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Who Are the "Black Widows" Threatening the Olympics?

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As we approach the 2014 Sochi Olympics, law enforcement officials and security experts are concerned about the prospect of so-called “black widow” terrorists, a group of female suicide bombers. But who are they? Where did they come from? How did they get such a terrifying moniker?

First, a bit of geography. Sochi is one of Russia’s southernmost cities. Because of its subtropical climate and vast, beautiful beaches along the Black Sea, the city is a popular destination for Russians on summer vacation. Think of it as their Fort Lauderdale. And wouldn't the Winter Olympics be fun in Fort Lauderdale?

Sochi is located near the Caucasus Mountains. There’s been war or insurgency in the Caucasus region (which stretches from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea) for nearly three decades now, and the region has seen some of the most shocking terrorist attacks in modern history.

The political, economic, and cultural forces at work in the region are extremely complicated, but here are the broad strokes of the last several years. East of Sochi is Chechnya. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Chechnya declared itself a sovereign nation. This didn’t go over well in Moscow, which had organized a federation of republics and constituent entities. The Russian Federation argued that Chechnya couldn’t just willy-nilly throw together a government and invent a country, and refused to accept any such effort. Meanwhile, the legacy of Soviet control and a general exodus of non-ethnic-Chechens left Chechnya socially and economically crippled.

The whole thing resulted in the First Chechen War, which Chechnya more or less “won,” except for its tens of thousands of casualties and its obliterated infrastructure. In the war’s aftermath, the vaguely independent Chechnya became a lawless zone of kidnapping rings and gunrunning. All the while, Islamic fundamentalism there flourished. After Chechen separatists killed hundreds of people in a series of terrorist attacks on apartment buildings and a shopping mall, Russia said enough is enough and mounted an invasion. So began the Second Chechen War.

After bitter fighting, Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, was ground into dust. Meanwhile, Russia bombed the hell out of nearby mountain ranges with thermobaric weapons. After a decade of fighting and thousands of casualties on both sides, Russia won.

The insurgency has not stopped, however, and has bled into nearby Dagestan. The brutality of insurgents can reach an unimaginable scale. For example, in 2004, on the first day of school—called Knowlege Day—a group of extremist Islamic separatists using paramilitary tactics took control of a school in the small Russian town of Beslan in North Ossetia. The details are too horrific to recount here. Eleven hundred people were taken hostage, including nearly 800 children. Three days later 186 of the children were dead, 330 hostages total. Nearly everyone sustained injury. Chechen terrorists don’t play around, and everyone understands this—especially those responsible for security in Sochi, which is uncomfortably close to the violence (about 250 miles).

Three weeks ago, suicide bombers went on a tear in the city of Volgograd, with one detonating on a bus and one at a train station, killing 34. Following the attacks, a video was posted on an extremist website in which the bombers offer this warning: “We've prepared a present for you and all tourists who come [to Sochi]... If you will hold the Olympics, you'll get a present from us for the Muslim blood that's been spilled.”

This is where we get to the black widows. While the details vary, the general consensus is that militant groups recruit widows of men killed by the Russians in the two brutal Chechen Wars, and in battles elsewhere in the Caucasus region. The widows are trained as suicide bombers and sent into areas to seek their revenge. Because they don’t fit the young, male stereotype that security experts have come to expect of a terrorist, black widows are more effectively able to blend into a crowd and infiltrate an area. (By way of makeup and fashion, women also have a greater advantage when it comes to disguising themselves.) The first known black widow struck in 2000.

ABC News

This week, Russia’s federal security service released wanted posters of four black widows thought to be involved in a plot to disrupt the torch relay or the Olympic Games. Likewise, posters of the plot masterminds have been distributed. Though Russia has promised a “ring of steel” around Sochi that consists of 40,000 security personnel, the wanted posters suggest a fear that the ring has been breached. Because Russian spies have reportedly had little luck penetrating small, regional terrorist cells, the Volgograd video warning is not to be lightly dismissed.

Somewhere in the throngs of the biggest event in the world, there are four black widows, each acting independently, each driven by revenge. If there is sound intelligence behind those wanted posters, four versus 40,000 present perilous odds indeed.

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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, 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.


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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