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Brain Fuel

The Science of Everyday Life

Joe Schwarcz

The Phoenicians probably the first to make glass - found that if they mixed sand with natron possible to make bottles and flat glass. Natron is sodium carbonate, so called because Egyptians got theirs from dry lake bed Wadi Natrum. And that is why the symbol for sodium is Na.

Asparagus has a large number of compounds which can affect our urine, but not everybody's. Genetics controls both the way we metabolize asparagus, and so whether or not it creates a smell, and also determines whether we can smell the smell produced (about 40% of population can't).

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Gout develops when crystals of uric acid build up in joints. Uric acid is produced when we metabolize meats, particularly offal, seafoods and legumes. Alcohol worsens the problem by slowing down the natural elimination of uric acid. Beer is worst risk - drinking daily increases risk by 49%. Other alcoholic drinks much smaller effect. But can halve the risk by drinking low-fat milk or yoghurt.

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Denatonium benzoate is the most bitter substance known. A solution containing just 10 parts per million is undrinkable. So it is added to things that kids or pets might taste.

In India, estimated 250 million people suffer from iodine deficiency, which causes low IQ and low energy levels. Salt is sprayed with potassium iodate to compensate, but it makes the crystals look dirty, so people wash the salt ....

Hospitals replacing door handles, bathroom taps etc, with ones made of brass to counter MRSA bacteria. On stainless steel surfaces, bacteria remain active for days, but on brass they die within 5 hours (on pure copper, 30 minutes). Also effective with flu viruses and c. difficile.

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Nicotine is a poison (extracted from tobacco plant). In 1940 a woman in Britain mixed nicotine into her husband's aftershave and killed him - 50mg from just couple of cigarettes. In 1986 a woman did in her elderly sister by mixing the residue of cigarette butts in a jug of water, straining it then putting it at her bedside to drink. Although most cigs contain a potentially lethal amount of nicotine, most of it burns before its inhaled.

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