Dr. Possum: The Physics Of Writing, Cannibal Silk Farmers, And The Octopus Who Is The Sea

(Our weekly science offering from the esteemed Dr. Possum. Posted late, here on this Monday, because, uh, late is what we do around here. Enjoy.)

Monday morning once again here in Possum Valley and the time has arrived for science talk. New discoveries, new takes on old knowledge, and other bits of news are all available for the perusing in today’s information world. Over the fold are selections from the past week from a few of the many excellent science news sites around the world. Today’s tidbits include even professional musicians can’t tell old master violins from new, the physics of writing with a fountain pen, hybrid silkworms spin stronger spider silk, researchers create a wire only 4 atoms wide and just 1 atom tall, new bandage spurs and guides blood vessel growth, and octopus mimics flatfish. Pull up that comfy chair and grab a spot near the fireside. There is always plenty of room for everyone. Another session of Dr. Possum’s science education, entertainment, and potluck discussion is set to begin.

In the world of classical music there are some violin makers from years ago whose instruments have been studied in an effort to find the secrets of the sound. A study with instruments unknown to the player may have debunked the theory of old being better than new.

The loser in both tests just happened to be a violin labeled “O1” and has quite an illustrious history. It’s been used by many famous violin virtuosos over the years, both in concert and in recordings.

These findings suggest, the researchers write, that it appears the old masters were no better at violin making than are those of today, and those that don’t believe it, are simply fooling themselves.

And this debate will undoubtedly go on and on and on ad infinitum.

For those among us who still write letters and are excited by the feel and function of a fountain pen comes the news of how that process works to transfer thoughts to paper.

Capillary action allows fluids to flow in thin tubes against the pull of other forces such as gravity. For instance, it causes paint to move up the bristles of a paintbrush, and paper towels to absorb liquid spills through their microscopic, wood-based, cylinder-shaped fibers.

Capillary action results from two processes working together. The first is adhesion, or the attachment of a liquid to a solid object, such as water to a glass tube, due to the attraction between the molecules of the liquid and the solid object it contacts. The second is surface tension, the cohesion of liquid molecules on its surface. Surface tension allows liquids to form round drops and insects called water striders to walk across the taut surfaces of ponds.

Another important phenomenon is viscosity, a fluid’s resistance to flowing. For example, tomato ketchup is more viscous than water.

One other factor comes into play: the speed at which the writer moves the pen.

If production of spider silk can be made a commercial process we may see parachutes and other lightweight and strong items in our future.

Commercial production of spider silk from spiders is impractical because spiders are too cannibalistic and territorial for farming. Researchers have experimented with producing the stronger material in other organisms, including bacteria, insects, mammals and plants, but those proteins require mechanical spinning—a task the silkworms perform naturally. The stronger fiber could find application in sutures, where some natural silkworm silk is used, as well as wound dressings, artificial ligaments, tendons, tissue scaffolds, microcapsules, cosmetics and textiles.

As the search for ever smaller electronics continues researchers have made a wire only 4 atoms wide and just 1 atom tall.

For engineers it could provide a roadmap to future nanoscale computational devices where atomic sizes are at the end of Moore’s law. The theory shows that a single dense row of phosphorus atoms embedded in silicon will be the ultimate limit of downscaling.

For computer scientists, it places donor-atom based silicon quantum computing closer to realization.

And for physicists, the results show that Ohm’s Law, which demonstrates the relationship between electrical current, resistance and voltage, continues to apply all the way down to an atomic-scale wire.

A new bandage delivers growth factors to damaged tissues to spur the growth of blood vessels

The bandage, called a “microvascular stamp,” contains living cells that deliver growth factors to damaged tissues in a defined pattern.

Other laboratories have embedded growth factors in materials applied to wounds in an effort to direct blood vessel growth. The new approach is the first to incorporate live cells in a stamp. These cells release growth factors in a more sustained, targeted manner than other methods, [researcher] Kong said.

The stamp is nearly 1 centimeter across and is built of layers of a hydrogel made of polyethylene glycol (an FDA-approved polymer used in laxatives and pharmaceuticals) and methacrylic alginate (an edible, Jell-O-like material).

The stamp is porous, allowing small molecules to leak through, and contains channels of various sizes to direct the flow of larger molecules, such as growth factors.

The mimic octopus flattens its limbs to look like members of its surrounding sea some of which are toxic.

Like its relatives, the mimic octopus is very capable of hiding from hungry predators by blending into its background. However, this talented species often chooses to make itself more conspicuous to predators by mimicking flatfish, lionfish or sea snakes that display high-contrast color patterns. This daredevil maneuver is thought to help T. mimicus confuse or scare away predators. Because it is relatively rare for an animal to develop such a high-risk, conspicuous defense strategy, the authors of the recent study hoped to gain insight into the evolutionary forces that fueled this behavior by conducting genetic research on the mimic octopus and its relatives. They focused on the mimic’s ability to flatten its arms and head and swim along the sea floor like a flatfish, while simultaneously exhibiting a bold, brown-and-white color pattern.

Other Worthy Stories of the Week
The top new animals of 2011
Satellite views of a moon crater Pictures, pictures.
Milky Way devouring neighboring dwarf galaxies
Possible new explanation found for the sudden demise of the Khmer Empire
The mathematics of Lego
Failed Russian space probe to fall
Opportunity well positioned for another winter on Mars
Leaping lizards tip tails for soft landing
Bat brains parse sounds for multitasking

For even more science news:
General Science Collectors:
Alpha-Galileo
BBC News Science and Environment
Eureka Science News
LiveScience
New Scientist
PhysOrg.com
SciDev.net
Science/AAAS
Science Alert
Science Centric
Science Daily
Scientific American
Space Daily

Blogs:
A Few Things Ill Considered Techie and Science News
Cantauri Dreams space exploration
Coctail Party Physics Physics with a twist.
Deep Sea News marine biology
Laelaps more vertebrate paleontology
List of Geoscience Blogs
ScienceBlogs
Space Review
Technology Review
Tetrapod Zoologyvertebrate paleontology
Science Insider
Scientific Blogging.
Space.com
Wired News
Science RSS Feed: Medworm
The Skeptics Guide to the Universe–a combination of hard science and debunking crap

NASA picture of the day. For more see the NASA image gallery or the Astronomy Picture of the Day Archive

Centaurus A, NASA, Public Domain

7 Responses to “Dr. Possum: The Physics Of Writing, Cannibal Silk Farmers, And The Octopus Who Is The Sea”


  1. 1 bluenred January 9, 2012 at 10:53 pm

    The violin story is interesting. It can be illuminating, not knowing the source.

    Hunter S. Thompson writes of hearing at a friend’s place an unsourced recording of MacArthur’s “Old Soldiers Never Die” speech: he thought it was a deadpan Lenny Bruce routine. Someone once read to me a sex scene from Hemingway, without identifying the author: it was so howlingly bad, I thought it had won some “bad writing” contest.

    As for the octopus, sometimes I pretend to be a predator. But it’s just an act. : /

  2. 2 possum January 10, 2012 at 9:08 am

    The violin story is an interesting one. There is so much variation between instruments and players. And apparently in the experimental situation the valuable instruments were not allowed to be tuned up or adjusted to the environment. All sorts of factors play into an acoustic instrument sound.

    That octopus is doing a better job of evading predators than us marsupials ever manage.

    Many thanks for the elevation to esteemed marsupial. That is a big step from the errant marsupial someone here once called me and may be better than deserved at any rate.

    • 3 bluenred January 10, 2012 at 12:41 pm

      Well, I think they should have allowed the violins to be tuned and adjusted to the environment. Otherwise, it’s not fair. Sorta like how a Jaguar, if tuned and adjusted to its environment, will run sweeter than any other car. But if you just get in and drive it, without doing any of that, it is a roadheap.

      Who said you were an errant marsupial? Somebody who caught you in their vines, eating their grapes? ; )

  3. 4 soothsayer January 10, 2012 at 12:43 pm

    “…spiders are too cannibalistic and territorial for farming..:”

    Good Choice ~ now if spiders can only get humans to wait on them hand and foot, then, they may rival Cats in the Evolutionary Sweepstakes …

    and here’s the NASA Song of the Day ~ Rock On Science Men : )

    • 5 bluenred January 10, 2012 at 3:41 pm

      You are doing so well, in avoiding the temptation to Elvi. You get a cookie. ; )

      I understand Mr. Bowie recently had a birthday. I also understand that he has had some involvement with spiders.

      • 6 soothsayer January 10, 2012 at 5:30 pm

        ha! you might have to do better than that.. : )

        the temptation to Elvi this time was greater than you may have realized ~ because Yes Mr. Bowie had a birthday on Sunday, but that date is also the birth date of the dreaded Elvi himself ( would have been 77 – can you even imagine??? ) and long the subject of annual celebrations and much bad food/music at Graceland..

        So, Extra Credit for me Mister : )

        But back to Science Questions — why was it 54 degrees in Icepick today???

        Or has Al Gore already answered that one??? : (

        • 7 bluenred January 10, 2012 at 10:18 pm

          Here is a Science Fact: the Elvi colon weighed 36 pounds at the time of his death.

          The answer to why it was 54 degrees in Icepick is simple. Somewhere in Icepick is a person who on that day celebrated their 54th birthday. Because that person has been Good, the weather decided to be 54, on that day. No one noticed the connection, except me. Because I am a Science Man.

          Okay. You get two cookies. ; )


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