The Southern Hemisphere: What’s going on down there?

Is the earth round? I think we can all agree
that it is. What we are going to tell you next, spoiler alert, will remind you
of your high school geometry class.

A great
circle is the largest possible
circle that can be drawn around a sphere. All spheres have great circles. If you cut a sphere at one
of its great circles, you’d cut it exactly in half. The Earth is not a perfect
sphere, but it maintains the general shape. All the meridians on Earth are great circles. Meridians,
including the prime meridian, are the north-south lines we use to help describe exactly where we are
on the Earth. All these lines of longitude meet at the poles, cutting the Earth neatly in half. These halves are
called the Northern & Southern hemispheres.

Let’s talk about the hemispheres of the earth.
The earth is divided into 2 by the equator. Can you go to the equator? Actually,
you can! Many countries have now created tourist attractions at the equator!
However, you cannot “see” the equator as it is an imaginary line splitting the
earth in half. Creating the Northern hemisphere and the Southern hemisphere.

Have
you ever wondered when man first thought about the equator and the hemispheres?
The earliest documented mention of the round earth concept dates from
around the 5th century BC, when it was mentioned by ancient Greek
philosophers. In the 3rd century BC, Hellenistic
astronomy established the roughly spherical shape of the earth, as a
physical fact and calculated the Earth’s circumference. This knowledge was
gradually adopted throughout the “old world” during the 3rd-8th
centuries and ongoing during the “Middle Ages.”  A practical
demonstration of Earth’s sphericity was achieved by Ferdinand Magellan
and Juan Sebastian’s circumnavigation from 1519-1522. The argument had
officially been settled…the earth is round!

Back
to the equator, or the line of 0 degrees latitude, divides the earth into
the Northern and Southern hemispheres. There are differences in
the climates of the Northern and Southern hemispheres because of
the Earth’s seasonal tilt toward and away from the sun.

This
occurs because deep inside the earth, liquid iron is flowing and generating the
earth’s magnetic field, which protects our atmosphere against harmful radiation
from the sun. This field changes over time and behaves differently in different
parts of the world. The field can even change polarity completely! The magnetic
north and south poles can actually switch places. This is called a
reversal and last happened 780,000 years ago. Quite some time ago!

Between
South America and Southern Africa, there is an enigmatic or difficult to
determine magnetic region called the South Atlantic Anomaly, where the field is
a lot weaker than one would expect. Weak and unstable magnetic fields are
thought to precede magnetic reversals, so some have argued this feature may be
evidence that we are facing one.

A
new study published June 12, 2020, in the Proceedings of the National Academy
of Sciences,  has uncovered how long the
field in the South Atlantic has been acting up – and sheds light on whether it
is something to worry about.

Weak
magnetic fields make us more prone to magnetic storms that have the potential
to knock out electronic infrastructure, including power grids. The magnetic
field of the South Atlantic Anomaly is already so weak that it can adversely
affect satellites and their technology when they fly past it. The strange
region is thought to be related to a patch of magnetic field that is pointing a
different direction to the rest at the top of the planet’s liquid outer core at
a depth of 1,795 miles (2,889 km) within the Earth.

This
“reverse flux patch” itself has grown over the last 250 years. But we don’t
know whether it is simply a one-off product of the chaotic motions of the outer
core fluid or rather the latest in a series of anomalies within this particular
region over long time frames.

If
it is a non-recurring feature, then its current location is not significant –
it could happen anywhere, perhaps randomly. But if this is the case, the
question of whether its increasing size and depth could mark the start of a new
reversal remains.

If
it is the latest in a string of features reoccurring over millions of years,
however, then this would make a reversal less likely. But it would require a
specific explanation for what was causing the magnetic field to act strangely
in this particular place.

To
find out, scientists travelled to Saint Helena – an island in the middle of the
South Atlantic Ocean. This island, where Napoleon was exiled to and eventually
died in 1821, is made of volcanic rocks. These originate from two separate
volcanoes and were erupted from between eight million and 11.5 million years
ago.

Scientists
discovered when volcanic rocks cool down, small grains of iron-oxide in them
get magnetized and therefore save the direction and strength of the Earth’s
magnetic field at that time and place. A group of scientists collected some of
those rocks and brought them back to their lab in Liverpool, where they carried
out experiments to find out what the magnetic field was like at the time of
eruption, potentially 11 million years ago.

The
results showed us that the field at Saint Helena had vastly different
directions throughout the time of eruption, showing us that the magnetic field
in this region was much less stable than in other places. It therefore
challenges the idea that the abnormality has only been around for only a few
centuries. Instead, the whole region has likely been unstable on a timescale of
millions of years. This implies the current situation is not as rare as some
scientists had assumed, making it less likely that it represents the start of a
reversal. Please feel free to re-read the last 2 paragraphs!

What
could explain the odd magnetic region? The liquid outer core is generating
moves (by convection) at such high speeds that changes can occur on truly short,
human timescales. The outer core interacts with a layer called the mantle on
top of it, which moves far slower. That means the mantle is unlikely to have
changed very much in the last ten million years.

From
seismic waves passing through the Earth, we have some insight into the
structure of the mantle. Underneath Africa there is a large feature in
the lowermost mantle where the waves move extra slow through the Earth –
meaning there is most likely an unusually warm region of the lowermost mantle.
This possibly causes a different interaction with the outer core at that
specific location, which could  explain the strange behavior of the
magnetic field in the South Atlantic.

Another
aspect of the inside of the Earth is the inner core, which is a solid ball the
size of Pluto beneath the outer core. This solid feature is slowly growing, but
not at the same rate everywhere. There is a possibility that it is growing
faster on one side, causing a flow inside the outer core that is reaching the
outer boundary with the rocky mantle just under the Atlantic ocean. This
may be causing irregular behavior of the magnetic field on the long timescales found
on Saint Helena.

Although there are still many questions about the exact cause of the irregular behavior in the South Atlantic, this study shows us that it has been around for millions of years and is most likely a result of geophysical interactions in the Earth’s mysterious interior.

Interested in learning more about the hemispheres and magnetism? Try our at-home experiment and make your very own compass! Grab your materials and follow the instructions here: https://sciencemadefun.net/downloads/compass.pdf

Sources:
Yael Annemiek Engbers, Ph.D. candidate, University of Liverpool
Andrew Biggin, Professor of Palaeomagnetism, University of Liverpool

Spice Up Your Winter….with these Winter Spices!

The
kitchen has always been a place where people would gather – at birthday
parties, celebrations, holidays, and family gatherings. The act of breaking
bread around a table is more than just a tasty experience, it is a way to provide
nurturing and show love. We see these same traits reflected around the globe in
many different cultures.

When we prepare a meal for special occasions,
especially during the holiday season, there are always certain spices that feature
in our winter dishes. So, let’s talk about herbs and spices. Generally, herbs come
from the green leaves of plants or vegetables. Spices come from other
parts of plants and trees. For example, cinnamon comes from the hard outer
cover of cinnamon plants. The spice ginger comes from the part of the ginger
plant that grows underground!

It is hard to imagine, in an era where spices can be found in almost every supermarket, how valuable they once were. Wars were fought, fortunes made and lost, new worlds discovered, and civilizations built for the spice trade. Spices were central to all important aspects of life: beauty (as perfume), health (as medicine), spiritual life (via their role in ritual), and, of course, sustenance (as a seasoning). From the regal orange pistils of saffron to the warm, woody bark that rendered cinnamon, they made food memorable and delicious. The fact that they came from faraway places added value. Exotic spices evoked foreign lands and stirred the imagination.

Historically, the lack of fresh produce in the winter months led people to rely more on spices. The winter months can be characterized by the rich, filling, and warming fragrances created by a selection of classic spices known as winter spices, or also commonly referred to as pie spices. Included under this title are anise, allspice, nutmeg, mace, green cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, and ginger.

Let’s
take a deeper dive into these spices! Each spice is explained below along with
a suggested use.

Cinnamon
Native to Sri Lanka, cinnamon can also be found in India, Myanmar, and South America. This popular spice is brown in color, has a fragrant aroma, and a warm sweet flavor.

Cinnamon can help in relieving
indigestion and nausea. The next time you feel sick or
overwhelmingly full from a huge meal, try some cinnamon tea! Just simmer three
or four cinnamon sticks in two cups of water and sweeten with some honey.

Cloves
Cloves are the unopened flower buds of the clove tree. Native to Indonesia and India, the clove tree produces flower buds in clusters. These clusters are pale in color at first, then become green, and then bright red when ready for harvesting.

Have you run out of candles this holiday season? Let cloves be your hero by sticking some into oranges and placing them around the house as decorative air-fresheners. You might also want to try chewing on a clove to get rid of bad breath, but do not swallow it! If you find yourself with muscle or joint pains, roast some cloves for a couple minutes, wrap them in a towel and apply to sore spots for relief.

Nutmeg
Nutmeg is the spice made from a seed that grows on a tropical evergreen tree. The tree is native to the Spice Islands of Indonesia. The spice nutmeg has a distinctive pungent fragrance and a warm slightly sweet taste. Did you know that the name nutmeg is also applied in different countries to other fruits or seeds, including Jamaica, Brazil, Peru, and Madagascar.

Nutmeg
helps digestion, settles stomach aches and helps you fall asleep. Just add a
small pinch of ground nutmeg to a cup of warm ginger tea to help with stomach
problems. On nights you can’t fall asleep, heat up some milk and sprinkle in
some ground nutmeg.

Ginger
Native to southeastern Asia, ginger’s use in India and China has been known from ancient times. The spice has a slightly biting taste and is used, usually dried and ground, to flavor breads, sauces, baked goods, and many other foods. In Japan, slices of ginger are eaten between dishes or courses to clear the palate.

Ginger
helps increase circulation and relieves congestion and nausea. Make ginger tea
to help reboot your system. Steep one or two teaspoons of freshly grated
ginger or ½ teaspoon of powdered ginger in a cup of boiling water for 10
minutes. But beware, ginger can be pretty spicy! You can always make things
sweeter with a touch of honey.

Mint
Peppermint is a hybrid mint, a cross between watermint and spearmint. Native to Europe and the Middle East, the plant is cultivated all over the world. Peppermint has a strong sweetish odor and a warm pungent taste with a cooling aftertaste. Mint flowers are often dried and used to flavor candy, desserts, beverages, and other foods. Its essential oil is also widely used.

Peppermint can be very helpful as it stimulates digestion, eliminates nausea and toxins, and helps freshen your breath. If taking after-dinner mints or mint gum is not enough, try a cup of freshly brewed mint tea. Take two cups of fresh mint leaves and steep them in a pot of boiling water for a good 8-10 minutes and enjoy!

So,
as you plan your holiday menu, which of these winter spices will make the cut and
appear in your favorite dishes? The benefits of using these spices go beyond
simply tasting great, but also provide plenty of health benefits too!

High Touch High Tech wishes you and your family a happy, healthy, warm, and spicy holiday season! And if you would like to keep the kiddos busy with some FUN, at-home science experiments during the holiday season, check out our STEM Gingerbread House Building Challenge. Find a list of what you need and instructions here: https://sciencemadefun.net/downloads/gingerbread_engineer.pdf

Sources:
Wikipedia.com
Encyclopedia.com

First in Flight – Kites

Join High Touch High Tech in celebrating
First in Flight
December 17, 2020

What comes to mind when you hear this phrase? Orville & Wilbur Wright? The State of North Carolina’s motto and bragging rights? The movie Top Gun? We are taking this theme quite literally, trying to discover the actual first in flight. The answer is the kite!  They are certainly little flying machines that have astounded Man for centuries. There are millions of people around the world, that look up to the skies to watch or fly a kite. “What easier way to get from the ground to the sky”, said Benjamin Franklin when he was trying to figure out the nature of lightning. Kites set people’s imaginations wild.

The
earliest written account of kite flying was about 200 B.C. when the Chinese
General Han Hsin of the Han Dynasty flew a kite over the walls of a city he was
attacking to measure how far his army would have to tunnel to reach past the
defenses. Knowing this distance his troops reached the inside of the city,
surprised their enemy, and were victorious. How clever?

Kite
flying was eventually spread by traders from China to Korea, and across Asia to
India. Each area developed a distinctive style of kite and cultural purpose for
flying them.

Marco
Polo carried stories of kites to Europe around the end of the 13th century.
Illustrations of the period show non-flying dragon kites on military banners.
Sailors also brought kites back from Japan and Malaysia in the 16th and 17th
centuries. Kites were regarded as curiosities at first and had little impact on
European culture.

Meanwhile
back in the Americas, men like Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Wilson used
their knowledge of kite flying to learn more about the wind and weather. Sir
George Caley, a very important figure in aeronautics, who quite fancied
aviation himself, Samuel Langley, an astronomer, Lawrence Hargrave, an engineer
and explorer, Alexander Graham Bell, an inventor and scientist, and the Wright
Brothers, the aviation pioneers! All of these people have experimented with
kites and contributed to the development of the airplane, and our understanding
of flight. They have all contributed to man’s desire to reach for the skies,
and ultimately the stars.

Since
its invention, there have been many adaptations to the kite by various cultures
around the world. The kite you probably flew as a kid looks a bit different to
the original Chinese kites and even the kites of modern China.

A Chinese kite in ancient times would have used simple materials such as wood and cloth. They were often made to resemble the shapes of birds. Today, elaborate and large designs can be seen flying above parks in China. They will often resemble real animals and members of the Chinese Zodiac. Some kites will have LED lights attached to allow for night flights and fun light shows. There is even a kite museum where you can view designs and learn more about the history of kites through the ages!

But
how do kites actually fly? What is the science behind them?

First
let’s talk about airplanes.  An airplane
flies because the wings create lift. The air going over the wing is moving
faster than the air going under the wing, and this creates a low-pressure causing
lift.

In
terms of kites, lift is generated by differences in air pressure, which are
created by air in motion over the body of the kite. Kites are
shaped and angled so that the air moving over the top moves faster than the air
moving along the bottom. To launch a kite into the air the force of
lift must be greater than the force of gravity, just like airplanes!

Who’s ready to fly a kite? If you’re ready, check out our at-home experiment: Chinese Kite! Grab your materials and follow along with the lesson plan to make your very own kite!

Poinsettia Day

Join High Touch High Tech in Celebrating
Poinsettia Day
December 12, 2020

It’s
Poinsettia Day – Yay! What is this day all about? It all started with a
scientist!

John
Roberts Poinsett was a botanist, a scientist who specializes is plants and
trees. He was also a physician, and the 1st United States Ambassador
to Mexico. Poinsett introduced these beautiful red, white, or pink plants, that
were named after him, poinsettias. This man sent poinsettias from Mexico back
to greenhouses that he owned in South Carolina. Before its renaming as the
poinsettia, the plant was known as the “painted leaf” or the “Mexican flame
flower.” Its scientific name is Euphorbia pulcherrima.

In
Spain, Puerto Rico, and other Central America countries the
poinsettia is known as Flor de Pascua or Pascua, meaning Christmas
Flower. Poinsettias have served important roles throughout
history, for example: The Aztecs used the plant to produce reddish-purple dye
and as an antipyretic (fever reduction) medication.

It’s
Christmas time, and what do you see in the storefront of just about every shop
you pass? Besides sprigs of holly and bright, twinkling lights, you are likely
to see colorful arrangements of poinsettias too.

These breathtaking flowers are common during
the holiday season. However, do you know why? The poinsettia has a deep
cultural and symbolic meaning. Seen as a symbol of purity by the Aztecs, in
today’s language it symbolizes cheer, success, and brings wishes of mirth and
celebration! Recognized as the birth flower for December, poinsettias
are used as decorations to create a festive atmosphere throughout the
entire world, particularly in Europe, but also in the USA, Canada, South
Africa, and Australia.

Paul Ecke Jr is considered the father of the poinsettia
industry due to his discovery of a technique which caused seedlings to branch.
This technique allowed the poinsettia industry to grow! The Paul Ecke Ranch in
California grows over 70% of the poinsettias sold in the USA! The Ecke family
had a secret technique that caused every seedling to split and branch,
resulting in a fuller plant.

A poinsettia fun fact is that in 1952 the NCAA College football
arena in San Diego was named the Poinsettia Bowl! Interestingly, the poinsettia’s main attraction is not its flowers, but its
leaves! The flowers of the plant are the yellow clustered buds in the center
(termed “cyathia”). The colored leafy parts are bracts or modified leaves, that
turn color in response to the plant forming flowers. When buying a poinsettia,
make sure it has the buds, preferably not yet open.

Interested in learning more about plants in general? Check out our Smarty Plants at-home experiment to see if you can extract the chlorophyll out of a plant leaf. If your poinsettia has any green leaves, you can test them for chlorophyll too! Grab your supplies & check out our lesson plan here:

References:

Mission to Mars

Join High Touch High Tech in celebrating
Red Planet Day
November 28th!

Who’s ready to go on a mission to Mars? If you are like me, you have already been on a mission to Mars, thanks to the classic ride at Disney World. Mission to Mars was an attraction located in Tomorrowland at Disneyland and at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. I remember being on this ride as a child in the 1970’s. As you entered Mission to Mars, you were greeted first with a control room, featuring then cutting-edge animatronic figures that talked about what the first crewed mission to Mars would be like. While footage ran on screens, a robotic scientist talked about things like “the way crystals form in zero-G.” After that you were ushered into a circular theater that looked a lot like the inside of a modern airplane. Side screens showed the diagnostics associated with the trip, including how far away you were from earth and how close you were to the red planet. Narration would play about the nature of the voyage, with phrases like “Mars acquisition velocity” and “hyperspace penetration commencing”. Dangers like meteors and black holes were detected and barely avoided. There were also references to how this kind of space travel was “routine” but back in the 1970’s and 1980’s seemed like science fiction.

Let’s fast forward to 2020!

The SpaceX Mars & Beyond program has
a robust plan to facilitate the eventual colonization of Mars. Is this
even a real possibility?

It took billions of years for Earth to
become a hospitable planet for humans and I think you would agree we’ve been
very comfortable living on earth. So why travel to Mars? Because it’s the red
planet in our night sky! Because it’s there! To paraphrase President John F.
Kennedy, we want to go to Mars, not because it is easy, but because it is hard!

The program includes fully reusable
launch vehicles, human rated space craft, on orbit propellant tankers, raid
turnaround, launch and landing mounts, and local production of rocket fuel on
Mars via in situ resource utilization (ISRU). SpaceX and Elon Musk have named
2024 as their goal for an un-crewed mission, with a crewed mission to follow
later.

A key element of the program is the SpaceX
starship, a fully reusable super heavy lift launch vehicle under development
since 2018. To achieve a large payload, the spacecraft would first enter Earth’s
orbit after launch, where it is expected to be refueled before it departs to
Mars. After landing on Mars, the spacecraft would be loaded with locally
produced propellants to return to Earth. The expected payload for the Starship
launch vehicle is between 100–150 tonnes (220,000–330,000 lbs.).

SpaceX intends to concentrate its
resources on the transportation part of the Mars colonization project,
including the design of a plant based propellant utilizing the Sabatier
process that will be deployed on Mars to synthesize methane and
liquid oxygen as rocket propellants from the local supply of atmospheric
carbon dioxide and ground-accessible water & ice. Sound like
science fiction?

It’s an ambitious plan! Any successful
colonization would ultimately require involvement from many more economic
participants, whether individuals, companies, or governments—to facilitate the
growth of the human presence on Mars.

Here are some compelling reasons why this
plan is a good idea:

1. Enhanced national prestige, national
security, and economic vitality

2. Technological leadership and the development
of new technologies for non-space applications

3. New scientific discoveries not obtainable
from robotic missions to Mars

4. To inspire both the American public and the
next generation of scientist, technologist, engineer, and mathematician (STEM)

Some have suggested other reasons for colonizing
the Red Planet that are more catastrophic in nature, including Mars as a safe
haven for the survival of the human species and as a possible solution to the
exponential population explosion on our planet.

The trip will
take about nine months each way with a stay time on the surface of Mars of
several hundred days. The long length of the mission will provide an excellent
opportunity to engage the public and inspire students to pursue STEM-related
professions, products, and industries. We last witnessed a significant increase
in students studying STEM following the launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957.

Why Mars? Scientists
think that early Mars was more hospitable and more Earth-like than present-day
Mars. Early Mars most probably possessed an atmosphere considerably denser than
its present-day atmosphere. The surface of present-day Mars is devoid of liquid
water. However, photographs of Mars from orbit and from the surface suggest
that early in its history Mars possessed abundant and widespread surface liquid
water in the form of lakes, rivers, and even planetary-scale oceans.

Why humans? Humans have unique capabilities for
performing scientific measurements, observations, and sample collecting. The attributes
needed for exploration and scientific discovery include intelligence,
adaptability, agility, dexterity, cognition, patience, and problem solving in
real-time. We possess the abilities to adapt to new and unexpected situations
in new and strange environments. With state-of-the-art scientific equipment and
instrumentation brought from Earth, the increased laboratory ability on Mars would
allow for dramatically more scientific return. Exploration of Mars would be
performed as a synergistic partnership between humans and robotic probes where
probes could traverse great distances/terrain too risky for human exploration.

However, the most exciting role for the human explorer/scientist is just beginning as we start the greatest adventure in human history, the human exploration of the Solar System starting with the Red Planet.

At Home Experiment:

The surface of present-day Mars is devoid of liquid
water. But if humans were to colonize the planet, water would be critical. Much
of the fresh water on Earth is contained in aquifers. Aquifers are layers of
soil, gravel, sand, and rock beneath the Earth’s crust. The water in aquifers
has been there for thousands of years. Check out our at-home experiment and
make your very own water aquifer – you never know, it may come in handy if you
ever find yourself on Mars!

Gemstones & Crystals Galore

They grow, but they’re not alive. For centuries they’ve been
used in witchcraft and wizardry, yet they are also so integral to science that
they have been the key to revealing the molecular makeup of all of life!  What are these marvelous, ancient, modern,
magical, scientific treasures?!

We’re talking about those magnificent minerals, GEMSTONES!

Even in our “jaded” modern world, holding a handful of beautiful, multicolored, sparkling gems is a pleasure that is unparalleled.  When you look at the gorgeous variety of colors and shapes of gemstones, it’s easy to see why every ancient culture on earth revered them for their beauty and saw mysterious magical powers within.  Even though humans and  gemstones have a long and storied history together, that is only a small part of why gemstones are truly one of nature’s most incredible creations.  Far beyond their visual appeal, they are amazing right down to a molecular level and have actually been the key to some of the most momentous discoveries in the history of science!

The scientific study of the structure of gems and crystals is called crystallography.  Humans have been trying to understand the intriguingly standard patterns of crystal shapes since at least ancient Greece, when they theorized that crystal gemstones were water that had frozen and could not go back to its liquid state.  Their word for it, krystallos, gives us our word today.  For centuries, gemstones did not reveal the mysteries of their symmetrical, regular shapes easily.  The great Johannes Kepler, fascinated by a single snowflake on his coat, pondered their symmetry in the 16th century.  Soon after, Danish crystallographer Neils Stensen discovered The Law of Constancy of Angles, proving that although crystals appear in a great variety of shapes and sizes, specific types of crystals always grow in the same angles.

The stage was set for Auguste Bravais, the father of modern crystallography, who discovered that the molecular structure of crystals were arranged in perfectly uniform “lattices,” a pattern in which any point in the structure is perfectly equidistant from the point nearest to it.  Bravais discovered there were only a few possible configurations of points that can make up the orderly arrangement of molecules in a crystal.   Bravais’ work categorized what is known as the “seven crystal systems:” cubic, trigonal, hexagonal, tetragonal, orthorhombic, triclinic, and monoclinic.   These are the seven shapes a crystal can make on a molecular level, and thus, repeats in its ultimate shape.  Have you ever seen pyrite in a cube, or quartz in a point?  In a cubic crystal-like pyrite, the molecules themselves form tiny repeating cubes which then create the amazingly regular, square shape of the crystal.  Quartz is only ever hexagonal or trigonal, giving it its characteristic point.  Once you are familiar with the seven crystal systems, the beauty of natural gems becomes even more incredible for their regularity and their symmetry.  The symmetrical perfection of crystal designs over millions of years, varying geological conditions, across all of earth and even space, is something truly rare and surprising in the natural world.

Although all crystals across the world, from the famous diamond to the ultra-rare fingerite, can grow in remarkably uniform patterns, what makes all crystal gemstones different is their interaction with the conditions in their particular environment.  Crystals usually form out of magma, but it is the trace elements in magma, often dissolved in groundwater, that dictate the colors and shapes of a crystal.  Pressure and temperature also play a role in creating these natural works of art.  For example, an emerald and a ruby both get their color from the trace element Chromium, but the difference is time and pressure.  One of the most rare and costly gems on earth, Blue Tanzanite, comes from a certain mixture of pressure, temperature and the element vanadium that is found only in the East African Rift Valley of Tanzania.  Whereas quartz, the most common crystal on earth, is created when silicon and oxygen, both very common elements, bond and grow in a tetragonal shape.  A crystal can take only weeks to grow and a million years to come to the earth’s surface; when it emerges, it is a perfect snapshot of the complex geological processes around it.

Sci-Fi author Arthur C. Clarke said: Any sufficiently
advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Gemstones/crystals are
one of those places where science and magic meet.  Crystals have been used in healing magic
since humans lived in caves.  In terms of
importance to modern science, crystalline molecular structures have given us
the keys to understand nothing less than the makeup of life itself!  The science of X-ray Crystallography is a relatively
recent discipline.  In 1912 scientists
discovered that if they projected X-rays through a humble crystal of salt, they
could see the molecular structure of the salt crystal as a 2-D projection.  They then learned to crystallize non-mineral
substances, and construct 3-D models of the projection they saw.  Because of X-ray crystallography we have been
able to see, understand, and analyze:

• The structure of DNA
• Numerous pharmaceutical compounds, beginning
with Penicillin
• Enzymes
• Hormones
• Hemoglobin and Myoglobin
• Vitamins
• Viruses such as HIV and Covid-19
• The makeup of the surface of Mars (Mars Rover
has a built in X-ray crystallography unit!)

In fact, the Nobel Chemistry 2020 winners, Dr. Charpentier
and Dr. Doudna, would never have been able to do such close work on DNA without
X-ray Crystallography. Even 2020 Nobel Prize winner Roger Penrose is an avid
fan of crystal structures and took inspiration from them to revolutionize our
understanding of space itself.

If you want to collect and examine some of these incredibly
meaningful minerals for yourself, where can you start?  There are over 3,000 minerals known to
science, from the famous diamond to the rarest in the world, Fingerite.  Precious or semiprecious?  Local stones or exotic stones from around the
world?  Which of the Seven Crystal
Systems is your favorite? Which mix of minerals makes the most appealing color?

For some up-close views of fine gems and minerals:

World Kindness Day

Celebrating World Kindness Day – November 13th, 2020

Happy World Kindness Day!  Do you remember how you felt the last time you experienced a “random act of kindness?”  Ever had a stranger give you a compliment that made your day?  When did you last give that universal little wave of thanks when another driver let you in on a busy street?   Even in these challenging times, kindness is all around us, and the wonderful feeling of human connection through kindness is needed more than ever.  The science of kindness is a rapidly evolving field encompassing several disciplines, and to make it even more complicated, it also touches on some of the biggest questions about ethics, morality, and what it means to be human.  Where once the assumption was that humans are fundamentally competitive and selfish, more science is showing us that humans (and many non-human animals, too) may instead be fundamentally wired to be kind and compassionate.  Even better, kindness can be taught, learned, and practiced daily for some amazing health benefits!

Many scientists have wrestled seriously with the question of kindness and compassion and why it exists. Charles Darwin wondered, if life was about the survival of the fittest, why then did animals sometimes act in an altruistic manner: sacrificing their own personal gain to help others, even those not related to them?  Darwin’s answer was the idea of “inclusive fitness.” For example, a bee may sacrifice itself for the queen, and that sacrifice will help the entire hive to survive to reproduce.  Darwin’s concept of inclusive fitness helped explain that altruism does have reason to exist, and further exploration of WHY it exists was taken up in the 1960’s by researcher Richard Dawkins.  In his landmark book The Selfish Gene, he theorized that altruistic behaviors are wired into us by evolution because throwing yourself in front of a lion to protect your children helps your genes to survive, not because any inherent morality tells us to protect the weak.  This is why kind behaviors are still selected for and exist today, but deep down everything we do is self-interested even if it appears kind and selfless.

For years it has been generally accepted that human kindness is a thin veneer over our animal nature, and most of animal nature is selfish and competitive.  In the 21st century, there are  growing numbers of scientists and thinkers who see that there is much more to the story of human kindness and compassion than once thought, and the concept of humans as fundamentally self-interested competitors may not be completely accurate.  Kindness and compassion appear to have numerous health benefits, right down to the molecular level, that go far beyond mere survival.

The field of neuroscience especially has shown that our brains and bodies are deeply oriented towards kindness. Dr. Dacher Keltner, head of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkley, has shown that our brains are designed to release a burst of oxytocin, “the love hormone,” from even small acts of kindness.  In fact, it has been recently proven that we have a network in our brain called “mirror cells” that literally predisposes us to empathy on the cellular level.  The GGSC studies show that over time, through just one act of kindness a day, participants were able to increase their overall life satisfaction and decrease chronic pain, partly because kindness releases feel-good hormones such as dopamine and oxytocin and helps lower inflammatory hormones like cortisol.  People who did Buddhist Loving-Kindness meditations for just 8 weeks, sending out unconditional  love to the world each day, were even found to have longer telomeres, the part of DNA that is thought to control aging. From the results, it has been theorized that daily kindness is just as much a predictor of health as smoking, and Dr. Keltner theorizes that a life focused on kindness could increase lifespan as much as six to ten years!

Recent science has proven that kindness is one of the only things in the world that doubles when you share it:  kindness releases a boost of endorphins and hormones in the giver and receiver alike!  Just seven days of kind acts were seen to have a significant benefit on subjects’ stress levels, overall sense of wellbeing, and even chronic pain.  How can you share in the benefits of kindness?  Fortunately, researchers indicate that it can be learned and practiced just like any skill.  You don’t have to do something grand like paying off your neighbor’s mortgage to get the health benefits of altruism, and you don’t have to be born a saint to be kind each day.  In Dr. Keltner’s study, small things like paying off an expired meter, helping someone carry something, or even a great, genuine compliment are enough to start accruing the health benefits of kindness.  The potential for kind and helpful acts is everywhere, but it’s not always easy to know what to do or how to do it.   We know that your own body rewards you tremendously for being kind, just as it does when you exercise.  So why not practice building your “kindness muscle” and challenge yourself for seven days?  The Random Acts of Kindness Project, sponsors of World Kindness Day, have a seven day menu of small acts you can do, and many more resources for learning, teaching, and understanding the wonderful – and still mysterious —  phenomenon of human kindness.

Follow the links below for suggestions and inspiration, try one kind act a day for at least a week, and see how you feel.

If you’d like to know more about the science of kindness, check out our podcast here:

2020 Nobel Prize Winners in Science

Congratulations to the 2020 Nobel Prize Winners!
2020’s winners show us, once again, that Science, like the universe, is ever-expanding and the potential for scientific discovery is unlimited!

Chemistry

Dr. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Dr. Jennifer Doudna: for the development of CRISPR-Cas9, a method for genome editing.

Dr.
Charpentier and Dr. Doudna are the first team of two women ever to win the
Nobel Prize!  In what has been called
“the most deserved Novel Prize of the past 20 years,” Doudna and Charpentier’s
technique of genome editing has made an absolutely massive contribution to
science, with a potential to revolutionize the entire field of the Life
Sciences. The possibility of genome editing has existed since the 1970’s, but
thanks to Charpentier and Doudna, it is now much more precise and effective, easier,
and with a greater applicability to curing genetic disease than ever
before.  Using “chemical scissors” known
as Cas9, a DNA-cutting enzyme derived from bacteria, the technique can target
and snip up to a single faulty or unwanted gene, just as you would replace a
single letter in a misspelled word.  New
DNA can then be inserted at the snip.
The insertion is repaired via the body’s natural rNA functions, and the
new DNA functions as normal.  The
CRISPR-Cas9 technique has only existed for 8 years and has already had an
impact on agriculture and pest control.
Its potential for human medicine is enormous and a CRISPR application
has already cured a human subject of Sickle Cell Anemia.  Their discovery has revolutionized the life sciences
and unleashed incredible new potential.
As colleague Fyodor Urnov puts it, “the 21st century will be the age of
CRISPR, thanks to Jennifer and Emmanuelle.”

Physics

Dr. Roger Penrose: for
the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general
theory of relativity

Dr. Reinhard Genzel and Dr. Andrea
Ghez: for the discovery of a supermassive compact object
at the center of our galaxy

The prize for physics this year is for the proof that there is a supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way Galaxy.  This discovery is spectacular in itself,  but all the more amazing for the fact that it was 60 years in the making!  In the 1960’s Oxford physicist Roger Penrose and his colleague Stephen Hawking used the mathematics of Einstein’s theory of relativity to predict that Black Holes inevitably exist and should be found at the center of every galaxy.  This impressive theoretical proof of black holes was so comprehensive it also reinforced the overall feasibility of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, first expressed in 1907.  In a stunning demonstration of how scientific discoveries are constantly built upon the legacies of those that came before, Penrose first proved the theoretical existence of black holes in the 20th century.  When the telescopic technology to measure them finally caught up to Penrose’s ideas, Dr. Genzel and Dr. Ghez were able to observe and conclusively prove that black holes existed in the 21st century!  Genzel first and then Ghez, building on the previous work, used high powered telescopes in Chile and Hawai’i to carefully observe the motions of stars over several years.  Their careful observations and calculations prove that there is a massive dark object in the milky way with millions of times more mass than the sun, a.k.a., a black hole.  Thanks to these three scientists’ generations of work, we now know beyond any doubt that black holes exist, and they are at the center of every galaxy.

Medicine:

Dr. Harvey J. Alter, Dr. Charles M. Rice, and Dr. Michael Houghton:
for the discovery of the Hepatitis C virus

In a year marked by a global viral pandemic, the fact that the Nobel Prize in Medicine went to a trio of virologists highlights how important scientific research is to public health.  The three virologists made a massive contribution to the lives and futures of people all over the world with their discovery of the Hepatitis C virus, which affects 71 million people worldwide and kills 400,000  people a year.  Dr. Alter, Dr. Rice, and Dr. Houghton’s discoveries allowed for targeted vaccines,  treatments, and now, a total cure.  Alter, working from the NIH in America, helped discover the Hepatitis B virus in the 1960’s.  But after that discovery, he was confounded by the fact that there was still another unknown disease-causing agent that resulted in hepatitis, especially after blood transfusions.  This unknown form of chronic, blood-borne hepatitis debilitated patients for years before it killed them, and represented a serious global health problem, particularly for vulnerable people in need of transfusions and blood-based treatments.  In work that demonstrates the highly collaborative nature of science today, the three scientists all provided an essential piece of the solution.  Alter was able to demonstrate that what he called Hepatitis C was a virus, Houghton used an untested strategy to isolate the genome of the virus, and Rice provided the evidence that the virus was the cause of Hepatitis C.  Thanks to these three scientists, the millions of people worldwide affected by Hepatitis C now have a chance to be free of this terrible disease.

Check out some of these fun at-home science experiments & give them a try! Who knows, you may just be a Nobel Prize winner one day!

Chocolate…it’s a treat, it’s a bean, it’s a PLANT?

Chocolate is not just a sweet glorious ray of edible
sunshine, Chocolate IS A PLANT!  It’s
been a 3,000 year journey from the biological roots of chocolate, to today’s
wild chocolate innovations….

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 (Theobroma Cacao) 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.

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.

The cacao beans that furnish this phytochemical feast are actually quite challenging to grow, and need just the right conditions and lots of care to fight the diseases and pests that typically attack 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, which 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.

Go to the supermarket today, and in the candy aisle you will see an array of chocolate worthy of an Aztec Emperor.  If you wish, you can pay a kingly fortune for the best of it  — the Guinness World Record holder is about 650 dollars for ONE 80-gram bar made of some of the rarest beans on earth! The West African nation of Cote d’Ivoire  produces 2/5ths of the worlds Forestera.  By contrast, most Criollo beans today come from small farms in Venezuela or Madagascar.  Since the very best beans are so rare and precious, the cost for the finest chocolate in the world can be incredibly high.  The world record holder, “La Chuorsa,” is put out by Swiss Chocolatier Attimo, using beans from a small 400 year old family farm in Venezuela.  To add to the flavor profile (and price) even further, it is enhanced with orange flavor and another expensive and rare ingredient, saffron.  If 650 dollars for one bar is a bit rich for your blood, there are other adventures in chocolate flavors out there.  For a mere 250 dollars you can purchase a chocolate truffle with a genuine fungus truffle inside!  Compartes Chocolates in California gets high ratings for creativity with less expensive bars of flavors like “Avocado & Chips,” “Fruity Pebbles,” and “Donuts and Coffee.”  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 by an excited trick-or-treater, on the molecular level, chocolate is sure to satisfy your brain and not just your sweet tooth.

Sources:

Pumpkin Spice – The Bitter Sweet Story

Cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg.   This spice blend, known today as Pumpkin Spice, conjures up thoughts of wholesome fall fun – corn mazes, trick or treating, walking on crisp fall days and of course, that American fall favorite, pumpkin pie.  American people’s love for the pleasing, nostalgia-inducing taste of this spice blend means you can drink it as a beverage, eat it in baked goods from granola bars to Oreos, and even use it in soap, shampoo, and.. FISHING LURES? Pumpkin pie spice conjures memories that are wholesome and sweet, and people’s obsession with it often generates some good-humored mockery.  But what’s REALLY in that latte you’re enjoying?  The origin of pumpkin spice isn’t so sweet, but it’s definitely spicy!  About 500 years ago, the drive to obtain the spices in your pumpkin spice Cheerios was one of the most consequential moments in human history.  Your Thanksgiving pie comes with an incredible legacy –under that dollop of whipped cream is the beginning of the modern age, shocking levels of violence, and even the origin of The United States of America itself.

Nutmeg in particular has a large slice of history’s pie.  In the European Middle Ages, exotic nutmeg was the ultimate status good, worth much more than its weight in gold.  People used it as an aphrodisiac, and it was thought especially good for warding off the plague, but no one had any idea where it came from.  One of the main reasons for all of the bold sailing voyages of the “European Age of Discovery” was to find the sources of the nutmeg that Europeans craved.   In the process, Europeans reached and began to colonize places as far-flung as The Americas and Australia, initiating the early modern age and laying the foundations for our current globalized world.  Nutmeg is native to a place called the Banda Archipelago, in Eastern Indonesia.  In the 1500’s, first the Portuguese, then the Dutch showed up there, seeking this spice that was more precious than gold. They were willing to do anything to secure it.

The native people of Banda had been building their trading empire with Asia for centuries, and were wealthy and well organized, but they did not count on the lengths the Dutch would go to for profit.  To ensure a monopoly over the Nutmeg trade, the Dutch massacred almost the entire population of The Bandas, keeping only a few as slaves to work the nutmeg orchards.  This marked the start of centuries of deadly, often genocidal war between the Dutch and Indonesian people. The Dutch, however, were much more disturbed by the presence of some ragtag Englishmen who were claiming a tiny island in the archipelago, Run, for England.  Both the English and the Dutch in Indonesia were some of the toughest, wiliest, most skilled fighters either kingdom had to offer, and the fighting between them was brutal, often with many native Indonesian lives as collateral.  Giles Morton’s amazing book Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, describes the swashbuckling, and tremendously consequential, battles for The Bandas in detail.

To maintain their monopoly, and shake those pesky English, the Dutch eventually offered an island-swap for peace.  In exchange for Run and the nutmeg monopoly, in 1667 the English were given a much less important and less profitable island held by the Dutch:  New Amsterdam, otherwise known as Manhattan Island.  New Amsterdam became New York, the English presence in North America was firmly established, and the rest, as they say, is history.  Eventually the Dutch monopoly on nutmeg was lost, and their hard-won empire in Indonesia began to crumble.  Nutmeg and its Indonesian cousin, cloves, became cheap enough to drink and eat every day.  New York, and indeed the entire country of the United States would have been vastly different – or never even existed at all — without pumpkin spice.  If someone makes fun of you for eating your 4th pumpkin spice pop tarts of the day, now you can let them know that it’s not trendy junk food, it’s one of the most important substances in modern history.