Tuesday, October 31, 2017


     M&M's are America's second favorite chocolate. With milk chocolate, peanut, almond, and other delicious flavors, M&M's are a true assortment of delicious. Did you know though that M&M's have had a pretty colorful history? And much of it is due to science.
     M&M's were introduced in 1941 by Mars and became a hit with Army soldiers. After World War II, they were here to stay. The original colors of M&M's were brown, yellow, green, red, and purple. In 1949, purple M&M's vanished and were replaced by tan. Red M&M's disappeared in 1976 and were replaced by orange. The popular red didn't return until 1986. And in 1995, tan M&M's bowed goodbye as they were replaced by blue.
      The 1970's saw a surge of new public concerns over personal, common, and global health. The Environmental Protection Agency was formed in December 1970, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission formed in 1972. The Marine Mammal Protection Act ('72), Endangered Species Act ('73), Safe Water Drinking Act ('74), Clean Water Act ('77), and the Wilderness Act ('78) were all passed. Aerosols and lead-based paint were banned in 1978. Anti-smoking campaigns were full steam ahead. Red is a popular color and is commonly seen in food, so what was the big deal over red M&M's? Turns out it was all due to chemistry. In 1976, the FDA pulled red dye no.2 over carcinogen concerns, and Mars pulled red M&M's in response. 
     The dye was linked to cancer in a 1971 Russian study, and then after the FDA did their own study, decided to ban the dye in 1976. Turns out though, the red dye that was so controversial, actually wasn't used in M&M's, but to make consumers feel better and to quell any confusion, Mars pulled the red candies anyway. Orange replaced red, and then ten years later after the red dye panic had died down, Mars brought red back, but decided to keep orange along.
     There's a saying that "today's kids will never understand..." and it's true. As a 90's baby, I shake my head at all of the great things in my youth that today's youth will never get to experience, such as Windows XP, flip phones, green and blue ketchup, Game Boy's and Nintendo 64's, Disney movies on VHS tapes from Blockbuster, Lite Brites, and actually good cartoons on TV - and not watching them on 46'' flat screens either. Well that's how 70's and 80's kids feel about tan M&M's.
     Tan M&M's were dropped by Mars in 1995 after a contest was held to bring in a new color, which blue won by a large margin. Yet unlike orange and red, tan M&M's didn't get to stick around when blue arrived. It seemed redundant to have brown, tan, and orange all in the same bag. Plus blue is such a better color anyway. Well why keep tan all those decades, then just dump it? Well that's the world of marketing. Sometimes brands need a refresher, so contests are held to bring a new face. Here's an M&M commercial from 1995 where the end began.
     Organic chemistry is a real thing in the world of food. As Mars and other companies move to replace "artificial" colors with "natural" colors, more suitable ingredients have to be found. As it turns out, blue is not an easy color to find in the wild. A blueberry is actually more red than blue, for instance. Even General Mills ran into the same problem, as they have not yet been able to find suitable blues and greens for Trix, and now have been forced to bring them back
     Mars has looked into using spirulina algae to create natural blue, but they have hit roadblocks, from poor taste, poor coloring, and not enough spirulina. Other ingredients being considered to help make natural blue are red cabbage, berries, flowers, bacteria, fungi, sea sponges, and aged red wine. While blue dye has been a debacle and debate, some scientists think it should be given even more attention. In 2009, University of Rochester researchers claimed that blue dye in M&M's could possibly help cure spinal injuries, after running trials in rats. The only side effect was well, it temporarily turned the rats blue.
     Not only does changing colors take a visual adjustment, as with Trix, but getting consumers on board with new taste can be a challenge - even if there wasn't actually a change in taste. It has been shown that colors in food can make us think we taste things that aren't really there. One 1980 study showed that adding red coloring could make food taste 10 percent sweeter. In the same study, a drink was given red dye and some subjects claimed to taste cherry. They were given the same drink with green coloring, and there were claims of a lemon-lime taste. Our brains have evolved to appreciate colors, so even the slightest change to our blue M&M's could create displeasure among consumers.
     Making colorful candies takes more than just painting some rainbows on them. A lot of chemistry goes into M&M's and other candies, and there is a psychological science as well. "Sensory-specific satiety" is the scientific phenomenon that the more variety in flavors or colors in food, the more you're going to eat and the more appealing it looks. This is possibly a reason Mars decided to give tan the boot in favor a more eye-popping and visually pleasing blue, pink, or purple.
     While there may be a shortage of blue dye, and a complete shortage of tan M&M's, you won't ever have to worry about M&M's running out. The New Jersey factory makes 2 billion M&M's every 8 hours, or 69,000 every second, enough to fill every seat in the New England Patriot's football stadium. No wonder Tom Brady won't retire.

*NBC News, Live Science, Mental Floss, M&M commercials Youtube, Bustle, Washington Post, CNN, NJ.com, New England Patriots, Movieclips Youtube, New York Times

Friday, October 27, 2017

Lucky Strikes

     Recently it was revealed by the World Meteorological Association that the longest recorded lightning bolt to strike the world was half a mile short of 200 miles (322 km) long, occurring in Oklahoma. The June 20, 2007 bolt was so long, it spanned nearly three-fourths of Oklahoma - the 20th largest state by area. The organization also announced that the longest living strike ever recorded occurred in France on August 30, 2012, at 7.74 seconds long.
     Lightning is one of the most fascinating phenomenon in the Solar System, but what is it? It's an electrostatic discharge. The same stuff that zaps you when the carpet and your socks get too comfortable.
   First off, you need warm and cold air, which help form clouds. Water droplets, ice crystals, and graupel (soft hail) collide in the cloud, creating positively charged particles at the top of the cloud and negatively charge particles at the bottom. An electric current called a stepped leader finds a path through the particles and the process of a lightning strike begins. The average lightning flash is 0.2 seconds and is made up of several shorter strokes, which last less than a millisecond.
     70% of all lightning occurs in the tropics, and cloud-to-ground lighting, the most dramatic, is only about 25% of the lightning that occurs on Earth. 
     Lightning strikes the United States an average of 25 million times a year and the Democratic Republic of the Congo experiences the most strikes on Earth. Even the Empire State Building averages 23 strikes a year. An average of 49 people are killed in the United States every year by lightning. While the odds of getting struck by lightning in your lifetime is only 1 in 13,500 according to NOAA, you still shouldn't press your luck. Most people that are struck survive, but typically suffer permanent, life-long damage. Lightning may be cool to look at, but that's about all you want to do with it.
     Since lightning moves at the speed of light, which is too fast for our eyes and brain to process, the strikes that we see are actually the reflections of the initial stroke. We typically perceive lightning as blue-white, but in reality lightning can be blue, red, yellow, purple, green, etc. The color of lightning depends on what is in the air, such as water vapor, hail, dust, pollution, etc. Latitude, humidity, winds, elevation, and seasons can also effect lightning. Lightning strikes are also around 5 times hotter than the surface of the Sun at around 54,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
     You actually have a better chance of getting struck by lightning twice than winning the Powerball, and whoever told you that lightning can't strike twice lied to you. Not only can lightning strike twice - it usually does. Have you ever heard of Roy Sullivan? Probably not, but he holds the record for "the most amount of times to be struck by lighting" with seven. Yes, seven times over 35 years. Even his wife was struck once in his presence. Roy worked at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, so working around so many trees, which are lightning magnets (my neighbor's tree actually exploded from a strike), it makes sense. Still, the odds of getting struck seven times as he claimed? 4.15 in 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.
     As stated earlier, lighting not exclusive to Earth. Lightning has been observed on Mars, Jupiter,  Venus, and Saturn. Lightning does not exist on Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun, because of it's lack of a significant atmosphere. Scientists think they've even recorded lightning on exoplanet HAT-P-11b. In 2009, a lightning storm was observed on Saturn that had been going on for 9 months. And while it's very rare for lightning to strike the north and south poles of Earth, lightning has been clearly observed on Jupiter's. Lightning in the gas giants are believed to be hundreds to thousands of times more powerful than Earth's.
     Ever heard of sprites? No not the soda, but the lightning? Sprites are electrical discharges that happen high above thunderstorms. Sprites typically appear reddish-orange, not lemon-lime, and occur in clusters 30-60 miles (50-90 km) above Earth. Elves and blue jets can't be left out either. All three are different forms of upper-atmospheric lighting. Blue jets are shaped like a cone and project from the top of cumulonimbus clouds 25-30 miles (40-50 km) above the Earth. Blue jets weren't recorded until 1989 and they are considered rare as less than 100 were seen between then and 2007. Elves are typically dim and flat, and last for a millisecond. They occur in the ionosphere, 62 miles (100 km) above the Earth. So are auroras technically lightning? Actually no, auroras are caused by solar wind in the magnetosphere, but I agree they look just as cool. 
     Heat lightning is actual lighting, the only difference is it is too far away for you to hear. You've most likely seen heat lightning before, even if you don't recall. And while we typically associate lightning with thunderstorms, it can actually form from volcanic eruptions and snow as well.
     So remember, you may enjoy looking at lightning, but you don't want to go farther that. There are many myths out there about lightning, so study up and stay safe thanks to the NWS, How Stuff Works, and NBC News.

*Live Science, WNCN, Mental Floss, Space, Science News For Students, National Geographic, OSU Volcano World, Encyclopedia of atmospheric science, Wikipedia, Museum Victoria, NWS, NBC News, Hyperphysics, How Stuff Works, University of St. Andrews, Astrology Today, Mental Floss, Colour Lovers, CBS North Carolina, NASA, picture from Weather Underground Pinterest

Monday, May 15, 2017

Volcanoes 101

     Nothing on Earth has more awesome might than a volcano. Eruptive, hot, and violent, volcanoes have the ability and the power to shape, mold, create, and destroy our landscape, whether directly or indirectly. Volcanoes are typically mountains, hills, or bowls, but always include ruptures in Earth's crust that allows magma from the mantle to get through.
     Ever wonder why there are no volcanoes hanging around New York or London? It's all because of plate tectonics. Volcanoes are located on major diverging and converging fault lines, or at hot spots. Neither are anywhere near New York or London, or the entire eastern United States for that matter. They can be found in western Europe, but not near the UK.
     One way to think of volcanoes, although not a pretty way, is as a zit. The Earth's crust is like your skin, and a volcano is a zit. The same way you squeeze your zit to pop it, pressure from the heat squeezes magma under the crust until it becomes too much, and the volcano erupts. I know that wasn't a pretty analogy, but it works.
      We tend to think of volcanoes as cone-shaped mountains that spew lava, but there are actually a few different types. Cinder cone volcanoes are the most common type and are the smallest. Stratovolcanoes look like cones, but are much larger, rising up to 8,000 feet. Stratovolcanoes typically have the most violent eruptions. Shield volcanoes are gently sloping and are typically several miles in diameter. Calderas are bowl-shaped depressions. They do not look like your average volcano and typically form from previous catastrophic eruptions.
     Over 70 percent of the Earth is covered in ocean, yet we tend to forget what's under it. Volcanoes are not restricted to land; there are undersea volcanoes as well. Those undersea volcanoes are how Hawaii and many other sea islands were and are formed. Just last year a new island was formed in the South Pacific thanks to the eruption on an undersea volcano called Hunga Tonga.
     Volcanic eruptions have shaped our planet over time. Mount Vesuvius is a famous volcano in Italy that has erupted at least 30 times. Vesuvius buried the famous ancient city of Pompeii in 79 AD. Krakatoa erupted in 1883 in Indonesia with the power of 13,000 atomic bombs. Krakatoa's explosion is considered the loudest sound in history and was heard over 3,000 miles away on the African coast. Krakatoa's explosion was so powerful, it was suicide. The original volcano ended up sliding into the ocean. Mauna Loa, the worlds largest volcano, is a synonym for Hawaii. Mauna Loa is located in the middle of Hawaii's Big Island and is 13,700 feet high and last erupted in 1984. The city of Hilo, Hawaii is partly built on 19th century lava flows from Mauna Loa. Eyjafjallajokull is a volcano in Iceland that erupted in 2010 and cost the airline industry over $1 billion in interruptions. Mount Pelee in the Caribbean erupted in 1902 and miraculously killed 29,933 of the island's 29,937 residents.
     Mount Saint Helens is arguably the most famous volcano in the United States. Mount St Helens' last eruption was in 1980, so many Generation Xers and Baby Boomers likely remember it well. Geologists were aware that Mount Saint Helens would likely soon erupt, but they were not aware that it would be caused by a 5.1 magnitude earthquake, which created a landslide on the volcano, allowing built up pressure to escape and the volcano to erupt. The Mount Saint Helens eruption was so spectacular that the northern face of the mountain was blown off. Mount Saint Helens' elevation dropped from 9,677 feet to 8,363 feet. Mount Saint Helens also produced the worlds largest landslide.
     Other famous volcanoes include Mount Fuji, Mount Rainier, Mauna Kea, Mount Tambora, Cotopaxi, and Yellowstone.
     Yellowstone does not look like your average volcano. It is actually a caldera shaped supervolcano. Legend has it that a Yellowstone eruption could wipe out all life on Earth. It turns out that that is false, but that doesn't mean that an eruption wouldn't come with consequences. A Yellowstone eruption would be catastrophic for the world's health, agriculture, economy, and climate: Earth's average temperature could drop for a decade. Luckily, this is something we likely will not see in our lifetimes.
      And volcanoes are not restricted to Earth either. The largest volcano in the Solar System can actually be found on Mars: Olympus Mons. Olympus Mars is an estimated 72,000 feet high, or 13.6 miles, and is around the same size as Arizona.
      Volcanoes are interesting things. They can create lightning, trigger tsunamis, mudslides, and even earthquakes, and they have the ability to change our climate. Some volcanoes erupt every millions of years, while others have been continuously erupting. Every day there are an estimated 20 volcanoes erupting at once, with the majority happening under the ocean.
     If you're ever in Iceland and have $400 to spare, you can even join a tour and go inside a volcano. Now that's what you call hands on.

*TIME, Active Wild, Live Science, BBC News, Do Something, Universe Today, Wikipedia, Space, Extreme Iceland