Almost Saturday Science Video: Oxygen

10 Dec

So this video isn’t chemically perfect: oxygen atoms and hydrogen atoms tend to hang out in pairs most of the time. But I can’t argue with its creative spunk. Enjoy!

Video by Christopher Hendryx (his website)

Hat tip: Joanne Manaster, also known as Twitter’s @sciencegoddess

Treating a reporter well: a case study

9 Dec

Scientists wear many hats, and taking the time to talk to a reporter adds one more task to their day or week. So I’m especially grateful when scientists make it easier to do my job and get the facts right.

Here’s the backstory from earlier this week: I had some particularly thorny questions and wasn’t quite sure who my best source might be for a story I was working on. I’ll fictionalize the topic– I needed to know whether pixie dust might be a good alternative for fueling rocket ships. Although one scientist didn’t respond by either phone or email, several others provided me with what I needed by doing a few simple things, ones that didn’t take a lot of time or effort– at least they didn’t seem to.

  • Point 1: Speak with authority on what you know but admit what you don’t.  When Scientist A called me back (promptly– serious bonus points), he said, “Look I’m an expert on pixie dust but not rocket ships, so I can’t really comment on the paper as a whole. But when you consider the pixie dust, you have to consider several issues.” Although a partial answer, it helped me look for what I really needed, a rocket ship expert.
  • Point 2: A response that says you don’t have time is better than no response. A couple of researchers got back to me and said, “Sorry, I’m swamped. I really can’t help you.” If you do that promptly, that helps me: I know that I need to find someone else right away rather than waiting and hoping that you will get back to me. A couple others got back to me with answers after mentioning that they were traveling or out of the office. I don’t expect that scientists will check in with me while they’re on vacation, but it’s great when they’re willing to take the time to do it.
  • Point 3: When you can’t answer my question but you know someone who can, I’m grateful for a name I can stick into Google. Another scientist– who wasn’t a full expert on alternate rocket ship fuels– forwarded my email to a colleague on another continent. I’m grateful when a scientist, particularly one I’ve never talked to before, is willing to go out of her way and do that. But even if you’d rather not stay involved in my question, if you know of someone off the top of your head, I appreciate learning about someone whom I can chase down on my own.

Fellow science journalists, what would you add to my list?

Marvelous milk

1 Dec

Cow suckling her calf

Most of my news articles don’t have a back story. But my most recent chemistry story combined food, molecules, animals. . .  and a little bit of family.

Dairy runs in my family. My grandfather ran a small dairy for more than 30 years, in and around his day job. My father has worked in dairy science, as a university professor, but mostly working in Extension, working with dairy farmers and tools that keep track of milk data and production. My uncle, a large animal veterinarian, does embryo transfers in cattle.

So, when an editor approaches me with a milk story, I’m game.

Though I knew that milk provides a way for moms to provide antibodies to babies, I’m intrigued by the possibility that there are a mixture of enzymes that may both activate milk proteins within the stomach and then shield them from being shredded into amino acids. This chemical and biological marvel mixes fats, proteins, and sugars and even whole cells. Researchers now have a pretty good picture of what’s in there, but plenty of work remains to figure out how it all works together.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Science, humanities, and education

24 Nov

On this day before Thanksgiving, my brain simmers as I think about the importance of a well-rounded education for human society, creative innovation, and even curious individuals.

In the last few days, David Kroll has cross-posted on his blogs about this move and one prominent response. I’ve already commented briefly on his blog, but the topic is still nagging at me.

Here’s the background. Nearly two months ago, the George Philip, the president of SUNY Albany announced that he was eliminating several humanities programs from that campus. No more French, Russian and Italian. Bye-bye, classics and theater.

Enter Greg Petsko, a Brandeis professor who has written a scathing (and spot-on) critique of the move. Kroll’s post lauds him as “a cool dude.”

As a science writer, it’s probably no surprise that my brain is perched somewhere between the science and humanities most of the time. But that’s not something that happened after being solely immersed in science for years. I think I surprised myself, my family, and even some of my friends when I became a chemist. I read, I wrote, I loved history and travel, and I learned to speak a foreign language. In college, I double-majored in chemistry and German. But German could have just as easily been English or history. Those interests balanced my “how things work” push that led me to science. Though I’ve always had a bit of the engineer’s desire to deconstruct, those details were meaningless to me outside the context of what they mean to society. I’m not objective in valuing a well-rounded education.

Clearly this passion is personal for Petsko, too. He writes:

Perhaps my own background will interest you. I started out as a classics major. I’m now Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry. Of all the courses I took in college and graduate school, the ones that have benefited me the most in my career as a scientist are the courses in classics, art history, sociology, and English literature. These courses didn’t just give me a much better appreciation for my own culture; they taught me how to think, to analyze, and to write clearly. None of my sciences courses did any of that.

Philip’s justification for the cuts at Albany are all about money. Yes, money is tight everywhere. At the same time, this issue touches deeper societal questions. What is a university education? And should it be a prerequisite for getting a good job?

The problem is that an education isn’t job training. It’s an immersion of ideas, critical thinking and creativity. Classes in French, Russian or classics belong at a university. Those classes probably aren’t going to lead directly to a job, but that isn’t their purpose. Not everyone will want to take them, and– for many people– that’s okay. But an educational institution should support and nurture scholarship and give students the benefits of a broad education.

Job training, well, that’s a whole separate issue. An education is only one piece of that puzzle, and I’d like to see more opportunities that allow individuals be able to choose programs that fit their interests and needs: vocational programs that will prepare them for a specific job or a degree with broader educational goals. My point is that institutions need to be honest in what they call themselves. If you’re in the business of education, you need to live up to that promise.

Almost Saturday Science Videos and more: Playing with the periodic table

19 Nov

Somehow Facebook, Twitter and my ongoing addiction to NPR have all pointed to fun chemistry science media today. This morning, I was just about to get out of bed when I heard this segment on NPR’s Morning Edition: Planet Money: Why Gold? Planet Money and a Columbia University chemical engineer play bingo with the periodic table to cleverly explain the origin of gold as the metallic basis of wealth.

Then there’s chemistry at a party: a fun little promotional video for science career put together by Marie Curie Actions at the European Commission Research (Hat tip: The Scientist‘s Naturally Selected blog). My favorite segue:  Hydrogen and Neon have  “No Attraction,” but Carbon enters the room to attract four happy Hydrogens. Those poor noble gases are just destined to die alone.

Finally, I picked this up via Facebook: your periodic table tie-in to Harry Potter mania this weekend. Enjoy “The Elements” courtesy of Daniel Radcliffe. Awesome.

Wondering like an Egyptian

2 Nov

Fascinating pendant from King Tut's tomb from the Egypt Archive via Wikimedia Commons

Just over a week ago, I finally fulfilled my inner 9-year-old’s wish: to see artifacts from King Tutankhamen’s tomb. In this case, it was a relatively short journey, to Times Square rather than Egypt. One of these days, I’ll actually see the pyramids and the Sphinx.

My fourth grade teacher, Mrs Hairston, introduced me to both science and the wonders of King Tut. After learning about ancient Egypt in class, I came home and dug through my parents’ back issues of National Geographic that included the layered cellophane images of nested sarcophagi all the way down to Tut’s shriveled mummy.

I was too young to see Tut when he last came to the United States, so I decided to visit while the artifacts were in my backyard, at the Discovery Times Square Exposition. I’m guessing that the 1970s show was a bit less commercialized. The kicker for me came in the amusement park style photos taken as we arrived that we could buy for a cool $20 at the end complete with digital Egyptian backgrounds– so tacky that they crossed the barrier to amusing. And, yes, it’s overpriced.

But the artifacts are still stunning– the artistic detail, the materials. And I was struck by some of the old photographs of the tomb when Howard Carter opened it: these priceless items were piled up like old furniture and knickknacks in a storage unit. And the exhibit space has done a 21st century upgrade of my old National Geographic magazine, using light and projection and space to show how the nested sarcophagi fit together, even without the coffins themselves.

Considering the wealth of history and culture in Ancient Egypt, the attention lavished on the decade of Tutankhamen is out of balance with the thousands of years of Egyptian history. And I live in a city with two wonderful Egyptian collections: the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum. But the Tutankhamen artifacts hold a kind of magic: they inspire wonder, curiosity, and creativity. Partly, they carry the illusion of being shiny, new and untouched despite their age. I walked out a little awe-struck.

As my husband noted as we left, “we’d know a lot less about the Ancient Egyptians if they’d believed in cremation.” The 9-year-old me is glad they didn’t.

The kitchen laboratory

21 Oct

Molecular gastronomy in action: strawberry ravioli on a spoon before being dropped into a liquid nitrogen bath. Credit: iStockphoto/Thomas_EyeDesign

These days the kitchen is my chemistry lab, and if I were back in college I’d probably be one of the students beating down the door to get in to a cooking science class like this one at Harvard.

Despite my experience with chemical gadgets, the wildest item in my kitchen is a food processor. Watching what molecular gastronomy folks cook up next soothes my strange secret longing for a rotary evaporator and a supply of liquid nitrogen. So last month, I headed over to the Experimental Cuisine Collective meeting to find out about a chemical kitchen topic, flavor pairings.

Bernard Larousse started with a fascinating side note about the partnerships that he and his colleagues are building between chefs and scientists with the Flemish Primitives. Chefs used ultrasound to make stock, but my favorite funky food gadget had to be the fluidic plate (my term, not his). Researchers developed plates that work like microfluidic chips (see earlier post), electrical circuits within the plates allow chefs to deliver water droplets to the food at a defined point in time. Sure, this isn’t really practical at home (Yes, I want one). But this plate has the right mix of posh and geeky food style.

But back to the flavor chemistry. Eighty percent of taste comes from the sense of smell, as most of us notice when we have a cold and all food tastes like cardboard. But what makes two flavors work together? Researchers have analyzed the flavor components and compared them. A good match is all about having a similar mixture of component flavor compounds. This doesn’t take into account other issues such as texture. If you have two foods where the flavors don’t overlap, you can bridge between them with a food with flavor components that overlap between the other two: cheese and vanilla don’t match, but they work fine if you add coffee.

The website maps these chemical relationships on a wheel. Like foods are grouped together on branches, and the distance from the central food indicates how well it matches. Take this one for strawberries: I don’t think I every would have matched them with mussels. Not only can you make new matches, you can also figure out how to replace a flavor with other components with related flavor profiles.

That last piece seems to be particularly useful for vegetarian foodies, who’d like to replicate the robust flavor of meat. Larousse also points out that it can be a way for locavores to replace non-local ingredients. Replacing an ingredient like citrus with other natural ingredients still seems a bit more like a science project at this point– something that molecular gastronomers might try for fun. Ultimately, it’s probably easier for most of us to go buy an orange.

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