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Amusing News Aliquots

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

Roach two

With their battery packs, cyborg cockroaches may even outlive Cher in the wake of nuclear fallout. Credit: K. Shoji et al/Tokyo University of Agriculture & Technology

Giving us Godzilla was, apparently, not enough. Japanese researchers unveil giant cyborg cockroaches. [PopSci]

Electronic tongue can distinguish between 51 types of beer. No word yet on whether it can wear plaid, grow a mustache, or ride a fixed-gear bike. [Seriously, Science?]

University of Utah scientists interested in learning how religion impacts the brain will be studying MRI scans of Mormon missionaries. Scientists say they found missionaries for their study after engaging in an extensive door-to-door recruitment campaign. [Salt Lake Tribune]

We never thought of putting THAT in our eyes. [Improbable Research]

In an attempt to attract volunteers, a donkey sanctuary in Northern Ireland is offering potential volunteers access to “unlimited donkey cuddles.” The sanctuary, however, remains mum on whether or not volunteers will have to buy their donkeys dinner after cuddling. [UTV]

It’s like those magic foam toys that expand in water. But for gunshot wounds. [PopSci]

Don’t you hate it when your orange rolls away? Well, here’s one solution. [Inventor Spot]

Border collie eats part of her owner’s Aston Martin. In the dog’s defense, she did have a need for speed. [Yahoo News]

And just in time for tonight’s Winter Olympics debut: the physics of ice skating. [Huffington Post]

Rivertop Makes Montana a Magnet

This dispatch from the American Cleaning Institute show is a guest post by Mike McCoy. Thanks Mike!

John Monks is moving to Montana.
That’s one of several changes precipitated by an impending round of funding for Rivertop Renewables, a biobased chemicals company headquartered in Missoula, Mont.

Monks has been Rivertop’s vice president of business development since May 2013. He came to the startup following stints at two larger industrial biotech firms, Genencor and DSM.

Monks and his wife now live in the Chicago area, but the pending infusion of venture capital will put Rivertop on solid financial footing, he says, and prepare it for life as a going commercial operation. Monks needs to be in Missoula to help make it happen.

Rivertop produces chemicals from biomass. What separates it from the firms Monks used to work for is that the conversion is carried out not by fermentation but via a chemical synthesis, in this case a carbohydrate oxidation developed by Donald E. Kiely, a University of Montana emeritus chemistry professor.

Glucaric acid made from glucose is Rivertop’s first product. Monks was at the American Cleaning Institute’s annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., last week to promote the chemical as a raw material for the detergents industry.

Rivertop says glucaric acid is a chelating agent that works almost as well as sodium tripolyphosphate did in laundry detergents and automatic dishwasher detergents. Phosphates were legislated out of U.S. laundry detergents decades ago and out of dishwasher detergents in 2010.

Detergent makers have come up with phosphate replacements, but they tend to be expensive or otherwise flawed. Monks says manufacturers are receptive to the idea of an efficacious and cost-effective alternative.

At present, Rivertop’s glucaric acid is being toll-produced by DTI, a contract manufacturer in Danville, Va., that can turn out about 8 million lb of the chemical per year. Although Monks won’t disclose more about the financing until it is completely nailed down in the next month or two, he does say the additional cash will allow output to increase further. Moreover, it should set Rivertop on a path to build its own commercial-scale glucaric acid facility, likely in cooperation with a partner.

Another thing the cash will do is allow Rivertop to double its workforce in Missoula from the present staff of 18. Monks is looking forward to his move to Montana, but he acknowledges that the location might not appeal to everyone. “Flying in and out of Missoula isn’t the easiest thing to do,” he says.

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.

How freight company Saia trains and monitors its drivers


Credit: Saia

As seen in a variety of rail and truck incidents, chemical manufacturing sites are not the only places where hazardous chemicals can be a concern. Those chemicals often must transported safely to another facility. For trucking operations, safe transportation “starts with hiring the right drivers, training them correctly, and then monitoring them for performance,” says Karla Staver of Saia LTL Freight.

Saia won an American Chemistry Council Responsible Care Partner Award last year. As a company, Saia tries to keep in mind that its employee’s families share the roads with the shipments the company hauls, says Staver, who is Saia’s director of safety and claims prevention.

When hiring, Saia couples road tests with extensive background checks that look at an applicant’s driving record and which companies they’ve already driven for. “Our top candidates have at least a year’s worth of experience,” she says.

Once hired, drivers get instruction on topics such as forklift use, hazardous materials, and hazard communication standards. They then spend a week working with a driver trainer. Staver characterizes driver trainers as “top drivers within the company who have expressed an interest in helping train.” The trainers focus on defensive driving techniques, such as being aware of traffic behavior and leaving appropriate space cushions. “We have had drivers that we brought on who don’t make it through that week because they didn’t meet our expectations of safety performance,” Staver says.

Saia then continues to monitor its drivers long term, Staver says. The company has both city and long-haul drivers. “City drivers we see frequently, and they’re a little bit easier to score, such as by how much brake do they bring back every day or are there any issues with customers,” Staver says.


Credit: Saia

Long-haul drivers are harder to evaluate. Saia has installed camera systems in its trucks that save a recording of 10 seconds prior to certain trigger events, such as a hard-braking situation. The company gets an email alert and then can look at the recording and assess the event for the root cause, such the driver following another vehicle too closely, getting cut off, or avoiding debris on the road, Staver says.

When the company piloted the system, they put it in 10 trucks in the Los Angeles area. The company found that generally its drivers were performing better than expected. “We were, frankly, shocked at the statistics that we got back,” Staver says. Nevertheless, there were a few drivers that needed correction. The videos themselves became coaching tools. “It was great to turn it around to the driver and say ‘tell me what you see,’” she says.

For hazardous materials, drivers are taught how understand bills of lading and to recognize whether shipments are appropriately labeled and sturdily packaged, as well as how to block and brace materials in trailers and what placards to use on the outside. “If there is a release, they are trained on the sequence of emergency events that needs to happen,” Staver says. “Drivers are not first responders,” she adds. “We teach them to notify and find a safe harbor, including don’t park by a drain or a creek.” On the back of company badges is an 800 number to reach in-house safety professionals who are available around the clock and have more extensive hazardous materials training and experience. Saia also contacts with emergency response vendors that can be called in as necessary to handle chemical releases as necessary.

Amusing News Aliquots

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

Dragon dreams: Seven-year-old girl writes (and draws) to scientists asking for a dragon. Credit: Jezebel

Dragon dreams: Seven-year-old girl writes (and draws) to scientists asking for a dragon. Credit: Jezebel

Dear Scientists, a 7-year-old Australian girl named Sophie would like a dragon. Can we get on this, please? [Jezebel]

Prius owner turns his car into a generator during a power outage, now doubly smug. [UPI]

Not to be outdone, developers create portable battery that can charge a smartphone and jump start a car. [Popular Science]

Dolphins ingest pufferfish toxin and get so totally high, dude. [io9]

It was only a matter of time: Chemists publish an analysis of the chemistry in “Breaking Bad.” [Annals of Improbable Research]

Lion Whisperer brings along a GoPro camera so everyone can see what it looks like to hug a lion … from the safety and comfort of our own homes. [Huffington Post]

Beach worms could one day mend a broken heart. No, not your loneliness–like, seal up an actual tear in your heart muscles. [NPR]

Attention chemists skilled at assembling words or creating pictures: Only a few weeks left to get your entry ready for Chemistry World’s Science Communication Competition. [Chemistry World]

Vitamin D, Divider Of Good And Evil? We Don’t Think So

At the end of 2013, two researchers in the U.K. published a report suggesting a reason why good typically triumphs over evil in the realm of sci-fi/fantasy: vitamin D. Virtuous characters typically get a lot of sunlight, and villainous ones keep to the shadows, where ultraviolet light can’t help their skin produce the “sunshine vitamin,” the scientists argue. They back up their claim by evaluating characters in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” (the second installation of which is still kicking butt in theaters).
Although we admire these nerdy researchers’ efforts, we in the Newscripts gang were skeptical. So we once again turned to our resident Tolkien expert, Ty Finocchiaro. The following are his thoughts on the vitamin D-evil connection. He’s not buying it:

To think that a few hours of sunlight and a proper breakfast meant the difference between the Dark Lord Sauron’s victory and defeat at the close of the 3rd age is fairly preposterous. But that’s just what a curious paper entitled “The Hobbit – An Unexpected Deficiency” by Joseph and Nicholas Hopkinson hints at. While the article is a fine initial effort, I’d like to take a bit of time to point out a few inconsistencies and oddities in its methods and results as well as shed a bit of light on further discussion topics.

The study chose to concentrate on dietary vitamin D intake along with average sun exposure levels of the main races and a few dramatis personae from ”The Hobbit.” Seven were picked to represent the side of Good and four the side of Evil (see Table 1). The authors assigned a “Vitamin D Score” from 0 to 4 for each race or character.

Reproduced from (Med. J. Aust. 2013; 199 (11): 805-806).

Reproduced from (Med. J. Aust. 2013; 199 (11): 805-806).

Right off the bat I take issue with a few glaring omissions on the side of Evil. For one thing, where are the Wargs? The canine beasts are a huge part of “The Hobbit.” They hunt lead dwarf Thorin and the rest of his company after their time beneath the Misty Mountains and are a major player in the Battle of Five Armies. To leave them out of the study is quite suspect. They do not fear sunlight like the bulk of Evil’s minions nor live in total darkness. As such they will provide a noticable boost to Evil’s Vitamin D average.

On the other side of the coin, I’d be remiss not to add the Giant Spiders of Mirkwood to the Evil roster. They are quite numerous in the region and would likely have been present in some form when the White Council came for the Necromancer in Dol Guldor. These creatures detest light however, so they’ll drag the score down a bit. But, fair’s fair. This new list is a better representation of the Evil forces found in The Hobbit. Now it’s time to adjust some of the numbers that I believe to be inaccurate (see Table 2).
Hobbit chart 2

Good’s Vitamin D scores were pretty spot-on and only minor adjustments are needed. Dwarves are a bit more tied to their underground environs than the numbers suggest. There’s a reason not many people have ever seen a dwarf female. Dwarves prefer to remain with good solid stone above their heads and inhabit the twilight realms of mountain depths for most of their lives. So they dropped from a score of 3 to a 2.

Eagles were set at a score of 3. I bumped this up to a 4 as they pretty much live in the clouds and can range for miles to find the best meal possible.

Evil needed some serious retooling because I felt the numbers were more than a bit skewed. As mentioned earlier, giant spiders get no sun. However they definitely have deep stores of food strung up in their tangled webs. They eat just fine, so I went with a score of 1. Wargs can travel long distances to get a decent meal much like the eagles and are tolerant of life under the sun. I score them at 3.

Now for a large oversight. Smaug scoring a zero? Really? C’mon. The dragon very likely hibernates for long periods of time to conserve energy and has no aversion to light. Smaug is essentially the ultimate predator in an area with no equal among his kind during this Age. So he eats what he wishes and goes where he likes – whenever he desires. Smaug does not want for anything except perhaps some decent conversation. Solid score of 3. Continue reading →

Merry Christmas From Newscripts!

C&ENtreeStraight-on View_DSC_8885 As Chemistry World reminded us this year, the holidays aren’t really the holidays unless you’re basking in the glow of a chemistree. Lucky for us, Newscripts has two this holiday season! The chemistree to the left was built at Caltech by Douglas L. Smith, a legacy content producer at the school, who shared his picture with Newscripts. The image certainly warmed our hearts: Chemical Christmas trees are a tradition here at Newscripts.

And on the right is a Christmas tree made up of C&EN covers. The decoration comes courtesy of our magazine’s printer, Brown Printing.

Newscripts is about to open the gifts underneath our C&EN tree, but before we do, we want to wish you and yours a happy and healthy new year! Thanks for a great 2013.

Virtual Science-y Fireplaces

If you’re one of those folks who A) doesn’t have a fireplace, B) enjoys staring into the hypnotic, but fake, flames of a faux version on your TV screen during the holidays, or C) doesn’t feel like watching “A Christmas Story” on repeat this Christmas Day–Boy, does the Newscripts gang have some solutions for you.

We give you the “Science Fireplace.”
This is an hour-long animation revealing the mystery behind those tantalizing flames. It’s all chemical folks. (But please don’t tell the chemophobics. They might get twitchy and demand a recall on Yankee Candles and Duralogs.)

But maybe you prefer something a little more action-packed?
The gurus at the Periodic Table of Videos have just the thing for you. Let’s just say this 30-minute clip contains a Bunsen burner, a log, some powders, sprays, colored flames, and slo-mo footage. Man, we love science.