Not So ‘Chemical-Free’

This is a great blog post from The Sceptical Chymist – part of the Nature Chemistry blogosphere. It relates to a page published in Nature Chemistry which illustrates the absurdity of the phrase ‘chemical-free’ which has no doubt irritated any lover of the chemical sciences for years.

I myself feel at my wit’s end by all the television adverts and product packaging which claim their product to be ‘chemical-free’ as the word ‘chemical’ is continued to be demonised by the media and advertising world. We’re bombarded with the notion that ‘chemicals’ are bad – they’re poisons which we want to avoid at all cost and surely any product that lowers there use must be superior. Unfortunately, the general public accept this notion willingly, and are perhaps unaware that thousands of items they use every single day of their lives – medicines, fuel, plastics, cosmetics, food – are all made up of useful chemicals which would be sorely missed if they were removed.

In short – the ‘chemical-free’ label is purely a myth.

I strongly suggest you take a peek at the article – it won’t take long!

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Nature News Special – South American Science

With the World Cup in full swing in Brazil, it’s perfect timing for Nature News, who have shone a spotlight on science in South America.

South America isn’t known for it’s high scientific output, with Brazil being the only country which dedicates significant funding to its research and general levels of publications and citations being low compared with the rest of the world.

Nature News investigate this through several special issue articles which delve into South America’s scientific highs and lows, and what may be done to improve things.

It’s by no means doom and gloom though – many countries in South America are thriving at the moment, and one article describes new initiatives which are being brought in place by such countries to encourage researchers back home after spending time abroad during economic difficulties. It’s encouraging to see countries which aren’t known for their scientific prowess putting some real funding and encouragement into research and building up a strong scientific base.

The feature makes for really interesting reading, and it will be intriguing to see how science in South America grows and develops during the near future.

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Exciting Trial Results for Skin Cancer Drugs

According to this article on the BBC News website, two new anti-cancer drugs have proven to be effective in the battle against advanced melanoma – a type of skin cancer which has so far been very difficult to treat.

The drugs, pembrolizumab and nivolumab, work by blocking the pathways used by cancer cells to hide from the immune system, allowing the body to fight back.

Advanced melanoma is a devastating disease which normally gives the patient less than 6 months to live. However, treatment with these drugs allowed the majority of patients to live for more than a year, which is already a vast improvement.

The trials are still very early, so it’s important not to get too carried away with excitement about these results, but if they continue to get the results they’ve been getting so far this could mark a huge leap forward in the treatment of this and other cancers.

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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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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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