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February 16, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 7


Search for land mines eased

Aresa, a small biotechnology company in Copenhagen, has genetically engineered plants to turn red when their roots contact explosives in the soil. The development could remove much of the nervous tension from searches for buried land mines. Rick Weiss reports the development in the Feb. 2 Washington Post.

The method thus far has been tried only in the lab. In the field, the idea goes, mine detection people would spray modified seeds over areas where explosives are believed to be buried. They would then wait a few weeks and look for places where plants are coming up red. This should be less nerve-racking than probing for mines in unassessed dirt.

Aresa worked with a mutant version of Arabidopsis thaliana, a plant of the mustard family. It's a common roadside plant, Weiss reports, and a popular workhorse for plant geneticists. It also lacks a gene needed to make a red pigment.

The Aresa people gave the plant substitute copies of the red-making gene, linked to genetic material that would permit it to work only in the presence of the nitrogen dioxide released when land mines break down. The plants have been further modified to prevent them from producing seeds without help from the lab. The point is to keep them from spreading in the wild, according to Simon Ostergaard, managing director of Aresa.

Pyrometry found in bookstore

Reader Greg Konesky writes from Hampton Bays, N.Y., that he "recently visited Haslam's New and Used Bookstore in St. Petersburg, Fla., for the first time. The place is huge, occupying the better part of a city block."

While browsing, Konesky encountered a book "with the words Wood and Cork Pyrometry on the binder." Presumably, he figured, "it related to some aspect of combustion engineering, although it seemed odd in that cork isn't known for its value as a fuel." He says he "laughed out loud" upon discovering that Wood and Cork were the authors.

The book cost him $14.50, Konesky says, and "is a treasury of many dimensions." It was published in 1941, and its first printed page bears the statement, "This book is produced in full compliance with the government's regulations for conserving paper and other essential materials." Shades of World War II.

Chemical rambles through philately

Newly appeared in paperback is "a philatelic Ramble through Chemistry" by Edgar Heilbronner and Foil A. Miller. The work is not readily described by the nonspecialist, so we shall rely on the authors' preface:

"This is not a history of chemistry which uses stamps instead of the usual illustrations, but a collection of short essays and comments on such chemistry as can be found on postage stamps and other philatelic items. In other words, the choice of topics is dictated by the philatelic material available, with the necessary consequence that important parts of chemical history will be missing for the simple reason that they have not found their way onto postage stamps. Thus, the reader may find detailed comments on lesser known chemists, such as Wilhelm August Lampadius, who has been honored with two stamps by the German Post Office, but hardly anything on such luminaries as Robert Bunsen, who have not been deemed worthy of a commemorative issue."

The hardcover edition of the book appeared in 1998. The 268-page 2004 paperback was published jointly by Verlag Helvetica Chimica Acta of Zurich and Wiley-VCH of Weinheim, Germany.

The Heilbronner/Miller philatelic ramble has a conversational air. On page 227, for example, it notes that Max Planck's name "is misspelled 'Plank' on stamp 114, on which the name of Henri Becquerel has also been changed to Beckerel. ... Concerning the rocket, which has absolutely nothing to do with Planck or his Nobel Prize, the designer has obviously followed the Tom Lehrer lyric: 'Once rockets are up, who cares where they come down, that's not my department, says Werner von Braun.' "

The preface, by the way, includes a few words from Ernest Rutherford: "Science is physics; everything else is postage stamp collecting."


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