How to read and interpret a science news story

double x science news check listScientist Emily Willingham blogs about science at Double X Science. BoingBoing just alerted me to the existence of her site and the fact that she has come up with a handy, six-step guide for reading and interpreting science news stories (it applies equally well to press releases).

The six rules are useful for lifting the veil on the science being touted or reported and should serve as a lesson for press release authors hoping to avoid hyperbole and journalists wishing to remain neutral in their reporting and avoid sensationalising a mundane research paper.

double x science news check list

Willingham explains why each of her rules is important and gives a demo of how to apply them with a sample news story about exposure to “chemicals” and autism. The same checklist can equally be applied to scientists writing about developments in science too, of course. Certainly, it is worth considering rule #5, if choosing to apply #6…everyone has an agenda.

A chunk of Deceived Wisdom

UPDATE: Deceived Wisdom is now published and you can order from Amazon UK, get the Kindle edition, on Audible or download the ebook via Sciencebase.

My new book, I filed the first chunk of my new solo book – Deceived Wisdom – with my publisher today. Looking forward to purely positive feedback and a minimal of virtual red ink on the virtual manuscript…oh and did I already say, Deceived Wisdom is on Amazon (with a 10% discount right now):


Please share that link with your friends, relatives, colleagues, contacts…everyone. It’s pre-shortened for easy tweeting.


Thinking, shredding and gardening

An odd mix of books on my desk for review right now including: The Haynes Fender Stratocaster Manual by Paul Palmer and A Year in the Garden by “Mr Digwell”.

Haynes are well known for their practice car maintenance manuals and their motor history museum, but in recent years they have extended the brand to other iconic technologies from bicycles to the space shuttle. This year, it’s the turn of perhaps one of the most famous of guitars, the Fender “Strat”, favoured by everyone from Hank Marvin, to Eric Clapton to Mark Knopfler and a million others in between and after. Balmer offers expert advice on choosing and buying a Strat, whether that’s brand new or a vintage model, on setting it up for your particular style of playing and on keeping your six-string electric in prime working order for those jazz licks, rock riffs and high-speed shreds.

Mr Digwell is a cartoon gardener in British tabloid newspaper, the Daily Mirror. This manual, authored by Paul Peacock, takes you through the four seasons from sowing seeds, cultivating crops to harvesting and over wintering and all the dibbling and raking in between.

Of course, it could be argued that gardening and guitar maintenance are sciences in themselves, but I make no excuse for including books on my hobbies on my site! The origin of creativity has also been puzzling me increasingly this week as I awake early with new ideas for my own book – Deceived Wisdom, Elliott and Thompson, out November.

Classically scientific

It’s a well known fact, mostly well known to chemists, that the composer Alexander Borodin was also a chemist. When not playing his part as one of the Hand of Five, Borodin did some not insubstantial work on aldehydes. He did his post-doc in Heidelberg with Emil Erlenmeyer (of eponymous flask fame and more) working on benzene derivatives. He subsequently worked on organic halogen compounds and published the first nucleophilic displacement of chlorine by fluorine in benzoyl chloride, the Borodin reaction, rediscovered in the West in 1939 as the Hunsdiecker reaction.

Anyway, it was with this in mind that I baited ClassicFM’s Tim Lihoreau with the idea of starting a twitter “meme”, you know one of those incessant hashtag games. Anyway, we had a little flurry of activity this morning with Lihoreau adopting the hashtag #classicalscientists and pointing out that Elgar too had his own laboratory and was a keen amateur scientist. Conductor-composer Albert Coates graduated in science from the University of Liverpool, he revealed, and Emil Votocek was a Czech chemist, composer and music theorist famed for his chemistry textbooks and multliingual chemistry and music dictionaries. Aram Ilyich Khachaturian studied biology at university turning to music. Composer and organist William “Willie” Crotch, who was born in the 18th century and apparently wrote on astronomy, electricity, pyrotechnics and other subjects.

Slightly off beat but a wonderful classical science connection, Lihoreau pointed out that composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ grandmother was Charles Darwin’s sister and the grandfather of conductor and impresario Sir Thomas Beecham was chemist Thomas Beecham who invented “Beecham’s Powders”.

Hildegard of Bingen wrote books on science as well as music in the 12th century and Albert Einstein played violin relatively well when not revolutionising physics in the 20th.

There must be others. Feel free to let us know…

Never mind the dinos

A bizarre paper that prompted a massive backlash from the chemical community when it made the ludicrous claim that understanding handed molecules on earth might help explain how dinosaurs could be the dominant species on other planets. However, the paper hasn’t been withdrawn by the American Chemical Society because the paper’s conclusion was so daft, but because there have been allegations of self-plagiarism by the author.

The ACS is, according to the Nature news blog, investigating various issues surrounding the paper and the organisations former president Ronald Breslow.

Nature News Blog: ‘Space dinosaurs’ paper withdrawn amid self-plagiarism allegations : Nature News Blog.

Pharma matters

The latest issue of my Cutting Edge of Chemistry report for TR Pharma Matters is now available.

Organic synthesis scheme showcase in this report, we look at a chemoenzymatic approach that shows promise for a more efficient route to synthesize ultra low molecular weight heparins.

Scaffolds on the move – dihydronaphthyridinediones could represent a novel structural class of potent and selective phosphodiesterase PDE7 inhibitors for the treatment of cognitive disorders. Also showcased are antimalarial agents, oncolytic drugs, and drugs to combat HIV.

New molecular mechanisms of action hydroxyacid oxidase 2 (HAOX2, HAO2) inhibitors, integrin alphaMbeta2 (MAC-1) agonists and histone acetyltransferase (HAT) activators, among a range of other compounds, are showcased in this issue.

The starting line – a selection of new molecular entities ready to progress in the R&D arena including pharmacological activity, originator, and chemical structure.

New drugs for old – the search for new drugs is an increasingly costly business. With patents expiring and pipelines drying up it is possible that the pharmaceutical industry is truly at the end of the so-called era of blockbusters. In this article, we look at how the industry is finding ways to reformulate and repurpose old products to new diseases and extracting novel applications for known agents.

The report is available as a PDF here.

Google unzipped

Today, Google honours the inventor of the zip fastener, more commonly known in the common vernacular, as the zip (or zipper if you live on the other side of the pond that is The Atlantic. The Google Doodle shows an embroidered Google logo waiting expectantly for its tab to be pulled down…go on unzip Google, you know you want to. The inventor, Gideon Sundback (24 April 1880 to 21 June 1954) was a Swedish-American electrical engineer.

Sundback made several advances in the development of the zipper between 1906 and 1914 while working for companies that became Talon Inc. He built on work of Elias Howe, Max Wolff, and Whitcomb Judson and came up with a replacement for conventional hooks and eyes as clothing fasteners. A prototype had a tendency to pull apart too easily, but Sundback solved this problem in 1913 with his “Hookless Fastener No. 1”. The invention had two facing rows of teeth that pulled into a single piece using a slider…the first zip. Interlocking teeth came next with the “Hookless No. 2”, the modern metal zip.

St George and the ZX Spectrum

It’s St George’s Day and the 30th anniversary of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum so we’re celebrating with the latest Google Doodle! Why we English still celebrate the killing of a mythical beast by an allegedly Roman soldier from Syria Palaestina who was venerated as a saint by a religious leader the vast majority of the country don’t accept, I don’t know…

Discounted on Amazon already

My new book, which I just mentioned not 5 minutes ago, and for which I’ve not actually signed the physical, paper contract nor done much more than the basic table of contents and a single “typeset test” chapter, is already on Amazon and discounted from the list price by 10%. Maybe it’ll be available for a quid by the time I’ve actually written it: I assume you could pre-order here: Deceived Wisdom

The illustration shows an early mock-up of the cover, it will most likely change…or not, as the case may be. The latest version of the cover should appear on the Amazon page soon. Hoping they ensure the right number of pentagons and hexagons on the football either way…or should I say soccer ball to avoid transatlantic confusion?

My first solo book in time for Christmas

I’ve collaborated on a few books over the years with esteemed authors such as John Gribbin, Adam Hart-Davis, Ian Stewart, Robert Slinn, even Richard Dawkins. Admittedly for the most part, by collaboration I simply mean I contributed a chapter or section to a book to which those people also contributed, although I did edit the chemistry chapters written by Hart-Davis in a Dorling Kindersley tome.

Anyway, it’s time for a solo flight. I’ve already sharpened my quill, drawn some blood, and scrawled my name on the vellum contract (actually I just copy and pasted my digital signature into a PDF). I cannot tell you much more at this point, except to say that I’ve already seen some cover design ideas from the graphics people (redacted version pictured). We’ve also had some good feedback for the concept via my publisher from her trip to the recent London Book Fair. I’ve even filed a chapter for test-typesetting so we can finalise the size and breadth of this mighty tome. Oh, did I say, it should be ready in plenty of time for the end of year holidays (whether you’re celebrating Xmas, the northern Winter Solstice or having a beach BBQ down under).

Title, you say? Yes we have one. It came to me in a flash of inspiration after a bigMouth rehearsal and thrashing around a few of the book’s ideas with my fellow singers…I’ll hold off revealing any more until I’ve at least had the test proofs back for that first chapter. Suffice to say, it’s hopefully going to be as informative, entertaining and witty(?) as the Sciencebase blog and a definite top entry on your Amazon Wishlist later this year…