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Alexander Calder’s training as an engineer helped him ultimately to create massive sculptures requiring precise equilibrium. But he honed his mechanical ingenuity — and whimsy — tinkering with miniature circus figures like those in “Prima Donna, Woman with Bow, and Horse” (123/8” x 51/2“ x 6”) at right. It’s now on display at New York’s Whitney Museum of Art, part of the exhibit Alexander Calder: The Paris Years, 1926-1933, which runs until February 15, 2009. Henry Petroski discusses engineer-artists in this month’s Refractions.


The machine that folds paper bags with flat, square bottoms was invented in 1870 by Margaret Knight, only one of more than 850 women featured in a new book, Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America. The 272-page, impressively illustrated book marks women’s achievements in a variety of areas, including technology, academia, politics and sports. Some are well-known, like astronaut Sally Ride and environmentalist/biologist Rachel Carson. Others less so, like chemist Stephanie Kwolek, who in 1965 invented the bullet-proof material Kevlar.

Author Jill S. Tietjen, a former president of the Society of Women Engineers, now runs Technically Speaking, a consulting company aimed at improving women’s career opportunities in technology. Tietjen also co-authored Setting the Record Straight, a history of women in engineering and the “learned professions,” and wrote Keys to Engineering Success, a first-year textbook. Coauthor Charlotte S. Waisman is a writer and consultant who has worked in human resources and corporate development for several tech companies. —Thomas K. grose


With money from two nonprofits, Partners in Health and the Clinton Foundation, work has begun on the first and only hospital in Rwanda’s rugged, rural Burera district. Home to 400,000 people, the area is rife with HIV and tuberculosis. What’s unique about the 130-bed hospital designed by students at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design is its airiness. It’s based on the premise that better air circulation helps reduce infections of tuberculosis and other airborne diseases. Instead of hallways, there are outdoor walkways and waiting rooms. Large, staggered windows ensure better ventilation throughout the building. Clearly, this is a design for life. —TG


The 2007 “high-tech trade deficit,” reflecting a 3 percent drop in U.S. exports of high-tech merchandise from 2006 and a 3 percent rise in imports. Exports last year totaled $214.3 billion; imports, $332.6 billion.


Is this the future of motor sports? Last August, in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, six university teams from five countries — Spain, the U.S., Britain, Belgium and The Netherlands — participated in the world’s first hydrogen-powered car race, dubbed Formula Zero. The six competing go-carts were each powered by commercial fuel cells that convert hydrogen to electricity. The fastest car came from Spain’s Eupla University, which edged out the competitors from Holland’s Technical University at Delft by a mere two-tenths of a second. Delft captured the endurance trophy, while a car built by London’s Imperial College won most-reliable honors. Gregory Offer, a materials engineer who headed Imperial’s team, says hydrogen fuel cell cars can be faster and just as exciting as today’s gas-guzzling F1 race cars. But oh, so much quieter. —TG


A team of Clemson University researchers may have found the ultimate shock absorber. Led by physicist Apparao Rao, and working with colleagues at the University of California, San Diego, the team found a way to produce tiny coiled carbon nanotubes that are extremely resilient. In one test, to determine how the coiled tubes fared compared with conventional straight nanotubes, a stainless steel ball was dropped on a layer comprised of each. The straight ones didn’t recover, but the coiled ones sprang back into shape. Curly nanotubes could result in tougher car bumpers and body armor and springier shoes. Or, imagine cellphones that bounce when they’re dropped, instead of breaking. —TG


A rice-sized magnet attached to the tip of a tongue could give severely handicapped individuals the ability to manipulate computers, steer electric wheelchairs and generally have more control over their environment. The technology is being developed by Maysam Ghovanloo, an electrical and computer engineer at the Georgia Institute of Technology. As the tongue flits to different locations, the magnet’s movements are picked up by an array of magnetic field sensors located on either a headset or an orthodontic brace. The sensors wirelessly transmit the data to a portable computer. The tongue essentially acts as a joystick, manipulating a cursor on a computer screen. Ghovanloo’s software can be personalized, allowing users to train the system to best fit their abilities, oral anatomy or preferences. A user could, for example, issue a different command just by touching each tooth. The most popular current technology is a “sip and puff” straw, operated by either inhaling or exhaling. But it’s limited to only four commands.

Why the tongue? It’s connected directly to the brain by the cranial nerve, so even people disabled from the neck down usually have full use of their tongue. “Tongue movements are also fast, accurate and do not require much thinking, concentration of effort,” Ghovanloo explains. That means it may soon be giving some disabled people a taste of greater independence. —TG


Could a corner of the forbidding Sahara desert turn lush using solar power and seawater? The team of engineers and architects behind the Sahara Forest Project thinks so. Electricity would come from steam-powered turbines fired by concentrated solar power (CSP), which uses mirrors to capture and focus sunlight to produce heat. That power would be used to evaporate seawater to create cool, humid air inside greenhouses. When the vapor is condensed, the resulting fresh water would be used to water crops and clean the CSP mirrors. Small demonstration plants of the technology have been built in the Canary Islands, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. Supporters say the system can grow any type of vegetable, including tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. It would cost around $115 million to build 20 hectares of seawater greenhouses and a 10 megawatt CSP plant. Expensive, sure. Nonetheless, several North African countries are expressing interest. —TG



The man who created the world’s most popular video game, The Sims (100 million units sold, so far) has done it again. Game designer Will Wright and Electronic Arts have finally launched the much anticipated, highly ambitious Spore. Like The Sims, Spore features an open-ended narrative. Users create a single-cell life form that can gradually evolve through five stages, ultimately becoming part of a highly advanced, galaxy-exploring civilization. Positively Darwinian, right? Well, not quite. Critics note that the game’s “creator control” element is less reminiscent of natural selection and more like “intelligent design” pseudo-science. Wright’s not denying the charge. Speaking with USA Today, he noted that the creator control keeps the game’s creatures interesting and emotionally engaging. But he also points out that creatures evolve over the course of billions of years. In short, Spore aims to please. ­­—TG



Since about 70 percent of Americans live within 100 miles of an ocean, some experts think harnessing the power of the seas could go a long way toward providing many with clean energy. Fredrick Driscoll, technology director of Florida Atlantic University’s Center for Ocean Energy Technology (COET), says ocean energy is “undeveloped compared to other conventional and renewable technologies.” That’s something COET—which opened three years ago and has so far received $13.75 million in state funding—hopes to change. The center is investigating both mechanical energy from waves and currents, and thermal energy from solar heat absorbed by the water. And it sees the Atlantic’s Gulf Stream, which links Florida to Britain, as a huge potential power source. Accordingly, the school has research agreements with two Scottish schools, Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh.

Meanwhile, U.S. Air Force Academy researchers are working on a wave-power project using paddlewheels attached to a line of submerged barges. The currents spin the wheels to generate electricity that is sent to shore via underwater cables. —TG


Air-purifying stones. Sounds like something you’d buy in a New Age shop, right? Actually, they’re street paving stones developed by engineers at the University of Twente in The Netherlands. The stones’ top layer is made of concrete containing titanium dioxide which, when exposed to sunlight, can render harmless toxic nitrogen oxides — the nasty stuff in car exhaust that causes acid rain and smog. Developed by the Dutch researchers based on an idea hatched in Japan, the stone technology could cleanse much of the nitrogen oxides from vehicle emissions. To test it, half a street in the town of Hengelo, eastern Holland, will be paved with conventional stones, the other half with purifying ones. Results from air-quality tests should reveal if it is indeed a new age for paving stones. ­—TG


Imagine rummaging around an ancient, amphorae-littered shipwreck in your own personal submersible. That possibility will soon be at your fingertips. Researchers led by computer scientist Paul Chapman at the University of Hull, England, have developed a simulator that gives users the virtual experience of exploring sunken wrecks. The simulator combines computer science with high-tech sonar to create three-dimensional virtual maps brought to life with high-resolution photos taken by divers and unmanned vehicles. The project is called VENUS (for Virtual Exploration of Underwater Sites), and has already mapped two shipwrecks, one off the Italian island of Pianoso, the other near Sesimbra, Portugal. A third mission is set to map a wreck near Marseille, France. The VENUS data help archaeologists pinpoint the most likely spots to find cargo. For the public, it provides an amazing look at deep sea archaeology. While the simulator will be housed at the Deep Aquarium in Hull, the experience will also be accessible online. Chapman hopes VENUS will promote the preservation of underwater sites threatened by looting, erosion and deep sea trawling, and also encourage the study of marine archaeology. A deeply cool idea. —TG



James Powderly is an artist who likes his canvases big. Really big. As in, big as buildings. A former robotics engineer who once worked at NASA, Powderly is master of a new form of graffiti art called laser tagging. It uses software, a projector and a high-powered laser pointer to cover the sides of buildings, bridges and other huge structures with virtual graffiti — essentially, writing with light. Three years ago, Powderly, 31, cofounded the Graffiti Research Lab to experiment with “public art and technology,” and to make the open-source technology required for “urban communication” available to graffiti artists. Laser graffiti has since graced structures in cities ranging from Vienna to Hong Kong. Powderly’s art often has a political message, typically advocating free speech: In August, Chinese officials detained him during the Beijing Olympics before he could laser-etch the slogan “Free Tibet” onto a prominent Tiananmen Square building. Not all of his work requires guerrilla tactics, however: Powderly recently had shows at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and London’s Tate Modern museum. —TG



Veerabhadran Ramanathan, an atmospheric scientist at the University of California, San Diego, is one of the world’s top climate experts. So why did he spend much of the summer and early autumn flying autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles (AUAVs) downwind of Beijing? To see how cleaning up seriously polluted air affects climate change. Ahead of the 2008 Olympics, Chinese officials removed 3.5 million vehicles from the city’s roads and closed factories, foundries and mills — a huge effort geared toward cutting Beijing’s usually dense smog by 60 percent. Such relief for human lungs may be bad news for our rapidly warming planet, however. Thick smog blankets can deflect the sun’s radiation, keeping things cooler on Earth. Ramanathan worries that as the world works to clear filthy skies, global warming could accelerate. That’s why he saw the Beijing cleanup as a huge, one-time-only lab. Alongside a team of U.S., Chinese and Korean researchers, Ramanathan loaded several AUAVs with a variety of instruments and sensors and sent them soaring up to 12,000 feet. They sampled not only the cleaner air downwind of Beijing but that in other Chinese regions that were still highly polluted. The results should help determine just how much of a role air pollution plays in masking the effects of global warming. —TG



C. Richard Johnson, Jr., a Cornell University professor of electrical and computer science, is also an art lover who earned his minor in art history. Combining his two interests, Johnson three years ago convinced Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum to digitize copies of its works to help develop a technology to spot fakes. Both the Van Gogh and the Kröller-Müller Museum allowed Johnson’s researchers access to 101 images, 23 of which were of paintings certified as definitely the work of Vincent Van Gogh. The other 78 included paintings scholars had identified as fakes. Focusing upon high-resolution scans of the 23 masterpieces, the team — which included engineers and art experts from Pennsylvania State and Princeton universities and Holland’s Maastricht University — developed algorithms to identify Van Gogh’s unique brushstroke style. Copyists, they found, needed more brushstrokes than did the master. A second round of analysis is underway looking at other detection techniques, including canvas thread counts. Once perfected, these technologies could be used to authenticate other famous artists’ works — a masterstroke. —TG


VIETNAM — Though nominally a communist country, Vietnam has in the last 15 years developed one of the world’s fastest growing capitalist economies, fueled by massive foreign investment, universal primary education and near-universal literacy. With Intel and other tech companies establishing operations here, Saigon (the central sector of Ho Chi Minh City) could become a “little Bangalore.” Hopes are high, says Professor Phan The Hung, head of the department of international studies at prestigious Dalat University, that technical outsourcing will join manufacturing as an engine for economic growth that routinely tops 8 percent a year. But higher education will have to find a way to keep up with demand.

Computers and engineering are popular majors, and Vietnamese students learn English more easily than other East Asians, because their language uses the Roman alphabet. In addition, the government helps students pursuing technical education abroad. But the nation’s post-secondary institutions, which include both undergraduate and graduate universities and non-degree technical colleges, can currently accommodate only 11% of those who finish high school. Last year, Hung said, the nation’s approximately 500 engineering graduates had their pick of some 2,000 jobs. — Beryl Lieff Benderly


“These students come out of high school really misled.
They think they’re prepared ... but they find what they learned wasn’t adequate.’’

Former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, head of the group Strong American Schools, which released a report entitled ‘’Diploma to Nowhere.’’ The report states that one third of U.S. college students require remedial training, costing taxpayers at least $2.3 billion a year.



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