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.”
My memory isn’t what it used to be, but when I saw this photo in Science magazine (15 May 2015, “Pioneers of the final frontier” by the late Dr. Claudia Alexander) I was tossed for a loop because I remember this photo so well. I was there.
I wasn’t in the photo myself (obviously), but this photo of Caltech’s Black Student Union in 1975, could have been taken right outside my dorm window on the tiny Caltech campus and it appeared in college publications almost immediately after it was taken. The photo shows 4 members of the BSU, and in the center, the instantly recognizable face of that most energetic of Caltech personalities: Lee Browne. Continue reading
“I don’t work in a startup,” writes Prof. Louis Menand in “The Life Biz” (New Yorker, 28 March 2016). He continues, “I work in a brick-and-mortar university, one of the most institutionally conservative workplaces in the world outside North Korea. But my colleagues and I all value flexibility and innovation. We are against routine thinking and rote learning. We teach our students to think outside the box and to be comfortable with failure. We stress the importance of teamwork and interaction; we seek to have our students take ownership of the classroom and to insure that they have a psychologically safe space in which to discuss their ideas. We want them to be smarter, faster, better. If someone said, “Sounds like you’re running a startup,” most of us would be quite offended.”
I just read Bill McKibben’s “Climate: Will We Lose the Endgame?” (NY Review of Book, 10 July 2014). The article reviews three documents: a book on Antarctica, a report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (fyi – I’m a member), and a US government document (the 3rd Nat’l Climate Assessment). The news is not good:
“slow-motion collapse [of Antarctica’s ice sheets], which will occur over many decades, is “unstoppable” at this point, scientists say; it has “passed the point of no return.”