Science Winners

Five gorgeous examples of science photography.

Fluid Mechanics Credit: Stuart Hirth/New Scientist Eureka Prize for Science Photography

The amazing photograph above shows splashes formed from single drops landing in puddles. Captured over several months, they were photographed in darkness using a high-speed flash to preserve their colors and shapes and then brought together in one image.

Liquid Lace Credit: Phred Peterson/New Scientist Eureka Prize for Science Photography.

This winning photograph shows drops of glycerin and water impacting a thin film of ethanol.  The difference in surface tension creates holes in the drop’s surface making it look like lace.

Growth of agaric toadstool mushroom Credit: Phred Petersen/ Royal Photographic Society.

Another image created by Phred Petersen.  This is a time lapse image showing the progress of an agaric toadstool mushroom as it grows.

Phred Petersen is a Senior Lecturer and Coordinator Scientific Photography, School of Media and Communication at RMIT University, a global university of technology and design.

Obelia hydroid Credit: Teresa A. Zgoda

This last photo is a confocal image of a marine organism (obelia hydroid) taken with the 10x objective.  It was a winner from the 2016 International Images for Science competition.

Confocal cross section view of a dandelion showing curved stigma with pollen. Credit: Dr. Robert Markus

Just one more – an honorable mention from 2017 Nikon Small World Competition.

 

 

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Electrifying Match-Ups

I just finished reading The Last Day of Night by Graham Moore and thought it would be fun to look at photographs of Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, who, more than a century ago, engaged in a nasty battle over alternating and direct current, known as the “War of Currents.”

Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla Credit: Library of Congress

Edison developed the first practical incandescent light bulb in 1879. Supported by his own direct current electrical system, the rush to build hydroelectric plants to generate DC power in cities across the United States practically guaranteed Edison a fortune in patent royalties.

But there were limitations with DC power so Edison brought Nikola Tesla on to design a more practical form of power transmission. Tesla was a 28 years old mathematician and engineer from Serbia. Tesla told Edison the future was in AC (alternating current). When Edison dismissed his idea Tesla left Edison in 1885 and set out to raise money for his own company.

Enter industrialist George Westinghouse at Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company Westinghouse who made his fortune on an air braking system, which revolutionized rail safety. Westinghouse was a believer in AC power. He bought some of Tesla’s patents and set about commercializing the system to make electric lighting more than an urban luxury service. While Tesla’s ideas and ambitions might be brushed aside, Westinghouse had both ambition and capital, and Edison immediately recognized the threat to his business.

George Westinghouse

Edison and Westinghouse knew there was room for but one American electricity system, and Edison set out to ruin Westinghouse and Tesla in a great political, legal and marketing game. Their battle played out on the front pages of newspapers and in the Supreme Court. Edison’s attempt to smear Westinghouse with the dangers of AC has precisely the opposite effect.

Despite all of Edison’s efforts, and despite his attempts to persuade General Electric otherwise, the superiority of the AC current was too much for Edison and his DC system to overcome.  For his part, Edison later admitted that he regretted not taking Tesla’s advice.

In 1893, Westinghouse was awarded the contract to light the Chicago’s World Fair bringing all the positive publicity he would need to make alternating current the industry standard.

Postcard World’s Columbian Exposition Chicago 1893
Spectators viewing the Columbian Exposition Fair
1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago lit by Westinghouse
Electrical Building at the fair exhibiting both Westinghouse Electric as well as Edison’s General Electric Company

Seeking to make long distance electric power transmission a reality, George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla combined their skills and their belief in the new AC technology to build the first hydro-electric power plant in 1895 in Niagara Falls. This achievement was regarded as the unofficial end to the War of the Currents, and AC became dominant in the electric power industry.

Interior of Edward Dean Adams power station at Niagara with ten 5,000-horsepower Tesla/Westinghouse AC generators. Photo credit: The Everett Collection

In 1899 Tesla opened the Experimental Station in Colorado Springs to study the use of high-voltage, high frequency electricity in wireless power transmission. One of Tesla’s goals was to produce artificial lightning.

Tesla shown here with the Tesla spiral coil high voltage transformer, 1896.
Famous photograph of Serbian-American inventor Nicola Tesla in his laboratory in Colorado Springs around 1899. Tesla is supposedly sitting reading next to his giant high voltage generator while the machine produced huge bolts of electricity. The photo was a promotional stunt by photographer Dickenson V. Alley – a double exposure. First the machine’s huge sparks were photographed in the darkened room, then the photographic plate was exposed again with the machine off and Tesla sitting in the chair. In his Colorado Springs Notes Tesla admitted that the photo is false.

30th Anniversary of Bridgestone World Solar Challenge

The world’s largest solar car race began Sunday October 8th with dozens of vehicles traveling some 1,800 miles from Australia’s north coast to south coast.

2017 starting line-up

Starting in Darwin and ending in the southern city of Adelaide teams from over 30 countries take on the challenge of traversing the outback in a vehicle powered only by the power of the sun. These are arguably the most efficient electric vehicles in the world. Some teams expected to record an average speed of 90 to 100 km per hour throughout the challenge.

Students from leading international universities and technical institutes have to engineer and build a vehicle with their own hands using no more than four square meters of solar panels.  With a standard entry fee of AU $13,000 they need sponsors to back up their design. The main action will be the streamlined Challenger class — slick, single seat aerodynamic vehicles built for sustained endurance and total energy efficiency. There is also a Cruiser class, which aims to showcase solar technology for mainstream vehicles that are more practical for day-to-day use.

Once the teams have left Darwin they must travel as far as they can until 5 pm in the afternoon where they make camp in the desert where ever they happen to be. All teams must be fully self-sufficient and for all concerned it is a great adventure – many say the adventure of a lifetime.

Tokai Challenger from Japan
Solar Car Naledi from South Africa North West University

During the journey there are 7 mandatory checkpoints where observers are changed and team managers may update themselves with the latest information on the weather, and their position in the field. At checkpoints, teams can perform the most basic of maintenance only – checking and maintenance of tire pressure and cleaning of debris from the vehicle.

Huawei Sonnenwagen from Sonnenwagen Aachen E.V. in Germany

Nearly 40 teams left Darwin on Sunday but a number succumbed to issues before they left the city limits.  The race takes one week to complete.

NITech Solar Racing vehicle Horizon 17 from Japan catching afternoon sun in Daly Waters after racing on Day One (Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
Top three competitors at Barrow Creek left to right: Unlimited 2.0 from Western Sydney University in Australia, Tokai Challenger from Tokai University in Japan and Nuna9 from Stichting Zenith Innovations in Netherlands.

Hans Tholstrup, the founder of the 1982 World Solar Challenge, comments, “We can take a human being across a continent on just sunshine, and that is pure magic.” The technology or design used to achieve this efficiency could be further developed to be used in high performance race cars..

2017 Event Director Chris Selwood said a variety of practical uses come out of engineering these cars. One example is a Dutch team that developed a coating to make their car more aerodynamic and had the side effect that dirt won’t stick to it.

“If you applied that to a conventional car, you’d probably never have to wash it,” Selwood said. How cool would that be!

 

 

 

The Marriage of Biology and Engineering

Bioengineering’s most visible branch is the development of medical innovations such as prosthetics and high-tech implants, but genetic, stem cell and tissue engineering are all set to become key fields in the medicine of the future.

For example, to help prep a surgeon who needed to close the hole in an infant’s heart, a biomedical robotic expert at the Children’s National Medical Centre in Washington, DC created a model heart with a 3D printer. He used a mix of hard and soft plastics to replica the feel of a real heart.

A model heart created by 3D printer Photo: Carolyn Cochenour/Washington Post

In China medical doctors at the Orthopedic Hospital in Zhengzhou City created a 3D model of a dislocated spine. This allowed them to practice a complicated surgical procedure ahead of time…isolating and opening the problem area, resetting the dislocation and then screwing everything back together without damaging the patient’s actual spinal cord.


Model of a spine with a 3D-printed vertebra devise in Beijing Photograph: Jason Lee/Reuters

To rescue babies born with congenital breathing condition which caused their airways to collapse, the University of Michigan has customized tracheal splints made from biocompatible material.   The splints support the collapsed trachea and then get reabsorbed within two years.

Trachea splints Photo courtesy of Leisa Thompson, Photography/UNHA

Using bioengineering to create organ structures that function and restore the health of that tissue for that person, is the holy grail of bioengineering for regenerative medicine.

Scientists at Northwestern University created prosthetic ovaries for mice. The prosthetic ovaries were printed using liquid gelatin made from broken-down collagen, a natural material, which is found in ligaments, tendons, muscles, bones and skin.

A scaffold for a bioprosthetic mouse ovary 3D-printed with gelatin Photo by Kristin Samuelson

The research team built the ovaries by printing various patterns of overlapping gelatin filaments on glass slides—like building with Lincoln Logs, but on a miniature scale: Each scaffold measured just 15 by 15 millimeters. They then carefully inserted mouse follicles—spherical structures containing a growing egg surrounded by hormone-producing cells—into these “scaffolds.”

After punching out 2-millimeter circles through the scaffolds and implanting 40–50 follicles into each one, they created a “bioprosthetic” ovary. The team showed that blood vessels from each mouse infiltrated the scaffolds. This process is critical because it provides oxygen and nutrients to the follicles and allows hormones produced by the follicles to circulate in the blood stream. The result was a fully functional bio-prosthetic ovary that not only restored hormone function, but also allowed the mice to get pregnant, deliver pups and lactate after birth.

In the future ready-to-implant organs should be possible in humans with 3D bioprinting. Scientists are excited that this technique could restore function in cancer patients who have lost their fertility.

Bioengineering is also being used to build artificial biological systems for research, engineering and medical applications.

Illustration of synthetic biology by Eric Proctor and Autumn Kulaga

Synthetic biology gives scientists unprecedented control of living cells at the genetic level. This field encompasses both plant and mammalian cells.

MIT biological engineers have created a programming language that allows them to rapidly design complex, DNA-encoded circuits to give new functions to living cells. The circuit runs inside a bacteria cell.   It’s like they are hacking living cells to program a new language.

Illustration of programing bacteria Image by Janet Iwasa

The MIT team plans to work on several different applications using this approach: bacteria that can be swallowed to aid in digestion of lactose; bacteria that can live on plant roots and produce insecticide if they sense the plant is under attack; and yeast that can be engineered to shut off when they are producing too many toxic byproducts in a fermentation reactor. In the future the bacteria could be programmed to release cancer drugs when encountering a tumor.

Biomedical engineering and biological programming are exciting, expanding new field of research with unlimited possibilities.

 

 

 

Cute but Deadly

Head-on view of caterpillar Credit: Melvyn Yeo/Science Photo Library

Most caterpillars have long hair called setae covering their bodies.  This hair act as a  defense mechanism.  The hairs often have detachable tips that will irritate would-be predators by lodging in the skin or mucous membranes.

Here are a trio to avoid: the puss caterpillar, the hickory tussock caterpillar and the io moth caterpillar.

The most venomous caterpillar in the United States, the puss caterpillar, got its name because it resembles a cuddly house cat. Small, extremely toxic spines stick in your skin releasing venom. At first the sting feels like a bee sting, only worse. The pain rapidly gets worse and can even make your bones hurt. People who have been stung on the hand say the pain can radiate up to their shoulder and last for up to 12 hours.

Furry puss caterpillar feeding. Photo by Caterpillar hunter/Flickr

One dapper critter called the hickory tussock caterpillar has a velvety back and sweeping bristles.  It looks more like a vintage feather boa than a caterpillar and is widely distributed in the eastern half of North America.

Hickory tussock caterpillar Photo by Greg Dwyer/Wikipeida Commons.

Some people have little to no reaction to the hickory tussock’s sting, but others have a reaction that ranges from a mild to severe rash comparable to poison ivy.   It’s microscopic barbs may cause serious medial complications if they are transferred from the hands to the eyes.   The adult moth flies away in May and June.

Caterpillars have to eat a lot. Within a few weeks of devouring as much greenery as physically possible, an io caterpillar can go from being a half-inch-long worm to a nearly three-inch-long monstrosity, brilliant green with red and white racing stripes  like the Io mother caterpillar:

Io moth caterpillar. Photo by Tim Lethbridge

Io caterpillars are indeed capable, and more than willing, to deliver a painful sting. If you brush up against these spines, the tips will break off and start to inject venom.

So what do you do if you get stung by any of these toxic caterpillars? Place Scotch tape over the affected area and strip off repeatedly to remove spines. Apply ice packs to reduce the stinging sensation, and follow with a paste of baking soda and water. If you have a history of hay fever, asthma or allergy, or if allergic reactions develop, contact a physician immediately.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Home is Where the Microbes Are

A person’s home is their castle and they populate it with their own subjects – millions and millions of bacteria.

When we move from one location to another we take all of our bacteria with us and “colonize” the space around us within a matter of hours. These “bacterial signatures” are unique.

Mouth microbes Credit Martin Oeggerli, with support from School of Life Sciences, FHNW

Microbiome studies could serve as a forensic tool. In the future scientists could look at bacterial colonies to identify the last person to come into contact with the victim of a crime and estimated when the contact happened.

Microbes on small intestines Credit: Stephanie Schuller

The human gut teems with bacteria, many of their species still unknown. They help us digest food and absorb nutrients, and they play a part in protecting our intestinal walls. Gut bacteria may also help regulate weight and ward off autoimmune diseases.

Chain of streptococcus in a lab sample. Credit: Photo by Martin Oeggerli, with support from School of Life Sciences, FHNW
Colored scanning electron micrograph of microbes in human gut Photo by Martin Oeggerli

What are “superbugs” ? Any bacteria that cannot be treated by two or more antibiotics is being called a superbug. The CDC claims the single leading factor for the increase in superbugs is the misuse of antibiotics. Most people who get a C. diff (Clostridium difficile) infection are getting medical care.

SEM by David Phillips of Clostridium Difficile

MRSA (Staphylococcus aureus) is carried by around 30 per cent of the population without causing any symptoms. However, in vulnerable people, such as those that have recently had surgery, it can cause wound infections, pneumonia and blood poisoning. MRSA cannot be treated with penicillin.

Staphylococcus aureus MRSA bacteria, computer artwork by Alfred Pasieka/Science Photo Library

Doctors sometimes recommend beneficial bacteria, also known as probiotics, for patients suffering from GI illnesses such as colitis and Crohn’s disease. However, these over-the-counter probiotic supplements may contain varying amounts of bacteria, and may include cells that are no longer viable. Furthermore, these probiotics have no protective coating, so they can be damaged by acid in the stomach before reaching the intestines.

An MIT team has come up with a method of coating these beneficial bacteria with layer-by-layer layers of polysaccharides or sugars. The thin, gel-like coating protects the bacteria cells from acid in the stomach, as well as bile salts. Once the cells reach the intestines, they settle in and begin replicating, creating a whole new microbiome.

MIT coated probiotic bacteria Credit: Second Bay Studios

 

 

Psychedelic Images in Science

3D Computed Tomography (CT) is a nondestructive scanning technology that allows you to view and inspect the external and internal structures of an object in 3D space. Computed Tomography works by taking hundreds or thousands of 2D Digital Radiography projections around a 360 degree rotation of an object. Algorithms are then used to reconstruct the 2D projections into a 3D CT volume, which will allow you to view and slice the part at any angle.

North Star Technology integrated circuit micro Chip 3D x ray nanotanomography ct scan
Integrated circuit micro chip shown using 3D nano tomography CT scan by North Star Technology

The same technology allows medical doctors and dentists to more accurately diagnose their patients and/or to view implants.

Brain Skull DawidKasza istockphoto 185555045
3D CT scan showing brain in human skull Credit:  DawidKasza/iStockphoto.com
Dental-CT-Scan showing implants
Dental 3D CT scan showing dental implants

In the course of developing sophisticated imaging techniques for peering into the human body, radiologist Dr. Kai-Hung Fung discovered something within himself: an artist.

Dr. Fung is a specialist in diagnostic radiology at Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital, Hong Kong SAR, China. The discovery happened when Fung was asked by surgeons to generate 3-D images to allow them to visualize complex anatomies prior to surgery. Beginning with CT scans that show slices of organs at different depths, Fung stacked the slices into a single image and developed a way to indicate changes in depth with contour lines similar to those on a topographic map.

Teeth
Looking at human teeth upward from inside the mouth.  Credit:  Dr. Kai-Hung Fung
Kai Hung Fung CT scan cancerskulll
CT scan of human skull.  The red ring-like pattern is cancer of the thyroid, which has become detached and deposited on the skull bone.  Credit:  Dr. Kai-Hung Fung
Down through top of brain netwk arteries and veins Kai hung Fung blob1
Network of blood vessels inside the brain with the skull base as background.  Credit:  Dr. Kai-Hung Fung

Dr. Fung has used a post-production trick he developed, known as the “rainbow technique” to add colored contour lines to his images. This enhances the 3D effect.

Roof of 4th ventricle of brain K H Fung 1.jpg.CROP.original-original.jpg
Roof of 4th ventricle of brain  Credit:  Dr. Kai-Hung Fung

His approach to radiology doesn’t stop with medical imagery. He has partnered with Dr. Gary Yeoh to produce 3-D CT images of flowers and biological specimens.

Bell pepper (Capsicum annuum), 3D CT scan
Colored 3D CT scan of bell pepper.  Credit:  Dr. Kai-Hung Fung
Whelk, 3D CT scan
Colored 3D CT of whelk shell  Credit:  Dr. Kai-Hung Fung
Stargazer lily from mysicalgarden.org
Stargazer lily from mysticalgarden.org

Dr. Fung’s art career has blossomed. His amazing diagnostic images have been awarded, exhibited and published. His CT and MR scans are more than just psychedelic images, they are “4-D visualizations” that help surgeons visualize the changing perspectives and relative relationships of various anatomical structures.