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biochemistry and biophysics

TRIVIA ARCHIVE: 2012 - 2013 - 2014 - 2015 - 2016


How does the pull of the Moon’s gravity affect Earth’s surface?

It creates tides.

The moon, along with the sun, exerts a gravitational pull on the Earth’s surface. The solid part of Earth may deform a bit, but water being fluid is more free to move.

Tides are the periodic changes in sea level with respect to land. The pull of the moon and sun, along with the centrifugal force created by the rotating Earth, cause water levels to rise and fall. The gravitational pull on water causes the oceans to bulge out in its direction.

We have two tides every day. Earth is spinning, the Moon travels around it, and together they travel around the sun. No wonder water can’t stand still.

The highest tides in the world are at the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia, Canada. Tides roll in and out, and difference in the height of the water has been as much as 53 feet.

Where is the moon larger – at the horizon or directly overhead?

The moon is always the same size.

Because the moon’s orbit is elliptical, there are times when it appears larger because it is closer, but on any given night, the Moon’s size remains constant.

The moon may look larger when it is closer to the horizon line and smaller when overhead, but this is an optical trick known as the Moon illusion.

The apparent size of the moon relates to our perception of distance. When the moon is near the horizon, we perceive it to be farther away from us than when it is directly overhead. Objects near the horizon line (buildings, trees, etc.) help reinforce the idea of the Moon’s inflated size because we know that it is behind those objects.

When it is above us, surrounded by empty space with no terrestrial reference points, it appears smaller. The same illusion applies to celestial bodies as well. Constellations may look larger the closer they are to the horizon. The stars, the Sun, and the Moon are identical in size no matter where they are in the sky.

Which is bigger: the Moon or Pluto?

The moon

Pluto used to be the smallest planet in our solar system, but in 1992 its planethood was questioned. In 2005, Eris which is 27% more massive than Pluto, was discovered. This finding prompted a more formal definition of the term “planet” by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). Their updated description excluded both Pluto and Eris but produced a new, more apt designation of “dwarf planet”.

Pluto is mostly made of rock and ice. It is ~70% of the diameter of the moon and ~one-sixth the mass. In fact, it is about half as wide as the United States.

In the summer of 2015, NASA’s spacecraft New Horizons flew by Pluto and sent pictures back to Earth.

How long did it take New Horizons to reach Pluto?

About nine and a half years

When the solar system was formed, gas, dust, and rocks pulled together to form planets. The planets then swept any remaining debris into the sun or pushed it to the edge of the solar system. Beyond Neptune, at the edge of our solar system, is a region of space filled with icy bodies that slowly revolves around the sun. It is called the Kuiper Belt.

The mission of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft was to explore Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. New Horizons was launched on January 19, 2006. Its closest flyby to Pluto was July 14, 2015. It took only nine and half years to travel three billion miles. It zipped by Pluto at 30,800 miles per hour.

NASA seeks to understand how Pluto and its moons fit into the rest of the solar system. It is unlike both the inner rocky planets and the outer gaseous planets. It was designated a dwarf planet but it is actually an ice dwarf planet and a resident of the Kuiper Belt.

How many moons does Pluto have?


Pluto has a massive moon, Charon, that is nearly half its size. This moon is so big that Pluto and Charon are sometimes considered a double planet system. Charon doesn’t move around Pluto. Instead, both bodies rotate around a common center of mass that lies outside either body, making for a wobbly orbital dance.

In preparation for the New Horizons flight, the Hubble Telescope captured images from Pluto and discovered more moons: Nix and Hydra in 2005, Kerberos in 2011, and Styx in 2012.

The four smaller moons rotate around the binary system of Pluto-Charon. The dynamically changing gravitational field caused by Pluto and Charon makes Nix, Hydra, Kerberos, and Styx rotate chaotically. These little moons are spherical and each has its own unique spin.

New Horizons was expected to find additional moons when it arrived, but none were seen.

Researchers believe that there is a planet somewhere within the Kuiper Belt and have already given it a nickname. What is it?

Planet Nine

During the excitement surrounding the discovery of Pluto in 1930, there was rush to consider it a planet, the ninth in a series of planets. That designation lasted seventy-six years until 2006 when it was demoted to a dwarf planet.

Astronomers studying the Kuiper Belt found the orbits of the objects there swung out in an odd fashion that would only make sense if there was a gravitational pull from an unseen object. If this object exists, it would be massive – 10 times the mass of Earth and 5,000 times the mass of Pluto. It would be our true ninth planet, Planet Nine, and it would exist at the far edge of our solar system. It has yet to be discovered.

What compounds act as a preservative when added to alcoholic drinks?


Sulfur dioxide added directly to alcoholic drinks slows down oxidative reactions. It is added in the form of sulfites (ex: sodium metabisulfite, potassium metabisulfite). When mixed with water, these compounds produce sulfur dioxide.

Sulfur dioxide is an antioxidant and antimicrobial. In wines, it helps to preserve color and flavor, and also to inhibit the growth of yeast, molds, and bacteria.

Sulfites occur naturally in some foods and beverages as a result of fermentation, but can be artificially enhanced to reach the proper effective concentration. In addition to alcoholic drinks, sulfites are added to dried fruits to keep them from browning, and to processed meats to keep them fresh.

Which has more sulfites added: red wine or white wine?

White wine

All wines have preservatives added to prevent them from turning into vinegar. Yeast naturally produces a small amount of sulfur dioxide during fermentation so wine containing no sulfur oxide is extremely rare. The sulfur oxide levels in wine average 80mg/liter or about 10 mg in a typical glass of wine.

White wines are typically sweeter than red wines. To stop the wine from fermenting the residual sugars, sulfites are added to stop the fermenting process.

Tannins in red wine act as a stabilizing agent requiring less sulfur dioxide for the maturation process.

Although nearly all winemakers add sulfites, only the United States and Australia are required to have warning labels. A tiny fraction of the population does not have the enzyme to break down sulfites, usually a small portion of asthma sufferers. 

Some claim red wine gives them headaches. Although blame is placed on sulfites, the real culprit is more likely the higher level of histamines in red wine or even the alcohol itself.

Why is it impossible for a human being to avoid sulfites?

Our bodies produce them

Sulfites are a naturally-occurring class of compounds that nearly all living organisms produce. Sulfites act as antioxidants – scavenging free radicals that damage cells. They help to preserve our bodies much like they preserve our food and wines.

In the normal processing of sulfur-containing amino acids, human bodies produce about 1000 mg per day. That is about 100 times more than a glass of wine!

Other than sugar, what ingredients are found in energy drinks?

Mostly caffeine

Energy drinks are classified as dietary supplements so they are not subject to the same scrutiny or regulation as other beverages. Their contents are not always listed on the can because they are claimed to be proprietary.

Caffeine is the major ingredient in energy drinks. Because it is not regulated by the FDA, the amount of caffeine in energy drinks can vary from 80 mg – 500 mg. Sodas, on the other hand, must contain less than 65 mg of caffeine. In addition to being a mild carcinogen, the use of caffeine is associated with anxiety, sleep problems, digestive problems, elevated blood pressure, dehydration, and heart palpitations.

Guarana is also commonly added to energy drinks. Guarana is a plant from South American that contains a caffeine compound called guaranine. An energy drink with both caffeine and guarana has caffeine plus more caffeine.

In addition to sugar and caffeine, these types of drinks also usually contain taurine (a common amino acid in the body), ginseng, and vitamin B.

Energy drinks are promoted as products to increase alertness and enhance mental performance. Most studies have shown that the cognitive effects from energy drinks is due to their caffeine content. A couple of cups of coffee should net you the same effect while keeping your caffeine levels within reasonable bounds.

In recent years, caffeine has been mixed into what other type of beverage?


When alcoholic drinks are mixed with energy drinks, the caffeine can mask the depressive effects of alcohol. The combination can cause a dramatic intoxication since the caffeine can cause a “sobering effect” on the blood alcohol level. Some experts call this phenomenon a “wide awake drunk.” Individuals who mix alcohol and energy drinks tend to drink more because they are unaware of the actual alcohol-related impairment. They are more likely to believe they it is safe for them to drive. .

Energy drinks have been used as chasers for hard liquor for years but the alcohol companies came up with a unique solution– they combined the two drinks into one. Alcohol energy drinks (AEDs) or caffeinated alcoholic beverages (CABs) were created, but by 2010 the FDA began to crack down on companies that mixed their alcohol with caffeine calling it an “unsafe food additive.

Before it could be officially banned, the companies removed the caffeine from their drinks.

Every year, Coca Cola offers a limited-time version of coke in March and April. What makes it so special?

It’s kosher!

One of the ingredient used in making Coca-cola is non-kosher. That ingredient is glycerin, a by-product of soap manufacturing that uses fatty oils generated from meat processing, including pigs and cattle that were not kosher slaughtered.

Rabbis suggested that if the glycerin used to sweeten the soda is derived from vegetable fats instead of animal fats, it could be declared kosher. In 1935, Rabbi Tobais Geffen issued a ruling that the reformulated soft drink did indeed make Jewish dietary requirements. Coca-cola is the first nationally prominent company to adapt its products for kosher requirements.

In cities with large Jewish populations, the makers of Coke sell a kosher version in the early spring to coincide with Passover. The Orthodox Union approved the ingredients for Kosher Coke. The bottles are easily spotted – they have distinct yellow caps with a “OU-P” stamped on it and the Hebrew words for Kosher for Passover. They are most commonly found on the 2-liter bottles.

ADDENDUM: These days, Coca-Cola is actually kosher all year long, but the rules of Kashrut (the practice of keeping kosher) are special during Passover. During the holiday, it is forbidden to eat foods derived from grain. In standard American Coca-Cola, a main ingredient is corn syrup – perfectly kosher normally, but not allowed during Passover. So, the company makes a special version for Passover that's instead sweetened with regular sugar, making it permissible for Jews during the holiday (and sought after by many non-Jewish cola fans).

What was one of the original ingredients in Coca-cola that was banned in 1903?


Coca-cola was invented in 1888 by a pharmacist, John Stith Pemberton who promoted it as a cure-all tonic for aches and pains. It is thought to have contained ~9 milligrams of cocaine per 7 ounce cup, mixed with a large dose of the caffeine rich kola bean. Hence the name Coca-cola.

At the turn of the century, a surge in crime thought to be caused by cocaine use brought pressure on the Coca-cola company to remove the cocaine from their beverage. They did so in 1903. By 1914, cocaine was declared illegal.

Trace amounts of cocaine could still be found in Coca-cola until 1929 when the process of extracting the ecgonine alkaloid from the coca leaf was perfected.

The Coca-cola recipe is a highly guarded secret. Before declaring coke kosher, rabbis are given a long list of ingredients, some of which are not used, and without measurement to protect its proprietary blend. These days, Coca-cola produces a concentrate that is sold to licensed dealers all over the world, but very few people know the exact formula.

Cocaine is made from what plant?

The coca plant

The coca plant (Erythroxylum coca) is native to South America, where its stimulating properties have been well known for thousands of years. South Americans would chew on a coca leaf if they needed an energy boost.

Cocaine stimulates the central nervous system and has anesthetic properties. The “cocaine plant” itself is comparatively harmless, but when the cocaine is synthesized from its leaves, it becomes a powerful addictive substance that is mostly used as a recreational drug. In the United States, cocaine is classified as a Schedule II drug meaning it has a high potential for misuse.

The coca-cola we know today still contains coca – but the ecgonine alkaloid has been removed.

BRAINTEASER: There are three on/off switches on the ground floor of a building. Only one operates a single lightbulb on the third floor. The other two switches are not connected to anything. Put the switches in any on/off order you like. Then go to the third floor to check the bulb. Without leaving the third floor, can you figure out which switch is genuine? You get only one try.

Turn on any two switches, eg 1 and 2, wait ten minutes, flip off one switch, eg 2, and immediately go up stairs. If the light bulb in on, then it is switch 1. if the light bulb is off but the bulb is still warm, it is switch 2.  If it is off and cold, it is switch 3. 

What is the daily recommended intake for sugar?

a. 1 – 4 teaspoons
b. 5 – 9 teaspoons
c. 10 – 16 teaspoons
d. 17 – 23 teaspoons

b. 5-9 teaspoons

For adult women, the recommended intake is 5 teaspoons (20 grams) of sugar per day, for adult men, it’s 9 teaspoons (36 grams).

For years, dieticians have warned against too much fat and cholesterol in our diets, but now are beginning to focus on sugar intake as well. Sugar is hidden in many foods we consume. Sugar is a obvious main ingredient in sodas, cookies, and cakes, but can also be found in pastas, barbeque sauces, ketchup, and breads.

Coca-cola (12 oz can): 140 calories, 38 grams of sugar, 9.5 teaspoons
Yoplait yogurt (175 g container): 168 calories, 25 grams of sugar, 8 teaspoons
Heinz ketchup (1 tablespoon): 16 calories, 4 grams of sugar, 1 teaspoon
Whole wheat bread (1 slice): 69 calories, 6 grams of sugar, 1.5 teaspoons

The average American consumes about 21 teaspoons per day.

This week's answer:

Which are the most common sources of sugar?

a. Sugarcane
b. Corn
c. Sugar grapes
d. Sugar beets

a. & d. Sugarcane and sugar beets

Ordinary table sugar is composed of one glucose subunit and one fructose subunit. It is naturally found in sugarcane, sugar beets, and in fruits, vegetables, and honey.

Glucose is converted to energy by every cell in the body, but fructose is mainly metabolized in the liver. When the liver becomes overwhelmed, it begins to convert fructose to fat, which gathers in the liver. Accumulation of fat in the liver disrupts the body’s ability to maintain stable levels of blood sugar and fat, leading to heart disease and diabetes.

Next week's question:

True or False: High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is often used instead of sugar because it has fewer calories than sugar.


Past questions and answers are in the trivia archives: 2012 / 2013 / 2014 / 2015 / 2016

Questions? Comments? Corrections? Contact Mary Leonard,