Stories of Modern Science...from UPI

Oct. 9, 2001 at 2:08 AM
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Since Sept. 11, the government has been stepping up efforts to improve the nation's ability to respond to a germ attack, The New York Times reports. Much of the focus has been on improving the public health system's ability to spot an outbreak, quarantine the infected and deliver medicines. Another focus has been to accelerate production of vaccines for anthrax and smallpox. But experts say it is also necessary to develop much better technology to detect, diagnose and treat biological agents. That is partly because there are dozens of pathogens that might conceivably be used in an attack, including some unnatural ones made by genetic engineering, and it would be impractical to develop vaccines for all of them. A Pentagon advisory panel estimated it would cost up to $3.2 billion to develop just eight vaccines. So new approaches beyond vaccines are needed that can address a wide range of possible agents. The genomes of microbes can now be sequenced in a matter of weeks, giving new insights into their structure. In the last two weeks one group of scientists at Harvard Medical School reported finding a gene variation that makes mice resistant to anthrax, and another group said it had designed a molecule that protected rats against normally lethal doses of anthrax toxin.


Wind turbines can help keep the voltage in the electricity network at a constant level and can effectively correct peaks and dips in voltage, according to electrical engineers at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. Modern wind turbines are a good means of coping with fluctuations in the main voltage and such fluctuations occur when the demand for energy increases suddenly or the supply suddenly decreases. The Dutch engineers base their conclusion on a model which they developed to study fluctuations in the electricity network on a time scale running from seconds to minutes. At the moment, the task of maintaining the stability of the main voltage is left entirely to power stations. In the future, sustainable energy will become more important. Wind turbines and other sustainable energy sources will then need to help stabilize the main voltage. A large number of modern wind turbines are equipped with a power electronics converter that ensures that they produce the same voltage at all times, regardless of the rotor speed.


A new high-tech watchstrap gives its wearer remote control over a wearable computer, New Scientist reports. The GestureWrist, developed by Jun Rekimoto of Sony's Computer Science Laboratory in Tokyo uses sensors embedded into a normal watch strap. These track a wearer's arm movements and the opening and closing their hand, relaying this information to a computer kept somewhere on their person. Instead of relying on a computer mouse, the wearer can move a pointer around a computer screen and click on icons using only arm and hand movements. GestureWrist is a significant departure from the typical pointing device linked to wearable computers, says Rekimoto. Usually users have to rely on a wrist-mounted keypad or a finger-mounted mouse button. "When wearable computers are used in everyday life, unobtrusiveness is very important to social acceptance -- input systems should be as invisible as possible," says Rekimoto. GestureWrist received its first demonstration at the 5th Annual Wearable Computing Symposium in Zurich, Switzerland. Currently, the prototype can only detect simple hand shapes. Rekimoto's system can identify an outstretched hand as well as general arm movements. However, Rekimoto believes that a more sensitive system of electrodes could be used to identify more complicated hand shapes.


The Amazon, the river not the Web site, is one of the world's remaining wilderness areas, and it's about to get a long-awaited high-tech aerial monitoring system to help protect the Brazilian rainforest against illegal exploitation. In the next few months, the $1.3 billion Amazon surveillance system (Sivam) will be up and running, monitoring meteorological data and aerial activity over an area the size of Europe, The London Guardian reports. Sivam is setting up 20 radar stations which will give the Brazilian Amazon, which makes almost three-quarters of the total Amazon area, blanket coverage. The project, which is more than 95 percent complete, includes three surveillance aircraft, four satellite reception stations, 14 lightning detectors, 83 weather stations, 200 floating data-collection points and a network of 914 points linked by computer and fax. The integrated system will employ about 1,000 experts and will be able to catalogue and map Amazonian land, and be able to detect forest fires and deforestation with more accuracy than current methods. It will also be able to locate illegal airstrips with relative ease and see if people are invading land belonging to indigenous tribes.

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