Intercom Online......October 15, 1998


Did you know you were a walking thermal plume? Heat rises off your body constantly, affecting the air around you whether you are indoors or outside. In this schlieren photograph, currents from the girl's thermal plume are visible surrounding her. "Schlieren" is the German word for "streaks" or "striations." The bright circle behind the girl is actually the diameter of the key mirror in the schlieren equipment.

University's world-class facility
is one-of-a-kind creation

With an improved understanding of what's happening around us, engineers can devise ways to make our environment better and safer. That's just what researchers in Penn State's Gas Dynamics Lab are doing with an optical technique called Schlieren Flow Visualization.

The technique makes differences in the air around us -- such as heat currents, spreading gas and chemical fumes, or shock waves -- more visible so engineers can study the ways these airflows affect us.

Most schlieren systems are small due to the enormous cost of the high-quality optical lenses needed for large images. However, Gary Settles, professor of mechanical engineering, and his researchers developed a variation on this technique to make a full-scale airflow visualization research system affordable. In effect, they turned a warehouse near Beaver Stadium on the University Park campus into a giant "schlieren camera."

The facility was constructed during 1995-96 with a field-of-view (test area) of about seven feet by nine feet. This test area is at least 10 times larger than any other schlieren flow visualization apparatus in the world, making it one of the University's world-class facilities.

The full-scale airflow research being done at the facility cannot be done at other universities, or in industry or government labs anywhere in the world.

Because of the work Settles and his team are doing, research to improve ventilating systems is now possible, with the potential to alleviate problems such as indoor pollution and "sick building" syndrome. And engineers in the lab are studying new and surprising ways the "human thermal plume" might be used -- to improve airport security by sampling the air around a person for traces of explosives, for example.

Historic heart bypass surgery is performed

The first voice-controlled robotically assisted heart bypass surgery on a human was performed in Munich, Germany, by an international team of cardiac surgeons including Dr. Ralph Damiano, chief of cardiothoracic surgery at The Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

Two patients underwent successful surgery consecutively at the Klinikum Grobharden in Munich on Sept. 16 and 17.

The coronary artery bypass graft in both of these procedures was performed through three small ports each smaller than the diameter of a pencil. The surgeons were assisted by the Zeus Robotic Micro-surgical System designed by Computer Motion Inc. The system consisted of a voice-activated robotic arm that was used to control the endoscope, while the other two robotic arms manipulated surgical instruments. The surgeon was seated at a control panel, where he operated specially designed handles similar to normal surgical instruments. His movements were relayed in real time to robotic arms which manipulated the instrument tips inside the patient. Both surgeries were successful.

"The system greatly enhanced my ability to perform the delicate manipulations required," said Damiano.

The development team at Computer Motion worked for nine years to perfect the robotic system and allow it to enable minimally invasive microsurgical procedures. During this time, much of the testing was performed at Penn State.

Policies may have increased single-mother families

Recent welfare reform legislation and new restrictions on abortion may have worked at cross purposes to boost the number of families headed by single mothers, according to a study.

"By making unmarried childbearing more 'costly,' welfare reform has fueled the demand for abortion at the same time abortion laws have restricted access," said Daniel T. Lichter, professor of sociology and director of Penn State's Population Research Institute. "As a result, an increasing number of unmarried women on welfare have chosen childbearing over abortion."

Lichter worked with Diane K. McLaughlin, assistant professor of rural sociology, and David C. Ribar, assistant professor of economics at George Washington University.

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Information you can use

Agricultural Information Services has developed a set of informational graphics, dubbed Penn State Pointers.

In addition to appearing in Intercom and other newspapers, the graphics are available in black-and-white and color on the Agricultural Information Services Web site at

For more information or to contribute a topic suggestion, call John Wall at (814) 863-2719.

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