Scientific Chicago With Neil Shubin

Scientist Neil Shubin is back to tell us why the U.S. Military is so interested in the bombardier beetle, why taking a hands-on approach is a better way to learn science, and why astronomers may want to avoid using the microwave when heating their lunch.

Beetle Butt Gun
True to its name, the bombardier beetle can load, aim, and fire up to 735 times per second. The insect stocks deadly chemicals in its abdomen and then shoots boiling hot beetlejuice from its rear at its enemies. Using high-speed x-ray imaging at Argonne Lab, researchers have recently unlocked the secret to this high-tech weapon that’s had everyone from jet engineers to ATM designers envious for decades. Scientists discovered the chemicals are stored in two separate chambers, according to a report published May 1 in Science. When the beetle is ready to spray, a valve between the chambers opens, mixing the chemicals. This creates pressure, forcing the spray out the bum with a bang.

Watch the bombardier beetle in action.

All in the Eskimo Family
Alaska’s North Slope may be the cradle of Eskimo civilization. Through DNA testing of the remains of ancient Eskimos and the saliva of living Inuit volunteers in North Slope, scientists at Northwestern University linked all modern Inuit populations in Alaska, Canada, and Greenland to the region at Alaska’s northwest tip. The genetic finding, published on April 17 in The American Journal of Physical Anthropology, backs archeological evidence that the earliest Eskimos from North Slope migrated eastward in two waves: the first in 2,500 B.C. and the second around 1,000 A.D.

Image credit Berry Research Labs

Tiny, Highly Sensitive Nerd
Meet Nerd or Nano-Electro-Robotic-Device. It’s a tiny bio-bot that can sense humidity fashioned by University of Illinois-Chicago researchers out of bacteria spores. The researchers placed graphene “quantum dots” on the surface of the spores and pumped in electricity. Nerd shrinks and swells depending on humidity, in turn affecting the flow of the electrical current and indicating moisture levels. The bot could come in handy in extremely dry places from outer space to museums to the human body.

Mystery Lunch
For 17 years, Australia’s famous Parkes radio telescope had been receiving unexplained radio signals dubbed “perytons,” after Jorge Luis Borges’ mythological hybrid stag-bird. Scientists speculated a range of possible sources from lightening to cosmic rays to fast radio bursts from extraterrestrial life. The culprit was finally discovered (and outed in a paper in arVix): the microwave in the staff lunchroom. Here’s the kicker: the telescope only picked up the mysterious signals the when it was at a specific angle to the microwave and when the door was opened prematurely. 

Science: Just Do It
Scientific theory is best learned in practice, according to a new study published April 24 in Psychological Science. Looking at brain scans, University of Chicago psychologists found hands-on science helped students understand concepts more deeply and thoroughly, and improved test grades to boot. In one experiment, some students physically tilted a set of bicycle wheels to learn about angular motion, while others just watched. Later, the students were quizzed on topic, and the first group scored higher than the second.

Watch the experiment.