A hepatical sabbatical

UPDATE: By sheer coincidence (I could claim prescience), the BBC is reporting that Brits are drinking more than ever on holiday. “Holidaymakers are turning to drink on their breaks with the average adult consuming eight alcoholic drinks a day, a survey suggests, which amounts to around 200 units on a single trip.” (BBC)

Intoxicants have been with humanity for millennia, indeed, there are examples of other species that, ahem, self medicate, with various herbs and fruit that has gone by its sell-by date and so accrued alcoholic content. It is, therefore, probably no surprise that the vast majority of us enjoy the occasional tipple and others various other chemical weapons of mind destruction.

People who know me, know that I am somewhere on the spectrum between connoisseur and just plain sloshed in the Fawlty Towers sense of that phrase. Some would say further to one end than the other. Whatever my reputation it occurred to me after our family summer break that it was probably time for a hepatic holiday.

It makes sense to abstain for a reasonable period every once in a while. Abstinence is the only genuine and efficacious way to detox and eradicate substances and their metabolites despite the hype surrounding herbal remedies and detox diets. Just remember that a hepatic holiday will require you to keep your fluid levels up using H2O rather than any C2H5OH. Avoiding the ingestion or inhalation of those chemicals your detoxing from gives your liver the break it needs to clear out the metabolic residues.

My personal hepatic holiday has led to improved “energy” levels, a general clear headedness, and, for once, an enthusiasm for getting up early to catch a train to #solo09 on Saturday, 22nd August. I even managed to survive the post-conference pub trip on nothing but J2O, which brought a few raised eyebrows from fellow delegates who couldn’t figure out how I had shifted off to the ultra-dry end of that Fawlty spectrum I mentioned earlier.

Of course, all good things must come to an end, and holidays are no exception. Some time soon I’ll probably head home figuratively speaking. There is after all only so many raised eyebrows and J2O one can endure. Moreover, there’s a sealed vessel containing a clear, but red-coloured 14% solution of C2H5OH nestling in our wine rack that has been gagging for a good corkscrewing these last few days.

This lighthearted post is in no way meant to represent medical advice, nor advocacy of substance abuse, nor should it be assumed that the author is anything bur a moral and upstanding citizen who indulges only legal intoxicants at moderate levels, except when on hepatic holiday, of course.

By the way, my wife, who has been dragged along for the ride, doesn’t see this period of abstinence as a holiday, but more as a “wet weekend camping”…

H1N1 and Glutathione Supplements

Could a simple dietary change that increases glutathione, or indeed supplementation with this antioxidant tripeptide, be all you need to boost your immune system and ward of influenza? Several Sciencebase correspondents and hundreds of “bloggers” selling supplements seem to think so…but I am not so sure, despite the couple of limited research papers that they cite again and again in their marketing literature.

Initially, it seems, the results of a small trial published in 1997 suggested that administration of N-acetylcysteine during the winter could affect the severity of influenza symptoms, especially in elderly high-risk individuals. “N-acetylcysteine did not prevent A/H1N1 virus influenza infection but significantly reduced the incidence of clinically apparent disease,” the paper said.

N-acetylcysteine is an analog and precursor of reduced glutathione, which has been in clinical use for decades as a drug to reduce mucous. More recently, it has been proposed for use in the therapy and/or prevention of several respiratory diseases and of diseases involving oxidative stress, in general.

Evidence grew ever so slightly for a role for glutathione itself in 2000, when Emory University researchers led by Dean Jones reported that a lozenge or oral spray containing glutathione might help prevent infection with influenza. Trials in humans had not been carried out but details were reported in Free Radical Biology and Medicine and elsewhere.

Jones is more recently on record as saying that a good diet is key to getting enough glutathione, so how supplementation fits into that picture I don’t know:

Glutathione occurs naturally in many foods, and people who eat well probably have enough in their diets, says Jones, professor of biochemistry and director of nutritional health sciences at Emory University in Atlanta. Those with diets high in fresh fruits and vegetables and freshly prepared meats are most likely just fine. On the other hand, those with poor diets may get too little.

Then, in 2006, an article entitled A nutritional supplement formula for influenza A (H5N1) infection in humans put forward (again) the (same) hypothesis that this might be possible.

The 1997 and 2006 papers are now widely touted by those selling glutathione supplements to purportedly help prevent infection with H1N1 the current pandemic swine flu virus, previously they were marketing on the back of H5N1 bird flu scaremongering. However, the 2006 paper was published in the journal Medical Hypotheses and really did only suggest that glutathione supplements might be an interesting avenue of research in the face of a global flu pandemic. It did not, as far as I can see, run widescale, double-blind, randomised placebo-controlled clinical trials to test the hypothesis.

The researchers hinted that the compound could interfere with the virus itself or somehow modulate immune system biochemistry, or somehow inhibit the so-called cytokine storm. They said that it might, “aid humans infected with H5N1 influenza to survive with a reduced likelihood of major complications.” But, their hypothesis did home in on a single mode of action. It is thus difficult to determine whether any of those it suggests are in any way valid or simply scientific dead-ends.

A disclaimer in the paper states that, “The nutritional supplement formula described in part herein is patent-pending and has been licensed to Douglas Laboratories, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as “Hi-Vidomin Nutritional Immune Multi” for sale in the healthcare practitioner market.” The authors are named as author Howard Friel who has written on emerging viruses, climate change, and globalization, and Harvey Lederman, Medical Director of the Pioneer Valley Family Practice, Northampton, MA. Why they make that disclaimer so prominent, I’m not sure.

Regardless, if glutathione is actually effective against influenza infection, and it probably isn’t, then it would presumably have to be present at the infection site – mouth and nose and upper respiratory tract. No definitive clinical trials have proven efficacy one way or the other yet.

Direct application to the oral cavity either under the tongue, as a lozenge, or as an oral spray would seem to be the only way to get glutathione to the viral entry points. A spray or lozenge has not yet been clinically proven for human use, although there are plenty of websites selling sprays nevertheless and perhaps not coincidentally offering get-rich-quick schemes at the same time.

Before you rush out to buy any expensive dietary supplements, take a close look at your diet. Is it well-balanced, rich in fruit and vegetables? If it is then you are unlikely to be deficient in glutathione.

I have written about medical opinions of echinacea and other supplements in the battle to ward off influenza elsewhere. After many years of small-scale and limited trials, the jury is still out on echinacea and glutathione specifically. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has new insights into whether or not this compound is yet another pseudo-medical scam or a genuine way to reduce flu symptoms. I strongly suspect it’s the former rather than the latter.

Research Blogging IconFRIEL, H., & LEDERMAN, H. (2006). A nutritional supplement formula for influenza A (H5N1) infection in humans☆ Medical Hypotheses, 67 (3), 578-587 DOI: 10.1016/j.mehy.2006.02.040

Swine Flu and Glutathione Supplements

GlutathioneCould a simple dietary change that increases glutathione, or indeed supplementation with this tripeptide be all you need to boost your immune system and ward of influenza?

Evidence mounted for glutathione itself in 2000, when Emory University researchers led by Dean Jones reported that a lozenge or oral spray containing glutathione might help prevent infection with influenza. Trials in humans had not been carried out but details were reported in Free Radical Biology and Medicine and elsewhere.

If glutathione is actually effective against influenza infection, and it may well not be, then it would presumably have to be present at the infection site – mouth and nose and upper respiratory tract. No definitive clinical trials have proven efficacy one way or the other yet.

FRIEL, H., & LEDERMAN, H. (2006). A nutritional supplement formula for influenza A (H5N1) infection in humans? Medical Hypotheses, 67 (3), 578-587 DOI: 10.1016/j.mehy.2006.02.040

What is a Scientific Paper?

雷竞技官网 reporting from Science Online London 2009 (#solo09)

The “modern” form of scientific publishing began in the 17th century when gentlemen (rarely has it been a lady until very recently) with an inquisitive bent decided it would be a good idea to share the results of their endeavours among their peers, for assessment, confirmation and debate. August bodies that published these seeds of enlightenment as well as the occasional monstrous calf (Robert Boyle quote) grew into the learned societies we still know and love today. Moreover, on the back of scientific industry these organisations and countless commercial concerns since have built vast empires to publish and profit from the growing piles of scientific information.

From Boyle’s “monstrous calf” in 1665 to Watson and Crick’s seminal, single page “paper” in Nature in 1953 humbly announcing that they may have unlocked the secret of life, the status quo has remained…well…the same. There were innovations over the decades, mainly in the arcane areas of typesetting and lithography. With the emergence of the personal computers and the internet, however, things began to change ever so slightly. The flat and static nature of research papers remained pretty much the same, but were copied from treeware to PDF formats and online archives.

With the emergence of the age of digital media, social networking, online collaborative tools, and new business models for publishing, however, the late 90s saw the first waves of a sea change that would, dot.com froth aside be the first ebbing of a revolution the full impact of which science is yet to observe.

In 1665, Robert

At #solo09, Lee-Ann Coleman of the British Library, asked “where next?” There are millions of research papers out there now, so how does science use new technology to mine this information data seam? More urgently though, what format should the modern scientific paper take? It is obvious from the way many pioneering scientists are working today, among them many conference delegates such as Richard Grant, Cameron Neylon, Peter Murray-Rust, that things are changing significantly.

With biology papers and particle physics research having vast author lists and mounds of technical data, should the science blog become the narrative resource, the results and discussion, for a research paper
, with annotated databases and repositories of processes acting as the old method and supplementary data sections?, asked Coleman.

Katherine Barnes of Nature Protocols explains how NPG is already taking steps towards such a view of the scientific paper. This entity is unusual in that it publishes protocols, recipes of how to do the experiment, rather than primary research papers, with a review of the method and detailed description. These “Protocols” are unlike traditional peer-reviewed papers in that they are not peer reviewed in the conventional sense but almost instantaneously critiqued by the community. What is left unsaid, of course, is who should be the critics, are they anonymous and who pays for their services?

The digital video journal JOVE has almost taken this protocol approach to its logical conclusion where each “paper” is an improved video presentation of a protocol. Such is their credibility in this age, that they are indexed in PubMed. It is presumably relatively expensive, but really useful nevertheless, Barnes suggested. Although one audience comment suggested that making a video would be one of the least costly parts of a research project overall.

Like arXiv and the ChemWeb chemistry pre-print server before it, NPG is also touting Precedings as a pre-print journal for biology and also offering innovations in Nature Chemistry, such as 3D structures, links to data, citations and download data. All apparently very innovative but something that Henry Rzepa and Peter Murray-Rust were proving way back in the mid-1990s with the ECTOC and ECHET virtual conferences. The pioneering efforts of those conferences and the likes of ChemWeb and BioMedNet, which were web 2.0 years before the web 2.0 of reflective logos and so-called social media seem to be neglected in discussions today. I digress.

Barnes said that while NPG is always thinking of ways they can improve articles, handle big data sets, add movies, and make the traditional paper (invented wayback when) as useful to scientists today as possible. The publisher still maintains a traditional view as to what a basic paper is, but nevertheless is asking how it can move forward to help researchers in the future.

Theodora Bloom Chief Editor at PLoS Biology did what she described as a whistle-stop tour of what’s wrong with scientific papers at the moment. We’ve come along way since teh 1953 paper by Watson and Crick, she said, but asserted that “Papers” don’t really work now. There are some pressing problems that must be address, not least how to preserve a master copy for the record.

One of the problems that papers present when they meet head on with the digital, which is probably more important to authors than publishers is that the likes of PubMed rarely index the complete author lists for papers with huge numbers of authors such as those that emerge from genomics programs. The inclusion of complete methods is a point of contention, some publishers do, some don’t, some reserve those details for supplementary information. However, they’re handled, it doesn’t seem that an optimal standard approach has been reached that allows other scientists to quickly ascertain the protocols and attempt to reproduce them, an essential part of the validation of science, of course.

Moreover, a paper may have 1500 genes or 25000 images, where and how should those be published or archived? Asked Bloom. How would they be date stamped and if, as some studies claim, many scientists cannot trace the originals of published images and data, how do we preserve the provenance of a published scientific result and so allow technology to detect fraud and inappropriate manipulation?

We need a snapshot database of these “big” papers, suggested Bloom. Again, who pays, who has the storage, virtual and offline. It could be argued that the likes of complex 3D protein structures and such are the essence of a paper anyway, and that the narrative description is just an access point and could be handled independently in the electronic lab book or through a blog. Indeed, if a “paper” is entirely machine readable and digital then where does the author express their views. Perhaps we could go back to the one-page narrative epitomised by Crick and Watson’s humble publication of 1953. This component could become an aside for the “paper”. What is the primary data? asked Bloom.

She also suggested that the time is ripe for integrating the good-old reference section and database information for real-time analysis of author activity and results. Publishing has moved on since 1953, but Bloom also asserts that for all the We have come a long way in the fifty years but not quite far enough, already multiple versions of papers available online and the rich semantic material to work requires a free and open access to the articles, as provided by the PLOS model. Other interested parties might disagree.

The final speaker in the session, Enrico Balli points out that some organisations are already working in the new age of scientific publishing in which the definition of a scientific paper has evolved significantly already. SISSA has published a small number of particle physics papers in its journal and started to run “non-printable” types of papers in the last year in Proceedings of Science (pos.sissa.it), papers such as proceedings, regular papers, educational activities, conference notes etc…

SISSA is also working alongside the UK’s Institute of Physics to publish normal papers alongside any kind of other content attached to those papers. Strange papers include a manual for the software used by a part of the physics community, for instance. It’s not a paper in the strict sense, Balli explained, it’s a manual, although written in a style as if it were a manual to conform to what reviewers expect of a paper. He also highlights the CERN/LHC Atlas project, the biggest particle physics experiment with 5000 people and so enormous author lists. The “paper” is the manual for Atlas and has been published in a journal to explore every single nut, every single bolt. The author list covers twenty screens alone and if it were printed as a traditional paper might be a metre and a half tall.

Balli also asks, what of the data sets in particle physics for recreating experiments. The LHC will create unbelievable amounts of data, everyone will need to cite the data, but of what will the papers that emerge from this vast international collaboration consist? A comment from the floor pointed out that reproducibility of this data might be nice but is probably irrelevant for such enormous experiments.

Balli further points out that they are creating a new un-journal the Journal of Stuff which will be nothing like a traditional journal but allow physicists the opportunity, perhaps with peer review, to publish the stuff they need to publish, data sets, manuals etc.

Nevertheless, to mix a metaphor the seeds are being sown after several centuries of evolution, perhaps it’s time Boyle’s enormous calf was put out to pasture.

Pictured left to right: Katherine Barnes, Lee-Ann Coleman, Theodora Bloom, Enrico Balli

Incidentally, there was quite a lively Q&A after the speakers had done their set pieces with Cameron Neylon, Peter Murray-Rust and others pitching in with how they consider various parties in the publishing industry being to blame for different limitations in innovation when it comes to research papers, while others such as Nature’s Maxine Clarke defended the publishers’ corner to some extent.

Martin Fenner has aggregated many of the excellent posts from #solo09 that have already been published from the prequel, the conference itself, and the various breakouts etc. Although I wrote this post on the train home on Saturday, didn’t want to publish it until today, so these guys were ahead of me with their reports:

Toxic Sunscreen

Toxic sunscreen testing – Regardless of the debate on whether or not you can have too little sunshine on your skin, it is important to remember that currently there is no standard tests for monitoring toxic heavy metals contained in sunscreen creams.

Now, researchers in Greece have demonstrated that a sophisticated, but relatively straightfoward technique can be used to simultaneously determine levels of the inorganic UV filter, titanium dioxide, and several trace or toxic elements, including lead and zinc, in sunscreens and cosmetics. The results from their multi-element analysis were compared successfully with standardised data from atomic absorption spectroscopy, which suggests their approach could easily be used for quality control of these products and for regulatory testing.

Keeping an eye on anticancer drug – Chemists have devised a route to the compound, cyclopamine. This substance is found in corn lilies and causes lambs born of ewes that eat the lilies to be born with a single eye in the middle of their foreheads, a condition known as cyclopia. But, the chemists aren’t out to create a race of mutant sheep, the very same compound is known to interfere with a critical cell signalling pathway and so could be used as a novel anticancer drug.

Chicken shack solution for gun-slingers – Whatever you think of gun law, people shoot, and when they shoot they leave behind toxic lead. Japanese scientists are now using an X-ray technique to test how well soil remediation works in immobilising lead residues on gun club land. They have demonstrated that growing guinea grass and fertilising the soil with chicken guano could be the way forward. That said, it’s going to make for an awfully smelly day’s shooting.

Finally, in my SpectroscopyNOW column this week – Smoke under fire: Smoking marijuana is no less harmful than smoking tobacco, according to Canadian researchers who have looked at its toxic effects on cells. They draw their conclusion from an examination of the cytotoxicity, mutagenicity and clastogenicity of mainstream and sidestream marijuana smoke as compared to tobacco smoke. Inhalers of all kinds…beware.

Digital Privacy Concerns

I’ve discussed the risk of losing your job because of blogging previously. Recently though there was a case of summary dismissal by Facebook of a young British woman who debased her employer’s good character via her Wall has gained several column inches in the popular press.

And, of course, we have all heard about the accommodation agent in the US is suing a twitter user for 140 characters of allegedly valid venom about the quality of their rental accommodation, despite the account having just 20 followers. She’ll be down $50,000 if she loses the case.

Regardless of how you feel about bosses, corporations and realtors, the point to remember is that posting on the web is not like gossiping in a pub. What you say on the web is cached, scraped, preserved essentially for all time and for anyone to see. You would have to be rather unfortunate to be caught on video slandering your boss over a pint or two in your local pub.

Worse, say you have several thousand Twitter followers, and you defame a major minor celebrity, word, can get around. You won’t be able to delete that tweet once it’s been archived, cached, and stored by dozens of scraping systems and bots. You and your celeb target will be stuck with it, and if you said something particularly venomous they might just sue.

All this behaviour brings to the fore, once again, privacy. Privacy laws are usually based on protecting personal information, but in most countries they are fairly woolly. They are completely open to interpretation and precedent-setting judgments.

In the nineteenth century, the right to privacy was thought of as a special case of a more general human right to be “let alone” and today we might say that privacy is “the state of being free from intrusion or disturbance in one’s private life or affairs”. In the global village of social networking and 24/7 connectivity, this is becoming a little difficult to define.

Our ancestors had little notion of privacy, in the middle ages, tightly packed dwellings in the, ahem, gated communities of walled cities and feudal villages, the individual had few rights (unless that individual was the feudal lord, of course). Money and power together bought whatever rights you wanted in those days. Now, money alone is not enough, how much privacy do the likes Britney and other A-listers have, despite their gazillion dollar bank accounts? Perhaps a little more than you think, but not that much more!

The rich and powerful, by whom I mean the shy and anonymous billionaires scrabbling to extract their money from recently open Liechtenstein bank accounts, for instance, presumably have all the privacy they could ever wish for.

Meanwhile, for the likes of you and me…we assume that no one cares about our mom and pop conversations on the phone, our possibly personal tweets, our Facebook Wall graffiti, at least if we’re 99.999% law abiding, anyway. However, as ambient computing of the kind that encompasses not only the internet refrigerator but the implanted biometric chip becomes more prevalent, there are going to be new privacy issues that are way beyond the imaginings of our feudal ancestors.

At first, these concerns will be subtle. Imagine you’re asked to wear a tracking device that would enable a multinational corporation to track your every move and potentially eavesdrop on all your phone conversations…you’d be appalled at the thought. But, how many of you have a mobile phone with location-based services…?

In the UK, the National Health Service (NHS) is considering the idea of allowing clients, patients to you and me, the right to store their medical records on Google or some other cloud computing system (another topic I’ve discussed previously). That idea will open up a plethora of privacy concerns for many people.

Today the most well-known threats against privacy are thought to be public surveillance cameras (CCTV), eavesdropping on telephone networks, internet spying, and theft of medical data among other things. But, ambient computing will bring to light so many more issues in the coming years, when your exact coordinates, medical state, contacts list, biometrics, and much more are stored in a handy gadget connected to a Grid network that you carry in your pocket.

How much is your privacy worth? The benefits of that geo-tracking phone could outweigh the personal costs to you of loss of some privacy, they may not. According to Miltiades Anagnostou of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, at the National Technical University of Athens, in Greece, “Today’s information and communication technologies constitute a severe threat for privacy because they increase the volume of personal information available to potential enemies or simply the “society”. At the same time technology enables new ways of intervention in the life of a person.”

Technology is a double-edged sword, in other words, always has been. Our lowly ancestors in the middle ages had little notion of privacy and perhaps even less concern for it. These days, many people worry about it all the time…and if you’re bloggin about it or scribbling on your Facebook wall, they will know all about your concerns…

Research Blogging IconAnagnostou, M., & Lambrou, M. (2009). Privacy now and in the age of ambient intelligence International Journal of Electronic Security and Digital Forensics, 2 (4) DOI: 10.1504/IJESDF.2009.027668

Meanwhile, is the digital age stifling that all important human trait, the ability to forget?

Unique Urine Fingerprints

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgFor decades, the word “fingerprint” has been used to denote a set of unique characteristics, whether literally the complex patterns of arches, loops, and whorls on one’s fingertips or entirely figuratively and more recently, the notion of a genetic fingerprint based on an analysis of an individual’s DNA sequence.

Most recently though, scientists have turned to another “omic” metabonomic fingerprinting using the analytical technique of NMR spectroscopy to obtain a unique view of an individual based on the complete range of metabolites produced by their body.

In the press release that discussed the research and in my follow-up news story on Spectroscopynow.com, there was an allusion to the idea that each one of the 6.7 billion people on earth would have a unique metabonomic fingerprint.

Such an identifier might have forensic, biometric, and medical diagnostics implications for us all. But, at the time of writing, I was curious as to how the team could possibly assert that every one of us would be unique, given that only a handful of volunteers had been screened. So, I asked team member Ivano Bertini to tell me a little more about how this might work.

“How can one extrapolate from a few tens of individuals that all 7 billion people on earth can each have a unique metabolic NMR fingerprint. The answer is of course that one cannot be sure!” he told me.

“We hinted at this possibility because it is a legitimate extrapolation to make,” he adds, “I can offer you some speculation along these lines. The proton NMR spectrum of the urine of any individual contains a large number of signals, and the spectrum is usually divided into a few hundreds of buckets (or bins). Let us say 400 of them contain signals. The height of the bin is proportional to the intensity of the signal(s) contained in it. If you simply allow each of these bins to assume two height values, individuals can be characterized by 2400 different ‘states’ of their bins, an astronomical number! Even if you allow for several bins being correlated because they contain different signals from the same metabolite, and assume an average of 4 bins reflecting the same metabolite, you only go down to 2100, still an astronomical number. If some metabolites change their amount in a correlated way this number can go down further, but keep in mind that the population on earth is less than 233!”

So, it does indeed look like each of us would be entirely metabolically unique. But, even if that turned out not to be the case and there were only a few hundred, or a few thousand, unique metabolic NMR fingerprints in the whole human population this would still be very useful to know.

“Think of how important it has been to identify a handful of blood types,” Bertini suggests, “Having a baseline metabolic profile for an individual would allow us to monitor changes due to the onset of a disease (early diagnosis) or the effect of a drug treatment and so have an early prediction of the response to a treatment.”

We all like to feel that we are unique, even twins have different actual fingerprints, it’s interesting to think that this may reach all the way down to the contents of your bladder.

Research Blogging IconBernini, P., Bertini, I., Luchinat, C., Nepi, S., Saccenti, E., Schäfer, H., Schütz, B., Spraul, M., & Tenori, L. (2009). Individual Human Phenotypes in Metabolic Space and Time Journal of Proteome Research DOI: 10.1021/pr900344m

Spinning Facebook and Student Grades

A while back The Sunday Times got wind of a poster to be presented at a meeting by a researcher from Ohio State University. OSU posted an embargoed press release to Eurekalert and Newswise, but the Sunday Times, apparently never received that press release. Regardless, the paper put together a story with an incredible spin that ran on the Sunday before the meeting. The research poster was about Facebook and student diligence, you may have seen it in the news…

All hell broke loose as one after another a new sensationalist article about the research blamed Facebook for declining student grades and failed exams across the board. It seems that many outlets simply modified the original Sunday Times piece, which gave those stories a double spin. It caused outrage at OSU and in the media.

OSU’s assistant VP for Research Communications, Earle Holland, discussed the debacle in the summer issue of ScienceWriters, the NASW’s member magazine and slated the media for sensationalising and for mistaking correlation and causation in the runaway coverage that ensued.

Holland says in his article that the press release described only a small pilot study that looked at Facebook use among students and simply asked them about how much studying they did, and their grades. He adds that “it looked for any correlation between Facebook use and GPAs [grades], but suggested no causation.” Moreover, the study looked at a very small sample of students. It didn’t prove what the media headlines had suggested.

According to a report in the Columbia Journalism Review: “The entire episode offers a good lesson in the inherent risks of reporters’ cavalierly covering the social sciences, as well as the risks that young researchers can face in dealing with the news media.” The comments following that page are quite intriguing too.

I originally started this post with the intention of taking an opposing view. After all, surely any news is better than no news? But, before I sent the post to the blog queue, I emailed Earle to ask for his side of the story directly and he told me that, “our attention is focused on more than trying to sneak ways to get news coverage. We get tons of coverage and, as the largest research university in the US, don’t have to think up ways to finagle exposure.”

He added that, “We report on research emerging from most of the more than 100 academic departments on campus comprising more than 4,000 investigators and we’re highly selective about which projects we cover. First and foremost, they have to have undergone some peer review – in this case, publication in a reputable journal or selection for presentation at a major national meeting. Secondly, the research has to be both translateable and be interesting to a general reader/viewer/listener. Both criteria have to be met for us to do a story.”

That’s a fair and solid response and dispels the concerns I raised in my draft post written on a whim. It seems that the initial spin by the Sunday Times story which did not report the actual preliminary results in the original research poster got totally out of hand as these rather topical subjects – Facebook and student grades – collided.

And, before you ask, no, there were no threats to send around the Ohio heavies. However, given that OSU is the biggest research university in the States, I guess they could have done just that and the subsequent story and Youtube clip of my physical demise would have been even bigger than a small research project blown out of all proportion in the name of churnalism.

Hot, Tardy Alchemist

copper-alchemistBit late with the update for The Alchemist this week, had so much else to talk about before a slot was available, there was also the matter of our family vacation, hope readers find the info current enough to be of interest.

The Alchemist recently learned that music could be the key to the smooth running of a lab-on-a-chip, while tweaking quantum dots for the light show might be possible through physical rather than chemical changes. Imprinted polymers could remove vitamin B2 from beer giving it a longer-lasting flavor, we learn, while Japanese scientists have sniffed out the chemical basis of at least one form of aromatherapy. In the analytical arena, a simple enzyme-based test has been devised for spotting melamine adulteration in milk samples. Finally, the establishment of the InChI Trust will promote the use of chemical string theory for structure searching.

My Intute Spotlight column migrated to the all-new Hot Topics section on Intute while I was on holiday, so you can access my physical words for August here:

Inorganic oil – The stock explanation for the origins of crude oil and natural gas is that these hydrocarbons are the end product of millions of years of geochemical processing of long-dead sea creatures. But, these materials might also be found much deeper in the Earth’s mantle and may have a non-organic origin hinting at a controversial mechanism for a partial replenishment of reserves.

Over and Oort on the comet’s tale – An enormous asteroid or comet smashing into the Earth 65 million years ago killed off the dinosaurs. But, according to a new study by US scientists, published in the wake of an impact event on Jupiter, cometary collisions with Earth probably didn’t cause any more than one other extinction event during life’s history.

Nano X-ray tube – Material scientists, medical physicists, and cancer biologists will all benefit from the development by US researchers of a low-cost X-ray tube packed with sharp-tipped carbon nanotubes.

Ten questions to answer before building your eco-town

Planning a new city, mapping out a town redevelopment, or simply coming up with a blueprint for an eco site? Matthew Carmona, Professor of Planning & Urban Design at the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London, has ten questions you must answer honestly before digging the first foundations and routing the roads if you want your site to be sustainable.

  1. Do proposals enhance their context, effectively join-up the range of contributions and therefore help to carefully steward in change over time?
  2. Are proposals efficient in their consumption and long-term use of energy and natural resources?
  3. Do proposals support diversity and choice in movement, access and land use mix?
  4. Do proposals support human needs for security, social contact, comfort and artistic fulfilment?
  5. Are proposals resilient enough to withstand and adapt to changes over time?
  6. Do proposals minimise pollution of the wider environment both in their construction and long-term management?
  7. Are proposals concentrated to reduce land take and energy use and increase urban vitality and viability?
  8. Do proposals respect what is distinctive about their environment and help to build or preserve local sense of place?
  9. Do proposals support the biotic environment through the careful integration of built and natural resources?
  10. Are proposals likely to support the establishment of more self sufficient, involved local communities?

Carmona makes the connection between the theory of sustainability and the practice of urban design and draws on a huge body of research literature to devised these ten questions which hinge on what he considers to be universal principles of sustainable urban design.

By seeking answers to these questions, planners, designers, developers and other people who will be affected might find ways to address the issues of established patterns of living
, which are frequently ingrained and difficult to change, such as personal car use. They would also address public awareness and aspirations, which often hope for a greener life but still aspire to unsustainable lifestyles such as low density housing and multiple car ownership. They could also address economic and governance systems, which usually neglect to calculate true costs of living in terms of the impact on society and the environment.

Answers might also address the lack of political will to influence the development process, lack of skills and vision in the public and private sectors, selfishness and nimbyism that blinkers those involved, and the lack of choice for many people. Finally, those answers will also tackle head on the scale of the problem, in that turning around unsustainable patterns of living and development is an enormous long-term process dependent on fundamental change.

Fundamentally, Carmona argues, good urban design can be sustainable, but this involves a lot more effort and commitment than simply reducing energy use and carbon emissions. He suggests that his ten questions provide the basis upon which decisions that impact on the social, economic and environmental sustainability of the built environment can be made.

Research Blogging IconCarmona, M. (2009). Sustainable urban design: principles to practice International Journal of Sustainable Development, 12 (1) DOI: 10.1504/IJSD.2009.027528