61 posts tagged science
Students at Northwestern University have developed a method for producing spider silk on an industrial scale. They hope to use the process to break into the bullet proof vest market since the web is stronger and lighter than Kevlar.
Cool images of various duplex arrangements: DNA (A, B and Z) and A-RNA.
Somehow I came to possess a series of booklets that were produced by the public relations department at General Motors between 1939 and 1941. Most of them provide education on various aspects of an automobile’s workings. They are boldly optimistic and beautifully illustrated.
I tried to determine the purpose of their creation, but came up short. One possibility is the booklets were sent to Ford owners to convince them to buy GM, a practice common to the car company during this time period. But their tone is more informative than persuasive. Another possibility is they were prepared for distribution during the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
That year, GM sponsored an exhibit called Futurama. People waited in line for hours to experience it. Visitors were moved through a vision of the future while a narrator relayed what could be expected in coming years. The pamphlet I have from the same year, titled To New Horizons, has the same oracle tone. But in all that GM could see, the company could not envision a future where more women would participate in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. ”The only secret of successful research is men,” the pamphlet claims.
My first thought when I read this was, I am glad I don’t live in 1939. Then I remembered a recent study.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development tested 470,000 students in 65 developed nations. In the majority of countries 15 year old girls earned higher scores on a science exam than boys. The United States was not among them. The US came in 62nd place, only in Liechtenstein and Columbia do girls score worse than boys in science than they do in the US. In a New York Times report of the study an OECD representative states, “Different countries offer different incentives for learning math and science.” What social incentive do we offer American girls?
Last month I was talking to my neighbor’s 10 year old daughter on the way home from the bus. I asked her if she was planning to participate in an after school math program with my son. She replied, “No, girls don’t do that kind of thing.”
Now, I know for a fact that girls do and that many of those girls are her friends. So it really threw me to hear her say that. Where had she picked up this line of thinking?
My neighbor’s kid is smart and funny, the type who seems to have the confidence and ability to do anything. She is stuck in a cul-de-sac filled with boys. When the weather is warm, and all the kids are forced outside to play, I look out the window and smile as she organizes a “campfire” with spare wood and folding chairs, jumps on a pogo stick while playing the violin, or rides down a steep driveway on a skateboard topped with a boogie board. She never seemed to be the kind of kid who would proclaim there is anything girls don’t do.
Her parents are both engineers. Her mom is an electrical engineer who works a few hours a day from home while the kids are at school. Math is a priority in her household; her mom creates practice exams before every test. When the third grade was studying electricity she happily relayed to the class what her mom had taught her about energy flowing through a circuit. This is the child whose reflex is to tell me, girls don’t do math?
The pamphlet by General Motors points out a cultural feedback that has been created in the United States. Considerable nationalism surrounds the technology developed in this country. The automobile is rooted here. This is the only country to have engineered a manned moon landing. It was the first country to produce, and the only country to deploy, an atomic bomb. All of these achievements are associated with the minds of men; therefore, you have to be a man to have the mind to achieve. This belief is an unfortunate outcome of the success of our nation.
The ghosts of our past are difficult to exorcise. It is going to take a long time until “Girls don’t do that kind of thing” is eradicated from our national vocabulary. A child, like my neighbor’s, who is swimming in opportunity to pursue a STEM career is still influenced by a generation who thought the only secret of successful research is men.
If you are tired of all the cute, heart themed Valentine’s stuff being posted today. Here is a story I wrote for Scientific American about sweat. How romantic!
When did we stop wanting to learn? Do we believe it is futile to learn how a technology functions because it is changing so rapidly?
This booklet was published in 1940 by the public relations department of General Motors. In order to convey to the public how a headlamp works they produced a 32 page document that explained the electromagnetic spectrum and refractive index.
Do you know how a diode works? Do you think GM would feel compelled to teach you solid state chemistry to help you understand? Is your mechanic the one who should worry about that? When did we stop wanting to learn?
One in a series of booklets produced by General Motors aimed to educate the public on every aspect of the automobile. The chemistry of the combustion engine is highlighted here. The naively simple understanding of the time is particularly poignant 75 years later, now that we know the 2.7 trillion cubic feet of CO2 produced yearly isn’t making soda water or keeping ice cream cold.
The artist creates fascinating, feather-light sculptures, by cutting the silhouettes of various types of birds from actual plumage.
Read about the artist, and see more amazing feathers, here.
We all know that three alcoholic beverages in 30 minutes is going to lead to inebriation, but that is so darn hard to remember after the consumption of one alcoholic beverage. Problem solved. An MIT student has invented a digital ice cubes which tells you when you have had too much and texts your friends that you need a ride.
Two words: Italian Bakery. The smell of fresh baked white bread is heavenly. If only you could bottle that scent and take it home with you. Now you can. Chemists are identifying the molecular composition of that white bread aroma. The smell that convinces our brain white bread tastes so good. Take the chemical responsible and add it to wheat bread and, voilà, you have achieved the win-win of an olfactory satisfying wheat bread.
They focused on ferulic acid (FA), found mainly in bran. Scientists already knew that FA suppresses one of the critical components of baked bread’s aroma. When Peterson’s team added FA to white flour dough, the bread tasted and smelled like wheat bread.
Healthy, yet kid-friendly, bread may soon be on it’s way to your table.
What do we do with chemistry? The topic isn’t covered much. Genetics, microbiology and neuroscience get significant playing time, but chemistry is relegated to the bench. Pacing the sidelines until it gets the opportunity to use its only ostensible skill, throwing punches on the topic of chemicals. The argument is tired and un-winnable (one side stirring fear, the other crying concentration dependance) and I am ready for something new.
Here is my blasphemous, little secret – chemicals scare me. Since I have had children they terrify me in a way it never even occurred to me to be concerned about pre-offspring. For example, I never worried about my bath tub before I had kids. I mean, I kept it clean, but now I have to clean the cleaner. I rinse the bath tub about 600 times after dousing it with Clorox Clean-up, to eliminate all traces of bleach that might dry out my precious son’s baby-soft skin or, worse yet, initiate a redox reaction that will eventually lead to some terminal illness. He is 10 and a swimmer. There is no rationale to this line of thinking, but it is still there, every time I clean the tub. Then there is the increasing number of allergy and asthma cases and too many of my girlfriends are in need of medication to compensated for their malfunctioning thyroids. The thought of endocrine disrupters in our food leads me to seek out preservative free sources and to hand-wash containers, least they leach plasticizers in the dishwasher.
Knowing there is a chance that a choice I make could cause my family harm scares me. That a choice I make could spare my family suffering keeps me on high alert. I try not fixate on these things. I know there is no such thing as a chemical-free life. That is nonsense which is why I go whole-hog and buy Clorox Clean-up – the bacteria will die! I stop short of having the soil and water privately tested – Do I really trust the water treatment plant’s report?– and I don’t get mad when my husband loads the top rack of the dishwasher with Gladware™ he is too busy to personally clean. But these little chemical concerns are always on my mind. It is a primitive response. I am human, designed to protect the survival of my species. No amount of don’t-be-ridiculous will allay my trepidation. Given the fact that I know better, how can you blame the average citizen?
It is like this: I bolt up the stairs to go to bed on nights when my husband is out of town. I am afraid of a hidden stranger, in the darkened living room, waiting to grab me on the way up. We could sit down and you could explain to me that all the doors are locked, and I am surrounded by watchful neighbors, and the likelihood of a maniacal intruder is slim, and I would nod in dismissive agreement, because, of course, I know all that. Then when it is quiet and dark, and I am alone with my imagination, I will high-step it up those stairs so the boogieman can’t grab my ankles. It is ridiculous, I know, but I could not get my brain to believe I was safe, not until I got a dog. It’s time for chemistry science writing to change, it needs the journalistic equivalent of a dog.
There is no doubt chemistry needs avengers, its reputation is abysmal. There are happier expressions on death row inmates than on freshman entering their first semester of college chemistry. But you turn them around; you make converts out of them – your class becomes known as a fun way to spend 50 minutes and your students bring their non-sciencey friends to your lecture (Why yes, that was my class and I am being boastful, but when your good…). This rebirth is not accomplished by the tabloid tones of the chemicals sermons offered to the general public. It happens slowly as you present your audience with all that chemistry has to offer.
First of all, chemists are nuts which provides hundreds of years of interesting stories (e.g. Dr. Kary Mullis recipient of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry), but even among the sane there are great stories. One of my favorites is about Einstein and the photoelectric effect. I haven’t told the story in a long time so forgive me if I mix-up some of the details. The story goes that when Einstein first developed the equation for the photoelectric effect, that earned him the Nobel Prize, (not E=mc^2, as everyone assumes) he didn’t believe it. The quantized energy of light was too far-out, at first, to swallow, but he published it anyway, making it available for other scientists to disprove. The equation was, in fact, proved right by Max Planck who determined the factor by which light is proportional – Planck’s constant. This is a great story because, not only are the characters well know, but the scientific method takes center-stage. The general public needs to hear more of chemistry’s rich history.
Secondly, the mere fact that we know what we know boggles the mind. I am an analytical chemist which means my appreciations are slanted towards research that solves molecular puzzles. You know how radar is used to locate a plane or to determine the speed of a car. Those are big objects, big freaking objects, that can be seen with the human eye. Chemists are able to achieve the equivalent with molecules, unfathomably small molecules. Chemists are able to actively measure neurotransmitters in the brain. They are bold enough to have inserted electrodes into the human synapse to identify the release of dopamine which could potentially end drug addiction. This is a story that has been published, but not with the same kind of fanfare a chemicals story gets. Chemistry needs a better agent.
There are thirdly’s and fourthly’s, but this blog post is already longer than I intended and I will save my words for future examples of stellar chemistry science writing (tune in here). But I will say this, the come on people, you should know better tone of chemicals articles does not make for good public relations. They are generally aimed at other authors (typically chastising them as fear mongers) but a reader could easily infer that it is they who are at fault for being so gullible, so human. And in the end, it is often just semantics. I correct my children if they use the word chemical as a generalization for something harmful, just like I ask them not to use the word sucks. The response in either case is the same, they exhale forcibly and roll their eyes, because I have interrupted the rhythm of their story.
By reducing chemistry’s spotlight to an argument about the good and the bad of chemicals, you lose the bigger, beautiful picture of chemistry. Argument outreach, lovable chemicals outreach, neither are affective because chemistry is not just about chemicals. Maybe it is not that big of an issue, most of what I read seems choir directed anyway. But as a member of that choir, I would like to request a different tune.