Final Brews of 2021: Maple Brown Ale and Ch² Milk Stout

I know, it’s been a while. 2021 has just been, I don’t know, an extension of 2020? However, despite a lot of things going on, we have managed to brew some final batches to close out the year. So here is a quick breakdown of batches 5 and 6, with some extra surprises along the way!

Wait, you brew beer at home?

Oh, we sure do. You can find a walkthrough of our first batch (which explains all the steps of brewing) in my series of posts on “Brewing for Beginners:”

  1. Brewing for Beginners – Part 1 for the making of the wort
  2. Brewing for Beginners – Part 2 for an update on the fermentation
  3. Brewing for Beginners – Part 3 for the bottling process
  4. Brewing for Beginners – Part 4 for the best part of all: tasting!

I can hear you asking, how did batch 4 turn out?

While usually not a huge fan of IPAs, mostly because of an abundance of supply (I may have written a song about that), our hazy juicy IPA turned out to be our best brew yet. Keeping a constant temperature during brewing (and a heatwave), definitely paid off! It’s almost as if more experience yields a better outcome, who knew?

It had a pretty great head on it, was easy to pour, and was beautifully refreshing on a hot summer day.

Glass of beer, hazy light brown in color, with about an inch of head.
Just look at this beut.

Little did we know, that this would be the last of our bottled beers, because A. decided to invest in… a Kegerator.

What is a kegerator and why I’m stoked we have one!

Instead of spending a day bottling beer, thanks to a chilled box in which we can put a keg and directly tap from – or: “a kegerator” – we can skip that very annoying step! In addition, it has some other really fun perks!

1. Instant Carbonation

As I said, no need for bottling, or adding extra sugar at that step for carbonation purposes. No, just hook it all up to a CO₂ tank and that will take care of carbonation. Oh, you like nitro? We can do that too!

For clarity, it’s not instant and takes a week or so before all nice and bubbly. But still beats bottling!

2. Stickers!

It provided a huge white space upon which stickers could be added! Well, there’s not that much space left now…

Photo of a kegerator with 4 taps, a drip tray, and a fridge part covered in stickers.
This is only a quarter of our sticker collection…

3. Life handed us some lemons

And you know what that means, make lemonade! Basically, anything can be carbonated this way, including ginger beer, lemonade, water, or water put into a keg that previously had lemonade so it tastes slightly lemony. No LaCroix in our home!

Photo of lemons that have been squeezed.
“You say I must eat so many lemons because I’m so bitter!”

4. Tapping is just fun

Tapping is just a lot more fun than pouring out of a bottle if we’re honest.

Batch #5: Maple Brown Ale

In October, we embarked on our next brewing adventure, a Maple Brown Ale (see recipe at the end of this post), getting some beautiful darkness with Chocolate malt. While, unfortunately, the maple didn’t quite come through in the taste as much as we’d hoped, it still came out tasting excellent and light (ABV 4.99%). The spent grain we had was also quite excellent. I’ve become quite skilled at spent grain pistolets and waffles if I say so myself!

Glass of a dark brown beer

Bonus: we need some mead!

Because we somehow had a giant jar of honey available, and some fruit that was in need of use, we made some mead! We didn’t really use a recipe, just heated water with the honey, added chopped-up apples and pears (that were sort of almost fermenting on their own), and eventually yeast (Safale S-04 dry ale yeast).

A picture of a thermometer showing 85 degrees F (31 C), in the background some brown liquid with cubes of apple and pear floating.
Getting the mixture to cool down enough to add the yeast.

After three weeks or so in the carboy, we transferred it over to a keg.

And now we have mead! It came out relatively dry (how I like it), with a taste of honey and cider. And a reason to get all our friends introduced to mead!

A glass of golden brown mead.
Not quite sure how strong this one ended up.

Batch #6: Cherry Chocolate Milk Stout

Our final brew of the year was a Cherry Chocolate Milk Stout, based on a recipe we found on Brewer’s friend. The trick to milk stouts is adding outs (for extra creamy foam), lactose, and dark roasted malts. To add the cherry and chocolate notes, we boiled some cocoa nibs and cherries, and added that flavorful water, when cooled, to the keg.

After transferring to the keg, we first hooked it up to the CO₂ tank for a few days, and then switched to nitro.

And the result? We learned that we definitely need more cherries and chocolate next time. The stout came out tasting very stouty (hurray), and oh my, the nitro is satisfying! The bubbles, they go down!

(Please ignore the audio)

Also, the foam results in a pretty fun stache.

Picture of my face, wearing glasses, with a foamy moustache.
Foam stache alert!

Starting 2022 with the following on tap:

Top view of the kegerator with four taps, labels show what's on tap: Maple Brown Ale, Lemon Sparkling water, Apple-Pear Mead and (ch)^2 aka cherry chocolate milk stout nitro

I don’t know about you, but that’s not too bad to start off 2022! I hope you all have a wonderful, safe, healthy, and interesting year ahead. Hopefully with some more content from yours truly!


Recipes:

Screengrab of the Maple Brown Ale Recipe
Screengrab of the Cherry Chocolate Milk Stout Recipe

Hair facts

Throughout the past two years, I’ve colored my hair several times, leaning in extra hard on my manic pixie dream girl persona – I’m just quirky like that. At the moment, my hair is green. With this new color, I thought it’d be fun to dive a little deeper into the hairy world of… well, hair.

1. Hair grows about .3 to .4 mm a day

That means that over the course of a year, your hair might grow somewhere between 10-15 cm (or 5 to 6 inches, ish). Which, if you’re trying to grow out your hair, seems slow. On the other hand, if you’re trying to maintain bangs, it’s really fast.

Fun fact: that means it took Cousin Itt about 8 years to grow their hair, assuming their hair grew at the speed average for humans – so who knows – and taking into account that the actor that plaid Cousin Itt was just under 4 ft tall.

Black and White gif of Cousin Itt wearing sunglasses and a hat, twirling a stick.

2. You lose about 50 to 100 hairs a day

But don’t worry, at that same time about 99,900 other hairs are happily growing along. On average we have 100,000 hair follicles on our scalp, all there at birth (which is why usually children have denser hair – our scalp expands as we grow older).

Follicles don’t all grow hair at the same time: in fact, hair just grows for a few years, before the follicle decides to take a little break. That’s when the hair in the follicle falls out. Because all your follicles take turns, you typically won’t halve all 100,000 of your scalp hairs fall out at once, so you won’t notice losing hairs.

That said, some follicles stop growing hair as you grow older, which is why some people get thinner hair when they get older (or go bald).

Cartoon of a person loosing their hair
Unless you’re stressed…

3. Hair loss and stress are related

On that note, high stress levels may cause hair loss. There are a few conditions associated with increased hair loss, including telogen effluvium (where stress causes large number of hair follicles into resting phase, see point 2), alopecia areata (a condition in which the body’s immune system attacks hair follicles, causes may include severe stress), and trichotillomania (the urge to pull out hair, which for some people is a way to deal with negative feelings).

4. Most of your hair is dead

Hair grows from your follicle out, with new cells rapidly dividing in the root, pushing previously formed cells in the hair strand out of the follicle. The cells forming hair are the second-to-fastest dividing cells in your body (after cells in your bone marrow), which is why people undergoing chemotherapy sometimes lose their hair: chemotherapy targets rapidly dividing cells.

By the time your hair is at the skin’s surface, the cells in the hair strand aren’t alive anymore. So all the hair you see on your body is already dead! The hair shaft is made out of a protein called keratin, which is the same protein that makes up your nails, feathers, horns, claws on hooves. Well, maybe not yours.

While on the topic of death (also, it’s Halloween), it’s a common misconception that hair and fingernails continue to grow after a person dies. This is untrue, though it may seem like hair and fingernails appear longer after death: after a person dies, their skin and soft tissues dehydrate causing shrinkage.

Cells stop deviding when they die, and that counts for hair cells as well. I guess that means Vampires should be really sure about cutting their hair!

Hotel Transylvania Vampire panicking
I’ve made a grave mistake!

5. The record for longest hair is 5.62m (18 ft 5 in)

Scalp hair actively grows for two to six years (oh, there goes my Cousin Itt estimate), depending on the person. That’s why some people have a hard time growing their hair long, while others have a really long active phase of growth and can get those long locks.

The record for longest hair is held by Xie Qiuping, who started growing her hair in 1973 when she was 13 years old. Math tells us her hair grows a bit faster than usual (about 18 cm/year), and her active hair growth phases are just, non-existent?

In any case, over 5 meters is really impressive. It’s more than twice the height of André the Giant impressive. Or as long as a giraffe is tall impressive. And we all know that’s pretty impressive to me.

Hair on other places of your body, such as your arms, legs, brows, has a short active phase growth of one month to one month-and-a-half, before falling out. That’s why that hair is so much shorter. Though some impressively long eyebrow hairs have been known to exist.


There, we’ve learned some facts about hairs. In a convenient listicle format. Maybe someday I should make a listicle about the effectiveness of listicles?

10 Hot Tips To Make Your Lab Data Look Spooky For Halloween

Originally published on the satire science journal website DNAtured

Think your regular data isn’t scary enough for Halloween? Try these tips to put the “ahhhh!” in your analysis!

1. Ghostian Curves

Casper is no longer the cutest ghost in town! Draw eyes on a Gaussian distribution curve to make yourself a spooky lil’ ghost.

Gaussian distribution with eyes so it looks like a little ghost, saying Boo!

2. Haunted P-Values

You think a p-value of 0.08 is scarily insignificant? Turn your calculator upside down for another scare: BOO

A sketch of an upside-down calculator so 0.08 looks like it spells Boo

3. Zombie Survival Curves

Night of the living dead? Night of the living rats! Turn those survival curves upside down – or back up – by summoning your test subjects black to life with some Michael Jackson in the background!

Two survival curves, one climbs upward.,

4. Witching Hour Gel Electrophoresis

Want some Wicked-ly good pictures? Add a splash of green fluorescent protein to make your image light up like slimy goo!

A fluorescent microscopy image that looks like a skull
Photo by @heysciencesam

5. Bloody Western Blots

Messed up your assay and now you have a smeared Western blot? No problem! It looks just like smeared blood! The horror!

as sketch of a western blot

6. Coffin Plots

Don’t ever let anyone say your box plots are boring… Get your spook on and turn them into coffins!

a box plot, but instead of boxes, there are coffins

7. Scary scatter plots

Need more spooky plots? Turn your scatter plots into any scary shape: a witch’s hat, a jack o’ lantern, a spider web, or a bat! All you need to do is get rid of those terrifying outliers!

scatter plot shaped like a bat

8. Beastly n-Values

666 summons the devil, so if you have three experimental conditions, make sure your sample number is n=6 for each!

666 in fiery font

9. Black & Orange Graphs

As a last resort, colour code your excel sheet with some spooky colors, we recommend methyl orange. As if using excel for data handling isn’t scary enough, you monster!

a random graph in orange and black

10. Dangerous Data Storage Systems

And if nothing else works, live on the edge with the scariest lab data of all: stored on an old, barely functional computer that runs on Windows 94 and hasn’t been backed up in decades! 

a picture of a old computer with the windows 95 starting screen

World’s Tiniest Violinist

Some have theorized that the universe is made completely out of strings. Some creatures, however, really see the world in strings. You know, spiders. With their spider webs.

And while we might not think of spiders as tiny musicians, their world is made up of vibrations, so perhaps that is our key to communicating with these tiny little weavers!

But first: what is a spider web?

Many types of spiders produce a strong, sticky, proteinaceous fiber from their butt spinneret gland. They use it to build webs, sometimes quite pretty and sometimes spooky, to catch their prey in.

Fun fact: even spiders that don’t build webs produce silk, and it is important in, you know, seducing the other sex.

Spider webs are useful for many things, reproduction (as mentioned), but also to capture and immobilize prey, build nests, move around in the world (some spiders build tiny parachutes), communicate, and leave pheromonal trails. Spider silk is known to have exceptional mechanical properties, having a tensile strength comparable to that for high-grade steel, and a toughness that equals some synthetic polymers.

(Tensile strength relates to the maximum force to which a material can be pulled before breaking, while toughness relates to how much a material can deform and absorb energy before breaking. In any case, spider silk is a natural material that material scientists would just love to emulate. Biomimetics, you know.)

Spider silk is also very sticky. You know. To catch the foods.

Spiderweb with frost
Source: Wikipedia commons

Feelin’ those good vibrations

For those spiders who use their web to capture prey, vibrations are a key to success in their endeavor. When an unsuspecting fly, mosquito, or human, wanders into the web, it induces a vibration that the spider can easily distinguish from oscillations created by a breeze, thanks to tiny little hairs that cover their body and legs.

It is this form of communication that inspired a team of scientists to create an interactive musical instrument, using the three-dimensional structure of a spider web. This “Spider’s Canvas,” combined with virtual reality, allows people to interact and perhaps even learn to understand the vibrational language of spiders.

“The virtual reality environment is really intriguing because your ears are going to pick up structural features that you might see but not immediately recognize,” Markus Buehler of MIT explained. “By hearing it and seeing it at the same time, you can really start to understand the environment the spider lives in.”

Here’s an example of one of their spider web sonifications:

Talking to spiders

Each web strand has a different length, which the scientists translated to a sound frequency to create a musical cacophony (if we’re honest) based on the vibrations created by a perturbation. The researchers were even able to develop an algorithm to differentiate between different types of vibrations that might occur, such as “trapped prey,” “web under construction,” or “hot spider just wandered into my web and wants to get busy.

“Now we’re trying to generate synthetic signals to basically speak the language of the spider,” Buehler said. “If we expose them to certain patterns of rhythms or vibrations, can we affect what they do, and can we begin to communicate with them? Those are really exciting ideas.”

But for now, I would just like to imagine spiders as tiny little violinists, creating music with their webs, mocking the sorrowful life of the individual how just blindly wandered into their web.

GIF of Mr Krabs playing the Smallest Violin
Mr. Krabs knows what’s going on.

Bonus number 1: Scientists gave some spiders some drugs. And then those spiders spun some webs. And they looked weird.

Bonus number 2: Here’s a song about the World’s Smallest Violin

post

That’s some old beer!

Researchers recently found a treasure of 125-year-old, unopened, beer bottles in a shipwreck off the Scottish coast. In those bottles, preserved thanks to the cold ocean water, was even more of a treasure: live yeast.

Beer Archeology

It was only recently that I learned about the field of “beer archeology,” after hearing a talk by the beer archeologist Travis Rupp. I was delighted to learn that there is a whole field dedicated to recreating ancient beers, as far back as ancient Greece and Rome, only using materials, ingredients, and methods that would have been available at the time. Or as close as still available.

Inspired by old techniques, Travis Rupp has developed a series of beers named “Ales of Antiquity.” There’s an ancient-Egypt-inspired beer and a Viking-inspired beer. Of course, there is also a Belgian-style beer as well!

If I’d been interested in beer at the same time I was interested in archeology (the latter was when I was about 8 years old), who knows where I would have (could have) ended up?

Yeast explorers

The yeast found in the Scotting shipwreck is only one of the many endeavors of brewers resurrecting old strains, which cannot only be used to brew historical beers but may have applications in cleaning up pollutions and in the perfume industry (though the article states that the smell of the beer was quite atrocious).

That doesn’t mean noone tried brewing a beer, of course they did! Scientists at Brewlab, a spin-out from University of Sunderland, isolated two types of yeast from the Wallachia shipwreck beer: Brettanomycas and Debaryomyces. With that, they brewed a 7.5% stout that, apparently, had some coffee and chocolate notes. Certain byproducts of the fermentation products create a distinct flavor that is specific to the yeasts used.

And resurrecting ancient yeasts can yield more interesting flavors, compared to the limited stains that are used by most modern brewers today. Maybe something to try in our next batch of homebrew? Time to go diving, I guess!


Read the full news story here: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20210622-how-shipwrecked-yeasts-could-change-the-taste-of-your-beer

Read the publication about the yeasts found in the shipwreck: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/jib.641

Read more about Travis Rupp: https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2019/05/26/723983713/beer-archaeologists-are-reviving-ancient-ales-with-some-strange-results

Homebrewing: Batch 4 – “Hazy Juicy IPA”

After some time – you’d think that a pandemic would be an excellent time to do some more brewing but that didn’t seem to happen – we have decided to make another attempt at brewing our own beer. Batch 3 has not been documented (it was a brown ale that had that slightly too much Irish moss in it, making it an excellent drink for singing sea shanties or while sitting at a beach), but I made sure to keep track of our summer 2021 brew: a “Hazy Juicy IPA.” Our recipe is mostly based on this Hazy Juicy IPA recipe on brewersfriend.com, with some minor modifications due to availability.

Because, we do live in Seattle, the capital of beer [citation needed], with an average of 12 available IPAs in any given brewery [citation needed].

You can find a more step-by-step walkthrough in our first brewing experiment, so I will not repeat all the steps, but rather document some key changes we made since the last time!

Brewing for Beginners – Part 1 for the making of the wort
Brewing for Beginners – Part 2 for an update on the fermentation
Brewing for Beginners – Part 3 for the bottling process
Brewing for Beginners – Part 4 for the best part of all: tasting!

Day 0: aquiring the materials

Here’s some insight into our brewing process: the first step is biking over to the homebrew supply store to acquire some ingredients, and most excitingly, watch a whole lot of grains get milled up.

Amélie would love this step too

Day 1: Making grain soup

For once, we did not make the mistake of trying to do the beer-shopping and beer-brewing on the same day. Otherwise, the steps were pretty straightforward, except that we had learned that keeping things at temperature is not that important and that we could hang out and be pretty chill about things.

Picture of a big, 10 gallon pot on a gas burner. Text: Brewing. Day 1, step 1. Heating a whole lot of water.
Picture of a mesh bag in the pot, with a spoon showing some grains. Text: Step 2: grains!
Picture of the mesh bag being drained on top of the post between two oven shelves. Text: Step 3: Drains the grains.
This little nifty trick, A. found on the internet (such a vast resource for nifty tricks!) Who knew that draining hot liquid between two oven shelves would be easier than with your bare hands!

Extra note: we also learned that the leftover grain mush, especially the part that had a lot of oats, is quite delicious for breakfast!

Picture of some beer in a graduated cylinder with a specific gravity measurement device. Text: So scientific
Specific gravity at this point (preboil) was 1.049. The closest we’ve ever been!
Picture of the gas burner leg on an unstable surface. Text: Omg the pot almost fell!!!
Just adding in some drama
Picture of a small mesh bag with hops. The pot is in the background. Text: Bag of hops
Picture of the liquid with a cooling coil. Text: All the hops (trying an IPA this time)
The bag in the previous picture actually wasn’t very helpful and all the hops came out anyway.
Picture of the cold water coming into the copper coil for cooling. The cold water has condensation on the tube, the water coming out looks all bubbly. Text: Warm out. Cold in.
Cooling
Picture of the beer being transferred into the carboy.
Transfer time!
Picture of dry yeast floating on the liquid surface.

And now for the best part:

During this round, we tried to keep the carboy at a lower temperature, especially because Seattle was going through an unprecedented heatwave, not ideal conditions for brewing yeast. We had the carboy sitting in a bath of water where we occasionally threw in some ice. Other than that, things just went a lot smoother than the last 3 times, mostly because we made sure to take the time, let everything cool down enough, and were better prepared…

Day 3: Two weeks later…

Picture of the carboy with a hazy looking beer on the bottom. There is a lot of sediment. Text: Today is bottle day! Sure looks hazy
Picture of some bottled beer. Text: Just a few weeks, and then we can see how this hazy tastes.

We forgot to take the specific gravity measurement, but the beer sure smelt hoppy, and tasted pretty good two (considering it’s not carbonated yet), so fingers crossed we have a good batch! Check in for a first-taste-update in two weeks or so!

Whoops! Recent Graduate Realizes That Having A PhD Does Not Make Someone Employable

Originally published on the satire science journal website DNAtured

Job interviewee taking notes during an interview and looking concentrated
Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

A recent grad student, who has asked to remain anonymous as to not influence their perspective chances at finding a job, has come to the unfortunate realization that having a PhD does not make them automatically employable.

“I was told during an interview last week that I was overqualified,” complained the student. “But in the next sentence, they said I didn’t have enough experience. How can it be both?”

Tragically, like many other prospective PhDs, the student thought that having a plethora of knowledge in a niche scientific area would be applicable outside academia.

“In today’s day and age, we are looking for candidates who can thrive in interdisciplinary teams,” Ms. Laurie Durham, Senior Recruiter at Biotech Intl., “not people who can recite the base pairs that code for the angiotensin-converting enzyme within one minute.”

“I can do that, but at this point, it’s basically just a party trick” confirmed the grad student. “When I started listing them off in my interview, the recruiter just looked at me in confusion.”

For other recent graduates concerned about running into the same problem, resume experts suggest adding “soft skills” to your resume. Being able to distinguish blobby lines and gather meaningful blot information, being able to turn hours of “data analysis” into doom scrolling, and being able to convince your supervisor that you need three more weeks to finish a powerpoint presentation are, in fact, very transferable to work life.

Aww! Nobel Prize Winner Thanks Post-Docs For Generously Allowing Him To Take Credit For Their Discovery

Originally published on the satire science journal website DNAtured

Hand holding up a Nobel Prize (coin shaped with Alfred Nobel's profile)
Photo by Adam Baker, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s note: to protect the identity and avoid embarrassment for the people involved, we have retracted the name and field of the Laureate – though if you were assuming it was a man, you’d be right. Not that it narrows the possibilities by much.

Academics around the world are applauding a recent Nobel Laureate for remembering to thank his overworked post-doctoral students after their discovery helped him win the notorious award. 

A leaked draft of the Nobel Laureate’s acceptance speech revealed some open secrets about his true feelings toward his underlings, which many have described as “out of touch.”. The full draft reads:

“I am truly thrilled and honored to receive this prestigious award all by myself, with no co-winners. I would like to thank the Nobel Prize committee for continuing the decade-long tradition of giving this prize to a man, the obviously bigger-brained of the sexes.”

“I suppose I should thank all the people who made this possible, including the many researchers before me who laid the groundwork for this science, but it’s not my fault that I simply did it better (neener neener)! “

“I’d like to thank my undergraduate minions who have worked endless hours in the lab for experience and no pay, my grad students who have given up their chance of any personal relationship to make this research a success, and finally, my post-docs who have generously allowed me to take credit for years of their work.” 

“I hope all the members of my lab are equally as thankful for the prestige of working in the lab of a Nobel Prize Winner! 

Since my graduate students will benefit tremendously from the increased status this award brings to the lab, I trust that they will understand when I cut their graduate stipends by 50%.”

The iridescent truth behind iridescence (and hummingbirds)

“It was octarine, the colour of magic. It was alive and glowing and vibrant and it was the undisputed pigment of the imagination, because wherever it appeared it was a sign that mere matter was a servant of the powers of the magical mind. It was enchantment itself.

But Rincewind always thought it looked a sort of greenish-purple.”

― Terry Pratchett, The Color of Magic

I’ve always imagined octarine to be that green-purple metallic color of bird feathers. You know, that color that seems to change depending on the incidence of light?

peacock feather macrophoto with some water drops on it
Peacock feathers always looked octarine to me. From StockSnap

Just humming outside our window

We have a plant outside our window. It has tiny yellow flowers that bloom in the winter and seem like they taste delicious. Or would taste delicious if I were a hummingbird.

photo of two bushes with tiny yellow flowers with trees in the background
The feeding ground, bird not included.

We have at least two regular hummy-visitors, that I’ve seen. Just buzzing around just outside our window, usually, when I’m on a phone call and I lose my train of thought and end up sounding (even more) incoherent on my call.

In my defense, I grew up in a place where hummingbirds aren’t that common, so they are pretty amazing for me to see.

Hummingbirds are amazing. They are the only birds that can fly not only backward, but also upside down. They are tiny, and weigh almost nothing; the average ruby-throated hummingbird weighs about 3 grams (one-tenth of an ounce), which is about the weight same as a penny! Some species can fly for up to 22 hours non-stop during their migration over the Gulf of Mexico. And a flock of hummingbirds is called either a bouquet, a glittering, a hover, a shimmer, or a tune – which is just beautiful.

But, I think the most fascinating part is how their color seems to change. From one angle, one of the two birds has a deep red colored throat. Change the angle slightly, and it looks completely different.

What bird are we seeing?

First things first, there are over 330 hummingbird species worldwide, at least 23 types in North America and – we’re narrowing things down – 6 commonly found in the region we live, the Pacific North West.

Considering we’re seeing these tiniest of birds in the winter, and there are only one species that don’t migrate south for the winter, we are probably seeing Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna), named after Anna Masséna the wife of a nineteenth-century bird collector.

Male Anna’s Hummingbirds have a brightly colored neck. There are about 1.5 million of these hummingbirds in existence. They are quite common, and seemed to have adapted well to urban environments – they surely don’t seem to mind buzzing outside our window and distracting me from phonecalls!

a tiny hummingbird with a reddish neck sitting on a treebranch
Nature photography is hard.

Why do hummingbird feathers (seem to) change color?

Hummingbird feathers aren’t “the color of magic,” they show the optical phenomenon called iridescence. Iridescent surfaces seemingly change color depending on the view or illumination angle. It’s the same effect that causes that rainbow sheen on a soap bubble, that lenticular-looking effect on some minerals, the changing colors of the tapetum lucidum, and that metallic shine on butterflies and bird wings.

The colors of the material are not due to a pigment (though that can determine the base color), but due to microstructures within the material that interfere with light in different ways (structural coloration).

Structural coloration: reflection, refraction, interference

Let’s take the example of a soap bubble. A soap bubble can be considered a thin film, it basically has two interfaces: the air-soap interface, and the soap-water interface. Light will interact with those interfaces in two ways: some light will be reflected (like on a mirror), and some will transmit and refract (change of angle due to material change).

So if we consider a single incoming ray of light, it will be reflected twice, once at each interface – and two rays will interact with each other by interference. Constructive interference happens when the light is in phase, destructive when it’s out of phase.

Depending on the angle of the incoming light, the angle of where we observe the light, the thickness of the film, etc. certain wavelengths (or colors) will be visible to the observer, because the rays constructively interfere, while others colors will be cancelled out.

This phenomenon is called thin-film interference, an effect that occurs when the material thickness is of the same order as the wavelength of visible light (380-750 nm).

physics schematic of light interacting with a thin film
Light reflects off the two surfaces and interferes constructively or destructively. Then *physics* happens. Image source.

Changing angles

When we change the angle of incoming light (by changing from which angle we observe), the thickness through which the light has to travel changes, changing its interference pattern. For example, looking straight on might make the film look red, while at an angle the same material will look orange or green or blue. This is how we see a rainbow effect on a soap bubble.

illustration of how color changes as the angle changes of light interacting with a thin film
Different light incidence angles change the color observed. Created using a thin film simulator.

A lot of tiny little mirrors

The same thing happens when we have certain crystalline structures, which is why some minerals show iridescence, or materials that are basically just a bunch of tiny little mirrors (like CDs).

The same is true for bird feathers, they show a regular crystalline nanostructure: individual tiny mirrors are spaced out just right to cause constructive interference of certain colors at a certain wavelength. And that’s why the Anna’s Hummingbird that chills* out outside our window sometimes looks like he has a bright Fuschia neck, and sometimes he does not.

Structural colours in nature that have attracted significant biomimicry efforts. (A) Typical Morpho butterfly (Morpho didius) and SEM images of the scale, each covered with ridges whose lateral profile has the typical ''Christmas tree'' shape (adapted with permission from ref. 73, r 2006 Society of Photo Optical Instrumentation Engineers); the ridges are supported by a gyroid crystal structure that also produces structural colours. (B) Structural colours of the plumage in the Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis, left) originate from quasi-order b-keratin tubular nanostructures, while in the Plum-throated Cotinga (Cotinga maynana, centre), the structures are spheres (reproduced with permission from ref. 74, r 2009 Royal Society of Chemistry); peacock feathers (right) show 2D photonic crystals of melanin rods embedded in keratin (image of blue peacock Pavo cristatus: wikimedia commons; micrographs reproduced with permission from ref. 52, r 2003 National Academy of Sciences, USA). (C) Jewelled Beetles (Chrysina gloriosa) and the Pollia condensata fruit display circularly-polarized iridescence thanks to a structure of chitin (left micrograph) and cellulose (right micrograph) fibrils, respectively, similar to assemblies found in cholesteric liquid crystal shown in Fig. 7 (adapted with permission from ref. 41, r 2009 American Association for the Advancement of Science, and from ref. 46, r 2012 National Academy of Sciences, USA). (D) Natural opals display iridescent colours because of the crystal arrangement of silica spheres (image: wikimedia commons; electron micrograph reproduced with permission from ref. 54, r 1964 Nature Publishing Group).  
Different examples of iridescent structures as found in nature.
From Parry, Ahu & Savin, Thierry. (2016). Recent advances in the biomimicry of structural colours. Chem. Soc. Rev.. 45. 10.1039/C6CS00129G.

Anyway, to me, octarine is real, and not only on Discworld.


*Actually, I’m not sure hummingbirds now how to “chill.”

Grad Student Becomes Lab’s Go-To Graphic Designer After Making Half-Decent Image In Powerpoint

Originally published on the satire science journal website DNAtured

Cartoon of a woman giving a PowerPoint presentation showing a pie graph.
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Grad student Anna Esquivel’s duties, which already include carrying out her research project, managing the lab, and TAing twice a week, have now expanded to include creating all poster and presentation images for her group after she created a half-decent image of a protein for a lab meeting.

“It was so amazing to see,” said Dr. Lyndon Vang, a postdoc in the same lab as Anna who attended the lab meeting in question. “The Prof was incredibly impressed by Anna’s ability to turn the standard shapes available in Powerpoint to an adequate representation of a protein. You should have seen the Prof’s face when the animation started!”

Anna has now been tasked to create all the images that the lab will use for all future talks, posters, and publications – including a (virtual) poster presentation that Dr. Vang’s due to present tomorrow. “Good thing I have Anna to help me,” Dr. Vang says. “So far, all I have is a title and half an abstract.”

Jadine Sparks, another grad student in the same lab, is an aspiring science illustrator. “It’s kind of frustrating; I’ve spent hours creating scientifically accurate figures in Adobe illustrator, both for scientific posters I’ve presented and to expand my portfolio – I want to make a career out of this. But apparently, all my figures look “too professional” for a scientific conference.”

Anna allegedly also knows how to do conditional conditioning in Excel, implying that soon she will also be designated the lab’s biostatistician.


Bonus: here’s an actual image I made in PowerPoint for my PhD theses. It took me embarrassingly long:

Schematic of the crypt and villus structure that lines the gut, indicating the different cell types.
Schematic representation of a crypt and villus in the small intestine and its cell types. From The biomechanical properties of epithelial cells and tissue in two and three dimensionsBentivegna, V. (Author). 2019