3D printed hands, Brunel museum, cancer ‘vaccine’ and more: best of the week's news
E&T staff pick the news from the past week that caught their eye and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them. For the full story, just click on the headline.
Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
This story immediately took me back to 2004-2005, when I was living in the Republic of Ireland and doing some work for the Dublin-based human rights charity Frontline, of which my son Dmitri was then a full-time employee. On top of other activities to help human rights champions from all over the globe, Frontline ran a scheme whereby foreign freedom fighters were invited to Ireland for six months to rest, relax and share their experiences. To accommodate the guests, the organisation was leasing a large apartment in the seaside Dublin suburb of Blackrock. I was a frequent visitor to the flat, the tenants of which at that time included the remarkable Chechen lady Natalia Estemirova - a prominent defender of women’s and children’s rights who was brutally murdered in Chechnya several years after her return from Ireland.
Among the charity’s guests was a nine-year-old Chechen girl called Aisset, whose hands had been blown off a year earlier by a Russian booby trap mine disguised as a toy. Staying in Blackrock with her mother, Aisset - despite her disability - was one of the most engaging and cheerful creatures I had ever come across. She never stopped smiling and had learned to hold cutlery and to turn over book pages (she loved books) adroitly with her little stumps – all without a trace of embarrassment or discomfort. We were calling her ‘our brave little soldier’ to echo the title of her favourite fairy tale by Hans Kristian Andersen.
Of course, Frontline repeatedly tried to find suitable prosthetics for Aisset and paid for her and her Mum’s trip to Germany where a new cutting-edge bionic hand was then being tested. Yet the girl never felt at ease with prosthetics, no matter how technologically sophisticated they were and would always revert to using whatever was left of her natural hands and arms.
This 3D printed hand sounds amazing and I’m sure Aisset would have been comfortable with it, had it been invented 13 years earlier. She and her Mum were eventually allowed to permanently remain in Ireland, where Aisset had finished school and graduated from university. From what I’ve heard, she now has an Irish boyfriend. It is of course a shame she couldn’t try 3D-printed hands when a little girl, but I’m positive that this wonderful invention will be able to transform the lives of many like her; sadly, there are still plenty of places in the world where children keep suffering.
As for Aisset herself, I hope she will read these lines and want to wish her and her mother a very happy Easter.
Tim Fryer, technology editor
Isambard Kingdom Brunel still attracts huge interest and admiration. Partly I think this is down to the audacity of what he did in the face of a peer group who said it couldn’t be done and partly because his creations were not only sound from an engineering perspective, they were also things of beauty. Many of his bridges are still not only standing but are coping with traffic loads immeasurably greater than they were designed for a century and a half ago. And in the Clifton Suspension Bridge and the Royal Albert Bridge over the Tamar, there are two of the most eye-pleasing structures you will see. The first modern ship – made of metal rather than wood and using propeller rather than paddles or sails – was Brunel’s Great Britain, which has been restored and is open to the public in Bristol. Throw in Paddington station, his pioneering railways and a host of other achievements and you have a man you have to doff your cap to and admit his genius. So to be able learn more about this man, not just as an engineer but as a person, will be fascinating and a trip to the new Brunel Museum in Bristol will happen before too long. Apparently, he was a popular figure in Victorian Britain, but was a workaholic and expected his employees to be similarly driven. With a career that didn’t really take off until his late 20s and an untimely death at 53, presumably he had to be a workaholic to squeeze it all in. Hopefully, the museum will reveal all. His only vice was tobacco, incidentally, but he was a keen user and it may well have contributed to his early demise.
Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Yay for mice. Having proven itself able to cure 97 per cent of test mice from their tumours - effective in treating lymphoma, melanoma, and breast and colon tumours, working well all over the mice’s bodies - this chemotherapy-free treatment under development at Stanford University is now due to move to human trials this year. As much as the question of animal testing is a delicate subject - and one on which this writer waxes and wanes - it is not a strict black-and-white issue. It is certainly hard to argue against it when considering a potential medical breakthrough such as this, tackling as aggressive and debilitating an illness as cancer and which could eventually bring to an end the misery, suffering and premature deaths of millions of human beings.
Finally, an admission that the state of Britain’s roads is increasingly akin to driving through the Australian Outback, only without the scorching heat and near-guarantee of certain death if you break down. At least in Great Britain you’re never too far from a Costa Coffee or a Welcome Break service station. Our roads are in a parlous state, though, made worse by the recent cold snap with its attendant snow and ice. As soon as a tear in the tarmac appears, it is very quickly worsened by the repeated traction of tyres running over it. Before you know it, there are bone-shaking pits, ruts and holes in a pattern so apparently random that it’s impossible to avoid them all. Never mind 4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire, as The Beatles once sang - I’m fairly sure there are 4,000 holes just around Stevenage Leisure Park, home to Michael Faraday House where the E&T team is based. On my commute to said building, crossing several counties, this driver regularly finds himself behind other drivers so concerned about their vehicle’s tyres and suspension system that they are weaving left and right like a slalom skier in a vain attempt to dodge the damage in the road. It’s enough to make you seasick just watching them. £100m doesn’t even sound like enough money to properly repair every carriageway in the UK - more like just enough for council workmen to hastily squash just enough fresh tarmac into each hole, such that it serves as a temporary fix until the next cold weather spell starts the whole process all over again - but I hope that it goes at least some way to ensuring us all a (relatively) smooth journey for the rest of 2018.
Ah, the sun and the rain. Hardly surprising that one of the sunniest nations in the world - Saudi Arabia - is turning to solar energy in a BIG way, also at a time when the price of oil is slipping away, possibly irrevocably. When your country has built its colossal wealth from oil and you see the value of that asset declining, it’s only natural - no pun intended - to look for alternatives. Fortuitously, at least for Saudi Arabia, the country has been twice blessed: firstly, with vast natural oil reserves and secondly, with abundant sunshine. At least solar power is a clean, renewable, perpetual energy source, with little-to-no negative environmental impact. Japanese SoftBank has also spotted the future potential in all this and has joined forces with the Saudi kingdom, contributing $1bn from its Vision Fund towards the solar project.
Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Living in Britain, the nearest most of us get to water scarcity is when we’re occasionally banned from washing cars and watering lawns, so I only came across the notion of capturing water from fog when we covered it in E&T fairly recently. However, it’s a serious - if rather limited - option in some places, so it’s really good news that US-based researchers at Virginia Tech have found they can treble the collection capacity just by replacing a woven sheet with an array of parallel wires like the strings of a harp.
Three ‘driverless’ stories in one week is an indication of how much work is going on in automated transport, but collectively they also highlight how much more there is to do. The Manhattan investigation is largely about energy efficiency, with automation an element of fleet management. The Uber story shows that the sensors and processors in a driverless car aren’t as infallible as we’re often led to believe, but anyone who’s driven on an unlit road at night will know how hard it is to spot pedestrians and cyclists outside the reach of the headlights (which is why cyclists are supposed to have lights, and walkers need to realise that even light-coloured clothes don’t show up when there’s no light on them). Driverless train technology is much more advanced, but is more commonly used on lines or networks where there’s no external interaction. The Thameslink story is significant because trains going through the tunnel under London will be coming in from several different places on the conventional mainline network and there will be lots of them - up to 24 per hour in each direction when the system is fully up and running. That simply can’t be managed without computer control. How well it can be managed at all, in the face of the difficulties that the real world can throw up, will only be revealed after the full timetable begins in 2019, but you can be sure that we won’t be seeing that kind of control on the roads for many more years than that.
Dickon Ross, editor in chief
At this time of year we journalists have to take a close look at the publication date on press releases. An embargo for 1 April always rings alarm bells. It can mean only one thing…or does it? So fast and unpredictable is technology development these days that it’s easy to dismiss far-fetched developments as hoaxes when they are in fact real. There were several examples this week.
Fog nets to catch fog sounds like something from a fantasy novel but it turns out that it's a thing, and a good thing at that. Next there's the Pentagon using a ‘laser-induced plasma effect’ to create disembodied sounds to confuse or even send ghostly voice messages to the enemy. And finally, the 3D printed liquid structures. It’s said that truth is stranger than fiction. Remember it’s not that long ago that our stories this week on driverless cars , the 3D printed hand or the smart tooth sensor would have seemed like April Fool’s jokes. But they’re with us. Well, nearly.
Dominic Lenton, managing editor
The clocks have gone forward, Easter’s here, and like every year, the first signs of sunny weather see the great British public breaking out their summer wardrobe and exposing flesh that’s been covered since the nights started drawing in in 2017. And every year it’s obvious that more and more people believe there are few body parts that can’t be improved by punching a hole in them or adding a lurid bit of body art. I’m not a big fan of this sort of thing myself, but I can see how the prospect of ‘tattoos’ made from conducting inks could be attractive beyond the application they’ve been developed for. Not only will they be much more comfortable for patients undergoing ECG monitoring, it’s easy to imagine how ‘epidermal electronics’ will be of interest in the consumer technology sphere. Why put up with a clunky system of wires connected to a fitness tracker when you could have a tasteful illustration that’s also measuring your heart and muscles?