Light Friday: Spider Web Could Stop a Train

Another Step Closer to the Holodeck
The Robotic Bat Wing
How a Physicist Splits an Oreo

In the film Spider-Man 2, everyone’s favorite web-slinging superhero manages to stop a runaway New York City subway train traveling at full speed using only his webs. Now, scientists have discovered that this could be possible in real life, under the right circumstances.

Spider webs are considered more durable than any known synthetic or natural fiber relative to their weight, and physicists from the University of Leicester in the U.K. recently calculated that spider silk is, in fact, strong enough to stop a speeding train.

“First, the team calculated how much four R160 New York City subway cars – packed with a total of 984 people – would weigh (about 200,000 kilograms, or roughly 10 Atlas V rockets). Then, they calculated how fast the train was going (24 meters per second, or about 53 miles per hour) and how much resistance the track would have offered as it charged forward (negligible),” explains. “From there, they could work out how much force the webbing would have needed to exert upon the train to stop it: about 300,000 Newtons, or about 12 times the amount of force exerted by a large American alligator as its jaws snap shut.”

Based on data about the train, webbing, and buildings used to anchor the silk, the team determined that Spider-Man’s web would need to absorb 500 million joules of energy to keep from snapping. Darwin’s bark spider from Madagascar is a real-world arachnid that weaves silk strong enough for the job.

“It is often quoted that spider-webs are stronger than steel, so we thought it would be interesting to see whether this held true for Spider-Man’s scaled up version,” team member Alex Stone noted. “Considering the subject matter we were surprised to find out that the webbing was portrayed accurately.”

Another Step Closer to the Holodeck

Who wouldn’t want to spend time in the holodeck, the virtual playground where Star Trek’s fictional crew spends time adventuring through fantasy worlds? Luckily, engineers are getting closer to making this science-fiction concept a reality.

Developed by the Electronic Visualization Laboratory at the University of Illinois, the CAVE2 is a “hybrid reality” system featuring a 24-foot wide, eight-foot tall screen with 72 stereoscopic liquid crystal display panels that surround a user with a 320-degree panoramic view. The array enables an observer to realistically engage in virtual scenarios, such as soaring over a distant planet’s surface or traveling through the blood vessels in a human brain.

“If you’re running in 3-D mode, the room needs to be able to project its stereoscopic imagery to your headwear properly, which is where a 10-camera optical tracking system comes into play, allowing the system to render images on the screens from the point of view of one observer,” TIME Magazine notes. “Sound-wise, you’re listening to a 20-speaker ambisonic system – ‘ambisonic’ meaning multichannel sound mixing, i.e. extremely high-end surround sound – to project sounds in 3-D space. And all of that’s crunched by a 36-node ‘high performance’ computer cluster – one computer powering each screen – with a 100 GB/sec network pipe to the outside world.”

Although numerous obstacles remain in making the CAVE2 a viable commercial technology, mainly the large scale and high expense of the components, it already has a vast range of potential applications.

“The CAVE2 virtual world could change the way doctors are trained and improve patient care…Pharmaceutical researchers could use it to model the way new drugs bind to proteins in the human body. Car designers could virtually ‘drive’ their new vehicle designs,” the Associated Press explains. “Imagine turning massive amounts of data – the forces behind a hurricane, for example – into a simulation that a weather researcher could enlarge and explore from the inside. Architects could walk through their skyscrapers before they are built. Surgeons could rehearse a procedure using data from an individual patient.”

The Robotic Bat Wing

In yet another example of nature-inspired engineering, scientists have created a 3-D printed robotic bat wing that accurately simulates the winged mammal’s flight motions and could help aerodynamics experts find improvements for aircraft.

Researchers from Brown University designed the robot to mimic the wing shape and motion of the lesser dog-faced fruit bat. The device can flap while attached to a force transducer in a wind tunnel, enabling experimenters to record the aerodynamic forces generated by the moving wing.

“Bat wings are incredibly complex mechanisms, producing lift and thrust to help the flying mammals quickly chase their insect prey, fly long distances, and nimbly move through dense clouds of their compatriots,” Popular Science reports. “A bat’s wings span almost its entire body, supported by two arm bones and five finger-like digits covered in an elastic skin that can stretch up to 400 percent of its original size. Small aircraft based on bat designs could be efficient little flapping drones, but researchers would need to understand how bats work.”

Here’s a video showing the robot bat wing in action:

How a Physicist Splits an Oreo

Everyone has their own way of eating Oreos—whether it’s twisting, dunking, or combining them into super-Oreos. But in today’s hectic world, who has the time to manually separate two halves of a cookie?

Luckily, a little technical know-how can provide a mechanical solution to the problem. Physicist, artist, and copywriter David Neevel (who happens to hate the Oreo’s creamy middle) recently unveiled his Oreo Separator Machine, a device that splits the cookie apart and scraps away the white filling using a calibrated CNC machine.

The tongue-in-cheek project is part of Nabisco’s “Cookie vs. Creme” campaign, and even the machine’s inventor doesn’t take his accomplishment too seriously. “I’ve been working on my machine now for about 0.04 years,” Neevel explained. “I used tools, wires, and wood, and a lot of aluminum…and motors.”

Have a great weekend, folks.



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