October 30, 2013 11:07 am
Back in June, some new Dell Lattitude 6430u laptop users noticed a peculiar smell coming from their keyboard. “The machine is great, but it smells as if it was assembled near a tomcats litter box,” wrote threewest, the user who first sounded off about the problem. Others soon chimed in with stories like this one:
I am having the same issue. When I started using the laptop at the end of last week I thought I smelt something odd. Well.. here I am Sunday doing some work on the couch and my wife says “what stinks like cat pee”. I said.. I think its this laptop.. puts her nose up to the keyboard and BAM! It really stinks.
Dell attendants suggested clients try to clean the keyboard with compressed air. But as one user wrote, “No amount of compressed air is going to help the awful stench coming from the keyboard.” Others reported that after using the machine for about two months, the smell faded.
At 2:50 am last night, Dell finally announced that they had found the problem and were ready to start replacing the offending palmrest, which turned out to be the source of the smell. The cause of the odor, however, was never named. As the BBC writes, Dell officials simply said that something in “the manufacturing process” caused the stench, and reassured customers that neither cats nor hazardous substances were involved.
Some users speculate that polymers could have been to blame, though others point out that nitrogen—one of the main components of urine – has been used as a strengthening agent in manufacturing for years. Here’s Autoevolution on how BMW used nitrogen-rich urine to strengthen inline 4 cylinder blocks, for example:
The interesting part about it was that the blocks were kept out in the cold and urinated upon in order to strengthen their composition.
While some may laugh at this strange solution by the German manufacturer, the urinating process is based on nitridization (a process which introduces nitrogen into the surface of a material and is widely used in automotive, mechanical and aeronautical engineering, having the property of a case hardening treatment of predominantly steel but also for titanium, aluminium and molybdenum).
Whether nitrogen has anything to do with the Dell situation remains a matter of speculation. But most users probably prefer an odor-free palm rest over a strong but smelly one.
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October 24, 2013 2:21 pm
Coral reefs are on the receiving end of the battering ram that is anthropogenic climate change. With their vibrant colors and exotic fish, they’re the poster child of ocean degradation, and they get a lot of attention because they’re on the front lines—their habitats are among the most sensitive to the warming waters. But new research, led by Jean-Baptiste Raina, has found that coral are fighting back: coral can release a chemical, dimethylsulphoniopropionate (DMSP), that helps them engineer their environment and stave off global warming.
When DMSP is released to the environment, bacteria living in the water convert it into a different related gas, dimethylsulphide (DMS). DMS, the scientists say, can control the local climate by spurring clouds to form. More DMS means more clouds, and more clouds means cooler ocean waters for the coral to live in.
The discovery marks the first time that an animal has been found to produce DMSP. Previously, scientists thought it was the algae living in the coral that made the gas, but the new research found that the coral itself can churn it out. And, perhaps more importantly, corals’ DMSP production goes up when the coral gets stressed.
The idea of “DMS-as-climate-regulator,” says Hannah Waters for her blog, Culturing Science, “rose to fame when it starred in one infamous Earth-as-organism idea—the Gaia hypothesis—just a few decades ago.”
The Gaia hypothesis, pitched by James Lovelock, is largely bunk, but dimethylsulphide’s effect on the temperature is not. “In order for clouds to form, water has to transition from a gas to liquid—and to do that, it needs a small particle in the air to adhere onto, known as a cloud condensation nucleus. Sulfur aerosols, which are easily formed from DMS, do the trick,” says Waters.
The discovery that corals can pump out dimethylsulponiopropionate, and hence DMS, say the researchers in their study, adds another reason to worry about their decline. Raina et al:
Considering declining trends in coral cover and predicted increases in coral mortality worldwide caused by anthropogenic stressors, the associated decline in sulphur aerosol production from coral reefs may further destabilize local climate regulation and accelerate degradation of this globally important and diverse ecosystem.
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October 7, 2013 1:39 pm
It’s that time of year again. The Nobel Prize announcements—what some call a “tedious inevitability” and others welcome as “the most prestigious award in the world“—are playing out this week. Love them or hate them, you’ll almost definitely find yourself, sometime this week, in a conversation where someone asks, “Wait, what did that guy do to earn that thing?” Here are the sound bytes you’ll need to sound like you’ve been paying attention:
Your eighth grade science teacher probably used the old “cells-are-like-factories” metaphor. This is because cells both produce and export products. James Rothman, Randy Schekman and Thomas Südhof discovered the cellular traffic guards that make sure all of that hustle and bustle is regulated. Schekman identified the rules of the road, or the genes needed to control the cellular comings and going; Rothman found the forklifts, or the proteins responsible for transferring cargo to vesicles in the cell; and Südhof pinpointed the traffic guard’s stop-and-go signs, or the signals that mediate when the vesicles drop off their cargo.
Last year, the Higgs boson missed out on the Nobel in physics because it was “too early,” Slate correctly predicted. But this year, the Nobel committee awarded Peter Higgs and Francois Englert the prize for their prediction that the Higgs boson—”the God particle”—exists. First predicted in 1965, the Higgs boson explains how we went from an elementary soup of Big Bang matter and chaos to an ordered systems of massive stars and planets. In March this year, the research teams at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider announced that 2012 experiments had tentatively confirmed the Higgs boson’s existence.
Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel developed computer programs that bridge in-the-lab experiments with theoretical science. Before Karplus, Levitt and Warshel came along with their fancy model, chemists faced a dilemma of having to chose between modeling chemical reactions based on Newtonian physics or on quantum physics, but not both. Using the powerful program, researchers now can simulate chemical reactions of all complexities and types and can tinker with their chemical parameters—a handy tool for creating new drugs as well as for understanding basic science.
Alice Munro, the first Canadian writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature since 1976, writes short stories, known for their ability to capture the fine resolutions of nuance that color human interactions and feelings. “She is our Chekhov,” one contemporary said.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons received the Nobel Peace Prize for its ongoing efforts to stamp out chemical weapons. The group was launched in 1997 and aims to stop the production and storage of such weapons. Most recently, OPCW was deployed to Syria following a deadly sarin gas attack in August. But the Prize is meant not only to honor those efforts but also to draw attention to the ongoing push to convince nations—including the U.S. and Russia—to disarm their own stores of chemical weapons.
Three American professors, Eugene Fama, Lars Peter Hansen and Robert Shiller, each contributed to the discovery that, even if in the short term stock prices fluctuate erratically, in the long term—over three to five years—they’re predictable.
And if discussing the specifics of the prizes simply is not your thing, you can always still get into the spirit by following journalist Ed Yong’s advice:
If you are similarly bored with Nobel hype, consider putting on a fake Swedish accent and prank-calling your colleagues.
— Ed Yong (@edyong209) October 7, 2013
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October 3, 2013 1:37 pm
Centipedes, which are formidable predators in the insect world, are also kind killers. The venom of a Chinese red-headed centipede, for instance, paralyzes their prey by blocking a sodium-ion channel, which leaves humans “indifferent to all types of pain,” researchers report in a new study. And, given that pain-blocking property, a compound derived from the venom could trump morphine as the pain killer of the future.
Researchers isolated the key centipede venom peptide and administered it to mice. The rodents were subjected to several pain tests: thermal, acid and chemical. The venom performed similarly to morphine for the thermal and acid-induced tests, and had a stronger pain-blocking effect than morphine for the chemical one. The mice, ABC Science reports, suffered no side effects from the injections.
The current study focuses on a centipede that is farmed in China for consumption, but King and his colleagues believe the findings suggest centipede venom – which has been overlooked to date – may provide a source of lead molecules for drug development.
The researchers consider the centipede-human match a lucky one. Of the nine possible sodium ion channels the venom could have affected, they told ABC Science, it happened to correspond with just the right one for numbing pain. Moreover, past efforts to block that specific channel have failed because they also impacted other sodium channels central for muscle and heart functioning.
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October 2, 2013 10:36 am
Titan, Saturn’s massive, planet-like moon, is known for its seasonal weather patterns, sand dunes akin to those found in Africa’s Namib desert and hydrocarbon lakes. Now, the second-largest moon in the Solar System has gotten even more Earth-like: it contains propylene, an ingredient used in household plastics such as Tupperware and car bumpers.
This is the first time the common Earth chemical has been found anywhere other than on our planet, NASA reports. The chemical, found in Titan’s lower atmosphere, was detected with a composite infrared spectrometer by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.
Titan’s atmosphere is mostly composted of nitrogen, followed by methane. Hydrocarbons like ethane and propane are also present. This new discovery fills in a gap in that chemical line-up, though experts suspect that many more molecular surprises await. The BBC reports, citing curious “colossal hydrocarbons” that have been detected:
When the effects of ultraviolet light are combined with the bombardment from particles driven in Saturn’s magnetic field, it becomes possible to cook up some very exotic chemistry.
Cassini’s plasma spectrometer has seen evidence for hydrocarbons with an atomic mass thousands of times heavier than a single hydrogen atom.
As for the propylene, the NASA project managers believe that ”this new piece of the puzzle will provide an additional test of how well we understand the chemical zoo that makes up Titan’s atmosphere.”
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