Absolute chemical headlines

copper-alchemistA wide range of stories again in this week’s Alchemist column on ChemWeb.com

Absolute configurations reveal themselves through NMR spectroscopy using residual dipolar couplings in small molecules, according to an international team who have put it to work on an anticancer compound. Discussed also in more detail on SpectroscopyNOW.com

A failed antidepressant could be marketed as a novel treatment for female sexual dysfunction. Also covered on Reactive Reports.

In the world of inorganic materials, researchers have discovered a new class of composites in which dihydrogen layers trap atoms of the noble gas xenon to form a stable solid under extreme pressures.

A new approach to carbon nanotubes provides chemists with an insider view of these unique materials, while an award for $2.8 million looks set to lead the way to truly room temperature superconductors.

Finally, controversial claims about the state of the environment suggest that total economic collapse or the building of at least one nuclear power station each day (or its non-carbon energy equivalent) is the only way rising carbon emissions will be stopped and catastrophic climate change abated.

Recognisable scientists versus artists

According to the promoters of a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London aimed at UK Scientific Heritage: “Scientists are no longer unrecognisable boffins” thanks to the Science in Focus exhibition, which runs until 17 January 2010.

Well…I take issue with that remark! Which of the following faces do you recognise?


I suspect that most sciencebase readers will recognise all of them being the clever lot they are, but what about the general public? Einstein and Hawking, certainly, Darwin this year only, Dawkins, perhaps. But would they know their Constable from their Monet or spot outmoded and overpriced Brit pop artist Damien Hirst among this crowd?

Of course, the exhibition is all about modern scientists, so perhaps I’m being a little unfair:

Ludmilla Jordanova, a National Portrait Gallery Trustee explains that, “As well as being interesting for the general public, the pictures are of educational interest to school parties visiting the Gallery, depicting the scientists as real people rather than names on a page or computer screen.”

You can find out more here. And as a testing taster, here’s a montage of four of the featured scientists, do you recognise them? Maybe the promoters were right after all, eh?


Clockwise from top left: Sir James Black, Sir Michael Atiyah, Michael Green, John Maynard-Smith. Green, a pioneer of string theory, this month succeeds
Professor Stephen Hawking as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge
University and is one of just eleven eminent British scientists photographed by Somerset-based photographers Anita Corbin and John O’Grady whose work is on display in London for the first time.

Latest science headlines

Time to bring you up to date on the latest science headlines I’ve put together for other sites this last couple of weeks, so here’s a quick round-up:

On the SpectroscopyNOW site, this issue, I covered natural chemicals that can help sunflowers soak up toxic cadmium from the soil (another example of the phytoremediation process I discussed in more detail on Sciencebase.com recently). I also describe a new approach to spectroscopy that could help chemists work out the absolute structure of natural products with medicinal potential.

In the same issue, under the X-ray banner, I explain how US researchers have for the first time homed in on the role of the trace element selenium in male infertility. Their work offers some new clues as to what leads to malformed sperm in some cases.

I also report on yet another “omics”, in which conservators take a leaf out of the biologists’ handbook to find a way to judge a book not by its cover, but by its odour.

Over, on the Intute physical sciences blog, formerly my monthly Spotlight column, I reported on proton spin, magnetic wind, and the latest catalysis research with implications for industry.

And, ever present, the ubiquitous and omnipresent Alchemist. First to fall under The Alchemist’s crystalline gaze is Korean work into coating yeast particles with a protective silica shell to stabilize the organism for new lines of research. Geochemistry billions of years old reveals a sulfidic past and answers questions about how the Earth got its oxygen-rich atmosphere. In biophysical chemistry, US scientists have found a way to extend the redox range of copper-containing proteins and in computational chemistry Dutch scientists explain precisely how hydrogen interacts with copper surfaces. Good news for those fearful of mercury dental fillings, as a new composite material emerges from polymer and nanochemistry research. Finally, a cash injection from US recovery funds could see the establishment of yet another “Facebook for scientists”, only this time it’s aimed squarely at American institutions.

Genetically engineered heavy metal fans

The wastewater released from industry often contains high levels of toxic heavy metals, which can kill organisms, damage ecosystems, and accumulate in the foodchain. Electroplating, lead smelting, mining, and countless other processes produce enormous volumes of such wastewater.

In a perfect world, remediation would be powered by a renewable energy supply, there would be no solid waste to dispose of, and the heavy metal contaminants could be recycled back into the industrial process with minimal losses. That would be industrial Utopia, of course, but something close might exist if scientists can genetically modify aquatic plant species to grow quickly and soak up heavy metal ions from wastewater.

So-called phytoremediation technology has been used as an economical and eco-friendly option for treating wastewater for several years. It could have an even more significant impact on industry in the developing world, as genetic engineering programs mature.

“Phytoremediaton technologies involving the use of aquatic plants can be a better alternative to traditional/conventional technologies for treating wastewater in terms of low capital investment, minimum human power, less damage to environmental resources and limited energy consumption,” says Bhupinder Dhir of the Department of Environmental Biology, at the University of Delhi, India. He points out that the biosorption potential of aquatic plants should be more keenly explored for developing remediation methods.

Crucial to success is to grow wetland and other aquatic plants that produce a large biomass quickly even in highly toxic wastewater, but also express high levels of metal-sequestering proteins and other factors. For instance, over expression of the plant enzymes cystathionine gamma synthase and selenocysteine methyltransferase in aquatic plants could quickly soak up heavy metals. Species such as Spartina and Typha are already under investigation as transgenic wetland plants carrying Mer genes, which can absorb mercury from contaminated aquatic ecosystems.

However, all this work, still leaves one major problem: what to do with the contaminated plant biomass once the wastewater has been cleaned up?

“The decomposition of metal loaded plant biomass with passage of time raises an issue of major concern among the scientific community,” says Dhir. “Appropriate treatment of plant biomass retaining high levels of heavy metals before disposal is important to prevent further threat to the environment.” He suggests that post-harvest treatment is essential, perhaps involving composting and the associated reduction in volume.

Phytoremediation may eventually offer a leafy green possibility for cleaning up industrial wastewater even if we have not quite reached Utopia. However, there also has to be a way to retrieve the heavy metal leachate from this process. Incineration, pyrolysis, and biogas production are all being considered for the end products of phytoremediation. The technology will only become acceptable once a safe way to extract the heavy metals from the biomass and then safely dispose of the residue is found. And to be environmentally worthy that also has to be both energetically and economically viable.

Research Blogging Icon Bhupinder Dhir (2010). Use of aquatic plants in removing heavy metals from wastewater Int. J. Environmental Engineering, 2 (1/2/3), 185-201

Juggling cancer nano news

Latest news reports from yours truly on Spectroscopynow.com

Juggling matters on the brain – UK scientists have used magnetic resonance imaging to reveal that learning a complex task like juggling can causes changes in the white matter in the brain. The findings could have implications for developing new approaches to neurodegenerative diseases, such as multiple sclerosis.

Cancer transition – Anticancer drugs for treating ovarian and colon cancer could use rare metals as weapons in the battle against these diseases. The presence of unusual metal centres in organometallic compounds presents a novel affront to tumour cells that may even beat cancer cells that have evolved resistance to conventional drugs.

17th century mathematics and 21st century materials – Nanoparticles can self-assemble into quasicrystalline structures, according to researchers in the USA. The newly discovery structures could provide useful insights into how such non-periodic, and yet ordered, that lie half way between amorphous solids and regular crystals can arise.

Spectroscopy quickly reveals drug contamination – Near infrared (NIR) reflectance and laser Raman spectra can be used to quickly screen drug samples non-destructively and to spot contamination. The techniques could not displace nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy and electrophoresis required by drug regulators, but could be used as a quick first test for screening potentially contaminated drug products.

Organic ferroelectrics – Raman spectroscopy touches on the properties of an organic ionic material, only the second of its type to be synthesised, that apparently undergoes a phase transition at low temperature making it ferroelectric.

Methylmercury marker – Detecting methylmercury usually involves complex sample preparation and a sophisticated analytical procedure. Now, a European team has developed a novel approach to detecting this hazardous substance much more quickly and easily using a new type of fluorescent marker.

Berlin Wall falls in Australia

UPDATE: Quite some time after I wrote this blog post, I wrote a song

“(Tear down the wall) Put them on hold”

Twenty years ago today, my girlfriend (now my wife) and I lay on a bed in a cramped backpackers’ hostel in the Katherine Gorge National Park (now Nitmiluk), in Australia’s Northern Territory, watching news of the fall of the Berlin Wall (now rubble). Outside insects were buzzing ferociously, the temperature was in the high 30s, and the hostel owner told us that he wouldn’t bother going in the (tiny, dirty) pool unless the temperature in the shade was at least 45 Celsius.

Berlin Wall
On a circuitous road trip (goin’ Greyhound) we’d set off from Melbourne, where an ex-pat couple we knew lived (working for ICI, he, and Monash U, she), that October. We travelled West to Adelaide and then North through opal (hydrated silica) capital Coober Pedy and up to Ayers Rock (now Uluru), Mount and The Olgas (now Kata Tjuta).

Uluru is an inselberg, literally “island mountain”, an isolated remnant left after the slow erosion of an enormous mountain range of which Kata Tjuta and Mount Connor (now Artilla).

Uluru (Ayers Rock) Credit: Stuart Edwards
At the time, you could climb Uluru, which twenty years on doesn’t seem like the most politically correct or respectful thing to have done, but we were both young. And, more to the point neither of us adjusted our makeup at the top (as one climber did!), instead we just stared in awe at the scale of the red rock and the green sea of spinifex grass and bush that stretched away int the distance in all directions; there’d been rain.

An evening camping close to Uluru exposed us to the intense beauty of clear starlit skies with no light pollution, something I’d experienced from a northern perspective in West Virginia the year before. But, this time it was all the more powerful for being shared with my eventually-to-be wife.

Southern Cross
Anyway, back to Katherine and the Berlin Wall. We, of course, knew of the political changes that were taking place in USSR (now former-USSR). A revolutionary tide of change was sweeping across the Eastern Bloc (now Eastern Europe and Russia etc), the East German government announced on November 9, 1989, after several weeks of civil unrest, that all GDR citizens could visit West Germany and West Berlin. Crowds of East Germans climbed on to and crossed the wall, without being shot, joined by West Germans on the other side in a celebratory atmosphere. The climbing was accompanied by general chipping away at the Wall providing the hardcore with which the way was paved for formal German reunification concluded on 3rd October 3 1990.

To watch this great icon of the Cold War being figuratively and literally torn down from the remote outback, on a puny, untuned portable TV, was just the most bizarre experience…

…but probably not quite as bizarre as diving on the Great Barrier Reef and learning all about the world’s biggest organism having the world’s biggest orgasm. That mass spawning, which occurs when moon, tides and weather are just right in November, gave me the background and inspiration to write one of my first professional pieces of science writing (which incidentally won me an award very early in my career). The possibilities for sexual innuendo were almost limitless.

Diver on the Great Barrier Reef
1989 was a year of major change for the world it seems and for me personally, as I’ve discussed in previous posts. It’s 20 years since I met my wonderful then to be wife (not pictured above). It’s 20 years since I started my career in science communication. And, it’s 20 years since I last lay on a creaky bed in a backpackers’ hostel watching world history happen while Aussies complained it was still too chilly to swim and insects buzzed around the Bush.

Alchemical Anomalies

copper-alchemistIn the current issue of The Alchemist we learn how to stick methane molecules to metals without breaking carbon-hydrogen bonds and how to make impossible carbene catalysts without the usual prerequisite of an attendant metal centre.

Another seeming impossibility comes to light: a new microscopy technique for visualizing non-fluorescing biomolecules using the kind of stimulated emission suggested by Einstein almost a century ago.

An exchange program leads to a new way to make nanoscopic tools from tiny wires of cadmium sulfide, we hear, while an extract of grape skin shows promise as a novel therapy for sickle cell anaemia.

Finally, a young medicinal chemist receives a prestigious American Chemical Society fellowship in organic chemistry.

All the write-ups and links in the current issue of the ChemWeb chemistry zine.

Twitter science list categories

UPDATED: 23rd September.

The various lists are filling up slowly but surely, although the scientwists list is generally full at the 500 mark, occasionally a space becomes available, so it’s worth pinging me if you want to be added.

List nameFollowing

scientwists 500
archaeo 7 14
bio 222 285
chem 55 95
earth 23 41
physics 37 56
sci-comms 251 409
space 42 53
tech 19 32
scientific-musos 38

List categories expanded:

# archaeo – archaeology (thanks to @r8lobster for the suggestion and tweeps)
# bio — medicine, physicians, health, psychologists, psychiatrists, bioinformatics, pharma
# chem — chemical sciences, materials, nanotechnology
# earth — geology, geography, environment, climate, oceans, marine science
# physics — physics, particles, maths
# sci-comms — science communicators, educators, editors, writers, bloggers, marketing, publicity, government
# tech — science computing, software, hardware, technology, engineering
# space — astronomy, space travel, stars, planets, cosmology
# scientific-musos – scientwists who are also musicians

The manually compiled Scientwists list of science people on Twitter grew from around 100 of my contacts in January 2009 to almost 700 members, who asked to join or who retweeted the link as of October.

Justin Reid helped automate the inclusion of bios and photos and 2020science did some amazing analyses to show how all those science types were interconnected. The scientwist list is now on Listorious and doing very well in the Top 140 of all lists listed, the more followers the better, would love to make the Top 10 by the end of the year, get science in its rightful place – so please do follow the scientwists list and help make that happen!

Twitter scientists
A lot of work went into building up the resource, especially when I felt compelled to migrate it all to TweepML.org to allow users to more easily follow members.

Meanwhile, Twitter was working on its own lists feature, which is now open to everyone. I recreated the scientwists list using their system, but they limit membership to just 500 and that was full very quickly. Pressure was then on from various contacts to categorise all those science types and call me stupid and imagine that I have nothing better to do, but I’ve now done that. I’ve also added lots of new science types along the way as they emerged from different corners of the twitterhood.

I’ve categorised people as best I could, some are not on the original scientwists list because of space limitations. Those tweeps, however, will be be listed in two lists as appropriate. Those on the scientwists list will have one additional listing depending on what appears to be their main focus.

The TweepML version of the scientwists list is now defunct.

My Whole Cell Twitter Interview

Follow Sciencebase on Twitter Laura Bonetta wrote an excellent article for the science journal Cell recently in which she quoted various science types who use Twitter on the subject of whether or not scientists should be tweeting. It’s a topic I’ve discussed more generally regarding scientists’ use of social media and online networking communities.

Anyway, she asked my opinion on a few matters regarding twitter and quoted me at some length. But, as is the way with such articles, which I’ve experienced from all three angles now, as interviewer, interviewee, and editor, she trimmed off the fat and rind from my responses, so I asked her if she’d be happy for me to reproduce them in their unedited entirety and she was, so here they are:

As far as I can tell you are the most widely followed science-based Twitter there is. Is that right?

I’ve no way of confirming that, but of the scientwists I follow, I don’t think many of them have 5000 or more followers. With the exception of @ProfBrianCox (8000+) and @RichardWiseman (12000+), and a few others. I’m small fry, though, compared to some of the much more successful Twitter users in other niches and I don’t just mean celebrities.

What do you think makes your Twitter entries so popular?

One reason is probably my proactive approach to building up a following with whom I engage on a daily basis via Twitter and in some cases on other online networks. If you tweet and then just sit back and expect users to beat a path to your door it doesn’t work. You have to be “out there” talking to people, being useful for potential followers, drumming up interest and then continually offering something back in return. Being friendly and avoiding expletives may help too ;-)

From what I have read your tweets are all about science or science policy. Do you ever Twitter about personal things?

It’s important to have a niche, I’ve been a science writer for more than 20 years, I guess talking about science is a big part of my life. Occasionally, I’ll tweet a photo via TwitPic I’ve taken or a song I’ve recorded via SoundCloud…but in general my followers know me for the science stuff.

Few scientists Twitter and most of them are postdocs or grad students? Why are few scientists into Twitter?

Well, I created a list of scientwists that now has more than 600 members, and there are lots of science Twibes now, including my scientist Twibe (500+ members). But, those are still small numbers compared to the numbers of scientists who could join. But, I don’t think it’s just Twitter that they are not into. I’ve spoken to lots of people who either just don’t “get it” (online social networking) or if they do get it, they see it as a waste of time.

There are, however, lots of niche online services aimed directly at scientists, even these are, in general, struggling to reach critical mass. That said, LinkedIn and Twitter themselves were not overnight successes. I just wrote about this very issue of generation F scientists on my blog.

Do you think it would be valuable for more scientists to Twitter?

I think there is a lot to gain from being connected in this way. Again, there has to be a way to build a mutually beneficial following that has some purpose. Certainly, there is little point in scientists joining simply to tweet about their coffee breaks, walking holidays, or showering schedule. However, if they wish to share their successes and failures in the lab, swap useful information and tips, or seek advice, then Twitter could be a useful way to do that.

Is the 140-character limit a good or bad thing for disseminating scientific information?

It’s a double-edged sword. The majority of my tweets are pointers to other resources, so there’s a headline, an enticement in other words, and a link to the resource. You don’t need more than 140-characters for that; and it still leaves room for someone to retweet it. However, you cannot have a decent, full-blown, high-level discussion via text message and Twitter is just the same. A lot of scientists recognise that and use FriendFeed as an “uber-twitter” instead.

Do you think Twitter could have an important role in science?

Well, it already does in a limited way. Certainly, I have heard about some scientific discoveries first on Twitter. It also occasionally throws up a truly unique viewpoint on a discovery or theory that can be stimulating for my writing and presumably could do the same for scientists reading those tweets too. The apparent spontaneity and brevity helps, but you have to keep up with a lot of streams to find the nuggets.

What is its value to you?

Fame and fortune! No, seriously, I just find it fun to use and it provides another way to let people know about what I’ve written and so get them reading my words. What more could a science writer ask? Also, as a writer, it’s yet another outlet through which I can express myself as and when the urge arises.

You also have a blog. How do you choose what’s a blog or Twitter-type entry? How do the two media differ?

I’m not sure I know what you mean. I blog about scientific discoveries, policy etc, and also point to my published work on other sites, I try to be unique in what I blog about, so there would be no choice between blogging or tweeting something. I don’t write blog entries with Twitter in mind, I write them with the reader in mind, and I rarely change the way I write a headline to suit Twitter, if I do it’s only to shorten it by a word or two.

The headlines from my blog are automatically fed to my Twitter account using the WordTwit plugin for WordPress. I hope they will act as a springboard for readers to jump to the blog. I also use a plugin called ChatCatcher, which pulls in comments people make about a post on Twitter and FriendFeed and ties them to the post in question.

How do you choose whom to follow?

Now, that’s a whole new can of worms to open. I no longer actively seek out new people to follow, although if I comes across someone interesting elsewhere I will usually follow them on Twitter. However, when someone new follows me, I do try to check out their bio, their website and their most recent tweets. If those things are of interest, then I’ll follow back.

I created a tongue-in-cheek Twitter decision flowchart that is actually semi-serious to reveal my thought processes and seems to gel with a lot of readers. Mostly, it’s about filtering out spammers, cranks, and selfish marketers.

List categories for Twitter scientists

UPDATE – NOV 5: Still working through the almost 650 members of the list, but now up to the P’s.

Pressure was on from lots of science tweeps for to categorise my scientwist list…so I’ve made a start.

The spillover (lots of tweeps in the T to Z group from the TweepML.org version of my scientwist list have now each been given a category as I cannot squeeze them into the 500 limit for the main scientwist list.

Everyone else will get a second list assignment where appropriate as follows:

  • bio – med, health, psy, bioinformatics, pharma
  • chem – chemical sciences
  • earth – geo, environment, climate, oceans
  • physics – physics, maths
  • sci-comms – science communicators of all breeds
  • tech – science computing, technology, engineering
  • space – astronomy, space travel

If you’re a science type on twitter and aren’t yet on the list then let me know, either by commenting, email, or tweeting. Retweets of the list always welcome.

However, if you’re not following me and I am not following you, then remedy that situation first – I’m @sciencebase. Also, if you’re updates are protected, unprotect them otherwise there’s little point in adding you.