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Coming Next Month: Better Weather Maps

Developments to Watch


WEATHER PERMITTING, A satellite launch scheduled for May 13 will help boost the accuracy of weather forecasts, says the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration. NOAA's new eye in the sky, dubbed NOAA-K, will be the first of five new "birds" with improved instruments that will not only do a better job of watching atmospheric goings-on but also provide more accurate data on snow cover and ocean temperatures.

The result, NOAA predicts, will be improved long-range forecasts--and, with the help of an enhanced meteorological computer model that went online in April, earlier alerts of potential floods, severe storms such as tornadoes, and clear-air turbulence. The lead time for flash-flood warnings has already more than doubled since 1994, to roughly 40 minutes. And today's five-day forecasts are far more accurate than the three-day forecasts of a decade ago, boasts NOAA's National Weather Service.

NOAA-K will orbit the earth every 102 minutes. From a relatively low perch of only 516 miles up, the $177 million satellite will beam down sharper images of cloud cover as well as snow, ice, and vegetation. It will also take temperature and humidity profiles of the atmosphere from sea level up to 24 miles, plus monitor dust and other particles in the air. After additional computing power comes online about 2001, NOAA expects a dramatic improvement in weather maps. Most of North America will be covered by a grid with 4-kilometer squares--down from the current 40-km grid--and maps of violent storms will have 1-km grids.EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top


THE VIRUS THAT CAUSES MOST COMMON COLDS HAS thwarted all attempts at treatments and vaccines. Nonetheless, many scientists hope the scourge can be tamed once they discover the molecular details of how the virus does its dastardly work. And a key piece of the puzzle has just fallen into place after more than a decade of painstaking research.

In 1986, Michael G. Rossmann, a Purdue University biologist, discovered the surface of the cold virus has canyonlike depressions. Other scientists then found that the virus enters human cells through a "back door" on the receptor normally used by white blood cells when a cell has been injured. Now, Rossmann and colleague Jordi Bella have mapped the structure of this receptor--the key part is shaped like a hand with three fingers and a thumb--and they have shown how it binds to the virus.

The canyons on the virus dovetail with one of the three fingerlike projections, they report in the Apr. 14 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Importantly, this finger is not used by white blood cells. That boosts the chances of designing a drug that would nestle on the finger and block infection. Because white blood cells could still gain access, says Bella, the drug shouldn't cause serious side effects.EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top


TO MAKE FLAT SCREENS FLAT, engineers have dreamed up many alternatives to liquid crystal displays (LCDs). Recently, the hottest work has been in organic light-emitting diodes. OLEDs are close cousins of LED watch displays, but in place of hard semiconductor crystals, they use flexible films. LEDs emit light like tiny bulbs, so they are brighter and more efficient than LCDs.

In mid-April, scientists unwrapped prototypes at a meeting of the Materials Research Society in San Francisco. Dow Chemical Co. unveiled a polymer OLED with molecules that contain fluorene, and Dow's collaborator, Siemens, showed a small display suitable for cellular phones. Lucent Technologies, Sony, and TDK also showed off OLED prototypes. In addition to better performance, these screens promise to be easier than LCDs to manufacture.EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top

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