A Smile So Sharp It Will Split Atoms

German radioactive toothpaste quack medicine

From 1940 to 1945, if you wanted to acquire radioactive material in Germany, you didn’t have to engage in cloak-and-dagger shenanigans; you simply had to go to the nearest pharmacy and purchase a tube of Doramad toothpaste. 

Doramad was produced with small quantities of radioactive thorium. This wasn’t a manufacturing accident; it was an intentional marketing strategy. 

Translation: “Its radioactive radiation increases the defenses of teeth and gums. The cells are loaded with new life energy, the bacteria are hindered in their destroying effect. This explains the excellent prophylaxis and healing process with gingival diseases. It gently polishes the dental enamel so it turns white and shiny. Prevents dental calculus. Wonderful lather and a new, pleasant, mild and refreshing taste. Can be applied sparingly.”

Aside from being the poster child of quack medicine, Doramad played an interesting role in the race to develop the atomic bomb. U.S. intelligence agents were alarmed to learn that unusually-large amounts of thorium were being bought up by Germany. This suggested that German research toward the atomic bomb had progressed further than previously had been thought. 

It was only as the war drew to a close that investigators learned the real reason for the thorium shipments. Savvy German entrepreneurs were decades ahead of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” proposal. They were stocking up on radioactive material so they could make money selling a ground-breaking product. Their marketing slogan was, “Use toothpaste with thorium! Have sparkling, brilliant teeth—radioactive brilliance!”

Read more about toothpaste and the race for the Bomb here

Houston, We Have a Turd

Apollo 10 floating turd
The crew of Apollo 10, from the left, Eugene Cernan, John Young and Thomas Stafford at the Kennedy Space Center. In the background is the Apollo 10 space vehicle on Launch Pad 39 B. Photo Credit: NASA
Fans of television’s The Big Bang Theory are familiar with the memorable episode where Howard’s space toilet, the Wolowitz Space Disposal System, went horribly wrong and threatened to turn into a waste distribution system. As it turns out, such a scenario was more closely grounded in fact, rather than comedic fiction.  Continue reading

Ben Franklin Needed a Sarcasm Sign

Benjamin Franklin proposed Daylight Savings Time as a joke

Benjamin Franklin is credited with some of the greatest ideas of all time. Not only was he the inventor of bifocal glasses, the Franklin stove, and lightning rod, but as one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, his ideas surpassed scientific inquiry and helped create a nation. In fact, so wide were his interests that he spoke into virtually every area of human interest, and the world continues to feel his influence today in the arts, medical science, economics, cartography, and much, much more.

For those countries that observe Daylight Savings Time, Franklin’s influence is often remembered with resentment twice each year as the nation adjusts to Daylight Savings Time. Remembering to change all the clocks is almost as bad as the feeling of jet lag for a few days as the body tries to catch up with the extra or missing hour. We have Franklin to thank for this phenomenon.

The problem is that he wasn’t really being serious.  Continue reading

Strangled Science

phonograph Paris Academy of Sciences

There is a perception among many that scientists collect facts in a calm, dispassionate manner and do not give in to bouts of irrational reaction.

That perception is wrong.

A perusal the Minutes of the Paris Academy of Sciences gives a telling account of the demonstration of the first phonograph: “No sooner had the machine emitted a few words, than the Permanent Secretary threw himself upon the [person doing the demonstration], seizing his throat in a grip of iron. ‘You see, gentlemen,’ he exclaimed, ‘what it is!’ But, to the stupefaction of everyone present, the machine continued to utter sounds.”

Speedy Pit Stop

How fast do jets refuel in midair?

Mid-air refueling is impressive by any standard. For two or more aircraft to join together while flying at 300 mph, it requires pilot skill and technological sophistication well beyond average.

Among the many impressive things about this feat is how quickly it happens. Modern refueling tankers deploy fuel at a rate of about 6,000 pounds per minute. An  F/A-18 Hornet, with a fuel capacity of 4,460 lbs., can get topped off in well under a minute.

To put that in context, if you were driving a large pickup with a massive fuel tank of 38 gallons, it would take 1.8 seconds to refuel if your gas station’s pump worked as quickly as an aerial fuel tanker.

 

Seed Sizes, Big and Small

epiphytic orchids Coco de Mer palm tree
(Left) A seed and mature specimen of the Coco de Mer tree. (Right) A seed pod containing thousands of seeds of an epiphytic orchid. Also pictured is a mature orchid plant.

When it comes to seeds, there is no standard size. Seeds are widely varied in shape and size. Consider the contenders for the extremes of seed size.

The world’s smallest seeds are produced by certain ephiphytic orchids. Seeds can be as small as 1/300th of an inch (85 micrometers). The weight of one of them is about 1/35,000th of an ounce (0.81 micrograms). By way of comparison, a typical grain of salt is about 300 micrometers in length. This tiny specimen can grow into a beautiful orchid that is known as an “air plant.” It does not grow on the ground in the dirt, but rather attaches itself to other plants, such as tree bark, and gathers moisture and nutrients from the air.

On the other end of the see spectrum is the massive seed of the Coco de Mer palm tree. The mature fruit can weigh up 66 pounds (30 kg) and can be up to 19.7 inches (50 cm) in diameter. The fruit, which requires 6–7 years to mature and a further two years to germinate, is sometimes also referred to as the Sea Coconut, Bum Seed, double coconut, coco fesse, or Seychelles Nut. The tree that springs from that massive seed can grow to be 112 feet (34 m) tall.