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Born today in 1891: Actress and producer Katherine MacDonald


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Buckminsterfullerene, lab rats, and you

Buckminsterfullerene equals longevity?
Feeding laboratory rats purplish buckminsterfullerene-infused olive oil makes them live twice as long.

At least that’s the observation published by researchers recently at the University of Paris-Sud. In their experiment one set of Wistar rats went olive oil-free, the second set got the oil alone, while the third had their olive oil enriched with buckminsterfullerene.

Median lifespans came out to 22 months, 26 months, and 42 months respectively. One lucky participant in the third group lived 66 months — pretty much a Jeanne Calment-like record for any rat. For further details you can go here, here, here, here, and for the complete technical account by the authors, here.

Buckminsterfullerene, named after futurist and geodesic dome pioneer Buckminster Fuller, is a form of carbon consisting of a spherical shell of 60 atoms. They’re arranged into 20 hexagons and 12 pentagons identical to the pattern on a regulation soccer ball. C60 was first prepared in a laboratory at Rice University in 1985 but since then it’s been found to occur naturally in small traces in soot and meteorites. It’s odorless and flavorless.

Over the intervening 25-plus years an entire technology has flourished around fullerenes in general (buckyballs in sizes aside from just 60), graphene (individual chicken wire sheets of carbon atoms) nanotubes (that same chicken wire wrapped into cylinders), and other novel carbon-based geometries. These substances are exhibiting some pretty unusual properties, to put it mildly, and they’ve been creeping into virtually every branch of science and engineering.

Now that these lab-generated fullerenes and their kin threaten to take over the world, the experimenters at Paris-Sud and others have rightly wondered if some or all might be toxic in some way. Remember asbestos? Dioxins?

At least in terms of C60 and as far as their rats are concerned, the answer seems to be the exact opposite. Of course it’s possible that what’s beneficial during the lifespan of a rat might be deleterious — or for all we know at the moment, even fatal — over longer periods of time in humans.

So, where would you (hypothetically, of course — for your, uh, “rats”) get this stuff? What does it cost? What different varieties are there, and what do they look and act like?

All about buckyballs

A philosopher’s stone, that fullerene?
Fullerenes appear whenever you vaporize carbon in an inert atmosphere. The team of Sir Harry Kroto, Robert Curl, and Richard Smalley at Rice produced the first samples of C60 in 1985 by firing a pulsed laser at a spinning graphite disc under pressurized helium. They shared the Nobel prize for chemistry for this work in 1996.

But the method of choice nowadays involves zapping an electrical arc between the tips of two graphite rods, also surrounded by helium but under a partial vacuum. A fullrene-rich soot builds up on the walls of the chamber which technicians then mix with toluene, filter, and then process through a device called a chromatograph that sorts the components according to their differing flow rates and colors (deep purple for C60, then gradations through red for C70 and orange and gold beyond that).

Most of the output emerges as buckminsterfullerene, C60, followed a distant second by C70. A tiny remainder yields other sizes in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and beyond. Both C60 and C70 form dark brown crystalline solids. They don’t dissolve in water, but rather in oils and in organic solvents like the toluene mentioned above and benzene and ethanol. A liter of either olive oil or ethanol will dissolve about 8/10 of a gram.

Bucky rat
In principle any pioneering chemicals like fullerenes are assumed toxic until proven otherwise and so handled under strict protocols. As all these years have worn on, though, technicians blessed with anything less than superhuman diligence have undoubtedly ingested them. Had any dropped dead or even sickened noticeably it’s certainly been kept a secret.

The cosmetics industry has been hawking products containing fullerenes for some years now, though independent analyses have revealed the actual content of some representative samples to be stingy if not downright homeopathic — on the order of a microgram or less per gram of lotion.

Safety testing with fullerenes for internal use has more work ahead of it, but at least one early observation is encouraging. The buckminsterfullerene in the rats at Paris-Sud passed completely through their systems and out within a couple of days. Whatever free radical-scavenging and/or other effects it had, it did its thing and then politely excused itself.

Choose your color

Buckyballs, yum, yum, yum.
In an ideal world in which fullerenes of all sizes were available at reasonable cost, you’d want to run a similar but far more exhaustive set of lab rat experiments trying out each C-something separately to find the holiest grail.

Smaller than C60 they get increasingly unstable, though some parties claim they can produce and store (how cold and for how long, I don’t know) fullerenes down to C36. In the other direction they grow in size by even numbers, well into the hundreds and theoretically into the thousands.

Right now our world is less than ideal and realistically speaking you can get C60, C70, C76, C78, and C84 and little else unless you have influential friends in the nano business. Prices vary according to your bulk discount and the degree of refinement you’d like, so for comparison purposes let’s stick to 1-gram lots at 99% or so purity.

Typical fullerene prices per gram
C60 $32 €26
C70 $345 €285
C76 $50,000 €41,300
C78 $50,000 €41,300
C84 $42,000 €34,650

So C60 isn’t bad right now*, but C70 costs ten times as much and the last three belong in a vault someplace. This appears to reflect the proportions of each that you get through that catch-as-catch-can carbon arc technique. But fortunately there are, or presently will be, a couple of loopholes around this.

A less refined product called fullerene extract, consisting of a lot of C60, a little C70, and traces of the others goes for bargain rates of around $13 per gram. This is what comes out of the chamber after it has had all its non-fullerene riffraff filtered out but before it undergoes its final separations.

If at some point this extract could be left with its C-number imperfections but otherwise cleaned up to pharmaceutical standards, it should still come in at a very reasonable price. (At worst the C70-plus that’s still in there would just be deadwood. Or better, maybe it will turn out that those varieties are just as effective as C60 or even more so.)

The second thing to consider is that the buckyball industry is getting more crowded and competitive by the week. Other production methods waiting in the wings should prove vastly more economical and it’s just a matter of time before market pressures force one or more of those to come on line.

One stellar candidate involves firing a near-ultraviolet laser at C60H30 against a platinum plate. The chemical C60H30 is basically an unwrapped buckyball with hydrogens lining the edges, called a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon or PAH, and relatively easy to prepare. The combination of the laser and the platinum catalyst makes the hydrogens pop off and the remaining carbon cage snap itself closed into a C60 molecule.

Moreover it’s expected that different varieties of these PAHs will sire different-sized, made-to-order fullerenes. Then we could get going on that multicolored olive oil trial described above.

* Averaged over the 17-month experimental treatment period, the Paris-Sud lab rats effectively partook of 1.3 milligrams of C60 per kilogram of body weight per month. Assuming a typical adult human weighs about 75 kilograms, an equivalent monthly dose at this unit price would come out to around $3.10. (Bukminsterfullerene certifiable for internal consumption would cost considerably more, of course.)


A denier for a denier denier

Here are some words and expressions that drive me nuts, whether they’re popularly acceptable or not.

Herbivore vs. vegetarian

Sorry, folks. Animals can be herbivores (by natural design) but as far as I know only people can be vegetarians (by choice).

Career vs. careen

A car can career (travel quickly and recklessly) through an outdoor market but should only careen (tilt) when it goes too fast around corners. This was one of newscaster Edwin Newman’s favorite beefs.

Luxurious vs. luxuriant

Houses, vacations, and yachts can be luxurious. But unless you plan to use them to stuff cushions or something, hair and foliage can only be luxuriant.

Break your fall

You may well break through an awning while you’re at it, but having something “brake” your fall would make much more sense in my book. This sort of reminds me of “buck naked” vs. “butt naked” (always “buck,” but I have no idea why, unless it declares you can’t afford even a dollar to dress yourself).

To move the meeting back vs. up

For some reason this one has always given me brain freeze. Whenever someone has told me a certain stress-inducing event has been moved either back or up, I’ve had to ask immediately “To when?” before I’ve been able to relax or panic.


I first encountered this word when I was a kid reading an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records describing the thread size of the sheerest women’s hosiery ever sold. In that case, it’s pronounced DEN-ee-ay. Only much, much later than I should have did I learn of “denier” (dee-NIE-er) as one who denies. History buffs might also add “denier” (back to DEN-ee-ay) for the currency instituted by Charlemagne.

From whence

Redundant, since “whence” already means “from where.” But now that I see that the use of “from whence” goes back at least as far as the King James Bible (1611) I guess I don’t have a leg to stand on. Still hate it, though.


I can’t say that New York crime boss John Gotti and I would have had much in common, but one thing that we did was his abhorrence of people talking about having “closure.” This disease of a word seems to have cropped up only within the last 25 years or so by way of TV crime commentaries. For me only things like zippers, Velcro strips, and buttons provide closure.

To pay one’s respects

Much too bloodless and pro forma-sounding, as if you were a US vice president taking in the funeral of a minor dignitary you’ve scarcely heard of. The expression also presupposes that you harbored some respect for (if not fear of) the person who has died. You may or may not have, but there are still quite likely enough other reasons to sympathize and commiserate.

I’m originally from...

The bane of game show emcees, job interviewers, and blind dates. It sounds like you were birthed from a steel drawer and warns your listener further dry details may follow. “I’m from...” is sufficient; the geography you choose to cite can vary depending on the listener and the context.

Humanely euthanized

(As opposed to cruelly, right?)

The four thousand of us are dying

What’s happening to all of our celebrities? Sometimes it seems like anyone owning either a pair of shoes or a bottle of scotch that predate Justin Bieber is either outta here or at least teetering on the brink. Boy, the world was once so darned interesting.

But take heart. Who expected Conrad Bain to survive both Dana Plato and Gary Coleman? (Well, OK, but still.) Or Abe Vigoda to outlive spurious news of his demise by twenty-going-on-thirty years? Way to go, you two.

Here’s a list of people who are — in many cases quite enrichingly — still with us as of this writing. They range in age from 43 to 107. Some of these are obvious; others, pleasantly surprising.

Richard Anderson (Oscar in Six Million Dollar Man)
William Asher (Bewitched producer)
Ed Asner
Conrad Bain
Bob Barker
Mrs Beal, my first grade teacher
Tony Bennett
James Best (Twilight Zone, Dukes of Hazard)
Frank Cady (Green Acres, Petticoat Junction)
Joseph Campanella
Sid Caesar
Elliott Carter (composer, b. 1908)
Jimmy Carter (second longest ex-presidency so far)
Carol Channing
Charo (cuchi-cuchi flamenco guitarist)
Ramsey Clark (US Attorney General under Lyndon Johnson)
Rose Cliver (1906 San Francisco earthquake survivor)
Mike Connors (Mannix)
Michael Constantine
“Professor” Irwin Corey
Louise Currie (Citizen Kane)
Bill Daily (Roger Healey on I Dream of Jeannie)
William Daniels (The Graduate, peevish voice of Knight Rider car)
Olivia de Havilland
Kirk Douglas
Hugh Downs
Chad Everett (Medical Center)
Lawrence Ferlinghetti (“Johnny Nolan has a patch on his ass...”)
Joan Fontaine
Joe Franklin
Zsa Zsa Gabor (Queen of Outer Space)
Joe Garagiola
John Gilchrist (“Mikey” for Quaker Life, didn’t die from Pop Rocks)
Florence Green (World War I veteran)
Barbara Hale
Monty Hall (Door number one, number 2, or number 3?)
Ray Harryhausen (stop-motion animator)
Johannes Heesters (film and TV actor, b. 1903)
Gloria Henry (Alice in original Dennis the Menace series)
Mrs Huyler, my second grade teacher
Lee Iacocca
Al Jaffee (Mad cartoonist)
Wojciech Jaruzelski (shade-wearing Polish president ousted by Solidarity)
George Clayton Johnson (original Twilight Zone writer)
Dean Jones (frequent Disney actor)
Mikhail Kalashnikov (rifle inventor)
Nicholas Katzenbach (succeeded Robert Kennedy as US Attorney General)
Bil Keane (Family Circus)
Margaret Keane (Wide Eyed Moppets)
Don Keefer (got turned into a jack-in-the-box in Twilight Zone)
George Kennedy
Barbara Kent (silent movie actress, b. 1906)
Tommy Kirk (The Shaggy Dog)
Madeleine LeBeau (last surviving Casablanca cast member, b. 1923)
Carla Laemmle (silent movie actress, b. 1909)
June Lockhart
Norman Lloyd (fell off Statue of Liberty in Hitchcock’s Saboteur)
George Maharis (Route 66)
Jerry Maren (Lollipop Guild munchkin in The Wizard of Oz)
Rose Marie
Peter Marshall (Hollywood Squares)
George McGovern
Rod McKuen
Martin Milner (Route 66, Sex Kittens Go To College)
Sir Patrick Moore (seemingly immortal astronomy popularizer)
Harry Morgan
Robert Morse (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying)
LeRoy Neiman
Don Pardo
Christopher Plummer
Frederik Pohl (Golden Era science fiction author/editor)
Douglas Rain (voice of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey)
Rex Reason (This Island Earth)
Andy Rooney
Mickey Rooney
Lalo Schifrin
Prince Norodom Sihanouk
Paolo Soleri (utopic architect and bell maker)
Rip Taylor (confetti thrower)
Roy Thinnes
Mamie Van Doren (High School Confidential)
Abe Vigoda
Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey)
Mike Wallace
Eli Wallach (Baby Doll)
Betty White
Andy Williams
Jonathan Winters
Cal Worthington (used car tycoon)
Alan Young (The Time Machine, Mister Ed)

Title refers to the old Twilight Zone episode “The Four of Us Are Dying” about a face-changing con artist, played by four different actors. Who dies.

Oh no, not another ivory-billed woodpecker

The other day while I was driving I saw something flutter through the air that I thought was so important I immediately pulled over, got out, and backtracked half a block.

It was an enormous woodpecker, mostly black but with small white markings and a head with a scarlet crest.

ivory-billed woodpecker
Ivory-billed woodpecker by Theodore Jasper (1888)
Now the ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) has been presumed extinct for decades and was officially declared as such in 1994. About every couple of years the papers will carry a story about an alleged sighting of them. The ornithological community will then furrow its collective brow and examine all the evidence, but so far its skepticism has prevailed.

As in the case of Bigfoot and the Tasmanian tiger, there are also some infuriatingly ambiguous photographs and sound recordings making the rounds. Cornell University has an outstanding offer of $50,000 to anyone who can lead their researchers to an indisputably living, breathing ivory-billed.

The bird alit on the trunk of a honey locust next to the road and started its rapid thonk-thonk-thonk, but it was cagey enough to stay on the side I couldn’t see. As I rounded the tree it scooched in the same direction to stay ahead of me but eventually decided to hell with it and flew off. As it did so, I could see large white areas on the trailing undersides of its wings.

This was in Michigan. Since ivory-billed woodpeckers live (or lived) primarily in the southeastern US and the Caribbean I wasn’t expecting any big miracle here. It turned out that, yes, what I had spotted was actually a ringer for it, the perfectly common Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus). A true ivory-billed would have been even larger — about 20 inches long with a 30-inch wingspan — and would have had more white on the top near its tail. In addition it had a doubled pecking rhythm whereas the bird I saw and heard kept things perfectly even.

Trailer from Treasure of Sierra Madre
“Screw the gold. Let’s just go find us some o’ them gaudy woodpeckers.”
There’s an ivory-billed lookalike that’s larger yet, and again rare if not extinct: the Imperial Woodpecker (C. imperialis). Their traffic-stopping appearance sped their final demise as it encouraged people to shoot them simply out of curiosity. The last confirmed live specimen was dispatched in this manner in Mexico in 1956 (specifically Durango, where The Treasure of Sierra Madre had been filmed a decade earlier), so you might keep a semi-jaundiced eye out for this bird, too.