PRISM Magazine On-Line  - November 1999
Full Circle

LONDON—What do the Ferris wheel and ASEE have in common? The 1893 Chicago World's Fair. ASEE was formed at that exposition, which was billed as a peek at the new century. And the highlight of that fair was the world's first Ferris wheel, a 250-foot marvel built by George Washington Gale Ferris. Now, as the century ends, London has taken Mr. Ferris' idea and updated it for the next millennium.

Last month, a fabulous new Ferris wheel—called the British Airways London Eye—was lifted from its assembly spot on the River Thames to its home on the river's south bank. Like its predecessor, it is an engineering and architectural wonder. It took three months to assemble the structure and seven temporary islands on the Thames were built to accommodate the chore.

When the Eye opens in December, it will be the world's largest observation wheel at 443 feet. And at three times the height of Tower Bridge, it will substantially change London's skyline. Attached to the wheel will be 32 fully enclosed, egg-shaped observation capsules, each rotating to give riders views in all directions. The Eye has a permit for just five years, but organizers hope it's so successful that it remains a permanent part of London's landscape. Remember: The Eiffel Tower, another fin-de-siècle engineering feat, was meant to be just a temporary exhibit, too.

—Thomas K. Grose

A University of Their Own

AUSTRALIA—The education of aborigines in this country's outback has taken an impressive kangaroo hop. Batchelor College, which has been serving the needs of the remote Northern Territory's black community since 1972, recently gained its independence from the territorial government. If, as expected, the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education gains university status in 2001, it will become the country's first full-fledged aboriginal university.

Located 60 miles south of Darwin, the territorial capital, Batchelor is surrounded by vast territory that is home to more than 35,000 aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders inhabitants. The overwhelming majority live in tiny, widely-scattered rural communities, making provision of services such as education difficult and expensive.

Although the school has 2,000 students, hardly any live on campus. Teachers visit students in about 250 communities, some of which are accessible only by light aircraft. Students generally come on campus only for workshops and examinations.

The entire student body qualifies for full financial aid, with the Australian government picking up the school's $19 million annual tab ($12.4 million in U.S. dollars).

"We run according to internationally recognized Australian academic norms," says the school's director, Veronica Arbon. "But we embrace and respect aboriginal tradition and culture strongly." Many are unwilling to leave their communities where, as educated people, they can fill vital posts in health, education, or administration. "If we didn't provide learning opportunities this way, almost none of our students would be studying," she says.

With a new applied-science degree program, including specialties in land management and primary health care, things are looking up for aboriginal education down under.

—Chris Pritchard

Yum, More Nickel Please

RUSTENBERG, SOUTH AFRICA—This country's newest nickel treatment plant has impressive green credentials. It has no emissions other than oxygen, uses no fossil fuels, and even looks pretty. That's because Berkheya coddii is indeed a plant, absorbing nickel through its roots.

The Anglo American Platinum Corporation has put this tall perennial to work cleaning up nickel-contaminated soils surrounding a base-metals refinery near Rustenberg. Their phytoremediation effort removes toxic nickel for as little as $60,000 a hectare—less than one tenth the cost of more conventional clean-up methods. Equally important, the old-fashioned remediation techniques—such as excavating soil for acid leaching—leave the ground sterile, while phytoremediation enriches the soil.

The metal is toxic to most plants, but this rare species evolved on a tiny patch of nickel-rich soil in northeastern South Africa. After three years of growth, one five-foot plant contains much more nickel than . . . well . . . a roll of nickels. Bundles of leaves and stems are tossed into a nearby smelter, yielding approximately 14 kilograms of nickel per hectare.

The platinum company is so pleased with its early results that it has sent scouts to central Africa's copper belt to look for copper-hungry plants that could alleviate soil contamination caused by that metal. Elsewhere in the world, researchers are attempting to take this technology to the next level: finding or genetically engineering plants that can absorb enough metal for commercial production.

The alchemists of the 21st century would do well to study botany.

—Don Boroughs