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Countdown to the 2015 chemistry Nobel

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 2 October, 2015 - 15:50

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 peak 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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September 2015 : Back to school

Royal Society R.Science - 30 September, 2015 - 17:07

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ISACS17 poster prize winner: Tom Jellicoe

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 24 September, 2015 - 15:26

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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Quotable Chemistry – the winners!

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 18 September, 2015 - 14:22

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 - 13:56

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The romance of carbon monoxide methanation

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 27 August, 2015 - 16:25

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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What does the energy mix look like in 2050?

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 24 August, 2015 - 17:56

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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Largo in a lonely lab

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 4 August, 2015 - 13:58

Guest post by Heather Cassell

Sometimes life in the lab can be a quiet and lonely affair. Isolation can creep in if your experiment requires long and unsociable hours, or you’re using a specialised bit of equipment that lives on its own, or simply when your lab mates are not around. The fact that labs often buzz with the hustle and bustle of science in action makes these contrasting moments all the more stark.


Not that isolation is always a bad thing – if you are working hard and on a project that takes a lot of concentration then it can be a relief to be on your own. Being antisocial can allow you to get on with what you are doing without being disturbed. But if you have gaps in what you are doing – between multiple short incubation times or centrifuge runs, for example – then being on your own can be a drag and the few minutes you need to wait can feel like an age.

So I keep myself busy: I get useful small lab tasks done (with one eye on the clock), begin planning my next experiment, make sure my notebook is up to date. Sometimes it’s possible to simply sit and enjoy the peace and solitude. If you are lucky enough to work in a lab where you can listen to music on either a communal radio or a personal stereo, then this can really help to pass the time, and as you are on your own you can put on any music that you like, as long as it’s not too loud!

But music, communal or otherwise, is not always permitted for perfectly understandable health and safety reasons. I’ve worked in a few labs where we were not allowed radios or personal stereos and for me this is a big problem as I’m really prone to earworms. If you’ve not heard of these, I’m sure you’re familiar with the concept – these are those really annoying tunes, or even just snippets of music, that get stuck in your head. They often appear without rhyme or reason (well, with rhyme, but for no reason), and can loop for days until they eventually vanish of their own accord, often to be replaced by another maddeningly catchy musical motif.

If when I’m waiting for an incubation to end or for a centrifuge to finish running then you can bet that something annoying will pop in my head. Without the presence of other people to keep me in check, it is far too easy to end up singing along (badly) with the music in my mind, and this has led to a few embarrassing moments. Imagine your colleagues catching you singing Christmas carols in June, belting out cheesy 80′s songs, or – worst of all – merrily humming the theme tune to a kids’ TV program (I had Mike the Knight stuck in my head for weeks!).

So if you hear an unexpected musical performance echoing around an otherwise empty lab, perhaps it’s a colleague enjoying a period of solitude. But be warned – earworms are notoriously contagious, so the next time you’re alone, you may find yourself humming along.

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Categories: Education

Bouncing back

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 4 August, 2015 - 13:23

Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Perhaps, if you spend enough time looking, you can find anything. So it was for Charles Goodyear, a would-be inventor who, at the expense of everything else, bounced back after every failure, devoting his life to transforming natural rubber into a commercially useful material. He saw the potential immediately – just not the chemistry.

The rubber in Goodyear’s hands during the early 1830s wasn’t a particularly useful material. It was temperamental: whilst it exhibited promising properties including elasticity, hydrophobicity, adhesiveness and electrical insulation, when it got hot it would melt and turn into a horrible sticky slime, and when it got cold in the chilly English weather it would become brittle and readily crack.

Looking at the structure of rubber, it all makes sense: a natural cis polymer of isoprene, this allowed it to stretch (whereas the trans polymer of isoprene, gutta-percha, is crystalline) and the chains could readily flow past each other, especially when warmed. Equally, when solidified, splits could propagate rapidly and directionally between the chains of polymers. Goodyear put a lot of time and effort into trying to mop up the runny rubber by mixing it with various different dry powders and attempting to reform it into a ball. But it would take chemical rather than physical methods to get this compound to bend to his will.

Rubber was introduced to Europe by Charles Marie de La Condamine in 1736 and named by Joseph Priestley, who first studied it in the UK. Made from latex sap, it is a gooey, milky white colloid containing around 35% polyisoprene molecules and 5% impurities – mostly natural organic impurities like proteins, sugars and fatty acids – and inorganic salts, all suspended in a solution. This colloid is tapped from the Hevea brasilienesis rubber tree by cutting long diagonal strips in the bark and letting it run. Astonishingly, after 3 hours of tapping, a tree produces only enough latex to fill a cup. Eventually the latex coagulates, much like blood clotting over a wound, and is pressed to dry it of excess liquids.

As pressing had worked before, Goodyear was convinced that his rubber just needed to be dried out a little more, and no matter how many times he failed, he bounced back and tried again, much like the rubber he was toying with. One of the drying powders Goodyear used was sulfur. It didn’t work, but he persisted. He persisted so much that he did months of jail time for debt, only to come back out and begin again. He was a man driven by obsession, passionate about a utopian vision of ubiquitous rubber (he may have dreamed of tyres, marigolds and Wellington boots.)

Then, one day, he accidentally dropped his precious sulfur-dried rubber on the stove, filling the air with the horrible eggy reek of burning sulfur. Somehow, Goodyear managed to get the blackened and pungent rubber back off the stove, and to examine what he’d done to it. What he found was exactly what he’d been looking for all these years, what he’d got into debt and gone to prison for – vulcanised rubber. The new vulcanised rubber did neither melt nor crack, was harder wearing and more chemically resistant than its precursor, whilst remaining springy and becoming even more waterproof. He was elated.

Although Goodyear never really understood the structural changes he had made to rubber, its interesting characteristics are today widely appreciated. By creating sulfur crosslinks between the polyisoprene, the rubber essentially becomes one big molecule. When deformed, the sulfur crosslinks make it spring back into shape and stop it from running fluidly in the heat, or interrupt the propagation of cracks, making a tough, energy absorbent material. Hard to break down, the sulfur crosslinks do make rubber hard to recycle and impossible to reshape: light crosslinking allows a compromise between unvulcanised thermoplastic or vulcanised thermosetting properties and other chemical modifiers may be added, as today they often are.

After his years of debt and obsession, Goodyear’s clumsy breakthrough came too late to free him of his financial constraints, and he died in debt in 1860. The ‘Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company’ was founded in 1898, and named in his honour.

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July 2015: Summer Science Exhibition

Royal Society R.Science - 31 July, 2015 - 14:05

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ISACS16 poster prize winner: Oliver Thorn-Seshold

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 24 July, 2015 - 11:33

— Oliver Thorn-Seshold

Chemistry World was delighted to sponsor a poster prize at ISACS16 (Challenges in Chemical Biology), held in Zurich, Switzerland, last month. Oliver Thorn-Seshold was the winner with his poster entitled ‘Photoswitchable inhibitors of microtubule dynamics: Photostatins optically control mitosis and cell death.’

Oliver explains his work:

‘My motivation was to take a shot at curative tumour chemotherapy, based on a mechanism that has not been explored for drugs before – reversibly light-targetable cytotoxins.

The idea is to apply the drug globally in the patient, but activate it locally in the tumour by illuminating the tumour zone with pulses of blue light. Outside the tumour zone, the drug should remain inactive. One could therefore use higher doses than conventionally possible, so therapeutic effectiveness can be improved whilst limiting side effects.

‘It turns out, that photostatins are a great proof-of-concept on the molecular level for this idea! Our initial photostatins can essentially be switched ON and OFF (and /ON/OFF/ON/…) – since the ON state is more than 250 times more toxic than the OFF state: this is about an order of magnitude more powerful than any switchable compounds shown before. We can reversibly toggle between those states inside living cells and tissues just by applying light or not – which is also a new step for the field. So we can set up spatially-defined toxicity – a proof-of-concept for tumour-site-selective therapy.’

Oliver got hooked on classical organic chemistry in high school, deviated into theoretical chemistry and optics during his degree at the University of Sydney in Australia, returned to focus on bioorganic chemistry for his PhD at the University of Lyon in France, then found a home in the Trauner research group at the University of Munich in Germany, where he combined his passion for organic synthesis, logic and modelling, light, and chemical biology, to work on photostatins in his current position as postdoc.

Oliver and his colleagues continue to work on tuning the light response of photostatins, using substituent pattern shifts for small changes as well as designing entirely different response regimes. This is aimed at sophisticated research applications, looking deeper into cell functions than current photostatins can do; and also to develop photostatins that can be controlled by red light in deep tissue settings.

The project itself began in 2012 when Thorn-Seshold ran out of funding for his PhD and couldn’t get an extension to finish it. So together with Gosia Borowiak, who was also finishing her PhD, they submitted cancer-targeting strategies to small funding calls and eventually scraped together three different funds to cover 75 days’ work.

‘We hit many problems, bridging chemistry and biology with optics, but I think having disjointed skills – I hadn’t even seen a cell under a microscope and Gosia’s last time in the chemistry lab was 10 years ago – worked out well, as by really working together we could do something new in chemical biology despite our total inexperience in each other’s fields.’

Thorn-Seshold and his colleagues have now published this research in the journal Cell.


There’s still time to submit a poster abstract for ISACS18 (challenges in organic materials and supramolecular chemistry) to be held in Bangalore, India, in November. Winners will receive £250, a highly sought-after Chemistry World mug and a certificate.

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Categories: Education

Quotable chemistry – a Chemistry World competition

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 9 July, 2015 - 12:15

The history of chemistry is littered with memorable quotes like this, penned by Johann Joachim Becher, in the 1667 work Physica Subterranea. The best quotes are striking sentences or poignant paragraphs that hold fast in the mind, long after their source has faded from memory, snippets and soundbites that encapsulate feeling or opinion.

To celebrate quotable chemistry, we’re launching a competition to find our favourite quotations. Send in humorous or inspiring quotes, along with a reference for where we can find them, and you could win £50 of Amazon vouchers! Second place will win a £25 voucher, and three runners up will each receive a Chemistry World mug.

To make sure your quotes are available to the widest possible audience, we’re working with the Wikiquote project to collect and archive the quotes for posterity. I’m sure you’re familiar with Wikipedia, and Wikiquote is one of a dozen or so projects run along similar lines (freely accessible and reusable content, compiled by volunteers from all around the world) by the Wikimedia Foundation. It’s a compendium of humorous and inspirational quotations by notable people, all checked for veracity and cited back to original sources. And, of course, like Wikipedia, it’s a compendium that anyone can edit.

Wikiquote has a section on chemistry-related material and we, working with the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Wikimedian in residence, Andy Mabbett, are going to expand it – with your help. As well as offering prizes for the best (the funniest; the most poignant) chemistry related quotations; we will share all the entries with the Wikiquote community.

To be in with a chance of winning, simply send us a quotation, plus the name of the author and the source (a web link is fine, as is citation to a journal or book, but please be as precise as possible; giving page numbers, for example). Check first, to make sure your entry isn’t already in Wikiquote!

The full terms and conditions are below, but the most important things to know are:

  • We can only accept entries by email (feel free to tweet your favourite quotes, but they won’t count if they don’t reach our email inbox)
  • Entries must include a quotation and a source suitable for citation
  • To be eligible, entries cannot already be in Wikiquote
  • You must include your name and home county

So send your favourite quotation to for your chance to win!





Chemistry World Wikiquote competition terms and conditions

The competition opens at 12:01pm on 9 July 2015 and closes at 12:01pm on 31 July 2015.

Entries must be submitted by email and include the entrant’s full name and county. Multiple entries can be included in the same email, if they are all from the same entrant.

Entry is open worldwide, but voucher prizes will be offered in Stg£ only.

Entrants under the age of 18 are welcome, but must include written consent from a parent or guardian in their email entry. 

All entries must be notable quotation related to chemistry that are not already listed on Wikiquote, and that have an author, and a source that is suitable for citation.

Quotations will be shared with the Wikiquote community, but suggestion of a quotation does not guarantee inclusion on Wikiquote.

The winner will be the person deemed to have submitted the most entertaining or unusual chemistry quotation as determined by the judges. There will be one top prize, one second prize, and three runners-up prizes.

The winners will be selected by a judging panel including the editor of Chemistry World. The judges’ decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into.

The prizes on offer are one Stg£50 Amazon voucher for first place, one Stg£25 Amazon voucher for second place, and three Chemistry World mugs, of which the runners-up selected will receive one each.

The winners and runners-up will be contacted by email (using the details provided in the winner’s Eligible Entrants entry email). 

The prize winners will be notified that they have won the prize within twenty eight days (28) of the closing date of the competition.

The promoter is the Royal Society of Chemistry a charity registered in England (with number RC000524) and limited company incorporated in England (with number RC207890) located at Thomas Graham House, Science Park, Milton Road, Cambridge, CB4 0WF United Kingdom (Promoter). 

The Promoter is not responsible where applicable for any problems or technical malfunction of any communications network or any late, lost, incorrectly submitted, delayed, ineligible, incomplete, corrupted or misdirected entry whether due to error, transmission interruption or otherwise. The time of entry will be deemed to be the time the entry is received by the Promoter at the designated email account.

If for any reason, including but not limited to technical problems, the competition is not capable of running as planned we reserve the right to cancel the competition.

The names and counties of the winners and runners-up will be published online on the Chemistry World blog, and in other RSC magazines.

Entry details remain the property of the Promoter. Entrants consent to the Promoter using personal information provided in connection with this promotion for the purposes of facilitating the conduct of the promotion and awarding any prizes (including to third parties involved in the promotion, including any applicable statutory authorities).

These terms and conditions shall be governed by English law, and the parties submit to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.


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Categories: Education

Lindau 2015: a noble failure

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 1 July, 2015 - 18:07

As beacons of success in the scientific community, it seems strange that a few Nobel laureates in attendance at Lindau have highlighted the important role failure and frustration play in any scientific endeavour.

Panellists discuss the state of research in Africa and the importance of role models for the younger generation    Credit: Adrian Schröder/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Upon taking to the stage this morning, Steven Chu, 1997 Nobel laureate in physics, described his early career in science as ‘a series of failures’. He discussed how, during his days as a postdoc student, he would become fascinated by a problem, only to quickly move on when spurned in his attempts to answer it.

During his talk on fluorescence microscopy, Eric Betzig, a 2014 laureate in chemistry, openly admitted that he became deeply frustrated with the path his discipline was taking and decided to leave science all together before later arriving back on the scene with a new outlook on scientific inquiry.

In a similar vein, the famed crystallographer, Dan Shechtman, likened his quest to challenge the status quo to that of a cat walking through a gauntlet of German Shepherds.

And yet, they are all here to tread the boards of the Lindau stage. Many have cited perseverance and tenacity as crucial tools in obtaining success in science, but all here at Lindau have stressed that the fortuity of having a brilliant mentor and role model is what set them on the right path.

Like the pervasiveness of the uncertainty principle in science however, the laureates know that each young scientist should have an effective teacher, they just don’t agree on what makes them effective.

This was perfectly encapsulated by Avram Hershko when he highlighted the dichotomy in attitudes between the two scientists who aided him in his early research career. His first true mentor was Jacob Mager from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, who was a ‘rigorous experimentalist’ and had a fierce reputation for adhering to the scientific method. But when Hershko moved to the University of California, US, under the tutelage of Gordon Tomkins, he was exposed to the unbridled imagination of a scientist who didn’t really care for the minutia in experimental detail.

In both cases Tomkins and Mager provided Hershko with an effective canvas to map out his scientific journey, but prove that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to scientific mentorship.

Elsewhere in the conference, the lack of awareness about scientific role models and how this is having a negative impact on science was raised during a panel discussion on the research landscape in Africa. Panel members were quick to address how children in the education system will struggle to break into science if there aren’t any ideals or scientists to aspire to. ‘African students … are aware of Albert Einstein – me too, I like him, he’s the best scientist,’ said Serge Fobofou from the Leibniz Institute of Plant Biochemistry, Germany. ‘We know less about African scientists.’

Without the Magers and Tomkins of this world having a visible presence in Africa, we run the risk of scientific failure being the end of the road and not simply an obstacle to leap over.

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Categories: Education

Lindau 2015: Stop, Collaborate and Listen

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 30 June, 2015 - 10:46

On the idyllic island of Lindau, Germany, you can’t help but be inspired by the beautiful vistas that envelope this small getaway on the edge of Lake Constance, with the town itself embodying the very spirit of the scientific meeting that is currently taking place here.

Nobel laureates (l-r) Eric Betzig, Stefan Hell, William Moerner, Martin Chalfie and Steven Chu discuss the nature of interdisciplinarity at the 65th Lindau Nobel meeting. Credit: Christian Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

At the 65th Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting, 65 Nobel laureates from an array of scientific disciplines are hoping to inspire over 650 young scientists from across the world. These early career researchers have been selected from a vast amount of applicants to engage in scientific debate, foster new working relationships and gain inspiration from those who have dared to challenge scientific paradigms.

Delegates were treated to a series of fascinating talks on Monday morning from some of the most recent recipients of the famed Nobel medal. Stefan Hell and Eric Betzig, two recipients of the 2014 Nobel prize in chemistry for their work on super-resolution microscopy, kicked things off in earnest with frank discussions on how they arrived at this point. Hell’s talk in particular resulted in a poignant moment where he confessed that ‘it’s not the 2015 me who started this, but the 1990 me – he deserves the credit’.

This sentiment for creativity and ingenuity as young PhD students was echoed by all of the morning’s speakers, who included fellow laureates Francois Englert, Michael Bishop and the incoming president of the Royal Society, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan. All helped to drive home the point that the formative years of any researcher’s career are some of their most fruitful.

Following lunch, delegates wandered through the cobbled streets to the town’s local theatre and sat down for a captivating panel discussion on the nature of interdisciplinary science. The febrile pronouncements from the morning’s session quickly made their way into the panel’s intense discourse.

Betzig was keen to point out that collaboration across scientific boundaries is never an end goal, but grows organically from a fearless conviction to solve a problem. Steven Chu, the 1997 Nobel laureate in physics and US Secretary of Energy until two years ago, was quick to retort, however, that students should not take for granted the power in obtaining great knowledge in a singular science: ‘You have to be deep in a field in order to branch out in a new field.’

But that past knowledge, the pillars of science that some may dare not question, are ultimately what hold us back according to Hell. ‘If you do not detach yourself from previous knowledge, to some extent, you … stay within the framework of this existing knowledge,’ he commented.

Their tenacity to challenge convention is ultimately why these laureates have come to establish new paradigms. But, as the week continues and they continue to inspire these impressionable researchers, I wonder what they will say when these young scientists eventually come to break down theirs?

For live tweets throughout the week, make you sure you check out the twitter hashtag #LiNo15.


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Categories: Education

June 2015: Medals & Awards

Royal Society R.Science - 29 June, 2015 - 16:16

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Categories: Education

The bliss of experimental ignorance

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 25 June, 2015 - 17:50

Guest post by Heather Cassell

Some experiments fail. Despite your best efforts, and especially for experiments that take many steps or a long time to run, you often won’t find out if they have worked until the very end.

Image By Tweenk (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

As I’m sure you can imagine, this is a source of great frustration for a lab-based scientist. So much of your time is dedicated to setting up and running your experiment. Once you’ve made a plan and began the experiment, you have no choice but to blindly carry on assuming everything is fine, before you reach the end and discover whether or not it has worked. If it had then great! You can get on with the important business of analyzing your results to see how they fit in with the rest of your work. If your experiment didn’t work, you need to start the tortuous process of troubleshooting to find out what went wrong.

I have to confess that I enjoy the in between steps, the calm before the storm. There is a certain happiness in not knowing, freeing you up to concentrate on each step of your work, rather than the overall result. At this stage there is positivity and hope that your meticulous planning is going to give you the results you need. This positive attitude can last right up until the results come in, when the illusion can be shattered by the lovely picture of your positive controls and not much else.

So what to do now? Small changes to one of the steps in your process can make a huge difference to your results. Having a good set of both positive and negative controls can be a great help during troubleshooting: if the results show just your positive controls you know the problem is with your samples, if there are no results you know the problem is with the experiment. Now where will I find that error?

It is even more frustrating if you have inherited the protocol, or are trying to replicate one given in a paper. Even worse is a failing in a method you’ve had success with in the past! You can resolve many problems with patience and dedication, but sometimes it’s worth running the problem by someone else just to check you are not making a simple mistake that you have overlooked. Is the incubator at the wrong temperature? Have you added the wrong antibiotic? (Both common sleep deprivation related problems.)

You can spend days, weeks, even months tweaking the conditions of your experiment to make it work. But it is important that you don’t keep going round in circles or blindly repeating yourself, take notes, take a step back or take a deep breath and ask for help! Everyone has bad days in the lab, it’s how you react to them that shows how well suited you are to science.

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Categories: Education

Painless party time

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 15 June, 2015 - 15:30

Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Some discoveries are made after hunting hard for the answer, some come to you when you need them most, and some just turn up at parties. Such was the discovery of modern anaesthetics.

Method of administering nitrous oxide used by Samuel lee Rymer in London, 1863
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

The concept of anaesthetics and their application to relieve pain during surgery was not wholly new. The Mesopotamians used alcohol (and its use persisted in resource deprived times such as war as late as 1812) and the ancient Chinese used acupuncture. The Sumerians may have used opium and Egyptians mandrake, and around a similar time, juniper and coca were put the the same use.

A popular anaesthetic in England between ~1200 and 1500 was Dwale – a mixture of varying composition containing opium and hemlock as well as lettuce, bile and bryony. Mandrake roots were chewed, extracting the active ingredients in doses that varied with chewing time or vigour. This was a risky business: low doses were often insufficient to fully mask the pain of surgery or put the patient to sleep, but at doses not much higher, many of these substances would become fatally toxic. Enough to make you numb just thinking about it.

However, these drugs have pronounced differences from the ones we are now familiar with. Most were applied locally, by rubbing a paste into the skin.

Because of the suffering and associated risks, many patients would choose not to undergo surgery, even in the face of otherwise certain death. The best surgeons were the fastest surgeons and although anaesthetics were administered, they were normally considered unreliable and untrustworthy. There was also the problem of testing new products – animal testing had limited feedback, and many drugs were piloted during dental operations or other painful, low-risk medical procedures. Even as late as the early 1800s, Henry Hill Hickman was busy gassing animals with carbon dioxide, trying to achieve the perfect balance between loss of sensation and death, where he might amputate one of their limbs without objection.

Luckily there was a good resource of keen volunteer test subjects just waiting to be tapped into: Party goers.

During the late 18th century, chemists as we now know them started to emerge. Amongst their many exploits was the extraction and characterisation of many of the active ingredients found in ancient remedies. Opium was found to contain morphine, a narcotic pain reliever, and the active components of the mandrake root are atropine and scopolamine – two alkaloids that, similar to coniine, the hemlock ingredient, produce varying effects from respiratory paralysis to heart palpitations. In coca, cocaine acts as a stimulant, and in juniper, terpinen-4-ol is simply a diuretic. Purifying these products allowed better dose control, understanding of the mechanism behind the active drug, and the classification of groups of compounds, allowing potential new products to be identified and developed. In particular, a new theory of gases was developed accompanying the discovery of dozens of new kinds of air, work pioneered by the gas giant Joseph Priestley, discoverer of oxygen, ammonia, hydrogen chloride and, in 1772, nitrous oxide, which he formed by combining iron metal and nitric acid, then collecting the bubbles of gas this produced.

Later, in 1799, Sir Humphrey Davy realised that nitrous oxide, or NO2, could be breathed by humans, and that breathing it produced a rather interesting result – it made you laugh. Nicknaming his discovery ‘laughing gas’, Davy went on to demonstrate the hilarious effects of nitrous oxide at the Royal Society, and several parties, where the habit took on. Alongside laughing gas, breathing ether became popular, and all the best parties had them.

It was whilst under the influence of one of these favourite party boosters that one man literally stumbled upon scientific enlightenment. At an 1844 event, Horace Wells looked on as a man seriously damaged his leg, but carried on with his activities regardless. When questioned about his lack of regard for the bleeding appendage, he told Wells he couldn’t feel any pain from it. Wells quickly realised that the laughing gas had altered the man’s perception of pain – a pain he would wake to when the effect of the nitrous oxide wore off.

Along with other fathers of modern anaesthesia, Horace Wells turned party time into serious science – as painlessly as possible. Through understanding of circulation, dosage and patient idiosyncrasy, the general anaesthetic was realised, and surgery revolutionised, NO contest.

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