Those Popping Rocks! (Part I)

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Pop Rocks attached to a stopper and inserted into a water-filled eudiometer

The AP Chemistry exam is over.  The students are breathing a sigh of relief and depending on whether they are a junior or senior, are putting the commensurate amount of effort into their end-of-year independent projects.  (See my own SKYKU).  Actually, even the seniors seem to be doing some impressive work.  Those projects include studying the decaffeination process, measuring the amount of fructose in soda, AND, determining how much carbon dioxide is liberated from a package of Pop Rocks!

If you have never had a package of Pop Rocks, order one immediately from Amazon.  Or better yet, make a trip to your local vintage candy shop.  The fizzing sensation on your tongue is not to be missed.  And what is all that bubbling and cracking?  Carbon dioxide escaping from these sugar rocks.

Two of the seniors knew early on they wanted to study Pop Rocks.  They leveraged an earlier lab we did to produce and measure hydrogen gas, in which a eudiometer (a very narrow tube with one end sealed with a holed stopped) is used to collect gas via water displacement.  Precise volumes of gas can be measured this way.  Today they began their first trial.  Tuesday morning we shall see the results!

I have always been curious about how Pop Rocks were made, but simply added that question to my never-ending list of “things to look up”.  Thankfully that can be removed from the list, as one of the seniors sent me this article, from the Molecular Gastronomy Network.

I had always assumed pop rocks were some combination of sugar and baking soda.  This is not the case!  Instead, the sugar is melted and then cooled “in the presence of” carbon dioxide.  I wonder how that works, exactly.  What equipment is used?  Is it difficult?  When the Pop Rocks dissolve on your tongue, the carbon dioxide is liberated.  Do Pop Rocks have a short lifetime?  Do additional steps need to be taken to ensure the carbon dioxide doesn’t leak?  These are the questions running through my mind.

Like nearly every brilliant invention, Pop Rocks came about by accident.  According to the article, in 1956 a food chemist attempting to make a powdered soda found a way to make sugar pop.  I guess Pop Rocks provide a kind of highly concentrated soda experience.  The accidental popping sugar was sold as Pop Rocks candy in 1976.

In Part 2, I will share the students’ results on how much carbon dioxide is in these candies! Spoiler Alert: It’s probably not contributing to climate change.

 

Blogging Blahs and Alternative Medicine

I’m in the blogging blahs.  Which is odd because I love this blog and I love learning that people are reading and enjoying it.  I think I’m more in the Everything blahs.  I am so tired!  Owl is sleeping but BRK is not (insert creepy photo of toddler standing by my bed at 4 AM).  And so, I am tired.  And we are at that 6-month mark with Owl which is kind of its own sigh of relief — I’m feeling some of that postpartum mania relax away and grant space to the fatigue.

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Used to be able to write at 5 AM “before everyone woke up” except now people wake up at 4.

(I did ask BRK last night to please stay in her room when she wakes up.  To please not come into our room and wake me up.  And she said, “Well, what if I’m really quiet?” and I said “No, I really don’t want you to come into our room in the middle of the night.” And then she said, softly, “But . . . sometimes I just want to see you.”  This is what they do.  They wear you down and then they say something like that and all you want to do is snuggle them forever.)

I’m going to do a little post today even though I am tired and blah-feeling.  And try to get back to regular Tuesday and Friday posts.

Have you tried acupuncture?  I have.  And I really like it.  So I was intrigued by a recent article in Popular Science about the efficacy of acupuncture and more broadly, what it takes for alternative medicine to cross the threshold to mainstream medicine.  The article sums up a recent study that set out to determine if acupuncture “really works”.  Patients with carpal tunnel syndrome were divided into three groups.  Group 1 received acupuncture at the site of the pain.  Group 2 received acupuncture at distal sites, sites that are allegedly energetically connected to the painful sites.  And Group 3 received what sounds like needles inserted willy-nilly.

All three groups reported amelioration of symptoms, in the form of, “I feel better.”  Huh.  Here’s where it gets cool, and why doing this with carpal tunnel syndrome was key.  Unlike most painful conditions for which improvement is judged by a person saying they feel better, carpal tunnel syndrome can be objectively measured by observing the rate of impulse transmission across a particular nerve.  When this was measured, only the groups that received actual acupuncture, (Groups 1 and 2) showed improvement.  And the improvement was the greatest for Group 1, the group receiving acupuncture at the site of pain.

The article goes on to discuss placebos in general, and how willy-nilly acupuncture is still a physical intervention, and so not quite as placebo-y as a sugar pill.  The article cites other examples involving knee pain in which physical interventions (debridement, arthroscopic lavage) are done because patients report improvement in pain, even though these interventions are often short-lived and far from cures.

My favorite part of the article comes next.  The author states:

“. . . despite the fact that there wasn’t any evidence that they actually worked, the surgical procedures were routinely done because patients reported feeling better. Ironically, that is the exact opposite of the stance that we take with acupuncture—even though it’s less invasive.”

Here is an example of alternative medicine being held to a higher standard than traditional, mainstream medicine.  And should it be?  I’m not sure.  Probably? Maybe? No? I don’t know.  But it’s certainly interesting to think and talk about.  And important if we are talking insurance coverage and all that real stuff.  Because, as the author goes onto to say, despite a 2002 study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine showing that debridement, arthroscopic lavage, and “sham surgery” (making a cut, doing nothing, and then sewing it back up) all resulted in an equal reduction in pain, the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) lists both debridement and arthroscopic lavage as “recommended therapies” for knee osteoarthritis.  I wonder what US doctors recommend and insurers cover.

Probably not relevant in the case of the knee interventions, but with acupuncture, I wonder about the benefits of simply taking a nap!  Because that’s what you do.  Someone sticks needles in you and you get all warm and cozy and take a nap.  Maybe just the indulgence of a nap during the day has some real benefits.  Ahhhh.  A nap during the day . . . . .

The Evolutionary Wisdom of “I Don’t Like Vegetables”

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Approximately 25% of this meal was consumed. The vegetables were left in entirety.

BRK is always telling me she doesn’t like vegetables.  “Is it a vegetable?” is always the question when presented with a new food.  I now totally, TOTALLY get why my parents told me liver was “chocolate steak”, especially when they had two other kids at home to feed and were definitely not about to make two dinners or take any short-order cook requests.

BRK wasn’t always a fussy eater, and she’s still not too terrible.  But since she used to run, screaming into the kitchen with glee, at the sound of the blender, yelling “FISH YOGURT!!!!” (we’d mix canned salmon and plain yogurt), her incredibly shrinking palate is frustrating.

A fellow teacher at school — a biology teacher — has a daughter born on the same day as BRK and was telling me there was some evolutionary wisdom in kid food aversions.  So I was primed with interest when my mother-in-law sent me the following article:

“It’s Not Just Human Toddlers That Are Fussy Eaters”

The author describes the omnivore’s dilemma — the idea that in order to survive, our ancestors had to sample a wide variety of foods, but that some of these foods, especially plants in the tropics, could have contained poisonous toxins.  The author goes on to say that while at age 1 a child should generally be willing to eat whatever a parent provides, by age 2, a child’s behavior reflects the independence of a foraging child tens of thousands of years ago.  And that child’s odds of survival were much higher if that child was wary of plants, the notorious “vegetables” my daughter no longer likes.  The author goes on to say:

“Adults have mature biological systems for dealing with toxins in their food.  Eating the wrong plant might lead to an unpleasant stomach upset, but probably will not threaten their lives.  But in general, youngsters lack those systems, so eating the wrong thing at this age could result in death.   It would make sense for the omnivore’s dilemma to be at its most acute in toddlers — and almost non-existent in infants” (emphasis mine)

It’s a fascinating article loaded with studies and data in support of these points.  Two other notable parts:

1) According to the Utah Poison Control Center, the leading cause of poisoning among 6- to 18-month olds is eating houseplants.

2) Other species, such as gorillas and rats show a similar trend to what is observed in human toddlers: food aversions appear not in infancy, but later.

The author offers an alternative explanation for all of this.  It’s not that toddlers become picky eaters, Nicola Marples of Trinity College in Dublin says, but it’s that picky eaters in general make up most of the vertebrate population, whether we are talking about fish or quails or humans.  Such “dietary conservatism” should be advantageous to a population over time, but for maximum evolutionary fitness, a smaller proportion of the population should be composed of more “adventurous consumers”.  Marples thinks it may be advantageous for populations to contain both DCs and ACs.

Whatever the reason, it’s comforting to hear how “normal” it is for a baby who ate everything to suddenly gravitate toward to a smaller array of somewhat less healthy foods in toddlerhood.  And the next time someone tells me their 13-month old loves sautéed ramps with garlic, I would like to text them a picture of BRK eating raw onions and lemons as a baby with the message, “Just wait.”

In Defense of Chemicals

Look at all the chemicals in this . . . lemon?

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Poster by James Kennedy

Sometimes chemicals get a bad rap.  But they’re in everything.   There’s no escape.  I love this poster on the all-natural lemon by James Kennedy, one of many he has made highlighting the long, chemical-laden list of ingredients in fruits.

He has a recent post I’m highlighting here, about Ava Winery and its synthetic wine.  The scientist vintners at Ava are attempting to re-create some of the world’s most celebrating wines not with grapes and fermentation tanks, but with an ingredient list, chemicals, and a bunch of lab equipment.

James writes:

The wines your great-grandchildren might one day drink on Mars will soon be coming to a bottle near you. Ava Winery is a San Francisco-based startup creating wines molecule by molecule, without the need for grapes or fermentation. With complete control over the chemical profile of the product, Ava’s wines can be created safely, sustainably, and affordably, joining the food technology revolution in creating the foods of the future.

The future is here, and I can’t wait to order a bottle of synthetic wine!

 

Sometimes science is confusing. (Part I)

Tonight my husband texted me this photo, from ScienceDaily (read the first two headlines):

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I was amused.

“Sometimes science is confusing”, I texted back.

After all, it’s often difficult to compare two different studies testing the same variable, due to differing parameters like sample size, dose, subject profiles, etc.  I thought about how science headlines often become so distilled we lose the meaty complexity that made the story a headline in the first place.

And then I went to Science Daily and realized these headlines referred TO THE EXACT SAME STUDY.

The study is entitled, “Effect of Vitamin D and Calcium Supplementation on Cancer Incidence in Older Women”, and was published today in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The JAMA abstract states that:

“in this randomized clinical trial of 2303 healthy postmenopausal women with a mean baseline serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D level of 32.8 ng/mL, supplementation with vitamin D3 and calcium compared with placebo did not significantly reduce the incidence of all-type cancer over 4 years of follow-up.”

The ScienceDaily summary also presents this conclusion, and goes on to explain that after four years of supplementing a treatment group with vitamin D and calcium, and monitoring a placebo group, there was no statistically significant difference in cancer diagnoses between the treatment and placebo groups.  3.89% of individuals in the treatment group received a cancer diagnosis over the four years, compared with 5.58 % in the placebo group.  As prior evidence suggests low vitamin D levels may increase the risk of cancer, the summary states the authors of the study suggest higher baseline vitamin D levels in the subjects, as compared with the U.S. population, as one reason for the lack of statistically significant results.

The summary underneath the next ScienceDaily headline, again, ON THE SAME STUDY, states that supplementing with vitamin D and calcium may lower risk for developing cancer, and states that “women who were given vitamin D3 and calcium supplements had 30% lower risk of cancer.”  The summary then goes on to state that, “this difference in cancer incidence rates between groups did not quite reach statistical significance,” but, that “in further analyses, blood levels of vitamin D, specifically 25-hydroxyvitamin D (25(OH)D), were significantly lower in women who developed cancer during the study than in those who remained healthy.”

Hmph.

The second summary goes on to state that one of the researchers said the study suggested that higher levels of vitamin D are are associated with lower cancer risk.

This additional claim is not made in the JAMA summary, which feels surprising as it’s the kind of result you’d think the research community would want to tout.  In addition, this second summary is actually a press release put out by the university where the study was conducted.

My question: when were the further analyses done?  As part of this study?  In a separate study?  My inquiring mind wants to know.  So, I will be reading the ACTUAL STUDY this week and getting to the bottom of it.

STAY TUNED.

 

Two Science Things

I read two science stories last night.

One was about BBC journalists frantically racing down Mount Etna, scalding rocks from an eruption at their heels.  I was astounded.  “Didn’t they know it was going to erupt?” I thought.

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BBC image of the flight from Mt Etna

As the caption in the above picture explains, something called a phreatic explosion was responsible for yesterday’s surprising attack of nature.  From the BBC article, it sounds as though it wasn’t the lava flow of this very active volcano that took people by surprise, but its interaction with the thick snow cover.  Did the magma sublime the snow to steam so fast as to cause an explosion?  That’s my reasoning based on reading this one article.

It certainly will lead me to think twice before touring a volcano at some date in the future.  I have always wanted to, and this will not deter me, but will likely lead me to study volcanoes in more detail and research the competence of the guides, etc, on whatever volcano I choose to explore.

The next story I found via slashdot had the following headline: “Astronomers Just Found a Star Orbiting A Black Hole at 1 Percent the Speed of Light”.  I’m no astrophysicist, but I teach 9th grade high school physics from time to time.  I don’t know enough to completely understand the story, but here, I was actually most struck by the comments.  (I know, I know, never read the comments). They ranged from disinterest to ignorant to hateful.  I’m still puzzled over how this hardcore physical science headline conjured so much emotion.  These negative comments were to the tune of, “Science research like this is a waste of time because my life isn’t impacted by this discovery.”  I was discouraged by this myopia.  First, I think, our lives could be impacted by this more than we can know, and second, are we in the business of only caring about things that impact us directly?

Hopefully these comments were by a few trolls and don’t represent more than a blip.  But my takeaway is that I would like to beef up my own knowledge base of the many discoveries in science that seemed irrelevant or impractical at the time and went on to have huge impacts, and push myself to step outside of my daily concerns and interests to appreciate the ideas and concepts on my periphery.  To read a poem to simply appreciate it.  To take out an old-fashioned dictionary and find a random word and learn it.  To try and understand an article about a star orbiting a blackhole.  I wonder, is research on phreatic eruptions more important, more relevant than research on blackholes?  Is the act of couching it in those terms limiting?

I guess this makes me also think about how much of science is actually art.  Things rarely proceed in a practical step 1, step 2 manner with no circuitous meanderings, no backtracking, no drawing from philosophy or language or geography.  For example, the chemist Friedrich Kekule was inspired by an image of a snake seizing its own tail when he proposed the structure for the chemical benzene.  What if he had dismissed all thoughts of non-chemical things as nonsense and irrelevant?

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From the wikipedia entry on “Benzene”

I want to have a well-crafted answer the next time I hear someone ask why we should care about something that doesn’t seem to alter our day-to-day existence, when that someone is not merely an internet troll in the Comments.