Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Feynman on Flowers

I had planned to post my favorite quote from one of my favorite scientists, Richard Feynman, when I discovered that the fine folks at the Sagan Series had already set it to images and music. Its the first passage in the video, and it communicates way better than I could one of the main reasons I love science. Enjoy!

And for those script-lovers in the audience:
I have a friend who’s an artist and he’s sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say, “Look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree, I think. And he says—“you see, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you as a scientist, oh, take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing.” And I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me, too, I believe, although I might not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is; but I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time I see much more about the flower than he sees. I can imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension of one centimeter, there is also beauty at a smaller dimension, the inner structure. Also the processes, the fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting—it means that the insects can see the color. It adds a question: Does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which shows that science knowledge only adds to the excitement and mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds; I don’t understand how it subtracts.
Richard P. Feynman (1918-1988)

P.S. Do yourself a favor and go read "Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman!" Adventures of a Curious Character.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

"The Shape of It All" or "Dr. Licorice Explains Why Bisphenol-A is Scary"

I recently made a chemical that smelled extremely familiar, but after numerous wafts, I couldn't quite tell what it reminded me of.

Me wafting the chemical I made.  The chemical is the tiny bit of brown oil in that small clear jar in my left hand.

This puzzle went unsolved for days until my labmate Michelle used some of the chemical and was like, "Lee, have you noticed how that chemical you made smells just like licorice?"

I was like, "OMG, you solved it!!!!"

Victory Licorice!!!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Asteroid Particles

Recently the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency sent a spaceship to an asteroid named Itokawa.  A spaceship to an asteroid!!  As if that wasn't awesome enough, the spaceship landed on the asteroid, collected material, and returned home to earth!  These are images of tiny particles collected from the surface of that asteroid.

These particles are around half the diameter of a human hair.  Click to make them HUGE!

Here are three views of Itokawa, which is about 630 meters x 250 meters.  Assuming a spacesuit didn't slow you down, and the surface of the asteroid were boulder-free and easy to walk on, it would only take you ~20 minutes to walk around the whole thing the long-way.  Pretty small!!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Why Pee is Cool - entry #6 - "Pee, Our Connection with the Earth's Metabolic Cycle"

Here, in the final PeePeePost, is where we bring all we have learned together and find out how the act of peeing unites us with our planet.

sciseekclaimtoken-4eab48c19bc77 Any form of life that we know of needs two basic things.  The first is matter, as life has to be made of something.  The second is energy, so life can do something with that matter (e.g., move around, reproduce, watch trailer park boys).  Most life on earth gets its energy from the sun.  All life on earth gets its matter from...from earth, duh!

As we learned in the last PeePost, the atoms in your body are no different from the atoms in rocks/oceans/air/etc.  Additionally, the composition of our bodies is close-ish to that of the earth's crust!!

Graph of abundances of chemical elements in the earths' upper continental crust.  We are made mostly of the really abundant stuff in the upper left (e.g., oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, etc.)

Because of those two facts, I like to think of any kind of earth life as little tiny earth particles--walking, talking, peeing, sometimes neighborly little chunks of the earth's crust.

Humans are earth particles.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Why Pee is Cool - entry #5 - "How Pee Unites You With Rocks"

From around the 2nd century onwards, many people subscribed to the doctrine of vitalism.  For alchemists, vitalism primarily meant that matter from the inorganic, inanimate world (crystals, rocks, etc) was fundamentally different from matter from the organic, living world (us, kittens, pee, etc).  Specifically, they believed that that non-living matter could not be transformed into living matter.  Vitalists held that the matter of life, the chemicals that compose living things, could be synthesized only by living things themselves.

In 1828 a German chemist named Friedrich Wöhler made a discovery that bridged the divide between living and non-living matter, and the story of how he did this starts of course with pee.

Friedrich Wöhler. German chemist/peepee enthusiast and 1828 blower of minds.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Why Pee is Cool - entry #4 - "PeePee Portal to Phosphorus" or "What the Alchemists Did Right"

Travel with me back in time, when humans were first beginning to wonder things like "What the hell is the world around me made of anyhow!?"  Picture yourself as an ancient alchemist, repeatedly trying in vain to figure out a way to turn anything into gold.  You pretty much suck at doing science, but as a result of all your fool-hearty work you do know how to do things like mix, heat, and distill stuff.  The first problem you face as an alchemist is that you need some substance to do experiments on.


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Why Pee is Cool - entry #3 - "Explosive Urination" or "Gunpowder Comes from Pee!!!"

So far we have learned what gives pee its color and smell, and now we will delve into the explosive way pee has changed the course of history.  That's right, pee can be turned into an explosive!

To find out how we have to travel in our minds back to the beginning of human civilization--specifically, the domestication of animals.  One thing that large domesticated animals like horses and cows produce in bulk is urine (pee pee!).  When these animals are kept inside some sort of shelter, their pee seeps into the dry plant-less ground beneath their feet, where microorganisms turn urea into ammonia.  The little pee-digesting organisms don't stop there though, they combine the ammonia with oxygen, eventually giving rise to the nitrate ion, in a process known as nitrification.

Ammonia + Oxygen →  Nitrates
NH3 + 2 O2   NO3- + H+ + H2O
Nitrification of Ammonia.  Note: animals pee out urea, but  microbes turn urea into ammonia, which then undergoes nitrification.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

I blame my lack of productivity on the earth's axial tilt!

The axis of the rotation of the earth relative to that of its rotation around the sun is tilted by 23.5 degrees.  This causes some pretty extreme changes in the climate here at 43 degrees N latitude:

For example, here is what Wisconsin looks like in the winter:

This leads to very productive weekends of staying inside and barfing blog posts out of my brain and into the computer.

Here is what Wisconsin looks like in the summer:

This leads to extreme levels of outdoor awesomeness, but very low levels of indoor blog-post-barfing productivity.

Never fear, Science Minus Details will return to full glory soon.  For now I will leave you with Mike Flores' awesome summer 2010 time-lapse montage.

Have fun in the sun, I will see you soon!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Why Pee is Cool - entry #2 - "Why Does Pee Smell?" or "Aroma of Life"

In Germany, nothing marks the beginning of spring like asparagus!  Running from April through the end of June, asparagus season (spargelzeit) is a big deal in Germany.  Here is me happily participating in this wonderful German tradition:

Me, about to have an asparagus aneurysm

As you may know, after eating asparagus, your pee can smell pretty gross.

Bathroom Safety Tip #1: never inhale bathroom-related vapors directly, always gently waft them

Monday, April 25, 2011

Why Pee is Cool - entry #1 - "Why Is Pee Yellow?" or "Rainbow of Urine"

PeePee!  Jokes about it will never stop being funny, and facts about it will never stop being interesting!

Do not try this at home. via phasezero

In this series of posts we will learn what pee is and discover how it connects us with the rest of life on earth and how humans have used it to learn more about the nature of the universe.  Get ready for a wild ride!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"Barely Bad Bananas" or "Where Does Background Radiation Come From???"

The totally normal banana that this totally normal monkey is eating is radioactive, but so is the monkey!

Radioactive Monkey Eating Radioactive Banana, from Arne Bevaart

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What is Nuclear Radiation and How Can It Hurt Me?

People get really freaked out about nuclear radiation.

Dude with Awesome Beard, Freaking Out

Since we are all really freaked out by the ongoing trouble with Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant and the hazards posed to the Japanese population by escaped nuclear radiation, let's figure out what nuclear radiation is, and let's begin by talking about radiation in general.  The word radiation is used to describe any type of particle or wave that is moving through space really fast, which encompasses lots of things.  The kind of radiation that will be most familiar to you is LIGHT, which is a kind of electromagnetic radiation.

Electromagnetic Radiation, so-named because it consists of electric and magnetic waves that fly through space together.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

"Where Did Helium Come From?" or "Jupiter & Saturn, Helium Hoarders"

All matter in the Universe is made up of three-quarters hydrogen and one-quarter helium (by weight), with relatively insignificant amounts of all the other elements (not including dark matter, whatever that is).  This crazy abundance of hydrogen and helium has been around in nearly the same ratio from minutes after the big bang over 13 billion years ago.  Wowza!


Helium.  (see story of Larry Walters)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Cool Chameleons, Cool Carotenoids, Cool Colors

Check out what this chameleon can do!  Understanding how chameleons do this will help you to understand how all life on earth is connected.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

"Unexpected Flying Animals" or "Winged Convergent Evolution"

Flying fish become airborne by leaping from the water and spreading their enormous pectoral fins.  They typically fly from 100-200 feet, an adaptation that is thought to have evolved for predator-evasion.  Check it out!

Flying fish have to hold their breath (WTF)!!

Moving from fish to reptiles, the flying snake climbs up trees (not unusual for snakes) and then jumps (unusual for snakes) from tree to tree.  The snake flies (ok, glides) by distorting nearly its entire body into a concave wing-like shape and undulating through the air, in a process that is much more energy efficient and less prone to predation than slithering down to the ground and back up.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Why Animals Migrate

The humpback whale migrates up to 16,000 miles every year, from polar regions to tropical waters and back.

Humpback whale migration routes.

The arctic tern migrates over 44,000 miles every year, from the arctic to antarctic and back.

Bird migration routes. 1-Northern Wheatear, 2-Bluethroat, 3-Eastern Yellow Wagtail, 4-Dunlin, 5-Wandering Tattler, 6-Bartailed Godwit, 7-Arctic Tern, 8-Sandhill Crane, 9-Brant, 10-Smith's Longspur, 11-American Golden Plover, 12-Tundra Swan, 13-Semipalmated Sandpiper.

These are just two examples of the incredible migrations performed on earth every year.  What could possibly motivate these animals to do this?  Well, the exact reasons are slightly different for every migrating animal, but a unifying theme can be found in the video below.  This is a video of "Net Primary Production", which is essentially a measure of the growth of plants.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Why Fire is Cool - entry #4 - Ancient Energy Unleasher

When you heat a can of beans on a campfire, you are transforming the chemical energy contained in the firewood into thermal energy (heat).  As you are in your tent drifting off to sleep and the bean-induced-fart-chorus begins, you may ask yourself where the energy in that firewood came from.  As with most energy sources, the answer is that it came from the sun!  That firewood was once a tree that was merrily pursuing its life's purpose of fashioning itself a body out of carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight, in a process known as photosynthesis.
Photosynthesis requires an energy source (sunlight), therefore the products of photosynthesis (wood, etc) can be thought to contain that photosynthesized energy.  When you burn firewood, you are essentially running photosynthesis in reverse, releasing the energy from the sun that the tree went through so much trouble to absorb.
So, fire is cool because it allows us to unleash energy from the sun in small amounts, whenever we please, regardless of when that energy first arrived on earth.  In the case of firewood, that energy arrived anywhere from a few years to a few thousand years ago, depending on how long the tree had lived.
The Llangernyw Yew, a 4,000-5,000 year old tree.
This same concept applies to anything else we burn, even fossil fuels, which is where things get crazy.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Why Fire is Cool - entry #3 - Ash Ash Baby

When sitting around a campfire I almost always find myself silently staring, mesmerized by the smoldering ashes.  Once I snap out of it, instead of re-joining the conversation with my campfire pals  I often start taking pictures of the ashes.  Though it doesn't live up to the awesomeness of the moment, here is one (notice backlit marshmallow in foreground):

Before we discover the amazing things humans have done with ash, let's figure out what the hell ash is and why red-hot ashes look so awesome.  Once you burn away all of the combustible molecules in wood, the only things left behind (around 1% of the original unburned weight) are the non-combustible nutrients the tree used in order to stay alive.  Ash contains nutrients like calcium (~30% of the ash), potassium (~10% of the ash), and sodium ions (~1% of the ash) along with other metal and non-metal ions (reference).  It is partly these metal ions that make red-hot ashes look so awesome.  As you heat up metal ions in a fire, their electrons will gain energy then lose energy, in a process that results in the emission of light.  Each metal emits light of a specific wavelength, and if you take any substance containing metal ions and put it in a flame you will see this light (this is known as a flame test).

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Why Fire is Cool - entry #2 - How Charcoal Changed the World

Entry #2 in my "why fire is cool" list starts with a brief introduction to charcoal and ends with humanity being changed forever.  It was around the time that I was waiting for the kebabs in the picture below to come off the grill that I learned what charcoal is, and that excited just about as many neurons in my brain as did eating the savory kebabs.