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Tattoo Advice For Penning A Synthetic Symphony

This week I wrote about the “Atalanta Fugi­ens,” a gorgeous 17th century alchemy text that includes a musical score. What’s crazy is that this score is not just a background melody for the musically inclined alchemist. The score is actually a recipe for making the philosophers’ stone, with individual musical parts for the chemical components, mercury, sulfur, and salt.

I’m desperately hoping some modern-day chemist will be inspired to write a musical score for their next total synthesis, and that some journal agrees to publish this music in the Materials & Methods section. (Or at the very least, the Supplementary Information section.)

Butt! A word of warning:

Hieronymous Bosch's vision of hell includes music on butts. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Hieronymous Bosch’s vision of hell includes music on butts. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Should any musically inclined chemist decide to pen a synthetic opera, however, they should certainly consider the admonishment of medieval artist Hieronymous Bosch.

Namely, DO NOT tattoo that score on to your behind. Taking a closer look at the hell component of Bosch’s masterpiece “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” discriminating viewers will note that the poor soul with the Gregorian chant on his nether region is being whipped by a demon tongue.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Incidentally, that demon-whipped, butt-hugging music is also available for download, thanks to Amelia Hamrick, a student in Oklahoma. Have a listen

Amusing News Aliquots

Silly samplings from this week’s science news, compiled by Sophia Cai, Bethany Halford, and Jeff Huber.

PridePrejudice

The purrr-fect book. Credit: prideandprejudiceandkitties.com

Finally, a book that explores the proper etiquette for spitting up a hair ball in public: “Pride and Prejudice and Kitties.” [Mother Nature Network]

More feline news: Looks like U.S. prisons are too posh. After all, cats looking for a comfortable home are now breaking into them. [Glens Falls Post-Star]

Think your graduate work was tough? At least you didn’t have to attach a camera to an alligator’s back. [Seriously, Science?]

Study suggests MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom” might be driving down teen pregnancies. Next up, “Teens Who Don’t Do Their Homework”? [USA Today]

While the Newscripts gang was bundled up and hiding from the polar vortex, this Canadian fellow created a colored ice fort. [BoingBoing]

Did we all just assume that the flying V formation gave birds an aerodynamics push? Turns out it was just scientifically shown for the first time. [NPR]

Police arrest man for insobriety after his parrot tells police that he is drunk. It’s hard not to feel sorry for the man. He thought he had a parrot for a pet, but it turns out his pet was really a rat. [United Press International]

In the real-life Japanese version of “Good Will Hunting,” the university janitor creates a gorgeous, unsolvable maze in his spare time. [Viralnova]

Skip the plug-in night-lights, now you can buy bioluminescent house plants for all your nighttime low-light needs. [Popular Science]

When those pesky moral dilemma tests are presented in virtual reality–complete with carnage and screams–turns out people get more emotionally riled, but also more utilitarian. Sorry, best friend. [Time]

 

 

In Print: Balloon Returns Home, Earthshaking Stadium

The Newscripts blog would like to be closer Internet buddies with our glossy print Newscripts column, so here we highlight what’s going on in this week’s issue of C&EN.

Weather Balloon_Newscripts121613_Blog

Homeward Bound: Lyles holds AMET’s weather balloon as it prepares for one wild ride. Credit: Dahlon Lyles

Purdue University‘s Association of Mechanical & Electrical Technologists (AMET)–a hands-on STEM-oriented student organization that works on everything from robots to Rube Goldberg devices to rockets–expected the weather balloon that it launched on Nov. 16 to return to Purdue’s West Lafayette, Ind., campus. As this week’s Newscripts column describes, however, the trek back home was anything but predictable.

Takeoff of the balloon started easily enough, as this video from the balloon shows:

When the balloon reached an altitude of 40,000 feet, however, AMET lost all contact. As a result, the organization didn’t know the kinds of spectacular views their balloon was enjoying as it ascended to a height of 95,000 feet above Earth. That ascension is captured in the following videos:

Because everything that goes up must come down, the balloon soon plummeted back to Earth: Continue reading →

Amusing News Aliquots

Silly samplings from this week’s science news, compiled by Sophia Cai, Bethany Halford, and Jeff Huber.

Winter wonderland: Actual photograph of an actual snowflake without actually using a microscope. Credit: Flickr user ChaoticMind75

It’s delicate work taking these splendid snowflake glamour shots. [chaoticmind] via [io9]

Camels are landing jobs during the holiday season. Joe Camel, however, is still smoking silently and waiting for the phone to ring. [Washington Post]

What’s worse than a robotic telemarketer? A robotic telemarketer that adamantly insists she’s a real person. Meet Samantha West. [Time]

Who says huffing organic solvents dulls the memory? Check out what Derek Lowe’s readers have to say about reagents they’ll never forget. [In the Pipeline]

The next time a coworker asks you how you’re doing, don’t tell them you’re sleepy. Tell them you’re suffering from “sleep inertia.” Then, when they ask you what that is, lift up your head and say in a haughty voice, “Oh, well, I guess somebody doesn’t read the New Yorker!” [New Yorker]

“When the picture on their 50-inch box television started flickering, Mike took off the back panel and found the guts throbbing with ants.”  Best to read this piece on Rasberry crazy ants with a can of Raid nearby. [New York Times]

NASA scientists say life may have once been present on a Mars lake. No word yet on how much alien waterfront property may have cost. [BBC]

Next time you’re stumbling out of a bar, take comfort in statistics that show people who drink alcohol regularly (and even too regularly) live longer than teetotalers. Just don’t smugly stumble to your car, because stats can’t save you from yourself. [Business Insider]

Forget bared teeth, growling, and beating of chests–male chameleons get ready for epic showdowns by quickly changing their bodies from bright color to bright color. [NBC Science]

Aaaaaand They’re Off: The 2013 World Cell Race Results

Today’s post is by Nader Heidari, an associate editor at C&EN who loves watching cells race and paint dry.

On Nov. 22, cells raced down ultrathin channels, vying for the position of fastest cell in the 2013 World Cell Race. At speeds of up to 300 micrometers/hour, cells blew down the maze-like track, running into dead ends and occasionally getting confused and turning around. Many cell lines didn’t finish, but glory came to those who did.

This year’s victor (shown in the race video above) was MDA MB 231 s1, a human breast cancer cell line from Alexis Gautreau of the Laboratory of Enzymology & Structural Biochemistry, in France. Gautreau will receive a €400 voucher (that’s about $650) from Ibidi, one of the event’s sponsors. The winning cells weren’t the fastest, nor were they the smartest, but they prevailed because of their persistence and because they got a good head-start by entering the maze of channels more quickly than their competitors. Slow and steady wins the race!

In second place was MFH 152, a sarcoma cell line from Mohamed Jemaà in Ariane Abrieu’s lab at the Research Center for Macromolecular Biochemistry, in France. Although they were fast and accurate, these cells took too long to actually start the race, falling behind MDA MB 231, according to the race organizers.

Cell-racing fans don’t have to wait until late next year for another dose of mitochondria-pumping action: The organizers are looking to start the first “Dicty World Race,” tentatively scheduled for March 21, 2014. The stars of this show would be Dictyostelium, a type of slime mold. So keep an eye out for some pedal-to-the-flagella protist action!

Related Stories:

Cellular NASCAR

In Print: Sriracha Sensation, Deceptive Dishware

The Newscripts blog would like to be closer Internet buddies with our glossy print Newscripts column, so here we highlight what’s going on this week’s issue of C&EN.

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Cock of the walk: Rooster-emblazoned hot sauce garners devoted fan base. Credit: Ttony21 / Wikimedia Commons

Bam! The Newscripts column is kicking things up a notch this week with its profile of Sriracha, the spicy condiment that is turning heads and clearing sinuses all over the world.

As C&EN Associate Editor Andrea Widener explains in her column, Sriracha has a devoted fan base that loves to put the Sriracha rooster logo on everything from iPhone cases to T-shirts. Explaining the hot sauce’s popularity, Andrea says, “Sriracha is the perfect combination of sweet and spicy, but it’s not so hot that only hard-core spice lovers can enjoy it.” What’s more, Sriracha is “a little exotic, since it was first made to be eaten on Vietnamese pho soup, so that draws in the foodies.”

But it turns out not everyone is a fan of the hot sauce. Residents of Irwindale, Calif., are actually suing Sriracha manufacturer Huy Fong Foods for inducing headaches and burning eyes that they believe are caused by the company’s nearby Sriracha plant. It’s the kind of public relations nightmare that could really hurt a product’s popularity … if that product weren’t already so popular. Andrea, for one, has no plans of curbing her Sriracha consumption anytime soon. “I have a bottle at home right now, and it has made a lot of meals better,” she says. Andrea’s love of the condiment has led her to do everything from buying the snack food Sriracha peas, to making Sriracha mac and cheese, to eagerly awaiting the sale of Sriracha candy canes this holiday season. That last part might sound a little crazy, but it’s actually pretty tame compared with the lengths other Sriracha lovers will go to enjoy their favorite condiment. For instance, Andrea doesn’t plan to chug three consecutive bottles of Sriracha in the near future.

Sticking with her culinary theme, Andrea uses the second part of her column to talk about a recent study that found that the color and weight of cutlery can significantly influence a person’s perception of the food they eat. For instance, Andrea says, the study found that people, for some reason, expect food served on blue plates to be salty: a fact that can lead to disappointment if the food is not actually salty. “It makes me think I should get rid of my blue dinner plates,” Andrea jokes.

The researchers also discovered that people perceive food served with metal-colored plastic silverware as tasting worse than food served with differently colored plastic silverware. The researchers posit that this is because eaters were initially fooled by the real-looking cutlery, and when their expectations weren’t met, they expressed similar disappointment in the food they were eating.

As to whether or not her own taste buds would be fooled by such tricks, Andrea doesn’t put on airs. “I like to think I’m special, but I’m sure I would be influenced by color as much as the next person.”

 

Turning A Hollywood Set Into A Laboratory

Much has been made of the meticulously chosen props that decorate the set of AMC’s “Mad Men.” To bring the 1960s world of Don Draper to life—and to make it believable—set designers have gone above and beyond. The phones and typewriters in the office are vintage, genuine magazines from the era sit on tables, and real expense reports for characters cover the desks. Many of these details are never caught on camera, but the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, insists on them being there to lend “Mad Men” authenticity.

Baldacchini stands in his lab at Newport, posing with the faux JPC A cover. Credit: Courtesy of Tommaso Baldacchini

Baldacchini stands in his lab at Newport, posing with the faux JPC A cover. Credit: Courtesy of Tommaso Baldacchini

I don’t think the same amount of ink has been put to paper describing the set design of CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory.” (Although the show has made a certain chemistry shower curtain quite popular.) But I would contend that bringing to life the apartments, offices, and laboratories of a group of geeky scientists who work at Caltech isn’t an easy job either. Sure, it’s not on the same scale as decorating a 1960s advertising agency, but it still requires some skill to illustrate for the public what academic life looks like.

I recently stumbled upon a scientist in California who has, on occasion, lent a helping hand to make the labs of “Big Bang” realistic. Tommaso Baldacchini works for Newport Corp., a well-known international lasers and optics company that has a facility near Burbank. His “Big Break” with “Big Bang” came when the show introduced the character Amy Farrah Fowler, a neurobiologist played by Mayim Bialik.

The show wanted to shoot Amy in her lab dissecting brains, and the props manager needed some plausible-looking microscopes to sit in the background. Baldacchini, whose specialty at Newport is two-photon nonlinear optical microscopy, got the call.
“When the show started, the producers needed a way to fill the labs with scientific instruments,” Baldacchini says. “So they asked their science adviser [David Saltzberg of UCLA] to suggest a local company that could provide parts—and he mentioned Newport.”

Baldacchini (left) and Fourkas (right) visit the set, sitting in Sheldon's living room. Credit: Courtesy of T. Baldacchini and J. Fourkas

Baldacchini (left) and Fourkas (right) visit the set, sitting in Sheldon’s living room. Credit: Courtesy of T. Baldacchini and J. Fourkas

Naturally, Baldacchini’s favorite “Big Bang” episode so far has been one called “The Alien Parasite Hypothesis,” in which Amy and her loveable but narcissistic boyfriend, Sheldon Cooper, sit in front of a microscope set up by Baldacchini (see photo here). “She even refers to it as a two-photon microscope,” Baldacchini says, although he admits it doesn’t look exactly the way one would look in a real lab.

I stumbled into contact with Baldacchini while tracking down the origin of a journal cover I spotted in the background of a “Big Bang” episode (that story’s here). The poster hangs on the wall in Sheldon’s office, and it’s a reasonable facsimile of the Journal of Physical Chemistry A, one of the journals produced by the American Chemical Society.

John T. Fourkas, Baldacchini’s former Ph.D. adviser who is now at the University of Maryland and is also an editor for the Journal of Physical Chemistry, knew Baldacchini sometimes consulted with the show and in 2011 pitched him a version of the journal with Sheldon’s face on the cover. Eventually, the faux JPC A made its way onto the set, where it still hangs.

But the cover isn’t the only prop with staying power that Baldacchini has gotten onto the show. More recently, he orchestrated the placement of a unique chess set—made of laser optics such as gratings, mirrors, and optical mounts—in Sheldon’s living room. “The king is a diffraction grating [an optic that disperses light], and the queen—the most powerful chess piece—is an omnidirectional mirror,” Baldacchini explains.

Baldacchini's optical chess set, lit with lasers. Perhaps the guys on "Big Bang" will devise a new game? Credit: Courtesy of Tommaso Baldacchini

Baldacchini’s optical chess set, lit with lasers. Perhaps the guys on “Big Bang” will devise a new game? Credit: Courtesy of Tommaso Baldacchini

These days, the Newport scientist makes the one-hour drive to Burbank on occasion. “When they call, they usually need the props, like yesterday,” he jokes, “so sometimes I can’t go.” In those cases, the show sends a truck and he loads the equipment needed.

“I think they’re doing a great job making a comedy that works for everybody—whether you’re a scientist or not,” Baldacchini says. Sure, “Big Bang” exaggerates the nerdy aspects of these characters, he adds, but at the same time it’s also depicting how much fun it is to do science. “So I think they’re doing a great job.”

FUN SIDE NOTE: The faux cover of the Journal of Physical Chemistry A was designed to be a Festschrift, or tribute issue, to Sheldon Cooper. During a meeting among the editors of JPC prior to the poster finding its way on set, Fourkas and his colleagues talked over the journal’s policy of never depicting a living person on its cover. George Schatz, editor-in-chief of JPC, “paused for a moment,” Fourkas told me, “and then said with a completely straight face, ‘Well, we make an exception for people who speak Klingon.’ ”

‘Breaking Bad’ Aliquots

Today’s post was written by C&EN Senior Editor Jyllian Kemsley, who, when she isn’t watching the TV show “Breaking Bad,” enjoys surfing the Web for “Breaking Bad” links and then writing about them.

The end is almost here, and the Internet is gearing up. With the series finale of “Breaking Bad” set to air this Sunday on AMC, media outlets have unleashed a barrage of retrospectives and stories about the hit TV show. What’s more, a surprising number of these tributes actually focus on the science behind the show.

Take, for instance, the above video in which Boing Boing counts down the top 11 “Breaking Bad” chemistry moments. Or, simply pick up this week’s issue of C&EN, in which I have a story about Donna Nelson, a University of Oklahoma chemistry professor who has spent the last several years volunteering as a science adviser to the television show. I connected Nelson with show producer Vince Gilligan after I first wrote about the show in 2008—something Nelson has graciously acknowledged in many interviews—and I enjoyed chatting with her as the series nears its end.

To help all of us get through the last few days before the finale, here are a few of my favorite “Breaking Bad” offerings from across the Web. If, like some of my colleagues, you didn’t get the memo early enough and are only on season two, tread carefully—I won’t promise no spoilers!

  • Wired interviewed some other “Breaking Bad” staff who help get the science right, researchers Gordon Smith and Jenn Carroll: “One day, Gordon and the writers asked me to figure out a way to knock out a surveillance camera, or—at the very least—to make a passerby invisible to the camera. As you might imagine, there aren’t many legal or convenient ways to go about this.”