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
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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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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. Read the rest
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 Read the rest
What makes the dip in a chocolate dip cone harden from a goo into a crispy shell? It's coconut oil
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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. Read the rest
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
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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. Read the rest
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.
Check out more Anissa Ramirez science videos Read the rest
I'm loving the "Doing Stuff with Crazy Aunt Lindsey" series of hands-on science YouTube videos for kids. I can't find the host's full name on the YouTube page or her website, but she's a fantastic presence and so are the kids that appear with her. The result is a series of videos that are adorable, high-spirited, creative, and fun—full of great, simple projects that pack a surprising amount of science "oomph" behind them.
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Scientist sets out to determine the chemical differences between bourbon, rye, Tennessee, and other whiskeys. His name: Tom Collins
. No. Seriously. Read the rest
The artificial sweetener Splenda was discovered
when a chemistry grad student misunderstood his advisor's instructions to "test" a compound and tasted it, instead. (This piece at Scientific American focuses on how the brain responds to, and is changed by, sweeteners.) Read the rest
How the ancient Romans created color-changing glass goblets
that shifted colors based on what you put in them. Read the rest
At Popular Mechanics, an analytical chemist uses clues from Breaking Bad
to explain both the real science behind Walter White's meth formula, and the key flaw that either means the show's writers are taking a little artistic license or
Walter is even more of a chemistry genius than anybody thought. Read the rest
Ancient Roman cosmetics were notoriously poisonous — despite the fact that it was already a well-known toxin
, folks slathered their faces in white lead and dabbed red lead rouge on their cheeks. You wouldn't drop dead from a single application. The problem built up over time, as more and more and more of the stuff was applied (and absorbed) by your body. And that's still true today. In a new column for The New York Times — all about chemicals and your environment — Deb Blum writes about the lead (and aluminum and cadmium and all sorts of of other metals) that contaminates modern lipstick
. The doses are low, much lower than Roman times. But the reapplications are many. Lipstick wearers touch up their color as often as 20 times in a single day. Read the rest
The blue meth made by Walter White is bluer than any meth that could actually exist in real life — and other interesting things that you learn while talking to Breaking Bad's scientific advisor
, University of Oklahoma chemistry professor Donna Nelson. Read the rest
The Earth is about 4.5 billion years old.
Actual dirt — that is to say, like the stuff in your backyard, not rocks that were once
dirt — probably dates to about 2 million years ago
. Dirt is young! (Relatively speaking.) Read the rest