Lab Diversions

Some chemists (I only know them by the nom de internets chemistnde and hecticgorilla) posted this on reddit with a title about livening up a slow lab day. (Good part starts at 0:39)

This is a great  example of "explosive decomposition," a term that most chemists have seen on warning labels and MSDS's but not in real life. The reactant 4-nitroaniline sublimes before it gets to the reaction temperature, so that's the yellow gas you see.

The reaction is really simple, it's just sulfuric acid reducing an organic molecule to form mostly carbon. This video (which is the same reaction with less awesome music) gives a better view of the solid  foam produced. NASA actually investigated this reaction in the 1970's as a possible way to put out fires.

This is a reasonably safe decomposition for people with appropriate training to do. If you don't know what para-nitroaniline is or have access to a fume hood, you should in no way shape or form consider it.

IgNobel Prizes 2012

Every year real Nobel prize winners gather at MIT for the IgNobel Prizes, awards for silly research. The ceremony is full of fun, weird traditions.  And I think it does a great job at promoting the idea that scientists are real people and science is a human endeavor. Plus there are "win a date with a Noble laureate" contests, annoying children ushered on the stage to discourage long-winded speeches, demos and science-themed operas.

The chemistry prize this year was for for "solving the puzzle of why, in certain houses in the town of Anderslöv, Sweden, people's hair turned green." It's copper pipes, not terribly exciting. 

The medical prize was much more interesting - advice to keep patients from exploding when a specific colonoscopy technique is used. And the literature prize for the government report about reports about reports calling for more reports was the only prize which no one showing up to receive.

Most creative scientific misconduct?

There's a certain degree of cheating you see in academic settings. Every now and then, you get papers with identical, really knucklehead mistakes, or you see cases like Harvard's trying not to severely punish  125 students who cheated on a take home exam. One of the reasons I love Retraction Watch is that it not only publicizes scientific misconduct, it challenges people to think and talk about ethics.

They've written several articles about what I think might be the most effort expended cheating in science.
HyungIn Moon, a plant compound researcher in the Department of Medical Biotechnology at Dong-A University in Korea, has had 35 papers retracted. That's unusual, but what's really brazen is the reason retraction. Some papers it's not clear why they were retracted, but for most it's because Moon made up email addresses for his "suggested reviewers" and then reviewed the publications himself.

He got caught, not because his self-reviews were so favorable, but because they were so fast. An editor noticed that peer review comments for his papers were coming back within 24 hours. Reviewers usually take several weeks to a month, so this definitely jumped out.

Surprisingly, Dr Moon still has his job as an assistant professor. He seems to think it's the journals' fault for not checking on the reviewers more carefully. One editor, Emilio Jirillo, resigned from Immunopharmacology and Immunotoxicology, which published 20 of Moon's papers. 

Moon isn't the only person to try to fake his own reviews. Guang-Zhi He, a  parasitologist in China, and  and a group of mathematicians in Iran have also had retractions after fake reviewers were discovered. The first of these cases was reported 3 months ago, so I imagine there will be more coming as editors go back and check email addresses match the names of real reviewers. 

Sequestration and Science

Everyone knows that the US has an overwhelming budget deficit. We spend a lot more money than we earn, and the problem is growing at a frightening rate. You may also remember that  Congress had to raise the debt ceiling earlier this year, and in a striking display of inept partisanship, they wound up with a "penalty plan" called sequestration that cuts $1.2 trillion in spending, which would be 8% of every budget  from across the board.

This act goes into effect Jan. 2, and so far the only proposal that seems to have traction is to exempt defense spending and cut 20% from everywhere else. The problem with this plan is that crippling science R&D budgets over the next 10 years is going to make the economic situation a LOT worse. Science and technology drive modern economies. If we slash science spending, the reduction in grant funding will mean that we have to abandon some promising research ideas. NSF will lose $1.35 billion, which is roughly the amount they spent on all NSF undergraduate education last year. Science funding will suffer, and the economy will get worse as a result, so we'll wind up right back where we are now.

Most politicians say they rarely hear from the scientists, so they don't know what our concerns are. ACS has come up with a list of talking points they think the scientific community should share with our leaders:
1. US economic challenges must be addressed.
2. Investment in research and development have been proven to fuel economic growth and create jobs.
3. Federal R&D investment must be sustained and predictable.
4. We need to avoid the sequester and seek real solutions to achieve fair budget cuts.

If you agree with these ideas, ACS has made it simple to share them with your personal elected officials. Go to their website, fill in your contact information and a draft email will pop up directed to the Congressional officials for your address. Modify it to reflect your person views and hit send. Its a simple, fast way to be a responsible citizen.

The Higgs Boson: Not-A-God Particle

The recent detection of the Higgs Boson went a long way toward confirming the Standard Model. It in no way confirmed a Theory of Everything. The idea behind such a theory is that if we truly understood physics, we could have a mathematical understanding that would explain how everything behaves - matter, energy, quantum mechanics, dark matter - the whole universe. In extreme, a "theory of everything" would be able to predict asteroid collisions, forecast the weather, and tell what socks you are going to wear tomorrow.

The Higgs boson doesn't do this. Huge parts of basic physics, like gravity, don't fit in the Standard Model right now. It certainly doesn't hint at omniscience, it doesn't make any arguments for or against the existence of God. why do we call it the God Particle? Well, first you need to define "we". The media call the Higgs Boson "the God Particle" because it sounds much more approachable and interesting, so more people read the story. Scientists hate the name! The only time physicists seem to refer to the Higgs as a God Particle is to criticize the media for the moniker. Even the person who coined the term, Leon Lederman never meant to imbue religious significance to the subatomic particle. He called it "The Goddamn Particle" because it was such a huge stumbling block for physics to overcome. An editor insisted of changing the name in his book, which probably resulted in a lot more sales but a ton of misconceptions.

The Higgs Boson: an introduction

The (almost certain) discovery of the last piece of a scientific jigsaw puzzle was announced this week. To understand this event, you have to understand that in science, all laws, theories, and models change over time. People like to think that the laws of physics are like diamonds, hidden out in the universe just waiting for some frontier explorer to trip over them. We like to think that the reason science appears to change is just because our view shifts, like looking through a different facet of a gem, but that there is an immutable core that underlies our belief.

In truth, though, scientific laws are a lot less like diamonds and more like philosophies. Every now and then a catchy idea ("I think therefore I am", "E = mc2") comes along and inspires people. Through debate and consensus forming, this idea becomes part of our worldview, other ideas build on it, and it grows. There is no solid bedrock of Truth that provides a foundation for scientific laws. We regard them as true only as long as they agree with testable observations. When technology improves and new observations are made, laws often get thrown out completely.

So, the Higgs boson is a particle that we wanted to see to test a particular idea called the Standard Model. Scientists used to think that atoms were the smallest building blocks of the universe, but since about 1900 we've known that atoms are in fact made out of smaller building blocks. One idea for what these blocks are and how they fit together is called the Standard Model. The Standard Model predicts that a bunch of particles exist - quarks, fermions, leptons - things that behave weirdly and seemed pretty dubious when first proposed. But scientists went looking for the evidence of these particles and found all of them, except (until this week) the Higgs boson. Many people had thought (or hoped) that the Higgs boson would never be found and we'd have to throw out the Standard Model.

The Higgs boson is a part of the Standard Model that explains why things have mass. The idea for it (how mass connects to the rest of the Standard Model) was proposed in 1964, in three independent publications (including one by the eponymous Higgs). Since then, physicists have been looking for evidence of this particle. Eventually we figured out that if it existed, it was going to take tremendous energy, and thus tremendous money, to detect it. It cost over $13 billion to build the Large Hadron Collider and run CERN long enough to find the particle. The announcement this week is not a huge theoretical advance - it means that an idea we've believed in for over 50 years is still consistent with the data available. 

But it is a triumph in that we now have more confidence in this model of how the universe is put together. More than that, though, this discovery is a triumph of science working. Physicists had this wild, crazy idea, and spent years refining it. Then they developed new technologies and created whole new fields of study in order to test out their idea. The particle itself is neat, but the questions raised and the ideas that we've thought of while looking for it - that's amazing.

How (not?) to attract girls to science

An EU commission recently spent over $127,000 (€ 102,000) on a 45 second video to encourage girls in science. The ad features spike heels, short skirts, and girls modelling in a lab setting. Reaction has been so negative that they have removed the ad from the campaign.

As a researcher, I find it hard to believe this video encourages anyone to get involved in science (although apparently at least some girls found it motivating.) As someone who understands the genuine reasons girls (and boys) are attracted to science, I'm disappointed by a video that shows a lab full of lipstick and hair flips. The campaign is a lot more than the video - there's a website, Science Cafe program with mentors, flashmobs, a traveling expo truck, etc. -  and all of it seems more thoughtfully pro-science and competently in keeping with traditional STEM recruiting efforts.

 There's no way the Washington  Post or Time or Fark would have covered a traditional STEM campaign, so this ad is actually more effective than it should have been. I don't think it was intentional - a spokesman said the commission "doesn't really do irony." But  they seem to have fortuitously stumbled on a highly effective way of publicizing the shortage of women in science, and reaching a much larger audience than intended.