An alien spaceship commander was preparing to drop a cone-shaped spy shuttle into the sand of a Florida beach near Cape Canaveral. The shuttle needed to burrow deep enough that any passing humans wouldn’t see it while the aliens used it to spy on Earth’s space program. “From how high should I drop the shuttle so that it is hidden?” the commander asked their science advisor. The science advisor pulled out their alien high school mechanics book, hoping to calculate this based on the laws of motion and Earth’s gravitational force.
If you’ve ever worn soft contact lenses, you may know that they dry out and harden if they are not stored in a solution. This pervasive issue of hydrogel materials occurs when the solvent leaks or evaporates, affecting their mechanical properties. In this week’s post, polymer scientists develop super-soft dry elastomers (very elastic or rubbery polymers) that surpass the softness and elasticity of hydrogels, all without getting their hands wet.
The entirety of our genetic information is encoded in our DNA. In our cells, it wraps together with proteins to form a flexible fiber about 2 metres long known as chromatin. Despite its length, each cell in our body keeps a copy of our chromatin in its nucleus, which is only about 10 microns across. For scale, if the nucleus was the size of a basketball, its chromatin would be about 90 miles long. How can it all fit in there? To make matters worse, the cell needs chromatin to be easily accessible for reading and copying, so it can’t be all tangled up. It’s not surprising then that scientists have been puzzled as to how this packing problem can be reliably solved in every cell. The solution is to pack the chromatin in a specific way, and research suggests that this may be in the form of a “fractal globule”.
I was ready. I was so ready. I had all my chargers and AV adapters. My presentation was backed up on a USB drive. I had every talk I wanted to go to on my calendar. I had sent emails to professors I wanted to meet and network with. I reached out to friends I only see in March in a different city every year. It was 10 pm on Saturday, February 29. My flight to Denver was leaving at 6 am in the morning. Then the email arrived —
Our bodies are made up of cells that can sense and respond to their dynamic environment. As an example, pancreatic beta cells chemically sense increased blood sugar concentrations and respond by producing insulin. Scientists have found that cells can also mechanically sense their environment; “mechanosensing” determines whether a cell should grow or die. Cancer is characterized by uncontrolled cellular growth, where cells often contain mutations that inhibit the natural mechanisms of cell death. Because mechanosensing is one such mechanism, scientists have hypothesized that cancer cells keep growing because they lack the ability to probe their environments. In this week’s paper, published in Nature Materials, an international research team led by Bo Yang and Michael Sheetz from the National University of Singapore investigated that hypothesis by combining tools from soft matter physics and biology.
Recently, Nicholas Charles and researchers from Harvard published a study that used simulations of elastic fibers to probe their response to stretching and rotation applied simultaneously. The results shed light on how DNA, proteins, and other fibrous materials respond to forces and get their intricate shapes.
Standing in the center of a crowded bus on your way to class, you might think: “why don’t these people just move? It’s hot and I can’t breathe!” Male penguins huddling to keep their eggs warm in the Antarctic winter have the opposite problem – no penguin wants to be at the cold edge of the huddle. A penguin in the huddle wants to stay in the warm center, since the outside temperature can reach -45 oC. However, penguins on the edge of the huddle are trying to push through the crowd to reach the center. Through the independent motion of each penguin, the huddle stays tight enough for the center to remain warm but loose enough to keep moving.
Conventional robots typically move by moving rigid pieces relative to one another — think of a robotic hand where rigid bars rotate at joints. In other words, conventional robots have a small number of “degrees of freedom” — the angle of bending of the joint of a robot hand would be one degree of freedom, for example. Soft robots, on the other hand, have many degrees of freedom: they can bend and deform into lots of different configurations. )Because of this, they often display continuum-like behaviour, similar to what is seen in the movement of natural organisms such as worms and octopuses. These robots offer great promise in many fields, from soft instruments for minimally invasive surgery to shape changing airfoils for increased flight control. One of the particularly difficult challenges in soft robotics is to design systems that are flat at rest but can rapidly transform to an arbitrary three dimensional shape when activated. Recently, Emmanuel Siéfert and co-workers developed baromorphs— thin, flexible sheets which can be air inflated (“pneumatically activated”) into a pre-programmed target shape.
Physicists like to ignore things. In some cases, we may neglect gravity or assume that the temperature is zero degrees Kelvin — colder than any known substance in the universe. And friction is almost comically absent in most models, despite the fact that a world without it would be utterly uninhabitable (this is nicely illustrated in cartoon form here: https://xkcd.com/669/).
The circulatory or vascular system of animals is a complex organ that performs multiple functions simultaneously. Take the human circulatory system for example: it transports oxygen and nutrients throughout the body, regulates temperature, helps in fighting diseases, etc. However, robots don’t usually function the same way. Despite the vast improvements in robot design, they still cannot do much multi-tasking. Part of the problem is that robots are typically built from rigid parts that only do one thing. A battery usually does not play any other role aside from providing energy, and moving parts are typically controlled by independent actuators. These single-purpose components (such as batteries) are typically less efficient than their biologic counterparts, and add to the weight of the robots (limiting their performance, maneuverability, speed, and autonomy).