August 2012



Fancy catching up with some of the sights around the Czech Republic, how does Toxic Mountain sound as a field trip? Hmmm, perhaps not so alluring. Toxic Mountain is the translation of Jedovar Har, to the south of Prague, where for 130 years iron and mercury have been mined and smelted. Maria Hojdova from here in Prague, has been analysing mercury levels from the forest floors around Jedovar Har, and another site, Pribram, where lead zinc and silver were mined and lead smelted, leaving mercury behind from the ores.

Hojdova found that most of the inorganic mercury was present as the immobile and water insoluble mercury sulfide, with less than 14% of the mercury in more mobile forms – this was also backed up by showing that most contamination was on the surface of soil, rather than permeating further down. By also analysing the mercury in tree rings Hojdova also showed how the mercury deposition matched the activity of the mining areas, including a secondary peak in the 60s.

However, if that doesn’t put you off, Hojdova did conclude her talk with a recommendation for Pribram and its mining museum. Unfortunately, I don’t think my schedules going to allow such a field trip.

Meanwhile, over in the poster sessions I was treated to a fantastic story of art theft and recovery by a student from Karel Lemr‘s lab, Volodymyr Pauk. The lab were approached when n painting, Crucifixion, stolen from the St Sebestian church on Holy Hill in the Czech Republic, was recovered in Austria. Restorers and conservators obviously wanted to know what they had, both to determine authenticity and to help restoration efforts. Pauk was charged with determining which blue pigment was used – Prussian blue or indigo.

Prussian blue is an inorganic pigment (Fe4[Fe(CN)6]3) and was discovered back in the 18th century in Berlin (hence the name), whereas indigo, an organic dye extracted from plants, has been used since ancient times, until being superceeded by synthetic alternatives. Identifying which has been used can help date painting, but both are insoluble in water or many common organic solvents.

Pauk was tasked with making the pigments soluble so that they could be identified with mass spectrometry rather than traditional methods like HPLC. This was especially important, said Pauk, because when he was finally sent samples ofthe paint, they were so small that to begn with he thought he had been sent empty sample bags.

For Prussian blue, Pauk showed that the pigment could be decomposed with sodium hydroxide to give  Na4[Fe(CN)6. Meanwhile, indigo could be reduced with dithionite to give the soluble leucoindigo. That allowed Pauk and his lab to test the tiny samples of paint and identify the paint used. Although the technique was so sensitive that it detected some contamination of Prussian blue, the painting was shown to mainly contain indigo, helping to date the artwork as well as telling conservators what to use.

Restoration of the artwork is still ongoing. Meanwhile Pauk is now trying to do similar work to convert Tyrian, or Royal, purple into a mass spec-able compound. If anyone has any ideas I suggest you get in contact.

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Feel the burn! But what’s behind that feeling when your muscles ache during exercise? And what’s it got to do with yogurt?? Find out about lactic acid in this week’s Chemistry in its element podcast.

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This way for all your chemistry needs

This week, the historic city of Prague is playing host to nearly 1800 chemists for the 4th EuCheMS Chemistry Congress. As you might expect, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the past over the last day and a half, but not the history that preoccupies the tourists who are sharing my hotel.

Yesterday at the opening ceremony, several of the speakers were keen to talk about their links with Prague – how they had visited before and were pleased to come back, or to highlight a longer standing connection with the city. President of Iupac Kazuyuki Tatsumi, used the opportunity to share some snaps from his previous visit back in 1982, with a familiar physical chemist stood in the picture with Tatsumi and  common mentor Rudolf Zahradnik – a young Angela Merkel. Meanwhile, Jean-Marie Lehn claims links to Prague back to 1963, and a paper co-authored with a Czech chemist. Lehn has now set up a prize, in collaboration with the French Embassy in Prague, a prize to help support Czech chemistry and young Czech researchers. This year, the winner was Michal Kolar from Charles University here in Prague for his work on halogen bonds. As part of his prize, Konar will be sponsored for a month’s study visit to France.

However, after the opening ceremony and beer on Sunday, Monday started bright and early with a full scientific programme with 12 parallel sessions. The topics that caught my attention all had a common theme – history.

One talk that stood out was in the Environmental and Radiochemistry section. This morning, Tarja Ikaheimonen of Finland’s Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority compared the Fukushima accident to Chernobyl, and as someone who doesn’t remember the 1986 event, some of the facts and stats she reported were incredibly sobering. Forests are apparently very susceptible to nuclear contamination because the plants take up caesium instead of potassium and the Fukushima fallout was mainly over Japanese forests. In Finland the post-Chernobyl contamination is still 40% of the maximum, says Ikaheimonen, showing how long lasting that contamination can be. And of course, that then concentrates up the food chain. Butterflies in the forests near Fukushima are now showing morphological variability, just as in Finland’s forests

However, the Fukushima disaster, while obviously awful, was no where near as bad as Chernobyl, says Ikaheimonen. Caesium discharge in Japan was about 20-30% that of Chernobyl, and the fall out was mainly local, rather than contaminating vast portions of northern Europe, as Chernobyl has. And perhaps, just as the Chernobyl site is now an incredibly diverse nature reserve, the same could happen for the forests in Japan says Ikaheimonen. I have to say though, I don’t think I’d recommend that as a general strategy for improving environmental diversity.

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OK, so the factoid about it being a by-product of the space race is completely wrong – but the true story behind its discovery is a lot more quirky. Get to grips with the non-stick chemistry behind PTFE in this week’s Chemistry in its element podcast.

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This is a guest post from one of our judges for the Chemistry World Science Communication Competition

 

The other judges have had their say and now it is my turn. They’ve covered some fundamental rules of science communication (ie what you say, how you say it, how you go about telling a compelling story) and have given invaluable advice from their many years of experience and knowledge: ‘There’s no substitute for a good story,’ says Philip Ball; ‘Keep the language simple,’ advises Adam Hart-Davis; ‘Form needs to match content,’ Felicity Mellor tells us; ‘Let your enthusiasm for the story shine through,’ concludes Lesley Yellowlees. So what can I add to this? What can I say that has not been said already?

I’d like to get you to think about the audience. I want to emphasise the importance of engaging with  readers, listeners and viewers out there. If you get all the elements of your article, video or podcast right (ie you’ve got a good story that is relevant, and you use simple, jargon-free language) you are half way towards achieving your goal of successfully communicating science. But how can you ensure you make it all the way? Why should the readers read or the viewers view? In my opinion, the style you choose to deliver your piece is what makes the difference. If you are a budding writer or communicator, you are at the beginning of your career and you’ll be working towards defining your style. You are at a crucial point. My advice would be to spend some time analysing the style of a communicator whose work you enjoy and thinking: ‘What is it that compels me to read or watch?’ Is it their use of humour that captures my attention? Is it their knowledge of the subject? Or is it the way they present complex issues? Don’t be constrained by finding a science communicator, he/she does not have to be a scientist – it could be a teacher, a journalist, a TV presenter, a politician. The point is: if they engage with you so you listen to what they have to say and you are able to understand how they achieve it then you are also on the road to success. So define what you like and adapt elements of their style but don’t imitate them (everybody is trying to be Steve Jobs and it really doesn’t work…). Whatever you do, don’t leave your personality out!

Equally, you can turn the exercise on its head, think of communicators whose style does not engage you and write a ‘what not to do’ list. It is very often simpler to see the bad than the good.

Finally, I’d like to encourage you all to take part. If you have an interest in science communication or are working on some interesting chemistry you’d like to talk about, take the plunge!

 

Bibiana Campos-Seijo

 

You can find out about the Chemistry World Science Communication Competition and submit your entry here

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Do you long to be a superpower? Do your friends on the world stage look down on your military strength? Does your lack of second strike capability make you feel inadequate? You need a nuclear deterrent. Better get yourself some uranium hexafluoride and this week’s Chemistry in its element podcast.

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Gamers could put their skills to use to diagnose diseases in the future. A set of digital games, for example BioGames, would allow users to make decisions or label microscopic images of specimens on their PCs, tablets and mobile phones. This solution to sorting through large quantities of medical data was thought up by Aydogan Ozcan and colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, US.

 

With more and more cheap and portable digital imaging and sensing devices being developed, huge amounts of biomedical data from all over the world are going to be generated. The data will provide an opportunity to understand disease patterns in different parts of the world, for example. But there aren’t enough medical experts to sort through all this data.

That is why Ozcan is turning to gamers for help. In their latest experiment, Ozcan’s team asked 1000 people from over 60 countries to look at grids containing microscope images of red blood cell samples to pick out the cells infected with malaria. They used a stain that makes the cells infected with malaria appear blue. The gamers’ job was to kill or bank infected and healthy cells, respectively. Ozcan’s team measured the diagnostic accuracy of the responses and found that the accuracy level was comparable to those of expert medical professionals. To ensure that accuracy was maintained, the gamers were assessed individually based on their responses.

The BioGames programme

The BioGames interface was made available on the internet in May 2012 and Ozcan reports that more than 2150 gamers from 77 countries have registered on their servers. They have already generated more than 1.5 million individual cell diagnoses.

Of course the idea isn’t new. In 2011, Chemistry World featured a piece about using people’s computers for drug discovery and simulating the way proteins fold. Gamers weren’t needed this time though as the work was happening in the background while the computers were in idle mode.

Other crowd-sourcing websites include Fold it, which enables the user to contribute to research into diseases by folding proteins and Galaxy Zoo, where the user can help astronomers explore the universe.

You don’t always have to wear a lab coat to contribute to science.

Elinor Hughes

 

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This is a guest post from one of our judges for the Chemistry World Science Communication Competition

 

What you say in a piece of science communication matters. Get the facts wrong, and the communication fails. Focus on an obscure technicality and omit to say why it is relevant, and the reader will stop. The communication fails again. But what to say is just one small part of the communicator’s task. How to say it is just as important. A good science communicator needs to think about form as well as content.

Among other things, that means thinking about the precise words you use, not just in terms of their clarity but also for the overtones they carry. For instance, using militaristic metaphors – fighting, killing, waging war and so on – to talk about a natural process might help explain certain features of the process but it might also make it harder to introduce those aspects of the system that interact in a cooperative manner. Or calling the Higgs boson the ‘God particle’ might be seen as threatening religion when that is not your intention. And it’s not just the words you use that need careful thought. Even trivial things like inserting a paragraph break or replacing a semi-colon with a full stop can make a difference to how well your piece flows.

Paying close attention to form also means thinking about how to craft a story out of the topic you have chosen. Who are the main characters? How will you describe them? What are the key events that drive the story forward? The main characters will not necessarily be the most prominent scientists involved – they may not be scientists at all – and the key events of the story are likely to be different from the key points in an explanation of the science.

In audio and video, there are additional aspects of form to consider. For instance, where do you film someone – in an office, a lab, an outside space, their home? This decision will influence what the viewer thinks about this person. Even in audio pieces, it makes a difference whether you record in a studio (which can emphasise the authority of the speaker but sounds flat and sterile) or on location (which risks a confusion of sounds but adds colour and texture to the piece).

Thinking about form also means thinking about what is not said. Artists often talk about the importance of white space – shapes are made by what surrounds them as well as by what they contain. The same is true for all types of communication. By leaving some things out, what is left in takes on a different meaning than if it were contextualised by additional information.

Similarly, leaving in a silence in an audio piece can generate a moment of emotional intensity or give an edginess to the piece. In video, holding a shot for a few moments before cutting away can signal a contemplative mood. But for upbeat fast-moving topics, such effects may be out of place.

So form needs to match content. Pay attention to form, but the ultimate aim is to make the form of your communication seem so natural that it disappears from view. As Philip Ball says in his blog, don’t strain for effect. Don’t try so hard that it shows that you are trying. A good communicator thinks about form to ensure that the audience doesn’t.

 

Felicity Mellor is a senior lecturer in science communication at Imperial College London

 

You can also read Lesley Yellowlees‘, Adam Hart-Davis’ and Philip Ball’s tips on science writing.

And you can find out about the Chemistry World Science Communication Competition and submit your entry here.

 

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sweetener dispenserSo sweet, it’s in the dictionary. A classic accidental discovery, the whiff of betrayal between its co-discoverers makes the story behind saccharin less than sickly sweet in this week’s Chemistry in its element podcast.

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We realise that gold means only one thing to most people at the moment (and believe you me Chemistry World towers has been as gripped by the Olympics as everyone else) but we also need to congratulate the University of Edinburgh’s school of chemistry for getting a gold Athena SWAN Charter award. That’s the UK’s top accolade for good practice in recruiting, retaining and promoting women in science, engineering, technology, maths and medicine in higher education. Only two departments in the country have been judged to be gold standard: Edinburgh’s chemistry department and the University of York’s chemistry department (yay chemistry, etc).

This is especially relevant as Lesley Yellowlees, of the University of Edinburgh, begins her term as RSC President, pledging to identify and remove the barriers that prevent women from staying in chemistry. Hopefully more chemistry departments (as well as those in other disciplines) can rise up the ranks. And then, maybe one day, these sorts of awards won’t be needed at all.

Laura Howes

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