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Carbon Nanotubes Arenâ¿¿t Just Graphite Anymore

The Environmental Protection Agency provided notice in the public register last week that carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are distinct from graphite.

The announcement in part reads:

This document gives notice of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) requirements potentially applicable to carbon nanotubes (CNTs). EPA generally considers CNTs to be chemical substances distinct from graphite or other allotropes of carbon listed on the TSCA Inventory.

Proponents of greater regulation of CNTs score this as a victory for greater safety precautions surrounding nanomaterials.

However, it is not clear what real-world impact this will have. Last weekâ''s announcement is more or less just a clarification of the EPAâ''s announced position on CNTs back in 2007. In addition, the position merely requires that any company wanting to manufacture or import carbon nanotubes submit a Pre Manufacturing Notice (PMN) to the EPA.

So, it is not absolutely clearâ''at least to meâ''if a company in Europe or Asia that does not import CNTs, but instead imports say a bicycle that uses CNTs in its material matrix, will be required to submit a PMN. If not, the result will be an extra burden for US manufacturers who want to make products out of CNTs, but not so for companies abroad.

While the example of Cheap Tubes Inc. continues to get bandied about as a reason to create these new regulations, itâ''s not altogether clear how much importing and exporting of â''free nanoparticlesâ'' (those nanoparticles not integrated into a material matrix) actually goes on.

While further regulations in just about anything are a welcome alternative in todayâ''s atmosphere, they still remain tricky because they often result in unintended consequences. In this case, the result could be little if any improvement in peopleâ''s safety but instead handicapped US manufacturers.

Karp, Computational Complexity, and Sudokus

Canâ''t help yourself from doing the occasional Sudoku, despite the mindlessness of all the endless 1-9 number counting and pointless remembering, not to mention the not very interesting logical tricks? Then you might like to know that Richard Karp, a 73-year-old computing theorist at the University of California, Berkeley, has just been awarded one of the 2008 Kyoto Prizes, which this year honor pioneers in information science. The prizes, established by Japanâ''s Inamori Foundation, include a cash gift of 50 million yen and are unusual in that recipients are selected partly on the basis of exceptionally admirable personal traits.

In the 1970s, Karp did foundational work in computational complexity, inventing a way of classifying how susceptible problems are to straight-forward algorithmic procedures. In his schema, as Inamoriâ''s press release says, â''Class P represents problems for which polynomial-time algorithms of deterministic solutions exist; Class NP represents problems for which polynomial-time algorithms of deterministic solutions exist, including the sub-class of NP-Completeâ''the hardest-to-solve problems.â''

As it happens, the humble Sudoko is an example of an NP-Complete problem, as a news story reported in IEEE Spectrum several years ago. In essence, as every Sudoku player will have noticed, though itâ''s extremely easy to verify a Sudoko solution, itâ''s devilishly difficultâ''theoretically impossible, in factâ''to adopt a solving approach that will always work efficiently. Maybe this is what makes the Sudoku so damned seductive.

Famed Aviator Fossett's Remains Identified

The mystery over the disappearance of the world's most famous aviator has been solved.

Using DNA testing, officials in California have identified the remains of legendary daredevil Steve Fossett from the wreckage of a plane crash in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, near the Nevada border.

Fossett disappeared during a solo flight in a civilian aircraft on 3 September 2007. Despite a massive search and rescue effort in the region by state and local authorities lasting weeks, no traces of the 63-year-old aviation pioneer were found. Acting on a plea from his wife, a court in Illinois declared Fossett legally dead in February. Subsequently, a hiker found personal items and debris from Fossett's single-engine Bellanca Super Decathlon on 29 September 2008.

According to an online report yesterday from BBC News, investigators examined two large bones from the site to conclude that the human remains were Fossett's. The aviator's shoes and driver's license were also found in a follow-up search.

"A California Department of Justice Forensics lab has determined that items containing DNA â'¿ match James Stephen Fossett's DNA," a police coroner stated.

The finding officially brings closure to one of the most perplexing disappearances in recent years in the United States.

Peggy Fossett, the adventurer's widow, said the discovery of the bones last week is "another step in the process of completing the investigation into the tragic accident that took Steve's life."

In the Wikipedia entry for Steve Fossett, he is described as "an American businessman, aviator, sailor, and adventurer and the first person to fly solo nonstop around the world in a balloon," as well as "best known for many world records, including five nonstop circumnavigations of the Earth: as a long-distance solo balloonist, as a sailor, and as a solo flight fixed-wing aircraft pilot."

We covered his disappearance and the search effort to find him in previous entries in this space last year. Please see Family of Famous Aviator Concede Defeat and Aviation Pioneer Fossett Missing After Flight for more on his life and death.

We send along our heartfelt condolences to the Fossett family. He was an inspiration to us all.

The devolution of voting technology


I just voted. I drew thin little lines with a generic black ballpoint pen on a paper ballot resting on a cardboard tableâ''I wouldnâ''t go so far as to call it a booth. Then I slipped the ballot into a large paper folder (for privacy), walked across the room, and put the ballot into a big cardboard box. It didnâ''t feel very official; certainly it lacked ceremony. (At least, however, itâ''s fully recyclable.) In fact, the only reason I really feel like I voted is the oval sticker Iâ''ll be wearing on my sweater the rest of the day.


It made me nostalgic for the 80s, when I voted using New York Cityâ''s mechanical monsters (and envious of those who still use them today) When I walked into the boothsâ''and they were really boothsâ''and pulled the curtain closed, I felt like the Wizard of Oz, all powerful. You flipped switches to make your choicesâ''good-sized switches, you moved them with your whole hand, not just a finger. And then, after checking over the big board in front of you, making sure you got it right, you pulled the big handle with both hands, to lock in your vote and open the curtain; it took a little effort, it made you feel like you were really registering your vote.


Moving to California I left big mechanical voting machines behind. I voted paper ballots for a while. Still, these were more satisfying than todayâ''s paper ballots; you marked them with a fat black marker, not a little pen line. And then you handed them to a poll worker and watched him feed it into the scanner right in front of you; again, you had this sense of closure, that your vote had been recorded. I moved on to punch card ballots, long before I knew that the little punched out pieces were called chads, I thought of them as confetti. The little tool used to punch the cards was a little hard to handle, the circular handle not very ergonomic, but still, when you made a selection it poked through the ballot with a satisfying thunk.


And then came touch screen. We were early adopters here, and found out early that touch screens had problems. My first couple of touch screen elections were only mildly annoying; the systems kept trying to get me to go back and vote for more judges, more city council members, when I was trying to target my votes to a select few. In the 2006 election, though, the touch screen system turned my polling place into election night chaos, as the new printers, designed to provide a paper trail and make the systems more reliable, ran out of paper, locking up the voting machines. Sometime after the polls officially closed, poll workers scrambled to rip sample ballots out of voter information guides, and handed those out to people in line, reassuring us that we just needed to mark our choices and they would, eventually, be counted.


So I wasnâ''t surprised to find that touch screen voting is over in my district, and weâ''re back to paper ballots. I just wish there were a way to make these little marks on paper feel more official.

Share your election 08 experiences here.

Extremist Engineers, Election Day Edition

The story starts out the usual way: political lawn signs are secretly stolen and replaced with the opposition's political lawn signs.

Shawn Turschak, the owner of the pilfered signs, decides to fight back: he runs wires from his house and hooks the signs into a power source for an electric pet fence. The goal being to deliver a shocking surprise to the next person who tries to steal his political signage.

The problem is, the next person is a 9-year-old boy. Enter angry parents, police, and media.

No harm done, in any case--the little boy was fine and probably learned an important lesson about other people's property that day. But am I wrong to think it seems a little, um, extreme to booby-trap a $1.10 corrugated lawn sign with a $200 pet fence?


Turschak, who has a degree in electrical engineering, said he tested the shock on himself while wiring the signs, and did so again while a reporter watched Wednesday, touching both signs repeatedly without flinching.

A while back we ran a story on extremist engineers; political scientist Steffen Hertog and sociology professor Diego Gambetta analyzed the records of 404 people from 30 countries who had engaged in political violence between 2005 and 2007. The academic pursuit most represented in this batch was engineering, of the electrical, computer and civil varieties.

â''Engineering," Hertog said by way of explanation, "seems to attract a larger share of people drawn to rule-bound systems.â''

Carbon Nanotubes for Loudspeakers

Nanotechnology labs around the world do love to experiment with carbon nanotubes, often offering up some rather peculiar contraptions made out of the wonder material like the â''Nano Radioâ''.

But these lab curiosities are often just examples of what can be done with carbon nanotubes, theyâ''re not really intended to lead to commercial products.

But the latest one described in the October 29, 2008 online edition of Nano Letters and further detailed over at Nanowerk does seem to have commercial aspirations.

Dr. KaiLi Jiang, an Associate Professor in the Department of Physics & Tsinghua-Foxconn Nanotechnology Research Center at Tsinghua University in Beijing, and his collaborators see commercial possibilities for the carbon nanotubes loudspeakers they have developedâ''a demonstration of which can be seen in the video below.

While Jiang believes that the technology might create applications not yet considered, one that has been proposed would "be laptop computers where the current audio system could be replaced simply by putting a transparent loudspeaker film over the display area".

Unfortunately, in the same Nanowerk article in which this application is proposed the next sentence offers up â''application in revolutionary new design concepts for tomorrow's electronics such as the Nokia Morph mobile phoneâ'' as a viable commercial usage.

Iâ''ve heard on fairly good authority that few involved in the Morph project were looking at a commercial product as much as they were looking for a way to demonstrate the advancements in plastic electronics. Better to leave that particular â''future applicationâ'' off your list.

Hubble Telescope Back in the Photography Business

The Hubble Space Telescope has winked back to life and resumed sending images of the universe never seen before.

NASA announced last week that its engineers had successfully revived the control computer onboard the orbiting science platform and pointed its far-seeing camera at distant galaxies to capture an astounding photo.

The Hubble had been out of commission for a month before the complicated workaround succeeded (see NASA: Hubble Telescope Fixed and Ready to Perform).

Last Thursday, the vehicle's Wide Field Planetary Camera transmitted an image of gravitationally interacting galaxies back to the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md., proving that the Hubble was back in working order. Astronomers believe the two galaxies, known together as Arp 147, some 400 million light-years away, at one time collided with one another. The photo from the Hubble was assembled from images collected by the camera's blue, infrared, and visible light filters.

According to a BBC article online, NASA has decided to postponed its shuttle mission to repair and upgrade the Hubble back to April at the earliest, in order to work on a control unit held in reserve since 1990 in storage. The servicing mission, known as STS-25, was originally to have launched this month aboard Atlantis. Instead, NASA will push ahead on 14 November with its next flight to the International Space Station, STS-126, aboard Endeavour.

"Our plan overall takes something on the order of about six-and-a-half months from now," said Preston Burch, the Hubble's manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "There's about a month or so devoted to inspecting and resolving any of the performance issues associated with [the spare unit]; about three months for environmental tests; and then about two to two-and-a-half months to do final testing and shipping down to the Kennedy Space Center and getting it installed on the orbiter."

In addition to swapping the reserve Science Instrument Command and Data Handling Unit for its balky original, the STS-125 crew will need to perform a long list of upgrades to the Hubble to keep it as a viable observatory for years to come. These include: replacing batteries and gyroscopes; installing the new Wide Field Camera 3 and the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph; and repairing the Advanced Camera for Surveys and the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph.

With the retirement of the shuttle fleet in the next few years, it will have to be a well-prepared and executed mission to serve as the final chance to rejuvenate a science platform that has made so much history in its lifetime.

Indian Space Program Rockets Into the Future (Part 2)

India's Chandrayaan-1 science probe is closing in on the moon.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) reports that its ground controllers in Bangalore have successfully tested the lunar probe's Terrain Mapping Camera (TMC) and that its image analysts in Byalalu confirm that the first photos (of the earth) were received in good order.

The TMC is one of 11 scientific instruments aboard the Chandrayaan, according to the Indian space agency. ISRO has a payload description index on its Web site--with this page devoted to the TMC.

The Indian newspaper The Hindu reports online today that ISRO's leaders are satisfied with the first test of their nation's first probe into deep space.

"Although we tested all the 11 scientific instruments of Chandrayaan-1 on the ground, we wanted to cross-verify, after the launch, the entire chain of its instruments, data storage, data handling systems, downlinking and radio frequency systems including the antennas at Byalalu village, near Bangalore and the ground processing of the images," M. Annadurai, the Chandrayaan-1's project director, told the paper. "The entire system is ready now."

He concluded that: "This shows that the instruments on board Chandrayaan-1 are ready to image the moon after it goes into the final orbit around the moon."

If all goes as planned, the probe should attempt to enter a polar orbit around the moon about six days from now.

Indian Space Program Rockets Into the Future (Part 1)

With the launch of a space probe to the moon last week, India has taken another important step in its quest to become a major space-faring nation.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) fired an Indian-made rocket carrying a probe called the Chandrayaan-1 on a two-year science mission to moon on 21 October. It was launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh.

The Chandrayaan (a name that means "lunar-sojourn" in many Indian languages) is tasked with studying the surface of the moon for its mineral and chemical composition. The mission, which will cost about US $80 million, is India's first to reach beyond the orbit of the earth.

"Our scientific community has once again done the country proud and the entire nation salutes them," Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a message from Japan, where he was making an official visit.

The craft is currently over halfway on its flight to a lunar rendezvous, according to a press release yesterday from ISRO.

Nanotechnology: Backlash against the Word

Last year, I suggested on this blog that maybe manufacturers employing nanomaterials would prefer not to mention the word â''nanotechnologyâ'' in their marketing rather than promote it.

Even earlier this year, I offered the opinion that perhaps companies trying to engage in reasonable debate on the safety of nanotechnology might be taking a big risk since there are so few â''reasonableâ'' people with whom to carry on the debate. Better just to keep your mouth shut.

This all seems to have been confirmed in a recent article entitled â''The New Plasticâ'' authored by Alex Schmidt that shows that in fact a PR firm specializing in nanotech advises companies to cut â''nanotechnologyâ'' out of their marketing lexicon.

The article is peppered with phrases like â''This dearth of information prevents consumers from making informed decisions.â'' One feels compelled to take the author aside and point that itâ''s sort of like the dearth of information we have on the hazardous materials used in making our mobile phones, no?

The article concludes with the ominous prediction of a future world where PR flaks are the ones determining what the consumer knows about nanotechnology-enabled products not government bureaucrats. Question is when has this ever not been the case for just about every consumer product?


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