Archive for December, 2010

Alvyx/Flickr.com

Alvyx/Flickr.com

GPS to help a wandering mind get home

December 29th, 2010 by Gene
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Getting lost can be scary. It’s especially frightening for a special group of people. We’ll look in. Today, on Engineering Works!

It’s not obvious what engineering has to do with Alzheimer’s Disease. But there is a connection. And it’s a helpful one.

Alzheimer’s is a scary disease. It robs the people who have it of their minds and, eventually, their bodies. It affects more than 5 million people in the United States. And that number is growing as the population gets older.

One of the scariest parts of Alzheimer’s is that people who have it gradually lose their memories. Including where they live. As many as seven in 10 Alzheimer’s patients wander away at some time. Half of them could die if they’re not found within 24 hours.

Now, engineers are working out how to use GPS technology, the cellular telephone system and the World Wide Web to help Alzheimer’s patients stay found. GPS is already used to track down stolen cars. The idea is to put a GPS device into a necklace, bracelet, wristwatch. Even a pair of shoes. Tie it in to the cellular network and it’s good to go.

The Alzheimer’s Association is even working on a Web-based system that relatives and caregivers can use to set up a “safety zone.” When the Alzheimer’s patient gets out of the zone, it sounds an alarm.

If we get lost on the way home, we hope someone helps us find our way. See you next time.

Engineering Works! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU FM in College Station. Learn more about engineering. Visit us on the World Wide Web.

http://engineeringworks.tamu.edu

Start the discussion: Alzheimer’s disease is one of the scariest illnesses any of us can face. Technology like this can’t cure the disease, but it can make it a little easier to deal with.

For more:

http://www.ourgoodhealth.org/alzheimers/Alzheimer_GPS_Tracking.html

http://www.gearlog.com/2010/09/gps_smartshoe_designed_to_track_alzheimers_patients.php

http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9140138/GPS_tracking_system_unveiled_for_Alzheimer_s_patients

Koen Vereeken/Flickr.com

Koen Vereeken/Flickr.com

Think of a number …

December 22nd, 2010 by Gene
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Today’s trick question: show us a number. Better yet, show us an imaginary number. We’ll use our imagination and see what they’re good for. Today, on Engineering Works!

Engineers love numbers. They’re at the center of everything engineers do. Measure and calculate and predict. Numbers let engineers decide how strong that bridge needs to be. They make sure the thousands of parts in a jet engine fit together and do what they’re supposed to. They’re real numbers.

Imaginary numbers are something else. Technically, an imaginary number is the square root of a negative number. Ask your math teacher how that works. He or she will probably tell you it doesn’t. You’re not supposed to be able to do a square root of a negative number. But imaginary numbers are very real.

If you find this confusing, you’ve got company. The 16th-century mathematician who discovered imaginary numbers thought they were pretty cool, but he couldn’t see that they were good for anything. Over the next several hundred years, other mathematicians agreed with him. Now, close to 500 years later, we’ve figured out that imaginary numbers are crucial to the weird branch of physics called quantum mechanics. And quantum mechanics helped engineers develop a lot of technology we take for granted. Stuff like computer data compression and MP3 players and most of the high-tech electronics we take for granted.

We don’t know if our numbers are imaginary, but we’re running out of them for this time. See you later.

Engineering Works! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU-FM in College Station. Learn more about engineering. Visit us on the World Wide Web.

http://engineeringworks.tamu.edu

Start the discussion: Numbers play important roles in each of our lives, yet most of us are profoundly uncomfortable dealing with them. How can we change this?

For more:

http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20727771.500-zeros-to-heroes-putting-the-i-in-ipods.html?DCMP=OTC-rss&nsref=online-news

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imaginary_number

http://betterexplained.com/articles/a-visual-intuitive-guide-to-imaginary-numbers/

Rupert Ganzer/Flickr.com

Rupert Ganzer/Flickr.com

The truth about traffic lights

December 15th, 2010 by Gene
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Traffic engineers are taking a new look at how traffic lights should work. We’ll look, too. Today on Engineering Works!

This is something that’s so simple, it almost can’t be right. We should be telling the traffic lights when we need to stop and go, not the other way around.

We’ve all been there, sitting at a stoplight, waiting for it to go to green. There’s no cross-traffic, but the light stays red. It’s guaranteed to make you crazy. Incidents like this happen because most traffic lights are timed so they coordinate with the rest of the system. The idea is to allow the largest number of cars through each intersection every time the light changes. It’s a good idea, but in real life the right number of cars is almost never there at the right time.

The new approach uses sensors that keep track of approaching vehicles to control the lights, not a timer. When enough cars are at the light, it changes. And each light is coordinated only with the lights closest to it, not with the whole system. Fewer vehicles get through each light together, but each little group moves faster through the whole network.

Engineers are testing the idea in cities in Europe and it seems to work. Traffic planners say it should save money, reduce polluting emissions, maybe even tamp down road rage.

It’s time for us to go wait at a traffic light. See you next time.

Engineering Works! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU-FM in College Station. Learn more about engineering. Visit us on the World Wide Web. http://engineeringworks.tamu.edu

Start the discussion:

For more:

http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/63481/title/To_tame_traffic%2C_go_with_the_flow

http://auto.howstuffworks.com/car-driving-safety/safety-regulatory-devices/question234.htm

http://www.ideafinder.com/history/inventions/trafficlight.htm

Chicago Geek/Flickr.com

Chicago Geek/Flickr.com

Home, passive home

December 8th, 2010 by Gene
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It’s a cliché that less is more, but engineers are making it work when they apply it to houses. Passive Houses. Today, on Engineering Works.

Passive buildings, especially passive houses, are built to use as close to no energy as possible for heating and cooling. It’s a nifty idea if you can make it work and some people are.

Careful design and construction are what make passive houses work. Careful siting in relation to the sun. Super-thick and super-efficient insulation. Tight-fitting, energy-efficient windows. Construction that essentially eliminates air moving into or out of the structure. When it’s done right, passive houses use essentially no energy to stay comfortable in winter, as much as 90 percent less than houses built to conventional code standards. Many passive houses are built with no central heating at all.

There’s one big drawback to passive houses. They’re expensive to build, mostly because of specialized construction materials and additional work during construction. Passive houses also need special household appliances, like clothes dryers that don’t vent to the outside. You’d begin getting the payback from lower energy bills right away, but it’s still a lot of money.

If passive buildings are a good idea, we’re running behind. About 25,000 certified passive buildings have been built in Europe. We’ve built about a dozen with more on the way.

Our house isn’t passive, but it’s still time to finish up here and go home. See you next time.

Engineering Works! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU-FM in College Station. Learn more about engineering. http://engineeringworks.tamu.edu

Start the discussion:

For more:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/26/business/energy-environment/26smart.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passive_solar_building_design

http://www.passivehouse.us/passiveHouse/PassiveHouseInfo.html

Eamonn Sullivan/Flickr.com

Eamonn Sullivan/Flickr.com

The water that was Rome

December 1st, 2010 by Gene
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We’re going to go wading in the water, the stuff the ancient Romans drank. Today, on Engineering Works!

When someone mentions ancient Rome, what comes into your mind? Gladiators in the Coliseum, maybe. Engineers are likely to think about water. Roman engineers did amazing things with water.

Let’s start with simply getting water to the city. They built aqueducts, elevated stone-and-concrete troughs that carried water into the city. Eleven of them over about 500 years. The longest carried water almost 60 miles. Then they passed the water through a system of purification and settling tanks.

From there, the water went to 1,300 public fountains and basins where residents could get water for free. There were 11 huge imperial baths, plus more than 850 free or inexpensive public baths. Then the water went into a network of underground sewers that carried the wastewater to the Tiber River.

This probably seemed pretty simple, and for the 21st century, it is. But 2,000 years ago, it was far ahead of any city in the world. In fact, historians say this water is probably what allowed Rome to grow to a metropolis of at least a million people. At that time, this made Rome the biggest city in the world. It was still dirty and unsanitary by modern standards, but it was far ahead of anyplace else at the time.

Our water comes out of a tap instead of an aqueduct, but we’re still glad to have it. See you next time.

Engineering Works! is made possible by Texas A&M Engineering and produced by KAMU-FM in College Station. Learn more about engineering. Visit us on the World Wide Web.

http://engineeringworks.tamu.edu

Start the discussion: With all the marvelous stuff engineers are turning out today, it’s sometimes hard to remember that engineers have been around a long time and they’ve been doing neat stuff all that time. What do you think are the coolest thing ancient engineers did?

For more:

http://tinyurl.com/2aeof6z

http://www3.iath.virginia.edu/waters/

http://www.waterhistory.org/histories/rome/