Everything is Made of Chemicals

Everything is Made of Chemicals

What contains more chemicals, apples or love hearts? If, like many people your instinctive response is "love hearts... of course", you might benefit from a new guide by the group Sense about Science, which debunks common myths about chemicals (you'll find the correct answer at the end of this blog post).  In the Sense about Science guide, we learn that "E-numbers" are simply chemicals approved for use in food; vinegar (acetic acid) for example is E260. The guide makes the case that: "sometimes we know less about the negative impacts of proposed alternatives than we do about the chemicals we wish to replace."


Take the following example:

“If someone came into your house and offered you a cocktail of butanol, iso amyl alcohol, hexanol, phenyl ethanol, tannin, benzyl alcohol, caffeine, geraniol, quercetin, 3-galloyl epicatchin, 3-galloyl epigallocatchin and inorganic salts, would you take it? It sounds pretty ghastly. If instead you were offered a cup of tea, you would probably take it. Tea is a complex mixture containing the above chemicals in concentrations that vary depending on where it is grown.” - Derek Lohmann, research chemist

The quote above is a parody of the following statement taken from the Greenpeace website: 

“If someone came into your house, mixed you a cocktail of unknown chemicals - and offered you a drink - would you take it? Of course not. You wouldn’t want untested chemicals in your home, your drink, or your body. You don’t want them - but shockingly - they’re already there.”

When it comes to food, in many cases what really matters is the dose:

"Doses of chemicals are often (measured) as “parts per million” (ppm) or “parts per billion” (ppb). One part per billion is equivalent to one grain of sugar in an Olympic swimming pool. Modern technology enables us to detect minuscule amounts of chemicals in our bodies, so minuscule they are measured on that tiny a scale. So, just because a chemical that in some large amount would be toxic can be detected in a person, that is not necessarily dangerous at all."

The document also looks at words that are often misused. The word "synthetic" simply means "made" whilst the word "artificial" also implies that a chemical does not occur naturally. Another word that get misused is the word "toxin" which does not mean "toxic chemical" but rather refers to toxic substances produced by a living organism such as bacteria.

The case made by Sense about Science isn't that every chemical is safe but that the word "natural" doesn't imply a chemical is healthy or safe, as is so often assumed. Nicotine and arsenic for example are both "natural" but are neither healthy nor safe. Sense about Science is raising money to send the poster below to schools to educate young people about the science of what we eat. To contribute to the campaign head over to Just Giving.

To keep up to date with this blog you can follow Neurobonkers on TwitterFacebookRSS or join the mailing list

Image Credit: Sense about Science

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Study helps explain why motivation to learn declines with age

Research suggests that aging affects a brain circuit critical for learning and decision-making.

Photo by Reinhart Julian on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

As people age, they often lose their motivation to learn new things or engage in everyday activities. In a study of mice, MIT neuroscientists have now identified a brain circuit that is critical for maintaining this kind of motivation.

Keep reading Show less

End gerrymandering? Here’s a radical solution

Why not just divide the United States in slices of equal population?

The contiguous U.S., horizontally divided into deciles (ten bands of equal population).

Image: u/curiouskip, reproduced with kind permission.
Strange Maps
  • Slicing up the country in 10 strips of equal population produces two bizarre maps.
  • Seattle is the biggest city in the emptiest longitudinal band, San Antonio rules the largest north-south slice.
  • Curiously, six cities are the 'capitals' of both their horizontal and vertical deciles.
Keep reading Show less
Surprising Science

Scientists discover why fish evolved limbs and left water

Researchers find a key clue to the evolution of bony fish and tetrapods.

Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast