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U.S. Students Still Trail Others in Science, Math

The song remains the same for American teens when it comes to science and mathematics: "We don't need no education."

Despite attempts in recent years to bolster education in fundamental areas, a major international study released today found that youngsters in the U.S. still lag behind their peers in the developed nations when it comes to the technical disciplines. Sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) study found that in standardized tests conducted in 30 industrialized countries American kids performed near the bottom of the ranks.

U.S. students recorded an average science score lower than the average in 16 other OECD nations; in math, American teens did even worse, posting an average score lower than the average in 23 of the other leading industrialized countries, according to a report today from the Associated Press.

The 2006 PISA tests given to 15-year-olds around the world focused primarily on science but included a mathematics portion, as well. There was no change in the math results among the U.S. teens compared to the findings recorded four years ago when the last PISA study was conducted, according to the AP. The science scores aren't comparable between 2003 and 2006, because the tests were not the same.

Interestingly, American girls and boys did about the same on the science and math portions of the test.

As far as international competition went, it was youngsters from Finland who performed at the top of the class in science and math, with their peers from Hong Kong, Canada, Taiwan, and South Korea rounding out the top five.

A press release from the OECD highlighting the results of the study stated that the PISA tests found that students in general were not particularly attracted to science and math:

While most students polled said they were motivated to learn science, only a minority aspired to a career involving science: 72% said it was important for them to do well in science; 67% enjoyed acquiring new knowledge in science; 56% said science was useful for further studies; but only 37% said they would like to work in a career involving science and 21% said they would like to spend their life doing advanced science.

The organization's leader, Secretary-General Angel Gurría, in his remarks in Tokyo today on the OECD findings said: "Successful learning experiences involve enabling environments at school, at home, everywhere. To get it right requires a deep understanding of how the system works. PISA is one of the tools at hand to improve performance, not only for policy makers but for all of us striving to give our children the best education we can. But getting it right also requires courage to take the right measures and to reform when needed."

Apparently, this message has not gotten through sufficiently to policy makers in the United States -- despite all the rhetoric of the last several years.

Atomically Precise Manufacturing Gets a Roadmap

One of the obstacles for scientists taking molecular nanotechnology (MNT) as seriously as its loyal adherents is that its vision is so technologically distant from what we can accomplish today that good, old-fashioned scientific skepticism just canâ''t be overcome.

But a good step-by-step roadmap for the research, outlining what research can be conducted now, and if that is successful what the next steps could be, would help make some more believers.

To this end, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers held a workshop in October in Washington, DC entitled Technology Roadmap for Productive Nanosystems (TRPN) that was the culmination of two years worth of work by the Foresight Institute in collaboration with the Waitt Family Foundation and the Battelle Memorial Institute, among others.

Dr. Paul Burrows, a Laboratory Fellow at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory gives a thoughtful rundown of the meeting and what it could mean in Small Times.

The roadmap has not yet been completed, but the Foresight Institute is expected to publish something soon.

What may be most heartening about this news is the flexibility afforded the roadmap with the understanding that APM may not be achievable with universal assemblers.

According to Burrows, Eric Drexler himself concedes that even if self-replicating assemblers may be feasible, they may not be the best method for achieving APM, and that further refinements of the vision are to be expected.

EVS-23: It's About the Plug-ins, Stupid!

Anaheim, Californiaâ''Itâ''s not every day that an engineer from a global automaker gets hissed at a major industry conference.

But when Hondaâ''s Dan Bonowitz spoke during the plenary session of the Electric Vehicle Symposium (EVS-23), there was actualâ''though mutedâ''hissing from the back of the room.

The offending statement? â''We do not believe that [lithium-ion batteries] are ready for real-world deployment in high-discharge applications.â''

The tenor of the conference clearly indicates otherwise. As noted yesterday, so much has changed in a year that electric-drive vehicles from major automakers are now assumed to be fact, and the question is not whether but whenâ''and of course how.

Bonowitz got off on the wrong foot, attempting to show a video that had accompanied the launch of the companyâ''s FCX Clarity fuel-cell sedan at the LA Auto Show a few weeks earlier. It took several minutes to bring up the volume, and even then the picture was small and murky from most of the seats at the packed plenary session. He finally cut it off and acknowledged that he hadnâ''t made a good start.

Does Honda seriously believe lithium-ion batteries aren't ready for primetime? Battery makers say no, though they donâ''t want to go on the record. Just like any other automaker, they say, Honda is talking to the companies that make large-format lithium-ion batteries for automotive applications.

The FCX Clarity already uses a lithium-ion battery in conjunction with its fuel cell, in fact. â''We believe itâ''s the first use of lithium-ion batteries for motive powerâ'' that will hit the road, said Bonowitz. (This neatly excluded Toyotaâ''s use of a tiny lithium-ion pack for idle-stop restarting in a mild-hybrid Vitz sold only in Japan several years ago).

The FCX Clarity will be leased for $600 a month, starting next summer, to selected customers in Southern California. â''That means,â'' said one bystander, â''that Hondaâ''s picking up the other $600,000 on each vehicle.â'' Which is as good a way as any to summarize the cost challenges of fuel-cell vehiclesâ''even before looking at the infrastructure challenges.

If one statement sums up this conference so far, itâ''s this one, overheard in the hallways: â''Itâ''s all about the plug-ins, stupid!â''

Iâ''ll be posting every day from EVS-23. If anyone has specific issues theyâ''d like me to explore, please contact me: J V [dot] spectrum [at] ieee [dot] org. To those who've already sent me notes, thank you! I'll address them or respond over the next few days, I promise.

NASA Redesigns Site to Be More Social

Aiming to keep abreast of the times, the U.S. space agency today rolled out a major upgrade to its presence on the Web. The new site has the same address,, but it features many of the newer bells and whistles that surfers have grown to expect from contemporary online resources in the mode of the Web 2.0 revolution. The move comes as NASA prepares to mark its fiftieth anniversary in the upcoming year.

The site, which is one of the federal government's most robust and content-intensive resources on the Internet, has generally been adept at keeping up with serving its users' needs in the past, but it's been nearly four years since the agency has given it a major makeover. The designers of the new iteration, dubbed 5.0, say the revamped site has received more than a cosmetic facelift. It features a new level of interactivity and customization and provides the opportunity to comment on selected NASA stories, create personal playlists of favorite NASA videos, and share agency content with social networking sites on the Internet, according to NASA.

"We're very excited to roll this new version of out for the public," said Brian Dunbar, NASA's internet services manager, in Washington, D.C. "We've been able to add new functionality to the site, broaden and simplify the navigation to NASA's wide range of content, and still keep the features that users liked best about the old design. All together, the new design will make it much easier for users to complete their top tasks."

Following a partnering arrangement worked out two years ago with Google (see our blog entry "Google Goes Into Space"), the new site also features Google's Customer Search Engine, as well as tools to apply "crowd wisdom" to search results by weighting findings according to how many previous searchers clicked on a particular link.

The agency has revamped the customized MyNASA feature to allow users to collect their favorite content, including videos and news feeds, all in one location, NASA stated. This could be a fan favorite among today's more savvy users, as content from NASA is free of usage restrictions for U.S. citizens, because of its status as government property.

In addition to the internal NASA team, the re-launch owes its enhanced technical capabilities to contractors from Critical Mass, of Toronto (for the new interface), and eTouch Systems, of Fremont, Calif. (for design implementation and infrastructure support).

"This new approach to the NASA home page arose from ongoing feedback from the site's users, which we get continuously through e-mails, customer-satisfaction surveys, and traffic statistics," Dunbar added. "The initial concepts and subsequent iterations have been put through three rounds of user testing with external audiences. We're proud of the initial reaction to the new design and the entire NASA Web team looks forward to adding new features and listening closely to user feedback."

So give it a look. Kick the tires. And offer your thoughts on it directly to the space agency. After all, you paid for it.

Taser International On The Defensive

It's been a busy couple of months for the PR department of Taser International, the maker of the controversial Taser stun gun. Canada is in the midst of 9 separate inquiries investigating the death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski after he was shocked repeatedly with a Taser gun at Vancouver's main airport. Just last week, a Canadian died in custody, 4 days after being shot with a Taser gun--right on the heels of another Canadian who died 30 hours after being shocked. According to CBS News, at least 6 North Americans died after being shocked by Taser guns in late November. Taser International has successfully defended itself in court in all post-Taser death cases, and it's easy to see why: why would it take 4 days for an electric shock to kill someone? But I can't help but be a little spooked by these unexplained deaths.


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On Nov. 23, the United Nations Committee Against Torture issued a memo suggesting that the use of the TaserX26â''the model of the weapon commonly used by police departmentsâ''might constitute torture. Newspapers the world over picked up the story, including here, here and here.

But let's take a closer look at the text of that UN report.

This is all it says about Taser guns:

The Committee was worried that the use of TaserX26 weapons, provoking extreme pain, constituted a form of torture, and that in certain cases it could also cause death, as shown by several reliable studies and by certain cases that had happened after practical use.

The text was embedded in a section on prison deaths in Portugal. Taser International lashed back, saying that the committee was â''out of touchâ'' with the challenges faced by police departments. I can understand why, in an environment where prisoners are already treated poorly, the abuse of captives would be a valid concern. Nonetheless, I have to side with Taser on this one: the UN document's vague references to supporting evidence and the indeterminate mention of â''the use of TaserX26 weaponsâ'' does nothing to clarify what makes it torture. Do all Taser uses constitute torture, even when electric shock is used as an alternative to a bullet?

A few days later, a study by the United Kingdom Defence Science and Technology Laboratory was published, which concluded that Taser guns are unlikely to harm human hearts under normal conditions, and Taser Internationalâ''s stock rose the most it had in four months.

But if that is the case, what explains the rash of deaths in the last few weeks? Is it just an unlucky coincidence? Are they really, as Taser International would have us believe, more cases of a mysterious disorder known as â''excited delirium,â'' which the company describes as a potentially fatal condition? The medical literature so far supports the theory that Tasers do not cause cardiac arrest in normal hearts, but that doesn't say anything about stressed or diseased hearts. For IEEE Spectrum's in-depth discussion of why the human heart is generally safe from a Taser shock, check out this piece, written by Mark Kroll, a prominent biomedical engineer. For an accessible look at how Taser experiments are carried out in the lab, take a look at this piece written by Pat Tchou, a cardiac electrophysiologist at the Cleveland Clinic.

At the core of this debate is a whole lot of sloppy talk. The lack of nuance in the UN committee's statement suggests that its members didn't really do their homework, whereas Taser's reliance on apocryphal diagnoses is not helping the company make its case.

For more on excited delirium, read the Globe & Mail's coverage of the second annual "Sudden Death, Excited Delirium and In-Custody Death Conference," which took place last week.

EVS-23: A Surge of Energy for Electric Cars

Anaheim, Californiaâ''What a difference a year makes!

Yesterday, a Congressman spoke up from the floor at EVSâ''for the first time ever, said a startled moderator. It brought home just how much has changed in the world of electric vehicles. And how fast that has occurred.

This yearâ''s Electric Vehicle Symposium (EVS-23) saw more than 450 people spend all of Sunday at a workshop on plug-in hybrid electric vehicles in the usual windowless hall. Automakers, electric utilities, regulators, and even lawmakers debated the complex issues involved in designing, building and selling vehicles with electric drive.

Oh, the Congressman? That was US Representative Jay Insley (Dâ''Washington), who detailed a bill in the House to eliminate oil-industry tax benefits as one way to encourage development of electric vehicles. (He was also touting his new book, Apolloâ''s Fire: Igniting Americaâ''s Clean Energy Economy.)

To understand how far things have come, consider: A year ago, the Chevrolet Volt was unknown. It would have been breathtaking to learn that General Motors intended to build and sell a four-seat vehicle with a 40-mile electric range. A month later, at Januaryâ''s Detroit Auto Show, that very thing happened.

And consider: The demand for plug-in hybrids has exploded, far beyond the supply. Small conversion shops share information online, and charge a handful of customers $10,000 or more to enable them to plug in their Priuses to accept charge off the gridâ''extending its all-electric range from a mile to perhaps 10â''was still far out on the radar.

Now, grumbled the City of Vancouverâ''s Brian Beck, â''Iâ''m ready to change the building code to require electric plugs throughout parking garages, but automakers tell me I canâ''t get their plug-in prototypesâ''so I have to look toward private conversion companies just so we can test plug-ins in our fleet.â''

And how many plug-in hybrids exist today, in the world? Less than 100.

The challenges of making electric-drive vehicles a reality are enormous. There have always been true believers, but when five major automakers come in with large, expensive displays on the exhibit floorâ''Ford, General Motors, Honda, Mercedes-Benz and Toyotaâ''something real may be happening.

Iâ''ll be posting every day from EVS-23 from now through Wednesday. If anyone has specific issues theyâ''d like me to explore, please contact me: J V [dot] spectrum [at] ieee [dot] org.

NASA: New Student Contest for Future of Flight

Who's better qualified to imagine what air transport will look like 50 years from now than people who will be using it then? That's got to be the thinking behind a new competition for high school and college students announced this week by the U.S. space agency.

The 2007-2008 Aeronautics Competition invites students to submit essays that try to picture what the all-purpose transport aircraft of the mid-21st century will be. To focus their imaginations, NASA has asked students to consider the case of an historic aircraft that changed the future: the famed DC-3 of the mid-20th century. It was the airplane that revolutionized the commercial aeronautics industry in its day.

High school students are invited to write a report describing how the transportation of goods and passengers might be revolutionized with the future equivalent of the DC-3 by the year 2058, according to the agency. College students are invited to design such an aircraft, using guidelines provided by NASA, and suggest a minimum of three valid operational scenarios for their proposed vehicle.

High school participants can learn more about the contest here. University students are directed to go here.

NASA said in a statement that the winners in each category will be eligible for cash awards and student internships within the aerospace program. Entries will be judged by federal, university, and industry representatives. Applicants will need to file a letter of intent to enter the competition by 15 December 2007 for high school participants and by 19 January 2008 for college participants.

Good luck to all of them.

A Needed Tool for Analyzing Nanoparticles in Liquid and Air is Already Here


Much of the problem attributed to determining the toxicity of nanoparticles has been that we donâ''t have the tools to perform proper analysis. Sure, we can use different microscopy tools to look at nanoparticles, but this is typically only in a vacuum with very expensive equipment that is impossible to have leave the lab.

Many calls have gone out for equipment that will analyze nanoparticles both in liquid and in the air, none more urgent than the one it appeared in Nature one year ago.

But thereâ''s a company that already has developed a tool that enables the real-time visualization of nanoparticles in liquidâ''Nanosight Ltd.

The tool essentially uses lasers, light-scattering techniques and some sophisticated software that allow for individually tracking particles and showing particle size distribution.

I had the opportunity to see them make a presentation at the UK Nanoforum this week in London, and was a little stunned at the capabilities of the technology in the context of all the furor that has developed over the potential toxicity of nanoparticles and the lack of tools to better get a handle on it.

I took the opportunity to ask Jeremy Warren, the CEO of Nanosight, if the tool could also be used to analyze nanoparticles in air. The answer was a quick, â''Of course, but there are so many interesting uses for it in liquid media.â''

So, okay there is a tool for analyzing nanoparticles both in air and liquid, and it can be carried around anywhere like a laptop, and we donâ''t have to wait for five years for it to be developed.

Now we have a research agenda and at least one of the tools that will help us conduct that research, could we get on with the research and lower the volume on the scare until we know more.

Brand Protection and Nanotechnology: An Application that Works and a New Website to Help

You may recall my attempt to update the market information about nanotechnology and product tagging back in September by adding a company, Singular-ID, to the list of companies that are applying nanotechnology to product tagging.

Singular-ID is one of those rare companies in the world of nanotechnology that actually has a full-blown product, not just some material waiting to be licensed by some company that makes product-tagging devices.

At the heart of their technology is a nanoscale magnetic material that acts as a sort of â''fingerprintâ'' for each product and enables the device, but they went ahead and created the device and the software to run it too.

To take it all one step further, Singular-ID has launched a new website, No To Fakes, which is intended to help consumers and brand owners defeat the counterfeit culture, and save industries from automotive to fashion billions of dollars in lost revenues from product piracy.

On the website, a brand owner can control their own page content and keep it updated to advise customers how to ensure they are buying a genuine product. In case of a purchase of a suspected fake, the customer can upload information, receipts and photos directly to the brand owner for their investigations.

A Patented Nanomaterial and a Prayer

As the UK Trade and Investment office rolled out their success stories at the Nanoforum conference in London this week, among the many thoughts that occurred to me was the joke of the boy who cries out while riding his bike â''Hey, ma, look no hands.â'' And then shortly after, â''Look, Ma, no teeth.â''

In the case of quite a few of the presentations at the event, it went more like â''Look, I can make a nanomaterial,â'' which left me wanting to add the punch line, â''Yeah, but no business.â''

The event was designed to be a dog-and-pony show to promote nanotechnology entrepreneurship in the Kingdom. Somewhat of an irony since the UK government is about to motivate some of these companies to either leave the country or sell out early with its proposed capital gains tax increase from 8% to 18%, which I blogged on back in October.

It is a peculiar phenomenon with nanotechnology companies of developing a business around a technology that they have meticulously patented and then plan to license to anyone that could find a use for it. A patent and hopes of licenses seems to be the business plan of many of these companies.

This seems a risky proposition when one considers that there is more than one way to make a nanomaterial that will satisfy a particular application. If you make the product that could use such a nanomaterial, why pay a license fee, just make it yourself.

A notable exception to this trend was a presentation made by an Indian company at the event, I-Can Nano. Sure they could just make a nanomaterial, but they went ahead and made the product enabled by the material: paint. Pretty prosaic stuff in the context of exotic quantum dots, but itâ''s a product that has sales and revenues.

This must have had some at the event scratching their heads thinking, â''Why didnâ''t I think of that?â''

As far as the state of nanotechnology commercialization in the UK, which this event was intended to showcase, you have to give the companies credit. While the US has been investing over $1 billion a year in nanotechnology, and Japan nearly the same, the UK back in 2003 allocated £90 million ($185 million) over six years.

With such a paucity of government funding compared to the US, Germany or Japan, they have done much. But some improved business plans might be in order for these nanotechnology companies, not just in the UK but around the world.

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