The one at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, which has a speed of 7.63 teraflops, cost an estimated $10 million to $15 million to construct. Virginia Tech's group worked long hours to get the job done quickly. Student volunteers were fueled by free pizza. The job would have been completed even more rapidly if the sun hadn't interfered. Eighteen of the Macs were temporarily knocked out when a geomagnetic storm caused by a massive solar flare bombarded Earth last October.

EXCUSE ME, BUT YOU NEED NEW UNDERWEAR

AUSTRALIA—Freedom versus privacy? An engineer's analysis suggests that when it comes to cell phones there's a trade-off between the two. Rodney Kennedy, head of telecommunications engineering at the Australian National University's research school of information sciences and engineering, has been looking into just how minute these devices may eventually become. The professor says, “If we continue the trend of better, faster, cheaper, smaller, we can assume cellular telephones will soon be as powerful as today's desktop computers but require so little power that the battery will never need recharging. “

But all this comes at a price. A situation he raised in a recent paper: You attempt to enter a store but it denies you access because it has detected through your cell phone that you're a credit risk. Or you're walking past a department store and your cell phone rings. It's the store offering you discounted underwear because it knows your raggedy pair is ready for the trash. They discovered its shabby state from a message sent by a tiny RF-ID (radio frequency identification) chip sewn into the seam of your undergarment alerting the store to its history.

Soon, we'll be tracked by what we are wearing, eating, and carrying. There are many challenges looming to ensure privacy is respected, Kennedy says, adding that researchers will be increasingly focusing on these issues.

TRYING TO FORGET J. LO

THE FILM THAT Hollywood hunk Ben Affleck is hoping will reignite his career has the actor playing . . . an engineer. An electrical engineer, to be precise. In Paycheck, his character, Jennings, is a “reverse-engineer,” which means he's hired by companies to take apart the technologies of rivals to see how they work. After he completes one job, the last two years of his memory are erased. He awakens one morning confused and under investigation by the police. His love interest is played by Uma Thurman. Yep, sounds like a typical day in the life of a typical engineer. Affleck probably wouldn't mind having his last film wiped from the movie-going public's collective memory. He'd probably like to forget it himself. Gigli, which he made with on-again/off-again fiancé Jennifer Lopez, is considered one of the biggest critical and commercial flops of all time. And another film, Jersey Girl, which was supposed to follow Gigli into theaters—and also co-stars J. Lo—had its release placed on hold. Indeed, Affleck is lately noted more for his romancing of Lopez than for delivering hit movies. So he could use a career boost. And perhaps his turn as an engineer will do the trick. If Paycheck scores big, who knows? Maybe it'll have producers looking to bring more stories about engineers to the silver screen. Then again, Revenge of the Nerds has already been done.

SPOTTING A TUMOR BEFORE IT'S A TUMOR

The earlier a disease can be spotted, usually the greater chance it can be treated. Now a multidisciplinary team of researchers at London's Imperial College—whose ranks include engineers, physicists, and physicians—are working on a technique that employs superfast lasers to diagnose disease “before it happens.” Once it's perfected, the Fluoresence-Lifetime Imaging (FLIM) technology would spot molecular changes in cells that are a precursor to disease. An incredibly short pulse of laser light lasting a picosecond, a billionth of a second, is blasted at a bit of tissue. Molecules absorb that light and, a picosecond later, respond by emitting a short-lived fluorescence at a different wavelength. How long each molecule's fluorescence lasts may yield information about the health of that tissue. According to Paul M.W. French, team leader and professor of physics, molecules in unhealthy tissue may fluoresce differently from those in healthy tissue, and FLIM may be able to pick up those differences. Researchers, however, are still trying to establish how long the flash of molecular light should last when it's emitted by normal tissue cells. Once that's known, anomalies in fluorescence length may indicate unhealthy tissues, or molecular changes that could lead to disease. The molecular fluorescence can be visualized as a color display. “In a sense,” French says, “it means time is color.” FLIM could one day do away with the need to take biopsies and treat tissue samples with dye solutions for testing in a lab. The researchers are still determining which diseases may be most easily diagnosed with FLIM.

Currently they're looking at arthritis and atherosclerotic plaque, as well as cancer. Researchers envision miniaturizing the device so it can be used in operating theaters for on-the-spot diagnosis of tissue health. It could, for instance, be mounted on a conventional endoscope. Indeed, such a device may be ready for clinical trials within a year.

 
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