TCS Daily


From Robot Olympiads to the World Year of Physics

By Kenneth Silber - December 30, 2004 12:00 AM

The year 2004 brought a wide variety of events involving science and technology, ranging from the Cassini spacecraft's arrival at Saturn to a French fashion show focused on wearable computers. Here is a highly selective guide to some of the more interesting occasions and developments that are in prospect for 2005:

Spying on Mars. NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, or MRO, slated for launch in August, is basically a spy satellite sent to Mars; its telescopic camera will detect landscape features as small as ten inches across. (Previous probes were capable of resolution measured in yards or meters.) The MRO will also scan for underground water and ice, analyze mineral deposits, track atmospheric changes, and scope out landing sites for future missions. However, the spacecraft will not reach Mars until early 2006. Space buffs looking for a dramatic event in the nearer term may turn their attention to the planned July 4 collision of NASA's Deep Impact probe with Comet Tempel 1.

Robot Olympics. The ROBOlympics, an event bringing together a broad range of robot competitions, will take place at San Francisco State University on March 24-27. This will be a larger occasion than the first ROBOlympics, which was held in 2004, and will feature robotic triathlon, soccer, wrestling, maze solving, bartending, and other activities. Meanwhile, the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) is holding its second Grand Challenge race of autonomous vehicles in the desert Southwest on October 8, this time for a $2 million prize. Last year's $1 million prize went unclaimed when none of the robots completed more than eight miles of the 142-mile course.

World Year of Physics. In 1905, Albert Einstein published three key science papers that introduced the theory of relativity and ushered in the era of modern physics. Marking the centennial of that breakthrough, 2005 has been designated the World Year of Physics, featuring a variety of events and projects. Einstein's March 14 birthday, for instance, will include a party and panel discussion about the nature of time at Maryland's Frostburg State University. From January to June, there will be a nationwide talent search for potential physicists ages 10-19.

Star Wars Technology. Starting October 27, the Museum of Science in Boston will hold an exhibit that draws upon the Star Wars films as a launching point to discuss real-world technologies. "Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination," will come in the aftermath of the series' final film Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith, which is set for May release. The exhibit will discuss such parallels as that between Luke Skywalker's landspeeder and magnetic-levitation technology, or how R2-D2 and C-3PO compare to current-day robots.

Nanotech Outreach. Various organizations involved in nanotechnology are stepping up efforts to communicate with the public about the technology of the extremely small. The National Science Foundation, a major force in federal nanotech funding, is including in its public lecture series such topics as "What's New in Nanoscale Structures: Fluctuations and Entropy" by University of Maryland physicist Ellen Williams (February 28), and "Biomaterials for Human Repair" by Northwestern University materials scientist Samuel Stupp (April 18).

Cow Genome Initiative. The Bovine Genome Sequencing Project, a $53 million, multi-institutional effort to sequence the genome of the cow, is expected to complete its work in the first half of 2005. The project was announced in late 2003, and by October 2004 it had produced a first draft of bovine genetic material. The more detailed version expected in coming months may lead to genetic modification techniques for improved milk and meat production, and for preventing cattle diseases. Furthermore, insights into human health may result from comparing the cow genome with the human genome, which was mapped out in 2003.

War of the Worlds. H.G. Wells' 1898 sci-fi novel of a Martian invasion, which inspired Orson Welles' public-panicking 1938 radio broadcast, is soon to be a major motion picture directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise. The new War of the Worlds, slated for release on June 29, takes place in the early 21st century and carries the tagline "They're already here." It remains to be seen whether the aliens will rely upon the intense Heat-Ray described by Wells, or whether extraterrestrial technology has improved during the past century.


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