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This is no ordinary field of flowers. These 2.5 acres planted with 1.7 million native species form the roof of the newly opened California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Additional features include seven hillocks studded with skylights, weather sensors to regulate the automated ventilation systems and a water recycling mechanism designed to capture some two million gallons of rainwater per year. Officials hope eventually to create a habitat for endangered butterflies. But don’t ignore the natural history museum beneath, with its planetarium, rainforest, and the world’s deepest interior coral reef.— ROBIN TATU


Avi Rubin, a computer scientist at Johns Hopkins University, has long been a vocal critic of electronic voting systems. Too many of them, he claims, are susceptible to hacking and fraud. Three years ago, he and 10 other computer scientists from schools around the country got a $7.5 million National Science Foundation grant to create a group — A Center for Correct, Usable, Reliable, Auditable and Transparent Elections (ACCURATE)—that would develop technologies to make computer voting more secure.
One of the tools being developed is AttackDog, an open-source threat-modeling process that probes a voting system for weaknesses. Using algorithms to assess 9,000 different ways a system might come under siege, from hacking to ballot tampering, it then determines if the countermeasures used to thwart such attacks also have flaws. Says Stanford University’s David Dill, one of Rubin’s co-investigators: “It’s using computers to get a grip on problems that are too complex for the mind to understand unaided.” The software’s being tested in Florida — a state that knows something about voting system failures. Alas, AttackDog won’t be unleashed in time for next month’s presidential election. —THOMAS K. GROSE


Engineers at Columbia University have proven that graphene is the strongest material ever measured — about 200 times stronger than structural steel. Composed of a layer of graphite atoms arranged in a honeycomb lattice, graphene forms the basis of graphite fibers in products like tennis racquets. Researchers placed microscopic graphene samples over small, circular holes in silicon to create films a mere one-atom thick. To test their strength, each film was then poked by a diamond-tipped atomic-force microscope with a radius of 20 billionths of a meter. The test proved that computer-modeled estimates of the material’s strength were correct. So how strong is it? Imagine an elephant balanced on a pencil. That’s what it would take to punch a hole in a Saran Wrap-thick sheet of graphene. —TG


Attention, alumni! If it seems your alma mater’s been calling more often lately, it’s probably not your imagination. A recent survey of large, public doctoral universities conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education found that the 10 biggest schools have increased their fundraising staffs by 25 percent or more over the last five years.

The leader: the University of Washington, which has boosted its staff 84 percent, adding 64 new people to help run an ongoing, $2 billion campaign. Other schools with fast-expanding staffs include the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; the University of Virginia; and the University of Michigan. The biggest earner among public schools last year was UCLA, which drummed up $365 million in cash. Its goal is to raise $500 million a year, every year. Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University has added 43 fundraisers to its staff, a 50 percent increase, and expects to add another 50 within four years to help its $3.2 billion campaign. Fueling the fundraising boom is a decline in government funding, as well as competition from other schools. Past successes also play a part. Schools are realizing that raising vast sums, year in and year out, is doable. It just takes more people. —TG


The depth, measured in feet, of the Olympic swimming pool in Beijing’s “water cube”—three feet deeper than past pools. The extra depth moves waves away from the swimmer, contributing to the record-breaking speeds at the 2008 Olympics.


They’re cool, young and lovely. They’re also skilled engineers. Welcome to the world of the Nerd Girls—a college club, website, and, soon, a TV reality show. Hollywood filmmakers Paola di Florio and Karen Johnson are preparing the series for, hoping to smash dated notions of women engineers as dorky misfits. Nerd Girls will feature a dozen “knockout braniacs” who know their way around soldering irons — as well as life and fashion. The documentary explores team members’ work on projects like a rebuilt solar-powered race car, as well as their personal passions and talents.


The show’s based on the Tufts University student club formed in 2000 by Karen Panetta, professor of electrical and computer engineering, which has since gone “viral” with the website, featuring a community forum, blog and curriculum site. The TV producers, who hope their program will attract more girls to engineering, scoff at the notion that their high-heeled glam nerds send an antifeminist message. As Panetta told Newsweek, “It’s cool to be a nerd, and the girls are just embracing that.” —TG


A new book sponsored jointly by ASEE and the Association for Institutional Research (AIR) presents some of the latest thinking on how assessment can be used to improve engineering education. Assessment in Engineering Programs: Evolving Best Practices provides practical suggestions for both classroom instructors and evaluators in implementing ABET’s outcomes-based set of accreditation criteria. Editor William E. Kelly, who heads ASEE’s Public Affairs department, notes that increasing emphasis is being placed on students’ acquiring the skills needed to succeed in the global economy, including communications and teamwork. In soliciting papers, he sought to learn what “faculty and programs are doing that appeared to be successful.”

The 212-page, 11-chapter volume looks at, among other issues, how accreditation affects students, the benefits of national design competitions and how employers rate engineering graduates. It’s the third in an AIR series entitled “Assessment in the Disciplines.” AIR and ASEE members can order the book for $25 ($30 for nonmembers) from the association’s website: —TG


CANADA — Remember the movie Back to the Future, when eccentric scientist Doc Brown rummages through the trash to find a banana peel, which he drops into the fuel tank of his futuristic car? The Quebec-based company Enerkem may turn that celluloid fantasy into reality when it unveils the world’s first industrial-scale facility to convert municipal solid waste into ethanol.

Slated to open in Edmonton, Alberta, in 2010, the $70 million plant will employ Enerkem’s patented gasification and catalytic technology, which combines high heat with low oxygen and catalysts to transform waste into synthetic gas, which is then converted into ethanol. Chief architect of the technique and Enerkem’s CTO is Esteban Chornet, a former professor of chemical engineering at Quebec’s Université de Sherbrooke.

The new plant will produce 9.5 million gallons of biofuels per year and reduce Alberta’s CO2 footprint by more than 6 million tons over the next 25 years. Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel predicts that his city will become the first major North American city to recycle, turn into compost, or convert into ethanol 90 percent of residential waste that would otherwise end up in a landfill. — PIERRE HOME-DOUGLAS



“Engineers Make a World of Difference.” If a recent National Academy of Engineering report is followed, you’ll be seeing that slogan a lot. It was the most popular of four messages that tested well in a survey of 3,600 youngsters and adults for a study entitled, Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering. The study, conducted using sophisticated market-research techniques, looked for ways to upgrade engineering’s public image and ensure that more young people choose engineering as a career. “Too many students don’t know what engineering is, what its impact is and what engineering can do,” comments Don Giddens, Georgia Institute of Technology’s dean of engineering, who chaired the panel that wrote the report. The engineering community spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year on promotion, but its efforts are poorly coordinated. The survey also discovered a widespread perception of a sedentary, computer-driven career that offers limited contact with other people. In addition, too many students believe they’re not smart enough to undertake engineering studies.

Giddens feels too much emphasis has been placed on the tough science and math courses required for engineering: “Everyone understands that, we don’t have to beat it to death.” Aspiring doctors follow a tough path, too, but medical school is marketed with an emphasis on saving lives. The report recommends that engineers’ ability to improve living standards and solve the world’s urgent problems be highlighted in a similar manner. It’s important, Giddens says, for schools and industry to maintain a consistent message: “Engineering is an exciting, creative career. Engineers really do make a world of difference.”—TG



Waves usually slow boats down. Not so the Suntory Mermaid II, a 31-foot, 3-ton catamaran built by engineers at Japan’s Tokai University. The bigger the waves, the faster this boat goes. That’s because it’s wave-powered. Designed by engineering professor Yutaka Terao, it absorbs energy from waves, then uses this energy to power two fins whose kicking motions propel the craft through the water. Japan’s most famous sailor, Kenichi Horie, a spry 69-year-old, recently solo-sailed the boat 4,350 miles from Hawaii to Japan. Because the sea was calmer than usual, the Mermaid only averaged 1.5 knots — not the 3 or 4 knots expected, so the trip took 111 days. But Terao’s team is working to ramp up that speed. What’s more important, he says, is that Horie’s trip proved the commercial viability of a technology dependent on a never-ending resource—waves.

Horie, who often champions eco-friendly designs, has set records sailing solar- and pedal-powered boats, too; he’s even sailed a boat made from recycled beer kegs. To which we say: “Cheers, Kenichi.” —TG



Every time boy wizard Harry Potter dons his invisibility cloak and, well, turns invisible, who among us doesn’t secretly wish to have one, too? We may not have long to wait. “An optical cloaking device is almost in reach,” says Harley Johnson, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Johnson and his postdoc, Dong Xiao, have run computer simulations that show objects coated with concentric rings of silicon photonic crystals can produce “approximate optical cloaking.” Two years ago, researchers at Duke University and Imperial College, London, created a cloaking effect at the microwave, invisible portion of the spectrum, using ring resonators — tiny metallic structures. But it’s not yet possible to construct them to work at smaller wavelengths, in the spectrum’s visible portion. So Dong suggested trying crystals instead. Johnson says it’s a bit like water bending around a rock. When light hits the coating, it flows around the coated object, which then seems to disappear. More work needs to be done, however. The bent waves are perturbed, so the object isn’t fully masked; hence the “approximate” optical cloaking. But science and wizardry seem close to merging. —TG



Prism has already reported on the oleophobic—or oil resistant—properties of the lotus plant. But this natural wonder is also superhydrophobic, supremely efficient at repelling water. Which means it’s self-cleaning, because as water droplets form on its leaves and roll off, they take grime with them. Now researchers at India’s National Institute for Interdisciplinary Science and Technology have employed nanotechnology biomimicry to develop a coating that eschews water much as a lotus does. The coating’s made from carbon nanofibers assembled in a honeycomb arrangement and covered with paraffin a nanometer thick. Once it’s applied to a surface of glass, metal or mica, water beads up and rolls off those surfaces, with a similar cleansing effect. Ever-clean cars and windows can’t be far away. —TG


When it comes to crunching numbers, boys outperform girls, right? Nope. A new study proves that long-accepted stereotype wrong. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin reviewed standardized math test results from between 2005 and 2007 in 10 states, involving more than 7 million students — the largest study of its kind. In each state, at every level, from elementary school to high school, no difference was found in the math skills of the two sexes.
Two decades back, studies found boys and girls equally competent at math in elementary school, while girls lagged at the high-school level. But they’ve now bridged that gap, perhaps because more girls are taking advanced math classes. Girls still score lower on the math SAT tests, but the researchers point out that many more girls than boys take the SATs, and college-bound students are not representative of the larger population. Thus, another gender myth is laid to rest. —TG


Tailpipe exhaust is a visible reminder that almost 60 percent of the energy created by gasoline engines is wasted. A typical car and its accessories use only around 25 percent of the power produced under the hood. But a new material used by researchers at Ohio State University could help capture and put to use some of that lost energy. Thallium-doped lead telluride is not only twice as efficient as the material typically used in most thermoelectric power generators, but it works best at temperatures between 450 and 950 degrees Fahrenheit, the range at which most car engines operate. A small thermoelectric generator using the material could make cars more efficient. And less wasteful. —TG



The zebra mussel, a fast-breeding bivalve native to Eastern Europe, has caused havoc in the U.S. since 1988, when it was first discovered in Michigan’s Lake St. Clair, between Great Lakes Erie and Huron. It’s since spread to other waterways, including the Mississippi, Hudson and Arkansas rivers. Zebra mussels damage harbors, power stations and water-treatment plants when they clog pipes and water intakes. Economic losses amount to some $5 billion a year. So how did this striped menace end up in American waters? Probably from the ballast tanks of cargo ships. Tanks hold water to help stabilize empty ships, but dump it once they’re laden. So contaminated water from Eastern Europe easily could have been jettisoned into the Great Lakes.

Now marine engineers at the University of Michigan have come up with a better design for future cargo ships. A system of large pipes would replace the ballast tanks, so that a ship would be continuously filled with local waters flowing in and out, rather than transporting sea water from one part of the world to another. The system may also cut ships’ fuel costs by 7.3 percent. The design won’t solve the ongoing zebra mussel infestation, but if it’s adopted, it would deter other pests from hitching a ride across the globe. —TG


A window filters sunlight into homes and offices and soon it may help power them. It would act as a new type of “solar concentrator,” which takes light collected from a large area, like a window, and concentrates it. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, led by electrical engineer Marc A. Baldo, found that a window painted with a mixture of two or more dyes can absorb several wavelengths of light. The light is then re-emitted — using a different wavelength — to solar cells arrayed at the window’s edges. The amount of electricity generated by each solar cell increases by a factor of 40 because the light it receives is more focused. For little extra cost, Baldo says, even existing solar panels can be upgraded using this method to increase their efficiency by 50 percent. The technology could be commercially available within three years. So remember: no pane, no gain. —TG



AUSTRALIA—Could small-town South Australia offer some help for high oil prices and climate change? Innamincka, a tiny arid township (Pop. 18), has long languished in desert obscurity. Until now. Its residents are set to receive free geothermal electrical power early next year, part of a pilot program run by Geodynamics, an alternative energy firm that’s secured funding from one of Australia’s biggest utility companies.

Innamincka is an ideal testing ground because it’s next door to the company’s proposed “hot rocks” electrical power site. Water is pumped 2.8 miles below the surface onto the exceedingly hot granite, creating steam that generates electricity. That this geothermal process emits zero emissions is great news for Australia, one of the world’s largest greenhouse gas polluters. State politicians welcome the Innamincka project, which will help evaluate whether geothermal power can be piped into the country’s electricity grids. “We’re being watched worldwide,” says Geodynamics chief executive, Gerry Drove-White, who believes the outback may contain enough geothermal energy to replace all Australian coal-fired power stations for 250 years.—CHRIS PRITCHARD

“Together [the Large Haldron Collider and the Space program] cost less than one tenth of a per cent of world GDP. If the human race cannot afford this, then it doesn’t deserve the epithet ‘human’.”

—British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking on the $8 billion LHC at the CERN research center, Switzerland



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