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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?”

C&EN Mobile Image

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.

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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.

Download Report (PDF, 14.4 MB, 167 pages)

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.

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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.

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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.”

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Water, Water

The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of WaterIt’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.”

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Celebrating IYC 2011


The International Year of Chemistry is already half over! And what a year it’s been so far. But there’s more to come. This week’s issue of C&EN is our major contribution to the IYC 2011 celebration. The issue contains five essays by prominent figures in the chemistry enterprise on some of the many ways chemistry is contributing to the welfare of humanity, as well as an essay on the life of Marie Curie, who received her Nobel Prize in Chemistry 100 years ago.

The issue also contains a Comment by ACS President Nancy B. Jackson that focuses on IYC 2011. Jackson outlines some of the challenges humans face, and writes, “Although no one knows exactly how to address these challenges, we all agree that collaboration and chemistry are crucial in our search for solutions.”

For Jackson, “collaboration” means working with chemists from around the world, from developed and developing countries. “Chemical scientists from developing and emerging countries have so much to offer the U.S. chemical community,” Jackson writes. She points, for example, to access to natural products and creative applications of green chemistry.

“But most striking,” Jackson writes, “is the personal and professional inspiration that I consistently find through knowing chemists from Africa and other developing regions of the world. Their dedication, enthusiasm, and vision convince me that chemistry really can make the world a better place.”

C&EN has been taking note of such chemists during IYC 2011 in a series of profiles of ACS members living and working in places where there are only a few such members. The profiles have appeared in the last issue of each month. So far this year, we have profiled members living in Cuba (where there are a total of six members), Fiji (1 member), Lebanon (13), Burkina Faso (2), and Moldova (1). These stories of chemists working as researchers and educators under difficult conditions and with meager resources are truly inspirational.

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Archives Excursion

Anyone with an interest in chemistry can get pleasantly lost in the C&EN Archives and old ACS journals. I did the week before last digging around for a particular tidbit of information and finding many, many more.

Senior Correspondent Steve Ritter wrote the lead News of the Week story in the June 13 issue of C&EN announcing that MIT’s Robert S. Langer would receive the 2012 Priestley Medal. When Ritter interviewed him, Langer said he was honored “and a bit shocked” to learn that he had won the award, in part because he was the first chemical engineer to be so honored in something like 60 years.

Steve couldn’t remember the name of the chemical engineer that Langer had suggested might have been the last one to win the Priestley. It was late on Thursday afternoon, and I was waiting for final news pages to read so I started working through the names of Priestley Medal winners to find the missing chemical engineer.

In no particular order, I learned that Francis P. Garvan had received the 1929 Priestley Medal remotely from ACS President Irving Langmuir, who was at the fall ACS national meeting in Minneapolis. The News Edition of Industrial & Engineering Chemistry (forerunner of C&EN) reported: “The ceremonies were broadcast over Station WCCO of the Columbia system … and when it became known that Mr. Garvan would be unable to receive the medal personally, arrangements were made … to rebroadcast over WABC in New York. A special wire was opened between the two stations, and Mr. Garvan was enabled to hear the program through a receiving set at his sick bed in the Adirondacks, where he has been confined because of continued ill health during the past three years, said to be due partially to his strenuous efforts in behalf of independent American chemical industries during and following the World War.”

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A Modest Proposal

This guest editorial is by Ronald Breslow, a professor of chemistry at Columbia University and a former president of the American Chemical Society.

During the “golden years” of academic chemistry, 1960 to 1990, funding for research was not the challenging problem it is today. Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows readily received fellowships from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

Research grants from federal funding agencies then mainly supported the costs of doing science, not the living costs of students. The fellowships were limited to U.S. students, so academic chemists tried to convince the best U.S. students to go into chemistry, and winning the fellowships helped convince them to do so. As a result, more of our chemistry students were U.S. citizens who wanted to stay in this country, rather than foreign students who might want to return to their native countries. The past fellowship system also enabled young faculty to get off to a running start, with plenty of self-funded graduate students and postdocs—who were not dependent on the faculty member’s grants—available to join their research teams.

We know we can’t return to that past system. The federal funding agencies are underfunded relative to the need, and diverting some of their funds to fellowships would not increase the total amount of money available. Instead, a new source of funds is needed.

I propose that this funding come from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), in a significant expansion of what it currently does. The best plan, and one that is easiest to start, would expand and somewhat change a program DOE currently operates called Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (GAANN). This program specifically supports graduate education in chemistry and other science and engineering fields, but it is not optimal. It sends funds to science and engineering departments, which then use them to support graduate students.

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None Too Bright

Human beings are both amazingly clever and staggeringly stupid.

No other conclusion is possible given two stories on opposite pages of the May 26 Washington Post. The story on page 2 of that day’s paper carried the headline: “Groups sue FDA to try to limit antibiotics in animal feed.” The story on page 3 had the headline: “New NASA mission will ‘kiss’ asteroid in 2020.”

Let’s do clever first. On May 25, NASA announced that it would launch a spacecraft to an asteroid in 2016 and use a robotic arm to obtain samples from the asteroid and return them to Earth in 2023. The mission is called OSIRIS-REx.

According to NASA’s website, OSIRIS-REx will travel through space for four years and approach the “primitive, near Earth asteroid designated 1999 RQ36 in 2020. Once within three miles of the asteroid, the spacecraft will begin six months of comprehensive surface mapping. The [mission] science team then will pick a location from where the spacecraft’s arm will take a sample. The spacecraft gradually will move closer to the site, and the arm will extend to collect more than two ounces of material for return to Earth in 2023. The mission, excluding the launch vehicle, is expected to cost approximately $800 million.”

That pricey space dust will be stored in a capsule that will land at Utah’s Test & Training Range in 2023. The asteroid 1999 RQ36 is interesting for a couple of reasons, according to NASA. Asteroids are relics of the solar nebula from which the sun and planets formed. Their composition can tell us something about our origins. There’s also a one in 1,800 chance that 1999 RQ36 will clobber Earth in 2182. OSIRIS-REx probably can’t do anything about that.

But think of it: Humans can build a machine and launch it into space, guide it hundreds of millions of miles to rendezvous with a speck of an object, grab a little piece of that object, and return it to a precise location on Earth seven years later. That really takes brains.

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Geological Epochs and Criminalizing Science

Excellent cover leader and story in the May 28 issue of The Economist on “Welcome to the Anthropocene: Geology’s New Age.” In its usual calm, thoughtful, no-nonsense style, the British news weekly discusses the implications of a world made over by human activity. “What geologists choose to call a period of history normally matters little to the rest of mankind,” we read. “The Anthropocene is different. It is one of those moments where a scientific realization, like Copernicus grasping that the Earth goes round the sun, could fundamentally change people’s view of things far beyond science. It means more than rewriting some textbooks. It means thinking afresh about the relationship between people and their world and acting accordingly.”

I would like to point out that I wrote an editorial entitled “Welcome to the Anthropocene” in the February 4, 2008, issue of C&EN. Read it here first.

While we’re pointing to other publication’s coverage, there’s a very disturbing news item in the June 3 issue of Science, “Quake Experts To Be Tried For Manslaughter.” The story leads: “Seven scientists and technicians who analyzed seismic activity ahead of the devastating earthquake that struck the Italian town of L’Aquila on 6 April 2009 will indeed face trial for manslaughter, a judge announced last week. The defendants are members of Italy’s great risks committee, whose job is to assess risks of potential natural disasters. A year ago, they were accused by L’Aquila prosecutors of having failed to provide adequate warning of the magnitude-6.3 earthquake that killed 308 people.”

Apparently, there was a fair amount of low-level seismic activity around L’Aquila leading up to the major quake, and the scientists now being charged with manslaughter had been monitoring that activity. They assured the townspeople that it was highly unlikely that the low-level activity was a harbinger of a more serious earthquake. While the statement was true, it turned out to be wrong.

And I thought that only Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli was interested in criminalizing scientific discussions he found distasteful.

From The CENtral Science Blogs