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In Print: Racing Cells, Baby Dinos

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

Microscopic organisms, start your engines! The second World Cell Race is upon us. Doping and steroids in the form of genetic modifications and unusual cell types are welcome in this competition to create the fastest and smartest cellular contestant.

Cell walls: Time-lapse photos show the (relatively) fast progress of a cell through the maze. Credit: Daniel Irima

Cell walls: Composite time-lapse photo shows the (relatively) fast progress of a cell through the maze. Credit: Daniel Irimia

As C&EN associate editor Nader Heidari writes in this week’s print column, this year’s World Cell Race will be held on Nov. 22 at the BioMEMS Resource Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston (watch the live broadcast here). The cited purpose of the race is to inspire discussion about how cell motility plays a role in health and disease. The Newscripts gang also wouldn’t be surprised if cell biologists were champing at the bit to enter a (relatively) high-speed racing contest.

Unlike the inaugural World Cell Race in 2011 that featured a linear track, this year’s race will force champion-hopefuls to navigate a maze-like course. Creating “smart” cells that don’t just Roomba their way into a dead end will add another dimension of design complexity. Nader says the organizers haven’t entirely revealed just how these souped-up cells are expected to make wise decisions on their paths to victory, but he’s putting his money on stem cells. “They’re pretty fast,” Nader says. “Some went up to 5ish µm a minute! This next contest will have molds, however, so we’ll see how they compare, even though they’ll need special tracks because of their size.”

The second part of Nader’s Newscripts discusses a keen-eyed teen who was first to spot a fossil on his high school’s trip to Utah’s Grand Staircaise-Escalante National Monument in 2009.

While traipsing through rock formations on an exploratory trip led by paleontologist Andrew A. Farke, high schooler Kevin Terris peeked under a stone and ended up discovering the smallest and most complete fossil of the dinosaur Parasaurolophus

yet. Farke’s research group has been investigating the fossil and has recently published a paper about the baby dino, whom they’ve endearingly nicknamed “Joe.”

And Nader tells the Newscripts gang that the researchers think it’s unlikely they’ll discover anything quite like it again: “Joe’s find is a ridiculously rare glimpse into childhood development of these dinos. It’s crazy to find a relatively complete baby dino fossil, mostly because they tend to be bite-sized morsels for predators and have softer bones that wouldn’t fossilize as well.” Nader adds that the paleontology team “had a very tiny geological window to find and preserve the fossil as well. Farke doesn’t think he’ll ever find another such fossil in his lifetime.”

For now, dino enthusiasts can check out all the news about Joe at dinosaurjoe.org. But if Dr. Farke or any other paleontologists want some help finding more bones, there will always be more kiddos ready to go on a fossil hunt.

Friday chemical safety round up

Chemical health and safety news from the past two weeks:

  • Via in the Pipeline, a method for a flow method to generate diazomethane as you use it
  • Chemjobber discussed using “coupons” to test whether a reaction and reactor are compatible
  • Nitrocellulose won’t explode in a vacuum
  • November’s AiChE Process Safety Beacon discusses process plant operations over holidays
  • The Center for Public Integrity released a package called Breathless and Burdened, “how doctors and lawyers, working at the behest of the coal industry, have helped defeat the benefits claims of miners sick and dying of black lung” (I haven’t read any of it yet, but I have a nice, long plane ride coming up on Sunday)
  • The former president and owner of Port Arthur Chemical & Environmental Services was sentenced to one year in prison for occupational safety crimes that led to the death of truck driver Joey Sutter from exposure to hydrogen sulfide
  • OSHA issued 36 notices of unsafe or unhealthful working conditions to the Crane Army Ammunition Activity after an explosion and fire in a pyrotechnic building injured five workers earlier this year

Fires and exposions:

  • A disilane release started a fire at Voltaix in New Jersey
  • Some sort of chemical leak led to a fire at MWV Specialty Chemicals in South Carolina

Leaks, spills, and other exposures:

  • A methylene chloride leak at DuPont Fayetteville Works in North Carolina sent one unconscious employee plus several others to the hospital
  • Boiling iodine spilled at an Emerson manufacturing facility in New Jersey
  • A drum of an organic peroxide leaked at a facility in Florida
  • “Mixed chemicals caused a reaction” at Carboline in Wisconsin, workers “placed the batch of mixture they were making into six 55 gallon drums and moved them outside”
  • Something spilled and created “noxious fumes” at SynergEyes in California
  • “A small chemical vial in a materials science lab ruptured” in a NASA Langley lab in Virginia, “when employees went to check out the noise they noticed an unusual smell and followed proper emergency protocols”
  • Ammonia–at a PepsiCo plant in Indiana; on the roof of Villari Foods in North Carolina
  • Boron trichloride was released in a University of Tennessee, Knoxville, lab; four students were taken to the hospital for observation
  • “Accidental reaction to waste products from a chemistry experiment” caused a fire at a high school in Tennessee
  • Sriracha hot sauce production is reportedly causing headaches and burning eyes in the Los Angeles area
  • Overdoses of Axe body spray are proving too much for middle school classrooms

Not covered (usually): meth labs; incidents involving floor sealants, cleaning solutions, or pool chemicals; transportation spills; things that happen at recycling centers (dispose of your waste properly, people!); and fires from oil, natural gas, or other fuels

Amusing News Aliquots

Silly samplings from this week’s science news, compiled by Sophia Cai, Bethany Halford, and Jeff Huber.

This pallid bat (Antrozous pallidus) touches down on land to forage for insects, other small invertebrates, and small mammals./Photo courtesy J. Scott Altenbach via Slate


This Halloween, let’s take a moment to celebrate bats. They’re “merciless predators, loyal neighbors, tender mothers, and generous lovers with strange and intimidating tongues … at least one bat species possesses a penis of great and terrifying adaptation.” [Slate]

Some people have bug-searching a little easier. One entomologist (typical!) finds a new tick to research … up his nose. [LiveScience]

Not freaky enough? Here’s what happens when a tick bites you. [Not Exactly Rocket Science]

Babies can recognize lullabies they heard while in the womb. Good thing they can’t speak right after birth, otherwise they’d tell you how sick they are of hearing the same songs over and over again. [ScienceDaily]

Gadget lets your iPhone smell like coffee, flowers, or even steak and potatoes. Only a matter of time before you can smell candy while playing Candy Crush–not just on Halloween. [NPR]

Candy Master Eric Milliken makes monster portraits using Halloween candy, including this "Black Cat." Credit: Eric Millikin/Detroit Free Press

Candy Master Eric Milliken makes “Black Cat” and other portraits using Halloween candy. Credit: Eric Millikin/Detroit Free Press


Man makes portraits of Halloween characters out of candy bags, inadvertently depriving us all of candy. [Detroit Free Press]

World’s largest chicken nugget was born this week, the proud child of a 500-gal deep fryer and 2.5 lb of breading. [Huffington Post]

Woman ticketed for driving while wearing Google Glass. Even the cool nerds can’t win. [SiliconBeat]

Here’s something to freak you out: Tarantula hairs in your eyes. [Seriously, Science?]

But perhaps the scariest of all: North Dakota woman threatens to not give fat trick-or-treating kids candy but instead a letter about obesity. What a witch. [LA Times]



Turning A Hollywood Set Into A Laboratory

Much has been made of the meticulously chosen props that decorate the set of AMC’s “Mad Men.” To bring the 1960s world of Don Draper to life—and to make it believable—set designers have gone above and beyond. The phones and typewriters in the office are vintage, genuine magazines from the era sit on tables, and real expense reports for characters cover the desks. Many of these details are never caught on camera, but the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, insists on them being there to lend “Mad Men” authenticity.

Baldacchini stands in his lab at Newport, posing with the faux JPC A cover. Credit: Courtesy of Tommaso Baldacchini

Baldacchini stands in his lab at Newport, posing with the faux JPC A cover. Credit: Courtesy of Tommaso Baldacchini

I don’t think the same amount of ink has been put to paper describing the set design of CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory.” (Although the show has made a certain chemistry shower curtain quite popular.) But I would contend that bringing to life the apartments, offices, and laboratories of a group of geeky scientists who work at Caltech isn’t an easy job either. Sure, it’s not on the same scale as decorating a 1960s advertising agency, but it still requires some skill to illustrate for the public what academic life looks like.

I recently stumbled upon a scientist in California who has, on occasion, lent a helping hand to make the labs of “Big Bang” realistic. Tommaso Baldacchini works for Newport Corp., a well-known international lasers and optics company that has a facility near Burbank. His “Big Break” with “Big Bang” came when the show introduced the character Amy Farrah Fowler, a neurobiologist played by Mayim Bialik.

The show wanted to shoot Amy in her lab dissecting brains, and the props manager needed some plausible-looking microscopes to sit in the background. Baldacchini, whose specialty at Newport is two-photon nonlinear optical microscopy, got the call.
“When the show started, the producers needed a way to fill the labs with scientific instruments,” Baldacchini says. “So they asked their science adviser [David Saltzberg of UCLA] to suggest a local company that could provide parts—and he mentioned Newport.”

Baldacchini (left) and Fourkas (right) visit the set, sitting in Sheldon's living room. Credit: Courtesy of T. Baldacchini and J. Fourkas

Baldacchini (left) and Fourkas (right) visit the set, sitting in Sheldon’s living room. Credit: Courtesy of T. Baldacchini and J. Fourkas

Naturally, Baldacchini’s favorite “Big Bang” episode so far has been one called “The Alien Parasite Hypothesis,” in which Amy and her loveable but narcissistic boyfriend, Sheldon Cooper, sit in front of a microscope set up by Baldacchini (see photo here). “She even refers to it as a two-photon microscope,” Baldacchini says, although he admits it doesn’t look exactly the way one would look in a real lab.

I stumbled into contact with Baldacchini while tracking down the origin of a journal cover I spotted in the background of a “Big Bang” episode (that story’s here). The poster hangs on the wall in Sheldon’s office, and it’s a reasonable facsimile of the Journal of Physical Chemistry A, one of the journals produced by the American Chemical Society.

John T. Fourkas, Baldacchini’s former Ph.D. adviser who is now at the University of Maryland and is also an editor for the Journal of Physical Chemistry, knew Baldacchini sometimes consulted with the show and in 2011 pitched him a version of the journal with Sheldon’s face on the cover. Eventually, the faux JPC A made its way onto the set, where it still hangs.

But the cover isn’t the only prop with staying power that Baldacchini has gotten onto the show. More recently, he orchestrated the placement of a unique chess set—made of laser optics such as gratings, mirrors, and optical mounts—in Sheldon’s living room. “The king is a diffraction grating [an optic that disperses light], and the queen—the most powerful chess piece—is an omnidirectional mirror,” Baldacchini explains.

Baldacchini's optical chess set, lit with lasers. Perhaps the guys on

Baldacchini’s optical chess set, lit with lasers. Perhaps the guys on “Big Bang” will devise a new game? Credit: Courtesy of Tommaso Baldacchini

These days, the Newport scientist makes the one-hour drive to Burbank on occasion. “When they call, they usually need the props, like yesterday,” he jokes, “so sometimes I can’t go.” In those cases, the show sends a truck and he loads the equipment needed.

“I think they’re doing a great job making a comedy that works for everybody—whether you’re a scientist or not,” Baldacchini says. Sure, “Big Bang” exaggerates the nerdy aspects of these characters, he adds, but at the same time it’s also depicting how much fun it is to do science. “So I think they’re doing a great job.”

FUN SIDE NOTE: The faux cover of the Journal of Physical Chemistry A was designed to be a Festschrift, or tribute issue, to Sheldon Cooper. During a meeting among the editors of JPC prior to the poster finding its way on set, Fourkas and his colleagues talked over the journal’s policy of never depicting a living person on its cover. George Schatz, editor-in-chief of JPC, “paused for a moment,” Fourkas told me, “and then said with a completely straight face, ‘Well, we make an exception for people who speak Klingon.’ ”

Amusing News Aliquots

Silly samplings from this week’s science news, compiled by Sophia Cai and Jeff Huber.


Buried at sea: Everyone’s all smiles following the death of 18-foot oarfish. Credit: Catalina Island Marine Institute

Discovery of elusive oarfish terrifies Internet, but NOAA says this 18-footer is 30 feet shy of some of its cousins. [NBCNews]

How backlogged is EPA? It was only during the government shutdown that they found enough time to remove a 13-year-old soup can from an office refrigerator. [Washington Post]

Study suggests Oreos are as addictive as crack, gives new meaning to teens asking for the hard stuff. [Time]

Forensic scientists discover that 5,300-year-old mummy Ötzi the Iceman has 19 living male relatives. You just got schooled, Ancestry.com. [Yahoo!]

Planet-sized asteroid hurtling toward Earth is named 2013 TV135. No word yet on whether or not the asteroid will make a grand appearance during television’s sweeps week. [io9]

Scientists divided over whether DNA sample proves yetis are a relative of ancient polar bears. Yetis divided over whether they should just come out and let us know they’re real. [The Guardian]

Study finds that social media encourages gang violence. Whoa, whoa. So you’re telling me that websites like Facebook and Twitter, which I spend 14 hours a day on, are somehow detrimental to society? I don’t believe it. [Government Technology]

Florida man is arrested after keeping an alligator in his hot tub. Helpful article describing the arrest states, “Alligators typically are found in lakes and swamps as opposed to hot tubs.” [TCPalm]


Amusing News Aliquots

Silly samplings from this week’s science news, compiled by Sophia Cai, Bethany Halford, and Jeff Huber.


Mr. Delaney celebrates wedding anniversary. Not pictured: Mrs. Delaney. Credit: WILX

Who says romance is dead? Man gives wife a giant mushroom as an anniversary gift. [NY Daily News]

The fact that the U.S. now has a National Pet Obesity Awareness Day (Oct. 9) is really not helping our fat American image. [NBCNews]

Are you an Internet-savvy hypochondriac looking for a new ailment to worry about? Well, look no further. “Cyberchondria” is here. [Telegraph]

Rest in Peace, Ruth Benerito. And thanks for helping to save us from hours of ironing. [New York Times]

Males of several species will do a lot for sex. Some marsupials will die for it. [National Geographic]

Why use MRI for medicine when you could use it to make a better pork pie instead? [Annals of Improbable Research]

Chincoteague, Va., fire department is forced to cancel this weekend’s wild pony roundup as a result of the government shutdown. Disappointed firefighters may resort to playing with My Little Ponies instead. [WHSV-TV3]

They tell us cheating leads to guilt. Turns out, it also leads to upbeat feelings, self-satisfaction, and even thrill. [New York Times]

Like “Breaking Bad” but wish it had more opera music? You’re in luck! [Classic FM]




Speed Dating At The NOBCChE Meeting

For some, a 40th birthday can be a harbinger of a midlife crisis. Not so for the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists & Chemical Engineers, or NOBCChE (pronounced no-buh-shay). Last week, the organization held its 40th annual meeting, and just like NOBCChE’s first meeting in New Orleans in 1973, this year’s meeting in Indianapolis provided minority chemists and chemical engineers with an opportunity to present research, reconnect with old friends, and meet new ones. Even the Newscripts gang had an opportunity to mingle with some meeting attendees. Below are a sampling of the fun and interesting people that Newscripts stumbled upon in between visits to local steakhouses and rides on Formula 1 race cars.

NOBCChE Day 1 009

Windmon. Credit: Jeff Huber/C&EN (all)

Name: Nicole Windmon

Background: Fifth-year graduate student at Notre Dame University researching β-lactam mimics in an effort to facilitate antibiotic development.

Number of years attending NOBCChE meeting: First year.

Reasons for attending NOBCChE meeting: “I’m entering the job market very soon, so I’m looking to work on my résumé writing skills and my cover letter writing skills and learn how to do a good interview.”


NOBCChE Day 1 021


Name: Viraj Thanthirige

Background: Third-year graduate student from Sri Lanka who is studying gold nanoclusters at Western Michigan University.

Number of years attending NOBCChE meeting: First year.

Reasons for attending NOBCChE meeting: To present research on gold nanoclusters and volunteer at the science bowl for middle and high school students.


Continue reading →

Amusing News Aliquots

Silly samplings from this week’s science news, compiled by Sophia Cai, Bethany Halford, and Jeff Huber.

Credit: Nick Brandt

Who knew horrific death could look so grotesquely beautiful? Credit: Nick Brandt

Alkaline Lake Natron, in Tanzania, calcifies critters that find their way to its depths, inspires creepy photographs. [New Scientist]

3D-printed guns are so Monday. Today’s hot new 3D-printed must-have is a custom toothbrush that cleans your chompers in just six seconds. [io9]

Scientists pinpoint the precise neurons that control a mouse’s desire to eat. Frugal labs can now celebrate reduced pellet food costs. [ScienceNews]

Destructive earthquake strong enough to produce an island off the coast of Pakistan. [NBCNews]

Firefighters in Tampa use oxygen masks on cats rescued from a house fire. No word yet on whether or not the cats’ insurance agent will be as accommodating. [WTSP 10 News]


Drop everything … at the cool dropping things tower in Germany. [Gizmodo]

See nothing … at the invisible skyscraper to be built in South Korea. [Daily Mail]

Alton Brown, everyone’s favorite science foodie, takes readers on a tour of the Beyond Meat factory. [Wired]

Fans of red wine have another reason to celebrate, as if they needed one. [Science Daily]

More Lego lady scientists may be on the way. [Inhabitat]

And some fun science GIFs, just ’cause. [Buzzfeed]