Wanted: Better Yardsticks: Measurement Inadequacies Threaten U.S. Competitive Edge

By Raloff, Janet | Science News, April 21, 2007 | Go to article overview

Wanted: Better Yardsticks: Measurement Inadequacies Threaten U.S. Competitive Edge


Raloff, Janet, Science News


Match this, Hollywood: Some physicists are gearing up to make the ultimate action flicks. Their stories will chronicle the lives and loves--from marriages through messy divorces--of individual molecules and atoms. The challenge is to distill sharp and compelling images of actors that shimmy about with blinding speed, changing place every few quadrillionths of a second.

It's difficult--but not, theoretically, impossible.

A 1,000-frame short subject debuted a few months back. Directed by David M. Fritz of Stanford University and described in the Feb. 2 Science, the flick portrayed 0.008 nanosecond of activity of atoms within crystalline bismuth.

Of course, such movies aren't being developed for the entertainment industry, but for science. "One of the grand goals of our research is to make a movie of a chemical reaction," Fritz explains. When two chemicals meet, a cascade of transient but important events occur before the final product emerges. Scientists need to measure the movements of atoms if they are to follow that action.

"To control reactions on the molecular scale," Fritz says, "we need to know in detail what's happening. And to do that, the ideal probe is a tool that can view atomic motion."

Fritz is among researchers pushing the frontiers of science and engineering by developing new ways to measure things. Some of the novel yardsticks may be hardly recognizable as such. One, for example, might be a means to tally protein fragments across the brain to map when genes are turned on. From the mundane to the arcane, measurement systems serve as an engine of innovation, says a Feb. 12 report issued by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Md.

Although U.S. industry remains a global leader in product innovation, many nations are beginning to close the gap, according to a draft of a National Academy of Sciences report. Called Rising above the Gathering Storm, it says that U.S. technological leadership could end--and relatively quickly--if the nation's research and development infrastructure isn't shored up substantially and soon.

Measurement tools are a pivotal part of that infrastructure, argues NIST director William Jeffrey. "To measure is to know," he says. "And knowledge, whether aimed at unraveling a fundamental law of nature or ensuring that a manufactured part will fit into its assembly, is critical to continued technical progress, to innovation, and ultimately to the economic security of the nation."

BIG TALLY In an attempt to identify measurement problems that could stifle innovation, NIST recently collaborated with industrial partners and others to survey the U.S. Measurement System. This amorphous network comprises all the organizations that develop or make measurement tools, set standards for things that must be measured, or identify new quantities that need measuring.

Although everyone depends on it, the measurement system is "usually unseen," the NIST report observes. Not surprisingly, it adds, any failure of the system to meet new societal and technological needs may also escape attention.

Over the past 2 years, as part of its assessment, NIST convened 15 workshops, met with more than 500 industrial leaders in 11 segments of industry, and scrutinized 164 technology road maps. The last, prepared by industry, chart the path to new products that would fulfill perceived or stated consumer wants. These road maps also identify measurement gaps that risk slowing or derailing planned products.

Altogether, NIST turned up more than 700 distinct measurement deficiencies--missing yardsticks. Then, "each of these perceived [measurement] needs was validated by going back out into the private sector--or at least to people outside NIST," notes Belinda L. Collins, director of technology services at the agency.

Most of the yardsticks that NIST identified as missing proved far more prosaic than techniques to measure the movements of dancing atoms. …

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