Thursday, January 27, 2011

Chemistry is all around

If you don’t think that chemistry is everywhere, consider the following news items from the past few days:

Oil dispersant still remains in Gulf – January 26th

In a study released yesterday by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, researchers looked for evidence of sodium dioctylsodiumsulfosuccinate (DOSS), the dispersant used to break up the oil spill at Deep Horizon last year.  DOSS is a major component of the mixture, called Corexit, that is a common dispersant used for oil cleanups, and manufactured by Nalco.  In addition to DOSS, Corexit contains 2-butoxyethanol and propylene glycol.  Do you need a degree in organic chemistry to follow what’s going on?  Not really.  The key to the chemistry behind dispersion derives from the fact that water and oil are immiscible (look at a bottle of oil and vinegar salad dressing some time…) because, while the bonds in water (O–H) are polar, the bonds in oil (C–H) are not.  The adage “like dissolves like” comes into play here: polar or ionic substances will dissolve more readily in polar solvents; non-polar substances dissolve more readily in non-polar solvents.  At any rate, this is where surfactants come in.  Surfactants tend to be long chain molecules with a hydrophilic (“water loving”) section containing a charged – or at least polar – group that is miscible with water, and a non-polar hydrophobic ("water fearing") section that is miscible with oil.  The combination of these two features allows surfactants to break up large oil samples into small microscopic droplets.  Bacteria have an easier time metabolizing small droplets (yes there are bacteria that can live off oil!) and dispersing the oil slick is a critical first step in remediation.  That there is still some DOSS in the ocean is important, as it appears not to have undergone biodegradation.  That said, the quantities of DOSS measured are approximately 1/1000th of what would be considered toxic.  Whether these concentrations will have a deleterious impact on the Gulf ecosystem remains to be seen.

State of the Union Address – January 25th     

In his State of the Union Address, President Obama called for the following science initiatives:
  1. Put 1,000,000 Electric Cars on US highways in 5 years.
  2. Obtain 80% of our energy from “clean” sources in 35 years.
  3. Establish eight "Blue-Sky" research centers.
  4. Train 100,000 science teachers 

Of course, these items are are related.  A division of the Department of Energy called ARPA-E is interested in funding 8 centers for research into our energy future, each with a price tag of about $25 million dollars.  The DOE believe that an infusion of $$ into the academic and national laboratories of the best and brightest offers attractive prospects for addressing our future energy needs.  25 million dollars sounds like a lot of money, but it is only a fraction of the money that we currently spend on oil.  Given that the supply of oil on the earth is finite, it is only logical that we should pursue other means of energy generation (solar, nuclear, biomass, etc.) and hopefully, the ARPA-E centers will usher in a new wave of innovation.  In case you didn’t know, in a 40-ish gallon barrel of oil, we burn about 87% to move cars and trucks around on highways and to heat our homes, leaving only 1 ¼ gallons of oil left to make things.  When the price of oil goes up, gasoline prices go up to, but so do the prices of everything else that is made from oil-based sources (plastic, for instance).  And, owing to increased pressure on our oil supply, these prices can only continue to go up.  Research in energy will make it possible to build better electric cars as well as the electric grid to charge them efficiently.  Science teachers will make it possible for the next generation of scientists to be ready for the challenges that they will face.

As I wrote in an earlier blog (Parents matter in science education), we’re in a tough spot when it comes to the level of preparation of science students (only 2% of high school students nationwide were found to be “advanced” in their preparation of science).  Some have argued that the focus of testing on reading and math, to the exclusion of science, has contributed to this deficiency.  Whatever the cause, we have to turn that number around.

International Year of Chemistry - January 1st 

In case you weren’t already aware, 2011 has been declared the “International Year of Chemistry” which is, in my opinion, totally cool.  There are a wide array of sources with interesting tidbits but, for starters, go to the IYC web site for links to upcoming events and history.  But that’s not all: there are pages from other scientific societies and publishers like the American Chemical Society and the journal Nature that are chock full of chemistry nuggets.  For example, the ACS web site identifies January 23rd, 2011 the date (in 1911) that Marie Curie was denied membership to the men-only French Academy of Sciences (this was after she had received her 1st Nobel Prize).  I recently read a wonderful biography of Dr. Curie written by Barbara Goldsmith (Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie, Norton, 2004), recommend it highly, and I will likely devote a future blog to the Curie family and their contributions to nuclear chemistry.

There is much to enjoy and discover in chemistry, if not in science.  I hope you will enjoy the journey.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

George Washington was a microbiologist

True story.  I am completely not making this up.

George Washington, commander of the revolutionary army and the first President of the United States, performed some of the earliest documented experiments in microbiology, when he and a team of collaborators, including Thomas Paine, paddled out into the Millstone River in central New Jersey to perform an experiment.  Paine, who wrote Common Sense, went to see General Washington with a letter of introduction from Ben Franklin who had hoped to secure a pension from the US Congress for Mr. Paine.  For inspiration, Washington had selections from Paine's writings read aloud to his troops each night in the hopes that it would inspire them during the war.  At any rate, Paine had heard that there were sections of the river that could be set on fire so, one night, he, Washington and some troops paddled out into the river. As Paine wrote of the incident in a letter on November 5th of 1783:

We had several times been told that the [Millstone] river… might be set on fire… When the mud at the bottom was disturbed by poles, the air bubbles rose fast, and I saw the fire take from General Washington’s light and descend to the surface of the water... This was demonstrative evidence that what was called setting the river on fire was setting on fire the inflammable air that arose out of the mud.

But Washington wasn't alone in these early experiments.  At approximately the same time, Allesandro Volta, the Italian scientist for whom the term volt is named, wrote to Father Carlo Campi in November 1776 (7 years before the Washington-Paine experiment) of conducting similar experiments on Lake Maggiore in the Italian Alps:

So, on the 3rd of this month, with my head full of such ideas, and being in a little boat on Lake Maggiore, and passing close to an area covered with reeds, I started to poke and stir the bottom with my cane.  So much air emerged that I decided to collect a quantity in a large glass container… This air burns with a beautiful blue flame.

The “flammable gas” referred to in these experiments was “swamp gas,” of which a large component is methane, a little molecule in which one carbon is bonded to four hydrogens.  Chemical formula: CH4.

You may wonder where the "microbiology" comes in.  Here's how:

There are a group of microscopic organisms that derive chemical energy from the conversion of carbon in a variety of sources into methane.  These methanogens (“methane making”) are not classified as bacteria but, rather, come from a separate kingdom, Archaea, which derives from the Greek word 'arcaia' which means “ancient things” (archaic has the same root). Typically, methanogens live in mud on the bottoms of relatively quiet rivers and ponds.  You don’t have to do anything to get them to grow except create conditions in which they can flourish.  Typically that means (a) remove the oxygen (these environments are called “anoxic”) and (b) provide a nice source of carbon, usually in the form of decaying organic matter (tree leaves, for instance).  Other natural sources include carbon dioxide, methanol, acetic acid (among others), and halocarbons (there is some evidence that methanogens can help to detoxify chemical wastes, so this chemistry has implications beyond historical interest).

Did Paine know about Volta's experiments?  Seems unlikely, but it’s interesting to note that, over a century before quantum mechanics, citizen-farmer-statesmen-scientists were studying the natural world to understand the how and why.  They may not have known about atoms, molecules, or the scientific method as practiced in the 21st century but, like any good scientist, they each designed an experiment that tested a hypothesis, collected their data, and analyzed their results.

Incidentally, methane is produced in landfills, by termites, and the rumens of cows – all regions where methanogens are allowed to flourish – and it is produced in enormous quantities.  Some estimates suggest that a billion tons of methane are released into the atmosphere annually where some of it is oxidized back to carbon dioxide and absorbed during plant metabolism, but it’s influence doesn’t stop there.  Methane is an important greenhouse gas.  It isn’t present to as great an extent as CO2, but it has a higher heat capacity than carbon dioxide.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Parents matter to science education

When I tell people that I'm a chemist or that I teach chemistry, they usually say one of three things: (a) I hated or was never good at chemistry (90%), (b) I never took chemistry (5%) or (c) I am a chemist too! (< 1%)  I would expect to see similar numbers with other science subjects although perhaps more people would have liked biology, but I sure would like to see the poor impression of chemistry and the hard sciences fade away.  The future advances in our nation - our ability to cure disease and to develop new technology that addresses our growing energy needs - is intimately connected to science education.  At the moment, we're not doing a very good job at this.  As reported in today's New York Times, a Department of Education report indicates that only one-fifth of high school seniors are graduating at or above a merely "competent" level (and only 2% are earning an "advanced" ranking).  In response to the NAEP - 2009 Report, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said "When only 1 or 2 percent of children score at the advanced levels on NAEP, the next generation will not be ready to be world-class inventors, doctors, and engineers."  1/5th?  2%?  Yikes! 

As our national workforce evolves away from a manufacturing base, we lament the loss of these jobs, but rationalize this loss in terms of better, “new economy” jobs that will be available to Americans.  Unfortunately, as documented by the National Academy of Sciences in Rising Above the Gathering Storm (revised in 2010), we are also losing forward-looking technologies in the energy sector like fuel cells, energy storage, and wind power.  Moreover, our capacity to compete for the 21st century jobs we envision is undermined by our failure to adequately prepare students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  In choosing a 21st century economy, we must commit to educating our students so that they are prepared to drive it.  As a college chemistry teacher, science fair judge, and high school science mentor, it has been my observation that the impressions and aptitude of college students toward science depend less on the college curriculum than from their science experiences during the K-12 years.  College science courses are essential for training of young scientists, but the students who arrive with a strong pre-college science background have a tremendous advantage over students whose exposure is weaker, and they are more likely to pursue these courses and professions.  Moreover, the attitudes of families and parents are critical.  Almost to a person in my experience, children who either aren't interested or think they aren't good at science have parents who share these attitudes.  Coincidence?  I think not.  Students inherit their fear or love of science and math from their parents as surely as any genetic attribute.  The challenge, then, is two-fold: we must teach parents the value of science as we teach science to their children.  We target parents in public health initiatives to stem childhood obesity and decrease the incidence of type 2 diabetes.  We should also try to make parents more effective partners in their children’s science education.

What can parents do?  Do they have to become expert in chemistry or physics or biology, and to hover over the kitchen table with their children slogging through homework assignments? They can but, if nothing else, they should encourage their children to take on hard subjects and recognize that there are advantages to having more doors open rather than less.  Parents can ask questions about the subject, talk to the teachers, and read the many resources available for the lay audience that are out there, go to the science fair, or the magic show at the local college, or the new exhibit at the science museum.  My parents were not scientists, but they saw how important it was to me and they encouraged me to pursue it, with a steady stream of science kits, microscopes and, well, by not getting upset when I had frozen rodents in the basement refrigerator (they were for feeding the snakes...).  My Ph.D. thesis (on the chemistry of multiply-bonded metal complexes - pure poetry!) sat in their living room.  They never read it, and we didn't talk about it at length, but they sure were proud of it.  Thanks, Mom and Dad!

Scientists helped fight infection during the war by teaming up with engineers, building huge-scale fermenters in a Brooklyn factory to culture mold that would make penicillin.  More recently, bioengineers cloned the spider silk gene into goats so that when they produce milk, they also produce silk for the manufacture of incredibly strong fibers.  How cool is that?  Who wouldn't want to know about that?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Why scientists should care about scientific literacy among the general public

Our nation faces the daunting, politically messy task of guiding our country through the shoals of decreasingly available natural resources, sometimes conflicting corporate interests, responsibility for environmental stewardship, and the need to prepare the workforce for a future that will depend on scientific understanding.  In the face of these challenges, we need scientists to take up the challenge and talk to friends, neighbors, legislators, coffee baristas, etc., about what they do and why.  

Make no mistake:  Science is important!  Science provides the foundation for improving and maintaining human health, expanding technological innovation, and understanding humanity’s impact on the environment, with broad implications for domestic and international policy debates.  Science provides the tools for developing new drugs, quantifying with increasing accuracy the details of the natural world and for discovering and evaluating new technologies to secure our energy future.  

Unfortunately, there is a lack of understanding of the science behind critical decisions we face, and scientists have been reluctant to engage in national debates where they are sorely needed, leaving a void that has been exploited to the detriment of, most notably, the environment, human health, and our secure energy future.  They are at times rightly criticized for being poor diplomats of their field for the lay audience (Harold Varmus’ recent political biography, The Art and Politics of Science, is a worthy counterexample), but research is not a part-time job and with financial support for basic science becoming more competitive, scientists are under increasing financial pressure to keep their labs running.  Yet the need for scientist-politicians is more acute in these hyperpartisan times where careful, verifiable inquiry is undermined in a 24 hour news cycle by opponents who know (or should know) better.  Science, dismissed as uninteresting or incomprehensible, is surely hurt by this exchange, but so are the public, the economy, and our environment.  

It is more important than ever that scientists add their voice and experience in matters where science matters.  As Victor Laslo said in Casablanca, "[Come] back to the fight.  This time I know our side will win."