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Inquiring Minds

The Great Smog in 1952 London, NASA turns to UMass Amherst, true love discovered, and the thinnest wires known to man.

London's Great Smog.
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The Great Smog

In December 1952, fog and thick smoke from coal fires combined in the London sky to produce a toxic yellow smog that blocked out the sun for days. The Great Smog, as it came to be known, killed at least 4,000 Londoners.

It seems perverse to think of this horrific event as a natural experiment, but it is useful for studying the underlying cause of asthma and the long-term effects of air pollution exposure, says Jamie Mullins of the Department of Resource Economics.

In a recent study, Mullins and his colleagues found that children exposed to the Great Smog in their first year of life developed asthma at four to five times the baseline rate. They also had a two to three times higher incidence of adult asthma.

“We feel like we’re shining some light on the underlying causes of asthma and bringing attention to the enduring effects of air pollution,” says Mullins. “As economists, we often measure things in dollars, but it’s important to think about the insight we can bring to people’s well-being.”

NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars
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Life on Mars? 

Since August 2012, NASA’s Curiosity rover has been crawling around the inside of Gale Crater on Mars, sending back a steady stream of images and data on Martian climate and geology. The vastness of this data requires efficient ways to analyze it, so NASA turned to the College of Information and Computer Sciences. Funded by a new, four-year, $1.2 million National Science Foundation grant, Sridhar Mahadevan, lead principal investigator, is directing a team of researchers to show that new deep learning approaches can be a practical and useful tool for handling huge data sets such as those collected by Curiosity. “Deep learning is now almost as good as humans at recognizing different objects,” says Mahadevan. “Our study will test its ability at understanding planetary geochemistry. The hope is that in four years we can show that deep learning can have a much better success rate than previous methods of differentiation.” Deep learning thrives on recognizing and remembering patterns. Not only is it faster than a human at solving certain problems, it can discern details that humans cannot.  “I see machine learning and cognitive computing as the future of big data science,” says Mahadevan. “I’ve been waiting 30 years for this, and now it’s here.”

True Love book page Sarah E. Farro

True Love Discovered 

Sweet historic serendipity: Two years ago, scouring old British newspapers while researching black Victorian Britons, Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina was caught short by an item in an 1893 edition of London’s Daily Telegraph. It cited a novel, True Love: A Story of English Domestic Life, written by one Sarah E. Farro, described as “the first negro novelist.” Gerzina, professor of English and dean of Commonwealth Honors College, had never heard of the book or its author and wondered how that could be. Delving deeper, she found that the Chicago-born Farro, whose only book this was, could claim neither to be the “first negro novelist” nor the first black female novelist. She was, however, only the fourth African American, and the second African American woman, to write and publish a novel.  True Love, published in 1891, is an oddity in that it takes place in England, which Farro never visited, and all of its characters are white. It reflects Farro’s affection for the work of Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. “Today,” Gerzina says, “we assume that early African American writers inevitably wrote about race, that 19th-century writers necessarily referred to experiences of slavery and struggle, and that their access to literacy—let alone the Victorian literary canon—must have been limited. Finding Farro’s novel changes all of that.”

Turkey leg

Never Too Thin

Researchers led by Distinguished University Professor Derek Lovley, in the department of microbiology, have designed new highly conductive biowires that rival the thinnest wires known to man. The synthetic wires are 2,000 times more conductive than the natural biological nanowires that Lovley and his colleagues discovered a decade ago. The new wires are produced from renewable, cheap feedstocks without the harsh chemical processes typically used to produce nanoelectronic materials. The wires are more than 60,000 times thinner than a human hair. Plus, they are extremely durable.

Such wires could eventually be used to make smaller, more powerful electronic devices in a sustainable way. They could be used in tiny biocompatible sensors, for example, or in computing devices or solar panels.

What is the secret ingredient used to make these amazing new biowires? It’s the amino acid tryptophan, notorious for causing drowsiness after eating Thanksgiving turkey.

“We were blown away by this result,” says Lovley.