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: Chemistry
What I’ve Learned:

Ketone: We could make beautiful organics together.
Ketone: We could make beautiful organics together.

For years, I thought a “ketone” was a musical instrument played by new wave ’80s bands and hairsprayed Euros and one slightly unsettling busking bear. Needless to say, I was wrong.

(Well. I say “needless to say”. But if someone had told me, then my final exam answers in organic chemistry class might have involved a lot less Herbie Hancock. So, there’s that.)

Later, I started thinking of ketones as more like Oreo cookies — which, oddly, is sort of right. A ketone is an organic — which is to say, carbon-containing — compound with a particular sort of structure. On one end is… well, anything that includes a carbon atom, pretty much. A methyl. A benzyl. Hansyl. Gretyl. You name it.

On the other end is… pretty much any other carbon-including thing, or possibly even the same kind of thing. So basically, the ends aren’t important. Just like an Oreo cookie. But in a ketone, the sweet, sweet creme filling is a thing called a carbonyl — that’s a carbon and an oxygen atom double-bonded together. Or double stuf’d. If that helps you remember.

Ketones come in a few different classes, just like there are red velvet and creamsicle and watermelon Oreos.

(Actually, there are watermelon Oreos because apparently Nabisco as a corporation has fallen into an existential funk and disavowed the concept of rational meaning in the universe. This is what happens when you mix pastries and philosophy.)

Some ketones have two carbonyl groups; these are called “diketones”. Others are cyclic, meaning their two arm parts branching off the central carbonyl meet each other and form a ring. Sort of like an Oreo doughnut.

(Because apparently, that’s also a thing that exists. What, is Kierkegaard running a Krispy Kreme shop or something? Madness.)

Ketones know some cool tricks, too. For instance, if a ketone contains a carbon right next to the carbonyl group, and that next-door carbon is bonded to a hydrogen atom, then the hydrogen can often swap places and jump up to bind the oxygen of the carbonyl group, while the double bond slides down between the central carbon and it’s neighbor that just lost a hydrogen. It’s the same set of atoms; the hydrogen just hops back and forth like a ballet dancer. Or a hopscotcher. Or a subway-busking keytar bear.

When this hydrogen moves, the new molecule forms a tautomer. I got extremely excited when I learned about this process.

I was later told that “tautomer” is not, in fact, the animal that Han cut open to keep Luke warm in The Empire Strikes Back. And that the molecule formed by a ketone-hopping hydrogen is called an “enol”. Which is fun to say, but not nearly as much as imagining billions of microscopic reptomammals swimming around in a chemistry flask.

Anyway, ketones are pretty much all around us. A lot of sugars, including fructose, are ketones. Many biological processes — like photosynthesis — produce or break down ketones. And certain kinds form “ketone bodies” in the blood, an important diagnostic readout for several health conditions. On top of that, we make industrial ketones to use as organic solvents, pharmaceuticals and as building blocks for synthetic polymers.

So ketones are pretty cool, I suppose. And also important for life and society as we know it. And, since they contain fructose, also Oreos. Take that, keytar bear.

Image sources: Hibbing Community College (ketone), Universal Hub (keytar Bruin, technically), Shut Up and Take My Money (watermelon Oreos, an actual real thing), Travel Recommended (tauntaun, suddenly seeing where this is headed)

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· Categories: Chemistry, Physics
What I’ve Learned:

Noble gases: They are SO not into you.
“Noble gases: They are SO not into you.”

When you hear the word noble, it conjures many thoughts. French aristocracy. Those starch-shirted tea-sippers on PBS. “Barnes and”. But what is it exactly that these “noble” things have in common?

For starters, they really don’t like dealing with people. They’re not into sharing or helping or customer service. Or customers. Or anyone they consider peasants. Which is all of us.

But this notion of noble isn’t limited to the Antoinettes and booksellers and creepy Crawleys of the world. It’s also pretty much the way noble gases behave: hands-off, aloof and rarely intermingling with the common folk. Not while anyone is looking, anyway.

In atomic terms, this means that atoms of the noble gas elements — helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon and radon — almost never form molecular bonds with other elements.

(And unlike some “noble” families, they don’t often bond with their own kind, either.

Yeah, that’s right. I’m lookin’ at you, Habsburgs, ya interbreeding jaw-jutters.)

The reason noble gases don’t readily form molecules is that their outermost electron shells are “full”. Atomic bonding — like all bonding, according to Bert and Ernie — is about sharing. In this case, sharing of one or more electrons.

But atoms are built with “shells” of certain sizes, and the outer one is where the interatomic electron love is most likely to happen. If that outer shell already has as many electrons as it can hold, like a dozen eggs in a carton, then it’s got no room for a spare shared from another atom. And having that full shell gives the atom stability — so it’s in no hurry to loan an electron out and break up the set, either.

All the noble gas elements have atoms in this exact situation. They’ve got everything they need, and a place for everything they have. They don’t want to talk to you, nor to some chatty hydrogen ion. And especially not some clingy bonder like carbon. Carbon atoms make up to four atomic bonds at the same time.

That would never do for a noble gas. Noble gases probably hire atoms to make their dirty atomic bonds for them. Indeed. Quite. I say.

Of course, being “noble” gives the noble gases a set of unique properties. (Which, happily for them, don’t include hereditary haemophilia and chronic haughtiness.) First — as if to prove how little they want to do with you — all noble gases are colorless, odorless and tasteless. As the name suggests, they’re all also gases at normal temperatures and pressures — helium, in fact, is the only element that can’t be cooled into a solid without also applying pressure. As in, twenty-five atmospheres of pressure. Nobles really are a stubborn lot.

While it is possible — though never easy — to get the noble gases to play nice and bond with other elements, it’s actually their uppity ways that make them most useful. Helium is added to deep-sea scuba air tanks to prevent the bends, since it’s not easily absorbed into tissues. And because it’s inflammable, it’s replaced hydrogen gas for blimp filler since that whole Hindenburg “oopsie” a few decades ago.

Non-reactivity makes noble gases useful in light bulbs, too. Halogen lamps include krypton, incandescent bulbs use argon and neon lights… well. Loners or not, let’s just say Las Vegas wouldn’t be Las Vegas without a helluva lot of noble gas in its signs. And they find use in arc welding, medical and industrial lasers, MRIs, Antarctic ice dating and gas chromatographs, among many other applications.

Which might be the oddest thing of all about these elements. For a bunch of atoms too snooty to mingle with us commoners, noble gases sure do get around.

Image sources: Chemhume (noble gases), Buzzfeed (disapproving dowager), American Museum of Natural History (“holy Hapsburg jaw, Charles II!), Shrimpdaddycocoapuff (noble gas cat)

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· Categories: Biology, Chemistry
What I’ve Learned:

Agonist: It always gets the best reception.
“Agonist: It always gets the best reception.”

If you read a lot — or watch movies, because let’s face it, this is America and words are hard — then you might be familiar with the term “antagonist”. That’s the villain of the story. The rogue billionaire. The dirty cop. The Hamburglar.

You might think if you change the “ant(i)-” to “pro”, you’d get “protagonist”, and that would be the story’s hero. And you’d be right! From Sherlock Holmes to Pippi Longstocking to the velociraptors in Jurassic Park movies, these are the characters we root for to solve mysteries, teach valuable lessons and rip enemies to shreds with their powerful claws.

Not necessarily in that order.

But where does this leave the root word? If antagonists are bad and protagonists good, what are regular plain old agonists? Hollywood doesn’t have an answer. That’s where biochemistry steps in.

In strictly scientific terms, an agonist is a chemical that is recognized by a protein on the surface of a cell, and causes some response within the cell. The cell surface proteins are called “receptors”, because their main job is to sit there peeking outside the cell, waiting for these agonists to come along and be recognized.

Basically, receptors are like security guards in an office building. Maybe the guard knows you, and you get to go inside. Or maybe you’re delivering pizza, so the “receptor” guard calls upstairs and signals someone to hoof it down to pay you. Maybe you’re the Hamburglar, and the response is to call the cops on you. Or Mayor McCheese. Or velociraptors. I’m not really sure how corporate security works, frankly.

The point is, as an agonist, you’ve been recognized, and that’s kicked off some sort of response. That happens inside our cells all the time, and there are thousands of types of agonists (or more) produced and used by our bodies themselves.

Dopamine, for instance, is a neurotransmitter important for several brain functions, and also an agonist for a family of (aptly-named) dopamine receptors, which bind dopamine on the surface of cells and kick off various responses. But there are many others. The agonist estrogen has estrogen receptors. Agonist androgens have androgen receptors. Agonist growth factors, growth factor receptors. And so on.

That’s the textbook definition (more or less), and all true (except the part about velociraptors, probably). But the above only describes endogenous agonists, meaning those that are produced naturally — and that’s probably not the ones you’re most likely to hear about. Because we don’t just make agonists with our bodies; we also make them with our laboratories.

If you ever read about an “agonist” in a medical or science blurb, it’s probably describing an exogenous agonist, which is usually lab-generated. These are chemical compounds and molecules that behave like natural agonists, when it comes to specific receptors in the cells. So a “dopamine agonist” would bind dopamine receptors, and when it did, the cell would kick off the same response as if it were actually binding a “real” dopamine molecule.

Think of this back in the office building. You’re not delivering pizza now — but maybe it’s falafel. The call goes upstairs just the same. Or maybe you can use someone else’s ID card to fool the guard. That might not work every time, so it’s not completely reliable. But it’s close.

Exogenous agonists work the same way. They’re not always perfect matches, but the good ones get the job done. And for some diseases and conditions — particularly where patients have a deficiency of the natural agonist — these “close-enough” agonist drugs can be a huge help when they’re able to fool the cell’s “security guard” receptors.

Just watch out when they don’t. Because even tiny little attack velociraptors are terrifying.

Image sources: StudyBlue (), CNN (hushy Hamburglar), Pyxurz (friendly office security guard), Daily Dot (ruminating raptor)

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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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· Categories: Chemistry, Physics
What I’ve Learned:

Radioisotopes: When they have a meltdown, you might, too.
“Radioisotopes: When they have a meltdown, you might, too.”

Chemical elements are exactly like people: there are almost two hundred of them, and only a handful you’d want to invite to a dinner party.

(Okay, it’s possible there are more than two hundred people. But the second part still stands.)

The other way elements are like people is that they both have baggage. With people, it’s a messy divorce, or a predilection for making their pets wear sweaters. Or being an outlier on the Bell curve charting “frequency of parental hugs”.

With elements, it’s neutrons. Nothing else. Just neutrons, little uncharged subatomic bits of schmutz. You would think that would take all the drama out of having baggage.

You would be wrong. It’s like the Real Housewives of the Periodic Table down there. Here’s why:

You can dump extra neutrons onto an atom, no matter how small. Take hydrogen, for example — the runtiest little element of all. It’s got just one proton — the other bit of atomic schmutz that has a positive charge, to offset the negative electron circling the nucleus — and no neutrons at all. Hydrogen is simple that way, like a monk or a wise old hermit or that kid who used to shine shoes on Parks and Recreation, before he got married and buff and went into outer space with that tree and the rodent and the rest of them.

You can pile a neutron onto a hydrogen atom, and it’s mostly fine. This atom is called an isotope, because it’s got more (or less) than the usual number of neutrons — and it’s called deuterium, because that’s what hydrogen atoms with one neutron like to be called.

(I don’t know what sort of nicknames its friends give it. “Deutie” seems fraught with issues. “Deut”, maybe? “Terie”? No idea.)

But deuterium, laden with baggage though it is, is very stable. Makes good decisions. Keeps a steady job. Probably doesn’t even have a therapist — unless it lives in L.A., because pretty much everybody has a therapist there, but still. Deuterium isotopes are chill.

Until you feed them another neutron.

Then those isotopes become tritium, which is a radioisotope. And radioisotopes are atoms where the baggage has gotten to be too much, and it gets unstable. These are the atoms with the crazy eyes, and — like most anyone with too much baggage — they’ll eventually dump it out on those nearby. Explosively.

For radioisotopes, this means radioactive decay — a release of stored energy which brings the atom into a more stable state. Tritium, for instance, decays into an atom of helium-3 (two protons, one neutron), which is completely stable, and fine to invite over for parties or to babysit the kids. But the energy and particles released by decaying radioisotopes can be bad news — or extremely useful, depending on the atom.

Some forms of radioactivity can cause radiation poisoning, cancer or fish with an uncomfortable number of eyes. The rate at which radioisotopes blow their atomic stacks is measured as a half-life — that is, the amount of time it takes for half the atoms in a sample to go completely batshit and decay. Knowing this half-life (and the type of decay — alpha, beta, gamma or other) can come in handy where just the right amount of radioactivity is helpful — like americium-241 used in smoke detectors, or gadolinium-153 used for certain kinds of X-ray tests and osteoporosis screens.

But the most temperamental and energetic radioisotopes — the Kardashians of the atomic world — can cause problems for centuries or longer. Carbon-14 and strontium-90 from nuclear bomb tests, for instance, with a half-life of nearly six thousand years, or nuclear reactor output like cesium-137 and iodine-131 (which can also be used as a cancer treatment, under carefully controlled conditions).

So the next time you decide to dump baggage on someone — or unload some of your own on innocent bystanders — take a moment to think of the radioisotopes. Some of them are just as unstable as you. Only they wig out and break down because of science, and not a tragic hug imbalance. Neat.

Actual Science:
Universe TodayRadioisotope
Carleton CollegeRadioactive decay
American Chemical SocietyProduction and distribution of radioisotopes at ORNL
NatureRadioisotopes: the medical testing crisis
WHOI / OceanusRadioisotopes in the ocean

Image sources: NOAA Ocean Explorer (radioisotope decay), Organizational Excellence (Bell curve for hugs), Splitsider (stoked Andy Dwyer), KnowYourMeme (crazy-eye girl), Into the Deep (Simpson’s several-eyed fishies)

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