Science tips: Smart contact lenses, superconductors, software as art, parasitic plants

This month’s batch of science tips covers a good cross-section of the campus, from condensed-matter physics to plant biology. I do have an interesting job.

Smart Contact Lenses

Tingrui Pan and Hailing Cong in the Department of Biomedical Engineering have come up with a way to make polydimethylsiloxane imprinted with silver wires. The practical upshot of which is, you could make contact lenses that monitor eye pressure and check for glaucoma. Tingrui Pan’s lab website is here.

NASA turns 50: the UC Davis connections

If you’ve been to the Google home page this morning and clicked through the doodle, you’ll know that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was established on July 29, 1958. To mark the occasion, here’s a roundup of UC Davis space-related stories.

The New Yorker on Garrett Lisi and the Theory of Everything

Last week’s New Yorker carried a lengthy article about Garrett Lisi, the surfer/snowboard dude who might have come up with a “Theory of Everything” that unites gravity and the other physical forces into one tidy theory.While some theoretical physicists have embraced Lisi’s work, others remain sceptical to dismissive.

Writer Benjamin Wallace-Wells attended a talk Lisi gave at UC Davis in March, and also talked to UC Davis physicist Andreas Albrecht (who is quoted in the article) about Lisi’s work.

The lid comes off the LSST

About 10 am July 23, staff at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory Mirror Lab cracked the lid of the furnace where two of the three mirrors for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope have been cast. The casting is described as “perfect,” writes Tony Tyson, the UC Davis physics professor leading the LSST project.

LSST Mirror opening

The mirror was cast in a rotating furnace from 20 tons of glass. The furnace reached maximum temperature, or “highfire” on March 29 and has been slowly cooling since then. The next step is to remove the mirror and begin the process of grinding and polishing it.

Raising soil, lowering carbon in the Delta

The California Department of Water Resources has awarded a $12 M, three-year grant to the U.S. Geological Survey and UC Davis for a project exploring “carbon farming” in the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta.

Traditional farming practices expose fragile peat soils that are eroded by the wind, releasing carbon to the atmosphere and causing soil subsidence. The idea of “carbon-capture farming” is to grow wetland plants such as tule and cattails, replenishing the peat, trapping carbon in the ground and raising soil levels.

Plant parasite shows vulnerability

Dodder vines are parasites that live on other plants. Most species have abandoned photosynthesis and regular roots, and live by plumbing themselves into a host plant’s vascular system (phloem) to suck up water and other nutrients. A new study from Neelima Sinha’s group shows that dodder also take up RNA molecules that travel a surprisingly long way in the dodder plant — and could be manipulated to kill the parasite.

Prop 2 could batter egg industry

Proposition 2, set for the November ballot in California, would require that farm animals including egg-laying hens be able to¬† “fully extend their limbs or wings, lie down, stand up, and turn around for the majority of the day, without touching the sides of their enclosure.

A report just published by the Agricultural Issues Center assesses the likely economic impact of this measure. It finds that the egg industry in California would be hit hard, as costs would rise in California while egg producers in other states are unaffected by the new rules.

Smart contact lenses

UC Davis biomedical engineers Tingrui Pan and Hailing Cong have developed a method for making a transparent, flexible material (polydimethylsiloxane) with patterns of conductive wires etched onto it in silver. They have successfully shaped the material into a convex shape suitable for contact-lenses.

The material could be used to make contact lenses that can monitor pressure in the eyeball in patients with glaucoma, Pan told Discovery News. Eventually, the lens might even deliver medication to the eye depending in response to pressure changes.

A paper describing the materials was published recently in the journal Advanced Functional Materials, and highlighted on the inside front cover.

Humming fish and the beginnings of speech

The brain wiring that allows us to sing, shout or talk probably evolved in fish 400 million years ago, according to a study published this week in the journal Science.

Andrew Bass, a Cornell University researcher has been visiting UC Davis’s Bodega Marine Lab for several years to work on the midshipman, or humming toadfish. Male toadfish build nests under rocks then make humming noises to attract females. They also growl to drive away other males.

Dan Sumner’s Q&A on Freakonomics blog

UC Davis ag economist Daniel Sumner is taking questions on the New York Times Freakanomics blog on topics related to agricultural subsidies, food supplies and food scares.

As I’m writing this there are already 43 questions posted in the comments section; I’m not sure when he’ll get round to posting answers. That’s probably a supply-and-demand thing.