We all know that chameleons change color. But there is another marine master of disguise that you might not know about–the cuttlefish. This animal can change its skin with more variety and much faster than a chameleon. The secret has to do with how it communicates to tell its body to change.

The chameleon sends signals through its bloodstream to tell the body to camouflage. However, the cuttlefish sends electrical signals using its nervous system, which is much faster. By the time a chameleon has changed once, a cuttlefish has changed four times.

The reason for the cuttlefish’s ability to have such a diverse range in camouflaging is that it skin is made up of three layers. The first layer can change to warm colors, the second layer can change to all the others, the third layer can turn white. The combination of all those layers allows the cuttlefish to change to any color, plus patterns.

Here is a video for you to se for yourself (courtesy Roger Hanlon):

Fabrics are an old invention and have been important to us since ancient times. We choose different fabrics for their comfort or protection or both. For example, cotton absorbs moisture. And, this is a good thing, because the body doesn’t like wetness right next to the skin. The wetness feels clammy and it is very uncomfortable.

But in this age of technology, textiles will do more than make us comfortable. They will give us information, because they will have small bits of electronics embedded in them.

In fact, companies are now making wearable technologies to help NFL coaches monitor athletes by tracking their heart rate and their oxygen intake.

So when might you see smart shirt at your local store?

Well, engineers are working on them now. Ends up that a shirt is the worst place for electronics. Wearing a shirt or washing a shirt are demanding environments for any kind of electronics. They are the opposite of what electrical components prefer. Electronics like to keep dry and not bend.

These are major challenges engineers are solving right now. It seems in the future, we might need to charge our shirts. Or at least carry extra batteries.

Ben Franklin went out one stormy night with a kite and found out that lightning is electricity. Well, lightning has a few other tricks up its sleeve. Lighting makes magnets that are called lodestones.

Lodestones have been part of civilization for thousands of years, since the early compasses, which allowed us to reach new corners of the earth. And, the unusual origin of lodestones has been known for decades. The first clue that these stones were otherworldly was that they are only found on the surface of the earth. If you dig deep into a mine, you won’t find lodestones.

Dr. Peter Wasilewski, a retired NASA scientist, who made a living playing with lightning had this to say, “The thing about the lightning bolt, besides being magical, is that it has a magnetic field associated with it.”

Lightning changes the stone by providing a big magnetic field. One can demonstrate this by rubbing a needle with a magnet. That needle will be a magnet for a short time. Well, the lightning and lodestones undergo a similar process but on a larger and supernatural scale.

So, how do you coax lightning to strike a stone?

Wasilewski created lodestones using lightning in much the same way as Ben Franklin did, but with tools that are much more expensive. To make a lodestone, first he had to go where there is lots of lightning. Summertime months in places like Florida and New Mexico are hotspots for strikes.  Then, he needed a better “kite.” Wasilewski replaced Franklin’s contraption with a small bottle rocket that he launched into storm clouds. Attached to this rocket was a three-mile long metal wire fastened to a plastic box. Inside the box was a bed of sand, and the soon-to-be-zapped rock sat on top.

The experiment happens in a flash and everything melts or burns, since the lightning heats everything to over 2,900°F.

And the rock in the box? It’s a magnet now.

That’s a very striking difference!

 

There have lots of news about various pandemics. The first line of defense is a camera, a thermal camera.

When someone is sick, they usually have a temperature. Here is where the camera comes it. Thermal cameras can “see” if someone has a fever because these cameras can detect the heat. Thermal camera detect the heat, which comes off as infrared.

 

Twenty years ago, there were 1 billion monarch butterflies migrating 3,000 miles from the US to Mexico. Today, there are only 35 million! If you don’t want to do the math, that is less than 10 percent around now compared to what was around when the Spice Girls were big.

So what happened? Well, a weed that the monarch butterflies (and caterpillars) eat started to go away, and along with this weed went the monarchs.

Monarch butterflies feed on milkweed. Twenty years ago, milkweed grew quite a bit. But, with the development of crops that can resist herbicides, farmers sprayed and sprayed killing off the milkweed. When there is no milkweed, there are no monarchs.

Monarchs are a majestic species and one of the last animals we know that proceed with a great migration. American Bison (also known as the buffalo) use to migrate long distances, but they were virtually exterminated. Carrier pigeons used to migrate, but they are not around any more either. So, here we are facing another extinction of an animal, but there is something that we can all do to stop the monarchs from going away forever.

One thing you can do is stop mowing your lawn. Yes, you read that right. If you don’t mind a few wild flowers, why not add milkweed to the mix.  There are places that will give you free milkweed seeds.

Cities can stop mowing around power lines and underpasses that need not be well manicured. Here, milkweed can grow and give monarchs something to dine on too.

What is clear is that all of us can make a difference and bring these beautiful creatures back to a robust population.  We often hear about butterfly effects, but this time we can have an effect on butterflies.

Happy non-mowing!

It is lunchtime in the future. You are hungry and eating a burger. But, the beef inside did not come from a cow. It came from a lab. Scientists are figuring out how to grow hamburger patties in a petri dish.

Now, you might be wondering why would you want to grow two all-beef patties without the cow? It ends up that cows are very inefficient at producing protein. Also, there will be many more mouths to feed in the future. In fact, by 2050, there will be nearly 9 billion people on the planet. That’s a lot of hungry people. Cows can’t cut it.

Additionally, cows produce a lot (like,  10 to 20%) of all the green house gases in the world, because they belch methane. Methane is a powerful gas that traps the heat that the earth is trying to eliminate. So, finding another source of meat is good for the planet.

Making a lab-grown beef patty is a very simple process.  There are special cells in your body called stem cells that are used to repair muscles should they become injured. What scientists do is get these stem cells and take them outside of the body and give them an environment to grow and create muscle.  And, nine weeks later, you have a hamburger.

So what does the burger taste like? Well, it is a bit dry. There isn’t any fat to hold in the juices. So, researchers are working on making fat too.

Interestingly, the cost of this first burger wasn’t cheap. It cost $25,000 to create it. But, now that these scientists know what it takes to make one burger, they can figure out how to scale up their process.

It will take some time before you see a beaker-grown beef patty. There are still many tests that have to be done and governmental guidelines that need to be met.

But, eventually a beef patty may be made at a 3D printer near you.

 

Dogs bark. Cats meow. Ducks quack. These noises might not seem like much to us, but animals are communicating.

We’ve been intrigued with communicating with animals since the classic movie Dr. Dolittle from the 1960s and the revamped version of this movie in the 1990s with Eddie Murphy. But, scientists have been studying animal language for much, much longer and have found that animals have a full vocabulary with verbs, nouns, and adjectives. Animals can alert other animals of predators by stating what the predator is, what it looks like, and how fast the predator is running.

But the fascinating part about animal language is time. Animals with longer lives tend to speak at longer and more drawn-out paces than animals with shorter lives and faster speech. For instance, a prairie dog speaks in chirps, but if you slow down those chirps, they sound like human speech. Prairie dogs live for a three to five years.  On the other end, whales live for decades and speak for whole minutes. If you speed up their speech several times, it sounds like a human speaking.  There seems to be some correlation between the length of life and how long an animal speaks.

All this is to say it that the chirps or barks you hear are full of compressed information. And, to quote Bonnie Raitt, that is “Something to Talk About.”

Find out more about animal language here:

Chasing Dr. Dolittle by Con Slobodchikoff

 

Imagine you are a seed. You are buried in the ground and it is dark.

You are starting to sprout and grow. But which way should you go? Which way is up?

Well, it ends up there are special cells in plants that allow it to sense the direction of gravity. These cells are sort of like a jar full of water with small rocks inside. If you throw in the rocks and seal the jar, the rocks will fall to the bottom. If you tilt the jar, the rocks will fall to the new bottom. Something similar is going on inside these cells. There are small rocks that fall to the bottom of the cell and tell the cell, this is where gravity is pulling. So, the roots know to go in that direction; and the shoots of the plant know to go in the opposite direction.

Scientists would call this ability of plants to sense gravity, gravitropism.

If you want, you can try a little experiment. Get a small plant, and put it on its side. In a few days, the plant will tilt upwards.

Now, this ability for plants to sense the direction of gravity is fine on earth were gravity is present, but what about on the space station, where there is little gravity? If we want to grow plants in space, in the right direction, we need to give plants other clues to know which way to grow. Fortunately, plants also grow in the direction of light too. And, recently astronauts have grown a flower in space.

Plants are budding with science and with special cells they know what’s up.

 

Deep in your printer are millions of explosions that you don’t even know about. Now, we usually don’t think of our printers as anything special, but there is lots of science taking place to make your documents come to life.  Inside of your printer, bubbles push ink through small microscopic holes to make dots on a page that will become letters and numbers and symbols.

But these are no ordinary bubbles. You could put over one and a half million of these bubbles in a square inch (a little over a postage stamp).  These bubbles are created by heating the ink with very tiny electrical resistors, like those in your toaster, but the ink is heated so quickly that it doesn’t actually boil. The ink is heated to over 650 Fahrenheit  (350C). At this temperature, the ink doesn’t boil, it explodes in what’s called a super heated vapour explosion .

Now, the concept of using bubbles to print have been around since the 1950s, and full disclosure, I worked at HP and worked on ink jet.

So how does printing happen? We send a pattern of electrical pulses that activate the resisters in order to produce a pattern of dots on the paper. One of those pulses, which last for about a millionth of a second, causes a bubble to form. The bubble pushes the drop out the nozzle and the drop lands on paper in a pattern that reproduces characters and graphic images. And, voila, you have the makings of an image.

To make an image, there are nozzles for black, cyan,  magenta, and yellow ink. When combined in the right proportion, all the colors of the rainbow are possible and the quality is on par with a photograph.

And ink jet is everywhere.  The next time you see a bus driving down the street with a beautiful color graphic on the side it is most likely that it was printed on ink jet.   Ink jet is also used for banners, CDs, and even t-shirts.

So bubbles print and their work is everywhere. They give life more pop.

Invisibility has been something that has captured our imagination in books and movies from The Invisible Man (1933) to Harry Potter (2001). And, these characters make invisibility seem so cool.

Well, science fiction has become a science fact. Scientists have made objects invisible in their labs.

In order to understand how to make something invisible, we have to think about light. Light moves in straight lines. When it hits a surface, it bounces off, and heads for our eyes. And, the brain interprets this bounced light as an image.

If we want to make something invisible, we have to bend light around the object so that our eyes and brains cannot see it. Bending light is an optical illusion. Invisibility is an optical illusion too.

What scientists have done is get some magnifying glasses and put then in a row so that they collect light into a small beam and then bend it. When you look through those lenses, you cannot see anything. So far, they have been able to make something the size of a hand invisible.

As you can imagine, soldiers and spies would love to get their hands on this invention. But, artists would too. With an invisibility cloak, they could bend light so that windows are not needed, but light still comes into the room.

All in all, art continues to inspire science with new ideas. And invisibility cloaks change how we see and don’t see the world.

 

You can try this invisibility cloak for yourself at the link below. Impress your students and friends.

Get your own invisibility cloak today!