Archive for the ‘Science’ Category


October 9, 2007

Researchers at Virginia Tech are weaving textiles with inbuilt electronic components that they are calling e-textiles.

Some of the applications they are working on include integrating bluetooth technology into textiles (which will add an extra dimension to that popular early millenium parlor game “Cell phone or crazy person?”) and what they call a “glove keyboard”. The glove keyboard lets you use to type on a tabletop and associates your finger movements with the keys on a keypad.

They are also working on textiles which can be made into garments to analyze the way that people move through space.

I think this stuff is a ways away from any kind of market release applications for ordinary consumers — and frankly, I’m not sure what the applications of the gait analysis garment would be, anyhow. The only think I can think of is computing applications to make fancier games or animation.

The coolest mass market application of electronics in textiles that I have seen is the solar powered backpack, which allows you to do things like charge up your cell phone. I’m trying to think of cool electronic clothing options I would like if I lived In The Future. Maybe a fabric where the weave loosens as it gets hot and then tightens up again as it cools down?

I can’t even think of any sci-fi concepts of this nature excepting the Ford Prefect’s danger-detecting sunglasses.

Space Lace

April 16, 2007

I was somewhat groggily listening to NPR this morning, when I caught bits of a story about some sort of “space tether” that was analogous in form to “underwear lace like you would find in Victoria’s Secret”.

At this point in the morning, I hadn’t yet received adequate levels of caffeine, so I figured I’d go check out the story later on the internets.

New Scientist Space gives us the gist of the story. NASA is experimenting with technologies which will reduce the amount of fuel that rockets have to carry with them. A spacecraft requires a huge amount of thrust to escape the earth’s atmosphere, and traditionally, in order to generate that amount of thrust, it requires a huge amount of fuel. One way to reduce the amount of fuel that a rocket needs to carry is to have waystations in space that will provide additional thrust — and that’s what the space tethers are for.

Researchers believe that long tethers, rotating lengthwise, could one day catch satellites in space and fling them to higher orbits. This could allow rockets to use less fuel if they launched satellites to relatively low altitudes before having the tether take over, boosting the satellites into higher orbits – or out of Earth’s orbit altogether.

The tether works a little bit like a slingshot and a little bit like a jumprope. It’s basically a long piece of string, anchored at each end by a satellite, that spins around like a jumprope. In the middle will be a slingshot mitt that’s designed to catch an incoming rocket. The mitt catches the rocket, the tether swings around on its jumprope trajectory, the mitt releases the rocket and the rocket is flung into space.

The weave of the tether is what caught my attention in the first place. It sounds to me less like lace per se, and more like fishnet — it’s constructed with inbuilt redundancy so that it can withstand small tears without compromising the entire line.

The MAST [Multi-Application Survivable Tether] tether is expected to be more durable than those previous experiments, since it uses three, interwoven lines, each 0.5 mm wide, rather than just one. “It’s kind of like a long, thin net, so if you get a piece cut somewhere, there are other parallel lines that can take over the load.”

The technology is still in its infancy — there are prototype tethers, but no mitts. Tomorrow will see the launch of a new prototype system — a tether around 1km in length, with a “thermos sized” inspector robot (called “Inspector Gadget”) which will crawl along the length of the tether to check for damage. The New Scientist article (linked above) reports that the inspector robot should be visible with binoculars, if not with the naked eye. The experiment has a blog, so stay tuned for the best places to watch for robots crawling along lines of fishnet in the sky.

Hinke Osinga, Crocheting Mathematician

March 19, 2007

When I was about fifteen or sixteen, I was a math geek. I became entranced by the complex and strange geometries of fractals in James Gleick’s beautifully illustrated Chaos: Making a New Science. Mandelbrot sets showed up in screen prints for a while back in the late 80s — I recall coveting a fractal-printed hemp skirt from a little store in Margaret River.

Imagine my delight when I read in the Washington Post this morning about the crocheting project of Hinke Osinga and Bernd Krauskopf, two professors of mathematics at the University of Bristol. Together, they have produced a crocheted model of a Lorenz attractor.

The Lorenz attractor is a model of an equation which is originally based on modelling patterns of convection currents in the earth’s atmosphere.

Lorenz attractor

The equation is supposed to simulate the behaviour of a system — like weather — when numbers representing a given initial state are fed into the equation. It has two neat properties. First, it never settles down into a steady state — that’s what makes it chaotic — and second, very slight changes in the initial state result in big changes in the shape of the model. Because some versions of the model look like a butterfly’s wings, the Lorenz attractor is often used to illustrate the idea of the butterfly effect.

Osinga & Krauskopf have been working on the geometry of these systems, and Osinga, who is a crocheter, decided that the interlocking knot pattern of crochet was an ideal medium to produce a three-dimensional model of the equation.

Osinga's Lorenz Manifold

Their paper on the project (pdf) includes an appendix with detailed crocheting instructions, if you want to try it yourself. If you do so, tell them!

We would be thrilled to hear from anybody who produces another crocheted
model of the Lorenz manifold. As an incentive we offer a bottle of champagne to the person who produces model number three. So do get in touch when you are done with the needle work!