# Scientific Scribbles

The voice of UniMelb Science Communication students

# Rubik’s Cube: Fun, frustrating, or both?

History of the cube

The Rubik’s cube is the brainchild of Ernő Rubik, a sculptor and professor of architecture from Hungary. Originally designed in 1975 as a way of solving and studying the structural problem of being able to independently move individual parts without causing the entire mechanism to disassemble, he soon saw the potential of what he had made as a toy when he scrambled his newly made cube and faced difficulty trying to restore it to its original state. Originally called the Magic Cube in Hungary, it was re-branded as Rubik’s Cube, the name we all know and love (or hate, depending on how much time you’ve spent trying to solve one) when it was released worldwide. As of 2009, there had been around 350 million cubes sold.

Just to recap what the puzzle actually is to everyone, it is a 6 sided cube (as all cubes are), with each face made up of 9 coloured stickers, with each face being able to rotate independently. When it is solved, the colours on any individual face are all the same. The difficulty comes in the face that, unless certain techniques are known, it is extremely difficult to return the puzzle to its solved position.

Why so difficult?

Well what could make a seemingly simple puzzle so hard? Well the answer lies in the fact that there are so many different ways of arranging the cube, yet only one of them is the solved arrangement. So how many possible ways can you arrange the cube then? To answer that, we’re going to have to use some maths! There’s some pretty complicated things that are needed to be taken into account to understand the figures arrived at, so this is shamelessly copied from the Wiki page on the Rubik’s cube. Also, any number followed by an exclamation mark (like 8!) means the factorial of that number. So 8! is 8x7x6x5x4x3x2x1. Anyway, onto the explanation:

“There are 8! (40,320) ways to arrange the corner cubes. Each corner has three possible orientations, although only seven (of eight) can be oriented independently; the orientation of the eighth (final) corner depends on the preceding seven, giving 37 (2,187) possibilities. There are 12!/2 (239,500,800) ways to arrange the edges, restricted from 12! because edges must be in an even permutation exactly when the corners are. (When arrangements of centres are also permitted, as described below, the rule is that the combined arrangement of corners, edges, and centres must be an even permutation.) Eleven edges can be flipped independently, with the flip of the twelfth depending on the preceding ones, giving 211 (2,048) possibilities.”

Altogether this leads to 8! x 3! x (12!/2) x 211 = 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 combinations! That’s 43 quintillion ways of arranging the cube And only one of them is the solved state. Surely that may offer some perspective as to why solving the cube generally requires some knowledge on certain techniques.

Speed-solving

Yet people can solve these cubes quite easily, and some people can solve them really, really, fast. The world record is 4.22 seconds by a fellow named Feliks Zemdegs. How do they do it? Through the use of algorithms, sets of particular moves to follow to solve each particular stage of the puzzle. Using these algorithms, rather than trying to solve the cube intuitively, is much quicker as they can be memorised through repetition, and muscle memory comes into play allowing for the moves to be done super quick. There are some other crazy records though. The fastest non-human solve is 0.38 seconds, performed by a robot called the Rubik’s Contraption. The fastest blind-folded solving done in 17.33 seconds by Jeff Park, and even a 17x17x17 cube solve completed in one hour and six seconds by Douglas Shamlin. Think of how many combinations there would be for a 17x17x17 cube!

I learnt to solve the standard cube back in primary school, though I was never that fast at it. Having not touched one for many years, I bought one about 6 months ago to see if I could still do it. And though I’m not even close to a competitive speed-solving time, here’s a video of me using the so called ‘beginners method’ to complete the cube!

Let me know if you can solve the Rubik’s Cube, and how fast you can do it!

# Barbers and hairdressers…a potential source of scalp ringworm!

Being a mother, I have been experiencing several of my kids’ “firsts” with them; unforgettable events that I enjoy and cherish. But unavoidably, I have had to experience their unpleasant ones, too.

I still recall the day my young son had his first haircut…It was an ordeal! It happened at a barbershop in the middle of a shopping center. People literally stopped shopping and curiously gathered to find out who was this hysterically crying little kid. I can never forget the exhaustion I felt that day; I was more energy-depleted than I would have been after a 3-hours extensive workout!

After that day, I decided to take my son to a barber that works from home to avoid this public embarrassment, but at what cost!?

Recently, while my son was -again- having a haircut I spotted a little red ring on his scalp that looked like boggy swelling with thickened, dry skin. Most importantly, the hair covering this area had fallen, but was not obvious until his hair was cut shorter. It freaked me out, so I rushed him immediately the doctor who confidently nodded after examining his scalp  saying, “It is a fungal infection”. He, however, requested a culture for more certainty.

A baldy patch resulting from hair fall due to a fungal infection. Source Wikipedia

As expected, the culture came positive and the doctor started the treatment process immediately.

As a microbiologist myself, I requested a copy of his lab test and wanted to know more about the fungus responsible for this worrying, ugly-looking infection. It was Trichophyton violaceum.

A culture of a Trichophyton fungal growth. Image by Microbe World via flickr

Here’s Trichophyton violaceum for you!

Trichophyton violaceum is the causative agent of a condition known as Tinea capitis. It also has many other names such as “herpes tonsurans” or “scalp ringworm”. It infects any area of the body with hair growth with the scalp being the most vulnerable body area.

A microscopic shot of a Trichophyton species. Source Wikipedia.

Weeks after the start of the infection, the hair becomes brittle in the infected area and starts to fall, leaving baldy reddish patches on the scalp. The infection is, more worryingly, highly contagious.

Trichophyton violaceum belong to the group of Dermatophyte. This group includes forty species belonging to three fungal genera namely Microsporum, Epidermophyton and Trichophyton.

How does the nasty bug cause the hair to fall?

All dermatophytes possess the ability to break down and grow on keratin. We are probably all familiar with keratin, the main protein that enters in the composition of our hair. As a dermatophyte itself, Trichophyton violaceum produces an enzyme called keratinase, which breaks down the keratin in the hair and uses it as a growth substrate. Hence the resulting hair fall and the baldy patches that we observe in Tinea captitis.

Can it be treated?

Fortunately yes! The doctor prescribed an antif-ungal oral medication known as Lamisil for my son. The treatment should last for 6 weeks to guarantee a complete eradication of the fungi.

The scientist in me could not resist but investigate how this medication works.

The active ingredient is known as terbinafine; an anti fungal that targets the fungal cell by inhibiting the synthesis of ergosterol, which is an essential constituent of the cell membrane of fungi (similar in structure and function to cholesterol in humans). Without ergosterol, Trichophyton violaceum becomes unable to build the cell membrane. As a result, the fungus stops growing and starts to disappear, and symptoms fade away progressively.

According to the doctor, my son could have got the infection from the non-sterilised tools that the barber used to cut his hair! His statement left me shattered and self-tortured for weeks. However, at least I now know that the public embarrassment caused by my son crying is a thousand times better that seeing him suffering from this bug at such a young age!

Oh…and certainly a million times better than the daily tantrums I have to deal with when trying to make him swallow the antifungal tablet (I will leave it to your imagination)!

# Corporal punishment teaches violence

There’s a saying – “violence begets violence”. Corporal punishment may be a prime example of this, according to new research.

##### Image: Jim Forest via Flickr

Compared to countries where corporal punishment is allowed, there is 31% less physical fighting among young men and 42% less fighting among young women in countries that have a complete ban on corporal punishment. While there was also less physical fighting among women in countries with a partial ban on corporate punishment, fighting among young men in those countries was similar to countries with no ban.

The researchers freely admit that this correlation alone doesn’t mean corporal punishment causes later violence. That would need more follow-up study. However, this is not the first time corporal punishment has been linked to bad outcomes.

While corporal punishment may stop a child from doing something at the time, it’s not an effective way to improve behaviour in the long term. In fact, children smacked at two years of age are more likely to have behavioural problems at five years of age, such as physical aggression and property destruction.

The effects of corporal punishment mirror the effects of child abuse. Survivors of childhood physical abuse can be over twice as likely to commit intimate partner violence in adulthood.  Their own children can then be nearly three times more like to be violent in adulthood as a result of witnessing that intimate partner violence. So violence can be passed down the generations within families unless the violent behaviours are addressed.

## Corporal punishment and domestic violence

But corporal punishment and domestic violence might not just be similar in effect, they may share similar roots. Mothers who believe corporal punishment is acceptable for children are often more likely to believe husbands are justified in hitting their wives. Corporal punishment is also more likely in homes where other domestic violence is taking place, although it can be reduced by domestic violence intervention programs that include parenting skills development.

But if corporal punishment and physical abuse often go hand-in-hand, might we be blaming corporal punishment for the harmful effects of physical abuse?  Not according to a study published earlier this year.

Even after accounting for childhood physical abuse, the researchers found that people who had experienced moderate or high levels of corporal punishment were more violent and aggressive than people who had not experienced corporal punishment.

##### Love and Trust – Father tosses his confident daughter into to air accompanied by screams of delight. Image: Mike Baird via Flickr

So if corporal punishment is harmful, and certainly not effective in the longer term, why do parents do it? As a parent myself, I’ve sometimes known how Homer Simpson might feel when driven to throttle Bart. It also might help to explain why bookshop shelves (remember those?) are full of parenting books.

Many parents are flying by the seat of their pants, and stress (just like hunger) does not make good counsel. However equipping parents with better parenting skills can help. Postive parenting resources are available to help parents negotiate the treacherous path of parenthood. It’s now a matter of ensuring all parents, particularly those of the most vulnerable kids, get the support needed to give all kids a good start in life.

# So, you adopted some lichen?

Unsure how to best look after your new pet? Whilst these diverse organisms love light and moisture, they can grow just about anywhere. From the hard, frozen soils of the arctic, to warm, wet valleys you’re sure to find some type of lichen that has set its roots and managed to survive.

As well as a bit of light and moisture, these organisms require the presence of pollutants, so if your lichen grows fastest in your roommate’s bedroom it might be time to open the window and get them spring cleaning!

A mutualistic relationship.

Lichen is actually something called a composite organism. Instead of being an organism of it’s own, like plants or fungi are, lichen is the result of a cyanobacteria (a photosynthetic bacteria) that lives in the branch structures of a fungi! As such they are scientifically classified according to the fungi they form from.

The cyanobacteria are nestled in the middle of the fungi structure, with the hyphae (kind of like the fungi’s roots) underneath holding the lichen tightly to what it is living on, and the cortex (outermost layer of cells) on top.

The relationship is called mutualistic because the cyanobacteria benefits from the protection the fungi provide, and the fungi benefit from the carbohydrates produced via photosynthesis by the bacteria.

Not just a cool name, they’re pretty cool organisms too.

Lichen are a very diverse group and they come in many types and colours, so there’s a lichen for every home and aesthetic. There are the fruticose lichens which look like tiny shrubs without leaves (or coral), and are typically found on bark, rocks or even in the soil in the arctic. Foliose are the leafy lichen, which can grow in both warm and cold environments.

Lichen can also look like dried, peeling paint (crustose) or like a powder (leprose). Like jelly (gelatinous) or matted hair (filamentous).

Spooky scary… lichen?

This Halloween season whilst you are tromping around cemeteries and graveyards looking for the ultimate scare, you might notice some cyanobacteria and fungi friends joining the party too. Lichen are commonly found in graveyards, where a variety of materials (substrates) provide plenty of niches for them to grow on. It’s not uncommon to find peeling crustose lichen growing on the sides of tombstones, or powdery leprose at home inside the carved words and symbols.

As found by the British Lichen Society, more than a third of British Lichen species, of which there are 2000, can be found in graveyards across the UK!

The perfect pet for the forgetful individual.

Whatever home you choose for your new lichen, they are hardy and independent. They’re also able to survive for long periods without water, so you can afford to forget about them for a bit… unlike that goldfish you had when you were eight.

# The end of maxing out on your phone storage

I never have enough room on my phone!

Are you sick of running out of space on your phone?

I know I am!

But it’s only going to get worse.

Over 90% of all the data in the world has been created in the past 2 years. On average, more than 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are produced each day (that is 2,500,000,000,000,000,000 bytes of data)!

We are running out of space.

So how are we going to store it all??

To solve this problem, we need to start making data storage devices smaller and smaller. This will allow us to store more data in a smaller area.

One approach is the development of what are known as ‘single molecule magnets’.

What even is data storage?

But firstly, how is data even stored?

Data is stored as a collection of numbers made up of 1’s and 0’s. These numbers are stored on your hard drive.

Hard drives are actually made up of a spinning magnet. This magnet can be made to be south facing (representing say a 1) or north facing (representing a 2) by an arm.

These magnetic hard drives are working well to store our data! But like I said, they will soon be overrun.

What if we could shrink the size of these magnets in the hard drives to be incredibly small. It would allow us to fit millions of magnets into our computers.

Small, smaller and smallest

But the question is how small can we go?

What if we could shrink the magnet down, past the microscopic level, to the atomic level? What if we could make magnets the size of molecules (over 100 million times smaller than current magnets)?

And we can! These tiny magnets are ‘single molecule magnets’ (a pretty fitting name).

These tiny molecular magnets can be magnetised like a hard drive to be north or south facing. Each molecule can now be used to represent a 1 or 0.

Because they’re so incredibly small, the amount of data that can be saved is immense!

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows

Unfortunately, the difficulty with single molecule magnets is they can actually lose their magnetisation, leading to a loss of the memory stored.

It would be like finishing an essay, saving it and then have it completely gone a day later. Horrifying!

The good news is that scientists know how to ensure they keep their memory.

The bad news is that you can only do this at very cold temperatures. We are talking only a few degrees above the absolute coldest temperature possible (-273 oC).

Getting warmer

Excitingly, a single molecule magnet was recently made that was found to keep its memory at a ‘warm’ -213 oC.

This temperature is still very cold, but it is close to the temperature of liquid nitrogen (-196 oC). Liquid nitrogen is easy to obtain, making this single molecule magnet a large step toward reality.

No more running out of space!

There is a long way to go to making commercially viable single molecule magnets. But scientists are working very hard to make this possible.

So, who know, maybe in the future you will never have the problem of maximising your phone’s storage. What a great thought.

And you have tiny little magnets to thank for this.