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One of life’s lesser disappointments is how boring everything here in America looks.  I am not sure if this is a result of banal & puritanical tastes of home buyers or if the regulatory capture which is such an aspect of life here has allowed developers and zoning boards to prevent everything but prefab ranches and ugly co-ops.  Probably it is a result of a combination of these things (along with a real desire by builders to keep people safe and an equal desire to make things that appeal to everyone). Anyway I am looking forward to a future of wilder and more eclectic buildings and we can already see inklings of such possibilities by looking abroad.

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For example this is “Quetzalcoatl’s Nest” a complex of ten different apartments built by renowned Mexican architect Javier Senosiain in Naucalpan, Mexico.  Senosiain is an advocate of organic architecture, which takes its inspiration from a combination of preexisting landscape features and natural forms.  Quetzalcoatl’s Nest is built in a hilly landscape of natural caverns, serpentine ridges and old oak groves.   looking at this landscape, Senosiain saw the shape of a colossal mythological serpent.  He incorporated a large cave into the building as the snake’s head and then set out to build other textures of snake ribs and scales and serpentine patterns into the compound.

 

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The fantastical lair includes water gardens, strange modern hideaways, and fantastic stained glass show spaces in a hard-to-describe architectural tour-de-force which spreads over 16,500 square feet.   I have included a selection of pictures here, but you should really find a video somewhere so you can get a better sense of what is going on.  Why couldn’t the Barclay’s Center people hire this guy so that their rattlesnake could look awesome instead of sinister and corporate.

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Today I wanted to write more about giant clams and their astonishing ability to “farm” algae within their body (and then live off of the sweet sugars which the algae produce).  I still want to write about that, but it proving to be a complicated subject: giant clams mastered living on solar energy a long time ago, and we are still trying to figure out the full nature of their symbiotic systems.

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Today, instead we are going to look at the phenomenon which gives the mantles of giant clams their amazingly beautiful iridescent color. It is the same effect which provides the shimmering color of hummingbird feathers and blue morpho wings, or the glistening iridescence of cuttlefish.  All of these effects are quite different from pigmentation as generally conceived:  if you grind up a lapis lazuli in a pestle, the dust will be brilliant blue (you have made ultramarine!) but if you similarly grind up a peacock feather, the dust will be gray, alas! This is because the glistening reflective aqua-blue of the feather is caused by how microscopic lattices within the various surfaces react with light (or I suppose, I should really go ahead and call these lattices “nanostructure” since they exist at a scale much smaller than micrometers). These lattices are known as “photonic crystals” and they appear in various natural iridescent materials—opals, feathers, and scales.  Scientists have long studied these materials because of their amazing optic properties, however it is only since the 1990s that we have begun to truly understand and engineer similar structures on our own.

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Physicists from the 19th century onward have understood that these iridescent color-effects are caused by diffraction within the materials themselves, however actually engineering the materials (beyond merely reproducing similar effects with chemistry) was elusive because of the scales involved.  To shamelessly quote Wikipedia “The periodicity of the photonic crystal structure must be around half the wavelength of the electromagnetic waves to be diffracted. This is ~350 nm (blue) to ~650 nm (red) for photonic crystals that operate in the visible part of the spectrum.”  For comparison, a human hair is about 100,000 nanometers thick.

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The actual physics of photonic crystals are beyond my ability to elucidate (here is a link to a somewhat comprehensible lay explanation for you physicists out there), however, this article is more to let me explain at a sub-rudimentary level and to show a bunch of pictures of the lovely instances of photonic crystals in the natural world. Enjoy these pictures which I stole!

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But, in the mean time don’t forget about the photonic crystals! When we get back to talking about the symbiosis of the giant clams, we will also return to photonic crystals!  I have talked about how ecology is complicated.  Even a symbiotic organism made up of two constituent organisms makes use of nanostructures we are only beginning to comprehend (“we” meaning molecular engineers and materials physicists not necessarily we meaning all of us). imagine how complex it becomes when there are more than one sort of organism interacting in complex ways in the real world!

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A Human Holding a Small Limpet

A Human Holding a Small Limpet

We live on the threshold of an era of stupendous nanomaterials! In the near future, molecules will be engineered to be harder than diamonds or stronger than steel…yet these miracle materials will also be workable and light.

Artist's Conception of a Space Elevator--one of the miracles which should be possible through nanotechnology

Artist’s Conception of a Space Elevator–one of the miracles which should be possible through nanotechnology

Well, at least that’s what they keep telling us. In practice our best nano-materials do not seem capable of besting nature in the truly important categories—like hardness, tensile strength, or elasticity (or, if our synthetic materials are superior, they prove difficult to build into structures which fully exploit their strengths). A case in point comes from the lowly yet resilient limpet. Limpets are marine gastropods (snails) which have shells without visible coils. Actually, the name “limpet” is an informal common name—scientists have a very different way of characterizing these mollusks.

Common limpets (Patella vulgata) adhering to tidal zone rocks

Common limpets (Patella vulgata) adhering to tidal zone rocks

Limpets cling tenaciously to rocks at the tidal line by means of a muscular foot designed to create suction. They also produce an adhesive mucus which helps the foot adhere to whatever surface the limpet wishes to cling to. They carefully scour their ocean rocks for nutritious algae with a radula—a tongue-like rasping organ covered with teeth. Limpets have been of note to humans principally as a metaphor for resilience…or as a nuisance. Yet scientists experimenting on a common limpet, Patella vulgata, found that the little snail’s teeth had greater tensile strength than spider silk. Indeed, limpet teeth are the strongest known material in the natural world and approach the tensile strength of our strongest carbon fibers. With these teeth the little snail can (and does!) chew through rocks.

A (horrifying) microscopic picture of limpet's teeth

A (horrifying) microscopic picture of limpet’s teeth

The secret to the limpet’s mighty teeth is a miracle of molecular design in its own right. The cutting portion of the teeth are composed of fibers of goethite (a sort of iron hydroxide named after the great German poet). These fibers are under 60 nanometers in diameter—a size which allows them to be tremendously strong. The teeth are technically a composite–since the tiny goethite fibers are held together by chitin, a natural polymer (which the exoskeletons of insects are made of).

This evil henchman was the best character.

This evil henchman was the best character.

Technically there are human-created carbon fibers stronger than the astonishing teeth of the limpet, but these fibers can only be utilized in certain configurations and fashions–so the limpets’ teeth are of very real practical interest to materials scientists. Engineers are already working on duplicating the little snail’s teeth for mining and cutting equipment…and for human dental uses. Perhaps we really could someday have some of the powers of Jaws, the lovable hulking henchman from seventies James Bond movies. With our synthetic chompers we could bite through rocks and steel cables. Uh, wouldn’t that be wonderful?

A rainbow of wools dyed with natural dyes

A rainbow of wools dyed with natural dyes

Did I mention that my parents operate a yarn shop? Its name is Market Street Yarn and Craft and it is located in Parkersburg, West Virginia.  Drop by when you are in the Mid-Atlantic? South? Midwest? whatever region of the nation West Virginia is in. I don’t crochet, knit, or weave, but I love going into the store anyway because there are so many colors of yarn!  From floor to ceiling there are innumerable balls, skeins, spools, and coils of every sort of fiber in every conceivable color.  There are exquisite colors which I have never seen before: greens the color of uncategorized tropical plants, pinks that resemble inconceivable candies from a mad confectioner, midnight violets out of formless dreams… I’m a painter, and I am used to the pigments of my trade: iron oxide, cadmium, cobalt, lead bicarbonate, phthalocyanine, and so forth.  However, dyers have an entirely different palate made of weird organic compounds (well, there are synthetic dyes too, but a lot of them have the same industrial look as everything).  It means that many of the colors have a unique glowing beauty and a strangeness which draws the eye.

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There are many different animal fibers—llama, camel, goat, rabbit, muskox, and silk—but of course the vast majority of the yarns are wool, which is sheep hair. Dying wool is an ancient craft which predates writing or money!  Maybe chemistry isn’t the only reason some of those colors are so unique.  Some dyes naturally permeate wool fiber and then stain it permanently, but other dyes require a mordant in order to remain permanently colorfast.

Well, this certainly looks fun...

Well, this certainly looks fun…

Dyeing really is an ancient artisanal craft so, like cheesemaking, carpentry, pickling, or bellcasting, it has its own unique demands which are stated in a specialized language.  There are dyeing words which descend directly from Old English and Latin.  This is a stylish way of saying I am not going to be able to comprehensively write about dyeing wool.  Instead I am going to present a crude little picture gallery of the colors produced by commonly used natural dyestuffs.

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Woad is a flowering plant from the steppes of Central Asia which is also known (horrifically) as “Asp of Jerusalem.”  Because it has been used for so long as a dyestuff it naturalized to Europe in classical and medieval times and now even lives in the Americas.

Wool dyed with Queen Anne's Lace

Wool dyed with Queen Anne’s Lace

Queen Anne’s lace is a member of the carrot family. Native to Europe, it was naturalized to North America by European settlers for unknown reasons—maybe because it can be used to dye fabric off-white (?).

Wools dyed with lichens

Wools dyed with lichens

A bizarre hybrid organism consisting of algae and fungi living in complete symbiosis, lichen comes in many species and varieties.  It can be used to make some of the most colorful and stunning dye colors.

Wool and Llama hair died with cochineal in Peru

Wool and Llama hair died with cochineal in Peru

Cochineal is a name for ground up insects which live parasitically on the carmine plant.  They make a beautiful deep red dye which was once very expensive and denoted royalty or wealth (like murex dye).

Wool yarn dyed with turmeric

Wool yarn dyed with turmeric

Turmeric is a healthy yellow spice which also dyes animal fibers bright yellow.  An Indian pathologist once confided in me that everyone he had dissected from the subcontinent had yellow viscera because of turmeric (a Ferrebeekeeper fun fact!).

Dyed with regular old onion skin (from ramblinginthewoods.wordpress.com)

Dyed with regular old onion skin (from ramblinginthewoods.wordpress.com)

Onionskin is, um, the skin of onions and produces the earth color seen above.

Wool dyed with elderberry and sundry mordants (http://thirtyeightstitches.blogspot.com)

Wool dyed with elderberry and sundry mordants (http://thirtyeightstitches.blogspot.com)

Elderberry is a childhood favorite because there was always a patch behind the garage…and next to the goathouse…and over the hill.  The berries can be cooked to make a tasty syrup or jelly.  They also produce a darkened color when used as a dye. Never confuse goodly elderberries with the next plant, poke, which is a toxic weed…

Wool dyed with poke (grackleandsun.wordpress.com)

Wool dyed with poke (grackleandsun.wordpress.com)

Pokeberries are inedible berries of an exquisite deep purple.  They look so tantalizingly delicious and juicy, but beware, they are poisonous (and used to cause a fair number of deaths back in hungrier times).  Get back at them by boiling them into a dye and making the surprisingly pretty hues above.

Risk getting stung for this bewitching green?

Risk getting stung for this bewitching green?

Nettles are stinging plants which are fascinating in their own right (and which humankind has put to sundry uses for a long time).  When boiled and used as dye they produce a very pretty color of fabric.

Of course this is just a random list of interesting colors which I liked (although it does provide a rudimentary rainbow).  Some of these materials are rare or expensive… and may not perform as advertised without substantial tinkering.  However sheep week would not be complete without a cursory mention of the dyer’s art (which is so necessary for the aesthetic appreciation of wool).  It’s strange to imagine that the most beautiful Persian rugs are really bits of wool carefully dyed with plants which have been woven together!

Antique Persian Kerman crica 1890's (made of wool dyed with natural dyes)

Antique Persian Kerman crica 1890’s (made of wool dyed with natural dyes)

 

Today’s post concerns an unlikely ally—an eccentric friend you have most likely maligned (perhaps even to the point of death).  How eccentric is this unknown benefactor?  Well let’s just say our little comrade has up to 30 legs and likes to run on the ceiling—so, pretty eccentric.

No! The Italian soccer team is creepy and has many legs but it doesn’t run on the ceiling and it isn’t our friend.

I’m talking about the common house centipede (Scutigera coleoptrata), a myriapod which induces such unreasoning dislike in some people that I am going to avoid describing its extremely interesting physiology, habits, and origin, until after I have told you why you should not promptly step on it.  With its many hairy legs and its ability to swiftly scamper along smooth vertical surfaces, Scutigera has a tendency to alarm people into causing it mortal injury.  You should never do such a thing!  Scutigera is a relentless predator of bedbugs, roaches, termites, ants, silverfish, spiders, and fleas.  The house centipede is like a tiger to these truly annoying and dangerous vermin.  If you live in a large city it is entirely possible that your dwelling has been saved multiple times from horrible infestations by unloved house centipedes.

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Scutigera coleoptrata grows to be 25 mm (1 in) to 50 mm (2 in) in length.  They originally lived in the Mediterranean area, but they are successful and hardy and have quickly spread to all six temperate continents as humankind has moved around and built houses.  Scutigeras live up to seven years, so before you crush one, you might pause to reflect that it might have lived in your house longer than you have.

House Centipede (Scutigera coleoptrata)

You have probably seen a Scutigera running.  They move with preternatural agility and are capable of running upside down.  If you can divorce yourself from vertebrate-centric feelings of revulsion, you will see an amazing beauty to the rippling motion of their many legs.  They always remind me of little Venetian galleys or Byzantine dromons.  Like those warships, house centipedes are designed to be formidable. Perhaps we would appreciate them more if we saw the ninjalike grace with which they hunt.  They usually jump on their prey and sting it to death with modified front legs capable of delivering venom (evolutionarily unique appendages called forcipules), however they are very nimble and can also lasso smaller arthropods or whip them into submission with their many legs.  The forcipules of the house centipede are usually incapable of breaking human skin. If they do succeed in stinging a person (which they don’t undertake lightly–since we are the size of skyscrapers to them) the sting is usually no more painful than that of a bee.  Unfortunately a few people are allergic to centipede venom and can have dangerous reactions, so it is best not to handle them.

I said not to handle them!

Scutigera apprehends the world through compound eyes which can see visible light but are even better at viewing ultraviolet wavelengths.  Despite their acute vision, they tend to hunt with their long antennae which are extremely sensitive to both vibrations and smells.  Their elongated hindlegs have evolved to appear like antennae so that predators have a difficult time telling which direction a centipede will move in, but hopefully I have convinced you to leave them alone so they won’t have to run away from you. More house centipedes mean fewer bedbugs!

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