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Archive → September, 2008

Centennial Celebration Of Chlorination

On Sept. 26, 1908, Jersey City, N.J., began operating the first permanent drinking water chlorination plant in the U.S. (shown). That historical tidbit is being celebrated by the American Chemistry Council (ACC) as another example of the benefit of chemistry in improving people’s lives.

Within a decade after the Jersey City facility went live, more than a thousand U.S. cities adopted chlorination technology; by the 1940s, 85% of U.S. water-treatment systems were disinfecting water with chlorine. Today, 90% of U.S. public water systems rely on chlorine in one form or another for purification, and as a result the U.S. enjoys one of the safest drinking-water supplies in the world.

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Student Accused Of Making Meth Agrees To Plea Deal

As Bethany Halford noted in her Newsbytes post below, suspended University of California, Merced, chemistry graduate student Jason D. West pled no contest last week to charges of embezzlement and felony conspiracy to make methamphetamine. He will be sentenced to nearly six years in state prison or a state rehabilitation facility for substance abusers.

We reported earlier this month that West allegedly stole approximately $10,000 worth of equipment and chemicals from the university to make meth (Student Suspected of Making Meth). West has already done one stint in the California Rehabilitation Center, following a conviction in 2001 for making methamphetamine.
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Chemistry Newsbytes

Think you know who’s going to nab this year’s Nobels? Try your luck and possibly win an iPod. medGadget

Former UC-Merced graduate student gets plea deal and nearly six years in prison in meth-making case. San Jose Mercury News

Using acid to suss out metals’ crystalline structure. Popular Science

Authorities in Wisconsin evacuate a three-mile area after discovering bottles of picric acid in a basement lab. Chicago Tribune

Chemistry Nobel Laureate Harry Kroto weighs in on the Royal Society’s former education director. Guardian

Carl Djerassi discusses his latest play, “Taboos,” on Science Friday. NPR

Nature

‘s political coverage goes to the dogs. The Times

Déjà Vu Moments

It happens often: I’m listening to National Public Radio or reading the Washington Post

, and déjà vu overcomes me. Of course, the story is familiar; I’ve seen it in C&EN.

At C&EN, we are relentless in finding stories that readers should know about or might be interested in, and I daresay we have a good nose for what’s interesting and important. I base this claim partly on our stories’ echoes in the greater media landscape.

Consider, for example, the segment called Animal Pharm in the July 18, 2007, edition of NBC’s “Nightly News with Brian Williams.” We know it was inspired by “Big Pharma Chases Dogs and Cats” (C&EN, June 25, 2007, page 31) because an NBC news producer contacted the reporter, Associate Editor Rachel Petkewich.

More recently, Associate Editor Bethany Halford’s “Pyrotechnics for the Planet” (C&EN, June 30, page 14) spawned “Chemists brew ‘greener’ fireworks” in “CNET News” and “Greener rockets take off” in the Washington Times. We know because both stories referenced Halford and C&EN.

More often than not, we don’t know whether a story that sounds familiar is traceable to C&EN, but the temptation to assume so is sometimes irresistible.
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Extra Info For Instant Coffee

What’s That Stuff?s are pretty fun to write—you get to look at an everyday item in your pantry, on the road, or in your hair in a completely different light. I just finished my first What’s That Stuff? article, about the history and production of instant coffee. It is freely available here. It does not, however, include any information about the health benefits of coffee.

Although the common idea is that coffee causes dehydration, says Roger Cook, director of the Coffee Science Information Centre, some studies suggest that coffee is an important source of fluid in the diet and that coffee’s caffeine is no more of a diuretic than water is—it increases the frequency of urination, but not the volume of fluid that is expelled over a period of time.

Thousands of studies have also been published proposing that coffee provides alertness, delays degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, and slows down cognitive decline in the elderly. Many studies use fresh-brewed coffee, but don’t rule out instant coffee in offering such health benefits, Cook says. “The physiological effects of coffee are primarily due to the caffeine content and not to the manufacturing or brewing method,” he adds.

In a study looking at sleep-related accidents, researchers compared 30-minute naps, caffeinated coffee, and decaffeinated coffee to see how caffeine affects alertness during nighttime driving (Ann. Internal Med. 2006, 144, 785). The coffee these researchers provided their subjects with was—you guessed it—instant! Nestlé instant coffee packets were used for both the caffeinated (4.25% caffeine) and decaffeinated (0.03% caffeine) coffees. The result? A 30-minute nap at 1 AM or a cup of coffee with 200 mg of caffeine has pretty much the same alertness-boosting effect for nighttime driving, but decaffeinated coffee will leave you swerving in the road.

I wondered, however, if the beneficial effects of caffeine cross over to sodas, teas, and other caffeinated wonders. One study looking at Chinese adults suggests this is true for tea (Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 2008, 88, 224), but, personally, I think that sodas are almost like cigarettes, which can also contain caffeine. Malic acid, one of the thousands of compounds used in cigarettes, can help boost immunity and metabolism. But in combination with the multitude of other ingredients, the total health benefit is probably outweighed by the negatives. That goes for what you put in your coffee, too—these studies don’t include added cream or sugar!

Chemistry Newsbytes

Spit parties: Martinis, music, and genetic testing. Guardian

Neglecting your house plants? They’re probably making their own painkillers. LA Times

Fat helps mice keep trim. ScienceNOW

Happy belated birthday, Michael Faraday. Wired

Hey kids, only a few days left to get your National Chemistry Week poster entry ready. Rohm and Haas

Slashdotters weigh in on whether docs need to take O-Chem. Slashdot

Scientists discover a “chemical equator” protecting Antarctica. New Scientist

The inside scoop on one company’s “ethanol-making bug lab.” CNet

Sex And Reproduction

Carl Djerassi is obsessed with reproduction.

It’s not surprising, really. One of the major figures of 20th-century chemistry, Djerassi practically started his career with the synthesis of norethindrone, which formed the basis of the first oral contraceptive. He is often referred to as “the father of the pill.”

The pill decoupled sex from reproduction and ushered in a social revolution, the effects of which are still being played out. Djerassi has been fascinated by the social effects of the birth control pill throughout his professional life.

For at least the past decade, Djerassi has also been fascinated by another reproductive technology, intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), which accomplishes the flip side of what the pill accomplished: ICSI decouples reproduction from sex.
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'Breaking Bad' Lands An Emmy

Back in March, C&EN Associate Editor Jyllian Kemsley reviewed “Breaking Bad,” the quirky new TV drama about terminally ill high school chemistry teacher Walter White, who turns to cooking methamphetamine to ensure his family’s financial future. In one of the biggest surprises at last night’s Emmy Awards, actor Bryan Cranston, who plays White, nabbed the Emmy for best actor in a drama series. Cranston himself was so shocked, according to the LA Times, that network censors had to bleep out his initial reaction. Cranston’s sporting a shaved head these days–he told the LA Times that his character, who has inoperable lung cancer, is in the middle of a course of chemo.

C&EN’s review of the show raised some hackles (see here), but it got readers talking about what it is C&EN should be covering (see here and here). That’s a discussion that I think is worth continuing in blog form. I haven’t been following the show beyond watching the first episode or two, but I think it’s great to see an actor win for portraying what is obviously a very complex character, something beyond the stereotypical depictions of scientists on TV. That’s something I think is worth C&EN’s time to cover.

What do you think?

Photo credit: Reuters/Mike Blake