Shockingly Toxic Article

I haven’t been doing much in the way of blogging recently (or any Sci Comm for that matter) but I’m pissed off and I had to get this off my chest…

Original image by Guyon Morée. Provided under creative commons licence 2.0

Original image by Guyon Morée. Provided under creative commons licence 2.0

On the 26th of November, New Scientist (NS) published an article focusing on new chemicals. “great” I thought “I love chemistry”. It was that issue’s cover story but it had the worrying blurb of “We’ve made 150,000 new chemicals. We touch them, we wear them, we eat them. But which ones should we worry about?” The article’s tagline read “Our food, furniture and frankly everything else is contaminated with industrial compounds – but how harmful are they? New Scientist investigates.”

You’d be forgiven for feeling concerned because it’s New Scientist. They’re a powerhouse of knowledge and (usually) bring good, solid science to anyone who’s interested. So as opposed to just sighing, and muttering something about chemophobia, I read on. However, before we go any further, I want to take a second to appreciate what this cover and tagline sets up in the readers mind. To outright state, what your average non-chemist may think.

On the cover we see the words touch, eat and wear. Potentially leading the reader to think that they’re covered in, and ingesting chemicals. The less informed may worry. The more informed probably aren’t ridiculously bothered, but this is New Scientist, not known for over-exaggerating things. readers are probably taking serious note of what’s to come. Next, we see “which ones should we worry about?” OK, our more informed reader may hold off from full-blown panic but the blurb is literally suggesting that we may need to worry about something.

The by-line reads, “frankly everything is contaminated with industrial compounds”. The language is loaded, isn’t it? I mean, they’re being frank! And it’s not just that manufacturers have used some chemicals to make things (not that even that would be bad). No, no, no. Chemicals are contaminating things. No, not even that. Everything is contaminated. Contaminated with Industrial compounds. Our only reason to feel like it’s safe to shake quietly is that in asking the question “how harmful are they?” we’re lead to believe that perhaps not all 150,000 are going to kill us. However, the tone so far is causing us to consider the possibility that frankly we might just be screwed here. Again, this is New Scientist, people respect their journalism – I respect their journalism. NS has a stellar reputation. Of course, I may be jumping to conclusions here. It’s not like the article was outright using words like toxic and saying that we ought to be concerned – shocked, even. So perhaps your average reader wasn’t in full-blown panic mode. Concerned, sure, but maybe not panicked. Not shocked! No cause for that. OK, on to the article and, the natural beginning, the title… Toxic Shockers… Oh. Oh dear.

So here we are, in an NS cover-article about toxic chemicals, worried about what we’re going to see. We’re now looking out for new chemicals that we need to add to our list of things to avoid. Avoid them like you’d avoid sitting next to “that guy” at the Christmas dinner. The article’s set up for you to feel anxious and draw you in. So what monstrosities await? (Deep breaths everyone.)

We’re greeted with three paragraphs telling us that apples may contain traces of “pollutants”. Pollutants such as fungicides, insecticides and herbicides. To the uninitiated this might well be a worrying few lines of text. It takes until the fourth paragraph for the authors to say that most of them are either within safe levels or have zero effect upon the human body. The intro is horrible and if your guard wasn’t up, you’d be thinking that nothing (not even maw and paw’s good ol’ fashioned wholesome apple) was safe. The thing is, these pesticides are designed for use in agriculture and they’re present to prevent crop failure; to prevent pests from ruining this food which you’re relying on to not die. They’re not there to kill you and (as we eventually find out) they’re often present well below harmful levels or are as dangerous as a tickle fight with a kitten. Reading on, we hope they’re going to address the “problem” of the remaining 149,999 new ways to die.

“Over the next five pages, we explain what we know about nine of the most frequently suspected substances.”

Nine…NINE! I mean I wasn’t expecting 150,000, but nine (where did 150,000 come from anyway?). Ok, it’s surely going to be nine brand new super-effective ways to die. It’s probably the equivalent to juggling revving-chainsaws whilst telling Vladimir Putin how much you admire Stephen Fry. I mean, it’s had some serious build-up. It has got to be the nine worst offenders. Right?

Painfully, as you read through the article, you realise that only five of the nine classes of compounds actually appear to have a discernible toxicity profile. In what seems like a joke at first (but mercilessly isn’t) the authors talk about burnt toast. They mention acrylamide as a potential carcinogen and go on to establish the link between certain food-types, cooking methods, and how one may go on to produce the other. This leads the less critical reader to assume that burning their toast, causes cancer. However the authors (eventually) go on to state that there isn’t even a shred of evidence to prove that acrylamide is a human carcinogen. Why is this here? Their big example of compounds that they deem “guilty as charged” are lead and mercury. Ignoring the headache-inducing cliché and focusing on the big “offender”, this is not breaking news! Lead is bad for you… No, no, please, I’ve got this. 1990s meet New Scientist, New scientist meet the 1990s. You guys have a lot to talk about.

Sadly, after reading the article, the real take-home point here is not that you should burn your apples and not burn your toast. It’s that New Scientist span out an article which was a Daily Mail-styled piece of click bait! Something which, in essence, said “Hey, you’re all going to die. Wanna find out how? Click here!” New Scientist put out an article designed to make you think that we were (to quote the authors) “up to our necks in chemicals” and then muddied the waters by talking about a select few, not all of which that were harmful. You walk away from the piece scratching your head as to why any of this was news-worthy and quite frustrated that it not only made it into New Scientist, but was the cover article.

I despair at the shape of things to come if this is the future of science communication. Yes the Daily Mail makes stacks of cash churning out this sort of shit, but I beg you, NS, don’t sell your soul. Once your reputation’s gone, there’s no going back. We shouldn’t stand for this. Read the article (sorry, paywall) and if it pisses you off as much as me, tweet them or do the Facebook thing. Hell, if that doesn’t work, let’s stand outside their offices and shout until the daily mail takes over. I’m going back to radio silence.

Other opinions are available

Other opinions are available

Craig’s Questions – Sand and Atoms

Alright, here it is, the first instalment of – the highly anticipated – Craig’s Questions. The First question came about following a conversation with someone who is studying maths. He (Andy) casually dropped the following phrase into the conversation about numbers, as a statement meant to inspire wonder. The statement did more than just that for me though, it raised my curiosity and I felt compelled to sit down and work it out for myself. But here’s the thing to consider before we go any further, numbers, beyond a certain point, lose their meaning to us. I don’t really think our brain works well with visualising numbers beyond the thousands and it probably struggles even with that. For example, I know that I can’t visualise 10,000 apples. I understand the concept of the number but I couldn’t form an accurate picture of it in my head. Would it be as tall as me if they were still in their cases? (Probably.) How wide would it be if we staked them to only my height (6 ft)? These answers just elude my intuition and, I suspect, you’re no different. The following question takes advantage of that and forces us into the realms of Avogadro’s number, maths and straight up comparisons. At first these types of statements or questions seem impossible to answer and if anyone delivered an answer confidently enough one way or another, you might just be inclined to believe them and move on with your day. Hopefully you’ll realise that working it out is more fun.

Read this question, think about it and have a guess (no cheating or working it out for yourself, we’ll run through the maths together later on). I’d love to know what you thought. To make this even more fun, comment (below) or tweet me (@Sci_McInnes) your intuitive guess now before we move on. I’d genuinely love to know what you think!

So here we go, the first question:

“Is it true that there are more atoms in a grain of sand than there are grains of sand on the Earth?”

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Damn, that sand looks nice. Image credit: Craig McCubbin

So, first off, to the (chemist’s) easy part: how many atoms are there in a grain of sand?

To do this, we need to know about Avogadro’s number (nice video). This number tells us how many atoms there are in one mole of a substance (i.e. how many atoms there are in 12 grams of carbon-12, for example); the answer is 6.022×1023. That’s a big number. We use Avogadro’s number to give us the number of atoms in a grain of sand in the following way (pssst, skip this if you don’t like maths, just look for the other blue “pssst”.):

        Avogadro’s number               =number of molecules in gram of sand (1.004×1022)

Weight of one molecule of sand

We then multiply this by three as there are three atoms in every molecule. The answer is 3.012×1022.

So now we know the number of atoms in a gram of sand, we’ve got to figure out how many grains of sand there are in a gram and multiply it by the number of atoms in that same weight.

If a medium grain of sand takes up 0.5 mm of space (0.0005 cm3) and 1 cm3 of sand weighs ~2.8 g then one medium grain of sand weighs about 0.0014 g (1.4 mg)

Now: number of atoms per gram x number of grains per gram = number of atoms in one grain

0.0014 x 3.012×1022 = 4.33×1019

(Pssst, pay attention here) That means that there are 43 quintillion atoms in one grain of sand. Damn, that’s a big number.

Now, how many grains of sand are there on the Earth?

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Image credits: Craig McCubbin (wikimedia)

This bit was a little trickier. I couldn’t just straight out guess it because I don’t have a map or any concept of how deep the grains of sand go in a desert, or a beach, or even a sandpit for an Olympic game of beach volleyball. So I had to look it up and the estimates vary from between 7.5×1018 throughto 7×1021. It seems that all of these estimates are ignoring the deserts and the ocean, so I think that we can say that even the upper estimate here is quite conservative. So let’s compare the two numbers and see which is bigger; 7 sextillion or 43 quintillion? That’s right, you guessed it, it’s 7 sextillion (7×1021).

So that means that, even being fairly conservative with our estimates, and to answer our original question, there are more grains of sand on the Earth than there are atoms in one grain of sand, by at least three orders of magnitude. Mind blowing! I have to say, regardless of the outcome, the mere fact that we can contemplate these questions with some degree of precision is, really, the truly mind-blowing thing and that’s why I decided to write about it today; science is awesome.

Thanks for the constant slew of “Craig’s Questions” go to Sam (@_whitewashed) and the many interesting conversations with Kieran and Andy. If you have a question that you’d like me to answer, tweet me (@Sci_McInnes) or email me c (dot) mcinnes (dot) chem (at) gmail (dot) com and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Odd book review

A while back I wrote a book review. I had originally intended it to be published in The GIST but after a lot of thought I decided that it just didn’t feel like it belonged there. It was too mental and frankly, a bit neurotic. I was trying too hard to be funny when I shouldv’e gone for informative (which is what The GIST is for). So I sat on it until I could decide what to do with it. With things on here being very quiet I decided that it would be a fitting home for the piece (if for no other reason than this blog is pure unadulterated me). So here it is. Enjoy! And don’t judge it too harshly, You’ve gotta experiment with a few writing styles before you find out what works and what doesn’t.

The Epigenetic Revolution. A book by Nessa Carey.

My mind has just melted! Just this very moment I have closed a book, put it in my bag, sat back in a chair and – whilst looking at my coffee cup – breathed a heavy sigh; a sigh of astonishment if you will. This sigh is the only way my body knows how to process what’s just happened. I’m flabbergasted, inspired, a little jealous but mostly awe-struck. Awe-stuck by the information that I’ve been feverishly cramming into my eyes for the last few weeks. Information cramming on a scale akin to a bear cramming salmon down its throat before hibernation. The cause of this smörgåsbord of emotions is, of course, the marvellous book that I’ve just plonked back into my bag. The Epigenetic Revolution by Nessa Carey.

Front cover of your next book.

Front cover of your next book.

Anyone who has spent more than a passing amount of time chatting with me about most science-based subjects will realise that I quite like epigenetics. Actually, I more than simply like epigenetics. I adore epigenetics. Unfortunately for me I adore it from a distance. I’m like the bloke in a pub who doesn’t quite know how to break the ice with a pretty girl. I think me and epigenetics could be quite good together but I just need an ‘in’, well, needed an ‘in’. I say needed because I’ve just finished this book. Reading it was like skipping past the awkward chat-up lines and nervous jokes and getting straight to the first all-night conversation where you get to really know that pretty girl. Essentially I’ve just become comfortable reading about a complex area of biology. I’ve realised that epigenetics is more than just a brief whirlwind obsession but it’s a truly fascinating area of research. This is more than just a chemist ‘flirting’ with a bit of biology. It’s actually like the first all-consuming phase of any love story. Epi (we’re close now, I can call her that) is all I can think about. I’m finding epigenetic explanations for things everywhere I look. It’s changed my perspective on life. If I were still in high school I’d be declaring my undying love for this personified beauty and defacing my pencil case. But I’m not in high school, I’m a grown man and it’s high time to stop anthropomorphising this book – and my extreme joy at reading it – and time to try and convince you to read it too.

Hopefully you’re as swept up by epigenetics as I am. However I suspect that you’re left with the distinct disadvantage of not really knowing what Epi actually is. Fear not. The box below shows the most abridged cliff notes that I could bring myself to make:

box outGot it? Good. It’s so much more than this but I won’t go into much more detail, primarily because Carey has done it so bloody well. What I will do however is to leave you with the information that has me hooked on this subject and then leave you to go and read this wonderful book for yourselves.

Epigenetics is the future of modern medicine. As a chemist, I (and others) look at Epi and see the potential for a new way to treat diseases. Every living cell has DNA, and it relies on that DNA to remain alive and to function properly. If cells aren’t functioning properly and, for example, turn cancerous, epigenetic therapies could quietly shut them off by altering the ways in which these cells make use of the DNA. Teams of chemists and biologists all over the world are trying, as you read this, to utilise epigenetics to treat or cure any number of diseases from diabetes through cancer to schizophrenia. To overly simplify matters, epigenetics could give us a way to obtain the effect of gene therapy without actually having to alter the genes themselves. Don’t you want to know how it actually works?

A Question of Ethics

Fritz Haber was a monster. Yet he’s, arguably, one of the most successful chemists of all time. In 1918 he was given one of the highest accolades that a chemist can receive; The Nobel Prize. Jump forward in time and we see how significant his work is even today, as high school pupils routinely learn about the Haber process (pictured below). In fact a third of the world’s population owes their lives to the products in fertilisers, which are made from this very reaction. I myself use ammonia and nitric acid frequently – something that wouldn’t be possible without this particular monster’s chemistry. Any scientist today would give their left arm to have such a legacy. However, I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who admires the man and this brings me to my point. Knowing that science is often used for questionable purposes, are we as scientists responsible for the unforeseen outcomes of our work? Just because it could be used for sinister purposes, should we supress the knowledge gained from original yet perhaps risky research?

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The Haber Process…pretty, ain’t it?

These are questions that are still unanswered (and perhaps unanswerable) even today. Genetically modified foods (and their potential risks) are ubiquitous in the news. Large agrochemical companies produce ever more sophisticated pesticides that may actually drive the evolution of resistance in pests much in the way that antibiotics have driven resistance in bacteria (even though they are trying to fight famine). Petrochemical companies, whilst striving to meet the world’s insatiable oil demands are, at least in part, contributors to global warming. This question of ethics has dogged me for years. After a heated “debate” with a friend I thought I had clearly shown that science is solely knowledge and the problem rests with the people who abuse that knowledge, not the scientist who slaved away to uncover its mystery. Of course the original motive behind this argument was for me to justify my place in the world and redeem myself as a proud scientist. But the more I think about Fritz Haber the more I start to question that stubborn stance. In fact chemists looking to answer this question themselves probably need look no further than the aforementioned monster.

Haber was described as having “…lived for science, both for its own sake and also for the influence it has in moulding human life and human culture…” 1 He was a man who undertook his science for the greater good. A most honourable prospect in anyone’s eyes and, eerily, something I aspire to emulate. However Haber is also the very man who abused his knowledge of science to initiate the gassings of World War I. The Haber process was used to make key components in the explosives used in that horrendous war. He also led the team that developed the precursor to Zyklon B, the gas which the Nazi’s used in concentration camps.

So what are we to learn from the life of Haber? Are we really responsible for every repercussion of our work and if so, do we censor our discoveries? I’m coming around to the idea of fuller ownership of my work but I’m still not convinced that I’m responsible for every repercussion. I’m certainly not responsible in the way that Haber was. After all he was the one who corrupted his own science and I certainly don’t plan on doing that. I am however starting to realise that chemistry – and science as a whole – is corruptible and I should be more aware of the seemingly hidden repercussions of my work. Maybe I should devote some time to limiting the damage it may do. I’m an aspiring medicinal chemist, maybe my compounds could have unintended side-effects and perhaps I am responsible for those. As this unending argument rages on in my head I’m left with another question. At a time where open access journals are becoming ever more popular and the scientific community at large fights against all forms of censorship, how could I even begin to go about limiting the negative outcomes of my own work? I for one hate the idea that scientific discoveries could be locked away by a government agency under the guise of “the greater good” only to be dished out to people it deems appropriate. In this open access age, how could I even begin to stop my (at present hypothetical) scientific discoveries from being hijacked by others with ill-intentions? Sadly I don’t have the answer to all these questions, and I definitely don’t think they’re going to be easy to come up with. What I can be sure of though is that at least I’m not going to betray my science and go the way of Fritz Haber.

  1. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/1918/haber-bio.html

dusting off an old article…

A while back I wrote an article for a science communication competition. Nothing came of it and to be honest I had completely forgotten about it. Recently, however, I rediscovered it and thought that this might be a fairly decently place to put. let me know what you think.

When’s a bull not a bull?

Science (noun, pronounced: sʌɪəns) from the Latin word Scientia meaning knowledge. Science is something that the majority of us read about daily, even if we don’t notice it. Most of us take for granted that what we are reading is well researched and truthfully conveyed. I used to believe this was the case until, quite recently, I turned my hand to a bit of light science communication myself. When I began the process of research I noticed that mainstream science articles are plagued with varying levels of… something… a word I probably shouldn’t use in press. (A word defined as vulgar slang meaning “stupid or untrue; nonsense”.) Instead of using this slang, I will refer to it by another word, maybe we should paint a picture of it, perhaps a feisty animal, let’s say a bull. Science communication in the modern age is, unfortunately, riddled with varying levels of bull. (It has a nice ring to it wouldn’t you say?)

"I've told you before. Stay out of that shop and away from science!"

Here’s a light example. This story is based in fact and is not entirely incorrect. What you see is a slight twisting of facts, but it is this distortion that is about as welcome as our bull running free in a china shop named truth.

The piece is centred on a story reported by many newspapers as; “scientists keep beer fresher for longer”. Many papers stated that if you drank beer, you could now take your time over it, savour it, enjoy it, safe in the knowledge that science will keep it from going stale. All that scientists had to do was make it less acidic and keep it cool. The problem with this piece was its over sensationalised nature, by anyone’s standards it was probably a ‘non-story’. It suggested that once your pint was poured you had hours to drink it. This inaccuracy lets our bull charge through the entire article leaving the misinterpretation of poorly conveyed facts in its wake. The scientific paper was concerned with the analytical profiling of the compounds that made beer taste stale. They did suggest that if they made the beer more acidic it would go off faster. However the converse wasn’t mentioned, making the newspapers’ hypothesis speculative at best. The paper was actually providing scientists with a method to measure and follow the ‘freshness’ of beer whilst it was being stored; it was an analytical tool.

Keeping it cold keeps it fresh... who knew?

You may be thinking that there is no harm in a mild misrepresentation of facts because it was just a harmless little article about beer. However that’s entirely against the point of science and its communication; it’s an insidious problem. Our bull has a temper and he snaps in the blink of an eye. There are people who don’t question everything they read and to them the written word is sacrosanct. If the media lies or even accidentally misrepresent the truth, it won’t be long before these people stop believing anything scientists and communicators have to say. Remember the words “MMR vaccine“?

How do we deal with our bull? First-of-all, we need to identify the cause of this problem. Communicators are too concerned with writing a story that sells papers. Perhaps those who are genuinely concerned with relating the truth are just too far removed from modern science to properly grasp some ideas – even former scientists themselves. Understanding science is like any skill set, if you don’t use it, you lose it. Scientists are also at fault and all too often only have to inform their funding bodies that their science is actually being communicated (thus hopefully securing more funding) regardless of how truthfully it was conveyed. We rarely take the time to report outside of peer reviewed journals or make any effort to even engage the masses. When we see our work mildly misrepresented, too few of us actually do something about it. We just frown at our ill-informed press office.

It appears that the attitudes of a few key people need to change. Scientists need to adopt a more long term view and vigorously defend the truth of their research, even if it impacts on how wide its reach is. Whilst science communicators need to realise their own short comings and admit that, sometimes, they need the help of the scientific community to fully understand what’s going on. Perhaps both should train the next generation of budding researchers to engage the public effectively? Both need to talk to their press office.  Above all, both parties need to ensure that what’s being communicated is 100% accurate. We need to cut out this nonsense, we need to eradicate public doubt, we need to focus on the truth… our bull needs the snip!

Reference news articles here, here and here

Pictures by; Malcolm Morely and Kozzmo

For those that don’t know, a bull isn’t a bull when its been castrated

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