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

Tiny gears on insect legs propel powerful jumps

What it is: A species of insects called planthoppers have been found to have hind legs equipped with gears.

In insects, which are six-legged and light, the architecture of muscles and joints is much more specialised than in humans and larger animals. For instance, a study reported in July that grasshoppers’ and locusts’ hind legs were equipped with passive joints – spring-like levers that automatically snapped back if powered to move another way.

On September 12, another group of scientists have found that planthoppers, which are known for their strong resemblance to leaves, possess a gear-like mechanism on their hind legs. The teeth of these gears, they found, locked up as the planthoppers reading itself to jump. This way, at the moment of the jump, the amount of force travelling through its legs would be synchronised through the gear’s teeth, leading to a better launch.

Why, the scientists measured launch speeds of as much as 14.4 km/hr!

Why it matters: This is the first time a mechanism humans have invented has been found in nature, proving once again that nature beat us to this milestone of mechanical engineering.

Using this, humans can better understand how insects like grasshoppers and planthoppers use their body to move their limbs in different ways, applying the knowledge to building enhanced prosthetics.

European Union takes the wraps off newly reformed telecoms law

What it is: In a first, the European Commission has gone ahead and formally adopted a new telecoms law that finally brings in net neutrality while eliminating roaming costs.

With the spread of the Internet, and the world of monetization that came along with it, the concept of net neutrality tagged along with it. Net neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers (such as Airtel or BSNL) should treat all data on the Internet equally.

In other words, Airtel should not slowly deliver data from YouTube to you, just because it is more expensive for it to do so.

The European Union is now set to approve regulation that demands that telecom operators have no right to block web services that steal their custom — like Skype — as they have done in a few cases. It also removes the premiums charged for roaming; a decision that is still being debated in india.

Why it matters: The new regulations, while still flawed, set an important precedent for other nations around the world. It is also the first document to specifically safeguard the principles of net neutrality— a move that ensures cheap browsing and consequent growth of Internet-based services for Europe.

Humans can feel objects that are just nanometers thick

What it is: Scientists have discovered that humans can feel bumps on surfaces that were as small as 13 nanometers high.

Our feeling of touch relies on friction and vibrations on a surface rubbing against tiny sensors on our skin called Pacinian corpuscles.

The study used a group of 20 women since women have generally shown to be better at “haptic” tasks (those which involve non-verbal communication involving touch). The women were blindfolded and given pairs of materials whose texture differed by slight amounts. They were asked to grade the degree of difference in the textures of each pair they touched.

The women were able to detect differences as small as 13nm (1 nanometer is a billionth of a meter). Studies investigating touch usually involve electrodes or animals, and a study like this involving human feedback is quite rare.

Why it matters: A lot of everyday activities involve the feeling of touch. This knowledge can be used to enhance our experience with touchscreen gadgets and other consumer products. Visually impaired people currently use sound to guide them but soon their sense of touch too can be exploited to help them use technology.

A material’s multiple personalities

What it is: Scientists are studying how superconductivity and magnetism work together in materials that don’t have a uniform structure.

When electric current is passed through a material, its passage meets with some resistance. The more resistance there is, less of the current is passed through the material. In some materials and in certain conditions, there is absolutely no resistance. Such materials are called superconductors.

Since superconductivity occurs only in certain materials, scientists have been studying such materials for a while. One class among them, superconducting oxides, has been of interest lately because they are compounds: they are structurally heterogeneous. Scientists think they’d have a better idea of superconductivity if they studied how it interacted from one part of the compound to other effects from other parts.

Using scanning tunnelling microscopy, scientists were able to probe these parts at the atomic level, revealing that the superconducting oxide was actually not a smooth surface but consisted of crests and troughs.

Why it matters: Superconductivity cannot be explained using the same physical processes that describe the passage of electric current in other materials. Its physics is more sophisticated and, at the more fundamental levels, not completely understood.

Scientists have only just commenced an important study – its results will let us make better use of superconductors, from in the largest atom smashers to the smallest medical imaging devices (MRI, etc.).

Evolution’s clock ticked faster at the dawn of modern animals

What it is: For the first time, scientists have estimated the rate at which organisms evolved during the Cambrian explosion 540-520 million years ago which is when most modern animal groups made their first appearance on Earth.

Before the Cambrian explosion, Earth was primarily populated by single-celled organisms. it took just about 20 million years for the first real animals to emerge.

Using just fossil evidence has proved an unreliable way to estimate evolution rate. So this time researchers used both anatomical evidence (using fossils) and genetic evidence (using genomic data) to prove that organisms did indeed evolve at a rate 5.5 times faster than modern speeds.

The group of animals studied were arthropods -- a phylum which includes insects, crustaceans and arachnids.

Why it matters: The Cambrian explosion has been a point of contention in evolutionary studies because according to Darwin’s theory evolution of animals should remain roughly constant over time. Even Darwin could not fully explain the apparent evolution explosion this period, and evolution skeptics have seized this inconsistency to further their cause.

Now that the rate of genetic evolution has been shown to coincide with anatomical evolution, Darwin’s theory stands strong. The results also propose a possible reason for this spurt of development -- the pressure to survive in a world filled with new predators.

Compiled by Vasudevan Mukunth, Nandita Jayaraj & Anuj Srivas


Why It MattersAugust 21, 2013

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