The Box Fish & Its Chemistry

Whilst drifting through my usual random searches to find something interesting, I stumbled across an article on the box fish. I had never come across such a thing, and after reading the article I don’t think I ever will, but understanding some of it’s attributes led me straight into a chemistry lesson.

I’ll link to the article on box fish at the end – apologies to younger readers as the author was fairly foul-mouthed but undoubtably humorous.

The box fish is a small fish that feeds on algae and crustaceans in coral reefs mainly in Australia and Asia. Their recognisable shape is given by a fused skeleton, but this also handicaps the box fish by restricting any and all movement as its body cannot twist or turn. Nevertheless, the adaptations of the box fish are intriguing.

Firstly, compared to the tiny, agile fish of shallow waters, the box fish surely has no place. You could quickly assume that it would have died off thousands of years ago – or is at least on the endangered species list. However, because most of its body is encased within the skeleton, the box fish isn’t the most appealing fish to any nearby predators. And, even if singled out, the box fish sports impressive manoeuvrability when needed.

Its other adaptation that fascinated me was its penchant for poisons. As many marine biologists will tell you, putting these fish in a tank with others is a bad idea. When frightened or threatened, the box fish excretes a toxic goo from cells all over its body. This is notably different from most other fish using toxins as it is not concentrated in the box fish’s tissues. The chemistry of this fascinates me as – previously unknown to me – the ostracitoxin given off is from the same category of chemical compound (surfactants) as things like soap (which slightly worried me at first). At a basic level, surfactants disperse through water very well and, in essence, make things that don’t dissolve in water do just that (especially fats and oils). It was thought that the cells were directly attacked by these surfactants (as they are made from some form of lipid – containing fats). Yet, it has been found that ostracitoxin targets red blood cells specifically so the attacker (or the unlucky tank-mate) cannot get enough oxygen and dies of asphyxiation.

After reading all of this article, the only thing left to do was to research more. A prettily bound book (or at least that is what is appeared to be on the pdf) held some answers about the effects of certain surfactants on humans and mammals. You are, of course, more than welcome to research further and have a look at this and I will link it below. However, I would recommend not doing so unless you have copious amounts of spare time and interest in the subject. All in all, the 24 pages show that the common surfactants that we absorb when washing up or when cleaning our teeth are at such low concentrations that human health is not affected by them (in terms of infections, cancer, and numerous other medical aspects). Nevertheless, one surfactant (Polysorbate 80) is being used in some vaccines to weaken the blood-brain barrier and allow drugs to reach the brain when necessary. One article argued that there was too little evidence of its safety to be put in a vaccine, but then proceeded to provide a very one-sided argument so their points should be taken with a pinch of salt. Despite the fact that Polysorbate 80 has been recognised to cause cancer and other illnesses in rats, there is no evidence of the same result in humans and neither is there a record in that article of the doses needed to achieve that.

The concentration of ostracitoxin excreted by the box fish is much higher than a human’s daily intake of numerous surfactants so its effects on predators is wildly disproportionate to what we could expect to see in our lives. It seems, to me at least, that surfactants are safe in our houses (but less so in our aquariums).


The Box Fish Article

Surfactant Research PDF

Polysorbate 80 in vaccinations


The Art Of Learning

With exams only a few months away, it may be a little late for me to find new ways to learn. But it’s still worth a try, no? In class recently, we were taken through a number of ways of thinking, ways of coping, and ways of learning better and faster.

To think differently, you have to build new habits and new connections in your brain. You need to correct yourself and change yourself and push yourself towards your goal. There are a lot of different theories out there but one really stuck out for me.

For instance, Black Box thinking. As always, TED talks are the place to find new theories and I’ll link to this one’s below. Matthew Syed suggests that the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset is the difference between continuous improvement and adamant denial. By his definitions, a growth mindset is where talent is seen as not enough. Change and gradual improvement are key aspects in a growth mindset. A fixed mindset, however, is where talent is seen as necessary and mistakes are punished not prevented. By using examples of the growth mindset air transport industry and the fixed mindset health sector, Syed shows that the best mindset most certainly is growth. Knowing this is all well and good, but unless we can adjust ourselves to that kind of thinking, how can we possibly benefit from it? The obvious action to take is to learn from mistakes: take a post-mortem of a failure and fix what went wrong. This can be applied to exams, tests, sports, and so many other parts of life. Another way is to congratulate progress not talent. To impress the importance of effort on others is to encourage improvement in lieu of settling. Finally, change the way you think. When you fail, think about how to do better. When you succeed, think about the effort you put into it. When working towards something, understand the need for focus. Leave your ego at the door and only measure yourself with the work you put in.

To cope better, stress must be dealt with differently. Stress is commonly recognised as a highway to a breakdown. So many teens and adults have problems that are in some way related to the negative effects of stress.

Kelly McGonigal has proved that this can actually be avoided. Despite her decade long career built on the assumption stress is bad for you, she took to the TED Talk floor in 2013 to completely go back on this. Scientific studies have shown that whilst those who view stress as harmful are more likely to die under a lot of stress, those who view stress as helpful are no more or less likely to die under pressure. McGonigal briefly explains that, in those who view stress negatively, blood vessels constrict when in stressful conditions. However, in those who view stress positively, blood vessels remain relaxed and so blood pressure doesn’t rise as sharply – reducing the risk of numerous heart issues.

The other half of her TED Talk goes on to show that another factor helps us remove harmful side effects of stress. Contact with others and caring for loved ones creates a resilience against stress-induced deaths. Through the hormone oxytocin, amongst all its other positive effects, stress related injuries in the heart can be healed (or at least partially healed). This hormone strengthens the heart and so can help prevent heart failure in times of stress.

To learn better, numerous things can be done. In only a three page sheet in class, I learned about four different ways to learn better. This techniques covered memory, exercise, “brain food”, and brain workouts.

Whilst incorporating the first two examples, I’ve found the easiest way to learn better is simply to exercise my memory. For example, in my notes I use colours I can read quickly (well, just blue but still the same effect is gained). People I know use bright, visible colours and mind maps and so many other things to memorise notes. I am aware that the three types of learning (visual, auditory, and physical) are perfectly valid. However, I have never found something that made it easier to learn than order and repetition. If notes have logic behind them, if there’s a colour scheme, if there’s a clear progression from one point to another, it is so much easier to learn. Of course, there is research behind this. Firstly, colours are linked to different emotions and symbols (blue calms you when things are complicated, red draws immediate attention, yellow stimulates mental activity) so it seems only logical to use them to our advantage. Secondly, repetition increases the likelihood of it being memorised. In the simplest of ways, our brain takes in what is deemed important or different – which is filtered directly to short term memory. Then, to push this into long term memory, repetition or something exceedingly unusual (music, for example) is needed. Thirdly, order is vitally important. The brain understands things through patterns. Whether it is through flow diagrams, mind maps, songs, mnemonics, or just simply ordering the information properly (honestly, the list is endless), patterns are an important part of putting together notes or just remembering snippets of information.

I hope these theories will be as useful to you as they have been to me. Improvement, positivity, repetition, and order have all helped me so much in both small tests and more important exams. As my first blog, and probably the first thing you’ll hear from me, I hope you take this on to my later posts. Use this to help you learn, teach, or just to remember some interesting facts from this blog to impress your friends.


Black Box TED Talk

Using Stress TED Talk

Long Term Memory