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Friday Science Horror Story

The title was suggested by Lambert at Corrente.  I’ll try to keep this short and sweet.

The site, Chemjobber, reported back in January 2012 that the unemployment rate among chemists was at 6.1%.  That’s much higher than the BLS rate from a year earlier when the BLS said it was about half that.  But it’s still nowhere near what we on the ground are witnessing.  I guess a better question would be how many chemists are practicing chemists.  From what I’m seeing, not very many.  The former colleague I met in the grocery store yesterday told me that the biotech my old company bought laid off all but 4 of the chemists they had.  That’s right.  Medium sized biotech laid off all but *4* chemists.

Chemjobber also has some less than encouraging words for the future of chemistry in this country from a candidate for the presidency of the American Chemical Society (ACS), Dr. Dennis Chamot:

Nevertheless, a global manufacturing enterprise with increasing international competition is here to stay. Unfortunately for chemical professionals, it’s not just shop-floor manufacturing and assembly jobs that have moved from the U.S. to Asia and other areas; in recent years the movement has included upper-level, sophisticated work such as chemical research, drug discovery, process design and development, and various levels of management. In addition, domestic capabilities have increased enormously in developing countries such as China, India, and Brazil, as has their output of homegrown scientists and engineers.

What does all of this say about employment opportunities for U.S. chemists? Well, we are probably producing too many chemists for the traditional academic and industrial research labor market, at least for the foreseeable future. To come to any other conclusion would be indulging in empty rhetoric. Note that I did not say we are producing too many graduates with chemistry degrees—more on that later—but we need to be realistic…

[snip] Growth in the U.S. will not be fast enough to make up for all of the lost positions in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries over the past few years, in part because many of these losses have not been solely determined by economic decline. Rather, there have been strategic shifts to place work in other countries, and there is no reason to expect those decisions to be reversed.

The keys for many chemical professionals will have to be imagination and flexibility. I am a firm believer in the need for all citizens in modern technological societies to have a strong grounding in science and math, so I would never discourage anyone from pursuing a chemistry degree. What one thinks about doing with that background, though, should include much more than just scientific research. Chemists develop lots of skills, and those skills can be applied in medicine, high school teaching, forensics, science writing, legislative work, policy analysis, quality assurance, regulatory support, and more—much more than just R&D in universities or industry.

Depressing.  We really love science but we won’t be doing it for a living anymore.

One other thing my former colleague told me was that upper management is now starting to pressure the remaining scientists to cut back on the amount of research they do.  She found this puzzling.  If you are in the research business, it’s going to take research to do it.  There’s no way to predict how many experiments are needed in advance so they can be entered in the spreadsheet in preparation for the next quarter’s numbers.  If costs are driving the move to China and the massive layoffs in America, then I will reiterate my prediction that drugs will not be discovered in either of those two places.  Research needs time, stability and continuity.  It takes as long as it takes and the cells are going to do what they’re going to do.  Any financial analyst who tells you otherwise has probably got a bridge to sell you too.

I’m placing my bets on western Europe where the government has an interest in maintaining the scientific infrastructure and where workplace protections are strong.  Those two factors lead to stability and continuity of research.

The unemployment rate among chemists is not due to structural changes or globalization.  As I have said before, there are so many discoveries in biology right now that there is more than enough work for every scientist in the world to be fully occupied and overwhelmed with work for the rest of his or her life.  The unemployment rate is the result of a calculated but naive set of decisions on the part of management and negligence on the part of our government.

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Sunday News – Science Section

Lockheed Martin's Proposed L2-Farside Mission

The regular news is just to irritating with Obama working hard to cut Social Security benefits, surprise, surprise, among other things. So I thought I’d focus on just the science section of the TC paper today. Oh, and I’m horribly late due to getting back late from an away game (i.e., meetings, yuk), and sleeping in. So let’s see what’s happing with people actually trying to do something good in the world unlike our politicians.

First up, stars, stars, stars, my god, look at all the stars. It turns out we have been underestimating the number of stars, even in our own galaxy, by an order of 100. That’s a lot:

Red dwarfs are stars like the sun, but smaller, fainter and cooler, with somewhere between one-half and one-tenth the sun’s mass. They may be small, but they are legion—astronomers estimate that red dwarfs outnumber sun-like stars in the Milky Way by a factor of 100.

Until today’s result, astronomers had been forced to assume that the 100-to-1 ratio held in other galaxies, too. But evidence has been mounting recently that elliptical galaxies—which lack the distinctive spiral arms of galaxies like the Milky Way and are usually made of older, redder stars—had more stars relative to their dark matter than spiral galaxies do.

“Within these galaxies, a good chunk of the mass that had been ascribed to dark matter is probably stars,” said Pieter van Dokkum, the lead researcher on the project.

And of course you know what that means. More stars, more planets, more planets, more places where life exists. More things that say “eep, eep.” Wave at your new neighbors tonight.

Oxygen has been found on Saturn’s moon Rhea. The Cassini probe did a fly by and sniffed some sweet, sweet oxygen:

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has taken a breath of oxygen while passing over the icy surface of Saturn’s second-largest moon, marking the first time a spacecraft has directly sampled oxygen in the atmosphere of another body. Cruising just 60 miles above Rhea, one of more than 60 moons orbiting Saturn, Cassini found an extremely thin atmosphere of oxygen and carbon dioxide likely sustained by high-energy particles slamming into the moon’s frozen surface.

Rhea’s isn’t the only other atmosphere in the universe, but it is so thin that Cassini had to fly through it just to confirm that it was there at all (other atmosphere’s have been detected and studied from afar by tools like the Hubble Space Telescope). According to Cassini’s onboard science instruments, Rhea’s atmosphere contains something like 50 billion oxygen molecules per cubic meter, matched by 20 billion carbon dioxide molecules.

Lockheed is pitching a program to go to the dark side of the moon (see image above). Of course the obvious question that comes to mind is, no, not can we afford it, but will Pink Floyd music be involved:

The mission, Lockheed says, will serve several purposes. Most immediately, it would allow astronauts to study, via unmanned robots, some lunar real estate that hasn’t been seen with human eyes since the Apollo missions. But its real function is to test out technologies and skills that will be necessary to make a manned trip to an asteroid, and then on to Mars.

The idea is to park an Orion space capsule at the L2 Lagrange point about 40,000 miles above the moon’s far side, where the combined gravity from the Earth and the moon would allow the spacecraft to essentially hover in one place in sync with the moon. From there, the astronauts would deploy and conduct remotely-operated surface science, collecting rock samples and exploring the South Pole-Aitken basin, one of the oldest craters in the solar system. From the L2 point, the capsule would continuously maintain line of sight with both the Earth and the far side of the moon.

I think unmanned missions is the way to go for a lot of these explorations. Much more cost effective and quicker to execute. We can revolutionize our materials science, our manufacturing, and our economy with such efforts. Or if we don’t, China can.

Some amazing progress has been made in our understanding of the aging process lately. Here are some recent results of interest:

Harvard scientists may be a step closer to a medical fountain of youth after figuring out how to reverse the aging process in mice. The breakthrough could lead to a way to slow the aging process in humans which in turn could extend quality of life by reducing the impact of age-related ailments like heart disease or dementia. That is, if it doesn’t kill them first.

Harvard Medical School scientists turned unhealthy old mice into youthful versions of themselves by tampering with an enzyme called telomerase. While the aging process is not totally understood, one of the many factors that causes the deterioration of the body’s tissues is tied to telomeres, which protect the end of each of the chromosomes in DNA. When cells divide, the telomeres are cut shorter and shorter until eventually they stop working altogether and the cell either dies or goes into a dormant state.

The researchers genetically engineered mice that lacked telomerase, an enzyme that stops telomeres from shortening. As such, the telomeres rapidly grew shorter and the mice aged quickly, developing all the signs of old age including damaged organs, a shrinking brain, and infertility. The researchers then injected the mice with a cocktail that reactivated their telomerase. This didn’t just slow the aging process, but actually reversed the effects of aging, essentially making the mice grow younger.

But rejuvenating old organs in mice does not necessarily mean a human treatment is on the way, the researchers warn. For one, mice make telomerase throughout their lives, but the enzyme is switched off in adult humans, as it can cause unchecked cell replication (read: cancer). None of the mice in the study developed cancer, but there’s no telling if human tissues would tolerate the treatment so well.

A lot of anti-aging research seems to come down to age vs. cancer. That is, if you can change cells so they don’t age, then the chances of cancer increases tremendously. And in fact there seems to be a direct relationship. It may turn out that in order to make more progress in dealing with aging issues, we need to get better at understanding and dealing with cancer. A win win in my opinion. More efforts to figuring out and stoping or reversing cancer sounds good to me.

We might be on the verge of a whole new computer technology revolution. Nanophotonic computing, or light based vs. electron based computing, has been under investigation for some time. IBM just showed off some new results lately that look promising:

Silicon chips will be communicating with pulses of light instead of electrical charge starting in 2011, according to International Business Machines Corp., which described its CMOS Integrated Silicon Nanophotonics (CISN) technology Wednesday (Dec. 1) at a tradeshow.

At Semicon Japan in Chiba, Japan, IBM (Armonk, N.Y.) heralded silicon nanophotonics as the enabler for future exascale processors that can execute a million trillion operations per second (1,000-times faster than today’s petascale supercomputers).

“The CMOS silicon nanophotonics technology we have developed at IBM can meet the requirements for exascale systems, by scaling up per-chip transceiver bandwidth and integration density,” said Will Green, an IBM researcher involved with the CISN project. Green worked on CISN with Yurii Vlasov, manager of silicon integrated nanophotonics at its T.J Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., and fellow researchers Solomon Assefa, Alexander Rylakov, Clint Schow and Folkert Horst.

I for one welcome our new nanophotonic based overlords.

In the slightly creepy news department, researchers are able to tag eggs and embryos with bar codes:

Researchers at the Autonomous University of Barcelona have come up with an ingenious solution for keeping track of embryos and egg cells during in vitro fertilisation procedures: microscopic bar codes.

These mouse eggs were tagged by injecting microscopic silicon bar codes into their perivitelline space, the gap between the cell membrane and an outer membrane called the zona pellucida, which binds sperm cells during fertilisation.

The bar codes, which carry unique binary identification numbers, are biologically inert: they do not affect the rate of embryo development and are shed before the embryos implant into the wall of the uterus. The technique aims to simplify individual embryo identification, streamlining in vitro fertilisation and embryo transfer procedures.

OK, sounds like it’s for a good reason. But still, a bit creepy.

And speaking of new technology and creepy, or rather bad, all our new wifi broadcasting may be hurting trees:

Studies on the impact of wireless radiation on humans are endlessly inconclusive, but a recent study on the effects of Wi-Fi radiation on trees–yes, trees–indicates that our woody friends may be much more vulnerable than we are. And trees can’t even enjoy the benefits of Wi-Fi. It’s all very unjust.

The study, conducted by Wageningen University, investigated findings that trees in areas with high Wi-Fi activity (urban areas, especially) were suffering from symptoms that couldn’t be tied to typical bacterial or viral causes. The symptoms included bleeding (!), fissures in the bark, the death of parts of leaves, and abnormal growth.

Oops. Of course it’s not an issue if forests and in rural areas. But still, it’s something to look into. Perhaps they’re only hurt by certain frequency ranges that we can avoid.

And finally, a nice development in methods to desalinate water also includes the ability to easily extract hydrogen:

Fresh water and reusable energy. Humans are on a constant hunt for a sustainable supply of both. Water purification requires a lot of energy, while utility companies need large amounts of water for energy production. Their goal is to find a low-energy-required treatment technology. Researchers from the University of Colorado Denver College of Engineering and Applied Science may have discovered an answer.

Last year, a study published in Environmental Science & Technology incorporated desalination into microbial fuel cells, a new technology that can treat wastewater and produce electricity simultaneously. However, putting it into practical use proved to be challenging due to current fluctuation. Zhiyong (Jason) Ren and his team with the University of Colorado Denver discovered, after six months from the initial hypothesis to completion, that they could produce hydrogen gas, which is collectible and storable, thus making improvements in the technology.

[…]

A recent study by Logan group at Penn State University also demonstrated similar findings in that the energy contained in hydrogen gas not only can offset the energy used for the desalination process but has surplus that can be used for downstream processing.

That would solve our two biggest resource problems, water and energy. Nice bit of work there people. More of that please.

There’s a bit of science news for you. Chime in with more of that or with other news. This is an open thread.

Wednesday News

Good Morning Conflucians!!

The aftermath of last weeks election is still being felt. In fact, it’s not over yet. The Senate race in Alaska is still being counted. Regardless of whether the winner is Miller or Murkowski, the seat will be held by a Republican. But it will certainly be interesting to see who won. Both because of the tea party angle and because of the possibility of a write-in candidate winning. The latter outcome would be very interesting and perhaps eye opening to many citizens of the country. The fact that we don’t have to take the two choices given to us would be refreshing. Everyone seems to be talking about it including WaPo, Politico, and Reuters among, well, everyone. And of course as you’d expect, the lawyers are at the ready. Miller has already launched one lawsuit requiring that Murkowski name be spelled correctly and exactly as it is registered. That’s silly as the law clearly gives leeway to counters to determine intent. Some of the legal fun from WaPo:

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (R) both urged supporters to donate money to Miller’s legal fund, in part to send enough lawyers and monitors to Juneau. In Anchorage, tea party supporters pooled their frequent-flier miles in hopes of sending about a dozen volunteers to be trained as official observers.

Murkowski, meanwhile, has reportedly hired lawyer Ben Ginsberg, who represented George W. Bush in the 2000 recount fight and Republican Sen. Norm Coleman in his 2008 recount battle in Minnesota.

Miller has also argued that the law requires Murkowski’s name to be spelled properly, though election officials ruled that misspellings are okay as long as the voter’s “intent” is clear – a subjective standard that could lead to a litany of disputes.

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Renewal of Research Tax Credit: What’s that you say, Lassie? The barn door’s open and the horse is gone?!

Today, the New York Times is reporting that Obama is planning to pitch making the Research Tax Credit permanent:

As part of his pre-election push to spur the slumping economy and his party, President Obama this week will ask Congress to increase and permanently extend a popular but costly tax credit for businesses’ research expenses, and to pay for it by closing other corporate tax breaks, according to administration officials.

Mr. Obama is planning to outline the $100 billion proposal on Wednesday in a speech in Cleveland on the economy. The White House chose the venue partly to draw a contrast with a recent economic address there by Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader who would probably become House speaker should his party win a majority in November.

I had no idea there was a tax credit for research or that it had expired in 2009.  I thought the reason that all my friends and colleagues were getting the ax was because the guys with executive hair were following each other like lemmings to Massachusetts to roam the halls of MIT in search of “get-rich-quick!” schemes. (This American Life, Million Dollar Idea, Act One, Going Up!)

But now I see it’s really because our executive in chief was so busy accepting Nobel Prizes prematurely for work his Secretary of State is actually doing that the news that scientists with technical expertise and the right kind of training for the 21st century were losing their jobs just kinda flew under the radar.

And now that we’ve *almost* lost a generation of chemists to Chindia, with the limit approaching minus infinity that those jobs are ever coming back, NOW Obama decides to renew the tax credit.  I don’t know how it’s all going to be put back together now that it’s been torn apart.  It takes years of experience to understand the nature of our work.  There are no shortcuts for good science.  But those years have been interrupted constantly by mergers and acquisitions and consultants and Fear, Uncertainty and Dread and the expiration of a $100 billion tax credit that would have multiplied itself several times over in the hands of salaried scientists.

It’s better than nothing but it doesn’t replace a deep and abiding committment to real innovation and research.

Which we don’t have.

Hmmm, maybe the Democrats are realizing that they need all of those newly emancipated R&D wage slaves after all…

Cheering news for a Saturday

You think you got problems? Hah.

Japanese Fishing Trawler Sunk By Giant Jellyfish
The trawler, the Diasan Shinsho-maru, capsized off Chiba`as its three-man crew was trying to haul in a net containing dozens of huge Nomura’s jellyfish. …

The crew of the fishing boat was thrown into the sea when the vessel capsized, but the three men were rescued by another trawler, according to the Mainichi newspaper. The local Coast Guard office reported that the weather was clear and the sea was calm at the time of the accident.

One of the largest jellyfish in the world, the species can grow up to 2 meters in diameter. The last time Japan was invaded on a similar scale, in the summer of 2005, the jellyfish damaged nets, rendered fish inedible with their toxic stings and even caused injuries to fishermen.

As you go through your day, remember, it could be worse.

This concludes our cheering message.

Carry on.

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The color of night

Really. That would be the general color of the night sky if the universe wasn’t expanding. You’ve probably never wondered why the night sky is black. “No sun,” you point out. “Duh.” But it’s not that simple. Every single bit of sky is full of stars, all blazing away. The light may take a long time to get here, but it does get here. So, on that basis, the night sky ought to be a carpet of light from all those uncountable stars. But since the universe is expanding, they’re all moving away from us. Since they’re moving, there’s a Doppler effect and the light is shifted to other wavelengths. The further away they are, the more it’s shifted, until all their light shifts right out of the visible range. And that’s why the night sky is dark except for the few stars whose light is still visible.

So the next time you’re admiring the night, look at the dark, too, and remember that you’re watching the universe grow.

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Be afraid. Be very afraid.

History shows that . . .

[CO2] Levels similar to those now commonly regarded as adequate to tackle climate change were associated with sea levels 25-40m (80-130 ft) higher than today.

That’s meters. That’s enough to drown a 10-story building. That’s enough to make several billion people move to higher ground or die. Or both. It won’t be pleasant for the people they move in on either.

And that is not conjecture or a probability statement or an extrapolation.

The new research was able to look back to the Miocene period, which began a little over 20 million years ago.

At the start of the period, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere stood at about 400 parts per million (ppm) before beginning to decline about 14 million years ago – a trend that eventually led to formation of the Antarctic icecap and perennial sea ice cover in the Arctic.

The high concentrations were probably sustained by prolonged volcanic activity in what is now the Columbia River basin of North America, where rock formations called flood basalts relate a history of molten rock flowing routinely onto the planet’s surface.

In the intervening millennia, CO2 concentrations have been much lower; in the last few million years they cycled between 180ppm and 280ppm in rhythm with the sequence of ice ages and warmer interglacial periods.

Now, humanity’s emissions of greenhouse gases are pushing towards the 400ppm range [c. 380ppm now], which will very likely be reached within a decade.

“What we have shown is that in the last period when CO2 levels were sustained at levels close to where they are today, there was no icecap on Antarctica and sea levels were 25-40m higher,” said research leader Aradhna Tripati from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).

“At CO2 levels that are sustained at or near modern day values, you don’t need to have a major change in CO2 levels to get major changes in ice sheets,” she told BBC News.

The elevated CO2 and sea levels were associated with temperatures about 3-6C (5-11F) higher than today.

So, there you have it. The last time greenhouse gases were this high, there wasn’t a 2% chance of melting ice sheets. There was a 100% chance.

Does that mean it will happen again? We’ll probably see. Because the answer to, “Do you want to risk the whole planet to find out?” appears to be “Yes.”

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