Science Scoops


Beware the Sound Police!

Shoot a gun in Rochester, NY, and the police might arrive sooner than you think. Thanks to the ShotSpotter Location System, the Rochester Police Department can now rapidly pinpoint the location of gunshots in the city and respond more quickly.

The new technology, patented and produced by ShotSpotter, Inc., of Mountain View, CA, uses remote sensors mounted on city buildings to listen for gunshots. The system requires about eight to 12 sensors per square mile. When a gun is fired, the ShotSpotter triangulates (finds the location of an unknown point by forming a triangle with the unknown point and two known points as vertices) the noise, pinpoints the location to within a few feet, and then alerts 911.

Rochester is the sixth area in the United States to use this sound technology. ShotSpotter is also being used in Charleston, SC; Chicago, IL; Franklin County, OH; Glendale, AZ; and Redwood, CA. Rochester police chief Robert Duffy notes that in his city, most murders are the result of gunfire. He’s hoping that ShotSpotter will help police reduce violent deaths.

Although the ShotSpotter won’t solve every shooting crime, Duffy believes that it will improve an officer’s chance of making an arrest. By arriving more quickly at shooting scenes, police will have more witnesses to interview and more physical evidence to collect.

How accurate is ShotSpotter? It once traced the sound of 12 shots fired in Charleston, SC, to two guns fired by a driver and a passenger in a vehicle traveling at 9 miles per hour!


Can a machine reproduce itself?


Hod Lipson and his colleagues at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, have built the first scalable robot that has, in turn, built an exact copy of itself. Sounds like science fiction, but it’s not.

Lipson and his team built their self-replicating device using small (4-inch) mechanical building blocks that can attach themselves to one another using electromagnets. Each block contains a microprocessor and an identical set of “surprisingly simple” instructions. The instructions tell the blocks how to swivel, depending on their position and orientation. For example, three or four blocks piled on top of each other to form a tower can create an identical tower by swiveling around like a crane to pick up other nearby blocks and pile them on top of each other in an identical fashion.

By studying the process and precision of this self-replicating machine, scientists may be inspired to use such devices to explore other planets or some hostile environments on Earth. “Self-replication,” Lipton says, “is the ultimate form of repair. Robotic systems on Mars or at the bottom of the ocean could repair themselves using a mechanism like this.”

Lara Croft: Wound Raider

If you expect to become a surgeon someday, you’d better pay attention in science class — and also play plenty of video games. Gee, zapping space aliens on Nintendo seems more like goofing off than training for a science career. Yet according to a joint study conducted by researchers at New York’s Beth Israel Hospital and the National Institute on Media, surgeons who play video games (at least three hours per week) made 37 percent fewer mistakes when performing laparoscopic surgeries. Plus, they performed the surgery 27 percent faster.

Why? One key is the way surgery itself is changing. Laparoscopies (delicate surgical procedures performed through tiny incisions) require the surgeon to manipulate long tools, which work a lot like joysticks. Meanwhile, they watch the operation on a computer screen. Doesn’t that sound like you and your friends, playing Xbox? Wow — the quick reflexes, decision-making skills, and excellent hand-eye coordination you need to win at Dungeon Siege, Battlefield, and other top games might also help you to become a cardiac surgeon!

“We’ve coined a term for it,” reports robotics surgery expert Dr. Wiles Nifong in an article for the Houston Chronicle. “We call it ‘video dexterity.’” Dr. Nifong believes that the skill starts early. To prove it, he’s been teaching classes of computer- and video-savvy 12-year-olds how to tie intricate surgical knots — a challenge to most medical students. Yet the kids, who’ve grown up with lightning fingers thanks to playing with video keypads like GameBoy, can often tie these complex knots remarkably quickly.

The link between gaming and surgery is so strong that leading gaming developers, including Sony, are now creating super-realistic game-based simulators to help train tomorrow’s surgeons. A new computer technology called haptics will even give the surgical instruments used in these simulators perfect feedback. Players will feel the difference between bone, skin, and other tissues, as they perform cybersurgeries that mimic the real thing. Let’s hope that tomorrow’s operating room won’t be called PlayStation 15!


Can a machine reproduce itself?


Hod Lipson and his colleagues at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, have built the first scalable robot that has, in turn, built an exact copy of itself. Sounds like science fiction, but it’s not.

Lipson and his team built their self-replicating device using small (4-inch) mechanical building blocks that can attach themselves to one another using electromagnets. Each block contains a microprocessor and an identical set of “surprisingly simple” instructions. The instructions tell the blocks how to swivel, depending on their position and orientation. For example, three or four blocks piled on top of each other to form a tower can create an identical tower by swiveling around like a crane to pick up other nearby blocks and pile them on top of each other in an identical fashion.

By studying the process and precision of this self-replicating machine, scientists may be inspired to use such devices to explore other planets or some hostile environments on Earth. “Self-replication,” Lipton says, “is the ultimate form of repair. Robotic systems on Mars or at the bottom of the ocean could repair themselves using a mechanism like this.”

Dirty Money!

You’ve heard that you can’t squeeze blood from a stone. But what about oxygen?

Well, NASA scientists believe you can. In fact, they’re so positive that it can be done that they’ve challenged inventors to create a device to squeeze out oxygen from simulated moon dirt. The winner, if there is one, will receive $250,000 for being the first to pull out at least 5 kilograms of breathable oxygen from volcanic ash simulating lunar dirt!

About 30 tams have expressed an interest in the Moon Regolith Oxygen challenge (MoonROx). The device cannot weigh more than 25 kilograms and the challenge ends on 1 June 2008.

“The use of resources on other worlds is a key element of the Vision for Space Exploration,” says Craig Steidle, NASA’s associate administrator for the exploration systems mission directorate. The Vision for Space Exploration is NASA’s plan to fly to the Moon and on to Mars. Extracting oxygen from the dirt would make a lunar base more self-sufficient and less reliant on oxygen deliveries from Earth. Sponberg says that, ideally, NASA would send an oxygen generator to the Moon well ahead of astronauts, so they would have a supply of freshly made oxygen when they arrive.

ET: Phone Home!

If intelligent beings live elsewhere in the universe, how long will it take before we know they are “out there”? Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) in Mountain View, CA, says within two decades.

He bases that best guesstimate on advances in computer processing power and radiotelescope technology, which, he says, will ensure detection — if they’re out there.

Shostak estimates that the number of alien radio transmissions in our galaxy could number between 10,000 and one million. Finding ETs, however, will not be easy. It will require observing and inspecting radio emissions from most of the galaxy’s 100 billion stars. But it will take only a generation to analyze radio emissions from enough stars to find the first alien civilization. You shouldn’t sit by your phone waiting, though, for any long-distance calls. As Shostak says, there are still uncertainties in his prediction.

Islands in the Sun

Talk about extreme engineering!

The largest artificial offshore islands in the world will soon be finished in Dubai, the industrial capital of the United Arab Emirates. The two islands, which will be shaped like palm trees, will not be natural. They will be built three miles offshore from 4.2 billion cubic feet of dredged sand and 50 million tons of rock!

Called Palm Island No. 1 and Palm Island No. 2, these islands in the sunny desert landscape will have “trunks” five miles long and be topped by 17 sandy fronds up to 330 feet long. This impressive engineering project will cost $3.5 billion and include a mind-boggling collection of villas, hotels, marinas, and shopping complexes. Everything will be connected by high-speed monorail.

Don’t think it’ll happen? Think again! The first island was completed in 2003 after two years of work. The Palm Island Project is scheduled for completion in 2006.

But wait, there’s more! When Palm Island No. 2 is completed, an even bigger project is about to begin — a chain of 250 islands, called the World, laid out to mimic Earth land masses. According to Popular Science magazine, the island chain will “span 5 miles, and require 200 million cubic feet of sand and 30 million tons of rock.”

Rock-Climbing Robot

You a rock climber? Yes? Then of course you’re athletic and brave – but how about antiquated?

Wait! Antiquated?

Yes, antiquated. Your services may no longer be required — thanks to Lemur, the spiderlike robotic mountaineer. One day Lemur, not humans, will be doing everything from saving earthquake victims to climbing cliffs on Mars.

This is not a lot of wishful thinking on the part of scientists. In fact, Lemur has already followed a human climber up an irregular surface without any guidance from a controller.

Lemur is the brainchild of engineers at Stanford University and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), both in California. It is a fully autonomous rock climber with a round body, four spidery legs, and an uncanny human gait. Lemur climbs by using a claw at the end of each of its limbs to hook into a foothold. After Lemur moves one of its limbs to a new foothold, it simultaneously repositions its other three to maintain balance. This requires complex, on-the-fly calculations from its onboard computer. To see Lemur move, visit http://sun-valley.stanford.edu/~tbretl/ and click on one of the movies.

Lemur’s technology could take planetary exploration to another level. Tim Bretl (Stanford University), the lead engineer on the project, reports in a recent issue of New Scientist that "scientists would really like robots on Mars to be able to access the sides of cliffs to look at the geology. This could be a way to get there."

Move Over, R2-D2 and C-3PO. . .Meet ASIMO!
by Anne Renaud

What would you do with your very own personal robot? Program it to clean your room, take out the garbage, mow the lawn? Then you may want to say hello to ASIMO, one of the world’s most advanced humanoid robots! Its name stands for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility.

Since 1986, Honda engineers in Japan have been developing a completely independent two-legged walking robot to help people in the home. Standing four feet tall, ASIMO’s user-friendly height is ideal for assisting people who are bedridden or confined to a wheelchair. Among its many talents, ASIMO can walk backward, forward, and sideways; turn corners; walk up and down stairs; open and close doors; shake hands; work light switches; and move and carry light objects.

ASIMO’s eyes are actually cameras that capture visual information, allowing it to detect the movements of objects, assess distance and direction, recognize people, and address them by name. ASIMO also has sound-recognition capabilities that enable it to recognize its own name, as well as look at the person who is speaking and then respond.

Weighing in at 115 pounds, ASIMO’s body is made of a strong but lightweight metal, called magnesium alloy, and covered with plastic panels. ASIMO is powered by a 40-volt battery — located in its midsection to help maintain balance — that can operate for 30 minutes at a time. Its walking speed is approximately 1 mile per hour.

According to Honda engineers, though, it may take some time before you can welcome ASIMO into your home. So, you’d better get cracking on those chores.

People "Flip" Over Segway

The Segway scooter, an innovative "human transport system" that was supposed to change the world, was recently recalled at the request of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and Segway L.L.C. Turns out that the two-wheeled scooter, which uses gyroscopes — a device consisting of a spinning mass, typically a disk or wheel, mounted on a base so that it can turn freely in one or more directions and thus maintain its orientation regardless of movement of the base — to keep upright, sometimes flips its rider off when the batteries get low.

That’s right, the once-touted-as-"untippable" transporters can suddenly brake when their batteries get low. Apparently, this is most likely to happen when a rider suddenly speeds up, tries to drive over a bump or up an incline, or continues to ride after receiving a low-battery alert. With too little "juice" to remain upright, the Segway can suddenly stop, giving its rider free flying lessons. So far, three Segway owners have experienced "flight," one of whom suffered head injuries upon landing.

After Segway representatives told the CPSC about the problem, the consumer organization decided to recall the 6,000 scooters sold to date. The solution was simple. Segway installed free new software on all its models that will warn riders when the scooter’s battery is low. (Of course, riders must heed the warning!) Newly built scooters already contain the upgraded software. So, by the time you read this scoop, Segways may already be segueing back into consumers’ hearts.

Get Your Motor Running!

Quick! What’s just 500 nanometers wide (that’s 300 times narrower than a human hair), runs on electricity, and is totally synthetic?

If you guessed the nanomotor, you’re right! Alex Zettl (University of California, Berkeley) and his colleagues created the tiny device by first attaching a multiwalled carbon nanotube to a silicon wafer and then attaching the motor’s "blade" (a gold square, measuring about 200 nanometers wide) to the tube. Next, the team carefully carved away parts of the wafer so that the square blade could rotate without hitting the surrounding walls.

How did the motor run? Simply by having an electric current applied to different parts of the wafer. By varying the voltage supplied, the scientists could control how the metal plate moved. They were able to make a movie of the turning blade by taking a series of still images with a scanning electron microscope. You can see the movie at www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2003/07/23_motor.shtml.

Speaking to a Scientific American reporter, Zettl boasted that "it’s the smallest synthetic motor that’s ever been made!" But he does admit that Mother Nature has them beat! "There are biological motors," he says, "that are equal to this or slightly smaller in size — but we are catching up." For billions of years molecular motors have been accomplishing life’s essential tasks at the atomic level. They are found in the membranes of mitochondria, the microscopic bodies in the cells of nearly all living organisms, as well as in chloroplasts of plant cells, where food is converted to usable energy.

Stuck on Gecko Tape

Hanging around your school’s hallways may never be the same.

That’s right, Andre Geim and colleagues at the UK’s Manchester University have come up with a new material covered with nanoscopic hairs that mimic those found on geckos’ feet. Covering a person’s hand with the material, Geim says, could allow them to walk up sheer surfaces and across ceilings. It would also be enough to let them stick to the ceiling — if you just wanted to "hang" around! The tape could be detached from a surface simply by slowly peeling it away from one side.

Microscopic view of Gecko-tape
Microscopic view of Gecko-tape
(Courtesy Andre Geim / Manchester University)

As announced in our September 1998 "Life in Motion" issue, researchers have discovered the secret behind the gecko’s uncanny ability to climb even the most slippery of surfaces with ease and hang from glass using a single toe. It turns out that each gecko foot is covered with millions of tiny hairs — called setae — which collectively can produce a powerful adhesive force.

And that’s the secret behind Gecko-tape — namely 100 million synthetic setae on a piece of tape measuring a centimeter square. Each synthetic hair is made from a material called kapton and measures 2.0 microns in height and 0.2 microns in diameter — the same as gecko hairs. The artificial setae can support a weight of one kilogram. The researchers envision many uses for this new material — from new road-grabbing tires to robots that can climb up walls.

Alas, Geim admits that the way Gecko-tape must be created at the moment does not lend itself easily to mass production. But — stick around — the day we can walk on walls is nearing!

Cloning Hoax?

You probably heard it first on the local news. And if you did, you probably didn’t know whether to laugh or act surprised. The news? A research company claimed to have cloned a human.

"That’s not so surprising," you say.

Here’s the forehead-wrinkling part: Clonaid, the research company in question, has close ties to the Raelians — a religious sect founded by Claude Vorilhon, a Frenchman and former race car driver who believes that green, French-speaking aliens created humankind through cloning 25,000 years ago. (Hmmm. How this story ever became news is the real question!)

Anyway, on December 27, 2002, Clonaid announced the birth of the world’s first human clone the previous day. The clone, a baby girl, was not-too-imaginatively called "Eve." (Too bad Clonaid didn’t announce that the birth had been on December 24th, because then they could have called the clone. . .er, never mind.)

But when the scientific community asked for proof of the claim (such as DNA testing), Clonaid officials failed to deliver. British fertility expert Robert Winston told Britain’s Observer newspaper, "There is no credibility to this story whatsoever. It is just a big con."

Clonaid’s announcement did, however, renew the question of the ethics of cloning. A variety of animals — including sheep, monkeys, cattle, and mice — have been cloned with mixed success (see next story). Some have displayed defects later in life, and scientists fear that the same could happen with cloned humans. The question is, Should humans clone humans?

Good-bye, Dolly. . .

Dolly, the world’s first cloned mammal (a sheep), was born on July 5, 1996, at the Roslin Institute, Edinburgh, Scotland. She died on February 14, 2003, of progressive lung disease.

For six and a half years, Dolly was the focus of world attention. Her birth had been heralded as one of the most significant scientific breakthroughs of the decade. But it had also prompted a long-running argument over the ethics of cloning. Hundreds of mammals have been cloned since Dolly. But as the first, Dolly symbolized different hopes and fears to different people.

One question on many minds was how long Dolly would live. Now we know, and the answer is rekindling an intense debate over the health and life expectancy of cloned animals.

The fact is that Dolly was not old — by sheep standards — when she died. Dr. Harry Griffin of the Roslin Institute said, "Sheep can live to 11 or 12 years of age, and lung infections are common in older sheep." What’s more, as early as January 2002, Dolly suffered from a mysterious form of premature arthritis. She also showed signs of premature aging at the genetic level.

Dolly was not the first cloned sheep, though, to die prematurely. On February 2, 2003, Australia’s first cloned sheep died unexpectedly at the age of two years and 10 months. The cause of that death is unknown, because the carcass was decomposing and had to be quickly cremated.

Connie Cepko, a biologist and professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, called Dolly "both a curiosity and a very serious warning. This whole thing serves as a stark reminder that, though you can make the animal, you can’t make a disease-free animal," she said. Following an autopsy, Dolly was donated to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, where she was stuffed and put on display.

Diamonds Are for Terror

It’s scary, this new biotech world we live in — especially because terrorists claim to have biological weapons. But our ability to detect the presence of dangerous biological agents has just gotten better — thanks to the help of a new diamond film developed by Robert J. Hamers and Lloyd Smith, chemists at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Because diamond films can be deposited on silicon, the stuff of which computer chips and other microelectronic devices are made, they provide a bridge between the world of miniature electronics and biology, a winning platform for biosensing.

The beauty of this film is that it can be placed in inexpensive, compact sensors, which can then be used to constantly "sniff" the environment for the slightest trace of biological weapons. Coupled with modern electronics — created by Dan van der Weide, a UW-Madison professor of electrical and computer engineering — the new sensors could also sound alarms or call for help.

The sensors would be about the size of a postage stamp, Hamers says, and could be sprinkled in public places — such as airports and subways — where large numbers of people gather. They could act, he says, like a "bio cell phone, where they just sit in place and sniff, and when they detect something of interest, send a signal" to alert security or sound an alarm. Although the biosensors still need some additional engineering, Hamers says, "the hardest part appears to be over." When completed, the sensors will be able to detect biological agents such as anthrax, smallpox, and other molecules that can potentially be used as biological weapons or agents of terror.

Wanted: A Bunch of Lightweights!

If you want some head-over-heels excitement, look no more. Consider what the Zero Gravity Corporation (ZERO-G) has to offer. Starting this year, the newly formed U.S. firm has begun offering plane rides that simulate the microgravity of space travel.

Aboard a Boeing 727 airplane specially modified to fly special parabolic maneuvers — like a roller coaster ride in the air — those inside the plane are treated to astronaut-like, free-floating fun.

ZERO-G plans to offer a variety of public packages. "We want to come to a city near you and take the parabolas to the person," says Byron Lichtenberg, president of ZERO-G and a former shuttle astronaut.

"We are hoping to allow young adults 15 and older to participate in the parabolic astronaut training flights," adds Peter Diamandis, chairman of ZERO-G. "I wish I could have participated in a ZERO-G flight when I was 15! It would have been amazing. and I can’t wait to share this with teenagers. I’m hoping that some folks will invent new types of weightless ZERO-G sports and discover new, fun things to do in weightlessness."

Hmmm. . . .Imagine having 25 times more "hang time" than the best basketball player does. Think about outperforming the best Olympic gold medallist in gymnastics down here on Earth.

For many years, NASA has safely used its KC-135 aircraft to train astronauts and prepare experiments for space flight. What ZERO-G now wants to do is bring the unique environment of weightlessness to everyone in a safe and affordable fashion.

"During the course of my astronaut training, I flew over 2,000 parabolas, and I know how much fun it is to be weightless," notes Lichtenberg. "It’s awesome. Pure and total freedom!"

How much will it cost? Well, that’s still up in the air. But it is likely to cost about $5,500 to make 10 to 15 parabolas.

Check out the Zero Gravity Corporation Web site at www.zerogcorp.com/index.html.

Move Over, Godzilla!

Speaking of electrifying news, anyone who has ever watched a Godzilla movie probably has noticed that the monster likes to body-slam power lines all across Japan. Well, if Godzilla wants to sneak up on, say, Tokyo in the near future, it might have to contend with "Guard Dragon."

Yup, that’s right. Japanese electronic specialists at SANYO and robotic specialists at Tmsuk (pronounced "temzack") have just unveiled the latest in security technology. Meet Banryu — a four-legged robot fashioned after an ancient reptile with a futuristic twist. This tiny guard robot measures one meter long, 80 centimeters high, and 70 centimeters wide. It weighs 40 kilograms and can move 15 meters per minute, which is more than fast enough for it to travel in the confined, cluttered spaces around your house that it was designed to patrol.

The guard dragon can "confidently" walk over 10-centimeter gaps or climb a 15-centimeter-high step using sensors located on its legs. Owners will be able to switch the Banryu robot into any of three operating modes: (1) a "remote control" mode that allows users to send commands and receive information via mobile phone; (2) a "caretaking" mode, in which the robot patrols the house and reports back if it senses someone walking close by; and (3) a "pet" mode, in which Banryu acts like a pet dog, obeying commands such as "Sit!" or "Paw!"

The robot also has an innovative "odor sensor," which can sense smoke and alert its owners to a smoldering fire — via a howl or a mobile phone text message.

How much is that "Guard Dragon" in the window? The initial batch of 50 (available this year) sell for about $16,400 each. By October, though, another Japanese firm (Fujitsu) plans to unveil a similar home robot — a vacuum-cleaner-size robot called "Maron-1"; it’ll sell for about $1,625. Will the price of Maron-1 sweep Guard Dragon under the carpet? Time will tell.

"Beam Me Up, Scotty!"

It’s true! It’s happened! It’s amazing! Scientists at the Australian National University have successfully "teleported" a laser beam encoded with data! That’s right. Australian physicist Ping Koy Lam and his 12-member team were able to completely break apart a data-filled light beam into billions of photons. Then, after making some measurements of the destroyed beam, they were able to fully reconstruct an exact replica of the destroyed beam a meter (more than a yard) away!

But don’t get your hopes too high — yet — that this fantastic development will lead to human teleportation. Right now, Lam’s teleport system will be used in a new generation of super-fast computers. But Lam says that he believes the process, called "quantum teleportation" (which takes but a nanosecond, or one billionth of one second), will soon be used for teleporting matter. In fact, he predicts that someone will probably be able to teleport an atom or a group of atoms in the next three to five years! Teleporting a living person, however, would likely be virtually impossible, Lam says. "In theory, there is nothing stopping us, but the complexity of the problem is so huge that no one is thinking seriously about it at the moment."

Brain "Cells"

Got a cell phone next to your ear? Better put it down, at least until after you read this. British scientists have announced that cell phones may cause damage to your brain.

Cell phones have long been thought to lead to a wide range of problems, including sleep loss, headaches, and tumors. Now British biophysicist Alan Preece (Bristol Oncology Center in London) says that the obsessive use of cell phones may lead to brain cancer! Yikes! And Preece is not alone. He is one of a gaggle of scientists becoming increasingly convinced that radiation from cell phones can trigger chemical processes in the body that may be harmful.

According to a recent report in New Scientist, people who have been using cell phones for up to 10 years had a 26 percent higher risk of brain cancer than a control sample of patients.

"Without question, there is a biological threat," agrees biophysicist James Lin (University of Illinois in Chicago). "Our understanding is still evolving. We need to have a much larger database."

However, this news is still under investigation. Last year, a British government-sponsored scientific inquiry concluded that while there was no evidence of a danger to health, it would be wise to discourage children from using cell phones, because young people are more susceptible to radiation.

Driving Miss Artificial Passenger

If you’ve ever been worried about your mother or father taking a long drive alone – fearing they might fall asleep and get into an accident – your worries may soon be over. Meet, for lack of a better name right now "artificial passenger" or AP for short.

AP is not a blow-up doll or a cardboard cutout. It’s a software program developed by IBM designed to make car trips safer. The software chats with you, chooses your music, tells you jokes – and sounds alarms when you foul up.

Some researchers have tried to develop other ways to help drivers stay awake. For instance, they’ve thought about using a camera to monitor your eye movements for signs of sleepiness. But IBM researchers don’t believe that’s necessary. All the driver needs is a pal with whom to talk.

Although this pal will be packed into the dashboard, it will know a lot about you – things programmed into its database about your interests or profession. If you think you’re sleepy, just activate the program and AP will begin to ask questions, like, "Hello, Dave, it’s HAL. How have you been? Who was the last girl (boy) you dated?"

Your answer is picked up by a microphone, and a voice analyzer then looks for signs of tiredness. A slow response, for instance, may be read as a sign of fatigue. AP will assume you are dozing off and wake you up in a number of ways: opening a window, sounding a buzzer, spraying you with icy water, changing radio stations, or telling you a joke: "Hello, Dave. I’ve opened the driver door and you’re going to fall out . . . NOT!"

If you reckon there’s no need for such a thing, you’ll have to speak with Andrew Parks of the Driving Simulation Centre at Britain’s Transport Research Laboratory in Crowthorne, Berkshire. He says that up to 30 percent of road traffic accidents are thought to be caused by drowsy drivers.

Fragrant Waste?

Traveling past a pig farm on a hot summer’s day can be quite the nasal experience — similar to standing in a closed closet filled with rotten eggs. That disgusting odor emanates from pork waste and is also the source of major complaints against factory hog farms in Iowa, our nation’s top pork-producing state.

But researchers are on the verge of a major breakthrough in the elimination of hog manure odor. Biologist David Soll (University of Iowa) says that all you need to do is bombard the manure with a little ultrasound. Doing so cuts by 50 percent the buildup of hydrogen sulfide, the key "rotten-egg," odor-producing gas in hog manure. In addition to being an inexpensive and environmentally safe approach to deal with the problem, this is an approach that satisfies scientists, hog farmers, and government officials.

Using ultrasound in search of advances in biology and agriculture is not new. For years, scientists have been using these high-frequency sound waves to induce and hasten biological and chemical changes at the molecular level. Acoustic waves generated by titanium tubes vibrating 20,000 times per second penetrate the manure, breaking chemical bonds and triggering chemical reactions that alter the typical decomposition process. When you apply ultrasound to hog waste, it still looks like hog manure but "it definitely has a softer fragrance to it," says Bruce Rastetter, president of Heartland Pork Enterprises.

This spring, a panel of professional smell testers will judge the effectiveness of the technology, comparing the aroma of the treated manure with that of untreated confinement pens and lagoons. If the results are positive, production of the ultrasound systems could begin this year. We’ll just have to wait and smell what happens.

Fried Clones

Get your stomachs ready, because companies in the United States are developing the technology needed to "clone" chickens on a massive scale. Once the most desirable traits of tasty birds – like the right amount of tenderness and juiciness – have been genetically engineered, tens of thousands of eggs, which will hatch into identical tasty chicken copies, could roll off the production lines every hour. The idea is to generate billions of clones to supply chicken farms.

That’s right. The National Institute of Science and Technology has given Origen Therapeutics of Burlingame, CA, and Embrex, of North Carolina, $4.7 million to help fund research on this project. What the poultry industry wants is disease-resistant birds that grow faster on less food . . . and taste good. The company is trying to grow embryonic stem cells in bulk. The cells will be taken from fertilized eggs as soon as they’re laid. These donor cells will then be injected into the embryos of freshly laid, fertilized recipient eggs. When hatched, the chicks won’t technically be clones, because they will contain cells from both donor and recipient eggs.

Ah, but, you know, in the poultry world that doesn’t matter – especially if the end product tastes good. So, who knows? Pretty soon those big buckets of fried chicken might be full of "cloned" chicken.

Honey, I Shrunk the Laboratory!

No Rick Moranis with his Hollywood stunts here. We’re talking about a real nanotechnological breakthrough. Yup, Nanogen, a California-based biotechnology company, has designed a chemistry lab so small (one millimeter by one millimeter) it could fit on the face of a tiny computer chip. The mini-lab, which the Nanogen scientists call a chemistry "chip" because it’s made of silicon, has two parts: 25 electrodes arranged in a row and tubes that carry fluids into and out of the mini-lab The lab is designed to extract DNA from bacteria in blood samples. Here’s how it works:

First, a chemical is added to a sample of blood to reverse its electric charge (yes, blood has a charge). Next, the blood is carried into the mini-lab through one of the tubes. Once inside the lab, the electrodes turn on and release an electrical charge. This charge attracts bacteria and repels the chemically altered blood cells. Another fluid is then pumped into the lab, which washes away the blood cells and leaves the bacteria behind. Once bloody fluid is drained away, the mini-lab electrodes zap the bacteria with another jolt of electric charge, which breaks open the bacteria and releases enzymes. The enzymes then gobble up the bacteria, leaving only strands of DNA and RNA behind for analysis by Nanogen researchers.

Minicopter Acrobat

Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (with some help from NASA and others) have developed a mini-helicopter with a twist, literally.

The Minicopter won’t be used for casual rides but will be used to enter caves looking for terrorists, to hover inches above the ground while sweeping for land mines, to swoop into the mouth of a volcano and videotape its eruptions, to zip over a mountaintop to measure snowfall, and to do just about anything else you can imagine. Yes, Minicopter’s mission is to go where no human has gone before – or where no human would want to go, or could go even if he or she wanted to!

Minicopter started off as a $1,250 minicomputer kit. It ended up being a 7.6-kilogram high-tech Erector set, overflowing with "circuitry, computer chips, miniature instrumentation, and a gas tank that suspiciously resembles a clear-plastic juice bottle." At first, the robotic bird was able to perform many aggressive, acrobatic maneuvers only with an elite pilot at the controls. Now it has an automatic pilot program so advanced that even a child can make it roll.

Indeed, the Minicopter is the first robotic helicopter capable of performing a high speed 360-degree aileron roll (a corkscrew-like maneuver accomplished with movable flaps on the copter’s wings) and then continue to fly! Although the Minicopter is still being tested and tweaked, Eric Feron, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, imagines that these machines could be "as graceful and agile as birds." He also foresees a day when Minicopters will be able to fly without anyone controlling them at all!

Now for the two big questions: When will Minicopters become commercially available, and how much will one cost? No one knows just yet when the copters will begin rolling off the assembly line, but when all is said and done, Feron anticipates a price tag of several thousand dollars or less per unit. Start putting those pennies away.

News Flash from the World of Nanotechnology!

Ever try to pick up or flip over a chromosome? No? I didn’t think so. As you might imagine, that would be a rather difficult feat – especially if you tried it with your fingers.

Thanks to a team of Scottish researchers under the leadership of Kishan Dholakia (St. Andrews University), microscopic particles can now be manipulated rather easily – by using laser beams like chopsticks. As reported in a recent issue of Scientific American, the idea is not new, and other researchers have been able to focus a laser beam onto an organelle – a tiny structure within a living cell – grasp the minuscule entity, and hold it in place. They have also used a "microbeam" to hold an organelle in place while using a second microbeam to conducted delicate surgery.

But no one has ever rotated a microscopic particle before – until now. To rotate, flip, or flop a microscopic particle, the researchers used two specialized laser beams that, when combined, formed a spiral pattern. Once the particle they want to rotate is locked in that spiral, the researchers can control the rotation of chromosomes, enzymes, and other tiny structures more freely and precisely.

What good is the technique? Laser beams are now standard components of such commonplace objects as compact-disc players and printers. Dholakia believes that the technique "could be used to drive motors, mixers, centrifuges, and other rotating parts in cheap, tiny, automated technologies of the future."

Read My Lips!

Ever been in a relatively quiet public setting, enjoying a bit of peace, when all of a sudden you hear a cellphone ring? Then, before you can say "Oh, no!" a loud one-way conversation shatters the silence. The situation is getting worse as cellphones become more and more popular. That means there are going to be fewer and fewer public places left on Earth where you can go and not be in the presence of a cellphone and its potentially obnoxious user. (Forgive us, teen cell phone users; you know whom we mean).

Well, thanks to researchers at Japanese cellphone maker NTT DoCoMo, silence may return to some public places – once they finish designing the world’s first lip-reading cellphone! Yessssssss!

In Japan, cellphones have become such a nuisance that some public places have banned their use, or are requiring cellphone etiquette – namely that people cup their hands over their mouths as they speak softly into the phone. Alas, the new phone won’t be available for about five years. But once it’s here, all a user will have to do is move his or her lips with a whisper. The DoCoMo’s phone will do the rest. A contact sensor by the phone’s mouthpiece will pick up tiny electrical signals sent by muscles around the user’s mouth, and then convert the signals into spoken words by a speech synthesizer or into text for a text message or e-mail. DoCoMo says that the phone will also help people who have lost their voice.


Who needs reality? If Japan’s Sony Corporation has its vision in focus, there’ll be a robo-pet in every family. The idea sprouted in 1999, when Sony introduced a robotic dog, called AIBO?, which sold out in a flash in Tokyo. And AIBO? cost $2,500 a pop! Since then, some of the world’s biggest toy makers have started barking up the same tree.

In fact, if you went to the 2001 Toy Fair in New York City, you’ll understand why 2001 has been called the "Year of the Robot Family." Robotic dogs, cats, birds, fish, dinosaurs, and insects dominated the fair. Are we all destined to own a robo-pet someday? Yes, says Stuart Wallock (Entertainment Robot America, Los Angeles).

"Our vision is a robot for every member of the family."

So get ready for the robo-attack. Sony is gearing up now to sell 28-cm-tall robots that look like pudgy puppies – but these puppies will have lights atop their heads and pink or purple jewels for eyes, and will be equipped with digital cameras.

It’s a dog-gone world after all!

Slip-Sliding Away. . .No More?

Ever been in a car that suddenly hit a patch of ice and slid out of control? Ever feel your body jerk off-balance when you stepped on an ice-covered sidewalk? Scary, isn’t it? Well, if a Michigan Tech University (MTU) researcher’s got it right, he’s going to melt those fears away. That’s right. Russ Alger, director of the Institute of Snow Research at MTU’s Keweenaw Research Center, is determined to put an end to "treacherous ice" and make winter’s slipperiest surfaces safe for planes, people, and automobiles.

The solution, Alger says, is "Anti-Icing Smart Overlays," a type of limestone that looks like kitty litter. You see, the customary way to deice roads, sidewalks, and runways is to spread salt or other deicing compounds on the slippery surfaces. Although the chemicals work, they are expensive and harmful to the environment; they also can rot car bodies. Salts and other deicing compounds also wash away as the ice melts. This means that the next time it snows, the roads have to be treated again.

Those woes could be over. What Alger proposes to do is stick his special compound onto pavement with epoxy — a heat-setting resin characterized by toughness and strong adhesion. Once in place, the compound will "soak up" road salts or other deicing chemicals like a sponge (or like kitty litter) and hold them in place for weeks! Alger doesn’t expect that all highways will be treated with the special compound right away. Instead, he’d like to see some problem areas treated first, such as bridges, highway intersections, and some icy sidewalks (to prevent car accidents and pedestrian falls).

Another prime application could be airport runways. In fact, Alger is working under a contract from the Federal Aviation Administration to run tests this winter on a service road at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, and on a section of a taxiway at Atlantic City Airport in New Jersey. But as Alger points out, in the end, some of the greatest benefits could be closer to home. "You could mix up a pail [of the overlay material] and put it on your front walk," he says. Voilà! No more slip-sliding away!

War Stinks

Speaking of smells, did you know that the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) is trying to harness the power of foul odor and use it to their advantage? Think of it. What teenage kid hasn’t made a stink bomb? Is it surprising, then, that the DOD would also find nose-pinching smells an appealing weapon, especially since they would be not only effective, but harmless?!

Well, for the last four years, experimental psychologist Pam Dalton and her colleagues at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, PA, have been trying to chemically mimic some of the foulest odors in nature — including body odor, burnt hair, vomit, feces, and, well, use your imagination.

Yes, the researchers have been making a big stink, trying to create for the DOD a globally unpleasant odor — an odor that will be unappealing to people all around the globe. They plan to create an odor so foul that no matter who you are or where you live, your reaction to it will be the same — namely, you’ll run away screaming in disgust!

Of course, Dalton had to test the manufactured smells, which required the use of some brave noses from different countries and cultures. What she discovered first is that displeasing odors are more complex than you might think. For instance, butyric acid, a common ingredient in vomit, is also present in certain strong cheeses. While some sniffers (who were given no hints about the odor) smelled vomit, others (who were told to think of food) smelled cheese. As expected, the latter group did not find the odor as vile as the first group did.

So what is the most horrific odor on Earth? So far, Dalton and her crew believe it’s the smell of "organic decomposition" — rotting flesh and organic decay.

If stink bombs prove a success, rancid smells could be used in other situations — say, to keep skiers on trails and off protected lands. Can you sniff out some other good uses? Send your thoughts to: Sell that Smell, ODYSSEY, 30 Grove St., Suite C, Peterborough, NH 03458.

World’s Longest Suspension Bridge

It’s yet to be seen, but Italy may soon begin construction on the world’s largest suspension bridge. The Strait of Messina Bridge is intended to link the island of Sicily to mainland Italy. This engineering marvel will have to span 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) of deep water and sustain the shimmies and shakes of this seismically active area. In fact, the bridge is intended to be able to withstand a magnitude 7.1 earthquake with an epicenter as close as 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) away. The bridge also will be able to withstand a Category 4 hurricane (winds of 210 to 249 kph [131 to 155 mph], and wave surges generally 4 to 5.5 meters [13 to 18 feet] above normal).

A satellite image of the Strait of Messina, showing the location of the proposed bridge.
A satellite image of the Strait of Messina, showing the location of the proposed bridge.
(Courtesy Stretto di Messina)

To overcome these natural obstacles, the engineers intend to make the bridge as light and aerodynamic as possible. Right now, they plan to install a unique deck that is shaped like an airplane wing. The bridge’s three components — deck, towers, and cables — will allow wind to funnel through at strategic points. The components might be made of steel, but it’s possible that a lighter material, such as carbon fiber, may be substituted.

There will be a 3.3-kilometer (2-mile) gap between the supporting towers. The current longest suspension bridge is the Akashi Bridge in Japan, which is slightly longer overall but has only 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) suspended between towers. Construction is expected to begin in about two years, and the bridge could take five to 10 years to complete.

World’s Tiniest Thermometer

Yup, scientists have done it. They’ve taken tiny cylinders of pure carbon and turned them into thermometers, each measuring just 10 micrometers long. That’s one-tenth the width of a human hair, or the size of two spores kissing. Instead of filling the carbon nanotubes (less than 150 nanometers in diameter) with mercury, Yihua Gao and Yoshio Bando (National Institute for Materials Science in Ibaraki, Japan) used liquid gallium.

Like mercury, liquid gallium’s behavior within the tube changes predictably with temperature. And, as with the mercury in a conventional thermometer, a minuscule meniscus (the curved upper surface of a nonturbulent liquid in a container) in the nanodevice moves up and down as the liquid gallium expands and contracts in response to temperature. The nanodevice can measure temperatures between 50 and 500 degrees Celsius. The temperatures can be read when the thermometer is viewed through a high-powered electron microscope.

The researchers say that the device "should be suitable for use in a wide variety of microenvironments." For instance, it can measure the temperature change that occurs when small groups of molecules react with one another, and can help scientists learn more about how lasers burn through materials such as skin and other body tissues.