5 Everyday Objects Scientists MacGyvered Into Huge Advances

#2. Velveteen from a Fabric Store Led to Today's DNA Technology

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Esther Lederberg, a gifted macrobiologist, was married to a fellow genetics researcher by the name of Joshua Lederberg. The partnership worked out great: She did the work and he got the credit, because of her lack of cock and his lack of balls. One day during a car ride, the two got into a discussion about that classic marriage hot-button issue: whether bacteria gains antibiotic resistance through genetic mutation. To even start to prove it, they'd need to make exact copies of entire bacterial populations, but unfortunately bacteria aren't something you can just Xerox at the office.

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It's a fight as old as marriage itself.

Luckily, Esther thought she had a pretty clever solution. Just how did this amazing female pioneer of genetics, a rare bun in the sausage party that was 1950s-era science, prove once and for all that women were more than home-ec-taking, sewing machine-bound fashionistas? Why, she went to a store and bought some fabric, of course.

Esther bought velveteen, not to make a snuggly throw pillow, but because she realized that the simple act of pressing velveteen on a plate with bacteria turned the fabric into a bacteria-inoculating printing press. Then it's just a matter of pressing the velveteen on more plates to create replicas, and experiment away. Here's a tutorial on YouTube, because scientists are still doing this 60 years later.

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Meaning by this point Joann's Fabrics has probably been cited in more academic journals than Stephen Hawking.

Replica plating transformed and even enabled multiple fields of science, like molecular biology, microbiology, and genetic engineering. So, Esther Lederberg of course got a Nobel Prize for this amazing science-transforming discovery, right? Nope. But don't worry: Her husband did. Oh, but still don't worry! He shared it.

With two other dudes.

Esther wasn't even mentioned. Believe it or not, they got divorced a few years later.

#1. Fishing Line Can Be Used to Create Super-Strong Robot Muscles

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If there's one thing we can all agree on, it's that we need cybernetic exoskeleton power suits, stat. Scientists are of course right on this pressing issue, and some pretty amazing options have been found, but ludicrously high prices are presently keeping the "daily driver mech" out of reach. It's probably gonna be several sad, boring decades before amateur power-suit fighting becomes an attainable reality.

And then, in February of 2014, scientists finally cracked a major hurdle in artificial muscle building: They discovered fishing line.

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Which seems suspiciously like a discovery made by a scientist while skipping work.

No, these weren't scientists with special needs just doing their best: The use of fishing line was a stroke of legitimate genius. For nearly two decades, scientists from across the globe had been putting all their chips on carbon nanotubes as the best material to create artificial muscles, because "carbon nanotubes" is an awesome sci-fi thing to say. But then, possibly because someone had a Cabela's gift certificate from 2005 that was about to expire, they decided to give ordinary nylon fishing line a shot. They twisted the line into a tight spring-like shape (sort of like a phone cord) and were astounded when it kept getting stronger the more it compacted.

University of Texas at Dallas/ Alan G. MacDiarmid NanoTech Institute
"That's amazing, but what are these 'phone cords' you speak of?"

But that's not the most amazing part: We already have super-strong materials out there. The difference is that, with coiled fishing line, you can make it contract and expand back into its original shape, like an actual muscle, just by applying heat. According to the study, coiled line can "lift loads over 100 times heavier than can human muscle of the same length and weight." It also generates "5.3 kilowatts of mechanical work per kilogram of muscle weight, similar to that produced by a jet engine." All this from regular fishing line and a blow dryer. Here's a demonstration:

In theory, scientists could rig an exoskeleton so that fishing line-powered devices contract not just from heat, but from electricity or light as well. Although honestly, fire-fueled robo-muscles sound just fine by us.


You can follow Scott Santens on Twitter, read his finely crafted reviews on Yelp, or find him on Reddit, where he's a moderator for /r/BasicIncome.

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