Short news science

Speed lock
Voluntary introduction of a speed limiter for cars in the Netherlands would reduce the number of traffic fatalities by 200, estimates PhD student Jan-Willem van der Pas.

He will defend his thesis, ‘Clearing the Road for ISA implementation’, today. The system, called Intelligent Speed Adaptation (ISA), makes it impossible to drive faster than the locally designated maximum speed (except for emergencies, in which case a special button releases the speed lock for 90 seconds). However, imposing the system for hard-nosed speedsters, as is happening in a test being conducted on behalf of Dutch Executive Office, will give ISA a bad name, says Van der Pas. “No one will voluntarily build-in a system that criminals are obliged to use.” Criminalizing the ISA system will hinder its broad acceptance, Van der Pas fears. Personally, he would opt for lower insurance rates or taxes on cars to persuade drivers to accept the system. “But this government rather punishes than rewards people.”

Thursday, 13 October, Aula 12:30, PhD supervisor Prof. Warren Walker.

Frances Brazier

Imposing regulations on citizens is no longer fashionable, nor doable, Professor Frances Brazier will state during her inaugural speech on Friday, 14 October (Aula, 15:00, Shaping participation). The new professor of Engineering Systems Foundations at the faculty of Technology, Policy & Management postulates that citizens will want to participate more in social debates, and, to do so, they will organize themselves. Society will have to adapt its technological systems to this increased citizen participation. The problem is that the underlying societal structures, especially the ICT structures, are not yet sufficiently equipped for this new reality. The electronic patient file is an example of the kind of participatory systems that Prof. Brazier has specialized in. The future energy market could be another, when consumers become able to buy their energy at any given moment from the market’s most attractive offers. Prof. Brazier (Toronto, 1957) joined TU Delft in 2009, following a professorship at VU Amsterdam.


Lewin lecture

MIT emeritus professor, Walter Lewin, is back in Delft, where he received his PhD in nuclear physics in 1965. At MIT, Prof. Lewin built quite a reputation through his often theatrical physics lectures, which have gone on to become popular Youtube videos showing the professor swinging across the lecture hall or beating a student with cat fur. Still, there’s nothing better than the real thing. Prof. Lewin will deliver his ‘Rainbows and Blue Skies’ lecture in Hall A of the Aerospace faculty building on Tuesday, 26 October at 14:00.

Last spring, whilst air traffic across the Atlantic Ocean was shut down due to an Icelandic volcano spewing ashes out into the atmosphere, high overhead the TerraSAR-X satellite silently passed by, taking its regular readings, as it had been doing for nearly a year up to that point. In taking fresh measurements every 11 days, the satellite’s imaging radar had shown how the slopes of the Eyjafjallajökull (‘Island Mountain Icecap’) had risen by several centimetres prior to the eruption on its flank on 20 March 2010.

“Normally a volcano builds up pressure, and then an eruption takes place. The pressure is released and the mountain slopes sag back,” geophysicist Dr Andy Hooper (Aerospace Engineering) says about the cycle of life of normally active volcanoes. “But this case was different,” he says, referring to an article he co-authored, titled ‘2010 Eyjafjallajökull explosive eruption’, which was published in Nature. “There was no deflation in the first eruption at the flank. Then it became quiet, and two days later, on 14 April, the explosive phase of the eruption began from the central caldera. This time the lava was much stickier, which means it had been sitting in the volcano for some time.”
Older magma has a greater viscosity and thus traps more gas, which makes the eruption more explosive, throwing ashes high (6 to 9 kilometres) into the atmosphere.

In case one hadn’t noticed: volcanoes fascinate Dr Hooper. During his PhD research in California, he developed a new method for processing interferometric satellite data for monitoring volcanoes. Radar satellites scan the earth with radio waves. Changes in the distance to the Earth’s surface can be calculated according to the phase difference between successive passes. Comparison of the data over time allows researchers to monitor geological changes.

For their recent Nature article, Hooper combined satellite data with GPS measurements taken on the ground by the University of
Iceland’s Nordic Volcanological Center. It helped that Dr Hooper had spent two years there as a postdoc “on top of the volcano”. The reconstruction that he and his Icelandic colleagues presented in the paper is “complex and unusual”, showing the south flank of the volcano rising because of an underground magma channel (a ‘sill’) opening up by a decimetre or so. Two weeks later the eastern flank rose and eventually another sill in the centre began to close. The eruption however continued for another month, with lava flowing from great depths.

“Eruptions cannot be exactly predicted,” Dr Hooper says, “but we can forecast them better.” He believes that eventually more frequent satellite data and better geological models will allow for some sort of weather forecast for volcanoes. Air passengers will be keenly interested.

‘Intrusion triggering of the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull explosive eruption’, Nature, 18 November 2010

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