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July/August 2001

In This Issue:
bullet ‘Black Box’ Enhances Medical Decision Making
bullet New Site Showcases NIST Connections in Your Community
bullet Supercold Atoms Dance to the Beat of the ‘Bosenova’
bullet Smithsonian Museum Opens Exhibit on NIST
bullet Oklahoma Aircraft Repairer Soars to Success with MEP Help
bullet NIST Gives Chip Makers the Edge by Smoothing Edges
bullet Tech Trivia

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‘Black Box’ Enhances Medical Decision Making

At a hospital in Indianapolis, the staff first learned that a patient had tuberculosis when a “black box” sent an alert to a pharmacist’s pager. The computerized decision-support system helped the staff isolate the highly contagious patient more quickly than otherwise possible.

That incident is among the improvements in patient care attributed to a clinical alert system developed by Sunquest Information Systems of Tucson, Ariz. Currently operating in seven hospital groups in six states, the alert system provides critical lab test results, adverse drug event monitoring data and other information to medical staff by pager, e-mail, fax or printer. It helps save money in a variety of ways, such as suggesting changes from intravenous to less expensive oral medications. Sunquest estimates that the alert system could save a hospital hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.

The underlying technology was developed in a three-year project co-funded by the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Advanced Technology Program. The key innovation is an expert system (computer software that attempts to mimic the reasoning of a human specialist) that combines knowledge bases for both diagnosis and treatment.

Sunquest used the expert system to build a “black box” (in reference to its seemingly mysterious operation), which listens in on hospital network traffic, captures clinical messages, codes the data and filters them through a knowledge base (containing more than 500 built-in rules and a dictionary of 6,000 terms) to detect clinical significance, and sends alerts to subscribers.

Media Contact:
Michael Baum,  (301) 975-2763



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World Wide Web

New Site Showcases NIST Connections in Your Community

For 100 years, the National Institute of Standards and Technology—and its predecessor, the National Bureau of Standards—has touched the everyday life of Americans in ways that most of us would not imagine. Almost everything you come into contact with in your daily routine—be it at work, school or anywhere in your community—has a connection to NIST. And now, you can see the links yourself on a new web site, “NIST in Your Community” (

As part of its centennial celebrations, NIST has created a virtual tour of a typical U.S. community illustrating the agency’s often unseen support for a wide variety of business, manufacturing and service sectors. Included are tour stops showing NIST ties to automobile manufacturing, communications, construction, medicine, law enforcement, research and semiconductor manufacturing. Also featured is a special section on “NIST in Your Home” that describes how most products in an American household rely on NIST’s measurements and services.

The “NIST in Your Community” online tour is modeled after the real-life interactive exhibit of the same name at NIST headquarters in Gaithersburg, Md. Located in the main lobby of the NIST Administration Building, the exhibit is open to the public from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. weekdays.

Media Contact:
Michael E. Newman,  (301) 975-3025Up


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Supercold Atoms Dance to the Beat of the ‘Bosenova’

The first observation of a Bose-Einstein condensate—by physicists at JILA (a research institute operated jointly by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Colorado at Boulder) in 1995—was only the beginning of the quest to understand the unusual behavior of the then-new state of matter. The strangest behavior yet—and a surprise to the investigators who discovered it—was reported in a July 19, 2001, paper in Nature: BECs can explode like tiny supernovas.

Predicted in theory by Albert Einstein and Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose in 1924, a BEC is produced when virtually all the atoms in an ultracold gas—at just a few hundred billionths of a degree above absolute zero—condense into a “superatom” that behaves like a single entity. In this state, atoms behave like waves instead of particles. BECs open up many new possibilities for manipulating and studying quantum wave functions.

The JILA team “tuned” the interactions between the BEC atoms to make them more attractive or repulsive by exposure to magnetic fields. The condensate first shrinks as expected, but rather than gradually clumping together in a mass, there is instead a sudden explosion of atoms outward. This “explosion,” which actually corresponds to a tiny amount of energy by normal standards, continues for a few thousandths of a second. About half the original atoms in the condensate appear to vanish.

Because the phenomenon looks very much like a tiny supernova, or exploding star, the researchers dubbed it a “Bosenova.” The fundamental physical process underlying the explosion remains a mystery.

Media Contact:
Collier Smith (Boulder),  (303) 497-3198


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Smithsonian Museum Opens Exhibit on NIST

To honor 100 years of service by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History has opened an exhibit, “Striving for Standards.”

“NIST has worked on a mind-boggling range of projects, from profound scientific investigations to studies of everyday products,” said exhibition curator Roger Sherman. “At the [NIST centennial] anniversary, we draw well-deserved attention to NIST’s accomplishments while suggesting the difficulties it sometimes faces in securing acceptance of its work.”

The exhibit takes a close look at three NIST “standards challenges”: defining length; describing color; and encouraging America to convert to the metric system. For example, NIST work on color has impacts ranging from child’s play to traffic safety. The makers of Crayola crayons used NIST’s 1955 publication Color: Universal Language and Dictionary of Names to help select names for their crayons. The standard colors used by the railroad, shipping and aerospace industries are based on NIST work, as are the familiar red, yellow and green of traffic lights, and school bus yellow.

The exhibit also includes the solid platinum alloy meter bar and krypton lamp that served as the official U.S. standard of length from 1893-1960 and 1960-1983, respectively.

For a detailed look at NIST’s first century, go to

Media Contact:
Michael E. Newman,  (301) 975-3025Up


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Oklahoma Aircraft Repairer Soars to Success with MEP Help

Kurt Hiserodt, sales manager for Neosource Inc., a Tulsa, Okla., Federal Aviation Administration-certified aircraft repair firm, was excited and perplexed at the same time. “I learned that the magnesium boxes housing the locking apparatus in one commercial aircraft’s main cabin doors were subject to cracks and corrosion,” he said. “Although not a safety concern, it was an expensive repair for airlines using the plane,” he said. “This was a huge opportunity for our small [nine-person] company, but we were primarily a stainless steel and aluminum machine shop and had never worked with magnesium.”

Having a “can do” attitude, Neosource ( sought help from the Oklahoma Alliance for Manufacturing Excellence (, an affiliate of the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership nationwide network of assistance centers for small manufacturers.

An Alliance field agent helped Neosource acquire the knowledge it needed to work with magnesium. “After reviewing the information, we successfully developed repair specifications that were approved by the manufacturer and users,” Hiserodt said.

The new expertise with magnesium allowed the firm to add strength and anti-corrosion enhancements to the standard door box, and then market the improved device at a significantly cheaper cost (on one plane, for example, a savings of $27,000). “This has opened up a whole new product line for Neosource, helped us double sales and gain the confidence to pursue other magnesium products to repair through reverse engineering,” Hiserodt said.

Media Contact:
Jan Kosko,  (301) 975-2767


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NIST Gives Chip Makers the Edge by Smoothing Edges

Imagine trying to measure something very tiny that also isn’t very straight. That’s the challenge faced by the semiconductor industry as computer chips become smaller. Miniaturization techniques have advanced considerably in recent decades. Yet it is difficult to come up with a good “ruler” for measuring something that is only 100 nanometers across, or about one one-thousandth the width of a human hair. The task is tougher yet if you are trying to measure something with ragged edges.

Engineers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology are helping the semiconductor industry overcome this problem and clear the way to improved measurements of “critical dimensions” (known as CD in the industry). Critical dimensions refer to the smallest size that can be etched into a computer chip uniformly. Ragged-edged chip materials cannot provide a reliable, consistent standard for measuring CD. Therefore, NIST engineers have developed test structures using a silicon crystal lattice that has perfectly even sides to do the job.

With the introduction of these test structures, NIST has taken a significant step toward creating a standard way to calibrate instruments (the “rulers”) used to measure 100-nanometer-wide gates in computer chips. NIST distributed test chips—each containing a prototype calibration standard with a CD ranging from 80 to 140 nanometers—to 15 semiconductor manufacturers (members of the International SEMATECH consortium) worldwide in April. The firms currently are evaluating the samples and will provide the results to NIST by September. The data then will be used to complete work on a CD measurement standard for the semiconductor industry.

Media Contact:
Philip Bulman,  (301) 975-5661


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Tech Trivia

At its Washington, D.C., headquarters in 1957, the National Bureau of Standards (now NIST) planted a direct descendant of the fabled Woolthorpe, England, apple tree that inspired Sir Isaac Newton’s theory on gravitational forces. A second Newton apple tree was planted on the new Gaithersburg, Md., campus in 1966 following the agency's move to the D.C. suburbs.

The Dec. 13, 1930, issue of Science News Letter (today known as Science News) reported that NBS physicist Paul R. Heyl had determined “the final value for the most accurate measurement ever made of the constant of gravitation.” Not so final, it seems. In 2000, a NIST-supported research team at the University of Washington announced a value for “Big G” 100 times more accurate than a 1998 official international figure.

In 1997, researchers at JILA, a joint endeavor of the University of Colorado at Boulder and NIST built “the quietest place on Earth,” a vibration-free platform used in an attempt at ground-based detection of gravity waves coming from the cosmos. The no-longer-active isolation system filtered vibrations from every source, even those from ocean waves pounding the beach over a thousand miles away.

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Editor: Michael E. Newman

Date created: 8/17/01
Last updated: 8/17/01