Posts Tagged ‘what’

Science of electronic cigarettes, as seen on the Tourist

// January 2nd, 2011 // 1 Comment » // How Things Work, Science in the Movies

Happy New Year! On the first of January, I went to see The Tourist. It promised to be an excessively attractive movie starring Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, the two best heartthrobs on screen. I won’t spoil the plot, but I will say that one cool gadget graces the scene. The electronic cigarette.

As described in the movie, the electronic cigarette does not emit smoke, just vapour. The one in the move was shaped like a cigarette, complete with a red LED light on the end for a burning ember. He tapped the end to put it out, but I don’t think that’s necessary. The automatic versions just turn on when you breathe in, a sensor recognizes the airflow, and I’d say it turns off afterward.

Electronic cigarettes, designed by Chinese company Ruyan “to resemble smoking”, come in a variety of designs. From classic cigarettes to cigars to pipes. Even a ballpoint pen, so you can look like you’re intelligently thinking witty thoughts while taking a sneaky huff.

All the designs have the same basic features. A cylindrical battery, a heating element, and a mouthpiece. When the sensor picks up air flow, it switches on the battery which heats up the element, vapourising the nicotine mixture absorbed on material in the mouthpiece. Manual versions lack a sensor, and you have to press a button to get them started. The nicotine can be replenished by dripping fluid refills onto the absorbant material, or buying a new prefilled mouthpiece.

An electonic cigarette

An electonic cigarette

But it’s the mixture itself that’s really cool. It comes in a variety of nicotine levels and a variety of FLAVOURS. Some are designed to taste like certain brands (such as Malboro), some taste like regular ciggies, some are menthol, and others come in tastes of caramel, coffee or vanilla. One recipe listed on Wikipedia contains hardly any nicotine, but 8% alcohol. That’s a 16 proof cigarette delivered straight to your lungs! Wow. Seems dangerous.

What I wanted to know was how do electronic ciggies compare to the real thing when it comes to health. It seems like we’re still unsure. Electronic cigarettes only hit the market in 2004, so they’re pretty new still. Most countries are taking a conservative stance. In England they can be bought in pubs and smoked indoors. In New Zealand they are only available in pharmacies. In Australia it is illegal to sell them, but they can be purchased over the internet for personal use, and I believe there are no laws against it. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

The debate seems to center around the fact that these electronic cigarettes are KIND OF tobacco products and KIND OF smoking cessation aids… but kind of not. No studies have been done to show that they could help people quit smoking and become nicotine free. To me it seems more like you would quit smoking cigarettes, and start smoking the electronic version instead.

And what’s the harm in that? Most of the damage caused by smoking is not due to nicotine itself. It’s all the other crazy chemicals that come with it which cause the cancer and lung damage and so forth. Nicotine is just the stuff that keeps people coming back. It’s highly addictive, working on the reward system of the brain and our favourite neurotransmitter, dopamine. Smokeless cigarettes are a way to enjoy nicotine without getting a hefty dose of dangerous chemical cocktails. Plus the secondhand smoke is safer. So it’s an example of harm reduction. Plus your teeth would get whiter.

Of course, nicotine is not exactly a friendly chemical. It might not cause cancer, but it IS highly toxic. 60 mg can be toxic to an adult. Nicotine is made by the tobacco plant as an insecticide, need I say more? In fact, it’s also made by other members of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family, such as tomatoes. That explains why my basil plant is getting torn to pieces by insects while the tomato plant right next to it is still intact. So maybe we don’t want to encourage people to smoke anything.

But gun to my head, I think the electronic cigarette is a good thing. I don’t think young kids are going to be swayed by sexy marketing into becoming the next generation of smokers. I don’t think we’d allow such sexy marketing in the first place. I don’t even know why the government allows cigarettes to be sold at all; the health problems must cost the economy millions every year. But what do you think? Do you think electronic cigarettes would be the lesser of two evils, or a new evil all on its own, ready to pounce on hapless youths and struggling smokers and catch them forever with nicotine claws.

For love of the pancreas

// December 13th, 2010 // Comments Off on For love of the pancreas // How Things Work

Pancreas toy from Organbank on Etsy (click through)

Ahoy! Today’s Request a Post comes from Devil’s Snare, a Potter fan I’d wager.

Devil’s Snare asks “what features will a person show if his pancreas is removed?”

Ahh… woke up in a bathtub full of ice, did you? That’s embarrassing.

But hey, we’ve all been there. I’ll answer your question.

The pancreas is a noble organ with two functions. It makes hormones which regulate blood sugar (insulin, glucagon etc.), and makes lovely pancreatic juices with enzymes for breaking down food.

Damage to the pancreas is cause for distress, as enzymes which chow down food also nom the body. Type 1 diabetes starts with an autoimmune disorder that destroys the insulin producing cells found in the mystical islets of Langerhans.

Black market organ trade aside, the pancreas IS sometimes removed. Mostly it’s because of cancer or chronic pancreatitis.

A total pancreatectomy often involves taking out the spleen, the duodenum, the gall bladder and part of the stomach, then attaching the remaining stomach directly to the bowel.

Symptoms from removal are pretty clear given what the pancreas does: Without insulin producing cells you get severe diabetes. Without the enzymes, your food is poorly digested and you might get diarrhea or worse. If the spleen is also removed, you are more at risk of infections.

However it can be the only option, and the symptoms can be treated. Plenty of people out there live with diabetes. Enzyme supplements can help with the digestion department. Vaccinations or antibiotics can help control infections.

Interestingly, in 2005 a surgery taking 12 hours successfully removed a patients pancreas, collected and purified some insulin producing cells, and infused them into the patient’s liver where they started producing insulin. Full report here.

So essentially, my dear Devil’s Snare, if you think you MAY have misplaced your pancreas I suggest you would be feeling rather sick. I think you should go see a doctor.

If you love your pancreas, here’s a song by Weird Al Yankovic which just might blow your mind.

I’m always thinkin’ ’bout it
I don’t know what I’d do without it
I love, I really love
My pancreas

My spleen just doesn’t matter
Don’t really care about my bladder
But I don’t leave home without
My pancreas

What is a light cone?

// November 28th, 2010 // 1 Comment » // How Things Work

Simultaneous is not simultaneous. Space and time do not exist. These, and other strange and wonderful things, are the hallmarks of Einsteins Theory of Relativity and what we’re talking about today.

A few days ago I got Request a Post which read:
ahoy there, cap’tun! a prawn from beneath your deck speakin’. could you do a post on Light Cones? yeh know, the stuff Stephen Hawking talks about in the second chapter of his ‘Brief History of Time’? i’d love to read a simplified version. i simply can’t wrap the wiki article around my head! danke!

Ahoy there Prawn! Danke for requesting and here be yer post.

Something can’t move through space without moving through time as well. The Theory of Relativity dispenses with time and space, and instead describes a new thing called Spacetime.

Imagine a train moving in a straight line to the Eastward. We can map its movement through Space, Time or best of all, Spacetime! Notice how much more epically cool Spacetime looks. This will be important later.

With our Spacetime graph, we map space horizontally and time vertically.

In the realz world, there are three dimensions of space – length, width and height. Thankfully there is only one dimension of time, and this runs from past to future (unless you’re looking backwards.) To graph something using all four dimensions is hard, so instead we just take two dimensions of space and make a horizontal plane, then map time vertically. This will make sense in a second.

Now imagine a flash of light. Say you were standing on a hill on a moonless night and turned on a torch for a second. The light would spread out in every direction, lighting first the bushes near by, then later the trees in the distance. If we think about it in just 2 dimensions we can draw it like this, kind of like ripples in a pond.

If we map time vertically, and stack these pictures up above each other, we get a cone. So a Spacetime graph looks like this. Notice again that it is epically cool.

So a light cone is a flash of light moving through Spacetime. Usually people draw it as two cones. The bottom one is light collapsing into a single event, and the top one is it exploding out again.

Image by Deibid

You might be thinking – why bother?

Because this is a more accurate way to imagine the world. It shows how the past can influence the present and the future. When light cones overlap, it means two objects or events interact with each other. Every event in the Universe has an associated light cone. It’s a mathematical way to represent the Universe, and the basis for lots of complex physics (such as curved Spacetime, and why simultaneous events are relative to the observer.)

The theory of relativity replaced the absoluteness of space and time with the absoluteness speed of light.

I hope this answers ye question Prawn. Find out more about awesome light cones here.

Noble Prize in Chemistry – Palladium catalysed reactions

// October 6th, 2010 // 1 Comment » // How Things Work, Science Communication

Image adapted from Jurii

The winners of this years Nobel Prize in Chemistry goes to Richard F. Heck, Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki, for their work in palladium catalysed reactions.

Ah, a subject close to my own heart! As a student of Molecular and Drug Design, we studied this shizz in lectures. Hell, I think I even did a Suzuki reaction! That pretty well makes me famous IMHO.

SO – palladium catalysed reactions. What are they, I hear you say? Oh, dear gentle reader, how long do you have for me to BLOW YOUR MIND WITH CHEMISTRY AWESOME? Three minutes? K.

Carbon to carbon bonds are super important in the human body, which is pretty much made of carbon. Nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen get a look in, but carbon is where it’s at.

There’s a big trend at the moment, has been for years, in designing small molecules as drugs. Some small molecules mimic the molecules naturally inside the body. Basically it’s telling the body what you to do in a language it can understand.

To make a carbon-based small molecule, you need to make some carbon to carbon bonds. The sad part is that carbon is a chiller, and isn’t keen on making friends with other carbons. Put a carbon and another carbon in a test-tube and they just won’t get it on. They don’t care to so much as hold hands.

HOWEVER, chuck some palladium catalyst into the mix and ba-zing! You’ve got yourself a sweet, sweet reaction that’s controllable and would otherwise have taken a zillion years to happen. Now we can create new molecules and drugs to benefit peeps everywhere!

Words cannot describe how nerdy and happy I am right now to write about palladium catalysed reactions. Maybe I’ve missed my calling as a chemist after all.

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