Random Samples

Science  29 Feb 2008:
Vol. 319, Issue 5867, pp. 1165


    Paper-folding enthusiasts in Japan want to push the envelope by launching 100 small paper planes from the International Space Station. The Japan Origami Plane Association came up with the idea in the late 1990s. Their plan got its first scientific test last month, when a team demonstrated that a 7-cm-long, 5-cm-wide model of the space shuttle made from heat-resistant paper could survive Mach 7 (about 8500 km/h) wind speeds and 200°C temperatures in the Hypersonic and High-Enthalpy Wind Tunnel at the University of Tokyo.

    Shinji Suzuki, an aerospace scientist at the university who conducted the tests, hopes the project will help designers of lightweight aircraft and inspire schoolchildren to study science and engineering. Suzuki figures that he'll need a few years to convince NASA that the project meets its safety standards. If the agency approves, astronauts will launch 20-cm-long planes carrying multilingual messages with instructions to return any that reach Earth safely and are recovered. Suzuki acknowledges that many may perish after landing in the ocean, but he says one safe return would constitute a success.


    Taking cues from the toes of geckos is proving a strategy worth sticking to. The lizards, which can run upside down and hang by a single toe, have inspired intense study of the physiological and physical properties that keep them from falling, as well as the development of a dry adhesive.

    Now a team of engineers, chemists, and physicians has fashioned a waterproof, biodegradable tape made with an elastic polymer they invented and shaped to mimic the nanotopography of the gecko's foot pads. The polymer gets its “cling” from rows of tiny pillars on its surface, which is coated with a sugar-based glue.

    The researchers hope to make internal bandages to help repair gut ulcers, for example, or to deliver time-released drugs. By varying the shape, size, and angle of the pillars, they can tailor the tape's adhesive properties to suit the target tissue, says chemical engineer Jeffrey Karp of Harvard Medical School in Boston. Karp and colleagues described the new bandage online 18 February in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    The polymer's pillars are no match for a gecko's, says gecko-toe expert Kellar Autumn of Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. But he adds that the work “is very exciting because it suggests that gecko adhesives will have broad application in medicine.”


    Colugos have gliding down to a fine art, soaring from tree to tree like furry kites. Because they are nocturnal and elusive, however, nobody knew much about how they do it—until a group of researchers sneaked up on a few of them in Singapore and glued small sensor-filled packs to their backs.

    The tree-dwelling mammals—thought to be the closest living relatives of primates—are about the size of small cats and live in the rain forests of Southeast Asia. To see how gliding works, biologists from the University of California, Berkeley, and the National University of Singapore captured colugos in the wild and outfitted them with backpacks weighing less than 30 grams each that continuously recorded the animals' movements.


    Five colugos wore the packs for about a week, logging 200 glides of distances ranging from 2.5 meters to 150 meters before the glue gave out. The data showed that colugos leap most forcefully to launch the longest glides and alight softly. The longer the glide, the softer the landing, the team reported online this month in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

    Biologist John Scheibe of Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau says the study is exciting because of its natural setting. Although there is much to learn about the evolution of gliding, Scheibe says the colugo research “puts an important piece of the jigsaw puzzle into place.”


    Microsoft has a new target audience: Manx shearwaters. The software giant's research arm is teaming up with the University of Oxford, U.K., and Freie Universität in Berlin, Germany, to monitor these nocturnal sea birds with wireless sensors, work that may yield new information about climate change.

    Manx shearwaters, burrow-dwelling birds that resemble miniature albatrosses, breed on small islands off the coasts of Britain and Ireland. They spend most of their lives at sea, migrating to South America in the winter and traveling hundreds of miles to feast on herring and other small fish. Past studies of the elusive birds required ecologists to trek over slippery terrain for kilometers in the dark.


    But researchers at Microsoft Research Cambridge plan to change all that by placing wireless sensors outside 50 burrows on Skomer Island off the coast of Wales. Scientists will monitor the birds' burrows and keep tabs on their whereabouts off the island with global positioning system tracking devices. The Manx shearwater's dependence on distinct but diverse habitats makes it an ideal study species for environmental changes that affect its habitat.

    Marine ecologist John Croxall of Birdlife International says the team has “opened new avenues that inform us about the threats these birds face.”

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