Nanoparticles came up around here the other day, and now a reader sends along a new paper in the field that’s. . .a bit odd. Maybe more than a bit.
It’s been accepted at ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces, and you have to wonder what the referee reports were like. It’s titled “Earthicle: The Design of a Conceptually New Type of Particle” which is admittedly no stranger than a lot of other chemical titles, but the abstract then goes on for about as long as a blog post – it is, I think, the longest one I’ve ever seen, and it just keeps on scrolling down the page. Fine, you think, this is apparently a paper about multilayered nanoparticles with an iron core, and the authors are drawing an analogy with the layering and composition of the Earth.
But then you start reading the body of the paper, and here’s how that goes:
“As above, so below”, Hermes Trismegistus inscribed on a piece of emerald stone known as Tabula Smaragdina five millennia ago, defining the central motto of alchemists all the world over. Correspondingly, the idea of a direct correlation between microcosmic and macrocosmic relationships inspired the experimentation of chemists before the days of atomistic empiricism to a great extent. Albeit largely neglected in the present times, here we wish to revitalize it. . .
Alchemy. OK, Newton went in for it, as John Maynard Keynes discovered to his consternation when he read a collection of Newton’s papers from his Cambridge years that had been mostly sealed until 1936. But it’s unusual, to say the least, to lead off a materials science paper with a nod to Hermes Trismegistus. The rest of the intro is a bit-odd sounding as well (Kipling gets brought in as well), but then there’s the experimental section and the results section, which are more reassuring. Here are multilayered iron/silicate particle, sure enough, and here’s how you make them and here’s how they behave. Fine. Their physical properties are described, with a good amount of analytical data, and then their effects when different cell lines are exposed to them are shown, in rather detailed fashion.
I did wonder, while reading, why this much trouble was being taken – “What’s the hypothesis here?” was the question in the back of my mind. As it turns out, there isn’t one:
Like most scientific ideas of the present and past, the idea of the earthicle was derived by pure analogy. The path we took to implement this idea contravenes the standard approach in the development of medicinal nanoparticles, which is to define the clinical needs first and then accordingly design the particle structure and properties to address those needs. To that end, reverting the paradigm, we have worked on creating a particulate system based on a fancy idea, anticipating the inevitability of its therapeutic potentials. The future work will explore the latter to a greater detail. For now, we have simply played, believing that imaginative play devoid of purpose is a path to findings of unforeseeable practicality.
“The inevitability of its therapeutic potentials”? I’ve set up some fairly blue-sky experiments in my time, but I never thought that they were inevitably going to lead to something because my starting idea was so neat. The head-scratching intensifies as the paper winds up:
To sum up, here we pioneer the idea of an earthicle, a conceptually novel type of particle, which we see as endlessly modifiable in analogy with the structure of planets or other astral bodies and utilizable in unforeseen applicative contexts. At this point we stand at the earliest beginnings of the development of the idea of the earthicle, having merely conceived it and made a couple of rudimentary steps toward its synthesis. As of now, for example, we have yet to derive conditions under which uniform populations of earthicles in a sample will be obtained. In that sense, there is a stochastic similarity between the formation of earthicles in our three-neck flask reactors and the formation of earth-like planets in the Milky Way and perhaps elsewhere in the Universe, albeit with a greater synthesis efficacy of the former process. The goal of the future work will be to improve the uniformity of the yield, elucidate the physical and biological effects of the fine structural differences at a single particle level and test the capacity of the earthicle to be used as an ultimate drug delivery vehicle – a multimodal, navigable, theranostic “spaceship” for the next generation of nanoscale biodevices.
This is starting to cross over into worrisome territory. Your manuscript should not, as a rule, be hard to distinguish from the work of someone who is beginning to lose their grip on reality. This may be enthusiastic prose, or it may be something else, and that’s the problem with including so many flights of fancy. At the very least, it can give your readers a reason not to take you seriously. I’d be interested in hearing reader reactions: am I overreacting, or not?