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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 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 Director Paul Weiss

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.

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