Category → Ripped from the Pages
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 →
If you ever visit the Museum of Science in Boston, in a certain corner of the museum you’ll find a giant insect hovering over a toy train set. This particular display, in a section about scale and models, delights and terrifies my three-year-old. He loves the train but is scared silly by the big bug. I had this section of the museum, and the ideas of scaling up and scaling down, on my mind when putting together this week’s Newscripts column. That’s because one story focuses on a new protein model building kit and the second story is about making bite-size gummy people.
Models are a big deal in science. They help us visualize and give us tactile experiences with all sorts of different things. From grade school, I recall a giant model of the ear and ear canal. My favorite thing to do was to pull out the tiny ossicles–those smallest of human bones–from the middle ear canal and try to figure out which was which amongst the hammer, the anvil, and the stirrup.
In chemistry, where we can’t really see the molecules we study, models are even more important for getting across ideas such as chirality and structure. Did anyone else learn stereochemistry with toothpicks and gumdrops?
The new set looks like it will give budding biochemists the ability to build proteins in the same way that organic students build natural products.
As for the second item in the column, I confess that I wrote about the FabCafe in Japan because I saw the pictures of their gummy people online and was absolutely taken with how cool they looked, especially the image below. It’s so Matrix-meets-Haribo.
One of the C&EN editors even told me that he thought $65 was a bargain for seeing yourself reproduced in gummy candy. I heartily agree. Too bad this was just a special event at the FabCafe. And that the FabCafe is so far away (from me anyway). I love the idea of sitting down with a cafe au lait and then trying my hand at a laser cutter. Are there any Newscripts readers who have had the good fortune to visit this spot?
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 →
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!
Two contests are afoot that chemists—particularly grad students—shouldn’t miss. Why? Well, there’s the eternal glory that comes with being victorious. But there’s also some cash and an iPad in it for the winners. And let’s face it, grad students can use all the free cash and prizes they can get.
Contest 1: Dance Your Ph.D.
Newscripts publicized this competition, sponsored by AAAS, earlier this year. The deadline is fast approaching. If you want to enter, you need to translate your Ph.D. project into a dance by October 1. There are four categories into which twinkle-toed grad students can place their submissions: chemistry, physics, biology, and social sciences. The top entry in each category gets $500. But that’s not all!
The overall winner gets another $500 as well as travel and accomodation to attend TEDxBrussels, in Belgium, on Nov. 12. There, the danciest dancer—the Gene Kelly of Ph.D.s, if you will–will be crowned for all to see. The Newscripts gang would like to see chemists once again take the top prize, proving without a doubt that the central science is where it’s at, so get your submissions in soon!
Contest 2: 70 Millionth Substance Contest
According to the counter here, Chemical Abstracts Service–the division of the American Chemical Society that finds, collects, and organizes chemical information–has now entered more than 68,447,000 substances in its registry. To celebrate the day when the organization will add its 70 millionth chemical substance to the database, CAS is holding a little guessing competition. The division thinks the organic or inorganic entity in question will be registered either at the end of this year or early next year.
Your job is to predict the date and time the lucky substance gets added. Prizes vary depending on when you submit your answer, but you could potentially win an iPad, Nook, or Kindle Fire. If the precise date and time isn’t guessed correctly, CAS goes into “The Price Is Right” mode and gives the award to the guess closest to the date and time the substance was added without going over. Take a look at the rules for entry here. And study them closely, Daniel-san.
You MUST put your guess into the contest form by Nov. 16 or by the time the counter reaches 69.8 million substances—whichever comes first.
CAS’s registry hit 50 million back on Sept. 7, 2009. You can read about that milestone here.
Do us proud, Newscripters. And if you win, do let us know (we’ll only take a little bit of the credit).
Some fund-raisers take the form of a bake sale or a chili cook-off. Such philanthropic endeavors, however, are child’s play to Phenomenex Chief Executive Officer Fasha Mahjoor, who last week took charitable spectacles to dizzying new heights by rappelling down Europe’s tallest building.
The separations technology firm CEO rappelled down from the 87th floor of the Shard in London on Sept. 3 in an effort to raise money for the Outward Bound Trust, which champions outdoor programs that teach underprivileged youth valuable life lessons.
“I’m speechless!” Mahjoor exclaimed just hours after his death-defying act. “I can’t explain what a thrill it was to stand at the pinnacle of the Shard and look down over a thousand feet of vertical glass to the miniature world below with nothing but a harness, a rope, and faith to help me defy gravity.”
Obviously, it’s impressive anytime someone falls down a skyscraper and doesn’t die, but there are still a lot of other things to be impressed about with this story. For starters, Mahjoor was joined in his descent by 19 other philanthropists including the Duke of York, Prince Andrew (who was perhaps inspired to traverse the Shard after watching his mom, Queen Elizabeth II, engage in a similarly extreme activity when she jumped out of a helicopter at this year’s Olympics). In addition, Mahjoor is a complete novice at rappelling. “When Fasha accepted the challenge, he had never worn a harness before in his life,” Phenomenex spokeswoman Kari Carlson Kelly told Newscripts before her boss made his descent. “Minus a short practice run, he is a total rookie!” Continue reading →
Sure, athletes are representing countries from all over the world during this summer’s Olympic Games, but that doesn’t mean chemistry can’t have its own representative too. Her name is Amanda Polk, a biochemistry major from the University of Notre Dame and an American Chemical Society member. For the 2012 Olympics, Amanda represented chemistry, and the U.S., as an alternate for a number of women’s rowing teams.
Since mid-July, Amanda has been in London, training and standing on call to compete in events such as the women’s pair (in which two women compete per boat, and each has only one oar), the women’s quadruple sculls (four women each with two oars, aka sculls), and the women’s eight (eight women each with only one oar). It’s all been pretty mind-boggling for Amanda, who is participating in her first Olympics. “I am very honored to be representing the U.S. in London,” she told Newscripts. “The feeling is surreal.”
Although Amanda did not compete in an event at this summer’s games—the rowing events ended on Aug. 4, with the U.S. women’s team taking home bronze in the women’s quadruple sculls and gold in the women’s eight—the level of effort required by Amanda during her time in London was still of Olympic proportions. Prior to leaving for London to watch his daughter compete, Amanda’s father, Kenneth, explained that Amanda would be training “with the team exactly as if she would be in the boat.” This practice was necessary given that Amanda served as a first alternate who might be called on at any moment to replace a teammate who had become injured or violated a rule or code of conduct, he said. Continue reading →
This post was written by C&EN reporter Jyllian Kemsley.
In the July 23 print Newscripts column, I wrote about olympicene, a molecule composed of five fused rings that was synthesized by chemists at the University of Warwick and resembles the Olympic rings. Now the Periodic Table of Videos has tackled the subject, and the University of Nottingham’s Martyn Poliakoff ups the ante. Poliakoff says that to truly mimic the Olympic rings, chemists need to interconnect circular molecules rather than fuse them together. He suggests ways that it might be done using catenanes and challenges viewers to make it happen.
Can any Newscripts readers out there think of other ways to make interconnected Olympic ring mimics? Share your ideas here.
For her doctoral thesis, Zandonadi used unripe, green bananas to develop an alternative for individuals, such as those with the autoimmune condition celiac disease, who are allergic to the gluten normally found in pasta. The results were recently published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics (DOI: 10.1016/j.jand.2012.04.002).
Typically pasta is made with wheat flour (which contains gluten) and whole eggs. Zandonadi’s team, however, cooked up a pasta with green banana flour (which does not contain gluten), egg whites, water, and guar and xantham gum. According to Zandonadi’s teammate Raquel Botelho, green banana flour serves as a great replacement for wheat flour because the fruit’s resistant starch “forms a net similar to gluten” that traps water inside the pasta, ensuring a moist and elastic consistency.
Unripe fruit might not sound like the most appetizing of ingredients, but the experimental pasta actually proved quite tasty. The team cooked a meal of green banana pasta for a focus group of 25 people with celiac disease as well as a meal of green banana pasta and whole-wheat pasta for another group of 50 with no gluten allergies. The team then asked the tasters to rate their experience. The diners raved about the experimental pasta, ranking it ahead of whole-wheat pasta in terms of aroma, flavor, texture, and all-around quality. Not bad for pasta that contains 98% less fat than its whole-wheat counterpart. Another benefit, says Botelho: Green banana pasta serves as a source of inulin, a polysaccharide that stimulates the development of “good,” immunity-boosting intestinal bacteria. Continue reading →