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!

Science stories 2022 from the quirky to the personal. Part one: private items

Every science journal is rolling out a list of the top science advances of 2022. I’m going to review my favorites.

  1. Male birth control. Humans are a complicated hormonal mixture. Female birth control pills work by mimicking pregnancy hormones and prevent the release of an egg. Giving males hormones has been a bust—the men gain weight, get depressed, and have elevated bad cholesterol. Now, a non-hormonal male pill is on the horizon. It works by messing up vitamin A, which plays a role in cell growth. Apparently, a little damage to Vitamin A sensitive proteins stops sperm production. Congratulations to the University of Minnesota for this pioneering work.  
  2. Being an anti-prude, sex studies top my list and finding out that snakes have clitorises was a breakthrough.  Long standing prejudices against female animals is as old as the Bible. One of these biases is that female animals don’t need to enjoy sex. It was believed that female snakes and birds have “lost” their clitorises in an evolutionary sense.  This lead to the idea that sexual coercion or even rape was natural in the animal world. Finding that female snakes have two clitorises to match the two penises seen in male snakes shows that both male and female snakes evolved together and have mutual attraction. It would be nice to drive a stake through the Mars vs Venus idea and support the many factors, including female choice and pleasure, are at play in sexual selection which has been so successful in promoting diversity in species.
  3. Playing defense. Plan B is not an abortion. No matter how you slice it, some people have been driven mad by the thought that somewhere out there could be a homeless fertilized egg. At last, scientists are getting ahead of the game and releasing what everyone should know, but doesn’t want to. Plan B prevents ovulation. It’s isn’t causing a none of your business abortion.
  4. In another defensive move, American Medical Association called out the Supreme Court.   The AMA and more than two dozen leading medical organizations believe abortion is “safe medical care that is a decision to be made between the patient and the physician, subject to the physician’s clinical judgment, and the patient’s informed consent.” They said the “Supreme Court’s opinion would lead to government interference in the patient-physician relationship, dangerous intrusion into the practice of medicine, and potentially criminalizing care.” We all know that invasion of privacy is in the realm of authoritarian dictatorships.  The Supreme Court has been shoved upon us by the Federalists. They are not a scientific organization.
  5. When it comes to health, Iowans are not too savvy. Our covid death rate remained high and our vaccination rate was low compared to many other states.
  6. Cooking and cleaning are bad for you. These activities release airborne toxins. Frying is particularly dangerous, which makes me feel better about my short stint (was it one month or two?) as a fry cook when young. This might seem like bad news but hey, give yourself permission to skip the New Years scrubbing and frying and enjoy yourself!
  7. Feminine hygiene and hair products demystified. The life expectancy for US women is decreasing. There are many theories as to why but one thing is true—female products & their chemical content haven’t been carefully studied. One example of this is hair products, used for decades. These have been found to be a culprit in inducing some breast cancers.Another long-used product category finally getting some attention is period products. A vagina is a sensitive area as you probably know. It’s highly permeable. This means, what goes in is bound to have an effect both locally and on the reproductive system as a whole. You might think these female hygiene items are simply natural cotton but they contain thin layers of plastic  (which can release microplastics) and sometimes dyes and colorants. Some such as cups are plastic and might be dyed. Many of these are not proven to be safe. Neither of these studies were new in 2022, I wrote about one here but they are finally getting attention. This year.  the state of New York has ruled that the composition of period products must be put on labels. With increased scrutiny, manufacturers might be more careful about the health effects of their products. Now, consumers can make choices which are more informed.

Oil’s long, dirty, and highly useful fingers

Do you think most acetic acid comes from fermented apples? Think again.

Saudi Arabia is going to cut oil production and although they say they are not doing it for political reasons, we can see our politicians here vocalizing what could be their wishes such as finishing the Keystone pipeline which would bring crude to their refinery in Texas. It’s hard to imagine that some US pols even speak against electric cars made in the USA. Or maybe not. If we all switched immediately to electric vehicles powered by wind and solar energy, would we still need oil? The answer is, yes.

Fuel oil and gas are not the only petroleum based products. The paving and roofing material asphalt is a complicated mixture of large hydrocarbons and plenty of sulfur, vanadium, and nickel impurities and is petroleum baed. Tar can be made from coal or found naturally, as in the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles where fossils of mammoths and dire wolves have been found. But tar and asphalt are not the only additional uses for petroleum.

Petroleum is the starting material for most of our plastics and synthetic materials, everything from fibers to pharmaceuticals, starts out as a form of oil.

Hydrocarbons can be chains or rings, and are distinguished by their composition-molecules made from just two elements, carbon and hydrogen. These materials can be light and flammable like naptha and gasoline or heavier as with asphalt and tar. Although they are useful in their own right, organic chemistry can step in and add elements to the hydrocarbons to make them into entirely new compounds. But they are the necessary beginning–the feed stock so to speak.

Here is an example of making something simple, acetic acid, as found in vinegar. Acetic acid contains oxygen in addition to hydrogen and carbon. It can be produced by fermentation as in this reaction where the acetic acid is bolded.

2 CO2 + 4 H2 → CH3COOH + 2 H2O.

It can also be made from alcohol, something you don’t want happening to your wine, for example, in this reaction starting with ethanol (as in wine) and adding oxygen naturally. It’s why you need to carefully control the amount of oxygen when wine making.

C2H5OH + O2 → CH3COOH + H2O

With the proper catalysts, acetic acid can easily be made from oil, for example as in this reaction:

2 C4H10 + 5 O2 → 4 CH3CO2H + 2 H2O

Why would anyone do this when acetic acid can be made from fermentation? We need a lot of it. Non-food acetic acid has been produced industrially since the 1960s and accounts for 90% of the usage world-wide. Over 5 million tons are produced each year. It’s a high demand chemical used to make coatings, paints, inks, and plastics such as PET. It’s one example of how we use chemical feed stock petroleum to make products we use every day.

Twenty percent of each barrel of oil is used as a chemical feed stock and when oil goes up in price, so does anything made from oil.

There are biological ways to make synthetic materials as discussed here and in my novel Lost in Waste. But as long as there is plenty of oil available, it has a long history of being used as a fuel and a feed stock and this isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Kicking the world’s oil addiction won’t be easy, unless we want to go back to life as it was 100 years ago. And we all know how some politicians love plastic bags. Fortunately, crude oil prices are still much lower than their highest point in 2008 so don’t despair. We will have plenty of low cost cigarette butts other plastics in the near future.

Should you line dry your clothes?

The last time I cleaned out the dryer vent, I felt like my clothes were disappearing before my eyes. So much lint, all produced when my clothes break off fibers as they tumble in the hot air. My use of cotton, which gets more linty than synthetic fibers helped fill the lint trap.

However, a switch to non-natural fibers produces other problems. Many synthetic fabrics shed dryer lint microplastics which can be can be bad for birds, and if the particles come out in the wash, bad for aquatic life. And plastic clothes disappear, too. The shirt I have on in my profile picture has gotten almost see-through! Fragrance from dryer vents is a source of pollution. Not only that, lint is flammable. It’s estimated that many home fires start in the clothes dryer or uncleaned ducts . Yes, your dryer is a fire hazard.

Clothes dryers were developed in the late 1930s and became popular in the 1960s. I used to consider line drying something older people did. I have memories of staring at bras on the neighbor’s clothes line and wondering if I’d ever need one that large. (Turns out, I didn’t.)

Eek, it’s underwear–these are going to smell wonderful!

Each load of laundry dried at home costs about $1 . Most families do nine loads of laundry per week. It adds up to$468 per year. Dryers use more energy than refrigerators–about 4% of your total electricity costs. One solution could be to use dryer balls , which allow air circulation between your clothes and this reduces drying time and possibly keeps items of clothing from rubbing on each other.

Likewise, using the shortest wash cycle possible, avoiding hot water, and sorting clothes so that rough clothes like jeans don’t rub on soft clothes like t-shirts will help cut down on the wear and tear and broken fibers on your clothes.

I’ll be honest, I have another solution. I can’t wait until the skies clear, the sun comes out and with the help of a gentle breeze, it dries my clothes. If you find joy in the the smell of line-dried clothes, you’ve got a discriminating sniffer. Line dried laundry contains special scents, created by the sun. One, nonanal (not pronounced as you might think), is found on the skin of older people, is called aldehyde C-9 in the perfume industry, and it was one of the magic ingredients that made Chanel No. 5.”

Line drying won’t wear out your clothes or shrink them as dryers do. The sun can sterilize clothes to some extent. Some items such as Turkish towels, with extra long fibers, are meant to be hung to dry, not put in the dryer.

One concern about line drying is outdoor pollen falling on your laundry. There are a few ways to minimize this problem such as not line drying when pollen counts are high or putting the laundry in the dryer for five minutes after it hangs outside to rid it of the allergens.

Currently, only about 8% of homes in the US use a clothesline. In some places, they are banned as being unsightly, especially if used for underwear. Most people find line drying too time consuming. I must admit that a sunny day plus time to hang clothes is a luxury. Until self cleaning clothes became a reality, I’m going to indulge and breathe in the nonanal as much as I can. Please try not to look at my underwear.

Rising action: the baking powder debate

While working on a new novel, I needed a way to determine if something was acidic. I asked myself, how about adding baking powder and seeing it if fizzes–ala the volcano kids like to make with our kitchen supplies? But, since this is a paranormal historical, I wondered: was baking soda or anything like it even used in 1872? The answer is Yes. Baking soda’s near twin, soda ash or sodium carbonate has been used since the days when chemistry was alchemy or “the dark art of Egypt” and was used in mummification. It can be mined or produced chemically.

An old bottle of sodium carbonate, NaCO3, also known as soda ash

Baking soda, a less caustic close relative to soda ash, known to chemists as sodium bicarbonate, can be found along with sodium carbonate in natural mineral springs. Saratoga New York and Manitou Springs Colorado are examples of highly bicarbonated waters. It’s believed that an underground reaction produces the bicarbonate. Carbonates are common in nature and are found in limestone and shells in the form of calcium carbonate, and even in geodes.

The baking product, baking soda, was developed in by Church & Dwight to replace potash or potassium carbonate made from wood ashes, which was hard to make, not very pure, and had a weird smell.

Most laboratories have some baking soda (sodium bicarbonate, NaHCO3) handy to neutralize acid spills

Baking soda, soda ash and baking powder act as rising or leavening agents, producing bubbles of carbon dioxide to make baked goods rise and become fluffy. This rising action is called leavening. An alternative to adding a leavening agent is to whip the substance and stir in air.

Yeast is biological leavening agent, releasing carbon dioxide as an an exhale. The problem is, it takes a while to act.

Baking soda works almost instantly, but must be mixed with an acid such as cream of tartar, sour milk, sour cream, or vinegar, creating the carbon dioxide producing reaction. It’s also dependent on the amount of acid added and some things such as sour milk are not consistent in their composition.

The first baking powder contained baking soda and cream of tartar (tartaric acid, a by-product of wine making) which reacted together quickly and was expensive. Modern double acting baking powder contains an acid and baking soda plus corn starch to keep them from reacting when solid.

And believe it or not, controversy surrounded it.

Created in 1859, the first modern version contained monocalcium phosphate, calcium dihydrogenphosphate to chemists, made from animal bones. Corn starch, and baking soda were additional ingredients. It slowly activated when water was added and fully reacted when heated (making it double acting and slower rising) Later, the monocalcium phosphate used was mined. This company was Rumford, which still makes this version of baking powder. Rival companies sprung up and alum, which was very cheap, was used in products such as Clabber Girl, clabber being sour milk. Thanks to politicians bought with baking powder fortunes, the alum based products were temporarily banned as being unhealthy.

Despite politics, the alum based powders won out due to their low price. But was the competition right, are alum based powders are bad for you? What do we know about the health effects of aluminum, the third most common element in the Earth’s crust?

Recently, nanoaluminum particles were found to impair memory and cognition in zebra fish. (Fan, Rong, et al. “Effects of Nano-Alumina on Learning and Memory Levels in Zebrafish: Roles of Particle Size and Aluminum Ion.” Huanjing Yu Zhiye Yixue = Journal of Environmental & Occupational Medicine, vol. 36, no. 6, 2019, pp. 526.)

Miners exposed to aluminum dust have elevated incidences of Parkinson’s. (Zeng, Xiaoke, M.Sc, et al. “Aluminum Dust Exposure and Risk of Neurodegenerative Diseases in a Cohort of Male Miners in Ontario, Canada.” Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, vol. 47, no. 7, 2021, pp. 531-539. )

There are perhaps links to aluminum exposure through dust or food and neurological problems. However, most studies do not find aluminum to be easily absorbed when eaten or put on the skin. (Lead is a much greater risk and is associated with breast cancer so it would be better to worry about bullets than your leavening agent.) Aluminum and other metals are found in the brains of people who had Alzheimer’s, but it’s not known if the aluminum caused the disease since healthy brains also have some aluminum in them. One except is if aluminum is mixed with a fluoride product. This combination is toxic. One thing to keep in mind is that aluminum is commonly used in water treatments to remove cloudiness.

In any case, most baking powder now is alum based for better or worse. But there are exceptions for those who want the good-old fashioned formula. So bakers, rise and shine!

No need for sour milk. Have some alum instead.
No bones about it, alternative baking powders are still out there.

Notes from an old chemist:Common Suffixes Used with Nouns in Chemical Terminology

Long ago, when my chemical world was new, I had a wise teacher by the name of David Crichton. He was a stickler for proper terminology and one thing he passed along was the proper chemical suffixes. I can’t find this list elsewhere so I’m posting it here for the Good of The Order.

David Crichton

Common Suffixes Used with Nouns in Chemical Terminology

-ance, -ence: denotes a state, a condition, a quality of being

            Example: valence, conductance, resistance, absorbance

-ant, -ent: denotes a thing acting as an agent

            Example: precipitant, titrant, diluent, dissectant, eluent

-ate: denotes nouns made from participles (verb forms), something resulting from the action of

        the verb stem

            Example: precipitate, distillate, condensate, decantate, eluate, absorbate

-gram: denotes something drawn or written

            Example: polarogram, spectrogram, chromatogram

-meter: denotes an instrument for measuring some specified thing

            Example: thermometer, spectrometer, spectrophotometer, photometer, potentiometer

-or: denotes an agent or doer

            Example: desiccator, monochromator

-tion, -sion: denotes action, a process

Example: precipitation, distillation, condensation, dissociation, decantation, elution,

    adsorption

-ty, -cy: denotes a quality, a state, a condition

            Example: density, conductivity, resistivity, absorptivity, accuracy

-graph: denotes an instrument for making records

            Example: polarograph, spectrograph, chromatograph

Desiccant (the blue stuff) does the drying and it goes in a desiccator (the glass thing).

Curious Rebels

Science is a new endeavor, being around 400 years old. It’s assumptions are simple, but limited.

1. Nature can be understood. 2. Science can be verified.  Under the same circumstances, nature can be perceived in the same way by all observers. Repeatability is important to science. Measurement allows for duplication of results. 3. Human reason is adequate to understand nature. 4. Every effect has a natural cause.

The word “science” is based on the Latin word for “knowledge”. Science searches for order in nature.Science is a body of knowledge based on OBSERVATION. It’s dynamic, meaning that it is ever changing in content. It is a quest for understanding requiring Curiosity—asking questions, Creativity—ability to solve new problems, reasoning ability, and more recently Team work.

It’s certainly changed the world and killed superstition. However, Stripped of its glamor, day to day science can be routine and even boring. Or perhaps, at the best of days, familiar. Why does a person undertake being a scientist? Scientists are often driven by having outsider status.

In the book The Scientist as Rebel (2006) Freeman Dyson makes this statement.  “There is no such thing as a unique scientific vision.  Science is a mosaic of partial and conflicting visions.  But there is one common element in these visions.  The common element is rebellion against the restrictions imposed by the locally prevailing culture.”

Michael Strevens, a philosopher at New York University, supports this notion. He aimed to identify that special something that drives people to collect data. The something special, he says, is that they want to produce new evidence to argue with. He maintains, it is “the key to science’s success,” because it “channels hope, anger, envy, ambition, resentment—all the fires fuming in the human heart—to one end: the production of empirical evidence.”

I was a curious little girl, always asking why and what if. And science suits me. The routine is a comfort and the new is a thrill.But I might not have become a scientist at all if I hadn’t been told I couldn’t do it.

Thus,it should come as no surprise that the most recent winners of the Nobel Prize for chemistry are two women. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna. The two are noted for their development of a bacteria based gene editing technique known as CRISPR.

Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, or CRISPRs, are repeating sequences found in the genetic code of bacteria. Bacteria use specific CRISPR associated genes as a defense mechanism against viruses. Viruses are as dangerous to bacteria as they are to us. In the CRISPR process, a protein is produced. It cuts viral genetic material, and the bacteria pockets it as a mug shot to use to identify the virus. Thus, the technique can cut and store bits of DNA in a cell’s strand.

For more information, watch this.

Fanciful Illustration of crispr gene engineering

Scientists are curious rebels. They don’t accept the limitations of society and those with something to prove are among the most successful. It can be argued that to teach conformity and acceptance is to snuff out the scientific spirit.

Freeman Dyson warns, “If science ceases to be a rebellion against authority, then it does not deserve the talents of our brightest children…We should try to introduce our children to science today as rebellion against poverty and ugliness and militarism and injustice.”

Scientists are inherently skeptical and require a lot of proof for a new idea.  They are also curious and like new ideas. This creates a tension. Most scientists enjoy and celebrate this tension.

And with this new Nobel, I have something to celebrate, since the CRISPR technique is used in my latest novel Lost in Waste. Catch the Crispr fever! For a copy click here, or comment.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

And thanks to Curious Rebels forty years ago, the default for scientist is no longer a man.

What’s the spread?

The pandemic brought out the urge for comfort foods and panic eating in many people, including me. One thing I indulged in was butter on homemade bread. But with all of the discussion on the relationships between fat, covid complications and obesity, I grow concerned about my new eating habits. I asked myself, how bad is butter?

Some studies have said that butter isn’t all that bad for you.

The alternative, margerine, is syntheic and at one time was made from laboratory created trans fats. Trans fats, along wih their identical twin saturated fats, in simple terms, are solid at room temperature as opposed to unsaturated fats, which are liquid. Trans fats are hard on blood vessels and can damage the inner lining.

We all need some fat. Fat is needed for brain function. It’s needed for hormones and reproduction. (although too much is detriental to fertility). In fact, fat and cholesterol are important starting materials in making sex hormones such as estrogen and testosterone. However, too much of some fats can increase the damaging LDL (Low-density lipoproteins ) form of cholesterol. This type of cholesterol packs a choleresterol punch and provides an excess and even worse, it doesn’t move around in your body easily. It plugs up your arteries instead of doing much good. HDL, however, contains more protein, which is used to help move cholesterol to the proper spots.

With this in mind, I read an interesting study from the Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine published in March 2018. Men and women between 50-75 years old were divided into three groups and given 50 g of one source of fat to eat as a suppliment or use instead of other fat in their normal diets. Their blood serum chloresterol, weight, and body measurements were taken before the study and after four weeks.

The three fats were

butter- an animal derived saturated fat (solid at room temperature)

coconut oil -a plant derived saturated fat (solid at room temperature)

olive oil -a plant derived unsaturated fat liquid (although it also is high in saturated fats as well).

All of the fats were organic.

After the results were reviewed four weeks later, the participants had not gained weight or body mass. All groups had slightly higher total cholesterol, with olive oil showing the least change. However, the butter group had the highest increase in cholesterol and less good cholesterol and much higher bad cholesterol. The other groups, coconut and olive oil, had mostly increased good chloresterol, with coconut oil increasing the most.

This study only examined three fats and only for a short amount of time. It was enough to jolt me back into healthier eating habits. Only four weeks of butter eating made a big impact, adding 30% more bad cholesterol. As for margarine, most no longer contains trans fats, which have been banned. However, I don’t like the taste. I for one am going switch to olive oil and when it comes to fat, I’ll read the label with an eye towards less saturated fat and no trans fat.

Which one will it be?

Is it the hand sanitizer?

You go through your day in a fog. You’re tired all day but jazzed at night. You get in the car and can barely drive. You have a headache and congestion and maybe a cough due to post nasal drip but no fever. You ask yourself, is it covid? Ask a second question: how much hand sanitizer did I use today?

In these times, I find myself drifting between normalcy and hypochondria. If I have a period of time when I can isolate, I am at peace, but if I have to go out, I might not be able to sleep afterwards. Yes, it could be anxiety. Or is it the hand sanitizer? Today, I got in the car for a grocery pick up. A delivery driver pulled up. I didn’t want to leave the package sitting on the porch. I put on a mask, got out, retrieved the package, got back into the car, and generously used hand sanitizer.

The grocery pick up involved popping the trunk for the grocery delivery, closing it, and driving away. But I felt bad, like I had stumbled in a hole. In fact, I got out of the car in the garage and I almost did stumble. Worried, I took my temperature. It was normal. Then, I thought through the chain of events and took a moment to review the hazards of the active ingredient in my hand sanitizer, ethanol. Here it is:

Do not breathe mist, spray, vapors
Wash exposed skin thoroughly after handling
Do not eat, drink or smoke when using this product

I had the sanitizer in my hot car even though another hazard reads: Store in a well-ventilated place. Keep cool.

From another site:

Inhalation: Inhalation of high concentrations may cause central nervous system effects characterized by nausea, headache, dizziness, unconsciousness and coma. Causes respiratory tract irritation. May cause narcotic effects in high concentration. Vapors may cause dizziness or suffocation. 

As a chemist, I should have known better than to use hand sanitizer in a hot car with the windows rolled up. It’s basically booze.

From a study in 2017 “Inhaled alcohol may be associated with enhanced behavioral effects including increased risk of addiction. “:

The study includes this chart:

From Alcohol Clin Exp Res
 2017 Feb;41(2):238-250.
 doi: 10.1111/acer.13291. Yale based reserch group

In other words, not much is known about inhalation of alcohol, but it does get into your blood more quickly and at a higher concentration than if you drink it. Alcohol can cause covid-like symptoms such as a headache and stuffy nose. Alcohol can make anxiety worse and cause sleep problems.

The bottom line is NOT that you should not use hand sanitizer. COVID is a dangerous virus. You must protect yourself. However: USE SPARINGLY AND IN A WELL-VENTILATED AREA!

And of course, the best protection is quarantine, followed by masking. Hand sanitizer should not be used as an excuse to allow gatherings or to force workers into dangerous situations. It’s not a panacea, only a caution, and it has its own drawbacks. A better alternative to school situations is probably to have hand washing stations with soap and water in classrooms, similar to what you find at outdoor concerts and music festivals.


In the bag: tips for the perfect coffee

Recently, the act of grinding coffee beans for the days’s cup struck me as pleasantly normal. Back when I was rushing off to an office and classroom, even something as small as grinding coffee was just one more obstacle to getting out the door. Whole bean coffee was in the “not worth it ” category, along with, at times, ironing. The semester from hell was over. Now, suddenly, I had a moment to appreciate the freshness and aroma of newly ground coffee. But what helps make coffee fresh? What keeps it fresh? And why does ground coffee smell so good?

Coffee beans undergo chemical reactions when roasted. This process creates hundreds of new chemicals.

Many of these chemicals are are good for you and and a few are bad. The good ones can “protect against gout (by lowering uric acid levels), tooth decay and gallstones… there is mounting and strong evidence for coffee providing some protection against type 2 diabetes.”  Coffee might even prevent Alzheimers disease.  Acrylamide is one of the few bad chemicals and more is found in in light roasts.

One thing that happens during roasting is the beans get lighter and more porous. The pores hold both carbon dioxide and the chemicals which give coffee its aroma. Of the many chemicals in coffee only a few are responsible for the aroma. Of these, a furan-2- methanethiol gets the most attention. Its odor has been described as a combination of nutty and burnt match. Clearly, the full range of aromas combine to give coffee its good smell. Medium roasts are most aromatic.

The good smell is created by less than 1% of the gases in coffee beans. Most of the gas trapped in the pores of a roasted bean is carbon dioxide. It makes up 1-2% of the weight of the roasted coffee.

Fresh coffee when brewed will have a delightful white foam called crema. This is made from carbon dioxide.

The way the coffee is roasted has a large effect on the gases trapped in the beans. Dark and medium coffees are highly impacted by roasting temperature and high temperatures release more gas–which you do not want. In the case of coffee, we want gas. Darker roasts are more porous and hold more gases to begin with. But the pores break down quickly when ground.

Keeping oxygen away is an important part of keeping coffee fresh. Carbon dioxide is found in highest concentrations in freshly roasted coffee. In a bag of coffee, carbon dioxide forms a protective atmosphere to keep oxygen away. Always close up your bag or canister of coffee to keep out oxygen and keep in carbon dioxide.

Grinding coffee will release up to half of the carbon dioxide within a few minutes and the grind will slowly lose the carbon dioxide over the course of days. Course ground coffee will lose the least carbon dioxide and fine ground the most. Keeping the bag closed will help prevent further loss.

An issue to be aware of when buying and drinking coffee goes further than the bag. Many coffee plantations are human rights violators, especially in Brazil. Many large suppliers of coffee have purchased coffee grown and picked using slave labor. Although coffee is originally from Africa, it was stolen and imported to South America and Haiti, along with Africans captured to tend it. Native people, particularly the Mayans, were also enslaved to bring us coffee.

This means that besides grinding beans before use & keeping the bag closed, the ideal cup of coffee will be Fair Trade.

Bulletproof is one such brand and here’s my favorite.

This company will let you select country of origin, are Fair Trade, and send you a clip to keep the coffee closed. They also advocate putting coffee in the freezer and I agree. The gases will be lost from the coffee pores much more slowly when cold.

There are plenty more to choose from should you do a search. Like grinding my coffee, paying attention to Fair Trade has not been a priority of mine. However, it will be in the future.

Thanks to this article for information on carbon dioxide in coffee:

Time-Resolved Gravimetric Method To Assess Degassing of Roasted Coffee, Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2018, 5293-5300. Corresponding author is Chahan Yeretzian