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Archive → September, 2009

What's In Your Fridge?

HOLD YOUR NOSE George Preti of Monell Chemical Senses Center has been collecting samples of human odor for a long time.

WAY COOL TOXIN LIBRARY The late chemical ecologist John Daly showing a visitor to his NIH lab in 2006 what probably is the world's most important collection of amphibian toxins.

Refrigerators tell you a lot about their owners. They also tell you a lot about a laboratory in which the appliances reside. That’s why I always love seeing what’s inside the fridge, or freezer, when I visit a laboratory for a story I am writing. My last raid on a scientist’s freezer was last month during a visit to Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia for an article that will appear in the October 12 issue of C&EN. During the visit, I had the pleasure, albeit a seriously malodorous one, of peering inside a freezer in the laboratory of George Preti, who studies the nature of human odor. One of his goals is to eke medically valuable information from people’s personal perfumes. The picture I took of Preti’s fridge reminded me of another fridge photo opp that I grabbed a few years ago, that one in the lab of the late chemical ecologist and amphibian toxin researcher John Daly of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (http://pubs.acs.org/cen/science/84/8426sci1.html). And now I invite you to send me your own photos of the contents of your laboratory fridges and freezers. Please send them my way (i_amato@acs.org) with a description of what’s inside and the scientific pursuits that those contents support. I’m betting I can eke a story out of what comes into my inbox.

Soul Count

Eduardo Paolozzi's statue of Sir Isaac Newton at the British Library in London

Eduardo Paolozzi's statue of Sir Isaac Newton at the British Library in London

I recently reviewed The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science

by Richard Holmes in C&EN. Here is an excerpt from the review about a fascinating moment in one of Holmes’ footnotes:

“England also supplies the author with his metaphor—romanticism, the echo of which still rings loudly today, welcome or not. Holmes notes a conference entitled “The Idea of Creativity in Science and the Humanities” at the Royal Society in November 2000, at which Coleridge’s assertion that “the souls of 500 Newtons would go to the making up of a Shakespeare or Milton” elicited the following outburst from an unnamed scientist: “That is complete and utter balls.

… We don’t have to put up with such rubbish.” Feathers were smoothed, Holmes notes, when it was suggested that Coleridge was only making a mathematical joke on the impossibility of computing the content of souls.”

Among the feathered creatures in the room were Richard Dawkins and Ian McEwan.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, aged twenty-two by Pieter van Dyke

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, aged twenty-two by Pieter van Dyke

Coleridge, of course, was making no such joke. Here is the quote in context [the first bracketed part is from memory, filling in an ellipsis].    


“My Opinion is this—that deep Thinking is attainable only by a man of deep Feeling, and that all Truth is a species of Revelation. The more I understand of Sir Isaac Newton’s works, the more boldly I dare utter to my own mind [, and thus yours,] that I believe the Souls of 500 Sir Isaac Newtons would go to the making up of a Shakspere [sic] or a Milton… Mind in his [Newton’s] system is always passive—a lazy Looker-on on an external World. If the mind be not passive, if it be indeed made in God’s Image, & that too in the sublimest sense—the image of the Creator—there is ground for suspicion, that any system built on the passiveness of the mind must be false, as a system.”~Letter to Thomas Poole, 23 March 1801


Ah, but wasn’t it Coleridge who also said:


“All Science is necessarily prophetic, so truly so, that the power of prophecy is the test, the infallible criterion, by which any presumed Science is ascertained to be actually & verily science. The Ptolemaic Astronomy was barely able to prognosticate a lunar eclipse; with Kepler and Newton came Science and Prophecy.”~On the Constitution of the Church and State (1830).

I love the idea of reconciling these thoughts. And the book is tremendous, explicating what Coleridge (a chemistry enthusiast, as it turns out) called the “second scientific revolution”. Skip my review and read the book, which has excellent footnotes.


A Calm Voice Spouting Climate Change Denial BS

Why is game theorist Bjorn Lomborg continually allowed a forum in our most respected newspapers to spout his anti-global warming claptrap? I understand why the Wall Street Journal prints him—he claims he’s an economist making a rational, economic argument against stringent regulation of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, and the Journal reveres economists, even phony ones.

Monday’s Washington Post, the most illiberal newspaper in the U.S. with a reputation for being liberal, featured Lomborg’s arguments on its Op-Ed page. Lomborg cites a study by an economist, Richard Tol, that purports to find that it will cost $46 trillion to avoid expected climate damage costing just $1.1 trillion. Apart from the fact that economists, unlike scientists, can find that just about anything will cost just about anything, the study hasn’t been published yet. So we can’t even check the methodology.

Lomborg insists that continued, nearly unregulated burning of fossil fuels must continue so that the world’s population can continue to enjoy the benefits of nearly unlimited energy from burning fossilized sunshine. Fossilized sunshine that, eventually, is going to run out. Lomborg concludes his essay: “To put it bluntly: Despite their good intentions, the activists, lobbyists and politicians making a last-ditch push for hugely expensive carbon-cut promises could easily end up doing hundreds of times more damage to the planet than coal ever could.”

This is arrant nonsense. It equates human well being with the health of the planet Earth. As we are going to discover in brutal fashion in coming decades as Earth’s environment degrades under the weight of human economic activity, human well being very much depends on the health of the Earth, but the planet couldn’t care less about human well being.

Lomborg is part of the climate change denial cabal that, I wrote recently, work to sow doubt and make up statistics. He’s not as over-the-top as Sen. James M. Imhofe (R-Okla.); in fact, he’s sweet reasonableness. His message is just as contemptible, though, and I don’t understand why he’s become the most respectable of a disrespectable lot.

Do R01’s Stifle Collaboration?

At the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award Symposium last week, a roundtable discussion about innovation evolved into something else entirely – a conversation about whether the mechanisms behind the R01, NIH’s traditional and most popular research project grant, actually discourage collaboration among research teams.
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Pharmaceuticals Issue

This week’s issue is C&EN’s annual pharmaceuticals issue, timed in part to coincide with the CPhI conference to be held in mid-October in Madrid. The issue will be distributed to conference attendees at C&EN’s booth at CPhI.

The cover package of two stories by Senior Correspondent Ann Thayer focuses on the effort against the novel H1N1 flu virus that emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, earlier this year. In June, the World Health Organization declared the 2009 H1N1 virus a “level 6 pandemic,” meaning that a new virus not previously circulating in humans is being rapidly transmitted.

So far, the flu symptoms caused by the novel H1N1 virus are relatively mild and clear up in about a week without any treatment. Still, as Thayer writes, “The new virus causes more healthy young people to get sick and even die, compared with seasonal flu.” And because no one has any immunity to the virus, WHO estimates that as many as 2 billion people could become infected over the next two years.
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Pioneering Minds

A noble metal nanostructure interacts with blue light. (Courtesy Teri Odom)

Scientific risk takers are taking to the podium at the National Institutes of Health, where the fifth annual NIH Director’s Pioneer Award Symposium kicked off yesterday. The Pioneer Awards reward outside-the-box research ideas, and more than a few chemists were in this year’s lineup of presenters (these researchers won awards in 2008, and the 2009 awardees were announced yesterday morning). I’m at NIH through today to learn more about the awardees, and it seemed to me that many of the chemists in the lineup had some kind of “nano” bent to their research. I asked Northwestern’s Teri Odom, a 2008 Pioneer Awardee, what she thought about that.

Nano’s presence makes sense because the nanoscale is an excellent one for probing biological processes, Odom, a materials scientist, says. People couldn’t easily access the nanoscale before, but now that they can, “it’s a direction a lot of people want to move in,” she says. It’s something she’s interested in as well- Odom is developing metal nanostructures for resolving subcellular structures in 3D, without any fluorescent or other labels.

After making the cut to win a highly competitive grant, NIH had one more challenge for the 2008 Pioneer AWardees– tell audience members about your work in ten minutes or less. National Institute of General Medical Sciences director Jeremy Berg, who is moderating the symposium, called it “the lightning round”.
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A New Kind Of Pillbox

One presentation at the U.S. Pharmacopeia meeting that particularly caught my attention on Tuesday was given by David Hale, a technical information specialist at the National Library of Medicine. He’s been working on a project called Pillbox, which involves building a database of high-resolution images of pharmaceutical tablets and capsules combined with FDA-approved labeling information and making it all publicly available on the Internet. NLM released the site to the public today.

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Idiots Run Amok

Frequent correspondent Neal Gussman recommended the new book “Idiot America” by Charles P. Pierce in a comment he wrote on one of my editorials on climate change. In his comment, Neal wrote that Pierce “shows how the people who fought the link between smoking and cancer gave those who fight global warming a playbook.”

I picked up a copy of “Idiot America” on Neal’s recommendation, and just finished reading it. It’s not really a subject for a book review in C&EN because it’s more about politics and right-wing extremists than it is about science. But there’s a good deal of science in it. Pierce writes on the evolution/creationism clash, the Terri Schiavo debacle, and global warming.

“Idiot America” is a serious, funny, angry book by a veteran reporter who takes political debate seriously. ACS members and other C&EN readers who don’t like my editorials won’t like “Idiot America.”

A sample: “How does [Idiot America] work? This is how it works. On August 11, 2005, a newspaper account of the intelligent design movement contained this remarkable sentence:

“They have mounted a politically savvy challenge to evolution as the bedrock of modern biology, propelling a fringe academic movement onto the front pages and putting Darwin’s defenders firmly on the defensive.

“‘A politically savvy challenge to evolution’ makes as much sense as conducting a Gallup poll on gravity or running someone for president on the Alchemy party ticket. It doesn’t matter what percentage of people believe that they ought to be able to flap their arms and fly: none of them can. … The sentence is so arrantly foolish that the only real news in it is where it appeared.

“On the front page.

“Of the New York Times.”

Well worth reading.