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Ig Nobel 2006 prize for Chemistry announced

The 2006 Ig Noble prize for chemistry has been announced and was awarded to Spanish researchers Antonio Mulet, José Javier Benedito and José Bon (University of Valencia), and Carmen Rosselló (University of Illes Balears), for their outstanding research: "Ultrasonic Velocity in Cheddar Cheese as Affected by Temperature." published in the Journal of Food Science.1

The Ig Noble prizes are administered by the publishers of the Annals of Improbable Research magazine. It's not always clear to me that the Chemistry Ig Noble prizes seem more related to other areas, and some non-chemistry prizes look as though the work was chemical, but never mind. For the record, here are a few of the more recent awards.

2005

Edward Cussler and Brian Gettelfinger (University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin), for their work that finally settled the longstanding scientific question: can people swim faster in syrup or in water? See "Will Humans Swim Faster or Slower in Syrup?".2

2004

The Coca-Cola Company of Great Britain, for using advanced technology to convert ordinary tap water into Dasani, a transparent form of water, which for "precautionary reasons" was withdrawn form the market in the UK (it seems the Dasani contained the carcinogenic bromate - the UK Food Standards Agency advice was that while Dasani contained illegal levels of bromate, it did not present an immediate risk to the public). See various press stories including:

  1. The Telegraph
  2. The Guardian

2003

Yukio Hirose of Kanazawa University in Japan, for his chemical investigation of a bronze statue in the city of Kanazawa that fails to attract pigeons.

2002

Theodore Gray of Wolfram Research (Champaign, Illinois, USA) for gathering elements of the periodic table and assembling them into a periodic table table.

Nobel Chemistry Prize 2006

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2006 to Prof Roger D. Kornberg of Stanford University (Stanford, CA, USA) "for his studies of the molecular basis of eukaryotic transcription".

In order for our bodies to make use of the information stored in the genes, a copy must first be made and transferred to the outer parts of the cells. There it is used as an instruction for protein production – it is the proteins that in their turn actually construct the organism and its function. The copying process is called transcription. Roger Kornberg was the first to create an actual picture of how transcription works at a molecular level in the important group of organisms called eukaryotes (organisms whose cells have a well-defined nucleus). Mammals like ourselves are included in this group, as is ordinary yeast.

Transcription is necessary for all life. This makes the detailed description of the mechanism that Roger Kornberg provides exactly the kind of "most important chemical discovery" referred to by Alfred Nobel in his will.

If transcription stops, genetic information is no longer trans ferred into the different parts of the body. Since these are then no longer renewed, the organism dies within a few days. This is what happens in cases of poisoning by certain toadstools, like the death cap, since the toxin stops the transcription process. Understanding of how transcription works also has a fundamental medical importance. Disturbances in the transcription process are involved in many human illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and various kinds of inflammation.

The capacity of stem cells to develop into different types of specific cells with well-defined functions in different organs, is also linked to how the transcription is regulated. Understanding more about the transcription process is therefore important for the development of different therapeutic applications of stem cells.

Forty-seven years ago, the then twelve-year-old Roger Kornberg came to Stockholm to see his father, Arthur Kornberg, receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1959) for his studies of how genetic information is transferred from one DNA-molecule to another. Kornberg senior had described how genetic information is transferred from a mother cell to its daughters. What Roger Kornberg himself has now done is to describe how the genetic information is copied from DNA into what is called messenger-RNA. The messenger-RNA carries the information out of the cell nucleus so that it can be used to construct the proteins.

Kornberg's contribution has culminated in his creation of detailed crystallographic pictures describing the transcription apparatus in full action in a eukaryotic cell. In his pictures (all of them created since 2000) we can see the new RNA-strand gradually developing, as well as the role of several other molecules necessary for the transcription process. The pictures are so detailed that separate atoms can be distinguished and this makes it possible to understand the mechanisms of transcription and how it is regulated.

New Periodic Table book by Eric Scerri

It's great to see a new book about the periodic table and this one is written by Eric Scerri, a world authority on the periodic table! Dr. Eric Scerri is a leading philosopher of science specializing in the history and philosophy of the periodic table. He is also the founder and editor in chief of the international journal Foundations of Chemistry and is a full-time lecturer at UCLA where he regularly teaches classes of 350 chemistry students as well as classes in history and philosophy of science. You can buy this book from our WebElements Amazon Store or our WebElements Amazon UK Store.

The Periodic Table: Its Story and Its Significance

The periodic table is one of the most potent icons in science. It lies at the core of chemistry and embodies the most fundamental principles of the field. The one definitive text on the development of the periodic table by van Spronsen (1969), has been out of print for a considerable time. The present book provides a successor to van Spronsen, but goes further in giving an evaluation of the extent to which modern physics has, or has not, explained the periodic system. The book is written in a lively style to appeal to experts and interested lay-persons alike.

The Periodic Table begins with an overview of the importance of the periodic table and of the elements and it examines the manner in which the term 'element' has been interpreted by chemists and philosophers. The book then turns to a systematic account of the early developments that led to the classification of the elements including the work of Lavoisier, Boyle and Dalton and Cannizzaro. The precursors to the periodic system, like Döbereiner and Gmelin, are discussed. In chapter 3 the discovery of the periodic system by six independent scientists is examined in detail.

Two chapters are devoted to the discoveries of Mendeleev, the leading discoverer, including his predictions of new elements and his accommodation of already existing elements. Chapters 6 and 7 consider the impact of physics including the discoveries of radioactivity and isotopy and successive theories of the electron including Bohr's quantum theoretical approach. Chapter 8 discusses the response to the new physical theories by chemists such as Lewis and Bury who were able to draw on detailed chemical knowledge to correct some of the early electronic configurations published by Bohr and others.

Chapter 9 provides a critical analysis of the extent to which modern quantum mechanics is, or is not, able to explain the periodic system from first principles. Finally, chapter 10 considers the way that the elements evolved following the Big Bang and in the interior of stars. The book closes with an examination of further chemical aspects including lesser known trends within the periodic system such as the knight's move relationship and secondary periodicity, as well at attempts to explain such trends.

University of Reading in the UK to close Physics Department

The Institute of Physics announced its regret at the decision of the University of Reading to close its Physics Department. The Institute of Physics science director, Peter Main said, on learning of the impending closure of the 33-strong department, “University vice-chancellors are operating in an environment that is controlled by the choices of seventeen-year old students. Funding follows student numbers and so the future of Britain’s science base rests on the university choices of sixth-formers. In addition, laboratory-based subjects are not adequately funded. This is a clear example of market failure. The government has to realise that its aspirations for science, set out in the chancellor’s “Next steps” programme following the March budget, will not happen unless they look again at how university departments are funded; the current model disadvantages laboratory-based subjects, especially physics”.

Robert Kirby-Harris, the Institute’s chief executive, commented, “Contrary to many reports, physics is not a declining discipline; undergraduate numbers have increased over the last few years - although not in line with the overall increase in university student numbers. Measures are in place to try to increase further student numbers and there is some evidence that they are starting to work - closing a department now would seem to be short-sighted and sends out the wrong messages”.

“Most importantly, the skills of physicists are crucial to research in disciplines as important as health sciences, environmental research and energy”, he went on, “There are universities without a physics department that have many physicists teaching and doing research. If physics departments close who will train the next generation of these vital researchers?”

This follows the University of Newcastle's closure of Physics a couple of years ago, and a number of high profile decisions to close Chemistry Departments in the UK in recent years. It is not clear what the UK's policy is on university science. In a nutshell, Professor Main is saying that despite the fact that the UK needs scientists, university funding follows the whim of school pupils, and how can that be right?

The Institute of Physics is one of the organisations that is working with the Higher Education Funding Council for England on ways to increase physics uptake. The funding council is said to be exploring with a group of universities in the South East of England, including Reading, how to make physics more sustainable.

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Manganese blocks hydrogen sulphide in water systems

Trace amounts of manganese is essential to human health. Now, a team of scientists from the University of Delaware, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the University of Hawaii, and Oregon Health and Science University has found that a dissolved form of manganese, Mn(III), is important in waterways such as the Black Sea and Chesapeake Bay. It can keep toxic hydrogen sulfide (sulphide) zones in check.1

The research is based on research conducted in 2003 that explored the chemistry of the Black Sea. Nearly 90% of the mile-deep system is a no-oxygen "dead zone," containing large amounts of naturally produced hydrogen sulfide (sulphide), which is lethal to most marine life. Only specialized microbes can survive in this underwater region.

Above this "dead zone" in the Black Sea lies another aquatic layer, the "suboxic zone,". This has both minimal amounts of oxygen and minimal amounts of hydrogen sulfide. This layer may be up to 40 metres (130 feet) deep in the Black Sea, but only 4 metres (13 feet) deep in the Chesapeake Bay.

The research team found that a chemical form of dissolved manganese, Mn(III), can maintain the existence of the suboxic zone by reacting as a reductant with oxygen and as an oxidant with hydrogen sulfide, preventing deadly hydrogen sulfide from reaching the surface layer of water, which is where most fish, algae and microscopic plants live. The scientists used an electrochemical analyzer to locate and map the chemistry of the suboxic zone in real time under changing salinity, temperature and depth.

The finding is surprising, George Luther (Delaware) said, because dissolved manganese as Mn(III) was assumed not to form in the environment and thus was largely ignored by scientists. The research team conclude that "Manganese in natural oxygen-poor waters can persist in a +3 oxidation state, a state previously seen only in the lab, necessitating a major revision of the current understanding of manganese aqueous geochemistry".

"Now we've learned that this form of dissolved manganese [Mn(III)] can constitute almost all the dissolved manganese in suboxic water columns and can react with hydrogen sulfide and other compounds that only solid manganese(IV) phases were thought to be doing," Luther noted. "It is also more reactive than the solid phases."

"Our research shows that the impact of dissolved manganese(III) is significant in any aquatic environment, including lakes, plus sediments on the seafloor and soils on land," Luther said. "And for the public who live near the water, dissolved manganese(III) actually helps prevent naturally occurring hydrogen sulfide from getting to the surface, so it prevents both fish kills and the foul odours from this compound's telltale 'rotten egg' smell."

Record ozone loss over South Pole

OzoneOzoneOzone measurements made by the European Space Agency Envisat satellite reveal the ozone loss of 40 million tons by 2 October in 2006 and that this exceeds the record ozone loss of about 39 million tons for the whole of 2000. The size of this year's ozone hole is 28 million square km.

The Ozone layer is a protective layer found about 25 kilometres above us mostly in the stratospheric stratum of the atmosphere that acts as a sunlight filter shielding life on Earth from harmful ultraviolet rays. Over the last few years the effective thickness of the ozone layer declined, increasing the risk of skin cancers, cataracts and harm to marine life. The thinning of the ozone layer is caused by the presence of pollutants in the atmosphere originating from, for instance, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which have still not vanished from the air although banned under the 1987 Montreal Protocol.

"Such significant ozone loss requires very low temperatures in the stratosphere combined with sunlight. This year’s extreme loss of ozone can be explained by the temperatures above Antarctica reaching the lowest recorded in the area since 1979," European Space Agency Atmospheric Engineer Claus Zehner said.

Background Information

Ozone (O3) is another allotrope of oxygen. It is bent with a O-O-O angle of about 123° It is formed from electrical discharges or ultraviolet light acting on O2. It is an important component of the atmosphere (in total amounting to the equivalent of a layer about 3 mm thick at ordinary pressures and temperatures) which is vital in preventing harmful ultraviolet rays of the sun from reaching the earth's surface. Aerosols in the atmosphere have a detrimental effect on the ozone layer. Large holes in the ozone layer are forming over the polar regions and these are increasing in size annually. Paradoxically, ozone is toxic! Undiluted ozone is bluish in colour. Liquid ozone is bluish-black, and solid ozone is violet-black.

For chemical robots

IUPAC Name: ozone
Canonical SMILES: [O-][O+]=O
InChI: InChI=1/O3/c1-3-2

New form of carbon dioxide: amorphous

Only carbon from the Group 14 elements forms stable double bonds with oxygen under normal conditions. When frozen, carbon dioxide is known as "dry-ice". A non-molecular single-bonded crystalline form of carbon dioxide (phase V) exists at high pressure according to Italian and French researchers.1

Amorphous forms of silica (a-SiO2) and germania (a-GeO2) are known at ambient conditions but only recently has an amorphous, silica-like form of carbon dioxide, a-CO2. This is labelled a-carbonia and made by compression of CO2 at room temperature at pressures between 40 and 48 GPa (that's a staggering 400-500 thousand atmospheres).

During this compression, infrared spectra at temperatures up to 680 K show the progressive formation of C–O single bonds and the simultaneous disappearance of all infrared bands associated with molecular CO2. Raman and synchrotron X-ray diffraction measurements confirm the amorphous character of the CO2. Vibrational and diffraction data for a-SiO2 and a-GeO2 are closely related and calculations also suggest shows that a-CO2 is structurally homologous to a-silica (a-SiO2) and a-germania (a-GeO2).

This research helps to understanding the nature of the interiors of gas-giant planets where carbon dioxide may be squeezed at very high pressures. Maybe it could be used to make very hard glass because it is expected to be very stiff rather like diamond. The researchers ponder whether "small amounts of these new glasses could be of interest for technology applications like hard and resistant coatings for micro-electronics, for example."

Royal Society gives access to 340 years of landmark science

The complete archive of the Royal Society journals, including some of the most significant scientific papers ever published since 1665, is to be made freely available electronically for the first time until 2007.

The archive contains seminal research papers including accounts of Michael Faraday's groundbreaking series of electrical experiments, Isaac Newton's invention of the reflecting telescope, and the first research paper published by Stephen Hawking.

The Society's online collection, which until now only extended back to 1997, contains every paper published in the Royal Society journals from the first ever peer-reviewed scientific journal, Philosophical Transactions in 1665, to the most recent addition, Interface.

You can register for free. So now, for a time at least, you can read free of charge some extraordinary historical documents. Here are a few examples:

  • On the Constitution of the Atmosphere by John Dalton
  • On the Action of Radium Emanations on Diamond by William Crookes
  • The Separation of the Most Volatile Gases from Air without Liquefaction by James Dewar
  • On the Compressibilities of Oxygen, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, and Carbonic Oxide between One Atmosphere and Half an Atmosphere of Pressure, and on the Atomic Weights of the Elements Concerned.--Preliminary Notice by Lord Rayleigh

Note: this facility seems to have been withdrawn?

Go to work on a terbium nitride buckyegg

BuckyEggBuckyEggAn egg-shaped fullerene, or "buckyball egg" has been made and characterized by chemists in America at UC Davis (California), Virginia Tech, and Emory and Henry College in Virginia. They were trying to encapsulate terbium atoms within fullerenes but instead encapsulated terbium nitride within an egg-shaped fullerene.1

The compound Tb3N@C84 was synthesized using an arc-discharge generator by vaporizing composite graphite rods containing a mixture of Tb4O7, graphite, and iron nitride as catalyst in a low-pressure He/N2atmosphere. This gave a complex mixture of products and chromatography gave seven terbium-containing fractions, the fourth fraction of which contained two isomers of Tb3N@C84. Crystallographc studies show the compound from one angle in particular seems very egg shaped! Remarkable! The Tb3N unit is clearly visible (terbium in green and nitrogen in blue).

Until the publication of this work it was normally accepted that no two pentagons can touch in a fullerene and are always surrounded by hexagons. However in this case there are two pentagons (the 8 atoms at the pointy part of the egg at the top of the attached image) linked as a bent pentalene fragment.

China aims to extend the periodic table

China is expecting to complete work on the Heavy Ion Research Facility in Lanzhou (HIRFL) - Cooler Storage Ring (CSR) soon. Its director, Zhan Wenlong, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said "our target is to form new heavy elements and expand the Periodic Table" and "the building of large science facilities demonstrates not only our specific technological know-how, but also the prowess of our basic research".

The HIRFL-CSR, with a state investment of about 300 million yuan (37.5 U.S. dollars), includes a main ring, experimental ring, a radioactive separator and experimental detectors. "The building of large science facilities demonstrates not only our specific technological know-how, but also the prowess of our basic research," Zhan said. Chinese science strategists decided to build the HIRFL in the mid 1980s. The facility, which was put into operation in December 1988, was awarded the top national prize for technological advancement in 1992.

The CSR is the latest upgrade of the HIRFL, which has helped Chinese scientists to form two new heavy-nuclear elements.

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