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Best of the week’s news 18 November 2016: analysis from E&T’s editorial staff

E&T staff pick their favourite news stories from the past week and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

African continent set to reach one billion mobile subscriptions by end of 2016

As each global market becomes saturated, the mobile industry moves on in search of untapped pastures new. China was a big market - still is - and also India. Now the African continent is increasingly in thrall to the smartphone. A watershed statistic this week confirmed it, with the prediction that Africa is expected to cross the threshold of one billion mobile subscriptions during the fourth quarter of 2016, according to global data analysis specialists Ovum. The advisory firm forecasts that the total number of mobile subscriptions on the continent will rise to 1.33 billion by the end of 2021.

Mary Anderson: singing – and windscreen wiping – in the rain

We took a look back this week at the somewhat unexpected design engineering success story of Mary Anderson, who didn't let the societal pressures of being a woman in the early 20th century stand in her way of inventing something most of us use every day (especially in the UK) - the windscreen wiper. Unfortunately for her, the world largely ignored her innovation at the time, so fame and fortune didn't quite pan out for her in this regard, but we salute her achievements in spite of this disappointment.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Poor transport links holding back UK’s ‘Silicon Valley’

The National Infrastructure Commission is urging the government to improve transport connections between Oxford and Cambridge, saying the corridor linking the two cities via Milton Keynes has the potential to become a globally recognised centre for science, technology and innovation. The idea that ministers should prioritise construction of the East-West Rail line, as well as building a new motorway and kickstarting development of thousands of new homes makes sense. Anyone travelling around England knows that the major transport arteries radiate out of London, making journeys in other directions slower and more complicated. Moves to open up other parts of the country would not only be a boon for individuals and businesses but also boost the prosperity of the whole country.

Recreation of 1940s programming wins Tony Sale computer conservation award

I nearly missed this story, as it only appeared on our website after I had started thinking about my choices for this week, but it caught my eye because I’m always interested in our engineering heritage. In this case, the 2016 Tony Sale Award for computer conservation has been won by the reconstruction of part of the US-based ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer) electronic computer system at a museum in Germany. It uses a combination of original components and contemporary technology to represent a scaled-down recreation of two of the original ENIAC's accumulator units, allowing today’s digitally savvy visitors to try their hand at programming by plugging cables and setting knobs. The ENIAC exhibit also highlights the critical role played by female programmers in the system’s success.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

White Paper: Overcoming Thermal Management Challenges with Multiphysics Simulation

Purely by association, the above article reminded me of a feature from 2008 by E&T’s then US stringer Cheryl Knight, which was published in issue 19 that year - A Science Without A Deadline. Cheryl was able to gain exclusive access to Alcor Life Extension Foundation headquarters in Arizona to learn and to write about the possibilities of cryonics. What is cryonics? According to Wikipedia, it is “the low-temperature preservation of people who cannot be sustained by contemporary medicine, with the hope that resuscitation and restoration to full health may be possible in the far future” – so a ‘thermal management’ of sorts, hence the association. Why was I reminded of that eight-year-old feature today? Because the main news item on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning was the story of a terminally ill teenage girl who wanted her body to be cryogenically preserved after her death in the hope that she could be revived some time in the future when scientists find a cure for her illness. A UK court – in a pioneering ruling – supported her decision and as soon as the girl died of a rare form of cancer her body was transported to a relevant cryonics facility in the USA, possibly the same institution that Cheryl visited in 2008. Is cryonics valid as a science? No one can probably answer this question with any degree of certainty. Cheryl quoted Ralph Merkle of Alcor Life Foundation as saying that “a future medicine based on a mature nanotechnology should be able to preserve life and restore health in all but extreme circumstances”. The key word here is “should”. But will it? Only time will show. Yet, in this particular groundbreaking case, the court did not delve into scientific implications of the girl’s decision. The judge’s main concern was to satisfy the child’s final wish, and those who witnessed the girl pass away were saying how relieved and comforted she was by getting a chance – even an extremely remote one (in more than one sense) – of staying alive. It was an extraordinary example of science being put aside in the interests of humanism and compassion. I hope it will create a strong and long-lasting precedent.  

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

3D printed bones created from cheap, synthetic material

I am increasingly hearing 3D printing called out as one of the overhyped technologies of recent years. I never really believed we'd all have one next to our home computer by now, because most of us have no interest in printing fantasy gaming figures and if we want one specific part for one specific project it makes more sense to send off a file and receive the item back in the post. Yet it is already changing industries from dentistry to aerospace. Renishaw recently showed me a part for an oil rig that could only be made in one piece using 3D technology. If you can print teeth then why not replacement bones? There were calls at the recent Innovate UK conference in Manchester to put a 3D printer in every hospital so surgeons can see prints of the inside of patients - a heart for example, or the blood volume inside a patient's heart. They could also print teaching aids or one-off surgical tools. Now researchers have come up with a new way to print synthetic bone. The shame is it will take years before it can even be trialled in humans. Technology tends to move much faster than medicine.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Miniature wearable acoustic sensor recognises human speech

This could take that unnerving sensation you experience when someone comes striding along the pavement towards you apparently in animated conversation with themselves, only to realise they’re chatting on their mobile phone via a concealed microphone and earbuds, to another level. Engineers in the US have designed a discrete gadget, based on a stretchable sensor, that can be attached to the body and as well as useful things like recording heart activity for health monitoring can recognise spoken words. That means the approaching pedestrian could be barking commands to a nearby drone or other remote-controlled device. Excuse me while I talk my personal helicopter in on its return with the week’s shopping...

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