Bright, young and photogenic

Having a quiet beer in Cambridge with friends yesterday evening our peaceful drinking session was disrupted by the arrival of a boisterous group of snap-happy first-year students. Eager to impress these bright young things, my friend Paul offered to take a couple of photos of the whole group, but came unstuck when attempting to grab the second snap.

Fortunately, one of the freshers pointed out that the camera needed “winding on” and all was well.

But, it got us thinking…winding on..? Wasn’t this Cambridge, international centre of academic excellence at the heart of the so-called Silicon Fen high-tech industry?

Maybe, given the number in their crowd wearing tweed jackets and the like it wouldn’t have been any more surprising if they’d been using a Box Brownie.

Green Fluorescent Protein

The eerie green glow of a jellyfish protein is perhaps nothing sinister, but the anti-science lobby will be having a field day when they hear about the latest amazing research underway at Rockefeller University.

There, Albert Libchaber’s team has created a vesicle that can express genes as if it were a living cell, and in particular the gene for the jellyfish’s green fluorescent protein (GFP). The artificial cell comprises lipids from egg white, various bits of E. coli, and a viral enzyme for good measure.

All of which, to many non-scientists, will sound like a Sci-Fi recipe for disaster. The reason for using GFP is that it provides such an obvious indicator of success, just imagine the headlines if they had used the gene for botulin or some other deadly bacterium. Indeed, who’s to say they haven’t? Watch out for another Michael Crichton blockbuster coming to a bookstore near you soon…

UPDATE: The discovery and development of GFP has won three US scientists the //

Scholarly Silliness

The American Chemical Society is suing Google to defend its trademark SciFinder Scholar from confusion with Google Scholar. There’s a lot of worthy discussion about the problem on the CHMINF list. ACS is obviously worried about that word "Scholar" being used by Google and that Google’s millions of users might assume there is a connection. But the pundits should get real, I’m pretty sure that outside of chemistry, 99.999% of the world’s population will never have heard of the American Chemical Society let alone, SciFinder Scholar and only a fraction of those billions have even heard of Google, and of those that have, even fewer will have heard of or be even vaguely interested in Google Scholar.

Anyway, isn’t the word “scholar” a generic term relating to education in some way? Surely, it’s analogous to the word quot;cola" which comes in many flavours made by many different companies? If Google had called their academic search engine Google Scifinder, I suppose that would have been very different. The lawyers must be rubbing their hands with glee. (Incidentally, there are 29 hits when one searches PubMed with the author field "Scholar"), I wonder if I could change my name to Dr Searchengine Scholar?

Doubling up biological names – Tautonyms

I wrote this tiny snippet back in the day and a long time ago discovered that they’re called tautonyms, they basically represent the “type” of a given genus. I wrote about it recently with respect to the many birds that I’ve photographed with tautonymic binomials. Also, some more recent items on tautonyms here and here.

Rattus rattus (black rat) is coming to a town near you, while Gallus gallus (wild chicken) has got scientists all in a flap (you’ll find out why later this week). Then there’s Bubo bubo (the eagle owl)…Buteo buteo (common buzzard), and many others. Some tautonyms are trebled – Gorilla gorilla gorilla, being the Western Lowland Gorilla.

UPDATE Christie Wilcox just mention Boops boops on twitter, it’s a seabream colloquially called a bogue.

Genetically Modified Cocaine

Developed nations continue to argue the toss about the safety of genetically modified crops and foods, but meanwhile in remotest Colombia, coca farmers are reported to have produced a GM coca plant.

There is much bluster from the authorities that the plants are nothing but a product of improved fertilisers or a better compost. But, that smacks of denial to me. The plants are almost three metres tall, are resistant to most common weedkillers and apparently produce four times (according to the Financial Times; eight times, says The Independent) as much cocaine as normal plants. If that’s just the result of a trip to the local garden centre for a sack of soil improver, then someone can send me a couple of bags for my tomato plants next spring!

Burning Water

Photo from

Just this minute, I received an email from someone claiming they had discovered how to burn water.

No matter what experimental conditions they set up this is physically impossible – fundamentally standard combustion involves the oxidation of some material into the oxidized form of that material and water. The reaction 2H2 + O2 –> 2H2O puts it at its simplest. Energy is released in this reaction. The reverse process is possible, it can be done by adding a small amount of ionic material to the water to make it a salt solution and passing through it an electric current. That splits the water molecules, releasing hydrogen gas and oxygen in a process known as electrolysis. But, this is not combustion, energy must be fed into the system (electrical in this case) to split the water molecules, the ionic salt particles simply act as carriers of the current.

The notion that somehow you could overcome the bonding between hydrogen and oxygen atoms in H2O might be overcome in a combustible manner rears its ugly head on a frequent basis. But, as you can see it’s just not tenable. If you were stupid enough to connect a car battery’s terminals to a bowl of salt water, you could ignite the resulting hydrogen bubbling from the mixture, but that could be no more describes as “burning water” as baking a cake by mixing and freezing the ingredients in a cake tin.

The idea that burning water might be possible is yet another example of the kind of thinking that repeatedly suggests perpetual motion might be possible, it’s desperate grasping, it’s almost a cry for help: “We have messed up the world, but I can fix it, if you listen to me!!!” That kind of thing!

And, while we’re at it, there’s a College in the UK that offers absolutely no science courses, but does offer dowsing, and advanced dowsing! It’s the Women’s Institute Denman College, apparently.

This post, was originally published in the old Sciencebase blog – SciObs – on December 8, 2004, but I’ve resurrected it and edited it up in the light of events that took place in 2007. You can read about the posts that emerged here:

How not to grab the blogosphere – this one is very closely related to this old post.

Free cure-alls – not just cure-alls for disease but for all the problems that ail the world. Yeah, right!

Telesales Revelations

A British telesales company recently sent off its workers’ computer keyboards for analysis to a nutrition expert to find out exactly what its staff were doing at their desks in terms of eating habits. Unsurprisingly, the analysis of the detritus stuck in and among their keys revealed that most staff were snacking heavily on sandwiches, cakes, pasties and the like while working at their desk. Splashes of tea and coffee were also commonly observed. Fragments of crisps, grains of sugar and nail clippings (toe and finger!) too emerged from within many of the keyboards after a good shake.

But, never mind the snacking and personal grooming. A male pubic hair found stuck under one worker’s "ESC" key has not yet led to a dismissal. The company, however, is planning to move to an open plan office rather than its current cubicle-based layout to reduce the alleged, ahem, "time-wasting" that was presumably underway in at least one workstation prior to the analysis.

Chemical Image Problem

It’s not been a hot week for the image of the chemical industry. This week marked the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal tragedy. There were more revelations about problems with pharmaceuticals. Researchers reported that benzene is worse than we thought even at low levels. And, the industry is denying WHO claims that chemicals harm kids.

Couple that with further discussion about the future, or rather lack of, chemistry teaching at British universities and the supposed benefits of downsizing the number of chemistry departments and one begins to wonder whether there will be any chemical industry to speak of in five years time.

Chemophobia has been high on the agenda perhaps since even before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. What is to be done about redressing the balance? Industrial visitors to Sciencebase may wish to get in touch with their ideas…