Chemical magnetoreception in birds and nonequilibrium scale selection in columnar joints!

Here are a couple of interesting papers from the latest PNAS:

[1] Chemical magnetoreception in birds: The radical pair mechanism

C T Rodgers and P T Hore

Migratory birds travel vast distances each year, finding their way by various means, including a remarkable ability to perceive the Earth’s magnetic field. Although it has been known for 40 years that birds possess a magnetic compass, avian magnetoreception is poorly understood at all levels from the primary biophysical detection events, signal transduction pathways and neurophysiology, to the processing of information in the brain. It has been proposed that the primary detector is a specialized ocular photoreceptor that plays host to magnetically sensitive photochemical reactions having radical pairs as fleeting intermediates. Here, we present a physical chemist’s perspective on the “radical pair mechanism” of compass magnetoreception in birds. We outline the essential chemical requirements for detecting the direction of an Earth-strength ≈50 μT magnetic field and comment on the likelihood that these might be satisfied in a biologically plausible receptor. Our survey concludes with a discussion of cryptochrome, the photoactive protein that has been put forward as the magnetoreceptor molecule.

[2] Nonequilibrium scale selection mechanism for columnar jointing

L Goehring, L Mahadevan and S W Morris

Crack patterns in laboratory experiments on thick samples of drying cornstarch are geometrically similar to columnar joints in cooling lava found at geological sites such as the Giant’s Causeway. We present measurements of the crack spacing from both laboratory and geological investigations of columnar jointing, and show how these data can be collapsed onto a single master scaling curve. This is due to the underlying mathematical similarity between theories for the cracking of solids induced by differential drying or by cooling. We use this theory to give a simple quantitative explanation of how these geometrically similar crack patterns arise from a single dynamical law rooted in the nonequilibrium nature of the phenomena. We also give scaling relations for the characteristic crack spacing in other limits consistent with our experiments and observations, and discuss the implications of our results for the control of crack patterns in thin and thick solid films.

Have fun!

PS: The introduction sections of both the papers flow so… smoothly that if I ever teach technical writing, they will make nice examples for students to look at!

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