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Will McGough

This is Where Tar Comes From

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Will McGough

Pitch Lake is located on the southwest side of Trinidad (see above photo), but a visitor will probably feel like they’re on the moon at times. Called Tierra de Brea, it is a natural deposit of asphalt, and sometimes referred to as a "tar pit." It's true—you can literally stick a stick into the ground, pull it up, and with it will come what looks like tar. Stand in one place too long, and you’ll feel your shoes begin to sink in and create an imprint.

According to most histories, Sir Walter Raleigh was shown the lake by locals when he arrived in Trinidad in search of El Dorado, the fabled city of gold. He found the tar to be great for caulking for his ships, and was credited with its discovery when he returned home with several barrels.

Trinidad's Pitch Lake is one of five of its kind. There are three others in California and one more in Venezuela. (Although there are smaller deposits of asphalt found in various locations around the world, these are the only lakes.) Pitch Lake is the biggest, measuring 246 feet deep and about 99 acres in size.

The second-largest lake, Lake Bermudez in Venezula, halted its commercial mining operations back in the 1930s, and the pit in Los Angeles is dedicated to archaeological research and the preservation of fossils. The area in Carpinteria is just south of where I used to live in Santa Barbara, and its presence is felt along the coast. I can tell you firsthand that there were many days when I walked out of the ocean near Santa Barbara and had tar on the bottom of my feet and bathing suit. And I still have the stained suits to prove it.

Ironically enough, despite having such a supply of asphalt on hand, Trinidad has some of the worst roads in the Caribbean—the country is an aggressive exporter of its product for road and runway construction in Europe and the United States. According to our guide, scientists predict that there's about a 400-year supply left underground—which really isn't that long, although I suppose it gives Trinidad plenty of time to patch up a few potholes if they so choose. Another interesting piece of trivia is that the "pitch"—another name for the tar—is where the phrase "pitch black" comes from, similar to the descriptions “red rose,” “sky blue,” and “snow white.”

There’s a picture under a hut outside of the visitor’s center that shows a man who had been in up to his waist—the pitch sucking him in like quicksand—but unfortunately they weren’t willing to let me become the second person to go that deep. (I’m weird like that.) Instead, I settled for a walking tour and a quick dip in one of the sulfur pools, making sure to leave hand and footprints in my wake. The pools are obviously bigger during the rainy summer months, but I found one deep enough to swim in during my dry-season visit in March.

Will McGough

More nerdy stuff: The pitch drop experiment in Australia is one of the longest running scientific experiments in which a “solid” piece of pitch is placed in a funnel and flows over a very long timescale. Because the viscosity of pitch is 230-billion times that of water, a droplet falls from the funnel only once every eight to 12 years. Only eight drops have fallen since the experiment was set up in 1927. In a case of very good timing, the 9th drop is expected to fall sometime this year.

Pretty cool, yeah? Now every time you turn out the lights or get in your car, you can think of Trinidad.

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Why Adding Water to Your Whiskey Makes It Taste Better
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iStock

Don’t ever let people tease you for watering down your whiskey. If they’re true aficionados, they’ll know that adding a splash of water or a few cubes of ice to your drink will actually enhance its natural flavors. But how can something as flavorless as water make a barrel-aged scotch or bourbon taste even better? Chemists think they’ve found the answer.

As The Verge reports, researchers from the Linnæus University Centre for Biomaterials Chemistry in Sweden analyzed the molecular composition of whiskey in the presence of water. We already know that the molecule guaiacol is largely responsible for whiskey’s smoky taste and aroma. Guaiacol bonds to alcohol molecules, which means that in straight whisky that guaiacol flavor will be fairly evenly distributed throughout the cask. Alcohol is repelled by water, and guaiacol partially so. That means when a splash of the water is added to the beverage the alcohol gets pushed to the surface, dragging the guaiacol along with it. Concentrated at the top of the glass, the whiskey’s distinctive taste and scent is in the perfect position to be noticed by the drinker.

According to the team’s experiments, which they laid out in the journal Scientific Reports [PDF], whiskey that’s been diluted down to 40 percent to 45 percent alcohol content will start to show more guaiacol sloshing near the surface. Most commercial whiskey is already diluted before it's bottled, so the drink you order in a bar should fall within this range to begin with. Adding additional water or ice will boost the flavor-enhancing effect even further.

As for just how much water to add, the paper doesn’t specify. Whiskey lovers will just have to conduct some experiments of their own to see which ratios suit their palate.

[h/t NPR]

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Gray, George Robert; Hullmandel & Walton; Hullmandel, Charles Joseph; Mitchell, D. W / Public Doman
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Animals
DNA Tests Show ‘Extinct’ Penguin Species Never Existed
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Gray, George Robert; Hullmandel & Walton; Hullmandel, Charles Joseph; Mitchell, D. W / Public Doman

Science is a self-correcting process, ever in flux. Accepted hypotheses are overturned in the face of new information. The world isn’t flat after all. Disease isn’t caused by demons or wickedness. And that Hunter Island penguin? Yeah, apparently that was just a figment of our imaginations. Researchers writing in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society say the remains of one supposed species are in fact a “jumbled mixture” of bones from three extant species.

The bones were unearthed in the 1980s during the excavation of a prehistoric trash heap on Tasmania’s Hunter Island. Two scientists named Tets and O’Connor argued that the remains were different enough from other penguins to constitute their own genus and species, one which must have died out during the Holocene epoch. The proud potential penguin parents dubbed the apparently extinct bird Tasidyptes hunterivan, and that was that.

Except that this is science, where no story is ever really over. Other biologists were not satisfied with the evidence Tets and O’Connor presented. There were only four bones, and they all bore some resemblance to species that exist today. Fortunately, in 2017, we’ve got ways of making fossils talk. A research team led by Tess Cole of the University of Otago used DNA barcoding to examine the genetic code of each of the four bones.

“It was a fun and unexpected story,” Cole said in a statement, “because we show that Tasmania’s ‘extinct' penguin is not actually an extinct or unique penguin at all.”

Snares penguins dive into the water.
Snares penguins (Eudyptes robustus).
Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The bones were “a jumbled mixture of three living penguin species, from two genera": the Fiordland crested penguin or Tawaki (Eudyptes pachyrhynchus) and the Snares crested penguin (Eudyptes robustus), both of New Zealand, and the Australian little fairy penguin (Eudyptula novaehollandiae).

“This study shows how useful ancient DNA testing can be,” Cole said. “Not only does it help us identify new but extinct species, but it can help us rule out previously postulated species which did not exist, as in this case.”

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