American and British English may differ, but data has no borders

I couldn’t agree more with the quote attributed to George Bernard Shaw: the UK and the US are ‘two countries divided by a common language’. I’ve just spent two weeks in the US and, as an English speaker whose first language is Spanish, I found the misunderstandings and confusions quite hilarious most of the time. ‘But you are speaking the same language,’ I’d add laughingly. Of course, neither party appreciated it very much…

I was attending the 246th American Chemical Society meeting in Indianapolis, with other Royal Society of Chemistry colleagues. As one would expect, it was a very interesting and stimulating meeting, which this year attracted in excess of 10,000 visitors, and had so many parallel sessions that it was often very difficult to decide what to go and see. 

A couple of events stick in my mind. The first is a presentation by Harry Gray from the California Institute of Technology, US, who gave the Kavli Foundation Innovations in Chemistry lecture. A seasoned and eloquent speaker, he called for students to join his Solar Army and help him resolve one of the greatest scientific challenges of the 21st century: finding the cheapest possible ingredients to make sunlight a practical alternative to oil. I had a strong sense of deja vu when he started his session by saying that ‘enough sunlight falls on Earth in one hour to provide all of the world’s energy for an entire year’. I remembered hearing that same statement almost verbatim during a lecture given by Gray’s former student and CalTech colleague, Nathan Lewis, at Burlington House in London, UK, more than a year ago. The lecture was broadcast live by Chemistry World, and you can still see it online here.

I also enjoyed the lecture by Alton Brown. He is not all that well known in the UK (at least I had not heard of him), but in the US he is a TV personality, celebrity chef and author. His talk was, of course, very much about food. It was thought provoking and amusing in equal measures, and kept the audience of over 600 wonderfully engrossed for more than an hour.

Once the conference was over, we set off on the first RSC roadshow to the midwest US. Our aim was to visit faculty on their home turf and let them know about what the RSC does. At the same time, we are there to learn about them and collect feedback that we can use to improve our services. This trip took a group of RSC representatives first to Indiana University in Bloomington, then Purdue University in West Lafayette and finally the University of Notre Dame in South Bend. Interestingly, although divided by a common language as I jokingly said before, there is much in common between researchers on both sides of the Atlantic when it comes to handling scientific information. Fundamentally, they increasingly feel overwhelmed by the explosion of data and proliferation of journals. Keeping up with the literature (see related article by Derek Lowe here) and discriminating between the myriad sources and formats available is very time consuming and, for many, a big problem. We had many stimulating conversations and some ideas are already sprouting so we’ll be sure to take this very valuable knowledge to colleagues back in the UK. I’d like to thank the three institutions for sparing the time to host us and for making us feel at home during our time in the midwest.