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The day a ladybug helped me innovate | Science and Mathematics

Marcia Barbosa

I love collecting curiosity. I’m one of those people who surfs the internet to read about animals and plants that live in conditions that are too hot, too cold, too wet, or too stressed. My curiosity also ventures into countries and cultures far from me or about how people lived in other historical periods. How they solved everyday problems such as food, water and shelter. There is an amazing beauty in the ability of living things to adapt to their environment and this teaches us a lot about how we choose to live.

Don’t think the obsession with collecting things out of my reality started with the advent of the internet. As a child who read almanacs, I was an avid encyclopedia eater. Google encyclopedia alphabetically. Over the years and reading, my mind was this disorganized tangle of curiosity.

But why am I a curiosity collector? Because innovation is born outside our bubble. When we look for a solution to a problem, we usually focus on our traditional knowledge, but the innovative answer emerges from one of these intriguing things. It emerges from the tangle of useless things we collect.

Maria Goeppert-Mayer was the second woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. She proposed an atomic model called the shell model with a central core and paired electrons occupying a different shell: two electrons in the first shell, eight in the second shell, and so on. This combination of the extreme numbers of electrons in each shell became known as the magic numbers. The idea of ‚Äč‚Äčthis model did not appear in the laboratory or the library, the places that shaped Maria Mayer’s daily life, but in the ballroom. In one of Maria Meyer’s resting moments, she went to a party and watched couples dance in circles as they occupied the hall. A more central circle with fewer pairs, a second circle with more pairs, etc. Pairs of people dancing to Maria represent pairs of electrons, occupying certain levels in an atom.

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Hyde Lamarr is an Austrian-born actress who immigrated as a Jew to the United States, where she became a Hollywood star. In addition to acting brilliantly, Hyde was an inventor. In her headquarters, in addition to beautiful dresses, shoes and makeup, there were e-books. During the war, one of the concerns was how to carry out communication with torpedoes through the waves. Single frequency turns out to be a bad idea, as the enemy can easily detect it. Then it was Hyde and his friend George Anthill developed “frequency hopping” in which contact with the torpedo does not occur at a specific frequency, but through a series of random appearances, but known to the person who issued the torpedo. The idea for genius didn’t come from an electronics book or a military or science magazine, it came when Hyde met George at a fancy dinner in Hollywood. The two knew each other from Austria and to satisfy their homesickness, they sat down at the piano at the party and started singing a song from their homeland. Hyde then noticed that only the two of them could follow the lyrics and realized that a series of notes could only be known by two people, being a mystery to others. Based on this simple concept of frequency sequence, the invention was built, which unfortunately was not used at that time, since the military did not accept something that came from a woman. Years later, when Hyde and George’s patent expired, the Navy used this smart and practical communication strategy.

I am, like Maria Meyer, a theoretical physicist. I study the atom, and I study the behavior of molecules. In fact, for more than twenty years I have devoted myself to studying one molecule: water. This substance is so common that it covers 70% of the Earth’s surface and makes up about 70% of our body. However, this liquid has nothing in common. As a substance it has more than 70 anomalous properties, behaviors in which it differs from other substances in nature. Water is a really crazy thing. For example, its solid phase, ice, floats in the liquid phase, which does not occur in other materials where the solid phase, being more dense, sinks into the liquid phase. Another peculiar property of water is its ability to move. When confined to nanoscale structures, water molecules move at an astonishing speed, violating the classical laws of hydrodynamics. Another strange property is that water molecules hate certain substances and love others. We use water-resistant materials to cover sofas so they don’t get wet when something is spilled on them.

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The question my research group and I asked ourselves is: How does the fact that water flows quickly when confined to the nano-combined with the fact that water likes some substances and hates others for more liquid water? In a world suffering from water scarcity, this question is very relevant. It was this moment of reflection that appeared in the midst of my curiosity Stenocara Gracilipes [1]. This small beetle lives in the deserts of Namibia. He wins the challenge of collecting water in the desert with an ingenious strategy. On the back of the animal are small saffrons. The tips of these crowns are covered with a substance that loves water, but loves it so much that it turns water vapor into liquid water. In order for the water not to get stuck at this point, there are two important effects: gravity and a surface that does not like water. Thus, the base of the crown on the beetle’s back is made of a material that hates water and flows into the animal’s mouth.

Under Stenocara Gracilipes, we initially created a beetle nanotube, a nanotube made of half a hydrophilic material and the other half a hydrophobic material, combining love and hate with the graceful movement of water when confined. This process does work, but the water is tightly confined at the entrance to the nanotube [2]. One way to increase water absorption from water vapor is to use a slightly larger inlet to convert water from a vapor state to a liquid-free state. To do this without losing the superflux function that only occurs in confinement states below nanometers, the most appropriate design is the cone [3].

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Note that the mechanism for capturing steam and converting it to liquid water has multiple uses. It can be used on a controlled scale to capture water in desert areas or more broadly to regulate humidity in areas where climate change has altered the water balance.

This idea is still being developed through computer simulations, various materials, and even elucidation of its physical and chemical basis. When people ask me, when I started working on this project, I answer without blinking: The day a beetle helped me innovate.




Marsha Barbosa is University Professor at UFRGS and Director of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences