All right class, settle down, settle down. My name is Mr. Ross, but you may call me BR. Welcome to Pop-Culture Science 101. I know what many of you are thinking: “Science is boring; I just don’t get it.” I can understand those sentiments. But that’s only because of the ways you’ve been taught in the past. Today is going to be different. On this, the third day of the Science Week collaboration between ScriptPhD and CC2K, we decided to have a bit of silly fun and cover a couple of traditionally esoteric science topics from an angle I doubt any of you have considered before—pop culture icons. So get out your notebooks and pens, today’s lesson begins now! Please click “continue reading” for more.
Lesson 1: Genetics/Evolutionary Theory
It’s easy to get intimidated if you hear terms like Neodarwinism and Mendelian genetics. If I say deoxyribonucleic acid polymerase, well, I might as well be speaking Swahili, right? Heck, you might not even know who Charles Darwin was, or why his work is so important to biology. Doesn’t matter. Forget the technical jargon; don’t worry about the minutiae. The essentials of genetics and evolutionary theory can be learned simply by considering the X-Men. Yes, I mean the comic book superhero team.
The X-Men are superheros not because they’re aliens or because they were exposed to some kind of radiation, but because they were born as such. They bear mutations in the so-called X gene (yes this is make-believe, but for the purpose of today’s lesson it will work just fine). A gene is nothing more than a unit of information in your DNA that instructs something. Eye color. Hair color. How tall you are. Basically everything that makes us unique (and that makes us human, as opposed to some other species) is because of our genes. In the case of the X-Men X gene, mutations herein can bestow superpowers, though, this isn’t always the case.
See, mutation is a random thing. Mutations in genes can be negative as well as positive, debilitating just as often as advantageous. The key here is to consider how a mutation affects an organism’s fitness to survive. Ah, did that ring some bells? Some of you comic book fans might be thinking of the X-Men’s arch-enemy Apocalypse and his fanatic devotion to the concept of the “survival of the fittest.” The man (or mutant, rather) is a strong proponent of Darwin and his theory on evolution by natural selection. I know that might sound complicated, but it’s really not. Let’s go back to the X-Men. Consider the following:.
Let’s compare Wolverine with some average mutant Joe Schmoe off the street. Wolverine’s X gene mutation grants him numerous super powers including enhanced strength, speed, senses, claws, and an extraordinary healing ability. Joe Schmoe (for the sake of argument) has a mutation in the X gene that has bestowed him with, let’s say a prehensile tail (i.e. a tail like that of a monkey). That’s it. He’s not super strong, he can’t climb trees particularly well, he’s just a guy with a tail.
Now for the selective pressure. Senator Kelly teams up with some other unsavory types in the government and creates the Sentinels, giant robots programmed to detect and eliminate mutants with extreme prejudice. I ask you, who will have the better chance to survive? Who is more fit? Joe Schmoe, or Wolverine? Obviously Wolverine. Chance has given him a mutation that makes him more likely to survive a selective pressure (the Sentinels) than our pal Joe, hence Wolverine is more likely to reproduce and pass on his mutation to his offspring. That, friends, is evolution.
Lesson 2: Acid-Base Chemistry
One of my favorite chemistry teachers growing up was a mullet-coiffed action escape artist by the name of MacGyver. His lessons were so memorable because they were practical applications of chemistry using common household items to resolve extraordinary situations. Granted,
the majoritysome of his lessons exaggerated the bounds of what was truly possible (sometimes Mac was more about style than substance), but often his lessons were grounded firmly in reality.
Take, for example, the time he demonstrated how to make a fire extinguisher from simple items found in an ordinary kitchen, and gave a lesson on acid-base reactions in the process (episode 132, “Good Knight MacGyver”).
Let’s say for the sake of dramatic storytelling (this IS a science in entertainment site, after all!) that your parents are going out of town, and you’ve decided to have a few friends over (including Dylan, that totally cute guy in your English Lit. class you’re hoping will ask you to prom). You decide that in order to elevate your little party above run-of-the-mill get-togethers you’re going to make your very own mozzarella sticks and jalepeno poppers. You fill a pot with vegetable oil and turn the burner all the way to “hi”. You’re ready to do some serious frying.
But then you get distracted, and the oil heats to the point of ignition. Your attention is pulled away from your cell phone by smoke coming from the kitchen. You have a grease fire to deal with. If you burn your parents’ house down they’ll ground you until you’re 30. You have to act fast. You quickly turn off the stove burner, and you know that if you throw water on the fire it will just make it worse. You could put it out if you had a fire extinguisher, but your parents don’t keep one in the house. Then you remember MacGyver’s chemistry lesson.
Acting quickly, you open the fridge and pull out the half-full bottle of Diet Coke and the box of baking soda your mom put in there because the Arm & Hammer commercials assert it will help remove unwanted odors. Then you pull out the large bottle of white vinegar from under the sink that hardly ever gets used. You pour the Diet Coke out onto the floor and fill the 32-ounce Coke bottle with as much baking soda as you can get in there (you notice it’s almost 3/4 full). Now comes the tricky part.
You quickly pour vinegar into the bottle, cover the opening with your thumb, give it a quick shake, and point it at the fire. Bubbly liquid begins to shoot out of the mouth of the bottle. You sweep the bottle back and forth, noticing with relief that the bubbly liquid is putting out the fire. There’s some smoke damage and one heck of a mess to clean up (and that party is definitely canceled), but catastrophe has been averted!
As to why this works, let’s open up our Unofficial Macgyver How-To Handbooks to Chapter 3, page 70:
Fire extinguishers work by removing one of the critical ingredients for a fire: oxygen. When vinegar is combined with baking soda, the two react and produce carbon dioxide gas or CO2. This type of reaction is known in chemistry as an acid-base reaction, and the vinegar (the acid) and baking soda (the base) model is a high school chemistry classic:
NaHCO2 (baking soda/base) + CH3COOH (vinegar/acid) –> CO2 (gas) + H2O (water) + Na (Sodium) + CH3COO (a combination of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen that we like to call “magic dust”)
The CO2 gas produced by this reaction has a heavier molecular weight than does the surrounding air, which is comprised primarily of nitrogen and oxygen, so the CO2 sinks into the bottom of the room. As the reaction continues, more and more carbon dioxide gas is produced and slowly fills up the room, displacing the oxygen. When the level of carbon dioxide has risen to the level of the flame, the flame will go out from lack of available oxygen. As Mother always said: “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you 1,000 times, any combustion-reaction (fire) requires a primary oxidant (oxygen) in order to work.” Yeah, she’s a special lady, our mom.
A video demonstration:
“A Pop-Culture Science Lesson” is an original article by CC2K games editor Big Ross.
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