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Wednesday, 28 December 2016

On this day in science history: chewing gum was patented

In 1869, William Finley Semple of Mount Vernon, Ohio, was issued the first U.S. patent for chewing gum (No. 98,304), made of "the combination of rubber with other articles adapted to the formation of an acceptable chewing gum", but he never commercially produced gum. That was done by Thomas Adams of Staten Island, N.Y., who knew that chicle, a natural tree gum, could be chewed. His first experiments to vulcanize chicle for use as a rubber substitute were unsuccessful until he boiled a small batch of chicle in his kitchen and created the first chicle-based chewing gum. Testing sales at a local store, he found people liked his gum. In 1871, Adams patented a gum-producing machine so he could increase production.

Chewing gum stick by Lusheeta, via Wikimedia Commons

Humans have used chewing gum in some form for at least 100,000 years. Modern chewing gum today is made from butadiene-based synthetic rubber. Most chewing gums are considered polymers. Longer polymers can produce larger bubbles due to increased intermolecular forces.

Chewing gum in many forms has existed since the Neolithic period. 6,000-year-old chewing gum made from birch bark tar, with tooth imprints, has been found in Kierikki in Finland. The tar from which the gums were made is believed to have antiseptic properties and other medicinal benefits. It is chemically similar to petroleum tar and is in this way different from most other early gums. The Aztecs, as the ancient Mayans before them, used chicle as a base for making a gum-like substance and to stick objects together in everyday use. Forms of chewing gums were also chewed in Ancient Greece. The Ancient Greeks chewed mastic gum, made from the resin of the mastic tree. Mastic gum, like birch bark tar, has antiseptic properties and is believed to have been used to maintain oral health. Both chicle and mastic are tree resins. Many other cultures have chewed gum-like substances made from plants, grasses, and resins.

The American Indians chewed resin made from the sap of spruce trees. The New England settlers picked up this practice, and in 1848, John B. Curtis developed and sold the first commercial chewing gum called The State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum. In this way, the industrializing West, having forgotten about tree gums, rediscovered chewing gum through the First Americans. Around 1850 a gum made from paraffin wax, which is a petroleum product, was developed and soon exceeded the spruce gum in popularity. To sweeten these early gums the chewer would often make use of a plate of powdered sugar, which they would repeatedly dip the gum into to maintain sweetness.

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Monday, 19 December 2016

How the Antarctic Ice Sheet is affecting climate change

Scientists have known for decades that small changes in climate can have significant impacts on the massive Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Now a new study suggests the opposite also is true. An international team of researchers has concluded that the Antarctic Ice Sheet actually plays a major role in regional and global climate variability - a discovery that may also help explain why sea ice in the Southern Hemisphere has been increasing despite the warming of the rest of the Earth.

Results of the study are being published this week in the journal Nature.

View of the Riiser-Larsen Ice Shelf in Antarctica. By Ben Holt  (NASA), via Wikimedia Commons

Global climate models that look at the last several thousand years have failed to account for the amount of climate variability captured in the paleoclimate record, according to lead author Pepijn Bakker, a former post-doctoral researcher at Oregon State University now with the MARUM Center for Marine Environmental Studies at the University of Bremen in Germany.

The research team's hypothesis was that climate modelers were overlooking one crucial element in the overall climate system - an aspect of the ocean, atmosphere, biosphere or ice sheets - that might affect all parts of the system.

"One thing we determined right off the bat was that virtually all of the climate models had the Antarctic Ice Sheet as a constant entity," Bakker said. "It was a static blob of ice, just sitting there. What we discovered, however, is that the ice sheet has undergone numerous pulses of variability that have had a cascading effect on the entire climate system."

The Antarctic Ice Sheet, in fact, has demonstrated dynamic behavior over the past 8,000 years, according to Andreas Schmittner, a climate scientist in Oregon State's College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and co-author on the study.

"There is a natural variability in the deeper part of the ocean adjacent to the Antarctic Ice Sheet - similar to the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, or El Niño/La Niña but on a time scale of centuries - that causes small but significant changes in temperatures," Schmittner said. "When the ocean temperatures warm, it causes more direct melting of the ice sheet below the surface, and it increases the number of icebergs that calve off the ice sheet."

Those two factors combine to provide an influx of fresh water into the Southern Ocean during these warm regimes, according to Peter Clark, a paleoclimatologist in OSU's College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and co-author on the study.

"The introduction of that cold, fresh water lessens the salinity and cools the surface temperatures, at the same time, stratifying the layers of water," Clark said. "The cold, fresh water freezes more easily, creating additional sea ice despite warmer temperatures that are down hundreds of meters below the surface."

The discovery may help explain why sea ice has expanded in the Southern Ocean despite global warming, the researchers say. The same phenomenon doesn't occur in the Northern Hemisphere with the Greenland Ice Sheet because it is more landlocked and not subject to the same current shifts that affect the Antarctic Ice Sheet.

"One message that comes out of this study is that the Antarctic Ice Sheet is very sensitive to small changes in ocean temperatures, and humans are making the Earth a lot warmer than it has been," Bakker said.

Sediment cores from the sea floor around Antarctica contain sand grains delivered there by icebergs calving off the ice sheet. The researchers analyzed sediments from the last 8,000 years, which showed evidence that many more icebergs calved off the ice sheet in some centuries than in others. Using sophisticated computer modeling, the researchers traced the variability in iceberg calving to small changes in ocean temperatures.

The Antarctic Ice Sheet covers an area of more than 5 million square miles and is estimated to hold some 60 percent of all the fresh water on Earth. The east part of the ice sheet rests on a major land mass, but in West Antarctica, the ice sheet rests on bedrock that extends into the ocean at depths of more than 2,500 meters, or more than 8,000 feet, making it vulnerable to disintegration.

Scientists estimate that if the entire Antarctic Ice Sheet were to melt, global sea levels would rise some 200 feet.

Other authors on the study include Nicholas Golledge of Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand and Michael Weber of the University of Bonn in Germany.

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Tuesday, 13 December 2016

The Chemistry of Mummification

These days, when we think of the preservation of bodies, we think of cryogenics, but as we all know, the Ancient Egyptians were as fascinated with life after death as we are. Click on the infographic below to find out more about the chemistry of mummification.


It takes about 70 days to completely mummify a dead body and in Ancient Egypt there were no restrictions on who could be mummified, as long as you could pay! The Egyptians believed that when they died they would make a journey to another world where they would lead a new life. They would need all the things they had used when they were alive so their family would put those things in their grave. Egyptians paid vast amounts of money to have their bodies properly preserved. 

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Wednesday, 7 December 2016

On this day in science history - Galileo spacecraft orbits Jupiter

In 1995, the Galileo spacecraft arrived at Jupiter and entered orbit after 6 years of travel including a flyby of Venus and two asteroids, Gaspra and Ida. The orbiter had also carried an atmospheric probe with scientific instruments, which it had released from the main spacecraft in July 1995, five months before reaching Jupiter. Galileo then spent a further 8 years examining Jupiter and its moons Io and Europa. 

Jupiter. By NASA, ESA, and A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In 1994, the Galileo orbiter was present to watch the fragments of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crash into Jupiter. Its mission was concluded 21 September 2003 by sending the orbiter into Jupiter's atmosphere at a speed of nearly 50 km/sec, destroying it to avoid any chance of it contaminating local moons with bacteria from Earth.

Jupiter is the fifth planet from the Sun and the largest in the Solar System. It is a giant planet with a mass one-thousandth that of the Sun, but two and a half times that of all the other planets in the Solar System combined. Jupiter is a gas giant, along with Saturn, with the other two giant planets, Uranus and Neptune, being ice giants. Jupiter was known to astronomers of ancient times. The Romans named it after their god Jupiter. When viewed from Earth, Jupiter can reach an apparent magnitude of −2.94, bright enough for its reflected light to cast shadows, and making it on average the third-brightest object in the night sky after the Moon and Venus.

Jupiter is primarily composed of hydrogen with a quarter of its mass being helium, though helium comprises only about a tenth of the number of molecules. It may also have a rocky core of heavier elements, but like the other giant planets, Jupiter lacks a well-defined solid surface. Because of its rapid rotation, the planet's shape is that of an oblate spheroid (it has a slight but noticeable bulge around the equator). The outer atmosphere is visibly segregated into several bands at different latitudes, resulting in turbulence and storms along their interacting boundaries. 

A prominent result is the Great Red Spot, a giant storm that is known to have existed since at least the 17th century when it was first seen by telescope. Surrounding Jupiter is a faint planetary ring system and a powerful magnetosphere. Jupiter has at least 67 moons, including the four large Galilean moons discovered by Galileo Galilei in 1610. Ganymede, the largest of these, has a diameter greater than that of the planet Mercury.

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