Downtown Raleigh’s NRC

In my readings as of late I’ve seen “NRC” more times than I can count. Each time I see the acronym I struggle to remember what each letter stands for. “N” is for nature. No, wait, it’s for nuclear. Or was it national?

Well, lo and behold, the “N” represents all three of those words, and, you guessed it, I am writing another three-part blog to illustrate each NRC.

Let’s start with the NRC popping up in my local news reading. I’m following the construction of the new Nature Research Center in downtown Raleigh. This NRC extends the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences into a two-building, one-globe science haven!

The new Nature Research Center in downtown Raleigh.

Raleigh’s NRC will host interactive research labs, a 24/7 science news stream, and a glass walkway leading to a plethora of research laboratories filled with scientists and graduate students from several of North Carolina’s universities.

The eye-catching centerpiece of the NRC is a gigantic globe. Called the Daily Planet, the science globe will feature enough high definition multimedia to make your technology geek friends jealous.

Within this three-story sphere of science, breaking science news stories will be continually broadcast. Dare I ask: How many segments on your evening news programs focus on science? I’m going to bet my first-born that the answer is an outrageously disgraceful NONE.

Inside the multimedia globe, a Science Immersion Theater offers a 360-degree view of the planet. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will supply images of our planet from space. You, citizen scientist, can inspect NASA and NOAA images to find the devastating effects that population growth and climate change have had on our planet.

This next feature cracks me up. It’s called Meet the Scientist. Have you ever met a scientist? Well, I AM one, and I can tell you that we are not the super duper communicators that you may think we are.

So in this exhibit, scientists will work in their usual lab setting, save one exception: the laboratory walls are glass. Not tapered glass, nor fluted glass, but rather thin, see-through glass. NRC visitors will hang out in the lounge areas surrounding the glass labs, gaping at scientists as they work.

Here you see the concept...

I fully support this idea, and I’m all for science immersion, but my multi-part hypothesis for this experiment is as follows:

    (1) The visitors will peer curiously into the labs.
    (2) The visitors will bang on the glass, just like we all do at the zoo, even though we are not supposed to.
    (3) The scientists will, one day at a time, tape their experimental protocols and photos of their families onto the glass walls, thus protecting themselves from the outside world.
    (4) The visitors, via advanced yoga poses, will find ways to peer into the labs despite the wall coverings.
    (5) The scientists will increase their wall postings until 100 % coverage has been achieved.

Two complementary exhibits at the NRC are Investigate Labs and Citizen Science Center. In both settings, visitors can conduct research experiments. With Investigate Lab, the experiments are designed to be hypothesis-driven, short-term, hands-on kinds of analyses. An example might be to extract DNA from fruit. Oh yes, fruit has DNA.

At the Citizen Science Center, museum visitors participate in long-term research projects, collecting and analyzing data that they’ve gathered from nature. An example here would be tracking butterfly migration or observing tree defoliation. Research projects of this magnitude are much more successful when everyone in the community contributes data.

And, of course, there will be an aquarium. People love aquariums.

Mark your calendars, citizen scientists: the NRC is destined for a Spring 2012 opening!

Botox is my frenemy

Pufferfish, scorpions and black mamba snakes, oh my! These cuddly critters all make toxins affecting the cell membranes of nerve cells. If you haven’t read my last two posts, “Don’t eat pufferfish” and “Your potassium channel,” now would be the time. I’m experimenting here with a three-part series and this post is the last of the three.

Toxins affecting nerve cells, like those produced by pufferfish, scorpions and snakes, are called neurotoxins. Although tetrodotoxin (this is the toxin from pufferfish) is somewhat commonly known, I’m guessing the most prominent neurotoxin is Botox.

Toxin? Yep. Botox is the botulinum toxin. It comes from the Clostridium botulinum bacteria and ranks with tetrodotoxin as one of the most toxic substances out there.

The botulinum toxin has become popular in the medical world because of its ability to paralyze cells. It’s used in minute amounts for cosmetic treatment.

Load up on Botox before a poker game!

Last year the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Botox shots for treatment of chronic migraine condition. Here’s a NY Times article about the FDA approval.

I’m inserting my opinion into this paragraph before I return to the science of Botox. I have mixed feelings about Botox treatment: it’s my frenemy. I am a migraine sufferer, and thus very well understand the plight of chronic migraine sufferers.

I sometimes have luck with pharmaceuticals (i.e. prescribed drugs) and sometimes do not. The appeal of a Botox shot to curb a persistent, debilitating migraine is, thus, not lost upon me. However, Botox is a toxin, and if given incorrectly, could paralyze me. However, here’s a NY Times article from 2009 (pre-FDA approval) that makes me want to try Botox. FRENEMY!

Here’s how Botox works. Let’s say I go to the doctor complaining of a wrinkle in my forehead. The doctor injects a tiny amount of Botox directly into my forehead. She aims to hit the weak muscle underneath my wrinkle. (If the muscle weren’t weak, there would be no wrinkle!)

The toxin, once inside my body, travels to the nerve cell responsible for controlling the weakened muscle. The toxin plugs that nerve cell’s sodium channel. This prevents the nerve cell from talking to its neighbors.

Sound familiar? This is exactly how tetrodotoxin works.

As a result, the cell loses its ability to function. No longer controlled by a functional nerve cell, the muscle relaxes and my wrinkle disappears.

This procedure is an art form. Too little toxin and the wrinkle stays. Too much toxin and we have a repeat performance of what happens from eating pufferfish.

But not all toxins are neurotoxins. In the plant kingdom a toxin works differently.

The black walnut tree produces the drug-like toxin juglone. Juglone is made in the tree’s roots, bark and leaves. Juglone acts as an herbicide to nearby plants. The toxic zone is expansive, extending 50 feet from the base of the tree in every direction.

This is a black walnut tree. Toxic things are soooo pretty! Source: http://www.tree-pictures.com

The juglone toxin wipes out everything in its path. It hits alfalfa plants, tomato plants, apple trees, and [insert your favorite plant or tree]. The attacked plants and trees wilt, and their leaves darken and wither away. The black walnut tree can now eat like a king: it has no competition.

Toxins are carried in a liquid form, either as venom or poison.

If an animal is venomous, the animal will inject venom directly into its prey by biting or stinging.

If an animal is poisonous, the toxin is harmful only if we touch it or eat it or inject it ourselves.

    The pufferfish? It’s poisonous. It’s not going to bite us; we have to touch it or eat it.

    A scorpion? It’s venomous. It’s sure as heck going to sting us.

    The black mamba snake? Venomous. Bite away, snake.

    The botulinum bacteria? Poisonous. Ever seen a bacterial cell with teeth? Nope. And no, Dad, Pac-Man does not count.

    CHOMP CHOMP CHOMP. I am good at draw-ring.

    The black walnut tree’s toxin juglone? Is that poison or venom? Post a comment with your answer!

For those animals that are venomous, mostly scorpions and snakes, our medical advances provide us with anti-venom. The anti-venom protects us from the toxic effects of the venom, and we can avoid getting sick.

What is anti-venom? It’s an antibody to the venom, thanks to the use of research animals. Researchers inject animals, often horses, with venom that harms humans (but not horses). The horse’s body mounts an immune response to the venom, producing antibodies.

Medical researchers then collect the horse’s blood, isolate the antibodies, and voila – anti-venom.

The anti-venom will help snake and scorpion bites. It’s useless against the pufferfish toxin. Don’t. eat. pufferfish.

Don’t eat pufferfish

Nature is chock full of toxins. Toxins come from all five kingdoms of life — bacteria, fungi, protists, plants and animals. Although the toxins span a broad range of shapes, sizes, and potencies, they’re all produced for the same reason: warfare.

Toxins come in two main flavors: as proteins and as small organic molecules. The protein toxins are both big and small. The small organic molecule toxins are very small.

What’s a small organic molecule? You probably know it as a (prescription) drug. Check out the image below:

A dizzying array of small organic molecules.

This image is a compilation of pills your doctor prescribes to treat a variety of ailments. Inside each colorful little package is one type of small organic molecule.

So a toxin can take drug form or protein form, both of which can enter your body and reek havoc.

The tropical pufferfish, especially prevalent in Japan, carries a small organic molecule toxin — the very small drug kind.

Here’s an adorable, cuddly pufferfish:

Source: Steven Hunt/Getty Images

The drug-like toxin found in pufferfish is called tetrodotoxin. An interesting little technicality is: the pufferfish itself does not make the toxin, but rather bacteria living inside the pufferfish produce it!

Tetrodotoxin is one of the most potent toxins out there. If you eat the equivalent of a grain of salt, you’re a goner. One tenth of that has the same result. One hundredth of that: same result.

Tetrodotoxin affects a cell’s sodium channel. If you haven’t read my last post, “Your potassium channel,” now would be the time.

The sodium channel has the same functionality as the potassium channel. The difference is only the type of stuff the channel flushes out and takes in. For a potassium channel, the type of stuff is potassium. For a sodium channel, the type of stuff is sodium.

We’ve learned that we don’t want to mess with these channels, because messing with the channels inhibits the cells from communicating with each other. And, just like with potassium, cells use sodium to talk. For example:

    Cell 1: “Hey, did you see the latest episode of ‘Glee?’”
    Cell 2: “Yeah, those New Horizons kids totally nailed it!”

I jest. Cells don’t talk about “Glee.” (Although they should.)

Most toxins affect the cells of the nervous system. So the type of cell that’s of interest here is the nerve cell. On a normal day, the nerve cell opens and closes its sodium channel, flushing out sodium, taking in sodium, all the while transmitting electrical signals to its neighbor cells.

Let’s say I have a hankering for pufferfish. I eat one. I now have tetrodotoxin loose inside my body. The very, very tiny tetrodotoxin finds its way to the sodium channels in my nerve cells.

A tetrodotoxin molecule plops itself down in a channel’s opening. That channel can no longer open or close. The sodium inside the cell cannot get out. The sodium outside the cell cannot get in.

Now that poor nerve cell can’t communicate; it has lost its ability to regulate itself. It dies. The cells around it die, too. Soon, enough cells have died that I’m paralyzed. Oops.

Another toxin that plugs a cell’s sodium channel is called batrachotoxin. This drug-like toxin is produced by the poison dart frog. How cute is this little guy?

A yellow poison dart frog. More than a hundred kinds exist -- all beautiful. Click the frog to learn more.

Besides sodium channel toxins, nature has potassium and calcium channel toxins, too. Scorpions, for example, produce protein toxins targeting the potassium channel of a nerve cell. Whew. I’d hate for the poor sodium channel to be singled out for destruction.

The black mamba snake, the largest venomous snake in Africa, produces a large protein toxin called calciseptine. Calciseptine targets the calcium channel, as you may have guessed from its similar name. This particular toxin is such effective warfare that the black mamba snake eats like a king.

Here’s a black mamba snake eating some unfortunate rodent:

Yummy! Click on me!

Don’t eat black mamba snakes. Also, don’t eat scorpions. Also, don’t. eat. pufferfish.

Your potassium channel

Ask a biologist what the basic building block of life is, and she will tell you it’s a cell. Ask a chemist this question and she will tell you it’s an atom. Ask a physicist and she will tell you that it’s something even smaller, some miniscule particle with a weird name.

For the purposes of this story we’ll adopt the biologist’s definition: a cell.

If you search for a Google image of a cell, this guy pops up:

The cartoon character called "Cell."

Not exactly what I had envisioned. Let’s go with this one:

This image is from the Nobel Prize website. Click on the cell to learn why!

If you’re human (a quick check in the mirror should clear that up) your body has more than one trillion cells. One trillion! This is 10 to the 12th power, or 10 times 10 times 10 times 10 times 10 times 10 times 10 times 10 times 10 times 10 times 10 times 10, or 1,000,000,000,000.

I’m thankful someone else figured this out, because I’m not the type to sit still long enough to count that many cells. Here’s how it would play out:

    Curious child: “How many cells are inside my body?”
    Sarah: “Hmmm, I will count them. Let’s start with your skin cells. Stick your hand under the microscope and I’ll start counting. One, two, three, four…”
    [Five minutes later]
    Sarah [visibly bored of this activity]: “Yeah, so, Google it is…”

Each of your trillion cells has a cell membrane. The membrane is a protective covering around the cell, to keep the good stuff in and the bad stuff out. Good stuff: DNA, nutrients, water. Bad stuff: foreigners (a virus, a toxin).

Science teachers often use an egg analogy for cell biology. Hard-boil an egg and you have a pretty good model of a cell. The eggshell is the cell membrane. The white part is the inside of the cell. The yellow yolk is the nucleus.

The cell membrane (the eggshell) has several gates to let stuff in and out. It’s vital that your cell has exactly what it needs; nothing less and nothing more. The gates help ensure this.

With the egg analogy it’s hard to simulate the gates, so just imagine them. The gates are called channels, and the cell membrane has different channels, one for each type of stuff. There’s a channel for water, a channel for sodium, a channel for potassium, a channel for calcium, and so on.

You might be wondering what a channel is or what it looks like. A channel is a big protein and it looks like a bunch of ribbons. Below is a close-up of the potassium channel:

Source: Brookhaven National Laboratory

The “intracellular” portion is what’s inside the cell (the white part of the egg). The “membrane” portion is lodged in the cell membrane (the eggshell). The “extracellular” piece hangs out of the cell (outside the eggshell).

That potassium channel regulates how much potassium goes in and out of the cell. If the cell has too much potassium, the channel opens and flushes the potassium out. If the cell has just the right amount of potassium the channel closes and stays closed.

If the cell changes its mind, it re-opens and thieves the potassium back.

These channels constitute a vast communication network among the cells in your body. Cells release potassium to talk to other cells. Seriously. It’s not like they have [insert your favorite type of social media here].

The talking is in the form of electrical signals. One cell’s potassium channel opens and the cell releases potassium. A nearby cell’s potassium channel opens and the cell takes the potassium in. Thanks, potassium channels! You just transmitted an electrical signal!

Since the channels control the communication between cells, if you mess with a channel you have a major problem: cells can no longer talk to each other. The solution is simple: leave the channels alone.

Easier said than done. Channels are the major targets of toxins.

Saturn’s moons

Saturn has 62 moons. Perhaps more, but as of March 2011 astronomers have confirmed the orbits of 62. I learned this fun fact while manning (or rather “womanning”) the Saturn booth at The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ Astronomy Day.

Today the museum brimmed with expert and amateur astronomy buffs, ranging in age from six to eighty. I fall into none of these categories (not expert, amateur, six nor eighty). Thankfully I worked alongside an expert, who quickly briefed me on Saturn, its rings and its moons.

Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of the day, before my briefing:

    Museum visitor [pointing at photo in front of me]: “What’s that?”
    Sarah [shifting nervously]: “Saturn? No, wait, that’s one of Saturn’s moons. The big one. What’s the big one called?”

Titan. The big one is Titan. With a diameter 50 % larger than that of Earth’s moon, Titan is Saturn’s largest. Some astronomers consider Titan a planet trapped in Saturn’s orbit, as it’s one of few celestial bodies with a surface atmosphere, mountains and lakes. Saturn, a gas giant with no solid surface, has none of these features. Seems to me like Saturn should be orbiting Titan.*

*Disclaimer: As I am not an astronomist perhaps this is crazy talk.

Titan’s northern polar region boasts the majority of the lakes, the largest of which trumps the size of Lake Superior. The key difference between Titan’s lakes and Earth’s lakes is this: Titan’s lakes are not filled with water; they are filled with liquid methane.

Methane is a gas here on Earth, because Earth’s atmosphere is relatively hot. Titan’s atmosphere, namely methane and nitrogen, is 95 Kelvin. 95 Kelvin translates to –178 ˚Celsius and –289 ˚Fahrenheit. That’s cold.

Titan: Saturn's largest moon.

Here’s an excerpt from the end of the day:

    Museum visitor [pointing at photo in front of me]: “What’s that?”
    Sarah [smiling proudly]: “That’s Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. The atmosphere on Titan consists of methane and nitrogen and is almost 300 degrees below zero. Bring a parka and some mittens!”

Iapetus (pronounced YAH-peh-tus), the third largest of Saturn’s moons, has a topographic ridge that lies almost directly on top of its equator. It literally looks like someone made a Play-doh snake and plopped it down to define Iapetus’s equator.

Hyperion is my favorite moon because it looks like a sponge. A museum visitor likened it to a pumice stone, which is probably more accurate. Hyperion has very low density compared to the other moons, and as a result has weak gravity and is quite porous. It’s non-spherical and would be tough to pick out in a line-up of asteroids.

Hyperion: Saturn's coolest moon.

Dione (pronounced die-uh-nee) is another of Titan’s moons, one of the densest. The surface of Dione is chock full of craters. It looks very much like our moon.

Enceladus (which you pronounce like the Mexican food, but without the “h”) has active eruptions! This is quite rare in outer space. This moon is Saturn’s sixth largest and Cassini (see below) captured Enceladus at a distance of 15 miles, close enough to see crevices, fractures and grooves. For reference, this photo was taken at 2,000 miles.

The photos of Saturn’s moons are courtesy of the Cassini spacecraft. NASA launched Cassini in 1997 and, after seven long years, the unmanned spacecraft reached Saturn. Cassini has been orbiting Saturn since, and will continue to orbit Saturn, photographing the gas giant, its rings and its moons until 2017, when the mission ends.

I was told that once 2017 rolls around, Cassini will take close-up photographs of Saturn’s rings as the spacecraft “dies.” The specifics here are lost upon me.

Not lost upon me, though, is that we need high-definition photos of Saturn’s rings. Saturn has at least 10,000 rings and we need to define that mess of icy dust. By our best estimates, the ring system spans 1 kilometer thick by 280,000 kilometers wide. For the anti-metric system folks, that’s less than a mile thick by 174,000 miles wide.

You’d have to circle the Earth seven times to traverse Saturn’s ring system. That’s a lot of ring.

Technology at Fort Bliss

If you read my last post “Chemical weapons and clay,” you’ll know that I enjoyed a brief stint as a policy fellow at the National Academy of Sciences. Twelve weeks serving on the Board on Army Science and Technology (BAST) did wonders for my knowledge of the U.S. Army. Granted, the bar was, ahem, low.

Further into the fellowship (I believe we’re in week 5 here) I traveled with two other BAST staff members to Fort Bliss. One might imagine that Fort Bliss is in an exotic location, perhaps a beautiful island in the Pacific Ocean. Nope. Fort Bliss is in El Paso, Texas.

El Paso sits on Texas’ western border, less than 20 miles from Juarez, Mexico. Juarez…it sounded familiar to me but I couldn’t place it. A quick call to my mother went something like this:

    Sarah: “Hey Mom, what’s Juarez all about?”
    Mom: “JUAREZ MEXICO? Oh my God, Sarah, do NOT cross that border. Do you even have your passport? It doesn’t matter. I don’t care. Do NOT leave Texas while you’re at that army conference.”

Juarez, as it turns out, is infamous for crime, violence and drugs. Hmmmm…let’s put an army base beside it and name the base Fort Bliss! I give the U.S. Army a gold star sticker for nomenclature (this means “naming”) humor here.

One aim of the Fort Bliss BAST meeting focused on learning about new technology. A significant portion of the money annually dolled out to the Department of Defense funds army research and development, i.e. army science and technology. Just like in a university or at a private company, scores of scientists and engineers conduct basic and applied research under the auspices of the Department of Defense.

At Fort Bliss I watched soldiers plow through computer-based training modules, fighting virtual enemies of all shapes and sizes. Soldiers spend several weeks on a team, sitting together in one room, gazing up at a huge screen that depicts their battlefield. The soldiers advance their skills and knowledge, stage by stage, until their virtual training is complete.

Besides time spent on the main army base, we visited soldiers in the field at their training site, located an hour away near the base of the mountains. At the training site I had a crash course in unmanned aerial and ground systems, robots, monitoring devices, and practice attack strategies.

After one morning out in the field we broke for lunch. One dozen soldiers had just finished a practice attack, complete with green smoke bombs as diversions. Let’s just say that if I had a do-over, I would spend less time watching the green smoke spread slowly across my field of vision and more time tracking the attacking soldiers.

Where did those pesky attackers go? Oooooo pretty green smoke....

For lunch we ate soldier food: Meals, Ready-to-Eat, or MREs. An MRE comes in a thick, brown plastic wrapping that you open with your army knife or whatever weapon(s) you have on hand. I met a soldier from my hometown of Cary, North Carolina, who opened my MRE and gave me an extra for the road. I love Southern hospitality.

Decked out in a parka, I pose with my new friend from Cary, NC.

An MRE is calorie-rich to keep a soldier well-nourished for battle. The calories, however, do not come from tasty food, but rather from strange food-like substances only identifiable from their labels. After eating one such meal, I was less excited by the Southern hospitality than I had initially been. Below is some of the “food” I got:

    Mushy greenish puree = pears
    Brown chunky liquid = beef stew
    Purple powder = grape juice
    Little white disc = gum

I was impressed by the army’s technological progress to integrate information for its soldiers. Theoretically, better technology leads to better-equipped soldiers, which, in turn, should result in more successful missions.

Soldiers will soon have (if they don’t already) a smart phone with databases of friendly and enemy faces, locations of safe and unsafe places, and GPS-style navigation capabilities. Imagine a map of the Afghani desert, complete with information on where to go, and, more importantly, where not to go.

The most enjoyable part of my trip was chatting with the BAST experts. These experts included retired military generals and majors, engineers of several types (no, not clay) and physicists. Those folks were chock full of information about military technology, so I networked my way through the group. Besides scoring business cards I reveled in the free drinks.

After returning to D.C. I wrote my new contacts thank-you notes, beefing up my D.C.-based contacts list to include DARPA (the Department of Defense’s innovative technology research arm) and the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation. Will I ever work at DARPA or The Heritage Foundation? Likely not. But one can never have too many contacts. Mark my words!

Chemical weapons and clay

My first foray into science policy led me to the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. At this non-profit advisory organization I spent three months as a science and technology policy fellow, assigned to the Board on Army Science and Technology (BAST). To this day I’m not sure why the army board selected me, but I imagine the simple fact that I have a chemistry Ph.D. played a large role.

During my twelve-week fellowship I wrote weekly updates for my friends and family as they tried to wrap their heads around the fact that I was hanging out at army bases. Well, I was. And, lo and behold, I learned a lot.

Within my first week at BAST I had begun research into the U.S. Army’s chemical weapons disposal project. We call this long-term project “chemical demilitarization” because we’re destroying, rather than building, chemical weapons. Who is “we”? That would be the U.S. of A.

Here’s what I learned during week two: Until recently, the U.S. had nine stockpiles of chemical weapons. The stockpiles resulted from our recent chemical-weapons-building phase, also known as the 1920s through the 1960s. Several years ago the U.S. joined an international consortium called the Chemical Weapons Convention, which mandates that we destroy all chemical weapons.

Based on a 1969 executive order from President Nixon the stockpiles aren’t moveable. So, we built nine chemical demilitarization facilities, one per stockpile, to destroy our weapons. As of today, two of the chemical demilitarization facilities have completed their missions and five are chugging along nicely. The last two sites, in Blue Grass, Kentucky and Pueblo, Colorado, need to kick it up a notch. They’re behind schedule.

By “weapon” I’m talking M55 rockets, bombs, missiles, mortars, projectiles and mines. Each of these delightful weapons is filled with a chemical agent. And by “agent” I’m talking the blister agents mustard gas and Lewisite, and the nerve agents VX, GA (Tabun) and GB (Sarin).

The experts responsible for draining the agents out of the weapons wear $300, disposable, vacuum-sealed suits, complete with booties, gloves, masks and a 2-hour-maximum oxygen tank. Although not explicitly stated, I’m guessing that mustard gas is nothing like the mustard I’d put on my sandwich.

Although fairly engrossed in the chemical weapons project I broadened my scope to include other BAST studies. One such project involved finding suitable body armor for our soldiers.

Here’s a snippet of activity related to the Body Armor study, my focus during week four of the fellowship: In a couple of weeks I’m attending a meeting for the Body Armor study in Edgewood, Md. This past week I sat in on two conference calls, in which I and other BAST staff members talked with body armor experts about clay. To be clear, I didn’t talk…I sat quietly for several hours, writing furiously.

As it turns out, clay engineers have a lot to say about clay. Growing up in North Carolina I knew clay to be the mucky red stuff you avoided at all costs else you’d find it embedded in your carpet. Clay engineers know clay to be a fantastic medium…to evaluate body armor safety.

Although the term body armor encompasses several distinct pieces, this study focused on chest plates. Before chest plates are distributed to soldiers for battle, they are subjected to quality control testing.

Each batch of newly manufactured chest plates arrives at the army’s testing facility. A soldier removes a chest plate from the batch and embeds it in a wall of clay. A designated marksman targets the chest plate, firing one bullet across the room. The bullet penetrates the chest plate, denting the armor, and subsequently denting the clay.

A laser scans the clay to measure the size of the indentation. From what I gleaned the dent size averages 46 millimeters. To me, this means nothing. But to experts, a 46-mm hit is acceptable, i.e. no harm is done to your vital organs at this depth. Good. I like my vital organs intact.

A few more chest plates are tested, and if the depth of the clay dent is within the acceptable range, the chest plates are ready for the troops. When I visited the army base I saw this process from start to finish. The statisticians had a field day with the error rate of these measurements (currently greater than 10 %, which is way too high), and the clay engineers had a field day with the heating and cooling procedures for the clay. As for me, after several futile attempts to convince the marksman to let me try, I resigned myself to simply watching and learning. Apparently it was “safer this way.”