Flame Challenge’s Competitive Field Narrows
Apr30

Flame Challenge’s Competitive Field Narrows

Yesterday, the Flame Challenge announced via Twitter their finalists for this year’s contest to answer the question “What is color?” And science enthusiasts everywhere are tickled pink. The Flame Challenge is an annual competition sponsored by Stony Brook University’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. As the center’s name suggests, the purpose of the Flame Challenge is to improve science literacy by asking scientists to explain seemingly simple phenomena in a way that an 11-year-old can understand. The competition’s inaugural year in 2012 sought to answer the question “What is a flame?” Last year’s competition focused on “What is time?” Entries seeking to explain this year’s question of “What is color?” (a topic C&EN recently explored) have been whittled down to three written and three video explanations. To crown an ultimate champion in each of these categories, a collection of preselected children’s science classes will vote on which entries they like best, with the final winners announced on June 1. Until then, be sure to check out the video finalists, which are all posted below. And also check out the Flame Challenge website today at noon EST to watch Alan Alda discuss this year’s final entries with students from 10 different classes from around the...

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Flame Challenge 2014
Jan31

Flame Challenge 2014

A love of chemistry burns deep in the heart of Robert E. Buntrock. So much so, the American Chemical Society emeritus member will be fanning the flame of his love for the central science in the 2014 Flame Challenge. This annual challenge, which is entering its third year of sponsorship by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science (CCS) at Stony Brook University, SUNY, and the second year of sponsorship by ACS and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, asks scientists to answer a seemingly simple scientific question in such a way that an 11-year-old can understand. This year’s question is “What is color?” “Color is very important to me,” Buntrock says. “It helped attract me to chemistry.” So composing his essay shouldn’t be too difficult. The twist: He’s having his grandson’s fifth-grade class prejudge his entry. “My draft has exactly 300 words. We’ll see how much survives my critics,” he says. Patrick Allen, who teaches Buntrock’s grandson Brody at Asa C. Adams Elementary School, in Orono, Maine, has signed up his fifth-grade class to judge Flame Challenge entries, so they will be practicing, too, when Buntrock visits them next week with his entry. The annual competition began in 2012 when Alan Alda posed the question “What is a flame?” to scientists around the world because when he was 11-years-old he asked the question to his science teacher and wasn’t satisfied with the technical answer he received. The challenge question for the past two years has been decided by 11-year-olds across the world. This year, more than 800 questions were submitted by students. Scientists can answer the question either in written form (no more than 300 words) or in visual or video format (less than 6 minutes), and entries are due by March 1. In developing his entry, Buntrock has an extensive scientific background from which to draw. He is a semiretired chemist who does chemical information consulting and book reviews under the company name Buntrock Associates. He graduated with a B.S. in chemistry from the University of Minnesota in 1962, and he earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from Princeton University in 1967. Before starting his company, Buntrock worked in industry for nearly 30 years at Air Products & Chemicals and Amoco Corp. A successful researcher, he holds three patents and has almost 200 publications. With such an accomplished science career, Buntrock can’t wait to join in the Flame Challenge excitement. “I may have so much fun,” he says, “that I’ll enter again” next...

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Aaaaaand They’re Off: The 2013 World Cell Race Results
Dec10

Aaaaaand They’re Off: The 2013 World Cell Race Results

Today’s post is by Nader Heidari, an associate editor at C&EN who loves watching cells race and paint dry. On Nov. 22, cells raced down ultrathin channels, vying for the position of fastest cell in the 2013 World Cell Race. At speeds of up to 300 micrometers/hour, cells blew down the maze-like track, running into dead ends and occasionally getting confused and turning around. Many cell lines didn’t finish, but glory came to those who did. This year’s victor (shown in the race video above) was MDA MB 231 s1, a human breast cancer cell line from Alexis Gautreau of the Laboratory of Enzymology & Structural Biochemistry, in France. Gautreau will receive a €400 voucher (that’s about $650) from Ibidi, one of the event’s sponsors. The winning cells weren’t the fastest, nor were they the smartest, but they prevailed because of their persistence and because they got a good head-start by entering the maze of channels more quickly than their competitors. Slow and steady wins the race! In second place was MFH 152, a sarcoma cell line from Mohamed Jemaà in Ariane Abrieu’s lab at the Research Center for Macromolecular Biochemistry, in France. Although they were fast and accurate, these cells took too long to actually start the race, falling behind MDA MB 231, according to the race organizers. Cell-racing fans don’t have to wait until late next year for another dose of mitochondria-pumping action: The organizers are looking to start the first “Dicty World Race,” tentatively scheduled for March 21, 2014. The stars of this show would be Dictyostelium, a type of slime mold. So keep an eye out for some pedal-to-the-flagella protist action! Related Stories: Cellular...

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XPRIZE Competition Poses Ocean Acidity Challenge
Sep20

XPRIZE Competition Poses Ocean Acidity Challenge

Today’s post is by Puneet Kollipara, intern at C&EN and an aquatic acidity aficionado. Humans pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, but not all of it stays in the air. About one-fourth of the released carbon dioxide dissolves into the oceans, where it has been lowering the global average pH of seawater and thereby threatening aquatic ecosystems. Unfortunately, the ocean is as complex as it is spacious, and ocean pH doesn’t change uniformly across its depth. To get the full picture, scientists need a lot of data, but current techniques for monitoring ocean pH are generally expensive, aren’t always reliable, and can’t go very deep underwater. Right now, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), for instance, has 18 ocean-chemistry monitors at various locations—more than anyone else in the world—but none of these sensors takes measurements below surface waters. “As you can imagine, that does not really represent the global oceans very well,” says Christopher L. Sabine, an oceanographer at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory. A 22-month competition launched by the XPRIZE Foundation, a nonprofit aiming to spur technological innovation for society’s betterment, seeks to change that. The newly announced $2 million Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE calls on innovators of all stripes, both professional and amateur, to design better pH-measurement technologies. “The idea with the XPRIZE is to develop robust, inexpensive sensors that can be deployed much more easily,” says Sabine, whose NOAA lab is partnering with XPRIZE for the competition. Half of the $2 million prize will be awarded for the development of an affordable, reliable sensor, Sabine says. The other half will go toward a system that can accurately profile pH changes, including at great depths; such an instrument might start deep in the ocean and take real-time measurements as it’s lifted to the surface. Two types of instruments are currently in mainstream use for measuring ocean pH, but both have significant drawbacks. The first type, potentiometric sensors, involves probing a water sample with a device containing two electrodes. One electrode is enveloped in a semipermeable membrane that lets ions pass through, and the other is exposed directly to the water as a reference. Acid hydrogen ions flow from the seawater across the membrane, and a voltmeter measures the resulting electric-potential difference compared with the reference electrode. The sensor can use that measurement to calculate the water’s pH: The more H+ ions there are, the more that flow across the membrane, and the greater the resulting voltage. One drawback of pH electrodes, however, is that they’re very sensitive to the presence of other ions in seawater, which can also flow across...

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Flame Challenge 2: And The Winners Are
Jun07

Flame Challenge 2: And The Winners Are

Some 20,000 11-year-olds voted to determine the winners of the Flame Challenge 2 competition. Depending on the format of scientists’ responses to this year’s question, “What is time?” entries were categorized as written or visual. Nicholas Williams, a retired scientist who spent 33 years working at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), and ACS member Steven Maguire, a Ph.D. candidate in inorganic catalysis at the University of Ottawa, in Ontario, were recognized as the winners on June 2 at the World Science Festival, in New York City. Both winners have experience communicating science, which is the goal of the competition. Williams, the winner of the written category, continues to work with LLNL through its “Fun with Science” outreach program. About teaching science, Williams says, “Teach so it makes sense. Teach so it can be understood. Teach so it can be remembered.” And this he did in his entry. He begins his prose mimicking a nagging parent and their child, “Time to go to school, time to clean your room, time to do this, time to do that.” No wonder 11-year-olds like his answer: He immediately relates to their world before he gets to the tough stuff. Maguire, winner of the visual category, hosts a Web series, “Science Isn’t Scary.” In each video clip, he answers a science question that seems complicated, but by the end of the explanation Maguire has helped the viewer better understand the science behind how or why something works. His series is essentially mini Flame Challenges, so he has experience explaining scientific concepts to an audience in a way that they’ll understand. According to the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, a division of Stony Brook University, in New York, and one of the sponsors of the Flame Challenge, there will be another question from 11-year-olds for scientists to answer in 2014. If you know an 11-year-old who has a suggestion for the Flame Challenge 3, submit their question...

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In Print: Mission to Mars, Molecular Fashion
May28

In Print: Mission to Mars, Molecular Fashion

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. Meet Anders. He’s 51 and Swedish. He’s also one of more than 78,000 people who have applied to take a one-way trip to Mars. As this week’s Newscripts column explores, Netherlands-based “nonprofit” Mars One is currently soliciting applications from individuals interested in traveling to the Red Planet in 2023 and never returning. Approximately 28 to 40 applicants will be chosen from the pool of applicants to participate in a reality show in which they will train for seven years for the mission. An audience vote will then help determine the four people who will ultimately go where no man has gone before. There is a video portion to the application that requires applicants, such as Anders, to tell a little bit about themselves and explain their reasons for wanting to travel to a foreign planet. Many of these videos are posted to the Mars One website, and what’s most striking about them is the general lack of enthusiasm many of these applicants have when discussing the opportunity to go to Mars. “I’ve often fantasized to just get on board a spaceship and go to explore the universe. I often get the feeling that I don’t belong here, but out there, in space,” the aforementioned Anders says, without so much as a smile. What’s behind this dearth of excitement? Maybe, deep down, the applicants recognize just how unlikely this trip to Mars really is. Mars One’s website says that the mission will cost $6 billion. It’s an astronomical figure that seems even more unobtainable when considering that the website says that the revenue Mars One generates from its reality show of civilian astronaut boot camp will somehow be on par with that generated by previous Olympic Games. The comparison seems ill-conceived, especially considering that the revenue generated by NBC during the last Olympic Games was barely enough to cover the network’s expenses. A more tangible exploration of science comes in the second part of the Newscripts column, which discusses ChemKnits, a blog that features more than 40 chemistry-themed knitting charts. The charts include designs for a coffee-cup cozy emblazoned with the caffeine molecule and a wine cozy sporting resveratrol. “When deciding on what molecules to knit, I think first about the visual impact and if I can add some wit to the design,” says Rebecca Roush Brown, the creator of the website and a Ph.D. who graduated from Harvard University in 2011 after studying biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology. Interested in seeing this wit on...

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