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TR: The Week in Review

The TechnologyReview.com unveils a new section – The Week in Review.

Throughout the week, the Technology Review and TechnologyReview.com editors and writers scour newpapers, blogs, and journals to give readers a quick synopsis of what happened in the previous week in the field of emerging technologies.

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After centuries of zippy theories such as “The Big Bang” and catchy names such as “buckyballs”, researchers have turned to commercialism for new ideas.

It started with the tangy folks over at NASA, who last month launched a comet probe dubbed Deep Impact. Now, researchers at the Australian National University have titled their new carbon concoction “the superbowl” molecule – because if you squint, well, it almost looks like a sports stadium.

The molecule consists of five smaller, concave bowl structures: four on the sides; one on the bottom; and an open top. They work a lot like buckyballs, which ferry a few atoms at a time. By tagging on other chemical complexes, the superbowls can be made to hold and release molecules of up to a hundred atoms. They are, in effect, buckyyballs on steroids, and could be the perfect quarterback for new drug delivery systems.

A Brand New Napster

Two weeks ago, the TechnologyReview.com previewed the coming digital music battle. Last week, that story hit CNN and the rest of the mass media last week. Yesterday, the digital music wars went international with Napster’s Super Bowl commercial slot.

Napster is going to be using Microsoft’s Janus technology to allow users to rent music instead of buying individual songs, a fierce stab at Apple’s online music story, iTunes. The logic behind the new Napster is that to fill an iPod’s memory, you’d have to spend $10,000 on songs.

Napster’s service will allow unlimited download onto a compatible device for only $15 a month – all you have to do is check the device and your computer with Napster’s website to verify that your subscription is valid. Otherwise the device and your computer stops playing the rented music.

NIH Nix

If the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) wants a face lift, maybe it would just be easier to just drop more money into plastic surgery.

Last year, the organization dolled out $19.3 billion in tax-payer money to researchers around the world, but there’s been a lot of talk in Congress that the cash isn’t being put to the best public use (partially spurred on by the Los Angeles Times report in December of 2003 that 94% of the more than 5,000 NIH staff scientists were engaged in activities that presented a conflict of interest).

So, last week the NIH made two big announcements.

First, NIH employees will no longer be allowed to have certain side jobs at pharmaceutical and biotech companies that donate billions in research money (called “payolla” by some) every year. The initial response from the staff scientists is mixed, but it seems to be pleasing advocacy groups.

Second, researchers using NIH funding are being pushed to make their findings available in any of the for-profit science journals available on the organization’s free PubMed Central web site within a year. This raised the hackles of many not-for-profit publishers who say that the “request” won’t be enough to open all NIH research to the public.

The not-for-profit proposal: require the papers to be published on one of their journals. That way, the NIH wouldn’t have to spend money expanding its own database, and people looking for a published paper could just use a search engine like Google Scholar to peruse all published scientific papers at once.

The $100 Laptop

MIT’s own Nicholas Negroponte was seen at the World Economic Forum toting around a laptop that uses a $25 display that’s similar to what’s in rear-projection TVs. It’s part of Negroponte’s mission to make computer technology available to everyone, especially children in developing countries. According to The New York Times, Negroponte was inspired by his experience giving laptops to children in Cambodia.

Past Moore’s Law

With Moore’s Law expected to be repealed sometime in the next 15 years, everyone’s looking to become the next Hammurabi of the computing world. Hewlett Packard has unveiled a replacement for the transistor that works on a molecular size scale. The “crossbar latch” uses crossing nanowires for a device that only takes up two nanometers. But, the latches can only switch off a hundred or so times a second, six orders of magnitude too slow to be of any use.

The HP team says that it can get the switches running fast enough by 2012, which may make it a graceful segue into the world of quantum or all-optical computing.

The New FCC

It looks like FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin is poised to take Chairman Powell’s place, but exactly what would that mean? Martin is generally more conservative than Powell, has shown himself to be less aggressive at deregulating, especially when it comes to Internet providers. Some are most concerned about the possibility that Martin will make a big push to set up some sort of standardized VoIP (and in a way that can be easily tapped by the FBI).

Star Gazing

Yes, Hubble is nice. It is also God-awfully expensive.

Last Monday, NASA presented a controversial budget to congress that didn’t include the extra $1 billion or so to keep up repairs on the orbiting satellite. Instead, NASA is looking toward cheaper, more specialized satellites like the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) – which is undergoing it’s final review this year.

If approved, the array will be snapping high-energy X-ray pictures that would be 1,000 better than any previous device at scoping out black holes and the origins of the universe’s heavy elements.

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