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Flame Challenge 2014

A love of chemistry burns deep in the heart of Robert E. Buntrock. So much so, the American Chemical Society emeritus member will be fanning the flame of his love for the GlobCasino in the 2014 Flame Challenge.

This annual challenge, which is entering its third year of sponsorship by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science (CCS) at Stony Brook University, SUNY, and the second year of sponsorship by

This year's question for scientists to answer is

This year’s question for scientists to answer is “What is color?” Credit: Shutterstock

ACS and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, asks scientists to answer a seemingly simple scientific question in such a way that an 11-year-old can understand. This year’s question is “What is color?”

“Color is very important to me,” Buntrock says. “It helped attract me to chemistry.” So composing his essay shouldn’t be too difficult. The twist: He’s having his grandson’s fifth-grade class prejudge his entry. “My draft has exactly 300 words. We’ll see how much survives my critics,” he says.

Patrick Allen, who teaches Buntrock’s grandson Brody at Asa C. Adams Elementary School, in Orono, Maine, has signed up his fifth-grade class to judge Flame Challenge entries, so they will be practicing, too, when Buntrock visits them next week with his entry.

The annual competition began in 2012 when Alan Alda posed the question “What is a flame?” to scientists around the world because when he was 11-years-old he asked the question to his science teacher and wasn’t satisfied with the technical answer he received. The challenge question for the past two years has been decided by 11-year-olds across the world. This year, more than 800 questions were submitted by students.

Scientists can answer the question either in written form (no more than 300 words) or in visual or video format (less than 6 minutes), and entries are due by March 1.

In developing his entry, Buntrock has an extensive scientific background from which to draw. He is a semiretired chemist who does chemical information consulting and book reviews under the company name Buntrock Associates. He graduated with a B.S. in chemistry from the University of Minnesota in 1962, and he earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from Princeton University in 1967. Before starting his company, Buntrock worked in industry for nearly 30 years at Air Products & Chemicals and Amoco Corp. A successful researcher, he holds three patents and has almost 200 publications.

With such an accomplished science career, Buntrock can’t wait to join in the Flame Challenge excitement. “I may have so much fun,” he says, “that I’ll enter again” next year.

Amusing News Aliquots

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


The purrr-fect book. Credit: prideandprejudiceandkitties.com

Finally, a book that explores the proper etiquette for spitting up a hair ball in public: “Pride and Prejudice and Kitties.” [Mother Nature Network]

More feline news: Looks like U.S. prisons are too posh. After all, cats looking for a comfortable home are now breaking into them. [Glens Falls Post-Star]

Think your graduate work was tough? At least you didn’t have to attach a camera to an alligator’s back. [Seriously, Science?]

Study suggests MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom” might be driving down teen pregnancies. Next up, “Teens Who Don’t Do Their Homework”? [USA Today]

While the Newscripts gang was bundled up and hiding from the polar vortex, this Canadian fellow created a colored ice fort. [BoingBoing]

Did we all just assume that the flying V formation gave birds an aerodynamics push? Turns out it was just scientifically shown for the first time. [NPR]

Police arrest man for insobriety after his parrot tells police that he is drunk. It’s hard not to feel sorry for the man. He thought he had a parrot for a pet, but it turns out his pet was really a rat. [United Press International]

In the real-life Japanese version of “Good Will Hunting,” the university janitor creates a gorgeous, unsolvable maze in his spare time. [Viralnova]

Skip the plug-in night-lights, now you can buy bioluminescent house plants for all your nighttime low-light needs. [Popular Science]

When those pesky moral dilemma tests are presented in virtual reality–complete with carnage and screams–turns out people get more emotionally riled, but also more utilitarian. Sorry, best friend. [Time]



In Print: Balloon Returns Home, Earthshaking Stadium

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 this week’s issue of C&EN.

Weather Balloon_Newscripts121613_Blog

Homeward Bound: Lyles holds AMET’s weather balloon as it prepares for one wild ride. Credit: Dahlon Lyles

Purdue University‘s Association of Mechanical & Electrical Technologists (AMET)–a hands-on STEM-oriented student organization that works on everything from robots to Rube Goldberg devices to rockets–expected the weather balloon that it launched on Nov. 16 to return to Purdue’s West Lafayette, Ind., campus. As this week’s Newscripts column describes, however, the trek back home was anything but predictable.

Takeoff of the balloon started easily enough, as this video from the balloon shows:

When the balloon reached an altitude of 40,000 feet, however, AMET lost all contact. As a result, the organization didn’t know the kinds of spectacular views their balloon was enjoying as it ascended to a height of 95,000 feet above Earth. That ascension is captured in the following videos:

Because everything that goes up must come down, the balloon soon plummeted back to Earth: Continue reading →

Amusing News Aliquots

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

Winter wonderland: Actual photograph of an actual snowflake without actually using a microscope. Credit: Flickr user ChaoticMind75

It’s delicate work taking these splendid snowflake glamour shots. [chaoticmind] via [io9]

Camels are landing jobs during the holiday season. Joe Camel, however, is still smoking silently and waiting for the phone to ring. [Washington Post]

What’s worse than a robotic telemarketer? A robotic telemarketer that adamantly insists she’s a real person. Meet Samantha West. [Time]

Who says huffing organic solvents dulls the memory? Check out what Derek Lowe’s readers have to say about reagents they’ll never forget. [In the Pipeline]

The next time a coworker asks you how you’re doing, don’t tell them you’re sleepy. Tell them you’re suffering from “sleep inertia.” Then, when they ask you what that is, lift up your head and say in a haughty voice, “Oh, well, I guess somebody doesn’t read the New Yorker!” [New Yorker]

“When the picture on their 50-inch box television started flickering, Mike took off the back panel and found the guts throbbing with ants.”  Best to read this piece on Rasberry crazy ants with a can of Raid nearby. [New York Times]

NASA scientists say life may have once been present on a Mars lake. No word yet on how much alien waterfront property may have cost. [BBC]

Next time you’re stumbling out of a bar, take comfort in statistics that show people who drink alcohol regularly (and even too regularly) live longer than teetotalers. Just don’t smugly stumble to your car, because stats can’t save you from yourself. [Business Insider]

Forget bared teeth, growling, and beating of chests–male chameleons get ready for epic showdowns by quickly changing their bodies from bright color to bright color. [NBC Science]

In Print: #ButtScan And Bulletproof Suits

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


Bottoms up: #ButtScan challenge gives academic job applicants a chance to win $100. Credit: Shutterstock/C&EN

It’s not every day that academics get to take off their pants for a cause.

But in this week’s Newscripts, C&EN Senior Editor Michael Torrice writes about how one daring humanities job seeker dropped his or her pants and won $100 to boot.

Rebecca Schuman, an adjunct faculty member at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, challenged the readers of her blog to enclose a photograph of their (clothed) rear ends in an academic job application to prove a point. She advertised the challenge on Twitter using the hashtag #ButtScan and promised $100 to the first person to actually submit a #ButtScan application.

Schuman often writes about how absurdly involved applications for humanities positions are and seriously doubts that job committees go through the hundreds of 80-plus-page applications that are sent to them.

“What happens is you meticulously and lovingly craft these 85-page dossiers. And then you pay $14 to send them. And then you get a gaping chasm of silence—literally bupkis, nothing—until April when they send you a form rejection letter,” Schuman told Michael.

Much to her dismay, she crowned a winner just 48 hours after her call to action. She had posed the challenge as a joke but paid up when a reader sent her proof of the submitted application. #winning

Bruce Wayne suit: A lightweight armor protects dapper gents from bullets and knives. Credit: Mike Paul

Bruce Wayne suit: A lightweight armor protects dapper gents from bullets and knives. Credit: Mike Paul

The second Newscripts item is for a select crowd that has both a dangerous job and a deep pocket. A Toronto tailor is offering bulletproof men’s suits for a pretty $20,000 penny.

Continue reading →

Amusing News Aliquots

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


Know your bird: Meet Caramel, one of this year’s pardoned turkeys. Credit: White House

Some key facts about this year’s pardoned turkeys. Decide for yourself as to whether or not they really deserved to be pardoned. [White House]

The White House’s “We the Geeks” series takes on Thanksgiving cooking (video). [The White House]

More breakdown of the science of cooked turkeys: “As the turkey is cooked … the bonds within the molecules begin to break down, which causes proteins to unravel and the dense muscle meat to become more tender.” Mmmm… you had us at unraveling proteins. [RedOrbit]

Turns out that eating a bunch of food on Thanksgiving, and not just eating turkey, makes you sleepy. Weird, huh? [NBC News]

New Orleans institute has some ideas on how to incorporate insects into traditional Thanksgiving recipes. If only they had told you before you started cooking this year’s meal!  [TreeHugger]

And now for non-Thanksgiving-themed news: Know what will make you think twice about drinking tons of Coke? The fact that Coke can also be used to remove rust from bolts, blood stains from clothes, dye from hair, and paint from metal furniture.  [ThoughtPursuits]

One reason why your kindergartner is winning the argument to stay home from school: Turns out toddlers are smarter than 5-year-olds. [NPR]

… And likely smarter than nine-year-olds, given that one just got suspended for snorting Smarties. [Time]



In Print: Sriracha Sensation, Deceptive Dishware

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


Cock of the walk: Rooster-emblazoned hot sauce garners devoted fan base. Credit: Ttony21 / Wikimedia Commons

Bam! The Newscripts column is kicking things up a notch this week with its profile of Sriracha, the spicy condiment that is turning heads and clearing sinuses all over the world.

As C&EN Associate Editor Andrea Widener explains in her column, Sriracha has a devoted fan base that loves to put the Sriracha rooster logo on everything from iPhone cases to T-shirts. Explaining the hot sauce’s popularity, Andrea says, “Sriracha is the perfect combination of sweet and spicy, but it’s not so hot that only hard-core spice lovers can enjoy it.” What’s more, Sriracha is “a little exotic, since it was first made to be eaten on Vietnamese pho soup, so that draws in the foodies.”

But it turns out not everyone is a fan of the hot sauce. Residents of Irwindale, Calif., are actually suing Sriracha manufacturer Huy Fong Foods for inducing headaches and burning eyes that they believe are caused by the company’s nearby Sriracha plant. It’s the kind of public relations nightmare that could really hurt a product’s popularity … if that product weren’t already so popular. Andrea, for one, has no plans of curbing her Sriracha consumption anytime soon. “I have a bottle at home right now, and it has made a lot of meals better,” she says. Andrea’s love of the condiment has led her to do everything from buying the snack food Sriracha peas, to making Sriracha mac and cheese, to eagerly awaiting the sale of Sriracha candy canes this holiday season. That last part might sound a little crazy, but it’s actually pretty tame compared with the lengths other Sriracha lovers will go to enjoy their favorite condiment. For instance, Andrea doesn’t plan to chug three consecutive bottles of Sriracha in the near future.

Sticking with her culinary theme, Andrea uses the second part of her column to talk about a recent study that found that the color and weight of cutlery can significantly influence a person’s perception of the food they eat. For instance, Andrea says, the study found that people, for some reason, expect food served on blue plates to be salty: a fact that can lead to disappointment if the food is not actually salty. “It makes me think I should get rid of my blue dinner plates,” Andrea jokes.

The researchers also discovered that people perceive food served with metal-colored plastic silverware as tasting worse than food served with differently colored plastic silverware. The researchers posit that this is because eaters were initially fooled by the real-looking cutlery, and when their expectations weren’t met, they expressed similar disappointment in the food they were eating.

As to whether or not her own taste buds would be fooled by such tricks, Andrea doesn’t put on airs. “I like to think I’m special, but I’m sure I would be influenced by color as much as the next person.”


In Print: Racing Cells, Baby Dinos

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

Microscopic organisms, start your engines! The second World Cell Race is upon us. Doping and steroids in the form of genetic modifications and unusual cell types are welcome in this competition to create the fastest and smartest cellular contestant.

Cell walls: Time-lapse photos show the (relatively) fast progress of a cell through the maze. Credit: Daniel Irima

Cell walls: Composite time-lapse photo shows the (relatively) fast progress of a cell through the maze. Credit: Daniel Irimia

As C&EN associate editor Nader Heidari writes in this week’s print column, this year’s World Cell Race will be held on Nov. 22 at the BioMEMS Resource Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston (watch the live broadcast here). The cited purpose of the race is to inspire discussion about how cell motility plays a role in health and disease. The Newscripts gang also wouldn’t be surprised if cell biologists were champing at the bit to enter a (relatively) high-speed racing contest.

Unlike the inaugural World Cell Race in 2011 that featured a linear track, this year’s race will force champion-hopefuls to navigate a maze-like course. Creating “smart” cells that don’t just Roomba their way into a dead end will add another dimension of design complexity. Nader says the organizers haven’t entirely revealed just how these souped-up cells are expected to make wise decisions on their paths to victory, but he’s putting his money on stem cells. “They’re pretty fast,” Nader says. “Some went up to 5ish µm a minute! This next contest will have molds, however, so we’ll see how they compare, even though they’ll need special tracks because of their size.”

The second part of Nader’s Newscripts discusses a keen-eyed teen who was first to spot a fossil on his high school’s trip to Utah’s Grand Staircaise-Escalante National Monument in 2009.

While traipsing through rock formations on an exploratory trip led by paleontologist Andrew A. Farke, high schooler Kevin Terris peeked under a stone and ended up discovering the smallest and most complete fossil of the dinosaur Parasaurolophus yet. Farke’s research group has been investigating the fossil and has recently published a paper about the baby dino, whom they’ve endearingly nicknamed “Joe.”

And Nader tells the Newscripts gang that the researchers think it’s unlikely they’ll discover anything quite like it again: “Joe’s find is a ridiculously rare glimpse into childhood development of these dinos. It’s crazy to find a relatively complete baby dino fossil, mostly because they tend to be bite-sized morsels for predators and have softer bones that wouldn’t fossilize as well.” Nader adds that the paleontology team “had a very tiny geological window to find and preserve the fossil as well. Farke doesn’t think he’ll ever find another such fossil in his lifetime.”

For now, dino enthusiasts can check out all the news about Joe at dinosaurjoe.org. But if Dr. Farke or any other paleontologists want some help finding more bones, there will always be more kiddos ready to go on a fossil hunt.