From R J Rathbone

From R J Rathbone

I was delighted with Nina Hall’s comment column in the July issue of Chemistry World on The Guardian’s Chemical World supplements. This so much needed saying. Give her a monthly column for comment on similar lines.

Whilst one expects distortion and sensationalism on reporting scientific and technical matters in papers like The Sun (Frankenstein foods), to find this in The Guardian is deeply depressing.

I regret that there was, as far as I know, no official protest or comment to The Guardian from the RSC.

I wrote to The Guardian on lines similar to Nina Hall’s: ’We are told that "Dioxin is one of the most toxic substances known", but in fact that distinction must go to substances of plant or bacterial origin such as ricin, botulin and several plant alkaloids, but they, of course, are natural and so perhaps don’t count. The word natural has now become quite meaningless, a sad case of semantic inflation.

Please don’t bother to print another ’Chemical World’. We have all got the message. Chemicals are nasty things, except when they are obtained from plants or animals, in which case they are ’natural’ and so benign.’

The letter was not published.

R J Rathbone CChem MRSC
By e-mail


From John Holman

Like Nina Hall [Chemistry World, July 2004, p2] I was shocked by the standard of chemical literacy in The Guardian’s Chemical World supplements.

The Guardian’s Sunday sister The Observer did no better on 16 May in its Food Monthly magazine feature Are scientists putting you off your dinner? This included the bizarre statement ’Beef can be "copied" using nanotechnology. In the future your steak could be made from carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms’. Leaving aside the little matter of nitrogen and sulfur, didn’t the author realise steak always has been made from exactly these atoms?

All this came as a big disappointment to an ardent admirer of these two great newspapers, but if papers simply reflect the demands of those who buy them, it suggests an alarmingly uncritical readership. Or perhaps The Guardian and The Observer received protests about these pieces? It would be interesting to know.

Correspondence with Chemical World runs the risk of sounding like special pleading from the chemical lobby, but the serious point is that consumer science issues such as these, not to mention gene technology, climate change and a host of other issues, will take an increasingly high profile in the future. The onus is more than ever on schools to give their students a level of scientific literacy to equip them for the future - for example, by explaining what Wohler showed in 1848: that there is no fundamental difference between a chemical made naturally and one made synthetically.

The new 21st Century science GCSE course now being piloted in 80 schools around England has at its heart a core science programme to lay the foundations of this kind of scientific literacy.

J Holman CChem FRSC
University of York, UK


From Kevin Dunn

Do I need new glasses or is my mind befuddled as I reach middle age? If ’John Queeny, who founded the original Monsanto Company with the product saccharine’ was born 145 years ago [Chemistry World, August 2004, p64] and ’two years later a growing company, Coca-Cola, bought the entire saccharine output’, then the implication is surely that he accomplished rather a lot by his second birthday! Many children of that age are barely out of diapers.

I thought Bill Gates had done rather well in his twenties and that Mozart had shown promise by the age of four.

K Dunn CChem MRSC
By e-mail


From Barbara Banks 

’New findings could help people to burn energy and lose weight’. This was the legend to a photo in the July issue of Chemistry World [p18]. I was appalled.

The problem of obesity is one of excess mass, mostly as fat. Failure to oxidise an excess of ingested carbon compounds (principally carbohydrate and fat) to carbon dioxide, removed by breathing, will result in a gain of mass. (The average, not very active man will lose some 250 g of carbon per day by quiet respiration). Physical activity entails an increase in the rate of production (and loss) of carbon dioxide and is a key route for regulating mass balance.

Fats and carbohydrates are handled differently by paths that interact and carbohydrates are not all equivalent to each other, hence Tesco’s recent interest in publicising ’glycaemic indices’ These indicate the relative rates at which different carbohydrates increase blood sugar and therefore insulin levels. The main action of insulin is in stimulating synthetic reactions including the conversion of excess carbohydrate into fat. (Is that why the Atkin’s diet works since restricting carbohydrate must reduce fat synthesis?)

Anabolism (synthesis) and catabolism (breakdown) of macromolecules do not occur simultaneously, but the oxidation of carbon compounds must occur continuously to support life. The capacity to form carbon dioxide (and lose mass) is normally restricted by the tightly coupled generation (in quantities daily that are comparable to body weight) of that ubiquitous metabolite adenosine triphosphate (ATP). This molecule is needed for a multiplicity of cellular activities and is held in steady state. The uncouplers referred to in the comment on the work at Imperial College, London, UK, remove the normal tight link between the rate of oxidation and the use and re-formation of ATP and will therefore permit enhanced mass loss. (Other uncoupling drugs have been used in the past as slimming agents but with unfortunate side effects.)

If cells are given glucose (or alcohol?) to oxidise they will use it as the carbon source in preference to the fatty acids from fat breakdown. Excess carbohydrate that cannot be oxidised fast enough will be stored as fat under the influence of insulin. The obese need to mobilise their store of excess fat for oxidation, so depriving the body of carbohydrate (and alcohol) should help - but always in moderation since some cells will only use glucose for oxidation and others have a strong preference for it.

Fat and sugar only become equivalent as carbon sources at the very end stage of oxidation when carbon dioxide is generated and the heats of combustion become relevant. Until then, when the problem is one of obesity, foodstuffs would be better discussed in terms of the body’s capacity to regulate body mass by respiration than their ’calorie’ content.

Energy, calories or even joules cannot be burned whatever the nutritionists might say, nor can energy be metabolised as biochemists would have us believe. Chemists should know better.

B E C Banks CChem FRSC
University College London, UK


From David Thomas

Bob Ramage has sprung to his mentor’s defence [Meteoric career, Chemistry World, August 2004, p27]. Amusingly I cannot rush to his, for the story that he was once himself ejected from the US contains a large nugget of truth. I hasten to add that the only consequence of this was the generation of much laughter in his research group!

To make a serious point though, I quote from a third eminent chemist, Alfred Bader, whose own expulsion is common knowledge. ’When successful men retire and are fated they may wonder how much of the praise is sincere...but when a man is thrown out, he learns who his real friends are’ (Adventures of a chemist collector, chapter 13).

D W Thomas CChem MRSC
By e-mail


From Andrew Bristow

In the recent series of letters on the subject of the employability of chemistry graduates one correspondent rather disparagingly suggested that someone with only a first degree might find that ’only jobs in more routine analytical chemistry functions are available to them’. Over the past 38 years I have found analytical chemistry to be interesting as well as intellectually and financially rewarding, so don’t knock it!

I would have thought that a high proportion of chemistry graduates enter this branch of our science and we should be thankful that such an area of employment exists. Pity the poor biologists who have nowhere to go.

A Bristow CChem MRSC
By e-mail


From Mike Hursthouse

A recent article in Chemistry World, [June 2004, p7] pointed to the current debate on the concept of open access (OA) publication of research, and the research councils’ dilemma in adopting an approach to the key problem of ’who pays the publication costs - the readers or the authors?’.

The fundamental debate will clearly run and run, but we are already of the firm belief that we can use the OA concept to tackle a persistent and growing problem in chemistry research where large quantities of data are generated via use of state of the art measuring equipment.

In our approach we are promoting the idea of separating the data output from the scholarly discussion of the results. We are using, as an exemplar, chemical crystallography, where results of structure determinations are accumulating extensively, without the equivalent increase in publication output (cf A D Bond and J E Davies, Chemistry in Britain, January 2003, p44).

Tradition decrees that much of this data, in some form or another, should be contained in any publication, and it is the preparation of suitable presentations of this data (and its swamping of the resulting publications) that is the real cause of the problem.

In our approach, all the data, reports and outputs from an experiment are OA self-archived, so that, in effect, the OA entry is the ’e-lab book’ of the experimenter. A paper can be prepared for submission to a learned journal, concentrating on the presentation of ideas and interpretations, which can be assessed by conventional peer review; any component of the archived data may be readily accessed for audit and validation when required - both by referees and readers.

We believe that this approach will dramatically increase the amount of useful and reusable scientific data directed into the public domain. It will ease the burden not only for authors preparing manuscripts, but also journal editors, referees and publishers, hopefully reducing costs and therefore charges. There will be no additional costs to the research councils, since the preparation of archive entries would be a normal lab procedure.

For further, detailed discussion of our project, and demonstration of the current experimental version of the archive, readers should access the e-Prints Soton and the Southampton Crystal Reports website.

M Hursthouse MRSC
University of Southampton, UK