Tag Archives: engineering

A Victoria & Albert Museum installation integrates of biomimicry, robotic fabrication and new materials research in architecture

The Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) in London, UK, opened its Engineering Season show on May 18, 2016 (it runs until Nov. 6, 2016) featuring a robot installation and an exhibition putting the spotlight on Ove Arup, “the most significant engineer of the 20th century” according to the V&A’s May ??, 2016 press release,

The first major retrospective of the most influential engineer of the 20th century and a site specific installation inspired by nature and fabricated by robots will be the highlights of the V&A’s first ever Engineering Season, complemented by displays, events and digital initiatives dedicated to global engineering design. The V&A Engineering Season will highlight the importance of engineering in our daily lives and consider engineers as the ‘unsung heroes’ of design, who play a vital and creative role in the creation of our built environment.

Before launching into the robot/biomimicry part of this story, here’s a very brief description of why Ove Arup is considered so significant and influential,

Engineering the World: Ove Arup and the Philosophy of Total Design will explore the work and legacy of Ove Arup (1895-1988), … . Ove pioneered a multidisciplinary approach to design that has defined the way engineering is understood and practiced today. Spanning 100 years of engineering and architectural design, the exhibition will be guided by Ove’s writings about design and include his early projects, such as the Penguin Pool at London Zoo, as well as renowned projects by the firm including Sydney Opera House [Australia] and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Arup’s collaborations with major architects of the 20th century pioneered new approaches to design and construction that remain influential today, with the firm’s legacy visible in many buildings across London and around the world. It will also showcase recent work by Arup, from major infrastructure projects like Crossrail and novel technologies for acoustics and crowd flow analysis, to engineering solutions for open source housing design.

Robots, biomimicry and the Elytra Filament Pavilion

A May 18, 2016 article by Tim Master for BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) news online describes the pavilion installation,

A robot has taken up residence at the Victoria & Albert Musuem to construct a new installation at its London gardens.

The robot – which resembles something from a car assembly line – will build new sections of the Elytra Filament Pavilion over the coming months.

The futuristic structure will grow and change shape using data based on how visitors interact with it.

Elytra’s canopy is made up of 40 hexagonal cells – made from strips of carbon and glass fibre – which have been tightly wound into shape by the computer-controlled Kuka robot.

Each cell takes about three hours to build. On certain days, visitors to the V&A will be able to watch the robot create new cells that will be added to the canopy.

Here are some images made available by V&A,

Elytra Filament Pavilion arriving at the V&A, 2016. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Elytra Filament Pavilion arriving at the V&A, 2016. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Kuka robot weaving Elytra Filament Pavilion cell fibres, 2016. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Kuka robot weaving Elytra Filament Pavilion cell fibres, 2016. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

[downloaded from http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-36322731]

[downloaded from http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-36322731]

Elytra Filament Pavilion at the V&A, 2016. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Elytra Filament Pavilion at the V&A, 2016. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Here’s more detail from the V&A’s Elytra Filament Pavilion installation description,

Elytra Filament Pavilion has been created by experimental German architect Achim Menges with Moritz Dörstelmann, structural engineer Jan Knippers and climate engineer Thomas Auer.

Menges and Knippers are leaders of research institutes at the University of Stuttgart that are pioneering the integration of biomimicry, robotic fabrication and new materials research in architecture. This installation emerges from their ongoing research projects and is their first-ever major commission in the UK.

The pavilion explores the impact of emerging robotic technologies on architectural design, engineering and making.

Its design is inspired by lightweight construction principles found in nature, the filament structures of the forewing shells of flying beetles known as elytra. Made of glass and carbon fibre, each component of the undulating canopy is produced using an innovative robotic winding technique developed by the designers. Like beetle elytra, the pavilion’s filament structure is both very strong and very light – spanning over 200m2 it weighs less than 2,5 tonnes.

Elytra is a responsive shelter that will grow over the course of the V&A Engineering Season. Sensors in the canopy fibres will collect data on how visitors inhabit the pavilion and monitor the structure’s behaviour, ultimately informing how and where the canopy grows. During a series of special events as part of the Engineering Season, visitors will have the opportunity to witness the pavilion’s construction live, as new components are fabricated on-site by a Kuka robot.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find more technical detail, particularly about the materials being used in the construction of the pavilion, on the V&A website.

One observation, I’m a little uncomfortable with how they’re gathering data “Sensors in the canopy fibres will collect data on how visitors inhabit the pavilion … .” It sounds like surveillance to me.

Nonetheless, the Engineering Season offers the promise of a very intriguing approach to fulfilling the V&A’s mandate as a museum dedicated to decorative arts and design.

Cambridge University researchers tell us why Spiderman can’t exist while Stanford University proves otherwise

A team of zoology researchers at Cambridge University (UK) find themselves in the unenviable position of having their peer-reviewed study used as a source of unintentional humour. I gather zoologists (Cambridge) and engineers (Stanford) don’t have much opportunity to share information.

A Jan. 18, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily announces the Cambridge research findings,

Latest research reveals why geckos are the largest animals able to scale smooth vertical walls — even larger climbers would require unmanageably large sticky footpads. Scientists estimate that a human would need adhesive pads covering 40% of their body surface in order to walk up a wall like Spiderman, and believe their insights have implications for the feasibility of large-scale, gecko-like adhesives.

A Jan. 18, 2016 Cambridge University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the research and the thinking that led to the researchers’ conclusions,

Dr David Labonte and his colleagues in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology found that tiny mites use approximately 200 times less of their total body area for adhesive pads than geckos, nature’s largest adhesion-based climbers. And humans? We’d need about 40% of our total body surface, or roughly 80% of our front, to be covered in sticky footpads if we wanted to do a convincing Spiderman impression.

Once an animal is big enough to need a substantial fraction of its body surface to be covered in sticky footpads, the necessary morphological changes would make the evolution of this trait impractical, suggests Labonte.

“If a human, for example, wanted to walk up a wall the way a gecko does, we’d need impractically large sticky feet – our shoes would need to be a European size 145 or a US size 114,” says Walter Federle, senior author also from Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.

The researchers say that these insights into the size limits of sticky footpads could have profound implications for developing large-scale bio-inspired adhesives, which are currently only effective on very small areas.

“As animals increase in size, the amount of body surface area per volume decreases – an ant has a lot of surface area and very little volume, and a blue whale is mostly volume with not much surface area” explains Labonte.

“This poses a problem for larger climbing species because, when they are bigger and heavier, they need more sticking power to be able to adhere to vertical or inverted surfaces, but they have comparatively less body surface available to cover with sticky footpads. This implies that there is a size limit to sticky footpads as an evolutionary solution to climbing – and that turns out to be about the size of a gecko.”

Larger animals have evolved alternative strategies to help them climb, such as claws and toes to grip with.

The researchers compared the weight and footpad size of 225 climbing animal species including insects, frogs, spiders, lizards and even a mammal.

“We compared animals covering more than seven orders of magnitude in weight, which is roughly the same as comparing a cockroach to the weight of Big Ben, for example,” says Labonte.

These investigations also gave the researchers greater insights into how the size of adhesive footpads is influenced and constrained by the animals’ evolutionary history.

“We were looking at vastly different animals – a spider and a gecko are about as different as a human is to an ant- but if you look at their feet, they have remarkably similar footpads,” says Labonte.

“Adhesive pads of climbing animals are a prime example of convergent evolution – where multiple species have independently, through very different evolutionary histories, arrived at the same solution to a problem. When this happens, it’s a clear sign that it must be a very good solution.”

The researchers believe we can learn from these evolutionary solutions in the development of large-scale manmade adhesives.

“Our study emphasises the importance of scaling for animal adhesion, and scaling is also essential for improving the performance of adhesives over much larger areas. There is a lot of interesting work still to do looking into the strategies that animals have developed in order to maintain the ability to scale smooth walls, which would likely also have very useful applications in the development of large-scale, powerful yet controllable adhesives,” says Labonte.

There is one other possible solution to the problem of how to stick when you’re a large animal, and that’s to make your sticky footpads even stickier.

“We noticed that within closely related species pad size was not increasing fast enough to match body size, probably a result of evolutionary constraints. Yet these animals can still stick to walls,” says Christofer Clemente, a co-author from the University of the Sunshine Coast [Australia].

“Within frogs, we found that they have switched to this second option of making pads stickier rather than bigger. It’s remarkable that we see two different evolutionary solutions to the problem of getting big and sticking to walls,” says Clemente.

“Across all species the problem is solved by evolving relatively bigger pads, but this does not seem possible within closely related species, probably since there is not enough morphological diversity to allow it. Instead, within these closely related groups, pads get stickier. This is a great example of evolutionary constraint and innovation.”

A researcher at Stanford University (US) took strong exception to the Cambridge team’s conclusions , from a Jan. 28, 2016 article by Michael Grothaus for Fast Company (Note: A link has been removed),

It seems the dreams of the web-slinger’s fans were crushed forever—that is until a rival university swooped in and saved the day. A team of engineers working with mechanical engineering graduate student Elliot Hawkes at Stanford University have announced [in 2014] that they’ve invented a device called “gecko gloves” that proves the Cambridge researchers wrong.

Hawkes has created a video outlining the nature of his dispute with Cambridge University and US tv talk show host, Stephen Colbert who featured the Cambridge University research in one of his monologues,

To be fair to Hawkes, he does prove his point. A Nov. 21, 2014 Stanford University report by Bjorn Carey describes Hawke’s ingenious ‘sticky pads,

Each handheld gecko pad is covered with 24 adhesive tiles, and each of these is covered with sawtooth-shape polymer structures each 100 micrometers long (about the width of a human hair).

The pads are connected to special degressive springs, which become less stiff the further they are stretched. This characteristic means that when the springs are pulled upon, they apply an identical force to each adhesive tile and cause the sawtooth-like structures to flatten.

“When the pad first touches the surface, only the tips touch, so it’s not sticky,” said co-author Eric Eason, a graduate student in applied physics. “But when the load is applied, and the wedges turn over and come into contact with the surface, that creates the adhesion force.”

As with actual geckos, the adhesives can be “turned” on and off. Simply release the load tension, and the pad loses its stickiness. “It can attach and detach with very little wasted energy,” Eason said.

The ability of the device to scale up controllable adhesion to support large loads makes it attractive for several applications beyond human climbing, said Mark Cutkosky, the Fletcher Jones Chair in the School of Engineering and senior author on the paper.

“Some of the applications we’re thinking of involve manufacturing robots that lift large glass panels or liquid-crystal displays,” Cutkosky said. “We’re also working on a project with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to apply these to the robotic arms of spacecraft that could gently latch on to orbital space debris, such as fuel tanks and solar panels, and move it to an orbital graveyard or pitch it toward Earth to burn up.”

Previous work on synthetic and gecko adhesives showed that adhesive strength decreased as the size increased. In contrast, the engineers have shown that the special springs in their device make it possible to maintain the same adhesive strength at all sizes from a square millimeter to the size of a human hand.

The current version of the device can support about 200 pounds, Hawkes said, but, theoretically, increasing its size by 10 times would allow it to carry almost 2,000 pounds.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the Stanford paper,

Human climbing with efficiently scaled gecko-inspired dry adhesives by Elliot W. Hawkes, Eric V. Eason, David L. Christensen, Mark R. Cutkosky. Jurnal of the Royal Society Interface DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2014.0675 Published 19 November 2014

This paper is open access.

To be fair to the Cambridge researchers, It’s stretching it a bit to say that Hawke’s gecko gloves allow someone to be like Spiderman. That’s a very careful, slow climb achieved in a relatively short period of time. Can the human body remain suspended that way for more than a few minutes? How big do your sticky pads have to be if you’re going to have the same wall-climbing ease of movement and staying power of either a gecko or Spiderman?

Here’s a link to and a citation for the Cambridge paper,

Extreme positive allometry of animal adhesive pads and the size limits of adhesion-based climbing by David Labonte, Christofer J. Clemente, Alex Dittrich, Chi-Yun Kuo, Alfred J. Crosby, Duncan J. Irschick, and Walter Federle. PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.1519459113

This paper is behind a paywall but there is an open access preprint version, which may differ from the PNAS version, available,

Extreme positive allometry of animal adhesive pads and the size limits of adhesion-based climbing by David Labonte, Christofer J Clemente, Alex Dittrich, Chi-Yun Kuo, Alfred J Crosby, Duncan J Irschick, Walter Federle. bioRxiv
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1101/033845

I hope that if the Cambridge researchers respond, they will be witty rather than huffy. Finally, there’s this gecko image (which I love) from the Cambridge researchers,

 Caption: This image shows a gecko and ant. Credit: Image courtesy of A Hackmann and D Labonte

Caption: This image shows a gecko and ant. Credit: Image courtesy of A Hackmann and D Labonte

Commercialization webinar series for nanotechnology businesses

Starting Jan. 15, 2015, there will be a series of nanotechnology commercialization webinars for small and medium enterprises offered by agencies associated with the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). From a Jan. 7, 2015 news item on Nanowerk (there is an alphabet soup’s worth of agencies hosting this series),

The National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO), on behalf of the Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology (NSET) Subcommittee of the Committee on Technology, National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), will hold a series of webinars focusing on the experiences, successes, and challenges for small- and medium-sized businesses working in nanotechnology and on issues of interest to the business community.

The first webinar is “Roadblocks to Success in Nanotechnology Commercialization – What Keeps the Small and Medium Enterprise Community Up at Night?”

More details can be found on the NNCO Small- and Medium-sized Enterprise Webinar Series page for the first in the series,

When: The first webinar will be held Thursday, January 15, 2015, from 12:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. EST.

This webinar will be a round-table discussion with small and medium-sized businesses involved in nanotechnology commercialization focused on understanding common problems that they face and identifying those problems that the NNCO and NSET can assist in overcoming.


  • Craig Bandes, Pixelligent LLC
  • Doyle Edwards, Brewer Science Inc.
  • Scott Rickert, PEN Inc.

How: Questions of interest to the small- and medium-sized business community may be submitted to webinar@nnco.nano.gov beginning one week prior to the event through the close of the webinar. During the question-and-answer segment of the webinars, submitted questions will be considered in the order received and may be posted on the NNI Web site (www.nano.gov). A moderator will identify relevant questions and pose them to the panelists. Due to time constraints, not all questions may be addressed during the webinar. The moderator reserves the right to group similar questions and to skip questions, as appropriate.

Registration: Click here to register for this free, online event. Registration for the webinar is required and is on a first-come, first-served basis and will be capped at 200 participants.

Good luck with registration! (I was not able to click through to the page this morning, Jan. 7, 2015 at approximately 10:25 am PDT. They may have a problem with their server or they’re being overrun with requests.)

ETA Jan. 7, 2015 1040 hours PDT: Marlowe Newman, the media contact for this series, very kindly sent me a link to the registration page (I tried and it works),


I also tried the previous link to the registration and it seems be working now.

The Pantheon and technology, history of the world from Big Bang to the end, and architecture evolving into a dynamic, interactive process at TED 2014′s Session 2: Retrospect

Now to Retrospect, session two of the TED 2014. As the first scheduled speaker, Bran Ferren kicked off the session. From Ferren’s TED biography,

After dropping out of MIT in 1970, Bran Ferren became a designer and engineer for theater, touring rock bands, and dozens of movies, including Altered States and Little Shop of Horrors, before joining Disney as a lead Imagineer, then becoming president of R&D for the Walt Disney Company.

In 2000, Ferren and partner Danny Hillis left Disney to found Applied Minds, a playful design and invention firm dedicated to distilling game-changing inventions from an eclectic stew of the brightest creative minds culled from every imaginable discipline.

Ferren used a standard storytelling technique as do many of the TED speakers. (Note: Techniques become standard because they work.) He started with personal stories of his childhood which apparently included exposure to art and engineering. His family of origin was heavily involved in the visual arts while other family members were engineers. His moment of truth was during childhood when he was taken to view the Pantheon and its occulus (from its Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

The Pantheon (/ˈpænθiən/ or US /ˈpænθiɒn/;[1] Latin: Pantheon,[nb 1] [pantʰewn] from Greek: Πάνθεον [ἱερόν], an adjective understood as “[temple consecrated] to all gods”) is a building in Rome, Italy, commissioned by Marcus Agrippa during the reign of Augustus (27 BC – 14 AD) as a temple to all the gods of ancient Rome, and rebuilt by the emperor Hadrian about 126 AD.[2]

The building is circular with a portico of large granite Corinthian columns (eight in the first rank and two groups of four behind) under a pediment. A rectangular vestibule links the porch to the rotunda, which is under a coffered concrete dome, with a central opening (oculus) to the sky. Almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon’s dome is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.[3] The height to the oculus and the diameter of the interior circle are the same, 43.3 metres (142 ft).[4]

It is one of the best-preserved of all Roman buildings. It has been in continuous use throughout its history, and since the 7th century, the Pantheon has been used as a Roman Catholic church dedicated to “St. Mary and the Martyrs” but informally known as “Santa Maria Rotonda.”[5] The square in front of the Pantheon is called Piazza della Rotonda.

I cannot adequately convey Ferren’s appreciation and moment of inspiration where all in a moment he understood how engineering and art could be one and he also understood something new about light; it can have ‘weight’. He then describes the engineering feat in more detail and notes that we are barely able to achieve a structure like the Pantheon with today’s battery of technological innovations and understanding. He talked about what the ‘miracles’ need to achieve similar feats today and then he segued into autonomous cars and that’s where he lost me. Call me a peasant and an ignoramus (perhaps once these talks are made public it will be obvious I misunderstood his point)  but I am never going to view an autonomous car as being an engineering feat similar to the Pantheon. As I see it, Ferren left out the emotional/spiritual (not religious) aspect that great work can inspire in someone. While the light bulb was an extraordinary achievement in its own right, as is electricity for that matter, neither will are likely to take your breath away in an inspirational fashion.

Brian Greene (not listed on the programme) was introduced next. Greene’s Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Brian Randolph Greene [1] (born February 9, 1963) is an American theoretical physicist and string theorist. He has been a professor at Columbia University since 1996 and chairman of the World Science Festival since co-founding it in 2008. Greene has worked on mirror symmetry, relating two different Calabi–Yau manifolds (concretely, relating the conifold to one of its orbifolds). He also described the flop transition, a mild form of topology change, showing that topology in string theory can change at the conifold point. He has become known to a wider audience through his books for the general public, The Elegant Universe, Icarus at the Edge of Time, The Fabric of the Cosmos, The Hidden Reality, and related PBS television specials. Greene also appeared on The Big Bang Theory episode “The Herb Garden Germination”, as well as the films Frequency and The Last Mimzy.

He also recently launched World Science U (free science classes online) as per a Feb. 26, 2014 post by David Bruggeman on his Pasco Phronesis blog.

The presentation was a history of the world from Big Bang to the end of the world. It’s the fastest 18 minutes I’ve experienced so far and it provided a cosmic view of history. Briefly, everything disintegrates, the sun, the galaxy and, eventually, photons.

The last speaker I’m mentioning is Marc Kushner, architect. from his TED biography (Note: Links have been removed),

Marc Kushner is a practicing architect who splits his time between designing buildings at HWKN, the architecture firm he cofounded, and amassing the world’s architecture on the website he runs, Architizer.com. Both have the same mission: to reconnect the public with architecture.

Kushner’s core belief is that architecture touches everyone — and everyone is a fan of architecture, even if they don’t know it yet. New forms of media empower people to shape the built environment, and that means better buildings, which make better cities, which make a better world.

Kushner, too, started with a childhood story where he confessed he didn’t like the architecture of the home where he and his family lived. This loathing inspired him to pursue architecture and he then segued into a history of architecture from the 1970’s to present day. Apparently the 1970s spawned something called ‘brutalism’ which is very much about concrete. (Arthur Erickson a local, Vancouver (Canada) architect who was internationally lauded for his work loved concrete; I do not.) According to Kushner, I’m not the only one who doesn’t like ‘brutalism’ and so by the 1980s architects fell back on tried and true structures and symbols. Kushner noted a back and forth movement between architects attempting to push the limits of technology and alienating the populace and then attempting to please the populace and going overboard in their efforts with exaggerated and ornate forms which eventually become offputting. Kushner then pointed to Guggenheim Bilbao as an architecture game-changer (from the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is a museum of modern and contemporary art, designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry, and located in Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain. The museum was inaugurated on 18 October 1997 by King Juan Carlos I of Spain.

One of the most admired works of contemporary architecture, the building has been hailed as a “signal moment in the architectural culture”, because it represents “one of those rare moments when critics, academics, and the general public were all completely united about something.”[3] The museum was the building most frequently named as one of the most important works completed since 1980 in the 2010 World Architecture Survey among architecture experts.[3]

Kushner’s own work has clearly been influenced by Gehry and others who changed architecture in the 1990s but his approach is focused on attempting to integrate the community into the process and he described how he and his team have released architectural illustrations onto the internet years before a building is constructed to make the process more accessible.

Dr. Robin Coope will be speaking at Vancouver’s (Canada) Café Scientifique on July 30, 2013

The back room of the The Railway Club (2nd floor of 579 Dunsmuir St. [at Seymour St.], Vancouver, Canada), should be raucous with the sounds of beer slurping and talk of engineering in the life sciences at  the next Café Scientifique Vancouver talk given by Robin Coope on Tuesday, July 30,  2013 at 7:30 pm. Here’s the talk description (from the announcement),

Explain what it is you do again? Engineering in the life sciences

After studiously avoiding biology from high school on, Robin Coope wound up doing a PhD in Physics which involved understanding some exotic failure modes in capillary DNA sequencing. This led to a job at the BC Cancer Agency’s Genome Sciences Centre where he is now the Instrumentation Group Leader. This mostly involves managing the Centre’s liquid handling robots but with various funding sources, projects have involved novel automation platforms for DNA sample prep, as well as several medical devices for cancer treatment and even orthopaedics.

It turns out that practicing engineering while embedded in a clinical research lab with ready access to physicians and life scientists presents a fantastic opportunity to pursue the fundamental objective of engineering: to identify challenges and develop tools to solve them. The clinic is full of problems and unmet needs but the success of a solution often hinges on subtle issues, so it can take many prototypes and much discussion to get something that works. Working in this science-based industry also elucidates a clear distinction between engineering and science where success in the latter should be measured by publishing important ideas, whereas success in the former is really in making solutions available to a broad audience, which ultimately means commercialization. After seven years of in this field its also clear that the most interesting part of the work is the people and the challenges of communicating with specialists in widely divergent fields.

In this talk, Robin will present some recent projects and reflect on key lessons in what has thus far been a remarkably exciting adventure.

Happy slurping!

Dragonflies: beautiful and smart according to Adelaide University (Australia) researchers

[downloaded from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tiffany_dragonfly_hg.jpg] Attribution: pendant Dragonfly - replica from the lamp by Louis Comfort Tiffany (50 cm diameter, 20 cm hight, about 400 glass pieces), Own work, Hannes Grobe 19:33, 20 June 2007 (UTC) Permission Own work, share alike, attribution required (Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-2.5)

[downloaded from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tiffany_dragonfly_hg.jpg] Attribution: pendant Dragonfly – replica from the lamp by Louis Comfort Tiffany (50 cm diameter, 20 cm hight, about 400 glass pieces), Own work, Hannes Grobe 19:33, 20 June 2007 (UTC) Permission Own work, share alike, attribution required (Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-2.5)

Long a subject of inspiration for artists, dragonflies have now been observed to exhibit signs of selective intelligence similar to human selective intelligence. From the Dec. 20, 2012 news release on EurekAlert,

In a discovery that may prove important for cognitive science, our understanding of nature and applications for robot vision, researchers at the University of Adelaide have found evidence that the dragonfly is capable of higher-level thought processes when hunting its prey.

The discovery, to be published online today in the journal Current Biology [link to article which behind a paywall], is the first evidence that an invertebrate animal has brain cells for selective attention, which has so far only been demonstrated in primates.

Here’s how the researchers made the observation (from the EurekAlert news release),

Using a tiny glass probe with a tip that is only 60 nanometers wide – 1500 times smaller than the width of a human hair – the researchers have discovered neuron activity in the dragonfly’s brain that enables this selective attention.

They found that when presented with more than one visual target, the dragonfly brain cell ‘locks on’ to one target and behaves as if the other targets don’t exist.

“Selective attention is fundamental to humans’ ability to select and respond to one sensory stimulus in the presence of distractions,” Dr Wiederman [Dr. Steven Wiederman, University of Adelaide] says.

Wiederman’s research partner suggests this observation has the potential for a number of widespread applications,

“Recent studies reveal similar mechanisms at work in the primate brain, but you might expect it there. We weren’t expecting to find something so sophisticated in lowly insects from a group that’s been around for 325 million years.

“We believe our work will appeal to neuroscientists and engineers alike. For example, it could be used as a model system for robotic vision. Because the insect brain is simple and accessible, future work may allow us to fully understand the underlying network of neurons and copy it into intelligent robots,” he [Associate Professor David O’Carroll, University of Adelaide] says.

You can find more information including pictures and a video in the Dec. 21, 2012 University of Adelaide news release.

Pop up event based on European Commission’s Science: It’s a girl thing on July 27, 2012 in Vancouver (Canada)

The Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology (SCWIST) will be holding a free ‘pop up’ event at Joey’s on Broadway (1424 W. Broadway at Hemlock St.) on Friday, July 27, 2012 from 6 pm – 8 pm.This event is a local outcome of the international discussion taking place about the European Commissions’ Science: It’s a Girl Thing campaign video (first mentioned in my July 6, 2012 posting and then in my July 18, 2012 posting).

Here’s more about the Vancouver topic and the event (from the July 20, 2012 posting on the Westcoast Women in Engineering, Science, and Technology (WWEST) blog on the University of British Columbia website),

Topic: It’s a girl thing: How do we get more girls to pursue STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] careers?

What is a SCWIST Pop-Up Discussion? A casual evening of networking, socializing, and discussion on current and relevant media topics held at a local restaurant! It’s a chance to get out and chat and network with like-minded people!

There’s also information abut th4 event on the SCWIST  Facebook page.

Henry Petroski, The Essential Engineer explaining why scientists need engineers to solve the world’s problems

The Pasco Phronesis blog (David Bruggeman) featured, in his Oct. 6, 2010 posting, some author videos from the 2010 US National Book Festival. From Pasco Phronesis,

Since there’s several hundred videos to wade through, here are the links to the four authors I saw on September 25. I strongly recommend you watch the Petroski video, though anyone familiar with the work of the other authors should enjoy listening to them. You’ll need RealPlayer to view.

* Edward O. Wilson

* Henry Petroski

* Richard Rhodes

* Harold Varmus

Since David strongly recommended the Petroski video, I searched for and found it on Youtube (didn’t want to bother with the RealPlayer plugin),

Petroski is an engineer who’s specialty is failure and he’s talking about his latest book, The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems (2010).