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
What makes the dip in a chocolate dip cone harden from a goo into a crispy shell? It's coconut oil
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.
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
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.
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
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.
Scientist sets out to determine the chemical differences between bourbon, rye, Tennessee, and other whiskeys. His name: Tom Collins
. No. Seriously.
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.)
How the ancient Romans created color-changing glass goblets
that shifted colors based on what you put in them.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
The diving gear might be a bit of a tip-off, but this fellow isn't sat on a log, fishing. In fact, he's 90ft underwater, posing above the murk that forms where fresh and salt water meet. Photographer Anatoly Beloshchin captured these and many other stunning pictures in and around the depths. [Daily Mail]
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.
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.