Stories tagged Structure of Matter


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.

To read more about NanoDays visit:

To see a full list of organizations hosting 2014 events visit:

2014 Events in Saint Paul and Minneapolis, MN:

To learn more about nanotechnology, science, and engineering, visit:

To see other nano stories on Science Buzz tagged #nano visit:


This amazing video from NASA (via EarthSky) shows an incredibly gigantic eruption on the Sun's surface that produced three different types of events: a solar flare, a coronal mass ejection (CME), and a really interesting and rare phenomenon known as coronal rain.

Coronal rain occurs when hot plasma in the eruption cools and condenses then follows the outline of the normally invisible magnetic fields as it rains back to the Sun's chromosphere. I found that particularly amazing to see.
The images were gathered on July 19, 2012 by the Solar Dynamics Observatory’s AIA instrument. One frame was shot every 12 seconds over a span of 21.5 hours from 12:30 a.m. EDT to 10:00 p.m. EDT. The video plays at a rate of 30 frames per second, so each second equals 6 minutes of real time.

What's extra cool is when the scale of this thing is compared to the size of Earth­. If you were feeling small earlier today, you should be feeling microscopic after watching this.

EarthSky website


Spooky action: not just for Halloween anymore.
Spooky action: not just for Halloween anymore.Courtesy Photo and graphic by author plus Wikimedia Commons
This is a perfect post for Halloween. A really scary story involving quantum physics. Let me begin by saying that this stuff is absolutely mind-boggling. I’m not even sure I can explain it. Albert Einstein himself – the bravest theoretical physicist there ever was - called it “Spooky action at a distance”, that’s how much it scared him. What’s even more disturbing is that scientists now are reporting that this spooky action has gotten even spookier! I’m talking back-from-the-dead-zombie spooky! Let me feebly try to explain.

One dark and stormy night there were two sub-atomic particles – photons, let’s say – that are joined together like a two-headed freak show turtle. Wait, probably a bad analogy – how about this: like a set of identical twins? That works. Think of twins, Larry and Ralph. They’ve interacted with each other since birth, acting exactly the same way no matter where they were. If Larry ate a cheeseburger for lunch, Ralph had one, too. Anyway, in the world of quantum mechanics, this joining of two particles is called entanglement.

At quantum levels all rules of physics are thrown out like a rotting pumpkin on All Saints Day. As I understand it, particles don’t really exist in one particular spot or state on the time-space continuum –but rather in all their probable states at the same time. It has to do with a deal called superposition, and is all about probability. Which means until they’re measured or observed in some way, they live in a constant state of uncertainty. Once one of them gets measured, and a value is placed on it, the uncertainty is eliminated, and at that point it locks into some sort of “existence”. I think so anyway. But – and this is a really big but – just by measuring it, the particle dies. Or it’s state of uncertainty dies– I’m not sure which. Something gets killed. Does this make any sense? Not to me, but I’ll continue anyway.

So, with an entangled pair of particles, things get kind of weird. When two particles are entangled – i.e. physically interacting - with some sort of correlation (or anti-correlation), – that interaction remains no matter where they are located in relation to each other. You measure a value in one of the entangled particles, you can be certain the other particle instantly has the same value. In a correlated pair, if you see that one particle has an up spin, you’ll know right away the other has an up spin, too. In a normal world analogy, if you see Larry bobbing for apples at a party tonight, you’ll know Ralph is somewhere with a wet head.

This theory has been successfully tested several times on pairs of entangled photons separated by 80 some miles. It would matter not a whit if they were separated by a 100 billion lightyears, some unexplained force tying them together, would give the same results.

Now here comes the really scary part. Quantum physicists are now predicting that the same kind thing can happen when the two entangled particles don't even exist at the same time. This is called an entanglement swap. It involves removing a particle from one entangled pair, and using it to create a new pair with another particle removed from a different entangled pair. I know. Blah, blah, blah. But let’s see if I can help you (and me) understand.

Let’s start with an entangled pair of photons, our old pals “Larry and Ralph” again. You decide to measure Larry’s spin. It’s a down spin. So far so good. But unfortunately, your measurement leaves his twin Ralph, all alone. “You’re dead to me!” Ralph screams! And Larry is dead because you gave him a value (his spin). Ralph now wanders about by himself (with the same down spin as Larry of course). This is called disengagement. A little later, you create another entangled pair of photons, this time named “Jane and Sally”. They’re not very happy– always bickering, always fighting over whether they’re actually particles or packets of waves – you know, the usual photon sibling stuff. Anyway, after a while they become disengaged (somehow evidently without measuring and killing one – I’m confused here). Anyway, Jane leaves in a huff and eventually ends up hooking up with the very lonely Ralph. They’ve now done the old entanglement swap.

This leaves us with one dead photon, Larry, and one abandoned photon, Sally. They come from two different disengaged pairs and couldn’t be more unrelated. But, thanks to the screwy world of quantum mechanics Larry has somehow returned from the dead and is suddenly now entangled with Sally. They are an entangled pair. Sally wasn’t even alive when Larry died! But now she’s stuck in a paired entanglement with a stupid zombie. Now that's frightening. I’m sure Einstein is spinning in his grave.

If my telling of this bizarre quantum tale hasn’t scrambled your brains, or made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, you can try to learn more at the below links.

New Scientist story
Scientific American story
Niels Bohr – the genius responsible for this stuff
Quantum entanglement
Uncertainty principal
Schrodinger’s Cat A cat's both dead and alive until you look inside the box.


Graphene fixes itself: Graphene uses loose carbon atoms to re-knit its damaged structure.
Graphene fixes itself: Graphene uses loose carbon atoms to re-knit its damaged structure.Courtesy kso
As a happy accident, scientists from the University of Manchester learned that graphene (sheets of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb crystal lattice, just one atom thick – think chicken wire) can repair itself spontaneously. Graphene is a semi-metal that conducts electricity very easily. It has potential uses in not only electronics, but also DNA sequencing, desalination, and it has been found to be a great antimicrobial.

The Manchester researchers were originally trying to understand how metals react with graphene, which will be an important part of incorporating it into everyday electronic devices. They found, much to their dismay, that some metals actually damaged graphene’s structure by punching holes in its neatly-arranged lattice. This is not a good thing if you’re trying to create a graphene-based device. However, quite unexpectedly, the graphene started to mend itself spontaneously, using nearby loose carbon atoms! As stated by the Scientific Director at the Daresbury Laboratory, Dr. Quentin Ramasse, this could mean the “difference between a working device and a proof of concept with no real application.” It also means that graphene just jumped to the top of my “baller carbon allotropes” list.


Ferrofluid + Watercolor= Purty: Photographer Fabian Oefner captures the beautiful effects of combining watercolor and ferrofluid.
Ferrofluid + Watercolor= Purty: Photographer Fabian Oefner captures the beautiful effects of combining watercolor and ferrofluid.Courtesy Fabian Oefner
Ever wonder what adding watercolor to ferrofluid might look like? Yeah, me neither. But photographer Fabian Oefner did, and this is the result – cool, psychedelic, maze-like images!

Ferrofluid is a colloidal liquid that’s made up of nanoparticles of iron, suspended in a fluid (usually water). Because it’s basically liquid iron, it becomes magnetized when exposed to a magnetic field, and ends up looking like a spiky mound. What Fabian did to create these cool images was to inject watercolors into a magnetized puddle of ferrofluid. The nanoparticles of iron then rearrange themselves into channels and pools to accommodate the paint, creating these colorful labyrinths. I highly recommend watching the video that demonstrates this process – it’s mesmerizing!


Sensing Strain: This new system will allow you to detect strain anywhere, in any direction, and at any time.
Sensing Strain: This new system will allow you to detect strain anywhere, in any direction, and at any time.Courtesy Bruce Weisman
Scientists at Rice University developed a new type of paint, infused with carbon nanotubes, that can detect strain in bridges, buildings, and airplanes before the signs of deformation become visible to the naked eye.

This is how it works: The paint is applied to the desired structure and allowed to dry. A laser beam is then focused on the structure, which excites the carbon nanotubes, and in turn, causes them to fluoresce in a way that indicates strain. Finally, a handheld infrared spectrometer is used to measure this fluorescence.

The advantage of strain paint over conventional strain gauges is that the gauge (the paint, in this case) and the read-out device don't have to be physically connected. Also, strain paint allows you to measure strain anywhere on the structure, and along any direction. This product is not yet on the market, but it will benefit all of us, as I'm sure we all find the structural integrity of our planes, bridges, and buildings to be pretty important.


World's smallest giraffe: Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) image depicting a baby giraffe
World's smallest giraffe: Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) image depicting a baby giraffeCourtesy Image courtesy of the Materials Research Society Science as Art Competition and Shaahin Amini and Reza Abbaschian, University of California Riverside
Materials science is the study of the relationship between the structure of materials at the atomic or molecular scales and their properties at the macroscale. Materials scientists do a lot of monkeying around at super small scales, and the Materials Research Society (the organization that brings together materials scientists from academia, industry, and government) has given them a creative outlet. At each of their annual meetings, MRS includes a Science as Art competition, where any registered meeting attendee can enter an image they have created. The images are pretty amazing in their own right, but when you think about the methods, medium, and scale used to create them, it's truly mind-boggling! Here are some of the best entries from past meetings, and some video versions of selected works as well.


Buckyballs are tiny spherical molecules made up of 60 carbon atoms arranged in what looks like a soccer ball, or a truncated icosahedron for those shape fans out there. Buckyballs are found naturally in soot and have even been found in deep space. They look promising for the medical field, for the development of a new class of battery, and now they may even be the key to living longer!Buckminsterfullerene: Just a spoonful of buckyballs live longer.
Buckminsterfullerene: Just a spoonful of buckyballs live longer.Courtesy Bryn C

In a recent study, scientists found that ingesting buckyballs can add years to your life! Well, if you're counting in rat-years. Scientists, in an attempt to better understand the toxicity of ingested buckyballs, gave three groups of rats different things to eat. One group, the control group, was fed a regular rat diet; the second group was fed olive oil; and the third, thought-to-be-ill-fated group, was fed olive oil laced with buckyballs. They found that the control group had a median lifespan of 22 months, the olive oil group had a 26-month lifespan, and the buckyball group had a 42-month lifespan – almost double that of the control group! I’m sure that was quite a surprise for the scientists.

As intriguing as these findings are, don’t go out and eat sooty olive oil…..I don’t think you’ll get the right results. This is just one study, and there’s a lot more research that needs to be done before they start selling Buckyballive oil.


Iridescence is usually a vanity thing in nature; birds and butterflies, for instance, use it to attract mates. This is Golden Mole: The tiny structures that help streamline the mole and make it water-repellant also give it its iridescence.
Golden Mole: The tiny structures that help streamline the mole and make it water-repellant also give it its iridescence.Courtesy Killer18
the type of thing that would be completely lost on a blind mole...or is it? In the case of the golden mole, iridescence is very much a part of its appearance, but according to a new study about the structure of hair, this iridescence takes on a more functional role. The nano-sized structures on the flattened, paddle-shaped hairs not only give the moles a lovely sheen (for animals that can actually see them), but may also help to repel water and streamline the moles as they move through the sand. This is definitely a case of function over form.


Professor Richard Handy and his team of scientists at Plymouth University in the UK have discovered that nanoparticles of titanium dioxide are causing holes to form (you can call them vacuoles if you want to be fancy), and nerve cells to die, in the brains of living fish. Titanium Dioxide
Titanium DioxideCourtesy Wikimedia Commons

“Gee, that sounds bad,” you might think. “But what does that have to do with me? I can’t say I’ve ever purchased a box of titanium dioxide at the grocery store.” Nope, you haven’t. But what you have purchased at the grocery store is food with titanium dioxide in it (to make your white foods whiter), and you’ve also purchased some makeup and sunblocks made with nanoparticles of titanium dioxide. And you ate your Angel Food Cake. Or you washed the makeup off your face. Or showered after a protected day in the sun. The concern is that those titanium dioxide nanoparticles could make their way through our wastewater treatment systems and ultimately end up in our rivers and streams. And cause holey fish brains.Rainbow Trout
Rainbow TroutCourtesy Timothy Knepp - U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

In all honesty, it’s less likely that your personal usage will be directly responsible for holey fish brains and more likely that the problem rests with the large-scale manufacturing process of these products…but you’re still a key component because you’re buying what they’re selling. And so they’re making more. And now that we’ve discovered holey fish brains as a result of exposure to an ingredient in products we’re using – what should we do? Heck, holey fish brains should be concerning enough in and of itself – but let’s just take this one step further: If that’s what happens to fish, what might happen to humans?

Luckily, some important questions and conversations have arisen in the public sphere – let’s just hope the decision-makers are listening. From Nanowerk:

“The results of Professor Handy's work and that of other researchers investigating the biological effects of nanoparticles may influence policy regulations on the environmental protection and human safety of nanomaterials.

“‘It is worrying that the effects on the fish brain caused by these nanoparticles have some parallels with other substances like mercury poisoning, and one concern is that the materials may bioaccumulate and present a progressive or persistent hazard to wildlife and to humans,’ says Professor Handy.”

A writer over at Frogheart
posed some thoughtful questions, too:

  • The statement is that nanoparticles cause brain injury in fish but the researchers mention titanium di/oxide nanoparticles only. Did they test other nanoparticles as well?
  • How did they conduct the tests?
  • Did the fish ingest titanium di/oxide from the water? From their food? From both?
  • What concentrations were they exposed to?
  • Were they in an environment similar to what they’d experience naturally? Or were they in special tanks?

Good news, frogheart! Professor Handy and his team aren’t the only scientists doing this kind of research involving nanoparticles in the environment. Duke University’s Center for the Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology (CEINT) have recently shared their work on nanosilver in the environment with NISE Net, who in turn made a fascinating 6-minute video to make it all make sense:

Does Every Silver Lining Have a Cloud? from NISE Network on Vimeo.

And I happened to sit in on a panel discussion this very morning about Nanomaterials, Toxicology, and Risk, where Shannon Hanna of the University of California Santa Barbara’s Center for Nanotechnology in Society (CNS UCSB) gave a fascinating presentation about “Impacts of Zinc Oxide Nanoparticles on the Mussel.” In it, he and his team found that chronic exposure to zinc oxide had a negative impact on growth and survival on the Mediterranean Mussel.Mediterranen Mussel
Mediterranen MusselCourtesy uncredited
Nanoparticles of zinc oxide are in a whole slew of products, including the paint on boats. Boats which tend to congregate near docks. Where mussels also like to congregate. And it turns out mussels are basically Filters of the Ocean. They accumulate metals and pollutants. And then pretty much every other thing in the ocean and around the ocean (birds, us) like to eat them. Add too much zinc oxide to the mix? Runty and short-lived mussels. Hmmmm. Anyone hungry?

The studies seem to be piling up, and it’s increasingly apparent to me that nanoparticles and environment don’t play nice. Perhaps its time to start talking seriously about regulation? What do you think?