Searching for the
AustraliaIt 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.
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
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 (www.google.com),
and Northern Light (www.northernlight.com).
The differences between these top three were not statistically
significant, so we have not put them in any order, he reveals.
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.
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 (www.search.msn.com),
and again there was no statistically significant difference between
ability is particularly relevant in this type of query, he says.
Some search engines can find the right pagebut don't
rank it highly enough. Finding home pages clearly requires specialized
techniques, and not all engines have successfully implemented these.
Hawking's top 10 in order of usefulness are as follows: Google,
Northern Light, Fast, Lycos (www.lycos.com),
Go (www.go.com), MetaCrawler
and Microsoft. They all did a reasonable job of searching, but most
could improve their levels of accuracy rather than serving up too many
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
The Earth Revolves
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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 designperhaps adding a
voice activation applicationand 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
Lucky Break for
Bone Fracture Patients
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 boneparticularly 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
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 screendubbed Blinkenlightsis 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 (www.blinkenlights.de)
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 (http://berlin.ccc.de/~hans/cam2.jpg).
The CCC regrets that the Webcam can only show stills, which change every
30 seconds, instead of streaming video, but, adds, at least it
Cast of Characters: Engineers
The Aftermath: A Novel of Survival by Samuel C. Florman. St. Martin's
Press. 320 pp. $25.00.
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,
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.
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