Countdown to the 2015/16 Chemistry World science communication competition

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 24 November, 2015 - 11:44

Steve Cross, science stand-up and workshop leader for the upcoming Chemistry World science communication competition writes about what he looks for in a great communicator.

I’ve been in science communication full-time for 14 years, and I’ve seen hundreds of science performances at Science Showoff and Bright Club over the last few years. The ones that have really impressed me have always had some things in common.

Steve CrossI’m really interested in honest science. Don’t just tell us something’s great and expect us to go along with you. Don’t just say this research might make all of our lives amazing (without telling us how likely that is!). Instead take us underneath the surface. Help us to see people and stories and places and where this science has come from. Bring it to life so that it has the kind of powerful narrative and great characters of our favourite TV shows, instead of creating something that just sounds like the exhortations to buy stuff that go between them. Don’t tell us how interesting this science is, because we’re savvy 21st-century media consumers and we won’t believe you. Instead show us things that make us decide for ourselves that what you care about really matters.

When it comes to seeing you talk about science in person or on tape I really want to connect with you. You can get along with hiding a lot of emotion when writing but as soon as I’m seeing you talk I need to feel like this is something you’ve chosen to talk about, and something you’ve decided that I personally need to hear. Don’t forget who your audience is (I for one don’t have a PhD in high-energy physics, so please don’t assume that I do!), and even more importantly don’t forget who you are. You could have talked about any one of millions of pieces of research. So why did you choose this?

Steve Cross is a public engagement consultant, stand-up comedian and Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow. He runs Science Showoff and travels around the world making experts funny.

If you are passionate about science and science communication, the 2015/16 Chemistry World science communication competition on the topic of public attitudes to chemistry offers a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate your skill, win £500 and be published in Chemistry World.

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Categories: Education

Chemistry in confinement

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 13 November, 2015 - 10:44

Guest post by Heather Cassell

In general, labs are large, light and airy places, filled with racks of consumables, glinting glassware that reflects and enhances the light, large bits of kit that you use in your day to day experiments, and – most of the time – other people. But occasionally (or quite frequently, depending on the nature of your project) your work requires you to visit a piece of rarefied, specialist equipment that lives in a room all of its own.

© OJO Images Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

There are many reasons why kit may be placed in solitary confinement. There are the large, sensitive and fabulously expensive devices that necessitate careful handling. There are those that require the use of light sensitive reagents, or are themselves light sensitive, and exist in state of permanent darkness. Others are separated from the main lab for researchers’ own health and safety.

As with any specialist equipment, the first step when is to get the proper training. If it’s not a device you’ve known since your first day in an undergraduate lab, it’s very bad form to just go in and start pressing buttons and hope for the best. Having the proper training will provide you with all the health and safety information you need, helping you to understand why this particular bit of kit was isolated in the first place. This is particularly important as you often work in these labs on your own, and will need to know what to do if something goes wrong.

Specialised and rare as they are, these bits of kit are often in high demand. A particularly popular device may be booked well in advance, forcing you to plan your experiment around its availability. There may be time restrictions on busy machines to allow everyone a fair turn during the day, and woe betide anyone who over runs over their allotted time or commits the cardinal sin of failing to use the booking sheet, for they will feel the passive-aggressive wrath  of the other users. Longer experiments may need to be run outside peak hours, such as very early in the morning or late at night. This can be very lonely and time can easily disappear; you realise you’ve been sat in this small dark room for hours without moving with only the screen/display/machine for light, repeating the same song in your head until time has little meaning.

After you have run your experiment, you emerge, blinking, from the darkened room with either a fistful of results to analyse, or a huge sense of disappointment. Science may be built on failed experiments and inexplicable results, but those hours can still feel wasted, and it takes human company and a cup of tea – or if it’s late a good night’s sleep – to put everything into perspective. Then you regroup, book yourself into the next available slot and you are ready for the next challenge of working in the lab.

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Categories: Education

Happy Halloween! Time to carve the cucurbiturils…

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 30 October, 2015 - 16:00

Guest post from Tom Branson

It’s that time of year again, when all things creepy come out to play. Witches, monsters and of course the grinning pumpkins will be out and about. The humble pumpkin has found itself increasingly popular with artists wishing to outdo each other with their carving skills, but pumpkins have also found a home amongst equally competitive chemists shaping their constructions.

If you’re beginning to think I’ve been hit with a confusion spell then never fear, I’m simply referring to the modest cucurbituril. This molecule gets its name from the term for the pumpkin family. There’s apparently a resemblance between the ribs of the pumpkin and the bonds of the macromolecule. But this similarity is nowhere better shown than in the Halloween themed cover of the latest edition of Chemical Science.

This cover brings us into the darkness of a pumpkin-scientist’s den, light spilling through carved features illuminating the creations within. Looming large on the desk is a ghastly pumpkin, smiling whilst xenon bats flitter in and out of its gaping mouth. The desk is also littered with smaller cucurbiturils and a structure half way through its transmogrification into a fully-fledged pumpkin-xenon-bat-exchanger-thing. On the left side stands an old cage and a bat confined within. A dusty spider’s web blocks the exit, which is also being guarded nearby by acryptophaneunwilling to release its hostage.

The scientist’s intriguing plans lie open on the desk stating the diabolical aims of the pumpkin experiments using NMR and saturation transfer spectroscopy. I’m sure we could dive deeper into these intentions if we can get our hands on that USB stick with its 16 cucurBIT memory. For me, it’s these finishing touches that really make the difference, the attention to detail adding to the tongue-in-cheek appeal of this cover. The combination of molecular structures, scientific data and metaphorical bats combine brilliantly to bring this image to life.

Leif Schröder provides the brains behind this creation, with the study being performed in his lab at the Leibniz-Institut fur Molekulare Pharmakologie in Berlin. Schröder told me that after realising that their article would be published around Halloween he couldn’t resist the pumpkin connection. He collaborated with Barth van Rossum, also from the same institute, and it was his visualisation skills that brought the cover to life. The pair has previously combined this year to produce a wealth of other captivating cryptophane covers.

These ‘pumpkin’ molecules are very promising for use in signal amplification of xenon MRI. Xe cucurbituril complexes are poorly soluble in water and so in order to investigate this system Schroder developed the Hyper-CEST technique, combining hyperpolarised Xe with chemical exchange saturation transfer. Cucurbituril offered a 100-fold improvement in sensitivity when compared with the previous favourite, cryptophane.

I can add this timely Halloween cover to the same category as the champagne and fireworks we saw for Angewandte Chemie’s 125th birthday, but I am yet to confirm a scientific sighting of the Easter bunny. So that leaves me with thoughts of what could be next for the chemical holiday celebrations. Will we see an α‑cyclodextrin become a snowflake this winter? Or after the recent buckyball patisseries can we expect a C60 snowman? If any of you out there have spotted other seasonal cover images then please share them here in the comments.

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Categories: Education

October 2015: Communication is key

Royal Society R.Science - 30 October, 2015 - 09:53

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Super luck

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 22 October, 2015 - 16:30

Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Some people are said to be luckier than others, but can the same lucky chance happen twice, to the same person? Harry Coover was a serial inventor, patenting more than 460 inventions in his 94-year life, but his most famous product was discovered by accident.

— Superglue in use (©iStock)

In 1951, whilst trying to come up with a heat resistant polymer to make jet canopies from, Harry Coover and Fred Joyner accidentally created a substance that glued two refractometer prisms together with an obstinacy not to be resisted. Joyner began to panic – the prisms were very expensive – but Coover did not: he had seen this reaction before. He had made it.

During the second world war , Coover had been a practising scientist developing clear plastic gun sights. One group of materials he tested were the cyanoacrylates, because they were transparent, but they had proved far too sticky. At the time, Coover had abandoned the persistently sticky cyanoacrylates, but as he said himself, ‘serendipity [gave him] a second chance.’ Knowing chance was unlikely to strike a third time, Coover immediately began investigating the cyanoacrylates – by rushing round the laboratory sticking together everything he could find. Although he probably destroyed a lot of laboratory equipment, he did learn some interesting things about the properties of this ‘super’ glue.

The exothermic process which creates the powerful chemical bonds between materials was a polymerisation reaction, initiated by moisture and, in particular, hydroxide ions. The resultant polymer bonds firmly to the surfaces and to itself, forming a hard, transparent plastic. Cyanoacrylates are so sensitive to moisture that the moisture in the air is enough to make it set hard, and this is why tubes of glue slowly harden, becoming unusable approximately one month after being opened. Under airtight conditions, however, such as an unopened tube or tube left over silica drying beads, superglue stays sticky for a whole year.

Not everything has moisture in it, so not everything bonds to superglue, but most materials do – and when they do the strengths of the chemical bonds are incredible: one radio station who decided to put the product to the test were able to lift a car by using a small area of superglue to attach it to a crane. But tough as it is, it’s not chemically impervious – if you do need to unstick superglue, use acetone (nail varnish remover); acetone depolymerises the superglue, weakening the bond.

Harry Coover also discovered that cyanoacrylate was non-toxic and apparently harmless to humans. This led to another profound discovery: since we naturally have moisture in our bodies, the glue efficiently binds human tissues together. Only a few years after it was patented, superglue was used as an emergency medical spray in the Vietnam War to hold together wounds before soldiers could reach a hospital to receive stitches. It was brought onto the market in 1958.

Only the smallest amount needs to be used, which is in itself lucky, since the exothermic reaction can even cause small burns or ignite cotton wool if used in excess. Medical applications of superglue persist, and new uses have been discovered, such as forensic definition of fingerprints, where fumes of superglue react with the moisture left by fingerprints to produce visible, white prints on surfaces.

It’s hard to say whether Harry Coover’s inventive methods would have inevitably led him back round to cyanoacrylates, or whether luck really did strike the same man twice. A sticky problem.

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Categories: Education

Countdown to the 2015 chemistry Nobel

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 2 October, 2015 - 14:50

Next week Göran Hansson, Permanent Secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, will sit in the academy’s session hall, festooned with lavish paintings of former members such as Carl Linnaeus and Anders Celsius, to announce the 2015 chemistry Nobel prize.

No one knows what the Nobel committee have been discussing in the lead up to this year’s announcement, but we can offer you a peek behind the curtain to see how they think in our exclusive interview series with Bengt Norden, a former chair of the Nobel chemistry committee.

Speculation on the Nobel prize is hotting up…

In the meantime, the predictions for this year’s prize have already begun in earnest. Thomson Reuters have again cast their analytical eye over research citations in the past year to produce their three best educated guesses.

In what is sure to be one of the more popular choices, they’ve recognised John Goodenough and Stanley Whittingham for their development of the lithium–ion battery. It’s a sentiment shared by many on twitter and ChemBark blogger Paul Bracher, who made a convincing case on last night’s ACS #chemnobel predictions webinar that recognition for Goodenough is long overdue. If you want to find out more about Goodenough’s illustrious research career, have a read of our profile on the battery pioneer.

Thomson Reuters also declared Carolyn Bertozzi as a 2015 citation laureate for her contributions to bioorthogonal chemistry.  But the one that will likely cause some febrile discussion is Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna for their controversial gene editing technique, CRISPR–Cas9.

Some online commentators agree that Charpentier and Doudna should be awarded a Nobel, with Sam Lord, the Everyday Scientist, pitching his flag somewhat tentatively in the CRISPR camp. If the comments section is anything to go by, however, he may already be regretting his proclamation and acknowledges that their work may be supplanted by other techniques in as little as six months.

Others have taken a more playful approach in their prophesying, with several researchers at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, delivering a defence of their picks to an audience of high school students. The pupils eventually voted for Peter Schultz and his work on the genetic code.

If you want to peer into the Nobel crystal ball and perhaps chip in with your own thoughts, check out #chemnobel on twitter. Or, if you want to back up your pick with some historical context, why not play with C&EN’s infographic that explores which research areas have dominated over the prizes’ history?

In any case, we’ll be keeping you up to date with a live blog next Wednesday when the winners will be announced, so keep a look out on the Chemistry World website.


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Categories: Education

September 2015 : Back to school

Royal Society R.Science - 30 September, 2015 - 16:07

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ISACS17 poster prize winner: Tom Jellicoe

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 24 September, 2015 - 14:26

Chemistry World was thrilled to sponsor a poster prize at ISACS17 (Challenges in Chemical Renewable Energy), held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, earlier this month. PhD student Tom Jellicoe from the University of Cambridge, UK, was the winner with his poster titled: Solar photon multiplication through singlet fission down-conversion.

— Tom Jellicoe

Tom explains his work:

‘My research looks at charge carrier multiplication in nanocrystal-based photovoltaics – the idea that from one incoming photon you can extract more than one charge carrier pair, generating additional current from high energy light in the solar spectrum that would usually be lost as heat. This is important because conventional solar cells are approaching a fundamental efficiency limit of around 33% known as the Shockley-Queisser limit. One of the largest sources of loss is due to thermalisation of charge-carriers – when a solar cell operates all charge carriers are extracted at the same energy so you extract the same amount of energy from high energy light as low energy light and the excess is lost as heat. The aim of our research is to use the excess energy to generate additional current via a process called singlet fission. We aim to make it generally applicable to state-of-the-art silicon photovoltaics by optically coupling the singlet fission process to the solar cell through luminescent quantum dots. My role is to synthesise the quantum dots which convert the excitations generated from singlet fission into a useable form for the solar cell.

As Daniel Nocera said during the panel discussion at ISACS17, energy researchers need to know what price they are up against and create chemistry cheap enough to compete. For a number of years a lot of photovoltaic research has looked at novel semiconductors such as organics or quantum dots but with the price of silicon photovoltaics dropping and the efficiency increasing it is unlikely that the emerging technologies can complete. Our attitude is “if you can’t beat them join them” and that’s why we hope to apply our down-conversion process to existing technologies and from our calculations it could improve their power output by up to 20%.’

Congratulations to Tom on his great poster.


Submit a poster abstract for ISACS19 (Challenges in organic chemistry), to be held in Irvine, US, in March 2016, here:

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Categories: Education

Quotable Chemistry – the winners!

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 18 September, 2015 - 13:22

Academic chemists are forever quoting one another. Whether word-for-word or paraphrased, journal papers are rich in (properly referenced) quotes from other people’s work, so much so that to be oft quoted (and therefore frequently referenced) is one measure by which we determine a scientist’s value. But not all good chemistry quotes come from ‘the literature’ – quotable chemistry can be found in the well-thumbed pages of textbooks, from behind the lectern at public lectures, in biographies of famous figures and of course, from the vast world of fiction.

Here at Chemistry World we love a good, pithy quote. We sprinkle them into our news, embolden and enlarge them in our features, and use sound bites from our podcast interviews to tempt you to tune in.

What about your favourite chemistry quotations?  We teamed up with the volunteers at the Wikiquote project to help get them the exposure they deserve. To this end we invited our readers to send in their best examples of quotable chemistry, and we are delighted to  announce our favourites from the hundreds that we received.


Suggested by: Tyler Meldrum, Williamsburg, Virginia

Tyler wins the top prize of £50 Amazon vouchers for suggesting this quote from the first in the series of Flavia de Luce mystery novels by Alan Bradley. I’m sure the metaphor will not be lost on many chemists, whose work Bradley likens to the hard graft of tending vines. Experimental chemistry takes planning, patience and a willingness to nurture experiments, putting in the hours with the ever present risk of the crop failing and coming to nothing.

Tyler adds ‘if you haven’t read these books, you should. Flavia is an 11-year-old chemist (speciality: poisons) who helps solve mysteries. She brings charm and sass to chemistry.’


2nd place:

Suggested by: Andres Tretiakov, London

Andres wins the second prize of £25 Amazon vouchers for this quote, another harvested from the world of fiction. Written in 1880, this quote stems from a passage on ‘losing God’ to the new understanding of science, an examination of the tensions between science and church in the late nineteenth century.


Runners up, each receiving a Chemistry World mug:

Suggested by: Jessica Gilgor, Reno, Nevada

Many of the quotes we received were from biographies of famous chemists. This one is from the life story of Ira Remsen, who sweetened our lives as the co-discoverer of saccharin. It’s a call to arms that Jessica Gilgor clearly took seriously:

Jessica said ‘I’m glad you liked the quote as much as I did…..I actually have it tattooed on my arm. … I got it in December 2012 to celebrate my graduation from the University of Nevada Reno with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Chemistry.’

Suggested by: Nessa Carson, Illinois

Harry Kroto, who shared the chemistry Nobel prize in 1996 with Robert Curl and Richard Smalley for their discovery of buckminsterfullerene, is known to be outspoken. But this quote wasn’t him grandstanding or flexing his ego. It was part of a speech he gave in Thailand to accept an honorary Doctoral degree from Naresuan University – his way to encourage future chemists. ‘Whenever you have a project, you start the project’ Harry said ‘and say: “I am going to do something fantastic that no one else could have imagined”.’ It clearly worked for Nessa, who described it as ‘a great inspirational quote that really sums up what research is about for me.’

Suggested by: Valerio Fasano, Manchester

Primo Levi was the source of one of the quotes in our original post to announce the Quotable Chemistry competition, and he’s such an elegant writer that we were not surprised to receive several entries quoting him. This, from Valerio Fasano, was our favourite.

We’ve passed all of the eligible quotes along to the Wikiquote project to consider for inclusion. Congratulations to all our winners and many thanks to everyone who entered for helping us to bring a wider audience to memorable, inspirational, quotable chemistry.

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Categories: Education

August 2015: Holiday Science

Royal Society R.Science - 28 August, 2015 - 12:56

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The romance of carbon monoxide methanation

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 27 August, 2015 - 15:25

Guest post from Tom Branson

Photographs rarely make an appearance on journal covers and for good reason. How exactly are we meant to capture on film a chemical reaction? Well, Catalysis Science and Technology stuck a wonderful example on the cover a recent edition of the journal. So what is their secret to taking a good photo of the goings-on inside a test tube? Well here’s the trick, you don’t.

The cover image is for an article by Tada and Kikuchi from The University of Tokyo and highlights their review on carbon monoxide removal techniques using methanation. But the photo quite simply shows a man and woman in traditional Japanese dress meeting under parasols on a bridge in a park. No molecules, no bonds, no science! But at the bottom of the image they did manage to sneak in some explanation linking their image, albeit vaguely, to actual chemistry. Coincidentally ingeniously the colours of our two protagonists clothing match those of the words CO and H2, but this link is a bit of a stretch.

Nevertheless it’s a beautiful picture of the couple coming together and you can imagine the promiscuity of some chemical reactions being similar to the delicacies of romance. Or that an active metal surface is often the catalyst for love. Or that the bridge leads to CO and to the heart and er, well, as you can see the metaphors are endless…

What makes the picture really special however, is that it is actually a wedding photograph of author Tada and his wife. Taken in Kiyosumi Garden in Tokyo when Tada was in the midst of his PhD, he told me that it is their favourite shot from the day.

The article itself focuses on the different techniques for the improvement of the activity and selectivity of CO methanation, which you obviously already realised from the cover art. They discuss the need to increase the active sites where CO and H2 can adsorb easily (the couple meeting together) and where CO2 cannot adsorb (hidden at the back behind the bushes). This idea highlights the importance of an active surface for bringing together the two components (hence the bridge – it’s all starting to make sense now right, right?)

Whilst this picture is maybe not the most descriptive ever in terms of its scientific value, it was arresting enough to make me stop and enquire more. I believe that’s the role of a journal cover, so I’d say it has done its job there. And, of course, full points to Tada for getting his photo on a scientific journal cover. How many other people can boast that their wedding photographs now have a place in the hallowed halls of academic literature?

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Categories: Education

What does the energy mix look like in 2050?

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 24 August, 2015 - 16:56

On 11 September 2015, Chemistry World will host a panel discussion at the ISACS conference being held in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. The discussion will  explore how chemical renewable energy can fit into the world’s future energy supply.

Panelists include:

If you want to come along, RSVP here:

But if you can’t make it, don’t worry – we’ll be making a video of the best bits. And you can still get involved beforehand – tweet us your questions for the panel with the hashtag #EMix2050, or leave a comment below.


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Categories: Education

WebElements: the periodic table on the WWW []

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