Welcome to the Distillations blog, your weekly source for stories at the intersection of science, culture, and history. For more great Distillations content, sign up for our magazine and subscribe to our podcast.
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.
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.
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.
Highly active antiretroviral drugs have turned HIV, once a death sentence, into a chronic manageable disease. But many people living with HIV, particularly the young, don’t take their medication properly—despite grave consequences for themselves and society. Watch this Distillations video to learn how Philadelphians live with HIV. You can find more videos here.
Ceremonies are usually held in honor of people or events, but today, April 30, a ceremony is being held for a curve. It’s not just any old curve, though; it’s the curve that woke the world up to the dangers of climate change. Since 1957, atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels have been measured at Mauna Loa in Hawaii, a project started by Charles Keeling. The curve part of Keeling’s data is what caught people’s attention, because it was moving in one direction only: up. Keeling’s data provided the first long-term evidence that humans were steadily increasing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Until Keeling’s curve scientists had assumed that most if not all of the human-produced CO2 would be absorbed by the oceans.
Today we monitor the earth’s vital signs much like we would a patient in hospital, but back in the 1950s this was the Next Big Thing. The massive data-collection projects that began in 1957 as part of the International Geophysical Year were less concerned with measuring the earth’s health than in providing a baseline against which changes could be measured. This was a time of atmospheric nuclear testing, when militaries exploded bombs in the upper atmosphere to create artificial radiation belts. Scientists and Cold War planners wanted a before snapshot of the earth so they could measure the changes made by human activity and even predict the effects of World War III.
Lucky for us we never had to deal with the effects of World War III, but the data that came from preparing for the war that never happened alerted us to what may well be the defining issue of the 21st century: climate change.
May’s Distillations podcast will look at Cold War scientific research and the kind of influence it had on our understanding of the earth and on the development of the environmental movement. Watch this short video to get more of the story behind the Keeling curve.
More than two thirds of California is in “extreme” or “exceptional” drought this year, according to the University of Nebraska’s drought monitor website. The irony that California borders the Pacific Ocean, which contains 187 quintillion gallons of undrinkable water, is not lost on scientists and legislators. The drought has forced them to get creative. They are now turning to the ocean to save the state.
The state of California is pumping money into building new desalination plants and putting old plants back on line that will remove the salt from seawater to make it drinkable. Through a process called reverse osmosis, salty water is pushed through a series of dense membranes with holes wide enough for water molecules but too small for salt molecules. If all goes according to plan, the largest desalination plant in the United States will open in 2016 and supply San Diego County with 50 million gallons of fresh water every day.
Dry countries, such as Israel and Australia, have operated large desalination plants for years. Today nearly 40% of Israel’s drinking water is produced by desalination. Much more of it is recycled; Israel reuses half of its treated waste water to quench the thirst of the agricultural sector, an industry that guzzles most of the available water in any region. Critics of California’s new desalination plants point to the millions of gallons of sewage and waste water flushed into the ocean that could be treated to water crops.
Opponents of desalination plants also believe that the amount of energy required to push water through membranes is not only too costly for customers, but is too costly for the environment. Climate change is partly to blame for the current drought, so pumping even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to run these plants will exacerbate droughts in the future. Desalination plants also have more immediate adverse effects on local marine ecology, particularly from wastewater, a highly concentrated brine that is ejected back into the ocean.
Still, California isn’t left with many options. Ground water reserves are being depleted at an alarming rate, primarily to sustain California’s agricultural sector. Deeper wells are not only cutting off sources of surface water and older, shallower wells; rapidly falling water tables are causing sinkholes that are destabilizing infrastructure across the state.
It’s clear that California’s water shortage can’t be solved by better management and conservation alone, but desalination plants are merely delaying the inevitable. California needs to combine a number of strategies and come to terms with the fact that a changing climate might mean severe drought is here to stay.
The Hubble Space Telescope was launched 25 years ago today. Rumor has it that whale oil was used to lubricate its internal moving parts. Was whale oil ever actually sent into space? Read this article from our magazine to find out.
One hundred years ago today, a small unit of German soldiers lugged more than 5,000 90-pound steel cylinders into the small Belgium town of Ypres. After unscrewing the caps, they turned and ran as fast as they could upwind. As the contents of the cylinders seeped out and crept across the war-torn fields, a handful of German soldiers breathed it in by mistake. The gas from the cylinders touched their eyes and mouth, transforming from chlorine gas into deadly hypochlorous acid. The acid burned through their skin and eventually killed those who inhaled the largest doses.
The breeze carried the clouds of yellow and green chlorine gas from the town to the Allied line of French troops a few miles away. Thousands of soldiers fled as their eyes burned and throats contracted. Anyone unable to climb out of the gas-filled trenches was almost certain to die. This was the Second Battle of Ypres, the first time chemical weapons were used effectively on a large scale.
The French were not prepared for the deadly efficiency of the gas, but neither were the Germans. The small force sent to release the gas was too weak to take advantage of the hole carved out of the French defense. In a war defined by years of stalemates, a better-coordinated first attack could have been disastrous for the Allies.