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What Makes Super Glue So Super?

Harry W. Coover receives from the National Medal of Science in the East Room of the White House, November 17, 2010. © Olivier Douliery/Pool/Corbis

Super Glue inventor Dr. Harry Coover died Saturday at his home in Kingsport, Tennessee. He was 94. Matt Soniak looks back at Coover's famous adhesive.

A Sticky Situation

In 1942, American scientists at Kodak Laboratories were looking for materials to make extra-clear plastic gun sights for infantry rifles. Harry Coover and Fred Joyner stumbled upon a few acrylate monomers (esters of acrylic acid that can bind to each other to form chains of molecules) that showed promise, but the monomers stuck to everything they touched. They wouldn’t do any good, so Coover shelved the formulas.

Nine years later, Coover was working at the research labs of the Tennessee Eastman Co., trying to find a tough, heat-resistant material for making jet canopies. He pulled out his old formulas from the war years and gave them another spin. They were, of course, sticky as ever. One researcher spread one of them between the prisms of a machine to see how refractive it was. He got the measurement he needed, but then couldn’t pull the prisms apart. He had to go to Coover with his tail between his legs and report that he had ruined a very expensive instrument. But Coover was delighted—he realized he had a unique adhesive on his hands.

The lab accident became a marketable product in 1958, when Kodak began selling the first cyanoacrylate glue, Eastman #910. Coover himself got to show off the first “super glue” the next year when he went on the TV show I've Got a Secret and used the glue to lift the show’s host completely off of the ground.

Glue’s Superpowers

Through the years, there have been plenty of cyanoacrylate adhesives, like #910, Loctite Quick Set, Super Bonder, Super Glue and Krazy Glue.

All of these glues get their power from cyanoacrylate polymers. A polymer is what happens when a bunch of monomers get together and attach to each other in repeating units. They form a chain or other structure that resists breaking and grabs any microscopic roughness it can find on other objects it touches. The only trigger cyanoacrylate polymers need to form is water—specifically, the hydroxide ions in it. Since there are minute traces of water on almost any surface, it’s easy for the glue to start a polymeric reaction anywhere. Once this reaction starts, it’s pretty difficult to stop, and the resulting molecular bonds don’t come undone easily.

Super glue can do more than stick things together, and it’s become a valuable tool in law enforcement. When you get cyanoacrylate warmed up, it releases fumes. When these fumes touch the moisture residue from fingerprints, white polymers are formed and fingerprints that might have otherwise been hard to see become plainly visible for analysis.

Speaking of warming cyanoacrylate up, super glue spontaneously combusts when enough of it makes contact with cotton or wool. See it in action here.

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NASA, JPL-Caltech
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Space
It's Official: Uranus Smells Like Farts
NASA, JPL-Caltech
NASA, JPL-Caltech

Poor Uranus: After years of being the butt of many schoolyard jokes, the planet's odor lives up to the unfortunate name. According to a new study by researchers at the University of Oxford and other institutions, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, the upper layer of Uranus's atmosphere consists largely of hydrogen sulfide—the same compound that gives farts their putrid stench.

Scientists have long suspected that the clouds floating over Uranus contained hydrogen sulfide, but the compound's presence wasn't confirmed until recently. Certain gases absorb infrared light from the Sun. By analyzing the infrared light patterns in the images they captured using the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii, astronomers were able to get a clearer picture of Uranus's atmospheric composition.

On top of making farts smelly, hydrogen sulfide is also responsible for giving sewers and rotten eggs their signature stink. But the gas's presence on Uranus has value beyond making scientists giggle: It could unlock secrets about the formation of the solar system. Unlike Uranus (and most likely its fellow ice giant Neptune), the gas giants Saturn and Jupiter show no evidence of hydrogen sulfide in their upper atmospheres. Instead they contain ammonia, the same toxic compound used in some heavy-duty cleaners.

"During our solar system's formation, the balance between nitrogen and sulfur (and hence ammonia and Uranus’s newly detected hydrogen sulfide) was determined by the temperature and location of planet’s formation," research team member Leigh Fletcher, of the University of Leicester, said in a press statement. In other words, the gases in Uranus's atmosphere may be able to tell us where in the solar system the planet formed before it migrated to its current spot.

From far away, Uranus's hydrogen sulfide content marks an exciting discovery, but up close it's a silent but deadly killer. In large enough concentrations, the compound is lethal to humans. But if someone were to walk on Uranus without a spacesuit, that would be the least of their problems: The -300°F temperatures and hydrogen, helium, and methane gases at ground level would be instantly fatal.

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Live Smarter
Feeling Anxious? Just a Few Minutes of Meditation Might Help
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iStock

Some say mindfulness meditation can cure anything. It might make you more compassionate. It can fix your procrastination habit. It could ward off germs and improve health. And it may boost your mental health and reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and pain.

New research suggests that for people with anxiety, mindfulness meditation programs could be beneficial after just one session. According to Michigan Technological University physiologist John Durocher, who presented his work during the annual Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, California on April 23, meditation may be able to reduce the toll anxiety takes on the heart in just one session.

As part of the study, Durocher and his colleagues asked 14 adults with mild to moderate anxiety to participate in an hour-long guided meditation session that encouraged them to focus on their breathing and awareness of their thoughts.

The week before the meditation session, the researchers had measured the participants' cardiovascular health (through data like heart rate and the blood pressure in the aorta). They evaluated those same markers immediately after the session ended, and again an hour later. They also asked the participants how anxious they felt afterward.

Other studies have looked at the benefits of mindfulness after extended periods, but this one suggests that the effects are immediate. The participants showed significant reduction in anxiety after the single session, an effect that lasted up to a week afterward. The session also reduced stress on their arteries. Mindfulness meditation "could help to reduce stress on organs like the brain and kidneys and help prevent conditions such as high blood pressure," Durocher said in a press statement, helping protect the heart against the negative effects of chronic anxiety.

But other researchers have had a more cautious outlook on mindfulness research in general, and especially on studies as small as this one. In a 2017 article in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, a group of 15 different experts warned that mindfulness studies aren't always trustworthy. "Misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled, and disappointed," they wrote.

But one of the reasons that mindfulness can be so easy to hype is that it is such a low-investment, low-risk treatment. Much like dentists still recommend flossing even though there are few studies demonstrating its effectiveness against gum disease, it’s easy to tell people to meditate. It might work, but if it doesn't, it probably won't hurt you. (It should be said that in rare cases, some people do report having very negative experiences with meditation.) Even if studies have yet to show that it can definitively cure whatever ails you, sitting down and clearing your head for a few minutes probably won't hurt.

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