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Brainiac

How to hide a 777

And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog

Lai Seng Sin/associated press

As the saga of Malaysian Airlines’ missing flight MH370 unfolded over the last two weeks, some details began to suggest that, for unknown reasons, the plane had been intentionally diverted from its original flight path. The possibility raised the question: How hard would it be to commandeer a 777 airliner, fly it hundreds or thousands of miles, and land it without being discovered?

I called John Hansman, professor of aeronautics at MIT and director of MIT’s International Center for Air Transportation. “The probability that an airplane could be hidden in a random airport is pretty low,” he said, adding that he thought it was far more likely the plane crashed into the ocean.

Continue reading below

Then he talked me through how you might try to do it.

To land a 777 you need a runway at least 5,000 feet long. The airplane seems to have been diverted 40 minutes north of Kuala Lumpur, with enough fuel to travel 2,500 more miles. Hansman estimated there are around 500 runways within that range long enough to accommodate a plane that size. Getting to one without being detected is hard, but not impossible. “We don’t have radar surveillance over most of the central parts of the ocean,” Hansman said.

Stealth operation gets tougher closer to the coasts, where most countries have a lot of radar operating, and it’s even harder flying over land. “Could you get into an island in Indonesia that might have a 5,000-foot runway? Probably,” Hansman said. Runways in the Malaysian archipelago would also be possible, though the last radar tracks on the Malaysian Airlines flight showed the plane diverting in the other direction, west toward India.

If the plane did manage to land secretly, the next challenge would be hiding it from overhead satellites. You’d need a big hangar, and those aren’t easy to come by either, in the kinds of places you can get to without being detected.

“The more I sort of think about it,” Hansman said, “the likelihood that an airport would have a hangar that would keep the airplane and not have good enough radar capabilities to detect the airplane, the set of those is probably pretty small, or zero.”

He adds that if you have a cooperating government on your side, “it’s a totally different story.”

In dictionary we trust

There are plenty of subtle and amusing differences between American culture and British culture, but here’s one you’ve probably never thought of: The two countries have very different attitudes toward the dictionary.

Last week, linguist Lynne Murphy, an American living in Britain, explained those differences in a well-observed post on the Oxford University Press blog. In America, Murphy argues, dictionaries are seen as stern and authoritative (by readers, if not the lexicographers who produce them); in England, dictionaries are offered and received more in a spirit of love and appreciation for language.

Murphy says these divergent views on authority come up in other places, too: It’s common in America to give word-by-word reverence to the Bible, and to the Constitution, but those kinds of attitudes are rare in England.

These different takes on the dictionary are especially evident in the law. Murphy cites a New York Times article from 2011, which reported that from 2000 to 2010, US Supreme Court justices incorporated dictionary definitions into their opinions 295 times in 225 cases. By contrast, Murphy finds that only four UK Supreme Court cases since 2009 have mentioned the dictionary.

The $1 origami microscope

In recent years there’s been a trend in international development work toward building low-cost versions of key tools—cheap computers that let Indonesian fisherman check the weather before they go out to sea, or clean-burning stoves that replace coal and improve air quality in family huts.

Now a Stanford University lab has introduced a microscope that’s made of paper, can be assembled using principles of origami, and costs less than $1 to manufacture. It’s called Foldscope, and it requires just six parts: paper, a ball lens, a button battery, an LED, a switch, and 3 cents worth of copper tape.

The finished product looks more like a camera than a traditional microscope, and is a tool capable of real science, its inventors say. Users can adjust the focus using paper tabs, and the engineering team, led by bioengineer Manu Prakash and funded in part by the Gates Foundation, explained in a paper that Foldscope “can provide over 2,000X magnification with submicron resolution.” They hope eventually to manufacture 1 billion of the inexpensive microscopes each year, and to use them to get more kids interested in science and to provide out-of-the-way places with better diagnostic capabilities for diseases like E. coli and malaria.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.
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