Simply Science: Ricin

Screen Shot 2013-04-10 at 12.01.31 PM

All us informed news-savvy Hoyas hold ricin attacks in recent memory. And if there’s anything you want to read about during finals week, it’s poison. But what exactly is ricin and how is it dangerous?

Ricin is a protein with two chains that can be derived from castor beans, the seeds of the castor oil plant (Ricinus communis). Eating just eight of these beans could prove lethal to an adult, making it the world’s most poisonous plant according to the Guinness Book of World Records. However, it would take only 2,000 milligrams of this protein, when purified, to kill an adult.

Castor Beans
Castor Beans

Ricin targets the human ribosomes (a.k.a. the protein-makers of the cells). The first protein chain breaks open the ribosomal wall while the second enters it and inhibits protein synthesis.

Needless to say, it’s hard for a human body to live/operate without protein (that’s why you vegetarians/vegans need to be careful!). In order for the ricin to take effect, it has to enter the bloodstream through injection, ingestion or (if the ricin is sufficiently powdery) inhalation.

In the context of recent events, Dan Brown, a nutritional toxicologist at Cornell, says that ricin placed in an envelope, “isn’t much of a weapon.” Anthrax, a bacteria, is extremely dangerous when inhaled, but ricin, a plant-based compound, must be inhaled directly and for a long span of time to put one’s health at risk. He says that letter openers would have had to place their faces directly into the envelopes to experience negative effects. Ingestion is the real risk.

So, Hoyas, as long as you avoid eating random white powdery substances or consuming castor beans that come in them ail, you’re fine. No promises about Leo’s beans, though …



Simply Science is a reoccurring post that aims to make recent scientific discoveries accessible and applicable to the Georgetown student.

Simply Science: Elevator Behavior

Screen Shot 2013-04-10 at 12.01.31 PM

Yeah, I see you … taking the ICC elevator from floor two to floor three. Or worse, from floor three to floor two.

Many of us consider the elevator a blessing, and sometimes this blessing introduces us to different people: professors fighting about something you don’t understand, a person on the phone annoying the hell out of you with details of his/her afternoon, that awkward dude that gets on thinking that the elevator is going up when it’s really going down, etc.

One scientist, Ph.D. candidate Rebekah Rousi, spent days just riding up and down various elevators, trying to sort out what sort of trends in behavior there are. She discovered something unexpected; there were identifiable trends going on (the causes of which are still being studied).

She realized that “more senior men in particular seem to direct themselves towards the back of the elevator cabins,” while younger guys took up the middle, and in the front women (of all ages). She determined that there was no common logic to this. For example, it wasn’t segregation by age or height. So what was it?

Apparently, the elevator world’s male demographic hosts a distinctly predatory population. People in the back, of course, are better able to see other people in the elevator. Men will tend to look at side and door mirrors to check out other passengers and themselves (and tend to not care about being indiscreet).

Women on the other hand tend to avoid eye contact and only look in the mirrors to check out other elevator-goers when with other women. Rousi theorizes that this might have to do with some gender-driven power structure. The older more “senior” men stood in the back while the younger men flocked to the less powerful middle positions.

She admits that it’s plausibly something else. Perhaps it’s just a matter of bolder people standing in the back, and certain people with fewer qualms about displaying their vanity in public. All in all, we really don’t know … which makes it all the more exciting!

Akari Kubo (SFS ’14) says, “That study is BS. In this day and age everyone just looks at their smartphones.”  Tell us what you think of elevator behavior in the comment section while you’re riding down to the lobby from the second floor of New South.



Simply Science is a reoccurring post that aims to make recent scientific discoveries accessible and applicable to the Georgetown student.

Simply Science: Frizzy Hair

Screen Shot 2013-04-10 at 12.01.31 PM

I see right through you all, Hoyas. You all seem so happy about the recent change in weather: the warmth, the birds, the flowers. We have flocked to the “Healy Beach” (an apparently taboo term) , to the esplanade, and to that unnamed patio in between Regents and Hariri (ideas?). But, we cannot ignore the inevitable calamity that approaches: frizzy hair.

Hair connoisseur and fellow Hoya Emily Schuster (COL ’13), who reportedly washes her hair EVERY day, said, “My hair doesn’t get ‘curly-hair frizzy’, but it slowly elevates…” “Like a lion’s mane,” adds Kyra Adams (SFS ’16), another hair enthusiast.

You can sense the frizzy-hair-induced-terror in their words.

Patrick Ewing isn’t concerned about frizziness…

No matter what type of frizzy we experience, we still beg the question: WHY? Why are we cursed with such a horrid first world problem? Most of us realize that frizziness is somehow related to humidity; in fact, you can even construct a hygrometer with hair (Here’s a link to the definition of hygrometer). But here’s some more info.

Bundles of long keratin strands are a huge part of hair’s composition. Two different chemical bonds are formed between these strands: disulfide bonds and hydrogen bonds. Disulfide bonds are permanent, and are unaffected by humidity. Hydrogen bonds, on the other hand, are weak and very susceptible to the polar properties of other hydrogen.

Have you ever noticed that if you let your hair dry in a weird shape after a shower it can stay that way? The water actually breaks the hydrogen bonds in you’re hair, and they are reformed when your hair dries. These newly formed bonds can preserve the form of your hair when it dries.

A similar thing happens with humidity. There’s more water in the air, which means there’s more hydrogen. This messes with the bonds in your hair, causing you’re hair to go crazy. So not only do you have chemistry to blame for the delayed Cherry Blossom blooming, but for frizzy hair too. But don’t hate on chemistry; the same science is responsible for Burnett’s and baked goods.

Yet again, we see first-hand why Patrick Ewing is a brilliant man—he’s frizzy hair free.



Simply Science is a reoccurring post that aims to make recent scientific discoveries accessible and applicable to the Georgetown student.







Simply Science: Cherry Blossom Chem

As Spring cometh, it brings with it the beautiful Cherry Blossoms of DC (and allergy attacks). This weekend marks the last days of the National Cherry Blossom Festival.

What many people may not realize is how relatively late these famous flowers bloomed this year. We saw their peak in the past few days (April 6-April 10), which is defined as when 70% or more of the Blossoms are blooming. The peak can last up to two weeks, and this year’s is the latest in recent memory. (Last year’s was on March 20, and the latest ever was on April 18, 1958). But why is this year’s so late?Travel Cherry Blossom Festival

Many of us understand that it is because of the cold spring that late blooming occurs — but many of us aren’t really sure why this is true. It is no secret to my close friends that chemistry is my favorite science, and it is precisely because every living thing is driven by it (including Cherry Blossoms). A general rule is that chemical reaction rates double for every increase in 18ºF, due to an increase in particle interaction. The blooms are driven by chemical reactions and are highly affected by temperature. Blooming times can even vary depending on where you are in the city.

Cherry trees are able to survive the unforgiving DC winters (unlike some of my SoCal friends) and are brought out of dormancy by rising temperatures. I’m sure you’re aware that our Spring weather hasn’t been very typical. But, there may be an upside to the delayed blooms! If a cherry blossom is exposed to high temperatures it will immediately bloom and last 4-5 days. However, prolonged colder temperatures may slow blooming times and nearly double the length of blooming times. Yay!

So get out there, Hoyas, and enjoy the last days of the Festival. See the beauty of science bloom right before you eyes.



Simply Science is a reoccurring post that aims to make recent scientific discoveries accessible and applicable to the Georgetown student.

Simply Science: Why Meat Loaf Helps You Stay in Shape

Every morning I take a 10-mile run and immerse myself in the musical stylings of Kelly Clarkson for an hour or two. Actually, that’s completely false (just the first part), but I thought it was a fitting intro to this article about the relationships between music and working out.

Areas of research on workout music have been expanding in the past years. Many people acknowledge that they have a better experience working out to certain jams, but many don’t consider that their favorite workout playlist might actually be improving their workout performance.

Research has found that when listening to music, “people run father, bike longer and swim faster than usual.” Meatloaf_Program-297x300

The effect of any type of music varies with each respective person. Commonly, people find that songs with faster beats and more bass help them to “get pumped” (Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, III is my personal favorite). Though tempo is one of the main considerations when it comes to workout music, there are other factors that one should consider when determining an optimal workout selection. One of these factors is what scientists call “rhythm response”—basically a fancy way of saying “how much a song makes someone want to jitterbug” (or twerk…if you’re into that). Sometimes a person’s motivation might even be dependent on how much he or she identifies with the singer’s emotions.  It’s all really subjective.

Some psychologists, though, hypothesize that people have a natural preference for songs with rhythms of frequency 2 hertz, or 120 beats per minute. People often settle into rhythms of 120 bpm when walking or tapping their fingers. An analysis, “…of more than 74,000 popular songs produced between 1960 and 1990 found that 120 bpm was the most prevalent pulse.” 2 beats per second just seems like a rhythm that we, as humans, innately gravitate (and groove) towards. When running, however, 180 bpm appears to be the preference. Don’t be so eager to transform your playlists, though: research suggests that anything over 145 bpm doesn’t really do anything more for those abs—sort of like how any sunscreen over SPF 45 is somewhat trivially labeled.

To many scientists, “getting pumped” simply doesn’t suffice as a reason why music helps us exercise. Researchers have found that music specifically contributes to our ability to exercise more effectively by distracting us from pain and fatigue, elevating our mood, increasing our endurance, reducing perceived effort, and perhaps even promoting our metabolic efficiency.

Just for the record, Paradise by the Dashboard Light happens to be 180 bpm. For more (however inferior) 180 bpm song suggestions, go here.

The bottom line, though: Meat Loaf is a great diet choice.


Simply Science is a reoccurring post that aims to make recent scientific discoveries accessible and applicable to the Georgetown student.

Simply Science: Anti-Drone Spring Fashion

Screen Shot 2013-01-30 at 12.24.09 AM

It’s that time of year again: the air is warmer, the birds are chirping, the vernal equinox approaches, and there was a freak downpour that turned Healy Lawn into a marshland. It’s almost Spring. And you know what that means, my fellow science nerds: Spring fashion. Now, I can’t claim to know anything about fashion, but I know an awesome metalized fabric burqa when I see one. This week’s Simply Science: what happens when anti-drone technology meets apparel?

Due to the US government’s increased work on plans to expand its use of surveillance drones in domestic airspace, a man named Adam Harvey has produced a politically-charged line of clothing—Stealth Ware—designed to protect privacy-conscious citizens from surveillance by unmanned drones. Metals, as we know, are generally good at absorbing and scattering infrared light. To simplify that: in essence, Harvey’s material holds in body heat that would have otherwise shown up on drones’ infrared cameras. Let’s take a quick look at how it’s made:stealth-wear-burqa2_large

  1. Woven fabric is coated with a precious metal that helps copper bind to the fiber
  2. The fabric is then submerged in a copper sulfate bath and dried.
  3. Finally, it is dipped in a nickel sulfamate bath to make the material more durable.

After all this, you get a bendable material that masks infrared radiation and electromagnetic interference. Though this treatment makes the material markedly heavier, it adds a certain flair to your Spring wardrobe with a coating of copper, nickel, and silver. They make four different pieces: a burqa ($2236), a “hoodie” ($469), a scarf ($551), and a visor ($52).* So it looks like you can put a price on beauty. And sure, you might even be able to put a price on privacy. But when it’s beauty and privacy combined within a silvery weird-but-dazzling garment…well, for everything else there’s MasterCard.

*All prices at current exchange rate.


Simply Science is a reoccurring post that aims to make recent scientific discoveries accessible and applicable to the Georgetown student.

Simply Science: Cocaine-Cola

Screen Shot 2013-01-30 at 12.24.09 AM

Soda. Some of you have given it up for lent, some of you have given it up for life. But to me, there’s nothing like an ice-cold Coca-Cola. Speaking of Coca-Cola, ever hear of the unequivocally idiotic myth of cocaine once existing in Coca-Cola? Well, lately I’ve discovered that its idiocy is not so unequivocal (smooth segue, I know).

In fact, before Coca-Cola was Coca-Cola it was Pemberton’s French Wine Coca. Yes, that’s right, it was a combination of alcohol and cocaine that promised to be a “most wonderful invigorator of sexual organs” (and you thought Four-Loko was extreme…).  It was marketed as a panacea—just in case, here’s the definition. The good folks down in Georgia, though, had the good sense to ban it. No, not because of its concentration of the now illegal class-A drug, but because of the alcohol. An early local prohibition marked the end of the Wine Coca era in Georgia. Try to find that kind of info in a textbook.

The Company replaced the alcohol with sugar syrup in 1903 and bada-bing, bada-boom, you have today’s drink. “But wait, 4E, what about coca-cola-ad-1886the ecgonine alkaloid in the coca plant?” (a.k.a “Are we still drinking cocaine?”). Rest assured, we are no longer drinking cocaine. If we were, Pepsi would be out of business. In the magical land of the New Jersey industrial landscape, there exists a chemical processing facility that extracts all of these psychoactive elements of the coca plant.  So yeah, our favorite soft drink has coca plant in it, but no more gutter glitter.

“But why, 4E, why did they ever decide to remove the ecgonine alkaloid (sometimes referred to as Merchandise No. 5) from Coke so early?” Well, indeed, cocaine did remain legal until 1914 (11 years after the change). Apparently the hypersexual side-effects of the cocaine produced a marked increase in interracial rape, which was something the racist (and, it goes without saying, anti-rape) turn-of-the-century society would not tolerate.

We find that one of today’s most beloved beverages is actually primarily a result of a localized prohibition and overpowering social pressures. Coca-cola has more history than we sometimes realize. Next time you’re poppin’ open a bottle of the caramel-colored sugary refreshment, think about it.

*Disclaimer: Just because Coke no longer contains Lady Snow does not mean it cannot be addictive.


*Simply Science is a reoccurring post that aims to make recent scientific discoveries accessible and applicable to the Georgetown student.

Simply Science: 10 Million Years of Drinking

Screen Shot 2013-01-30 at 12.24.09 AM

There comes a time in every young Hoya’s life when, after a series of stunning beer pong victories or Macho Man dominance, one begins to question whom to thank for prodigious drinking abilities. Should you praise the benevolent gods after a flawless shotgun? Perhaps you should pour one out as a gift for Irish ancestors watching from the Great Pub in the Sky? Maybe you have no one to thank but your own sweat and tears, blood and pain, puke and rallies (Editor’s Note: I call it a ‘Boot and Re-boot’) that have made you the champion you are today. These, friend, are the questions that haunt our walks to Rhino.

Luckily for us, the brave men and women of science have resolved to take this mystery back to the tap, er … I mean, source. In a study presented last week to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (oh yeah, nod and smile like you’re on their email list), Stephen Benner traced the ability to process alcohol back to a common ancestor between humans, chimps and gorillas; an ancient relative that got tipsy 10 million years ago.

Burnett’s never goes down smoothly

Here’s the story: When some primates decided to get off their high horses (trees) and start spending time with the terrestrial folk, fruit that had been fermenting on the ground became a viable snack option. Fermentation turns sugar into ethanol, and ethanol is then digested by a special enzyme in your esophagus, stomach and intestines. As ethanol is the type of alcohol found in beer, wine and spirits (a generous term for the crap you buy at Wagner’s), having an enzyme that can metabolize it is crucial to the success of your Mason Inn adventure. So how did these tricky scientists figure it out? They started by comparing ADH4, the enzyme humans have for ethanol breakdown, with the versions of this enzyme found in other primates. By mapping the genes corresponding with the enzyme onto the primate family tree, they were able to see that a functional version of ADH4 (aka the ability to handle ethanol) appears on the branch that leads to chimps, gorillas and even that drunk girl throwing up in John Carroll’s lap.

So next time you emerge from a pregame standing tall and walking (almost) straight, take heart in the fact that a 10 million year old ape with a taste for rotten fruit is smiling down on you; after all, you and your enzymes are living out his legacy.


Simply Science: Vote to Name a Moon or Two

Screen Shot 2013-01-30 at 12.24.09 AM

Ah, Pluto. It brings back memories of my favorite middle school planetary acronym, “My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas.” In 2003, though, something about Pluto’s size and location made astronomers at the International Astronomical Union uncomfortable and led them to reclassify it as a dwarf planet, a fact we astronomical sentimentalists too often lament. That’s right, no more pizza; now she’s just making nachos.

But, that is old news. Pluto has had some limelight lately on some of the top science news websites with an exciting new opportunity for the average internet-goer. In 2011 and 2012, the Hubble Space Telescope discovered Pluto’s two smallest moons (from more than 3 billion miles away), and scientists tentatively named them P4 and P5. It turns out, though, that P4 and P5 just aren’t spicy enough names for the city-sized pieces of rock, so the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence Institute is looking for public input. They have set up, a site looking for the votes of anyone and everyone to determine the new names of these lunar beauties. There’s even a write-in option if you have your own brilliant suggestion!

Sorry, you can’t name it after your Valentine’s Day sweetheart (if you have one); astronomers are apparent admirers of Roman and Greek myth, so the names have to have some mythological origin. Moons are even typically named so to depict some sort of relationship with the main planet. Pluto is the Roman name for the Greek god of the underworld, Hades. It already has three named moons: Charon, the boatsmen who ferried the souls of the dead to the underworld, Nix, the goddess of the night, and Hydra, the name of a many-headed monster that guarded an entrance to the underworld. All of the current options for names are unsurprisingly also related to the underworld, with Cerberus and Styx as the favorites.

You can only vote once a day, and though the SETI Institute seems completely intent on allowing the voters to decide, they remind us that the IAU ultimately has the final authority on the naming of P4 and P5. Never has there been a time when it has been more important for an individual to exercise his/her right to vote on lunar nomenclature than now, in this instant. Don’t be lazy. Click on the link and vote for your favorite underworld-related figure (or just the one that sounds coolest). And don’t be afraid to ask your favorite GUSA candidate which name they support … it’s an important issue.

Click Here To Vote

Deadline: 12 p.m. EST on Monday, Feb. 25, 2013.


*Simply Science is a reoccurring post that aims to make recent scientific discoveries accessible and applicable to the Georgetown student.

Simply Science: We’re Dumber Than NHL Players

Screen Shot 2013-01-30 at 12.24.09 AM

Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t become a professional athlete, but then I remember how much I enjoy melted cheese and ice cream. (Not at the same time … well … maybe). When I realized the professional-athlete lifestyle wasn’t for me, I, like many of us, decided that paying inordinate amounts of money to go to college was the next best option. The perceived benefit? Becoming smarter and increasing my human capital, of course.

It turns out, however, that elite athletes (or ath-elites, if you will) do not only have better six-packs, better salaries and better health outlook; they’re smarter, too.

In a recent study, scientists tested English Premier League soccer players, NHL hockey players, France’s Top 14 club rugby players, and amateur ath-elites (it’s catchy, isn’t it?) and determined that their test subjects had more finely developed cognitive abilities than the average university student.

We mere mortals are potentially more eloquent than they are about things you might learn at college: the periodic table elements, the works of Chaucer or maybe even innovative drink recipes, but this study focused on ability. Subjects were asked to describe a series of simulated objects moving through three dimensions, thereby testing:

A Really Smart Dude
  1. Distribution of attention between a number of moving targets amongst distracters.
  2. Scope of field of vision.
  3. Maximum speed of objects one is able to follow.
  4. The ability to perceive depth.

The researchers were sure to design the study so that no sports-related experience or knowledge would help the participants. Each subject partook in 15 simulations, and, lo and behold, the professional athletes were able to learn how to track fast moving objects at a far superior rate than the other groups.

They observed that athletes were able to hyper-focus their attention to enhance learning. This might help explain observed increased cortical thickness in trained athletes’ brains and may lead new ways for exploring the treatment of people who have issues with attention, such as the elderly (and me during European History class).

It’s obvious that being good at a sport requires a certain level of mental processing and learning. But, according to researchers, it is unclear whether this superior ability is unique to professional athletes (and whether these are natural skills that helped them to be good athletes) or whether these skills have been developed through extensive training. Here exists the classic question of “causation or correlation?”

Although my four years of junior recreational soccer didn’t seem to pay off in Bib Lit last semester, it seems that sometimes we don’t give athletes enough credit. Einstein said, “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” Apparently, it also has to do, in part, with the quality of your slapshot. (Yay for sports terminology!)

I do, however, have at least one critique of this study. They should specify where they got their samples when it comes to university students. If they equate an “average university student” with a Syracuse student … well, there’s your problem.


*Simply Science is a reoccurring post that aims to make recent scientific discoveries accessible and applicable to the Georgetown student.