Tag Archives: fun

The Science of Tequila Shots

When I was in graduate school, some colleagues once served a round of drinks in 50mL conical centrifuge tubes. If only someone had dipped a pipet into one of those shots, we might have beaten these guys to publication:

Researchers from [the University of Guelph’s] Biodiversity Institute of Ontario (BIO) have discovered that mescal itself contains the DNA of the agave butterfly caterpillar — the famously tasty “worm” that many avoid consuming. Their findings will appear in the March issue of BioTechniques, which is available online now.

Tequila with worm

Tequila with worm

Grossed out yet? Well, they followed the party trick with a practical application, as described in their open-access article in BioTechniques:

We then successfully amplified and sequenced DNA from the 95% ethanol preservative of 70 freshly collected specimens and 7 archival specimens 7–10 years old. These results suggest that DNA extraction is a superfluous step in many protocols and that preservative ethanol can be used as a source of genetic material for non-invasive sampling or when no tissue specimen is left for further DNA analyses.

Instead of doing a tedious, time-consuming DNA extraction on an alcohol-preserved specimen, one can simply pull out some of the alcohol. Combined with new molecular identification techniques, that could save a lot of time and money in entomology labs. It might turn a few people off tequila, though.

Health Hazards of Hobs

Sometimes it’s easy to tell when a paper has been published in a British journal:

Frying meat on a gas hob may be more harmful to health than using an electric hob, because of the type of fumes it produces, suggests research published ahead of print in Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Professional chefs and cooks may be particularly at risk.

At this point, I have to pause and thank Wikipedia for helping me through the rest of this post. A hob, you see, is the British term for a stovetop. Or the target in a game of quoits. Or a male ferret. Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s see how this particular quoits game is going:

The research team simulated the conditions found in a typical Western European restaurant kitchen, frying 17 pieces of steak, weighing 400 g each, for 15 minutes.

Mmm, steak.

They used either margarine or two different brands of soya bean oil to cook the steak on gas and electric hobs. The margarine contained a blend of soya bean, rapeseed, coconut and palm oils as well as vitamins A and D, but no hydrogenated fats.

Blech, margarine!

They measured the amount of PAH, aldehydes, and total particulate matter produced in the breathing zone of the cook. Napthalene – a banned chemical contained in traditional mothballs – was the only PAH detected and ranged from 0.15 to 0.27 ug/m3 air in 16 of the 17 meat samples. The highest levels were produced when frying with margarine on the gas hob. Higher aldehydes were produced during the frying of all the samples, while mutagenic aldehydes were produced for most samples. Overall levels ranged from undetectable to 61.80 µg/m3 air, but the highest levels were found when frying on the gas hob, irrespective of the type of fat used.

Take-home lesson: gas is worse than electric, if you’re concerned about the pollutants your steak generates. All of these levels are well below occupational safety thresholds, though, so what we really have here is a case where improved detection technology is finding “toxins” at levels that might not be any concern at all. Still, I’m going to stay on the safe side and grill my steaks. I never trusted that ferret anyway.

What about Scotch and Beer?

George Thorogood and John Lee Hooker should take note:

Many alcoholic beverages contain byproducts of the materials used in the fermenting process. These byproducts are called “congeners,” complex organic molecules with toxic effects including acetone, acetaldehyde, fusel oil, tannins, and furfural. Bourbon has 37 times the amount of congeners that vodka has. A new study has found that while drinking a lot of bourbon can cause a worse hangover than drinking a lot of vodka, impairment in people’s next-day task performance is about the same for both beverages.

Turning to the article itself, we learn the gory details:

Methods: Healthy heavy drinkers age 21 to 33 (n = 95) participated in 2 drinking nights after an acclimatization night. They drank to a mean of 0.11 g% breath alcohol concentration on vodka or bourbon one night with matched placebo the other night, randomized for type and order. Polysomnography recordings were made overnight; self-report and neurocognitive measures were assessed the next morning.

You can get placebo bourbon? I certainly hope it’s labeled more clearly than decaffeinated coffee.

Results: After alcohol, people had more hangover and more decrements in tests requiring both sustained attention and speed. Hangover correlated with poorer performance on these measures. Alcohol decreased sleep efficiency and rapid eye movement sleep, and increased wake time and next-day sleepiness. Alcohol effects on sleep correlated with hangover but did not mediate the effects on performance. No effect of beverage congeners was found except on hangover severity, with people feeling worse after bourbon. Virtually no sex differences appeared.

That’s weird – I always notice sex differences after drinking.

Conclusions: As drinking to this level affects complex cognitive abilities, safety could be affected, with implications for driving and for safety-sensitive occupations. Congener content affects only how people feel the next day so does not increase risk. The sleep disrupting effects of alcohol did not account for the impaired performance so other mechanisms of effect need to be sought. As hangover symptoms correlate with impaired performance, these might be contributing to the impairment.

So there it is: either liquor gives you a hangover, but to minimize the pain, stick with vodka. For blues singers, though, the goal may be to maximize the pain.

Mmmm, Crow

After dissing (and ditching) Twitter and Plaxo, and blogging about my reasons, I’ve now backtracked. In response to overwhelming peer pressure, I joined that 800-pound gorilla of social networking sites, Facebook. This doesn’t mean I’ve changed my mind about the overall merit of online “social networking,” though. Besides turning off a slew of distracting and privacy-invading features on my new Facebook account, I’ve decided to set some ground rules of my own.

First, I’ll use Facebook only to connect with people I know from other contexts. If I’ve shared a class, meal, drink, property line, kitchen, lab bench, bed, or court docket with you, feel free to send me a friend request. Otherwise, please don’t. Second, I’m keeping my work life and social life somewhat separate. If I only know you from work, please connect with my LinkedIn account (yes, I’m on there too). If we work together and socialize, feel free to connect on both sites.

Alan Thinks Elmo Should Get Vaccinated

The Department of Health and Human Services has collaborated with Sesame Street to release a set of public service advertisements about flu prevention. Actually, the PSAs are about general hygiene, but the recent H1N1 flu emergence was what prompted this new effort. I wish they hadn’t picked Public Television’s Most Annoying Character to lead this campaign, but they didn’t ask me. Enjoy.

Good News from Worm; Bad News for Worms

The latest issue of Science has some encouraging news about the state of global fisheries, which after decades of over-exploitation are, in a few cases, starting to recover. The researchers analyzed ten marine fisheries around the world, and found that half of them are showing signs of recovery after management programs got more stringent. Most of the fisheries they analyzed are well-regulated ones in developed countries’ territorial waters, so the results are slightly skewed, but it’s still an encouraging sign that world’s fish stocks aren’t a lost cause.

What initially caught my attention about this paper, though, was the first author’s name:

“Rebuilding Global Fisheries,” by B. Worm et al., Science, Vol. 325, 2009, p. 578-585.

You’d think he’d be against rebuilding fisheries, but maybe he just got hooked on the subject.

The Associated Press Picks up My Crumbs Again

Well, it’s happened again. Those ungrateful hacks at the Associated Press have lifted another one of my scoops without crediting me. This time, it’s the idea of reporting the annual list of gifts received by government officials. Longtime readers may recall that I riffed on this theme with a humorous piece way back in 2006. Now, the AP has finally gotten around to it. Objectively, I think mine was better.

I'm Betting These Guys Have Tenure

Researchers in Cardiff, Wales are reporting an interesting correlation:

Doctors in the Christmas issue published on bmj.com today are urging the Vatican’s medical team to keep a special watch over the Pope this Christmas, after their research investigating the link between papal deaths and Welsh rugby performance suggests that he has about a 45% chance of dying by the end of 2008.

The researchers charted all northern hemisphere rugby championships since 1883, but discarded the years 1885, 1888-9, 1897-8 and 1972 because not all the scheduled matches were played. For the purposes of their research, a Grand Slam was defined as one nation beating all other competing teams. Since 1883, eight Pontiffs have died, five in Grand Slam years—three deaths happened when Wales completed the sweep, and two others occurred when Wales won the tournament but not the Grand Slam.

Interestingly, say the authors, although the deaths did not always coincide with a Welsh Grand Slam win, they did correspond with a victory of a predominantly Protestant nation (England, Scotland or Wales), rather than a Roman Catholic nation (France, Ireland, or Italy).

The Hidden Costs of Shaping Up

About a year ago, I started taking my workout routine a bit more seriously. I’d been following the same sequence of exercises since college, but after reading the standard text on weightlifting, I stepped up to a somewhat more intense regimen. It’s fun, it feels great, and it offers the kind of concrete results that my regular work lacks; the quality of my writing is subjective, but there’s no ambiguity about how much I can curl.

In September, though, I discovered a seldom-publicized downside to shaping up. While packing to go to a very high-powered conference in Mexico City, I tried on a nice suit I’ve owned for 20 years. It didn’t fit. Ditto for my blazers. Somewhere between the bench press and the deadlift, I’d grown from a 38 regular to a 40 regular. I had to wear “business casual” to the conference.

A few months and almost $1,000 later, I’ve replaced my formal wardrobe, so clients can rest assured that I’ll show up dressed appropriately for future conferences. It was a major expense, but I suppose it’s also an economic incentive to stay in shape.