Ether – the confusion is real

If you’ve been following Scienstorical (my new YouTube channel) then you’ll have seen episode 2 already. If not, click the link! What are you doing?!

Ether... ... turns out it's not just for fun

Up to speed? Good.

Turns out, the story about Dr Crawford Long is not the only version. There are two others that lay claim to its discovery and they’ve been fighting for years about who got there first (well… technically they fought until they died then historians took up the arguments… minor detail).


The first, was a Dentist named Horace Wells. Now technically, he didn’t discover ether per se; he was the first to use a gas called “Nitrous Oxide” commonly known as laughing gas. This story is eerily similar to Long’s in that he noticed that laughing gas, while entertaining to those gathered to watch people inhale it, dulled pain so that it was almost non-existent. At the time, Dentistry had a bit of a bad reputation. People would generally much rather go around with rotting teeth than have them pulled out. Wells decided that this laughing gas might be a better option.

So, like most doctors at the time, he road tested it on himself. A colleague administered the gas to Wells in 1844 and then unceremoniously yanked one of his teeth out. Wells reported feeling nothing. In 1845, keen to share his extraordinary discovery, he gave a somewhat ill-fated demonstration at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Doctors and Dentists gathered from all over the country to witness this revolution in modern medicine. What they witnessed, however, was a patient writhing in agony. The anaesthetic had been botched and Wells was subsequently laughed out of the hospital as an idiot.

800px-WTG_MortonEnter his student, William T. G. Morton. Morton had been an apprentice of Wells’ when he had been experimenting with nitrous oxide and so knew that anaesthetic was definitely a thing. There’s a bit of evidence to suggest that he heard through the grapevine about Crawford Long’s success with ether and so started using it himself. In September of 1846, he performed a painless tooth extraction. A newspaper journalist heard about it and organised for a public demonstration at Massachusetts General Hospital. This time, it wasn’t an abject and horrifying failure. On October 16th, 1846, Morton removed a tumor from the neck of a patient with no signs of pain.

Newspapers went mental. The story travelled across the globe and soon, most hospitals were using ether as a general anaesthetic for surgeries. Morton went down in history as the inventor, the instigator of ether as an anaesthetic. There’s a statue of Morton in the grounds of the hospital and even the room where he performed the surgery is now called the “Ether Dome”.

… so why did I focus on Crawford Long?

CrawfordLong.jpgWell there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that he was the first to use ether in surgery. But really, historians still argue about whether that’s true or not. You see, Crawford didn’t publish his findings until well after the public surgery performed by Morton so he kind of looked a bit like a copy cat at the time. Morton was also, by all accounts, a bit of a greedy jerk-face (that’s the technical term). At the time medicine was a lot more collaborative; doctors freely shared information and techniques in an effort to save as many people as possible (a far cry from modern medicine’s myriad of patents and secretive laboratories). Morton, when asked about what he used in his demonstration, said it was a compound called “Letheon” and tried to patent and then sell the recipe to his colleagues. Needless to say, he won few points with the medical crowd.

It’s difficult to determine who it really was that first discovered anaesthetic but I think that makes the story all the more interesting. It also makes me more than a little bit happy to know that all accounts ascribe the medical advance to a serendipitous observation involving 19th Century men and women flailing about while high as kites.

Seriously… just dwell on that mental picture for a while.



Perkin’s Purple

Episode 1 of Scienstorical is up and running!

Tried to cure MalariaMade purpleIf you were a snail, living in the Mediterranean, you were probably going to have a pretty bad time. There was one species of snail you could find exclusively off the coast of what’s now Lebanon that, when boiled into a mush, made a vivid purple colour. It was called Tyrian Purple and was used to dye silks and other eye-wateringly expensive cloths. Charlemagne was buried in a shroud made of gold thread and Tyrian purple-dyed silks for example. He was an obscenely rich dude.

Fast forward to the 1800s to an 18 year old Chemistry whizz-kid named William Perkin and his attempt to cure malaria…

… and the rest is history.



Scienstorical: scientific serendipity…. seriously

For those of you wondering about the radio silence for the past few weeks, I HAVE A NEW PROJECT!

I drink an awful lot of imaginary tea.... the real thing was getting cold.
I drink an awful lot of imaginary tea…. the real thing was getting cold.

Head on over to my YouTube channel to find a trailer for a new series called “Scienstorical”. This is an experimental series of 5 videos where I’ll tell you stories about accidental scientific discoveries that changed the world…. I also drink a lot of imaginary tea.

There’ll be posts here every time a video goes live so you won’t miss anything but make sure you subscribe for more regular (and let’s face it, reliable) updates. It’s been in the works for a while now so I’m REALLY excited to share it all with you. Let me know what you think!


Beal’s Experiment: a.k.a “The long wait”

Imagine you start an experiment. You plan everything out, spend long hours going over equipment lists, past papers, sampling logs and justification for your funding sources. You carefully prepare seeds from 21 different species of plant in 20 different lots and pour those seeds into 20 different glass milk bottles. The bottles are filled with sand and then wheeled out onto the grounds of Michigan State University. Each bottle is planted upside down in the moist soil; bottles open and facing downwards to prevent water building up within the sand housing the seeds. You finish the job, patting down the topsoil of the last hole you’ve dug, and walk away to wait five years. You tell only those that absolutely need to know where you’ve buried all of these bottles.

You are Dr William James Beal and it’s 1879.

One of the bottles Dr William Beal buried in 1879 (photo taken by Kurt Stepnitz via Michigan State University)

Fast forward 120 years and the 15th of the 20 bottles is unearthed under cover of the night in the year 2000. The next will be dug up in 2020. The Beal Seed experiment is one of the longest continuous experiment in the world. Longer even, than the pitch drop viscosity experiment that was started in 1944.

Originally, the bottles were supposed to be opened every 5 years, but the weather got the better of the future curators of the experiment after Beal retired. A particularly harsh frost in 1919 foiled plans to dig one up and so the researchers decided to wait until Spring 1920… dug it up and then decided waited another 10 years (as you do).

In 1990, Dr Gustaaf de Zoeten, the curator of the experiment, extended the interval between excavations even further and waited another 20 years before digging up the next one. Assuming future researchers don’t decide to wait even longer, the entire experiment will be over and done with in the year 2100!

So I suppose the real question here is…. why?

Well in the words of the man himself, he wanted to:

“…(learn) something more in regard to the length of time seeds of some of our most common plants would remain dormant in the soil and yet germinate when exposed to favorable conditions”

In other words, he wanted to see how successful the plants were at growing and then making other plants. This is perhaps where things start getting really interesting. You see, this entire experiment was designed to help answer a problem that has since been solved. Before the age of weed-killer and herbicides, farmers were forever pulling weeds that threatened to choke their precious crops. How many times did you need to de-weed before the unwanted plants stopped growing back?

So why is it still going?

Encased within all of those antiquated milk bottles, are 20 different species of common weeds from the area. So far, there are only two species left that have actually grown after being buried under the ground for 120. Scientists are hoping that these results will help them get rid of other cloying weeds in the area. The more we understand about how the seeds grow or don’t grow, the more likely we’ll be able to figure out an eco-friendly way of getting rid of them in the future.

The next bottle is due to be dug up in 2020. I’m really hoping no one forgets where they buried it.

5 Weird Ocean…. Things

I realised something while researching last week‘s post; the ocean is weird. In fact, we know very little about just how weird it really is. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), we have explored less than 5% of the ocean. (That’s a hell of a lot more than I mentioned in my giant squid post a few years ago – we’ve been busy apparently).

So I thought I’d list a few of my favourite weird ocean… things. Enjoy!

1. The Sunfish

The first cab off the rank is one of my favourites – the Giant Ocean Sunfish or Mola Mola. Climate models consistently show that oceans will probably end up crawling with jellyfish in the next century, so understanding things that eat jellyfish is really, really important.

Enter the Sunfish.

That is one weird-looking fish…

These guys are weird-looking fish. They’re also HUGE. Sunfish hold the record for being the world’s heaviest bony fish, weighing in at a whopping 2.2 tonnes. They can grow up to 3 metres from nose to tail. One of my favourite things about these guys though, is that they spend their days diving down to about 600 metres below the surface to find their food. Because this is so far away from sunlight, they get cold.

So they sunbathe.

That’s right – they swim up to the surface, turn themselves sideways and soak up the sun for a while before heading back down to the depths to hunt down jellyfish. They’re like ocean lizards.

2. Temperate Reefs

Last year, ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicle), on a mission to map the ocean south of Wilson’s Promontory in Victoria, Australia, discovered something completely unknown and entirely surprising. In the frigid waters of Bass Strait, they uncovered a massive temperate reef. It’s filled with giant fan corals, millions of fish and countless species thought to have been extinct ages ago. Park rangers estimated that this reef was possibly more diverse than the Great Barrier Reef!

reef wilsons.jpg
One of many stunning stills taken by the ROVs

Given we’ve explored less than 5 % of the ocean, it’s amazing to think there might be more hidden gems like this out there somewhere.

3. Barrel Sponges

Sponges are weird. Super weird. Each cell within a sponge has absolutely no specific purpose whatsoever. They kind of just jump in a do what needs to be done to survive. This means that if you chop a sponge in half, it’s completely fine. So much so that researchers have actually blended sponges to paste and they’ve re-formed.

Super weird.

barrel sponges.jpg
Barrel sponges are also home to a bunch of fish and other reef creatures

Barrel sponges are even weirder. Not only are they huge for sponges (they can grow up to 2 metres high) but they’re old. Scientists have estimated some specimens have lived for over 2000 years.

Did I mention sponges were weird?

4. Underwater Crop Circles

For years, these sand formations off the coast of Japan completely baffled divers and scientists. What on earth was causing these perfect circles to appear on the ocean floor? It clearly wasn’t a freak ocean current.

Evidence of underwater aliens?

It wasn’t aliens, it was pufferfish.

Turns out, male pufferfish spend ages making these elaborate circles in the sand to attract a mate. Cool huh?

5. The “Bloop”

This was a mystery that completely confounded NOAA researchers for years. The “Bloop”was first measured by the “Ocean Noise Network” in 1997. The sound didn’t match anything heard before and was written off as one of those things we’d probably never figure out.

That was until it was matched to sounds made by an icequake in the Scotia Sea in 2008. So less mysterious but still weird. You can listen to it here.

So there we go; the ocean is filled with weird and wonderful things. What do you think of the list? Did I forget your favourite? Let me know and I’ll see you in the comments section.

Where on Earth is Joh? #1

….I’m home. In Canberra. Exciting right?

To be honest, I was possibly biting off a bit more than I could chew when I came up with the idea for this series. I imagined myself sitting on the balcony outside my cabin at our accommodation in Albury/Wodonga, sipping on infinite cups of tea and joyfully blogging away. There were definitely no dark circles under my eyes in this picture; none to be found.

Oh how I laugh hysterically at past-Joh.

I had no idea just how tiring touring would be. I don’t think I’ve ever been that exhausted in my life. But please don’t get me wrong. Whilst the week on tour was intense, it was also intensely rewarding and a ridiculous amount of fun.

But I should really start at the beginning.

For those of you who don’t know, I’m one of 16 scientists from around Australia, chosen to be a part of the Shell Questacon Science Circus. This is a joint initiative run by Questacon (the National Science and Technology Centre in Canberra) and The Australian National University with support from Shell. As part of a Masters in Science Communication, we develop science shows to perform in schools all over Australia. This year, I get to travel to do shows in primary schools on the NSW Central Coast, organise Public Exhibitions in Albury/Wodonga, run workshops in the Northern Territory and facilitate teacher professional development sessions in Victoria.

You know, among other things like sleep and assessments… and sleep.

Science circus group
What a good-looking bunch

It occurred to me that some of you may be interested in what we do when we’re out of town.  A tour, in my admittedly limited experience, generally runs something like this.

Day 1:

First things first, it’s truck-packing time! We travel in a convoy and a half: ten cars and an 18-metre semi-trailer. Since our truck is home to our show props and our travelling exhibition we need to get it all packed. We get there at what I like to call “stupid O’clock” in the morning (you know, the sort of hour that requires consuming your body-weight in coffee before you’re kind of functional?) and get everything loaded. And then, we’re off to the Albury/Wodonga region. The rest of day 1 is filled with travel which is, quite frankly, horrifically boring and so we’ll move on to:

Day 2…. 3 and 4:

This is where it starts to get interesting… and exhausting. Most of any one of our tours is taken up by school visits. These run in a sort of “rinse and repeat” pattern. We split into groups of two, go into a school, introduce ourselves to the teachers, set up in the space we’ve been allocated, perform shows, pack up the space we’ve been allocated, say goodbye to the teachers and re-group at the accommodation.

Rinse and repeat.

crazy lady with glass
Not sure if opera singer or crazy lady…

This is, without question, my favourite part of tour. Despite the pattern, no one day is the same. Each school I visited was different and awesome in their own special ways. At the first school, I had an eleven year old call me out on resonant frequency (not kidding – this kid was on it), and another ask if I could feature on his YouTube channel (presumably there’s a Minecraft let’s play out there with a random cross to “mad woman attempting to break glass with voice” for no apparent reason; I desperately want to find it). At the second school I experienced the most adorable lunch break ever where my partner for the day, Nicole and I were surrounded, and entertained by, about ten kindergarten kids telling us all about their chickens. And at the last school, I discovered that “Equine studies” is a legitimate high school subject. I’m not going to lie, most of our time back at the accommodation was spent sharing anecdotes. And if nothing else, it’s a joy to see children loving the things you’re passionate about and getting really involved and excited about your shows.

But it’s not all about the schools…

Day 5 (aka “the day that wrecked me”):

The last of our major operations is the Public Exhibition, we call it a PEx. Since there’s no way 16 people would need an 18 metre semi-trailer’s worth of show props, the majority of the truck space is taken up with over 40 hands-on exhibits. Usually, PEx days, like school show days, follow a pattern. We roll into town, unpack the truck, set up all of the exhibits, set up the shop, set up the show space, run the PEx for about 3-5 hours, breathe for a few seconds, pack everything up and roll out of town.

It takes a lot of coordination and practise to get that pattern done in a small amount of time and efficiently, but I think we’re all getting there. Throughout the day we entertained 1496 people with exhibits and science shows (I get to lie on a bed of nails and have someone smash a brick on my chest with an axe… no big deal). It’s a crazy day but again, heaps of fun (are you sensing a pattern here?).

On a side note, we do get some down time. Our school days do tend to finish at around 4PM and we’re free to explore and, within reason, do whatever we want to relax. I spent a bunch of time walking around Lake Hume with some fellow circus members, cooking dinner, playing games and just chatting. It was really lovely to hang out with the circus; they’re a great bunch of people.

Lake Hume turned on the sunset for us! Credit to fellow Circus presenter Mizaan for this amazing shot.

Anyway, day 6 is a travel day and boring so let’s finish up this contrived recount shall we?

Touring is, I’ve decided, one of those things that’s so intense that you end up sleeping for a week when you get back, but you absolutely can’t get enough of it. There are a bunch of things that could have gone better upon reflection but if you can’t think of ways to make things run more efficiently you’re not doing it right… right?

So tour is intense, exhausting, rewarding, entertaining and ridiculous amounts of fun. 10/10, would totally do it again… which is lucky seeing as how I’ll be travelling to the NSW Central Coast in May. Hopefully I’ll be able to update you all at the end of every week but, given my past record of less-than-clockwork posting, I am making no promises. Next time it’ll be for three weeks. A crazy-awesome, exhausting three weeks…

Bring it on.



Vacuum cleaners don’t suck

Anyone that’s known me for more than a few years will know that I am not exactly the biggest fan of cleaning. I like to hoodwink people into thinking I have things sorted and that I exude domestic goddess status but in reality, I honestly don’t care that much. This is slightly problematic for someone with a crazy dust allergy but at the risk of this becoming a personal confessional, let’s move on shall we?

Henry is secretly disgusted in all of us

This deficiency in ability-to-adult is possibly why, when handed a vacuum cleaner as a pivotal prop to use in one of my shows and told to explain how it worked, I laughed hysterically.

But then it occurred to me that it’s highly likely the vast majority of people who frequently use a vacuum cleaner, have no idea how it works either. It’s like any piece of commonplace machinery in modern life; we use it but if asked to pull it apart and put it back together we’d end up with a mess.

Vacuum cleaners, it turns out, don’t suck. In fact a “vacuum” is more than a misnomer – it’s entirely not how they don’t suck and to explain just exactly how they don’t suck, I’m going to need to explain pressure.

First things first we need to think about air pressure. Take a look at your thumbnail. It’s about one square centimeter in area right? Well now I want you to imagine there’s a 1L carton of milk balancing on it. Heavy? Awkward? A contrived gedanken experiment? All answers to these questions should be “yes”. If you ever get a chance, you can actually feel what this is like. All you need to do is get a plastic bag and a vacuum cleaner (stay with me). Wrap the plastic bag around your hand and remove the air from inside it with the vacuum cleaner. You should be able to feel the air outside the bag, pressing onto your skin. Atmospheric pressure is CRAZY.

Vacuum cleaners work on the principle that any areas of high (so higher than atmospheric) and low pressure, if given the opportunity, will want to equalise. This means we can have some fun like this (with added cute-factor) or this (skip to 2 minutes for awesomeness). Now inside a vacuum cleaner, there’s a chamber with a fan. This fan is constantly rotating and works to push the air out of the chamber creating an area of low pressure. This means that the high pressure outside of the vacuum cleaner, instead of getting sucked in, is pushed in so that the high and low pressure equalises.

So vacuum cleaners don’t suck. I’ll definitely be thinking about how I know that the next time I “clean my carpets”*.

*”leave the vacuum cleaner in the cupboard to languish for eternity”.