The 14-Year-Old Who Convinced People to Ban Dihydrogen Monoxide

Jeff Swensen/Getty Images
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

In the spring of 1997, a 14-year-old’s school science fair project made a convincing argument to ban a dangerous chemical compound: dihydrogen monoxide, known as DHMO. Nathan Zohner, a junior high school student in Idaho, gave 50 of his fellow students a report called "Dihydrogen Monoxide: The Unrecognized Killer,” which accurately laid out the dangers of DHMO, convincing the majority of students to call for its ban. The experiment caused enough of a splash that it was picked up by The Washington Post.

The compound can corrode and rust metal and cause severe burns, the paper correctly argued. If you consume it, it can cause bloating and excessive urination and sweating. Thousands of people in the U.S. die from its accidental ingestion every year. If you are dependent on it, going through withdrawal can kill you. It’s found in significant quantities in acid rain, tumors, and more. Armed with this information and asked what the world should do about the threat of DHMO, 43 of Zohner’s classmates voted to ban the compound, citing its deadly nature. Lucky for them, no lawmaker would agree: DHMO is the chemical formula for water. Zohner—whose project won the grand prize at the regional science fair that year—wasn’t the first person to drive people into hysterics over the (real) dangers of DHMO, which can in fact burn, drown, and otherwise harm you in its various forms.

One of the earliest iterations of the hoax came from a Michigan paper called The Durand Express, which ran a piece decrying the harms of DHMO as an April Fool’s Day joke in 1983. Zohner’s experiment highlighted how easily young students—even those who had taken chemistry—could be taken in by misleading, fear-mongering scientific information. But scientific illiteracy isn’t just an issue with kids, and the widespread ability to Google basic facts hasn’t kept similar hoaxes and conspiracy theories from taking root in the public imagination today.

People still believe that fluoride in the water is a result of the government trying to poison them (fluoridation has been called one of the greatest public health achievements of the 20th century, causing a major decline in dental cavities and tooth loss across populations) or that vaccines cause autism (an idea, widely disproven, that was based on a 12-person study that used falsified data) or that deodorant can cause breast cancer (no scientific evidence supports this claim, according to the National Cancer Institute).

Consider the recent trend of “detoxing” propagated by publications like Goop. Most people don’t know what “toxins” they’re trying to filter out with their expensive juice cleanses to begin with, but doctors point out that the human body is pretty well equipped to handle the damaging materials you throw at it—like, say, alcohol. With no real scientific evidence to back it up, it’s the modern equivalent of leeching, experts have pointed out.

No doubt Gwyneth Paltrow would be as worried about DHMO as she is about underwire bras causing cancer (don’t worry, they don’t). The lesson of Zohner’s project, two decades later? Chemicals aren’t always bad. Everything is made of chemicals, and just because it has a name you can’t pronounce doesn’t mean it’s dangerous. It’s easy to get taken in by doomsday pseudoscience—because hey, pollution is truly dangerous and most of us haven’t taken a science class in decades. But with a little bit of skepticism and some basic research skills, we can all learn to sort through the false facts. In moderation, a little DHMO is a wonderful thing.

Arrokoth, the Farthest, Oldest Solar System Object Ever Studied, Could Reveal the Origins of Planets

NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Roman Tkachenko
NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Roman Tkachenko

A trip to the most remote part of our solar system has revealed some surprising insights into the formation of our own planet. Three new studies based on data gathered on NASA's flyby of Arrokoth—the farthest object in the solar system from Earth and the oldest body ever studied—is giving researchers a better idea of how the building blocks of planets were formed, what Arrokoth's surface is made of, and why it looks like a giant circus peanut.

Arrokoth is a 21-mile-wide space object that formed roughly 4 billion years ago. Located past Pluto in the Kuiper Belt, it's received much less abuse than other primordial bodies that sit in asteroid belts or closer to the sun. "[The objects] that form there have basically been unperturbed since the beginning of the solar system," William McKinnon, lead author of one of the studies, said at a news briefing.

That means, despite its age, Arrokoth doesn't look much different today than when it first came into being billions of years ago, making it the perfect tool for studying the origins of planets.

In 2019, the NASA spacecraft New Horizons performed a flyby of Arrokoth on the edge of the solar system 4 billion miles away from Earth. The probe captured a binary object consisting of two connected lobes that were once separate fragments. In their paper, McKinnon and colleagues explain that Arrokoth "is the product of a gentle, low-speed merger in the early solar system."

Prior to these new findings, there were two competing theories into how the solid building blocks of planets, or planetesimals, form. The first theory is called hierarchical accretion, and it states that planetesimals are created when two separate parts of a nebula—the cloud of gas and space dust born from a dying star—crash into one another.

The latest observations of Arrokoth support the second theory: Instead of a sudden, violent collision, planetesimals form when gases and particles in a nebula gradually amass to the point where they become too dense to withstand their own gravity. Nearby components meld together gradually, and a planetesimal is born. "All these particles are falling toward the center, then whoosh, they make a big planetesimal. Maybe 10, 20, 30, 100 kilometers across," said McKinnon, a professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Washington University. This type of cloud collapse typically results in binary shapes rather than smooth spheroids, hence Arrokoth's peanut-like silhouette.

If this is the origin of Arrokoth, it was likely the origin of other planetesimals, including those that assembled Earth. "This is how planetesimal formation took place across the Kuiper Belt, and quite possibly across the solar system," New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said at the briefing.

The package of studies, published in the journal Science, also includes findings on the look and substance of Arrokoth. In their paper, Northern Arizona University planetary scientist Will Grundy and colleagues reveal that the surface of the body is covered in "ultrared" matter so thermodynamically unstable that it can't exist at higher temperatures closer to the sun.

The ultrared color is a sign of the presence of organic substances, namely methanol ice. Grundy and colleagues speculate that the frozen alcohol may be the product of water and methane ice reacting with cosmic rays. New Horizons didn't detect any water on the body, but the researchers say its possible that H2O was present but hidden from view. Other unidentified organic compounds were also found on Arrokoth.

New Horizon's flyby of Pluto and Arrokoth took place over the course of a few days. To gain a further understanding of how the object formed and what it's made of, researchers need to find a way to send a probe to the Kuiper Belt for a longer length of time, perhaps by locking it into the orbit of a larger body. Such a mission could tell us even more about the infancy of the solar system and the composition of our planetary neighborhood's outer limits.

The Moon Will Make Mars Disappear Next Week

Take a break from stargazing to watch the moon swallow Mars on February 18.
Take a break from stargazing to watch the moon swallow Mars on February 18.
Pitris/iStock via Getty Images

On Tuesday, February 18, the moon will float right in front of Mars, completely obscuring it from view.

The moon covers Mars relatively often—according to Sky & Telescope, it will happen five times this year alone—but we don’t always get to see it from Earth. Next week, however, residents of North America can look up to see what’s called a lunar occultation in action. The moon's orbit will bring it between Earth and Mars, allowing the moon to "swallow" the Red Planet over the course of 14 seconds. Mars will stay hidden for just under 90 minutes, and then reemerge from behind the moon.

Depending on where you live, you might have to set your alarm quite a bit earlier than you usually do in order to catch the show. In general, people in eastern parts of the country will see Mars disappear a little later; in Phoenix, for example, it’ll happen at 4:37:27 a.m., Chicagoans can watch it at 6:07:10 a.m., and New Yorkers might even already be awake when the moon swallows Mars at 7:36:37 a.m.

If you can’t help but hit the snooze button, you can skip the disappearing act (also called immersion) and wait for Mars to reappear on the other side of the moon (called emersion). Emersion times vary based on location, too, but they’re around an hour and a half later than immersion times on average. You can check the specific times for hundreds of cities across the country here [PDF].

Since it takes only 14 seconds for Mars to fully vanish (or reemerge), punctuality is a necessity—and so is optical aid. Mars won’t be bright enough for you to see it with your naked eye, so Sky & Telescope recommends looking skyward through binoculars or a telescope.

Thinking of holding an early-morning viewing party on Tuesday? Here are 10 riveting facts about Mars that you can use to impress your guests.

[h/t Sky & Telescope]

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