Scientific American February 2013
Forum: A Tale of Two Internets (p.13)
Technology that enables Google, Facebook and others to gather information about us and use it to tailor our online experience to our own personal tastes and habits has a dark side, Michael Fertik argues in the Forum column of this month’s Scientific American. “Ninety-nine percent of us live on the wrong side of a one-way mirror, in which the other 1 percent manipulates our experiences,” he writes.
Increasingly, data collection is going well beyond strict advertising and enabling insurance, medical and other companies to benefit from analyzing your highly detailed “Big Data” record without your knowledge. Using this information, companies can then make decisions about you, including whether you are worth marketing to at all. Advances in data mining make it possible for companies to skirt the federal regulations that make it illegal to discriminate in pricing access to credit based on certain personal attributes. “If you live on the wrong side of the digital tracks, you won’t even see a credit offer from leading lending institutions,” Fertik writes. Nor will you know if you are paying more than others for the exact same item.
Science Agenda: Beware the Destiny Test (p.12)
In a few years prenatal whole-genome sequencing will provide the entire genetic code of an unborn fetus, alerting parents of possible genetic diseases their child may have or develop. Yet without proper guidance from doctors and genetic counselors, the Editors of Scientific American warn in this month’s Science Agenda column, this knowledge may lead parents to take drastic measures—such as ending the pregnancy—based on misguided readings.
Currently available genetic screening already lets parents know about such genetic disorders such as Down’s syndrome or Tay-Sachs disease. What if, however, these tests went further, letting parents know about the possibility of their child one day suffering from specific types of cancer or diabetes? How should such information be handled?
Bioethicists at the National Institutes of Health issued recommendations in the summer of 2011 for safeguards and guidelines that would help the medical community and parents when dealing with such information. Yet presently, there are not enough resources to address these crucial issues.
Engineering: The Battery-Powered Bullet (p.56)
A group of students are planning to exceed 400 miles per hour in an electric car, a feat that only a few petroleum-fuelled cars have achieved. The Buckeye Bullet team at Ohio State University has produced several of the fastest alternative fuel vehicles in history, including a battery-powered racer that surpassed 300 mph in 2010. The challenges that need to be overcome to make its vehicle the first electric car to crack 400 mph are described in the latest issue Scientific American.
Necessary redesigns of the Buckeye Bullet include the addition of a tail fin to give the vehicle stability at such high speeds, but since this comes at a cost of adding aerodynamic drag, the design of that fin is crucial. Reducing the width and weight of the vehicle can also help reduce drag, so instead of cylindrical batteries, the team is using square, pouch-type ones, which can be packed more tightly. Another issue to consider is the integrity of the tires: beyond 300 mph, they will spin so fast that they will expand. So the team is using very thin tires that are less likely to blow out, since less rubber means there is less mass that could tear them apart.
If all goes to plan, the team will attempt to break the 400 mph barrier in September on Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats.
Climate: Rethinking the Gulf Stream (p.50)
Winters in northern Europe are generally much less bitter than in the northeastern U.S. and Canada, despite the two regions being at the same latitude.
The Gulf Stream, an ocean current that brings warm water from the equator toward the North Atlantic, has been credited with this observed variation in temperature for over a century. A recent explosion in climate data and models has, however, led to a reassessment of its influence, according to Stephen C. Riser and M. Susan Lozier in a feature piece published in this month’s Scientific American. New theories suggest that the jet stream and atmospheric pressure systems play a major part in keeping northern Europe warm. Recent findings also challenge the assertion that the Gulf Stream could be “shut down” by melting Arctic ice, which would bring colder winters to Europe.
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