skip to main | skip to sidebar

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Over a quarter of a century’s worth of effort has finally come to fruition at the University of Manchester. Affectionately known as the ‘Star of David Molecule’, the beautiful interwoven threads of atoms represent a physical feat that scientists only years ago may have dismissed as impossible.
Image Credit: University of Manchester
The prospect of manually finessing strings of atoms around one another into such a precise configuration seems, even now, like the stuff of science fiction. And yet despite the odds, PhD student Alex Stephans has managed to create the beautiful interlocking molecule, and he did it by taking advantage of a quirk of chemical physics that the microscopic world of biology has known about for billions of years. 

The trick to creating such delicate molecular structures, it turns out, is to allow them to do it themselves. Instead of trying to wrap the interlocking triangles around one another manually, as chemists of the past have tried (and utterly failed) to do, Stephans took advantage of a process known to biologists as self-assembly.
“Nature does the same thing to assemble DNA,” said David Leigh, lead researcher and professor of Chemistry.  "Most have tried to take linear molecules and twist them around each other, but we choose our building blocks very care

The atoms involved were carefully chosen for their affinities for one another, so that the tiny interlocking triangles would fall into place as the molecule formed, driven by the same subatomic forces that had made such a structure virtually impossible in the past.
Although it may superficially seem like nothing more than a trivial exercise in scientific peacocking, the molecule may have some far-reaching implications. “When you look at viruses, some of their shells have these coatings made of a sort of chainmail of protein, and it's very tough but very light," says Leigh. "So the thinking is that if you could do the same thing with a man-made molecule, you could get those same benefits."

The research team hopes to use the self-assembly method to create even more complex molecules that might someday be used in what they call “molecular chainmail”. A material made out of such structures would be extremely lightweight, flexible, and incredibly strong.

By Aisling M Williams

Works Cited
Feltman, Rachel. "Scientists Create a ‘Star of David’ Molecule — a Step towards Molecular Chainmail." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 22 Sept. 2014. Web. 28 Sept. 2014.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Have you ever found yourself daydreaming about what life might be like from the point of view of a black hole, a particle travelling at the speed of light, or a proton?  Most inquisitive minds will grapple with such ideas at some point in their lives. The problem is that many scientific concepts are so far removed from our normal daily experience that it becomes nearly impossible to visualize them in a useful way. Physics simply doesn’t operate the same way at very small, very large, or very fast frames of reference, and the human mind learns its intuition through direct experience.

This is precisely the issue that indie game developer Andy Hall endeavors to address. After working for years in scientific outreach at the Museum of Science in Boston, Andy founded an independent game studio focused on science education called TestTubeGames. His most recently released project, BondBreaker, puts the player in control of a single proton. The game was designed to give the player a first-hand experience of the atomic-scale world, and through gameplay to develop an intuitive understanding of the real life forces at work there.

Through learning to operate in the strange environment, players complete tasks such as capturing electrons, forming bonds with other atoms to become molecules, absorbing photons and releasing them again, and in so doing advance through the levels. “You start this game in the smallest way possible - as a single proton. You don’t even have an atom to call your own. Learn what it takes to be a proton, experience subatomic forces, and with luck and determination, grow into an atom of your own. Collide atoms together into molecules, or break them apart again using lasers, tunneling microscopes, and heat.”
By the end of the game, the player should have gained an intuitive understanding of a multitude of atom-scale physical concepts, including  “Atomic Energy Levels, Light Absorption, Muons, and their crazy effect on atoms, Morse Potentials, Plasmonics: a way to focus light more precisely than a laser, and way more.”

Hall created BondBreaker in a collaborative effort with physicists at UC Irvine’s CaSTLE (Chemistry at the Space Time Limit) research center. There, scientists are investigating small-scale physics by using lasers and tunneling microscopes to break individual atomic bonds. As many people who work in scientific fields eventually discover, the research group found that it was often difficult to communicate to the uninitiated exactly what makes their work so important and interesting. For this reason, they approached Hall to commission a game that might help others understand their love of the subject.
BondBreaker, like most of Hall’s games, is free to play and is capable of running on the web, iPhone and on android. You can learn more about the game, as well as investigate the other science games available through TestTubeGames’ website.

Hall’s next project is an idea he’s been interested in for some time now. Designed to help players develop some familiarity with electromagnetism, ‘Electric Shocktopus’ focuses on an electric octopus which responds to electric and magnetic fields. In order to control the character, players will draw electromagnetic field lines on the screen and learn how to use them to get the octopus to behave the way they need it to. Hall admits that it isn’t as science-dense as BondBreaker is, but makes up for it by being incredibly addictive. Hopefully players will agree, and will come away from the experience with a little more insight than they would have garnered by playing angry birds.

Written by Aisling Williams