Without your nose, the world would be pretty tasteless.

Try this simple experiment: Hold your nose and put a jellybean in your mouth. Chances are you can taste that it is sweet, but you cannot taste the exact flavor. However, if you let go of your nose, you’ll be able to taste the exact flavor of the jellybean. This is because your nose is key to tasting food.

When you think about tasting food, you usually think of the tongue. Your tongue is a sensor. It has thousands of taste buds that can sense sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami and fat. Umami (said: oo-mommy) is a savory taste, which can be found in meats, cheeses, and soy sauce. Some scientists believe there is a six taste for fat too. Each one of your taste buds has chemical sensors. More precisely, your nose can sense chemicals for sugar, acid, salt, complex repulsive tastes, savory flavors, and fat content.

However, foods would be pretty boring with just those flavors. This is where your nose comes in. Your nose can sense over a thousand different flavors. These flavors are detected as they pass through the nasal cavity, but also as they travel from the back of the mouth up into the oral cavity.

When you are congested or have a cold, you cannot taste food because the flavors cannot get to your nose’s sensors. But, this eventually clears up. However, the inability to taste food does not clear up for the elderly. The sensors in the nose become less effective with time. This is why it is hard for the elderly to detect if milk has gone bad or to taste the flavors of their favorite foods. Fortunately, scientists and inventors are coming up with schemes to help keep food flavorful for those in their golden years.

So use your nose and taste all the wonderful flavors out there  …  while you can.

Salad might be one way to reduce our dependence on oil.

Every year 2 billion tires are sold. Each tire is made from 7 gallons of oil. The oil, which comes from fossil fuels, is converted to make the synthetic rubber. Many are worried about this way of doing business because it isn’t sustainable.   What is needed is another source of rubber for tires.

Enter Lettuce.

Scientists at the University of Calgary in Canada found another source of rubber and that is lettuce. Lettuce makes natural rubber. Dr. Dae-Kyun Ro found that lettuce makes rubber and can be cultivated in cold climates like the US and Canada.

Tires used to be made from natural rubber, which came from the Brazilian rubber tree. Even Thomas Edison in the 1930 sought other plants to make natural rubber and found that the Canadian weed called the goldenrod was a good candidate. Edison, with Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, tried to produce high quality natural rubber from it. But, that work was abandoned once chemists found how to make synthetic rubber from oil. Now, modern scientists are picking up where Edison left off.

Lettuce produces a flowering stem. Inside this stem is a milky substance that contains key ingredients to make natural rubber.

“We found it [lettuce] produces very high quality natural rubber but of a very low quantity,” Ro said. He continued, “the quality is almost the same as that from the Brazilian rubber tree.” This group is also exploring other plants to make natural rubber.

The work is still in the early stages, so it will be some time — five to ten years — before you see a tire with the words “Made from Lettuce, “ on the side. However, what needs no dressing is how impactful lettuce will be.


Next Generation Science Standards: NGSS LS2.A

The color of a leaf is a dance as one molecule exits and others make their way to center stage.

A leaf might seem very simple, but inside it is a chemical factory. Inside the leaf is chlorophyll, a green molecule, which trees use to turn sunlight into energy to grow.

Leaves act just like a factory. In it, one thing goes in and another thing comes out. Leaves take in light from the sun, carbon dioxide from the air, and water from the soil and change them to make sugars and starches. What goes in is sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide; what comes out is energy.

At the heart of this factory is that green chlorophyll molecule, which is working hard during the hot days. However, as the temperature drops at night and the amount of sunshine lessens, the trees know it is time to shut down for the winter. The chlorophyll in the leaves starts to break down and the green color starts to exit the leaf.

One secret about leaves is that hidden underneath the green molecule are other molecules that make the colors of yellow and orange. As the temperature drops, these colors are revealed. As for the reds and purple colors in leaves, they come from other molecules that the tree starts to make as the cold temperatures kick in.

Some years the colors in trees are bright. Other years they are dull. The best conditions for maximum color are cool days that are dry (but not too cold). If there is too much rain or wind — like during a storm — the fall foliage will not be ideal since leaves will fall off the trees. Also, an early frost makes the colors less bright. Interestingly, the colder it gets the redder the leaves will be, since the molecule that makes red prefers the cold.

So as you can see, fall foliage is a delicate dance of molecules. It only happens for a short time. So enjoy the fall colors and all that beautiful and vivid chemistry at work.


Fall Colors in Upstate New York


NFL great Jerry Rice found the football flies in a way that perplexes rocket scientists.

A football has a shape that mathematicians call a prolate spheroid. While that sounds like a weird word, prolate spheroid shapes happen in your everyday life as grapes, lemons, and watermelons. They are all longer in one direction than the other. This weird shape of the football means that it cannot be thrown like a baseball. The only way for a football to stably travel long distances is if thrown with a spin.

When a quarterback throws a football, the football spins more than 600 times in a minute, which is as fast as a CD spinning in a CD player. This spin does a few things. First, it stabilizes the ball. Without the spin, the ball would flop over. The second thing that the spin does is it creates new complicated behaviors too.

The spin creates what scientists called gyroscopic torque. This sounds like a strange thing, but gyroscopic torque happens when you ride a bike. When the wheels spin, you keep upright. However, as soon as the wheels slow down, you lose your balance. The same happens with the football. The spin keeps the football’s nose from falling down just like the wheels of the bike.

However, the spin also allows footballs to do something a bit strange. It acts like a toy gyroscope. If you ever take a spinning gyroscope toy and push it, the toy will mysteriously move on its own in another direction. This same thing happens to a football. A football spins and points its nose up, but gravity pushes its nose down as the football comes back to earth. So the football moves on its own and points sideways. (Next time you are watching a game, notice that the football’s nose is a bit to the side. That’s gyroscopic torque in action!)

So why is this a big deal? If a football is pointing sideways, then this means that a ball can be off its target by a few yards. Quarterbacks must account for this shift when they throw. Many QBs know about this instinctively and do this automatically. But, new QBs have to learn this.

Interestingly, a football spins differently if a quarterback is right-handed or left- handed. When a right-handed quarterback throws the ball, the ball spins clockwise. This means that the ball shifts a bit to the right. A left-handed quarterback throws the ball with a counter-clockwise spin, so the ball veers to the left. A ball will look very different to a wide receiver depending if a quarterback is right handed or left-handed. In fact, Jerry Rice, the great NFL wide receiver, confirmed that the ball looks different. Rice saw something that perplexed professors for years.

As one can see, the football’s tight spiral is poetry in motion, but it is also science in action.


Next Generation Science Standard NGSS PS2.C

Reference books

The Physics of Football by Timothy Gay (Affiliate Link)

Newton’s Football by St. John and Ramirez (Affiliate Link)

Science is for everyone. Let’s make it that way.

Science Underground is a 2-minute science podcast that shows science in a fun and uncomplicated way. This episode introduces listeners to the host, scientist and author, Ainissa Ramirez. She shares her mission to make science fun and invites you to embark on a journey with her to see the workings of the world in a new way.