Celebrating the Bunsen burner, a staple in every chemistry lab

So it’s the last day of March, and we celebrate Bunsen Burner Day. Anyone who did chemistry in high school will remember the trusty Bunsen burner, a staple tool in avery chemistry lab, and more often than not a key part in some seriously derailed chemistry experiments.

In addition to heating chemicals, the intense flame of a Bunsen burner can also be used to sterilise laboratory tools.(© All Rights Reserved)
In addition to heating chemicals, the intense flame of a Bunsen burner can also be used to sterilise laboratory tools.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Bunsen Burner Day is celebrated on 31 March in honour of Robert Wilhelm Eberhard von Bunsen (31 March 1811 – 16 August 1899), German chemistry professor and inventor of various pieces of laboratory equipment, including the Bunsen burner. The science behind the way a Bunsen burner works is similar to that used in gas stoves and gas furnaces. The burner is connected via a tube to a container with flammable gas, and as the burner is opened, the gas flows through a small hole in the bottom of the burner’s barrel. Openings in the side of the tube allow air into the gas stream, and the mixture is ignited by a spark or flame at the top of the tube. The amount of air mixed in with the gas can be controlled by opening or closing the gaps at the base of the barrel – as the amount of air is increased up to an optimal point, the combustion becomes more complete, resulting in a hotter flame – as it heats up, the flame becomes blue and transparent, becoming almost invisible at its optimal level.

To this day, Bunsen burners remain a laboratory staple, and it is used on a daily basis in literally thousands of laboratories around the world.

Developing social and cognitive skills on International Tabletop Day

Today, 30 March, is International Tabletop Day, the day we celebrate all tabletop games. It is a reminder that these games – from chess to playing cards to snakes and ladders – can be a great way to spend some fun time with friends and family.

Since these games tend to be non-physical, they can be enjoyed by people of widely varying physical abilities – you don’t have to be a strong, fit 18 year old to take someone on in a game of Scrabble! As long as these games don’t keep us from physical activity, they can have great social and cognitive benefits, teaching us about communication, team work, strategy and innovative thinking. Just what the doctor ordered for a rainy day! (Just remember to get out of the house for a bit of a cardio-vascular workout when the weather clears…)

Still a classic - anyone a game of Scrabble?(© All Rights Reserved)
Still a classic – anyone a game of Scrabble?
(© All Rights Reserved)

And don’t think there’s nothing in the tabletop gaming genre for you just because you’re tired of the classic games like Scrabble and Monopoly – new tabletop games appear on an almost daily basis, and there are websites going to great lengths discussing and reviewing these – why not pop over to Tabletop Gaming News or have a look at the Top 10 new tabletop games for 2012 according to game informer.

Whatever rocks your boat – be it board games, dice games, war-games or card games – pull up a few chairs and have some fun on International Tabletop Day.

Keeping an eye out for smoke and mirrors

The 29th of March is Smoke and Mirrors Day, also known as the Festival of Smoke and Mirrors.

The phrase ‘smoke and mirrors’, which generally refers to fooling or deceiving someone into believing what is not, originated from the old magic shows in the 19th century, when magicians used strategically positioned mirrors to produce illusions for the audience. At times it was necessary to move the mirrors, or to secretly change something else on stage, and this was hidden from onlookers using well-timed bursts of smoke.

'Smoke and mirrors' - patterns created through repeated mirroring of candle smoke.(© All Rights Reserved)
‘Smoke and mirrors’ – patterns created through repeated mirroring of candle smoke.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Smoke and mirrors day is there to remind us (the naive and gullible among us, in particular), that things are not always as they seem. Politicians, salespeople, entertainers – these are all people skilled at fooling their audience through cleverly applied verbal and non-verbal smoke and mirrors.

So while being distrustful of anyone and everyone is not a healthy way to go through life, we can definitely all do with a healthy dose of scepticism – watch out for those smoke and mirrors, people! 🙂

Celebrating beneficial weeds on Weed Appreciation Day

Today, 28 March, is Weed Appreciation Day. Not ‘weed’ as in cannabis, but rather in the Merriam-Webster sense of the word, “a plant that is not valued where it is growing and is usually of vigorous growth.”

Today is the day to show some appreciation to these often irritating plants that tend to overgrow everything else in our gardens. While they may be pushy, over-enthusiastic and sometimes just plain rude in the extent to which they take over with little or no regard for other plants, many weeds actually have some useful redeeming qualities.

I’ve already waxed lyrical about jam made from wild blackberries, and other great edible wild foods, but there are many more, perhaps less striking, examples of useful weeds around. Take the teeny little dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), for example. While frustrating many gardeners by popping up all over the lawn with their cheery yellow flowers, they are actually amazing plants.

The lovely, cheerful dandelion, just one of many weeds worth celebrating.(© All Rights Reserved)
The lovely, cheerful dandelion, just one of many weeds worth celebrating.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Edible in their entirety, dandelions are an abundant source of Vitamins A, C and D, and chock-full of thiamine, riboflavin, calcium, sodium, potassium and lithium. Its taproot system helps bring nutrients to the surface for shallower-rooting plants, and it’s good for nitrogen enrichment. It is also a good food source for various birds, and attracts pollinating insects. Dandelion flowers can be used to make wine; the roasted roots can be ground to make a caffeine free coffee substitute, and they’re traditionally an ingredient in root beer. The leaves and flowers can also be eaten in salads and sandwiches. Medicinally, dandelion extract have been used to treat infections and liver problems, and as a diuretic.

All that from the lowly little dandelion. Now just imagine all the other equally useful weeds in your garden, and you quickly realise weeds can really be a cause for celebration.

Of course, when harvesting weeds for culinary or medicinal purposes, it’s important that you correctly identify the plant – you don’t want to end up like the American adventurer Christopher McCandless, whose amazing life and sad death is chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s book “Into the Wild”. There’s no lack of information on the topic, from websites (just make sure it’s a credible source!) to many good books, like Andrew Crowe’s “A Field Guide to the Native Edible Plants of New Zealand”, Bradford Angier’s “Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants” and James Wong’s “Grow Your Own Drugs: Easy Recipes for Natural Remedies and Beauty Treats”, to name just a few.

There’s a world of wonder out there – happy foraging!

Kerosene, a fuel of many functions

It was on this day, almost 160 years ago (27 March 1855, to be exact), that Abraham Gesner received his first US patent for the production of kerosene, a combustable, hydrocarbon oil produced from bituminous shale and cannel coal. The word ‘kerosene’, registered as a trademark by Gesner, was derived from the Greek ‘keros’, meaning ‘wax’.

The term eventually became a genericised trademark, and is generally used in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. In other regions, including the UK, South Africa and South-East Asia, it is more generally known as ‘paraffin’.

Kerosene, providing the flame of inspiration for fire dancers and other fiery performers.(© All Rights Reserved)
Kerosene, providing the flame of inspiration for fire dancers and other fiery performers.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Kerosene is one of the most widely used fuels, used in diverse applications ranging from rocket engines to camping stoves. The fuel was originally developed by Gesner ‘for the purpose of illumination’, and this remains its most common use in rural Africa and Asia where electricity is not available or too costly. It is estimated that an incredible 77 billion litres of kerosene are burnt internationally per year for lighting purposes.

Thanks to its rather low flame temperature when burnt in open air, kerosene has also become popular as the fuel of choice for entertainers such as fire breathers, jugglers and dancers, as it has less risk of causing severe burns should it come in contact with the performer.

Another interesting use of kerosene is as a pesticide – it has been proven to be effective at killing insects such as bed bugs and head lice, and can be applied to pools of still-standing water to kill mosquito larvae. It is, however, toxic and potentially fatal when ingested hence care should be taken to avoid human contact.

From powering rockets to illumination to fire dancing to insect control – a versatile fuel indeed.

Remembering Paul Erdős, collaborator, eccentric, lover of numbers

Today we celebrate the birthday of one of the most colourful and eccentric characters in the world of mathematics (a domain not short on eccentrics at the best of times)- the Hungarian Paul Erdős (26 March 1913 – 20 September 1996).

Erdős, a serial collaborator, was one of the most prolific publishers of mathematical papers in history. The volume of his output has been compared with the great Leonhard Euler, but while Euler published more pages (mostly as solo author), Erdős published more articles (more than 1500 in his lifetime), many in collaboration with other mathematicians.

Erdős lived his life on the road, moving regularly from one mathematical collaboration to the next.(© All Rights Reserved)
Erdős lived his life on the road, moving regularly from one mathematical collaboration to the next.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The British mathematician and author Timothy Gowers once wrote an essay entitled “The Two Cultures of Mathematics”, in which he classed mathematicians into two groups – the ‘problem solvers’ and the ‘theory developers’, with the latter often held in higher regard in the history of mathematics. Erdős, however, definitely fell into the former category – he was particularly fond of those problems that appeared simple to understand, yet notoriously difficult to solve. Most of his work focused on number theory, combinatorics, approximation theory, set theory and probability theory. However, thanks in part to his fondness for collaborating with other mathematicians, he also made contributions in completely unrelated fields such as topology.

As mentioned before, Erdős was known to be a bit of an eccentric. He had little interest in earthly possessions, giving most of what he had away to causes he considered worthy. Most of his life fit into a single suitcase, and since he first emigrated from Hungary (moving first to England, and later to America after accepting his first position at Princeton University), he lived a nomadic lifestyle, travelling between different mathematical colleagues and collaborators. It is said that he often arrived without warning, pitching up on a prospective collaborator’s doorstep with the words “My mind is open!”, to indicate his readiness to collaborate. After staying for a few weeks, he would move on to the next destination.

In recognition of his prolific collaborations, Erdős’ friends devised the ‘Erdős number’ – an indicator of a person’s degree of separation from Erdős himself (in terms of mathematical collaboration). Thus Erdős had a number of 0, while his immediate collaborators had an Erdős number of 1, his collaborators’ collaborators had an Erdős number of 2, and so on. Due to the extent of his mathematical collaborations, and the collaborations of these individuals with scientists from other fields, many physicists, engineers, biologists etc also have low Erdős numbers.

Despite the extent of his publications and collaborations, Erdős never received mathematics’ highest prize, the Fields Medal, nor did he co-author a paper with a recipient of this award. He similarly missed out on many other of the more illustrious mathematics awards, with the most significant award bestowed on him probably being the Israeli Wolf Prize.

Despite this lack of formal recognition, Erdős’ contribution to a wide range of mathematical topics have been acknowledged by his peers, and he is fondly remembered as someone with an unwavering passion for numbers, and one of the most colourful characters in mathematics.

Celebrating deliciously decadent desserts on International Waffle Day

The 25th of March is International Waffle Day. The day originated in Sweden, where it is known as Vaffeldagen.

Delicious, sweet and chewy Dutch waffles, also known as 'stroopwafels' or 'stroopies'. ('Stroop' is Dutch for 'syrup'.)(© All Rights Reserved)
Delicious, sweet and chewy Dutch waffles, also known as ‘stroopwafels’ or ‘stroopies’. (‘Stroop’ is Dutch for ‘syrup’.)
(© All Rights Reserved)

The day is dedicated to the waffle, a delicious dough-based dessert delicacy with a long history – the waffle, as we know it, developed from the ‘oublie’, a grain-flour communion wafer prepared from the 10th century. The modern-day waffle exists in many versions, from thin, stiff, syrup-filled Dutch waffle-cakes (‘stroopwafels’) to large, light and fluffy Belgian waffles, with numerous other varieties (American waffles, Hong Kong style waffles, Scandinavian style waffles, etc) in between.

Waffles are often served with cream or ice-cream and syrup, and often sprinkled with icing sugar. In addition, fruit such as bananas and berries can add an extra dimension, while chocolate is another option to add to the waffle’s decadence.

International Waffle Day is the perfect time to ‘go international’ and explore some new waffle varieties, or to at the very least try your favourite style with a new topping.

Yum! My mouth is watering as I write!

Share the message to Stop TB in our lifetimes

Today, Sunday, 24 March is World Tuberculosis Day. This is the second year of a 2-year “Stop TB in my lifetime” World TB Day campaign.

Despite all the work already put into eradicating the world of TB, it remains a killer or massive proportions – each day, 4000 people lose their lives to the airborne disease. What makes this number even more tragic is that TB is curable at a reasonably low cost, yet in many regions the fight against the disease remains grossly underfunded.

TB is an airborne disease that is spread from person to person through coughs, sneezes, spits, laughter, speaking and singing. Can the global TB epidemic be stopped in the lifetime of these children?(© All Rights Reserved)
TB is an airborne disease that is spread from person to person through coughs, sneezes, spits, laughter, speaking and singing. Can the global TB epidemic be stopped in the lifetime of these children?
(© All Rights Reserved)

The international health target with regards to TB and HIV-associated TB is to halve the number of TB-related deaths by 2015, compared to 1990 levels. While some parts of the world are on track, the developing world lags behind, with TB-deaths in the African region still being particularly high. According to the World Health Organisation, about 600 000 people died from TB in Africa in 2011 – that is 40% of the global TB death toll. What makes this number significant is that the number of TB deaths in Africa is higher than that of Asia, despite Asia having much higher population numbers, and more TB cases. The difference is that TB in Asia can be more effectively treated thanks to better funding. One of the other problems in Africa is the high levels of TB/HIV co-infection, complicating the treatment regime.

In a potentially positive move, health leaders form the southern African regions (the epicentre of the TB/HIV epidemic in Africa) have come together to address the problem, and they have just released plans for a “1000 day push” to upscale the offensive against TB in Africa, including TB among people living with HIV.

“Armed with a package of new investments and initiatives worth more than US $120 million, the leaders signed the Swaziland Statement, committing them to accelerate progress against the two diseases in the next 1000 days and work with Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries to achieve the international targets of cutting deaths from TB and HIV-associated TB by half by 2015, compared to 1990 levels.”

This is positive news for World TB Day, and we can only hope that, despite the African region’s dismal health record, some real good will come of this initiative, thus keeping alive the dream of eradicating TB in the lifetime of this generation.

Watching the weather to protect life and property

On 23 March each year, the worldwide meteorological community joins the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) in celebrating World Meteorological Day. This commemorates the day in 1950 that the WMO was created, and also serves to create awareness around meteorology and the important role it plays in our daily lives. Every year has a special theme, this year being “Watching the weather to protect life and property”.

Given the loss of human life and destruction of property we’re witnessing internationally with increasing regularity, resulting from natural disasters such as droughts, floods and tornados, it is obvious that early awareness of potential extreme weather conditions is critical for the protection of life and property. And it is here that meteorology plays such a key role – it is the science that deals with the study of past weather patterns and trends, in order to predict what the weather holds in the future.

Knowing what the weather holds - a quest as old as mankind.(© All Rights Reserved)
Knowing what the weather holds – a quest as old as mankind.
(© All Rights Reserved)

To find out more about the meteorology and its role in protecting life and property, have a look at the WMO’s cry informative World Meteorology Day brochure. As the document points out, “weather and climate knows no national borders”, and so this is another of those domains where international cooperation and sharing of knowledge and resources is absolutely critical to benefit all of humankind. To this end, it is also pertinent that 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the World Weather Watch – a landmark in international cooperation. The World Weather Watch “combines observing systems, telecommunication facilities, and data-processing and forecasting centres in order to disseminate essential meteorological and related environmental information and services in all countries.”

As extreme weather conditions become more commonplace (due to global climate change), investment in new technologies to more accurately predict extreme events and natural disasters are becoming increasingly important. Investing in early warning technologies allowing us to be ready sooner – to prepare for, and even prevent, disasters – makes perfect sense. As an example of this, an international project known as THORPEX (THe Observing system Research and Predictability EXperiment) is working on new techniques and technologies to extend forecasts of high-impact weather events to two weeks (current state of the art systems can provide reliable predictions of between 5 and 10 days). THORPEX is an international collaborative project between ten leading forecasting centres.

To quote M Jarraud, Secretary-General of the WMO: “More than ever the world needs global cooperation to promote and coordinate the provision of better and longer-term weather and climate forecasts and early warnings to protect life and property. The 2013 World Meteorological Day offers an occasion to reinforce this message and to contribute to address- ing the challenges of the 21st century.”

Definitely a message worth supporting and sharing.

Celebrating water cooperation on World Water Day

It’s a big week for the environment, with yesterday’s International Day of Forests followed today by World Water Day.

World Water Day is celebrated on 22 March each year, to focus attention of challenges facing freshwater, and to advocate for the sustainable management of freshwater resources. The day was first celebrated in 1993, making this year the 21st anniversary of World Water Day.

In 2013 the day is dedicated to the theme of cooperation around water.

Water - a precious, yet increasingly scarce resource.(© All Rights Reserved)
Water – a precious, yet increasingly scarce resource.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The importance of sustainable freshwater management, and cooperation around water supply and availability quickly becomes apparent when we look at some of the current facts and medium term future predictions. Currently, worldwide, 783 million people do not have access to clean water and almost 2.5 billion do not have access to adequate sanitation. Given the anticipated growth in the world population, food demand is expected to grow by 50% by 2030, while the demand for renewable energy from sources such as hydropower may rise by up to 60%. All these growths, together with an anticipated decrease in water availability in many regions, will lead to ever-increasing competition for water between the different water-consuming sectors such as the energy sector and the agricultural sector. Changes in diet (for example a shift from a starch-based diet to more meat and dairy) places further pressures on water availability, as producing these foodstuffs typically require more water.

The only way to possibly address the above situation is through multinational water cooperation. Many of the largest freshwater basins around the world are shared by more than one country, making sound cooperation critical. Food production and consumption (which can be equated to ‘virtual water’) is also shared across borders, again requiring responsible management and cooperation practices.

Water cooperation includes the sharing and exchange of scientific knowledge, management strategies and best practices, which are all fundamental to achieve sustainable development and protect the environment.

This is not just an issue that needs to be addressed at national, governmental level. Sound water management and cooperation is required at all levels, and as stated on the World Water Day website, “A general engagement, both individual and collective, is required for disseminating knowledge and the awareness of the value of water cooperation at local, national and international scales.”