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How Your Car Can Coach You During Skids


Winter driving can be treacherous. Hitting a patch of black ice can mean a quick trip into the ditch. And when fresh snow is falling during the daily commute, even careful drivers can find themselves struggling with a skid.

Most drivers know they should turn the wheel into a skid to prevent a spinout. But the real challenge is knowing when to turn the wheel back, and by how much, to avoid fishtailing back and forth. Researchers at New York's University at Buffalo figure that's where technology can help. A team led by mechanical engineer Tarunraj Singh has already developed a system that knows precisely what needs to be done, given the speed and angle of a skid and the position of the steering wheel.

The question is: how to convey this information quickly to the driver? So far, the team has tested video vs. audio cues. Drivers in a car simulator had trouble following instructions relayed by blinking lights, probably because they were too busy watching the road. In contrast, when guidance on how to turn the wheel came in the form of beeping sound signals, all the drivers were able to regain control.

Singh, however, feels that tactile cues from vibrations in the steering wheel might be better still. To determine if that is so, he's seeking additional funds--either from Honda, which has sponsored the research to date, or from another auto company. Preserving biodiversity may be an effective way to fight Lyme disease and other bug-borne afflictions, say scientists at the Institute of Ecosystem Studies, a nonprofit research organization in Millbrook, N.Y. Working in the surrounding woods, biologists Kathleen LoGiudice, Richard S. Ostfeld, and their colleagues tested ticks found on various species of birds and mammals for Lyme disease, then calculated the contribution of each species to the total population of infected ticks.

It turns out that in areas with high biodiversity, the ticks feed on many species that may be infected with Lyme but don't easily transmit it, leaving the ticks disease-free. White-footed mice are an exception--they readily pass Lyme to the ticks. Where woods are cleared, or diversity is otherwise degraded, these mice are among the last species to disappear. So they become the main food source for ticks, which pick up the disease and pass it to humans. Less biodiversity, in other words, means more Lyme disease, the scientists conclude, in a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They hope to expand their study to six states. Primitive life turns up in the strangest places. Recent discoveries suggest the earth holds vast, unexplored realms of biological resources--mostly single-celled creatures--that could be tapped for drugs and biochemical products. These microbes might also help validate exotic theories about how oil is formed, and where.

The latest evidence comes from 1,000 feet below the seabed off the coast of Oregon. Drilling in supposedly solid rock, a team led by scientists from Oregon State University found microorganisms that metabolize hydrogen, sulfides, and other unlikely substances. The researchers report in the Jan. 3 Science that subterranean life permeates cracks in the basalt that solidified from lava 3.5 billion years ago to form our planet's crust.

It's not the first time that drilling rigs poking deep into the earth have pulled up microorganisms. But initial discoveries of microbial life--and traces of oil--at depths as great as 4.8 miles were dismissed as accidental contamination from the surface. Now, just about any place that scientists drill, they find life.

Indeed, Cornell University physicist Thomas Gold, who began drilling for life in the 1980s, figures there's more life beneath the earth than above it. He also believes that oil itself is produced by these life forms from methane bubbling up from the planet's molten core--not from ancient forests or plankton. His controversial theory got a boost in August. Simulations by Houston's Gas Resources revealed that oil forms at depths far below oil wells. The Earth may prove to be a giant petrochemical pump. -- Will the next kitchen appliance be a steak grower? Not soon. But researchers funded by NASA are growing red meat, chicken, and fish in laboratory cultures--offering hope that astronauts spending months in space will one day be able to enjoy fresh meat. The Dec. 30 issue of New Scientist reports that three university teams are working on cultured meats. Growing whole steaks in restaurants is not on the near-term menu. The researchers can't keep the cultured meat alive long enough to reach that size. So low-fat hamburger, sausage, or sesame chicken could be the first slaughterless entr?es.

-- Newfangled vegetables are also in the news. Scientists at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi have added a gene to potatoes from amaranth--a high-protein plant that is sometimes added to commercial flour blends. The result--some call it a protato--has 30% more protein than garden-variety potatoes.

-- Not every agricultural advance requires gene modification. Researcher Paul Brown leads a Purdue University team that is developing foods for fish that boost the amount of omega-6 fatty acid in their flesh. These fats are thought to help prevent cancer and diabetes. Brown hopes the advance will spur the growth of fish farming and relieve pressure on the seas' dwindling stocks.


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