Darwin online

Good to see that the complete works of Charles Darwin, one of the greatest scientists, are being published online by Cambridge University. Darwin Online features many newly transcribed or never-before-published manuscripts and is worth anyone's time to browse around for a while. The great English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) revolutionized our understanding of life on earth.

"The idea is to make these important works as accessible as possible; some people can only get at Darwin that way," said Dr John van Wyhe, the project's director. "It is astonishing to see the notebook that Darwin had in his pocket as he walked around the Galapagos - the scribbled notes that he took as he clambered over the lava," said Randal Keynes, the great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin.

Darwin Online is educational and non-profit. Darwin Online received a grant of £286,000 (or $530,000) to fund the research and activities that produced the website. This funding ends in October 2008. Why not head over to the site and donate a little cash to advance the project?

21st Century science - dumbed down?

Arguments continue over science education in the UK.

Twenty First Century Science is a suite of new GCSE science courses for 14- to 16-year-olds and all schools in the UK can start the courses from September 2006. Schools can continue to offer separate Chemistry, Physics, and Biology courses.

Critics such as Sir Richard Sykes (rector of Imperial College London) is among many attack the new qualification. He warned a "dumbed down syllabus" may stop those who did not study chemistry, physics and biology individually from getting into good universities. Sir Richard Sykes stated on BBC News: "If you wish to have a dumbed-down syllabus for the general population that's fine. But for those who really want to go on and study a subject in depth, and particularly go to a good university like Imperial, then they'll never get there unless they study the individual subjects and take A-levels in these individual subjects." He wrote in a report from the Institute of Ideas think tank that: "A science curriculum based on encouraging pupils to debate science in the news is taking a back-to-front approach... Science should inform the news agenda, not the other way round."

David Perks who is head of physics at Graveney School in London, describes the changes as a "dumbing down" of the subject in a critical essay published by the Institute of Ideas (it is this essay that triggered the argument).

Baroness Mary Warnock said: "What counts as an issue to be debated in class is largely, as David Perks points out, dictated by the press. Far too much teaching at school has already degenerated into this kind of debate, more suitable for the pub than the school room."

However, not unexpectedly, the UK Department for Education and Skills said the qualification would be academically rigorous while encouraging more young people to consider studying science post-16. The British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Royal Societyseem to support the new course.

This project began because the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) was asked by the government to explore ways to modernise the science curriculum which was criticised in some quarters. Pilot course started in September 2003 at about 80 pilot schools.

The BBC article on this topic has some interesting reader responses!

University of Reading in the UK to close Physics Department

The Institute of Physics announced its regret at the decision of the University of Reading to close its Physics Department. The Institute of Physics science director, Peter Main said, on learning of the impending closure of the 33-strong department, “University vice-chancellors are operating in an environment that is controlled by the choices of seventeen-year old students. Funding follows student numbers and so the future of Britain’s science base rests on the university choices of sixth-formers. In addition, laboratory-based subjects are not adequately funded. This is a clear example of market failure. The government has to realise that its aspirations for science, set out in the chancellor’s “Next steps” programme following the March budget, will not happen unless they look again at how university departments are funded; the current model disadvantages laboratory-based subjects, especially physics”.

Robert Kirby-Harris, the Institute’s chief executive, commented, “Contrary to many reports, physics is not a declining discipline; undergraduate numbers have increased over the last few years - although not in line with the overall increase in university student numbers. Measures are in place to try to increase further student numbers and there is some evidence that they are starting to work - closing a department now would seem to be short-sighted and sends out the wrong messages”.

“Most importantly, the skills of physicists are crucial to research in disciplines as important as health sciences, environmental research and energy”, he went on, “There are universities without a physics department that have many physicists teaching and doing research. If physics departments close who will train the next generation of these vital researchers?”

This follows the University of Newcastle's closure of Physics a couple of years ago, and a number of high profile decisions to close Chemistry Departments in the UK in recent years. It is not clear what the UK's policy is on university science. In a nutshell, Professor Main is saying that despite the fact that the UK needs scientists, university funding follows the whim of school pupils, and how can that be right?

The Institute of Physics is one of the organisations that is working with the Higher Education Funding Council for England on ways to increase physics uptake. The funding council is said to be exploring with a group of universities in the South East of England, including Reading, how to make physics more sustainable.


Royal Society gives access to 340 years of landmark science

The complete archive of the Royal Society journals, including some of the most significant scientific papers ever published since 1665, is to be made freely available electronically for the first time until 2007.

The archive contains seminal research papers including accounts of Michael Faraday's groundbreaking series of electrical experiments, Isaac Newton's invention of the reflecting telescope, and the first research paper published by Stephen Hawking.

The Society's online collection, which until now only extended back to 1997, contains every paper published in the Royal Society journals from the first ever peer-reviewed scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions in 1665, to the most recent addition, Interface.

You can register for free. So now, for a time at least, you can read free of charge some extraordinary historical documents. Here are a few examples:

  • On the Constitution of the Atmosphere by John Dalton
  • On the Action of Radium Emanations on Diamond by William Crookes
  • The Separation of the Most Volatile Gases from Air without Liquefaction by James Dewar
  • On the Compressibilities of Oxygen, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, and Carbonic Oxide between One Atmosphere and Half an Atmosphere of Pressure, and on the Atomic Weights of the Elements Concerned.--Preliminary Notice by Lord Rayleigh

Note: this facility seems to have been withdrawn?


GoElemental! is an interactive open-air project in the city of Bath in the UK based around the periodic table of elements 6pm - 9pm, from the 17-19th December 2004. It is at St Michael's Square, opposite the Little Theatre Cinema, Bath, BA1 1SP, UK.

The work takes the format of a three-day interactive animation, to be projected onto a wall opposite the Little Cinema in St Michael's Square. Using their mobile phones, the audience will be able to text an element's name to a number provided at the show to find out where that element is used and what it does. On receiving the request, the projection will change and show a humorous or exciting animation of their chosen element.

GoElemental intends to whet people's curiosity about the scientific chemical elements, and introduce them to their everyday uses in an accessible and fun way. The idea behind the project is to spark a sense of wonder about the world around us.

GoElemental has been developed by Kerry Bradshaw, an MA student at Bath Spa University college, in collaboration with James Grierson from the Science department at Oxford Community school, and Peter Bradshaw, based in San Francisco, USA.

Osmium tetroxide bomb

The BBC report that UK and US intelligence agents foiled a chemical bomb plot in the UK. Apparently the plot was involves detonating a combination of explosive and osmium tetraoxide, [OsO4].

The target is thought to be in crowded areas, possibly within a confined area, perhaps in London. The plotters apparently did not obtain any of the tetroxide, perhaps because it costs around UK pounds 100 per gram!

Not totally clear why osmium tetroxide was chosen. Certainly it is unpleasant, corrosive, toxic, irritant, volatile, and a stain. It reacts with alkenes - hence the staining properties, and must be handled properly in the lab.

Athlete's foot drug: treatment for Alzheimer's

The Daily Telegraph web site is carrying a story indicating a possible treatment for Alzheimer's.

Quote:"A drug that is used in the treatment of athlete's foot could be used to treat Alzheimer's disease, according to a new study by British doctors.

The study, by a team from University College, London, found that clioquinol, a drug that is also used to treat ear infections and indigestion, can almost halt the progression of Alzheimer's.

It discovered that clioquinol, which was developed 100 years ago, is able to absorb the zinc and copper atoms that concentrate in the brains of Alzheimer's sufferers before dementia sets in.
Prana Technology, an Australian drug firm, provided clioquinol for the first small trial. "

Reactive Reports

You might be interested in Reactive Reports - a web-based Chemistry Magazine. Reactive Reports provides the chemistry community with "cutting edge reports of exciting developments in the world of the chemical sciences and related fields" and is written by David Bradley who is based at Cambridge in the UK.


John Dalton

The BBC has a good article about John Dalton on its site. In 1803 John Dalton demonstrated that atoms must exist - and so set chemistry to become a modern science. He formulated a way to denote chemical elements and their compounds. This enabled science to gain an understanding of the properties and interactions of different substances.

His standing in society of the time is astonishing. While still alive, a statue was erected in 1838 in Manchester in the UK by public subscription. It cost 2,000 guineas. For the time this was a vast amount of money. When he died, Manchester gave him a huge funeral. It is said that 40,000 people filed by his coffin.

John Dalton 1766-1844 (born Eaglesfield, Cumberland, England)

Sheffield Chemdex gets a revamp

The Sheffield Chemdex underwent a change that was required for several reasons. You can use Chemdex to find links to many thousands of chemistry sites on the WWW, and also you can post suggestions for new links directly on to the site. The revamp continues


WebElements: the periodic table on the WWW [http://www.webelements.com/]

Copyright 1993-2011 Mark Winter [The University of Sheffield and WebElements Ltd, UK]. All rights reserved.