Guest post by Antony Williams, chemconnector.com
Jean-Claude Bradley was a chemist, an evangelist for open science and the father of a scientific movement called Open Notebook Science (ONS). JC, as he was commonly known in scientific circles, was a motivational speaker and in his gentle manner encouraged us to consider that science would benefit from more openness. Extending the practice of open access publishing to open data, JC emphasized the practice of making the entire primary record of a research project publicly available online, primarily using wiki-type environments, and in so doing set the direction for what will likely become an increasingly common path to releasing data and scientific progress to the world.
I first met JC as a PhD student at Ottawa University, Canada, when I was the NMR facility manager and was responsible for scientists and students in their research. JC entered my lab one day to ask for support in elucidating the chemical structure for one of his samples and what began that day was a scientific relationship and friendship spanning over two decades. As one of the founders of the ChemSpider platform now hosted by the Royal Society of Chemistry, JC and I reinvigorated our friendship around a drive to increase openness of chemistry data, access to tools and systems to support chemistry, and simply to make a difference.
From too many conversations I know that some of the basic tenets of his views were shunned by many scientists in the early days of his shift towards ONS. Despite people being interested in his approach only a fractional minority of scientists fully supported ONS by being active participants. Through his activities in curating and validating scientific data, engaging chemical vendors in opening some of their datasets, and his demand that everything he did in science be open, he has produced a legacy that will continue to have influence for years to come. Right now, data he released to the public domain is being worked up into open models for release to the community. The Spectral Game that he dedicated efforts to will be supported and enhanced to assist in teaching spectroscopy. In recognition of his work and to celebrate JC’s contribution to science, a memorial symposium will be held in his honour at Cambridge University on 14 July and, of course, is OPEN to everyone.
Jean-Claude Bradley was a scientific leader, an evangelist for open science and a wonderful man. He will be missed but his legacy will survive and flourish.
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Guest post from Lauren Tedaldi, Sense About Science
Have you noticed plastic products labelled as ‘BPA-free’*, heard that Coca-Cola recently removed a specific vegetable oil from its US products** or do you remember the time when there were no blue smarties***? When companies change the way they produce common, long-standing products, we reasonably assume that they have good reasons for doing so: we all know the adage ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ right? In reality, companies can be forced to act on the modified version: ‘If enough people think it’s broken— even if there is no evidence that it is—then you’d better fix it if you want to keep selling it.’
Consumer pressure is a force to be reckoned with. Owing in large part to the internet, consumers now have more access to information than ever before. People can search almost every online discussion ever had about a particular product or additive before making a decision. While this has the potential benefit of making people better informed, the flip-side is that the internet and media are littered with misconceptions, myths and pure fallacies, which come up time and time again. For example, the idea that you can live a ‘chemical-free’ life is used by many food-producers; and ‘natural ingredients’ is used as a synonym for ‘good’ in cosmetics and toiletries. But every single thing you come into contact with is made from chemicals: your book, your iPad, yourself! What’s more, not all naturally occurring substances are good for you: the pesticide strychnine, the highly toxic poison for which there is no antidote, is entirely natural – it’s isolated from the strychnine tree.
At Sense About Science, we spend more of our time responding to chemical scare stories, helping journalists pre-empt this narrative, than almost any other single issue. We regularly work with scientists frustrated at the hype around their research. This has changed relatively little over the 10-plus years we’ve been working to tackle chemical myths (Making sense of chemical stories was first launched in 2006). There has been some change: beauty journalists are now more aware and seek advice from a toxicologist or cosmetics scientist more often; and we regularly see detox diets and products debunked across national press and magazines. But we continue to see high profile chemical scares hitting the headlines.
When we see recurring misinformation we respond with our public guides. Teachers and midwives and others who are helping people cut through the noise, as well as journalists and policy makers – who the original guide was written for – have been requesting copies of the guide. So on 19 May 2014 we launched a new edition of Making sense of chemical stories. By capturing insights from the chemists and dieticians who developed the guide, we address six common chemical myths. Armed with these six points, anyone can critique the chemical stories they see:
- You can’t lead a chemical-free life
- Natural isn’t always good for you and man-made chemicals are not inherently dangerous
- Synthetic chemicals are not causing many cancers and other diseases
- “Detox” is a marketing myth
- We need man-made chemicals
- We are not just subjects in an unregulated, uncontrolled environment, there are checks in place
In the guide, we look at common consumer issues to debunk widespread myths. Why are labels such as ‘no artificial ingredients’ or ‘additive free’ seen as good things on our products? Dr Paul Illing, a toxicologist, talks about why additives in food are useful in some cases:
‘Additives have been around for centuries. Many agents that are essential for commercial food preparation and storage have their analogues in the kitchen. Caramel (E150a), a colouring agent, can be made at home by heating sugar. Some additives are clearly beneficial: in 1941 calcium was added to flour to prevent rickets; and antioxidants (necessary to prevent the fats in all prepared foods involving meat or pastry from going rancid) include ascorbic acid (vitamin C, E300) and the tocopherols (vitamin E, E306-309).’
The guide highlights to consumers that products are not inherently better just because they don’t contain additives.
Professor Danka Tamburic, a specialist in cosmetic science, goes on to explain that we also need certain additives in cosmetics:
‘Most cosmetics and toiletries contain water, hence make a good substrate for growing microbes (eg bacteria or fungi). Proper preservation of cosmetics and toiletries is a necessity, not a choice. Bacterial cells are too small for the naked eye to detect, but if there are enough of them in the product, they may cause skin infections and other problems, especially if the skin is already damaged (cut, bruised or sore). Contaminated products could cause ye infections and, in extreme cases, blindness.’
We urge people, next time you are thinking about paying more for something simply because it’s ‘additive-free’, ‘100% natural’, or ‘detoxifying’, you might want to stop and think whether it’s worth paying a premium for a chemical misconception.
*Bis-phenol A (BPA) is a chemical that is used in manufacturing clear rigid plastic, like water bottles, and there is no compelling evidence that the level of exposure from plastic bottles and packaging is damaging to health
**Coca-Cola has removed brominated vegetable oil (BVO) from its US products (it is not in their European products) owing to consumer pressure. BVO is often incorrectly linked to the toxicity and accumulation data from brominated flame retardants
***Nestlé removed the colouring Brilliant Blue (E133) and replaced it with a natural colourant called spirulina after consumer pressure to go ‘artificial additive-free’. There is no strong evidence for a link between E133 and hyperactivity, and spirulina itself has adverse effects at high concentrations. However, it is often preferred as the natural choice
What do molecules sound like? In chemistry, we rarely take advantage of the full panoply of senses available to most humans. Although, as Phillip Ball wrote in January this year that ‘chemistry is the most sensuous science … vision, taste and smell have always been among the chemist’s key analytical tools’, we now sensibly avoid using one of these (molecular gastronomists aside, I’m not aware of a lab that encourages tasting of samples) and rarely, if ever, take advantage of our other senses: touch and hearing.
For researcher David Watts, the idea of listening to organic molecules had been ‘languishing in a notebook’ since he first visualised compounds as tiny stringed instruments. As each molecule has a vibrational signature, it should be possible to convert them to characteristic musical tones. David realised that data from Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) should provide all the necessary information, ‘the frequency and amplitude of absorption in the bonds’, albeit in the wrong format for direct conversion to sound. He designed a second step to create audible sound waves from those vibrations. ‘If an inverse Fourier transform is performed then the FTIR spectrum can be converted into the time/amplitude domain and the vibrations of the molecules heard.’
You can hear his results online at The sounds of chemical molecules. The sounds themselves vary between a telephone tone and the sort of discordant sounds used to create tension in budget science fiction, but making beautiful music was never the aim. This was part curiosity and part proof of principle, but Watts can already see a number of applications.
‘Having the sound of a molecule allows you to perceive it using our auditory sense,’ he told Chemistry World. ‘This alone in my view justifies the experiment.’ Most people, except perhaps those with perfect pitch, would not be able to discern structural/functional information from a static tone, but Watts argues that this isn’t the point – sound adds an additional element to a researcher’s relationship with molecules. ‘Maybe this auditory chemical perception ability can be learnt with practice and be useful for organic chemists as an additional way for them to connect or understand their molecules. A particularly interesting idea is in the auditory monitoring of a chemical reaction, maybe an online FTIR monitoring system could provide reaction progress feedback or offer insight into reactions and their intermediate states. The use of the extra sense of hearing allows you to watch and perform an experiment whilst listening to its progress.’
Giving a voice to a molecule is fairly straightforward. ‘Sounds can be created for any molecule providing a digital spectrum is available,’ says Watts. Although the exact applications are still unclear, it may be wise to start compiling the music of the molecules now, so that we’re ready when those uses do become apparent. ‘In my opinion, the auditory representation of the molecule should be obtained for all molecules and included in online databases as extra information for familiarization purposes and potential future uses,’ says Watts.
As a proof of concept, Watts’ demo proves that accessing an additional sense is well within the realms of possibility. The sine waves he generates may be somewhat grating, and I’m not sure I could bring myself to listen to them throughout the process of a reaction, but they’re just a first step. Next would be to find a waveform that is more pleasing to the ear, or modulate it with additional data. Perhaps temperature could set a rhythm, syncopated by pressure. Soon, we could all be dancing to a molecular melody.
How a computational chemist and an understanding of water helped a coffee shop owner to become the 2014 UK Barista Champion, set to take on the world. Guest post by Chris Hendon.
Brewing coffee might be the most practiced chemical extraction in the world. But within this process there are many variables, all of which dictate the flavour of the resulting coffee. I’ve summarised just a few of them here:
|Bean origin||Not all beans have the same chemical composition.|
|Bean roast||The chemical composition of the coffee bean changes throughout the roasting process.|
|Size of coffee grindings||A consistent particle size is important as the higher the surface area, the faster the extraction.|
|Dry mass of coffee grindings||A different extraction composition.|
|Temperature of extraction||The temperature dictates both the rate and composition of the extraction.|
|Pressure of extraction||Has a similar effect as temperature.|
|Time of extraction||Increasing extraction time allows for a greater extraction.|
|The water||This variable is less obvious, but it is clear that the chemical composition of water (i.e. dissolved ions) play a very important role.|
Analysis of extracted coffee by gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS) suggests that the average coffee bean contains upwards of 500 chemical compounds, excluding all of the heavy cellular material. Of this complex array, the bean is primarily a mixture of weakly acidic molecules, and the weaker acids are more desirable. A ‘bad coffee’ can be the result of any combination of the aforementioned variables going awry.
Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood, 2014 UK Barista Champion and co-owner of the specialty coffee shop Colonna and Small’s, in Bath, UK, carefully controls most of these variables. He grinds beans to a consistent particle size, weighs the dry mass, uses a constant temperature and pressure for extraction (which he dials in for each bean on the day), and defines the extraction by the mass of the extracted coffee. However, it’s almost impossible for him to control the chemical composition of the incident water. Water’s ionic content fluctuates dramatically depending on region and quantity of rain – and it rains a lot in England. The coffee industry has designed some ways to deal with this problem, with filtration units and vague guidelines on what chemical composition to aim for.
The coffee industry has concluded that an ionic concentration of 150–300 parts per million (ppm) is ideal for coffee extraction. But that is inherently flawed; water could contain 150ppm of HCl and would certainly not taste very nice. Conversely, water could contain 150ppm of NaHCO3, which might make you burp as the acid/base reaction in your stomach rapidly releases gaseous CO2. So in search of the perfect coffee, it would be wrong to accept these guidelines without some thought as to the impact of different chemical compositions. Unfortunately, not every local barista has access to an atomic absorption spectrometer (we do). Instead this measurement is often collected (if at all) using an ionic conductivity probe, which makes two absolutely fatal assumptions:
- The ratio between dissolved ions (Ca2+, Mg2+, Na+, H+, HCO3-, CO32- etc) is approximately constant
- The ionic conductivity of all ions is approximately the same
Both of these statements are incorrect. For instance, in Bath there is much more Ca2+ present than Mg2+ (approximately 300ppm:5ppm, respectively); but in Melbourne the Ca2+:Mg2+ ratio is approximately 20ppm:20ppm. Secondly, the conductivity of an ion is dependent on, among other things, the size and charge of the ion.
Colonna-Dashwood is certainly right in challenging this accepted guideline, but what interaction do these molecules have with coffee particulates and more importantly, does it even matter?
Yes. It matters, a lot.
As is often the case in science, it was an element of serendipidy that brought me into the picture. I’m a computational chemist at the University of Bath, and overheard this discussion while waiting for my coffee. I thought I might be able to contribute to the problem, at very least help to rationalize this in terms of quantum mechanics. I had learned from fundamental chemistry that electron-rich motifs interact with electron deficient motifs. Essentially all molecules in coffee feature a heteroatom (an electron-rich motif), which should interact strongly with dissolved cations in water. Dissolved anions may act as bases, but are not expected to interact with coffee particulates. Thus, water with a high cationic concentration should facilitate a greater extraction of flavorsome notes in coffee. Along with Maxwell and his partner Lesley, we’ve recently published our results.
The world of coffee is an unusual place. As mentioned earlier, Maxwell is the 2014 UK Barista Champion. To be crowned this, you must submit an espresso, a cappuccino and a signature drink to a panel of four judges. You have 15 minutes to do so, and are judged on knowledge of the coffee, your overall presentation and cleanliness, flavour, technical ability and so on. Armed with the knowledge gleaned from our research into the interactions of ions in solutions, I designed different waters for different extractions, to bring out different flavours. This was particularly intriguing for the signature drink which featured an espresso shot mixed with two grape extracts brewed in different water – one with high cation content, one with high base content – to extract different flavours from the grapes. With this victory (for science, I like to think), we are now headed to the world barista championships in Rimini, Italy, June 8–12. I hope that our artillery of scientific knowledge will see Maxwell becoming the 2014 World Barista Champion.
If you find yourself in Bath and fancy a coffee, I would highly recommend you head down to Colonna and Small’s to see and taste the result in person, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. At very least, you can use this story to prove that work really does get done in the coffee shop.
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In the wake of AstraZeneca’s (AZ) stout rebuttal of Pfizer’s overtures to a takeover bid, media all over the place are reporting the ‘disappointing’ news that AZ’s share price has ‘tumbled’. In my opinion this is typical of the short-memory effect that looking at share prices seems to somehow bestow on even some quite sensible people.
Look at the facts and circumstances – AZ has just been subject of speculation over a possible takeover. This inevitably leads to an increase in the share price as speculators look to take advantage of the premium price that any bid is bound to offer, or the rising price in the build-up (partly caused by demand arising from their own speculation).
Once the possibility of that short-term gain is removed – in this case by AZ shutting the door in Pfizer’s face – the price will inevitably go down, as those short-term investors seek to cash in their holdings and go off elsewhere in search of another stock that’s on the rise.
But here’s the important bit. AZ’s share price is still significantly higher than it was in the middle of April, before all this talk started. The only people who have actually lost money are the ones who bought their shares after 25 April, and sold them yesterday or today.
— Pfizer (red) and AZ (blue) over the last month (from Google finance)
It is slightly more revealing to look at Pfizer’s share price over the last couple of months, which overall is significantly down. This wasn’t helped by some decidedly mediocre sales figures in the company’s quarterly announcement at the beginning of May. And the further Pfizer’s price falls, the less valuable that combined cash-and-stock offer becomes.
Challenges in Organic Chemistry, ISACS14, to be held in Shanghai, China, this August, follows the success of ISACS1, in 2010, and ISACS7, in 2012, and will feature experts in the field of organic chemistry and synthesis.
Two weeks after ISACS14, Challenges in Nanoscience, ISACS15, is taking place in San Diego in the US. It will bring together scientists from across the world to discuss the latest advances in nanoscience and will encompass a broad range of disciplines, including chemistry, biology, physics and engineering.
Talks from leading experts in both fields are complimented by extensive poster sessions that will provide many networking opportunities. To take advantage of this opportunity to showcase your latest research alongside leading scientists submit your poster abstract by 2 June for ISACS 14 and by 9 June for ISACS15. The winning poster will be chosen by the ISACS scientific committee and each winner will be awarded a prize of £250 and a Chemistry World mug .
Last week I attended the British Science Association’s Science Communication Conference in Guildford, Surrey. The conference explored a number of avenues, from the role of design and data visualisation through to the relevance of the whole academic field of science communication. As you might expect for a conference populated almost entirely by communicators, there was as much discussion on twitter (under the umbrella of #SciComm14) as there was in person.
— Austin Frakt (@afrakt) April 28, 2014
This tweet gained instant traction. It demonstrates neatly that in order to understand scientific reporting, one must first learn to speak the language of science. The image comes from a 2011 feature in Physics Today on communicating the science of climate change.
There are arguments for and against using ‘accessible’ alternatives, depending in part on the desired outcome of your communication. In a more formal educational setting, for example, it may be best to use these ambiguous words along with their scientific definition, so that they can be used in their full scientific context in future. Conversely, some words are tainted by association – chemical and nuclear both have negative connotations, so a push towards their scientific use may help to break that stigma. Whatever good intentions one has, insisting that ‘the public’ use ambiguous language in a certain way seems patronising and ultimately doomed to fail (after all, we still hear that evolution is ‘only a theory’). Protecting scientific language in this way may, therefore, reinforce the dividing line between ‘scientists’ and ‘the public’.
Thinking that now would be a good time to extend this list, I asked what other words people would like to see added.
— Kirsty Jean Jackson (@kjjscience) May 2, 2014
This was a very good start. Control is a word with a number of definitions and wide breadth of meanings. The person in charge is ‘in control’, you might ‘take control’ of your career or fly a remote control aeroplane for a hobby. Conversely, an abusive partner is ‘controlling’ and a fire may become ‘out of control’. This emotionally weighted word means something very different to scientists; usually a variable that is kept constant to allow researchers to see the true effect of an experiment or model.
More suggestions came in throughout the conference:
.@BenValsler I also wondered if mutant should be on there too. People often think ninja turtles.
— Kirsty Jean Jackson (@kjjscience) May 2, 2014
@BenValsler towards the maths end there are loads eg implies. Public – suggests, insinuates; better – logically causes
— William Morgan (@wjsm) May 2, 2014
@BenValsler estimate – guess – ?
— IanManning (@IanGManning) May 2, 2014
— Eva Amsen (@easternblot) May 2, 2014
— Ginny Smith (@GinnyFBSmith) May 2, 2014
I’ve put these into a table, along with my suggested alternatives. Can you add some more of your own? Put them in the comments below and I’ll update the table over time.
|Scientific term||Public meaning||Alternative choice|
|Control||Exert influence over||Comparison|
|Implies||Insinuates, suggests||Leads to|
|Protein||Dietary category||Amino acid chain|
|Nuclear||Energy or weapon||?|
|Vacuum||Suction or cleaner||Absence of anything|
|Elements||Weather||Types of atoms|
|Experiment||Play around with||Test|
|Expression||Turn of phrase||?|
|Stress||Tension, worry||Forces (in physics)|
|Significance||Relevance, importance||Measure of likelihood|
|Base||Solid foundation, lair||Alkaline|
It’s spring. It’s the end of the financial year for many companies. And it’s the time of year when a lot of them hold annual shareholders’ meetings, so there’s a certain temptation to make announcements that will excite shareholders (or maybe that’s just me being cynical). Some or all of those things may be contributing to the media and rumour mills working overtime about mergers and acquisitions in the pharmaceutical and chemical sectors.
— It seems to be open season for pharma deals, but how many of them will actually go through?
For the last few years, things have been rather quiet in terms of pharma megamergers – in which already large companies crash together in the hope of finding ‘efficiency savings’ and ‘synergies’. Most of the more recent deals have been big companies snapping up smaller startups to acquire specific products or technologies that fit with their priorities. A lot of analysts and industry commentators have been making noises along the lines of ‘pharma has learned its lesson: megamergers cause a lot of disruption for not much overall gain’.
But then, in February, consultancy firm McKinsey put out a report that essentially said, ‘you know what, those mergers did actually do something positive, they “resulted in positive returns for shareholders”’. Whether or not this is a good thing for the overall health of the firms, and of their R&D pipelines is another discussion entirely.
The most recent deal that’s actually been confirmed seems to fit this model – Novartis, GlaxoSmithKline and Eli Lilly have agreed to a roughly $25 billion (£15 billion) three-way asset shuffle in an attempt to focus on what they’re best at, and slim down their sidelines.
It’s all getting a bit hostile
Then there’s Valeant pharmaceuticals gunning for Allergan, the makers of Botox (onabotulinum toxin A). Rather than engage in expensive and risky R&D, Valeant has built up its business by buying established products and squeezing all the value it can out of them. Last week, Valeant revealed that it had teamed up with activist investor Bill Ackman and launched a hostile bid to try and buy up Allergan’s shares. If it goes through, the deal would be worth somewhere in the region of $47 billion.
In response, Allergan has activated a ‘poison pill’ defence, which gives other shareholders rights to purchase additional shares if a single party builds up more than a 10% share in the company, weakening the aggressor’s ability to force a deal through. Allergan’s board has indicated that it might not be averse to a deal with Valeant, but doesn’t want to be bullied into a quick decision without making sure the terms are right.
From the point of view of Ackman, this is a slightly unusual alliance. It is much more common for an activist investor to build up an influential share in a target company, then try and force the board to sell (or otherwise influence the company’s strategic direction), rather than to team up with a prospective buyer.
Boxing with the big boys
There’s also Pfizer and AstraZeneca (AZ). The UK’s second largest pharma firm has confirmed that the world’s biggest drugmaker made a surreptitious pass at a merger deal late last year. AZ politely but firmly gave Pfizer the brush-off, but the behemoth is reportedly coming in with a second, much more brazenly public, offer. But AZ appears not to be for turning. As far as its board is concerned, AZ’s future is as an independent company – perhaps even a slimmed down version of today’s AZ that will follow GSK and Novartis’s lead, and ‘focus on what [it does] well’, in the words of chief executive Pascal Soriot. Whether the door is truly closed, or these are just the opening gambits in a long and drawn out battle, we must wait and see. But there are plenty of people who don’t share Pfizer’s confidence that the deal is such a good idea.
Smoke and mirrors
— Coverage of business deals can get a bit like a game of Chinese whispers © Shutterstock
And then there are the more nebulous and speculative announcements. According to the rumour mill, US giant Merck & Co has been touting its over-the-counter medicines business for several months. A story from Reuters suggests that German firm Bayer and UK-based Reckitt Benckiser are vying to get in on the action, with a price tag somewhere in the region of $14 billion. Reckitt is already well established in the consumer products market, and, if a Bloomberg story is to be believed, Bayer is looking to divest its Material Science polymers division (with Evonik the potential buyer) and focus on healthcare, which would raise around $10 billion for acquisitions. That might follow the pattern of focusing on your core area within the industry, but it would certainly be a big change in direction for Bayer. Needless to say, none of these companies is saying anything official just yet.
Stories of this nature are always credited to ‘people with knowledge of the matter’ or other such disguised sources. That always makes me wonder just exactly how much ‘knowledge of the matter’ those sources actually have. Deals of this magnitude don’t happen quickly – there’s a whole lot of ‘due diligence’ to go through. Each company needs to check out the other’s claims and proposals, then there’s the twists and turns of political manoeuvring and boardroom negotiations. So there are opportunities for the right people to get hold of information.
But there are equally a lot of people who might gain from these nuggets of ‘information’. News outlets get to write breathlessly speculative pieces with sensational headlines; investors are happy because these disclosures often bump up share prices. While the chemists carry on working in labs and plants, with a growing sense of dread about whether their job will even exist next year.
And we’re still really no closer to knowing – is there a fire in the pharmaceutical sector, or is it all just smoke and mirrors?
Phillip Broadwith, Business editor