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Amusing News Aliquots

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

Winter wonderland: Actual photograph of an actual snowflake without actually using a microscope. Credit: Flickr user ChaoticMind75

It’s delicate work taking these splendid snowflake glamour shots. [chaoticmind] via [io9]

Camels are landing jobs during the holiday season. Joe Camel, however, is still smoking silently and waiting for the phone to ring. [Washington Post]

What’s worse than a robotic telemarketer? A robotic telemarketer that adamantly insists she’s a real person. Meet Samantha West. [Time]

Who says huffing organic solvents dulls the memory? Check out what Derek Lowe’s readers have to say about reagents they’ll never forget. [In the Pipeline]

The next time a coworker asks you how you’re doing, don’t tell them you’re sleepy. Tell them you’re suffering from “sleep inertia.” Then, when they ask you what that is, lift up your head and say in a haughty voice, “Oh, well, I guess somebody

doesn’t read the New Yorker!” [New Yorker]

“When the picture on their 50-inch box television started flickering, Mike took off the back panel and found the guts throbbing with ants.”  Best to read this piece on Rasberry crazy ants with a can of Raid nearby. [New York Times]

NASA scientists say life may have once been present on a Mars lake. No word yet on how much alien waterfront property may have cost. [BBC]

Next time you’re stumbling out of a bar, take comfort in statistics that show people who drink alcohol regularly (and even too regularly) live longer than teetotalers. Just don’t smugly stumble to your car, because stats can’t save you from yourself. [Business Insider]

Forget bared teeth, growling, and beating of chests–male chameleons get ready for epic showdowns by quickly changing their bodies from bright color to bright color. [NBC Science]

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.’ ”

John D. Roberts: The Seattle Veteran at NOS

The Seattle conference welcomed chemists from near and far. They came from Berkeley, from Harvard, and from everywhere in between. Thirteen of the most eminent among them readied talks about their cutting-edge research, which they hoped would send everyone home inspired to further their own work.

That meeting, the 16th National Organic Chemistry Symposium (NOS), took place fifty-four years ago. This week, the gathering is in its 43rd incarnation, and it’s back in the Emerald City. So is one of the original speakers from that 1959 meeting– John D. Roberts. As a young Caltech faculty member, Roberts gave a presentation entitled “Rearrangement Reactions of Small-Ring Compounds.” It was already his third NOS talk, but he returned as a speaker several more times, collecting organic chemistry’s highest honor, the Roger Adams Award, in 1967.

John D. Roberts

Roberts in Meany Hall, venue for both Seattle NOS meetings. Drahl/C&EN

Roberts, 95, is a pioneer in physical organic chemistry and nuclear magnetic resonance (J. Org. Chem. 2009, DOI:
10.1021/jo900641t). Conference cochair Paul B. Hopkins of the University of Washington made note of Roberts’ presence during opening remarks. “I believe Professor Roberts is the only one of us in attendance who was also there at the 1959 Seattle NOS,” Hopkins said, as the crowd gave Roberts an ovation. “But if I’m wrong about that, you’ll have to let me know during the coffee break.”

Later that evening, this year’s Roger Adams awardee, David A. Evans of Harvard, started his talk by thanking Roberts, who he called “inspirational,” “my teacher,” and “my friend of nearly 50 years.” When Evans was a college student at Oberlin, the school “had just gotten an NMR, so we spent the summer poring over John’s books” about the exciting new instrument, Evans recalled. He would get to know Roberts while earning his Ph.D. at Caltech. So Roberts could attend Evans’ award lecture, NOS organizers broke with decades of tradition and moved the Adams Award Lecture, held on Tuesday nights for as long as anyone can remember, to Monday evening.

Over a cup of black coffee, Roberts told C&EN about his experiences at NOS over the years. He reminisced about some of the scientific feuds that played out at the podium, including the epic cation controversy between Saul Winstein and H. C. Brown. Asked about the history of the meeting, recently published in the Journal of Organic Chemistry (DOI: 10.1021/jo302475j), which notes a decline in talks about his field of physical organic chemistry, Roberts is optimistic. “Physical organic is not dead–it’s just been co-opted by everyone,” he says. Problems in biochemistry, which might involve enzyme mechanisms or noncovalent interactions, are often very appealing to people trained in the field, he adds.

The last time NOS took place in Seattle, Microsoft didn’t exist, nor did ubiquitous Internet. Even in this connected age, though, Roberts values face-to-face contact. “I’m always surprised that some people don’t come to this meeting unless they’re invited to give a talk,” he says. “I just like to come. You have to learn about new things.”

Roberts wishes he could have stayed for the duration of this year’s meeting, but he left to attend to an important matter at Caltech–the arrival of a fresh crop of summer undergraduate researchers.

More: Watch a video interview with Roberts conducted by chemical historian Jeffrey I. Seeman.

Read: J. D. Roberts, “The Right Place at the Right Time” in Profiles, Pathways and Dreams (Ed.: J. I. Seeman), American Chemical Society, Washington, D.C., 1990.

Read: an interview with Roberts from Caltech oral histories.

UPDATED 1:30PM Pacific 6/26 – fixed DOI link to NOS history paper.

In Print: Toys Will Be Toys

McDonald's website leaves it up to interpretation what divides the two types of toys.

McDonald’s website leaves it up to interpretation what divides these two types of toys.

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.

As the cashier at the fast-food restaurant is finishing our order, she grabs a small plastic doll and tosses it in my kids’ meal.

“Excuse me,” my mom says testily. “You didn’t give my daughter a choice of toys.” Even at age six, I can tell my mom is using tremendous restraint to give this young woman a chance to rectify her unintentional wrongs.

The woman looks at my mom, then at me, and asks, “Well, do you want the girls’ toy or the boys’ toy?”

I don’t remember if I ended up picking the doll or the toy car on that particular occasion. But I do distinctly remember the feeling of trying to weigh the gaps in my own eclectic toy collection with the point my now-fuming mother was trying to teach both me and the young woman at the cash register. Toys are toys, and kids should be able to choose their own interests without feeling undue social, gender-specific pressure.

Boots toy signage, before customer outrage led the store to redo how they label toy sections. Credit: @SeanEGray

Boots toy signage–with science kits in the boys’ section–before customer outrage led the store to redo how they label toy sections. Credit: Twitter/@SeanEGray

Twenty years later, I call my mom and tell her about this column, and she’s outraged we’re still having this debate. As I write in Newscripts this week, the gender-specific labeling of toys came under fire in England recently. Specifically, customers and online advocacy group Let Toys Be Toys took issue with science kits and chemistry sets being designated for boys. Since the backlash, toy giant Tesco and pharmacy chain Boots have changed their girls- and boys-specific toy labeling and issued apologetic statements.

In the U.S., however, it remains fairly ubiquitous. Target has girls’ toys and boys’ toys, as does Walmart, Toys”R”Us, and Fisher-Price–where play kitchens are still considered girls’ toys and Star Wars action figures are found in the boys’ section. Some studies have suggested a hormonal basis for children’s toy preferences. On the other hand, Sweden has found support for gender-neutral toy catalogs and early-childhood education.
Biological influences aside, it makes one wonder what the STEM divide would look like if girls were allowed or even encouraged to pick up a model train, a kit for making a clock from a potato, or a play chemistry set.

There & Back Again: A Cyclotron’s Tale

This post was written by Andrea Widener, an associate editor for C&EN’s government and policy group.

The cyclotron in its box. Credit: University of California/LBNL

The cyclotron in its box. Credit: University of California/LBNL

When Ernest O. Lawrence lent a cyclotron to the London Science Museum in 1938, he thought it would be back in eight months.

But it took 75 years for the 11-inch cyclotron, one of the first built by the future Nobel Prize winner, to return to the hills of Berkeley, Calif., where it was originally created.

The cyclotron survived a war, a bureaucratic tussle, and a security challenge before it was finally returned to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), the research institution founded by the cyclotron’s inventor.

The cyclotron's original patent.

The cyclotron’s original patent. Credit: LBNL

When it arrived last month, the 11-inch cyclotron was an instant celebrity, drawing crowds as though Lawrence himself had walked in for a photo op.

“They were coming down the hallway in a stream,” says Pamela Patterson, who serves as an unofficial historian and manager of the lab’s website. “Everyone was there. The director had his iPhone up taking pictures. It was cute.”

At the time Lawrence loaned the cyclotron to the science museum, he was still a young, ambitious researcher trying to convince others that the device was a major breakthrough. An invitation to display it in such a prestigious spot was likely an important step, Patterson explains.

But when the cyclotron was supposed to be returned in 1939, Lawrence received a letter from the museum saying officials had moved the cyclotron to a rural district for safe keeping because they feared London would be bombed during World War II. Continue reading →

Getting Down On One Knee … With A Physics Paper

The seven-year relationship of two physicists has moved to the next level, thanks to a marriage proposal Brandon wrote to Christie in the form of a physics paper. The faux academic article, titled “Two Body Interactions: A Longitudinal Study,” is dated March 2012, but hit Reddit‘s cyberspace – and achieved cyber fame — at the end of last month.

This paper proposal was posted to Reddit with the label:

This paper proposal was posted to Reddit with the label: “My boyfriend of 7 years and I are both physicists. Here’s how he proposed to me.”


The paper discusses how they met: “The study began on the 23rd of March, 05, outside a SciSoc BBQ at the Eastern Avenue Building, when the subject spontaneously appeared in a red coat and a grey ‘Paddington bear’ hat and was similarly spontaneously introduced by a local social node.”

It then goes on to explain the stresses that tested the long-distance relationship between Brandon and Christie: “The locational dependence of the results was tested across two main long term locations as well as a multitude of short term locations local, interstate, and international.”

And finally how they moved in together: “The third phase of the study involved isolating the two body interaction in a new long term location, while continuing the above mentioned tests.”

The paper even includes a graph of happiness over time, with a predicted upward trend in the happier-as-time-goes-on direction.

And for the paper’s conclusion …

Continue reading →

Need A Centrifuge? Print One Out

In this week’s issue of C&EN, I wrote about how 3-D printing fever has taken hold of some folks in academia. Sure, scientists and engineers COULD keep a 3-D printer in the lab strictly for printing out a molecular model, a prototype, or even an intricate lab logo. But they’re starting to do much more with the machines.

As Lee Cronin, a chemist at Scotland’s University of Glasgow, told me, in the early days of 3-D printing, “people thought it was cool but gimmicky.” Now, though, they’re beginning to use the technique to solve problems, he added.

3-D Printed Lab Jack Credit: Courtesy of Joshua Pearce

3-D Printed Lab Jack Credit: Courtesy of Joshua Pearce

In the story, I describe how some scientists have used 3-D printers to make lab equipment such as centrifuges, funnels, lab jacks, and electrophoresis gel combs. These early adopters claim that the machines, which build solid objects layer by layer from materials like plastics and ceramic powders, can save labs thousands of dollars. And, they say, 3-D printers help foster an open-access scientific community that will speed the progress of research.

One research group I didn’t get to mention in my story is that of Simon J. Leigh, a chemist-turned-engineer at the U.K.’s University of Warwick. Leigh and his team are developing new materials for 3-D printers, with the goal of eventually incorporating them into devices for the lab and beyond.

For instance, late last year, the researchers published a PloS One paper detailing how they concocted “carbomorph,” a material made of the thermoplastic polycaprolactone and 15 wt% carbon black. “The aim of the project was to develop a material that could go into a printer that’s off the shelf,” Leigh says. In addition to being electrically conductive, carbomorph had the added benefit of being extrudable by a standard low-cost 3-D printer (they used a Bits from Bytes 3000).

3-D printed game controller: PacMan approves. Credit: Courtesy of Simon Leigh

PacMan thinks this is as delicious as a bowl full of cherries: 3-D printed game controller. Credit: Courtesy of Simon Leigh

Leigh’s team demonstrated that the substance could also be incorporated into several devices. One of these instruments was an electronic interface. The researchers added carbomorph buttons to an electrical circuit: When a user pressed one of them, its capacitance increased and triggered an electrical signal. Being able to embed sensors like these anywhere on a device rather than adding them on at defined spots in post-production could be extraordinarily useful, Leigh says.

In one, perhaps gimmicky, example, Leigh and his team printed sensor buttons into a video-game controller. “But there’s no reason why the same process could not be used to make custom interfaces for scientific equipment,” he says.


Cutest flow sensor I've ever seen. Credit: Sensors & Actuators B

Cutest flow sensor I’ve ever seen. Credit: Sensors & Actuators A (Physical)

In 2011, the research team also developed a magnetic material for 3-D printing that it used to manufacture a flow sensor. Specifically, the scientists added magnetite nanoparticles to a resin matrix and printed a tiny rotor (impeller). By monitoring the small piece’s rotational speed via external magnetic field, the researchers were able to determine the speed of liquid across it.

Why go to all the trouble of designing new materials and printing devices you could buy? Leigh says it’s almost a natural “evolutionary step.” First, there were desktop computers, next there will be desktop manufacturing systems. In science, especially, Leigh adds, “you want something that’s more bespoke these days. You don’t want to waste material or time” to get the equipment you need.

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 →