Simple Things #4

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In which we use Randall Munroe’s ‘simple writer‘ to explain plant-and-pipette topics. Can you guess what they are?

Monroe’s ‘simple writer’ limits language use to only the 10 hundred most common words in the English language. So the word ‘chloroplast’ is out. But so is ‘duck’, ‘cuddle’, and ‘explosion’.

We’ve tried to define a plant and pipette related word using only these common words. Can you tell what we’re talking about? The solution is shown at the bottom.

If you want to know what the tiny parts are that make up a living things, you have to use a  machine. The machine changes the tiny parts in a way that they can fly in a special power field. The machine now throws the special parts in a box that is completely empty with a strong pulling force on one end and then counts how long the parts fly from one end to the other. This time is different for every part.

By looking into big books with many names and time of flight we can give a name to the tiny part. This helps us to name all the parts that are inside a living thing’s tiny water bags.

The answer is: mass spectrometry!

Mass spectrometry is widely used whenever researchers want to learn more about individual molecules, often metabolites or proteins. The sample is prepared and then ionized. This way it gets an electric charge that propels it forward in an electric field inside a vacuum.

In the end a detector measures the time of flight of the molecule and calculates its mass. Using large databases, the mass can be used to identify the molecule. So essentially, a mass spectrometer is a very fine scale to weigh individual molecules.

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