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, Chemistry
What I’ve Learned:

“Where there’s an ‘oh face’, there are endorphins.”

It’s no wonder people get excited about endorphins. If you believe the Wikipedia, endorphins are released “during exercise, excitement, pain, spicy food consumption, love, and sexual activity”.

On the other hand, so is ass sweat. But you never hear fitness gurus talking about “runners’ butt”. What’s so special about endorphins?

The first hint is in the name itself. “Endorphin” is actually bits of two words jammed together; namely, ‘endo-‘, meaning internal, and ‘-orphin’, meaning morphine. Without the ‘m’ or the ‘e’, for some reason — which just goes to show, even scientists lose their shit and get sloppy when morphine is involved.

Endorphins aren’t literally morphine made inside your body; they’re small peptides recognized by the same brain cell receptors that bind morphine. But whereas putting morphine in your body leads to dependence, drug addiction and 19th century Chinese opium dens, releasing endorphins blocks pain, promotes mild euphoria and helps you power through that third order of Chernobyl hot wings.

Another thing endorphins may do is create the fabled “runners’ high” that annoyingly healthy people with spectacular calves are always yammering about. For years, scientists couldn’t directly test brain endorphin levels in runners to confirm the theory, so it could have been anything causing the buzz: adrenaline, fancy running shoes or compression shorts two sizes too small. But new technology finally allowed them to pin the phenomenon on increased endorphins glomming onto brain cells during a jog.

Not that they ruled out the compression shorts. They just didn’t want to look too closely at those.

(Also, different researchers point to the neurotransmitter anandamide, which is an endocannabinoid, or — you guessed it, body-made weed juices.

Man, our bodies are so busy making knockoff drug compounds, I’m surprised we ever get anything accomplished.)

So endorphins are pretty important. Remember: exercise, pain, eating spicy food and having sex. All activities in which we make the same face, and all associated with endorphin release. It’s probably no coincidence.

There can be downsides to endorphin production. Studies suggest that postpartum depression is a side effect of endorphin withdrawal. Apparently, the placenta produces endorphins during pregnancy, and the fetus milks that good-time vibe for all the nutrients it can grab. After birth, Mom’s endorphin levels suddenly drop and she can fall into a funk.

(So can the child, presumably. But the kid’s so busy learning to drool and poop and cram things into its mouth that it probably doesn’t notice.)

There’s also depersonalization disorder, a mental issue linked in part to endorphins. And the ever-present risk of accidentally signing up for an endorphin lab study — because seriously, researchers love these things.

In one experiment — proving what enormous dicks scientists can be sometimes — they studied people getting acupuncture treatment, probably for stress or pain relief. So how did they measure the amount of endorphins released?

With spinal taps. Because nothing says “relief” to an endorphin researcher quite like, “let me suck some spinal fluid out the small of your back”.

So exercise and sex it up and stuff wasabi up your nostrils, if you want. But maybe — for your safety, and everyone else’s sake — keep your endorphins to yourself.

And ditto for the ass sweat. Just sayin’.

Image sources: GuideChem (alpha-endorphin), Inquisitr (Sonya Thomas wing face), Dogs in Need of Space (happy runners), Smosh (“Oh” face)

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

Jabba the Deen don't need no hydrogen bonding, y'all
“Hydrogen bonding: If you can’t keep it in your pants, keep it in your electron cloud.”

Hydrogen bonding is one of the most important chemical forces holding molecules and matter and us together. Without the power of hydrogen bonding, we’d all blob out into big piles of disorganized goo like Jabba the Hutt. Or Paula Deen.

(Hey, they’ve never been seen in the same room at the same time. I’m just saying.)

As attractive forces go, hydrogen bonding isn’t especially strong. A molecule could probably pull more electrons with Axe body spray and a couple of subatomic guitar lessons. If covalent bonding — solid, strong, crazy hard to break — is like a marriage, then hydrogen bonding is the “I’ll call you” after hooking up in the alley outside a downtown bar. Not exactly a sign of a committed molecular relationship.

Of course, there are advantages to keeping your options open. I’m not saying it’s a playah, chemical-interactionally-speaking, but hydrogen bonding gets around. Almost every substance critical to life on Earth — proteins, DNA, cronuts, you name it — contains hydrogen atoms. And those things are constantly getting busy rubbing up against each other, switching partners and saying to their hydrogen friends, “well, I ‘bonded’ him, but I didn’t ‘bond him, bond him’, you know?

It’s like Penthouse Letters meets Mr. Wizard. But slightly less disturbing.

The craziest hydrogen bonding of all is in water.

(Because everything is sexier when its wet. Except possibly Mr. Wizard. Try not to think about that too much.)

A water molecule is chemically simple — one oxygen and two hydrogens, bound together in holy covalent matrimony. But like any threesome, even the sparkly vampire ones, nobody in the relationship is really happy. So the atoms all doll up at night and go hydrogen bonding — oxygens prowling for other hydrogens, and hydrogens making the move on every oxygen with a dipole and a pulse. These things make Don Juan look like… well, like Mr. Wizard.

Or Jabba the Hutt. Or Paula Deen. Only wetter.

What’s more, these electrostatic horndogs are good at hooking up, one-night-bonding with up to four other water molecules at a time. That’s good for us, because it’s all this hydro-boinking on the side that gives water its high melting point, high boiling point and makes ice float instead of sink. All of which are pretty important for us to continue to live and maintain mostly-unblobby shapes and eat trendy breakfast-pastry hybrids.

So be glad that hydrogen bonding works the way it does. Life wouldn’t be the same — or probably, wouldn’t be life at all — without it. Just try to forget that there’s basically an atomic-level key party orgy going on in the glass of water you’re drinking.

And don’t even ask what’s going on in that cup of coffee. Trust me, you do not want to know.

Actual Science:
UC Davis ChemwikiHydrogen bonding
Northland CollegeA closer look at water (animation)
NatureChemists re-define hydrogen bond
io9The very first image of a hydrogen bond
DoubleXScienceWhy are snowflakes always six-sided?

Image sources: StudyBlue (hydrogen bonding), Ripoff Report and Gossip Rocks (Jabba the Deen), Laughing Squid (Mr. Wizard), Etsy/KnotworkShop (coffee sex mug)

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· Categories: Biology
What I’ve Learned:

Golgi body at the beach?
“Golgi bodies: for when it absolutely, positively has to be there before mitosis.”

For years, I thought “Golgi bodies” was a term for those big hairy European guys who wear Speedos at the beach. Luckily, I was mistaken.

Also luckily, I don’t own a pair of Speedos.

It turns out the Golgi body — or “Golgi apparatus”, if you prefer scientific terms that sound like they came from a Turkish ninth grade sex ed film — is a structure inside our cells. All of our cells, in fact. Even the ones that won’t stuff neatly into a swimsuit.

It doesn’t look like much, the Golgi body. More than anything, it resembles a squished stack of floppy pancakes, surrounded by various lumps and blobs and protrusions.

In other words, a lot like those cells that won’t stuff neatly into a swimsuit. Which is why you should never dress your Golgis in Speedos at the beach, either.

Your average cell biology snoozefest textbook will compare the Golgi body to a post office, because it packages and transports proteins around the cell. Being compared to the postal service seems unfair to me. It suggests Golgi bodies are obsolete, inefficient, hemorrhage money and wear short pants to work in the summer.

Worse, in ten years no kid in freshman bio class will know what the hell a “post office” was, anyway. They’ll all be shuttered by then and converted to loft apartments or teleport stations or monuments for the victims of postal worker violence during the Great Priority Mail Massacre of 2022.

I prefer to think of Golgi bodies as the Amazon fulfillment centers of the cell. Now there’s an analogy you can burn into textbooks for the next four thousand years. But it works. Merchandise flows in from third-party “vendors” like the endoplasmic reticulum. Or Hello Kitty. Or Charmin. But for Golgi bodies, mostly the reticulum one.

The Golgi then fiddles with the goods it gets. It might slap on a phosphate or the odd polysaccharide. It finds the right-sized box for each little peptide. Presumably, it marks everything up by twenty percent, because hey — the Golgi’s got to make a buck here, too. And then it ships everything off in little packages called “vesicles”, which presumably have little swooshes on the side and arrive in teeny tiny FedEx trucks.

And so, the extracellular matrix gets that proteoglycan from its wish list. The lysosome has to sign the back of the slip because she was in the shower during the first delivery attempt. And the outer cell membrane gets a long steady stream of packages, because he gets bored way out there in the boonies and orders a lot of crap online.

On the bright side, the cell membrane did sign up for Golgi Prime, so shipping is covered. And he can watch the first four episodes of Downton Abbey for free, so there’s that. If he could just convince the delivery guy to wear something over his Speedo, the whole cell would be living the dream.

Actual Science:
ScitableHow do proteins move through the Golgi apparatus?
Encyclopedia BritannicaGolgi apparatus

Image sources: Jeff Beck/Collin Community College (Golgi body), Music Snobbery (Speedo), Encyclopedia Brittanica and TNW (Amazon Golgi)

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

Black holes: scarier than galactic Bieber
“Black holes: scarier than LiLo, galactic-sized Bieber or astrophysicists settling bets with encyclopedias.”

In science, “black hole” means something very specific; it’s not just a catch-all term for scary, life-sucking things like Congressional speeches or a trip to the DMV or Lindsay Lohan’s vagina.

A true black hole has certain characteristics. Unimaginable denseness and an irresistible gravitational pull, created by a star that’s given up its fire and collapsed into itself.

So, more like Lindsay Lohan’s career.

Cosmically speaking, it takes a special kind of star to form a black hole. It’s not like any old class K hayseed can fuse a few hydrogen atoms together and call itself a singularity. To go full-on black hole, you’ve got to be big. Like, Disney movie or Lollapalooza-ten-years-ago big. And then you have to violently implode — the violentlier, the better — and still keep enough mass to suck in all the matter and light and paparazzi for light years around.

Most stars never get the chance. Take our sun, for instance. It could appear in every edgy Sundance flick and Marvel comic blockbuster made in the next 5.4 billion years, and it still won’t go out as a black hole. Our sun is like the Larry the Cable Guy of stars. It’ll just hang around, getting fatter and occasionally shilling heartburn medicine, until it finally pops an aneurysm on the toilet.

Or engulfs the solar system in a baking-hot inferno. Whichever comes first.

Other stars are big enough to implode — that’s “supernova”, in star talk — but there’s basically nothing left afterward. These become neutron stars: reclusive, dim and not so interesting. Think Peewee Herman, or Tawny Kitaen. And then forget them again.

Black holes, though, are fascinating. It’s thought there’s a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, and most others. Ours is four million times the mass of our sun, with the entire Milky Way orbiting it. It’s like the Justin Bieber of black holiness. And nearly as dense.

No one knows what happens inside a black hole, but space physicists are working on it. Stephen Hawking figured out that one kind of energy can escape a black hole, so they named “Hawking radiation” after him. Later, John Preskill won a bet with Hawking that this radiation would contain information about the stuff sucked into the hole previously.

(That’s some serious shit, winning a bet off the guy the thing was named for. Especially when it’s Stephen Hawking. He’s the smartest thing on four wheels since the Knight Industries Three Thousand.)

Recently, scientists argued about whether black holes are surrounded by a giant wall of fire — as if black holes weren’t badass enough already. One camp says “yes”, because monogamy of quantum entanglement, duh; the other says “nuh-uh”, because Einstein’s equivalence principle, obviously. They flung a bunch of math at each other, Hawking declared black holes dead (sort of, though most people agreed they weren’t) and the firewall finally (probably) went down. In flames. But no one knows for certain.

I vote we load Captain Bieber on a rocket, point it at galactic center, and let him find out for us. Maybe he can even get his own autograph on the way down the gravity well.

Image sources: (black hole), Scary Movie 5 (Lohan), Sky and Telescope and NYPost (Bieber galaxy), John Preskill/CalTech (Hawking-Preskill bet)

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