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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.

Saturday, 31 October 2020

Make me a monster

Is science on the verge of building a real Frankenstein’s monster?
Frankenstein made his monster in his laboratory through techniques he never revealed. Christian Michaud (Victor Frankenstein) et Étienne Pilon (La Créature) via Wikipedia Commons.

Well, with recent advances in protein design[1], the possibility of growing new organs and limbs in labs may not be as far away as we imagined.

Tuesday, 27 October 2020

Out-of-body experiences

Statistics suggest ~10% of us have out-of-body experiences (OBEs) – but this number could rise now scientists know how to artificially induce them! There are three main ways they can do this: by supplying hallucinogenic drugs like LSD or ketamine; by applying strong G-forces (we realised this when pilots and astronauts reported high incidences of OBEs; the cause is attributed to blood draining out of one side of the brain: yikes!); or by extreme sensory loading: either overloading or depriving the senses (extreme sensory overload is a form of torture). In a 2002 study, a patient even experienced an OBE whilst conscious when researchers put a weak current through part of their brain (the temporoparietal junction) and was able to describe their sensations of falling and rising up to the ceiling!
Sometimes we sense things that aren't there. Via Wikipedia Commons.

Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Is phosphine a biomarker for life on Venus?

50 km up in the atmosphere of planet Venus, scientists found phosphine[1].

Cloud structure in the Venusian atmosphere by ISAS/JAXA, via Wikipedia Commons.
Sorry, what?


You know, PH3. That commonly known… no?

It might not sound like much, but this innocuous molecule defies explanation.

Why should it?

It may not be well known, but this is not the first time we’ve heard of phosphine. The molecule itself is not mysterious. A simple combination of hydrogen and phosphorus, it’s a pungent, colourless gas, that’s both toxic and flammable. It’s highly reactive (that’ll be important later on) and belongs to the same family as ammonia. We can make it in lots of different ways – by exposing white phosphorus or calcium phosphide to water, by the disproportionation of phosphorous acid, or by reacting phosphonium iodide with bases. But it also occurs naturally on Earth.

Monday, 28 September 2020

Walking with wolves

If I go back through my photographs to spring 2017, I suddenly come across a lot that look like this

© Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Or this

© Rowena Fletcher-Wood

What are those strange objects?
The answer is poo. Wolf, hedgehog, boar and deer scat… amongst others. So what was I doing photographing animal scat?
The answer is, tracking.
Believe it or not, wolf poo contains a lot of fur, so what they leave behind tends to look wiry as it decomposes, as if it were made of steel wool. Eventually, all that’s left is fluff.

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Prescribed hallucinations

My doctor gave me a medicine that made me hallucinate.

“They’re antacids. They can’t do that,” they said.
via Wikipedia Commons

By this time, being gaslighted by doctors was so habitual I was numb to it.

They’d told me I had acid reflux. The endoscopy, the barium meal, and the pH test all proved that I did not have acid reflux. But apparently they’d put me on medication for it anyway – and not, until now, told me as much.

I’d taken the troublesome things four times a day every day for months, which meant rearranging my meal times and interfering with school (I was sixteen). When I finally decided they weren’t helping me with pain and stopped, for the next twenty-four hours, I saw disembodied hands.

Monday, 7 September 2020

Zombies in nature

Haitian folklore tells of the zombie: a reanimated corpse. In modern day, the zombie is portrayed as parasitic, feeding on the brains of others and so infecting them
Zombie via Wikipedia Commons.
to become zombies too.

There are various parallels in nature: fungi that infect the brains of ants, the Euhaplorchis californiensis worm that infects fish, or the toxoplasma gondii parasite that infects rats (there’s more about toxoplasmosis here) – all these force their hosts to change their behaviour to help spread the fungal spores, or get themselves eaten by a bird or cat, where they can reproduce.

We don’t know how this happens, but researchers looking at some of these parasites found they excrete chemicals that alter brain chemistry. In their target host, the cocktail has a profound affect on behaviour, but doesn’t work so well in other species.