New Thames tunnel, London High Line and more: best of the week's tech news
Image credit: Dreamstime
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.
Tim Fryer, technology editor
As someone who previously worked within a stone’s throw of the M2/M25 intersection at Dartford, it is obvious that something needs to be done about traffic in the area for the benefit of both road users and local people. There is the environmentalist argument that building better sections of road eventually just results in there being more cars to fill it and often it just shifts bottlenecks to wherever the new road joins the old road network. While there is definitely some truth in this there is also undoubtedly benefits in moving the worst bottlenecks, like the old Hindhead junction on the A3, where an arterial road was reduced to a single lane that was filtered through traffic lights. The new tunnel removed that problem without creating others. Dartford is on a different scale. Removing the toll booths seems to have made little difference. The proposed new road joins the M2 in Kent to the M25 in Essex and as such will split the flow of traffic currently going through the Dartford crossing. Will it just shift the bottleneck? Hopefully not, as the new road will have a junction with the A13 which will take off all the traffic for East London. Although I would rather see fundamental shifts in the way that freight is moved around the UK (more by ship and rail, lorries mainly restricted to night-time travel), I think this is a sensible plan. My one concern is that it falls into the trap of so many of these contentious projects and gets delayed by endless loops of feasibility studies, complaints, appeals, moves to higher courts and so on – the sort of fiasco that is delaying London airport expansion. I would just like them to decide and get on with it.
My eye was caught this week by the report from Singapore about the scientists who have made great strides in developing a new, faster data storage technology. The building blocks for this storage capability will be ‘skyrmion quasiparticles’. Skyrmions are miniscule magnetic whirls and quasiparticles are basically concepts – effects rather than anything with mass. So conceptual magnetic whirls are tricky things to comprehend and the use of them to retain data is trickier still. The medium that the team identified as a potential carrier for this stored data is an ultra-thin multilayer film composed of cobalt and palladium. There are so many questions this throws up: what would be the read/write process and how fast is it, would there be any advantage in having super-dense memories if access to them is slow or difficult? Further to this is the interface between our world of electrons and this new magnetic format: is this fast enough to make it useable? Moreover, I have two fundamental observations, both admittedly born out of ignorance of the subject. One is what happens when you put something magnetic next to it in your pocket. Would the necessary extra shielding counterbalance its small size? The other point is that in the world of the Internet of Things, where everything is talking to anything, and everything is on the move, what we need is processing power rather than storage capacity – can these skyrmion quasiparticles be used in this way?
Josh Loeb, associate editor
Forgive me for dwelling on one of my own scoops again, but there’s more to say on the subject of the so-called Camden Line. This project, backed by influential business leaders, is aimed at revitalising a clapped-out bit of old rail track and turning it into the London equivalent of Manhattan’s much-lauded High Line – an elevated linear park filled with flowers, art, assorted hipster food stalls and selfie-loving millennials. The naysayers may cry “Gentrification!” but it’s a damn sight better (in this writer’s humble opinion) than the vision for a cross-river Garden Bridge that was recently torpedoed by the former head of the Public Accounts Committee and which now looks, er, dead in the water. The two schemes – the Garden Bridge on the one hand, the Camden Line on the other – are being compared and contrasted because, while one would cost a bomb, the other could be pulled off relatively affordably while delivering many of the same benefits brought to cities by trees, flowers and other nice things. The lesson? Though politicians and philanthropists commonly have a weakness for the Grand Project, sometimes repurposing or upgrading unloved bits of infrastructure is a cleverer, less debt-inducing way of doing things.
Jade Fell, assistant features editor
This just in: cats are awesome. Come now, did you honestly think I was going to pick anything other than this as my favourite story of the week? Once again, I’m not just being big-headed, picking out my own review; I’m also drawing attention to my wonderfully adorable cat. Click the link and check out the photo at the head of the story: isn’t she cute? This week, thanks to some wonderful training guidance on the part of this new training manual by cat whisperers John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis, I was able to teach this little cutie to play fetch. Her wicked fetching skills aren’t just limited to hairpins either; she will also retrieve cotton buds, twist ties and even tiny sticks. Impressed? You should be. The good news is that training doesn’t have to be limited to teaching your cat to do tricks – assuming fetching a stick counts as a trick – you can also help make your own, and your cat’s, life easier by teaching them that the cat carrier isn’t something to be frightened of and that the furniture is most certainly not a scratching post. Want to find out how? Grab yourself a copy of ‘The Trainable Cat’. I promise you won’t regret it.
Jack Loughran, news reporter
I struggle to see why 3D printing would ever be suitable for mass-manufacturing processes. The careful process of layering tiny blobs of hot plastic on top of one another seems inherently trickier and less efficient than well-worn techniques like injection moulding, for example. In certain circumstances, such as when Adidas announced last week it was going to start mass producing individually tailored shoes for customers, I can see that it could be used at larger scales. Even then, though, the shoes are going to be significantly more expensive than your average pair. The problem is that 3D printing works by letting plastic cool until it hardens. This inherently takes time - a precious resource when it comes to large-scale manufacturing. I could see two ways out of this: possibly a new material that cools rapidly or maintains its shape somehow even when hot (but is still liquid enough to be squeezed out of the printer). Alternatively, some kind of quick-drying process such as blasting freezing air to force rapid cooling, which sounds tricky to pull off and energy intensive. Would either of these options be worthwhile, considering the relative ease and expense of already existing techniques? In addition, most commodities don’t actually need to be tailored to the individual user in a lot of cases. There are specific examples of where 3D printing is already finding a lot of success, such as rapid prototyping in industrial scenarios, or more niche uses such as making copies of children’s organs (don’t ask, this explains all). Whether these devices will ever expand beyond these relatively limited uses is yet to be seen.
Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
I’d recommend reading this story even if you aren’t looking for a job (and even more so if you are). The Palace of Westminster is a remarkable and complex set of buildings, with a mixture of modern communications systems and equipment installed in the 1850s. A massive restoration and renewal project is just getting under way, so there are plenty of challenges to come. I hope E&T will continue to follow progress over the years.
You’ll find this article in the latest print edition of E&T as well as online; I read it there first, while I was editing it to fit the space available. If you’ve ever wondered why people believe things that look just plain daft, let alone those that are wrong but plausible, it all comes down to our desire for a good story, coupled with a tendency to give greater weight to information that confirms what we’re already inclined to believe.
Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
With an estimated 110 million explosive devices still buried in 70 different countries around the world, killing up to 20,000 people a year, detecting and disarming these landmines and bombs is crucial and innovative new ways of locating the devices should be warmly welcomed. Who knew that explosive devices secrete a specific type of gas, or that a specific type of bacteria glows when it detects such gas? A team of Israeli researchers certainly did, as this is the basis for a new approach they are pioneering, in which the bacteria they engineered emits a fluorescent signal when it comes into contact with the distinctive vapours, literally lighting the way to locate and disarm buried explosives. That’s some friendly bacteria, all right.
Two related stories about air pollution this week. First, the experience of one of E&T’s own staff (at least at the time of the investigation) taking part in a King’s College experiment to measure the levels of harmful particulate matter in the London air, as taken from a variety of commuters using a variety of methods - walking, cycling, driving, overground train and underground train. The initial results are not encouraging. Downright disturbing, in fact. However you choose to navigate your way around London, you’re breathing in filthy air. This is now widely accepted public knowledge. Ergo, enter our second air pollution feature this week: what to do about it. While we wait for all the heavily polluting vehicles to be scrapped once and for all, technology solutions that help clean the air are in rapid development. We looked at six innovative ideas to help us all breathe better.
Hilary Lamb, news reporter
Optimists in the science, engineering and technology sectors hoped that President Trump may leave them alone while he occupies himself with more exciting toys. After all, Trump never seemed so much hostile towards science as much as uninterested. And so he has proven; key scientific leadership positions such as head of NASA remain unfilled while the President busies himself with more bigly issues like bombing Syria or insulting people on Twitter. But Trump’s chaotic approach to the presidency is unlike anything experienced before in American history. Seemingly, without intending to do so, he is causing panic and concern among scientists (such as with his attempts at a travel ban). The issue is this: how can the science, engineering and technology sectors keep defending themselves against the President’s so obviously ill-considered and harmful policies while appearing non-partisan?
Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Yet another thing for those of us who are already neurotic about making payments online, or even just about the danger of someone peering over our shoulder while we tap our PIN into a high-street cash machine. Researchers at Newcastle University claim to have been able to work out four-digit codes with an alarming success rate of 70 per cent on the first guess and 100 per cent on the fifth by hacking into the sensors on a smartphone as they were tapped in. This probably shouldn’t come as any surprise: we all unconsciously hold our phones in a particular way and should perhaps make a habit of changing that or switching off sensors when we don’t actually need them. A worrying finding from the same research is the extent to which public concerns about smartphone security are based more on perception than actual risk. Users worry about hackers spying on them via GPS and camera functions that can’t do much more than reveal where you are, but are largely oblivious to the fact that malicious programs can covertly listen in on you when you’re making calls and even what you’re tapping in on your keyboard.