ChemWeb Newsletter

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This week The Alchemist gets sticky when wet, learns about drying out on the Red Planet, chooses regular spicy food as a putative elixir for a longer life and discovers yet more evidence that atmospheric chemistry, not solar trends, is to blame for climate change. We also learn of how to make light matter. Finally, remembering Henry Moseley, whose World War I death may have been one of the most costly to humanity.

Mussels, oysters, barnacles and other marine creatures famously adhere
to rocks, piers, the ships of hulls despite their being submerged in
water. Materials scientists would like to be able to emulate these
sticky materials without resorting to the complex protein-based glues
that many such creatures use to get a fix. Now, a team at the
University of California Santa Barbara, USA, has demonstrated a small
molecule, a cationic amine, that can adhere impressively to a mica
surface, penetrate the hydration layer, evict potassium ions and
facilitate hydrogen bonding to the surface. The compound, a
siderophore that pairs catechol and lysine functionalities (present in
those mussel glues) could act as a model for developing adhesives for
medical and other applications.

Evidence of an ancient lake on Mars could be the biggest hint of habitable surface water, according to researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder, USA. The team examined data from a large chloride salt deposit (approximately the size of the city of Boulder itself) in the planet’s Meridiani region near the site where NASA's Mars Opportunity rover landed. On Earth at places like Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, such large-scale salt deposits are known to be the desiccated remnants of large bodies of water.

A possible link between eating spicy foods regularly and a lower "risk of death" was reported recently in the British Medical Journal. A study of almost half a million people in China aged 30-79 over the period 2004-2008 saw ten percent fewer deaths among those who reportedly ate spicy food twice or more a week. It is impossible to know from the research whether or not some chemical component of spicy foods, associated lifestyle choices or some other factor is at play, but the researchers suggest that future studies might lead to updated dietary recommendations and development of functional foods.

Corrected sunspot history suggests that solar trends are not to blame for climate change, pointing the finger of blame more squarely on atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. The so-called Maunder Minimum, of 1645 to 1715, saw very low sunspot activity coincide with harsh winters, which suggested a possible link between solar activity and climate change. However, there has been no upward trend in the three centuries since, which suggests that carbon emissions due to anthropic activity and the Industrial Revolution, instead underpin the climatic changes recorded during that time.

Calculations by scientists at TU Wien, Vienna, Austria, suggest that some materials might be able to amplify or absorb light and generate a new kind of undistorted light waves. “When such processes are possible, we have to employ a mathematical description of the light wave which is quite different from the one we use for normal, transparent materials,” explains Stefan Rotter. “In this case we speak of non-hermitian media.” In some sense, the material is invisible to the light wave, even though the light passes through the material and interacts with it. Next step is to actually make such materials and see to what uses they might be put.

Chemist Henry Moseley should be one of the most celebrated heroes of World War I. He determined what it is about atoms that makes each element distinct, gave us the foundations of spectroscopy and predicted three new elements of his own. But, his life was cut short at the age of 27 by a sniper's bullet at Gallipoli. Justin Wark of Trinity College, Oxford, where Moseley was an undergraduate, told this year’s Synchrotron Radiation User’s Meeting at Diamond that “What Moseley might have achieved is impossible to tell...there is no doubt that within a few short months, the insight he gave us into our world at the atomic level helped define and shape the modern view of how the physical universe operates.”