Category → Ripped from the Pages
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.’ ”
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.”
Silly samplings from this week’s science news, compiled by Sophia Cai and Bethany Halford.
Combine a physics grad student, musical talent, video know-how, and an Einstein sock puppet, and you get an awesome “Bohemian Rhapsody” cover about string theory (withvideo). [io9]
We’re going to need bigger Q-tips. Turns out whale earwax contains information about environmental contaminants. [NatGeo]
This just in from Boston: Red sports teams are more likely to win. [Seriously, Science?]
Not to be confused with terrifying snakes, there are now four new species of legless lizards to haunt your dreams. [CNN]
Did NASA just find Han Solo on Mercury? [io9]
Yahoo! has designed a 3-D printing search engine for the visually impaired–and, well, for anyone because it’s awesome (with video). [Gizmodo]
Silly samplings from this week’s science news, compiled by Sophia Cai, Bethany Halford, and Jeff Huber.
One giant leap for mankind, one giant–er leap for frogkind. [NBCNews]
Food firm attempts to make artificial eggs. Chickens everywhere squawk, “You try laying an egg, buddy.” [Daily Mail]
Discarded food is responsible for more carbon dioxide emissions than any country, except the U.S. and China. So you better eat that food that just fell out of your mouth in disbelief. [Mother Nature Network]
Step 1: Get spider silk. Step 2: Make carbon nanotubes. Step 3: Smash them together to create ultrastrong electronics. [Txchnologist]
Study finds that the likelihood of hangovers decreases with age. Finally! The excuse you needed to take your grandmother out clubbing. [Mother Nature Network]
Sleep-deprived college students tired of chugging pumpkin spice lattes; one slightly more awake student invents bottle of caffeine to spray on the skin. [NPR]
Cool science story alert: It’s got camouflage, squid, and graphene. [Telegraph]
Aluminum bubble wrap, titanium foam, and graphene aerogels. Gizmodo rounds up this year’s must-have materials. [Gizmodo]
According to new research, bullying is more likely to occur at schools that have anti-bullying programs. Sounds like there are some principals out there that deserve a wedgie. [ScienceDaily]
While C&EN celebrates 90 years, the Newscripts column (or News-Scripts, as it was originally known) is also marking an anniversary that’s an integer of 10. The column debuted on July 10, 1943.
For seven decades the Newscripts gang has been on the lookout for news that, as Newscripts Grand Master Ken Reese put it, “favors the chemical over the nonchemical, the scientific over the nonscientific, the grotesque over the normal.” Mostly we spend a paragraph or two on these, but occasionally just a sentence will do.
And so there is the Department of Obscure Information. DOOI’s sentence-long factoids have been steadily supplying Newscripts readers with cocktail party fodder even before Reese took the reigns of the column in 1967. To mark C&EN’s 90th anniversary, we thought we’d give you 90 of these gems that have appeared over the years. Each day this week, we’ll add
19 18 new items to this space.
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.
This week’s column got started when astute reader Don Borseth wrote in to question something the Newscripts gang had put in a column a few weeks ago—that the famous University of Queensland pitch-drop experiment was the longest-running laboratory experiment. The folks at Guinness World Records seem to think so, but Borseth was dubious. He recalled Lord Kelvin’s diffusion experiment at the University of Glasgow from the 19th century. That experiment was set up in 1872, when the pitch-drop’s creator Thomas Parnell was no more than a twinkle in his father’s eye. If it was still ongoing, wasn’t it the elder statesman of experiments?
The Newscripts gang loves getting reader mail, particularly when we can get a new column out of it. That Kelvin’s experiment is at the University of Glasgow was icing on the cake for this reporter since my husband is an alum from the school’s chemistry department (Go Glasgow!). I wondered if my husband had even seen Kelvin’s experiment, maybe visited it as part of his studies. As it turns out, he had never even heard of it.
And so the hunt was on. I got in touch with a Lee Cronin, a Glasgow chemistry professor I met years ago at a meeting in Portugal, to see if he knew anything about Kelvin’s experiment. Indeed, Cronin told me, when the pitch-drop was making headlines in July he was also doubtful of its claim to be the longest-running laboratory experiment.
But the internet offered little in the way of evidence of Kelvin’s diffusion setup. All I could find was this brochure on this history of the room that houses the experiment. I sought out David Lindley, author of the Kelvin biography “Degrees Kelvin: A Tale of Genius, Invention, and Tragedy” to see what he could tell me about Kelvin’s work in this area.
“I have to confess I don’t know about the diffusion experiment you mention,” he wrote to me. But coincidentally, he said, the news of the pitch-drop had got him thinking about Kelvin. “I read in several places about the Australian pitch-drop experiment, and it reminded me of one of Kelvin’s lecture demonstrations, in which he would put some metal bullets on top of a slab of some sort of pitch, and corks below—after a time, supposedly, the bullets drop through and the corks bob up. My understanding is that he liked to do this as a demonstration for students, so I suppose he must have used a fairly soft kind of pitch.” Lindley even did a little sleuthing and found a couple of pitch-related items from the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian museum here and here.
As for the diffusion experiment, the folks at Glasgow’s office of communications sent me some photos of the set up and said it hadn’t been disturbed despite two renovations to the room. But they couldn’t say for sure if it was technically still running. Unlike the pitch experiment, it has no official custodian, but that seems to beg an existential question: Is an experiment still running if no one is watching it?
I contacted the press office at Guinness World Records to see if they had any thoughts on the matter. No reply from them yet. So it goes in the world of old experiments.
Silly samplings from this week’s science news, compiled by Sophia Cai, Bethany Halford, and Jeff Huber.
Craving that chocolate bar? Go smell an orange. Tempted by cookies in the office? Go smell an orange. [NPR]
Studies have shown that tall people earn more money and have a better view at rock concerts. But short people live longer, giving them more time to spend their smaller salaries and to stare at the backs of tall people at rock concerts. [Slate]
Another one from the “Who Funded This?” files: Researchers try to see if people really know what cats are meowing about. [Seriously, Science?]
Gearing up for a vacation? Why not take one of these 25 road trips for nerds? [PopSci]
Finally, a marathon-training tactic that doesn’t involve grueling exercise—or any movement at all, really. Just dream about the race in your sleep. [Guardian]
Slow animal meets fast food: Man tries to sneak his turtle onto a plane by hiding the pet inside a KFC burger. [United Press International]
How likely is a shark attack? More common ways to go: sinkholes, ocean tides, and tornadoes. Shark-free tornadoes, to boot. [Washington Post]
An emu, native to Australia, shows up on the side of a British Columbia road. Somehow, its long legs don’t entice passing cars to stop and give it a ride. [CBC]
What’s better than watching chimps at the zoo? Watching chimps on a sugar high at the zoo. [Metro]
Once upon a time, I was a full-fledged chemist doing postdoctoral research at the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Md. Like any other postdoc, I have fond memories of leaving grad school, being paid a little more, and having more control over my research. And of course, I have warm recollections of leaving work in the wee hours of the night … and having to wait for the family of deer surrounding my car to move off so I could drive home.
That ISN’T the typical postdoc experience, you say? Okay, fine. But it is at NIST. Most folks who work on the Gaithersburg campus have similar deer encounters pretty regularly.
In this week’s issue of C&EN, I wrote a Newscripts column about the wild horse and donkey overpopulation problem in the western U.S. The National Research Council recently released a report suggesting ways of managing the animals. One proposed solution is to give the critters birth control.
This brought me back to my days at NIST. I vividly remember being told during my postdoctoral orientation that I would encounter a lot of deer while on campus AND that the lab was dealing with the situation by giving the animals birth control. At the time, I laughed at what I thought was a reasonably silly situation.
While I worked at the agency between 2006 and 2008, its campus was home to approximately 200 deer. Today, the population is probably a little less than that—around 150 or so, says Michael E. Newman, a spokesman for NIST. But in the mid-1990s, about 300 deer resided on the grassy campus with its ponds and wooded canopies.
“That’s crazy for a campus that’s only a square mile,” says Allen T. Rutberg, director of the Center for Animals & Public Policy at the Cummings School for Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.
First of all, a tract of land that size can’t provide enough nutrition for that many animals. And second of all, when the population gets that large, animal-human interactions don’t usually end well: In the 1990s, when the deer population was at its peak on campus, it wasn’t uncommon for about 25 deer to be killed annually in collisions with vehicles on and adjacent to the NIST campus.
During rutting season, “we even had a few cases of male deer seeing a reflection and jumping through windows” into labs, Newman says.
I’m particularly thankful I missed those days. It’s one thing to see a doe with its fawns cuddling under the trees as you leave work. It’s quite another to come face to face with a sexually aggressive deer while cleaning your glassware.
When writing my Newscripts about wild horses, I got to thinking that I actually didn’t know much about the NIST deer program aside from the fact that it existed. So I set out to learn more. Continue reading →
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 the print issue of C&EN.
There’s an unfortunate trend that seems to be becoming increasingly popular in today’s science news world. The recipe goes like this: Take one misleading headline, add an introductory sentence that takes liberties with the subject matter it’s covering, and stir in one gullible blogosphere, and before you know it, you have a distorted science news story that appears to be popping up everywhere.
That’s the controversy that C&EN Senior Editor Carmen Drahl took on in last week’s Newscripts column. Carmen stumbled upon a press release purporting to have found a way to analyze human health through the measurement of genetic material. She called bullocks on the claim, and the journal responsible for the press release apologized.
According to Carmen, this incident is nothing new. She says National Geographic blogger Ed Yong and many others have been leading a battle against misleading public relations for years. She also remembers stumbling across two particularly dubious “news stories” herself. One centered on the ENCODE (ENCyclopedia Of DNA Elements) Project. As Carmen remembers, the project’s attempts to catalog the pieces that make up the genome led to press releases that claimed so-called junk DNA served a life function, which in turn led to a barrage of articles both deriding the articles as hype and asking for clarification on what constitutes as “junk.”