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First IBM "Science Week" sparks thirst for knowledge

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Zurich, Switzerland, 15 April 2005 — Eleven school classes from throughout the canton of Zurich participated in the first "Science Week" hosted from 11 to 15 April by IBM's Zurich Laboratory. This gave youngsters hands-on exposure to selected science and technology projects.

Research up close — 220 students from public high schools and international schools throughout the greater Zurich and Winterthur areas attended the first "Science Week" offered at IBM Research - Zurich (ZRL). Youngsters aged 11 to 19 took part in this event to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of selected research projects being pursued at this renowned research center, which boasts no fewer than 4 Nobel laureates. In accordance with its motto "Fascinating Research", the week's program included an overview of current research projects, a look at a researcher's typical day, as well as an introduction to future technologies and trends in the field of information technology.

"The idea behind Science Week is to encourage young people to discover the field of research and technology, which is largely new to many of them. Our goal is to spark their thirst for knowledge," explains Karin Vey, Communications manager at ZRL.

The accompanying teachers were enthusiastic regarding the capacity of such an event to constitute an "extremely enriching supplement to classroom instruction." Far from taking a clinical approach to science, this event endeavored to show that "Technology can be fun," as one of the attending high school teachers put it. He also praised the fact that the presentations were specially tailored to appeal to students.

Student feedback was also very positive — the list of adjectives ranged from "unique" to "exciting and informative". For many youngsters, the event cast a whole new light on the significance of the technical sciences in every aspect of our modern lives. They were impressed by the current rate at which information technology is evolving and that "IT is developing at such a rapid pace."

Encounters with researchers also gave the young guests new insights. One 18-year-old student remarked that "scientists aren't as odd as I had imaged." Another student, 19 years of age, had the following to say about the daily work at the research laboratory: "I wouldn't have thought that the people here would be so free to work on their individual projects."

Some of the student visitors are now considering science as a professional goal. One 18-year-old concluded with some surprise that research can actually be a profession, and isn't merely a job where one simply experiments with various things. A classmate added "I've seen that this profession and science in general aren't just something for 'geeks' who invent unnecessary things — in fact, quite the contrary." Another student recognized that a profession in science has good future prospects. The event focused on introducing current research topics and letting young people meet scientists personally.

Pervasive computing and nanotechnology

Two topics that are becoming increasingly meaningful for society as well as science are pervasive computing and nanotechnology. These are just two examples of the research focus at ZRL. Pervasive computing refers to the integration of computers in everyday items, and the combination of these items into networks. This has been called the "Internet of things". The vision of ubiquitous but invisible computers gave rise to lively discussions among the young visitors and researchers.

The topic of nanotechnology took the students on a no less exciting trip into the realm of nanometer dimensions: the world of molecules and atoms. The development of the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) at ZRL in 1981 laid the foundation for nantechnology. In 1986, IBM researchers Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer received the Nobel prize for physics for this invention. The ability to image objects in the nanometer range as well as the mode of operation of the STM were discussed, as was the "millipede" project, which is the world's first nanomechanical storage device. The "millipede's" 10-year development history is an impressive illustration of the process necessary to take a project from the basic research stage through to its actual implementation. In principle, this new storage device operates similar to the punch cards used in the early days of computing, except that the dimensions are now in the nanometer range. Thousands of minute tips "write" tiny indentations in a polymer film. This revolutionary new technology allows the extremely high storage density of more than 1 Terabit per square inch — approximately the contents of 25 DVDs on the area of a postage stamp.

"Research up close" included demonstrations of prototypes and products of the future. "Infoscope", for example, showed how a visitor to Japan can use a cell phone with integrated digital camera to translate unfamiliar Japanese characters real time. The user simply takes a digital image of the characters and sends it to a server equipped with the appropriate software to identify the characters. The server translates the characters into the desired language, and sends the translation back to the cell phone. Another prototype — the office of the future, called "Blue Space" — showed the fascinated students how to transform an ordinary desk surface into an interactive computer interface.

In addition to this excursion into tomorrow's technologies, the young visitors had plenty of opportunities to talk to scientists about their work and typical days at the lab. Some 20 researchers from various fields, including security, data protection, chip development, nanotechnology, system and storage technology, as well as network technology, were available to answer the numerous questions on the youngsters' minds. Of particular interest were issues surrounding the multicultural working environment and the cooperative projects including team members from IBM branches throughout the world. The students were also impressed by the flexible working time and the possibility to telecommute from home or other location.

Press contact

Nicole Strachowski
Media Relations
IBM Research - Zurich
Tel +41 44 724 84 45

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