How early pocket Bibles got such thin pages

sample from pocket bible

The first pocket Bibles were made in the 13th century, principally in France but also in England, Italy, and Spain. But the origin of tissue-thin parchment—often called “uterine vellum”—has been a source of longstanding controversy.

A simple PVC eraser has helped a team of scientists resolve the mystery.

Use of the Latin term abortivum in many sources has led some scholars to suggest that the skin of fetal calves was used to produce the vellum. Others have discounted that theory, arguing that it would not have been possible to sustain livestock herds if so much vellum was produced from fetal skins.

Older scholarship even argued that unexpected alternatives such as rabbit or squirrel, while some medieval sources suggest that hides must have been split by hand through use of a lost technology.

Testing 72 bibles

The team of researchers, led by Sarah Fiddyment and Professor Matthew Collins of the BioArCh research facility in the University of York’s archeology department, developed a simple and objective technique to identify the animal origin of parchment.

The non-invasive method is a variant on ZooMS (ZooArchaeology by Mass Spectrometry) peptide mass fingerprinting but extracts protein from the parchment surface simply by using

The weird science behind oobleck (water + cornstarch)

hands covered in green oobleck

Oobleck, named for a gooey substance that fell from the sky in a Dr. Seuss story and ubiquitous at elementary school science fairs, is just a thick solution of cornstarch in water. But it’s not as simple as it sounds.

It’s a “non-Newtonian” fluid that doesn’t respond to outside forces the way you’d expect. The harder you stir it, the thicker it gets and the more it resists your stirring. Hit it hard enough, say with a hammer, and it instantly hardens enough to shatter.

YouTube is filled with videos of people running across pools filled with the goo. The pressure of a foot striking the surface causes the liquid to thicken under it enough to support the runner.

via GIPHY

Now physicists are able to explain how it works.

The phenomenon that lets oobleck do what it does is called “shear thickening,” a process that occurs in materials made up of microscopic solid particles suspended in a fluid. Examples include drilling mud used in oil wells and fluid used to couple automobile transmissions to the wheels.

One type of body armor uses a solution of polymer particles soaked into porous fiber; ordinarily flexible, but

How creative sparks help humans make new tools

man hold tools

Many animals exhibit learned behaviors, but humans are unique in their capacity to build on existing knowledge to make new innovations.

Understanding the patterns of how new generations of tools emerged in prehistoric societies, however, has long puzzled scientists.

Observations from the archaeological record indicate that cultural traits can accumulate and emerge exponentially over time. In contrast, changes in tools often appear in punctuated, incremental bursts. Long, seemingly static periods are interspersed between “cultural explosions,” periods of sudden cultural accumulation.

The reason for these sudden changes is still up for debate, but researchers have attributed this pattern to external events, such as a change in environment, the evolution of new cognitive capacity,  or even the evolution of a culture.

Now scientists have developed a virtual way of testing these hypotheses.

[Ancient stone tools hint at first division of labor]

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists introduce a computer model of cultural evolution that reproduces all of these patterns in the archaeological record.

The researchers started from a point of view that a pattern of punctuated bursts of creativity can be a feature of cultural evolution itself, as opposed to a

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Researchers create technology to produce lighter, long-lasting batteries from silicon

everything from portable electronic devices to electric cars could be come a reality thanks to an innovative technology developed by University of Waterloo researchers.

Zhongwei Chen, a chemical engineering professor at Waterloo, and a team of graduate students have created a low-cost battery using silicon that boosts the performance and life of lithium-ion batteries. Their findings are published in the latest issue of Nature Communications.

Waterloo’s silicon battery technology promises a 40 to 60 per cent increase in energy density, which is important for consumers with smartphones, smart homes and smart wearables.

The environmentally safe technology could also make dramatic improvements for hybrid and electric vehicles. The findings could mean an electric car may be driven up to 500 kilometres between charges and the smaller, lighter batteries may significantly reduce the overall weight of vehicles.

Current lithium-ion batteries normally use graphite anodes. The Waterloo engineers found that silicon anode materials have a much higher capacity for lithium and are capable of producing batteries with almost 10 times more energy.

“Graphite has long been used to build the negative electrodes in lithium-ion batteries,” said Professor Chen, the Canada Research Chair in Advanced Materials for Clean Energy and a member of the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology and

Stuff in Styrofoam makes nanocomposites really tough

Engineers are testing the limits of toughness in nanocomposites by infusing them with polystyrene, the same material in a Styrofoam cup.

In the future, the wings of jets could be as light as balsa wood, yet stronger than the toughest metal alloys. That’s the promise of nanocomposite materials.

Nanocomposites are a special class of nanomaterials made from components smaller than one-thousandth of the thickness of a human hair. They can be made flexible and strong, or resistant to heat and chemicals.

Researchers at Stanford University and IBM have tested the upper boundaries of mechanical toughness in a class of lightweight nanocomposites and offered a new model for how they get their toughness.

The potential applications cut across many industries, from computer circuitry to transportation to athletics. They could even revolutionize spaceflight with their ability to withstand tension and extreme temperatures.

Welcome to the matrix

The nanocomposite in this study began with a glass-like molecular skeleton, called a matrix. On its own, the matrix is like a sponge, interlaced with billions of nanometer-sized pores cutting through and among its molecular structure.

“This sponge is not soft or pliable like those in your kitchen, however, but very brittle,” says Reinhold Dauskardt, a professor of materials science and engineering at

Robotic leg could give amputees better balance

Stumbles often lead to falls for people with artificial limbs, but a new robotic prosthesis may help users recover their balance by working much the same way human legs do.

The control strategy, devised by studying human reflexes and other neuromuscular control systems, has shown promise in simulation and in laboratory testing, producing stable walking gaits over uneven terrain and better recovery from trips and shoves.

“Powered prostheses can help compensate for missing leg muscles, but if amputees are afraid of falling down, they won’t use them,” says Hartmut Geyer, assistant professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University.

“Today’s prosthetics try to mimic natural leg motion, yet they can’t respond like a healthy human leg would to trips, stumbles, and pushes. Our work is motivated by the idea that if we understand how humans control their limbs, we can use those principles to control robotic limbs.”

Those principles might aid not only leg prostheses, but also legged robots. The findings applying the neuromuscular control scheme to prosthetic legs and, in simulation, to full-size walking robots, were presented recently at the IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in Hamburg, Germany, and will be published in an upcoming paper in IEEE Transactions in Biomedical

How to use a laser to refrigerate water

For the first time scientists have figured out how to use an infrared laser to cool water by about 36 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Typically, when you go to the movies and see Star Wars laser blasters, they heat things up. This is the first example of a laser beam that will refrigerate liquids like water under everyday conditions,” says Peter Pauzauskie, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Washington. “It was really an open question as to whether this could be done because normally water warms when illuminated.”

As they are cooled by the laser, nanocrystals emit a reddish-green “glow” that can be seen by the naked eye. (Credit: Dennis Wise/ University of Washington)

To achieve the breakthrough, the team used a material commonly found in commercial lasers but essentially ran the laser phenomenon in reverse. They illuminated a single microscopic crystal suspended in water with infrared laser light to excite a unique kind of glow that has slightly more energy than that amount of light absorbed.

This higher-energy glow carries heat away from both the crystal and the water surrounding it.

The laser refrigeration process was first demonstrated in vacuum conditions at Los Alamos

This picture shows a planet being born

Scientists are watching the birth of a planet orbiting a star 450 light years away and say what they learn could answer some of the biggest questions concerning how planets form around other stars.

The alien planet, called LkCa 15 b, appears to be on its way to growing into a world similar to Jupiter.

“This is the first incontrovertible detection of a planet still in the process of forming—a so-called ‘protoplanet’,” says Kate Follette, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University and co-lead author on the study that is published in the journal Nature. Follette’s work produced a digital picture of LkCa 15 b glowing in the light of ultra-hot hydrogen gas.

The observation was combined in the paper with data from Steph Sallum, the co-lead author and a graduate student at the University of Arizona, who independently observed the same star with a complementary technique.

The planet is forming in a transition disk, a doughnut-like ring of dust and rocky debris orbiting its parent star, LkCa 15. The central clearings within transition disks are believed to be created by the formation of planets, which sweep up dust and gas from the disk as they orbit the star. Astronomers have long speculated that investigating

New fabric opens vents when it gets wet

Beyond allowing ventilation or draining away sweat, future athletic wear might actually respond to sweat by opening vents or relaxing constrictions.

The invention is based on the different ways fabrics can respond to wetting. Postdoctoral researcher Yahui Yang of the Micro-Nano Innovations Laboratory at the University of California, Davis, bonded patterns of waterproof fabric to a piece of cotton fabric.

When cotton gets wet, it expands in volume, but the non-wettable fabric does not expand when exposed to water. Yang found that by sticking the two together, he could create shapes that curl up when they get wet and relax again as they dry out.

Many materials expand or contract in response to heat or humidity. Stick two metals together that expand at different rates in response to heat, and you’ve made a simple thermostat. But this is the first time this principle of mechanical expansion has been applied to do something useful with fabrics, or with water-driven rather than thermal expansion, says Tingrui Pan, the head of the MiNi lab.

“By opening up these vents in the fabric as you exercise, you can bring in more air flow,” Pan says.

Yang experimented with different patterns and sizes of cuts in the wettable fabric. He found

Past earthquakes can make landslides more likely

Places that have experienced strong earthquakes in the past may be more likely to produce landslides if a second earthquake strikes, a new study finds.

These new insights could have important implications for disaster management and could help experts identify areas that may be susceptible to future landslides.

Current models used to assess the likelihood of landslides do not consider historical occurrences of earthquakes, and instead focus on the strength of the earthquake and the characteristics of the particular area, including the makeup of rock and the steepness of slopes.

“This could potentially be a significant gap in our understanding of the factors that lead to landsliding,” says Robert Parker from Cardiff University’s School of Earth and Ocean Sciences. Parker is lead author of the study published in the journal Earth Surface Dynamics.

Parker and colleague analyzed data from two individual earthquakes that occurred in close-proximity to each other, in 1929 and 1968, on the South Island of New Zealand. The epicenters of the two earthquakes were around 21 kilometers (13 miles) apart and both triggered landslides over a large area.

[Why some earthquakes hit in ‘supercycles’]

They first examined the influence that standard factors—such as the strength of the earthquake and the gradient of hillslopes—had

Galaxy with a heartbeat gets its pulse taken

Astronomers have found a galaxy with a heartbeat—and they’ve taken its pulse. They are the first to measure the effect that pulsating, older red stars have on the light of their surrounding galaxy.

“We tend to think of galaxies as steady beacons in the sky, but they are actually ‘shimmering’ due to all the giant, pulsating stars in them,” says Pieter van Dokkum, an astronomy professor at Yale University, and coauthor of the study in Nature.

Later in life, stars like our Sun undergo significant changes. They become very bright and swell up to an enormous size, swallowing any planets within a radius roughly equivalent to Earth’s distance from the Sun. Near the end of their lifetime, they begin to pulsate, increasing and decreasing their brightness every few hundred days. In our Milky Way galaxy, many stars are known to be in this phase.

[The Milky Way is full of wandering stars] 

Until now, no one had considered the effects of these stars on the light coming from more distant galaxies. In distant galaxies, the light of each pulsating star is mixed with the light of many more stars that do not vary in brightness.

“We realized that these stars are so bright and their pulsations so strong

Skin lets these fish do a vanishing act

Scientists have solved a longstanding mystery about how some fish can seem to disappear from predators. The discovery could help materials scientists and military technologists create more effective methods of ocean camouflage.

The fish use microscopic structures called platelets in their skin cells to reflect polarized light. This kind of light is made up of light waves all traveling in the same plane, like the bright glare you sometimes see when sunlight reflects off the surface of water.

Under the surface of the water, light tends to be polarized. Many fish—and sophisticated modern satellites—have the ability to detect variations in such polarized light.

“Fish have evolved the means to detect polarized light,” says Molly Cummings, professor of integrative biology at the University of Texas at Austin. “Given that, we suggested they’ve probably evolved the means to hide in polarized light. If we can identify that process, then we can improve upon our own camouflage technology for that environment.”

A simulated view of how the lookdown fish would appear in polarized light with mirrored skin (left) versus skin that reflects polarized light (right). (Credit: Cummings lab)

Whether it’s a predator pursuing a fish or a satellite seeking an adversary, light patterns

Camera prototype is thinner than a dime

A patented prototype called FlatCam is little more than a thin sensor chip with a mask that replaces lenses in a traditional camera.

Sophisticated computer algorithms are what make it practical—they process what the sensor detects and convert the sensor measurements into images and videos.
Traditional cameras are shrinking, driven by their widespread adoption in smartphones. But they all require lenses—and the post-fabrication assembly required to integrate lenses into cameras raises their cost, according to the researchers.

FlatCam does away with those issues in a camera that is also thin and flexible enough for applications that traditional devices cannot serve. FlatCams can be fabricated like microchips, with the precision, speed, and the associated reduction in costs, says Ashok Veeraraghavan, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice University.

Without lenses, he says, the most recent prototype is thinner than a dime.

FlatCam, thinner than a dime, shows promise to turn flat, curved, or flexible surfaces into cameras. (Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice)

“As traditional cameras get smaller, their sensors also get smaller, and this means they collect very little light,” he says. “The low-light performance of a camera is tied to the surface area of the sensor. Unfortunately, since all

Why winter days get female hamsters all riled up

Researchers have discovered a hormonal mechanism in hamsters that connects short winter days with increased aggression in females and differs from one that controls the same response in males.

The discovery, which advances basic knowledge on the connection between certain sex hormones and aggression, could lead to better treatment of inappropriate aggression in humans.

“This study reveals a ripe area for research,” says lead author Nikki Rendon, a PhD student working in the lab of Gregory Demas, professor of biology at Indiana University. “The results show for the first time that melatonin acts directly on the adrenal glands in females to trigger a ‘seasonal aggression switch’ from hormones in the gonads to hormones in the adrenal glands—a major contrast to how this mechanism works in males.”

Earlier research found that wintertime aggression in hamsters arises not from sex hormones in the gonads—ovaries in females and testes in males, which grow less active during shorter days—but rather the adrenal glands, located at the top of the kidneys.

Melatonin in winter

Melatonin is a hormone that rises in the body during darkness and lowers during daylight. The hormone from the adrenal gland is dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA, a sex steroid shown to affect aggression levels in mammals and

Bats use beefy wings to land upside down

The extra heft in bats’ wings would seem like a liability when it comes to flying. But a new study shows it’s their heavy wings that help them land feet up.

“Bats land in a unique way,” says Sharon Swartz, a biologist at Brown University. “They have to go from flying with their heads forward to executing an acrobatic maneuver that puts them head down and feet up. No other flying animal lands the same way as bats do.”

Bats use weighty wings to land upside down from Brown University on Vimeo.

But exactly how they are able to generate the forces necessary to perform those maneuvers have not, until now, been clear.

“When they come in to land, they’re not moving very fast, which makes it hard to generate the aerodynamic forces needed to reorient themselves,” says Kenny Breuer from the School of Engineering. “So the question is, how do bats get themselves in position to land?”

Researchers used a special flight enclosure, high-speed cameras, and some sophisticated computer modeling to discover it has a lot to do with wing mass and inertia.

Bats’ wings are heavy, hand-like assemblages of bone, muscles, joints, tendons, and skin. By throwing that extra wing weight around in very precise ways, bats

Babies use logical reasoning before age 1

Babies are capable of deductive problem-solving much earlier than previously thought—even as early as 10 months. A new study with puppets shows they can figure out who’s on top in different social hierarchies.

“We found that within the first year of life, children can engage in this type of logical reasoning, which was previously thought to be beyond their reach until the age of about four or five years,” says Stella Lourenco, associate professor of psychology at Emory University.

For a new study, researchers designed a non-verbal experiment using puppet characters. The experiment created scenarios among the puppets to test transitive inference, or the ability to deduce which character should dominate another character, even when they had not seen the two puppet characters directly interact with one another. A majority of the babies in the experiment, who were ages 10 to 13 months, showed a pattern consistent with transitive inference.

“Everybody knows that babies learn rapidly, like little sponges that soak in incredible amounts of knowledge,” Lourenco says. “This finding tells us about how humans learn. If you can reason deductively, you can make generalizations without having to experience the world directly. This ability could be a crucial tool for making sense of the

World’s toughest animal has tons of foreign DNA

Tardigrades are nearly microscopic animals that can survive the harshest of environments, including outer space.

Scientists sequenced their genome and were shocked to find the animals, known as water bears, get a huge chunk—about 17 percent—from foreign DNA.

Stick a tardigrade in an 80-celsius freezer for 10 years and it starts running around in 20 minutes after thawing.

Previously another microscopic animal called the rotifer was the record-holder for having the most foreign DNA, but it has about half as much as the tardigrade. For comparison, most animals have less than one percent of their genome from foreign DNA.

“We had no idea that an animal genome could be composed of so much foreign DNA,” says study co-author Bob Goldstein, a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We knew many animals acquire foreign genes, but we had no idea that it happens to this degree.”

The work, publish in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, not only raises the question of whether there is a connection between foreign DNA and the ability to survive extreme environments, but further stretches conventional views of how DNA is inherited.

The study shows that tardigrades acquire about 6,000 foreign genes primarily from bacteria, but also from plants,

Astronomers watch black hole burp after eating a star

Scientists have for the first time witnessed a black hole swallow a star and then quickly eject a flare of stellar debris moving at nearly light speed.

Astrophysicists tracked the star—about the size of our sun—as it shifted from its customary path, slipped into the gravitational pull of a supermassive black hole, and was sucked in, says Sjoert van Velzen, a Hubble fellow at Johns Hopkins University.

“These events are extremely rare,” says van Velzen, lead author of the study published in the journal Science. “It’s the first time we see everything from the stellar destruction followed by the launch of a conical outflow, also called a jet, and we watched it unfold over several months.”Artist’s conception of a star drawn toward a black hole and destroyed, and the black hole soon thereafter emitting a “jet” of plasma from debris left by the star’s destruction. (Credit: Modified from an original image by Amadeo Bachar)

Black holes are areas of space so dense that irresistible gravitational force stops the escape of matter, gas, and even light, rendering them invisible and creating the effect of a void in the fabric of space.

Astrophysicists had predicted that when a black hole is force-fed a large amount of

Camera prototype is thinner than a dime

A patented prototype called FlatCam is little more than a thin sensor chip with a mask that replaces lenses in a traditional camera.

Sophisticated computer algorithms are what make it practical—they process what the sensor detects and convert the sensor measurements into images and videos.
Traditional cameras are shrinking, driven by their widespread adoption in smartphones. But they all require lenses—and the post-fabrication assembly required to integrate lenses into cameras raises their cost, according to the researchers.

FlatCam does away with those issues in a camera that is also thin and flexible enough for applications that traditional devices cannot serve. FlatCams can be fabricated like microchips, with the precision, speed, and the associated reduction in costs, says Ashok Veeraraghavan, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice University.

Without lenses, he says, the most recent prototype is thinner than a dime.

FlatCam, thinner than a dime, shows promise to turn flat, curved, or flexible surfaces into cameras. (Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice)

“As traditional cameras get smaller, their sensors also get smaller, and this means they collect very little light,” he says. “The low-light performance of a camera is tied to the surface area of the sensor. Unfortunately, since all

Can genetic engineering save Florida citrus

New genetically modified citrus trees appear to appear able to fight back against the highly destructive citrus greening bacterium—and have the potential to resist canker and black spot, as well. However, the commercial availability of those trees is still several years away.

When researchers used a gene isolated from the Arabidopsis plant, a member of the mustard family, to create new trees, the trees exhibited enhanced resistance to greening and reduced disease severity. Several trees even remained disease-free after 36 months of planting in a field with a high number of diseased trees.

“Citrus crop improvement using conventional breeding methods is difficult and time-consuming due to the long juvenile phase in citrus, which can vary from four to twelve years,” says Jude Grosser, a professor of plant cell genetics at the University of Florida. “Improvement of citrus through genetic engineering remains the fastest method for improvement.”

Citrus greening threatens to destroy Florida’s $10.7 billion citrus industry. The diseased bacterium first enters the tree via the tiny Asian citrus psyllid, which sucks on leaf sap and leaves behind the greening bacteria. The bacteria then move through the tree via the phloem—the veins of the tree. The disease starves the tree of nutrients and damages its

Tons of dark matter hide in nearby dwarf galaxy

By measuring the mass of a nearby dwarf galaxy called Triangulum II, researchers may have found the highest concentration of dark matter in any known galaxy.

Although they outweigh particles of regular matter by more than a factor of 5, particles of dark matter are elusive. Their existence is inferred by their gravitational influence in galaxies, but no one has ever directly observed signals from dark matter.

Triangulum II is a small, faint galaxy at the edge of the Milky Way, made up of only about 1,000 stars. Evan Kirby, assistant professor of astronomy at Caltech, measured the mass of Triangulum II by examining the velocity of six stars whipping around the galaxy’s center.

“The galaxy is challenging to look at,” he says. “Only six of its stars were luminous enough to see with the Keck telescope.” By measuring these stars’ velocity, Kirby could infer the gravitational force exerted on the stars and thereby determine the mass of the galaxy.

[Will the search for dark matter end with this galaxy?]

“The total mass I measured was much, much greater than the mass of the total number of stars—implying that there’s a ton of densely packed dark matter contributing to the total mass,” Kirby says. “The