Tuesday, June 9, 2009

I just saved a bunch of money on my eyeball-licking insurance!*

One of the best parts of being a grad student is that you have access to a shit-ton of journals. For those of you lucky enough to have never been exposed to the wonderful, terrible, freak-nasty world of journals, they are a bit like magazines, if magazines were written by a bunch of narcissistic 12-year-olds with Aspergers Syndrome. That is to say, most journal articles are written primarily in heavily field-specific jargon by people so wrapped up in their own research that they forget that the outside world exists. (Incidentally, I have an article accepted for publication in the Journal of Human Evolution on a topic that even my mother doesn't understand, assuming I ever get around to actually editing the damn thing. Feel free to stroke my ego at your leisure.)

The upshot of articles written by obsessed researchers is, naturally, that some are unintentionally hilarious (much like rabid fans of anything are unintentionally hilarious; see Trekkies). I'd make more fun, but to be honest, I was indulging my own obsession with monkey feet and their frictional mechanics when I came across this gem: "Frictional adhesion: a new angle on gecko attachment," published by Autumn et al. in the Journal of Experimental Biology (2006, vol. 209, pp 3569-3579). The study itself is pretty damned cool, as they were looking at how geckos manage to stick themselves to anything and everything without having gooey feet (like, say, frogs or insects). Geckos use dry adhesion, which they accomplish through little hair-like projections on their feet called setae, which branch into little spatulate endings. The spatulate endings contact whatever they are standing on and essentially form a bond that is amongst the best known in the natural world. They look like this:

So far, so good. I think these setae are pretty damn cool, and am most jealous that I don't have anything this cool on my toes. The unintentionally hilarious part comes once we get into the methods. Turns out that geckos are surly little bastards. "Bitey" doesn't even come close to describing their disposition. So, the researchers were left trying to find a way to get the little jerkwads to cooperate (which, in all honesty, is the main problem all animal researchers must address at some point. Do you give them a treat for good behavior or just hope and pray that they get over themselves? /snark) Did you know that "normally aggressive and temperamental" geckos become "docile when attached by a single toe to a glass surface?" I didn't either. Apparently they weren't docile enough, though, judging by the position they were attached in and the "muzzle" the researchers made for them:

Yeah. That would be sports tape holding the mouth shut. Ingenious I tell you. I'm actually considering using it on my monkeys, but they're either too smart or too dumb (depending on the day) and would either eat it, hump it and eat it, or throw it at my head. Either way, the tape would be peeled off.

And speaking of tape being peeled off; that was the main finding of the study. The detachment of gecko feet from whatever they are stuck to in no way resembles the mechanics of peeling tape. Specifically, what the study showed was that gecko setae will always detach when they are angled at least 30 degrees from the substrate they are stuck to, regardless of how heavy the gecko is. Duct tape, however, will peel faster at any angle if you apply more force to it (which, in this context, is the equivalent of having a heavier gecko). Yeah, I know, this all sounds completely inane. But it is actually pretty cool, because it means that there is something out there that has a stronger hold than duct tape, but requires less energy to peel off. This is good news for gecko researchers, who have now stumbled onto a whole new cash cow for research funding, and possibly good for 3M, provided they can patent this mechanism for sticky-notes and those hooks-that-aren't-supposed-to-kill-your-paint-job-but-do-anyway before anyone else does. Bad news for Sherwin-Williams though, although I suppose they could just launch an advertising campaign to encourage the use of nails for hanging pictures and whatnot...

So, there it is: the set-up, the punchline, and the explanation of how I am not as big of an asshole as the opening paragraphs might seem to suggest. But, this article contains and extra-special dose of fun. The authors weren't satisfied with their mathematical conclusion of how setae function (and why should they be? Math is so dull...), so they decided to apply their conclusions to a real-world model. And that, my friends, is what I shall leave you with. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, the "StickyBot":

*Tom assures me that geckos lick their eyeball.**

**I am too lazy to look that up, so just nod and smile, even if you know it's wrong.***

***Turns out I'm not that lazy and Tom was right. He's so amazing I still wonder why I am the one in grad school.****

****He says it's mostly because I am a masochist, but also because I have passion for learning and should stop making fun of myself.*****

*****I am putting words in his mouth and he is far too busy killing dragons online to have actually said that, but I'm sure he has said it at some point.******

******I love you Bear. You make my life worthwhile!!

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