HOT STUFF: Capsaicinoids are the compounds that give chile peppers their spicy taste. They bond with pain receptors in the mouth and throat, producing a burning sensation in the tissue. Then the receptors send a message to the brain, which triggers increases in heart rate and perspiration, as well as the release of endorphins (which are also released in other situations that play with the sensations of pleasure and pain, such as the runner's high). The units used to describe the heat of a pepper are called Scoville heat units (SHU). Bell peppers rank 0 SHU, jalapenos 3,000-6,000, habaneros 300,000, and the naga jolokia (a pepper from India) ranks the highest, with over 1,000,000 SHU.
WHAT IS SPECTROSCOPY? Spectroscopy is a technique used by astronomers and physicists to study the make-up of an object based on the light it emits. Anything that produces light or radiates energy, whether a light bulb or a star, is telling us about itself and anything between us and the source. This is possible because each chemical element has a unique signature, emitting or absorbing radiation at specific wavelengths. For example, sodium, used in street lights, emits primarily orange light. Oxygen, used in neon lights, emits green light. By passing the light from a star or other object through a special instrument, called a spectrograph, the light is "spread" into a spectrum in much the same way visible light is spread into its colors by a prism. By carefully studying how the spectrum becomes brighter or darker at each wavelength, scientists can tell what chemical elements are present.
The American Mathematical Society and the Mathematical Association of America contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.This report has also been produced thanks to a generous grant from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, Inc.