I’ve always been fascinated with the rock solid bags of coffee bought at the store, which have all the density of a brick until opened, when they crumble into scoopable grounds. Turns out that’s a physical concept at work, known as “jamming transition,” when separate, particulate materials are pushed so close together they act like a solid structure. It turns out jamming transitions are useful for more than just compact packaging, but can also help solve a persistent, basic problem in robotics: how can you make a robot “hand” as good as the human hand at picking up objects?
An answer was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by researchers from the University of Chicago, Cornell University, and private company iRobot. The scientists created a finger-free “universal robot gripper” by filling a balloon-like elastic bag with particulate material – such as, yes, coffee grounds – pressing the bag down on to the object, then removing the air from the bag, triggering the jamming transition and creating a perfectly shaped, tight hold. There’s video below, demonstrating some of the objects and functions the device can be used for. But when will they be installed in prize claw machines?
Resurrection of the Beagle
The HMS Beagle was the Royal Navy ship that transported a very special passenger, a naturalist named Charles Darwin, around the world in 1831. What’s left of the ship may currently lie at the bottom of a marsh, but the name has lived on as a favorite for ambitious science projects. First, the Beagle name was attached to the Mars space probe Beagle 2, and now it has been affixed to the University of Chicago Computation Institute’s newest toy: a 150-teraflop supercomputer, one of the 50 fastest supercomputers in the world. Housed at Argonne National Laboratory, this Beagle will sail the seas of data produced by researchers in physics, biology, and medicine.
As discussed previously on ScienceLife, the next wave of science will be less about collecting data and more about actually doing constructive things with it. The Beagle’s maiden voyages will be to help projects such as the Membrane Protein Structural Dynamics Consortium, the UChicago-led effort to study the shape and function of cellular machines. Other immediate uses may be for genomics projects, where scientists have struggled to keep up with analysis of the data created by cheaper and cheaper gene sequencing technology. In the Beagle’s announcement, Conrad Gilliam, UChicago’s dean of research for the biological sciences division, looks forward to a time when electronic medical records provide valuable data for the development of more effective treatments.
“The convergence of whole-genome experimental data and digitized clinical data from hospital patient records is changing the landscape of biomedical research,” Gilliam said. “The arrival of Beagle will challenge our best minds as we forge new modes of inquiry to extract meaningful biological and medical information from these massive tomes of data.”
Speaking of gigantic genomic data sets, the long-running 1000 Genome Project published its initial findings this week with papers in both Nature and Science. Launched in 2008, the project to sequence individuals from around the world to look for important genetic variations has already passed its goal of 1,000 people, and is well on its way to a new goal of 2,500 according to an NIH press release. The early results underscore the need for computational technologies like the Beagle, as the effort has so far detected a whopping 15 million different gene variants, which researchers hope will provide clues to diseases where genome-wide association studies have so far come up short.
Carl Zimmer posts a new article at Discover magazine on a topic close to my heart, er, ears: tinnitus. Turns out the occupational hazard of professional music reviewers didn’t start with rock and roll (it’s depicted in Egyptian scrolls), and doesn’t stop with the ears – evidence shows that the entire brain is affected in tinnitus sufferers. Some scientists are testing out deep brain stimulation to treat extreme cases of ringing-ears; hopefully, I’m more than few concerts away from that point.
When you’re watching a scary movie or walking through a haunted house this weekend, you’re actually tricking your endocrine system into triggering its “fight-or-flight” response. Ronald Cohen, associate professor of adult and pediatric endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism at the Medical Center, talked to the Chicago Tribune about the physiological response to horror movies.