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8 foods that aren't as frightening as Buzzfeed thinks they are

An actual chemist looks at claims made about "toxic foods" in a recent Buzzfeed linkbait post and calmly explains why the whole thing is ridiculous. Of the 8 foods (actually, mostly food additives) mentioned, one is hardly used anymore, another was withdrawn from the market two years ago, two only sound scary if you failed chemistry, and four have had their risks vastly overstated. It's the sort of situation where some studies show a risk, some studies don't, and there's good reasons to think the risk — if it exists — isn't that big, to begin with.

Five great myths of cocktail chemistry

There is nothing wrong with adding ice to scotch, writes Kevin Liu at Serious Eats. In fact, a little water can change the flavor profile of the drink for the better. What's more, chilling your scotch won't dampen down the aroma. A chilled drink won't be flinging off scent molecules left and right, but it will warm up enough from your hot breath to get the chemistry of scent where it needs to go — and to give you the flavor experience you want.

The chemical composition of "old book smell"

It starts with lignin — a compound that makes up the cell walls of plants. Turns out, it's also closely related (chemical-structure-wise) to vanillin, the stuff that makes vanilla smell so vanilla-y. Given that books are full of the broken-down cell walls of trees, a big part of what we think of as "old book smell" is actually a scent similar to vanilla.

Cool-looking science book I am ordering immediately

Guidebook for the Scientific Traveler, published in 2010 and written by Duane Nickel, promises to be a tour guide to chemistry and physics points of interest all across the United States. (Thanks Tim Heffernan!)

Are red flowers all red for the same reason?

Science Buddies has an interesting, springtime-themed experiment in the chemistry of color that you can do at home, using plants you've gathered from your yard or a park. It looks like a great activity for curious folks of all ages.

Why are barns red?

If you've ever spent much time in American farm country, then you've probably noticed that there's a strong tradition there of coating barns and outbuildings with red paint. Why?

Because nuclear fusion.

Okay, the actual answer is simply because red paint has long been a cheap color to buy. But, explains Google engineer Yonatan Zunger, there is some really interesting physics lurking in the background of that price point.

What makes a cheap pigment? Obviously, that it’s plentiful. The red pigment that makes cheap paint is red ochre, which is just iron and oxygen. These are incredibly plentiful: the Earth’s crust is 6% iron and 30% oxygen. Oxygen is plentiful and affects the color of compounds it’s in by shaping them, but the real color is determined by the d-electrons of whatever attaches to it: red from iron, blues and greens from copper, a beautiful deep blue from cobalt, and so on. So if we know that good pigments will all come from elements in that big d-block in the middle, the real question is, why is one of these elements, iron, so much more common than all of the others? Why isn’t our world made mostly of, say, copper, or vanadium?

The answer, again, is nuclear fusion.

You can read the full story on Zunger's Google+ page. In my experience, white is another really common barn color, due to the fact that whitewash — a paint made from calcium hydroxide and chalk (which is also calcium) — is way cheap, as well. Calcium is also one of the most abundant elements in the Earth's crust ... clocking in at number 5, right under iron in the top 10. I'm sure there's some different science that accounts for the high concentrations of calcium on our planet, but the same principal applies. Cheap paint is paint made with abundant (and easily accessible) elements. And abundant elements happen because of physics.

Image: Red Nebraska Barn, a Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivative-Works (2.0) image from 50779843@N03's photostream

Where does "new car smell" come from?

The answer lies in another question. How can PVC — polyvinyl chloride, a commonly used type of plastic — be the stuff that makes tough, rigid sewer pipes and, simultaneously, be the stuff that makes floppy vinyl signs and cheap Goth pants?

"PVC is hard stuff. But if you put in a lot of plasticizer, you can get it to be soft," explains John Pojman, a chemistry professor at Louisiana State University. At a molecular level, PVC is a dense thing. Imagine a slinky in its stiff, compressed state. The plasticizers are chemical compounds derived from coal tar. Mix them with PVC and the small molecules of plasticizer shove their in between the densely packed PVC molecules. Imagine stretching the slinky out so that its coils are now wobbly. Same thing happens here. The more plasticizer you add, the less rigid the PVC.

And it's the plasticizers that produce that smell — the one we associate with the vinyl interior of a new car.

Image: 365:37 - Mar 29 - that new car smell, a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivative-Works (2.0) image from waldengirl's photostream

Ammonium nitrate fertilizer isn't really a dangerous explosive (most of the time)

Fertilizer can explode*. We all know that. It was a key ingredient in the bomb that destroyed Oklahoma City’s Alfred P.

Read the rest

Read mystery novels to learn chemistry

Deborah Blum — my favorite expert in the fine art of poisoning — writes a fascinating piece about the way mystery writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers approached the chemistry in their stories with an almost mind-blowing accuracy. Not only did they get the symptoms of specific poisons correct, they were actually describe common chemical tests and techniques right in the narrative.

Oceans could yield new sources of rare earth elements

Rare earth elements aren't actually rare, but right now the vast majority of them (97%) come from a single place — China. Given how important these elements are to the making of everything from computers to cars, that gives China quite the monopoly. With that context, here's the news: Japan just found a big supply of rare earth elements in mud at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Of course, what may be good news for manufacturing is not necessarily good news for the health of oceans.

The classy and fascinating back story behind pink champagne

This article at Lapham's Quarterly by Peter Foges has me rethinking my biases against rose champagne — a drink I tend to associate with undergrads and poorly conceived 7-Up cocktails. Turns out, the history (and the chemistry) of rose are totally fascinating. Traditionally the quaff of queens (and really, really, really high-class hookers), real rose is surprisingly difficult to make, relying on a process that could, with just a small error, go wrong and leave you with a drink that is red, brown, or even blue.

Breast milk is weirder than you think

If you think about lactation too hard, it starts to seem a little strange — like the biological equivalent of saying the word "that" over and over until it's just a weird sound you're making. But, writes Nicholas Day at Slate, the sort of existential weirdness of breast milk is nothing compared to what's going on in the stuff at a chemical level. For instance, breast milk contains sugars that aren't actually digestible by human infants. That's because they aren't meant for the infant, itself. Rather, your breast milk is helpfully feeding your baby's intestinal bacteria. Freakier still: In monkeys, the chemical composition of breast milk can change, depending on factors like your baby's sex and whether your baby is showing signs of illness.

Grapefruit + prescription drug = overdose

There are 44 prescription drugs on the market today that should never be combined with grapefruit. That's because the sour fruit (and some other, closely related, kinds of citrus) contain chemical compounds called furanocoumarins that prevent your body from metabolizing certain prescription drugs. Essentially, the grapefruit creates an artificial overdose where one tablet packs the power (and side effects) of 20. The CBC has a full list of the drugs, which includes cancer drugs, cholesterol-lowering drugs, and drugs to treat problems of the urinary tract. Wikipedia has more about why this interaction happens.

The world's tiniest periodic table

Tonight, I got to meet Martyn Poliakoff — the fabulously frizzy-haired University of Nottingham chemist who you might recognize from a series of awesome videos about the periodic table that Xeni first blogged about back in 2008.

This is his business card.

It's a microscope image of the world's tiniest periodic table, which Poliakoff's friends inscribed on a strand of his own hair as a birthday gift in 2010. The hair, which Poliakoff keeps in a glass vial, has earned him a spot in The Guinness Book of World Records.



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Why your mixer matters

Getting tipsy is more than just a simple equation of "Insert booze, receive stupid behavior". There's some complicated chemistry at work — especially when you begin to factor in the stuff you mix your alcohol into. For instance, the sugar in soda actually prevents your blood stream from absorbing as much alcohol as it otherwise would. Which means, as Allison Aubrey explains at NPR, your choice of mixer could be the difference between a blood alcohol level that is within legal limits and one that is most decidedly not.

How chili peppers can kill

In the latest "dose makes the poison" news: If you consume enough chili peppers (or even chili powder), it can act as a neurotoxin.

How snowflakes get their shapes

Not all snowflakes are unique in their shape. There's one fact for you.

And here's another: The shape of snowflakes — whether individually distinct or mass-production common — is determined by chemistry. Specifically, the shape is a function of the temperatures and meteorological conditions the snowflakes are exposed to as they form and the way those factors affect the growth of ice crystals.

This short video from Bytesize Science will give you a nice overview of snowflake production and will help you understand why some snowflakes are unique, and why others aren't.

Chemis-tree


Breokz uploaded a photo of "Xmas at the lab of Avans University of Applied Science." Chemistry may all be "pretty colors and things that go bang," but it sure makes for a festive tree.

True Chemistree (imgur.com)

Molecules with silly names

Meet moronic acid. It's special.

Seriously.

Found in mistletoe and the Chinese sumac, this chemical could be one of the reasons those plants have long been associated with herbal medicine. Scientists studying the anti-viral properties of moronic acid have found it to be effective against HIV and herpes. The HIV work is particularly important, because moronic acid seems to target a different receptor on the virus than other drugs — which means it could be effective against HIV strains that have developed a resistance to existing medication. It'll still be a while before this research translates into a commercial product (if it does at all). But moronic acid is, at least, doing well enough to have made it into Phase II clinical trials — which means that smaller studies on humans have shown that it's generally safe. The Phase II trials, usually done with groups of 100 to 300 people, will help scientists understand whether it's as effective in the human body as it seems to be in the lab.

Looking for more molecules with silly names? Chemist Paul May has a whole list of these things — many of them hilariously immature. List includes arsole, cummingtonite, and fucitol.

Via the Daily Molecule and Deb Blum

The comic book periodic table of elements

University of Kentucky chemistry professors John P. Selegue and F. James Holler are collecting comic book references to chemical elements. On their Periodic Table of Comic Books site, you can click through the standard periodic table to see pages from comic books that mention specific elements. The samples seem to be weighted pretty heavily to classic, Golden and Silver Age stuff — there's a lot of 1940s Wonder Woman and miscellaneous anthology series from the 1960s.

They don't have all the elements accounted for yet. In particular, the lanthanides and actinides — aka, those two rows at the bottom where everything ends in "ium" — are lacking comic book shout-outs. Maybe you can help!

Visit the Periodic Table of Comic Books

Thanks to Jennifer Ouellette!

Two very good dogs teach you chemistry

Paige the border collie can load the washing machine, pick up trash, and make toaster waffles (although you probably don't want to eat them afterwards).

And, with the help of her colleague Dexter — and their owner/trainer, who is also a chemist — Paige can even teach chemistry.

Here, Paige and Dexter serve as models for a discussion about chemical bonds — the forces that attract one atom to another and form the basis of all the chemicals that make up our world.

Via Matthew Hartings

Aralac: The "wool" made from milk

Yesterday, Cory posted a vintage ad for boys' hats and accessories, which included a small selection of ties made from something called "Aralac". I didn't think much of it, until I noticed J. Brad Hicks' comment pointing out that Aralac was a synthetic wool made from cheese. Which was not a joke.

Seriously. It'll make more sense once you understand how the stuff was actually made.

Think about it this way: Wool (the actual kind, that comes from sheep) is a protein. So is casein, which is found in milk. Making Aralac is basically about getting the protein casein to behave like the protein wool. In 1937, Time magazine described how the process worked:

Having practically the same chemical composition as wool, it is made by mixing acid with skim milk. This extracts the casein, which looks like pot cheese. Evaporated to crystals, it is pulverized and dissolved into a molasses consistency, then forced through spinnerets like macaroni, passed through a hardening chemical bath, cut into fibres of any desired length. From 100 pounds of skim milk come 3.7 pounds of casein which converts to the same weight of lanital. [Aralac was also called Lanital.]

Read the rest

Wheel of Urine

NewImage This Wheel of Urine is from Ullrich Pinder's Epiphanie Medicorum (1506). It was used to diagnose disease based on characteristics of the patient's piss, including its taste. Urinalysis is common today, of course. Well, not the tasting part. "The Urine Wheel" (SciAm)

Time to start coveting vintage Pyrex

Pyrex is supposed to be tough stuff, capable of withstanding extreme temperature changes, like a trip from the freezer to the oven. And that was true with old Pyrex, made from thermal-stress resistant borosilicate glass. But starting in 1994, Corning began licensing the name Pyrex to other manufacturers, which, today, make Pyrex brand cookware with a different chemical formulation—soda lime silicate glass. A report in the Bulletin of the American Ceramic Society says the new glass doesn't have the heat-protection powers of the old stuff. So why use it? Apparently, the manufacturers say soda lime silicate glass provides better protection against breaking when dropped. The report didn't test that, but this could just be an example of chemical trade-offs. Listen to Scientific American's podcast about this news. Or read the full report. (Via Christopher Mims)

Things that almost make you want to go back to school

A new trend: Colleges offering chemistry cooking classes as an undergraduate science course.

The history (and future) of kid's chemistry sets

Sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, my mom bought me a chemistry set. I was in grade school, but I remember thinking it was pretty cool. I also remember being slightly disappointed (particularly after being told that I could only play with it in the garage) that there was nothing in there that could actually blow up.

Many of us are nostalgic for the lost golden era of certifiably dangerous children's chemistry sets. Even if we weren't alive when that era occurred, we're still, sort of, vicariously nostalgic. At the BBC, Alex Hudson has a story about what was really in those misty colored chemistry sets that have lodged themselves into our cultural memory. Along the way, we learn that their demise was only partly to do with unfounded safety fears—some of the fears were founded, for instance, and in other cases, money and seemingly unrelated legal issues got in the way of fun.

By the 1920s and 30s children had access to substances which would raise eyebrows in today's more safety-conscious times. There were toxic ingredients in pesticides, as well as chemicals now used in bombs or considered likely to increase the risk of cancer. And most parents will not need to be told of the dangers of the sodium cyanide found in the interwar kits or the uranium dust present in the "nuclear" kits of the 1950s.

Most will know cyanide as a deadly poison, but one of its main applications is in gold mining. It can make gold dissolve into water.

...Used often to test the presence of starch, the iodine solution once seen in kits is now regulated as a list I chemical in the US because of its use in the manufacture of methamphetamine. It can also be lethal if more than 2g of pure iodine is consumed.

Read the rest of this story at the BBC

Top 11 Chemistry Moments in Breaking Bad

WARNING: Video contains spoilers.

To celebrate the premiere of Breaking Bad's Fifth Season this week, my fellow trufan Miles O'Brien and I dug into the show's vaults to explore the top 10 chemistry moments in Breaking Bad, from seasons One through Four. Only, there was so much awesome science, we had to choose 11 top chemistry moments, instead.

Also, check out our excellent adventure: air-dropping in to a random Breaking Bad fan's premiere party in the show's hometown of Albuquerque, NM.

[Video Link]. More Boing Boing coverage of Breaking Bad here.

Assembled by Joe Sabia (Twitter: @joesabia, web: joesabia.co). Check out his CDZA project on YouTube, too. Thanks, Joe!

Film soaked in hydrochloric acid

MattAttackPro is a chemistry and physics teacher in South Carolina. This is what happened when he dropped a roll of unused camera film into a container of hydrochloric acid.

What you're seeing is the plastic backing separating from the "film" from which film takes its name—a coating of multiple layers of light-sensitive salts suspended in gelatin. Yes, film is like a jello salad. And it makes for a beautiful photograph.

See the photo on Instagram

The sordid history of a perfect poison

Suxamethonium chloride is a common hospital anesthetic that has, off and on, moonlighted as murder weapon.

Used to paralyze patients so that doctors can more easily put insert a breathing tube, the drug can kill very easily if the person who gets a dose of it doesn't have access to things like respirators, or a medical team. And when somebody is killed by "sux", the death can look conveniently like a simple heart attack. More importantly, writes professional chemist and anonymous science blogger Dr. Rubidium, for many years, there was no way to test for sux in a dead person's bloodstream.

Since the early 1950s, sux has been used in a clinical setting mainly by anesthesiologists. It’s a mystery when it was first used in a homicide, but the first high-profile killings came in the 1966 and 1967. This salacious tale of murder involves anesthesiologist Dr. Carl Coppolino, his mistress, his mistress’ husband dying suddenly in ’66, Coppolino’s wife dying suddenly in ’67, a quick remarriage by Dr. Coppolino (not to that mistress), two trials in different states leading to different verdicts.

Coppolino’s first trial in New Jersey involved a shaky witness (that jilted mistress) and a tricky toxicology problem. ...

Back in the mid-to-late sixties, sux was likely considered a “perfect poison” as no tried-and-true method for detecting it in tissues was developed until the 1980s. Previous analysis had holes – including the analysis presented in both of Coppolino’s trials. It wasn’t sux that was detected, but the metabolites succinic acid and choline.

You can read the rest of Dr. Rubidium's post at The Journal of Are You Fucking Kidding.

Her post is part of a bigger series, though. If you dig weird, toxic chemicals, you should check out the "My Favorite Toxic Chemical" blog carnival—a collection of horrifying and wondrous posts about poisons.

Toxic Chemical Carnival: Day 1
Toxic Chemical Carnival: Day 2
Toxic Chemical Carnival: Day 3
Toxic Chemical Carnival: Day 4
Toxic Chemical Carnival: Day 5

How electronic smell-detection works

A great short video from a CalTech gas-sensing lab explains the science of gas-detection and analysis.

The Electronic Nose: Sniffing Out the Dangerous Stuff to Keep Our Noses Safe (Thanks, Scanadu)