Personal Tech

Electric toothbrush zaps germs

Ultraviolet light to put the phobias to rest

Email|Print| Text size + By Mark Baard
November 19, 2007

Personal care
I have been avoiding the dentist, telling myself my hi-tech toothbrushes are doing the hygienist's job, deleting any evidence of my coffee and cigar consumption.

The Philips Sonicare FlexCare is among the latest to make tooth brushing appear to be more of a science than it needs to be. The FlexCare looks and sounds more like a dental instrument than my other favorite, the Oral-B Triumph with SmartGuide. The Sonicare has a smaller brush head, and is lighter and more sleekly designed than the Triumph. The FlexCare also emits a whine that reminds me of the plaque-busting water jet thingy hygienists use. Apart from that, it has many of the same settings as the Triumph - such as massage mode - and the same two-minute brush cycle.

The FlexCare also has a quick-clean mode for brushing up between your morning and evening sessions. But the FlexCare's most distinguishing feature is the pushbutton UV Sanitizer in its charging base, which works like some water purifiers that kill bacteria with ultraviolet light.

Germaphobes might take comfort in using a brush that's had the UV treatment after it's fallen on the bathroom floor, for example.

The FlexCare also has a slick carrying case made of a flexible, shiny fabric. It's a nice touch for travelers, as packing a toothbrush becomes as burdensome as packing an electric razor.


Robotics is still mostly all about the machismo

If anyone's serious about getting girls interested in science, they should be pushing for robotic Barbie kits, or, Lord help us, robo-Bratz.

Robotics today is a macho man's world, fueled and funded in the United States by the military, and dominated by swaggering A-Team leaders like Carnegie Mellon University professor and Darpa Grand Challenge competitor Red Whittaker.

The Unofficial Lego Mindstorms NXT Inventor's Guide, from the excellent computer book publisher No Starch Press (, also contain tough-guy projects for the popular Lego DIY kit.

Mindstorms expert David J. Perdue fills his book with plans for the aggressive-sounding Claw-Bot and Guard-Bot, as well as the stationary Golf-Bot. Perdue takes you step by step into the Mindstorms NXT's rich, fascinating little world of pegs, gears, and electronic parts. He also provides guidance for constructing sturdier machines for your next battle of the bots.

Perdue acknowledges that NXT-G, the NXT's graphical, and colorful, official programming language, is user-friendly. But he includes an excellent chapter on the many text languages you can also use to program Lego creations.


Carbon nanotube radio is 1,000 times smaller than a human hair's diameter

Carbon nanotubes are those wee wonders that scientists want to bake into all kinds of products.

Cosmetics makers say the tubes will make sunscreens last longer.

Textile manufacturers and the military are intrigued by carbon nanotube composites that are lighter and stronger than steel.

But an associate professor of engineering at the University of California at Irvine, Peter John Burke, is going beyond materials science, to explore electronics applications for carbon nanotubes. He recently helped to develop a carbon nanotube radio thousands of times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. The device can tune in broadcasts from a nearby transmitter.

Nanotube electronics, Burke says, might one day improve the performance, and lower the cost, of microchips and electronic devices. His research might also contribute to the development of so-called "smart dust," incredibly small radio transponders that could be distributed anywhere.

Burke is also the chief technology officer of a start-up in the nano-electronics field, RF Nano Corp. (

Carbon is not the only substance scientists are using to make nanotubes. But it is the material they know best, at the moment. There are also boron nitride nanotubes, Burke said.

But these materials exhibit very different properties on the nano-scale. Manipulating them, and keeping them stable, are among the greatest challenges facing scientists.

Innovative last week

Another win for the Borg

Now you can own a Bluetooth Ear Module designed to remain in your ear - even when you are not on the phone. The Sound ID SM100 has three settings, and you can configure it to communicate directly with other nearby SM100s. It also adjusts automatically to changing environments, from quiet offices to noisy airports. When you are not on the phone, you can place the module in "environmental mode." Sound ID suggests that you'll hardly know the thing is in your ear.

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