It's a mystery that presented itself unexpectedly: The radioactive decay of some elements sitting quietly in laboratories on Earth seemed to be influenced by activities inside the sun, 93 million miles away.
Is this possible?
Researchers from Stanford and Purdue University believe it is. But their explanation of how it happens opens the door to yet another mystery.
There is even an outside chance that this unexpected effect is brought about by a previously unknown particle emitted by the sun. "That would be truly remarkable," said Peter Sturrock, Stanford professor emeritus of applied physics and an expert on the inner workings of the sun.
The story begins, in a sense, in classrooms around the world, where students are taught that the rate of decay of a specific radioactive material is a constant. This concept is relied upon, for example, when anthropologists use carbon-14 to date ancient artifacts and when doctors determine the proper dose of radioactivity to treat a cancer patient.
But that assumption was challenged in an unexpected way by a group of researchers from Purdue University who at the time were more interested in random numbers than nuclear decay. (Scientists use long strings of random numbers for a variety of calculations, but they are difficult to produce, since the process used to produce the numbers has an influence on the outcome.)
Ephraim Fischbach, a physics professor at Purdue, was looking into the rate of radioactive decay of several isotopes as a possible source of random numbers generated without any human input. (A lump of radioactive cesium-137, for example, may decay at a steady rate overall, but individual atoms within the lump will decay in an unpredictable, random pattern. Thus the timing of the random ticks of a Geiger counter placed near the cesium might be used to generate random numbers.)
As the researchers pored through published data on specific isotopes, they found disagreement in the measured decay rates – odd for supposed physical constants.
Checking data collected at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island and the Federal Physical and Technical Institute in Germany, they came across something even more surprising: long-term observation of the decay rate of silicon-32 and radium-226 seemed to show a small seasonal variation. The decay rate was ever so slightly faster in winter than in summer.
Was this fluctuation real, or was it merely a glitch in the equipment used to measure the decay, induced by the change of seasons, with the accompanying changes in temperature and humidity?
"Everyone thought it must be due to experimental mistakes, because we're all brought up to believe that decay rates are constant," Sturrock said.
The sun speaks
On Dec 13, 2006, the sun itself provided a crucial clue, when a solar flare sent a stream of particles and radiation toward Earth. Purdue nuclear engineer Jere Jenkins, while measuring the decay rate of manganese-54, a short-lived isotope used in medical diagnostics, noticed that the rate dropped slightly during the flare, a decrease that started about a day and a half before the flare.
If this apparent relationship between flares and decay rates proves true, it could lead to a method of predicting solar flares prior to their occurrence, which could help prevent damage to satellites and electric grids, as well as save the lives of astronauts in space.
The decay-rate aberrations that Jenkins noticed occurred during the middle of the night in Indiana – meaning that something produced by the sun had traveled all the way through the Earth to reach Jenkins' detectors. What could the flare send forth that could have such an effect?
Jenkins and Fischbach guessed that the culprits in this bit of decay-rate mischief were probably solar neutrinos, the almost weightless particles famous for flying at almost the speed of light through the physical world – humans, rocks, oceans or planets – with virtually no interaction with anything.
Then, in a series of papers published in Astroparticle Physics, Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research and Space Science Reviews, Jenkins, Fischbach and their colleagues showed that the observed variations in decay rates were highly unlikely to have come from environmental influences on the detection systems.
Reason for suspicion
Their findings strengthened the argument that the strange swings in decay rates were caused by neutrinos from the sun. The swings seemed to be in synch with the Earth's elliptical orbit, with the decay rates oscillating as the Earth came closer to the sun (where it would be exposed to more neutrinos) and then moving away.
So there was good reason to suspect the sun, but could it be proved?..."
A Stanford mechanical engineer is using the biology of a gecko's sticky foot to create a robot that climbs. In the same way the small reptile can scale a wall of slick glass, the Stickybot can climb smooth surfaces with feet modeled on the intricate design of gecko toes.
Mark Cutkosky, the lead designer of the Stickybot, a professor of mechanical engineering and co-director of the Center for Design Research, has been collaborating with scientists around the nation for the last five years to build climbing robots.
After designing a robot that could conquer rough vertical surfaces such as brick walls and concrete, Cutkosky moved on to smooth surfaces such as glass and metal. He turned to the gecko for ideas.
"Unless you use suction cups, which are kind of slow and inefficient, the other solution out there is to use dry adhesion, which is the technique the gecko uses," Cutkosky said.
Wonders of the gecko toe
The toe of a gecko's foot contains hundreds of flap-like ridges called lamellae. On each ridge are millions of hairs called setae, which are 10 times thinner than a human's. Under a microscope, you can see that each hair divides into smaller strands called spatulae, making it look like a bundle of split ends. These split ends are so tiny (a few hundred nanometers) that they interact with the molecules of the climbing surface.
The interaction between the molecules of gecko toe hair and the wall is a molecular attraction called van der Waals force. A gecko can hang and support its whole weight on one toe by placing it on the glass and then pulling it back. It only sticks when you pull in one direction – their toes are a kind of one-way adhesive, Cutkosky said.
"It's very different from Scotch tape or duct tape, where, if you press it on, you then have to peel it off. You can lightly brush a directional adhesive against the surface and then pull in a certain direction, and it sticks itself. But if you pull in a different direction, it comes right off without any effort," he said.
Robots with gecko feet
One-way adhesive is important for climbing because it requires little effort to attach and detach a robot's foot.
"Other adhesives are sort of like walking around with chewing gum on your feet: You have to press it into the surface and then you have to work to pull it off. But with directional adhesion, it's almost like you can sort of hook and unhook yourself from the surface," Cutkosky said.
After the breakthrough insight that direction matters, Cutkosky and his team began asking how to build artificial materials for robots that create the same effect. They came up with a rubber-like material with tiny polymer hairs made from a micro-scale mold.
The designers attach a layer of adhesive cut to the shape of Stickybot's four feet, which are about the size of a child's hand. As it steadily moves up the wall, the robot peels and sticks its feet to the surface with ease, resembling a mechanical lizard.
The newest versions of the adhesive, developed in 2009, have a two-layer system, similar to the gecko's lamellae and setae. The "hairs" are even smaller than the ones on the first version – about 20 micrometers wide, which is five times thinner than a human hair. These versions support higher loads and allow Stickybot to climb surfaces such as wood paneling, painted metal and glass.
The material is strong and reusable, and leaves behind no residue or damage. Robots that scale vertical walls could be useful for accessing dangerous or hard to reach places.
The team's new project involves scaling up the material for humans. A technology called Z-Man, which would allow humans to climb with gecko adhesive, is in the works.
Cutkosky and his team are also working on a Stickybot successor: one that turns in the middle of a climb. Because the adhesive only sticks in one direction, turning requires rotating the foot.
"The new Stickybot that we're working on right now has rotating ankles, which is also what geckos have," he said.
"Next time you see a gecko upside down or walking down a wall head first, look carefully at the back feet, they'll be turned around backward. They have to be; otherwise they'll fall."
Cutkosky has collaborated with scientists from Lewis & Clark College, the University of California-Berkeley, the University of Pennsylvania, Carnegie Mellon University and a robot-building company called Boston Dynamics. His project is funded by the National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The research is described in a paper published online Aug. 2 in Applied Physics Letters, "Effect of fibril shape on adhesive properties.""
So scientists who specialize in this particular field are studying the gecko foot and trying valiantly to come close to duplicating it's remarkable design features. The gecko foot is one of millions of unique design features found in nature that mankind has copied or is in the process of trying to copy. But some of you think that things such as the intricate combinations of physical and operational aspects of the foot of the gecko that must work in precisely coordinated ways to work just kind of *poofed* into existence. Just like when you empty the kitchen junk drawer onto the floor and a microwave *poofs* into being. Just like when you mow the lawn and empty a big, delicious watermelon from the mower bag. Just like when you would jump off of 200 foot high cliff if you have scoliosis so that blind chance could fix that for you. Yeah. That is Darwinism in a nutshell with an emphasis on "nut." I will make this perfectly and simply clear for you once I have time for a longer post.
BTW congratulations to Karl Priest upon getting his new book reviewed here. Excerpt:
You can read an interview of Karl discussing the book with Michael Shaughnessy here.
You can click below to buy a copy.