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(Almost) Everything You Need to Know About Tear Gas

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What started as a protest against the demolition of Istanbul’s Gezi Park has boiled over into broad anti-government unrest in cities across Turkey. Almost everywhere, the protestors have been met with heavy resistance from riot police and torrents of tear gas. Here’s a crash course in the chemical weapon of the moment.

What is it?

Tear gas isn’t one specific chemical, and it’s usually not even a gas, despite the name. There are a few different compounds that are used as “lachrymatory agents.” Most of them are solids at room temperature, and get mixed with liquid or gas dispersal agents for use.

The variety favored by the Turkish police is known as CS gas, which is made from a powdery compound called 2-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile and a liquid solvent (often methylene chloride), mixed into an aerosol spray.

Where did it come from?

Tear gases in general are something that militaries have been messing around with since World War I. Both France and Germany developed and deployed lachrymatory irritants in battle, but there was evidently a bit of a learning curve. According to the U.S. Army’s Combat Studies Institute, the Germans fired some 3000 tear gas shells during one day of fighting in 1914, but the British troops on the receiving end “suffered no ill effects and never suspected they were under chemical attack.”

In just a few years, the Germans had gotten a handle on things and were using tear-inducing gases to great effect. In 1916, they fired 2000 shells into a French trench system and 2400 French soldiers—blinded, coughing and crying—quickly found themselves surrounded by German troops in protective goggles.

CS gas would come a few decades later. Its active component, 2-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile, was synthesized by American chemists Ben Corson and Roger Stoughton in 1928 and tear gas using it (CS = Corson + Stoughton) was developed and tested during the 1950s and '60s.

What does it do?

Tear gases irritate the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, mouth, and lungs, and cause tearing, coughing, burning, and stinging sensations, chest tightness and difficulty breathing. At higher concentrations, exposure can cause stomach irritation leading to vomiting and diarrhea.

According to German toxicologist Uwe Heinrich, dispersing the gas at a concentration of one milligram per cubic meter will cause symptoms of irritation. From there, things go sour pretty quickly. A concentration of 10 mg per cubic meter can force trained soldiers to retreat from an area. Ten to 20 mg/m3 or higher can cause serious injury or, depending on the victim and conditions of exposure, death. In one incident reported in a Swiss medical journal, an otherwise healthy adult man was exposed to a tear gas grenade containing just one gram of CS while inside a building. He quickly developed toxic pulmonary edema, a condition where excess fluid collects in the air sacs of the lungs and causes difficulty breathing, and recovered only after weeks of medical treatment.

Sounds nasty. Shouldn’t stuff like this be illegal?

It is. Kind of. Tear gases were used in warfare through most of the 20th century until 1993, when the Chemical Weapons Convention banned the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons in battle. The international treaty doesn’t apply to nations’ domestic law enforcement, though, so police officers from Turkey to Texas are free to spray it at civilians.

Repressive Middle Eastern governments really love the stuff, don’t they?

Boy, do they ever! During a protest just last month, Turkish police used 14 tons of water mixed with CS components, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has earned the nicknames “Chemical Tayyip” and “Gasman” thanks to police and security forces’ rampant use of tear gas.

Bahraini police also have a gas problem, to the point where the foreign policy writer Steve Fake says the country has “raised the global bar on the usage of tear gas to unprecedented heights. It has become the Tear Gas Regime.” A report released by the organization Physicians for Human Rights last year says, “Preliminary analysis of data suggests that the majority of Shi’a neighborhoods (comprising 80% of all neighborhoods in Bahrain) have been exposed to toxic chemical agent attacks at least once per week since February 2011.” [Emphasis theirs]

How do you treat tear gas exposure?

If you’re outside, the best antidote to any breathing problems is fresh, untainted air, and time. For high dose exposure or exposure in enclosed spaces, bottled oxygen or certain asthma medications may be administered to ease difficulty breathing. Any exposed skin should be washed with soap and water and eyes should be flushed with sterile water or saline solution. A flyer circulated at the Occupy Wall Street protests also recommended spraying the eyes, mouth and throat with a 50/50 mix of water and Maalox. (Though this specifically mentions capsaicin-based tear gases. Not sure if it works for other types, and I’m  not looking to test it out.)

Is there anything else you wanna know about tear gas? Have other questions about current events or sciencey things? Email askmatt@mentalfloss.com. 

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Big Questions
How Do Aerial Skiers Perfect Their Jumps?
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Cameron Spencer, Getty Images

If you've ever watched an aerial skier in action, you know that some of the maneuvers these athletes pull off are downright jaw-dropping—and you've probably seen more than a few of these skiers land on their rear ends at some point. The jumps are incredible, but they're also so technical that one seemingly insignificant motion can drop a skier on his or her tail.

Given that the skiers can fly up to 60 feet in the air and come down on a 37-degree grade, it seems like just going out and trying a new trick would be a good way to break your neck. That's why you'll need one unexpected piece of equipment if you want to start training for aerials: a towel.

Instead of perfecting their flips and twists over the snow, aerial skiers try out their new maneuvers on ramps that launch them over huge swimming pools. The U.S. national team has facilities in Park City, Utah and Lake Placid, New York that include specially designed pools to help competitors perfect their next big moves. The pools have highly aerated patches of bubbles in their centers that decrease the surface tension to make the water a bit softer for the skiers' landings.

If you're an aspiring aerial skier, expect to get fairly wet. New skiers have to make a minimum of 200 successful jumps into water before they even get their first crack at the snow, and these jumps have to get a thumbs up from coaches in order for the skier to move on.

This sort of meticulous preparation doesn't end once you hit the big-time, either. American Ashley Caldwell, one of the most decorated athletes in the sport, is competing in her third Olympics in Pyeongchang, but failed to advance past the qualifiers on February 15, as she wasn't able to land either one of the two triple-flipping jumps she attempted. Still, it's this very sort of risk-taking that has brought her to the top of her game, and caused friction with more than one of her past coaches.

"Why win with less when you can win with more?" Caldwell said of her competition mentality. “I don’t want to go out there and show the world my easiest trick. I want to show the world my best trick, me putting everything on the line to be the best.”

You can check out some of Team USA's moves in the video below:

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Is There Really Such Thing As 'Muscle Memory'?
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Is there really such a thing as 'muscle memory'? For example, in the sense of your fingers remembering where the keys of the keyboard are?

C Stuart Hardwick:

Yes and no. There is no literal memory in the muscles, but the thing people call “muscle memory” exists, though the name is a misnomer.

A better name might be “subconscious memory,” as the information is stored in the brain, but is most readily accessible—or only accessible—by non-conscious means.

What “non-conscious” refers to here is the brain’s enormous capacity to train up what might almost be called “subroutines,” that exist outside our conscious experience. I like the term for this that at least one researcher in the field uses: “zombie agency.”

Zombie agents are non-conscious, or sub-conscious (in the literal, not the Freudian sense) that can do essentially everything you can do except make value judgments. So, for example, you don’t consciously know how to control your muscles in order to walk —in all likelihood, you wouldn’t know where to begin—but your zombie agents do, and they’ll take you wherever you want to go, dodging curbs and puppies, and “waking you” when appropriate to decide which babies to stop and kiss.

Zombie agents can be rather startling things. When you suddenly become aware that you’ve driven halfway across town in the direction of the office instead of going to the shoe store Saturday morning, you have zombie agents to thank. You “wake” as if from slumber, and with the frightening realization that you’ve been flying down the highway at prodigious speed while your mind was on other things. You feel as if you’ve been asleep, and in a way you have—but a very funny kind of sleep in which it is only the uppermost layer of abstract reason that is disassociated from the rest of conscious experience. Your zombie agents have been driving to work, responding to traffic, adjusting the radio, noting the check engine light, all the things you think of as “you, driving the car,” except the big one: deciding where to go. That part was on automatic pilot (which is another good way to think of this).

This is at the advanced end of the spectrum. Typing your friend’s phone number using “muscle memory” is at the other, but it’s the same phenomenon.

We didn’t evolve to remember phone numbers, so we aren’t very good at it. In fact, we are so bad at it, we invent all sorts of mnemonic devices (memory aids) to help us [in] relating numbers to words or spacial memory, either of which are closer to the hunting and gathering we are evolved for. The illusion of “muscle memory” arises because we are supremely well adapted to manual manipulation and tool-making. We don’t need to invent a memory aid to help us remember what we do with our hands, we only have to practice.

So the conscious mind says “dial Tabby’s number,” and our fingers—or more correctly, the zombie agent which learned that task—do it. Similarly, after sufficient training, we can do the same thing with tasks like “play a major fifth,” "drive to work,” or “pull an Airbus A380 up for a go-around.”

It feels like muscle memory because the conscious mind—the part you experience as being you—is acting like a coach driver, steering the efforts of a team of zombie agents, all harnesses to collective action. But it isn’t muscle memory, it's just memory—though it may be stored (or at least some of it) in the deeper, motor cortex parts of the brain.

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

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