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I haven’t had time to construct a proper blog post, but I’ve been feeling guilty about not writing one last month. So, as a compromise, here’s a video on x-ray crystallography!

My favorite part of that video is probably that they acknowledge Rosalind Franklin as the main champion of DNA’s structure while Watson and Crick are only mentioned in the margin.


The Future is Now and I’m in Scotland

First things first: I’m in Scotland! Which is why I have been slacking on my posts. But, hey, it’s still September so I’m technically still on time for my one-a-month quota. Admittedly, I’ve been extremely busy and pre-occupied as a result, my aim for this post isn’t exactly to be blogger-laureate. It is, however, sort of unendingly beautiful here so I’ll give you some snapshots.

DSCF9223DSCF9068DSCF9096 DSCF9169

St. Andrews is pretty cool (cold, actually (haha) and windy). We’re on the North Sea and, as I’ve been learning in my Geology class, we get cold wind all day and a warm breeze at night due to the specific heat of water and atmospheric convection currents. Woohoo! Specific, or latent, heat of a substance is the amount of energy it takes to change 1kg of water from a solid to a liquid. That energy usually comes from the sun for processes that happen on earth. The specific heat of water is greater than that of land, which means that it takes more energy to change the temperature of water than it does land. Thus, the water stays fairly warm (relatively) at night even though the sun is gone. The difference of temperature between the land and the water causes convection currents to form and we get a nice warm (again, relative) sea breeze in the evening, which is a nice surprise.

Just a few updates on science in the real world:
3-D Printers continue to be awesome and soon I think we’ll have replicators:

They even have 3-D printers combined with fax technology now, so I could fax my neighbor a wrench (described a bit more, here). But seriously, watch this video on 3-D printers here, from PBS.

I’ve become a big fan of learning through internet videos lately. It’s how I study now. Check out if you want to learn science and math stuff from a legit website. Also, there are increasing numbers of free, online university lectures now being offered through things like href=””>MIT and “”>iTunes U. A good site that I like for learning computer code is here.

Other updates:

Physicists have apparently discovered a way to make photon molecules. If that’s not enough to impress you, how about the fact that these never-before-seen molecules act like light sabers. Best. Thing. Ever.

Let’s see, what else has been happening? I know there are lots of things, but I’m too excited about the light sabers right now to remember. The news was especially exciting to me since I’ve been in York, England fighting against storm troopers.

Photo: Guns are illegal in the UK you know Ashley Baker!
Oh yeah! They’ve successfully connected two brains via the internet. I don’t know about you, but this just makes me think about how awesome it would be if I could have Google’s search engine in my brain (“so you think you know everything?” well, yeah.). Instant knowledge…if you call the information on the internet knowledge. We’d have to get some serious filters though.
Eh, I know there are other cool science things out there but I’ll blog about them next month! Thanks for reading, sorry for the rush : )

Meet Meat, 2.0

Howdy, howdy –

So, here we are: August. Between research and travel, I’ve been having a pretty crazy summer. I’ve probably mentioned it before but I’m scurrying around, preparing for my year abroad in Scotland. I’m not sure if I’ll be continuing even the monthly posts while I’m over there, but, hey, you never know! Maybe I’ll learn some really awesome chemistry stuff. Actually, it’s pretty likely that I’ll post some pics of their fancy science building….

Despite the fact that my posts have slowed to a trickle, science has been flying along at warp speed in the last few weeks. I was torn between a post on 3-D printers and a post on lab-grown hamburger. It turns out that there’s not a whole lot of chemistry involved in 3-D printing (which I have to admit, doesn’t make it any less incredible). Since I’ll be saving the printers for a rainy day, you can read about them here.

The meat, on the other hand, is pretty hardcore biochem. The scientist in the news is Professor Mark Post, but he’s got a whole team of food scientists, technicians, and even a chef working on the project (1).

Why all the fuss about making fake meat? There are a couple of great videos on the Maastricht University Cultured Meat website explaining the reasons for embarking on this meat-making endeavor. Obviously, there’s a strong bias in the videos because, well, the university’s funding the research. But that said, I think it’s a strong argument.


So…environmental damage, animal cruelty, health, and energy efficiency aside, there’s some interesting science going on here. A few years ago, “stem cell research” was a real hot button in the news, but we seem to have gotten over that. The stem cells used to make fake meat obviously aren’t from human babies (let’s not even go there). Instead, the stem cells for test-tube meat are painlessly extracted from an organic cow. Remember when I talked about artificial and natural flavors? The “meat” being produced here is kind of like using an artificial flavor in that it’s chemically identical. The test-tube meat is beef in the same way that the molecule made in a lab for banana flavoring is truly the same as the molecule that comes from actual banana. We know this because we’ve looked at the molecule and constructed it exactly. Scientists are aware of the components of meat, it’s just a matter of getting them put together the way nature intended. It’s not “fake” meat or a meat “substitute,” which is a little hard to wrap your head around.

I hope you don’t think I’m copping out for using the videos, but I can’t really beat the super exciting animations:


Right now, the patties are massively expensive to produce because of the time, resources, and scientists that are involved in the project. The hope is that test-tube meat will be mass-producable, making it as available to the public as beef is now. On August 5th, one of these patties made its rite of passage from the lab to the dinner plate. Again, just like artificial banana flavoring, the taste wasn’t quite that of a hamburger. But it’s quite the first step. Here’s the taste test video, with the tasters being uber careful and not giving any real opinions.

Even if you’re not into meatless Mondays and cashew cheese, hopefully the sci-fi level research piques your interest. The website (source 1) has a lot of great info on the cultured beef stuff, including FAQs. It’s worth checking out.

Also worth checking out (another bias, sorry) is my webcomic:

And that’s the news!

Hopefully, there will be a September post. Stay on your toes, and thanks for reading!





All About Copper Catalysts!

Hey everyone,

welcome to my July post!

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been at my college for the past 8 weeks working in the lab on a research project (with the help of one of my chemistry professors). I’ve been synthesizing and experimenting with combinations of copper chlorides and two ligands, di-2-pyridyl ketone and 2,2′-dipyridylamine. Below, I’ve posted a video of my talk, which explains what I’ve been working on from the ground up…I hope the audio/video quality is sufficient*. This might be the closest I ever get to a TEDtalk : P

Go forth subscribers! Learn!

Also, the video can be enlarged if you view it on youtube. There’s a button in the lower right hand corner that will bring you to youtube.

*Also, big thanks to my mom for holding the camera. Also, also…I actually do have a crystal structure of the 1:2 Cu(I)Cl:dpK molecule now. The research lives on!

See (?) you in August.

-Ashley Baker





The Case of a Cu4 Rhombus in Molecular Magnetism. Vasilis Tangoulis,†, Catherine P.  Raptopoulou, Sofia Paschalidou, Alexandros E. Tsohos, Evangelos G. Bakalbassis, Aris Terzis, and, and Spyros P. Perlepes Inorganic Chemistry 1997 36 (23), 5270-5277

Synthesis and x-ray structure of  a bis-(di-2-pyridyl ketone) platinum(IV) compound,Pt(DPK-O-OH)2[PF6]2. Robert M. Granger, II†; Ana Ciric*; Katherine N. Crowder* and Phillip E. Fanwick¥. Journal of Undergraduate Chemistry Research, 2005, 1, 139

Synthesis of Pt(dpk)Cl4 and the Reversible Hydration to Pt(dpk-O-OH)Cl3âH-phenCl: X-ray, Spectroscopic, and Electrochemical Characterization. Katherine N. Crowder, Stephanie J. Garcia, Rebekah L. Burr, J. Micah North, Mike H. Wilson, Brian L. Conley, Phillip E. Fanwick,† Peter S. White,‡ Karl D. Sienerth,* and Robert M. Granger, II*. Inorg. Chem. 2004, 43, 72-78.

















 Ashley Baker. Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.


It’s Just Bananas! (Kinda Sorta Not Really)

Hi everyone,

For the sole purpose of sharing knowledge with you, I am returning to the internet after my brief hiatus. Yay, learning! First, an update!

I took two weeks off after the semester to do nothing, nothing consisting mostly of lying on the couch, eating vegan ice cream, and playing Settlers of Catan (the Star Trek version produced some disagreement over spaceship models). Or going to the theatre and watching movies (duly note: since we’re on the Trek track, the midnight showing of Star Trek: Into Darkness was not hard to stay awake for).

To Clear Up Any Confusion
Now, I’m back at school doing full-time research with one of my professors on catalytic reactions involving carbon dioxide and making carbon-carbon bonds (imitating an essential reaction that occurs during photosynthesis). There’s a steep, steep learning curve for navigating the lab (more like a vertical line), but it’s challenging and engaging work. I’ll share more on that later in the summer.

My focus for today is (per request by my sister) artificial and natural flavorings! When your juice box proudly declares that the contents are “”naturally and artificially flavored” it begs the question: what exactly are you drinking? Banana flavored Laffy Taffy tastes no more like actual bananas than grape Skittles taste like grapes. These candies contain artificial flavors so that makes sense, right?. On the other hand, Strawberry Capri Sun contains no artificial flavors, but it still doesn’t taste like strawberries. The thing is, “natural flavors” often aren’t any more “real” than artificial flavors.

The FDA defines a natural flavor as:

“the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional. Natural flavors include the natural essence or extractives obtained from plants listed in [other sections of this chapter].”

Which sounds like just about anything to me. My first thought after reading this was, “okay, then what on earth is an artificial flavor?” The FDA defines an artificial flavor as anything “which is not derived from…” any of the stuff listed for natural flavors.

Certain chemicals yield specific flavors based on their structure and composition (in the same way that certain chemical structures cause you to detect certain scents, like I mentioned in this post). If those chemicals can be re-created in the lab using purely chemical synthesis and no pre-made nature-stuffs, it’s artificial. Technically, the molecules that are responsible for the artificial flavor can be (and often are) identical to the ones found in the natural product (1). If you’d like more detail about how the flavor molecules are isolated in a laboratory, check out the introduction of this paper on the flavor of peas.

Soooo….why doesn’t strawberry kiwi flavored water actually taste like strawberries and kiwis? Here’s the catch: there’s not just one chemical in each food that’s responsible for its flavor. Just as it’s difficult to determine which of the 122 compounds in chocolate affect mood, there’s no easy way to pinpoint the critical flavor-creating chemicals. Taste is also dependent on aroma, texture, ripeness, and complex combinations of compounds (2). For example, the typical banana flavoring molecule is called isoamyl acetate. It’s basically banana oil. But bananas are not oil. Bananas are complicated. Therefore, isoamyl acetate doesn’t quite taste like bananas (3). Hence banana Laffy Taffy and other imposter bananas. (This is just fake bananas.) Scientists who figure out how to make things taste good are called “flavorists.”

Isoamyl Acetate, an Ester

I was surprised to find that natural flavors aren’t any “better” or “healthier” than artificial ones. They may actually be worse, according to this article in Scientific American and this one from PBS (both are good reads. Go on. Read them). Sometimes collecting products for natural flavors can kill the plant source (like, if you have to cut down a grove of Massoya trees to get coconut flavoring). or cause other damage to the environment.

 Massoia Lactone, i.e. Natural Coconut Flavor

Natural flavors can contain toxins that the plant produces naturally because plants produce chemicals for protection that aren’t necessarily healthy to eat. Natural flavors are more likely to contain impurities, are more costly, and are of no higher quality than artificially created flavors (4). Here’s an example from the PBS Food Inc. Article:

“When almond flavor (benzaldehyde) is derived from natural sources, such as peach and apricot pits, it contains traces of hydrogen cyanide, a deadly poison. Benzaldehyde derived through a different process—by mixing oil of clove and the banana flavor, amyl acetate — does not contain any cyanide.” (5)

I mean, that’s taking it to the extreme, of course. Almond extract is not equivalent to cyanide. It does make the point, however, that natural and artificial flavors are all chemicals that are synthesized using other chemicals in chemical plants or factories.

In short: cherry ICEEs, root beer, Runts, Hi-C, Scooby-doo shaped fruit snacks….that’s better living through chemistry!


Thanks for reading. Here’s some 60 Minutes:









Triple Feature

Have I mentioned lately how awesome chemistry is? It’s pretty freaking awesome. I’ve learned several things this week that absolutely blew my mind, so, naturally, I’m going to share them with you (yay, sharing!).

The first thing has to do with Scotch tape. I don’t usually jump up and down with excitement over my chemistry textbook, but this week’s chapter on spectroscopy and light contained some information that was jump-worthy (to my roommate’s surprise). Apparently, if you peel a roll of Scotch tape in a 1.3µbar vacuum (that’s an enclosed space with very, very low pressure), it actually emits x-rays strong enough to create the image of a finger bone on dental film in a mere second. Electrons sometimes suddenly accelerate as the adhesive strip is separated from its backing creating a visible stream of blue light (1). It only occurs in a vacuum, probably because moisture in the air acts as a short circuit to the movement of electrons in the tape. In addition, different brands of tape give off different spectrums of light. There are all kinds of potential applications for this strange phenomenon from electron-bursts directed at cancer cells to research in nuclear fusion (2). My roommate and I peeled some tape in the dark in our dorm room and freaked out about observed the same glow-in-the-dark-esque light emission that was observed by scientists in 1939. Pretty incredible, if you ask me.

The second thing has to do with apples. Again with the apples, I know. But this doesn’t have anything to do with cider. In the April 8, 2013 edition of Chemical and Engineering News in the Government and Policy section (31-33), there’s an article (“Engineered Apples Near Approval”) about genetically engineered apples that don’t brown. There’s a good chance that these apples will be approved for use in the U.S. because there’s really no reason not to grow them except for a few concerns about very unlikely cross-pollination with other apple trees. The Arctic Granny Smith apples that are being modified by Okanagan Specialty Fruits of British Columbia have simply had a gene inserted that is a duplicate of a gene apples already contain (the one that causes a chemical reaction that results in browning). The duplication causes cells to undergo a natural process that prevents double-genes from appearing. This technique is known as co-suppression, and the gene insertion is performed using a modified bacterium. There are a lot of good reasons to make these apples. Money will be saved for growers, packers, and retailers who won’t have to worry about brown spots on bruised apples. In addition, the consumer will throw away less fruit. The modified Arctic Granny Smith performed just as well as other apples against pests and diseases, so the concerns about proliferating orchards with a more susceptible variety were eradicated. The nutritional value of the apple also improves because the chemical largely responsible for browning, an enzyme called polyphenol oxidase (PPO), breaks down the antioxidants in the apple’s flesh when exposed to air. Without that enzyme, more antioxidants remain intact for consumption. I’m not totally pro-GMO or anything because some of them (like Monsanto’s NewLeaf potatoes that produce their own pesticides) are kind of unnerving from an environmental stand point. I think that making apples that don’t brown is a good use of our understanding of genes. Plus, it’s pretty nifty.

File:Rheobatrachus silus.jpg

A Gastric-Brooding Frog

Finally, the article right after the one about apples (“Reviving the Dead,” 34) summarizes a TED-talk about de-extinction. With our ever-increasing understanding of genomes, it’s apparently now possible to bring extinct species back into existence. The article says, “The talks were not about mere possibilities. Recent advances in cloning, genetic engineering, stem cell research, and other scientific fields have brought humans much closer to [bringing extinct animals back]. One of the biggest announcements at the conference was the successful creation of a gastric-brooding frog embryo. The frog has been extinct since 1983.” So, basically, now we have to decide whether or not it’s ethical to bring extinct species back that might no longer have habitats. There’s a lot of debate over whether or not it would be right to re-create a species just to keep it locked up zoos or labs. Our bio-technology has advanced more quickly than we’ve been able to repair environments. Also very interesting.

That’s all for today’s post. I hope you find these tidbits as fascinating as I did. Keep reading! Subscribe! I’ll be updating monthly or so from now on : )





(1) Harris, Daniel C. “18: Let There Be Light.” Quantitative Chemical Analysis. 8th ed. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 389. Print.


(3) Bettenhausen, Craig. “Engineered Apples Near Approval.” Chemical and Engineering News   (2013): 31-33. Print.

(4) Heidari, Nader. “Reviving the Dead.” Chemical and Engineering News (2013): 34. Print.

Every year at Sweet Briar College there’s an event called Briar Bowl in which a bunch of teams of nerds students with one faculty member each get together and compete by answering trivia. It’s loads of fun. There’s the opportunity for bragging rights hanging out with friends and faculty. I hope other schools host something similar. The questions are totally random: everything from pop-culture (author of 50 Shades of Gray) to mathematics (if an object is traveling at 5ft/s, how far has it gone in an hour?). The Dean reads the questions, and the students all scribble their answers in a mad flurry. When the science questions come up I get handed the pen whether I have a clue or not.

Once, I actually did know the answer. The particular factoid in question had been drilled into my head over and over ever since pre-biology in seventh grade. Question: What two scientists won the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology/Medicine for solving the conundrum of DNA’s structure? Answer: Francis Crick and James Watson (and technically, Maurice Wilkins).


Single Helix

Disclaimer: I’m not a biologist. Recently, I ended up learning a few things about DNA as a result of fellow Sweet Briar student, Samantha Meiser’s research. Before I get into that, I’d like to take a moment to recognize Rosalind Franklin, whose research on the structure of DNA was somewhat undermined by the official winners of the Nobel Prize. Rosalind Franklin took groundbreaking X-ray photographs of DNA molecules which revealed their helical (spiral) structure. Although Franklin had died by the time the award was given, it’s unlikely that her efforts would have been noted anyway, given the attitudes of those who received the prize. Francis Crick once admitted “I’m afraid we always used to adopt — let’s say, a patronizing attitude towards her” (1). That’s not to say that Crick, Watson, and Wilkins didn’t do valuable research. They did. But so did Franklin. Read this article for more of the story.

Anyway, some research has been done since the ’60’s which reveals that the double helix isn’t the only structure for DNA. What Watson and Crick did was connect the single helix’s from Franklin’s photographs, revealing that the actual structure is a double helix. Here’s a basic run down of this DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) structure: the “double helix” is two long chains twisted around each other (like a swirling ladder). The chains are made of a few types of molecules, notably nucleotides. Nucleotides in DNA make up nucleic acids which fit together in neat pairs when the helices are fitted together. Below is a video for kids that actually explains it pretty well, and it’s only like two minutes long:

So, just to throw a curve ball at you, there are actually other structures of DNA, like the g-quadruplex (this is what Samantha researched). G-quadruplex DNA is square-shaped, and consists of four of the same nucleotides (four guanines). Recent research has shown that this form of DNA is likely to occur naturally in some cells, and studying it may be valuable in understanding how cancer grows and spreads (2). It is believed that g-quadruplex DNA is important in the process of DNA replication (definitely check that link out). Therefore, if something goes wrong with the g-quadruplex structure, there could be serious negative impacts on the production of healthy DNA molecules (3).


G-Quadruplex Molecule Structure (NOT a double-helix)

I’ve been under the impression that the double helix is the only structure for DNA. One of the reasons I choose to study science is that it’s always changing and advancing. You never know what you might learn to be true or untrue. In organic chemistry, there were numerous occasions in which the best the textbook could do was to say “it is believed that….”

What I’m learning today might be proven totally wrong in the next few years, but that’s okay. Science has to be adaptable and open to new possibilities, possibilities that we haven’t even imagined yet.

Thanks for reading : )






Barbara Kingsolver Comes to Sweet Briar

Admittedly, Sweet Briar College doesn’t often sell out events or fill its auditorium. I’m pretty sure there are more seats than there are students. When someone as inspirational and respected as Barbara Kingsolver comes to speak, there’s suddenly a wait list. I can’t believe I’d never heard of her before a month or two ago and only then because it was an event I was required to go to for an English class. Kingsolver is a novelist who does research and writes about science-y things in a way that people not only find accessible but also that they can’t get enough of. On Thursday evening, she read from her latest novel, Flight Behavior, and spoke a bit about communication between the sciences and the arts. On Friday morning, Kingsolver was at a two-hour question and answer session, which I’m happy to say was very well attended by students majoring in sciences.

As a well-known author who went to college for science herself, her perspective and interest in bridging the gap between science and writing has added weight. For Flight Behavior, she traveled to Mexico to see the monarch butterflies in person, as well as to research labs to become intimately familiar with the lab atmosphere. For obvious reasons, her interest in having one foot in science and one foot in arts and communication made me super happy, but not as happy as seeing the popularity and enthusiasm of the crowd.

I was immensely impressed by both discussions I attended and yes, I bought the book. Below is the video streamed during her talk and reading in the Sweet Briar College Murchison Lane Auditorium on Thursday evening. Feel free to skip around the footage, but I highly recommend listening to the “talk” portion before the reading.





Why Are There Acronyms in My Food?

Even though there aren’t currently Twinkie’s or HoHo’s on the shelves, there are a plethora of other packaged foods that contain unpronounceable ingredients. There’s a lot of debate over whether or not it’s safe to consume these chemicals. Personally, I’d argue that we probably shouldn’t be eating things we can’t pronounce. For now, I’m interested in the chemistry behind why they were added by the food industry in the first place. I can’t cover all of them, but I did some research on a few major players in the world of food acronyms and additives.


Still fresh, even after the apocalypse.

Apparently, metals such as copper and iron are a big problem for the food-producing industry. Trace amounts of metal, often from the water used in production, can have serious consequences on shelf-life. Metals can act as catalysts, which mean they speed up reactions. Transitions metals tend to increase the rates of reactions because they can easily give and take electrons from other molecules, which makes those other molecules more excited to react with each other (because all atoms need the correct number of electrons to be happy). As a result, if you have metal your in food, even in teensy, tiny amounts, the food will decompose faster. This problem is most apparent with things that have lots of water in them, like salad dressings and sauces.

A chemical called EDTA (Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid) can be added to reduce the effects of metals on shelf-life. The structure of the molecule actually allows it to completely surround a metal atom (chelating), preventing the metal from reacting with the food. It’s like giving someone a big hug: they can’t take out their anger on anyone because they’re stuck but they feel better because their emotional needs are being met (like a molecule with the correct number of electrons is a happy molecule). EDTA is particularly useful for creating lower fat products because these products require a higher percent of water. The more water involved, the greater likelihood that there is metallic contamination (1).

There are other uses of EDTA that make it particularly interesting. For example, it can be used to treat heavy metal poisoning (2). In addition, (for the real chemistry nerds out there) it’s been used in labs to effectively sequester metal ions from solutions.

Some food additives are antioxidants. I’ve mentioned before that antioxidants are good for your body. They essentially slow down the aging process of your cells. Well, the same principle applies to antioxidants in food. The food will age more slowly if it doesn’t oxidize. It’s sort of like putting lemon juice on an apple to keep it from turning brown, except with chemicals that may or may not be safe to consume….

Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are similar chemicals used as preservatives/antioxidants, especially in high-fat foods like potato chips that are likely to go rancid (bleh). BHA has been used in all sorts of contexts, ranging from cosmetics to rubber:

BHA is added to butter, lard, meats, cereals, baked goods, sweets, beer, vegetable oils, potato chips, snack foods, nuts and nut products, dehydrated potatoes, and flavoring agents. It is used in sausage, poultry and meat products, dry mixes for bever- ages and desserts, glazed fruits, chewing gum, active dry yeast, de- foaming agents for beet sugar and yeast, and emulsion stabilizers for shortening (IARC 1986). BHA stabilizes the petroleum wax coatings of food packaging (HSDB 2009) (3).

BHT is used in many of the same products. They are added to fatty foods because they are fat soluble, meaning they dissolve in fat (like how sugar is water soluble, meaning it dissolves in water), because they are stable at high temperatures (i.e. in boiling oil), and because oxygen prefers to react with the hydrocarbons rather than oils. Oxygen is the enemy of packaged food. The more oxygen reacts with additives, the longer the product’s shelf-life. BHA and BHT are diversions.


Tert-butylhydroquinone (TBHQ) is another common antioxidant, often used in conjunction with BHA and/or BHT. The idea behind the use of multiple antioxidants is that they work synergistically, meaning that they are more effective when used together than any of them would be individually (4).

Not all acronym additives are preservatives. MSG (monosodium glutamate) is a well-known food additive with potential side effects that have made many consumers skeptical. MSG was first isolated in 1866, but didn’t become popular as a food additive until 1908, when a Japanese chemist (Kikunae Ikeda) realized that glutamic acid, a component of MSG, had been flavoring soups for centuries. The production of MSG is now a trillion dollar international industry. It became popular because of the potency of its flavor, which is now associated with the term umami (meaning “deliciousness”) because the taste can’t quite be categorized as sweet, sour, salty, pungent, or bitter. It only takes 0.3 grams of MSG to flavor a liter of water (to break the “taste threshold”), whereas 2 grams of salt or 5 grams of sugar per liter are needed before they are detected. Chemical processes occur when MSG is added to some foods, like mushrooms and meats, that cause flavors in those foods that aren’t normally noticeable to become apparent:

MSG also has a strong synergistic effect with disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate, which are found in meat, fish, vegetables, and mushrooms. These substances are almost tasteless in the absence of MSG, but addition of even a small quantity of MSG to food that contains these nucleotides pro- duces an umami that is as much as six or eight fold greater than that to be expected from the quantity of MSG added (5).

Many food additives are meant to increase the stability of a product, while others are strictly to make it taste better. There’s a lot of controversy over whether or not these additives are related to diseases, particularly cancer. MSG is often associated with migraines and “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.” It’s hard to say what effects these chemicals have on our bodies, but they are effective for the food industry.


Thanks for reading,














It’s Heavy Stuff

History and science have always interested me for the same reason: these subjects explain why things are the way they are. They just explain different types of things. Sometimes they’re more intricately connected than one might expect. Chemistry is connected to many minor historical events, for example the fall of the Roman Empire. Yes!

Lead has the chemical symbol Pb and the atomic number 82 on the Periodic Table. It’s atomic mass is 207.2 and it melts at 621.5°F (327.5°C), which is relatively low for a metal (compared to gold (Au) which melts at 1,948°F (1,064°C)). It’s classified as a heavy metal. Some of the common effects of lead poisoning, many of which are common to all types of heavy metal poisoning, include the appetite loss, abdominal pain, colic, pallor, weight loss, depression, fatigue, irritability, and nervous spasms. Also, eventually you’ll go crazy because it affects the nervous system. It’s not fully understood by what mechanism heavy metals affect the nervous system, but it may have something to do with the enzymes responsible for distributing important minerals throughout the body, such as Calcium and Selenium (1). So, you can see why consuming this type toxin could be disruptive to a society.

File:Electron shell 082 Lead - no label.svg

Diagram of a Lead Atom

Our love of lead began a long, long time ago. It was one of the easiest metals to work with and extract from natural ore because of its low melting point and abundance in the earth’s crust. The oldest known lead object is from Turkey (circa 6,500 B.C.), and pottery from Ancient Egypt (3,000-4,000 B.C.) has been found glazed with lead. Lead has been used for everything from furniture decorations to stained glass window frames in churches and cathedrals. Its use has had endless repercussions on history, so I’ll touch on the highlights.


Not Sugar!

Lead (II) Acetate, chemical formula Pb(CH3COO)2, also known as “sugar of lead” was used by the Ancient Romans as a sweetener for food and beverages, particularly wine (2). That was long before anyone was sailing over to the Americas and bringing back cane sugar. As if running your drinking water through lead pipes wasn’t enough, they went right ahead and added the stuff directly to their diet, sometimes even sprinkling the crystals on dishes like a spice. Good plan.

Lead compounds were also commonplace in colonial times:

During the Colonial Period, in addition to the trade in rum, there was extensive manufacture and use of glazed earthenware, pewter, lead pipe, lead shot, and lead type for printing. Red and white lead were widely used as pigments for paints (also as an addition to red pepper); lead acetate and lead oxide were used to sweeten and whiten bread. Litharge (a PbO product) was used as a putty to install windows and, according to colonial records, was sometimes added to snuff. Apparently, lead intoxication was rampant during the Colonial Period in America and may have been involved in accusations of witchcraft because individuals with lead poisoning neu- ropathy often show weird behavior (3).

Lead Figure of an Ancient Goddess, from Sparta

People long suspected that lead had negative effects on health, based on their observations of those who worked directly with it, such as miners or potters. Yet, time and time again, despite the difficulties of Roman emperors (notably Julius Cesear and his successor, Caesar Augustus) had producing children, the observations of Greek physicians, the warnings of Benjamin Franklin and even the U.S. government, people continued to use it in all sorts of self-destructive ways. In 1473, a publication entitled “On the Poisonous and Noxious Vapors and Fumes of Metals” was authored by U. Ellenberg, but the United States Congress waited until 1970 to pass the Occuptational Health Act to regulate lead in food packaging and the environment.

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Benjamin Franklin

I was shocked to learn that leaded fuel was available until the 1990’s, and that a 1980 report from the National Academy of Sciences estimated that Americans were using about 11 pounds of lead per person each year. The General Motors engineers who developed the leaded fuel met the same fate that many exposed to lead had met before,

As many as fifteen workers who helped produce the additive in refineries in Ohio and New Jersey fell sick and died. In most cases, mental derangement preceded death, and many of the workers died in straightjackets. Nearly 300 workers from three plants were pronounced psychotic, and workers and journalists soon began to call leaded fuel “loony gas.” For the next six decades, as many as 5,000 Americans died every year from lead poisoning, according to a 1995 EPA report (4).

I had no idea that lead use was and is such a big deal. Some researchers estimate that 7 million tons of lead from burnt gasoline remain in the United States ecosystem. But, hey, at least we’re not using it as a condiment anymore.

Thanks for reading,



More information about lead and the environment can be found here. And the links in the sources are also worth checking out.

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