Pizza chemistry

A new study about antioxidant content in pizza crust makes me realize that I was in the wrong area of chemistry. Instead of wondering about my relative carcinogen exposure, chemical burns and taking antibiotics for that one bacterial infection that made my hand swell to twice its normal size, I could have been baking pizza. Like all good science, it requires repetition, tweaking the dough, altering the temperature, extending the reaction (cooking) time. Then, there’s the heavy duty chemical analysis part, but, wow, a reaction product that you can eat? Sounds good to me.


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Health insurance, that monster

Health care and health insurance policy heaps up as an entire basket of (smelly) things to write about, but my colleague Gretchen Cuda’s excellent post on her blog has inspired me to write of my own experience among the uninsured.

She writes on Bright Scideas

In browsing the Plain Dealer this morning, I came across this article by Diane Suchetka entitled: Healthy Cleveland: Unemployed often unaware of insurance options. Suchetka makes the point that a third of people without health insurance are eligible for free coverage – and most don’t even know it. Frankly, and with all due respect, I have a hard time believing that statement, particularly the latter part.

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Curvy clarinet

Watching the Inauguration on TV today, this former chamber musician and band geek had to give a shout out for the John Williams piece performed by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Itzhak Perlman, pianist Gabriela Montero and clarinetist Anthony McGill. I performed in chamber groups on both flute and piano during my high school piano recitals. Beethoven’s clarinet trio (I was on piano) remains a highlight.

Clarinets came to my mind again last Friday as I wandered through the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a friend. I’d never explored the collection of musical instruments before, and I snapped a photo of this unusual clarinet with my camera phone.

This bass clarinet was made by Nicola Papalini in the early 19th century. The curvy design helped them scrunch the spacing that was needed between the keys for the low register of this instrument. Papalini carved the instrument in halves and then assembled the finished instrument. It’s a pretty nifty art object, but I’d love to hear it played.

Clarinet acoustics are based on a closed pipe—the reed and mouthpiece on one end mean that the sound waves encounter that end of the pipe as effectively closed off compared to my favorite woodwind, the flute. That structure effectively doubles the length of the bore, which allows the clarinet to achieve those rich low tones.

Just like the chamber music, I hope that the history made today will permeate, rebound and echo in the days, weeks and years to come.


chemical art (and life) decoding

Delft University of Technology, Antwerp University and the Kroller Muller Museum
Credit: Delft University of Technology, Antwerp University and the Kroller Muller Museum

The late period of Vincent van Gogh’s art screams harmonies of color, but his earlier work was decidedly dark. I wrote a kids’ piece last fall about how chemistry and art history came together to decode a  woman’s  face lurking below the surface on one of the artist’s sunny South-of-France paintings. The x-ray technique is a fun piece of art CSI, where the researchers scan through the thick layers of paint and find chemical signatures that correspond to colors: white, yellow, red. Put the pattern together and they can reproduce the face that Van Gogh painted over (the researchers found letters between Vincent and his brother Theo, indicating that this was a canvas that he reused). But looking at the decoded face, superimposed over the bright colors on the surface, I can’t help but think about the demons that lurked behind Van Gogh’s genius.

Just like the painting, Joris Dik, the researcher at the Technical University in Delft that I spoke with about the work, had a wonderfully layered career path. He’d gotten a master’s degree in art history, did some work in art restoration at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and then decided that he wanted to get a Ph.D. in chemistry to be able to do this sort of investigative and restorative work. I found his  journey fascinating, probably in part because I felt like he ‘d somehow managed to meld my own original career path with that of my sister (who’s working on a Ph.D. in medieval art history).

Ten years ago, I couldn’t have possibly imagined that I’d be working far from both a chemistry lab and a classroom. I needed that shift away from the minutia of the cogs that ran one tiny machine to see the greater context of what science meant to the world. Shifting that career focus reshaped my geography, my attitude, the decisions I’ve made, the people I’ve made, the person I’ve become. Science offers the opportunity to experience it in so many different ways: from abstract concepts of molecules and atoms to the chemicals, paints, and canvases that you can hold in your hand. I love the layers that we can appreciate, about science, about art, and our place in the world.


genetic (material) gyrations

Micrograph of Euplotes crassus, Image courtesy of L. Klobutcher
Micrograph of Euplotes crassus, Image courtesy of L. Klobutcher

RNA researchers rejoice! It’s been a good week for DNA’s often-underappreciated cousin. Most people are worried about the genetic material that stays safely tucked in the nucleus of cells, but RNA is definitely the genetic workhorse. Without these molecules, our genetic programs would be useless artifacts locked in the cell nucleus like some sort of museum object. DNA is the storage vehicle, but RNA is the messenger. RNA is cellular middle management, broadcasting the executive order from the nucleus’s control center, passing on the program to proteins, and even getting involved in regulating all those processes from time to time.

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The network of connection

In January, this freelancer’s mind turns to thoughts of networking, marketing and generally making new (hopefully productive, dare I say lucrative) contacts. I’ve been thinking about networks in a variety of contexts, whether it’s been family, friends, social networks, and the ways interactions between people and within systems ping-pong chaotically, but in ways that mathematics can clarify.

In addition, I’ve been working on a story over the last several weeks or so that deals with systems biology– a scientific approach that allows scientists to look at a biological system as a whole rather than the sum of its parts. Instead of isolating how one component of a machine interacts with another one, researchers use math to look at multiple interactions and scenarios and begin to tease out larger questions of complex systems. It’s an old idea that biology researchers have revisited in earnest over the last several years, with the data that overflows in the Era of Omics (genomics, proteomics, epigenomics, etc, etc).

But today I’m really thinking about networks of people and how our pings off each other shoot us  into different directions, heighten (or dampen) our creativity, and ultimately impact our mood and even overall paths in life.

From New Scientist:

Indeed, it is becoming clear that a whole range of phenomena are transmitted through networks of friends in ways that are not entirely understood: happiness and depression, obesity, drinking and smoking habits, ill-health, the inclination to turn out and vote in elections, a taste for certain music or food, a preference for online privacy, even the tendency to attempt or think about suicide. They ripple through networks “like pebbles thrown into a pond”, says Nicholas Christakis, a medical sociologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, who has pioneered much of the new work.

This sort of social feedback is mostly good, note these scientists. But though I know I’ve been buoyed by friends who knew how to pick me up when I was down, I also remember the times when a toxic environment or person trampled on both my mood and productivity. My own (purely anecdotal) experience has been peppered with both fertile, creative environments with supportive colleagues and workplaces that verged on septic.

It’s an interesting time for journalists in that regard. I talked to one award-winning newspaper reporter a few months ago who described his work environment as gloomy beyond belief– people were hanging on, doing their jobs, and waiting for the layoff axe to drop all at the same time. In recent weeks, as magazines have halted production and newspapers have declared bankruptcy, I’ve definitely kept a lookout for colleagues with a positive outlook, just for sanity’s sake– my detox method of choice in a crazy economic environment.

But it looks like scientists may have more than social networks to worry about. What happens when the central star of a highly functional network is snuffed out unexpectedly and prematurely? Some MIT and Columbia University economists examined this question, looking at the impact of the premature death of a biomedical scientific superstar on the collaborators and colleagues that orbited her or (mostly) his influence. Apparently if it’s unexpected, that death can diminish their both the productivity and the quality of their publications of their surviving co-authors for years, if not their entire career. It’s not bereavement or even social connections, the researchers write in the study. “Rather, our results are consistent with the idea that part of the scientific field embodied in the invisible college of coauthors working in that area dies along with the star — that superstar extinction represents a genuine and irreplaceable loss of human capital.”

The New Scientist story offers tips for how to maximize positive social connections. It sounds like scientists need more than productive, positive social connections, at least when hitching their research wagon to a superstar. So, Steve Jobs’ health may send ripples of angst through Apple fans and stockholders. But if the same trends hold for tech  and biomedicine. such worries might be rational.


Roving Mars for 5 years and counting

Dusty Solar Panels on Spirit/Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

The Mars rovers may not make the news as much as they once did, but Spirit and Opportunity are still the little Mars missions that could. Spirit bounced its way through a successful landing on Mars 5 years ago, on January 3, 2004.

The rovers feel like old dear work colleagues that I revisit from time to time. Early in my journalism career, I interviewed Steve Squyres of Cornell about the rovers’ longevity in August 2004, just 8 months after they landed. He’s still talking about being exhausted, but he still sounds just as excited now as he did then.

Squyres is dynamic, engaging and decidedly unpretentious. The first time I interviewed him, he munched on a sandwich while he talked to me by phone. Later, when I interviewed him for an Astronomy feature about Spirit, he described that rover’s “personality quirks” and the real risks that the rover team took in deciding to drive Spirit kilometers– eventually towing a lame wheel, sometimes backwards– toward the Columbia Hills. In 2005 and 2006, I pored over Spirit’s photos and traverse maps for a Mars exhibit (that sadly didn’t make it into production) , marking rocks and distances in photographs. Among the Himalayan scale of Mars rover data, I’ve studied a few boulders around the edges.

The new JPL video makes the connection between the rovers and their prescient names: Spirit, the scrappy robot that had to work for everything and Opportunity, who capitalized on landing in the right place.

I feel a certain sisterhood with Spirit, holding on through Martian winters, weathering dust storms, but discovering salty soil and examining bedrock. As she was beginning her climb in the Columbia Hills, I made my own trek from Indiana to New York City, from chemistry to journalism. It’s been a rewarding trip, but it hasn’t been easy. I’ve drug my own gimpy wheel at times, sometimes feeling like I was looking over my own shoulder. But nearly 5 years on my own journey, I have a Squyres-esque smile on my face, and I’m saluting an inspiring road warrior, on a planet 100 million miles or so away.


the toy that stumped Niels Bohr

I didn’t make it to the Nobel Prize festivities in early December. But my husband’s Ph.D. adviser (a friend of a 2008 laureate) hobnobbed with the Nobel elite. She brought back a couple souvenirs as holiday gifts for members in the lab. First of all, everyone needs their own chocolate Nobel Prize.

yes, you too can have a Nobel prize
yes, you too can have a Nobel prize

But we were really fascinated with the Tippe Top from the Nobel Museum. It’s super simple-looking, rounded on the bottom with a dowel-like rod for a spinner. As it spins, the dowel moves from the tippy-top of the top, until the top spins on the dowel. Little did I know that physicists have been arguing about the mechanics of this toy since Sir Isaac Newton: though simple-looking, the physics and mathematics that explain this behavior are anything but. As a recovering chemist, I love the idea of one of my scientific heroes, Niels Bohr, a man absorbed with the spinning behavior in atoms, was also obsessed with the physics and mathematics of this toy.

The more I watch it, the more fascinating the problem is. The top appears to rotate in a constant direction, but it actually changes directions as it flips, maintaining the appearance of constant rotation in one direction. In keeping with the Bohr connection, the Danes have a fascinating description of the history and the physics behind the top. It’s all about shifts in the rotational axis and the wonders of sliding friction.