Fabrics are an old invention and have been important to us since ancient times. We choose different fabrics for their comfort or protection or both. For example, cotton absorbs moisture. And, this is a good thing, because the body doesn’t like wetness right next to the skin. The wetness feels clammy and it is very uncomfortable.

But in this age of technology, textiles will do more than make us comfortable. They will give us information, because they will have small bits of electronics embedded in them.

In fact, companies are now making wearable technologies to help NFL coaches monitor athletes by tracking their heart rate and their oxygen intake.

So when might you see smart shirt at your local store?

Well, engineers are working on them now. Ends up that a shirt is the worst place for electronics. Wearing a shirt or washing a shirt are demanding environments for any kind of electronics. They are the opposite of what electrical components prefer. Electronics like to keep dry and not bend.

These are major challenges engineers are solving right now. It seems in the future, we might need to charge our shirts. Or at least carry extra batteries.

There have lots of news about various pandemics. The first line of defense is a camera, a thermal camera.

When someone is sick, they usually have a temperature. Here is where the camera comes it. Thermal cameras can “see” if someone has a fever because these cameras can detect the heat. Thermal camera detect the heat, which comes off as infrared.

 

Deep in your printer are millions of explosions that you don’t even know about. Now, we usually don’t think of our printers as anything special, but there is lots of science taking place to make your documents come to life.  Inside of your printer, bubbles push ink through small microscopic holes to make dots on a page that will become letters and numbers and symbols.

But these are no ordinary bubbles. You could put over one and a half million of these bubbles in a square inch (a little over a postage stamp).  These bubbles are created by heating the ink with very tiny electrical resistors, like those in your toaster, but the ink is heated so quickly that it doesn’t actually boil. The ink is heated to over 650 Fahrenheit  (350C). At this temperature, the ink doesn’t boil, it explodes in what’s called a super heated vapour explosion .

Now, the concept of using bubbles to print have been around since the 1950s, and full disclosure, I worked at HP and worked on ink jet.

So how does printing happen? We send a pattern of electrical pulses that activate the resisters in order to produce a pattern of dots on the paper. One of those pulses, which last for about a millionth of a second, causes a bubble to form. The bubble pushes the drop out the nozzle and the drop lands on paper in a pattern that reproduces characters and graphic images. And, voila, you have the makings of an image.

To make an image, there are nozzles for black, cyan,  magenta, and yellow ink. When combined in the right proportion, all the colors of the rainbow are possible and the quality is on par with a photograph.

And ink jet is everywhere.  The next time you see a bus driving down the street with a beautiful color graphic on the side it is most likely that it was printed on ink jet.   Ink jet is also used for banners, CDs, and even t-shirts.

So bubbles print and their work is everywhere. They give life more pop.

Invisibility has been something that has captured our imagination in books and movies from The Invisible Man (1933) to Harry Potter (2001). And, these characters make invisibility seem so cool.

Well, science fiction has become a science fact. Scientists have made objects invisible in their labs.

In order to understand how to make something invisible, we have to think about light. Light moves in straight lines. When it hits a surface, it bounces off, and heads for our eyes. And, the brain interprets this bounced light as an image.

If we want to make something invisible, we have to bend light around the object so that our eyes and brains cannot see it. Bending light is an optical illusion. Invisibility is an optical illusion too.

What scientists have done is get some magnifying glasses and put then in a row so that they collect light into a small beam and then bend it. When you look through those lenses, you cannot see anything. So far, they have been able to make something the size of a hand invisible.

As you can imagine, soldiers and spies would love to get their hands on this invention. But, artists would too. With an invisibility cloak, they could bend light so that windows are not needed, but light still comes into the room.

All in all, art continues to inspire science with new ideas. And invisibility cloaks change how we see and don’t see the world.

 

You can try this invisibility cloak for yourself at the link below. Impress your students and friends.

Get your own invisibility cloak today!

We tell time by measuring a repeating pattern. The earth spins — causing it to be light and dark, which we translate as a day. Pendulums swing back and forth, which we translate as a second. Scientists would call things-with-repeating-patterns oscillators. However, there is a problem.

Researchers have found that the earth speeds up and slows down in unpredictable ways. So, the earth is not a good way to measure the passing of time. The earth is a bad clock.

This is unfortunate, since we need precise clocks for many of the technologies we use,  like GPS. So we need a better clock–a more precise clock, a clock that is stable for a long time.

To make a better clock, it needs three parts: An oscillator to produce a repeating pattern; a counter to measure how often the pattern occurs. And, a part to make sure that the oscillator is creating this pattern correctly—which is called a discriminator.

Deep in a precise clock, or an atomic clock, is an oscillator. In this case, it is a quartz gem that is vibrating—the quartz acts like a piece of jello that wiggles when hit. And, those wiggles are counted to tell time.

To make sure that the quartz is wiggling correctly, atoms are used to check it. Cesium atoms

How?

Well, inside the atoms are electrons. And, electrons live at different levels from the center. Electrons can move up and down these levels, like a ladder, when they get zapped with energy. However, the electrons can’t keep that energy, so they give back a precise amount of energy when they return to their original level. It ends up that that energy given back has a precise oscillation to it. This is compared to the wiggles made by the quartz to see if the quartz is correct.

Sure, there are lots of steps, but it is worth it, since atoms are very precise. They lose their precision every 1.4 million years.

So it seems that atoms take a licking, and this keeps clocks ticking.

 

When it comes to communicating, some things never change.

The african drum. Many would say it was an musical instrument. It is. But, it is much more than that. African drums were a way of communicating over vast distances in ancient Africa.

If there was a herd coming or an enemy was approaching, drummers would send messages through their drums to neighboring villages.  The messages would be repeated again and again and to send the message further.

It ends up that modern technology does something similarly. Messages in your telephone are repeated so that the volume isn’t loss and this allows messages to be sent over long distances.

But the most mind-blowing stuff that the ancient Nubians discovered is that if you drum a message near the banks of the Nile, the message can be sent over the surface of the water without losing volume. Scientists would say there is a a lossless channel at the interface between the water and air.  That means you could whisper something and someone across the Nile nearly 2 miles away could hear it.

Today, we seek such an ability with optical fibers. The challenged is to send a message without it losing volume and without the need for lots of repeaters.  It seems the some of the issues of the past are still present today. Showing that there really isn’t anything new under the (African) sun.

The Gateway Arch turned 50 with the help of modern materials and math.

When creating a monument for future generations to behold, there are two features it must possess—simplicity and permanence.  This was the thinking that architect Eero Saarinen used when designing the “Gateway Arch to the West,” which celebrated its 50th anniversary October 28, 2015. Saarinen gained inspiration by looking to the nation’s capital. He surmised that timelessness arose from geometric forms—the Washington Monument is an obelisk; the Lincoln Memorial is a rectangle; and the Jefferson Memorial is a circle in a square. So, Saarinen selected an arch.

However, this arch would be no ordinary arch. Aloft at 630 feet, it had a special geometric form that moved mathematicians and masons—the catenary arch.  A catenary arch appears when a chain hangs freely from two supported ends and occurs in everyday life from draping power lines to necklaces.  When inverted, this arch supports its own weight and differs from a parabola. A catenary arch has steeper legs, a flatter peak, and greater strength. With this appointed shape, Saarinen next sought to find the right building materials to make it.

He chose a material that would represent the modern age—stainless steel. This metal was first created in the 19th century, but perfected in the 20th. It is composed of steel (a combination of iron and carbon) with a dash of chromium. The mix of iron and carbon gives the metal strength, but chromium provides longevity by overcoming iron’s weakness of rusting.

Rust never sleeps, as songwriter Neil Young once penned.  So, the best way to stop it is to prevent it. Paint is one way to halt rust, but an atomic layer of protection helps too. This is where chromium comes in. Chromium makes a thin layer of chromium oxide on the surface, which hinders water from combining with the iron to create rust.

The path to developing the metal for the Gateway Arch was circuitous at best. Stainless steel wasn’t a creation, but an evolution. The discovery of chromium occurred in the 18th century by French chemist Louis Nicolas Vauquelin.  However, the secret to making lasting metals would take some time, as it puzzled some of the world’s greatest minds. Michael Faraday, one of history’s best scientists, began his career investigating new kinds of steel in the 1820s. He had limited success.

Other delays occurred. There were unfiled patents in the 1870s on weather-resistant metals. Then efforts stalled. Two decades later, there was a renewed interest to create stainless steel, but it took a wrong turn. A famous scientist, Sir Robert Hadley, erroneously concluded in the 1890s that chromium lessened steel’s ability to fight corrosion. His unfortunate claim curtailed future work, until Harry Brearley serendipitously uncovered that chromium makes steel “rustless” and commercialized it as cutlery, which was announced in The New York Times in 1915. All these steps together made Saarinen’s Gateway Arch possible.

The stainless steel in the Gateway Arch is the same in a household fork. Metal plates (as thick as four nickels) are held together with miles of welds making the arch’s exterior nearly 900 tons. (For comparison, the Chrysler Building has a 27-ton stainless exterior.) The arch is perched on the edge of the Mississippi where an early trading outpost stood, which was frequented by pioneers, fur traders, and explorers before heading westward. In the 1930s, city leaders wanted to transform this decaying site with a monument to honor those who “won” the west, the Louisiana Purchase, and Thomas Jefferson.

Saarinen’s application in 1947, one of 172 entries including one from his famous architect father, captured what these leaders had envisaged—a message to the future, with modern materials, and a wink to the past, with a simple geometric form. Construction did not begin until 1962. Sadly, Saarinen died of a brain tumor in 1961 and never got to see his structure.

Today, the arch stands strong, although it contends with dirt and chemical pollution from industrial emissions from the arch’s early years. These practices are no longer permissible with the establishment of the Clean Air Act in the 1960s. The survival of the arch is not only a testament to stainless steel but to progressive legislation.  The Gateway Arch continually serves as a material, design, and cultural zeitgeist—relevant to the present, but also connecting us to the past as it propels us upward and forward.

LEDs or light emitting diodes are everywhere from traffic lights to Christmas ornaments to remote controls.  Inside these tiny bulbs is a small grey block which is made of silicon. And, silicon has the unusual origin of coming from sand.

Sand is melted and purified and then cast in long thick logs, called ingots, which are slice like baloney. Twenty years ago, these logs used to be as thick as a thumb, now these logs are wider than dinner plates.  The slice is then cut into small square chips.

The chips are then given a bit of phosphorus on one side and a bit of boron on the other. Phosphorous is an element that has more electrons than silicon; boron has fewer electrons than silicon. These different sides are connected to a battery. The battery pushes electrons from the phosphorous side to the boron side. And, when these electrons connect with atoms that don’t have electrons, light is given off.

LEDs are more efficient than incandescent bulbs. Incandescent bulbs, the ones we attribute to Thomas Edison, give off lots of heat. This is why toy oven use these bulbs to bake small cakes.  In fact, 70 percent of the energy used by incandescent bulbs is heat. That’s wasted energy.

But, LEDs run cool. They are so cool that cities now must remove snow from LED traffic lights during the winter. In the past, incandescent bulbs ran so hot, they would burn off any snow that landed on them. LEDs are not running hot and so snow collects on traffic lights. (This happens when you solve one problem, you inherit another one.)

So, as you can see, small bits of beach sand purified into silicon are made into sandwiches that give off light. Now, this is a bright idea.

 

Additional reading & activites (Affiliate Links):

Elements: A Visual Exploration 

Snap Electronics Fun LED kit

Materials: A Very Short Introduction

There’s no papering over the impact of origami in technology.

What do pizza boxes, paper bags, and fancy napkins have in common? Well, you might have guessed it — origami.

Origami, which means “paper folding,” is everywhere. While some of the oldest pieces of origami have been found in ancient China and origami’s deepest roots are in ancient Japan, origami makes an impact in today’s technology too.

One of the most important uses of origami today is in airbags. Airbags are doughnut-shape nylon bags that are deployed in a fraction of a second during a car collision. Airbags lie flat inside of the steering wheel. So, engineers needed to find the way to fold an airbag so it will store flat and expand out quickly. They consulted origami artist Robert Lang for the folding recipes. He found the origami folds for making a box with lots of corners was the solution that was needed.

Download some cool origami structures from this website (Used with permission)

http://www.origamiusa.org/diagrams

Origami doesn’t stop there. The National Science Foundation, one of the government’s largest funding sources for research, has funded 13 grants last year to use origami in industry. Origami is being applied to foldable forceps to expanding solar panels to deployable antennas.

Interestingly, other cultures also have a history of folded paper. There are elaborate folded patterns in Europe and folded paper in Mesoamerica going back over a thousand years.

Today, schools are using origami in STEAM education to improve students’ skills. Origami has been found to increase thinking skills, improve geometry learning, and enhance problem solving.

Origami is used in nature. Bugs fold wings with origami patterns; leaf buds have patterns that are similar to Japanese fans. Even molecules are arranged like origami structures.

So, get a piece of paper out and make some folds. Be connected by using this technique that has made impact in so many ways and for so long.

 

Here are some fun books on origami (Affiliate Links):

Robert Lang’s Complete Book of Origami (featured in the podcast)

Star Wars Origami 

Origami Fun Kit for Beginners

Foams are everywhere from the cosmos to your cappuccino.

Bubbles and foams are everywhere—from soap bubbles to sponges. Foams are mostly air, about 90 percent air, and when air is mixed with liquid to form a foam, together they act like a solid. Try it out for yourself. Push on some bubbles next time you are washing the dishes, they will move with force, but not on their own like a liquid would.

Here is a little bubble secret. Bubbles can help you from spilling your drink. Recently researchers have found that beverages that have 5 layers of bubbles on the top will be less likely to spill than a liquid without bubbles. This means that a latte will not spill when you walk, while hot coffee without bubbles will spill. Ouch. If you are commuting and want coffee, order a coffee with a bit of foam on the top and spare your epidermis.

So what are the bubbles doing? Well, the bubbles push against each other and the friction between the bubbles eats up the energy of the sloshing. The liquid with bubbles on top will not come out of the cup when you are walking. So, a soda with lots of bubbles does a better job of not spilling than a flat soda.

See for yourself in this short video:

http://gfm.aps.org/meetings/dfd-2014/5416599269702d585c690100

Ice Cream and Pudding and Bread, Oh My

The world is full of solid foams too, that is, foams that combine air with a solid. There are many that are quite yummy. Ice cream, pudding, and bread, are all solid foams. The bubbles give these foods mouth-feel, which is what makes them so pleasing.

But, there are more serious uses of foams. Scientists wanted to catch a bit of comet dust, which holds secrets about the formation of our solar system. It ends up that comets fly really fast (like 40 times a bullet) and catching dust particles in a cup would not work, because both the cup and the dust particle would be destroyed. What was needed was a way to capture comet dust that would not hurt the dust. So, scientists use a special foam, called an aerogel, which is 99.8 percent air with the rest being glass. As the particle enters the aerogel, small glass fibers are broken, which slow down the comet particle without hurting it. From these particles we can learn more about comets and our solar system.

What will bubble up from these findings is uncertain, what is clear however is that the uses of bubbles and foams are unlimited and even cosmic.

References:

Universal Foam 2.0 by Sidney Perkowitz (Affiliate Link)