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Why Don't Spiders Get Stuck in Their Webs?

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When a bug flies into a spider web, the game is over. It’s almost instantly stuck, and a sitting duck for the web’s owner. When you or I walk into a web, we’re a little better off than the bug because we won’t be dinner, but the sticky strands of web are still a pain in the butt to pick off of clothes and skin.

The spider itself, which spends much more time in contact with the web than you or any bug, doesn’t seem to have any issues getting stuck as it moves around. What gives?

For a long time, people thought spiders didn’t get stuck because their legs were coated in an oil made inside their bodies. With their legs lubed up like this, there was nothing for the silk web strands to stick to. Early 20th century naturalists proposed this idea — that the spider “varnishes herself with a special sweat,” as one elegantly put it — after observing spiders in the wild. The hitch is that, for all the research on spiders scientists have done in the meantime, no one had bothered to test the idea until recently.

A study published last year by two biologists in Costa Rica, Daniel Briceño and William Eberhard, suggests that spiders stay unstuck thanks to a combination of behavior, anatomy and, yes, even an oily non-stick coating.

What a Web They Weave

The first thing that helps spiders from getting trapped is that not every part of every web is sticky. In many orb weaver spider webs, for example, only the spiral threads are made with sticky silk. The “spokes” that support the structure of the web and the center part of the web where the spider rests are made with “dry” silk.

Using the center area and the spokes, a spider can move all around the web, and even off of it, without any concern for getting stuck.

Neat Feet

The spiders that Briceño and Eberhard studied used the dry threads for moving around most of the time, but when prey landed on the webs and the spiders went to retrieve their dinner, they inevitably had to charge across a sticky section. Unlike their prey, though, the spiders didn’t just whack into the sticky threads willy-nilly. The scientists found that the spiders walk very carefully when on the sticky sections, holding their body clear of the web and making minimal contact with the threads with only the tips of their legs.

Under a microscope, Briceño and Eberhard saw that the sticky threads do indeed make contact with the spider and stick to the setae, or short bristly hairs, on their legs. As a spider pulls its leg of the web, though, the droplets of adhesives that sit on the thread slide toward the edge of the bristle, where they have contact with only the thin tip and easily pull away. All these bristles are also in irregular rows and break free from the sticky droplets one by one, not all at once, which keeps the adhesive force of multiple droplets from combining.

Smooth Like That

What is it about the setae that lets them shed the web’s adhesives so easily? When Briceño and Eberhard washed a detached spider leg and applied it to a sticky thread, the leg stuck and wasn’t as easily removed. They figured that the bristles must have either a chemical coating of anti-adhesive substances or a structural surface layer with anti-adhesive properties. After analyzing several compounds washed off the the spiders’ legs, they found several several oily substances — including n-dodecane, n-tridecane, and n-tetradecane — that could act as a non-stick coating.

The researchers couldn’t tell where the chemicals had come from, but scientists’ descriptions from the last century suggested that they were applied by the spider’s mouth. Sure enough, when Briceño and Eberhard washed a live spider’s legs, it passed each of the legs through its mouthparts, but they didn’t test whether or not any anti-adhesive material was being applied.

To see if the spiders were coating their own legs would require a pretty simple experiment, Eberhard told me via email, but the spider they were working with, Nephila clavipes, is only seasonally abundant. The study would have to wait until the population climbed again, so the source of the non-stick chemicals is still a mystery for now. In the meantime, he said, he’s looking into how spiders deal with a different type of silk, called cribellum silk, which can be sticky without being wet.

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Big Questions
Does Einstein's Theory of Relativity Imply That Interstellar Space Travel is Impossible?
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Does Einstein's theory of relativity imply that interstellar space travel is impossible?

Paul Mainwood:

The opposite. It makes interstellar travel possible—or at least possible within human lifetimes.

The reason is acceleration. Humans are fairly puny creatures, and we can’t stand much acceleration. Impose much more than 1 g of acceleration onto a human for an extended period of time, and we will experience all kinds of health problems. (Impose much more than 10 g and these health problems will include immediate unconsciousness and a rapid death.)

To travel anywhere significant, we need to accelerate up to your travel speed, and then decelerate again at the other end. If we’re limited to, say, 1.5 g for extended periods, then in a non-relativistic, Newtonian world, this gives us a major problem: Everyone’s going to die before we get there. The only way of getting the time down is to apply stronger accelerations, so we need to send robots, or at least something much tougher than we delicate bags of mostly water.

But relativity helps a lot. As soon as we get anywhere near the speed of light, then the local time on the spaceship dilates, and we can get to places in much less (spaceship) time than it would take in a Newtonian universe. (Or, looking at it from the point of view of someone on the spaceship: they will see the distances contract as they accelerate up to near light-speed—the effect is the same, they will get there quicker.)

Here’s a quick table I knocked together on the assumption that we can’t accelerate any faster than 1.5 g. We accelerate up at that rate for half the journey, and then decelerate at the same rate in the second half to stop just beside wherever we are visiting.

You can see that to get to destinations much beyond 50 light years away, we are receiving massive advantages from relativity. And beyond 1000 light years, it’s only thanks to relativistic effects that we’re getting there within a human lifetime.

Indeed, if we continue the table, we’ll find that we can get across the entire visible universe (47 billion light-years or so) within a human lifetime (28 years or so) by exploiting relativistic effects.

So, by using relativity, it seems we can get anywhere we like!

Well ... not quite.

Two problems.

First, the effect is only available to the travelers. The Earth times will be much much longer. (Rough rule to obtain the Earth-time for a return journey [is to] double the number of light years in the table and add 0.25 to get the time in years). So if they return, they will find many thousand years have elapsed on earth: their families will live and die without them. So, even we did send explorers, we on Earth would never find out what they had discovered. Though perhaps for some explorers, even this would be a positive: “Take a trip to Betelgeuse! For only an 18 year round-trip, you get an interstellar adventure and a bonus: time-travel to 1300 years in the Earth’s future!”

Second, a more immediate and practical problem: The amount of energy it takes to accelerate something up to the relativistic speeds we are using here is—quite literally—astronomical. Taking the journey to the Crab Nebula as an example, we’d need to provide about 7 x 1020 J of kinetic energy per kilogram of spaceship to get up to the top speed we’re using.

That is a lot. But it’s available: the Sun puts out 3X1026 W, so in theory, you’d only need a few seconds of Solar output (plus a Dyson Sphere) to collect enough energy to get a reasonably sized ship up to that speed. This also assumes you can transfer this energy to the ship without increasing its mass: e.g., via a laser anchored to a large planet or star; if our ship needs to carry its chemical or matter/anti-matter fuel and accelerate that too, then you run into the “tyranny of the rocket equation” and we’re lost. Many orders of magnitude more fuel will be needed.

But I’m just going to airily treat all that as an engineering issue (albeit one far beyond anything we can attack with currently imaginable technology). Assuming we can get our spaceships up to those speeds, we can see how relativity helps interstellar travel. Counter-intuitive, but true.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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Big Questions
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
Astrid Riecken, Getty Images

This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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