time microscopes

There's a sort of ironic poetry in the popularity of fail pictures and videos--that is, images and clips of people injuring themselves and/or breaking things in dramatic and painful fashion. In our increasingly connected world, where the latest information and innovations are available at the click of a button, we are still viscerally entertained by watching someone crash a bicycle into something hard and unforgiving.

I usually avoid these types of videos because I've injured myself numerous times in a variety of similar ways, and I'm prone to vicarious sympathy pains. If I watch too many handrail-between-the-legs videos, I might not be able to have kids later on.

However, I do appreciate watching a ladybug tumble from takeoff position or a frog miss a dragonfly with dramatic bravado. Perhaps, on a deeper level, it's because the mechanics of flight or predation fascinate me in their beauty and complexity, and seeing it go wrong is a pleasant surprise. More likely, it's because I like to make airplane-crashing sounds as I watch that ladybug ungracefully sputter to the ground.

Thankfully, Andrew Mountcastle and his high-speed camera indulge us with slow-motion nature-fail.

As a grad student at the University of Washington studying the flight mechanisms of invertebrates, Andrew spends a lot of time filming the takeoff and flight of insects around campus. Using a slow-motion camera filming at 500 frames per second, he has captured valuable video that gives us insight into the mechanics of flight, specifically how wing flexibility affects a bug's flight. This also gives him the opportunity to catch some of the ephemeral yet epic-fail-worthy moments in nature that we rarely see.

Equally interesting, however, is something Andrew mentioned in an interview for a recent profile on the UW website that hadn't occurred to me before: "I view (high-speed cameras) as time microscopes. In the same way that microscopes allow you to magnify space, these allow you to magnify time -- to see details of time that we'd never see with the naked eye. It's a great tool."

A time microscope is indeed a great tool. I don't know how many times I've watched a ladybug take off, fly somewhere and land, but I remember it quite clearly as first a bug, then a blur, then a bug again. Watching his high-speed video of the same bug's successful ascent, the blur becomes a series of steps of orderly pre-flight preparation and carefully-orchestrated movements that allow the round little beetle to gracefully lift off and soar (I especially like the Superman-extension of the front legs).

A common misconception is that physicists have determined that, due to the laws of aerodynamics, it is impossible for a bumblebee to fly. This is clearly not the case, as we see them flitting about all the time. Rather than throwing up our hands and saying it must be some higher power carrying them about, however, we can examine the flight of the bee with a time microscope like Andrew's and see what most people can't: when a bumblebee flies, it moves its wings in a figure-eight motion that creates a vortex in the air, lifting them and carrying them about (A more scientific answer here)

If you'd like to check out more fascinating videos from Andrew's time microscope, head on over to http://students.washington.edu/mtcastle/movies.php, where you can see ladybugs, dragonflies, bees--and most importantly, inept frogs--flying slowly through the air. For those of you less bug-minded, I'd also encourage you to check out Time Warp and Things But Very Slowly, which turn the time microscope on everything from a slap in the face to a finger in a table saw (now I know you want to see that).


via UW News


you can do it, put yo' [butt] into it


I work, play, eat, sometimes sleep, and occasionally poo outdoors, and wherever I go, whether it's on a busy city street or in the most remote of Sierra wilderness, I am guaranteed to see at least a handful of cigarette butts.

I see them sitting on sidewalks, in gutters, on hiking trails, all over parking lots, in the nooks of trees, in National Forest, at dog parks and, once, in a discarded beer can inside a sneaker on an otherwise pristine and remote river beach (thanks for consolidating, buddy). Just yesterday, on a whim, I picked up about 20 from a small pile of debris next to a storm drain at my office. Had I more time, I would have dug out the other 40 or so.

They are the most common piece of litter in the United States and the world, and have annually topped the Ocean Conservancy's list of most frequently collected trash in the International Coastal Cleanup. Last year, ICC volunteers picked up 2,189,252 butts, making up 21% of all of the litter found on the world's shores. One study estimated that around 4.5 trillion cigarette butts per year are discarded somewhere other than a trash can and enter the environment.

Apparently, the common belief among smokers is that their butts are somehow biodegradable, or perhaps that the impact of their waste is minimal. In truth, cigarette butts are to the health of the environment as the rest of the cigarette is to the health of a smoker. The butts hold the cellulose acetate filters of the cigarettes, which supposedly protect the smoker from the toxic and carcinogenic chemicals the cigarettes release when they burn; chemicals like Arsenic, Formaldehyde, Tar, Cadmium, Hydrogen Cyanide, and more than 4000 others. These filters collect this cornucopia of crap from what smoke passes through the butt, and store it up until it's washed out by the next rainstorm, processed in a baby bird's stomach, or absorbed through the gills of a fish. According to a study by (the unfortunately named) Slaughter et al, the chemicals found in one cigarette butt can kill half the fish in a 1-liter tank of water in less than a day.

Clearly, we need to do more work to reduce not only the number of cigarettes people smoke, but also the vast number that they flick into the forest. But rather than sending them all to a landfill to leach and not-degrade, can't we find another use for them?

Apparently, we can, and in an ironically topical way.

A team of crazy chemists at the School of Energy and Power Engineering at Xi’an Jiaotong University took it upon themselves to soak a bunch of cigarette butts in hydrochloric acid (the same stuff found in your stomach), and apply the resulting solution to some industrial-grade steel, the kind used in underwater pipes. When treated, the steel developed a greater resistance to corrosion--up to 95% greater--than that of steel left untreated.

This means that underwater pipes, such as those broken ones spewing oil from a hole in the sea floor of the Gulf of Mexico, can be treated with a solution derived from cigarette butts and stomach acid to increase their strength and decrease the likelihood of catastrophic failure.

In this weird twist of science and engineering, the same butts that pollute our oceans, poison our waters, and kill our fish and wildlife can be used to prevent similarly deadly oil spills like the one going on right now.

So don't smoke, but if you absolutely feel compelled to do so, hold on to that butt when you're done. See if you can make it all the way to a trash can, and perhaps some day we'll have special filter recycling stations to collect the materials to fortify our also-recycled steel.