April 2013



I’ve recently heard of a competition called I’m a scientist – Get me out of here and I must say that I love the concept. Basically, it is a free online event a little bit like an X Factor-style (yes, I know, shameful but I do watch it) competition for scientists, where students are the judges. 

How does it work? Scientists put up a profile on the I’m a Scientist website where students then ask questions and challenge them over fast-paced online live chats.  Overall, over a two week-period (17–28 June), there will be around an hour of live text chats  and an hour answering questions each day so it is a fun way of developing communication skills, gaining a fresh perspective on your research, and finding out what young people think about science and the role of scientists.

The objective is to get school students to meet and interact with scientists and it works very well. Plus everything happens on the web, so participants can join in without leaving their desk. In addition, students have the option to vote and the winning scientist gets £500 to spend on science communication. Not bad!

 A number of Societies and professional bodies are supporting the competition and the Royal Society of Chemistry, for example, is sponsoring the Energy Zone, which will cover the science of and issues relating to maintaining a supply of affordable, secure energy. 

Scientists who want to take part need to apply before 6 May 2013.

Students who want to take part need to get their teacher to sign up asap.

Good luck and happy chatting to all!

Bibiana Campos Seijo

 

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Mosquito nets have been instrumental in cutting cases of malaria

A person dies from malaria every minute. Seven people are infected with this debilitating disease every second. These are the figures that World Malaria Day – which is today – is seeking to highlight.

World Malaria Day has been going since 2007. It was established by the World Health Assembly, part of the World Health Organization, to get people to sit up and take note of this often underreported disease. While the headline figures look bad, great steps have already been made in tackling the disease.

The good news is that the global mortality rate for malaria has fallen by 25% since 2000. At the same time, 50 out of the 99 countries where malaria is endemic are set to meet targets to cut infection rates by three-quarters by 2015. However, new problems have emerged. As the UN and projects like the Medicines for Malaria Venture, with the help of philanthropic organisations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have stepped up the fight against the disease, criminals have taken advantage. It’s now estimated that a third of malaria drugs sold around the world are counterfeit. (more…)

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History is peppered with stories of scientists simultaneously making discoveries. One of the most famous was, of course, when Newton and Leibniz independently developed calculus, but this also occurred for other huge scientific discoveries, such as Darwin and Wallace both coming up with the theory of evolution and, in chemistry, Scheele and Priestley separately discovering oxygen. (more…)

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This week’s compound is so bitter (a thousand times more so than quinine) that it’s used to stop people drinking alcohol. Discover denatonium benzoate – the bitterest compound in the world – in this week’s Chemistry in its element  podcast.

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A couple of days ago I travelled to Duisburg in Germany to attend the grand opening of Shimadzu‘s Laboratory World. This refurbishment project, which involved the remodelling of their existing facilities into state-of-the art labs and seminar space, has taken several months to complete and marks the 45th anniversary of the establishment of Shimadzu Europe.

Shimadzu representatives at opening of Laboratory World

The event was attended among others by Akira Nakamoto, President of Shimadzu Corporation, and Kiyoshi Koinuma, Japanese Consul General. Besides the usual formalities (ie speeches, cutting the ribbon, tour of the facilities, etc) we were treated to a cask-breaking Japanese ceremony (pictured) called kagamiwari.

During kagamiwari, our hosts – wearing brightly coloured Happi jackets – broke open a beautiful sealed barrel filled with sake. They then shared it with all guests after serving in square wooden cups known as masu. [Drinking from a square cup is not easy so here’s a tip: take sips from the corner of the cup]

To coincide with the opening there were a couple of European product launches (Tracera and Nexera), and I was very interested to hear the latest about LABNIRS, a project in the growing field of brain science. This technology measures brain function using near infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) rather than recording electrical activity. More specifically, NIRS measures the changes in concentration between oxidised and deoxidised haemoglobin in the brain. Therefore, when brain activity occurs, this causes a temporal increase in blood pressure, which in turn increases blood circulation resulting in a higher consumption of oxygen and affecting the oxidised/deoxidised haemoglobin ratios.

Shimadzu have been working with the makers of ASIMO, the robot developed by Honda, in informatics research and brain-machine interfacing. Because LABNIRS permits real time NIRS and electroencephalogram measurements and data transfer it is now possible to characterise the brain function of a human while visualising manual actions and then translate these into appropriate signals for robot movement, thus allowing control of the robot’s actions using human thought. The future is here.

 

 Bibiana Campos-Seijo

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The game is afoot! UK charity Crimestoppers is enlisting the help of the Great British public to sniff out cannabis farms. To aid the public in their undercover work they’ve been handing out scratch and sniff panels. These give people an idea of what living, growing cannabis smells like – Crimestoppers describes it as a sickly, sweet smell as opposed to the more acrid aroma when it’s smoked (we at Chemistry World are relying on testimony from local a Cambridge councillor here!). (more…)

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In a city frequently battered by the Gulf of Mexico’s windy progeny, one could be forgiven for thinking that a drink called ‘the Hurricane’ might be a bit tasteless. But it is in fact, a very tasty rum-based cocktail, and the classic drink of New Orleans, home of the ACS spring conference 2013.

(more…)

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Mission controllers at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have turned off some of their instruments for a few weeks and have sent many of their staff on holiday. Communications between Earth and their spacecraft on Mars will diminish during this period. 

But do not fear, this is not an extraordinary event. It happens every two years, lasts for about two weeks and is due to a solar conjunction. To explain it in a few words, it means that Earth and Mars are at opposite sides of the Sun, which is obscuring the two planets and is thus preventing regular communication between us and the red planet. It is an interesting phenomenon and, if you are curious, you can watch this video and find out how it affects the work at Nasa.

In any case, this is the fifth solar conjunction for Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity since its arrival in 2004 and will be the first one for Curiosity.

You would think that with so many Nasa staff on holiday we would hear less about the explorations on the red planet. And you would be so wrong… In fact, taking advantage of the enforced break, institutions worldwide have invited those working on the rovers to give public lectures about their work so there will be plenty of talks about Mars in the coming weeks.

© NASA/JPL-Caltech

At the RSC we couldn’t let this opportunity go by and will be hosting not one but two events with two different speakers from Nasa to discuss the adventures of  Curiosity.

The first of the two talks will be hosted by the Northern Ireland Assembly’s All-Party Group on Science and Technology, in conjunction with Matrix, and will feature a presentation by Nagin Cox, formerly Deputy Head of Engineering for Nasa’s Mars Curiosity Rover. This will be on Monday 15 April from 3.30pm to 5.00pm, in the Senate Chamber, Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast. If you live near and want to attend you can register here.

The second event, named Where the streets have no name, will be in London on Thursday 18 April at 6.30pm and will be streamed live online so anyone can watch from anywhere in the world!  Mars rovers’ driver Paolo Bellutta, who also works at Nasa JPL, will talk about his work, and driving Curiosity and other rovers on Mars.

The Chair for the evening will be Quentin Cooper, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Material World, and he’ll be taking questions via @RSC_Comms and #RSCpubliclecture. 

Also, don’t forget you can follow Curiosity and Opportunity via twitter at @MarsCuriosity and @MarsRovers. The planets will soon move away from the conjunction and you will once again be able to receive first-hand information on the latest mission to Mars!

 Chiara Ceci

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I bet many of you have used this ingredient of bath salts in your undergraduate chemistry labs. Discover magnesium sulfate in this week’s Chemistry in its element  podcast.

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Govert Flinck, Portrait of Dirck Jacobsz. Leeuw

Govert Flinck, Portrait of Dirck Jacobsz. Leeuw and elemental distribution images of the painting.

While X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectroscopy is a well-established technique for the investigation of paintings, the apparatus used are usually custom built and not widely available. Now, Matthias Alfeld and colleagues have developed a portable macro XRF spectrometer to look at paintings in situ.

The team used the device to look at a portrait by Govert Flinck, a Dutch painter who was a protégé of the great Rembrandt. Interestingly, they found that originally the subject was painted wearing a broad bobbin lace collar and long lace cuffs but this was toned down for the final version, possibly because it was too trendy.

The device also made it possible to visualise Flinck’s first sketches on the canvas before he got to work with the paint. The authenticity of this particular painting was never disputed but being able to see sketches is a good indication of whether a painting is an original or a copy.

Which paintings would you like to look at with the device? I wonder how many fake Van Goghs could be uncovered?

Jennifer Newton

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