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U.S. Spy Agencies Seek Tech to Identify Deadly Chemicals From 30 Meters Away

Three teams are developing rival technologies to combat explosives, nerve gases, and other threats

3 min read
Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA/Getty Images
Careful Work: Investigators examine a bench in England for chemical traces of a nerve agent after two victims were found there.
Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA/Getty Images

Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence officer who became a double agent for the United Kingdom, and his daughter, Yulia, weren’t the only people affected by a nerve-agent attack in Salisbury, England, in March. Nearly 40 others were sickened, including three police officers who were hospitalized, one of them for more than two weeks. A swarm of hazmat-suited chemical warfare experts inspected every place the Skripals had been recently in the hope of finding out what happened and whether there was still a danger to the public.

U.S. intelligence agencies have been on the hunt for a technology that would make such investigations faster and safer and perhaps even prevent this kind of attack altogether. The Standoff ILluminator for Measuring Absorbance and Reflectance Infrared Light Signatures (SILMARILS) program at the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity should conclude, by mid-⁠2021, with a possible solution: a portable scanner that can identify a fingerprint’s worth of a library of some 500 chemicals—spanning the dangerous (the explosive PETN) to the mundane (caffeine)—on surfaces like car doors from a distance of 5 to 30 meters.

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The Transistor at 75

The past, present, and future of the modern world’s most important invention

2 min read
A photo of a birthday cake with 75 written on it.
Lisa Sheehan

Seventy-five years is a long time. It’s so long that most of us don’t remember a time before the transistor, and long enough for many engineers to have devoted entire careers to its use and development. In honor of this most important of technological achievements, this issue’s package of articles explores the transistor’s historical journey and potential future.

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