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Friday, 27 February 2015

On this day

Charles Herbert Best was born on 27th February 1899.  He was a scientist and co-discoverer of Insulin.

(February 27, 1899 – March 31, 1978)

Best was born in West Pembroke, Washington County, Maine and was the son of Luella Fisher and Herbert Huestis Best, Canadians from Nova Scotia.
Best married Margaret Hooper Mahon in Toronto in 1924 and they had two sons. One son, Dr. Henry Best was a well-regarded historian who later became president of Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. Best's other son was Charles Alexander Best, a Canadian politician and geneticist.
As a 22-year-old medical student at the University of Toronto he worked as an assistant to Dr. Frederick Banting and played a major role in the discovery of the pancreatic hormone insulin—one of the more significant medical advances, enabling an effective treatment for diabetes.
Insulin is a peptide hormone produced by beta cells in the pancreas. It regulates the metabolism of carbohydrates and fats by promoting the absorption of glucose from the blood to skeletal muscles and fat tissue and by causing fat to be stored rather than used for energy.
When control of insulin levels fails, diabetes can result.  Insulin is used medically to treat some forms of diabetes. Patients with type 1 diabetes depend on external insulin (most commonly injected) for their survival because the hormone is no longer produced internally. Patients with type 2 diabetes are often insulin resistant and may suffer from a "relative" insulin deficiency. Some patients with type 2 diabetes may eventually require insulin if dietary modifications or other medications fail to control blood glucose levels adequately. Over 40% of those with Type 2 diabetes require insulin as part of their diabetes management plan.
Best received 18 Honorary Degrees from universities around the world.
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Friday, 20 February 2015


Ever wondered about the vitamins we need or that we eat as part of our breakfast cereal.  What they do?  How they help us?

A vitamin is an organic compound and a vital nutrient that an organism requires in limited amounts.  An organic chemical compound (or related set of compounds) is called a vitamin when the organism cannot synthesize the compound in sufficient quantities, and must be obtained through the diet; thus, the term "vitamin" is conditional upon the circumstances and the particular organism. For example, ascorbic acid (vitamin C) is a vitamin for humans, but not for most other animal organisms. Supplementation is important for the treatment of certain health problems, but there is little evidence of nutritional benefit when used by otherwise healthy people.
There are 13 recognised vitamins from A to E and K.  The reason that the set of vitamins skips directly from E to K is that the vitamins corresponding to letters F-J were either reclassified over time, discarded as false leads, or renamed because of their relationship to vitamin B, which became a complex of vitamins.
The German-speaking scientists who isolated and described vitamin K (in addition to naming it as such) did so because the vitamin is intimately involved in the coagulation of blood following wounding (from the German word Koagulation).

Again, the excellent Compound Interest has produced a detailed image of the chemical structures of vitamins as below.  Click on the image to enlarge.

Click to enlarge
Well-known human vitamin deficiencies involve thiamine (beriberi), niacin (pellagra), vitamin C (scurvy), and vitamin D (rickets). In much of the developed world, such deficiencies are rare; this is due to an adequate supply of food and the addition of vitamins and minerals to common foods, often called fortification.
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Friday, 13 February 2015

Friday 13th February

Today is Friday the 13th of February!  The 13th and in particular a Friday is commonly known as being an unlucky day according to Western Superstition.  It is also known as Black Friday in some countries.

There is no written evidence for a "Friday the 13th" superstition before the 19th century, and the superstition only gained widespread distribution in the 20th century. The fear of the number 13 has been given a scientific name: triskadekaphobia; and on analogy to this the fear of Friday the 13th is called paraskevidekatriaphobia.

It is thought that Friday and the number 13 were traditionally considered unlucky because of their connection with the crucifixion of Christ (Friday being the day the crucifixion took place and was commemorated weekly in Catholic practice, and 13 being the number of people present at the last supper.

In Spanish-speaking countries, instead of Friday, Tuesday the 13th (martes trece) is considered a day of bad luck as it is in Greece.

Research in America has shown that Friday the 13th adversely affects the economy with people changing their daily routines on this day and avoiding certain things like transport and flights.  They estimate that this day can affect the economy in America meaning it loses $800 or $900 million in business on this day.

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Friday, 6 February 2015


Boron is a chemical element with symbol B and atomic number 5. It is a low-abundance element in both the Solar system and the Earth's crust and is concentrated on Earth by the water-solubility of its more common naturally occurring compounds, the borate minerals. These are mined industrially as evaporites, such as borax and kernite. The largest proven boron deposits are in Turkey, which is also the largest producer of boron minerals.

This rare element is a metalloid; which means that it can can act both as an acid and a base, and it also behaves as a semiconductor.  Boron never occurs in a pure state in the wild, and can only be purified with difficulty by chemists. Boron is a poor conductor of electricity, and is fairly non-reactive, although it is water soluble. The most common uses for boron-containing compounds includes a bleach for clothing, a swimming pool disinfectant and to produce green flames.

About half of global consumption of boron compounds is as additives for glass fibres in boron-containing fibreglass used for insulation or as structural materials. The next leading use is to make boron polymers and ceramics, that play specialised roles as high-strength lightweight structural and refractory materials. Borosilicate glass glassware is used for its greater strength and breakage resistance (thermal shock resistance) than ordinary soda lime glass.

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Friday, 30 January 2015

The Computer Mouse

A mouse is a pointing device that detects two-dimensional motion relative to a surface. This motion is typically translated into the motion of a pointer on a display, which allows for fine control of a graphical user interface.

Physically, a mouse consists of an object held in one's hand, with one or more buttons. Mice often also feature other elements, such as touch surfaces and "wheels", which enable additional control and dimensional input.

The history of the mouse starts with the trackball, a related pointing device, which was invented in 1946 by Ralph Benjamin as part of a post-World War II-era radar plotting system called Comprehensive Display System (CDS). Benjamin was then working for the British Royal Navy Scientific Service. Benjamin's project used analog computers to calculate the future position of target aircraft based on several initial input points provided by a user with a joystick. Benjamin felt that a more elegant input device was needed and invented a ball tracker called roller ball for this purpose.

The device was patented in 1947, but only a prototype using a metal ball rolling on two rubber-coated wheels was ever built and the device was kept as a military secret.

Douglas Engelbart at the Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International) invented his first mouse prototype in the 1960s with the assistance of his lead engineer Bill English. They christened the device the mouse as early models had a cord attached to the rear part of the device looking like a tail and generally resembling the common mouse. Engelbart never received any royalties for it, as his employer SRI held the patent, which ran out before it became widely used in personal computers.

Modern mice are now available wired or wireless.  Such a simple device changed the way we interacted with computers.  Modern laptops have built in track pads but many users still prefer a mouse.

Inventor Douglas Engelbart's computer mouse, showing the wheels that make contact with the working surface.

Modern wireless mouse

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Friday, 23 January 2015

On this day....The flying disc, or Frisbee

Walter Frederick "Fred" Morrison (January 23, 1920 – February 9, 2010) was an American inventor and entrepreneur, best known as the inventor of the Frisbee.

Walter Frederick Morrison

Morrison claimed that the original idea for a flying disc toy came to him in 1937, while throwing a popcorn can lid with his girlfriend, Lu, whom he later married. The popcorn can lid soon dented which led to the discovery that cake pans flew better and were more common. Morrison and Lu developed a little business selling "Flyin' Cake Pans" on the beaches of Santa Monica, California..

In 1946, he sketched out a design (called the Whirlo-Way) for the world's first flying disc. In 1948 an investor, Warren Franscioni, paid for molding the design in plastic. They named it the Flyin-Saucer. After disappointing sales, Fred & Warren parted ways in early 1950. In 1954, Fred bought more of the Saucers from the original molders to sell at local fairs, but soon found he could produce his own disc more cheaply. In 1955, he and Lu designed the Pluto Platter, the archetype of all modern flying discs. On January 23, 1957, they sold the rights for the Pluto Platter to the Wham-O toy company. Initially Wham-O continued to market the toy solely as the "Pluto Platter", but by June 1957 they also began using the name Frisbee after learning that college students in the Northeast were calling the Pluto Platter by that name. Morrison also invented several other products for Wham-O, but none were as successful as the Pluto Platter.
How does a Frisbee fly?
Two factors influence the flight of a Frisbee, gravity and air. Gravity acts on all objects the same way, accelerating their mass towards the center of the Earth at 10 meters/second. Once in the air, lift and angular momentum act on the Frisbee giving it a ballet-type performance. Lift is generated by the Frisbee's shaped surfaces as it passes through the air. Maintaining a positive angle of attack, the air moving over the top of the Frisbee flows faster than the air moving underneath it.

Under the Bernoulli Principle, there is then a lower air pressure on top of the Frisbee than beneath it. The difference in pressure causes the Frisbee to rise or lift. This is the same principle that allows planes to take off, fly and land. Another significant factor in the Frisbee's lift is Newton's Third Law which states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The Frisbee forces air down (action) and the air forces the Frisbee upward (reaction). The air is deflected downward by the Frisbee's tilt, or angle of attack.

Spinning the Frisbee when it is thrown, or giving it angular momentum (gyroscopic inertia), provides it with stability. Angular momentum is a property of any spinning mass. Throwing a Frisbee without any spin allows it to tumble to the ground. The momentum of the spin also gives it orientational stability, allowing the Frisbee to receive a steady lift from the air as it passes through it. The faster the Frisbee spins, the greater its stability.

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Friday, 16 January 2015


Arsenic is a chemical element with symbol As and atomic number 33. Arsenic occurs in many minerals, usually in conjunction with sulphur and metals, and also as a pure elemental crystal. Arsenic is a metalloid. It can exist in various allotropes, although only the grey form has important use in industry.
Arsenic atoms can assume several different bonding patterns which are the basis of its allotropes, each of which has a different colour; metallic grey, yellow and black arsenic. Interestingly, using a hammer to bang on arsenide minerals releases a garlic-like odour, which is the result of toxic fumes created by the oxidation of arsenic to arsenic trioxide.

Arsenic is notoriously poisonous to multicellular life, although a few species of bacteria are able to use arsenic compounds as respiratory metabolites. Arsenic contamination of groundwater is a problem that affects millions of people across the world.
Historically, Arsenic was commonly used as a rodent poison in English households, and it was also a convenient murder weapon, particularly amongst the ruling classes as you may have read in various novels and non-fiction books. However, Victorian England used arsenic in a number of ways; it was incorporated into wallpaper to prevent the growth of mould during the dark, damp English winters, it was used as the green colouring in paints, candies and candles, and as a preservative in lace.

The main use of metallic arsenic is for alloying with lead. Lead components in car batteries are strengthened by the presence of a very small percentage of arsenic.

Widespread arsenic contamination of groundwater has led to a massive epidemic of arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh and neighbouring countries. It is estimated that approximately 57 million people in the Bengal basin are drinking groundwater with arsenic concentrations elevated above the World Health Organization's standard of 10 parts per billion (ppb).

More recently arsenic has been in the news for being found in rice.  Rice holds higher levels of arsenic than other grains and acts as one of nature’s “great scavengers of metallic compounds.” Unlike, millet or polenta, rice planted in arsenic-contaminated fields acts as a vacuum for the toxin.

Rice from different countries contain differing levels of arsenic.  It's recommended that rice is washed before cooking and rinsed afterwards to lessen the effects.

Currently, the FDA in America doesn't have safety levels for arsenic in rice. They've cautioned against making state-by-state or country-by country comparisons in Inorganic Arsenic levels for rice, citing the varying factors that can influence arsenic concentrations, such as soil composition, fertilizers, seasonal variability, and water-use practices.

Evidence-based public health advocates also recommend that, given the lack of regulation or labelling for arsenic in the U.S., children should eat no more than 1 to 1.5 servings per week of rice and should not drink rice milk as part of their daily diet before age 5. They also offer recommendations for adults and infants on how to limit arsenic exposure from rice, drinking water, and fruit juice.

A 2014 World Health Organization advisory conference will consider limits of 200–300 ppb for rice.  The proposed new EU recommendations will limit 200 parts of arsenic per billion for adults and just 100 ppb for children and babies.

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