Note (12/2015): Hi there! I'm taking some time off here to focus on other projects for a bit. As of October 2016, those other projects include a science book series for kids titled Things That Make You Go Yuck! -- available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon and (hopefully) a bookstore near you!

Co-author Jenn Dlugos and I are also doing some extremely ridiculous things over at Drinkstorm Studios, including our award-winning webseries, Magicland.

There are also a full 100 posts right here in the archives, and feel free to drop me a line at with comments, suggestions or wacky cold fusion ideas. Cheers!

· Categories: Biology
What I’ve Learned:

Yersinia pestis: A plague on pretty much ALL the houses, really.
“Yersinia pestis: A plague on pretty much ALL the houses, really.”

Science has helped us to cure a few infectious diseases over the years, like smallpox and polio — and measles, if you live far enough away from Jenny McCarthy. But many dangerous diseases remain, and threaten us all in one way or another. Influenza, for instance. Tuberculosis. Adam Sandler movies.

Also on that list is a name you may not recognize, but which has terrorized the earth for thousands — and humans for hundreds — of years: Yersinia pestis.

That may sound like the name of a Bond villain’s girlfriend, or that animated Disney lady with a grudge against spotted dogs. But it’s actually worse. Much worse.

Yersinia pestis is a species of bacteria, and the disease it causes has been called many things through the centuries. The Plague of Justinian in the 6th century AD. The Black Death in late Middle Ages Europe. Then the Great Plague of Seville, the Great Plague of London, the Russian Plague of 1770-72 and the worldwide Third Pandemic, among many others. At any time, the name changes based on where in the body Yersinia pestis makes its home: pneumonic plague in the lungs, septicemic plague in the blood and bubonic plague in lymph nodes.

Today, we just call it “plague”. Maybe we got lazy with the naming in modern times. I blame Twitter.

No one knew exactly what caused all of these outbreaks until 1894, when Pasteur Institute scientist Alexandre Yersin discovered the culprit bacterium during a plague epidemic in Hong Kong. The species was later named after him; that’s where the Yersinia comes from.

(If the pestis part comes from being a “pest”, that seems like a colossal understatement by whomever is naming these things. A housefly is a pest. Rob Schneider is a pest [who apparently lives too close to Jenny McCarthy]. Yersinia pestis has killed tens of millions of people and once wiped out a third of the European population.

It seems like that rates at least a “Yersinia bothersomeis“. I’m just saying.)

As a bothersome-at-least pathogen, Yersinia pestis has been the subject of much study by modern scientists. Genomes of two of the three known subspecies have been fully sequences, and the genes making these bacteria more virulent than closely-related Yersinia species are well understood. The cycles of infection have been studied, as well — from the fleas harboring bacteria that spread the disease among animals via bites, to rodents like rats and prairie dogs that serve as “reservoir hosts” maintaining bacterial populations, to humans — where Yersinia pestis really gets nasty.

In people, the bacteria survive by following the “best defense is a good offense” strategy. Rather than hiding from our immune system cells, Yersinia pestis meets them head-on. It invades white blood cells, and suppresses the body’s ability to mount an immune response. The bacteria can also kill certain immune cells by injecting proteins directly inside that form pores in the outer membrane, so the insides leak out. Even at a subcellular level, Yersinia pestis plagues are horror movie-level gruesome.

As a final insult, the bacteria often set up shop right in lymph nodes, centers of immune system function. You’d think it was enough to spread all over your body and possibly kill you, but no — Yersinia pestis also wants to rub it in your face.

Luckily, modern science also has a fairly good handle on how to treat the plague. Caught early enough, Yersinia pestis infections respond to antibiotics, and research is ongoing using specific bacterial proteins to make a preventative vaccine.

Still, we’re unlikely to wipe Yersinia pestis completely off the map any time soon. Cases are still reported occasionally today, and recent DNA sequencing performed on material from a 20 million year old fossil flea turned up Miocene Era Yersinia pestis sequence. It seems the world has suffered this “pest” for many, many years and probably will for many, many more to come.

Just like Adam Sandler movies. Sigh.

Image sources: IFLScience (Yersinia pestis micrograph), Wired (Sandler, shocked), Mickey News (Cruella, looking cruel), ETrueHollywoodNonsense (a grinning clueless pesky baboon — and also, an orangutan, I think)

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· Categories: Chemistry
What I’ve Learned:

Ytterbium, utterbium, we all terb for ytterbium!
“Ytterbium, utterbium, we all terb for ytterbium!”

You might see “ytterbium” and think it sprang from some Scrabble champ’s wet dream, or that it’s a young left winger drafted by the Winnipeg Jets. And it probably is. But also, it’s a little more.

Specifically, ytterbium is a chemical element — atomic number 70, if you’re scoring at home — and a member of the lanthanide series. And while “lanthanide” sounds like another puck-chucking hockey punk from East Brrritscoldistan, the series (plus a couple of kindred elements nearby on the periodic table) has another name, somewhat easier on the tongue: rare earth elements.

While easier to pronounce, it turns out “rare earth elements” isn’t really a great name. Granted, the “elements” part is accurate. And they do come from “earth”, or rather usually buried under quite a lot of it. But they’re not “rare”, for the most part, if you’re talking about the percentage of the planet’s crust they make up. The real issue with rare earth elements is they’re not often found in easily-mined ores. They tend to spread out in trace amounts, and clump up with similar elements so they’re difficult to separate. Many, including ytterbium, are fairly common; they’re just a pain in the ass to work with.

Still, it’s hard to blame scientists for the “rare” label. Nobody wants a “persnickety earth element” series on their periodic chart.

Speaking of persnickety, ytterbium certainly qualifies. At room temperature, it’s a shiny silvery metal that’s also also soft and squishable — like Play-Doh made from aluminum foil. This would be awesome, except that pure ytterbium will also irritate your eyes and skin, produce toxic fumes, violently explode and catch on fire in the way that water can’t put out. So it sits there, saying “play with me!“, all the while plotting your destruction in fourteen different ways. Like an evil sparkly porcupine, or a silver-plated Joker.

Which, I suppose, is coming. Super.

Because it’s difficult to extract — or because it’s dangerous as hell, maybe — only about fifty tons of ytterbium are produced worldwide each year. That’s not much, relatively speaking, but it makes sense because we haven’t found many things we can use ytterbium for.

(Contrast this with Adam Sandler movies, which are hauled in by the billions of tons every year, and no one’s found anything yet that those are good for. Chemists one, Hollywood zero.)

Still, ytterbium is good for a couple of things — and the very best we have at one. Certain ytterbium isotopes can produce gamma rays, which can be used in medical imaging, similar to X-rays. It can also be added to stainless steel to optimize certain properties, and to the materials used to generate solid state and other lasers.

But where ytterbium really shines is in telling time. According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), ytterbium atomic clocks are the most stable in the world. NIST’s ytterbium clock is so accurate, it could keep “perfect timing for a period comparable to the age of the universe”. Tough titties, Timex. And suck it, cesium.

So that’s ytterbium’s claim to fame. It may never hoist the Stanley Cup or stretch across a Triple Word Score — although, could you imagine? — but it has one thing going for it: it’ll take a licking and keep on ticking.

But seriously, don’t lick ytterbium. That would hurt so bad. Ow.

Actual Science:
The Guardian / GrrlScientistYtterbium
Uncertain PrinciplesLaser-cooled atoms: ytterbium
NISTNIST ytterbium atomic clocks set record for stability
NatureChemistry: degrees of separation

Image sources: (ytterbium), CBC Sports (Y…y…y…ytterbium the Jet), MoviePilot (silver-toothed Joker), Memes of Doom (Adam and Adam)

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