The Cutting Edge: Computing / Technology / Innovation : Leave a Message on My Stereo

Japan's Seiko Corp. and Seiko Epson Corp. have big plans for your wristwatch, car stereo, clocks, home appliances and cellular phone: They want to turn them into receivers for FM radio signals.

The companies recently announced plans to deploy a high-speed wireless communications network through a newly formed subsidiary, Seiko Communications. Called Active, the network system will transmit information such as personal paging messages, emergency notification broadcasts, news updates and local traffic reports worldwide.

The Active system is compatible with all national and international standards for FM frequencies and uses the existing infrastructure of radio stations. Seiko is already negotiating with potential partners in countries throughout the world.

In addition, the company has developed a small, low-cost receiver with low power consumption that it believes is ideal for building into mass-market products.

Seiko has been testing an FM system in the Pacific Northwest over the past two years that allows residents to receive a wide variety of information, from weather forecasts and local sports scores to winning lottery numbers and ski condition reports. The information is displayed on the system's first consumer product--the Seiko MessageWatch.

Hold Still: Like small children, proteins are constantly in motion, twisting and turning, changing their shape and linking up with their neighbors. Thus, while scientists have been able to take snapshots of proteins, they have not been able to observe their motions directly. Direct observation is important because the movements of proteins--the essential building blocks of life--are critical to understanding how they work.

But in the Sept. 9 issue of the journal Science, a team of scientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara reported it was able to watch while the enzyme lysozyme--part of the body's immune defenses--attacked and disabled another molecule.

Instead of probing proteins with light or electron beams, researchers used an instrument called an atomic force microscope. The microscope works like the arm of a record player, physically tracking the contours of a specimen with a tiny, highly sensitive needle. As the needle, whose tip measures only 20 billionths of a meter across, moves over a protein, its movements can be translated into real-time images.

My Aching Wrists: Carpal tunnel syndrome, a potentially debilitating injury involving the tendons that pass through a circular bone in the wrist, has received a lot of attention of late and is often associated with people who spend long hours working on computer keyboards.

Now researchers at Pennsylvania State University have developed a computer model to predict other occupations that carry high risks for carpal tunnel syndrome, which can cause severe pain and swelling in the wrists and arms. So far, the model has pinpointed poultry processing, meatpacking, cookie baking, carpet making, metal manufacturing and plastics molding.

Whereas research on carpal tunnel syndrome traditionally focused on personal and job attributes that may increase the likelihood of injury, the computer model zeroes in on the actual way in which the injury occurs. Pitting tendon strength against the stress applied to it, the model can predict both when the tendon will fail and the number of incidences of carpal tunnel syndrome for a given job.

The model has led to some interesting findings. Wrist extension was shown to be more dangerous than wrist flexion. And women were between two and 10 times more likely than men to suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome.

Some of that difference may be due to the fact that repetitive jobs are more likely to go to women than men, the researchers said. But the model showed that a woman's smaller wrist size resulted in greater stress on the tendon that passes through the carpal tunnel, or wrist canal.

The model is especially useful for industry because it requires only two relatively simple measurements--grip force and wrist angle--that can easily be collected at the job site.

Sooty Signatures: Everybody talks about air pollution, but nobody actually knows what all the sources are. Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are zeroing in on one cause of pollution: soot. They are working on identifying the sources of soot based on its microscopic structure. It seems this structure is a function of the particle's oxidation and thermal history.

That means the soot particles from a diesel engine look different under the microscope than those from a factory smokestack.

By showing the relationship of soot microstructures to combustion conditions and fuel types, the scientists hope to put together a library of soot structures that can be used to show not only the sources of these carbon pollutants in the air, but also to identify specific types of fuel and conditions that lead to such emissions. This, in turn, would help engineers find ways to control the pollutants at their source.

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