Freakin’ Farmers

I spend a lot of time at tea shops and I’ve noticed that public sharing of words starting in “f” (well, certain f-words) feels more frequent today than in times past. Fantasy? Or fact?

According to How farming reshaped our smiles and our speech (Science, 15 Mar 2019, p. 1131) , f- (and v-) sounds entered into human speech after the invention of agriculture several thousand years ago. The theory is that as our food became easier to eat, evolution gave us adults with the overbites more typical of children. And, as the article says, “within a few thousand years, those slight overbites made it easy for people in farming cultures to fire off sounds like ‘f’ and ‘v'”.

See also Human sound systems are shaped by post-Neolithic changes in bite configuration, D. E. Blasi et al., Science 363, eaav3218 (2019). DOI: 10.1126/science.aav3218

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Divestment = Politics or Morals?

Demands that Reed College divest its endowment funds from some dubious source of profit or another have percolated around campus for as long as I have taught here.

At my first convocation ceremony in the Reed gym (Aug. 1989) I sat on the stage with other new faculty while a group of student protesters silently stood by with signs and banners demanding that the College divest from companies located in then-apartheid South Africa. Leaping forward two decades, I added my support to the student voices demanding that the College divest from fossil fuel companies. Most recently, students campaigned for divestment from Wells Fargo, partly on the basis of Wells Fargo’s profiting from the private prison industry and partly because of Wells Fargo’s fraudulent business practices. Continue reading

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The Carbon Footprint of Academic Travel

The 18 January 2019 issue of Science contains a letter, Airborne in the era of climate change, written by two European scientists, Kévin Jean and Chris Wymant. They write, “The IPCC’s 2050 target of carbon neutrality is strongly challenged by sectors with unavoidable emissions, such as aviation (my emphasis).

They cite a forecast that the growth of the aviation sector could mean that aviation alone will by 2050 consume “up to one-quarter of the total global carbon budget for 1.5C.” They also contrast this forecast with travel behavior of academics: “air travel contributes substantially to the carbon footprint of academic communities, despite calls to travel less.”

Sadly, the necessity (and impact) of air travel for work or pleasure is almost never a topic of conversation on my campus (even on our college’s Sustainability committee). A decade ago I asked our college’s research office to help me estimate the number of miles students (just one part of our airborne population) must travel to get to and from campus. We based our estimates on the students’ home zip codes, and we assumed (because the college closes for winter break) that students would make at least two round-trips in a year that would cover the same distance that a crow would fly, i.e., no connecting flights or travel to hub airports. We also assumed that students who lived within a few hundred miles of Portland were unlikely to fly at all. Even with these conservative assumptions, it was clear that the carbon footprint of student air travel was large enough to make all other parts of the college’s carbon footprint pale by comparison. And, of course, we had only grabbed a piece of the true impact; a realistic calculation of the impact of Reed air travel would also have to include travel by faculty, staff, student families, campus visitors, and more.

Jean and Wymant finish their letter with these words, “including a carbon sobriety criterion [as part of the evaluation of scientists and research projects] could be a good way to reduce scientists’ carbon footprint … Institutions invariably have policies for preventing and reducing harm, which address problems such as physical safety and data security. Surely the protection of planetary health, through the dramatic carbon cuts that are now urgently required, has a place in institutional policy, too.”

A ‘carbon sobriety’ test is exactly what our institutions need. Why not include carbon footprints in college rankings? What use is a degree from an institution of higher education if that institution is undermining the health of the entire planet?

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The First Day of Spring

Was today the first day of Spring? How does one tell? In other parts of the country Spring’s heralds are sunshine, warmth that penetrates to your bones (not yet, Portland, not yet), a second robin, and daffodils in bloom. Portlanders often call on these, but we have another way to reckon the year’s progress, up here, west of the Cascades. We attend to our rain and its quality.

Which brings me back to my question. Was today, March 12, the first day of Spring 2019?

I ask because … returning from lunch I parked my car in the college’s North lot and stepped out into sunshine. 100 strides later, I stepped onto the Blue Bridge under gray clouds and the beginning of a fine rain. The storm intensified as I kept walking south across the Canyon, and as I left the Bridge behind and turned east I seriously considered opening my umbrella. But, barely had I begun to mull this possibility over when I found myself rounding Eliot Circle, back in sunshine and a fine mist that was the only memory of what had just come before. I entered the Chemistry building in full sunshine ready to put all thoughts of rain and umbrellas behind me. And yet, 90 seconds later, as I swung open my office door, the scene outside had been transformed once again. My office window was awash with the fierce gray tat-a-tat and dark skies of another Portland rain shower.

Such is Spring in Portland. And it lasts a full 3 months.

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Lab Safety 10 Years After Sheri Sangji

C&E News has published an article, 10 years after Sheri Sangji’s death, are academic labs any safer? (Dec. 28, 2018), that is a must-read for all chemists who either go into labs themselves or are responsible for sending others into a lab. The lab accident that took Ms. Sangji’s life was clearly preventable. Nevertheless, the many steps, small and large, that need to be taken to make chemistry labs, especially academic research and training labs, safer remain a work in progress.

An accident is a failure to anticipate hazard and to take all all of the steps needed to keep it from happening. One might say that risk is always present in lab work so what is to be done? But this misses the larger point. The little bits of acid that etched holes in the blue jeans I always wore to lab in graduate school were never going to kill me, but those holes pointed to an uncomfortable fact that eluded me at the time: my daily lab work was exposing me to chemical reagents without my being aware of it. Had the reagents been something more toxic, mutagenic, or reactive, the effects might have been far more unpleasant than damaged clothing.

Those of us who work in the lab, or send others into the lab for research or instruction, have a duty to insist on a universal culture of lab safety that promotes awareness of risk, and creates incentives for lowering all imaginable risks to tolerable levels. Until then, we will either operate in the denial that Ian Tonks describes in “I thought it would never happen to me”, or with that “icy ball of fear” that Debbie Decker (Safety Manager, Dept. of Chemistry, UC Davis) refers to in her companion essay, “How we’re making compliance beneficial”.

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Church of England promises to divest from fossil fuels

Science magazine (13 July 2018) reports (News | In Brief, p. 114) that the Church of England has decided to divest itself from fossil fuel companies. The Church divested itself of £12 million in assets from tar sands and coal projects in 2015, but the next stage will be much larger, about £125 million in shares in large oil and gas companies. The Church’s efforts also include teaming up with the London School of Economics to create the Transition Pathway Initiative, an assessment tool that examines a company’s preparedness for a low carbon economy. Perhaps this would interest the Trustees of Reed College?

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PSU Chemists May Have Unlocked Juul’s Appeal

E-cigarettes are often promoted as a “healthy” alternative to cigarettes (“The Promise of Vaping and the Rise of Juul” New Yorker, 14 May 2018). The public health appeal of this is simple: nicotine is notoriously addictive (even without the flavorings that Juul adds), so vaping is offered as a way for smokers to self-administer nicotine without exposing themselves to tobacco and carcinogens.

If only life were that simple. Nicotine has its own toxicity problems. Juul has become the e-cigarette/addiction of choice among teens who had not been smokers or nicotine addicts previously, and there are very real concerns about Juul being a stepping stone to cigarettes, let alone an addiction that works on teenagers’ still-developing brain networks.

Now a team of chemists at Portland State University (Angela Duell, James Pankow, David Peyton) provides a possible reason why Juul’s brand of nicotine liquid might be unusually appealing and addictive. Juul adds more acid to its liquid to create more protonated nicotine than other brands, and this form of nicotine is more appealing when inhaled. (Background chemistry: The nicotine molecule contains 2 basic nitrogen atoms, and nicotine solutions contain a “free base” form in which both N are electrically neutral, and “protonated” form in which one N remains neutral and the other carries an extra proton as R3NH+.)

Earlier investigations of the free and protonated nicotine in Juul’s liquids had not given reliable results, but the PSU team found a way around this experimental hurdle. Links to the PSU research include: Chem. Res. Toxicol. 2018, DOI: 10.1021/acs.chemrestox.8b00097 | C&ENews, 2018, 96(22), 28 May

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Real News About the Climate

Here are two recent “real news” stories that should make you worried about the self-serving fools in charge of our government, corporations, and just about any other person or institution with a financial incentive to keep things as they are:

“Going Negative: Can carbon dioxide removal save the world?” by Elizabeth Kolbert (The New Yorker, 20 Nov 2017) Kolbert explains why we’re in dire straits (quote #1), why CO2 removal (so-called ‘negative emissions’) looks appealing (quote #2), and why it might not be possible to get there (quotes #3 & #4).

(#1) When the IPCC went looking for ways to hold the temperature increase under two degrees Celsius, it found the math punishing. Global emissions would have to fall rapidly and dramatically – pretty much down to zero by the middle of the century.

(#2) The IPCC considered more than a thousand possible scenarios. Of these, only a hundred and sixteen limit warming to below two degrees, and of these a hundred and eight involve negative emissions.

Continue reading

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Forced From Home exhibit – this week only

Doctors without Borders has mounted a free exhibition, “Forced From Home,” in Pioneer Courthouse Square on the refugee crisis. Hours are 9 am – 5 pm. Days Mon 10/16 (that’s today) through Sun 10/22.

Here’s a brief description of what you will find at the exhibit (more info at

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Are Chemists Ready for Virtual Reality?

Virtual reality (VR), once the province of supercomputer labs, is going mainstream. A few months ago, I strapped on a VR headset in Prof. Joel Franklin’s computer lab so that I could explore multi-hued computer-generated landscapes, some realistic, others purely fanciful. Once “inside,” and edging my way towards a rocky cliff, I had to remind my mind and my body that I was still standing on the flat floor of a college physics lab.

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