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Getting all touchy feely and being prepared

by Marc S. Reisch
October 21, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 42


Good vibrations

A photo of a student sitting in front of a computer screen with a cuff attached to his forearm.
Credit: Purdue University
Touch and go: A student learns to feel the word.

Someday in the near future, when the Newscripts gang goes jogging and the phones strapped to our forearms start to buzz, they may be sending us messages we won’t even have to look at a screen to read. When that happens, it will all have been possible because of a Purdue University professor who developed a method to make speech a kind of tongue-lashing with good intentions.

Hong Z. Tan, an electrical and computer engineering professor at Purdue, says folks at the social networking site Facebook wanted to know if it was possible to transmit written messages through the skin. Tan, an expert in human-machine interfaces, has long explored the touchy-feely side of digital communications, so she happily took on the challenge with researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Facebook. “We thought it might be possible, and we could give it a try,” she says.

Tan and associates invented a device that can play vibrations associated with the 39 consonant and vowel sounds of the English language (IEEE Trans. Haptics 2018, DOI: 10.1109/toh.2018.2861010). Strapped along the forearm, the device produces sensations that coordinate with the sounds’ formation in the mouth.

For instance, sounds at the front of the mouth, such as “p” or “b,” produce vibrations on the wrist, while sounds at the back, such as “g” or “k,” rattle the elbow. Stationary vibrations represent consonants, while sensations moving along the device represent vowels. The Newscripts gang is getting goose bumps contemplating the variations.

A study conducted with 10 young adults found that after one to four hours of training, they could recognize 86% of the tactile sounds. Tan was gradually able to train her stimulated subjects to recognize up to 500 words. “Those who did really well acquired one English word per minute,” she says.

Tan says she believes the buzzing device can be adapted to help people with hearing disabilities feel a car honking or a faucet running. For runners, she says, “we can set simple messages to let them monitor their progress.” Also on the drawing board is creating a vibrating lexicon for languages other than English.


Bad vibrations

A photo of a hot dog cart covered by swarming bees in New York City's Times Square.
Credit: Reuters/Brendan McDermid/Newscom
Hotdogging it: Bees swarm a frankfurter cart in New York City's Times Square.

While scientists are all abuzz about communicating through touch, bees have definitely mastered the art. Anyone on the receiving end of even one not-so-subtle sting will forevermore stand clear of any bee in his or her path.

So when a swarm of bees swooped down on a New York City hot dog cart in Times Square at the end of August, passersby scurried away and admired the spectacle from afar. While the occurrence seemed remarkable in this case, the Newscripts gang has the stinging feeling that urban bee swarms may soon occur more frequently. As it turns out, cities are more hospitable environments for bees than agricultural areas.


According to a recent study, bees, particularly Bombus terrestris—bumblebees—like big cities (Proc. R. Soc. B 2018, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2018.0807). For one thing, cities have lovely green space “offering high floral abundance and diversity in the form of gardens and parks,” the researchers note. Just what bees need for the sweet life!

Add in fewer encounters with parasites and low levels of agricultural pesticides, and the urban bees would seem to have more than a wing and a prayer in the city. Country bees must contend with “barren agricultural landscapes,” which have fewer nectar-rich flowers and an abundance of bug-killing sprays.

Overall, urban bee colonies are larger, survive longer, and have greater “reproductive success” than do their country cousins, the study’s authors say. So in the years ahead, human city dwellers should expect to get buzzed more often.

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