Even though it is still only January and as such it is still well within the depths of winter, colleges and university across the country have reconvened and begun this year’s spring semester. Along with this beginning, Cynthia Wichelman MD restarted her Science on Tap speaker series. In conjunction with her Washington University in Saint Louis colleagues, Wichelman holds a monthly talk on the last Wednesday of most months of the regular school year. We met last night at the Kirkwood Station Brewing Company. The evening’s speaker was Erik Henriksen, PhD, an Assistant Professor of Physics at WashU. His talk was entitled, Graphene: Particle Physics in Pencil Lead.

Graphene is a relatively newly isolated and novel form of carbon. Other more common forms of carbon, like diamonds and coal have been around forever. Even graphite, also known as pencil lead, which is another form of carbon has been known about for a while. Graphene is a single atom thick sheet of carbon. The molecular bonds between the carbon atoms in these sheets are extremely strong. It turns out that graphite is composed of many layers of graphene. In graphite, the weak bonds between the many layers of graphene allow those layers to be easily sheared apart from each other, like when you drag a pencil across a piece of paper. Graphene as a material has some interesting properties. It is much stronger than steel. Likewise, it is a far superior electrical and thermal conductor than copper. A single layer of graphene is also transparent.

In his talk, Henriksen, introduced us to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, the Nobel Prize winners who first isolated graphene. They called their technique micro-mechanical cleavage, but it was soon dubbed the Scotch tape method and was surprisingly simple. Starting from a block of graphite, Geim and company would apply ordinary Scotch tape to it and then peel off a thin layer from it. This technique would be repeated on this thin layer, until only one layer was left. In science, Geim is relatively unique, because he not only won the Noble, but also the Ig-Nobel. The Ig-Nobel is a parody prize given to scientists for conducting trivial experiments. Geim had suspended a frog is a magnetic field. Last night, in his own parody of this experiment Henriksen suspended a sheet of graphene is a magnetic field.

The particle physics aspect of Henriksen’s talk is the crux of his research into graphene. Per his on tap bio, in this 2D material, electrons move from one atom to the next as if they have no mass, acting like ultra-relativistic particles despite having an actual velocity that is just a fraction of the speed of light. Physicists like Henriksen are using this quasi-relativistic system to investigate some long-held predictions about the theory of relativity.

While following up on last night’s talk, I learned that Geim at his University of Manchester institute has added a new wrinkle in the design of the ultimate little black dress. It is made entirely of graphene. This is a dress that reacts to the person wearing it. It responds to the breathing rates of the wearer, changing color and illuminating in different ways. Oh, and it is incredibly light weight.

Travel Time

Pink Pine Buds

Pink Pine Buds

2016 was a year that many people wish came with an undo list and as we begin the New Year, those same people wish that they could somehow retreat to a happier time and place. Perhaps these feelings formant desires to fix past mistakes. As if only we could go back and change one little thing, then maybe things would be different now, maybe even better. But what if that happier time and place was here and now? Such a situation forms the premise for the Netflix science fiction TV series, Travelers (Trailer).

The past is history,
the future a mystery,
but today is a gift.
That is why it is called the present.

Time travel is such a well-worn troupe that by now it is hard to mine anything more of value from it. It is then a testament to this Canadian born show that it does so well with it. Hundreds of years in the future, after a sequence of catastrophes, humanity finds itself on the doorstep of extinction, when time travel is discovered. Teams of numbered travelers from the future project their consciousness back in time and into the bodies of host victims moments before the time of their recorded deaths. These travelers assume the identities of their hosts and then working as a team take on missions to change the future.

Creator Brad Wright’s Travelers revolves around one particular team of five that is led by a FBI agent (Eric McCormack) and comprise an intellectually disabled woman (MacKenzie Porter), an abused single mom (Nesta Cooper), a high school senior (Jared Abrahamson) and a heroin addict (Reilly Dolman), an eclectic group of people to be sure. Short on special effects for a Sci-Fi drama, this show makes the most out of the everyday difficulties that these foreigners find, while trying to fit into their newfound lives and our then modern times.

While they come from a dystopian future, where even a high school cafeteria’s cream corn tastes like a rare delicacy, the overall tone of the show is rather upbeat. The mantra that is voiced over in the trailer speaks to these character’s rather healthy sense of altruism. The team abides by a set of protocols that are reminiscent to Star Trek’s prime directive and the show is laced with humor. As in the casting-against-type of a school bus load of Reverend Jim Jones like octogenarians, whose bodies are repurposed as fire support for our team, at least while they’re not having to run off to the bathroom to pee again.

Travelers is not great TV, but it is enjoyable TV. It doesn’t make great demands upon its audience. What serious issues that are dealt with in this show are handled rather lightly. The action is not too rough and the tension is never too great. Think of it as comfort television that is pleasant to watch and escape with for a while to a happier place and time. What’s past is past and the future is unknown. So, on these cold winter nights enjoy this little present for now.