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International Day of Light Edition: Beam Me Up, Scotty: How Lasers Can Counteract Gravity

We’ve all wished for weightlessness at some point in our lives—that fantastical quality that powers the magic of flying broomsticks and fuels our fascination with space travel. Although we’re a long way from floating down the street, physicists have developed ways to mitigate the effect of gravity, from carefully aligning sound waves to mimicking free fall in reduced-gravity aircraft. But Kosuke Shibata and his colleagues at the Gakushuin University say they’ve developed a new tool for levitation: beams of light.

It might sound rather Star Trek-esque, but the physics is real. Light can be described mathematically as a wave of electric and magnetic fields moving through space, and when a strong light source like a laser shines on an atom, the changing electric field interacts with the electric charges contained within the atom’s protons and neutrons. If done just right, the resulting force can precisely cancel out that of gravity, allowing the atoms to levitate.

While a similar techniq…
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International Day of Light Pre-celebration Edition: Some light questioning about...light

The electromagnetic spectrum, an assortment of energy wiggling throughout space and time, is overwhelmingly underappreciated in our lives. There is no combination of existence that could happen without it. To celebrate the role that light plays in our lives, our ecosystem, and the operation of the universe, UNESCO declared March 16th as the International Day of Light, a day to celebrate “ vital role of light and light-based technologies in science, culture and art, education and sustainable development”. Across the world, citizens are planning events to celebrate light in all of its forms.

Everywhere around us are waves, whether we can see them or not. Out of all the waves traveling through space, we can only see a fraction. On earth, we’re only seeing ~44% of the radiation coming from the sun! Even so, scientists estimate that we can differentiate up to 10 million colors in the visible spectrum.

Everything we can see in this universe is detected through waves, with wavelengths far s…

International Day of Light Pre-celebration Edition: An Ultrasound Scan Without the Goo?

UUltrasound is a powerful tool for looking inside the body. The scans see through layers of tissue to reveal pumping hearts, developing fetuses, troublesome blood clots, and injured muscles. They are relatively low-cost, portable, and have few side effects. Patients aren’t exposed to ionizing radiation or confined in a small space. They are, however, slathered in goo.
Most of the time, having a body part temporarily coated in a cold, sticky substance and then pressed on by a technician is a small price to pay for an accurate diagnosis. But in some situations, like when it’s necessary to image a wound, this contact can be painful. That’s one of the downsides of ultrasound technology. Another is that some results can be influenced by the amount of pressure applied by the technician–it’s a very “hands-on” technique, especially compared to other types of medical imaging.

In new research published in the journal Light: Science & Applications, a team of researchers from the Massachusett…

Snapping Shrimp Turn up the Volume as Oceans Warm

If you’re on the receiving end of a snapping shrimp’s attack, prepare to be stunned. Also known as pistol shrimp, these little crustaceans shoot lethal rounds at predators and prey at highway speeds—a direct hit can be outright fatal or shock the recipient into submission. It’s not just the force of the attack that’s stunning though, it’s the sound. Snapping shrimp are among the noisiest creatures in the ocean.


“They are hardly ever seen, and very cryptic in their habitat, but their sounds are ubiquitous,” says to Ashlee Lillis, a scientist leading the coral conservation activities in the US Virgin Islands for The Nature Conversancy. As a PhD student Lillis studied the soundtrack of the ocean and its impact on marine larvae. “I was fascinated by the most common biological sound in all of the recordings, the snapping shrimp, and wanted to know more about what all of their racket was about.”

After earning her PhD, Lillis spent a few years exploring that “racket” at the Woods Hole Oceano…

Springs Could Enable Runners to Smash the Natural Speed Limit

One of the most captivating aspects of the summer Olympics is watching the world’s best athletes push their bodies to the edge of what is humanly possible. In 2016, the world watched in awe as Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt won his third consecutive Olympic gold in each of three distances—the 100m, 200m, and 4x100m relay. Bolt is the fastest man in recorded history, reaching a top of speed of 12m/s, more than 27mph.


His wins left me wondering about the science of it all. How fast is it humanly possible to run? Aside from willingness to get off the couch and train, what ultimately limits running performance?

In new research published in the journal Science Advances, Vanderbilt University’s Amanda Sutrisno and David Braun explored these questions from a fascinating perspective. Braun leads the Advanced Robotics and Control Laboratory within Vanderbilt’s Center for Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology. He and his students are interested not just in optimizing human performa…

How Artificial Intelligence Helps Us Fight Pandemics

The novel coronavirus outbreak has quickly become the largest pandemic in recent history, but it’s not unprecedented. The outbreak of the so-called “Spanish Flu”, an avian influenza virus, spread worldwide, infecting one-third of the population. While scientists are still learning how the coronavirus operates, we have lots of tools at our disposal to fight it.

In the world of ever-growing datasets, artificial intelligence can make connections that even the most diligent of scientists miss. While they have a lot to learn before making insights, I believe AI can save the world.

Faster diagnoses

Identifying positive coronavirus cases is critical for mitigating its spread, but that’s hard to do.

In the US, a shortage of COVID-19 tests means that many more people have the virus than what we’re counting for. It also means that we’re likely underestimating the number of fatalities from the virus. We’re seeing shortages of the vital chemicals needed to carry out these tests, and a lack of prod…

Probing Cell Softness with Acoustics

Antoine Riaud might need to take his wife on a second honeymoon. You’re supposed to spend that first romantic getaway obsessing over your new spouse, not how cells behave in an acoustics experiment. But when inspiration calls…well, it can be hard to ignore.

For some time Riaud had been working on an idea for a new medical device, inspired by evidence that cancerous cells exhibit different physical properties than healthy cells. In particular, cancerous cells are softer—easier to deform—than their healthy counterparts. This suggests that measuring cell softness could be a way to diagnose cancer and monitor its progression, and maybe other diseases as well.


Riaud was a post-doc in Valerie Taly’s research group at Paris Descartes University (Paris V) when he started thinking about this possibility. After reading up on the subject, he realized that none of the existing techniques for measuring cell softness could work in a clinical setting. They either required elaborate setups with high-…