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What Does a U.S. Ambassador Do?

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Christopher Stevens, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, was killed last night along with three other Americans when an Islamist mob stormed the American Consulate in Benghazi. With the tragic story all over the news today, reader Kimberly wrote to ask what, exactly, goes into being a U.S. ambassador.

In the strictest sense, U.S. ambassadors represent the President of the United States in an official capacity in foreign nations and communities. They are charged with protecting and promoting national interests, maintaining diplomacy, organizing visits, welcoming visitors, and supporting resolutions. If a U.S. citizen living or visiting abroad gets into legal trouble of some sort, it is the duty of the ambassador to ensure that said citizen is treated justly. This doesn't mean, however, that the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey can spirit you out of the country without reprisal if you've been found with a pound of cocaine in your luggage; it simply means that he or she can make sure you've got access to legal counsel while you're in prison awaiting trial.

While to casual observers it may seem like an ambassador's work day is filled with giving speeches and glad-handing at cocktail parties, these social engineering opportunities are actually an important part of strengthening international relationships. The ambassador learns of local concerns and criticisms (for example, beef exports from Ireland to the U.S.) and has the ability to take those issues directly to Washington. The ambassador is also the chief executive at his foreign embassy and is in charge of making sure embassy staff abide by the local laws and customs.

Getting the Job

A solid background in politics and a fluency in a foreign language would seem like necessary resume bullet-points in order to be granted an ambassadorship, and the majority of U.S. ambassadors are career foreign-service diplomats. But why do some folks with no credentials other than celebrity status or deep pockets manage to land such a post?

Presidents have certainly used ambassadorships as a way to thank their friends and supporters. But one part of our ambassadors' jobs is to ingratiate themselves (and thus the U.S.) to foreign countries by providing funding for local programs, whether it be building schools or training midwives to assist pregnant women. In these cases, celebrity status can be more beneficial than a graduate degree in international economics. Beloved child star Shirley Temple (previously the U.S. Ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia) can give a few impassioned interviews about the need for maternal health care programs in Africa, and her celebrity cohorts will open their wallets.

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Big Questions
Can You Really Go Blind Staring at a Solar Eclipse?
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A total solar eclipse will cut a path of totality across the United States on August 21, and eclipse mania is gripping the country. Should the wide-eyed and unprotected hazard a peek at this rare phenomenon?

NASA doesn't advise it. The truth is, a quick glance at a solar eclipse won't leave you blind. But you're not doing your peepers any favors. As NASA explains, even when 99 percent of the sun's surface is covered, the 1 percent that sneaks out around the edges is enough to damage the rod and cone cells in your retinas. As this light and radiation flood into the eye, the retina becomes trapped in a sort of solar cooker that scorches its tissue. And because your retinas don't have any pain receptors, your eyes have no way of warning you to stop.

The good news for astronomy enthusiasts is that there are ways to safely view a solar eclipse. A pair of NASA-approved eclipse glasses will block the retina-frying rays, but sunglasses or any other kind of smoked lenses cannot. (The editors at MrEclipse.com, an eclipse watchers' fan site, put shades in the "eye suicide" category.) NASA also suggests watching the eclipse indirectly through a pinhole projector, or through binoculars or a telescope fitted with special solar filters.

While it's safe to take a quick, unfiltered peek at the sun in the brief totality of a total solar eclipse, doing so during the partial phases—when the Moon is not completely covering the Sun—is much riskier.

WOULDN'T IT BE EASIER TO JUST TELL YOUR KIDS THEY WILL GO BLIND?

NASA's website tackled this question. Their short answer: that could ruin their lives.

"A student who heeds warnings from teachers and other authorities not to view the eclipse because of the danger to vision, and learns later that other students did see it safely, may feel cheated out of the experience. Having now learned that the authority figure was wrong on one occasion, how is this student going to react when other health-related advice about drugs, alcohol, AIDS, or smoking is given[?]"

This story was originally published in 2012.

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Big Questions
If Beer and Bread Use Almost the Exact Same Ingredients, Why Isn't Bread Alcoholic?
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If beer and bread use almost the exact same ingredients (minus hops) why isn't bread alcoholic?

Josh Velson:

All yeast breads contain some amount of alcohol. Have you ever smelled a rising loaf of bread or, better yet, smelled the air underneath dough that has been covered while rising? It smells really boozy. And that sweet smell that fresh-baked bread has under the yeast and nutty Maillard reaction notes? Alcohol.

However, during the baking process, most of the alcohol in the dough evaporates into the atmosphere. This is basically the same thing that happens to much of the water in the dough as well. And it’s long been known that bread contains residual alcohol—up to 1.9 percent of it. In the 1920s, the American Chemical Society even had a set of experimenters report on it.

Anecdotally, I’ve also accidentally made really boozy bread by letting a white bread dough rise for too long. The end result was that not enough of the alcohol boiled off, and the darned thing tasted like alcohol. You can also taste alcohol in the doughy bits of underbaked white bread, which I categorically do not recommend you try making.

Putting on my industrial biochemistry hat here, many [people] claim that alcohol is only the product of a “starvation process” on yeast once they run out of oxygen. That’s wrong.

The most common brewers and bread yeasts, of the Saccharomyces genus (and some of the Brettanomyces genus, also used to produce beer), will produce alcohol in both a beer wort
and in bread dough immediately, regardless of aeration. This is actually a surprising result, as it runs counter to what is most efficient for the cell (and, incidentally, the simplistic version of yeast biology that is often taught to home brewers). The expectation would be that the cell would perform aerobic respiration (full conversion of sugar and oxygen to carbon dioxide and water) until oxygen runs out, and only then revert to alcoholic fermentation, which runs without oxygen but produces less energy.

Instead, if a Saccharomyces yeast finds itself in a high-sugar environment, regardless of the presence of air it will start producing ethanol, shunting sugar into the anaerobic respiration pathway while still running the aerobic process in parallel. This phenomenon is known as the Crabtree effect, and is speculated to be an adaptation to suppress competing organisms
in the high-sugar environment because ethanol has antiseptic properties that yeasts are tolerant to but competitors are not. It’s a quirk of Saccharomyces biology that you basically only learn about if you spent a long time doing way too much yeast cell culture … like me.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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