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Are there some experiments that should never be carried out? Is there some knowledge that is too dangerous for humans to possess? Can the dissemination of knowledge, once it has been discovered, be limited to only a few people?
These are some of the questions being raised by two papers from two virology groups that created an avian H5N1[A(H5N1)] influenza virus that is easily transmissible from mammal to mammal through the air. A federal advisory board has taken the unprecedented step of asking the journals Science and Nature not to publish details of the work to prevent them from becoming known to would-be bioterrorists (C&EN Latest News, Dec. 21, 2011).
A(H5N1) doesn’t usually infect humans. Of the 600 or so humans who have contracted the virus in the past decade, apparently directly from infected birds, about 60% died, a rate frighteningly higher than the estimated 2% who died after contracting the Spanish flu in the devastating 1918 epidemic that killed 20 million people worldwide. The saving grace of A(H5N1), so far, is that it does not pass from human to human through the air.
The work under review, done at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, by Yoshihiro Kawaoka and coworkers and at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, by Ron Fouchier and coworkers, was designed to find out whether A(H5N1) could evolve the ability to spread between mammals through the air. Fouchier presented some details of the work at a conference in Europe in September 2011. From sketchy press reports it appears that infecting one ferret—the mammal model of choice for studying flu virus transmissibility among humans—with A(H5N1) and then taking virus from the infected ferret and infecting another eventually led to an A(H5N1) that could be transmitted from one ferret to another in an adjacent cage through the air. It’s been reported that a total of five mutations in the viral genome led to the air-transmissible A(H5N1).
Some experts have now been quoted in press reports arguing that the research should never have been carried out in the first place, that creation of the transmissible A(H5N1) was irresponsible. That’s an untenable position. If there are a set of mutations that will make A(H5N1) transmissible among humans, then that set of mutations will one day occur in the wild. Better to know what those mutations are and be on the lookout for them in wild strains than to become aware of them once a pandemic has broken out. And if this is a virus we will someday face, it would be a good idea to begin to study its weaknesses.
More complicated is the question of who should have access to the details of the work. After the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) requested that details regarding the scientific methodology and specific viral mutations be deleted from the papers before they were published, Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science, put out a statement that said, in part, that the transmissible A(H5N1) “is sensitive to antivirals and to certain vaccine candidates and knowledge about it could well be essential for speeding the developments of new treatments to combat this lethal form of influenza.” He continued that, while supporting the work of NSABB, “Science has concerns about withholding potentially important public-health information from responsible influenza researchers” and that the journal’s final decision would be heavily dependent on the U.S. government setting out a plan for making the information available to such scientists.
How one goes about that isn’t at all clear. And if 100 or 1,000 researchers are given access to the information, will it really be any more secure than if it were simply published?
The idea of a terrorist trying to turn A(H5N1) into a weapon is scary. What’s more scary is the certainty that someday, somewhere, an air transmissible A(H5N1) is going to emerge in the wild. When it does, we’d better be ready. Being ready means as many researchers as possible should be working on the problem. That argues for rapid publication of the complete research.
In “Transcendent Life?” I wrote about the philosophical essay, “Life Transcending Physics And Chemistry,” by Michael Polanyi that was the cover story of the Aug. 21, 1967, issue of C&EN. In this post, I want to take note of another interesting element I found in that issue, one that vibrantly illustrates progress humankind has made in the past half century.
When we created the C&EN Archives, we optically scanned the more than 500,000 pages of C&EN that have been published since the magazine’s founding in 1923. This was, needless to say, a largely automated process that relied on a computer to discern breaks between stories in a given issue. Especially in older issues, that was not always obvious and there are lots of cases in the archive where some extraneous material was assembled as part of another story.
That was the case with the Polanyi essay. Three pages not associated with the essay were included in the printout I read. One page was an ad for the 1967-68 ACS Laboratory Guide; one page was a directory of small ads for companies selling items ranging from Grignard reagents to stainless steel tanks; and one page was headed “Deaths.”
It so happens that while I was occupied with the Aug. 21, 1967, issue of C&EN, I was also reading pages for the Dec. 5, 2011, issue of the magazine, and in that issue we ran four obituaries for Don C. DeJongh, 74; Edwin S. Gould, 85; Angelo C. Tulumello, 79; and Jay A. Young, 91.
Here are the names and ages of the individuals listed in the Aug. 21, 1967, issue: Richard Kuhn, 66; James R. Vaughan Jr., 49; Augustus L. Barker, 79; Lee Cahn, 40; Ballard H. Clemmons, 58; Ira B. Cushing, 56; Thomas W. Delahanty, 75; Samuel L. Gross, 48; William H. MacHale, 59; Edward T. Radley, 48; Elmer W. Rebol, 49; Jesse L. Riebsomer, 61; and Garrett W. Thiessen, 65.
Notice a difference? In the Dec. 5, 2011, issue the youngest person we ran an obituary for was 74 years old. And that’s not an anomaly. We are running nine obituaries in this issue, and the ages of the individuals are 92, 93, 59, 90, 86, 71, 71, 91, and 97. By contrast, in 1967, five of the death notices were for men in their 40s, three were for men in their 50s, and three were in their 60s. Of the 13 death notices that listed an age (a few did not), only two were for men over the age of 70.
I doubt there was anything remarkable about that particular distribution. It is a testament to what we have accomplished in understanding disease and developing drugs and other therapies to treat disease that we now are shocked when someone passes away in their 40s or 50s. Only a half a century ago, it wasn’t unusual at all. The chemistry enterprise has played an enormous role in this profound change in life expectancy, and it is something we should celebrate.
My wife Jan and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary recently by spending a long weekend in Chicago. Among the interesting things we did while we were there was to take a 90-minute architectural boat tour along the Chicago River sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Foundation.
Chicago is justifiably proud of its rich architectural heritage. Classic buildings like the Wrigley Building, the Tribune Tower, and the Carbon & Carbide Building share the Chicago skyline with modern masterpieces like the Sears Tower (now the “Willis Tower”) and the soaring Trump International Hotel & Tower, the second tallest building in the U.S. and the tallest reinforced concrete building in the world.
Real estate along the Chicago River, our docent told us, is now among the priciest in Chicago. It was not always thus. In the 19th century, the river was effectively an open sewer draining into Lake Michigan, from which Chicago drew its drinking water. Pollution of the lake led to outbreaks of diseases such as typhoid fever. In 1900, the Sanitary District of Chicago reversed the flow of the river using a system of locks so that it flowed into the newly built Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal, diverting Chicago’s pollution into the Mississippi River system by way of the Des Plaines River. What the folks living downstream thought about this development wasn’t mentioned.
That was a typical solution to a pollution problem in the first half of the 20th century—send it somewhere else. Happily for the Chicago River and many other bodies of water in the U.S., the Federal Water Pollution Control Act was passed in 1948; the act was reorganized and expanded in 1972. After additional amendments in 1977, the law became known as the Clean Water Act. It is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency.
That’s right, the Chicago River is now a pleasant body of water to take a boat trip on or walk beside or live next to in an expensive condominium because of regulations promulgated under a federal environmental law administered by the EPA. That’s the same EPA that Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann said should be renamed the “Job Killing Organization of America.” The EPA of which candidate Jon Huntsman said that, in order for the U.S. to become prosperous again, it would be necessary to end “EPA’s regulatory reign of terror.” The EPA that candidate Newt Gingrich wants to eliminate entirely.
One can draw an interesting parallel between bashing environmental regulation and the antipathy of some modern parents toward vaccinations. Parents afraid of vaccines invariably cite the “risks” associated with them when they argue against having their children vaccinated against all manner of diseases. Some of the risks are real, albeit vanishingly small; some are entirely imaginary, such the supposed link between vaccines and autism. What’s really going on, though, is a complete lack of firsthand knowledge of the profound risks associated with diseases like pertussis, diphtheria, tetanus, and measles because, as a result of vaccines against these diseases, the parents have no experience of them.
Regulations are like vaccines. They impose a cost, sometimes a substantial one, because the whole point of, for example, environmental regulation is to internalize the cost of the pollution associated with a product into the price of the product. The benefits of the regulations—cleaner air and water, healthier citizens—after a while sort of become invisible. Almost no one living in the pricey condominiums along the Chicago River remembers it when it was an open sewer. Which it would still be had there had been no Clean Water Act and no EPA to enforce it.
I know, some readers will respond that that was the “good” EPA that cleaned up the Chicago River; they’re chastising the “bad” EPA created by the Obama Administration. Sorry, that doesn’t wash. I’m old enough to remember that the same claims about destroying the economy were made in the 1970s when EPA started cleaning up the nation’s air and water. It wasn’t true then and it’s not true now.
Do you have a favorite chemical engineer?
I received an e-mail from Claudia Flavell-While, Director of Publications, Institution of Chemical Engineers, which publishes a monthly magazine, tce, that read in part:
We’ve just opened the voting on a mission to find some of the most influential chemical engineers in history, and we’d like to extend an invitation to your readers to take part. As you’re probably aware, tce for the past two years has run a series of articles in which we profile some of the most interesting chemical engineers we can think of. Every year at the end of the year we invite the global chemical engineering community to cast their vote for who was the most influential featured that year. We’ve just opened the votes for the 2011 season and to make it as comprehensive a vote as possible, we’d like to invite the readers of Chemical Engineering to cast their votes too.
Our shortlisted entries this year are:
Yoshio Nishi (lithium-ion batteries)
Nicholas Leblanc (soda production)
Victor Mills (disposable diapers)
Wilbert & Robert Gore (outdoor fabrics)
Arthur D Little (unit operations)
Charles E Howard & Norbert Rillieux (vacuum evaporation & multi-effect evaporators)
Tomio Wada (LCD screens)
Vladimir Haensel (platforming process)
Reginald Gibson, Eric Fawcett, Michael Perrin & Dermot Manning (polyethylene)
You can find a summary of their entries with links to the full article at http://www.tcetoday.com/changedtheworld
We are collecting votes here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/changedtheworld2011
Closing date for votes is 9 January and we’ll announce at the end of January who got the most votes.
Yes, Flavell-While confused C&EN and Chemical Engineering, but that’s OK. We can still have an opinion!
A reader recently wrote to ask whether she could purchase an article—specifically the cover story in the Aug. 21, 1967, issue—from the C&EN Archives. The answer, of course, is that she could, for $10. (As of January 2012, ACS members will be able to download 25 journal papers, book chapters, and C&EN Archives stories for free each year.)
C&EN Deputy Editor-in-chief Maureen Rouhi got the e-mail, and she brought the article to my attention. Its title is “Life Transcending Physics and Chemistry,” and it is a 13-page, lavishly illustrated (for C&EN), philosophical essay by Michael Polanyi, one of the seminal scientist/philosophers of the 20th century. It is not the kind of essay I associate with C&EN.
I spent most of that evening reading and re-reading Polanyi’s essay and thinking about it. He makes two central points early in the essay, the first concerning DNA. “A DNA molecule essentially transmits information to a developing cell,” he writes. “Similarly a book transmits information. But the transmission of the information cannot be represented in terms of chemical and physical principles. In other words, the operation of the book is not reducible to chemical terms. Since DNA operates by transmission of (genetic) information, its function cannot be described by chemical laws either.”
He also writes, “I differ … from most biologists by holding that no mechanism—be it a machine or a machinelike feature of an organism—can be represented in terms of physics and chemistry. This principle precludes the possibility of biology ever becoming a molecular science.”
I think it is clear that advances over the past 40 plus years show that Polanyi was wrong—biology has become a molecular science. What fascinates me is trying to understand why he was wrong because he was a very sophisticated thinker.
In an argument that is far too complex to reprise here, Polanyi makes a strong case that the origin of any particular genetic sequence, and, by extension, the origin of life itself, cannot be explained on the basis of chemical and physical principles alone. However, when he uses the analogy between DNA and a book to state that transmission of genetic information “is nonchemical and nonphysical,” he is mistaken. Genetic information is encoded in DNA’s structure, and while we might not be able to determine the provenance of that information through chemical and physical principles, transcription itself is a profoundly chemical process that we now understand in quite some detail.
Likewise, when Polanyi compares biological structures to machines and insists that both are irreducible to chemical and physical principles, he is arguing at the level of cells and organs. With the structure of a molecular machine like the ribosome in hand, its form and function are, in fact, wholly described by chemical and physical principles.
Polanyi writes, “The machine is a machine by having been built and being then controlled according to the principles of engineering. The laws of physics and chemistry are indifferent to these principles; they would go on working in the fragments of the machine if it were smashed.” He continues, “Returning now to living beings, we may start by observing that to speak of life as something to be explained by the laws of physics and chemistry is strictly speaking absurd, for physical and chemical processes do not determine by themselves any finite system.” In the realm of molecular machines operating within the well-defined confines of living systems, this assertion simply isn’t true. If a ribosome were figuratively smashed, some aspects of its chemistry would cease to function; as a machine, its “engineering principles” are indistinguishable from its chemistry.
If this seems somewhat esoteric, Polanyi’s arguments, or ones very similar to them, continue to resonate with some nonscientists who object to aspects of the scientific endeavor to fully understand life (C&EN, June 4, 2001, page 56).
I’ll return to another interesting aspect of this 1967 issue of C&EN in next week’s editorial.
Thanks for reading.
I recently spent a week on the road, something I should probably do more often. I traveled to Madison, Wis., at the invitation of University of Wisconsin chemistry professor and ACS president-elect Bassam Shakhashiri to give a public lecture on sustainability and climate change and to be a guest lecturer at a seminar for chemistry graduate students and postdocs on communicating science to the general public.
From Madison, I flew to Los Angeles to visit UCLA chemistry professor Paul Weiss, who is also the director of UCLA’s California Nanosystems Institute (CNSI) and the editor-in-chief of the highly successful journal ACS Nano. Paul and I attended a performance of Alan Alda’s play “Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie” (C&EN, Nov. 7, page 30), and I spent a day talking to chemists and other scientists associated with CNSI.
C&EN readers know what I think about sustainability and climate change. The title of my talk, “Sustainable Growth Is An Oxymoron,” says it all. You can’t have a sustainable economic system based on exponential growth on a finite planet. You can talk about efficiency and new technology for as long as you like, and it doesn’t matter. We live on a finite planet with finite resources. We have to create an economic system that provides for human needs without endless growth in human population and consumption.
Interestingly, on the day of my talk in Madison, Richard Muller, a physics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and director of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project testified at a Congressional climate science briefing. Muller, previously something of a climate change skeptic, established the BEST project to address criticisms of the land and sea surface temperature record, including the choice of measurement stations and the methods used to correct systematic errors in climate data. The BEST team used data from 39,000 unique stations and concluded that previous studies that found a one degree centigrade rise in Earth’s surface temperature since 1950 are accurate and that the criticisms leveled at those studies are invalid.
In the communicating science to the public class, I talked about the 2010 paper in Science that concluded that microbes living in the sediments of Mono Lake in California incorporated arsenic into their nucleic acids and other biomolecules in place of phosphorus (C&EN Latest News, Dec. 8, 2010). Starting with the press conference sponsored by NASA and Science—press conferences are almost never a good way to announce important scientific discoveries—the supposed arsenic-based microbes are a case study in how not to communicate science to the public.
Nevertheless, the announcement by lead author Felisa Wolfe-Simon and co-authors did demonstrate how science works in today’s media- and internet-soaked culture. Serious scientists blogged their skepticism about the work within days of its announcement. Within weeks, front-page stories in leading newspapers like the Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal gave way to stories about just how unlikely the result actually was, a point made, not very articulately, by one of the participants in the original press conference. Participants in the seminar showed a keen appreciation for the challenges scientists face in communicating with journalists and with other nonscientists.
My day at CNSI was highly informative. The center brings together faculty from a number of UCLA’s science and engineering departments and the UCLA medical school to collaborate on a wide range of nanoscale science. To advance the research, CNSI supports eight core facilities that include wet and dry labs and state-of-the-art instrumentation such as electron microscopes, atomic force microscopes, X-ray diffractometers, optical microscopies and spectroscopies, and high throughput robotics.
CNSI reminds me of collaborative efforts at other universities I’ve visited focused on drug discovery, materials science, and other interdisciplinary endeavors. As I’ve noted in this space previously, chemistry is both a core discipline and an enabling science. The molecular toolbox that chemistry represents has transformed many other areas of science, and I think it is increasingly where chemistry’s future lies. I’ll revisit CNSI in much more depth in an upcoming issue.
Thanks for reading.
The following is a guest posting by C&EN Managing Editor, Robin Giroux
Last Thursday night I was riding the Metro home late, about 9 PM, after the last of the pages of the Nov. 21 issue of C&EN got to the printer and the files were prepared for delivery to the C&EN Online team. The subway car I boarded was pretty full, but I spied an empty seat and headed for it. The seat was occupied, though, by an older gentlemen who appeared to be asleep, perhaps drunk, perhaps homeless. I kept walking, found a seat further along, sat down, and started reading a book.
My stop is at the end of the line, and as we approached it, I heard someone talking to the older gentlemen, respectfully, asking did he have somewhere to go, had he eaten. It was a younger man’s voice: Could he get the older gentleman a ride to wherever he was going, could he buy him a meal. He was persistent. He told the older gentleman that he would see him safely home.
When I exited the train, I noticed the younger man helping the older one from the train, cajoling him along the platform, talking with him about where they were going next. A small group of young folks called to the young man that they’d see him later.
The next stage of my commute home is an express bus, and the last riders to board before the bus pulled away were the two men from the train. The younger man had learned the older gentleman’s name and was still peppering him with questions: Mr. Washington, have you eaten today? Is that a hospital bracelet? What were you in the hospital for, Mr. Washington? Do you have anyone at home? His tone was upbeat, even playful, yet still respectful.
I couldn’t hear Mr. Washington reply, but he had questions of his own. The younger man assured Mr. Washington that his friends would be waiting for him, that the only thing he had to do right then was see Mr. Washington home.
Other riders on the bus chatted with the younger man, surprised that the two weren’t known to each other. They confirmed Mr. Washington’s directions for the bus route past his home, but warned that the bus doesn’t run very often. If a taxi was available, the younger man said, he’d get Mr. Washington home that way.
I had my truck parked at the transit center where the bus route ends. It was late, I was tired, I’m a female and was alone, and the street Mr. Washington lives on is well out of my way home. I could’ve been a good Samaritan. I could’ve put my personal concerns aside and driven the pair to Mr. Washington’s home and the younger man back to the transit station. Instead I went home.
My reasons for inaction are defensible, I could argue, but they’re not really. I knew that the younger man would follow through so I convinced myself that I didn’t need to go out of my way, too.
So where do current events fit in? The congressional supercommittee charged with coming up with a plan to cut $1.2 trillion from the federal budget over the next 10 years started announcing its reasons for inaction before the mandated deadline even arrived. Its reasons are no sounder than mine.
I’m confident Mr. Washington got home safely that night, with the respectful young man by his side each step, encouraging, playfully haranguing him to eat, to get the care he needed, to get a good night’s sleep. And I’m impressed with that young man and his willingness to go so far out of his way to do the right thing.
I wish I were as confident that our leadership in Washington includes enough individuals who will go out their way, leave their friends, change their plans, and follow through cheerfully, doggedly, purposefully. This country needs them.
This week’s issue marks a milestone in the evolution of Chemical & Engineering News. With the Oct. 31 issue, we completed the first phase of the C&EN Production Automation Program (CPAP). Production of C&EN has been completely transformed and the technology behind that production is now state of the art.
CPAP is a suite of projects that has been ongoing behind the scenes for more than two years. Some elements of CPAP have already come into existence. The C&EN Archives—the digital collection of all issues of C&EN from its introduction in 1923 through 2009—for example, debuted in November 2010; all 2010 issues were added to the C&EN Archives in the first quarter of 2011.
We introduced C&EN Mobile, another CPAP project, in August of this year. All issues of C&EN are now available for free to ACS members on their smart phones and tablets, an important new member benefit.
The most visible manifestation of the completion of CPAP 1.0 is the redesign of C&EN Online. Regular users of C&EN Online will notice the changes immediately. If you aren’t a regular user of C&EN’s online edition, please check it out at cen-online.org.
The C&EN Online homepage has been overhauled in response to numerous user comments to make it less dense and more user friendly. Site navigation has been streamlined to make it more intuitive. Access to various features like the C&EN Archives, specialized collections of stories, and the SCENE news channels is straightforward. There is a greater emphasis on Latest News, which now accounts for nearly 40% of C&EN Online page downloads, and the CENtral Science blogs.
One of the most important new features of C&EN Online is the ability for readers to comment on any C&EN story. I hope readers will continue to send us letters to the editor about our coverage. Now, however, readers can immediately respond to a story with additional commentary, links to related material, or criticism. The first time a reader comments on a story, the comment will be reviewed before it appears. After that, comments will post directly. We trust that ACS members and other readers of C&EN Online will use the new commenting feature in a constructive and respectful manner. C&EN editors will be monitoring the comments and will respond to them when appropriate.
Much of CPAP 1.0 isn’t visible to our readers. The commenting feature and other new elements on the redesigned C&EN Online are possible because the online edition is now being delivered by a dedicated online delivery system (ODS) that has been put in place. All of 2010 and 2011 C&EN Online content is now housed in the new ODS; migrating earlier content is a central element of CPAP 2.0, which begins as soon as the C&EN Online team and their ACS Washington IT colleagues recover from the effort that went into launching CPAP 1.0. And behind the new ODS is a completely new digital workflow tool that renders all of C&EN content in XML (extendable markup language). Launching C&EN Mobile, for example, was completely dependent on the successful implementation of this XML workflow.
It is impossible to thank everyone who made major contributions to this effort. C&EN Online Editor Rachel Pepling and her team—Tchad Blair, Luis Carrillo, Ty Finocchiaro, and Pam Rigden Snead—have put in many long days and weeks working on CPAP 1.0. C&EN Managing Editor Robin Giroux, Assistant Managing Editor for Editing & Production Kim Twambly, Design Director Rob Bryson, Composition Manager Renee Zerby, Display Advertising Manager Meltem Akbasli, and Journal News & Community Senior Editor Lila Guterman and their teams have been instrumental in implementing CPAP 1.0. From Washington IT, CPAP Program Manager Stephen Armah, ODS Project Manager Chandrashekar Ramanan, and K4 Workflow Project Manager Madi Nassiri and their numerous colleagues have been wonderful partners in this transformation of C&EN’s production technologies and processes.
Implementing CPAP 1.0 required a major expenditure of human and capital resources by ACS. It demonstrates our commitment to continue to deliver a state-of-the-art news magazine to ACS members and other C&EN readers.
Thanks for reading.