Friday, 3 March 2017

Set the World on Fire: Chlorine Trifluoride

Anyone who thinks science is boring is either lying or just hasn’t done their research. Not only can science explain the world in a way that no other philosophy can, it can also reveal some truly insane things that seem not to fit in our otherwise mundane experience of reality. Case in point: Chlorine Trifluoride (CTF), a substance so far outside the realm of crazy that even Nazis through in the “putting it to any practical use” towel.

As we all know, one of the coolest things about understanding science is that it allows you to blow stuff up – a fact that the MythBusters put to profitable use for 15 glorious seasons. Usually when governments, scientists or geeks in their backyards with a penchant for pushing the limits of safety want to energetically reduce something to a billion pieces, they use things like TNT, C4, or atomic bombs. Though extremely effective, these materials lack the chaotic flare of CTF.


If you pour CTF onto wood, it will catch fire. If you try to put the fire out with water, the water will catch fire. If you try to smother the flame with sand, gravel or mud they will also ignite. Try to store CTF in a glass beaker for use in your lab and you will behold the delightfully rare site of burning glass followed by the combustion of your lab bench, the concrete floor beneath it and anyone who happens to be standing on the floor below you. Breath in the fumes from the fire and you will die. Jostle it slightly and it will explode. CTF is the most badass stuff on the planet.


The facts of CTF are cool enough but its history is the stuff of movies. Created by Nazi scientists during the second world war, the plan was to use CTF as a low cost, hyper-efficient fuel for rockets. Hitler and his cronies wanted to ramp up production to 90 tonnes per month but after making only 30 tonnes total and experiencing first-hand how impossible the stuff is to deal with they decided to tap the brakes. When Nazis are intimidated by something, you generally want to keep your distance.


The reason CTF is so ridiculous is because of its chemical structure. Comprised of a single Chlorine atom attached to three Fluorine atoms, it is inherently unstable. It has been called “the most vigorous fluorinating agent known to humanity,” meaning that when it comes into contact with other molecules it rips them apart to replace their hydrogen atoms with fluorine. In the process it gives off heat and light, otherwise known as a fluorine fire.


CTF is also a better oxidizing agent than pure oxygen. That means is steals electrons from other atoms, making combustion possible. CTF does this so effectively that there isn’t much that it can’t set on fire including asbestos (generally considered totally flame resistant) and things that have already been burned (eg. ashes).

The only way to store CTF is in a container made of steel, iron, nickel or copper that has been treated with fluorine on the inside. Because there is no hydrogen in the inner lining, only fluorine, the fluorine atoms in CTF have nothing to replace. If you plan to stockpile the stuff, however, you had better pray to whatever deity you believe in (Flying Spaghetti Monsters included) that the inside of the container doesn’t become scratched or compromised in any way… Otherwise, kablamo.


In the 1950’s almost a tonne of CTF was spilled in a warehouse and according to witnesses it “burned straight through a foot of concrete and three feet of gravel while simultaneously releasing a deadly cloud of gas containing a cocktail of chlorine trifluoride, hydrogen fluoride, chlorine and hydrogen chloride that corroded every surface it came into contact with.” 

Today, CTF is used as a cleaning agent in semiconductor manufacturing and as a way to clean uranium residue off the inside of nuclear reactors. There is absolutely no debating, CTF is ridiculous stuff.



Friday, 20 January 2017

A Game of Cat and Mouse… and Human: Toxoplasmosis and how it messes with your mind

Are you a cat lover? If so, you are not alone. Over the eons, cats have worked their way so deeply into human society that they are rivaled only by dogs in terms of their pervasiveness. Even if you’re not a fan, it is virtually certain that you have come into contact with Felis catus at some point in your life. Estimates vary but it is generally accepted that there are between 400 million and 500 million domestic cats on Earth today, ranging from the ball of fur currently curled up on your keyboard to its feral family members that lay claim to Coliseum in Rome. But what if the human affinity for cats isn’t the innocent story of interspecies friendship that it seems? Could there be a more nefarious explanation for our attraction?

It would explain a lot. Aside from keeping your house clear of rodents, cats generally don’t offer much. They don’t even seem especially fond of humans when compared to their goofier fun-loving roommates – dogs. So, why do we love these untrainable, aloof houseguests as much as we do? The answer could be in their poop.


As it turns out, cats are the sole natural host of a microscopic parasite called Toxplasmosis gondii. While the parasite is able to move from cats to infect basically any kind of mammal or bird it comes into contact with, it reproduces only in cat guts. In essence, your cat is a four-legged toxoplasmosis factory and its litter box is a warehouse.


The effects of toxoplasmosis infection in rodents are well-documented and insanely interesting. These parasites may be among the most well-evolved creatures on the planet for the ingenious way they complete their lifecycle. To completely understand what I’m on about, it is helpful to view the world from the point of view of a toxoplasmosis parasite.


Born in a cat’s intestine, things are very good for our infancy. There is plenty of food to eat and we grow up in peace, until one day our host makes a fateful trip into the garden and leaves us behind in a pile of unpleasantness. Left outside, we are washed by the rain into a nearby pond and before we know it the water we now inhabit is slurped up by a thirsty mouse. We can live happily enough inside the mouse for a while, but eventually, there comes a time in our parasitic lives when we want to settle down and have a family. A mouse, ironically, for is toxoplasmites (not a real word) is like the big city; it’s fine for a while, but it’s no place to raise kids.


Now we have a problem. The only place we want to reproduce is in the gut of a cat, presumably because of our fond childhood memories, but how are we supposed to get this damn mouse to deliver us there? Mice are stubbornly known for their desire to avoid cats, as anyone who has ever watched Tom and Jerry knows. Our only recourse is a trip to the mouse’s brain.

This is where the details get fuzzy. There are a number of theories about the various mechanisms toxoplasmosis uses to alter a rodent’s brain, but no one can argue the results. Mice infected with the parasite lose their fear of cat odour. They scurry their little behinds right into the waiting jaws of their natural enemy. Successful in its mission, toxoplasmosis’ homecoming is complete and they can spawn the next generation.


But if toxoplasmosis can attract mice to cats, what effect does it have on humans? Fortunately, the health effects are pretty unnoticeable in most people. You may get a fever or headache or swollen lymph nodes, but unless you have a compromised immune system or are a fetus growing in an infected mother, toxoplasmosis is unlikely to be life threatening. Though, there is some evidence that is messes with our brains.

Researchers at Charles University in Prague conducted a study in 2011 where they asked both infected and uninfected men and women to rate the pleasantness of various samples of animal urine. While it is fair to assume that none of the ratings were off the charts, infectedmen rated the pleasantness of cat urine significantly higher than uninfected men did, while the ratings for other animals were unaffected. Curiously, the findings were the opposite for women, with infected women finding cat urine less pleasant.


In the end, the effects are small and we aren’t lining up to have our cats eat our flesh, but there is evidence of an effect. Given that recent research shows that mice continue to demonstrate the behavioural changes even after they have been cured of infection, it is also likely that the changes in human brains are long-term or permanent. Ultimately, no one seems to mind and the internet will continue to be made up primarily of cat-related content for the foreseeable future. It is at least worth acknowledging that we owe most of our amusement to brain-infecting parasites, though. 


Saturday, 24 December 2016

Forcing a White Christmas: Can humans control the weather?

When I was a kid, I can distinctly remember going to bed on December 24 on more than one occasion feeling anxious that there would not be snow for Christmas. Ultimately, I ended up having pretty good luck and the majority of my Christmas mornings included a fresh layer of powder in the yard, even if the day before had been greener than a sack of unripe bananas. But what if we didnt have to rely on luck? Can science guarantee white Christmases?

Setting aside the issue of whether or not we could get people on board with the idea (Santa is historically unprepared to do his work in blizzards, if TV specials are to be believed), the issue of whether it is technically possible to control the weather has piqued the interest of people for thousands of years. Countless cultures around the world have rain dances or other, mostly dubious, means of coaxing favourable meteorological conditions, and that urge has carried over into the labs of enterprising scientists as well.


At the heart of the matter is building clouds. Whether you are looking for rain to water crops or just sleddable snow, clouds are where you have to start. Fortunately, back  in 1946, a couple of guys named Irving Langmuir and Vincent Schaefer were working at a General Electric research lab and discovered that if you tossed some dry ice into a super-cooled cloud, you could produce massive amounts of ice crystals in relatively short order. The key is finding a substance that can seed the formation of the precipitation you are looking for. It turns out that the hardest part about producing rain drops or snowflakes is getting them started. If you can find some material that water or ice can latch onto to give them a head start, you might be able to get the ball rolling.

Note: the actual experiment took place in a cloud chamber, not an actual cloud. But where's the fun in that?
Geoff's Side note: It totally happened.

The materials that are used most often are silver iodide for ice crystals and very fine salt particles for water droplets, with the results varying depending on who you ask. The Chinese government is extremely confident about its ability to control the weather. So much so that officials in Beijing guaranteed clear skies for the opening ceremonies at the 2008 Olympics by encouraging rain in the lead up to the event (to essentially drain the atmosphere of moisture). Whether the 1,104 cloud seeding rockets they shot into the sky in the lead up to the event actually made a difference in the clear skies that ultimately came together cant be known for certain, but there is some evidence to support it.


An eight-year long research project conducted in Texas and Oklahoma suggested that cloud seeding increased rainfall, cloud height, length of storms, and the area in which rain fell. That said, the US government doesnt kick in any money for states that want to address droughts by pumping chemicals into the sky.

So if we can potentially make it rain, how do we turn that rain into snow? Even the ice crystals formed by seeding with silver iodide will fall as rain if the air temperature is too warm; climate change only adds to the problem. Fortunately there may be a solution for that too - the trick is in mimicking volcanoes.


When a big volcano erupts, it throws a lot of material into the atmosphere and the effect can be significant cooling over a wide area. When Mount Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines in 1991, it led to around 0.5 degrees C of cooling in the Northern Hemisphere for up to 2 years afterwards. The bulk of the cooling is the result of sulphur compounds getting into the atmosphere. They operate like a zillion little mirrors and reflect sunlight away from the Earth. Scientists have suggested that pumping a relatively small amount of sulphur into the sky using planes or balloons for dispersal could have a similar effect. It wouldnt be enough to stop climate change, but it might be enough to make the weather outside a little more frightful.



Obviously, there are ethical questions that go along with performing unchecked experiments on the weather and putting Santa at risk. Should humans play god with systems we dont fully understand? I guess it depends on how good you are with a GT snow-racer.


Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Sensory Deprivation: Not as boring as it sounds

Living in the 21st century can often feel like being constantly poked with a thousand blunt sticks. The minor (and major) stresses we face every day – noisey neighbours, traffic congestion, the constant stream of pings and vibrations from the small rectangular ball-and-chains we carry around in our pockets – can really where a person down. You may be familiar with the sensation of coming home exhausted at the end of the day in spite of the fact that, physically, all you have done is sit in a chair and stare at a screen. That is because the thousands of little prods your brain gets actually where down its ability to function. Worse, the instinctive stress response our bodies produce when we, for example, get a new project with a tight timeline handed down to us by a manager can lead to high blood pressure, impaired cognitive function and a host of other physical effects that are generally bad news.

It is no wonder then, that new-agey trends like yoga and meditation have surged in popularity over the past decade. We are driven to find ways to escape the sensory overload that is just a normal part of life for so many of us. However, few interventions embody the crystal-healing, aura-cleansing, cringe-inducing pursuit of stress-escapism in the way that the practice of sensory deprivation does.

Any hardcore Simpsons fan ia familiar with the basic concept of sensory deprivation. You lay in a dark, soundproof space, tucked away from any distraction, and experience the novel sensation of nothingness. However, since Homer took his wild ride in a whale egg back in 1999, the practice – and business – has expanded dramatically in North America.


The kind of sensory deprivation you can pay to experience in between lattes takes two main forms: chamber therapy – where the participant lays on a soft, comfortable, dry platform in a dark soundproof room; and floatation therapy – where the participant lays in a space filled with salt-infused, skin-temperature water. The latter is the far more popular variant, and the one we will focus on here.


So what can laying in a tank of water with a thousand pounds of salt dissolved into it for an hour do for you? The benefits listed on the website of the float house in my own neighbourhood range from the plausible: relaxation, meditation, stress relief; to the intriguing: enhanced healing and pain management; to the dubious and downright perplexing: increased immune function, “super-learning” and deautomization (?).


The trouble with vetting these supposed benefits is that the science around the idea at the heart of floatation – restricted environmental stimulation therapy (REST)* – is sparse. Most studies rely on small sample sizes and limited timeframes. However there are a few generally agreed upon benefits including relaxation, meditation, restoration, and consolidation of new information or physical skills. Much like sleeping, float sessions have been linked to improved retention of new information (if you do your floating after your studying) and better performance on tasks requiring practice and coordination (like basketball and jazz saxophone).


In a world where tension is the norm, these benefits – along with the opportunity and implicit permission to relax for an hour – seem reason enough to be open to a dip in brine. However, researchers are quick to point out that these benefits don’t go far beyond those you would experience from relaxing in a dark room and listening to soothing music. That approach may save you the $50 - $100 bucks most float houses charge, but would rob you of an interesting “what I did this weekend” story.

Researchers also caution that a person’s experience in sensory deprivation is highly depended on their expectations. In overwhelmingly negative contexts (ex. prison and war) isolation can be used as a form of torture. The positive effects of floatation, therefore, may be as much a product of walking into a spa with friendly employees and being told you’ll soon experience the soothing sensation of deautomization as it is an actual outcome of the therapy.


The cool aspects of sensory deprivation are the wacky responses your brain produces when deprived of input. We often forget that our brains are basically machines that use stimuli to produce perspective and an image of the world. When you remove light and sound from the equation, hallucinations become very common. They range from seeing points of light and vague shapes to hearing music.

Ultimately, the best approach to take in the face of relaxation options like floatation therapy is best summarized by psychologist Neal Miller and restated by one of the most prominent researchers in the field of REST, Dr. Peter Suedfeld: Be courageous in what we try, cautious in what we claim.


*Fun Fact: REST as a field of study was pioneered in the 50’s by John C. Lilly, a neurophysiologist who would later lead a study in which a woman lived with a dolphin for 10 weeks to see if it could be taught to speak English.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Altitude Sickness: How mountains tell you they don’t want to be climbed

Mountains are a wonderful thing. In fact, they are the preferred geological formation of the Sketchy Science team. That is why we have spent the past several weeks on and recovering from a research expedition to some of the highest peaks North America has to offer: the 14,000 foot peaks of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. While peaks in Alaska, B.C., and the Yukon attain higher elevations, none can rival Colorado for sheer accessibility.

Accessibility is what you need if you want to study and report on altitude sickness. With this in mind, our writer (me) and illustrator loaded up our respective vehicles and drove, with our romantic partners and two canine companions, from our elevations of residence (0 feet/m and 1,000 feet/300 m respectively) to the highest city in the continental United States: Leadville, CO (10,200 feet, 3,108 m).

Altitude impacts the human (and canine) body in a number of important ways, but they all stem from the fact that the air at altitude is less dense. At low elevations air is compressed by the weight of all the air above it. As you move towards the stratosphere, the column of air you exist in becomes shorter (there is less air above you), and so the weight is lessened and particles have more freedom to stretch out from one another. It isn’t that there is less oxygen in the air (the rate is a pretty constant 21% regardless of altitude), but in the mountains there is more space between oxygen molecules.

Aside from the relatively straightforward problem of your body not being able to get enough oxygen, the air at altitude is also drier. This causes your tissues to lose water rapidly to the air. Your body responds by constricting blood vessels and holding on to water and sodium in areas like the kidneys. The end result is higher blood pressure, a more rapid heartbeat, and an imbalance of moisture and salts.


At altitudes as low as 5,000 feet/1,524 m, this can lead to disturbed sleep as your body struggles to balance oxygen and carbon dioxide by interrupting your breathing during the night. The upshot is you are unrested as you head out exploring the mountains and you make your other symptoms (if you have any) worse. During the day, your body compensates for thin air by breathing more rapidly, leading to headaches, nausea, and dehydration.


At extreme altitudes (above 18,000 feet/5,486 m), the effects on your body can be life-threatening. The two most dangerous conditions are High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) and High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). Both are the result of fluid leaking from your constricted blood vessels and collecting in your tissues. With HAPE, the fluid gathers in your lungs. You struggle to breath and can effectively drown without ever touching water. Unbelievably, HACE is worse as the fluid gathers in your brain. The increased pressure in your skull leads to confusion, lack of coordination, and sometimes coma and death.
Curiously, altitude doesn’t hit everyone the same way and it is tough to predict who will struggle and who will thrive where the air is thin. Marathon runners are no better off than habitual couch potatoes. If the symptoms are mild (headache, nausea, fatigue), then they generally fade with more time spent at altitude – this is called acclimatization. With rest and plenty of water you will start to feel better in as little as 12 hours. The US Army reports that the respiratory element of acclimatization is 70-80% complete within 7 to 10 days. Between 14 and 30 days you are 80 to 90% acclimatized. Total acclimatization can take months or years, though.

If, like us, you are not in immediate danger and have more ambition than common sense, you can find help from over the counter drugs like ibuprofen or by eating foods that are high in carbohydrates like pasta and bread. You can also prevent altitude sickness by spending a night at lower elevation before going higher and by ascending in stages with rest days to let your body get used to the new environment more gradually.


In the end, the hardest part about exploring the high-country is balancing respect for your health and the power of nature (storms, avalanches, and stuff) with the urge to be a hero. Pain is temporary and glory is forever, but death is even more forever. So be safe and be responsible, but enjoy the mountains and the freedom they bring.


Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Getting Biblical on CO2: How to turn your enemies to stone

Wouldn’t it be nice to have the power to turn your enemies into stone? It sounds like something out of the Old Testament or Greek myth, but it’s pretty darn effective. Unless they are careening down a hillside, at whose base you happen to be sitting, stones are relatively inert and harmless. Sadly, despite what religious texts or Tolkien books tell us, this probably isn’t a realistic strategy in the face of conflict.
Happily, no one told that to a group of scientists working in Iceland, who last week published the results of their 4-year research on turning one of humanities greatest foes into a ready supply of paperweights.


You’d be hard pressed to find a more fitting place for an epic showdown than Iceland. Desolate volcanic landscapes mix with moody weather to make it seem like the end of the world is always close at hand. Unfortunately, the gravitas of the setting is somewhat undone by the enemy we are talking about: a colourless, odorless, tasteless gas that every animal of Earth exhales but humans have found a special proclivity for pumping into the air. You know it as carbon dioxide (CO2).

Oddly enough, Iceland is one of the last places you would expect to find people working on a solution to carbon emissions. This isolated outpost of humanity in the North Atlantic gets virtually all of its power from geothermal sources. That is, the island is one big volcano, and so, they use its heat to keep the lights burning. This approach eliminates something like 95% of CO2 emissions associated with electricity production, but apparently that isn’t good enough for Icelandic scientists.


Wanting to inch a little closer to that zero-carbon goal, researchers at Hellisheidi power plant, near Reykjavik, decided to take some of their geothermal power plant’s paltry CO2 emissions and test an approach to neutralizing them; many people thought that was ridiculously impractical - ”that” being to pump the CO2 emissions deep into the ground and wait for them to turn to stone.


As you can imagine, this is a desirable way to fight climate change. The biggest challenge with carbon emissions is that gases are masterful escape artists. Put them into any container with even the slightest breach and they will soon be out mixing in the atmosphere like debutants at a cocktail party. Stone, by contrast, just tends to sit there and not do anything, like an awkward college freshman at their first frat party.

The science behind this idea is actually fairly straightforward. We have long known that when a type of rock called basalt is exposed to CO2 and a little water, the carbon will precipitate (solidify). The problem, like all things in geology, is a matter of time. In the type of uncontrolled field setting the Icelandic team was dealing with, ambitious estimates assume you would need eight years before a significant amount of the carbon was locked up.


So imagine the surprise (and presumed embarrassment) on the face of naysayers when the team from Hellisheidi reported that the process began in just a few months and that, after 2 years, 95 to 98% of the carbon injected into the rocks has turned into chalky, lifeless carbonate minerals. The process so far has been relatively small scale, pumping about 5,000 tonnes of CO2 underground per year – equal to about 15 Americans annual CO2 emissions – but it is promising.


For one thing, basalt as a resource isn’t exactly rare. Places like the Pacific Northwest, South America, and other volcanically endowed landscapes are ripe with it. Better yet, most of the Earth’s crust, beneath the oceans, is basalt. The only thing safer than turning your enemy to stone, is then placing that stone a mile or so underwater.

The major challenge at this point is cost, which sits around $17 per tonne of CO2. This compares favourably with other methods of capturing carbon emissions (usually between $23 and $95 per tonne), but is still expensive when you want to deploy it on the roughly 40 billion tonnes of CO2 that humans put into the air every year.


Clearly, we have some work to do to figure out how to scale up this technology, and in the mean time, we all need to take a hint from Iceland and switch our energy systems to renewable sources like wind, solar, and geothermal power. But, even once we stop treating the atmosphere like a garbage dump, we’re going to need technology to clean up the mess we’ve already made. The Hellisheidi technology gets us one step closer.


Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Blinded by the Sea: How eye glasses (and eyes) work

The ability to see is something we often take for granted. Every day, those of us with sight experience a range of shapes, sizes, colours, and movements that we only really appreciate when we are asked to – when watching Olympic gymnasts or when we’re confronted by something atypical, like a sunset or a mountain range. Most of us only really begin to appreciate the little things our eyes take in when they can no longer do so in a seamless way. For the average person, this happens as we age and our eyes naturally lose their ability to focus. For the not-so-average person, it can happen very suddenly.

Such an ‘unaverage’ (not a real word) experience befell our illustrator, here at Sketchy Science, just last week. While on a trip to a conference on the southeast coast of the United States, after a night of partaking in the local libations, our sketchist (also not a real word) found himself standing in the Atlantic ocean, when a rogue wave of epic (likely very small) proportions tossed him asunder, claiming his glasses to the surf. I don’t actually know if this is how it happened, but it is how I prefer to imagine it. It is much funnier than him simply dropping his glasses in the water.


Regardless of how it happened, the result was a fumbling Mr. Magoo-esque adventure through the airport, onto a plane, and back home to Canada. It’s amazing how two pieces of glass (or plastic) can play such a major role in a person’s life.


But how do glasses work and why do some of us need them? The answer lies in the three most common problems with respect to how our eyeballs function. The four parts of your eye that impact your ability to see are, from front to back - the cornea, which is the clear window on the front of your eye that lets light in; the pupil (the black part), which widens or narrows to let in more or less light; the lens, which bends and focuses the light; and the retina, which is the back wall of your eyeball onto which images are focused before sending impulses down the optic nerve into your brain for processing.


Most problems occur at the beginning of this whole operation, with the cornea. The tricky thing about eyeballs is that they are spheres, meaning that as light moves through their rounded surfaces, it bends. If your eye is not shaped just right, the light coming in can focus at a point that isn’t exactly on your retina.


If your cornea is exceptionally curvy, the light will bend too much and focus in front of the retina, leading to nearsightedness and trouble seeing distance objects; this is called Myopia.


If your cornea isn’t curvy enough, you have the opposite problem with light focusing behind the retina leading to farsightedness and trouble reading the newspaper; this is called Hyperopia.


If your cornea has a bump, ripple, or scratch on it, the light gets distorted in other ways, and this is called Astigmatism.

Glasses – or “corrective lenses”, if we want to be more accurate and inclusive of people with contact lenses – can correct these problems by bending the light in a way that compensates for misshapen corneas. The physics of light dictates that as light moves through a medium, such as glass, it bends or “refracts” towards the thickest part of that medium. Lenses are described as either “plus” or “minus” lenses depending on whether they are thicker in the middle or towards the edges.

Plus lenses are thick in the middle and so bend light inwards, leading to a focal point behind the lens itself. Pushing the focal point backward corrects for Myopia. Minus lenses refract light towards their edges, leading to a focal point that is actually in front of the lens itself. Moving the focus forward corrects for Hyperopia. To make things even more fun, plus and minus lenses can be combined to correct for more complicated vision problems.


That is really all there is to it. This impressive but simple technology has allowed people to see more clearly since the first pair of spectacles adorned some nobleman’s nose between 1268 and 1289 in Italy, after being invented by someone whose name has been lost to history. So, the person who thought up the way we still correct vision today will forever go as unappreciated as the clear vision he sought to bestow upon the masses, to only be admired when a rogue wave leaves one of us blinded.