Chemistry matters

Latest chemistry news round-up from the ChemWeb Alchemist, who this week looks through an ITO coated glass darkly this week with another step taken towards transparent electronics for solar panels. In earthly news, life’s inorganic components may have emerged as supercontinents were formed giving rise to organisms capable of sexual reproduction. In the materials world, a new form of carbon sought for half a century is made experimentally under pressure. In pharma news, an explanation for chemotherapy resistance comes to light. And, in the physical world, quantum entanglement is snapped. Finally, this week’s award goes to Canadian microfluidics research.

Latest Alchemist.

Gadget in the pan? Just add rice

While the Gates Foundation is looking to reward new toilet designs, there is a “first-world” problem that afflicts many of us from time to time. The dreaded dropping the phone, iPod, Kindle in the toilet bowl. The whole hygiene and pathogen dissemination issue of using electronic gadgets on the toilet aside, how do you best dry a sodden device?

Numerous sites talk about quickly retrieving said device and gently towelling it dry without switching it on, removing the battery and then burying the gadget in uncooked rice in a sealed container (or better still putting it in a sealed container with a few packets of silica gel (the kind often found in the original packaging in which the device was delivered). The idea has most recently appeared on the UK CNet site, for instance.

I did a straw poll on Twitter to see whether the rice solution had worked for anyone and got mixed messages. Many said it did nothing useful and the gadget was bricked, while one or two said it had dried it out (it might have dried out without the rice of course). Rice – mostly carbohydrate – is hygroscopic (it can absorb water spontaneously from its surroundings), so maybe if a device is not too deeply wet, if it’s in a sealed container the rice will absorb water vapour from within the container, and so indirectly pull any moisture from within the device. It’s a long shot, but maybe worth a try. Companies selling device-drying systems refer to the “rice myth”, but then they would, wouldn’t they? There are also coming soon, if not already available, sealing services that will waterproof your gadget. But, why don’t manufacturers make them watertight by design?

I wonder though whether, under supervision, a much more radical and effective approach would be to blast the device with a jet of carbon dioxide from a fire extinguisher. I’m not recommending the idea, just putting it out there as a possible approach.

Has anyone rescued a gadget from total submersion in water? I failed when an old mp3 player went through a wash cycle in my pocket. What trick did you use?

Balls. Sorry…oblate spheroids!

The sun is just a spinning ball of hot gas, 1.4 million kilometres across. The Deceived Wisdom about spinning balls if of course that they should bulge at their equator because of centrifugal force, the fast moving matter at the equator being flung out more than that at the North or South poles, like kids on the edge of a roundabout rather than those clinging to the middle.

Indeed, astronomers had always expected our nearest star to bulge slightly at its equator. The gas giant planet Jupiter (which shone so brightly alongside Venus and the crescent moon in the morning sky the other is very oblate because of this phenomenon. Jupiter rotates on its axis once every 10 hours (its day is less than half as long as an Earth day). This makes it almost 7% wider across its equator than the distance from pole to pole, explains The Guardian. It’s very oblate. The Earth too is flattened by its spin making it an approximate oblate spheroid rather than a perfect sphere. Measure its diameter through the poles and it is about 12,715 km, but the equatorial diameter is 12,756 km). One would expect the Sun to have a significant difference too, given that it is so much bigger, although the Sun takes about five Earth weeks to spin on its axis once.

However, a team at the University of Hawaii has now pinned down the first precise measurements of the Sun’s equatorial bulge as part of a 50-year ongoing effort. Surprisingly, results show that the Sun does not have as big an equatorial bulge as one might expect. The difference between equatorial and polar diameter is more than 41 km. The difference for the Sun is a fraction of that at a mere 10 kilometres. In percentage terms the difference on Earth is almost a third of one percent. For the Sun, it’s a tiny 0.0007%.

Research team leader Jeffrey Kuhn and colleagues suggest that this makes the Sun the most near-perfect sphere. According to the Guardian if one were to scale the Sun to the size of a beachball the difference would be less than that of the proverbial human hair. “Only an artificial sphere of silicon that was created as a standard for weights is known to be more perfectly spherical,” the report says.

The explanation for this near perfection might lie in the fact that although the Sun’s total rotation is about 34 Earth days, the outer surface layers may not be rotating at the same rate. “The solar oblateness is substantially lower than theoretical expectations by an amount that could be accounted for by a slower differential rotation in the outer few percent of the Sun,” the team reports in the journal Science.

Research Blogging IconKuhn, J.R., Bush, R., Emilio, M. & Scholl, I.F. The Precise Solar Shape and Its Variability, Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1223231

But, why are stars and planets “spherical” in the first place? According to a SciAm Q&A: “Planets are round because their gravitational field acts as though it originates from the centre of the body and pulls everything toward it. Over long periods of time the stuff from which the planet is made succumbs to the gravitational pull from its centre of gravity so that any protuberances are smoothed out. The process is known as “isostatic adjustment.” The process requires that the mass of the astronomical object be large enough that gravity can do this, which is why asteroids tend to stay lumpy their smaller gravitational field is not big enough to pull them into a spherical shape.

Cinnamon for diabetes

Oh and while we’re on supposedly natural remedies against disease (how natural is processed, sweetened chocolate?), there is a nice feature article over in Science-Based Medicine [no relation, Ed] that debunks the deceived wisdom about cinnamon and its supposed benefits to people with diabetes.

Here’s what Scott Gavura has to say:

“Cinnamon’s effectiveness as a treatment for diabetes has not been established. A prescription drug as ineffective as cinnamon likely wouldn’t pass FDA muster.”

He points out that there are existing therapies for diabetes that are inexpensive, effective and well tolerated. And emphasises that we don’t know if cinnamon can reduce morbidity (nasty symptoms) or the risk of mortality in diabetes. “For my patients that insist on trying cinnamon, I’d caution them of the risks, and reinforce that cinnamon is no alternative for lifestyle [basically, weight loss and exercise] changes and medication if necessary,” he says. He emphasises my old sawhorse about “natural”, it may well be from nature but “that doesn’t mean it’s either safe or effective.”

Dark chocolate and high blood pressure

The media was recently salivating over the idea that dark chocolate could somehow reduce blood pressure courtesy of its flavanols. But, NHS Choices has once again debunked this medical deceived wisdom. The claims in the research hyped by the tabloids were for an average 2-3 mmHg lowering of blood pressure reading based on a meta analysis of studies into the effects of chocolate on bp. Regardless, that seems like a rather small reduction.

Chocolate in moderation can be part of a healthy balanced diet, the magazine says. But most chocolate is high in fat and calories so too much will counteract any benefits of marginal reduction in blood pressure. Moreover, the study didn’t look at heart and stroke outcomes for those eating dark chocolate so the supposed lowering of blood pressure could be have been entirely misleading with regard to health.

The magazine points out that there are far more effective and healthier ways to reduce blood pressure than indulging in chocolate (sadly):

  1. Reducing your consumption of salt (no more than 6g a day).
  2. Taking regular exercise.
  3. Losing weight if you are overweight or obese.

Drugs, geeks and fitness

While I’ve been writing my own book, Deceived Wisdom, I’m afraid I’ve not had an awful lot of time to read and review the various science books that have been piling up on my desk. So, here’s a quick round-up based on the publisher descriptions of those in my reading queue.

Drugs Without the Hot Air (9781906860165): David Nutt – From health to family to society, Nutt offers a science-based perspective on drug use and abuse. He applies the same objective criteria to legal and illegal substances and argues that legality is not a clear measure of harm, some illegal drugs are far less hazardous and detrimental to individuals and society than legal drugs, such as alcohol. Nutt takes on questions of ranking drugs for true harms, whether addiction is curable and how the so-called war on drugs may have serious unintended consequences for the wellbeing of our children.

Geek Nation: How Indian Science is Taking Over the World (9781444710168): Angela Saini – One in six employed scientists with science or engineering doctorates in the U.S. is Asian, and by the turn of the millennium, there were claims that a third of all engineers in Silicon Valley were of Indian origin, with Indians running 750 of its tech companies. In this entertaining exploration of India’s rise as a centre of scientific excellence, Angela Saini delves inside the psyche of the nation’s science-hungry citizens, curious, colourful characters who easily square spirituality with being "geeks." Fitness for Geeks: Real Science, Great Nutrition, and Good Health (9781449399894): Bruce W. Perry – Fitness For Geeks is designed to appeal to a broad audience of techies and other engineers, athletes, gym rats, adventurers, in short anyone with a scuffed-up muddy pair of running or cycling shoes (or bare feet) who wants to take a cerebral approach to health. The "measure mantra" is a useful concept for people seeking fitness ("what gets measured gets managed and fixed"), and now you have the software, gear, and companion book to do it.

Moon, Venus and Jupiter in the pre-dawn East

I woke rather earlier than usual this morning (about 4:30 to be precise) and took a look eastwards from our bedroom window and what a spectacle! Despite the early hour, I grabbed my SLR and snapped the crescent Moon, Venus and Jupiter in near alignment. I posted the raw photo on Imaging Storm, but have done a labelled version for Sciencebase readers:

Skymania’s Paul Sutherland tells us that Venus currently makes “a brilliant spectacle in the morning sky” and I’d have to agree it was quite a site, crisp, clear, earthshine apparent in the horns of the crescent moon. Venus is also presenting a crescent but is big in the sky because it is slightly closer to us than at other times. Similarly, Skymania says “Jupiter is easy to see in the morning sky now, shining brightly in the constellation of Taurus”. If you have binoculars or a small telescope you will easily see its largest moons and maybe even details on the planet’s gaseous surface too.Skymania News and Guide — The night sky in August — northern hemisphere.

My Sister Rosalind Franklin

My Sister Rosalind Franklin: A Family Memoir 9780199699629: Jenifer Glynn – Jenifer Glynn is sister to Rosalind Franklin, whose pioneering X-ray crystallography work provide the key insights needed by Watson and Crick to unravel the double helix of DNA. Much has been written about her role in the rapid advent of molecular biology in the 1950s, but Glynn offers a family perspective on the woman, the scientist, the sister.

Franklin, of course, died prematurely of ovarian cancer and was not cited in the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, the committee makes no posthumous awards. The Prize was shared by Crick, Watson and fellow King’s scientist Maurice Wilkins. It has been a point of contention over the years that her vital role in painstakingly crystallising DNA and recording its X-ray diffraction patterns is marginalised by the flamboyant and wonderful work of Watson and Crick.

Franklin, however, was worked in areas other than DNA. She provided unique and invaluable insights into carbon structures, which essentially underpin our understanding of supposedly “modern” forms of carbons such as nanotubes, fullerenes, and graphene. She also later worked on viral structures to great success.

In this family memoir sister and historian Glynn considers Franklin’s tragically short life, her early education, her student days at Cambridge, and her time in Paris and at King’s College London where she crystallised science’s early thoughts on DNA.

Hairy Bikers BP

UPDATE: The show’s producer got in touch to tell me she was massively disinterested in any big-picture message warping. “I just shot what Roy Taylor said. Dave and Si were both on medication for high blood pressure. Following alterations in their way of cooking, living, exercising and thinking, they are no longer taking the pills.”

Fair enough.

Yesterday, I watched one episode of the food show from fellow “Geordies” Si King and Dave Myers in which they expounded the benefits of exercise and calorie reduction for weight loss. So far, so good. They had Newcastle University’s Roy Taylor tracking their weight, blood pressure and body fat too to validate what was being said.

Dave, apparently dropped from 39% body fat to 26%, while Si reduced his from 42% to 31%, or thereabouts all within a few weeks. They said this was through swapping their infamous motorbikes for pedal cycles and cutting out the calories. They may well have done although at the end of the episode I believe they suggested that Si had lost less than 7 kg, and Dave had dropped 15kg or so…

When they measured their blood pressure after a short burst of exercise Professor Roy told Dave that his BP was 102 over 70. That’s very good for a guy who said he’d been taking an ACE inhibitor to reduce high blood pressure. Now, being overweight/obese certainly shows an association with high blood pressure, although some people can be in the normal weight range and have essential hypertension too, because of genetics.

However, for him to have been given medication to lower his blood pressure, it would have had to have been above the UK’s NICE guidelines on prescribing such meds. The threshold for being medicated is to have BP consistently above 140/90. By reducing his weight by about 15kg in two months or so he dropped BP from at least 140/90 to 102/72. That’s a very big a drop, even generously assuming that he was borderline for the prescription. A more realistic lowering would be from 140/90 to around 130/80. That is feasible, plausible and certainly possible with significant weightloss, exercise and perhaps more importantly a substantial reduction in sodium (salt) intake.

I realise anecdote is not evidence, but I have personally observed a reduction in my BP of around 15% on the top line having reduced my salt daily intake. But, Dave, he saw a drop of almost 30%, assuming he was at the low end of hypertension when he was medicated. In the show, Dave suggested he might stop taking his medication and the Prof added the caveat that he ought to check with his doctor first.

Print your fetus

Back in the day, parents used to spend nine months wondering what they’re baby would be like. Then came monochromatic, grainy but wonderful ultrasound, which showed you the baby in mummy’s “tummy”…we have such grainy snapshots of both our children ante-natal and lovely they are too. Then ultrasound went all high-def and 3D and gave the next generation of parents a crisper view of their unborn baby’s bits and pieces.

But, with rapid prototyping printers, commonly known as 3D printers, you can get a much better feel for how your baby will turn out: