In This Issue: New NIST Device Turns e-Books into Braille ATP Digital TV Project Goes On the Air Chip Off the Old Supernova Modern Technology May Have Solved Decades-Old Mystery Minnesota Technology Helps Easy Systems Bring Home the Bacon And That's The Way It Was Tech Trivia
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New NIST Device Turns e-Books into Braille
Electronic books soon may find a new audience. Engineers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology have developed a Braille reader that can transform the text of e-books into Braille.
NIST researchers developed the Braille prototype as a possible low-cost alternative to conventional electronic Braille readers. NIST spent about $200 on materials for the machine. Braille readers typically carry price tags ranging from $10,000 to $15,000. Much of the cost savings are a result of a new design approach. The NIST reader uses only 12 actuators-the mechanical devices that form Braille letters. Commercial Braille readers usually have hundreds of actuators.
The NIST reader employs software to translate text into Braille and features variable speed that allows people to read faster or slower. NIST is now seeking to transfer the technology to the private sector to bring the benefits of e-books to the blind and visually impaired.
During the past year, NIST also has been working with the e-book industry to develop voluntary standards that will facilitate the growth of the industry. A group of publishers, e-book manufacturers and software developers announced an agreement to adopt the Open Electronic Book 1.0 Specification in September at the second annual Electronic Book Workshop, sponsored by NIST.
Philip Bulman , (301) 975-5661
NOTE: After publication of this item, a provisional patent application was filed for the Braile e-Book reader. For information on this and any potential commercialization of the technology, contact Clara Asmail, (301) 975-2339, firstname.lastname@example.org.
ATP Digital TV Project Goes On the Air
Ahigh-tech research project is on TV in New Jersey, and it's not a sci-fi series. It's NJN Public Television's new digital TV broadcast on Channel 43, powered by technology developed in a cooperative R&D effort headed by Sarnoff Corp. and sponsored by the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Advanced Technology Program.
HDTV is at least six times more detailed than conventional U.S. TV pictures, but it brings novel technical challenges for local TV stations. HDTV signals require huge amounts of digital data and are mathematically "compressed" for transmission and uncompressed by an HDTV receiver. Each time this is done a little data are lost and the video is slightly degraded, so intermediate studios try to work with compressed signals as much as possible without decompressing. But this requires new computing tools to accomplish tasks that were easy to do with conventional video. The ATP High Definition Broadcast Technology Project is developing the new tools stations need to cost-effectively produce and broadcast HDTV programming.
In addition to Sarnoff Corp., the consortium includes IBM Corp., MCI Telecommunications Corp., NBC, NJN Public Television, Sun Microsystems, Thomcast Communications Inc., Thomson Consumer Electronics Inc., and Wegener Corp. The NJN Channel 43 studio will serve as a test bed for integrating the new technologies.
Michael Baum , (301) 975-2763
Chip Off the Old Supernova
Back in the true dark ages, before the solar system was formed, a super-nova exploded. Billions of years later a chunk of rock crash lands in Murchison, Australia. The connection? A collaboration among the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and university researchers has determined that dust grains in the Murchison meteorite may have come from an ancient supernova, arriving there by a light-years-long journey through interstellar space.
They reached this conclusion by mapping the isotopic ratios of elements in the dust. Isotopes are atoms of an element that have different atomic weights depending on the number of neutrons in the atom. All Earth-based silicon, for example, has the same mixture of isotopes. The Murchison research group found that this isotopic mixture is different for silicon and magnesium in some of the meteorite's grains. This is a tell-tale marker of a supernova, meaning it could not have come from within the solar system.
NIST researchers examined the meteorite grains with a time-of-flight secondary ion mass spectrometer. A beam of ions was scanned across the sample knocking charged atoms into a long chamber. Heavier atoms take longer to fly the length of the chamber than lighter ones, allowing the instrument to construct a chemical map of the surface. The NIST instrument can map isotopic ratios with a resolution of about 200 nanometers (billionths of a meter.)
Linda Joy , (301) 975-4403
Modern Technology May Have Solved Decades-Old Mystery
The tarnished reputation of a pioneer woman scientist may have been restored nearly three-quarters of a century later by a National Institute of Standards and Technology scientist.
In 1925, German chemist Ida Tacke, along with Walter Noddack and Otto Berg, announced the discovery of two new elements, numbers 43 and 75. The team identified the elements on the basis of weak X-ray spectral lines seen when electrons excited samples of natural ores. Element 75, named rhenium, was soon produced in large amounts. However, element 43, which the Germans called masurium, was not detected again. The observation was ridiculed as a careless mistake.
Twelve years later, Italians Carlo Perrier and Emilio Segre isolated trace amounts of element 43-which they named technetium-in molybdenum that had been bombarded mechanically by subatomic particles. The two were credited with producing the first synthetic element. In turn, Tacke's claim that element 43 had occurred naturally was further dishonored.
To determine the truth about Tacke's experiment, NIST chemist John Armstrong used the agency's sophisticated X-ray database and spectral analysis software to simulate her team's 1925 data. He found that the spectral lines attributed to masurium appear consistent with element 43, supporting the earlier discovery. Additionally, researchers now know of a technetium isotope that occurs naturally in uranium ores-most likely, the substance identified in Tacke's experiment.
Linda Joy , (301) 975-4403
Minnesota Technology Helps Easy Systems Bring Home the Bacon
In 1986, Mark Gaalswyk of rural Martin County, Minn., started producing software to help local hog farmers precisely control the mix of corn, soybean meal, barley and other ingredients in livestock feed. Since then, Gaalswyk's company, Easy Systems, has grown to 70 employees with sales of about $10 million.
But, says Gaalswyk, "If it wasn't for MTI we'd still be just a hobby." Over the years, MTI-Minnesota Technology Inc., an affiliate of the NIST Manufacturing Extension Partnership-has helped Gaalswyk grow and manage the business, including getting a patent, setting up a manufacturing facility and raising capital. Gaalswyk said, "Most importantly, they've helped us to understand how to manage the growing process."
Not only has Gaalswyk's business grown, but the success of his company has strengthened the economic base of much of this rural area. People who in the past had left for better jobs, are returning or staying to work for Easy Systems or to start their own companies, increasing housing demand and property values. Gaalswyk says this growing economy is "giving the local people the opportunity to achieve things that would have otherwise been unimaginable."
Jan Kosko , (301) 975-2767
And That's The Way It Was
A new volume on the history of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, known as the National Bureau of Standards until 1988, is now available. NBS, established in 1901, will celebrate its centennial in 2001. The 822-page book covers NBS history from 1950 until 1969, years that brought new demands, controversies and much change to the agency, as well as the country.
In postwar America, the nation held an optimistic view of science in society with advances such as penicillin, DDT, electronics, jet engines and atomic energy. In this climate, NBS grew, faced controversy and demonstrated its capability for revolutionary scientific research.
During these 19 years, the Bureau saw many changes. For example, it expanded operations to Boulder, Colo., where today it maintains the nation's atomic clock. It moved its headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Gaithersburg, Md. A controversy over a battery additive led to the firing of the NBS director who was unwilling to compromise the scientific integrity of the agency. He soon was reinstated. And on scientific frontiers, NBS collaborated with Columbia University to perform an experimental test on the conservation of parity, a long-held belief and part of the standard model of physics. The investigators demonstrated that parity is not conserved and stunned scientists worldwide.
The book by Elio Passaglia, titled, A Unique Institution: The National Bureau of Standards 1950-1969, is available for $63 from the Superintendent of Documents, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402-9325. Request document number SN 003-003-03617-0.
Linda Joy , (301) 975-4403
A 1976 NIST handbook, Quieting: A Practical Guide to Noise Control, became the basis for an Environmental Protection Agency guide two years later for dealing with noise at home. It advised homeowners how to remove noise from various rooms, insulate against outside sounds and even buy a quieter residence. It did not have a section on how to quiet children.
In testing coal mine scales in 1918, NIST did not find a single scale even approximately the reasonable tolerance set by NIST. One scale for weighing loads of less than 2 tons (1.8 metric tons) was found to be out of balance by 616 pounds (277 kilograms). Miners' wages were based on the weight of coal determined by these scales.
In order to retain a high-quality staff and attract competent new researchers, NIST began offering graduate-level courses that could be applied to doctoral degrees in 1908. The graduate program continued for the next 50 years and resulted in 270 degrees by 40 different universities.