Category: Chemistry

Mythbusting the Mythbusting of Capt. Kirk and His Handmade Diamond Cannon

By Eric Wolff | June 28, 2010 12:28 am

Alas, Capt. Kirk’s muzzle-loading bamboo gun would more likely have killed Kirk himself then the Gorn attacking him—or at least, so said the Mythbusters a while back. For those who haven’t seen arguably the best episode of Star Trek TOS (Arena), the plot is as follows: An alien race wants to test humanity by pitting Kirk against another alien, called a Gorn, in a fight to the death. The Gorn is bigger and stronger, but Kirk wins the day by finding and mixing together saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal into black powder, loading them into a bamboo tube, and, using diamonds as ammunition, shooting and killing the Gorn.

The Mythbusters set about testing the theory and found that it didn’t work. They handmade some half-decent gunpowder, but it didn’t have enough force to fire anything, and if it had, the bamboo tube couldn’t contain the explosion. The Mythbusters discovered the exploding bamboo  would have been more likely to kill Kirk then the gorn.

But it’s possible the Mythbusters didn’t use optimal ingredients in their low-energy gunpowder.

Like, maybe they used bad charcoal. Ulrich Bretscher is a retired Swiss chemist who turned his discipline and training to the art of homemade black powder, and he says the charcoal is the key element in determining the effectiveness of the gunpowder.

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Stealth Fighters of Tomorrow Could Make Today's Look Like the Goodyear Blimp

By Eric Wolff | June 17, 2010 5:08 am

blacksquareBlacker than Neo’s leather jacket, blacker than Emperor Palpatine’s black heart, blacker than the mood of Dark City: Nothing is blacker than the thin mesh of 35-nanometer silver wires on a wafer of aluminum oxide unveiled last month at the Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics.

The composition was imagined by Evegenii Narimanov, a materials engineer at Purdue University, and then created by Mikhail Noginov, a materials physicist at Norfolk State University. (Narimanov recently made some news when he produced the first electromagnetic black hole, capable of slurping up the light waves that come near it.) The mesh is placed at intervals smaller than the wavelength of the radiation it needs to be absorbed. The new material reflected as little as less than one percent of the sub-infrared, 900-nanometer-wavelength radiation, though Narimanov said the effect would be the same at any wavelength —- including the visible light spectrum —- under other configurations. Narimanov told New Scientist he anticipates the material will find its use in coating stealth fighters to improve their invisibility to radar.

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Would Steroids at the World Cup Ruin the Beautiful Game?

By Kyle Munkittrick | June 15, 2010 5:49 pm

WorldCupDrugsWhat would it be like if the World Cup allowed players to take steroids? Would it change the beautiful game? I’m not suggesting anything like “The All-Drug Olympics” (which remains one of my all time favorite SNL skits), but that scenario seems unlikely, given that most franchises wouldn’t want their hundred-million dollar investments burning out after one game. We know most major athletes use various legal and not-illegal drugs, steroids, and substances to train, perform, heal, and recover as well and as fast as possible. So why is it alright for Olympic gymnasts to get cortisone injections for inflamed joints but wrong for baseball players to take steroids to increase muscle recovery times? Why is it alright for Tour de France riders to refuel intravenously overnight but wrong for them to inject their own blood back into their bodies? Where do we draw the line?

Two world-class minds–Julian Savulescu, Uehiro Professor of Practical Ethics, and John William Devine, with the Oxford Center for Bioethics–will be debating the resolution “Performance enhancing drugs should be allowed in sport.” Savulescu is an absolute titan in the bioethics field (check this 2005 Guardian interview) and a huge proponent of human enhancement (he edited a book by the same name) so Devine is a brave man for taking him on. Given that Devine’s PhD thesis was on the “Challenges to Virtue in Political Office,” a pretty thorny topic, I believe he will rise to the occasion. The debate will consist of three parts, and the opening salvo has already occurred. Savulescu’s case for allowing drugs is quite convincing.

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Codex Futurius: When Houses Grow on Trees

By Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor) | September 3, 2009 6:24 pm

Yes. It’s true. After a little summer slow-down, it is time for the return of the Codex Futurius, this blog’s never-ending quest to explore the big science of science fiction. This question on futuristic materials was fielded by Sidney Perkowitz, a physicist at Emory University. Thanks much to Dr. Perkowitz for the solid (ha) info and to Jennifer Ouellette, the director the NAS’ Science and Entertainment Exchange (SEEx) program, for connecting us with him.

Will we use metal in the future? What else would we build things out of? Might we use organic technology (machines and buildings made of or from biological organisms) instead?”
In The Graduate, that iconic film from 1967, bewildered 20-something Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) gets some career advice from a businessman who leans close and intones “I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics.” Benjamin didn’t follow that advice, but the rest of the world did, and in spades. By 1979, global production of plastic had exceeded that of steel and is still growing, reaching over 200 million tons this year. There’s no doubt that plastic will continue to play a major role in how we make things, but it won’t replace everything.

In some ways, plastic is the material of the future, the latest step in humanity’s long upward trek through the ages of stone, bronze, iron, and steel. The word “plastic” comes from Greek roots meaning “capable of being molded.” Compared to metals and other materials, plastic is infinitely versatile. With its ability to shape-shift and to take on different mechanical and optical properties, it shows up in a huge spectrum of applications from packaging and plumbing to toys, medical supplies, and computers. And unlike iron and steel, plastic doesn’t rust.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biotech, Codex Futurius, Materials

Eleventh Hour: VX Gas And How to Survive it

By Eric Wolff | March 6, 2009 9:51 pm

Eleventh Hour LogoTerrorism pops up all over science fiction, and last night’s episode of Eleventh Hour was no exception with terrorism featuring VX gas. The plot focused on a group of white converts to Islam (thank you, Hollywood, for reinforcing that stereotype. We’re all painfully aware of the dangers of lunatic jihadists, but let’s not become so fixated on that that we blind ourselves to the fact that as, say, Oklahama and Belfast demonstrated, terrorists can have sorts of religious faiths, including agnostic and Christian, while simultaneously tarring all Muslims with the same brush). The terrorists plan to take over a theater full of kids and hold them hostage. The weapon they intend to hold over their heads is VX nerve gas, more or less considered the deadliest chemical weapon in the world’s arsenals. It’s the same stuff Ed Harris was smuggling in The Rock, and one of the weapons Saddam Hussein used on the Kurds. VX gas is, by most experts’ account, the most deadly chemical weapon yet invented. It’s so potent that when the British invented it in 1952, the Americans were willing to trade away nuclear secrets to learn how to make it.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biowarfare, Chemistry, TV
MORE ABOUT: Eleventh Hour, VX gas

Knight Rider: What Michael Knight Forgot

By Eric Wolff | January 23, 2009 12:30 am

All that build up for an episode about KARR, and that’s it? In last night’s episode of Knight Rider, a dangerous robot went on the rampage, and all we get is a turbo-boosted kill shot from KITT, and KARR is no more? Sheesh. Now I almost wish I could just forget the whole KARR plot— kinda like Michael Knight did.

Early in the episode, the late Dr. Graiman tells Knight, via hologram, that he was actually KARR’s first driver. As we know, KARR started programming himself and became a killing machine, forcing the government to scrap the program and build KITT.  To prevent Knight from spilling the beans, they wiped Knight’s memory.  Induced amnesia is a classic of Sci Fi—and of soap operas, and who knows what all— but can it actually be done?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biotech, Chemistry

Super Atoms: Technobabble Plot Device Discovered for Real

By Stephen Cass | July 2, 2008 5:29 pm

delftWhen writers need to indicate that their super-advanced-spaceship crew are just as mystified by some alien artifact as you are, they often fall back on the tried and tested exclamation of “It’s made of some unknown element!” This always caused my eyes to roll—after all the last gap in the periodic table of the elements was filled in 1923 and while scientists do compete to add more artificially created elements to the bottom of the periodic table, these elements are incredibly unstable, with half-lives typically measured in fractions of a second. And even if one of these new elements were stable, they’d all be much heavier than lead, whereas, when handled by the spaceship crew, the alien artifact tends to behave more as if was made of materials with, perhaps, the density of plywood or plastic.

But now a group of Dutch researchers at the University of Delft have created substances that behave like totally a new type of element.  Read More


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