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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: chemistry, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 25 of 50
1. The importance of smell

The captivating scent of cakes and the compelling aroma of freshly brewed coffee attract you to a bakery in the morning. A male moth is flittering around, frenetically following the scent plume released by her female. What do these two phenomena have in common? Much more than we suspect, when we look at the molecular level. Imagine if we had a very powerful microscope enabling us to detect details

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2. An egalitarian and organic history of the periodic table

Our story has to begin somewhere and why not with the Manchester schoolteacher John Dalton who revived the atomic theory of the ancient Greek philosophers? In addition to supposing that the ultimate components of all matter were atoms, Dalton set about putting this idea on a quantitative foundation. He published the first list in which he compared the weights of the atoms of all the elements that were known at the time.

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3. R.J.P. Williams and the advantages of thinking like a chemist

Powell’s City of Books occupies 1.6 acres of retail floor space in downtown Portland, Oregon and is one of my favorite places in the world. My first time there, I searched out the chemistry shelves–and was slightly disappointed. I counted two cases of chemistry books sandwiched between biology and physics, which had eight cases each.

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4. Evolution: Some difficult problems

Two other major and largely unsolved problems in evolution, at the opposite extremes of the history of life, are the origin of the basic features of living cells and the origin of human consciousness. In contrast to the questions we have just been discussing, these are unique events in the history of life.

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5. The case for chemistry

What is all around us, terrifies a lot of people, but adds enormously to the quality of life? Answer: chemistry. Almost everything that happens in the world, in transport, throughout agriculture and industry, to the flexing of a muscle and the framing of a thought involves chemical reactions in which one substance changes into another.

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6. Where did all the antihadrons go?

Describing the very ‘beginning’ of the Universe is a bit of a problem. Quite simply, none of our scientific theories are up to the task. We attempt to understand the evolution of space and time and all the mass and energy within it by applying Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. This theory works extraordinarily well. But when we’re dealing with objects that start to approach the infinitesimally small – elementary particles such as quarks and electrons – we need to reach for a completely different structure, called quantum theory.

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7. Those four new elements

The recent announcement of the official ratification of four super-heavy elements, with atomic numbers 113, 115, 117 and 118, has taken the world of science news by storm. It seems like there is an insatiable appetite for new information about the elements and the periodic table within the scientific world and among the general public.

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8. Who was John David Main Smith?

This blog post concerns a virtually unknown chemist, John David Main Smith, who contributed a significant piece of research in atomic physics in the early 1920s at the time when knowledge of the field was undergoing very rapid changes. Main Smith is so little known that I had to search far and wide for a photograph of him before finally obtaining one from his son who is still living in the south of England.

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9. How does chemistry shape evolution?

When people think of evolution, many reflect on the concept as an operation filled with endless random possibilities–a process that arrives at advantageous traits by chance. But is the course of evolution actually random? In A World from Dust: How the Periodic Table Shaped Life, Ben McFarland argues that an understanding of chemistry can both explain and predict the course of evolution.

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10. Mendeleev’s Periodic Table presented in public

This Day in World History

March 6, 1869

Mendeleev’s Periodic Table presented in public

Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev. Source: NYPL.

On March 6, 1869, Dmitri Mendeleev’s breakthrough discovery was presented to the Russian Chemical Society. The chemist had determined that the known elements — 70 at the time — could be arranged by their atomic weights into a table that revealed that their physical properties followed regular patterns. He had invented the periodic table of elements.

In his early twenties, Mendeleev had intuited that the elements followed some kind of order, and he spent thirteen years trying to discover it. In developing his system, he drew on the data and ideas of scientists around the world. Two — Lothar Meyer and British chemist John Alexander Reina Newlands — had published ideas about the periodicity of elements. But Mendeleev’s addressed every known element, which theirs had not.

His system also surpassed the others because he accounted for gaps in the sequence of elements. Mendeleev said that an element would be discovered to fill each gap and even predicted the properties of those elements. The discovery of the one of these missing elements — gallium, in 1875 — helped spur wide acceptance of Mendeleev’s system.

Later work showed that Mendeleev’s reliance on atomic weight to determine periodicity is not completely correct. While atomic weight tends to increase as one moves from element to element, there are exceptions. Mendeleev also did not have the theoretical understanding to explain why the elements exhibited these periodic characteristics. Nevertheless, his achievement marked an important milestone in the understanding of the physical world.

Mendeleev did not personally present his breakthrough to the Chemical Society. Ill on the day of the meeting, he asked a colleague to deliver the report.

Interestingly, the date celebrated for this event reflects Russia’s use of the “Old Style” Julian calendar. According to the “New Style” Gregorian calendar — not adopted in Russia until after 1918 — Mendeleev’s periodic table was presented twelve days later, on March 18.

“This Day in World History” is brought to you by USA Higher Education.
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11. On the World Around Us: A Sampling of Science Blogs

From thoughtful commentary on the history of science to an entertaining blend of science and humor, these blogs have very distinct approaches to science but have one thing in common: a driving curiosity about the world around us.

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12. Georges Pierre des Clozets: the 17th century conman

By Daniel Parker

Be honest: did you once believe that spaghetti could grow on trees? That cats needed headphones? Or that the moon was made of cheese? Actually, don’t worry about that last one; I’m still sure that’s true. However embarrassingly you may have been hoodwinked on April Fool’s Day in the past, it is incredibly unlikely that you’ll have ever been swindled by French confidence trickster Georges Pierre des Clozets, who represented a completely fictional secret Alchemy society called ‘The Asterism’. That dubious honour fell to Robert Boyle, philosopher, chemist, physicist, and inventor, who was duped in the latter part of the 17th century.

Between 1677 and 1678 Robert Boyle became the victim of a progressive French confidence trickster from Caen called Pierre, who claimed to be the agent of a secret international society of alchemists known mysteriously as ‘The Asterism’. The leader of The Asterism was described as the ‘Patriarch of Antioch’, resident in Constantinople. Pierre claimed to be able to work as an intermediary between Robert Boyle and the head of this exclusive society, Georges du Mesnillet, who Pierre referred to as the Patriarch of Antioch. The Asterism was, allegedly, a society comprised of the leading alchemists from around the world, a society that held the secrets to the riddles that had notoriously plagued Robert Boyle throughout his career. Pierre promised that Boyle would be made a member of The Asterism and, therefore, be privy to these alchemical secrets if he followed his orders.

There were a few problems with this. Firstly, The Asterism was an entirely fictional society made up by Pierre. Secondly, Georges du Mesnillet was not the Patriarch of Antioch (nor was there ever a French Patriarch of Antioch). Georges du Mesnillet was just an old acquaintance of Pierre’s. And thirdly, many of the alchemical secrets Pierre promised to impart were chemically impossible. Of course, Robert Boyle wasn’t to know any of this. Pierre expertly played on Robert Boyle’s obsessive fascination with alchemy, and toyed with Boyle’s perception of what was plausible and, more importantly, what was implausible. At one point during their correspondence, Pierre even managed to convince Boyle that one of the Chinese members of the society based in France had grown a fully formed homunculus in a jar.


So how did Pierre manage to successfully dupe the otherwise incredibly intelligent Robert Boyle?

As well as making a good personal impression on Boyle when the two met in early 1677 – Pierre is alluded to as the ‘illustrious stranger’ and ‘foreign virtuoso’ in Boyle’s An Historical Account of a Degradation of Gold by an Anti-Elixir – the French conman manipulated leading European periodicals to corroborate his fanciful tale. For instance, the stories Pierre told Boyle, such as the Patriarch of Antioch working towards the “reunification of the Greek and Latin Churches”, were backed up in France’s Mercure Galant and Holland’s Haerlemse Courant. The latter was published by Haarlem printer Abraham Casteleyn and it had an excellent reputation for reliability, and for acquiring sensitive international information ahead of its rivals. We also know that Robert Boyle read this publication during the years that Pierre fed ‘information’ to the publishers, and that Boyle was an irenic Christian, so these stories would have appealed to him and helped him believe the lies Pierre was telling him. The artifice of Pierre was such that he made Boyle trust him implicitly.

In early 1678 Robert Boyle was promised by Pierre that a triple-locked chest containing the alchemical secrets of The Asterism would be delivered to him as his membership had been approved by the (pseudo) Patriarch of Antioch. It was at this point that Pierre’s letters to Boyle started to dry up. Pierre’s silence was only punctuated by his bizarre excuse that the delays were due to a freak canon accident that had resulted in him breaking his lower jaw bone and losing part of his forehead. Needless to say, this triggered Boyle’s long overdue scepticism, and soon he found out the embarrassing nature of his correspondence with Pierre and the fictional society of The Asterism.

This embarrassing episode did not just impact on Robert Boyle’s pride, but his bank balance too. Pierre, and the fictional Patriarch of Antioch, swindled Robert Boyle to the tune of several hundred pounds worth of gifts. Amongst many other things, here are a few items Robert Boyle sent Pierre, on the ‘request’ of the Patriarch of Antioch: a telescope, assay balances, a globe, one hundred glass vials, jackets of fine fabric, eight rods of gold-coloured moiré, and a chiming clock over three feet tall. The only gift that we can be sure Boyle received in return, based on the correspondence between them, was a basket of fruits and cheeses. I think it’s fairly obvious who came out on top of that exchange.

Pierre used the gifts and money he had received from Robert Boyle, and numerous other victims throughout the 1670’s, to purchase an extravagant estate in Bretteville in the spring of 1680. While building and planting on the site, Pierre became ill with inflammation of the lung and died in May 1680. His family inherited the estate and the missive that announced his death summed up his mysterious existence perfectly: “Such was the end of this man, whose character had been so little known, and after his death we know even less than when he was alive”.

This article was written by Daniel Parker, Publicity Assistant at OUP, with the help and guidance of the Electronic Enlightenment team. Electronic Enlightenment currently has 13 letters from Georges Pierre Des Clozets to Robert Boyle written in French, along with their English translations. Electronic Enlightenment is a scholarly research project of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, and is available exclusively from Oxford University Press. It is the most wide-ranging online collection of edited correspondence of the early modern period, linking people across Europe, the Americas, and Asia from the early 17th to the mid-19th century.

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Image credit: Robert Boyle by Johann Kerseboom via Wikimedia Commons.

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13. 18 facts you never knew about cheese

Have you often lain awake at night, wishing that you knew more about cheese? Fear not! Your prayers have been answered; below you will find 18 of the most delicious cheese facts, all taken from Michael Tunick’s recent book The Science of Cheese. Prepare to be the envy of everyone at your next dinner party – just try not to be too “cheesy”. Bon Appétit!


  1. The world’s most expensive cheese comes from a Swedish moose farm and the cheese sells for £300 a pound.
  2. You can’t make cheese entirely from human milk since it won’t coagulate properly.
  3. The largest cheese ever made was a Cheddar weighing 56,850 pounds, in 1989.
  4. 97% of British people are ‘Lactose Persistent’ and are the most lactose tolerant population in the world.
  5. Genuine Flor de Guia cheese must be made in the Canary Islands by women, otherwise it won’t be considered the genuine article.
  6. The expression “cheesy” used to mean first-rate, but sarcastic use of the word has caused it to mean the opposite.
  7. The bacteria used for smear-ripened cheeses are closely related to the bacteria that generates sweaty feet odour.
  8. Cheese as we know it today was (accidentally) discovered over 8,000 years ago when milk separated into curds and whey.
  9. Edam was used as cannonballs (and killed two soldiers) in a battle between Montevideo and Buenos Aires in 1841.
  10. An odour found in tomcat urine is considered desirable in Cheddar.
  11. Each American adult consumes an average of 33 pounds of cheese each year.
  12. Descriptions of the defects in the eyes of Swiss-type cheeses include the terms “blowhole” and “frogmouth”.
  13. There are over 1,265,000 dairy cows in the US state of Wisconsin alone.
  14. A northern Italian bank uses Parmesan as loan collateral.
  15. Sardinia’s Cazu Marzu, which means ‘rotten cheese’, is safe to eat only if it contains live maggots.
  16. Cheese consumption in the United Kingdom is at a measly 24.0 pounds per capita.
  17. This cheese consumption isn’t even close to Greece who lead the way with a whopping 68.4 pounds per capita.
  18. Dmitri Mendeleev was a consultant on artisanal cheese production while he was also inventing the periodic table of the elements.

All of these cheese facts are taken from The Science of Cheese. The Science of Cheese is an engaging tour of the science and history of cheese, and the only book to discuss the actual chemistry, biology, and physics of cheese making. Author Michael Tunick is a research chemist with the Dairy and Functional Foods Research Unit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service.

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Image credit: Weichkaese Soft Cheese. Photo by Eva K. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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14. Post-Hay Festival blues

By Kate Farquhar-Thomson

It was down to the trustworthy sat nav that I arrived safe and sound at Hay Festival this year; torrential downpours meant that navigating was tougher than usual and being told where to go, and when, was more than helpful.

Despite the wet and muddy conditions that met me at Hay, and stayed with me throughout the week, the enthusiasm of the crowd never dwindled. Nothing, it seems, keeps a book lover away from their passion to hear, meet, and have their book signed by their favourite author. But let’s not ignore the fact that festival-goers at Hay not only support their favourite authors, they also relish hearing and discovering new ones.

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My working holiday centres on our very own creators of text, our very own exponents of knowledge, our very own Oxford authors! Here I will endeavour to distil just some of the events I was privileged to attend in the call of duty!

Peter Atkins was an Oxford Professor of Chemistry and fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford until his retirement in 2007 – many of us, including myself, studied his excellent text-books at ‘A’ level and at university. What Peter Atkins does so well is make science accessible for everyone and none less so than an attentive Hay audience. Peter puts chemistry right at the heart of science. ‘Chemistry has rendered a service to civilization’ Atkins says ‘it contributes to the cultural infrastructure of the world’. And thereon he took us through just nine things we needed to know to ‘get’ chemistry.

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Ian Goldin’s event on Is The Planet Full? addressed global issues that are affecting, and will affect, our planet. So, is the planet full? Well, the Telegraph tent for his talk certainly was! Goldin, whose lime green sweater brought a welcome brightness to the stage, is Professor of Globalisation and Development and Director of the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford. His words brought clarity and insight: “politics shapes the answer to this question,” said Goldin.

Hay mixes the young with the old and academics with us mere mortals, and what we publishers call the ‘trade’ authors with the more ‘academic’ types. This was demonstrated aptly by Paul Cartledge who right from the start referenced an earlier talk he attended by James Holland. Cartledge is A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at University of Cambridge and James (who is an ex-colleague and friend) is a member of the British Commission for Military History and the Guild of Battlefield Guides but a non-academic. The joy of Hay is that it brings everyone together. Paul Cartledge was speaking about After Thermopylae, a mere 2,500 years ago, but rather a more tricky period to illustrate through props and pictures which Holland so aptly used in his presentation.

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OUP had 15 authors at The Hay Festival but the Hay Festival also had other visitors such as Chris Evans whose show was broadcast live from the festival as it was the 500 Words competition announcement and I was lucky enough to be there.

So what does Hay mean to me? It’s a unique opportunity to get up close and personal with heroes in literature and culture, as well as academia. It’s a week of friends, colleagues, and drinking champagne with Stephen Fry whilst discussing tennis with John Bercow – and wearing wellies every day!

Kate Farquhar-Thomson is Head of Publicity at OUP in Oxford.

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Image credits: Stephen Fry, Ian Goldin, and 500 Words competition at the Hay Festival. Photos by Kate Farquhar-Thomson: do not reproduce without permission.

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15. Dmitri Mendeleev’s lost elements

Dmitri Mendeleev believed he was a great scientist and indeed he was. He was not actually recognized as such until his periodic table achieved worldwide diffusion and began to appear in textbooks of general chemistry and in other major publications. When Mendeleev died in February 1907, the periodic table was established well enough to stand on its own and perpetuate his name for upcoming generations of chemists.

The man died, but the myth was born.

Mendeleev as a legendary figure grew with time, aided by his own well-organized promotion of his discovery. Well-versed in foreign languages and with a sort of overwhelming desire to escape his tsar-dominated homeland, he traveled the length and breadth of Europe, attending many conferences in England, Germany, Italy, and central Europe, his only luggage seemingly his periodic table.

Dmitri Mendeleev, 1897. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Mendeleev had succeeded in creating a new tool that chemists could use as a springboard to new and fascinating discoveries in the fields of theoretical, mineral, and general chemistry. But every coin has two faces, even the periodic table. On the one hand, it lighted the path to the discovery of still missing elements; on the other, it led some unfortunate individuals to fall into the fatal error of announcing the discovery of false or spurious supposed new elements. Even Mendeleev, who considered himself the Newton of the chemical sciences, fell into this trap, announcing the discovery of imaginary elements that presently we know to have been mere self-deception or illusion.

It probably is not well-known that Mendeleev had predicted the existence of a large number of elements, actually more than ten. Their discoveries were sometimes the result of lucky guesses (like the famous cases of gallium, germanium, and scandium), and at other times they were erroneous. Historiography has kindly passed over the latter, forgetting about the long line of imaginary elements that Mendeleev had proposed, among which were two with atomic weights lower than that of hydrogen, newtonium (atomic weight = 0.17) and coronium (Atomic weight = 0.4). He also proposed the existence of six new elements between hydrogen and lithium, whose existence could not but be false.

Mendeleev represented a sort of tormented genius who believed in the universality of his creature and dreaded the possibility that it could be eclipsed by other discoveries. He did not live long enough to see the seed that he had planted become a mighty tree. He fought equally, with fierce indignation, the priority claims of others as well as the advent of new discoveries that appeared to menace his discovery.

In the end, his table was enduring enough to accommodate atomic number, isotopes, radioisotopes, the noble gases, the rare earth elements, the actinides, and the quantum mechanics that endowed it with a theoretical framework, allowing it to appear fresh and modern even after a scientific journey of 145 years.

Image: Nursery of new stars by NASA, Hui Yang University of Illinois. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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16. Early responses to Mendeleev’s periodic law [quiz]

The periodic system, which Dmittri Ivanovich Mendeleev presented to the science community in the fall of 1870, is a well-established tool frequently used in both pedagogical and research settings today. However, early reception of Mendeleev’s periodic system, particularly from 1870 through 1930, was mixed.

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17. A new philosophy of science

One of the central concepts in chemistry consists in the electronic configuration of atoms. This is equally true of chemical education as it is in professional chemistry and research. If one knows how the electrons in an atom are arranged, especially in the outermost shells, one immediately understands many properties of an atom...

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18. What’s the difference between artisanal and mass-produced cheese?

American consumers have increased their purchases of artisanal foods in recent years. Grant McCracken, an anthropologist who reports on American culture and business, identifies ten concepts that the artisanal movement is composed of and driven by. These include preferences for things that are handmade, on the human scale, relatively raw and untransformed, unbranded, personalized [...]

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19. Who was Richard Abegg?

One of the most interesting developments in the history of chemistry has been the way in which theories of valency have evolved over the years. We are rapidly approaching the centenary of G.N. Lewis’ 1916 article in which he proposed the simple idea that a covalent bond consists of a shared pair of electrons.

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20. The undiscovered elements

How can an element be lost? Scientists, and the general public, have always thought of them as being found, or discovered. However, more elements have been “undiscovered” than discovered, more “lost” than found.

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21. The woman who changed the world

Society owes a debt to Henrietta Lacks. Modern life benefits from long-term access to a small sample of her cells that contained incredibly unusual DNA. As Rebecca Skloot reports in her best-selling book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, the story that unfolded after Lacks died at the age of 31 is one of injustice, tragedy, bravery, innovation and scientific discovery.

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22. Another Step Toward the Completion of the Periodic Table

I wonder how many times students have been directed to complete a table for homework or on an exam. Chemists have an incomplete table that they are trying to complete: the Periodic Table of the Elements, or the Periodic Table, for short. Uranium, element number 92 is the last naturally occurring element in the Periodic Table. Elements beyond number 92, called the transuranium elements, have all been produced in laboratories. The first transuranium element, neptunium (#93) was produced in 1940 at the University of California, Berkeley, by Edwin McMillan and Phillip Abelson by exposing uranium oxide to neutrons from a cyclotron. The last one, copernicium (#112) was officially recognized in 2009.

On June 6, 2011, the Joint Working Party on the Discovery of Elements of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) and the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) announced the addition of two new elements to the Periodic Table—element 114 and element 116. For now, element 114 is called ununquadium and element 116 is called ununhexium. These names are based on their atomic numbers. By officially acknowledging the collaboration between researchers from Lawrence-Livermore National Laboratory in California and Russia’s Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, these researchers will get to suggest names for the new elements. The names will go through a review process before being adopted and the elements will be assigned a symbol by the IUPAC Council.

Scientists produced these elements by bombarding curium (#96) atoms with calcium (#20) nuclei. In a few milliseconds, element 116 decays into element 114 which lasts about half a second before decaying into copernicium (#112). In other experiments element 114 was produced by bombarding plutonium (#94) with calcium nuclei. Notice that 96 + 20 = 116 and 94 + 20 = 114.

There are three more elements waiting to be recognized: 113, 115, and 118. According to IUPAC, “Review of the claims associated with elements 113, 115, and 118 are at this time not conclusive and evidences have not met the criteria for discovery.” As soon as I hear anything more, I will let you know.

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23. SciWhys: How does an organism evolve?

This is the latest post in our regular OUPblog column SciWhys. Every month OUP editor and author Jonathan Crowe will be answering your science questions. Got a burning question about science that you’d like answered? Just email it to us, and Jonathan will answer what he can. Today: how do organisms evolve?

By Jonathan Crowe

The world around us has been in a state of constant change for millions of years: mountains have been thrust skywards as the plates that make up the Earth’s surface crash against each other; huge glaciers have sculpted valleys into the landscape; arid deserts have replaced fertile grasslands as rain patterns have changed. But the living organisms that populate this world are just as dynamic: as environments have changed, so too has the plethora of creatures inhabiting them. But how do creatures change to keep step with the world in which they live? The answer lies in the process of evolution.

Many organisms are uniquely suited to their environment: polar bears have layers of fur and fat to insulate them from the bitter Arctic cold; camels have hooves with broad leathery pads to enable them to walk on desert sand. These so-called adaptations – characteristics that tailor a creature to its environment – do not develop overnight: a giraffe that is moved to a savannah with unusually tall trees won’t suddenly grow a longer neck to be able to reach the far-away leaves. Instead, adaptations develop over many generations. This process of gradual change to make you better suited to your environment is called what’s called evolution.

So how does this change actually happen? In previous posts I’ve explored how the information in our genomes acts as the recipe for the cells, tissues and organs from which we’re constructed. If we are somehow changing to suit our environment, then our genes must be changing too. But there isn’t some mysterious process through which our genes ‘know’ how to change: if an organism finds its environment turning cold, its genome won’t magically change so that it now includes a new recipe for the growth of extra fur to keep it warm. Instead, the raw ‘fuel’ for genetic change is an entirely random process: the process of gene mutation.

In my last post, I considered how gene mutation alters the DNA sequence of a gene, and so alters the information stored by that gene. If you change a recipe when cooking, the end product will be different. And so it is with our genome: if the information stored in our genome – the recipe for our existence – changes, then we must change in some way too.

I mentioned above how the process of mutation is random. A mutation may be introduced when an incorrect DNA ‘letter’ is inserted into a growing chain as a chromosome is being copied: instead of manufacturing a stretch of DNA with the sequence ATTGCCT, an error may occur at the second position, to give AATGCCT. But it’s just as likely that an error could have been introduced at the sixth position instead of the second, with ATTGCCT becoming ATTGCGT. Such mutations are entirely down to chance.

And this is where we encounter something of a paradox. Though the mutations that occur in our genes to fuel the process of evolution do so at random, evolution itself is anything but random. So how can we reconcile this seeming conflict?

To answer this question, let’s imagine a population of sheep, all of whom have a woolly coat of similar thickness. Quite by chance, a gene in one of the sheep in the population picks up a mutation so that offspring of that sheep develop a slightly thicker coat. However, the thick-coated sheep is in a minority: most of the population carry the normal, non-mutated gene, and so have coats of normal thickness. Now, the sheep population live in a fairly tempera

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24. SciWhys: How does the immune system work?

By Jonathan Crowe Each day of our lives is a battle for survival against an army of invaders so vast in size that it outnumbers the human population hugely. Yet, despite its vastness, this army is an invisible threat, each individual so small that it cannot be seen with the naked eye. These are the microbes – among them the bacteria and viruses – that surround us every day, and could in one way or another kill us were it not for our immune system, an ingenious defence mechanism that protects us from these invisible foes.

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25. SciWhys: Why do we eat food?

Every month OUP editor and author Jonathan Crowe answers your science questions in the monthly SciWhys column. Got a burning question about science that you’d like answered? Just email it to us, and Jonathan will answer what he can. Today: Why do we eat food?

By Jonathan Crowe

You may well be thinking that the question posed in the title of this blog has an all-too-obvious answer. We all know that we eat food to keep ourselves alive. But why do we find ourselves slaves to our appetites and rumbling stomachs? What is actually happening inside each of us that couldn’t happen without another slice of toast, or piece of fruit, or that most vaunted of mid-afternoon pick-me-ups, the sneakily-consumed bar of chocolate?

We’re all familiar with the concept of something needing fuel to keep it going. Just as a power station requires gas or coal to power its turbines and generate energy, so we need fuel – in the form of food – to power our continued existence.

The foods we eat provide us with a range of nutrients: vitamins, minerals, water, fat, carbohydrates, fibre, and protein. These nutrients are put to different uses — as building materials to construct the tissues and organs from which our bodies are made; as the components of the molecular machinery that keeps our cells running as they should. All of these uses are unified by a common theme: a requirement for energy to make them happen. And this is where one particular type of nutrient comes into its own. Step forward the carbohydrates.

Carbohydrates are better known to us as sugars, but in fact the sweet crystals we know as sugar are only part of this group. Carbohydrates come in very different shapes and sizes. One of the smallest is glucose, which acts as a chemical building block — multiple copies of glucose can join together to form a range of much larger molecules. For example, starch – found in potatoes and flour – is a carbohydrate formed from many individual molecules of glucose joined together in long chains. (Based on taste alone, you wouldn’t think that starch was made of glucose. Even though individual molecules of glucose taste sweet to us, once they are linked together to form starch the sweetness is lost.)

To understand how the sugar in our food can power the processes occurring in our cells every minute of every day, let’s follow some starch on its journey through the body. Many of the foods we consume aren’t in a form with which our bodies can do anything useful. Instead, they need to be digested. And so it is with carbohydrates such as starch. This process of digestion starts as soon as the food enters our mouth; our saliva contains special substances (called enzymes) that start attacking the long chains of starch, breaking it into smaller fragments.

Digestion continues as our food is swallowed and slides down into our stomach, where an arsenal of other chemical weapons set to work on the mouthful we’ve just consumed. Before long, what were initially mouth-watering morsels are reduced to something rather less appetising and leave the stomach to enter the long, snaking tunnel of our intestines. By now, the long chains of starch have been broken down into glucose, which is small enough to pass through the lining of our intestine and into our bloodstream. Our bloodstream acts as a short- and long-distance transport network, carrying the newly-arrived sugar molecules to cells all over the body.

When glucose arrives at its destination and first enters the cell, it u

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