Tag Archives: University of Cambridge

Why This Beetle Is Whiter Than Anything Human Technology Can Produce

If you ever visit Southeast Asia, you might come across the whitest thing you’ve ever seen.

And it’s not this guy:

“Double dream hands!”

It’s the Cyphochilus beetle, a beetle whose shell is whiter than even the whitest paper, the whitest snow, even the whitest paint.

In fact, it’s brighter than anything that human technology could create using a material as thin as the beetle does.

So what is this material? Well, it’s called chitin.

Chitin is similar to the cellulose, the main material in a plant’s cell wall. It forms complex, tightly-knit networks of filaments that build the shells of crustaceans and the exoskeletons of many insects.

A close-up of the chitin filament network on the Cyphochilus beetle’s shell. Click to enlarge (Image: Lorenzo Cortese)

But on it’s own, chitin is not a very good reflector of light at all, so researchers at the University of Cambridge and the European Laboratory for Non-linear Spectroscopy in Italy came together to try to uncover the secret behind the Cyphocilus beetle’s extraordinary brilliance.

What they found was that it was not the material itself that made the beetles look so white, but the geometric pattern in which the chitin filaments had arranged themselves.

A close-up of the beetle. Click to enlarge (Photo: P. Vukusic)

The colors we perceive come from the ways in which different colors of light reflect off of different materials.

However, the structure of the beetle’s shell reflects light anisotropically. This means that all the different colors of light get reflected in the same direction, which is why the shell appears to be such a brilliant white (mixing all of the colors of light gives you white light).

But unlike man-made reflectors, which tend to be fairly thick, the beetle’s individual scales are only thousandths of a millimeter thick. This keeps them light, minimizing the amount of energy the beetle has to expend while flying.

Read more from the New Scientist here.

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Blowing the Top Off a Mountain to Build a Telescope So Big It Can See Signs of Life On Other Planets

In a few short weeks, engineers in the Chilean Coastal Ranges of the Andes Mountains in South America will be blowing off the top of Cerro Armazones.  Standing at 10,000 feet, it’s one of the tallest peaks in the region. Here’s Gird Hudepohl, the head engineer for the project:

“We will take about 80ft off the top of the mountain to create a plateau – and when we have done that, we will build the world’s biggest telescope there.”

Cerro Armazones, future site of the world’s largest telescope (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The Coastal Ranges region is extremely arid, which increases visibility since water vapor in the air obscures a telescope’s vision (this is also why telescopes at high elevations have much better vision than those closer to sea level).

This isn’t Hudepohl’s first rodeo. He works for the European Southern Observatory and was in charge of the demolition of another nearby peak (Cerro Paranal) which is now home to one of the world’s most advanced observatories.

The observatory at Cerro Paranal is equipped with four VLTs (Very Large Telescopes), each the size of “a block of flats” and each equipped with an 8m wide primary mirror (thats more than 24 feet).

Here’s some pictures of the European Southern Observatory (click an image to enlarge):

The new telescope, however, will be bigger than all four of those VLTs combined. The E-ELT (European Extremely Large Telescope- they’re not very creative with the names obviously) will be equipped with a massive 39m (128ft) primary mirror made up 800 segments, each 1.4 meters in diameter but only a few centimeters thick. Each segment must be calibrated with microscopic precision for the telescope to function correctly.

When it’s finished (projected completion is 2025), the telescope will be housed in a 74m (~243ft) dome and weigh in at almost 3,000 tons. The project has a price tag of $1.34 billion.

Artist rendering of the completed E-ELT

The telescope is obviously extremely expensive, but the potential benefits it will provide are well worth it. Here’s Cambridge University astronomer Professor Gerry Gilmore explaining why the E-ELT will be such a major breakthrough:

“[Right now] we can see exoplanets but we cannot study them in detail because – from our distant perspective – they appear so close to their parent stars. However, the magnification which the E-ELT will provide will mean we will be able to look at them directly and clearly. In 15 years, we should have a picture of a planet around another star and that picture could show its surface changing colour just as Earth does as the seasons change – indicating that vegetation exists on that world. We will then have found alien life.”

Read the full story from The Guardian here.

This Innovative Police Department Reduced Officers Use of Force 60% By Having Them Wear Cameras

Rialto, California is a city with a population of 100,000. Last year, Rialto’s police chief, William A. Farrar, decided to see whether he could reduce incidents of conflict between officers and civilians by having the officers wear small cameras equipped with microphones to capture every encounter.

Although the officers already had tasers equipped with cameras that activate whenever the taser is armed, many of them were skeptical. Farrar said that his officers were, “questioning why ‘big brother’ should see everything they do.”

Rialto Police Chief William A. Farrar (Photo: Micah Escamilla/Correspondent)

To test the effectiveness of the cameras, Farrar, along with the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge and a professor at Hebrew University, randomly equipped half of the officers with the mini-cams.

The results were astonishing. Despite the fact that only half of the officers were being equipped with the cameras on any given day, the number of complaints against the department reduced by a whopping 88% in the first 12 months.

In this same time period, officers’ use force reduced by an impressive 60% as well. Farrar pointed out that the cameras benefit not only the civilians, but the officers as well:

“There are many police officers who’ve had a cloud fall over them because of an unfounded accusation of abuse. Now police officers won’t have to worry so much about that kind of thing.”

Read the full story from The New York Times here.

Feature image courtesy of Joshua Lott- New York Times.