Secrets from the authors: what makes a good journal cover?

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 12 February, 2015 - 13:22

Guest post from Tom Branson

Last month I took a look back at the journal covers from Chemical Science in 2014 and asked the authors why they made these startling images. To follow on from these enlightening insights, I delved a little deeper and sought to find an answer to the ultimate question, which is of course: what makes a good journal cover?

Scientific and public audiences

To answer this question you first have to decide who the target audience(s) are and what you want to show them. Most of the authors I spoke to agreed that the image should be accessible to the general public. Julia Weinstein from the University of Sheffield, UK, whose cover was out last March, expressed the difficulty in also keeping the specialists happy. An image needs to have ‘general importance (for general public), and some fine details which will be of interest to professionals. It is a virtually impossible task!’ she said. However, how many members of the general public ever actually see these masterpieces is a question for another time.

Ultimately, the artwork must be visually appealing. If it does not encourage readers to look further into the paper, then the image has, to some extent, failed. This means making the images eye-catching and interesting. A little sense of humour is also often used to good effect, although Tell Tuttle, of the University of Strathclyde, UK, (whose work featured on the cover of the February 2014 issue), warned that you can go too far with the jokes: ‘you’re likely to be ridiculed for making pretty pictures.’

Layers upon layers

One cover in Chemical Science from 2014 stood out for me more than the others. This was not necessarily because it was the most eye-catching or the most information-rich, but because it piqued my curiousity. This cover from Tony James of the University of Bath, UK, was published last September and featured three stamps on top of a fluorescent image.

James says that good cover art ‘should be simple yet have a strong set of images telling a story related to the research.’ You can’t get much simpler than placing stamps on top of an image taken directly from the actual article. But there is obviously a story behind this image. The stamps featured are from the three countries of the groups involved; China, South Korea and the UK. Stamps also relate to sending messages, a nice (although a little tenuous) link to fluorescent imaging as cellular messaging.

At a casual glance, that is where the layers of information seem to end, but this cover goes further, although as it does so it does become a little obscure.  James understates that ‘the next level may not be so obvious.’  The Chinese stamp is a painting of a tree peony, a native of China and used in traditional medicines as an antioxidant. The article describes the detection of peroxynitrite, which oxidises many biomolecules including DNA and unsaturated phospholipids. See the connection there?

The next stamp, from Korea, depicts the metric system, and the research involved taking measurements. I’ll admit that this link is a bit thin, but final stamp makes up for it. The British stamp shows a picture of Dorothy Hodgkin and celebrates 50 years since her Nobel prize for advances in x-ray crystallography and determining the structure of vitamin B12, another molecule with a role in cell messaging. The other two stamps are also from 50 years ago and 2014 was the year that the three corresponding authors all celebrated turning 50!

I love this level of detail and I have a great deal of respect for the story behind the artwork, even though I doubt that these subtleties are easily apparent to anyone not named in the author list. Nevertheless, special touches like these are certainly what interests me and what I believe make the difference between good covers and great covers.

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Categories: Education

Academic family: Carl Djerassi

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 5 February, 2015 - 12:09

Guest post by JessTheChemist

’I feel like I’d like to lead one more life. I’d like to leave a cultural imprint on society rather than just a technological benefit’ – Carl Djerassi

May you rest in peace, Carl Djerassi (October 29, 1923 – January 30, 2015).

The so-called ’father of the pill’ [he preferred ‘the mother of the pill’, as he saw himself nurturing the chemical ‘egg’ to bring forth the pill], Carl Djerassi, died recently at the age of 91 after a battle with cancer. Djerassi had a varied career involving both the sciences and the arts, contributing in particular to the fields of natural product chemistry, including antihistamines and pesticides, and spectroscopy. In 1951 Djerassi and his co-workers completed the synthesis of the first synthetic oral contraceptive, norethindrone or ’the pill’ and, due to the work by John Rock; by 1960 the pill was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for contraceptive use.

Djerassi was awarded a wealth of accolades for his contributions to the field of chemistry, from the Wolf prize in chemistry (1978) to the Priestley medal (1992); however, the Nobel prize in chemistry is a notable omission. Every year the twittersphere is awash with debates about the next Nobel prize in chemistry winner should be and Djerassi’s name is always top of the list, and my personal front-runner. The last will of Alfred Nobel stated that prizes should be given ’to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind’. To say that the pill is of benefit to man- and womankind is an understatement and Djerassi should have been honoured many years ago by the Nobel Committee. As a small gesture to the man and his ground-breaking work, I shall celebrate him here. This blog series is focussed on the academic relationships of Nobel Prize winners, I’ve made an exception for a man who has had an enormous influence on my life and that of many other women around the world.

As with many other fine chemists, Djerassi is connected to a large number of influential and prize-winning scientists. His closest Nobel relatives are K. Barry Sharpless, who won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 2001 for his work on chiral catalysis, and Paul Karrer who won the prize in 1937 for this research into carotenoids, flavins and vitamins A and B2. Sharpless was a postdoc for Konrad Bloch who won the physiology and medicine prize in 1964 for his research into fatty acids and cholesterol. More information about Sharpless’ and Bloch’s connections can be found in a previous post about the academic family of Sir William Ramsay. Karrer was a graduate student for Alfred Werner, who himself won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1913 for his research into coordination chemistry. Interestingly, Werner was the first inorganic chemist to win the Nobel prize. Karrer is also connected to George Wald, yet another Nobel laureate. Wald won the prize for physiology or medicine in 1967 for his work on the physiological and chemical visual processes in the eye. Through his graduate student, David Lightner, Djerassi is also connected to the 1930 Nobel prize winner in chemistry, Hans Fischer, a pioneer of haemin and chlorophyll chemistry.

Later in his career, Djerassi decided to become an ‘intellectual smuggler’, communicating scientific concepts through fiction and playwriting. Chemistry World‘s Ben Valsler spoke to him about this last year:

As you can see, Carl Djerassi is connected to a number of influential scientists from a variety of research backgrounds, and many more can be found at It is a travesty that Djerassi himself didn’t win the Nobel prize, but it is my hope that his legacy will continue for years to come.

Don’t forget, if you have a Nobel prize winning chemist that you want to see researched, get in touch with me via twitter (@jessthechemist).

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Categories: Education

January 2015: Scientific anniversaries

Royal Society R.Science - 30 January, 2015 - 14:26

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The joy of fluorescent proteins

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 29 January, 2015 - 15:25

Guest post by Heather Cassell

In the lab, you develop a fondness for working with certain things: compliant equipment, pleasant smelling solvents, easy-to-culture bacteria. One of my favourites are fluorescent proteins – their bright colours can make even the dullest day that little bit more cheery. I find them a joy to work with not only because of their beauty, but because the source of that beauty also makes them easy to work with.

A San Diego beach scene drawn with an eight colour palette of bacterial colonies expressing fluorescent proteins derived from GFP and the red-fluorescent coral protein dsRed. The colors include BFP, mTFP1, Emerald, Citrine, mOrange, mApple, mCherry and mGrape. Artwork by Nathan Shaner, photography by Paul Steinbach, created in the lab of Roger Tsien in 2006. (CC-BY-SA)

A good example of this is in protein production. During expression in E. coli, you often cannot tell how well expression of a colourless protein is going, but because fluorescent proteins will produce a colour even at a relatively low concentrations, it can be seen while the cells are still growing. This allows you to keep track of your progress, answering key questions like: do I have any protein? Or did I add the chemical I need to produce the protein? (The latter being a not uncommon mistake for a sleep-deprived scientist.) Getting answers to these visually means no lengthy purification procedure, avoiding the inevitable disappointment.

The colouration continues to be helpful as you go through the protein purification process: you can easily see if your protein has been released from the cells, whether it has bound to the column, if it has been released from the column and so on. Again, each of these steps requires another means of detection in colourless proteins.

Fluorescent proteins can also provide a splash of colour amidst a sea of colourless buffers, which allows you to immediately check you have added your protein. As you gain experience with these colourful concoctions, you begin to get a sense of what concentration they are just from the colour.

Fluorescent proteins not brighten up the lab and make protein purification easier, but they’re vitally useful throughout the sciences. They can be used to track the location and expression levels of other proteins in cells, to help produce difficult to express proteins, in fluorescence microscopy and in biosensors. But beyond their scientific merit, they can also be used to express your artistic side,

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Categories: Education

Time’s running out for your chance to win £500!

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 27 January, 2015 - 11:28

Guest post by Isobel Hogg, Royal Society of Chemistry

Can you explain the importance of chemistry to human health in just 1 minute? If you’re an early-career researcher who is up to the challenge, making a 1 minute video could win you £500.

We are looking for imaginative ways to showcase how chemistry helps us address healthcare challenges. Your video should be no longer than one minute, and you can use any approach you like.

The winner will receive a £500 cash prize, with a £250 prize for second place and £150 prize for third place up for grabs too.

Stuck for inspiration? Last year’s winning video is a good place to start. John Gleeson’s video was selected based on the effective use of language, dynamic style, creativity and its accurate content.

The closing date for entries to be submitted is 30 January 2015. Our judging panel will select the top five videos. We will then publish the shortlisted videos online and open the judging to the public to determine the winner and the runners up.

For more details on how to enter the competition and who is eligible, join us at the Take 1… page.

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Categories: Education

Captain of hooks

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 22 January, 2015 - 17:02

Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Open your eyes and take a closer look: sometimes that’s all it takes to realise a new invention has been with you all along, stuck, perhaps, to the cuffs of your trousers and the fur of your pointer. Like the burrs of the burdock, evolved to stick to the fur of animals, transporting the seeds far and wide to fall on new ground.

Velcro hooks
Image by Alexander Klink – CC-BY

Swiss amateur mountaineer Georges de Mestral had been hunting in the French Alps one summer evening in 1948, when exactly this occurred. He had obviously encountered burrs before, but for the first time his mind connected an observation (the sticky burrs) and an application (fashion) – it was a scientific portmanteau or ‘blend’ of two ideas, contracting their meanings into a single new commodity: Velcro. The name is a portmanteau too, a combination of the French words velour and crochet: the soft fabric side and the hooked. De Mestral had stumbled upon a new way of fixing clothing, but was it such an accident? Louis Pasteur, scientist and inventor of the Pasteurisation process, famously said ‘in the fields of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind.’ He had a point.

An engineer by trade, de Mestral immediately stuck the intriguing burrs beneath a microscope to observe how they functioned, noting that they consisted of miniature hooks that tangled readily with hairy loops. But to work in fashion, these hooks needed other special properties: they needed the flexibility and longevity that would allow them to straighten out when pulled away from the loopy surface and bounce back into shape upon release, eager to hook again.

Undaunted by their smallness, de Mestral set about constructing the tiny hooks that demonstrated his principle from cotton with the help of a weaver. He created a functioning velcro, but unfortunately the cotton hooks wore out after just a few detachments, bending permanently and losing their ‘stickiness’. But it was the loops or velour which really caused him trouble: velour, itself a cotton-based velvet-like material, is not particularly sticky, and the connection was weak. His colleagues laughed at him, but de Mestral persisted – for nearly eight years.

Then came the invention of nylon.

De Mestral jumped upon it and stuck to it like velcro. He rapidly discovered by trial and error that sewing the hooks under infra-red light make them tough and increased their durability. Furthermore, nylon is inert to rot, mould, or decomposition in the lifetime of a product – de Mestral had found his fabric and patented the invention in 1955 before moving on to creating a loom that could weave velcro hooks and trim them smoothly, initiating mass production.

Today, not all velcro is equal. ‘Industrial velcro’ is made of woven steel wire and used in high temperature applications. Space shuttles use Teflon-looped polyester-hooked velcro fused into glasses. It’s also used to stick tail light covers to cars. Most domestic velcro is made of nylon or polyester, each with benefits and drawbacks. Nylon lasts longer, with a half-life of 10,000 attaching and detaching cycles – equivalent to 27 years of opening and closing once a day. Polyester velcro, meanwhile, only lasts 3,500 cycles, but it is also less sensitive to decomposition under heat, moisture and ultraviolet light.

It’s now become commonplace, but velcro According to Anthony Rubino, Jr’s book Why didn’t I think of that, a 2 inch square unit of velcro can actually take the weight of a 79.4 kg person (is this something to try at home?)

Eventually, many cycles will compromise the velcro, but that’s okay: the internet sports several methods for revitalising it, including rubbing it with a toothbrush, scratching it with a pin, or melting and trimming off the loops. Whilst this may be effective if dirt and debris have depleted your velcro quality, it’s not so good when eventual uncurling of the loops is at fault. You may find this happens faster with some products than others: not all ‘velcro’ today is really velcro. After the patent ran out in 1978, the market became flooded with cheap imitations, some of which have been reported to only last a few months.

Despite what Star Trek says, velcro was not invented by the Vulcans, just an observer with a well prepared mind.

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Categories: Education

LEDs and the International Year of Light

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 20 January, 2015 - 17:03

Guest post by Jen Dougan

‘May it be a light to you, in dark places. When all other lights go out.’
J. R. R. Tolkien

Yesterday saw the opening ceremony to mark the start of the International Year of Light (IYL). Today scientists and policy makers will meet in Paris for day two of the celebrations. Designated by the United Nations, the IYL aims to increase awareness about the importance of light in our modern and developing world, such is the breadth of light–based technologies – from biological sensing to next generation light emitting diodes (LEDs). Undoubtedly, our world is enriched by harnessing the energy of light, and one of the core aims of IYL is to focus on the plight of 1.5 billion of the world’s inhabitants for whom sunset means darkness.

Blue light emitting diodes (Blue LED). Image by Gussisaurio at wikipedia (CC-BY-SA)

With little or no access to electrical lighting, many rural communities in the developing world have limited ability to read after sundown, have restricted working hours, and hospitals have to power down the lights in the evening – limiting healthcare options. Many families rely on the use of paraffin or kerosene lamps. This isn’t without problems, kerosene is a flammable hydrocarbon producing toxic fumes when burned and is a significant fire-safety hazard. Attempting to address this, the IYL ‘study after sunset’ campaign seeks to promote the use of solar powered LED lights in the communities that need them most.

Anyone who has handled a traditional incandescent lightbulb can attest to its inefficiency. Producing significant amounts of heat (capable of burning fingers!), incandescent bulbs are economically and environmentally wasteful. But alternatives do exist. LEDs generate far more light, measured in lumens per Watt (lm/W), than standard incandescent or fluorescent lighting (Figure 1). Of course, the use of LEDs helps to reduce bills and energy consumption and, considering that lighting accounts for ~25% of electricity usage in developed countries, that presents a significant reduction. It is their efficiency and bulb lifetime of 100,000 hours (an order of magnitude greater than incandescent bulbs) that may enable LEDs to illuminate lives the world over.

Figure 1: Comparative brightness of lighting devices.
Image: © The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

With this potential impact, it’s clear why researchers Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics for the development of blue LEDs, which enable the production of bright white light sources.

How science LED the way

To emit white light, additive colour mixing is employed, which involves combining red, green and blue light (Figure 2). Although red and green LEDs had been developed in the 1950s and 60s, it wasn’t until 1992 that a blue LED was produced, allowing white light to be created from LEDs. Using semiconductor technology, LEDs are much more efficient that traditional lighting – which relies on an electrical current heating a wire (typically tungsten in a white lightbulb) until it glows – because they convert electrical energy directly into light.

Figure 2: Additive colour mixing to produce white light.
Image: Mike Horvath on Wikipedia

Semiconductors can be p-type or n-type, indicating whether they have insufficient electrons (considered as a surplus of ‘holes’, so p for positive) or a surplus of electrons (n for negative). This characteristic of a semiconductor is tuned by increasing the level of doping – that is, the controlled addition of impurity atoms. From the interface between the p-type and n-type materials, in the active layer – where the electrons meet the holes, light is emitted (Figure 3). The energy (or wavelength/colour) of the light produced (or whether it is produced at all) is dictated by the materials used to create the semiconductor. The energy gap, or band gap, between the two materials must be such that light of the desired wavelength is produced. Blue LEDs are principally composed of gallium nitride (GaN) as the semiconductor material (Figure 3). Once GaN crystals of sufficient quality could be grown, and p-type GaN produced by elimination of hydrogen from the surface, LEDs were developed that emitted blue light.

Figure 3: Inside a blue LED (click for full size)
Image: © The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

With blue LEDs in hand, white light could be produced. This was achieved either by situating blue, red and green LEDs in close proximity, which appear white to the eye, or by applying a phosphor coating to a blue LED. The phosphor is a compound which, when irradiated, causes a shift in wavelength (colour) of light to yellow – this combines with the blue light to appear white. Research into the development of novel phosphors is underway to allow an increased tone palette to be achieved.

Blue LED technology was used for the development of Blu-ray discs and finds use in mobile phones and LCD screens. But it is for the potential to bring light to billions in night-time darkness that we should celebrate the beginning of this International Year of Light.

IYL is a great opportunity to celebrate light and its interaction with chemistry. I hope to focus on a broad range of topics over the coming months on this theme. I’d love to hear about any chemistry related activities going on during IYL and/or any topics you’d be interested in. Drop me a note below or contact me on twitter: @jendtweeting #IYLchemistry

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Categories: Education

Who made these covers and what are they doing here?

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 15 January, 2015 - 15:28

Guest post from Tom Branson

It’s a new year and therefore a new set of exciting cover art awaits us. Last year gave us some great examples of artistic flair matched with clear science communication, as well as a good few covers that can be described as nothing but bizarre. Either way, they got my attention.

But why do authors want their work on a front cover and what does it actually mean to the scientists who designed them? Instead of surging ahead with my own opinions, I thought that this time I should get some answers from the creators themselves. Focusing on Chemical Science, I tracked down the corresponding authors responsible for some of the cover art during 2014 and asked them a few simple questions to gather a small insight into the minds of these artists.

Why would anyone want to create a cover image?

Well, what’s the point? My first thought was simply about extra exposure. And yes, the overwhelming response I received was about gaining extra attention, raising the visibility of their work and attracting more readers. Everybody seemed to agree on this fact.

But another popular reason is that using an image is a great way to tell the story. Rafael Luque, of the Universidad de Córdoba, knew it would be an easy step to create a cover image. He said that his ‘work related to MOF design could be nicely represented by a simple image with Lego-like model building’. The cover in October was indeed simple, incorporating sticks and balls, which makes the concept instantly easy to grasp. Pictures are often better than the written word for describing a difficult concept, especially for a non-specialist audience that the cover may help to attract. Once a reader gets the idea from the image, the article becomes more accessible.

Other interesting reasons included use of a cover image at conferences and the simple fact that seeing your image in print gives your confidence a nice boost. But only if the actual research is particularly strong do some decide to go for a cover image. Michael Wong, of Rice University, said that the work must be extra special for him to spend his ‘hard-earned research funds on publication costs’. He also added that creating a cover was a great way to ‘train students on science dissemination’. I definitely agree with this last point.

Who are these artists anyway?

The author list on a paper gives full recognition to the researchers. But should there be recognition for the artists? I believe that those responsible for grabbing our attention with their images deserve an extra mention. So, who are these people?

I was surprised to find that my (unscientific) survey revealed that cover design was mostly done by the professors themselves. Many were also group efforts or at least the group was involved in creating initial ideas. Lowly PhD students were even responsible for their fair share of the cover designs. Wong created his cover from October together with a student and really enjoyed the process. He even stated that ‘my student got so excited he recruited his wife and came up with multiple designs!’.

Site-specific protein labelling was tackled by Jason Chin’s group, from the University of Cambridge, and the cover from last May provided a different medium to tell that story. Stephen Wallace, the designer and a researcher in Chin’s group at the time, knew that a cover would be a great opportunity to convey the environment for his reaction. Wallace had the initial idea for his cover, ‘albeit on paper!’, he says, but it was Paul Margiotta in their visual aids department who assembled the final graphic.

Luque also thinks that this exercise is worthwhile for the students and it encourages them to develop. He said that he ‘nurtures creativity in students in the early stages of their career and these are the results.’ It must be pretty handy for some institutions having professional designers, but a plucky student can definitely put in a pretty good showing too.

Next month I’ll reveal the answer to the life, the universe and everything or as I like to put it: what makes a good cover? Spoiler… it’s actually a whole bunch of contradictory views that come to wildly different conclusions.

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Categories: Education

Alien mothership – from nanoparticles to molecular aesthetics

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 23 December, 2014 - 11:09

Ljiljana Fruk, researching light-activated nanodevices, writes about molecular aesthetics and how a copper nanoparticle became an alien mothership. Ljiljana will speak at this year’s Chemistry World science communication competition prize-giving event in March 2015 about Seeing the invisible.

A few years ago I thought about starting something enjoyable that would inspire the students and researchers in my group to look at the molecules they make and materials they design in a different, more playful way. I wanted them to rethink what they considered failed experiments: batches of irregular nanoparticles, weird looking oils (that should be crystals) or fluorescent cells (that shouldn’t be there).

We started collecting microscopic images and strangely coloured samples, and organised a little internal competition to see who was going to come up with the strangest or most unusual image. Playing and having fun was the key – doing transmission electron microscopy now did not only mean spending some late hours in the lab but also finding that next cool image.

Other things followed: we created a ‘hall of fame’ of molecules that changed the world, started the NanoArt calendar featuring crazy images of real nano things. Suddenly, high school students started approaching us and doing short-term projects in our lab. It was fun seeing these young, energetic people getting excited doing simple tasks like DNA gels. Geeky truly seems to be the new cool.

And then, two years into our projects, some artists became involved in our project. Earlier this year, Chilean artist Martin Kaulen spend three weeks in and around our lab, looking for similarities between crystal structures and architecture, challenging us with his questions. Each of his question made us think and inspired us. Can we explain what we think we already understood? Often, I came to realise, I was at a loss for an answer to the simple question ‘What is this good for?’

The more I let my imagination run wild, went beyond what I would write in a scientific paper, the more I understood what it is all about. Martin compiled some of our conversations in a little booklet. His work made me realise once again that no matter what we call ourselves – artist or scientist – we are driven by the same two things: curiosity about the existing realities and willingness to create new ones.

— What started as a failed copper nanoparticle experiment became the ‘alien mothership’

This year, we joined our smallest and biggest realities to design the Galactic nano calendar. An image of a small copper nanoparticle embedded in a thin film of dry viscous solvent on a mesh copper grid became an alien mothership. It once again amazed me how a tinge of colour could change the emotional response to a scientific image. Suddenly, the image becomes more organic, almost alive. There might not be any aliens on that ship, but I can definitely imagine some. The picture will certainly make me smile all the way through September 2015. If then somebody asks me ‘hey, what are the copper nanoparticles good for?’ I will know that a failed experiment just became a huge success.

Dr Ljiljana Fruk is a scientist and lecturer at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany, working on the development of photosensitive bio nano hybrid systems to design of new catalysts, artificial enzymes and biosensors for medical applications. She actively explores the interface of art and science, in particular the cultural and societal impact of nanotechnology and synthetic biology. Ljiljana co-organised the first symposium on molecular aesthetics, an interactive exhibition on molecules that changed the world, and edited, together with artist Peter Weibel, the book Molecular aesthetics


If you are passionate about science and science communication, the 2014 Chemistry World science communication competition on the topic of chemistry and art offers a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate your skill, win £500 and be published in Chemistry World. The ten finalists will have the chance to see Ljiljana talk about Seeing the invisible at the prize-giving event in March 2015.

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Categories: Education

Countdown to the 2014 Chemistry World science communication competition

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 19 December, 2014 - 16:16

Tessa Fiorini won last year’s Chemistry World science communication competition. Here, she writes about the inspiration for her article by a holiday in Prague, about her time at the prize-giving event and her winner’s trip.

Tessa Fiorini CohenWhen I heard about Chemistry World’s science communication competition last year, I had just come back from a holiday in Prague. The city is a historical hot spot for all things alchemy-related, and it immersed me in a time when chemistry was dark and murky, poorly understood and carried out in secretive underground labs. With this trip still on my mind and the competition’s theme of openness, I knew I had to write about the transition from alchemy to modern chemistry.

Like many other chemists, I was taught in my undergraduate degree that Antoine Lavoisier is ‘the father of modern chemistry’. I already knew that his open mind was the catalyst for this change, but as I started researching the topic, I realised there was more to it than that – the transition didn’t just happen overnight and open communication with other scientists played an equal part. As my article evolved to include openness’ twofold role, it almost felt like the piece was writing itself. The challenge became whittling it down to the competition’s word limit!

Fast-forward a few months and I’m one of ten finalists, and the eventual winner, at the award ceremony in beautiful Burlington House in London. The event included science speed-dating, discussion panels and hobnobbing with other attendees whilst dining out of mini paint buckets – an artsy touch from one of the event’s sponsors, AkzoNobel. Besides the excitement of winning, it was a great chance to meet other scientists and science communicators, as well as pick up some tips and contacts.

The best however was yet to come – my whirlwind winner’s trip to AkzoNobel’s research site in Stenungsund and P&G in Newcastle, where I learnt all about the complexities of detergent development and had a chance to hone my writing craft with one of Chemistry World’s editors. I managed to squeeze in some sightseeing and was excellently looked after by my hosts in both countries. The super-sized cherry on the cake, however, was having both my articles published in Chemistry World.

I wholeheartedly recommend the Chemistry World science communication competition to all budding science writers and communicators. It was a wonderful experience, remains a great opportunity, and chemistry and art are so beautifully intertwined that inspiration should be easy to come by.

Tessa Fiorini Cohen has a BSc double degree in Biology and Chemistry. After graduating she moved into the pharmaceutical industry, and has over five years’ experience in related research and development. She currently works in pharmaceutical quality assurance, university education and as a freelance writer. Since winning the Chemistry World competition her writing has been published by The Atlantic and Cefic.


If you are passionate about science and science communication, the 2014 Chemistry World science communication competition on the topic of chemistry and art offers a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate your skill, win £500 and be published in Chemistry World.

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Categories: Education

December 2014: A Christmas cracker

Royal Society R.Science - 19 December, 2014 - 13:53

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Christmas Lights – the invention of matches

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 18 December, 2014 - 12:02

Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

It is Christmastime, and the season of light: everywhere you look, particularly after dark, is the twinkle of hundreds of little lights. As 2015 approaches, the International Year of Light is also being kindled into action – a year designed to make us think about light technologies and global challenges in energy. So let’s start now, and out of the dark.

One of the earliest human light technologies was the match. What do you need to make fire? Oxygen, fuel and an ignition source – simple enough in theory, but not so much in practice. Fires just don’t start spontaneously. Before matches, ignition sources included flint and tinder, or a magnifying glass which, naturally, only worked on sunny days, when you are least in need of fire. But luckily, something was spontaneous: the accidental invention of matches.

Matches had nearly been discovered more than once. Having synthesised phosphorous in 1680, Robert Boyle showed awestruck onlookers how this new material created fire when rubbed with sulfur, but the combustion exercise was never put to practical use and remained merely entertainment for wealthy dabblers. He wasn’t the first to make such novelties either – as far back as 950 AD, Chinese ‘Records of the unworldly and strange’ mention ‘light-bringing slaves’ (later ‘fire-inch sticks’) that use sulfur to create fire fast from a small spark or dying embers. In 1805, a French chemist, Jean Chancel, dipped a wooden splint in sugar, potassium chlorate, and sulfuric acid, creating an explosion. It was expensive, dangerous and gave off a foul, poisonous odour. But all of these were chemical matches: they required mixing the right things together at the right time to create an exothermic reaction. The first friction match was created by accident, by apothecary John Walker in 1826.

The fact that wooden splints were so ubiquitous in chemical exploration meant that the invention of the match was almost inevitable. Walker had been stirring away at a pot containing antimony sulfide, potassium chlorate, starch and gum, when he found a mixture of these chemicals had dried onto the end of his wooden stirring stick. Inconvenienced, he removed the stick and started scraping off the dried lump on the stone floor of the lab, but to his astonishment, the chemicals set alight! The match is actually a delicate piece of technology that exists around a chemical balance: a mixture of materials that are stable and solid, but light readily upon agitation.

Excited, Walker repeated the experiment, and made more sticks. Soon he had many: first made of cardboard and then of three-inch wooden sticks. Proving them in a box with handy piece of sandpaper, he started selling his invention as ‘friction lights’ or ‘Congreve’s’ after William Congreve’s new rocket. He was advised to patent the matches – but didn’t, hoping the idea would spread and the technology enhance people’s lives. The idea certainly did spread, although the new matches were mostly used to light pipes and fuel tobacco intake. Walker’s Congreve’s didn’t corner the market. Samuel Jones saw Walker demonstrate his matches in London, and upon hearing that Walker did not intend to patent his idea, created his own smaller matches, named ‘Lucifers’.

These unpredictable little beasts were not only too easily ignited, but they burnt with a nasty odour and stream of unpleasant phosphorus-based chemicals. The box even carried a warning for ‘persons whose lungs are delicate’. Another French chemist, Charles Sauria, used white phosphorus to create matches without a detectable odour. He also used child labour to set up massive factories, spewing out huge mountains of matches. Soon, large numbers of factory workers were unwell, poisoned by the white phosphorous and deformed by a bone-mutilating illness known as ‘phossy jaw’. Even one box of matches contained enough toxic phosphorus to kill a man. Murder and suicide by matches became established.

It was not until the 1888 London matchgirls’ strike that any legislation was passed restricting the use of white phosphorus, but by this time another kind of match had become available: the safety match. Patented by Johan Edvard Lundström in Sweden in 1855, safety matches used non-toxic red phosphorous and placed the sandpaper on the outside of the match box, creating a much safer product. Lundström’s was not the only company to produce the new type, and soon people were striking matches all around the world and celebrating the dawn of a new light.

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Categories: Education

Countdown to the 2014 Chemistry World science communication competition

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 15 December, 2014 - 10:26

Chris Sinclair, whose piece on lasers won the 2012 Chemistry World science communication competition, writes about science and performing arts.

In 2012, I won the first Chemistry World science communication competition for my piece about using lasers to remotely detect methane gas in mines, reducing the risk of disastrous explosions. Having previously worked with lasers for my research, I was aware that 2012 was the 50th anniversary of the invention of the diode laser. Choosing this topic gave me the chance to learn about interesting contemporary applications of lasers in physical chemistry. Emily Stephens, the 2012 runner-up, wrote about gene doping – a topic that was linked to the London Olympic Games, which were of course one of that year’s major events. For both of us, writing about a topical subject with a human angle turned out well.

The theme of this year’s competition is chemistry and art. Philip Ball has recently written a post nicely outlining why he thinks chemistry lends itself particularly well to the arts. I might propose extending this idea further to include the performing arts too.

There is a long history of presenting science on the stage. Christopher Marlowe’s audacious Doctor Faustus, who dabbled in alchemy and the occult, could perhaps be considered one of the early representations of a scientist in theatre. In more recent times, Carl Djerassi – chemist, novelist and dramatist – is known for depicting chemists in his plays. Last year, issues in contemporary science were raised at the National Theatre when the human side of a big pharma drug trial was portrayed in Lucy Prebble’s The effect. And next month Britain’s second most important ‘RSC’, the Royal Shakespeare Company, will premiere a play about J Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist whose Harvard chemistry degree eventually propelled him to a leading role in the Manhattan Project.

As this resurgence in science plays demonstrates, a performance can provide an engaging way of communicating scientific ideas. The Chemistry World competition now includes a second round of judging where shortlisted entrants are asked to present their piece in a format other than writing. It would be great if one of this year’s finalists considered presenting their topic to the judges with a performance or a play – after all, good science communication can work just as well on the stage as it does on the page.

Chris Sinclair holds an MSci in physics from Durham University and a PhD in laser cooling from Imperial College. He works at University College London where he conducts research in medical imaging. Chris writes about science and theatre.


If you are passionate about science and science communication, the 2014 Chemistry World science communication competition on the topic of chemistry and art offers a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate your skill, win £500 and be published in Chemistry World.

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Categories: Education

Countdown to the 2014 Chemistry World science communication competition

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 12 December, 2014 - 11:33

Quentin Cooper, science journalist and one of the judges for the upcoming Chemistry World science communication competition writes about how in every scientist there is a bit of an artist.

I’ve been asked to write 300 words on the topic of science and art. No problem. Although I can sum it up in one: scientists.

The term ‘scientist’ was only coined about 180 years ago to overcome a problem caused by the then newly formed British Association for the Advancement of Science, more recently known as the BA and more recently still as the British Science Association. These days it is celebrated as one of the oldest and most prestigious public-facing scientific bodies in the world, making science more comprehensible and accountable, and encouraging engagement across society and between disciplines. But back in the early 1830s, their meetings attracted a ragtag group of biologists, geologists, naturalists and others across the sciences, and nobody knew quite what to collectively call them.

One of the founders of the BA, William Whewell, writing anonymously in the Quarterly Review in 1834 offered a solution: ‘this difficulty was felt very oppressively by the members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, at their meetings… some ingenious gentleman proposed that, by analogy with artist, they might form scientist.’

The ‘ingenious gentleman’ was, of course, Whewell himself. Although it took a few years to catch on, what’s usually overlooked is that strictly speaking if you mimic the way practitioners of arts are called artists, then practitioners of sciences should be called ‘sciencists’. With two Cs. Instead, because of Whewell’s analogy, the ‘t’ in scientist is on permanent loan from the arts meaning there is a bit of artist in every scientist.

I don’t think that’s just a quirk of etymology: that ‘t’ is not vestigial. Creativity and imagination abound across the sciences, no more so than in chemistry. Which is one of many reasons I’m looking forward to judging this year’s Chemistry World competition.

Quentin Cooper hosts a diverse range of events in Britain and beyond as well as appearing regularly on radio, TV and in print. He’s one of the most familiar and popular voices of science in the UK, writing and presenting many hundreds of programmes – including fronting Britain’s most listened to science radio show, Material world. He also holds several honorary science doctorates and is an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry.


If you are passionate about science and science communication, the 2014 Chemistry World science communication competition on the topic of chemistry and art offers a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate your skill, win £500 and be published in Chemistry World.

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Categories: Education

Chemosensors for the ASSURED communication of science

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 11 December, 2014 - 13:19

Guest post from Tom Branson

Sometimes all the computer graphics in the world can’t make up for a good old hand drawn image. These sketches may never appear in shining lights on 10 metre billboards but they are often simple and clear enough to show you exactly what’s going on. That straightforward approach and a couple of other tricks were recently used to great effect for an article on the cover of Organic and Biomolecular Chemistry.

The cover shows ChemDraw images, a drawing of a cassava plant, and photos of the actual experiments to give a nice overview of the research. This kind of image is great for direct outreach and more literal communication of the scientific story. In an instant, anyone can see that the research involves taking something out of the plant, mixing in some other chemicals and observing a colour change. The graphic hooks you in with pretty colours, then offers something to get your grey matter around with the chemical structures. Check out the two corrinoid structures binding to either water or cyanide – that small difference creates the colour change. And as most people know, cyanide is the bad guy. If you would like to know more about the research itself, see the article in Chemistry World.

The image itself was designed by Rene Oetterli, a post-doctoral research assistant from the group of lead author Felix Zelder.  The work has a simple overall story to tell and this cover image communicates it very effectively.

This work stands out for another reason – it uses one of the most appropriate acronyms I’ve come across. The researchers have ASSURED a good detection. There is no doubt here, no ambiguity, they’ve done it. Not even reviewer three can argue with that acronym. The World Health Organisation (WHO) is responsible for coining this shortening of Affordable, Sensitive, Selective, User-friendly, Rapid, Equipment-free and Delivered. These attributes are needed for detection systems in remote settings, such as where the cassava plant is cultivated. The title of the paper includes this acronym although I think they missed a trick by omitting it from the cover design.

Acronyms are common in science and as with ASSURED, can give a great hook on which to communicate the technology. I remember TORPEDO being used in my old lab in Leeds, which was about Targeting Organelles (something something…). A fitting name for the project. But by far the best (or worst) acronym I’ve ever seen is from work looking into land mine detection using TIRAMISU. I’m still trying to figure out the connection.

A final point I want to make with this OBC article is the table of contents image. Instead of the usual graph or chemical structure that blends in with the others, there is a photo. This photo shows a farmer in Mozambique harvesting cassava plants and was taken by Lucas Tivana, one of the authors of the paper. Tivana had direct contact with these workers and could show through this image the real world applications of the study. This approach makes the work much more accessible, which could help a lay audience to engage with the work. The researchers, rightly so, thought this point was important, so featured the image as figure 1 in the paper.

Often the real world is forgotten in the pursuit of new technology and while pushing the boundaries of science for science’s sake is all well and good, being brought back to reality once in a while with a photo or a simple sketch can only be a good thing. Find the paper over at OBC.

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Categories: Education

Countdown to the 2014 Chemistry World science communication competition

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 5 December, 2014 - 13:34

Emily Stephens writes about the how and why of her piece on gene doping, which was selected for the runner-up prize in the 2012 Chemistry World science communication competition.

I started writing my article for the 2012 competition just after the London Olympics had finished. There was a lot of controversy surrounding the legitimacy of some of the competing athletes’ achievements, in particular Nadzeya Ostapchuk, who was stripped of her gold medal following a drug test. While doping has been prevalent in competitive sport since the 1960s, I found the relatively new concept of gene doping fascinating.

Gene doping is extremely hard to detect, so future sporting events could potentially be won based on which country is most advanced in genetic medicine rather than the athletes’ natural sporting ability.

However, despite finding this topic really interesting, after sending off my entry I got caught up in university life and completely forgot about the competition until I received an invitation to join the other shortlisted candidates for the prize giving evening at Burlington House in London.

The event provided a fantastic opportunity to chat to the competition judges and several others working the field of science communication, from journalists to those running higher education courses. They talked about their career paths as well as giving general tips for entering the industry. The resounding advice seemed to be ‘Just start writing!’ and the competition had given me an excellent opportunity to do this.

The winning article was a really interesting piece on the diode laser, and I was fortunate to be the runner-up. The £100 cash prize was an excellent bonus but the highlight of the experience was seeing my article published in Chemistry World (see Chemistry World, December 2012, p41). I’d definitely recommend entering the competition to all aspiring science writers. It was a great opportunity to research and write about an interesting topic, learn from a variety of experts and have a very enjoyable evening. I’m already working on my entry for this year!

Emily Stephens studied natural sciences, specialising in biochemistry, at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, UK. She was in her final year when writing the article for the 2012 competition. Since graduating she has been working in medical communications.


If you are passionate about science and science communication, the 2014 Chemistry World science communication competition on the topic of chemistry and art offers a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate your skill, win £500 and be published in Chemistry World.

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Categories: Education

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