The original origami

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The paradox of protein folding

A paper crane appears impressively intricate, especially to a novice origami maker struggling with the first creases. But fumbling hands and crumpled paper belie a different type of folding expertise. Imperceptibly, legions of molecules inside the origami maker’s body constantly confront a much more complex folding task. These molecules, called proteins, reliably fold into one out of an enormous number of possible structures in a fraction of the time it takes to make a paper crane. With no hands to guide it, each protein molecule must traverse the pathway to its correct shape with superhuman speed and precision. And while poor origami technique results in wasted paper at worst, the consequence for failed protein folding can be death.

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The false controversy of GMO safety

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It’s difficult to imagine a future in which people don’t question scientific findings. For the most part, this skepticism is a good thing: it spurs debate, fosters discussion between the public and the scientific community, and ultimately increases public understanding of science. But when these inquiries are based on ideological judgments or fear, as is the case with the widespread apprehension about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), both scientists and science communicators must carefully craft public statements to prevent dangerous misinterpretations.

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Science costs money: Fighting for publicly funded research

After eight years of higher education, it had never occurred to me that I had the right to speak with my representatives. I voted in every election, but that’s as far as I thought to take my involvement in politics. It wasn’t that I was indifferent. I felt strongly about political issues, especially improving the dismal outlook for publicly funded scientific research. But meeting with lawmakers, in my mind, was reserved for important people in expensive suits with briefcases full of important documents—or cash.

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The curious case of cubane

Image Credit: NEUROtiker (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Image Credit: NEUROtiker (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Cubane was never supposed to exist. Deemed impossible to synthesize due to predictions that it would be extremely unstable, hypotheses about cubane’s strange properties were long confined to the realm of speculation. But in the early 1960s, researchers Philip Eaton and Thomas Cole at the University of Chicago made the risky decision to attempt the synthesis—and they succeeded.1,2 Half a century later, the researchers’ reports describing how to trap the capricious compound continue to spawn new discoveries, many of which they could never have anticipated.

Early predictions of cubane’s tremendous instability and unique properties alike stemmed from its shape. The bonds between the carbon atoms that represent each corner of the cube are all separated by just 90 degrees, far from the ideal 109.5 degrees. Forcing the carbon atoms into this immensely strained geometry shouldn’t be impossible per se, but it should be about as difficult as bending a cast iron skillet with your bare hands. If the challenge of coercing the atoms into such a strained shape alone didn’t lead early investigators to consider cubane’s synthesis impossible, the likely instability of the product would probably have discouraged them. If a substance decomposes before anything can be done with it, potentially causing a dangerous explosion in the process, why even attempt to make it?

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