New radiation warning sign

Ionizing radiation warning signThe sixtieth issue of the “new” Alchemist is now online over on Sciencebase partner site As you might expect having reached this tender age, we’ve put on a little weight, as of this issue there will be more chemistry matters.

In this week’s issue, new symbolism in the world of ionizing radiation, a rubber band theory that requires no stretch of the imagination to work, and an atomic approach to murder. Also in this week’s issue, new catalysts could make use of wasted natural gas that is simply vented and flared at oil wells and archaeological evidence that Christopher Columbus’ fellow travelers struggled to find enough silver. Finally, crumpling hydrogels could give chemists a taste for plastic origami. Also in this issue our new awards/announcements section – this week fueling fuel cell research to the tune of $1.5million.

Check out the ChemWeb Alchemist every fortnight.

Chemistry aside though, what do Sciencebase readers think of the new radiation sign the IAEA wants to make standard? To me it looks far more cluttered and confusing than the original trefoil. the IAEA says that lots of people don’t know what the trefoil represents, but surely if you come across a huge lead box with a big red triangle on it and a symbol that looks like something out of a science fiction movie you’re not going to break it open to see what’s inside…or maybe some people would. The IAEA says there are too many needless deaths and serious injuries from accidental exposure to large radioactive sources and that tests have shown that the meaning of this new symbol for category 1, 2, and 3 radiation sources is far more obvious than the old trefoil. It will mean a whole new redesign for those movie sets though.

Shadowy face recognition

Shadowy faceFace recognition is the most obvious approach to identification but it suffers from a major drawback – shadows and bad lighting. If there is inconsistent lighting in a room or on a face then it becomes difficult to produce reproducible digital image of the face for face recognition algorithms to work with. Now, researchers in China have turned to near infra-red to help computers cope with variable lighting conditions and so recognize even the most shadowy of faces.

Face recognition is a key function of the human brain…let me put it another way, from a very, very early age we can all recognize faces, from the familiar view from mother’s knee to spotting a friend in a crowd. Computers too can process a digital image and compare it with a database entry to carry out simple face recognition. But only if the light is right. Throw in a few shadows, sunlight through a window, or a flickering overhead fluorescent light, and the computer usually cannot spot the difference between John Doe and Joe Bloggs. Stan Li believes the answer lies in the near infra red, you can find out more tomorrow in the latest issue of or get an advance view here.

Desktop Hockey Face-off

Super hydrophobic materialScientists sure know how to have fun, Iain “Beaker” Larmour and Lauren “Comical Flasks” Rutherford of QUB, in Norther Ireland, square up for the match of the century playing micro mechanical hockey on a super water repellent, a superhydrophobic, material, that makes a duck’s back look positively damp.

There is a serious objective to this work. Superhydrophobic materials have been sought for many years. “Much of the recent research on hydrophobic materials has been inspired by the water-repellent nature of lotus leaves,” says team leader Steven Bell, “they show a double roughness on their surfaces (nanohairs on microbumps) along with a waxy coating. Very few materials have come anywhere near being this hydrophobic, or water hating though. Bell and his colleagues, Graham Saunders and Iain Larmour have now developed a remarkably straightforward method for treating metals which mimics the microstructure of lotus leaves. “The process simply involves dipping the object to be coated in a solution of silver or gold ions, this coats them with a double-roughness metal layer thinner than a human hair. Secondly the object is dipped in a solution which creates single layer of water-repelling fluorinated molecules similar to Teflon.” The resulting surfaces are so water repellent that they can be immersed in water for several days, but are completely dry when removed. Similarly, drops of water deposited on the surface form almost perfect spheres that roll off unless the surface is kept completely flat. “The surface tension in these water ‘balls’ is strong enough to hold them together during the hockey game in the video,” Bell told Sciencebase.

Sharp-eyed readers will probably be wondering about how they players scored. “The goal areas in the hockey field were treated to make them hydrophillic (water loving) so that drops that roll over them get temporarily trapped,” Bell told me.

The research is published in Angew Chem

Natural Family Planning

Natural family planningCould the contraceptive pill be replaced by a “natural” approach to family planning? It could if a study by Petra Frank-Herrmann of the Department of Gynaecological Endocrinology at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, proves reproducible (pardon the pun).

She and her colleagues have demonstrated that using two indicators for the fertile period in a woman’s menstrual cycle and avoiding unprotected sex during that time is just as effective as the contraceptive pill for avoiding unplanned pregnancies. The study was published in Human Reproduction this week.

The symptothermal method (STM) uses temperature and cervical secretion to pinpoint a woman’s fertile time. The German team carried out the largest prospective study of the method yet and found that if couples abstained from unprotected sex during this time the rate of unplanned pregnancies per year was 0.4% and 0.6% respectively. Out of all the 900 women who took part in the study, including those who had unprotected sex during their fertile period, 1.8 per 100 became unintentionally pregnant.

“For a contraceptive method to be rated as highly efficient as the hormonal pill, there should be less than one pregnancy per 100 women per year when the method is used correctly,” Frank-Herrman explains, “The pregnancy rate for women who used the STM method correctly in our study was 0.4%, which can be interpreted as one pregnancy occurring per 250 women per year.”

The authors were also surprised by the relatively low rate of unintended pregnancies (7.5%) among women who had unprotected sex during their fertile period. ‘If people are trying for pregnancy you expect a pregnancy rate of 28% per cycle,’ said Frank-Herrmann. ‘Therefore, we think that some of the couples were practicing conscious, intelligent risk-taking, and were having no unprotected sex during the few highly fertile days, but had unprotected intercourse on the days at the margins of the fertile time when the risk of pregnancy was lower.’

Medical marijuana

Cannabis leaf“The US Food & Drug Administration’s (FDA) position on medical cannabis is incorrect, dishonest and a flagrant violation of laws requiring the government to base policy on sound science,” claims Joe Elford, Chief Counsel for patient advocacy group. The organisation, the largest of its type in the US promoting safe and legal access to cannabis for therapeutic use and research, has filed a lawsuit demanding that the federal government “cease issuing misinformation on medical cannabis and correct the information it has released.”

There is growing evidence that the active ingredient in cannabis (THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol) can alleviate the often debilitating pain suffered by those afflicted with multiple sclerosis (MS) and HIV/AIDS. However, given the drug’s illicit status in most countries many governments have not acceded to its free use as a therapeutic agent nor encouraged systematic research and clinical trials to demonstrate efficacy or otherwise. Moreover, the ASA suggests that the US government is stifling valid research and spreading disinformation about the benefits.

The pharmacological action of THC results from the compound binding to the so-called cannabinoid receptor CB1, in the brain. The presence of this specialized receptor suggests that there are natural THC-like (cannabinoid) compounds made or used in the body. THC has been repeatedly demonstrated to have analgesic effects but the “high” associated with its use have precluded it from mainstream medical research. Several research teams are, however, investigating variations on the THC theme that retain the analgesic properties but do not produce a high. Such a product would be more acceptable to the pharmaceutical industry and the regulatory authorities, but requires a lot of work with the native compound to help scientists work out what chemical factor leads to the high and which part produces just the analgesic effect.

Fellow blogger “Joe” discusses many of the issues in more detail. He points out that since the 1980s the FDA has actually approved Marinol, a synthetic THC analogue for pain in cancer. But, the conflicting response of successive Bush adminstrations (viz the first Bush administration, in the early 1990s cancelled a compassionate use program and in the late 1990s, the Office of National Drug Control Policy threatened action against physicians who recommend or prescribe marijuana. California doctors and patients subsequently sued the federal government.

Opponents of medical marijuana use cite apocryphal evidence that it is a gateway drug to harder substances. However, one must consider the plight of terminally ill patients who seek relief from intolerable pain and suffering. Ironically, many terminally ill patients do indeed end up using much harder drugs in the end. Diamorphine? Heroin by another name.

Antioxidant buzz

Honey beeBees making honey from honeydew rather than nectar produce a sweet material that has greater anti oxidant properties than nectar honey, according to a study of 36 honey samples from Spain with different floral origins. The study published this month in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture could point to a way to improve the health benefits of this natural sweetener.

The composition of honey depends greatly on where honeybees collect their raw materials. There are two key sources. Honeybees can collect nectar from flowers, and this generates nectar honeys or they can collect fluids exuded by plants, honeydew.

‘Honey is a natural source of antioxidants, and among honeys, honeydew honey is the best,’ says researcher Rosa Ana Pérez, who works at the Instituto Madrileño de Investigación y Desarrollo Rural, Agrario y Alimentario, in Madrid, Spain.

Each of the 36 honeys was exposed to a range of physical and chemical tests. Honeys with high antioxidant properties also had high total polyphenol content, net absorbance, pH and electrical conductivity.

‘These laboratory results show some aspects that people could use to get an idea about which honeys are likely to have the most potent antioxidant properties,’ says Pérez.

Oxidation is a chemical process in which electrons are transferred from from one substance to an oxidizing agent. Antioxidants are basically compounds that slow the rate of oxidation and are as important the chemistry laboratory as they are in the human body. Antioxidants work either by reacting with intermediates and inhibiting the oxidation reaction directly, or themselves reacting with the oxidizing agent and acting as a molecular decoy to prevent the oxidation reaction from occurring.

All living things try to sustain a reducing (the opposite of oxidizing) environment within their cells to prevent damage by oxidation of their biomolecules. Compounds such as glutathione and ascorbic acid (vitamin C) as well as enzymes (peroxidases and oxidoreductases) act as antioxidants. If you do not have adequate levels of antioxidants in your body then oxidative stress and cell damage can occur. More controversial is the notion that supplementing with antioxidants a balanced diet of fruit and vegetables has any additional benefits, claims of anticancer effects and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease have yet to be proved. Indeed, excess of certain antioxidants can do more harm than good.

Bird flu pandemic chokes internet

H5N1 influenzaIf the avian influenza virus, H5N1, ever gets around to mutating into a lethal and virulent form that can be passed on readily from one person to another, then we will be facing a pandemic. Of course, as some observers have pointed out, mainly those without a vested interest in scaremongering, the process of mutation would more than likely lead to a strain of the disease that was not so commonly lethal in people, just as it is not commonly lethal in the natural wild bird hosts.

Anyway, if and when a pandemic pans around, we are likely to see a lot of people either being forced to work from home or opting to do so to reduce the risk of the disease spreading further than it needs to. According to ComputerWorld, this stay-at-home shift could choke the internet as workers and students forced into their homes will no doubt continue to treat even old dial-up accounts as being as fast as their work broadband connections and maintain their interest in high bandwidth sites like Youtube.

ComputerWorld suggests that this sudden burden on bytes will force governments to throttle bandwidth on non-essential services. After all, who seriously will need to watch videos of people hacking 9V batteries apart or powering their mp3 player with sweet potatoes when everyone around them are running around like headless chickens? Well…me for one! If we’re all forced to stay indoors and away from other people, then that will mean no proper TV being made, all we’ll get will be endless replays of turkeys and chickens being slaughtered and medical pundits waffling on about how they told us so. Youtube and social bookmarking sites like Digg and Slashdot could become our only useful information sources, with netizens pulling together to dispel the propagating myths and bring us video clips like the How to Sneeze public service broadcast.

Sex doesn’t sell

Sex on TVPeople won’t remember your brand if you advertised during a TV show with a lot of sexual content, according to UK researchers, compared to ads that appear in similar programming with no sex.

This was the key message that came from research carried out at the Department of Psychology at University College London by Ellie Parker and Adrian Furnham. They publish details in this month’s issue of the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology.

The team also discovered that men recalled the brand of products whose adverts contained sexual images more often than did women, in fact, the women in the study were actively put off by sexual content in advertising.

Is any of this particular surprising? If you’re watching a sexy movie are you going to be concerned with remember which brand carpet shampoo they advertised during the commercial break. More to the point, given the length of the ad slots on TV these days, it’s quite possible that viewers simply get “couply” during the breaks, inspired by the images they saw before the carpet cleaner and dog food came on.

Of course, the actual study didn’t allow for any extra-ad coupling. Instead, 60 university students (30 men and 30 women) aged 18 to 31, mean age 21, were divided into four groups. One group watched an overtly suggestive episode of Sex and The City, with sexy adverts running during the breaks. The second group watched the same episode with non-sexual adverts. The other two groups got to see an episode of ‘Malcolm in the Middle’ which contained no sexual references, with either sexual or non-sexual adverts.

‘The fact that recall of adverts was hindered by sexual content in the shows suggests that there is something particularly involving or disturbing about sexual shows. Interestingly this is something that is also found in shows with aggressive content,’ says Furnham.

‘Sex seems to have a detrimental effect on females recall for an advertisement,’ says Parker. ‘Sex is only a useful advertising tool when selling to men.’

But, couldn’t it simply be that the ads were simply more interesting than Malcolm in the Middle. Now, if it had been an episode of Friends, things would have been entirely different, all sixty volunteers would either have switched off or fallen asleep.

Eat like Grandma, live longer

Chilli PeppersAccording to an article in the New York Times magazine recently, there are nine golden rules of nutrition that in these days of overweight obesics, rising sugar levels, and general all-round fitness collapse, we could all do well to follow. Or, could we?

I’ll list the rules, as compiled by article author Michael Pollan, and re-compiled by Jess3 and then discuss briefly whether the concept is valid or not.

So, here are the rules, in summary:

  1. Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food
  2. Avoid so-called “health” foods
  3. Don’t eat anything you can’t pronounce
  4. Avoid supermarkets
  5. Never mind the quality, feel the quality
  6. Eat shoots and leaves
  7. Eat in the French, Japanese, Italian, or Greek style
  8. Avoid fast food, by growing and cooking your own
  9. Eat omnivorously, like a dog, not a cat

    So, are these rules valid or not? Broadly speaking yes, but we must remember that our great-great-grandmothers and fathers and those romantic country folk from around the Mediterranean Sea do not necessarily have a lower incidence of heart disease and diabetes nor do they live longer, healthier lives than we may care to think. The average life expectancy of our ancestors was very different from our own for all sorts of reasons and we’re only now seeing changes in health in the Med, Japan etc that are impacted by changes that happened during the twentieth century, such as war and not necessarily the shift to a more “American” diet. This difference in life expectancy is partly due to the fact that infant mortality was a lot higher, death in childbirth was common, disease was rampant, and the availability of food, of poor or high quality, was low.

    As to the Mediterranean diet, delicious yet, but it has not been proved that a diet rich in olive oil, red wine, eggplant, capsicums, and wholemeal pasta is any better than any other diet. Until well after WWII most of the countries around the Med were well below the poverty levels we see, generally, today in the West. There could be a residual effect of this poverty that has provided a buffer to disease from one generation to the next in the last fifty years, but we could soon see an interesting shift in cardiovascular disease among the baby-boomers of the Med in the next few years, perhaps as the poor diet of the grandparents of baby-boomers kicks in.

    Meanwhile, why shouldn’t you eat anything you can’t pronounce? I presume this alludes to “chemicals” in our foods, but I don’t know any two people who pronounce or even spell yogurt the same and as to Brits knowing what zucchini are, I daren’t say. Of course, maybe that’s the point – we shouldn’t be eating yogurt, or any dairy products; after it’s only relatively recently that we started tugging on the teats of bovine mammals. As to chemicals in our foods, there is nothing in any food that isn’t a chemical, we’ve had millions of years to evolve to cope with all kinds of natural toxins and pesticides, so there’s no reason to think that our bodies cannot cope, just because a chemical is synthetic. Moreover, nature is full of natural compounds that we cannot digest and at worst can kill.

    All that said, eating omnivorously, dedicating a bigger proportion of your money to quality food, and avoiding mass produced processed materials, is most certainly a good idea for many reasons other than personal health.

Hacking a 9V battery

Battery HackHave you ever been stuck for AAA batteries? You know those skinny kid brothers of the AA 1.5 volt you use in your mp3 player? No? Well, this guy obviously has. But, unbelievably what he wasn’t stuck for was a 9V battery and a pair of sharp-nosed pliers. So, with a handful of dead AAAs and no battery store for miles, he hacks open the 9 volter and pulls out six skinnier still unmarked batteries, which he refers to as quadruple A (AAAA) batteries.

9 Volt Battery Hack! You’ll Be Surprised… – video powered by Metacafe

Now, I’d come across AAAA batteries before in laser pointers and such but unfortunately the 9V I hacked open myself didn’t contain these things at all, it was layered like a car battery instead. But, let’s assume that at least the brand of battery he shows in the video, an Energizer, is composed of six AAAAs. Then his hack should work to replace those worn down triple As in your device. But, think about it, what device uses AAAs that you really, really couldn’t do without so much on a trip that you’d hack open a 9V Energizer for. More to the point if you don’t carry AAA spares for said device what are the chances that you’d have a 9V in your glovebox anyway? I half suspected this was yet another spoof like our old friend the sweet potato mp3 player, which we featured on Sciencebase a couple of weeks ago, but Wikipedia also claims that some brands of 9V batteries are comprised of 6 qud As. But, hey, why bother hacking a 9V battery, when you could just use a couple of yams instead?