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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

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Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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August 22, 2006

Explain This, Hot Shot!

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Posted by Derek

Via the excellent Arts and Letters Daily, I found this piece by science writer K. C. Cole on dealing with editors in the popular press. She and others in her field have had their difficulties over the years when writing about things that even the researchers involved are confused about:

Editors, however, seem to absorb difficulty differently. If they don't understand something, they often think it can't be right - or that it's not worth writing about. Either the writers aren't being clear (which, of course, may be the case), or the scientists don't know what they're talking about (in some cases, a given).
Why the difference? My theory is that editors of newspapers and other major periodicals are not just ordinary folk. They tend to be very accomplished people. They're used to being the smartest guys in the room. So science makes them squirm. And because they can't bear to feel dumb, science coverage suffers.

She points out some of the problems - that many scientific discoveries deal with things that are more or less invisible to the ordinary senses, happen on time scales that are too short or too long to be easily perceived, contradict some common-sense notions of what must be right, and so on.

There's also the problem that, as she correctly observes, that sometimes there is no description in lay language that can really explain a topic. My guess is that pure mathematics suffers from this the most: try explaining the Reimann zeta function in one coherent paragraph to someone who doesn't know much math. Following right on math's heels, as usual, is physics, but its weirder aspects can have a gee-whiz factor that makes up for their difficulty. Meanwhile, the fields I spend my time in (chemistry and biology) have their incomprehensible moments, but I think that they're amenable to explanation most of the time.

Which brings up a challenge. I've been trying to think of the most difficult thing to explain in chemistry to people who don't know the field. Since I have readers in both camps, I'll invite the pros to suggest some tough topics, and I'll tackle, in reasonably de-geeked language for the general readership, whichever one gets the most votes. The chemists can then comment on how accurate the explanation really was and suggest modifications, and we'll end up with something that might be useful. If this idea proves popular, we'll run one every so often and put it in a new category page.

I may come out of this looking like an idiot, but being willing to run that risk is an important part of my research style. Let's see how it works in the blogging business. Topics, anyone? I'd suggest something with a good mix of usefulness and broad interest along with general public incomprehension (NMR might be a good example).

Comments (47) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: General Scientific News


1. SP on August 23, 2006 11:51 PM writes...

What a chemical bond is, as explained by molecular orbital theory (or is that too far into physics?)

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2. GC on August 24, 2006 1:31 AM writes...

Hard-soft acid-base theory (or MO theory in general).

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3. Michael G on August 24, 2006 3:11 AM writes...

I regularly explain aspects of chemistry (and science in general) to my grandfather and then test him on it afterwards. Despite the fact he left school with no qualifications and worked as a brick layer, he usually gets it right. Previous topics covered include chirality, and aromatic electrophilic substitutions!

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4. Novice Chemist on August 24, 2006 5:11 AM writes...


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5. Stuart on August 24, 2006 5:55 AM writes...


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6. Thomas E. McEntee on August 24, 2006 6:49 AM writes...

As a synthetic organic chemist, I was always mystified by a lot of electrochemistry-based analytic polarography with its dropping mercury electrodes. Try explaining that to a lay audience (Does anyone "do" polarography these days?) I agree that NMR is a good one...and when you jump into the world of Fourier transforms, well...

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7. eugene on August 24, 2006 7:34 AM writes...

I vote for NMR.

Some papers have a separate science section, and the coverage there tends to be ok. I find Die Zeit to be pretty good, although I haven't read their Science magazine. You have to order the paper version, as I can't seem to stand the online articles because they cut out the pictures! The bastards! The pictures are the best part...

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8. Jim on August 24, 2006 7:59 AM writes...

So this is being a bit more broad, but I think the general topic of structural determination is a good one. I often have trouble explaining to my wife that there can be discrepancies between what I THINK I have and what I may have. This usually leads to her calling my job "alchemy". :)

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9. lar on August 24, 2006 8:26 AM writes...

Point group symmetry in relation to IR/Raman spectroscopy band prediction. Use to hate that stuff.

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10. Joshua on August 24, 2006 9:14 AM writes...

How about desymmetrization of a meso compound? Or asymmetric amplification? Or Baldwin's rules?

To make this a bit more challenging (and a bit more like writing for the popular press), what about putting a word limit on the explanation? Maybe 300-400 words?

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11. Nicholas Condon on August 24, 2006 9:17 AM writes...

I second the vote for chirality; I think that topic alone was responsible for driving at least three people in my undergrad organic class out of chemistry for good.

NMR is a good suggestion, too, but I think other spectroscopic techniques can be difficult to explain as well. It took me a large number of attempts to explain vibrational spectroscopy (my dissertation topic) to my non-scientist friends and relatives.

X-ray diffraction is another perpetually opaque topic. The fact that a crystalline powder will scatter x-rays at a distinct set of angles, despite the random orientations of the grains, is a direct affront to most people's physical intuition, including my own. Explaining that without delving into the math seems very, very difficult.

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12. JSinger on August 24, 2006 9:19 AM writes...

Dunno about chirality -- I had no problem with that in organic chemistry and there was a long list of topics that had me completely baffled.

On the original topic: my first reaction was that there are plenty of other issues in the news that are effectively insoluble. (The Iranian nuclear program comes to my mind, but if you disagree on that one please substitute your own example instead of arguing about mine.) On the other hand, the media do a terrible job of dealing with those too, so maybe that just supports Cole's assertion.

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13. Anonymous on August 24, 2006 9:44 AM writes...

chemical space

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14. Monte Davis on August 24, 2006 10:04 AM writes...

OP, I was a p-chem kinda guy, so I'm partial -- but as a science writer since then, I've found that the statistical aspect is hardest to get across, and failure to grasp it underlies a lot of misunderstandings.

Use the lock-and-key metaphor for inorganic catalysis or enzymes, and laymen nod. You've gotten somewhere -- but you've also reinforced the imagery of macroscopic mechanisms. They're not thinking of a statistical jiggle with thousands of "keys" being tried per second, so the enormous enhancements of reaction rates are still kinda magic. They hear "equilibrium," and what they imagine is rarely the statistical wash of ongoing reactions behind the word.

At another level, I think one reason "intelligent design" can get traction is that the statistical nature of gene frequencies -> pop genetics -> selection -> evolution has never really percolated out to the public. You can say "most mutations are neutral or bad" until you're blue in the face -- but it's really hard to grasp that all the wealth of life we see occupies only a tiny part of phenotype space, which in turn is a tiny part of phenotype space, which in turn is a tiny part of base-pair space...

As a result, when ID'ers insist on the unlikeliness of all these well-adapted organisms, evolution's defenders usually try to explain why it's not really unlikely -- when they ought to be saying "Unlikely? You don't know the half of it."

So... this may well be broader and fuzzier than anything you had in mind, but I'd like to see you have a go at making the reader feel how many molecular collisions and interactions are behind an innocent-looking reaction equation.

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15. Monte Davis on August 24, 2006 10:08 AM writes...

Ooops-- make that "a tiny part of genotype space" the second time around.

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16. MolecularGeek on August 24, 2006 10:14 AM writes...

If you want to get into issues involving mathematical sophistication, X-Ray Crystallography or NMR seem like good topics. Come to think of it, A good discussion of the fourier transform (while not strictly a chemical phenomenon) might useful in it's own right. It shows up often enough, for sure.

There is plenty of material out there that is fundementally qualitative in nature which bears directly on public policy and people are poorly informed on, as well. How about a summary of the how and why of Rezulin/fenfluramine/pick your favorite withdrawn drug are dangerous (on a molecular/cellular level, of course)?

If you want to stick with purely chemical topics, FMO topics of some sort are always good, or how about a lucid description of some of the funkier carbonyl reactions that show up in the back of the typical orgo text and are handwaved through at the end of the second semester? Robinson Annulation or Favorski contraction are two hoary standbys here, but anyone who's taken their cumes lately can probably propose a passel of others.


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17. Lab Hasbeen on August 24, 2006 10:53 AM writes...

I really like Jim's suggetion. I have often tried to explain to people how I can be confident of a reaction product when I can't ever hope to actually see it. And synthetic organic chemistry is just the tip of the iceberg.

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18. Coracle on August 24, 2006 10:57 AM writes...

Although probably physics, something that has always confounded me is magnetism. Some time ago I saw an internet discussion with a woo chap claiming that electromagnetism generated by neural activity could be a hitherto undocumented form of communication. Although this is easily discounted by field strengths it made me realise how much I don't know about magnetism. This also comes up when discussing EHS and phone masts etc.

So, a post, comprehensible to the lay-person, on the differences between ferro-magnetism, paramagnetism and diamagnetism and how they may or may not relate to human health would be great.

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19. secret milkshake on August 24, 2006 12:38 PM writes...

Explaining chirality is easy. Everybody understands a difference between left and right shoe.

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20. Daniel Newby on August 24, 2006 1:08 PM writes...

The difference between fluorescence and phosphorescence. (Not strictly chemistry, but ...)

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21. waiting4data on August 24, 2006 1:25 PM writes...

I don't know about chirality, either. I was able to explain it to my husband, and he seems to get it. I think HOMO/LUMO is a good one.

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22. Patrick Mullen on August 24, 2006 1:51 PM writes...

Trick question, you can't explain chemistry issues to editors of popular media because the audience of popular media is the general public, and frankly, the general public doesn't care why things like that work. If they did, you would see people explaining the chemical reactions of what happens when a Mentos mixes with a Diet Coke.

The general public may care about the results of what chemistry can produce, but they don't really care about the technical issues of how you actually do it.

Kind of like trying to teach a pig to sing, you just get annoyed and the pig gets pissed.

I would consider myself in the pigs camp. Editors (and writers) write for their audience, if they can't understand it, how can they write an article that their less informed readers would be able to understand? Tell you the truth, I have not even heard of most of the above listed topics.

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23. AMac on August 24, 2006 2:17 PM writes...

Another (#3 or 4) vote for a concise explanation of the Fourier transform. Not chemistry per se, but it sure raises its head a lot.

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24. Alex Scouras on August 24, 2006 3:03 PM writes...

To incorporate some physics, chemistry, statistics, and voodoo, explain protein folding. In particular, include the hydrophobic effect.

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25. Novice Chemist on August 24, 2006 3:09 PM writes...

BTW, is Derek knowingly or unknowingly quoting the action movie "Speed"?

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26. Derek Lowe on August 24, 2006 3:20 PM writes...

Unknowingly, but I take no responsibility for what the rest of my brain might be up to.

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27. Jellerichs on August 24, 2006 5:22 PM writes...

I vote for something more general.

How about describing synthetic organic chemistry in the context of total synthesis/natural product synthesis. My impression is that non-scientists think that if we find some useful natural product in the jungle, we can just "duplicate" it and scale it up to industrial quantities.

Understanding this basic concept may help build respect for our field.

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28. srp on August 24, 2006 7:06 PM writes...

Two possibilties: 1)"Spontaneous" endothermic reactions--I've seen actual disagreements between authorities about whether these are properly named, but it seems at first quite mysterious that you mix some stuff and it gets cold. 2) Gibbs's phase rule.

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29. bonzo on August 24, 2006 7:07 PM writes...

Not NMR per se - how about MRI?

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30. GC on August 24, 2006 9:15 PM writes...

Thinking about SRP/#28's, I think a great one, period, is transition state theory. Despite the fact that it's possibly the MOST amenable topic in chemistry to a simple metaphor (rolling a ball up and down a hill), people at all levels seem to get tripped up on it to varying degrees.

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31. Anonymous on August 24, 2006 9:28 PM writes...

How about Gravity?

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32. grad on August 24, 2006 11:34 PM writes...

the photoelectric effect. young's double slit experiment. Millikan's oil-drop experiment, superconductivity. Spin/stern-gerlach. Conduction.

Some of these are easier than others. And honestly I think explaining what spin is to non-scientists is much harder than we're giving credit for with these generic NMR answers.

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33. daen on August 25, 2006 1:27 AM writes...

MRI's a good one. Perhaps explaining some of those co-registered imaging techniques (MRI-FDG or MRI-PET) might more engaging. Also, people might get NMR in a lab analysis context after having been introduced to the much more visually immediate MRI.

The Riemann zeta function is a tricky one to explain. Some of the topological issues are actually easier to explain, like Perelman's solution to the Poincaré Conjecture because you can use 2D or 3D analogues to explain then (lassoing a baseball vs lasooing a donut for example). Explaining _why_ that's important is much trickier ...

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34. Nicholas Condon on August 25, 2006 8:48 AM writes...

The difficult thing about chirality isn't the simple fact of "handedness" (which, given that we have hands, is fairly easy to explain with metaphor), it's the more elaborate consequences of it, like what happens with multiple stereogenic centers on one molecule. I suppose that makes it an accessible concept with difficult implicaitons, so maybe it's not the right topic for the question at hand.

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35. Nigel on August 25, 2006 3:20 PM writes...

An explanation of Fourier transforms would be good.

Especially if I could understand it.

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36. pk man on August 25, 2006 4:04 PM writes...

I vote for NMR and Fourier transforms

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37. MTK on August 25, 2006 4:17 PM writes...

To me, neither chirality nor Fourier transform seems that difficult to explain to a layman. At least enough to get a superficial understanding of what it is. As mentioned by others, if you can understand left and right shoes, you can get chirality. As for FT's, if you know music you'll understand.

I'm going to toss in something like reaction cross-section, just because p-chem stuff is tough to understand in general.

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38. Azygos on August 25, 2006 9:36 PM writes...

MRSA, VRE, VRSA, resistance in antibiotic use.

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39. vent on August 26, 2006 6:41 AM writes...

I vote for Schrodinger equation and orbital theory.

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40. Yggdrasil on August 26, 2006 12:51 PM writes...

Although explaining antibiotic resistance to the general public would probably be more useful, how about the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction or another chemical oscillator.

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41. kiwi on August 27, 2006 6:38 AM writes...

i think FT would be the leader so far, but NMR is a good choice for a wider audience. chirality (hands etc) and reaction profiles (hills etc) are fairly readily explained in my experience

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42. Cryptic Ned on August 27, 2006 8:25 PM writes...

Please explain X-ray diffraction and what differentiates a protein (or other organic molecule) whose crystal structure can be found from one whose structure can not be found.

It's a complete black box for us biologists trying to figure out "How did they figure out what shape this thing is? Why does it have to have this ligand here in order for the crystallization to work?"

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43. Cryptic Ned on August 27, 2006 8:28 PM writes...

I had no problem with chirality either. That seems completely intuitive once you see 3-D models of molecules. The only question I had (and still have) is, do all so-called "left-handed" molecules have something in common? Or is the fact of their so-called "left-" or "right-"handedness arbitrary with respect to their function?

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44. Steve on August 29, 2006 3:53 PM writes...

First a comment, then an anecdote.

I don't claim any special skills, but if I actually do understand something, I normally can explain it by use of analogies and approximations such that anyone who is motivated to try to understand can grasp it. In grad school I specifically asked to teach/assist for the undergraduate core course alternative for non-science liberal arts majors. Since English was my other undergarduate major, I spent enough time around non-science types to have tackled this kind of task early on.

If I can't explain it, that tells me that I really don't understand it very well myself. My guess is that this is true for most people. (Someone once said that a good way to learn something is to attempt to teach it. Often so, although as a general rule it is questionable; I can give you a list of teachers who persistently appeared to validate its limitations.)

Some topics mentioned, especially those ID'd by acronyms that entered currency since I left the bench (20 years ago last May), I couldn't explain because I have no idea what they may be. A couple -- always the math-related -- were a bit beyond me in grad school and if they weren't relevant to my work, I just learned to live with it, figuring that if somebody who actually understood the math found it compelling, that was good enough for me.

My personal favorite total mystery comes from integral calculus. Nobody, professor or student, ever has been able to explain to me what basis is used to select the functions picked to use in the trig substitution technique. They either give up before even trying, or waved their hands and claim that it is intuitive. I'd say there was no basis for choosing at all, but whether they could explain it or not, many people seemed to be able to pick out those which worked, at least for the exam questions. (Maybe they had old tests?)


In the summer of 1991, as I was settling in with a drink to watch the evening news with the channel mistakenly set to CBS, there was a story by the nominal CBS health science correspondent, Edie Magnus. The FDA was in the process of tossing out yet another baby with bathwater by banning L-tryptophan sales because one outfit in Japan mistakenly released a badly manufactured batch containing highly toxic synthetic byproducts. Ms. Magnus solemnly announced that L-tryptophan was an amino acid and that amino acids were dangerous chemicals.

After I finished screaming at the TV and mopped up my spilled drink from the couch, I faxed a letter to Ms. Magnus, cc'ing network officials, suggesting that she be very wary the next time she consumed a hamburger or some other protein-laden food, and suggesting they do a follow-up to clarify so as not to incite a nationwide panic. (Neither broadcast follow-up nor reply was forthcoming, and she remained at CBS for another few years.)

Hers was a good example of how *not* to explain science to a general audience, because presumably, as was the case with certain of my teachers, the explainer was herself pretty much clueless.

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45. S Silverstein on September 7, 2006 9:39 AM writes...

Why the difference? My theory is that editors of newspapers and other major periodicals are not just ordinary folk. They tend to be very accomplished people. They're used to being the smartest guys in the room. So science makes them squirm. And because they can't bear to feel dumb, science coverage suffers.

Some would beg to differ with that assessment of news editors.

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46. justaneditor on September 7, 2006 10:44 AM writes...


I remember the L-tryptophan incident, because I was a novice reporter covering it from the angle that a local person was paralyzed by eosiniphilia-myalgia syndrome after taking the bad amino acid supplement. I can assure you that I did not make Ms. Magus' mistake in explaining what happened to readers.

But it does seem that the cause of the outbreak may be more complicated:

I think I was the only non-science-track gal in my high school who had her own subscription to "Discover" magazine. My inability to master advanced mathematics prohibited me from exploring a science career. And it's been awhile since those high school and college chem and bio classes.

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47. Ian Parry on November 18, 2006 7:40 PM writes...

A little while back I was in a discussion about the nature of scientific truth with someone who had what one might call New Age belief tendencies.

She claimed that, for example, all chemical reactions depended on quantum effects and (therefore) had some uncertainty about them. I had to agree that, while quantum effects were present, my (inexpert) understanding was that the scale of chemical reactions meant that electrons and their electrostatic fields dominated the results of interactions.

However, I'm still not sure what a really good answer would be. Can you help, please, if you consider this topic to be of sufficient general interest?

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