November 4 – Riches Of Kings

Today’s factismal: The tomb of the “boy king” Tutankhamen was discovered by accident in 1922.

Ask any scientist if they believe in luck and she’ll probably tell you “no” and then regale you with stories of discoveries that happened by chance. (The scientist isn’t being inconsistent; most discoveries are the result of decades of hard, painstaking work. The accidents are remembered because they are so rare.) Becquerel and radioactivity. Fleming and penicillin. Nobel and dynamite. And Carter and Tutankhamen.

A boat from an Egyptian tomb (My camera)

A boat from an Egyptian tomb
(My camera)

Howard Carter was already a famous Egyptologist when the accident happened. At the time of the accident, he had been looking for antiquities in Egypt for thirty-one years and had already discovered two important tombs (Thutmose I and Thutmose III). But he knew that there was more out there to be discovered and so, with the patronage of Lord Carnarvon, he had spent five fruitless years looking for an intact tomb. (Because they were filled with gold and other treasures, most tombs in the region had been broken into and plundered, making it very hard to understand how the Egyptians treated their dead.) However, his methodical searching and lack of results had begun to wear on the patience of his patron, who threatened to cut off funds at the end of the year.

The lid of a sarcophagus (My camera)

The lid of a sarcophagus
(My camera)

And that’s where chance smiled on Carter. On November 4, 1922, one of his workers stumbled on a stone while clearing out the dirt from yet another failed excavation. Carter looked at the stone and recognized it as a step. He and his workers eagerly cleared out the stairwell and twenty-two days later ceremoniously opened the tomb while his patron looked on and smiled. They had discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen, who we would later learn ruled Egypt from the time he was nine until his early death at 19. The tomb was in pristine condition, with so many artifacts that it took ten years to unearth them all. Today, “King Tut” is perhaps the best known of all Egypt’s rulers thanks in no small part to Carter’s lucky step.

A gilded coffin from within a sarcophagus (My camera)

A gilded coffin from within a sarcophagus
(My camera)

Right now, an effort even more titanic than Carter’s five year search for tombs is underway. Egyptologists are trying to decipher a treasure trove of papyri (ancient scrolls) that were unearthed in an Egyptian trash heap nearly a century ago. These 500,000 fragments need citizen scientists like you to help decipher their hidden messages. By playing a video game, you’ll help scholars transcribe and translate papyri that cover everything from the Bible to the comedies of Menander to bills and loan documents. To play the game, head over to the Ancient lives web site:

November 1 – Not-So-Sweet

Today’s factismal: November is National Diabetes Awareness Month

Diabetes mellitus (its name means “passing through sweet”, a reference to the increased sugar levels in the urine of diabetics) is one of the more common diseases; world-wide, nearly 300 million people have diabetes. In the US about one out of every ten people have diabetes and one out of every four has prediabetes, indicating that they are at a higher risk for developing the disease. And diabetes is nothing new. Egyptians in the court of King Tut diagnosed it, as did the Greeks of Socrates’ time who gave the disease its name. And until 1922, diabetes was a death sentence.

There are 30 million people in the USA with diabetes and 86 million with prediabetes

There are 30 million people in the USA with diabetes and 86 million with prediabetes

Diabetes damages blood vessels, leading to stroke, heart attacks, blindness, and kidney damage ; it also attacks nerves, muscle, and even your gums. In advanced cases, the patient’s body releases glucose in response to low insulin levels and put them into a coma that led to death. Though the less severe complications can be treated with a combination of diet and exercise (which is still the recommended course of action today), there was no cure for diabetic coma. Once a patient slipped into a coma, death was sure to follow within a few weeks. And even the diets used to treat patients in the 1900s were severe enough to cause death; a typical “menu” included under 400 calories a day (roughly what you would get from an Egg McMuffin) and so led to weight loss and starvation.

But that changed in 1922. Just one year earlier, Banting and Best had identified a lack of insulin as the culprit in diabetes, and had managed to develop a method for extracting insulin from the pancreas of sheep. (Interestingly, only Banting was awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery. That made him so mad that he refused to accept the medal and shared the prize money with Best!) Their discovery was put to the test by Leonard Thompson, a 14 year old boy who had just been diagnosed with diabetes.

The first injection was nearly a disaster. Early extraction methods sometimes left impurities in the insulin, and one of those sparked an allergic reaction that nearly killed Leonard. But he survived and did not go into a coma, which was miracle enough in those days. Another researcher was able to develop a better method for extracting insulin using beef pancreases. The new insulin was a success and allowed Leonard to live to the ripe old age of 27, when he died of pneumonia. Insulin was soon the “go-to” medicine for diabetes; within five years, it was available world-wide and diabetes had changed from a death sentence to a manageable condition.

So how do you prevent diabetes? Simple: eat well, exercise a lot, and pick the right parents. Diets low in sugar and fat and high in fiber have been shown to reduce the odds of getting diabetes. (They also help keep you looking good and feeling strong. Score!) Exercise does more than burn calories; it also improves your muscle’s ability to use glucose which eases the workload on your insulin-producing cells. (It also helps keep you looking good and feeling strong. Score!) And diabetes has been shown to be more common in some families and ethnic groups; if your parents or siblings have diabetes, there is an increased chance that you’ll get it, too. Unfortunately, it is very hard to pick the right parents so you should concentrate on your diet and exercise.

If you’d like to see your odds of getting diabetes, why not take the Diabetes risk test?

And if you score too high for comfort, then head over to the American Diabetes Month® website to learn more:

October 31 – Vampire Function

Math is often called the language of science. And the beautiful thing about that language is that it says the same thing whether you are working in chemistry or biology. Peter and Daniel will learn that as they discover why vampires can’t be real!

It was a bright, sunny fall afternoon. The houses were all decorated with pumpkins, mummies, and ghosts. The sky was clear and the air was crisp with the promise of a cool, clear night just perfect for trick-or-treating. Even better, the sidewalks were piled high with leaves that Peter and Daniel ran through on their way to the school’s annual Fall Festival. The crunch of the leaves and the smell of the air promised great things to come and both of the boys were looking forward to the candy that they would collect that night. Both were in their costumes. Peter had on the cape, fangs, and slicked back hair of a vampire while Daniel had decided to go as a mad scientist, complete with labcoat, black gloves, and goggles.

“It sure is a shame that Mary couldn’t come,” Daniel said after crunching thourgh a particularly large pile of leaves. “Her costume was great! I love Doctor Who.”

“Yeah, she even had the little K-9 on a chain to tow behind her,” Peter replied. “But her dad is pretty strict; if your homework isn;t done, you don;t get to play.”

“Maybe that’s why she gets such good grades.” Daniel felt sorry for Mary; his dyslexia made studying a chore so he knew how it felt to miss a bright afternoon.

“You should talk, Mr. Brain!”

“That’s Dr. Brain to you!” The boys laughed and turned into the school grounds. There at the entrance to the gymnasium was their favorite teacher, Mr. Medes; for the holiday, he was wearing insect wings and a pair of antennas but had painted his face grey and green.

“Hi, Mr. Medes!” the boys chorused. Then Peter asked “I don’t get it. What are you supposed to be?”

“I’m a zombee,” Mr. Medes replied. As the boys groaned at the pun, he explained. “There is a fly that lays its eggs inside of bees. The larva eats the bee’s brain and takes over, creating what biologists call a zombee.”

“So there really are zombies?” Daniel said. “Cool!”

“Are there really vampires, too?” Peter asked.

“Well, there are a lot of animals that drinkt he blood of other animals. There’s the female mousquito who needs the blood to make her eggs.There’s the hagfish, which rasps a hole in other fish with its tongue and sucks their blood. And then there’s the vampire bats; all three species live off of the blood of others. But if you mean creaturees like Dracula, then the answer is no; there can’t be.”

“Why not?” Peter insisted. “If we can have real live zombies that eat brains, why can’t we have real live vampires?”

“Because there would be too many predators and not enough prey,” Mr. Medes replied. “Here, let’s go inside and we’ll do an experiment to show you what I mean.”

At that the boys perked up. They both wanted to be scientists and doing experiments was one of their favorite things. They quickly followed mr. Meddes inside the gym and over to a table.

“Have a seat while I grab some apparatus from my lab,” Mr. Medes said. “I’ll be right back!”

As the boys waited, they speculated on what the experiment would be.

“Maybe he’s got some blood for us to look at,” Peter said. “That would be cool.”

“Nah,” Daniel replied. “It has to be neater than that; I’ll bet he’s got some real, live zombees for us!”

In just a few moments, Mr. Medes returned with a piggy bank in his hands. The boys stared at him, confused.

“A piggy bank? What does that have to do with vampires?” Peter demanded.

“Patience,” Mr. Medes advised. “We’re going to be doing a model of how vampires would interact with humans. And since we can’t use real humans and real vampires in our experiment, we’ll substitute something else. The people will be pennies and the vampires will be nickles. We’re going to need about 100 pennies and 100 nickles.”

With that, he pulled the cork from the bottom of his piggy bank so that the change spilled out. Quickly the three of them sorted the coins and piled up the necessary change. Pouring the rest of the money back into the piggy bank, Mr. Medes began explaining the experiment.

“Here’s the way it works,” he began. “There are twenty vampires, represeented by our twenty nickles. And there are fifty people, represented by fifty pennies. The remaining coins will come into play later. The vampires go first. Peter, you’ll gather up the nickles and shake them in your hands, then drop them on the table. The nickles that land face up get to eat; you’ll take away one penny for every face up nickle because the vampire just killed a person. And then you’ll add a nickle for every person eaten so your vamprie population will grow.”

Peter picked up the nickles and shook them over the table before letting them drop. When they landed, he quickly sorted them into five that landed face up and fifteen that landed face down. Peter then took eight pennies from Daniel’s pile and added eight nickles to his.

“Hah!” Peter said in his best Transylvanian accent. “You people sure are tasty!”

“OK, now it is Daniel’s turn,” Mr. Medes said. “Shake your pennies and then drop them just like Peter did with his nickles. When they land, set the face up ones in groups of four; for every group, you get a new penny.”

Daniel quickly shook up the pennies and let them fall. Sorting them, he found that he had twenty-four face up pennies, so he added six pennies to his pile.

“Hah right back!” Daniel said. “We added more people than you ate!”

“So you both know how to play, right?” At the boys’ nods, Mr. Medes continued. “Then here’s the question: can vampires exist if they eat people?”

“Sure,” came Peter’s response. “My vampires ate eight people but they added thirteen. So we can eat forever and there is no reason that we can’t exist.”

“I dont know,” Daniel said. “You added almost as many vampires as we did people. If you grow too fast or we don’t grow fast enough, we might all get eaten.”

“Well, there is only one way to find out for sure,” Mr. Medes said. “Let’s do the experiment!”

What do you think will happen? Do the experiment!

The boys eagerly nodded and started flipping coins. In Peter’s next round, he had eight face up nickles, so his vampires had eaten eight people and gained eight new members. Daniel did well that round and again had twenty-four face up pennies, so he had six more people added.

“Hey! Not so hungry!” Daniel said.

“We’ll see about that!” Peter crowed. His face fell when just three nickles landed face up but he quickly brightened when Daniel could only muster five face up pennies. “You people sure are slow; you just added one new one!”

As the game continued, the boys started to add sound effects and other silliness. Peter began to chuckle like a B-movie Dracula each time his vampires ate a person. And Daniel cried out “My baby! My baby!” each time he gained a new penny.

Peter gained fourteen vampires in the next round while Daniel only added nine people. And the following round was even more disastrous; sixteen new vampires were created but only four new people. For the first time, the vampires outnumbered the people. The end came swiftly. In each of the next three rounds, far more people were eaten than were born and the vampire population exploded. In the final round, there were nearly a hundred vampires and just thirteen people.

“Wow!” Peter said. “I didn’t think that would happen!”

“Yeah,” agreed Daniel. “For awhile it looked like the people could stay alive but then, BOOM!”

“What you two have just seen is what is known as a population collapse,” Mr. Medes said. “Biologists like to study this because it can tell us things such as how long a disease outbreak will last or how many fish we can take from an area. And, as you’ve seen, it shows that vampires simply cannot exist.”

“How can this one experiment show so much?” Daniel asked.

“Well, the experiment looks pretty specific but when you express it in math, it becomes general. The math doesn’t care whether you are talking about the number of people who catch a disease like vampirism or the number of fish that get caught or the amount of chemicals left in a reaction; it works equally well in all situations,” Mr. Medes explained. “That’s why we say that math is the language of science. It helps us take what we learn in one area and apply it in another.”

“Wow,” Daniel said. “That’s cool.”

“It sure is,” Peter said. “But how did we discover that we could use math to talk about vampires?”

Mr. Medes chuckled. “Actually, Lotka was trying to describe a chemical reaction when he came across this idea. He used math to describe how the reaction happened and discovered that sometimes the solutions led to never-ending chemical reactions. He then applied the idea to biology and created what we call the predator-prey relationship. In our experiment, the vampires are the predators and the humans are the prey. Because the vampires always grow in population, they will always end up eating all of the prey and the humans will always be wiped out.”

“Cool!” Peter said. “So that’s why you said that vampires couldn’t exist. We still have people -”

“Which means that vampires haven’t eaten us all and the only way that they wouldn’t do that is if they don’t exist!” Daniel finished.

“The neat thing is that we do have something very like a vampire,” Mr. Medes said. “Every year, it attacks the human population and tries to convert as many people as possible into its slaves. This model helps groups like the CDC predict just how bad this year’s attack will be.”

“Really? What is it?” Peter asked.

“The flu! Simple diseases like the flu behave a lot like vampires,” Mr. Medes explained. “The only differences are that you are only turned into a flu monster until your body can get better and that we have a vaccine that works against it much better than garlic works on vampires. But it still builds up every year about this time, infects a lot of people, and then has a population collapse when it runs out of victims. And speaking of victims, I think I see a new one over there!”

Peter and Daniel turned to look where Mr. Medes was pointing. In the doorway was Mary, complete with a long scarf, floppy hat, and long coat. Peeking out from behind her was a model of K-9.

“Mary!” the boys chorused. Eagerly, they ran over to bring her into the party and tell her about their new experiment.

October 29 – Zombee Jamboree

Today’s Factismal: Bees and ants really can turn into into zombies.

If you think that zombies are just found in the movies, then think again. There are real live zombies out there, and they may be in your neighborhood. But what is a zombie, really? And how did it get that way?

Put simply, to a biologist a zombie is any animal that no longer acts under its own control but is instead controlled by a parasite. The best known example of this in the animal kingdom is the poor leafcutter ant. In forests across Brazil, Thailand, and Africa, leafcutter ants are regularly attacked by a fungus known as Ophiocordyceps unilateralis (“Single fruiting body poking out of the head”, which describes how it reproduces). This disease primarily preys on leafcutter ants that make their homes in masses of bound together leaves, far above the ground.

A zombie ant and the fungus that killed it (Image courtesy Maj-Britt Pontoppidan et al)

A zombie ant and the fungus that killed it
(Image courtesy Maj-Britt Pontoppidan et al)

As soon as an ant has this disease, it begins to twitch and thrash until it either falls out of the nest or is thrown by colony members who don’t want to catch it themselves. The infected ant finds a leaf, grabs on with its mandibles, and has its brain eaten by the fungus. As soon as the fungus has nibbled all of the goodies to be found in this ant, it then cracks open the ant’s head and grows a stalk with a fruiting body on the tip. The fruiting body releases spores and the whole cycle starts all over again.

A zombie honeybee and the maggots that drove it insane (Image courtesy ZombeeWatch)

A zombie honeybee and the maggots that drove it insane
(Image courtesy ZombeeWatch)

And it isn’t just funguses that can cause this behavior. There are bacteria, wasps, and even flies that do this. Most ominous of those is the fly Apocephalus borealis, which turns honeybees into zombies. This “scuttle fly” is much smaller than a honeybee, but is capable of infecting dozens of honeybees with its eggs. The eggs hatch into larvae that then eat their way to the bee’s brain and drive it insane. (Bwah-hah-hah!) The bee then does stupid things, like flying at night or in the rain, which spreads the larvae further than they could go on their own. The larvae finally finish off the bee and eat their way out of the poor, dead, bee.

This is a severe problem for people because we rely on honeybees to fertilize many of the crops that we eat. Without honeybees, we’d be very hungry indeed. If you’d like to help spot zombees and track the spread of the zombee apocalypse, then join the ZombeeWatch:

October 27 – Close Encounters Of The Worst Kind

Today’s factismal: Earth had at least 44 close encounters with an asteroid in this month alone!

It is, no fooling, a dangerous universe out there. There are gamma ray bursts and black holes and even some strange life forms out there. But perhaps the most amazing thing about the universe is how many close encounters the Earth has considering that space is mostly empty space. In the last month alone, NASA has recorded some 27 things that passed near enough to our orbit to be interesting (without the “Oh God, Oh God, we’re all going to die” part). NASA prefers to call these things “objects” because while most of them are just hunks of space rock heading for a fatal collision, some of them are actually bits of space junk headed back home.

A meteor enters the Earth's atmosphere, as seen from the ISS (Image courtesy NASA)

A meteor enters the Earth’s atmosphere, as seen from the ISS
(Image courtesy NASA)

And, of course, if we expand our definition of “asteroid” to include the bits of rock and dust and ice left in a comet’s wake, then there have been literally millions of “close encounters of the worst kind” in the past month. That’s because every day, more than 80,000 pounds of space debris hit the Earth’s atmosphere! If you look up at night, you’ll see those bits of rock and ice and dust; we call them meteors or shooting stars; if they are very big and very bright, then we call them “fireballs”.

The Great Daylight Fireball of 1972 (Image courtesy and copyright James M. Baker)

The Great Daylight Fireball of 1972 (Image courtesy and copyright James M. Baker)

Now those bits of debris are more than just pretty; they also tell us a lot about how the Solar System and the Earth formed. by keeping track of where they come from and how many there are, scientists can answer questions such as “Where are the comets?” and “How many asteroids hit the Earth?” and “Did an impact really kill off the dinosaurs?” But scientists can’t spend all of their time looking up at the sky; they’ve got data to work on and papers to write and blinking to do. So what are they to do?

Why, they’ll just ask for help. And that means asking you to spend some time looking at the sky each night. If you see a meteor, then just click on the NASA Meteor Counter app; the data you create will automatically be sent to NASA to help in their work! The app is available for free on iTunes and Google Play:

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!