Published on 22 Jun 2015
Fritz Haber is one of the most famous German scientists. His inventions made it possible to feed an ever growing human population and influence us till this day. But Fritz Haber had a dark side too: His research made the weaponization of gas and the increased production of explosives possible. Find out more about the life of Fritz Haber in our biography.
June 23, 2015
June 2, 2015
Compound Interest posted an infographic on cannabis and synthetic cannabinoids:
In recent years, there’s been an increase in the number of media reports on users of synthetic cannabinoids. Commonly referred to by names such as ‘Spice’ or ‘K2′, the most recent reported case involved five UK students being hospitalised after use. But what are the chemicals present in ‘spice’ and similar drugs, and what are the chemical compounds in cannabis that they aim to mimic? That’s what this graphic and post attempt to answer.
May 30, 2015
Compound Interest looks at the chemical make-up of gin:
For the fifth in the ‘Alcohol Chemistry’ series, we turn to gin. As with other types of alcohol, there are a huge number of different chemical compounds present, but it’s possible to identify a range of significant chemical contributors to its aroma & flavour. Here, we take a look at those compounds and where they come from.
Gin is a spirit that we’ve been making for centuries; although Franciscus Sylvius, a Dutch physician and scientist, is often credited with its discovery in the 17th century, references to gin (or genever as it was also known) exist as far back as the 13th century. Sylvius originally conceived it as an concoction for the treatment of kidney and bladder problems, but its popularity as a recreational drink later soared.
Its popularity in England was spurred by heavy government duties on imported spirits, as well as the fact that gin production was not required to be licensed. This growth in popularity was also accompanied by a gradual decline in its reputation, however, with it being blamed for a range of issues, from social problems such as public drunkenness, to increases in death rates. Gin’s reputation has since largely recovered, although some references to these associations still survive in English parlance – ‘Mother’s Ruin’ is still a widely known alternative name for the spirit.
April 9, 2015
Published on 7 Apr 2015
All soldiers feared poison gas but all sides developed deadlier and more perfidious kinds of chemical agents. Indy tells you everything about gas warfare in World War 1 in this special episode.
April 3, 2015
According to this story in the Guardian, a typical city of one million people poops out $13 million in (potentially recoverable) precious metals every year:
Sewage sludge contains traces of gold, silver and platinum at levels that would be seen as commercially viable by traditional prospectors. “The gold we found was at the level of a minimal mineral deposit,” said Kathleen Smith, of the US Geological Survey.
Smith and her colleagues argue that extracting metals from waste could also help limit the release of harmful metals, such as lead, into the environment in fertilisers and reduce the amount of toxic sewage that has to be buried or burnt.
“If you can get rid of some of the nuisance metals that currently limit how much of these biosolids we can use on fields and forests, and at the same time recover valuable metals and other elements, that’s a win-win,” she said.
A previous study, by Arizona State University, estimated that a city of 1 million inhabitants flushed about $13m (£8.7m) worth of precious metals down toilets and sewer drains each year.
The task of sifting sewage for microscopic quantities of gold may sound grim, but it could have a variety of unexpected benefits over traditional gold mining. The use of powerful chemicals, called leachates, used by the industry to pull metals out of rock is controversial, because these chemicals can be devastating to ecosystems when they leak into the environment. In the controlled setting of a sewage plant, the chemicals could be used liberally without the ecological risks.
February 9, 2015
Last month, in his Times column, Matt Ridley explained why — until we discover a treatment for aging itself — rising cancer rates are a weird form of good news:
If we could prevent or cure all cancer, what would we die of? The new year has begun with a war of words over whether cancer is mostly bad luck, as suggested by a new study from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and over whether it’s a good way to die, compared with the alternatives, as suggested by Dr Richard Smith, a former editor of the BMJ.
It is certainly bad luck to be British and get cancer, relatively speaking. As The Sunday Times reported yesterday, survival rates after cancer diagnosis are lower here than in most developed and some developing countries, reflecting the National Health Service’s chronic problems with rationing treatment by delay. In Japan, survival rates for lung and liver cancer are three times higher than here.
Cancer is now the leading cause of death in Britain even though it is ever more survivable, with roughly half of people who contract it living long enough to die of something else. But what else? Often another cancer.
In the western world we’ve conquered most of the causes of premature death that used to kill our ancestors. War, smallpox, homicide, measles, scurvy, pneumonia, gangrene, tuberculosis, stroke, typhoid, heart disease and cholera are all much rarer, strike much later in life or are more survivable than they were fifty or a hundred years ago.
The mortality rate in men from coronary heart disease, for instance, has fallen by an amazing 80 per cent since 1968 — for all age groups. Mortality rates from stroke in both sexes have halved in 20 years. Cancer’s growing dominance of the mortality tables is not because it’s getting worse but because we are avoiding other causes of death and living longer.
It is worth remembering that some scientists and anti-pesticide campaigners in the 1960s were convinced that by now lifespans would be much shorter because of cancer caused by pesticides and other chemicals in the environment.
In the 1950s Wilhelm Hueper — a director of the US National Cancer Institute and mentor to Rachel Carson, the environmentalist author of Silent Spring — was so concerned that pesticides were causing cancer that he thought the theory that lung cancer was caused by smoking was a plot by the chemical industry to divert attention from its own culpability: “Cigarette smoking is not a major factor in the causation of lung cancer,” he insisted.
In fact it turns out that pollution causes very little cancer and cigarettes cause a lot. But aside from smoking, most cancers are indeed bad luck. The Johns Hopkins researchers found that tissues that replicate their stem cells most run the highest risk of cancer: basal skin cells do ten trillion cell divisions in a lifetime and have a million times more cancer risk than pelvic bone cells which do about a million cell divisions. Random DNA copying mistakes during cell division are “the major contributors to cancer overall, often more important than either hereditary or external environmental factors”, say the US researchers.
To sum it up, until or unless medical research finds a way to stop the bodily effects of aging, cancer becomes the most likely way for all of us to die. Cancer is a generic rather than a specific term — it’s what we use to describe the inevitable breakdown of the cellular division process that happens millions or even trillions of times over our lifetime. As Ridley puts it, “even if everybody lived in the healthiest possible way, we would still get a lot of cancer.” I’m not a scientist and I don’t even play one on TV, but I suspect that the solution to cancers of all kinds are to boost our immune systems to more quickly identify aberrant cells in our bodies before they start reproducing beyond the capability of the immune system to handle. The short- to medium-term solution to cancer may be to make us all a little bit cyborg…
January 26, 2015
In Cosmos, Andrew Masterson investigates what is still an art and what has been codified as science:
“With commercial yeast you get certainty – you can sleep at night,” says Bicknell. “But how do you make wine more interesting? You exploit the metabolic processes of different yeast species.”
Bicknell’s faith in wild yeasts adds stress at fermentation time, but the pay-off is multi-award-winning wines regularly acknowledged as some of the best in Australia. “The wines do taste different, even if there’s no way you can show that statistically,” Bicknell says. “The only way to really know is to taste.”
Exploiting the diverse and fluctuating populations of wild yeasts found on the plants, fruit and in the air of vineyards is “the new black” (not to mention red and white) in oenology. The practice is becoming more commonplace among artisan winemakers. Even some of the giant commercial wine corporations are investing in the method.
Wild fermentation, says Bicknell, represents the intersection of science, craft and philosophy. But it could also form the basis of a profound shift in the narrative of wine. The more we study winemaking’s microbes, the more it appears they might explain one of the wine industry’s most beloved, but vaguest, terms: terroir.
“Terroir is a wonderful marketing term,” says David Mills, a microbiologist at UC Davis, who studies microbes in wine. “But it’s not a science.”
The French word terroir is difficult to translate. The closest translation is “soil”, but that is just one of its components. Terroir connotes the unique sense of place – the soils, the topography and the microclimate. It’s what makes the wines of Bordeaux or Australia’s Coonawarra so distinctive, and so inimitable.
Sommeliers like Ren Lim, former captain of the Oxford University Blind Tasting Society (and a PhD biophysics student) will tell you merely from swirling a mouthful of Cabernet Sauvignon which Australian winery produced it.
“The ones from Margaret River often give off a more pronounced green pepper note, a note found commonly in Cabernets grown in regions which experience pronounced maritime influences. Coonawarra Cabernets are somewhat different and unique in their own way. They are often minty and have a eucalyptus or menthol note in addition to the usual ripe blackcurrant notes. The green pepper note is often suppressed under the menthol notes. Nonetheless, the Cabernet structure remains in both these wines.”
It’s a feat that Mills does not question. “I don’t doubt regionality exists, but what causes it is a whole other set of issues.”
January 6, 2015
A throw-away comment on the experiences of female-to-male transgender people by Scott Alexander:
… I could hunt down all of the stories of trans men who start taking testosterone, switch to a more male sex drive, and are suddenly like “OH MY GOD I SUDDENLY REALIZE WHAT MALE HORNINESS IS LIKE I THOUGHT I KNEW SEXUAL FRUSTRATION BEFORE BUT I REALLY REALLY DIDN’T HOW DO YOU PEOPLE LIVE WITH THIS?”
The author of the last link has this to say about the impact of testosterone on his life:
One of the most interesting things about the effects of testosterone and trans men is that we have something else to compare it to. Non-trans men do not. And non-trans women do not, which is why I wrote the post “It’s the Testosterone: What Straight Women Should Know.”
When I started testosterone a dozen years ago, I expected my sex drive to increase. The “horror” stories are a part of trans man lore, passed down from generation to generation as we all gear up for male adolescence, no matter how old we are, and take out a line of credit at the adult toy store.
And it did increase, within about four days of my first shot, and I basically squirmed a lot for two years before I got used to it. But I was planning for that. Here are the things that took me by surprise:
> It became very focused on one thing – the goal, the prize, the end. That doesn’t mean that I was not able to “make love.” What it does mean is that there was a madness to my method, because it was goal-oriented. There was a light at the end of the tunnel. There was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. There was an unguarded hoop just waiting for a slam dunk – score!
> It became very visual. I saw it, I wanted it – whatever it was. This was a new experience for me, because, in the past, I had not been aroused so much by pictures and body parts (or pictures of body parts) as I had been by words – erotic descriptions, stories, and things said to me.
> It became very visceral – instinctual – with a need to take care of it. It had very little to do with romance or even an attraction that made sense intellectually. You’re hungry, you eat. There was a matter-of-factness about it, especially when I was by myself. Hmm … peanut butter sandwich sounds good. Okay, done. Let’s move on.
And from the linked post:
Whenever I speak at a college class (which I did this week), I inevitably get the question about testosterone and sex drive (because college kids are still young enough to be thinking about sex most of the time).
And I tell them the truth, which is that, at least for me and most guys I know, testosterone sends your sex drive straight through the roof and beyond the stratosphere. NASA should honestly use it for fuel to get those rockets (which are really just larger-than-life phallic symbols) to the moon. It is a very powerful aphrodisiac, and way better than oysters, which tend to be slimy.
Testosterone not only increased my sex drive ten-fold, but changed the nature of it as well. It became less diffuse and more goal-oriented, which is probably how the word “score” entered the sexual lexicon. It also, in certain situations, became less about any other person and more about me.
October 17, 2014
As far back as the seventh century, they had metallurgical tricks to make poor quality gold jewellery look far better:
Scientists, examining Britain’s greatest Anglo-Saxon gold treasure collection, have discovered that it isn’t quite as golden as they thought.
Tests on the famous Staffordshire Anglo-Saxon treasure, a vast gold and silver hoard found by a metal detectorist five years ago, have now revealed that the 7th century Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths used sophisticated techniques to make 12-18 karat gold look like 21-23 karat material.
Scientific research, carried out over the past two years on behalf of Birmingham City and Stoke-on-Trent City councils, which jointly own the hoard, has revealed that the Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths had discovered an ingenious way of, metallurgically, dressing mutton up as a lamb. It appears that they deliberately used a weak acid solution – almost certainly ferric chloride – to remove silver and other non-gold impurities from the top few microns of the surfaces of gold artefacts, thus increasing the surfaces’ percentage gold content and therefore improving its appearance. This piece of Anglo-Saxon high tech deception turned the surfaces of relatively low karat, slightly greenish pale yellow gold/silver alloys into high karat, rich deep yellow, apparently high purity gold.
Archaeologists had never previously realised that Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths had developed such technology.
“We had no idea they were doing it,” said Dr Eleanor Blakelock, a leading British archaeometalurgist who carried out the tests on the Staffordshire hoard gold.
H/T to David Stamper for the link.
August 30, 2014
Storing a few old bottles in your cellar? Not as old as these bottles:
Israel isn’t particularly famous for its wine today, but four thousand years ago, during the Bronze Age, vineyards in the region produced vintages that were prized throughout the Mediterranean and imported by the Egyptian elite.
Last summer, archaeologists discovered a rare time capsule of this ancient drinking culture: the world’s oldest known wine cellar, found in the ruins of a sprawling palatial compound in Upper Galilee.
The mud-brick walls of the room seem to have crumbled suddenly, perhaps during an earthquake. Whatever happened, no one came to salvage the 40 wine jars inside after the collapse; luckily for archaeologists, the cellar was left untouched for centuries. [In Images: An Ancient Palace Wine Cellar]
Excavators at the site took samples of the residue inside the jars. In a new study published today (Aug. 27) in the journal PLOS ONE, the researchers describe what their chemical analysis turned up: biomarkers of wine and herbal additives that were mixed into the drink, including mint, cinnamon and juniper.
The residue from all 32 jars sampled in the study contained tartaric acid, one of the main acids in wine. In all but three jars, the researchers found syringic acid, a marker of red wine. The absence of syringic acid in those three jars may indicate that they contained some of the earliest examples of white wine, which got its start later than red wine, Koh said.
The researchers found signatures of pine resin, which has powerful antibacterial properties and was likely added at the vineyard to help preserve the wine. Scientists also found traces of cedar, which may have come from wooden beams used during the wine-pressing process.
The researchers noticed that the cellar’s simplest wines, those with only resin added, were typically found in the jars lined up in a row against the wall near the outdoor entrance to the room. But the wines with the more complex additives were generally found in jars near a platform in the middle of the cellar and two narrow rooms leading to the banquet hall next door. Koh and colleagues believe the wine would have been brought from the countryside into the cellar, where a wine master would have mixed in honey and herbs like juniper and mint before a meal.
As for the taste, Koh said the ancient booze may have resembled modern retsina, a somewhat divisive Greek wine flavored with pine resin — described by detractors as having a note of turpentine. (Koh said he and his colleagues usually hear two different kinds of remarks about the ancient wine: Some say, “I would love to drink this wine,” while others say, “It must have just tasted like vinegar with twigs in it.”)
August 18, 2014
Colby Cosh linked to this rather interesting BMJ blog post by Richard Lehman, looking at studies of the impact of dietary salt reduction:
601 The usual wisdom about sodium chloride is that the more you take, the higher your blood pressure and hence your cardiovascular risk. We’ll begin, like the NEJM, with the PURE study. This was a massive undertaking. They recruited 102 216 adults from 18 countries and measured their 24 hour sodium and potassium excretion, using a single fasting morning urine specimen, and their blood pressure by using an automated device. In an ideal world, they would have carried on doing this every week for a month or two, but hey, this is still better than anyone has managed before now. Using these single point in time measurements, they found that people with elevated blood pressure seemed to be more sensitive to the effects of the cations sodium and potassium. Higher sodium raised their blood pressure more, and higher potassium lowered it more, than in individuals with normal blood pressure. In fact, if sodium is a cation, potassium should be called a dogion. And what I have described as effects are in fact associations: we cannot really know if they are causal.
612 But now comes the bombshell. In the PURE study, there was no simple linear relationship between sodium intake and the composite outcome of death and major cardiovascular events, over a mean follow-up period of 3.7 years. Quite the contrary, there was a sort of elongated U-shape distribution. The U begins high and is then splayed out: people who excreted less than 3 grams of salt daily were at much the highest risk of death and cardiovascular events. The lowest risk lay between 3 g and 5 g, with a slow and rather flat rise thereafter. On this evidence, trying to achieve a salt intake under 3 g is a bad idea, which will do you more harm than eating as much salt as you like. Moreover, if you eat plenty of potassium as well, you will have plenty of dogion to counter the cation. The true Mediterranean diet wins again. Eat salad and tomatoes with your anchovies, drink wine with your briny olives, sprinkle coarse salt on your grilled fish, lay it on a bed of cucumber, and follow it with ripe figs and apricots. Live long and live happily.
624 It was rather witty, if slightly unkind, of the NEJM to follow these PURE papers with a massive modelling study built on the assumption that sodium increases cardiovascular risk in linear fashion, mediated by blood pressure. Dariush Mozaffarian and his immensely hardworking team must be biting their lips, having trawled through all the data they could find about sodium excretion in 66 countries. They used a reference standard of 2 g sodium a day, assuming this was the point of optimal consumption and lowest risk. But from PURE, we now know it is associated with a higher cardiovascular risk than 13 grams a day. So they should now go through all their data again, having adjusted their statistical software to the observational curves of the PURE study. Even so, I would question the value of modelling studies on this scale: the human race is a complex thing to study, and all models need to be taken with a pinch of salt.
Update: Colby Cosh followed up the original link with this tweet. Ouch!
It remains only to count the number of Canadians flat-out murdered by the Globe and Mail during its incessant, multi-year sodium jihad.
— Colby Cosh (@colbycosh) August 18, 2014
August 11, 2014
Okay, the title of this post is a bit ahead of the facts: scientists are still developing ways to detect the differences in wine from various regions, but they think they’re on the right track.
Malbecs from Argentina and California made by the same winemaker and using the same protocol had distinct molecular signatures and flavours.
But the delicate aroma of a rare vintage can quickly be eroded by poor storage after bottling, the team said.
Details were reported at the American Chemical Society meeting.
Despite the cynicism over wine critique — and the rather grandiose adjectives lavished upon certain appellations — it really does matter where your plonk comes from, according to the researchers from the University of California Davis.
They are attempting to fingerprint “terroir” — the unique characteristics that the geography, geology and climate of a certain place bestows upon a wine.
Subjective regional character is based on the appearance, aroma, taste and mouthfeel (texture) of the wine — all of which combine to create its flavour.
But demand is growing for a more objective test — to help consumers bypass woolly terminology, protect artisan producers’ intellectual property, and help auction houses detect fraud — a growing problem.
July 8, 2014
In Wired, Christopher Null talks to Californian winemaker Paul Draper about what’s actually in the wine that you buy:
Unlike most food and drink, wine and other alcoholic beverages are governed not by the Food and Drug Administration (part of Health and Human Services) but by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (part of the U.S. Treasury). As the name suggests, the TTB’s primary goal is to collect taxes on booze and cigarettes, a longstanding vestige of Prohibition. Consumers have largely been left in the dark about what’s really inside the bottle.
Not everyone is thrilled about this, and as with many secrecy-laden industries, transparency is a buzzword that has a few wine industry leaders twittering. Their savior is Paul Draper, who has been lambasting adjuncts for years and who eschews their use at Ridge, where he’s been the chief winemaker since 1969. A legend in the business, his Cabernet placed fifth in the famous Judgment of Paris in 1976. His newest, somewhat Quixotic quest: to introduce full and truthful labeling to wine bottles. Ridge has published real ingredients labels on its bottles since 2012.
While Draper dislikes adjuncts, the enemy, he says, isn’t just cheap wine: It’s also winemakers’ increasing thirst for wines that are ready to drink without significant aging. This not only drives consumer sales, it also helps to drive higher scores from wine critics, as even professionals can struggle to rate a wine based on its future potential.
That in turn has led to a more nefarious way in which adjuncts are being deployed. While they are often used as an easy way to make cheap wine more palatable, adjuncts are increasingly being applied to high-end wines to eke another couple of points out of the critics. “You have that machine. It costs a half a million or a million dollars and it’s sitting in your winery,” Draper says. “The temptation to use it in years when you don’t need to use it is immense.” But ultimately, he complains, “If you use these techniques, you aren’t making fine wine.”
You’d think the various adjuncts wouldn’t make it past the sommeliers, high-end buyers, and big-name critics of the wine world, that such chemical or mechanical shortcuts would be picked up by their well-trained palates. But the truth is that these things can’t be sniffed, tasted, or spotted unless they are overused.
June 21, 2014
Mankind has been making alcoholic beverages for thousands of years, yet there are still some pretty basic things we don’t know about alcohol:
Consider the number of things we still don’t know: Yeast, the single-celled fungus responsible for fermentation (the conversion of sugar into alcohol), seems to have been domesticated about 12,000 years ago, but we don’t know for sure where it came from, why it makes ethanol, or why some strains do it better than others.
The physics of distillation are well established, but nobody knows who invented it — an alchemist in ancient Alexandria called Maria the Jewess? — and getting a consistent taste from the finicky process is more an art than a science.
Aging in toasted barrels clearly does hooch good, as the wood breaks down and the liquid penetrates its pores to mix with tannins and other molecules. But the final flavor of a spirit depends on everything from the temperature in the warehouse where it is aged to the climate where the trees are grown, and attempts to create synthetic processes to season liquor quicker (read: more profitably) have come mostly to naught.
Even at the most basic level, scientists don’t yet understand why booze makes us feel the way it does. Alcohol’s mode of action in the brain is much more complicated and elusive than that of a drug such as heroin, which locks into specific, identified receptors meant for natural neurotransmitters. “The truth is, we don’t know at the molecular level what alcohol is binding to,” Rogers quotes the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as saying. “It’s never been resolved.”
March 21, 2014
Military History Now had a guest post from Κonstantinos Karatolios talking about the Byzantine secret weapon known as “Greek Fire”:
The thousand-year Byzantine Empire could not have survived through the centuries without its powerful military. But Constantinople’s mighty army and navy didn’t just keep enemies at bay, they also helped it to expand into new territories and ultimately dominate the whole of the Mediterranean for hundreds of years. Of course, while the Byzantines’ stunning battlefield success was in part a by-product of military knowledge inherited from the old Roman Empire, it was also born out of new tactics and weaponry. One example of this is Greek fire. Also known as thalassion pyr, skeyaston pyr and medikon elaion, this incendiary liquid, which could be squirted or hurled into the ranks of an enemy, was perhaps the most fearsome of all of the empire’s armaments. Its use, whether on land or sea, verges on legend and yet almost all we know about Greek fire remains clouded in mystery. We are sure of one thing however — it was used with devastating effect throughout the whole course of the Byzantine Empire.
Here are nine little known facts about Greek fire.
I think there’s a typo in the list, as it mentions the first recorded use of the weapon by Anastasios I in 541, which was actually the middle of the reign of Justinian I. Anastasios I reigned from 491 to 518.