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Can of Soda vs. Liquid Nitrogen

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YouTube / Jefferson Lab

What happens when you put a can of soda* in liquid nitrogen? Well, we can predict that it will freeze, but how? Let's hope it's catastrophic:

Incidentally, I'm in the middle of reading the new Neal Stephenson book Seveneves, and am reminded of this passage:

"[The spacecraft] were just big aluminum cans with domes welded onto the ends. The walls of the can had a thickness of about a millimeter. The domes were a bit sturdier. The thickest and strongest parts of the hull were in the places where the domes overlapped the ends of the can. The analogy was to a plastic soda bottle, whose thin walls could be crumpled in one hand when the lid was off, but which became amazingly stiff and strong when it was pressurized. Or at least that was what NASA was saying to people who were alarmed by the idea of living one millimeter away from the vacuum of space."

Stephenson, Neal (2015-05-19). Seveneves: A Novel (pp. 197-198). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

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* = Pop, soft drink, fizzy drink, carbonated liquid, "Coke," etc.

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Food
Researchers Pinpoint the Genes Behind the Durian's Foul Stench
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Durian is a popular fruit in parts of southeast Asia. It's also known for having the most putrid, off-putting odor of any item sold in the produce section. Even fans of durian know why the fruit gets a bad rap, but what exactly causes its divisive scent is less obvious. Determined to find the answer, a team of researchers funded by "a group of anonymous durian lovers" mapped the fruit's genome, as reported by the BBC.

The study, published in the journal Nature Genetics [PDF], contains data from the first-ever complete genetic mapping of a durian fruit. It confirms that durian's excess stinkiness comes from sulfur, a chemical element whose scent is often compared to that of rotten eggs.

Analysis of the fruit's chemical makeup has been done in the past, so the idea that sulfur is a major contributor to its signature smell is nothing new. What is new is the identification of the specific class of sulfur-producing genes. These genes pump out sulfur at a "turbocharged" rate, which explains why the stench is powerful enough to have durian banned in some public areas. It may seem like the smell is a defense mechanism to ward off predators, but the study authors write that it's meant to have the opposite effect. According to the paper, "it is possible that linking odor and ripening may provide an evolutionary advantage for durian in facilitating fruit dispersal." In other words, the scent attracts hungry primates that help spread the seeds of ripe durian fruits by consuming them.

The revelation opens the door to genetically modified durian that are tweaked to produce less sulfur and therefore have a milder taste and smell. But such a product would likely inspire outrage from the food's passionate fans. While the flavor profile has been compared to rotten garbage and dead animal meat, it's also been praised for its "overtones of hazelnut, apricot, caramelized banana, and egg custard" by those who appreciate its unique character.

[h/t BBC]

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Big Questions
What Is Pumpkin Spice?
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Pumpkin Spice season seems to come earlier every year, but today marks its official arrival, as October 1 is National Pumpkin Spice Day. Before you reach for a cup, drink this in: The flavor can be composed of more than 300 elements—and pumpkin isn’t one of them.

Most recipes include cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, ginger, and vanilla, but not every incarnation of the concoction is the same, according to a video by food scientist and spokesperson for The Institute of Food Technologists, Kantha Shelke, Ph.D, C.F.S.

So what’s the connection to the season’s most beloved orange fruit? (Yes, pumpkin is a fruit!) Flavor companies also add in skillfully designed compounds that mimic the taste of pumpkin pie. Each chemical is carefully reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and approved at concentrations of about 20 to 50 times the normal consumption level. And even though the full flavor contains 340 compounds, combining only five to 10 percent of those molecules in a mix is enough to trick our brains into thinking, “Mmm, just like Thanksgiving!”

But beware: attempting to recreate the magic in the average kitchen isn't as easy as pie. With only the spices available at a supermarket, the final product will likely taste more like Chai than the seasonal treat on professional menus. “Pumpkin Spice isn’t set in stone,” Shelke says. “Everyone has their secret recipe.”

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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