Albert Eschenmoser and I Had Arsenic for Lunch

December 8th, 2010

Chemical Ed VomitsWow…there has been a lot of criticism of the “arsenic-based life” paper.  A lot.  There’s so much that I’m not even going to try to link to all of it.

As you know, I’m a pretty affable person.  I never have a bad word to say about anyone, and the last thing I would do is kick someone while she’s down.  That’s just not my style.  Consequently, I’m not going to tell you about the time I had lunch with Dr. Felisa Wolfe-Simon a couple of years ago when she was a postdoc at Harvard.

You see, a good deal of my graduate work was in the field of origin-of-life chemistry.  I was a fellow of the nascent Origins-of-Life Initiative at Harvard and participated extensively in the program.  I am fascinated by the challenge of the problem and believe that the matter of how life originated on Earth is the second greatest mystery in the planet’s history.  (The first is how the arsenic paper made it past the editors of Science.)

A couple of years ago, the great Albert Eschenmoser came to give a talk at one of the monthly Origins Forums at Harvard.  Thanks to the largess of the director of the initiative, I snagged an hour with Prof. Eschenmoser and the honor of taking him to lunch.

I invited my partner-in-OoL-crime to the chat, and after the two of us had a nice discussion with Eschenmoser about our research, we were joined by a fourth person for lunch: Dr. Felisa Wolfe-Simon.

My knowledge of FWS was limited.  I knew her only as the girl with hot pink hair who asked a lot of questions at OoL talks.  I think there should be a strict limit of two questions per person per seminar, unless I need to go to the bathroom, in which case there should be a one-question limit.  And short of trying to gain employment as a marker buoy in Boston Harbor, I can think of no good reason to dye one’s hair magenta.  Whatever.

Lunch was short…and uncomfortable.  At one point, FWS brought up trying to incorporate arsenic into DNA.  (Remember, this was years ago.  I assume it was before she started her work at Mono Lake.)  FWS said she wanted to make DNA with arsenic atoms as the backbone.

Eschenmoser asked if Felisa had any experience in synthetic chemistry.  She responded that she had none, at which point Eschenmoser recommended that she not undertake this work as it would be very synthetically challenging.  FWS’s response was that it might be a good thing for her to have no synthetic experience: with no knowledge of the challenges, she would not be daunted by such a hard task.

I love when people justify ignorance…of anything.  And I didn’t think she was joking.  I buried my gaze into my avocado sushi roll and occasionally exchanged uncomfortable glances with my labmate.  In the words of John McEnroe…you CANNOT be serious!  Did she not know to whom she was speaking?  This was Albert Eschenmoser, a titan of organic chemistry.  I felt embarrassed that I was even involved in this conversation…and in the chemistry building at the finest university in the world.  Ugh.

Eschenmoser took her comment at face value and went on the reinforce the point that this task would require extensive synthetic skill.  Lunch was over quickly after that.  My labmate said he would never forgive me for wasting his time.  I can’t blame him.

What does all of this mean?

1) I am a jerk.  Sorry.

2) Wolfe-Simon is not an organic chemist or anything close to one.  I have no trouble understanding the lack of attention to detail in the chemistry presented in the Science paper.

3) Wolfe-Simon has been looking for arsenic-based biomolecules for quite some time.  I don’t want to try to read too far into the tea leaves, but sometimes when you are really looking hard for something, you think you’ve found it when you haven’t.  She missed some obvious experiments, but my guess/hope was that she didn’t do so maliciously with an intent to deceive.  She is one of the most enthusiastic, effervescent scientists I have ever encountered.   I think that she may have been so excited to have found what she was looking for that she got a little ahead of herself.

Still, I don’t condone this behavior from an experienced scientist.  Regardless of whether her conclusions stand, the work is shoddy.  What really bugs me is that papers like these end up harming the field of prebiotic chemistry.  I have said before—on blogs and in seminars—that prebiotic chemistry does not get the attention the subject deserves.  One of the big reasons it doesn’t is because chemists don’t respect the field.  People trumpet the simplest results as major discoveries and chew up space in Science and Nature that would probably best be left for less sexy but more robust results.  This paper is going to do nothing but reinforce this image, and that’s a damn shame.

95 Responses to “Albert Eschenmoser and I Had Arsenic for Lunch”

  1. sam Says:

    you really are a jerk :)

    FWS has posted a response to the blogosphere:

    She seems more tentatively open to the debate. Too bad the authors and editors and reviewers didn’t anticipate this debate and provide more solid proof.

  2. James Says:

    I agree with you that origin of life is THE #1 unsolved problem in chemistry. In fact I think it’s either the #1 or #2 unsolved question in all of science – the only other one that comes close is finding evidence that we are not alone in the universe.
    Personally I think this paper will attract people to the field rather than scare them off. There’s nothing like the potential for delivering a smackdown to motivate people to do experiments.

  3. Kate Says:

    The snotty comment about her hair really undermines whatever valid point you may have.

  4. Reggie Says:

    Kate’s snotty comment about your snotty comment undermines any valid point she may have.

  5. John Spevacek Says:

    I’m reminded of two comments by icons of science.

    1) I believe it was Sir William Bragg who told young Dr. James Watson that if he was going to make a mistake in his scientific life, he should do it early as people would be more forgiving.

    2) Feynman: It’s easy to fool people and the easiest person to fool is yourself.

  6. J-bone Says:

    I don’t know if anyone said anything about it (I didn’t see mention of it in the previous blog entry, just actual scientific discussion), but does anyone else think it’s odd that her corresponding e-mail address is a Gmail account?

  7. nic Says:

    Interesting post, thanks.

    I disliked the hair comment too, the author obviously considers normal hair colors to be “better” then artificial. But there is a joke somewhere between FW-S’s unusually colored hair and the fact that arsenic poisoning is usually diagnosed by looking for traces of the element in the victim’s hair. I just can’t find it…

    @J-bone I don’t think it’s odd, I think this concept that institutional e-mails are “better” is wrong, as wrong as e.g. considering phosphorous based life “better” than arsenic based, or the same about hair colors.

    @Spevack Great words. It is only unfortunate that Science magazine is not early in its scientific life, nor NASA.

  8. Arsenic Bacteria link-dump | A Blog Around The Clock Says:

    [...] Robert Sheldon, ID proponent, defending the arsenic bacteria paper? Oh dear God. and Arsenic Bacteria Breed Backlash and Don’t Like Arsenic Bacteria? Put Your Experiment Where Your Mouth Is! and GFAJ-1: Get Fighting And Jousting! and Albert Eschenmoser and I Had Arsenic for Lunch [...]

  9. Paul Says:

    Perhaps my comment about her hair is snide, but it’s also relevant to the story. I think by painting her hair fluorescent pink, she is also painting herself as an attention —well…someone who likes attention.

    The kind of person who would hold a press conference like this. The audio is cringeworthy, especially when one looks at the presser in hindsight. And it’s not like I’m the first person to say it. One person was tweeting this opinion in real time.

  10. excimer Says:

    Paul, I normally like what you do, but an attack on her character (much less her hair color) is inappropriate and unbecoming of you. Stick to the science.

  11. Paul Says:

    Again, I bring up these details because I think they are relevant. I think rushing to publish these results (and hyping them in a press conference in the manner in which she did) is a character issue. To copy and paste from Wikipedia:

    The ad hominem is a classic logical fallacy, but it is not always fallacious. For in some instances, questions of personal conduct, character, motives, etc., are legitimate and relevant to the issue.

  12. Kevin Says:

    There have been so many substantive and appropriate criticisms of the work in question, I’m almost sorry that I spent good time reading your personal impressions about FWS.

  13. Jim Says:

    I concur with Paul. The personality goes a long way towards explaining the whole ordeal. I’ve had lunch with Arsenic too.

  14. Egon Willighagen Says:

    I for now admire people who dare color their hair pink, green, red, whatever.

  15. Ryan Says:

    Wow, as a scientist with dyed hair, fuck you. Seriously, fuck you. I hope to meet you at a conference one day so you can criticize my dress, my body, my face, my hair and I can tell you to fuck off to your face. You’re a fucking douchebag and a half. And you’re only a postdoc? Oh but you went to Harvard, so you’re clearly better than everyone else.

  16. Everclear Says:

    Paul’s comment about the flamingo pink hair is valid. Flamingos like to be on display in cheesy neighborhoods. Peacock colors would have better matched the arsenic theme. Good science requires logic and reason, but it’s also influenced by social constructs.

  17. Anonymous Says:

    Her personal website seems to contain a bit more braggadocio than professionalism, as well as an inordinate number of pictures of herself with famous people.

    Won’t comment on the hair–many of my colleagues had superfluous moustaches in grad school.

  18. 20tauri Says:

    Also agree that the hair comment was not just inappropriate but completely irrelevant…in a field that can seem to the outside world to be dry as nails (lab coats, test tubes, yadda yadda) it’s refreshing to know that someone with a little spunk is trying to liven it up, be it with her personal appearance, enthusiasm, whatever. God forbid someone who looks a little different from the rest of the genteel establishment makes waves! But regarding your main point…I generally go out of my way to support women in science, though when I saw her press conference, I was a little saddened to find that she might be the sort of person who rubs people the wrong way. That in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing as far as the science goes – just look at the excellent work that Rosalind Franklin did to further the field of biochemistry, despite a notoriously difficult nature. Though in the lab, Franklin seems to have suffered in somewhat the opposite way as Wolfe-Simon: she was so methodical with her calculations that she refused to publicly draw any grand conclusions about her work until, of course, others drew the conclusions for her, thus shadowing her efforts forevermore. With Wolfe-Simon, it seems to be a case of unbridled excitement coupled with a bit of scientific hubris, which, while perhaps detrimental to this paper, and to her own reputation, is hardly the worst thing that could have happened to the public face of science. Science is messy, and sometimes scientists get a bit carried away with their own work. This is how it’s been and will always be! One also has to wonder if there would be as much discussion about her personality if she were a man; I somehow doubt there would. But anyway, my bigger point is that if the critics are proven right and it turns out this result shouldn’t have been published, then I blame the editors at Science and the higher ups at NASA who called for this press conference in the manner they did WAY more than I blame Wolfe-Simon and her team for trying to do something novel. For all the shock (or should I call it annoyance?) you display at her can-do attitude, you fail to recognize that it’s the cool, calm, and more experienced elders in the field, not to mention the press handlers with both the publishers and NASA, who should have toned down this thing before it became the media madness that it did.

  19. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    Paul’s comment sounds sexist but I think it does reinforce the general impression that she is someone who wants to be different and likes attention. That does not make her a less enthusiastic or worse scientist but I think it does give the comment about pink fair a hint of legitimacy. Then again, we all know the problems with correlation vs causation…in any case, FWS does seem to be a effervescent scientist who got a little carried away with confirmation bias.

    As for the comment to Eschenmoser, FWS should have quoted the great late Les Nielsen: “”I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.”

  20. Hap Says:

    …or goatees. God, the goatees.

  21. 28 and a PhD Says:

    Great criticism. I have a similar postdoc working in the department. He doesn’t dye his hair bright pink, but has some prominent features that make him look … well, you can’t miss him. I have no problem with whether you have hair or not, or whether it’s pink, yellow, or zebra coloured. Heck, my hair is curly and “crazy” looking. But I don’t go around telling experts that I knwo more than them, or that I’m not afraid of challenge in the manner described here. I think you illustrate a great point of a person looking for a lot of attention. Oddly enough, this postdoc asks at least 5 questions per seminar, and with his questions and demeanour tries to belittle great research and great/solid ideas of established people, even Nobel-calibre people.

  22. Joel Says:

    I would hesitate to take fashion criticism from a chemist judging by our general slovenly (lab-appropriate) appearances and general mouth-breathing reputation.

    Seriously, who cares about her appearance? Keep the focus on the science.

  23. Paul Says:

    Please note that my first post was strictly “about the science” and brought up specific pieces of criticism before the tide had turned against this paper in the media.

    The science of this paper has been shot to hell. I think this post adds a little different perspective on the story and raises some cultural points about our field. The idea of having a press conference could also be viewed as “having nothing to do with the science”, but clearly, scientists need to look at this one and analyze what’s the best way to publicize results. FWS did not do a good job with this presser; I think she was over-eager. I also think recounting the datum of her hair color is relevant to establishing this point.

    Anyway…in today’s world, there is more to science than “the science”. I’d hope all regular readers of this blog would agree with that by now.

  24. CR Says:

    No, sir, you can try and justify all you like, but this post was one whiny personal attack – from the color of her hair (who give a sh!t), to how many questions she asked (sorry she didn’t abide by your ‘rules’). Your opinion about her being interested in arsenic for a long time biasing her opinion is also ridiculous. Most scientists get interested in something early in their careers and spend a great amount of time looking into it – that doesn’t necessarily cloud their judgment about the findings (as you state in your post).

    Also, so what that she’s having lunch with Dr. Eschenmoser at the “world’s finest university” – she cannot ask questions that might seem ridiculous to the non-synthetic chemist? Doesn’t matter if it’s Eschenmoser, Einstein, or some whiny post-doc at CalTech, questions should be asked regardless.

    If there is a criticism anywhere to be found it is with Science. She did the work, wrote the manuscript and it would be up to the reviewers/editors to demand the appropriate experiments if they were not already done.

    The only “little different perspective on the story” this post adds is your petty opinion.

  25. Paul Says:

    CR…she is the corresponding author!! She bares the majority of the responsibility for the paper, not Science.

    And please, try asking numerous successive questions at the next ten seminars you attend. I bet people will really appreciate it. Every organization has cultural norms. If you behave far outside their boundaries, people will not respect you.

  26. CR Says:

    I understand she is the corresponding author and bares the responsibility/criticism. My point is where was Science throughout the process? It sure didn’t take very long for the blogosphere to poke holes in this work, so why didn’t Science? Why didn’t the reviewers/editor demand the exact same things that have been discussed throughout the internets? If the internets can be flooded with criticism this quickly, why didn’t the reviewers? Incompetence? Laziness? Any and all should reflect negatively on Science.

    And sorry, again, you cannot justify your pettiness by saying she didn’t conform to some Harvard “rules”. Hair color, too many questions, she dared asked Dr. Eschenmoser questions…did she also break the rule of making eye contact with him? Or didn’t genuflect before him? It’s your blog, write what you want…maybe someone will have a story one day about your blog and how it was written to “try” and make a point about you…

  27. Paul Says:

    CR, you are advancing some really controversial theories:

    Cultural norms do not exist
    Stupid questions/ideas do not exist
    Journals bear the primary responsibility for the content of academic papers

  28. pi* Says:

    Professional athletes that dress/hairstyle in a loud or attention getting manner are often commented upon publicly.
    Is this wrong?
    Google: “rolando hair idiot” 230,000 hits

  29. CR Says:

    “Cultural norms” – yes. Is asking too many questions one of them…no.

    Your idea of a stupid question/idea as a chemist vs. a non-chemist is different. But more importantly, you did not frame this as a stupid question/idea per se; but rather ‘who’ the question was directed at. If Eschenmoser cannot have a discussion with a non-chemist then that’s his issue.

    Journals do not bear the responsibility for the “content” – but they bear the responsibility of what is publishable.

    One can put anything in a paper – it’s up to the editor/reviewers to determine whether it is publishable. That responsibility rests SOLELY on the journal – and that is my point.

  30. Paul Says:

    The idea of making As-linked DNA is not stupid. Thinking that your complete lack of knowledge of synthetic chemistry will actually help you make As DNA is stupid. Arguing this idea to a legendary expert in synthetic chemistry is ridiculous.

    But thanks, CR. You’ve given me ideas for about ten posts. I will be happy to explore the idea of whether there is such a thing as asking too many questions at a seminar. I’m pretty confident the majority of chemists will disagree with you.

  31. CR Says:

    As per your post – it was your “opinion” she was serious. That could be considered stupid as well. It is clear from your post that there is some axe to grind for you…which leads me to not fully believe your “opinions” on this subject.

    Having the majority of chemists responding on this blog disagreeing with me isn’t a bad thing.

  32. Stewie Griffin Says:

    Paul you see to have generated some backlash. It seems folks are reading into Paul’s words without full knowledge of what Paul’s full thoughts are (“Jumping to Conclusions”). Paul did not say that because FWS had bright pink hair that she would publish this type of science. Nor did he say that everyone with dyed hair is a bad scientist (looking at you here Ryan). Paul simply stated that looking back on his previous knowledge of FWS, perhaps the press conference surrounding this publication may make more sense to him. It certainly isn’t uncommon for those with dyed hair to enjoy the attention it gets (though that may not be everyone’s reason for changing their hair color), so it’s possible that her previous desire for dyed hair was a marker of her personality. Relax.
    @ CR (“that doesn’t necessarily cloud their judgment about the findings (as you state in your post”). Again people are reading what’s not there. Paul never said that people that look at a problem for a long time will definitely always have clouded judgment about their findings. Nope not even close. He said “sometimes when you are really looking hard for something, you think you’ve found it when you haven’t”. Notice the word sometimes. Nothing wrong with that statement.
    I’m also surprised at how surprised others are at Paul’s level of sarcasm. Surely by now if you read this blog you know that Paul enjoys some sarcasm. It can be a good laugh. I laughed at the seminar questions rule b/c I can say that at my school there was a dude that always had to ask at least one question (even if it were a pointless question). We all knew it was coming, and he became “that guy” b/c we knew he was forcing questions to try and impress. So Paul threw in a sarcastic comment about it, big deal. He admits in the post “I’m a jerk.” I suppose that’s the danger of sarcasm though.. not everyone will get it.

  33. Paul Says:

    Thank you for nailing it, Stewie.

  34. Stewie Griffin Says:

    From CR: “…Dr. Eschenmoser questions…did she also break the rule of making eye contact with him? Or didn’t genuflect before him?”
    Paul never claimed that these were the social norms. You may assume that the big names of organic chemistry require someone to genuflect, but Paul never said that.
    Also from CR: “It is clear from your post that there is some axe to grind for you…which leads me to not fully believe your “opinions” on this subject.”
    It seems that you to have an axe to grind. You seem to have some problem with figureheads of organic chemistry based on your disgust at the idea of having to genuflect before Eschenmoser (which granted I too would be upset about if that were the social norms). I feel your anger towards this post is an expression of anger you harbor towards something else.

  35. CR Says:

    “Dr. Eschenmoser questions…did she also break the rule of making eye contact with him? Or didn’t genuflect before him?”

    I suppose that’s the danger of sarcasm though.. not everyone will get it. Well said…

  36. CR Says:

    Of course the “making eye contact” and “genuflecting” was sarcasm in response to the bloggers use of the terms “great” and “Did she not know to whom she was speaking?” and referring to Dr. Eschenmoser as a “titan”. I have no problem with figureheads of organic chemistry (or any discipline) – but rather people who treat them as if they should be on some pedestal. I guess maybe I’m a bit more advanced in my career to feel everyone is more of a colleague, but come on, really, they’re just people.

  37. Stewie Griffin Says:

    Paul I don’t mean to take over the comments here. Also I don’t mean to start an argument with CR in particular but was using some of CR’s (and Ryan’s) comments as an example of what I felt were incorrect conclusions people were drawing from this post.
    @CR Touche ;). I too agree that figureheads shouldn’t be put on a pedestal b/c at the end of the day they are just people. They deserve respect, but not blind love/loyalty. If that’s what you were honestly trying to say with the “genuflect” comment, then please forgive me for my misunderstanding as we are on the same page then.
    I admit though that after reading the genuflect comment again I still have trouble believing it was meant fully in jest/sarcasm on your part. I can see a bit of sarcasm in the comment, but it seems more like a straw man argument than the fully sarcastic side comment that you suggest it was ( You start that particular comment by arguing that Paul is defending certain social norms (or as you say “Harvard rules”) so that he may in turn “justify his pettiness”. Then you throw out a made up social norm/Harvard rule of your choice (the genuflecting) rather than the ones Paul defended (number of questions asked at seminar). The implication of your argument then is that since genuflecting is a ridiculous social norm, and Paul is in favor of social norms, then Paul must also be in favor of genuflecting. Therefore the reader should conclude that since support of Harvard rules is flawed, that Paul has no justification of his pettiness. The fallacy is that Paul never claimed to defend genuflecting. You attacked a distorted position of what Paul actually claimed.

  38. bad wolf Says:

    I can’t believe the hair color thing is the most controversial part of the entry.

  39. CR Says:

    Sorry Stewie (Damn you Lois) Griffin:

    The making eye contact and genuflecting comment was simply sarcasm (really who would be expected to genuflect now, you can’t take that seriously, can you?) in response to the “Who does she think she’s talking to” – as if this was the medieval times and he’s the king and she might be beheaded for even speaking (again, to be clear, that was sarcasm as well).

    The only “norm” I’m criticizing is the made up “too many questions” norm.

  40. Under the Hood Says:

    @ Stewie, nice job!

    @ Paul, I think some people here are a little too serious. Why is it good for a female (Arsenic) to be “effervescent,” but not a male blogger? I rather like the open style here, the creation of a space where science can get out from under the hood and just yakk. What’s all the politically correct BS about, anyway? Guys take pokes all the time, all in good humor.

    @ Ryan, what’s with all the filthy language? That’s neither science nor humor. It’s just plain rude. No good reason for it.

  41. Disappointed Says:

    -The science of this paper has been shot to hell. I think this post adds a little different perspective on the story and raises some cultural points about our field.

    That’s the thing Paul. You had nothing more to add to the science, perhaps you were incapable of doing this. But in your “Me too!” mode you were still eager to say something about it, no matter how pointless and whiny. So you chose to take a cheap personal shot simply for the sake of bringing a “different perspective” to bear on the issue. You accuse FWS for grabbing attention when you do exactly the same thing just for the sake of piping in on the topic. Very classy Paul, seems the Hahvad School of Snobbery can boast one more success.

  42. pi* Says:

    pffft, that’s all mean and nasty – but -don’t pretend that pointing out that an attention seeking, non-chemist is corresponding author is irrelevant (publication announced by press conference and flawed in chemistry).

  43. Under the Hood Says:

    @ Disappointed – I find Paul’s perspective refreshing. Paul is just saying it like it is. A lot of people agree. This blog is like a breath of fresh air. Just because some people have opinions that are different from yours doesn’t mean they’re “attention-seekers” or “Hahvad snobs.” That’s just third-grade name-calling. You want us to shut up. Bully, bully, bully! LOL!

    You go, Paul!

  44. CR Says:


    “Just because some people have opinions that are different from yours doesn’t mean they’re “attention-seekers”…”

    Hmmm….I wonder where I’ve heard this critique before….I know it will come to me soon…right on the tip of my tongue…

  45. Under the Hood Says:

    @ CR – All this business about focusing on Paul’s “Harvard-ness” doesn’t resonate. If I had a student who soaked up class time with thirty minutes of stupid questions I’d dock them a full letter grade. However, I cut them off after the second stupid question and tell them to either see me after class or go read the book. Has nothing to do with Harvard, or even “rules.” Science is expensive. I have better things to do than cow-tow to an attention-seeking student. Your posts are attention-seeking. Where do you teach?

  46. Paul Says:


    How was I acting in “me too” mode? If anything, I was on the leading edge of this story. I was one of the first people to post a specific list of chemical criticisms of this work. I downloaded the article within an hour of its release, and I’ve been working in this field for quite a while. I wrote about the story because I find it interesting and worthy of discussion. I didn’t write about it just because I felt I should say something.

    This blog has a long history on focusing on the cultural, operational, and managerial aspects of scientific research. Rarely on ChemBark do I focus strictly on the scientific details of a paper (although, for this paper, the last post actually did). The fact that the points I raised in this post were not strictly on “the science” should come as no surprise to anyone, and the fact that they’re not just about “the science” doesn’t mean that they aren’t valid points to share for consideration.

  47. CR Says:

    A. I have yet to focus on the bloggers “Harvard-ness” – I believe that was “Disappointed”. I focused on the notion that he claims to have a 2 question (1, if the blogger has to piss) limit after seminars. Nothing about Harvard. Nor was there any mention of asking “stupid questions” at the seminars (by either the blogger or myself). That was you.

    B. You have better things to do than talk to your students?…you must be a real delight.

    C. Posting is masked attention-seeking? More of a dialogue, but again, may just be me.

  48. Paul Says:

    I can’t believe that I have to say this, but I hope everyone realizes that the one-question limit (in the event I need to urinate) was a facetious remark.

    I mean, what am I going to do, make an announcement when the seminar is over so everyone knows the limit is 1 vs. 2? That certainly would not be socially acceptable. Maybe just ring a bell or something?

  49. Under the Hood Says:

    @ CR – You, CR, seem to be the one who is re-constructing Paul’s statements. Just look back and you will see what you did. Why do you need so much attention?

    People do have to piss now and then, it can’t be avoided.

  50. Disappointed Says:

    @Paul: Fair enough. I somewhat apologize for the earlier rant. I see two problems with this post: 1. Your sarcasm is not exactly obvious, that’s why so many people have problems with your apparently sarcastic statements which just make you sound like a snob. 2. The comment about the hair detracted from your main point and sounds condescending and sexist. Perhaps you intended to make a point with it, but your metaphorical device doesn’t exactly work well.

    @Under the Hood (a.k.a Paul apologist): “Just because some people have opinions that are different from yours doesn’t mean they’re “attention-seekers”
    Tickle your brain cells a little and recall that the writer of this post hinted that FWS was an attention seeker because she colored her hair pink.

  51. Paul Says:

    OK, we disagree, but how can you say that this post is sexist? Just because it had a comment about hair?

    If FWS were a man with pink hair, I still would have mentioned it. You are grasping for anything to hit me with.

  52. Dennis Says:

    I sincerely look forward to ChemBark’s future “Paul Makes Fun of Chemists (of all genders) with Bad Hair” series of posts. Who’s first? Does bad facial hair count as well?

  53. Paul Says:

    Your comment is incredibly pilonormative. I will also make fun of bald chemists, if the circumstances warrant it.

  54. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    -I will also make fun of bald chemists, if the circumstances warrant it.

    Barry Sharpless. The circumstances almost always warrant it.

  55. bad wolf Says:

    You might also compare the Wikipedia entries for Albert Eschenmoser (more of a stub) to Felisa Wolf-Simon (more of a hagiography), although i can’t say it is self-promotion, not knowing who wrote them.

  56. Chemjobber Says:

    Furstner has some serious eyebrows; those things probably pick up Radio Free Asia.

  57. Special Guest Lecturer Says:

    There are more telling aspects to what happened here than the lead author’s former hair color. The acronym of the microbe (“Give Felisa A Job”) and the careerism bubbling to the surface in the press conference (multiple mentions of being an early career scientist, commenting on rewriting the biochemistry textbooks) paint a picture of a researcher locked into the idea that this discovery would be her big break.

    Blame goes to the reviewers as well, though I don’t universally blame reviewers when shoddy work is published. I do believe that reviews should be published alongside the papers. I have written (and received) many reviews that suggested further experiments, and it is quite common to respond to these suggestions by saying “the suggested experiments are excellent but are not needed to support our conclusions. They will be reported in a more extensive study of x…” It would be very interesting to see if any of the reviewers suggested further proof of the arsenate incorporated into the DNA, only to be overruled.

    As a young scientist, I have also fallen head over heels for my results – perfectly understandable given the dedication and emotional capital invested in one’s research. I recently held back writing up what would have been a very nice piece of work because I didn’t feel I quite understood my system. That proved to be the right thing to do, as one of the claims I would have made six months ago did not hold up to more careful experimentation.

    Whatever the outcome of the claim of aresenate-based DNA, this episode serves as a warning to young scientists to be your own harshest reviewer. The more important the result, the more important it is to be clear headed and highly skeptical.

  58. Paul Says:

    @SGL: I couldn’t agree more. And the GFAJ acronym also rubbed me the wrong way…I’m all for colorful stories and fun, but it only works if you’ve covered all your bases. Otherwise, you can easily come across as silly.

  59. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    I thought the GFAJ acronym was silly too, and Paul Davies did not do much to dignify it by devoting an entire WSJ article to it. Perhaps this is related, but it’s interesting that FWS listed her gmail address as corresponding author. That usually happens when someone is transitioning between two jobs and their current email address would not be valid after a while.

  60. Ich Dich Says:

    Is it just me, or have you guys missed this:

    Is it infecting the entire microbiolog-community, this pink madness?

  61. josie Says:

    We used to have a grad student who walks around the department in Winnie the pooh slippers.

  62. J-bone Says:

    Josie, was her name Snooki by any chance?

  63. Anonymous Says:

    J-bone, while I’ve heard of snooki, I’ve never seen the show so didn’t know she does that either.
    Alas, this was a male grad student, which seems to be weirder, if that’s possible at all.

  64. luysii Says:

    My God. The comments go right back to when I was in the Air Force from ’68 – ’70. The service was so uptight about hair, that they even had a diagram showing how low your sideburns could go. Us 2 year docs used to say “An army fights on its hair”. I thought that once I got out, people would stop being fixed on hair. Plus ca change . . .

    Paul is thinking exactly the way a doc would do, using every bit of social information (of which hair is a significant part) to understand someone’s background. This is just good medicine as social context is often crucial in figuring out (1) what’s wrong (2) choosing a treatment (3) figuring out how someone will respond to it.

    People feel threatened by what Paul said, because science is supposed to not care about who says what, just what is said. In this case, since the claim is so far out, Paul’s note is quite relevant.

  65. pi* Says:

    @ Cur. Wave.
    That WSJ article is shocking

  66. joel Says:

    This GFAJ business is base.

  67. cookingwithsolvents Says:

    Stewie covered it but I also want to speak out in support of Paul and his comments about the corresponding author’s background knowledge of synthetic organic and inorganic chemistry.

  68. provocateur Says:

    Paul, what the fuck does ‘pilonormative’ mean???

  69. Polyethylene Man Says:

    Wasn’t it this type of post (re “Big News at Princeton”) that shut this blog down the first time?

  70. Paul Says:

    @provocateur: I made it up, inspired by the words piloerection and heteronormative.

    @PE man: That’s a loaded question. First, that post didn’t shut down the blog. Second, this post is nowhere near the quality of that post.

  71. Paul Says:

    ( o ) ( 0 ):

  72. Rebecca Says:

    It is interesting that her collaborator, Ronald Oremland, is keeping so quiet on this. He has quite the resume on extremophiles and their metabolism of “toxic” elements like arsenic, tellurium, and selenium. See e.g. the abstracts below. His involvement, arguably, gives the most recent Science paper a bit more gravitas. On the other hand, why is Wolfe-Simon rushing about breathlessly talking about how GFAJ “not only copes with…” high levels of arsenic, when both “coping” and actual metabolism of arsenic were clearly known phenomena from Oremland’s and others’ work?

    The ecology of arsenic
    SCIENCE Volume: 300 Issue: 5621 Pages: 939-944 Published: MAY 9 2003
    Abstract: Arsenic is a metalloid whose name conjures up images of murder. Nonetheless, certain prokaryotes use arsenic oxyanions for energy generation, either by oxidizing arsenite or by respiring arsenate. These microbes are phylogenetically diverse and occur in a wide range of habitats. Arsenic cycling may take place in the absence of oxygen and can contribute to organic matter oxidation. In aquifers, these microbial reactions may mobilize arsenic from the solid to the aqueous phase, resulting in contaminated drinking water. Here we review what is known about arsenic-metabolizing bacteria and their potential impact on speciation and mobilization of arsenic in nature.

    Arsenic and selenium in microbial metabolism
    ANNUAL REVIEW OF MICROBIOLOGY Volume: 60 Pages: 107-130 Published: 2006

    Abstract: Arsenic and selenium are readily metabolized by prokaryotes, participating in a full range of metabolic functions including assimilation, methylation, detoxification, and anaerobic respiration. Arsenic speciation and mobility is affected by microbes through oxidation/reduction reactions as part of resistance and respiratory processes. A robust arsenic cycle has been demonstrated in diverse environments. Respiratory arsenate reductases, arsenic methyltransferases, and new components in arsenic resistance have been recently described. The requirement for selenium stems primarily from its incorporation into selenocysteine and its function in selenoenzymes. Selenium oxyanions can serve as an electron acceptor in anaerobic respiration, forming distinct nanoparticles of elemental selenium that may be enriched in Se-76. The biogenesis of selenoproteins has been elucidated, and selenium methyltransferases and a respiratory selenate reductase have also been described. This review highlights recent advances in ecology, biochemistry, and molecular biology and provides a prelude to the impact of genomics studies.

  73. chemdroid Says:

    there is just something about overenunciating and exaggerated gesticulation that screams “overcompensation”. Actually smart people tend to speak so fast that their mouths trip over what their brains are trying to output. I do know some incredibly intelligent people who speak really slowly, but it’s not because they are attempting to modulate every aspect of their verbal presentation, in fact quite the reverse.

  74. Stewie Griffin Says:

    She certainly doesn’t lack confidence…. Dunning-Kruger Effect

  75. chemdroid Says:

    Oh damn, that just made my day

  76. provocateur Says:

    I am just a layman but can you do As-NMR(Arsenic 75?) and see whether the arsenic is in the DNA(Arsenoester?)form?

  77. Confused about Arsenic | The Editor's Blog Says:

    [...] saga. Paul Bracher at Chembark, for example, has a revealing and quite funny post entitled “Albert Eschenmoser and I Had Arsenic for Lunch” in which it becomes clear that, 1) Wolfe-Simon has had arsenic and DNA on her mind for a long [...]

  78. chemdroid Says:

    provocateur: No. It’s Spin 3/2 which makes things complicated. SSNMR might be an option, but that’s even harder.

    Apparently, linewidths are too broad.

  79. pi* Says:

  80. Special Guest Lecturer Says:

    The Inorg. Chem. paper ( that the authors of the Science paper cite on the stability of arsenate esters doesn’t do their argument any favors. There is a trend that arsenate triesters hydrolyze more slowly with increasing size of the organic group. However, even the largest derivative studied (the triisopropyl ester, probably more hindered than arsenate DNA) hydrolyzes in seconds, requiring the use of stopped-flow measurements instead of NMR to measure rate constants accurately.

    The authors also report that the first hydrolysis of an arsenate triester is rate limiting, and that subsequent hydrolysis steps are even faster. Arsenate DNA would have to resist hydrolysis as the diester.

    It should be possible to make an arsenate triester of ribose (or another saccharide) and subject it to hydrolysis. The research team might want to try that experiment if they hypothesize that the arsenate DNA backbone is more stable to hydrolysis than expected.

  81. Paul Says:

    You beat me to it, SGL. I was going to post on that paper over break. It’s almost like FWS & company haven’t read it. The ribose experiment would be interesting/applicable, but I doubt those arsenate esters would be any more stable. It’d be nice, at least, for someone to go back to the ’81 IC paper and give a second look to Ar-ester hydrolysis just to make sure those data are solid.

  82. Special Guest Lecturer Says:

    Paul, I agree- I briefly considered doing a quick arsenate hydrolysis experiment, but I think the burden of proof is on the arsenate folks at this point.

  83. Dave Says:

    “…Eschenmoser recommended that she not undertake this work as it would be very synthetically challenging.”

    Why does this work require any sythetic chemistry? If the bacteria can do it, they can do it. If she shows that they do it, she shows it. Only the bacteria need to sythesize anything, why is synthetic chemistry necessary to answer the question? She’s not doing chemical modeling, its an actual microbiology experiment. Real life, does it happen or not?

    As for the rest of this story, its a load of irrelevant crap. Who cares whether you like her or not? I’ve worked with people that I don’t like very much either, doesn’t make they wrong.

  84. Paul Says:

    She wanted to make it herself, in the lab…as in, to synthesize it. When you don’t have the machinery of life to help you out and any water present will wreck your product, such a task is difficult. Especially if you’ve got no experience doing synthesis.

  85. Steve Benner Says:

    I am late to the posting, but thought I would comment on a few comments.

    First, Nicole Leal in my lab actually made some DNA, a double hairpin with a single nick, which would be an arsenate receptor (remember, arsenate esters form dynamically as well as decompose), and sent it to Felisa, who indeed was thinking about arsenate for a long time. As far as I know, mass spec failed to show intra-strand arsenate DNA formation.

    Next, I actually published a paper with Felisa and Paul Davies:
    Paul C.W. Davies, Steven A. Benner, Carol E. Cleland, Charles H. Lineweaver,
    Christopher P. McKay, and Felisa Wolfe-Simon (2009) Signatures of a Shadow Biosphere, 9, 241-249.
    The rlevant comment there was:

    “The kinetic lability of the arsenic-oxygen bond makes it unlikely that arsenic
    could entirely replace the structure and function of phosphorus in nucleic acids, lipid membranes, and ATP; but it might serve a transient kinetic role in weird metabolism.”

    Last, I did in my book (“Life, the Universe, and the Scientific Method”) describe how scientists should manage a challenge to what we “know”. The cartoon on page 13 is especially relevant, and we talk about “burden of proof”.

    Albert was simply providing his standard line (“synthetic organic chemistry is hard”), for which there is no argument. But when someone claims that water is H3O (or that arsenate can replace phosphate in DNA), the appropriate response is: “Hmmmm. Of what we think to be true, what must be false, if the claim is correct?”

  86. pi* Says:

  87. ChemBark » Blog Archive » The Unwritten Rules of Chemistry Seminars Says:

    [...] the discussion that followed the arsenic-for-lunch post, commenter CR and I got into a spirited debate about the rules of etiquette for scientific [...]

  88. Elizabeth Petro Says:

    While it’s true that commenting on someone’s physical appearance is not inherently sexist, it also has historically often been used as an instrument of sexism, and today is still far more commonly done to women than to men, so one should always carefully consider before committing such commentary to print (even when trying to be facetious).

    What concerns me far more is your use of the word “girl” to describe a woman over the age of 18, let alone one with a PhD. Once again, any individual use of the word may not be sexist (and I’m sure you feel it fits with the facetious and vernacular tone you’re trying to establish), but it also sets your reader up to imagine her as a teenager rather than as a serious scientist.

    I can see the point you’re trying to make, that the loud hair color and the large number of questions at seminars can be used to paint a portrait of someone who might be a little too enthusiastic about getting attention to herself, but I’m afraid that the way you wrote the post meant that my first reaction was more like Kate’s, excimer’s, and Kevin’s rather than the reaction you were hoping for.

    You may be trying to be facetious, but misogyny’s never funny.

  89. Paul Says:

    Great. I wasn’t being misogynistic, but I apologize if you took offense to my use of the word “girl”.

    I refer to myself as a “guy”. I rarely, if ever, refer to myself as a “man”. What is the analogue of “guy” for females? My answer to that question is “girl”. To me, “gal” sounds silly, but maybe it is what I should be using.

    Finally, I take offense to your description of Dr. Wolfe-Simon as “a serious scientist.”

    Good day.

  90. Elizabeth Petro Says:

    “Girl” isn’t quite the analogue for “guy” because it’s also the analogue for “boy” and thus carries infantile connotations that “guy” doesn’t: our language is unfortunately asymmetric in that way.

  91. excimer Says:

    This reminds me of a joke.

    How many feminists does it take to make me a damn sandwich?

    “Hey, that’s not funny!”

  92. Paul Says:

    Well…it seems like I am not alone in unintended sexism:

    (H/T to a special, special friend for that link)

    And apologies for the long delay in posting folks. I got busy, then I got sick. Now I am better, but swamped. Still, expect a special birthday post tomorrow night.

    Hugs and kisses from your ol’ buddy,

  93. ChemBark » Blog Archive » Felisa Wolfe-Simon Does NOT Get It Says:

    [...] already talked about the original paper and some of my personal interactions with Dr. Wolfe-Simon.  Now, I’ve also had the chance to look at the technical comments, the [...]

  94. Arsenic’s Poisonous Atmosphere (#ArsenicLife) « State Factors Says:

    [...] community discussion, and forays into writing that would never appear in more formal outlets.  Some have been described as online analogues to a lab meeting held at a bar.  But the arsenic episode [...]

  95. #ArsenicLife Compendium « biologicalhominin Says:

    [...] Paul Bracher. Dec 8 2010. Albert Eschenmoser and I had arsenic for lunch. ChemBark. [...]

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