Link About It: This Week’s Picks

Fighting book bans with a free electronic library card, an obsidian hand-axe workshop, elephants against climate change and more

A Robot That Melts and Reforms

Researchers have devised a robot that can liquefy and then reform—an characteristic inspired by sea cucumbers that rapidly change their stiffness. The shape-shifting invention can move between liquid and solid states by making clever use of materials. It’s composed of a metal with a low-melting point called gallium which researchers then embedded with magnets to control movement. Through the process of induction the robot melts into a liquid state and when it cools down it solidifies. Currently, the robot has been able to jump 20 times its body length, escape traps and remove a ball from a model of a human stomach. Researchers hope that this technology will be applicable to the biomedical field and assist in the repair or assemblage of hard-to-reach places. Learn more about the innovation at Smithsonian Magazine.

Image courtesy of Wang and Pan et al. under CC BY-SA

1.2 Million-Year-Old Workshop Reveals Early Humans Were Skilled Crafters Earlier Than Believed

In Melka Kunture, Ethiopia, researchers found 575 obsidian hand-axes that are 1.2 million years old and believed to have come from a dedicated workshop. The discovery means that hominins (early humans and ancestors) may have been skilled craftspeople capable of working with obsidian some 500,000 years earlier than scientists believed. A volcanic glass that is fragile and sharp, obsidian requires a certain level of skill to sculpt. The early humans who created the hand-axes not only deftly manipulated this material but they did so with the standardization necessary to create a production space. The team argues that “hominins were doing much more than simply reacting to environmental changes; they were taking advantage of new opportunities, and developing new techniques and new skills according to them.” Read more about the findings at Vice.

Image courtesy of Mussis, Mendez-Quintas et al

Elephants Contribute to the Fight Against Climate Change

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that elephants—some of the last remaining megaherbivores in rainforests—are crucial to protecting the planet. Analyzing the animals’ feeding habits in Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of Congo and LuiKotale, researchers discerned that elephants are picky eaters whose choices aid the capture of carbon. They tend to opt for leaves from trees with lower wood density, helping the trees avoid overcrowding and enabling the growth of larger trees that sequester more carbon. Elephants also prefer fruit that stems from higher-density wood trees, which helps to disperse their seeds throughout the forest. Though seemingly contradictory, by eating trees elephants help mitigate carbon dioxide in the air. Learn more about how they fight climate change at INVERSE.

Image courtesy of World Wildlife/Matt Bango

Pelican Cargo Is the Largest, Autonomous Electric Cargo Plane

From California-based aviation startup Pyka comes the world’s largest, autonomous electric cargo plane, Pelican Cargo. Capable of carrying a payload of 400 pounds in 60 cubic feet of cargo volume, the plane has a range of up to 200 miles and is powered by a 50kWh lithium-ion battery pack, four 25kW electric motors and triple redundant batteries. Its autonomy is guided by six processors, two computers, forward-facing LIDAR, downward-facing lasers, 3D aerial mapping and more. On the ground, a pilot can program the vehicle’s route which can then be edited using satellite link. The first commercial operation of the Pelican, which is the first vehicle of its kind, is slated to begin in the latter half of the year. Learn more about it at Interesting Engineering.

Image courtesy of Pyka

The Brooklyn Public Library’s Nationwide Library Card to Access Banned Books

For a limited time, the Brooklyn Public Library is offering a free electronic library card to any person ages 13 to 21, anywhere in the US. This move, which grants access to 500,000 digital works (including an array of books banned in certain states, like Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird) is an attempt to combat increasing censorship measures in school libraries. “This is an intellectual freedom to read initiative,” Nick Higgins, the Chief Librarian for the Brooklyn Public Library, says in a statement. “We’ve been paying attention to a lot of the book challenges and bans that have been taking place, particularly over the last year in many places across the country… We don’t necessarily experience a whole lot of that here in Brooklyn, but we know that there are library patrons and library staff who are facing these and we wanted to figure out a way to step in and help, particularly for young people.” Read more about the effort at Open Culture.

Image courtesy of Brooklyn Public Library

Scientists Create Plants That Emit Light

Led by Pavlo Gordiichuk, engineers at MIT have devised a way for plants to emit rechargeable light. The research around this concept stems from an emerging field called “plant nanobionics,” which explores the power of plants when modified with nanoparticles. To create the plant-based lighting, researchers assembled a capacitor (the part of an electrical circuit that stores electricity) to hold light and gradually release it over time. It’s made from phosphor, broken into nanoparticles using strontium aluminate and coated in silica to protect the plant. Embedded in the plant’s stomata (the small pores found on leaves), the particles create a thin film that absorbs photons from sunlight or LEDs. After 10 seconds of blue LED exposure, the manipulated plants glowed for one hour before tapering off. “If living plants could be the starting point of advanced technology, plants might replace our current unsustainable urban electrical lighting grid for the mutual benefit of all plant-dependent species—including people,” says Sheila Kennedy, a professor of architecture at MIT and co-author of the study. Learn more about the novel invention at Brighter Side of News.

Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Link About It is our filtered look at the web, shared daily in Link and on social media, and rounded up every Saturday morning. Hero image courtesy of Creative Commons

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