March Prism - 2002
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Train Tracks, Survival Skills, Golfing Buddy


Searching for the Best

SYDNEY, Australia—It has become common practice for Web users to hiss at their computer screens in frustration when a search engine suggests yet another useless option. But Australian IT researcher David Hawking has done more than growl at his computer. The scientist at the Australian Commonwealth Industrial and Scientific Research Organization's electronic content technologies group has come up with a ranking of sorts for the best search engines.

“Some search engines are very good at finding lots of ‘hits' for a query but then fall down in how they rank the results,” he says. “The most relevant sites are often too far down the list to be noticed.”

He began by evaluating how good various engines are at putting relevant material on the first page. By repeatedly setting the same tasks at the same time for major search engines, he found that the best at producing relevant and highly-ranked lists were Google (, Fast (, and Northern Light ( “The differences between these top three were not statistically significant, so we have not put them in any order,” he reveals.

Hawking notes that people commonly use search engines to hunt for specific information or look for particular services. “If you want to order flowers online, you don't want a whole lot of ‘how to' articles about running an online flower shop,” he points out. The three top-ranking search engines performed best in both categories.

However, he adds, people also use search engines to find the home pages of particular organizations or companies. In this case, the leading performers were Fast, Google, and Microsoft (, and again there was no statistically significant difference between them.

“Ranking ability is particularly relevant in this type of query,” he says. “Some search engines can find the right page—but don't rank it highly enough. Finding home pages clearly requires specialized techniques, and not all engines have successfully implemented these.”

Overall, Hawking's top 10 in order of usefulness are as follows: Google, Northern Light, Fast, Lycos (, DirectHit (, Go (, MetaCrawler (www., Excite (, AltaVista (, and Microsoft. They all did a reasonable job of searching, but most could improve their levels of accuracy rather than serving up too many unwanted options.

“It's important to remember that search engine operators are making improvements all the time,” he adds. The sites change rapidly, and he is consequently considering “regular evaluations of the major search engines as a service to Internet users and to encourage improvements across the industry.”

The Earth Revolves Around What?

A headline reading, “American Adults Have No Grasp of Science” is about as newsworthy as “Dog Bites Man.” It's a situation that's long been depressingly obvious. Yet just how little knowledge of elementary school science Americans have was underscored by a recent National Science Foundation survey. Twelve thousand men and women were asked 10 questions requiring only a very basic understanding of science. Men averaged just 7.4 correct answers, women only 6.2. That's pretty disheartening given how easy the questions were. Most alarming: only 84 percent of men and 68 percent of women knew that the Earth revolves around the sun, not vice versa. A question about lasers tripped up the most women, with only 30 percent knowing that they don't use sound waves (64 percent of men got it right). Men were most stumped by a question about antibiotics: Only 47 percent knew they don't fight viruses (53 percent of women got it right). The question that nearly everyone answered correctly? Ninety-four percent of both sexes knew that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer.

Jon Miller, a professor of cell and molecular biology at Northwestern University who oversaw the study, says that years of surveying adults has left him nearly surprise-proof, yet “always disappointed.” And it seems clear that American schools must take the rap. Miller says one problem is that “we portray science as very difficult and then make it largely elective in secondary school,” and only honors students or those seeking admission to competitive universities take challenging math and science courses. “You cannot teach math and science by osmosis, that is, being in the same building where it is taught,” he adds.
As for the gender gap, Miller says it's rapidly disappearing. Historically, male students took more science and math than did females, but that's changing. If current college attendance patterns hold, “within the next 20 years, a higher proportion of women will be scientifically literate than men,” Miller forecasts. There is one bright note. As dumb as American adults are when it comes to science, their peers in Western Europe and Japan are dumber. Miller says this reflects the fact that the U.S. is the only educationally advanced country whose universities require every humanities, social science, business, and education student to take at least a year of college-level science courses. “I think that these results demonstrate that U.S. students can learn science when they are required to do so, and when it is taught moderately well.” Trouble is, policy makers are about as likely to set such requirements as the sun is to orbit the Earth.

A Secret Formula for Making Tracks

When ice and snow hit, roads become dangerous and airline delays and cancellations are inevitable. But winter weather can also wreak havoc for train operators. Frozen or snow-covered rails pose as much of a risk as do icy streets. But a Canton, Ohio, company has commercialized a NASA-developed technology that should help rail operators skate a bit more easily through winter. Midwest Industrial Supply, which bought the license from NASA, is marketing several products that keep ice and snow from building up on railways. Applied ahead of time, the anti-icing fluid can prevent ice from forming, and it also can melt ice and snow that already exists. Moreover, it's an environmentally friendly, noncorrosive product that, unlike rock salt, won't damage metals or reinforced concrete. NASA's Ames Research Center in California created the anti-icer last decade for use on aircraft. The liquid can be poured, sprayed, or brushed on. Bob Vitale, Midwest president, says demand for the product has been excellent because it solves many problems for rail operators.

And unlike rock salt, which loses its effectiveness at 20 degrees, the liquid can work at temperatures as low as minus 70 degrees. How long-lasting each application is depends on the weather. Tracks in areas that receive a lot of wet, sloppy snow will need more applications than those in areas that are mostly frigid but drier. Potentially, products to treat road surfaces and bridges could be formulated as well. But Vitale quips that it's hard to say when that could happen. Cost is an issue. Also, the thin sheet of film that the liquid creates can be somewhat slippery, too. So what's in this miracle liquid? It's a secret formula that Vitale wants to keep on ice for as long as possible.

Cold Fusion Gets Warm Reception in Japan

Remember cold fusion? The “miracle” formula discovered at the University of Utah that turned out to be no miracle at all? But if you thought cold fusion went the way of spontaneous generation and alchemy, rest assured a dwindling but undaunted coterie of scientists is keeping the dream alive. Last October at Japan's Yokohama National University, a few dozen members of the Japan CF-Research Society convened to compare notes on, for instance, “neutral pion- catalysed fusion” and “nuclear transmutation by light water electrolysis with a palladium cathode.” The CF society, bearing a name that stands for condensed-matter fusion and coherently-induced fusion as well as cold fusion, was founded in March 1999 to reignite interest in a field rapidly losing luster in the wake of waning interest and funding by the national government. Today's investment in Japan for cold fusion experiments, says Eiichi Yamaguchi, a founder and director of the society, “is negligible,” with research concentrated largely in Hokkaido, Osaka, and Iwate universities, where general budgets are tweaked to scare up spare change for continued experiments, according to Yamaguchi.

The “discovery” of cold fusion, with its promise of infinite, cheap energy by Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischman in 1989 must have tantalized the Japanese like no one else. Bereft of natural resources, Japan is totally reliant on imports for fossil fuel supplies, an unpleasant fact that is drummed into every schoolchild and has been a constant source of anxiety. The oil shocks of the '70s still loom large in the national subconscious, and Japan's resulting headlong rush into nuclear power has left it vulnerable to some scary mishaps, most recently the deadly release of radiation in the rural town of Tokaimura, in September 1999, which killed several workers and sickened dozens more.

“If I could get some space to do research,” mourns physicist Yamaguchi, “I have confidence of success.” That isn't likely to happen soon, but never mind. Japan's devoted core of cold fusion believers is pressing on, preparing for the next international conference set for May in Beijing.

Taking the Sweat Out of Golf

In golf, to paraphrase jazz great Duke Ellington, it don't mean a thing if you ain't got that swing. So legions of devotees routinely spend hours at driving ranges practicing their strokes. Trouble is, all that bending over placing ball after ball on a tee can strain your back and hamper your driving ability. To the rescue comes Li'l Golfing Buddy, a prototype robot designed by University of Florida senior Jonathan Gamoneda, who is majoring in electrical and computer engineering. The robot scuttles about on rubber wheels, has infrared senors to spot the tee, and uses a mechanical arm to place a ball on it. Gamoneda, 21, admits he first wanted the “Buddy” to hold a whole bucket of balls, but time and money forced a scaling back of plans. Still, he insists, “it's easier to load the Li'l Golfing Buddy than place a ball on a the tee.” Response has been positive, so Gamoneda harbors hopes of improving the design—perhaps adding a voice activation application—and commercializing it. “It's still a work in progress,” he says. Meanwhile, fellow Florida student and computer engineering major Kahlil Khan created RoboWoods, a shoebox-sized bot with infrared sensors and a putter head. The sensors pinpoint the ball and hole so that the putter head can sink the ball. Of course, RoboWoods would be illegal in a real game. But, says Khan, “you could use it to play a game of one-on-one, you versus RoboWoods, to see who is the better putter,” thus making it a device to help duffers practice their putting. Which is also useful, given another golfing truism: The swing don't mean a thing if you can't putt.

Lucky Break for Bone Fracture Patients

Fortunately for anyone who has ever broken one, bones can be reconnected because the tissue regenerates itself. But it can be a slow process, particularly for the patient. Now researchers at Northwestern University have designed molecules that could revolutionize bone repair. They've developed self-assembling, synthetic nanofibers that mimic the structural makeup of bone—particularly collagen, bone's building block. When these nanofibers form, they produce a gel that hardens and acts like a scaffold to which natural bone cells will attach themselves and grow. The gel, says Samuel Stupp, professor of materials science, chemistry, and medicine who oversaw the study, “allows the bone to regenerate more rapidly.” The gel may be particularly useful, he adds, in cases where bones are shattered, negating the need to use metal pins or plates to re-fuse them. Moreover, the molecules can be customized to work with any number of tissue cells, including muscles, skin, and cartilage. “They will also allow nerve cells to reconnect,” Stupp says. The process could prove useful in developing new composite materials for electronics, photomics, and magnetics, as well. Stupp says the team behind the molecules expects to commercialize the nanofibers, which means a product could be marketed within five years.

Pong Makes It Big

There's really no way to improve upon or update that most classic (and basic) of computer games, Pong, so a group of German computer whizzes has instead made it big. Really big. To celebrate its 20th anniversary, the Chaos Computer Club (CCC), which calls itself an organization of ethical hackers, designed and built a giant, interactive display screen on the side of a famous Berlin office building, the Haus des Lehrers on Alexanderplatz. The 8-story screen—dubbed Blinkenlights—is composed of 144 lamps behind white-painted windows, forming a monochrome matrix that's eight pixels high and 18 pixels wide. Each lamp is computer-controlled, and about three miles of wiring were needed to make all the connections. Passersby can use their cell phones to dial the Blinkenlights computer to control one of the Pong paddles. Players can either challenge a friend or play against the building. When no one is playing Pong, the screen displays digital animations, or “movies.” People are invited to go to the Web site ( where they can use tools that will let them easily edit and create their own movies for the superscreen. One group of images told the Nativity story at Christmastime. Those who are curious but don't live in Berlin can see Blinkenlights by visiting the site's Webcam ( The CCC regrets that the Webcam can only show stills, which change every 30 seconds, instead of streaming video, but, adds, “at least it works.”

Book Review

The Cast of Characters: Engineers
The Aftermath: A Novel of Survival by Samuel C. Florman. St. Martin's Press. 320 pp. $25.00.

It's probably a left brain, right brain thing. Now, we're generalizing here, but let's face it, most literary types find engineering a topic more dismal than economics and panic at the sight of a slide rule. At the same time, many engineers are probably more interested in how a novel is bound or the chemical makeup of its ink than what it says. So that makes Samuel C. Florman a rarity. He's a civil engineer and co-founder of a large New York construction company who also has a master's degree in literature from Columbia University. For more than 20 years, Florman has been an author of books and articles that try to explain the joys and wonders of engineering to a lay audience. “I've been trying to persuade the public that engineering is not dry and abstract,” he explains, while simultaneously working to convince his brethren that they need to “write and talk coherently.” Now Florman has moved beyond essays to fiction with his first novel, “The Aftermath.”

It's an end-of-the-world opus with an atypical premise: A core group of some of the world's top engineers are among the handful of survivors thrust back into a Stone Age world. A mammoth comet smashes into the Pacific Ocean off the California coast on Christmas Day 2010, and most of the world is decimated in the ensuing firestorm. But there is a safety zone around the bottom of South Africa. And in those waters is a cruise ship hosting a stellar group of 600 engineers and their families. To give the engineers a fighting chance, Florman selected South Africa as the site of the brave, new world because it has abundant natural resources. He also gave them a nascent workforce: Inland, a settlement of 25,000 residents has also been spared. The book mainly deals with how the engineers devise ways to not only survive but eventually reestablish the 21st century's technical world.

The aftermath of Florman's foray into fiction is his “renewed respect for people who write. I thought it would be a breeze, but writing (a novel) was harder than I expected.” So, is he willing to write a sequel? “I'm tempted,” Florman admits. It would be great to see how the residents of Engineering Village get their redundant laptops humming again.