2022-08-01 7 min read


Notes, 2022-08-01.

Dutch astronomers Christiaan & Constantijn Huygens observed the skies from one of the biggest telescopes of the 17th century. They were among the first European scientists to point optical lenses at the sky, inspired by Galileo's early explorations looking at the moon with refractor telescopes. The Huygen brothers were lens makers, which at the time was a trade shrouded in secrecy. Their aerial telescope featured a series of objective lenses mounted to a pole or tree by a swivel ball-joint. The viewer stood on the ground and looked through the eyepiece, which was held to the objective by a system of strings and rods and could be manipulated to maneuver the telescope around the sky – it’s a bit hard to envision without this drawing. Using this bizarre contraption, they produced these drawings of Mars, some of the first detailed drawings of the Orion Nebula, and some of the first diagrams of moons orbiting Earth, Saturn, and Jupiter. While these drawings look incredibly crude and rudimentary today, it's important to understand that at the time, nothing like this had ever been seen. Now, we can look at these sketches and identify them against the phenomenal detail of modern imagery, and I’m excited to imagine that the same will be true for the JWST images in the future.

-lee wilkins

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~7% of opens) was about the complexities of reverse engineering a BMW gear selector.

In the Members' Slack, we're excited to host Planet Money's Robert Smith for a conversation on Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt on 2022-08-05. This project makes for a great pairing with our next reading group book, The Toaster Project, both of which trace the production of seemingly simple commodities to expose the complexity involved.

Planning & Strategy.

  • Skylab (1973), following Saylut (1971), was an early space station dedicated in part to studying how the human body reacts to low gravity for prolonged periods of time. The Skylab Experiment Operations Handbook is a detailed explanation of every experiment carried out through all three Skylab missions. One of the most interesting experiments is the Body Mass Device, which was designed for the tricky task of measuring mass in microgravity. Each crew member had to lower themselves into a set of spring loaded restraints, pull a lever and tense their muscles to get a mass reading. The data collected in Skylab is still used in the modern Human Integration Design Handbook, and the biomedical results are all cataloged as well.
  • Starting in the 1950s, a form of mutation breeding using cobalt 60 called Atomic Gardening became popular in the United States, Europe, parts of the USSR, India, and Japan. The technique involved bombarding plants or seeds with gamma radiation. Although most plants didn’t survive, the most promising ones were observed for beneficial mutations, some of which we still use today – including many peppermint plants and grapefruits. Other forms of mutation breeding still happen, including experimenting with effects of microgravity and radiation in space. The Chinese National Space Administration has been doing this since 1987 and has sent over 400 plants to space, producing 66 viable plants including a space-bred lotus that has higher yield, better quality and longer flowering season. All official mutations are logged in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Mutant Variety Database, which includes many modern types of mutation breeding.

Making & Manufacturing.

  • Whenever I show someone how to use a sewing machine, I share this gif that beautifully illustrates the interaction between the needle and bobbin. I love the sewing machine mechanism, especially as explained by this episode of The Secret Life Of Machines as a human-powered sewing machine. It's so hypnotic to see the bobbin mechanism work properly, but also no surprise when it doesn’t, which is why I’m so impressed by this 3D printed sewing machine that has all the mechanical elements in clear view, including a uniquely shaped bobbin. I also like this DIY embroidery machine, which is mounted on a 3D printed gantry system.
  • A dye-sensitized solar cell, also known as a Grätzel cell, is a low cost transparent solar cell. They are made by depositing photovoltaic material on a thin substrate, creating a semiconductor formed by layers of material. What I find most interesting about these is that you can make your own from blackberry or raspberry juice, and they work! The design uses a nanoporous Titanium Dioxide mixture, sandwiched between a carbon coated electrode.
  • Keeping with my obsession with the infamous NE555 integrated circuit, this design contest for 555 circuits features some really unique entries; my favorite is the CS555 sculpture.
  • Leon Bellan’s lab at Vanderbilt University is experimenting with a method to use cotton candy machines to produce blood vessels for synthetic tissue. By spinning a non-sugar version of the snack, submerging it in a hydrogel, then dissolving the cotton-candy like structure, the lab is able to produce a complex vascular structure which has been difficult to replicate in previous bioprinting techniques. Advances in bioprinting are pretty wild; just recently a living 3D printed ear, grown from the patient’s own cells, was successfully transplanted.
  • I really like this rant from Bret Victor on the future of interaction design, where he argues for a vision of technology that engages more widely with the body than a simple touch of the finger, saying:
The next time you make breakfast, pay attention to the exquisitely intricate choreography of opening cupboards and pouring the milk — notice how your limbs move in space, how effortlessly you use your weight and balance. The only reason your mind doesn't explode every morning from the sheer awesomeness of your balletic achievement is that everyone else in the world can do this as well.

With an entire body at your command, do you seriously think the Future Of Interaction should be a single finger?

I’m always inspired by prompts to re-consider the interactions we take for granted, like Kobakant’s how to get what you want, which is a guide to creating soft, flexible, or otherwise materially unexpected interfaces using textiles or other alternative materials.
  • Most domestic AC induction motors are not self starting, because a single phase of electricity can’t produce a rotating magnetic field, which causes the motor to get stuck between poles instead of spinning continuously. There are a few ways to overcome this, and one of my favorites is a shaded-pole motor. Shaded-pole motors have a copper ring shading one of their poles, which forces them to rotate only in one direction in a 2-phase rotating magnetic field. They have very low torque and low efficiency, but because they are self starting, they're commonly used in domestic fans. Shaded-pole motors are why most fans have a dial that goes intuitively from off, to high, medium, and then low: The push from the shaded-pole motor is able to jump start the fan on the high setting, letting the fan operate off very low force on the lower settings.

Maintenance, Repair & Operations.

A history of the use of "555" (no, not the IC) as a prefix for telephones in fiction, which was never its official purpose, but which has proven very useful.

Distribution & Logistics.

  • In 1968, the Soviet spacecraft Zond 5 circled the moon ferrying two tortoises, some worms, flies and seeds and returning them safely to Earth. A tortoise may seem like a curious choice, but some types of Central Asian tortoises produce a chemical in their blood that can be used to create TT2, a medication that can help relieve radiation sickness. Tortoises can survive doses of tens of thousands of roentgens of radiation, as opposed to most other living creatures who can only survive a few hundred. Somewhat related, horseshoe crab blood is also farmed because of a chemical found in the amoebocytes of their blood cells that can detect traces of bacteria and trap them in inescapable clots.
  • Stratovision was a system in the early 1940s designed to rebroadcast TV and FM radio signals through transmitters mounted on airplanes. The idea was for airplanes flying at 30,000 feet to relay signals from the ground, allowing a small fleet of 14 planes to broadcast to 78 percent of the United States. In 1949, AT&T set up a coaxial cable network, making stratovision obsolete. Similar experiments such as Caroline TV were conducted in the UK.

Inspection, Testing & Analysis.

  • If you want to experiment with the raw data from JWST’s recent images, the MAST Portal has all the information you’ll need. Not only does it include the source of recently released JWST near infrared images, but also legacy data for all Hubble images as well as others. There are also several videos explaining how to process the images by using software such as Siril. While the images that were released in July are near infrared images, the MIRI (mid infrared) images have been available for a few months.

     One of the near infrared JWST images released in July is a spectroscopy reading of Wasp 96, which can be a bit confusing to decipher. This explanation of exoplanet spectroscopy outlines the 3 main techniques for generating these graphs, which allow us to understand which wavelengths of light are detectable in the atmosphere of the planet. They are:

  • Transmission spectroscopy, which examines the light from a star that passes through the atmosphere of the planet on its way to the Earth.

  • Reflectance spectroscopy, which determines if at any point during its orbit light from the star bounces off the atmosphere and reflects toward Earth.

  • Thermal emission spectroscopy, which looks at whether the planet’s atmosphere emits detectable blackbody radiation.
  • An amazing collection of old maps of Mars, some of which we now know to be wrong, and this archive of Mars imagery and maps.


Paris at night from the ISS.

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