I’ll see your plutonium and raise you one microgram of californium

californium-knows-how-to-party

When comparing apples and oranges, the former sell for nearly double the latter, at least according to what’s available at a nearby grocery store. Yet the price per ounce – 10 cents and 5 cents, respectively – are miniscule compared to some of the world’s rarer materials.

Consider white truffles: An ounce of the prized fungus, which grows for just a couple of months of the year almost exclusively in one part of Italy and is best located by special pigs, sells for more than $140 an ounce. Seem excessive? That doesn’t even begin to compare with some even more expensive items, according to the online publication Visual Capitalist.

Saffron, a spice native to Greece and Southwest Asia and used mainly as a seasoning and coloring agent in food, goes for more than $310 an ounce.

Palladium, a rare metal used in catalytic converters, among a number of items, sells for more $500 an ounce, while gold, the monetary standby of yore, is currently fetching nearly $1,200 an ounce.

Iranian beluga caviar, taken from sturgeon found mainly in the Caspian Sea, brings nearly $1,000 an ounce.

Yet those don’t come close to some upper-end items, according to the Visual Capitalist.

Plutonium, the radioactive element used in the first atomic bomb and employed at nuclear power plants, goes for more than $110,000 an ounce.

The Visual Capitalist estimated that an ounce of high-quality diamonds, nearly 142 carats, would sell for more than $1.8 million.

Finally, californium, a man-made element used to help start up nuclear reactors, would sell for more than $750 million an ounce – if that much californium could ever be produced.

Today, californium can be made only in milligram amounts and is available from the US government for $10 per millionth of a gram, a microgram.

How big would one-millionth of gram of californium be? I don’t know, but it’s probably not something you want to trust the summer intern with.

(Top: Slightly humorous meme in place of image of Californium, which is so small and rare that no decent image of it can be found on the internet.)

Feed a Bee program results in 65 million+ new flowers in US

feed a bee

More than 65 million flowers were planted in 2015 as part of initiative to feed honey bees and other pollinating insects across the United States.

More than 250,000 consumers and 70 organizations took part in Bayer’s Feed a Bee initiative last year, according to Southeast Farm Press.

When bees have access to adequate, diverse food sources they are better able to withstand the stresses caused by the Varroa mite, as well as other mites and diseases, according to recent studies.

The Varroa mite attaches itself to the body of the honey bee and weakens the bee by sucking hemolymph, the fluid which circulates in the bodies of insects. This can cause problems such as the deformed wing virus to spread throughout hives and can ultimately result in a hive’s death.

Through Feed a Bee, Bayer is working to increase forage options for bees and other pollinators at a time when agriculture is relying on them more to help produce enough food to feed a growing world population, the publication noted.

“When we talk to the public, the most common question we hear is, ‘What can I do to help bees?’ Providing pollinators with abundant, diverse food sources is one of the most important things we can all do to promote bee health,” according to Becky Langer, manager of the North American Bee Care Program.

“We created Feed a Bee to make it easy for people to be involved, and we are delighted with the overwhelming response,” she added. “We look forward to getting even more people involved this year.”

Honey bees play a critical role in pollinating many of the fruits, nuts and vegetables which contribute to a healthy, nutritious diet. Given the important role bees play in US agriculture, Bayer undertook the Feed a Bee initiative to help the insects thrive.

“Lack of diverse food sources is a major obstacle to improving honey bee health,” according to the Feed a Bee website. “Quite simply, bees do not have access to all the pollen and nectar sources that they need.”

Feed a Bee seeks to create forage areas with a wide range of bee-attractant plants. It also strives to educate consumers about pollinator food shortages and works with them to plant tens of millions of flowers to increase bee-forage areas.

“We’ve seen some great news in pollinator health in the past year from increasing population numbers to heightened involvement from consumers and other stakeholders,” said Jim Blome, president and CEO of Crop Science, a division of Bayer. “We still have much work to do to ensure the future health of our honey bee colonies, but we hope the foundation we have from Feed a Bee will continue to bring more partners to the table.”

Mercury used in western mining: Where did it all go?

Gould_&_Curry mine comstock lode

Advances in US mining in recent decades have helped reduce the industry’s impact on the environment. While there is still room for additional progress, the difference between today and 125 years ago is staggering.

Consider the amount of mercury that was used – and ultimately dumped – into western rivers in the second half of the 19th century in the quest for silver.

Mercury, or as it was better known then, quicksilver, was critical in the removal of silver and gold from ore in the western United States. As the Alta California newspaper noted in 1890, it was pretty easy to determine how much mercury ended up rivers, streams and land: however much was used.

“In the silver mines of a certain region, in order to ascertain the amount of quicksilver dissipated and lost, it is only necessary to know the amount bought, for not an ounce is ever sent out from the mines to be sold,” the publication wrote in January 1890.

The paper estimated that between 1860 and 1889, more than 20.5 million pounds of mercury was used just in the huge silver strikes in the Comstock Lode in western Nevada. While some was likely vaporized, making the surrounding atmosphere toxic, most of the element seeped into the environment, according to the Alta California.

In Nevada, mercury was used to extract silver and gold from ore through the Washoe Process, a concentrating process in which silver was mixed with mercury, either in a drum or on an amalgamation table, where the precious metal bond with mercury. The resulting product was called amalgam.

The silver was then recovered from the mercury by retorting, which involves distilling off the mercury from the amalgam.

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What not to step on while ambling around Africa

Puff-Adder

How’s this for lethality? An African snake noted for its potent venom, aggressive behavior and ability to ambush its prey, also has the benefit of being able to camouflage its scent.

The puff adder, found from the Arabian Peninsula all the way across the continent to Gambia and Senegal, and down to the Cape of Good Hope, is capable of masking it sent from would-be predators, according to a new study in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

“One of the reasons the snake so effective is that the animal has no observable scent, a team of researchers from the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa have discovered,” according to the website Red Orbit. “The study team said the snake uses a type of olfactory camouflage referred to as ‘chemical crypsis.’”

Scientists in the study trained both dogs and meerkats to identify the scent of various snakes. Both animals could differentiate between cloths that smelled like snakes and those that didn’t. The meerkats had been only exposed to brown snakes and puff adders – since those two snakes are the only ones that live in their habitat in the wild.

The two animals were actually equally incapable of selecting the scent of the puff adder.

The puff adder is a fairly thick snake that sits still and watches for prey, which includes mammals, birds, amphibians and lizards that happen by. But the adder’s scentless nature might not just serve its hunting game.

“While it’s extremely poisonous, it’s not very quick. The scientists noted that in previous reports that followed puff adders, the more mobile the snake was, the greater chance it would be caught by predators,” according to Red Orbit. “Scentlessness could be for the snake’s protection, the researchers said.”

Puff adders, normally about 3 to 4 feet in length, are a delightful species of snake; they have been known to bite humans multiple times in an attack, and half of serious untreated bites result in death.

Victims can experience pain, bleeding, renal failure and “compartment syndrome” – a condition where organs swell up to the point they restrict their own blood flow.

The snake is responsible for the most snakebite deaths in Africa due to a combination of factors, including wide distribution, common occurrence, large size, potent venom that is produced in large amounts, long fangs, their habit of basking by footpaths and sitting quietly when approached.

In addition, the relative lack of antivenin in rural Africa plays a role in the snake’s lethality.

While less than 5 percent of total puff adder bites result in death, that figure is higher than the overall death rate in Africa from snake bits, which is well below 2 percent. However, amputations and other surgeries are common in response to the bite of the snake, however.

(Top: Puff adder in action.)

Gerard of Cremona’s role in reinvigorating medieval Europe

Toledo-Spain

Polyglots are a fascinating breed. As one who has worked all his life, and is still working, to gain mastery of a single language, I have mucho admiration for those who easily and fluently pick up additional tongues.

My maternal grandfather, a native of Italy who immigrated to the U.S. more than a century ago, could speak multiple languages, including Italian, French and English, along with a variety of others, due to the fact he grew up in the far northeastern part of the country, near a variety of shifting borders.

I am living proof that being a polyglot is not an inherited trait. I failed English in 6th and 7th grade, and came close again in 10th grade. In addition, I barely made it through two years of college French (mandatory for graduation).

Of course, upon reflection I have recognized that study habits – or lack thereof – were largely responsible for my early inability to learn the intricacies of English, as well as the basics of French. At least, I’d like to think so.

Yet, there is no question that for a special few individuals, the ability to learn languages is indeed a gift.

Take Gerard of Cremona, an Italian who found himself drawn to the intellectual riches of the Spanish city of Toledo in the 12th century. Toledo during this period was a true multi-religious melting pot, with Christians, Jews and Muslims living, working and learning side by side.

Gerard, who was born around 1114, is believed to have traveled to Spain in his late 20s due to the lack of written scholarship available in his native area.

Toledo, the former provincial capital of the Caliphate of Cordoba, had been conquered by Alfonso VI of Castile in 1085 but had remained a seat of learning, with protected Jewish and Muslim areas.

The city was full of libraries and possessed an abundance of manuscripts. It represented one of the few places in medieval Europe where a Christian such as Gerard could be exposed to Arabic language and culture, along with extensive written scholarship dating back to the Greeks.

What Gerard saw upon his arrival in Toledo staggered him; myriad books in Arabic on every subject, all nearly unknown in Latin.

Like any true polyglot, Gerard first taught himself Arabic, then proceeded to work his way through Toledo’s libraries, “churning out translations of at least seventy major works previously unavailable in the Latin-speaking west,” according to Chris Lowney in A Vanished World: Medieval Spain’s Golden Age of Enlightenment.

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Pecans truffles growing in status with Southern gourmets

pecan-truffles-700

They may not have the allure of white truffles found in northern Italy, but pecan truffles are growing in popularity among Southern US gastronomes.

Pecan truffles, first discovered in the 1980s, are a growing commodity in Georgia, and they’re catching on with gourmets, who are increasingly experimenting with them.

Dr. Tim Brenneman, a University of Georgia plant pathologist, has researched pecan truffles since he discovered them in the mid 1980s. His research involves inoculating trees with the fungus responsible for truffles, according to Southeast Farm Press.

“Right now, the main limitation for truffles is lack of consistent availability,” Brenneman said. “They’re underground; they’re hard to find. We’re doing research on producing truffles more consistently by inoculating trees with the fungus, and then, when you plant the trees, it may take a while, but they will eventually start growing truffles on their roots.”

While white truffles sell for as much as $1,200 a pound wholesale, pecan truffles are a little more affordable, going for between $200 and $300 a pound, according to Southeast Farm Press.

As an ectomycorrhizal fungi, truffles are often found near tree roots.

Pecan truffles vary in color from light to dark brown, and range in size from a small ball bearing up to a golf ball, with some occasionally larger. Most will have lobes and irregularities, and have a conspicuously “marbled” appearance with alternating streaks of brown and white.

The hard part, as with more expensive varieties, is locating the esteemed fungi. Now, just as in Europe, individuals are turning to truffle dogs.

“In the past, nearly all of the truffles we had in Georgia were just found by people going out with rakes during late summer at pecan harvest, when the truffles were being exposed, and picking them up,” Brenneman said. “Having dogs that are specifically trained for these truffles really helps find the truffles. It also improves the quality of truffles found because they’re locating the mature truffles. The dogs just go to the ones that have the strongest odor, and those are the most mature truffles and most desired by the chefs using them.”

There is high demand for truffles, especially from chefs, but there are only a few people marketing truffles and not a large supply.

Brenneman first discovered pecan truffles in the soil around pecan trees in commercial orchards in south Georgia. It also has been found in Texas and Florida.

It thrives in some pecan orchards and, in favorable years, can be found readily. Some growers report sweeping them up with the pecans at harvest, only to separate them out with sticks, rocks and other debris, and disposing of them.

Brenneman noted that it is very different from renowned white and black truffles, found primarily in Europe. The pecan truffles is a unique fungus with a flavor and texture all its own.

(Top: Pecan truffles shown amid pecans in a south Georgia orchard. Photo credit: Dr. Tim Brenneman.)

New Tanzanian president puts nation’s well-being first

Dr-John-Magufuli

In a move governments around the world could learn from, newly elected Tanzanian President John Magufuli has cancelled Independence Day celebrations, instead ordering money to go toward cleaning the African nation.

“It is so shameful that we are spending huge amounts of money to celebrate 54 years of independence when our people are dying of cholera,” Magufuli said in a statement read on state television late Monday.

Cholera has killed about 60 people in Tanzania in the past three months, with more than 5,000 cases reported, according to the World Health Organization.

Tanzania celebrates its independence from the United Kingdom on Dec. 9. This coming anniversary will mark the first time since gaining independence that Tanzania has not held a celebration.

While Mugufuli’s party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi, has governed since colonial rule ended in 1961, the new president, elected last month, appears poised to change direction with the call to clean.

Independence Day celebrations are usually marked with a presidential address, a military parade and performances by music groups at the National Stadium in Dar es Salaam, according to the BBC.

A spokesman for Magufuli did not say how much would be saved by cancelling Independence Day celebrations, but said the money would be spent on hospitals and the fight against cholera – a major problem in poor areas which lack adequate sanitation.

Magufuli, 56, has announced a variety of austerity cuts and crackdowns on public corruption since taking office, including a ban on superfluous foreign travel by government officials.

Last week, he ordered the cost of a party to inaugurate the new parliament to be slashed from $100,000 to $7,000, the BBC added.

He also fired the head of the main state hospital after finding patients sleeping on the floor during a surprise visit to the facility.

Magufuli, first elected to Parliament in 1995, earned a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Dar es Salaam in 1988. He also earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in chemistry from the University of Dar es Salaam, in 1994 and 2009, respectively.

Prior to his election as president, Magufuli served as Minister of Works (2000-2006 and 2010-1015), Minister of Lands and Human Settlement (2006-2008) and Minister of Livestock and Fisheries (2008-2010).

(Top: New Tanzanian President John Magufuli earlier this month.)