Halloween Skeletons and Reactive Chemistry

A jack-o'-lanternIn the latest scary issue of the chemistry news webzine, Reactive Reports: Dating skeletons, sticky feet for Gecko Guy, volcanic chemistry from the depths of Hades, and chasing mad cows.

CSI: Waco – A statistical method that processes spectroscopic measurements very quickly could allow crime scene investigators to determine time of death of skeletal remains more accurately and quicker than before, according to researchers at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

Stuck On You – Scientists have long been interested in the ability of gecko lizards to scurry up walls and cling to ceilings by their toes. Now, researchers have found a way to mimic those hairy gecko feet using polymers or carbon nanotubes.

Tubular Reactions – Using surface-modified carbon nanotubes to activate an important industrial chemical, butane, without the need for an expensive metal catalyst–Dang Sheng Su and his team present a process that offers a cheaper alternative to the current industrial process for butane activation.

Chasing Down Mad Cows – Researchers in Europe have tracked down the molecular anchor that hooks errant and infectious prions leading to mad cow disease, scrapie in sheep, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.

Where to find a four-leaf clover

Three-leaf clovers are commonplace. The four-leaf clover is an uncommon variation of the common, three-leaved clover. According to tradition, such leaves bring good luck to their finders, especially if found accidentally. According to legend, each leaf represents something: the first is for hope, the second is for faith, the third is for love, and the fourth is for luck. Actively seeking out a four-leaf clover will not bring you good luck. In fact, there is no such thing as luck, so even if you accidentally find one it’s not going to change your life.

An anonymous visitor to the site emailed me: “I found a 5 leaf clover… do you know anything about it? Is it good luck or bad luck?”

It’s just a mutation, like the four-leaf clover, of course. The four-leaf mutation is quite rare occurring once in about 10,000 specimens. Five is rarer still. But, according to this site: Five-leaf Clovers bring extra good luck and attracts money.

Nice, I wonder why the banks don’t breed these things and hand them out to their managers.

Of course, there is no such thing as “luck” and no number of leaves on a member of the more than 300-strong species of plants in the pea family Fabaceae is going to change that. Clover (Trifolium), or trefoil, usually means three-leafed, hence the surprise when one finds a specimen with four, five or more leaflets. The world record clover is an uber clover with 21 leaflets, although the Guinness record site says 18. At the time of writing, Wikipedia had both figures on two different pages. Intriguingly, both the 18 and 21 leaflet specimens were found/grown by Shigeo Obara, a farmer in Japan’s Iwate prefecture.

Clover is found across the globe, most species are found in the temperate parts of the Northern Hemisphere, but many also occur in South America and Africa, particularly at high altitudes in the tropics. Clovers are small annual, biennial, and short-lived perennial herbaceous plants. To “be in clover” means to be living a carefree life of ease, comfort, and prosperity. But, if you’re due for a drug test make sure you haven’t been drinking milk from cows fed on clover. Clover has a small amount of morphine, which can end up in bottled milk. Eating clover itself can trigger blood and urine drug tests. It’s one more excuse for unlucky athletes caught abusing the system.

Any Irish shamrock (trefoil: God, Son, Holy Spirit) religious analogy doesn’t explain the luck associated with the clover’s fourth leaflet. If anything one would imagine that a fourth leaflet would represent something abhorrent added to the Holy Trinity of Catholicism, the Devil, perhaps, and so be bad luck. Although some say it is meant to represent God’s grace. According to the Wisegeek site, when Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden, Eve is supposed to have carried a four leaf clover. “Curiously, the lore of the white clover plant is also associated with repelling snakes, though it didn’t seem to work in the Garden of Eden,” the site says. I suspect the snake-repellant aspect comes from the Irish St Patrick legend. Ireland famously has no snakes.

As mentioned above, one important aspect of the four-leaf clover myth is that for it to bring luck you must find it serendipitously, there’s no point in searching for one and certainly no point in buying one; several websites offer for sale hand-picked four-leaf clovers! However, if you were a child in the Middle Ages who found a four-leaf clover you would have been given the gift of being able to see fairies and plant sprites…

It seems that searching for four-leaf and beyond clovers is a perennial favourite among children and if it gets them out in to their gardens or the countryside on a long hike to search for the biggest then that’s no bad thing. Indeed, the exercise and fresh air will no doubt bring them luck by helping to stave off obesity and type 2 diabetes. Just don’t let them pick any dandelions…it’ll make them wet the bed, you know? [Not really, that’s Deceived Wisdom]

The original short version of this post originally appeared on Sciencebase – 2005-05-19. Updated 2017-06-21.

Revolutionary Solids

pisa-balloonHistory teachers can always turn to the significant figures and battles to enliven their lessons, biology education has the enormously diverse range of species to point to, and even physics can pull in metaphors and anecdotes for the more esoteric aspects, try teaching gravity without mentioning Galileo and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. But, teachers of mathematics have it tough. They can describes solids and shapes, discuss how Alice and Bob might share out an apple pie fairly between nine friends. But. How does one visualise an abstract equation like this:


A rare few students will cope entirely, finding a way to see what such a formula means, but most struggle (I know I did) to imagine an object like a four-dimensional hypercube, for instance.

Annunziata Cascone, Gerardo Durazzo, and Valentina Stile of the Department of Information Engineering and Applied Mathematics, at the University of Salerno via Ponte don Melillo, in Italy, point out that mathematics obviously plays an instrumental role in technical degrees, science, engineering, computing etc. Moreover, given how common is the use of computers and calculation programs today in these areas it really is critical that students can get to grips with seemingly esoteric mathematical concepts that have direct application but are hard to visualise.

mathematica-model-2The team suggests that Computer Algebra Systems (CASs) are the way forward in teaching mathematics for engineering and other technical subjects. Unfortunately, there are many professors who hesitate to use such technologies. They cite technical, personal or even political reasons, Cascone and colleagues explain. “An explanation for such behaviour can be found in the fact that most teachers were not taught to use CASs when they were studying to be teachers,” they say, and so perhaps don’t recognise the enormous possible benefits.

Writing in the International Journal of Knowledge and Learning this month, Cascone and colleagues describe an approach that can effectively integrate CASs into an analysis course, which they say can improve students’ conceptual understanding significantly.

To improve students’ ability to make some geometric concepts concrete, we developed a Mathematica package that is able to realise and visualise the result of a plane domain revolution in a three-dimensional space.

In other words, the package can generate pictures and computations for an equation that would otherwise not have its significant figures, events, battles, and apple pies. “CASs, when used thoughtfully, allow students to concentrate on conceptual development,” the researchers say, “The same students claim that the use of CASs created the possibility of checking their paper-and-pencil results; it enabled them to discover their mistakes and it clarified the processes to solve problems.”

Annunziata Cascone, Gerardo Durazzo, Valentina Stile (2008). Solids by revolution: materialising an idea International Journal of Knowledge and Learning, 4 (2/3) DOI: 10.1504/IJKL.2008.020651

Ayurvedic Heavy Metal

nagarjunaBefore reading on, and specifically before asking why I’ve used a picture of Buddha in an article about Ayurveda…it’s not Buddha, it’s Nagarjuna, redactor of the Sushruta Samhita a sixth century BCE text on surgery, the only treatise for two of the eight branches of Ayurveda. The snake is part of Nagarjuna and is usually depicted as a protective canopy, I’ve never seen Buddha depicted in that way. Apologies for any confusion, but please no more comments or emails telling me I’ve used an inappropriate photo. I don’t believe I have.

Ayurvedic medicines can contain dangerous quantities of heavy metals, including lead, mercury, thallium and arsenic, clinical toxicologists in London have warned. Writing in the International Journal of Environment and Health, they suggest that recent European legislation aimed at improving safety of shop-bought products will have little impact on medicines prescribed by traditional practitioners, imported personally from overseas or bought over the Internet.

The problem is that the heavy metals are not simply inadvertent contaminants of natural herbal products, they are added deliberately in order to supposedly return the body to health by rebalancing allegedly essential minerals. You can read the full article on this via AlphaGalileo.

There are wide and wild claims for Ayurvedic medicine including the ability to treat diabetes, flue, cancer, asthma, flu, acne, boils, diarrhoea, headaches, and that perennial of the alternative remedy market, sex drive. Unfortunately, Ayurveda, although ancient, is no panacea.

Some practitioners are hoping to modernise the Ayurvedic system. However, until it is more widely recognised among users that adding arsenic, lead, thallium and other potentially toxic heavy metals to so-called medicinal preparations is unacceptable, it will remain a practice more associated with the past than contemporary medicine.

Paul I. Dargan, Indika B. Gawarammana, John R.H. Archer, Ivan M. House, Debbie Shaw, David M. Wood (2008). Heavy metal poisoning from Ayurvedic traditional medicines: an emerging problem? International Journal of Environment and Health, 2 (3/4), 463-474

Open Access in Africa

development-heatmap-africaThere is much talk about Open Access. There are those in academia who argue the pros extensively in all fields, biology, chemistry, computing. Protagonists are making massive efforts to convert users to this essentially non-commercial form of information and knowledge.

Conversely, there are those in the commercial world who ask, who will pay for OA endeavours and how can growth (current recession and credit crunch aside) continue in a capitalist, democratic society, without the opportunity to profit from one’s intellectual property.

Those for and against weigh up both sides of the argument repeatedly. However, they often neglect one aspect of the concept of Open Access: how they might extend it to the developing nations, to what ends, and with what benefits.

Writing in a forthcoming paper in the International Journal of Technology Management, Williams Nwagwu of the Africa Regional Center for Information Science (ARCIS) at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria and Allam Ahmed of the Science and Technology Policy Research (SPRU) at the University of Sussex, UK, suggest that developing countries, particularly those in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), are suffering from a scientific information famine. They say that beginning at the local level and networking nationally could help us realise the potential for two-way information traffic.

The expectation that the internet would facilitate scientific information flow does not seem to be realisable, owing to the restrictive subscription fees of the high quality sources and the beleaguering inequity in the access and use of the internet and other Information and Communication Technology (ICT) resources.

Nwagwu and Ahmed have assessed the possible impact the Open Access movement may have on addressing this inequity in SSA by removing the restrictions on accessing scientific knowledge. They highlight the opportunities and challenges but also demonstrate that there are often mismatches between what the “donor” countries and organisations might reasonably offer and what the SSA countries can actually implement. Moreover, they explain the slow uptake of Open Access in SSA as being related to the perception of the African scientists towards the movement and a lack of concern by policymakers.

The researchers suggest that the creation of a digital democracy could prevent the widening information gap between the developed and the developing world. Without the free flow of information between nations, particularly in and out of Africa and other developing regions, there may be no true global economy.

“Whatever might emerge as a global economy will be skewed in favour of the information-haves, leaving behind the rich resources of Africa and other regions, which are often regarded as information have-nots,” the researchers say. It is this notion that means that it is not only SSA that will lose out on the lack of information channels between the SSA and the developed world, but also those in the developed world.

“The current pattern of the globalisation process is leaving something very crucial behind, namely the multifaceted intellectual ‘wealth’ and ‘natural resources’ of Africa,” they add. “The beauty of a truly globalised world would lie in the diversity of the content contributed by all countries.

From this perspective, they say, the free flow of scientific articles must be pursued by developing countries, particularly SSA, with vigour. “African countries should as a matter of priority adopt collaborative strategies with agencies and institutions in the developed countries where research infrastructures are better developed, and where the quest for access to scientific publication is on the increase.”

They suggest that efforts could begin locally having found that even within single institutions in most African countries, access to scientific articles is very scant. “Local institutions should initiate local literature control services with the sole aim of making the content available to scientists,” they suggest.

Proper networking of institutions across a country could then ease access to scientific publications. One such initiative in Nigeria has started under the National University Commission’s NUNet Project but wider support from governments is necessary to build the infrastructure. Research oriented institutions could use their funds to grant free access to their readers, especially given that many already pay subscription fees for their readers in large amounts.

Meanwhile, can music bring open relief to Africa?

Williams E. Nwagwu, Allam Ahmed (2009). Building open access in Africa International Journal of Technology Management, 45 (1/2), 82-101 I put in a request with the publishers for this paper to be made freely available, it is now so. You can download the PDF here.

Explosive News

In my SpectroscopyNOW.com column this week: US researchers have used NMR to help them develop a new high explosive material that can be melt cast into a charge with any shape (and presumably whose explosions could be monitored by the blast-proof thermometer).

Nanotubes and geckos caught the eye of The Alchemist this week as US chemists describe a way to out-gecko the gecko by developing a new material that simulates the animal’s hairy feet but is ten times as sticky. Adhering with the theme of sticking, European researchers have found a way to tether prions to a model cell membrane that could open up new research into diseases such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob, BSE and scrapie.

explosive-newsIn environmental news, recent insights into dust from the Sahara could improve our understanding of climate change. Finally, dust of another kind is being used in an entirely different way, by British researchers to protect a new type of thermometer used to measure the 3000 Kelvin temperatures of an explosion.

The crystal structure of a cancer-killing virus has been revealed. The 3D structure of the recently discovered Seneca Valley Virus-001 shows that it is unlike any other known member of the Picornaviridae viral family (which includes the common cold viruses), and confirms its recent designation as a separate genus “Senecavirus”.

Morbid tales for Waco CSI reveals how cheminformatics forensic scientists might use spectroscopy on skeletal remains to determine post-mortem interval, how long the corpse has been dead, in other words.

Under the Spotlight, over on Intute:

Oily fungus helps reduce acid rain – Researchers in Iran have discovered a fungus that can metabolise and absorb sulfur from crude oil and so reduce one of the major sources of air pollution when petroleum products are burned…

Radio samples – More than 20 years after Chernobyl, US researchers have travelled to Sweden and Poland to gain insight into how radioactive elements spewed out by the reactor fire have undergone “downward migration” into the soil…

The dark energy illusion – What if Copernicus were wrong and the earth actually has a special place in the universe? Not some metaphysical, philosophical, supernatural special place, but just special in that the local environment is not the same as other local environments across the reaches of space?

Alzheimer and Arachidonic Acid

Arachidonic acidResearchers at the Gladstone Institute of Neurological Disease at the University of California San Francisco have found that removing a brain enzyme that regulates the concentration of arachidonic acid, a fatty acid, reduces cognitive deficits in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). The discovery, reported in Nature Neuroscience, may one day lead to a novel therapeutic strategy for the disease.

Alzheimer’s causes a progressive loss brain cognitive functions and is a terminal disease. There are treatments that can alleviate symptoms, but there is no cure.

“Several different proteins have been implicated in Alzheimer’s disease,” explains GIND’s Lennart Mucke, “but we wanted to know more about the potential involvement of lipids and fatty acids.”

Fatty acids are rapidly taken up by the brain and incorporated into phospholipids, a class of fats that form the membrane or barrier that shields the content of cells from the external environment. The scientists used a large scale profiling approach (“lipidomics”) to compare many different fatty acids in the brains of normal mice with those in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease that develops memory deficits and many pathological alterations seen in the human condition.

The most striking change discovered was an increase in arachidonic acid and related metabolites in the hippocampus, a memory center that is affected early and severely by Alzheimer’s disease. Arachidonic acid is thought to wreak havoc in the brains of the mice by causing too much excitation, damaging neurons. By lowering arachidonic acid levels, the researchers found they could allow neurons to function normally.

In general, fatty acid levels can be regulated by diet or drugs, which could have important therapeutic implications. A lot more work is needed before this strategy can be tested in humans.

Rene O Sanchez-Mejia, John W Newman, Sandy Toh, Gui-Qiu Yu, Yungui Zhou, Brian Halabisky, Moustapha Cissé, Kimberly Scearce-Levie, Irene H Cheng, Li Gan, Jorge J Palop, Joseph V Bonventre, Lennart Mucke (2008). Phospholipase A2 reduction ameliorates cognitive deficits in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease Nature Neuroscience DOI: 10.1038/nn.2213

Melamine Apology

wen-jiabaoThe day after yet more melamine in food warnings, this time in Bangladesh where eight imported powdered milk products have been banned and in Italy, it is reported that the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, has apologised for the Chinese government’s complacency in the melamine in milk scandal. Tainted baby formula milk has killed at least four babies in China and led to the hospitalisation of tens of thousands; it has also caused undue worry for parents the world over.

“We feel that though the incident occurred in enterprises, the government is also responsible,” Wen said in a rare interview with Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science magazine. The rare one on one interview took place on September 30 and was published in the US journal yesterday. Wen, apparently expressed sorrow and promised new food regulations after the melamine-tainted milk debacle.

Previously, the head of China’s food quality watchdog, Li Changjiang, resigned “with state approval” back in September, at the height of the scandal, according to the Xinhua news agency. And, yesterday, New Zealand’s Stuff suggested that organised criminal gangs may have been behind the tainted milk that brought down the Chinese operations of the country’s food giant Fonterra.

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Science Books

technology-writingOnce again, I have a stack of great books sitting on the Sciencebase desk ready for review.

First up is Go Green – How to Build an Earth-Friendly Community, which you will be pleased to learn has been published on apparently sustainable paper. The author, Nancy Taylor, is an environmental columnist and teaches a course on the art of green living. Her book does what it says on the tin (also recyclable, other metals are available), offering advice for those who want to change the way they live to be more in line with a sustainable future. Homeowners, students, professionals could do well to take a look and learn how to live greener lives. Politicians should also take a look, as at the bottom line, Taylor could show them how to save money.

And, speaking of green, fuel cells are apparently the future. Gavin Harper, in Fuel Cell Projects for the Evil Genius explains how they work and how you could make and test a simple fuel cell.

Next up is Ad Lagendijk’s Survival Guide for Scientists. In a scientific world, steadily growing virtual, it’s reassuring to know that some of the old principles of good writing, preparing a research paper, putting up a poster presentation, corresponding with fellow scientists, and giving a talk, are still valid. It’s not all flickering comments on Twitter and Feedfriend after all. The Guide is aimed primarily at undergraduates, grad students, and postdocs in the natural sciences and offers a practical howto on the foundations of writing, presenting and researching science.

A Short Guide to the Human Genome from Stewart Scherer attempts to answer some of the basic questions about genetics. How many genes are there in the human genome? Which genes are commonly associated with disease? What are the biggest genes? How close is the human genome to the mouse, yeast, bacteria?

Stem Cells, Human Embryos and Ethics edited by Lars Ostnor attempts to define whether it is acceptable from an ethical, as opposed to scientific standpoint, to use stem cells harvested from human embryos for biomedical research or as treatments for sick patients. This advanced book provides a brief introduction to the emerging technologies and a basis for wider debate.

From inner space to nearby outer space, Ralph Lorenz and Jacqueline Mitton take us on a tour of Saturn’s mysterious moon in Titan Unveiled. This is the first authoritative book to look at the data from the Cassini-Huygens probe sent to observe one of the largest moon’s in the solar system, Titan.

Staying with astronomy, but taking a much broader cosmological view, Leonard Susskind tells us of his battle with Stephen Hawking to make the world safe for quantum mechanics in The Black Hole War. With nothing less than an understanding of the entire universe at stake it was essential that the argument over the true nature of black holes between Susskind, Hawking, and Gerard ‘t Hooft be won, one way or the other, so that we can know what happens ultimately to someone sucked into a black hole.

Finally, just arrived is this year’s Best of Technology Writing, edited by Clive Thompson. If this is anything like the previous two editions then it is a feast of great technology writing from my peers across the pond. It carries a fascinating mix of topics from a molecular recipe for the perfect gin & tonic to an ancient Greek artifact that may have been the world’s first laptop computer.

For those interested in the technical and scientific writing, here is a list of online learning resources courtesy of Matchacollege.com, thanks to Kelly Sonora for emailing the link.

  • Introduction to Technical Communication: Perspectives on Medicine and Public Health: Study the writings of physicians to learn about technical style and issues.
  • Intro to Tech Communication: Technical researchers learn the basics of technical writing here.
  • Introduction to Technical Communication: Ethics in Science and Technology: Writers who work in science and medical fields can learn about unique ethical standards here.
  • The Science Essay: Scientific writers can learn techniques about appealing to an audience and revising their work in this course.
  • Technical Writing: Here you’ll find a great resource for technical writing.

Blog Action Day on Poverty

Kwazulu Natal, South Africa
We are, the media tells us, either on the verge or diving head first into a global recession the likes of which we have never seen. Countless financial headlines have screamed Credit Crunch, which sadly isn’t a wholegrain breakfast cereal for day-traders, for a year now. Banks are borrowing billions from taxpayers to allow them to lend even more money to each other.

There has almost been not a thought for the millions of people out of work and out of a home the ruins of whose lives the apparent collapse of capitalism is built. Anyone who thought Freddie Mac and Fanny Mae were porn star names, or the Lehmann Brothers were a support act for Marx (as in Groucho and gang) surely now knows better. Stocks and share prices yo-yo between lower highs and increasingly depressing lows.

But, away from the cold-sweating of traders, the pinging of stripy braces, and the red screens of death, on the market floors of the so-called developed world, the old-school third world, the allegedly developing world continues in its grinding abject poverty. However, providing the developed world does not collapse into utter chaos, Jenifer Piesse of the Department of Management, at King’s College London and the University of Stellenbosch, RSA working with Colin Thirtle of the Centre for Environmental Policy, at Imperial College London, and the University of Pretoria, RSA, suggest in a recent issue of the IJBT that at least one product of modern capitalism, genetically modified (GM), herbicide tolerant (HT) white maize, developed in the USA to save labour might help ease poverty in the developing world too.

They report how HT white maize is now being grown by smallholders in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, and elsewhere and use panel data for Africa, Asia and Latin America to investigate the effects of factor endowments and biased technological change on productivity growth, labour incomes and poverty reduction. Can GM produce a Green Revolution (GR) in Africa and would it be poverty
reducing, as it has been in Asia, they ask.

Their preliminary findings demonstrate that a simple absence of population pressure on the land slows yield growth, which itself largely explains labour productivity growth in agriculture. Labour productivity growth is the key determinant of wages, growth in GDP per capita and poverty reduction.

“Africa seems to have fared poorly in poverty reduction because many countries have abundant poor quality land,” the researchers explain, “There has been yield growth, but it has not led to growth in labour productivity, as it did during the Asian green revolution.” This finding suggests that GM technology that raises labour productivity could be enormously beneficial, so long as employment is maintained.

Their analysis reports that yield growth in Asia was about 2.6% per year, but that Africa was not far behind at 2.0%. However, labour productivity in Asia grew at 1.5% per annum, whereas Africa managed only 0.4%. Yields in Asia grew at 1.1% faster than labour productivity and there was substantial progress in poverty alleviation. In contrast, in Africa, yields grew 1.6% faster than labour productivity, but the impact on poverty has been less.

They explain that yield growth is in fact a main cause of labour productivity growth in both continents, but in Africa the impact is far weaker. The most obvious cause is that both yields and labour productivity grow less where land to labour ratios are low, which is particularly true in the countries of sub-saharan Africa, the researchers say.

Jenifer Piesse, Colin Thirtle (2008). Genetically modified crops, factor endowments, biased technological change, wages and poverty reduction International Journal of Biotechnology, 10 (2/3) DOI: 10.1504/IJBT.2008.018354

This post was published as part of the Sciencebase contribution to Blog Action Day.