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Raman Laser Could Identify Explosives at a Distance

A new technique that causes a diffuse material such as a powder to emit laser light could distinguish a harmless substance from an explosive or allow aerial mapping of fertilizer, say the scientists who developed it.

The method is based on Raman spectroscopy. When light strikes a molecule, roughly one in 10 million photons hitting it will drop to a lower frequency that’s determined by just what molecule it is. By seeing how the wavelength of the scattered light changes, an observer can identify what substance she’s seeing. Unfortunately, 1 in 10 million is a fairly weak signal, so some sort of amplification is needed.

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Skully Motorcycle Helmet Has Heads-Up Display and Rearview Camera

I learned one very simple rule in my motorcycle safety course: keep your eyes and your head pointing toward the place you want to go. It sounds straightforward. But the truth is, you have to break this rule all the time. You check your gas gauge; you look over your shoulder before changing lanes; you crane your neck to see a road sign. During moments that I take no pride in, I have even broken this rule by stuffing my cellphone up into my helmet to answer an emergency call.

Riders who wear the new, digitally enhanced, Skully AR-1 helmet—which the company is calling "the world's smartest motorcycle helmet"—may never have to break this cardinal rule ever again. The design pushes all the information a rider needs onto a heads-up display right in the visor.

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Algorithm Detected Ebola Outbreak Before Official Alerts

Earlier this year, on 23 March, the World Health Organization issued an alert reporting that 29 people had died after contracting the Ebola virus in the West African country of Guinea. The WHO alert marked the first official confirmation of what has become the worst outbreak of the disease, which has now claimed over 1000 lives.

For diseases that can spread rapidly like Ebola, early detection is crucial. There is still no cure or effective treatment against the Ebola virus, so isolating patients is the only way of avoiding an epidemic. Any methods or tools that could speed up the detection of outbreaks, even if only by a few days, could be a huge help in containing the disease.

That's exactly what HealthMap is trying to do. HealthMap is a website that tracks infectious diseases using specialized algorithms to make sense of information from news reports, social networks, and more official data from governments and organizations like the WHO. In the recent Ebola crisis, HealthMap spotted a news report describing a "mystery hemorrhagic fever" that had killed several people in Guinea. A purple dot immediately popped up on the site's disease-tracking map, prompting HealthMap staff to start looking into the report. That was on 14 March, or nine days before the WHO sounded its alarm.

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BitTorrent Aims To Make Chat More Secure With Bleep

BitTorrent, the company best known for making peer-to-peer software that allows users to download the same file from multiple sources simultaneously, is turning its distributed approach to chat and voice-messaging services, launching a pre-alpha version of the chat service BitTorrent Bleep last week.

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Google Teams With Asian Telecoms For "Faster" Undersea Cable

Google is looking to improve connections in the global Internet by adding some more bandwidth. A consortium made up of the tech giant and five of Asia’s largest telecommunications firms has announced a plan to construct a new fiber optic cable that will run along the floor of the Pacific Ocean from Japan to the United States, carrying up to 60 terabytes of data every second.

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Europe's Comet-Chasing Probe Arrives After 10-Year Trek

A decade of lonely spaceflight has paid off as Europe's Rosetta spacecraft became the first in history to rendezvous with an icy comet on Aug. 6. The spacecraft arrived at a comet speeding through the solar system at almost 55,000 kilometers per hour as it prepares to begin its main mission phase for the next 15 months. The next step includes a series of triangular maneuvers designed to bring Rosetta closer to the target comet.

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A "Sound Camera" Zeroes In on Buzz, Squeak, and Rattle

Annoying noise—what the automotive industry calls “buzz, squeak, and rattle” (BSR)—is the leading cause of customer complaints about new cars. Eliminating noise during the design and prototyping phase can pay big dividends…but locating transient, intermittent, ill-defined sounds like BSR or cricket chirps can be exasperatingly difficult.

[Localizing dashboard rattle in real time. Video courtesy Hyundai and SM Instruments]

Designers at Hyundai Motor Group enlisted SM Instruments, a Korean acoustic-engineering firm, to help them quickly locate irritating 200 Hz-to-20 kHz noises in car engines, bodies, instrument panels, seats, doors…any place components can vibrate or rub. The result was the SeeSV-S205, a compact, hand-held “sound camera”—an array comprising dozens of inexpensive-but-sensitive MEMS microphones (similar to those found in cell phones) in a five-armed spiral around a video camera. The device (like other acoustic cameras that have preceded it) compares the signals from all of the microphones—the process is called beamforming—to trace the incoming sound back to its source.

The SeeSV, however, compresses the microphone phased array into a compact housing with a single-board, reconfigurable input-output controller. The result is a handheld test instrument that, in real time (25 frames per second), superimposes a sound heat-map over the video image to quickly localize the sound. Field programmable gate arrays in the controller and a graphical user interface let the user narrow down the frequencies analyzed, to further increase accuracy.

Though developed for the automotive industry, the compact acoustic camera can be applied to locating and eliminating unwanted noise in any engineering project. The sleek SeeSV won finalist recognition for Hundai’s Kang-Duck Ih and SM Instruments’ Youngkey K. Kim at the 2014 NI Engineering Impact Awards (formerly the Graphical System Design Achievement Awards), presented 5 August in Austin, Tex.

Images: Hyundai Motor Group and SM Instruments

Robotic Telescope Captures Clear Images of Exoplanet Stars

This story was corrected on 12 August 2014.

From earth, a robotic telescope, called Robo-AO, can now snap high resolution images of stars near exoplanets and automatically set itself up to research hundreds of new targets each night. Although adaptive optics is an established technique, an international team of researchers says that Robo-OA is the world’s first fully autonomous laser adaptive optics and imaging system. The benefit: Robo-AO, which is attached to a 1.5-meter telescope, can study thousands of exoplanet systems in record setting time.

The utility of most ground-based telescopes is limited because of the blurring effects caused by turbulence in the earth’s atmosphere. But, Robo-AO accounts for this turbulence, allowing it to capture images rivaling the resolution of those captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.  

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What Do Women in Engineering Want?

For years, psychologist Nadya A. Fouad of the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee has been asking women in engineering what they want. She and organizational psychologist Romila Singh, also at U-W Milwaukee, conducted a National Science Foundation-supported survey asking over 5,000 female engineers their reasons for leaving—or staying—in the field. On Saturday, 9 August, at the American Psychological Association annual meeting in Washington, D.C., Fouad presented their latest analysis of that data. Those who leave, she reports, turn out to be just as confident and successful as those who stay. They may, however, be more likely to have encountered belittling or undermining from colleagues and a lack of support from their supervisors.

"I really want the narrative to not just be: 'Women don't have confidence, women need to lean in,'" Fouad says. "With all the will in the world, if the climate doesn't change, women can lean in, but they will still get pushed back."

Eleven percent of Fouad and Singh's survey respondents had earned engineering degrees but never worked as engineers; another 27 percent had practiced engineering but left the field, and 62 percent were still working as engineers. Fouad and Singh attempted to detect patterns that might distinguish those who left from those who stayed. Average income, racial distribution, and marital status did not differ between the two groups. Yet some 17 percent of those who never entered engineering blamed engineering culture.

Sometimes that may take the form of belittling behavior. Aerospace engineer Huan Xu of the University of Maryland in College Park recalls a graduate school prank her male classmates bragged about. They'd rearranged everything on the desk of a female student and put a nameplate on it to make it look like a receptionist. "They didn't really have a malicious reason for it," Xu says; the men claimed it was because the classmate was talkative, but they failed to think about the social context.

Xu and other female engineers can brush off that sort of behavior, or confront it. But Fouad and others worry that this kind of culture repels female talent, costing society valuable ideas and labor. Jennifer Hunt, Chief Economist at the U.S. Department of Labor and an MIT electrical engineering graduate, published a working paper in 2012 that tried to put a cost on one aspect of female underrepresentation: patents. She and her colleagues estimated that if females held as many commercial patents as men, the U.S. gross domestic product would be 2.7 percent higher.

Fouad and Singh are now sending their survey to male engineering graduates. The percentage of men in engineering is higher than that of female engineering majors, so something is keeping them there. In a third survey, says Fouad, "We're going to working engineers [of both genders] and saying, 'What keeps you there?'" The researchers say they hope to learn from companies that are good at retaining employees. "It's not just about fixing women, we need to fix the work environment, as well," says Fouad.





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