Welcome to The Deep science and technology column where we cover topics from the deep sea to deep space and beyond.
We truly live in a miraculous age so I thought a little trip through the technology files might be in order. There’ve been many articles about how the Internet is changing the face of scientific research because it makes sharing ideas and processes so much easier. But there are other technologies that are also having an impact on basic research as outlined in this first tale of science.
SMILE FOR THE CAMERA
When I was doing research for my master’s degree, I remember spending most of a short trip through Hawaii in the university library madly copying resources that weren’t available here on Guam. It took a chunk out of my limited budget and there were things that I wanted to buy in Hawaii that I had to forego because they would have put me over my weight limit. Paper is heavy, you know.
I did my research a little too early, it seems because Christopher Gennari, an Assistant Professor of History at Camden County College in Blackwood, New Jersey devised a marvelous scheme to avoid my dilemma. Read on.
Mr. Gennari was doing research on Swedish military history and the reign of the Swedish king Charles X who lived in the seventeenth century. He decided to visit the Riksarkivet in Stockholm, Sweden.
"As a US university student I was constrained by factors of time, space, income and, unexpectedly, source material," Gennari says, "I only had the income and free time to support living in Sweden for about a month. Travel space restrictions on transatlantic flights limited my ability to perform massive photocopying; the sheer bulk weight (not to mention cost) of hundreds of photocopied pages made for a daunting endeavor." (Hmmm. Sounds familiar!) With this in mind, he planned to make very specific use of the Riksarkivet materials, reading only highly relevant letters and documents in the archives.
Unfortunately, Mr. Gennari ran into an unexpected obstacle. The manuscripts were incredibly difficult to read. "The 17th century handwriting was difficult to read, it was narrow, close together, and in many cases nearly the entire page is filled with script making it difficult to know where a sentence finished or began." The curators in Stockholm offered Gennari a magnifying glass and a handwriting decoder photocopy and wished him luck.
"Suddenly, in leafing through a series of folios," he says, "I realized why very few Swedes and not a single English language historian had done large scale, archival level work on the reign of Charles X."
He couldn’t easily read the documents for the key words he was searching for, he only had a month in the country and he could see his research plans crumbling before his eyes. And photocopying the vast numbers of documents was out of the question both because of the cost and the weight. But Mr. Gennari had brought one personal piece of equipment with him that turned out to be the key to the whole affair. He had his digital camera.
An off-hand remark to one of the staff at the Riksarkivet revealed that they not only allowed non-flash photography of their collections, but they even had a camera stand setup for the occasional photographing of maps and images that could not be photocopied.
So, Mr. Gennari set about photographing 2,500 documents, producing some 25,000 images in total, which would have been the equivalent of $15,000 worth of photocopying. If he’d used a film camera, almost 700 rolls of film (about $4,000) would have been required with the attendant costs of converting those to photo CDs adding $30,000 to the total costs.
However, with the images safely stored on a handful of recordable DVDs Gennari was able to import the whole collection into Google’s free Picasa image library software for cataloguing and study on his return to the US.
"Digital photography and computer technology allowed me to capture, transport, and manipulate a previously inconceivable amount of document at a tremendous cost saving," he says, "Additionally, my need for frequent return trips and long, expensive, stays in a foreign country to continue my research has been eliminated. I have a lifetime worth of research documents at my fingers whenever I wish to conduct the research; 24 hours a day, 365 days a year."
"Digital photography allows for the collection of large amounts of archival documents in a short period of time," explains Mr. Gennari. But the intrepid researcher does have one very important piece of advice for all those who would follow in his footsteps: Take several sets of spare rechargeable batteries for your camera!
There’s no question, that the digital revolution is changing the language. Twitter used to be something birds did, Spam was something we all eat, and google referred exclusively to eyes (as in googly-eyes)! And the term ‘cement overcoat’ had a very specific meaning that conjures up visions of swarthy men dressed in fedoras, pinstriped suits and machine guns. Now thanks to researchers in England ‘cement overcoat’ may develop quite a different meaning.
NOT ‘SWIMMING WITH THE FISHES’
Engineers at the University of Leeds are working on a new type of body armor made from cement. The new vests combine super-strong cement with recycled carbon fiber to make a material tough enough to withstand most bullets.
The chief researcher says that using cement instead of aluminum will significantly reduce the costs of body armor production. At least for people like security guards, reporters and aid workers who are worried about the odd pot shot being taken at them.
He says that much of the body armor sold today is over-engineered for the threats faced by the people who wear it. The cement-based armor would not only create a whole new market but it would also reduce the demand for the high-end armor so that people like soldiers, who really need it, can get it.
Currently available advanced body armor is made from alumina plates – the raw material used to make aluminum – which is heated to 1600 degrees Celsius for up to two weeks in a process called ‘sintering’ in order to make them ultra hard.
Soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have faced shortages of enhanced combat body armor (ECBA) as production has struggled to keep up with soaring global demand.
Cement vests are just one of a range of novel uses for the 2000 year old material that the researchers are investigating in a three year project called ‘Cementing the Future’. Other ideas include cement based pump-less fridges, a new type of catalytic converter, and improved bone replacements.
Dr Philip Purnell with recycled carbon fibre. (Credit: Image courtesy of University of Leeds)
Does give a whole new meaning to ‘cement overcoat’, doesn’t it?
There’s also news about the other material mentioned in the last item. It’s no secret that I’m a Trekkie who’s been out of the closet for a long time. Although this particular form of entertainment may have passed you by, there’s no question that Star Trek, both the TV series in its multiple manifestations and the movies have had a great impact on the general public.
Star Trek has also had a great impact on science. It seems that if you grow up believing that something is possible, in later life, you work to make it possible. Dr. McCoy’s medical tricorder already has working prototypes and though we’re
still a long way from the transporter and warp drive, the science of Star Trek is a very real and viable thing.
One of the iconic materials casually mentioned by Mr. Scott in the movie Star Trek IV was ‘transparent aluminum’. He was quite surprised that it hadn’t been invented yet. Well, perhaps at the time the movie was released it hadn’t been, but read on.
ONE STEP CLOSER
Scientists at the University of Oxford in England have created a transparent form of aluminum by bombarding the metal with the world’s most powerful soft X-ray laser. ‘Transparent aluminum’ previously only existed in science fiction but the real material is an exotic new state of matter with implications for planetary science and nuclear fusion.
New states of matter don’t come along every day. Traditionally there are four: the three you’re familiar with; solid, liquid and gas and plasma, the most abundant state of matter in the universe because that’s what stars are made from.
The Oxford researchers report that a short pulse from the x-ray laser removed a core electron from every aluminum atom in a sample without disrupting the metal’s crystalline structure. This turned the aluminum nearly invisible to extreme ultraviolet radiation.
”What we have created is a completely new state of matter nobody has seen before,’ said Professor Justin Wark of Oxford University’s Department of Physics, one of the authors of the paper. ‘Transparent aluminum is just the start. The physical properties of the matter we are creating are relevant to the conditions inside large planets, and we also hope that by studying it we can gain a greater understanding of what is going on during the creation of ‘miniature stars’ created by high-power laser implosions, which may one day allow the power of nuclear fusion to be harnessed here on Earth.’
The discovery was made possible with the development of the FLASH laser in Hamburg, Germany. The FLASH laser produces a stream of radiation that’s ten billion times more powerful than any other laser. It produces extremely brief pulses of soft X-ray light, each of which is more powerful than the output of a power plant that provides electricity to a whole city. Although the transparency lasted for an extremely brief time, it demonstrates that exotic states of matter can be created using very high power X-ray sources.
Experimental set-up at the FLASH laser used to discover the new state of matter. (Credit: Image courtesy of University of Oxford)
We certainly do live in an amazing age!