Articles by: Mark

Space dinosaurs, the saga continues

Last week I , and several others , wrote about the extraordinary and unfounded conclusions published in a JACS perspective, that dinosaurs may have evolved into intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

Well it gets worse, because as Stuart Cantrill (editor of Nature Chemistry) pointed out on twitter (@stuartcantrill), this isn’t the first time Prof Breslow has made these claims. Nor in fact is it the first time he’s published this article. It also appeared in the Israel Journal of Chemistry last year. Huge chunks of the JACS article are copied verbatium from the IJC review.

Here’s Stuart’s analysis of the JACS article, he’s highlighted the bits that appear in the IJC review. The subsequent pages are covered with just as much highlighter pen.

I wonder if JACS’s has a policy on self plagiarism?

EDIT: Here’s the self-plagiarised sections from the remainder of the paper.
It gets worse - pages 2, 3, 4 & 5 of #spacedino Perspecti... on Twitpic

It gets worse - pages 2, 3, 4 & 5 of #spacedino Perspecti... on Twitpic

UPDATE: Breslow defends himself to Nature

UPDATE 2: Here’s a copy of the email I sent to the JACS editors yesterday. If I hear anything back I’ll be sure to let you know.

Dear Editors,
I am sure you are aware of the controversy surrounding Prof. Breslow’s perspective article recently published in JACS ( The concluding comments concerning, what has become known on twitter as, the spacedino story has been the subject of discussions on numerous blogs. E.g. &

The consensus is that the spacedino comment was just a poor joke, however there is much more concern about the issue of self plagiarism. The majority of Prof. Breslow’s JACS article is copied verbatim from a review he published in Israel Journal of Chemistry ( last May. The fact that it then appeared in JACS seems to run contrary to your ethical guidelines ( which state:

Authors should not engage in self-plagiarism (also known as duplicate publication) – unacceptably close replication of the author’s own previously published text or results without acknowledgement of the source. ACS applies a “reasonable person” standard when deciding whether a submission constitutes self-plagiarism/duplicate publication. If one or two identical sentences previously published by an author appear in a subsequent work by the same author, this is unlikely to be regarded as duplicate publication. Material quoted verbatim from the author’s previously published work must be placed in quotation marks. In contrast, it is unacceptable for an author to include significant verbatim or near-verbatim portions of his/her own work, or to depict his/her previously published results or methodology as new, without acknowledging the source.”

I write for and I would very much like to share your comments on this issue with my readers. We are particularly keen to hear why Prof. Breslow appears to have been exempt from your ethical guidelines.

Yours Sincerely,

By April 24, 2012 15 comments science news, science policy

Helium for balloons but none for my NMR

Our reserves of helium are finite and we’re running out. This may come as a mild disappointment to children everywhere but its really bad news for science.

My (and everyone else’s) NMR machines use liquid helium (at 3 Kelvin) as the coolant for their superconducting magnets. The same goes for MRI scanners and those cathedrals of science the particle accelerators like the LHC. And right now there’s a world wide shortage of helium which means that we may have to decommission some of our NMRs. Re-commissioning them will then cost 10s of thousands of dollars, plus it would require huge amounts of liquid helium to cool them down again.

We fill these instruments with liquid helium regularly, replacing the stuff that’s boiled off. The thing is that once that helium has evaporated off and into the atmosphere its gone. There’s no getting is back. So why don’t we bother collecting the boiled off helium? All we’d need to do is stick a balloon on top of the NMR machine, then a simple compressor could be used to turn it back into a liquid.

We don’t bother with this simple bit of recycling because there’s no immediate economic imperative. But hang on, didn’t I just say the reserves are limited, so surely helium is really expensive? Well it aught to be. According to Professor Robert Richardson, who won the Nobel physic prize in 1996 for his research on helium, a helium party balloon should cost $100. Instead they cost about 50 cents. The reason helium is sold well below its ‘real’ value is because of an odd law passed by the US congress in the 1996. Robin McKie explained some background in The Observer newspaper last month.

 In the 1920s the US decided helium would be a strategic resource. It realised that air power would be crucial in future wars, and assumed that these would be fought by airships that would use helium to float.

Then to cut costs in 1996 Congress passed a law mandating the U.S. helium reserve (the largest in the world by some way) be sold off by 2015, irrespective of market price. They set in stone the amount of helium that needed to be sold and so ever since they have been dumping it on the market.

This is a long term issue, but it doesn’t explain the immediate shortage. The problem here, as far as I can gather because our suppliers (BOC) aren’t telling us much, is that several of the worlds helium refineries are out of action. That, at least, was the case 10 months ago according to gasworld.  And they don’t expect things to improve until a new plant comes on line in 2013.

In the meantime it looks like there’s going to be a long queue for the remaining NMR machine.

25th April UPDATE :

Here’s the latest on the helium situation from BOC in the UK.

Magnetic grapes and NMR

When I was an undergrad I found NMR to be one of the trickiest techniques to get my head around. I think it was because the technique involves so many concepts that run counter to everything we’ve learnt before. After all in school we get told about ferromagnets and thats it. Then at uni suddenly someone is trying to tell us that actually there’s these other things called diamagnets and paramagnets, which means that even water is magnetic!

So now that I get to teach NMR I like to demonstrate diamagnetism right from the get go. Of course diamagnetism is really weak so you need a precision built, low friction setup. So I set about building one with ….

  • 2 grapes
  • A wooden skewer
  • A pin
  • An old film canister
  • A neodymium magnet. I get mine from emagnets. The stronger the better I use  one with 20 Kg pull.
The neodymium magnets are really powerful. So…
  1. Don’t let kids play with them.
  2. Don’t put them near your credit cards, phone, watch or any other electrical equipment.
  3. Don’t put 2 magnets anywhere near each other because they’ll fly towards one another, shatter and send chunks flying.
  4. If you have any medical implants don’t go anywhere near them.
  5. Read the safety instructions that come with the magnets.

The Build:

1. Push the 2 grapes onto either end of the skewer

2. Push the pin through the cap of the film canister, so that its pointing upward. Put the cap back on the canister.
3. This is the tricky but. You need to balance the skewer and grapes on the point of the pin.
4. Once you’ve managed that just put the edge of the magnet near one of the grapes and watch it spin.
There you go, the magnet repeals the water in the grapes and you have a nice down to earth demo of diagmanetism.
Then to cap it off show your audience the levitating frogs, and I promise they won’t forget diamagnetism after that.
Originally posted (in a slightly different form) at
By April 15, 2012 2 comments chemical education, fun, Uncategorized

3 year old singing the element song!

How about this then! A 3 year old singing Tom Lehrer’s the element song. Impressed? I am.

By April 13, 2012 1 comment fun