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Glacial Lakes, Bhutan

Hole in the Roof

The Himalayan glaciers have become Exhibit A among skeptics of global warming. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change apologized for stating, based on miscommunication and/or faulty research, that the glaciers could melt completely by 2035 – the fastest rate on earth. That warning was mentioned in the January Prism. The IPCC's mistake came on the heels of hacked emails that critics said exposed bias in the ranks of climate scientists. But whether the ice disappears in 300 years and not 15, its retreat will affect millions – and their descendants – who rely on nine major river systems fed by seasonal ice and snow melt from the mountains. The latest anecdotal evidence of warmer Himalayan temperatures comes with wings: Climbers are complaining about house flies at base camps on Mount Everest, once too frigid for the insects' survival.

Agribot and tomato plant

Here a 'Bot, There a 'Bot

Ever since Virginia inventor Cyrus McCormick perfected the mechanical reaper in the 1830s, engineers have sought ways to grow more food using fewer people. Now, they're close to taking Old MacDonald off the farm altogether. Meet the agribot, already in use harvesting hard-to-pick edibles. Not only can it work all day without a break, but it has data-gathering potential through the use of satellite positioning, vision systems, and humidity measurements that could detect disease. In Japan, the Economist reports, Miyazaki and Kyoto universities are working on strawberry-picker agribots, and Japan's National Agricultural Research Center has developed a robotic rice planter. At MIT, researchers are tackling the whole growing cycle: They're raising cherry tomatoes in an experimental greenhouse, where a series of robots and sensors are entirely responsible for the growing, care, and harvesting of the plants. Right now, robots are a big investment, but in California, they're already proving cost-effective in harvesting raisins. Ee-i-ee-i-oh! - JAIMIE SCHOCK

Ocean Waves
Swell Machine

Knowledge of fluid dynamics is critical for keeping airplanes aloft. Aerospace engineers at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado are applying the same principles and technologies that let pilots control planes to capturing the enormous power of ocean waves. The oceans are literally a sea of energy, but harsh marine environments wreak havoc on the needed equipment. Until now, wave energy devices have had to be anchored to the seabed, and few have proved very efficient. Air Force researchers developed a technology that relies, as with airplanes, on lift, not drag. A hydrofoil is built into a cycloidal propeller, or turbine, that's vertically positioned so it moves with the up-and-down motion of a wave. The blades flatten the wave, working as a storm-wave breaker, and increase the amount of energy that can be captured. Because the device is float-mounted, it does not need to be tethered to the ocean floor. - THOMAS K. GROSE

How Cool Is This?

Research has long shown that cooling down the brains of some stroke, heart-attack, and aneurysm victims can improve their chances of recovery. Now DARPA, the Pentagon unit that funds boundary-pushing science, wants researchers to develop a portable brain-cooling device. DARPA reckons it might help soldiers who survive bomb blasts avoid traumatic brain injuries, which often result from the brain being distorted by the supersonic wave of high-pressure air released by an explosion. The problems that can cause such injuries begin about 90 minutes after the blast, but the symptoms often take weeks or months to develop. DARPA hopes that using cryogenic technology to chill the brain immediately after it has been rattled can improve survival rates and make full recoveries more likely. It won't be easy: Too much cortical cooling can make trauma worse, and getting the temperature right is complicated by the fact that everyone's brain is different. So DARPA's also asking for prototypes that have "temperature-calibration technology." - TG

Rendering of a prototype solar-collector rotating earth

Heaven Sent

Here's one power plant that shouldn't generate a NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) reaction. California regulators have endorsed a plan to put solar cells on a satellite and send the collected electricity back to an earthly grid. Solaren Corp. says the 200-megawatt orbiting solar farm will beam the harvested electricity as radio waves to a collection plant near Fresno, which will reconvert it to electricity. It has a 15-year contract to sell 1,700 gigawatts of electricity a year - enough to power 250,000 homes - to Pacific Gas & Electric starting in 2016. Conceptually, it sounds ideal. A satellite in a geosynchronous orbit can collect solar energy nearly 24/7 since there are no clouds up there and it's never night. To bring down costs, Solaren is keeping things lightweight to reduce the need for numerous rocket launches. For instance, it has designed inflatable mylar mirrors - the largest a kilometer in diameter - to collect and concentrate the sunbeams onto the photovoltaic cells. PG&E says the agreed (and undisclosed) price it will pay for the electrons is competitive, though Solaren admits the space plant will cost billions of dollars more than an equivalent-sized land-based plant. Actually, there may be a race to build orbiting solar plants. Japan is going ahead with plans to launch one, too. - TG

laptop with stethescope on the keyboard
Healthy Connection

Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University may be a top tech school, but some nearby neighborhoods are extremely poor. Chronic medical problems like obesity and diabetes are endemic, as are poor education, joblessness, and crime. Moreover, two thirds of the homes don't have an Internet connection. Lev Gonick, vice president for information technology services at Case Western, suspects being connected can improve health and living standards. He's launched an 18-month research project to find out.

Early this year, the school plans to turn 104 residences into "smart homes" via a super-high-speed network that's 1,000 times faster than the average high-speed Internet connection. Residents will be able to have video conferences with their healthcare providers, and data from heath-monitoring tools will be sent directly to their doctors. The networks will supply video surveillance, measure energy consumption, offer tips to cut costs, and provide children with access to educational resources. Can such tools really improve lives? Gonick's hypothesis is an emphatic yes. -TG

Petri Dish

Chew on This

Ready for a sizzling steak, fresh from the test tube? Or a pork chop from a petri dish? You may have to wait a bit for such delicacies, but scientists say that some types of lab-produced meat could be on the menu within five years. Recently, researchers in the Netherlands grew a small amount of pork from harvested pig cells. While steaks and chops are probably 30 years away, they predict they'll soon develop a form of lab-grown pork that could be processed for sausages. Why bother? Supporters say meat made without animals has many advantages: fewer animals slaughtered, no more food-borne illnesses like mad cow disease, and less harm to the environment. Livestock use 30 percent of the world's land and produce 18 percent of greenhouse gases. Animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has pledged $1 million to the first scientist to develop an edible meat in the lab.

The bioengineering required to make "invitro meat" is an offshoot of the technologies being developed to grow tissue from stem cells for medical transplants - so, in all likelihood, it's doable. Nevertheless, huge regulatory hurdles would have to be vaulted before it's commercialized. Moreover, persuading consumers to eat lab-grown meat presents a marketing problem tougher than stew beef. - TG

The Physics of Cancer

What are the physical processes that cancer cells use to grow and spread? A new center within the Johns Hopkins University’s Institute for NanoBioTechnology aims to find out. Funded with a $14.8 million, five-year grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the new Engineering in Oncology Center will use the physical sciences to get a better grasp of cancer metastasis. “Physical scientists think in terms of time, space, pressure, heat, and evolution in ways we hope will lead to new understandings of the multitude of forces that govern cancer,” explains John E. Niederhuber, NCI director. “And with that understanding, we hope to develop new and innovative methods for arresting tumor growth.” The center’s director is Denis Wirtz, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Johns Hopkins. Researchers from four other schools – the Universities of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Florida, and Connecticut, and Washington University in St. Louis – are also involved. The Johns Hopkins center is one of 12 that the NCI is launching to foster nontraditional approaches to cancer research. – TG

Awesome or CWOT?

iPhone showcasing Purdue app

Anyone who has ever delivered or attended a lecture for 100 or more students knows it’s not the greatest form of communication. And these days, it’s likely that a fair number of students will be fiddling around with their laptops or cellphones instead of paying attention. But is there a way to make those devices teaching tools instead of distractions? Purdue University thinks so. Technicians there have developed Hotseat, an application that uses social networking technology to make lecture-hall sessions more engaging. Students can use popular soc-net sites like Facebook and Twitter to access Hotseat; those without laptops can connect with their mobiles. Either way, they can post messages relating to the lecture. For instance, a teacher can give part of a lecture, then pause to read the comments on a computer so that he or she can address student concerns. Rather than learn later that a lecture has been a CWOT (complete waste of time) the instructor can ask if students understand the material. In three pilot courses last fall, students and faculty found the app useful. Still, Kyle Bowen, Purdue’s director of informatics, admits some faculty will balk at using it. “This is for the professor who is open to receiving feedback about his or her course.” – TG

Toby Gerhart int he middle of a football play
Touchdown Toby

Stanford University senior Toby Gerhart is proof that engineers really can do it all – with enough talent and grit. This year the star running back and Management Science and Engineering major was the runner-up for the Heisman trophy – the most prestigious award in college football. When not studying – he takes the maximum course load and maintains a better-than-B average – or rushing over 1,000 yards a season, Gerhart plays as a starting outfielder for the university’s baseball team. His secret? “It’s definitely all about time management,” the San Francisco Chronicle quotes him as saying. “You have to get up, go to class, work out, go to practice, study. Just long, long days.” Although his football record will most likely land him a top spot in the 2010 NFL draft, he has the option of staying at Stanford another year. No matter where his career takes him, there’s no stopping this powerhouse. – Alison Buki

The Price Is Right

Many of India’s large and talented cadre of engineers have begun concentrating their skills on designing products specifically aimed at the developing country’s vast poor population. These are not cheap knockoffs of costly Western products, but items engineered from scratch to be sold in volume at very low prices. According to the Wall Street Journal, they include a $23 wood-burning stove that generates much heat but little smoke, a $70 refrigerator that can handle power surges and run on batteries, and heart monitors and baby warmers that cost $1,000 instead of $10,000. That India’s poor constitute an untapped market ready to buy became evident with surging sales of inexpensive cellphones and the recent success of Tata Motors’ $2,200 car, the Nano. Large companies have typically snubbed this market because profit margins are thin and distribution is difficult. But pioneering companies, large and small, say massive volumes can overcome slender margins. They’re finding new ways to distribute goods using local self-help groups and microlenders – a blueprint they think will also work in other poor countries. – TG

“Most students leave college because they are working to support themselves and going to school at the same time.”

- Conclusion based on a survey of more than 600 young adults.

SOURCE: With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them, a study by the nonprofit organization Public Agenda, paid for by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.



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