Posts Tagged ‘Natural sources’

Absinthe drinking makes Homer something something

// January 15th, 2010 // 6 Comments » // Uncategorized

When I was but a lass, freshly ID’d and able to finally hit the local tavern, there was a rumour around that Absinthe was THE drink if you wanted to get drunk fast, and as a bonus, if you could get the proper stuff, it causes hallucinations. OMG terribly exciting. I could feel jolts of electricity down my spine as I tremulously ordered (with much nudging from my friends) a round of Absinthe.

And oh, the DRAMA of it all! Green liquid, a sugar cube on a special spoon, and all of it on fire! We could only afford one each, before our pockets resolutely returned us to ordering jugs of Sangria. The bitter licorice taste lingered on though, and we were rollickingly tipsy.

Ah, the folly of youth. ‘Tis all a lie!

At the core of the myth is that Absinthe contains essential oil from the Wormwood plant, which is psychoactive and hallucinogenic. It’s true that Wormwood does contain thujole, which is a GABA antagonist (it blocks the effect of the neurotransmitter GABA), but it’s more likely to cause seizures than hallucinations. Also the amount of thujole in Absinthe is very low because of the way the spirit is made, and nowadays there are rules about what percentage of thujole is allowed. People have studied old bottles of the stuff too, and it wasn’t found to be super-thujolated. It was very popular with poets and artists; they said the green fairy helped them be more creative.

More creative, or more deadly? One tale tells of a man who killed his family in 1906 and claimed Absinthe drove him crazy. He was actually excessively drunk from a number of drinks, and was found guilty. After this and the subsequent public outcry, Absinthe was prohibited in Switzerland. France and the USA followed suit. Nonetheless, it’s the remarkably high alcohol content in Absinthe that makes it a dangerous drink, you’d definitely die from alcohol poisoning before dying from Wormwood poisoning.

The scariest story by far is the one in Eurotrip where a guy makes out with his sister after an Absinthe bender. “Dude, you kissed your sister!” That’s way worse then killing your family!

So by all means, if you like Absinthe (I’m not a fan) then drink it, but any mind-alterations are probably just your imagination. You’re supposed to mix it with water to let the flavours come out. Has anyone actually done this? Apparently it makes the clear green liquid go cloudy, because the essential oils are not soluble in water. Now that’s science.

Rhododendron Poison – Truth behind the science of Sherlock Holmes

// December 27th, 2009 // 11 Comments » // Uncategorized

I saw Sherlock Holmes last night with SexyMan, the cinema was packed and we sat in the second row from the front. I watched the movie like a fan watches a tennis match, but surprisingly it was still good!

It might have helped that any great expectations had been dashed by a friend on facebook, but nonetheless I thought it was an enjoyable, action-packed, fast-paced fast-talking very sexy flick.

But then I’m not a film critic. I am, however, a science geek. This post has been carefully written to avoid spoilers, but if you want to play it safe go and see the movie and come back in 3 hours. K?

At one point in the movie they talk about rhododendron poison, but don’t explain at all what it is.

Rhododendrons (and azaleas, the dwarf (midget) version) are a moderately toxic group of plants. If you’re out strolling the mountains near the eastern side of the Black Sea in Turkey, or generally in the USA or UK, then don’t eat this plant:

Rhododendron ponticum.

Not all members of the genus are poisonous, but play it on the safe side and don’t eat random plants.

It’s not HUGELY poisonous, about 100 grams need to be ingested by a 25 kg child to seriously poison them, but it is a problem for livestock – particularly sheep, goats and cows – who munch on the flowers and get seriously sick.

Of course, if you boiled it down and concentrated the liquid… well that’s a different story. The toxin is water soluble, so it can be extracted from the leaves and flowers.

The toxin is called grayanotoxin. It binds to specific sodium ion channels in cell membranes (which I’ve talked about before) and prevents inactivation, causing persistent activation of muscle and nerve cells. This causes a range of symptoms based on where the activated cells are located, such as muscle weakness, vomiting, sweating, salivation, seizures, and either dangerously slow or dangerously fast heartbeat, depending on the dose. In the end, it can cause death.

Don’t think you’re safe just because you don’t make a habit of eating plants – the toxin is also found in the nectar of flowers, and bees that feast on them can make “mad honey.” It took out an army in 401 BC lead by Xenophon of Athens against Persia – hundreds of soldiers vomiting and unable to walk for a day. No-one died, unlike in 67 BC, where the army of Mithradates IV killed Pompey the Great’s soldiers while they were incapacitated. It’s biological warfare, victory has never tasted sweeter.

Mad honey is still a problem today – not so much the stuff in a grocery store (which is diluted and problem tested and stuff) but organic honey direct from the beehive can be risky. Plus some men use it as an aphrodisiac. Idiots.

That’s the rhododendron poison, making a comeback after 2400 years on a big screen near you! What did you think of the movie? There were lots of sciencey deductions made that weren’t very well explained, so if you have any questions, post a comment and I’ll do me best!

“It tastes like burning!” How (and why) chili brings the heat

// December 21st, 2009 // 2 Comments » // Uncategorized

Capsaicin Necklace

Last night I made spicy Dhall for dinner, because lentils and peas may be high in protein, but they’re also really lame. I used a recipe from an old English cookbook from the 70’s with all pounds and ounces. Couldn’t be bothered converting stuff, so I made it up along the way. Hell, that’s the only way to cook. Here’s a quick recipe.

That this will make a vegetarian high protein meal that doesn’t taste like boredom.

1. Boil lentils or split peas or whatever in water until soft.
2. Melt 50 g of butter and cook an onion, a chili and some cumin, coriandar and cinnamon in a separate pan.
3. Combine the shizz in both the pans together with a can o’ tomatoes and add spices till it tastes good.

It took a bit of experimenting spice-wise to get it nummy, but the final result supported my hypothesis. There was much noms.

During the cooking process I had to remove the chili seeds and membranes ‘cos that’s the done thing, and the whole “delicately extract with a knife” thing really wasn’t working for me (I prefer the roughly stabbing kind of knifery) so I just took it out with my fingers. Big mistake. They were burning all night. As I laid in my bed and cried “WHY?” I wondered “why?” What’s the SCIENCE?

The one responsible for the ouchy-pain is a long guy called capsaicin (and a few of his brothers), mainly found in the membranes around the seeds. It’s flavourless and works by activating pain receptors in nerves, specifically the receptor TRPV1 which usually opens at temperatures above 43 C. Opening causes positive ions to enter en masse, causing the membrane to depolarise and the neuron to fire, discussed here in Frankensteiny detail. There are loads of different pain receptors in your body – each one triggers at a different temperature or pressure. Some are linked directly to motor nerves, so you can react to a hot pan by pulling your hand away faster than you’re brain can say “Ow!”. When you have some chili (or get it all over your skin like I did) your nerve cells actually think you’re on fire.

Making big molecules like capsaicin is a pain in the ass, so there has to be a butt-kicking reason to do it or plants wouldn’t bother. Even if they liked it spicy like Cartmans hand.

My name is Jennifer Lopez I eat tacos y burritos

The heat of a hot chili doesn’t stop humans eating it (quite the contrary), but a mouse or a cow might be less inclined to munch a bunch once they’d tried some. That’s good, because herbivores are fond of chewing things which destroys the seeds. Birds are unaffected by capsaicin and can happily eat chili peppers all the time, good for the plant again – birds aren’t great at chewing, but they are VERY good at flying around and crapping out seeds.

Capsaicin is also an antifungal and antibacterial, and protects the plant with it’s awesome microbe fighting power. It also protects your curry from the evils of mould and might even impart some health benefits. The molecule keeps shape at high temperatures, which is why you can cook the hell out of a curry and it will still taste spicy. It doesn’t dissolve in water, so you’re better off drinking milk if you feel the burn, casein protein acts like a detergent and captures the chili into small ineffective globs. I guess drinking soap would work too, but milk is probably tastier. Ever tried soap? (Some smell so good I can’t resist. You’d think I would know better by now.)

This post would not be complete without a plea for someone to send me chili chocolate icecream. I had it once and I must have it again! The search will never cease until I am in it’s hot chocolatey frozen embrace once again. Seriously, have you ever tried it? It’s the spiciest thing I’ve ever had and paradox in a waffle cone.

Gift Ideas for a Chemist or Chemistry Grad

// December 6th, 2009 // 1 Comment » // Uncategorized

Chemistry is a most excellent discipline full of colourful chemicals, of peering into a world of unknown forces, and of creating new materials that have never before existed ever. To show the chemist in your life how much you appreciate their saving the world on your behalf (yes, Chemists are superheroes. You didn’t know?) here are some chemical gift ideas.

Wines of Substance
Merlot Wine for Chemists
Not only is their website super sexy, they have very handsome bottles of wine to boot. I would be buying these for my old highschool chem teacher who first got me excited about science, but they don’t ship to Aus. If you’re in the US, these are made in Washington. Maybe you could send me some!

Little Chemistry Man Made of Metal

Chemical Engineer Man
Technically he’s a chemical engineer, but look at him mixing metal stuffs and chugging away at his comp. This would be the perfect present for someone in metal chem, or who works with metal catalysts a lot.

Beaker Mug
Beaker Mug
Caffeine… Is there anything we need more on a long night in teh lab? The only trouble with this is you may end up ingesting your latest experiment by accident. The same site has cool salt and pepper shakers with chemical signs on them.

Dr Karl’s Fact or Fishy Boardgame
Fact or Fishy
The science version of Fact or Crap. The question-master reads out a statement like “Bacteria have no sense of smell” and you have to decide if it’s Fact or Fishy (It’s Fishy, all living things have a system to sniff out molecules in the environment to find food or threats.) You play for tokens, and the game ends when you’ve used them all up. It’s totally THE BEST SCIENCE GAME EVER! I played it with a bunch of other Science Communicators at the RiAus and it was a blast, and I’ve got it at home as well. It’s most fun to play with other scientists, because you get really into answering as fast as possible and complaining about the phrasing and the level of scientific rigorousness. The bad news is that it’s only in Australia so far (you can get them at toy stores and some bookstores in the science section), but if you Direct Message Dr Karl on Twitter he might could airmail you one. Or you can e-mail me (Requests click here), and I’ll see what I can do to get you a copy.

Molecular Jewelry
I’ve posted on the awesome jewelry of Molecular Muse before, but if you STILL haven’t bought yourself or someone near you a serotonin necklace or a dopamine pair of earrings you’re letting down the team. The Molecular Muse also does an endorphin choker, caffeine necklace, capsaicin (chili) necklace, theobromine (chocolate) earrings, zingerone (ginger) necklaces, DNA earrings… the list goes on! Great for someone who’s into natural product extractions or biologically significant molecules. Her full range is here.

You might also like:
Gift Ideas for a Microbiologist or Pathologist.
Gift Ideas for a Biochemist, Medical Scientist or Neuroscientist.

If you’ve got something to add, post a comment!

A recipe for eggnog, and notes on the spice-drug nutmeg

// November 30th, 2009 // 5 Comments » // Uncategorized


Arr, it be that time of the year when all the good cabin boys hang their stockings off the mainsail and cook gets busy making eggnog.

My harbour is in Australia, so eggnog is not a favourite of mine. The rich, milkiness of the drink is ill-suited for the hot Yuletides we experience, and a glass of ice-cold fermented grape is better suited for the clime.

All the same, eggnog is TRADITION, and is a particularly piratey tradition when you make it with RUM! Here be a recipe for the delicious December drink, made piratey by your Captain but sourced from yon landlubber website.

6 eggs (parrot)
2.5 cups whipping cream
2 cups whole milk (powdered variety easiest for storage)
1 cup caster sugar
0.5 cup dark rum
0.5 cup brandy (substitute with more rum if you can)
0.5 teaspoon vanilla extract
0.5 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated

Beat the eggs until frothy (the eggs, not your mouth), add sugar and beat, sprinkle in nutmeg and vanilla and beat, add in the whipped cream slowly while beating, add the grog and beat. Chill for an hour belowdecks and serve cold to your shipmates.

Beating is the best way to mix ingredients as it lets out your inner anger and anguish which otherwise may turn rancid and make you bitter inside. If Ahab had made eggnog during his voyage on the Pequod it is likely that the events leading to his death would never have occurred, and he would be living to this day a happy one-legged individual. Beating also gives you most excellent biceps that will strike fear into the hearts of your enemies.

Ye may notice a certain buzz upon drinking your concoction, which ye may blame on the rum (you DID add extra rum, right? Don’t stop at a measly half a cup.) Well ye are most likely right, but all the same, did ye know nutmeg can be a drug? That’s right, melange is not the only spice-drug. Nutmeg be a creepy looking thing, a seed wrapped tightly by bright red tentacles of another spice called mace.

Nutmeg and Mace

Nutmeg is in certain doses hallucinogenic. The effects, by all accounts, are not enjoyable. You see, nutmeg contains myristicin, which is a weak monoamine oxidase inhibitor – you may be familiar with that term as a class of antidepressant. In high doses (of a couple of tablespoons) nutmeg can cause hallucinations and euphoria, but before you go reaching for that spice rack let me tell you of the side-effects, including nausea, bloodshot eyes, dry mouth, anxiety, convulsions and palpitations. Plus it kicks in after three hours (making it a likely candidate for a this-isn’t-working-try-more overdose) and lasts for about five hours. Plus the bragging rights are non-existent. “Oh dude, I did like two tablespoons of nutmeg this weekend!” HARDCORE!

All things considered, I’ll be sticking to my rum-filled eggnog, and adding spice-drug just for flavour. This one’s to yer health.

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