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News Bytes of the Week--Smoldering Hawaiian volcano an ongoing geologic hottie

The oldest voice recording, Nose for danger, A new twist on silicon circuits and more...



Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey, J. Kauahikaua

Hawaiian volcano letting off steam (not to mention sulfur dioxide and lava)
Kilauea Volcano on Hawaii's largest island piped up with explosive eruptions and toxic sulfur dioxide emissions, the latest sign of unrest in the crater's turbulent history. Now U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists are scrambling to predict the volcano's next move and whether neighboring villagers are in harm's way. Also, the National Park Service has closed indefinitely Crater Rim Drive, which runs through the south caldera area. Kilauea has been the site of 34 eruptions since 1952, and eruptive activity has been continuous along its east rift zone since January 1983. All told, Kilauea ranks among the world's most active volcanoes and may even top the list, scientists say. As of Monday, the volcano was active both at its summit (where the Halema`uma`u vent has been spewing hot ash, steam and gas, elevating sulfur dioxide emission rates and seismic tremor levels) and at the coast (where lava continued to flow into the ocean), according to the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. The volcano is also the site of a national park, although sightseers might want to keep their distance until Kilauea cools off.

The clockwork employee? Biometric punch clock scans body parts
"Punching the clock" will soon take on new meaning as companies adopt biometric devices that check palm- and fingerprints to keep tabs on their employees. Business execs say that biometrics (a group of technologies that scan and store information about body parts unique to each person—including fingers, palms or eyes) help them more precisely log the comings and goings of workers, and that this information can automatically be sent to payroll systems to streamline that process. New York City–based technology consulting firm International Biometric Group, LLC, estimates that biometric device sales last year totaled $635 million, and projects revenues will exceed $1 billion by 2011, according to the Associated Press, which also reports that the Dunkin' Donuts and McDonald's franchises as well as Hilton Hotels and the U.S. Marine Corps have purchased biometrics from manufacturer Ingersoll–Rand Security Technologies. In New York City, the Office of Payroll Administration has a $181.1-million contract through 2009 with the Science Applications International Corporation to install a biometric timekeeping system called CityTime, The New York Times reports. City officials say the new system will save taxpayers $60 million annually by modernizing its existing record-keeping system (which required a full-time timekeeper for every 100 to 250 employees). But not everyone's on board. Critics say the technology is intrusive and an invasion of privacy, not to mention a potential purveyor of germs, because so many people will stick their germ-coated fingers or palms in them.

Move over, Edison, historians uncover oldest voice recording—and it's not yours
Until today, most of the free world believed Thomas Alva Edison was the first person to make a sound recording when he developed the phonograph in 1877 and created an audible archive of himself reciting "Mary had a little lamb" on a sheet of tinfoil. But, it turns out that a Frenchman beat him to the chase. The New York Times reports that scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California recently discovered that a piece of paper coated with oil lamp smoke, which dated back to 1860 and for years had been in a Paris archive, actually had a 10-second recording etched into it. When the researchers converted the etchings into sound with optical-imaging technology, they heard a female voice crooning a French folk song. Maryland-based audio historian David Giovannoni tracked down and unveiled the recording—made by French inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. Giovannoni said today at Stanford University that the inventor was probably trying to render a visual representation of sound by creating a device called a phonautogram. The machine, which could document sound to create a paper record but did not have playback capabilities, consisted of a barrel-like recording horn connected to a stylus (like that on a phonograph or record player). It would take Edison's invention 17 years later to play back recorded sound. (The New York Times, Reuters)

Something to sniff at: You can smell danger
Apparently your nose can do more than guide you toward a fresh pie cooling on a windowsill. It can also be trained to sense danger. Researchers at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago report in Science that 12 volunteers had trouble discerning between two "grassy" scents—until, that is, they were subjected to a mild electric shock after sniffing at one of them. Once jolted, the subjects easily differentiated between the aromas, illustrating, the scientists say, our evolutionary ability to pick up cues important to survival from a flood of sensory information. They note that scans of the volunteers before and after the experiment showed clear alterations in their brains' olfactory centers. (BBC, Chicago Tribune)

Silicon circuits take a stretch
Don't get bent out of shape over new research that shows how to stretch, bend and fold integrated silicon circuits. Materials scientists from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign report in Science that they sandwiched thin ribbons of silicon between taut pieces of rubber-like plastic that were then allowed to snap back to their original size, causing the silicon to crumple [see video below]. Because of the newfound slack in the silicon strips, the plastic circuits could stretch and twist while still carrying electricity, the group says. If researchers can stretch the technology to its logical limit, they might be able to stuff computers into everything from silk shirts to surgical gloves. (Science)

New photons carry 1.63 bits of info
In other twisted technology news, researchers report they have boosted the amount of information sent in a single photon to 1.63 bits, just by giving its electromagnetic field a good twist. The team—yet again from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign—was trying to come up with a way to pack more than one bit of information into the polarization of a single photon, which is normally polarized either vertically (0) or horizontally (1). Photons that share the faster-than-light quantum link known as entanglement could mix their polarizations to transmit up to two bits each, but imperfect technology has limited researchers to sending a mere 1.58 bits in this way. The scientists imparted photons with orbital angular momentum, which gives them a corkscrew-like shape that helped in decoding the entangled information. (Nature Physics; U.I.U.C. press release)

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