How I Do Work-Life Integration

shells-fish-rice-eggsPeople used to talk about work-life balance, as if they were two separate things. Now they talk about work-life integration, but what they mean is finding ways to infiltrate every hour of every day with this work that is not really your life. I choose to do things differently.

Seems to me that if left to our own devices, people would just spend all day doing what gives us pleasure. Some of that would involve doing things that help other people or make them happy and some would be just for us. Centuries ago, people discovered that different people like doing different things. If you take on a task that I don’t enjoy, and I take on a task that you don’t enjoy, that leaves both of us more time for the things we like, and stuff still gets done. Maybe I do some things better than you, and you do some things better than me, so we trade off those tasks as well.

That works great one-on-one between people who like and respect each other. As the groups get bigger, so do the tradeoffs. You farm rice, I catch fish, and our neighbor keeps chickens. We start out not keeping track of things, because we get what we need from the informal arrangement and everybody’s happy most of the time. But then the village gets larger, and that one neighbor who is supposed to bring in the firewood winds up exploring the woods instead. He comes back to the village now and then to get rice, fish, and eggs from the rest of us, but somehow he never gets around to bringing us the firewood like he said he would.

So we set up a system of markers to keep track of who’s doing their share. And that works fine for a while. It reminds us to balance out the things that are just for us with the things that help the village overall. Eventually, someone gets a real hunger for piling up a lot of markers. Getting markers is what they enjoy the most. They take on tasks that they don’t particularly enjoy, and they dream up trading schemes, all in the name of getting more markers. And someone else discovers that he likes to manage other people’s markers. He makes a special storage place to keep them safe, and he keeps track of who owes what to whom.

And another guy discovers that if he can get other people to work for him, he can give them a few of the markers that come in while keeping most of them for himself. Some people don’t enjoy drumming up business and keeping track of their own markers, so they are happy to just get out there and work and let this guy handle the business side.

A few lucky people get to keep doing what they enjoy and getting markers for their efforts, but many people find that the only way they can get their basic needs taken care of is to do the work that no one else wants to do. Their lives get divided into things they do because they enjoy them and things they do to get markers, and people start talking about “work-life balance” and “vacation days” and “retirement”.

Eventually, the markers take on a life of their own. Some people spend their days transporting the markers to other villages where they buy more things. Some people don’t even make things any more, they just shuffle markers around and keep some for themselves every time they make a trade. While most people stay in their home villages, in familiar surroundings with their families and friends, the markers go off around the world.

People who used to bring in plenty of markers doing one particular thing find that they can no longer make their contribution to the village, because someone in another village is doing it instead, for fewer markers. The guy who trades the markers still charges you and your neighbors the same, but he keeps the extra markers for himself.

Eventually, some people have to leave their families and friends and move to the villages where they can get enough markers for themselves, with some left over to send back home. But these new villages don’t welcome the newcomers. “You’re trying to take our jobs away,” they say, and they talk about building walls and removing the foreigners by force. The newcomers don’t know the culture or the language, and they find themselves fair game for thugs and con artists. But they stay and work, because what else can they do?

Every aspect of daily life, right down to the language, evolves to represent this separation of what you enjoy from what gets you money. “Have a nice weekend!” “Did you go anywhere over the holidays?” “We’re looking for a good retirement community.” This is the language spoken by people whose work-for-money is not the same as their work-for-enjoyment.

One of the biggest (and fastest) changes I went through after going freelance was adapting to a life that was not dictated by the 9-to-5 structure. I don’t resent working into the night, because I sleep late and do a leisurely read of the newspaper over a big mug of coffee most mornings. If I work on your holidays, it’s because I get more done when you’re not phoning me and emailing me every five minutes. When you’re slaving away in the middle of the week, I’m shopping at a nice quiet grocery store or taking photos of the autumn leaves at the neighborhood park. If I hit a slack period during the day, I don’t spend in hanging out around the break room or sitting in my cubicle watching cat videos — I do a load of laundry or two.

It’s only been four years since I left the cubicle and commute behind, but certain phrases sound very foreign to me now. “I can’t wait until Friday!” “How many vacation days do you get?” “I’m going to move to a farm way out in the country when I retire.” “I really hate my job, but I’m going to hang in there five more years.”

I’m not piling up great stacks of money these days, but I have a comfortable place to live and a refrigerator full of food. Getting paid for my work makes me a little more focused and organized, but seriously, I don’t mind doing a little paid work on my “days off” (if it’s my choice) because I enjoy what I’m doing. I have money put away for the time when I’m not able or willing to work any more, but if I’m 90 years old when that day comes, that’s OK with me. Business is picking up, to the point where remodeling the kitchen and traveling the world for fun are evolving from dreams to plans.

In that other world, people talk about “work-life integration” and they mean that you’re supposed to check your office email while you’re on a vacation trip with your family. It means that your boss can send you text messages at 5AM and expect an immediate reply.

In my world, it means that I’m doing things I like, and I decide when to do what. Some things are just for me, and some of them help other people. The part of the help-others work that I get paid for lets me pay other people to take care of the things I don’t want to (or can’t) do myself. It seems to me as if this is how I was meant to live all along.

I Just Want to See the Raw Data!

Originally posted (by me) on LinkedIn, December 9, 2014.

This is pretty close to raw data. How informative is it?

This is pretty close to raw data. How informative is it?

“I just want to see the raw data! No interpretation, no massaging the numbers, just the raw data straight out of the instrument!”

I sympathized with my non-scientist friend. She felt frustrated after reading a series of news items that began with a promising discovery, followed by a series of caveats, followed by more news stories reporting that no one knew for sure what was going on, and several more years of research would be required to clarify the findings from the initial report.

She didn’t know whom to believe. Scientists presented what looked like clear and convincing evidence, only to be shouted down by political activists and religious leaders claiming, “That’s just your opinion!” and citing past scientific studies proven biased, fraudulent, or just plain wrong.

The problem is, raw data points don’t tell you much of anything. Even an experienced scientist needs some kind of interpretation to convert the numbers into knowledge. What question was being asked and how did the person go about trying to find an answer? What did the instrument measure directly, and what assumptions were used to make indirect observations? What good does it do you to know that an unknown sample produces six times the voltage response at 7.3 minutes elution time than it did at 6.9 minutes if that’s all you know?

What were the conditions of the experiment? The same instrument can generate high- and low-resolution data, depending on how it is set up. Each type of data is useful for some purposes, but not others. Attachments, filters, thermostats — each of these can be added, adjusted, or calibrated to increase the sensitivity toward some observations, but they can also obscure other observations. The star you’re looking at might shine most brightly at the wavelengths you’re filtering out to cut interference from the sodium-vapor street lamps nearby.

How closely do the observations mimic processes in the real world? Lab-scale syntheses often fail to predict the results of a full-scale industrial production run. Data taken in the field under real-life conditions can be biased or inaccurate, because the act of observing has altered the behavior of thing you’re observing.

The progress of science itself can prove previous science wrong or expose the limitations of previous theories. Some 19th-century physicists thought that physics would shortly become a closed field of inquiry. All the questions had been answered, they thought. Only a few small loose ends needed to be wrapped up, and then the books could be closed. One of those loose ends turned out to be quantum theory, which underlies the technologies behind the automatic doors at the grocery store and flash drives that let you store hundreds of tunes in a device you can carry in your pocket.

Scientists do share raw data among themselves, especially when they are seeking alternate interpretations or reusing data for another purpose. The studies they publish in the journals contain interpreted data, along with information on how the data were obtained and what assumptions and processing steps were used. Other scientists with experience in the strengths and limitations of various instruments and methods review each others’ studies and identify gaps or alternate interpretations.

Some tests have been repeated so often, with such consistent results, that the interpretative steps can be programmed into the instruments themselves. You see this type of lab analysis on television shows where the forensic lab tech puts a paint chip from a crime scene into an instrument, and immediately sees that it could only have come from a 2009 Fiat. This data is not raw — the interpretation has merely been automated.

A wide spectrum of knowledge spans the territory between “That’s just your opinion!” and “There’s so much evidence here that I would stake my life on this.” The difference lies not in seeking some pure spring of unsullied data, but in knowing what questions were asked, how they were answered, and how the answers fit in with everything else. It requires seeing things happen the same way over and over and trusting things to happen that way again under the same conditions. It also requires a willingness to change your thinking if new information puts established knowledge into a new and broader context.

Touring a Green Building

Kendall Center USG

Kendall Center, Universities at Shady Grove. Photo by Nancy McGuire

This afternoon, I joined the Earth Ethics Committee of the Washington Ethical Society and friends for a tour of the Camille Kendall Academic Center of the Universities at Shady Grove (Rockville, MD). When this building received an LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certification, it was the largest building ever to receive this designation. The building is one of three main academic buildings on this suburban campus, which serves as a branch location for nine Maryland universities. Students at USG specialize in one of several career-oriented programs geared toward meeting the needs of regional businesses.

Recycled glass flooring

Terazzo glass flooring made from recycled glass. Photo by Nancy McGuire

One of the first things you notice as you enter is the terazzo glass flooring, made from blue and green recycled glass and concrete.

Banana fiber tabletop

Cafe table features banana fiber composite. Photo by Nancy McGuire

Just off the lobby is a cafe. The catering service was chosen in part because of its strong emphasis on farm-to-fork responsibility. Some of the herbs used in the kitchen are raised on-campus, and the cafe staff collects food waste for composting off-site. The table tops in the cafe are made from a composite material that includes banana fibers.

Library windows

The USG library makes good use of natural light. Photo by Nancy McGuire

USG library interior

The USG library uses sustainable wood sources. Photo by Nancy McGuire

The large, sunny first-floor library makes good use of natural light. All the wood veneers in the library are from FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council) certified sources, which have been vetted for sustainable harvesting practices, and the core materials contain no added urea-formaldehyde. (The doors and wood paneling for the classrooms are also FSC-certified wood.) The floors in the library are bamboo, an easily renewable source.

Roof garden

Rooftop garden at USG. Photo by Nancy McGuire

Louvered awnings

Louvered awnings provide shade. Photo by Nancy McGuire

A rooftop garden is easily visible from the windows on the second level of the building. This garden uses a tray-type system, which makes it easy to replace or move small sections of the garden. The garden contains several hardy, low-maintenance varieties of succulent plants. Reservoirs underneath the trays hold rain water, so it is only necessary to irrigate the garden a few times a year.
Fritted glass window

Fritted glass windows are etched with light-filtering dots. Photo by Nancy McGuire

Louvered awnings protect the rooms inside from direct sunlight, and fritted window glass filters the light coming into the main open area.

Marmoleum floors

Low-maintenance Marmoleum floors. Photo by Nancy McGuire

The upper levels of the building have floors made from Marmoleum, a matte-finish linoleum made with recycled paper backing. These floors stand up to a lot of traffic, and they can be cleaned with soap and water, rather than harsh chemicals.
Wheat board walls

Wheat board wall panels. Photo by Nancy McGuire

The ceiling panel tiles are made from recycled aluminum, and the wall panels are wheatboard, a urea-formaldehyde-free material made from wheat stalks. The restrooms feature dual-flush toilets to conserve water, and the faucets use extra aeration to provide the cleaning power and “feel” of conventional faucets while using less water.

water fountains

Filtered-water fountains.
Photo by Nancy McGuire

The building uses a fair amount of behavior modification features to encourage students and faculty to adopt “greener” habits. The water fountains provide filtered water to discourage the use of bottled water and cut down on the accompanying plastic bottle waste. Some of the fountains are designed to make it easy to refill a water bottle, for students on the go. Lots of open, airy stairwells encourage students to take that route rather than the elevators. A recreation area on the second level has showers, for those who bike to campus. A workout room is floored with recycled rubber tiles.
workout room

Workout room has recycled rubber flooring. Photo by Nancy McGuire

The ventilation system minimizes air turnover, which cuts down on heating and cooling bills. CO2 sensors in the classrooms and offices make sure that students, faculty, and staff get enough fresh air to stay awake. Light sensors dim the overhead lights on sunny days and brighten them when it’s dark outside.


Eco-friendly carpeting. Photo by Nancy McGuire

In the office area, carpeting is certified by the Carpet and Rug Institute, and meets standards for recycled content, low VOCs, and acceptable adhesives. Glass-paneled office doors let natural light from the atrium shine in. The classrooms are equipped with computer workstations and tables that have been retrofitted to accommodate cables, keyboards, and monitors. The facilities staff adapted existing classroom furniture on-site to save money, materials, and transportation costs. Computers are energy-efficient, and the printer paper has a minimum of 30% recycled content.

conference table

Aluminum chips brighten a tabletop. Photo by Nancy McGuire

A conference room table, topped with a composite material containing chips of recycled aluminum, subtly reflects light from above. The walls of the conference room are covered in a long-lasting reusable fabric that also reflects light without being “sparkly”.
wall covering

Light-reflecting fabric wall covering. Photo by Nancy McGuire

Energy Bike

Can Rich make the bulbs light up? Photo by Nancy McGuire

LEED certification requires an educational effort, of which the building tours constitute one part. The Kendall Center also has a Green Educational Room for educational displays, news, and information. Nearby is the Energy Bike, a stationary bike with a wheel generator that lights up either an incandescent light bulb or a compact fluorescent bulb when you pedal the bike. Note: you have to pedal a lot harder to get the incandescent bulb to light up. This bike was donated to USG by Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group. He and actress Daryl Hannah had the honor of being the first and second riders of the bike.
Energy Bike poster

Branson and Hannah christen the Energy Bike. Photo by Nancy McGuire

The campus grounds are kept green and lush by a smart irrigation system that uses buried moisture sensors to signal the sprinkler system when it’s time to water the grass. You won’t see sprinklers spraying into a rainstorm here! Rainwater collected from the parking garage roof flows through pipes into an underground cistern for use in watering the yards and gardens on campus.

rainwater collection

Pipes channel rainwater from garage roof to cisterns. Photo by Nancy McGuire

Prominently featured on the campus grounds is a trash receptacle with a solar-powered trash compactor. The solar panels are visible on the lid of the receptacle.
Solar trash can

Solar-powered trash compactor. Photo by Nancy McGuire

LED lights

LED lights in the parking garage. Photo by Nancy McGuire

Solar panel

Solar panel for LED lights. Photo by Nancy McGuire

The six-level parking garage uses LED bulbs that are powered by solar panels on the garage roof. One academic building on campus also uses all LED lights, and the Kendall Center is in the process of switching to LED lights. The garage has a light-colored roof, which reflects heat away from the garage’s interior. (Other buildings on campus have light-colored coatings on their roofs as well.) The parking garage elevator runs on a pulley system that uses counter-weights to assist the electrical motors. The concrete in the parking garage contains fly ash, a byproduct of coal-fired electrical generators. Inside the parking garage, the best spaces on the ground level are reserved for cars with stickers certifying them as fuel-efficient vehicles and carpool vehicles. One of the parking lots on campus has a recharging station for an electric vehicle, and there are plans to put in more.
Reserved parking

Carpool-only parking spot. Photo by Nancy McGuire

The green effort at SGU is spearheaded by a committee of students and faculty members. The committee identifies ways to improve the sustainability of various aspects of the campus facilities, working within the College Park procurement process. They conduct tours, collect soil samples for testing, and consult with the landscaping companies who maintain the campus grounds. The campus facilities manager collects data on energy use to document the effects of the measures that have been put in place.

Small measures, when taken separately, but it all adds up. If everyone who visits this campus takes a few of these ideas home with them, just think of the energy and materials savings that could come of it.

A Yummy Smell (and a Clue)



Cooking fresh ginger transforms one of its ingredients, gingerol, into a compound called zingerone, which is one of the key contributors to ginger’s distinctive aroma. Zingerone is chemically similar to vanillin (which gives vanilla its odor) and eugenol (clove oil).

Note to Wombats: Don’t Eat the Heliotrope


Southern Hairy-Nosed Wombat (Wikimedia Commons, photo by Jason Pratt, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

The wombats didn’t start getting sick until after Australian ranchers moved their livestock off the plot of land that the livestock and wombats had shared, after the foul-tasting weeds took over, pushing aside the tasty native grasses. The older wombats knew that something had changed, but the younger generation ate whatever was available, and they paid for it with liver damage, hair loss, and sun-blistered skin.

Lucy Woolford and Wayne Boardman of the University of Adelaide and Mary Fletcher of the University of Queensland reported recently on their study of ten southern hairy-nosed wombats that lived on a plot of land in the Murraylands near Blanchetown, South Australia, about 130 km (80 miles) northeast of Adelaide. Park rangers had shot five of them to end their suffering, two of them died in an animal rehabilitation center, and three were still alive at the rehab center. All ten wombats were female, five adults and five weaned juveniles.

Australia map

Areas where southern hairy-nosed wombats live. Red arrow points to Blanchetown. (Source: IUCN Red List of Threatened Species)

Wombats, large, burrowing marsupials that live in the southern part of Australia, have had a hard time of it. They have had to contend with agriculture, imported livestock, drought, and disease.

The southern hairy-nosed wombats in the Murraylands have had an especially tough time. Drought and sarcoptic mange (also called scabies, a disease caused by mite infestation) have reduced their population by about 70% since 2002, down to about 10,000 to 15,000 individuals.

Heavy summer rainfall and flooding in 2010 and 2011 damaged feeding areas, and large numbers of emaciated wombats, missing patches of hair, have been sighted since then. Wombats usually feed by night, but after the floods, they have been seen grazing during the day and returning to their burrows before dusk.

The research team examined blood, tissue, and feces from their ten wombats, and they did veterinary examinations on the three that were still alive. The juvenile wombats showed the worst symptoms. Their livers had shrunk, and their gall bladders were inflamed. They were jaundiced, emaciated, and were missing patches of hair on their backs, sides, and heads — areas that were most exposed to the sun. Something had made the wombats more sensitive to sunlight, and their switch to daytime grazing only made things worse.

The team team recognized the symptoms as similar to those they had seen in cows, sheep, horses, and red kangaroos that had eaten certain kinds of poisonous plants. They collected samples of plants from the feeding area for identification and comparison with the stomach contents from the sick wombats.


Onionweed, an invasive species. (Source: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture)

Native grasses were scarce in the area where the ten wombats had lived. The area was overgrown with onionweed. Other plants were present as well, but what caught the researchers’ attention was the heliotrope growing close to the wombats’ warrens. Heliotrope has a pretty flower, but it also contains a class of bitter-tasting chemical compounds called pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which cause liver damage.


Heliotrope, the plant that sickened the wombats. (Photo by Carsten Niehaus, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

There was ample evidence that the wombats had eaten the heliotrope plants, despite the bitter taste. The researchers speculated that juvenile wombats had eaten more of the heliotrope because it was close by their warrens, and they had not eaten enough native grasses to develop a strong preference for them — they just didn’t know any better.

This is one case where letting the land go back to the wild wasn’t good for the wildlife.

Source: Woolford, L., Fletcher, M.T., and Boardman, S.J. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2014, ASAP,

These iron curtains are very, very sheer.


Model of the atomic structure of graphene. Source: Wikipedia, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Recently, a group of researchers in Dresden, Germany found a way to make one-atom-thick sheets of iron. It wasn’t what they had set out to do, but they were alert enough to see this as the intriguing discovery it was rather than an annoying byproduct to be cleaned up.

Thin metal films are used as coatings or wrappings (aluminum foil, for example), components in optical and laboratory instruments, and as chemical sensors and catalysts. For a lot of high-tech applications, including high-density recording media and electronic devices, the thinner the film, the better. The ultimate thin film would be a sheet one atom thick — a monolayer.

Carbon monolayers, known as graphene, have been around for a few years, and researchers have been busy exploring the unusual properties of these ultra-thin carbon sheets. It turns out that structures in which the atoms that are linked side-to-side, but not up and down, conduct electricity very differently than their multi-layer counterparts.

Because of the way that carbon atoms connect with one another, it forms thin sheets very easily. Graphene is just an extreme form of graphite, which is made of carbon sheets that are a few hundreds to several thousands of atoms thick. Graphene was discovered when scientists applied strips of adhesive tape to pieces of graphite and carefully peeled up the top atomic layer.

Making thin layers of metal is a more difficult proposition. Metal atoms tend to form chemical bonds in all directions, forming solid chunks. Thin sheets are formed by pressing metal slabs between rollers or vaporizing the metal and spraying it onto a surface. Applying sticky tape to a piece of metal might pull a few individual atoms loose, but it’s not very effective for peeling up an intact layer.

Also, very thin metal films require some sort of support structure, called a substrate, to hold them intact. That means that only the top of the film is available for use. Until now, a free-standing metal monolayer seemed like an interesting theoretical exercise that would never be realized in the real world.

The Dresden group made their discovery while they were making graphene. They grew graphene layers from a carbon-containing vapor deposited onto a nickel–molybenum substrate. To peel the graphene up from the substrate, they used an etching solution made of iron chloride.

When the researchers examined their graphene under an electron microscope, they found that the etching solution had left behind a residue. Under the microscope’s electron beam, this residue was converted to metallic iron, which formed very small crystals and atom clusters on the surface. Some individual iron atoms were stuck to the edges of holes in the graphene film.

hexagonal iron

Three layers of the type of iron crystal found in this study. Source: Wikipedia, public domain.

What was truly surprising, however, was the appearance of pure iron crystalline layers, one atom thick, suspended across some of the holes in the graphene sheets. Although the widest of these layers was only about ten atoms across, the layers were arranged in an orderly fashion that were definitely monolayer versions of an iron crystal.

The researchers repeated their procedure and examined several iron-contaminated graphene sheets using their electron microscope. They analyzed the structure and characteristics of the iron films, to make sure that these truly were pure iron monolayers. Their observations agreed well with the theoretical properties derived from calculations.

They watched the samples for several minutes each to see how the microscope’s electron beam affected the formation of iron monolayers. They found that, under the beam, iron atoms on the graphene surface moved around and collected in small holes, where they formed crystalline monolayers within a few seconds. The monolayers were stable for several minutes under the electron beam. However, if they left the samples under the beam for longer than that, the monolayers began to collapse to form non-crystalline three-dimensional particles.

Now that they know how to make iron monolayers, the Dresden researchers and their colleagues can try this technique with other metals and see just how large they can make these metallic sheets.

The original research results were published here: Science 2014, 343, 1228–1232
I posted a more technical summary on the American Chemical Society’s Noteworthy Chemistry blog.

How did the Fukushima nuclear accident affect wildlife?

radiation hotspot

Radiation hotspot in Kashiwa, Japan, February 2012. (Source: Wikipedia, public domain)

On March 11, 2011, a tsunami, a giant wave set off by an earthquake, struck the Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in Japan. The tsunami caused a catastrophic failure of the power station and a release of radioactive material that has been rated second in magnitude only to the Chernobyl disaster. The extent of the radiological impact of this event on surrounding wildlife has been a contentious topic, but the results of a recent study are cautiously optimistic.

The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation oversaw a study by an international team of scientists, who evaluated the results of a 2011 environmental assessment of the area near the power plant and published their results earlier this year (Environ. Sci. Technol. Lett., 2014, 1, 198–203).The UN committee compiled data for the year following the accident; relevant reports and scientific papers provided additional data. Radiation effects were inferred by comparing compiled dose–response relationships.

Radiation exposures were evaluated for the first 3 months after the accident, during which short-lived isotopes played a significant role, and for a later phase (3–12 months), in which exposure was dominated by longer-lived isotopes. Radionuclide concentrations were measured over time and geographic area. The researchers used kinetic models to calculate how concentrations varied over time in the whole collection of organisms for each area (biota). They determined cumulative doses using calculations.

Adult butterflies collected in September 2011 showed more severe abnormalities than those collected in May 2011, indicating that cumulative radiation exposure had caused deterioration in the overall butterfly population. However, dosimetry uncertainties and other confounding factors complicate the interpretation of these observations. The recorded dose rates were much too low to cause the kinds of abnormalities the researchers observed, and when they tried to replicate the conditions in the laboratory, they needed ten times the radiation exposure to reproduce the same effects that they saw in the field. Other scientific data do not support the appearance of the observed effects at the dose rates recorded.

The research team noted that localized effects might have contributed to the abnormalities they saw in the butterflies. They also observed declines in some bird populations and exposures of macroalgae that exceeded corresponding benchmarks, which supports this possibility.

The team concluded that because the highest exposure levels lasted only a short time, there was likely no damage to the integrity of plant and animal populations overall. However, individual organisms in relatively contaminated areas might have been damaged during the weeks immediately after the accident. Especially at risk were individual members of species that are especially sensitive to radiation, that stay in one place rather than moving around, or that live in areas that received high doses of radiation.

This is a lay-audience summary of my writeup on The American Chemical Society’s website.

The Art of the Possible

I’ve been intending to start a lay-person’s version of my weekly postings on the American Chemical Society website. Several of my Twitter followers have mentioned that they are impressed, but confused, by these tech-heavy synopses, written for an audience of professional chemists. I thought I might wait for a week with an “accessible” topic, like medieval bones or counterfeit currency, but I decided that I might as well just jump in and start today.

I really picked a doozy of a week to start. This week’s post deals with an energy minimization study of silica- and germania-based zeolites. Say what?


Sodalite, a naturally occurring zeolite. Source: Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike License (posted by Ra’ike)

OK, let’s start with “zeolites”. These are inorganic materials, some found in nature, some made in a lab or a factory. If you’re going to get really picky about it, you can call them “microporous solids”. At the atomic scale, these materials form frameworks with a lot of open space, so you can use them as “molecular sieves”, or you can make them into containers for other molecules. Zeolites are great for catalytic converters in cars, for making all kinds of chemicals from petroleum, or for absorbing huge amounts of water in disposable diapers, among other uses.
Carbon dioxide molecules in zeolite cages. Source: Berend Smit laboratory, UC Berkeley, via Department of Energy’s National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center

Carbon dioxide molecules in zeolite cages. Source: Berend Smit laboratory, UC Berkeley, via Department of Energy’s National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center

Scientists have spent decades assembling databases of zeolite framework structures. Some of these structures already exist in the real world. Others “ought to” exist, from geometrical considerations, but they’ve never been made before. Every now and then, someone runs across one of these hypothetical structures, and they want to know whether it’s worth their time and effort to try and make the actual material. Maybe it has cavities of just the right shape, or it has channels of the right size, for some application that this person has in mind.

In addition to structural databases, scientists have access to databases that contain information on how stable certain chemical compositions and arrangements are. These databases are the results of years of research gained from chemical reactions, melting, compressing, and otherwise poking and prodding various materials. As a result, scientists can examine a series of framework structures to see which ones are the most stable.

A research group from Arizona State University recently published the results of their structural stability calculations, using hypothetical zeolite structures made from silica (silicon dioxide, the same stuff that beach sand is made of) and germania (germanium dioxide, which is chemically very similar to silica). (Chemistry of Materials 2014, 26, 1523–1527). They looked at framework structures based on building blocks containing one silicon (or germanium) atom surrounded by four oxygen atoms, each oxygen atom acting as a bridge between one building block and the next. These frameworks are referred to as “tetrahedral networks”. The group was especially interested in the angles formed by two silicon (or germanium) atoms and the oxygen atom bridging them, or T–O–T angles.

Schematic of tetrahedral building blocks. A silicon or germanium atom is at the center of each tetrahedron, and oxygen atoms are at each point. Source: Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike License (posted by Trikly)

Schematic of tetrahedral building blocks. A silicon or germanium atom is at the center of each tetrahedron, and oxygen atoms are at each point. Source: Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike License (posted by Trikly)

The research group did calculations for a series of known structures, distorting the structures over a wide range of T–O–T angles and watching to see whether the stability increased or decreased. For all of the silica structures, the structures became more stable as the angles increased from 120º to 140º. From 140º to 180º, the stability stayed about the same. Germania structures, however, were most stable in a narrow angular range between 128º and 130º.

Several commercially important zeolites have structures with T–O–T angles in a range that would make silica very happy, but would be an uncomfortable contortion for germania. In fact, of the 5824 stable frameworks described in the Atlas of Prospective Zeolite Structures, 994 have all of their T–O–T angles in the optimal range for silica (135º–180º), but only 48 are in the most favorable range for germania (117º–145º). Mixing germanium and silicon in the framework might extend the range of stable bond angles and increase the number of stable structures available for synthesis.

If you would just listen to the facts…

Julia Duin’s article in the May 29 Washington Post (Serpent-handling pastor profiled earlier in Washington Post dies from rattlesnake bite) bothered me a lot, for reasons that I am still exploring. Duin is a photojournalist who has on several occasions reported on a small Pentecostal Christian group in rural West Virginia. This group demonstrates their religious faith by handling poisonous snakes during their church services. They cite Mark 16:17-18: “And these signs will follow those who believe: …they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them…”. Mack Wolford, the pastor of this church, died shortly after a rattlesnake bit him during a “homecoming” celebration over the Memorial Day weekend. His father, the previous pastor, died from a poisonous snakebite in 1983.

This may seem like an odd topic for a science blog, but bear with me a bit. It’s that very unfamiliarity of this whole practice (for most people who are likely to be reading this blog, anyway) that illustrates a problem that scientists have in communicating their research to the public.

Duin struggled over whether she should have called for medical help, which Wolford refused for several hours after he was bitten. This is a perennial issue for photojournalists, who must weigh their responsibility to serve as reliable witnesses to event against their responsibility to offer aid to a fellow human in danger. She wrote about that aspect much better than I could have, so I refer you to her article for that discussion. Basically, these people weren’t ignorant about calling for medical help, they just chose not to.

I sorted through a whole pile of mental conflicts as I read Duin’s article. How far should we take religious tolerance? They weren’t flying airplanes into buildings, after all, but they were trying to win over new recruits to the practice, even in states where it is illegal. These people practice their religion in remote rural areas, so there is little danger of their snakes escaping to terrorize hundreds of office workers taking their lunch break in Farragut Square. On the other hand, we do raise an uproar over other practices such as female genital mutilation that have remained “out of sight, out of mind” until only recently. We’re all connected by our common humanity, so we can’t really say that what “they” do is all right as long as they are only hurting themselves — their pain is ours as well.

What about that story where Satan tempted Jesus to prove his divinity by jumping off the roof of the temple and letting the angels rescue him? Satan quoted a piece of scripture that seemed to support this, much as the snake handlers do. Jesus answered, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” In other words, you have protection when you need it, but it’s not a free pass for taking foolish risks. The fact that your insurance company will pay for your repairs if you get into an auto accident isn’t an encouragement for you to drive down the freeway at 125 miles an hour. Shouldn’t someone point this out to the snake handlers?

This last question is where I make the mental connection to science communications. The snake handlers don’t need anyone to point out that snake bites are dangerous and can kill you. They know it already, they’ve seen it up close. They don’t need anyone to teach them scripture — they probably know it better than most people. They are not suffering from a dearth of information. As one respondent to Duin’s article pointed out, their main concern is not whether they die, but how they die. In their value system, dying while demonstrating their faith is far preferable to living in ambiguity.

You see the same sort of thing with climate change deniers. Their problem is not ignorance. Very few of these people would change their stance after attending a scientific seminar on the topic. As an increasing body of peer-reviewed studies shows, people form their views based not only on the information they have, but also on their vested interests (financial and otherwise), their desire to fit in with their families and communities, the degree to which they trust the source of information, and how this information fits in with their values and established world views.

A recent  study in Nature Climate Change illustrates the futility of merely heaping more information on people in an attempt to change their minds. The authors of the Nature article conclude:
It does not follow, however, that nothing can be done to promote constructive and informed public deliberations. As citizens understandably tend to conform their beliefs about societal risk to beliefs that predominate among their peers, communicators should endeavor to create a deliberative climate in which accepting the best available science does not threaten any group’s values. Effective strategies include use of culturally diverse communicators, whose affinity with different communities enhances their credibility, and information-framing techniques that invest policy solutions with resonances congenial to diverse groups. Perfecting such techniques through a new science of science communication is a public good of singular importance.

Even this, however, is only a partial solution, focusing as it does on coming up with more acceptable messengers in what is essentially a one-way flow of information. I would go one step further: listen first. Find out what other people think. Ask them why they think the way they do. Point out the places where you can’t understand their reasoning, or where their actions fly in the face of something you think is obvious or morally imperative, but don’t do it to sell them on your point of view. Do it to point out the areas where you need to learn more about how they think and believe.

Listening breaks the pointless cycle of attack and defense and establishes a starting point for a constructive engagement. You might never reach agreement, but in the act of listening and respecting another point of view, you make it more likely that the other person will listen to you in return. In establishing a dialogue, you make it more likely that you will identify commonalities that can serve as the beginning of constructive action. You establish yourself as a trustworthy source of information, making it more likely that the other person will listen to you in the future. And who knows, you might even learn something new.