How Mantis Shrimp Punch So Hard

By Roni Dengler | October 18, 2018 4:23 pm
mantis shrimp

A mantis shrimp, fists at the ready. (Credit: Beverly Speed/Shutterstock)

Mantis shrimp — four-inch long seafloor crustaceans — knock out prey with a punch that accelerates faster than a .22 caliber bullet. Now, researchers have figured out exactly how the tiny stomatopods wind up their forceful blows. It’s all thanks to a double-layered saddle-shaped spring made from surprisingly brittle material.

“If you asked a mechanical engineer to make a spring that can store a lot of elastic energy, they wouldn’t think of using ceramic,” Ali Miserez, a materials scientist at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore who led the new research, said in a statement. Ceramics are normally thought of as inflexible and shatter-prone, not the kind of material you’d want for something that bends and deforms.

But it’s true: A ceramic spring allows mantis shrimp to unleash their club-like forearms at speeds of more than 50 miles per hour.

“Ceramics can store energy if you deform

them, but they’re so brittle that it wouldn’t be intuitive,” Miserez added. “But if you compress them, they’re quite strong and stiffer than metal or any polymer, so you can actually store a higher amount of energy than you could with those materials.”

Saddle Spring

Ideally, the best springs — the ones that can hold the most energy — are both stiff and extendable. As far as materials go, these characteristics typically don’t go hand in hand:  They are either stiff or they are extendable. To overcome this challenge, the mantis shrimp’s saddle-shaped spring has two layers. The top layer is a mineralized bioceramic material similar to bone, whereas the bottom layer is fibrous, like a rope. Miserez and colleagues thought this design might enable maximum energy storage in the shrimp’s saddle and simultaneously prevent the brittle ceramic material from breaking.

The researchers measured the mechanical properties of each layer and made a model of the mantis shrimp’s punch. Their analysis revealed the outer layer of the spring stores the elastic energy the shrimp need to hurl their famously fast wallops. The inner layer, which is strongest when stretched, provides necessary flexible support. Without the extendable inner layer, the mantis shrimp’s death-wielding spring would fail, the researchers report today in the journal iScience.

Inspired Design

The saddle’s design also allows the spring to be used repeatedly without wearing out the parts, the scientists found. The discovery reveals a way to improve microrobotics, staple-sized robots that DARPA and other organizations are developing to enable rescue personnel to safely survey rubble after natural disasters, among other applications.

“What this design shows is that you can make a very efficient spring — and you can make it out of ceramics, which are more efficient than other materials people are using now,” Miserez said. Ceramic-based springs and other bioinspired design elements could make microrobots more efficient.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Technology, top posts

Astronomers Discover ‘Hyperion’ — An Ancient Supercluster of Galaxies

By Alison Klesman | October 18, 2018 2:46 pm
Hyperion Supercluster

This visualization of the Hyperion proto-supercluster, discovered using the VIMOS instrument on the ESO’s VLT, was generated using real observations of the growing structure. (Credit: ESO/L. Calçada & Olga Cucciati et al.)

There are clusters of galaxies, and then there are superclusters of galaxies. In the local universe, the Virgo and Laniakea Superclusters reign supreme, the latter stretching some 500 million light-years across and containing about 100,000 galaxies, including our own.

Because they take time to assemble, most superclusters are found nearby, rather than at great distances — which would mean they’re older. But a team of astronomers using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope has just announced the discovery of the largest, most massive proto-supercluster discovered to date, already forming just 2.3 billion years after the Big Bang.

The team discovered the “titanic” proto-supercluster, nicknamed Hyperion after a Titan in Green mythology, in the constellation Sextans the Sextant using a combination of new observations and archival data. It contains one million billion solar masses — 1015 Suns’ worth of material. Its structure is both complex and unique, showing different characteristics than older superclusters in the local universe.

Local superclusters have most of their mass concentrated at their centers, but Hyperion’s mass is more spread out. The proto-supercluster appears to contain at least seven separate regions of higher density bridged by filaments of galaxies, showing us a glimpse of the early stages of supercluster formation. Over time, the team says, those separate regions will likely come together to form the more centralized structures seen today.

“Understanding Hyperion and how it compares to similar recent structures can give insights into how the universe developed in the past and will evolve into the future, and allows us the opportunity to challenge some models of supercluster formation,” said team leader Olga Cucciati of Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica Bologna in a press release. “Unearthing this cosmic titan helps uncover the history of these large-scale structures.”

The discovery will be published in a future edition of Astronomy & Astrophysics.


[This article originally appeared on]

MORE ABOUT: cosmology

This Juvenile Dinosaur Got Eaten, Bite Marks on Bones Reveal

By Charles Choi | October 18, 2018 2:23 pm


A reconstruction of a young Gorgosaurus eating the ceratopsian. (Credit: Marie-Hélène Trudel-Aubry)

As heavily armored as Triceratops and its cousins often were, they were far from invulnerable. That’s apparent in a new fossil scientists have unearthed from a juvenile member of the horned dinosaurs. It’s got obvious bite marks in it that might have come from a tyrannosaur or raptor.

Paleontologists examined a fossil roughly 76.5 million years old excavated from the badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta, Canada. The specimen belonged to a ceratopsian, the herbivorous dinosaurs that included three-horned Triceratops and spike-frilled Styracosaurus.

Nibbling on a Frill

Specifically, the roughly 3-inch-long, half-inch-thick fossil was likely part of the bony frill of a ceratopsian known as a centrosaur.  “The big ones had skulls well over a meter long and a typical adult would have been about 6 meters in total length,” said study lead author David Hone, a paleontologist at Queen Mary University of London. “They had a big curved nose horn, only tiny brow horns and a fairly complex frill of spikes. Ecologically, they were low browsers of tough plants.”

The size and structure of the fossil suggested that it belonged to a juvenile centrosaur. “It would have been about 4 meters long,” Hone said. “That’s pretty big, but they get much bigger.”

A number of marks on the fossil apparently came from bites. These marks do not match known bite marks from crocodilians, lizards or mammals known from this place and time. Instead, the clearest bite marks came either from the very thin, blade-like teeth of a large dromaeosaur — the feathered predators often known as raptors — or the broad, deep teeth of a young tyrannosaur.

“There are two sets of tooth marks, and these might have been made by different animals,” Hone said.

Based on the nature of the bite marks, the researchers suspect they came from a scavenger. The frill “is an area that would normally have no real muscle and only a bit of skin, so not something most predators would try and take even if they had days to feed on the rest of the body,” Hone said.

These are the first known bite marks found on the fossil of a juvenile ceratopsian, and it helps paleontologists better understand how the dinosaurs of the time interacted with each other. “Juveniles are rare generally in the fossil record, so while we think a lot of them likely got eaten and we might expect to see bites on them, because they are rare, getting evidence of bites on a non-adult is rare,” Hone said. “It’s nice confirmation that bites were not just happening on adults.”

MORE ABOUT: paleontology

In a Major Feat, Scientists Create a Bose-Einstein Condensate in Space

By Chelsea Gohd | October 18, 2018 1:57 pm
bose-einstein condensate chip

A team of researchers used this chip to create the first-ever space-based Bose-Einstein condensate. (Credit: DLR)

Space-Based Matter

By blasting a miniature, experimental chip into space, scientists have created the first space-based Bose-Einstein condensate. The feat could allow for the more precise exploration of gravitational waves, dark matter, and add to our fundamental understanding of physics.

Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs) are a state of matter in which a cloud of atoms is cooled until it’s very close to absolute zero. At this extremely low temperature, the atoms move very, very slowly, clump together and become physically identical. In this state, a clump of atoms behaves as if it were a single atom. BECs can be “treated as quantum mechanical objects,” says Maike Lachmann, a co-author of the study describing the space-based BEC from Leibniz University Hanover in an email.

BECs were first created in a lab in the 1990s and have helped scientists to study and explore how atoms behave in quantum states. Now, a team of researchers has managed to make BECs in space, an environment that offers unique opportunities for discovery. It’s part of the Matter-Wave Interferometry in Microgravity (MAIUS-1) mission.

This unique experiment will allow researchers to explore and test fundamental physics, Lachmann said. He also added that studies with BECs could also be used to “scan the gravitational field of the Earth,” and potentially even “for gravitational wave detection or for the search for dark matter.”

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts
MORE ABOUT: physics

Look Up This Weekend: The Orionid Meteor Shower Will Light Up the Sky

By Chelsea Gohd | October 18, 2018 1:13 pm
A photo taken during the Orionid meteor shower. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A photo taken during the Orionid meteor shower. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A Gift From Halley

This weekend, go outside and look up in the dark hours before dawn to witness the annual Orionid meteor shower, which will hit its peak overnight on October 21-22.

You may have seen a few stray meteors zooming across the sky, leftover Draconids whose peak passed earlier this month or leftover meteors from the South Taurid shower that’s still ongoing. But this week, and more specifically this weekend, the Orionid meteors will be easy to spot.

The Orionid meteors streak across the sky every year between about October 2 and November 7. These meteors are a result of our planet passing through the dust cloud left behind by Halley’s Comet.

In the short time before dawn this upcoming October 21-22, you will be able to experience peak meteor-watching, but if you look up on the other days in this window, you might still catch meteors in the sky. Be careful to avoid the glare of a fairly full moon, though, which might block some of the meteors from view.

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Reading a Cuttlefish’s Mind — On Its Skin

By Nathaniel Scharping | October 18, 2018 11:22 am

(Credit: Stephan Junek)

Pity the cuttlefish that tries to play poker. Where humans might blush when embarrassed or go white when frightened, cuttlefish wear their thoughts on their skins much more literally.

Our own color transformations are caused by nothing more than changes in the blood flowing right under our skin, and it’s a poor marker of what our actual thoughts are. Cuttlefish, by contrast, are covered in up to millions of tiny pigment-filled cells called chromatophores. Muscles in the cells stretch to reveal the colors, and it’s a part of why a cuttlefish, closely related to octopuses and squid, can go from a drab brown to a perfect mimic of a coral reef in seconds. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: animals

Why Dandelion Seeds Are So Good At Floating

By Bill Andrews | October 18, 2018 10:53 am
blowing dandelion seeds

(Credit: Oleksandr Lipko/Shutterstock)

Dandelion blowing may be about as close to a universal experience as there is. Kids and adults alike delight in huffing the white fluffy seeds from a dried sample of Taraxacum officinale, and watching them fly away.

But as with all things in nature, it only happens that way because it works. Dandelion seeds can travel for miles before setting down, making them particularly efficient fliers. And scientists didn’t really know why. Other plant seeds, such as maples, use more of a wing-like design to get airborne, so there must be a reason the brushy, plumed seeds worked for dandelions.

Well, according to a paper published Wednesday in Nature, a team of physicists in Scotland have found that reason: a special kind of air bubble that forms above each seed, which helps keep it aloft longer. It’s literally a new kind of flying, and it doesn’t just help scientists understand dandelions better — it opens up a new avenue for exploring all kinds of movement in the air and beyond.

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MORE ABOUT: physics, plants

Astronomers May Have Spotted Another Neutron Star Merger

By Alison Klesman | October 18, 2018 10:12 am

A 2015 gamma-ray burst (purple; shown in X-rays) spotted in an elliptical galaxy (imaged in visible light) shows similarities to the gravitational wave event astronomers identified as a kilonova (the merger of two neutron stars) in 2017, which also produced gamma rays and X-rays. (Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/GSFC/UMC/E. Troja et al.; Optical and infrared: NASA/STSc)

In 2017, gravitational waves and light were observed coming from the merger of a pair of neutron stars. The discovery proved that gravitational wave sources could also be viewed at visible, X-ray, and even gamma-ray wavelengths, but has remained the only such event observed to date. Now, researchers have identified a “cosmic look-alike” — an event they believe came from the same type of system as the one that produced the gravitational waves.

Seeing Double

Such a discovery would double the number of known events of this type. “It’s a big step to go from one detected object to two,” said Eleonora Troja of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and lead author of the study published October 16 in Nature Communications, in a press release. The paper focuses on a gamma-ray burst, called GRB 150101B, seen by NASA’s Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory in 2015. Troja’s team followed up using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, Hubble Space Telescope, and the Discovery Channel Telescope to determine that GRB 150101B appears similar to the 2017 gravitational wave event GW170817, which was produced by a kilonova that occurred when two inspiralling neutron stars collided. Shortly after that event’s gravitational waves reached Earth, astronomers also spotted a gamma-ray burst and light at several wavelengths associated with the merger, proving that neutron star mergers are capable of producing all these signals.

During a neutron star merger, astronomers believe a narrow jet of high-energy particles is created, which is responsible for the short burst of gamma rays spotted from Earth. In the case of both GW170817 and GRB 150101B, that jet was likely viewed off-axis, meaning it was not directly pointed toward our planet, because the bursts were fainter and shorter lived than expected. Both events also generated bright blue light at visible wavelengths (the kilonova) and lasting X-ray emission. The two even came from host galaxies that look similar: old elliptical galaxies with no newly forming stars.

neutron star merger

Neutron star mergers are believed to generate jets that could produce gamma-ray bursts detected at Earth. This diagram shows each step of the merger process, including the formation of a black hole when the two neutron stars collide and the resulting jet. (Credit: NASA/AEI/ZIB/M. Koppitz and L. Rezzolla)

Co-author Geoffrey Ryan of the University of Maryland (UMD) and the Joint Space-Science Institute, who called the events “cosmic look-alikes,” said, “They look the same, act the same and come from similar neighborhoods, so the simplest explanation is that they are from the same family of objects.”

However, for all their similarities, GW170817 and GRB 150101B do have some key differences. GW170817 was also detected via gravitational waves, while GRB 150101B was not. Without this key information, astronomers cannot be sure that GRB 150101B resulted from the merger of two neutron stars; it may have been the merger of a black hole and a neutron star instead. Additionally, GRB 150101B’s host galaxy is much farther than GW170817’s — the former lies 1.7 billion light-years away, while the latter is only 130 million light-years distant. But because GRB 150101B occurred so far away, the team says, even if LIGO had been in operation when it was seen, the observatory would likely not have detected gravitational waves.

Building a Database

The first step toward better understanding these events is finding more of them. And, the team says, it’s possible astronomers have seen others, but simply weren’t able to identify them because they lacked data in other wavelengths. Though astronomers have detected many gamma-ray bursts, these events can be difficult to pinpoint exactly on the sky without data from X-ray or optical observations. As faster follow-up observation with multiple telescopes becomes more the rule than the exception, astronomers could soon double their database of neutron star mergers again.

But it’s important to keep the initial differences between the only two known events in mind. GW170817 and GRB 150101B might not be as similar as they seem, and that could be important. “If the next such observation reveals a merger between a neutron star and a black hole, that would be truly groundbreaking,” said co-author Alexander Kutyrev, who is also associated with both UMD and Goddard Space Flight Center. “Our latest observations give us renewed hope that we’ll see such an event before too long.”

One thing is for sure: As detectors and detection techniques improve, astronomers are sure to see more astronomical events at many wavelengths, providing an ever-clearer picture of how our universe works. The better able astronomers are to identify the types of emission (such as light or gravitational waves) associated with an event, the more of them they will spot using many different techniques. “We’ve been able identify this kilonova without gravitational wave data,” Troja said, “so maybe in the future, we’ll even be able to do this without directly observing a gamma-ray burst.”


[This article originally appeared on]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts

The ‘Trillion Planet Survey’ is Looking for Alien Laser Beams

By Chelsea Gohd | October 17, 2018 4:46 pm

The Andromeda Galaxy, where researchers are searching for bright lights that could be sign of intelligent extraterrestrial life. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

An Extraterrestrial Search

Physicists at the University of California, Santa Barbara are taking a unique approach to the search for extraterrestrial life. Instead of searching the cosmos for radio signals, they’re hunting for brilliant light beams to locate intelligent beings in the Andromeda Galaxy.

It’s inspired by UC Santa Barbara physicist Phil Lubin’s previous suggestion that we could propel tiny spacecraft to nearby stars at about 20 percent the speed of light with lasers. If we could do it, so might alien civilizations, the thinking goes. So Lubin, alongside fellow physicists, plans search for high-powered lasers in the sky coming from hypothetical intelligent extraterrestrial life.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics, top posts

Scientists Discover 102 Genes Linked to Autism In Largest Study To Date

By Roni Dengler | October 17, 2018 4:00 pm
autism genes

A new study looks at the genes linked to autism. (Credit: Sharomka/shutterstock)

The quest to understand autism spectrum disorder seems an unending one. Now, researchers discover 102 genes associated with the disorder. The find virtually doubles the number of genes implicated in the complicated condition.

Curbed Communication

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental condition that affects at least 1 in 59 U.S. children. The disorder usually shows up as a range of symptoms in early childhood when kids are about 2 to 3 years old as a range of symptoms. Individuals with autism have trouble interacting with peers, engage in repetitive behaviors and have difficulty communicating with others. Many are highly sensitive to sounds and other sensations. The disorder is complex and affects individuals differently.

No one knows what causes autism but scientists suspect genetics play a role. Many families show inheritance of autism or related medical conditions such as sleep disturbances, seizures and gastrointestinal disorders that often accompany an autism diagnosis. Previous research identified 65 genes associated with autism, but these studies focused only on new mutations to find genes underlying the disorder.
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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts, Uncategorized
MORE ABOUT: genetics

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