Stories tagged Structure of Matter


Could it be?: Precious ambergris? Or just beach cheese.
Could it be?: Precious ambergris? Or just beach cheese.Courtesy sarae
Oh, Fergie, you’ve ruined my life. And music.

Anyway, New Zealand seems to be a little grosser these days. Several huge, greasy “lumps” have been found on the shores of the North Island in the last week, leaving locals confused, disgusted, and hopeful that a fortune in whale puke is right around the corner. (This may be the default feeling for kiwis, but I don’t follow the news there enough to say for sure.)

The 1000-pound lumps are whitish, lard-like, and a little smelly. The dogs of the beachcombers who first discovered the objects were reportedly reluctant to touch or eat the material, which is a strange thing for a dog that has found something on the beach.

Locals were quick to assume that the lumps could be precious ambergris, highly valuable whale vomit used in cosmetics, and were seen hacking chunks off of the mystery blobs. Their retirements, they reckoned, would be full of featherbeds and yams. (Again, I’m sorry, I just don’t know what New Zealanders are into.)

Ambergris’ name comes from the French for “grey amber” (as opposed to “brown amber,” fossilized tree sap), and is in fact, for those of you behind on your cetology, sperm whale puke. Sperm whales, like the rest of us, love to puke. And it’s important that your average sperm whale gets a good puke in now and again to eject any sand or stones they might have taken in over the course of… you know, I don’t really understand sperm whales any more than New Zealanders. But somehow they get grit in them, and they regularly and easily hurl it out. It seems, however, that some materials, like the beaks of cuttlefish and squid, are particularly irritating to whale guts, and something different happens—a special puke. It’s not known if the ambrein (the fragrant main ingredient in ambergris) comes from the beaks themselves, or if the chemical comes from the whale’s digestive process acting on the offending materials, but eventually a big ball of pasty goo is formed inside the whale, ready to be puked out. The ambergris initially smells pretty foul, but after floating around for a while, and being hardened and broken down by sunlight, it becomes a very complex and valuable material. Depending on the quality, it can fetch up to $15,000 per kg from perfume makers, to be used as a high-quality fixative.

Giant squids come in, I like to think, as an appropriate source for this bizarre, valuable material. Sperm whales are, after all, the prime predators of the giant squid, and giant squid have awfully big, gut-irritating beaks. It’s a link I like to make.

Anyhow, a lot of New Zealanders were set on making their fortune with this so-called whale puke. Ambergris, however, is said to burn with a blue flame when lit, and give off a pleasant aroma. When the mystery material was subjected to this test “it just melted and really stank.” Ooh. Ouch.

After this revelation, guesses on the material compositions were downgraded from ambergris to lard or cheese—“possibly brie.” The lumps are, it should be noted, about the size and shape of 44-gallon drums, which should have been a tip-off. But whatever.


A brown recluse: What do you suppose it's thinking about? I think I know.
A brown recluse: What do you suppose it's thinking about? I think I know.Courtesy Mean and Pinchy
You know what we love? Genitals. And I think you know which brand I’m talking about: the funny kind. And we just can’t get them out of our minds!

Take, for instance, some new research on spider venom. In addition to its long-established killing stuff properties, it turns out that some spider venom contains compounds that could aide the development of treatments for health issues ranging from arthritis to erectile dysfunction.

Whoa! Did I just type what I think I typed? “Erectile”? “Erectile dysfunction”? Whoa ho ho ho! Ha ha ha! Erectile dysfunction! That means that, you know, the elevator isn’t reaching the top floor! That, like, junk isn’t… Ha ha! Man, I love spiders! They are hilarious! Let’s see where else this research into comedy gold will take us.

It seems that some scientists at Cornell University have developed a new way of analyzing the molecular makeup of spider venom. Using “nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy,” the scientists were able to obtain detailed information on the molecular composition of spider venom, and, especially exciting, found entirely new molecules that had been overlooked in previous analysis of venom. The venom of the brown recluse spider, in particular, yielded some remarkable compounds.

“Remarkable compounds”? What is this? Get back to the erectile dysfunction! What happened to that stuff?

Hiding behind some larger molecules, the brown recluse venom was found to have some very small and interesting molecules called “sulfated nucleosides.” These molecules are quite similar to RNA, a basic component of our genetic material. Studying the sulfated nucleosides could lead to a better understanding of how brown recluse venom works.

Works at what? Curing impotence? Something like that? Gosh, it actually seems like this research was mostly about a new method of chemical analysis. But remember the part about, you know, wieners? Ah ha ha! Good stuff. Love it! In fact, the headline of any article about this research should focus on that incidental piece of information.

You’re welcome, scientists. We weren’t interested in nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, so we changed the focus a little. Now you’ve given us what we want. (Genitals.)


A big pyramid: Of pathetic, antiquated, and useless thought.
A big pyramid: Of pathetic, antiquated, and useless thought.Courtesy Pygo
Y’all know what a scientific paradigm is? Me neither. But I took a class about it once, and I seem to remember that it has something to do with the whole mindset with which we approach scientific questions. A paradigm frames how we might look at the whole of a scientific question—indeed, it doesn’t just determine how we ask questions, but what questions we ask in the first place.

When a paradigm shifts, something has occurred or been uncovered that completely changes the approach to the problem. With a new scientific paradigm, we don’t just ask questions that couldn’t be answered before, we ask questions that we never even considered before.

Let’s examine... oh, say, toilet paper. Thin. Usually white, or whitish. Used for wiping stuff. Two ply (sometimes one-ply, depending on the venue). What more can be done with it? Oh, I suppose we could make it softer somehow. Or make it rougher, maybe. Could we make it whiter? Larger squares? No, the discipline is dry; there is nothing new to be discovered in toilet paper now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.

Wrong answer, chumps! How about… 3-ply toilet paper!

3-ply? 3-ply? There’s no such… Aaaaaaaaaahhhaaaaaaaaaaaahh!!!!

No, pull it together… I can get my head around this… 3-ply…Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhaaaaaaaaaahhhh!!!!

Okay… Let’s just not think directly at that for a little bit.

So, “toilet paper researchers” in Wisconsin have created toilet paper that has… three layered… They’ve made two-ply toilet paper with one more ply.

It’s like the axis of the world has shifted so that it’s running right through my brain.

The new generation of toilet paper is being touted as “extra-soft,” although, industry analysts are skeptical, pointing out that an extra ply should only make TP tougher, not softer. Not to mention that it just plain seems impossible.

Nonetheless, the Wisconsin futurnauts fully intend to pursue this new three-layered science. The target market is reported to be women 45 and older who view their bathroom as a "sanctuary for quality time."

And so I salute you, 45+ female demographic. You dare what the rest of us can hardly imagine.


Materials scientists can now see what they are doing

The task of materials scientists is to create stronger, lighter, and better materials, materials with new and useful properties. One very helpful tool for understanding materials would be a microscope powerful enough to "see" individual atoms.

Now a new electron microscope at Berkeley Labs can produce images of individual atoms. The microscope, which is called TEAM 0.5, produces images with half-angstrom resolution. This is less than the diameter of a single hydrogen atom.

Transmission Electron Aberration-corrected Microscope

TEAM stands for Transmission Electron Aberration-corrected Microscope. Electron microscopes use a beam of electrons instead of visable light. The quality of what is seen through a microscope is dependent upon correcting lens aberration and upon the alignment and quality of all the components.

The information limit of a microscope results from mechanical and electromagnetic instabilities. Recent technological advances make it possible to improve mechanical stability by increasing the column’s mechanical stiffness, and to reduce electromagnetic instabilities by stabilizing the fields to an accuracy of about 100 parts per billion. These measures will extend the information limit beyond 0.05 nanometer. National Center for Electron Microscopy at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Looking without cooking

Although bright light makes for better viewing, the equivalent high energy electron beams often destroy what is being looked at. The TEAM 0.5 microscope can now provide good viewing of sensitive targets with electron beam intensities as low as 80kV. Low energy electron beams will allow visualizing organic samples.

3D images show exact position of individual atoms

The TEAM 0.5 microscope was used to look at a sheet of graphene. Individual atoms of carbon can be seen in the honeycomb shaped image. (click this link for the "Closest look ever at graphene")

The position of individual atoms in a structure can be determined by taking images at different angles, from which the computer reconstructs a 3-D tomograph of the sample, as in a CAT scan. To make this possible an innovative system capable of tilting and rotating the sample, and moving it up, down, or sideways under the electron beam, is also being developed at NCEM.

Improved model (TEAM I) in 2009

The current version of microscope, the TEAM 0.5, will be available to users next month. The next version, the TEAM I, will have even greater capablities.

Manipulating the sample by such methods as minute piezoelectric "crawlers" that change shape when electricity is applied, the new stage will be able to control and reproduce the sample's position and attitude with an accuracy of less than a billionth of a meter.

Click this link to see the timetable of TEAM development


Stained-glass windows: Uplifting to look at, and good for your physical health, too.
Stained-glass windows: Uplifting to look at, and good for your physical health, too.Courtesy Mark Ryan
While Gene continues obsessing over the ways of the flesh (see below, and here), I shall take the high road and offer this post that involves both our corporeal and spiritual realms.

A recent study out of Australia's Queensland University of Technology shows that tiny particles of gold embedded in the paint of stained glass windows not only add to the beauty of church windows (which no doubt enhance the experience of being inside the church), but also have some health benefits.

It seems medieval glaziers, who could be considered the first nanotechnologists, used different sized gold particles to create a variety of colors. The windows produced over the centuries for churches across Europe are certainly uplifting to look at, but until now nobody realized the additional health benefits they carry for our physical beings.

What happens is when sunlight illuminates the stained glass, the gold nanoparticles resonate as they heat up. This resonance increases significantly the magnetic field across the element’s surface that in turn interacts with and destroys nasty pollutants like volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are present in the air.

"These VOCs create that 'new' smell as they are slowly released from walls and furniture, but they, along with methanol and carbon monoxide, are not good for your health, even in small amounts," said associate professor Zhu Huai Yong, a member of the team that did the study.

The chemical reaction purifies the air with only small amounts of carbon dioxide as a byproduct. Yong is excited about the prospect of using gold nanoparticles in future research.

"Once this technology can be applied to produce specialty chemicals at ambient temperature, it heralds significant changes in the economy and environmental impact of the chemical production," he said.

Queensland University of Technology site story


Like this: But way better. And stuff.
Like this: But way better. And stuff.Courtesy Library of Congress
Protect your grills, everybody, because the future is looking to get all up in them again!

Over the next two years, the oldest known copies of biblical documents, the Dead Sea Scrolls, will be digitally scanned and placed online for all the world to examine at their leisure.

Well, not all the world. Just the parts with computers and access to the Internet, and just those people who know and care that the Dead Sea Scrolls are available for public study. So not all the world at all.

The first of the scrolls were discovered accidentally in a cave in the West Bank by a goatherd in 1947. Over the next thirty years, more scrolls—about 1000 documents in total—were found in 11 caves in the area. The documents include texts from the Hebrew Bible, dating to before 100 AD. The scrolls are also reported to contain an astonishing number of recipes and very dirty jokes.

The thousands of fragments of the scrolls were photographed in their entirety (up to that point) only once, in the 1950s. Many of those photographs are now crumbling, and so, despite the arguments of some Luddites who are no doubt on the way out themselves, scholars are taking advantage of this amazing time we live in (the future), and are subjecting the whole of the scroll collection to some fancy pants scanning.

The images of the texts will be taken in very high resolution and with varying wavelengths of light, highlighting details not readily visible to the naked eye.

The physical scrolls will be beginning a tour of the United States next month at the Jewish Museum of New York.


The original Minifig: mocked horribly by later generations of minifigures, but, fortunately, incapable of feeling emotion of any kind.
The original Minifig: mocked horribly by later generations of minifigures, but, fortunately, incapable of feeling emotion of any kind.Courtesy Wakuran
I'm a couple days late here, but it's time we recognized the Lego minifigure's 30th birthday.

That's right—on August 25th, 1978, Lego introduced the little yellow Lego guy. Lego had been manufacturing plastic interlocking bricks since 1949, allowing children across the world to practice engineering without realizing that they shouldn't be having fun, but it wasn't until 78 that they sold a little human like thing to enjoy our Lego creations.

Technically there were minifigures available in 1974, but the were faceless, armless pylon-men, and they couldn't enjoy anything. 1978 brought the lovable little man we know today.

Wired's piece on the birthday features this epic video embed:

And, yes, that does make me want to buy a bunch of Lego friends, and have a party for the 20th century, but I thought I'd leave you with a different, though no less triumphant, Lego celebration. Enjoy.


Ask not...: It tolls for thee, bro, it tolls for thee.
Ask not...: It tolls for thee, bro, it tolls for thee.Courtesy carl.jones
Just messin’, y’all!

Only some of us will die on September 10th! And that’s only because we were going to die anyway. There will be sudden heart attacks, tragic car accidents, hilarious full-body prolapses, and possibly some mysterious cases of spontaneous combustion, and none of that will have anything to do with the Large Hadron Collider turning on on the tenth of September.

That’s right, everyone, you can stop holding your breath, and start crossing your fingers, because the LHC now has a date for its first proton collision.

Some people have raised concerns that turning on the LHC could lead to the destruction of the earth in one of several very sciencey ways. Other people have shouted down these jokers, however, because they are very, very, very probably wrong.

And if the world doesn’t end, well, we’ll probably learn all sorts of rad things about the nature of the universe. We might even get some visitors from the future. But I might put a larger bet on the destruction of the solar system (but, you know, fingers crossed).

So, Buzzketeers, on September 10, do your best to protect yourself from the everyday dangers of existence. Wrap your head in packing foam, fill your tummy with starch-based peanuts, and keep yourself wet and/or naked to prevent sparks catching in your clothing and hair, because you probably won’t want to miss what’s coming out of the LHC.


Hey, wait a second...: How could you ever balance one of those on a pencil? Bad science!
Hey, wait a second...: How could you ever balance one of those on a pencil? Bad science!Courtesy Matthieu ::
All y’all up on graphene?

I knew you were. You’re Buzzketeers, the best of the best, the biggest of the brains, the coolest of the cids.

There’s no need to explain graphene to this team (the Lil’ Professors), so it would be totally unnecessary for me to point out that graphene is a fancy material made of a single layer of carbon atoms attached to each other in a honeycomb pattern. It’s about as flat as can be, and when you roll it up you get those little things Science Buzz is so crazy about: carbon nanotubes.

Nanotubes are awesome, and if you click on the link above you can learn about all the awesome things they can do. But graphene…graphene itself may be pretty awesome too. The problem with testing just how awesome graphene is is that it has been exceptionally difficult to a) make a piece of graphene so small that it hasn’t got any of the imperfections that naturally come in large chunks of things, and b) make a device to actually hold the itty bitty graphene well enough to really test the stuff out.

But science has now done those things! Using a tiny sheet of perfect graphene (about 1/100s the width of a human hair) and a really tiny diamond…poker-thing (about 10 billionths of a meter wide), scientists have finally been able to find out exactly how strong graphene is.

So, how strong is it? It’s the strongest! That is to say, the strongest material measured so far. It’s about 200 times the strength of structural steel, or, says Columbia Professor James Hone, “It would take an elephant, balanced on a pencil, to break through a sheet of graphene the thickness of Saran Wrap.”

This statement, of course, wins professor Hone July’s “Awesome explanation, Scientist” award. That’s a good mental image, and it shows a non-scientist like me how strong graphene is.

So…awesome explanation, Scientist! More of that, please!


A fun way to learn about elements

There is a video channel on You Tube that will feature a video about each element on the periodic table. I am featuring the video on sodium below.

Sodium is amazing

When sodium is placed in water it floats because it is lighter than water. It also reacts with water. Sodium, because it is more reactive, takes the place of of one of the hydrogen atoms in water, (HOH). The hydrogen replaced is freed and the heat energy of the reaction often ignites the hydrogen. The burning hydrogen combines with oxygen in the air releasing energy which appears to be an explosion (or is it an implosion). All I know is that when my high school companions threw a chunk of it in the river the result was water blasted 13 feet into the air.

Sodium is hazardous

One should note that the sodium attached to the remaining OH from the water molecule makes sodium hydroxide (NaOH). Sodium Hydroxide is the active ingredient in Drano which eats through fat, grease, and skin. I learned the hard way that it burned skin and ruined clothing.

Video about sodium (Na)

Click here to see more videos about elements from the periodic chart.