A new school term has started here, and for me this year that’s meant more chemistry experiments – hurrah!
Okay, actually round-bottomed flasks
The other day it was time for the famous Tollens’ reaction. For those that don’t know, this involves a mixture of silver nitrate, sodium hydroxide and ammonia (which has to be freshly made every time as it doesn’t keep). Combine this concoction with an aldehyde in a glass container and warm it up a bit and it forms a beautiful silver layer on the glass. Check out my lovely silver balls!
This reaction is handy for chemists because the silver mirror only appears with aldehydes and not with other, similar molecules (such as ketones). It works because aldehydes are readily oxidised or, looking at it the other way round, the silver ions (Ag+) are readily reduced by the aldehyde to form silver metal (Ag) – check out this Compound Interest graphic for a bit more detail.
But this is not just the story of an interesting little experiment for chemists. No, this is a story of chemistry, biochemistry, physics, astronomy, and artisan glass bauble producers. Ready? Let’s get started!
Bernhard Tollens (click for link to image source)
The reaction is named after Bernhard Tollens, a German chemist who was born in the mid-19th century. It’s one of those odd situations where everyone – well, everyone who’s studied A level Chemistry anyway – knows the name, but hardly anyone seems to have any idea who the person was.
Tollens went to school in Hamburg, Germany, and his science teacher was Karl Möbius. No, not the Möbius strip inventor (that was August Möbius): Karl Möbius was a zoologist and a pioneer in the field of ecology. He must have inspired the young Tollens to pursue a scientific career, because after he graduated Tollens first completed an apprenticeship at a pharmacy before going on to study chemistry at Friedrich Wöhler’s laboratory in Göttingen. If Wöhler’s name seems familiar it’s because he was the co-discoverer of beryllium and silicon – without which the electronics I’m using to write this article probably wouldn’t exist.
After he obtained his PhD Tollens worked at a bronze factory, but it wasn’t long before he left to begin working with none other than Emil Erlenmeyer – yes, he of the Erlenmeyer flask, otherwise known as… the conical flask. (I’ve finally managed to get around to mentioning the piece of glassware from which this blog takes its name!)
It seems though that Tollens had itchy feet, as he didn’t stay with Erlenmeyer for long, either. He worked in Paris and Portugal before eventually returning to Göttingen in 1872 to work on carbohydrates, going on to discover the structures of several sugars.
Table sugar is sucrose, which doesn’t produce a silver mirror with Tollens’ reagent
All of the monosaccharides will produce a positive result with Tollens’ reagent (even when their structures don’t appear to contain an aldehyde group – this gets a bit complicated but check out this link if you’re interested). However, sucrose does not. Which means that Tollens’ reagent is quick and easy test that can be used to distinguish between glucose and sucrose.
Laboratory Dewar flask with silver mirror surface
And it’s not just useful for identifying sugars. Tollens’ reagent, or a variant of it, can also be used to create a high-quality mirror surface. Until the 1900s, if you wanted to make a mirror you had to apply a thin foil of an alloy – called “tain” – to the back of a piece of glass. It’s difficult to get a really good finish with this method, especially if you’re trying to create a mirror on anything other than a perfectly flat surface. If you wanted a mirrored flask, say to reduce heat radiation, this was tricky. Plus it required quite a lot of silver, which was expensive and made the finished item quite heavy.
Which was why the GermanchemistJustus von Liebig (yep, the one behind the Liebig condenser) developed a process for depositing a thin layer of pure silver on glass in 1835. After some tweaking and refining this was perfected into a method which bears a lot of resemblance to the Tollens’ reaction: a diamminesilver(I) solution is mixed with glucose and sprayed onto the surface of the glass, where the silver ions are reduced to elemental silver. This process ticked a lot of boxes: not only did it produce a high-quality finish, but it also used such a tiny quantity of silver that it was really cheap.
And it turned out to be useful for more than just laboratory glassware. The German astronomer Carl August von Steinheil and French doctor Leon Foucault soon began to use it to make telescope mirrors: for the first time astronomers had cheap, lightweight mirrors that reflected far more light than their old mirrors had ever done.
These days, silvering is done by vacuum deposition, which produces an even more perfect surface, but you just can’t beat the magic of watching the inside of a test tube or a flask turning into a beautiful, shiny mirror.
Speaking of which, according to @MaChemGuy on Twitter, this is the perfect, foolproof, silver mirror method:
° Place 5 cm³ 0.1 mol dm⁻³ AgNO₃(aq) in a test tube.
° Add concentrated NH₃ dropwise untill the precipitate dissolves. (About 3 drops.)
° Add a spatula of glucose and dissolve.
° Plunge test-tube into freshly boiled water.
Silver nitrate stains the skin – wear gloves!
One word of warning: be careful with the silver nitrate and wear gloves. Else, like me, you might end up with brown stains on your hands that are still there three days later…
Carbon dioxide is a small molecule with the structure O=C=O
Carbon dioxide has been in and out of the news this summer for one reason or another, but why? Is this stuff helpful, or heinous?
It’s certainly a significant part of our history. Let’s take that history to its literal limits and start at the very beginning. To quote the great Terry Pratchett: “In the beginning, there was nothing, which exploded.”
(Probably.) This happened around 13.8 billion years ago. Afterwards, stuff flew around for a while (forgive me, cosmologists). Then, about 4.5 billion years ago, the Earth formed out of debris that had collected around our Sun. Temperatures on this early Earth were extremely hot, there was a lot of volcanic activity, and there might have been some liquid water. The atmosphere was mostly hydrogen and helium.
The early Earth was bashed about by other space stuff, and one big collision almost certainly resulted in the formation of the Moon. A lot of other debris vaporised on impact releasing gases, and substances trapped within the Earth started to escape from its crust. The result was Earth’s so-called second atmosphere.
ttps://nai.nasa.gov/articles/2018/6/5/habitability-of-the-young-earth-could-boost-the-chances-of-life-elsewhere/” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”> An artist’s concept of the early Earth. Image credit: NASA. (Click image for more.)
The point being that carbon dioxide is not a new phenomenon. It is, in fact, the very definition of an old phenomenon. It’s been around, well, pretty much forever. And so has the greenhouse effect. The early Earth was hot. Really hot. Possibly 200 oC or so, because these atmospheric gases trapped the Sun’s heat. Over time, lots and lots of time, the carbon dioxide levels reduced as it became trapped in carbonate rocks, dissolved in the oceans and was utilised by lifeforms for photosynthesis.
Fast-forward a few billion years to the beginning of the twentieth century and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were about 300 ppm (0.03%), tiny compared to oxygen (about 20%) and nitrogen (about 78%).
Chemists and carbon dioxide
Let’s[/caption]Let’s pause there for a moment and have a little look at some human endeavours. In about 1640 Flemish chemist Jan Baptist van Helmont discovered that if he burned charcoal in a closed vessel, the mass of the resulting ash was much less than that of the original charcoal. He had no way of knowing, then, that he had formed and collected carbon dioxide gas, but he speculated that some of the charcoal had been transmuted into spiritus sylvestris, or “wild spirit”.
In 1754 Scottish chemist Joseph Black noticed that heating calcium carbonate, aka limestone, produced a gas which was heavier than air and which could “not sustain fire or animal life”. He called it “fixed air”, and he’s often credited with carbon dioxide’s discovery, although arguably van Helmont got there first. Black was also the first person to come up with the “limewater test“, where carbon dioxide is bubbled through a solution of calcium hydroxide. He used the test to demonstrate that carbon dioxide was produced by respiration, an experiment still carried out in schools more than 250 years later to show that the air we breathe out contains more carbon dioxide than the air we breathe in.
com/P/Priestley_Joseph/PriestleyJoseph-MakingCarbonatedWater1772.htm” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”> A diagram from Priestly’s letter: “Impregnating Water with Fixed Air”. Printed for J. Johnson, No. 72, in St. Pauls Church-Yard, 1772. (Click image for paper)
Back to Priestle
[/caption]Back to Priestley for a moment. In the late 1800s, a glass of volcanic spring water was a common treatment for digestive problems and general ailments. But what if you didn’t happen to live near a volcanic spring? Joseph Black, you’ll remember, had established that CO2 was produced by living organisms, so it occurred to Priestly that perhaps he could hang a vessel of water over a fermentation vat at a brewery and collect the gas that way.
But it wasn’t very efficient. As Priestly himself said, “the surface of the fixed air is exposed to the common air, and is considerably mixed with it, [and] water will not imbibe so much of it by the process above described.”
It was then that he tried his experiment with vitriolic acid, which allowed for much greater control over the carbonation process. Priestly proposed that the resulting “water impregnated with fixed air” might have a number of medical applications. In particular, perhaps because the water had an acidic taste in a similar way that lemon-infused water does, he thought it might be an effective treatment for scurvy. Legend has it that he gave the method to Captain Cook for his second voyage to the Pacific for this reason. It wouldn’t have helped of course, but it does mean that Cook and his crew were some of the first people to produce carbonated water for the express purpose of drinking a fizzy drink.
You will have noticed that, despite all his work, there is no fizzy drink brand named Priestly (at least, not that I know of).
Joseph Priestley is credited with developing the first method for making carbonated water.
Today, carbonated drinks are made a little differently. You may have heard about carbon dioxide shortages this summer in the U.K. These arose because these days carbon dioxide is actually collected as a by-product of other processes. In fact, after several bits of quite simple chemistry that add up to a really elegant sequence.
From fertiliser to fizzy drinks
It all begins, or more accurately ends, with ammonia fertiliser. As any GCSE science student who’s been even half paying attention can tell you, ammonia is made by reacting hydrogen with nitrogen during the Haber process. Nitrogen is easy to get hold of – as I’ve already said it makes up nearly 80% of our atmosphere – but hydrogen has to be made from hydrocarbons. Usually natural gas, or methane.
This involves another well-known process, called steam reforming, in which steam is reacted with methane at high temperatures in the presence of a nickel catalyst. This produces carbon monoxide, a highly toxic gas. But no problem! React that carbon monoxide with more water in the presence of a slightly different catalyst and you get even more hydrogen. And some carbon dioxide.
Fear not, nothing is wasted here! The CO2 is captured and liquified for all sorts of food-related and industrial uses, not least of which is fizzy drinks. This works well for all concerned because steam reforming produces large amounts of pure carbon dioxide. If you’re going to add it to food and drinks after all, you wouldn’t want a product contaminated with other gases.
Carbon dioxide is a by-product of fertiliser manufacture.
We ended up with a problem this summer in the U.K. because ammonia production plants operate on a schedule which is linked to the planting season. Farmers don’t usually apply fertiliser in the summer – when they’re either harvesting or about to harvest crops – so many ammonia plants shut down for maintenance in April, May, and June. This naturally leads to reduction in the amount of available carbon dioxide, but it’s not normally a problem because the downtime is relatively short and enough is produced the rest of year to keep manufacturers supplied.
This year, though, natural-gas prices were higher, while the price of ammonia stayed roughly the same. This meant that ammonia plants were in no great hurry to reopen, and that meant many didn’t start supplying carbon dioxide in July, just when a huge heatwave hit the UK, coinciding with the World Cup football (which tends to generate a big demand for fizzy pop, for some reason).
Which brings us back to our atmosphere…
Carbon dioxide calamity?
Isn’t there, you may be thinking, too much carbon dioxide in our atmosphere? In fact, that heatwave you just mentioned, wasn’t that a global warming thing? Can’t we just… extract carbon dioxide from our air and solve everyone’s problems? Well, yes and no. Remember earlier when I said that at the beginning of the twentieth century and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were about 300 ppm (0.03%)?
Over the last hundred years atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have increased from 0.03% to 0.04%
Today, a little over 100 years later, levels are about 0.04%. This is a significant increase in a relatively short period of time, but it’s still only a tiny fraction of our atmosphere (an important tiny fraction nonetheless – we’ll get to that in a minute).
It is possible to distill gases from our air by cooling air down until it liquefies and then separating the different components by their boiling points. For example Nitrogen, N2, boils at a chilly -196 oC whereas oxygen, O2, boils at a mere 183 oC.
But there’s a problem: CO2 doesn’t have a liquid state at standard pressures. It forms a solid, which sublimes directly into a gas. For this reason carbon dioxide is usually removed from cryogenic distillation mixtures, because it would freeze solid and plug up the equipment. There are other ways to extract carbon dioxide from air but although they have important applications (keep reading) they’re not practical ways to produce large volumes of the gas for the food and drink industries.
Back to the environment for a moment: why is that teeny 0.04% causing us such headaches? How can a mere 400 CO2 molecules bouncing around with a million other molecules cause such huge problems?
For that, I need to take a little diversion to talk about infrared radiation, or IR.
Infrared radiation was first discovered by the astronomer William Herschel in 1800. He was trying to observe sun spots when he noticed that his red filter seemed to get particularly hot. In what I’ve always thought was a rather amazing intuitive leap, he then passed sunlight through a prism to split it, held a thermometer just beyond the red light that he could see with his eyes, and discovered that the thermometer showed a higher temperature than when placed in the visible spectrum.
He concluded that there must be an invisible form of light beyond the visible spectrum, and indeed there is: infrared light. It turns out that slightly more than half of the total energy from the Sun arrives on Earth in the form of infrared radiation.
What has this got to do with carbon dioxide? It turns out that carbon dioxide, or rather the double bonds O=C=O, absorb a lot of infrared radiation. By contrast, oxygen and nitrogen, which make up well over 90% of Earth’s atmosphere, don’tabsorb infrared.
CO2 molecules also re-emit IR but, having bounced around a bit, not necessarily in the same direction and – and this is the reason that tiny amounts of carbon dioxide cause not so tiny problems – they transfer energy to other molecules in the atmosphere in the process. Think of each CO2 molecule as a drunkard stumbling through a pub, knocking over people’s pints and causing a huge bar brawl. A single disruptive individual can, indirectly, cause a lot of others to find themselves bruised and bleeding and wondering what the hell just happened.
Like carbon dioxide, water vapour also absorbs infrared, but it has a relatively short lifetime in our atmosphere.
Water vapor becomes important here too, because while O2 and N2 don’t absorb infrared, water vapour does. Water vapour has a relatively short lifetime in our atmosphere (about ten days compared to a decade for carbon dioxide) so its overall warming effect is less. Except that once carbon dioxide is thrown into the mix it transfers extra heat to the water, keeping it vapour (rather than, say, precipitating as rain) for longer and pushing up the temperature of the system even more.
Basically, carbon dioxide molecules trap heat near the planet’s surface. This is why carbon dioxide is described as a greenhouse gas and increasing levels are causing global warming. There are people who are still arguing this isn’t the case, but truly, they’ve got the wrong end of the (hockey) stick.
It’s not even a new concept. Over 100 years ago, in 1912, a short piece was published in the Rodney and Otamatea Times which said: “The furnaces of the world are now burning about 2,000,000,000 tons of coal a year. When this is burned, uniting with oxygen, it adds about 7,000,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere yearly. This tends to make the air a more effective blanket for the earth and to raise its temperature.”
This summer has seen record high temperatures and some scientists have been warning of a “Hothouse Earth” scenario.
This 1912 piece suggested we might start to see effects in “centuries”. In fact, we’re seeing the results now. As I mentioned earlier, this summer has seen record high temperatures and some scientists have been warning of “Hothouse Earth” scenario, where rising temperatures cause serious disruptions to ecosystems, society, and economies. The authors stressed it’s not inevitable, but preventing it will require a collective effort. They even published a companion document which included several possible solutions which, oddly enough, garnered rather fewer column inches than the “we’re all going to die” angle.
Don’t despair, DO something…
But I’m going to mention it, because it brings us back to CO2. There’s too much of it in our atmosphere. How can we deal with that? It’s simple really: first, stop adding more, i.e. stop burning fossil fuels. We have other technologies for producing energy. The reason we’re still stuck on fossil fuels at this stage is politics and money, and even the most obese of the fat cats are starting to realise that money isn’t much use if you don’t have a habitable planet. Well, most of them. (There’s probably no hope for some people, but we can at least hope that their damage-doing days are limited.)
There are some other, perhaps less obvious, sources of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that might also be reduced, such as livestock, cement for building materials and general waste.
Forrests trap carbon dioxide in land carbon sinks. More biodiverse systems generally store more carbon.
And then, we’re back to taking the CO2 out of the atmosphere. How? Halting deforestation would allow more CO2 to be trapped in so-called land carbon sinks. Likewise, good agricultural soil management helps to trap carbon underground. More biodiverse systems generally store more carbon, so if we could try to stop wiping out land and coastal systems, that would be groovy too. Finally, there’s the technological solution: carbon capture and storage, or CSS.
This, in essence, involves removing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it in geological formations. The same thing the Earth has done for millenia, but more quickly. It can also be linked to bio-energy production in a process known as BECCS. It sounds like the perfect solution, but right now it’s energy intensive and expensive, and there are concerns that BECCS projects could end up competing with agriculture and damaging conservation efforts.
A new answer from an ancient substance?
Forming magnesite, or magnesium carbonate, may be one way to trap carbon dioxide.
Some brand new research might offer yet another solution. It’s another carbon-capture technology which involves magnesium carbonate, or magnesite (MgCO3). Magnesite forms slowly on the Earth’s surface, over hundreds of thousands of years, trapping carbon dioxide in its structure as it does.
It can easily be made quickly at high temperatures, but of course if you have to heat things up, you need energy, which might end up putting as much CO2 back in as you’re managing to take out. Recently a team of researchers at Trent University in Canada have found a way to form magnesite quickly at room temperature using polystyrene microspheres.
This isn’t something which would make much difference if, say, you covered the roof of everyone’s house with the microspheres, but it could be used in fuel-burning power generators (which could be burning renewables or even waste materials) to effectively scrub the carbon dioxide from their emissions. That technology on its own would make a huge difference.
And so here we are. Carbon dioxide is one of the oldest substances there is, as “natural” as they come. From breathing to fizzy drinks to our climate, it’s entwined in every aspect of our everyday existence. It is both friend and foe. Will we work out ways to save ourselves from too much of it in our atmosphere? Personally, I’m optimistic, so long as we support scientists and engineers rather than fight them…
This is one of my favourite photos, so I’m using it again.
The school summer holidays are fast approaching and, for some reason, this always seems to get people talking about slime. Whether it’s because it’s a fun end-of-term activity, or it’s an easy bit of science for kids to do at home, or a bit of both, the summer months seem to love slimy stories. In fact, I wrote a piece about it myself in August 2017.
The article is illustrated with lots of pots of colourful commercial slime pots with equally colourful names like Jupiter Juice. It says that, “exposure to excessive levels of boron could cause irritation, diarrhoea, vomiting and cramps in the short term,” and goes on to talk about possible risks of birth defects and developmental delays. Yikes. Apparently the retailer Amazon has removed several slime toys from sale since Which? got on the case.
The piece was, as you might expect, picked up by practically every news outlet there is, and within hours the internet was full of headlines warning of the dire consequences of handling multicoloured gloopy stuff.
Before I go any further, here’s a quick reminder: most slime is made by taking polyvinyl alcohol (PVA – the white glue stuff) and adding a borax solution, aka sodium tetraborate, which contains the element boron. The sodium tetraborate forms cross-links between the PVA polymer chains, and as a result you get viscous, slimy slime in place of runny, gluey stuff. Check out this lovely graphic created by @compoundchem for c&en’s Periodic Graphics:
The Chemistry of Slime from cen.acs.org (click image for link), created by Andy Brunning of @compoundchem
And so, back to the Which? article. Is the alarm justified? Should you ban your child from ever going near slime ever again?
Nah. Followers will remember that back in August last year, after I posted my own slime piece, I had a chat with boron-specialist David Schubert. He said at the time: “Borax has been repeated[ly] shown to be safe for skin contact. Absorption through intact skin is lower than the B consumed in a healthy diet” (B is the chemical symbol for the element boron). And then he directed me to a research paper backing up his comments.
Borax is a fine white powder, Mixed with water it can be used to make slime.
This, by the way, is all referring to the chemical borax – which you might use if you’re making slime. In pre-made slime the borax has chemically bonded with the PVA, and that very probably makes it even safer – because it’s then even more difficult for any boron to be absorbed through skin.
Of course, and this really falls under the category of “things no one should have to say,” don’t eat slime. Don’t let your kids eat slime. Although even if they did, the risks are really small. As David said when we asked this time: “Borates have low acute toxicity. Consumption of the amount of borax present in a handful of slime would make one sick to their stomach and possibly cause vomiting, but no other harm would result. The only way [they] could harm themselves is by eating that amount daily.”
It is true that borax comes with a “reproductive hazard” warning label. Which? pointed out in their article that there is EU guidance on safe boron levels, and the permitted level in children’s’ toys has been set at 300 mg/kg for liquids and sticky substances (Edited 18th July, see * in Notes section below).
EU safety limits are always very cautious – an additional factor of at least 100 is usually incorporated. In other words, for example, if 1 g/kg exposure of a substance is considered safe, the EU limit is likely to be set at 0.01 g/kg – so as to make sure that even someone who’s really going to town with a thing would be unlikely to suffer negative consequences as a result.
The boron limit is particularly cautious and is based on animal studies (and it has been challenged). The chemists I spoke to told me it’s not representative of the actual hazards. Boron chemist Beth Bosley pointed out that while it is true that boric acid exposure has been shown to cause fetal abnormalities when it’s fed to pregnant rats, this finding hasn’t been reproduced in humans. Workers handling large quantities of borate in China and Turkey have been studied and no reproductive effects have been seen.
Rat studies, she said, aren’t wholly comparable because rats are unable to vomit, which is significant because it means a rat can be fed a large quantity of a boron-containing substance and it’ll stay in their system. Whereas a human who accidentally ingested a similar dose would almost certainly throw up. Plus, again, this is all based on consuming substances such as borax, not slime where the boron is tied up in polymer chains. There really is no way anyone could conceivably eat enough slime to absorb these sorts of amounts†.
These arguments aside, we all let our children handle things that might be harmful if they ate them. Swallowing a whole tube of toothpaste would probably give your child an upset stomach, and it could even be dangerous if they did it on a regular basis, but we haven’t banned toothpaste “just in case”. We keep it out of reach when they’re not supposed to be brushing their teeth, and we teach them not to do silly things like eating an entire tube of Oral-B. Same basic principle applies to slime, even if it does turn out to contain more boron than the EU guidelines permit.
In conclusion: pots of pre-made slime are safe, certainly from a borax/boron point of view‡, so long as you don’t eat them. The tiny amounts of boron that might be absorbed through skin are smaller than the amounts you’d get from eating nuts and pulses, and not at all hazardous.
Making slime at home can also be safe, if you follow some sensible guidelines like, say, these ones:
BUT, there is also ” Category I: Dry, brittle, powder like or pliable materials” and the value there is the much higher 1,200 mg/kg. Which begs the question: does slime count as “pliable” or “sticky”? It suggests to me that, say, a modelling clay product (pliable) would have the 4x higher limit. But surely the risk of exposure would be essentially the same? If 1,200 mg/kg is okay for modelling clay, I can’t see why it shouldn’t be for slime. In the Which? testing, only the Jupiter Juice product exceeded the Category I limit, and then not by that much (1,400 mg/kg).
Also (the notes are going to end up being longer than the post if I’m not careful), these values are migration limits, not limits on the amount allowed in the substance in total. Can anyone show that more than 300 mg/kg is able to migrate from the slime to the person handling it? Very unlikey. But again, don’t eat slime.
† This is not an invitation to try and prove me wrong.
‡ I suppose it’s possible that someone could sell slime that’s contaminated with some other toxic thing. But that could happen with anything. The general advice to “wash your/their hands and don’t eat it” will take you a long way.
No, I mean it’s strawberry season in the U.K.! That means there will be much strawberry eating, because the supermarkets are full of very reasonably-priced punnets. There will also be strawberry picking, as we tramp along rows selecting the very juiciest fruits (and eating… well, just a few – it’s part of the fun, right?).
Is there any nicer fruit than these little bundles of red deliciousness? Surely not. (Although I do also appreciate a ripe blackberry.)
And as if their lovely taste weren’t enough, there’s loads of brilliant strawberry science, too!
This is mainly (well, sort of, mostly, some of the time) a chemistry blog, but the botany and history aspects of strawberries are really interesting too. The woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca) was the first to be cultivated in the early 17th century, although strawberries have of course been around a lot longer than that. The word strawberry is thought to come from ‘streabariye’ – a term used by the Benedictine monk Aelfric in CE 995.
Woodland strawberries, though, are small and round: very different from the large, tapering, fruits we tend to see in shops today (their botanical name is Fragaria × ananassa – the ‘ananassa’ bit meaning pineapple, referring to their sweet scent and flavour.
The strawberries we’re most familiar with were actually bred from two other varieties. That means that modern strawberries are, technically, a genetically modified organism. But no need to worry: practically every plant we eat today is.
Of course, almost everyone’s heard that strawberries are not, strictly, a berry. It’s true; technically strawberries are what’s known as an “aggregate accessory” fruit, which means that they’re formed from the receptacle (the thick bit of the stem where flowers emerge) that holds the ovaries, rather than from the ovaries themselves. But it gets weirder. Those things on the outside that look like seeds? Not seeds. No, each one is actually an ovary, with a seed inside it. Basically strawberries are plant genitalia. There’s something to share with Grandma over a nice cup of tea and a scone.
Anyway, that’s enough botany. Bring on the chemistry! Let’s start with the bright red colour. As with most fruits, that colour comes from anthocyanins – water-soluble molecules which are odourless, moderately astringent, and brightly-coloured. They’re formed from the reaction of, similar-sounding, molecules called anthocyanidins with sugars. The main anthocyanin in strawberries is callistephin, otherwise known as pelargonidin-3-O-glucoside. It’s also found in the skin of certain grapes.
Anthocyanins are fun for chemists because they change colour with pH. It’s these molecules which are behind the famous red-cabbage indicator. Which means, yes, you can make strawberry indicator! I had a go myself, the results are below…
Strawberry juice acts as an indicator: pinky-purplish in an alkaline solution, bright orange in an acid.
As you can see, the strawberry juice is pinky-purplish in the alkaline solution (sodium hydrogen carbonate, aka baking soda, about pH 9), and bright orange in the acid (vinegar, aka acetic acid, about pH 3). Next time you find a couple of mushy strawberries that don’t look so tasty, don’t throw them away – try some kitchen chemistry instead!
Peonidin-3-O-glucoside is the anthocyanin which gives strawberries their red colour. This is the form found at acidic pHs
This small change is enough to alter the wavelengths of light absorbed by the compound, so we see different colours. The more green light that’s absorbed, the more pink/purple the solution appears. The more blue light that’s absorbed, the more orange/yellow we see.
Moving on from colour, what about the famous strawberry smell and flavour? That comes from furaneol, which is sometimes called strawberry furanone or, less romantically, DMHF. It’s the same compound which gives pineapples their scent (hence that whole Latin ananassa thing I mentioned earlier). The concentration of furaneol increases as the strawberry ripens, which is why they smell stronger.
Those who’ve been paying attention might be putting a few things together at this point: as the strawberry ripens, it becomes less acidic, which helps to shift its colour from more green-yellow-orange towards those delicious-looking purpleish-reds. It’s also producing more furaneol, making it smell yummy, and its sugar content is increasing, making it lovely and sweet. Why is all this happening? Because the strawberry wants (as much as a plant can want) to be eaten, but only once it’s ripe – because that’s how its seeds get dispersed. Ripening is all about making the fruit more appealing – redder, sweeter, and nicer-smelling – to things that will eat it. Nature’s clever, eh?
There we have it: some spectacular strawberry science! As a final note, as soon as I started writing this I (naturally) found lots of other blogs about strawberries and summer berries in general. They’re all fascinating. If you want to read more, check out…
To begin with, for some reason, I had it in my head that this happened in Australia (in my defence, that is where most of the really deadly stuff happens, right?). But no, this happened in the U.K. Not only that, but it was even in Oxfordshire, which is my neck of the woods.
The fish tank owner, a man named Chris Matthews, was actually an experienced aquarist. He knew about palytoxin – a poisonous substance which can be released by corals – and he was aware that it can be deadly if ingested. He also knew that it can cause serious skin irritation.
What he didn’t realise was that taking his pulsing xenia coral out of the tank could cause it to release the toxin into the air.
But before I talk about palytoxin, let’s just look at the word “toxin” for a moment. It has a specific meaning, and it’s often misused. As in many, many adverts. Here’s a recent one, but these easy to find – just put “toxin free” into the search engine of your choice.
In a way, this is quite funny. You see, “toxin” specifically refers to “a poison of plant or animal origin“. In other words, a naturally occurring poison*. There are lots and lots of naturally occurring poisons. Plants make them all the time, generally to ward off pests. Most essential oils can, at a high enough dose, be toxic. The hand cream in that picture contains peppermint oil. Peppermint is, of course, pretty safe – we’ve all eaten mints after all – but guess what? Take huge dose of it and it becomes a real problem. Now, I’m not for one second suggesting that hand cream is dangerous or harmful, but technically, it’s not “toxin free”.
Beauty products which contain only synthetic ingredients are, by definition, toxin-free.
Yes, the irony or this sort of marketing is that beauty products made out of entirely synthetic ingredients definitely will be toxin-free. Nothing natural = no toxins. Whereas anything made out of naturally occurring substances almost certainly isn’t, regardless of its spurious labelling.
Anyway, back to the palytoxin. It’s naturally occurring. And incredibly dangerous. More proof, as if we needed it, that natural doesn’t mean safe. Very often, in fact, quite the opposite. The human race has spent millenia working out how to protect itself from nature and all her associated nastiness (bacteria, viruses, extreme temperatures, poor food supply, predators…. the list is long and unpleasant) and yet for some reason it’s become fashionable to forget all that and imagine a utopia where mother nature knows best. Honestly, she doesn’t. Well, maybe she does – but being kind to human beings isn’t on her agenda.
Palytoxin is especially unpleasant. Indeed, it’s thought to be the second most poisonous non-protein substance known (there are some very impressive protein-based ones, though – botulinum toxin for one). The only thing which is more toxic is maitoxin – a poison which can be found in striated surgeonfish thanks to the algae they eat.
Palytoxin is a large molecule.
Palytoxin is a big molecule, technically categorised as a fatty alcohol. It has eight carbon-carbon double bonds, 40 hydroxy groups (phew) and is positively covered in chiral centres (don’t worry students: your teacher isn’t going to expect you to draw this one. Probably). Bits of it are water-soluble whilst other parts are fat soluble, meaning it can dissolve in both types of substance. Because it’s not a protein, heat doesn’t denature it, so you can’t get rid of this toxin with boiling water or by heating it. However, it does decompose and become non-toxic in acidic or alkaline solutions. Household bleach will destroy it.
It’s mostly found in the tropics, where it’s made by certain types of coral and plankton, or possibly by bacteria living on and in these organisms. It also turns up in fish, crabs and other marine organisms that feed on these things.
In fact, story time! There is a Hawaiian legend which tells that Maui villagers once caught a Shark God with a hunger for human flesh whom they believed had been killing their fishermen. They killed the Shark God and burned him, throwing the ashes into a tide pool. The ashes caused ugly brown anemones to grow. Later, the villagers discovered that blades smeared with these “limu” would cause certain death. So the anemones came to be known as “Limu Make O Hana” or Seaweed of Death from Hana. We now know that those brown ‘anemones’ are zoanthid corals, and the ‘certain death’ was due to palytoxin poisoning.
Zoanthids are a source of palytoxin.
People don’t suffer palytoxin poisoning very often. Most cases have been in people who’ve eaten seafood and, as here, aquarium hobbyists. In a few cases people have been exposed to algae blooms.
It’s really nasty though. Palytoxin can affect every type of cell in the body (yikes) and as a result the symptoms are different according to the route of exposure. Eat it and you’re likely to experience a bitter taste in your mouth, muscle spasms and abdominal cramps, nausea, lethargy, tingling and loss of sensation, slow heart rate, kidney failure and respiratory distress. It can damage your heart muscle; in the worst case scenario, it causes death by cardiac arrest.
On the other hand, if you inhale it, the symptoms are more likely to revolve around the respiratory system, such as constriction of the airways which causes wheezing and difficulty breathing. It can also cause fever and eye-infection type symptoms. Over time, though, the result is the same: muscle weakness and eventually, death from heart failure.
The respiratory symptoms from palytoxin are easily misdiagnosed: it looks like a viral or bacterial infection. In fact, our fish tank owner initially thought he had flu. It was only when everyone in the family got ill, even the dogs, that he realised that it must be poisoning. Fortunately, the emergency services took it seriously and sent both ambulance and fire crews to his house, as well as police. They closed the street and ensured that the poison was safely removed.
There is no antidote, but the symptoms can be eased by, for example, treatment with vasodilators. If the source of exposure is removed the victim is likely to recover over time. You’ll be pleased to hear that Chris Matthews, his family, and the firefighters who attended the scene, were checked over at hospital and appear to be okay.
If you’re an aquarium owner, how to you avoid getting into this kind of predicament? As Chris Matthews said, the coral he had, pulsing xenia, was “not expensive and a lot of people have it.”
Click the image to read safety guidelines from the Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association.
According to the Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association, the most important piece of safety advice is to only handle your marine creatures underwater and fully submerged. Don’t take them out of the tank unnecessarily, and if you do need to move them, use submerged plastic bags or a bucket, so that they stay underwater at all times. You should also wear strong rubber gloves, ideally gloves specifically designed for aquarium use (such as these). If you need to dispose of a rock which contains soft coral species, soak it in a bleach solution – one part household bleach to nine parts water – for several days before you intend to dispose of it. Leaving an untreated rock outside to dry will not make it safe – it could still be highly toxic. Finally, whilst activated charcoal can help to keep palytoxin out of the water, it may not be able to cope with large quantities, and it needs to be changed frequently.
Fish tank owner Chris also said: “The information is not readily available online in a way people can easily understand” and “I want to use this experience to educate people about the risks and the measures people need to take.” Hopefully this blog post (and all the associated news coverage) will help with that. Be careful with your corals!
* Note that while ‘toxin’ specifically refers to poisonous substances from plants and animals, this restriction doesn’t extend to the word “toxic”. The definition of that is “containing or being poisonous material” (regardless of whether it’s a naturally-occurring substance or not). So “non-toxic” labels are fine, if a little bit meaningless – no matter what the woo-pushing sites say, your hand cream really isn’t poisonous.
This generated a huge response, probably rather larger than he was expecting from an off-hand tweet. Now, I’m not going to get into the ethics of milk production because it’s beyond the scope of this blog (and let’s keep it out of the comments? — kthxbye) but I do want to consider one fairly long thread of responses which ran the gamut from ‘humans are the only species to drink the milk of another animal’ (actually, no) to ‘there’s no benefit to dairy’ (bear with me) and ending with, in essence, ‘dairy is slowly killing us‘ (complicated, but essentially there’s very little evidence of any harm).
Humans have been consuming dairy products for thousands of years.
But wait. If dairy is so terrible for humans, and if there are no advantages to it, why do we consume it at all? Dairy is not a new thing. Humans have been consuming foods made from one type of animal milk or another for 10,000 years, give or take. That’s really quite a long time. More to the point (I don’t want to be accused of appealing to antiquity, after all), keeping animals and milking them is quite resource intensive. You have to feed them, look after them and ensure they don’t wander off or get eaten by predators, not to mention actually milk them on a daily basis. All that takes time, energy and probably currency of some sort. Why would anyone bother, if dairy were truly detrimental to our well-being?
In fact, some cultures don’t bother. The ability to digest lactose (the main sugar in milk) beyond infancy is quite low in some parts of the world, specifically Asia and most of Africa. In those areas dairy is, or at least has been historically, not a significant part of people’s diet.
Which is interesting because it suggests, if you weren’t suspicious already, that there IS some advantage to consuming dairy. The ability to digest lactose seems to be a genetic trait. And it seems it’s something to do, really quite specifically, with your geographic location.
Which brings us to vitamin D. This vitamin, which is more accurately described as a hormone, is a crucial nutrient for humans. It increases absorption of calcium, magnesium and phosphate, which are all necessary for healthy bones (not to mention lots of other processes in the body). It’s well-known that a lack of vitamin D leads to weakened bones, and specifically causes rickets in children. More recently we’ve come to understand that vitamin D also supports our immune system; deficiency has been meaningfully linked to increased risk of certain viral infections.
We make vitamin D in our skin when we’re exposed to UVB light.
How much UVB you’re exposed to depends on where you live. If you live anywhere near the equator, no problem. You get UVB all year round. Possibly too much, in fact – it’s also linked with skin cancers. But if you live in northerly latitudes (or very southerly), you might have a problem. In the summer months, a few minutes in the sun without sunscreen (literally a few minutes, not hours!) will produce more than enough vitamin D. But people living in UK, for example, get no UVB exposure for 6 months of the year. Icelanders go without for 7, and inhabitants of Tromsø, in Norway, have to get by for a full 8 months. Since we can only store vitamin D in our bodies for something like 2-4 months (I’ve struggled to find a consistent number for this, but everyone seems to agree it’s in this ballpark), that potentially means several months with no vitamin D at all, which could lead to deficiency.
In the winter northern Europeans don’t receive enough UVB light from the sun to produce vitamin D in their skin.
In the winter, northern Europeans simply can’t make vitamin D3 in their skin (and for anyone thinking about sunbeds, that’s a bad idea for several reasons). In 2018, this is easily fixed – you just take a supplement. For example, Public Health England recommends that Brits take a daily dose of 10 mcg (400 IU) of vitamin D in autumn and winter, i.e. between about October and March. It’s worth pointing out at this point that a lot of supplements you can buy contain much more than this, and more isn’t necessarily better. Vitamin D is fat-soluble and so it will build up in the body, potentially reaching toxic levels if you really overdo things. Check your labels.
Oily fish is an excellent source of vitamin D.
But what about a few thousand years ago, before you just could pop to the supermarket and buy a bottle of small tablets? What did northern Europeans do then? The answer is simple: they had to get vitamin D from their food. Even if it’s not particularly well-absorbed, it’s better than nothing.
Of couse it helps if you have access to lots of foods which are sources of vitamin D. Which would be… fatty fish (tuna, mackerel, salmon, etc) – suddenly that northern European love of herring makes so much more sense – red meat, certain types of liver, egg yolks and, yep, dairy products. Dairy products, in truth, contain relatively low levels of vitamin D (cheese and butter are better than plain milk), but every little helps. Plus, they’re also a good source of calcium, which works alongside vitamin D and is, of course, really important for good bone health.
A side note for vegans and vegetarians: most dietry sources of vitamin D come from animals. Certain mushrooms grown under UV can be a good source of vitamin D2, but unless you’re super-careful a plant-based diet won’t provide enough of this nutrient. So if you live in the north somewhere or you don’t, or can’t, expose your skin to the sun very often, you need a supplement (vegan supplements are available).
Fair skin likely emerged because it allows for better vitamin D production when UVB levels are lower.
One thing I haven’t mentioned of course is skin-colour. Northern Europeans are generally fair-skinned, and this is vitamin D-related, too. The paler your skin, the better UVB penetrates it. Fair-skinned people living in the north had an advantage over those with darker skin in the winter, spring and autumn months: they could produce more vitamin D. In fact, this was probably a significant factor in the evolution of fair skin (although, as Ed Yong explains in this excellent article, that’s complicated).
In summary, consuming dairy does have advantages, at least historically. There’s a good reason Europeans love their cheeses. But these days, if you want to eat a vegan or vegetarian diet for any reason (once again, let’s not get into those reasons in comments, kay?) you really should take a vitamin D supplement. In fact, Public Health England recommends that everyone in the UK take a vitamin D supplement in the autumn and winter, but only a small amount – check your dose.
By the way, if you spot any ‘diary’s let me know. I really had to battle to keep them from sneaking in…
After our conversation ended I remembered something I developed little while ago, after marking a particularly infuriating research homework where a quarter of the class wrote down that Mendeleev was awarded a Nobel prize for his work on the Periodic Table. For the record: he never received the honour. He was recommended for the prize but famously (at least, I thought it was famously!) the 1906 prize was given to Henri Moissan instead, probably due to a grudge held by Svante Arrhenius of Arrhenius Equation fame (it’s a good story, check it out).
Mendeleev was never awarded a Nobel prize.
Does it really matter if a few students believe that Mendeleev won a Nobel prize? That’s not really harming anyone, is it? Maybe not, but on the other hand, perhaps it’s part of a long and slippery slope greased with ‘alternative facts’ which is leading us to, well, shall we say, situations and decisions that may not be in our best interests as a society.
How to encourage students to do at least a little bit of fact-checking? Of course, you could produce a long list of Things That One Should Do to check information, but I reasoned that while students might read such a list, and even agree with the principles, they were unlikely to get into the habit of applying them and probably quite likely to immediately forget all about it.
Instead I tried to come up with something short, simple and memorable, and here it is (feel free to share this):
Fact-checking isn’t easy; it’s VARD
The four points I focused on spell out VARD, which stands for…
V is for verify, which means: can you find other sources saying the same thing? Now, chances are, you can always find something that agrees with a particular piece of information, if you look hard enough. There are plenty of sites out there that will tell you that lemons ‘alkalise’ the body, for example (they don’t), that it’s safe to eat apricot kernels (it’s not) and that black salve is an effective treatment for skin cancer (nope).
However, if you’re reasonably open-minded when you start, chances are good that you’ll find both sides of the ‘story’ and that will, at the very least, get you thinking about which version is more trustworthy.
A is for author. I often hear swathes of content being disparaged purely based on its nature. You know the sort of thing: “that’s just a blog,” or “you can’t trust newspaper articles”. I think this is wrong-headed. What matters more is who wrote that piece and what are their qualifications? I’d argue that a blog post about medical issues written by a medical doctor (for example, virtually anything on the marvellous Science Based Medicine) is likely to be a pretty reliable source. Conversely, there’s been more than one thing that’s made it into the scientific literature which has later turned out to be flawed or even flat false (such as Wakefield’s famous 1998 paper). It’s also worth asking what someone’s background is: Stephanie Seneff, for example, is highly qualified in the fields of artificial intelligence and computer science, but does that mean we should trust her controversial opinions in biology and medicine? Probably not.
You may not always be able to tell who the author is, or have time to dig into their motivations, but it’s nevertheless a good question to keep in the back of your mind.
Be honest: is that story really likely? Or is it just shocking?
R is for reasonableness. Which is a pain to spell or even say, but it’s important so I’m sticking with it. It’s a sense-check. Human beings love a good story, and the best stories have unexpected twists and turns. That’s why medical scare-stories pop up in newspapers with such depressing regularity. No, ketchup isn’t giving you cancer. No, our children really aren’t being poisoned by plastics. But the truth doesn’t always make a good headline. In fact, when it comes to science, the more some ‘exciting finding’ is plastered over news sites, the less you should probably trust it – because the chances are that the exciting version being reported bears almost no resemblance to the researchers’ original conculsions.
Be honest and ask yourself: does this really seem likely? Or would I just like it to be true because it’s a great story?
If a surprising story has just appeared, give it twenty-four hours – chances are if there are major issues with the information someone else will come forward.
D is for date. The obvious situation is when information is so old that it’s been superseded by something else. This is easy: just look for something more recent. However, the other side of this coin is probably more relevant in these days of rolling news and instant sharing of articles: something can blow up at short notice, especially something topical, and it later turns out that not all the facts were known. Take, for example, the famous green swimming pools in the 2016 Olympics, which more than one writer attributed to copper salts in the pool water before the full facts were revealed a few days later. Inevitably, the ‘corrected’ version is far less interesting than the earlier speculation, and so that’s what everyone remembers.
If something controversial and shocking has just appeared, give it twenty-four hours. If there’s something terribly wrong with it, chances are someone will pick up on it in that time.
It’s not easy; it’s VARD
And that’s it: Verify, Author, Reasonableness, Date. It doesn’t cover every eventuality, but if you keep these points in the back of your mind it will definitely help you to separate the ‘probably true’ from the ‘almost certainly bollocks’.