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In Print: Chemistry Labs Sound Like Music

The Newscripts blog would like to be closer Internet buddies with our glossy print Newscripts column, so here we highlight what’s going on in the current issue of C&EN.

Sticking with the music theme from yesterday’s Newscripts blog post, C&EN Senior Editor Linda Wang explores how chemistry instruments are turning into chemistry instrumentals in this week’s print edition of Newscripts. While Linda wasn’t able to cover the entire breadth of chemistry-inspired music currently popping up online (such as the above piece from musical act Boy in a Band), she was able to profile John LaCava.

LaCava, a musician and biology research associate at Rockefeller University who describes himself as “just a young punk from the wrong side of the tracks” who “got sucked into science while studying biotechnology at MassBay Community College” (you know, like all hoodlums), posts music he and his bandmates create using lab equipment such as centrifuges and magnetic stir bars to the website Sounds of Science. Click here to check out some of their mad beats, including Linda’s favorite, “96 Tubes.”

Taking a step back into the past, Linda’s column also discusses recent research into a proposed method for preserving China’s Terra-Cotta Army Warriors. The clay sculptures that were buried with the first Chinese emperor long ago as a means of protecting him in the afterlife are at risk of deterioration caused by air pollutants and heat. To combat this problem, researchers suggest using instruments similar to air conditioners to form a protective “air curtain” around the sculptures.

“I think it’s a fantastic idea!” says Linda. “I don’t mind having the invisible curtain if it means others will be able to enjoy the relics for years to come.”

So, as Linda puts it, “if you’re interested in making music with science or using science to aid in cultural preservation, this Newscripts column may be just for you!”

Celebrating Pi: Don’t Try This at Home

Do you remember what you did on Pi Day last Thursday (3/14)? American Chemical Society (ACS) student affiliates from Duquesne University, in Pittsburgh, took the opportunity to “pi” their professors (literally) and made a short video about it:

And on a related note, if you think reading the digits in pi will take forever, check out this video of a man pronouncing the longest word in the world, which happens to be the chemical name of titin, the largest known protein. (Warning: you’ll need three and a half hours to get through this video, but as a reward, you get to watch this man’s beard grow.)

Fear Of Stink: A Century In The Making

Lurking among us are foolish folks who fork out cash for deodorants even though their armpits don’t smell.

This is the take-home message of an article in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology that’s been making the rounds of science news sites and blogs. It’s a fun study, but the results aren’t really that surprising.

Researchers have known for years that some people in Europe (2% of the population) and most people in China, Japan, and Korea are fortunate enough to have two copies of a recessive gene that makes their armpits relative* stink-free zones.

An anti-sweat advertisement from 1939.

An anti-sweat advertisement from 1939.

That’s because the gene codes for a protein involved in transporting molecules out of special sweat glands that appear in your armpits at puberty. These stink-producing glands are called apocrine glands, and they differ from eccrine glands, which are found all over your body and produce the salty fluid we commonly associate with sweat and body temperature regulation.

Apocrine glands typically excrete all manner of waxy molecules that armpit bacteria love to feast on. It’s the leftover, metabolized molecules, such as trans-3-methyl-2-hexanoic acid, which give many human bodies that oh-so-ripe odor.

Because the difference between stinky and stink-free folks is a gene involved in transporting armpit molecules, it’s pretty likely that people without body odor have a dysfunctional transporter. Although that’s not yet been proven, it’s a reasonable theory.

For example, people with odorless armpits also produce a dry white earwax, instead of a yellowish wet version. Presumably, the transport machinery that isn’t exporting bacteria food in the armpit isn’t exporting a yellowish fluid in the ears either.

What’s really new in the article is simply the observation that among the 2% of folks in the UK who probably don’t need to apply deodorant, 78% still do.

OK, so why is this not really surprising? Continue reading →

Chemistry, Gangnam Style

Can’t get the “Gangnam Style” song out of your head? Well, for some chemistry students at Shaker Heights High School, near Cleveland, Ohio, the song just might come in handy for their next chemistry exam.

Check out “Molecules Gone Wild (Bio Style),” chemistry teacher Mr. Hsu’s version of Korean pop sensation PSY’s viral hit. The link was sent to us by Alex Madonik of the American Chemical Society’s California Section, who is an alumni of Shaker Heights.

Happy Friday!

Amusing News Aliquots

Silly samplings from this week’s science news, compiled by Bethany Halford and Lauren Wolf.

Look delicious? You never know where it might have come from. Credit: Flickr user cathou_cathare

Where some see a stinky armpit, this Ph.D. student saw a novel method for making cheese. [Improbable Research]

Latex condoms? So five minutes ago. The new hotness is electrospun nanofiber condoms. [PopSci]

Bad news for those of us who have lost our sense of smell from breathing the air in the organic lab: Scientists say a strong sense of smell is key to a happy relationship. [Daily Mail]

New study, completed in Turkey, shows that treating gum disease also improves erectile dysfunction. Newscripts wonders whether the researchers did a control for bad breath simply keepin’ the ladies away. [Vitals/NBCNews]

A nice explainer on the perils of moonshine and drinking oneself blind. [Slate]

Experiment from 1995 finds that cowboy boots impart less balance to subjects than tennis shoes. Give those researchers some more funds! [Discoblog]

Making Art With Numbers … And Molecular Formulas

Sienna Morris absorbs science and math the way some people suck down Red Bull energy drinks. Her craving is intense, and once she’s taken in some new tidbit of knowledge, it fuels her while she works.

A glow-in-the-dark version of Morris’ “Bioluminescence” piece with fireflies. Credit: Sienna Morris

Morris, a Portland, Ore.-based artist, has created a series of pieces that she describes as being “made with science.” This pronouncement, in fact, is what caught my attention while I was strolling through the Portland Saturday Market on a summer vacation to Oregon. Being the geek that I am, I couldn’t pass by a booth adorned with such an advertisement and not investigate.

What I found was some wonderfully inventive art done with a technique Morris calls numberism. When viewed from a distance, one of Morris’ pieces might look like a detailed drawing of a cat, but when you move closer, you discover, this is no ordinary cat. It’s Schrödinger’s Cat. And the lines of its fur are made of letters and numbers—the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle drawn over and over to meld together and form the larger piece.

Morris says she started out using numberism  in 2008 as a way to draw a four-dimensional moment. Her first piece that was constructed this way, called “Falling To Pieces,” depicts the faces of two lovers about to kiss. The faces are made by mashing together the numbers of the clock; the digits stream away from the edges of the faces and trail off in smoky wisps.

This was “a well-lived moment,” in her life, Morris says. She wanted to capture it in space as well as in time. “The numbers are coming in and going out to remind us that time’s constantly changing,” she says.

The science and math pieces started about two years after this initial foray into numberism. Morris had been inspired to learn more about the subjects by her husband, Tabulanis, who is a designer and physics enthusiast.

Now, a handful of her science art even contains chemistry. In one piece, a woman blows out the flame on a candle, which is constructed from an average molecular formula for paraffin wax (C25H52).

In another piece, a little girl examines a jar full of fireflies. The bellies of the insects are drawn with the formula for a luciferin, a compound involved in the bugs’ luminescence. The glow emitting from the fireflies in the artwork is composed of the digits in the speed of light. Continue reading →

Chem Coach Carnival – Science Writing

Happy Mole Day, and happy National Chemistry Week! Today, I’m heeding SeeArrOh’s call to contribute a post to his blog carnival, the Chem Coach carnival. The theme is chemistry career paths.

My current job:
I’m a senior editor at Chemical & Engineering News magazine. That title is confusing, however. I really am a science writer, not an editor. My home base is the ACS building in downtown Washington DC. (I can see the White House from my office window). I write everything from 1500-word cover stories to 140 character tweets. I also work on videos and other multimedia for C&EN Online.

What I do in a standard “work day”:

I’ve made a pie chart about this for when I give career talks. For someone who makes their living writing, it’s actually not what I spend most of my time doing. I’d classify my most common activity as ‘information gathering’- calling people up, reading the literature, searching grant databases, scanning social media, etc. There is no ‘standard work day’. My week revolves around getting the magazine out, but that’s the basic skeleton around which I fit all my tasks.

What kind of schooling / training / experience helped me get there:
I could tell you how I became a science writer, but that wouldn’t be very useful information in isolation, because just about every science writer I know took a different path to get there. If you’re really interested in doing what I do, go to Ed Yong’s fantastic Not Exactly Rocket Science blog and read all the ‘how I got there’ tales from science writers there. (I’m number 108 on the list). I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that science writing jobs are TOUGH to get these days, especially if you have your heart set on working at a newspaper or newsstand magazine. If your goal is to write for a government agency, university, or institute, you may have more opportunities, though it’s not exactly the land of milk and honey there either. Finally, a lot of my science writer friends have at some point worked as freelancers. Many go back and forth between freelancing and staff gigs. If you are uncomfortable with the idea of running your own business at some point in your career, this may not be the path for you.

How chemistry informs my work:
I once had an editor that likened my chemistry Ph.D. to a language degree. That is the best way I can describe how my training helps me do my job. I’m exposed to corners of chemistry and aspects of chemists’ lives I never encountered in the lab (origin-of-life research, the vagaries of grant overhead, etc.) But at the end of the day I understand the basics of how a lab is run, and how science is done. Great science reporters know these things no matter what their academic background- but I think some chemists I talk to appreciate that I’m “in the club”.

Finally, a unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about my career:
Not long after joining C&EN, my dad got a phone call from his mom (my grandma). I hadn’t mentioned my new job to her at that point. Grandma said she’d heard from Eddie, a long-ago neighbor from the 80s, asking if I was writing about chemistry for C&EN. (He remembered meeting 6-year-old me many years ago.) My dad said, “yup, that’s her.” And then my grandma dropped the bombshell– “Eddie” is 1999 ACS President Edel Wasserman. So I can probably say I made contact with ACS at a younger age than any of C&EN’s staff.

Playing With Science: Djerassi’s Latest ‘Chemistry-Centric’ Play Debuts In London

Bubbleology in practice: Tim Dutton (left) plays Polish chemist Jerzy Krzyz with Walter van Dyk as chemistry chair Leo Hamble. Credit: Andy Jordan Productions

This post was written by Alex Scott, senior editor for C&EN’s business department, who is based in Europe.

Smudged diagrams of chemicals on a white board, a desk overflowing with research papers and scientific journals: This might be a typical chemist’s office you’ve just walked into. Except it isn’t—it’s the set of “Insufficiency,” a whodunnit with a chemistry-centric plot and the ninth play by Carl Djerassi, the Austrian-American chemist and playwright. The play just started a four-week run in London’s Riverside Theatre and is being well-received.

Djerassi, the inventor of the oral contraceptive pill, who is now 88, has set his play around the workings of a U.S. university chemistry department. The audience is a fly on the wall to the frustration and ambition of key players in the department and becomes the jury when Polish chemist Jerzy Krzyz is tried for a double murder.

In “Insufficiency,” Djerassi informs the audience about the process of science, topical issues such as funding, scientific objectivity, obsession with results, subsequent pressure to publish results, and how personalities and relationships can get in the way of everything scientific.

Bringing science into a play and presenting scientific concepts to the general public is an approach that Djerassi describes as his act of “intellectual smuggling.” And he does plenty of smuggling in “Insufficiency,” leading the audience through the development of a new field of science known as bubbleology. We even get to hear about the “fractal surface nature of bubbles” before the head of the chemistry department tells our Polish chemist and would-be murderer, “Enough about bubbles, I’ve got a department to run!”

It’s great to see science being made accessible to a wider audience. Djerassi’s play in London this week drew hoots of laughter and much applause and, undoubtedly, a greater understanding about how scientists go about their work. It’s a play well worth seeing even if science isn’t part of your daily diet. Okay, so C&EN wasn’t one of the scientific journals that appeared on stage strewn about the chemist’s desk, and there was a weird scene toward the end of the play involving a lot of flatulence, but you can’t have everything.

Following the London run of the play, there will be dramatic readings of “Insufficiency” next month at the University of Wisconsin, Kenyon College, in Gambier, Ohio, and at the Technical University of Berlin in December. For more details, go to www.djerassi.com/schedule.