Be Amazing! Blogs

2010 11.07

Truly Amazing Gecko Tape

This blog entry is another of our "Science in the News” articles.  Feel free to print it out and share it with your students, or to have one of your students present the information to the rest of the class—after all, one of the most important parts of science is learning to communicate information.  


This entry is part of a short series about the work of Andre Geim, the 2010 Nobel Prize winner for physics.  This entry details some of his other work.  Be sure to join us next time to read about his Nobel work, too.


Andre Geim and Gecko Tape


Andre Geim likes to play with science.  He is a physicist and nanotechnologist at the University of Manchester in England.  When he heard that other scientists had discovered how geckos stick to walls and ceilings he decided to create adhesive tape that used the same principle.  


Gecko feet are covered with little ridges.  This picture shows a gecko foot stuck to a plane of glass.  



Photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen


The ridges on the toes are called lamella, and are made up of rows of hair-like structures called setae (approximately 200,000 setae per toe.)  Each seta has hundreds to thousands of tiny projecting flaps called spatulae.  


Because the toes, lamellar ridges, setal hairs, and spatula flaps are all soft and flexible, the spatulae can spread out and touch the surfaces that a gecko is walking on.  Molecules that are close to each other are slightly attracted to each other, a little like very small, very weak magnets.  But because there are so many spatula touching molecules on the gecko’s walking surface, the total effect is like many, many, many tiny magnets—enough to allow the gecko to stick to walls, ceilings, glass, or pretty much anything else (except teflon!)


Gecko Tape


Professor Geim and his colleagues created a small piece of sticky tape using technology similar to that used to make computer chips.  The "tape” is made of tiny plastic pillars (about two microns tall) that are regularly spaced on a flexible base.  A micron is VERY small—about a thousandth of a millimeter!  


Here is a picture of the tiny pillars:



Used by the associated press by permission of Professor Geim



To test whether the tape worked, Professor Geim put a small piece of it on a toy spiderman’s hand and tried to see whether the spider man toy would stick to a plane of glass.  As you can see, it did!  


"Test of gecko tape,” by Geim and colleagues, from "Microfabricated adhesive mimicking gecko foot-hair"



Although gecko tape is pretty cool, it isn’t time yet to run out and buy your own.  So far only a small amount of tape (a couple of square centimeters) has been created.  Right now the tape-creation process is very time-consuming and very expensive, and the researchers have some kinks to work out, but their calculations indicate that if they made enough gecko tape to cover a human hand (about 200 square centimeters) the tape would be able to suspend a whole HUMAN from the ceiling—maybe even spider man himself!   


You just never know what might happen when smart kids or scientists start to play with science ideas—AMAZING!  







2010 11.06

All About Amber

Have you ever heard of amber?  Amber is a translucent gemstone that is used in jewelry.  But do you know where amber comes from?   


Amber is fossilized tree resin!  Some trees (especially coniferous trees such as pine trees and redwoods) produce a thick, sticky substance that oozes out of breaks and cracks in its wood.  This sticky substance is called resin.  Scientists are still arguing about why trees make resin.  Some scientists think that trees make resin to protect themselves against bugs and other things.  Other scientists say that trees just make resin by accident.  Who knows?  Maybe someday YOU will figure it out!  Here is a picture of resin dripping from a pine tree:


From Wikipedia Commons

When resin gets buried underground, it can turn into a fossil.  Over a long period of time (scientists think tens of millions of years) resin that is very far underground experiences very high temperatures and pressures.  The very high temperatures and pressures "boil off” some of the chemicals in the resin and cause others to polymerize.  This means that the smaller molecules link up like train cars in a train.  Over time, this polymerization forms amber.


Because amber started out as a thick, sticky liquid, it sometimes contains things trapped inside, like pieces of plants, rock, or even bugs!   Here is a picture of a spider that was trapped in an amber gemstone.  


from Wikimedia commons, uploaded by Elisabeth from the Netherlands


Amber comes in different colors, ranging from white to pale yellow to brownish-black.  Amber of other colors has also been found, such as red, green, or even blue (although blue amber is very rare and very expensive.)  Most amber is a golden color, sort of like honey.  This is the color people mean when they say something is "amber-colored.”   Amber can be melted and burned, and in the past people used to use it as medicine or in perfume.  


Amber was important in our understanding of electricity.  As far back as 600 BC, a philosopher from ancient Greece (Thales of Miletus) noted that rubbing fur on amber made the amber attract light objects, like hair.  Later, scientists discovered that the fur was leaving electrons behind on the amber, giving the amber a slight negative charge.  In fact, the words "electron” and "electricity” actually come from the Greek word for amber!  


Amber was recently in the news.  Scientists excavating amber in western India found many pieces of amber with ancient insects, arachnids, crustaceans, plants, and even mammal remains trapped inside.  The scientists think that the specimens are about 50 million years old.  Because some of the fossil insects  are similar to fossils found in Central America, this amber might change what geologists think the arrangement of continents in the ancient world may have been.  



Spider found in the Cambay amber deposit of western India. (Photo by David Grimaldi/AMNH)

 


From electricity to insects to ancient geography, amber is amazing—just like you!  




2010 10.25

Giant Jelly Monster Eyes


Disappearing monster eyes 

This activity is a neat experiment, a cool decoration, and a fun party trick.  "Disappearing Monster Eyes” takes the old "peeled grapes as eyeballs” trick up a notch.  "Clear spheres” (Monster Eyes) are similar to the substance found in disposable baby diapers.  Both belong to the family known as Superabsorbent polymers.  Superabsorbent polymers do just what you would think they would do—absorb lots and lots and LOTS of water.  Clear Spheres absorb more than 300 times their weight in water, to turn overnight from little beads to big, squishy marbles made of goo that look just like (you guessed it) MONSTER EYES!  For a spooky activity (and very cool science experiment) you can do at home, try growing "Disappearing Monster Eyes” overnight just by adding water.  For an eerie Halloween decoration try setting out a cauldron of hydrated "eyeballs” instead of peeled grapes.  But here is the coolest part:  if you put your hydrated "Monster Eyes” in a clear bowl and then cover them in water, they will virtually disappear.  Really!  For a fun Halloween party activity guaranteed to delight and disgust, invite your friends to reach into a cauldron of water-covered Monster eyes.  Your friends will only see water, but when they reach in and feel the slimy "eyeballs,” they will gasp, "Whoa!  Yuck!  What ARE those things?!”  You can tell them…”Monster eyes—I harvested them myself!”

        



Trying "Monster Eyes” on for size


How does it work?

"Monster Eyes” (Clear Spheres - found in Be Amazing!'s Amazing Spheres  kit) seem to disappear in water because of something called the "angle of refraction.”  Light usually travels in a straight line.  However, when light travels through air into glass or water, the path that it is travelling in is bent.  You can observe this yourself.  If you dip a long stick halfway into water, the stick will look like it is bent. 



Of course, the stick isn’t really bending—the light is.  

 In the case of super absorbent polymers (like Clear Sphere "Monster Eyes”) there is so much water in them that light isn’t really bent at all as it travels out of the water, through the Monster Eye, and back into the water.  Because the path of the light isn’t bent between the water and the polymers, the Monster Eyes seem to disappear.   Amazingly cool!



Disappearing monster eyes make a great Halloween decorations



Do you have science ideas or questions?  We’d love to hear from you.  Email us at Science.is.cool@beamazing.com 


 

2010 10.14

Halloween Skeletons

OOOOOOhh!   SKELETONS!!


Halloween is coming soon, which means cats, bats, witches, pumpkins, and SKELETONS.  Halloween is a great time to learn about bones.  





Here are some neat facts about skeletons:  


A newborn baby has over 300 bones, but an adult human has only 206.  Where do they go?  Do they fall out?  Nope!  Over time, some of the bones grow together, like the bones in the skull.  You may have heard of babies having a "soft spot" on their heads, for instance, whereas you have a good old solid noggin.  This is because the bones of your skull that were separate when you were a baby grew together into one solid skull.  



You probably already know that bones help give your body shape, protect your heart, brain, and other organs, and work with your muscles to help you move, but did you know that bones also store calcium and iron, are the birthplace of blood cells, and help your body regulate its metabolism?  



Your largest bone is your femur, in your upper leg, while your smallest bones are the tiny bones inside your ears which help you hear.



Even though a giraffe neck can grow to be over six feet long, it has the same number of bones in it that yours does.  Both giraffes and humans have seven bones (called vertebrae) in their necks.  Yours are just a lot shorter.



Most of what we know about dinosaurs comes from their bones.  Over a long time, the material in their bones was replaced by other materials like minerals.  This essentially turns the dinosaur bones into rocks that are the same shape that the bones were.  This is called replacement or recrystallization.



You can make your own spooky Halloween skeleton out of paper plates, just like the one up above.


Click here to download and print out a spookily scientific skeleton pattern.  

  


To make your skeleton, cut out the pattern and trace it onto paper plates, then cut the bone shapes from paper plates.  You can link the bones together with yarn and tape. No bones about it --skeletons are amazing--just like you!



 Even Halloween can be a scientific experiment!

2010 09.02

Try This! Experiment Corner: Which eye is the Boss?

You’ve probably heard of people being left or right handed.  Did you know that most people are also either left or right "eyed?”  Being left or right-eyed doesn’t affect which hand has better handwriting or how you hold a baseball bat, though.  


"Eyedness” (also called ocular or eye dominance) means that one of your eyes is "THE BOSS.”  In other words, Eye dominance happens when your brain prefers the information from one eye more than the information from the other.  Is one of your eyes "THE BOSS?”  This experiment will help you find out.



Try It!  


You’ll need:  paper, scissors


Make a small hole (one inch or less in diameter—one inch wide) in the middle of a piece of paper.  You can download a template if you like by clicking here, and cutting out the circle in the middle.  You will be looking at something across a room through the hole in the paper.  


Choose something stationary (not moving) to look at across a room (at least twenty feet away) like a clock, or something on a shelf.  Hold the paper with both hands, one hand on either side.  Hold the paper straight in front of you at eye level with your arms fully extended.  


Move the paper until you can see the object you picked through the hole.  Once you can see the object through the hole, hold your head and the paper very still.  Without moving your head or the paper, slowly close your left eye (keeping your right eye open) and then open your left eye and close your right.  Remember to not move your head or the paper!  


Most likely, when you close one of your eyes, you’ll still be able to see the object through the hole, but when you close the other eye, you will no longer be able the object.  The eye that can still see the object when the other is closed is your dominant eye (THE BOSS.)  


Here are some pictures of Ethan P. trying this experiment.  


Ethan P. holding the paper at eye level, extending arms straight in front, and looking through the hole

 

                                    

                  The clock Ethan is looking at across the room.                    What Ethan sees as he looks through the hole at the clock.

 


How does it work?

Your left and right eyes see things from slightly different angles, and usually your brain uses the slight differences to help you figure out how close or far away things are (optometrists call this depth perception, or stereo acuity.)  When you look at something very close to you, the information from your two eyes is quite a bit different than when you look at something far away, and your brain has to decide which eye it should believe when it is trying to figure out exactly where something is.  


You can try this, too.  Hold your finger directly in front of your left eye, about three inches away from your face.  Holding your head and finger still, first close your left eye, and then your right.  Your two eyes are reporting different things to your brain, right?  Your brain tends to pick one eye to be in charge of determining the exact spatial location of things when your eyes are telling it different things.  This eye becomes your dominant eye, or "THE BOSS.” 


Other Interesting Facts


  • Some people have very mild eye dominance (one eye is just a little bossy) while others have extreme eye dominance (one eye is VERY bossy.)
  • According to several scientific studies, it seems more people (about two-thirds of the people in the studies) are right eye dominant and only about one third are left-eye dominant.
  • Determining eye dominance is important for some kinds of contact lenses and eye surgeries


If you like this experiment and want to explore more about your senses or optical phenomena, you might like these two kits from Be Amazing:

Come to Your Senses

Incredible Illusions 


 


2010 04.27

Be Amazing! Toys and Make Magazine

Be Amazing! Toys products wowed the folks at Make Magazine

 

Make Magazine is a science magazine and website for science fun-loving geeks of all ages.   Make Magazine


They caught up with Be Amazing! Toys at 2009 Toy Fair, the giant, annual  toy industry show in New York City.   They were wowed by some of our products. 

 


The annual Maker Faires are giant science fairs for kids of all ages.  Another great way to get the whole family involved in science.  

2010 04.22

Have you ever heard of the Nobel Prize?

Have you ever heard of the Nobel Prize?  It is an award given once a year to the world’s greatest contributors to science in the fields of chemistry, physics, and physiology/medicine.  The Nobel Prize is generally considered to be the highest, best, and most prestigious prize a scientist can be awarded in those areas.  In the past, Nobel Prizes have been given to the scientists that contributed to the discovery of DNA, the scientists that discovered HIV (the virus that causes AIDS), and the scientists that figured out how your nose and brain work together to smell things.  Albert Einstein was awarded the Physics Nobel prize in 1921 for his discovery of the law of Photoelectric Effect.  The road to a Nobel prize starts with people asking questions about the world around them and figuring out ways to find answers to their questions.  In other words, scientists are curious just like you!  In honor of cool, curious kids and scientists everywhere, today let’s learn about the science behind a recent Nobel prize.

 

In 2008, three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their "discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein, GFP.”  "GFP” is just what it sounds like:  it is a protein that glows green.  The protein absorbs light that has a specific amount of energy, and then emits (releases) light of a different energy, an energy that we can see.  You won’t believe where GFP came from—jellyfish!  Specifically, GFP comes from a jellyfish called Aequorea Victoria that lives in the pacific waters west of North America.  Here are some pictures of of an Aequorea Victoria jellyfish.  Adult jellyfish are usually 3 centimeters across or larger.

 

           

 Aequorea Victoria .  Pictures are used with the permission of Sierra Blakely, the author and copyright holder (2008).

 

Some jellyfish and other animals naturally make proteins that glow.  When animals glow, scientists say that they have "bioluminescence.”  Animals use bioluminescence for a number of reasons, such as talking to each other, attracting prey, and defending themselves against predators.  GFP was named "Green Fluorescent Protein” because it makes parts of the jellyfish glow green.  Scientists studied the protein and figured out how to make other things make the same protein.  Suddenly they could make bacteria or yeast glow green, or worms, or even fish.  Other scientists figured out ways to make the GFP even better for their research.  The water that the jellyfish lived in was cold, so at first GFP only worked well in cold temperatures, but scientists figured a way to make the protein work well in warm temperatures, so a mammal’s cells can now make GFP—even human cells!  Scientists figured out ways to make the protein glow even brighter and to be stronger, and other scientists figured out how to change the protein just a little bit so that instead of glowing green, it could glow yellow or blue, or even red! 

 

This is a picture that was "painted” on a petri dish using bacterial colonies whose DNA has been modified so that they make different kinds of GFP or a second kind of fluorescent protein that originally came from a kind of coral.  When the petri dish is held under the right kind of light, the bacteria glow in different colors, making a picture of an island sunset and a palm tree.  Aren’t bacteria beautiful?


 

 

A San Diego beach scene drawn with bacterial colonies that make fluorescent proteins derived from GFP and a coral protein.  The artwork was done by Nathan Shaner in Roger Tsien’s lab in 2006, and was photographed by Paul Steinbach.  Roger Tsien was one of the Nobel Prize winners for his work with GFP.

 

 

Now GFP is a really important tool in scientific research.  Scientists use it every day.  One way that they do this is to hook a GFP protein onto another protein that they want to study.  When they shine the right kind of light onto the cell that is making the proteins and look under a microscope at them, they can see parts of the cell glowing, and they know that the protein they are studying is moving to specific parts of the cell, like the nucleus or the cell membrane.  People have even used GFP for fun reasons.  People figured out a way to make almost all of the cells of animals make GFP, and now you can buy a pet fish or even a mouse that glows green under black light.  Amazing!

 

If you’d like to learn to grow your own bacteria on a petri dish (they probably won’t glow, but they may turn out to be different colors) check out our "Yuck!” science kit, with which you’ll also get the chance to make lots of other cool and gross stuff.

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