Category Archives: Explainer

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If IKEA made Sputnik

I’m moving house in a few weeks’ time, which means I’m idly spending my tube journeys to and from work reading the IKEA catalogue, trying to work out which combination of Billy Bookshelf and Klobo Sofa will look best in the small corner of North East London I’ll soon be calling home.

Meanwhile, in low Earth orbit – the patch of sky about 150-600 km above our heads where the International Space Station floats about – flat-pack DIY generic designs called CubeSats are widely and increasingly in use to power space science.

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A nice glass of red: the colourful history of nanotechnology

Since the dawn of humanity people have been fascinated by colour, and with good reason – it’s bloody confusing.

Amazingly, ancient Romans made “dichroic” glassware that could change its hue depending upon the direction it was lit from. It’s an example of lost technology, and whether they understood the optics or the manufacturing process is debated, as a modern understanding of nanotechnology is needed to explain it fully.

The Lycurgus Cup, lit from front and behind.

The Lycurgus Cup, lit from front and behind.

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man's foot about to slip on banana peel

Pulp Friction

Tripping on a banana skin can have an audience rolling in the aisles. Assuming, of course, you’re careless enough to leave one lying around.

The now ubiquitous slipping-on-a-banana-peel gag is thought to date at least as far back as 1879, when Harper’s Weekly magazine warned its readers against following in the literal footsteps of inconsiderate fructivores. The great novelist Umberto Eco, for his part, believed that the iconic banana skin evolved as a visual euphemism for far deadlier heaps of dog detritus.

Never having slipped on a banana skin, I’ve often wondered just how dangerous they can be. And for that matter, whether it’s the inside or the outside of the fruit that poses the greater health hazard. Fortunately, these are exactly the sort of slippery questions that scientists have been falling over themselves for decades to peel back and really sink their teeth into.

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In 2012, Kiyoshi Mabuchi and colleagues at Japan’s Kitasato University in Japan decided to formally investigate this phenomenon, by studying the coefficient of friction of banana skins. Their results appeared in the journal of the Japanese Society of Tribologists, a term for scientists who study the way moving surfaces interact.

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