Articles by: EquationForLife

What Really Happens in a Second

As the 25th leap second approaches (If you haven’t heard the news), there’s been a myriad of tweets and Facebook statuses joking about how to spend that extra moment when the clocks hit 11:59:60 UT. What many people don’t realize though is that a lot can happen in a second.

Let’s start with the basics. The SI definition of a second is 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation produced by a particular transition in a cesium-133 atom. In the same second, this radiation (or any other form of light in a vacuum) would travel 299,792,458 meters, or approximately 7 times around the earth.

Speaking of light, our sun consumes around 500 billion kilograms of hydrogen every second to produce around 10^27 joules of energy. Although we receive only about a billionth of the total energy (10^18 joules), it’s still enough energy to power all of humanity for a year.

The amazing rate of natural events isn’t only in outer space. The earth experiences over 100 lightning strikes every second, amounting to more than 8.5 million strikes every day. The Amazon river discharges 175,000 cubic meters of water per second into the Atlantic, enough to fill seventy 10-lane Olympic swimming pools.

Finally, let’s not forget human accomplishments. I could not have written this post without help from Google, which is performing over 30000 searches every second. Sequoia, the IBM BlueGene supercomputer at Lawrence Livemore National Lab, can perform over 16 quadrillion operations (that’s 1.6 * 10^15!). However, even with these super computers, we can only simulate simple biological systems (ie: basic protein folding) for a few microseconds, much smaller than the actual time scale of cellular events. Each of the tens of trillions of cells in our body, for example, have proteins capable of replicating 50 nucleotides of DNA every second.

The things cited here barely scratch the surface of all the events happening every second of every day. It’s truly wonderful to appreciate everything that is going on around us without our knowing. I hope you enjoy the extra second and have a little new perspective whenever someone says “Seize the moment”.

****A word of caution to readers: Most of the values in this article, other than the exact definitions like the second or the speed of light, are meant to be order of magnitude approximations. You are likely to find different values if you use different sources.

By June 30, 2012 1 comment fun, science events

Have a great month of May

It’s finally the start of a new month: a month when we celebrate mothers of all ages and commemorate the fallen men/women of the armed forces. Many great minds of the past, from Dorothy Hodgkin to Richard Feynman, were born in May. I hope the next 31 days will be filled with prosperity and happiness for everyone.

If you find yourself needing a break from work, here’s a little chemistry brainteaser that I came across. Despite what your academic training may tell you, try not to search past literature for the answer:

There are quite a few countries whose names can be spelled with symbols from the periodic table (capitalization is irrelevant). However, there is only one pair of countries whose names differ by a single element. What are they?

By April 30, 2012 2 comments fun

5 million gallons and 2 years later…

If I were to walk outside right now and ask the next person I see what the words “Deepwater Horizon” brought to mind, I wouldn’t be surprised if he/she simply stared at me with a puzzled look. Yet exactly two years ago, we all watched the news as the story of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion developed. It would ultimately become the worst man-made ecological disaster in history as the uncapped well poured nearly 5 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Many of us chastised the oil companies, BP in particular, for being too concerned with profits and expected the government to take action to prevent future spills. Now, two years later, the storm has quieted down but how much has things really changed? Here are some facts/figures I collected:

BP has paid out just 7.8 billion dollars for economic losses/medical bills to affected people, though it claims a total of 37.2 billion spent in response to the disaster. By comparison, BP had a total revenue of 386 billion dollars in 2011 alone.

The Gulf spill is not the only oil disaster in the last two years. Lost in the media coverage and the aftermath are spills in Utah (June 2010, 33000 gallons), Michigan (July 2010, 1.1 million gallons), Montana (July 2011, 63000 gallons), and countless other spills in foreign countries but from American companies.

Though the Oil Spill Commission ultimately concluded that BP did not sacrifice safety for profits, it also noted that a number of decisions made by BP to speed up construction of the oil rig increased the risks of a disaster. A recent report from former commission members noted that Congress has done very little to improve regulations on offshore drilling. For example, the current liability cap for an offshore oil spill is still a mere 75 million dollars.

I’m sure that decisions are made every day that have significant ecological impact but are necessary for the benefit of society. However, I certainly had hoped that the environmental impacts would remain minor. If something like the Deepwater Horizon disaster can’t galvanize the public into demanding long term changes, then what will it take? What can we do to reach a so-called “tipping point” when we as a society realize that environmental problems need to be solved now?

By April 21, 2012 5 comments opinion, science policy

A chemist by any other name

I just returned from a visit to China (and its WordPress blocking Great Firewall) so I figured now it’s a good time to make my first post on Chem-Blog. I am preparing to begin my graduate career in a PhD program entitled Chemical and Physical Biology. Over the course of the application season, I was often asked the difference between my program and other related fields of science. Frankly, I haven’t got a clue what the difference is.

I applied to over a dozen schools under program titles created from a permutation of chemistry, biology or physics with a modifier like molecular, structural and/or computational. My actual research interests are in the combination of wet-lab experiments with computational models to study protein structures and interractions, a topic with faculty dispersed in many departments. These field names are meaningless to me, especially with the increasing number of interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary programs. Courses in engineering and computer science are constantly being integrated into traditional science programs. Yet, people around me often assume that I’m unclear about my focus and interest. I have no idea if the name on my diploma will ultimately affect me when I apply for my first post-PhD position in industry or academia. What do you guys think? Is there a really a distinction between biochemistry and chemical biology, or between molecular biophysics and biophysical chemistry? In the end, is a chemist by any other name just as good?

By April 16, 2012 0 comments chemical education