Remembering Challenger…
Jan28

Remembering Challenger…

This post appeared originally at the ScienceBlogs home of Terra Sigillata on 28 January 2007. It was a very cold morning in North Florida (in the teens/low 20s Fahrenheit) as I walked in to class during my second semester of graduate school. I vaguely recall some concerns about the launch of Challenger that morning because of the cold and I believe it was scrapped once before, this highly-touted launch of America’s first schoolteacher in space. 1986…This was before the ubiquity of the internet and I didn’t have a radio in our small lab. The first I heard of the disaster was while standing on the med center cafeteria lunch line when a visually-impaired gentleman asked me what I thought of the space shuttle event. I thought he was referring to the likelihood that the launch was canceled again. Instead, a blind man was asking me if I had seen the explosion. Two of my fellow students who had undergraduate pharmacy degrees were down in Orlando that morning taking the Florida pharmacy boards so they could score some lucrative part-time work to supplement our graduate stipend of $6,600 per year. They could see the somewhat Y-shaped cloud to the east from their exam room resulting from the detonation of the booster rockets. Afterwards, I recall some criticism that NASA had been pressured to go forward with the launch due to President Reagan’s scheduled State of the Union speech that evening. I recall Richard Feynman’s famous illustration of a distorted O-ring from his glass of ice water during a press conference of the Rogers Commission investigating the accident. [This link autoplays a 29-second video of his testimony] The Florida DMV issued a memorial license plate with proceeds to go toward education of the children of the astronauts who perished in the disaster. I renewed the plate each year until leaving Florida for my postdoc…and keep it to this day. (Note: Prof John Lynch at Stranger Fruit remembers yesterday’s anniversary of the 1967 launchpad oxygen fire that claimed Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee.). Added 28 January 2011: The NASA mission description for STS-51L describes in great detail the sequence of technical failures leading to the explosion. I couldn’t find any information in the mission plans to indicate that any chemistry experiments were planned but I hope you’ll indulge me in this remembrance today here at CENtral Science. This Awesome Stories post by Carole D. Bos closes with a quote from Richard Feynman that concludes Appendix F of the Rogers Commission Report: For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be...

Read More
“Synthetic marijuana” chemist John W. Huffman interviewed on regional NPR program
Jan26

“Synthetic marijuana” chemist John W. Huffman interviewed on regional NPR program

John W. Huffman is the retired Clemson University chemist whose non-cannabinoid cannabimimetics synthesized in the 1990s have spawned a legal highs industry in the United States. So-called herbal incense products like K2 Spice are sprayed with some of Huffman’s compounds such as JWH-018 and sold in head shops and convenience stores across the US. However, many municipalities and 15 states have issued bans on the sales of these products. Nationally, the DEA is currently revising a final order to temporarily place some of Huffman’s compounds on Schedule I of controlled substances. Recreational use of these compounds came on the scene in Germany and across Europe several years ago and are now illegal there. The US military has been particularly aggressive in penalizing soldiers for use of synthetic marijuana products. In fact, Reuters reported yesterday afternoon that seven midshipmen at the US Naval Academy have been expelled for using Spice. Yesterday, Julie Rose at the Charlotte, NC, NPR affiliate WFAE-FM caught up with Huffman for an interview at his home in Sylva, NC. The 78-year-old chemist closed up his lab in December and now works on his hobby of model trains in the North Carolina mountains. The Huffman interview runs about 6:40 – the text and podcast is available at the station’s website. A couple of weeks ago, we talked about Purdue chemist and pharmacologist David Nichols on how he was surprised that entreprenurial chemists were applying his schemes to make legal highs. In contrast to Nichols’ commentary in Nature, Huffman doesn’t have much sympathy for those who dabble with his compounds: As for any feelings of responsibility that he made the drug, Huffman says “you can’t be responsible for what idiots are going to do.” And those “idiots” now email Huffman wanting to know how to make JWH-018. The messages are usually poorly written and ask Huffman for help in making it. “I just hit the delete button,” says Huffman. Chemists will also get a kick out of this passage: The only reason Huffman doesn’t tell his fans to go ahead and smoke marijuana instead, is because it’s illegal. Huffman does not break the law. He says he’s never even gotten a speeding ticket. The one time he tangled with the police, he was 15. He and a buddy started a fire in the street with stuff from his chemistry set. “We got a free ride to the police station, and it scared the daylights out of both of us that they would notify our parents,” says Huffman. Please go over to the WFAE-FM site and listen to Julie Rose’s interview with Dr. Huffman. And if you are in the...

Read More

Great scientists: biochembelle on the Haber-Bosch process

With apologies for the radio silence here, I’m off to perform some professional service for our nation’s medical research agency over the next two-and-a-half days. In the meantime, let me direct your viewing eyes to a terrific post from this weekend by my chemist/biochemist colleague, biochembelle, at her blog, There and (hopefully) back again. Her post about Fritz Haber follows from a discussion on Twitter and at Nature Chemistry’s Skeptical Chymist blog on an unscientific survey of the “greatest” chemists of all time. biochembelle has a beautifully illustrated history of Haber and the process that fueled a massive increase in food production while also creating a method for chemical warfare. She considers very seriously how we are to view Haber’s role in the latter respect. In this regard, an excellent comment came in from British expat, Tideliar, on putting ourselves in the mindset of a generation that knew that war was inevitable at some point in their lifetime. ‘belle’s post also taught me what BASF stands for as well. Once again, you can read biochembelle’s post on Fritz Haber here. Our old friend, Leigh K Boerner, also has a bit more lighthearted look at Haber-Bosch as...

Read More
Herbal supplement interactions with prescription meds for “heart problems”
Jan18

Herbal supplement interactions with prescription meds for “heart problems”

…or, “how to artificially inflate your readership.” Yesterday, I saw tweets about a CBS News online article – or so I thought – about 30 herbal dietary supplements to avoid if one has “heart trouble.” What I found was a photo gallery site that I had to click on 20 times to obtain the information – an adaptation of this paper from Mayo Clinic Rochester and Scottsdale investigators in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology last February. Most of the herbs listed were there because of their positive or negative interactions with the oral anticoagulant drug, warfarin. This list included typical, top-ranked supplements such as ginkgo, garlic, saw palmetto, green tea, and alfalfa. Granted, each page had a lovely photo of the plant or product and a brief description. The list also included herbs that acted via other mechanisms such as St. John’s wort, which can accelerate the metabolism of a wide variety of drugs (via CYP3A4 induction) and yohimbine, whose alpha-2 receptor antagonistic activity can modify the effects of prescription antihypertensive drugs. The information actually appears quite valid and, from my knowledge of the literature, appears quite accurate. Of course, it doesn’t include original literature references since the gallery appears intended for a general readership. But I found it vexing to have to click through 20 pages – also after being misled into clicking the only hyperlink in the frontpage of the photo gallery, CBS News’ “friends” at Health.com (link not provided here on purpose), thinking that it was the source of the “easy guide.” Or maybe I’m just cranky because I have figured out a way to get you to click on my site here 20 consecutive times. Reference: Tachjian, A., Maria, V., & Jahangir, A. (2010) Use of Herbal Products and Potential Interactions in Patients With Cardiovascular Diseases. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 55(6), 515-525....

Read More

David Nichols with chemist blogger Andrea Sella on BBC4 IYC programme

Our beloved C&EN online editor, Rachel Pepling, pointed out to me yesterday an insightful post about David Nichols by University College London chemist, Andrea Sella, at his Solarsaddle’s Blog. You’ll recall that my previous post commented on the Nature commentary by Purdue University distinguished chemist and pharmacologist, David Nichols, as he lamented how some of his synthetic schemes for neuroactive compounds have been adopted by those in the recreational street drug industry. In his post, “Is David Nichols just a wee bit disingenuous?,” Sella discusses how Nichols did not reveal in the commentary his professional relationship with revered “psychedelic” chemist, Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin. I probably don’t have to tell chemists about Shulgin – and that Shulgin’s 1991 book co-authored with his wife, Ann, entitled, PIKHAL: A Chemical Love Story, is the central holy book of drug users wishing to expand their consciousness and explore their mystic relationship with the world and themselves. (PIKHAL stands for Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved – the Shulgins also wrote another book on tryptamines, TIKHAL.). PIKHAL is part fictionalized autobiography of the couple and part synthesis and personal bioassay descriptions of about 200 psychoactive compounds. Andrea noted that he had been invited onto BBC Radio 4’s Material World program to kick off the International Year of Chemistry and had a discussion with producer Roland Pease about Nichols’ relationship with Shulgin: Roland was intrigued when I said that Nichols had made no reference [in the Nature commentary] to Shulgin’s book because it seemed to me that “synthetic drug makers” would take that as a starting point and it wasn’t clear to me why they should stop there and not follow things up. After all, anyone who can make MDMA is someone who can set up a reflux, make a Grignard reagent, and do a Büchner filtration or two. If so, then they probably have a chemistry degree and that means they can search the chemical literature, which they can do in pretty well any public library. In the evening I flipped through the book, looking at the recipes and reading the odd bit here and there. The next day I got a call from Roland. “Do you realize that they’ve published together?”. Sure enough Shulgin and Nichols have six joint publications. I went back to PIHKAL and looked at the reference section and sure enough there were more than a dozen papers with Nichols as first author. And then I spotted it. Nichols wrote the foreward, finishing with wonderful, inspirational sentence:  “Some day in the future, when it may again be acceptable to use chemical tools to explore the mind , this book will be a...

Read More