Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Viscera: Stomach

(Learn more about the organs of the human bodies in other posts in the Viscera series here:

The stomach is an organ that is well-known, so much so that the abdomen is often colloquially referred to as “the stomach”. It is an important organ that is part of the digestive tract, responsible for breaking down food that comes in through the mouth then the oesophagus. The stomach lies centrally and just below the sternum, surrounded by the liver on the right, spleen on the left and pancreas below.

Food is broken down primarily by the mouth via chewing. Once you swallow, the food is squeezed through the oesophagus until it is dumped into the stomach. The stomach produces a very strong acid (hydrochloric acid, pH 1~2), which dissolves the chewed food. It enhances this process by contracting its powerful wall muscles to churn and mix the food. Once it is nicely dissolved into a thick liquid, it releases it into the duodenum (the first part of the small intestine).

If the stomach uses strong acid to breakdown food, which is organic matter, how come it does not digest itself? This is because the lining of the stomach is coated with a substance called mucin which protects the stomach wall from being corroded by acid. However, the stomach is not perfectly safe from the acid it produces. If the stomach becomes inflamed, the production of mucin and self-repair process of the stomach is limited and acid begins dissolving the stomach lining. This causes peptic ulcers to form, which is essentially a hole in the lining of the stomach, causing severe abdominal pain and occasionally bleeding. Peptic ulcers are commonly caused by an infection by a bacteria called Helicobacter pylori. It may also be caused by severe stress and anger or medications such as NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, e.g. ibuprofen, diclofenac/Voltaren).

Posted in Science & Nature

Wine Aging

One of the (many) defining features of a “great wine” is the aging of the wine. The complex chemical reactions between the wine’s sugars, acids and tannins can produce a much deeper, sophisticated aroma and taste that stays in the mouth for longer. For example, the tannins break down to give a softer mouthfeel. Acids and alcohols combine in the wine to form esters – chemical compounds that produce very unique smells. This also reduces the perceived acidic taste of the wine, making it less sour. The longer the wine has aged, the more of these chemical reactions occurs and the wine typically improves in quality.

Of course, the problem with wine of excellent quality is the price and the time required to age the wine. Is there any way to artificially “age” wine? The solution lies in something that sounds like science fiction: irradiating the wine.

If you expose a bottle of wine to radiation (about 500 rads) for an hour, it can greatly improve its maturity. In a simple experiment, blind-tasted sommeliers could not believe that the two glasses of wine – one before irradiation and one after – were exactly the same. In fact, they valued the irradiated wine at almost five times the market price of the original bottle. The reason for this is that radiation accelerates the esterification process of the acids in the wine, producing a much deeper and smoother taste.
There are also other experiments that have shown that magnetism, ultra-sonic waves and high-voltage electricity can all be used to artificially age wine.

Although radiation does not turn people into superheroes, it turns out it can for wine.

Posted in Science & Nature

Badass Weapons Of Nature: Bombardier Beetle

The bombardier beetle, or Brachymus creptians, has a “machine gun”. When attacked, it makes an explosive sound and spouts smoke.
This beetle combines chemicals from two separate glands to make the smoke. 
The first gland produces a solution of 25% hydrogen peroxide and 10% hydroquinone, while the second gland produces peroxidase, an enzyme that catalyses the reaction. When these solutions are combined and heated to 100°C, smoke and nitric acid vapour is produced and explosively released.

If you put your hand close to a bombardier beetle, it will rapidly release a scalding, noxious, red vapour. This nitric acid will cause blisters on afflicted skin.
Bombardier beetles also know how to aim the tip of its abdomen to target an enemy. Via this method, it can hit a target a few centimetres away. Even if it misses, the explosive sound will scare away any predator. 
Normally, bombardier beetles store enough chemicals for three or four shots. However, some entomologists have found that some species can fire up to 24 times in rapid succession if provoked.

As these beetles are a bright orange and silver-blue colour, they are very noticeable. They act as if they do not care if they are seen, as they are equipped with an effective cannon. Generally, beetles with a colourful coat have a unique, ingenious defensive mechanism to ward off curious animals and insects.
Despite this, rats that know that the beetle loves to use this “ingenious defensive mechanism” quickly grab the beetle and plant its abdomen in the ground. After attacking it continuously while in the ground to exhaust the beetle’s rounds, the rat bites off the head first.

(from the Encyclopaedia of Relative and Absolute Knowledge by Bernard Werber)

Posted in Science & Nature

Badass Weapons Of Nature: Carpenter Ant

There is an extreme number of ant species, each with a unique characteristic. In the case of carpenter ants, they are famous for their strange defence mechanism.

Some species of carpenter ants, such as the Camponotus saundersi, have warrior ants with very large mandibular glands (many times greater than normal ants). When in a battle it judges that it has no chance of winning, the ant rapidly contracts its abdominal muscles to build pressure. When sufficient pressure is reached within the mandibular glands, it explodes violently, shattering the ant in the process. The glands are filled with a sticky, toxic fluid, which is spread all around where the ant used to be, ensnaring the foes. The inflicted enemies are killed by the poison. 
This is the reason why they are sometimes referred to as exploding ants.

It is a bold, yet fearsome sacrifice for the greater good.

Posted in Science & Nature


The most potent and frequently used household cleaning product is bleach. Bleach is a diluted solution of sodium hypochlorite (NaClO), which has powerful antimicrobial properties thanks to the element chlorine. This is also the reason chlorine is used to treat tap water and disinfect pools.

Although it is an extremely useful chemical, chlorine also has a very dark side. Chlorine gas is a highly toxic gas, which forms hydrochloric acid when breathed in and seriously burns the respiratory tract. Due to its toxicity, chlorine gas was used as a weapon of mass destruction in World War I. However, this terrifying gas can be made very simply at home. Unfortunately, this is often done accidentally (but sometimes on purpose) and causes significant damage.

The key warning for using bleach is that it must never be mixed with other cleaning products. If mixed with an acid cleaner, it causes a chemical reaction that produces chlorine gas, while mixing it with ammonia creates chloramine, another deadly gas (although dangerous in itself, chloramine can sublimate into chlorine gas too). Therefore, many people suffer a loss of smell, consciousness or their lives by accidentally mixing two cleaning products or cleaning up urine with bleach. A major problem is that these victims tend to be children who unknowingly mix the chemicals, creating a horrible accident. What is more unfortunate is that some people choose to end their lives using this method.
If you do find a person rendered unconscious by chlorine, it is imperative to quickly move them to a well-ventilated area, while not endangering yourself. An ambulance should be called right away.

As seen from above, simple chemicals found easily at home can produce toxic gases, which can cause irreversible damage. Thus, one must never mix bleach and cleaning products and should educate their children on the dangers of chlorine gas.