Food Chemistry News

On the menu today, why red wine is a no-no when it comes to fishy cuisine, how chemists can help you improve your gravy, and a whole platter of food chemistry to tempt your taste buds:

“Red wine with red meat, white wine with fish.” But, have you ever wondered why? Japanese chemists have discovered that the iron in red wine simply makes fish taste too…well…fishy…giving your mouth an unpleasant, fishy aftertaste, according to a report in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

food oranges trout onions

Gravy training – The British probably have as many different recipes for making gravy as they have gravy boats from which to pour it over their roast beef. But, a spot of chemistry can improve not only the flavor, texture, and color, but give gravy a healthy boost. Here’s the definitive chemical guide to making gravy.

Pink pepper is actually the dried berry of the Brazilian weed Schinus terebinthifolius and contains an irritating phenol-type compound known as cardanol. Pink pepper causes a range of toxic reactions including rashes, oral and respiratory irritation, chest pains and tightness, headaches, swollen eyelids, stomach upset, diarrhoea and haemorrhoids. Nice… But, despite that it’s a trendy ingredient among trendy chefs. The Guardian provides the skinny on pink pepper.

Apparently, American gourmets are latching on to the Japanese concept of umami, or “deliciousness”, which is considered the fifth taste after salt, sweet, sour, and bitter. The word roughly translates as “tasty”, although “brothy”, “meaty”, or “savory” could do just as well. It’s difficult to translate a whole concept literally. Recently, scientists homed in on a specific tongue receptor linked to natural “glutamate”; as in the amino acid part of monosodium glutamate, the sodium there to make it soluble in water. Glutamate, of course, is the archetypal umami ingredient, so the link grows stronger.

Now, a couple of stories for those parts of the world now entering the barbecue season. Chemists have figured out how to make meats more succulent and tasty on the grill, while others have figured out that it’s the sour receptors on your tongue that respond to the bubbles in soda pop.

Finally, although British scientists came up with an explanation a decade ago, apparently the French have turned their attention to that Great British passtime – tea drinking – and have found a possible way to solve the perennial problem of the dribbling teapot. They report details in a physics preprint just uploaded to the arXiv servers.

Well, after all this talk of food, I’m now feeling a little peckish, so off to do a little cordon blue in the kitchen…or maybe I’ll just break into the snack cupboard instead…

Don’t be such a scientist!

Don’t be such a scientist! It’s the kind of thing I’d expect certain friends and relatives to say to my face if I’ve gone off on one of my lecture mode conversations about some great discovery, or something some of my artier friends might whisper about me behind my back. Sometimes it’s a personal wish…but then I think of everything those who choose to stifle their curiosity about the world around them miss out on:

A rainbow is just as beautiful woven or unravelled, understanding the biochemistry of nectar or photosynthesis doesn’t make a rose smell any less sweet, and the beauty of a clear, night sky is all the more awesome (literally) when you’ve got a vague grasp of its true depths.

Anyway, I suspect that’s what Randy Olson is getting at in his book Don’t be such a scientist. Olson is a Harvard marine biologist turned Hollywood filmmaker who wants people to be interested in science and believes passionately that scientists can help the cause only if they become storytellers. If they get the style, then the substance will out.

If I were to quote from Exposed! Henri Boch’s debunking of Ouija, firewalking and other gibberish, I just know I’d hear the echoes of the scathing title of this post from numerous quarters. Pseudoscience, after all, seems to hold a perennial fascination for so many people. Boch, however, has no truck with charlatans and with a dry wit sorts the sense from the nonsense.

Of similar ilk, but with even more serious implications for humanity is Chris Monney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s Unscientific America which looks at how a lack of scientific literacy could threaten our future. The book is a cry from the heart that should have all scientists up in arms to stamp out propagandists and the peddlers of mythology of all kinds.

Speaking of the substance and style of the natural world, the most arty of my friends would surely recognise instantly the wonder of The Bizarre and Incredible World of Plants revealed by Wolfgang Stuppy, Bob Kesseler, and Madeleine Harley. Indeed, nature’s true nature as scientific artist and polymath is demonstrated with wonderful photography of the seemingly alien world of pollen grains, stamens and stigmas, and sadistic fruit. Papadakis Publishers does it again with this follow up to Fruit, albeit in smaller hardback format.

Meanwhile, Viktor Mayer-Schonberger extols the virtue of forgetting, something that every email, tweet and Facebook update continually reminds us we do very little of in the digital age. In delete.

He emphasises that forgetting is an essential human trait, after all forgive and forget is one of those idioms through which redemption can be had. But, with each of us leaving an indelible mouse-click trail following of our every move, M-S suggests that it is time we stamped expiry dates on our digital information, so that we can once more forget.

Also on my desk is Barbara Oakley’s Evil Genes, which sets out to explain why Rome feel, Hitler rose, Enrol failed, and her own sister stole her mother’s boyfriend…

Ellen J Langer tells us in Counter Clockwise how we can turn back our psychological clock and so perhaps also turn back physically too. Her paradigm builds on her research with the elderly in the 1970s that suggested that some of the afflictions of old age could be reversed simply by convincing the afflicted that the year was not 1972 but 1959.

Penultimately, Jeremy Coller (with Christine Chamberlain) tells us about the lives, loves and deaths of 30 pioneers who changed the world in Splendidly Unreasonable Inventors. Among them are Jonas Salk of polio vaccine fame, Alfred Nobel and his dynamite, King Gillette and the safety razor, sharpshooting Sam Colt’s revolver, Rudolph Diesel’s engine, and Nikola Tesla’s alternative energy supply (AC power).

Finally, A two-authored novel is quite a rare breed, but The Dyodyne Experiment by James Doulgeris and V Michael Santoro is just such a beast. Personally, I much prefer science-in-fiction to science-fiction per se and this novel falls between those two stools in a positive way.

By the way, I included links to the Amazon pages purely so you’d have a chance to “take a look inside”. These are not amazon associate links.

A month with an electricity monitor

Right, the kettle is on for a morning brew and apparently our household is using 3.07 kilowatts. That will include the chest freezer in the garage, the refrigerator in the kitchen, the electric kettle, my laptop and wireless network, oh and a little device sitting on my desk right now that’s monitoring all those electrons as they speed through the mains supply cable.

electricity monitor

The monitor consists of two parts, a battery-powered broadcast unit that has a magnetic clamp that you wrap around the main electricity cable (no wiring necessarily) and a display that picks up the signal and tells you how many kW you’re using at any given time. It can also convert that into an equivalent of carbon tonnage, although that’s a more dubious metric given that the monitor doesn’t know how the electricity we’re using is made (renewables, fossils, whatever). You can also tap in your tariff and get it to tell you how much you’re spending.

When I first got the device, I ran around the house, switching lights and gadgets on and off just to see how much energy they were using (a lot, but not as much as the kettle!). Crucially, I also looked at what a difference it makes hard switching off TVs and PVRs compared to leaving them on standby (very little).

Now that the kettle has boiled and my wife has kindly furnished me with a steaming brew, the monitor tells me we’re currently (no pun intended) using approximately 1 kilowatt at a rough cost of 23 pence per hour and a carbon dioxide equivalent of 460 grams per hour.

Having just written about wind power elsewhere and how that costs about 5 cents per kilowatt hour I’m a little confused as to how my power supplier can be charging me ten times as much for the power as it costs to produce, but that’s capitalism for you…

Anyway, back to the monitor. We’ve been using it for about a month now and are averaging about 15 kWh per day (almost 6 kg of carbon dioxide per day), which is actually within the target I set us (for now) based on the average electricity consumption of a family of four. Of course, that average consumption assumes that both kids go out to school and that both parents go out to work, but we’re not an average family and probably spend quite a few more hours using electricity each day working in a home office than most people. So, I can feel ever so slightly smug.

10:10 campaign

However, I was also one of the first few to sign up for the 10:10 campaign, which means in 2010 we have to cut our energy consumption by 10% (at least) (gas and electricity!). So, I’m already replacing the last few of our incandescent lightbulbs with compact fluorescents and making sure that all our PCs are set to standby after a very short period of inactivity.

TVs and PVRs? Well, there’s little point in having a PVR if it’s not set to standby to record shows you want to see, but it could also be considered redundant because of BBC iPlayer and other channels signing up with Google to run full content on Youtube, so the PVRs might go soon. TVs can always be switched off fully without problems. Persuading the kids to switch off bedroom lights when they leave their rooms is a different matter…

Breast Cancer, Plankton, Tellurides

My latest contributions to and my current Alchemist column on are now live:

Sweetening breast cancer risk – Experimental and epidemiological evidence previously suggested that circulating glucose and insulin may play a role in the emergence of breast cancer. Now a statistical analysis of baseline plasma levels of these compounds shows that elevated serum levels may indeed be a risk factor in postmenopausal women.

Mysterious marine microbe metabolism – US researchers have used spectroscopy to help them show that microscopic marine microbes, phytoplankton, are the answer to a ten-year-old mystery about the source of an essential nutrient in the oceans, the phosphonates found in organic phosphorus.

Telluride temperature test, just right – Researchers in India have used laser spectroscopy and other techniques to study a new type of glass doped with telluride ions that could have potential as new kind of high temperature sensor.

The fourth item, posted earlier in October, is my extended take on the Nobel Prize for chemistry news, which goes into some of the chronology of the X-ray structures of ribosomes that led to this year’s prize completing a trilogy of important post-Darwin discoveries (Watson-Crick, Wilkins, Kornberg, now the current prize).

A spot of synchronicity this week with the development of rocket-powered chemistry based on water and aluminum powder meshing neatly with the discovery of water on the moon. While, Harvard chemists are taking macromolecules to the truly macro scale to help them understand polymer folding. In Japan, nano scientists have found a way to insulate their wiring using carbon nanotubes and vaporized metal while a highly sensitive breast cancer detection chip is on the horizon in Europe. Read more and get the links in The Alchemist this week.

Climate Change Action

It’s Blog Action Day 2009 and the subject this year is Climate Change. So, here are a few resources for readers seeking out climate information:

IPCC – Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – The IPCC assesses the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant for the understanding of the risk of human-induced climate change.

EPA – The US EPA Climate Change site provides comprehensive information on the issue of climate change and global warming in a way that is accessible and meaningful.

BBC Weather Centre – Aims to inform people about the potential changes in our weather over the next 100 years.

RealClimate – A commentary site on climate science by working climate scientists for the interested public and journalists.

Island of Doubt …the struggle between the power of rational discourse and the scientific method on one hand, and the forces of superstition and dogma on the other. But mostly about climate change.

Climate Feedback – Blog hosted by Nature Reports to facilitate lively and informative discussion on the science and wider implications of global warming.

Metal Bottle Tops and Landfill Mining

Reduce, re-use, and recycle. Just one of the countless mantras of the twenty-first century that we are told will save the planet. Of course, my grandmother used to put it far more succinctly and in a much more accessible form: waste not, want not.

Now, we have carbon footprints, emissions targets, and landfill directives, that are meant to govern what we should be doing in order to mitigate environmental devastation. Of course, we try to reduce our consumption and I encourage everyone to sign up to the 10:10 campaign or its local equivalent where you are.

If you can, get hold of, or borrow an energy meter that gives you a display of your electricity consumption and lets you home in on hidden waste, specifically those devices on standby that you should really switch off at the outlet. I’m even trying to convince the rest of my family, who should know better given grandma’s mantra, that we should be cutting down on waste and turning out lights, boiling only enough water, and avoiding car journeys when we can.

But, then I read about the trillions of plastic bags produced each year, the billions of drinks containers, and all those incandescent light bulbs that are suddenly redundant thanks to new laws aimed at reducing energy consumption and forcing us to switch to compact fluorescent tubes…are our miniscule efforts worth it in the face of such environmental threats?

What about metal bottle tops, every liver-defying beer we crack open, every tooth-rotting cola drunk, usually means a glass bottle and a bottle top? The glass is relatively easy to recycle, unless its brown or green, in which case it will most likely be crushed for hardcore for building roads. The crown cap is a mixed metal product usually with a polymer layer and paint, so not quite so easy to extract and recycle, at least until now. Currently, the recycling processes for metal bottle tops work through millions of tonnes but are inefficient, wasting energy and losing a large amount of the metal. Moreover milling and grinding affect the metal morphology in a detrimental manner making further processing of the material into a useful form difficult.

Mahmoud Rabah of the Chemical and Electrochemical Laboratory, at the Central Metallurgical R&D Institute (CMRDI), in Cairo, Egypt, and his colleagues are working towards a method for recycling metal bottle tops that could take this huge problem out of the waste equation and provide a source of recycled aluminium.

Rabah explains that standard magnetic extraction allows iron tops to be separated from aluminium tops and once melted with a flux material (sodium borate-sodium chloride mixture), other impurities can be scraped off by flotation techniques, the team explains, and hydrochloric acid leeches out the aluminium. Paint breaks down to titanium dioxide on heating at 750 Celsius for just half an hour. The team then found that they could create standard aluminium alloy by addition of a primary master alloy and so recover almost all (96.8%) of the aluminium from a bottle top waste stream. Sounds like a plan to me, but…

…there always remains the problem of balancing the energy books. The extracted aluminium alloy is valuable, certainly. Recycling aluminium from the cans themselves as opposed to bottle tops uses about 5% of the energy needed to extract virgin aluminium from bauxite, the mined aluminium ore. But, recycling aluminium bottle tops may not be quite so energy efficient and further studies are now needed to discover whether it will not only be commercially viable but whether the extraction is environmentally sensible. There may be some other less energy-intensive way to reuse waste bottle tops, after all.

I asked Rabah about the issues and he told me that discussions have been started with the three foreign companies working in Egypt that collect, sort and sell household waste in the greater Cairo region. One of the first problems they face is how to sort the 18-tonne sample batches because facilities do not yet exist to carry out this critical task. Manual separation has been suggested but that is practically very tedious and labour intensive.

However, with grandma’s mantra in mind, finding a way to make the endless stream of waste bottle tops, and those already in landfills across the globe, a viable source of metal should be found. Think about it, landfills packed with metals, plastics and other commodity materials, albeit in impure and mixed forms, could become the mines of the future once extraction techniques are made economically and energetically viable.

Research Blogging IconMahmoud A. Rabah (2009). Recovery of aluminium alloys and some valuable salts from spent bottle covers Int. J. Environment and Waste Management, 5 (1/2), 194-210

Moon, Earthquakes, Chemical Weapons

The media was today almost drenched with the idea that water and other wonders would be been found on the Moon, but unfortunately LCROSS was the least moist of damp squibs ever and no 50 km plume was seen, not even a little splash. NASA scientists are trying to figure out why.

Meanwhile, in the October Spotlight Hot Topics on Intute, I discuss the speculation about water on our lunar neighbour and the possibility of it offering an oasis-like site for extraterrestrial missions.

Oh, and I included a nice big picture of the moon taken with my digital camera (thank you Nobel Physicists Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith of Bell Labs for the CCD that let me do that).

Also highly topical at the moment: US researchers have found a way to monitor geological faults deep in the Earth that could help them predict an imminent earthquake more precisely than with other methods. This is the first time that scientists have been able to detect temporal changes in fault strength at seismogenic depth from the Earth’s surface.

And, of unwanted topicality, the problem of chemical weapons, with US researchers having developed a molecular sensor that works 100,000 times faster than earlier detection systems and destroys agents, such as Sarin, in the process.

Gen-F Scientists Ignoring Social Networking

A quick analysis of online social networks, such as LinkedIn and Xing would suggest that a mere 1 in 7 research scientists use such tools as part of their work. This contrasts starkly with the business world where uptake is up to 88%. In other words almost 9 out of every ten employees in the commercial world are using online networking.

This is an odd finding, according to Richard Lackes of the Department of Business Information Management at Technische Universitaet Dortmund, Germany. He points out that scientific research is essentially a communication-driven process and that most of its participants are young and part of what we might refer to as the Facebook generation (Gen-F, you might say). Members of the business world have a much more even spread of ages and differences in internet acceptance, and yet, it is business users who are much more committed to online social networking.

There are, of course, many networking sites around aimed specifically at scientists and have been since the heady days of and in the late 1990s (two organisations with whom I worked for many years). Today, there are dozens of general science networking sites, academic networking sites, and specialist, niche sites. However, if we are generous and suggest that the top ten of those have on average 50,000 members and that they overlap in membership to say 20%, then we are still left to account for millions of other researchers who are simply not using these services.

Ijad Madisch of Researchgate suggests that the problem is simply one of time. “LinkedIn (as a professional network) needed a long time to go ‘viral’ and to reach that what they are now,” he asserts, “I think for scientists it will be the same. We are just now in the early evolution of scientific networks.” He points out that Researchgate, which has been around for about a year, has more than 150,000 members and is growing with more than 1,000 new sign-ups each day.

No single site addresses all the needs of research scientists. The generic sites like LinkedIn and Facebook offer users a way to link up with other people and have specialist sub-groups and pages, but that seems only to dilute their benefits. A social network of a few dozen members is no network at all, once you leave the school yard
, is it?

Victor Henning of Mendeley argues that most of the social networking sites are still fairly young. Of the web 2.0-inspired ones, Nature Network, with approx 20,000 members, is Methuselah, having launched in 2007, while LinkedIn or Xing have been going since 2003. The others (Scilink, LabRoots, Biocrowd, Laboratree, Researchgate,, LabMeeting, Pronetos etc.) have all been around for just over a year or so.

Henning suggests that the pure social networking sites for researchers just don’t work. “Most of them are me-too products that deliver little or no additional value over LinkedIn (and considering that networks depend on critical mass, they arguably deliver much less value),” he told me. “That’s why, even though social networking is a feature on Mendeley’s website, we don’t primarily see ourselves as a social network.” He says that Mendeley aims to deliver value to researchers independent of network effects, by helping them to manage and share their research paper collections.

“This appears to be working, considering that our userbase is growing at roughly 40% month-over-month this year,” Henning adds. “Our users have uploaded more than 5 million documents to their Mendeley accounts.” This, he explains, is where the “social” aspect kicks in. “We add a social layer to research data and turn research papers into social objects,” he says, “The next step for us will be to add recommendations based on a user’s existing library and reading habits, i.e. social connections emerging from the data that they’re working with – not just replicating an offline social network online.”

Now, personally I know a lot of scientists who are using social media and social networking tools. I have enlisted more than 600 members in a Twitter group after all, and hundreds of my contacts in research are on FriendFeed, LinkedIn, Facebook etc. Moreover, there are a lot of researchers out there working on tools and systems and approaches to connecting and communicating. There is also a lot of self-organisation going on and networks are emerging on ad hoc basis. But, despite their best efforts and a lot of hard work, I’m sure many of them recognise that they are yet to reach a critical mass of the kind achieved by an offline networking community, such as the American Chemical Society, for instance.

Oxford’s Richard Price of affirms that social media sites can take a while to get to critical mass. “It took LinkedIn from 2003 to 2007 to get to 10 million members; growth then really accelerated, and it is now at 45 million members,” he explains. “Twitter launched in 2006, and it wasn’t until January 2009 that it really took off.” He adds that at least one of the academic networking sites will get to critical mass; it is just a matter of time. “Sites like are growing fast; we have over 61,000 profiles at the moment,” he says, “and are seeing exponential growth. I think the critical mass point for an academic networking site is around 500,000 to 1 million profiles; that is when growth will really accelerate.”

Brian Krueger of Labspaces is less convinced of the need for online social networking for scientists. “In my short eight or so years in science (and three years of pretending I run a social network), I’ve noticed at least with the work I’ve done that collaborations come in cycles,” he says, “We’re not constantly looking for collaborators, so being plugged into a network might not be all that helpful. We can get our collaborations set up at yearly meetings.”

He points out that the current system of offline networking works well because of the nature of lab work. “We get ideas, focus on them, test, and then stop and think about the results,” he says, then, “We use scientific meetings to stimulate further hypothesis development at the thinking stage and to add new angles to our research. I’m not sure you can get the same out of a science social network.”

Lackes and colleagues Markus Siepermann and Erik Frank do feel that online social networks could offer a great opportunity for enhancing collaboration among scientists and suggest that a new approach is needed. Their proposed tool will apparently fill the gaps in the likes of LinkedIn and Facebook and make them more pertinent for researchers and at the same time could exploit the API (Application Programming Interface) of such services to draw on the benefits of those systems too. That is actually something already does with respect to Facebook. Again, I suspect whatever their approach they will have to confront the issue of achieving critical mass.

Every time a generic network, like Twitter or Facebook, passes a membership milestone, they issue a press release pronouncing their greatness. But, of an internet-enabled population of hundreds of millions, if not billions of people, the paltry memberships of these services pale into insignificance against the wider global community
. The number of researchers active in online networks is but a mote in a sunbeam compared to those numbers. Even if there were a powerful Facebook or LinkedIn equivalent for researchers, what are the chances of persuading the scientists to join and get networking online?

“I think the chances are good if you can deliver real value without relying on network effects,” Henning retorts. “On Mendeley, the network effect is just the cherry on top: It allows us to deliver real-time research trend data based on the literature reading habits of our users; like Nielsen ratings for science.”

Krueger believes there needs to be a major cultural shift if online networking is to take on a bigger role. “Scientists really don’t like discussing their thoughts and ideas in the public domain (both for scooping and patent issues),” he points out, adding that there may be an assumed lack of security on internet-based social networks and a time-wasting aspect in that there’s nothing gained from time spent online when conferences and meetings provide all that many scientists feel they need. “For adoption of new technologies in science, it has to be an order of magnitude more useful than current tools,” says Krueger, “We just don’t have the time to waste learning new tools that only marginally increase our productivity.”

The point of all these various social networking, social media, and other online tools is communication. However, with the majority of scientists feeling perhaps that they are already well-served by their existing ‘meat-space’ networks they just do not see the point. And many of the current offerings do not immediately appear to be of value: there is no ‘killer app’ to draw practicing scientists in, says Richard P. Grant of f1000, a site offering an expert guide to the most important advances in biology.

András Paszternák creator and editor of The International NanoScience Community has seen enormous growth in this area. In particular, in his part of the world Eastern Europe, young researchers are networking using these tools more and more. “I think the future of these networks is in collaboration and integration,” he says, but points out that users are not necessarily keen to register with so many different sites for access, email, and blogging. “The war of the research social networks has begun…only the best, most interesting, and most scientific will survive!”

Research Blogging IconLackes, R., Siepermann, M., & Frank, E. (2009). Social networks as an approach to the enhancement of collaboration among scientists International Journal of Web Based Communities, 5 (4) DOI: 10.1504/IJWBC.2009.028091

With thanks to rpg7twit for proofing and suggestions.

Sniffer, E coli Clues, Graphene

The second batch of physical science and biomedical research news in the SpectroscopyNOW ezines are live:

Optical sniffer detects poison gas – US researchers have developed an optoelectronic nose that can sniff out toxic gases. The sensor is fast and inexpensive and could be used to detect high exposure risk to hazardous industrial chemicals.

E coli clues – New clues as to the virulence of the potentially lethal bacterium Escherichia coli O157:H7 has emerged from structural and functional relationship studies of its autotransport and proteolytic EspP proteins. A comparison with X-ray diffraction results reveals important clues about these proteins.

Imaging a semiconductor sandwich – A technological mash-up between graphene and the semiconductor gallium arsenide as characterised by optical microscopy and Raman spectroscopy and other techniques could pave the way to hybrid electronics devices that bridge the gap between current silicon circuitry and future molecular electronics

Stroke, NIR, Guests

My latest physical sciences and biomedical news stories for are now live.

The eyes have it – US researchers have demonstrated proof of principle that a short and simple assessment of eye movements in suspected stroke patients can distinguish new strokes from other less serious disorders better than magnetic resonance imaging. The technique demonstrated only in a small-scale study could help screen patients complaining of dizziness, nausea, and spinning sensations.

Squeezing your molecular guests – Researchers in Germany are working on an unprecedented high-temperature host-guest super molecule, visualised with NMR spectroscopy. The system might be used to study molecules trapped inside the capsule for hydrophobic and confinement effects.

NIR CdSeTe – A near-infrared-emitting alloy of cadmium, selenium, and tellurium, has been used to make a novel type of quantum dot that is of high-quality, water-soluble, and biocompatible. The quantum dots might have application in the analysis and study of biological systems.