Raspberry Ripple Galaxy

galactic-rasberry-flavorRecently, an innocuous-seeming press release was released by German astronomers announcing that they had found two of the most complex molecules ever in space – n-propyl cyanide, more commonly known to chemists as butyronitrile, and ethyl formate. Now, butyronitrile is a nasty poison with a characteristic odour and I’m sure you’d get a whiff of bitter almonds as you lay dying should you breathe it in too deep or get a mouthful of the stuff. Ethyl formate is altogether different.

Ethyl formate, The Guardian’s science correspondent Ian Sample found out (I think already knew) is the fragrant ester molecule that gives raspberries their distinct flavour. It also smells vaguely of rum. Having latched on to this fact, Sample went to town on his galactic press release suggesting, in a Pythonesque manner, that your galaxy smells of raspberries.

It was a great hook for his popular science article in the paper, of course, and the idea was subsequently picked up by other outlets that had initially missed the raspberry flavour additive. With my SpectroscopyNOW deadline looming, I reasoned that the research was valid enough, ignoring the raspberries, for the news channel and set about explaining the ins and outs of the discovery and its relevance.

If complex molecules such as ethyl formate and butyronitrile can be found in space then perhaps the building blocks of proteins, amino acids, might also be present, which could lend evidence to space as being the seeding ground for the precursors to life on earth and perhaps extraterrestrial life too.

I contacted the leader of the astronomical team that had made this startling discovery to find out more details about the research. Arnaud Belloche of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR) in Bonn, Germany, was unsurprisingly quick to point out that the raspberry connection was essentially a journalistic invention of The Guardian and has no bearing on the research at all.

“We did not report on the flavour of raspberry or the smell of rum,” he told me, “For us, astronomers, it is unimportant. What is important is that these two molecules are quite complex compared to the other molecules discovered in space, and that their discovery suggests that even more complex molecules are likely present in the interstellar medium.”

He did, however, concede that the reference to raspberries and rum makes the story more interesting for the lay public. “It is fine to mention it, but it should be made clear that it is astronomically irrelevant.” Of course, that much should be immediately obvious to most readers of SpectroscopyNOW.

It does raise an interesting point about science journalism. Is it stretching the truth, or dumbing down, too much to mention that the molecules found in outer space have a link with the flavour of raspberries? How far should we go to make rather technical and esoteric science appeal to a lay audience? Surely, it would have been enough that these complex molecules were found in space and may have a bearing on the origins of life on earth.

Perhaps not. A press release blankly referring to two chemicals with names obscure to non-chemists would usually have little impact. It was picked up by some outlets. However, it was only once Ian Sample had made the raspberry connection and used the Monty Python Holy Grail insult allusion (if your galaxy doesn’t smell of raspberries then your mother certainly still smells of elderberries) that more of the wider media jumped on to the idea of a galaxy smelling faintly of raspberries and rum and took it mainstream.

Indeed, we have a control to test this, because the same team use the same data lasts year to reveal that the same galactic gas cloud also contains aminoacetonitrile. This molecule is a
likely chemical precursor of the amino acid glycine, which has perhaps a much greater bearing on the origins of life than the raspberry flavouring, but unfortunately has none of the fruity allusions.

Which headline would grab you?

Scientists Spot Amino Acetonitrile in the Middle of Milky Way


Make That A Raspberry Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster

You can read my full write-up complete with overblown flavouring-enriched title in the May 1 issue of SpectroscopyNOW.

Finally, I asked Belloche for his predictions of when we might discover amino acids in space and get a true feeling for the notion of cosmic dust seeding the primordial earth.

“I guess we’ll have to wait many years…” he told me, “A simple estimate we did in
our publication on aminoacetonitrile (Belloche et al. 2008, A&A, 482, 179)
suggests that the abundance of glycine, if present in the interstellar
medium, is well below the best upper limits derived so far, by maybe one
or two orders of magnitude, so it will be hard (but not impossible!) to
find it.”

His prediction doesn’t leave a bitter taste in the mouth, but nor does it come up tasting of raspberries.

Swine Flu FAQ

pig-swine-flu-influenzaSwine flu has been labelled as the next major disease pandemic. It appears to have emerged in Mexico has possibly killed more than 100 people and infected a few thousand, most of whom have recovered, incidentally. Cases and suspected cases have now been identified in the USA, New Zealand, France, Scotland, Israel, Spain, and elsewhere (see the swine flu outbreak Google Map).

In Sciencebase on April 26, I offered answers to some of the frequently asked questions that have arisen about swine flu, and today am providing an updated FAQ in response to the comments received and concerns raised elsewhere.

How many people have died from swine flu?

In the current outbreak of swine flu as of April 27, just 20 deaths of 103 suspected fatal cases have actually been confirmed as having been caused by the new virus. That’s a lethality rate of just over 1%. Spanish Flu in 1918 supposedly had a mortality rate of 2.5%*. It is in epidemic conditions difficult to disentangle cause of death, pneumonia or other secondary infections might be to blame.

How many people are infected?

Cases in Mexico number around 1600, according to Mexican Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova.

Is this swine flu the same strain of flu that killed millions in 1918, the so-called Spanish flu?

No. The present strain is a type A influenza virus of class H1N1, certainly, but it is a different sub-species. Influenza viruses evolve very rapidly in response to changes in the immune systems of their hosts.

What does H1N1 mean?

The “H” refers to the viral hemagglutinin protein, and the “N” refers to the neuraminidase protein (enzyme). There are H1N2, H3N1, H3N2, and H2N3 strains of swine flu endemic in pig populations.

Whatever happened to bird flu?

Strains of avian influenza, or bird flu, are still around, these viruses exist in host species in Asia and potentially elsewhere and could still make the leap to humans at any time. Alternatively, another host species harbouring a different type of virus altogether might emerge at another time.

Why pigs?

Influenza viruses can exist endemically in pigs as well as birds and other species. The current strain of interest, swine flu, is endemic in pig populations in Mexico but has now spread to people. But, influenza viruses are notoriously promiscuous and can rearrange genetic material to produce hybrid strains. An emerging strain that is both virulent, relatively lethal and can be transmitted between people is the one to worry about.

Didn’t we have swine flu before?

Swine flu has been present for years and commonly infects people who work with pigs. An outbreak at the Fort Dix army base killed and hospitalized soldiers there and led to an ill-fated mass-vaccination campaign under President Ford. An outbreak of swine flu happened in the Philipines in 2007. Although there were tragic deaths it did not lead to millions dying as happened with the flu pandemic at the end of WWI. According to A tale of swine flu from 1977: “The killer never came. The fact that it was feared is one of many things to show how little experts understand the flu, and thus how shaky are the health initiatives launched in its name. What influenza needs, above all, is research.”

Was the new swine flu genetically engineered as a bioweapon?

It is perhaps possible to engineer a virus, but the precursors to this present strain of influenza has been seen in the wild for years and so it would seem highly unlikely that it was synthesised. Is there a lab that could synthesise a whole new viable viral species from combined segments of human, bird, and pig influenza viruses?

But how did porcine, avian, and human viruses get mixed together?

These flu viruses have a segmented genome containing eight pieces of RNA. If two strains infect a single cell their progeny undergo reassortment so that new strains emerge. Pigs are a particularly good biological mixing bowl for flu viruses, it takes just one lucky reassortment that can infect humans to then make the species leap. This has happened several times in the past.

What is WHO doing about the outbreak?

The World Health Organisation will meet in Geneva on Tuesday (April 28) to discuss whether to raise the pandemic alert level. UPDATE: It did and raised to Phase IV (Phase VI is highest). Later it upgraded to Phase V.

Has Europe been affected?

The first case of swine flu has been tested positive in Spain and the European Union is advising citizens to avoid unnecessary travel to Mexico and the USA. Cases in Scotland, Germany and Israel have now been confirmed.

Will a face mask protect me from flu?

Doubtful. If someone is infected and has come into contact, sneezed, or coughed on door handles you touch, food you eat, hands you shake, the mask won’t protect you. What a mask can do is reduce the amount of contaminated droplets of spittle you might spread if you are infected.

What is a pandemic, it sounds scary?

The word pandemic usually refers to the distribution of a disease, in this case H1N1. It simply means an epidemic that has spread beyond a single geographical region to cover all regions within any defined area. WHO says we are the verge of a disease pandemic on a global scale. I.e. an epidemic that is worldwide.

The words pandemic and epidemic have Greek etymology. Pandemic means “pertaining to all people”. “pan” means “all”, “demos” means “people”. The “epi” prefix in epidemic means “among”, so suggesting some kind of localisation.

*Footnote on mortality rates. The often-quoted mortality rate of the 1918-9 pandemic is 2.5%, but most researchers agree that between 50 and 100 million people died during that outbreak. The world population was 1.8 billion at the time, so wouldn’t the overall world mortality rate have been between 3 and 5%, not 2.5%?


N-Acetyl-L-tyrosine is showing up in spam emails and on twitter so I had to take a look to find out what claims are being made for it. I suspected that marketers might be calling it a panacea, and I was right. At least one website (which mentions, hilariously, FDA censorship on this) lists several diseases, disorders and conditions, that the compound (a metabolic precursor of tyrosine) might help with. Although they don’t say specifically that it’s the N-acetyl-L-tyrosine functioning medically but allude to its putative activity on the basis that tyrosine itself supposedly has these activities.

They claim that the compound is a precursor for the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine, a precursor for the pigment compounds melanins, and for the thyroid hormones (e.g. thyroxin). Lifelink, for instance, makes the bold statement:

Most of the medical research relating to tyrosine supplementation has been conducted using L-tyrosine itself, not acetyl-L-tyrosine. It is logical to assume, however, that the conclusions reached will apply to acetyl-L-tyrosine as well, since the latter is converted to L-tyrosine in the body. The following discussion therefore draws from studies of L-tyrosine.

By implication then N-acetyl-L-tyrosine can purportedly be used in treating mood problems and depression, hair and skin colour, blood pressure, and Parkinson’s disease!

If you were offered a drug by your physician to improve your hair colour but the doc then pointed out that it might affect your brain and your blood pressure, wouldn’t you be worried? Indeed, the pharmaceutical industry spends billions of dollars trying to eliminate side effects and focus the specificity of its products to avoid such issues as multiple activities of any given drug.

Several of the references given to support the use of N-acetyl-L-tyrosine are nothing more than Wikipedia entries. I don’t want wiki entries when I’m assessing a medical effect, it’s not that Wiki is not credible, but how can the lay reader be sure that what they’re reading on there is valid, it may have been edited to promote the compound by someone with a vested interest or a conflict of interest.

Give me large-scale, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, clinical trials every time and you’ll convince me. Spurious musings on possible benefits are not medical evidence.

Also of note are the physical properties of N-acetyl-L-tyrosine listed by ChemSpider:

CAUTION: May irritate eyes, skin, and respiratory tract

Swine Flu

pig-swine-fluUPDATE: World Health Organisation took us to Phase 6 on June 11, which only means that they see the distribution of the virus across the globe as being at levels associated with a flu pandemic, the first such declaration since 1968. The virus itself has not become any worse nor have the chances of any individual dying from the disease increased.

Swine flu is still with us although the media hype has died down. There have been numerous cases and many deaths, but nothing on the scale of the millions predicted early on. Could this first wave strain now be evolving into a more virulent form that will affect the northern hemisphere more severely after the summer is over?

I’ve previously discussed the many latent diseases in hosts as rodents, birds, and cattle. Many of these are ready and willing to make the species leap to humans given the opportunity. For the last ten years or so bird flu and Asia have been the focus of much research and concern. However, the wave of swine flu (H1N1) infections that began in March-April 2009 in Mexico highlight the fact that a potentially lethal strain of virus can emerge from other species and not necessarily in Asia.

Currently, not all the deaths attributed to swine flu have been definitively associated with type A H1N1 influenza, the actual mortality rate could be as low as 1% or as high as 6.5% depending on how you count.

Should we be worried?

No. We should be cautious, but not worried. While some observers are suggesting serious caution others are advising that there is no reason for real concern yet. We are not quite at the danger levels of even the worldwide SARS epidemic and certainly not close to the Spanish flu pandemic that ravaged the world in 1918-9.

Is the WHO scaremongering too?

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the Mexican/US swine flu outbreak as a “public health emergency of international concern”. It moved us to a Phase IV alert and then a Phase V alert and told us that the disease could no longer be contained. However, as things are panning out it would seem that this latest emergent virus is not even as bad as the common seasonal flu that kills tens of thousands of people every year. But, there a new strain could evolve in the coming weeks and months.

What is swine flu?

Swine flu is a type A influenza virus. It’s a subtype of H1N1 and is something of a misnomer.

Why is this new H1N1 virus called swine flu?

In the original testing many of the viral genes were shown to be similar to influenza viruses that normally occur in pigs in North America. But further studies have shown that this new virus is very different. It also has two genes from flu viruses present in European and Asian pigs as well as genes from bird flu and human flu strains. It is referred to as a “quadruple reassortant” virus.

What is unusual about the present strain?

The new strain is a hybrid of swine, human and avian flu viruses and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says it might spread from human to human but the level of virulence is not yet clear. UPDATE: There have been numerous deaths, but so far the vast majority of people infected have shown only mild symptoms and after treatment have recovered.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms are similar to regular human flu: fever and chills, a cough, sore throat, aching limbs, headaches, and general malaise. However, there are reports of swine flu also causing diarrhoea and vomiting. Pneumonia and respiratory failure can occur leading to death as also happens in regular human flu.

Are there warning signs in children?

Children having trouble breathing, being averse to drinking, lethargy not waking up or not interacting, being so irritable that the child does not want to beheld, flu-like symptoms improve but then return with fever and worse cough, fever with a rash.

Are there any drugs to treat swine flu?

Oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza) are the possible pharmaceutical frontline defences against the virus and are proving effective in treating patients diagnosed early enough. There is as yet no vaccine, although researchers are working hard to develop one. It takes several months to create a flu vaccine and any such vaccine will be effective against only the specific strain for which it was created. By the time we have a vaccine the virus may have either died out or evolved into a different strain resistant to the vaccine.

Has the disease spread to the USA?

Cases in California, Texas, and Kansas, have been confirmed and tests are being carried out on students at a school in New York. Cases have been seen in New Zealand, Spain, Scotland, and elsewhere; those infected have been recovering well.

How can we prevent the spread of swine flu?

People at risk should cover their mouth when they cough. They should regularly wash their hands with an alcohol-based cleaner and and avoid close contact with the sick. Patients with the disease should stay at home. There is no need to avoid eating pork.

Will there be a global flu epidemic?

“We do not know whether this swine flu virus or some other influenza virus will lead to the next pandemic,” says, Richard Besser, acting director of the CDC, “However, scientists around the world continue to monitor the virus and take its threat seriously.” UPDATE: the WHO raised its alert level from Phase IV to V, with recent infection rates in Japan, the WHO has been hinting that they will need to upgrade to pandemic Phase VI.

Will there be a second wave?

One of two outcomes are being forecast, first that this rather poorly virulent strain will continue spreading slowly but ultimately die out, thanks to a combination of low virulence and monitoring and isolation of outbreaks, or secondly it will mutate into something much more virulent and bring with it a fast-spreading and more lethal wave of influenza. Thankfully, in the Northern hemisphere, we are heading into summer and influenza viruses do not spread as efficiently in the summer as they do in the winter.

What’s next?

It is impossible to predict what virus will emerge from which host, there are countless different types of pathogen lying dormant in the countless different mammals across the globe. No one predicted SARS, AIDS, Ebola, West Nile virus, or swine flu. This time, health agencies have responded well and although the WHO is saying it is now impossible to “contain” swine flu, it seems that the first wave is not revealing itself to be quite as lethal as was at first feared. However, that does not detract from the possibility of a second wave of H1N1 emerging.

Is this a wake-up call?

At the very least this swine flu outbreak should wake us all up to either getting the dust off our (bird flu) pandemic plans (as the response is the same) or getting started with putting them together. This includes both businesses and individuals. If the outbreak dies out quickly and this turns out not to be the next global pandemic then we can be sure another strain will try to be at some point in the future. Pandemic preparedness for businesses should now be at the forefront of every business manager’s mind.

What is cyberchondria?

Cyberchondria is an anxiety disorder related to hyperchondria and brought on by reading too many tweets with the #swineflu tag, listening to conspiracy theorists, and viewing online news stories about diseases that scare the sheesh kebab out of you. But, just because you’re paranoid does not mean the disease isn’t out to get you.

Talking Computers with Spam-fisted Luddites

Rage Against the MachineMost of you will be familiar with the concept of tools from primitive hand axes, clubs, and even prehistoric smoothie makers, we humans have used them for millennia (and if you’ve noticed several animals use them too).

Of course, our tools have grown exponentially more and more sophisticated, so much so that we now have tools we call machines that transport us from place to place, allow us to chat to people on the other side of the world, and of course allow us to sit hunched over a glowing panel like a lonely saddo writing inanely about whatever subject comes into our heads and hoping that someone will actually read our words…

Now, these tools, machines, they are now rather sophisticated and often take quite some mastering. My Dad, for instance, used to be a civil engineer, but is still reluctant to program my parents video recorder. Whereas my Mother is perfectly at home with half a dozen remote controls in her hands, uses SMS texting like a teenager and is the archetypal silver surfer now that she’s turned 70.

So, why is it that younger, otherwise highly intelligent people create for themselves an aura of technophobia? Why do I receive emails and hear people claiming to “not understand computers” on an almost daily basis? Well, no one is perfect certainly and some people have a greater affinity for these electronic tools than others…but in this so-called digital age and in an environment where understanding the basic concepts of information and communication technology is almost mandatory, that they’d get to grips with the fundamentals so that we can have a sensible conversation about blogs, RSS, Twitter, whatever, without one having to explain everything from first principles?

One contact recently added the phrase “whatever that is!!!” in an email talking about the web and email. Another asked me how to get an RSS for their website and wouldn’t hear of running blog software because it was all too much and they just wanted a simple site…

As some of you will know, I also run the SciScoop Science Forum and often point correspondents to that site as a possible outlet for their novel theories of how the universe formed or where Darwin, Einstein, Newton went wrong. One such correspondent told me that she couldn’t possibly submit the article to SciScoop because her “brain was fried” just working out how to login and she couldn’t navigate the meanderings of the submission system. (It’s a standard registration page and a post submission form, nothing particularly complicated).

Is this post just a rant about people who are less adept at using the common tools of the modern world? I suppose it is in one sense. But, what scares me is the pride with which many of the people who claim they don’t understand “computers” brandish their ignorance. There is much overlap between this group and the group that laughs when they explain how they’re no good at maths or never got science at school.

Why does it scare me? Well, humans have, since the aforementioned hand axe and probably before that used tools and we’ve always been curiosity driven, seeking out new knowledge…science in other words…so what is the problem?

Fine if you want to live outside the technological world we’re building, but the majority of the people with whom I engage and here these claims of technical and scientific ignorance are not living outside that world. They are corresponding or talking to me about technical matters, using sophisticated tools such as email and telephones to do so. RSS…Twitter…Logins…Computers in general, and the science that allowed these tools to be created are not some alien mission, they are the current state of evolution of human tool use.

I asked my good friend and fellow tech blogger Kim Woodbridge what she thought of this situation. “I encounter a lot of these people too,” she told me, “but I think there are a couple of other issues. There is this cool kid vs the geek mentality that still seems to exist well past high school and there is the anti-intellectualism attitude, at least in the US.”

She recalled that while working in tech support she and her colleagues were forever butting heads with the sales reps. “They were cool and we were geeks,” she says. “They wanted us to ‘just make it work’ and didn’t want to bother learning what it was that they might be doing wrong.”

Another contact suggested that the answer may lie in the two extremes of human types. “There are those who have an innate understanding of artificial machines,” she told me, “and then there are those people who have a natural gift for grasping things concerning living entities, with most people in between.” She confesses to being in awe of nature and longs to unravels its secrets but has no patience or empathy with machines.

To my mind, that attitude, which seems to be quite common, is just so bizarre. It’s not as if humans and the tools we make and use are not part of nature, just because they don’t photosynthesize or have fur. Anyway, I don’t think even ubergeeks empathise with their computers, although I have seen grown men weeping over a car they wrote off in a crash.

To my mind, our brains are perfectly adapted to using the tools humans create without pandering to some self-deprecating notion that being useless at computers is a good thing. It just takes an extra internal push to build up a little more momentum. Moreover, there are hundreds of web sites and courses available that can easily be accessed to improve the e-skillset of even the most spam-fisted Luddite. Most don’t even require a login although some might have an RSS newsfeed and…perish the thought…be on Twitter.


It occurred to my while chatting over a glass of wine to friends after singing yesterday evening, that what I am getting at in this post is what Robert Persig tries to get across in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and that is the idea that you can actually get more out of life by accepting everything around you, which includes the tools you use, in Persig’s case the eponymous motorcycle and in my case, as far as this post goes, computers.

Persig is concerned that his co-riders are missing out by not getting to grips with the maintainance of their motorbikes. I guess I feel the same about the (mock) ignorance people feel about these electronic tools many of use on a day to day basis. But, I concede rage against those who don’t like machines is probably not very Zen.


More Stupid Science

safety-specsMy previous post on stupid things people have done in the lab as a kind of Darwin Awards for scientists was described by Guy Kawasaki, of Alltop fame. It also seemed to be so popular a post with lots of people sending me their own anecdotes that I thought more stupid science would be a good idea, so I polled the scientwists and summarise their responses and stories below.

Jo Brodie was first to reply with a story of her lab friend Helen who misunderstood autoclave tape and set about it with a black marker pen to save time. Autoclave tape is heat sensitive and darkens when it’s been through the process. It’s not just a random way to mark that stuff has been done! She was also bemused by a colleague new to vortex mixers who launched a small Eppendorf tube across the lab when they failed to hold on to it at same time as mixing it.

Jo herself also revealed how her gel to nitrocellulose transfers improved no end when she learned that she needed to put them between the electrodes, not on top. “In my defense I was very new and had watched the plastic lid being taken off but failed to notice the top plate being lifted off too,” she says.

Research scientist Catherine Gale confesses to having started her illustrious career at age 11 when she mistook potassium for iron filings and chucked them into a Bunsen flame and temporarily blinding the whole class.

RSC press office Jon Edwards (@JonSatriani) points out that many of the original Stupid Science anecdotes I described are associated with wet chemistry. “I’ve observed that, for careless handling of dangerous chemicals, you can’t do better than your average physical chemist who, naming no names, will sling around bucketloads of methanol to clean equipment with no respect for toxicity,” he told me. Gloves are, apparently, for organic chemists. While malhandling of carbon tetrachloride for temporally-aligning two laser beams is equally as stupid. Jon has heard “Just whack some in the line, it’ll be OK,” on at least one occasion he told me. He also points out that trying to align a beam path while watching YouTube videos is not advisable.

A simple domestic confusion faced biochemist and cat lover Janet Strath. “I came back from holiday to find that new PhD students had helpfully washed all the laboratory plasticware, but unfortunately had then used a ‘drying’ oven to dry and needless to say produced a molten mass of plastic.”

Rob Aitken recalls the wonders of liquid metal. “Playing with mercury was a personal favourite,” he confesses, “see how it runs!”

Grad student Dan (DrFriction) didn’t provide a specific example but highlighted a sentiment that was echoed by other correspondents. “Personally, the disparity in safety between corporate and academic labs shocks,” he says. It would be interesting to hear about lab stupidity in the corporate world, but I suspect most fun examples would be under confidentiality agreements.

Jeff Greeson obtained a BSc in biology and worked for a decade in various research and production labs. He was stumped when the centrifuge did not turn on as it had every morning for the five years he’d worked with it. “Because of my experience with problems that the unit usually gave me the hundreds of times I had operated the unit, I figured there was no need to call Maintenance, I could figure it out myself before the sample deteriorated beyond recovery. I had about 2 hours to get it working or the 5 hours of work that went into the sample would be lost. I tore that thing apart from top to bottom before finally calling Maintenance. At 1:50 minutes into my frustration, the tech arrived at the window of the lab. I don’t know what initiated the highest emotional response, the fact that he was laughing at the fact the machine was disassembled all over the lab, or that fact that from the window he diagnosed the problem and mouthed to me, ‘Try plugging it in’; I did not lose the sample.”

Sophia Collins, of I’m a Scientist Get Me Out of Here fame, didn’t have any specific tale to tell but alluded to a lot of rodentious faeces in her tweets to me on the subject of lab safety. She also pointed out that she mused for a long while on whether to add to her resume skillset the fact that she could take a rat’s rectal temperature almost blindfold. The very thought puts a whole new perspective on the phrase “getting rat arsed”. And, Sophia offers that it’s not the nicest of tasks to carry out while nursing a hangover.

Meanwhile, Peter Halkjaer-Knudsen was a very young scientist, cleaning the ion source of my MS, when a friendly tech volunteered to clean the porcelain insulators. We normally did this in peroxoacetic acid – but he reasoned that if oxidation is good, then a lot of oxidation is very good, and prepared Aqua Regia for the job. To his utter disappointment nothing really happened, so he poured it into a beaker and put it on a Bunsen burner.

Stuff really started to happen then – rather fast. When I was called to his lab, there was only about 2 foot of clear air along the floor, the rest of the room was covered in brown haze, the beaker had ruptured and the hot acid had ignited a roll of tissue paper. Of course the whole procedure was done on the bench – it was only an acid! “We had a long ‘vent & clean-up’ session and I learned a lot about supervision and communication,” he says.

One final story for this more stupid science post comes from pharma consultant Nathan Bryson. He asks, “Have you ever heard of someone opening a can of reagent from Aldrich (or similar vendor) to find vermiculite on the top and taking that for the actual reagent without thinking, especially if they’re intending to use iodine?” Bryson has heard of that happening more than once and assumes many a young grad student has learned the lesson to their shame. As one story goes, the student took it for iodine.

Arsenic, Aminos, X-ray, Teasing

A chemistI was offline with my family last week, walking and drinking ale in Derbyshire, so I’m a bit late in alerting you to my latest news stories on SpectroscopyNOW, they went live in my absence. So here’s the catchup:

Tyson’s toxic technique – The first accurate test for arsenic compounds in contaminated soil has been developed by US chemists. Their atomic emission approach to the problem could provide improved environmental and health assessments of contaminated sites.

Cosmic X-rays – Dutch have astronomers have, for the first time, used X-ray spectroscopy to reveal the long-sought signatures of dust in the interstellar medium, the extended X-ray absorption fine structure (EXAFS).

ET’s aminos – One of biology’s unanswered questions involves the evolution of the genetic code and the fact it uses just 20 natural amino acids as its building blocks for making proteins. A mathematical analysis of biochemistry by researchers in Canada suggests a possible answer that could have profound implications for our search for life on other planets.

Teasing with a stripline – A high-resolution NMR flow probe for microfluidic systems based on a new type of stripline detector chip has been developed by researchers in The Netherlands. The tool could be useful in direct monitoring of chemical reactions performed in so-called lab-on-a-chip devices.

Drugs in the Water Supply

According to an AP investigation, US pharma companies have released at least 1000 tonnes of pharmaceuticals into American waterways. This putative contamination of the drinking water supply has been consistently overlooked by the Federal government, their report says.

Interestingly, this drugs in the water supply is a topic I discussed at least a decade ago in the original ChemWeb Catalyst column (now available on Sciencebase.com) and one that was also in the news in India not too long ago: Indian Stream A Cocktail Of Drugs. The exact same news was also discussed back in January on the thdblog: Pharmaceutical Waste Dumped at Record Levels.

Spotlight on the Alchemist

spotlight-alchemistMy April Spotlight on physical sciences news is now available as is this week’s Chemweb Alchemist.

Under the Spotlight:

Pores for thought – A solid, but sponge-like material has been synthesised by chemists in Singapore. The silica-type material has the most complicated pore structure ever reported…

Chips are down and, eventually, out – Graphene is a modified form of the all-carbon pencil “lead” material graphite and is being touted as the material of choice for a future generation of computer chips to augment, or even usurp, silicon. Now, three research teams…

Volcanic greenhouse – Volcanoes, such as Mount Vesuvius, that sit on carbonate sediments could represent a previously underestimated source of atmospheric carbon dioxide…

The Alchemist this week learns of a new inhibitor for a brain hormone receptor associated with cocaine addiction and a new approach to mass spectrometry could improve the chances of finding physiologically active compounds hidden in organisms.

A breathing organometallic capsule mimics a viral shell and can adsorb molecules bigger than its normal pore size while white wine is revealed to be almost as guilty as red in staining teeth.

In synthetic chemistry, a new approach to quickly producing bespoke carbohydrates leads to a new startup company out of Iowa State.

Finally, this week’s social news is the appointment of UCB chemist Graham Fleming to the position of campus vice chancellor of research.

The Developing Digital Divide

w:Muhammad Yunus, founder of w:Grameen BankAre digital inclusion projects in the developing world booming or are they doomed to failure? That’s the question asked by legal expert Dinusha Mendis of the University of Central Lancashire, Preston, UK.

Mendis has investigated the digital divide in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nigeria, and how laws such as those governing intellectual property rights and copyright might be acting as a barrier to narrowing the digital divide between the developing world and technologically mature nations.

“It is important to bridge the digital divide so that everyone can have equal rights to development, education, and freedom of expression,” Mendis explains. However, she asks whether developing nations can cope with stringent international laws and so embrace digital technology. Key to success is whether the governments of these countries can create the necessary laws and legal infrastructure to address the issues which arise from digital technology.

The concept of bridging the digital divide is not so much about access to technology, but about the benefits derived from access, explains Mendis. She points out that the divide exists not only between the developed and the developing world but also in many parts of the world between urban and poor rural communities. So, the implications of studying digitisation in developing nations may also have implications for millions of people in the developed world too.

To reap the rewards of making digital technology available to everyone, it is not simply a matter of providing access to gadgets but about empowering people to use the technology productively.

Mendis has investigated the results of three different projects. First, the GrameenPhone project (Bangladesh). GrameenPhone provides 250,000 “village” phones for the use of 148 million people who live in rural communities in Bangladesh. But, more than that, the project acted as the hub for an emerging rural economy. For instance, a poor woman with a bad credit history could borrow money from Grameen Bank to buy a handset and subscribe to cellular service. She could then make money renting out the phone to fellow villagers and extend her business network.

Ultimately, the phone becomes a productivity tool that could do as much to pull people out of poverty as a loan. For example, rather than walk to the next village in search of a doctor, people could call ahead. Instead of going in search of customers, a taxi driver can be called and his business thus expand. “The phone would likely produce more revenue than a cow, bought with a conventional bank loan, which can produce only so much milk,” Mendis explains.

The success of the GrameenPhone concept has now spread to other parts of the developing world, including Kenya and Tanzania, which now have their own rural banking systems based around the cellphone. In Kenya, Safaricom and Vodafone partnered to create the “mobile” banking system M-Pesa. M-Pesa is hugely successful and is now being used by farmers to pay traders as well as being used for paying salaries and bills.

The second scheme is the Internet Radio project in Sri Lanka. The Kothmale Community Radio (KCR) station is located in the central hill region of Sri Lanka and serves a population of about 200,000 people. In essence, the KCR producers trawl the internet for information related to that week’s headlines and translate the information and news into the local languages for daily broadcast. So, how does this bridge the digital divide for the people of Sri Lanka?

The answer lies in the fact that the majority of listeners live in remote parts of the country but have close family members working in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Dubai and elsewhere. With no access to a phone, very limited literacy and a poor postal service even for those who can read and write, members of such rural communities can through the radio project keep abreast of what’s happening in the countries where their relatives live and work. In addition, UNESCO also provided internet access points through the project as well as training in email use, word processing, spreadsheets and other software.

KCR is another first and another success story in narrowing the digital divide between the north and south. The material broadcast on KCR is tailored and is therefore of high relevance to these communities. Similar to the GrameenPhone project, it has kept the concept simple but by marrying the old technology of community radio with that of the internet, rural communities are experiencing and benefiting from connectivity. The KCR connected to the internet, serves as a link.

Finally, the One Laptop Per Child (Nigeria) project has become widely celebrated as a success in bridging the digital divide. Galadima Primary School was the first to receive 300 of these robust XO laptops, which cost just $100 each, and have low-cost satellite internet access via the VSAT system.

A teacher at the school is on record as explaining the benefits and this quote is testament to the impact enabling technology can have: “Before, we felt that we were not very important but now we have the laptop, we feel that we have moved ahead… Not only has it raised the status of the school, she said, but it has also improved learning at school and the surrounding community… The laptop has brought a greater impact to our children. It is easier to give notes and assignments and they learn faster,” the teacher said.

“All three projects based on simple concepts have led by example on how rural communities in the developing world can be digitally included,” says Mendis. “In looking to the future and to a more connected world, the hope is that the north and south will collaborate to bring digital equality for all, whilst also aiming for a safe and secure information society.”

Research Blogging IconDinusha Mendis (2009). Bridging the digital divide: booming or doomed? A study of digital inclusion projects in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nigeria International Journal of Private Law, 2 (4), 371-384 DOI: 10.1504/IJPL.2009.024478