Legislation Looks at Lavender Labeling

In the EU lavender oil, or any products containing lavender oil, may soon come with a warning label. (By soon I mean 2018.) Lavender oil is generally used as a fragrance, but can also be an antiseptic and an anti-inflammatory. According to WebMD people claim lavender is good for depression, insomnia, headache, toothache, colic—the list goes on—with apparently little to no scientific backing. The one “possibly effective” use of lavender oil is for regenerating hair loss caused by alopecia. The European Chemicals Agency, who is pushing for the labels, claims that lavender oil can oxidize and cause skin irritation.

Warning: Field May Cause Allergies, But If You Aren't Already Sneezing Then You're Probably Fine

Warning: Field May Trigger Allergies, But If You’re Not Already Sneezing Then You’re Probably Fine

The labels are quite controversial among lavender growers, not only because the labels may hurt sales but because lavender oil is not a synthetic product. The plants are grown in fields, many in southern France, and the flowers are steam distilled into oil. Even more, this isn’t even a remotely new process. People have been growing lavender and distilling it long before the European Chemicals Agency existed.

What’s more, a report released by Givaudan (a fragrance and flavoring company) claims the amount of linalool (the molecule under question in lavender oil) in fragrances is much, much lower than that in patch tests that show skin irritation. It takes about 400 μg/cm2 to cause irritation and there’s only about 0.3 μg/cm2 of the chemical in average fragrance samples.

French farmers are putting up signs in their fields that say “Help us: Save the lavender!” and “Lavender is not a chemical product” in protest. One grower told Chemical & Engineering News that she would rather close her business than add warning labels to her products. A French association (PPAM de France) that represents fragrance and medicinal farmers begun a campaign this summer to fight the labeling. Switzerland is taking things more diplomatically (who would have thought) and their International Fragrance Association released a statement saying that they’ll comply with any new legislation.

I’m not sure why they aren’t treating the oil like peanuts and simply putting “May Contain Lavender Oil” on products with lavender oil. But, as Nelson Muntz would say, I donno, gotta label somthin.

A Star is Born

Watch out Beowulf, David Leigh of the University of Manchester has made much finer chainmail (yes, that reference was solely from the cover of the book; I saw it as a kid and now chainmail is forever associated with Beowulf in my mind). A couple of hundred years after we stopped using chainmail (it was good at stopping swords; not so much bullets) we’ve finally started producing it again.

The molecule is made of two interconnected rings, with a whopping 114 atoms each. At each bend (there are six of them) is an iron atom surrounded by organic ligands (bipyridine derivatives, if you want to get fancy). In the middle sits a PF6 ion that apparently refuses to leave.


The star.

The star-tling molecule. Yuck, yuck.

Chemists have been trying to make this molecule, nicknamed the “Star of David catenane” because in chemistry even your nickname has to be scientifically meaningful, for half a decade. Leigh, in a press release from Manchester University, gave full credit to his graduate student, Alex Stephens, before giving the typical why-did-you-do-this answer: “It was a great day when Alex finally got it in the lab. In nature, biology already uses molecular chainmail to make the tough, light shells of certain viruses and now we are on the path towards being able to reproduce its remarkable properties.”

In my Google search for “molecular chainmail” (because I had never heard the term before), I came across a book called “Beauty in Chemistry: Artistry in the Creation of New Molecules” and because that title was too intriguing they added the subtitle of “(Topics in Current Chemistry)”. The book is from 2012 so maybe we’ll see some more interesting molecules coming out soon. This kind of work goes to show that one can find beauty even in the smallest things.

Breaking News: Fish Confused by Optical Illusions

Despite the sarcastic title, this work is pretty neat. In a recent Scientific Reports paper (open access, yay!), researchers from the University of Padua in Italy found that fish pretty much see the world as we do, as least when talking about motion illusions. If you’ve spent time as a child, you’re probably familiar with optical illusions (personally, I was obsessed with Magic Eye books; maybe I shouldn’t say was). Motion illusions are a type of optical illusion that make the brain perceive motion from a static image (see picture below).


Their version of the classic Rotating Snakes illusion, abbreviated RSI in the paper because all academic papers need more abbreviations.

Why fish? It turns out that fish don’t have a visual cortex like humans and other mammals. We know fish can see (they need to to hunt and escape predators) but we don’t know exactly what they see. We do know they see changes in light, but can they see texture and contrast and form? In mammals, this additional sight comes from our visual cortex. If fish do get additional visual information, then they must do so in a manner completely distinct from us. That’s why fish were chosen: to see if they perceive an illusion that arises in mammals from our visual cortex.

To find out this interesting piece of scientific information, they crammed a fish tank between two computer monitors. On one monitor was the RSI (the allure of abbreviations has not yet left me). The other monitor had a static version of the image, only subtly different, without the motion illusion. The fish were trained to spot motion to get a food reward (tasty, tasty brine shrimps).

After all was said and done, 18 out of 24 fish were confused (that’s 75%). They thought the illusion was real and tried to get their food reward (their… just desserts). This compares fairly well with the percentage of humans who can see the illusion (that’s 84%).

The experiment didn’t explain how fish, with their lack of visual cortex, saw the motion. If anything it threw more questions into the mix, which I think is a good thing. The object of a good scientific paper shouldn’t be to answer all the questions but to ask more… unless you’re trying for a Theory of Everything (the answer to it all, the mack daddy of theories, the big ToE).

I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.

Robert Platt from Northwestern has used a new technology created by Edward Adelson from MIT to make a robot that plugs in USBs. This is more difficult than it sounds (unless you’ve had experience with fourth-dimensional USBs, then it’s exactly as difficult as it sounds). If the robot is not pre-programmed, like these on-the-fly USB pluggers, their external sensors must be highly precise—a centimeter off and your drink will get cold without your USB drink warmer. Or worse. Your pet rock may not charge.


In the unspoken scientific agreement to make robots increasingly human, the sensor system relies on vision. One side of the robot’s rubber gripper is coated with metallic paint. The rest of the gripper is surrounded by a translucent box. Each side of the box emits a different-colored light. When the robot grips, the sides light up depending on how the gel inside of the box deformed. By using computer algorithms that monitor the color and intensity of the light, the three-dimensional structure of the gripped surface can be “seen”. This system worked well. The robot was able to find a dangling USB plug, grab it, and plug it into the port.

The more important discovery here is that the robot can insert the USB correctly on the first try. Technology has truly passed our human limitations.

I’m like a rat. I only fly away.

A decade ago, scientists at the University of Florida taught a Petri dish rat brain to fly a flight simulator. They grew a culture of 25,000 rat neurons and, using 60 electrodes, hooked it up to a common desktop computer. At first, the neurons were simply scattered in the dish, but they quickly started to form connections. “You see one extend a process, pull it back, extend it out – and it may do that a couple of times, just sampling who’s next to it, until over time the connectivity starts to establish itself,” Thomas DeMarse, the lead biomedical engineer of the work, described in a ScienceDaily release. When the neural network was joined to the computer, more connections formed as the “brain” learned to control the simulated F-22. Eventually, the “brain” could control the pitch and roll of the aircraft in a variety of conditions, including hurricane-force winds.


Would a Petri dish brain get motion sickness?

According to the release, “As living computers, they may someday be used to fly small unmanned airplanes or handle tasks that are dangerous for humans, such as search-and-rescue missions or bomb damage assessments.” A prescient statement for a time before drones (or at least before the public knew). Who knows, maybe the next generation of war will be fought by rat brains.

(For anyone who doesn’t understand the title of this post, I thought I’d bring back some early 2000s references. Remember this?)

Hemp: Not Just for Granola-Eating Hippies

Hemp is back, man, and more energizing than ever. David Mitlin, then at the University of Alberta and now at Clarkson University, has developed a method for making supercapacitors out of hemp that is not only much cheaper than graphene (the cream of the crop as far as organic conductors go), but also outperformed standard devices by nearly 200%.

In a press release from the American Chemical Society, Mitlin gives the best quote possible on his research: “We’ve pretty much figured out the secret sauce of it. The trick is to really understand the structure of a starter material and to tune how it’s processed to give you what would rightfully be called amazing properties.” Right on.


The American Society of Mechanical Engineers is down with hemp.

To make the supercapacitors, his group heated hemp waste at 180 °C (~350 °F) for a day to get a nice char going, then blasted it at 800 °C (~1470 °F) with a little potassium hydroxide. That final burn turned the char into carbon nanosheets (as so nicely depicted in the above picture from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers). The hemp precursor left a lasting impression on the nanosheets, giving them the unique molecular structure that Mitlin claims is key to his device performance. The sheets were riddled with holes 2–5 nanometers in diameter, making nice paths for charges to move in and out.

Yury Gogotsi, materials scientist at Drexel University, in a comment to Chemical & Engineering News, says that scaling up the process may be difficult (read: costly), what with the high temperatures and day-long heating process.

But that’s just, like, his opinion, man.