Non-cancer terminology

I just saw a fascinating article about reducing cancer linguistically at the blog PatientPOV. At the NationalInstitutes of Health Consensus Development meeting earlier this month, a panel of doctors and researchers came up with this very unusual suggestion.
The panel was investigating prostate cancer. This condition is prevalent in the U.S., and today more than 2.5 million American men are prostate cancer survivors. But it is often a slow-growing cancer that doesn’t develop any symptoms. Not that it’s completely harmless - the severe form of prostate cancer is horrible and will likely kill 33,000 men this year. But most (approximately 70%) diagnoses are for the low-grade form. There is no difference between the longevity of men with no prostate cancer at all and the longevity of those with low-grade cancer. Yet 90% of men who are told they have prostate cancer seek aggressive treatment, which is painful and often causes incontinence and impotence.
The panel was discussing two different, less harsh treatment strategies called “active surveillance” and “watchful waiting”. Active surveillance means not treating the condition, but scheduling frequent exams and biopsies to monitor the situation. Watchful waiting entails educating men about possible symptoms and then just waiting for those symptoms to appear before pursuing treatment. The panel’s goal was to determine if and/or how these techniques should be encouraged as treatment options.
Upon reviewing all the data we have now, the panel concluded that these observational approaches are underutilized. They made many recommendations that are quite common from these sorts of panels: we need to develop better diagnostic tests to distinguish the risky cancer from the not-so-harmful cancer, we should educate doctors so that they have the best information to give patients, and (especially) someone should fund lots more research into different aspects of this problem. On that note, a large study on active surveillance and diet recently began accepting patients at 12 different sites here in Georgia. But in addition to these traditional approaches, the panel also came up with one really unique idea:
Stop calling the low-risk form of the disease cancer.
Instead of telling men with low (under 10 ng/mL) levels of the protein PSA and borderline biopsy results (Gleason scores of  6 or less) that they have prostate cancer, the panel recommended that doctors avoid the emotionally charged word. While the panel did not suggest a replacement term, wording such as “prostate alert” or “idle tumor” has been proposed.
This seems like a reasonable idea to me. I’m not exactly an average patient. I’m a professional scientist who can pronounce things like dehydroepiandroesterone and androstenedione. I understand statistical analysis and I read medical journals. And I still find the word “cancer” to be powerfully intimidating. I think the stress of hearing “you have cancer” would force me to act, and it wouldn’t really matter if the action was logical or in my long-term best interest. I would want to actively fight cancer.
But if a doctor told me something along the lines of “You have some abnormal cells. Right now, they’re not hurting you, but some day they might turn into cancer” I’d be far less anxious and more likely to consider all my options. I know that technically cancer is abnormal cells, but that phrasing just does not provoke the same visceral response.
This recommendation is not drawing any attention right now, but it seems like it should. It’s a very simple way to clarify risk and help patients understand their options. Sure, it could be hard to implement a cultural change like this. But not that long ago, people didn't talk about cancer. Now we've managed to raise billions of dollars and taken over an entire color for cancer awareness. I don't think adjusting terminology is so daunting that we should just ignore experts' advice.

Newest element names

IUPAC announced the names for the next two elements yesterday, flerovium and livermorium.

Flerovium (Fl) is the proposed name for element 114, which was discovered in 1999 by researchers at Flerov Laboratory in Dubna, Russia. This is the same place element 105 (Dubnium) is named after. The 12 year gap between finding and naming a new element isn't surprising. Because there have been many instances of people thinking they've found a new element when they haven't, it takes a long time for a new discovery to be adequately checked. There's still about a 5 month consideration period before the new names are finalized. I think it would be better to use Fv as the abbreviation than Fl because of fluorine, but confusing general chemistry students isn't high up the list of concerns for IUPAC.

Livermorium (Lv) element 116's discovery was also reported by that same Russian group, but is named after Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California.. Originally, they proposed naming it Moscovium, since Dubna is located in the oblast of Moscow. However, IUPAC pointed out that it was the collaboration between the Russians and the Americans that allowed the discoveries to be made, so naming one after each place is more politically correct. Americium, Californium, Berkelium and Lawrencium  are all named after the work done here. Don't go trying to updating the Elements Song just yet, 113, 115 and 117 have all been reported and will probably get names within a few years.

College Grads and Jobs

Many people enroll in college thinking a degree will make them instantly employable. This is obviously not true.
Take a glimpse at any page of the Occupy Wall Street gallery and you're sure to find numerous examples of people who built up ruinous debt but can't find work. The Great Recession certainly hasn't helped in the US, but this is a problem universities have been talking about for decades.

Take China, for example. China has survived the global economic crisis virtually unscathed. In 2010, their economy grew by 10%. Yet ~30% of their recent college graduates don't find jobs, and thousands of those employed live in highly educated slums. China recent announced a new strategy for dealing with this problem. They are going to eliminate college majors with low employment rates. We don't know which majors yet but in a manufacturing-based economy, finance, management and statistics will probably fare better than poetry, history, or theoretical math.

As a liberal arts professor, I'm ambivalent about this. Part of me wants to say that higher education is (and should be) idealistic, with the goal of producing citizens who will think in new ways and be prepared for challenges undreamt. And part of me realizes that encouraging students to take on $160,000 in debt to prepare for a career in social work (salary ~$30 k/year) is not demonstrating good critical thinking. And the fact of the matter is that some major always has the be the easiest, and a huge number of college students chose majors based on least resistance rather than aptitude or passion. Eliminating a major won't help these people find jobs. Instead, it will be more useful to provide students with means to demonstrate skills employers want, facilitate internships and co-op opportunities, and require a strong work ethic in every class.

Bad science, sweet results

Constantin Fahlberg was a really lucky chemist. One day in 1878, he left his lab and went to directly dinner without washing his hands and discovered that his dinner was really sweet, including his napkin. In his words
"It flashed on me that I was the cause of the singular universal sweetness, and I accordingly tasted the end of my thumb, and found it surpassed any confectionery I had ever eaten. I saw the whole thing at once. I had discovered some coal tar substance which out-sugared sugar. I dropped my dinner, and ran back to the laboratory. There, in my excitement, I tasted the contents of every beaker and evaporating dish on the table."

Poor lab hygiene and reckless endangerment led to the discovery of saccharin, and a company that made a fortune putting the sweetener into sodas without telling anyone. When public outcry over food quality resulted in regulation, Teddy Roosevelt kept saccharin on the approved list because of his own dieting experience with the substance. It took almost 100 years before science decided that he has right, there is no indication that saccharine is unsafe. In light of obesity and diabetes rates today, it's ironic to read about how NOT having sugar in food was thought to be unhealthy. Maybe 100 years from now, someone will think that subsidizing pizza and fries in school lunches was actually reasonable.

Impact Factors

In 1955, Eugene Garfield first proposed the idea of an index to measure how often a journal's articles were cited. This was before the internet (you knew that, right?) and he was looking for an easy way to sort information. The goal was to distinguish the small-but-often-cited journals from the small-and-not-very-useful journals.

Journal Citation Reports (JCR) publishes the list of impact factors each year. These are the ones journals brag about, the ones that are listed in the journal (or on the "About this Journal" section, if you read journals online.) They are frequently misinterpreted, and subject to numerous criticisms. But what I really don't like about them is that they are expensive, and JCR enforces its copyright and doesn't allow lists of impact factors to be posted legally. So the only way my students can compare impacts factors of a series of journals is to look each one up individually, or find them illegally posted on scribd.

But there are LOTS of alternatives to JCR Impact Factors. My favorite is Eigenfactor. (Don't worry, it has nothing to do with eigenvectors).   Their statistics seem more meaningful, you can compare different disciplines, they include cost effectiveness rankings, and they are completely free and searchable. But they also do a lot of great visualizations. You can easily look up any field and see which journals publish the most articles and which journals publish the most influential articles, how fields are related, changes over time, etc. Being able to see how journals relate to each other gives a much better understanding of scientific literature than one statistical indicator.

Best Abstracts Ever

Michael Berry (of levitating frog fame) has recently been lauded as writing the best scientific abstract ever:

It's short, attention grabbing and conveys results, all of which are good things in an abstract. And I think it's better than many other claims for "best abstract". Avron and coworkers published in Communications in Mathematical Physics and decided "Abstract" was a good description of their paper (although some parts are concrete).

And Spiegelman's contribution to EOS-Transactions seems to indicate that anything can get published. I'm not sure if that was meant as a commentary on the deluge of fractal publications or just silliness.

My favorite abstract isn't ever mentioned in the corresponding paper. I'm not sure if the dry wit of the article and Dr. Strangelove reference in the title resonate with today's students. But examples the point out that a correlation doesn't mean a causation don't get better than:

Let me know if you know of any other candidates for "best abstract ever".

Gamers solve molecular biology problem

David Baker and coworkers at the University of Washington's Center for Game Science reported the structure of a molecule related to AIDS. in the latest Nature:Structural & Molecular Biology. This wasn't terribly exciting news. Yes, researchers have been actively trying to figure out this puzzle for over 10 years, but no one except a handful of professionals would have noticed if the Baker group had solved the elusive structure themselves. Instead, they used their online video game FoldIt to let people with no expertise tackle the problem.

FoldIt awards players points for getting parts of a protein in energetically favorable configurations (for example, hydrogen bonds are worth big points, while two atoms clashing together costs a penalty). Using tools provided in the game, "The Contenders" team shared ideas and structures and managed to come up with a good solution in only 10 days. This is the first published case where "the power of online games to channel human intuition" has solved a puzzle that baffled traditional scientists. But I'd be willing to bet that it's not the last.


Ayusman Sen and coworkers at Penn State have made the first synthetic nanoscale motor that is powered by a polymerization. First, they made "two-faced" nanoparticles that are silica on one side and gold on the other. Then they attached a Grubbs catalyst to the silica. These Ru catalysts love to grab on to double bonds and string them together. So when there is any double-bonded fuel (norbornene) around, the researchers could watch the particles being propelled towards it, and spinning out polymer chains as they go. The Royal Society of Chemistry has dubbed these nanomotors "spiders" because they spin out strands of product, and they move towards their "food".

Really inking skin

Skin grafts are a tedious, painful process for burn victims. Bioprinting is an exciting new field of research that is improving this procedure. Using a small sample of healthy skin, bioengineers can produce "inks" containing the patient's own stem cells. These inks are applied to the burned area to generate new, healthy tissue. Researchers at Wake Forest are beginning clinical trials using modified ink jet printers. A group at the University of Pittsburg has some impressive results using airbrush guns:

Diamond Planet

Matthew Bailes and his team in Australia announced the discovery of a planet made of diamonds in the latest issue of Science . Its name is technically PSR J1719 -1438, but some media reports have dubbed it Lucy. It's the most dense extrasolar plant to date, with a mass approximately equal to that of Jupiter, but 20 times more dense than the gas giant. It's  more than quadruple Earth's density, and almost twice as dense as lead. The diamond planet is very close to its star - an entire day takes only 2 hours, and the orbit would fit conveniently inside our sun. The planet is apparently what is left over when one part of a binary star pushes all the fusionable fuel away from it's partner. It's more than 4,000 light years away from Earth, so no one is likely to pick up continent-sized jewelry there anytime soon.

Periodic Comics

This website from two professor at the University of Kentucky collects references of elements in graphic novels. Some, like Metal Men, are chemistry specific comics but there are also appearances in mainstream comics from Batman and Scrooge McDuck. The nefarious elemental plots seem to outnumber those where chemistry saves the day. Most of the comics date from 1940 to 1970, with a few of more recent vintage. They don't seem to be updating anymore, but this is a fun collection to browse through.


Wolfram|Alpha's goal is to make the world's knowledge computable. It's from the creator of the incredibly powerful Mathematica, and it provides straightforward answers to the questions it understands. Need to see a picture of myolglobin, determine which US president served the shortest time in office, or graph a 3-D wavy surface? Wolfram|Alpha can do it with ease.

It's a terrific curated resource, meaning experts deal with the content, so it doesn't suffer from the reliability problems that can afflict certain wikipedia articles and blogs. And it provides excellent citations, so you can find primary material or further information. It gives you one answer to each question, so there's no wading through 50 bazillion hits like Google sometimes provides.

The downside is that you are asking questions to an algorithm. As impressive as this algorithm is, it's not as good as a person at figuring out what you want. Ask what the chemical abbreviation DBA stands for, and you'll be told the definition of the word "abbreviation". Request information on dog allergies and you'll receive the lyrics to "How much is that doggie in the window". Everyday Wolfram|Alpha gets more knowledge and improves at answering questions. I'm not sure it will ever be able to compute everything, but it's definitely a handy tool to have in your research arsenal.

The World's Most Popular Class

What do you get when you combine a top-tier institution, a fun technology topic, Google's research director and completely open enrollment? An end to anyone else being able to complain about their class size.

With 98,435 students signed up and counting, the Artificial Intelligence class appears very excited about providing global access to one of Stanford's most popular courses (normal enrollment ~200). They didn't  expect this hoopla, and I'll be amazed if even 0.1% of those enrolled get anything positive out of the course. The recommended textbook (coauthored by one of the instructors) has not increased in sales as the class size ballooned. I would guess 98,400 of the enrolled students do not know what the prerequisite "solid understanding of linear algebra" means. Still, it's a brave venture and an interesting experiment. The class is free, no credit, and utilizes FAQ "discussion" periods and online homework/quiz/tests. And for the few people enrolled with legitimate interest and ability, it should be a pretty amazing class.