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Flame Challenge 2014

A love of chemistry burns deep in the heart of Robert E. Buntrock. So much so, the American Chemical Society emeritus member will be fanning the flame of his love for the GlobCasino in the 2014 Flame Challenge.

This annual challenge, which is entering its third year of sponsorship by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science (CCS) at Stony Brook University, SUNY, and the second year of sponsorship by

This year's question for scientists to answer is

This year’s question for scientists to answer is “What is color?” Credit: Shutterstock

ACS and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, asks scientists to answer a seemingly simple scientific question in such a way that an 11-year-old can understand. This year’s question is “What is color?”

“Color is very important to me,” Buntrock says. “It helped attract me to chemistry.” So composing his essay shouldn’t be too difficult. The twist: He’s having his grandson’s fifth-grade class prejudge his entry. “My draft has exactly 300 words. We’ll see how much survives my critics,” he says.

Patrick Allen, who teaches Buntrock’s grandson Brody at Asa C. Adams Elementary School, in Orono, Maine, has signed up his fifth-grade class to judge Flame Challenge entries, so they will be practicing, too, when Buntrock visits them next week with his entry.

The annual competition began in 2012 when Alan Alda posed the question “What is a flame?” to scientists around the world because when he was 11-years-old he asked the question to his science teacher and wasn’t satisfied with the technical answer he received. The challenge question for the past two years has been decided by 11-year-olds across the world. This year, more than 800 questions were submitted by students.

Scientists can answer the question either in written form (no more than 300 words) or in visual or video format (less than 6 minutes), and entries are due by March 1.

In developing his entry, Buntrock has an extensive scientific background from which to draw. He is a semiretired chemist who does chemical information consulting and book reviews under the company name Buntrock Associates. He graduated with a B.S. in chemistry from the University of Minnesota in 1962, and he earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from Princeton University in 1967. Before starting his company, Buntrock worked in industry for nearly 30 years at Air Products & Chemicals and Amoco Corp. A successful researcher, he holds three patents and has almost 200 publications.

With such an accomplished science career, Buntrock can’t wait to join in the Flame Challenge excitement. “I may have so much fun,” he says, “that I’ll enter again” next year.

Aaaaaand They’re Off: The 2013 World Cell Race Results

Today’s post is by Nader Heidari, an associate editor at C&EN who loves watching cells race and paint dry.

On Nov. 22, cells raced down ultrathin channels, vying for the position of fastest cell in the 2013 World Cell Race. At speeds of up to 300 micrometers/hour, cells blew down the maze-like track, running into dead ends and occasionally getting confused and turning around. Many cell lines didn’t finish, but glory came to those who did.

This year’s victor (shown in the race video above) was MDA MB 231 s1, a human breast cancer cell line from Alexis Gautreau of the Laboratory of Enzymology & Structural Biochemistry, in France. Gautreau will receive a €400 voucher (that’s about $650) from Ibidi, one of the event’s sponsors. The winning cells weren’t the fastest, nor were they the smartest, but they prevailed because of their persistence and because they got a good head-start by entering the maze of channels more quickly than their competitors. Slow and steady wins the race!

In second place was MFH 152, a sarcoma cell line from Mohamed Jemaà in Ariane Abrieu’s lab at the Research Center for Macromolecular Biochemistry, in France. Although they were fast and accurate, these cells took too long to actually start the race, falling behind MDA MB 231, according to the race organizers.

Cell-racing fans don’t have to wait until late next year for another dose of mitochondria-pumping action: The organizers are looking to start the first “Dicty World Race,” tentatively scheduled for March 21, 2014. The stars of this show would be Dictyostelium,

a type of slime mold. So keep an eye out for some pedal-to-the-flagella protist action!

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Cellular NASCAR

XPRIZE Competition Poses Ocean Acidity Challenge

Today’s post is by Puneet Kollipara, intern at C&EN and an aquatic acidity aficionado.

Current ocean-chemistry monitoring instruments, such as this buoy that NOAA deployed in the Arctic Ocean, can be expensive or have limitations on their reliability. Recently NOAA partnered with XPRIZE in launching a competition that will award $2 million for the development of cheap and reliable pH sensors. Credit: NOAA

NOAA recently deployed this ocean-chemistry-monitoring buoy in the Arctic Ocean. To cut down on costs and improve reliability, NOAA has partnered with XPRIZE to launch a $2 million competition to develop cheap, reliable pH sensors. Credit: NOAA

Humans pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, but not all of it stays in the air. About one-fourth of the released carbon dioxide dissolves into the oceans, where it has been lowering the global average pH of seawater and thereby threatening aquatic ecosystems.

Unfortunately, the ocean is as complex as it is spacious, and ocean pH doesn’t change uniformly across its depth. To get the full picture, scientists need a lot of data, but current techniques for monitoring ocean pH are generally expensive, aren’t always reliable, and can’t go very deep underwater. Right now, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), for instance, has 18 ocean-chemistry monitors at various locations—more than anyone else in the world—but none of these sensors takes measurements below surface waters. “As you can imagine, that does not really represent the global oceans very well,” says Christopher L. Sabine, an oceanographer at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory.

A 22-month competition launched by the XPRIZE Foundation, a nonprofit aiming to spur technological innovation for society’s betterment, seeks to change that. The newly announced $2 million Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE calls on innovators of all stripes, both professional and amateur, to design better pH-measurement technologies. “The idea with the XPRIZE is to develop robust, inexpensive sensors that can be deployed much more easily,” says Sabine, whose NOAA lab is partnering with XPRIZE for the competition.

Half of the $2 million prize will be awarded for the development of an affordable, reliable sensor, Sabine says. The other half will go toward a system that can accurately profile pH changes, including at great depths; such an instrument might start deep in the ocean and take real-time measurements as it’s lifted to the surface.

Continue reading →

Flame Challenge 2: And The Winners Are

Some 20,000 11-year-olds voted to determine the winners of the Flame Challenge 2 competition. Depending on the format of scientists’ responses to this year’s question, “What is time?” entries were categorized as written or visual. Nicholas Williams, a retired scientist who spent 33 years working at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), and ACS member Steven Maguire, a Ph.D. candidate in inorganic catalysis at the University of Ottawa, in Ontario, were recognized as the winners on June 2 at the World Science Festival, in New York City.

Both winners have experience communicating science, which is the goal of the competition. Williams, the winner of the written category, continues to work with LLNL through its “Fun with Science” outreach program. About teaching science, Williams says, “Teach so it makes sense. Teach so it can be understood. Teach so it can be remembered.” And this he did in his entry. He begins his prose mimicking a nagging parent and their child, “Time to go to school, time to clean your room, time to do this, time to do that.” No wonder 11-year-olds like his answer: He immediately relates to their world before he gets to the tough stuff.

Maguire, winner of the visual category, hosts a Web series, “Science Isn’t Scary.” In each video clip, he answers a science question that seems complicated, but by the end of the explanation Maguire has helped the viewer better understand the science behind how or why something works. His series is essentially mini Flame Challenges, so he has experience explaining scientific concepts to an audience in a way that they’ll understand.

According to the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, a division of Stony Brook University, in New York, and one of the sponsors of the Flame Challenge, there will be another question from 11-year-olds for scientists to answer in 2014. If you know an 11-year-old who has a suggestion for the Flame Challenge 3, submit their question here.

In Print: Mission to Mars, Molecular Fashion

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.

Meet Anders. He’s 51 and Swedish. He’s also one of more than 78,000 people who have applied to take a one-way trip to Mars.


Red rocks: Rendering of Mars One settlement. Credit: Bryan Versteeg/Mars One

As this week’s Newscripts column explores, Netherlands-based “nonprofit” Mars One is currently soliciting applications from individuals interested in traveling to the Red Planet in 2023 and never returning. Approximately 28 to 40 applicants will be chosen from the pool of applicants to participate in a reality show in which they will train for seven years for the mission. An audience vote will then help determine the four people who will ultimately go where no man has gone before.

There is a video portion to the application that requires applicants, such as Anders, to tell a little bit about themselves and explain their reasons for wanting to travel to a foreign planet. Many of these videos are posted to the Mars One website, and what’s most striking about them is the general lack of enthusiasm many of these applicants have when discussing the opportunity to go to Mars. “I’ve often fantasized to just get on board a spaceship and go to explore the universe. I often get the feeling that I don’t belong here, but out there, in space,” the aforementioned Anders says, without so much as a smile. Continue reading →

Flame Challenge 2: The Answers Are In

Tick-tock: Time's up for entering the contest. Credit: Shutterstock

Tick-tock: Time’s up for entering the contest.
Credit: Shutterstock

Last year, actor and science advocate Alan Alda and the Center for Communicating Science, sponsored the inaugural Flame Challenge by asking scientists around the world to answer “What is a flame?” so that an 11-year-old could understand. This year, the American Chemical Society and the American Association for Advancement of Science have joined in on the sponsorship, and the question scientists have been asked to answer is, “What is time?”

Nearly 20,000 students from around the world have voted on the hundreds of submissions that made it through an initial screening by trained scientists, and the six best answers–three videos and three written responses–have been unveiled on the Flame Challenge website. The finalists each use unique examples to explain time. Some mention Einstein’s theory of relativity, some go into the details of the space-time continuum, and some rely on time being an invented concept that keeps track of events. One thing mentioned in each entry: time only has one direction and that’s forward.

Registered schools can vote for their favorite answers until May 5. This year, rather than recognizing one overall winner, the best entry for each format will be recognized. That will happen at an event on June 2 at the World Science Festival, in New York City.

I’d Like To Thank The Academy, Nay, Harvey Weinstein

You’re Bradley Cooper. People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive in 2011. Comedic heartthrob from “The Hangover,” “Wedding Crashers,” Alias, and “Wet Hot American Summer.” But now, almost suddenly, you’ve starred in the dramedy “Silver Linings Playbook,” which garnered you an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. So you have to write a thank you speech, you know, just in case. Where do you begin?!

One good place to start is a website created by Rebecca Rolfe–a master’s student at Georgia Tech who is studying verbal and physical expression of gratitude. Rolfe watched and analyzed all 207 available (out of 300 total) Oscar acceptance speeches since 1953. Not only does her website help write a speech and compare it with those of past Oscar winners, but it also provides the data to answer questions such as: How often do people cry during their acceptance speeches? How many winners thank their publicists before thanking their moms? And who indulges in the time-honored tradition of being cut off by the conductor?

Here’s a sampling of stats the Newscripts gang found intriguing:

- Despite the omnipresent Oscars phrase, “I’d like to thank the Academy,” only 40% of winners actually thank the Academy. To give some perspective, 48% thank their families.

- Although 21% of actors and actresses get a little teary, they’ve only gone soft recently — 71% of Oscar tears have been shed since 1995.

- 61% thanked their production reps. In fact, Harvey Weinstein is the most thanked person in the history of Oscar speeches. By comparison, 5% thanked God. And coming in close behind at 3% is “everybody” — that’s us!

- Winners tend to get increasingly personal over the course of their speech, with 40% choosing to thank their families toward the end.

Screen shot from Rebecca Rolfe's website.

Screen shot from Rebecca Rolfe’s website.


















Continue reading →

2012 Visualization Challenge Winners Announced

It only takes some YouTubers being in the right place at the right time to prove how ridiculously far owls can rotate their heads — up to 270 degrees in either direction, in fact. But it took a team of neurological imaging experts and medical illustrators to figure out both how this flexibility feat is anatomically possible and how to effectively illustrate it.

The Johns Hopkins University team took first place in the poster and graphics portion of the International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge competition, which was sponsored by Science magazine and the National Science Foundation. Led by medical illustrator Fabian de Kok-Mercado, now at Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the team used angiography, X-ray imaging, and CT scans to study the bone structure and vasculature of the heads and necks of snowy, barred, and great-horned owls.















Their study shows that owls’ transverse foramina–the holes in the vertebrae that allow arteries to line the spine–are much larger than the blood vessels, allowing more wiggle room for twisting and turning. And they found blood-pooling mechanisms and backup arteries that help direct blood to the brain when the main arteries are pinched in the turning process.

The People’s Choice award in the same posters and graphics portion of the competition goes to designers who are likely SimCity fans. Or perhaps it was the voters who are fans of the city-building video game series? We digress. A team from the European Centre for Environment & Human Health at the University of Exeter Medical School and Plymouth University designed an entire town to represent possible routes to sustainable pharmaceutical use:  Continue reading →