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$5 programmable chemistry set inspired by music box

Stanford bioengineer Manu Prakash and his colleagues devised a $5 "chemistry set" that can be programmed to mix various reactants by punching holes in a paper tape and feeding it through the handheld device. Prakash says he was inspired by a hand-cranked music box. This latest device for what Prakash calls "frugal science" is on the heels of his amazing 50-cent folding microscope that I blogged previously.

"Music box inspires a chemistry set for kids and scientists in developing countries" (SCOPE)

HOWTO season a cast-iron pan -- with SCIENCE


Sheryl Canter's post on the science of cast-iron pan seasoning is a fascinating and practical tale of flaxseed and kitchen chemistry. It's a long process -- you need to season the pan six or so times, each time taking a couple of hours -- but the science is sound and the proof is in the hard, nonstick coating your pan will have when you're done.

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Preventing pigsplosions

The bad news: Massive piles of pig manure are foaming up and then exploding and nobody is really sure why. The worse news: The only solution (other than, you know, not raising so many pigs all together) is to feed the pigs more antibiotics — a practice that contributes to antibiotic resistance. Maggie 53

Why do dog farts stink so bad?

Because puppies are filled with love ... and also hydrogen sulfide. Maggie 15

Building a better soy burger

Mother Jones has an interesting story about several start-ups trying to create fake meat, dairy, and eggs that are not only sustainable, but appetizing ... even to people who aren't already committed vegans. It's a story about business and ethics, but it's also a story about chemistry and food engineering. As a meat eater who does enjoy seitan, I'm intrigued. Maggie 11

Polonium-210: A pretty good way to horribly murder somebody

Last week, a Swiss investigation found evidence to support the idea that Yasser Arafat was poisoned with polonium-210 — a radioactive element that's safe to carry around in a container, but causes unstoppable death if swallowed. NPR sat down with Deborah Blum, a science writer who specializes in the chemistry of poisonings, to talk about what makes polonium-210 a particularly handy way to off somebody and why it's so hard to bring a polonium poisoner to justice. Maggie 34

A mysterious form of water with unique chemical properties

In the 1960s, Russian scientists discovered a new form of water that congealed at room temperature, froze at -40, and wouldn't boil no matter the temperature. For a few brief years, "polywater" was a scientific rage — the subject of pop culture craziness, Cold War research races, and CIA interrogations. At Slate, Joseph Stromberg tells the story of polywater and explains why, despite all that hype, most of us have never heard of it today. Maggie 22

How scientists created an element

The synthetic (or man-made) elements are the ones with silly-sounding names, found along the bottom of the periodic table — Einsteinium and Nobelium, Livermorium and Mendelevium, and more. Unlike the rest of the elements, you won't find them just hanging out in nature. They have to be created in a laboratory, and they only exist for a limited amount of time — some no more than milliseconds. Though new ones have been discovered/created as recently as 2010, the 1950s and 60s were sort of a heyday of synthetic elements, with different laboratories locked in a race to find the niftiest new things first.

During that time, researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab made a film strip reenacting their own 1955 discovery of the element Mendelevium. The film lay forgotten in storage for 60 years until it was recently uncovered and restored by retired physicist Claude Lyneis. Originally just a silent sequence showing real Mendelevium discoverers Al Ghiorso, Bernard Harvey, Gregory Choppin, and Stanley Thompson demonstrating how they'd found the 101st element, the film has been updated with narration and sound effects and is a pretty cool explanation of where synthetic elements come from.

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Nobel Prizes 2013: Computer models that can mimic life

We talk about computer modeling a lot in the context of climate science — powerful algorithms that help scientists get a better idea of how climate systems work, how they spin off into weather, and how the systems and the weather are altered by both nature and humans. But modeling plays a huge role in other sciences, as well. In fact, on the flip side of the climate change coin, modeling is an essential part of designing better solar cells to turn energy from the Sun into useable electricity. If we ever do master the art of artificial photosynthesis, we'll have the three men who just won this year's Nobel Prize for Chemistry to thank.

Back in the 1970s, Martin Karplus of Université de Strasbourg, France and Harvard University, Michael Levitt of Stanford, and Arieh Warshel of USC, were instrumental in constructing the first computer models capable of predicting the effects of chemical reactions — including ones that happen far too quickly to be observed. Today, their work touches the daily lives of chemists all over the world, doing research from solar cell design to drug development.

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Sniffing a beaver's butt: a surprisingly pleasant experience

From a National Geographic story by Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato, the quote of the week:

“I lift up the animal’s tail,” said Joanne Crawford, a wildlife ecologist at Southern Illinois University, “and I’m like, ‘Get down there, and stick your nose near its bum. People think I’m nuts,” she added. “I tell them, ‘Oh, but it’s beavers; it smells really good.’”

Crawford is talking about castoreum, a naturally occurring anal secretion found in beavers. The furry animals use it to mark their territory. We humans, however, have also found uses for castoreum. Most notably, as an ingredient in vanilla-flavored and vanilla-scented products.

Pictured: Hardened lumps of beaver anal secretions, as stored in the Deutsches Apothekenmuseum, Heidelberg Castle, Heidelberg, Germany. Photo by H. Zell via CC

The magic ingredient in a chocolate dip cone

What makes the dip in a chocolate dip cone harden from a goo into a crispy shell? It's coconut oil. Maggie 5

The history of sarin

UN investigators confirmed this week that sarin was used in attacks on civilians in Syria, and, at The Guardian, Ian Sample has an interesting story about the history of this poison, starting with its origins in Nazi Germany. Interestingly, it wasn't originally developed specifically to be used on people. Sarin was an accidental discovery that came out of IG Farben research into new insecticides. Nevertheless, the formula was quickly handed off to the German military. One of the inventors of sarin eventually ended up convicted of war crimes at Nuremberg. He served four years — before being recruited into the US chemical weapons program. Maggie 2

How one chemist does her research, even though her lab makes her sick

LuAnne McNulty is an organic chemist. A few years ago, she developed severe asthma that's triggered by ... well ... organic chemistry. Not too long ago, that biological reaction would have put her out of a job. Today, she's able to conduct research (if not do it herself) and advise younger scientists with the help of really simple tech solutions. Maggie 5

Chemistry mystery solved: The death of Chris McCandless

Chris McCandless was the hiker and simple living advocate who died from starvation in Denali National Park in 1992. His story was later made into a book and movie called Into the Wild. But there's always been something a little weird about McCandless' death. How did a guy dedicated to back-to-the-land knowledge and safe foraging end up starving to death? At The New Yorker, writer Jon Krakauer explains how the mystery of McCandless' death was finally solved. The evidence points to a secret of food chemistry with ties to Nazi death camps. Maggie 15

How physics sunk the Titanic

The iceberg wasn't the only thing that took down the Titanic, explains Yale University materials scientist Anissa Ramirez. Instead, cold temperatures in the icy North Atlantic changed the behavior of the materials that made up the boat — changes that reduced the ocean liner's ability to withstand a head-on iceberg collision.

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Check out more Anissa Ramirez science videos