Stories tagged Structure of Matter


Nobel Prize
Nobel PrizeCourtesy Photograph: Jonathunder Medal: Erik Lindberg (1873-1966)
This past week a Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded to three scientists for finding ways to use fluorescent molecules that glow on demand to allow scientists to peer into living cells. Using beams of laser light, an area is scanned multiple times making the molecules glow; images are then super-imposed to yield an image at the nanoscale.

The ground-breaking work by these three scientists brought optical microscopy into the nano dimension. Previously, the limit of optical microscopes was presumed to be roughly half the wavelength of light (0.2 micrometers).

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences when announcing the award, stated,

"In what has become known as nanoscopy, scientists visualize the pathways of individual molecules inside living cells. They can see how molecules create synapses between nerve cells in the brain; they can track proteins involved in Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases as they aggregate; they follow individual proteins in fertilized eggs as these divide into embryos.

Two separate principles are rewarded. One enables the method stimulated emission depletion (STED) microscopy, developed by Stefan Hell in 2000. Two laser beams are utilized; one stimulates fluorescent molecules to glow, another cancels out all fluorescence except for that in a nanometre-sized volume. Scanning over the sample, nanometre for nanometre, yields an image with a resolution better than Abbe’s stipulated limit.

Eric Betzig and William Moerner, working separately, laid the foundation for the second method, single-molecule microscopy. The method relies upon the possibility to turn the fluorescence of individual molecules on and off. Scientists image the same area multiple times, letting just a few interspersed molecules glow each time. Superimposing these images yields a dense super-image resolved at the nanolevel. In 2006 Eric Betzig utilized this method for the first time.

Today, nanoscopy is used world-wide and new knowledge of greatest benefit to mankind is produced on a daily basis."

The three winners are:
1) Eric Betzig, U.S. citizen. Born 1960 in Ann Arbor, MI, USA.
Ph.D. 1988 from Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA.
Group Leader at Janelia Research Campus, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Ashburn, VA, USA.

2) Stefan W. Hell, German citizen. Born 1962 in Arad, Romania.
Ph.D. 1990 from the University of Heidelberg, Germany.
Director at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, Göttingen, and Division head at the German Cancer Research Center, Heidelberg, Germany.

3) William E. Moerner, U.S. citizen. Born 1953 in Pleasanton, CA, USA.
Ph.D. 1982 from Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA.
Harry S. Mosher Professor in Chemistry and Professor, by courtesy, of Applied Physics at Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA.

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2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry - Periodic Table of Videos

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The Nobel Prize announcement:

Background about the limit of optical microscopes known as Abbes' Diffraction Limit (0.2 μm)

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Indication of massive injury on Allosaurus foot bones: ; University of Wyoming Geological Museum, Laramie, WY.
Indication of massive injury on Allosaurus foot bones: ; University of Wyoming Geological Museum, Laramie, WY.Courtesy Mark Ryan
British paleontologist Phil Manning from Manchester University has been using 21st century technology to study prehistoric injuries on dinosaur bones.

Cathartes aura: archosaurian descendent of Allosaurus.
Cathartes aura: archosaurian descendent of Allosaurus.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Manning and his team of researchers employed a particle accelerator called a synchrotron rapid scanning X-ray fluorescence (SRS-XRF) to analyze and compare the chemical compositions of both healed and healthy bone of a 150 million-year-old Allosaurus fragilis, and those of a modern turkey vulture (Cathartes aura). Both animals are members of a group known as archosaurs that includes pterosaurs, and alligators and other crocodilians. The SRS-XRF directed intense beams of light ten billion times brighter than our sun onto areas of fossilized dinosaur bone that showed signs of injuries (pathologies) and healing that had occurred while the creature was alive. The same instrument was used previously to analyze the remains of both Archaeopteryx and Green River Formation fossils, revealing organic traces not detectible in visible light.

In the current study. thin sections made from the toe bones of Allosaurus fragilis unearthed from the Cleveland-Lloyd quarry in Utah were prepared at a Temple University facility in Pennsylvania, and then sent to the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource in California for scanning. The Allosaurus sample was also analyzed at the Diamond Light Source (DLS) in Oxford, England.

During the analysis, a suite of trace-metal enzymes - copper, zinc, and strontium- all integral to the process of healing bone were detected. Copper plays a role in the strengthening the structure of collagen, zinc aids in ossification (the creation of new bone material), while strontium inhibits the break-down of bone cells. Enzymes composed from the same three elements are used for growth and repair in our own bones.
Normally when a bone suffers some kind of trauma, such as a fracture, the body repairs it by rebuilding new bone in much the same way it did when the skeleton first formed. Manning's fossil bone sections exhibited chemical ghosts of these essential elements in elevated amounts in the injured bone section than seen in the healthy bone surrounding it.

Allosaurus: ; University of Wyoming Geological Museum, Laramie, WY.
Allosaurus: ; University of Wyoming Geological Museum, Laramie, WY.Courtesy Mark Ryan
“It seems dinosaurs evolved a splendid suite of defense mechanisms to help regulate the healing and repair of injuries," Manning said. "It is quite possible you've got a reptilian-style repair mechanism combined with elevated metabolism, like that you'd find in alligators and birds respectively. So you've got a double whammy in a good way. If you suffer massive trauma, you've got the perfect set-up to survive it."

The SRS-XRF provides scientists with a superior method in analyzing and comparing the chemical processes involved with bone-building and healing that weren't discernible in the older histological examination methods used in studying thin sections, and could lead to further knowledge of how not only dinosaur bones - but our own - grow and repair themselves.

“The chemistry of life leaves clues throughout our bodies in the course of our lives that can help us diagnose, treat and heal a multitude of modern-day ailments. It’s remarkable that the very same chemistry that initiates the healing of bone in humans also seems to have followed a similar pathway in dinosaurs,” Manning said.

The study was published in a recent issue of the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

Science News story
Mother Nature Network story
Planet Earth Online story
Phil Manning research profile


Gecko-inspired paddles have been invented allowing a full-grown human adult to climb up a wall of glass!
DARPA Z-Man Program demonstrates human climbing a wall like a gecko
DARPA Z-Man Program demonstrates human climbing a wall like a geckoCourtesy DARPA

The United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced on June 5, 2014 that a 218-pound climber climbed up and down a 25-foot tall glass wall while caring an additional pound 50-pound load. The climb was made possible due to the use of a pair of hand-held, gecko-inspired paddles.

Geckos can climb on a wide variety of surfaces, including smooth surfaces like glass due to the nano-sized structures on their toes. These structures are very small - there are a billion nanometers in a meter.

The gecko-inspired addles were created using nanotechnology.

Technologies such as these biologically inspired climbing devices could make it possible for soldiers to scale vertical walls without ladders. DARPA's mission is to create breakthrough technologies for national security.

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Virus Filter - The fibers of the filter are white and the virus green.
Virus Filter - The fibers of the filter are white and the virus green.Courtesy Björn Syse

Scientists have developed a paper made of cellulose nanofibers that can be used to filter out harmful viruses.

The new filter paper is made with cellulose fibers, a natural component of green plants that gives wood its strength. Cellulose is the main component of plant cell walls, and the basic building block for many textiles and for paper. Cellulose works well for filters because it is inexpensive, disposable, inert, and non-toxic; cellulose is also mechanically strong and stable in a wide range of acid and alkaline conditions.

But normal filter paper can't trap viruses. A virus is tiny, about a thousand times smaller than a human hair. Normal filter paper has pores that are too large to remove tiny viruses. The new nano fiber filter paper is made with cellulose fibers with diameters of less than 100 nanometers. Viruses range in size from 30-50 nanometers, and can be trapped in the nano fiber filter paper.

The research has been conducted at two Swedish universities, Uppsala University and Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences/Swedish National Veterinary Institute.

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NanoDays is a nationwide festival of educational programs about nanoscale science and engineering and its potential impact on the future.

Most events will be taking place between March 29 - April 6, 2014.
NanoDays 2008-2014 map
NanoDays 2008-2014 mapCourtesy NISE Network

NanoDays events are organized by participants in the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network (NISE Network) and take place at more than 250 science and children's museums, research centers and universities across the country from Puerto Rico to Hawaii. NanoDays engages people of all ages in learning about this emerging field of science, which holds the promise of developing revolutionary materials and technologies.

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2014 Events in Saint Paul and Minneapolis, MN:

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BICEP2 Telescope and B-mode signal
BICEP2 Telescope and B-mode signalCourtesy BICEP2 Collaboration, NSF, Steffen Richter (Harvard)
Einstein predicted their existence nearly a hundred years ago as part of his theory of general relativity, then in the 1980s theorists honed them into inflation theory, and now astronomers working at a radio telescope near the South Pole have proof of their existence.

John Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and his collaborators (including co-leader Clem Pryke, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Minnesota) have reported detecting gravity waves from the very beginnings of the known universe. These space-time ripples are remnants from the very earliest moments of the Big Bang - when it was just a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old!

The elusive waves were detected by a telescope located at the South Pole at the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station using 250 dime-sized detectors to scan the cosmic microwave background (CMB), the weak radiation remnant of the Big Bang found throughout the known universe. For two years, from January 2010 to December, the experiment known as BICEP2 (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization2), searched for distortions in the CMB.

Einstein general theory of relativity predicted that gravitational waves accelerated by the Big Bang would have produced ruffles across the fabric of space-time. Inflation theory predicted that the very first of these waves, composed of hypothetical quantum particles that carry gravity (gravitons), would have been stretched in the very earliest moments of the Big Bang from imperceptible sized wavelengths into ones large enough to be detectable in the CMB. The cosmic microwave background radiation becomes polarized by scattering off electrons in space, and subtle changes in that polarization pattern, twists the fabric of the CMB into swirls called B-mode polarization.

If these primitive distortions in the CMB fabric stand up to future scrutiny (and preliminary reports indicate they will) then not only will they constitute the first direct evidence of Einstein's predicted gravity waves but they'll also strongly confirm the inflationary theory first developed by physicist Alan Guth in the early 1980s.

"Detecting this signal is one of the most important goals in cosmology today," Dr. Kovac said in a statement. He also said the chance it was a fluke was only one in 3.5 million, ranking it as a "5-sigma level of certainty", which, in the vernacular of discovery, is statistically about as good as you can get.

"It is absolutely mind-boggling that we've actually found it," said Clement Pryke.

Dr. Kovac personally delivered news of the discovery to a number of colleagues, including Dr. Alan Guth, now a professor at M.I.T, who said he was bowled over by the news and hadn't expected confirmation of his theory during his lifetime.

Chao-Lin Juo, a member of Dr. Kovac's BICEP2 team, and one of the experiment's developers, recorded his visit to the house of Dr. Andrei Linde as he surprised him with the discovery. Back in 1983, Linde described a variety of inflation theory called chaotic theory.

The discovery is considered "huge" in astrophysics and cosmology circles, and could lead to solving other cosmological riddles such as dark matter and dark energy. It could very well be a contender for the Nobel Prize.

Theoretical physicist, Lawrence Krause, wrote this for the New Yorker:

"If the discovery announced this morning holds up, it will allow us to peer back to the very beginning of time—a million billion billion billion billion billion times closer to the Big Bang than any previous direct observation—and will allow us to explore the fundamental forces of nature on a scale ten thousand billion times smaller than can be probed at the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator. Moreover, it will allow us to test some of the most ambitious theoretical speculations about the origin of our observed universe that have ever been made by humans—speculations that may first appear to verge on metaphysics. It might seem like an esoteric finding, so far removed from everyday life as to be of almost no interest. But, if confirmed, it will have increased our empirical window on the origins of the universe by a margin comparable to the amount it has grown in all of the rest of human history. Where this may lead, no one knows, but it should be cause for great excitement.“

Marc Kamionkowski, professor of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University, agrees.
""It’s not every day that you wake up and find out something completely new about the early universe," he said. "To me this is as Nobel Prize–worthy as it gets.”

Wired magazine
New York Times
New Scientist
Scientific American


Science education for the masses: World Science U offers online courses in physic-related topics.
Science education for the masses: World Science U offers online courses in physic-related topics.Courtesy Kyle McDonald
World Science U is a new platform for teaching science to the masses. Brian Greene, professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University, has launched a new online website open to anyone. All you have to do is register and start learning. Participants can get questions answered, enroll in short or long (8-10 weeks) courses covering everything from basic physics to quantum entanglement to black holes and parallel universes.

Professor Greene has written several books on physics and cosmology such as The Fabric of the Cosmos and The Elegant Universe and will be involved in teaching the initial topics.

The World Science U website allows users to post questions, or (if they think they know more than professor Greene) post their own topics and hypotheses.

Signing up is easy so you can get started learning right away. Plus there's no homework or prerequisites and it's free! You can take a quick tour here if you'd like.

I watched one of the short courses that were available right now (The Special Theory of Relativity) and found it fascinating and relatively (pun!) easy to understand. Each module is comprised of a lecture followed by an "office hours" session for questions with Professor Greene (this part confused me) and a discussion period with other students. Versions of the courses with more emphasis on mathematics are also available. The site is in the process of being launched so none of the longer university-level courses were available yet - but should be soon. When they do go live, students will be able to earn World Science U certification upon their successful course completion. Greene will also participate in occasional live discussions on the site.

If you have an interest in physics, I'd say it's well worth your time to enroll in World Science U.

World Science U


Olympic Flag rings: Olympic Flag rings
Olympic Flag rings: Olympic Flag ringsCourtesy Drawn by User:Pumbaa80; Original author: Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937)

New materials seem to make an appearance at every Olympic Games, and this 2014 Winter Games is no exception. Materials and equipment can be a major factors in Olympic competitor's success or failure, and teams are always looking to get any advantage they can.

NBC's "Science of Sports" video series profiles a wide range of science and engineering topics related to this year's Winter Games ranging from the science of snow to advances in new materials.

The video, "Stability and Vibration Damping in Alpine Skiing"
describes how engineers are redesigning skis using nano materials to increase flexibility and stability. A University of Nevada, Reno mechanical engineering associate professor Kam Leang describes how he and his team are using nanocomposite materials to reduce unwanted vibration in high performance skis.

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Candle Flame
Candle FlameCourtesy Arivumathi via Wikimedia Commons

Scientist Wuzong Zhou, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland, has found millions of diamond nano-particles in the flickering light of a simple candle.

Professor Zhou was able to extract particles from the center of a flame – and found to his surprise that a candle flame contains all four known forms of carbon, including tiny diamond particles.

Past studies have shown that hydrocarbon molecules are burned at the bottom of the flame and carbon dioxide released at the top, but it was not know that tiny diamond particles were formed in the center of the flame.

The nano particles of diamonds are burned away very quickly and converted to carbon dioxide.
Dr. Zhou believes that his research might leads towards a better understanding of diamonds which could eventually lead to cheaper, cleaner manufacturing of diamonds, especially for industrial uses.

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Spider Web
Spider WebCourtesy Wikimedia - en:User:Fir0002
Eden Steven, a physicist at Florida State University is developing ways to possibly conduct electricity using spider webs and carbon nanotubes.

A carbon nanotube is a one-atom thick sheet of carbon that’s been rolled into a tube. A nanotube’s diameter is at least 10,000 times smaller than a strand of human hair. Carbon nanotubes are strong and have been found to conduct electricity and heat.

Florida State University reports Steven used just a drop of water to attach powdery carbon nanotubes onto spider silk. He gathered the spider silk himself, using a stick to gather webs outside his lab.

The experiment has drawn much national attention. “It turns out that this high-grade, remarkable material has many functions,” Steven said of the silk coated in carbon nanotubes. “It can be used as a humidity sensor, a strain sensor, an actuator (a device that acts as an artificial muscle, for lifting weights and more) and as an electrical wire.”

Steven wanted to investigate eco-friendly materials and was especially interested in materials that could deal with humidity without complicated treatments and chemical additives.

“Understanding the compatibility between spider silk and conducting materials is essential to advance the use of spider silk in electronic applications,” Steven wrote in the online research journal Nature Communications. “Spider silk is tough, but becomes soft when exposed to water. … The nanotubes adhere uniformly and bond to the silk fiber surface to produce tough, custom-shaped, flexible and electrically conducting fibers after drying and contraction.”

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