The Strange History of Antidepressants

Ironically, despite the horrors of war, armed conflict has a way of advancing medicine. Gruesome injuries sustained on the battlefield provide opportunities for surgeons to experiment and test new approaches for treatment. During World War II for example, blood poisoning, bronchitis, and other infectious diseases contracted by soldiers created a demand for broad spectrum antibiotics, which encouraged British scientists to find new ways to produce penicillin on a mass scale.

Sometimes, weapons of war themselves have applications other than mass destruction. Consider hydrazine (N2H4), a chemical compound that received renewed recognition by the military-industrial complex in 1937 Germany. Continue reading “The Strange History of Antidepressants”

Eating Bugs: A Diet That’s Hard to Swallow

According to a common piece of folklore, you swallowed eight spiders in your sleep last year. Urban legend or not, the very thought of spiders crawling into your mouth while you slumber likely triggers many unpleasant sensations, from mild discomfort to outright repulsion. After all, insects and spiders are gross critters that belong outside in the dirt, not inside our home. And certainly, not inside our mouths while we sleep.

…but who says they can’t also be food? Continue reading “Eating Bugs: A Diet That’s Hard to Swallow”

BEEing like a Magnet

The human body is able to obtain information about our environment in unique ways. Our eyes convert photons of reflected light into electrical and chemical signals that our brain processes into images of the world around us. Our noses are full of specialized cells that detect millions (or even trillions!) of different scents floating around in our environment: aromatic flowers, the putrescent stench of skunk, and tart citrus fruits all activate neural signaling. Our ears are specialized for detecting the compression of molecules in the air, from the deep, low frequency rumbles of 20 Hz to the piercing screams of 20,000 Hz.

The human body is able to detect photons of light, airborne chemicals, and sound waves. But there is one ever-present force to which our bodies are seemingly agnostic: magnetism. Continue reading “BEEing like a Magnet”

The Maillard Reaction: A Taste of Food Chemistry

“How come we never learned anything practical in high school?”

He placed his steak knife parallel to a grill line and began to cut along the blackened indentation atop his expertly-seared steak. In between bites, he chugged from his beer obnoxiously.

“For instance, I NEVER use chemistry,” he continued. His train of thought was interrupted by the promise of dessert as the delicious sweetness of a freshly-baked apple pie and a large pot of coffee were brought to the middle of the table.

A food scientist would immediately identify the irony at this cookout: Grilled steak, baked delicacies, beer, and coffee are all made possible because of chemistry; specifically, through a chemical reaction called the “Maillard reaction.” Continue reading “The Maillard Reaction: A Taste of Food Chemistry”