Pesticides, language and ‘Doctor Who’. What are pyrethroids?

Doctor becomes her (images©: BBC)

I’m currently writing my PhD thesis in Catalan —and some percentage in English to get the international mention— when they reveal that the actor who will take the lead role in Doctor Who will be, in fact, an actress. Weirdly enough, both facts are closely related.

If you saw the teaser of my first scientific musical two years ago, you know that pyrethroids are pesticides, that they are less toxic than DDT, organophosphorates and carbamates and that they are used in aquaculture —and that I’m not a professional singer. However, as you never saw the whole show, this video has a Shakespearean feel, much ado about nothing. So today I’m introducing these pesticides that you have been eating all your life and have probably applied to your hair unknowingly.

About a century ago pyrethrins, which were extracted from a plant of the chrysanthemum family, were modified to study how their chemical activity changed. Pyrethroids were created. In the seventies, pyrethroids went from household products to agricultural pesticides and started substituting other pesticides. Pyrethroids were more effective, stable but biodegradable and selectively more toxic to insects than mammals.

But pyrethroids are not only used on the crops. They are used to fight parasites in farms and fish farms, to treat lice or scabies and to control malaria, which is transmitted by mosquitoes. Now go check your home insecticide; it’s bound to have pyrethroids in it.

So why are language and Doctor Who in this article’s title? As I’m writing my thesis in Catalan, I’ve realised my mother tongue does something weird, unusual and against terminology’s best practices. In Catalan pyrethroids are transgender —not to be confused with transgenic. So the English permethrin in an agricultural context will be a male word (permetrín), while in a farmaceutical context it will be female (permetrina). English has feet that smell and noses that run; we’re entitled to our own excentricities. However, only pyrethroids that in English end in -in are transgender, others, e.g. fenvalerate, don’t change.

It bugs me [bugs and pesticides; see what I did there?] that when I talk about the compounds as molecules or when I discuss different applications in my thesis there will be no or both contexts involved. And you can’t go changing pesticides’ gender every other paragraph. It bugs me square that, maybe influenced by Spanish, which makes them always female, in my laboratory we’ve always used them in female form in Catalan. I might have to go back and amend some texts.

Depending on the context, pyrethroids can change gender in Catalan

Which brings us to Doctor Who and the recent announcement of the new Doctor. After 54 years and 13* male incarnations, Doctor becomes her. Sadly enough, myriads of haters (both men and women) find it outrageous that a 2000-year-old alien who changes his body periodically is going to include his genitals in the next change. On the other hand, we’ve never been told what’s down there so, who knows?

Long story short, I write a blog to look modern and fashionable and there’s nothing more modern and fashionable than respecting the gender change of any person, character or pesticide.



* Disclaimer for trolls die-hard fans: I am obviously counting the War Doctor, but not the Metacrisis Doctor as that is a deviation that doesn’t lead to the current incarnation.

Exotic food and Canadian eccentricities

Maybe exotic and eccentric are not words you can use when posting something in English on the Internet as somewhere a reader is bound to be familiar with whatever you describe. Well, humour me.

Let’s start with some food you can see on the supermarket shelves. On the left of the picture you can see polskie ogórki, that is, Polish pickles. This is not a fake caused by my Polish obsession; it’s a real picture. You can see French written on the jar because Canada includes all the languages in the country on their products, unlike, say, Spain [Yes, it’s personal; but it’s also true and against consumer rights]. Back to the picture, we can see pandeleche, which is a condensed version of the Spanish pan de leche, literally ‘milk bread’. There are also Maria biscuits, which are British, despite having written galleta Maria (also Spanish) on them.

The adjective exotic might be hyperbolic, but these come from far away for them

When you’re not in a rush, you take silly pictures

Food aside, on my way to work I saw more things than what I showed in my last post. Two of them deserve the spotlight. The stairs in the underground (which they forced me to call subway) were deadly to me. I firmly believe they are inverted —no hate speech here. I had always seen the tiles in the inner part and the anti-slip rough band at the edge of the steps. Not in Toronto. It took me a couple of weeks to master walking down the stairs safely.

On the other side, the smallest building is a skyscraper. See me taking the lift (which they forced me to call elevator) to go up to my flat (which they forced me to call apartment) on the 24th floor. The height of the buildings was not the issue (nor was being forced to use American words). What bothers me is that the last column has multiples of 4 (28, 24, 20, 16) and three prime numbers (11, 7, 3) without changing the number of buttons per line. Witchcraft? Close enough: superstition. For in Canada it’s highly unlikely to find a 13th floor. I bet your face right now resembles a Canadian socket:

Canadian sockets. Are they surprised or scared?

From the highest tower in Toronto

You might have noticed my absence for a few months. Or not. I was in Toronto performing a scientific study, which is hardly news. And you might be wondering… was it cold? You couldn’t care less about my research.

I asked myself the same question every morning. Luckily, the building in front of my apartment showed the temperature on a humongous light sign straight into my living room. So, before going out, I could decide whether to put on my extreme weather clothes or just a T-shirt with a thin jacket —when it was over 10 °C.

When I landed in Toronto on the 30th of January it wasn’t raining and snow was nowhere to be seen. But the following day everything went white. I started taking pictures, which is quite unusual. I decided to document the changes in the landscape during my three months there. See some of the results below.

My morning walk from February to April

The four first images alternated quite randomly for two months and only by the end of April could I take the last picture.

It was one kilometre from the bus to the laboratory. It never felt like a long walk, except for the day of the freezing rain. Freezing rain is rain that freezes when it touches any surface. Hence the whole floor of Toronto acquired a thin ice layer that was as beautiful as dangerous. See the blades of grass with an ice coating. Trees and urban furniture looked the same.

Subtle note on climate terminology

I guess you feel more like searching for pictures of freezing rain on Google now than reading my ramblings. So here is the link to make your task easier and next time I might explain the title of the post.

Read before publishing: newspaper’s silly mistakes

Every morning on my commute to work, I read Toronto’s edition of the Metro newspaper. Spoiler alert: I am in Toronto. And sometimes they confuse me…

Ok, nobody’s perfect and a mistake here or there is no big deal. But it also depends on the kind of mistake. I am not talking about grammar here. I am talking about those situations that could be solved with somebody reading the text twice. And they don’t always do at Metro Toronto. Here are two examples from last week.

The Queen 501 streetcar will be closed all summer and Metro shows the alternatives to the popular line. However, Metro guys can’t tell a bike, a bus and a helicopter apart. You’d think it’s easy; probably because it is. In the image below you can see that the text about buses (top right) is connected to the bicycle (green line), the joke about taking a helicopter (bottom right) is linked to the bus (yellow line) and a series of dots associate the bikes alternative with a helicopter (bottom centre).

Not the Oscar's mix-up, but still [source: Metro Toronto, 2nd Feb 2017]

Not the Oscar’s mix-up, but still [source: Metro Toronto, 2nd March 2017]

It could be worse, right? They could follow the current trend and offer alternative facts. Take this article about a dog that was attacked by a coyote [left image below]. The left column states that the dog ‘needed close to 60 staples to close his wounds’. Two centimetres from that, the caption of the image reads ‘More than 70 staples were needed’. Even if we accept that sixty-a-few is close to 60, despite knowing that ‘close to’ often equals ‘almost’, how close to 60 is more than 70?

Fortunately, articles don’t always disagree with themselves. Sometimes Metro journalists are so sure about what they write that they write it twice. See the following image on the right, where two paragrafs are repeated for absolutely no reason.

Do they even try? [source: Metro Toronto, (left) 3rd March 2017 and (right) 5th March 2017]

Be it as it may, a very kind Asian guy hands the paper to me for free at the underground station and it keeps me entertained and somewhat informed. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. On the other hand, if you’re going to give a present, you might as well make it nice.

‘Seafood Tango’, a cabaret act about seafood safety

Ladies and gentelmen, this year’s SETAC meeting will bring the 4th edition of their science slam session. And I wouldn’t miss it for the world!

Preparations for the video [photo©: Manuel García]

Preparations for the video [photo©: Manuel García]

SETAC Europe 27th annual meeting is taking place in Brussels next May. If you have read my blog in the last two years, you already know that my favourite session of the SETAC congress is the science slam. If you are new to my humble site, this session allows scientists to present their research in original and unexpected entertaining ways.

I’ve always been of the opinion that science slam is like sex; it’s great to watch, but it feels so much better to participate! That’s why, once more, I’m submitting a video presentation of my new show in order to be selected for this year’s session.

This cabaret-style number is a seafood take on Cell Block Tango from the musical Chicago. It was premiered at the ECsafeSEAFOOD Final Conference three weeks ago, also in Brussels. Now I’m going to share it with a bigger audience —because I didn’t learn to do my make-up for just one day, girl!

The good thing is this time I’m not singing that much. You’re welcome.

(Unofficial) Periodic Table Day

It might not be popular as it’s not an official international day, but today, 7th of February, is periodic table day.

There’s always geeks celebrating whatever they obsess over. The National Periodic Table Day Foundation was created with quite a transparent objective. They chose the 7th of February because on that day John Newlands—who invented the periods of the periodic table—published what they consider the first periodic table ever.

TERMCAT's interactive periodic table [source: TERMCAT]

TERMCAT’s interactive periodic table [source: TERMCAT]

On the home page of their web site, the history of the table is told through the contributions of nine (male) chemists. If you prefer a shorter and lighter version of it, revisit my old ramblings about the periodic table.

The celebration this year is specially relevant as a few months ago the four missing elements of period eight were added to the table with their new official names and symbols. Moreover, I took part in the making of a new interactive and fully up-to-date periodic table published last November, which I am very proud of.

Happy Periodic Table Day!