Ladybugs’ Wing-Folding Technique Uncovered! New-Style Umbrellas Could Result

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A Ladybug takes flight.  (Photo: U. of Tokyo)

Ladybugs are beautifully colored little creatures that, like bumble bees, seem to defy nature in that they fly with bodies far larger than logic, or perceived aerodynamic rules, would enable a living entity to become airborne under its own power.

Odd as that is, scientists have long pondered another mystery about the ladybug, a type of beetle: How they manage to corral fairly substantial wings into extremely tight folds, making them – the wings – virtually invisible when the, um, bugs are at rest.

Mystery solved! Not only have Japanese scientists at the University of Tokyo figured out how that’s done, they’ve suggested that the ladybug’s wing-folding system could give rise to a change in the shape of umbrellas, the design of which had essentially remained unchanged for more than 1,000 years.

Sarah Knapston, Science Editor at The Telegraph in London, described the finding recently. In a nutshell, it boils down to the fact that the folding wing lies beneath the colorful one that shields and protects the former.

To arrive at their conclusion, the Japanese scientists replaced the spotted forewing, known as an elytron, with a transparent piece of resin. What they learned could help engineers design foldable solar collectors or even a new type of umbrella.

Kazuya Saito, Assistant Professor at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Industrial Science, designs foldable structures—so insect wings are a natural interest. “Compared with other beetles, ladybugs are very good at flying and frequently take off,” he tells Bryson Masse at Gizmodo. “I thought their wing transformation systems are excellent and have large potential for engineering.”

He and his team tried several methods to figure out how the ladybug folded its wing. They took high-speed images of the insect opening and closing its wings, but still couldn’t see the actual folding process under the opaque spotted forewings. They attempted to 3D print an artificial wing, but they couldn’t make one that was transparent enough to see thorough.

As Masse reports, the researchers’ secretary was the one who came up with a solution: clear nail art resin. After crafting the wing out of the resin, the team was able to observe how the insect folded and unfolded its wings.

The creatures use the edge of the elytron and abdominal movements to fold the wing along creased lines. Examination of the wings using a CT scan also revealed that they have springy veins similar to a tape measure that are rigid enough to allow the insects to fly, but elastic enough to fold up.

Saito tells Masse that the wings are unusual because “transformable structures” usually involve moving parts and joints. But the ladybug’s wing lacks those complications, completing a relatively complex task through flexibility and elasticity. The paper appears in The Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.

While the structure of ladybug wings may have applications for things like foldable solar panels for satellites and space ships, Saito seems most excited about its application to something much more domestic. “I believe that beetle wing folding has the potential to change the umbrella design that has been basically unchanged for more than 1000 years,” he tells Knapton. Collapsible umbrellas usually have multiple parts and are easily broken at the joints. But the ladybug umbrella could be made from”seamless flexible frames,” he says, making it indestructible in strong wind and quick to deploy using “stored elastic energy.”

Saito admits that he doesn’t have a design for the umbrella yet, but perhaps it will look something like this.


A Worm Enzyme Might Help Rid World of Some Thrown-Away Plastic

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Henderson Island beach. Photo: Jennifer Lavers, University of Tasmania

It is widely believed that is possible to rid ourselves of plastic items we no longer want by throwing them away. A study of Henderson Island, a 14.4 sq mile (37.3 sq km) spit of land in the Pitcairn Islands, which are far from anywhere else in the far reaches of the South Pacific, has demonstrated with frightening certainty that, as an old saying has it, “there’s no such place as away.”

Virtually every available surface, and too many buried ones to count on Henderson Island, are covered with bits of plastic, much of it from China, significant amounts also from Japan and Chile, according to scientists from the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, and the Centre for Conservation Science, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, in the UK. Some 37 million pieces in all have made Henderson Island one of if not the largest homes globally for parted-with plastic.

The scientists’ report, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States, said the plastics debris density on Henderson Island is higher than anywhere else on earth. While its accumulated 37 million pieces of discarded plastic is but a drop in the proverbial bucket of the 5 trillion plastic pieces – some 250,000 tons worth – littering the world. And its presence in this once pristine piece of property makes a mockery of the island’s status as a UNESCO-designated “World Heritage” site, as “one of the few atolls in the world whose ecology has been practically untouched by a human presence.”

That declaration was made as recently as 1988 – a mere 29 years ago.

Not only is the accumulated plastic an eyesore to those rare souls who approach close enough to uninhabitable Henderson to see it, it’s a real risk to wildlife on and near the island. As the plastic drifts closer to Henderson, which sits amidst what’s called the South Pacific’s ocean gyre, an enormous area comprising one of half a dozen major circulating areas for ocean currents, water from vast areas on either side of the Pacific contribute trash as well as water from diverse sources. (That’s why Henderson’s plastic comes from so far afield.) Sea creatures ingest or get tangled in plastic materials, which either kill them quickly or slowly choke the life out of them. Land animals, too, often become victims of plastic materials eaten because they smelled or appeared edible.

These problems are destined to become more widespread unless mankind, collectively, takes steps to reduce the creation and use of plastic materials.

That and finding, in the guts of a certain species of wax worms, the enzyme that enables it to “eat” plastic:That such an enzyme exists stems from findings of a part-time Spanish beekeeper, a day-job researcher who found that the worms, whose caterpillar parents like to munch on beeswax inside his hives, were able to eat their way out a plastic bag he’d put some in.

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A hole eaten through a plastic bag by a wax worm. (Photo: Federica Bertocchini, Paolo Bombelli, and Chris Howe

Great scientific answers, and solutions, have been launched from less auspicious starts than that! Who knows? In time a wax worm enzyme could, if replicated on a large enough scale, take a bite out of the world’s plastic waste problem. But don’t hold your breath: That kind of advance isn’t likely to happen with this, or even the next, decade or three.


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14,000-year-old human evidence found in Western British Columbia

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Photo: Joanne McSporran

A coastal strip of land in British Columbia has been occupied at least 14,000 years – back to the time of the last Ice Age, when warm water influences from the Pacific Ocean kept this area from freezing. A CBC report last month, detailing how a meters-deep excavation turned up evidence dating back at least that far, said the discovery lends credence to oral histories of the area by the Heiltsuk Nation, an aboriginal group there. The ancient site, uncovered last November, shows that people occupied this area long before the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and the creation of the Pyramids in Egypt, the Vancouver Sun said.

The Triquet Island settlement, reachable only by air or sea, has produced a hoard of valuable artifacts, including pieces of bent wood, compound fish hooks and assorted stone tools. The site is one of the oldest evidence of human habitation ever found in North America.

William Housty, a member of Heiltsuk Nation, told Smithsonian.com that the validation by “Western science and archeology” of his people’s long-time occupation of the area can help the Heiltsuk people as they negotiate with the Canadian government over title rights to their traditional territory.

Alaska Town Spends Bulk of Winter In One Building

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Turtle-like, Whittier AK pulls everything inside a single building – all the people, stores, services – as residents ride out Arctic-quality snow and cold every winter. Begich Towers originally was two buildings used to house military personnel and families during World War II. Then a third structure was added during the 1950’s, and a few years ago they were repurposed as a single entity intended to house nearly all of the town’s 218 full-time residents in condo-like units that are interspersed with such services as “a playground, a church, a post office, a clinic, two convenience stores, a police station, a video rental store, city offices and a laundromat all under the one roof,” Smithsonian Magazine reported in late March.

A school serves the community from across the street from Begich Towers.

‘Sounds like a setting made for the kinds of misunderstandings and mishaps forming the under-girding of Fawlty Towers, home to the British TV comedy of the same name. (John Clease created the show with his then-wife, Connie Booth, and both starred in it with Prunella Scales and Andrew Sachs. In 2000, it ranked Number One on a list of 100 Greatest British Television Programs.)

Basel Fawlty, a hotel keeper, regularly reacts (mostly inappropriately) to things his staff and guests do. He could have used a dose of the treatment given to “crabby” members of the Begich Towers’ community.


“If somebody’s crabby around here, we just tell them, ‘Alright I’ll see you later,’” June Miller, a full-time Towers resident told Smithsonian Magazine. “[We] let them go and take care of their issues.” After some time apart, she said, everything gets back to normal.

While that approach might have occasionally worked at Fawlty Towers, it probably wouldn’t have, because [1] Basel Fawlty was crabby beyond belief, and [2] that was the whole point of the BBC comedy!

Vibrator Maker Gets Too Close To Customers

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Photo: Emily Berl, for The Guardian

A Canadian vibrator manufacturer has been fined a total of C$4 million – to be paid to customers at rates up to C$10,000 each – for using a smart app to track user activities including body temperatures and vibrator rates. We-Vibe was sued in an Illinois court class action suit, The Guardian reported today (March 14). (Beware, indeed, the ides of March!)

In what could be termed a royal cock-up, the company’s parent, Standard Innovations, was ordered to shell out when it was learned that its sex toy was designed to enable clients to, as The Guardian put it, “keep their flame ignited – together or apart” via use of a blue tooth connection. Unfortunately, security issues made it possible for anyone within range to use a separate blue tooth device to take control of the vibrator, potentially leading to more than slightly embarrassing outcomes for intended or accidental users of the toy.

As bad or worse, the device allows information to be sent back to the company about users’ activities – representing the ultimate invasion of the bedroom.

You’d have thought, that somewhere along the design-and-manufacturing path on this product’s road to market, someone would have realized its potential downside. Or was this a Canadian version of “boys will be boys?”

 

Ambitious Amateur Explorer Makes Amazing Discovery: Dawn-of-Time Space Dust

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Jon Larson’s “night job” is as a well-known jazz musician in Norway. His volunteer “day job” for the past half dozen years or so has been to search accumulated detritus in rain gutters for space debris. He convinced Dr. Matthew Genge, a Senior Lecturer in Earth and Planetary Science at Imperial College, London, to ‘have his back’, lending his scientific knowledge to analyzing “suspect” bits and bobs. To the total amazement of Dr. Genge, they’ve succeeded beyond even Larson’s wildest dream: They’ve collectively collected and identified particles of “space dust” having “origins dating back to the birth of the solar system,” as an article on LiveScience.com put it.

Their write-up was based on one in the journal Geology, which noted that Larson collected something like 500 “micrometeorites” that were identified as such “on the basis of their compositions, mineralogies, and textures.” No such early-space discoveries of this magnitude have ever before been recorded.

And the significance of this is? Even though they have only tiny specimens to work with, scientists can, in studying these particles, learn more about how our universe formed and, hopefully, make discoveries that, in some hard-to-imagine way, will advance human knowledge about how we came to “be”.

The LiveScience article notes that, “Our solar system is filled with dust from collisions between asteroids and venting from comets; The most visible sign of this dust encountering Earth are the meteor showers that light up the upper atmosphere as Earth orbits though one of the many dusty trails left behind these interplanetary vagabonds. However, the tiny particles that rain through the atmosphere as “shooting stars” burn up completely, leaving only a bright flash in their wake. Their journey comes to an abrupt end as a blaze of super-heated glory.

Dr. Genges noted that, ““These particles [in gutter sediment] are almost definitely not coming from meteor showers as that dust comes in too fast — it comes in at maybe 30 kilometers per second [67,000 miles per hour] — and it completely evaporates in the Earth’s atmosphere.”

The gutter particles are thought to enter the atmosphere at a speed of around 12 kilometers per second (27,000 miles per hour) where atmospheric heating does inevitably heat up the particles, but the dust survives the fall. Judging by their size of around 0.3 millimeters, these are likely the fastest dust particles to survive the hot atmospheric entry, Genges said. Through analysis of the 500 specimens, the researchers found there to be a mix of particles that originate from asteroids and others that originate from comets.

“We have found dust particles that we think come from comets and they are subtly different from those that come from asteroids … they are carbon rich. Whereas the ones from asteroids look similar to the material from meteorites, that are also from asteroids,” he added.

Separating the cosmic particles from plain old gutter dirt is no easy task, but the researchers used an important trait found in these space particles to their advantage — they contain minerals that make them magnetic. So, by magnetically separating the dirt under the microscope, these particles could be found.

“These [particles] are very similar to the cosmic dust from deep sea sediments,” said Genges. “The main difference is that these are very young. Because they’ve been largely collected from roofs on commercial buildings, those buildings have their gutters cleaned at least every 3-5 years, so we know these [particles] have landed on Earth at least in the last 5 years. Whereas particles found on the seabed are up to 50,000 years old. These are a sample of what’s landing on Earth, practically today.”

As this dust has fallen to Earth within the last 5 years, the researchers could even deduce how the solar system dust falling on Earth has changed over the last million years. The dust found in city gutters contains fewer crystals than the dust that has been found in million-year-old ice Antarctica, for example, but the particles are remarkably similar to cosmic dust that fell onto Earth in medieval times.

According to an Imperial College London press release, the researchers think that the changes in dust particle structure could be down to very small orbital changes in the solar system’s planets over millions of years. The slight gravitational disturbances likely change the trajectory of the interplanetary dust, causing it to hit the Earth’s atmosphere at different speeds and angles. These slight changes can therefore influence how much heating is caused by atmospheric entry which, in turn, influences the size of the particles that make it to the ground and influence the shape of the crystals inside the microscopic grains.

In short, these tiny cosmic grains of dust hold an incredible amount of information about the state of the planets’ orbits when they hit Earth, but they are also the very tiny fossilized remains of our solar system, emerging directly from the material in the nebula that went on to form our sun and the planets.

“The actual materials of comets and asteroids have a very long history; they date back to the birth of our solar system four and a half billion years ago,” said Genges.

When Oscar Wilde composed his famous quote, “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,” little did he know that, one day, a Norwegian amateur scientist would be looking for star dust in the gutter.

Uber A Marriage-Wrecker? French Court Will Decide

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A French businessman who was cheating on his wife – or so she suspects, and thinks she can prove – learned about his straying ways after he borrowed her iPhone to schedule an Uber. When he hung up, the app didn’t, and continued sending reports on his whereabouts to his wife’s phone. As a result, the French paper/website Le Figaro, reported recently, she filed for divorce.

Rightly enough, the allegedly cheating husband believes, Uber should pay what he’s suing the company for: $45 million. (How, in such a case, such a number is decided upon, is a mystery!)

His claim is that the app, “not the whole cheating thing,” as The Daily Dot put it, ) led to the wife’s divorce appeal.

Le Figaro was able to duplicate the “problem” on iPhones – and no such “fault” has been found to affect Android phones, news that no doubt comes as a relief to owners (or borrowers) of phone using that operation system.

Uber hardly surprisingly, would no doubt be laughing at the lawsuit, which it has no intention of settling. But fighting lawsuits is expensive, and a distraction from business-as-usual.

(What was I saying?)

The Daily Dot said the case will have an initial court hearing late this month, with the French government – meaning taxpayers who support the government – picking up their side of the tab. The husband will be responsible for his share of the costs.