I can still remember when computational chemistry was considered a special, esoteric (some would have said “useless”) sub-specialty within physical chemistry. Three recent articles in scientific journals show that the times have changed. Future research will have a computational component almost out of necessity because computation-based models are not only tools for rationalizing experimental results, they are increasingly the go-to tools for planning which experiments to perform. These research trends also point the way for education: chemistry instruction will become more reliant on computation-based models.
An Ohio jury has awarded $10.5 million in punitive damages to a man who claimed that his testicular cancer was caused by exposure to water that a Dupont factory had contaminated with perfluorooctanoic acid (also known as PFOA or C-8 because the molecule contains 8 carbon atoms). C-8 is used to make teflon, the perfluorocarbon polymer that has many uses ranging from Gore Tex raincoats to the coating on non-stick frying pans. PFOA exposure has been linked to at least six diseases so far, including testicular and kidney cancer.
The jury’s decision is significant in several ways: 1) it is the 3rd and largest award made against DuPont for discharges of C-8 from its Parkersburg, W. Va, manufacturing plant (and there are many, many more cases pending against DuPont because of these discharges), and 2) the jury awarded punitive damages, i.e., they are not just payment for the harm experienced by the plaintiff. As the Free Legal Dictionary puts it, “The purposes of damages are to punish the defendant for outrageous misconduct and to deter the defendant and others from similar misbehavior in the future.”
To learn more about this case and the extent of PFOA contamination in U.S. waterways, read:
Feb 24, 2017 update – DuPont and Chemours have settled 3,550 lawsuits by agreeing to a payment of $670 million to plaintiffs. (“DuPont, Chemours settle PFOA suits” CENews, 20 Feb 2017 and “DuPont Settles Lawsuits Over Leak of Chemical Used to Make Teflon” NY Times, 13 Feb 2017)
Can you sue the government to force it to take action on climate change? This question was put to federal magistrate judge Thomas Coffin in Eugene, Oregon in early 2015 in a lawsuit, Kelsey Cascadia Rose Juliana et al. v. United States of America et al. (“Kids Get Their Day in Court,” Sierra, Sept/Oct 2016 p. 42).
Just to set things up… On one side are the plaintiffs: 21 youths aged 8 to 19. The young people are represented by Our Children’s Trust, and an amicus brief has been filed in support of their position by The Global Catholic Climate Movement, an international network that includes Pope Francis. On the other side is the defendant: the United States government (and its traditional 😉 supporters, the American Petroleum Institute and the National Association of Manufacturers). The position taken by the plaintiffs is based on an ancient legal doctrine called the public trust doctrine which holds that “the government has a responsibility to steward for future generations shared resources such as ocean fisheries and navigable rivers.”
To learn more, and/or sign a petition in support of the plaintiffs, follow this link to Our Children’s Trust. The case is supposed to go to trial in early 2017.
Wikipedia says that the German chemical giant, BASF, is “the largest producer in the world, operating 390 production sites on 5 continents, and employing approximately 122,000 in 2015. This past summer a C&E News article (“More Rabbits from Fewer Hats,” 20 June 2016, p. 26) took a look at BASF’s research directions.
C&E News noted that BASF is “the only chemical firm in the world to have an R&D bill of more than $2 billion,” but they also reported a change in direction. According to BASF board member, Martin Brudermuller, “Our research commitment will not increase at the same rate as before, but our commitment to R&D will not go down. … In the future we will need more computational chemists than lab technicians.”
Curious about what computational chemists do, and how this might appeal to an industrial giant like BASF, come see me.
I’ve been reading Science magazine for years, but this only marks me as a nerd, not as a scientist. If you want to learn a little about the day-to-day experiences of working scientists, I recommend reading the Working Life feature on the back page of Science. I don’t agree with everything I read there, but a lot of it speaks to me (and it also tells me how much, and how little, science has changed over the past 4 decades since I left graduate school).
Here’s an article that I encourage every student and colleague to read: Rescuing my time from science (Dr. Luca Rinaldi, Science, 23 Dec 2016). Dr. Rinaldi, a postdoctoral research fellow, writes about an important personal discovery: he had unintentionally allowed his life to be shaped by the signals he adsorbed from “colleagues’ behavior and the cultural expectations of academic research.”
Leaving his research lab very late one night, after missing dinner with his life partner hours earlier, he realizes,
… I was living in a sort of time warp – which was particularly ironic given that I was studying how daily activities shape our sense of time. Now, though, after years of allowing my work to take over my life, I’m reclaiming my power to decide how to spend my time.
It’s an important discovery for everyone to make. And to make again, and again.
The election of Donald Trump to the presidency raises all sorts of questions about future US policy on greenhouse gases and climate change. An opinion piece by Robert Stavins (“Goodbye to the Climate,” NY Times, 9 Nov 2016) lists the promises that Trump made on the campaign trail: rescinding all actions by the Obama administration, stopping all US funding for all UN climate-related activities (this would include funding for the IPCC?), stopping all work on reducing greenhouse gases (including reversing EPA regulations to date), and restoring the US coal industry.
If this list sounds like a horrific prospect, consider this: the Obama administration’s regulations to date have not brought us anywhere near meeting our obligations under the Paris agreement. A recent analysis published in Nature Climate Change, and reported in Science magazine (26 Sept 2016), states, “Even if the United States implements all current and proposed [Obama administration] policies, it would miss its 2025 target by as much as 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year—roughly 20% of the nation’s total emissions.” 20% is a pretty big ‘miss,’ especially when we remember that it is 20% of the gases emitted by the world’s second largest producer of greenhouse gases. It is certainly not the kind of outcome that anyone who is concerned about climate change can tolerate.
Which raises this question: if a Trump administration fails to act on climate, or rolls back/looks the other way on existing regulations, what responsibility do institutions like Reed College have? Do we just close our eyes (as the Reed trustees have done in the past) and pursue whatever activities and investments the law allows because climate change is a ‘political’ issue? I sincerely hope not. Whether Reed’s trustees like it or not, we may be entering a period when conviction must finally translate into action.
Nov 22, 2016 update – Science magazine (14 Oct 2016, p. 154) reports “401 – Lowest concentration of carbon dioxide, in ppm, measured for 2016 at Mauna Loa in Hawaii in late September, before values climb again. The site may now have passed the 400-ppm marked permanently.”
In a classic scene from All The President’s Men, the movie about investigative reporters unmasking wrongdoing in the Nixon White House, one reporter, Bob Woodward, meets up with his insider source, Deep Throat, in a DC parking garage. Woodward confesses that he and his partner have hit nothing but dead-ends and need help. Deep Throat tells him, “Follow the money. … You tell me what you know, and I’ll confirm. … Just follow the money.”
Geographer Richard Heede has been following greenhouse gases, and the big money companies behind these gases for years. According to his research, which is described in The Carbon Accountant (D. Starr, Science, 26 Aug 2016, p. 858), “nearly two-thirds of the major industrial greenhouse gas emissions (from fossil fuel use, methane leaks, and cement manufacture) originated in just 90 companies around the world.” One company, ExxonMobil, is estimated to be responsible for roughly 5% of humanity’s industrial greenhouse gas emissions over the past 130 years, but that time span may not be worthy of consideration because Heede’s research shows that 50% of the emissions from the Nasty 90 have been produced since 1988.
Lecture is, perhaps, the most time-honored method of college instruction out there. It would seem to create the perfectly level playing field: every student hears the same lecture and every student has the same opportunity to pay attention and learn. But perhaps not? A Gray Matter column in the Times (“Are College Lectures Unfair?“, 12 Sept 2015) presents findings that suggest that lecture-style courses, when compared to active learning courses, put “female, minority, low-income and first-generation” students at a disadvantage.
Except for the hot months when I can wear shorts, I live in jeans. This graphic on the environmental impact of one pair of 501 jeans blew my mind. See “Cleaning the Clothing Industry” by M. M. Bomgardner, C&ENews (27 June 2016).
Chemists are storytellers out of necessity. A friend of mine just sent me an article that he wrote (and has gotten approved for publication). It begins, “One of the main problems for student comprehension of chemistry is that atoms and molecules are invisible entities.”