Electronic Second Skins Are the Wearables of the Future

The skin is the largest organ in our body, and also the most complex. Peer at it under a microscope and you’ll see thousands of nerve endings that keep the brain connected to the outside world and allow us to feel touch, pressure, and pain. But when Zhenan Bao looks at it, she sees something else.

For Bao, a chemical engineer focused on making polymers, the skin is not only a sensory organ, but also a material. One that, in her words, is flexible, but also stretchable, self-healing, and biodegradable. Bao works in the emerging field of electronic skin and has made it her mission to recreate the many functions of human skin for use in prosthetics and robotics. For people who wear artificial limbs, a sense of touch would immeasurably improve their quality of life—enabling them to distinguish soft from hard and to notice the dangerously sharp or the

Park Rangers Are Using Silent Ebikes to Catch Poachers

At the end of 2021, a group of night poachers in a Mozambique national park—using torchlight to blind antelopes—were suddenly the ones left stunned in the dark. The poachers, local opportunists looking for bushmeat in the area’s savannahs, forests, and wetlands, are often able to kill hundreds of animals in one hunt with near impunity, using dogs to track and finish off their prey. They move with confidence because they can hear the noisy petrol motorbikes of the overstretched rangers from more than a mile away, enabling them not only to escape, but also to know where the park’s guardians are and hunt around them—easy enough to do in the thousands of square miles of terrain.

Not this time. A team of rangers silently moved in on their off-road ebikes, halting the hunt immediately. The nearly silent motor of the ebike—a factor that can make them an accident risk in

Please Stop Freaking Out About This Giant Yellow Spider

Native to East Asia, Jorōs are one of many so-called golden orb weavers, named after the shiny silk they use to spin webs (which can be a whopping 10 feet wide, by the way). The spider was first spotted in the US by scientists in Colbert, Georgia, in 2014, though local accounts suggest it may have been around for a few years prior. Colbert is near a hub of warehouses and distribution centers, making it likely that the spider arrived by unintentionally hitching a ride on an international cargo ship. 

In 2020, the Jorō population skyrocketed. Scientists believe they’re primarily dispersing via a technique called ballooning: Baby spiderlings climb up high, shoot out silk, and glide along the air currents to their next destination. That’s when the spiders first caught the media’s attention. A second wave of news came with the discovery that, unlike native orb weavers, Jorōs can tolerate

The Enigma of Dragonfly 44, the Galaxy That’s Almost Invisible

In 2016, astronomers led by Pieter van Dokkum of Yale University published a bombshell paper claiming the discovery of a galaxy so dim, yet so broad and heavy, that it must be almost entirely invisible. They estimated that the galaxy, dubbed Dragonfly 44, is 99.99 percent dark matter.

A heated debate ensued about Dragonfly 44’s properties that remains unresolved. Meanwhile, more than 1,000 similarly big but faint galaxies have turned up.

Dragonfly 44 and its ilk are known as ultra-diffuse galaxies (UDGs). While they can be as large as the largest ordinary galaxies, UDGs are exceptionally dim—so dim that, in telescope surveys of the sky, “it’s a task to filter out the noise without accidentally filtering out these galaxies,” said Paul Bennet, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. The bright star-forming gas that’s abundant in other galaxies seems to have vanished in UDGs, leaving only

The Mystery of Alaska’s Disappearing Whales

This story originally appeared in Undark and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

When Roswell Schaeffer Sr. was 8 years old, his father decided it was about time he started learning to hunt beluga whales. Schaeffer was an Iñupiaq kid growing up in Kotzebue, a small city in northwest Alaska, where a healthy store of beluga meat was part of making it through the winter. Each summer, thousands of these small white whales migrated to Kotzebue Sound, and hunts were an annual tradition. Whale skin and blubber, or muktuk, was prized, not only as a form of sustenance and a trading commodity, but also because of the spiritual value of sharing the catch with the community.

Now, nearly seven decades later, Schaeffer is one of only a few hunters who still spend the late weeks of spring, just after the ice has melted, on Kotzebue Sound, waiting for belugas

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