November 2015
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Lab meat

PETA is offering a million dollar prize to scientists who can produce *and* market murderless meat before June 2012.

My thoughts as a person who likes animals and a million dollars: that’s awesome!

My thoughts as a person who does science: Market? Scientists can make the meat, but might not be especially good at convincing people that it’s food. Things in the lab just don’t look like food. Things in the supermarket or on restaurant plates look like food, but you need some non-scientists to get it there. So this sounds like it should be a collaborative effort.

My thoughts as a vegetarian: Would anyone actually want to eat this? I’m a vegetarian for PETA-reasons. I like the smell of barbecue. Steak tastes awesome. I just choose not to eat it. Morally I have no problem with lab-produced meat, but the thought of eating it still creeps me out, and I can’t figure out why. Is it because I haven’t had meat in almost a decade? Or is it the fact that it’s lab-grown? If I was a meat-eater and I still wouldn’t want to eat lab-meat, it would obviously be the latter, but right now I don’t know what it is.
I’d definitely give it a try if it was available, though. I pretty much have to, because I’ve always been very clear (to myself and others) about why I don’t eat meat: I don’t like that animals are being raised only for the purpose of being killed.* Lab meat was never** an animal, so I can eat it. But for some reason it turns me off. Good luck to PETA for trying to make people get over that idea.

[through Scienceblog]

*Click “more” for the full details of what I do and don’t eat and how I talk my way out of it.
**Never say never: the original cells would have to come from an animal, and are probably not propagated indefinitely. I don’t know how the cells would be harvested (if it kills the original animals) but there is at least one animal involved at some point.
Continue reading Lab meat

YouTube Tuesday – coffee and accordions

For today’s YouTube Tuesday I found something that should entertain coffee lovers, science enthusiasts, They Might Be Giants fans and accordion aficionados alike.
It’s a video by YouTube user AnaAerophina, who sings a song called “The Chemistry Behind The Coffee Experience”, to the tune of They Might Be Giants’ “Where Do They Make Balloons?”, accompanying herself on the accordion.

The lyrics include such lines as:

Compounds that contribute to bitterness include trigonelline,
Furfuryl alcohol, quinic acid, and caffeine.
Bitterness in coffee is associated with
More dissolved solids, and roasting for too long.

Click through to the video for the complete lyrics.

Coffee break

caffeine-stainless.jpgWhile on my afternoon coffee break I checked my RSS feeds and found a post on Lifehacker where people claim that caffeine withdrawal helped them perform better at work. Henrik of the Positivity Blog noted that he was less distracted and less prone to procrastination without coffee. It’s all anecdotal evidence, and LifeHacker writes “Not sure if there’s any actual scientific evidence that links caffeine and procrastination”

I saw this as my cue to do a few quick PubMed searches.

Here are some things I found after browsing abstracts:
-Caffeine increases concentration among university students attending lectures
-Caffeine improves concentration in sleep-deprived individuals
-Caffeine has no effect on performance in well-rested individuals
-The effects of caffeine on performance are more pronounced in regular coffee users under acute withdrawal than on people who have been weaned off coffee weeks earlier.
-Caffeine has no effect on focussed attention in the elderly
-People drink coffee mainly because they’re addicted to it.

There’s nothing specifically on procrastination, but the literature suggests that coffee helps you pay attention if you’re sleep-deprived and a regular coffee drinker. If you’re well-rested and not regularly drinking coffee it just doesn’t do much.

Still, coffee has other benefits (as I summarized for Inkling a while ago) so I’m not going to stop drinking it. Also, I’m perpetually sleep-deprived, and that’s when the studies say caffeine is beneficial!
And yes, I realize that I’m just adding to the anecdotal evidence suggesting that coffee does induce procrastination: I’m on my coffee break, drinking coffee, reading blogs, and while reading about getting distracted by caffeine I get so distracted that I quit my blog reading and open up the PubMed search window…


Through Facebook (of all places) I found this “Survival of the Fittest” story relating to M&M’s. Credited to this Tampa Bay best of Craigslist page, but I found other/older instances of it on the web as well.
An excerpt:

“I have found that, in general, the brown and red M&Ms are tougher, and the newer blue ones are genetically inferior. I have hypothesized that the blue M&Ms as a race cannot survive long in the intense theater of competition that is the modern candy and snack-food world.
Occasionally I will get a mutation, a candy that is misshapen, or pointier, or flatter than the rest. Almost invariably this proves to be a weakness, but on very rare occasions it gives the candy extra strength. In this way, the species continues to adapt to its environment. “

In addition, I found a slightly more serious attempt at using M&M’s for “survival of the fittest” experiments: This time, like many other times, the M&M’s are prey to hungry school children. They try to find out whether, for example, brown M&M’s are slightly safer against a brown background. Does this work? I can imagine that kids would grab them all extremely fast regardless of the background colour. And nobody would dare bring candies that were processed in the same factory as peanuts into the classroom anymore.

_39856015_mm_science_203long.jpgSome very serious M&M research was published in Science several years ago: M&M’s take up less space than spheres. “The researchers filled these containers with M&M sweets and determined the packing fractions for them. They measured these for both the “regular” and “mini” varieties of the chocolates.” See, this is why I’m not a physicist: Whenever I fill a container with M&M’s, I just end up eating them, much like a hungry school child.

Now, I wonder how Smarties hold up to all these rigorous M&M experiments… Nestlé vs. Mars in a battle of sugar coated chocolates — can I get funding for this? I gladly accept candy.

Scientist Illustration

science club 02, originally uploaded by philipjbond.

Illustration by New Jersey based artist Philip Bond.

And here is where I have to admit something embarrassing:
Despite having a MSc in Chemistry, this T-shirt, and an interest in all things coffee, it took me pencil, paper, and Google to figure out that the molecule she’s holding is… yup… caffeine!

I knew it looked familiar…

Remember to add your pretty science-themed photos and other images to the images of science Flickr group, and they might end up here!

Bread Science

breadbook1.jpegBread Science: the Chemistry and Craft of Making Bread is a book with practical tips on baking, but it also explores the science behind bread. The author, Emily Buehler, has a PhD in chemistry from UNC Chapel Hill. After graduating, she started baking bread at Weaver Street Market in Carrboro. (I shopped there the day after the Science Blogging conference. It’s a small world…)

“In 2002, at the request of community members, Emily and a fellow baker began teaching Beginning Artisan Bread-Making classes through Weaver Street Market and the Carrboro Artscenter. (…)
Emily’s search for the details of bread-making science began when she wrote the manual for her class. Unable to find a good source, she pulled bits and pieces together from various places–biology textbooks, notes in recipe books, high-tech books on commercial baking, newsletters of the Bread Baker’s Guild of America, and a few scientific journal articles. A more thorough search confirmed her belief that a comprehensive, understandable bread science book was needed.”

The book is for sale online, or in some specialized independent bookstores in North Carolina, Knoxville (Tennessee), New York City, and Toronto. Large excerpts from the book are also available on the site.

The book explains about starch, sugar, fermentation, and other biochemical concepts involved in baking bread.

Why is bread not glue?

by simpologist on FlickrAfter a pinata party, Maria e-mailed me the following question:

Hey, why does water with flour become glue for pinatas? Is there a scientific explanation for the stickiness? How come it doesn’t work like that when it makes bread? Is bread sticky too? I’m really confused!

Off the bat, I knew that flour has starch and the starch makes the glue sticky, but then I started wondering too. Why is starch sticky? And why isn’t bread dough more like glue?

Starch is the major component of flour. Starch exists in tiny granules, which swell and break when boiled in water. This releases the starch molecules, which then all stick together to make a goopy, gluey mess. [1]

Starch glue
You can make starch glue from flour and water, by mixing one cup of flour in some cold water, and adding this mixture to 3 cups of boiling water. You can even use less flour, and it will still work. [2]
Starch glue is good at sticking paper to paper, to make pinatas for example, because paper itself contains cellulose, which is quite similar in structure to starch. They’re both polysaccharides. You can’t use starch glue to glue plastic or metals – only other polysaccharides. [1, 3] (In making pinatas, the first layer of paper sticks to the balloon. I think this works because while the glue is still wet the wet paper will stick to the balloon. Once the glue is dry, it actually doesn’t stick to the balloon anymore, but at that point the paper has been permanently shaped around it.)

Like starch glue, bread dough also contains water and flour. Still, it’s not as sticky – you can’t use bread dough to glue paper together. Let’s look at the ingredients for a super simple bread recipe to find out what’s different.

Ingredients for bread
1 c. milk (Hot)
1/4 c. sugar
4 T. margarine
1 tsp. salt
1 pkg. yeast
1 egg
4 c. all-purpose flour
1/4 c. warm water

Instead of 1 cup (or less) of flour and 3 cups of water, we now have 4 cups of flour and 1.25 cups of warm water and milk. (The rest of the ingredients don’t add a lot of water or starch, so I ignored them, although they will make a difference to the final dough: the yeast, for example, makes the dough rise.)

The ratio between the flour and water is completely different between glue and dough. Would this be crucial in whether or not it’s glue?
According to this website on the science of bread ingredients, the amount of water is indeed the answer:

In bread making not as much water is added as when making a sauce or gravy, and gelatinisation isn’t completed – the starch granules swell, and many don’t burst to form a gel. This forms a network of bloated starch granules all touching at the edges. [5]

So there you go: water and flour glue is sticky only for paper and other cellulose-based materials. It’s the large amount of water that makes it sticky, because it releases the starch from starch granules. Bread dough doesn’t have that much water, and therefore isn’t as sticky.