Amusing News Aliquots
May29

Amusing News Aliquots

Silly samplings from this week’s science news, compiled by Sophia Cai, Bethany Halford, and Jeff Huber. Photographer is the lone bidder on a Russian space flight suit, giving rise to the poignant and funny “Everyday Astronaut” series. [BuzzFeed] Doctors are beginning Sci-Fi-esque human trials of cooling trauma victims to a state of “suspended animation” to buy more time to fix wounds. [The Atlantic] Is beer taking up too much space in  your fridge? Time to get one of these nifty underground beer coolers. [ShortList] A Michigan zoo is selling “loads” of its animals’ manure for $25 a pop. Sounds like you’re sitting on a gold mine, cat and dog owners. [Washington Post] With Paul the Octopus dearly departed, Europeans turn to Stephen Hawkings to analyze England’s chance of winning the World Cup. Bad news, mates: “As we say in science, England couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo.” [Time] Need proof that Canadians are the toughest around? Their bears enjoy taking naps atop power lines. [Sun News] WarkaWater towers look like some wacky art installation, but they’re actually capable of harvesting enough drinking water for a family of seven. [NPR] From the it’s-so-bizarre-it-just-might-work files: Artificial sweeteners as potential tracers of municipal landfill leachate. [Seriously, Science?] “Look, Mom, no hands!” screams a 16-year-old freshly licensed driver. Google’s new car doesn’t have a steering wheel … or gas or brakes, for that matter. [Jalopnik] According to a study, cynicism can increase the likelihood of developing dementia. Yeah, like the Newscripts gang buys that. [ScienceDaily]   ...

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Tattoo Advice For Penning A Synthetic Symphony
Mar24

Tattoo Advice For Penning A Synthetic Symphony

This week I wrote about the “Atalanta Fugi­ens,” a gorgeous 17th century alchemy text that includes a musical score. What’s crazy is that this score is not just a background melody for the musically inclined alchemist. The score is actually a recipe for making the philosophers’ stone, with individual musical parts for the chemical components, mercury, sulfur, and salt. I’m desperately hoping some modern-day chemist will be inspired to write a musical score for their next total synthesis, and that some journal agrees to publish this music in the Materials & Methods section. (Or at the very least, the Supplementary Information section.) Butt! A word of warning: Should any musically inclined chemist decide to pen a synthetic opera, however, they should certainly consider the admonishment of medieval artist Hieronymous Bosch. Namely, DO NOT tattoo that score on to your behind. Taking a closer look at the hell component of Bosch’s masterpiece “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” discriminating viewers will note that the poor soul with the Gregorian chant on his nether region is being whipped by a demon tongue. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Incidentally, that demon-whipped, butt-hugging music is also available for download, thanks to Amelia Hamrick, a student in Oklahoma. Have a...

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Amusing News Aliquots
Dec12

Amusing News Aliquots

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

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Turning A Hollywood Set Into A Laboratory
Oct28

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. 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...

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John D. Roberts: The Seattle Veteran at NOS
Jun26

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. 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...

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In Print: Toys Will Be Toys
May21

In Print: Toys Will Be 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. 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...

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