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Issue Date: October 2007 Issue


Big Ideas

There's interesting research happening here and you likey haven't heard much about it. Here are a few fascinating homegrown studies we uncovered.
Ashley Sager
Riddle Me This

Lazy Sundays are meant to be spent with a cup of coffee, the newspaper and maybe even the morning’s Sudoku grid. As a one-person task, the popular numbers game is a fun diversion. When a bunch of people work on it together, it becomes an experiment in group problem resolution.

In June, 81 people became pieces of the puzzle in a life-size Sudoku game at John Carroll University. Each person was given a number, 1 through 9, and asked to locate an appropriate box on the Sudoku grid in accordance with the game’s rules.

“We were interested in how each person would find the right place and, at a higher level, solve the puzzle,” says Dan Palmer, a math and computer science professor at JCU. He and fellow professor Marc Kirschenbaum observed how participants moved, talked and figured out their place in reaching the final goal.

It was an example of swarm research — comparing how large groups work together by taking on individualized tasks. Common examples of insect swarm productivity — the inspiration for such research — include a trail of ants moving in unison or wasps collectively building a nest.
The idea behind JCU’s swarm research is to study how the efforts of individual entities can most efficiently accomplish a group’s overall goal. It’s not unlike how a trucking company with a large fleet of vehicles and widely scattered warehouses must find the most efficient shipping routes.

“If you arbitrarily send trucks to warehouses, everything may eventually get where it’s supposed to go, but it may take a long time and waste expensive gas,” explains Palmer.

The hope is that these basic lessons learned through activities such as the life-size human Sudoku puzzle, and others being conducted by the John Carroll Swarm Team, will one day be help in endeavors such as writing software for robots used in space exploration.

The team has collaborated with Roger Quinn, Ph.D., at Case Western Reserve University on how to use robot swarms for planetary exploration, says Palmer.

He cautions, however, that swarm research will likely never be able to solve or control human swarms such as traffic patterns, the stock market or the free-market economy. He says we can only watch what others do, take limited actions and react to the large-scale effects. Regardless, we’re all involved in swarm behavior every day, usually without being aware.

“The combination of our limited actions is exactly what the large-scale effects are made of,” Palmer says.

You can learn more about the Sudoku project and follow the Swarm Team’s mission at www.jcu.edu/swarm.

Science in Stereo

Imagine a picture of the brain that serves as a three-dimensional map, allowing doctors to detect and diagnose diseases earlier than ever before.

It’s a reality James L. Blank, Ph.D., professor of biology and chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Kent State University, and Robert Clements, Ph.D., senior research scientist at Kent State University, are working toward. They have developed a technology that lets physicians deconstruct organs and tissue by way of stereo imaging.

The technology gives every piece of captured data an X, Y and Z coordinate — height, width and depth. That image can then be projected into space or viewed on a computer screen. “It lets us look in space at the relationship of structures to each other,” Blank explains. “We can see everything at once.” 

While the military, and oil and automobile industries have used the technology for about a decade, it is new to the medical field, according to Blank. He and Clements obtained a grant from the Ohio Board of Regents to purchase equipment to project stereo images for research and education in Kent’s 3-D immersive classroom.

Stereo imaging can help physicians more rapidly identify abnormalities. For example, a physician who used the technology to view a full-body CT scan was able to pinpoint a blocked artery in the leg in a few minutes, a diagnosis that normally takes about 30 minutes, says Blank.
The technology can also provide a fourth-dimension — the element of time. A sequential four-dimensional image of a CT scan shows the beating heart. Doctors could remove tissue in the image to look inside the heart as it contracts. They could search for abnormalities, wall thickenings and movement of blood through the arteries.

It can be used in education, as well. Blank says the stereo technology can allow students to study three-dimensional views of everything from DNA to one of Michelangelo’s sculptures. “It gives students the ability to grasp the difficult concept of structures,” he says. 

Northeast Ohio-based Standing Rock Imaging, which has a licensing agreement with the university, has built a prototype that is available commercially to physicians and researchers.

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