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Wednesday, 14 July 2021

Stress inner ear

Whale earwax has been studied to unlock the chemical history of the oceans[1]. Forming as a plug, whale earwax has rings in it like a tree that map the history of their hormones – letting us know when they were under stress, for example – and the chemicals they were exposed to. This has allowed chemists to assess which substances such as drugs and fire retardants make their way into the environment and are potentially ecologically harmful.

More recently, researchers have begun studying the chemistry of earwax in humans[2].

Tuesday, 29 June 2021

Types of twins

Scientists are very interested in twins because it helps us identify the differences between genetic and environmental factors that influence health and behaviour. As a result, there’s been a lot of research on them, and this has uncovered some unusual types of twinning… such as sesquizygotic twins.

Thursday, 17 June 2021

Three Things I Don’t Know (Part III): Eyes

So, I asked myself, what unanswered scientific questions do I have, and are there answers out there for me? I had a think. And I came up with a list of three questions – and did my research. So here is the first of my three “Things I don’t/didn’t know” – let’s find out whether there’s an answer!

Why were my baby’s eyes indigo at birth?

Baby with dark blue eyes. Wiki Commons.
I’ve never heard of purple eyes before, but I know that the colour you’re born with can change. So, you can imagine when I looked into my baby daughter’s face and saw her eyes were a deep, dark purple that I was surprised – but I accepted it would be temporary. And temporary it was. Over the first year of her life, the time scientists say it takes eye colour to settle down, they have lightened to a medium blue, with that reminiscent darker blue round the edges.

I don’t have very clear pictures of the first month or so of her life: she kept her eyes mostly shut, and those I do have simply show their darkness, but me and her father remember that deep indigo colour – a bluish, purplish darkness, which looked indigo both under the artificial lights of the midwife unit, and under natural light from the window at home.

I turned to the internet…

Tuesday, 1 June 2021

Three Things I Don’t Know (Part II): ‘Flu

So, I asked myself, what unanswered scientific questions do I have, and are there answers out there for me? I had a think. And I came up with a list of three questions – and did my research. So here is the first of my three “Things I don’t/didn’t know” – let’s find out whether there’s an answer!

Why do we get colds and ‘flu more in winter?

In places with temperate climates, like the UK, colds and ‘flu are more common in winter. There’s a predictable seasonal pattern. Vaccines come out each year to help tackle new strains. But what drives this? Since we know about the germ theory, it’s clear that we don’t catch colds from chill winds, but instead from microbes that are passed from person to person. Since microbes thrive in the 37 degree environments of our bodies, why, I wonder, do they transmit more when it’s cold?

I turned to the internet…

Wednesday, 19 May 2021

Three Things I Don’t Know (Part I): Cold

So, I asked myself, what unanswered scientific questions do I have, and are there answers out there for me? I had a think. And I came up with a list of three questions – and did my research. So here is the first of my three “Things I don’t/didn’t know” – let’s find out whether there’s an answer!

Why do both children AND fatter people feel the cold less?

People with a higher BMI have more fat on their body; fat acts as an insulator, and keeps them warmer, meaning they feel the cold less than people with a lower BMI. ...So why do children also feel the cold less? Children tend to be smaller, have less fat on their bodies than grown ups, and have a bigger surface area to bulk ratio.

I turned to the internet…

Tuesday, 4 May 2021

Of quartz – A colourful problem

Where does colour come from? Pigments, we say: the ability of certain materials to absorb and reflect different colours of light as electrons are excited along or within their structure. It’s true: sometimes we have to go as deep down as the chemistry, the connectivity between atoms, to see where colour comes from. Other times we don’t.

Structural colour arises from the nanostructure of materials: the arrangement of atoms in giant structures, or of groups of molecules. As they cluster together, they form planes, angles, surface details, and other interesting geometry with gaps and overlaps the same size as the wavelength of light. Like the colours seen on an oil slick, this structural colour happens when light interacts with the shape of matter.

Thursday, 22 April 2021

Going with the flow

Inkanoack (CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay)
Ice is often overlooked. A small fraction of water, hostaged on land – it’s even missed out on the water cycle provided by the national curriculum. However, as the climate changes, so do habitats, including icy ones. When the glaciers melt, less water is locked up as ice and more is available as freshwater for life. Researchers have been fascinated by this process and in particular the kind of new life that springs from glacial melts. Interestingly, however, as more water becomes available and the climate becomes more temperate, what is observed is a loss of biodiversity. Specialist organisms designed for living in harsh, cold, wintry environments die or are out-competed by more common species already found in neighbouring environments. The conclusion is that the unforgiving glaciers provide pockets for more unusual lifeforms to flourish.

Monday, 5 April 2021

A smart race

Nanorobot swarms are the stuff of sci-fi films, but smart dust is being developed now.

Johan Oomen.
An assembly of microelectromechanical systems or “MEMS”, smart dusts consist of a party of tiny robots that detect light, temperature, vibration, magnetism, or chemicals. They talk to each other via wireless network and employ radio-frequency sensors. Smart dust particles are just a few millimetres across – much like intelligent grains of rice. A dependent species, they have to operate together, like bees, ants, or other colony creatures. And they have their weaknesses too: smart dusts are vulnerable to microwaves, which could electromagnetically disable them.

Tuesday, 23 March 2021


In 1929, Alexander Fleming published his first observations of penicillin under a microscope. A sloppy technician, he’d returned from holiday to find a fluffy, white mass growing on his staphylococcus culture – and decided to observe it. Through the microscope, he saw the penicillin inhibiting the staphylococcus, and postulated medical applications in his paper.
Public Domain via Nadya_il (Pixabay)

Wednesday, 10 March 2021

Performing dogs and molecular roulette

Performing dogs

Performing dogs take nerve-settling beta-blockers. Habj
How do we make new chemicals?

It was a question James Black asked himself in 1964 (or perhaps a bit before then), when he developed a new approach to molecular synthesis, and thus discovered propranolol hydrochloride – the compound that won him the 1988 Nobel Prize for Medicine.

An unexciting-looking chemical, it’s just two fused benzene rings and a side arm, but it’s been used to alter mood, easing aggression, phobias, and improving the social skills of people on the autism spectrum. It is used to treat PTSD, and commonly to ease performance anxiety amongst musicians and performing dogs.

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