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Archive → May, 2009

Waiting for Godot Or Graduate Program Rankings, Whichever Comes First

UPDATE July 8:
The methodology report (which describes how the assessment of graduate program rankings was conducted) will be released Thursday July 9th at noon Eastern. Download it here.

The 20th century play “Waiting for Godot” is about the interactions between two men who are eagerly awaiting the arrival of an acquaintance named Godot, who never, in fact, arrives.

I’m no literature buff, but I couldn’t resist a comparison to the graduate students and the education community that’ve been eagerly awaiting an update to an authoritative set of grad program rankings for several years now.

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Red Bull Gives You…Cocaine Degradation Products?!!?

Boing Boing (always a purveyor of the finest in science news) posted an item yesterday that makes me scratch my head.
Six states in Germany have pulled Red Bull Cola, a new-ish product from the company that makes Red Bull energy drink, from store shelves after tests from the Health Institute in the German state of North Rhine Westphalia found 0.4mg/L of cocaine in the beverage.

A lot of news outlets covered this story, but after reading a few passages from Time magazine’s story about the recall, I got confused, so now I’m not sure what’s really going on. The story seems to be missing a couple of key pieces of information that I’d like to try to obtain. Read the snippets from Time’s article below and judge for yourselves.
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Humans In Space

No matter what one thinks about the overall direction of the U.S. space flight program, it has been difficult not to be awed by the recent shuttle mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope. In the course of five extended space walks, shuttle astronauts did far more than “service” Hubble; they effectively reinvented the telescope and extended its lifetime by at least five years.

This was the fifth and last shuttle mission to Hubble. The first such mission, in 1993, installed corrective optics to repair a flaw in the telescope’s mirror. Subsequent missions installed new, more powerful instruments and replaced components of the telescope that had failed, such as gyroscopes.

mission specialists Andrew J. Feustel (upper left, with feet tethered to the shuttle's robotic arm) and John M. Grunsfeld working in space on the Hubble

During the mission that ended last Friday, astronauts replaced one camera, repaired another one, installed a new spectrograph, and carried out a variety of other maintenance and repair functions. Instruments that were not designed to have maintenance performed on them were opened, had components replaced, and resealed.

Some of the stories I read about the mission were gripping. Bolts wouldn’t budge under the maximum amount of torque engineers had decided could safely be used, and permission was given to exceed that maximum and risk shearing off the bolt. In every instance, human ingenuity and perseverance prevailed.

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Original Syn: Pun Intended

A big tip of the hat to Chemjobber, who recently pointed out a puzzling passage in a NY Times story about chemistry in the origin of life field. You can read the original post at Chemjobber’s site for the background, which I’ll briefly paraphrase here.

John Sutherland and his colleagues in the UK have developed a synthesis of RNA building blocks that might help explain how an early form of life based on RNA instead of DNA, also called the “RNA World”, might have come about. News outlets around the world covered the story, as did C&EN. The New York Times’s writeup mentions the term “original syn”, which the reporter describes as “a chemical operation that can affect a molecule’s handedness”.

Chemjobber hadn’t heard of the term and was curious about its origins (something funny in itself, really, the origin of a term in an origin of life story). Read his post for feedback from Chembark blogger Paul Bracher and the Times reporter, Nicholas Wade.

I’m quite a bit late to the party, but Gerald Joyce, a professor at the Scripps Research Institute who was interviewed by the Times for the story, graciously responded to my email about “original syn” last weekend. The phrase is in fact a pun, he says. Here’s how he explained it in an email.

Original syn “refers to a perverse quirk of RNA chemistry whereby a D-nucleotide in the (preferred) anti conformation at the glycosidic bond is closely mimicked by an L-nucleotide in the syn conformation. This results in inhibition of polymerization of activated D-nucleotides by L-nucleotides, and vice versa. This has been termed “enantiomeric cross-inhibition” and was demonstrated experimentally by Leslie Orgel and me many years ago (Joyce et al., Nature

1984, 310 , 602). In a racemic mixture it is a real show-stopper for RNA, leading some to propose that the RNA world was preceded by a “pre-RNA world” that did not suffer this limitation. Alternative, as you have reported, the mirror may have been broken prior to the emergence of replicating RNA, thus avoiding ‘original syn’.”

The Story Of Stuff

Being a dinosaur, I learned of “The Story of Stuff” from an article that appeared on the front page of last Monday’s (May 11) New York Times. If I paid better attention to C&EN’s own blog, I would have learned of the existence of this 21-minute video last year from a reader’s comment on a blog posting by Assistant Editor Carmen Drahl.

The Times‘s largely positive story leads off: “The thick-lined drawings of the Earth, a factory and a house, meant to convey the cycle of human consumption, are straightforward and child-friendly. So are the pictures of dark puffs of factory smoke and an outlined skull and crossbones, representing polluting chemicals floating in the air.”

The story goes on, “The video is a cheerful but brutal assessment of how much Americans waste, and it has its detractors. But it has been embraced by teachers eager to supplement textbooks that lag behind scientific findings on climate change and pollution.”

The Times says that 6 million people have watched the video on the website storyofstuff.com, millions more have seen it on YouTube, and more than 7,000 schools, churches, and others have ordered the DVD version.

Having now watched “The Story of Stuff,” which was made in 2007, I find the Times‘s characterization of the video and the spread of its use in classrooms alarming. It is a well-made and effective piece of chemophobic and anticapitalistic propaganda, but to suggest that it is a useful supplement to science textbooks is ludicrous.

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Controversial U.K. Funding Policy Is Softened

Researchers in the U.K. are breathing a little easier today, in particular those who rely on grants from the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which is comparable to the National Science Foundation in the U.S.

The EPSRC announced today that it was toning down a planned policy that would have barred researchers with poor grant success rates from submitting applications to the funding agency for 12 months–either as the PI or as a co-PI.

In particular the controversial policy had decreed that researchers with “three or more proposals within a two-year period ranked in the bottom half of a funding prioritization list or rejected before panel and [who have] an overall personal success rate of less than 25% over the same two years” were to be shut out of the application process. The policy was to be retroactive. According to the EPSRC, the new rules aimed to reduce the pressure on the peer-review system.

Not surprisingly, the unprecedented policy ignited a furor of anger and anxiety among academics when it was announced in March.

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The Price Of Journalism

My wife and I recently saw the political thriller “State of Play,” which stars Russell Crowe as a grizzled reporter for the Washington Globe, a fictional newspaper that is an obvious stand-in for the Washington Post. It is a pretty good film: The twisting plot holds together through to the somewhat surprising climax and there’s genuine tension throughout.

The movie revolves around a congressional investigation into outsourcing international and homeland security to private contractors. The plot, however, is to some extent secondary; the movie is at its heart a paean to old-fashioned journalism. Crowe’s character, Cal McAffrey, is portrayed as a throwback, a reporter who takes the time to get a story right no matter what the consequences. He’s devoted to the print version of his newspaper, and he has little use for blogs and bloggers.

In “State of Play,” that kind of dogged journalism is under siege from owners who want a better return on their investment. Throughout the movie, there are references to the pressures the Globe is under to boost readership and financial returns. Whether one buys into the plotline of “State of Play,” that much about the movie rings true. Old-fashioned journalism is under siege in the U.S.

Detroit no longer has a daily newspaper. One of Seattle’s dailies has closed. The San Francisco Chronicle and the Philadelphia Inquirer are under threat of closing. The New York Times lost $74 million in the first quarter of 2009.

And it’s not just newspapers. U.S. News & World Report is no longer a weekly print publication. Newsweek has announced plans to completely redirect its efforts away from breaking news coverage toward analysis and features. National Public Radio has laid off more than 75 people since December, close to 10% of its staff.

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