March 2007



That’s the ACS meeting over for now, but I should post a last blog entry on the Evolving Network of Scientific Communication session, which happened on Tuesday.

Hardly any of the talks had a specifically chemical focus, though. Google Scholar, of course, applies the algorithms they use for hyperlinks and web pages to citations and journal articles, nothing specifically chemical there.

Joanna Scott of Nature talked about Connotea, a tool which lets you keep track of citations while browsing the web (and incidentally share these with other people), but that has no support for chemical structures, just tagging.

There were three key exceptions in the morning: Nick Day (Cambridge) talked about the crystallographic portal he’s working on for his PhD thesis (and about Project Prospect as well, but modesty forbids). Henry Rzepa (Imperial) talked about semantic markup of a paper by Perkin on mauveine to work out whether computers could spot the mistake Perkin made in assigning the structure (nobody noticed till 1994). But before him there was a surprising speaker.

Tony Hey of Microsoft talked about the CombeChem project at Southampton, and indicated that Microsoft were keen on desktop science and starting to get involved. They dwarf existing giants like the Chemical Abstracts Service and Elsevier MDL, so the field could get very interesting indeed.

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There were cold fusion sessions at the ACS meeting on Thursday, with recent publications an’ all (see Chemistry World‘s overview wondering whether this represents renewed respect for the field after it was hounded out of mainstream science in 1989). Except, it’s not called cold fusion anymore. Nope, the official name is now apparently ‘low energy nuclear reactions’, and don’t let anyone tell you different.

Why should that be? The words ‘cold fusion’ have certainly taken on an offensive slant for nuclear physicists, given the field’s chequered history; a nuance that its latest proponents would want to avoid, if they wanted to get grant applications or publications.

But maybe it’s not just a case of calling a spade a rectangular force-directing instrument to avoid the gardening police. The latest research isn’t really claiming ‘cold fusion’ in the way that Pons and Fleischmann did in 1989. Avowed cold fusion critic Bob Park, for instance, told me ‘there are some curious reports – not cold fusion, but people may be seeing some unexpected low-energy nuclear reactions’.

What could possibly be a low-energy nuclear reaction, with claims of excess heat given off and ‘nuclear ash’ particles emitted, and not be cold fusion (the fusing of atoms at room temperatures, as Pons and Fleischmann claimed)? One new theory, for instance, according to New Energy Times journalist Steve Krivit, is that proposed by Widom and Larsen – which I won’t pretend to comprehend, but roughly says some kind of other weak nuclear interaction is to blame (neither fusion nor fission).  

I think it doesn’t matter if cold fusion is called low energy nuclear reactions; weak nuclear interactions; or bananas; if you can reliably and reproducibly generate excess heat from a simple room temperature electrochemical set-up, whatever the mechanism, then we’re all energy quids-in. Time will tell, and most cynics ain’t budging yet. 

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Numbers have been cut dramatically this week in the Chemistry World office in Cambridge, UK. Our crack reporter Richard’s in Chicago at the ACS spring meeting (as you’ll have seen from all his fab blog entries), Equally crack reporter Vic (pen name Victoria)’s on holiday, and our esteemed editor Mark’s been busy networking in Japan. Everything’s back to normal next week, and we look forward to hearing what they’ve all been up to.

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In the spirit of theBookseller.com’s ‘oddest title of the year’ award (my vote goes to The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification), I declare

Quo vadis: Recent advances in the management of German cockroaches

victorious over a near 10,000-strong pack of papers in this year’s ACS.

Anyone beat that?

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I enjoyed Guillermo Ameer’s presentation yesterday in the Bob Langer symposium. He spoke about a new way of treating atherosclerosis (build-up of plaque in arteries). He has made PTFE tubes more bio-compatible by attaching red blood cells to the surface of the tube, which is then inserted in place of the clogged artery. This avoids the need to graft in a vein from elsewhere in the patient’s body so they are able to make a quicker recovery. Great stuff, though, as Ameer himself pointed out, one look at the pictures he showed of the deposits removed from someone’s arteries is actually enough to put you off your cake, pizza, and clotted cream for quite some time.  And would cost much less too!

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Smart sunglasses

Smart sunglasses

These lab goggles are a bit out of the ordinary; they’re kitted out with electrochromic polymers which change colour when a voltage is applied. This prototype was powered with a watch battery (about 1.5V) and it’s the work of Chunye Xu’s group at the University of Washington, US. Turn the button on the side, and within a second the lenses change from transparent to blue and back. Green, red, all sorts of other colours are apparently available depending on the polymer type, though none were in evidence at the ACS presentation.

The researchers hope – eventually – to make ‘smart’ sunglasses which change to a variety of colours; maybe they could be powered by ipods? That won’t happen for a few years yet though: there’s a lot more testing required, not least in the frame design…

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Great talk yesterday (in the Physical session) from Eric Kool at Stanford. He’s been looking at how certain protein complexes use small interfering RNAs (siRNAs) to destroy other bits of RNA, that is to say RNA interference, a phenomenon which won its discoverers the Nobel Prize not so long ago. (more…)

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Monday was much busier than Sunday, as might be expected. In particular I visited the session on Conjugated Oligomers and Polymers where there were attendees standing at the back and sitting on the floor in the aisle all of the time, such was its popularity. After a whistle-stop tour of (apparently) all the work he has ever done on OFETS (organic field-effect transistors) from Howard Katz, Zhenan Bao (with a bad cold) described some impressive work on pentacene derivatives. Fred Wudl’s talk was another highlight of this session, which was a great mixture of leaders in the field and dynamic young soon-to-be leaders.

However by far the most entertaining presentation I saw on Monday was from Julio Ottino in the William Russel prize symposium. Ottino’s talk on granular matter and complex systems encompassed not only science but history, highlighting some of the greats who worked on networks, both in terms of association of particles and social networks. These included Thomas Schelling, who won a Nobel prize in Economics in 2005; Osbourne Reynolds, who posed for a portrait holding a representation of granular matter or what appeared to be ball-bearings; James Clerk Maxwell who, according to Ottino, took some of his ideas from social mechanics (the idea that averages are constant in systems with many degrees of freedom apparently applies well to numbers of dead letters and suicides as well as to the – for me- more normal application to gases).

Ottino’s take-home message for me seemed to be that we shouldn’t be limited in our thinking about science as theories that apply to swarms of bees or flow of traffic may equally well apply to granular systems such as sand, something that was spotted by some of the great men he discussed. In science it is important to keep an open mind and an active imagination too.

Something else that I enjoyed on Monday was the “Places and Spaces: Mapping Science” display outside the main Expo hall. Science as art, or even as geography. I like it!

Realised I should have introduced myself yesterday – I am Carol Stanier, the Editor of Journal of Materials Chemistry and Soft Matter, and I am trying out this blogging thing for the first time though I have been to the ACS many times before. I hope you like my posts – comments welcome!

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One of the joys of the ACS meeting is that it brings so many people working in the field so close together; you can leave a session on one topic, and, in just twenty short minutes, walk to another different session on a very similar topic.

The CINF session in honour of Gary Wiggins, who’s retiring from Indiana this year, had Peter Murray-Rust and Steve Heller talking about how social computing (blogs and wikis, or to use Steve’s felicitous portmanteau, MyFace) is going to change absolutely everything in cheminformatics (the study of applying computers to general chemical problems, not just computational or theoretical chemistry), and incidentally being very nice about the RSC and Project Prospect. Then I went over to the Chemistry Education session on blogs and wikis, where Barb Greenman, a librarian at the University of Colorado Boulder, was talking about the survey she’d done of the chemists and others there and how they felt about open access and blogging.

The interesting thing for me was the huge number of people who felt that blogging your results could hamper later publication. So presenting some incomplete work at a conference in front of possibly hundreds of people and most of your potential referees isn’t necessarily a problem, but posting it on a blog which might only be read by you and your mother (there’s no structure or substructure searching for blogs of course) could be! I’d be delighted to see your comments.

I’m Colin Batchelor, by the way. I’ve been working on Project Prospect for the past year or so, and I’ll be talking on Wednesday morning at the CINF session on Advanced Mining at 0920, so if you want to find out more, come along.

By the way, here’s a demo and feature runthrough of the RSC’s Project Prospect and eBook Collection, which you can also see at booth #314-320

bAgEpGiTcoc

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An entertaining talk from David Evans this morning, outlining some recent syntheses achieved in his lab. The general theme: make a long chain with functional groups in place, then cross your fingers and roll the whole thing up in a series of cascade reactions –  hoping planning for all the stereochemistry to work itself out.

One example given was work on the total synthesis of Salvinorin A – also known as ‘magic mint‘. This one’s definitely a risky roll-up: it’s a hallucinogen comparable in potency to LSD, with an active dose as low as 200µg when smoked. Evans noted idly that his group bought a kilo of Salva divinorum leaves from the internet to aid the extraction. It didn’t seem like the synthesis had been completed yet, but it’ll be a fine (if rather unnecessary) job when it’s done.

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