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Forgotten cycleways, nuclear risk, graphene and more: our pick of the week's tech news

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 Fry, technology editor

Forgotten network of 1930s cycleways uncovered using Google Street View

Cycling is one of those topics that make engineers’ ears prick up at its very mention. I’m not sure if there has ever been a cycling survey based on industry sector, but if there has then I am guessing that engineers would come out pretty highly. Perhaps this is in part because the modern bike is a beautiful bit of mechanical engineering in its own right or maybe it is because it lends itself to another engineering favourite – gadgetry. Or maybe it is the practicality of getting to work and staying fit at the same time. I’m not sure how many of these were true 80 years ago when cycle lanes were strongly encouraged through the planning process, according to this story. It seems strange when we assume there were few cars on the road, but in fact there were about a tenth of the 30 million cars we have today. More importantly, nearly three times as many fatal accidents (over 7,000) occurred in the 1930s as happen now. Which might explain why cycle paths were a good idea back then. The mix of cyclists and car drivers is not always a harmonious one – in this week’s national news a woman was jailed for five years for chasing and ramming into a cyclist who had complained to her about using her mobile phone while driving. The bike was trashed but the cyclist escaped unhurt. Given the potential consequences and the clear intent I have no idea why it was only five years’ imprisonment. Anyway, cycle lanes are good. The IET is based in Stevenage whose new town design included a network of cycle paths and walkways, which people do use. It is a case of build it and they will come. If the routes are already there, albeit under 80 years of weeds, then it seems an easy and worthwhile way of expanding the cycle network.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Nuclear weapons around the world are too vulnerable to cyber attack, expert warns

Given that Jeremy Corbyn's Labour manifesto seems to be harking back to the 1970s, why not also resurrect that era's ominpresent threat of nuclear war? Apparently, nuclear weapons around the world today are insufficiently defended from the risk of a cyber-attack, according to one of Europe’s leading cyber-warfare experts. Same old bombs, exciting new challenges.

Amazon banishes Wal-Mart’s price-checking ‘bots’

As if publicly battling each other on price and delivery wasn't competitive enough, now there's a battle of the bots behind the digital scenes between these two retail giants. One vendor sends in its bots to sneakily check prices, sending the data back to the price-adjusting mothership, so the other vendor erects a ‘digital curtain’ to hide its website from said bots, confusing them and leaving them scratching their virtual heads as to how that enormous website vanishified. These are strange days indeed.

Josh Loeb, associate editor

Book review: ‘The Happiness Effect’ by Donna Freitas

The sometimes terrible toll social media can take on people’s mental health is a subject that should not be shied away from by people who ‘like’ (in the ambiguous Facebook sense) technology. Just as perfectly normal people can come across as slavering, rage-engulfed obsessives on Twitter, where the format seems almost to have been designed to amplify and divide, so there is a lamentable tendency to brand people either as “tech-optimists” or “tech-pessimists”, with those who embrace the former label wont to chastise anyone who raises a qualm about the ill-effects of technology. In reality, there is (obviously) good and bad in all. In terms of the bad, platforms like Facebook have allowed people to do what they have always done and compare themselves with their peers – or, to be more precise, with whatever brand of themselves their peers have chosen to curate in the virtual realm at that particular moment. This tedious phenomenon is unpicked by author Donna Freitas in her book ‘The Happiness Effect’. As our reviewer Dea Birkett sensibly points out, narcissism and envy were around for a long time before Facebook and Instagram. The difference is that, whereas previously one could think “If only my life was like so-and-so’s”, now one can see what an incredibly amazing time so-and-so is having - constantly, obsessively and in real time, hour after hour, day after day, at the swipe of a smartphone. This is exhausting and deeply unhealthy, but there is a simple, obvious remedy: don’t spend terribly long on social networks. Personally, my gut feeling is that in time, as people become more used to having these technologies, the novelty will wear off and they will withdraw from them somewhat or use them more mindfully. Anyway, in 20 years from now we will not still be talking about Facebook. Some other exciting, whizzy network will have replaced it. Should this prediction be proved false, please remind me about it in 20 years’ time.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Graphene to reduce cost of heavy water production in the nuclear industry by 100 times

A team from the University of Manchester has demonstrated fully scalable prototypes of graphene membranes that can filter isotopes of hydrogen in order to produce heavy water. The same group showed last year that graphene can efficiently sieve hydrogen isotopes, but at that time there were no membranes or fabrication methods suitable for scalable manufacturing. That’s why the latest breakthrough is significant. Pilot-scale studies have achieved high-efficiency separation that would reduce the input amount of raw isotope mixtures that needs to be processed, cutting both capital and energy costs. It’s always satisfying when laboratory science starts moving towards real-world application.

Forgotten network of 1930s cycleways uncovered using Google Street View

Historian and cycling writer Carlton Reid has used Google Street View to show that the UK used to have a considerable network of cycle lanes alongside arterial roads. Much of the infrastructure is still in place and could be revived. I’ve never been a confident cyclist, but I can see the attractions of providing safe, segregated long-distance routes. This story struck a chord with me because I remember seeing the cycle lanes alongside the Great Cambridge Road in the 1960s, and one of my school teachers used to tell of how her future husband would cycle from London to Cambridge to visit her when she was a student there, round about 1950. I wonder how many suitors would be so dedicated today.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Patients ‘draw’ their pain for doctors and researchers using new app

How often have you emerged from a hurried consultation with your GP with the nagging feeling that you perhaps didn’t quite explain your symptoms accurately enough for them to understand what’s wrong? Despite the sense of relief, being assured that what you’re experiencing doesn’t need any further investigation or treatment and will sort itself out in time is sometimes accompanied by a worry that the doctor, despite being an expert, hasn’t appreciated what’s causing you concern. Now researchers are using technology to help bridge the communication gap with an app that lets patients describe their pain graphically by drawing it on a screen rather than trying to put it into words. After proving its effectiveness in tests involving more than 60 clinics, Navigate Pain is set to go into widespread use, so next time you go for a check-up or something more serious, don’t be surprised if you’re asked to sketch what the problem is.

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