The Phoenix

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Just One Suck Can Show A Lot

One of my favorite party gags is to suck helium. Sure it's juvenile, but oh so much fun. And usually when one person does it, at least a couple other partygoers join in the helium maddness. Before you know it, there's a group of four of five people talking like Alvin & Chipmunks and cackling like tiny demented elves.

Now science has found a great benefit from sucking helium:

Examining the lungs.

University of Wisconsin-Madison scientists have devised a new test that involves patients sucking in helium with a little nitrogen through a straw. Then they use MRI scanning technology to see how far the gas has penetrated even the smallest cavities in the lungs. Doctors can then more clearly determine the amount of lung damage a patient with asthma or emphysema has.

The traditional MRI creates images scanning the tissues and tracking the differences in water content. The use of helium actually creates a sharper contrast, and thus a much clearer picture of the lungs. "This approach allows us to look at lung micro-structures that are on the scale of less than a millimeter," reports Sean Fain, the lead author for this research.

Having a much more accurate and detailed scan of a patient's lungs will go a long way towards treating their diseases. "Spotting lung damage at an early stage allows us to evaluate the efficacy of lung therapies as well as better understand the mechanisms underlying the disease," Fain adds.

This is truly an amazing finding, but it makes you wonder just how the hell these scientists came up with this idea. Many times, these discoveries are so novel and goofy, that I'm lead to believe there's a ton of scientists out there just messing around until they disover something new and profound by total accident. Dr. Fain was probably sucking some helium, getting a buzz, and in his helium-induced high thought, "Hey dude, let's suck some helium and watch the gas fill up our bronchials on the MRI!"

For fun, here's a quick list of some famous "accidental" scientific discoveries:

1) Alexander Flemming was studying the flu when he noticed a mold had accidentally invaded one of his petri dishes and killed the staphylococcus bacteria inside. That's how penicillin was discovered.

2)Microwave emitters powered radar equipment in WWI. One of these emitters melted a candybar inside of engineer Percy Spencer's pocket. Voila! The microwave was born.

3)In 1853, George Crum was pissed off at a customer when the guy said that his potato fries were cut too thick. So George took the plate back, sliced the potatoes paper thin, and fried them to a crisp. Although it was done out of anger, it's pretty obvious the customer was more than satisfied with his brand new side order of potato chips.

4)In 1970, Spencer Silver was trying to create a stronger adhesive at the 3M company. Well, Silver's new glue was weak, as it would stick but easily become unstuck. 4 years later, a colleague was singing at his church choir and used paper bookmarks to keep his place in the hymn book, but the darn things kept falling out. So he used Silver's weak-ass glue so his markers would stay in place and not damage the pages. That's how we have Post-It Notes today.

5)In 1992, the clinical trials for a new drug to treat hypertension failed miserably. Those involved with the tests in England weren't able to get their blood pressure levels down to normal with this new drug. The project was almost dumped, until researchers discovered a very interesting side effect to the drug...

Viagra - loved by sugar daddies worldwide. Serendipity baby!


Blogger Perplexio said...

And weren't those hypercolor t-shirts back in the late 80s developed from a technology NASA had been working on?

NASA decided they couldn't use it and sold it to corporate America.

And I believe Ivory Soap was also an accident. I think it involved someone leaving the vats on too long and rendering a soap that was/is 99.44% pure.

I also wonder about:

a) who came up with the bright idea to eat eggs.
b) Tomatoes used to be considered poisonous. Who was the first person who actually ate one and determined, "Hey if we pureed this and put it on flatbread with cheese it might taste pretty good."?

7/05/2006 3:40 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

Columbus was looking for India.

Coca-Cola was a stomach remedy.

Chocolate chip cookies were the result of a cut up Nestle bar not melting.

7/05/2006 4:23 PM  
Blogger Catch said...

That was very informative!! Thank you..hmmm...I wondered how viagra came about....

7/05/2006 4:31 PM  
Blogger Michelle said...

Hope you had a great 4th!
Loved this post, truly fascinating :o)

7/05/2006 7:01 PM  
Blogger crallspace said...

I've heard the potato chip story before. I was thinking I was going to read about dogs relating to the dying, but hey... this was a great post anyway. I don't do the helium thing anymore b/c I am hoping to make more money with my voice.

7/05/2006 7:05 PM  
Blogger Reiki said...

phoenix, I was just reading some stuff this morning about serendipity and the article mentioned both the penicillin discovery & invention of post it serendipitous to read them in your blog posting, eh?

so glad to know you're OK, too.

7/05/2006 7:41 PM  
Blogger Grafs said...

I wasn't aware of this accidental discovery of Viagra. I thought men had been specifically working on it for years :P

7/05/2006 9:47 PM  
Blogger Keshi said...

lol @Alvin&Chipmunks! I always wondered what if the voices dun come back...eeeeeeeee!

great stories abt some discoveries...interesting one @pot.chips. :)

Viagra is related to hypertension? lol no wonder!


7/05/2006 9:51 PM  
Blogger Mimi said...

I always thought I was killing brain cells on the rare occasion I suck helium. I worked for a bank we all know of in their credit card customer service dept. On New Years we were slow and bored so we sucked teh helium out of the ballons and of corse thtas when the calls came in. It was hilarious!

7/05/2006 10:27 PM  
Blogger Jon Cox said...

Thank you for your comment as well, I'm glad you like my latest work, especially Robby! :o)

7/05/2006 11:38 PM  
Anonymous Bruce said...

Wait... I thought Romy and Michelle invented post-it notes. That's what the movie said...

7/05/2006 11:48 PM  
Blogger Ben Heller said...

Great post Phoenix,

I loved all the "happy accidents" you mentioned.

I knew about the Fleming one, a complete stroke of luck, but the others I had no idea of.

Great research mate.

7/06/2006 2:52 AM  
Blogger Carmel said...

Wow that is amazing about the helium. I have sucked it in myself at times.
I love the accidental findings. I especially love the viagra one lol, what an interesting side effect to discover. Go sugar daddies!

7/06/2006 5:00 AM  
Blogger Curare_Z said...

...And, the drug ecstasy was used in couples therapy in the 70s. Why, oh why couldn't I be born before the 70s?

7/06/2006 6:07 AM  
Blogger phred said...

I have smoked for a number of years, I don`t think I want to see the inside of my lungs.
Now, this Viagra thing might have some merit.
Not that I need any help, but I have been tempted to try some ..just for the heck of it.
I saw a Cialis commercial the other day. It said, if you have an erection that last more than 4 hours, see your doctor.
You could do a whole post on the comebacks to this.

7/06/2006 6:15 AM  
Blogger Rocky said...

Very interesting. I never knew we had so many accidental inventions. How funny that Viagra's side effect ended up being its savior.

7/06/2006 6:22 AM  
Blogger DaBich said...

This is amazing. The post-it notes one tickled my funny bone!

7/06/2006 6:42 AM  
Blogger Jenna Howard said...

Cool stuff. I feel so much smarter just from having read this. And now if those questions pop up on Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit...I am in the know!

7/06/2006 7:27 AM  
Blogger Laurie said...

LOL - the thought of scientists doing that and climbing into an MRI scanner!

I think most discoveries are purely accidental.

C'mon, I was hoping for a Rush Limbaugh joke there at the end ;-)

7/06/2006 9:36 AM  
Blogger KC said...

Another very interesting post! I used Ivory soap for years because I liked the fact that it floated. Now I'm a Dove girl. Any unknown facts about Dove?

7/06/2006 10:17 AM  
Blogger The Phoenix said...

I think many times, you make your own luck. Right time...right place.

I'd never heard about the hypercolor shirts, but those were cool in middle school!

KC, as far as Dove soap goes - it's been around since the 50s and claims to be ph neutral. So it's easy on the facial skin.

Dove soap is owned by Unilever, which also owns Lifebuoy soap.

7/06/2006 11:09 AM  
Blogger OnMyWatch said...

Very interesting!

But the thing I would hate after sucking in helium is to try to seriously say, "you mean I'm going to die?? How much longer do I have, doc?" in a chipmunk voice. just doesn't quite capture the drama of the moment. :)

7/06/2006 11:22 AM  
Blogger FantasticAlice said...

As always dearest phoenix my hats off to you.

Fun stuff.

7/06/2006 11:40 AM  
Blogger David Amulet said...

I think the blog was accidentally invented when nerds were trying to find a way to talk to girls over the internet.

-- david

7/06/2006 11:41 AM  
Blogger Denny Shane said...

in regrards to phred's comment above. If I had an erection for 4 hours, the hell with the doctor... I'd be running up and down the street hollering, "hey look at this 4 hours and going!" lol

7/06/2006 12:14 PM  
Blogger Will said...

Don't the best scientific discoveries happen by accident?

7/06/2006 12:29 PM  
Blogger O Ceallaigh said...

Yo, Phoenix! Get yer blasted spycams outa my lab! That stuff's supposed ta be a secret, dammit!


No. Seriously. It's usually more sophisticated than "messing around", but as often as not it's the experiment that did not work, or the one that somebody dreamed up on the spur of the moment, that yields the big discovery. After all, if we knew what we were doing, it wouldn't be research.

Now. Think of creativity. And a buch of bureaucrats in Washington who demand every outcome spelled out in black and white for 15 years in advance before they'll part with a dime. Actually, in my field anyway, 2 grants awarded for every 10 submitted (5 out of 10 are worthy), $1 granted for every $10 asked. And the whole NSF annual budget might cover our expenses in Iraq for a week.

Sorry, I got carried away ...

Oh, the Ivory soap bit? The "mistake" led not to its being super pure, but to its ability to float. Proctor and Gamble now claims it might not have been a mistake after all.

7/06/2006 1:31 PM  
Blogger cube said...

Gotta love serendipity!

7/06/2006 2:14 PM  
Anonymous Joel said...

My first visit...over from Sar's place. Fascinating stuff!!

7/06/2006 2:32 PM  
Blogger Sherri said...

I love your blog for just this kind of information! Fascinating facts about things I've always wondered and never found an answer to.

7/06/2006 2:48 PM  
Blogger Phats said...

Hmm I am glad I am not the only one who likes to suck helium!

Potato chips mmmmm

7/06/2006 6:06 PM  
Anonymous the weirdgirl said...

I think o ceallaigh is being modest... scientists are party animals and they just don't want us to know!

7/06/2006 8:52 PM  
Blogger Fated said...

Wow that is fantastic, I would love to see them use the helium lung thing on House. Helium and houses sarcastic wit would be super.

You know, I never knew the post it story. Very interesting.

7/06/2006 8:57 PM  
Blogger The Phoenix said...

Thanks for the feedback. I try to find both entertaining and insightful things here. Sometimes, I just look for the entertaining.

Scientists are party animals for sure!

7/06/2006 10:29 PM  
Anonymous AndrewE said...

I love the one about the French Fries, a food born out of hatred!

7/07/2006 3:41 AM  
Blogger Eve said...

I have always been curious about the Viagra thing?!

I mean, how hard does it get?

How long does it last?

Perhaps I should slip NW GUy a "mickey"?! ;)

7/07/2006 8:18 AM  
Blogger The Phoenix said...

andrewe, I bet a lot of stuff is invented out of spite.

NWG, You should try it! Make sure to post the results. (No pics necessary).

7/07/2006 8:25 AM  
Blogger ozymandiaz said...

One Friday evening, on November 8, 1895, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen worked alone in his laboratory. He had set up his experiment using a Crookes tube fitted with an anode and cathode, separated from each other by a few centimeters in the tube. He used a Rhumkoff induction coil to produce a difference of potential of a few thousand volts, knowing that a stream of charged particles would originate in the cathode and would be attracted to the anode. His laboratory was dark, his tube was covered with a light-proof cardboard jacket and a screen of fluorescent material laid on a table a few feet away from the apparatus. While passing the discharge, he suddenly noticed a shimmering light on the table top. Röntgen spent the next eight weeks in his laboratory repeating his experiments. He ate and even slept in his laboratory as he attempted to determine if the rays could penetrate substances besides the air. He placed various objects between the tube and screen and he found that the screen still fluoresced but with different intensities depending on the material being used. When he placed a lead disk, which he was holding, in the cathode ray path he was astonished to find the shadow of the round circle appeared on the screen along with the outline of his thumb and forefinger and within them the bones of his hand! Röntgen hurriedly prepared his notes so that his first report "On a New Kind of Rays" could be published in the Proceedings of the Physical Medical Society of Wurburg on December 28, 1895. Not knowing what these emanations were he uses the term x-ray to describe the rays he was producing.
But you know all of that already.

7/07/2006 8:45 AM  
Blogger The Phoenix said...

When will X-Ray glasses finally be perfected though?????

7/07/2006 9:27 AM  
Blogger Perplexio said...

You mean the X-Ray glasses that you can order from the back of Boy's Life magazine aren't perfected yet? ;-)

7/07/2006 9:41 AM  
Blogger jay lassiter said...

i am a shameless helium-huffer, myself.
in fact, there was a time when i was an afficianado of all things huffable.

when i first saw the pic of the girl with the balloon, it took me back to my deadshow days.

7/07/2006 2:18 PM  
Blogger NMOTB said...

That was very interesting to read! Hellium is my Fav party trick too! Nice Blog :-)

7/09/2006 5:14 AM  
Blogger The Phoenix said...

I heard sucking helium kills brain cells. I'm not so sure, as I don't think I'm suffering from any drain bramage.

7/09/2006 1:48 PM  
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