Thursday, April 20, 2017

Why Is The Science March Important?

I have said this before on these pages and I will say the same again: Science affects every facet of our daily life.  Without science, our technology would be very primitive.  That is the obvious, yet ignored by a large number of citizens of this planet walking around daily consumed with their devices and local problems.  Unbeknownst to most, science still progresses forward as a result of all of our actions -- either directly or indirectly (as a profession).  I will clarify the last sentence throughout the blog post.  The current science march which will occur this Saturday (April 22nd) around the world is meant to be a revival of science for society.

Everybody Performs Science!

Yes, you read the title of the section correctly.  Everyone contributes to science whether directly (as a profession) or indirectly (as a consumer).  How is that possible?  Simply by purchasing products and using the products throughout the life span of the manufacturers intended time frame, each of us are experimenting with science.  Still not convinced?  Let's look at more specific example to drive home the point.

Take for example, medicine.  My father is a physician -- therefore -- I grew up around the hospital and hence other physicians.  This is not the case for every son or daughter of a physician.  Since my father chose (and still chooses) to live life around work, then we would be required at times to attend work too.  I used to talk to various doctors growing up while waiting for my father to finish a surgery or a series of hospital rounds seeing patients.  One conversation stood out in particular while making a lasting impression on me regarding the field of medicine.

I was talking with a physician who is an oncologist (cancer physician) while eating lunch one day.  I asked him why with all of the advancements in technology has medicine not advanced much further.  Why the lag in fields like personalized medicine?  He first responded by deferring the topic of personalized medicine to look toward the progress of chemistry and biology at the university level as homework for me to do at a later point in time.

As far as medical practice goes -- i.e., treating patients -- he stated that I should look no further than the phrase 'medical practice'.  Meaning, the field of medicine is a practice in of itself.  As patients are treated for various diseases, the field of medicine advances.  Treatments are studied in the field by the ability to cure a given patient.  Remember, each of us are different -- which is why personalized medicine is promising.  Now, moving on, to treat diseases doctors prescribe medicine -- right?

In a previous blog post, I showed videos which detailed the process by which prescription drugs come to the market.  First, the research is carried out at the institution -- basic research -- to uncover the specific target sites involved in a given disease (mechanism).  Once the target has been solved and a solution has been found (i.e., a small molecule which binds to the target), then the data is turned over the a pharmaceutical company to develop a drug.  In that process, multiple drug trials are carried out (human volunteers).  Upon completion of the three phase trials and certification -- manufacturing of the drug occurs.  You might think that the monitoring process stops here.  No way.

After the drug is on the market, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to monitor the drug's efficacy.  How well is the drug performing among the larger population of patients with varying forms of a disease?  The information is relayed back to the FDA.  If a medicine is dangerous, the medicine can be pulled from the market.  Now do you believe me that you are participating in science on a daily level?

The same is true for any given product that enters the market place.  Therefore, each of us are actively conducting science without knowing that we are by living life and participating in evaluating technology (i.e. products).  That is one reason why the federal agencies (FDA, EPA, CDC, etc.) are critical to our safety.  These agencies monitor the food we eat, the packaging which the food is packaged in, back to the factory where the food is produced. The same goes for any other product.  Federal agencies have been accused of wasting time and resources with federal funding.  Do you believe that these agencies should see reductions in funding given their mission?  The agencies ensure our safety with our tax dollar funding.  I have written about this in the past -- click here.

Here are a few categories of scientific achievements (products) which have transformed our daily lives taken from the website "Compound Chemistry" titled "The March for Science – Ten things that chemistry has done for us":

1) Inhalational anaesthetics and intravenous anaesthetics.
2) Different classes of antibiotics and how they work.
3) Lithium batteries in phones, and current research looking at improving them.
4) Oral contraceptives and how they work.
5) How catalytic converters help reduce emissions from vehicles.
6) Fertilisers: No graphics on the site on fertilisers (yet!) but there’s an article on all of the facets of the Haber process here.
7) The chemistry behind petrol and diesel.
8) A guide to some common household plastics.
9) The elements in your smartphone, including a look at some of the aspects of the touch screen.
10) The chemistry at water treatment plants that makes the water that comes out of your tap safe to drink.

Click on any of the hyperlinked topics in the excerpt above and the corresponding infographic will appear.  And here is the accompanying infographic for the group of topics listed above:

The website "Compound Chemistry" is a helpful site for deconstructing chemistry of all sorts of products and phenomenon.  I highly recommend checking out the various infographics to inspire learning more about science.  Science is an ever lasting adventure through life.  People of all ages can engage in science, especially given great web resources such as the website given above.

Eventually, each of us grow up to choose a profession to work in and contribute to society.  I work at a university in the chemistry department.  Other people work in various industries -- some not related to science directly.  The point being that each of us contribute to and utilize science everyday -- whether we directly work in the field or not.  Further, diversity is extremely important in finding solutions to a variety of projects.  Which is why immigrants are so beneficial.  Multicultural perspectives shine more light on how to improve the world overall.  There is no question that each of us contribute to science on a daily basis and therefore should respect science and stand up for science when the field finds itself under attack -- as is the present situation.

Partisan Politics Endangers Science

Politics tends to not be very welcome in the field of science.  Scientists see no use for politics except to raise funding levels to support scientific research at federal agencies.  Science existed long before politics existed.  Ancient people experimented with fire and looked to the stars without current technology and came to some astounding conclusions -- as we have read in the history of the world.  Why do we need science then?  Well, as I mentioned above, each of us have become scientists in one way or another and the possibility to untangle that coupling is growing weaker every day.  Which is good!!

For the last couple of hundred years, the United States has operated like a democracy.  The main feature of a democracy is that the people control the system. On April 22nd, a large percentage of the world will appear in the streets to stand up for science and show that there is a revival of science -- a movement.  Here is a large excerpt of a letter written to politicians from the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science regarding the motivation behind the science march:

On April 22, thousands of scientists will gather on the Capitol Mall for the March for Science, a nonpartisan set of activities that aim to promote science as a key driver of American prosperity and global quality of life, and the importance of using scientific evidence to inform policy.  I wanted to take the opportunity to share why the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is partnering with it, and offer our support in all you do to advance science.
I want to state at the outset that AAAS views this movement as an affirmation of science, not a protest of any individual proposal or person.  It is an affirmation that science improves human welfare and makes for successful public policy.  The march is an opportunity for scientists and the science-loving public to tout the importance, value and beauty of science.  Recent trans, like efforts to diminish scientific consensus and restrict free movement among scientific community, have certainly prompted concern among the scientific community.  These concerns have compelled the scientific community to reflect on the state of science in our society, and have forced us to face some hard truths -- that we cannot simply expect the science to speak for itself.  Science needs advocates, it needs communication, and it needs action. 
This is where the March for Science comes in.  The thrust behind this march is to simply remember what science is, why it is important, and how it benefits us all.  Science, in its most basic form, is a process. It is a process dedicated to discovery and the observation of our world.  When this process takes shape, boundless good happens from safer food and a healthier world to technologies that connect the globe and create jobs.
AAAS stands behind this movement because of a shared recognition that scientists and engineers offer the public an open pathway to discovery that has deepened human understanding of the world and advanced innovations that have delivered significant economic benefits.  This understanding and these benefits should be reflected in our public policy, and so we ask you to reaffirm these important principles and we offer to make the highest quality scientific information available to you on all important policy endeavors.

Wow!  That is a great letter?

Well stated Dr. Rush Holt.  Dr. Rush Holt is a former congressman from New Jersey who also served as the Director of the Office of Science and Technology under President Obama's administration.  He now serves as the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  Recently, after the inauguration of President Trump, the AAAS started featuring a weekly video series offered on the facebook site to educate people about engaging in advocating for science.

At this point, you might be wondering why this is needed?

Fair enough.  Upon entering office, President Trump has been rather vocal about reversing the work of President Obama regarding actions to fight climate change along with other environmental provisions.  Specifically, President Trump has targeted the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to roll back the Clean Power Plan and the Clean Water Act.

These repeals are still making their way through the courts.  In a previous blog post, I ask the question:  Why Would A President Choose To Deregulate The Environmental Protection Agency?  Especially given the responsibility of the EPA -- which is not limited to but protects our clean air and mandates that we have clean water.  Can you imagine the U.S. without clean water regulation?  Read here in a blog post to start to consider the possibility.  After Flint Michigan, you would think that more regulation on big corporation would be sought after to ensure safety of the public water system.

At a time when the World Health Organization is calling for greater research funding for problems like overcoming 'anti-biotic resistance', reductions in funding make zero sense at all.  Science is becoming a partisan issue when the fundamental practice of science is not political at the very heart.  During the weekly facebook webinars on AAAS, different congressional staffers lead us to believe that members of congress are bipartisan in their support for science.  If this is the case, then why pass the dishonest HONEST Act recently to throw out critical health care data for important studies such as air pollution.  I have been entertaining these topics recently.  Find out by clicking on the hyperlinked text to read my initial read on the issues.

Saturday's Science March is desperately needed as a starting point moving forward.  People (citizens of the world) need to gather to learn and unite to elevate science.  One March will not cure the problem.  Although, by gathering at each March, people will have the chance to share and learn of others enthusiasm for science.  Furthermore, to show how ubiquitous science is in our world.  This is only the beginning though of the process moving forward.

Action Is Needed By Everyone

As you can see, the CEO of AAAS wrote the above letter to the following elected officials: .  The intent was to elevate the fact that science is not partisan at all.  Although science data should play a large role (as evidence) to affect policy decisions.  In the past, scientists have written to President Trump regarding the adverse effect of his immigration policy would have on science (biotech industry specifically).  Check out the letter here.  In a follow up post, I showed how the President's words regarding immigration are hindering 'international student' enrollment into science related fields.

You will recall an earlier post from last year in which I discussed the benefits to the United States science system integrating international students have.  American students are elevated (challenged) as a result and perform better understanding more international perspectives offered by different cultures.  We are not a mono-culture.  We are a culture of immigrants -- on which American history rests.  Why stop now?

We must respect other cultures if we are to compete on an international level.  We want to foster international relationships to elevate the role of creating a healthier planet by joining agreements like the Paris Climate Accord.  Scientists wrote to the President regarding the importance of maintaining funding in the area of climate science.  I provide the letter here.  After signing onto the letter, each scientist was given the opportunity to comment on why climate action is important to their respective higher education institution.  Comments can be read here.

Scientists are not the only people worried about this administrations actions regarding reversing climate change steps.  Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine voiced her own objection through a letter in which she opposed President Trump's nomination of Scott Pruitt for director of the Environmental Protection Agency.  The letter is put into context and can be read here.  Protecting the environment is a 'bipartisan effort' which requires the removal of politics and the insertion of scientific facts to drive policy.


Each of us would like to live in a healthy and viable world - right?  Recently, politics has inserted itself into the scientific process.  President Trump did make promises to science during his campaign which can be read by clicking here.  I would hope that part of those promises involve investing more money into scientific research.  Which does not mean just to sell of oil from our strategic oil reserves to give a few hundred million dollars to the National Institutes of Health.

In a post last year, I wrote about the prospect of investing more money into promoting renewable energy jobs.  Big investors like Bill Gates and Sir Richard Branson are investing heavily in organizations to promote renewable energy.  Over the last few decades, coal has been in decline.  Oil pipelines are still being built -- look no further than the highly contested North Dakota Access Pipeline.  Hopefully, new technology will be built onto the pipelines to avoid catastrophic oil spills such as the historical spill in the Gulf of Mexico by the oil giant BP a few years ago.  Although, given the daily demand for oil by the United States, reducing spills to zero is improbable at the moment.

Where does this leave us as a nation?

Beginning on Saturday, show up and join fellow citizens of the planet to elevate science.  After, start to explore ways which you can make environmentally friendly decisions to further science and a healthy planet.  Last but not least, call your local elected officials or write them (as I blog about here) and start a dialog about sustainable measures which you would like to see them vote "yes" for.   Together, we can make a difference to improve the world by incorporating more science (evidence) based decisions into policy making in Washington moving forward.

Until next time, have a great day!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

How Many Seats Could Be Filled With Nearly 3.6 Million Tons Of Plastic Produced Each Year?

Plastic is ubiquitous in the world today.  Products made of plastic are durable and cheap not to mention the impact that they have had on our daily lives is immeasurable.  Although, there is a downside to every new technology.  The downside to plastic is while being cheap and lightweight, manufacturers have transitioned toward using plastic to package products which amplifies the amount of plastic which accumulates in our landfills each year.  Recently, in an article from the website "Daily Mail UK" titled "Full scale of the plastic menace: Two MILLION tonnes of soft drink bottles are sold a year, and only 6.6% are recycled" the author sheds light on plastic which is supposedly recycled annually.  According to the article:

More than two million tonnes of plastic bottles a year are made by the biggest soft drinks companies.
But the amount of plastic used that comes from recycled sources is a miserly 6.6 per cent. 
The figure is an underestimate of how much plastic is created as the world’s biggest soft drink firm, Coca-Cola, did not participate in the study.

Wow!   That is a gross failure to recycle plastic that could potentially end up in the ocean and other waterways.  Further, which can pollute by breaking down into smaller pieces to be ingested by marine life and end up on our sea food platters -- What?  You get my point.  If the tremendous amount of plastic is not recycled, then the waste has to be discarded some where.

The author starts the article with the startling figure of plastic bottles -- which is startling to say the least.  Although, further down in the article, the amount of plastic generated is increased to 3.6 million tons by taking into account other types of plastic.  I had an enormous amount of time wrapping my head around these numbers after first reading them.  Therefore, to understand them more completely, I thought that a little dimensional analysis might untangle the extraordinary numbers.  Below is the result.

Plastic Chairs

In order to understand the enormous number cited in the article -- 3.6 million tons of plastic each year, a metric needs to be used to put this enormous number into perspective.  Initially, the article stated that nearly 2 million tons of plastic bottles are not recycled.  That number increased to 3.6 million tons of plastic including other plastics besides just soda bottles.  If a calculation is performed using 3.6 million tons, then 2 million tons will be less than the result.  Therefore, both numbers will be brought into perspective by viewing the total number of stadium seats which could be filled.

To start with, the metric which will be used is the plastic chair shown below from Lowe's hardware store:

Source: Lowe's

Shown above is the advertisement for a monoplastic plastic chair.  The questions which we are answering is shown below:

How many plastic chairs could be made using 3.6 million tons of plastic?

How many stadiums could be filled with those plastic chairs?

To start answering the above questions, the weight of the plastic chair needs to be determined.  If we refer to the advertisement taken from the webpage and shown above, if you scroll down the webpage, more options about the product being sold (plastic chair) will appear.  After selecting "specifications" the properties and dimensions of the plastic chair appear and are shown below:

Source: Lowe's

From the specifications listed above, each chair weighs 4.44 pounds.  To determine the number of chairs which could be made with 3.6 million tons of plastic, a simple division of two numbers needs to be carried out.  At this point, we pause to compare the 'units' on the two values to be divided.

The total amount of plastic is expressed in 'units' of 'tons' whereas the weight of each plastic chair is expressed in 'units' of 'pounds'.  A conversion of units is needed for one of the two values.  Either the value for the weight of a chair could be converted to units of 'tons'.  Or the value of the total weight of the plastic could be converted to units of 'pounds'.  Regardless, after dividing the two values expressed in the same units of measurement will give the total number of chairs which could be made.

I chose the first unit conversion.  In order to carry the conversion of units out from 'tons' to 'pounds', the conversion factor needs to be known.  In order to find out the conversion factor, a search engine can be used -- such as  Type in the following question: How many pounds are in a ton?
The following answer will appear as shown below:

There are 2000 pounds in a ton.   Now the conversion is possible as shown below:

There are 7.2 billion pounds in 3.6 million tons.  Now the number of plastic chairs can be determined by dividing 7.2 billion pounds by 4.44 pounds as shown below:

The result of the above division shows that a total of 1.6 billion plastic chairs could be made from 3.6 million tons of plastic.  And this is just one year of plastic that ends up in the oceans or in landfills which takes thousands of years to break down.

How Many Superdomes Could Be filled?

The calculation of the total amount of plastic chairs which could be made with 3.6 million tons was performed rather easily in just two steps.  Although the result seems rather simple is an enormous number.  Trying to visualize 3.6 million tons is difficult enough, how would a person go about the process of processing the volume of 1.6 billion plastic chairs.  One method might be to use a picture of a large crowd of some sort and then express the value in multiples of the that crowd.

For instance, a crowd of a million people might be used as a metric.  If this were the case, then the answer would be to divide 1.6 billion chairs by 1 million people and the result would be that -- 1,600 crowds could be seated.  Again, a little difficult to set into perspective.

How about a commonly used metric on this site -- the Mercedez Benz Superdome?  

The exterior of the Mercedez Benz Superdome is shown below:

Source: Wikipedia

And the interior of the Mercedez Benz Superdome is shown below:

Source: Wikipedia

In order to set into perspective the enormous amount of chairs from the calculation above (1.6 billion chairs), each of us will need to imagine replacing each chair in the stadium by a plastic chair shown above from Lowe's hardware store.  Next, the total number of seats in the Superdome needs to be determined to complete the final calculation.

If the "Wikipedia" page is consulted for the Mercedez Benz Superdome, the total seating capacity is stated as 76,468 seats (for a football game).  Just as the calculation was straightforward for the number of crowds which could be seated, the same is true for determining the number of stadiums with the value of the total seating capacity.   The calculation is carried out by dividing the total number of plastic chairs (1.6 billion) by the total number of seats (76,468) in the Superdome as shown below:

According to the result, a total of 21,000 Superdomes would be needed to house 1.6 billion plastic chairs -- WOW!


That is a huge number of stadiums to be filled with the total amount of plastic that is generated annually.  And that is just one year.  Imagine if the problem is compounded (ignored) for ten years.  It is no wonder why there is a large 'Great Pacific garbage patch' in the ocean which mainly consists of plastics which have migrated from various parts of the world.  Each of us should be mindful of our purchases.  This is the first step.  Further, each of us should demand that manufacturers consider the lifetime cycle of each plastic bottle.

In a previous blog post, I wrote about the life cycle of a soda bottle.  The life cycle is shown below:

 Manufacturers previously thought that once the product left the warehouse after purchase, then the waste was another businesses problem to deal with down stream.  As the world is becoming more sustainable, so are the requirements on manufacturers (which is good).  Now, each manufacturer must consider the end of life destination for their products.  As a result of the new requirement, less plastic will end up in either landfills or oceans.

Until next time, have a great day!

Monday, April 10, 2017

Congress Is Not Being Honest With The Public By Passing The HONEST Act?

Ignoring the President Trump's roll back or repeal of the Obama administration's advances to incorporate science into policy making when science should weigh in, the 115th Congress has chosen to follow the Trump administration's push toward devaluing science in regard to your (the public and world at large) health.  Below is an example (of legislation in play) which all of us should be aware of in regard to how science plays a role in policy making.  As history unfolds, you can be the judge of the consequence or lack thereof which these decisions play into the future of our world.

Your Health Does Not Matter!

The introduction might have sounded a little bleak at first read.  And partly this is the case with the repeal of the Obama administration's incorporation of science into policy making.  After President Trump was sworn into office, he started immediately devaluing the role which science could play into policy making which is a dangerous idea.  Why?  I will get to that later in the post.

First and foremost, Congress convened and used the momentum of the new administration to repeal the "Clean Power Plan" by Executive Order through President Trump.  So what - you might be thinking?  Well, the motivation by President Trump and the Republicans in Congress was to reduce 'unnecessary restrictions' on the coal industry in the overall effort to put coal miners back to work.  Sounds great right?  Removing the Clean Power Plan allows coal companies to "blow up" the top of mountains to search for coal.  What is wrong with this?

Nothing except if the source of your drinking water is from the river below.  Can you think of any recent examples in history where the publics water supply was impacted by tainted river water?

How about the chemical spill into the Elk River in 2014?  Here is an excerpt from the "Wikipedia" page:

The Elk River chemical spill occurred on January 9, 2014 when crude 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) was released from a Freedom Industries facility into the Elk River, a tributary of the Kanawha River, in Charleston in the U.S. state of West Virginia.
The chemical spill occurred upstream from the principal West Virginia American Water intake and treatment and distribution center. Following the spill, up to 300,000 residents within nine counties in the Charleston, West Virginia metropolitan area were without access to potable water. The areas affected were portions of Boone, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam, and Roane counties and the Culloden area of Cabell County.
Crude MCHM is a chemical foam used to wash coal and remove impurities that contribute to pollution during combustion. The "do-not-use" advisory for drinking water from West Virginia American Water's system began to be gradually lifted by West Virginia state officials on January 13 based upon "priority zones."
On Tuesday, January 14, the company revealed that the tank, which leaked about 7,500 gallons into the ground by the Elk River, had also contained a mixture of glycol ethers known as PPH, with a similar function as MCHM.
The chemical spill was the third chemical accident to occur in the Kanawha River Valley within the last five years. On June 12, 2014 another spill of containment water occurred at the same site.[1]

The news surrounding this spill along with the tainted water in Flint (Michigan) occupied the airwaves for months only to vanish and leave us to forget the negative impact that businesses can have on the local water supply when proper regulations are not enforced.  Further, as mentioned in the excerpt above, the chemical was used to wash coal.

This could have been avoided had regulators from the local (state) analog (equivalent) of the Environmental Protection Agency -- in West Virginia called the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) enforced state law.  On a few occasions, members of the WVDEP were called to the site after reports surfaced of "odors" coming from the tanks.  After the indicident occurred and impacted over 300,000 residents, the WVDEP realized that greater action might have avoided such a catastrophe. Of course, after the incident the DEP also blamed through the popular news the EPA for a lack of finding violations over a number of years.

The take home message was that given better regulatory oversight (not less), the incident should have been avoided.

Of course, even with greater oversight, will regulators and local government choose the safe drinking water system.  The news coverage of the Flint (Michigan) water crisis has finally died down.  That does not make the regions drinking water any safer according to residents.  Furthermore, there is an even greater push to have more regulatory oversight from the federal government recently.  In an article titled "MICH. CONGRESSMAN ADVOCATES FOR UPDATES TO LEAD & COPPER RULE" the actions of a local politician are gaining traction:

Last week, Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) said the EPA needs to strengthen its Lead and Copper Rule in light of the water crisis in Flint, according to The Hill.
In a statement, Kildee said: "After what happened to my hometown of Flint, we must strengthen and update the Lead and Copper Rule to provide greater transparency for families. Updating this outdated rule will not only protect public health, it will restore public confidence in their water systems. We must learn from the failures of government that lead to the Flint water crisis to prevent a similar man-made emergency from happening elsewhere."

Lowering the acceptable levels of lead and copper in water amounts to stricter regulatory oversight of the water.  Having clean and safe water is not a compromise that is often distorted by partisan politics.  Each U.S. resident is entitled to access to safe drinking water.  Hopefully, the above bill will move to become a law for the entire United States.  If you are interested into a glimpse of water the U.S. will look like with little-to-no regulatory oversight for safe drinking water read my previous post.

The overall theme of the current administration (Presidential administration) seems to be centered around the deregulation of the federal government and its ability to regulate.  There are two main avenues by which to greatly impact the governments ability to regulate:

1) Change the narrative of the governments focus

2) Change the ability to consider scientific evidence into policy-making

President Trump started working through the first avenue early on during his campaign for the presidency.  Only after being sworn into office, did he actually participate in the second avenue.  How you might wonder does he achieve work through the second avenue?  Easy.  Early on (week 2) President Trump implemented a 'media freeze out' which restricted the flow of information from the federal agencies to the public.  I wrote about the meaning and potential impact of such a censure would be.

The goal of any President should not ever be to limit the dissemination of any scientific results.  We live in a democracy.  Therefore, the public should have access to the data (scientific results) which were funded by tax-payer money.  Sounds reasonable correct?

Furthermore, the data which was funded by the tax-payer should be available to the public and considered in any policy making decisions moving forward which impact the health of the environment and the citizens which occupy it (the world).  Having said this, recent actions by the Senate to pass the HONEST act have turned removed this possibility by a marked 180 degree shift.

HONEST act Is Not Honest!

If you were to speak to any staff member of Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas), they would convince you that having public access to data involving policy making decision is critical.  Furthermore, scientific data should be open access all around.  I agree 100%.  Only if this was the TRUE nature of the HONEST ACT (H.R. 1430) then maybe the bill would have bipartisan support.

According to an article in the journal "New Scientist" titled "US bill restricts use of science in environmental policymaking" the HONEST Act would have the following negative impact:

Last week the US House of Representatives passed a bill, the HONEST Act, that would prevent the EPA from basing any of its regulations on science that is not publicly accessible – not just journal articles themselves, but all of the underlying data, models and computer code.
“The HONEST Act requires EPA to base new regulations on sound science that is publicly available, and not hidden from the American people,” said Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican and chair of the House science committee, who sponsored the bill, in a statement. “The days of ‘trust me’ science are over.”
“Allowing EPA’s data to be independently reviewed promotes sound science that will restore confidence in the EPA decision-making process,” said Smith.

The last statement by Representative Lamar Smith would lead you to believe that he is devoted to transparency.  That is not the case considering the ramifications of the prior two paragraphs.  Again, here is an excerpt highlighting the issue with confidential information:

While the EPA does make background data available when possible, there are situations where it is impractical or impossible to release that information. Many epidemiological studies must remain confidential because of their use of human subjects, and computer models and code are often protected by intellectual property rules.
The bill allows such data to be kept secret, but would also allow anyone who had signed a confidentiality agreement to access that data if protected information, such as subjects’ names, is redacted. Rosenberg says the amount of time and effort it would take to redact the information would be unnecessarily burdensome.
Also, for research on humans it’s often not that difficult to reidentify people even after data has been anonymised. And in most cases, the EPA does not own the data, so it’s not theirs to give out. Many researchers and companies would likely refuse to hand it over if asked, so it becomes impossible for the EPA to use this data.

The proposed changes to redact the confidential information does not make any sense at all.  Congress has worked around making policy off of patient information for decades.  The bill was clever since removing the "confidential information" wipes out scientists ability to argue that a "risk factor" tied to "air pollution" exists even though this has been proven and is accepted within the scientific and medical community (listen to the podcast titled "Lead and the developing brain with Dr. Bruce Lanphear).   I wrote a recent blog in which the former Governor of California - Arnold Schwarzenegger describes the negative impacts on health of air pollution.  Having this medical information discarded or invalidated due to not being made available to the public is outrageous.

The intentions of Lamar Smith are unethical and truly outrageous.  Unfortunately, his actions are not isolated among his peers and others within the Congress and the Trump Administration.  President Trump's nominee (now director) of the Environmental Protection Agency has made his debut with the HONEST Act.  Recently, in an article titled "EPA Leaders Trashed Staff Comments Critical of Data Overhaul Bill: Officials" the author writes about the leadership (i.e. director, etc.) role in the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to disregard data from concerned veteran employees toward the bill:

The legislation (H.R.1430), which passed the House March 29 with only three Democrats in support, would require all research used in agency actions to be made public. The staff comments decried the bill, arguing it would cost the agency at least $250 million a year while threatening agency know-how and jeopardizing personal and confidential business information. Those current officials, along with a former career official, said they have never witnessed such a dramatic contradiction between staff-crafted comments and the official evaluation passed onto the budget office.
‘Complete Disregard’
“This is a complete disregard,” said an agency official who helped write the comments. But “it’s consistent with everything else we’ve seen. Basically all the actions of our organization are being curtailed from every direction. This is just another piece of that, and it doesn’t take a big step to connect those dots.”
An email obtained by Bloomberg BNA illustrated the inner-workings.
“The administrator’s office decided not to send our responses forward,” the email said. "[The Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Relations] fought for the points we made, but [the administrator’s office] ultimately decided to send a response back to [the Congressional Budget Office (CBO)] that said no cost, no comment.” Bloomberg BNA is not publishing the email to safeguard the identities of those involved.

The director of the Environmental Protection Agency disregarding expert opinion on a bill which would hamper the ability to regulate according to scientific results.  WOW!  Unbelievable.  What is believable from these articles is that President Trump is making good on his word to put into positions of authority figures who would advance his agenda.  Which equates to destroying the ability to consider scientific results from policy-making.  This of course led to many law-makers on capital hill to vote "no" for the nomination of Scott Pruitt -- even a republican senator -- read here.  Unfortunately, that was not enough to stop the nomination and now we are left to deal with the aftermath of President Trump's unqualified nomination to the EPA.


As of this writing, the HONEST Act bill has passed through the House.  You can track the progress by clicking here.  The first step toward making sure that science data is considered into policy making is to understand how it is not being considered as through the use of the HONEST Act.  The second step toward restoring the validity of scientific data is through promoting science.  One avenue by which any citizen can do this is by writing your congressional representative.  In a post earlier this year, I show how to write a representative along with the reply from them displaying their position on the issue at hand.  If each of us participate to the fullest in democracy, then democracy will pay dividends -- meaning the process will pay off tremendously.  Part of that participation is by educating ourselves on current issues and then tracking how our political (elected) representatives are making decisions on our behalf.  With that in mind, I hope that your educational journey will continue and you will continue to fight the injustices like passing the HONEST Act to keep our world a safer and healthier place to live in.

Until next time, have a great day!!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Chemists Learn To Build Up Nanoparticles -- One Atom At A Time!

The field of nanotechnology has emerged over the last decade as an extremely important field to watch heading into the future of materials research.  With the miniaturization of electronics spanning to the new types of flexible sensors coming onto the market, no other field has contributed as much.  Nanotechnology is a broad field as highlighted in the following excerpt from "Wikipedia" page:

Nanotechnology ("nanotech") is manipulation of matter on an atomic, molecular, and supramolecular scale. The earliest, widespread description of nanotechnology[1][2] referred to the particular technological goal of precisely manipulating atoms and molecules for fabrication of macroscale products, also now referred to as molecular nanotechnology. A more generalized description of nanotechnology was subsequently established by the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which defines nanotechnology as the manipulation of matter with at least one dimension sized from 1 to 100 nanometers. This definition reflects the fact that quantum mechanical effects are important at this quantum-realm scale, and so the definition shifted from a particular technological goal to a research category inclusive of all types of research and technologies that deal with the special properties of matter which occur below the given size threshold. It is therefore common to see the plural form "nanotechnologies" as well as "nanoscale technologies" to refer to the broad range of research and applications whose common trait is size. Because of the variety of potential applications (including industrial and military), governments have invested billions of dollars in nanotechnology research. Until 2012, through its National Nanotechnology Initiative, the USA has invested 3.7 billion dollars, the European Union has invested 1.2 billion and Japan 750 million dollars.[3]
Nanotechnology as defined by size is naturally very broad, including fields of science as diverse as surface science, organic chemistry, molecular biology, semiconductor physics, microfabrication, molecular engineering, etc.[4] The associated research and applications are equally diverse, ranging from extensions of conventional device physics to completely new approaches based upon molecular self-assembly, from developing new materials with dimensions on the nanoscale to direct control of matter on the atomic scale.

Do you believe me now?

In the following paragraphs, I want to introduce you to recent research that is shedding light on the mysteries of building solid structures one atom at a time.

Building Nanoparticles!

In a recent article from the online journal "Lab Manager" titled "Scientists Determine Precise 3-D Location and Identity of All 23,000 Atoms in a Nanoparticle" research was reported on regarding figuring out the precise position of 23,000 atoms in a nanoparticle.  Here is an excerpt introducing the research in the article:

Scientists used one of the world’s most powerful electron microscopes to map the precise location and chemical type of 23,000 atoms in an extremely small particle made of iron and platinum.
The 3-D reconstruction reveals the arrangement of atoms in unprecedented detail, enabling the scientists to measure chemical order and disorder in individual grains, which sheds light on the material’s properties at the single-atom level. Insights gained from the particle’s structure could lead to new ways to improve its magnetic performance for use in high-density, next-generation hard drives.
What’s more, the technique used to create the reconstruction, atomic electron tomography (which is like an incredibly high-resolution CT scan), lays the foundation for precisely mapping the atomic composition of other useful nanoparticles. This could reveal how to optimize the particles for more efficient catalysts, stronger materials, and disease-detecting fluorescent tags.

One of the many benefits of the emerging field of nanotechnology is to understand matter at an extremely small scale.  The nano scale, as mentioned above, has one dimension on the order of a billionth of a meter -- that is 1/1,000,000,000 meter...which is small.  Instructors typically teach chemistry on the macroscale or bulk scale.  Right about now, you might be thinking the following:

What do you mean Mike by the "bulk scale" or "macroscale"? 

Introduction: "Bulk Phase" or "Bulk Scale" (i.e. "macroscopic scale")

Good question.  Chemistry reactions happen on the "macroscopic scale".  Another name for the scale is the "bulk phase" or "bulk scale".  The unit of quantity used in discussing reactions is called the 'mole'.  The 'mole' in chemistry is equivalent to 'a dozen' used in everyday life.  A dozen corresponds to the quantity of 12.  A mole corresponds to the following number -- Avogadro's number shown below:

602,300,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules (or atoms) = 1 mole of molecules (or atoms)

This number when used to discuss chemistry is cast in context to the number of atoms or molecules contained within a mole.  For example, if we discuss the chemical reaction of the combustion of methane gas, the following chemical reaction could be written as:

Source: Wikipedia

In the reaction above, two different representations exist.  The top is a molecular representation of the reaction.  Whereas, on the bottom, the written reaction is represented.  Notice that in front of "02" there is a number "2".  That number signifies the number of 'moles' -- which I will touch on shortly.  A chemist would read the above reaction as follows:

1 mole of methane gas reacts with 2 moles of oxygen gas to form 1 mole of carbon dioxide and 2 moles of water!

When discussing chemical reactions like the combustion of methane gas listed above, typically, the amounts of combustible material and the masses liberated are expressed in units of 'moles'.  A 'mole' is a very large number as shown above 6.023 with 23 zero's after the decimal place.  This gives us an idea of just how small atoms are.  To give you an idea of viewing a chemical reaction using molar amounts (moles), view the following combustion reaction shown below:

In the video above, the reaction of the combustion of methane gas trapped in a bubble of soap. The amount of methane molecules contained in the bubble are on the order of Avogadro's number (some percentage of a mole).  Viewing chemistry reactions from this "macromolecular" frame is remanent of the historical founding of chemistry.

For the past few centuries,  chemistry has been taught and performed on a large scale - molar scale.  This is referred to as "bulk phase" chemistry.  Alternatively, on the other side of the scale -- down in scale -- lies the world of 'nanotechnology'.  The bridge between the 'nanoscale' and 'bulk phase' is still being defined.

Bulk Phase vs. Nanoscale

As I mentioned above, the reactions are written in what seems to be the simplest form.  Yet, the quantities of reactants (reacting molecules) and products (molecules produced) are expressed in terms of 'moles' -- which is a large number.

What is fascinating is that the best computational power emerging presently is no where near able to represent a typical chemical reaction with molar quantities.  That would take an unheard of amount of computing power to perform.  When computational chemist simulate reactions, the number of molecules are usually small as described in the introduction of the "Wikipedia" page for "computational chemistry":

Computational chemistry is a branch of chemistry that uses computer simulation to assist in solving chemical problems. It uses methods of theoretical chemistry, incorporated into efficient computer programs, to calculate the structures and properties of molecules and solids. It is necessary because, apart from relatively recent results concerning the hydrogen molecular ion (dihydrogen cation, see references therein for more details), the quantum many-body problem cannot be solved analytically, much less in closed form. While computational results normally complement the information obtained by chemical experiments, it can in some cases predict hitherto unobserved chemical phenomena. It is widely used in the design of new drugs and materials.
Examples of such properties are structure (i.e., the expected positions of the constituent atoms), absolute and relative (interaction) energies, electronic charge density distributions, dipoles and higher multipole moments, vibrational frequencies, reactivity, or other spectroscopic quantities, and cross sections for collision with other particles.
The methods used cover both static and dynamic situations. In all cases, the computer time and other resources (such as memory and disk space) increase rapidly with the size of the system being studied. That system can be one molecule, a group of molecules, or a solid. Computational chemistry methods range from very approximate to highly accurate; the latter are usually feasible for small systems only. Ab initio methods are based entirely on quantum mechanics and basic physical constants. Other methods are called empirical or semi-empirical because they use additional empirical parameters.
Both ab initio and semi-empirical approaches involve approximations. These range from simplified forms of the first-principles equations that are easier or faster to solve, to approximations limiting the size of the system (for example, periodic boundary conditions), to fundamental approximations to the underlying equations that are required to achieve any solution to them at all. For example, most ab initio calculations make the Born–Oppenheimer approximation, which greatly simplifies the underlying Schrödinger equation by assuming that the nuclei remain in place during the calculation. In principle, ab initio methods eventually converge to the exact solution of the underlying equations as the number of approximations is reduced. In practice, however, it is impossible to eliminate all approximations, and residual error inevitably remains. The goal of computational chemistry is to minimize this residual error while keeping the calculations tractable.

With the emergence of the computer and the ability to handle calculations of properties of molecules and reactions, chemists are now able to look at chemistry (reactions, properties, phases, etc.) from the ground up.  That is, from a couple of atoms or molecules reacting toward groups or phases reacting.  The complexity and time scales with the number of atoms or molecules.  Here is where the dilemma lies.

A typical chemical reaction like the combustion of methane gas trapped in the bubbles of soap (shown above) occurs on the 'macroscopic scale' whereas the ability of a computational chemist still resides on the molecular scale.  Ideally, chemists would enjoy the possibility of simulating the macroscopic scale in terms of reactions, phases, properties of systems, etc.

Currently, researchers are trying to achieve defining the boundary between the 'nanoscale' and 'bulk phase'.  Researchers from the University of Hyderabad in India have been studying the boundary between the two in an article titled "An experimental criterion for the nano-to-bulk phase transition":

The continued interest in nanostructured, nanocrystalline and nanograined materials is not surprising due to the very important technological implications of these materials [1]; [2]; [3]; [4]; [5]; [6] ;  [7]. It is also true that the effect of size on physical behaviour of materials has thrown up several fundamental questions that point to the fact that the nanophase has to be treated as a separate state of matter. Although the prediction by Gleiter [8] ;  [9] to this effect was made many years ago, there have been very few attempts at arriving at a universal definition of the onset of the nanophase that cuts across physical phenomena. Kreibig and Vollmer [10] have suggested that 10^7 atoms are approximately the upper limit for metal nanoclusters to exist.
In our previous paper [11], we have given theoretical as well as experimental evidence for the nano to bulk transition to be regarded as a phase transition. It was demonstrated that the chemical potential of bosons trapped in a harmonic potential shows a discontinuity as a function of the number of particles in the system. It was further shown that bulk-like behaviour is exhibited by the system if the number of particles is of the order of 10^6 or greater. Indeed, this can also be expressed in terms of the ratio of crystallite volume, V, of the experimental sample and the volume of the unit cell, Vc. Significantly, even in this case for values of the ratio >10^6, the materials exhibit bulk-like behaviour. This was demonstrated to be true for a variety of physical phenomena. However, the nature of the phase transition was not discussed in the earlier work. In the current work, the nature of the phase transition is discussed leading to a possible experimental criterion for the onset of nanophase is proposed.

Treating the 'nanoscale' and 'bulk scale' as different phases is an interesting concept.  Traditionally, chemists think of different phases as the three most common: liquid phase, gas phase, and solid phase.  The three phase diagram for a single pure substance is shown below:

Notice how there are different phases shown in the diagram above.  To the left of the curve (high pressure, low temperature) is the 'solid phase'.  Moving right (increase in temperature) is the 'liquid phase'.  Finally, moving down from the 'liquid phase' (decreasing pressure) is the 'gaseous phase'.  Each of the phases have distinct properties of matter.

Moving from the 'bulk phase' to the 'nanoscale' is equivalent to increasing the magnification on matter.  Looking at fewer molecules, yet taking into account the distinct properties of individual atoms or molecules.  Performing chemistry on the 'nanoscale' requires chemists (and physicists) to consider properties of elements on a small scale.  Meaning that when performing the research as highlighted in building up a nanoparticle, scientists learn more about how individual atoms or molecules impact large scale properties.

The nanoscale offers the ability to tweak molecules - atom by atom which is unique compared to previous centuries of science.  Additionally, learning how the distinct properties (electronic configuration, spatial configuration, thermodynamic properties) of each atom or molecule offer greater insight into properties that have never before been able to be studied.  Previously, the properties were discussed in a statistical fashion as part of a group behavior.

Nanotechnology has pushed that boundary forward and continues to do so.


Manipulating matter on the 'nanoscale' involves building up matter from the ground up.  Which is to say, atom by atom or molecule by molecule.  Strange properties are starting to be discovered.  As I mentioned earlier, when chemistry is performed between small amounts of molecules or atoms, the chemical properties of the elements involved come into play a greater role.  At this scale, there is a large amount of room to expand our knowledge.  Groups of atoms or molecules can have a different reaction coordinates from that of the 'bulk phase' -- moles reacting.  Why is this?  Still open ended.  How do individual atoms or molecules interact on the nanoscale which gives rise to 'macroscopic' properties?  Still open ended.  The field of nanotechnology has a tremendous amount of benefits to offer as chemists learn the effects of various properties on a microscopic scale.

Whereas, chemistry which occurs on a 'macroscopic' scale involves greater quantities of molecules and atoms.  Statistics plays a greater role in the description of the behavior of atoms and molecules on the macroscopic scale.  Each scale has its place within the context of chemistry.  Chemistry which occurs on the microscopic scale might be very different than that which occurs on the macroscopic scale.  An example of this might be stirring a cup of coffee.  How would the thermodynamics of the stirring change if the scale of the volume were increased to a 1000 liter reaction vessel?  Investigating differences remains to be conquered.  In the meantime, bridging the gap between the nanoscale and the macroscopic scale involves developments like building up nanoparticles and following their behavior over time (stability, etc.).

Until next time, have a great day!