Researchers in St. Louis are having epilepsy patients play
mind games, and the results may one day enable wearers of
prosthetic devices to move their artificial limbs using only
thoughts. The team, led by Washington University researchers,
worked with an electronic grid that rests atop the brain and
records electrocorticographic (ECoG) activity, or brain surface
signals. That's an advance beyond using non-invasive
electrodes outside the skull to measure what's called
electroencephalographic (EEG) activity. Four patients had
the grids implanted for up to two weeks so neurologists could
pinpoint what part of their brains were inducing seizures.
But the Washington team also hooked the grids to one-dimensional
computer games, and in less than an hour, the patients learned
to move the game cursor using only thoughts, achieving between
74 and 100 percent accuracy. Patients using EEG signals to
control the game took months to learn to move the cursor accurately.
One doctor likened previous EEG tests to the Wright Brothers'
plane. "With our results, we're flying around
in an F-16 jet." Tests using 2-D games are now underway,
"but it is too early to disclose results," explains
Daniel Moran, a biomedical engineer at the school. The grid
is small, 8 cm by 8 cm, thin and pliable, and didn't
cause the patients discomfort, Moran says. The long-term effects
of such an implant are still unknown. Moran calls the results
a big step forward toward developing a "brain-machine
interface . . . one of the hottest things going in biomedical
—Thomas K. Grose
advanced one step for science in August with the world's
first successful space deployment of a "solar sail,"
an ultra-thin mirrored sheet that scientists hope will pave
the way to interplanetary travel. Called "a spacecraft
without a rocket engine," by the Japanese Institute
of Space Astronautical Science (ISAS), which successfully
launched two large solar sails, the metallic sheets are propelled
by reflecting light particles from the sun, accelerating as
exposure time to the sun increases. First dreamed up in 1924,
these nonfuel, continuously accelerating space sails are the
only feasible method of traveling among the planets. They
are much slower than conventional, heavy, and expensive rocket-fueled
The stuff of science fiction became reality after ISAS launched
a compact S-310 rocket from Uchinoura Space Center in Kagoshima
on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. The spacecraft
was outfitted with two types of sails, each 7.5 micrometers
thick. The first to be deployed, shaped like a four-leaf clover,
was unfurled 100 seconds after liftoff at an altitude of almost
76 miles. After it was jettisoned, a fan-shaped version was
unfolded at an altitude of 105 miles and 230 seconds after
liftoff. The flight ended 400 seconds later, when the rocket
splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.
U.S. and European scientists have space sail projects of
their own. The difficulty up to now has been finding a material
with the requisite lightness and durability. —Lucille
music player of choice these days is Apple Computer's
fashionable iPod. The credit-card-sized device can download
and store on its internal chip thousands of songs, and replay
them. And this fall, Duke University's 1,650 freshmen
will be given one—gratis—by the school. The aim
of the $500,000, year-long pilot project is for faculty and
students to use the iPods as teaching and learning tools.
Duke's iPods will come with an add-on recording device
so lectures and interviews can be recorded, and notes dictated.
Students and faculty will be encouraged to suggest ways to
put the iPods to use, Duke spokesman David Menzies says.
School officials wanted to take a popular personal computing
device that students were already using and adapt it for classroom
use, and the iPod fit the bill. One other potential side benefit:
iPods can be used to legally buy music online; that may help
cut back on students using the school's Internet system
for illegal music file-sharing. Are other universities interested
in Duke's iPod experiment? "Oh, God, yes,"
Menzies says. "We're getting calls from all sorts
of colleges and major universities. It's been pretty
a building catches fire, the wiring often fails and the electrical
system shuts down. But a solution may be at hand. An Australian
engineering research team has invented an insulation that
protects the wiring during a fire. The blaze's
intense heat actually transforms the plastic insulation into
a ceramic material that protects the cabling. The protective
properties of this so-called "ceramifiable polymer"
permit electrical devices such as sliding doors, elevators,
computers and emergency equipment to keep operating during
a fire. The insulating material has the attributes of plastic
when temperatures are normal and a hard ceramic when temperatures
insulation surrounding copper conductors breaks down in conventional
wiring under extreme heat, causing the cable inside to short.
Cables coated with "ceramifiable polymers" passed
performance tests in which they were heated to 1,922 degrees
Fahrenheit (1,050 degrees Celsius) and compared with conventional
cables. Plastic used in regular cables lasted less than 10
minutes, flame-retardant plastic survived only slightly longer—but
the newly developed substance continued to provide effective
insulation even after two hours.
Two key members of the research team were Monash University
engineers Yi-Bing Cheng and Don Rodrigo, who were responsible
for developing a ceramic material that is blended with plastic.
The team is also developing a form that can slow the spread
of fire. —Chris Pritchard
A Pentagon goal is an 1,800-person, "ready to fight"
infantry force that can be deployed anywhere in the world
within 96 hours, complete with equipment (including armor).
So the folks at the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency
(DARPA) are looking for a contractor to design and build a
high-tech airship capable of carrying such a unit en mass.
Code-named Walrus, the airship will conceivably be able to
carry between 500 to 1,000 tons and have a range of 6,000
nautical miles. It would combine proven lighter-than-air gas
buoyancy with cutting-edge aerodynamics and propulsion systems.
DARPA wants a model of the mega-airship ready by 2008 to test
the "feasibility and viability" of the concept.
Airships are safe and reliable, but current models are weather-dependent
and require complex ground operations. Those are hurdles that
engineers will have to breeze past if DARPA's Walrus
is ever to fly. —TG
From Bionic Humans to Androids by Sidney Perkowitz. Publisher:
The National Academics Press, $24.95
that not only look human, but can think, reason, and feel
emotion. Humans that are augmented with a variety of bionic
parts that improve on what nature gave them. Thanks to the
breakthroughs of digital electronics, the stuff of science
fiction may soon become reality, argues Emory University physicist
Sidney Perkowitz in his book Digital People: From Bionic Humans
to Androids. Short, breezy, and nicely written, Perkowitz's
book raises, but doesn't answer, the myriad ethical
and moral questions inherent in rapidly progressing robotics
and bionic technologies. But then, those are questions with
no easy answers. Mostly, however, Digital People is a fun
romp that lays out the historic antecedents—literary,
mythical, and real—to what's going on in the labs
of today: like the automated theater created by the ancient
Greek inventor Heron. And did you know that robot comes from
the Czech word "robota," which means forced labor?
Perhaps sensitive androids of the future will consider the
term a degrading epithet. —TG
fall, Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University's
(CMU) new campus in Qatar, in the Arabian Peninsula, opened
its doors. Around 25 students began working toward an undergraduate
degree in computer science; another 25 or so are enrolled
in a business program. Carnegie Mellon's Middle Eastern
satellite campus is being funded by the local government,
part of a $1 billion effort to bolster higher education in
the oil-rich sheikdom. Texas A&M and Virginia Commonwealth
universities have also opened adjunct branches in Education
City, a 2,400-acre campus still under development in Doha,
the capital city. CMU says the curriculum in Qatar and its
admission policies are the same as those in Pittsburgh. Although
it hopes to "slowly" increase enrollment, it has
no plans to offer any degrees beyond computer science and
business. School President Jared L. Cohon says the arrangement
offers an "extraordinary opportunity" for CMU
to contribute to an important region of the world. No doubt.
But with tightening visa requirements in the United States
choking the flow of students from the Middle East, opening
campuses in the students' backyard may enable American
schools to recoup those losses. —TG
There are four federal agencies that tend to fund academic
research in the sciences and engineering: the National Science
Foundation (NSF), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration
(NASA), the Education Department, and the Department of Energy.
A recent study by the Government Accounting Office (GAO) found
that only the Department of Education does all it can to ensure
that grant recipients are in compliance with Title IX of the
Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination
at institutions that receive federal funds. All four agencies,
the GAO said, investigated discrimination complaints and provided
technical assistance to schools, but only Education regularly
monitored grant recipients for compliance, as required by
law. The GAO recommended that the other three agencies also
regularly conduct compliance reviews. The report implies that
a lack of robust enforcement of Title IX may help answer why
women academics in science tend to earn less money and are
promoted more slowly than their male colleagues. Experience,
work patterns, and education are more significant reasons,
it says, but "studies also suggest that discrimination
may still affect women's choices and professional progress."
Society of Women Engineers executive director Betty Shanahan
welcomed the report, saying it "gives visibility to
an issue that's important." —TG
Olympic Games in Athens put the spotlight back on the country
where the majestic sporting event began. The ancient Panhellenic
Games were the forerunner to the modern Olympics. And one
of the four sites used for those games was Ancient Nemea,
about 80 miles from Athens, where once stood the Temple of
Zeus, built in 330 B.C. After 2,300 years, only three of the
temple's columns were still standing: two that were
part of the entrance, and one of the 32 columns that formed
the peristyle. Two more of the peristyle columns were rebuilt
in 2002, part of a reconstruction effort begun by University
of California-Berkeley classics professor Stephen Miller.
under the direction of Berkeley professor of structural engineering,
Nicos Makris, four more columns are being pieced together.
Eventually, all 32 columns may be rebuilt. "That is
our dream," Makris says. It's a realistic one.
More than 70 percent of the ancient building material remains
in-situ. Researchers believe that 700 years after it was built,
early Christians sacked the temple and used its limestone
to build a nearby basilica. The cylindrical columns were of
no use to the church-builders, but were likely demolished
to enable better access to the temple itself.
42-foot column comprises 13, 2.5-ton "drums."
Makris has done tests on the columns and believes they were
made that way to help them withstand earthquakes. Columns
constructed of joined pieces dissipate a lot of energy. And,
indeed, the three columns that weren't destroyed by
humans have remained erect in a quake-prone area for more
than two millennia. Makris, meanwhile, marvels at the precision
engineering and craftsmanship of the ancient builders. "It's
humbling," he admits. The tolerances of the joints are
within 1/32 of an inch, a standard of accuracy one would find
in a modern aircraft machine shop. —TG