O Come, All Ye Scientists

Scientists from Manhattan to Pasadena, Moscow to Johannesburg, responded to The Scientist's question, "What gift do you most want this holiday season, and why?" Answers included the practical (sliceable gel blocks), the whimsical (a Star Trek tricorder), and meteorological (another El Niño). But what they all had in common was the desire for that most intangible and elusive of gifts: hastened progress in the researchers' respective fields.TREKKIAN DELIGHTFor upcoming missions to Mars and Eu

Anne Minerd(aminerd@the-scientist.com)
Dec 5, 2004

Scientists from Manhattan to Pasadena, Moscow to Johannesburg, responded to The Scientist's question, "What gift do you most want this holiday season, and why?" Answers included the practical (sliceable gel blocks), the whimsical (a Star Trek tricorder), and meteorological (another El Niño). But what they all had in common was the desire for that most intangible and elusive of gifts: hastened progress in the researchers' respective fields.


For upcoming missions to Mars and Europa to search for life, Chris McKay, professor of astronomy and planetary scientist with NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., says he wants a tricorder. "As every Star Trek viewer knows, a tricorder is a device [that] can detect life forms, even from orbit."

But even better than a tricorder, and a more reasonable wish, would be a grasp of the principles on which a tricorder works, or an understanding of the...



McKay's tricorder would be carried around on Mars and Europa by ultracapable robots built on biological principles, if McKay's colleague Yoseph Bar-Cohen at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., gets his wish this holiday season. For Bar-Cohen, life inspires invention. "For my lab at JPL, I would like to get strong and robust artificial muscles that can be used to make legged robots that can run as fast as a cheetah, carry mass like a horse, climb steep cliffs like a gecko, reconfigure its body like an octopus, fly like a bird, and dig tunnels like a gopher," he says.

Bar-Cohen's vision includes a role for his robots on future NASA missions, perhaps paving the way for their more fragile human creators. "Hopefully, these robots would be able to operate autonomously to detect water, various resources, and possibly biological indicators in the search for past or present life," he says. "They could even construct facilities for future human habitats."

Santa may be handing out a lot of robotic gear at JPL this year. Ayanna Howard, a senior robotics research engineer, also wants one. But unlike Bar-Cohen, Howard prefers robots that look and act more like humans. "I like to bring the social, humanistic aspect to robots," she says. Howard is developing software that will allow future Mars probes to choose their landing sites and navigate the treacherous Martian surface by using neural networks that would mimic the way a human would handle the job.

This year, Howard really wants a QRIO, which is a SONY-made, humanoid robot that walks bipedally with a dynamic gait, shifting its center of balance much like a person. Using sensors in a range of locations, including on the soles of its feet, QRIO determines the conditions of walking surfaces and responds accordingly. For instance, by adjusting its feet and the attitude of its body, it can walk up slopes of as much as 10 degrees.

Howard says the QRIO "would allow me to continue my research in human-robot interaction, with a focus on determining how robots can synergistically benefit humans in real-world applications." In lay terms: Can a robot make a good cup of coffee?


William C. Patzert, an ocean sciences researcher at JPL, says his unusual climatological request this gift-giving season stems from necessity. "In the West, we're going into our seventh year of pretty serious drought," he explains. "So with mother nature and Santa Claus in collusion, I hope to wake up on Christmas morning and see El Niño charging out of the Pacific on a white horse to rescue us from this drought."

"El Niño gets a bum rap," Patzert explains. "People often associate El Niño with a master villain, but the 1997–1998 El Niño brought great benefits." These advantages included an increased water table in the southwest, a dampened Atlantic hurricane season, and milder winter in the northeast, which brought down fuel and heating oil prices. But this year, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the largest constructed reservoirs in the west, are at 50 percent and 38 percent capacity, respectively. El Niño is needed to fill these reservoirs and raise acquifers. "We need a couple of years of El Niño to help us," Patzert concludes.

Donna Cox, a research scientist at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in Champaign, Ill., hopes to find a Silicon Graphics (SGI) Prism data visualization system under the tree this year. "This is the world's most advanced visualization system that combines standards-based Intel Itanium 2 processors, Linux operating environment, and SGI's advanced graphics technology to enable the viewing of entire large data sets without having to break them down and/or piece them back together," Cox says.

"I believe this system can change the world with its impact on analyzing and predicting paths of tornadoes and other crisis phenomena," she explains. "While there aren't many tornades happening in the Midwest during Christmas time, they are certainly happening in the spring along with hurricanes on the cost."



David Vieites, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology in Berkeley, has a more pedestrian desire: "I would like a field book and a pair of boots," he says. "Our planet's biodiversity is the key for our survival. The drugs we use to save lives everyday come from a variety of different organisms that may be extinct soon. Even the most advanced technology makes no sense if we destroy [Earth's] biodiversity, losing not only the species but also their potential as source of compounds useful for different aspects of our life. So, the boots are for keeping the connection between lab biologists and the biodiversity we study."

David Johnson, an information and communications technology engineer with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Johannesburg, South Africa, would like to take fieldwork a step further with a bike-mountable workstation. "Ideally, Father Christmas would donate a clever dynamo that activates itself on downhills and deactivates to allow for battery backup on uphills, and supplies enough voltage to charge a handlebar-mounted PDA, a voice-over-internet protocol (VOIP) telephone, and a WiFi link to my wireless network. With this setup, I could download music and maps through the WiFi link, make free phone calls to anyone in my WiFi network, and do the normal things you do when you have an Internet connection, except with energy supplied by peddling my bike."


"The single resource researchers in my field most need is bright graduate students motivated to learn how to help keep the planet habitable," says Charles Zender, assistant professor of earth system science at UC, Irvine, who studies climate change and the effect of green-house gases on future weather. "I would love to find such students wrapped under my tree Christmas morning. Even better if their tuition were paid and they did not have to leap impossible barriers erected by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service to keep them from learning state secrets."


David Skelly, professor of ecology at Yale University, would like help keeping his lab workers percolating. "I would like a Pasquini Livia 90 professional espresso machine for my laboratory," he says. "The exorbitant cost of this machine [$1,250, US] is more than matched by the benefits to lab personnel in time not spent walking to coffee shops to purchase enervated lattes. I estimate the added caffeine titers facilitated by lab-made quadruple espresso shots will improve productivity at least 150 percent."

Tanya Dragic, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, slyly hopes for a more direct tool for improving graduate student education. "I would like a grad student/postdoc thrasher that thrashes sense into students' heads," she says. "Might Santa Claus be building these for Christmas 2005? If so, is there a waiting list? And where do I sign up?"


If Santa were really nice to ground-based astronomers, says Kevin Marvel of the American Astronomical Society in Washington, DC, he would deliver a 100-meter, infrared-optimized telescope on a high (5,486 meters) extinct volcano in Chile. "Such a behemoth would also need adaptive optics and a suite of cutting-edge instruments for imaging and spectroscopy," Marvel says, "likely not a problem for someone with Santa's resources." This telescope would allow ground-based astronomers to study detailed star and galaxy formation in the very early Universe, a region of our galaxy's history scientists are only now beginning to study.

"I suspect that, except for those from the particle physics community, my request may represent the largest physical structure requested from Santa," Marvel says. A 100-meter telescope would be immense, as evidenced by the Green Bank Telescope, a radiotelescope recently built by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Pocahontas Country, W.Va. Weighing in at 7,300 metric tons (16 million pounds) and featuring a 100-meter aperture, this telescope has the largest fully steerable dish in the world.

The European Southern Observatory (ESO) has begun planning for an even bigger monster, the 14,800-ton OverWhelmingly Large (OWL) telescope. "Perhaps Santa could snag the plans. Are there chimneys on the ESO headquarters building? "Marvel wonders. Despite its large size, OWL's surface must be nearly perfect to gather light efficiently. "The RMS surface error, using mechanical realtime alignment of the reflector surface on the Green Bank Telescope, is of order 0.2 millimeters. For an infrared telescope, a similar surface accuracy would have to be about 0.0002 millimeters or better," explains Marvel.


"Sliceable gel blocks, please, Santa," begs Alice Lee, associate professor of biochemistry at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pa. Like most molecular biology labs, Lee's lab avoids expensive ready-made gels and instead mixes and pours gels as needed. But Lee dreams of an inexpensive alternative to this time- and glassware-consuming task.

"For years I've wished for big hunks of gel, like blocks of cheese, made with the right buffer and various concentrations of agarose or polyacrylamide. I could store these in the refrigerator and use various calibrated slicers, like a fancy cheese slicer, to slice off the desired thickness from the appropriate block when needed in the lab, slap it in the apparatus, and go.

"The biggest problem in our laboratory is space, or lack thereof, especially considering that we are located in Manhattan, "says Weigang Qiu, assistant professor of biology at Hunter College. "As biology is becoming increasingly computational and quantitative, we are going to see more and more 'dry' biology labs. So my biggest wish is a properly configured and networked room for conducting research in computational biology and, especially, for training the next generation of quantitative biologists."

Perhaps the most modest request this holiday season comes from Vladimir Martynov of the Shemiakin and Ovchinnikov Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry in Moscow. "A cockroach trap would be the most desirable for our lab before the upcoming holiday season," he says. "During this season, all the equipment becomes overcrowded with these pretty beetles."

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