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Popular Science Magazine Announces the 13th Annual Brilliant Ten

Each year, Popular Science seeks out the brightest young scientists and engineers and names them the Brilliant Ten. Like the 110 honorees before them, the members of this year’s class are dramatically reshaping their fields and the future. Some are tackling pragmatic questions, like how to secure the Internet, while others are attacking more abstract ones, like determining the weather on distant exoplanets. The common thread among the winners is brilliance, of course, but also impact. If the Brilliant Ten are the faces of things to come, the world will be a safer, smarter, and brighter place.

Popular Science prides itself on revealing the innovations and ideas that are laying today’s groundwork for tomorrow’s breakthroughs, and the Brilliant Ten is one of the most exciting ways we do that. This collection of 10 brilliant young researchers is our chance to honor the most promising work — and the most hardworking people — in science and technology today. This year’s winners are particularly distinguished. One of them has crammed incredible amounts of data into fiber-optic cables, in effect supercharging the Internet. Another has developed a way of seeing all the viruses in an ecosystem at once. And another knows not just how to spot other planets that may be habitable — she can tell you what the weather is like on them. I’m proud to welcome them all as members of the 2013 Brilliant Ten.”—Jacob Ward, editor-in-chief, Popular Science Magazine

The winners are featured in the October issue of Popular Science, on newsstands and online at PopSci.com September 15, 2013.

The 2013 Brilliant Ten:

Nicolas Fontaine, Bell Labs, Alcatel-Lucent

Achievement: Saving the Internet from itself

Most communication data, such as Web, phone, and television, runs through a network of fiber-optic cables. Data traffic, however, is expected to outgrow infrastructure within the decade. In order to avoid slow and garbled transmissions, Nicolas Fontaine, an optical engineer, invented a new kind of multiplexer. The device bundles multiple inputs into one stream by routing different light beams along carefully planned pathways, ultimately cramming more data into a single optical fiber than ever before. Easily scalable and cheap to produce, Fontaine’s invention has already sent six light streams down 497 miles of fiber without losing any data. Read the story here.

Scott Collis, Argonne National Laboratory

Achievement: Harnessing new data to improve climate models

Clouds play such a complex role in the atmosphere that they have become one of the greatest challenges faced by climate scientists today. Meteorologist Scott Collis took on the gargantuan task of building open-access data tools that convert the raw data from radar databases into formats that climate modelers can use. In one stroke, Collis discovered a way to add accuracy to climate forecasts, unlocking years of weather data along the way. Collis is now preparing a new radar network with the U.S Department of Energy. Read the story here.

Mya Breitbart, University of South Florida

Achievement: Mapping the genomes of an entire ecosystem at once

Viruses are the most abundant entities on the planet and among the most mysterious. Mya Breitbart, a microbial ecologist at the University of South Florida, has figured out a way to quickly decipher what they are and where they’re going. Rather than isolate individual virus species from a sample (there are up to 10 billion viruses in a liter of seawater), Breitbart extracts all the genetic material present, chops it into smaller pieces, and sequences those pieces simultaneously. Her contributions have already been pivotal in unmasking the enormous diversity of viruses on the planet. Read the story here.

Pedro Reis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Achievement: Using failure to design flexible objects

Pedro Reis’s lab at MIT looks more like a playroom than a workspace. It is filled with toy-like objects like squishy spheres and silicone rods. In their flaws, Reis sees strengths: the basis for his soft agile robots and joints manufactured from a single piece of material. He also gleans lesson from ordinary phenomena and applies them to his work. Through his studies, he learns the fundamental principles of everyday mechanics and transfers this understanding to the solution of engineering problems. Read the story here.

Heather Knutson, California Institute of Technology

Achievement: Reading the weather on exoplanets

Caltech astronomer Heather Knutson spends her days figuring out what a cosmic traveler may need to pack. She is in essence the first exoplanet meteorologist determining the local temperature and weather and even the composition of the atmosphere on different planets. So far, Knutson has looked at the big gaseous planets known as hot Jupiters orbiting close to their stars. Eventually, she wants to expand the technique to look at the smaller, cooler planets — the super Earths that are mostly rocky, some of which are perhaps cool enough to sustain liquid. Read the story here.

Feng Zhang, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Broad Institute

Achievement: Modifying a cell’s genome on the fly

Feng Zhang helped develop techniques called TALE and CRISPR, which create transgenic or otherwise genetically modified organisms with unprecedented efficiency. Using these methods, Zhang can make a transgenic mouse in three weeks while normal methods require more than six months to achieve this feat. His invention has dramatically sped up the study of genetics and disease sparking almost 2,000 labs to request information about CRISPR since January. Zhang plans to use the techniques to study the genetics of autism and schizophrenia. Read the story here.

David Schmale, Virginia Tech

Achievement: Tracking airborne microbes with drones

David Schmale hunts killer airborne pathogens with drones. The data he has gathered explains how pathogens ride on wind currents and also gives us insights into an almost unknown ecosystem far above our heads. Schmale developed his unmanned aerial vehicles with a colleague at Virginia Tech as an alternative to costly manned research flights. His work may one day help farmers preemptively protect their crops by describing where to strategically deploy pesticides. Read the story here.

Arjun Raj, University of Pennsylvania

Achievement: Revealing the inner workings of a cell

RNA molecules, which carry the genetic information from DNA, reveal which genes are turned on and how often they are active. Arjun Raj and his team at the University of Pennsylvania invented a technique to track specific RNA strands. Using this technique, cell biologists can see subtle events happening in genes that were until now not visible to scientists. Read the story here.

Justin Cappos, Polytechnic Institute of New York University

Achievement: Creating a new way to cloud compute

Justin Cappos has developed a completely different way to cloud compute. In typical cloud computing, users connect to a powerful centralized data center. But Cappos’s cloud is less of a dense thunderhead and more of a fog. His system, called Seattle, connects devices directly to one another in a decentralized network, relaying information more quickly than it could through a single, often distant exchange point. The cloud lets you use a little bit of disc storage, network, memory, and CPU in an isolated, safe way. By the end of 2012, Seattle had 20,000 users. Cappos and his team are now working on software that could access the sensors in smartphones. Read the story here.

Andrea Armani, University of Southern California

Achievement: Inventing a new set of scientific tools

Andrea Armani, a chemical engineer at the University of Southern California, reinvents the instruments we use to understand the world. Armani develops sensors that are speeding scientific discovery across many fields. They may also serve as detectors for biological weapons, waterborne pathogens, or radioactivity. Armani’s devices outstrip the capabilities of standard optics. Some can withstand temperature swings without losing precision; others can pick up proteins in dry air. Read the story here.

Founded in 1872, Popular Science (www.popsci.com) is the world’s largest science and technology magazine, with a circulation of 1.3 million and 7.1 million readers. Bonnier Corporation (www.bonniercorp.com), one of the largest consumer-publishing groups in the U.S., is the leading media company serving passionate, highly engaged audiences through magazines, events, digital media, and leading-edge products. Bonnier Corp. is the U.S. division of the Bonnier Group (www.bonnier.com), an international media group active in television, newspapers, magazines, movies and cinemas, books, and digital media. Based in the Nordic region with substantial operations in the U.S., Germany, the U.K., and Eastern Europe, Bonnier has businesses in 16 countries worldwide and employs more than 10,000 people. Bonnier stands for entrepreneurship and has always combined a genuine commitment to freedom of speech with a sense for business. Bonnier is wholly owned by the Bonnier family, which has been running the company for seven generations.

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