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    Biomimetics: Studying the Striking Power of the Mantis Shrimp

    There’s an entire field of science that believes nature and evolution have already solved some of humanity’s most complicated problems. Called biomimetics, the field focuses on studying these natural solutions and attempting to copy them, rebuild them, and use them in ways that can benefit mankind. Over the next few weeks, we’re profiling US laboratories that specialize in biomimicry and highlighting how the animal kingdom is helping humans innovate.

    Not many folks would look at a shrimp and call it the “crown jewel” of their research, but that’s exactly how David Kisailus refers to the Mantis shrimp, a crustacean that’s famous for its ability to, well, punch stuff to death. The unique properties of the animal’s boxing glove-like claw make it the perfect subject for unraveling the complex problem of impact resistance.

    Kisailus, who runs UC Riverside's Biomimetics and Nanostructured Materials Lab, explains: “The organism is smacking with more than 500 newtons of force and it’s only 4 inches long. It’s accelerating underwater faster than a 22 caliber bullet. It’s one of the fastest striking organisms on the planet. It impacts thousands of times. How can it do that and resist failure? That’s why we started studying it.”

    The mantis shrimp isn’t actually a shrimp, it’s actually a crustacean that earned its name from its shrimp-like body. The non-shrimp evolved 400 million years ago as a spear fisherman. It would hunt by shooting barbed spears at its soft-bodied prey. But its prey eventually evolved to avoid the dangers of the pointy killing method by growing shells and exoskeletons. So the Mantis shrimp had to evolve too, splitting off into a group that could use its elbow to smash open the prey that its cousins couldn’t spear. Though some still spear, the clubbing verson’s boxing glove (which still has a vestigial barb at the end) is made up of a series of highly complex and organized internal parts.

    Photo credit: Flickr user wwarby via Creative Commons.

    “It’s not your standard biological composite, which has just one component,” says Kisailus of why he is studying the material makeup of the shrimp’s punching claw. “Within the club are three separate regions and each has its own function.”

    Show and Tell: Seek Thermal Imaging Camera

    For this week's Show and Tell, Norm tests out a thermal imaging camera accessory for his Android phone. The Seek Thermal camera connects to a smartphone over microUSB to gauge the temperature of anything in its sights--like Predator vision! The image resolution is a little low, but we've been using it for laptops, tablet, and phone testing.

    In Brief: Why M&Ms are the Perfect Space Snack

    Smithsonian magazine has a fun little feature about the history of chocolate in the space program. Chocolate has been a choice treat for cosmonauts and astronauts since the very first manned space flights, but has travelled in many different forms: tubed sauce, pudding, brownies, and of course, M&Ms. We were privileged to be able to see some of these freeze-dried and vacuum-sealed snacks during our visit to JSC in 2013. I can neither confirm nor deny that I have a sealed package of space travel-ready 'candy-coated chocolates'. (Sort of related: the contents of Neil Armstrong's Apollo 11 stowage bag 'purse', recently discovered and brought to the National Air and Space Museum. Its incredible contents here.)

    Norman 2
    In Brief: Optimal Search Strategy for Finding Waldo

    Remember those Where's Waldo books? (They even made a TV show about them.) Slate ran a story back in 2013 showing you the location of Waldo in all seven books in the series, but the interesting part of that story was that the authors claimed to have devised the best search strategy for finding the character. AI researcher and data visualization geek Randy Olson took Slate's data one step further, putting Waldo's locations through a genetic algorithm to devise an optimal search path. Of course, you and I know that the point of those books was never really to find Waldo. It was to admire the art of illustrator Martin Handford. Handford, like cross-section artist Stephen Biesty, worked in a uniquely dense visual style that I most associate with 90s' children's books. They were the Quentin Blake for millennials. (h/t Laughingsquid)

    10 Little-Known Achievements Of Space Explorers

    We all know the big space records – first man on the moon, first dog in space, the usual. But of the hundreds of brave men and women who have traveled outside of Earth’s atmosphere, some hold more unusual records. Today, we’ll run down ten pretty awesome achievements that don’t always make the history books.

    What Makes a Coin Toss Random?

    Numberphile interviews Stanford professor Persi Diaconis about the factors that make a coin toss seemingly completely random, and how he and his colleagues determined what factors most affect the outcome. And some of you may already know this, but theoretical analysis of the physics of coin flipping shows that the odds aren't actually exactly 50-50. There's an ever-so-slight bias toward the side that was facing up during the toss.

    Behind-the-Scenes at the Explorers Club Headquarters

    From Science Friday: "Tour the unique artifacts, including a yeti scalp and 4-tusked elephant, collected by Explorers Club members during research expeditions over the last century. Executive Director Will Roseman reveals the remarkable science and stories of the collection at the Club Headquarters in New York City."

    Awesome Jobs: Meet Chris Buddle, Arachnologist

    Chris Buddle spends a lot of his time crawling around on his hands and knees in the high arctic. He’s one of the world’s very few experts on the eight-legged creepy crawlies that send a shiver up the spine of most folks. Buddle is an arachnologist and an associate professor of forest insect ecology at McGill University. And he loves spiders. He chatted with us about how the heck he goes about finding teeny tiny animals scuttling around the northern Tundra and why spiders aren’t scary, they’re absolutely fascinating.

    Why study spiders?

    They’re predators almost entirely within their own food web. They have a significant impact on whatever system they’re in. Whether they run down beaches as tides go out and catch invertebrates or live in the high tundra. No matter where they are, they are always eating other things and sometimes each other. They’re always eating. They have an impact on other animals around them.

    They also have very interesting applications as pest control agents. Think of how many pests they eat -- mosquitoes around our houses or crop pests -- they have an impact on pest species.

    They have all kinds of uses in the biomedical field. The silk they produce has interesting properties, people use it in the wound care industry as bandages and they use biophysical properties as a model for the development of new fabrics or ropes.

    The other thing is that they feed all kinds of other animals. In the high arctic a lot of birds, and when they first arrive to breed, after the snow and ice starts to melt the first thing they encounter as food is spiders.

    Do we have any idea how many spiders there are in the world?

    We don’t know the number in the world but I’ve done the calculation in individual habitats. It’s true that you’re almost always close to a spider. Density estimates in the arctic show there’s half a spider per meter squared. That’s 4,000 wolf spiders per hectare [about 2.5 acres]. It’s a lot. And that’s just one system. There’s a lot of spiders out there wandering around. So everyone should be an arachnologist!

    9 "Lost" Inventions That Could Come In Handy Today

    The march of progress is fairly linear – scientific discoveries build on each other and life on Earth slowly gets better, or at least easier. But sometimes there are hiccups in this timeline. One thing that’s happened more than we like to admit is inventions and discoveries simply being lost, whether taken to the grave by their inventors or otherwise vanished to the mists of time. Today, we spotlight nine lost inventions that we’d really like to see rediscovered.

    Strange Things Buried In Time Capsules

    The experience of opening up a time capsule is unreal – it’s like your ancestors are reaching forward from the past to share what was really important to them. But, as more and more capsules are opened, we’re starting to find that what was important was also really weird. Here are some bizarre things that we thought were worth sharing with the future.

    10 Things You Didn't Know about Going to the Bathroom in Space

    In space, nobody can hear you scream. But they sure can hear you use the bathroom. The question of how astronauts deal with their waste is one that has occurred to every eighth grader since the dawn of the space program, and we’re about to give you all the answers with this rundown of NASA’s space toilet.

    The Most Unusual Natural Disasters

    Mother Earth has a host of ways to strike back at the plague of humanity, and it’s comforting to think that we know all of them. Unfortunately, once you get past the big-name blockbuster natural disasters like earthquakes and tornadoes, there are a host of B-listers waiting to surprise you. Here are ten natural disasters that don’t happen often, but when they do it’s serious business.

    My Favorite Science Facts Learned in 2014: Exploding Whales, Universe Origin Stories

    Exploding Whales

    Giant, rotting, bloated whale carcasses washed up on beaches were one of this year’s top science stories. It seemed like at one point or another pretty much everyone was watching videos of them exploding their guts all over the place. Instead of covering the explosions themselves, I had the opportunity to get on the phone with Ari Friedlaender, an expert in marine mammal stranding, about what exactly happens when a dead whale washes up on shore. Which leads me one of my all time favorite things I’ve ever learned: dead whales won’t explode unless you poke them. And, in fact, the majority of whales that wash up on shores around the US rarely have a chance to get too nasty because teams of scientists are standing by to show up on the scene and necropsy them ASAP. They are eager to get a look at all the mammal’s guts because the insides of whales are impossible to study in the ocean.

    Friedlaender, who has necropsied more than 500 whales in his life, uses a special tool called a flensing knife to get inside and learn as much as possible about how a whale works. He says that even once they’re vented, cutting them open can still lead to a volcano of guts. As far as I’m concerned, the only thing better than learning about how to deflate a dead whale this year would have been getting the chance to see it happen in person.

    Making Humans Green

    I had the enormous honor of writing the December 12 cover story for Newsweek Magazine this year. The story focused on how scientists are dreaming up a variety of geoengineering projects that may one day help the planet overcome doomsday climate change scenarios. But my favorite thing I learned while researching that story came from a chat I had with S. Matthew Liao, an ethicist at New York University. His idea of helping the planet is that instead of changing Earth’s systems we re-engineer *humans* to make ourselves more eco-friendly. Along with a few colleagues, Liao wrote a fascinating paper that focuses on real, legitimate science that could be used to change the human race so our impact on the planet will be less dramatic.

    Some of his suggestions: Make humans shorter, because the smaller we are the less we’ll consume (we don’t get much of an evolutionary advantage from being as tall as we are now). Make humans averse to the flavor of meat, because cattle farming is one of the largest burdens on the planet and a huge contributor to greenhouse gasses. Change human eyesight so that we’re able to see better at night, because night vision would mean we don’t need to use as much electricity. And the simplest of all: educate all of the world’s women, because it has been proven that women with higher levels of education have fewer children, which would reduce the world’s population.

    Liao argued that re-engineering humans would actually be more reasonable than geoengineering the planet because we’d be solving the source of the climate change problem -- we humans are cause of all the trouble. And, he said, when we’re facing the total destruction of Earth these ideas might not sound so kooky. It’s a way of looking at climate change I hadn’t thought of before: climate change isn’t an Earth problem, it’s a human problem. Maybe if we all looked at it that way we’d be more open to getting ourselves out of this mess. You can read his full paper here.

    A Stop by the Glenn Research Center

    On Dec. 5, before our MythBusters: Behind the Myths performance, I stopped by the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, and they couldn’t have been nicer.

    I saw the wind tunnel in which Kari, Grant and Tori tested their Blue Ice story, and then the center's ballistics lab, where they investigated the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster. That accident involved insulating foam coming off the oxygen tanks and damaging the shuttle wing. I hadn't realized that what did the damage to that wing was not that much different than a handful of packing peanuts -- but of course packing peanuts traveling at a differential speed of about 500 mph when it hit.

    The other lab I stopped at was the Space Lab, where they have high-vacuum chambers. For the first time I saw an ion thruster:

    I had known about ion thrusters, but I had not seen one in action before. You can look right through a porthole in the vacuum chamber and see them. They are eerily pretty. They don’t put out that much thrust compared to many rocket engines, but over time it adds up. And the big thing is that they do it without requiring anywhere near as much fuel mass as combusted chemical fueled engines do, by electronically accelerating relatively small quantities of ions to very high speeds to get the push they need.

    Why NASA's Orion Mission is So Important

    Ever since the final space shuttle mission, STS-135, landed more than three years ago, NASA has lacked a vehicle to send its own astronauts back into space. Current timelines put astronauts back in American-made rockets no sooner than 2021. The Orion mission that launched this morning [more specifically, Exploration Flight Test -1 (EFT-1)], is a huge milestone in NASA’s path back to the business of launching humans into space. It can’t be overstated: This mission is a BIG deal.


    What is Orion?

    Orion is NASA’s next generation of man-carrying spacecraft. It is chartered to carry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), lunar destinations, or even Mars. Orion is really only the top part of what was sitting on the launchpad earlier today. The uppermost section of Orion is the Launch Abort System, which completely enshrouds the 4-to-6 person Crew Module. Just below the conical Crew Module is the Service Module that provides thrust, power and provisions in space. The Orion-to-Stage Adapter mates Orion to the rocket it sits atop. In the case if EFT-1, that rocket was a Delta IV Heavy (currently the largest operational rocket in the world).


    The genesis of Orion dates back to 2005 and the now-defunct Constellation program. When Constellation was cancelled in 2009, the Orion aspect of the program was retained for use in whatever program would come next. That program emerged in 2011 as Space Launch System (SLS). SLS is what will launch those astronauts in 2021.

    First Launch of NASA's Orion Next-Generation Capsule

    This morning at 7:05am EST in Cape Canaveral, a Delta IV Heavy rocket lifted off carrying the first unpiloted test flight of the next-generation Orion capsule. Orion is designed to take humans back to the Moon, near Earth asteroids, and hopefully Mars. Right now, the two-orbit, 4.5 hour mission, which is designed to test the systems designed to slow the capsule from almost 20,000mph to 20mph, is almost complete. You can watch the live feed of the splashdown on NASA TV.

    Female Anna's Hummingbird at 240fps

    This video isn't perfect, but I thought it was too awesome not to share. When I was walking to lunch the other day in San Francisco, I encountered an absolutely fearless hummingbird. At one point, she hovered about 3 inches from my face. When I realized she was going to hang around for a moment, I grabbed my phone. I'm pretty certain she's a female Anna's but she could also be a female Costa's. I shot this with my iPhone 6 Plus, which definitely feels like a Louis CK chair-in-the-sky moment for me.