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NYTimes Science Reporting Epic FAIL

Here’s a sciencey article I found in the NYTimes this morning. It’s about a clever repackaging of metals used in catalytic reactions.  This bit sort of explains where we’re going:

Despite the cost and relative scarcity of precious metals — iridium, platinum, rhodium — we rely on them to manufacture products from denim to beer, pharmaceuticals to fuel cells. The elements are used as catalysts, substances that kick off or enable chemical reactions.

But right afterwards, there’s a hint that something isn’t quite right:

Dr. Chirik’s work involves dissolved catalysts, which are mixed into the end product. The molecules of the catalyst dissipate during the reaction. For instance, a solution containing platinum is used to make silicone emulsifiers, compounds that in turn feed products like makeup, cookware and glue. Tiny amounts of the expensive metal are scattered in all these things; your jeans, for instance, contain unrecoverable particles of platinum.

“We’re not about to run out of platinum,” said Matthew Hartings, a chemist at American University in Washington, “but this process spends that platinum in a nonsustainable way.”

Something about the first two sentences seem weird.  Maybe I’ve just been out of the lab too long.  Is the writer saying that the platinum is dispersed or that there is a catalyst containing platinum that is dispersed or that the catalyst *is* the platinum?  Any of the three possibilities could be right.

Ahh, here it comes:

Dr. Chirik’s chemistry essentially wraps an iron molecule in another, organic molecule called a ligand. The ligand alters the number of electrons available to form bonds. It also serves as a scaffold, giving the molecule shape. “Geometry is really important in chemistry,” Dr. Hartings said. Dr. Chirik’s “ligands help the iron to be in the right geometry to help these reactions along.”

Ok, you can’t wrap anything around an iron molecule.   Iron is an element and in this context, it should consist of single atoms. Molecules are constructed in the following way:

protons + neutrons + electrons => an atom

atoms + atoms => molecules

In the above paragraph, the reporter makes it sound like a single egg can make a cake all on its own.  Then in the next sentence, that egg is wrapped up in some Pillsbury crescent.  The writer also suggests that iron molecule is wrapped inside *another* organic molecule called a ligand.  Wait, are the iron and ligand both organic? Unlikely.  Iron is an inorganic metal.  The ligand may be organic.

It’s bizarre.  Can someone at the NYTimes get a journalist who actually understands basic science?  Nevermind, just look at the pictures.

This article could have been interesting.  It has all the right words like “ligand”, “scaffold” and “geometry”.  But like the famous Chomsky sentence, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously“, those words lose their meaning in the hands of this writer.  This sentence makes sense: ““Geometry is really important in chemistry,” Dr. Hartings said. Dr. Chirik’s “ligands help the iron to be in the right geometry to help these reactions along.””, but only because the reporter seems to have written down the words as they were spoken.  I still have no idea what this article is about or why Dr. Chirik’s catalytic ligands are important or better in the manufacturing process.  What the article seems to be saying, based on the pictures, is that the more expensive metal catalysts containing platinum, for example, can be substituted with less expensive catalysts containing iron.  In the new  iron containing catalysts, the organic molecule that surrounds the iron atom is synthesized to be a ligand of a certain shape.  That shape constrains the possible coordination bonds of the metal atom in geometries that are specific for certain catalytic reactions that mimic the catalytic reactions of the more expensive platinum atom.

What has any of this to do with turning iron into gold?

Jeez, I’ll just look up the paper.

**************************************

Update: Katiebird provides this helpful site for women called “Academic Men Explain Things To Me“.  This is also called “mansplaining”.  You know how it is, some guy always has to tell you exactly how things work because you may not understand it.

I think we’ve all seen variations on this theme in the last four years.  After all, wasn’t that what the Obama phenomenon was all about?  A bunch of male graduate student types who patiently explained why electing Obama was more important that electing Hillary and if we were as smart as they were, the reason would be obvious.  Then they refused to admit they were wrong about that, like men who don’t listen to you in the car when you tell them they’ve taken a wrong turn and then go 100 miles out of their way before they finally stop and ask directions.

I had a guy in a paint store tell me the other day that if I knew anything about paint, I would know that it was impossible to get the shade of palladian blue I wanted with the correct mixture of white added to it to match my walls even though I reminded him that it was his paint shop that mixed the original custom shade and that it should be on file in his database under my name.  But, no, I had to listen to this blowhard go on at length about how finding the right formula to match my color would be impossible and I should just face up to the fact that the whole room would need to be repainted in the palladian blue color he had and he wasn’t going to mix me a custom shade like he did before and I would NEVER be able to match what was already on the walls.

So, I left and bought the paint from a different Benjamin Moore dealer who was a woman.  Happens all the time.

On those days, I dream of a world where women are equipped with telepathic powers that would deliver Milgramian corrective shocks to men until they stopped doing that.  That would be wrong but it is, after all, only a dream.

5 Responses

  1. You lost me. But, my Dad’s addicted to Science Tuesday. I’ll ask him what he thinks about it.

    I haven’t had coffee yet. I can’t find the coffee filter-container. Which is NOT a good way to start the day!

    • Ha ha ha. Set up the coffee before you go to bed. I don’t have a timer or anything, but, when I wake up in the morning, all I have to do is stumble over to the machine and turn it on!

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