5 Everyday Objects Scientists MacGyvered Into Huge Advances
MacGyver can use spare change and a can of deodorant to build a nuclear missile, but that's Hollywood (or whatever the Canadian equivalent is) taking liberties, right? High technology is not a slapdash matter of stringing together office supplies and Easy Cheese until you have a laser ... or at least that's what they want you to think. In reality, human progress is often a matter of grabbing a fistful of whatever mundane object is nearest to you, then thinking at it as hard as you can until it turns into science. For example ...
Cotton Candy Can Be Used to Create Artificial Human Organs
Cotton candy is one of those weird things that are absolutely worthless outside of a carnival setting, like bumper cars or people who fold balloons for a living. OK, fine, there's one use for cotton candy outside of tricking people into thinking they bought food: helping to grow artificial organs, thus saving countless human lives. But that's all we're giving you, Cotton Candy Industry.
You've got your pink-stained fingers wrapped around the world too tightly as it is.
This revelation came about when one Leon Bellan, a graduate student, was listening to a lecture in Cornell's Nanobiotechnology Center and the not-at-all-creepy thought came to him that cotton candy must look a lot like human veins under a microscope. (He had previously observed that nanofibers also look remarkably like Cheez Whiz, so apparently we have the perpetually hungry and penniless state of most students to thank for scientific breakthroughs.)
The microscopic size of human capillaries is both the key to and the major challenge of creating working organs from scratch. You can make as many fake spleens as you want, but if their cells aren't properly irrigated with blood, they won't be able to ... uh, spleen things out properly. Bellan's solution: Place some glittery sugar fluff in an organ-shaped mold, fill it with a special polymer, and then soak it in hot water and alcohol for several days to let the candy melt away. The result? The "organ" was now filled with an almost completely natural-looking network of microscopic channels.
Just remember to remove all the candy to prevent diabetes. Leave the alcohol.
To confirm that the new capillaries worked, Bellan pumped them with some fluorescent rat blood he presumably had laying around (you don't ask too many questions about the guy that sees human veins in carnival snacks) and just watched it flow. We still have to figure out how to hook up this artificial vascular network to a living host body, which isn't as easy as buying some knockoff Chinese adapter on eBay. However, this isn't the only recent advancement in the growing field of cotton candy-related nanobiotechnology: Scientists at Harvard have created a new method of manufacturing nanofibers that's based on cotton candy machines. And, yes, among the many possible applications are artificial organs and tissue regeneration.
"Let me get two cherry-flavored, one green apple, and a pancreas."
So there you go: We now know the secret to immortality. It's carny food.
Scotch Tape Is the World's Cheapest X-ray Machine
Scotch tape: It does everything. It seals paper together, cleans dust off screens, secures your eyelids to your forehead, making you look all gross -- truly it is a wonder material. And now scientists are seriously thinking they might be able to trigger nuclear fusion using Scotch tape, all thanks to the surprising amount of energy that the simple act of peeling the sticky layers can give out.
We have the good ol' USSR to thank for this discovery. Back in the '50s, Russian scientists found that, when stripped from glass inside a vacuum, Scotch tape would emit electrons, which suggested that there was a far easier and cheaper way to produce X-rays than we'd been using. This revolutionary finding made X-rays economical and accessible for the first time, which of course bored the scientific community to tears, and they essentially forgot all about it for the next 50 years. They had robots to build. We cannot blame Science for having its priorities straight.
"Look, guys, we'll never get to robot butlers unless we start working now."
Fast forward to 2007, when DARPA (the government agency responsible for useful stuff like the Internet, and slightly less useful stuff like robot hummingbirds) decided it wanted some new X-ray toys for battlefield applications. They threw money at UCLA to make it happen, but apparently not quite enough, because instead of inventing some sort of atomic ray-gun, the researchers went back to give the wacky old DIY Russian hypothesis a go. Here's what they found:
The resulting X-ray charge when they peeled Scotch tape in a vacuum was strong enough to imprint the image of a bony finger on photographic paper. Who says you can't science on a budget?
In fact, the charge turned out to be 10 times greater than the UCLA scientists had hoped, and they have no idea why (it's partly because 3M, the company that makes Scotch tape, is as protective of their secret formula as Coca-Cola). We're talking about bursts of millions of X-ray photons at a time, which is why they think that triggering nuclear fusion from Scotch tape sounds like a scientific possibility, along with a new generation of X-ray telescopes 10 to 30 times better than the current ones and cheap, portable X-ray machines. Yes, the tricorder from Star Trek is now a reality, all thanks to lowly Scotch tape.
Which makes it almost as useful as the tape by itself.
M&M's Solved a 400-Year-Old Physics Problem
Princeton professor Paul Chaikin has solved a problem that troubled physicists for hundreds of years, and he did it in the most delicious way possible. It all started when his students, either huge fans of the guy or really, really terrible at pranks, sneaked a 55-gallon drum of M&M's into his office.
Years passed, and the drum of candy stayed mostly intact, because it takes a truly epic amount of weed to cash 55 gallons of chocolate. Then one day Chaikin decided to use the M&M's as a class prop to talk about packing density. Let's say you want to fill a suitcase with as many eight balls of cocaine as possible. Assuming the balls are perfectly spherical (we ... don't know much about hard drugs. Can you tell?), science says that the absolute maximum you'll be able to fill is 74.048 percent of the suitcase. However, that's only if you take the time to arrange them in a perfect pattern -- if you randomly throw the drug-balls in there because the cops are coming and you don't have time to juggle(?) them up your nose, the maximum density is always 64 percent. This has been determined through centuries of careful mathematical study by awesomely bearded people.
"Now let's figure out how to fit the other 36 percent into your anus."
It's always been assumed that perfectly spherical balls are the most effective shape for packing stuff. However, when Chaikin asked a student to measure the density of some M&M's randomly packed into a jar, he was shocked to find out that it was 68 percent -- way more than the 64 percent maximum thought possible in that situation. This means that not only is there a more effective shape for random packing than balls, but that shape ("oblate spheroids") happens to be the exact one of regular M&M's.
Melts in your pre-existing understanding of physics, not in your hand.
But this discovery was only the thin sugary crust leading to an even more delicious scientific breakthrough. When Chaikin did tests with the ellipsoid -- a different M&M's-inspired shape -- it resulted in a randomly packed density of over 74 percent. Nobody had ever achieved that before, nor even really considered it possible.
This discovery could help us create better aerospace materials made out of tiny super-packed particles, make further advances in nanotechnology, or simply ship stuff at lower costs. Meanwhile, the Mars Company just nodded along, pretended to understand what this was about, and sent Chaikin a further 125 pounds of M&M's. Maybe he'll use them to create a warp drive or something.
Velveteen from a Fabric Store Led to Today's DNA Technology
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.
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.
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.
Fishing Line Can Be Used to Create Super-Strong Robot Muscles
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.
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.
"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.