Scientific American May 2013
Special Report: The Future of Manufacturing: How to Make the Next Big Thing
Robots, advanced 3-D printing and nanotechnology are among the tools that will drive the future of manufacturing. These and other advances are discussed in a special report on the future of manufacturing published in this month’s Scientific American.
In one feature article, David Bourne describes a future in which humans and robots will work side by side on factory floors. In some cases, it will be the robots giving the orders rather than humans, and these human-robot teams could save manufacturing companies time and money while being safe for humans: “Machines will have awareness of where the people are in their work space, and they should be able to communicate with their human counterparts using voices, gestures, ‘facial’ expressions, text and graphics.”
In another article, Mihail C. Roco takes a look at some of the most exciting nanoscale technologies on the horizon. These include nanoelectronic scaffolds that could become the foundation for engineered tissues that are used to detect and report on a variety of health problems and or atomic-scale memory and logic devices that be used in smartphones.
Science Agenda: The Spies Who Sabotaged Global Health
Humanitarian workers are governed by an international code of conduct that requires that their services be provided independently of national agendas, on the basis of need alone. In 2011, however, the CIA broke this code of good faith by using a sham hepatitis B vaccination project to collect DNA in the neighborhood where Osama bin Laden was thought to be hiding. As the Editors of Scientific American write in this month’s Science Agenda column, the CIA’s actions were wrong, and public health initiatives are feeling the negative effects.
Since it became clear that the hepatitis B vaccinations were a sham, villagers along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border chased off legitimate vaccine workers, accusing them of being spies. Additionally, Taliban commanders banned polio vaccination teams in parts of Pakistan, specifically citing the bin Laden ruse as justification. Then, last December, attacks in in Pakistan killed a total of nine vaccine workers, eventually prompting the United Nations to withdraw its vaccination teams from the area. Two months later gunmen killed 10 polio workers in Nigeria—a sign that the deliberate targeting of polio vaccinators for death may be spreading.
These are worrisome signs, especially considering that the global polio campaign has entered what should be its final stages. The number of cases has dropped from 350,000 in 1988 to 650 in 2011, but the three countries where the disease is still spreading—Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria—are now wary of global health initiatives.
Emerging Diseases: How Kitty is Killing the Dolphins
Infectious agents from terrestrial animals, including domestic cats, livestock and even humans are spreading to the oceans and threatening our sea life. A new term has been coined to describe the land-based bacteria, fungi and parasites that travel into our seas: pollutagens (polluting pathogens). A feature in this month’s Scientific American details numerous cases of these pollutagens and suggests that they may be on the rise.
A key example is the Toxoplasa gondii parasite that travels from domestic cats, via their feces, into natural irrigation and waste disposal systems and on to marine animals such as sea otters and dolphins. The hardy nature of the parasite, combined with the huge numbers of domestic cats (around 70 million domestic and 60 million feral felines in the U.S. alone), gives some idea of the potential scale of the problem.
The mere appearance of such pollutagens is not the only issue of concern, however. Scientists have also found that many of the bacteria found in these marine organisms are resistant to medications, which could have implications for the treatment of infections in both the marine organisms and other animals (including humans) that are exposed to them. Further, viruses may be mutating and combining with other viruses to form strains with increased virulence and transmissibility. The feature suggests some key actions that could be taken to manage the problem of pollutagens, including preserving wetlands that act as a buffer zone between sources of pollutagens, such as farms and towns, keeping pets indoors, and disposing of human and animal sewage more responsibly.
Skeptic: Gun Science
Basic data relating to gun violence, ownership and regulation can help to clarify the gun-control debate, Michael Shermer argues in this month’s Scientific American.
As U.S. senators are considering whether to support background checks on people purchasing guns, Shermer uses simple figures to debunk a number of popular arguments used to oppose gun control. In answer to the suggestion that guns are needed for self-defence, he notes that “a gun is 22 times more likely to be used in a criminal assault, an accidental death or injury, a suicide attempt or a homicide.” Another statistic that Shermer notes is that in “states that prohibit gun ownership by men who have received a domestic violence restraining order, gun-caused homicides of intimate female partners have been reduced by 25 percent.” A final argument that gun-control laws disarm good people and leave criminals with weapons is countered with data showing that a strong regulation and oversight of licensed gun dealers has been, in the words of the book Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis, “associated with 64 percent less diversion of guns to criminals by in-state gun dealers.”
The Science of Health: Good Bacteria for Bad Breath
In this month’s The Science of Health column in Scientific American, Deborah Franklin explores new research on the causes of bad breath and innovative ways to combat it. Scientists have started to take a closer look at entire communities of microbes in the mouth in order to figure out how “oral ecology” differs between people with sweet and smelly breath.
The stinky chemicals found in bad breath are by-products of bacterial metabolism and include hydrogen sulfide and trimethylamine. Current treatments, such as powerful mouthwashes, often indiscriminately kill all oral bacteria. Such methods may in fact exacerbate bad breath by drying out the mouth and can allow species that cause gum disease and other infection to take over by destroying large swathes of native bacteria that are not responsible for producing bad odors. In contrast, some new treatments focus on restoring typical checks and balances inside the mouth. In one study, lozenges containing microbes that are known to ward off smelly bacteria allowed less malodorous species to move in.
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