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January 30, 2019

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What the heck is a "soft robot"? Do you know? I've got a story about the world's first "soft robot" that can curl and climb? Sounds weird, right?

Learn about this and more interesting stories from the scientific community in today's issue.

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*-- World's first tendril-like soft robot can curl and climb --*

GadgetsEngineers in Italy have designed the world's first tendril-like soft robot.

Like vines and other climbing plants, the slender, soft-bodied robot wraps itself around objects to pull itself higher and higher. The similarities are both external and internal. To hoist itself upward, the new robot relies on the same physical principles that govern water transport in plants.

Water's movement through plant tissue is governed by the hydraulic principle of osmosis, which relies on the distribution of small particles throughout the cytosol, the liquid inside plant cells. Osmosis describes the movement of soluble particles from areas of lower to higher concentration across a semipermeable membrane.

Mathematical models helped researchers at the Italian Institute of Technology replicate the natural system while speeding up the movement mechanism.

Scientists built the robot out of a flexible PET tube. Inside the slender noodle-like body, researchers injected a solution containing electrically charged particles. Battery-powered flexible electrodes installed at the bottom of the tendril attract and trap the ions.

The movement of the charged particles causes the tendril-like robot to stiffen and relax, creating movement. And like climbing plants, the robot's movements can be easily reversed -- in this instance, by turning off the battery.

Researchers described their feat this week in the journal Nature Communications.

Authors of the new study think their novel robot technology could be used for a variety of practical purposes, including the creation of new types of wearable devices.

"Our approach highlights the potential of plant-inspired technologies for developing soft robots based on biocompatible materials and safe voltages making them appealing for prospective applications," researchers wrote.

*-- Doomsday Clock remains at two minutes to midnight --*

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced Thursday that the Doomsday Clock would remain at two minutes until midnight.

Humanity has never been closer to catastrophe, according to the scientists and policy makers responsible for setting the clock. Last year, scientists set the clock at two minutes until midnight due to rising tensions between Russia and the United States, North Korea and the United States and the threat posed by human-caused global warming.

The reasons for this year's dire setting are largely the same.

"Humanity faces two dire and simultaneous existential threats: nuclear weapons and climate change," Jerry Brown, former governor of California, and William Perry, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, wrote in an op-ed published on CNN. "Tragically, things did not improve on either front in the last 12 months."

Brown currently serves as executive chairman of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, while Perry serves as chairman of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Board of Sponsors.

The Doomsday Clock was first established during the Cold War to draw attention to the threat of nuclear annihilation. The last time the clock's hands were so close to midnight, it was 1953 and the Soviet Union had just tested a hydrogen bomb.

In addition to the threat of climate change and nuclear war, the president of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Rachel Bronson, cited the growing problem of "information warfare and a steady misrepresentation of fact."

According to Bronson, the "intentional corruption of the information ecosystem" is making it more difficult for citizens and their governments to engage in rational dialogue about the world's most pressing problems.

In a report issued alongside the Doomsday Clock update, scientists highlighted the threat of "nuclear modernization" -- an arms race with a new name. Scientists also pointed out that carbon emissions rose in 2017 and 2018. Meanwhile, global leaders failed to adequately address the threat of climate change.

"Even nations that have strongly supported the need to decarbonize are not doing enough," researchers wrote in the new report. "Preliminary estimates show that almost all countries contributed to the rise in emissions."

The justification for the Doomsday Clock's dire setting echoes the findings of several other reports, including two published late last year claiming neither private promises of emissions reductions nor current government plans to address climate change were sufficient to avoid the worst effects of global warming.