Spurious Statistics – why you shouldn’t always believe what you read.

As a chemist I regularly find myself aggravated by poorly reported research, where statistics are skewed in order to provide the most sensational headline. Here, the Daily Mirror nicely directs us to a website by statistician Tyler Vigen which shows how statistics can easily be plotted against each other to mislead and shock people with apparent trends and correlations.

It’s scarily easy to force a trend between completely unrelated data, and this article proves that perfectly, with an example being the rise of cheese consumption in the US correlating with deaths by bed sheet entanglement. It sounds ridiculous, but this is exactly what a lot of people do in order to create shock headlines which sell newspapers to the sometimes gullible public.

Although on the face of it this story could seem quite trivial, such bogus trends can be very misleading and even dangerous, especially when relating to health issues. Newspapers are often keen to exploit tenuous trends in order to sell shock headlines, even if this means their readers might damage their health by believing the links, as people very rarely delve further into the story and read the actual research for themselves.

Hopefully articles like this will encourage the public to question what they’re reading more, and look for the real evidence behind some apparent correlations that might be absolute nonsense.

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Atomic Threesomes Explained

This interesting article from the Nature News website explains the extraordinary quantum chemical phenomenon of Efimov states – when three atoms or particles come together in a way that allows them to interact when two wouldn’t be able to.

In 2006, the theory became reality when a group of researchers observed the state in caesium atoms. However, these states are extremely fragile, and can only be observed at the very lowest temperatures possible experimentally. The interesting news in this latest find is that an excited state of the caesium triplet has been found which, interestingly, is larger than its predecessor, whilst still retaining its 3-atom shape. The sizes of these states are massive – with excited states reaching micrometre sizes.

Although complicated, this is fascinating science, which could be useful in explaining or predicting a range of unusual scientific phenomena, such as understanding the nature of the nucleus of the 11-Li isotope.

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Peer Review – fundamentals and the future

This is a nice little article on the Wiley website, written by Harriet Groom. Here, she describes a workshop on the peer review process that she attended, which was run by the Sense About Science charity.

As all scientists will know, the peer review process is crucial for getting your work not only published in quality scientific journals, but possibly filtered through the media to the public, who need to know that they’re reading accurate, credible science.

Here, Harriet talks about the nitty gritty details of peer review which many of us may not be aware of, and how the process is far from perfect. Indeed, many researchers don’t consider the peer review process until they’re rejected by their journal of choice, and need to take referees comments on board before attempting to resubmit, or publish elsewhere.

It makes for interesting reading, as the hard work which goes into thorough peer reviewing is not always understood or appreciated, and perhaps more needs to be done to streamline and fine tune this process, so that it is both better understood and easier to manage.

It’s getting to the point where simply stating that research is ‘peer-reviewed’ may not be enough, and the quality of the reviewing process needs to be looked at in more detail.

What do you think?

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Happy Birthday Dorothy Hodgkin!

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Anyone using Google today will notice their signature Doodle is celebrating the 104th birthday of a very important pioneer in biochemistry and crystallography – Dorothy Hodgkin. 

As an inorganic chemist, I know the importance of x-ray crystallography in my field and across a whole range of other disciplines, from biology to physics, and we all have a lot to thank Dorothy Hodgkin for. Perhaps her most famous work were the discoveries of the structures of insulin, penicillin and vitamin B12, which she had to have a great hand in the advancement of x-ray crystallography at the time in order to achieve.

Dorothy had loved chemistry since being a child, and one was of only two girls allowed to study chemistry with the boys during her school days at the Sir John Leman School. From there, she went on to study chemistry at Oxford, where she quickly developed a passion for crystallography. 

Because of her astounding work, Dorothy was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1964 for her ‘determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances‘ – making her the only British woman to have received the award. You can read Dorothy’s Nobel Prize lecture here. You may also be familiar with her name, as the Royal Society awards the Dorothy Hodgkin fellowship to early career researchers who require flexible working conditions, and so is particularly useful for women with childcare commitments. 

Dorothy Hodgkin was a remarkable, passionate scientist who continues to inspire young men and women alike to follow their aspirations and interests throughout their research career. Without her drive to discover the secrets of the biological molecules she worked with, x-ray crystallography may have taken a significantly longer amount to develop, and for that, we must be thankful. 

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Plastic Material Can Heal Itself

This article on the Nature News website describes an astounding new material which is able to heal holes of up to 1 cm in itself.

The polymeric material is made up of two different liquids which mix together to form a hard plastic. The team of researchers, from the University of Illinois, drew inspiration from the human body’s network of veins and arteries to create channels in plastic which could contain one of the liquids. When the plastic was damaged, these channels were cracked, and the liquids were able to mix and solidify, ‘healing’ the damage.

So far, the material takes 20 minutes to heal the space, and 3 hours to harden, but the team are working on improving their process so that the healing occurs at a faster rate.

This work really is a great combination of chemistry and mechanical engineering and, once optimised, could find its place in a huge range of applications. It’s early days for these materials, but this result is a great step forward.

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Tidbit: element 117 seen once again!

Element 117 – Ununseptium – has only been detected twice before by the same team of Russian scientists, but an independent confirmation of the presence of the element by researchers from GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research in Germany may lead to the inclusion of this elusive element in the periodic table once and for all.

Scientists all over the world are trying to create new heavy elements in order to finally locate the ‘island of stability’ – where a group of very large but extremely stable elements are thought to exist, and this group of researchers were intending to synthesise the never before seen element 119 as part of this quest.

Unfortunately, this method of producing element 117 is not easily reproduced. The team tried fired titanium at berkelium, which itself is extremely unstable,produced only in small amounts in nuclear reactors and has a half life of less than a year. Therefore, experiments such as this take a significant amount of time to repeat.

The detection of new elements is always exciting, and the third detection of element 117 could be the push which finally sees it given its place on the periodic table. Watch this space!

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