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In Print: Nature’s Call, Nature’s Mimic

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.

When you’ve gotta go, it doesn’t matter if you’re thousands of feet above the earth. In 1961, Alan B. Shepard Jr. became the first American to fly into space … and likely became the first American to pee his pants in a space suit (unverified).

Zero-gravity relief: The International Space Station's Zvezda Service Module is home to this space toilet. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Zero-gravity relief: The International Space Station’s Zvezda Service Module is outfitted with this space toilet. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

As Senior Correspondent Steve Ritter writes in last week’s print column, NASA’s space program was light-years ahead of its onboard facilities program. Because the first spaceflight was so short–only 15 minutes–NASA engineers put the pee problem on the back burner, only to regret that decision when launch delays left Shepard in the suit for more than eight hours. (To learn about the more-detailed discussion that went on, Steve points us to the movie “The Right Stuff” about the first NASA astronauts. Without having watched it, the Newscripts gang really hopes that Shepard said, “Houston, we have a problem.”)

Steve says that researchers were developing catheter-based and other devices for the Air Force for high-altitude and long-range airplane flights. But, understandably, these were uncomfortable and often leaked. After learning the hard way during Shepard’s flight, NASA planned something new for their second spaceflight. Later in 1961, Gus Grissom went to space wearing two pairs of rubber pants that he got to take a leak between. On the third flight, John H. Glenn Jr. was the first in the U.S. space program to use a urine collection device (UCD).

Now, astronauts in the International Space Station have vacuum-like toilets that work in zero gravity. What about when they’re in their space suits during takeoff, landing, and space walks? The space shuttle program in the 1980s replaced these UCD storage bags with “absorbent technologies” suitable for men and women, writes Steve. So, giant diapers, Newscripts guesses. The Washington Post

reports that they’re called maximum absorbent garments, or MAGs, which sounds slightly more dignified.

Toilet troubles aside, Steve is undeterred. “I have always dreamed of being a space cowboy,” he says. “The best part would be seeing if the moon really is made out of cheese or if the little green men on Mars have been hiding from us. The worst part is a fear of running out of air to breathe.”

Steve has had adventures a little closer to home, however. His next Newscripts item discusses ball lightning, which people only have a one in 1,000 chance of seeing in their lifetimes. Steve’s a lucky winner, he recounts:

Continue reading →

Amusing News Aliquots

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

Scientists create a light saber. Children of the 80s say, “But I wanted a Bud Light.” [Gizmodo]

Talk about bait and switch. Yuengling’s new “Black & Tan” ice cream won’t have any beer in it. [NYDailyNews]

Breakout the xanthan gum and reinforce your bookshelf, Ferran Adrià is publishing 7 years of recipes from elBulli. [The Daily Meal]

To avoid killing unadopted cats in its overcrowded shelter, Louisville Metro Animal Services is releasing unadopted cats into the wild … you know, so nature can kill them. [WLKY Louisville]

Attention couch potatoes who dream of going to the moon: NASA will now pay you $18,000 to stay in bed for 70 days.  [DVICE]

Here’s a collection of entries in this year’s National Geographic Traveler annual photo contest. Sadly, no selfies. [Seriously For Real?]

It’s almost early October. Let the Nobel speculation begin! [Curious Wavefunction] and [In the Pipeline]

Even more reason to scream at the TV – your health depends on it. Losing sports teams cause fans to consume more junk food, whereas winning teams actually help fans cut those calories. [NPR]

Just because you need a dose of cute…14 panda cubs in a crib. [LA Times]

Also, cute tiger cubs were born last month at the San Antonio Zoo. If you’re looking to get them a present, why not check out your local … maul? Wait! Where are you going? Come back! [San Antonio Express-News]

‘Breaking Bad’ Aliquots

Today’s post was written by C&EN Senior Editor Jyllian Kemsley, who, when she isn’t watching the TV show “Breaking Bad,” enjoys surfing the Web for “Breaking Bad” links and then writing about them.

The end is almost here, and the Internet is gearing up. With the series finale of “Breaking Bad” set to air this Sunday on AMC, media outlets have unleashed a barrage of retrospectives and stories about the hit TV show. What’s more, a surprising number of these tributes actually focus on the science behind the show.

Take, for instance, the above video in which Boing Boing counts down the top 11 “Breaking Bad” chemistry moments. Or, simply pick up this week’s issue of C&EN, in which I have a story about Donna Nelson, a University of Oklahoma chemistry professor who has spent the last several years volunteering as a science adviser to the television show. I connected Nelson with show producer Vince Gilligan after I first wrote about the show in 2008—something Nelson has graciously acknowledged in many interviews—and I enjoyed chatting with her as the series nears its end.

To help all of us get through the last few days before the finale, here are a few of my favorite “Breaking Bad” offerings from across the Web. If, like some of my colleagues, you didn’t get the memo early enough and are only on season two, tread carefully—I won’t promise no spoilers!

  • Wired interviewed some other “Breaking Bad” staff who help get the science right, researchers Gordon Smith and Jenn Carroll: “One day, Gordon and the writers asked me to figure out a way to knock out a surveillance camera, or—at the very least—to make a passerby invisible to the camera. As you might imagine, there aren’t many legal or convenient ways to go about this.”

  • The Washington Post went over what “Breaking Bad” gets right, and wrong, about the meth business: “Could a genius innovator like Walt really become this successful? Are charismatic businessmen like Gus Fring running front businesses to hide their meth trade? Are super labs real?” Continue reading →

Amusing News Aliquots

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

McGill University Masters candidate Timothy Blaise created this cover, "Bohemian Gravity," to go along with his physics thesis. Credit: Youtube/acapellascience

McGill University Masters candidate Timothy Blaise created this cover, “Bohemian Gravity,” to go along with his physics thesis. Credit: Youtube/acapellascience

Combine a physics grad student, musical talent, video know-how, and an Einstein sock puppet, and you get an awesome “Bohemian Rhapsody” cover about string theory (withvideo). [io9]

We’re going to need bigger Q-tips. Turns out whale earwax contains information about environmental contaminants. [NatGeo]

This just in from Boston: Red sports teams are more likely to win. [Seriously, Science?]

Not to be confused with terrifying snakes, there are now four new species of legless lizards to haunt your dreams. [CNN]

Did NASA just find Han Solo on Mercury? [io9]

Yahoo! has designed a 3-D printing search engine for the visually impaired–and, well, for anyone because it’s awesome (with video). [Gizmodo]

Cool Planet Wraps Up $60 Million Funding Round

Biomass to fuels firm Cool Planet has raised $60 million from venture backers in its fourth round of funding. Until now, two things had made Cool Planet unique in the biomass space – it attracted investment from Google Ventures, and its business model calls for small-scale, modular biorefineries.

Since venture backing for cellulosic fuels start-ups has been negligible lately, Cool Planet’s $60 million fund raise gives it a third unusual quality.

In some ways, Cool Planet is a bit like Khosla-backed KiOR – it relies on specialty catalysts to transform biomass (i.e. wood chips, agriculture waste) into drop-in, gasoline-like biofuels rather than ethanol like in most cellulosic fuel plants.

But Cool Planet sequesters the untransformed bits of biomass into what it calls biochar, which can be used as a soil enhancement in agriculture. Cool Planet did not invent the idea of biochar (which is sort of like charcoal), nor did it invent the idea of using it to boost soil productivity (through water and nutrient retention). But the carbon sequestration that biochar represents allows the company to advertise its fuel as carbon negative.

It’s not yet clear if farmers would adopt Cool Planet’s output, however. In fact, the company’s website says it is actively seeking partnerships to get this particular ball rolling. From the outside it is not clear to what degree profitability hinges on the sale of biochar.

Having a modular biorefinery sounds like an attractive concept, considering the module could be placed where biomass exists in significant quantities but would not be profitable to ship to a distant, huge biorefinery. Still, these facilities are not tiny; each “station” would produce 10 million gal per year of biofuel. And Cleantech Chemistry has not yet determined how the company plans to get the fuel output from these distributed outposts transported to a point of sale.

Cool Planet’s fund raising will be used in part to finalize engineering design for its first commercial facility as well as capital for construction in the Port of Alexandria, La. The company says it will be in operation before the end of 2014.

In addition to Google, Cool Planet has backing from North Bridge Venture Partners, Shea Ventures, BP, Energy Technology Ventures, and Excelon.

From Unknown Bacteria To Biotechnology Breakthrough

Today’s post is by Andrea Widener, a government and policy writer for C&EN and lover of obscure science.

Microbiologist Tom Brock’s first forays into Yellowstone National Park to seek out life in its hot springs are just the kind of basic research that sometimes gets ridiculed by politicians. In an effort to end government waste, some of these public servants like to make examples out of federally funded research that seems irrelevant or that doesn’t have immediate applications.

Brock still likes to get out and about: Here, he takes a stroll at the Pleasant Valley Conservancy, in Black Earth, Wisc. Credit: Jeff Miller/UW-Madison

Brock still likes to get out and about: Here, he takes a stroll at the Pleasant Valley Conservancy, in Black Earth, Wisc. Credit: Jeff Miller/UW-Madison

In the 1960s, when Brock hiked into Yellowstone, “we didn’t know there were organisms that could live in boiling water,” the microbiologist says. So he couldn’t have known he would find a heat-seeking bacterium that would become central to modern-day DNA technology. That discovery, funded by the National Science Foundation, earned Brock a Golden Goose Award last week.

Here at Newscripts, we wrote about the original founding of the Golden Goose Awards last year. Other awards, like the Ig Nobel prizes given out last week (see Newscripts’ coverage here), also seek out the obscure, but the goal of the Golden Goose is to point out the seemingly irrelevant, but federally funded, research that has gone on to make an important difference.

“We’ve all read stories about the study with the wacky title, the research project from left field,” says Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), who first proposed the awards. “But off-the-wall science yields medical miracles. We can’t abandon research funding only because we can’t predict how the next miracle will happen.”

What Brock and undergraduate Hudson Freeze found in 1966 in Yellowstone’s Mushroom Spring was the bacteria Thermus aquaticus. The heat-loving bacteria produces an enzyme, Taq polymerase, that is now essential to polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a technique that amplifies DNA and is used in genome sequencing, forensics, and diagnosis of genetic disorders.

“We were looking for a simple system where one could do basic research in microbial ecology. Everything fell out of that,” Brock says.

But Brock’s basic research wasn’t the only one honored with a Golden Goose last week.

Continue reading →

Amusing News Aliquots

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


Look closely: Frog appears in the upper left-hand corner of a photo taken at a spacecraft launch. Credit: NASA / WFF / MARS

One giant leap for mankind, one giant–er leap for frogkind. [NBCNews]

Food firm attempts to make artificial eggs. Chickens everywhere squawk, “You try laying an egg, buddy.” [Daily Mail]

Discarded food is responsible for more carbon dioxide emissions than any country, except the U.S. and China. So you better eat that food that just fell out of your mouth in disbelief. [Mother Nature Network]

Step 1: Get spider silk. Step 2: Make carbon nanotubes. Step 3: Smash them together to create ultrastrong electronics. [Txchnologist]

Study finds that the likelihood of hangovers decreases with age. Finally! The excuse you needed to take your grandmother out clubbing. [Mother Nature Network]

Sleep-deprived college students tired of chugging pumpkin spice lattes; one slightly more awake student invents bottle of caffeine to spray on the skin. [NPR]

Cool science story alert: It’s got camouflage, squid, and graphene. [Telegraph]

Aluminum bubble wrap, titanium foam, and graphene aerogels. Gizmodo rounds up this year’s must-have materials. [Gizmodo]

According to new research, bullying is more likely to occur at schools that have anti-bullying programs. Sounds like there are some principals out there that deserve a wedgie. [ScienceDaily]

Alan Alda At #ACSIndy: The Public’s Blind Date With Science

Alan Alda posterActor Alan Alda might be best known for his portrayal of Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H, but these days he’s also becoming well-known in another capacity—as a science communicator. For those who lost track of him after his time sparring with Hot Lips Houlihan, this might seem odd. (And if you did, you simply must watch the movie “The Four Seasons”—you won’t regret it).

But since 2009, Alda has been on the advisory board of the Center For Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. In fact, he helped found CCS and has become a passionate advocate for helping scientists interact more effectively with the public.

Yesterday at the American Chemical Society national meeting in Indianapolis, Alda bonded with a standing-room-only crowd (“I’m so glad to be in this huge beaker with you,” he said) and shared his views on why scientists need to do better.

Right now, he theorized, “the public is on a blind date with science.” They’re wondering, can I trust this stranger? Will I be attracted to this stranger when we meet? To the public, Alda explained, it’s an uncomfortable, slightly scary, situation, just like those awkward setups friends force upon one another.

To drive home his point, he showed a man-on-the-street video in which a film crew asked a random assortment of folks to define a few terms: “element” and “organic compound.” Let’s just say they had a lot of problems with the latter and made some vague grumblings about the former belonging in a table. I cringed when one woman suggested the identity of one element: “fire.”

I’m sure there are many factors contributing to why the public has trouble even defining the word element. But Alda contends that one reason might be that scientists have what’s called “the curse of knowledge.” To illustrate this problem, he took a volunteer from the audience in Indianapolis and asked her to silently choose a song from a list he had in his pocket. Then he instructed her to tap it out for the audience.

She predicted that at least 80% of the viewers would figure out the tune from her microphone tappings, but after her performance, only 25% were able to name it (“My Country ‘Tis Of Thee”). Scientists have knowledge in their heads, and it seems perfectly clear to them, but it doesn’t always translate well to others, Alda explained. Continue reading →