Travels With Beaker
Aug29

Travels With Beaker

Quite a few years ago, I don’t really know how, the Muppets character Beaker became C&EN’s unofficial mascot. If you are not familiar with the Muppets (what planet have you been living on?), Beaker is the shy lab assistant of Dr. Bunsen Honeydew. He’s got a shock of red hair, typical Muppet protruding eyes, a big orange nose, a pale green lab coat, and a tie. He’s also accident-prone. C&EN Managing Editor Robin Giroux has custody of two small Beaker plush dolls, which often tag along on trips taken by C&EN editors, both on business and vacation trips. Since I have a new iPhone 4 and I am determined to learn how to use its multiple functionalities (I never learned how to take a photograph and e-mail it from my BlackBerry), I decided to take Beaker along on a recent vacation with my wife, Jan, to Montana to visit our son, Rudy Jr., and hike in Glacier National Park. Nope, this Editor’s Page is not about climate change or the disappearing glaciers in Glacier National Park (they’re projected to be gone by 2030). It’s just about traveling with Beaker and sharing a few of the photographs I took. Rudy Jr. took Jan and me on two hikes in the Bitterroot Mountains south of Missoula, where he is a student at the University of Montana. He finds my newfound enthusiasm for my smartphone amusing. One hike was up the stunning Blodgett Canyon to a bridge over Blodgett Creek and a view of Horsehead Arch. Jan took the photo of Beaker and me. Several days later, we stopped at the entrance to Glacier to take an obligatory picture of Beaker and the entrance sign (you can see that picture at C&EN Online). A car pulled up behind us, and two young women got out to ask us to take a picture of them at the sign. They saw Beaker and one woman said, “Beaker!” and the other said, “Meep, meep, meep, meep.” The other two pictures are of Beaker on a hike up Swiftcurrent Pass Trail out of Many Glacier on the east side of the park. The wildflowers and scenery were spectacular. Beaker has had many adventures with C&EN staff members. He’s been in Tiananmen Square, at a World Cup football match in Germany, chewed on by Godzilla in Tokyo, hung out with sled dogs in Alaska, gone whale watching off the coast of Massachusetts, and many more. Catch some of the other pics of Beaker on C&EN Online. Thanks for...

Read More
Introducing C&EN Mobile
Aug17

Introducing C&EN Mobile

My office BlackBerry, which I had only become reasonably comfortable using over the past few months, recently decided to stop downloading e-mail. I could still send e-mail and use the device as a phone. I could even access the Internet with it. But it wouldn’t accept e-mail. So I needed a new phone, and I had to decide what kind of a phone to get. Now, I hate to admit this, but I have reached the age where I find new technology somewhat intimidating. A couple of weeks ago, I listened to C&EN Associate Editor Carmen Drahl, who has never met a technology she didn’t embrace with gusto, talk about her iPhone as not just a smartphone but a “complete reporter’s toolbox,” which can be used as a camera, video camera, and tape recorder. I was daunted. But I also knew that, as the editor-in-chief of this magazine, I needed to at least grasp how my staff are using technology to do their jobs. And, as important, how C&EN’s readers are accessing the magazine. So now I have an iPhone 4. In a text, one of my sons asked me, “So, how does it feel to have a tiny computer in your pocket?” Which brings me to the subject of this Editor’s Page. With this week’s issue, we proudly introduce C&EN Mobile, which is designed to bring C&EN’s rich content to your mobile device—iPhone, iPad, or Android phone—formatted to optimize its readability on that device. The C&EN Mobile app is available for free from Apple’s App Store or the Android Market. Download it and you have automatic access to all C&EN Online Latest News stories, the 10 blogs on the CENtral Science blog network, and ACS Careers job postings. That’s a lot of content you can access on your phone for free. We post one or more—often as many as six—Latest News stories every day of the workweek to keep you up-to-date on breaking developments in the chemistry enterprise, from business news, to basic and applied research, to important policy developments, to news about ACS. And the CENtral Science network is a rich collection of blogs from C&EN editors and guest contributors as varied as The Safety Zone, in which Associate Editor Jyllian Kemsley explores important issues of lab safety, and The Haystack, in which Senior Editor Lisa Jarvis and Drahl focus on drug discovery. You can get a chuckle from the Newscripts blog maintained by Senior Editor Bethany Halford and Associate Editor Lauren Wolf. Or check out what some of our outside bloggers—Terra Sigillata’s David Kroll, Just Another Electron Pusher’s Christine Herman and Glen Ernst, and Transition States’...

Read More
Sezen, Sames, And Columbia
Aug08

Sezen, Sames, And Columbia

This week’s lead Science & Technology Department story by C&EN News Editor William G. Schulz is a devastating account of systematic scientific fraud committed by former Columbia University chemistry graduate student Bengü Sezen. Schulz has been following the Sezen case since her work was called into question and Columbia began an investigation of it in 2006. Sezen worked under the direction of Dalibor Sames from 2000 to 2005. Sames was an assistant chemistry professor when Sezen joined his group; he received tenure at Columbia in 2003. During her time in Sames’ lab, Sezen was the lead author on three papers published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, all of which Sames retracted in 2006 after the results reported in the papers were called into question because no one could reproduce them (J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2006, 128, 8364). Sezen received her Ph.D. in 2005; Columbia revoked it earlier this year. Schulz’s story in this week’s issue is based on Columbia’s investigative report, which was obtained from the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by C&EN, as well as numerous interviews. A voice not heard in those interviews, and barely heard throughout the investigation of Sezen’s work, is that of Sames. When questions were first raised about Sezen’s research, Sames deflected them, citing the ongoing investigation. As reported by Schulz, now “Columbia has expressly forbidden Sames or any of its employees from speaking publicly about the Sezen case,” often citing privacy concerns. There isn’t much more to say about Bengü Sezen. The redacted ORI report makes clear that she is a pathological liar who didn’t conduct any of the research reported in the JACS papers or her thesis. Which is actually pretty amazing, because if you look at the papers and the associated supporting information, you draw two conclusions: Sezen knows her chemistry, and she put an enormous amount of effort into her fraud. Her first JACS communication in 2002, for example, has 33 pages of supporting information, including eight carefully constructed NMR spectra. But what of Sames? Questions about Sezen’s research were raised by other members of Sames’ group as early as 2002, Schulz reports. Those questions weren’t just ignored by Sames; those who raised them were punished. “At least three unnamed subordinates left or were dismissed from the Sames lab, for example, for stepping forward and raising concerns about Sezen’s irreproducible research results,” Schulz writes. As the report makes clear, these whistle-blowers were sacrificed in order to maintain her favored status in the research group. Sames acted, in fact, only after a member of his group specifically set...

Read More

Recycler At Heart

Growing up in the Philippines, my brothers and I used to earn spare change by heeding the calls of scrap buyers going around neighborhoods calling out, “bote, bakal, diario” or bottles, metals, newspapers. They weighed the metals with crude handheld scales; they sorted the bottles according to color and size; and they measured stacks of old newspapers by the span of an outstretched hand, from the tip of the little finger to the tip of the thumb. The scrap buyers were stingy, and we were always disappointed that our stash never amounted to more than a few coins. Nevertheless, at a young age, I was aware that recycling was worth money. So it was a marvel to me when I moved to the U.S. in the mid-1980s to see organized recycling in the form of yard sales and thrift stores. When my mother was still alive, she took great pleasure in hunting for bargains, much to the dismay of my father, who would have preferred to spend Saturday mornings reading the newspaper rather than driving my mother around to neighborhood yard sales. For a few dollars, she could assemble a dining set or a winter wardrobe for each of her children, who were immigrating to the U.S. with their families. My first home in the U.S. contained many previously owned kitchen and furniture items. I still use a salad spinner and a Waring blender that my mother found for me more than 20 years ago. Just last week, I stopped by a Goodwill store and came home with a dozen books that cost me less than the price of just one brand-new book. I still occasionally browse thrift stores and consignment stores and get a kick out of finding exquisite items at a fraction of their retail cost. In addition to the daily sorting for recycling of paper, plastic, and glass that happens now in many homes and places of business, twice a year, I go through closets, shelves, and storage bins to declutter. Anything that is usable goes to Purple Heart or Goodwill. Not much goes to landfills. Multiply the personal acts of recycling by millions and add the efforts of commerce and industry and the results can be staggering. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the amount of municipal solid waste generated in the U.S. rose by 60% from 152 million tons in 1980 to 243 million tons in 2009, but the amount disposed of in landfills fell by 10% from 135 million tons in 1980 to 121 million tons in 2009. The amount recycled soared 465% from 14.5 million tons in 1980 to 82 million tons...

Read More

What Kind Of Nation?

What kind of nation do we want to live in? That’s really the fundamental question that underlies the epic debate over raising the U.S. debt ceiling and future budgets. It’s not about freedom. The citizens of Germany, France, and the U.K.—all nations with social welfare systems that are more developed than that of the U.S.—are as free as U.S. citizens are. They are less free in some ways, more free in others. It balances out. They have better health care; we have more guns. It all depends on what matters to you. Here is the kind of country we’re moving toward: On June 16, the Washington Post reported that, in order to reduce the deficit, the House of Representatives approved $750 million to fund a food safety law passed by the previous Congress, $205 million less than President Obama had requested and $87 million less than the Food & Drug Administration is currently receiving to guard the nation’s food supply. The House also voted to cut $35 million from the Department of Agriculture’s food safety inspection service. The Post reported that Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) said the cuts were justified because the nation’s food supply was “99.99 percent safe.” For simplicity’s sake, let’s say there are 300 million U.S. citizens, and they eat three meals and a snack per day. That’s 1.2 billion “eating events” per day, or 438 billion eating events per year. According to the Post, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention estimates that 48 million Americans get sick from tainted food each year. If we define “safe” as 48 million cases of disease per 438 billion eating events, with 28,000 of those who get sick winding up in the hospital and 3,000 dying, then the nation’s food supply is, in fact, 99.989% safe. Do you think that this definition of a safe food supply, in which as many people die each year as died in the 9/11 attacks, is adequate? The June 6 New York Times had an article entitled “In State Parks, the Sharpest Ax Is the Budget’s.” States are closing parks permanently in response to budget deficits. States that previously didn’t charge for entry to state parks now are. Among park officials, the Times reports, “The resignation some feel … is rooted in a broader sense nationwide that the status of parks has permanently changed. … [S]ome officials also worry that rising fees, rising gas prices and a need to ‘market’ parks to people who will spend money will keep those with lower incomes from enjoying public lands.” It’s so Milton Friedmanesque. There’s no need for government to pay for or offset the...

Read More
Water, Water
Jul05

Water, Water

It’s become something of a truism that water scarcity will be as important an issue worldwide in the 21st century as finding alternatives to fossil fuels. A new book, “The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water” by Charles Fishman, convincingly drives that point home with a plethora of data on water use and interviews with people on the front lines of providing water for uses ranging from agriculture to advanced computer chip manufacturing to human consumption. One of the central themes that Fishman develops and documents in “The Big Thirst” is that humans’ relationship to water is extraordinarily unrealistic. In developed nations, that’s largely because in everyone’s living memory water has always been abundant and cheap. The marketplace does not put any kind of realistic value on clean water, so people pay little or no attention to how they use it. Until it’s not there. Additionally, most people know almost nothing about the chemistry of water or water purification. Fishman writes: “Although we don’t often notice it, every gallon of water we use has an economic value—the value of whatever we can actually do with that water. … In fact, we typically behave … as if the opposite were true: We act as if clean, on-demand water had zero economic value. Especially in the developed world, the economic value inherent in the water is hidden under a cloak of invisibility, because although the water has indispensable usefulness, it rarely has a price.” Chapter 6 of “The Big Thirst” is titled “The Yuck Factor” and details the water travails of Toowoomba, a city of 120,000 in Queensland, Australia. Toowoomba sits atop a range of low mountains and has no access to a water supply such as a river or lake. It is entirely dependent for its water on rainfall filling three city reservoirs. Toowoomba’s problem is that, for the past decade, there hasn’t been any appreciable rain, and its reservoirs are now 90% empty. A 2005 plan to solve Toowoomba’s water crisis by recycling the city’s wastewater using proven technology sparked an acrimonious debate that led to a referendum in which the plan to recycle wastewater was defeated by a 2-1 margin, Fishman writes. The “yuck factor” of drinking treated sewage was just too much to overcome. Having just finished “The Big Thirst,” I was amused by a small item in the June 21 New York Times headlined “Oregon: Millions of Gallons of Water Disposed Of.” The item reads, in part, “Portland is disposing of eight million gallons of drinking water because a man was caught on camera urinating in a reservoir. Water from the city’s...

Read More