Highlighting science news you may have missed, and telling you why it matters in about a minute.

‘Invisibility cloak’ hides cats and fish.

What it is: An array of prisms around an object that can make the object “invisible” while its surroundings are clearly visible.

Remember the scene in the film ‘Die Another Day’, when Q introduces James Bond to the Aston Martin Vanquish? He makes the car invisible at the click of a button. This effect can be produced in reality using metamaterials. These are simply arrays of special electrical components stitched together that can manipulate light using electric signals in many ways. One of them is to make light flow around an object instead of bounce off, rendering it invisible.

Unfortunately, these materials are very difficult to make. Instead, researchers from the Zheijiang University, China, have shown that an array of six or eight prisms around an object could have the same effect. They demonstrated their claim, by bending light around cats in a coop and fish in a tank, and sending it back to the observer.

There are shortcomings, however. While metamaterials can themselves be invisible, the prisms can’t. And while metamaterials can work at a range of frequencies, the prism-cloak can work only with visible light. But the benefits are the same, especially when it comes to security.

Why it matters: The implications are important for security, surveillance and entertainment applications. The researchers have shown that objects can be hidden while in plain sight at affordable prices.

Torrents website’s Kat.PH domain seized by Philippine authorities

What it is: Kat.PH, widely seen as a possible successor to popular torrent search engine The Pirate Bay, has been shut down temporarily.

Users looking to log onto a torrent website on Friday were left a little surprised as it wasn’t immediately accessible. A day later, it has been confirmed that the website’s domain name was seized by Philippine authorities.

Why was it shut down? Unfortunately, local music record labels and the Philippine Association of the Recording Industry has said that the torrent site was causing “irreparable damages” to the music industry.

Following a formal complaint, authorities seized the main domain name. However, this hasn’t appeared to stop the Kat.PH team as the website is operating as usual under a different domain name.

While some do operate as a haven of piracy, what is not immediately clear to most authorities is that peer-to-peer torrent distribution is also a legitimate way of transferring data.

Why it matters: Therefore, blanket bans such as the one applied by the Philippine Intellectual Property Office usually do affect freedom of speech! According to Parity News, US-based record labels may also be the ones applying the actual pressure in this case.

First fluorescent protein identified in a vertebrate

What it is: The Japanese freshwater eel has become the first vertebrate from which a fluorescent protein has been identified.

A large number of diseases that affect us involve an abnormal amount of a particular protein being produced in our body. This can usually be traced to a faulty gene since genes control the production of proteins.

Tracking gene expression, therefore, is key to understanding diseases. Years ago, the discovery of green fluorescent protein (GFP) revolutionised medical research. GFP glows when illuminated, and obviously a glowing protein is a lot easier to track.

However, GFP has only been isolated from non-vertebrates like microbes, jellyfish and corals. Only recently have scientists detected the presence of a fluorescent protein in a vertebrate, namely the Japanese freshwater eel.

This week, scientists reported in Cell that they have confirmed the presence of this protein and identified the gene that codes it. They call this protein UnaG (after ‘unagi’ which is Japanese for freshwater eel).

UnaG was found to glow when it binds to a molecule called bilirubin. Bilirubin is a breakdown product of haemoglobin and is a crucial indicator of liver function (for diseases like jaundice).

Why it matters: The UnaG gene can potentially be used to develop better diagnostic tests for bilirubin. Moreover, unlike GFP, UnaG glows even when oxygen levels are low. This makes it potentially more useful to track anaerobic areas like cancerous tissue.

Volvo’s electric roads concept points to battery-free EV future

What it is: Carmaker Volvo sees our future buses and long-haul trucks drawing the electricity they need from the road.

The problem with electric vehicles has always been in the proof of the pudding. In this case, the question of how to come up with a quick charging technology that could be deployed on public roads was an important hurdle. After all, you could hardly expect electric car owners to only depend on home chargers.

Volvo now sees trucks and buses being able to soon draw the juice they need from the road itself.

The company envisages two power rails/lines that run across a road, one being a positive pole while the other is used to return the current.

The lines will be sectioned such that a collector, which will be mounted at the rear of the truck, will collect the live current only if a particular signal is detected. For instance, if an electric truck passes a section of the road that has the proper encrypted signal, then the road will energize the segments that sense the vehicle.

Why it matters: While at the moment intercity truck hauling is the low hanging fruit, the wide-spread usage of this technology could eventually cascade down to everybody. In 20-30 years, most cars could be using this type of technology.

Speed test for wild cheetahs

What it is: Researchers have found that it is not just extreme speed that make cheetahs such efficient predators in the wild.

Scientists from London used special solar-powered collars to track the movements of five cheetahs in Botswana. Their observations surprised much of the world because wild cheetahs, unlike their captive counterparts, rarely seem to hunt at maximum speed in the wild. The study discovered that for a successful kill, the fastest land animals rely less on their speed and acceleration rate, and more on their remarkable agility and deceleration rate!

Their agility let them hunt successfully in all kinds of terrain; in fact their success rate was found to be higher in a dense cover. Their phenomenal deceleration capacity (up to 14.5 kmph in a single stride) is crucial in their hunts because making sharp turns at such high speeds would otherwise knock them unconscious.

This is the first time a study has been done on the movement of cheetahs in the wild. But almost as important as the discoveries, in this case, are the methods used. The collar that the researchers used on the cheetahs were entirely solar-powered. It carried a GPS (for location data), an accelerometer (to measure acceleration) and a gyroscope (for navigation). The recorded data was was received by the researchers via radio in real time.

Why it matters: These hi-tech collars could be the next big thing in the field of animal locomotion.

Discovery of new material state counterintuitive to laws of physics

What it is: A new material that becomes more porous when compressed, instead of less.

When you squeeze a soft ball, atoms inside the ball get pushed closer to each other. When this happens, there will be more atoms per unit volume than before, increasing its density by decreasing its volume. As the space between atoms reduces, the whole ball becomes less porous.

But none of this would happen if the ball is made of zinc cyanide. At the Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago, scientists put the compound in a diamond container and compressed it to 9,000-18,000 times the atmospheric pressure at sea level. Different fluids were made to flow through the container during the compression, participating in the pressurization.

The zinc cyanide that emerged displayed a unique property. When compressed, the compound’s molecular bonds rearranged themselves such that the interatomic distances grew instead of shrinking when compressed. This made it more porous, less dense, and lighter. By controlling the amount of compression, the scientists were able to make it more or less porous.

As the space between atoms opens up, it’s as if the molecule unclenches. If a smaller atom or molecule is lodged within, it could be released in the process. Similarly, because the porosity can be manipulated with pressure, the special zinc cyanide could be used as a filter to separate different substances continuously.

Why it matters: The new material could be used to release drugs into the human bloodstream according to the pressure acting on it.

(Compiled by By Vasudevan Mukunth, Anuj Srivas and Nandita Jayaraj)

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