“Never give up. Never surrender.”

One of my favorite research projects to follow is Whitesides’ soft robot. Part of his platoon (since he has enough graduate students to call it such) has been developing a mobile robot made purely of polymers. No metal necessary. The body of the robot is divided into air sacs that are pumped full or evacuated to create movement. They’re supposed to resemble starfish, but they look more like army commandos crawling under enemy gates.

By filling the sacs in the right order, the soft robot can slip under a raised barrier.

By filling the sacs in the right order, the soft robot can slip under a barrier, such as your bedroom door at night.

Soft robots are cheap, easy to fabricate, lightweight, and have the advantage of picking up delicate objects, like an egg, without crushing it.


In a new paper in Advanced Functional Materials, the group shows that the robots can resist blunt impacts “better than hard robotic structures (and also most animals of comparable weight and size).” Though I hope they didn’t have a control for that parenthetical joke. The group wanted to quantify exactly how much damage these robots can take. So, in a comically sad fashion they hit their robot with a hammer. If you have access to the paper, check out the Supporting Information for some videos that will make you feel a little bit bad for laughing. Of course, the “hammer test” was in addition to more traditional scientific methods for measuring stress and strain.

You can knock him down, but he'll get right back up.

You can knock him down, but he’ll get right back up.

Since whacking the poor guy with a hammer wasn’t enough, they ran him over with a car. And when that wouldn’t stop him, they ran him over again but this time with a pile glass underneath. Yet, he continued to grip. They proved that these little guys are highly resistant to mechanical stress. Of course, if the glass had managed to poke a hole in one of the sacs the robot would cease to inflate, in effect maiming it, but the polymer they use, an Ecoflex silicone, is fairly puncture resistant.

He's a survivor.

He’s a survivor.

These flexible robots really delight me. They’re not creepy enough to give me chills (Boston Dynamics, I’m looking at you)  and they’re not human enough to make me think of bad sci-fi movies. Well, maybe my science fiction thoughts aren’t totally gone, because, after reading the paper and opening this text editor, I started to type:  I’m glad these guys aren’t sentient… yet.

An Out of This World Collaboration

This is a work of historical fiction. Liberties have been taken with events and timeline.

Harold Kroto and Robert Curl gazed into the Sussex night sky, imagining molecules floating in the space dust.

“If only we could make some of what’s out there down here,” Kroto sighed.

“I may know someone who can help,” Curl said.

The next day, Curl called his friend Richard Smalley, an expert in experimental physical chemistry. If there was anyone who could make the unsaturated carbon chains Kroto and Curl so desperately desired, it was Smalley.

“Smalley, my old friend. Harold and I have come upon an interesting topic and would like you involved. We’d like to synthesize some of the more unstable spacely carbons for direct characterization here on Earth.”

“You want me to create outer space,” Smalley said, “in my lab.”

“Precisely,” said Curl. “I’ll be back in the US soon. I’d like it if we could sit down and chat.”

“Absolutely,” said Smalley as he hung up the phone.

Weeks went by before Curl returned to his academic home, Rice University, but time had not eroded his interest. Directly after landing, eyes heavy with jet lag, Curl drove to the university.

He arrived in the chemistry building to find Smalley’s door open, lights on, but Smalley nowhere in sight. He waited for half an hour without the return of his friend before he gave up. His head hurt. His back hurt. He was tired. Maybe it would be best to return home. He could try again tomorrow.

I’ll just take a quick look in the lab, Curl told himself.

The whirring of pumps grew louder as Curl approached Smalley’s lab. A red light blinked over the door, warning unsuspecting visitors to dawn a pair of yellow-tinted glasses, lest they be blinded from a beam gone awry. Taking a pair of glasses from the bin at the door, Curl entered the lab.

Thick metal tubes connecting thick metal boxes took up the majority of the room. Lenses, bolts, and wires littered what little counter space was left. Three people in lab coats dotted with curious brown rimmed holes were gathered around one of the boxes.

“Try the 1064. That should arouse some excitement.” Smalley said. He turned from the group and saw Curl waiting in the door.

“Robert,” he said. “Good news and bad.” He slung his arm around Curl and led him out, away from the flashing lights and whirring pumps. “We’ve got the setup working nicely. The results though…”

“You’ve already started?” Curl asked, surprised. “We haven’t had time to talk.”

“I did some research of my own. My setup will make your outer space, of that I have no doubt, but we may find space to be more perplexing than we thought.”

“What makes you say that?”

“We’re getting…,” Smalley paused as his eyes drifted upwards, “clusters.”


“Clusters. Sixty connected carbons.”

“In chains?”

“Not chains. Spheres.”


“Or as close to a sphere as a molecule can get.”

“Let’s get Harold on the phone,” Curl said.

Minutes later Kroto was fumbling with the phone in his office, trying to accept the collect call Curl and Smalley had placed.

As soon as the call clicked through Kroto exclaimed, “This will cost a fortune.”

“Sorry about that,” Curl said. “We didn’t have time to request international minutes. You know how tight the administration is with money…”

“Yes, well, get on with it,” Kroto said.

“We’ve found spheres,” Smalley said.

“Spheres?” Kroto asked.

“Spheres,” Smalley and Curl said together.

“I better get out there.”

Three days later Smalley, Curl, and Kroto were gathered in Smalley’s cramped lab. Smalley pushed aside a pile of bolts and, as they clinked against the linoleum floor, pulled a ream of paper from the printer. The three, each holding a different colored pen, scribbled furiously.

“I’ve got it!” Kroto shouted. He had drawn a football with dots, representing carbons, at seemingly random points.

Smalley and Curl examined the drawing closely.

“You drew sixty-one,” Curl said and they all went back to scribbling.

A pair of graduate students walked in the lab and froze at the sight of three professors huddled close. They crept across the lab, trying not to gather attention. As they shuffled their feet, they came upon the abandoned bolts Smalley had flung and stepped down hard.

“OUCH!” one yelled. The other punched him in the arm.

The professors turned their heads in unison to look at the intruders. As the unfortunate student jumped in place holding his foot, the other grabbed a soccer ball from his desk.

“We came to get our ball,” he said.

The professors turned to each other, eyes wide.

“That’s it!” they shouted.

And so fullerene was born.

The never-ending fight over the perfect boiled egg

An article published today in Science Daily has a semi-rant about science communication through cooking. In the end, the article comes down to how to cook the perfect boiled egg – a subject long argued over various kitchen counters. A new method that ignores cooking time and focuses on temperature is emerging: the 6X°C egg.

While I’m still managing soft-boiling – 4.5 minutes in boiling water seems about right – chefs are moving on to specialized temperatures. Each chef has his own opinion on the exact degree, but cooking an egg somewhere between 60 and 65 °C for several hours (it doesn’t matter exactly) is now thought to produce the ‘best’ boiled egg. A single food scientist, César Vega, is speaking out about the ridiculousness of the idea, calling it “nonsense”. He argues cooking time depends on both time and temperature.

The real question is not of time or temperature, but of who out there cares? Vega, and the author of the aforementioned article, argue that cooking can be used to show scientific principals in a fun and understandable way. Most people cook everyday, meaning most people are engaging in a form of chemistry. (Although in my case, I doubt proficiency in cooking directly translates to proficiency in synthesis.)

So should chemistry and home ec. team up? I think so. From various demos I’ve done, the ones involving edibles are always the most popular, especially with younger age groups. So why not have courses explaining how yeast causes dough to rise or why egg whites can be whipped into stiff peaks? Maybe some chemical research can settle the perfectly boiled egg argument once and for all.

Google Search Science

Scholarly information is mostly distributed by a Web-based system (Come on, grad students, when was the last time you read a physical article that was published after 1995?), and with this comes a complete overload of information. Adding to the overload of legitimate articles, many predatory journals have popped up solely to make a buck off of unwitting scientists who are eager to publish. These pseudo-journals claim to be peer-reviewed, so how do naive scientists know which publications to avoid? For that matter, how do we know which articles from established journals to read? The ones with the most citations, you may say, but citations take a while to rack up and the first has to come from somewhere.

Nature has a recent article surmising an upcoming shift in how we, as scientists, find worthwhile papers. Basically, they say it will all come down to a Google-style search engine.

“Its PageRank algorithm weights hyperlinks from authoritative sources more heavily. To find which sources count as authoritative, the same algorithm is applied to each of the source’s inbound links, and so on. This simple recursive algorithm has proved remarkably effective, and requires minimal manual tuning. It simply harnesses the quality judgments already being made by the community, implicit in their decisions to link to other pages. This core approach is also the future for scholarly communication.”

This is a great idea, sure. Instead of three unpaid reviewers and a single editor deciding the legitimacy of a journal article, the whole community decides. And it’s automatic!

But will this leave new PIs ranked far behind the long-running “authoritative” professors? Will successful PIs hold a monopoly over their field as their papers are weighted “more heavily?” Will this make the already aggressive world of academia even more difficult to break into?

And maybe as a secondary concern, will this allow hacking of academic journals? Would clever programmers be able to trick the search engine to display their papers first, accruing the most hits?

The Nature article does discuss some concerns, but, honestly, I can’t think of another way to deal with the never-ending supply of science coming from thousands upon thousands of graduate intuitions in the world. Nevertheless, it’s exciting to see what will happen, for better or for worse, to scientific publishing.