Courtesy Tai Po Kau Nature ReserveAfter decades of frustration and failure, mankind’s dream of weaving a blanket entirely from the stuff of nightmares has become a reality.
For centuries, the very possibility of creating fabric from nightmares was considered little more than a fever dream, and the criminally insane resigned themselves to nightmare cloth substitutes, like hammered-flat baby rabbits, and prison toilet paper. Inventive though these are, like soymilk, they fooled no one.
Then, at the end of the 19th century, reports began to filter from Africa that a French missionary in Madagascar, exploring the dark peaks of his own madness, was creating fabrics of almost pure nightmare.
The missionary had supposedly created a spider-milking machine, into which he was placing massive Golden orb-weaver spiders, collected in their hundreds by local young girls. (Having little girls collect the spiders made the nightmare purer, but was not strictly necessary. Leave it to a missionary for such meticulous detail.)
The spiders were restrained in “a sort of stocks,” and then the beginnings of a strand of silk was coaxed from their abdomens and attached to a hand cranked wheel, at which point several hundred yards of the orb-weavers’ characteristically golden silk could be withdrawn from each spider. When the creatures could yield no more silk, they were released, apparently unharmed, back into the wild, where they would regenerate their webbing material after several days. The spooled spider silk could then be woven like any other material… but scarier.
Seemingly too “good” to be true, the missionary’s experiments were never replicated, and generations of madmen made do with sheets of dried bat saliva and mortuary blankets. Until now.
A “textile expert” and a visionary in what liberal arts colleges refer to as “insane studies,” Simon Peers and Nicholas Godley, recreated the missionary’s spider-milking machine, and after four years and one million spiders they have created an indestructible golden blanket, woven of pure nightmares.
The madmen discovered that while a single spider might produce a strand of silk up to 400 meters long, the material is, of course, exceptionally light. It took approximately 14,000 spiders to produce a single once of silk. The final 11 foot by 4 foot piece of fabric weighed about 2.4 pounds (~38 oz). So many, many spiders were involved, and lots of time. To help pass the long months of spider-milking, the artists whispered their secrets into mouse holes, and built razor blade houses.
The final intricately patterned textile has a rich, naturally golden color—the golden orb-weaver is named for the color of its silk, which attracts pollen-seeking insects in sunlight, and blends with background foliage in shadow. The spiders can adjust the exact tone of their webbing based on ambient light levels and color, so this textile has a unique shade based on how a million spiders perceived the room containing the tiny spider stocks.
The fabric is also exceptionally strong. Spider silk can stretch to 140% without breaking, and has tensile strength comparable to or exceeding that of modern fabrics like Kevlar, used for bullet-proof body armor. The complex protein structure that gives spider silk its strength has also makes it very difficult to reproduce artificially (that is, it hasn’t been done). Attempts have been made to insert the gene for spider silk protein production into goats, which then produce the protein in their milk, if not actual fibers. Unlike silk moths, spiders aren’t suited for mass production of silk, as they tend to kill and eat each other. And so it takes a madman, obsessed with drawing the secreted material for trapping prey from a hand-sized, venomous arachnid predator, to obtain enough spider silk to actually make something form it.
Despite civilization’s unwritten, yet long-standing rules against allowing madmen to have golden bulletproof cloaks, there is little to be done in this situation, seeing as how they made it themselves. Out of nightmares.
Courtesy Mark RyanIn the latter days of summer my wife and I took a drive up the Gunflint Trail and visited the Magnetic Rock Trail, a spur trail jutting off the Gunflint near Gunflint Lake. Our original plans of lounging about the North Shore of Lake Superior had been scuttled by a mix-up in our cabin reservations, so I saw it as an opportunity to check out first-hand some of the local geology. I had visited the MRT briefly once before and my reasons for wanting to make the 50-mile drive from Grand Marais to revisit the trail were three-fold: stromatolites, meteorite impact ejecta, and, of course, magnetic rocks
Well, as it turns out, I wasn’t very successful,
Courtesy Mark RyanReaders may recall the Ham Lake forest fires raged along the Gunflint Trail in the early summer of 2007, destroying several hundred acres of the surrounding forest along with resorts and private property. The fire, it was later determined, was started by a legal campfire in the vicinity of Ham Lake that had gotten out of hand and spread quickly through the region. It was the second forest fire to rage through the Magnetic Rock Trail (MRT) in the past two decades (there was also a controlled burn in 2002). The latest fire removed much of the pine canopy that covered the area, opening it to more sky and sunlight, and new vistas of the surrounding terrain.
Courtesy Mark Ryan
Courtesy Mark RyanBut as destructive as forest fires can be, they do have their upside. Forests are quick to revitalize after fires. New trees soon rise up from the ashes, and evidence of that in the MRT was apparent in the many jack pines (Pinus banksiana) we saw sprouting up everywhere. But trees aren’t the only affected flora. A lot of the groundcover gets incinerated as well, sometimes exposing patches of bedrock. In the case of the Magnetic Rock Trail, it meant new outcrops of the Gunflint Iron Formation were uncovered, revealing fresh unexplored exposures.
The Gunflint Iron Formation is a mass of iron ore taconite that spans from the Arrowhead region of Minnesota eastward into Ontario, Canada with the majority of the formation located on the Canadian side of the border. Most iron formations on Earth were formed around the same time, about 2 billion years ago during the Middle Pre-Cambrian (Early Proterozoic) times. A shallow sea (the Animikie) covered much of northern Minnesota and eastern Ontario at the time. The sea teemed with cyanobacteria in the form of stromatolites; thick microbial mats that helped oxygenate the Earth’s atmosphere and metabolize iron out of solution through photosynthesis. The iron-oxide sediments later became the iron ranges that span across northern Minnesota and Canada. Much of the rock along the Magnetic Rock Trail is composed of magnetite (Fe3 O4) inter-bedded with layers of chert or shale. Magnetite is the most magnetic of all the naturally occurring minerals, hence its name. The Gunflint Iron Formation is particularly resistant to erosion on the Minnesota side probably due to its nearness to the Duluth Complex intrusives. These influxes of magma moved into the area around 1.1 billion years ago, adding tremendous heat to the existing strata. The portion of the Gunflint Iron Formations (that located in Minnesota) closest to the heat source shows the most resistance to erosion.
Courtesy Jim Miller, MN Geological Survey (top) Mark Ryan (bottom)Preserved within some of the newly exposed outcrops along the MRT are fossil records of these stromatolites, representing some of the oldest fossils found in Minnesota. Gunflint stromatolites contain large numbers of fossils that can be seen under a scanning electron microscope. I had been told that you can walk off the main path and find some of these ancient fossils, so I searched off-trail for a while and found what I thought were stromatolites, and took photos of them.
But later when I consulted with geologist Mark Jirsa, he wasn’t so sure.
“You're looking at thin bedding in the iron formation that dips shallowly in comparison to the dip of the outcrop surface,” he wrote me. “The result is a swirly look, that looks deceptively like stromatolite mounds.”
Jirsa was in the field when I contacted him, and his Internet capability was limited, so when he tried to send me some photos of what the stromatolites actually looked like, they didn’t come through. However, his colleague, geologist Jim Miller (who also supplied welcomed assistance with this post) sent me a stromatolite photo he had taken at MRT.
Personally, I can’t tell the difference, but then I’m no geologist. so I have to bow to the professionals.
My second quest – to locate and photograph ejecta from the Sudbury Impact – wasn’t successful either. The aforementioned Mark Jirsa discovered this record of a 1.85 billion-year-old meteor impact in 2007. I wrote a previous post about it that same year so I won’t go into those details (you can read it here) but I will bring you up to speed on how he’s since interpreted the find.
Briefly, the Sudbury Impact Crater is located in Ontario, Canada, and was made by a meteorite about 10-miles in diameter that slammed into the Earth 1.85 million years ago. The 150-mile wide crater is the second largest known on the planet. The collision sent a tremendous firestorm of superheated material into the atmosphere, and some of it coalesced like hailstones and landed 480 miles away in northeastern Minnesota. This is what Jirsa discovered two years ago: a layer of ejecta mixed with torn up pieces (breccia ) of the Gunflint Formation, and all of it overlain by a younger layer of slate known as the Rove Formation. He published an article about it in Astronomy magazine, and there’s also a PDF file downloadable from Minnesota Geological Survey website (the link is located in the upper left of the MGS homepage).
What Jirsa found was quite remarkable: a layer of churned-up rocks laid down above the Gunflint Iron Formation. The odd jumble of rock included berry-shaped rocks known as accretionary lapilli, intermixed with the Gunflint Iron Formation rock. According to his interpretation, what is seen in the layer essentially shows the events of a single day in the geological record. And a nasty day it must have been.
Three minutes after the initial fireball impact at Sudbury, seismic waves from earthquakes measuring more than magnitude-10 on the Richter Scale reached the Animikie basin, ripping loose the iron formation off the seafloor crust, and redistributed it along a submarine slope. Within 10 minutes, a firestorm of molten material hailed down from the sky covering the region with from 3 to 10 feet of ejecta in the form of accretionary lapilli. Ultra-hurricane-force winds measuring up to 1400 mph(!) blasted over the shallow sea soon after, followed by the coup de grace – titanic tsunamis the likes of which have never been seen since which tossed everything into a stew of breccia (jumbled rock) and berry-shaped ejecta.
This day of horror took place sometime in the 48 million year interim that separates the Gunflint Iron Formation and the time the sediments of the Rove Formation were laid down above it. The entire concoction was later baked and metamorphosed by the intrusive magmas of the Duluth Complex.
How hard could it be to find evidence of a mess like this? Well, considering the MRT covers a large area, and since I had no information pinpointing any locations, it was like looking for a needle in a haystack – a very large haystack. In the end, I soon gave up because I really didn’t know what I was looking for and I realized how futile it probably would be. However, I’ve sure learned a whole lot about it now.
Courtesy Mark RyanInitially, I thought at least my third quest – finding magnetic rock – would be a complete success because just about every rock exposed along the MRT is highly magnetic (I had a magnet with me and I can attest to that fact – see photo). It made sense that the whole reason the trail is called the Magnetic Rock Trail is because of all the magnetic rocks found there. But I’ve since learned I was once again totally wrong. The trail is name after a single large magnetic rock that’s about 1.5 miles up the trail. This 30-foot monolith stands upright and obvious in the middle of the forest and its notoriety dates back to early native American times. It is a chunk of the Gunflint Iron Formation – and highly magnetic like the rest of the rock in the area – but is deemed an erratic moved into place from a short distance away by glaciers during the last Ice Age. Had I read any of the brochures I had collected on our trip sometime other than when I got home, I would have known this before I even got there. But as it was, we didn’t walk that far into the trail so we missed it completely. Oh, well.
Courtesy Mark RyanBut even though my three main objectives for visiting the MRT were pretty much complete washouts, there was one unexpected surprise that will probably draw us back to the region next year: blueberries.
Courtesy Mark RyanWild blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium) were all over the place. The low-bush berries thrive in sandy, acid soils of forest clearings, and in rocky areas around pines forests – just the type of environments you find around the MRT. So, once I finished with my failed geological studies, I assisted my wife in picking as many wild blueberries as we needed. We kept them in our cooler for the ride home, and as Mrs. R is prone to do, she jumbled all the berries together into a viscous concoction, all within a flakey crust that was heated over time at a very high-temperature.
The result looked something like the Sudbury Impact ejecta layer found near the Magnetic Rock Trail, but it was much more delicious, and a great way to end the summer.
We demonstrate imaging of molecules with unprecedented atomic resolution by probing the short-range chemical forces with use of noncontact atomic force microscopy. The key step is functionalizing the microscope’s tip apex with suitable, atomically well-defined terminations, such as CO molecules. Science Magazine
Courtesy KinnicChickOk. The startup of the Large Hadron Collider, the biggest, fanciest machine ever built, the doomsday atom-smasher, the revealer, the secret-finder, the lens of God* has once again been delayed, this time from October to November.
The machine that will make sense of it all, or start an apocalyptic chain reaction in the matter of our planet, has a couple little helium leaks that need to be repaired. If I were the director of the project, I’d just get a couple interns to stick their fingers in the holes (or have them put their mouths over the leaks for hilarious squeaky interns), but the folks in Switzerland aren’t screwing around.
“We’re going to get it right this time! November? Maybe! Maybe later! Don’t push us, okay? Do you want us to blow up the world? We will, so help me, we will! I am so frustrated!” stated one scientist I just imagined.
So you’ve got one extra month, at least. What are you going to do with it? The possibilities are practically endless. Here are some suggestions:
BTW, if you’ve already forgotten what the LHC is, and what it’s supposed to do, check out some of our older posts on it here.
*When I enter Thunderdome, I want all of this to be my introduction. Especially “The Doomsday Atom-Smasher” part†
†Holla back, Mad Max enthusiasts! Who rules Bartertown?
Courtesy Mark RyanI watched the Aquatennial's Milk Carton Boat Races today at Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis. One of the early heats included an entry from the Science Museum.
Courtesy Mark RyanI don't know who was sailing the ship but dang if science didn't prevail!
The boat looked sea-worthy enough on land but once it was placed into the water, it just didn't want to remain upright. But the hardy crew never despaired, and instead re-engineered the ship (ala Apollo 13) on the spot by removing the entire pesky bottom half and using only the deck to complete the race.
Courtesy Mark Ryan
They didn't win by any means, and at times it looked like they weren't using a boat at all, but they worked together to solve problems and got to shore safely.
Remember on TV's Star Trek how Captain Kirk's impossible requests were always put off by his chief engineer, Montgomery Scott? Scotty favorite excuse for avoiding work was to claim it just wasn't physically possible. This from the guy whose engineering skills could propel a starship across the universe at Warp Factor 10 using a couple lousy dilithium crystals. Or maybe he just had better things to do. Whatever the case, it looks now like Scotty's favorite work shirk excuse may no longer be valid. At least not in the world of nanoclusters.
While exploring strange new worlds using computer modeling and nanoclusters made up of several hundred atoms, researchers in Japan have observed tiny clumps of atoms that seem to break the second law of thermodynamics. Don’t think crime is rampant in the nano-world. Most of the atoms observed were law-abiding. When the nanoclusters collided at just under 12 miles per hour, most of them either clumped together like sticky mud, or bounced off each other and went on their way at a slower speed.
But a small percentage of nanoclusters (less than 5%) bounced away at an increased speed, acting as if they picked up an extra boost of energy.
It’d be like dropping a golf ball on the sidewalk and instead of it gradually losing energy (as absorbed heat) and eventually coming to a dead stop, as expected, it just went higher and higher with each successive bounce until it finally bounced into orbit. That just doesn’t make sense. Or as Scotty’s cohort Mr. Spock would say: “Logic and practical information do not seem to apply here.”
According to the researchers, Hisao Hayakawa, of Kyoto University, and Hiroto Kuninaka, of Chuo University in Tokyo, the so-called super rebound resulted from random internal changes of motion in the nanocluster’s atoms, some of which can give the collision an extra boost, like jumping on a trampoline.
Sounds like we got ourselves the makings for some sort of perpetual motion machine here. Well, not quite. Apparently, this scofflaw behavior can only take place in very tiny systems. When the researchers increased the cluster’s atoms from hundreds to thousands, the behavior disappeared completely.
Besides that, the system as a whole still followed the letter of the law. The second law deals statistically with millions of atoms, so even though some nanoclusters picked up extra energy, the clusters overall dispersed energy and headed towards increased entropy just as the law prescribes, and in the end all is well with the universe.
So far the phenomenon has only been seen in computer simulations. But Hayakawa expects it won’t be long before it’s observed in real world experiments. The research findings appeared in the March issue of Physical Review E.
Courtesy Opabinia regalis Understanding proteins and how they work is very useful. One type of protein called an enzyme is like a nano sized factory that can take apart molecules or build new molecules out of smaller parts.
Plant cellulose can be turned into ethanol fuel. Oil slicks could be digested into non-pollutants. Custom designed proteins will soon allow "living" factories that can manufacture almost anything we can imagine. Protein "hackers" are creating synthetic antibodies — proteins designed to bind tightly to specific targets, such as tumor cells, which can then be destroyed.
To accomplish this goal, DARPA is investing in the development of new tools in diverse areas such as topology, optimization, the calculation of ab initio potentials, synthetic chemistry, and informatics leading to the ability to design proteins to order. At the conclusion of this program, researchers expect to be able to design a new complex protein, within 24 hours, that will inactivate a pathogenic organism. Protein Design Processes (DARPA)
Proteins are made from a complex chain of amino acids. Several resources are helping to illuminate the complex relationship between the sequence of a chain of amino acids, the shape into which that chain will ultimately fold, and the function executed by the resulting protein.
The Protein Data Bank is an ever growing data bank of detailed schematic protein information. Another program that is helping to understand how proteins are shaped is the Rosetta@Home project which allows thousands of home computers to determine the 3-dimensional shapes of proteins being designed by researchers.
"Would you like to play a new computer game and help scientists analyze protein chemistry -- at the same time? Here is a fun and interesting computer puzzle game that is designed to fold proteins -- the objective is to correctly fold a protein into the smallest possible space." Grrlscientist
Watch this video to learn how to "fold-it"
Courtesy anjouwuEver stand on a sidewalk and wonder about the concrete beneath your feet? Where did it come from, and how did this hard grey material get to be pretty much everywhere? Though you may not think about it at all, concrete is used more than any other building material in the world. In fact, concrete is so ubiquitous that the production of concrete contributes 5% of the world's human-caused carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere.
Add it all up and it starts to look like concrete is more than just the stuff of sidewalks and building blocks. Concrete is a V.I.P. (which is how I like to refer to Very Important Polluters).
While concrete is a huge contributor of CO2, it also has loads of potential to be an innovative and important "green" material that helps us to build stronger and more environmentally friendly roads, bridges and buildings. This really great article from the New York Times science section explains the basics of concrete chemistry, and how new concrete mixes are being developed that are not just stronger and better for buildings, but that also can scrub carbon from the air.
Here in the Twin Cities we have our own example of cutting-edge concrete in the I-35W bridge, which was built to replace the bridge that collapsed in 2007, killing 13 people. You might not realize it as you pass over this bridge, but it's made of many different mixes of concrete, each developed to do a particular job.
Some of the concrete in the I-35W bridge was mixed and cured (that's what they call the hardening process) to be strong and stable, others to resist the road salts and other effects of weather and climate in Minnesota. The wavy concrete sculptures on the bridge even scrub pollutants from the air, In fact, they stay white because of a chemical process that uses the sun to help break down staining pollutants. Who knew concrete could be so fascinating?!
More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About Concrete
Courtesy Mark RyanEvery dang time the vernal equinox comes around (like today) people everywhere raid their refrigerators and stupidly try to balance raw eggs on smooth surfaces. Why? I don't know. I suppose because all the forces of the solar system are somehow magically aligned today and it's one of two days (the other being the autumnal equinox) it's actually maybe possible to do. I'm a sucker for this kind of crap, so I decided to try it myself. That was a mistake. After wasting most of the morning trying to get the damn egg to stay upright I have to report that my experiment was a dismal failure as can be plainly seen in the accompanying photo. Stupid egg.
Thanks to the Internet I was able to check out the validity of this so-called "Equinox Miracle" and to tell you the truth I wasn't really that surprised to learn that it's all a bunch of pseudo-scientific hooey. The equinox offers no "special conditions" for balancing eggs. If you're patient enough it can be done any day of the year (yeah, sure), and you don't have to have a PhD in physics - anyone can do it. Except me evidently. (yes, yes - I should have Googled before doing the experiment but that's neither here nor there at this point). Oh well, you can read about it yourself here and here.
But you know what? Why should I be acting like I have egg on my face? You should be thanking me; think of all the time I've saved you. Consider it my gift to you on this first day of Spring.
Courtesy fdecomite Byoungwoo Kang and Gerbrand Ceder at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have revealed an experimental battery that charges about 100 times faster than normal lithium ion batteries.
To increase the rate, the battery's surface area was increased by making the cathode out of tiny balls of lithium iron phosphate, each just 50 nanometers across.
The researchers calculate that if cellphone batteries can be made using this material, they could charge in 10 seconds. Bigger batteries for plug-in hybrid electric cars could charge in just 5 minutes - compared with about 8 hours for existing batteries.
How long until we can buy these batteries?
Because there are relatively few changes to the standard manufacturing process, Professor Ceder believes the new battery material could make it to market within two to three years. BBC News
'Nanoball' batteries could recharge car in minutes New Scientist