Metal, Aerosols, and Biggy Smalls

World Conference of Science Journalists in London this week, so here’s a sneak preview of the July 1 issue of SpectroscopyNOW from the 雷竞技官网 segments in celebration. Wish me luck in defending my corner against those who would smite the science writers from our midst…

Iron proteins cast in surprising role – Iron is the most abundant transition metal in the human body. Its intriguing reduction-oxidation properties endow it with the active role as an essential cofactor in countless proteins. Some of these are involved in oxygen transport (haemoglobin in the blood), electron exchange for powering biochemical reactions and energy release (cytochromes), and the control of potentially harmful free radicals.

However, little is known about how the haem group that carries oxygen in blood and is the active centre of several enzymes is transported from where it is made in the cell to its host protein assembly. Now, UV-Vis spectroscopy has helped identify an enzyme that also functions as a haem transporter as well as protecting the fragile iron(II). More…

Aerosols all – Dust, sea salt, soot, bacteria, and pollutant particles all add to the mix of atmospheric aerosols that can seed cloud formation as water and ice condense on these tiny particles and ultimately lead to precipitation. Understanding future climate change might hinge on the analysis of all such contributing atmospheric aerosols. Now, infrared spectroscopy and mass spectrometry have revealed important clues as to the role of aerosols in affecting climate patterns. Full story…

Biggy smalls – Scientists in Israel and the US have demonstrated systematic differences in the Raman spectra of single molecules adsorbed on to small, as opposed to relatively large, nanoparticles. The discovery could open up a new approach to single molecule studies. Read on…

Cats, The Matrix, and Acid Drops

copper-alchemistThe Alchemist learns of a scalable cat this week as well as how the matrix is all important when it comes to identifying metabolites in a single drop of blood.

A small follow-up trial for prostate drug abiraterone demonstrates quality of life improvements in patients with the aggressive form of the disease, the same drug might also be used in treating breast cancer.

German researchers “working at close to absolute zero” have formulated the smallest drop of hydrochloric acid, showing that four water molecules and one HCl are all that is needed.

In physical science the giant intrinsic electroresistance has been demonstrated in a conventional ferroelectric film for the first time and could herald the development of a new high-density type of computer memory. It’s the electrical equivalent of giant magnetoresistance exploited in modern high-density hard drives.

Finally, technical achievement in founding modern near infrared chemical imaging systems leads to an award for Malvern Instruments’ Technical Director E Neil Lewis.

The link is now here.

Village Archaeology

Archaeologists were out in force in our village once again, this past weekend. This time their mini dig was part of our four-day Fen Edge Family Festival, for which I was one of the team of official photographers.

A metre-square hole was dug on the edge of Cottenham Village Green and it was quickly discovered just what a near-history find this site is. Apparently, in the 1920s when one of the village ponds had become nothing more than a stinking, muddy pit harbouring disease, the Parish decided to fill it in and villagers were invited to carry out a mass spring clean and dump all their sold rubbish into the pit. Broken bicycles, bricks, unfixable tools, cracked bottles and storage jars were dumped and the site “landscaped” to turn the former pond into a village green.

The 2009 Festival’s monster sculpture competition had record numbers of entries from families making fiendish friends from household rubbish, broom handles, and pot plants. By an amazing coincidence, the Time-Team style archaeological mini dig on the Village Green unearthed a century-old bottle embossed with the word MONSTERS. Turns out to have been a bottle that would have contained local produced fruit juice.

FEFF photography by Dave Bradley, Ralph Carpenter, Tim Eade, Liz Hill, Grant Norman, Rita Smith, Mark Swanson, Clive Thomson, Brian Whitehead, Dave Wigley, John Williams.

The Fen Edge Family Festival was established in 2005 and is run by the Fen Edge Community Association (FECA), UK registered charity 29392020, which promotes events, activities, and groups (including Cottenham Archaeology Group and Cottenham Village Society) in Cottenham and the surrounding villages of the Fen Edge Patch: Waterbeach, Willingham, Rampton and Landbeach.

Cottenham itself is a village situated on the edge of the Cambridgeshire Fens, six miles north of the 800-year old city of Cambridge. Its population has more than doubled over the past 30 years, now standing at more than 6,000, but despite this rapid modern growth the village retains a distinctive character. Its landscape, settlement patterns and buildings show the marks of more than 1,000 years of history, although the mini-dig in our garden unearthed Roman pottery dating back to approximately the third century.

Life (and Death) on the Ocean Wave

To predict the height of crests and the depths of troughs of ocean waves, scientists can turn to the well-known work of German mathematician and scientist Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss. The so-called Gaussian function provides a mathematical formula from which one can determine the normal distribution of wave heights based on probability theory and statistics.

Gauss works very well in theory. But, don’t mention wave theory and normal distributions to workers on a platform in the depth of night in a raging North Sea facing an extreme storm threatening to tear the artificial patch of dry land from its moorings.

Instead, you might want to tell them about a new approach to predicting extreme wave heights reported this month in the International Journal of Reliability and Safety. In his report, Francesco Fedele of the School of Civil & Environmental Engineering, at Georgia Institute of Technology, accepts that nineteenth century mathematics is not enough even to address the timeless problem of extreme ocean waves.

He has now devised a formula for predicting possible outcomes given particular ocean conditions. The work could inform the design of ocean-based oil and gas platforms, marine wind farms and other large engineering structures at the mercy of the waves.

The Gaussian function works well with linear phenomena under ideal conditions and then only if it focuses on the most likely outcomes not the extremes. Fedele points out that ocean waves behave in a non-linear way and so don’t fit the Gaussian function well. Moreover, there can be extreme peaks that are not matched by extreme troughs and vice versa. It is more complicated a problem than Gauss can handle.

Fedele has now turned to an entirely different formula, Breitung’s asymptotic formula, that allows non-linear behaviour to be defined mathematically. The formula takes into account the random nature of ocean wave motion up and down, which can be affected strongly by wind, underlying currents, and the profile of the ocean floor.

Fedele and his colleague M. Aziz Tayfun from the University of Kuwait compared the wave data set collected at the Tern platform in the northern North Sea during an extreme storm in a recent article that appeared in the Journal of Fluid Mechanics (2009, 620, 221-239). The predictions offered by the new formula are much more prescient than a Gaussian formula and confirm the validity of the twentieth century attempt at ocean wave prediction encompassed by the Tayfun model.

Research Blogging IconFrancesco Fedele (2009). On the statistics of oceanic waves Int. J. Reliability and Safety, 3 (1/2/3), 258-266

Aviation Radiation Redux

In May, I reported that Russian scientists at the Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Biophysics in Pushchino and the Institute of High-Energy Physics in Protvino, had investigated the chronic effects of the radiation to which we are exposed every time we fly in high altitude aircraft. They wanted to know if any putative damage to one’s DNA might be passed on to your future offspring. It’s an issue that girds the loins of air crew and other regular flyers alike.

At the time, the team simulated the radiation conditions in laboratory tests and reported some rather worrying results. I have now followed up with team leader Alsu Dyukina a few questions that arose.

How did you decide on what dose to use in the tests?

The dose received by our experimental mice were decided based on really date that with an annual norm of flights of 2000 h the rate of the equivalent dose of space radiation is 1.7-6 microsieverts per hour, which makes up a radiation dose of 7—50 millisieverts. Radiation doses received by pilots and flight attendants are often greater than those received by traditional radiation workers in the heavily regulated nuclear industry, but until recently, little attention was paid to occupationally exposed air crew.

According to a report of the Federal Aviation Administration, the average dose rate in the contiguous United States from cosmic and terrestrial radiation is 0.06 μSv/h. At an altitude of 10 km, which is common for domestic air travel, the dose rate from galactic cosmic radiation alone is 6 μSv/h.

What about solar activity, is that an issue?

During a solar maximum, the numbers and energies of the solar radiation particles increase enough to affect the cosmic radiation dose to air travellers.

Do you think there is cause for concern for would-be parents?

We think that we can extrapolate to possible damage to the offspring of pilots as it is known that the mice are more radio-resistant in comparison with the human. We believe that revealed by us such negative consequences as the changes in radiosensitivity and the absence of adaptive response in the progeny of parents irradiated with low doses of high-LET radiation are evidence of genetic instability, which is transmitted via the sex cells of the parents.

What can be done to protect air crews?

It is an established fact that an increase in altitude means an increase in radiation levels therefore to protect air crew and travellers should decrease the altitude of flights.

The International Federation of Air Line Pilots Associations (IFALPA) recognizes 20 mSv/yr as the cosmic radiation limit for airline flight crews as established by the National Council of Radiation of Protection and Euratom. It is further recognized that airline flight crew should be categorized as occupationally exposed radiation workers, likely to receive more than 1 mSv/y.

As cosmic radiation imposes a potential health risk to airline flight crews, it is highly recommended that national authorities make provisions for exposure assessment verification. Crew members should be made aware through extensive educational programs that high altitude flying exposes them to significantly higher ionizing radiation levels, with carcinogenic potential, than the general population and the scope of radiation protection legislation.

Crew members should be warned that radiation exposure above 1 mSv during the course of the entire pregnancy may cause an increased risk to the fetus. In addition, airlines will be required to organize the schedules of crew members with the objective of reducing the doses of highly exposed air crew, educate the crew about health risks, and give special protections to women who have declared pregnancy.

But, these are still low doses of radiation, right?

It is important to remember that little is known of the radiobiological effects of low dose ionizing radiation, much less that of low dose ionizing radiation of the type and quantity which airline pilots and cabin crew are exposed to at altitude.
What’s more in the last decade it was shown by many researchers that the damaging action of low doses is more efficiently determined when compared with the damage that might be expected at linear extrapolation of results from greater doses to low.

What is the bottom line on this study?

The studies will expand what is known about the health risks of cosmic radiation in the near future.

Research Blogging IconS. Zaichkina, O. Rozanova, G. Aptikaeva, A. Akhmadieva, H. Smirnova, S. Romanchenko, O. Vakhrusheva, S. Sorokina, A. Dyukina, & V. Peleshko (2009). Adaptive response and genetic instability induced in mice in vivo by low dose-rate radiation simulating high-altitude flight conditions Int. J. Low Radiation, 6 (1), 28-36

Cannabis Cancer, Toxic Waste, Antibiotics

The latest science news with an analytical bent from yours truly, now available in the SpectroscopyNOW ezines:

Cannabis blow back – A highly sensitive new chemical test has allowed European scientists to obtain “convincing evidence” that marijuana smoke damages DNA in ways that could increase the risk of cancer.

Toxic shock – Researchers in Spain are evaluating the “ecotoxic” properties of hazardous and toxic wastes for the aquatic environment. They suggest that the ecotoxic profile of a given waste stream can be derived from a novel battery of bioassays using statistical techniques that reveal whether dangerous levels of compounds toxic to frogs and fish are present and whether or not uber-toxins* like dioxins are at unsafe levels.

Chemical directors – Chemistry often all about activation. Now, UK chemists have found a way to control and direct the activation of important molecules used to synthesise pharmaceutical and agrochemical products. Their work also provides new insights into how bond activation works.

Enzymic activity – Researchers have obtained the first three-dimensional crystal structure of an enzyme that contains iron and helps soil microbes fend off invaders and rivals. The enzyme hydroxyethylphosphonate dioxygenase (HEPD) used by the Streptomyces soil microbe could lead to new agricultural technology, chemical catalysts, and perhaps even novel antibiotics that defeat bacterial resistance to conventional drugs.

*Yes, I know the word toxin applied only to compounds naturally derived and that attaching the uber mock prefix to this word is probably also misplaced as dioxins have a much worse reputation than they deserve, but I couldn’t help myself and they are very poisonous.

Short, Sharp Alchemist

copper-alchemistNatural quasicrystals, graphene interconnects, and photo-powered nanomotors all come into view through The Alchemist’s eyeglass this week.

Also in view, is the finding that hydrogen peroxide is more than a bleach, it’s a marshal for white blood cells to flood to the body’s injury sites. Solar-powered humidity on tap might help solve pure water shortages in some arid parts of the world.

Finally, the ACS has named its Washington DC headquarters after Clifford & Kathryn Hach Building following a $33 million donation.


Tsunami or Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds

kelvin-helmholtz-wave-cloud by 雷竞技官网
UPDATE: Apparently, residents of Alabama saw giant “tsunami” clouds earlier this week. Well I photographed the waves seen above from my home office window 2 or three years ago…don’t think they were heading across The Atlantic though!

Dramatic clouds sunset by 雷竞技官网 
Cloud appreciation…it doesn’t quite have the same image as other hobbies, rock climbing, sky diving, fell walking, fly fishing.

Cloud spotting is almost on a par with training spotting or stamp collecting, you might think, but just a single hour spent on your back almost anywhere in the world staring up at a cloudy sky can be so good for the soul. At least, that’s the ethos of the Cloud Appreciation Society.

The CAS website is temporarily unavailable (503 server overload error) because of a surge of interest in clouds thanks to surprise bestselling author Gavin Pretor-Pinney who has made clouds his life’s speciality. And The Cloudspotter’s Guide topped the non-fiction charts for months.

undulating clouds by 雷竞技官网 
So fascinated by clouds is Pretor-Pinney that’s he’s hoping to have a new cloud type classified. The launch of his campaign to get this choppy cloud, he has dubbed Asperatus into the annals of meteorology, neatly coincides with the publication of his second book, The Cloud Collectors’ Handbook, but we’ll forgive him that as a fortunate coincidence, eh?

I have to admit that, sitting behind a laptop from in my first floor office with a wide picture window over ooking trees and a few single-story dwellings gives me a wonderful opportunity to watch the clouds unroll. I often see some unusual formations, and if I can grab my camera to capture them before they dissipate.

The photos on this post are all clouds seen from my office, but until I saw Pretor-Pinney interviewed on BBC TV, I hadn’t realised that this one had a special name. Apparently, it’s a Kelvin-Helmholtz wave cloud, named for two of the godfathers of nineteenth century science.

kelvin-helmholtz-wave-cloud by 雷竞技官网
According to scientists on the UIUC Weather World 2010 project, this cloud type appears between two layers of air of different densities, travelling at different speeds. If a warm, less dense layer lies above a layer of colder, denser air, and the wind shear across the two layers is strong enough, eddies will develop along the boundary. This gives the cloud an obvious rolling waves appearance, hence their other name “shear-gravity waves”.

H1N1 Swine Flu Update

Many virologists, including Vincent Racaniello, have suggested that the threat of avian influenza (H5N1) was greatly overestimated and so distracted us from more serious threats. Back in early 2005, he suggested that another strain might underpin a pandemic, such as H2N2, it may yet do just that. In the meantime, he was essentially right in that H1N1, previously known as “swine flu” emerged in March this year in Mexico (not Asia). He suggests that we really shouldn’t underestimate viruses.

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in its weekly report on flu, suggested that the decline in infections during the last week of May in the US is important but the numbers still represent higher levels of influenza-like illness than is normal for this time of year.

Richard Besser, CDC acting director, announced on June 8 that H1N1 isn’t “going away” and suggested that some people might need to get two separate flu vaccines in the autumn. He added that the second wave of H1N1 might be more virulent than the current apparently weak phase. Of course, that’s a guess as to how the virus might evolve, there is a chance it could go either way.

As to actually getting hold of a vaccine…Hong Kong is promising that vulnerable citizens will get the jab. However, at the time of writing no vaccine against H1N1 is ready. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), as of the end of May no vaccine was available and development could take five to six months.

Although the number of cases of the H1N1 virus has been declining in many places, health officials expect a resurgence this fall, possibly in a more severe form.

On June 5, the WHO held the third meeting of its emergency committee and agreed that future pandemic updates would include reference to the severity of an outbreak. Whether or not this would have a positive or negative impact on media reporting of any outbreak remains to be seen.

If you believe no news is good news, then the lack of updates since June 2 on the site has to be good, but it’s slightly worrying, from the technical point of view that the site has not added any new data or reports for a week.

More timely information for Europeans is available from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), which reports 108 new cases confirmed from European countries, 284 new cases in non-European countries, and the first cases in Martinique (overseas territory France) and Dominica. (PDF report).

The first death in Pennsylvania associated with 2009 Novel Influenza A/H1N1 was reported in Berks County. Currently, the state has 269 confirmed cases and 101 probable cases of illness due to this virus. Nationally, there are 11,054 confirmed cases of A/H1N1 and 18 related deaths. Gantdaily

The BBC reported that the first case of “home-grown” swine flu in Northern Ireland had occurred.

However, the WHO has the last word explaining that it is once again on the verge of declaring a genuine pandemic as the disease spreads through Australia. we’ve been sitting at Phase V (the one below pandemic VI) for weeks now. But, even jumping to Phase VI doesn’t actually mean that the disease has become any more severe that it was.

Pandemic status is all to do with incidence and little to do with virulence. The WHO says that, “by going to phase six, what this would mean is that the spread of the virus continues and activity has become established in at least two regions in the world.” In other words the Americas and Australia. Nothing more, nothing less.

WHO has just reported that totals are 27737 cases of H1N1 one with 141 deaths in 74 countries, with Africa so far largely unaffected.

ChemTweets and Scientwits

I was interviewed by Faith Hayden for this week’s Chemical & Engineering News on the subject of, you guessed it, science on Twitter. This link is now free to view.

Here’s a transcript of my interview:

How long have you been Tweeting?

I joined Twitter in June 2007 under the pseudonym “@sciencebase“, which is the name of my website. I made a few sporadic tweets until I discovered twitterfeeder, which automates the process of announcing one’s latest blog posts. I probably accrued about 50 followers until I saw the light last autumn. At that point I realized that tweeting isn’t a one-way process and that the key to successfully using the service is engagement with other users.

What do you primarily use your Twitter account for?

Once I’d taken the leap from simply tweeting for my own benefit and instead started to share information, blog posts, and links to other sites, that might be useful to others and to respond to their tweets with comments and retweets, twitter really started to take off for me. I went from a few dozen followers and very few people with whom I was engaging until late 2008 to a nice group of of well over 4000 people with whom I connect regularly and who also frequent my website on a basis.

Where do you think Twitter fits in with social networking?

You would, at first glance, think it’s quite limiting having to share an idea in just 140 characters, but with a little tweaking of one’s thought processes, you can get quite a lot of information across in a tweet as well as a link to a more substantial blog post, say. As a journalist, I see it as being akin to writing a beefed up headline.

How is Twitter changing science writing and science blogging?

I think Twitter, and perhaps more so FriendFeed where are the growing communities (rooms) in the life sciences and other areas, are to some extent changing the way the community itself finds out about science blogs and discusses science-related news, results, ethics and much more…

Do you think Twitter is changing the way the public consumes science news?

Twitter is still very much in its infancy, and while there seem to be a lot of people following me as sciencebase on twitter just for my news headlines, I suspect that there are far more getting their science news fix directly from websites such as Slashdot, ScienceDaily, and Eurekalert and via newsfeed aggregators too. Currently, there seems to be a surge of interest in FriendFeed, which adds several other features useful to science types on the net that are unavailable to twitter users. I suspect Twitter will either upgrade to something more like FriendFeed or the next version of FriendFeed will supercede Twitter, at least among niche users, such as scientists.

Do you find the 140-character Tweet limiting for science posts?

Like I said before, I start with the assumption that I’m really writing a beefed up headline. It’s definitely an art, especially as you are even more limited if you’re including a shortened link and want to leave space for fellow twitter users to retweet your tweet. I’m no expert, but I do try hard.

Would you encourage seasoned scientists and Ph.D. students to add Twitter to their list of bookmarked websites?

I’d encourage everyone in science to join twitter and/or FriendFeed. There is definitely a big initial hurdle to get over before these tools become useful and often novice users will abandon them before they get to that point. Build up slowly the number of people you follow, avoid scammers and spammers like the plague. For instance, as a chemistry gad student, you’re quite unlikely to have much in common with anyone calling themselves a “social media marketing guru and SEO expert”. There are lots of science types on Twitter who you will almost certainly share interests and who will be worth engaging with. Think of it as the coffee break talk between conference lectures.

For science types on twitter who want to explore twitter and science further, two resources you might find useful – page (almost 500 members) and (more than 400 members); some overlap, also lots of science journalists, educators etc, in both now.