Facts of the Weeks
The Facts of the Week are interesting tidbits of information gathered and compiled using various informative sources online. The Facts were researched and written by Gary Wang, unless otherwise noted.

#53: Snap crackle pop (Little Bang theory)

To some, it's a soothing way to loosen up. To others, it's like nails on a chalkboard. For the Despite the common phrase "cracking joints", the popping sounds that result from bodily and digital contortions are not caused by breaking bones or ligaments. All joints in the body are surrounded by a thick protective lubricating fluid called synovial fluid. Gases (mainly carbon dioxide) naturally get dissolved in this synovial fluid. When the joints are stretched, the pressure in the synovial fluid decreases, causing small bubbles of gas to form (a process known as cavitation). The greater the distortion, the lower the pressure in the synovial fluid, and the larger and more numerous the bubbles. When the bubbles become large enough, they burst with a pop, causing the sound associated with joint cracking. Although it is generally accepted that cracking joints doesn't cause arthritis, over-extension of the joints can cause the ligaments to over-stretch. This stretching can result in the swollen appearance of joints, and in some cases joint damage due to torn ligaments. After a joint is "cracked", it takes about 20-30 minutes for gas to redissolve into the synovial fluid, which is why it may be difficult to repeatedly crack the same joint.
Posted on Mar 30, 2007

#52: Ooh, pretty... cough cough

Red tide, also known as an algal bloom, is an aquatic phenomenon in which dinoflagellates, microscopic single-celled algae, multiply and accumulate rapidly in bodies of water. This rapid growth can forming dense, visible patches near the surface of the water, causing the water to appear discolored due to pigments that are produced by the dinoflagellates. Tho most frequent discoloration seen in marine algal blooms is red or brown, hence the name "red tide". In some cases, the algal bloom is composed of bioluminescent algae, which at night-time can create an unusual light show. Although most algal blooms are not dangerous to humans, certain species of dinoflagellates produce toxins that can cause various harmful effects on humans, depending on the route of exposure. When these algae are broken apart due to the rough waters [not conclusively proven as the mechanism for toxin release], the toxins can be released into the water which then becomes aerosolized in the sea spray. Inhalation of the toxins (most commonly brevetoxins) cause respiratory illness and some neurological disorders. Ingestion of the toxins that have bioaccumulated in shellfish and other filterfeeders results in more severe effects in humans, as a result of the disruption of sodium (Na+) channels on nerve cells. In Neurotoxic Shellfish Poisoning (NSP), brevetoxins depolarize the voltage-gated Na+ ion channels, causing uncontrolled influx of Na+ ions into the cell. Some of the symptoms of NSP include (reversible) respiratory distress, dizziness, and tunnel vision. Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP) is most commonly caused by saxitoxin, which inhibits the temporary permeability of Na+ ions by binding tightly to a receptor site near the sodium channel. This results in a muting of the transmission of nerve impulses, with symptoms ranging from tingling and numbness to complete paralysis and death from respiratory failure.
Posted on Feb 28, 2007

#51: Osmosis Beads

Diapers, those absorbent garments that most young children and some very old people wear, have not been around for that long. Disposable diapers were invented just in the 1940s, using cotton and cellulose gauze as the absorbent material. In the 1960s type of pulp byproduct was used as the absorbent material, making it much more affordable. In the 1980s diaper manufacturers began using a new water-absorbent polymer beads. Sodium polyacrylate is this highly hydrophyllic polymer, composed of repeating units with the formula -CH2-CH(COO - Na+)-. The sodium polyacrylate polymer is formed into a bead, which can absorb water by osmosis. As long as the concentration of sodium ions inside the bead is greater than the concentration outside, water flows in. The polymer, normally coiled tightly, expands and swells up, becoming gel-like as water is absorbed. When enough pressure is placed on the hydrated beads, the water can get squeezed out like a sponge - this is why diapers can leak. Superabsorbent polymers are also used in other applications, including gardening, expanding sponge toys, and even special effects.
Posted on Feb 12, 2007

#50: Hairy Legs

Walking on water is not all that miraculous for the insects known as water striders. These small insects zip around easily on the surface of water at speeds of up to 1.5 m/s, using their middle legs to propel themselves forward by creating vortices near the surface of the water. These small surface voritices absorb the backward momentum transfer necessary for the water strider to be propelled forward. The unique feature that makes this possible is found on the water striders' legs. Initially it was believed that a waxy secretion allowed their legs to repel water and float on the surface. However, recent research has shown that the insect's ability to float on water and to propel itself is due to its extremely hairy legs. The insects' legs are covered in several layers of microscopic hairs, called setae, with diameters of less than 3 micrometers (for comparison, human hairs are approximately 80-100 micrometers wide). These hairs also have grooves that measure nanometers wide. Air trapped between the hairs and in the nanogrooves form essentially an air bubble, which prevents the water strider's legs from getting wet. In fact, this air cushion so effectively repels water that each leg can support 15 times the total body weight of the insect. With six legs, this means you could pile 90 water striders on water, and they still won't get wet. Talk about hydrophobic!
Posted on Feb 3, 2007

#49: Hang Loose

Death by hanging as a form of capital punishment (judicial hanging) originated over 3000 years ago*, and remains a legal form of execution in many countries around the world. There are four main forms of judicial hanging. The "short drop" was the universal form of hanging until around 1850, in which the executee is suspended by their body weight, allowing the noose to tighten gradually. Death results by strangulation or cardiac arrest. In suspension hanging, the victim is raised upward by some mechanical system instead of being dropped. In some cases the force of the upward jerk was so forceful that the neck was broken. The "standard drop" was introduced around the mid-19th century, and involved a fall of around 4-6 feet (1.2-1.8 meters). It was thought that the shock from such a fall would either knock the subject unconscious, or cause their neck to break. Occasionaly there were decapitations when the drop was too long, or conscious struggles to the death when the drop was too short. An "improvement" on this method came in 1872, when William Marwood introduced the "long drop" as a scientifically calculated way of giving the prisoner a humane death. The dropping distance for the long drop was calculated according to the prisoner's weight, and was designed to exert just enough force to break the prisoner's neck. The method of calculating the drop distance for the long drop has been through a few corrections. The most recently published version of the Official Table of Drops (1913), is still used in some countries to calculate the most effective height for the long drop.
Posted on Jan 18, 2007

#48: Live Long and Make Rubber

Vulcanization (no, this is not about Star Trek) is a proccess in which rubber is strengthened by treatment with sulfur. Rubber is a naturally occurring hydrocarbon polymer composed primarily of isopropene units. During the process of vulcanization, also known as curing, the rubber is treated with sulfur and other accelerating or retarding agents to control the process. Along the rubber molecule, there are a number of sites, known as cure sites, that can react to the sulfur atoms. At each cure site, one or more sulfur atoms attach themselves. The sulfur chain then grows until it reaches a cure site on another rubber molecule. These sulfur crosslinks strengthen the rubber, and the length of the crosslinks give the resulting rubber various properties. These sulfur crosslinks differ from the disulfide bonds found in proteins, as the rubber sulfur crosslinks can be up to ten atoms long, whereas the disulfide bond contain only two sulfur atoms. Shorter crosslinks between the rubber molecules give good heat resistance, while longer crosslinks give the rubber very good dynamic properties (high flexibility). Charles Goodyear is often credited as the inventor of the vulcanization process, but it is now known that ancient Mesoamericans achieved the same process in 1600 BC. Although vulcanization is generally an irreversible process, scientists have researched the process of devulcanization, so that vulcanized rubber waste, such as tires, can be more widely recycled. Currently, there are technologies that claim to reverse the vulcanization process. However, further research is underway to determine the toxicity of the by-products formed in these processes.
Posted on Jan 8, 2007

#47: Let it Snow

Snow is formed when water vapor high in the atmosphere undergoes deposition (the opposite of sublimation), as water vapor is converted directly to ice in the low-pressure low-temperature atmosphere. The snow that falls from the sky is generally composed of numerous snowflakes that clump together as they fall. Although there are numerous snowflake shapes, they typically exhibit six-sided symmetry, due to the hexagonal crystal structure of "ordinary ice" (known as ice Ih). With the right temperature and humidity, these crystals form into intricate patterns that show significant branching of the symmetrical arms. The cause for these complex formations is the immediate environment of the water molecules that form the crystal. As the crystal grows, its growing arms experience varying degrees of resistance from the surrounding air. This resistance forces water vapor to be deposited at certain locations on the forming flake, thus causing the intricate designs. The symmetry results from the fact that the property of the air surrounding the ice crystal is essentially uniform around each arm, so each arm experiences the same degree of resistance as the snowflake takes shape.

Although it is widely believed that no two snowflakes are alike, there is no scientific law to prevent it from happening. The less intricate the design - for example a simple hexagon shape - the more likely the possibility of two crystals being identical. Larger, more intricate snowflakes are all (almost) always different - a very small "almost".

Happy Winter!
Posted on Dec 25, 2006

#46: Fish, MD

A trip to a Turkish bath may involve strange practices like whipping the body with a branchful leaves. Even stranger remedies can be found in the town of Kangal. This Turkish town is famous for its outdoor spas that offer a unique treatment for psoriasis. Psoriasis is an immune-mediated disease of the skin and joints, generally caused by excessive production of skin cells. In Kangal, the spas are inhabited by doctor fish, a species of omnivorous fish that are commonly found in the river basins of parts of the Middle East. As the waters of the spa soften the psoriasis plaques, these doctor fish feed on the dead cells of these plaques, leaving healthy skin to grow. Although there is not a lot of research on this phenomenon, there are some theories as to how this can treat psoriasis. The most important factor seems to be the very high levels of selenium in the spa water. However, due to the toxicity of selenium in high doses, the water is probably not safe to consume.
Psoriasis Fish Cure
Naftalan - (another interesting alternative treatment)
Posted on Dec 8, 2006

#45: Let's Make Drugs

(Part of this fact revisits Fact #6: "This Aspirin is Giving Me a Headache" )

Aspirin is the commercial name for acetylsalicylic acid, originally trademarked by the Bayer company of Germany. The name "Aspirin" is composed of the "a-" (from the acetyl group) "-spir-" (from the latin name of meadowsweet, spiraea ulmaria, the plant from which salicylic acid was isolated), and "-in" (a common ending for drugs at the time). Prior to the discovery and mass-production of aspirin, salicylic acid (isolated from meadowsweet) was used as an analgesic but numerous negative side-effects, including gastric bleeding, diarrhea, and death, made its use unfavorable. Felix Hoffmann, a researcher for Bayer, found that treatment of salicylic acid with acetic anhydride yielded a product that had the desirable analgesic effects of salicylic acid without the negative side effects. Hoffmann convinced Bayer to market this new drug. Acetylsalicylic acid became the first fully synthetic drug, and thus began the pharmaceutical industry. Eleven days after discovreng Aspirin, Hoffmann synthesized diacetylmorphine, more commonly known as heroin, using a method similar to the synthesis of Aspirin. Alongside aspirin, heroin was also marketed by the Bayer company as a painkiller/medicine. Heroin, so named because users of this medicine felt "heroic", was initially the more successful of the two painkillers but quickly disappeared from the medical arena after its highly addictive property became known. Ironically, heroin was marketed as a non-addictive substitute for morphine, and a cough medicine for children(!).
Posted on Nov 25, 2006

#44: Gelatinous Blobs

The primary ingredient in Jell-O and many other gelatinous foodstuffs is gelatin, which is essentially processed collagen. Collagen is the most abundant protein in mammals, and is the structural protein found in skin, bones, cartilage, and connective tissue. Its molecular structure consists of three long polypeptide strands that are each curled into left-handed helices. These three strands in turn twist together to form a right-handed coil (triple helix) held tightly together by numerous hydrogen bonds. The primary structure of collagen (and of gelatin) is a regularly repeating pattern of amino acid residues of mostly glycine, proline, and 4-hydroxyproline. When collagen, or the similarly structured gelatin, is heated in water, the three polypeptide strands separate into random coils that dissolve in the water. Upon cooling, the polypeptide strands begin to reassemble into their previously tightly coiled structure. However, the water molecules that have attached themselves to the polypeptides prevent the triple helix from forming as neatly as before, causing gaps to form where water molecules are trapped in the helix. These gaps in the helical associations cause the molecules of gelatin to stick together only loosely, giving gelatinous foods their characteristic jiggly or flexible property.
Posted on Nov 19, 2006

#43: Why, You're Glowing!

Many marine organisms, as well as some plants and insects, emit light through a chemical reaction during which chemical energy is converted to light energy. This phenomenon, known as bioluminescence, is the result of an enzyme-catalyzed chemical reaction. The substrate, of which there are several forms, is generically called luciferin (from the Latin lucifer, "light-bringing"). It is oxidized, with the help of the enzyme luciferase to form oxyluciferin + light. The generation of this light is extremely efficient, converting nearly all of the chemical energy used in the reaction to light. Compare this to the common incandescent light bulb, in which 95% of the consumed energy is lost as heat. Fluorescent bulbs fare just a little better, with an efficiency of about 20%. Imagine the savings in electricity if humans could glow!

Interesting side-fact: Following the suggestion of Benjamin Franklin, bioluminescent mushrooms were used as light in an early one-man submarine, in place of candles which would have hastened the consumption of precious oxygen.
Posted on Nov 5, 2006

#42: Crunch on This

The potato chip was invented in 1853 by chef George Crum in Saratoga Springs. One customer repeatedly sent his fried potatoes back to the kitchen, complaining that they were too thick and soggy. Crum, hoping to annoy this fussy customer, sliced the potatoes so thin that they could not be eaten with a fork. Against Crum's expectations, the grumbling customer was ecstatic with the new chips. Crum then added the chips to his menu calling them "Saratoga Chips". Eventually, potato chips gained popularity beyond restarurant fare and grew into mass-production. Today, potato chips are packaged in airtight plastic bags, with nitrogen blown in prior to sealing to lengthen shelf life and to protect against crushing.
Posted on Oct 24, 2006

#41: The Mad Hatter -- Poisoned!

The Mad Hatter is one of the fantastically eccentric and surreal character from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Although the fictional Hatter is entertaining and strangely amusing, one explanation for the origin of his name is based in history.

The 1700's saw a boom in the popularity of felt hats. One hat manufacturer discovered a new way of making felt fur, through a process called carroting. The fur was first treated with a solution of mercury nitrate, then boiled or steamed to help shape the felt. The felt hat factory workers experienced an unfortunate side-effect of this process - the inevitable inhalation and absorption of large amounts of mercury. Consequently, the mercury-poisoned hat makers trembled and stumbled through the streets, exhibiting the neurotoxic effects of mercury that were (at that time) easily mistaken for drunkennes and insanity.
Posted on Oct 13, 2006

#40: Get Naked in Zero Seconds Flat

Lightning is the natuaral electrostatic discharge produced during a thunderstorm. Storm clouds become charged due to the movement of the water droplets that make up the cloud. The water droplets may become polarized as they fall through the earth's natural electric field, or they may collide and cause electrons to get knocked off. (There are also other theories that explain how a cloud gets charged.) Whatever the mechanism, the cloud becomes like a charged capacitor, and forms an electric field between it and the ground (or other clouds). When the electric field becomes strong enough, lightning is generated through the electric discharge between the cloud and ground. An average bolt of lightning carries a current of 30 - 50kA (kiloamperes) = 30000A - 50000A. Compare this to a "stun gun", in which the amperage is usually around 3mA (miliamps) = 0.003A. (Lethal current is considered to be somewhere above 100mA.) There have been numerous reports of people who survived a lightning strike. There are, of course, numerous other reports of deaths by lighning. There have even been reported incidents of a person's shoes and clothes flying off as a result of being struck by lightning. When lightning strikes, sweat between the clothes and the skin can vaporize and expand very rapidly, causing the clothes to explode off the body. -- Instant nudity!
Posted on Oct 7, 2006

#39: A Man You Can Count On

The Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri)is the largest of all the living penguin species, and they are the only ones that breed in the winter in Antarctica. Each year, Emperor Penguins travel over 90km inland to reach the breeeding site. After the female lays her 450g (1 lb) egg, her nutritional reserves are depleted and she must return to the sea to feed. The egg is transfered to the male penguin, who incubates the egg in his special brood pouch for over 60 days consecutively, without food, in the near-complete darkness of the Antarctican winter. To combat the extreme cold, which can be well below -40°, the male penguins huddle together to stay warm, taking turns in the middle of the huddle. Once the chick hatches the male feeds it with a milky substance produced by a special gland in his esophagus. When the mother returns, she finds her mate among the hundreds of fathers by recognizing his calls and takes over caring for the chick. The male takes his turn feeding at sea, returning after a few weeks to continue caring for the chick with his mate. By the end of this process, the male penguin will have gone without food for more than 4 months to care for the penguin chick.
Posted on Sep 29, 2006

#38: Raffinose. Do you know?

Beans, beans, good for your heart; the more you eat them, the more you fart. You may laugh, but it is true. Beans contain types of sugars (complex carbohydrates such as raffinose) that cannot be digested by humans. We simply do not possess the enzyme (alpha-galactosidase) necessary to break down these sugars. The sugars pass undigested into the lower intestine, where they are consumed by gas-producing bacteria. The bacteria use the sugars for energy, making various gases as by-products, leading to the malodorous flatulence that is commonly associated with eating beans.

Recent investigations by Venezuelan researchers at the Simon Bolivar University in Caracas uncovered a solution to this anti-social problem. They discovered that (black) beans could be fermented with the bacteria Lactobacillus casei to help not only break down these indigestible sugars, but also increases the amount of insoluble fibers that promote good digestion. So next time you go to Mama Mexico's, check your farts at the door!
Posted on Sep 22, 2006

#37: Born With Argyria In Your Mouth

"Born with a silver spoon in his/her mouth" is commonly thought of as an expression for family wealth, but another equally likely explanation states that it is an expression of good health, citing the alleged healing and anti-disease benefits of silver. Since the 18th century, silver has been used as an antibacterial agent. Apparently, babies fed with silver spoons were healthier than other babies. Today, there is not as much wide-spread interest in using silver as a cure-all, as a result of the invention of antibiotics. The use of silver (colloidal silver) as a homeopathic remedy remains of intrest to practitioners of alternative medicine. Though ingesting silver is generally harmless, prolonged exposure to silver (ingested or inhaled) can cause the silver to accumulate in the skin. Upon exposure to sunlight, the silver oxidizes, causing the skin to turn a bluish color in a condition known as argyria. The discoloration is permanent and irreversible, but it is not otherwise harmful. One of the most prominent cases of argyria was Stan Jones, a candidate for the US Senate in 2002. He began consuming colloidal silver in 1999, out of fear that the Y2K problem would bring about a shortage of antibiotics. His blue-tinted skin became a central punchline during his unsuccessful campaign.
Silver Institute: Medical uses of silver
Wikipedia: Argyria
Posted on Sep 15, 2006

#36: ...And This Is My Boom Stick

The first manmade object to break the sound barrier is the tip of a bull whip, whose cracking sound is actually a miniature sonic boom. The tip, which is sometimes called a "popper" or "cracker", can be made to move at about 740 meters/second, which is over twice the speed of sound (343 m/s). When an object moves through the air at faster-than-sound speeds, the pressure waves it creates become compressed, resulting in a single shock wave that travels at the normal speed of sound. When these shock waves are created by a large object, such as an airplane, the sheer power of the booms can break glass and other materials.
Posted on Sep 8, 2006

#35: The Real "Jaws"

Ants have powerful jaws for being such small creatures. One ant in particular, the trap-jaw ant (Odontomachus bauri) can shut its jaws at a top speed of 233 km/h. Compare this to the speed of a blinking eye, which is approximately 100 m/h (note the lack of "k"). This ant can propel itself out of danger by snapping its jaws against the ground, causing the ant to leap approximately 8 cm high. Proportionately speaking, that's like a human of average height jumping up 13 meters. The trap-jaw ant has a special locking mechanism that it releases to allow the jaws to snap shut very fast.
Posted on Sep 1, 2006

#34: Frog This

Frogs are fascinating creatures. Besides being extremely useful in research (including cloning, embryology, development), they are extremely adaptable, and are capable of living in almost any environment, cold or hot, wet or dry. Numerous adaptations help the frogs survive predation and harsh environments. Frogs have excellent hearing, and to protect their sensitive ears, frogs have a natural noise-cancellation system to block the sound of its loud calls. Some frogs secrete deadly poisons from their skin, some of which are being studied for medicinal uses. Some frogs are able to hibernate at sub-zero temperatures for extended periods, due to their ability to control freezing to prevent tissue damage. Some deviously lazy frogs even trick unsuspecting female frogs into raising their abandoned young.
Posted on Aug 25, 2006

#33: Is It Hot In Here?

The hottest temperature ever measured was recorded on September 13, 1922. El Azizia in Libya recorded a temperature of 136°F (57.8°C). Death Valley in California holds the record for the highest temperature ever recorded in the USA. A temperature of 134°F (56.7°C), was recorded on July 10, 1913.
Posted on May 7, 2006

#32: Reibadailty

Aoccdrnig to smoe rscheearch, it deosnt mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.
Posted on Apr 30, 2006

#31: It's All Your Fault

Geologic faults are planar rock fractures which show evidence of relative movement. Some, though not all, faults occur at tectonic plate boundaries, where two adjacent pieces of the Earth's crust are moving relative to each other. Earthquakes are caused by energy release due to rapid slippage at these active fault zones. Faults are classified by the type of motion exhibited. A strike-slip fault is one whose motion (sense of slip) is horizontal. Strike-slip faults are further categorized by the direction of relative motion. The San Andreas Fault in California is an example of a right-lateral strike-slip fault. In this case the apparent motion is to the right; objects on the opposite side of the fault appear to move to the right. The west side of the San Andreas Fault is moving northward, drifting as much as 2 inches per year. At that rate, Los Angeles will be a suburb of San Francisco in about 15 million years.
Posted on Apr 23, 2006

#30: Hollow Birds

The bird skeleton is highly adapted to these animals' capacity for flight. It is extremely lightweight, but strong enough to withstand the stresses that a bird experiences when taking off, flying and landing. Birds have many bones that are hollow, with criss-crossing struts or trusses (cross walls) for structural strength. (Some flightless birds like penguins have only solid bones, however). The number of hollow bones varies from species to species, though large gliding and soaring birds tend to have the most.
Posted on Apr 16, 2006

#29: Bodyprinting

Before the arrival of iris scanning and speech recognition technology, biometrics was somewhat crude, although quite effective. In the late 1800's Alphonse Bertillon created a method of identifying criminals by taking specific measurements of their body: height, length, and breadth of the head, the length of different fingers, the length of forearms, etc. This system of biometrics (called anthropometry or bertillonage) was based on the claim that the measurements of adult bones do not change after the age of 20. Because of the dimensional nature of the data, it was easy to categorize and then locate a person by their features. Bertillonage quickly gained popularity and became the primary method of identifying repeat offenders. Its success was cut short, however, when identical measurements were obtained for two different individuals at the Fort Leavenworth prison in 1903. Although bertillonage is said to be accurate at 286 435 456 to 1, human error in taking and reading measurements greatly reduced its accuracy. The prison switched to finger printing the following day and the rest of the world soon followed, abandoning bertillonage forever.
Posted on Apr 9, 2006

#28: In the Presence of Greatness

The Cathedral Church of St.John the Divine is the largest Gothic Cathedral in the world. Located just around the corner on 112th Street and Amsterdam, it is about the size of two football fields. Construction of the cathedral began on December 27, 1892, St. John's Day. Construction continues in various phases and levels of productivity to this day. In 1979, Mayor Ed Koch quiped during a dedication ceremony, "I am told that some of the great cathedrals took over five hundred years to build. But I would like to remind you that we are only in our first hundred years."
Posted on Apr 2, 2006

#27: Noisy sand

"Listening to sand move" sounds more interesting than it sounds. A well-documented and scientifically recorded phenomenon that occurs in certain areas of deserts is that of booming sand dunes. With the right kind of sand dune, sand avalanches - whether natural or induced - produce audible vibrations akin to a steady low-frequency musical tone. Sand dunes that produce these tones have strict requirements, including a dry layer of uniformly round sand particles over a denser, moist layer of compacted sand. The acoustical vibrations are induced by the many particles of sand bouncing down the slope of the sand dune. These vibrations travel through the upper dry layer to the lower dense layer several feet below, where they are reflected back to the surface, which could explain the low frequency of the sounds. The lower moisture-containing layer acts as a sounding board for the sand dune, amplifying the signal to an audible level. During large avalanches, the roaring sound can be heard many miles away.
Posted on Mar 26, 2006

#26: Poison or Antidote?

Atropa belladonna is one of the poisonous species of plants in the Nightshade family. Belladonna is one of the most toxic plants found in the Western hemisphere, as ingestion of its leaves can be fatal to an adult. (Interestingly, tomatos, tobacco, and chile peppers are also in the Nightshade family.) Its toxicity is due to the presence of several tropane alkaloids, which act on the nervous system. One of the most recognized of these compounds is atropine, an extract of Atropa belladonna. Atropine behaves as a competitive antagonist to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine (ACh) by binding to the ACh receptor. This decreases activity in the parasympathetic nervous system, and also causes muscle paralysis.

Among the therapeutic uses for atropine is its use as an antidote for organophosphate poisoning. In normal neurochemical signaling, acetylcholinesterase (AChE) breaks down ACh after ACh binds to its receptor. Organophosphate nerve agents destroy or inactivate AChE. This causing ACh build-up, resulting in continuous signalling, which cause uncontrollable muscle contractions throughout the body. Atropine negates the effects of nerve agents by preventing ACh from binding to its receptor.
Posted on Mar 19, 2006

#25: Unfactful

Fact of the Week is taking the week off.
If you're bored and hungry for facts, check out the list of previous facts.
Happy Spring Break!
Posted on Mar 11, 2006

#24: Silly Stuff

Last month we examined thixotropy, the property of one kind of Non-Newtonian fluid. Silly Putty is another such substance, categorized as a viscoelastic material, which is one that exhibits both viscous and elastic properties. It is also sometimes characterized as a dilatant substance, which is one whose viscosity increases with the rate of shear force. Silly Putty was created by a GE researcher when he accidentally mixed boric acid and silicone oil. The result was a substance that nobody could find a use for, except as a toy. The boron cross-links between the polymer chains give Silly Putty its special characteristics. Today, Silly Putty and similar substances are used for stress-reduction and physical therapy. Astronauts on the Apollo 8 mission also found a use for it in securing tools in zero-gravity.
Posted on Mar 3, 2006

#23: The Real Undead

Selaginella lepidophylla is one of many species of plants known as "Resurrection Plants" that live mainly in arid regions like Arizona and Mexico. As the name suggests, these plants are able to seemingly come back to life. During long periods of dehydration, the resurrection plants dry up like any other plant, but curl up into a tight ball. This reduces the plant's surface area, preventing the loss of what little moisture is left. In addition to the dramatic physical change, the plant's metabolic functions are reduced to a bare minimum. What was previously a thriving green plant turns into a lifeless ball. These resurrection plants can remain in this hibernation state for over 50 years, which is probably how they have survived for so long. In moist environments the plant's cells rapidly absorb water, causing the plant to unfold visibly. Metabolism returns to normal, and the plant lives once again.

Aside from being a very cool plant, researchers have been examining ways to isolate the genes that give these plants their unique adaptability in the hopes of protecting other plants, such as rice, from periods of drought.
Posted on Feb 25, 2006

#22: Rinse, Repeat, Remember

"Repetition helps you remember" is something we've all heard. Repeatedly. Here's how it works. When memories are first encoded in the brain, they are consolidated into some part of the brain. The location varies depending on the type of memory involved. Without this initial consolidation ("learning"), the memory would not last long as it is in an unstable, sensitive state at first. Retrieval of the memory by either recall or repetition of the stimulus would cause the memory to become temporarily labile again, and must be reconsolidated or forgotten. Research suggests that reconsolidation strengthens the memory, and that older memories - ones that have been repeatedly reconsolidated - have a stronger presence in the mind. So be proud that you go to both Bio lectures regularly!
Posted on Feb 18, 2006

#21: Love Junkies

(Submitted by Noelle Bates )

When we fall in love, our palms sweat, we can stutter and become breathless, we can't think clearly and it feels like we have butterflies in our stomachs. This is all due to surging brain chemicals called monoamines. They are called dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. Norepinephrine and serotonin excite us, while dopamine makes us feel happy. These love chemicals are controlled by a substance which is also found in chocolate and in strawberries, called PEA or phenylethylamine and it is PEA which controls the transition from lust to love. Similar in structure to amphetamine, PEA too gives us that excitement we crave. Indeed, some people become veritable love junkies. They need a constant love high and go through life in a series of short relationships which crumble when the initial chemical rush wanes. The love junky has another problem too. We naturally build up a tolerance to these chemicals eventually, so it takes more and more to produce that much sought after high. Love junkies, if they stay married, are likely to seek frequent affairs to fuel their need for the chemical love high.
Posted on Feb 14, 2006

#20: Through Thick and Thin

A thixotropic substance is one of several Non-Newtonian fluids, in which viscosity changes depending on the applied shear force. Thixotropy is the property of a fluid that has time-dependent viscosity, where the apparent viscosity decreases with duration of stress. This means that the substance is fluid while in motion, but turns into a thick gel at rest. One example of a thixotropic fluid is ketchup. When ketchup is at rest, it is rather thick and does not come out of the bottle easily. However, after being agitated (shaken or stirred) the ketchup becomes less viscous and flows out of the bottle easier.
Posted on Feb 4, 2006

#19: Turning A Blind Eye

During normal vision, your eyes make small, quick jumps as you take in a scene. Rather than analyzing one large image, the brain and eyes coordinate to patch together interesting point-images to create a sense of the whole. These quick movements, known as saccades or saccadic eye movements, are point-to-point jumps that your eyes make as they flit about when you look at something - for example, a face. During these saccades, light continues to enter the eye, creating a blurred image on the retina. Instead of expending its resources on processing this high-noise input, the brain simply ignores any visual signal from the time moment before the saccade until just after the movement is complete. This means that when your eyeball is in motion, you see nothing.

This phonemenon can be best experienced by looking in a mirror. Look at your left eye in a mirror about 6 inches away. Then quickly switch your gaze to your other eye. You can feel your eyes moving, and other people can see them move, but because of saccadic masking, your brain temporarily blinds you while your eyes are in motion. The brain is so good at what it does that you are tricked into believing that no motion ever took place to begin with.
Posted on Jan 27, 2006

#18: Here comes the Legionnaire

(Submitted by Maritza Rosales )

Legiannaire's Disease was first discovered in 1976 among a group of elderly men attending an American Legion Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Turns out that the rod-shaped, gram-negative, aerobic, bacterium Legionella pneumophila live in non-marine still water and have complex nutritional requirements like rust, algae, and organic particles. So a bird bath, for example, might be a great place for these suckers to grow. The bacterium can colonize in your lungs if you respirate it. But you're only likely to get sick if you're male, a smoker or immune compromised. Interestingly, the Columbia Genome Center used it as a model organism and completed the sequencing of the bacterium's DNA sequence.
Posted on Jan 23, 2006

#17: Mean Onion

As onions are sliced, cells are broken open. Onion cells have two sections, one with enzymes called alliinases, the other with sulfides (amino acid sulfoxides). The enzymes break down the sulfides and generate sulfenic acids. Sulfenic acid is unstable and decomposes into a volatile gas called syn-propanethial-S-oxide. The gas then dissipates through the air and eventually reaches one's eye, where it will react with the water to form a mild solution of sulfuric acid. The sulfuric acid irritates the nerve endings in the eyes, making them sting. The tear glands then produce tears in response to this irritation, to dilute and flush out the irritant.

For additional fun, check out these strange Onion Laws.
Posted on Jan 15, 2006

#16: The Real Giant Microbe

Bacteria are single-celled organisms that fulfill various functions, some of which are beneficial, some that are harmful. Most bacteria are small, usually measuring 0.5µm - 5µm wide. However, two of the largest bacteria are visibe to the unaided eye. Epulopiscium fishelsoni is a giant rod-shaped bacterium that can grow to as large as 80 µm in diameter and between 200 and 700 µm in length. However, the honor of largest bacterium in the world currently goes to Thiomargarita Namibiensis, a ball-shaped bacterium that can grow up to 1mm (1000µm) in diameter. That's wider than the lead in most mechanical pencils!
Posted on Jan 10, 2006

#15: Santa Who?

He is known throughout the world, by various names; Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas, St. Nick, and Pere Noel. The original Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, was born in Turkey in the 4th century. He was very pious from an early age, devoting his life to Christianity. He became widely known for his generosity for the poor. But the Romans held him in contempt. He was imprisoned and tortured. But when Constantine became emperor of Rome, he allowed Nicholas to go free. Constantine became a Christian and convened the Council of Nicaea in 325. Nicholas was a delegate to the council. He is especially noted for his love of children and for his generosity. He is the patron saint of sailors, Sicily, Greece, and Russia. He is also, of course, the patron saint of children. The Dutch kept the legend of St. Nicholas alive. In 16th century Holland, Dutch children would place their wooden shoes by the hearth in hopes that they would be filled with a treat. The Dutch spelled St. Nicholas as Sint Nikolaas, which became corrupted to Sinterklaas, and finally, in Anglican, to Santa Claus. In 1822, Clement C. Moore composed his famous poem, "A Visit from St. Nick," which was later published as "The Night Before Christmas." Moore is credited with creating the modern image of Santa Claus as a jolly fat man in a red suit.

(Read more about Santa at: Wikipedia, rcn.com, St. Nicholas Center, Lone Star)
Happy Holidays!
Posted on Dec 22, 2005

#14: Mmmm.. Maggots

Maggot therapy has been around since theh 19th century. During the Napoleonic wars, doctors found that soldiers healed better when their wounds were infested with maggots. The treatment became popular, then fell out of favor as advanced is antibiotics and modern surgery took over. However, some very reputable doctors still use these parasites to clean out dead tissue from bedsores, gangrene, leg ulcers, and stubborn infections.

(More about maggot therapy)
Fact or Crap Desk Calendar (Saturday, 2005-12-3)
Posted on Dec 17, 2005

#13: Diagnosis Doll

In ancient China, doctors were forbidden in the name of propriety to see their female patients naked. To circumvent this prohibition, doctors on house calls brought with them a small ivory carving of a woman's naked body. This carving was passed into the curtained bedchamber of the ailing woman along with instructions on how to mark the troubled organs. The statue was then handed out through the curtains and the doctor made his Diagnosis on the basis of the markings.
Posted on Dec 11, 2005

#12: Headbanger

(Submitted by Dempsey Hughes )

Right after a person suffers a potentially serious head injury, those around him often try to force him to stay awake, assuming that being awake will lower the risk of a coma, or worse. But experts say that like most old wives' tales that belief is rooted in a misconception stemming from a phenomenon known as the lucid interval. During this lucid interval a person seems coherent shortly after being knocked out but later slips into a coma and dies.
A recent study in the journal Pediatrics looked at 314 children in Pennsylvania who were examined after suffering head injuries that later turned fatal. It found that only 2 percent had been declared lucid by doctors before they died. Five of those six, the researchers found, were infants whose skills were probably not developed enough to be assessed accurately.
The bottom line: Unconsciousness is serious, but trying to keep a person with a serious head injury awake does not help.
NY Times
Posted on Dec 3, 2005

#11: Sleepy Turkey?

After a big Thanksgiving dinner, tryptophan is often named as the culprit for causing the post-banquet drowsiness. Tryptophan is the key ingredient in making serotonin, one of the key brain chemicals involved in regulating mood. Among other functions, serotonin promotes feelings of calm, relaxation, and sleepiness.

Contrary to popular belief however, turkey does not contain substantially higher amounts of tryptophan than other protein sources. In fact, there aren't any foods that are especially high in tryptophan relative to other amino acids. The reason for the post-turkey torpor is this:"Eating a large meal will have a sedative effect."

(See sources for more interesting information!)
Posted on Nov 24, 2005

#10: Silly Turkey

At one time, the turkey and the bald eagle were each considered as the national symbol of America. Benjamin Franklin was one of those who argued passionately on behalf of the turkey. Franklin felt the turkey, although "vain and silly", was a better choice than the bald eagle, whom he felt was "a coward".

Posted on Nov 20, 2005

#9: Live Long And Prosper Suck Blood

A flea might live a year and a half under ideal conditions. These include the right temperature, food supply, and humidity. Generally speaking, though, an adult flea only lives for 2 or 3 months. Without a host for food, a flea's life might be as short as a few days. But with ample food supply, the adult flea will often live up to 100 days.

(See link for related sites!)
Posted on Nov 10, 2005

#8: That's Cold!

In 1966 the mean annual temperature in Plateau Station, Antarctica, was -70F. If a lightly clothed person were to stand outside in this temperature he or she would freeze to death in approximately 60 seconds.
Posted on Nov 2, 2005

#7: Algebraic Alphabet

François Viète, a 16th century mathematician devised the use of vowels in the place of unknowns and consonants for constants in 1591. That's right - he's the one who first used X and Y and tried to make them equal Z. He's also the man responsible for tying algebraic expressions to other math fields, including geometry and trigonometry. He popularized the term "coefficient," and was one of the first to pen laws concerning nasty things like cosines and tangents and other things you've spent the rest of your life trying to forget.

In addition to his legendary status as a mathematician, Viète was also a crack code-breaker. During the war between France and Spain from 1695-98, he was employed by King Henry IV to decode messages sent by the Spanish to their allies in the Netherlands.
Posted on Oct 18, 2005

#6: This Aspirin is giving me a headache

The name "aspirin" is composed of the "a-" (from the acetyl group) "-spir-" (from spiraea ulmaria, the plant from which salicylic acid was isolated), and "-in" (a common ending for drugs at the time).
Posted on Oct 9, 2005

#5: You can live without your spleen (Part 2).

Runners in ancient Greece believed that the Spleen was a hindrance to endurance and long-distance running. Consequently they had a vast pharmacopoeia, of herbal concoctions especially designed to shrink this vital organ. One popular Spleen-shrinker was a beverage made from a plant of the genus Equisetum. The drink was mixed with a variety of herbs and taken for three days before a race. According to contemporary witnesses, it proved enormously helpful in promoting endurance (whether it shrank the spleen we do not know). Hippocrates, the famous Greek physician, mentioned a certain mushroom that, when burned over the area of the spleen, melted the organ completely.
Posted on Sep 25, 2005

#4: Dimple Defect

Dimples are an inherited genetic flaw. They are caused by a fibrous band of tissue that connects the skin to an underlying bone. When the affected person smiles, the skin is stretched, and the tissue that is anchored to the bone pulls, leaving a visible dent, or dimple, in the outer flesh. The same principle applies to cleft chins, except that the pull on the skin is so tight that it puckers even in repose.
Posted on Sep 18, 2005

#3: Brainiac

The brain of an average adult male weighs 1,375 gm (55 oz). The brain of Russian novelist Turgenev weighed 2021 gm (81 oz), Bismark's weighed 1807 gm (72 oz), while that of French statesman Gambetta was only 1294 gm (51 oz). Einstein's brain was of average size.
Posted on Sep 10, 2005

#2: Bloody Amazing

In one year the average human heart circulates from 770,000 to 1.6 million gallons of blood through the body, enough fluid to fill 200 tank cars, each with a capacity of 8,000 gallons. That's 4000 gallons of blood each day. The heart creates enough pressure to squirt blood 30 feet (9 m). Blood travels 60,000 miles (96,540 km) per day on its journey through the body.

The average adult has around 10 pints (1.25 gal) of blood in their body. The Ketchua Indians of the Andes Mountains in South America have 2 to 3 more quarts of blood in their bodies than people who live at lower elevations.
Posted on Sep 1, 2005

#1: You can live without your spleen.

Although the spleen helps purify and store blood and create antibodies, many people have had their spleen removed due to automobile accidentsand sports injuries, the top two causes of ruptured spleen. After spleen removal, other organs usually increase their infection-fighting abilities to make up for the loss.
Fact or Crap Desk Calendar (Friday, 2005-9-9)
Posted on Aug 25, 2005

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