Further Impressions of South Africa
Jan23

Further Impressions of South Africa

We became known as the “ACS Folks.” ACS President Nancy B. Jackson, Denise Creech, director of the Membership & Scientific Advancement Division, and I had that moniker or some version of it applied a number of times during the SACI/FACS meeting last week in Johannesburg, South Africa. As in, when University of Massachusetts, Amherst, chemistry professor Vince Rotello asked the audience at his plenary lecture on nanoparticles, “Are there any Americans in the audience?” and we raised our hands, he said, “Oh yes, the ACS folks.” It was a very good scientific meeting for the ACS folks. As I pointed out in a previous blog entry, Jackson spoke at the opening ceremonies and gave a keynote lecture in the green chemistry segment of the conference. I gave the after-dinner talk at the conference dinner on Thursday night—I was filling in for someone who couldn’t make it. I talked about my tour of the Cape Peninsula (see the first South Africa blog entry), the strengths of the American Chemical Society, and climate change. But that’s not what this blog post is about. It is about the last day Denise and I spent in Johannesburg, the Saturday after the end of the SACI/FACS meeting. Our flight on South African Airways from Joburg to Dulles didn’t leave until 5:50 p.m., so we had a full day to fill. We chose to fill it by touring Johannesburg. But before I get to my impressions of Johannesburg, I need to make a couple of points. Nancy, Denise, and I were overwhelmed by the warmth of the South African people we met during the week we spent in South Africa. From the professional colleagues we interacted with during the SACI/FACS meeting to the staff at the Winston Hotel where we stayed during the conference, we were welcomed with open arms and bonhomie wherever we went. That said, Joburg is a very dangerous and violent city. The University of the Witwatersand, where the SACI/FACS meeting was held, sits on the northern edge of downtown Joburg. To the north, where the Winston Hotel and other upscale hotels are located, is the affluent area of the city. To the south of Wits, as the university is universally known, is downtown and the dangerous and partially lawless sections of the city. In the northern, affluent suburbs where we stayed, the houses are uniformly surrounded by six- to eight-foot walls topped either with razor wire or electrified fences. The Winston Hotel is surrounded by an eight-foot-high fence and an electric gate that is opened only for vehicles that identify themselves. (An aside: after a scheduled outing to Lesedi Village on...

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SACI/FACS Day 2
Jan19

SACI/FACS Day 2

Everyone I talk to in Joburg (which is what everyone, including government departments and newspaper reporters, calls Johannesburg) assures me that the weather is just great. Which is a little surprising, since it has rained on and off since we arrived on Sunday, sometimes showers, sometimes thunderstorms, and sometimes deluges. I am told that Joburg suffered through a stifling heat wave a few weeks ago and everyone welcomes the cooler gray weather. Well, maybe not everyone in South Africa. There is serious flooding in many parts of the country. On Monday and Tuesday, the top stories on the front page of The Star, a Johannesburg daily, have been on floods occurring throughout South Africa. The headline Tuesday read: “Flooding Toll Mounts: Fireman among those who died; many missing, evacuated.” I suspect that if there were not severe flooding in Brazil, Australia, and Sri Lanka, the flooding in South Africa would be making world headlines. The SACI/FACS meeting, however, is proceeding without interruption from the weather. Each day starts with a plenary lecture and then the conference splits into five topical areas, each of which leads off with a keynote lecture followed by two “short talks” leading up to lunch. There’s another plenary after lunch, keynotes, and short talks. That’s the general pattern, anyway. There are variations. The talks are quite varied and of uniformly high quality. The plenary lecture Tuesday morning was by Herbert Waldmann, a professor in the Department of Chemical Biology at the Max-Planck Institute for Molecular Physiology in Dortmund, Germany. Waldmann focused on biology-oriented synthesis. “Chemistry has very much developed into an interface science,” Waldmann told the audience. “It is okay for chemists to say that they will take the leading role in understanding biology and biological processes.” That understanding, ultimately, must be a chemical understanding of complete organisms, no small task. Waldmann’s talk focused on the use of natural products to provide the fundamental structural motifs upon which to build synthetic molecules that might have useful physiological functions. He presented an approach for dissecting natural product structures computationally to arrive at simple frameworks upon which to build families of molecules and some successes he and his coworkers have achieved over the past decade using this approach. A keynote lecture by Louise Lindeque, Responsible Care manager of the Chemical & Allied Industries’ Association of South Africa, focused on how Responsible Care adds value to the chemical sector globally and the role of product stewardship as a core element of Responsible Care. “The chemical sector globally has a significant environmental impact,” Lindeque said. “The impacts include pollution, use of raw materials, and emissions to land, water, and...

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Sir David King’s Take on Climate Change
Jan18

Sir David King’s Take on Climate Change

The incredible successes of science and technology in improving human existence and extending human life spans in the 20th century have spawned many of the challenges facing us in the early decades of the 21st century, Sir David King told attendees at the SACI/FACS meeting in Johannesburg in his plenary address opening the conference. Life expectancy has increased in the developed world from 45 years in 1900 to greater than 80 years today, which has resulted in a population explosion that is straining the Earth’s resources and environment. Although the population explosion will end in this century, King said, because of the education and empowerment of women and the availability of safe and effective birth control, Earth’s population will continue to increase over the next several decades. “We need 50% more crop production in the next 15 years alone, and that has to be produced on less land and available water,” King said. “We need more crop/drop and more crop/hectare.” On climate change, King said, “We hear enough from the climate change skeptics that I have to repeat some fundamentals that you’ve probably heard before.” Fifty-five million years ago, atmospheric CO2 concentrations stood at about 1,000 ppm and global temperatures were much higher and ocean levels were about 110 m higher than they are today. Large mammals developed on Antarctica because the climatic conditions on all of the other continents were inhospitable to such development. In the past 500,000 years, every ice age was characterized by atmospheric CO2 concentrations around 200 ppm; every short interglacial period by concentrations around 285 ppm, which was also the preindustrial atmospheric concentration of CO2. Today, the atmospheric CO2 concentration stands at 389 ppm and is rising by 2 ppm per year. “Could we get back to 1,000 ppm CO2 by burning all of the fossil fuel on Earth?” King asked. “Yes.” Currently, we are adding 36 billion tons of CO2 per year to the atmosphere, King said, “and that makes a difference to the atmosphere.” By 2050, we need to reduce emissions to 18 billion tons per year. With a projected population of nine billion, that translates into about 2 tons per person per year. Policies should be adopted to move us to a situation where every person on Earth emits 2 tons per year, King said, with “no exceptions.” King made many important points in his talk. One that was new to me was that we currently consume 475 exajoules (1018 joules) of primary energy resources per year to obtain just 55 exajoules of useful energy. This represents an enormous potential for energy savings through increases in the efficiency of energy conversion....

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First Impressions of South Africa
Jan18

First Impressions of South Africa

I am in Johannesburg, South Africa, with ACS President Nancy B. Jackson and Denise Creech, director of the ACS Membership & Scientific Advancement Division, attending the 40th meeting of the South African Chemical Institute (SACI), the oldest chemical society in Africa, and the third meeting of the Federation of African Chemical Societies (FACS), a group formed in 2006. Over the weekend prior to the SACI/FACS meeting, I spent two days in Cape Town. It is a beautiful city on the southwest coast of South Africa, 70 km north of the Cape of Good Hope, the southwestern most point on the African continent. I took a day-long tour of the cape peninsula, and at the risk of annoying readers who don’t seem to like me publishing photos from my travels—especially photos of interesting/cute animals, here are a few. There is a penguin colony that established itself some 30 years ago on the eastern side of the peninsula in the town of Simonstown. No one knows why the penguins decided to make the place home, but about 3,000 of them now reside there. They are very cute, 14”-tall birds that are utterly unconcerned about the presence of humans. Signs around town attempt to protect the penguins from the depredations of automobiles. The Cape of Good Hope is a spectacular, wild place where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. Of course, people argue about whether that statement is true or not. No matter, this photo from the lighthouse on the slightly more southern Cape Point captures the beauty of the place. Today marked the opening of the SACI/FACS meeting, which is the first in a series of events planned by UNESCO and IUPAC to celebrate the International Year of Chemistry (IYC) in 2011. The official kickoff event of IYC will be celebrated (naturally) by the French in Paris at the end of next week (Jan. 27-28). Thus, the meeting in Johannesburg is being billed as a “prelude” to the first official event. An aside: The Brits, who we all know never compete with the French, will host an IYC event next Monday, January 24, three days before the official event in Paris. Hey, it was the only day when there was a venue open in Parliament, RSC President David Phillips told the assembled chemists in Johannesburg during the opening ceremonies of the SACI/FACS meeting. Numerous dignitaries from chemical organizations are represented at the SACI/FACS meeting, and several spoke during today’s opening ceremonies. Temechegn Engida, president of FACS and one of the originators of the idea for IYC 2011, said that “2011 represents a new spirit of chemistry in Africa celebrated not through...

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