Solar storms start their lives as violent explosions from the sun’s surface. They’re made up of energetic charged particles wrapped in a complex magnetic cloud. As they erupt from the sun’s surface, they can shoot out into interplanetary space at speeds of up to 3,000 kilometers per second (that’s 6.7 million miles per hour). Depending on their direction of travel, these energetic storms can journey past Earth and other planets.
If a solar storm makes it to Earth, it can disrupt a variety of modern technologies including GPS and high-frequency communications, and even power grids on the ground, causing radio blackouts and citywide loss of power. It can also wreak havoc within the aviation industry by disrupting communication methods.
To combat related potential economic losses, affected industries have been seeking a solution that can provide them with at least 24 hours of warning. With enough lead time, they can safely change their operational procedures. For example, passenger planes can be rerouted or power grid transformers can begin the slow process of “winding down,” all of which require at least a day’s notice – a huge jump beyond the 60-minute advance warning currently common. By building on earlier research, my colleagues and I have come up with a technique we think can meet that 24-hour warning goal.
A national chain restaurant once approached McCormick & Company because it wasn’t getting the kind of fajitas sell-through it expected. When VP of applied research Marianne Gillette and her colleagues visited the restaurant, they observed the ritual of the fajita moment: An awe-struck silence would sweep across the dining room as a waiter carried a sizzling fajita skillet to some lucky table. They went back to the office and brainstormed. How can we make this moment even more dramatic? They created a “sizzle sauce,” which made the sizzle louder and the aroma more intense. Sales spiked.
McCormick once made a cedar-plank flavor for a restaurant that didn’t want the bother of cooking salmon on actual cedar planks. Using the same technology it used to create the imitation vanilla, McCormick has created “Ultimate Lemon,” which was formulated using aroma chemicals found in lemon peel, Meyer lemon, lemon thyme, and Limoncello (a refreshing and highly drinkable Italian liqueur). Ultimate Lemon might show up in a beverage, dessert, or salad dressing.
Not that you’ll ever know. Whether it says so on the label or not—and it usually does not—McCormick is in every aisle and on every shelf of the supermarket. The company provides “custom flavor solutions” for nine of the top ten American food companies and eight of the top ten food service companies. (Food service refers to large chain restaurants, companies that sell to smaller restaurants, school cafeterias, hospitals, and so forth.) McCormick is in your pantry, your fridge, your freezer, and nearly every restaurant. Unless you are a hunter-gatherer or have spent your life obtaining calories via feeding tube, McCormick has used the science and psychology of food to make you happy. It’s probably happened in the last week.
There is a good chance that your grandparents were born at home. I am going to go ahead and assume they turned out fine, or at least fine enough, since you were eventually born too and are now reading this.
But since the late 1960s, very few babies in the United States or the UK have been born outside of hospitals. As a result, you may find the new guidelines from the UK’s National Institutes for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) just as surprising as I did. For many healthy women, the NICE guidelines authors believe, there may be significant benefits to going back to the way things were.
Shortly after the NICE guidelines were issued, the New England Journal of Medicine invited me to write a response. The idea that any pregnant patient might be safer giving birth outside the hospital seemed heretical, at least to an American obstetrician like me. Knowing that no study or guideline is foolproof, I began my task by looking for holes to form a rebuttal.
I soon realized that this rebuttal largely hinged on flaws in the American system, not the British one. While we take excellent care of sick patients, we do less well for healthy patients with routine pregnancies – largely in the form of turning to medical interventions more than strictly necessary.
As the guidelines suggest, some women in the UK with low-risk pregnancies may be better off staying out of the hospital. Why? Because the significant risks of over-intervention in hospitals, such as unnecessary C-sections, may be far more likely (and therefore more dangerous) for patients than the risks of under-intervention at home or in birth centers. But women in the UK have access to greater range of settings where they can give birth. For women in much of the US, the choice is often the hospital or nothing.
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.