This Way Up for Saturday 10 June 2017

A global sand shortage? Miniaturising the world, disposable drones, womb with a view: can foetuses see? And flatpack food: self-assembling pasta.

Global sand shortage?

Sand gets everywhere – into our roads, our homes, our sports and our recreation, but is the world running out of it?

David Owen has been exploring the global business of sand – which is usually composed of quartz grains that measure between 0.0625mm and 2mm in diameter – for The New Yorker.

"Windowpanes, wineglasses, and cell-phone screens are made from melted sand. Sand is used for filtration in water-treatment facilities, septic systems, and swimming pools. Oil and gas drillers inject large quantities of hard, round sand into fracked rock formations in order to hold the cracks open, like shoving a foot in the door.

"Geologists define sand not by composition but by size, as grains between 0.0625 and two millimetres across. Just below sand on the size scale is silt; just above it is gravel. Most sand consists chiefly of quartz, the commonest form of silica, but there are other kinds. Sand on ocean beaches usually includes a high proportion of shell pieces and, increasingly, bits of decomposing plastic trash." – David Owen in The New Yorker

Miniaturising the world

Mavis Cheyne can see the beauty of small things.

So using her wood turning, pottery, joinery, embroidery and decorative skills, she recreates all kinds of objects – including complete homes with all their fittings and fixtures – in tiny scale and amazing detail.

This Way Up's Simon Morton visits her garage workshop to see how she does it.

Disposable drones to the rescue

It's a key challenge facing emergency response teams after a natural disaster – how to get important supplies to the people who need them when roads, railway tracks and airports can't be used?

DARPA – the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the US Department of Defense – is wrestling with this problem.

One of the ideas it's exploring is biodegradeable, cardboard drones that can carry a few kilos of supplies and deliver them to within 15 metres of the people who need them on the ground.  

"Vanishing air vehicles that can make precise deliveries of critical supplies and then vaporise into thin air" could be the answer, says Roy Olsson of DARPA's Project ICARUS (Inbound, Controlled, Air-Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems).

"Vanishing delivery vehicles could extend military and civilian operational capabilities in extenuating circumstances where currently there is no means to provide additional support" - ICARUS program manager Troy Olsson

Womb with a view: when can a foetus see?

Baby Good 3d Ultrasound

Baby Good 3d Ultrasound Photo: (Flickr user shannonpatrick17 CC BY 2.0)

New research suggests 34-week-old foetuses can see in the womb, plus the Zika virus could be used to treat brain cancer and measuring a white dwarf star with light.

The startling research revealing what babies can see in the womb was published by New Zealander Vincent Reid of the University of Lancaster and his colleagues in the journal Cell Biology.

They used high-definition 4D ultrasound scans to study how developing babies responded to face-shaped patterns of light shone through the mother's abdominal wall. 
Human foetuses open their eyes at about 24 weeks, with functional connections made between the eyes and the brain before this time.

The mothers of the 39 babies in the study were at least 34 weeks pregnant, and the researchers found that the babies could follow these projected patterns in utero, with a preference for shapes with more detail in the top half than the bottom.

The findings seem to support previous studies showing that babies are hardwired to look for faces soon after birth.

"A face presented the "right way up" relative to the baby elicited pursuit movements. An inverted "face", on the other hand, was regarded with much less interest," says Dr Chris Smith of The Naked Scientists.

"Their conclusion is that babies are effectively seeing in utero from 34 weeks and that they are clearly born with this pre-loaded intention to look at face patterns or things with more detail in the upper part of the visual world, and from much earlier than we had thought."

Meanwhile, the researchers suggest that being exposed to some light filtering through the mother's abdominal wall in utero could be important for the development of a baby's sight and visual system.

"A recent study on mice showed that you need light exposure in the uterus to prepare the eye properly so it can see after birth," says Professor Reid.

Flatpack food: shape-changing pasta

Everyone's had a go at assembling some flatpack furniture, next on the menu – flatpack meals.

These pasta shapes were caused by immersing a 2D flat film into water

These pasta shapes were caused by immersing a 2D flat film into water Photo: (Michael Indresano Production and MIT News)

Flatpack food would be transported in flat sheets and – even better – assembles itself into the shape you want, no screws, instructions or Allen keys needed.

It's the idea of some researchers at MIT who are trying to save on food transport costs by making meals from pasta (and other foods) that can transform from something that looks like a flat sheet of lasagne into macaroni just by adding water. 

"We did some simple calculations, such as for macaroni pasta, and even if you pack it perfectly, you still will end up with 67 percent of the volume as air. We thought maybe in the future our shape-changing food could be packed flat and save space" - Researcher Wen Wang, a former graduate student and research scientist in MIT's Media Lab