A Nobel Cause

So, the news is out. At least in terms of the sciency Nobel Prizes (sorry Economic Sciences, you don’t really count here), the 2018 Laureates have all been announced, so here’s a short overview of what was Nobel-Prize-Worthy this year:
1. Nobel Prize in Chemistry (press release)
And… *drumroll* the Nobel prize in Chemistry goes to Prof. Frances H. Arnold, Prof. George Smith and Sir Gregory Winter for their contributions to protein biology, where they all worked on directed evolution of proteins.
Directing protein evolution is used to create proteins with a specific function that can be used in biofuel, pharmaceutical, and medicine manufacturing. Half of the Nobel Prize was awarded to Prof. Arnold, who works on directed evolution of enzymes (proteins that are used to accelerate or direct chemical reactions). The other half, that of Prof. Smith and Sir Winter, celebrated a method called phage display. This process uses viruses to develop specific proteins that can be used for medical purposes.
My personal excitement for this prize:
Well, Prof. Arnold is a professor in bioengineering, which is, in my opinion, an underacknowledged field, so that’s pretty cool. And this has nothing to do with the fact that I’ve studied bioengineering. Nothing at all.


2. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (press release)
The Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Jim Allison and Tasuku Honjo for their work in cancer therapy. By now, the concept of “immune therapy” may not sound extremely new anymore. However, just think about how amazing it is: someone’s immune system (in other words, an attack system that is already present in your body) can be used to fight cancer cells (which isn’t really straightforward – cancer cells originate from normal cells so are not detected as “foreign” by the immune system).
My personal interest in this prize: 
First of all, yay for biology completely highjacking the Nobel Prizes. But on the topic: radiotherapy and chemotherapy are both notorious to have a huge amount of side effect. By effectively using the natural defense system of the body, immune therapy usually is a lot less taxing on a patient, which I think is a laudable goal.
https://twitter.com/NobelPrize/status/1046694080883949568


3. The Nobel Prize in Physics (press release)

*Final Drum Roll, please*
The Nobel Prize in Physics is all about lasers (Did you know that LASER is an acronym for “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation? Well, you do know). Arthur Ashkin was honors for his development of optical tweezers (which I will simply explain by referring you to my fabulous friend who has worked with optical tweezers herself) and the other half was awarded to Donna Strickland and Gerard Mourou for their work on laser pulses. The most known application of laser pulses is in laser eye surgery.
My personal input to this prize:
I have two thoughts, first, how has this not won a Nobel Prize yet? Actually, to be honest, I think that quite often when the Nobel Prizes, which is probably why they get a Nobel Prize in the first place. The other thought has to do with the same reason why this prize has been in the press a lot: it has been 55 years since a woman won a physics Nobel prize. Only two other women have a Nobel Prize in Physics to their name: Marie Skłodowska-Curie (obviously!) and Maria Goeppert-Mayer (go google her, now).
https://twitter.com/NobelPrize/status/1047061973966512130
Some thoughts on women and Nobel Prizes
Historically, science has always been pretty male-dominated. And even now, women are underrepresented in research: worldwide the female share of persons employed in R&D is approximately 30% and I will not even get into high-level academics here.
In terms of Nobel Prizes, as of this year, there have been 49 women who have won Nobel Prizes (that’s all of them), compared to 844 men. In the sciency fields, five women have won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (2.8%), twelve have won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (5.6%), and – as stated – three have won the Nobel Prize in Physics (1.4%). Actually, only one woman has won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences (also 1.4%), but that doesn’t really count as a science anyway!
In any case, none of the Nobel Prizes have a good track record, and it makes me a bit sad that “First woman Physics Nobel winner in 55 years” is a news headline, but ah well, we may have come some part of the way but we are not there yet.
And until we are, having positive role models of all shapes and sizes and sexes for STEM fields is crucial. As a wannabe science-communicator, or science-populizer if you will, one of my aims is exactly that. So that every child can look up to a scientist and think “that could be me!”
And – even if I say so myself – I think that’s a pretty noble cause.

___________________________________________________

post

An ignobel cause

Disclaimer: if you’re a bit hungry and/or know that reading about spaghetti will make you hungry, I suggest you go eat some spaghetti before you continue reading… But if you do, keep at least a few strands uncooked, you might need it later on.

An odd article popped up on my go-to news site the other day. And then the day after that, an article on the same topic popped up in the newspaper I was reading. It was an article reporting on the science of breaking an uncooked spaghetti.

No, I’m not joking.

And apparently, the research solves a decade-old problem. I never knew spaghetti could pose a decade-old problem, except for maybe the secret spaghetti-sauce recipe of an Italian-American family but that’s a century-old problem, I would say.

So if you’d go into your kitchen now, take a strand of uncooked spaghetti, hold it at the ends, and start bending it until it snaps, you will see what this mystery is all about. Most probably, you have now ended up with three or more bits of spaghetti. If you are super bored or think snapping spaghetti is super-fun (this is what Richard Feynman apparently thought), you can try it again. And you will notice the spaghetti almost never snaps into two pieces. Or you can just take my word for it…

In 2005, some French physicists came up with a theoretical solution to why spaghetti never breaks into two, because this unsolved mystery Richard Feynman broke his head about merited some further research…
When a very thin bar (or strand of spaghetti) is being bent, this will cause the strand to break somewhere near the middle. This first break will cause a “snap-back” effect which essentially causes a vibration to travel through the rest of the strand, causing even more points of fracture, which results in three or more pieces. In other words, is very rare to end up with exactly two pieces of spaghetti.

These French researchers were rewarded with an Ig Nobel prize for their finding. An Ig Nobel prize is a prize that is rewarded “for achievements that first make people LAUGH then make them THINK” and also the reason for my best quiz achievement ever.*

crack-control-1

Experiments (above) and simulations (below) show how dry spaghetti can be broken into two or more fragments, by twisting and bending. (Image: MIT)

And now, years later, mathematicians from MIT have added to that research by coming up with a way to ensure a dry spaghetti strand does break exactly in two: by first twisting the spaghetti before bending it. The twisting part causes stresses in the spaghetti strand that counteract the snapback effect when it eventually breaks. When the spaghetti does break in to, the energy release from a “twist wave” (where the spaghetti pieces untwist themselves) ensures there is no extra stress that would cause more fracture points. So there we go: the spaghetti breaks in exactly two pieces as long as you twist it enough.

crack-control-2

Experiments (above) and simulations (below) show how dry spaghetti can be broken into two or more fragments, by twisting and bending. (Image: MIT)

Now, this theory isn’t only limited to breaking spaghetti. Understanding stress distributions and breaking cascade also have some practical applications, according to the authors: the same principles can be applied to other thin bar-like structures, such as multifibers, nanotubes, and microtubules.
Now, if you haven’t already, go get yourself some spaghetti.

_________________________________________________________

* The question: who has one both an Ig Nobel and a Nobel prize and for what?
The whole table looked very confused and I just said very confidently “André Geim, levitating a frog and graphene” so it turns out a degree in nanotech is super useful for winning quizzes. (Actually, I’m not even sure we won and I doubt it was thanks to me answering that one question correctly, but I’m pretty sure I will never live up to that moment ever again.)

Octopuses suck! (but not like that)

You might know the frustration of trying to get a suction cup to stick: cleaning the sucker and surface over and over again, pushing on the sucker for increasing amounts of time and with increasing amounts of force… But nothing helps, the basket of shower gels and shampoos, or whatever you’re trying to attach to a wall/window/door (or maybe you are trying to climb a tower) just slowly slides down – if you’re lucky – or falls to the ground – on your toes, if you’re not so lucky.

Well, there might be some hope. Researchers are looking to nature to find a solution to this everyday frustration – because I’m positive this was the incentive: minimising shower rage. There is a whole field based on nature-inspired solutions and products, mostly grouped under the name Biomimetics, because why would you try to reinvent the wheel if nature has evolved a useful means of transportation?

Back to the suckers. In June, I came across a News&Views article that made me do a double take. You see, I had a brief moment of surprise when I thought the Nature journal had taken a liking to hentai (if you don’t know what this is, please do not google it, you have been warned). But it was not what I thought; “How to suck like an octopus” dealt on materials science, and how to make rubber sheets that can stick to surfaces. In other words: how to make better suckers!

It turns out that octopuses use suction cups to attach to rocks and to grab things. And it turns out the special shape of their suckers enhances that adhesion. Boom, let’s try and create a material that does the same!

Inspired by Octopus vulgaris, researchers tried to recreate the ideal adhesive material that sticks well to surfaces but also is able to detach easily. Octopus vulgaris‘ trick is a dome-shaped bulge at the bottom of the suction cup (see figure). This “dome in a cup” structure – mimicked by micrometre-sized hole with a dome in it (see figure, again) – enhances adhesion to wet surfaces by providing capillary forces between the dome and the substrate.

On dry surfaces, the presence of the domes does not increase adhesion but doesn’t cause any decreased adhesion either. The only difference between the octopus suckers is that octopuses have muscles in the suckers to flex, expand and contract them, increasing control of the adhesion and detachment. There are still some things to mimic then; it’s always nice to have something for the “Future Work” bit of a paper.

I think biomimetics is like super cool, though I have to admit that sometimes the applications seem unrealistic or too far-fetched; in this case, the authors suggest applications in manufacturing – transport of materials – and biomedical applications such as wound dressing. However, I still believe there is great value in biomimetic research: better understanding – the biomimetic device can teach us of the workings of the in natura equivalent (I know that’s not what in natura means) – and it’s just fun to do!
The News&Views author agrees:

“Applications aside, understanding and mimicking the fundamental science of attachment strategies used by sea creatures can just be plain fun.”

546358a-f1

Octupus vulgaris suckers contain dome-shaped bulges. Flexible biomimetic rubber sheets containing an array of micrometre-sized holes with a bulge in each hole.


References:
Original Letter: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v546/n7658/full/nature22382.html
Suction Cup Guy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7XCk3AtUbvA