To Sit Or Not to Sit . . . Or to Sit.

The online science publication Ars Technica came out with a piece today entitled, “The new study suggesting sitting will kill you is kind of a raging dumpster fire.”  The title alone fills me with glee!  Debunking science!  Using “kind of” in the title!  And, it’s OK to sit again!!!!

In truth, the study today’s article alludes to completely freaked me out.  It had me googling “treadmill desks” and envisioning doing squats during nighttime TV watching.  But the sun has come out today — the Ars Technica authors poke enough holes in this study to put me back on good terms with our couch.

The particulars on the beef the authors have with the original study, which appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine:

  1. The study was funded in part by Coca-Cola.  The authors find fault with this saying that rather than focus on unhealthy consumption, Coca-Cola funds studies like these to shift the conversation to focusing on unhealthy behaviors.  Personally, this doesn’t bother me that much.  I feel like most people interested in heath — i.e., the people who are interested in these studies — already know drinking sugared sodas isn’t a great choice.  The “conversation shift” certainly won’t lead me to begin chugging sugared soda after a workout.
  2. The study didn’t actually measure sitting.  OK, getting warmer.  Researchers did not rely on subjects’ reports of sitting times, as these are notoriously error prone.  So, they used something called an Actical accelerometer, mounted to one’s hip, which tracks the amount of oxygen a person uses in various activities.  Unfortunately, it cannot distinguish between sitting and standing.  Or lying down and light movement.  So, in this study, working at a standup desk is lumped into regular old sitting.  As the authors point out, nuance is severely lacking here.
  3. The study demographics are problematic.  A bunch of people dropped out early, leaving the more sedentary participants to complete the study which lasted a week only.  Also, the more sedentary groups in the study were on average ten years older than the least sedentary groups.
  4. Statistical challenges.  Once the data were in, the researchers broke the participants into four groups, those who:
    1. rarely “sat” (or did something else of low intensity), and when they did, “sat” in short bursts
    2. rarely “sat”, and when they did, “sat” for long durations
    3. “sat” frequently, in short bursts
    4. “sat” frequently, for long durations

The numbers of participants in the middle groups, as well as mortality rates, were      not high enough to permit any statistically significant conclusions on the effects of sitting in short or long bouts.  The researchers themselves cap off the study with a statement on the difficulty of drawing any conclusions due to issues with statistical significance.

The problem is that while this disclaimer appears in the actual research paper, how many of us read that?  Rather, we tend to read the news summaries, which are often based off of summaries like this, which appears in Science Daily.  And according to this summary,

“A new study founds that sitting around for 12 or more hours per day, particularly if accumulated during 60- to 90-minute periods, increased the risk of early death — even in those who exercised.”

With no mention of the above limitations.  So a big thank you to Ars Technica for probing deeper!

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No really, have a seat.

 

Green Roofs

Last night Eric and I went to an Empiricist League event — one of regular nerdy dates.  The Empiricist League describes itself as “a creative community for those who believe in evidence, observation, and experiment”.  In other words, science.  A few times a year, the Empiricist League holds an event with 3 speakers focusing on some aspect of science, at an area bar.  Last night we funneled end-of-the-week alcohol at Union Hall while learning about “The History of the Future: Steampunk, Spacesuits, and Beyond”.

Wythe Marshall (Harvard grad student in History of Science dept) opened the night with a talk on “Cities of Futures Past: Strange historical visions of the urban future”.  He spoke about early visions of green space in city planning, and then posted a striking photo of a colossal green roof which made me wonder where I’ve been — I had no idea this was happening on Randall’s Island!

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Wythe Marschall talking about Cities of Futures Past.

The Five Boroughs Green Roof is a green roof on top of the headquarters of the Five Borough Technical Services Division of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation.  The idea was conceived in 2007.  The before and after photo is striking.

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from nycgovparks.org

At 29,000 square feet, it is the 5th largest green roof in NYC.  (What are the other four?)  I don’t really understand why every roof isn’t green, because the benefits seem so obvious.  I wonder, what are the disadvantages, if any? What specs does a building need to have in place before the roof goes green?  Can anyone recommend a great green roof book/primer?

Dad, One. Frizz, Zero.

It’s back-to-school time . . . and many of us begin thinking of apples, plaid, backpacks, sharp pencils, and smooth, combed out hair.

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This is not my baby.  This is the first time I am using a stock photo! 

But what if your kid’s hair is plagued by frizz?  And in fact, the more you comb it, the frizzier it gets?  This happened to one Dad, Biogeochemistry PhD Boyce Clark.  His daughter’s daily battle with frizz pushed him to first research frizz, and then start his own company fighting it.

After experimenting in the kitchen for nine months, Boyce Clark started Lubricity Labs, a company that makes anti-frizz hair products.  According to the company’s About page, the products

“are all made from naturally-derived ingredients, ultra-gentle cleansers and the highest quality bio-compatible proteins. They are vegan, GMO-free, paraben-free, sulfate-free, and cruelty-free — if you don’t count the hundreds of hair washes my daughter had before we had the Eureka moment.”

The two-step anti-frizz regimen changes the structure of hair, smoothing out irregularities that make hair permeable to moisture and result in frizz.  The treatment takes about 30 minutes, and is needed only once or twice a year.

Clark says it changed their morning routine, eliminating the typical 20 minutes of arguments and crying.  Um . . . if only we could end the tantrums here through anti-frizz hair products!

Note 1: I am not affiliated with Lubricity Labs. 

Note 2: A big thank you to Tomoko for sending an article on this my way!

Water to Whiskey

During my McKinsey consultant days, I would often frequent hotel bars in the evenings, hoping at least to take the edge off, at most to meet the cast of the next blockbuster movie.  (You see, one of the consultants I idolized had met the entire cast of Ocean’s 12 at the Amsterdam Four Seasons hotel bar, so I was gunning for my chance, though doubtful I’d find them at places like the Westin hotel bar in Princeton, New Jersey, where I was stationed).

I elevated my taste from my graduate school Jameson to the slew of single malts I could now afford . . . with Lagavulin and Oban as my favorites.  (As I write this, I’m salivating, but it’s only 4 PM! Must make it until the kids are in bed.)  Another consultant taught me to add just the tiniest amount — about 1/2 of a standard straw — of water to my scotch, and revel in the torrent of scents and flavors unleashed.

I’ve always wondered about this significant before- and after-water difference with scotch tasting.  Could it have something to do with hydrogen bonding?  But my inquiry joined the long list of Things to Look Up Someday, until last week, when I saw this headline in the Washington Post: “The best way to drink whiskey, according to science.”

Björn Karlsson and Ran Friedman from the Linnaeus University Centre for Biomaterials Chemistry in Sweden (of course), undertook computer simulations, modeling the molecular composition of whiskey, to investigate why water made it taste better.  The results were published here in Nature last week.

In the Linnaeus University news article, Karlsson explains the taste of whiskey is linked to molecules with a “water-loving” (hydrophilic) and “water-hating” (hydrophobic) part (soap and mustard have these features as well, fyi), such as guaiacol, a compound that forms when the malt grain is dried over peat smoke during whiskey production.

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Figure 1 from Karlsson’s and Friedman’s paper, an image of 2-methoxy-phenol, aka guaiacol.  The OH part on the bottom is water loving, since water is also made from H (hydrogen) and O (oxygen).

 

The scientists studied simulations of a water/ethanol mixture in the presence of guaiacol, and determined that in mixtures containing 45% or less ethanol, the guaiacol was more likely to be found at the liquid-air interface, rather than deep in the liquid.  The presence of majority water seems to “release” that flavor compound.

Now, when whiskey is bottled, it is typically already diluted with water so the mixture is 40% ethanol.  The authors suggest the few additional drops of water added just before consumption must further enhance the release of the flavor compounds to the surface.

In the wake of the eclipse, I’ve seen a number of people on social media taking their hats off to SCIENCE.  I think this study is almost as important!

 

“Someone is Eating the Sun”, and other Eclipse things . . .

The Great American Solar Eclipse is nearly upon us.  On Monday, August 21, a swath of “totality” (complete coverage of sun by moon) will stretch from South Carolina in the South up to Oregon in the West, with all of North America, and some parts of South America, Europe, and Africa in partial eclipse viewing range.  

Total solar eclipses occur about every 18 months, when the Earth, moon, and sun align perfectly and the moon blocks out the sun’s rays.  Most of these eclipses are visible from only some place out in the ocean, making Monday’s land-based viewing opportunity all the more special.

We’ve been reading a few books on the eclipse at home, even though I’m not sure we trust BRK with eclipse glasses and may just wait until the 2024 eclipse, with a path of totality stretching from Texas to Maine, to make this a full family experience.

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BRK has fallen in love with “Someone is Eating the Sun”, a lovely picture book published in 1974 by Ruth Sonneborn and illustrated by Eric Gurney.  Several farm animals conclude someone is taking bites of the sun, as it takes on its crescent shape during an eclipse.  A wise turtle explains it is merely an eclipse, and after totality, the animals are relieved the sun has returned.  We also read Eddie’s Eclipse, published this year, by Becky Newsom and Pam Tucker and illustrated by Pam Tucker.  BRK is a bit young for this book and I had to severely live edit as we moved through the pages.  The book had a clear, bright diagram of an eclipse that was helpful in explaining to BRK what an eclipse is.

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A page from Eddie’s Eclipse

Meanwhile, Eric and I attended a Solar Eclipse class at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, taught by Joe Patterson, a professor of Physics at Columbia University.

On the first night, he shared a compelling story he wrote about his experience of totality in 1970, during an eclipse in Virginia Beach.  He shared his skepticism that totality would be “worth it”, as he had already experienced a 90% solar eclipse.  He writes:

“As late as 1:30 PM, at about 96%, there was just no hint of the drama yet to come.  I started looking through my binoculars with about 1.5 minutes to go, when Cal warned, “It’s coming fast now.”  At about 15 seconds before totality, he yelled, “Joe — the fringes!”, and I turned to see light and dark bans moving across the sand at 5 mph.  The bands were 2 – 4 inches wide.  I don’t recall if the light bands were any lighter than the sand before the fringes appeared — it would have been very difficult to to tell anyway since the light intensity was changing very rapidly now.  I watched the fringes for a few seconds, yelling, “The fringes! There they are! The fringes!” or something like that.  Then I ripped off one filter and looked back at the Sun.  In a few seconds the diamond ring effect appeared, the last burst of light from the photosphere.  Then Bailey’s Beads flashed into view, and I lowered the binoculars to rip the last filter off.  I had been lying down to view it comfortably, but by this time I was standing up, though I don’t remember getting up.  In my haste to remove the filter I lost my balance and fell, and in a kneeling position I glanced up to see the corona.  All this took at most three seconds, so the corona must have appeared very suddenly.  I looked around me and saw — if that’s the word — the darkness that had enveloped everything.  I heard myself yelling incoherently, “My God! It’s incredible! Fantastic!” and so on.  I heard Bill yelling similar things and I think I heard Cal, but I had no awareness that anyone else was present — except that I clearly recall wondering why nobody else was reacting to the spectacle, so I must have been aware of their presence.  Later Bill and Cal told me that everyone had reacted with the the same hysteria . . . “

Joe also shared with us Annie Dillard’s account of her experience with the 1979 total solar eclipse.  She wrote:

“I had seen a partial eclipse in 1970.  A partial eclipse is very interesting.  It bears almost no relation to a total eclipse.  Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him, or as flying an airplane does to falling out an airplane.”

(How badly do you wish you were going to totality? If you aren’t going to make it for this one, make your 2024 plans now!)

 

Beyond the awe and spectacle, eclipses also generate discoveries.  Science magazine did a great piece on what past eclipses have helped us learn.  For example, around 150 BC, a Greek astronomer named Hipparchus of Nicaea used a solar eclipse to calculate the distance from the Earth to the moon.

Finally, there have been some reports of faulty viewing glasses.  If you are in doubt about yours, you can check your brand here.  If you find yourself without protective glasses, here’s a cool workaround from Neil deGrasse Tyson involving a colander.

Happy Eclipse Viewing!

How Many Kids Could Pee in the Sprinkler?

 

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Me and BRK at the pool at Grammie’s retirement community. Neither of us peed in it.

A few weeks ago BRK and I met up with another mom friend and her son at the park.  It was a hot day.  The kids played in the sprinkler setup — a 400-square-foot area with small sprinklers, large sprinklers, jets, fountains, even a rotatable water cannon.  The mom and I chatted, and watched.

“Mommy I have to use the potty!” Every mom knows those words, and I think every mom hopes it’s not her kid (unless, of course, one is engaged in potty-training).

It was BRK, and, as if scripted, I forgot to pack the portable potty.  Our toilet options were to go back home, a 10-minute walk and then an elevator ride up to the 14th floor, or a public bathroom a 15-minute walk away.  I wasn’t up for either of these options, especially with Baby Owl in tow.

“BRK,” I crouched down, “you know what? You can just go in the sprinkler.”

She looked up at me, unsure.

“Really, you can just go in your bathing suit, in the sprinkler, it’s fine.”

This is the chemist in me speaking.  I’m looking at the volumes of water gushing in this park, and thinking about the volume of a three-year-old pee event, and doing the dilution math.

Don’t worry, readers — my mom friend discouraged this.  “No, no, no,” she said, “don’t do that.”

I then felt self-conscious, realizing that not everyone sees the world as a collection of molecules, where the identity doesn’t matter as much as the dose.

She volunteered to keep an eye on Owl while I took BRK to the bushes behind the park and led her through her first squat.

I relayed this story to Eric the next night, and he asked mischievously, “The real question is, how many kids would it take to pee in the sprinkler before it’s contaminated?”

I’ve been tossing this question around in my mind, and so was delighted when some related calculations appeared in an article the WSJ last week.  The article is entitled, “Is That Pool Really Sanitary? New Chemical Approach Has Answers.

The article opens with a disturbing picture, stating that an artificial sweetener (acesulfame potassium) has been found in oddly high concentrations in Canadian swimming pools.  How did it get there? Pee.  The sweetener isn’t broken down in the body, and so is excreted through urine, and, when someone pees in a pool, into the pool.  Turns out acesulfame potassium is a star indicator of the prevalence of pool peeing.  Researchers were able to estimate that 0.01% of total pool volume studied (31 pools and hot tubs in recreational facilities and hotels in Canada) was contaminated by urine.  To put it a different way, about a half-teaspoon for every one hundred cups of water.  It’s nice to have some data on this, even if from only 31 Canadian pools, and moreover, to have a method.

The article then takes a darker turn, pointing out it’s not urine that should concern us, but feces.  The authors state:

“At any time, Dr. Hlavsa said, adults have about 0.14 grams of poop on their bottoms and children have as much as 10 grams.  ‘When you’re talking about bigger water parks with 1,000 children in a given day, you’re now talking about 10 kilograms or 22 pounds of poop.’ “

Pause for gagging.

This number definitely had an impact on me.  While my adult-onset swing nausea likely already ruled out future flume rides, this statement was the final nail in the coffin.

Coming back to the pools — researchers are concerned because since chlorine reacts with urine, less of it becomes available where needed: to disinfect poop that contains bacteria that can actually make one sick.

The article concludes with some best practices for pool use I am likely to follow. 1) The smell test.  Chlorinated pools give off a strong odor when urine is present, reacting with the chlorine.  A pool free from urine, and thus with chlorine able to do its job, should not smell.  2) Everyone should “shower for about one minute before swimming to remove personal care products and traces of feces.”

While this article did not answer my question on how many kids can pee in the sprinkler, it certainly got me thinking.  The feces bit becomes especially disturbing when we are talking sprinklers — is the sprinkler water chemically treated for that kind of contamination?

Here’s wishing you happy and human-waste-free summer water fun!

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.