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Science Communication


A celebratory spin for C&EN’s centennial

by Bethany Halford
August 11, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 26


May we have this dance?

A Cerura moth larva contorts into a dance-like pose.
Credit: Shutterstock
Caterpillar groove: Do a parasitic wasp’s wingbeats whip this larva into a dancing frenzy?

Celebrations are afoot at C&EN. While the magazine marks its centennial, Newscripts also has a special anniversary: for 80 years, we’ve been bringing C&EN readers quirky science news.

To paraphrase the late Kenneth M. Reese, who wrote Newscripts from 1968 to 2004, the column favors the chemical over the nonchemical, the scientific over the nonscientific, the peculiar over the pedestrian. Readers interested in Newscripts’ origins should read Reese’s account of the column’s first 50 years, as well as a “Best of Newscripts” article he assembled when C&EN turned 75.

Here at the back of the magazine, things can get pretty wild. When C&EN had its 90th birthday, Newscripts toasted it with some of our favorite alcohol-related stories, or booze-scripts, as we call them. For this centennial, the Newscripts gang turned to another one of our favorite ways to celebrate: dance. We took a twirl through the archives and found a few of our favorite dance-related ditties.

A hand holding up an instant photo of a dancer.
Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
Instant photo dance: You can shake a leg, but don’t shake your Polaroid pictures.

Dancing caterpil-​ lars took the lead in the Feb. 18, 1980, Newscripts, where Reese spun the tale of two Clemson University graduate students—John Weaver and Tina White—who found a Cerura moth larva that liked to groove. “White began singing to it, while Weaver ran the scales on the piano. At certain notes the insect would twist its head to the side and flick its long tentacles up and over its back in a dancelike motion,” Reese wrote. Further speculation suggested that the caterpillar’s moves were meant to deter parasitic wasps whose wings beat at a particular frequency.

In the Jan. 6, 1986, issue, Reese recounted an article in the medical journal Lancet describing the dermatological dangers of Scottish country dancing. People who engaged in this activity while wearing short sleeves found “antecubital fossa petechiae, or minute hemorrhages that show up as purplish spots in the bend of the elbow,” Reese wrote. The cause appeared to be related to contact from the rough tweed of men’s jackets when linking arms to dance. The authors of the Lancet piece point out that “dancing naked would remove the risk of contact purpura, but we are not necessarily recommending that course.”

Polaroid had some advice for readers of the March 8, 2004, Newscripts. In response to Outkast’s catchy dance directive to “shake it like a Polaroid picture” in the Grammy-winning “Hey Ya!,” the maker of instant film asked customers to stop shaking their photos. “Shaking or waving can actually damage the image,” Polaroid wrote on its website back in the day. Shaking was a holdover from its early days, when waving helped the film dry more quickly. The company introduced plastic windows decades ago to protect the instant film, so shaking no longer helps. “The best way to ensure a perfectly developed image is to simply lay the picture on a flat surface immediately after it exits the camera,” Polaroid said. Tough to dance to that, though.

An octopus twirls beneath a disco ball.
Credit: Will Ludwig/C&EN/Shutterstock
Octopus disco: With a little chemical enticement, cephalopods trip the light fantastic.

In the Oct. 14, 2018, issue, we wrote about an experiment in which scientists placed octopuses in a dilute solution of (±)-3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), also known as the club drug ecstasy. The cephalopods were then released into an enclosure where they could explore an object or hang with a sober octopus. Octopuses on MDMA appeared to dance by swaying and doing backflips. They also got cuddly, seeking out the sober octopus for physical contact involving several arms.

Finally, we must mention that interpreting chemistry through dance has been a mainstay of the Newscripts column. We’ve covered an homage to the element antimony, a dance devoted to fluid dynamics, a 1971 interpretive dance film about how proteins are synthesized, and Science magazine’s Dance your PhD contest—now in its 15th year. After all, we do love to cut a rug with chemical concepts.

Got some science you can dance to? Let us know. After all, dear reader, you’re our favorite dance partner.

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