The Genie in the Bottle: 68 All New Commentaries on the Fascinating Chemistry of Everyday Lifeby Joe Schwarcz
Think of the word "chemistry." What comes to mind? "Difficult?" "Boring?" "Pollution?" The adjectives "Interesting," "Exciting," "Amazing" almost never roll of the tongue. Until, that is, one picks up The Genie in the Bottle. In 67 delightful essays, popular science writer Joe Schwarcz reminds us that with every breath and feeling we are experiencing/i>
Think of the word "chemistry." What comes to mind? "Difficult?" "Boring?" "Pollution?" The adjectives "Interesting," "Exciting," "Amazing" almost never roll of the tongue. Until, that is, one picks up The Genie in the Bottle. In 67 delightful essays, popular science writer Joe Schwarcz reminds us that with every breath and feeling we are experiencing chemistry. A sequel to Schwarcz’s best-selling Radar, Hula Hoops, and Playful Pigs, this collection of essays blends quirky anecdotes about everyday chemistry with engaging tales from the history of science. Inside, readers will . . .
Get a different twist on licorice and travel to the dark side of the sun. Control stinky feet and bend spoons and minds. Learn about the latest on chocolate research, flax, ginkgo biloba, magnesium, and blueberries. Read about the ups of helium and the downs of drain cleaners. Find out why bug juice is used to color ice cream, how spies used secret inks and how acetone changed the course of history. "Dr. Joe" also solves the mystery of the exploding shrimp and, finally, he lets us in on the secret of the genie in the bottle.
Infused with the author’s humor, show-biz savvy, and magic, The Genie in the Bottle celebrates some of the least visited corners of the science universe.
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Read an Excerpt
Feeling hot, hot, hot
I've always felt that in order to take a proper stand on an issue, one needs to have actually experienced it--you can't pan a book without having read it. This makes it tough for most of us to say anything about capital punishment. But I've actually tried it--or something very close to it and I didn't like it. I would venture to say that few would. It was rated at 100,000 scoville units, which places the hot pepper sauce that was nearly responsible for my execution roughly in the same category as glowing charcoal. Actually, I haven't tried chomping on glowing charcoal--it may be more pleasant.
Just what is a scoville unit? Way back in 1912 pharmacist Wilbur Scoville figured the world needed a way to measure the spiciness of peppers. So he devised the Scoville Organoleptic Scale. This involved a brave panel of judges who sampled increasingly diluted extracts of hot peppers until the taste became undetectable. The hottest pepper tested, the habanero, came in between 200,000 and 300,000 scovilles, cayenne at 35,000 and the popular jalapeno at about 4000. The compounds responsible for these scovilles, for the"heat" of all peppers, are the capsaicinoids, in particular one called capsaicin. Pure capsaicin is rated at a mind and mouth numbing 16,000,000 scoville units! It is not reported whether the taste panel involved in determining this rating actually came back alive from their experience.
The chemistry of such an experience is now quite well understood. Capsaicin interacts with a specific protein, a "receptor," on the surface of nerve cells and triggers an influx of calcium into the cell. This then liberatesa string of amino acids known as "substance P" from nerve endings which send the pain message to the brain.
And that pain can be intense. Pity the young man who burst into a clinic in Chicago, waving his hands and moaning in pain. With some difficulty he described that he had been in the midst of preparing a Hunan Chinese lunch with hot peppers when he began to experience a terrible burning sensation in his fingertips. The pain started to radiate up his arm, his face turned red, he perspired profusely and began to feel faint. A quick medical history revealed that just prior to the painful onslaught he had been sanding furniture. Now the sequence of events became clear to the attending physician.
The unfortunate gentleman's finger tips had been abraded by the sanding and the capsaicin from the peppers was directly absorbed into his bloodstream. Treatment with a local anesthetic cream brought relief from "Hunan Hand." Yet as painful as this may seem, imagine the torture of "Jalapeno Eye." This time the victim was a backyard gardener who had just picked her crop of jalapeno peppers. She then washed her hands and proceeded to. . . you guessed it: put in her contacts. For reasons that would be immediately apparent to this unhappy gardener, a special capsaicin preparation called "pepper spray" is used by the police to subdue rioters or violent criminals. It works. It's pretty tough to keep rioting when your eyes feel like glowing charcoal. There is concern however, that in some rare cases the effect may be more than desired. Like death. This apparently can happen from an overdose of capsaicin. Examination of such cases has suggested that some people, particularly if they suffer from mental illness or are under the influence of drugs, may not be stopped by the usual dose of pepper spray. Police officers may then resort to excessive use.
On the otherr hand, you wouldn't worry about excessive use if you were in the Alaskan wilderness gazing into the eyes of a charging bear. Instead, you would quickly reach for the "Bear Guard" pepper spray, guaranteed to stop that bear in its tracks. Would it actually work though? Well, nobody really knows. The Environmental Protection Agency has discouraged the use of such products because the manufacturers have been unable to submit data to show that the product is effective. Not surprising when one considers the experiments required to do the testing.
While deterring bears with capsaicin may be questionable, squirrels are a different story. They hate hot peppers. And of course, to the great annoyance of bird fanciers, squirrels love bird seed. Birds, as it turns out, have no receptors for capsaicin and are therefore immune to its effects. So why not treat bird seed with capsaicin to keep the rodents away? Such products are actually being developed under the "Squirrel Free" brand and are pretty hot. A pungency of about 20,000 Scoville Units is needed to get squirrels to high tail it and this requires about thirty dried habaneros per pound of birdseed.
Habaneros can also spice up paint. This was the brainstorm of an American sailor, Ken Fischer. One day, while eating a devilled egg topped with tabasco sauce, he had an idea. Boaters are constantly palgued by barnacles, tubeworms and zebra mussels that glue themselves to their botas' hull and increase drag. The fire in Ken's mouth made him wonder if barnacles and the other creatures could be repelled by the same sensation. With the help of the McCormick spice company he came up with "Barnacle Ban" which is more environmentally friendly than the toxic metal based anti-fouling paints commonly used. It does not kill the barnacles, it just encourages them to find a "cooler" climate.
And if sea creatures can be discouraged with capsaicin, why not insects? Fruits and vegetables are extremely prone to insect infestation and pesticides which are non-toxic to humans would be most welcome. Enter "Hot Pepper Wax." If infested crops are sprayed with this wax, 70% of the insects are killed by over-stimulation of their nervous system. The capsaicin causes them to defecate endlessly until they die. Lovely. In humans, this same over-stimulation can have a different effect: Ironically, it can kill pain! In particular, the excrutiating variety associated with shingles.
Shingles is caused by the same virus that is responsible for chicken pox. After the symptoms of chicken pox disappear, the "varicella-zoster" virus can take up residence in the nervous system in an inactive form. Many years later, usually due to a weakening of the immune system with age or disease, the virus can become active. The result is then not chicken pox, but shingles.
Shingles derives from the Latin "cingulum" meaning belt because the blisters and rash that are the hallmarks of the disease usually form around the waist. Other areas of the body, such as the face, can also be involved. The symptoms usually disappear after a few weeks, but in rare cases the pain can persist for months or even years. "Postherpetic neuralgia" can make the skin so sensitive that even clothing cannot be tolerated.
Now there is some hope for the management of this horrendous pain with a cream formulated with capsaicin. Apparently, after triggering an initial release of substance P, capsaicin prevents nerve cells from reaccumulating it. The medication is not problem free. As one would expect from a product formulated with hot peppers, the cream itself can produce a burning sensation on the skin, although this usually subsides with prolonged application.
There have also been encouraging reports about the use of capsaicin based creams in the treatment of arthritis and neurological pain associated with diabetes. Even capsaicin poultices for low back pain are available. The compound appears to be a very safe medication; in fact examination of the stomach through a gastroscope after introducing the spicy substance orally has shown no irritation. And wait, there's more. Capsaicin has anticoagulant properties and may reduce the risk of stroke and heart disease. It even appears to prevent carcinogens from binding to DNA, and therefore has been termed an "anticarcinogen."
Furthermore, an Italian study has shown relief of pain from cluster headaches by spraying capsaicin up the nostril on the side of the face where the headaches occur. Based on my own experience with capital Punishment, I don't know about that one. And what can you do if you have been capitally Punished? Water is useless since capsaicin is insoluble in it. But a liquid with some fat, like whole milk, will do. The best solvent for capsaicin, though, is alcohol. So your final request should be a margarita.
Meet the Author
Dr. Joe Schwarcz is a professor of chemistry and the Director of the Office for Chemistry and Society at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. He hosts a weekly phone-in radio show, is a regular on Canadian television, gives numerous public lectures, regularly contributes feature stories to the Washington Post, and writes a weekly column for the Montreal Gazette. He has received many honors, including the prestigious American Chemical Society’s Grady-Stack Award for Interpreting Chemistry for the Public. "Dr. Joe" lives in Montreal.
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