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?”


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?


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.

The Director’s Cut

A while ago I wrote a piece for GUM (Glasgow University Magazine) as part of a collaborative effort between themselves and The GIST. Due to the word count limitation, I had to cut the article down to 800 words (feel free to read it; pages 34-35). There was originally a plan to publish the longer article (which I like a little more) on The GIST’s website but As I’ve handed off most of my responsibilities to a new generation of GISTers I suspect that this article will fall to the bottom of their to-do list and I’ve decided to post the full article here. I hope you enjoy it.

Dying For Clarity

How do you begin to respond to an emotional story of loss and tragedy when you think that the methods used to tell the story are wrong? Not only wrong, but an affront to science? Couple this with the fact that the tragic story is conveyed via a heart-felt documentary told by a grieving father and you have a delicate situation on your hands. Essentially, arguing against this story’s conclusions will make you out to be a heartless monster who wilfully ignores the plight of others to focus on “mere” facts. None of this, however, changes the point that the methods used are wrong (or at least inappropriate for this context). Being part of a growing number of people that harp on about badly communicated science at every chance they get, I must say something.

Roaccutane - Image credits: Jpogi e André Teixeira Lima via wikicommons

Roaccutane – Image credits: Jpogi e André Teixeira Lima via wikicommons

In November 2012 I sat down to watch a documentary on BBC three called Dying for clear skin. The show focused on the use of the drug Roaccutane as a treatment for acne. Many readers I’m sure will be familiar with this drug and maybe even the documentary itself (if not, it’s available on YouTube). Very quickly the show centred on the more serious potential side-effects of the medication and told a heart-wrenching story of suicide that could perhaps, have been triggered by taking this drug. With the BBC being an institution desperate to provide balance on all its topics I had suspected that this emotional-rollercoaster would be countered at some stage by a good scientific argument to provide evidence for or against the banning of this drug, which was ultimately the point of the show. Sadly however, I was disappointed. Instead, the show relied almost exclusively on personal accounts to paint a picture that didn’t accurately reflect the whole story. By cherry-picking the personal accounts of a few they told an inherently biased story and although I suspect that this approach made for excellent television, it effectively removed the science from what was a valid scientific argument.

The personal accounts used to tell the story here were touching and at some points wholly concerning. But it’s important not to get drawn into these stories without further checking the facts (something I suspect most viewers wouldn’t do). When I checked some of the sources I was further disappointed. One of the people interviewed in the documentary, a 22 year old man named Stefan Lay, told his tale of how Roaccutane led to feelings of depression and sexual dysfunction. He appeared as an intelligent young man with an honest story to tell. However when I later found his YouTube channel I quickly realised that he is a person who not only hates Roaccutane but seemingly all prescription drugs. His YouTube channel is called FireYourDoctor, where he tries to discourage people from taking any medication whatsoever. With the dawning of this fact I began to worry about this person’s motives and I can’t help but question his inclusion in the documentary. The makers and presenter of the documentary found him by searching online and selected him on the basis of his YouTube videos. Videos where he expresses views like this:

But I do believe there is a cause. Like, people don’t get cancer for no reason. I don’t think so anyway. I think they’ve got to be a bit run down, or their body has been playing up and they’ve not really noticed the signs of that and they’re not taking their health seriously or they’re not eating well enough… I don’t think the cancer just pops out from nowhere.[1]

Oh dear. Undeterred, the film-makers interviewed him and used the footage where he stated that Roaccutane had caused his inability to have sex and caused him to “feel dead inside”. Yet in his own review of the show, posted on his channel, he stated that these side-effects weren’t as bad as reported and that in fact, he was still able to have sex.[2] I suspect that he was used as an interviewee because he was young, photogenic and told a story that suited the film makers (perhaps after some editing or careful scene selection).

After a few more personal accounts the documentary finally focuses on the evidence that is available in an attempt to link Roaccutane to depression or suicidal tendencies. In the 2 minutes (out of 57) dedicated to this, the facts were glossed over as irrelevant (presumably as they didn’t agree with the points being made) and fobbed off as incomplete. Sadly the film missed its chance to have a serious debate about the drug by ignoring the science. The fact is this. Out of half a million people who have been prescribed Roaccutane worldwide, reports of nine people committing suicide whilst taking the drug were made to the drug’s manufacturer. To add some context to this, that is 88% lower than the UK average (17 per 100,000 population[3]). Not only this, but the film didn’t properly explain to its audience that these suicides could have been caused by any number of different reasons. You’ll hear it time and time again; correlation does not equal causation.

Roaccutane description

What is very disheartening though is that I think there is a serious debate to be had here. Roaccutane usage is surprisingly common. The drug is not without its (proven) side-effects,[4] the mechanism of action is not fully understood and, worryingly, it appears that this “last option” treatment is sometimes used earlier than needs be.[5] Yet all these points were forgotten in favour of the emotionally-manipulative story of an unproven link to suicide made through the use of questionable and unscientific sources. The calls that came from the makers of this documentary (and some viewers) to ban Roaccutane were reactionary and misinformed. This sort of knee-jerk reaction to an emotional story is unsurprising but the fact that it’s the aim of the documentary is discouraging to say the least. This should have been a scientific argument. Scientific evidence is how we decide if drugs get their licence. Shouldn’t the story have followed the narrative that Roaccutane usage is on the increase, and GPs and dermatologists need a reminder that they are prescribing an incredibly potent drug to potentially vulnerable users? Maybe a call to monitor side-effects much more closely would have been sensible. Perhaps tackling a blasé attitude to the drug would have been much more productive. If nothing else, a call for more studies and more information would have been the logical thing to do. However that’s not what BBC three thinks its viewers want to see and instead they peddled a heart-felt but irrelevant story to an audience it clearly doesn’t respect enough. Not everybody tunes into the BBC to watch ‘Snog, Marry, Avoid?’. Come on BBC, you can do better.





[5] and

2C what people are talking about

2CB, Tripstasy, Nexus, Rusko, Bs

The chemical structure of 2CB. Image Credits: Craig McInnes

I talk a lot about drugs. I don’t take drugs, but Jesus Christ, do I talk a lot about them. It seems the moment I tell people I’m a chemist, the conversation inevitably goes one of two ways; one is talking about drugs. Typically I smile and zone out, I’m just not that interested in hearing about the time someone chewed a hole in their cheek or why their jaw hurts. However, recently I sat, captivated, and listened to what this fella was saying. He spoke about a “new” drug that he’d taken. He spoke about 2CB (pictured on the right).

For a guy that seems to do a lot of questionable things, the thing that surprised me most, was how much he knew about what he was taking. How much everyone seemed to know, actually. Upon meeting this guy for the first time, you could be forgiven for writing him off as a stoner, but this guy knew the dose he was meant to take to get one type of effect, how that effect would be completely different if he took a different dose, what would happen if he took it with MDMA and even when to take it to get the most out of that particular trip. He knew how to take it (different methods gave different effects apparently), what would be the first warning signs of it going wrong and – apparently – what to do to come back down “properly” so that he could go to work the next week and not feel too bad. Fucking hell! He knew more about this than your average pharmacist. I’ve learned over the past few years that people tend to know a little about what they’re taking but this took the biscuit. Perhaps this is just my first real encounter with a hardened drug user but over the course of the next few weeks it would turn out that quite a few people out there knew about 2CB and it seemed that people are quite dangerous with too little knowledge: It only took about 6 weeks before I was having a similar conversation with someone else but this time focused on his mate who was in a chemically-induced coma to prevent brain-swelling from killing him after taking too much of the stuff. (Though sadly this seemed amusing to the second guy.)

What is 2CB and why should I even care?

2CB is a part of the 2C family of psychedelics which were originally synthesised and investigated by Alexander Shulgin – a medicinal chemist and, as it turns out, the ‘father of MDMA’ (ecstasy). Shulgin spent much of his time investigating phenylethylamines (the 2C family) and tryptamines (a related family) and it appears that he tested, on himself, all (or at least most) of the psychoactive drugs that he made (was this normal in the 70s?). He even published two books on his experiences with these and related substances. Somebody has gone to the trouble of constructing a table with all of the 2C family members and placed it on Wikipedia and if you’re interested it would seem a good place to start to at least familiarise yourself with the structures and names. I suspect that this will only be of interest to people with a science background though.

side-by-side comparison of ecstasy and acid

See if you can spot the similarity between these two compounds. Image Credit: Craig McInnes

There’s a plethora of reasons for why you should care (which I started writing out but subsequently deleted) but one seems to trump them all; knowledge is power. Arm yourself with an understanding of what’s going on around you and you’ll be better placed to make relevant decisions about how to deal with certain situations…make of that what you will.

So you know what 2CB is, chemically speaking at least, and it only seems right to explain what it is in terms of its effect (please note that this is anecdotal and I only have two sources of information). At low doses, 2CB is a lot like ecstasy. It makes you feel high in a similar way; things are great to touch, music is more meaningful and intense, colours seem more vivid, etcetera, etcetera. I actually found a fairly well written first-hand account in The Tab though I have no idea who this person is or even if they genuinely took 2CB (I guess that’s a wider point, how does anybody know what they’re taking?) and it seems to be describing a low dose trip. My sources tell me that 2CB’s uniqueness comes from higher doses. Above a certain point (I don’t want to dish out hard numbers) the trip goes from an E-like high, to something resembling LSD, with hallucinations being common. When you consider the structures of both E and LSD (shown above), then compare them to 2CB (the first picture), the chemical reasoning seems sound as to why this might happen. I’ve even taken the time to crudely draw out what different sections of LSD have in common with these compounds (shown below).

LSD subsections

structures seen elsewhere in illegal substances are seen within LSD. Image Credit: Craig McInnes

Getting back to my earlier conversation with the first fella, I had one question for him, “Do you get flashbacks with this?” (The BIG scary thing that you get with LSD.) Needless to say he didn’t know, I guess it’s hardly surprising to find out that he wasn’t concerned with the long-term effects. A red flag popped up when I tried to find an answer to this myself. For all that people talk about how 2CB is “better” or “smoother” or just generally a milder trip (all very short-term concerns) it seems that nobody really knows what the long-term effects are. There have been some pharmacological studies concerning the breakdown products of 2CB but nothing following up on what happened, say, 20 years down the line. If I might venture a guess I’d say that it’s not out of the realms of possibility but upon further reading it appears that nobody really knows what actually causes flashbacks in the first place, so who knows? (I had originally thought it was a lipophilicity issue but it appears that this might not be the case.)

So depending on how it’s taken and in what quantity, the high goes from ‘loved up’ to ‘wow, dude, I can see sounds’.

Anything else I should know?

Probably. 2CB almost certainly works by mimicking serotonin (active on 5-HT receptors, a helical trans-membrane receptor, also known as GPCRs), which makes it work in a fashion similar to ecstasy. The long-term effects of this drug are fairly well known and if 2CB functions in the same way then potentially some of those side effects could happen here too (changes in brain structure, lowering of serotonin transporter proteins, depression and decreased memory function to name but a few possible outcomes).

a 7-helix transmembrane receptor

This is what a GCPR looks like. Image Credits: By Bensaccount at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

When chatting to this fella I reminded him that legal highs could be just as dangerous as illegal ones and that just because nobody knows of side effects yet, doesn’t mean that there aren’t any. (By the way, 2CB is a class A, restricted drug.) The same rings true for 2CB, just because nobody knows the long-term effects of the substance doesn’t mean that there aren’t any and that seems to be a big problem with any new compound as it ‘hits the market’. (cf. the chemically-induced coma and the phrase, ‘too much of anything is a bad thing’.)

Once all the dust had settled and people were out of comas, the conversation arose one last time (or at least, one last interesting time). These guys continue to take 2CB and it appears its use is on the rise. It seems that we’re only going to hear more and more about this little compound and it seems to be a buyer’s market. Despite the fact that it has been described as the single most painful recreational drug to snort, they continue to do it. They snort it up, drop a pill, burn it and breathe it in, or do whatever they can and in whatever direction is the most effective, just to get high.

I still feel it’s important to know what’s going on around you and crucial to know what might happen if someone were to take it. It’s probably even pretty important to talk openly about these things. I am, however, left with one last question: How bad does it have to get and how empty or unfulfilling does your life have to be before the only way to really have fun is to escape from reality into a line of powder? For today though, I reckon that’s a question which is a little too depressing to ask. Perhaps we’ll save that one for another day.

Are We Missing The Point?

Today I read an opinion piece in Nature (by Colin Macilwain) which states that programmes that bolster STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, either distort the labour market (in favour of the employer) or are ineffective and, therefore, a complete waste of money.  When you get into the (US-based) statistics of the piece you can’t help but think that there is a point, at least where wasting money is concerned: there do seem to be too many overlapping programmes that share the same goals yet try to achieve them in perfect isolation. But the whole piece is a bit ‘glass half-empty’ for my liking.

Macilwain goes on to let the reader know that the Obama administration is suggesting these programmes are consolidated and strengthened (through increased funding). “Good” I thought “stop wasting money and make the most of what’s available”; a pretty smart move in a time of austerity. I might yield and say that to increase the funding may be unnecessarily generous. However, it seems that Macilwain wants to take things in completely the opposite direction and believes that these types of programmes are of no use at all:

“What no one asked was whether these many activities actually benefit science and engineering, or society as a whole. My answer to both questions is an emphatic ‘no’.”1 (Quote attributed to Colin Macilwain)

What he seems to be suggesting, is that these programmes are of benefit solely to the industry itself and that by flooding the job-market with new graduates the entire situation allows for the best to be cherry-picked and cordially paid a pittance for their effort and for the rest to have been abandoned and ultimately failed by these schemes. He might not be far off the mark here but I do think he’s missing a wider point (more on that later).

Pretty University

Avoiding the beauty of learning and further education because of a lack of inspiration is a travesty. Image credits: Lricewiki via wikicommons

Luckily Macilwain understands that these programmes were set up to involve under-represented minorities to a greater extent in STEM subjects. Furthermore he suggests that employers, who want the best, should invest more in their own employee’s education and training and they’ll have the best. A very fair point, indeed!

Here’s the rub though, Macilwain seems to be saying that all this money ($3 billion in the US) should be spent elsewhere, where it’s really needed and that governments should tell kids to just do what they want as a career. In a best case scenario, I think that he’s missing a bigger point. In the worst case, he might just be belittling the impact STEM ambassadors have on childrens’ lives – glibly calling the schemes “cuddly and wonderful”.  The bigger point is this; does he not remember what it was like to be young and impressionable? Not every child knows what they want to do with the rest of their lives. The process by which they chose their career path is rather more complex than:

“I just wanted to be an immunologist” (quote attributed to NOBODY).

Children often take a liking to a subject because they happen to have a particularly charismatic or very passionate teacher (I know that’s what got me hooked on chemistry in the first place). What happens to the child who might be sitting on the fence between a career in, say, plumbing or physics? Perhaps they had the potential to do well at both but needed the right education to know what was best for them.  Perhaps they just didn’t ‘click’ with their physics teacher and decided, by the proverbial ‘flip of a coin’, to become a plumber (no bad trade by the way – my Dad is a plumber – but that’s beside the point). That’s one fewer person who pursued a career in the sciences through a lack of education; a missed opportunity due to a lack of inspiration (or, for example, resources within a school).

STEM ambassadors (and people who work through similar programmes) can go into schools, or host events at universities and inspire young minds! This isn’t just warm and cuddly, it’s life-changing. They can be the spark to a child’s imagination that sets them down the path of science or any other STEM career for that matter. I don’t think that we should be cutting investment in STEM education programmes – though I’ll concede that maybe savings could be made – I do think that we should be looking at ways to attract more jobs. It’s not “second-guessing” the job-market, it’s actively going out and promoting it. It’s saying, we have a country that’s full of bright, well-educated minds who can work well for your company and you should set up shop here.

Some might read this and say I’m being naïve but I’d say they’re being overly pessimistic. I’d say that this particular Nature article is guilty of that too. The penultimate point being made, is that the consolidation of these disparate STEM programmes is ultimately futile. Futile because (in the US at least) government ineptitude and bureaucracy will prevent resources from being transferred from one particular site to another. Come on! Let’s not just criticise a system (as valid as that criticism might be) and then just ‘walk away’ without proposing a solution to the problem. Moreover, don’t suggest that axing funding all together is the way forward just because you happen to lack the imagination to fix the problem. The phrase “where there’s a will, there’s a way” jumps to mind. What this article smacks of is a lack of willingness more than the lack of a “way”. There could be many ways in which this problem could be fixed. Why even centralise the resources at all? Surely local resources could just be managed from a central location that’s in charge of the funds?

Returning to my main point, it’s a sad day when it’s suggested that we lessen education opportunities that genuinely help people, as opposed to proposing a solution to an addressable problem. I’d like to see this become the start of some productive dialogue and not the death of a valuable resource.

Leave a comment below or tweet me your opinions using @Sci_McInnes

  1. as of 16 May 2013 at 2000 hours.

The Public Execution of Jonah Lehrer

Yesterday Twitter whipped itself into a frenzied-bloodbath of moral-outrage; nothing new there then. But for once I was quite willing to sit down and follow the twitter feed as witty put-down and vitriolic lampooning tumbled down my screen. Why? Well because the subject was Jonah Lehrer and what seemed to be his ‘Lance Armstrong-flavoured apology’. For those that don’t know who Jonah Lehrer is or what he’s apologising for I refer you to Michael Moynihan’s exposé in Tablet and Steve Myers’ piece in Poynter. If however you’re looking for the abridged version, I’d say this: Lehrer invented quotes, lied about doing it, ignored criticism and advice regarding his mistakes and profited from it, all under the guise of being a great science communicator. In doing so he betrayed the trust of many readers and fellow science communicators. With all that said, this is not what people were getting so worked up about yesterday. All that moral-outrage took place last year. This year’s angry tweets were concerned with his lunchtime presentation at a Knight Foundation conference. (FYI the video starts at about an hour into the feed. You will need to watch this video to know what I’m talking about.)

Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer. Image credit: Kris Krüg (creative commons license)

Somewhat ironically, Knight Foundation invited Lehrer to give his presentation under the umbrella-theme of ‘decisions’ and how to avoid making poor ones but at the same time allowing Lehrer a platform to talk about what he’d done. So far so tenuous, but we’ll proceed.

Coming to this video straight from the twitter-storm I’ll say that I don’t think I was prepared to warm to his “apology”. Yet thanks to Twitter’s ubiquitous nature I suspect that even if I just happened to catch the presentation without the backlash fresh in my mind, I would have drawn the same conclusions in due course. That is to say, the presentation ended up feeling like a 30 minute long squirming, narcissistic non-apology. It was like watching a Scooby-doo styled bad guy intellectualising the phrase “I would’ve gotten away with it…”. Lehrer is a very intelligent fellow and on the surface of things his points seem reasonable, but with a moment of reflection the presentation leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. I worried for a second that if it wasn’t for the live-feed of twitter in the corner, people in the room might actually have bought it (it’s all too easy to just listen to the content and not question it). However, Knight Foundation let an uncensored stream of tweets quietly take down the “apology” before it had even reached the Q&A section. So while Lehrer was peddling his contrived non-apology, the audience had cause to question what he was saying.

Like a bad joke following a tragedy, I suspect that Lehrer’s apology was all a bit ‘too soon’. I couldn’t take it seriously. To me it seems apparent that he hasn’t had enough time to truly think about what he’s done and I got the feeling that he’d been thinking more about how to ‘come back’ as opposed to considering his mistakes properly. Reading between the lines a little, it seems that Lehrer was saying he’d do it all again if he thought he could get away with it:

…unless I hold myself accountable in public, then the lessons will not last.

He even said that if he didn’t stick to his new rules that he might “find a better way to fail”. Presumably Lehrer would rather expend his efforts inventing more and more plausible lies as opposed to just telling the truth. While Lehrer keeps a cool exterior, I think these statements are the most telling (there were quite a few other points that we could pick over too by the way, but let’s not flog a dead horse). What he implies throughout his presentation is that he doesn’t trust himself to never do this again. (Hopefully future editors take careful note of this.) It leads you to think that the only thing he’s truly sorry for, is getting caught. You might arrive at the same conclusion too by considering those quotes and also by thinking a little more deeply about his FBI story. He tried to link together his own short-comings and the thought that serious consequences can be avoided by sticking to tough new SOPs. Only, his new rules aren’t ‘tough’ SOPs but common practice in everyday journalism; basic common sense if you will. His mistakes weren’t simple oversight and accidental errors but wilful decisions taken to deceive, plagiarise and lie. All this (presumably) to sell books and further his career.

This takes us to the inescapable focus of the tweeting masses. Not only did Lehrer profit from his many lies and plagiarism but he’s profiting even now by talking about why he lied and plagiarised and how he’s (perhaps) never going to do it again. $20,000 (US dollars) for less than an hour’s presentation was, as it turns out, compensation for today’s charade. Knight Foundation wasted a lot of money today for a presentation that was, in my opinion, disingenuous and ultimately embarrassing for both parties. A costly price to pay. Though I’m left asking myself if $20K isn’t the only price the Knight Foundation will pay for today’s little chit-chat? Whilst money can be recouped from generous investors, credibility is a much rarer commodity and I think that they may well have just given up more than they bargained for.

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?

Science Daily: Planet ‘devoured in Secret’ By Its Own Sun – Scientific Forefront

Had some interesting lunch time reading there. I’m sure several people have spoken about WASP-12b before (in fact I think I may have originally heard about it through a Discovery Channel documentary) but this is a nice bit of astrochemistry accompanying a pretty picture. It made me think of a person “scarfing” down their meal whilst they hide it behind their arm and huddle over the plate. Check it out.

Science Daily: Planet ‘devoured in Secret’ By Its Own Sun – Scientific Forefront.

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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