2012 saw some incredible advances in 3D printing, including stunning price reduction in the “consumer” and “personal” model price points. We also saw 3D printers construct items as small as a 285-micron Indy car model, and as big as an entire house. But the most fascinating and controversial 3D printing story of the year has got to be the Wiki Weapon project, whose goal is to release the design of a working gun free on the internet. The project was started by law school student Cody Wilson, and will force an examination of whether or not publishing such designs breaks existing gun control laws. In the meantime, a Wiki Weapon assault rifle recently fell apart during a test firing after only six shots. So while the project is experiencing difficulty, the technology exists, and it’s only a matter of time.
In the low-priced computing department, we love the rise of the Raspberry Pi -- the thirty-five dollar credit-card-sized computer with a 700 MHz ARM processor and Linux operating system. And our favorite story of the year comes from Professor Simon Cox from the University of Southhampton in Britain, who built “Iridis-Pi”, a four thousand dollar supercomputer built from sixty-four Raspberry Pis. The professor’s six year old son James provided mechanical support using Legos. Really, kid, if you want to put electronics together for a living, do what the other kids do -- get a job at Foxconn!
Of course, the big, big news in physics this year was the invention of the world’s fastest truly random number generator from the Australian National University, which was heralded as revolutionary to random number connoisseurs everywhere... I’m kidding. We found the Higgs boson. Yes, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN discovered a new boson particle, the heaviest ever discovered, which is most likely the famed Higgs boson, the last particle of the standard model to be discovered and the reason, so the theory goes, that objects have mass. The discovery caused a veritable tsunami of youtube videos trying to explain the Higgs field, and also caused all physics professors to check their tickets to see if they had the winning 125 giga electron volts in the physics professor betting pool.
USA Science and Engineering Festival
In April, Dan and I joined former This Week in Engineering host Todd Sierer on a trip to Washington, D.C. to attend the second USA Science and Engineering Festival. We interviewed celebrities like the Mythbusters, Mayim Bialik, Homer Hickam, Richard Garriott, Elon Musk, Bill Nye the Science guy and more. And we also saw thousands and thousands of kids who were thrilled with learning about science and engineering. Catch Todd’s interview of Elon Musk where he asks about the future of commercial space travel, or any of our other interviews on the Learning Series Channel at Engineering.com.
And speaking of space exploration, this year saw a commercial SpaceX Dragon capsule docking with and delivering supplies to the international space station. But that story was of course overshadowed by our favorite Space Exploration story of the year -- the Mars Curiosity Rover landing on the red planet after the aptly-named Seven Minutes of Terror. While not broadcast live on any major US networks -- really? they must have something more important to show at 1:30 am eastern -- it was shown live in Times Square, on the Las Vegas strip, and streamed to about 3.2 million people online. Since landing, the rover has found highly-fractionated alkaline igneous rock, and evidence of what used to be a stream flowing at about three feet per second.
Kids In Science
And from the “Kids in Science” department, our favorite story of the year comes from 14-year-olds Sakhiwe Shongwe and Bonkhe Mahlalela, from Swaziland, Africa, who won a $50,000 Science in Action award from Scientific American for inventing the Unique Simplified Hydroponic Method of farming vegetables. The invention makes hydroponics affordable for poor farmers, increasing production over traditional farming by 140%. The prize was part of the Google Science Fair, and gives scientists and engineers everywhere hope for a better tomorrow.
Adults Not In Science
And if you want to squash those hopes into despair and anger, look no further than Italy, which convicted six seismologists for manslaughter after a six point three magnitude earthquake killed three hundred and nine people. Despite petitions from the scientific community that such quakes cannot be predicted, the court agreed with prosecutors that the scientists’ report about the dangers of a major quake were “just too reassuring”, and sentenced the scientists to six years. No wonder scientists are looking for intelligent life on other worlds -- sometimes it’s hard to find it on Earth.
Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda
And in the category of “I could have designed that!” the runner-up is Hideki Watanabe, Japanese dentist and inventor of the Kuru-Kuru Nabe, or the “Pot Round and Round”. With curving ridges around the sides, as water in the pot boils, it also rises and swirls -- essentially, the pot stirs itself. And the winner of the best “I could have designed that” story of 2012 is the Washit, a combination shower and clothes washing machine from four industrial design students in Turkey. The shower drain’s grey water runs through carbon, organic and chemical filters, and is cleaned by UV rays before it cleans a load of laundry. In fact, I would pipe the water out of the washer and into my garage’s automated car wash. Or, I would if I were Mitt Romney.
The runner-up for the most interesting use of materials goes to Israeli inventor Izhar Gafni, who built a working bicycle made of cardboard, which is cheap, light, plentiful, eco-friendly and surprisingly strong. (The bicycle can support a rider of up to 485 pounds.) But the interesting materials winner is Jack Munro from the University of Westminster’s School of Architecture, who found a way to use cow’s blood to make bricks for buildings in rain-damage-prone climates. It’s the most interesting use of cow’s blood since ever, because COW’S BLOOD IS GROSS AND NO ONE USES IT FOR ANYTHING!!!
And finally, 2012 must be the Year of the Trampoline in the Chinese zodiac, because our favorite trampoline-related story is actually a two-way tie between Atelier Zundel Cristea’s proposed trampoline bridge across the river Seine in Paris, and Estonian Salto Architects’ installed 170-foot-long trampoline trail through Russia’s Nikola Lenivets forest. Apparently, Europe sees the trampoline as a fun and interesting possibility for transportation as well as exercise. A stark contrast to America, where they are a lawsuit waiting to happen. And that lawsuit? Also my retirement plan!