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November 14, 2005 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 83, Issue 46

Haiku praise

I had great fun reading the article “Fusion of Image and Verse” about Langley Spurlock and John Martin Tarrat's creativity (C&EN, Oct. 3, page 60). I couldn't resist putting in my 17 syllables' worth.

Structural Chemistry

Haikus have no rhyme
Three lines of syllables five
Seven and five to close.

The periodic
Table is a poem of
Elemental sort.

From hydrogen to
Heavy rarities it sings
A song eternal.

Martin Grayson
Cos Cob, Conn.

Common convention?

In the letter “redefining ‘ACS,' ” Dana D. Dlott suggests that ACS be renamed the American Chemistry Society instead of the American Chemical Society (C&EN, Sept. 19, page 6).

Googling the two exact phrases shows that many websites already refer to ACS this way: about 21,100 for “American Chemistry Society” and about 8,200,000 for “American Chemical Society.”

Don Rickter
Arlington, Mass.

Coming together on herbal medicine

I applaud the call by a group of distinguished scientists to use extracts of Artemisia herb plant, instead of a single pure compound, to combat malaria (C&EN, May 2, page 4). Their proposal highlights a significant new field in biomedical research that so far has been overlooked: the study of synergistic effects of multiple ingredients used in herbal remedies.

The idea that other bioactive compounds in the tea of the Artemisia plant may increase the clinical efficacy of artemisinin is a case of synergy among the components of a single herb. In the practice of traditional Chinese medicine, the situation is much more complex. Traditional Chinese medicine prescriptions usually contain multiple herbs, and a sophisticated theory was developed about interaction among herbs.

Even though this ancient philosophy is not completely scientific, a number of credible clinical trials have verified the therapeutic benefits of some herbal prescriptions. For example, sho-saiko-to, an extract of seven Chinese herbs, helps prevent liver cancer in patients with cirrhosis. In two other studies, Zemaphyte, a preparation of 10 herbs, produced impressive responses in treating severe, widespread atopic eczema that was resistant to Western therapies.

The researchers who led these studies suggest that the combination of multiple herbs has better effects than individual ingredients. It was noted that the efficacy of the sho-saiko-to prescription was greater than that of any of its single components. Preliminary study also indicates that there is no single active herb in Zemaphyte and that the complete combination of 10 herbs was needed to achieve the desired clinical results. Based on this limited evidence, we argue that the reductionist approach of isolation of a single active compound is not always appropriate for traditional Chinese medicine.

The pharmacology of drug interaction among synthetic chemicals is well-established. In contrast, little data exist regarding interactions among multiple ingredients present in herbal remedies. Koji Nakanishi and two other leading chemists predicted that the synergy of complex mixtures of compounds used in alternative medicine will become a hot research topic in chemistry in the decades to come (C&EN, Jan. 12, 1998, page 145). The National Institutes of Health has a mechanism to support such projects. It is time now for more scientists to get involved.

Tianhan Xue
Arcadia, Calif.

Taking a page from Wikipedia

In recent years, the online encyclopedia Wikipedia has become an invaluable resource that provides up-to-date information on an unlimited variety of subjects. The success of this resource stems from the fact that all users have the ability to add new entries and edit current ones. It strikes me that such a resource would also be greatly beneficial to the chemistry community. Peer-reviewed publishing in journals is currently the primary means of technical communication among chemists. There is no doubt in my mind that this will likely remain the backbone of reporting results within chemistry. However, there are many ways in which an online user-updatable database might supplement the current journal system.

First, it extends peer review to anyone who has read an article. Thus, for example, any synthetic chemists who have repeated a procedure might post their results and comment on the effectiveness. They could also post small alterations that improved the yield or efficiency. Failed results or small improvements are often not appropriate for publication in a journal but would be helpful to others in evaluating the usefulness of a procedure.

Second, this would allow for up-to-date reviews of emerging areas of research. Given the enormous number of articles that are currently being added to the chemical literature, it is becoming increasingly difficult and time-consuming to perform exhaustive searches. Journal and book reviews address this problem; yet these are often out-of-date by the time they have been published. A user-updated database would allow relevant citations to be added as they are published and would avoid requiring a herculean effort by a single author.

Finally, there is a wealth of valuable experience regarding routine procedures that are not new or exciting but are still quite useful. These techniques are most likely passed along only as chemists travel between laboratories. Small improvements that increase the efficiency and safety of a procedure are not always well-suited for reporting in journals but would be helpful when centralized in a single resource.

I call on ACS to invest its prestige, experience, and resources to implement such a Wikipedia-style updatable database, since the success of such an endeavor will be highly dependent on the establishment of rules that govern posting and editing of topics.

Matthew Stone
Oxford, England

Reclaiming science

Ralph J. Cicerone, new president of the National Academy of Sciences and chairman of the National Research Council, is quoted as saying (with regard to studies by the academy): “Our job is to analyze the possibilities of the options, but not necessarily to choose among them. To choose is really the role of our political leaders. We should analyze, perhaps we could propose, but it is not our job to choose” (C&EN, Oct. 10, page 31).

Given the current Administration in Washington, D.C., and how it has dealt and continues to deal with science and scientists, I believe scientists need to be much more outspoken and forceful about their studies and factual results, not only to political leaders but to the general public.

A new book by Chris Mooney, “The Republican War on Science,” relates how, for two decades, influential Republicans, initially in Congress but now also in the White House, in concert with determined allies in private industry and fundamentalist Christian organizations, have systematically denied, disparaged, and misrepresented scientific information on topics of importance to public policy. The book reinforces and expands on material found in reports prepared in 2003 for California Congressman Henry A. Waxman (“Politics and Science in the Bush Administration”) and the 2004 report of the Union of Concerned Scientists (“Scientific Integrity in Policy-making: An Investigation into the Bush Administration's Misuse of Science”).

This Administration has misled both voters and elected representatives about scientific facts through the following activities: misrepresenting real debates, exaggerating uncertainty, interfering with activities of expert agencies, trumpeting the views of outlier “scientists” whose interpretations (called “sound science”) are rarely found in the refereed literature, and attacking the integrity and results of genuine experts. And those who attack science for political reasons are organized, well-financed, and persistent.

We scientists must do a better job of communicating real science to both the public and its representatives, especially since polls, studies of scientific knowledge among the electorate, and results of math and science tests (compared with most other advanced countries) show very low understanding of science and its methods and, more important, its significance to public policy.

Joel Selbin
Boulder, Colo.


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