The Art of ET

Extraterrestrial ArtAfter centuries of speculation concerning the existence or otherwise of extraterrestrial intelligence, it has been discovered that a radio signal detected by the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico contains artwork broadcast from deep space.

Initially dismissed by scientists as meaningless, the transmission – which originated between the constellations Aries and Pisces thousands of years ago – is now claimed to be the most significant addition to the artistic canon since the Mona Lisa, or even the Venus of Willendorf.

The artistic signal has been painstakingly decoded and transferred onto canvas by conceptual artist Jonathon Keats and is unveiled today at the Magnes Museum in Berkeley California. “This is the ultimate outsider art,” notes Keats, “Historically, our culture has ignored extraterrestrial artistic expression. Exhibited at the Magnes, the art becomes accessible to everyone.”

The discovery of artwork from beyond the solar system did not come as a surprise to Keats, who has frequently collaborated with scientists across multiple disciplines. “It’s a familiar story,” he says, “Researchers expect intelligent life elsewhere in the universe to behave just like them. Since scientists are mathematical, they expect extraterrestrials to broadcast the digits of pi or the Pythagorean theorem.”

The discovery augments earlier findings here on earth of artifacts dating back to a prehistoric alien landing, the so-called Shao-Shan object, they too are very aesthetically pleasing!

South African shards

Raman analysis of South African pottery (shards) dating from the 13th and 14th centuries reveals that the potters used a variety of clays and fired their wares at less than 800 Celsius using open fires rather than kilns. Such details could only be unearthed without damaging the artefacts using this powerful spectroscopic technique.

Chemists Malebogo Legodi and Danita de Waal of the University of Pretoria in South Africa examined samples from four archaeological sites – Rooiwal, Lydenburg, Makahane, and Graskop using normal dispersive Raman spectroscopy. They complemented this technique with X-ray fluorescence, X-ray diffraction and Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy.

Read the complete story in the latest online issue of

Moon Orbit Earth How Long

not the full moon photo by 雷竞技官网 
It might seem like a trivial question, and most people would probably say 28 days. But, it isn’t so simple.

On average it takes 27.322 days (that’s a sidereal month, and a nice number of significant figures for something astronomical, especially when defining the day is not so clear cut) for the Moon to complete one orbit around Earth. However, the number of days between Full Moons is about 29.5306 days as the Moon has to “catch up with the sun” as it were. So, the actual number of days may differ from the average number by more than a half day. From one Full Moon to the next, the number of days in one lunation can vary between 29.272 and 29.833 days (another nice clutch of significant figures).

The age and apparent size of the Full Moon vary in a cycle of just under 14 synodic months, which is called the Full moon cycle.

The true Full Moon may differ from the calculated peak by up to about 14.5 hours, due to the normal irregularity in the Moon’s Keplerian orbit, and due to the periodic perturbations in that orbit caused by the Sun, the equatorial bulge of the Earth, and the proximity of other planets.

Anyway, I hope this little snippet answer the search query a recent visitor plugged into the sciencebase search box – “moon orbit earth how long”

Diesel to drugs

A new process for converting sugar into diesel fuel and feedstock chemicals for the manufacture of plastics, drugs, and other products, could help industry circumvent the problem of rising oil and natural gas prices. James Dumesic, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison has demonstrated how to make hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF) from the fruit sugar fructose using a straightforward acid-assisted dehydration process. Two additives reduce the formation of side products while butan-2-ol helps push the HMF into the non-aqueous phase ready for extraction. Yields are 80% of HMF with 90% fructose conversion. The HMF product can be used as an intermediate in polymer production and as a diesel-fuel additive, or even as biodiesel itself. Until now, the high cost of HMF has precluded its widespread use.

The latest on this now available at

Hoodia gordonii FAQ

Hoodia gordonii from BBC siteThis southern African succulent plant tastes nasty but generations of San bushmen in the Kalahari Desert have eaten it to suppress their appetites on countless hunting trips. As such, it has become a focus of quick-fix weight loss programs.

What is Hoodia gordonii?
It’s a prickly succulent plant that grows in southern Africa and resembles a cactus but isn’t one.

What can it do?
Hoodia gordonii can apparently reduce calorie intake and lower body fat. A patented extract known as p57 and owned by Phytopharm is currently undergoing clinical safety and efficacy tests.

Why do the San bushmen use it?
They eat it for food, althouh H gordonii itself is bitter tasting and only eaten when the going gets really tough.

How was Hoodia’s appetite suppressing properties discovered?
It was investigated as part of a scientific research project established by the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, which tested lots of bush foods and discovered that surprisingly Hoodia extracts made you feel fuller than you really were as well as lowering body weight without toxicity.

Do all Hoodia species reduce appetite?
Only Hoodia gordonii extract has been tested clinically on human volunteers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that whole plant extract or other products won’t work.

So it definitely works?
Phytopharm’s 2001 double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial of overweight, but healthy volunteers showed a statistically significant fall in daily calorie intake as well as a drop in body fat percentage. [There is anecdotal evidence that products obtained from the plant (rather than isolated extract) can reduce body weigth]

Does it work quickly?
Large doses are needed but it takes just 15 days to see a calorie reduction on average of 1000 (kcal) per day.

What are the side-effects?
None have been found so far, but that does not mean that safety studies are not needed before it can get the green light for safety and efficacy.

Will the San bushmen benefit from the sales of Hoodia?
CSIR has entered a “benefit-sharing agreement” with a San representative organisation to ensure they benefit financially from the commercialisation of patented Hoodia gordonii extract. (Actually CSIR did not, allegedly, enter this agreement voluntarily but did so as a result of legal action).

Hoodia is CITES listed, what does that mean?
It means if you visit southern Africa and steal the succulent plant and try and take it out of the country or otherwise gain from it, you’ll get fined massively and face a jail sentence under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

The BBC reported on the Phytopharm trials in May 2003 and was saying then that potential users should be patient. In their report, they pointed out that the Hoodia tablets available via the internet that they had tested did not contain any of the active ingredient. A natural pill for obesity that really works will come, it just may be another few years in the making.

The original Phytopharm FAQ can be found here. More information on the various Hoodia species is available here.

Phytopharm has, I have been told, sold their licence to Unilever.

Celiac disease and food additive

An enzyme added to foods containing gluten could put an end to the misery of celiac disease for many sufferers, allowing them to eat almost anything they fancy without having to worry about the effects on their digestive system.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine in which an abnormal reaction to the gluten protein in wheat, barley, and rye results in inflammation, which causes a temporary flattening of the nutrient absorbing villi that line the bowel. This prevents sufferers absorbing nutrients effectively from their diet. Until now, the only course of action is to avoid all foods containing gluten.

The full story is now available on chemistry news site Reactive Reports

Grape expectations controversy to put you to sleep

Certain Italian grape varieties used in popular red wines may contain high levels of the sleep hormone melatonin, according to an analysis by Marcello Iriti, Mara Rossoni, and Franco Faoro at the University of Milan. However, a melatonin expert in the US is unconvinced by the results citing the undefinitive nature of the analytical procedures used to test the wine.

Until recently, scientists considered melatonin to be a compound produced exclusively by mammals. Some researchers reckon plants too could produce this compound. Melatonin has also been shown to have antioxidant properties. Russel Reiter and colleagues at the University of Texas Health Science Center, in San Antonio, reviewed the literature and explained how melatonin directly detoxifies the hydroxyl radical (OH), hydrogen peroxide, nitric oxide, peroxynitrite anion, peroxynitrous acid, and hypochlorous acid.

Find out more in the latest chemistry news round up at Reactive Reports.

Fuel Cell Hydrogen Economy

Hydrogen fuel cells have been relatively neglected through insufficient support from industry and government, according to a study published today funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

‘Fuel cells are a genuine ‘clean’ technology,’ says study investigators, Chris Hendry of the Cass Business School, London, ‘But re-investment in nuclear technology is likely to squeeze out the investment necessary to make fuel cells competitive with existing energy sources and with other non-nuclear alternative energy options.’

I asked him about the true “cleanness” of fuel cells in the light of new infrastructure requirements, sourcing the requisite hydrogen and the recycling of equipment past its use by date.

“The ideal is to produce the hydrogen by electrolysis, using another renewable source,” he told Sciencebase, “Wind action in particular is intermittent – so when there’s too much generating electricity that can’t be used, it can be diverted to produce the hydrogen. Other countries can use solar for this purpose.”

But, what about sourcing that hydrogen before such technologies are fully viable?

“In the short-term, however, you’re right, the hydrogen will come from other hydrocarbons, particularly natural gas,” he adds, “This will enable fuel cells to become established using existing infrastructure, while a hydrogen infrastructure is developed.”

“In the end, the question is, which energy source has the most efficient
‘well-to-wheels’ costs, and which has also the least recycling costs?”

The study, co-written by Prof. Hendry, Dr. Paul Harborne, James Brown and Prof. Dinos Arcoumanis, gives a strong clue to one of the major obstacles to development by referring to fuel cell technology as a disruptive innovation. A disruptive innovation, if successful, eventually overturns the existing product on the market. Recent examples include the digital camera and the compact disc. Disruptive innovations are radically different from the existing dominant technology and to begin with they are often not as good. The result is two-fold. First the proponents of existing technology are likely to fear and so resist the new development. Second, because profits are unlikely to be immediate, funding can be problematic.

The automotive industry and stationary power provide examples of fuel cells as a disruptive innovation. However, while their potential is being pursued in the UK, Germany, North America and Japan, interviews with seventy companies in these countries show the UK fuel cell industry is lagging behind.

Jewelry Made with Molecules

Molecular jewelryPrecious jewelry is usually made with metals rather than molecules, although there is plenty of costume jewelry made with polymers and other materials which are of course composed of molecules. But, that’s not really a concern for who are touting a chemically aware range of chokers, keychains, necklaces, charm bracelets, and even boxer shorts, sporting your favourite molecule.

So, for the chemist in your life, how about a serotonin necklace, or a pair of testosterone boxers, perhaps. A dopamine keychain tells the world you’re into love and pleasure (or that you’re on medication, perhaps) while acetylcholine earrings really show your neurones are firing on all four!

Then there are the estrogen items, for women who want to rejoice in their hormonal surges or for guys hoping to reveal their feminine side.

There are even glucose and oxytocin baby suits. Glucose being the key sugar molecule we all need right from birth and oxytocin being the feel-good hormone that completes the breast feeding cycle.

This post might look like an ad, but they didn’t pay me a dime for the privilege, I just had to tell sciencebase readers, many of whom are chemists.

Cranberry Against Tooth Decay

CranberriesCranberries have a special place in modern herbal folklore, the presence of antioxidant flavonoids in these tart but edible berries are thought to have antimicrobial activity. Now, US researchers have demonstrated that the extracts of the red fruit can prevent Streptococcus mutans, the bacterium responsible for dental caries, from having its wicked way with your teeth and so potentially halt tooth decay.

“We are not offering the solution for the elimination of dental caries,” team leader Hyun Koo of Rochester University told me, “but rather an alternative approach to help to reduce it.”

He adds that using cranberry or its food products for oral hygiene purposes is not recommended because they contain too much sugar (both natural and added) and are very acidic. However, “We have shown that there are some specific compounds that may help to reduce caries. The challenge is to find those that are biologically active. Then, we can think about one day using them in mouthwash or toothpaste,” he explains.

Read the full story in the Reactive Reports Summer Special