In Print: Lord Kelvin’s Experiments
Aug21

In Print: Lord Kelvin’s Experiments

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 this week’s issue of C&EN. This week's column got started when astute reader Don Borseth wrote in to question something the Newscripts gang had put in a column a few weeks ago—that the famous University of Queensland pitch-drop experiment was the longest-running laboratory experiment. The folks at Guinness World Records seem to think so, but Borseth was dubious. He recalled Lord Kelvin's diffusion experiment at the University of Glasgow from the 19th century. That experiment was set up in 1872, when the pitch-drop's creator Thomas Parnell was no more than a twinkle in his father's eye. If it was still ongoing, wasn't it the elder statesman of experiments? The Newscripts gang loves getting reader mail, particularly when we can get a new column out of it. That Kelvin's experiment is at the University of Glasgow was icing on the cake for this reporter since my husband is an alum from the school's chemistry department (Go Glasgow!). I wondered if my husband had even seen Kelvin's experiment, maybe visited it as part of his studies. As it turns out, he had never even heard of it. And so the hunt was on. I got in touch with a Lee Cronin, a Glasgow chemistry professor I met years ago at a meeting in Portugal, to see if he knew anything about Kelvin's experiment. Indeed, Cronin told me, when the pitch-drop was making headlines in July he was also doubtful of its claim to be the longest-running laboratory experiment. But the internet offered little in the way of evidence of Kelvin's diffusion setup. All I could find was this brochure on this history of the room that houses the experiment. I sought out David Lindley, author of the Kelvin biography "Degrees Kelvin: A Tale of Genius, Invention, and Tragedy" to see what he could tell me about Kelvin's work in this area. "I have to confess I don't know about the diffusion experiment you mention," he wrote to me. But coincidentally, he said, the news of the pitch-drop had got him thinking about Kelvin. "I read in several places about the Australian pitch-drop experiment, and it reminded me of one of Kelvin's lecture demonstrations, in which he would put some metal bullets on top of a slab of some sort of pitch, and corks below—after a time, supposedly, the bullets drop through and the corks bob up. My understanding is that he liked to do this as a demonstration for students, so I suppose he must have used a fairly soft...

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Amusing News Aliquots
Aug01

Amusing News Aliquots

Silly samplings from this week’s science news, compiled by Sophia Cai, Bethany Halford, and Jeff Huber. Craving that chocolate bar? Go smell an orange. Tempted by cookies in the office? Go smell an orange. [NPR] Studies have shown that tall people earn more money and have a better view at rock concerts. But short people live longer, giving them more time to spend their smaller salaries and to stare at the backs of tall people at rock concerts. [Slate] Another one from the “Who Funded This?” files: Researchers try to see if people really know what cats are meowing about. [Seriously, Science?] Gearing up for a vacation? Why not take one of these 25 road trips for nerds? [PopSci] Finally, a marathon-training tactic that doesn’t involve grueling exercise—or any movement at all, really. Just dream about the race in your sleep. [Guardian] Slow animal meets fast food: Man tries to sneak his turtle onto a plane by hiding the pet inside a KFC burger. [United Press International] How likely is a shark attack? More common ways to go: sinkholes, ocean tides, and tornadoes. Shark-free tornadoes, to boot. [Washington Post] An emu, native to Australia, shows up on the side of a British Columbia road. Somehow, its long legs don't entice passing cars to stop and give it a ride. [CBC] What's better than watching chimps at the zoo? Watching chimps on a sugar high at the zoo....

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A Federal Agency’s Birth Control Program … For Deer
Jul05

A Federal Agency’s Birth Control Program … For Deer

Once upon a time, I was a full-fledged chemist doing postdoctoral research at the National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Md. Like any other postdoc, I have fond memories of leaving grad school, being paid a little more, and having more control over my research. And of course, I have warm recollections of leaving work in the wee hours of the night … and having to wait for the family of deer surrounding my car to move off so I could drive home. That ISN’T the typical postdoc experience, you say? Okay, fine. But it is at NIST. Most folks who work on the Gaithersburg campus have similar deer encounters pretty regularly. In this week’s issue of C&EN, I wrote a Newscripts column about the wild horse and donkey overpopulation problem in the western U.S. The National Research Council recently released a report suggesting ways of managing the animals. One proposed solution is to give the critters birth control. This brought me back to my days at NIST. I vividly remember being told during my postdoctoral orientation that I would encounter a lot of deer while on campus AND that the lab was dealing with the situation by giving the animals birth control. At the time, I laughed at what I thought was a reasonably silly situation. While I worked at the agency between 2006 and 2008, its campus was home to approximately 200 deer. Today, the population is probably a little less than that—around 150 or so, says Michael E. Newman, a spokesman for NIST. But in the mid-1990s, about 300 deer resided on the grassy campus with its ponds and wooded canopies. “That’s crazy for a campus that’s only a square mile,” says Allen T. Rutberg, director of the Center for Animals & Public Policy at the Cummings School for Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. First of all, a tract of land that size can’t provide enough nutrition for that many animals. And second of all, when the population gets that large, animal-human interactions don’t usually end well: In the 1990s, when the deer population was at its peak on campus, it wasn’t uncommon for about 25 deer to be killed annually in collisions with vehicles on and adjacent to the NIST campus. During rutting season, “we even had a few cases of male deer seeing a reflection and jumping through windows” into labs, Newman says. I’m particularly thankful I missed those days. It’s one thing to see a doe with its fawns cuddling under the trees as you leave work. It’s quite another to come face to face with a sexually aggressive deer...

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In Print: Prince Harry Turns into a Doll and Other Misleading Headlines
Jun17

In Print: Prince Harry Turns into a Doll and Other Misleading Headlines

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 print issue of C&EN. There's an unfortunate trend that seems to be becoming increasingly popular in today's science news world. The recipe goes like this: Take one misleading headline, add an introductory sentence that takes liberties with the subject matter it's covering, and stir in one gullible blogosphere, and before you know it, you have a distorted science news story that appears to be popping up everywhere. That's the controversy that C&EN Senior Editor Carmen Drahl took on in last week's Newscripts column. Carmen stumbled upon a press release purporting to have found a way to analyze human health through the measurement of genetic material. She called bullocks on the claim, and the journal responsible for the press release apologized. According to Carmen, this incident is nothing new. She says National Geographic blogger Ed Yong and many others have been leading a battle against misleading public relations for years. She also remembers stumbling across two particularly dubious "news stories" herself. One centered on the ENCODE (ENCyclopedia Of DNA Elements) Project. As Carmen remembers, the project's attempts to catalog the pieces that make up the genome led to press releases that claimed so-called junk DNA served a life function, which in turn led to a barrage of articles both deriding the articles as hype and asking for clarification on what constitutes as "junk." The second "news story" centered on the 2010 claim that a bacterium had somehow replaced phosphorus in its DNA backbone with arsenic. "I can tell you the effect this second release had on me—lots of sleepless hours covering the backlash to what became known as #arseniclife," Carmen says. "Misleading news releases, and the misleading reportage that often goes hand in hand with them, are bad for science," she continues. "With oversimplification or omitted information, readers and viewers (whether they're fellow scientists or laypeople) never hear about the real reasons why scientists are excited about findings—the beauty and importance are often in the details." As Carmen puts it, misinformation can lead to "science whiplash," where readers are left oscillating between two debatable claims with no resolution. Think of the endless debate about whether red wine is good for you, she says. "That's the kind of thing that breaks down people's trust in science in general." For the second part of her column, Carmen focuses on the lighter subject of Prince Harry's recent visit to the U.S. and the three-dimensional printed doll he received during his travels. To celebrate the royal visit, Carmen says she busted out...

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Biotech, Pharma, & VCs Offer Rare Disease Patient Groups Some Advice
May13

Biotech, Pharma, & VCs Offer Rare Disease Patient Groups Some Advice

Today’s issue examines the surge of interest in rare disease drugs, which in the past few years have attracted significant interest from biotech firms, big pharma, and venture capitalists alike. In addition to exploring the business and policy drivers behind increased investment in orphan drugs, the multi-part story looks at the critical role patient organizations play in drawing attention to rare diseases. As such, it seemed worth highlighting advice from various stakeholders on what patient groups can do to entice drug developers to work on their disease: --Organize yourselves. Find as many patients as possible, and establish a registry that will make it easy for a drug firm to begin a clinical trial. “Beginning to identify people, getting them into a registry, and collecting natural history data is one of the most valuable things a developer can have when they’re thinking about a program,” says Genzyme’s CEO David Meeker. "Among the most helful things that patient advocates can do is to help us to understand the natural history of disease," agrees Kevin Lee, CSO of Pfizer's rare disease unit. "Without that understanding of how the disease progresses, and what the endpoints can be, its almost impossible to do drug development." --Find a way to collaborate with one another. In even the smallest of diseases, patient groups tend to proliferate. And while its natural and understandable for advocates to want to do all they can to help their own child or family member, it can lead to duplicative efforts. The disparate groups can also make it tougher for drug developers to access. “We all need to give everybody a lot of space here to do what they think is best, but in an optimal world, there are tremendous advantages to being coordinated,” Meeker says. --Be connectors. Patient organizations have the amazing ability to bring together academics who had previous not collaborated. “What I have found over and over again is that patient advocates know the investigators in their field far better than the investigators themselves do,” says Christopher Austin, director of NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Science (NCATS). “They can be instrumental there.” --Get the right researchers interested. Often only a handful of academic researchers are working on a given rare disease, and drug developers say attracting new scientists into the field, while also giving careful consideration about who to fund is key. Patient groups should look for someone who can use advocacy funds to attract larger grants. "If they can get some grant support, you'll get more done," says Emil Kakkis, CEO of Ultragenyx. "If they can't get any grant support, you'll have to wonder if it was just...

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Chemistry of the Bar: Amaretto 101
Apr19

Chemistry of the Bar: Amaretto 101

At last week’s American Chemical Society meeting in New Orleans, a group of chemists came together to discuss the latest and greatest in alcohol. No, this wasn’t on Bourbon Street. And karaoke, to-go cups, and beaded necklaces weren’t involved (as far as I know). Instead, these folks shared stories about cocktails and hangovers at the New Orleans Morial Convention Center during a symposium called “Chemistry of the Bar.” This week’s issue of Chemical & Engineering News features a column I wrote about one of the session’s presentations. Neil C. Da Costa, a researcher at International Flavors & Fragrances, in New Jersey, entertained the audience with tales of the hurricane, that rum-based drink the Big Easy is famous for. I featured Da Costa’s studies of the hurricane because of the soft spot I have for the cocktail: The first time I drank one was during my undergraduate years at, you guessed it, my first national ACS meeting. But I gave short shrift to other “Chemistry of the Bar” presentations. One particularly interesting talk was given by Jerry Zweigenbaum, a researcher at Agilent Technologies, in Delaware. Along with Alyson E. Mitchell and coworkers at the University of California, Davis, Zweigenbaum investigated the ingredients of the after-dinner liquor amaretto. If you’re like me, you might have thought that because amaretto smells like almonds, it’s made from them. Zweigenbaum says that’s not necessarily the case. According to legend, amaretto was first made in 1525 by soaking apricot kernels in alcohol. You can see the tale, conveniently located on the website of amaretto maker Disaronno, here. Apparently, one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s star pupils was asked to paint a fresco of the Madonna in the Italian city Saronno. His model was a local innkeeper who showed her gratitude by gifting the fellow a drink made from the infamous kernels. Today, Disaronno says its amaretto contains “herbs and fruits soaked in apricot kernel oil.” But the problem with alcohols like amaretto, Zweigenbaum says, is they are regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives here in the U.S., rather than by FDA. That means companies don’t have to list the beverages’ ingredients or nutritional content. So what exactly Disaronno and other amaretto companies are putting in their wares remains a mystery. Zweigenbaum decided to find out. The Agilent researcher purchased seven different brands of amaretto (he won’t divulge which ones) and tested them with various analytical techniques—headspace gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) and quadrupole time-of-flight liquid chromatography (Q-TOF LC), to name a few. One volatile compound stood out in all seven amaretto brands: benzaldehyde. This is the chemical that gives amaretto its sweet, yet...

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