Light Friday: World’s Longest Experiment Close to Completion
Credit: University of Queensland
Credit: University of Queensland

Plus:
Crash Course in Particle Accelerators
RoboBee Takes Flight
How Tall Can Humans Get?


The world’s longest-running laboratory experiment is approaching a milestone, but physicists won’t be discovering the God particle or even flying a kite in the rain. No, these researchers are waiting with bated breath for a drop to fall.

The University of Queensland in Australia has been home to the “pitch drop” test since 1927. Although pitch appears to be a brittle solid, the experiment seeks to prove that it shares qualities with both solids and liquids. In the lab, an upturned conical glass with an open tip has been filled with pitch. About once every decade, enough pitch gathers through this tip to form a drop that separates and falls into the glass below.

Although the pitch, which is calculated to be about 230 billion times more viscous than water, has been dripping for 86 years, no one has yet seen a drop actually fall. Professor John Mainstone, who has run the experiment since the 1960s, has looked away or stepped out at unfortunate times and always missed the drop. Not this time.

“This time we have got several cameras trained on the pitch sample to make sure we get a sight of it dropping,” Mainstone told the Guardian. “It will take only about a tenth of a second, however. On the other hand, I am 78, and the next drop is unlikely to fall for at least another 10 years, so this might be my last chance to see it happen.”

Crash Course in Particle Accelerators

You’ve probably heard about the amazing scientific findings emerging from the Large Hadron Collider, but it also happens to be one of the most complex pieces of scientific equipment ever constructed, so unless you’re physicist, you’re unlikely to understand all the intricacies of how it works.

A new video from TED-Ed provides a crash course in particle accelerators, explaining “how scientists harness the power of both electric and magnetic fields to smash atoms, eventually leading to major discoveries about the matter in our universe.”

RoboBee Takes Flight

Although humanoid robots tend to draw more attention, some of the most exciting advances in robotics are coming from the opposite end of the spectrum, as engineers and scientists develop sophisticated insect-inspired machines, like the robotic bee.

After 12 years of development, researchers from Harvard University have unveiled the RoboBee, the world’s first controllable, flying, insect-sized robot. Weighing 80 milligrams, the tiny robot can hover like a hummingbird, turn along a vertical axis, and move with precision from side to side. It is also designed to work in a swarm, mimicking the collective intelligence of a bee hive.

“Developing the little guy was not easy, and that wasn’t just the technology behind the project. Each part of the tiny apparatus had to be handcrafted for a robot this small,” CBS News notes. “The robot is able to flap its wings using piezoelectric actuators, which are strings of ceramic that expand and contract when an electric field is applied. However, the real technology is in the fiber body, which is where the system stores its control system.”

Standard machining methods were not adequate for working with such small electromechanical, so the engineering team pioneered its own new fabrication technique that relies on quick, “pop-up” manufacturing. Known as “smart composite microstructures,” the process enabled the designers to create multiple samples of the robot at a time while operating on a micro-scale.

The team believes RoboBee swarms can be used for a wide range of purposes, including search and rescue, hazardous environment exploration, military surveillance, high resolution weather and climate mapping, and traffic monitoring.

“Consider a rescue worker with a box full of 1,000 RoboBees—a package that would weigh less than a kilogram. The RoboBees could be released at the site of a natural disaster to search for the heat, sound or exhaled carbon dioxide signature of survivors,” Scientific American explains. If only three of the robots accomplish their task while the others fail, this is a success for the swarm. The same cannot be said about the current generation of $100,000 rescue robots.”

How Tall Can Humans Get?

Today, people are approximately 4 inches taller on average than they were 150 years ago. Better nutrition and medical advances have been the primary causes of this growth, but human beings tend to top out at a maximum height. Even the tallest people in history usually stop at just above the eight-foot mark. Why?

A new clip from science video blog Veritasium examines why human anatomy has a maximum height threshold, and how forces like gravity and air buoyancy set constraints on our growth potential.

Have a great weekend, folks.

 

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