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In Print: Pitch Drop Experiment Tests Our Patience

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.


Wait for it: This pitch has an incredibly slow windup. Credit: Shane Bergin/Trinity College Dublin

They say that good things come to those who wait. This is not true for John S. Mainstone.

For 52 years, the University of Queensland, Australia, professor has been hoping to one day see a drop of pitch, which is a derivative of tar, fall to Earth. And for 52 years, Mainstone has been fruitless in his efforts. All that, however, may soon change.

As C&EN associate editor Emily Bones writes in this week’s Newscripts column, Mainstone’s pitch drop experiment–in which pitch is monitored as it slowly descends from the top of a glass funnel–will soon result in a drop of pitch actually falling. And to make sure no one, especially Mainstone, misses this magical event, the university has set up a live webcam to monitor the experiment.

Because of pitch’s viscoelasticity, which results in the material exhibiting both viscous and elastic properties, more than a decade can pass between individual drops, thus makes the impending drop especially exciting. What’s more, the impending drop could not come at better time for Mainstone, who is still attending to the salt that was rubbed into his wounds on July 11 when a replica of the pitch drop experiment at Trinity College Dublin actually captured, for the first time ever, a pitch drop on film. This event, recorded by Trinity physicist Shane Bergin and colleagues, can be seen in the video below.

“The existence of the Trinity College Dublin pitch drop experiment was certainly a great surprise to me–and apparently even to the locals in Dublin, too,” says Mainstone, who tormented himself by watching the replica’s video “over and over again” for “many hours.”

Don’t feel too bad for Mainstone, though. As he tells Newscripts, there is definitely room for improving upon Trinity’s pitch drop. “It was certainly a disappointment to me that their drop was so large that it ‘bottomed’ in the apparatus and thus led to the final rupture being generated bilaterally,” he says.

Here’s hoping that when Mainstone finally does see his pitch drop, it lives up to the expectations that he has been building up for 52 year long years.

In Print: When Zombies Help Us Escape

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.

Postapocalyptic films, video games, and nightmares typically involve escaping from zombies. But in the Science Museum of London’s ZombieLab exhibit, visitors were asked to help virtual zombies escape in an emergency. In turn, scientists behind the museum’s video game got to learn a little bit about human behavior in emergency evacuations.

The exhibit featured many zombie-based experiments that observe human behavior, asking questions such as “Can you act rationally during a zombie apocalypse?” and “Can virtual reality create the illusion that you’re dissociated from your own body?” They even delved into moral dilemmas that arise from acting violently in self-defense.

BRAINS!! Sure, this evacuation plan looks stupid, but your brain works differently in an emergency. Credit: ZombieLab

BRAINS!!!: Sure, this evacuation looks stupid from the outside, but your brain works differently in an emergency. Credit: ZombieLab

In an experiment that associate editor Andrea Widener writes about in this week’s column, 185 volunteers were asked to navigate their zombie avatars into a building and find a specific room. They were then instructed to guide their zombies to a new target outside of the building. There were two exits: the one that player had entered and another almost identical exit that was clearly visible but hadn’t been used by the player. Some players were told it was a race and some were not.

The players who weren’t rushed were equally likely to guide their zombie pals out either exit, leading to an efficient evacuation. But the players who were told bigger, badder zombies were coming and to hurry up (okay, that’s some embellishment on Newscripts’ part) were more likely to race their zombies back out the door they entered, even if that meant there was a bottleneck at this door and not at the other one (as depicted in the accompanying graphic).

The scientists see this as an opportunity to help out with crowd control at major venues such as sporting events, Andrea says, which she thinks is a good idea, given the results. “In real life, it’s actually much more logical that people choose the way they have been before since they don’t know what they are going to get the other way,” she says. “But sometimes they will just run by other clearly marked exits, which is dangerous in an actual emergency.”

So in the event of an emergency, remember to use your brains. And in the event of a zombie apocalypse, remember to protect your brains.


In Print: Electromagnet Embarks On Slow Ride, Takes It Easy

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.


The precious: One (electromagnetic) ring to rule the roadways. Credit: Brookhaven National Laboratory

New Yorkers aren’t known for sharing the road. But they really had no other choice when a 50-foot-wide electromagnet pulled out of Brookhaven National Laboratory in the wee hours of June 23 and slowly trudged along the highway.

As C&EN Associate Editor Lauren Wolf reported in last week’s Newscripts column, the electromagnet’s early-morning joyride was actually only the beginning of its journey. Over the remaining summer months, the electromagnet (which its handlers affectionately call the “ring” on account of the instrument’s shape) will travel by land and sea to arrive at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, located just outside of Chicago. Once there, the ring will be united with Fermilab’s muon beam generator. What are muons, you ask? They’re a subatomic particle similar to electrons but heavier. Fermilab scientists want to study the slight movements exhibited by muons as they interact with the ring’s electromagentic field because such movements could point to the existence of previously unknown particles and forms of energy. It’s an experiment that Brookhaven actually ran years ago, but the beam the lab used wasn’t intense enough, and as a result, the findings weren’t definitive enough.

Pairing the electromagnet up with Fermilab’s much stronger muon beam generator should alleviate this problem. First thing is first though: The electromagnet has to overcome a rather difficult journey. “The ring can’t twist during transit by more than a degree or so because it might break, which would make this costly move even more costly,” notes Lauren, who adds that the move is being coordinated in part by Emmert International, a firm that specializes in the transport of hauling heavy and large objects. Lauren is quick to note, however, that the big move is a labor of love for all involved. “I’m told the ring was built at Brookhaven in the 1990s,” says Lauren. “So I imagine that some of these scientists and engineers feel parental pride for the little, er, big guy.”

If you’re feeling parental pride for the electromagnet as well, Fermilab has set up what basically amounts to an online baby monitor to track the ring. Just click here to check out a map tracking the movement of the magnet in real time. And if that’s not enough backstage access to the electromagnet’s journey, check out this video featuring interviews with some of the ring’s movers as well as footage of the electromagnet’s road trip across Long Island.

In Print: Chemist Gets High On A Unicycle

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.

For most chemistry students, balance means juggling work inside the lab with life outside it. For Max Schulze, it means something else entirely. That’s because the rising senior at Colorado School of Mines is not only a chemistry major, but he’s also a world champion unicyclist.

Max Schulze

Serious air: Chemistry major Max Schulze defies gravity on his unicycle. Credit: Minesh Bacrania

In this week’s Newscripts column, Senior Correspondent Marc Reisch interviews Schulze, whose impressive balance atop a unicycle has led to top honors at multiple gatherings of the Unicycle World Championships & Convention (aka Unicon). Schulze is currently gearing up for the next Unicon, which will take place in Montreal in 2014.

Schulze “seems to have developed an outstanding sense of balance both on the unicycle and off it. That’s something we can all admire,” says Marc, who admits to having had very little knowledge of unicycling prior to his conversation with Schulze. “Like most folks, I have a fondness for motorized four-wheeled vehicles because they are very convenient to get me from point A to point B,” Marc deadpans. “I’m also capable of navigating motorless two-wheeled vehicles. But I have resisted riding one-wheeled vehicles for fear of falling flat on my face.”

Despite a lack of familiarity with unicycling, Marc nevertheless found himself very impressed by Schulze. One of the things Marc found most admirable was the time Schulze has spent visiting grade schools near his hometown of Los Alamos, N.M., “to show youngsters what they might achieve with practice and commitment.” Marc says that during these visits, Schulze will often have elementary school teachers lie down on the ground in a row and then proceed to jump over them them while riding his unicycle. “Now isn’t that every youngster’s desire in life: to pass over his or her teachers?” Marc laughs.

Check out some of Schulze’s hair-raising tricks in the following video. Newscripts readers, don’t try this at home!

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Amusing News Aliquots

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

Astronaut demonstrates what happens when a wet towel is wrung out in space. His cabinmates remind him of their spaceship’s strict “Clean up after yourself” rule. [Huffington Post]

The Pew Research Center and Smithsonian magazine release an online quiz to evaluate how your knowledge of science and technology compares with others’. Beat your grandfather to the punch, and forward him the link before he sends it to you. [Pew Research Center]

Newest loot for Mexico-to-China smugglers: giant bladders from endangered fish. [Washington Post]

And you thought medical marijuana had a hard time – researchers now looking into ecstasy as a possible treatment for serious stress disorders. [USA Today]

Happy 50th issue, Nature Chemistry. It’s good to know we’re not the only ones who have goofed up and published left-handed DNA. [The Sceptical Chymist]

Turns out the “cinnamon challenge” dare isn’t as innocuous as it sounds. Some attempters have wound up with long-term breathing problems or collapsed lungs. [Time]

Supposed extraterrestrial skeleton turns out to be a mummified human. Hunt for real-life Alf continues. [Metro]

Mars rovers – so immature. [io9]


19th-Century Medicine In New Orleans

Strolling around the French Quarter on my last day attending the spring ACS national meeting in New Orleans, I stumbled across the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, a 19th-century apothecary shop filled from floor to ceiling with bottles and jars containing crude drugs, herbal medicines, and even voodoo potions. For those of you who didn’t get a chance to visit this gem of a place, check out this virtual tour I put together–and be sure to visit the next time ACS visits New Orleans in spring 2018!

#ChemMovieCarnival: Dramatic Acid-Base Chemistry in Fight Club

This week, friend of the blog See Arr Oh is hosting a blog carnival devoted to chemistry in film. I’m a big fan of the silver screen, so in honor of the #chemmoviecarnival, I’m going to break a couple of rules and talk about one of my favorite films: “Fight Club.”

Living in a world where casual violence has become far too commonplace, I confess that it feels peculiar to be so fond of this film. After all, there are some alarming acts of violence in David Fincher’s adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel about, well, many things, but in particular life in our consumer-driven world.

I first saw this movie when it came out in theaters, back in 1999, and one of my companions commented as we left, “I hate everyone who liked that movie.” For me, however, the film’s violence is just an unusual way to get at a theme that might otherwise come off as cheesy: Appreciate every moment of your precious life.

To that end, there is this chemistry-related cinematic moment, in which one of the film’s central characters (Tyler Durden, played by Brad Pitt) gives the other (played by Edward Norton) a chemical burn with lye. Be forewarned it’s pretty graphic.

Please, please, please do not do this. It is not cool to give yourself or your friends chemical burns. That said, note the accuracy of the chemistry here: “you can run water over your hand and make it worse, or you can use vinegar to neutralize the burn.” Also, I am always amused at how Durden is so careful to put on gloves and safety glasses, but then rips them off for dramatic effect. It’s certainly not the most positive depiction of chemistry in film, but does drive home the movie’s point.

Amusing News Aliquots

Ants maximize their time on the smooth felt (white) and minimize their time on the rough felt (green) to reach their destination in the faster, albeit indirectly. Credit: Simon Tragust/NBC News

Ants maximize their time on the smooth felt (white) and minimize their time on the rough felt (green) to reach their destination in the fastest, albeit indirect, way. Credit: Simon Tragust/NBC News

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

Wonder how ants descend mere minutes into a picnic? Ants optimize routes for speed, a la Fermat’s principle of least time. [NBC News]

Ladies, looking for a fertile fella? Seems men who sport kilts “have significantly better rates of sperm quality and higher fertility.” From the Scottish Medical Journal, of course. [Improbable Research]

Researchers believe frog feet could be used to aid intestinal health.  Connoisseurs of French food say, “We’re way ahead of you.” [ScienceDaily]

Forget anxiety meds, Tylenol shown to help dampen fears of existential uncertainty or death. [Gizmodo]

Not that we would try it, but there’s some interesting chemistry behind the marijuana-infused spirit known as the Green Dragon. [PopSci]

Feeling lazy and unmotivated? Blame your lazy and unmotivated parents … preferably via the Internet, so you don’t have to get off the couch. [Huffington Post]

Dogs who have been spayed or neutered live longer than those who haven’t. Canine community reconsiders its animosity toward Bob Barker. [e! Science News]

And you thought running columns was tedious. What about studying where people stand in an elevator? [NPR]

Check out a related video: 

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