The Remarkable Physics of Ants: Watch Them Turn into Fluids and Solids at Will

Ants never cease to amaze us. Over the years here, we’ve watched them create a living life raft in 100 seconds flatbuild surprisingly complex ant colonies, and demonstrate an uncanny kind of centralized intelligence. Now let’s add to the list the ways in which they can collectively act like a fluid or a solid, depending on the demands of a situation.

These observations were made by scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who recorded the video above and presented it at a 2013 meeting of the American Physical Society. Watching the video, you can see ants wielding powers that we’ve only otherwise seen demonstrated in second tier superheroes (no offense to the Wonder Twins intended). And yet, according to The New York Times, these remarkable powers may have some practical implications, leading scientists to develop self-assembling robots and self-healing materials. By watching ants build and repair bridges for themselves, we can imagine creating bridges that automatically repair their own cracks here in the material world.

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Full disclosure: On my 7th grade report card, a sympathetic science teacher tempered a shockingly low grade with a handwritten note to my parents. Something to the effect of it being her opinion that my interest in theater would, ultimately, serve me far better than any information she was attempting to ram through my skull.

Thank you, Miss Cooper, for your compassion and exceptional foresight.

There are times, though, when I do wish I was just a teensy bit better informed about certain buzzy scientific theories. Hank Green’s information-packed science Crash Courses are helpful to a degree, but he talks so damn fast, I often have the sensation of stumbling stupidly behind…

Which I am, but still…

Alok Jha, the author and ITV Science Correspondent who narrates the brief animated guide to some of Stephen Hawking’s big ideas, takes things at a more encouraging pace. His delivery reminds me of Alain de Botton‘s, and that alone is enough to sooth me into believing I stand a chance of somewhat grasping such quantum concepts as black holes, gravitational singularities, and Hawking radiation.

As long as I don’t lose myself in non-scientific flourishes like the cat in a box anchoring some of Hawking’s equations or a sweet homage to ET, I may be able to keep hold of this tiger’s tail. Or at least nod with something resembling interest, the next time a science-obsessed teen is sharing his or her passion…

The video above come from The Guardian‘s Animations and Explainers video series. And it was created by Scriberia, a London animation studio.

via Brain Pickings

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Ayun Halliday is an author, homeschooler, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday

Shelf Life: American Museum of Natural History Creates New Video Series on Its 33 Million Artifacts

I once spent a summer as a security guard at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. A wonderful place to visit, but my workday experience proved dreadfully dull. By far the highlight was being pulled off whatever exhibit I happened to be guarding to assist in collections, a cavernous backstage area where untold treasures were shelved without ceremony. The head conservator confided that many of these items would never be singled out for display. The thrift store egalitarianism that reigned here was far more appealing than the eye-catching, educational signage in the public area. From the oblivion of deep storage springs the potential for discovery.

How gratifying to learn that the 200 plus scientists employed by the American Museum of Natural History feel the same. As palentologist Mike Novacek, puts it in Shelf Life, the museum’s just launched monthly video series:

You can make new discoveries in Collections just like you can out in the field. You can walk around the corner and see something that no one’s quite observed that way before, describe a new species or a new feature that’s important to science.

The institution can choose from among more than 33,430,000 goodies, from ancient objects they’ve been carefully tending for more than two centuries to the samples of frozen tissue and DNA comprising the barely 13-year-old Ambrose Monell Cryo Collection for Molecular and Microbial Research.

Gems and meteorites!

Arrowheads and gourds!

Vertebrates and invertebrates!

There’s truly something here for…


Wasp enthusiasts (you know who you are) can thrill to the seven and a half million specimens in sex researcher Alfred Kinsey’s Cynipidae collection. (They’re ready for their close up, Mr. DeMille. Famous as they are, the first episode passed them over in favor of a more photogenic mock bee from the genus Criorhina.)

Future episodes will call upon in-house ichthyologists, paleontologists, anthropologists, astrophysicists, and herpetologists to discuss such topics as specimen preparation, taxonomy, and curation. Stay abreast (and – bonus!- celebrate Nero’s birthday with turtles) by subscribing to the museum’s youtube channel.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, homeschooler, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She goes into more detail about her short-lived stint as a museum security guard in her third book, Job Hopper. Follow her @AyunHalliday

New Heat Map Reveals the Creation of Our Infant Universe

Planck Light

This map shows the oldest light in our universe, as detected by the Planck mission. Click on the map for a larger image.

By now the Big Bang theory is widely accepted scientifically. The idea is that the universe began to expand rapidly about 14 billion years ago from a dense, hot state and continues to expand to this day.

One of the most telling fingerprints left behind by the Big Bang is cosmic microwave background radiation. This thermal radiation was thought to be left over from the Big Bang itself. It fills the universe almost completely.

A new map of cosmic radiation questions some of the core concepts of the Big Bang. What if, this precise heat map suggests, the Universe experienced a long, pre-Bang phase? What if the Big Bang wasn’t the first burp of creation after all?

The European Space Agency’s Planck spacecraft measures between infra-red and radio waves, making it possible to see back in time to the first light ever produced.

Cosmologists released the new images of the early universe this week. What surprises them is that Planck detected stronger light signals on one half of the sky than the other and picked up a series of anomalies or “cold spots.” While this doesn’t challenge the Big Bang theory as a whole, it does heighten the mystery around the universe’s birth and development.

The data is still coming in. Like the Human Genome Project, Planck stands to generate double the amount of data it has produced so far.

Planck two

This full-sky map from the Planck mission shows matter between Earth and the edge of the observable universe. Regions with more mass show up as lighter areas while regions with less mass are darker. The grayed-out areas are where light from our own galaxy was too bright, blocking Planck’s ability to map the more distant matter. Click the map for a larger image.

Some other surprises from the Planck spacecraft data:

• The universe is about 100 million years older and appears to be expanding much slower than previously thought

•  There is less dark energy and more matter in the universe than previous research showed.

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Kate Rix writes about digital media and education. Contact her and learn more about her work at .

The Many Ways to Mars: A Reality Show, a New Martian City, and Mapping Mars from Home

Reality television has been around since at least the late ’40s. First we had Candid Camera, where hapless, but real, people became the unwitting butt of Allen Funt’s jokes. But it wasn’t until fifty years later that the genre exploded, bringing us Big Brother and, of course, Survivor.

Now, make way for the unbelievable and ultra-expensive marriage of reality television and science fiction. Mars One, the brainchild of Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, plans to establish a permanent human settlement on the red planet in 2023. First, four people would land on Mars. Every two years, another group of people would arrive. The trips would be one-way and all the settlers would live out the rest of their lives on Mars. Funding for the first phase is estimated at $6 billion.

Mars One backers say raising $6 billion will be easy. Every four years the Summer and Winter Olympics generate millions of dollars in revenue because people all over the world want to watch. The Olympics held in 2005 and 2008 together made nearly $5.5 billion from programming and sponsorship.

So, what if there were an event so fascinating, so unprecedented and amazing, that literally every television, computer, and smart device would be tuned in to watch? What if the entire Mars mission was an international reality television show? That’s the plan. Everything from the selection of the first group of astronauts to the launch, landing, and daily life on the red planet would be televised. The audience even gets to vote on the final four space travelers.

Interested? Mars One has issued its requirements for astronaut selection. No military, flight, or science experience required. Applicants must be at least 18, in good mental and physical health, and willing to devote eight years to training before beginning the journey to their new home planet. Finding this hard to believe? The first question in Mars One’s FAQ page sort of says it all. Is this for real? Yes, the plans are for real. Whether any or everything Mars One imagines actually takes place is anybody’s guess.

What’s certain is that Mars is a hot destination at the moment, and not just for aspiring reality stars. SpaceX funder and billionaire Elon Musk wants to build a city for 80,000 on Mars. While accepting an award from the Royal Aeronautical Society, Musk outlined his vision to charge $500,000 per person to transport people to the new Martian city. He’s mentioned wanting to retire on Mars and is using SpaceX as a lab to develop new interplanetary rocket technology.

But you don’t need to be rich or popular to see some of the red planet. There’s also plenty of exploring to do on the surface of Mars from home. Citizen scientists can help Planet Four identify fans and blotches in images of the Martian surface. The pictures come from a camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a NASA mission to orbit Mars and transmit images and data to Earth using a powerful radio frequency called the “Ka-band,” which works like an interplanetary Internet.

Using simple marking tools, users can mark the surface colorations and spots that help scientists study changes in the planet’s weather. So-called “spiders” of dry ice form on the planet’s poles in the winter and then lead to fan-shaped moisture footprints.

It’s fun to imagine that the data you create could bring us closer to our distant neighbor planet. Unless of course you’d rather suit up and start training to go there yourself. In that case, good luck and start saving.

Kate Rix writes about digital technology and education. Read more of her work at .

Einstein Documentary Offers A Revealing Portrait of the Great 20th Century Scientist

Albert Einstein is the patron saint of slackers redeemed. We’ve all heard some version of his late-bloomer story: “You know, Albert Einstein did terribly in high school” (says every high school guidance counselor at some point). Most of us normals like to see him this way—it bucks us up—even if he was anything but your average low achiever. The above 2006 profile of Einstein by PBS’s “American Masters” documentary series, Albert Einstein: How I See the World, takes the opposite tack, surrounding him with the aura of a hero in a Hermann Hesse novel. The film begins with William Hurt’s narration of Einstein’s solo trek through the Alps at twenty-two, during which he “longed to grasp the hidden design, the underlying principles of nature.” Over the intrigue conjured by Michael Galasso’s haunting, minimalist score and a montage of black-and-white nature films, narrator Hurt intones:

Every once in a while there comes a man who is able to see the universe in a totally new way, whose vision upsets the very foundations of the world as we know it. Throughout his life, Albert Einstein would look for this harmony, not only in his science, but in the world of men. The world wanted to know Albert Einstein, yet he remained a mystery to those who only saw his public face and perhaps to himself as well. “What does a fish know of the water in which he swims?” he asked himself.

After this sententious beginning, with its strangely outdated pronoun use, Hurt tells us that those who knew Einstein best saw a little of him, and the film goes on to document those impressions in interviews: colleague Abraham Pais comments on Einstein’s love of Jewish humor (and that his laughter sounded like “the bark of a contented seal”). Hanna Loewy, a family friend, describes his ability to look at “many, many dimensions, whether they be proven or not,” and to see the whole. Intercut between these statements is archival footage of Einstein himself and commentary from Hurt, some of it questionable (for example, the idea that Einstein was a “scientist who believed in God” is tendentious, at best, but a subject best left for the endless bickering of YouTube commenters).

It’s a bit of an Olympian treatment, fitting to the subject in some respects. But in another sense, the documentary performs the function of a hagiography, a genre well-suited for encomium and reverence, but not for “getting to know” its subject personally. The film places a great deal of emphasis, rightly perhaps, on Einstein’s public persona: his vocal pacifism—in which he joined with Mahatma Gandhi—and statements against German militarism, even as the rising fascist order dismissed his work and denounced the man.

But while Albert Einstein: How I See the World provides a compelling portrait and offers a wealth of historical context for understanding Einstein’s world, it leaves out the voices of those who perhaps knew him best: his children, wife Elsa, or his first wife, Mileva. (Their divorce gets a brief mention at 15:20, along with his subsequent marriage to first cousin Elsa.) Einstein’s troubled personal life, revealed through private correspondence like an angry post-divorce letter to Mileva and an appalling list of demands written to her during the deterioration of their marriage, has received more scrutiny of late. These personal details have perhaps prompted PBS to reevaluate Mileva’s influence; rather than “little more than a footnote” in his biography, Mileva may have played a role in his success for which she never received credit, giving Hurt’s gendered narration something of a bitter personal twist.

None of this is to say that a documentary treatment of any public figure needs to dredge the family secrets and display the dirty laundry, but as far as learning how Einstein, or anyone else of his stature, saw the world, the personal seems to me as relevant as the professional. PBS’s documentary is very well-made, however, and worth watching for its production values, interviews with Einstein’s friends and colleagues, and archival newsreel footage, even if it sometimes fails to truly illuminate its subject. But as Hurt’s narration disclaims at the outset, maybe Einstein was a mystery, even to himself.

The film will be added to the Documentary section of our collection of Free Movies Online.

You can find free courses on Einstein’s work in the Physics section of our collection of 550 Free Online Courses.

Josh Jones is a doctoral candidate in English at Fordham University and a co-founder and former managing editor of Guernica / A Magazine of Arts and Politics.

Filming a Sprinting Cheetah at 1,200 Frames Per Second

Cheetahs are the fastest land animals on Earth, able to reach speeds of up to 70 miles per hour.

Earlier this year, the team at National Geographic visited the Cincinnati Zoo and filmed cheetahs running at full sprint, as seen in the majestic video above. The National Geographic team used a Phantom camera filming at 1,200 frames per second to capture every nuance in the cheetah’s gallop. The filming took three days and, so as not to burden the animals, five different cheetahs were filmed.

You can read more about this initiative here. Also be sure to check out the accompanying National Geographic article, “Cheetahs on the Edge.”

Eugene Buchko is a blogger and photographer living in Atlanta, GA. He maintains a photoblog, Erudite Expressions, and writes about what he reads on his reading blog.

Astronaut Sunita Williams Gives an Extensive Tour of the International Space Station

After a 125-day stay aboard the International Space Station, ISS Commander Sunita (Suni) Williams touched down in Kazakhstan on Monday, along with Flight Engineers Aki Hoshide and Yuri Malanchenko. Part of what is known as Expedition 33, the three boarded their Soyuz TMA-05M on Sunday to return to Earth, but before they left, Williams downlinked an extensive tour above of the ISS orbital laboratory. Williams has given several interviews from her ISS post, so you may have already seen her floating weightless in front of the camera, a nimbus of dark hair around her face.

Here we see a number of interesting features of the station. She begins with the Japanese laboratory, then moves to the European module, “Columbus,” where many of the medical experiments take place. Interestingly, every surface is a suitable workstation; since there’s no reference for floor, walls, or ceiling, and no need for anything to stand on, one can maneuver into any position without losing a sense of direction. As Williams demonstrates the “sleep stations,” phone booth-size compartments with sleeping bags, she shows how the astronauts can also sleep in any position at all without feeling like they’re “upside-down” or disoriented in any way. There’s also a lengthy tour of the “facilities” (in case you’ve ever wondered how that works) and the “cupola,” a small transparent room like a WWII gunnery station where the astronauts can gaze out at their home planet.

So, yes, I will admit, I’ve always liked to imagine the interior of the ISS like the smooth, padded corridors of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, but the reality is still seriously cool. The Washington Post has a slideshow of Expedition 33’s touchdown near the town of Arkalyk in northern Kazakhstan, and the video below shows the small ceremony that greeted the crew hours after their arrival back on Earth.

via Universe Today

Josh Jones is a doctoral candidate in English at Fordham University and a co-founder and former managing editor of Guernica / A Magazine of Arts and Politics.

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