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Image of the Hishhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden

All Pumped Up

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. is a giant, concrete doughnut of a building. The architecture is distinctive, but critics complain that it's not inviting for the public. To jazz it up a bit, new director Richard Koshalek has commissioned a 145-foot-tall inflatable meeting hall that would fill the Hirshhorn's central circular courtyard and swell out the top like a massive, light-blue balloon about to burst. A smaller blob of the transparent bubble - fashioned from strong vinyl - would protrude from the ground floor toward the Mall and be used as a public lounge. The addition, shown in this concept, would be inflated only twice a year, in May and October. To anchor it, a massive inner tube filled with water would encircle its base, and steel cables would wrap around it and be tethered to the main building's roof. The New York architectural firm Diller Scofidio & Renfro is still refining the design. If the museum's board approves the $5 million project, the first installation would occur in May 2011. And, one hopes, the only popping sounds will come from champagne corks. –THOMAS K. GROSE

Image of stacked books
Book Smarts

Engineering students can easily spend $700 to $1,000 a year on textbooks, so they're open to ways of cutting costs. One option is the campus library, but some - at Georgia Tech, for instance - no longer even stock textbooks because they're too costly and date too quickly. Elsewhere, sought-after books can't be checked out for more than a few hours. The secondhand route is also popular, with students buying and selling on sites like eBay's But an increasingly promising option is to rent, a Netflix-styled business model championed by Since its launch in 2007, has rented more than 2 million books to students at 6,400 schools, often at half the cost of retail. Rental periods range from semesters to quarters to summers. has proved a savvy marketer, using social network sites like Facebook and paying students $5 for every new customer they bring in. One enterprising student has earned more than $17,000, according to the Washington Post. Campus bookshops are fighting back with their own rental schemes. Twenty percent of the books at the George Mason University Bookstore are now available to rent. At California State University, Fresno, 80 percent of the bookstore's stock is available, at savings of up to 75 percent. Its partner in that operation? None other than If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. - TG

NASA's Puffin aircraft

Admit It: You Want One

NASA's engineers have turned their attention to creating a playful aircraft for the masses called the Puffin. The agency recently released an animated video of a single-person concept aircraft that could take off and hover like a helicopter but also fly like a plane. The Puffin would lift off from a standing position, then pitch forward to fly. Its electric engine would have a cruising speed of 140 mph, but could accelerate up to 300 mph NASA says the idea is to bridge the gap between cars and planes. Cool idea. But the notion that a lot of bad drivers could one day also be piloting mini-planes is more than a bit scary. - TG

Virtual Disaster Viewer: Aerial view of Haiti Earthquake devastation
Painful Detail

Shortly after the devastating Haitian earthquake in January that killed some 170,000 people and left at least 1.2 million homeless, a cadre of more than 700 engineers and scientists from around the world pooled their talents to develop an accurate and comprehensive damage assessment. The team used high-resolution, aerial photographs of a 115-square-mile area, including images of buildings, cars, and vegetation that were so detailed that the folds in tents at emergency camps were visible. Those images were then compared with photographs taken before the quake, allowing researchers to pinpoint and map the areas that sustained the most damage - a big help to relief workers and eventual rebuilding efforts. The newly created initiative, GEO-CAN, or Global Earth Observation Catastrophe Network, is coordinated by the California company ImageCat and assembled by the World Bank and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery. Engineers and scientists from universities, industry, government, and nongovernment agencies took part in the Haiti effort, using images from such disparate sources as Google and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. - TG

Rocket Interceptor

ISRAEL - Antimissile shields don't have a great track record, but in January, Israel successfully tested its Iron Dome system and expects to have it fully deployed by May. Developed by the government-run company Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, the Iron Dome can detect an incoming rocket and its trajectory within seconds. If headed for a populated area, a rocket is intercepted and destroyed. Those headed for open land areas are ignored. The shield can spot and stop incoming rockets from as close as 2.5 miles and as distant as 43 miles, which would include mortar shells from Gaza and rockets lobbed by Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. Since 2000, Israel's southern communities have been subjected to barrages of rocket attacks. In 2006, 4,000 missiles hit Israeli territory during the war in Lebanon. If successful, a single shield could protect a city of 300,000. But such security doesn't come cheap - each launch costs $50,000. - Joshua Brilliant

Climbing Back

It's official: College and university endowment funds tanked during the heart of the global economic meltdown as stock markets tumbled and gift-giving dried up. Overall, endowments fell by nearly 19 percent during FY 2008-09, the biggest freefall since the Great Depression, according to a recent report by the National Association of College and University Business Officers. The recession reduced the number of billion-dollar-plus endowments to 54 from 77. Elite schools, including Harvard, Yale, and Stanford universities, got hit the hardest. Harvard's endowment plunged around 30 percent to $25.6 billion; Yale's by 28.6 percent to $16.3 billion. Despite the tough times, schools spent on average 4.4 percent of their endowments on operational costs, a very slight increase over 2007-08. And, as markets started recovering in recent months, so have many endowments, which provide an additional source of income for private schools beyond tuition. - TG

Engineer Barbie


Everyone's favorite blonde just got a bit techier: The vote is in, and Barbie's next career will be ... drumroll please ... computer engineer! After an online poll on the Barbie website went viral, her new profession beat out other options like environmentalist, surgeon, and architect. The new, tech-savvy Barbie comes equipped with a laptop, a Bluetooth headset, chic glasses, and a shirt that reads "Barbie" over and over in binary code. Mattel worked with the Society of Women Engineers to develop the doll. "All the girls who imagine their futures through Barbie will learn that engineers - like girls - are free to explore in?nite possibilities, limited only by their imagination," SWE President Nora Lin said. But careers are fleeting in Barbie-world. This is the doll's 126th. - Alison Buki

Student Applications
Special Treatment

Like many private schools, Philadelphia's Drexel University wants to increase student enrollment. And three years ago, it hit upon a marketing tool - dubbed the VIP Application - that's helping achieve that goal, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Here's how it works: Each year, the school buys lists with the names of hundreds of thousands of high-scoring students, then sends each a letter to see if that student wants to learn more about the school. Names of students who reply in the affirmative are put into a pool. And each September, the seniors in that pool get the VIP Application, urging them to "apply today." As an inducement, they're offered perks, including faster scholarship consideration, no $75 application fee, and no need to file a lengthy essay-just a short personal statement. Last year, Drexel sent out 175,000 VIP Applications and got back 31,000, a 38 percent increase over 2006. It offered places to 68 percent and ended up with a freshman class of 2,400. Drexel officials tell the Chronicle that the process makes students feel wanted and eases application anxiety. - TG

Man swinging golf club towards lake

Sports Technology
EcobioballSnack for Fish

Scientists on a recent hunt for the Loch Ness monster didn't find Nessie but rather another hazard in the deep Scottish lake: thousands of golf balls. Both locals and tourists have been using the famed loch as an informal driving range. In the United States, some 300 million golf balls go missing each year, many of them also ending up in water. So what? Well, the Danish Golf Union recently reported that it can take up to 1,000 years for a golf ball to decompose. As it does, it slowly leaches copious amounts of heavy metal zinc, a pollutant. While there are biodegradable golf balls on the market, the Spanish company Albus Golf has come up with a new a twist: a ball packed with fish food. Once in water, the Ecobioball dissolves within 48 hours, releasing a treat for nearby fish. Inventor Albert Buscato told CNN he got the idea when on a cruise ship and regretting that he couldn't practice his drive by whacking balls into the sea. Ecobioball is meant just for that - practice drives into water. The balls are too lightweight for actual playing, since they don't fly all that far. David Connor, an editor at Today's Golfer, told CNN he's skeptical that duffers will pay for balls that can only be used once. But then again, the folks who have been lofting balls into Loch Ness weren't planning to retrieve them. - TG


The percentage of men and women, respectively, who remain in engineering after 20 years, according to a survey of 3,349 engineering graduates by the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology.

SOURCES: Mechanical Engineering Magazine (January 2010), Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology, The Society of Women Engineers

nuclear fusion
Getting Hotter

As a potential source of clean, unlimited power, fusion is the holy grail of nuclear energy. Unlike the fission process now used at nuclear power plants, fusion would create energy from the melding of atoms without producing radioactive waste. And now, it's closer to fruition, after 50 years of effort. Recent experiments at the National Nuclear Security Administration's new National Ignition Facility focused 192 high-powered laser beans onto a BB-sized container filled with two hydrogen isotopes, creating temperatures inside of 200 million degrees Fahrenheit. That's close to what's needed for ignition, or the creation of a thermonuclear reaction within the container. The agency issued a statement saying that "breaking the megajoule barrier brings us one step closer to fusion ignition." The laser energy creates X-rays within the container, which results in ultrahigh temperatures, eventually causing the hydrogen nuclei to fuse. Scientists had long speculated that plasma from the lasers, churning clouds of charged ions, would disrupt the fusion process. But the NIF experiments prove that that's not the case. So the countdown to ignition continues. -TG

Image of a bullet train

High-Speed Rail
Chugging Along

America's aging rail network is a joke, especially compared with high-speed systems in Europe and Japan. And China - natch - is getting onboard the bullet-train express quickly, with plans to spend $300 billion building 16,000 miles of high-speed track. Now, electric bullet trains are finally gaining traction in the United States. The Obama administration recently spent $8 billion in seed money to encourage high-speed rail transport, and more money from Congress is expected, perhaps as much as $50 billion. Florida is resurrecting plans for an 84-mile line between Tampa and Orlando, and California wants a train that would rocket at around 220 mph between Los Angeles and San Francisco in a mere two hours, 40 minutes. Though a national system would be a costly and complex undertaking, the payoffs would be huge. Bullets use one third less energy per mile than cars or planes, so they could support a huge reduction in oil use. Leading Japanese bullet-train manufacturer JR Central is making a push to sell its maglev train - with a potential top speed of 350 mph - in the U.S. Unlike traditional bullets, which run on wheels, maglevs use enormously powerful magnets that enable trains to hover over a guide rail: less friction, more speed. Building new tracks to accommodate maglevs may be prohibitively expensive. But politics and NIMBYism could also derail the effort - and prove a gravy train for lawyers. - TG



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