Browsing: Standards

Even though I have spent my entire professional career at NIST, until a year ago it would never have entered my mind that I would become the chief of the NIST Office of Weights and Measures. I started out on the scientific side of metrology, improving our nation’s standards for calibrating devices that measure pressure, such as barometers, the pressure gauges you use to check your tires, and sphygmomanometers, which are the devices the doctor uses to measure your blood pressure every time you go in for a checkup. Until recently, I was on a two-year detail assignment at the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures (BIPM) in Sèvres, France, contributing to the international metrology system and enjoying the perks…

I grew up in a small farming community in southern Georgia. My main exposure to new technology was through the annual farm equipment exposition, science fiction books and television. One of my favorite shows was The Six Million Dollar Man. Do you remember the famous opening lines? “Steve Austin, astronaut. A man barely alive.” “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better… stronger… faster.” (If you’re like me, you just heard that classic bionic sound in your mind.) Although it’s not really bionics, the research community and private sector are focusing on the related area of…

Marie Curie is perhaps the most famous woman of 20th century science. Major motion pictures and best-selling biographies have chronicled her discovery of the radioactive elements polonium and radium, for which she shared the Nobel Prize in physics in 1903 and then received a second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry, in 1911. Very little note, however, has been made of her leadership role in the development of radioactivity standards. In 1910, she was asked by her peers to prepare the world’s first radium standard: a glass ampoule containing 21.99 milligrams of radium chloride, whose mass and radioactivity had been carefully measured. She agreed, on the advice of Nobel laureate Ernest Rutherford, that this international standard would not be kept in…

As I peer into the cardboard box NIST researcher Amanda Forster holds out for me, I can’t help thinking that this mild-mannered materials scientist has an impressive collection of shivs. The handmade prison weapons include a ballpoint pen with a razor embedded in the shaft and a toothbrush — originally designed to be gentle on your gums — that’s been re-engineered to easily puncture flesh. They are vivid evidence of a scary fact of prison life: anything can be turned into a weapon. Corrections officers wear stab-resistant body armor that’s usually made from fibers of extremely strong material such as Kevlar, just like the ballistic body armor worn by police or military personnel. But because ballistic armor is designed to…

Legwarmers, preppies, yuppies, Molly Ringwald, nuclear paranoia … the 1980s were my favorite decade. I was in junior high school in New Jersey when I saw The Day After, a 1983 TV movie that depicted a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. The focus of the movie, however, was not on the war but rather on the impact that the nuclear exchange had on everyday people. I remember watching the movie with my parents, being very scared, and thinking “Could this really happen?” Little did I know that 33 years later a series of interconnected events would have me answering related questions in nuclear forensics. In high school, I became interested in political science and international…

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