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.



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.

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”.


How to smash a wine glass with your voice

For reasons which will hopefully become clearer as the year goes on, my internet search history has been getting weird. Weirder than usual. Last year, I found myself searching things like “Linear Discriminant Analysis”, “Photosystem II”, “Electron transport chain” and “can you take ibuprofen and paracetamol at the same time?” (you can totally do that without dying by the way but I am by no means a medical professional).

This week, I’ve found myself looking for decidedly more fun things. Including the topic of today’s post: Can you break a wine glass with your voice?


The answer is yes, but there are some caveats.

First of all, you need to be able to sing. Sound is essentially a vibration of the air around the object making the noise. The faster the vibration, the higher the sound and when I say “fast” I mean it. If you think about how fast you can wave your hand back and forth, you’d need to multiply that by about 20000 times to be able to hear your hand…. and you probably wouldn’t have a hand anymore…

Sound waves are what’s called “longitudinal waves”, meaning they move back and forth horizontally rather than, say, waves in the ocean which move up and down. When a thing makes a sound, it’s pushing the air out in really fast compressions. These compressions hit your ear and, through a complex process involving teeny tiny bones and millions of neurons, your brain converts them to sound. This is part of the theory behind the glass smashing. Point your horrifically powerful voice towards a glass and it starts to get bombarded by compressed air. The higher the sound, the faster the vibration which increases the amount of air hitting the glass and boom! It should explode.

But there’s actually one other thing happening; resonant frequency. If an object is hit with just the exact right pitch of sound, it will start to vibrate. Crystal glasses are really really good at resonating depending on the pitch of the sound. The more the glass vibrates, the more the molecules making it up are disrupted. If you hit a glass with a mallet, it makes a ringing noise. Match the frequency of the ring with your voice and you’ve got a very good chance of breaking it. Especially if it’s got a few cracks in it already.

So essentially, you need to be good, you need to be loud and you need to be very, very lucky. Like this guy on Mythbusters that one time. Awesome right?