It is lunchtime in the future. You are hungry and eating a burger. But, the beef inside did not come from a cow. It came from a lab. Scientists are figuring out how to grow hamburger patties in a petri dish.

Now, you might be wondering why would you want to grow two all-beef patties without the cow? It ends up that cows are very inefficient at producing protein. Also, there will be many more mouths to feed in the future. In fact, by 2050, there will be nearly 9 billion people on the planet. That’s a lot of hungry people. Cows can’t cut it.

Additionally, cows produce a lot (like,  10 to 20%) of all the green house gases in the world, because they belch methane. Methane is a powerful gas that traps the heat that the earth is trying to eliminate. So, finding another source of meat is good for the planet.

Making a lab-grown beef patty is a very simple process.  There are special cells in your body called stem cells that are used to repair muscles should they become injured. What scientists do is get these stem cells and take them outside of the body and give them an environment to grow and create muscle.  And, nine weeks later, you have a hamburger.

So what does the burger taste like? Well, it is a bit dry. There isn’t any fat to hold in the juices. So, researchers are working on making fat too.

Interestingly, the cost of this first burger wasn’t cheap. It cost $25,000 to create it. But, now that these scientists know what it takes to make one burger, they can figure out how to scale up their process.

It will take some time before you see a beaker-grown beef patty. There are still many tests that have to be done and governmental guidelines that need to be met.

But, eventually a beef patty may be made at a 3D printer near you.

 

Dogs bark. Cats meow. Ducks quack. These noises might not seem like much to us, but animals are communicating.

We’ve been intrigued with communicating with animals since the classic movie Dr. Dolittle from the 1960s and the revamped version of this movie in the 1990s with Eddie Murphy. But, scientists have been studying animal language for much, much longer and have found that animals have a full vocabulary with verbs, nouns, and adjectives. Animals can alert other animals of predators by stating what the predator is, what it looks like, and how fast the predator is running.

But the fascinating part about animal language is time. Animals with longer lives tend to speak at longer and more drawn-out paces than animals with shorter lives and faster speech. For instance, a prairie dog speaks in chirps, but if you slow down those chirps, they sound like human speech. Prairie dogs live for a three to five years.  On the other end, whales live for decades and speak for whole minutes. If you speed up their speech several times, it sounds like a human speaking.  There seems to be some correlation between the length of life and how long an animal speaks.

All this is to say it that the chirps or barks you hear are full of compressed information. And, to quote Bonnie Raitt, that is “Something to Talk About.”

Find out more about animal language here:

Chasing Dr. Dolittle by Con Slobodchikoff

 

Imagine you are a seed. You are buried in the ground and it is dark.

You are starting to sprout and grow. But which way should you go? Which way is up?

Well, it ends up there are special cells in plants that allow it to sense the direction of gravity. These cells are sort of like a jar full of water with small rocks inside. If you throw in the rocks and seal the jar, the rocks will fall to the bottom. If you tilt the jar, the rocks will fall to the new bottom. Something similar is going on inside these cells. There are small rocks that fall to the bottom of the cell and tell the cell, this is where gravity is pulling. So, the roots know to go in that direction; and the shoots of the plant know to go in the opposite direction.

Scientists would call this ability of plants to sense gravity, gravitropism.

If you want, you can try a little experiment. Get a small plant, and put it on its side. In a few days, the plant will tilt upwards.

Now, this ability for plants to sense the direction of gravity is fine on earth were gravity is present, but what about on the space station, where there is little gravity? If we want to grow plants in space, in the right direction, we need to give plants other clues to know which way to grow. Fortunately, plants also grow in the direction of light too. And, recently astronauts have grown a flower in space.

Plants are budding with science and with special cells they know what’s up.

 

Deep in your printer are millions of explosions that you don’t even know about. Now, we usually don’t think of our printers as anything special, but there is lots of science taking place to make your documents come to life.  Inside of your printer, bubbles push ink through small microscopic holes to make dots on a page that will become letters and numbers and symbols.

But these are no ordinary bubbles. You could put over one and a half million of these bubbles in a square inch (a little over a postage stamp).  These bubbles are created by heating the ink with very tiny electrical resistors, like those in your toaster, but the ink is heated so quickly that it doesn’t actually boil. The ink is heated to over 650 Fahrenheit  (350C). At this temperature, the ink doesn’t boil, it explodes in what’s called a super heated vapour explosion .

Now, the concept of using bubbles to print have been around since the 1950s, and full disclosure, I worked at HP and worked on ink jet.

So how does printing happen? We send a pattern of electrical pulses that activate the resisters in order to produce a pattern of dots on the paper. One of those pulses, which last for about a millionth of a second, causes a bubble to form. The bubble pushes the drop out the nozzle and the drop lands on paper in a pattern that reproduces characters and graphic images. And, voila, you have the makings of an image.

To make an image, there are nozzles for black, cyan,  magenta, and yellow ink. When combined in the right proportion, all the colors of the rainbow are possible and the quality is on par with a photograph.

And ink jet is everywhere.  The next time you see a bus driving down the street with a beautiful color graphic on the side it is most likely that it was printed on ink jet.   Ink jet is also used for banners, CDs, and even t-shirts.

So bubbles print and their work is everywhere. They give life more pop.

Invisibility has been something that has captured our imagination in books and movies from The Invisible Man (1933) to Harry Potter (2001). And, these characters make invisibility seem so cool.

Well, science fiction has become a science fact. Scientists have made objects invisible in their labs.

In order to understand how to make something invisible, we have to think about light. Light moves in straight lines. When it hits a surface, it bounces off, and heads for our eyes. And, the brain interprets this bounced light as an image.

If we want to make something invisible, we have to bend light around the object so that our eyes and brains cannot see it. Bending light is an optical illusion. Invisibility is an optical illusion too.

What scientists have done is get some magnifying glasses and put then in a row so that they collect light into a small beam and then bend it. When you look through those lenses, you cannot see anything. So far, they have been able to make something the size of a hand invisible.

As you can imagine, soldiers and spies would love to get their hands on this invention. But, artists would too. With an invisibility cloak, they could bend light so that windows are not needed, but light still comes into the room.

All in all, art continues to inspire science with new ideas. And invisibility cloaks change how we see and don’t see the world.

 

You can try this invisibility cloak for yourself at the link below. Impress your students and friends.

Get your own invisibility cloak today!

Pi (π) is an old number. It is found in the ratio of a circle’s diameter to its circumference. This might not seem like a big deal for our modern sensibilities, but this was important in the construction of arches for buildings and churches. And, let us not forget the wheel.

Circles are everywhere from wheels of a car, to wheels on a bike, to the shape of a pizza. If you don’t think pizza boxes don’t have to consider pi when making them, you are mistaken. The problem of a circle in a square has perplexed many mathematical geniuses over the centuries.

Talking about mathematicians, they have some funny words to describe pi.  Mathematicians would call pi irrational, which means that you can never find a fraction that is equal to pi.  For ancient people, or for anyone without a calculator, this is maddening. It is nice to be able to simplify pi.  But, there isn’t a way to do that.  For centuries, people looked for a fraction for pi and the closest is  22/7, but this doesn’t exactly equal  pi.  The other weird thing about pi is that it is transcendental, which means it will never be the solution to an algebraic expression.

Pi is a number that is everywhere but it just doesn’t fit in our standard way of thinking about numbers.

Another weird thing about pi is that it goes on for infinity, without end. Computer scientists have calculated pi for billions of digits. Like this …3.14159265358979323846264338327950288419716939937 …  And on and on and on.

The last thing about pi is that it is use in statistics without our knowing. Whenever there is a bell curve shape, the mathematical expression for the bell curve, also known as a normal distribution, has pi in it. That means that pi is not only in every circle you see, but in any poll where an average is taken.

Pi is everywhere, which is why we take a day out of the year to celebrate it.

Happy 3.14!

 

For those serious about pi:

A history of Pi

A pi-shaped pi pan

We tell time by measuring a repeating pattern. The earth spins — causing it to be light and dark, which we translate as a day. Pendulums swing back and forth, which we translate as a second. Scientists would call things-with-repeating-patterns oscillators. However, there is a problem.

Researchers have found that the earth speeds up and slows down in unpredictable ways. So, the earth is not a good way to measure the passing of time. The earth is a bad clock.

This is unfortunate, since we need precise clocks for many of the technologies we use,  like GPS. So we need a better clock–a more precise clock, a clock that is stable for a long time.

To make a better clock, it needs three parts: An oscillator to produce a repeating pattern; a counter to measure how often the pattern occurs. And, a part to make sure that the oscillator is creating this pattern correctly—which is called a discriminator.

Deep in a precise clock, or an atomic clock, is an oscillator. In this case, it is a quartz gem that is vibrating—the quartz acts like a piece of jello that wiggles when hit. And, those wiggles are counted to tell time.

To make sure that the quartz is wiggling correctly, atoms are used to check it. Cesium atoms

How?

Well, inside the atoms are electrons. And, electrons live at different levels from the center. Electrons can move up and down these levels, like a ladder, when they get zapped with energy. However, the electrons can’t keep that energy, so they give back a precise amount of energy when they return to their original level. It ends up that that energy given back has a precise oscillation to it. This is compared to the wiggles made by the quartz to see if the quartz is correct.

Sure, there are lots of steps, but it is worth it, since atoms are very precise. They lose their precision every 1.4 million years.

So it seems that atoms take a licking, and this keeps clocks ticking.

 

And this year’s Oscar goes to .   .    .   chemistry.

On that wonderful night in LA, the red carpet is full of celebrities and fans all eager to hear who wins the gold statue.  However, the Oscar statue isn’t pure gold. That would be extremely expensive.  The Oscar is actually a bronze statue that is coated with gold.

So how does the Oscar become, well, an Oscar?

To understand we have to think about frog’s legs.

In the late 1700s, Luigi Galvani, who was a professor of anatomy in Italy, was dissecting frogs using a metal scalpel and a copper clamp. He noticed something: The frog’s legs twitched like they were alive! He repeated this a couple of times and they twitched every time.

He found something amazing and called it animal electricity. That is the animal had some supernatural life force inside of it. Galvani wrote up his results and all of Europe embraced this idea.

But, on the other side of Italy was a physics professor named Alessandro Volta. He believed in Galvani’s idea at first, but began to think it was the two different metals that caused the legs to twitch. Volta recalled an earlier experiment by another scientist who had put his tongue between two different coins, and it created a terrible taste. Ends up, that  the two metals next each other in a liquid (saliva, in this case) started a chemical reaction.

So with this old experiment in the back of his mind, Volta made sandwiches of two different metals and put them in a jar full of saltwater. Then, he connected wires from this stack of metals to the frog’s legs. They twitched.

What Volta showed is that two different metals together make electricity. He made a battery.

In a battery, electricity flows from one metal to the other.

But what does this have to do with the Oscars?

Well, in order for electricity to flow in a battery in one direction, there has to be metal flowing in the opposite direction.  If you were to look at the metal under the microscope you would see that a metal coating is starting to form.

So to make an Oscar this coating process is taken to a much bigger level.  The bronze statue is put in a huge chemical tank that has microscopic gold floating in a liquid. Electricity is attached to the statue and the gold particles become attracted to the statue and start to coat it. After a really long time in the tank, the statute becomes the beautiful icon we know today.

So, if you enjoy the Oscars, and many do, you really have frog’s legs to thank.

References:

Luigi Galvani: Bern Dibner

How the Oscar Got a Facelift this Year

How Frog Legs Helped Make the Oscars Possible (Video)

When it comes to communicating, some things never change.

The african drum. Many would say it was an musical instrument. It is. But, it is much more than that. African drums were a way of communicating over vast distances in ancient Africa.

If there was a herd coming or an enemy was approaching, drummers would send messages through their drums to neighboring villages.  The messages would be repeated again and again and to send the message further.

It ends up that modern technology does something similarly. Messages in your telephone are repeated so that the volume isn’t loss and this allows messages to be sent over long distances.

But the most mind-blowing stuff that the ancient Nubians discovered is that if you drum a message near the banks of the Nile, the message can be sent over the surface of the water without losing volume. Scientists would say there is a a lossless channel at the interface between the water and air.  That means you could whisper something and someone across the Nile nearly 2 miles away could hear it.

Today, we seek such an ability with optical fibers. The challenged is to send a message without it losing volume and without the need for lots of repeaters.  It seems the some of the issues of the past are still present today. Showing that there really isn’t anything new under the (African) sun.

When the voice in the commercial says “chocolate melts in your mouth and not in your hands,” well they aren’t joking. Scientifically, it is true. Chocolate melts around 92 degrees Fahrenheit, while your mouth is 98.6 degrees. (Your hands are only 60 degrees.)

Chocolate comes from a seed housed in football-shaped pods, which sprout from a tree called Theobroma cacao. This name literally means food from the gods. This tree grows along the Equator in places like Ghana, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Indonesia, Brazil, and Ecuador.

Chocolate is an old food. Montezuma, the ancient Aztec emperor, drank 50 jars of a chocolaty drink to increase his vitality and virility. But, what he drank was very different from the hot cocoa we drink today.

It takes many many steps to make modern chocolate. First, when chocolate farmers open the fruit, the seeds do not look appetizing, that is because the cocoa beans are surrounded by a white gooey mash. “It looks pretty disgusting,” said Gail Ambrosius, a chocolatier based in Madison, Wisconsin. But if you were to taste these beans, you’ll be surprised. “It tastes just amazing. Kind of like honeydew, melon, apricot, peaches. It is just delicious, ” she said.

Once the cocoa beans are taken out, then the transformation begins. The beans are tossed in a large box to ferment, which generates lots of heat—especially after about a week. After that the cocoa beans are laid out on a black tarp to dry. And sorted to remove any stones that might be there. Then, the beans are roasted. “It teases out the final flavor of the beans,” said Ambrosius. The cocoa beans are then crushed and at this point they are called cocoa nibs. And with heat and pressure, you get a drippy melted chocolate, which is called cocoa liquor.

After all of that, a decision has to be made: Are you making a dark chocolate, a milk chocolate, or cocoa powder?

So then you do the math.

“If you’re making a 70 percent chocolate and you’re making a thousand pounds total, you would put 700 pounds of the liquor in your machine and 300 pounds of sugar. So there you get the 70 percent chocolate,” said Ambrosius.

Interestingly, the higher the percentage of cocoa, the healthier the chocolate is. Some studies suggest dark chocolate raises the good cholesterol—and lowers the bad.

But remember, chocolate has lots of sugar—as much as soda. So eat a little bit and savor all the tasty chemistry in your mouth.