Friday, May 31, 2013

Some ramblings on science outreach vs. science inreach

When I started this blog about a year and a half ago it wasn't because I craved internet fame. It wasn't even for a love of science communication. I started this blog because my writing skills were lacking and I knew I needed to improve them. A blog seemed like the obvious way to do that, so I began. At the time this was my opinion on blogging:

Blogging Demotivator

I saw blogging as basically a way to talk to yourself online. I suppose it says something of my personality that I decided to do just that, but talking to myself online has made an extraordinary change in how I see the science community. The online science community is truly an active, vibrant, and interesting thing to be apart of, and although I began this blog to talk to myself I've had a lot of great interaction along the way.

Specifically over the last 2 months traffic on my blog has spiked more than I would have ever imagined. This has lead to ever more great interactions with some really great people. It has also made me realize one saddening fact:
We aren't doing as much science outreach as we think we are. . .
 In fact we're not doing much at all. The greatest spikes in my traffic have come from interaction with other science bloggers - a mention on another website, a few links on Reddit, or a guest blog for a professional science site.

To me this means that most of the people reading my blog (and other science blogs) are already interested in science. They've already accepted its awesomeness and don't need further convincing. And yet, that's the content that gets promoted the most - content about why science is awesome and why you should accept it. So while I (and other science writers) spend time writing content aimed at those that have serious doubts or questions about science, that content is being devoured by an audience who just craves more and more science. In this way my science outreach attempts are actually just science inreach.

So how do we change this? One answer would be to write a guest post for a non-science blog. For example a food blog might be the perfect place to write about the Maillard reaction. Using this approach, the goal would be to tie in science to something that people are already passionate. It may be more difficult to write for an audience unfamiliar with your field, but that's sort of the point, right? Maybe we (science writers/bloggers) should even make a contest out of this - who can publish a science related guest post on a non-science website in the most creative way.

Of course if I write a guest post for a food blog I'm probably not going to see a huge spike in my blog traffic. This may be why so few truly do science outreach - science inreach brings successful posts much more easily. Your audience is already prepared and ready for what you have to say. The online science community is a safe harbor where we can share ideas and pat each other on the back for a well written post. Even if there are criticisms they're handed out in kindness. Leave the harbor, though, and your audience may not be as accepting of your opinion. An argument that works well among the science minded (i.e. "But everything is a chemical!") may not work as well. Excuse the tautology, but there is much more resistance to science among those that resist science. So, instead of truly reaching out we continue to write for the same audience (often, ironically, about the importance of science outreach)

In saying all of this I don't mean to discount the extraordinary work that many are doing. True science outreach does happen, and there are many that spend countless hours working - often without compensation - to develop a scientifically literate society. However, we can (and should) be doing more.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Announcing #SciBook

I've shortened the hashtag. Instead of #SciBookClub we're going to use #SciBook. Also, if you want to shorten the book title we're using #Nap17.

Last night I had a pretty fun conversation with Chemjobber, Andrew (from Behind NMR Lines), and Sam Matthews about "How is science funded". After the On Air portion of the hangout was done Sam brought up the idea of a science book club.

I've taken his idea and ran with it. I've decided to start #SciBook. Here's the format:
  • We'll read one book every two months. I read slow and we're all busy, so I think this is a fair pace.
  • During the reading use the hashtag #SciBook to add your comments about the book. The more comments/discussion the better so share!
  • At the end of the two months we'll do a Google hangout to discuss. I'm expecting this to be lighthearted and enjoyable, but I'm sure some serious discussions will also come about.
  • If you have a suggestion for the next book just use the hashtag #SciBookClub or e-mail me (chad AT thecollapsedwavefunction DOT com)
Our first book will be:

We'll be holding the Google hangout during the first week of August (date and time depending on who wants to participate and their availability).

Please share this! 
I think it would be awesome to have a big group of people discussing #SciBook.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

TCW Discussion series: How is science funded?

Update, this discussion will now be held on May 29th.  We were moments from starting when the fire alarm went off in the chemistry building. I'm currently waiting outside as the fire department investigates. Thanks for showing up, and sorry to my guests for the technical difficulties!

Joining me is Andrew from Behind NMR Lines, Chemjobber, Sam (resident devil's advocate), David Dearden (my research advisor), and Matt Asplund (a member of my PhD committee).

You can watch the streaming video right here, starting just after 6:30 MDT.

If you have any thoughts please add them in the comment section or Tweet #TCWDiscuss.

Links related to the discussion:

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Do we really need more STEM graduates?

If there's one thing we can all agree on it is this: America needs more science, technology, engineering, and mathematic (STEM) graduates, right? Well, that may not actually be the case. A study released last month suggests that the STEM graduate shortage may be a myth. From that study:
"Our review and analysis of the best available evidence indicates that the supply of STEM-potential and STEM-educated students has remained strong and appears to be quite responsive to standard economic signals of wage levels and unemployment rates."
In other words:
"We're fine guys, we don't need you to get a STEM degree. Get your degree in something different. Have you considered fine arts?"
Ok, that may be a bit rough, but you get the point.

One response to this study, shared by Chemjobber on Twitter, says that the "Need for STEM graduates is indisputable". A headline which, of course, caught my eye. I'm a (to-be) STEM graduate and I certainly want a job when I graduate. However, I think the editorial itself is poorly written and fails to address the actual facts of the study. We all want to believe that investing in more STEM graduates is the right thing to do, but if the job market is full we need to be honest with ourselves. Making a statement like:
"After graduation, 43 percent of STEM graduates do not work in STEM fields."
followed immediately by: 
"The need for more graduates in STEM fields is indisputable"
is the exact opposite of being honest with ourselves. Listen, I wish there was a desperate need for STEM graduates. It would put me in an excellent position. Still, I've come to realize in the past months that the stories I was told of guaranteed job placement in high paying positions were just that: stories.

The author of this editorial does get one thing right, though - the definition of STEM is far too broad. STEM includes biologists, computer programmers, mathematicians, engineers (of every kind), chemists, physicists, and loads more. It's pretty tough to define a job market with such a huge population with any amount of detail.

So what do we need?
Ok, so if we don't need more STEM graduates then what do we need? Perhaps the answer is, oddly, a renewed focus on STEM education. However, by STEM education I don't necessarily mean handing out more and more STEM degrees. I mean a systematic change to the way we teach. What we need is a scientifically literate society. Not a society of scientists, mind you, but a society that understands the basic ideas of the scientific method. A society that will accept and promote science instead of fear and reject it.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Diet sodas must be bad: They have a warning label!

My wife and I joined some friends for dinner tonight. It wasn't anything fancy - just pizza and some soda - but it was enjoyable nonetheless. During dinner our host started talking about the "dangers" of diet soda. I kept my mouth shut, not wanting to go on a Tim Minchin-esque Storm rant (warning: NSFW language), but eventually knowing I was a chemist I was asked to give an opinion on the nasty chemicals.

I quickly explained that aspartame was perfectly safe. I have wanted to write an article on it several times but frankly it's not interesting enough to hold my own attention. It's been studied for a long time and has been found to be safe for consumption. End of story.
"But what about the warning label?" the host replied
"What warning label? I don't know about a warning label." 
"Ya, every diet soda has to have a warning label because of how bad they are for you."
Luckily I have spent more time reading about aspartame than I care to, so after a few moments I realized what label she was talking about. I quickly explained the warning to her as I will to you:


No, this is not the label I'm talking about!

That's not it either.

No, the warning I'm talking about is much more simple. Here it is:

That's it. The only warning is: "Phenylketonurics: Contains Phenylalanine". What does this warning mean? Well, to tell you the truth if I have to explain what this warning means then it doesn't apply to you. 

You see, there is a specific genetic defect, called phenylketonuria, which (in short) messes with your liver and makes it impossible to correctly digest phenylalanine, a common amino acid. Phenylalaine is an essential amino acid that is used by your body to synthesize dopamine, a necessary neurotransmitter. An excess of phenylalanine, like you would see in phenylketonuria, can lead to serious problems including mental retardation and death. Phenylketonurics (those that suffer from phenylketonuria) must live on a diet that restricts intake of phenylalanine. Therefore, the warning is placed on diet sodas. 

But some would argue that if it's really bad for some people we should all avoid it. If the warning that diet soda contains phenylalanine prompts you to avoid phenylalanine, here's a list of other foods you should also avoid, as they also contain phenylalanine (and some in much higher doses):
  • Fish
  • Bacon (Nooo!!!!)
  • Beef
  • Chicken
  • Milk
  • Cheese
  • Walnuts
  • Almonds
  • Peanuts
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Crab
  • Oysters
  • Soy products
And this is by no means a comprehensive list. My point is this: Yes, there is a warning on diet sodas, but it's not because they will give you cancer, and the warning probably doesn't even apply to you. So go on, drink up. You know you want that Diet Coke.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Mr. Clean's Magic Eraser and the chemical that's not a chemical

Today on Reddit I saw a post in Today I Learned that claimed that:
"Magic eraser cleaning products do not use any chemicals to clean hard-to-remove marks, but instead act as extremely fine sandpaper."

There's the argument that every chemist wants to make right now, and many of you are screaming it at your screen already - Everything is a chemcial - but as I said during our recent discussion on chemophobia, that argument is weak and makes chemists sound like they're being dismissive of the actual concern. But this isn't a case of chemophobia. The claims states that magic eraser "does not use any chemicals", but in reality the chemical it does contain is the entire reason it's so cool.

The Mr. Clean Magic Eraser is actually a  formaldehyde-melamine-sodium bisulfite copolymer, also called melamine foam. It's a very hard polymer, which is what makes it so good at it's cleaning job. Here's how melamine foam looks under a microscope:

Image from this blog post. Unknown original source.

The claim that it works like sandpaper is entirely true. Since melamine is such a hard polymer it easily scratches off most stains. This is also why you don't want to use it on any glossy surfaces - you'll scrape off the gloss coating. If you've ever used melamine foam you've probably been amazed at how well it removes tough stains. Melamine foam is a chemical, and it's just one more way that chemistry makes your life better.

  • Proctor and Gamble filed a patent on marketing melamine foam. That's right - a patent on marketing the foam. Basically, the patent is take melamine foam (which was already a well known cleaning product), put Mr. Clean's face on the front, and sell it to Americans. It's a very odd patent to read through, especially knowing that there's not a novel idea in the whole patent.
  • If you love Magic Erasers, don't bother paying the high price to see Mr. Clean's face. Just buy formaldehyde-melamine-sodium bisulfite copolymer foam in bulk. Instead of paying $1.50 per scrubbing pad you can get them for about 29 cents each. You're welcome.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Malaria infection changes mosquito behavior

Published today in PLOS one is an interesting article about how malaria changes the behavior of infected mosquitoes. The researchers showed that mosquitoes infected with malaria were more attracted to human odor than those that were not infected.

The experimenters wore nylon socks to collect their foot odor (a clean nylon sock was used for a control). Then for a period of three minutes they counted how many mosquitoes preferred to land below the (stinky) nylon sock instead of the clean one. It wouldn't seem surprising to me that the mosquitoes preferred to land by the smelly nylon sock - after all that sock smelled like food. What is interesting is that mosquitoes landed by the smelly nylon sock much more often after they were infected with malaria. The implications are obvious - malaria infected mosquitoes are more attracted to us than mosquitoes that aren't infected.

Figure 1 in the mentioned article. Notice that infected mosquitoes land significantly more often than uninfected mosquitoes

Specifically, these researchers were looking at the Anopheles gambiae. Past research (which is cited incorrectly in the article) has already shown that An. gambiae infected with malaria eat more frequently and for a longer time than those not infected. This study is another evidence that the malaria parasite is able to control the actions of it's host. The researchers point out the advantages of this mechanism - if an infected mosquito is attracted to a host the parasite can be transmitted more effectively.

This isn't the first example of so-called "mind controlling" parasites. Dicrocoelium dendriticum is a parasite that affects the behavior of ants. Ants infected with Dicrocoelium dendriticum will climb to the top of a blade of grass and wait in the hot sun to be eaten by grazing cattle - the next step in the parasite's life cycle. This current study does not prove that malaria has this extent of mind control over the mosquitoes, but it is interesting that infection with malaria changes a mosquito's behavior in the favor of the parasite. The authors mention that more research is required, specifically they are now investigating the behavior as a function of the parasite's life cycle (will a mosquito be more attracted to human odor after the parasite reaches it's transmissible stage?) Current studies of malaria transmission often use uninfected mosquitoes or computer models based on behavior of uninfected mosquitoes, which may be inadequate, given this new research. Renate C. Smallegange, Geert-Jan van Gemert, Marga van de Vegte-Bolmer, Salvador Gezan, Willem Takken, Robert W. Sauerwein, & James G. Logan (2013). Malaria Infected Mosquitoes Express Enhanced Attraction to Human Odor PLOS ONE DOI:

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

How to draw atomic orbitals

I've been teaching general chemistry concepts for several years now. For some reason the idea of atomic orbitals is hard for students to grasp. Tonight I'm holding an exam review for my students and I thought I'd prepare by writing about the quantum numbers and how they affect the shape of atomic orbitals.

The Quantum Numbers

n: The principal quantum number. n can be any positive integer (1,2,3,4...)
l: The angular momentum quantum number. l can equal: 0,1,2,3,4...(n-1)

When we write the angular quantum number we will often use the notation:
0 = s
1 = p
2 = d
3 = f

There are two other quantum numbers, but we aren't concerned with those for this exercise.

In quantum mechanics a node is a point where an electron cannot exist. The shape of any orbital is defined by the nodes. There are two types of nodes: angular and radial.

Angular: An atomic orbital will have l angular nodes. So, an s-orbital has 0 a p-orbital has 1, and so on.
Radial: Each atomic orbital will have n-l-1 radial nodes. So a 3p orbital has 3-1-1 = 1 radial node.

Drawing orbitals
Ok, so what you've read above is explained in just about every general chemistry textbook. But, when asked to draw orbitals most chemists just pull from memory. You don't need to do that, though. You don't have to memorize the shape of a single atomic orbital. You just need to know understand the quantum numbers. Let's start with 1s.

Angular nodes: 0
Radial nodes: 0

This is the easiest. We'll always start with a circle. There are zero nodes and so we're already done. We'll say that 1s looks like this:

And sure enough, the 1s orbital looks like we predicted. Here's the 1s orbital:

But now let's move on.
Angular nodes: 0
Radial nodes: 1

We start again with a circle, but we draw one smaller circle within the larger circle.
We erase everything in that node and this is now our prediction for what a 2s orbital will look like.
And sure enough, our prediction is pretty close. Here's the real 2s orbital:

Moving on...

Angular nodes: 1
Radial nodes: 0

We start with the same circle, but this time we need to add an angular node.
When we erase that section we are left with our prediction for a 2p orbital...

 Which, once you smooth the edges looks just like the actual 2p orbital:

 Let's do the 3d orbital now

Angular nodes: 2
Radial nodes: 0

Following the same process we have marked two angles through the center of the circle. When we erase that area we're left with our prediction for a 3d orbital:

Which, after we smooth out the edges, is a pretty good prediction:

Let's do one more (because I'm not quite sick of this yet)

Angular nodes: 1
Radial nodes: 1

We start with an angular node...

But, once we erase that are we're left we still have to include the radial node...

So now let's just erase that area, and we'll be left with our prediction:

Which again, once we smooth out the edges, looks pretty close to the actual 3p orbital:

 The great thing about drawing the atomic orbitals this way is you never have to memorize any of these shapes - they come directly from understanding what the quantum numbers mean.

Now, if you're one of my students, get back to studying.


All of the "real" atomic orbitals from above were created using Orbital Viewer, a very cool (and free) program.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Commander Hadfield returns home a hero

At approximately 10:30 ET tonight, Commander Hadfield will set foot on the earth for the first time in 146 days. In those 146 days Hadfield has grown an extensive Twitter following, answered questions on Reddit, shared some amazing videos, posted thousands of pictures, and now he's released this awesome cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity":

For someone like me, that has been following Hadfield very closely, the video is pretty emotional. Hadfield's effort in science outreach is commendable and, perhaps, irreplaceable. I'm a chemist, but I can be honest with myself: Space is cool. Space increases the public's interest in science. It sparks discussion among lawmakers. Children and adults can appreciate how awesome space is, and it's great that Commander Hadfield saw his opportunity to make a difference and took it. His tweets, pictures, and videos have brought science to the public in a unique way. 

In one of his final tweets from the ISS, Hadfield shared this picture:

Along with the words
"Spaceflight finale: To some this may look like a sunset. But it's a new dawn."
Which has powerful implications. Commander Hadfield is coming home, and we could look at that as the sunset on the pictures we've come to expect from the space station. A sunset on videos showing us what it looks like when cry or wring out a washcloth in space. Or, we could look at it as a new dawn. Commander Hadfield has injected new excitement into science outreach, a bolus of interest we can now build on.

So, Commander Hadfield, thank you!!

Friday, May 10, 2013

Living with Chemicals: Sodium lauryl sulfate

The Chemical (IUPAC): Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS)
You probably know it as: Soap
The structure:

Ok, so it's actually an oversimplification to call this one compound "soap", but this long chain molecule is an ingredient you'll probably find in just about every cleaning product you own. Soap, from a chemical perspective, is the product of a saponification reaction - a reaction between fat and a strong base (usually sodium hydroxide). The soap making scenes in Fight Club, including the chemical burn, are surprisingly accurate for movie science (though I wouldn't exactly recommend working with their starting materials).

SLS is used as an engine degreaser, shampoo, floor cleaner, a moderately effective shark repellent, and car wash soap. Believe it or not, it's also found in your toothpaste. You may not realize it, but your toothpaste is basically just a tastier, thicker version of your shampoo (I'll bet you didn't realize you were brushing your teeth with shampoo, did you). SLS is also the reason that orange juice tastes so horrible after you've brushed your teeth (probably because of it's surfactant properties).

So the same chemical that is used as an engine degreaser can be used as a shark repellent and is also found in your toothpaste. You'll often hear the argument that chemical X is bad for you because it is also used in product Y, but a chemical isn't bad because it's also found in a different product, even if that product would be bad for you. As another example, polysorbate 60 is used in many processed foods as well as in sexual lubricants. It's an easy argument to say you shouldn't eat foods that contain polysorbate 60 because you're basically eating KY Jelly, but it's not a good argument. Chemicals can have a wide variety of applications - your toothpaste is proof of that.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Collapsed Wavefunction Discussion: Chemophobia

Come join us for a discussion about chemophobia!

The Panel:
Dorea (from
N. Tesla (from

Wednesday, May 1st, 6:30 pm MDT (8:30 EST)

You can ask questions by commenting on this page or on Twitter using the hashtag #TCWDiscuss