Keep Magic Beans in Fairy Tales

In what can only be a stunning upset to the diet and nutrition world, Dr. Oz’s green coffee bean extract was found to maybe, possibly, perhaps not work so well. And by that, I mean the only bit of research supporting his beans is being withdrawn by two of the authors. What’s more is the study was paid for by the product manufacturer. Not only did Dr. Oz pay for research to support his results, but now those researchers have decided they can no longer live with the guilt.

Oz touted his beans as a magic weight-loss cure (let’s ignore that if you take the phrase “weight-loss cure” literally it implies that you’re stopping weight loss). The beans became famous after Dr. Oz claimed in 2012, “You may think magic is make-believe, but this little bean has scientists saying they’ve found the magic weight-loss cure for every body type. It’s green coffee extract.” I guess his claim could be a bit shortened to “You may think magic is make believe, but it is.”

This will be the only time I link to this source here (and hopefully in my career), but Fox News did a piece (or should I say borrowed a piece from LiveScience) on the story, proving that literally everyone is against Dr. Oz (save for the mysterious people who actually buy his supplements).

If you don’t watch John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, you really should start. Here’s his piece on dietary supplements (including Dr. Oz).

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John Rogers In The 24th and a Half Century

In the lab of University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Professor John Rogers, electronics fall apart or, more accurately, dissolve in water. Transient electronics, as they’re called, are designed to be temporary. They have the potential to be implanted in the body, monitor vital signs or fight infection, and slowly dissolve into harmless components. If scaled up to manufacturing levels, these devices have the potential to revolutionize electronics. And his group has been working hard by publishing a lot of papers on the subject.

So I was surprised when I saw a recent report by the Rogers group in Nature Communications on a wholly different class of electronics. (Though maybe I shouldn’t be surprised since Rogers got his Ph.D. under none other than George Whitesides who may be the most diverse chemist of today.) In this new report, he’s using fractal patterns to integrate metal wires into a stretchable substrate. At first I thought, “How the hell is he going to make an infinite recursion wire.” Then I found out that space-filling curves are fractals (thanks Wikipedia). You can think of the patterns like a winning game of Snake, lines packed as close as possible without overlapping. An excited group of mathematicians figured out mathematical functions for different varieties of packing and left us with the below patterns. (Traditionally, the mathematical functions have hard edges, but Rogers has replaced the edges with arcs to improve the mechanics—hard turns create stress points which break easily.)

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Different fractal patterns used in the devices.

So wires of different patterns are embedded in a polymer substrate. So what? Well, it turns out interesting mechanical properties arise with the different patterns. These things can stretch. The “stretchability” is well above the 20% necessary to mimic skin. So that’s what they did. Using the Peano layout, they spelled out the word ILLINOIS and mounted it on someone’s actual skin. Then, using a “skin-replica” they took optical and scanning electron microscopy images to prove that the wires conform to the valleys and hills of normal human skin.

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The word ILLINOIS was embedded on actual, living skin. Boxes e and f are optical and scanning electron microscopy images on a skin-replica.

“Amazing,” I thought. Wearable electronics may soon be reality. And if this was my work, I would probably stop there, too excited not to publish. But it’s not and a good thing, too. They went on to make actual functioning devices able to heat, sense temperature, and take electrocardiograms (ECGs). They made tiny heart monitors.

fractal3

And not only that. The devices are compatible with MRIs. Because there are no closed loops in these devices, there aren’t any circulating magnetic currents that may cause signal loss. They’re completely invisible in an MRI scan.

It’s not often that math-inspired work crops up in chemistry (for a hard science, chemists are surprisingly squeamish about math), but when it does it’s always beautiful. It seems that John Rogers has made it his personal mission to advance us to the next level of technology… and into the twenty-fourth and a half century!

An Out of This World Collaboration

This is a work of historical fiction. Liberties have been taken with events and timeline.

Harold Kroto and Robert Curl gazed into the Sussex night sky, imagining molecules floating in the space dust.

“If only we could make some of what’s out there down here,” Kroto sighed.

“I may know someone who can help,” Curl said.

The next day, Curl called his friend Richard Smalley, an expert in experimental physical chemistry. If there was anyone who could make the unsaturated carbon chains Kroto and Curl so desperately desired, it was Smalley.

“Smalley, my old friend. Harold and I have come upon an interesting topic and would like you involved. We’d like to synthesize some of the more unstable spacely carbons for direct characterization here on Earth.”

“You want me to create outer space,” Smalley said, “in my lab.”

“Precisely,” said Curl. “I’ll be back in the US soon. I’d like it if we could sit down and chat.”

“Absolutely,” said Smalley as he hung up the phone.

Weeks went by before Curl returned to his academic home, Rice University, but time had not eroded his interest. Directly after landing, eyes heavy with jet lag, Curl drove to the university.

He arrived in the chemistry building to find Smalley’s door open, lights on, but Smalley nowhere in sight. He waited for half an hour without the return of his friend before he gave up. His head hurt. His back hurt. He was tired. Maybe it would be best to return home. He could try again tomorrow.

I’ll just take a quick look in the lab, Curl told himself.

The whirring of pumps grew louder as Curl approached Smalley’s lab. A red light blinked over the door, warning unsuspecting visitors to dawn a pair of yellow-tinted glasses, lest they be blinded from a beam gone awry. Taking a pair of glasses from the bin at the door, Curl entered the lab.

Thick metal tubes connecting thick metal boxes took up the majority of the room. Lenses, bolts, and wires littered what little counter space was left. Three people in lab coats dotted with curious brown rimmed holes were gathered around one of the boxes.

“Try the 1064. That should arouse some excitement.” Smalley said. He turned from the group and saw Curl waiting in the door.

“Robert,” he said. “Good news and bad.” He slung his arm around Curl and led him out, away from the flashing lights and whirring pumps. “We’ve got the setup working nicely. The results though…”

“You’ve already started?” Curl asked, surprised. “We haven’t had time to talk.”

“I did some research of my own. My setup will make your outer space, of that I have no doubt, but we may find space to be more perplexing than we thought.”

“What makes you say that?”

“We’re getting…,” Smalley paused as his eyes drifted upwards, “clusters.”

“Clusters?”

“Clusters. Sixty connected carbons.”

“In chains?”

“Not chains. Spheres.”

“Spheres?”

“Or as close to a sphere as a molecule can get.”

“Let’s get Harold on the phone,” Curl said.

Minutes later Kroto was fumbling with the phone in his office, trying to accept the collect call Curl and Smalley had placed.

As soon as the call clicked through Kroto exclaimed, “This will cost a fortune.”

“Sorry about that,” Curl said. “We didn’t have time to request international minutes. You know how tight the administration is with money…”

“Yes, well, get on with it,” Kroto said.

“We’ve found spheres,” Smalley said.

“Spheres?” Kroto asked.

“Spheres,” Smalley and Curl said together.

“I better get out there.”

Three days later Smalley, Curl, and Kroto were gathered in Smalley’s cramped lab. Smalley pushed aside a pile of bolts and, as they clinked against the linoleum floor, pulled a ream of paper from the printer. The three, each holding a different colored pen, scribbled furiously.

“I’ve got it!” Kroto shouted. He had drawn a football with dots, representing carbons, at seemingly random points.

Smalley and Curl examined the drawing closely.

“You drew sixty-one,” Curl said and they all went back to scribbling.

A pair of graduate students walked in the lab and froze at the sight of three professors huddled close. They crept across the lab, trying not to gather attention. As they shuffled their feet, they came upon the abandoned bolts Smalley had flung and stepped down hard.

“OUCH!” one yelled. The other punched him in the arm.

The professors turned their heads in unison to look at the intruders. As the unfortunate student jumped in place holding his foot, the other grabbed a soccer ball from his desk.

“We came to get our ball,” he said.

The professors turned to each other, eyes wide.

“That’s it!” they shouted.

And so fullerene was born.

Give Those Women Some Space

When I grew up I wanted to be an astronaut. I loved outer space (specifically that of the Star Trek variety) and I thought it would be fun to float around in space and fiddle with the scientific instruments, maybe take a stroll on the moon.

Then I learned (slightly erroneously) that most astronauts are in the military. (A person can gain flying experience in the military, which is handy, but civilian astronauts are common, too.) I didn’t want to join the military. Even though I was a kid not too long ago (in the 90’s) the military wasn’t really a place for women, or at least wimpy petite women like me. I mainly gained life experience through movies/TV and there just weren’t women soldiers… or if they were they were buff and bald and manly (I’m looking at you Demi Moore).

So I gave up my dream of being an astronaut. And maybe that was better. The Guardian just reported that the number of women in space and just surpassed the number of dogs in space. But times are changing. Many women are looking into careers in space. Astronaut Cady Coleman noted that some people have the misconception that women don’t belong in space, they can’t do the jobs or won’t be as good as men. (Of course, since “normal people don’t care about science” they had to equate women in space to a popular movie. So skip to the end if you want to hear her quote.) But she’s been working hard to show people that women are just as capable. Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space, also offers hope to young women wanting to go into space: “Never let yourself be limited by other people’s limited imagination.”

The End [of the big research group] Is Nigh

Nobel laureate Robert Grubbs, of the Grubbs’ catalyst fame, answered some interesting questions in an interview recently in Nature. He was asked “Is academic science research becoming dependent on industry funding?” A question I’ve been interested in since I started graduate school. From reading through the literature and talking to people about their work, the obvious trend of application-based research leaps out. Being in academia and studying ‘basic science,’ I understand how hard it is to get funding (in four years, I’ve only been on RA a single summer). Grubbs says that,

industry is having similar financial problems to academia and has also cut back on its funding of basic research… Now, most of the commercialization is done by small companies who are bridging the gap between the laboratory and industry.

For someone interested in how things work and not necessarily their utility, this is sad to hear. At the same time, it is understandable. I attended a talk by the famous chemist George M. Whitesides this weekend at the NASW conference and he supported the trend of application-based research. But he took a slightly different aspect. Instead of finding a problem and applying known chemistry (or physics or biology), researchers should find a problem that can’t be solved with what we know. Then, after much hard work and new discoveries, we’ll have both a solution to the problem and a deeper understanding of the universe. That is an opinion both the pure and applied researchers can get behind.

In the interview, Grubbs goes on to talk about how funding is increasingly difficult to find, saying it’s hard to even get into a career in the sciences. “We will probably have to reduce some of that [graduate] support and make tenure decisions earlier. The day of the really big research group is over.” In a not-so-promising ending to the (published) interview he says, “I must admit that I am sort of glad I’m old!”

David’s Tree of Lice

Note: I am at the National Science Writer’s Association meeting in Gainesville, FL! Today was the New Horizon’s sessions featuring researchers in different scientific fields. This post is about one of those talks.

David Reed paces the stage, microphone clipped to his tie, flipping through slide after wordless slide, like he’s giving a TED talk. With great enthusiasm, he tells us about human evolution and how much we’ve learned about our ancestral lines in the past few decades.

He showed a lot of pictures like this:

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And this:

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Then he starts talking about pubic lice. Apparently, the evolution of lice tells a partial story of the evolution of man. Lice cospeciate with us, meaning that we are so closely linked they evolve along side us. Their lineage line, showing when a a line splits into two genetically distinct species, mirrors ours. Lice are our evolutionary pals.

Humans have two species of lice: Pediculus Humanus, which covers head and clothing, and Pthirus Pubis, which covers, you guessed it, the pubis—crabs. Closely related in the evolutionary trees is Pthirus Gorillae, pubic lice for gorillas. In fact, Reed has shown that human and gorilla pubic lice come from the same lineage. He noted science writers headlined their stories with “Humans Got Pubic Lice From Gorillas” even though this exchanged happened about 3 million years ago.

To test the louse lineage, he had to run the genome, which meant getting samples.

“Getting pubic lice is pretty easy,” he said. The crowd giggled at this seemingly Freudian slip. “But getting pubic lice off a gorilla is pretty hard.” The crowd roared.

Shared crabs isn’t the only thing he’s learned from our lice friends. Looking at where a species splits can give us valuable evolutionary timeline information. For example, clothing lice and head lice shared a common ancestor. The split gives us an estimate on when lice traveled from our bodies to the new furry things wrapped around our shoulders—our very first clothes. The split happened between 80 to 170 thousand years ago, so Reed estimates that sometime in there humans started wearing clothing (his work estimates around 100k). This time line also corresponds to when humans were moving north to cooler climates and our relatively non-hairy skin just wasn’t cutting it.

Humans evolve pretty slowly, so it’s hard to determine our “recent” history. What Reed is calling recent is actually about 15 thousand years ago, when humans first crossed the ice bridge over to the Americas. By “studying the passengers that took that road trip with us” we can discover something about ourselves.

Scooped by a Ghost

Usually when you discover something new you wan’t your name on it. Especially if you beat someone to it. I win. Give me my recognition.

But Bruce Spiegelman, a cell biologist at Harvard Medical School’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Massachusetts, did just get scooped. He was scooped by a mystery man. A publication appeared in Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications that was an exact mimic of his current—and what he thought was unique—research. He was pissed. You could call him a mad scientist.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MADMAN.jpg

How I imagine Spiegelman looked when he first saw the paper.

But it turns out the names on the paper are made up. The attributed school, the University of Thessaly, has no idea who these authors are. The email address of the corresponding author is from a domain called mail.com. That should have tipped the editor and reviewers off, but apparently no one bothered to check that these were real people.

Spiegelman insists that the information in the paper was taken from his own work, which he’s presented at 6 academic meetings. (Why he hasn’t gotten around to writing the paper yet, I don’t know.) Although the journal was withdrawn the paper, Spiegelman wants legal action. He wants to find out who wrote the paper and press charges.

What’s strange to me is that someone went to all this trouble to mess with him. The journal article is written well, obviously by a scientists, and argues valid points. After all, the results are real. They just belong to Spiegelman.

Was this a bitter competitor wanting to piss Spiegelman off? Was it an annoyed grad student who wanted to publish but Spiegelman was holding back for whatever reason? Whatever it was, they went to quite a bit of trouble. Passive aggressive science at its best.