The Adventure of the Athenaeum Club

Q: What happens when you cross an inorganic chemistry professor bored with scientific papers, a qualitative unknown salt analysis lab, and the public domain?

A: Student engagement.

The Adventure of the Athenaeum Club

It had been some months since quitting my rooms at Baker Street to leave my friend Sherlock Holmes to his long awaited and well deserved retirement. My practice and family commitments demanded the better part of by attention and it became increasingly rare that I should find an afternoon unengaged that I might direct my path to the home of that most singular personality. One such occasion presented itself on a golden day of late autumn, 1900. A changeable September had ceded way to a mild October in which the warm air allowed one to forgive the disappointingly cool, wet summer just past. Following a peaceful turn about the orange-red carpet bequeathed Regent’s Park by its now barren trees I was admitted by Mrs. Hudson into the once familiar flat. I found Holmes perched in his usual chair with his fingertips pressed firmly together and eyelids drooping,

The air hung heavy with an acrid mix of Virginia tobacco and spoiled eggs. Only after giving a cough did Holmes recognise my presence and jumped from his chair to greet me. I returned his kindnesses but admonished him that in his retirement he should pay more attention to his pantry.

“Surely after so many years of chronicling my methods you are not still so stubbornly opposed to applying them yourself!” He rebuffed me. “What eggs should I have used to produce that odour? The remnants of a cold meal remain in full view upon the buffet. Perhaps I turned to this option upon discovery of the spoilage? A more clever deduction, but not one that accounts for the facts as you must know them. From the skins in your teeth and residue on your fingers I know that you have recently consumed a packet of roast nuts, purchased from the vendor near the boating lake in the park, if the leaf on your shoe does not misdirect me. The packet is not in your hand and so was obviously discarded in my refuse bin, but where were the offending eggshells?”

I had to admit his account of my activities was accurate and that I had encountered neither shells nor smells in the bin.

“The smell, which you rightfully though incorrectly associated with rotten eggs is the sulphide gas produced when thioacetamide is introduced to acid, a useful reaction in the investigation of metal cations.”

I had of course known that after doffing the notorious mantle of Britain’s premier consulting detective he had turned his masterful powers of analysis to chemical researches, and indeed upon the table sat a watchglass of some salt, stoppered bottles of vitriol and chlorine acids, and tubes of bright yellow liquid.

“If only that explanation cleared the air as effectively as the phrase suggests.” I said.

Holmes laughed genuinely, if uncharacteristically, at the pun but an introspective wateriness in his eyes hinted that he found more humour in its connection to ideas as yet known only to him.

“Yes, Watson, it is stuffy in here isn’t it? Perhaps you’d care to join me at The Athenaeum. I was planning to spend my evening there.”

I had never known Holmes to be a club man, nor to willingly frequent so prestigious a location as the one he now named, but I affirmed my availability and willingness to accompany him. Though his calculating mind attached only passing value to companionship, I indulge myself in believing he was pleased at the prospect of my company.

"A state I instantly recognized as one he adopted whilst absorbed in purposeful contemplation"

We arrived by cab at the classical building on Pall Mall. The Athenaeum Club’s pure white brick and tall Doric columns projected the power and firmness of the Empire while the golden statue of Pallas Athene declared this a bastion of society’s greatest minds and men. I shouldn’t be surprised that Holmes’ name would be listed alongside those of Herbert Spencer, Charles Darwin, and James Bryce as one of the most influential intellectuals of the day. The Sergeant-at-arms gave us a polite nod as we entered the lobby hall and we headed towards one of the richly appointed sitting rooms in the wings.

“You are no doubt wondering at my registration at such a club. In fact, you will not find me on the roll, but it seems they remember the small kindness I paid them by resolving the problem of the double sevens. It will make our remaining here for the evening far easier than I expected.”

“My dear Holmes!” I said aghast. Two gentlemen talking next to a marble Theseus turned their heads at my outburst; I dropped my voice in embarrassment. “You mean to tell me you’re not a member?”

“Naturally not. I much prefer the company at the Diogenes. I did have some doubt of our being permitted entrance, though a confident walk has permitted me unfettered access to more secure houses than this, and with less right of privilege. It was a necessary risk to ensure the capture of our prey.”

“Our prey? I might have guessed there was more to our coming here than the friendly passing of an evening!”

“I imagine you did guess, Watson, but you allowed your reason to be swayed by your senses.”

“Would you care to enlighten me to the target of the chase? Or do you intend to maintain the suspense indefinitely.”

“Only a moment longer, Doctor, if you please. Just a moment.”

Holmes’ dark eyes scanned the ceiling of the chamber and finally lit upon a pair of comfortable chairs by a fireplace along the inner wall. We were seated with glasses of brandy in hand before Holmes saw fit to speak.

“You will no doubt have read the account of the unhappy death of Lord Lansdowne, our late Secretary of State for War.”

“Of course, poor chap. A heart attack at his age is hardly rare, but tragic nevertheless. The calls for impeachment last year over his mishandling of the Boer War must have rattled his nerve, and I suppose the stress of the election campaign overcame his constitution.”

“You have read the public account, then, and believed it. You have parroted the story exactly as the Post wrote it on Wednesday’s front page.”

“Why should I believe otherwise? It is a sound argument, medically speaking, and the examiner in his case is a professional acquaintance and a very thorough pathologist. But for you to ask you must have a different opinion.”

“The examiner saw the falsehoods he was looking for; I saw the truth I am trying to ignore. This is why my retreat from criminal investigation can never be complete; there is simply no one to replace me.” One could not count modesty among Holmes’ few virtues and I bristled at the insult to my colleague. Nevertheless, I had never known Holmes to follow a false trail, so I sipped my brandy in silence.

“The argument is neither sound nor valid, for one who has the facts – and you have more than you think. You read that death occurred in the evening, an unusual time for an infarct though not strange in and of itself. On the fifth page of that same newspaper you might have seen a small report that poor health had kept the First Lord of the Admiralty and the Chancellor of the Exchequer absent from Privy Council chambers for the two days following Lord Lansdowne’s death. The death of one statesman is unremarkable; the illness of three in one evening is, you’ll admit, far more interesting. Once that simple connection is made the rest is elementary. Who can hear of seemingly targeted illness and not consider poison? Who could consider poison and not think of dining? And who could think of these three particular men dining and not arrive at The Athenaeum?”

While I considered the possibility of Holmes’ theory he withdrew a clay pipe, filled the bowl, and sat quietly smoking with his gaze fixed into the fire. Though it seemed fantastic to believe a poisoner could ply their sinister trade so openly without suspicion, he had at least guessed the victims’ dining habits correctly; the Chancellor of the Exchequer himself now joined the party behind us along with Joseph Chamberlain, leader of the Unionist Liberals. Chamberlain’s support for continuing the South Africa campaign was critical to Lord Salisbury’s conservatives’ hope for re-election. If there were political intrigue at play, he would’ve made an attractive target. I attempted to pry further information from my companion, but he had slipped into thought and paid me little attention.

The afternoon passed into evening and besides raising his hand for another glass, Holmes remained still, silently facing the classical stone mantle. The gaslight sconces on the room’s many pillars were raised to push back the encroaching darkness and the yellow glow played shadows about the gilt laurel wreathing the carved marble. The pillars stretched into a high arch whose elongated dome contained a mural depiction of Odysseus’ adventures after the sacking of Troy. I had taken my fill of the ambiance and was about to thank Holmes for a pleasant afternoon and return home when I spotted a prominent Scottish physician with whom I’ve enjoyed a long correspondence. I excused myself from Holmes, though he made no acknowledgement, and crossed the room to re-establish my acquaintance.

No sooner did I greet the gentleman than Holmes leapt from his chair and dashed across the room to fling a platter from the hands of a young waiter. The party nearest stood in outrage – in fact every face in the room was turned now with horrified faces to where Holmes was struggling to remove the server’s jacket. The uproar drew the sergeant-at-arms from the lobby and he pushed his way through the assembling onlookers to the scene.

“Sergeant! Help me! Arrest this lunatic! Let go of my arm, sir!” the waiter shouted, above the murmurs of the crowd.

“Ha! The game is over you scoundrel! Here’s enough proof of your treachery!” said Holmes, pointing to a smear of flour on the man’s sleeve.

The Sergeant-at-arms was unconvinced and demanded to know why a dirty coat deserved such rough treatment. The sentiment was echoed by Chamberlain, the intended recipient of the herring dish now underfoot. In spite of myself I too wondered whether Holmes’ mind had been too long deprived of criminal inquiry and begun inventing conspiracy where there was none. My fears seemed confirmed when he stooped to pick up the knife that had fallen from the tray.

“Sir! Control yourself!” The Sergeant-at arms said as he moved the clam skinned waiter to his rear and the parliamentarians stepped behind their chairs. Holmes wrinkled his brow and scraped some of the flour from the jacket onto the knife.

“I find it incredible that this demonstration is still necessary, but please do observe.”

In saying he raised the knife into the gaslight and it ignited into an unnatural green flame. All but one in the fearful crowd was silenced in wonder.

“Why that is the characteristic colour of barium!” said a white bearded gentleman later identified as Sir Thomas Stevenson, president of the Royal Institute of Chemistry.

“Exactly. In the form of barium carbonate, a rat poison easily confused with flour in a kitchen and, when added to pickling vinegar, evolves carbon dioxide and barium acetate – the poison he used to kill Lord Lansdowne.”

“That is hardly satisfying proof.” Chamberlain said with a steady composure undermined by his defensive position. “How could you have seen the powder on his jacket while faced away and across the room?”

“Naturally I could not. Although it hangs him, it wasn’t the clue that led to action. From that seat the curvature of the ceiling allowed every word uttered in this room to fall upon my ears. Surely I’m not the only one who noticed the raised ‘E’s, the rounded ‘R’s? Dr. Watson, does it not remind you of your days on campaign?”

My Scottish colleague, just returned from Paardeberg, responded for me.

“A South African!”

“A spy?” Chamberlain gasped.

“An assassin!” Holmes said triumphantly.

It was only then that the Sergeant-at-arms looked behind him to the empty air where the waiter had stood. Wide-eyed he raised a cry to capture the man and took off in pursuit along with the more able bodied of the assembly.

I exhaled audibly in relief that Holmes’ mind had not lost its hone through misapplication. Chamberlain, the politicians, and other astounded witnesses pressed towards Holmes who only insisted on the obviousness of the plot. He coolly detached himself from their excited discussion and walked to where Sir Thomas had retaken his seat. Britain’s foremost analytical chemist stood and, smiling, received the outstretched hand of Britain’s foremost analytical mind.


As usual my esteemed companion Dr. Watson has sensationalized what should be a simple but instructive example of deductive reasoning and analytical chemistry. The matter of the accent and coincidence of the offending substance in evidence upon the sleeve closes the matter of the criminal’s discovery, but fails to justify what initially led to my belief that barium acetate was the agent in question. He did make accidental mention of the investigation by describing my chemical apparatus but a more detailed account is in this case appropriate.

A visit to the body of the deceased and refuse bins of the ill yielded a sufficient volume of pickled foods to conclude they had shared some assortment between them. The presence of the acetate ion was clear enough from the smell of vinegar and was quickly confirmed by warming a sample in concentrated sulphuric acid and ethyl alcohol until the fruity odour of ethyl acetate according to the formula:  

[CH3COO][Na]+ + H2SO –> [Na]+[HSO4] + CH3COOH


            Acetate is not itself harmful, but I reasoned could have carried and masked a poisonous companion element. I purified the collected sample into 50g of salt residue and undertook a systematic analysis to qualitatively identify the deadly cation. After dissolving the salt in purified water, the addition of a drop of 6M hydrochloric acid without producing a precipitate removed any suspicion of lead, silver, or mercury. I then alkalized the sample to a pH of 6 with ammonia and added a further three drops of hydrochloric acid and employed thiosulphate to evolve sulphide ions in situ in hopes of capturing the anion in a sulphide, but without success. Other factors of the case had already ruled out arsenic, selenium, cadmium, or bismuth, but this test confirmed they were not responsible for the death.

After transferring the solution to a beaker, I added another three drops of hydrochloric acid, and reduced by boiling to one half volume to ensure the complete removal of hydrogen sulphide, the source of the smell my self-styled chronicler mistook for bad eggs. Next the addition of 0.1g solid ammonium chloride and liquid ammonia in excess could have produced oxides of iron, aluminum, chromium, titanium, or zinc. All admittedly unlikely poisons, but it would have been reckless to rule them out when so simple a test was possible.

A second application of thiosulphate produced a negative result for zinc, cobalt, manganese, or nickel. Finally the addition of 2 mL ammonium carbonate precipitated a carbonate of barium, strontium, or calcium according to the general reaction: 

MCl2 + (NH4)2CO3 –> MCO3 + 2NH4Cl

My suspicion of which of the three possible anions I would discover was confirmed by the dissolution of the precipitate in 8 drops of 6M acetic acid and the addition of 5 drops chromic acid. As I expected, barium chromate precipitated from the resulting mixture according to:

Ba2+ + CrO42- –> BaCrO4

"As I expected, barium chromate precipitated from the resulting mixture"

Dr. Watson foolishly described the yellow solution and at the very beginning of his account, thus negating any possible mystery for the attentive reader. From the lasting popularity of his memoirs I can only draw unflattering conclusions on the character of his audience. The pale green colour produced by flame test was a dramatic and unnecessary secondary confirmation of the presence of barium, but one which promptly settled the affair, thanks to the distinguished gentleman of the RIC.

Correspondence (concerning chemical analysis only) may be addressed to the undersigned.

Mr. Sherlock Holmes

221b Baker Street


15 November 1900

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And Now…The Chilling Conclusion!

Last month we started to investigate the idea of freezing one’s jeans as a means to kill invading bacteria and thus essentially “cleaning” your pants. What mainly bothered us about this idea was how so many people could accept it and promote it without really questioning the facts behind it.

Like any good scientists, after copious research we developed some hypotheses:

  1. Freezing jeans (in a conventional freezer) won’t actually kill any bacteria living on them
  2. The bacteria on jeans will freely grow again when removed from the freezer
  3. There is no difference between freezing jeans for a day versus a week
  4. The actual amount of bacteria present on a regular pair of jeans is negligible, so you probably don’t need to worry about it; and
  5. Matt will still not be OK with unwashed jeans

To facilitate the experiment, I wore the same pair of jeans every day for about 2 weeks straight. I considered even wearing them to bed, but this seemed like over dedication. A second victim volunteer wore another pair for 1 week. Matt declined to participate.

Kitchen Agar!!!

Seeing as this was the first time either of us had made agar plates in a kitchen, we were pretty impressed with how well they turned out.

Using sterilized cotton swabs (dipped in sterile water), samples were taken from the inside of the jeans on the upper thigh (a high-friction site), as well as from the leg of the individual.

Genevieve's Pants! (and toes)

Pants of our volunteer. And more toes

In total, we had 9 different samples:

  1. positive control (swab from inside the mouth of a child –> full of bacteria)
  2. negative control
  3. swab from Genevieve’s left pant leg
  4. swab from Genevieve’s right pant leg
  5. sample from Genevieve’s right thigh
  6. swab from volunteer’s pants
  7. sample from volunteer’s thigh
  8. and 9.  samples from jeans after freezing

Inoculated plates were incubated at a temperature of around 33°C/91°F for 3 days to facilitate visual growth.

Sure your incubator can hold 97 +/- 0.0005 degrees, but can it make coffee?

Labelling things in the freezer is important.

After the samples were collected, the dirty jeans were placed in sealed plastic bags with as much air removed as possible. One pair (Genevieve’s) were left in the freezer for 24 hours while the other pair remained frozen for a week.

And finally RESULTS!!!

At first we were worried because NOTHING was growing on any of the plates.  And while this could have indicated no bacterial growth what-so-ever, proving our point through a lack of observable results just seemed anti-climactic.

So we did what any self-respecting scientists (with well documented impatience issues) would do: we established a positive control by sampling the known bustling bacterial haven of a child’s mouth.

Our negative control sample. Possibly a tiny bit contaminated??

Positive control. DEFINITE contamination!

                                                          Alright, so bacteria is found were we expect it to be found.

Wait – “I blame Matt” in the mouseover text? I’m offended Genevi.

Hurt even?

Wounded, Genevi.


Bacteria from Genevieve's leg; ...............pants before freezing;.................. and after 24 hours in the freezer

And there you have it. Apart from the debatable presence of a tiny colony on the negative control, it shows that any bacteria growing on the plates came from the sample source, not the sampling method; meaning that if the freezer were capable of killing bacteria and sterilizing jeans, the “after” samples would have no colony forming bacteria at all. Evidently this is not the case after 24 hours…

Bacteria from volunteer's leg;....................pants before freezing;........................and after 1 week in freezer

…or even after a week. This might be a small scale test, but the results are hard to argue: freezing your jeans does not kill bacteria, it only makes them colder. I dare say that all our hypotheses are strongly supported (number five is confirmed) by these findings. At the risk of repeating ourselvesalways read critically and  question ‘scientific’ advice from the internet. Yes, even ours. And here’s why:

Ideally this experiment would have included samples from different areas on the jeans (like behind the knees, lower leg, perineum) and we would have tested more than two pairs and tested them after washing and done a statistically significant number of runs. But we only had 9 Petri dishes. Oh the limits of thrifty science (we do accept donations). However, if you happen to have access to some agar and dirty jeans and if you have some spare time, give our results a little more robustness by repeating the experiment. Share your results in the comments! We would love that!

I think it’s safe to conclude, as others have, that freezing your denim will not, in fact, rid it of any bacteria that might be currently freeloading. If you want to remove the microbes wash them in hot, soapy water. If however, you are not bothered by the bugs (and really, there’s so few actually residing there) and you value the longevity of your expensive threads – freezing them might make them smell a little fresher.  But overnight is definitely sufficient. A week in the freezer is overkill (minus any actual killing). Also, I bet that just hanging them up outside would work too.

A special “thanks” to Y’Amy for helping us get the needed equipment and agar for this experiment, and to “anonymous friend” for not washing your pricey pants in the first place and making me question it.

And also to Scott Pilgrim!
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Disclaimer: Don’t Blame Us If You Try This At Home (we’re not even sure why we did it…)

Due to some unforeseen medical complications with Genevieve’s “condition,” we were not able to proceed with the second half of our frozen jeans experiment. HUGE apologies! It will definitely be done in the New Year.

 Not wanting to leave you completely disappointed over the Christmas break however, in my state of hormone withdrawal insanity I came up with a brilliant idea! Ok, so the idea is also a little insane and Matt tried his best to talk me out of it.

Frankly my best was no match for a bottle of wine and an utter lack of alternatives. I can only blame myself for what hijinks ensued.

If you live where the temperature drops below 0°C/32°F and at some point you were also a kid, you have probably dared or been dared to stick your tongue to a frozen pole. Or more recently and perhaps under the influence of some Christmas spirit you and your friends decided to re-enact this scene from “A Christmas Story.”

Removing your tongue by force not only hurts but can tear both skin and muscle. You could also try breathing out warm air or letting saliva run down your tongue to melt it, but both of these can take some time and may also lead to tissue damage (such as frost bite).

To help you out, we sacrificed my tongue and dignity and ventured to a local playground to try some alternative solutions. I’m happy to report that no one phoned the police.

What’s happening:

The relatively large amount of water quickly provides the heat energy to melt your frozen saliva. Fire from a lighter certainly provides heat, but can’t deliver it to the tongue/pole interface where it is needed without unwanted side-effects (ie second degree burns). Wine both provided mechanical heat and alcohol to reduce the freezing point of the mixture on your tongue. Gin, although containing a higher alcohol content, was slower to free the tongue because it was below 0°C/32°F. Our simulated urine…

Note: “Simulated Urine” was actually APPLE JUICE heated to around body temperature, 37°C/98°F. Let’s be VERY clear about this.

… our simulated urine provided more heat than either water or wine and was found to be the fastest acting. However, I think everyone would agree that water or wine, while slower, are the preferred agents.

Have a safe and happy holiday from your pals Matt and Genevieve!

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To Freeze or Not to Freeze (seriously, this is an actual question)

A friend of mine (who shall remain anonymous) recently informed me that he no longer washes his jeans – instead, he sticks them in the freezer overnight. If your face is currently contorting into some incredulous, squinty-eyed configuration, don’t panic! It’s not permanent. Mine did that too.

If Skeptical Hippo owned jeans, he would not freeze them.

The general idea (or so he told me) is that freezing will kill any bacteria that accumulate in your pants, thus refreshing them and making them ready to wear (after warming up of course). Please note that said friend did say the jeans get to go in the washer if stuff actually gets spilled on the denim (or if they just look too dirty for decency’s sake). Being the sceptical non-trusting person that I am, this seemed to warrant an actual experiment.

Can you identify these legs?

But first – Background!  (hey, we ARE scientists here, sort of).

In a New York Times article from Nov. 1st of this year, Levi Strauss & Co. were quoted that a typical pair of jeans will “consume” about 723 litres (919 gallons) of water throughout their life time.  In a short paragraph following this, they (Levi) suggest that in an effort to conserve more water, you (the jean wearer) can skip regular washing of your jeans and simply place them in the freezer instead.  Not washing will also keep the colour from fading and protect the fabric, making your jeans last longer.  While I couldn’t actually find any information related to this on Levi’s website (like scientific theory) I did stumble across many living examples of people who don’t wash their jeans on a regular basis.  On purpose. Apparently this is not a new trend.

There are even blogs dedicated to the exploits of not washing one’s pants for months.  You can also find handy instructional videos! You know, in case finding room between the frozen veggies and ice cream becomes too much of a cerebral strain. While not everyone in the non-washing marathon ends up freezing their jeans, many do, again making reference to the idea that the low temperatures are enough to kill bacteria.  No, it doesn’t get rid of dirt and old skin cells, but if the microbes are dead is dirt really an issue?

Personally, yes. Yes it is still an issue. Now I will accept the functional difference between living and unliving dirt – I’d pick up a dust covered book without thinking but would probably leave one covered in rotten tripe alone. I would also leave the room. I mean, tripe? Take better care of your things! Regardless, I would still clean off the dusty book if I had to carry it around for a day – I don’t think preferring clean, not just sterile, clothes is much of a stretch.

Even still, are the microbes really dead? Really, really dead? Like that obnoxious computer programmer at the end of Goldeneye dead?

He should've watched the instructional video.

He should've watched the instructional video.

According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, a typical household freezer should be kept at a temperature setting of around or below -18°C/0°F. Sounds cold right?  However, I’d like to draw your attention to the following warning (which comes straight from their website):


Ok, so a typical household freezer won’t kill dangerous food bacteria. But what about the bacteria that typically live on your skin (and also hang out in your pants)?

The human skin suit, having an area of about 2m2, plays host to an estimated 1012 bacteria (around 20x more than you’ll find in a yogurt cup). Most of the time, these stay on the surface and unbroken skin is an excellent physical barrier against microorganisms. In addition, the majority of the skin’s surface is not a favourable environment for microbial colonization.  Skin tends to be dry, and bacteria like moist surroundings, which is why you’ll find a higher concentration living in areas like your armpits, palms, and private bits. Skin is also slightly acidic, with a pH of 5-6, and sweat contains high concentrations of sodium chloride and lysozyme, both of which stress many bacteria, inhibiting growth.

Staphylococcus epidermis. I am on you.

Some of the most prevalent skin bacteria include Staphylococcus epidermis and members of the genus Propionibacterium. Growth and colonization from microorganisms like these actually inhibits other, more harmful bacteria from moving in.  For example, your oil glands secrete lipids that are partially broken down by propionibacteria into unsaturated fatty acids that have a strong antimicrobial activity against gram-negative bacteria (often pathogenic) and some fungi. These fatty acids are also responsible for producing strong body odor.

Most bacteria (and almost all human pathogens) are mesophiles, meaning they have an optimum growth range of 20 to 45°C (60-113°F).

Propionibacterium: Making you smell bad one rod at a time.

High heat kills bacteria by denaturing enzymes, transport carriers, and other proteins.  Heat can also destroy cell membranes.  So both cell function and structure are affected. Cells die, growth stops.

In contrast, at lower temperature (-20°C or lower) membranes can solidify and cellular activity doesn’t work as rapidly. Cell function, but not structure, is affected. Low temperatures, therefore, simply act to inhibit microbial growth and reproduction. In fact, freezing is a common method of storing microbial samples for later use. Conventional freezer temperatures won’t actually act to kill most bacteria, and once warmed up, growth may continue. In theory anyways.

Get on with it already? OK! The experiment begins NOW!

Will the bacteria survive their exile to the freezerburned fields of forgotten fishsticks?  Does the accumulation of matted Matt matter matter?                                                                     Was Genevieve wearing pants before the experiment began?

Check back here in a couple of days (more likely a week) for the answers to these questions and more in our CHILLING conclusion!!!

WHAT? I’m doing laundry…..
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Feeling rested?

If you’re not in Arizona, Hawaii, Saskatchewan, or bits and pieces of other provinces, welcome back to standard time! I hope everyone remembered to roll back their clocks last night and slept in guilt-free. After all, 36% of us suffer regular sleep loss from unfriendly work schedules or physiological conditions.

Truthfully though, I’m more interested in my safety than your beauty sleep. According to research published in the New England Journal of Medicine,

“the spring shift to daylight savings time, and the concomitant loss of one hour of sleep, resulted in an average increase in traffic accidents of approximately 8 percent, whereas the fall shift resulted in a decrease in accidents of approximately the same magnitude immediately after the time shift.”

Which is to say that today is the safest day of the year to go for a drive simply because more people are well rested.

Imagine, the key to safer roads is as simple as deciding as a community that an extra hour of sleep is more important than watching that Grey’s Anatomy rerun.

Sometimes bad things happen after late-night TV.

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And now for a water bottle that WON’T melt

Remember how that nice BPA free bottle melted in a hot car? (but the skittles didn’t?) Obviously a cheapo water bottle would shrivel and disappear in a 1200°C campfire, right?

That’s about 2192 °F for our American readers.

Right. Yes. It will melt. And quickly!

Unless of course that bottle has some water in it. In fact, in a pinch you can boil water using a consumable plastic water bottle laid right in a fire.

The thin walls of the bottle quickly transfer the fire’s heat to the water inside. Water has a relatively high specific heat capacity, the amount of energy required to raise a substance 1°C, (4.18 J/(g*°C)) and a high boiling point at 100°C. Your plastic water bottle is likely made out of High-Density Polyethylene which has a melting point of around 115°C. The water maintains the bottle temperature below HDPE’s melting point, and so the plastic won’t melt.

With the cap off the steam from the boiling water can escape without any bursting.  The bottle may soften and deform a little, but as long as there’s enough water for the heat transfer the plastic won’t melt.

 Apparently this also works with a paper bag – which you can then cook an egg in.

You can usually find someone in the crowd willing to bet against this one. If you make any money on it, you’re welcome. And if anyone does the egg-in-the-paper-bag thing, send us a video!

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Daddy, how many atoms are in me?

So asked my 8 year old daughter tonight. Never one to discourage curiosity or budding scientific inquiry, I answered “Lots and lots! Now finish your dinner.”

The look she shot back told me she had been hoping for a little more precision.

So, needless to say, we both now know the answer, and soon you will too!

Caution: unstable at high pressure.

A precious, if hazardous, material.

1. What elements am I made of?

We humans are mostly water, and since water is mostly oxygen, so are we! Here are the approximate mass percentages of elements in the body I used in the calculation.

2. How much of those elements am I lugging around?

Multiplying the percent by mass of each element by the body’s mass (in Kg) times one thousand gives the weight of each element in you in grams.

3. What does the weight of elements have to do with atoms?

Well, there’s a reason we bothered to switch into grams. The molar mass of elements is a conversion between the mass (usually in grams) and the number of moles of that element. For example, there are 15.999 grams per mole of oxygen.

A “mole” is a unit like a “dozen” or a “pair”, just a name given to a specific number of things. Like there are 2 things in a pair and 12 things in a dozen, there are 6.0221415 × 1023  things in a mole. The things in this case are atoms!

So when we added up the number of moles of each element and multiplied that by 6.0221415 × 1023, we had our answer!

There are roughly 2.57 × 1027 atoms in my little girl. So, I was right. Lots and lots. And lots.

Trying to put that massive number into perspective is another matter altogether. Here’s an attempt: if all 7 billion people on Earth each had a billion dollars, you would still need 367,248,242 Earths to have as many dollars as atoms. Or, if your atoms were the size of m&ms, you would be 2.4 times bigger than the Earth.  It didn’t really work. If anyone can suggest a better way to get a picture of a number that big, I’d love to hear it.

They grow up so fast...

In the meantime, the weight:atoms relationship is linear (if Human was an element, its molar mass would be ~6.325 g/mol), so if you want to know how many atoms you contain, multiply your weight by 9.52125  × 1025 (Kg) or 4.31877  × 1025 (lbs).

~ I’m about 5.53 × 1027 atoms (Which is how I shall report my weight the next time someone asks).

Oh, don’t forget to celebrate Mole Day on Sunday, October 23!

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Sometimes Men Really Are Parasites…

Literally. Especially if you’re a deep sea anglerfish. You know – the scary looking bioluminescent fish from Finding Nemo? They look something like this:

Well, if you’re the female of certain taxa, not only can you grow up to 60 times larger than the males (sexual dimorphism in the extreme), but you also have to endure living with the ultimate couch potato. (Not to mention the fully justified “Yo mamma so fat…” jokes)

When scientists first discovered deep sea anglerfish they initially only recovered females, leading to theories on reproduction via some form of automixis.  But then, noticing strange growths attached to many of the females, researchers eventually realized that the males were actually acting as sexual parasites.

Initially males are free living and display large eyes and olfactory organs, presumably for mate location.  Males don’t reach full sexual maturity until they have found (and attached to) a female, and those unlucky in love die within a few months.  Once a mate is located, the male attaches to the belly of the female using modified pincer-like denticles.

That's a male literally sucking the life from the female... (

In those species with obligate parasitism, the initial attachment can be followed by the complete fusion of tissue between the male and female.  As the male’s digestive organs shut down and he loses the ability to feed himself, the circulatory system of the two individuals can fuse and the female host provides nutrients via this new network of blood vessels.  The male thus becomes permanently dependent of his female host (a little too much codependency maybe?).

Aren’t you ladies lucky the males of our species are only facultative parasites? But let this be a lesson: if you don’t stop picking the jobless, hard-drinking, unshaven, temperamental hard bodies over the gainfully employed, reserved, clean-cut, thoughtful dorks of the world one day you too will wake up with denticles in your belly. You think it was always like this for the anglerfish? No! A few short million years ago, they were all saying “I can change him…”

But it’s not all bad for the female, who actually can’t reach full fecundity until she’s been parasitized by a male.  Some evidence suggests that the female is able to control the release of sperm from males (ahem) using hormones and the connected circulatory system, letting her fertilize eggs immediately after she lays them.  Additionally, one female may play host to multiple males allowing for continual sperm manipulation and egg fertilization without having to first locate a mate.

Ridiculous reproduction or evolution just being efficient?

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I might be suffering from Permanent head Damage (PhD)

In an attempt to avoid adult life and responsibility for even longer, I’ve decided that after 7 years of post-secondary education what I really needed was 4 more. Three weeks ago I started a PhD program in Biology at a school in our nation’s capitol. Having had a year off it’s been difficult getting back into the academic swing of things, but I’m beginning to feel like a normal student once again – re: an aging pseudo-adolescent with lots of debt baggage! (that’s my friend Amy who is currently enjoying her second year in a PhD program).

Some people (and occasionally myself) question my need to continually seek higher levels of education (accompanied by lower levels of income). Do I really need a doctorate degree? Can’t I get a job with just a Masters? Well I could, but not in academia, which is where I want to end up. My ultimate goal? To be a university professor and mould the impressionable minds of the young (world domination here I come!). Having had the opportunity to teach and perform research at the university level I know it’s something I love.

And I’m not alone in this insanity – I have several friends currently enrolled in or also just starting (or still applying to) PhD programs; here in Canada as well as in the States, who also want to be professors. In addition to 4 years (or more) of extreme poverty, soul crushing research, and absolutely no social life, we’ve also all signed up for future job insecurity.

As a recent article in Nature points out, schools are producing PhDs at an unsustainable rate. Especially in the US. There just aren’t enough jobs in either academia or the private sector for the continual onslaught of graduating doctorates. For example, Nature reports that in 1973 55% of US doctorates in biological science secured a tenure track position within 6 years of graduation, but by 2006 this percentage had dropped to only 15.

Ironically, many of us pursue advanced degrees because we simply can’t find jobs with the BA’s or BS’s that we already have.

Since you mention it, the New York Times published an article on educational inflation this past July. It echoes the sentiment of PayPal founder Peter Thiel concerning the imminent burst of the higher education bubble. Both articles deserve a read, but to summarize, since jobs are scarce, people are getting advanced degrees to be more competitive. Enough people have done this that employers can afford to hold out for the more educated candidates. As it stands, higher education still correlates with higher pay, but that may not be the case for much longer. Colleges win because enrollment is up. Business wins because they get a more educated workforce with no cost to them. Of course, someone has to lose in this equation and as they say in poker, “if you look around the table and can’t see the sucker, you’re it.” – Matt

The Economist has also discussed these issues. They point out that between 2005 and 2009 America produced more than 100 000 new doctoral degrees. In the same period there was just 16 000 new professorships created. To help put this in perspective I made some helpful graphs:

Here are some more depressing statistics/facts:

  • America produces approximately 50 000 PhDs annually
  • In Canada, 80% of postdocs earn $38,600 or less per year before taxes
  • A PhD may offer no financial benefit over a master’s degree (at best a 3% premium)(so, at that rate, I could pay back my massive student debt in about three years…if I lived in a box and ate chicken off the sidewalk).
  • In America only 57% of doctoral students will have a PhD ten years after their first date of enrolment
  • The organizations that pay for research have realized that many PhDs find it tough to transfer their skills into the job market
  • Graduate student employees and faculty members serving in contract positions now make up more than 75% of the total instructional staff at many universities

So why are students still being encouraged to proceed to the PhD level? Well, some of us are simply delusional and convinced that we’ll be able to secure an academic teaching position (*cough *cough), and some of us just don’t understand the reality of the job market. In addition, schools realize how cheap PhD students and Postdocs are compared to faculty members. Work 60+ hours a week to secure our funding? No problem! You want those 100 papers marked by Monday? Done. As sources of cheap labour (and cheap ego-boosters), grad students are irreplaceable.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m very excited to be in a PhD program and my advisor is awesome. But I think it’s important that students are aware of what’s really waiting for us after school. At this point we’ve invested a lot of time and money in our education and we should be able to make our degrees “work” for us after graduation. Schools need to start stepping up and adapt PhD programs to fit reality.

Posted in and unsolicited opinion, Thoughts, Thoughts and Stories | 1 Comment

I can only use my cancer powers for evil….

First, a big apology for the long hiatus.  Matt was busy studying hard for his MCATs (which he rocked, btw) and applying to med school; and I was getting ready to move to a new city and start a PhD program (more on that later).

Moving to a new place and starting a new school (or job) amongst complete strangers without any of your stuff (because it’s all in storage) is stressful.  So when my doctor called last week and said she wanted to change the dose on my thyroid meds I politely declined.  Irresponsible? A little. Rash? Perhaps. Crazy? Definitely – and herein lies the problem.

Let me back track.  As I’ve previously mentioned, when you have a thyroidectomy you have to be placed on artificial thyroid hormones for the rest of your life. Ok, cool. Simple right? You should know better (insert maniacal laughter).

Because T4 is linked to so many bodily processes, getting just the right amount of hormone is a balancing act for each individual.  Too little results in hypothyroidism; too much and you’re hyper.  This process is further complicated in persons who have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer.  Due to the need to keep TSH levels so low (to prevent recurring cancer), the amount of replacement T4 is usually higher than it would be in a “normal” person.

Translation: I have hyperthyroidism. On purpose.  In an effort to establish an appropriate level of thyroid hormone, I’ve been on a couple different doses since January.

MedsEach change of dose takes about 4 weeks to take effect, so you need at least a month (and blood tests) between level adjustments.  So back to my self-diagnosis of insanity.

Hyperthyroidism (also known more amusingly as thyrotoxicosis) is usually accompanied by varying degrees of rapid weight loss, nervousness, irritability, increased anxiety, excessive sweating, shakiness, muscle weakness, rapid pulse, difficulty sleeping, hair loss, apathy, hyperactivity, loss of libido, palpitations or arrhythmias, and nausea. (Note the lack of super cool side effects like invisibility or a prehensile tail.  I can however, eat as many cookies as I want)

At the end of July (about 5 weeks after my last medication increase) some of the above “side-effects” were beginning to impede on my ability to work (well, actually to just function). So my doctor lowered the dose.  After another 5 weeks I had more blood work done and it’s these results that caused her to want the current change. She thinks my T4 levels are still too high.  One of my other doctors, however, likes them high. I would like to feel kind of balanced for at least a few weeks.

So here I am, all jittery and anxious and not 100% sure if I’m super nervous from starting a new chapter in my life, or from my meds.  Am I just irrationally irritated at the other people on the bus?  Or maybe I’m suffering from drug-induced insanity.  Or maybe it’s completely justified irritation at the irritating people on the bus. ~Matt  Of course, those of you who know me might have trouble distinguishing this from my regular insanity. Good luck (you’ll need it).

Posted in and unsolicited opinion, Explanations, Thoughts and Stories | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments