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Amusing News Aliquots

Silly samplings from this week’s science news, compiled by Sophia Cai, Bethany Halford, and Jeff Huber.


This is a typical day in the lab according to Getty Images. Credit: Jacks of Science

Wish we’d thought of this: A collection of the silliest science stock photos. [Jacks of Science]

Researcher at the American Chemical Society national meeting in New Orleans reports detecting arsenic in a variety of beers and totally harshes everyone’s buzz. [NPR]

Iron-infused silly putty devours magnet. Nom nom nom. With video! [Slate]

More video! Man without Hogwarts training manages to wiggle a rat’s tail through a scientific version of mind melding. [Live Science]

Llamas and alpacas make volunteer visits to nursing homes, and their community service isn’t even court-ordered. [Mother Nature Network]

That music man may be sexy, but his harmonica may be making him infertile. [Improbable Research]

Peeing in your compost heap will boost its fertilizing power, just please try to do so while your neighbors aren’t looking. [National Geographic]

Got some spare booze and liquid nitrogen lying around? Then why not make alcoholic dippin’ dots? [Gizmodo]

Scientists use synthetic plant leaves to capture bedbugs. “You mean these plants aren’t real?” skeptical bedbugs ask. “They look so real.” [BBC]

In Print: Chemistry Labs Sound Like Music

The Newscripts blog would like to be closer Internet buddies with our glossy print Newscripts column, so here we highlight what’s going on in the current issue of C&EN.

Sticking with the music theme from yesterday’s Newscripts blog post, C&EN Senior Editor Linda Wang explores how chemistry instruments are turning into chemistry instrumentals in this week’s print edition of Newscripts. While Linda wasn’t able to cover the entire breadth of chemistry-inspired music currently popping up online (such as the above piece from musical act Boy in a Band), she was able to profile John LaCava.

LaCava, a musician and biology research associate at Rockefeller University who describes himself as “just a young punk from the wrong side of the tracks” who “got sucked into science while studying biotechnology at MassBay Community College” (you know, like all hoodlums), posts music he and his bandmates create using lab equipment such as centrifuges and magnetic stir bars to the website Sounds of Science. Click here to check out some of their mad beats, including Linda’s favorite, “96 Tubes.”

Taking a step back into the past, Linda’s column also discusses recent research into a proposed method for preserving China’s Terra-Cotta Army Warriors. The clay sculptures that were buried with the first Chinese emperor long ago as a means of protecting him in the afterlife are at risk of deterioration caused by air pollutants and heat. To combat this problem, researchers suggest using instruments similar to air conditioners to form a protective “air curtain” around the sculptures.

“I think it’s a fantastic idea!” says Linda. “I don’t mind having the invisible curtain if it means others will be able to enjoy the relics for years to come.”

So, as Linda puts it, “if you’re interested in making music with science or using science to aid in cultural preservation, this Newscripts column may be just for you!”

Research Team Steps In It

Some people discuss sports or the weather over dinner. Emma Allen-Vercoe discusses synthetic poop.

The University of Guelph biologist was out on the town one night with a colleague when she found herself talking about her research group’s attempts to formulate synthetic fecal matter. Even though development of the material, with its potential to help patients with Clostridium difficle-infected colons, was going well enough, Allen-Vercoe’s group was running into a problem: They couldn’t think of a name for their scatological creation. Thankfully, Allen-Vercoe’s colleague had the perfect solution. “He didn’t even have to think about it before he blurted out, ‘RePOOPulate,’ ” she tells Newscripts. “The rest is history.”

In it together: Allen-Vercoe (left center) poses with her team. Credit: U of Guelph

In it together: Allen-Vercoe (front center) poses with her team. Credit: U of Guelph

Now, Allen-Vercoe and her humorously dubbed creation have the potential to make a serious impact on the world of gastrointestinal disease treatment. According to a 2011 Scientific American article, C. difficle infections (CDIs) are on the rise, in part because of the increased usage of antibiotics, whose consumption can leave intestines vulnerable to attack by unhealthy bacteria. Such vulnerability may result in diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and, in cases with the elderly, even death.

To combat infection, some doctors have turned to fecal bacteriotherapy, in which a stool sample from a healthy donor is implanted into a CDI patient using equipment such as a colonoscopy probe. Once inserted into the gut, the sample stimulates the growth of good bacteria, eventually returning the bowel to equilibrium. Continue reading →

The Facebook of Chemical Elements

“Wonderful Life with the Elements”: Yorifuji illustrates Dmitri Mendeleev’s lifework. Credit: No Starch Press

Admit it. You’ve found yourself on more than one occasion scrolling through your list of Facebook friends, wondering, hey, what ever happened to so-and-so? Then, before you know it, you’re looking at your acquaintance’s profile, learning all about what’s been going on in their life over the past several years. Wow, they had a kid! Neat, they studied in Paris. Eww, Ishtar is one of their favorite movies?? It’s like you’re meeting them again for the first time.

And that’s the experience chemists will have when they open up “Wonderful Life with the Elements: The Periodic Table Personified,” a humorous guide to the chemical elements in which Japanese artist Bunpei Yorifuji reimagines everything from hydrogen to ununoctium as humanlike caricatures. Although it’s an effort targeted at chemistry neophytes (“I’ve created a periodic table that should be a bit more accessible to newcomers,” Yorifuji proudly proclaims at the book’s onset), the playful reimagining of the chemical elements will still delight chemists who know the periodic table like the back of their hand.

Just like the periodic table, Yorifuji’s book catalogs drawings of the chemical elements according to atomic number, placing the artwork alongside quick facts specific to each element. At first glance, Yorifuji’s whimsical depictions of the chemical elements may appear shallow and juvenile. Look, hydrogen has a long bushy beard and is wearing an undershirt! readers might laugh as they look at the first element’s entry. But there’s more to Yorifuji’s drawings than initially meets the eye. In hydrogen’s case, the unkempt facial hair serves as a symbol of hydrogen’s discovery many centuries ago, and the undershirt speaks to the element’s myriad uses (“margarine is hardened using hydrogen,” a nearby caption elaborates). Had hydrogen been discovered in the 18th century, it would have sported a well-groomed beard according to Yorifuji’s criteria. Elements discovered in the 19th century are clean shaven while ones begotten in the 20th century, in a nod to their youth, suck a pacifier. Continue reading →

Buckyballs Take Manhattan

Finishing touches: Crew preps “Buckyball” for its big debut.
Credit: Madison Square Park Conservancy

Typically, a person would need a microscope to view a molecule of C60. Not so for two C60molecules, otherwise known as buckyballs, that recently arrived at New York City’s Madison Square Park. With their massive height and brightly lit sides, these structures, which compose “Buckyball,” a 30-foot-tall installation by Leo Villareal, are hard to miss.

As previously reported by Newscripts, the installation, which was commissioned by Madison Square Park Conservancy’s public art program, opens to the public this Thursday. It depicts two buckyballs, one placed inside the other, whose pentagon- and hexagon-shaped sides are lined with light-emitting diodes that bathe onlookers in waves of color.

Although there are still a couple days left until the installation’s debut, workers are busy readying the artwork for its big opening night, as Newscripts learned through the release of these accompanying photos.

Continue reading →

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s … a Chemical Executive

The Shard: Stands between charity donors and disadvantaged youth. Credit: Courtesy of Phenomenex

Some fund-raisers take the form of a bake sale or a chili cook-off. Such philanthropic endeavors, however, are child’s play to Phenomenex Chief Executive Officer Fasha Mahjoor, who last week took charitable spectacles to dizzying new heights by rappelling down Europe’s tallest building.

The separations technology firm CEO rappelled down from the 87th floor of the Shard in London on Sept. 3 in an effort to raise money for the Outward Bound Trust, which champions outdoor programs that teach underprivileged youth valuable life lessons.

“I’m speechless!” Mahjoor exclaimed just hours after his death-defying act. “I can’t explain what a thrill it was to stand at the pinnacle of the Shard and look down over a thousand feet of vertical glass to the miniature world below with nothing but a harness, a rope, and faith to help me defy gravity.”

Obviously, it’s impressive anytime someone falls down a skyscraper and doesn’t die, but there are still a lot of other things to be impressed about with this story. For starters, Mahjoor was joined in his descent by 19 other philanthropists including the Duke of York, Prince Andrew (who was perhaps inspired to traverse the Shard after watching his mom, Queen Elizabeth II, engage in a similarly extreme activity when she jumped out of a helicopter at this year’s Olympics). In addition, Mahjoor is a complete novice at rappelling. “When Fasha accepted the challenge, he had never worn a harness before in his life,” Phenomenex spokeswoman Kari Carlson Kelly told Newscripts before her boss made his descent. “Minus a short practice run, he is a total rookie!” Continue reading →

Olympics 2012: Chemistry Is Her Coxswain

Sure, athletes are representing countries from all over the world during this summer’s Olympic Games, but that doesn’t mean chemistry can’t have its own representative too. Her name is Amanda Polk, a biochemistry major from the University of Notre Dame and an American Chemical Society member. For the 2012 Olympics, Amanda represented chemistry, and the U.S., as an alternate for a number of women’s rowing teams.

Amanda Polk: Representative of chemistry (and the U.S.) at the 2012 Olympics. Credit: USRowing

Since mid-July, Amanda has been in London, training and standing on call to compete in events such as the women’s pair (in which two women compete per boat, and each has only one oar), the women’s quadruple sculls (four women each with two oars, aka sculls), and the women’s eight (eight women each with only one oar). It’s all been pretty mind-boggling for Amanda, who is participating in her first Olympics. “I am very honored to be representing the U.S. in London,” she told Newscripts. “The feeling is surreal.”

Although Amanda did not compete in an event at this summer’s games—the rowing events ended on Aug. 4, with the U.S. women’s team taking home bronze in the women’s quadruple sculls and gold in the women’s eight—the level of effort required by Amanda during her time in London was still of Olympic proportions. Prior to leaving for London to watch his daughter compete, Amanda’s father, Kenneth, explained that Amanda would be training “with the team exactly as if she would be in the boat.” This practice was necessary given that Amanda served as a first alternate who might be called on at any moment to replace a teammate who had become injured or violated a rule or code of conduct, he said. Continue reading →

Green Banana Pasta, Just like Mama Never Used to Make

These days it seems like everything’s turning green. Cars. Buildings. And now, thanks to a team led by University of Brasilia Ph.D. nutritionist Renata P. Zandonadi, even pasta is turning green.

For her doctoral thesis, Zandonadi used unripe, green bananas to develop an alternative for individuals, such as those with the autoimmune condition celiac disease, who are allergic to the gluten normally found in pasta. The results were recently published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics (DOI: 10.1016/j.jand.2012.04.002).

Green bananas: Miss Chiquita’s preferred pasta ingredient. Credit: Wikimedia Commons user Bhaskaranaidu

Typically pasta is made with wheat flour (which contains gluten) and whole eggs. Zandonadi’s team, however, cooked up a pasta with green banana flour (which does not contain gluten), egg whites, water, and guar and xantham gum. According to Zandonadi’s teammate Raquel Botelho, green banana flour serves as a great replacement for wheat flour because the fruit’s resistant starch “forms a net similar to gluten” that traps water inside the pasta, ensuring a moist and elastic consistency.

Unripe fruit might not sound like the most appetizing of ingredients, but the experimental pasta actually proved quite tasty. The team cooked a meal of green banana pasta for a focus group of 25 people with celiac disease as well as a meal of green banana pasta and whole-wheat pasta for another group of 50 with no gluten allergies. The team then asked the tasters to rate their experience. The diners raved about the experimental pasta, ranking it ahead of whole-wheat pasta in terms of aroma, flavor, texture, and all-around quality. Not bad for pasta that contains 98% less fat than its whole-wheat counterpart. Another benefit, says Botelho: Green banana pasta serves as a source of inulin, a polysaccharide that stimulates the development of “good,” immunity-boosting intestinal bacteria. Continue reading →