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Tuesday, 29 March 2016

On this day in science: in 1886, the first batch of Coca Cola was brewed

In 1886, the first batch of Coca Cola was brewed over a fire in a backyard in Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. John Pemberton had created the concoction as a cure for "hangover," stomach ache and headache. He advertised it as a "brain tonic and intellectual beverage," and first sold it to the public a few weeks later on 8 May. Coke contained cocaine as an ingredient until 1904, when the drug was banned by Congress.

Coca-Cola was bought out by businessman Asa Griggs Candler, whose marketing tactics led Coke to its dominance of the world soft-drink market throughout the 20th century. The name refers to two of its original ingredients: kola nuts, a source of caffeine, and coca leaves. The current formula of Coca-Cola remains a trade secret, although a variety of reported recipes and experimental recreations have been published.

Use of stimulants in Coca-Cola

Coca – cocaine

Pemberton called for five ounces of coca leaf per gallon of syrup, a significant dose; in 1891, Candler claimed his formula (altered extensively from Pemberton's original) contained only a tenth of this amount. Coca-Cola once contained an estimated nine milligrams of cocaine per glass. In 1903, it was removed.

After 1904, instead of using fresh leaves, Coca-Cola started using "spent" leaves – the leftovers of the cocaine-extraction process with trace levels of cocaine. Since then, Coca-Cola uses a cocaine-free coca leaf extract prepared at a Stepan Company plant in Maywood, New Jersey.

By Zephyris (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
In the United States, the Stepan Company is the only manufacturing plant authorized by the Federal Government to import and process the coca plant, which it obtains mainly from Peru and, to a lesser extent, Bolivia. Besides producing the coca flavoring agent for Coca-Cola, the Stepan Company extracts cocaine from the coca leaves, which it sells to Mallinckrodt, a St. Louis, Missouri, pharmaceutical manufacturer that is the only company in the United States licensed to purify cocaine for medicinal use.

Long after the syrup had ceased to contain any significant amount of cocaine, in the southeastern U.S., "dope" remained a common colloquialism for Coca-Cola, and "dope-wagons" were trucks that transported it.

Kola nuts – caffeine

Kola nuts act as a flavoring and the source of caffeine in Coca-Cola. In Britain, for example, the ingredient label states "Flavourings (Including Caffeine)." Kola nuts contain about 2.0 to 3.5% caffeine, are of bitter flavor and are commonly used in cola soft drinks. In 1911, the U.S. government initiated United States v. Forty Barrels and Twenty Kegs of Coca-Cola, hoping to force Coca-Cola to remove caffeine from its formula. The case was decided in favor of Coca-Cola. Subsequently, in 1912, the U.S. Pure Food and Drug Act was amended, adding caffeine to the list of "habit-forming" and "deleterious" substances which must be listed on a product's label.

Coca-Cola contains 34 mg of caffeine per 12 fluid ounces.

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Monday, 21 March 2016

Giant web probes spider's sense of vibration

Inside a lab in Oregon, US, a two-metre spider web made of aluminium and rope is beginning to unlock how orb weavers pinpoint struggling prey.

When an unlucky insect lands in a web, it is vibrations that bring the spider scuttling from the centre of its trap.

How spiders interpret those signals is a mystery - so physicists have built this replica to figure it out.

They unveiled the design and their first results on Friday at a meeting of the American Physical Society (APS).

"We wove the web using two different kinds of rope, the same way as spiders use two different formulations of silk," said Ross Hatton from Oregon State University.

The radial strands that fan out from the centre are made of stiff, nylon parachute cable, while elastic bungee cords make up the "spiral strands".

The whole thing sits in an octagonal aluminium frame, with a speaker strapped to one corner to deliver some hefty vibrations.

"It's a big subwoofer, so we can give a fairly good push to the web - there's quite a bit of force in it," Dr Hatton told BBC News, at the APS March Meeting in Baltimore.

At the centre of the web sits an artificial spider - a simple eight-legged frame, which doesn't move but detects vibrations in the threads, just like a real spider.

"We went in with the basic hypothesis that if you shake one of the radial lines, then the spider will feel that shaking a lot, and the other lines less," Dr Hatton explained. "And so you could say, well I just go to wherever the line is shaking the most."

Spider spinning a web. By Michael Palmer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
But this was not what he and his colleagues - including biologist Damian Elias at the University of California Berkeley - discovered.

In fact, the outsized orb web revealed surprisingly complex vibration patterns, with quiet spots in certain parts of the web where the shaking completely disappears.

"At different frequencies, different strands - so different feet - stop vibrating," Dr Hatton said.

Those different frequencies might reflect, for example, different types of trapped insect.

"So at the very least, the spider is going to need to know how the frequency couples with the web structure... in order to find which is the foot that shouldn't be shaking - so it doesn't end up going off at 90 degrees to where it should be going."

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Tuesday, 15 March 2016

ExoMars: 'giant nose' to sniff out life on Mars prepares for launch

Space engineers are making final preparations for the launch of a robot spacecraft designed to sniff out signs of life on Mars.

The probe, ExoMars 2016 – the first of a two-phase exploration of the Red Planet by European and Russian scientists – is scheduled to be blasted into space on a Proton rocket from Baikonour cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 0931 GMT on Monday.

The spacecraft consists of a module called Schiaparelli that will test heat shields and parachutes in preparation for future probe landings on Mars and a second main component, the Trace Gas Orbiter or TGO, that will analyse the planet’s atmosphere. In particular it will seek out the presence of the gas methane which, on Earth, is produced by living organisms.

“Essentially our spacecraft is a giant nose in the sky,” said Jorge Vago, an ExoMars project scientist based with the European Space Agency (Esa). “We are going to use it to sniff out the presence of methane on Mars and determine if it is being produced by biological processes.”

Methane is normally destroyed by ultraviolet radiation within a few hundred years of its creation. Its presence on Mars would therefore suggest life had recently been active there. The US robot rover Curiosity, which landed on Mars in 2012, initially found no sign of methane. Subsequent analyses in 2014 did report the presence of methane in the Martian atmosphere in one area. However, some scientists have argued that it may have been created by non-biological means.

On Earth most methane is generated biologically, but it can be made by chemical processes under the surface. To differentiate between these two processes, the ExoMars trace gas detector will not only analyse methane levels in more detail than any previous mission but also study other gases that will provide information about its likely source. “If methane is found in the presence of other complex hydrocarbon gases, such as propane or ethane, that will be a strong indication that biological processes are involved,” said another project scientist, Manish Patel, of the Open University.

“However, if we find methane in the presence of gases such as sulphur dioxide, a chemical strongly associated with volcanic activity on Earth, that will be a pretty sure sign that we are dealing with methane that has come from the ground and is a byproduct of geological processes.”

By NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
ExoMars is expected to arrive at the Red Planet on 19 October after a journey of 308m miles (496m km) across space, and will be followed by a second ExoMars mission, a Mars rover, scheduled for launch in 2018 – although Esa officials have warned that it may be delayed by budget problems.

On Friday, Russian engineers completed the rollout of the giant Proton rocket that will carry ExoMars to its destination, and on Saturday, staff at Esa’s mission control centre in Darmstadt, Germany – which will run the mission once in space – conducted a dress rehearsal for the launch. “We do a similar dress rehearsal for every launch,” said Paolo Ferri, head of mission operations for Esa. “It’s a milestone that caps off several years of preparation for any complex mission – designing, building and testing the ground systems, preparing the flight operations procedures and then finally an intensive period of team training.”

Finally, on Monday, the spacecraft is scheduled take off from Baikonour. Then, when it has reached orbit, the TGO, still linked to the Schiaparelli test lander, will separate from the fourth stage of its Proton launcher and begin its seven-month journey to the Red Planet.

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Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Celebrating women in science on International Women’s Day: Dorothy Mary Hodgkin

Dorothy Mary Hodgkin OM FRS (12 May 1910 – 29 July 1994), known professionally as Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin or simply Dorothy Hodgkin, was a British biochemist who developed protein crystallography, for which she won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964.

She advanced the technique of X-ray crystallography, a method used to determine the three-dimensional structures of biomolecules. Among her most influential discoveries are the confirmation of the structure of penicillin that Ernst Boris Chain and Edward Abraham had previously surmised, demonstrating (contrary to scientific opinion at the time) that it contains a β-lactam ring. She also confirmed the structure of vitamin B12, for which she became the third woman to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.  In 1945, working with C. H. (Harry) Carlisle, she published the first such structure of a steroid, cholesteryl iodide (having worked with cholesteryls since the days of her doctoral studies). 

In 1948, Hodgkin first encountered vitamin B12 and created new crystals. Vitamin B12 had first been discovered by Merck earlier that year. Vitamin B12 had a structure at the time that was almost completely unknown, and when Hodgkin discovered it contained cobalt, she realized the structure actualization may be determined by x-ray crystallography analysis. The large size of the molecule, and that the atoms were largely unaccounted for - aside from cobalt - posed a challenge in structure analysis that hadn't been previously explored.

Molecular structure of vitamin B12, by NEUROtiker (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

From these crystals, she deduced the presence of a ring structure because the crystals were pleochroic, a finding which she later confirmed using X-ray crystallography. The B12 study published by Hodgkin was described by Lawrence Bragg as being as significant "as breaking the sound barrier." Scientists from Merck had previously crystallised B12, but had published only refractive indices of the substance. The final structure of B12, for which Hodgkin was later awarded the Nobel Prize, was published in 1955.

In 1969, after 35 years of work and five years after winning the Nobel Prize, Hodgkin was able to decipher the structure of insulin. X-ray crystallography became a widely used tool and was critical in later determining the structures of many biological molecules where knowledge of structure is critical to an understanding of function. She is regarded as one of the pioneer scientists in the field of X-ray crystallography studies of biomolecules.

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Tuesday, 1 March 2016

On this day in history - the Bikini H-Bomb test took place

In 1954, at Bikini, in the Pacific Ocean, the blast of the U.S. hydrogen bomb code-named Bravo was the most powerful of all U.S. thermonuclear bomb tests in the area.

The 15 megaton nuclear explosion far exceeded the expected yield of 4 to 8 megatons (6Mt predicted), and was about 1,000 times more powerful than each of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. The scientists and military authorities were shocked by the size of the explosion and many of the instruments they had put in place to evaluate the effectiveness of the device were destroyed.

Bikini is a Pacific archipelago that is part of the Marshall Islands. In this test, one of the atolls was totally vaporized and disappeared in the over 100-mile wide mushroom cloud.

Fallout exceeded predictions. Earlier tests began in 1946 after the indigenous people were evacuated to an island believed to be a safe distance away. (They were moved again in 1949.)

Castle Bravo blast. By United States Department of Energy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The military authorities and scientists had promised the Bikini Atoll's native residents that they would be able to return home after the nuclear tests. A majority of the island's family heads agreed to leave the island, and most of the residents were moved to the Rongerik Atoll and later to Kili Island. Both locations proved unsuitable to sustaining life, resulting in starvation and requiring the residents to receive ongoing aid.

Despite the promises made by authorities, nuclear tests rendered Bikini unfit for habitation, contaminating the soil and water, making subsistence farming and fishing too dangerous. The United States later paid the islanders and their descendants $2 billion in compensation for damage caused by the nuclear testing program and their displacement from their home island.  

As of 2014, it may be technically possible for the former residents and their descendants to live on the atoll's islands, but virtually none of those alive today have ever lived on the atoll and very few want to move there.

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