March 3, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

Animal PhDs in Physics

Many animals and plants have mastered physics and chemistry. Engineers would do well to learn from them.

Glistening fish: “Hidden physics make fish glitter,” Rob Payne says at PhysOrg. Sardines and other silvery-sparkly fish that flash in the light are using two layers, both transparent, that interact with light in interesting ways when layered in a certain way. “Despite guanine and cytoplasm being transparent on their own, when appropriately organised, they create interference between the light waves passing through them, resulting in stunning visual effects,” a professor at UWA found.

Shrimp boxer: The mantis shrimp (not a true shrimp) is in the news again. Science Daily discusses how weird it is that all the specimens among 3 dozen different species—each with clubs of different shapes and styles—still pack the same wallop, equivalent to bullet leaving a gun barrel at 60 miles per hour. “Mantis shrimp use a system of biological springs, latches and levers to power their fast strikes, enabling them to strike much more swiftly than would be possible with muscle power alone,” the article explains, calling it “kinematic transmission.” It left them wondering how evolution modified so many other parts of the mantis shrimp while keeping its punch unaffected. They invented a term, “mechanical sensitivity,” to add to the evolutionary tale. The mantis shrimp is also known for its unusual eyes that are able to detect circularly polarized light, and 12 color channels (7/06/14).

Light queen: Speaking of multichromatic vision, the dragonfly beats even the mantis shrimp. New Scientist reported that dragonflies have at least 11 opsins that respond to various light wavelengths, and some species have up to 30! This “ultra-multicolor” vision would be hard to imagine for humans with only 3 opsins, but it apparently gives the insects a broad spectrum of wavelengths to respond to in the types of environments they encounter during various life stages from larva to adult. The original paper in PNAS, after sharing this wonder, got bogged down into how they evolved.

Amazing FactsBird magnetism: The arctic tern flies 40,000 miles in its annual migration, EurekAlert reminds us (see Flight: The Genius of Birds documentary). Scientists are still wondering about how they navigate. The article postulates that cryptochromes—specialized proteins that control circadian rhythms—can respond to the earth’s magnetic field, using quantum-mechanical effects.  “This would suggest that the radical pairs in cryptochrome preserve their quantum coherence for much longer than previously believed possible,” the article says. “Such a finding could have broader implications for physicists hoping to extend coherence for more efficient quantum computing.”

Shrimp rare earths: Modern electronics require rare earth minerals that are costly and hard to find. Why not use shrimp shells? Chitin is abundant, says, PhysOrg, and could be used to replace ruthenium for making solar cells, they could be placed in everything from “wearable chargers for tablets, phones and smartwatches, to semi-transparent films over window.”

Bark insulation: Scientists at the Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT) are looking at tree bark for better adhesives and insulating foams. The tannin in bark has the ability to precipitate proteins, making it useful for tanning leather, clearing beverages, and providing healthier cattle feed. The VTT scientists found a way to extract more tanning from wood, which could reduce dependence on fossil phenols in the adhesives industry.

Flap like a bird: Robo-Raven has come a long way since its designers taught it how to flap its wings. New Scientist includes a video of the invention doing looping maneuvers and other tricks. Its designers think it will outperform UAVs with propellers. It’s not near as good as the bird yet. “The bird mimic has a narrower range of motion, lacks the fine control provided by feathers and doesn’t have a body shape optimised for lift,” the article says. “Its tail, however, was designed to give it extra stability in the air.” It was realistic enough to fool a hawk.

Salamander visual decorrelation: This one is hard to understand, but a salamander gets it.  “Reduction of correlation was suggested as a design principle in the visual system a long time ago,” a paper in PNAS states. Even though the ganglion cells in the amphibian’s retina are not sufficient to decorrelate a natural scene, the eyes have a trick: microscopic eye movements. Citing a long list of previous work on this, the authors think their result “contributes to these classic works by showing that the amount of correlation in the retinal output can be reduced by the patterns of eye movements prior to any neural processing.”

Tuna thermostat: In Science Magazine, Emily DeMarco shares what has been discovered about “How tuna avoid cardiac arrest in cold water.” How do they do it? During a deep dive, the cold water pouring over the gills should drop the blood temperature to heart-stopping levels, but they swim along just fine. The secret is in automatic changes to heart rate with temperature, and adrenaline, that alters the electrical activity of the heart such that calcium levels can be maintained. DeMarco managed to insert “climate change” into the short piece.

Speaking of heartbeat and calcium, Science Daily reports that a protein in sarcomeres (the fibrous proteins that make up heart muscle cells) acts like an engine part: “Calcium is like the sparkplugs in an automobile engine and C protein acts like the rings that increase the efficiency of the movement of the pistons.” This C protein “allows the muscle fibers in the heart to work in perfect synchrony.

Cell cities: Researchers at the University of Western Australia were inspired by the way cells organize to create a computer model that can design street layouts. The scientists claim they used “Darwinian evolution” to find the right algorithm, but then, oddly, they quoted the maxim by Hugo deVries that “Natural selection may explain the survival of the fittest, but it cannot explain the arrival of the fittest.” How, then, do they maintain their evolutionary belief? It’s unclear whether to award their answer an “Amazing” badge or “Stupid Evolution Quote of the Week.” Overall, because of its logical incoherence, the latter seems most appropriate:

Nature doesn’t have a conscious mind as we do, but yet, it has created complex systems way beyond our understanding. This study provides new insights into how complexity arrives through simple interactions, a phenomenon known as emergence. We’ve known for some time the prevalence of emergent behaviours in nature, but to make use of it requires some creative thinking. There’s still a lot to be learnt from the greatest designer of all, nature, and there’re still plenty of unanswered questions,”

“I know that a trained architect programming a biologically inspired computer model in the business school is a rather unusual combination, but I just followed my curiosity here,” Mr Sun said.

Tree titration: Remember the Moringa tree, that ‘miracle tree of life’ with multiple uses? (See 3/09/10). A new article on Science Daily adds to its list of benefits, saying that the tree’s seeds are very good at separating different materials. “Separation processes are very important in mining industries to remove valuable material from waste,” scientists at Uppsala University discovered. “This further application of a natural product would reduce the needs for expensive synthetic chemicals.” Application of this knowledge could include water purification, too.

Not much commentary is needed as you read about these wonders in the living world; they speak for themselves. Once again we see two recurring themes that seem so absurd together: the exceptional design in life, and the evolutionists, like Stupid and I’m With Stupid, stumbling around, trying to explain how superb engineering designs “emerged” by blind, unguided processes of Darwinian evolution.


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  • John C says:

    The discovery of these laws, operating in so many domains (cosmological, biological, etc.) tends to prove that they are ‘real’ laws, and not just human constructs of natural tendencies. Ergo, these laws have not evolved, either in our minds or in the world. Ergo, they imply, ultimately, a lawgiver.

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