We are looking forward to your comments and to your contributions to the next issue. The deadlines for submittings articles to be published in next issue is June 1st, 2012, for open questions it is June 15th, 2012.
We are looking forward to your comments and to your contributions to the next issue. The deadlines for submittings articles to be published in next issue is June 1st, 2012, for open questions it is June 15th, 2012.
It is my pleasure to present to you the third issue of the Jour- nal of Unsolved Questions, with the topic “Communicating Science”, which is, of course, a topic close to our hearts. JunQ is most and foremost a tool for communicating science, successful or not, either to other scientists or to the non-scientific public. I know that often a scientific article can look appalling for someone outside of the area, but it does not always have to be like that. We can put aside the mystic scientific details and focus on the essence of work: why did they do this? Does it bring anything new and useful for the world? Does it answer any essential pertinent question (scientific or not)? Scientists can only profit from a non-scientific peer review, as the people outside of the scientific community can give a different perspective regarding the impact of the work or regarding the needs of the real world when it comes to new research topics. But the scientific community must also take the other side into con- sideration. What does the scientific community do to get closer to the public? Probably the most common answer will be “not much”. In fact few scientists go through the effort to occasionally simplify their language and divulge their work to the non-scientific crowd. We all know the scientist stereotype, totally absent of any social and communicating skills, trapped in a lab with his lab coat and colorful potions. Thanks to the new media, social networks, and the increase in “popular science” magazines, this panorama is changing at a good pace. In this issue we pay particular attention to a German initiative in science communication, the Falling Walls Conference, which is an annual global gathering of individuals from more than 75 countries. In each edition, 20 of the world’s leading scientists are invited to present their current research. The conferences have been held since 2009 on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall to celebrate this historic day and give a fresh look to the world of tomorrow. The JUnQ team was present in this year’s edition where we also made a live Twitter coverage of the most interesting talks during the conference. (Follow us on Twitter: @JUnQJournal) You can find a summary of the conference’s most important topics in the article “When Walls Come Down, Inspiration is Scattered Everywhere ”.
It was possible to change a few words with the renowned mathematician Cedric Villani, whose opinion about “Communicating Math to the Masses” is printed in this very issue, additionally editorial board member Thomas Jagau gives his opinion about the phrase “sustainable chemistry” in his essay “Can Chemistry be Green?”.
This passing year has been very successful in gathering contributions for JunQ. Approximately 20 contributions were sent to us from all over the world, they were carefully reviewed and selected. Four of these contributions covering a plethora of scientific disciplines can be found in this issue. This year has also been important for the JUnQ team in terms of collaborations with other institutions. Since July we have been working together with the German speaking broadcasting station detector.fm. This includes a monthly podcast, “Question of the Month”, about an unsolved ques- tion in science. You can access the contributions either at our website (http://junq.info) or at http://detektor.fm.
Spreading JUnQ’s message was facilitated by the many in- vitations we got to comment on the importance of negative and null-results and the idea of JUnQ in the media. To name one example, an article about JunQ was published in Times Higher Education entitled “Gems in the research scrapheap”. Furthermore the editorial board was invited to write the editorial article in the magazine “Nachrichten aus der Chemie” published by the Gesellschaft deutscher Chemiker. Something we are very excited about is the formation of an association (German, Verein) in conjunction with the JunQ project. The bureaucratic process is still in progress, but this will hopefully allow us to organize our actions and collaborations better and will help in making the Journal of Unsolved Questions the tool for communication we have aimed at since our first issue. But that is impossible without your help, as usual we ask readers to participate actively in this journal either by taking part in our organized talks, leaving a comment on our website or, most importantly, sending us your contributions. We are waiting for you!
– Rute Andre
 Nachrichten aus der Chemie, September 2011, page 807
The symbolic yet sturdy walls between scientific disciplines and paradigms still often hinder joint efforts and integrated approaches in science, which are needed to face walls in the form of current and future societal, environmental and economic challenges. The Falling Walls Conference, a scientific mega-event that is held annually in Berlin on the historic date the Berlin Wall came down, attempts to tear down these walls. It assembles twenty leading international scientists from diverse areas of research and a good seven hundred attendees to share knowledge and opinions about ‘which are the next walls to fall’ and how to bring them down.
What started as an experiment in 2009 has since become a tradition, a fairly “normal event” as initiator of the conference Sebastian Turner (under-)stated in his opening address, characterizing Falling Walls as a casual conversation rather than a conference, a place where academics talk to the audience like to a friend. The conference is organized by the Falling Walls Foundation, a non-profit organization founded to the support of science and humanities by the Berlin Senate for Education, Science and Research and directed by Turner. Its list of supporters reads like a veritable who is who of the German scientific landscape, among them the German Ministry for Education and Research, and leading research institutions like the Fraunhofer and Max Planck Society , the Helmholtz Association , and the like. Also participating in this distinguished circle of friends’ annual chat is Chancellor Angela Merkel , who in her keynote stressed the need for the mutual exchange of ideas to transcend borders on the way to a new Europe.
Each year, Turner and his organization team of just three people bring together “forward thinking individuals” from science, politics, economy and culture. A lot of work and consideration goes into assembling the crowd on the podium, in front of it, and behind the scenes in the press area. Speakers are required to conduct excellent research in their field and are handpicked by recommendation of scientific peers. Moreover, breakthrough-appeal of their research is considered pivotal. As in science, some of the most far-reaching breakthroughs were accomplished by fairly unknown researchers and off the beaten path (as is well illustrated by Einstein and the theory of relativity); this strategy seems to make sense: “To lure Einstein to come to Berlin, Max Planck travelled to Z?rich. Had we asked Max Planck, he could have named Einstein as a candidate for the conference early on. In this way it would have been possible to find him before he established the general theory of relativity and even before he was awarded the Nobel Price.” Turner explains. Of course, not everything that deserves to be presented at the conference can be considered, he concedes, as there are enough outstanding researchers to fill one or several weeks, some so productive that they can present relevant advancements each year. The concentration of Nobel laureates and holders of other notable scientific awards at the conference is imposingly high.
As society is becoming an increasingly demanding consumer of both application-oriented and mass medially communicable knowledge, the external view on scientific research becomes more and more important. This is exemplified by the promotional effort scientific events like the Falling Walls Conference take on nowadays. An expert in merchandising almost everything from the Dresdner Frauenkirche to the Federal Republic of Germany (for which he is said to have coined the slogan: land of ideas ), Turner knows a good deal about large-scale communication. Fortunately, Turner comments with a wink, when asked how difficult science is to merchandise, `it is rather easy and takes rather little funding. This would become even more apparent had science the marketing budgets of washing agents”. The next question, of course, is who actually shall and realistically can be reached by the Falling Walls format. The audience of `decision makers” is as well selected as are the speakers; and with high ticket fees, the exclusive look and feel of the event, questions about the walls around this very wall breaking event arise. Since the conference, according to Turner, addresses `everybody interested in the future”, and since one of its declared aims is to “inspire people to break down the walls that we face today”, easy access is of importance for the credibility of the event. Asked about possibilities and difficulties in communicating science to the masses, and Falling Walls’ role in it, Turner declares that this was indeed a challenge, and sketches the steps the organizers take to approach it: “No obstacle is invincible. The first question is how scientific complexity can be made understandable without distorting it too much. The question of drawing a connection, pertinence to the audience comes in second. We always try to find speakers who, while being excellent in their research, are able to explain their work to a broad audience. Finally, the easiest part is distribution: We make all presentations available online, and a remarkable number of journalists report from the conference, whose professional qualification is to convey complicated subjects to their readers and viewers. With the live-stream the audience was multiplied by ten in the last year, by hundred due to the online availability of the videos. We’ll see what happens this year.” In addition to watching the presentations online, viewers (approx. 8,000 this year) can contribute questions or comments. Thus, even though it may not be easy to get inside, the organizers make an effort to get people involved . In theory, one might say, their intentions are in tune with this year’s opening lecturer Robert Darnton (Harvard University), who is a proponent of open access and the democratization of knowledge, and sees the advent of modern media technology and digitization as a means to democratize culture. It remains an (open) question and would be interesting to see who actually watches from outside the walls of the venue and with what subjective benefit.
The presentations at this year’s conference, which covered a wide array of disciplines and topics, were directed at three main problem fields: the fundamental questions of humanity ( What was there before the universe? ), current global challenges ( How do we end famines and protect individual security? ), and the measures available to science itself for tackling these ‘walls’. One of the recurring themes was the plea for interdisciplinary cooperation and joint effort of scientific and other societal players in facing global challenges. As this mantra of the contemporary academic and political landscape is easier (and more often) preached than actually put into practice, it was pleasant to see speakers introducing innovative tools capable of fostering cross-disciplinary approaches. Seemingly disparate areas of research were tackled by taking on one single obstacle. One such issue is the effective handling of vast and ever growing amounts of digital data, on which more and more disciplines from astronomy to art history depend. As computers shrink, explains computer scientist Anastasia Ailamaki , growing data deluge puts critical limitations to the speed of scientific research, which grows more relevant with the urgency to find solutions quickly. With her work, Ailamaki enables discoveries in diverse scientific fields by equipping research teams with database solutions and developing new algorithms capable of performing multiple operations simultaneously.
Other talks suggested that there could indeed be potential synergy effects with Ailamaki’s work. DNA sequencing is one of the procedures that could profit from innovations in data processing. Its cheap and quick realization is fundamental to the future development of personalized medicine, the subject of Nobel laureate in chemistry Aaron Ciechanover . Yet another possible application is British evolutionary biologist Nick Barton’s research, which deals with one of the most fundamental questions of humanity: Why do we bother reproducing sexually? According to Barton, even being fairly expensive (mating can cost enormous amounts of energy and carries a lot of risks), from an evolutionary standpoint, sex is just a smart thing to do: the combination of genes from different organisms is superior to asexual reproduction as it heightens the chances of adaption and survival. Until now, Barton has only been able to show this mathematically, but sets out to empirically test his hypothesis using genome data.
A characteristic difference between Falling Walls and a ‘typical’ scientific conference became apparent, when more current topics like environmental issues and ecological sustainability or the protection of health, individual wellbeing or human security were touched: In addition to offering facts about and insight into scientific phenomena, the talks presented at Falling Walls were almost always equipped with a vision, they often tried to convey an emotional message to the audience. Robert Schl?gl , director at the Fritz Haber Institute emphatically stressed the importance of thinking about alternatives to fossil fuels and corresponding ways of storing energy. He looks for ways to develop storage methods for sustainably generated energy. New methods in oxidation catalysis could contribute to the development of ‘solar fuel’ modeled after nature’s own energy storage: sugar. To put things in perspective, Schl?gl made clear that we are far away from changing our current dependence on fossil fuels quickly. He stated that to develop eco-friendly energy storage, “nature had four billion years – we have to do it in 20” . With the global financial crisis still smoldering, economy was critically discussed and further appeals were made. Stewart Wallis , director of the new economics foundation, diagnosed that a fundamental problem with economy toda`y is its ignorance towards ecological limits of life and what he called the four problems or `u-s” of economy today: It is u nsustainable, u nfair, u nstable, and makes people u nhappy. Economy’s narrow focus on economic growth, Wallis continued, is echoed by the economic science, which measures economic growth solely by indicators like the gross domestic product. Wallis called for a more holistic understanding of economic progress and the consideration of indicators such as individual wellbeing, societal justice, and ecological sustainability.
With calls for change from such diverse directions, the findings of decision scientist Elke Weber received particular attention and response. Weber explained why changing behavior is so difficult. Human aversion to change is really more a status quo bias, Weber explained: In mental decision processes, the status quo is preferred because of the way the brain organizes evidence – we stick to our habits. The solution lies in what she calls `decision architecture”: Understanding how decision processes work psychologically and applying this knowledge to influence decision behavior. To illustrate her point Weber referred to the much higher number of organ donors in countries that had an ‘opt-out’ policy, i. e. in which citizens are potential organ donors until they actively declare otherwise.
Falling Walls gives a lot to think about in little time. This formula makes the conference itself an experiment, testing how much an individual can learn in one day, as Turner put it in his 2010 opening address. Naturally, the majority of the topics discussed at the conference comprise complex subject matters. Given the diversity of the audience and the limited time-frame (each speaker is given exactly fifteen minutes and the measures taken to keep the tight schedule are infamous) speakers have to come up with ways to catch and bind the audience’s attention and convey their sometimes complex ideas and their conceptual preconditions. The resulting entertainment factor of the presentations (the audience was, among other things, engaged in live online-gambling on stage) is a refreshing contrast to other formats, but also an expression of the concept’s limitations: Falling Walls cannot be (and does not claim to be) about exhaustive answers and purely fact-oriented scientific rigor.
That time is indeed a challenge for both speakers and organizers became particularly apparent when the format was put on fast forward in the Falling Walls LAB, a new spin-off in cooperation with business consultant A.T. Kearney, which offers 100 young academics and professionals the unique opportunity to present their breakthroughs to a distinguished jury, combined with a scholarship that allows free participation in the main conference the following day. The challenge: the even tighter three-minute time frame. Chair of the jury and former president of the Leibniz Society Ernst Th. Rietschel underlined how important it was for scientists to be able to convey their message to partners, and praised the Falling Walls LAB as a new format to promote condensed information in talks. The presentations were as diverse as those on the conference the following day, often echoing topics such as personalized medicine or data management, which showed how both young and established researchers unite in tackling these issues.
In this marathon of ideas, projects have to be boiled down to the very essence. Participants took different approaches to this challenge. Some excelled at this challenging task, like winner of the Audience Award and the jury’s first price Shuo Zhang of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in G?ttingen with his presentation on magnetic resonance imaging or Eileen Diskin of Trinity College Dublin, who explained her breakthrough in antibiotic resistance using a bright pink flamingo mascot. Other ideas suffered from too much compression and got lost. Even with successful presentations, the mere number and frequency of talks, caused the audience (those we spoke to, at least) to mentally flick through the presentations and wait for an idea that ‘resonates’. This mostly seemed to happen with ideas or research paradigms with which the listener was already familiar with. As one of the concerns of the event is to overcome narrow minded ‘silo thinking’, this effect seems rather unfortunate.
There can never be enough time for discussion and reflection, Turner says. Due to its brevity and density, Falling Walls is mainly a site for meeting people, inspiration, and irritation, where individuals can find new impulses and cooperating partners for their work back home – which as a matter of fact happens frequently. At the conference, the organizers strive to make the best of the time budget, for example by offering a `Meet the Speakers” area where participants can discuss directly with the speakers. The organizers constantly look for ways to improve the conference. Following the careers of ideas presented at the conference is one of the future aims, along with finding ways to reach students and undergraduates, further enhancing the international layout of the conference, and above all improving the value of the conference for the participants. At the end of each conference, Turner says, the organizers have an endless list of newly discovered obstacles they set out to overcome the following year.
To sum it up, Falling Walls is not a typical scientific conference in many ways. And for those not expecting to be informed exhaustively about scientific issues, but to spend an animating day with others engaged in research it is a convincing concept. What appears to be its unique quality in any case is that the participation in the Falling Walls conference is not only intellectually stimulating, but also an overwhelming experience. As Sebastian Turner put it: “the contact to top researchers as well as the engagement with their work is very rewarding. It is a little surprise, that there is no enjoyment-tax for this. These are inspiring minds, that think ‘out of the box’ with delight” . Inspiration on more than an intellectual level is also what participants seem to appreciate. Whenever we spoke to someone about their experience of the conference, everybody from speakers to audience members pointed out the ‘spirit’ at the conference as particularly rewarding. And indeed, putting aside the quality of the programme and the actual content of the conference, it seems to be its ability to ignite people’s passion for and belief in scientific research and its ability to make a change, that makes Falling Walls a success and has led its way from experiment to tradition.
— Tobias Boll
Full coverage of past and this year’s presentations is available at www.falling-walls.com
While pursuing my Ph.D. project in chemistry, I am often confronted with a disturbing experience: Fellow scientists freely admit that the terminology they use when communicating their research to the public is dominated by catchy slogans. Moreover, these slogans often have not much in common with the research they pretend to explain. Even as a doctoral student, I sometimes find myself in the situation to present my work in terms of a distorting language. On the occasion of this year’s Falling Walls Conference, I want to share some thoughts on this style of speech that scientists often employ when addressing a broader audience. As the conference included a lecture by Paul Chirik entitled ”Breaking the Wall of Sustainable Chemistry. How Modern Alchemy Can Lead to Inexpensive and Clean Technology”, I will use the example of “sustainable” or “green” chemistry. These expressions have grown increasingly popular in public, but most scientists will agree with me when I claim that they confuse the public and do not enlighten it. In fact, expressions like “sustainable physics” or “sustainable biology” are by far not as popular as “sustainable chemistry”, which already hints at the latter being a conspicuous neologism.
Let us now look at the challenge of sustainability and chemistry’s role in this context. With global population having surpassed seven billion people in 2011, the importance of economic, environmental, and social sustainability at all levels of human society becomes more and more obvious. As chemical industry holds a central position in the world’s economy, one question naturally arises: How can industrial processes be designed in a sustainable manner? Important aspects related to this overriding question include the reduction of fossil fuel consumption, the minimization of waste production, and the replacement of toxic or expensive substances by harmless or inexpensive ones. The latter aspect was exemplified in Paul Chirik’s lecture, which dealt with attempts to replace the precious metal platinum by the cheap and abundant metal iron in chemical reactions. Without commenting on his lecture in detail here, my personal perception—and probably the interested layman’s perception, too—was that Paul Chirik convincingly showed how the replacement of platinum by iron is carried out in detail, i.e., what principles are applied, which hurdles have been overcome, and which problems remain to be solved.
The attentive reader may have noticed that I have not used the terms “sustainable chemistry” and “green chemistry” when presenting Paul Chirik’s lecture. Why? The reason is simple: I think they are unnecessary and, furthermore, possibly misleading. Let us examine the term “sustainability” in more detail. It can be vaguely defined as the capacity to endure, but its usage has become so popular and widespread that a comprehensive definition is beyond the scope of this essay. However, in the present context it is important to realize that sustainability originally referred to human agency and ethical standards. Accordingly, the word was used in philosophy, economics, and politics, or more general, when dealing with humans or the human society as a whole. As a consequence, the concept is inapplicable to natural science, which seeks to shed light on the principles that govern the natural world.
Now let us try to understand what sustainable chemistry really is. For the reason outlined above, I would not consider it as a new chemical branch comparable to inorganic chemistry, biochemistry, or analytical chemistry. Instead I claim that sustainable chemistry is a specific point of view from which one may reexamine established chemical methodology. This reexamination applies ecological and economic criteria to chemistry, thus a catchy definition of sustainable chemistry could be: Sustainable chemistry is the mere continuation of economics and ecology by chemical means. To underpin this claim, let us look at the twelve principles of green chemistry formulated by Anastas and Warner. They are:
1. It is better to prevent waste than to treat or clean up waste after it is formed.
2. Synthetic methods should be designed to maximize the incorporation of all materials used in the process into the final product.
3. Wherever practicable, synthetic methodologies should be designed to use and generate substances that possess little or no toxicity to human health and the environment.
4. Chemical products should be designed to preserve efficacy of function while reducing toxicity.
5. The use of auxiliary substances (e.g. solvents, separation agents, etc.) should be made unnecessary wherever possible and innocuous when used.
6. Energy requirements should be recognized for their environmental and economic impacts and should be minimized. Synthetic methods should be conducted at ambient temperature and pressure.
7. A raw material or feedstock should be renewable rather than depleting wherever technically and economically practicable.
8. Reduce derivatives – unnecessary derivatization (blocking group, protection/ deprotection, temporary modification) should be avoided whenever possible.
9. Catalytic reagents (as selective as possible) are superior to stoichiometric reagents.
10. Chemical products should be designed so that at the end of their function they do not persist in the environment and break down into innocuous degradation products.
11. Analytical methodologies need to be further developed to allow for real-time, in-process monitoring and control prior to the formation of hazardous substances.
12. Substances and the form of a substance used in a chemical process should be chosen to minimize potential for chemical accidents, including releases, explosions, and fires.
These principles do not constitute a set of strict rules but rather a guideline. While their detailed discussion would require another essay, I only point out here that they can all be considered applications of basic economic and ecological principles to chemistry. In my opinion, this claim holds true for all further ideas related to sustainable chemistry.
What should one think of this development? As far as I can see, some chemists fear that the original scientific principles of chemistry are in danger of being replaced by economic principles, yet I think this fear is absolutely groundless. The principles of economy and ecology will not replace established chemical methodology but they can and should drive chemical research. Since sustainable development is so crucial for our society, every scientist should have a basic knowledge of economy and ecology. On the other hand, the traditional chemical methodology is not outdated, but provides the means necessary to achieve an ecological goal. As Paul Chirik illustrated in his talk, the assessment of a certain industrial process with respect to sustainability is most often not straightforward, but rather complicated and requires an integrated approach taking into account countless details. The understanding of these details is the scientist’s intrinsic domain, yet to assess the impact of his research, the importance of a broader background comprising economic and ecological knowledge grows. Accordingly, my first conclusion is that sustainable chemistry is important and should be taught to chemistry students. However, it should not be presented as a chemical discipline, but as a valuable extension.
My second claim is that the public popularity of the term “sustainable chemistry” results from a worrisome confusion between chemistry and chemical industry. This confusion becomes entirely obvious when looking at the even more popular expression “green chemistry”. I am convinced that this expression derives its popularity from a seemingly inherent tension as many people equate green with clean and chemistry with dirty. Yet in reality, chemistry is neither dirty nor clean, but chemical industry can be dirty and we need to make it cleaner. In this context, expressions like “green chemistry” or “sustainable chemistry” are in danger of being abused as public relations label and of being perceived by the layman as chemical methodology. In this way, the confusion between chemistry and chemical industry is not resolved but even increased. To dispel public concerns about chemistry—or in FallingWalls language, to break the wall between chemistry and the public—one should make very clear that sustainability is an ethical concept—which chemists in industry and science ought to be aware of and which may drive chemical research—but not a scientific principle.
After all, there is a simple conclusion: It is every scientist’s duty to employ an understandable but still precise language. If we feel seduced to replace a lengthy and cumbersome explanation by a catchy one-liner, we should recall that this is easy in the short run, but feeds the public mistrust against science in the long run.
— Thomas Jagau
 P. T. Anastas and J. C. Warner, “Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice”, Oxford University Press, New York, 1998, p.30.
Sonja Landertshamer, Clemens Schwarzinger
Johannes Kepler University Linz, Austria
Journal of Unsolved Questions, 2, 1, Articles 5-8, 2012 (Received November 8th, accepted December 3rd, published online December 27th 2011)
2,4,6-triamino-1,3,5-triazine (melamine ) was first prepared in 1834 by Liebig. It has already been used for several decades for the production of melamine-formaldehyde resins and has therefore gained industrial importance. Particularly, during the last years new possibilities for the cross-linking of melamine have been developed to replace harmful formaldehyde. The synthesis of epoxy modified melamine derivatives is one possibility for this purpose. 2-Diallylamino-4,6-bis(dimethylamino)-1,3,5-triazine was chosen as difunctional starting material, whereat solubility in organic solvents is enhanced by the use of the N-alkylated product. Epoxidations of the allyl functionalities were carried out using several common epoxidation agents. Partially, conversion took place forming mainly by-products like substituted hydroxyl amines and hydroxy triazine derivatives. Nevertheless, epoxidation of double bonds took place forming different epoxy containing structures, which may be useful starting materials for further conversions.
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BioQuant Insitute, Im Neuenheimer Feld 267, 69120 Heidelberg, Germany
Zentrum fuer Molekulare Biologie der Universitaet Heidelberg, Im Neuenheimer Feld 282, 69120 Heidelberg, Germany
Journal of Unsolved Questions, 2, 1, Articles 1-4, 2012 (Received October 17th, accepted November 30th, published December 3rd 2011)
The protein CheB is an integral component of sensory adaptation in the chemotaxis system of Escherichia coli. It catalyzes demethylation of the chemoreceptors thereby opposing the effect of ligands on kinase activity. The kinase enhances the activity of the methylesterase via phosphotransfer, thus creating a negative feedback. Although CheB phosphorylation depends on the receptor state, it is not essential for precise adaptation. Therefore, the feedback mechanism is proposed through modeling to compensate for protein fluctuations in the chemotaxis network.
Swarm plate assays revealed that chemotaxis performance in general was even more robust against deviations of single protein concentrations than predicted. However, phosphorylation deficient mutants of CheB still enabled an appropriate chemotaxis response as compared to wild type CheB. Furthermore, when simulations were recoded to include CheB phosphorylation, there was no effect on swarming. Hence both, measured and calculated swarm efficiencies indicate that CheB phosphorylation does not improve robustness of chemotaxis against perturbations in protein levels.
Keywords: Bacteria, Chemotaxis, Feedback, Robustness
Christof Troeltzsch, Bliesenrader Weg 5, Born/Darss, Germany
Journal of Unsolved Questions, 2, 1, Open Questions, 3, 2011 (Received November 3rd 2011, accepted November 25th 2011, published December 3rd 2012)
While working on the doctoral thesis about chelates of zirconium and hafnium – cf.  for preparation of the ligands and  for preparation of the chelates – we made an observation which could not be explained and therefore was only described in the doctoral thesis of Christof Troeltzsch, Leipzig, 1960, in the following way: ….
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Charly Chaplin once said to Albert Einstein: „I am applauded, because everybody understands me; you are applauded, because nobody understands you.“ Cedric Villani, professor for mathematics at Universit? Claude Bernard in Lyon, would probably strongly disagree with Chaplin’s dictum. A celebrated mathematician, his awards include the Fields Medal in 2010 and the prize of the European Mathematical Society in 2008 but he believes that his difficult work on partial differential equations is communicable to everyone. His talk “Breaking the Walls between Economics, Physics and Geometry. How Optimal Allocation of Resources and Entropy Meet in the Non-Euclidean World”, which he presented at this year’s Falling Walls Conference in Berlin, was a tour de force of scientific communication. The Journal of Unsolved Questions had the honor to talk to Cedric Villani about communication of mathematics to the public, scepticism towards numbers, population growth, and the climate change.
JUnQ: Prof. Villani, when you open the newspaper in the morning, how much do you think about the complex problems presented there in terms of mathematical concepts?
Villani: How much I think about the news in mathematical terms depends very much on the mood, on the problem, on many things. You can compare it to music: If you know music, you can either listen in a naive way or listen with the ears of a specialist, recognizing the chords, harmonies and so on. If you really want to understand what is happening in the world, though, you will need mathematics directly or indirectly.
JUnQ: A recent example for math appearing in the news is the world population reaching 7 billion. It is not trivial to calculate when exactly this mark was reached, nevertheless not many formulas were presented in the papers, only this huge number: 7 billion! Why is it so much harder to communicate an abstract formula than a single number?
Villani: Do you understand 7 billions? Can your brain comprehend such a number? I think mine can’t. This is just enormous, impossible to get. The abstract formulas are not intrinsically hard to communicate. I have recently seen a clown show where kids were given an idea of the predator-prey system. This is abstract and can be conveyed without any precise figures. Formulas are just set in a different language. If you learn the language, it will sound easy. And it will be extremely useful. Even simple formulas for population growth contain so much more information than just a single number. I can represent the development of the population, see the movement, program it on my computer and so on.
JUnQ: But recently we have seen a lot of examples where these formulas failed. Take the financial crisis as an example. The mathematical models of the rating agencies were unreliable. The risk calculations of the banks obviously failed. There is skepticism and even anger directed towards the experts in charge of the calculations. Is this skepticism justified?
Villani: About the financial crisis, yes, things are so complicated. The blame should not be put on mathematics, though, but rather on the fact that the mathematical models are applied way out of their range of validity in the hope that they will still work. We should be damn skeptic towards numbers calculated in that way, especially when they are presented as facts. Often numbers are used to pretend something is sure! Think of the following sentence, which I also learned from a clown: “90% of people believe in a sentence which has percentages in it.” To come back to the prior question, knowing a bit about the underlying models and calculations is an excellent way to appreciate the uncertainty, which is behind them, and to judge when the model is trustable and when it is not. Even if this requires quite an expertise.
JUnQ: Appreciating the uncertainty is not always easy. The predictions for the global warming until 2100 range from 1.1 °C to 6.4 °C, a huge difference. If you ask five differenct scientists you can expect ten different answers. How can we decide which expert to believe in?
Villani: I have more trust in experts which present different results than in experts who present one single result. Giving several results means you have tested several hypotheses, you have been critical, you are humble enough to admit your partial ignorance. Science in general is often criticized for its uncertainty, the climate issue is a good example. Even though they do not always look secure, scientific approaches are still the most reliable, more reliable than other approaches like faith, politics, or feeling at least. Sometimes the precision of results is amazing. The difficulties of scientists just reflect the fact that the world is so complicated.
JUnQ: Do you feel that there is a wall of alienation between the mathematician and the public? Do you have an idea how we could make the public more enthusiastic about math?
Villani: My experience is that the public is always enthusiastic to learn about science. And scientists are among the last heroes in our era, the most trusted experts. The percentages of confidence for scientists are substantially better than for politicians. In all my public lectures, I get the impression that the public has an enormous appetite for science. To make the public enthusiastic, it is sufficient to present science in a pedagogical way, in an incarnated way, with people, adventures, stories, and history.
— Leonie Mueck
Michael Kurz, Naturkundliche Gesellschaft, Hallein, Austria (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Journal of Unsolved Questions, 2, 1, Open Questions,1-2, 2011 (Received August 25th 2011, accepted September 4th 2011, published September 28th 2011)
If one looks at the stars, it seems astonishing that their velocities as well as those of galaxies are negligible compared to light velocity after almost 14 billion years of gravitation and expansion of the universe. In fact, it seems that there is a very fine tuning between these two cosmic phenomena….
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