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December 12, 2005 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 83, Issue 50

Evolution and science


I have followed with great interest the debate on evolution and the origin of life that has appeared in C&EN. C&EN's coverage of these ideas is of great value because of the opportunity it offers for reflection. My opinion comes from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, and after 30 years of American Chemical Society membership.

I will simplify a bit. There are certain facts that exist in nature that cannot be explained. For some people, this causes disappointment; for others, like me, it is stimulating.

Final questions cannot be addressed via experimental sciences. This is my thesis. I refuse to explain my personal life in terms of atoms of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen, for example. When I look up to the firmament, I realize that what I actually see is not what is truly important, but rather, what is important is where it all ends and understanding what is on the other side. The concepts of nothing and the infinite are beyond all rational thinking. It is for this reason, among others, that societies have developed their beliefs, based on information received from their ancestors and their contemporaries, to explain those things that logic cannot. One is free to believe or not believe facts, testimonies, and logical reasoning. To each his own.

No matter what, science and faith walk together. That said, one must recognize that, on certain occasions, logical explanations cannot be reached through scientific experimentation.

In this exciting world of vertiginous development, it is necessary that we confront logical reasoning with speculative reasoning when we are considering the whys and wherefores of things. It is at this moment when we will see if we are fixing our sights on our own inquisitive finger or if we are shooting for the stars.

My second thesis is that we are now at a historical moment where science and belief can go hand in hand in the search for truth.

Antonio Monge
Pamplona, Spain

I have belonged to ACS for more than 30 years because I have believed in its goals, but I now find myself at odds with those who draft its policies.

Published on the ACS website this past June was the society's policy concerning the teaching of evolution to students in grades K-12. No author was given, which implies that all ACS members agree with its content. I wish to expressly state herein that I most certainly do not.

The creation/evolution debate continues to be hotly contested in the pages of C&EN and elsewhere, but the society has taken it upon itself to declare a winner. It states that evolutionary theory is "the scientifically accepted explanation for the origin of species" and dismisses the proponents of creationism, marginalizing their position by declaring them to be "unscientific."

Not being content to act as an illegitimate arbiter, ACS goes on to enter the debate itself, crediting evolutionism with having "models that explain the order and function of the universe," and claiming that evolution "provides … a unifying concept that explains the incredibly rich diversity of living things and their capacity to change and evolve over time to adapt to changing environments." It ignores the leaps of faith necessary to accept the assumptions imbedded in those statements, treating evolutionism as uncontested theory. It is not.

How can ACS publish a document that is so blatantly dogmatic, dismissing out of hand any opposing view? I find this appalling as a scientist, as well as personally insulting.

Luther C. Roberts
Rochester, N.Y.

Hydride storage


Hydrogen as hydride is a large, expensive, hazardous, energy-intensive, thermodynamic step away from hydrogen as element or hydrogen ion (C&EN, Aug. 22, page 42). Fifty years ago, in the Sputnik era, chemist George Kistiakowsky was the President's science adviser, and he set the nation's chemical science to work on the High Energy Fuels program (in which I had a part). Tens of millions of research dollars later, the best bet was boranes at an optimistic cost of several dollars per pound, far from the cents per pound required for a hydrocarbon replacement. Time goes by, but what has changed about the practicality of hydrides?

Richard A. Carpenter
Charlottesville, Va.

Energy: Further thoughts


I found your Editor's Page "Energy is Chemistry's Challenge" to be unusually interesting and stimulating, to the point that I followed up and read many of your citations (C&EN, Oct. 17, page 5). I certainly agree that chemists will play a deciding role in this "energy challenge" and that it presents us with an unparalleled opportunity to build and enhance our image with the public if we ever solve this enormous problem. Basically, this is a chemistry problem, and we have the people and the talent to do the job better than any other discipline.

I did want to point out a minor item in your article that needs your consideration. If you look up International System of Units (SI) on your computer, you'll find they spell the factor name with a single r, that is, "tera" and "terawatts." And I doubt many of your readers will know that a terawatt is 1012 (1 trillion) watts. Relating this to something in their daily lives would help them grasp the magnitude of the problem we face. For example, 1 TW is equivalent to 1.341 billion hp, easily related to a person's 200-hp car in the garage. Alternatively, you could relate it to 100-W lightbulbs; 20 TW equals 20 times 1010 bulbs burning for a year.

You always sign off with "Thanks for reading." My response is "Thanks for writing."

Ted J. Logan

The message was interesting, but there were flaws in the presentation. Terawatt is not an energy unit; it is a power unit. This error has persisted for about a year in C&EN articles.

To lump nuclear energy with wind (a form of solar), biomass, and hydroelectric power when discussing alternate energy possibilities is an apples-and-oranges statement because, while all are renewable (nuclear fuel is capable of "breeding"), only nuclear energy has a very high energy density and would have a large reserve. Hence nuclear could play a major energy role for decades.

Your discussion (and all such discussions) fails to mention the reserves of various energy types and the energy density factor. The first omission leads to the poor suggestion to use natural gas and petroleum as sources of hydrogen, and the second is not considered with solar and other forms of power. The U.S. and world reserves of natural gas are 220 and 5,137 quads, respectively, and for petroleum, they are 160 and 5,775 quads, while the same numbers for coal (not even mentioned in the editorial) are 6,900 and 30,100 quads. The annual current consumption of energy is about 100 quads in the U.S. and 650 quads worldwide; world consumption will probably double by 2050. Fossil fuels have high energy densities, and nuclear fuel's density is extremely high. While wind, biomass, solar, ocean thermal, and other sources of energy have extremely high reserves, they have very low energy densities. These factors are of critical importance when discussing energy possibilities.

Finally, producing hydrogen requires both a primary energy source and a substrate. Water (rather than hydrocarbons) is the right substrate, but I suggest that nuclear rather than solar energy should be used to obtain the quantities of hydrogen required to make a substantial dent in current and future energy needs. And production alone does not answer the myriad of other hydrogen issues, such as transportation, distribution, and eventual fuel-cell use.

The bottom line is that all energy types must be involved and that solar power, while very important, has innate disadvantages that must be considered. It isn't a panacea.

E. Gerald Meyer
Laramie, Wyo.

Data recorded in Hawaii show the concentration of carbon dioxide in air has risen continuously from about 270 ppm in the late 1940s to 380 ppm at present. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that prevents heat from leaving the atmosphere. The average air temperature of the world has increased over that time, and polar ice and glaciers are melting. Hurricanes spawned over hot water in the tropics, now warmer than before, are more numerous and intense.

Save for those with overriding faith or a need for indisputable proof, there is agreement that excessive CO2 is causative. But the world has adapted to fossil fuels, the source of carbon dioxide, for much of its energy. A twofold need exists: One, the carbon dioxide in air must be decreased, and two, nonharmful fuels must be developed.

Since carbon dioxide is absorbed from air during photosynthesis, we should seek CO2 removal by setting up vast plant farms whose adult products are harvested and permanently stored before they rot or burn, under conditions that prevent decomposition or bacterial reaction. The storage may be augmented by portions of landfill; by farm, agricultural, and home waste; and even by sewage. Also, substitute fuels resembling fossil fuels can be synthesized from such stored material, which, when burned, produce no effective change in carbon dioxide. Thus, this single process could solve our two needs.

Also note that large power plants are under consideration in which carbon dioxide is separated from combustion products for potential storage where it can do no harm. And proposed technology suggests that some fuels synthesized from biofuels will react with water to produce hydrogen as fuel, in such a manner that separate streams of hydrogen and side-product carbon dioxide are produced, with the latter available for storage underwater or underground.

Hydrogen is an excellent fuel for purposes where its low effective density is not a detriment. It has no effect on atmospheric carbon dioxide. In addition to the above means for producing hydrogen from biofuels without introducing carbon dioxide, new technology is under advanced development to procure hydrogen from water efficiently via solar-voltaic means.

It will take time to undo harm to the environment. Meanwhile, we should seek to mitigate CO2's effects. Consider hurricanes, apparently caused by overheated ocean water. About 100 feet under the surface at the thermocline, water is cold, so mixing would cool surface water and diminish hurricanes. Pumping the colder water to the surface requires energy, which could be provided from wind squalls that precede hurricane formation. Floating windmill-pump structures attached by long rods and ferried by helicopters are needed. Their costs would not compare with the trillions of dollars' worth of destruction caused by the recent rash of hurricanes.

There is need for action. We cannot wait for perfect proof or the finality of nature.

Leonard Greiner
Santa Ana, Calif.

Searching has never been easier


In his letter, "Taking a page from Wikipedia" (C&EN, Nov. 14, page 6), Matthew Stone makes the valid point that "an enormous number of articles" are being added to the chemical literature. However, contrary to his statement that it is becoming extremely difficult to perform exhaustive searches, it actually has never been easier. And contrary to his point that ACS should act to cure this problem, ACS already has.

The ACS Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) division provides comprehensive chemistry search-and-retrieval services that keep scientists up to date with not only journal literature, but also critical patent literature, and it does so far more reliably than a Wikipedia-style Web service could do.

CAS produces databases and search and analysis technologies recognized as the most comprehensive and effective for both chemistry and related research. SciFinder and STN are the leading services for scientists and information professionals. CAS databases are updated daily with records of the latest publications from some 9,500 journals published in any of 50 languages. In addition, chemistry-related patent records are available in the CAplus database within two days of issuance by the world's key patent offices. Because a wealth of new substance information appears in patents instead of journals, researchers need this more comprehensive view of the publicly disclosed scientific information.

We believe that ACS has truly addressed the need for current and reliable information through the CAS services that are used by scientists in industry, academia, and governmental agencies around the world. Perhaps Nobel Laureate K. Barry Sharpless said it best in his recent comment on the 10th anniversary of SciFinder: "I am a big user and don't see how any researcher could hope to excel without daily, round-the-clock access. In the old days, you could be forgiven for not knowing about a certain paper, but now there is no excuse."


Information on SciFinder can be found at

Janice E. Mears
Chemical Abstracts Service
Columbus, Ohio

Spurious extrapolation


The Department of Energy graph that is shown on page 31 of the Aug. 22 issue of C&EN is a classic example of spurious extrapolation. Between 1970 and 2000, U.S. oil consumption meandered between 15 and 20 million barrels per day. The graph even shows a plateau between 1999 and 2000. But the future? We're projected to double consumption by 2050, with the slope matching that of the increase from 1990 to 1998.

Based on history, there is only weak expectation that this graph represents reality. It ignores possible increases in energy efficiency (next-generation aircraft will be 20% more fuel efficient than current aircraft, higher fuel prices might convince drivers to drive more fuel-efficient cars, and sufficiently high prices might lead to reurbanization and increased use of mass transit). It ignores possible economic downturns, as appears in the 1976–80 portion of the plot.

In short, the future portion of the graph could be drawn as a sinusoid, a flat line at 20 million bbl per day, or the line shown in the published graph. We teach our students to be very skeptical of monotonic extrapolations. DOE (and C&EN) should be more cautious in such extrapolations.

Alexander Scheeline
Urbana-Champaign, Ill.

Ulcer revelation


The 2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was well-awarded, but this experience may be interesting. When I joined the American Medical Association in 1936, gastric and duodenal ulcers were a challenge, and the common therapy was mucin from cattle stomachs and an alkali and a diet high in fat, especially cream. When I joined the William S. Merrell Co., we realized that ulcer patients seemed to have a common factor in that the lysozyme content of their stomachs was high.

Lysozyme is described in an old "Merck Index" as a mucolytic enzyme. It was considered to be a metabolic product of certain bacteria. Thus, we postulated that a chemical to inactivate lysozyme added to aluminum hydroxide, which was a new chemical to neutalize the acid of the stomach, would make an effective antiulcer preparation. We determined that sodium lauryl sulfate inactivated the enzyme. The mixture was tested clinically, found effective, and then reached the market.

Henry R. Kreider
St. Petersburg, Fla.

Plutonium's low toxicity


The statement about plutonium toxicity (C&EN, July 4, page 16) has an error. Injected plutonium citrate is less toxic than aspirin or caffeine (T. D. Luckey and P. Venugopal, "Metal Toxicity in Mammals," Vol. 1, New York: Plenum Press, 1977, page 21). None of 18 "terminally ill" patients died from cancer or other effects related to plutonium injection (Los Alamos Sci. 1995, 23, 177). Those who received the most plutonium died 11 to 38 years after the injection.

Since it is poorly absorbed, plutonium would be less toxic when ingested than when injected. With a half-life of 87.74 years, the radiation (alpha particles) from plutonium-238 would destroy a few cells lining the alimentary tract. However, these are constantly replaced; the life of intestinal villus cells is five days. Any cell that absorbed plutonium would soon be sloughed and excreted. Six men ingested 0.35 nanocurie of plutonium-239 to obtain information about plutonium absorption (Radiat. Prot. Manage. 1998, 15, 31). No one was harmed.

T. D. Luckey
Lawrence, Kan.


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