Chemistry Blog

Dec 08

Curiosity and distress



I had a particularly low period during my post-doc career, nothing seemed to be working.  The days of failed experiments stretched into weeks and then months, with no end is site.

About that time I came across a quote (from the zoologist Marston Bates), that mirrored my mode

Research is the process of going up alleys to see if they are blind.

At first this seemed like a dark description of the scientific method that chimed with the distress I felt after yet another fruitless week in the lab. It conjured up an image of a lost scientist wondering down one street after another, repeatedly hitting dead-ends and having to double back to the point where he started. And as a result achieving nothing for his efforts.

That evening I nursed a beer whilst dwelling on the quote and considering my options. Maybe research science wasn’t for me after all. Perhaps I should try something that felt less like wondering around in the dark. And then it occurred to me that Marston may have left a word out. Perhaps the quote should read

Research is the process of, systematically, going up alleys to see if they are blind.

If I treated every failure as a setback, as I was doing at the time, then I was without hope of reaching my goal. But that one word changed everything, no longer was I haphazardly wondering around trying to find my way out of a maze. Instead I became a cartographer plotting the possibilities and marking off the blind alleys.

That moment represented a sea change in my thinking, it is a moment that I often look back on as a fork point in my life, without that light bulb moment I may well have remained in the dark and taken a completely different career path.

But despite this moments importance I couldn’t quite label what had happened. Until I came across a piece within Merck’s Curiosity report. It described the four traits of the curious. The first three seemed obvious, and I imagine they are words that would crop up regularly when folks are asked to described characteristics of the curious. They are inquisitive, creative problem solvers and open minded. The fourth trait I hadn’t considered before, but it is the one I now recognize as having germinated in my mind as a result of Bate’s quote; distress tolerance, the ability to cope in difficult and anxious situations.

And it’s the lack of distress tolerance that can put the kibosh on curiosity, the most creative, open-minded and inquiring person will come to naught if they give up when things get tough.

Which leads on to my next challenge… These days I spend a significant amount of my time out of the lab, communicating science. I direct a science festival, I go out and about to schools and public arenas.  Why? Well in no small part I’m trying to inspire people to be creative, inquisitive and open minded. But maybe that isn’t enough, do I need to introduce distress tolerance to my science festival?

But how to do that?

Should I focus on tales of failure as much as the rare successes? After all science is full of things that don’t work, the eureka (or even the ‘oh good’) moments are the rarity. But when we communicate our science we invariably showcase the things that work and gloss over the mass of experiments that didn’t produce the result we hoped for.

And if we only ever present the good stuff, how will folks react when they get into the lab or out into the fields and discover that actually stuff, largely, doesn’t work? Somehow I doubt that a workshop filled with demos that don’t work isn’t going to draw the crowds, but stories might? Tales that celebrate stresses and challenges of science and the stuff that doesn’t work, the ideas that proved fruitless, the broken kit and the pitiful yields, would people come and listen to those?

So here’s my aim. I’m going to try and bring narratives, to my science festival, that highlight the challenges and the way we overcome them, but equally as important the ways we don’t. There are some really great examples of this sort of thing out there already. Story Collider, is full of them (Stories about stressful situations), Maryam Zaringhalam writes about failure at Scientific American, she has even started a  forum for scientist to recount their failures (by her own admission it’s a flop). And then there’s F*#$up nights where folks recount their greatest screw-ups to the assembled audiences.

Watch this space, watch me fail 😉

 

 

Full disclouse …  Merck asked me to join their  Curiosity Initiative, which consists of science and technology-based opinion leaders. It was established by Merck to seek connections between scientific research and the underlying question: Why Curiosity? There really is some interesting stuff in their curiosity report, so do take a look. Merck is known as Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany in the United States.

Oct 05

The Secret Science of Superheroes — the origin story



Remember that League of Extraordinary Scientists? You know, the one’s that wrote a book about superheroes in a weekend. Well their Herculean efforts have come to fruition. The Secret Science of Superheroes (published by the Royal Society of Chemistry) is out now and this is what it is where it came from …


If you are going to enjoy a superhero movie (or more pretty much any action film for that matter) you’ve got to be able to suspend disbelief. Especially, for those of us that have a scientific bent. There’s just too much that is just plain impossible and if we whinged about every little detail that wasn’t quite correct we’d sure as hell annoy anyone else trying to enjoy the escapism of a fantasy flick with us. I learnt that particular lesson from my little brother after he hit me because of my incessant complaining about the physical inaccuracies of Road Runner cartoons. I grew out to it, eventually. Or at least learnt to kept my over thinking of animations to myself.

So this book is not about picking holes in movies. Although that is fun … OK, let’s do that a little and get it out of the the way now.

First off spaceships don’t need wings. Without an atmosphere the protrusions are merely decorative. And without any atmosphere there’s no need for them to bank as they turn in the vacuum of space. Plus there is precious little resistance to movement, which means that spacecraft need just as much power to slow down as they did to accelerate (which get’s handly overlooked in the movies). And why do starships always have the same orientation when they meet in space?

Lasers beams — You can’t see them from the side, unless there is something around to scatter the light — see if you can spot the beam next time you use a laser pointer. And whilst we are on the subject, laser beams don’t make ‘puchu puchu’ noises (and even if they did you won’t hear them, at least Alien got that right. Remember, in space no one can hear you scream).

Armour is no good in a crash — It doesn’t matter how much super hard material a superhero encases himself in (we’re looking at you Iron Man), you’re still going to turn to mush when spectacularly crashing into a building. What you really want is something that slows you down gently. That’s why, in the event of a collision, we like cars with airbags and crumple zones, instead of ones constructed from inflexible titanium body work.

Being hit by a bullet (let alone a weightless laser beam) won’t throw you backwards. A 9mm slug, fired from a handgun, has about the same momentum as a water balloon thrown by a child, whilst a football kicked by a professional can easily have 4–5 times the momentum of a bullet. And from my experience water fights rarely result in people getting knocked off their feet by a balloon impact, and footballers loosing their footing is more often the result of their special ability to trip over blades of grass.

All great examples of reality being suspended for the sake of drama. And we’re cool with that, because in a good movie the impossible is allowed, but the improbable isn’t (to paraphrase Aristotle with modern parlance)[1]. So we are fine with faster than light travel, fiery explosions in space (no oxygen = no fire), and laser sound effects. However indestructible metals, webslinging humans and invisibility leave us pondering how science might explain them.

So this book is about trying to suspend the improbable. It is about the ‘missing’ scenes (and science) that could be in movies and comics if what actually gets shown to use on the silver (of flat) screen had any basis in reality. Basically if we accept what we see in the movies what else must be true?
Now I could have taken a typical solitary, leisurely approach to penning this book, holed up in an office writing over months and year. But if I’ve learnt anything from superhero flicks it’s that all the best stories have teams: Give me X-men, The Justice League and the Fantastic Four over the lonely Spiderman or Batman any day. Secondly, faster is better. You never hear of a hero travelling slower than a plodding tortoise or proclaiming to be the most ponderous man alive.

No, a book about heroes needs a more rapid fire, heroic approach. Which is why I assembled a league of extraordinary scientists and set them the Herculean task of writing this book in just 36 hours. Plonked in the middle of the Manchester Science Festival and Salford University’s Science Jam, in a blur of flying fingers worthy of the Flash we cranked out over 200 pages delving into all the nitty gritty science that fascinates us but seems to have been overlooked by movie makers.

Onwards then to some of the most important questions in science. How do heroes handle big data, why did mutant super powers evolve, how might super soldiers be engineered, and just what do superheroes have for breakfast?

But before we get to that, one more thing. Scientist love to categorise things; elements go into periods and groups on a table, life get kingdoms, families and species, matter comes in phases and it goes on. We have a need to take an object or concept and give it a nice neat point on a diagram. And so inevitably, during our frenetic weekend of typing (punctuated with regular trips down rabbit holes — comics strips out of context caused much mirth, google it) a means of charting superpowers emerged. The super hero, intrinsic, extrinsic, location diagram (otherwise known as The SHEILD) also turned out to be a rather neat alternative to the conventional contents page.

Finally, a special thanks to Andy Brunning of Compound Interest fame, for the wonderful infographics that run throughout the book.

 

Image Credit: Andy Brunning

Dec 03

The Underground Map of the Elements – now with Nh, Mc, Ts & Og




What with the names of the four latest elements being confirmed I thought it time I updated the original Underground Map of the Elements. So here it is resplendent with nihomium, moscovium, organesson and tennessine! Enjoy

Underground map of the elements 2016

Link to PDF version.

Nov 24

Does stainless steel really get rid of garlic smells? Round 2.



Some time ago we put the old wives’ tale that stainless steel gets rid of garlic whiffs to the test. The results were inconclusive and with hindsight the control probably wasn’t ideal. So we are having another go, this time with the backing of the Royal Society of Chemistry and a consortium of chemistry outreach folk from the Universities of Hull, Sheffield, York, Leeds, Bradford and Huddersfield (the Yorkshire Chemistry Outreach Group).

This is where you come in

We need as many people as possible to perform a simple experiment to test whether stainless steel really is an effective odour remover.

You’ll need: A clove of garlic. A knife. A blindfold. A plastic spoon and a stainless steel table spoon of about the same size.

What to do:

  1. Wash and dry your hands (so they don’t smell of anything to start with).
  2. Slice out a piece of garlic.
  3. Rub the freshly cut garlic between your hands for about 10 seconds.
  4. Under running water, rub one palm with the back of the stainless steel spoon for about 10 seconds. Then rub the other palm with the plastic spoon, again under running water, for 10 seconds (the plastic spoon is our control experiment). Make sure you remember which hand was rubbed with which spoon.
  5. Find a willing volunteer. Ask them to close their eyes or put a blindfold on – with their eyes closed, they are less likely to notice any signals from you about which hand has had what treatment.
  6. Hold a hand under their chin (that way each hand will be the same distance from the test subjects nose) and ask them to smell it. Then do the same with the other hand.
  7. Ask them which hand smelt more strongly of garlic.
  8. Let us know whether one hand smelt more than the other, or whether they smelt the same using this survey below.

What causes the whiff?

Garlic is packed with sulfur-containing chemicals, which are responsible for its characteristic taste and odour. Allicin, in particular, is thought to be the culprit most guilty of making your hands (and breath) pong, but it’s only created when two chemicals react – the enzyme alliinase and a sulfur-containing amino acid called alliin. These are held in separate portions within the cell walls of the garlic clove and only mix when the garlic is squished.

You can try it yourself – a bulb of garlic doesn’t smell of very much at all, but slice into it and smell again. When cells are crushed, the chemical reaction converting alliinase and alliin into allicin is almost instantaneous.

And when allicin degrades, it produces even more smelly sulfurous compounds, including diallyl disulfide. These all contribute to garlic’s characteristic aroma.

The chemistry of garlic.
www.compoundchem.com

How might stainless steel banish the pong?

The scientific data on whether the stainless steel trick actually works to get rid of stinky garlic hands is sketchy – although chemistry tells us that it might well work. Stainless steel is an iron alloy with a minimum of 10.5% chromium by mass. This layer of chromium is what makes stainless steel less likely to rust, corrode or stain. Chromium forms an oxide when it is in contact with air and water, making it more durable. It’s possible that this oxide layer could help to remove unwanted smells. The idea is that the sulfur-containing chemicals left on your hands after chopping garlic may form a chemical bond to the chromium oxide and cling to the surface of the soap, not to your hands, solving the smell problem. But we don’t really know.

We’ll need plenty of tests if we are going to be sure of our results, otherwise it’s just more anecdote. And we’ll get back to you, to let you know whether it’s worth forking out for stainless steel soap soon.

Over the next few months, we’ll be asking for more help from citizen scientists to check the efficacy of tips that may make flowers live longer, peeling a boiled egg easier and extend the burning time of candles. Check out the Hit or Myth blog to find out more.

The Conversation

Mark Lorch, Professor of Science Communication and Chemistry, University of Hull and Joanna Buckley, Materials chemist and science communicator, University of Sheffield

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Aug 03

Two years in the life of a lab whiteboard


Two years ago my group and I shared a time-lapse video: A Year in the Life of a New Research Lab.  Shortly after, I picked up a new set of markers and directed the camera at our lab whiteboard. We stopped the camera last week and can now share two years in the life of our whiteboard condensed down to a 1 minute video. It contains one photo a day taken at 11:30 am for ~750 days.


 

 

Note: Some photos have been omitted due to inactivity or because there was proprietary information on the board.

Jul 12

Professor Anthony Russell Clarke  1959 – 2016


Anyone who has completed a doctoral thesis will testify to the almost parental like relationship a PhD supervisor has with their students. And so it is with great sadness that I heard my PhD supervisor Professor Anthony Russell Clarke, aged just 57, had passed away this week.

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Tony Clarke. Photo Credit. Emma Cordwell

To his friends, students and colleagues Tony Clarke was chaos incarnate. Anyone who worked with him can testify to the apparent disarray of his lab and life. The humdrum cycle of the working week didn’t impinge on Tony’s habits. For Tony there was no such thing as ‘work/life balance’, there was just Life. Sometimes the most appropriate thing to do with life was to head out to sea on his beloved boat, at other times the lab was the place to be. His wayward lifestyle made Tony a challenging person to work with; society doesn’t care for chaos, it prefers tidy plans, filed reports and scheduled meetings.

And so to many it was incredibly difficult to pinpoint how or why his group and indeed his mind worked so productively. It appeared to the outsider that disorder reigned. In fact true chaos ruled; chaos from which, as in nature itself, beauty and order emerges. Of course something is needed to trigger the emergence of order from a chaotic system. And in Tony’s case the attractor around which order condensed was his unwavering insistence on experimental rigour and reproducibility.

Inspiration, creativity, curiosity; Tony had these in spades. Everyone who ever worked with him couldn’t help but admire his intellect, wit, charm and passion. And so they overlooked, as best they could, his social transgressions. Most of his exasperated superiors let him get on with his research, content with his prolific outputs, the wise garnered his genius. Meanwhile his PhD and post-docs rallied around trying to keep his admin on track by digging out the most important forms and documents hidden in his office’s archaeological filing system (the deeper in a stack, the older the documents). This remained a workable system threatened only by the occasional  tectonic movements that disrupted the order.

Tony was an outstanding scientist. He received a SERC Personal Fellowship at 26, a Lister Fellowship at 36 and a personal chair at 41. Churning out seminal work in enzymology, protein engineering, protein folding and prion disease throughout his career. He retired through ill health at 55 with 183 papers, including 4 in Nature and 2 in Science, and an H-index of 49 under his belt.  But the numbers don’t do his achievements justice, his real legacy are the results of his infectious passion for science. He showed us that curiosity was key, that it was the exploratory process that was the interesting bit. Those that had the honour to work alongside him (for he always treated his charges as equals) are left with a life-long love of discovery. Tony burnt out early (his fondness for cigarette and a liquid diet hardly helped) but those of us whom he took along for the ride will benefit from his energy throughout our lives and careers.

It is perhaps worth noting that within hours of his death the hundreds of people whose lives he touched, spread as they were over decades of scientific discovery and thousands of miles, had all learned of his passing. The “Clarke-collective” had begun to grieve.

The world is a far less interesting place without Tony Clarke. His family, friends, students and colleagues will miss him greatly.

“We are able to find everything in our memory, which is like a dispensary or chemical laboratory in which chance steers our hand sometimes to a soothing drug and sometimes to a dangerous poison” Marcel Proust.

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