October 25 – Sheer Nonsense

Today’s factismal: The first nylon stockings went on sale in 1939.

Back in 1939, women had a big problem: they wanted to wear silk stockings but they couldn’t afford them. The price of a typical pair of silk stockings had risen by more than 50% in the past year alone, thanks to rising demand and embargoes on foreign goods. And even if she could afford the $0.69 ($11.26 in today’s money) that a pair of stockings cost, a woman was likely to see her investment ruined the first time that she wore them. Fortunately, chemistry was about to come to the rescue.

Artificial silk had been known since 1855 when nitrocellulose (aka guncotton or “oops! I blew your legs off”) was turned into fine, extremely flammable threads that became known as “mother-in-law’s silk”. The process was further refined into the creation of rayon from sawdust in the early 1920s, but the threads were coarse and irregular. So scientists searched for an alternative and finally found it in 1935. The nylon silk that they produced was first used to make bristles for toothbrushes; once the process had been refined enough to create long fibers, they started to manufacture stockings, parachute cloth, and other fabric goods.

A war poster encouraging recycling silk and other scarce goods (Image courtesy Truman Library)

A war poster encouraging recycling silk and other scarce goods
(Image courtesy Truman Library)

Their discovery came just in time as many of the traditional sources for rope (hemp from Indonesia), tires (rubber from Indonesia and Thailand), silk fabric (silk from China) and other materials had been embargoed due to concerns about the war that had begun. Thanks to their work, the US was able to substitute synthetic materials for the natural goods; today, many of those synthetic materials are not only still used but often preferred due to their superior quality and strength. If you’d like to learn more about the chemistry behind nylon and other synthetic fabrics, then head on over to Chemspider:

October 23 – We Are All Starstuff

Today’s factismal: There are about as many atoms in 5 1/2 ounces of oxygen as there are stars in the universe.

If you had been a chemist in the 1800s, you would have had a real problem. You knew for a fact that oxygen plus carbon would make water(H2O), but you would be able to say how much oxygen or how much hydrogen was needed to leave nothing but water in the reaction chamber. Sometimes you’d have oxygen left over and sometimes you’d have carbon left over and you’d always have a big mess. It was uncertainties like this that kept chemistry from being an exact science.

The reason that chemistry was an uncertain science was because the number of oxygen atoms in a pound of oxygen is different than the number of hydrogen atoms in a pound of hydrogen. (This is why Mark Whatney blew up the lab in The Martian.) Because chemistry takes place on the atomic scale, you couldn’t just add two pounds of hydrogen to one pound of oxygen and get nothing but water; you had to find some way of scaling the weight (or, more appropriately, the masses) of each chemical so that you’d be adding the right number of atoms. Fortunately, a scientist by the name of Avogardo pointed the way.

Avogardo (or “Avocado” as he is known to all freshman chemistry students) had the bright idea in 1811 that the volume of space taken up by a gas at a given pressure and temperature might be related to the number of atoms in that gas; based on that, he and other scientists were able to derive the relative atomic weights of the elements. It took the chemists nearly a century, but by 1909, we had a periodic table that listed the atomic weight of each element. That allowed us to know exactly how much of each to add in order to get reactions that worked perfectly every time.

There are a mole of stars in the universe (Image courtesy NASA)

There are twenty moles of stars in the universe
(Image courtesy NASA)

Avogardo and the chemists who came after him called the standard amount of stuff a mole (short for “molecular volume”). And, because it was Avogardo’s bright idea that made it all possible, the number of atoms (or molecules) in a mole is known as Avogardo’s number. And it is a mighty large number – there are 6.02 x 10^23 atoms of oxygen in 16 grams (one mole) of oxygen. To give you an idea of how many atoms that is, just go outside tonight and take a look at the night sky. If you were to count every star in every galaxy in the universe, there would be about 10^24 stars. So there are as many atoms of oxygen in ten moles of oxygen as there are stars in the mole of the universe!

Chemists celebrating Mole Day (Image courtesy ACS)

Chemists celebrating Mole Day
(Image courtesy ACS)

In honor of Avogardo’s discovery, today is Mole Day (because it is 10/23 – get it?). So take part in a mole day celebration somewhere. Go eat a mole cake and drink some mole juice. And then make a un-moley mess, just so you can appreciate why chemists were so happy to become an exact science!

October 21 – How Nobel

Today’s factismal: The world’s most famous chemist is known mostly for his charitable work.

Mining in the 1800s was a nerve-wracking job. Not only did you have to worry about bad air, cave-ins, and flooding, but the explosive of choice was almost as unstable as your boss. Known as nitroglycerin, it was easy and cheap to make but tricky and difficult to transport and use. It would go off if it got too hot or too cold, if it was jostled too much or not enough, or if it just didn’t like the way you looked at it. It frequently destroyed the factories where it was being made, and its habit of exploding while being moved led to laws against it being transported across state lines.

But in 1867, Alfred Nobel found a way to tame the beastly blast. By mixing the nitroglycerin with diatomaceous earth or sawdust, he was able to make it more stable and less dangerous. It could be easily stored and transported and could even be measured on the spot with very little chance of losing an arm. Needless to say, dynamite was an immediate hit and made Alfred Nobel very, very rich indeed. But every silver lining has a cloud, and dynamite had a big one.

Because nitroglycerine was so unstable, no sane Army would use it. But because dynamite was so stable, it immediately became the basis for new and more powerful weapons. Nobel knew this and it didn’t particularly bother him (his family fortune was founded in arms manufacturing), but it did upset a lot of other people. And when Alfred’s brother Ludvig died, he got an idea of just how much it bothered other folks. A French newspaper thought that it was Alfred that died, and took the opportunity to write one of the most scathing obituaries ever seen. The nicest thing that they called him was a “merchant of death”. Alfred was mortified.

He decided to redeem his family name. And, since science had gotten him into this predicament, he decided that science would get him out of it. He established the Nobel Prize, which was given out every year for the most important work in physics, chemistry, literature, and (in a deliberately ironic twist) peace. (Later groups would add an economics prize.) The Nobel Prize has become the gold standard of work and worth in the sciences and continues to this very day. Evey year on his birthday, the prizes are awarded in the name and memory of the most famous chemist ever to live.

If you’d like to learn more about this year’s winners in chemistry, then head over to:

October 20 – Eye On The Sparrow Hawk

Today’s factismal: The American Kestrel is the smallest and most common raptor in North America.

If you ask the typical seven year old “What is a raptor?”, they will probably tell you that it is a kind of dinosaur. They are right (sort of), but they are also wrong (sort of). That’s because biologists use the word “raptor” to refer to any bird that has good eyesight for finding prey, strong talons for catching prey, and a hooked beak for eating prey; as you might guess, the other term that biologists use for raptors is “birds of prey”. (But the biological raptors are related to the dinosaur raptors, so the seven year old wasn’t completely wrong.) And one of the coolest raptors is also one of the most common: the American Kestrel, also known as the sparrow hawk or Falco sparverius (“falcon of sparrows” – refers to the hooked {falconate} beak).

An American Kestrel (or sparrow hawk) in flight (Image courtesy USFWS)

An American Kestrel (or sparrow hawk) in flight
(Image courtesy USFWS)

Interestingly, the sparrow hawk rarely eats sparrows, simply because they are almost as large as it is! Instead, this kestrel prefers to eat grasshoppers, mice, and small lizards, which are much easier to catch and provide a filling meal to the foot-long sparrow hawk. Because their prey lives in a variety of habitats, so do American kestrels; they can be found in deserts, meadows, prairies, and even cities. About all they require is something to perch on while they look for prey, open spaces to catch the prey in, and empty cavities to put their nests in. Thanks to their adaptability, they are found from Alaska (where they can spend the summer) to Tierra del Fuego (where they pasa el verano). An estimated 2.4 million American kestrels live in North America in the summer, dropping to about 480,000 in the winter. However, there are large uncertainties in both numbers as the American kestrel hasn’t been extensively studied.

A young American kestrel (Image courtesy USFWS)

A young American kestrel
(Image courtesy USFWS)

What is known about this bird is fascinating. They range in size from as big as your fist to as large as a Harry Potter novel (and just as entertaining). Like all birds, they are light for their size; a fully grown American kestrel won’t weigh much more than 4 oz. They can live for about twelve years (though five years is more typical) and are sexually mature after just one year. They pair bond, frequently for life, and often reuse the same nest from year to year. The female will lay up to seven eggs, with one egg each day. After a month of incubation (during which the female does most of the work), the chicks hatch and immediately start arguing over who gets the worms. The chicks grow to full weight in two weeks and just one month after being hatched, they leave the nest.

An adult American kestrel (Image courtesy USFWS)

An adult American kestrel
(Image courtesy USFWS)

Despite their apparent fecundity, the American kestrel population is declining. Biologists aren’t sure quite why this is happening. It may be due to reductions in their habitat, or a subtle reaction to new pesticides, or changes in climate leading to changes in the number of prey. The only way for biologists to understand the change is for them to get data – and that’s where you come in. The American Kestrel Partnership is looking for reports of sparrow hawk sightings and for people willing to build and observe kestrel nestboxes. If you’re game, then head over to their site to learn how you can participate:

October 17 – Play Ball!

Today’s factismal: The first earthquake to be shown live on television happened in 1989.

You may have heard that there is a 72% chance that there will be a large earthquake near San Francisco sometime in the next thirty years. And that there is an  85% chance of a large earthquake on the San Andreas fault sometime in the next ten years. Experts think that it could cause as many as 1,800 deaths and as much as $200 billion in damage. But how can we know how much damage an earthquake will do? Simple – we know because we saw one happen, live on TV.

It was a balmy October evening in San Francisco. The Giants were competing with the Oakland A’s for the pennant, and the two teams were warming up in preparation for game three. As the television sports casters searched for something to add a little local color to the broadcast, they were given the greatest exclusive in history: an earthquake struck the area. And not some piddly little 4.0; this was a 6.9 Mb earthquake! As the anchors tried to describe what was happening, the world saw buildings shake, highways fall, and homes crumble into rubble.

A section of the collapsed highway (Image courtesy USGS)

A section of the collapsed highway
(Image courtesy USGS)

Amazingly, there were only 63 people killed in the earthquake (the 1905 temblor was about 30 times stronger and killed 3,000 people). Most of these happened in Oakland where a double-decker highway collapsed on itself. Interestingly, many credit the baseball game for the low fatality count. Because many people had left work early in order to watch the game, the highways were relatively uncrowded which meant that fewer people were hurt.

California is almost certain to have another large earthquake in the next three decades (Image courtesy SCEC)

California is almost certain to have another large earthquake in the next three decades
(Image courtesy SCEC)

But what is even more amazing is that the danger isn’t over. There is a 99.7% chance that some part of California will have another earthquake at least as powerful as this one in the next thirty years. So we know when the next big on will happen (soon); what we don’t know is where. And that’s where you can help. The USGS and Stanford University are developing a new type of distributed seismometer that uses the accelerometers in tablets, smartphones, and computers to provide more complete coverage of earthquakes; the data that this Quake Catcher Network gathers will then help them to narrow down when we can expect the next big one. If you’d like to take part, head over to:

October 14 – Tone Deaf

Today’s factismal: Scientists have taken radio recordings from the Juno probe and turned them into sound recordings.

Jupiter is more than the biggest planet in our Solar System. It was Jupiter’s four largest moons that caused us to rethink our place in the Universe. It was Jupiter’s interaction with Saturn that moved many of the planets where they are today – and which continues to shape the Solar System even now. And, at 318 times the mass of Earth, Jupiter represents 70% of the non-Sun stuff in the Solar System. In other words, Jupiter is pretty darn important.

Jupiter, known to the Babylonians as Marduk (My camera)

Jupiter with its Galilean moons
(My camera)

Despite that, only nine probes have visited Jupiter – and only two of those orbited the planet! The first probe was Pioneer 10, which sped by Jupiter on December 4, 1973. It was followed a year later by Pioneer 11. Jupiter wouldn’t get another visitor until Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 used it as a gravity slingshot to get into the outer Solar System in 1979. It would take another 24 years before the Galileo mission would send a spacecraft to orbit Jupiter and drop a probe into the atmosphere. The spacecraft orbited Jupiter for eight years before being sent into Jupiter’s atmosphere in order to avoid accidentally contaminating any of the moons. Both Ulysses (in 2000) and Cassini-Huygens (in 2007) would fly by Jupiter to use its gravity but neither would do any detailed science. It wasn’t until last month that Jupiter got another orbiter: Juno.

An artist's deception of what Juno looks like orbiting Jupiter (Image courtesy NASA)

An artist’s deception of what Juno looks like orbiting Jupiter
(Image courtesy NASA)

Named after Jupiter’s wife, Juno was designed to orbit Jupiter and peer beneath its clouds to learn what was going on in the planet’s interior. (In mythology, Juno could peer behind the clouds Jupiter raised up to hide his mischief.) And one of the ways that Juno does that is with the Waves instrument, which listens to the radio signals given off by Jupiter and its aurora. They’ve just released their first results and they are pretty darn spectacular.

The instrument captured the sound made by the solar wind as it hits Jupiter’s magnetosphere (the region controlled by Jupiter’s magnetic field)  and slows down; it also captured the difference in radio energy inside of Jupiter’s magnetosphere and outside of it (where the Sun’s magnetic field rules). By listening to the sounds made by the data, scientists can learn how Jupiter’s magnetic field is structured which may help us build better magnetic devices here on Earth for things like fusion or radio broadcast.

Jupiter in real color (Image courtesy NASA)

Jupiter in real color
(Image courtesy NASA)

Now if you’d like to learn more about the Juno mission or help with mission planning, why not head over to JunoCam? They are looking for pictures from amateur astronomers and comments from everybody to help them plan the mission. To learn more, orbit:

October 12 – It’s Full Of Stars

Today’s factismal: Some dinoflagellates use bioluminescence to attract big fish that eat the little fish that eat dinoflagellates.

Obi-wan said it best: “There’s always a bigger fish”. And he probably learned that from dinoflagellates. These tiny little critters have a whip at one end that they use for propulsion, a shell made out of cellulose, and a variety of lifestyles that ranges the gamut from photosynthesis to hunter. Then again, with more than 2,200 species of dinoflagellate, there is plenty of room for just about any oddity. But perhaps the oddest thing that any dinoflagellate species does is flash blue lights when startled or jostled.

A dinoflagellate (Image courtesy David Patterson and Bob Andersen)

A dinoflagellate
(Image courtesy David Patterson and Bob Andersen)

Interestingly, it was that blue flash that first attracted people to them; the very first paper written about dinoflagellates was called “Animalcules which cause the Sparkling Light in Sea Water” and it hit the popular press way back in 1753. Today, quite a bit is known about how and why they flash. The reaction is similar to that of the firefly (and uses some of the same chemicals) but it happens for much different reasons. Like the firefly, they flash only at night. However, the firefly flashes in order to attract his lady-love and the dinoflagellate flashes to attract big fish (partly because dinoflagellates don’t have lady-loves. Poor dinoflagellate.). The rapid motion of small fish causes a pressure wave which triggers the flash; this is why they often flash in the wake of boats at sea. And the light that they generate attracts big fish that come to dine on the little fish that are feasting on the dinoflagellate.

A bioluminescent dinoflagellate (Image courtesy Maria Faust)

A bioluminescent dinoflagellate
(Image courtesy Maria Faust)

Dinoflagellates aren’t the only critters that float around in the water. There are literally millions of different species of microscopic critters in sea water; the generic name for them is plankton (which is Greek for “little floaty thing”). And the interesting thing about plankton is that they are our greatest source of oxygen; about half of the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere comes from these tiny critters! Scientists are still learning about plankton and they need your help to learn more. So why not float on over to the Plankton Portal and give them a hand?