SCIENCE: LAB NOTES

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The Independent Culture
WHOLE NEW BALL GAME

A new type of flat electronic display technology under development by the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center promises to be more portable than heavy cathode ray tubes and far cheaper than liquid-crystal panels. Thin, flexible and durable, they will have many of the advantages of paper, but can be reused millions of times. As a particular boon to users of portable electronic devices, the new displays will also consume only tiny amounts of power, and will only cost about the same price as fine stationery.

Twenty years ago, scientist Nicholas Sheridon of Xerox PARC invented the display material that he named Gyricon. No thicker than a latex glove, the substance is made up of tiny plastic balls mixed into molten, transparent silicon rubber. Each ball is white on one side, black on the other. After being cooled on slabs and cut into sheets, the rubber is soaked in oil, which it absorbs like a mop. As it does, the sheets expand. Oil-filled pockets form around each ball, which can float and rotate freely. Through a chemical process that Xerox keeps secret, each ball is given an electrical charge, so that when an electric field is applied to the surface of the sheet each ball rises within its oil-filled cells, rotates like a tiny compass and presents either its white or its black side. The balls stick in this position, forming letters, words and sentences, until they are dislodged by another field.

Sheridon can make his display show varying shades of gray, and he is working on combining balls of various hues for full-colour displays. For certain applications such as large commercial signs, the technology appears to be only a few years away from the market. Not long after that, he says, Gyricon laptops and handheld computers could be developed that would run for six months on the power of a few AA batteries.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

People put up with microwave ovens for the sake of convenience, even though the foods cooked in them often leave something to be desired: French fries get soggy, frozen potatoes sometimes don't thaw at their centres, and eggs in their shells can explode. The epicurean results could soon improve, however, thanks to new mathematical and computer models developed by Ashim K Datta and Hua Zhang of Cornell University. Their models predict how edibles of various shapes and consistencies will heat. Datta hopes that the food industry will use this information to devise products that are more palatable when heated by microwaves: 90 per cent of the new microwavable foods introduced to the marketplace every year fail to catch on with consumers.

DOH!

Interest in science is at an all-time high, according to a survey of 2,000 US adults presented to Congress in July. That's the good news. The bad news is that knowledge of basic science remains disturbingly poor. Jon D Miller, director of the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy, conducted the survey last year. Although 70 per cent of the subjects said they were curious about science and technology, only 11 per cent could define the word "molecule". Half of the respondents believed that humans and dinosaurs had coexisted at some time (dinosaurs actually vanished 60 million years before even our primitive ape-like ancestors evolved). And only 48 per cent knew that the Earth orbits the sun once every year.

! All items are adapted from `Scientific American' magazine. Copyright 1998, Scientific American, Inc. Visit the `SA' website at www.sciam.com. All rights reserved

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