The 11th Annual Discover

The 11th Annual Discover – 11th Annual Discover Awards for Technological Innovation

Joseph D’Agnese

BY NATURE SCIENTISTS WORK HARD AND BOAST LITTLE. THAT’S ONE REASON WHY YOU MAY NOT HAVE HEARD A GREAT DEAL ABOUT THE winners and finalists of our 11th Annual Discover Awards for Technological Innovation. An unwritten code of science demands that researchers do their work, earn recognition solely from their peers, and shy away from public attention. Our job, on the other hand, is to blow their cover. [paragraph] Here, then, we present 19 brilliant and dedicated individuals who have devised intriguing technologies for a future yet unwritten. As we talked to the researchers, it surprised us to hear several of them describe their work as beautiful. That is, after all, not a terribly scientific word, but it is a powerful human one. If you plan to labor years in pursuit of a single idea, sweat the details nights and weekends, subject your family to ups and downs instigated by minor blips in the data, then it is a good thing to find your work positively wondrous. [paragraph] Thanks to the magnificent obsessions of these innovators, we all stand to benefit. We’ll toss out our light-bulbs and replace them with chips that light a room for 100,000 hours. We’ll download JPEGs and applications off the Web faster than we’ll know what to do with them. Potholes will be a faint memory, and batteries will rust quietly, returning to the earth without harming it. Some of us will watch our kids and grandkids wow talent judges while sporting musical shoes. The folks in the lab are right. Every idea on these pages has the potential to alter our lives dramatically. That makes them, like all well-meant gifts of imagination and human hands, supremely beautiful.


DURING A YEAR MARRED BY THE FAILED Mars missions, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory serves as a reminder of the limitless possibilities of space exploration, sending back extraordinary news at regular intervals about what exists in the dark sky of our imagining. Astronomers believe that many of the X rays they see are the last gasping breath of matter, ultra-high energy kicked off as stars are shredded and swallowed by a black hole. Without orbiting satellites like Chandra, launched last July, they had no way to confirm their theories, because the energy of X rays from deep space dissipates in the atmosphere and cannot be detected by Earth-based telescopes.

Chandra, a 45-by-60-foot telescope equipped with eight painstakingly ground mirrors, has achieved an unparalleled degree of clarity. For example, the death of a star in a vast explosion called a supernova is believed to give birth to neutron stars, but picking out the youngsters amid the debris had long been futile–until Chandra homed in on their X rays. Chandra has also given scientists ultra-clear images they can use to build computer models to figure out how these young neutron stars cool and what their structure might be. Chandra has revealed that placid-looking galaxies no self-respecting astronomer would have wasted time on before are seething with X rays of such intensity that they must be harboring supermassive black holes. Chandra has already sent back thousands of revelatory images taken by a nearly perfect set of lenses at orbits 6,000 to 86,000 miles above Earth’s surface, and will continue to do so for another five to 10 years.

This superb telescope has been the project of a lifetime for Harvey Tananbaum, now 58 and the recipient of the Discover Editors’ Choice Award. When Tananbaum and Riccardo Giacconi, the founding father of X-ray telescopy, first drew up specifications for Chandra in 1976, they had no idea it would take nearly a quarter century for their dream to come to fruition. After Giacconi signed on to direct the Hubble telescope team in 1981, Tananbaum and Martin Weisskopf, project scientist at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, pressed ahead with research and development for Chandra. As the project grew, so did Tananbaum. Starting out as an MIT grad student so green he’d burn his fingers in the lab, he became a mature scientist and indefatigable director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatorys Chandra X-Ray Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (And he still manages to run five times a week, spend time with his wife, Rona, and take his two sons to Fenway to catch the Red Sox.) Whenever seemingly overwhelming technical problems occurred during construction of the craft, engineers knew what to do: Call Harvey. “None of us had ever built one of these before,” he recalls. “So a lot of it was just holding hands and guessing. Sometimes I had to bite hard and say: This is as good as it’s going to get, and if we take it apart, we might break it.”

The endless budget battles, something no scientist relishes, also landed squarely in Tananbaum’s lap. “I can laugh about it now, but there were times when I didn’t talk civilly to people for a month,” he says. One could argue that the prolonged struggle to get the project off the ground held hidden blessings. The technology did not exist 15 years ago to build Chandra’s X-ray detectors, made of high purity silicon, or its gratings, gold bars only 1/2-micrometer thick that separate the X rays of various wavelengths. Occasional trickles of funding gave scientists working on Chandra the opportunity to design what are arguably the most accurate optics ever sent into space.

Today, scientists compete for a chance to peer at the universe through Chandra’s eyes. In a single day, the telescope looks at as many as 10 targets, each of which has been requested by astronomers from around the world. News from space hits Cambridge a day later, at which time Tananbaum and his crew organize the data and ship files for analysis to the astronomers; each parcel contains hundreds of scientific puzzles. The universe Chandra sees is far from serene or majestic. It’s turbulent, violent, and endlessly fascinating. Sorting it all out won t be easy. “The images are just beautiful,” says Tananbaum. “I’m glad someone else is going to figure out what it all means.”


RICHARD PAVELLE–Founder and President, Invent Resources, Inc.

CRAIG CARLSON–Director, New Business Development, Arthur D. Little

DANNY HILLIS–Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer, Applied Minds Corp.

MARVIN MINSKY–MIT, professor of computer science; pioneer of artificial intelligence; inventor, the confocal scanning microscope

BRAN FERREN–Co-founder and Chief Creative Officer, Applied Minds Corp.

DEAN KAMEN–President and owner, DEKA Research and Development Corp.

MARY A. JOHNSON–Associate Professor, ophthamology, University of Maryland, Baltimore


IN THE WORLD OF SILICON CHIPS, small is beautiful–but it’s also becoming a total pain. Engineers that the current method of etching silicon chips with light beams will soon hit its limit. Chad Mirkin had been experimenting with a scanning-probe stylus that was hampered whenever the tiniest droplet of water, condensed from the atmosphere, formed at its tip. As it turns out, that droplet proved key to the refinement of the stylus method that is Mirkin’s breakthrough. “For a while now we’ve been using this tiny tip as a pin for etching,” he says. “I thought we should use it like a pen, not a pin. I wanted to transport molecules directly to a surface just as ink does.”

Mirkin and his colleagues–Seunghun Hong, Richard Piner, and Dana Weinberger–found they could draw lines by dipping the tip of the stylus into octadecanethiol, an oily chemical solid. When the stylus touches the writing surface, moisture in the air condenses on its oily tip. That moisture is used to control the number of molecules of this “ink” that are transferred to the “paper”; once they reach the surface, they chemically bond with the paper–in this case, gold-plated silicon. The longer the pen touches the paper, the larger the ink drop, much like the effect of a felt-tip marker bleeding onto a paper towel.

Before now, commercial chip makers bragged that they could etch lines as thin as 180 nanometers. (A nanometer is one billionth of a meter.) Mirkin is drawing lines only 15 nanometers in width–thin enough to write 80 million pages of information onto a single square inch of silicon.

Mirkin, 36, likes to show off a gift from a colleague that he keeps in his office, a dip pen wrought from handblown glass. “We’ve been using this technology for 4,000 years,” he says. “You gotta love it. The nanopen is so simple, my grandmother understands it.”


GOODBYE AND THANK YOU, Thomas Edison. Your incandescent lightbulb, which has turned night into day for more than 100 years, could be driven to extinction by the light-emitting diode (LED). The new wizard on the block is Fred Schubert, a 44-year-old electrical engineer at Boston University who has transformed a familiar technology–the tiny colored indicator lights on computers are LEDs–into a powerful, energy-saving source of ambient white light. Schubert’s bulb is actually a chip made of gallium indium nitride that emits primarily blue light. Part of that light is, in turn, absorbed by a second chip bonded to the first chip, which transforms a portion of these rays into yellow light. When the two complementary colors combine, they create for the human eye the sensation of white light.

This bulb, invented by Schubert and graduate students Xiaoyun (Jane) Guo and John Graft, may turn out to be the world’s most efficient light source, because it generates white light without unwanted heat. Unlike incandescents, LED bulbs don’t emit infrared light, which we cannot see but do experience as heat. “I told my students, ‘We aim to do better than the sun,'” jokes Schubert. His LEDs will feel cooler than today’s compact fluorescents. And they are smaller than a dime: A round wafer two inches in diamater can be diced up into 10,000 individual light sources. Soon we’ll be able to throw out our cumbersome lamps and instead light rooms with rows of tiny LEDs tucked into ceiling recesses. In time, the use of LED ambient light could reduce the nation’s total electricity consumption by 10 percent. If Schubert is right this will mean we won’t need to build another power plant for 15 years. Unless, he warns, we go crazy with the lights.


LOG ONTO THE INTERNET, AND YOU wait. We all do, even those lucky dogs with the blindingly fast DSLs. Sometimes, traffic just snarls, and you may as well step out for a cup of joe while the screen loads. Such gridlock is often unavoidable, because somewhere in the vast data network beyond your screen, light particles called photons, which whiz through fiber-optic cables at the speed of light, are forced to slam on the brakes at an intersection–what fiber-optics technicians call a “cross-connect”–in order to make a ridiculous transformation from photon to electron, leaving the world of light for the antiquated world of electric signals. Imaging coming to a screeching halt at a stoplight in a Ferrari that morphs into a Dodge Dart when you hit the accelerated again.

Get ready to travel the highways and byways of the internet on cruise control beginning this December, when the nation’s phone companies will be able to buy and install an all-optical switch that lets photons be photons. The LambdaRouter, designed by Randy Giles, 45, and his colleagues at Lucent, allows light to sail down one fiber-optic cable, roar into a cross-connect, where it bounces from one set of gold-plated mirrors to another, and then ricochets onto a fiber waiting on the other side of the switch. Because the router can ferry so much more traffic than can be conveyed by a conventional electrical switch, it will mean cheaper and faster phone and Internet connections. “There will be no more bottlenecks stopping you from getting to your favorite Web site,” Giles promises. “The worldwide wait will be eliminated.”


MAN HAS LONG BEEN POWERLESS against ice. The frozen breath of winter encases bridges, chokes rivers, and snaps power lines, costing the United States billions of dollars every year. Until now our puny assaults have been costly and laborious: We scrape it, we melt it, we squirt it. De-icing a single airplane as it sits on the runway can cost thousands of dollars and buy as little as a five-minute window of safety. Plus, the ethylene glycol used to remove the deadly ice is a poison known to induce heart and kidney failure.

Ice will soon be forced to loosen its deadly stranglehold on us because a dedicated engineering professor working in the obscure realm of ice physics has developed a technology so efficient that a car battery could generate enough energy to de-ice a jumbo jet in flight or on the ground. Working at Dartmouth in a lab cooled to -58 degrees Fahrenheit, Victor F. Petrenko (no relation to the Olympic skater) has designed a 125-micrometer-thick plastic film impregnanted with electrodes to drape over airplane wings. Should ice form, a sensor would be triggered automatically, and Petrenko’s modest power source would break apart the hydrogen bonds between metal and ice. Petrenko, 53, says his idea, which has yet to be tested on real airplanes, exploits frozen water’s little-known ability to conduct electricity. The energy pulsing through those electrodes transforms the ice from a solid to a gas, skipping the liquid state. Hydrogen and oxygen bubbles form under the ice, weakening its hold on metal, and cracking it so it sloughs off wings. Ultimately, Petrenko promises the same process could be employed to defrost other ice-bound structures, including bridges.

“I see ice as a beautiful material, one of the most unusual materials we deal with as physicists,” says Petrenko, who enjoys hitting the ice during the long New Hampshire winters. “With a name like Victor Petrenko,” he adds, joking, “you’re supposed to skate.


DIAGNOSING CANCER IS LARGELY a shot in the dark. It’s difficult for even the most skilled pathologists to examine tumor cells under a microscope and identify subtle variations between different genetic strains of cancer. This in turn sets patients up for a painful exercise in trial and error, which infuriates Todd Golub, 37, a pediatric oncologist: “A patient comes in, and we say, `OK, this is the cancer we think you’ve got. Let’s try this treatment. If that doesn’t work, we’ll try this. Or this.’ It’s very empirical. None of it is based on a deep, molecular understanding of the problem.”

Golub and his 15-member team have pioneered a technique for distinguishing Two forms of leukemia that may someday hand doctors the tool they need to wrench genetic blueprints from tumors. From diseased bone-marrow cells, Golub and his colleagues extracted RNA and exposed it to DNA already encoded on glass chips. Incoming RNA searches for, and binds to, its counterpart DNA. A laser scan reveals the married pairs, telling doctors which genes are successfully producing proteins and which are defective–possibly the source of malignancies. Golub’s breakthrough grew out of pattern recognition software–designed by team members Donna Slonim and Pablo Tomayo of MIT’s Whitehead Institute which allowed him to interpret the DNA data. To their amazement, the computer pegged the two leukemia subtypes with 100 percent accuracy. “We never thought it would be able to find meaningful patterns,” admits Golub. “We thought it would be swamped by noise.”

This step is just a beginning, albeit a precious one. Golub believes clinicians like himself will someday be able to give patients the gift of a reliable diagnosis. “I hope it’s sooner rather than later.”


“OK, I JUST BOOTED UP MY SHOES,” says Joseph Paradise, physicist and music nut. He’s wearing a pair of heavily modified Nikes that give voice to every movement of his feet. Thunk, thunk, thunk, wheeee-owwww, sing the speakers in his lab. Paradise is not impressed. “I’m walking now, so it’s kind of boring. You need a dancer to show them off. I’m not a dancer, but I can give you a demo.” Lo, the dance of the physicist begins: A kick, and the speakers spit the sound of a gunshot. An ankle tilt conjures a high-pitched vibrato. When Paradiso, an excitable, burly 44-year-old prof, rises to his toes, cymbals appear to crash. So goes this odd symphony of synthesized sound. As a research scientist in MIT’s Media Lab, Paradiso has constructed musical carpets, digital batons for conductors, and a chair for Penn & Teller that waxes electronic when Teller flutters his hands. Paradiso’s sneakers are his newest, and perhaps most delightful, entry into the realm of wearable computers. The ability to gather real-time data on anatomical movement will also be exploited by physical therapists, athletic trainers, footwear designers, and doctors who study the balance and gait of elderly people as well as those afflicted with foot problems. Dancers, who typically move to someone else’s music, have already been tickled by the notion of becoming footwise composers. Mark Haim, called a “choreographer’s choreographer” by The New York Times, says that while wearing Paradiso’s shoes, “1 was in heaven. You’re literally making music with your feet.”


IT COSTS THREE BUCKS TO DEstroy another human’s life. For that sum, you can fashion a crude land mine of TNT encased in a cheap plastic egg. Sow a field with these hellish seeds, and you can imprison a village, render a field unusable for crops, or cripple an army. According to the United Nations, more than 110 million active mines are waiting to explode in at least 64 countries. Conventional mine detectors cost at least $20K, so expensive that in third-world nations mines are often removed by hand. It’s a job that attracts the poorest of the poor, who crawl through suspect terrain poking at the earth with sticks. At the current rate, it would take 1,100 years to remove all land mines if no new ones were laid. Stats like these so appalled physicist Thomas Thundat that he was galvanized into researching the phenomenon four years ago. “Twenty-six thousand people a year killed by land mines?” he remembers thinking. “We must do something about this!”

At the heart of the solution conceived by Thundat, 43, and his colleagues at Oak Ridge–Zhiyu Hu, Panos Datskos, and Moonis Ally–is a cantilever, a silicon projection 80 micrometers long and one fourth the diameter of a human hair. It looks like the world’s smallest diving hoard. Heated to 1060 [degrees] Fahrenheit, it lies in wait for combustible fumes to waft up from hidden explosives which will, on contact, erupt in microscopic explosions. These explosions trigger the cantilever and make it bounce at a characteristic frequency, enabling the device to identify the explosive and thus the mine.

Within three years, flashlightsized detectors may be selling for as little as $300. “Small, cheap, and make a lot of them–that’s the way to go,” says Thundat. “If we can find mines as quickly–or more quickly–than they can plant them, then they will stop.”


THE PEACE IS BROKEN BY THE CEASELESS RATTLE, CLANK, ROAR of a jackhammer. Roadwork is essential but brutally noisy. Engineers have long sought a way to rip asphalt and concrete without incurring the wrath of the citizenry, causing back injuries, and racking up workers’ comp payouts. For five years an intriguing solution floated around Brookhaven National Laboratory, but no one knew what to do with it. You wanna bust pavement? Then shoot bullets at it. The idea revolved around the fact that guns can be silenced. So, how to hush a concrete-cutter? Mann Subudhi, a mechanical engineer, shared this question with an office neighbor, Gaby Ciccarelli, a 37-year-old expert in gas dynamics, who suggested launching the projectiles with helium gas compressed by a piston, much the way a car engine works, only faster, thus achieving pressures many times higher. The result of their dreaming, termed RAPTOR, blasts penny nails at speeds of 5,000 feet per second and can be fitted with a silencer, Fired in a line at six-inch intervals, the nails make stress fractures even in a six-inch-thick slab of concrete, causing it to fall apart. Still, the mechanism is safe enough, as well as compact and lightweight enough, for two workers to haul it on and off a truck. Everything about the tool is perfect except, perhaps, its ungainly acronym. “Let’s be frank here.” says Ciccarelli. “Would you he interested if we called it `RAPid cuTter Of concRete?'”

TISSUE ENGINEER ANTHONY ATALA OPENS THE door to an incubator in his lab and rattles off its contents like a guy telling his buddies what he’s got to offer them for the big game. “Here we’re growing heart tissue, cartilage, blood vessels.” In another room he lifts up a beaker filled with the pinkish soup of growth factors and nutrients the organs feed on during their gestation. “This is a trachea,” Atala, 42, says cheerfully. “Oh wait, is that a trachea? No, it’s a blood vessel.” It’s easy to get confused. At this stage, fragile mammalian tissue of different kinds looks much alike; devoid of blood, it resembles wet, limp pasta. But make no mistake. The objects in Atala’s hands are treasures, and he understands that. The most advanced of his creations is bladder tissue, which patients will soon receive to repair or replace bladders destroyed by everything from congenital defects to cancer to chronic infection.

Atala’s efforts to grow bladders were inspired by his work as a pediatric urologic surgeon. “The work we do here will help adults” he says. “But children will always have my heart.” Many babies are born with bladders outside their bodies. As we age, other ravages set in. About 10,000 children and adults in the United States undergo bladder-replacement or -repair surgery each year, in which doctors try to fashion new bladders from the patient’s stomach or intestinal tissue. But the replacement tissue usually reverts to its original function, absorbing instead of excreting. “More than 100 years after the first such transplant, we’re still doing the same thing,” Atala says. “Of course, another alternative is not to do anything–or wait for one human being to die in order to give another an organ so that he can live. It’s such a tragedy.”

In February 1999, Atala’s team performed the first successful transplant of a lab-grown organ–a dog received a new bladder. To build bladders, the researchers extract healthy cells from diseased tissue and squirt them onto a scaffold made of biodegradable polymer mesh molded into the shape of a bladder. The cells multiply and produce viable tissue. “The cells know what to do” Atala says. “They have all the genetic information in place. You just have to give them the right conditions to do it in–the right temperature, the right nutrients. It’s like baking a chocolate layer cake, one layer at a time” Over time the scaffold deteriorates harmlessly inside the body, and, since the original cells were harvested from the patient, the body will not reject the new bladder.

Atala professes bewilderment at the fuss made over his work. “Like anything else,” he says, “once you know how to do it, it’s easy.” Whether he’s working in his lab, or at home with his baby, his young patients are never far from his mind. “When you’re healing children,” he says, “you’re dealing with patients who’ve got their whole lives ahead of them. There’s a certain innocence present, a healing power not present in adults. And they heal much better.”

Anthony Atala holds one of his precious lab-grown bladders. “We fool cells into believing that we want them to heal so they replicate really fast.”

DISCOVER AWARDS PHOTOGRAPHERS This year Discover dispatched a phalanx of photographers to shoot the winning innovators and their inventions (Discover Awards, page 89). Clockwise from top left: Jeff Sciortino, Chris Buck, Max Aguilera-Hellweg, Bernd Auers, and Ethan Hill. As the photographers found, the task was not without challenges. “Showing the technology and the person in the same photograph is difficult,” says Buck. “The objects are often very small, and people, by contrast, are quite big. And a photograph of a chip has an entirely different feel from a portrait of a human being; there’s a fascination with physical detail that you need to get down on film.” Hill, on the other hand, pronounced his own shoot “the most fun job I’ve had this year.” The scientists were “a pleasure to be around.” he says, “Everybody was pretty much willing to do whatever I wanted.”

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