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Celebrating exploding food on Popcorn Day

Today, 19 January, is Popcorn Day, a day to celebrate one of nature’s fun foods – those crazy little corn kernels that, when exposed to heat, explode violently and morph into cushiony white snacks many times their original size.

We’ve all enjoyed popcorn, but have you ever wondered what makes ’em pop?

Exploding starch frozen in action. (© All Rights Reserved)
Each piece of popped popcorn is a totally unique example of exploding starch frozen in action.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The secret to popcorn’s popping ability lies in the composition of the kernel. The popcorn kernel consists of a hard, watertight outer shell, containing starch and a small amount of water and oil.

When the kernel is heated, the water inside tries to expand to steam, but the hard shell prevents this. The heat also gelatinizes the starch inside the shell. Once sufficient pressure has built up (to an incredible 930 kPa), the kernel bursts open in a violent explosion, freeing the steam and starch.

As the hot starch bursts out of the shell, it expands rapidly to as much as 50 times its original size. At the same time it experiences rapid cooling as it comes into contact with the air outside the shell.   It is this rapid cooling that sets the gelatinized starch into the familiar foamy popcorn puff.

So a popped popcorn is basically a starch explosion frozen in action!

Celebrating Ruth Benerito and her quick-drying, flame-retardant, crease and stain resistant fabrics

Today we celebrate the birthday of Ruth Rogan Benerito (born 12 Jan 1916), the American chemist and inventor whose innovations in fabric technology have saved the world many many hours slogging away in front of the ironing board. Dr Benerito was the inventor of wash and wear cotton fabric.

As if this wasn’t enough of a gift to the world, Benerito also came up with numerous other innovations – in total she has been granted no less than 55 patents related to textile technology. Thanks to her we now have fabrics that are quicker drying,  crease and stain resistant, comfortable and better able to retard flames. She also developed a cotton textile cleaning technique (adopted widely in the Japanese textile industry) using radiofrequency cold plasmas. This method replaces the commonly used technique of pre-treating cotton with sodium hydroxide, as such greatly reducing the environmental impact.  Many of her innovations also found application in the wood and paper industries.

No more ironing for hours - just wash, dry and wear.(© All Rights Reserved)
No more ironing for hours – just wash, dry and wear.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The key to the wrinkle-resistant fabric was a process called molecular cross-linking. She discovered that the long chain-like cellulose molecules that make up cotton fibre can be chemically treated so they are bound (cross-linked) together – a process that strengthens the hydrogen bonds between the cellulose molecules, leading to the advantageous result that the cotton becomes less prone to wrinkling.

On an almost completely unrelated note, far removed from her important and ground-breaking work in textiles, Benerito also developed a novel technique to administer fat intravenously to patients too sick or wounded to eat. This innovation has helped save the lives of thousands of people  by maintaining their nutrition levels during severe illness.

From clothing to nutrition, these are some truly useful innovations indeed!

Sweets for my sweet, saccharin for my honey

Our birthday star for today is Constantin Fahlberg (22 Dec 1850 – 15 Aug 1910), the Russian chemist who, in 1878, discovered the surprisingly sweet taste of anhydroorthosulphaminebenzoic acid (better known to those of us without PhD’s in chemistry as saccharin), while working on coal tar compounds at the John Hopkins University.

What made him decide to taste the compound he created is not clear to me – he seems to have been quite a daring chemist to taste the stuff he concocted in the lab – but the bottom line is it must have been a thrilling taste-sensation, given that saccharin is said to be 220 times sweeter than cane sugar. Fahlberg dubbed the compound ‘saccharin’ after the Latin name for sugar.

Saccharin - one of the 'big three' most widely used artificial sweeteners around the world (together with aspartame and sucralose).(© All Rights Reserved
Saccharin – one of the ‘big three’ most widely used artificial sweeteners around the world (together with aspartame and sucralose).
(© All Rights Reserved

Realising the potential of his discovery, he took out all the necessary patents and set up a saccharin factory in 1896 with his uncle, Dr Adoplh List. Churning out saccharin by the ton-load, Fahlberg soon became a very wealthy man – unlike some other inventors, he was lucky enough to reap the sweet rewards (pardon the pun) of his invention.

Over the years, saccharin became the subject of various controversies – from being considered an illegal substitute for sugar in certain foods, to being accused of being carcinogenic in the 1960s and 70s. No conclusive proof has however been found linking saccharine to cancer in humans, and today it is still one of the most widely used artificial sweeteners, together with sucralose and aspartame.

Albert Hofmann and the psychedelic bicycle

It was on this day back in 1938 that Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann first synthesized the psychedelic drug LSD, or lysergic acid diethylamide.

The story goes that Hofmann, working in the pharmaceutical-chemical department of Sandoz laboratories in Basel, was investigating the purification and synthesis of active constituents from the squill plant and ergot fungus, for use in new pharmaceuticals. While studying derivatives of lysergic acid for use in a respiratory and circulatory stimulant, he synthesized LSD, a semi-synthetic derivative of ergot alkaloids. The newly discovered drug apparently didn’t show much promise, as the project was set aside for 5 years until 1943, when Hofmann decided to return to it for some further investigations. After re-synthesizing LSD, a small amount of the drug was absorbed in his body when it accidentally came in contact with his fingertips.

It was this accidental contact that illustrated the potency of his discovery in a most vivid way. His notes on the experience included the following description:

“At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.”

LSD played a significant role in influencing music and art through the psychedelic movement of the 1960s.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Impressed by its power, he decided to study it in more detail, and on 19 April 1943 he performed a self-experiment, ingesting 0.25mg of LSD. Within an hour he started experiencing an extreme reaction and requested his lab assistant to escort him home. As wartime restrictions prohibited the use of motor vehicles, they had to make the journey by bicycle. During the journey home Hofmann experienced severe hallucinations and heightened anxiety, fearing that he poisoned himself. His house doctor was called in, but he could find no physical abnormalities, except for very dilated pupils. This gave Hofmann some reassurance, and after a while his anxious state subsided, giving way to a state of hallucinatory euphoria where he again experienced vividly coloured and constantly changing dream-images.

Hofmann, realising the potency of the drug, felt it had huge potential as a psychiatric tool. Given the intensity of his experience, he had no inkling that anyone would consider using it recreationally.

(He was clearly wrong on this point – his experience, dubbed ‘Bicycle Day’, became famous in drug history, and continued to be celebrated enthusiastically in psychedelic communities many years later.)

After Hofmann’s initial experience, interest in LSD soared, and over the next 15 years it was the subject of extensive studies, becoming the topic of hundreds of academic papers and even entire scientific conferences. It became used in psychotherapy, treatment of depression, and as a supposed cure for alcoholism. At the same time, the CIA also became interested in the potential of the drug for their applications, funding a project known as MK-ULTRA where subjects (many unwittingly) were exposed to the drug to test its effects. This highly controversial project, that continued for almost two decades, included investigations on the potential for various drugs in combination with stress or specific environmental conditions, to break down prisoners or induce confessions, and had a lasting psychological impact on many of its subjects.

It wasn’t long before the popularity of the drug went beyond its medicinal application. Initially psychiatrists started using it recreationally and sharing it with their friends., and by the early 60s its recreational use had gained much wider popularity. It has had a huge influence on music and art, particularly the psychedelic movement of the 60s. LSD had a number of highly visible and vocal supporters, including one-time academic turned LSD guru Dr Timothy Leary, and author Ken Kesey (whose experiences as part of the CIA’s MK-ULTRA programme became the inspiration for his “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”)

By April 1966 LSD had become so popular that Time magazine, who had published a number of positive reports on the drug in the 1950s, published a warning about its dangers. At the same time, the US government stepped in and declared the drug illegal, giving it a Schedule 1 (“high potential for abuse”) status. California banned the drug in October 1966, with other states, and the rest of the world, following soon after.

Albert Hofmann’s pharmaceutical research sparked a generation of psychedelia.
(© All Rights Reserved)

I can only wonder what Albert Hofmann, working in his lab in the late 1930s, would have thought if he could have had a glimpse into the future to see the range of effects and applications of the drug he was working on. In chaos theory, the example is often given of a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world potentially being the impetus for a massive storm thousands of miles away, but I think the image of Albert Hofmann’s laboratory research in the 1930s resulting in a psychedelic festival of music and culture in the 1960s, would be an equally vivid illustration!

Get ready for the Molar Eclipse!

Today is October 23rd; 10-23.

If you’re involved in any way with the field of chemistry, 10 to the power 23 should ring a bell – Avogadro’s constant, 6.02 x 10^23, the number of particles in a ‘mole’ of a substance, is a basic quantity in chemistry.  To quote wikipedia:
“The mole is a unit of measurement used in chemistry to express amounts of a chemical substance, defined as an amount of a substance that contains as many elementary entities (e.g., atoms, molecules, ions, electrons) as there are atoms in 12 grams of pure carbon-12, the isotope of carbon with atomic weight 12. This corresponds to a value of 6.02214179×10^23 elementary entities of the substance. It is one of the base units in the International System of Units, and has the unit symbol mol.”

In celebration of the above, Mole Day is celebrated on October 23rd, from 6:02 am to 6:02 pm. Generally the day involves activities that represent puns on ‘mole’ or ‘avogadro’. For 2012, the official theme for Mole Day is ‘Molar Eclipse’.

Mole Day was created to foster an interest in chemistry.
(© All Rights Reserved)

So how do you celebrate this day? Well, you can go on a molercoaster ride, or make a meal with avogadro dip or guaca-mole sauce. Have a Rock ‘n’ Mole party. Whatever you do, involve as many of your friends as possible – the mole the merrier! 🙂

I’m sure readers of this blog will be able to come up with many funnier, punnier activities to engage in on Mole Day – any suggestions?

James Dewar, Thermos and the vacuum flask

Today we celebrate the birthday of Sir James Dewar, Scottish chemist and physicist, born on 20 September 1842.

Dewar was a dynamic, innovative scientist who was responsible for many scientific advances in both chemistry and physics at the turn of the century, but is perhaps best remembered for an innovation that he never received any financial recognition for. In 1892 he developed an insulating flask known as the Dewar flask, which became the inspiration for the legendary Thermos insulating flasks. The design of Dewar’s vacuum flask, commercially introduced by Thermos in 1904, is so simple and elegant that it has remained virtually unchanged to this day, and it remains as useful as it was more than a century ago.

A thermos flask and a steaming cuppa – gotta love a simple, effective design.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Dewar’s initial motivation for developing an insulating container came from his work in the liquefaction of gases, where he needed to keep the liquified gases at a very low temperature. In the early 1890’s he designed a vacuum-jacketed container (a double-walled flask with a vacuum between the two silvered layers of steel or glass) to store the gas. The vacuum layer in the flask proved so efficient at preventing the transfer of heat to the gas that he was able to preserve it in liquid form for much longer than was previously possible, thus enabling him to study the properties of the liquified gas in much more detail.

Sadly, Dewar never patented his invention, which allowed the newly formed German company Thermos GmbH to take over the concept and develop a commercial version of the vacuum flask.

The Thermos flask was an international success, used extensively in both domestic and industrial applications ever since it’s release. The name “Thermos” became colloquially synonymous with vacuum flasks in general, to such an extent that it was declared a ‘genericized trademark’ in the US in 1963.

Personally, while I find it sad that Dewar never got any financial recognition for this amazing invention, I have to admit my undying commitment to my good old Thermos flask. It goes everywhere with me – I am seldom on assignment out of town without a trusty flask of hot, home-brewed coffee by my side.

Come to think of it, I should definitely pour myself a steaming cuppa from my trusty Thermos in celebration of Dewar and his great invention!

Read my lips – the invention of non-smear lipstick

Today we’re discussing a subject that’s on many women’s lips – we’re celebrating the birth of Hazel Bishop (17 Aug 1906 – 5 Dec 1998), an American chemist, cosmetic executive, and the inventor of non-smear lipstick.

The saying goes that “gentlemen prefer blondes”, but research shows that if her lipstick is red enough, he may not notice her hair.
(© All Rights Reserved)

While the impact of this invention on the progress of humankind may be limited, it certainly left an indelible mark on the cosmetics industry.

Interestingly, it is said that Ms Bishop got the idea while working as an organic chemist for Standard Oil Development Company, after discovering the cause of deposits affecting superchargers of aircraft engines. She set about on a quest of relentless experimenting with various mixtures of staining dyes, oils, and molten wax until, in 1949, she perfected a lipstick that stayed on the lips better than any existing product available at the time.

Knowing she had a winner on her hands, she founded a cosmetics company, Hazel Bishop, Inc, manufacturing non-smear lipstick which was introduced to the public at $1 per tube. It proved a runaway success, with her company’s lipstick sales skyrocketing from $50 thousand in 1950 to $10 million in 1953.

Sadly, she lost control of the company in 1954 after a proxy fight with her stockholders. Not allowing this to get her down, she went on to start a research laboratory, became a stockbroker specialising in cosmetics stocks, and finally, in 1978, a professor at a fashion institute.

The story of lipstick is an interesting one. It’s use dates back to ancient times, with some very, uhm… interesting ingredients used. Ancient Egyptions used a mix of sea-based algae, iodine and bromine, while Cleopatra preferred the hue she got from the deep red pigment in crushed carmine beetles, with crushed ants used as a base. Over the years, ingredients used in lipstick have included beeswax, plant-based stains, fish scales (for a shimmering effect), deer tallow, and castor oil, to name just a few.

Through the ages, the use and acceptability of lipstick varied – in certain eras it was associated with high class and royalty, while other times saw its use confined to actors and prostitutes. Since the early 20th century, however, its use has become generally acceptable among all levels of society.

In a recent research project, studying men’s responses to women in the first 10 seconds after seeing them for the first time, researchers found that men are drawn to the lips more than any other facial feature. The extent to which the lips dominated their attention depended quite strongly on the use of lipstick.

In the case of a woman wearing prominent lipstick, men’s eyes would be fixated on the lips for between 6.7 seconds (pink lipstick) and 7.3 seconds (red lipstick) out of the first 10 seconds – less than one second was spent looking at her eyes, and even less studying her hair. Without make-up, men still paid attention to the lips, but in this case things were more balanced, with the gaze being shared almost equally between the lips, the eyes and the rest of the face.

It was found that men also preferred fuller lips, but the appeal of thin lips increased by 40% once lipstick had been applied.

It seems to me that the simplest solution to hiding any facial flaws is simply an abundant splash of red lipstick – men at least would seem unlikely to look at anything else. However, for women who consider their eyes and the rest of their faces worth looking at may want to hold back on the lipstick!

I cannot help but wonder whether the study focussed on only the first 10 seconds of the men’s gaze, because after this their attention moved to other parts of the anatomy? Perhaps that’s a topic for further research…

Fifty Shades of Red

Do you know why your blood is red? It’s thanks to the red blood pigment, haemin, which is one of the components of haemoglobin.

And why do I know this? Well, because I’ve been reading up on Hans Fischer, the German biochemist who was born on this day in 1881, and who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1930, primarily for his work on the structure and synthesis of the blood pigment haemin. In 1929, Fischer succeeded in synthesising haemin, the deep red, oxygen-carrying, non-protein, ferrous component of haemoglobin, that gives blood its red colour.

It’s elementary, my dear Watson – this is definitely not alien blood.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Oxygen-rich blood (such as arterial blood and capillary blood) is bright red, as the oxygen intensifies the colour in the haemin. When oxygen is extracted from the blood it turns a darker shade of red – this can be seen in the veins, and in the blood collected during blood donation. The colour of blood can also be an indicator for certain medical conditions. Both carbon monoxide poisoning and cyanide poisoning result in bright red blood, as it inhibits the body’s ability to extract and utilise the oxygen in the blood. On the other hand, severe deoxygenation (which can be caused by respiratory diseases, cardiac disorders, hypothermia, drug overdose or exposure to high altitude) results in a condition called cyanosis, where the blood darkens to such an extent that it gets an almost purple-blueish hue, resulting in the skin turning a blue colour.

While the blood of humans and all vertebrates is always a shade of red (containing haemin), it’s interesting to note that it is, in a strange way, surprisingly close to being green! In addition to his work on blood pigmentation, Thomas Fischer also studied the components of the pigments in leaves. He found that, like the haemin in blood, the chlorophyll in leaves is a porphyrin, and that haemin and chlorophyll share a very similar structure, with only subtle differences.

All of this talk of blood, and red and green pigmentation, conjure scenes of science fiction in my mind – if haemin (that makes blood red), is so similar to chlorophyll (that makes leaves green), perhaps the idea of green-blooded aliens is not such a stretch. It makes scientific sense, right?

Anyway, let me rather stop before I get too carried away. Enjoy the day, and keep an eye out for those little green men! 🙂

Create some chemistry on International Kissing Day

Pucker up, its Kissing Day, a day to celebrate all aspects of the age-old art of kissing.

Of course kissing is not just an art, so given that this blog has a bit of a science leaning, lets discuss the science of kissing, or philematology (my new word for the day!).

Philematology tells us that kissing not only activates and stimulates large parts of the brain, it also releases chemicals that reduce stress. Furthermore, the human lips apparently have the thinnest layer of skin on the body, and are more densely populated with sensory neurons than any other bodily region.

Kissing is good for you – it’s a scientific fact, ask any philematologist!
(© All Rights Reserved)

In a study on the chemical impact of kissing, Neuroscience Professor Wendy Hill from Lafayette College, Easton, Pennsylvania, studied 15 romantically involved couples before and after kissing and holding hands for 15 minutes. Their levels of oxytocin (a feel-good, ‘social bonding hormone’) and cortisol (a ‘stress hormone’) were measured before and after the kissing session. It was found that cortisol levels decreased in all subjects, while oxytocin levels increased in the men and decreased in the women. The oxytocin reduction in the women was quite a surprising result, but may have had to do with the fact that the experiment was conducted in an “unromantic” student health center, which may have had more of an inhibiting effect on the women than the men (who, lets face it, are normally not too fussed by their surroundings!).

In another project, this time by anthropologist Helen Fisher from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, a number of brain imaging studies were conducted to see how the brain reacts to kissing. Fisher believes kissing activates different chemicals that stimulate different regions of the brain, and more specifically different “primary brain systems”, involved in the human mating and reproduction process. The first of these systems is sex drive, primarily testosterone driven, which drives people to find a mate, or even multiple mates. The second, romantic love, motivates people to gravitate towards a particular mate, and the third, attachment, helps couples stay together so they can rear children. Kissing is considered to have beneficial effects on all these systems.

Fisher furthermore says that kissing is, at a basic level, about exchange of saliva. Men tend to be sloppier kissers, because this lets them transfer more testosterone to stimulate their partners’ sex drive. She also speculates that men might be able to assess a woman’s fertility by subconsciously analysing the levels of estrogen and other hormones in her saliva (but that sounds a bit like science fiction to me).

According to neuroendocrinologist Sarah Woodley, another important chemical that may be present in saliva is androstadienone, a mood-enhancing steroid that also plays a role in helping you focus. “It may not be a sex attractant, but it plays a role in enhancing responsiveness to other stimuli. It makes them feel better”, she explained.

So what to do with all this philematological knowledge? Well, the best advice on Kissing Day is probably to just put it all out of your mind and enjoy what the day has to offer. Just do it – you don’t want all this science to spoil the fun!

(Source: Chemical attraction: The science of kissing.)