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    The mighty Tremoctopus. Behold!

    And here’s some folks reacting to the blanket octopus (on what appears to be a Japanese game show?):

    Here’s a strange thing that actually exists. Check out the latest issue of Distillations magazine for the history of even stranger creatures you can believe or not.

    What’s sweet and what’s non-fattening are usually different things, but in 1878 a chemist accidentally discovered a way to have both. Constantin Fahlberg was eating dinner after an exhausting day in the lab when he noticed that his bread tasted sweeter than usual. Tracing the source of the sweetness to his fingers, he returned to the lab to sample every vial and dish until he matched the taste with a beaker of benzoic sulfinide. While Fahlberg’s method was neither advisable nor safe, it did lead to the discovery of an artificial substance 300 times sweeter than sugar. He named it saccharin.

    Throughout the next century, more artificial sweeteners were developed, including the highly controversial aspartame. In 1965 James M. Schlatter was trying to synthesize an anti-ulcer drug when he licked his finger, accidentally discovering aspartame in the process. Artificial sweeteners allowed companies to produce products that are sweet, like diet soda, but without the calories associated with sugar.

    Saccharin and aspartame are both viewed with distrust by segments of the public, even though both substances are approved by the FDA. In the 1970s animal studies linked saccharin to cancer in rats. Today, scientists recognize that saccharin poses no health risks in small quantities.

    Aspartame is supposedly dangerous for a different reason; when digested, it breaks down into formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Formaldehyde occurs naturally in all kinds of foods and in small amounts helps the body produce amino acids and other beneficial molecules. And, according to the CDC, plants and animals, including us humans, naturally produce small amounts of the carcinogen. As the video above points out, there is five times as much formaldehyde in 12 ounces of juice as there is in a 12 ounce can of artificially sweetened soda.

    If you’re looking for a slightly healthier way to enjoy sweet foods, artificial sweeteners won’t hurt you. Just don’t follow the examples of Fahlberg and Schlatter; an unknown chemical in a laboratory is unlikely to be sweet and delicious.

    By Jacob Roberts

    Video: Is Aspartame Safe? produced by the American Chemical Society.

    A Lunch Out of this World

    At a recent convention lunch I got an astronomical surprise. BIO, the organizer, does things big. These lunches have about 3,000 attendees and are meticulously scheduled. I’ve seen The Schedule firsthand, and it’s a work of organizational mastery. So when a speaker announced he’d have to return later with the rest of his scheduled remarks, I raised an eyebrow. They’re deviating from The Schedule. Something is happening.

    Greg Johnson, former astronaut, took the stage. “How fun! An astronaut!” I thought. NASA had a booth this year and idly I wondered if Johnson would be there later. His words brought me back to earth: We’re about to connect via satellite to the International Space Station, he told us.

    People murmured. Eyes widened. The video screens changed to show the communications room in Houston, where two NASA employees sat at a bank of computers. Their voices echoed through our Philadelphia hall as they connected us to Scott Kelly, currently in orbit on the International Space Station.

    Johnson and Kelly spoke about the experiments going on ISS, and why science is so important. The audience sat spellbound. At the end Kelly said farewell, slid his feet out from whatever had been keeping him upright, and did a zero-g flip for us.

    What can I say? It was out of this world.

    Sarah Reisert

    Image: Bio 2015. Keynote With Eric Topol.

    The greatest catastrophic environmentalist of all was Richard Nixon.

    Historian Jacob Hamblin made this provocative claim while recording the latest Distillations podcast. While Nixon is remembered for a corrupt administration and for political and military blunders during the Vietnam War, Hamblin wanted to remind listeners that as president Nixon passed a surprising amount of environmental legislation. He created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, signed the Endangered Species Act of 1973, proposed the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, and even tried to turn NATO into an environmental organization.

    Why would Nixon push NATO, an intergovernmental military alliance, to protect the environment? According to Hamblin, Nixon wanted to use global environmental issues to open up communications with the Soviet Union and so ease tensions during the Cold War. He saw large-scale environmental issues as foreign policy opportunities. For example, acid rain caused by coal-burning power plants in the United States made some lakes in Canada uninhabitable for fish. That problem could only be solved with international collaboration. Unfortunately for Nixon, the world was more interested in talking about the use of herbicides, like Agent Orange, by the United States in Vietnam.

    Nixon’s plan backfired when his own allies in NATO rejected it. Many European countries viewed environmental issues as local rather than global problems and were skeptical that a military alliance was an appropriate venue for environmental problem solving.

    Nixon’s motivation to protect the environment was not entirely pure: endorsing environmental legislation would earn him votes and distract the public from the Vietnam War. He believed in the power of environmentalism as a tool, but not as an ideology. His true beliefs were caught on tape in the Oval Office in 1971. In a private meeting with the president and chairman of Ford Motor Company, Nixon said that it would be impossible to eliminate all pollution unless everyone wanted to “go back and live like a bunch of damned animals.”

    Nixon’s ideas about global environmentalism proved to be prescient. Over the past few decades it has become abundantly clear that climate and politics are intertwined on an international scale. Drought in the Middle East helped spark the ongoing Syrian disaster, which has driven nine million from their homes, some to neighboring countries and some as far as to Europe.

    By Jacob Roberts

    Image: Richard Nixon walking on the beach at San Clemente, California in 1971. (Wikimedia Commons)

    In the late 1970s after the end of the Vietnam War, many Vietnamese and Laotian people began noticing that a sticky yellow liquid periodically rained down from otherwise sunny skies. Witnesses claimed the strange substance killed plants and sickened people.

    One ethnic group seemed especially affected by the substance: the Hmong, who had fought with France against Communists in Southeast Asia since the 1950s in the sparsely developed mountains in northern Vietnam and Laos. The CIA later recruited and mobilized Hmong soldiers, making them the target of sectarian violence when U.S. troops left the region. The newly empowered Communist regimes attacked the remaining Hmong, forcing them to flee to refugee camps in Thailand or face labor and reeducation camps in their home countries.

    After a lengthy investigation U.S. analysts concluded in 1981 that the substance, dubbed “yellow rain,” was a chemical weapon made of fungus toxins and created by the Soviet Union. The U.S. secretary of state at the time, Alexander Haig, Jr., announced that the Soviet Union gave the weapon to the Viet Cong and Pathet Lao, who dropped it on the Hmong (and other ethnic groups) in their villages and while they fled to refugee camps.

    If the Soviet Union was really stockpiling and distributing chemical and biological weapons, it would have been breaking a century of international laws and treaties. The Soviets denied the accusations vehemently and soon found an unlikely ally:  Matt Meselson, a Harvard University biologist.

    Meselson was skeptical of the claims made by Haig and in 1983 acquired samples of yellow rain from government officials in order to analyze them at Cambridge. Meselson found that the substance included large amounts of hollowed-out pollen indigenous to Southeast Asia. This alone made Haig’s claims seem dubious: pollen would be an extremely ineffective dispersal method for poison. Meselson’s team realized the pollen was the same pollen eaten by giant Asian honey bees, which digest the protein inside pollen grains but not the outer shell, hollowing it out. Furthermore the team found that the concentration of mycotoxins was not significantly greater in samples of yellow rain–covered leaves than on plants anywhere else in Southeast Asia.

    If U.S. officials were correct, the Soviet Union would be importing tons of predigested pollen from Southeast Asia, only to turn around and send that same pollen back as a difficult-to-disperse chemical weapon. Meselson proposed a simpler explanation: yellow rain was no weapon at all—it was harmless bee feces. The health problems being reported were the result of poor sanitation and lack of food among people being bombed and raided by Communist soldiers. It’s still a sore subject among the Hmong, but Meselson theorized that the connection between yellow rain and sickness was part hyperbole, part imagination.

    After reviewing the original study done by U.S. investigators, Meselson’s team found inconsistencies and contradictions in the testimony of people who witnessed yellow rain. The liquid sometimes rained down when there wasn’t a plane in sight. Most of the health problems could be explained by dysentery and nutritional deficiencies in refugee camps. It also became clear that the original interviewers had asked leading questions and unconsciously manipulated testimonies.

    Meselson’s findings were initially met with skepticism by other scientists and the U.S. government. It would take thousands of bees to make enough waste to look like rain. Why would so many bees be in such specific locations and why would they be pooping at the same time?

    In 1989 a Canadian biologist teamed up with a Malaysian scientist to solve the puzzle. The most revealing detail of yellow rain was when it tended to fall: hot, sunny days. The scientists measured the body mass of hundreds of bees before they left their hives and after they came back, finding that the insects lost 20% of their weight on the return flight. The bees would usually leave together in a giant swarm, defecate, and come back to care for their larvae. The scientists confirmed that the phenomenon occurred most frequently on hot days.

    Why were they excreting more on hot days? Asian honey bee larvae are sensitive to high temperatures and become deformed if they overheat.  The adult bees needed to reduce their mass so they could keep their larvae cool inside the hive. This and later research led to the general acceptance of Meselson’s explanation, although the U.S. government never retracted the original accusations against the Soviet Union.

    By Jacob Roberts

    Image: A 1678 plate depicting a beekeeper’s hive from Vinetum britannicum by John Worlidge. (Othmer Library)

    Distillations Podcast: Acts of God, Acts of Men

    Mother Nature can do a lot of damage. Tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and droughts destroy landscapes and ruin lives. But what happens when humans are the ones creating these disasters? This episode of Distillations explores the many ways humans have provoked nature’s destructive forces purposefully and inadvertently through history.

    Our journey begins in Oklahoma, a state that now has more earthquakes than California. Reporter Anna Stitt talks to the people affected by these new quakes and finds out how their lives have changed.

    Then we talk to historian Jacob Darwin Hamblin about his latest book, Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism. He tells us how Cold War military planners sought to use the environment as a weapon and in the process discovered how vulnerable our planet really is.

    Listen to more Disillations on our website.

    By Mariel Carr

    George M. Whitesides is widely considered one of the most influential chemists living today. Last fall, Distillations talked to the Harvard professor about his use of biophysics, molecular electronics, microfluidics, and soft robotics to create practical solutions for real-world problems.

    For more from Whitesides, watch our video of his 2014 Ullyot Public Affairs Lecture here.

    Allergies to natural latex affect about 3 million Americans. Life can be complicated for those people when they have to stay in hospitals where gloves, syringes, bandages, and intravenous tubes usually contain natural rubber. These folks also have to get creative with contraception; most condoms are also made from natural rubber.

    A protein named prohevein is the source of all this aggravation, and it’s found in the most common source of latex, the rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis). While many synthetic alternatives have been developed and are in use today, none have entirely imitated natural rubber. If you want a material stretchy enough to mold into a glove and strong enough to put into an airplane’s tires, only natural rubber will do.

    Luckily there’s a plant that can produce natural-rubber latex without the irritating proteins found in rubber trees. Guayule (Parthenium argentatum Gray) is a small, spindly shrub native to the American southwest. It can be grown in regions where the rubber tree would die, and its hypoallergenic properties give it an instant market. But getting at guayule’s rubber is much more complicated than tapping rubber trees, which when punctured leak latex like a spigot. With guayule the rubber molecules have to be chemically separated from the plant cells.

    Historian Mark Finlay wrote about how Japanese American scientists imprisoned in internment camps during World War II developed a process to extract the latex molecules from guayule plants. When the war ended and access to rubber-growing regions was restored, the guayule plant was mostly forgotten.

    Now scientists are considering it again because access to rubber trees is easily hampered by climate and politics in the only region where they grow: the tropics. Such unpredictability means a handful of companies now see visions of green in the desert shrub. These companies are working to scale up rubber extraction to industrial proportions. And guayule is not the lone alternative. In Europe, rubber manufacturers are experimenting with the Russian dandelion, which is also hypoallergenic and can be grown in cold climates.

    By Jacob Roberts

    Image: A truck being loaded with guayule in Salinas Valley, CA in 1942. (Library of Congress)

    CHF Museum Dance-Off 2015

    Our museum just won the Judge’s Choice for Best Mission Narrative at the Museum Dance-Off Video Contest!  



    Selections from 1944 and 1945 editions of the Hercules Powder Company employee newsletter, The Hercules Mixer, honoring employees serving in the armed forces and Hercules’ contributions of the war effort. Happy Veterans Day to all who have served and continue to serve our country and those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. 

    Today marks the 70th anniversary of V-E or Victory in Europe Day commemorating Germany’s surrender to Allied forces on May 8, 1945. Chemical companies like Dow and the Hercules Powder Company contributed significantly to the war effort, both in terms of munitions and manpower, as evident in these selections from The Hercules Mixer.

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