The Other First Computer: Konrad Zuse And The Z3

Bavarian Alps, Dec. 1945:

Since 1935, Berlin engineer Konrad Zuse has spent his entire career developing a series of automatic calculators, the first of their kind in the world: the Z1, Z2, Z3, S1, S2, and Z4. He accomplished this with a motley group of engineers, technicians, and mathematicians who were operating against all odds. With all the hardships and shortages of war and the indifference of their peers, the fact that they succeeded at all is a testament to their dedication and resourcefulness. And with the end of the war, more hardships have been piling on.

Two years ago, during the Battle of Berlin, bombers completely destroyed the Zuse family home and adjacent workshops on the Methfesselstraße, where they performed research and fabrication. All of the calculators, engineering drawings, and notes were lost in the rubble, save for the new Z4 nearing completion across the canal in another workshop on Oranienstraße. In the midst of all this, Zuse married in January of this year, but was immediately plunged into another crisis when the largest Allied air raid of the war destroyed the Oranienstraße workshop in February. They managed to rescue the Z4 from the basement, and miraculously arranged for it to be shipped out of the Berlin. Zuse, his family, and colleagues followed soon thereafter. Here and there along the escape route, they managed to complete the final assembly and testing of the Z4 — even giving a demonstration to the Aerodynamics Research Institute in Göttingen.

On arrival here in the Bavarian Alps, Zuse found a ragtag collection of refugees, including Dr Werner Von Braun and a team of 100 rocket scientists from Peenemünde. While everyone here is struggling just to stay alive and find food and shelter, Zuse is further worried with keeping his invention safe from prying eyes. Tensions have risen further upon circulation of a rumor that an SS leader, after three bottles of Cognac, let slip that his troops aren’t here to protect the scientists but to kill them all if the Americans or French approach.

In the midst of all this madness, Zuse and his wife Gisela welcomed a baby boy, and have taken up residence in a Hinterstein farmhouse. Zuse spends his time working on something called a Plankalkül, explaining that it is a mathematical language to allow people to communicate with these new machines. His other hobby is making woodblocks of the local scenery, and he plans to start a company to sell his devices once the economy recovers. There is no doubt that Konrad Zuse will soon be famous and known around the world as the father of automatic computers. Continue reading “The Other First Computer: Konrad Zuse And The Z3”

Alice Ball Steamrolled Leprosy

Leprosy is a bacterial disease that affects the skin, nerves, eyes, and mucosal surfaces of the upper respiratory tract. It is transmitted via droplets and causes skin lesions and loss of sensation in these regions. Also known as Hansen’s disease after the 19th century scientist who discovered its bacterial origin, leprosy has been around since ancient times, and those afflicted have been stigmatized and outcast for just as long. For years, people were sent to live the rest of their days in leper colonies to avoid infecting others.

The common result of injecting chaulmoogra oil. Image via Stanford University

Until Alice Ball came along, the only thing that could be done for leprosy — injecting oil from the seeds of an Eastern evergreen tree — didn’t really do all that much to help. Eastern medicine has been using oil from the chaulmoogra tree since the 1300s to treat various maladies, including leprosy.

The problem is that although it somewhat effective, chaulmoogra oil is difficult to get it into the body. Ingesting it makes most people vomit. The stuff is too sticky to be applied topically to the skin, and injecting it causes the oil to clump in abscesses that make the patients’ skin look like bubble wrap.

In 1866, the Hawaiian government passed a law to quarantine people living with leprosy on the tiny island of Moloka’i. Every so often, a ferry left for the island and delivered these people to their eventual death. Most patients don’t die of leprosy, but from secondary infection or disease. By 1915, there were 1,100 people living on Moloka’i from all over the United States, and they were running out of room. Something had to be done.

Professor Alice Ball hacked the chemistry of chaulmoogra oil and made it less viscous so it could be easily injected. As a result, it was much more effective and remained the ideal treatment until the 1940s when sulfate antibiotics were discovered. So why haven’t you heard of Alice before? She died before she could publish her work, and then it was stolen by the president of her university. Now, over a century later, Alice is starting to get the recognition she deserves.

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Rhisotope: Addressing Poaching By Making Rhinoceros Horns Radioactive

There is no question that poaching has become an existential threat to the five species of rhinoceros alive today. Even the wildlife reserves where most rhinos live struggle to provide protection from the wanton and cruel poaching of the world’s last remaining rhinos.

Poachers are generally looking to sell the horns which consist of pure keratin, the same material that makes up our fingernails and hair. Rhino horns have seen a big rise in demand the past decades, with a black market in Vietnam representing the biggest buyers, primarily for use in fever and other medicines, as well as for processing into carved trinkets. This has contributed to a further rhino population collapse. Statistics from 2017 show about 18,000 white rhinos and fewer than 5,500 black rhinos remaining. Recently, the northern white rhino population in Africa went effectively extinct with the death of the last known male individual.

Clearly, if we wish to prevent extinction, we need to deal with poaching. The latest suggestion here is part of the Rhisotope project. This would make rhino horns radioactive, but how exactly would doing so prevent poaching? Let’s take a look.

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Injection-Molded Glass Breakthrough Shatters Ceiling Of Work Methods

Glass is one of humanity’s oldest materials, and it is still used widely for everything from drinking vessels and packaging to optics and communications. Unfortunately, the methods for working with glass are stuck in the past. Most methods require a lot of high heat in the range of 1500 °C to 2000 °C, and they’re all limited in the complexity of shapes that can be made.

As far as making shapes goes, glass can be blown and molten glass pressed into molds. Glass can also be ground, etched, or cast in a kiln. Glass would be fantastic for many applications if it weren’t for the whole limited geometry thing. Because of the limitations of forming glass, some optic lenses are made with polymers, even though glass has better optical characteristics.

Ideally, glass could be injection molded like plastic. The benefits of this would be twofold: more intricate shapes would be possible, and they would have a much faster manufacturing time. Well, the wait is over. Researchers at Germany’s University of Freiburg have figured out a way to apply injection molding to glass. And it’s not just any glass — they’ve made highly-quality, transparent fused quartz glass, and they did it at lower temperatures than traditional methods. The team used x-ray diffraction to verify that the glass is amorphous and free of crystals, and were able to confirm its optical transparency three ways — light microscopy, UV-visible, and infrared measurements. All it revealed was a tiny bit of dust, which is to be expected outside of a clean room.

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What Is Ultra Wideband?

If you’ve been following the world of mobile phone technology of late, you may be aware that Apple’s latest IPhones and AirTag locator tags bring something new to that platform. Ultra wideband radios are the new hotness when it comes to cellphones, so just what are they and what’s in it for those of us who experiment with these things?

An Apple AirTag being paired with an iPhone. Swisshashtag, CC BY-SA 4.0.
An Apple AirTag being paired with an iPhone. Swisshashtag, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Ultra wideband in this context refers to radio signals with a very high bandwidth of over 500 MHz, and a very low overall power density spread over that  spectrum. Transmissions are encoded not by modulation of discrete-frequency carriers as they would be in a conventional radio system, but by the emission of wideband pulses of RF energy across that bandwidth.  It can exist across the same unlicensed spectrum as narrower bandwidth channelised services, and that huge bandwidth gives it an extremely high short-range data transfer bandwidth capability. The chipsets used by consumer devices use a range of UWB channels between about 3.5 and 6.5 GHz, which in radio terms is an immense quantity of spectrum. Continue reading “What Is Ultra Wideband?”

ISS Artificial Gravity Study Shows Promise For Long Duration Spaceflight

The International Space Station is humanity’s most expensive gym membership.

Since the earliest days of human spaceflight, it’s been understood that longer trips away from Earth’s gravity can have a detrimental effect on an astronaut’s body. Floating weightless invariably leads to significantly reduced muscle mass in the same way that a patient’s muscles can atrophy if they spend too much time laying in bed. With no gravity to constantly fight against, an astronauts legs, back, and neck muscles will weaken from disuse in as little as a week. While this may not pose an immediate problem during spaceflight, astronauts landing back on Earth in this physically diminished state are at a higher risk of injury.

Luckily this problem can be largely mitigated with rigorous exercise, and any orbiting vessel spacious enough to hold human occupants for weeks or months will by necessity have enough internal volume to outfit it with basic exercise equipment such as a treadmill or a resistance machine. In practice, every space station since the Soviet Union’s Salyut 1 in 1971 has featured some way for its occupants to workout while in orbit. It’s no replacement for being on Earth, as astronauts still return home weaker than when they left, but it’s proven to be the most practical approach to combating the debilitating aspects of long duration spaceflight.

Early NASA concept for creating artificial gravity.

Of course, there’s an obvious problem with this: every hour spent exercising in space is an hour that could be better spent doing research or performing maintenance on the spacecraft. Given the incredible cost of not just putting a human into orbit, but keeping them there long-term, time is very literally money. Which brings us back to my original point: astronauts spending two or more hours each day on the International Space Station’s various pieces of exercise equipment just to stave off muscle loss make it the world’s most expensive gym membership.

The ideal solution, it’s been argued, is to design future spacecraft with the ability to impart some degree of artificial gravity on its passengers through centripetal force. The technique is simple enough: just rotate the craft along its axis and the crew will “stick” to the inside of the hull. Unfortunately, simulating Earth-like gravity in this way would require the vessel to either be far larger than anything humanity has ever launched into space, or rotate at a dangerously high speed. That’s a lot of risk to take on for what’s ultimately just a theory.

But a recent paper from the University of Tsukuba in Japan may represent the first real steps towards the development of practical artificial gravity systems aboard crewed spacecraft. While their study focused on mice rather than humans, the results should go a long way to codifying what until now was largely the stuff of science fiction.

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Electric Vehicles Could Be The Grid Storage Solution We’ve Been Dreaming Of

As nation states grapple with the spectre of environmental and economic losses due to climate change, we’ve seen an ever greater push towards renewable energy sources to replace heavier polluters like coal and natural gas. One key drawback of these sources has always been their intermittent availability, spurring interest in energy storage technologies that can operate at the grid level.

With the rise in distributed energy generation with options like home solar power, there’s been similar interest in the idea of distributed home battery storage. However, homeowners can be reluctant to make investments in expensive batteries that take years to pay themselves off in energy savings. But what if they had a giant battery already, just sitting outside in the driveway? Could electric vehicles become a useful source of grid power storage? As it turns out, Ford wants to make their electric trucks double as grid storage batteries for your home.

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