What do Astronomers Eat for Breakfast the Morning their 10 Billion Dollar Telescope Launches into Space?


Hang on, science fans, this one is a nail-biter for sure.  The James Webb Space Telescope, currently set to launch (hopefully) on December 24th, 2021, represents billions of dollars of investment, 25 years in development, and the contributions of a massive team of scientists and engineers from all over the world.  The “Webb” is said to be the single most complicated science project that humans have ever attempted.  Should the Webb make it to space and function perfectly, however, it also has the biggest potential for discovery of any scientific instrument ever made.  We’re talking discovering-alien-life-forms-and-seeing-the-origins-of-our-universe BIG.  The complexity of the project can make the Webb seem intimidating, so this week we will do what High Touch High Tech does best — making the awesome science behind awesome things more accessible.  So, how does the Webb work?  Why is it so important?

The Webb Telescope: potentially the most profound science that science has ever scienced

This intimidating machine is already a work of engineering triumph.  First proposed in the late 1980’s, the Webb has been in the works for 25 years. It represents the life’s work of several scientists and engineers, all of whom will have the most stressful morning of their life when the telescope launches into space!  The Webb is different than the Hubble Telescope, which has brought many amazing revelations in its decades of service.  The Webb is specially designed to detect even the tiniest quantities of infrared light, not visible light as the Hubble does.  Engineers attest that the Webb can detect the infrared signature of a single bee on the moon as seen from earth. Creating a machine of this precision was a 25-year challenge, and the international efforts to create, test, and perfect it represent the very best of scientific endeavor.

This iconic image, captured by the Hubble, is known as “The Hubble Ultra Deep Field.” (Yes, those are ALL separate galaxies.)

An all-infrared telescope came with incredible design challenges.  For one, to detect distant infrared, it needed to be very large.  The mirror alone is 21 feet high, dwarfing the Hubble’s 8 foot mirror.  How to get such a large apparatus into space?  In a never-before-attempted design maneuver, The Webb team designed the huge telescope to fold up like origami so it could be packed into a rocket.  Once it is in space, the telescope will go through a 178-point sequence of unfolding itself!  Every single one of the 178 mechanisms must work perfectly, and so the efforts to ensure the Webb’s perfection went to great lengths.  Every mechanism was tested and retested using a series of counterbalances that replicate zero gravity.  A huge vacuum chamber was used to test the operation in the vacuum of space, AND the vacuum chamber was brought down to -400 F to test the machine’s operations at cryogenic temperatures.

The Webb’s primary mirror undergoing cryogenic testing

Why so cold?  As if flawlessly assembling itself in space wasn’t a big enough challenge, in order to be able to sense tiny amounts of infrared light, the telescope also has to operate at very, very, cold temperatures.  Although our eyes can’t see it, infrared is everywhere, and it gives off heat.  In order to sense tiny amounts of infrared in the distance, the telescope itself has to be heat-proof, or the instruments attached to it will only read the heat they are giving off.  This means the telescope will be operating a million miles from earth to escape the heat from the sun and the earth itself.  To keep it -400 F, it has been equipped with a series of 5 huge sunshields, each bigger than a tennis court and thinner than a human hair.  Only when the telescope is unfolded, in position a million miles from earth, and operating at -400 F will it be able to send its first images.

Webb scientists preparing the sunshades

What will it show us? For what the Webb could potentially reveal, 25 years of blood, sweat, and tears are entirely worth it.  Hang on to your seat, science fans, because this telescope is DESIGNED TO SEE THE EARLIEST LIGHT OF THE BIG BANG!!  13.5 billion years ago, the big bang produced the first light.  As the universe has expanded, that light has been travelling out at the edge of the expanding universe.  The light has been travelling so long that it has “redshifted,” or shifted to entirely infrared wavelengths.  The astonishing sensitivity of the telescope is designed to pick up the light that came from the beginning of the universe.  The Webb was designed, quite literally, to see back in time. As if that is not enough, the Webb is also packing spectroscopy instruments capable of analyzing the chemical biomarkers of nearby planets, giving us clues about planets or moons that may be harboring alien life. The Webb has the capability to answer two of the greatest questions in all of science: how the universe came to be, and if we are not alone in it.  If it functions well, the Webb is fully expected to revolutionize the field of astronomy for the next decade or more.  We at High Touch High Tech send our congratulations and thanks to the entire James Webb Space Telescope team for their decades of work in the name of scientific discovery!

Sources and Further Reading:

The Engineers and Scientists who built the Webb tell their epic story (Highly Recommended!): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ISQnriRRElY

A Useful General Overview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sMxdeUJ0v2c

The Nerve-Racking Process of Launching the Webb: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/14/science/james-webb-telescope-launch.html

A Webb Engineer Explains its Importance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrY04VPDg8I

Chocolate warms our hearts… but first it feeds our brains!

Admit it, you can taste this image.

It’s one of the most festive weeks of the year!  For many people, this time of year involves some combination of twinkling lights, meetings with friends and family, maybe a goofy sweater or two, and of course, some CHOCOLATE.  The holidays tend to bring an abundance of good food, but even with all of the figgy puddings and sugar plums to choose from, doesn’t it seem like there is always some kind of chocolate within reach somewhere during this particular week of the year?  Why is chocolate the treat much of the world seems to crave, in good times and bad? From a biological point of view, it may have something to do with the fact that the chocolate we love is derived from a plant that has powerful psychoactive properties, Theobroma Cacao

Theobroma Cacao, the plant that makes the magic possible.

When Montezuma met the Spanish conquistadores in 1519, he intended to overwhelm them with a lavish display of royal hospitality.  To impress, the emperor of six million people brought out fifty golden jugs of one of his most potent weapons – chocolate.  However, what he served to the awed Spanish was not at all like the sweet chocolate we enjoy today.  The cacao plant is native to the Amazon region, and Montezuma was serving up an elite tradition of chocolate that had begun 3,000 years before the Spanish arrival.  The Spanish experienced a drink made of the beans of the cacao pod, ground and mixed with water, vanilla, chile, and cornmeal, which had been poured back and forth at a height to create an enticing, bitter, melt-in-your-mouth froth.  In an instant, the global obsession with chocolate was born.   

We owe Indigenous Central Americans our thanks for giving the world the gift of chocolate!

Chocolate can now be found anywhere in the world, and it’s easy to forget that under the bright wrappers and diverse flavors, chocolate comes from a plant with a very powerful chemical profile.  The cacao tree and its precious seedpods only grow in equatorial regions of the world, and produce a bean that is much more than just tasty.  Cacao beans are psychoactive, with multiple compounds capable of stimulating the production of neurotransmitters in the brain.  Through their bitter and frothy beverage, Mesoamericans were the first to enjoy the stimulating effects of Theobromine, a chemical in cacao that is very similar to caffeine.  Theobromine increases blood flow, inducing a feeling of mental alertness, vigor, and overall well-being. On top of this dynamic duo, cacao also has Tryptophan and Phenylethylamine, among many other compoundsTryptophan assists in the creation of the “feel-good” neurotransmitter Serotonin.  Phenylethylamine assists with the creation of another happiness-inducing neurotransmitter, Dopamine.  These delightful neurotransmitters, plus a surprising number of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, can help explain humankind’s passionate three-thousand-year love affair with chocolate.

These pods of happiness are surprisingly delicate.

The cacao beans that furnish this phytochemical feast are actually quite challenging to grow. Theobroma Cacao plants need just the right conditions and lots of care to fight the diseases and pests that typically attack them, not to mention just the right insects to fertilize them.  There are three main varieties of cacao bean available today, and within each variety there are several, often  genetically different, hybrid strains.  Relatively hardy Forestera beans make up 85 percent of the world’s chocolate.  Most prized, rare, and delicate are Criollo beans, which provide 3% of the world’s chocolate.  The hybrid of Forestera and Criollo is known as Trinitario, was created in the 18th century when a hurricane nearly caused the Criollo variety to go extinct.  Although Criollo plants are not productive on a scale that can meet global demand, they produce flavors and aromas that are more complex and rich.  Much like wine, Criollo can be described as having notes of fruit, tobacco, or caramel.  Criollo was the preferred variety of the Aztec and Maya, and most likely the one that the Spanish enjoyed as part of Montezuma’s hospitality.

Roasted cacao beans, the end result of lots of labor

Go to the supermarket today, and in the candy aisle you will see an array of chocolate worthy of an Aztec Emperor.  An Aztec Emperor would surely recoil at the sweet, milky flavors of chocolate today, but that is the beauty in the biology of chocolate.  Cacao’s pleasing array of phytochemicals and rich flavors practically guarantee an enjoyable experience.  Whether taken bitter by an emperor or sweet on a holiday visit, on the molecular level, chocolate is sure to satisfy your brain and not just your sweet tooth.

Sources and Further Reading:

An Introduction to the Science of Chocolate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bt7tzEzEg5o

A General history of Chocolate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibjUpk9Iagk

The different types of Cacao: https://www.williescacao.com/world-cacao/different-cacao-varieties/#:~:text=Forastero%20beans%20give%20a%20classic,higher%20yield%20of%20cacao%20pods.

Africa and the Global Cocoa Trade: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G4c7l_CVwFc

A small farmer’s up-close look at harvesting, fermenting and roasting Cacao beans: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-4FsJ6-bzc

The Neurochemistry of Chocolate: https://www.scilearn.com/why-your-brain-loves-chocolate/

Scientific Paper on the Health Benefits of Chocolate: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3575938/

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: How this Year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine Cracked an Ancient Mystery

Renaissance Artist Raphael’s monumental “School of Athens,” 1511, depicts the famous ancient thinkers and inquirers that inspired the Italian Renaissance, which in turn inspired the Scientific Revolution. Generation by generation, Science advances.

 Every year since 1901, the Nobel Prize ceremonies show us the incredible discoveries at the cutting edge of science, and remind us of the nonstop movement of scientific progress.  Just last year the awards were given for the revolutionary gene-editing technology known as CRISPR, and for proving the existence of black holes!  This year, two scientists, Sykuro Manabe and Klaus Hasselman, were awarded the prize in physics for their looks into the future predicting global warming.  Another physics prize went to Georgio Parisi, for his research in quantum physics that covers the interplay of everything from atoms to planets.  In Chemistry, Benjamin List and David Macmillan won the prize for their work in “organocatalysis,” an elegant, precise new way to build organic molecules, thus making the work of chemists all over the world much easier and cheaper.  However, in Medicine and Physiology, David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian won for the kind of discovery that represents one of the best aspects of science: its persistence.  Julius and Patapoutian have given the world an amazing discovery that was built on literally thousands of years of inquiry, and passed from generation to generation until at last, the solution was found. 

Every discovery in science lays a foundation for the next

Imagine walking barefoot into a cool stream on a hot day, feeling river pebbles press into the bottom your cool, submerged feet as the hot sun warms the top of your head.  For centuries, humans have tried to understand just what it is that allows us to have such magnificent, multilayered experiences of touch and sensation.  How is it that we feel heat, and cold?  How is it that we can touch, and feel? This year, Julius and Patapoutian have cracked the secret, and discovered the exact way that temperature and mechanical stimuli are converted into electrical impulses in our nervous system.

The ability to sense hot, cold, and pressure are absolutely integral to human survival, and truly one of medicine’s most enduring questions.  In the 4th century B.C., no less than Aristotle theorized that nerves were controlled by and connected to the heart. In the Middle Ages, Muslim doctors such as Ibn Sina fully described the physical appearance of nerves throughout the body.  In the 17th century, Rene Descartes theorized the tiny threads leading from the skin to the brain somehow relayed signals.  But what exactly did they relay, and how?  By the 18th century physiologists were beginning to make connections between nerves and the conduction of electrical signals.  In 1944, another pair of researchers, Joseph Erlanger and Herbert Gasser, received the Nobel Prize for their discovery of different types of nerve fibers that react to specific types of stimuli, such as painful or non-painful stimuli.  After centuries of inquiry, it was understood that nerve cells are highly specialized for detecting different types of stimuli, allowing us to feel the many sensations that are such an essential part of being alive.

Ibn Sina (Avincenna), a father of modern medicine, lived 980-1037 CE

Building on the previous generation’s discovery that nerve cells were specific and specialized, the opportunity finally emerged to understand exactly how specific nerve cells worked.  Julius saw a potential for discovery in the compound Capsaicin, the compound responsible for the burning, spicy sensation of chili peppers.  In the 1990’s, when his research began, no one understood how this compound actually worked to cause sensation.  It was a riddle that eventually became the gateway to the 2021 Nobel Prize.  By collecting a library of millions of DNA fragments  that corresponded to sensory neurons responsible for pain, touch, and heat, Julius and his team made a big bet one of the DNA fragments would contain the gene that encoded the protein capable of reacting to capsaicin, and they found it!  Dr. Julius was able to carefully test the specific capsaicin receptor, named TRPV1.  Experiments revealed that the sensory receptor TRPV1 was an ion channel that opened in conditions hotter than 109 degrees F, and conducted a sensation of painful heat to the brain.

The TRPV receptors at work

Working together, Julius and Patapoutian then used the compound Menthol to discover another such specific ion channel that relays the sensation of cold, TRPM8.  The function of these ion channels was definitively proven when experimental mice with the TRPM8 gene deleted displayed drastically less sensitivity to cold!  As this research continued over years, Dr. Patapoutian was able to tackle the mystery of the sensation of touch, discovering a previously unknown ion channel in called PIEZO2, that opens when pressure is applied to the skin, and relays the signal to the brain.  Again, experimental mice with the PIEZO2 gene deleted displayed much less sensitivity to touch.

What would our lives be without the ability to feel touch?

Thanks to this monumental research, it is now understood that TRP channels and PIEZO2 channels are the reason that we can sense temperature, heat pain, and touch.  Many functions in the body rely on these channels for our daily function, including things like urination, respiration, core body temperature, and protective reflexes.  What will the next generation of scientists find when they take up this inquiry?  The future looks very bright:  this discovery may open the doors for new and effective ways to stop pain in its tracks, at its source.  Thank you to David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian, and thank you to all of the Nobel Laureates for adding new links to the great chain of inquiry that is science.

Sources and Further Reading:

A layman’s explanation of Julius and Patapoutian’s discovery: https://edition.cnn.com/2021/10/04/health/nobel-prize-medicine-physiology-winner-2021/index.html

A scientific explanation: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/2021/advanced-information/

All 2021 Nobel Winners: https://www.nobelprize.org/all-nobel-prizes-2021/

2021 Medicine and Physiology Nobel Laureate Lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4TkmSJnhcFo

The Long History of Nerve Science: http://web.stanford.edu/class/history13/earlysciencelab/body/nervespages/nerves.html

Sometimes, Science is Funny

It’s Nobel Prize season!  On December 10th, scientists from all over the world will converge on Stockholm, Sweden, in order to convey the highest honor in all of science.  We will be reporting on that solemn ceremony next week,  but this week we would like to cover the younger, goofier, but no-less-scientific cousin of the Nobel Prize, the hilarious tradition known as the Ig Nobel PrizeThe Ig Nobel prize is a tradition dating back to the ancient days of 1991, when founder Marc Abrahams, a researcher with a background in applied mathematics, decided it was time to highlight those scientific studies “that make you laugh, but then they make you think.”

Marc at the 2008 Ig Lectures

The Ig Nobel Prize goes to real scientific studies made by scientists around the world.  Past winners include the chemist who created bright blue Jell-O, a pair of doctors who created the protocol to treat a man after he gets … caught in his zipper, a biologist who fed Prozac to clams and then tested them for overall wellbeing, and a team of scientists who taught pigeons to tell the difference between a Monet and a Picasso.  Since the inception of the Ig Nobel, the award’s popularity has been growing and in recent years, Marc Abrahams and his crew receive up to 9,000 nominations per year.  The irreverent awards ceremony, where Ig Nobel winners are given their prizes by actual Nobel winners, is said to be “the highlight of the scientific calendar.” (Sorry, Nobel Prize ceremony.)

If you don’t know who the artist is, you could ask a pigeon.

Although all of these studies might seem silly or obscure, each one points the way to some kind of deeper truth.  This year’s winners include biologist Dr. David Carrier of the University of Utah, who won an Ig Nobel for investigating if beards on human males evolved to protect the face from punches.  The question of why human males retain such a potential for massive facial hair has long been in debate, with even the venerable Charles Darwin theorizing that beards were more about visual prestige and attracting mates.  Since Dr. Carrier and his team could not actually punch human subjects, they tested sheep’s fleece with a punch-like hydraulic press.  The result: the fleece absorbed 30% more shock than bare skin!  This indicates that human male facial hair may be more functional than once thought, AND even that humans may have evolved to fight with fists as our primary weapon.

Beards: scientifically proven to be awesome

The Ig Nobels celebrate the infinite curiosity of scientists, and highlight the endless potential of scientific discoveries.  Science is often thought of as staid and serious, but the Ig Nobel ceremony brings a lighthearted note to the scientific community.  If you are a science fan, or just like to laugh (or both), we at HTHT highly recommend visiting the Ig Nobel website, Improbable Research.  Run by founder Marc Abrahams, it includes all past winners with citations to their work, a delightful weekly podcast on “Improbable Science,”  videos of recent ceremonies, short talks from winners, and even the pantheon of members of The Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists.  If you’ve ever wanted to see a Nobel Laureate wearing an emergency face mask made out of a bra (an awesome Ig Nobel-winning innovation by Dr. Elena Bodnar), you will need to visit the Improbable Research website.  Here at HTHT we like to make science fun, and we’re glad the Ig Nobels share our mission too!

Resources and Further Reading:

All of the winners of the Ig Nobel, with links to the studies: https://www.improbable.com/2021-ceremony/

Improbable Research home page: https://www.improbable.com/

2021 Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony (socially distanced but still super funny):

2019 Ig Nobel Ceremony LIVE at Harvard University:

A compilation of some of Ig Nobel’s greatest hits: