On February 20, 1962, the spacecraft Friendship 7, carrying astronaut John Glenn, lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. This Mercury 6 mission made Glenn the third American to enter space and the first to orbit the Earth.
Glenn also has the distinction of being the first American to eat in space. His astro-meal consisted of applesauce squeezed from an aluminum tube, which he washed down with an orange-flavored powdered drink mix called Tang. Hardly anyone remembers the applesauce, but the drink was history-making.
Tang became an emblem of the space age. With a list of ingredients that includes lots of things you’d find in a chemistry lab and less than 2 percent “natural flavor,” the powdered drink mix also became a bellwether for the breaching of another frontier: the brave new world of synthetic food.
The need to mend broken hearts has never been greater. In the USA alone, around 610,000 people die of heart disease each year. A significant number of those deaths could potentially have been prevented with a heart transplant but, unfortunately, there are simply too few hearts available.
In 1967 the South African surgeon Christiaan Barnard performed the world’s first human heart transplant in Cape Town. It seemed like a starting gun had gone off; soon doctors all around the world were transplanting hearts.
The problem was that every single recipient died within a year of the operation. The patients’ immune systems were rejecting the foreign tissue. To overcome this, patients were given drugs to suppress their immune system. But, in a way, these early immunosuppressants were too effective: they weakened the immune system so much that the patients would eventually die of an infection. It seemed like medicine was back to square one.
Did you know that the discovery of a way to make ammonia was the single most important reason for the world’s population explosion from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 7 billion today? Or that polythene, the world’s most common plastic, was accidentally invented twice?
The chances are you didn’t, as chemistry tends to get overlooked compared to the other sciences. Not a single chemist made it into Science magazine’s Top 50 Science stars on Twitter. Chemistry news just don’t get the same coverage as the physics projects, even when the project was all about landing a chemistry lab on a comet.
So the Royal Society of Chemistry decided to look into what people really think of chemistry, chemists and chemicals. It turns out most people just don’t have a good idea of what it is chemists do, or how chemistry contributes to the modern world.
This is a real shame, because the world as we know it wouldn’t exist without chemistry. Here’s my top five chemistry inventions that make the world you live in.
Kevin Tracey, a neurosurgeon based in New York, is a man haunted by personal events – a man with a mission. “My mother died from a brain tumor when I was five years old. It was very sudden and unexpected,” he says. “And I learned from that experience that the brain – nerves – are responsible for health.”
This background made him a neurosurgeon who thinks a lot about inflammation. He believes it was this perspective that enabled him to interpret the results of an accidental experiment in a new way.
In the late 1990s, Tracey was experimenting with a rat’s brain. “We’d injected an anti-inflammatory drug into the brain because we were studying the beneficial effect of blocking inflammation during a stroke,” he recalls. “We were surprised to find that when the drug was present in the brain, it also blocked inflammation in the spleen and in other organs in the rest of the body. Yet the amount of drug we’d injected was far too small to have got into the bloodstream and traveled to the rest of the body.”
After months puzzling over this, he finally hit upon the idea that the brain might be using the nervous system – specifically the vagus nerve – to tell the spleen to switch off inflammation everywhere.
It was an extraordinary idea – if Tracey was right, inflammation in body tissues was being directly regulated by the brain. Communication between the immune system’s specialist cells in our organs and bloodstream and the electrical connections of the nervous system had been considered impossible. Now Tracey was apparently discovering that the two systems were intricately linked.
The first critical test of this exciting hypothesis was to cut the vagus nerve. When Tracey and his team did, injecting the anti-inflammatory drug into the brain no longer had an effect on the rest of the body. The second test was to stimulate the nerve without any drug in the system. “Because the vagus nerve, like all nerves, communicates information through electrical signals, it meant that we should be able to replicate the experiment by putting a nerve stimulator on the vagus nerve in the brainstem to block inflammation in the spleen,” he explains. “That’s what we did and that was the breakthrough experiment.”
Vancouver-based architect Michael Green was unequivocal at a conference at which I heard him speak a while ago: “We grow trees in British Columbia that are 35 stories tall, so why do our building codes restrict timber buildings to only five stories?”
True, regulations in that part of Canada have changed relatively recently to permit an additional story, but the point still stands. This can hardly be said to keep pace with the new manufacturing technologies and developments in engineered wood products that are causing architects and engineers to think very differently about the opportunities wood offers in the structure and construction of tall buildings.
Green himself produced a book in 2012 called Tall Wood, which explored in detail the design of 20-story commercial buildings using engineered timber products throughout. Since then he has completed the Wood Innovation and Design Center at the University of North British Columbia which, at 29.25 meters (effectively eight stories), is currently lauded as the tallest modern timber building in North America.
A decade ago, a revolutionary paper showed that a hormone called oxytocin can actually make us trust other people. This spawned a flurry of research that revealed oxytocin’s potential to boost social interactions. Now a new study has shown that the hormone is actually very similar to alcohol, a well-known social lubricant. However, just like alcohol, it has a dark side.
In the first study, published in 2005, volunteers were asked to invest money in an anonymous trustee whose honesty could not be guaranteed. People who received a dose of oxytocin chose to invest more than those given a placebo – they were more trusting. Subsequent experiments have shown that oxytocin also leads people to become more empathetic, generous and cooperative. They become better at reading social nuances and facial expressions, believe others to be more approachable and become less fearful and anxious in social situations.
Not only this, it seems that oxytocin may help to promote fidelity. Evidence for this comes most clearly in two intensively studied and closely related rodent species. One, the prairie vole, is monogamous; mated couples form close pair bonds and share nest-building and parental duties. In the other, the meadow vole, males leave the female with the babies and will try to mate again.
The two species vary in their sensitivity to oxytocin. However, experiments that increase the effective sensitivity to oxytocin by increasing hormone dosage or blocking receptors in the brain can actually change pair-bonding behavior, making it easier for female prairie voles to choose a partner and turning previously promiscuous meadow vole males into monogamous, caring dads.
The unparalleled motion and manipulation abilities of soft-bodied animals such as the octopus have intrigued biologists for many years. How can an animal that has no bones transform its tentacles from a soft state to a one stiff enough to catch and even kill prey?
A group of scientists and engineers has attempted to answer this question in order to replicate the abilities of an octopus tentacle in a robotic surgical tool. Last week, members of this EU-funded project known as STIFF-FLOP (STIFFness controllable Flexible and Learnable manipulator for surgical OPerations) unveiled the group’s latest efforts.
A minor fracas between astronomers and robo-lawnmowers has been making headlines, which sounds painfully futuristic. At issue, whether the maker of Roomba can let its autonomous mower operate on restricted radio frequencies that telescopes use to observe the cosmos.
And the whole thing is futuristic in another, more subtle way, as well. Robot lawnmowers are just one of the many coming gadgets that will be incorporated into the Internet of Things, a wireless network in which even our everyday appliances will participate. And it’s that future that has astronomers on edge.
A Web of Nouns
The trouble began because iRobot doesn’t want its customers to have to do any physical labor — not cutting the grass and definitely not digging the trenches for the underground wires that most autonomous lawn mowers use to sense the edge of their domain. iRobot applied to the FCC to be allowed to use wireless broadcasters instead, at radio frequencies between 6240 and 6740 MHz. Problematically, though, space-based methanol also broadcasts radio waves at those frequencies. Methanol traces star formation and tells us about the evolution of our galaxy, which (taken to its extreme) tells us how we got here. To protect that band, the FCC says “all practicable steps shall be taken to protect the radio astronomy service from harmful interference.” And within that band, it prohibits “fixed outdoor infrastructure.” The National Radio Astronomy Observatory says iRobot’s guiding beacons violate that prohibition and insist the mower-bot stay 55 miles away from its telescopes. iRobot says nuh-uh, “there is little risk of interference,” and 12 miles is sufficient.
If one brand’s wireless landscape-eater can cause such a stir, just imagine what could happen when our world is full of self-adjusting, internet-connected devices all communicating wirelessly with each other and with the Web. They will all need to use the radio “spectrum,” but how they’ll split it up — and share it with astronomers, other industries, and the government — when more devices need a slice of the pie remains to be seen.
Smart thermostats can already make your house the temperature you want while monitoring the outdoor weather. Bluetooth beacons help you find your keys. Sensors monitor inventory and alert vending machine owners that Fruitopia is sold out. This is the Internet of Things, and it’s coming. “There are no spectrum bottlenecks for dedicated Internet of Things systems yet,” Kevin Ashton, co-founder and former executive director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Auto-ID Center, told Bloomberg BNA, “but we are seeing Wi-Fi services get maxed out, as there are only so many channels you can cram into the available spectrum.”
Splitting up the Spectrum
The Internet of Things requires wireless devices. A Nest would look stupid with an Ethernet cable snaking out of its circumference. If your wearable glucose monitor had to be plugged into a router to work, you’d never get far from home. Each device operates at a specific radio frequency. In the US, the FCC controls who gets to use which frequencies. In some bands, anyone can transmit radio waves, as long as they stay below a certain power (most Internet of Things things operate here). Other bands require a license, which the government sells to organizations at (surely riveting) auctions. And, finally, some bands are reserved for radio astronomy. Check out this graphic to see how it’s parceled out:
The radio astronomy bands, however, only cover a tiny portion of the spectrum, while radio astronomers are interested in almost all of it. So while the Internet of Things may color within the lines of its own little boxes (which seems dubious if iRobot is a harbinger), objects in space have no such compunctions. They will continue to send out radio waves that have the same frequency as your video-chat dog-treat dispenser. And the signal from your dog’s sockeye-salmon biscuit video could completely swamp a signal that’s been traveling valiantly across space for billions of years. But as the spectrum gets more crowded, we’re more likely to see changes and challenges to its allocation — just like with iRobot — that bleed toward protected bands.
Radio Waves … from Space
Astronomers use radio telescopes like those in Green Bank, WV; Socorro, NM; Jodrell Bank, England; Arecibo, Puerto Rico; and Parkes, Australia to detect the radio waves coming from space. Although cosmic radio waves come from powerful sources like black holes, pulsars, and natural lasers, they have traveled a long way before hitting earthly antennas. Radio waves, like visible light, appear dimmer the farther you are from the source. If you are 1 light-year from a pulsar, and then you step back to 2 light-years, the radio waves will become four times dimmer. Step back 4 light-years, and the waves are 16 times dimmer. By the time radio waves get here, they’re way less than shadows of their former selves. A single cell phone placed on the Moon, for instance, would show up more powerfully in radio waves than almost anything else in the sky.
So when you put a cell phone right next to a telescope, or even miles away, it easily drowns out the pipsqueaks coming from space. Imagine trying to see a flashlight that someone was holding in front of the Sun (hint: rhetorical).
To protect their ability to do radio astronomy without the intrusion of your smartphone, astronomers put their telescopes in remote locations, preferably valleys surrounded by mountains that absorb radio waves trying to trespass from outside. But in a world full of radio-emitting devices, being away from population centers isn’t good enough. Any population is a problem — and not just because of the obvious suspects, like cell phones. Nearly any electronic device emits radio waves (proof? Turn on a portable radio, tune to an empty AM station, and hold it up to your refrigerator/fluorescent light/digital camera/oscillating fan).
Some observatories politely ask people to turn off their cell phones, as if this were the beginning of a movie and not the fate of our understanding of the universe. But others, like Green Bank, have established “radio-quiet zones,” where lots of normal things are against the law. For 13,000 square miles around the observatory — a region that includes parts of Virginia and Maryland as well as West Virginia — broadcasters have to fill out special paperwork to make sure the telescope can’t “see” their transmitters. If it can? Permit denied. So for an hour or so radius around Green Bank, you can’t get cell phone service, no matter how high you hold your iPhone in the air. “Keeping cell service out of the immediate vicinity hinders the utility of lots of gadgets which would potentially transmit on multiple bands, not just their link to the cellular service,” says Green Bank’s Carla Beaudet, the observatory’s radio-frequency interference engineer. “The National Radio Quiet Zone offers protection to Green Bank both directly and indirectly.”
In a smaller, 10-mile radius around the observatory, the rules are stricter: no Wi-Fi, no microwaves, no cordless phones, no wireless game controllers, no Bluetooth transfers. It’s an enforceable law, and NRAO has a truck that can track down rogue radio waves. Employees have knocked on doors to find shorted electric blankets, malfunctioning electric fences, contraband Wi-Fi routers, and once (at least according to legend) was plagued by the radio tracking collars on fast-moving squirrels.
Green Bank has the most well-known and oldest quiet zone, which was established in 1958 (not in small part because the government’s communications station Sugar Grove is just down the valley). But Australia, South Africa, and Chile — home to the next generation of radio telescopes — have or soon will have their own versions. “Geospatial exclusion areas like the National Radio Quiet Zone can go a long distance (pun intended) towards protecting specific radio astronomy facilities,” says Beaudet, “particularly if there is additional protection from terrain obstacles” (such as mountains).
But many telescopes — such as Arecibo — have only terrain obstacles, and no official protection. Soon, they may only be sensitive enough within the officially protected radio astronomy bands — and that’s only if corporations play by existing rules. “The extent to which the Internet of Things will be a threat to radio astronomy will depend upon whether the regulatory standards can be upheld in the face of the massive onslaught of lawyers funded by the private sector,” says Beaudet. “If the regulatory standards are upheld rather than modified every time somebody needs more spectrum, there will still be small windows of spectrum in which astronomers can observe.”
In the future, telescopes outside quiet zones may detect so much blah-blah-blah from our devices that they won’t catch the whispered conversation from space. But the people who live in those quiet zones won’t be able to fully inhabit the modern world. Their dogs will have to eat treats all alone. Their home heating systems will be woefully inefficient. They’ll never buy an app. (Note: Some want it that way and move to places like Green Bank because it’s electromagnetically old-school. )
If we live in a hyperconnected wireless world, which we already do, we learn less about the universe than we would if radio telescopes were the only technology in operation (at least until we can build a radio telescope on the Moon). But we’re not going to stop making smart devices and linking them together, nor should we. We will have to find a way to manage and balance those interests. Not every iRobot will get what it wants. Not every pulsar will be discovered. Conversations like the one between the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and iRobot are just beginning. Go get yourself some popcorn. You won’t believe what happens next.
When Paul Coleman summits Mauna Kea, the dormant volcano in Hawai’i that rises 13,796 feet above the Pacific, he is struck by two things. First there are the colossal observatories, whose domes gleam in the sunlight by day and glimpse the farthest reaches of the universe by night. Second, there is the red dusted mountain itself, which in his religion is the home of the gods.
But Coleman, an astronomer at the University of Hawai’i and a native Hawaiian, may be one of the few people on Mauna Kea who can fully appreciate this dichotomy. Today, the sacred mountain has become a battleground between astronomers, Hawaiians and environmentalists. The issue is that astronomers have placed 13 telescopes at its summit and now wish to build one more: The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), which will be the largest and most powerful yet.
The telescope’s opponents argue that not only is the volcano sacred ground, it’s environmentally fragile land and also ceded land, meaning that it should be used for the benefit of native people. While the operators of the new telescope have held many conversations with Native Hawaiians, conducted a thorough environmental impact statement and proposed paying $1 million yearly for the land plus another $2 million yearly to support local education programs, the protestors say it’s not enough.
“Mauna Kea is our temple,” said Kealoha Pisciotta, one of a half-dozen plaintiffs suing to stop the project. “It’s not a question that we’re against astronomy. We’re just for Mauna Kea.”
But for astronomers like Coleman, the colossal telescope is also a temple. With a mirror nearly three times larger than any other on Earth, it will see deeper into the universe than any other ground-based telescope. And built with phenomenal optics in such a pristine location, it will produce sharper pictures than even the Hubble Space Telescope.
Brain tissue is very soft and full of water, and through autolysis it usually begins to decompose rapidly after death. Nevertheless, it can sometimes be preserved.
In 1998, archaeologists excavated the fossilized remains of an 18-month-old infant from a burial site near Quimper in France. The child had died about 700 years previously, and its body was found wrapped in leather and placed in a wooden coffin with a pillow under its head. The skull had a large fracture, suggesting a brain hemorrhage as the probable cause of death – and still contained the shriveled remnants of the left-brain hemisphere.
The brain tissue had lost about 80 percent of its original volume but was otherwise extremely well preserved. The frontal, temporal and parietal lobes retained their original shape, and other brain structures, such as the characteristic grooves and ridges of the cerebral cortex, were visible to the naked eye. Furthermore, the researchers could easily distinguish between grey and white matter in CT and MRI brain scans. Microscopic examination of the tissue revealed that it even contained intact cells.
Last year, a team of Russian researchers reported another remarkable find – the partial carcass of a 39,000-year-old woolly mammoth, excavated from permafrost in the Sakha Republic, Russia, complete with a well-preserved brain.