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Category → Techno-geek Tidbits

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 →

Top 10 Chemistry Videos Of 2013

Although it’s our mission at Chemical & Engineering News to describe in words the wonders of chemistry, sometimes words just don’t do justice to the dynamics of a particular reaction or funky new material. Sometimes our prose just doesn’t capture a scientist’s excitement for research (or the time he spent playing the theme song to Super Mario Bros. with a chromatography column in the lab).

It’s those times when we turn to video.

Following are some of the Newscripts gang’s favorite clips of 2013. They’ve been collected from our blog and from our YouTube channel. Some we even homed in on and plucked from the roiling sea of inappropriate pop stars, prancercisers, and talkative foxes on the Interwebz last year.

And we did it all for you, dear readers. So pour something delicious into that mug that looks like a beaker, kick back next to your science fireplace … and enjoy!

Number 10: Alright, so this video isn’t technically chemistry—that’s why we’re ranking it last. But when a theoretical physicist uses the melody to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” to sing about string theory, we’re gonna take note. Did we mention the Einstein sock puppet?

Number 9: Unless you lived under a rock in 2013, you probably heard about a little show called “Breaking Bad.” In this clip, Donna Nelson, science advisor to the show and chemistry professor, discusses some memorable chemical moments from the series. (Alright, alright, we admit this video made the countdown not only because it’s awesome but also because we like hearing Nelson talk about C&EN.)

Number 8: Last year, the folks across the pond at the Periodic Table of Videos filmed a number of chemical reactions with a high-speed camera to learn more about reaction dynamics. This video, about a reaction called “the barking dog,” is their most recent—and one of our faves. It’s got historic footage of explosives lecturer Colonel BD Shaw and current footage of Martyn “The Professor” Poliakoff. Need we say more?

Number 7: Yo, yo, yo! These dope 7th graders made a hot “rap battle” video last year that details the historic tensions between Rosalind Franklin and the notorious DNA duo, Watson & Crick. Word … to their mothers, for having such creative kids.

Number 6: You couldn’t open your news feed in 2013 without finding at least 10 concurrent stories about 3-D printing. One stood out for us, though: Researchers at the University of Oxford printed eye-popping, foldable structures out of liquid droplets. Continue reading →

2013 Holiday Gift Guide

The Newscripts gang prefers to digest our Thanksgiving turkey and stuffing before facing the inevitable onslaught of the holiday shopping season. But this year Thanksgiving and Hanukkah fall on the same day – a rare convergence that won’t occur again until the year 79,811. So to help out the last-minute shoppers among our Jewish readers (don’t forget you’ve got an eight-day grace period), we’re putting up our chemistry-themed gift ideas a week earlier than usual.

Continue reading →

Turning A Hollywood Set Into A Laboratory

Much has been made of the meticulously chosen props that decorate the set of AMC’s “Mad Men.” To bring the 1960s world of Don Draper to life—and to make it believable—set designers have gone above and beyond. The phones and typewriters in the office are vintage, genuine magazines from the era sit on tables, and real expense reports for characters cover the desks. Many of these details are never caught on camera, but the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, insists on them being there to lend “Mad Men” authenticity.

Baldacchini stands in his lab at Newport, posing with the faux JPC A cover. Credit: Courtesy of Tommaso Baldacchini

Baldacchini stands in his lab at Newport, posing with the faux JPC A cover. Credit: Courtesy of Tommaso Baldacchini

I don’t think the same amount of ink has been put to paper describing the set design of CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory.” (Although the show has made a certain chemistry shower curtain quite popular.) But I would contend that bringing to life the apartments, offices, and laboratories of a group of geeky scientists who work at Caltech isn’t an easy job either. Sure, it’s not on the same scale as decorating a 1960s advertising agency, but it still requires some skill to illustrate for the public what academic life looks like.

I recently stumbled upon a scientist in California who has, on occasion, lent a helping hand to make the labs of “Big Bang” realistic. Tommaso Baldacchini works for Newport Corp., a well-known international lasers and optics company that has a facility near Burbank. His “Big Break” with “Big Bang” came when the show introduced the character Amy Farrah Fowler, a neurobiologist played by Mayim Bialik.

The show wanted to shoot Amy in her lab dissecting brains, and the props manager needed some plausible-looking microscopes to sit in the background. Baldacchini, whose specialty at Newport is two-photon nonlinear optical microscopy, got the call.
“When the show started, the producers needed a way to fill the labs with scientific instruments,” Baldacchini says. “So they asked their science adviser [David Saltzberg of UCLA] to suggest a local company that could provide parts—and he mentioned Newport.”

Baldacchini (left) and Fourkas (right) visit the set, sitting in Sheldon's living room. Credit: Courtesy of T. Baldacchini and J. Fourkas

Baldacchini (left) and Fourkas (right) visit the set, sitting in Sheldon’s living room. Credit: Courtesy of T. Baldacchini and J. Fourkas

Naturally, Baldacchini’s favorite “Big Bang” episode so far has been one called “The Alien Parasite Hypothesis,” in which Amy and her loveable but narcissistic boyfriend, Sheldon Cooper, sit in front of a microscope set up by Baldacchini (see photo here). “She even refers to it as a two-photon microscope,” Baldacchini says, although he admits it doesn’t look exactly the way one would look in a real lab.

I stumbled into contact with Baldacchini while tracking down the origin of a journal cover I spotted in the background of a “Big Bang” episode (that story’s here). The poster hangs on the wall in Sheldon’s office, and it’s a reasonable facsimile of the Journal of Physical Chemistry A, one of the journals produced by the American Chemical Society.

John T. Fourkas, Baldacchini’s former Ph.D. adviser who is now at the University of Maryland and is also an editor for the Journal of Physical Chemistry, knew Baldacchini sometimes consulted with the show and in 2011 pitched him a version of the journal with Sheldon’s face on the cover. Eventually, the faux JPC A made its way onto the set, where it still hangs.

But the cover isn’t the only prop with staying power that Baldacchini has gotten onto the show. More recently, he orchestrated the placement of a unique chess set—made of laser optics such as gratings, mirrors, and optical mounts—in Sheldon’s living room. “The king is a diffraction grating [an optic that disperses light], and the queen—the most powerful chess piece—is an omnidirectional mirror,” Baldacchini explains.

Baldacchini's optical chess set, lit with lasers. Perhaps the guys on

Baldacchini’s optical chess set, lit with lasers. Perhaps the guys on “Big Bang” will devise a new game? Credit: Courtesy of Tommaso Baldacchini

These days, the Newport scientist makes the one-hour drive to Burbank on occasion. “When they call, they usually need the props, like yesterday,” he jokes, “so sometimes I can’t go.” In those cases, the show sends a truck and he loads the equipment needed.

“I think they’re doing a great job making a comedy that works for everybody—whether you’re a scientist or not,” Baldacchini says. Sure, “Big Bang” exaggerates the nerdy aspects of these characters, he adds, but at the same time it’s also depicting how much fun it is to do science. “So I think they’re doing a great job.”

FUN SIDE NOTE: The faux cover of the Journal of Physical Chemistry A was designed to be a Festschrift, or tribute issue, to Sheldon Cooper. During a meeting among the editors of JPC prior to the poster finding its way on set, Fourkas and his colleagues talked over the journal’s policy of never depicting a living person on its cover. George Schatz, editor-in-chief of JPC, “paused for a moment,” Fourkas told me, “and then said with a completely straight face, ‘Well, we make an exception for people who speak Klingon.’ ”

Nerd Nite Globalfest

(OR How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Esoteric Minutia)

This post was written by Rick Mullin, author of the blog “The Fine Line,” business reporter for C&EN, and, apparently, a nerd.

I arrived early and waited outside with the first two nerds on the scene. We sipped our coffee next to the chalkboard indicating we had come to the right place: “Nerd Nite Globalfest” at the Brooklyn Lyceum.

Yes, I went to Nerd Nite Globalfest.

My business journalist colleagues demurred when the home office (C&EN headquarters in D.C.) inquired as to whether one of us in the Manhattan bureau might want to swing by the event for a day and see what it’s all about.  But I gave it a little more thought:  “Nerd Nite,” I said to myself. “A conclave of people so unlike me that I will have an opportunity to do some truly objective reporting.”

Or … not.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Nerd Nite would be an excellent place to assess the pop culture phantasmagoria into which science would seem to be sliding all helter skelter, what with the rise of science-y sit-coms and TED Talks. And what better place than Brooklyn, N.Y., to investigate the conflation of nerd and hipster—a troubling social phenomenon that threatens to turn the definition of nerd upside down.

I realized I had some strong opinions. But I kept them to myself while chatting with my two nerd companions, Cristina Romagnoli and Gunther Oakey outside the lyceum this past Saturday.

Romagnoli told me how she had attended a previous Nerd Nite in Orlando, shortly before moving to Brooklyn this summer.  “I felt that I’d found my folk down in Florida,” she said. And these folk told her about the Brooklyn Globalfest, which was obviously an ideal way to get back with her people in her new hometown. “So I showed up last night and met up with the five Nerd Bosses from Orlando!”

Oakey told a familiar story of grade school ostracism followed by nerd solidarity and collectivism in boarding school, after which things got even better. “Luckily, we are in the Golden Age of Nerdom, where movies and pop culture are all, sort of, glorifying nerds,” Oakey said.

Inside, I met organizer Matt Wasowski, who is the “Big Boss” of Nerd Nite. He explained to me how the series evolved from a regular gathering of scientists in a bar in the Jamaica Plain area of Boston in 2003. The bartender begged these people to stop talking, or to try to organize their endless science discussions into something like a monthly meeting, “and get it over with in one fell swoop.”

That worked. And the idea caught on, with Nerd Nites now taking place in more than 60 cities around the world, including Dublin, Sydney, London, Amsterdam, Santiago de Compostela (the capital of the autonomous community of Galicia in northwestern Spain), and most major cities in the U.S. The global event in Brooklyn succeeded in being at least continental, Wasowski said, as several people from Canada showed up along with folks from Austin, Ann Arbor, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and other metropolises.

The Nerd Night concept, Wasowski said, has also succeeded in branching out from “hard science” to disciplines such as history and art. On a typical Nerd Nite, three experts give a 20-minute talk meant to be entertaining yet informative.

“We are trying to strike a careful balance and keep it from almost being too fun,” he said.

What lay ahead for me on Saturday was not your typical Nerd Nite, however. It was a Nerd Whole Day. Continue reading →

Celebrating Pi: Don’t Try This at Home

Do you remember what you did on Pi Day last Thursday (3/14)? American Chemical Society (ACS) student affiliates from Duquesne University, in Pittsburgh, took the opportunity to “pi” their professors (literally) and made a short video about it:

And on a related note, if you think reading the digits in pi will take forever, check out this video of a man pronouncing the longest word in the world, which happens to be the chemical name of titin, the largest known protein. (Warning: you’ll need three and a half hours to get through this video, but as a reward, you get to watch this man’s beard grow.)

Need A Centrifuge? Print One Out

In this week’s issue of C&EN, I wrote about how 3-D printing fever has taken hold of some folks in academia. Sure, scientists and engineers COULD keep a 3-D printer in the lab strictly for printing out a molecular model, a prototype, or even an intricate lab logo. But they’re starting to do much more with the machines.

As Lee Cronin, a chemist at Scotland’s University of Glasgow, told me, in the early days of 3-D printing, “people thought it was cool but gimmicky.” Now, though, they’re beginning to use the technique to solve problems, he added.

3-D Printed Lab Jack Credit: Courtesy of Joshua Pearce

3-D Printed Lab Jack Credit: Courtesy of Joshua Pearce

In the story, I describe how some scientists have used 3-D printers to make lab equipment such as centrifuges, funnels, lab jacks, and electrophoresis gel combs. These early adopters claim that the machines, which build solid objects layer by layer from materials like plastics and ceramic powders, can save labs thousands of dollars. And, they say, 3-D printers help foster an open-access scientific community that will speed the progress of research.

One research group I didn’t get to mention in my story is that of Simon J. Leigh, a chemist-turned-engineer at the U.K.’s University of Warwick. Leigh and his team are developing new materials for 3-D printers, with the goal of eventually incorporating them into devices for the lab and beyond.

For instance, late last year, the researchers published a PloS One paper detailing how they concocted “carbomorph,” a material made of the thermoplastic polycaprolactone and 15 wt% carbon black. “The aim of the project was to develop a material that could go into a printer that’s off the shelf,” Leigh says. In addition to being electrically conductive, carbomorph had the added benefit of being extrudable by a standard low-cost 3-D printer (they used a Bits from Bytes 3000).

3-D printed game controller: PacMan approves. Credit: Courtesy of Simon Leigh

PacMan thinks this is as delicious as a bowl full of cherries: 3-D printed game controller. Credit: Courtesy of Simon Leigh

Leigh’s team demonstrated that the substance could also be incorporated into several devices. One of these instruments was an electronic interface. The researchers added carbomorph buttons to an electrical circuit: When a user pressed one of them, its capacitance increased and triggered an electrical signal. Being able to embed sensors like these anywhere on a device rather than adding them on at defined spots in post-production could be extraordinarily useful, Leigh says.

In one, perhaps gimmicky, example, Leigh and his team printed sensor buttons into a video-game controller. “But there’s no reason why the same process could not be used to make custom interfaces for scientific equipment,” he says.


Cutest flow sensor I've ever seen. Credit: Sensors & Actuators B

Cutest flow sensor I’ve ever seen. Credit: Sensors & Actuators A (Physical)

In 2011, the research team also developed a magnetic material for 3-D printing that it used to manufacture a flow sensor. Specifically, the scientists added magnetite nanoparticles to a resin matrix and printed a tiny rotor (impeller). By monitoring the small piece’s rotational speed via external magnetic field, the researchers were able to determine the speed of liquid across it.

Why go to all the trouble of designing new materials and printing devices you could buy? Leigh says it’s almost a natural “evolutionary step.” First, there were desktop computers, next there will be desktop manufacturing systems. In science, especially, Leigh adds, “you want something that’s more bespoke these days. You don’t want to waste material or time” to get the equipment you need.

Amusing News Aliquots

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

Credit: Armed Forces Pest Management Board/Flickr

Credit: Armed Forces Pest Management Board/Flickr

Chemistry lab work can be tough. There are smelly solvents and reactions with the potential to explode. But at least you don’t have to worry about how you’ll feed the bedbugs. [PopSci]

Middle school science fair projects have gotten legit. Thirteen-year-old sends Hello Kitty to the stratosphere and back, with a video camera along for the ride. [Cosmic Log/NBC News]

Lusty male moth drives robot car towards the scent of his lady love, refuses to ask for directions. [Forbes]

The recently unearthed bones of Richard III beg the question: What’s the Shelf Life of DNA? [Slate]

Perhaps Ethan Hawke’s character from “Gattaca” isn’t the only one who should be paranoid — someone’s 3-D printing faces with your discarded DNA. [iO9]

Forget your umbrella? Spray your clothes with Ultra Ever Dry, a superhydrophobic and oleophobic nanotech coating (Um, actually, we’re not sure you should spray this on your clothes, but there’s a cool video). [NPR]