Science stories of 2022 Part 2: Mendel’s corpse to Molecules to Star catching

  1. Mendel resurrected. When I read about Gregor Mendel being dug up and his genes sequenced, I considered finding a job as a soothsayer.

In my first and now out of print novel, monks and Mendel play a small role. The novel is set in 1872 a time when the field of biology was exploding with perception changing information. You see, before Czech botanist and friar Gregor Mendel showed that both male and female pea plants contributed equally to the offspring, people thought that the male contributed more. They even thought that a tiny person was inside sperm. Yes, men were the seed and women were the dirt. But Mendel’s experiments contradicted this. Although he didn’t achieve fame during his lifetime, when his studies were found, they supported the popular and controversial theory of evolution. Darwin said that sexual selection and survival determined the fate of a species and that diversity helped a species survive. Mendel showed how the diversity comes about—through sexual selection and genetic recombination. This is one thing people didn’t like about Darwin back in the day. People are equal and diversity is good? It made them feel too guilty about exploitation.

Adding to the connections with my writing, my most recent novel revolved around Isaac Newton being dug up and “reconstituted.”  

Right up my alley, the story about raiding Mendel’s casket for DNA is one of my top stories. The whole article is worth a click, especially if your knowledge genetics history is a little rusty. One interesting finding was that Mendel may have had epilepsy. He carried the genes for it. Mendel was a big guy with a huge brain. Like Newton, he suffered from bouts of “nerves.”  I’m not sure if there is a sexy Mendel novel in my future but his “resurrection” supports the notion that diversity contributes to the survival and richness of a species.

2. Molecule of the year. I admit, I’ve always found fluorine a little scary. Maybe it’s the atomic symbol F. Or the fact that F2 makes bleach look like a baby lotion. Or maybe it’s because no kind of birth control worked for the researcher I knew doing fluoride chemistry. It’s kind of a surprise that F8Cwon a molecule of the year beauty contest. It beat out some new magnetic materials for the prize (of bragging rights.) It can capture electrons so might have a use someday but right now, it’s kind of quirky—a characteristic that attracts chemists like catnip.

3. How cool is fusion? We’ve all seen a fusion reaction. It’s what’s happening on our sun. The lovely, clear light of the stars are also fusion. So, what is it exactly?

It’s a nuclear reaction which right off the bat makes it special. Most day to day chemical reactions are not nuclear reactions. They involve the outside of the atom, the electrons. Electrons make up most of the space of an atom. They are fairly easily removed with energy. Static electricity and its dramatic counter part, lightning, are example of electrons being moved by rubbing, not liking where they are, and shockingly returning to their place around atoms.

We’ve all seen fanciful atomic images where the electrons swirl around in shells or favored paths. Most chemical reactions involve those electrons hopping about or sharing their spaces to make bond. When this happens, the heart of the atom, the nucleus, remains intact. The nucleus is what gives an atom, an element, its identity. When the nucleus is changed, the atom becomes a completely new element. The energy that holds the nucleus together is tremendous and this is released in a nuclear reaction.

Most types of atoms are far too stable, too held together with energy, to do anything like this. Electrons are flighty. They’ll move. Change the nucleus? Most elements say no thanks. I like who I am. Elements in the middle of the periodic table are most likely to refuse to participate in nuclear reactions. Take a look if you want. There’s good old iron right in the center. But iron rusts you might say. It does but rusting is an electron reaction, not a nuclear reaction. It’s more of a hook-up between iron and oxygen than a change in identity for either element. An iron nuclear bomb or reaction would be in the realm of the unbelievable. Also unbelievably devistating.

Nuclear reactions as we know them occur with the extreme elements–the very small or the very large. Fusion squeezes together the smallest of the elements, hydrogen, and makes helium, the last massive inert gas. It takes much less energy to hold together the helium than the two hydrogens. The reaction releases so much energy that of course, we’ve made bombs from the process. They are ignited with a fission bomb. But to make a non-bomb and get the energy out is much more difficult.

Fusion reactors have to essentially put the sun in a jar. The payoff is massive energy that has simple by-products: helium and an energetic neutron. But is it all it’s promoted to be? Atomic scientists have doubts. But this year scientists in California created a non-bomb reaction that made some energy without blowing the container to smithereens. It’s progress towards a clean energy future. Unlike Mendel being dug up, this story was perhaps bigger than it needed to be. But I couldn’t resist giving a lesson in chemistry, and being not too tall, I like it when small things get a big reaction, so thanks for reading!

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