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Vodka for your post-apocalypse wingding

It's made from Chernobyl water and rye. What could possibly go wrong?

Image source: Chernobyl Spirits Company/lux3000/Shutterstock/Big Think
  • 33 years later, parts of the exclusion zone may be ready to be reclaimed.
  • The beverage similar to Ukrainian vodka will soon be available.
  • Raise a glass to the renewable Earth.

This just-announced grain spirit is called "ATOMIK," an excellent name given its source. It's made from water and rye from the Chernobyl exclusion zone in the Ukraine. This is an area surrounding the ill-fated nuclear plant that's considered so radioactive that no one is supposed to live there. It's currently a wildlife refuge in which visible mutations are less common than one might expect. Environmental scientist Jim Smith of the University of Portsmouth and his colleagues are making a statement by introducing their beverage: Some areas we've ruined can recover given enough time. The same point could be made for the effect of climate change — eventually, the Earth will survive. It's less clear that we will.

What’s it taste like?

Image source: Chernobyl Spirits Company

There's only one bottle of ATOMIK so far, but the company producing it, Chernobyl Spirits Company, expects to distill 500 of them by the end of the year. The liquor is said to have a fruity taste and work well in a martini. As a grain spirit, ATOMIK is a bit more flavorful than commercially produced vodka. The company is shooting for a more refined version of samagon, a homemade vodka brewed since the 12th century in the villages of Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, and Russia, using either potatoes or grains.

Checking the label

Image source: Chernobyl Spirits Company

The Chernobyl disaster threw into the air upwards of 100 radioactive elements. Some of it, such as highly carcinogenic iodine-131, has a short half-life, and is long gone. Other dangerous isotopes last for far longer and are still present. Strontium-90 and cesium-137 have just about reached their half life date, and so remain at about 50% potency. Others, like plutonium-239, with a half life of 24,000 years, aren't going anywhere.

Still, swaths of the exclusion zone are much like anywhere else, at least in terms of radioactivity — their plants and animals may still contain genetic surprises. As Smith teold IFL Science, "Natural radiation worldwide varies — if you're living at high altitudes, you get more cosmic radiation. For most of the exclusion zone, the doses that you would get living there are within that range of variability of radiation doses worldwide." Some areas immediately around the ex-power plant remain uninhabitable. The "Red Forest" is still unsuitable for a picnic, for example.

The water in ATOMIK is mineral water from a deep aquifer about 10 km south of Chernobyl which the company believes is located too far down to have become contaminated: "We're currently trying to work out exactly how many thousands of years old this water is, but it definitely wasn't anywhere near the surface in 1986." They describe it as being pure and of high quality, similar to the waters of the limestone aquifer beneath the Champagne region in France, as well as the south of England.

The rye in ATOMIK was harvested from the main exclusion zone and was tested for the presence of radiocaesium. The isotope was present in levels well below the conservative Urainium maximum. The levels of radiostrontium, however, exceeded the legal limit. Nonetheless, when the final grain spirit was tested, no radioactivity at all was found in the beverage.

What's the point?

Some current residents of the Chernobyl exclusion zone

Image source: Chernobyl Spirits Company

Chernobyl Sprits company has a larger message than simply creating a provocative new refreshment. The want authorities to reconsider the exclusion zone now that so much time has passed since the Chernobyl meltdown:

More than thirty years after the accident, we believe that what these areas need most is economic development and management of the unique wildlife resource the abandoned areas represent.

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

Gear
  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
  • The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
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Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

A homeless man faces Wall Street

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
  • It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
  • The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
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