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.
For the most part of biology, it is form that follows function. Proteins are a perfect example of this — they are made of a sequence of amino acids (the protein building units), which are synthesized by the ribosome. Once synthesized, the long strings of amino acids fold up into a particular 3D shape or conformational state. Proteins take less than a thousandth of a second to attain their preferred conformational state (called “native state”) that — if nothing goes wrong — ends up being the same for a given sequence. This process is called protein folding. Explaining how a protein finds its folding preference out of all possible ways in such a short time is a longstanding problem in biology.
Look inside a glass of milk. Still, smooth, and white. Now put a drop of that milk under a microscope. See? It’s not so smooth anymore. Fat globules and proteins dance around in random paths surrounded by water. Their dance—a type of movement called Brownian motion—is caused by collisions with water molecules that move around due to the thermal energy. This mixture of dancing particles in water is called a colloid.
“One day it’s fine and next it’s…” red? Microscopic algae depend on photosynthesis, so they follow light. Previous research has shown that their swimming is directed towards white light but not to red light. New work shows that light-activated stickiness allows microscopic algae to switch between different movement methods.
Have you ever seen those wide shapes moving in the sky at dawn, made of thousands of starlings, or the swarms of fish swimming in the ocean (see Figure 1)? The ability to organize and move in groups without a leader is called collective motion and has been observed at various spatial scales in the living world, from birds to locusts, cells, and bacteria.
There are many things that we “know” about the world around us. We know that the Earth revolves around the Sun, that gravity makes things fall downward, and that the apparently empty space around us is actually filled with the air that we breathe. We take for granted that these things are true. But how often do we consider whether we have seen evidence that supports these truths instead of trusting our sources of scientific knowledge?
While many today would associate a “cloak of invisibility” with Harry Potter, the idea of a magical item that renders the wearer invisible is not a new one. In Ancient Greek, Hades was gifted a cap of invisibility in order to overthrow the Titans, whereas in Japanese folklore, Momotar? loots a straw-cloak of invisibility from an ogre, a story which is strangely similar to the English fairytale Jack the Giant-Slayer. Looking to the future in Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry imagined a terrible foe known as the Klingons, a war-driven race that could appear at any moment from behind their cloaking devices – indeed, any modern military would bite your arm off to get hold of this kind of device. Clearly, invisibility is a concept that has captured minds across many cultures, genres, and eras, so it should be no wonder that scientists are working on making it a reality.
Granular rearrangement and the deformation of beams under load are two well understood, but very different systems. What happens when you put them together?