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Archive → August, 2009

Bring Back OTA

I spent part of last week excavating my office desk in the wake of the ACS meeting in Washington, D.C., and a week’s vacation in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. I came across a July 24, 2009, letter from Ralph Nader urging me to support an effort by Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) to reinstate Congress’ Office of Technology Assessment.

I have never been a big fan of Nader’s, but here’s an issue on which I’m in wholehearted agreement with him. OTA was established in 1972 and, after a rocky first couple of years, grew into an organization whose reports on a wide range of science and technology topics—some 750 of them over 20-plus years—were highly respected and influential in shaping U.S. science and technology policy.
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Poster Ingenuity

In a sea of posters at a chemistry conference it is hard to stand out from the crowd. But graduate student Natalia Shustova of Colorado State University managed to do so at the combination 19th International Symposium on Fluorine Chemistry/3rd International Symposium on Fluorous Technologies this week with a 3-D presentation. Shustova’s research is on encapsulating metal atoms inside fullerenes that have fluorinated groups on the surface. She made a hemispheric fullerene model out of colored poster board, leaving the fullerene structure’s hexagons in place but cutting out the pentagons. In that way the scandium atoms trapped inside the fullerene, represented by balloons, were visible. She placed the details of her research on pieces of paper mounted on the hexagons. In the photo, Shustova chats with Konrad Seppelt of Free University of Berlin.

Pictures from an Exposition



Every exposition at a national ACS meeting is a wonder of magnitude, logistics, specialty knowledge, personalities, marketing and promotion innovations (and desperations), and business diversity. The microculture of the journals and book industry, for example, is so different from that of the lab automation industry. For me, though, the biggest draw at each Expo is the opportunity to browse the material culture of the laboratory. It’s a  menagerie of forms and textures and designs that I revel in the way I might be amazed and amused by the biological forms, textures and designs on display at a zoo. And I particularly like to snap a macro lens onto my camera. This accoutrement provides me with a sort of low-power-microscope perspective on the gala. With that point of view, it’s the details, the components, of the mass spectrometers, x-ray diffractometers, calorimetry systems, automated sample handlers, and other laboratory instruments and furnishings that come to the fore. This act of abstraction also reveals how the result of design and material choice so often brings with it, not so much on purpose as by consequence, arresting aesthetic appeal.

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Time Out

Organizers of the fluorine conferences taking place in Grand Teton National Park this week did a lot of thinking ahead when planning the technical sessions. Fluorine meetings tend to be a bit relaxed, and fluorine chemists a bit verbose, with speakers running over their allotted time and ensuing discussions dragging things out even further. But with so many lectures on the schedule, the organizers knew they had to keep speakers on time.
Typically a session chair at a conference will give a little warning to the speaker or stand up when their time is running out. At the fluorine conferences the organizers are trying a different approach: electronic timers. A clock is set by a conference staff member at the beginning of a talk, so that the speaker sees exactly how much time they have remaining. A beeper goes off with five minutes remaining, and again when time runs out.
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Cal/OSHA Investigates UCLA, Again

(Post updated at end.)

The University of California, Los Angeles, is still under the microscope of state regulators. California Division of Occupational Safety & Health (Cal/OSHA) officials paid the school’s chemistry & biochemistry department a surprise visit on Tuesday, Aug. 26.

Cal/OSHA spokesperson Erika Monterroza says that the inspection marked the opening of a new investigation into laboratory health & safety at the university, although she refused to comment on the details of the investigation while it is ongoing, including what prompted it. California law gives Cal/OSHA six months to complete investigations, although the agency usually takes 3-4 months, Monterroza says.
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Fluorine With A Flourish

This week the 19th International Symposium on Fluorine Chemistry and the 3rd International Symposium on Fluorous Technologies are taking place jointly at Jackson Lake Lodge in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Imagine taking a premier collection of scientific presentations and holding them in a vacation setting, and that is what we have here.
Some 300 of the world’s leading fluorine chemists are in attendance, representing 24 different countries. Besides great chemistry, what drew these scientists to the conference is the backdrop of the Grand Teton Mountain Range. The mountains are a constant presence, mesmerizing. People flock to the front of the lodge and just stand in the Rocky Mountain sunshine and rarified air and stare. It doesn’t matter if you have stared at the Tetons before; you can’t help coming back for more.
Then there is the threat of wildlife at any moment—grizzly and black bears, moose, elk, pronghorn antelope, and wolves. Even on the first night of the conference a brown bat got into the lodge and swooped over people’s heads. Of course big animal sightings are rare and most people settle for watching squirrels and song birds. Then they look up at the Tetons again.
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German Scandal: Paying For The PhD Title

If you’re a wannabe doctoral student, picking a good topic and supervisor is a pretty important thing, but would you pay thousands of Euros for this?

Germany’s academic community is being rocked by investigations by the city of Cologne’s public prosecutor into a now insolvent consulting firm that connected students with professors at fees of up to €20,000. Professors taking in the students would receive €4,000 for their open door policy–a double payment for supervisory services already being compensated for by their academic salaries.

Now the public prosecutor is investigating over a hundred lecturers, instructors and professors from all over Germany, and from a wide spectrum of disciplines, under suspicions that they received bribes to accept and then graduate possibly undeserving students. According to der Spiegel

, it’s the latest investigation in to the consulting firm, (Institut für Wissenschaftsberatung or Institute for Academic Consultancy), whose managing director was sentenced last year to three and a half years in prison for bribing a University of Hannover law professor.

Annette Schavan, Germany’s minister of education, said publically on Sunday that if the accusations are verified to be true, Germany’s academic credibility could be damaged. Um, yeah.

Der Spiegel

has got a good piece on the whole bribing backstory here…

Hat tip: Chemistry World

Looking Back At The National Meeting

With the ACS national meeting in my own backyard this year, I appreciated that fact that I didn’t have to travel very far. But I also wondered whether that would impact my ability get good photos.

When I’m in a new city, my senses are heightened, and I experience the world in a different way than I normally would. I guess that’s why ACS keeps the meetings moving from year to year—to keep them fresh and exciting. On the other hand, forcing myself to see Washington, D.C., in a new light brought this meeting to a new level of satisfaction.

Here are some things that caught my attention:

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