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science

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: What’s the Matter With Glass?

April 4, 2016

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If you got just one thing from your elementary school science class, it’s the fact that matter comes in three states—solid, liquid, and gas. And maybe you retained the fact that all matter will change states under the right conditions. Water, for example, takes three forms in your kitchen alone: liquid water, ice, and water vapor (steam). Nothing uncommon so far. Class dismissed.

But wait—what about glass? Solid, right? Windowpanes, drinking glasses, and tiny unicorns are all solid stuff that doesn’t go with the flow. But you may have heard that glass is actually a “super-cooled liquid.” A solid theory? Not quite. Glass is, in fact, an intermediate state of matter that your chemistry teacher probably glossed over—an amorphous solid. Informally, the term “super-cooled liquid” could describe the variable states of any kind of matter (like saying that ice is “super-cooled” water). But glass is special, stuck somewhere between liquid and solid. To us, it appears solid in every way, but on the molecular level, it’s not as clearly organized as crystals like table salt or diamond. Kind of like those people who appear to have it all together, but really, they’re in dire need of the Marie Kondo treatment.

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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: How Long is a Jiffy?

March 7, 2016

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Got a minute? Would you believe that a “jiffy” refers to an actual unit of time? Originating in the late 18th century as slang for lightning, the word was co-opted by physical chemist Gilbert Norton Lewis to describe the amount of time it takes for light to travel one centimeter in a vacuum. Needless to say, it’s faster than the blink of an eye, at about 33.3564 picoseconds. Given that lightning’s visible radiation travels at the speed of light, jiffy’s leap from nickname to nanosecond-splitting speed is a natural one. Not coincidentally, Dr. Lewis also created the now-familiar word photon to describe a unit of light—be it particle or wave. Now, if it took you more than the minute requested to read this post, you might want to work on increasing your reading speed…by a jiffy or two.

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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Do You Have a Taste for Umami?

February 22, 2016

Molecular Gastronomy Kit - Cuisine | UncommonGoods

Many of us in the west grew up believing that our sense of taste had four dimensions: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. You may recall a day in high school with a diagram of a tongue (probably on an overhead projector) showing a “map” of taste receptor regions (since debunked). Everything we ate was described by some combination of those four dimensions. Culinary case closed, right? Well, chew on this: there’s a fifth distinct taste, called umami in Japanese, long suspected by chefs but only recently confirmed by scientists. Best translated as “deliciousness” or the savory taste, it’s abundant in cured meats, cheeses, mushrooms, and certain vegetables like asparagus. Umami was identified in 1908 by Tokyo University chemist Kikunae Ikeda, who isolated the key chemical, glutamate, from the kelp used in Japanese cooking. Glutamate has since gotten a bad rap thanks to being part of the compound monosodium glutamate (MSG), a flavor-enhancer used in a lot of westernized Asian food. But as western cooks and foodies are embracing umami as the key to a culinary experience that’s more than the sum of its parts, the chemistry of glutamate is key. Glutamate is an amino acid that’s released in food through slow cooking or curing, and scientists think they know why we crave it: evolutionarily, such processes are desirable because they make potentially toxic food safer to eat. And not coincidentally, human milk has the highest concentration of glutamate in the animal kingdom, introducing many babies to the umami taste long before they can appreciate a well-aged Parmesan.

Molecular Gastronomy Kit – Cuisine | $49-65

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Do Blondes Have More Fun When They’re Lions?

December 14, 2015

Lion Booties | UncommonGoods

Unfortunately, no. Blonde lions don’t have much fun at all. For a long time, biologists were stumped about the subtle nuances in a lion’s mane. They knew they could factor in to mating, but other than vanity, what message did they send? Turns out the color and length of a lion’s mane can alter dramatically in a short time, depending on nourishment, habitat, and testosterone levels. When a male lion is going through a rough patch, his mane will be lighter. This sends a message to potential mates that now might not be the best time. To see how this manifested itself, researchers set up lion dummies in a habitat, each outfitted with a different mane—from the healthy and long darker manes to short and light. They then blasted the sounds of hyenas at a kill to act as a dinner bell to the lions. Nine times out of ten, the female lions gathered around the long, dark-maned lion. Yet another win for tall, dark, and handsome.

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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: What Kind of Water Freezes Fastest?

December 13, 2015

Cocktail Ice Mold Set | UncommonGoods

If you said “cold,” you’re actually getting colder. Unlike any other compound known to science, water has an irregular depression curve, which means that it becomes a solid—ice—more readily at a warmer temperature than at a few degrees colder. First noticed by Aristotle in the 4th century BCE, and also pointed out later by Francis Bacon and René Descartes, this quirky property is now known as the Mpemba Effect, named for the Tanzanian student who studied its influence on ice cream freezing in 1963. Since then, researchers have found that the phenomenon is due to a complex interplay between the covalent bonds that hold one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms together (forming water), and the weaker hydrogen bonds that hold water molecules together. This counterintuitive “sweet spot” for freezing water means that you should use warm water (not hot) in your ice cube trays if you’re in a hurry. It’s also part of the reason why hockey rink Zambonis use warm water to resurface the ice in between periods. So if you’re still waiting for that cold water to solidify, water you waiting for?

Cocktail Ice Mold Set | $20

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Has a Snowflake Ever Met its Match?

December 11, 2015

Snow Gauge | UncommonGoods

You may have heard the conventional wisdom that no two snowflakes are alike—the mind-boggling notion that every single one of the billions of snowflakes that fall on the earth each year is, well, special. While this observation is essentially true, the devil’s in the tiny, crystalline details. Basically, there’s nothing in the natural laws that govern the formation of these little beauties that says they have to be one-of-a-kind. They’re all made of water molecules that crystallize in the atmosphere with a characteristic hexagonal geometry. In 1988, Nancy Knight, a researcher for the National Center for Atmospheric Research, reported finding two flakes of the hollow column type captured from a Wisconsin snowstorm that were a visual match. The thing is, even that extremely rare pair was different on the atomic level. In other words, while it’s possible for two flakes to have an identical arrangement of water molecules, it’s not exactly probable, and ultimately impossible to verify. So if the notion of special snowflakes is frozen in your mind, you should just let it go…

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Uncommon Knowledge: How Broad is the Side of a Barn?

December 8, 2015

Barn Wood USA Side Table | UncommonGoods

What’s the latest discovery in particle physics? The fact that physicists actually have a whimsical sense of humor. For one thing, the vocabulary of this esoteric field includes the quirky term “barn.” It’s a minuscule unit of measurement based on the cross-sectional area of a uranium nucleus and describes the tiny target for colliding nuclear particles. But why “barn” for something so…much smaller than a barn? It’s derived from the old saying that someone “couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn,” riffing on the difficulty of shooting charged particles at the world’s smallest bullseye.  Bonus fact: there are two minor measurement terms related to “barn” which follow the farm building metaphor—an “outhouse,” and a “shed.” Could be “chicken coop” was already taken by the guys over in nanotechnology.

Barn Wood USA Side Table | $198

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: What puts the “X” in “X-Ray”?

November 30, 2015

uk_113015Sure, there are rays involved, but why the X? The X-ray came to be almost by accident as professor Wilhelm Roentgen was experimenting with the conduction of electricity through low-pressure gases in 1895—as one does during a quiet evening at home. While using an induction coil and partially evacuated glass tube, he discovered a mysterious ray capable of lighting up a fluorescent screen a few meters away. When he passed his hand between the ray and the screen, he saw a shadow of his own bones. Rather than freaking out and questioning the meaning of life, as we’re sure we would have done, he calmly continued his experiment and found that the screen could be replaced with a photographic plate—thus beginning a revolutionary milestone in modern medicine. So why the x? To math lovers, it would seem obvious: x is used as the unknown quantity. And what could have been more unknown at that time than the inner workings of our own bodies?

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