Recent Travels
Dec09

Recent Travels

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...

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Who knew a commute would parallel current events?
Nov22

Who knew a commute would parallel current events?

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...

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A New C&EN
Oct31

A New C&EN

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;...

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What Are They Up To?
Oct28

What Are They Up To?

It’s Friday afternoon, and there are 20 or so people in a room in the subbasement of the ACS Hach building in Washington, D.C. Many of them will be there most of the weekend. What are they up to? Find out Monday, October...

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Throw In The Towel?
Oct11

Throw In The Towel?

I keep promising myself that I’m going to write about energy and climate issues less often on this page. It’s difficult to keep the promise because developments in these areas are coming fast and furious. Developments of late, however, suggest that there may not be much point in continuing to write about them because, well, the game may be over. Consider: A National Research Council study concludes that it is unlikely that the U.S. will produce anything close to the amount of cellulosic ethanol by 2022 that is mandated by the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (C&EN Oct. 10, page 12). What’s fascinating to me is that, in the preface to the NRC report, Ingrid C. Burke and Wallace E. Tyner, the cochairs of the committee that produced it, write: “Yet with all the expertise available to us, our clearest conclusion is that there is very high uncertainty in the impacts we were trying to estimate. The uncertainties include essentially all of the drivers of biofuel production and consumption and the complex interactions among those drivers: future crude oil prices, feedstock cost and availability, technological advances in conversion efficiencies, land-use change, government policy, and more.” Biofuels are supposed to be important in mitigating climate disruption, but, “We do not have generally agreed upon estimates of the environmental or [greenhouse gas] impacts of most biofuels,” Burke and Tyner admit. Consider: A distinguished panel formed by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a group founded by two former Republican senators and two former Democratic senators, concluded recently that the U.S. “should embark on a focused and systematic program of research about climate remediation.” That is, ways to fix the climate that we are disrupting through emissions of greenhouse gases. The task force “strongly believes that climate remediation technologies are no substitute for controlling risk through climate mitigation (i.e., reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases) and climate adaptation (i.e., enhancing the resilience of human-made and natural systems to climate change).” Nevertheless, the U.S. “needs to be able to judge whether particular climate remediation techniques could offer a meaningful response to the risks of climate change,” in part, because that change could be catastrophic, and in part, because some other countries might decide to pursue climate remediation on their own. Consider: The U.S. State Department is evaluating a proposal by TransCanada, an energy production and supply company, to build the Keystone XL pipeline to transport crude oil from oil sands deposits in Alberta to the Gulf Coast of the U.S. For a variety of reasons, oil sands are one of the most environmentally problematic of all sources of petroleum. The State Department appears...

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