Recent Travels | November 28, 2011 Issue - Vol. 89 Issue 48 | Chemical & Engineering News
 
 
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Volume 89 Issue 48 | p. 3 | Editor's Page
Issue Date: November 28, 2011

Recent Travels

Department: Editor's Page
Keywords: sustainability, climate change, arsenic-based microbe, California Nanosystems Institute, nanoscience

I recently spent a week on the road, something I should probably do more often. I traveled to Madison, Wis., at the invitation of University of Wisconsin chemistry professor and ACS President-Elect Bassam Shakhashiri to give a public lecture on sustainability and climate change and to be a guest lecturer at a seminar for chemistry graduate students and postdocs on communicating science to the general public.

From Madison, I flew to Los Angeles to visit UCLA chemistry professor Paul Weiss, who is also the director of UCLA’s California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI) and the editor-in-chief of the highly successful journal ACS Nano. Paul and I attended a performance of Alan Alda’s play “Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie” (C&EN, Nov. 7, page 30 ), and I spent a day talking to chemists and other scientists associated with CNSI.

C&EN readers know what I think about sustainability and climate change. The title of my talk, “Sustainable Growth Is an Oxymoron,” says it all. You can’t have a sustainable economic system based on exponential growth on a finite planet. You can talk about efficiency and new technology for as long as you like, and it doesn’t matter. We live on a finite planet with finite resources. We have to create an economic system that provides for human needs without endless growth in human population and consumption.

Interestingly, on the day of my talk in Madison, Richard Muller, a physics professor at UC Berkeley and director of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project, testified at a congressional climate science briefing. Muller, previously something of a climate-change skeptic, established the BEST project to address criticisms of the land and sea surface temperature record, including the choice of measurement stations and the methods used to correct systematic errors in climate data. The BEST team concluded that previous studies that found a 1 °C rise in Earth’s surface temperature since 1950 are accurate and that the criticisms leveled at those studies are invalid.

In the communicating science to the public seminar, I talked about the 2010 paper in Science that concluded that microbes living in the sediments of Mono Lake in California incorporated arsenic into their nucleic acids and other biomolecules in place of phosphorus (C&EN, Dec. 13, 2010, page 7). Starting with the press conference sponsored by NASA and Science—press conferences are almost never a good way to announce important scientific discoveries—the supposed arsenic-based microbes are a case study in how not to communicate science to the public.

Nevertheless, the announcement by lead author Felisa Wolfe-Simon and coauthors did demonstrate how science works in today’s media- and Internet-soaked culture. Serious scientists blogged their skepticism about the work within days of its announcement. Within weeks, front-page stories in leading newspapers like the Washington Post,New York Times, and Wall Street Journal gave way to stories about just how unlikely the result actually was, a point made, not very articulately, by one of the presenters at the original press conference. Participants in the seminar showed a keen appreciation for the challenges scientists face in communicating with journalists and with other nonscientists.

My day at CNSI was highly informative. The center brings together faculty from a number of UCLA’s science and engineering departments and the UCLA medical school to collaborate on a wide range of nanoscale science. To advance the research, CNSI supports eight core facilities that include wet and dry labs and state-of-the-art instrumentation such as electron microscopes, atomic force microscopes, X-ray diffractometers, optical microscopies and spectroscopies, and high-throughput robotics.

CNSI reminds me of collaborative efforts at other universities I’ve visited focused on drug discovery, materials science, and other interdisciplinary endeavors. As I’ve noted in this space previously, chemistry is both a core discipline and an enabling science. The molecular toolbox that chemistry represents has transformed many other areas of science, and I think it is increasingly where chemistry’s future lies. I’ll revisit CNSI in much more depth in an upcoming issue.

Thanks for reading.

 
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Comments
Ron Masters, Ph.D.  (November 29, 2011 10:52 PM)
My oh my, how far we have declined from our optimism of past decades when the entire universe was at our doorstep. What an incredibly limiting and "closed-in" comment from this week's editorial page! I quote: "You can’t have a sustainable economic system based on exponential growth on a finite planet. You can talk about efficiency and new technology for as long as you like, and it doesn’t matter. We live on a finite planet with finite resources. We have to create an economic system that provides for human needs without endless growth in human population and consumption." Oh to the contrary! Certainly, growth must be metered against available resources, but to limit ourselves to just this "finite" planet is so far from the promise of the future I was exposed to by my mentors in decades past that I cannot believe such words have been recorded in print by a fellow scientist. If this is the limit of what we have for centuries to come, we have no hope for anything better than what has already been experienced, and we are forced to accept decline. I do not subscribe to this hogwash. Instead, I seek to look beyond the surly bonds of earth, to look beyond our present knowledge, experiences and circumstances. I choose to explore, to expand, and to seek ways to grow beyond the limits of our finite planet. Where is the vision we once had as a scientific community? I speak of the vision that propelled us to places and capabilities we never thought possible just a few decades ago. What will it take to re-kindle this in ourselves so we can look beyond the finite bounds of earth, in spite of the incredible challenge this represents? What has happened to the heart and soul of "We choose to do these things because they are hard"?
Ron Masters, Ph.D.  (December 2, 2011 3:59 AM)
To continue with the above, and clarify some thoughts on this topic:

We must be good stewards of this finite planet at all times. To do otherwise would be foolish and self-defeating. However, we must also avoid the grave error of using this important stewardship goal to limit our growth, and thus trap us on this finite planet. Our rise to prosperity on this world is but a blink in time during a favorable period, compared to the majority of time that has been available on this planet. The reality of multiple extinction periods, and the knowledge of forces that act in the universe we populate, teach us that no matter how grand we think we are, there are forces far beyond our control that will command our destiny on this finite world. The time of demise may be a few decades, centuries, or thousands of years in the future, but to limit our growth, and thus confine us to this certain fate, is as foolish and self-defeating as choosing to be bad stewards of our current world.

To summarize then,

1. Take the best possible care of the planet we currently inhabit for all time to come,

2. Actively work to grow, expand, and provide humankind with options beyond this planet so that in the centuries to come, we can improve our odds of survival as a civilization, and

3.Take the best possible care of all places we ultimately inhabit.

These goals, and the work needed to achieve them, are not at cross-purposes with each other, and this is the main objection to the original editorial. I cannot accept that our stewardship of our planet requires us to limit our growth and our future as a civilization.

Thanks for reading.
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