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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.
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.”
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.
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.’ ”
Actor Alan Alda might be best known for his portrayal of Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H, but these days he’s also becoming well-known in another capacity—as a science communicator. For those who lost track of him after his time sparring with Hot Lips Houlihan, this might seem odd. (And if you did, you simply must watch the movie “The Four Seasons”—you won’t regret it).
But since 2009, Alda has been on the advisory board of the Center For Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. In fact, he helped found CCS and has become a passionate advocate for helping scientists interact more effectively with the public.
Yesterday at the American Chemical Society national meeting in Indianapolis, Alda bonded with a standing-room-only crowd (“I’m so glad to be in this huge beaker with you,” he said) and shared his views on why scientists need to do better.
Right now, he theorized, “the public is on a blind date with science.” They’re wondering, can I trust this stranger? Will I be attracted to this stranger when we meet? To the public, Alda explained, it’s an uncomfortable, slightly scary, situation, just like those awkward setups friends force upon one another.
To drive home his point, he showed a man-on-the-street video in which a film crew asked a random assortment of folks to define a few terms: “element” and “organic compound.” Let’s just say they had a lot of problems with the latter and made some vague grumblings about the former belonging in a table. I cringed when one woman suggested the identity of one element: “fire.”
I’m sure there are many factors contributing to why the public has trouble even defining the word element. But Alda contends that one reason might be that scientists have what’s called “the curse of knowledge.” To illustrate this problem, he took a volunteer from the audience in Indianapolis and asked her to silently choose a song from a list he had in his pocket. Then he instructed her to tap it out for the audience.
She predicted that at least 80% of the viewers would figure out the tune from her microphone tappings, but after her performance, only 25% were able to name it (“My Country ‘Tis Of Thee”). Scientists have knowledge in their heads, and it seems perfectly clear to them, but it doesn’t always translate well to others, Alda explained. Continue reading →
(OR How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Esoteric Minutia)
This post was written by Rick Mullin, author of the blog “The Fine Line,” business reporter for C&EN, and, apparently, a nerd.
I arrived early and waited outside with the first two nerds on the scene. We sipped our coffee next to the chalkboard indicating we had come to the right place: “Nerd Nite Globalfest” at the Brooklyn Lyceum.
Yes, I went to Nerd Nite Globalfest.
My business journalist colleagues demurred when the home office (C&EN headquarters in D.C.) inquired as to whether one of us in the Manhattan bureau might want to swing by the event for a day and see what it’s all about. But I gave it a little more thought: “Nerd Nite,” I said to myself. “A conclave of people so unlike me that I will have an opportunity to do some truly objective reporting.”
Or … not.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Nerd Nite would be an excellent place to assess the pop culture phantasmagoria into which science would seem to be sliding all helter skelter, what with the rise of science-y sit-coms and TED Talks. And what better place than Brooklyn, N.Y., to investigate the conflation of nerd and hipster—a troubling social phenomenon that threatens to turn the definition of nerd upside down.
I realized I had some strong opinions. But I kept them to myself while chatting with my two nerd companions, Cristina Romagnoli and Gunther Oakey outside the lyceum this past Saturday.
Romagnoli told me how she had attended a previous Nerd Nite in Orlando, shortly before moving to Brooklyn this summer. “I felt that I’d found my folk down in Florida,” she said. And these folk told her about the Brooklyn Globalfest, which was obviously an ideal way to get back with her people in her new hometown. “So I showed up last night and met up with the five Nerd Bosses from Orlando!”
Oakey told a familiar story of grade school ostracism followed by nerd solidarity and collectivism in boarding school, after which things got even better. “Luckily, we are in the Golden Age of Nerdom, where movies and pop culture are all, sort of, glorifying nerds,” Oakey said.
Inside, I met organizer Matt Wasowski, who is the “Big Boss” of Nerd Nite. He explained to me how the series evolved from a regular gathering of scientists in a bar in the Jamaica Plain area of Boston in 2003. The bartender begged these people to stop talking, or to try to organize their endless science discussions into something like a monthly meeting, “and get it over with in one fell swoop.”
That worked. And the idea caught on, with Nerd Nites now taking place in more than 60 cities around the world, including Dublin, Sydney, London, Amsterdam, Santiago de Compostela (the capital of the autonomous community of Galicia in northwestern Spain), and most major cities in the U.S. The global event in Brooklyn succeeded in being at least continental, Wasowski said, as several people from Canada showed up along with folks from Austin, Ann Arbor, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and other metropolises.
The Nerd Night concept, Wasowski said, has also succeeded in branching out from “hard science” to disciplines such as history and art. On a typical Nerd Nite, three experts give a 20-minute talk meant to be entertaining yet informative.
“We are trying to strike a careful balance and keep it from almost being too fun,” he said.
What lay ahead for me on Saturday was not your typical Nerd Nite, however. It was a Nerd Whole Day. Continue reading →
I don’t really remember the first time I peed in the ocean.
But it must’ve been when I was a girl, during one of my family’s numerous summer vacations to the Jersey shore. We rented the same property in Wildwood Crest year in and year out: a modest 3-bedroom apartment just blocks from the beach.
What I do remember is a yearning to never leave the water, for my dad to throw me into a salty green wave one more time while shouting “Uh-oh Spaghetti-o!”
I’d have to guess that it was during one of those marathon splash sessions when I first did it. If you spend enough time in the ocean that your fingers get wrinkly, your lips turn blue, and you have sand in unspeakable places, trudging back across the white-hot pavement to a rental house isn’t really an attractive bathroom option. I’m sure my parents weren’t in favor of escorting their dripping, pruney child to and fro throughout the afternoon and gave their consent.
Today, my husband and I continue the Jersey shore visits—now a tradition—with my niece, taking her to the southern beaches each year for some fun in the sun … and surf. During our first year in the water, at the tender age of 8, she was hesitant. I told her she could relieve herself in the water, and she looked at me with embarrassment, the way only a child could look at an adult. Clearly, I was not hip. CLEARLY, I had missed that day of potty training.
Fast-forward four years, and my darling niece pees in the ocean with the best of ‘em. It’s now my husband that needs the convincing: He refuses to go. To address his noncompliance, my niece and I have become a floating vaudeville act, forcing my husband between us as we put on a show.
Me: “Hey there, you said you had to pee.”
Darling niece: “Yup. I just did.”
Me: “Oh good, me too. So that’s done with. Hey hubs, you feel that warm spot?”
Before I go any further, I should interject here to say that I do not advocate peeing in pools or other small bodies of water—ponds, pristine lakes in the Alps, etc.
Having so far failed with our comedic act, my niece and I this year changed tactics. We decided to turn to science (and chemistry) to reason with our reluctant (yet very tolerant) companion. Using the WiFi at the beach house, we mounted our case.
Urine is the vehicle by which your body gets rid of undesirable chemical compounds. But that doesn’t mean the compounds you’re peeing out are necessarily harmful to anyone (although, again, I should interject here and say I don’t recommend drinking pee or getting it in one’s eyes). For instance, according to NASA Contractor Report No. CR-1802, put together in 1971, the average human’s urine is more than 95% water, and it contains 1-2 g/L of sodium and chloride ions. Okay, so water + salt.
These happen to be molecular species found in seawater. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the ocean is about 96.5% water, and it contains a lot more salt–about 19 g/L of chloride and 11 g/L of sodium. So far so good.
There are other salt ions in each of these liquids at lesser concentrations. For instance, potassium in urine has a concentration of about 0.75 g/L, and potassium in seawater is at 0.4 g/L. Nothing drastically different here.
Where the composition of a person’s urine strays a bit from that of seawater is with the components creatinine and urea. Both compounds are routes the body uses to get rid of nitrogen. Creatinine is a nitrogen-heavy cyclic compound that is a breakdown by-product of energy-laden molecules in muscle. It’s only present in the average person’s urine at about 0.7 g/L. Urea, on the other hand, is more concentrated: It’s present at about 9 g/L. Because it’s high in nitrogen, the molecule is frequently used as a fertilizer, but it’s also applied in topical creams as a moisturizing factor.
Everything’s relative. It seems like urea might be a problem, given that it comes rushing out of us humans at rather high concentrations. When it breaks down in water, it forms ammonium—a charged molecule sucked in by plants and converted into nutrients. Again, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, nitrogen-containing compounds are important parts of seawater because “they are important for the growth of organisms that inhabit the oceans and seas.”
But again, maybe 9 g/L is too much. So I give you a little calculation: Continue reading →
Once upon a time, I was a full-fledged chemist doing postdoctoral research at the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Md. Like any other postdoc, I have fond memories of leaving grad school, being paid a little more, and having more control over my research. And of course, I have warm recollections of leaving work in the wee hours of the night … and having to wait for the family of deer surrounding my car to move off so I could drive home.
That ISN’T the typical postdoc experience, you say? Okay, fine. But it is at NIST. Most folks who work on the Gaithersburg campus have similar deer encounters pretty regularly.
In this week’s issue of C&EN, I wrote a Newscripts column about the wild horse and donkey overpopulation problem in the western U.S. The National Research Council recently released a report suggesting ways of managing the animals. One proposed solution is to give the critters birth control.
This brought me back to my days at NIST. I vividly remember being told during my postdoctoral orientation that I would encounter a lot of deer while on campus AND that the lab was dealing with the situation by giving the animals birth control. At the time, I laughed at what I thought was a reasonably silly situation.
While I worked at the agency between 2006 and 2008, its campus was home to approximately 200 deer. Today, the population is probably a little less than that—around 150 or so, says Michael E. Newman, a spokesman for NIST. But in the mid-1990s, about 300 deer resided on the grassy campus with its ponds and wooded canopies.
“That’s crazy for a campus that’s only a square mile,” says Allen T. Rutberg, director of the Center for Animals & Public Policy at the Cummings School for Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.
First of all, a tract of land that size can’t provide enough nutrition for that many animals. And second of all, when the population gets that large, animal-human interactions don’t usually end well: In the 1990s, when the deer population was at its peak on campus, it wasn’t uncommon for about 25 deer to be killed annually in collisions with vehicles on and adjacent to the NIST campus.
During rutting season, “we even had a few cases of male deer seeing a reflection and jumping through windows” into labs, Newman says.
I’m particularly thankful I missed those days. It’s one thing to see a doe with its fawns cuddling under the trees as you leave work. It’s quite another to come face to face with a sexually aggressive deer while cleaning your glassware.
When writing my Newscripts about wild horses, I got to thinking that I actually didn’t know much about the NIST deer program aside from the fact that it existed. So I set out to learn more. Continue reading →
If you read this blog with any regularity (I know there’s at least one of you out there, two tops), you’ll remember a post I wrote awhile back bemoaning the lack of chemistry coloring books. I had just come across a supercool version about biology—filled with stem cells and neurons and viruses, oh my!—and was wondering what a chemistry version (perhaps produced by the American Chemical Society) might look like.
Well, that coloring book still hasn’t materialized, and now I’m even more miffed: The physicists have comic books. And notice that I didn’t say “a” comic book. They have many of them.
I spotted a few of these at the American Physical Society (APS) national meeting, held in Baltimore, back in March. One called “Nikola Tesla and the Electric Fair” caught my eye, as well as a S-E-R-I-E-S of books about the original laser superhero Spectra (you know how it goes: She discovers her powers after a class on lasers and winds up being able to cut through metal and play CDs … just your typical teenage drama). These educational aids for middle school classrooms are distributed by APS.
But I wouldn’t even say they’re just for middleschoolers. I read all the way through the story of Telsa: It brings to life the epic battle between himself and Thomas Edison over alternating current (AC) and direct current. I guess I never realized that the “War of the Currents” ended when Tesla successfully used AC to light the infamous World’s Fair in Chicago (where the Ferris Wheel also made its debut). Via the comic, I also discovered that Tesla had a fondness (perhaps a little too much fondness) for pigeons.
So even I learned something!
But it wasn’t until I received a press release about Stephen Hawking’s new comic book that I was pushed over the edge to write this post and point out this educational trend.
“Stephen Hawking: Riddles of Time & Space” is produced by Washington-based Bluewater Productions. It chronicles the cosmologist’s life, including how he discovered that he had ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and his dispute with scientist Fred Hoyle over the Big Bang Theory.
You can get your print copy of it here for $4.33.
Folks making comic books about physics is by no means a bad trend. But I’m once again left wondering, “Where’s the chemistry equivalent?” We may not have Stephen Hawking or Nikola Tesla to brag about, but surely we’ve got someone who’s got an interesting story to relate to the general public? Organic chemist R.B. Woodward, in all his Mad-Men-esque glory? One of the many bearded chemists of yore?
What about Kevlar, the original polymer superhero? Or how about turning the periodic table of elements into superheroes, an idea originated by a graphic designer here?
Readers, what kind of chemistry comic book would you like to see? (And ACS, when can we have one, pretty please?)
Chemists are notoriously bad at tooting their own horns to the public (go ask someone on the street to name a famous chemist, and you’ll see what I mean). But I’m certain they’ve got interesting stories to tell—the tales have just got to be drawn out.
At last week’s American Chemical Society meeting in New Orleans, a group of chemists came together to discuss the latest and greatest in alcohol. No, this wasn’t on Bourbon Street. And karaoke, to-go cups, and beaded necklaces weren’t involved (as far as I know).
This week’s issue of Chemical & Engineering News features a column I wrote about one of the session’s presentations. Neil C. Da Costa, a researcher at International Flavors & Fragrances, in New Jersey, entertained the audience with tales of the hurricane, that rum-based drink the Big Easy is famous for. I featured Da Costa’s studies of the hurricane because of the soft spot I have for the cocktail: The first time I drank one was during my undergraduate years at, you guessed it, my first national ACS meeting.
But I gave short shrift to other “Chemistry of the Bar” presentations. One particularly interesting talk was given by Jerry Zweigenbaum, a researcher at Agilent Technologies, in Delaware. Along with Alyson E. Mitchell and coworkers at the University of California, Davis, Zweigenbaum investigated the ingredients of the after-dinner liquor amaretto.
If you’re like me, you might have thought that because amaretto smells like almonds, it’s made from them. Zweigenbaum says that’s not necessarily the case.
According to legend, amaretto was first made in 1525 by soaking apricot kernels in alcohol. You can see the tale, conveniently located on the website of amaretto maker Disaronno, here. Apparently, one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s star pupils was asked to paint a fresco of the Madonna in the Italian city Saronno. His model was a local innkeeper who showed her gratitude by gifting the fellow a drink made from the infamous kernels.
Today, Disaronno says its amaretto contains “herbs and fruits soaked in apricot kernel oil.”
But the problem with alcohols like amaretto, Zweigenbaum says, is they are regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives here in the U.S., rather than by FDA. That means companies don’t have to list the beverages’ ingredients or nutritional content.
So what exactly Disaronno and other amaretto companies are putting in their wares remains a mystery. Zweigenbaum decided to find out. Continue reading →
This post was written by Andrea Widener, an associate editor for C&EN’s government and policy group.
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.
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 →