Everyday Science: Turkey Day and Tryptophan

We have big plans at our house this Thanksgiving holiday. We are planning on traveling to see family, enjoying our blessings, doing some baking, eating some pumpkin pie, and ingesting some tryptophan.  You’ve heard of this stuff, right?  There are many ways to consume tryptophan, and this coming Thursday mine will have been basted, stuffed, and roasted in the oven for a few hours before being carved and served with cranberry sauce.

I am of course talking about the Thanksgiving turkey, and the natural substance the meat contains, an amino acid called tryptophan.  Actually, it’s an essential amino acid, which means that unlike some other organisms such as plants, humans cannot synthesize it.  Tryptophan can only be gotten as part of our diet.

And if it weren’t for turkey dinners, we would still get tryptophan in our diet— it is naturally occurring in most protein-based foods or dietary proteins.  The wikipedia entry on tryptophan notes that is particularly plentiful in chocolate, oats, dried dates, milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, red meat, eggs, fish, poultry, sesame, chickpeas, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, spirulina, and peanuts. (There is a helpful table with grams of protein in each if you’re interested)

Speaking of interesting, turkey has less tryptophan in it than an equivalent amount of pork chops, egg whites, cod, and caribou.  (I’ve never eaten caribou.  Probably tastes like chicken.  Anyone out there eaten caribou?)  It has only slightly more tryptophan per pound than chicken, beef, or salmon.  So we wind up eating tryptophan all the time, not just at Thanksgiving.

So we ingest tryptophan pretty regularly, it seems.  But what does tryptophan do once eaten?  Why, it synthesizes serotonin!  Serotonin— which is a chemical messenger to the brain called a neurotransmitter—is important— low levels of the neurotransmitter have been found in people with sleep disorders.  So turkey dinner leads to sleepiness, right?

Well, more likely, the vast amount of turkey and trimmings that you plan to consume this Thursday will be the culprit in your post-prandial sleepiness.  That full belly is taking blood supply from the brain in order to digest.  Low blood supply to brain = decreased oxygen to the brain = sleepytime.  Also, wine with your turkey dinner?  All day on your feet cooking?  It’s no wonder you’re sure to be sleepy after that Thanksgiving meal.

I know a good cure to stave off the sleepiness.  Head on over and grab a cup of coffee and another piece of pumpkin pie while you’re up.  I’ll take one too, thanks!


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Everyday Science: Contrails

It’s fall, and that means leaves falling, pumpkin pie baking, calendars rapidly filling, and ….. contrails forming.  So what exactly is a contrail?

Contrails (short for condensation trail) are man-made “clouds” created by aircraft engines when the temperature and humidity conditions are just right.  Usually occurring at temperatures below -40°C, and at altitudes above 26,000 ft, contrails are formed when water vapor condenses and then freezes on the particulate matter in aircraft exhaust.  To form a contrail, the temperature must be low enough or the humidity must be high enough for water to condense on the exhaust particles.  Since the process of condensation is well understood, it is possible to predict when contrails will form based on prevalent temperature and humidity conditions.

Typically, with fall weather comes cool, moist air aloft and conditions at are perfect for contrail production.  Think about it: do you see very many contrails in the summer months when it is hot and dry?  Sometimes contrails dissipate rapidly with high winds or high turbulence aloft, and sometimes contrails linger for quite some time.  Contrails dissipate rapidly with low humidity, since the newly formed ice crystals evaporate quickly.  With high humidity, persistent contrails are visible, as ice crystals grow in size, absorbing water from the surrounding (humid) atmosphere.  You might see a contrail which has been stationary for some time right next to one which is dissipating rapidly.  These contrails are at different altitudes, with different conditions at each level.

Since different gas composition, exhaust gas temperatures, and water vapor content exist in different aircraft engines, not all aircraft engines will produce a contrail at the same altitude (with identical weather conditions) at the same time.  Contrail formation has nothing to do with the type of aircraft or its speed.

Another form of contrail is produced when a portion of an aircraft such as a wingtip or winglet causes air cavitation in humid conditions.  Have you ever seen these vapor trails, perhaps at an airshow, when aircraft flying low over the airfield pitch up rapidly in high humidity conditions?  And since we’re mentioning winglets (shown below), you might be interested to know why they’re on the wing.  The winglet serves to reduce aerodynamic drag so the aircraft burns less fuel in flight.  This fuel efficiency is created by breaking up the turbulent wingtip vortices (pronounced VOR-ti-sees) produced by the pressure differential between the bottom and top of the wing.  No vortices = less drag.

Southwest Winglets

Back to the contrails, though… have you ever seen patterns in the sky produced by contrails?  Perhaps all paralleling one another or converging on a point?

This is no coincidence.  The world is criss-crossed with jet routes flown by all aircraft above a certain altitude.  At the junctions of jet routes are navigational aids, which you may have seen while driving or flying yourself.  Here is one navigation aid (navaid) in Oregon, shown courtesy of Wikipedia:

The aircraft whose contrails you see are each navigating with navaids similar to the one shown above.  Therefore the aircraft fly over the navaids as they transit the jet routes.  Parallel tracks of contrails are aircraft flying along the same route.  If you are ever curious about a contrail track you observe, you can check http://flightaware.com.  A screen shot near Dallas, Texas shows multiple aircraft tracks transiting along an east-west jet route using navaids.

Contrail predictions have been used since WWII, when the ability to spot enemy aircraft “conning” could make the difference in advance notice of an airstrike or positioning for air combat.  Here’s a graphic from p. 55 of the March 1943 edition of Popular Science identifying two types of vapor trail formation:

How about an activity to predict contrail formation?  NASA has an activity page where you can access  an Appleman chart.  Using the chart, you can construct a temperature profile to forecast contrail activity in your area.  The activity (recommended for 5th grade and up) begins this way:

…”Military planners have been interested in condensation trail (contrail) forecasts since World War II. Contrails can make any aircraft easy to locate by enemy forces, and no amount of modern stealth technology can hide an aircraft if it leaves a persistent contrail in its wake. In 1953, a scientist named H. Appleman published a chart that can be used to determine when a jet airplane would or would not produce a contrail. For many years, the US Air Force Global Weather Center used a similar chart to make contrail forecasts.

The first published reports of contrail formation appeared shortly after World War I. At first, scientists were not sure how contrails formed. We now know that they are a type of mixing cloud, similar to the cloud that sometimes forms from your breath during a cold winter day. Appleman showed that when the air outside of the airplane is cold enough and moist enough, the mixture of the jet exhaust and the air would form a cloud.

An example of a contrail-forecasting chart is shown below. We will use the chart to make our own forecasts, and make observations to determine whether they are true or false.

Appleman Chart

… Using either the temperature information provided by the teacher or the temperatures obtained from an Internet location (see note below), complete the table on the “Student Data Sheet”, then plot the temperatures corresponding to each pressure level on the “Appleman Chart: Student Graph Worksheet”. Connect the points to create a temperature profile of the atmosphere.

Note: Temperature and humidity information can be obtained from weather balloon soundings launched twice a day from several locations around the country. Several locations on the Internet including http://weather.uwyo.edu/upperair/sounding.html provide detailed sounding information. Choose the location nearest your school.”

This activity would make a perfect accompaniment to a physical science class, a weather unit study, or just a fun diversion.  If you have a weather station in your home, it would pair up nicely as an associated activity.  For younger elementary students, the NASA site also has a word search and a downloadable “Clouds and Contrails” craft.  Have fun!


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Everyday Science: The Coffee Problem

Science is around us all the time.  But we knew that, right?  As you drink your morning coffee, consider this problem posed to my college calculus class years ago:

You have just poured yourself a hot cup of coffee and are about to add cream, cold from the refrigerator, when the telephone rings.  Should you pour the cream before or after you answer the phone?  

Simple, right?  Our class was tasked to write a differential equation to describe the problem.  My time-weakened and diaper-dulled brain couldn’t even begin to tackle the problem now, but it could prove an interesting discussion for your middle school through high school homeschoolers.  Call it an opening bell attention gainer.  It might need to be accompanied with an explanation of why you would answer the phone at all when the person calling could just as well text or e-mail and then the entire problem would be solved.  But pretend for arguments’ sake you did have to get the phone.

Some questions that might come up:  What is the temperature at which you prefer to drink the coffee?  How hot is the coffee and how cold is the cream?  How long will the phone conversation last?  Once the cream is poured, how long will the coffee take to reach a drinkable temperature?  What other factors might be present that would affect the cooling rate of the coffee?  Ambient temperature of the room?  Mass of the cup?  Composition of the cup?  On what surface is the cup sitting?  Which factors will be most important in considering how fast the coffee will cool?  Which factors will be least important?  What if the cream started at room temperature?  Would it help slow cooling to put the coffee cup in a smaller space?  Is there a ceiling fan on?  Are any of these questions red herrings?

Heat transfer is taking place between the coffee and the air, between the cream and the coffee, between the coffee-cream mixture and the cup, and between the cup and the counter.  These transfers of heat are happening at different rates based on initial temperature of each, the mass or volume of each, and the temperature differential.  These transfers of heat follow the Second Law of Thermodynamics in an attempt to reach thermal equilibrium.  The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that entropy always increases.  Entropy is a measure of the disorder of the thermodynamic system.  Disorder increasing, energy dispersing, becoming distributed amongst other elements of the system.  A hammer falls when you release it from shoulder height.  A ball rolls downhill when you release it at the top of the hill.  Coffee cools to room temperature.  Heat transfers from hot to cold, always, and never the other way around unless work is injected into the equation, such as the forced heat transfer that happens in your refrigerator coils.  Entropy always increases. (Lets save closed and open system discussions for that high school physics class)

Heat always moves from hot to cold.  The hotter the hot body and the cooler the cool body, the faster the transfer will occur.  If your coffee sat on the counter at room temperature, would any heat transfer be occurring?  No, because thermal equilibrium has already been attained.  This should shed some light on the question of when to add the cream.  When you add the cream, you are reducing the initial temperature of the coffee and bringing it closer to room temperature right out of the gate.  Know the answer yet?

The three basic forms of heat transfer are convection, conduction, and radiationConvection is transfer by means of fluid flow, remembering that a fluid can mean a liquid or a gas.  Conduction is transfer between atoms in contact with each other, remembering that this can be the top layer of molecules of coffee and the bottom layer of air molecules, or the first layer of the cup, and so out and so up and so forth..  Radiation is heat transfer by means of electromagnetic waves, in this case, the charged particles of the hot coffee producing thermal radiation.  For this problem, the question can be asked how each of these processes are occurring, and how fast they are occurring, but these are incidental to answering the initial question of whether or not to add the cream before answering the phone.

Once you are done with your coffee, and your roundtable discussion of how fast it has cooled, you can answer the question of when to add the cream, and then watch this old video from the California Institute of Sciences, which Dr. Ross must have seen back in the day before he taught that differential equations class.  Did you answer the problem correctly?

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