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Thursday, 25 February 2021


Carbon nanotubes were known before bucky balls – discovered in 1985 by Harry Kroto, Richard Smalley and Robert Curl. Yet eight years later, in 1993, Nature published two independent papers recording the ‘new’ breakthrough discovery of rolled up graphene tubes forming close-ended pipes. How does this make sense?

The question of who ‘discovered’ carbon nanotubes is difficult to give a simple answer to. Like many material discoveries, there is more than one level of known and unknown. Although the debate over which individual deserves the title ‘discoverer of oxygen’ cannot be firmly settled, our choice of answer forms part of the foundation by which we understand the nature, concept and goals of science as a field. And don’t forget, recognition can be career-making.
Riichiro Saito,,

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

Listening to the Ocean

This is a guest blog post. The article was adaped with permissions from Sofar Ocean.

What has climate change done to oceans? And what do our oceans do for climate change?

For more years than we can count, oceans have helped us mitigate climate change, including the early effects of human greenhouse gas emissions. Acting as a giant carbon dioxide and heat absorber, or "sink", 90 percent of the warming that happened on Earth between 1971 and 2010 occurred in the ocean. Scientists think that gathering more and better data from the ocean and "listen" to what it has to tell us could be crucial to helping our mitigation efforts catch up to climate change.

Unsplash (CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay)

Wednesday, 10 February 2021

Counterfeit brandy

Szalony kucharz via Wikipedia Commons
In the 15th and 16th centuries, working out the alcohol percentage of wine was no easy feat. For ease, the authorities taxed alcohol according to volume rather than percentage, making importing gin a better deal than wine or beer. And so, naturally, the merchants looked for a loophole, and they found one – or so they thought: distil down the wines, and add the water back in after passing customs. It seemed foolproof. But they had not accounted for one thing: warming wine changes its chemistry. Volatile chemicals are lost, other chemicals – esters, acids, aldehydes – decompose, or undergo reactions. When the merchants rediluted their wine, it tasted different. Wrong. “brandewijn”, or “burnt wine”, they called it, and nowadays, we call it brandy.

Monday, 25 January 2021

The sweet taste of unknown

I eat my artichoke-aubergine breakfast dish (my vegetarian take on Antigua and Barbuda’s traditional aubergine saltfish breakfast), and take a swig of water. It tastes sweet. But then, I’m not surprised by that. Water always tastes sweet after eating artichoke.

Why is that?

It turns out scientists don’t actually know. The theory goes that cynarin, an acid found in artichoke, inhibits our sweetness receptors. When washed away (e.g. by a nice glass of water), the sweet receptors reactivate. Just as if you taste a really sugary drink and then slightly sugary one, the slightly sugary one won’t taste sweet at all by contrast (try it!), the same thing happens here: your brain goes crazy now the receptors is no longer inhibited, and interprets the water as sweet.

Tuesday, 12 January 2021

What colour were the dinosaurs?

The discovery that some dinosaurs were feathered rather than the initially-assumed scaly took palaeontology by storm. But the question didn’t end there. We still don’t know the extent to which feathers were found across the dinosaur kingdom. Skin-impressions of some sauropods show hexagonal scales or bony plates, suggesting they were unfeathered, whilst others such as the tyrannosaurus were definitely feathered. And what colour were these scales or feathers? For the most part, we don’t know.

Feathered velociraptor. Matt Martyniuk via Wikipedia Commons

Wednesday, 9 December 2020

One Nobel Prize Later...

The Nobel-prize winning buckminsterfullerene, C60, discovery took place in September 1985. Its discoverers were Professor Harry Kroto, along with Richard Smalley and Robert Curl – but this wasn’t what they were looking for.
NASA, ESA, and A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center)

Kroto was interested in space. He was working on carbon-based molecules that could be detected in interstellar space using radio telescopes... and he thought he’d found good evidence for cyanopolyynes, molecules based on a chain of carbon and nitrogen atoms, but he still didn’t know how they were made. Kroto had had a good think about it, though, and one idea he had was that they were made by red giants, or near them. He’d have to test his theory, but how?

Smalley and Curl had a laser-generated supersonic cluster beam for their research on semiconductors; this had the potential to heat something up hotter than the surface of most stars. Kroto thought doing this to a bit of carbon would be a fantastic idea, and would potentially make a whole bunch of new stuff, including the mysterious cyanopolyynes. He persuaded them to let him have a go.

Saturday, 28 November 2020

Cop That!

Copper. Slang for a police officer. A coin. That metal pans and wires are made of.

What’s so mysterious? A lot.

Copper is a catalyst. It’s variable oxidation states and low coordination numbers allow it to do funky things, bonding and unbonding with whatever floats its way.
Copper coins via Pikrepo.

Whisky still IProspectIE via wikimedia commons.
Copper is used in whisky stills, partly because it’s malleable and conducts the heat through the whisky really well, and partly because it seems to affect the flavour. One story, related to me by Ben from The Whisky Shop, was the story of Old Pulteney whisky, back in the days when the distillery was first setting up, the days when they decided to make the most important feature of the distillery – the still. It was made offsite and transported carefully to the distillery in the Highlands of Scotland, where they tried to take it into the building – but couldn’t. The manufacturers, so the story tells, had made a mistake and ordered a still too tall for the distillery. Still, never mind, they said, and they lopped off the top, making a low, squat-looking still pot that led to shorter refluxes, forever after blamed for the “dirty” flavour of the Old Pulteney spirit.

Saturday, 14 November 2020

Wonderful wetlands

Oxford is built on a swamp.

The home insurers won’t let you forget that most of the houses are delicately balanced on a tiny strip of land just above the water level, like Noah on a beached ark.

When it rains heavily, the soils saturate and run onto the tarmac, creating rivers occupied by confused looking geese that stream down the streets. Adjacent fields take on the appearance of flooded paddy fields.

But believe it or not, these indomitable wetlands are crucial to the local environment, its habitats, ecosystems, and even the shape of the land. This is because of something called phytoremediation.
Swampland in Oxford. By Jpbowen via Wikipedia Commons.