This week, the three questions that rekindled my curiosity tank are

1 – What is the science behind candles?

2 – Why is there ‘Indian’ in front of Tonic Water?

3 – Alzheimers’ – What happens inside our brain?


1 – What is the science behind candles?

A candle’s history goes as back as 3000 BC. Ancient Egyptians and Romans were able to drive the use and popularise the need for a candle by using it for night travel and including it in many religious ceremonies. Candles continue to serve us today, including just to make your room smell better.  Candles have also been a topic of interest for scientists for many years. So much so that NASA took lit a candle in microgravity just to see what happens.

ScienceCasts: Strange Flames on the International Space Station - YouTube

A candle’s history goes as back as 3000 BC. Ancient Egyptians and Romans were able to drive the use and popularise the need for a candle by using it for night travel and including it in many religious ceremonies. Candles continue to serve us today, including just to make your room smell better.  Candles have also been a topic of interest for scientists for many years. So much so that NASA took lit a candle in microgravity just to see what happens.

The underlying science with how a candle burn is fascinating.  

Wax, aka paraffin, is a type of hydrocarbon. Many carbon and hydrogen atoms are held together with strong atomic bonds. The heat from a lit matchstick melts the wax present around the wick. Through capillary action, the liquid wax rises up the wick. The heat from either the matchstick (if you still have it close) or burning wick vaporises the wax. 

Now is when the magic happens

The vaporised hydrocarbons, under the influence of further heat and oxygen, undergo a redox reaction.  In this reaction, the strong bonds that keep the carbon and hydrogen atoms together break, releasing energy, i.e. the little tear-shaped flame and light. Byproducts of this reaction are carbon dioxide and water vapour. 

So when you a candle burn, know that it is not the wick that burns, but the paraffin vapours. The process continues once it is initiated as long as there is wax. 

When I rediscover fundamental everyday science, like this week’s topic, I wonder how I passed school.



2 – Why is there ‘Indian’ in front of Tonic Water?

Gin is a product of Great Britain. And any gin-based drink calls for tonic. And when you go to the store for getting a tonic mixer, what do you see? An array of ‘Indian’ tonic water. So how did the ‘British’ gin get connected with the ‘Indian’ tonic?

The answer lies in the long-standing history and the annoying mosquito. 

One of the biggest inhibitor for the British to expand their colonies was the climate. The troops struggled to get acclimatised to the weather and had to overcome the diseases like Malaria. 

The story of the ‘Indian’ tonic starts with an expedition the British had in South America during the 17th Century. Here the Chinnoca tree, known for its ability to cure fever, was discovered. It was not until 1854 when Scottish physical Henry realised that the extract (quinine) from the tree can be administered to prevent/help cure Malaria.

Quinine is a foul-tasting bitter drink. It was administered as a medicine and sometimes with alcohol, mostly brandy. Over the years, people enjoyed a bit of alcohol every time they needed to take some medicine in. 

Right around the same time, the British colonies stationed in India were struggling with Malaria. So naturally, the British made use of the discovery. In fact, they set up a whole Chinnoca plantation. The quinine from it was mixed with some herbs to get some flavour and behold, the ‘Indian’ tonic was born. Like the cucumber sandwich, the royals popularised Indian tonic mixed with gin and sugar syrup.

Next time you order a G&T, remember to thank Malaria. 


3 – Alziemers – what is the science?

A recent book I read was Still Alice by Lisa Genova – this was such a fantastic, insightful read! A story of a woman’s battle with herself after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Reading this book led me to want to understand more about Alzheimer’s Disease, or what is now referred to as Alzheimer Disease (AD). AD is a degenerative brain disease, therefore, causes several symptoms, including memory loss and problems with recognition. AD can be sporadic (this accounts for 90-95% of cases ) or familial, which is often referred to as early-onset Alzheimers.

Learning this made me curious about how exactly the disease affects the brain and causes memory loss.

Several factors are contributing to AD, and they are not entirely understood.
The amyloid precursor protein is within brain cells and functions to helps neurones (cells in the brain) repair and grow. If this protein is broken down incorrectly, it forms amyloid-beta, an insoluble protein that aggregate to form plaques. The formation of these plaques can disrupt neurone signalling, as well as cause inflammation. These all result in the disruption of brain function. Similarly, another cause is thought to be due to a build-up of Tau protein, creating tangles in the neurones. This can lead to neuronal death. These processes can cause the brain to atrophy, and therefore, they all contribute to the symptoms seen.

Having a precise diagnosis of Alzheimer’s is complex, and the only definitive way is via a biopsy which would be done after autopsy. There is also no cure to this progressive disease, with the treatment options currently available providing minimal benefit.


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