Thursday, April 28, 2005

Inky emails

By Norman Haase

Article originally appeared in the Lehigh Pocono Mensa magazine Magniloquence, issue #181, May 2005

I often reflect upon the rapidity of change that we encounter in today's world, as well as the acceleration experienced in our lives as we're faced with the torrents of information that we must quickly sort through for relevance (personal or career-related), absorb to one extent or another, often add-to, and then pass on to the next stressed-out and overloaded biocomputer in the information chain.

For those of us who regularly inhabit cyberspace, that inundation of information is most commonly and incessantly manifested by ubiquitous email, and its evil twin SPAM (I could only stand it in small measure when it came in a can, and my opinion hasn't changed much).

When I returned recently from a short, five-day vacation, logging onto the Internet brought me over 900 downloaded messages! It took the better part of a day just to separate the Triticum from the bract (this is a Mensa article). The former included customer orders, family missives and some of the jokes making the rounds. The latter was represented by multiple invitations from the son of deposed king M'runga of Nigeria to help him smuggle $50 million out of his country through my bank account -- consideration of which I had to put on the back-burner -- as I reflected upon the generously offered help in augmenting my virility, while simultaneously awaiting the next message from Pam, Bambi or Vicki, all of whom seemed inordinately interested in spending quality time with their soulmate -- ME (naively, I had always assumed that we were allowed only one each).

As a counterbalance to this type of informational overload and our increasingly frenetic lifestyles, it seems that most of us require some activity or hobby to slow us down. For some it's the release of tension brought about by intense physical activity, such as a favorite sport (table tennis in my case), a workout at the gym, or perhaps an evening spent with Pam, Bambi or Vicki.

For others, or at other times, it might be the physically passive route of TV, a movie, or sitting down with an engrossing book or a sumptuous meal. Still others find their 'downshift' through a creative pursuit such as painting, making music, throwing clay, or writing. This last activity bears on those customer order emails I mentioned, for you see -- in cyberspace -- I'm known by my superhero appellation of His Nibs and earn my daily bread (and upkeep on the palace) by selling good, old-fashioned, force-you-to-slow-down-whether-you-want-to-or-not -- fountain pens!

At first blush, offering one of the more ancient tools for writing -- as measured by a medium such as the Internet, which tends to identify anything that hasn't been upgraded in the past six months as obsolete -- would seem to be an anachronism.

My experience belies that assumption however. My customers are self-selected as technically savvy -- just by finding me on the Internet -- and in addition tend to be those most besieged by ever-changing information, be they engineers, doctors, computer scientists, judges or technical writers. All seem to share the desire to acquire a writing instrument that harkens back to a slower time, whether primarily to build a collection (there are now thousands of new models -- many created as limited editions -- as well as countless millions of vintage pens still extant), or just to experience the more organic feel of nib and ink while putting thoughts on paper, and the quieting ritual of selecting that day's pen and ink color.

In an environment of email, keyboards and voicemail, I've found many people who have taken up writing in journals and diaries -- just for the opportunity to use their pens. I don't have exact figures, but surprisingly, fountain pens have become a small growth industry in the past decade -- with prices ranging from $5 dollars to $500 thousand dollars and more (the secret: just keep adding diamonds) -- concurrently with the decline in daily opportunities to use them!

So, although I wrote this little piece longhand with a Sheaffer Legacy 2 fountain pen, a stub nib and with Private Reserve Copper Burst ink, I then dictated it into my computer using voice recognition technology in order to email it to Sallie. Ah, Brave New World. But let me now lay down my pen -- I have emails to send off to Pam, Bambi and Vicki…

His Nibs, aka Norman Haase, can be found in his virtual* store at, while his weblog, often focuses on the nature of intelligence -- human and otherwise.

*Norman's accountant will confirm the virtual nature of the business!

The New York Times > Itty-Bitty and Shrinking, Fusion Device Has Big Ideas


Published: April 28, 2005

In a surprising feat of miniaturization, scientists are reporting today that they have produced nuclear fusion - the same process that powers the sun - in a footlong cylinder just five inches in diameter. And they say they will soon be able to make the device even smaller.

While the device is probably too inefficient to produce electricity or other forms of energy, the scientists say, egg-size fusion generators could someday find uses in spacecraft thrusters, medical treatments and scanners that search for bombs.


The findings, by a team at the University of California, Los Angeles, led by Dr. Seth J. Putterman, are being reported in the journal Nature.

The minifusion device accelerates hydrogen atoms and slams them together to produce helium. Unlike earlier claims of tabletop fusion - 'cold fusion,' in 1989, which suggested that energy could be produced by running electricity through water and metal plates, and 'sonofusion,' in 2002, in which collapsing bubbles supposedly heat gases to starlike temperatures - this report is not being greeted with skepticism.

'I think it's very persuasive,' said Dr. William Happer, a professor of physics at Princeton.

Dr. Michael J. Saltmarsh, a retired scientist who worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, said the energy of the particles emitted by the collisions convincingly matched what was expected for fusion. Dr. Saltmarsh was one of two Oak Ridge scientists who said they were unable to detect the signatures of fusion in the 2002 sonofusion experiment.

In a commentary accompanying the Nature paper, Dr. Saltmarsh described the new device as 'intriguingly simple' and added, 'Indeed, in some ways it is remarkably low tech.'

By contrast with the earlier claims, the U.C.L.A. researchers do not assert that their invention will provide unlimited energy. "What we've built so far," Dr. Putterman said, "no chance."

Indeed, the new device does not even produce enough energy to warm the hand. But it could be useful as a source of neutrons, the subatomic particles that are a byproduct of fusion. Because neutrons do not have any electrical charge, they can penetrate deep into matter, and that could provide a way to peer easily into luggage or cargo containers.

"We can give them a little tiny front end for a camera that can look behind things," Dr. Putterman said.

The central component of the device is a crystal of lithium tantalate, which belongs to a class of materials known as pyroelectrics. Pyroelectrics, which generate strong electric fields when heated or cooled, have long been known, possibly described as far back as 314 B.C. by a student of Aristotle.

"It's quite a surprise to see it used in this way," Dr. Happer of Princeton said.

In the experiment, the crystal, a cylinder about an inch and a quarter in diameter and a half-inch in length, was mounted inside the footlong cylinder and surrounded by a gas of deuterium, a heavy version of hydrogen. Warming the crystal about 50 degrees Fahrenheit produced a charge of 1,000 volts. That created electric fields around a tungsten tip that were so strong that they ripped electrons off the deuterium and accelerated the charged deuterium ions into a target that also contained deuterium.

When one deuterium ion hit a deuterium atom, fusion occurred. Sometimes. But because only one in a million of the collisions actually produce fusion, the device is an inefficient generator of energy.

The jet of deuterium ions could serve as thrusters for small spacecraft, and X-rays produced by electrons' being caught in the powerful electric fields might be useful for treating tumors.

The current device produces only about 1,000 neutrons a second, few enough that it would not be dangerous to use even in a physics demonstration, Dr. Saltmarsh said. The researchers plan a more powerful version by replacing deuterium in the target with tritium, an even heavier form of hydrogen, generating about 250 times as many neutrons. Additional improvements should raise the rate to a million neutrons a second.

Commercial neutron generators, which can already make a million neutrons a second, similarly accelerate deuterium into targets, but they rely on high-voltage power sources to generate the electric fields.

By relying on pyroelectric crystals instead, the U.C.L.A. research could lead to generators that are much simpler and less expensive.

"What Putterman's made is an amazing little accelerator," Dr. Happer said. "It's a version of that that doesn't need any high voltage."

Dr. Putterman says he envisions a device consisting just of an egg-size container with a crystal, deuterium gas and the target inside. Plunging the container into ice water or warming it with body heat would be enough to set off the reactions. "We can diddle temperature a mere 30 degrees and generate fields that make fusion," he said."

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Cassini Finds Organic Material on Titan

"PASADENA, Calif. (AP) - A close flyby of Saturn's big moon Titan by the international Cassini spacecraft revealed an upper atmosphere brimming with complex organic material, a finding that could hold clues to how life arose on Earth, scientists said Monday.

Cassini flew within 638 miles of Titan's frozen surface on April 16 and discovered a hydrocarbon-laced upper atmosphere.

Titan's atmosphere is mainly made up of nitrogen and methane, the simplest type of hydrocarbon. But scientists were surprised to find complex organic material in the latest flyby. Because Titan is extremely cold - about minus 290 degrees - scientists expected the organic material to condense and rain down to the surface.

'We are beginning to appreciate the role of the upper atmosphere in the complex carbon cycle that occurs on Titan,' said Hunter Waite, a professor at the University of Michigan.

Scientists believe Titan's atmosphere may be similar to that of the primordial Earth and studying it could provide clues to how life began.

The $3.3 billion Cassini mission, funded by NASA and the European and Italian space agencies, was launched in 1997 and took seven years to reach Saturn. The European Huygens probe carried aboard Cassini was released on Dec. 24 and plunged to the surface of Titan in January.


On the Net:

Titan flyby images: "

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Expert: Apes May Be Key to Human Nature


DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh sounds like a proud mother when she speaks about her brood of bonobos, eight ultra-intelligent apes that will take part in unique language research meant to shed light on their nature and maybe our own.

The first two bonobos will make the 16-hour road trip from the Language Research Center at Georgia State University to their new $10 million, 13,000-square-foot home near downtown Des Moines later this month. All eight - three females and five males - will arrive at the Great Ape Trust of Iowa by mid-May.

Bonobos, a species of ape from the Congo, are the most like humans, Savage-Rumbaugh said. They constantly vocalize 'as though they are conversing' and often walk upright.

'If you want to find a human-like creature that exists in a completely natural state ... that creature is the bonobo,' said Savage-Rumbaugh, an experimental psychologist who is one of the world's leading ape-language researchers.

If the apes are able to learn language, music and art, once thought to be distinct to humans, then 'it strongly suggests that those things are not innate in us,' she said.

'Those are things that we have created, and create anew and build upon from one generation to the next ...' she said. 'Then we have the power to change it and make it any other way. We could have an ideal world, if we but learn how to do it.'

The bonobos will be able to cook in their own kitchen, tap vending machines for snacks, go for walks in the woods and communicate with researchers through computer touchscreens. The decor in their 18-room home includes an indoor waterfall and climbing areas 30 feet high.

The longevity of the project is unlike any other.

The animals, which have a life span of up to about 50 years, will be allowed to mate and have families - and develop cultures that will be studied for generations to come, Savage-Rumbaugh said.

Visitors are allowed, but they must understand that the Great Ape Trust is not a zoo, she said.

Using a network of cameras and computers, the bonobos can see visitors who ring the doorbell - and will be able to choose through a computer touchscreen who will be permitted into a secured viewing area.

"Only if they want to open the door can you enter," Savage-Rumbaugh said.

Karen Killmar, an associate curator at the San Diego Zoo, said the Great Ape Trust is unlike other research programs.

"There's studies all over the place in terms of intelligence and learning ability and behavior," she said, "but to be able to sort of pull it all together in one place I think is a wonderful opportunity to give us a much clearer picture of what our closest relatives are."


On the Net:

The Great Ape Trust:

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Princeton Starts Einstein Light Relay

"Apr 19, 2:59 PM (ET)

PRINCETON, N.J. (AP) - Physicists and Albert Einstein buffs began flipping light switches and dialing phones Monday night in an attempt at a worldwide relay of lights to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Einstein's death.

The relay got under way at 8:45 p.m. with the illumination of the football stadium and two towers on the Princeton University campus. From there, about 140 groups planned to illuminate everything from campus structures to private homes, one right after another, in a relay across the country.

Organizers were then expected to take the relay around the world, using the telephone on some legs of the journey, said Claire Gmachl, an associate professor of electrical engineering at Princeton who was organizing the start of the relay. She said phone calls travel over fiber-optic cables, which make them lights, in a sense.

The event, organized by Dr. Max Lippitsch, a physicist at the University of Graz in Austria, has drawn some criticism from astronomers concerned about light pollution.

Einstein, who lived and worked in Princeton from 1933 until his death on April 18, 1955, published three groundbreaking papers on physics in 1905. One of them laid out what is now known as the Theory of Relativity, which deals with the nature of light.

The 100th anniversary of the papers is also being celebrated by the World Year of Physics."

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Kasparov Hit Over Head With Chessboard

"MOSCOW (AP) - Garry Kasparov, the world's former No. 1 chess player who quit the professional game last month to focus on politics, said Saturday he had been hit over the head with a chessboard in a politically motivated attack.

Kasparov, an outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin, was not injured Friday when he was hit with the chessboard after signing it for a young man at an event in Moscow.

A spokeswoman for Kasparov, Marina Litvinovich, said the assailant told the chess champion: 'I admired you as a chess player, but you gave that up for politics.'

She said the unidentified attacker - who did not reveal his political allegiance - tried to hit Kasparov again but was hauled away by security guards.

'It was a fairly nasty incident, it was not very pleasant psychologically,' Kasparov told the private NTV television.

The 41-year-old Kasparov, a brilliant and aggressive tactician regarded by many as the greatest chess player of all time, has been ranked No. 1 in the world since 1984.

He retired last month, saying he planned to focus on politics and do 'everything in my power to resist Putin's dictatorship.' He plays a leading role in the Committee 2008: Free Choice, a group formed by liberal opposition leaders.

Putin has been accused of stifling democratic freedoms by placing national television under effective state control and centralizing power by boosting Kremlin control of parliament and country's regions. "

Friday, April 15, 2005

Whale-Dolphin Hybrid Has Baby Wholphin


HONOLULU (AP) - The only whale-dolphin mix in captivity has given birth to a playful female calf, officials at Sea Life Park Hawaii said Thursday.

The calf was born on Dec. 23 to Kekaimalu, a mix of a false killer whale and an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin. Park officials said they waited to announce the birth until now because of recent changes in ownership and operations at the park.

The young as-yet unnamed wholphin is one-fourth false killer whale and three-fourths Atlantic bottlenose dolphin. Her slick skin is an even blend of a dolphin's light gray and the black coloring of a false killer whale.

The calf still depends fully on her mother's milk, but sometimes snatches frozen capelin from the hands of trainers, then toys with the sardine-like fish.

She is jumbo-sized compared to purebred dolphins, and is already the size of a one-year-old bottlenose.

'Mother and calf are doing very well,' said Dr. Renato Lenzi, general manager of Sea Life Park by Dolphin Discovery. 'We are monitoring them very closely to ensure the best care for them.'

Although false killer whales and Atlantic bottlenose dolphins are different species, they are classified within the same family by scientists.

'They are not that far apart in terms of taxonomy,' said Louis Herman, a leading expert in the study of marine mammals.

There have been reports of wholphins in the wild, he said.

Kekaimalu, whose name means 'from the peaceful ocean,' was born 19 years ago after a surprise coupling between a 14-foot, 2,000-pound false killer whale and a 6-foot, 400-pound dolphin. The animals were the leads in the park's popular tourist water show, featured in the Adam Sandler movie '50 First Dates.'

Kekaimalu has given birth to two other calves. One lived for nine years and the other, born when Kekaimalu was very young, died a few days after birth.

Park researchers suspect the wholphin's father is a 15-foot long Atlantic bottlenose dolphin named Mikioi.

"He seems to be totally oblivious to this happening," Lenzi said.

False killer whales do not closely resemble killer whales. They grow to 20 feet, weigh up to two tons and have a tapering, rounded snout that overhangs their toothed jaw.

Atlantic bottlenose dolphins reach a maximum size of 12 feet and can weigh up to 700 pounds.

Sea Life Park officials said they hope to decide on a name for the baby wholphin soon and move her to a large display tank in a few months."

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Wired News: Surprises Lurk in Satellite Snaps

Excerpted from Daniel Terdiman's article on Wired:

"Although satellite imagery has been generally available in one form or another for years, Google's launch of the image database it got when it purchased Keyhole last fall is likely to dramatically increase public interest in the technology, especially since so many people are already using Google's service for mapping, driving directions and even creative projects like annotating maps of places they've lived.

'What (Google is) doing for text-based searches, they wanted to start doing for geospatial, so that could bring satellite imagery down to earth, if you will,' said Mark Brender, vice president of corporate communications at Space Imaging, another owner and distributor of satellite-imaging technology. 'It was the Babylonians in 2300 B.C. that first etched the lay of the land on clay tablets. Google will be taking this to a whole new level.'

Most tsunami satellite images showed the aftermath of the disaster. But in this image, DigitalGlobe shot Sri Lanka's coast just as the waves were hitting it. The swirling of the ocean is clearly visible.
Photo: Courtesy of DigitalGlobe

In most circumstances, the interesting things in satellite images are captured intentionally, as were pictures of the floods of people jamming into the Vatican after the death of the pope."

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Chess legend Bobby Fischer drops San Diego lawsuit against U.S.

"SAN DIEGO – Bobby Fischer has dropped a federal lawsuit against the U.S. government over what the former chess champion called his illegal nine-month detention in Japan.

The lawsuit was filed March 23, the same day Fischer was released from a Japanese detention center and took up residence in Iceland. The case was voluntarily dismissed Thursday in U.S. District Court in San Diego.

'He wants to get on with his life,' Richard J. Vattuone, the attorney who filed the lawsuit told The San Diego Union-Tribune in Tuesday's editions. 'He's not interested in any more lawsuits, so that matter is over, dismissed.'

Vattuone did not immediately return a message left seeking comment Tuesday.

The 62-year-old Fischer, claimed he was assaulted, battered and routinely held in solitary confinement at an immigration detention facility outside of Tokyo. Japanese authorities arrested Fischer in July for trying to leave the country using an invalid U.S. passport.

Fischer is wanted on charges of violating international sanctions against the former Yugoslavia by playing chess against Boris Spassky, the Russian he defeated to become world champion in 1972.

According to the lawsuit, Fischer said Edward McKeon, the minister counselor and consul general at the American embassy, 'directed the Japanese authorities to detain Fischer under harsh conditions, amounting to torture, until Fischer gave up his legal rights under international U.S. law, and complied with U.S. demands that Fischer agree to be deported.'

A federal grand jury in Washington is investigating possible criminal money-laundering charges involving Fischer. He was reported to have received $3.5 million from the 1992 chess match with Spassky in the former Yugoslavia and boasted at the time that he didn't intend to pay any income tax on the money.

Vattuone said he has been retained by the Bobby Fischer Committee, which is seeking to prevent Fischer's appearance in the United States for any future court proceedings."

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Josh Waitzkin, Subject of "Searching For Bobby Fischer," wins World Championship in Martial Arts. : Khalsa News Network-

Khalsa News Network- "International Chess Master Josh Waitzkin defies odds winning the Middleweight World Championship Title in Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands (Fixed Step), and becomes the Middleweight World Co-Champion in Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands (Moving Step), after competing in the 7th Chung Hwa Cup International Tai Chi Chuan Championships in Taiwan December 5th. Waitzkin, who came to fame as the subject of the highly acclaimed book Searching For Bobby Fischer (written by his father, Fred Waitzkin), was immortalized in the Paramount film of the same name as a chess prodigy winning his first National Championship.

Waitzkin went on to dominate the scholastic chess circuit, winning 8 National Chess Championship titles before the age of 19. Waitzkin began studying Tai Chi Chuan with Grandmaster William CC Chen (NYC) in '98. He has since won an unprecedented total of 13 National Championship titles over the last five years in the Middleweight, Light Heavyweight, and Heavyweight divisions. He now adds two World Championship titles to his credit.

In November of '04 Waitzkin signed what is reported to be a $300,000 book deal with Simon and Schuster's Free Press (rep’d by Amanda Urban, ICM) for his second book, an autobiographical discussion of the learning process and performance psychology, scheduled for release in 2006."

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Metallic glass: a drop of the hard stuff - Features: New Scientist

* 02 April 2005
* news service
* Catherine Zandonella

"IN THE movie Terminator 2, the villain is a robot made of liquid metal. He morphs from human form to helicopter and back again with ease, moulds himself into any shape without breaking, and can even flow under doorways.

Now a similar-sounding futuristic material is about to turn up everywhere. It is called metallic glass. In the past year, researchers have made metallic glass three times stronger than the best industrial steel and 10 times springier. Almost a match for the Terminator, in other words.

Metallic glass sounds like an oxymoron, and in a way it is. It describes a metal alloy with a chaotic structure. While metal atoms normally arrange themselves in ordered arrays, or crystals, the atoms in a metallic glass are a disordered jumble, rather like the atoms in a liquid or a glass. And although strictly speaking a metallic glass isn't a liquid, because the atoms are fixed in place, one company is already marketing the stuff as 'liquid metal'.

It is the unusual structure that makes metallic glass so promising. In crystalline metal alloys, the atoms are ordered within regions called "grains", and the boundaries between the grains are points of weakness in the material. Metallic glasses, however, have no grain boundaries, so they are much stronger. Hit a crystalline metal with a hammer and it will bend, absorbing some of the energy of the blow by giving way along grain boundaries. But the atoms in an amorphous metal are tightly packed, and easily bounce back to their original shape after a blow (see Diagram). These materials lack bulky crystalline grains, so they can be shaped into features just 10 nanometres across. And their liquid-like structure means they melt at lower temperatures, and can be moulded nearly as easily as plastics.

No wonder companies are interested. The trouble is, no one was able to make a useful metallic glass until very recently. That is because, when molten alloys are cooled down, they inevitably begin to crystallise, with ordered arrays of atoms growing from various points in the molten liquid.

To make a metallic glass, crystallisation needs to be stopped in its tracks. This should happen if a liquid is cooled extremely fast, but just putting a cupful of molten metal into a freezer won't cool it fast enough. In the 1960s, Pol Duwez at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena came up with an answer. By pouring molten metal onto a cold, rapidly rotating copper cylinder, he could make sheets of "superfrozen" amorphous metal. The problem was that the sheets he made were only a few nanometres thick. If he slowed the rotation of the cylinder to try to make a thicker sheet it left enough time for crystals to form.

It is only recently that researchers at Liquidmetal Technologies in Lake Forest, California, have improved on this. The company was founded by William Johnson, a former student of Duwez. For a long time, Johnson saw no way to make metallic glasses thicker than a millimetre or so. Then he heard about the work of Akihisa Inoue of Tohoku University's Institute for Materials Research in Sendai, on the Japanese island of Honshu. Inoue had found that adding big, bulky metal atoms such as lanthanum to an alloy dramatically slows its crystallisation rate. The huge atoms disrupted crystal formation, making it possible to freeze alloys into glasses without going to extreme lengths to cool them quickly.

Inoue argued that all kinds of metallic alloys could be made glassy in this way. All that was needed was the right combination of large and small atoms. Get it right, and as the molten alloy cools, the smaller atoms will cluster around the larger ones. Other small atoms fill in the spaces between the clusters, and the result is a morass of disordered atoms. The resulting material makes an incredibly stiff alternative to normal metal.

In the early 1990s Johnson and his colleague at Caltech, Atakan Peker, finally made an alloy based on this method and used it to launch Liquidmetal. They called their material Vitreloy. It contained large atoms of zirconium, titanium, copper and nickel, and small atoms of beryllium. Vitreloy is springier than steel and what's more, it becomes malleable at temperatures as low as 400 °C, compared with over 1000 °C for steel. This made it potentially much cheaper to manufacture.

Brittle strength

But things did not go exactly to plan. The company's first Vitreloy product was a golf club, and the material's springiness meant that the club could hit balls further than anything else on the market. There was a problem, however. Although metallic glasses are super-strong, they can be incredibly brittle. Like window glass they crack and shatter if hit with sufficient force. While ordinary metals fail slowly along grain boundaries, metallic glasses break without warning. So the golf clubs were never marketed. Early prototypes would often splinter into pieces after as few as 40 hits.

Liquidmetal's research showed that the brittleness is due to the formation of "shear bands" at stress points in the material. In a crystalline material, these bands extend a short way along a grain boundary then stop when they run into a crystal, but in amorphous substances these bands just keep on growing. Johnson and his group fixed the problem by creating a kind of intermediate. They mixed crystal particles into the Vitreloy, effectively placing barriers in the way of the shear bands and stopping them from extending.

This was not an ideal solution, however. Johnson wanted to find a metallic glass that would be tough without the need for crystals. Finding one involved guessing, heating various ingredients together, and then simply trying them out. "As a first test we throw the material on the ground," says Jan Schroers, a researcher at Liquidmetal. "The good ones throw sparks but they don't shatter".

Last year the search paid off. Johnson's group finally found a glassy mixture of platinum, copper, nickel and phosphorus that is not brittle. When they applied a force to it, lots of shear bands appeared, but each one was small and thin. These bands appear to increase overall toughness by interfering with each other so that no one band can extend into a long crack (Physical Review Letters, vol 93, p 255506). "This is the first time that a combination of these properties has been seen," says Schroers, "not only for bulk metallic glasses, but for all metal alloys".

Since the new glass is almost 60 per cent platinum it is too expensive for widespread use. But the numerous studies have hinted at a pattern that might help researchers find alternatives more quickly. It turns out that the springier a metallic glass is, the less likely it is to be brittle.

This is related to the degree of liquid-like behaviour of the material. Liquids flow so easily that they can immediately return to a former shape: dip a spoon in a liquid and then remove it and the hole fills instantly. The same property, of flowing away from pressure instead of snapping, makes it hard to shatter liquids.

Perfect alloy

Researchers have long known that alloys are less liquid-like when the atomic bonds in them are metallic, meaning that the electrons that glue the atoms together can flow easily from one part of the material to another. So researchers might be able to reduce brittleness by choosing elements that will increase the degree of metallic bonding. The problem is that no one knows how to do this, says Mark Eberhart, a geochemist at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden. "You can find it in a basic chemistry text: 'metallic bonding leads to ductile metals'," says Eberhart, "but where does it tell you how to change that? It doesn't." He is now trying to describe the precise relationship between the properties of a material and the distribution of electrons in its bonds. The more metallic the bond, the less brittle the material.

Another important advance is the ability to make metallic glass using cheap metals such as iron and copper. In 2003, Joseph Poon and Gary Shiflet at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville announced the first steel glass, containing carbon, iron and a little manganese. As manganese is not magnetic, the resulting material was one of the first non-magnetic steels. It could be a big breakthrough, because ships built of non-magnetic steel would be able to elude radar detection more easily.

Poon and Shiflet's material is still fairly brittle, but progress is rapid - Johnson is already preparing to report on a copper-based alloy that is ductile. In fact, because researchers now know that they are looking for liquid-like bonding, they have been able to produce a number of cheap new metallic glasses in the past few months. "Instead of two months of randomly adding materials, you can find out in a day or couple of days," says Poon.

Liquidmetal is already producing the platinum-based metallic glass for medical devices, scalpel blades and professional tennis rackets. Inoue in Japan has used metallic glass to build a miniature motor. And the strength of metallic glasses means that, in addition to aircraft parts and ships' hulls, the US Department of Defense is now considering them as non-toxic alternatives to depleted uranium on the tips of armour-piercing bullets. Liquidmetal has even signed a contract with Samsung to make cellphone parts. You won't know it to look at them, but before too long many of the metallic parts in everyday products will be the stuff of the Terminator."

Friday, April 01, 2005

43 Folders -- April Power Hacks!

I found this interesting website, subtitled "A bunch of tricks, hacks & other cool stuff", linked from the 43holders wiki, which has a sub-page entitled 'Moleskine Friendly Fountain Pens'. This was sent to me by a customer (thanks Bill!), who had added some entries on Hero pens to the wiki.

Anyway, here are the first ten (of twenty) April Power Hacks for your enjoyment and edification:

"How about a roundup of some hot new 43 Folders “hacks” for starting your new month off right?

1. Pencils are a great way to write things down.
2. Sharpen new pencils soon after you’ve bought them, so you can use them to write things down more easily.
3. Make sure you put gas in your car, or it won’t run very far after you’ve bought it, and then you’ll have trouble getting to work.
4. When you get letters from people, you can send a response by using some paper and one of the pencils I mentioned a little earlier. (Just make sure they’re sharpened!)
5. If you have a long list of things to do, make sure to do some of them sometimes. Make pencil marks by the ones that are “finished.”
6. When people ask you how you’re doing, it’s okay to say “Great! How about you?” They’ll probably have some kind of response, though, so be ready.
7. You can put recipes on your computer and look at them later to make food you like. Tip: You can also write down recipes using the pencils I mentioned earlier.
8. If you’re having trouble getting inspired about something, it’s probably because you’re temporarily lacking inspiration. That’s what you need. You need inspiration.
9. If you keep forgetting your house keys when you go out, you shouldn’t do that any more, or you’ll eventually lock yourself out.
10. It’s easy to remember how many teaspoons are in a quart (192) with this simple mnemonic:

Over nearly every hamburger, under nearly dead raccoons—every delayed nanosecond inculcates nearly every teenager you think wears oranges."

You can read the other ten (if you can stand it), by clicking on the title of this entry, which will take you to the 43 Folders website.