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Finite Element(s) Chemistry


(Ah! Mathematicians, did you see what I did there?)

There are a number of appalling videos on line in which iPhones are destroyed by various means. From a chemist standpoint, the reason why I’m so disgusted with them is the waste of rare elements which go into the making of their components: From Neodymium to Indium, most of these metals come from conflict zones in which they are extracted in the most precarious conditions imaginable, but furthermore, they are so scarce the production of electronics is almost unsustainable. I wont post any links to these infuriating videos so as to not direct traffic to any of them, instead I will direct your attention to a wonderful book titled The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age by David S. Abraham. (Sheesh! Nobody uses short titles anymore? Can you imagine Nabokov writing Lolita: A little girl with a not so little mind and the professor who picked up on that? I digress.) It is hard not to read this long-titled book and feel a tad guilty; it is in fact a bit blackmailing but above all, realizing what a wasteful society (ugh! I hate that word) we are makes a strong wake up call to the future of sustainability. I would never claim that the solution is renouncing to technology but instead to find a sustainable technology within the framework of current technology. Easier said than done -of course- but stopping waste of such precious resources should be the first step in everyones mind, and don’t even get me started on balloons filled with He! In all fairness, one can also find a lot of scary articles on line from dubious to respectful on how smartphones and other rare-metals-containing gadgets are damaging the Earth.

Last year I enjoyed reading Andy Weir’s novel The Martian (later a major motion picture from Alien’s director Ridley Scott), in which an astronaut is stranded in Mars -left for dead by his crewmates, with nothing but the finite supplies of the station and his knowledge of chemistry, botany and engineering, all of which allows him to survive by extending, but above all reusing, those resources which included not only food but O2, H2O and even hydrazine, H2N2 originally intended for fuel but from where he now gets H2 for synthesizing a larger supply of water by reacting it with the O2 pulled out of the CO2-filled Martian atmosphere. I’m pretty sure Weir didn’t intend this novel to be a metaphor but it definitely works well as one of the limited resources available on Earth and the necessity of optimizing their use, collecting and disposal. Resources on Earth seem infinite, or they at least they did back when the industrial revolution started.

I guess the point is that sustainability goes hand in hand with using the least resources to get new ones as well as with avoiding their waste. I think one must agree that Chemistry, like no other science, has shaped our world for better and worse.

I haven’t rambled on sustainability in a while. Feels bad. Must be the winter.

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My take on GMO’s


September’s issue of Scientific American is all about food; food and food science, that is. In it, there are a couple of articles on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) and there is also this blog post in their website being in favor of GMO’s, and I for one, stand by them. There is a global science illiteracy problem going on which accounts for the fear and misinformation most people get on important issues and the fear against GMO’s is one of them and a particularly disturbing one since it deals with a primal necessity of mankind, one that cannot be disregard at any time: Food.

I think when lay people hear GMO immediately think of some sort of Frankenstein plant or some other horror movie monster. For some reason people think technology=good and food=good but food-through-technology=really-bad. Of course we should be weary of what we put on our tables but in order to be weary we first must be thoroughly informed. Us people in favor of controlled GMO technology tend to give these boring arguments on DNA and vectors and so on while the opponents gather more fans with the more alluring image of the Franken-corn! Let me use a real life example to start this discussion

Let me use a human example: My wife has an amazing health. She gets the flu once every year (if at all!); gets knocked down for a couple of days and that’s it! she is back on her feet working and partying the following 363 days of the year. I, on the other hand, am not that lucky. I’get congested very easily with changes in temperature, so every time we go swimming (twice a week, if at all) I end up sneezing my lungs out afterwards. My gastrointestinal system is also very faulty, I easily get… well, you get the picture. Whenever we have kids, it would be easy to presume that they will be not as healthy as their mother but not as sickly as their old man, but something rather in the middle. It could also be the case they were entirely like one of us in the health department, who knows! Lets say they are in the middle. We have now performed a genetic modification which improves my genetic traits. My hypothetical kid is now an improved version of myself but not so much of their mom’s, but definitely not a clone of neither! These hypothetical kids will be humans, just like their mom and I. The key in the above hypothetical procedure is the statistical variability in it. We should have many kids so around half of them had an intermediate health (assuming no genetic trait is more dominant than the other). With plants is the same thing: You might have some corn species with huge grains but low resistance to droughts while other species might need less water to fully grow although the product is not as good as the former. When combined, both species will yield, hopefully, an intermediate species which can be iteratively improved until we achieve corn with big grains and low water demands.

What we cannot do now, is to have these hypothetical kids reproduce with one of their parents as to yield an even healthier human! But when it comes to plants, such as corn or wheat, incest is not an issue. Pollinationcross pollination and plant grafting do exactly this by combining the traits of some species with another’s. Almost no food found in any market has not gone through this process through the last couple hundred years. But this Higher Power (I mean of course farmers and botanists) that has yield this delicious and nutritious vegetables available to us, have worked on a trial and error fashion. Nowadays we can be more precise on what traits we want our vegetables to have from one generation to the next by using genetic engineering techniques. With GMO’s we can create more food resources with a lower energy investment, a key issue in sustainable development of any nation; we can also address some nutrition deficiencies just like it was done in The Phillipines where beta-carotene (the yellow pigment in oranges and carrots) was introduced into rice in order to attack a Vitamin-A deficiency in kids that was rendering them blind.

Europe doesn’t allow the sale of any processed food containing GMO’s while in the US almost no processed food doesn’t include, at any level of their production, a GMO ingredient, but the reason behind this is because in Europe the debate ended before it began while in the US there is still debate on whether to add a label specifying the presence of GMO’s on every food product. The inclusion of such label, at this stage, would only add up to people’s fear of GMO’s because it would be perceived as a ‘warning‘ instead of just as ‘information‘.  Scientific literacy is urgent not just so a good decision is taken but to start the debate! At this point the only thing keeping those labels away from supermarket products is the billions of dollars in lobbying by big companies such as Monsanto (which is not the devil, please put away your crucifixes) and DuPont. But the issue shouldn’t be about money, it should be about the way scientific reasoning should steer the decision making process in this and any other controversial issue.

The potential benefits of GMO are central to the sustainable life and development of our nations, so instead of fearing them lets understand them first.

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