I want to ride my bicycle. I want to ride it where I like.

This article titled “Do cycle lanes increase safety of cyclists from overtaking vehicles?” popped on up on chemistry news feed recently. I couldn’t understand where the chemistry came into that question (are new bike lanes being made from some novel material? does it have something to do with the material of tires? was this some kind of play on words that I didn’t understand?) so I opened the article only to find it wasn’t about chemistry at all. But it was interesting.

If you’re European or live in an American college town, you probably see a lot of bikes during your daily commute. If there are bike lanes, you probably get momentarily nervous when you see a cyclist. If there are no lanes and you’re anything like me, you’re probably simultaneously annoyed that you have to slow down and terribly worried that you’ll kill someone. Surprisingly, there’s debate on whether bike lanes are safe or risky. Some studies have found that drivers pass cyclists more closely, racing by at higher speeds, when bike lanes are present.

I don't think that counts as a bike lane.

I don’t think that counts as a bike lane.

So, of course, this needed study. By strapping cameras onto cyclists, researchers determined that whether or not there’s a bike lane isn’t the main factor in cyclist safety. The width of the road, opposing vehicle flow, and the absence or presence of street-side parking were more important in determining how fast a car passed a cyclist. This makes intuitive sense. If the road is wide, there’s more room to move away from the bike. If there’s a car coming in the opposite direction, you’re probably not going to move over as much. A nearby parked car will take up some of that precious road room and make for a tighter squeeze.

The overall conclusion seems to be that we should focus less on bike lanes and more on wider roads. That is, until Google Driver comes along and solves all our automotive problems.

Keep Magic Beans in Fairy Tales

In what can only be a stunning upset to the diet and nutrition world, Dr. Oz’s green coffee bean extract was found to maybe, possibly, perhaps not work so well. And by that, I mean the only bit of research supporting his beans is being withdrawn by two of the authors. What’s more is the study was paid for by the product manufacturer. Not only did Dr. Oz pay for research to support his results, but now those researchers have decided they can no longer live with the guilt.

Oz touted his beans as a magic weight-loss cure (let’s ignore that if you take the phrase “weight-loss cure” literally it implies that you’re stopping weight loss). The beans became famous after Dr. Oz claimed in 2012, “You may think magic is make-believe, but this little bean has scientists saying they’ve found the magic weight-loss cure for every body type. It’s green coffee extract.” I guess his claim could be a bit shortened to “You may think magic is make believe, but it is.”

This will be the only time I link to this source here (and hopefully in my career), but Fox News did a piece (or should I say borrowed a piece from LiveScience) on the story, proving that literally everyone is against Dr. Oz (save for the mysterious people who actually buy his supplements).

If you don’t watch John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, you really should start. Here’s his piece on dietary supplements (including Dr. Oz).

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.