Science Channel - InSCIder

27 Jan

Nylon. The Fabric That Caused Riots!

Screen Shot 2016-01-27 at 5.58.24 PMDid you know the flag placed on the moon in 1969 was made of nylon? Did you know nylon is the only fabric that ever caused riots in the late 1940s as women snapped up the first consumer lots of nylons coming back to market after WWII?

From the moon to women’s legs, clearly nylon fabric is some pretty versatile stuff, but why and where did it come from anyway? Yep, we’re going to take nylon and wrap it up in a bow made out of science for you!

Nylon is the world’s first truly viable, synthetic fiber. So, it goes down in history for that too! Invented in 1935 by Wallace Carothers in DuPont’s Experimental Labs, nylon was created by taking two petroleum based chemicals and fusing them in an autoclave.

The process is called condensation polymerization. Basically by applying pressure and heat in an autoclave, scientists forced two chemical molecules (adipic acid and hexamethylenediamine) together. The heat and pressure forces the water molecules out of the chemicals (condensation) and the two bond creating a bigger and repeating molecule from the same components (polymerization).

What they had left was a sheet of nylon that could be chipped or ground up, melted and then pulled through machines that make different thicknesses of nylon strands. The strands can then be intertwined to make stronger, thicker pieces of nylon thread strong enough for industrial use, or can be spun fine for use in nylons and fine garments.

Aside from just tinkering around with chemicals and inventing new things – pretty big business in the 1930s, fashion was one of the other driving forces behind the invention of nylon. Once discovered though, alternate uses for the versatile and strong material took off.

The holy grail of fashion materials is the delicate, soft richness of silk. Until alternatives were found, silk was the go-to for high-end fabrics for high-end people. Since we had to rely on the spit of a worm found in Japan to produce it, it clearly had a demand that outpaced supply back in the day which was why it was so precious. If only there were something cheaper that could come close to the experience.

Before nylon, there was rayon, which was the man-made attempt at silk using thread created from the cellulose in wood. It just didn’t have the same appeal or surprising durability of silk. 

For a brief instant before nylon, Carothers’ team created polyester using esters (non-petroleum based chemicals). They stuffed that genie back in the bottle when it was found to have a high flammability and low solubility. Simultaneously, when the relative ease of making nylon appeared, its versatility and durability proven, the demand took off. Creating a more refined polyester that could be made into a fabric took a back seat. The 70s would have to wait for their fabric of choice.

The first nylon garment on offer was, of course, nylon stockings. After being displayed at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, women got to see up close how sheer and silk-like the nylon stockings were but also demonstrations on their strength. The folks at DuPont were no fools. They had picked a garment worn by most women and one they could create at a price point most could afford. Nylons were adopted en-masse, replacing expensive and delicate silks.

So adored were a woman’s nylons, there was a collective gritting of teeth when nylon factories switched from producing ladies’ undergarments to parachutes and other military uses. Intriguingly, women went so far as to paint fake seams on their legs to mimic the look of wearing stockings. It comes as no surprise then that when the first limited runs of nylon stockings came out after the War, women lined up and got fired up about getting their pair.

Even though nylon stockings have fallen out of favor in the 21st century, the historic fabric lives on in other undergarments and clothing. Silk will always be a luxury fabric we love in moderation. New delicate fabrics such as bamboo and hemp fabrics are now on offer. However, we would be hard pressed NOT to find garments of all sorts made from nylon in today’s offerings.

Our love for fine garments of all shapes and sizes isn’t even enough to deter us from taking the time to tenderly care for them. The hand-washing that went out the door with the washing machine came back with clothing made of nylon and other synthetics. They may be durable fabrics, but if the cut of the garment is delicate you have to weigh the balance.

Fortunately, there is a whole new generation of washing machines that now have a delicate cycle built in. There are even twin washers where you can wash your heavy duty items up top, and pamper your delicates in a machine down below at the same time.

Given you don’t even have to spend extra time hand washing now, nylon and all the synthetics that have followed since are here to stay. From the moon and back though, nylon is the only fabric so far that has literally caused people to riot in the streets to obtain a garment made from it.

Who knows what we’ll be wearing in the future, or what the flag on Mars will be made out of, but for the meantime we’ll always have our nylon!

PHOTO CREDIT: Fashion Photo by Erik Liljeroth 1954" by Erik Liljeroth, Nordiska museet. Licensed under CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

26 Jan

Did The Washing Machine Change the World?

Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 11.26.09 AMIt was around the turn of the 20th century that electricity was made available for home use. Shortly after that in 1904 or so, electric washing machines began being advertised. You can see our  problem right away. How could a washing machine be more important than electricity? Or any other huge inventions of the 20th century?

We didn’t create that headline as click bait. There really are economists and statisticians that believe the washing machine changed the world by freeing up women from their domestic labors. So it’s really a case of considering the social science along with the actual science, and adding a whole lot of context. 

In his 2010 book, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang examines census data from the 1940’s that showed having a washing machine changed the time a woman did a load of laundry from four hours to 41 minutes. That time shift is nothing short of incredible. By the 1950’s, when mass production of washing machines hit its height, Chang notes a surge in the female workforce and in more advanced countries doubling the workforce – and by doing so moving their economies forward.

Statistician Hans Rosling expands on the idea in his TED talk. He illustrates the importance of the time saved by washing machine. It brought freedom from time-consuming domestic work to learn to read and write, and explore their world around them. This in turn led women to begin to push the boundaries of voting rights and gave them the time and education to work outside the home and add to their family’s purse.

There is no doubt the gift of time brought by the washing machine opened a door for women and their contribution to society and the economy. But did it change the world more than any other invention? Here’s where the context comes in.

Chang and Rosling both use the washing machine as the “poster child” for household appliances that began to appear in the early 1900’s that changed women’s lives. They also include other items that gave valuable time back to women include the electric iron, refrigerators, electric or gas stoves and vacuum cleaners in their arguments. It may be one of the devices that gave back the most time, but it was not the only invention that began to change things for women.

In his paper The Electric Washing Machine and Society, Russell Erby looked at the census data of the same time period as Chang and Rosling. He also looked at advertising of time. The mighty washing machine was absolutely marketed as a time saver, but the ads still showed washing as “women’s work” or even as a solution to the servant problem. Erby argues the washing machine did nothing to change the perception that domestic chores were still the domain of women, and the time saved could be used for pursuits outside the home. He’s not wrong.

We love science, so what would a scientist do when looking at the case for or against the statement: “the washing machine changed the world.”  A scientist would look at the evidence. Where does that leave us?

In the realm of social science, it seems the washing machine is a great metaphor for changes the industrial revolution brought to the home at the turn of the century. The time it saved then became one of the catalysts that helped women step out of the home to change the world. In science we all know how important a catalyst is – it is a stimulus that creates another reaction or change.

Other catalysts for the rise of women outside of a pre-defined domestic sphere included the need for workers demanded by a World War, Wider education. The sexual revolution. All of these things were the lighting in a bottle that brought about a fundamental change in our world – essentially the other half of society joining the economy in earning and buying. That perfect storm of events led to the profound social and economic changes of the 20th century.

So while it can’t be said the washing machine was THE device that changed the world, we’re pretty happy with the evidence it certainly was a solid contributor to it. At the very least it is proven the washer is a perfect poster child for all the domestic devices that evolved with the times in both technology and efficiency to free up everyone from extra housework.

Way to go washing machine!

25 Jan

Niagara Falls To Be Dewatered?

New York State has announced they are proposing to “shut off” Niagara Falls sometime in the next few years. You may be reacting like us. First of all, HOW do you shut off an insane amount of water flowing over a cliff, and secondly, WHY??

We’ll start by saying diverting all this water is surprisingly possible. It was done once before in 1969, to study the effects of erosion and basically to see what was underneath all that water. It was done with a cofferdam, a engineering marvel that creates a watertight enclosure around a certain area of the water to divert the flow, and in some cases pump the inside dry. The plan is the same as in 1969, to use a cofferdam to divert the water from American Falls over to the larger Horseshoe falls leaving the American Falls to go dry, or be dewatered.

Let’s just take a second and think of the size of this project. It’s estimated that 75,750 gallons of water flow over the American and Bridal Veil Falls per second. PER SECOND. We think that qualifies as an interesting engineering marvel.  

As for the why part of the proposal to dewater the falls? This time the project is for safety reasons. New York State wants to repair the two stone-faced concrete arch bridges built in 1900, that give access to Goat Island. There were temporary repairs in 2004, but the main structure continues to erode.

There are people that remember when the falls last went dry in 1969. The Buffalo News recounts the stories of what was found when the water dried up and the curiosity the falls became with NO water.

Right now the plan is only at the proposal stage, and hearings will be held about the process and plans for the bridges. There are many that oppose the plan to dewater the falls for the second time in less than 50 years. Could the cofferdam damage it’s surroundings? Would the sun on the rocks change them irreparably? Not to mention, the various opinions on the design of the bridge repairs.

We’ll be watching to see what is decided. We love nature, but we also love an epic engineering project, so we’re on the sidelines on this one. Watch some video below from the first dewatering in 1969, find out how a coffer dam is made, and get the full story via The Buffalo News.

Plus vote in our Twitter and Facebook poll as to whether you agree if Niagara Falls should be dewatered.



24 Jan

Deflategate Controvery Debunked By Science

Even us science geeks love sports. It makes sense really – there are so many statistics, physics and basic laws of nature at play in any game that even if you aren’t into the art of the game itself and science lover can find something to fixate on. It’s a great way to see science fundamentals in action and played out in a way we can see and understand.

So it’s no surprise that scientists of all sorts were captivated by the infamous “deflategate” scandal of 2015. Did the New England Patriots knowingly use a deflated ball in last year’s A.F.C. championship game against the Indianapolis Colts, as the Colts asserted? After all, science is at the very heart of the issue. Using a deflated ball – one with a lower p.s.i. (pounds per square inch) – gives the receiver a greater advantage in catching it. Why? Because a deflated ball allows for a little give, a little bit more for the receiver to grab onto.

Now, there are a lot of ways a ball can get deflated from the NFL’s standard which ranges from 12.5 to 13.5 p.s.i.. The weather that day, chilly and rainy, could make the gases inside the ball contract. Handling after a play could warm it up again, or the time waiting to be measured could cause the p.s.i. to shift again. It’s the very heart of a science fundamental – the Ideal Gas Law which sets out fundamental behaviors of gases.

It’s this law, the ensuing debate and investigation by the NFL that captured the heart and mind of John Leonard, a professor at MIT. He teaches a course called “Measurement and Instrumentation,” so you can see where this would be a natural for him.

At the same time as the NFL’s hired investigators chewed over the situation, Leonard went into action using NFL regulation balls, testing temperature variations that could have existed in the field and locker rooms, working the p.s.i. numbers and came to a conclusion:

The NFL and their investigators were wrong. The Patriots were not at fault in Deflategate.

Leonard condensed his research to a 140 slide Power Point lecture and has used this real world controversy – which has its heart in science – as material for his classes. His message for the NFL? Have your scientists check your data. Twice, next time.

For his unyielding curiosity, his search for the truth behind this epic football controversy and his ability to connect science and sports and teach us all concepts in an interesting way, we give John Leonard the unofficial Science Channel Award for excellence. We usually confer this in the form of a virtual fist bump and the cry of #GOSCIENCE!

Read the full story about John Leonard’s search for the truth here in The New York Times. Plus, you can see a 15 minute segment of his Deflategate lecture right here!


20 Jan

The Four-Foot Rocket Flight and SpaceX’s Falcon 9

Science Channel fans, we know some of you remember seeing the footage of the explosions of the rockets on both sides of the U.S. vs. Soviet Space Race in the ‘50s and ‘60s. There were explosions, the shudder and pop of the parachute, and the rocket that lifted four feet then collapsed on itself. Then of course there is the generation of us who witnessed the horrific Challenger and Columbia Shuttle disasters. The point is, we can all recognize there have been failures along the way in pursuing the road to space exploration.

Despite the inability to land its reusable rocket on the floating platform over the weekend, the latest SpaceX Falcon 9 program is no different. There will be failures to learn from and lead to success.

We live in a much different world than that of Werner Von Braun when he was developing the precursors to the Saturn V rocket design that would go on to launch successfully 13 times and carried all the Apollo lunar missions. At that time, coverage of the many failures along the road were likely minimal and controlled. Footage of the tests were likely not even shown until years later. Of course now can have a look –even set to music.


Perhaps the biggest difference in spacecraft and rocketry development – aside from technological advancement of the rocketry itself is people around the world are watching SpaceX’s every move via web cam and social media. Then there are the inevitable public discussions about what went wrong, and whether they should keep trying. We can now all be back-seat rocket scientists.

This latest attempt when the Falcon 9 booster missed the landing on the floating barge, was by what appears to be just over four feet. They also believe they know the cause – a collet (a collar that would clamp down on a shaft) on leg No. 3 failed to latch. To have that level of telemetry and understanding on just their 21st mission, and the third attempt at re-landing the booster is pretty darn good.

The other part of this mission we should remember is that it actually WAS a was a success. The rocket was able to deliver NASA’s Jason 3 oceanography satellite, which will be help document our changing oceans.


So as we watch Elon Musk and the SpaceX ready for the next mission, remember that memorable four-foot rocket flight in Werner Von Braun’s career. It didn’t stop Von Braun from doggedly pursuing his goal, and eventually being key to taking Americans to the moon. Nor should this event stop Elon Musk’s team from stopping to advance humans further into space, and perhaps one day, colonizing Mars.

In fact, we think wherever he is in the stars, Von Braun might be watching the new advancements being made in rocketry with great enthusiasm and sympathy. He perfected his Saturn V with the world watching – but in a much more controlled fashion. Musk and SpaceX has us all looking over his shoulder (even here at Science Channel) and debating every move. In fact, Von Braun and Musk would probably have been great friends. It turns out Von Braun was obsessed with colonizing Mars as much as Musk.

Perhaps in future missions – whether it’s SpaceX, Blue Origin or NASA – we will stop using the word "failure." Every rocket, every launch, every test a step further to understanding how to get it right!

After all, we had to get past the infamous four-foot flight, and spectacular explosions to get to the moon, so we perhaps we can refer to each current step as progress to get to Mars...and beyond.

What do you all think? What is a better word than failure.

20 Jan

Scientists Report Evidence for "Planet X," the New Ninth Planet Far Beyond Pluto

In a paper just published in The Astronomical Journal today, two CalTech scientists report compelling circumstantial evidence for the existence of “Planet X.” The mysterious ninth planet. Dr. Michael E. Brown and Dr. Konstantin Batygin base their evidence on extensive computer modeling focusing on the far reaches of the solar system, beyond Pluto.

The tip off comes in the form of six objects observed to be in some kind of orbital cluster. While they have wildly varying elliptical orbits, they all loop and tilt in the same direction. This kind of orbital tracking has been the tip of for the existence of other planets before. In fact, the orbit of Netpune predicted the existence of Uranus. Scientists put the odds of this type of orbital cluster happening naturally at a 1 in 14,000 to 15,000.

It is believed this ninth planet would be somewhere near the size of Neptune and somewhere around 10 times the mass of our Earth. That would dwarf poor Pluto.

The mindblowing aspect of Planet X is its distance. It would be somewhere around 20 billion miles from the sun at its closest, and in its farthest point it would be 100 billion miles. To give you context, Pluto is closest to the sun at 4.6 billion miles. With these kind of numbers it is estimated it would take an astounding 10,000 to 20,000 years to complete just ONE orbit around the sun.

Keep in mind this evidence is circumstantial, but strong. The scientists haven’t actually SEEN the ninth planet yet, but Brown and Batygin believe it could be spotted by telescope in the next five years.

No matter what happens in the next five years, we’ll still always hold a place in our hearts for Pluto. Explore these videos which explain the orbital cluster and show an animation of "Planet X."




14 Jan

Why You’ll Play Powerball Again: The Peanut Effect And More

For all but three of you out there, you lost the Powerball lottery. I feel your pain. I’ll also probably see you in line for the next big draw. So why do we continue to play if we never win or make just enough to pay off our ticket?

Trace over at DNews looked into some of the psychology behind our obsession with playing the lottery. It turns out there are many different psychological reasons why we continue to take that little risk. Take it away Trace, and then I’ll weigh in with my favorite finds:


I totally get the idea of the enjoying the fantasy of what we would do if we won, and continuing to gratify that need to dream. Personally, I’d buy an apartment in every major city.

But back to reality for a second. There are even more reasons why we play, and one I could really relate to. When the jackpot gets as large as it did this week it becomes a part of our pop culture. People are talking about it. They’re buying individual tickets and they’re joining office or friend pools. Call it a bit of peer-pressure combined with the desire to be a part of the social conversation, but the buzz around the office made me pitch in some cash.

The other interesting study that resonated with me came from Carnegie Mellon University in 2008, that was published in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making. They wanted to know why people with lower incomes tended to buy more lottery tickets. It all boils down what’s called “the peanut effect.”

The nuts and bolts of the study looked at three groups. The first group were only given $1 at a time and were asked if they wanted to use it for the lottery. The second group were give $5 but the choice of how much of that they wanted to use for the lottery. The last group also got $5 but they could only use all of the money for the lottery or not spend it.

You can probably guess the results. As they progressed through each group the percentage that spent their money on lottery tickets decreased. The less you have to spend – say a dollar at a time – is so small in a person’s mind compared to the potential payback it seems like a cheap, doable risk to take. But if you have $5 to work with, that money could go to a more meaningful purchase. So essentially a small amount of money is like “peanuts.”

While this study was linked to poor people, it’s likely the peanut effect creeps up on all of us. If it’s a low barrier to entry why not give it a shot? That’s a concept a lot of us can relate to.

It may take a few months, but when that jackpot rises again, we’ll see you in line! In the meantime check out the Carnegie study here.

13 Jan

Do Young Inventors Think Differently? See Five Amazing Inventions from Kids in 2015

These are our favorite kind of stories – those with children and young adults driven by need and curiosity coming up with some of the most amazing inventions. DNews has profiled five incredible kids and their inventions in one of their 2015 end of year wrap-ups, and we had to share.

The best part about these inventors is their ideas aren’t limited by their age. They tackled big issues, from creating a braille printer for developing countries using Lego Mindstorms to working with special disease detecting enzymes to create a low cost, low effort test for Ebola.

Whether these inventions came from just wanting to crush it at their school’s science fair to entries at many of the STEM/Inventors challenges around the world, these top five inventions show that many kids have the knack for invention. In fact, some of their ideas tackle multiple tasks at the same time! That’s pretty impressive!

When you watch “Top Five Most Incredible Kid Inventions” it stirs wonder at their knowledge of the world and their agility at using the tools they had around them. There seems to be a theme – even for a complex idea the executions seem to focus on simplicity so their invention can have the maximum impact. That’s an interesting thought for inventors of all ages – perhaps these young inventors didn’t complicate their creative process with the same kind of baggage many of us adults have? Perhaps they never thought – “Oh no, we can’t do it that way,” or “This is too big of a problem to solve, “or “We don’t have the tools to do that.”

Science Channel fans, weigh in! Do you think younger inventors think with a different filter than their adult counterparts? Do you think they focus less on barriers to solution and just fixate on a solution? This question is in no way based on science or some psychological story we've seen, but just what your gut feeling is when you see what these kids have come up with. Whether there is a difference or not, one thing is clear, and that is there is a promising new generation of problem solvers out there. We can wait to see what's next!


12 Jan

Hey Virtual Reality – What Have You Done For Me Lately?

My good friend Trace Dominguez over at DNews just weighed in with a great overview of the VR googles that were THE talk of CES2016, and will soon hit the marketplace. Unless you are a hardcore gamer, you are probably asking the same question I am – what will this technology do for me?  Let’s listen to Trace and then we'll look at a few ways different people might actually use this technology:


As mentioned earlier, some of the first adopters of virtual reality will likely be gamers. Wearing goggles as you move through an online quest or first person shooter will bring a depth and urgency to perform as though your life depended on it.

Gaming is only one aspect of how virtual reality could change the way you receive your entertainment. For example, content creators like Discovery Channel VR and others will be creating custom content that allows you to become a character in your favorite show. You can join the Mythbusters and virtually dive with sharks (probably the best way to start), or explore a virtual space station where anything can happen. Crisp visuals combined with the right sound immerses you in a complete way.

There’s plenty to do that doesn’t involve relating to our television shows. Surf, ski or skateboard some of the world’s most incredible places, or become immersed in a news story as though you were a witness. There will soon likely be virtual reality experiences from many content providers that exist to transport people to places they may not be able to get to.

So perhaps you don’t care about seeing the world right now. You want to watch football, basketball and hockey. Well, imagine if you could always get a seat courtside or in the end zone via virtual reality cameras capturing the game for you and streaming to your headset? You definitely don’t have to be a hard core gamer to see the value of having not only he best seat in the house at sporting even, but ALL the best seats as games get covered from every angle. That seat may come at a subscription or one-off price, but for many sports fans it will be the Holy Grail.

In the end, if may also be a case of not what virtual reality has done for your directly, but what it does for people who touch your lives in many different ways. Imagine the pilot being able to train landing at specific airports by slipping on a pair of VR goggles? Or the training doctors could have by being able to practice on virtual organs or bodies? Those football players that you might watch in VR? Well, they're beginning to train in VR as well. It seems the future is already here.

Even more astounding is the story of a doctor who helped repair an infant patient’s severely damaged heart by downloading pictures of her heart to his phone via an app called Sketchfab, and using the inexpensive Google cardboard googles to study her heart in all dimensions to help plan his life saving surgery. The 3D experience using the Google goggles allowed the doctor to look at her heart in a different way and create a new solution. That’s a pretty darn cool use of virtual reality.

So get ready to toss out the notion those VR headsets are creepy and just a novelty. It looks and sounds like 2016 IS the year of virtual reality.

Want more CES tech? Tune in tonight at 8P for 2016 in Tech: What's Ahead?

7 Jan

The Turntable Is Back. But Why?

In a venue where everything is new, something old school is making a statement at CES. The classic turntable is back, but with high end and functional tweaks for the modern world.

We all know someone who has their crate of vinyl records from days gone by. We also know those musicians who are beginning to release on vinyl again, looking to embrace the difference in sound quality. That’s why Sony and Technics both have turntables on display at CES 2016.

Get the story on Sony’s PS-HX500 turntable, which in addition to improvements in the arm and vibration control has the hugely useful advantage of not only being “analog,” also has a USB which captures the sound quality of your beloved vinyl with high res output allowing you to upload your music to your modern devices. That’s pretty cool, so join us waiting on the release date!


The other turntable entry at CES is the return of the Panasonic turntable. Their Technics SL-1200GAE, is the modern version of the original Technics 1200 from way back in 1972.

The hook here is the Technics turntables have been preferred by professional DJs for their sound output and control. When they went out of production in 2010 is caused a huge outcry from audiophiles, so you can imagine the much enhanced, and limited-edition 2016 models are made to crush it with vibration control and more.

The Verge has a great review of what Technics is bringing to the party.

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