Here is what happens when your brain is shaken or stirred.


Taken from Newton’s Football:

What exactly is a concussion? Robert Cantu, co-director of Boston

University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy

and one of the world’s leading experts on head injuries, describes a

concussion as “an alteration in brain function induced by biomechanical

forces.” Those biomechanical forces include sudden acceleration

and then deceleration of the head, which can cause the brain

to crash into the inside of the skull or be twisted or strained in such

a way that certain symptoms result. Those symptoms may include,

but are not limited to, headache, nausea, sensitivity to light and

noise, dizziness, amnesia, drowsiness, the inability to concentrate,

and fatigue. Some minor concussions resolve within minutes, while

in severe cases a post-concussion syndrome can last for years.

In general, the skull does a good job of protecting the brain

against the dangers that an early human might have encountered,

like a fall onto soft ground or getting hit with a small stick. Of

course, the skull—and the brain it’s protecting—fares less well

against modern dangers like bullets and motorcycle crashes. Or a

270-pound middle linebacker running at full speed and driving the

point of his helmet into your chin.


Learn more about the science behind football here:


Newton's Football

Snowflakes reflect light like a mirror to create their white color.

Liquid water is clear, but snow is white. Why is that?

Well, the snow crystals have many surfaces at different angles and each one of these surfaces acts like a tiny mirror which bounces back the light.  So, the white color you are seeing is actually the light that is being reflected.  The light bouncing off the surfaces contains all the colors of the rainbow combined together, to make white light.  This white light lands on a snow crystal’s surface and then reflects back off, like a flashlight beam on a mirror.

This act of bouncing light is what scientists would call scattering. The surface of the snowflake scatters  light in many directions, causing us to see the white color.  In an earlier podcast, we learned why snow has six sides. Snow is a crystal, with facets just like a diamond. Each one of these facets bounces light back to give it the color we see.

Now, snow is not the only thing that bounces light back. Water droplets can scatter light back too. This is why clouds, steam, and fog look white.

So, the colors you see, well, they  are just the surface.






Warm lakes and cold Canadian winds create the perfect (snow) storm.

In the early winter (from November to January), there is a chance for large winter storms because lakes help to produce more snow.  When cold dry winds from Canada blow over the Great Lakes, the winds pick up moisture that is evaporating from the lakes.  That moisture is turned to snow and then dumped on some poor city. This is called Lake Effect Snow and it occurs when there isn’t any ice on the lakes. As soon as the lakes freeze over, the lake effect snow season is over.

You might have heard stories of snow storms where feet of snow are produced in a few days. The lakes enhance the snowstorm by providing more moisture to the system.  Cities along the Great Lakes are most effected. However, Buffalo, NY has been a sweet spot for lake effect snow in recent years.

So, be on the look out for mega-snow storms early in the winter season. Without ice to capped off the moisture, there will be more precipitation.

Rain is also increased by lakes and oceans, but the amounts are not as much as the snow. This is because 1 inch of rain is equal to 10 inches of snow, according to the National Weather Service. (That ratio depends on the temperature and the fluffiness of the snow, by the way.)

No matter how you measure it, increased precipitation by lakes is snow joke and will make one wish for an early spring.


The Gateway Arch turned 50 with the help of modern materials and math.

When creating a monument for future generations to behold, there are two features it must possess—simplicity and permanence.  This was the thinking that architect Eero Saarinen used when designing the “Gateway Arch to the West,” which celebrated its 50th anniversary October 28, 2015. Saarinen gained inspiration by looking to the nation’s capital. He surmised that timelessness arose from geometric forms—the Washington Monument is an obelisk; the Lincoln Memorial is a rectangle; and the Jefferson Memorial is a circle in a square. So, Saarinen selected an arch.

However, this arch would be no ordinary arch. Aloft at 630 feet, it had a special geometric form that moved mathematicians and masons—the catenary arch.  A catenary arch appears when a chain hangs freely from two supported ends and occurs in everyday life from draping power lines to necklaces.  When inverted, this arch supports its own weight and differs from a parabola. A catenary arch has steeper legs, a flatter peak, and greater strength. With this appointed shape, Saarinen next sought to find the right building materials to make it.

He chose a material that would represent the modern age—stainless steel. This metal was first created in the 19th century, but perfected in the 20th. It is composed of steel (a combination of iron and carbon) with a dash of chromium. The mix of iron and carbon gives the metal strength, but chromium provides longevity by overcoming iron’s weakness of rusting.

Rust never sleeps, as songwriter Neil Young once penned.  So, the best way to stop it is to prevent it. Paint is one way to halt rust, but an atomic layer of protection helps too. This is where chromium comes in. Chromium makes a thin layer of chromium oxide on the surface, which hinders water from combining with the iron to create rust.

The path to developing the metal for the Gateway Arch was circuitous at best. Stainless steel wasn’t a creation, but an evolution. The discovery of chromium occurred in the 18th century by French chemist Louis Nicolas Vauquelin.  However, the secret to making lasting metals would take some time, as it puzzled some of the world’s greatest minds. Michael Faraday, one of history’s best scientists, began his career investigating new kinds of steel in the 1820s. He had limited success.

Other delays occurred. There were unfiled patents in the 1870s on weather-resistant metals. Then efforts stalled. Two decades later, there was a renewed interest to create stainless steel, but it took a wrong turn. A famous scientist, Sir Robert Hadley, erroneously concluded in the 1890s that chromium lessened steel’s ability to fight corrosion. His unfortunate claim curtailed future work, until Harry Brearley serendipitously uncovered that chromium makes steel “rustless” and commercialized it as cutlery, which was announced in The New York Times in 1915. All these steps together made Saarinen’s Gateway Arch possible.

The stainless steel in the Gateway Arch is the same in a household fork. Metal plates (as thick as four nickels) are held together with miles of welds making the arch’s exterior nearly 900 tons. (For comparison, the Chrysler Building has a 27-ton stainless exterior.) The arch is perched on the edge of the Mississippi where an early trading outpost stood, which was frequented by pioneers, fur traders, and explorers before heading westward. In the 1930s, city leaders wanted to transform this decaying site with a monument to honor those who “won” the west, the Louisiana Purchase, and Thomas Jefferson.

Saarinen’s application in 1947, one of 172 entries including one from his famous architect father, captured what these leaders had envisaged—a message to the future, with modern materials, and a wink to the past, with a simple geometric form. Construction did not begin until 1962. Sadly, Saarinen died of a brain tumor in 1961 and never got to see his structure.

Today, the arch stands strong, although it contends with dirt and chemical pollution from industrial emissions from the arch’s early years. These practices are no longer permissible with the establishment of the Clean Air Act in the 1960s. The survival of the arch is not only a testament to stainless steel but to progressive legislation.  The Gateway Arch continually serves as a material, design, and cultural zeitgeist—relevant to the present, but also connecting us to the past as it propels us upward and forward.

Our expanding waistlines result from the  competition between our modern diet and our ancestral genes.  The book Newton’s Football (Random House) spells in out:

Cheap and easy access to calories is a very recent development in the human condition. The hunting and gathering that early man did was a boom-or-bust business. One day there’d be a feast in the form of ripe fruits and vegetables or a freshly killed ox. And there were, of course, no Ziploc bags or Sub-Zero refrigerators in which to store the leftovers.

When the harvest was over and the hunters hit a dry spell, it was famine time. Attempts to store food were generally unsuccessful, and even when it did work, it still required an early human to defend the food against those who’d steal it, human or otherwise.

Storing excess calories as fat was an elegant solution to these problems.

“Fat is the best defense against a rainy day, and throughout human history there were lots of rainy days,” explains David Katz, founding director of the Yale Prevention Research Center.

Additionally, there is a new ingredient in our diet that our ancestors rarely enjoyed, and that is processed sugar.  Sugar is surprisingly prevalent in our modern diets and is found in bread and crackers and salad dressing and tomato sauce. And, that’s more calories to burn.

Sugar in moderation is a good thing and serves as a fuel for our bodies, but if we don’t use sugar, it gets stored. “It’s subject to the laws of thermodynamics,” says Katz. “If you don’t burn it, the body will store it as an excess of calories.”

As one can see, fat was a Stone Age solution for a rainy day when there wasn’t any food. Unfortunately, in our modern day, that rainy day never comes.

So, blame those extra pounds on your ancestors.

LEDs or light emitting diodes are everywhere from traffic lights to Christmas ornaments to remote controls.  Inside these tiny bulbs is a small grey block which is made of silicon. And, silicon has the unusual origin of coming from sand.

Sand is melted and purified and then cast in long thick logs, called ingots, which are slice like baloney. Twenty years ago, these logs used to be as thick as a thumb, now these logs are wider than dinner plates.  The slice is then cut into small square chips.

The chips are then given a bit of phosphorus on one side and a bit of boron on the other. Phosphorous is an element that has more electrons than silicon; boron has fewer electrons than silicon. These different sides are connected to a battery. The battery pushes electrons from the phosphorous side to the boron side. And, when these electrons connect with atoms that don’t have electrons, light is given off.

LEDs are more efficient than incandescent bulbs. Incandescent bulbs, the ones we attribute to Thomas Edison, give off lots of heat. This is why toy oven use these bulbs to bake small cakes.  In fact, 70 percent of the energy used by incandescent bulbs is heat. That’s wasted energy.

But, LEDs run cool. They are so cool that cities now must remove snow from LED traffic lights during the winter. In the past, incandescent bulbs ran so hot, they would burn off any snow that landed on them. LEDs are not running hot and so snow collects on traffic lights. (This happens when you solve one problem, you inherit another one.)

So, as you can see, small bits of beach sand purified into silicon are made into sandwiches that give off light. Now, this is a bright idea.


Additional reading & activites (Affiliate Links):

Elements: A Visual Exploration 

Snap Electronics Fun LED kit

Materials: A Very Short Introduction

There is lots of news about CTE or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. CTE is a brain disease, a neurological degenerative disease that is caused by repetitive hits to the head. The symptoms include dementia, memory loss, and depression. In the early twentieth century, this condition was called “punch-drunk” and was found in a number of boxers who ultimately were found to suffer from dementia. No cure for CTE is currently known, and at present it can only be identified postmortem.

Here is an excerpt from Newtons Football (Affiliate Link), which describes where doctors are:

In the field of head injuries, scientists have a lot to try to understand as they parse the puzzle of concussions and the related long-term degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
Just how does a concussive impact impair the function of the brain?

“You’ve got this metabolic crisis going on within the cell,” posits Robert Cantu, a professor of neurology at Boston University, as potassium ions flood out of the nerve cell, replaced by calcium ions, which prevent the cell from passing on information.”

Is there a genetic component to concussions and CTE?

“No one knows yet, but studies are focused on a variant of a common lipid transport gene called ApoE-e4. This gene does good things making sure fat goes to the right place,” says Robert Stern, a professor of neurology at Boston University, “but if you have the wrong form it does something crazy in the brain.” He adds that “it is a susceptibility gene, as opposed to a deterministic gene. If you have the wrong form, it increases your risk of having the disease, but it does not mean you will get it,” Stern explains. “There is not going to be a CTE gene because it is such a multifaceted disease.”


Newtons Football (Affiliate Link)

The secret to the snowflake’s shape can be found in a stack of oranges.

If you go over to the grocery store and head over to the produce section, you’ll find that oranges are stacked up in a way that each orange is touching six other oranges. This arrangement is called a hexagon–it has six sides.  Honeycombs have this hexagonal shape. So do bath tiles.

Oranges in a hexagon shape

Oranges are arranged so that each orange touches six other oranges–a hexagon. Source: Shutterstock

Water molecules stack up just like the oranges, which is why snowflakes have six points to them.  The water molecules collect on a small piece of ice or dust in a cloud and build out just like the oranges to create 6 sides. It takes about 100,000 water droplets to eventually make one snowflake.

What you might not know is that snowflakes have other shapes too.  One looks like a spool of thread, another looks like a pencil. Scientists are still trying to find out how each is made.

Where there is no mystery is how beautiful snowflakes are and how much collaboration it takes for water molecules to create a flake that lands on your tongue.

Find you more about snowflakes here (Affiliate links):

Snowflakes by Ken Libbrecht (featured in the podcast)

Snowflakes in Photographs (picture book of real snowflakes)

Snowflake Bentley (The man who photographed snowflakes)


There’s no papering over the impact of origami in technology.

What do pizza boxes, paper bags, and fancy napkins have in common? Well, you might have guessed it — origami.

Origami, which means “paper folding,” is everywhere. While some of the oldest pieces of origami have been found in ancient China and origami’s deepest roots are in ancient Japan, origami makes an impact in today’s technology too.

One of the most important uses of origami today is in airbags. Airbags are doughnut-shape nylon bags that are deployed in a fraction of a second during a car collision. Airbags lie flat inside of the steering wheel. So, engineers needed to find the way to fold an airbag so it will store flat and expand out quickly. They consulted origami artist Robert Lang for the folding recipes. He found the origami folds for making a box with lots of corners was the solution that was needed.

Download some cool origami structures from this website (Used with permission)

Origami doesn’t stop there. The National Science Foundation, one of the government’s largest funding sources for research, has funded 13 grants last year to use origami in industry. Origami is being applied to foldable forceps to expanding solar panels to deployable antennas.

Interestingly, other cultures also have a history of folded paper. There are elaborate folded patterns in Europe and folded paper in Mesoamerica going back over a thousand years.

Today, schools are using origami in STEAM education to improve students’ skills. Origami has been found to increase thinking skills, improve geometry learning, and enhance problem solving.

Origami is used in nature. Bugs fold wings with origami patterns; leaf buds have patterns that are similar to Japanese fans. Even molecules are arranged like origami structures.

So, get a piece of paper out and make some folds. Be connected by using this technique that has made impact in so many ways and for so long.


Here are some fun books on origami (Affiliate Links):

Robert Lang’s Complete Book of Origami (featured in the podcast)

Star Wars Origami 

Origami Fun Kit for Beginners

The colors come from their skin playing with light.

Chameleons have the ability to change the color of their skin. And, researchers at the University of Geneva have uncovered the secret.

The chameleon’s skin is made up of two layers. The bottom layer is yellow. The top layer has tiny crystals inside it that play with light.

When the male chameleon is relaxed, the crystals in the top layer of the skin are close together. White light, which contains all the colors of the rainbow, shines onto the skin, but only blue bounces back from the top layer. This color combines with the yellow color from the bottom layer to make green.

This phenomenon of creating colors with patterns is what scientists call structural color. Structural color is pretty common in the animal kingdom. Many insects (beetles and butterflies) and birds (peacocks) create color this way. Light shines onto the patterns and only certain colors come off. You can think of the skin as tiny mirrors that select the colors that will be seen.

Structural color occurs in everyday life too. If you look at a soap bubble, you’ll see hints of color. Or if you look at the bottom of a CD, you’ll see hints of color too. Both the soap bubbles and CDs are clear, but the patterns that are on their surfaces play with light to create color. Next time you are at the gas station and see oil on the ground, you’ll see bands of color. This is structural color at work too as the film goes from thick to thin.

When the male chameleon gets angry or wants to attract a mate, it changes the distance between the crystals in its skin. This time when white light shines on the skin, only red bounces back. And that red color combines with the yellow from the first layer to make orange.

Interestingly, the tiny crystals in the skin are too small to see with the human eye. They are a nanometer in size. A nanometer is equal to one-one hundred thousandths of your hair. To find them, researchers had to take a small sample of the chameleon’s skin and measure it with a special microscope. Scientists took samples when the chameleon was relaxed and then again when it was agitated.

Now, researchers are now trying to find out how chameleons know the change the distance between the crystals. And, engineers want to use these patterns to make computer screens with less glare.

What there is no camouflaging is how clever chameleons are.