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April 2004
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June 2004

Grad student develops robot capable of doing origami

USATODAY.com

Most people can fold a piece of paper by the time they're in kindergarten, but it's not child's play for a robot, which must use complex mathematical formulas to accomplish the task.

That's why officials at Carnegie Mellon University are excited about a graduate student who has developed a robot capable of doing origami, the traditional Japanese art of folding paper to make figures or sculptures.

Origami has important research applications because although robots have been taught to manipulate rigid objects such as golf clubs, they struggle when the objects are flexible, like paper or the human tissues that surgical robots must navigate. As a result, robot origami help measure a robot's ability to manipulate flexible objects, much as playing chess has become a way of measuring a computer's intelligence and speed, Mason and Balkcom said.

Balkcom's robot may look fairly simple — a small robot arm attached to a table that's something like a sheet metal press — but every manipulation of the paper, and even the physical properties of paper itself, must be converted into the only language a robot understands: mathematics.

For example, paper might appear to be two-dimensional, because it is so thin. But it has thickness that must be expressed mathematically so that the robot can account for what happens when the paper is folded. (Answer: it gets thicker.)

As a result, the robot must be programmed to "understand" that paper can only be folded so much (about seven times is the limit), and that paper stretches ever so slightly when it is folded.

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Parents 'prefer private schools'

BBC Education

Half of all parents would send their children to private schools if they could afford it, a survey suggests.

The Sutton Trust, a charity which gives deprived children access to independent schools, is calling for the government to fund places. Its survey, carried out by Mori on 644 parents, found 28% would be quite likely, and 22% very likely, to choose a private education, if affordable. The Sutton Trust found 29% of parents probably would not - and 15% definitely would not - educate their children privately, whatever the cost. The remaining 6% were unsure.

But 62% of parents said state pupils were disadvantaged compared with those at private schools when applying for university.

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Indiana Essays Being Graded by Computers

The New York Times

In the computer lab at Warren Central High School in mid-May, Craig Butler, a junior, squinted at the question on his screen, paused to ponder his answer and began typing.

Craig was one of 48,500 Indiana juniors gathering in high schools across the state to take the end-of-year online English essay test. Unlike most essay tests, however, this one is being graded not by a teacher but by a computer.

Craig has already decided he prefers computer grading. "Teachers, you know, they're human, so they have to stumble around telling you what you need to do," he said at a practice session. "A computer can put it in fine print what you did wrong and how to fix it."

But his English teacher, Richard P. Dayment, wonders whether the computer is up to the task. "For the computer to do the subjective grading that's necessary on an essay, I'll want to see it before I have faith in it," he said.

Indiana is the first state to use a computer-scored English essay test in a statewide assessment, and its experience could influence testing decisions in other states. Eighteen states now require students to pass a writing test for high school graduation, and, starting next year, both the SAT and the ACT will include writing in their college admission exams.

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Hong Kong airport picks RFID baggage tracking

SmartTravelNews.com

This week Hong Kong airport announced that to "improve customer satisfaction" a baggage tracking infrastructure using Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) will be installed.

RFID reader infrastructure will be deployed across Hong Kong airport's extensive baggage handling facilities. At various nodes within the airport, including baggage carousels, unit load devices (ULDs) and conveyors, reader systems will be installed to read and write to RFID tags that will be applied on passenger bags. RFID-enabled handheld readers will also be used for mobile baggage operation.

Baggage tracking system is designed to automatically track all passenger bags through inline explosive detection and screening equipment, ensuring safe passage for the airport’s millions of customers. The aim is to reduce the incidence of lost or mishandled bags while ensuring screened bags are delivered to the right place at the right time.

RFID technology can improve visibility, accuracy and security in baggage operations - all while reducing operational costs and increasing customer satisfaction. Future applications using the same platform can include passenger boarding passes, carry-on items, vehicle parking, traveler loyalty, air cargo and more."

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Rings ready for their close-up

BBC Science

A new close up image of Saturn and its rings taken by the Cassini space probe reveals just how close the European-US mission now is to its target. Saturn's famous rings can be seen casting threadlike shadows on the gas giant's northern hemisphere.

The craft is now 19,565 million km from the planet, having travelled more than 3 billion km since its 1997 launch. Cassini will insert into Saturn's orbit on 30 June and release its piggybacked Huygens probe in January next year. Huygens will attempt to land on the oily seas of Saturn's major moon, Titan.

Saturn's thin, outermost F-ring can easily be discriminated in the new image.

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Giant UK telescope gets upgrade

BBC Science

Work has started to use optical fibres to link up the giant radio telescope at Jodrell Bank with five others that are scattered across England. The telescopes comprise an array called Merlin that combines the data from each so they perform as a larger telescope.The telescopes are currently linked by microwaves but replacing them with optical fibres will be a revolution.

Astronomers say the new project, e-Merlin, will be a great leap in Jodrell Bank's ability to look out into space.Connecting the array of radio telescopes with optical fibres will transform what is already a world-class facility. "Merlin is the first to be making this leap forward with optical fibres," says its director Professor Phil Diamond.

The interconnected array of radio telescopes called Merlin (Multi-Element Radio-Linked Interfometer Network) centred on Jodrell Bank in the north of England has been a remarkable scientific success.

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PhysicsWeb - Single-electron transistor goes mechanical

PhysicsWeb - Belle Dume

Physicists in Germany and the US have built a single-electron transistor that operates using a nanometre-scale vibrating arm.

The device was built using a simple two-step process and does not need a surrounding cooled to cryogenic temperatures like previous devices of its kind. It could have a wide variety of practical applications and could also be used to study fundamental physics.

The transistor is a type of device known as a nanoelectromechanical system, or NEM. Unlike conventional electronic devices, NEMs can be potentially routinely manufactured to high tolerances on the scale of nanometres (10-9m), an important attribute in the quest to build ever smaller logic devices. Moreover, NEM devices can operate at and beyond radio frequencies making them ideal for applications in information technology.

The transistor, built by Dominik Scheible at the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich and Robert Blick at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, features a silicon arm about 200 nanometres long and only tens of nanometres across. The researchers covered the tip of the device with a gold "island" and then placed the tip between two electrodes, known as the source and drain. By applying an ac voltage to one of the electrodes with a frequency that matched the resonant frequency of the arm -- in this case between 350 and 400 megahertz -- they were able to make the arm vibrate between the electrodes. This resulted in a flow of electrons from the source to the island, from where the electrons then tunnelled towards the drain electrode.

The scientists say the device could have greater practical application than previous NEM transistors, which needed to be excited using high magnetic fields rather than an ac voltage. These fields were produced by superconductors that were kept very cold using liquid helium. In fundamental physics, the device could be used to study the mechanically-controlled transport of single electrons, and so potentially improve our understanding of how materials behave on the nanoscale.

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10 Stories the world needs to know more about

UN

Frustratingly I can't find an RSS feed for this...

To shine a spotlight on some of the important international issues and developments that often do not get sufficient media attention, the United Nations Department of Public Information presents a new initiative - "Ten Stories the World Should Hear More About."

This list includes a number of humanitarian emergencies, as well as conflict or post-conflict situations and spans other matters of concern to the United Nations, although it is far from embracing all of the many issues before the Organization.

The stories are not ones that have never been reported, but are often second-rung issues that need more thorough, balanced and regular attention. The list itself is a snapshot of the most compelling stories that, at this point in time, the Department of Public Information believes are in need of more media attention. And the top story is merely the first among equals.

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Venus clouds 'might harbour life'

BBC Science

There could be life on the planet Venus, US scientists have concluded in a report in the journal Astrobiology.

The existence of life on the planet's oven-hot surface is unimaginable. But microbes could survive and reproduce, experts say, floating in the thick, cloudy atmosphere, protected by a sunscreen of sulphur compounds. Scientists have even submitted a proposal for a Nasa space mission to sample the clouds and attempt to return any presumed Venusians to Earth.

"Venus is really a hellish place," said Professor Andrew Ingersoll, of the California Institute of Technology. "If you could get through the sulphuric acid clouds down to the surface of Venus you'd find it was hotter than an oven. You could melt lead at the surface of Venus and there'd be no water."

But it was not always like that. Earth and Venus are in many ways sister planets.

"Current theories suggest that Venus and the Earth may have started out alike. There might have been a lot of water on Venus and there might have been a lot of carbon dioxide on Earth," Professor Ingersoll explained.

But all that was to change. On Earth, life in the oceans took in carbon dioxide and turned it into limestone. On Venus, 30% closer to the Sun, any oceans boiled away and the water vapour added to the runaway greenhouse effect. Venus became our planet's ugly sister. Its make-over, which occurred billions of years ago, has left a surface where the pressure is crushing.

Two years ago, Austrian scientists discovered bacteria living and reproducing within clouds on Earth. The same could have been true on Venus. Then, as the surface became hot and dry, the clouds might have become life's only refuge. The Venusian clouds are high in the atmosphere, where the temperature and pressure are quite Earth-like. There is even water present, though it is in the form of concentrated sulphuric acid. But we now know of organisms that thrive in very acidic environments on Earth.

"If you think about what life needs in a broad sense then the clouds of Venus might actually be a habitat where something could live," explained David Grinspoon, of the South West Research Institute in Colorado.

Another problem could be UV radiation from the Sun. But Dirk Shulze-Makuch, also at El Paso, thinks Venusian bacteria could make use of a natural chemical sunscreen there.

"When we looked at the composition of the atmosphere, we thought that sulphur compounds are actually an ideal sun block for microbes." David Grinspoon speculates that the organisms might even have evolved ways of making use of the UV, much like Earth plants use visible light for photosynthesis.

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Volcano 'drove up UK death toll'

BBC Science

What caught my eye here was the combination of historical research and current scientific analysis...

Volcanic eruptions in Iceland probably caused an unusual rise in deaths in England during the summer of 1783.

UK experts suggest a cloud of volcanic gases and particles sweeping south from the Laki Craters event of that year may have killed more than 10,000 people. The team combed climate data, burial records and contemporary accounts that reported a "volcanic haze" and health problems in the English population.

The University of Cambridge study is carried in the Bulletin of Volcanology.

The eruptions at the Laki Craters began on 8 June, 1783, and continued for eight months. An estimated 122 megatonnes of sulphur dioxide was released, along with smaller amounts of other gases, from explosive fissures and vents and from lava flows.

A thick, hot vapour had for several days before filled up the valley...so that both the Sun and Moon appeared like heated brick-bars - Gentleman's Magazine, July 1783

In Iceland alone, some 9,000 people - about a quarter of the population - were killed. [At least in part because their flocks of sheep suffered]. But the massive discharge from beneath the Earth also fumigated many parts of Europe with volcanic gases and airborne particles.

Claire Witham and Clive Oppenheimer looked at the burial records for 404 church parishes in 39 English counties. They discovered there were two peaks in mortality during the Laki Craters event. The first occurred between August and September 1783, the second between January and February 1784. In both cases, the worst affected region was the east of England.

Central England temperature data shows the summer of 1783 was particularly hot and that the first months of 1784 were amongst the coldest on record. The researchers hypothesised that some part of the mortality peaks could be attributed to these temperature extremes.

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