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Chemists in California

March 14, 2005 By Emma Marris This article courtesy of Nature News.

The American Chemical Society is the world's largest scientific society, and its meetings are just as massive. This week, 17,000 chemists have converged in palm-tree-studded San Diego, California. Emma Marris braves the crowd to dish the dirt on all thing

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Day 5: Endgame

I went to a session this morning on cleaning up radioactive waste, and heard that the waste isn't just radioactive, it's also chemically toxic. And as the waste is processed, unforeseen reactions create such unwanted toxins such as dimethyl mercury. Yikes.

On a similar note, I sat in on a talk on bioremediation, where I was introduced to a group of microbes called Shewanellas. These have been known to get rid of magnesium and iron for decades, but sequencing the genomes of the individual species is throwing up the kinds of insights that might now help us understand how we could work the same magic.

I talked to a few outbound chemists about the conference in general. All seemed satisfied, if not wildly enthusiastic. Andrei Malkov, an organic chemist at the University of Glasgow, was keen on new developments in organic catalysis - that is, making reactions happen without any metals. More green chemistry. He said he'd also heard some gossip about people switching jobs, but he wouldn't fill me in. "It's like sports," he said. "You like to know who's going where."

Bob Chapman of the Department of Defense spent his free time in San Diego eating out. "I love the Mexican food here. It's not like the fake Mexican food on the East Coast." He was interested in new analytic techniques where chemists use bioengineered living cells to do their detection for them. He squinted into the afternoon sun with what looked like regret. "I'm heading out, but I imagine there is going to be a big party downtown for St Patrick's Day."

I had almost forgotten. Well, the sessions are over now, the name badges are off, and the business card stocks depleted. Time to swap green chemistry for a green beer.

Day 4: Field trip

I played hooky from the ACS the morning to visit the San Diego Zoo's Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species. Their new building is about 30 miles north of San Diego, next to the Wild Animal Park where breeding populations of zoo animals roam across thousands of acres.

The centre is doing a number of things to keep animals - especially big charismatic animals that zoo-goers like - from dying out. They are studying mate selection in finicky koalas, as well as looking at ways to tell whether giraffes are pregnant, and which California condors have the right stuff to make it in the wild.

Particularly interesting was their training programme for elephants. Instead of bossing them around with a masterful gaze and the old hooked stick (officially called an ankus, I'm told), the zookeepers never even enter the elephant's enclosure. Instead, they build weighing stations and places where the elephant can stick its foot through the fence for a toenail clipping, and then encourage them to do so with treats. There is apparently some disagreement in the field over whether this method works, but the San Diego staff say they are having luck with a fresh batch of elephants just in from Swaziland who have almost no experience with humans.

On the drive back to the convention centre, I took in landscape, which is really stunning where great tracts of identical new houses don't spoil the view. I drove up soft scrub-covered hills and into valleys lined with citrus trees and grape vines. Thanks to the recent rain, the side of the road was carpeted with purple and orange wildflowers. I was told that a drive in the country would infect me with a sudden yen to move out here. Certainly the guys who decided to put Scripps - the giant biomedical nonprofit - in La Jolla knew what they were doing. The campus is within spitting distance of the Pacific. As I drove by, I saw a lone surfer paddling out to meet the waves.

Day 4: Sexy shellfish

At the evening poster session, I talked with Raul Mirza, from Barry University in Miami, who had spent two months in Italy researching the possible aphrodisiac properties of shellfish. Beat that for sexy chemistry.

The upshot of his paper was that a couple of compounds that have been linked with an uptake of luteinizing hormone are abundantly present in shellfish. Now, luteinizing hormone certainly targets the ovaries and testicles, and has much to do with things like ovulation and menstruation, but whether it will make you amorous or not remains to be seen.

The punchline is that the cooked mussel had far more of the stuff (N-methyl-D-aspartate, or NMDA, to be exact) than the raw. So next time you prepare a passionate dinner for two, cook those shellfish!

Day 3: Wine tasting

I spent the morning at a panel on wine authentication. Is that Côtes du Rhône really from the Côtes du Rhône? Is that Merlot really Merlot? Chemistry can tell you, and soon DNA typing may enter the wine industry. Sadly, there was no wine at the session. I sat, pen and pad in hand, envying the army of wine tasters employed by regulators as their first line of defence against adulterated or inferior products. "Its a hard job," said one wine specialist, Norbert Christoph, of the Bavarian Health and Food Safety Authority. "The group must taste sixty to seventy wines per day." Presumably, they must spit it out. Still...

Day 2: A bad rap

Day two dawned grey and rainy, and some grumblings were heard amongst the conference-goers. But in the afternoon the sun broke through and things began to look truly Californian - at least through the windows of the convention centre.

I started the day with a panel on the legal struggles of foreign-born chemistry professionals. The room was full of young scholars, from Brazil, South America, India, New Zealand...the works. The news was grim. Getting US residency as an industrial or academic scientist is increasingly difficult - no one bothered to spell out why. The panelists advised those who want to apply to plan far ahead, to document everything, and to hire a lawyer. The attendees looked stoic.

One of the themes of the conference seems to be the 'threat' posed to the American chemistry establishment by the rest of the world, particularly Asia. Yesterday, Leiv Sydnes, the head of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, warned that chemistry has a bad rap in the Western world, thanks to spectacular missteps like DDT, thalidomide, the depletion of the ozone hole and pollutants showing up in the blubber of innocent baby seals. His argument was that this PR problem will make Americans and Western Europeans less likely to go into the business, and that Asia will pick up the slack.

ACS president William Carroll disagreed with the idea that chemists were thought ill of, saying that: "the public is actually reasonably interested in it, and they admit they don't know much about it."

This floored me. The American public admitting they don't know something?

Day 2: Free stuff

Slogging between hotels, one must pass a long cab rank, which didn't seem to be moving particularly quickly this afternoon, as the drivers were all sitting on the Marriott's lush green lawn and playing cards. "Why doesn't anybody want to go anywhere?" asked one, as he attempted to deal me in for a hand. They were playing for money, so I demurred. "I promise you'll win," he said, flashing a gold tooth.

The trade booths of a conference are always a must-see, if only for the free stuff. But there was a disappointing dearth of gimmicky giveaways at the mostly very modern and minimalist displays. There was one odd booth that just said "Souvenir Area", with people lined up. I asked a guy who walked away from it what the free ACS souvenir was, and it turned out to be a cheap-looking orange plastic pen. "Makes it all worthwhile, doesn't it," he said.

The booths also give testimony to the interesting and somewhat surprising fact that chemists still use flasks, test tubes, white buttoned lab coats, and the like. I found it quite reassuring. I talked to a representative from the American Scientific Glassblowers Society, who was displaying the intricate custom glassware some of the member companies had blown, including coils within coils and a gorgeous model of the human heart.

Day 1: Chemistry goes green

The chemists have come to San Diego. On my flight in, the overhead bins were crammed full of cardboard tubes containing entries for the poster sessions. My taxi driver had accurate attendance figures at his fingertips, but no comment on the tipping habits of the conference-goers.

Downtown San Diego appears to be, at first sight, a mixture of old Spanish Mission and Nouveau Mall Food Court. The meeting is at the San Diego conference centre, a long mid-eighties concrete structure on the water with too much open space and not enough seating, plus a number of plush hotels. The place is swarming with people. We all traipse from one hotel to another, back and forth, across parking lots and over-fertilized median strips. It is a bit hazy and cold for San Diego, but people seem in good spirits.

Over the day, I try to extract general trends from the attendees, sometimes by force. The major issue to show up is health and the environment. "Green chemistry" is on everyone's lips, especially the industrial chemists. One idea is to save the planet and cut costs at the same time by reducing energy use. Another is to build environmental assessment activities into the development of new products, rather than manufacturing a product by the ton, and then waiting to see if it wreaks havoc.

The head of the ACS's Green Chemistry Institute, Paul Anastas, gave a talk suggesting some research directions for the future, including slicker catalysis, smart solvents, and biomimicry. I thought the coolest was manipulating weak forces. "We have mastered the art of making and breaking the covalent bond," he said. "We need to also have the same command over weak forces."

Day 1: Science fiction?

In a session on nanotech and the environment, only one speaker bothers to pause to deride the "grey goo" scenario: self-replicating nanobots covering the earth. The real threat seems to be inhaling the things and having them bounce around inside your system unfettered. That and unscrupulous use as weapons. Oh, and the twiddly little things revolutionizing manufacturing so thoroughly and quickly that masses of people are suddenly out of work. It was sort of a sci-fi session. But then, as Christine Peterson of the Foresight Institute - a nano watchdog group - put it: "If you look into the long term and it doesn't sound like science fiction, then you're wrong."

Afterwards, I saw a woman with a very natty (and very reusable) nylon poster case, with a strap. She explained that it was actually for fly fishing rods, and could be purchased at any sportsman's store for around 30 bucks. Just thought I'd pass that tip on.

Another tip might be this: resist the periodic table tie.

Day 1: Chemistry lives

Later on still, I sat down with William Carroll, the president of the ACS. It was nice of him to give me some time, but he stayed mostly on talking points. I bugged him about the idea that all the basic chemistry has been figured out and that the real action was in related fields. He argued that chemistry has expanded. In a sense, the "related fields" are chemistry.

He did acknowledge that the days of the lone scientist in the white coat and horn-rims inventing things like plastic and, I don't know, discovering major elements, is over. "It's not 1950 anymore," he said. "There are some things that we don't need to do again."

But he came back with a zinger. "If chemistry were dead, there wouldn't be 10,000 papers here this week."


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