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At last week’s American Chemical Society meeting in New Orleans, a group of chemists came together to discuss the latest and greatest in alcohol. No, this wasn’t on Bourbon Street. And karaoke, to-go cups, and beaded necklaces weren’t involved (as far as I know).
This week’s issue of Chemical & Engineering News features a column I wrote about one of the session’s presentations. Neil C. Da Costa, a researcher at International Flavors & Fragrances, in New Jersey, entertained the audience with tales of the hurricane, that rum-based drink the Big Easy is famous for. I featured Da Costa’s studies of the hurricane because of the soft spot I have for the cocktail: The first time I drank one was during my undergraduate years at, you guessed it, my first national ACS meeting.
But I gave short shrift to other “Chemistry of the Bar” presentations. One particularly interesting talk was given by Jerry Zweigenbaum, a researcher at Agilent Technologies, in Delaware. Along with Alyson E. Mitchell and coworkers at the University of California, Davis, Zweigenbaum investigated the ingredients of the after-dinner liquor amaretto.
If you’re like me, you might have thought that because amaretto smells like almonds, it’s made from them. Zweigenbaum says that’s not necessarily the case.
According to legend, amaretto was first made in 1525 by soaking apricot kernels in alcohol. You can see the tale, conveniently located on the website of amaretto maker Disaronno, here. Apparently, one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s star pupils was asked to paint a fresco of the Madonna in the Italian city Saronno. His model was a local innkeeper who showed her gratitude by gifting the fellow a drink made from the infamous kernels.
Today, Disaronno says its amaretto contains “herbs and fruits soaked in apricot kernel oil.”
But the problem with alcohols like amaretto, Zweigenbaum says, is they are regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives here in the U.S., rather than by FDA. That means companies don’t have to list the beverages’ ingredients or nutritional content.
So what exactly Disaronno and other amaretto companies are putting in their wares remains a mystery. Zweigenbaum decided to find out. Continue reading →
This post was written by Andrea Widener, an associate editor for C&EN’s government and policy group.
When Ernest O. Lawrence lent a cyclotron to the London Science Museum in 1938, he thought it would be back in eight months.
But it took 75 years for the 11-inch cyclotron, one of the first built by the future Nobel Prize winner, to return to the hills of Berkeley, Calif., where it was originally created.
The cyclotron survived a war, a bureaucratic tussle, and a security challenge before it was finally returned to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), the research institution founded by the cyclotron’s inventor.
When it arrived last month, the 11-inch cyclotron was an instant celebrity, drawing crowds as though Lawrence himself had walked in for a photo op.
“They were coming down the hallway in a stream,” says Pamela Patterson, who serves as an unofficial historian and manager of the lab’s website. “Everyone was there. The director had his iPhone up taking pictures. It was cute.”
At the time Lawrence loaned the cyclotron to the science museum, he was still a young, ambitious researcher trying to convince others that the device was a major breakthrough. An invitation to display it in such a prestigious spot was likely an important step, Patterson explains.
But when the cyclotron was supposed to be returned in 1939, Lawrence received a letter from the museum saying officials had moved the cyclotron to a rural district for safe keeping because they feared London would be bombed during World War II. Continue reading →
Silly samplings from this week’s science news, compiled by Lauren Wolf.
Today’s Pi Day! Celebrate by, um, tossing hotdogs down a hallway. [WikiHow]
Harvard is making robot bees. Sigh. Hasn’t ANYONE watched “2001: A Space Odyssey,” or “iRobot”? Sure, robobees are super cool, but this isn’t going to end well. [iO9]
DNA from fish (herring) sperm is a flame retardant, study shows. Hmmm … that’s going to be an interesting production/extraction process. [Wired]
Smart people like curly fries. Straight men often do Internet searches for “Being confused after waking up from naps.” This, according to a study of Facebook by Cambridge University researchers. [NBC Bay Area]
We thought that to bend the spoon with your mind, you have to realize that there is no spoon. What do we know? This guy says it has something to do with respiration. [Improbable Research]
Pass the Juicy Fruit: People chewing gum focus longer on a task than those who aren’t. [iO9]
It’s not every day that you see a magician mentioned in the “Acknowledgements” section of a peer-reviewed scientific paper. But last month, when the open-access journal PeerJ launched, there it was: magical act Penn & Teller got a mention both in that section of the article AND in the title.
In the paper, Stephen L. Macknick of Barrow Neurological Institute and two other researchers explore why Penn & Teller’s classic “cups and balls” magic trick works so well … by using some tricks of the cognitive-neuroscience trade. They monitored the eye movements of study participants who were watching Teller perform to understand the finer points of the illusion.
Below, you’ll see an extended version of Penn & Teller performing the age-old trick, but you can also see the videos that accompanied the paper here.
As I mention in this week’s print Newscripts, Teller had assumed “cups and balls” fools the audience—even with transparent cups—because when he picks up a cup from the table, he tilts it and causes a ball sitting on top to fall. He thought audience members were distracted by the ball’s motion and therefore didn’t notice him sliding a new ball under the cup before placing it back on the table.
Macknick and his team disproved this notion by demonstrating that viewers’ eyes didn’t stray very much from Teller’s hands when he dumped the ball. Only when he held one of the balls up or placed it on the table did he misdirect a subject’s gaze significantly.
Some Newscripts readers might at this point be scratching their heads and asking why cognitive neuroscientists are helping magicians work on their acts. Continue reading →
Experiment got you down? Reaction yield low? That chromatogram just not telling you what you want to hear?
Take solace on this fine Friday in the fact that the National Science Foundation says “science is hard.” Or at least that’s what our favorite faux-news outlet, The Onion, reports.
Admittedly, this article is from 2002. But I just saw it this week thanks to a tweet from @the_distillate. So it’s new to me and now, perhaps, new to you too.
According to the report, NSF held a symposium back in the day to discuss just how confusing various scientific disciplines can be. The scientists that attended came to the conclusion that the “Law of Difficulty” is true.
I leave you with a few choice quotes:
“To be a scientist, you have to learn all this weird stuff, like how many molecules are in a proton,” University of Chicago physicist Dr. Erno Heidegger said.
Dr. Ahmed Zewail, a Caltech chemist whose spectroscopic studies of the transition states of chemical reactions earned him the Nobel Prize in 1999, explained in layman’s terms just how hard the discipline of chemistry is, using the periodic table of the elements as a model.
“Take the element of tungsten and work to memorize its place in the periodic table, its atomic symbol, its atomic number and weight, what it looks like, where it’s found, and its uses to humanity, if any,” Zewail said. “Now, imagine memorizing the other 100-plus elements making up the periodic table. You’d have to be, like, some kind of total brain to do that.”
So when things aren’t working out in the lab, just remember, what you’re trying to do is really friggin’ hard. Happy Friday, Newscripts readers!
In this week’s issue of C&EN, I wrote about how 3-D printing fever has taken hold of some folks in academia. Sure, scientists and engineers COULD keep a 3-D printer in the lab strictly for printing out a molecular model, a prototype, or even an intricate lab logo. But they’re starting to do much more with the machines.
As Lee Cronin, a chemist at Scotland’s University of Glasgow, told me, in the early days of 3-D printing, “people thought it was cool but gimmicky.” Now, though, they’re beginning to use the technique to solve problems, he added.
In the story, I describe how some scientists have used 3-D printers to make lab equipment such as centrifuges, funnels, lab jacks, and electrophoresis gel combs. These early adopters claim that the machines, which build solid objects layer by layer from materials like plastics and ceramic powders, can save labs thousands of dollars. And, they say, 3-D printers help foster an open-access scientific community that will speed the progress of research.
One research group I didn’t get to mention in my story is that of Simon J. Leigh, a chemist-turned-engineer at the U.K.’s University of Warwick. Leigh and his team are developing new materials for 3-D printers, with the goal of eventually incorporating them into devices for the lab and beyond.
For instance, late last year, the researchers published a PloS One paper detailing how they concocted “carbomorph,” a material made of the thermoplastic polycaprolactone and 15 wt% carbon black. “The aim of the project was to develop a material that could go into a printer that’s off the shelf,” Leigh says. In addition to being electrically conductive, carbomorph had the added benefit of being extrudable by a standard low-cost 3-D printer (they used a Bits from Bytes 3000).
Leigh’s team demonstrated that the substance could also be incorporated into several devices. One of these instruments was an electronic interface. The researchers added carbomorph buttons to an electrical circuit: When a user pressed one of them, its capacitance increased and triggered an electrical signal. Being able to embed sensors like these anywhere on a device rather than adding them on at defined spots in post-production could be extraordinarily useful, Leigh says.
In one, perhaps gimmicky, example, Leigh and his team printed sensor buttons into a video-game controller. “But there’s no reason why the same process could not be used to make custom interfaces for scientific equipment,” he says.
In 2011, the research team also developed a magnetic material for 3-D printing that it used to manufacture a flow sensor. Specifically, the scientists added magnetite nanoparticles to a resin matrix and printed a tiny rotor (impeller). By monitoring the small piece’s rotational speed via external magnetic field, the researchers were able to determine the speed of liquid across it.
Why go to all the trouble of designing new materials and printing devices you could buy? Leigh says it’s almost a natural “evolutionary step.” First, there were desktop computers, next there will be desktop manufacturing systems. In science, especially, Leigh adds, “you want something that’s more bespoke these days. You don’t want to waste material or time” to get the equipment you need.
Silly samplings from this week’s science news, compiled by Bethany Halford and Lauren Wolf.
Ever wish you could tear a page out of C&EN and eat it because it’s so good? Well, it might happen in the future … Fanta creates an edible ad. [ShortList] But just to be clear, this is old news: Newscripts has written about edible ads (and greeting cards) before. [C&EN]
Scientists in California want to create laser beams to evaporate asteroids before they hit Earth. No word on using them to fill the dean’s house with popcorn or if they will be mounted on sharks. [LA Times]
Speaking of lasers, this one was meant for studying space, but it moonlights as a counterfeit honey detector. [Slate]
Who knew panda flirting was so complicated? The Edinburgh Zoo’s Yang Guang “has recently begun to execute handstands against trees, walls, and rocks, and to leave scent marks as high up as he can” in an attempt to get the attention of lady panda Tian Tian. [Guardian]
Jose Canseco, that lovable juiced-up ex-ball player, tweeted his theories on gravity and dinosaurs this week. Newscripts hasn’t been this confused since Keanu Reeves explained wave-particle duality. [iO9]
Checking up on HP’s Chubby Checker. Incidentally, if the Newscripts gang held stock in HP, we’d be wondering what the hell is going on at that place. [Slate]
This Side Up: The paint splatters on that canvas really do have a top and bottom. Study shows people can set an abstract painting in its “correct” orientation more often than not. [Discoblog]
Silly samplings from this week’s science news, compiled by Sophia Cai and Bethany Halford
Chemistry lab work can be tough. There are smelly solvents and reactions with the potential to explode. But at least you don’t have to worry about how you’ll feed the bedbugs. [PopSci]
Middle school science fair projects have gotten legit. Thirteen-year-old sends Hello Kitty to the stratosphere and back, with a video camera along for the ride. [Cosmic Log/NBC News]
Lusty male moth drives robot car towards the scent of his lady love, refuses to ask for directions. [Forbes]
The recently unearthed bones of Richard III beg the question: What’s the Shelf Life of DNA? [Slate]
Perhaps Ethan Hawke’s character from “Gattaca” isn’t the only one who should be paranoid — someone’s 3-D printing faces with your discarded DNA. [iO9]
Forget your umbrella? Spray your clothes with Ultra Ever Dry, a superhydrophobic and oleophobic nanotech coating (Um, actually, we’re not sure you should spray this on your clothes, but there’s a cool video). [NPR]
Back in September, I posted here on Newscripts about a contest being hosted by Chemical Abstracts Service, a division of the American Chemical Society that collects and organizes publicly disclosed information about chemical compounds.
CAS asked participants to guess when the 70 millionth substance would be added to its database. The person who submitted the answer (date and time) closest to reality would take home an e-book reader.
Well, I’m a bit behind in reporting the outcome. But better late than never, right?
The 70 millionth compound was added to CAS’s Registry on Dec. 6, 2012. The winner? Lucky grad student Tom Pearson of Nottingham Trent University, in England. An organic chemist, Pearson is developing new ways of sticking sugar units together with an eye toward drug synthesis. And he received a Kindle Fire for his correct prediction.
Pearson doesn’t normally enter contests, so this is the first time he’s won anything, he tells me. “I had 10 minutes free in my day and thought I’d enter,” he says of the contest.
But Pearson’s win wasn’t complete luck. Like every true science nerd, he used some math and logic to arrive at his winning entry: “I basically just stared at the counter for a couple of minutes and tried to work out the average rate at which substances were being added. After working out the rate, I then determined the date that the 70 millionth substance would be added.”
CAS added the 50 millionth substance to its registry back on Sept. 7, 2009. On the basis of these dates, and doing a little math of my own, I estimate that CAS adds about 16,900 new chemical substances to its database per day. That’s about 1 new compound every 5 seconds. Yowza!!
The 70 millionth substance, given CAS Registry number 1411769-41-9, is a pyrazolyl piperazine disclosed in a patent filed with the Korean Intellectual Property Office. It’s a calcium-ion channel blocker with potential applications in treating pain, as well as conditions such as dementia.
A few fun facts from CAS about its registry:
In 2012, 63% of patents covered by CAS originated in Asia.
More than 70% of new substances added to the registry from the literature come from patents.
Silly samplings from this week’s science news, compiled by Bethany Halford and Lauren Wolf.
From the Who Funds This? files: Prune-y fingers may help you get a grip. [News.com.au]
This week, scientists have been spending entirely too much time on Twitter cracking jokes that hit awfully close to home via the hashtag #overlyhonestmethods. We’ve always thought those “representative” data sets in papers were the only time the experiment worked … and now it’s been confirmed. [iO9]
So, this is news but not so amusing if you’ve got GI problems … there appears to be a barium shortage. [Topics in Radiography]
Scientists say the song “Come Away With Me” by Norah Jones is one of safest to drive to. That’s funny. Cause’ it makes us bored and sleepy. [The Telegraph]
19 techs at a petrochemical plant in England win the Euromillions sweepstakes, netting them about $1.6 million (or about $84,000 each). Lucky ducks. [Gazette Live]
Pedometers are so 2012. For weight loss, check out the forkometer instead. [MarketWatch]
When we’re inundated with winter weather, the Newscripts gang will be working on its bulletproof snow fort. [Wired]