Wednesday, March 21, 2012

More anti-science sentiment in the Sun

A recipe for scones in today's Baltimore Sun (warning: pay wall) includes the words "Tips: I always use aluminum-free baking powder because I don't like the idea of eating metal."

Metals are actually a necessary component of your diet to maintain good health.  This concept is in fact so important that it's what we cover in the very first lecture of the Metabolism course for first-year medical students (here at what U.S. News & World Report considers the second-best medical school in the United States).  Calcium, potassium, and sodium maintain important membrane potentials, and magnesium, iron, zinc, manganese, copper, molybdenum, and selenium are required at the active sites of important enzymes, where they bind substrates, transfer electrons, withdraw electrons, or maintain enzyme conformation.

It's true that aluminum is not on this list (so far!), so if you want to avoid eating it, that's just fine: but please don't avoid it just because it's a "metal".  (Or, heaven forfend, a "chemical".)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Word of the day: emendation

The word of the day is emendation:

Etymology:  < Latin ēmendātiōn-em, noun of action < ēmendāre to emend v.
The action of emending.
1. Correction, reformation, improvement (of life, conduct, etc.). Obs.
2. a. Improvement by alteration and correction; esp. of literary or artistic products, methods of procedure, scientific systems, etc.; a particular instance of such improvement.
b. esp. The correction (usually by conjecture or inference) of the text of an author where it is presumed to have been corrupted in transmission; a textual alteration for this purpose. (OED)

"West's proposed emendations to the texts are couched in the meticulous language of classical scholarship, and take the form of suggestions and proposals; perhaps because Mitchell is not a classicist, he is emboldened to cast West's vision in stone.  His new translation not only deletes passages that West merely brackets or questions but omits even some passages that West thinks were 'expansions' by P himself."

 - Daniel Mendelsohn, "Battle lines: a slimmer, faster Iliad", 7 November 2011 The New Yorker

Monday, March 19, 2012

Word of the day: ouroboros

The word of the day is ouroboros:

Etymology:  < Greek οὐροβόρος, also οὐρη-, devouring its tail
The symbol, usu. in the form of a circle, of a snake (or dragon) eating its tail. (OED)

"The pleasure of the book comes from its descriptive daring -- Billie Holiday's voice sounds 'evacuated'; the evolution of media is envisioned as an ouroboros ('The book bit his tail and became a / disc') -- and from Mackey's refusal to decipher his narrative: 'Nonallegorical ground it / was we stood on.'"

 - "Books Briefly Noted", of Nathaniel Mackey's Nod House, 13 & 20 February 2012 The New Yorker

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Word of the day: emolument

The word of the day is emolument:

Etymology:  < Latin ēmŏlŭ-, ēmŏlĭmentum profit, advantage; in most Latin Dicts. said to be < ēmōlī-rī to bring out by effort.
1. Profit or gain arising from station, office, or employment; dues; reward, remuneration, salary.
2. Advantage, benefit, comfort. Obs.

"What had Conn done to Feather that the latter found so unforgivable, irredeemable by emolument, by statements of praise and credit, by the persistent efforts of heartfelt remorse?  What hurt could so engross a man that he would determine to carry it with him to the grave?"

 - Michael Chabon, "Citizen Conn", 13 &; 20 February 2012 The New Yorker

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Word of the day: spaldeen

The word of the day is spaldeen:

said to be after Spalding  a trademark
 Chiefly New York City .
a smooth, pink rubber ball used in playing catch, stickball, etc. (

"The paintings -- closeups of manhole covers with their cryptic labyrinthine pattern of raised welts, loving roseate sunsets that turned out to be the sheen and scuff on a spaldeen -- had multiplied; there were so many of them now that the artist had been obliged to carve a trail, as it were, among them, that would permit access to the kitchen table, where David and I now sat down."

 - Michael Chabon, "Citizen Conn", 13 & 20 February 2012 The New Yorker

Friday, March 16, 2012

Word of the day: ephebe

The word of the day is ephebe:

Etymology:  < Latin ephēb-us, < Greek ἔϕηβος, < ἐπί upon + ἥβη early manhood.
Ancient Greek Hist.
 Among the Greeks, a young citizen from eighteen to twenty years of age, during which he was occupied chiefly with garrison duty. (OED)

"The summer before his senior year of college, in 1997, he worked as an intern at The Paris Review. James Linville, who was then the magazine’s editor, recalled Rowan as an 'ephebe type, almost Truman Capote-like.'"

 - Lizzie Widdicombe, "The plagiarist's tale: the author of 'Assassin of Secrets' had a secret of his own", 13 & 20 February 2012 The New Yorker

There must be an additional connotation here that I'm not picking up on.

Friday, March 02, 2012

text of a letter I sent to the Baltimore Sun

Dear Baltimore Sun,

Doug Atwell of the Fells Point bar Rye scoffs at chemists ("A new class of cocktails", Feb 29), but perhaps if he knew more about chemistry he would be a better mixologist.

He would then know, for example, that the cooling power of ice cubes comes primarily from the phase transition of melting from solid to liquid, so while it is true that ice cubes with larger surface area chill a drink faster, it is precisely because they are also diluting the drink faster.

High-quality, natural ingredients are no less governed by the laws of chemistry than brightly-colored, synthetic ones are.  Chemistry is not scary, boring, or unnatural; it's a very useful way of understanding how the world works.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Molecule of the day: tyloxapol

The molecule of the day is tyloxapol:

The seminar I went to presented it as a standard lysosome toxin, but a quick search on the interwebs mostly emphasizes its role as a non-ionic detergent, and even searching for "tyloxapol lysosomes" only mentions its use to purify lysosomes (lysosomes readily take up tyloxapol, which makes them more buoyant, which makes them easier to separate from other cellular components by centrifugation (source)).

So perhaps the speaker mispoke, and meant that it was a lipase toxin.  Tyloxapol is apparently also known as Triton WR 1339, which is reported to inhibit lipoprotein lipase (source).

Equal prospects? How do we know?

Saw this story in the Naturejobs Newsletter: "Equal prospects for both sexes in science: Women as likely as men to be promoted, but fewer apply for jobs."

The way Natasha Gilbert seems to be spinning this story is as more evidence for a confidence gap: women don't face discrimination during promotion, and would succeed, if only they would make the effort.

But: is the best way to analyze these data to compare all women faculty to all male faculty (as this study does), or is it better to compare the women to the top 37%* of male faculty, and then see whether there are promotion discrepancies?  I.e., if it's really true that there are all these qualified women out there who aren't seeking faculty positions, who, if only they did, would bump out the bottom male faculty currently getting positions, then wouldn't that model predict that the women who do have the confidence to seek faculty positions are more qualified than male faculty as a whole, and wouldn't we predict women faculty to have a higher promotion rate than male faculty as a whole? Or does confidence not correlate with ability?

Not only would this experiment be hard to do, because I'm not sure what the best way is to identify the top 37% of male faculty, but also, the skills that get you hired might not necessarily get you promoted. (I.e., maybe you yourself were a very productive postdoc, but you turn out to be terrible at managing a lab.)

What do you think would be the best way to measure whether men and women of equal quality are being promoted at the same rate?

*Why 37%?  I got this ballpark figure from the fact that 27% of incoming faculty are women, so 73% must be men.  27/73 = 37.

This calculation is also problematic, though, because it assumes that postdocs are 50/50 women/men, and that those came from a pool of grad students that were 50/50, and those came from a pool of undergrads that were 50/50, etc.  If these ratios are less than 50/50 at earlier stages, then you would predict women faculty to be even more enriched for qualified candidates.  (Unless, once again, confidence doesn't correlate with ability.)  And that's not even considering the quality of the institutions that the postdocs are coming from.  In summary: the proper analysis here would be complicated indeed.