How Captain America inspired new fuel efficient cars

Materials scientist Suveen Mathaudhu shows us how both our favorite superheroes and real-world scientists create materials to save the world every day.

Some of Mathaudhu’s own research at UC Riverside has been inspired by Captain America’s shield: is it possible to make a material that is both incredibly strong and super lightweight?

Advances in this area have already made a real impact, particularly in transportation. Lighter vehicles mean better fuel efficiency, making cars cheaper to run and better for the environment.

The Ford F-150, the top-selling pickup truck in the US, shifted from a steel frame to an aluminum frame, increasing the fuel economy of the vehicle by taking over seven hundred pounds out of the frame of the vehicle.

Making the frame weigh less is a big start, but there’s another less obvious source of weight: wiring. The average automobile has between 45 – 110 pounds (20 -50 kg) of electrical cabling.

“Most of it is thick copper cable, and copper cable is heavy – and now copper is very expensive,” said Mathaudhu. “If we could get a fraction of that conductivity in aluminum, it would not only be cheaper to implement, it would be lighter weight even though it will never have the conductivity that copper will inherently have.”

Mathaudhu’s research has shown how you can use nanostructured features in aluminum to maintain its conductivity, while simultaneously boosting the strength of the aluminum. Aluminum is both cheaper and lighter, so by moving toward aluminum cabling, car manufacturers can solve two problems at once.

The Science Behind Hollywood Explosions

Nobody blows things up like Hollywood. Frequently, those jaw-dropping pyrotechnics are digitally created in post-production.

Now, with the help of a tool called Wavelet Turbulence, filmmakers can generate realistic swirling smoke and fiery explosions that are more detailed, easier to control and faster to create.

UCSB researcher Theodore Kim (along with three collaborators) developed the software, which won an Academy Award in 2012. So far, Wavelet Turbulence has been used in a number of major Hollywood films including Avatar, Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, and Super 8.

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Do spoilers really ruin stories?

Game of Thrones

Spoilers give away endings before stories begin and the conventional wisdom is that they diminish suspense and ruin a story, but here’s the twist…

Research by UC San Diego psychologists find that spoilers make reading stories more enjoyable (Story spoilers don’t spoil stories).

How they tested it: Participants in the study were given a series of short stories that they hadn’t read before (covering a variety of genres: an ironic-twist story, a mystery, and a more evocative literary story).  Some participants were given a story with a paragraph that spoiled the story, while others were not.  They then rated the story in terms of enjoyment.

It turns out that most of the people for whom the story was “spoiled” reported enjoying it more than those who read it unprepared.

This was true whether the spoiler revealed a twist at the end (e.g., that the condemned man’s daring escape is just a fantasy as the rope snaps taut around his neck) or solved the crime (e.g., Poirot discovers that the apparent target of attempted murder was in fact the perpetrator). It was also true when the spoiler was more poetic.

What it means: Spoilers may allow readers to organize developments, anticipate the implications of events, and resolve ambiguities that occur in the course of reading — which is consistent with the idea that we can re-watch a movie or re-read a book and still enjoy it.

Read more about the research at NPR

The Beautiful Brain: Coping with MS

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“Self Portrait of the Artist’s Brain” – Painting on Silk

After being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), Elizabeth Jameson began creating paintings based off of MRIs and other digital scans of her brain:

“My diagnosis initiated a fascination with these eerie images, which I found frightening, yet mesmerizing. I felt a strong urge to reinterpret my brain scans—to use them in my art to explore the wonder and beauty of all brains, including those with disease.”

As a post-doc in health policy at UCSF, she researched healthcare policy — focusing on families who had been denied healthcare for children with chronic illnesses or disabilities.

Read more

The visual linguistics of a comic book page

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Inside Science recently wrote about the study by UCSD’s Neil Cohn, Navigating Comics, which looks at the underlying structure of the comics language:

People who read the English written word scan text from left to right. Once our eyes hit the end of the page, we stop. Then ding!, like an old-time typewriter, our eyes shift downward and snap back to the left to start reading the next line. This is known as a “Z-path,” as our eyes whip about like the end of Zorro’s sword.

But that linear track gets derailed in comics with complex layouts and Cohn wanted to know if experienced readers had strategies to follow along.

Cohn rustled up 145 participants at the 2004 Comic-Con International, a comic book convention held in San Diego. Participants had varying experience with reading comics, ranging from “never” to “often.”

Each participant was given a booklet containing 12 pages of blank panels. Each page was independent of the rest and used different design techniques.

Read More →

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The Science of Music and Algorithms


“I can understand why it’s an issue if you’ve got an extremely romanticized view of what art is,” he says. “But Bach peed, and he shat, and he had a lot of kids. We’re all just people.”

– David Cope, UC Santa Cruz, emeritus professor

“To some extent, this match is a defense of the whole human race. Computers play such a huge role in society. They are everywhere. But there is a frontier they must not cross. They must not cross into the area of human creativity. It would threaten the existence of human control in such areas as arts, literature, and music.”

So said Gary Kasparov, chess grandmaster, one year before he lost to Deep Blue, IBM’s chess-playing supercomputer. Meanwhile, a relatively anonymous professor of music in California had created a computer program capable of composing pieces of music in the style of great composers that most people could not differentiate from authentic compositions. The professor, David Cope, named this program Experiments in Musical Intelligence, or “Emmy”. Since then, Cope and his successive programs have been the objects of both celebration and scorn, challenging the world’s perception of what musical creativity entails.

Cope’s argument, and the basis for his software, is that creativity is essentially recombinant: consciously or not, all composers plagiarize their progenitors and contemporaries. What makes his (or Emmy’s) work superior to the stilted and awkward compositions of earlier programs are two fundamental insights into the syntax of music. Rather than rely on the traditional divisions of musical notation, Cope developed an analytic musical syntax that goes into what Douglas Hofstadter (of Gödel, Escher, Bach) terms the “tension-resolution status” of a piece, the two forces that underlie all music. Secondly, though the program composes according to formal rules, it also uses heuristics that allow it to sometimes ‘break’ its own rules in innovative ways.

Alex Tesar (Source Art & Science Journal)

More stories can be found here.

Ronald Fischer, Beekeeper by Richard Avedon, 1981

richardavedonRonald Fischer, Beekeeper by Richard Avedon, 1981.

To get the bees to land on Fischer, photographer Richard Avedon enlisted the help of UC Davis entomologist (and professional bee wrangler) Dr. Norman Gary, who smeared the beekeeper with queen bee pheromone and a dash of plant extract similar to peppermint — a method he devised himself.

Norman Gary, a professor emeritus, also has quite the impressive imdb page — with bee wrangling credits ranging from My Girl to The X-Files.

The algorithm that won an Oscar


Hollywood likes a good explosion.  Now, with the help of an open source algorithm called Wavelet Turbulence, filmmakers can digitally create pyrotechnics that were formerly time-consuming and difficult to control.

UCSB’s Theodore Kim (along with three collaborators) picked up the Academy Award in Technical Achievement for Wavelet Turbulence.

So far, it has been used in over 26 major hollywood productions including Avatar, Sherlock Holmes, Hugo, and Super 8 (pictured above).

Read the full story

Artists & astrophysicists collaborate to create new visualizations

opeblab_sciblogThe OpenLab Network facilitates innovative, creative and collaborative research with art, community, design, technology, and science with the University of California Santa Cruz.

“OpenLab is a collaboration between the arts and the sciences where scientists basically are looking for new and innovative ways to view and present their research in a way that is accessible to the general public.  We might know something about visualizing our data in a way that is useful to us scientifically, but we may not know the best way to do that for presenting to the general public. so the collaboration is about doing that in an effective way.”  – James Guillochon, Graduate student at UC Santa Cruz

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