More Cool Discoveries

More Cool Discoveries

Occasionally research shows up that may not have any immediate apologetics interest but falls into the “too-cool” category. This installment includes cave formations that track past earthquakes (and possibly predict future ones), light-harvesting hornet shells, a clock accurate to one second every million years, and self-healing, autonomous materials.

Earthquake Trackers
Over the past few hundred years, some of the largest earthquakes in the continental United States occurred in the New Madrid seismic zone (see graphic below). Even though these quakes may have exceeded magnitude 8 on the Richter scale, relatively small amounts of damage ensued due to lower population levels during the early 1800s. New research indicates cave formations such as stalagmites might track the history of past earthquakes and, more importantly, help predict the occurrence of future activity. Such knowledge would help provide better protection for the millions of people now living near the fault zone. 

Energy Efficient Hornets 
Although Earth’s surface receives a tremendous amount of energy from the Sun, scientists struggle to capture significant quantities of this energy for later use—a task many biological organisms perform with ease. One unlikely creature exhibiting the capacity to harness the Sun’s energy is the Oriental hornet. In contrast to other early-rising hornets, the Oriental hornet works in the afternoon and its activity correlates with the Sun’s increasing intensity. Scientists explained this odd behavior by demonstrating that the hornet’s shell traps the Sun’s radiation and a yellow pigment converts the radiation into electric energy. Additionally, the researchers found unusual energy processes that work like air conditioners and heat pumps to cool the hornet’s body while it works in the hot sunlight hours!1

World’s Best Clock
Imagine a clock so accurate that it loses/gains less than one second every 300 million years. Now imagine making the clock using really cold electrons, so cold that they behave in odd and counter-intuitive ways. Scientists have long known that two electrons cannot be made to occupy the same state as formalized by the Pauli exclusion principle. At normal temperatures, the exclusion principle causes few detectable consequences. At ultracold temperatures, it suppresses the types of collisions that occur. A team of scientists used this effect to make the most accurate atomic clock ever operated.2

Self-Healing Powers
In the superhero world, some characters (like X-Men’s Wolverine) possess the ability to heal wounds and repair damage rapidly. This ability requires both sensing the damage and utilizing some mechanism to facilitate the repair. In the real world, all living organisms possess ability to heal, although it operates on much slower timescales. Now research is leading scientists to materials that perform similarly to super-healing powers. In this instance, shape-memory polymers are infused with a fiber optic network. When the material sustains damage, light running through the fiber optics generates heat. The heat allows the material to reform in its original shape, healing the damage.3 Pretty cool stuff in my opinion.

  1. Marian Plotkin et al., “Solar Energy Harvesting in the Epicuticle of the Oriental Hornet (Vespa orientalis),” Naturwissenschaften 97 (October 2010): 1067–76.
  2. G. K. Campbell et al., “Probing Interactions Between Ultracold Fermions,” Science 324 (April 17, 2009): 360–63.
  3. Michael E. Garcia, Yirong Lin, and Henry A. Sodano, “Autonomous Materials with Controlled Toughening and Healing,” Journal of Applied Physics 108, no. 9 (November 1, 2010): 093512.