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Archive → October, 2008

Vocalizing Support (Or Not)

Yesterday, I noticed that the Scientists and Engineers for America Action Fund and ScienceBlogs put together “A Vote for Science” site on YouTube. Scientists of all ilk are sharing who they will be voting for and why. Martie Chalfie, recent co-winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, was one of the first to share his, ahem, glowing endorsement:

So far, all but one of the 25 or so scientists on the site have declared their support for Obama (the lone exception didn’t give her preference but encouraged everyone else to vote for theirs). I’m sure there must be scientists who are pulling for McCain, but they seem to be less vocal than the Obama supporters. Google is even leaving me dry. What’s up with that? Why aren’t McCain supporters uploading videos to YouTube?

I’m not the only one pondering this observation. Check out here and a few quips over at ScienceBlogs.

The T. rex Collagen Controversy

T. rexIn 2007, a group of investigators, led by John Asara of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Mary Schweitzer of North Carolina State University, announced in Science

that they had sequenced collagen from a 68 million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex by mass spectrometry. The T. rex was the oldest fossil to date to have its protein sequenced. On the basis of data collected from seven peptides, the authors concluded that the T. rex‘s collagen resembled that of chicken.

But as the headlines about the T. rex–chicken link hit major newspapers, so did questions about the work. Getting sequence data from fossils aged 1 million years or older has been the Achilles’ heel of the molecular paleontology field. So when Asara, Schweitzer, and colleagues reported they had identified, sequenced, and taxonomically classified a protein from a 68 million-year-old dinosaur, it obviously made other experts curious as to how they managed to do it. Scrutiny of the paper followed.

The controversy over this high-profile paper has been brewing for the past 18 months and likely won’t die any time soon. The raw mass spectra that Asara and colleagues collected are now available on the publicly accessible PRIDE database so that others can assess whether or not the data and original conclusions are sound.

Image: Shutterstock

Hey Burt's Bees, Who're You Callin' Ugly?

Recently, I’ve seen a series of ads run by health and beauty products company Burt’s Bees in various fashion magazines. Based on a quick check of the web (see here or here, for instance), it has certainly accomplished what it set out to do–to get people talking about Burt’s Bees stuff. But one of the statements in those ads is unfair, and I hope I don’t find more like it.

Burt’s Bees says it designed the ad campaign as a way to encourage consumers to learn about the ingredients in beauty products and to discern what is truly natural and renewable from what isn’t.

What irks me about the ad I’ve shown is one of the supposed cons of DMDM hydantoin, a preservative used in moisturizers and other beauty products. “Short for 1,3-Dimethylol-5,5-Dimethyl Hydantoin, its uglier name.”

Now, I’m all for describing the pros and cons of the products that come out of chemistry labs. Products developed with the best of intentions have turned out to have dire consequences (see, for example, thalidomide). I agree with most of the ad’s content–for instance, formaldehyde is, in fact, a suspected carcinogen. But calling a chemical’s scientific name ugly, and then inferring that that’s somehow a suspicious aspect of an ingredient, is hitting below the belt. Continue reading →

Happy Mole Day!

That’s right, dear readers, Oct. 23 is Mole Day. And no, it’s not an accident that it coincides with National Chemistry Week. Around the C&EN offices, we like to celebrate special days with food. Former Deputy Editor-in-Chief Pam Zurer used to bestow us with her yummy mole cookies (recipe after the jump). Perhaps you might like to whip up some variation of mole sauce. If you’re not of the do-it-yourself type, pick up some Avocado’s Number Guacamole from Trader Joe’s.

As for tchotchkes, you can buy all sorts of goodies from the National Mole Day Foundation or the ACS store (like the fuzzy nanomole above).

So how do you celebrate Mole Day?

You could always celebrate with a debate of the impact (however big or small) the kilogram’s redefinition has on the mole as we know it.

Continue reading →

Celebrating Fred Hawthorne

Some of the biggest names in chemistry have gathered this week at the University of Missouri, Columbia, for a symposium to celebrate the opening of the International Institute of Nano & Molecular Medicine. This institute is the culmination of a lifetime of work by chemist M. Frederick Hawthorne, the 2009 Priestley Medalist, ACS’s highest honor.

During his nearly 60-year career, which includes stints at Rohm and Haas, UC Riverside, and UCLA, Hawthorne and his colleagues have created a diverse collection of boranes and spin-off compounds, including the carboranes, such as C2B10H12, and the metallacarboranes, such as Ni(C2B9H12)2. Hawthorne has put these compounds to work in applications as varied as medical imaging, drug delivery, neutron-based radiation treatments for cancers and rheumatoid arthritis, catalysis, and nanomachines.

Continue reading →

Nobel Nonsense

Nobody criticizes the Nobel Prize committees or their selections. The august Swedish academies are just too daunting for criticism. They hand down their verdicts on who is worthy and who is not, and we applaud.

That needs to stop. Some Nobel Prize selections over the past couple of years have been so wrongheaded that it needs to be pointed out.

This year’s prize in medicine or physiology is a case in point. Awarding Luc Montagnier and François Barré-Sinoussi half of the prize for discovering HIV—the virus that causes AIDS—while ignoring Robert Gallo’s contribution to that discovery is blatant rewriting of scientific history.

I was a young C&EN reporter in San Francisco when the AIDS epidemic broke out in 1981. I started writing about the frightful new disease soon after, even though some members of C&EN’s staff thought that the topic was too far afield for a magazine focused on the chemistry enterprise. I was convinced that AIDS was a disease that would become widespread and an important scientific topic in its own right.

Continue reading →

Chemistry Newsbytes

Ever wondered what outer space smells like? A British chemist is recreating the scent. ITV

A sign of the difficult job and funding market out there for scientists: Doug Prasher, whose research provided an essential piece for this year’s chemistry Nobel Prize, is driving a courtesy van for a car dealership. NY Times

Japanese Nobel Laureates, including Osamu Shimomura and Ryoji Noyori, chat about innovative research, amateur science, and the difference between working in the U.S. and Japan. Daily Yomiuri

California chemistry teacher convicted of trying to make meth. Bakersfield Californian

Obama and McCain on science and technology. NY Times

The chemistry of monogamy – it’s all in your head. LA Times

When the planet is the reaction flask: Carbon dioxide is changing seawater chemistry. Christian Science Monitor

Any prospective grad students out there? This Australian Ph.D. studentship in wine chemistry sound like fun. Nature Jobs

The Corn Syrup Conundrum

While we’re on the subject of chemicals and food, I’m wondering if anyone else has noticed what seems to be a flood of ads touting the healthiness of high fructose corn syrup. They usually feature a wildly unbelievable scenario—in one a teenager offers his brother some cereal and they get into a debate about whether HFCS is safe or not—and are, unsurprisingly, sponsored by the Corn Refiners Association.

I’ve had friends ask what the difference is between HFCS and good ol’ sugar, aka sucrose (I wonder how many other readers out there serve as their friends’ primary source for all things science—and I mean ALL things science.), and thought perhaps some clarification was in order. In a sense, the difference largely comes down to ratios: sucrose is made up of a glucose loosely bound to a fructose molecule. The acidic environment of your belly causes that sucrose to break into glucose and fructose. In other words, you wind up with a 50:50 ratio of fructose:glucose. High fructose corn syrup, on the other hand, is made by taking pure corn syrup (100% glucose), adding enzymes to convert that glucose to fructose, then creating blends of the two components. The stuff added to your soda is generally HFCS-55, which means its 55% fructose and 45% glucose. Some studies have linked soda consumption to obesity and diabetes, and suggest this could be due to the slightly higher percentage of fructose. The Corn Refiners Association obviously refutes those claims, citing a rise in obesity in countries like Australia where sucrose continues to be the predominant ingredient in foods and soft drinks.

This battle to win the public over to HFCS, with the ads highlighting that it’s “made from corn,” is vaguely reminiscent of an earlier battle in the artificial sweetener arena. A few years back, the makers of NutraSweet sued the Splenda folks over the tagline “Made from sugar so it tastes like sugar.” I wrote an Insights about the chemists who explained the science behind the manufacturing process–there were some choice moments during the trial, like when they forced a scientist to go through every step of the synthesis and say whether the chemicals used were sweet. As it turns out, phosgene, not so sweet. These sweetener folks sure like to play hard ball to get you to consume more of their product. Or at least less of their competitor’s product.

So there you have it. Perhaps we should all just drink more water. As long as it comes out of bottles that don’t contain bisphenol A.