There’s an interesting area of research that’s dubbed biomimicry which is dedicated to looking at nature and figuring out how we can use the solutions it has developed in other areas. Evolution, which has been chugging away in the background for millions of years, has come up with some pretty solid solutions and so investigating them for potential uses seems like a great catalyst for innovation. However there are times when we see things in nature that you can’t help but feel like nature was looking at us and replicated something that we had developed. That’s what I felt when I saw this video of an erodium seed drilling itself into the ground:
As you can probably guess the secret to this seed’s ability to work its way into the ground comes from the long tendril at the top (referred to as an awn). This awn coils itself up when conditions are dry, waiting for a change. Then when the humidity begins to increase the awn begins to unfurl, slowly spinning the seed in a drilling motion. The video you see above is a sped up process with water being added at regular intervals to demonstrate how the process works.
The evolutionary advantage that this seed has developed allows it to germinate in soils that would otherwise be inhospitable to them. The drilling motion allows the seed head to penetrate the ground with much more ease, allowing it to break through coarse soils that would have otherwise proved impenetrable. How this adaptation would have developed is beyond me but suffice to say this is what led to the erodium species of plants dominating otherwise hostile areas like rockeries or alpines.
Up until I saw that video I thought things like drilling were a distinctly human invention, something we had discovered through our experimentation with inclined planes. However like many things it turns out there are fundamental principles which aren’t beyond nature’s ability to replicate, it just needs the right situation and a lot of time for it to occur. I’m sure the more I dig (pun intended) the more examples I could find of this but I’m sure that each example I found would amaze me just as much as this did.
Abstract mathematical principles are often obtuse ideas that don’t have any direct correlation to the real world. Indeed for the majority of the time I spent in university I had no idea how the concepts I was being taught could be applied in the real world, that was until the final unit where they showed us just how all these esoteric formulas and algorithms could be applied. However there are times when the real world and the land of pure mathematics cross paths and when they do the results can be quite amazing. Thus I present to you the Fibonacci Zoetrope:
The Fibonacci Sequence is one of the more commonly known mathematical concepts, one that can be seen often in nature. It can be used to approximate the Golden Spiral which everyone will readily recognise as the shape of a common sea shell. It also appears in sunflowers arising out of the fact that the interior of the flower is most efficiently filled in a Fibonacci like sequence, giving it an evolutionary advantage. The sculptures you see in the video above uses these same sequences to produce some rather interesting patterns which, when combined with a video camera, produce the illusion of motion that isn’t there.
The trick works due to the way modern cameras work, capturing individual frames at precise intervals. If you were looking at this in real life it would look like a blur of motion instead of the strange movement that you see in this video. However you would be able to see this with your own eyes if you used a strobe that pulsed at regular intervals, much like the modern Zoetropes do. Depending on the speed of the rotation and the image capture interval you’ll see very different kinds of motion and, if you time it precisely, it could appear to not move at all.
I really love these crossovers between art and science as they demonstrate some incredibly complicated ideas without having to dive into reams of proofs and scientific papers. The creation of the sculptures themselves is also a feat of modern engineering as some of those structures are simply not possible to create without 3D printing. I might lament not being as talented as the people who created this video but I think it’s for the best as otherwise my hose would be covered in all sorts of weird and wonderful sculptures inspired by random mathematical principles.
Flash, after starting out its life as one of the bevy of animation plugins for browsers back in the day. has become synonymous with online video. It’s also got a rather terrible reputation for using an inordinate amount of system resources to accomplish this feat, something which hasn’t gone away even in the latest versions. Indeed even my media PC, which has a graphics card with accelerated video decoding, struggles with Flash, it’s unoptimized format monopolizing every skerrick of resources for itself. HTML5 sought to solve this problem by making video a part of the base HTML specification which, everyone had hoped, would see an end to proprietary plug-ins and the woes they brought with them. However the road to getting that standard widely adopted hasn’t been an easy one as YouTube’s 4 year road to making HTML5 the default shows.
Google had always been on the “let’s use an open standard” bandwagon when it came to HTML5 video which was at odds with other members of the HTML5 board who wanted to use something that, whilst being more ubiquitous, was a proprietary codec. This, unfortunately, led to a deadlock within the committee with none of them being able to agree on a default standard. Despite what YouTube’s move to HTML5 would indicate there is still no defined standard for which codec to use for HTML5 video, meaning that there’s no way to guarantee that a video you’ve encoded in one way will be viewable by HTML5 compliant browsers. Essentially it looks like a format war is about to begin where the wider world will decide the champion and the HTML5 committee will just have to play catch up.
YouTube has unsurprisingly decided to go for Google’s VP9 codec for their HTML5 videos, a standard which they fully control. Whilst they’ve had HTML5 video available for some time now as an option it never enjoyed the widespread support required in order for them to make it the default. It seems now they’ve got buy in from most of the major browser vendors in order to be able to make the switch so people running Safari 8, IE 11, Chrome and (beta) Firefox will be given the Flash free experience. This has the potential to set up VP9 as the de facto codec for HTML5 although I highly doubt it’ll be officially crowned anytime soon.
Google has also been hard at work ensuring that VP9 enjoys wide support across platforms as there are already several major chip producers whose System on a Chip (SoC) already supports the codec. Without that the mobile experience of VP9 encoded videos would likely be extremely poor, hindering adoption substantially.
Whilst a codec that’s almost entirely under the control of Google might not have been the ideal solution that the Open Source evangelists were hoping for (although it seems pretty open to me) it’s probably the best solution we were going to get. I have not heard of the other competing standards, apart from H.264, having such widespread support as Google’s VP9 does now. It’s likely that the next few years will see many people adopting a couple standards whilst the consumers duke it out in the next format war with the victor not clear until it’s been over for a couple years. For me though I’m glad it’s happened and hopefully soon we can do away with the system hog that Flash is.
There’s a lot more to the world we live in that what we can see with our eyes. The colours of the world that we see are merely a subset of the wide spectrum of available light, one that extends out in both directions in an infinite expanse of wavelengths. Beyond that there are countless other things happening around us which eyes simply can’t perceive, that is until we construct something that allows us to see the world that’s invisible to us. One such device is called a Cloud Chamber which allows us to see the streams of ionizing radiation that permeate throughout our world. The video below is probably the best example I’ve seen of one and it makes for some extremely soothing viewing:
It’s striking to see the chamber light up constantly with just the background radiation that’s ever present here on earth. Even if you’re familiar with the idea of the world having a constant source of radioactivity it’s still another thing to see it in action, the ionizing particles whizzing through the space at an incredibly rapid pace. Adding in a radioactive source is a great way to visualize what radioactive decay is and how various materials decay at different rates and in different ways.
Cloud Chambers played an important role in the early days of particle physics with the discovery of the positron (the anti-electron) and the muon. There have been numerous improvements to the devices in the time since they were first used with the modern day equivalents being solid state devices, typically cooled to cryogenic temperatures. Unfortunately the modern versions don’t provide as good of a show as their historic counterparts did but we’re able to do much better science with them than we ever were with a cloud chamber.
Looking at the ingredients labels on food can be both an insightful and frightening affair. I’ve long been in a habit of doing it and I always find it fun to research some of the more esoteric ingredients, well that is right up until I find out where some of them come from. It’s the old adage of not finding out how the sausage is made, although in reality you should probably consider that with all things that you put in your body. Still when I watched the following video I was honestly surprised to see the outcome, as I didn’t think the effect of extracting iron from cereal would be so dramatic:
The first half of the video explores the idea that there’s elemental iron within cereal which can then be attracted by a magnet. Whilst this is true to some degree, the iron within the cereal will feel an attraction to a magnet, you can actually perform the exact same experiment with cereal that is bereft of any elemental iron content. This is because water is a diamagnetic material which is a fancy way of saying that in response to a magnetic field it will create its own inverse field in response. For the cereal and magnet experiment this means the water actually divots around the magnetic field which the piece of cereal then falls into. The iron in the cereal helps this process along of course, but it’s not the only force at play here.
However the extraction of the iron from the cereal was pretty astonishing, especially considering just how simple it was to do. Trying to extract other elements from the cereal would prove a much harder endeavour which is why I think an experiment like this is such a powerful visual aid. You’re literally seeing the iron being pulled from the food you eat which, in turn, makes you think about all the other things that are listed on the ingredients label. It might not be a particularly pretty picture that you end up with, but at least you’ll be far more aware.
I wish I knew about these kinds of science experiments when I was a kid!
The war against bullshit is asymmetrical. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone stumble across my blog post and rattle off a paragraph or two which then took me 10 times as long to debunk. It’s not so much that I don’t have the evidence, they are always demonstrably wrong, however the amount of time required to provide the proof to debunk them always outweighs the time it takes for them to spout it. Thus whenever I come across something that can aid me and my fellow crusaders against bullshit I feel compelled to share it, in the hopes that one day we can turn the asymmetry over to our side so that, one day, spouting bullshit becomes the harder proposition.
And to that end I share with you the below video:
I’ve come across pretty much every argument in that video before however I’ve often struggled to find an answers that are succinct as his. Of course I’m under no delusions that this video would turn a hardcore denier around, they’re a different breed of stubborn, however it does a great job of highlight the faults in the arguments that many more reasonable people make. His previous videos showed just how scattered the public’s knowledge is on this subject and so this follow video will hopefully go a ways to improving that.
There’s still a long fight ahead to convince the right people that proper action needs to be taken, something which us Australians should hopefully be able to rectify at the next election.
Ever since I can remember my joints have always been prone to popping and cracking. It was the worst when I was a child as I couldn’t really sneak around anywhere without my ankles loudly announcing my presence, thwarting my attempt at whatever shenanigans I was up to. Soon after I discovered the joy of cracking my knuckles and most other joints in my body, much to the chagrin of those around me. However even though I was warned of health effects (which I’m pretty sure is bunk) I never looked up the actual mechanism behind the signature sound and honestly it’s actually quite interesting:
Interestingly though whilst cavitation in the synovial fluid is one of the better explanations for where the sound originates there’s still some other mechanisms which can cause similar audible effects. Rapid stretching of ligaments can also result in similar noises, usually due to tendons snapping from one position to another. Some sounds are also the result of less benign activities like tearing of intra-articular adhesions tearing, although that usually goes hand in hand with a not-so-minor injury to the joint.
There’s also been a little more investigation into the health effects of cracking your knuckles than what the video alludes to. A recent study of 215 patients in the age range of 50 to 89 showed that, regardless of how long a person had been cracking their knuckles, there was no relationship between cracking and osteoarthritis in those joints. Now this was a retrospective study (in terms of people telling the researchers of how much they cracked their knuckles) so there’s potential for biases to slip in there but they did use radiographs to determine if they had arthritis or not. There’s no studies around other joints however, although I’d wager that the mechanisms, and thus their effects, are very similar throughout the body.
And now if you’ll excuse me I’ll be off to disgust my wife by cracking every joint in my body
Ever since I first saw a 3D printer I wondered how long it’d be before they’d start scaling up in size. Now I’m not talking about incremental size improvements that we see every so often (like with the new Makerbot Z18), no I was wondering when we’d get industrial scale 3D printers that could construct large structures. The steps between your run of the mill desktop 3D printer and something of that magnitude isn’t a simple matter of scaling up the various components as many of the assumptions made at that size simply don’t apply when you get into large scale construction. It seems that day has finally come as Suzhou Yingchuang Science and Trade Development Co has developed a 3D printer capable of creating full size houses:
Details the makeup of the material used, as well as its structural properties, aren’t currently forthcoming however the company behind them claims that it’s about 5 times as hard as traditional building materials. They’re apparently using a few of these 3D printed buildings as offices for some of their employees so you’d figure they’re somewhat habitable although I’m sure they’re in a much more finished state than the ones shown above. Still for a first generation product they seem pretty good and if the company’s claims hold up then they’d become an attractive way to provide low cost housing to a lot of people.
What I’d really be interested to see is how the cost and materials used compares to that of traditional construction. It’s a well known fact that building new housing is an incredibly inefficient process with a lot of materials wasted in during construction. Methods like this provide a great opportunity to reduce the amount of waste generated as there’s no excess material left over once construction has completed. Further refinement of the process could also ensure that post-construction work, like cabling and wiring, are also done in a much more efficient manner.
I’m interested to see how inventive they can get with this as there’s potentially a world of new housing designs out there to exploited using this new method. That will likely be a long time coming however as not everyone will have access to one of these things to fiddle around with but I’m sure just the possibility of a printer of this magnitude has a few people thinking about it already.
Liquid nitrogen is a scientific staple that I’m sure we’re pretty much all familiar with. It’s a great demonstration of how the melting and boiling points can vary wildly and, of course, everyone loves shattering a frozen banana or two. However seeing the other stages of elemental gases is typically impossible as getting the required temperature is beyond the reach of most high school science labs. However there is a trick that we can use to, in essence, trick nitrogen into forming a solid: reducing the pressure to a near vacuum. The results of doing so are just incredible with the nitrogen behaving in some really peculiar ways:
The initial stages of the nitrogen transitioning into a solid is pretty standard with the reduced pressure resulting in the superheated boiling, plunging the temperature of the remaining liquid. The initial freezing is also something many will be familiar with as it closely mimics what happens when water freezes (although lacking water’s peculiar property of expanding when freezing). The sudden, and rather explosive, crystalline formation after that however took me by surprise as I’ve never really seen anything of that nature before. The closest thing I could think of was the fracturing of a Prince Rupert’s Drop although the propagation of the nitrogen crystalline structure seems to be an order of magnitude or two slower than that.
What really got me about this video is that it wasn’t done by a science channel or vlogger, it’s done by a bunch of chefs. Liquid nitrogen has been used in various culinary activities for over a century, mostly due to its extreme low temperatures which form much smaller ice crystals in the food that it chills. It should come as no surprise really as there’s been a huge surge in the science behind cooking with the field of molecular gastronomy taking off in recent decades. It just goes to show that interesting science can be done almost anywhere you care to look and its applications are likely far more wide reaching than you’d first think.
I remember attending an exhibition about Leonardo Da Vinci a couple years ago and I was astounded by the complexity of some of the machines he created. It wasn’t just that he’d figured out these things where no one else had, more it was some of the things that he designed didn’t seem possible to me, at least with the technology he had available to him at the time. Ever since then I’ve had something of a fascination with mechanical structures, marvelling at creations that seem like they should be impossible. My favourite example of this is Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests, a new form of life that he has been striving to create for the better part of 25 years.
All of his designs are essentially tensegrity structures (I.E. all parts of the structure are under constant tension) arranged in such a way that when an outside force, in this case the wind at a beach, acts on them they’re able to walk. His initial designs only functioned when the wind was blowing however further designs, many of which you can see in the video, are able to store wind energy and then use it later through some rather clever mechanical engineering. Unfortunately I couldn’t find the best video which has Theo explaining how they work as that one also shows another Strandbeest he created that would avoid walking itself into the ocean (something which I’m still not sure I understand how it works completely).
The idea of creating a new form of life, even if it doesn’t meet the 7 rules for biological life, is a pretty exciting idea and one that’s found an unlikely form of replication: 3D printing. After many people made their own versions of his Strandbeests (I even printed a simple one off, although it broke multiple times during assembly) Theo has made the designs available through Shapeways, essentially giving the Strandbeests a way to procreate. Sure it’s not as elegant as what us biological entities have but the idea does have a cool sci fi bent to it that tickles me in all the right places.
Taken to its logical extreme I guess a Reprap that printed Strandbeests that assembled other Repraps would be the ultimate end goal, although that’s both exciting and horrifying at the same time.