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Academic family: Sir William Ramsay

14 August, 2014 - 16:46

Guest post by Jessica Breen

‘The noblest exercise of the mind within doors, and most befitting a person of quality, is study’ – Ramsay

A few years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Jack Dunitz at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich. Little did I know that he was the academic great-great-grandson of the UK’s first chemistry Nobel Laureate, Sir William Ramsay. After discovering this connection, I decided to delve deeper to see which other chemistry legends Ramsay is connected to.

Ramsay began his career as an organic chemist, but his prominent discoveries were in the field of inorganic chemistry. At the meeting of the British Association in August 1894, Ramsay and Lord Rayleigh both announced the discovery of argon, after independent research. Ramsay then discovered helium in 1895 and systematically researched the missing links in this new group of elements to find neon, krypton, and xenon1. These findings led to Ramsay winning his Nobel prize in 1904 in ‘recognition of his services in the discovery of the inert gaseous elements in air, and his determination of their place in the periodic system’.

Ramsay worked with a wide range of chemists before winning his Nobel prize. At the start of his career Ramsay worked with Rudolf Fittig in Tübingen, Germany. Fittig, a successful organic chemist, is particularly known for discovering the pinacol coupling reaction. Ramsay’s noteworthy academic brothers via Fittig are Ira Remsen and Theodor Zincke. Remsen is recognised for contributing to the discovery of the first artificial sweetener: his co-worker, Constantin Fahlberg, accidentally discovered Saccharin by failing lab etiquette 101 – not washing his hands after a day working in the laboratory.2 On the other hand, Zincke is most famous for supervising the father of nuclear chemistry, Otto Hahn, who claimed the Nobel prize in chemistry (1944) ‘for his discovery of the fission of heavy nuclei’.3 This makes Ramsay the academic uncle of Hahn.

As well as academic brothers and nephews, Ramsay’s direct academic descendants have also achieved greatness. Frederick Soddy, Ramsay’s academic son, carried out research into radioactivity and proved the existence of isotopes, for which he won the 1921 Nobel Prize in chemistry.4 Unfortunately for the chemistry community, Soddy’s interests diverted to economics and politics, so he has no prominent academic offspring to speak of. Interestingly, he also has a lunar crater named after him! Other chemistry Nobel prize-winning descendants of Ramsay include the two-time winner, Frederick Sanger (1958, 1980), and Barry Sharpless (2001), who are both his academic great-great-grandsons. Ramsay also has more diverse Nobel prize winners in his family tree, with two winners for physiology or medicine: Har Gobind Khorana (1968) and Konrad Bloch (1964).

This summary of Ramsay’s academic family is by no means the complete list, but this does demonstrate that one great chemist can have an enormous effect on the generations of chemists to come. As you can see, Nobel prize winners seem to have excellent academic dynasties, but perhaps it isn’t the fact that their mentor won a Nobel prize that inspired them to greatness but their work ethic and abstract way of thinking.

In future posts we will look at other Nobel prize winners and the effect that they may have had on their academic offspring. If there is a particular winner that you would like to see featured, you can contact me on Twitter (@Jessthechemist).

 

References

1: Sir William Ramsay – BiographicalNobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2013. Web. 6 Jan 2014.

2: Chemical Heritage Magazine ‘the persuit of sweet:a history of saccharin’

3: Otto Hahn – Biographical. Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2013. Web. 6 Jan 2014.

4: Frederick Soddy – Biographical. Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2013. Web. 7 Jan 2014.

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Categories: Education

Meet our guest bloggers – Jessica Breen

14 August, 2014 - 16:24

I am a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Process Research and Development (iPRD) at the University of Leeds. My research is on the synthesis of chiral amines relevant to the pharmaceutical industry but I have a general interest in organic chemistry, catalysis and sustainable methodologies. When I am not in the lab, I blog at The Organic Solution on a range of topics including chemical research, postdoc life and outreach experiences. Recently, I have become interested in the connection between chemists across the globe which has led me to create an academic twitter tree.

To continue this academic tree theme, this blog will explore certain strands of the chemistry Nobel Laureate family tree using the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Chemical Connections. The blog will delve into the life and heritage of different chemistry Nobel Laureates and, amongst other things, we shall find out if having a Nobel winner in your lineage could have an effect on your career, for example, does having a Nobel winner in your ancestry mean you are more likely to achieve academic greatness? If there is a Nobel winner that you would like to see featured, please get in touch.

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Categories: Education

Tales of the abandoned glassware

7 August, 2014 - 12:21

Guest post by Heather Cassell

Mysteriously abandoned?
©iStock

I love working in the lab. I’m happiest when I’m pottering about among the bottles and the beakers getting on with my work. Most of my experience has been in multi-group labs of varying sizes; all have generally been good fun to work in, with lots of people to talk to who each have different skills and experiences. This can be very useful when you need any help, especially when you are learning new techniques.

One thing you can rely on happening in the lab at some point, especially a large lab used by many groups, is the appearance of Mysteriously Abandoned Glassware. Usually the bottle, beaker, or flask is unlabelled. If you’re lucky enough to have a label, it’s guaranteed to be so faded you can’t read it. Sometimes the glassware contains a colourless liquid; other times a crystalline material, evidence of the previous presence of now long lost liquid. A common variation of the Mysteriously Abandoned Glassware is the flask/beaker of something that has had Virkon (a pink disinfectant) added to it and left in the sink, again with no label in sight to point us to the perpetrator. Over time, the pink Virkon discolours, but the glassware remains Mysteriously Abandoned.

Over the years, I have realised I have a fairly low mess tolerance (compared to the other people I work with), at least in the lab; my office desk is another matter! I like a clean and tidy bench to work on and the same goes for communal areas, so while others are happy to ignore the things that have been left, I find myself doing something about it. I’m always the one tidying up as I am waiting for the centrifuge to run, or doing other lab jobs (filling up hand towels, checking stock levels, emptying disposal bins…). In the case of Mysteriously Abandoned Glassware, I end up trying to find the owner (often a mystery) then trying to work out what it is.

More often than not, the solution is something fairly innocuous like a buffer (Tris or PBS), which we dilute from concentrated stocks, or an alcohol (ethanol or methanol). After I’ve worked out what it is and how to dispose of it, I’ll send the glassware to be washed or do it myself. Within hours, you can guarantee that someone will come and say, ‘have you seen my [insert common solvent here]? I left it somewhere…’ The lab will stay reasonably tidy for a few days or maybe even a few blissful weeks, before another piece of Mysteriously Abandoned Glassware materialises and the cycle continues.

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Categories: Education

Meet our guest bloggers – Heather Cassell

7 August, 2014 - 12:09

I’m Heather Cassell (née Stubley). I did a BSc in biochemistry and genetics at the University of Leeds, then I moved to the University of York where I did an MRes in biomolecular sciences followed by a PhD investigating enzyme activity in non-aqueous solvents. I am currently finishing my first postdoc position working as a research fellow in molecular and cell biology at the University of Surrey. The project involves cloning proteins of interest and attaching them to polymers or other nanoparticles then assessing their toxicity and cellular location in liver related cell lines.

I decided to write a ‘life in the lab’ blog strand because I love working as a scientist, especially the time spent in the lab itself – despite the many challenges. It gives me a chance to share my enthusiasm for working as a researcher and all things science-related. I plan to give an early career scientist’s view of life in the lab, balancing work and childcare, procrastination and productivity, research and recreation.

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Categories: Education

The discovery of Buckyballs

31 July, 2014 - 16:31

Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Among the many accidental discoveries through the ages is an experiment designed to probe carbon molecules in space, which unearthed a new terrestrial molecule.

Harry Kroto with buckyballs
© Science Photo Library

It all happened in an 11-day whirl, between 1 September 1985, when Harry Kroto first arrived at Rice University, US, and 12 September, when he, along with Richard Smalley and Robert Curl, submitted a paper to Nature: C60 Buckminsterfullerene’. Eleven years later, in 1996, the three were awarded the Nobel prize for chemistry.


Indeed, a Nobel prize may have been some consolation to Smalley and Curl, who were initially reluctant to delay their research on silicon and germanium semiconductors to let Kroto play with carbon. Kroto was exploring a completely different area of research: cyanopolyynes, alternating C–N chains detected in interstellar space using radiotelescopes. Although the evidence for their existence was good, the origin of these compounds was still unknown. Kroto postulated that they may form in the vicinity of red giants, and wanted to use Smalley’s laser-generated supersonic cluster beam to recreate this high-heat atmosphere and uncover mechanisms for their formation.

After agreeing to let Kroto use the apparatus, the three scientists, helped by graduate students James Heath, Sean O’Brien and Yuan Liu, loaded a graphite disk onto the beamline in a helium chamber and vaporised it into a plasma at temperatures exceeding the surface temperatures of most stars. Under high pressure helium, the vapour cooled and condensed, forming new interatomic bonds and aligning into different-sized clusters, which were immediately pulse ionised and swept into a mass spectrometer for analysis.

First, the students found Kroto’s expected carbon snakes, but then they noticed a distinct peak at C = 60 and a smaller one at C = 70. The abundance of C60, and increasing yield under higher pressure conditions suggested a very stable, closed-shell macromolecule. Unlike Kekulé’s benzene ring, buckminsterfullerene was not identified through dreaming, but through the resourceful application of sticky tape and cardboard cut outs. The model was proposed: a truncated icosahedron, consisting of twenty hexagons and twelve pentagons, like a carbon football. The name, buckminsterfullerene, was inspired by the architect famous for his similar-looking geodesic domes.

Since then, enthusiastic exploration into other fullerene allotropes has revealed that we could have accidentally discovered buckyballs long ago using much lower-tech equipment: a burning candle produces buckyballs in its soot by vaporising wax molecules. Not only that, but buckyballs occur in geological formations on Earth and, since 2010, have been detected in cosmic dust clouds. The ball-like carbon molecule wasn’t even a new idea: between 1970 and 1973, three independent research groups led by Eiji Osawa of Toyohashi University of Technology, R W Henson of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment, and D A Bochvar of the USSR, predicted the existence of the C60 molecule and calculated its stability. However, their work was purely theoretical, and didn’t get the attention it deserved. Buckyballs were discovered, rather than made, so perhaps it’s not surprising that they were found by accident: more surprising is that that weren’t found before.

 

References:

The Chemical Heritage Foundation – Richard E. Smalley, Robert F. Curl, Jr., and Harold W. Kroto

Press release – The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1996: Robert F. Curl Jr., Sir Harold Kroto, Richard E. Smalley

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Categories: Education

Meet our guest bloggers – Rowena Fletcher-Wood

31 July, 2014 - 16:11

I am a keen science communicator, a doctoral researcher in materials chemistry at the University of Birmingham and a climbing instructor.

Most of all, I like telling stories.

When I climb, I learn to fall. When I do chemistry, I learn to look for the unexpected. I have to agree with Einstein: researchers don’t know what they’re doing, that’s what makes it research – we’re fumbling around in the dark waiting for accidents to happen, and hopefully yield good results. Some of the things we see and use every day were discovered purely by accident – some of the things I will be writing about here.

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Categories: Education

Journal cover art that will brighten your day

24 July, 2014 - 16:22

Guest post from Tom Branson

After browsing the recent chemical literature, I have finally found enlightenment. I have quite simply been left in a trance after witnessing a recent cover from Chemical Society Reviews.

A colour explosion

There’s so much colour in this image I just don’t know where to begin. So let’s start by taking a look at that green globe. Surely a prophecy of a future world when green chemistry has finally paid off and this development also seems to have led to a plethora of plant life sprouting from the Earth. Holding that planet aloft are two pairs of caring hands. An adult gently holds a child’s tiny hands and together they embrace this new future. Peace and love and chemistry, what more could you ask for?

And what about that background? Wow, they didn’t hold back with the colour palette. With some journals still charging for colour figures I bet these guys always get their money’s worth.

So there are adult hands, clasping a child’s hands, supporting the world, sprouting a bouquet of flowers, in front of a mega-rainbow, oh it’s almost enough to make me quit science and run off to join a cult.

Seriously though, the cover is a wonderful attempt to highlight sustainability and forward thinking, something that is sadly all too often lacking in modern society. The author of the paper, Jinlong Gong of Tianjin University, China, tells me of his hope that ‘this cover can call up the attention of people to consider more about the future of our world’. Nicely said.

There are not really many clues in the image as to what the published science is about but the keen eyed among you may have spotted a few water droplets on the plant leaves. Was the printer simply too close to the water cooler at Chem. Soc. Rev. headquarters, or is this paper all about solar water splitting? Aha, the latter of course.

Photocatalysis

The cover art is for a review article about a really promising solution for solar energy; tantalum-based semiconductors. Visible light can be absorbed by these semiconductors and used in solar water splitting, converting solar energy into chemical energy. The team from China highlight that while this type of photocatalyst is still far away from use in practical applications, improvements in the efficiency and stability of these systems give hope to the tantalum-based community.

Those wanting to know more about this tantal(um)ising hope for the future can access the article over at Chem. Soc. Rev.

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Categories: Education

Meet our guest bloggers – Tom Branson

24 July, 2014 - 16:00

I recently completed my PhD at The University of Leeds where I was investigating protein-carbohydrate interactions and protein assembly. I’m a synthetic biologist now working on biomolecular interactions, based in The Netherlands. I also blog about science communication issues and chemistry trivia over at Chemically Cultured.

Here at Chemistry World, I will be writing a regular blog series to highlight some of the best academic journal covers – the images that grace the front of those magazines we all paw through. Many of you might think that academic journals are a place where only serious facts and tables of data find their home, but, at the very start of many journals lies an artistic outburst.

These journal covers are a great place for researchers to highlight their work and at the same time, show off their artistic skills. Many covers have caught my eye over the years and they deserve to be promoted for the talent and, more than often, eccentricities that show in these designs. Imagination, creativity and communication are core principles in the world of science and all this comes to the fore on the front cover of our favourite periodicals.

 

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Categories: Education

YMS winners

10 July, 2014 - 14:50

The Royal Society of Chemistry’s 3rd Younger Members Symposium (YMS2014) was held towards the end of June at the University of Birmingham. Kicking off the day was Lesley Yellowlees who gave an inspirational plenary lecture covering her research and career path, in one of her final acts as RSC president. ‘Aspire to be the president of the Royal Society of Chemistry – it’s the best job ever,’ she told the audience. She also shared lessons she had learned over the years including: develop your own style, grasp opportunities and find ways of dealing with difficult colleagues.

Jamie Gallagher, the University of Glasgow’s public engagement officer, energised everyone after lunch by talking about his work and why public engagement makes you a better academic. Public engagement doesn’t necessarily have to involve standing on a stage like Jamie does on a regular basis. He gave some fantastic advice on the many schemes and organisations to get involved with such as Cafe Scientifique and your local RSC section.

Both excellent talks but the real meat of the day was comprised of poster sessions and seminars where attendees shared and quizzed each other on their research. Chemistry World was delighted to sponsor its first ever poster prizes in the inorganic and materials category. And the winners were…

First prize went to Giulia Bignami from the University of St Andrews.

Giulia Bignami: ‘The research work described in my poster focuses on the synthesis, according to the assembly-disassembly-organisation-reassembly (ADOR) method, of 17O-enriched UTL-derived zeolitic frameworks and their subsequent characterisation through 17O and 29Si solid-state NMR, involving both 1D and 2D spectral techniques, in magnetic fields ranging from 9.4T to 20.0T. We showed how 17O and 29Si NMR-based structural investigation proves extremely helpful to gain insights into the synthetic process employed, thus shedding light on the way new and targeted zeolitic structures could be achieved.’

Second prize went to Gurpreet Singh from the University of Central Lancashire.

Gurpreet Singh: ‘The aim of the research is to find new ion exchange materials for use in the nuclear industry. The problem with some of the current ion-exchange materials is that they are not stable to the conditions found in the waste pools at nuclear sites. Zirconium phosphates have been proposed to be more stable and by doping other metals into the structure in place of zirconium it might be possible to create new materials which have increase selectivity for the cations of interest (strontium and caesium). The work presented shows that yttrium can be successfully introduced into the structure of alpha-zirconium phosphate and the ion-exchange experiments are on-going.’

Third prize went to Daniel Lester for a poster about work he did at the University of Sussex.

Daniel Lester: ‘In the field of VOC (volatile organic compound) degradation by photocatalysis, P25 (powdered TiO2 of 75% anatase 25% rutile composition) is often seen as a benchmark material. However, in the continuous flow reactors used in industry, a powdered catalyst is impractical to use. I therefore aimed to create several supports for TiO2, which not only improved the physical durability of the catalyst but also improved the photocatalytic efficiency. Glass wool acted as a wave guide, TiO2 nanofibres served as photoactive supports and zeolites provided an electron sink to decrease hole-pair recombination and to increase contact time between the active species (TiO2) and the target VOC.’

Congratulations to all of our poster winners and to the organisers for an enjoyable symposium.

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Categories: Education

Open notebook science – memorial symposium for Jean-Claude Bradley

3 July, 2014 - 16:49

Guest post by Antony Williams, chemconnector.com

Jean-Claude Bradley was a chemist, an evangelist for open science and the father of a scientific movement called Open Notebook Science (ONS). JC, as he was commonly known in scientific circles, was a motivational speaker and in his gentle manner encouraged us to consider that science would benefit from more openness. Extending the practice of open access publishing to open data, JC emphasized the practice of making the entire primary record of a research project publicly available online, primarily using wiki-type environments, and in so doing set the direction for what will likely become an increasingly common path to releasing data and scientific progress to the world.

I first met JC as a PhD student at Ottawa University, Canada, when I was the NMR facility manager and was responsible for scientists and students in their research. JC entered my lab one day to ask for support in elucidating the chemical structure for one of his samples and what began that day was a scientific relationship and friendship spanning over two decades. As one of the founders of the ChemSpider platform now hosted by the Royal Society of Chemistry, JC and I reinvigorated our friendship around a drive to increase openness of chemistry data, access to tools and systems to support chemistry, and simply to make a difference.

From too many conversations I know that some of the basic tenets of his views were shunned by many scientists in the early days of his shift towards ONS. Despite people being interested in his approach only a fractional minority of scientists fully supported ONS by being active participants. Through his activities in curating and validating scientific data, engaging chemical vendors in opening some of their datasets, and his demand that everything he did in science be open, he has produced a legacy that will continue to have influence for years to come. Right now, data he released to the public domain is being worked up into open models for release to the community. The Spectral Game that he dedicated efforts to will be supported and enhanced to assist in teaching spectroscopy. In recognition of his work and to celebrate JC’s contribution to science, a memorial symposium will be held in his honour at Cambridge University on 14 July and, of course, is OPEN to everyone.

Jean-Claude Bradley was a scientific leader, an evangelist for open science and a wonderful man. He will be missed but his legacy will survive and flourish.

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Categories: Education

Making sense of chemical stories

9 June, 2014 - 16:56

Guest post from Lauren Tedaldi, Sense About Science

Have you noticed plastic products labelled as ‘BPA-free’*, heard that Coca-Cola recently removed a specific vegetable oil from its US products** or do you remember the time when there were no blue smarties***? When companies change the way they produce common, long-standing products, we reasonably assume that they have good reasons for doing so: we all know the adage ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ right? In reality, companies can be forced to act on the modified version: ‘If enough people think it’s broken— even if there is no evidence that it is—then you’d better fix it if you want to keep selling it.’

Consumer pressure is a force to be reckoned with. Owing in large part to the internet, consumers now have more access to information than ever before. People can search almost every online discussion ever had about a particular product or additive before making a decision. While this has the potential benefit of making people better informed, the flip-side is that the internet and media are littered with misconceptions, myths and pure fallacies, which come up time and time again. For example, the idea that you can live a ‘chemical-free’ life is used by many food-producers; and ‘natural ingredients’ is used as a synonym for ‘good’ in cosmetics and toiletries. But every single thing you come into contact with is made from chemicals: your book, your iPad, yourself! What’s more, not all naturally occurring substances are good for you: the pesticide strychnine, the highly toxic poison for which there is no antidote, is entirely natural – it’s isolated from the strychnine tree.

At Sense About Science, we spend more of our time responding to chemical scare stories, helping journalists pre-empt this narrative, than almost any other single issue. We regularly work with scientists frustrated at the hype around their research. This has changed relatively little over the 10-plus years we’ve been working to tackle chemical myths (Making sense of chemical stories was first launched in 2006). There has been some change: beauty journalists are now more aware and seek advice from a toxicologist or cosmetics scientist more often; and we regularly see detox diets and products debunked across national press and magazines. But we continue to see high profile chemical scares hitting the headlines.

When we see recurring misinformation we respond with our public guides. Teachers and midwives and others who are helping people cut through the noise, as well as journalists and policy makers – who the original guide was written for – have been requesting copies of the guide. So on 19 May 2014 we launched a new edition of Making sense of chemical stories. By capturing insights from the chemists and dieticians who developed the guide, we address six common chemical myths. Armed with these six points, anyone can critique the chemical stories they see:

  1. You can’t lead a chemical-free life
  2. Natural isn’t always good for you and man-made chemicals are not inherently dangerous
  3. Synthetic chemicals are not causing many cancers and other diseases
  4. “Detox” is a marketing myth
  5. We need man-made chemicals
  6. We are not just subjects in an unregulated, uncontrolled environment, there are checks in place

In the guide, we look at common consumer issues to debunk widespread myths. Why are labels such as ‘no artificial ingredients’ or ‘additive free’ seen as good things on our products? Dr Paul Illing, a toxicologist, talks about why additives in food are useful in some cases:

‘Additives have been around for centuries. Many agents that are essential for commercial food preparation and storage have their analogues in the kitchen. Caramel (E150a), a colouring agent, can be made at home by heating sugar. Some additives are clearly beneficial: in 1941 calcium was added to flour to prevent rickets; and antioxidants (necessary to prevent the fats in all prepared foods involving meat or pastry from going rancid) include ascorbic acid (vitamin C, E300) and the tocopherols (vitamin E, E306-309).’

 The guide highlights to consumers that products are not inherently better just because they don’t contain additives.

Professor Danka Tamburic, a specialist in cosmetic science, goes on to explain that we also need certain additives in cosmetics:

‘Most cosmetics and toiletries contain water, hence make a good substrate for growing microbes (eg bacteria or fungi). Proper preservation of cosmetics and toiletries is a necessity, not a choice. Bacterial cells are too small for the naked eye to detect, but if there are enough of them in the product, they may cause skin infections and other problems, especially if the skin is already damaged (cut, bruised or sore). Contaminated products could cause ye infections and, in extreme cases, blindness.’

We urge people, next time you are thinking about paying more for something simply because it’s ‘additive-free’, ‘100% natural’, or ‘detoxifying’, you might want to stop and think whether it’s worth paying a premium for a chemical misconception.

 

The full version of the guide can be found here or visit Sense About Science to see more of our public guides that can help you make evidence-based decisions about the products you choose to buy.

*Bis-phenol A (BPA) is a chemical that is used in manufacturing clear rigid plastic, like water bottles, and there is no compelling evidence that the level of exposure from plastic bottles and packaging is damaging to health

**Coca-Cola has removed brominated vegetable oil (BVO) from its US products (it is not in their European products) owing to consumer pressure. BVO is often incorrectly linked to the toxicity and accumulation data from brominated flame retardants

***Nestlé removed the colouring Brilliant Blue (E133) and replaced it with a natural colourant called spirulina after consumer pressure to go ‘artificial additive-free’. There is no strong evidence for a link between E133 and hyperactivity, and spirulina itself has adverse effects at high concentrations. However, it is often preferred as the natural choice

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Categories: Education

The music of molecules

4 June, 2014 - 15:36

What do molecules sound like? In chemistry, we rarely take advantage of the full panoply of senses available to most humans. Although, as Phillip Ball wrote in January this year that ‘chemistry is the most sensuous science … vision, taste and smell have always been among the chemist’s key analytical tools’, we now sensibly avoid using one of these (molecular gastronomists aside, I’m not aware of a lab that encourages tasting of samples) and rarely, if ever, take advantage of our other senses: touch and hearing.

For researcher David Watts, the idea of listening to organic molecules had been ‘languishing in a notebook’ since he first visualised compounds as tiny stringed instruments. As each molecule has a vibrational signature, it should be possible to convert them to characteristic musical tones. David realised that data from Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) should provide all the necessary information, ‘the frequency and amplitude of absorption in the bonds’, albeit in the wrong format for direct conversion to sound. He designed a second step to create audible sound waves from those vibrations. ‘If an inverse Fourier transform is performed then the FTIR spectrum can be converted into the time/amplitude domain and the vibrations of the molecules heard.’

You can hear his results online at The sounds of chemical molecules. The sounds themselves vary between a telephone tone and the sort of discordant sounds used to create tension in budget science fiction, but making beautiful music was never the aim. This was part curiosity and part proof of principle, but Watts can already see a number of applications.

‘Having the sound of a molecule allows you to perceive it using our auditory sense,’ he told Chemistry World. ‘This alone in my view justifies the experiment.’ Most people, except perhaps those with perfect pitch, would not be able to discern structural/functional information from a static tone, but Watts argues that this isn’t the point – sound adds an additional element to a researcher’s relationship with molecules. ‘Maybe this auditory chemical perception ability can be learnt with practice and be useful for organic chemists as an additional way for them to connect or understand their molecules. A particularly interesting idea is in the auditory monitoring of a chemical reaction, maybe an online FTIR monitoring system could provide reaction progress feedback or offer insight into reactions and their intermediate states. The use of the extra sense of hearing allows you to watch and perform an experiment whilst listening to its progress.’

Giving a voice to a molecule is fairly straightforward. ‘Sounds can be created for any molecule providing a digital spectrum is available,’ says Watts. Although the exact applications are still unclear, it may be wise to start compiling the music of the molecules now, so that we’re ready when those uses do become apparent. ‘In my opinion, the auditory representation of the molecule should be obtained for all molecules and included in online databases as extra information for familiarization purposes and potential future uses,’ says Watts.

As a proof of concept, Watts’ demo proves that accessing an additional sense is well within the realms of possibility. The sine waves he generates may be somewhat grating, and I’m not sure I could bring myself to listen to them throughout the process of a reaction, but they’re just a first step. Next would be to find a waveform that is more pleasing to the ear, or modulate it with additional data. Perhaps temperature could set a rhythm, syncopated by pressure. Soon, we could all be dancing to a molecular melody.

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Categories: Education

Schrödinger’s water for the perfect cup of coffee

30 May, 2014 - 11:33

How a computational chemist and an understanding of water helped a coffee shop owner to become the 2014 UK Barista Champion, set to take on the world. Guest post by Chris Hendon.

Christopher Hendon and Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood at Colonna and Smalls, Bath
© tomsmith photography

Brewing coffee might be the most practiced chemical extraction in the world. But within this process there are many variables, all of which dictate the flavour of the resulting coffee. I’ve summarised just a few of them here:

Variable Effect
Bean origin Not all beans have the same chemical composition.
Bean roast The chemical composition of the coffee bean changes throughout the roasting process.
Size of coffee grindings A consistent particle size is important as the higher the surface area, the faster the extraction.
Dry mass of coffee grindings A different extraction composition.
Temperature of extraction The temperature dictates both the rate and composition of the extraction.
Pressure of extraction Has a similar effect as temperature.
Time of extraction Increasing extraction time allows for a greater extraction.
The water This variable is less obvious, but it is clear that the chemical composition of water (i.e. dissolved ions) play a very important role.

 

Analysis of extracted coffee by gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS) suggests that the average coffee bean contains upwards of 500 chemical compounds, excluding all of the heavy cellular material. Of this complex array, the bean is primarily a mixture of weakly acidic molecules, and the weaker acids are more desirable. A ‘bad coffee’ can be the result of any combination of the aforementioned variables going awry.

Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood, 2014 UK Barista Champion and co-owner of the specialty coffee shop Colonna and Small’s, in Bath, UK, carefully controls most of these variables. He grinds beans to a consistent particle size, weighs the dry mass, uses a constant temperature and pressure for extraction (which  he dials in for each bean on the day), and defines the extraction by the mass of the extracted coffee. However, it’s almost impossible for him to control the chemical composition of the incident water. Water’s ionic content fluctuates dramatically depending on region and quantity of rain – and it rains a lot in England. The coffee industry has designed some ways to deal with this problem, with filtration units and vague guidelines on what chemical composition to aim for.

The coffee industry has concluded that an ionic concentration of 150–300 parts per million (ppm) is ideal for coffee extraction. But that is inherently flawed; water could contain 150ppm of HCl and would certainly not taste very nice. Conversely, water could contain 150ppm of NaHCO3, which might make you burp as the acid/base reaction in your stomach rapidly releases gaseous CO2. So in search of the perfect coffee, it would be wrong to accept these guidelines without some thought as to the impact of different chemical compositions. Unfortunately, not every local barista has access to an atomic absorption spectrometer (we do). Instead this measurement is often collected (if at all) using an ionic conductivity probe, which makes two absolutely fatal assumptions:

  1. The ratio between dissolved ions (Ca2+, Mg2+, Na+, H+, HCO3-, CO32- etc) is approximately constant
  2. The ionic conductivity of all ions is approximately the same

Both of these statements are incorrect. For instance, in Bath there is much more Ca2+ present than Mg2+ (approximately 300ppm:5ppm, respectively); but in Melbourne the Ca2+:Mg2+ ratio is approximately 20ppm:20ppm. Secondly, the conductivity of an ion is dependent on, among other things, the size and charge of the ion.

Colonna-Dashwood is certainly right in challenging this accepted guideline, but what interaction do these molecules have with coffee particulates and more importantly, does it even matter?

Yes. It matters, a lot.

Christopher Hendon and Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood at Colonna and Smalls, Bath
© tomsmith photography

As is often the case in science, it was an element of serendipidy that brought me into the picture. I’m a computational chemist at the University of Bath, and overheard this discussion while waiting for my coffee. I thought I might be able to contribute to the problem, at very least help to rationalize this in terms of quantum mechanics. I had learned from fundamental chemistry that electron-rich motifs interact with electron deficient motifs. Essentially all molecules in coffee feature a heteroatom (an electron-rich motif), which should interact strongly with dissolved cations in water. Dissolved anions may act as bases, but are not expected to interact with coffee particulates. Thus, water with a high cationic concentration should facilitate a greater extraction of flavorsome notes in coffee. Along with Maxwell and his partner Lesley, we’ve recently published our results.

The world of coffee is an unusual place. As mentioned earlier, Maxwell is the 2014 UK Barista Champion. To be crowned this, you must submit an espresso, a cappuccino and a signature drink to a panel of four judges. You have 15 minutes to do so, and are judged on knowledge of the coffee, your overall presentation and cleanliness, flavour, technical ability and so on. Armed with the knowledge gleaned from our research into the interactions of ions in solutions, I designed different waters for different extractions, to bring out different flavours. This was particularly intriguing for the signature drink which featured an espresso shot mixed with two grape extracts brewed in different water – one with high cation content, one with high base content – to extract different flavours from the grapes. With this victory (for science, I like to think), we are now headed to the world barista championships in Rimini, Italy, June 8–12. I hope that our artillery of scientific knowledge will see Maxwell becoming the 2014 World Barista Champion.

If you find yourself in Bath and fancy a coffee, I would highly recommend you head down to Colonna and Small’s to see and taste the result in person, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. At very least, you can use this story to prove that work really does get done in the coffee shop.

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Categories: Education

Share prices around merger deals are not real

20 May, 2014 - 13:17

In the wake of AstraZeneca’s (AZ) stout rebuttal of Pfizer’s overtures to a takeover bid, media all over the place are reporting the ‘disappointing’ news that AZ’s share price has ‘tumbled’. In my opinion this is typical of the short-memory effect that looking at share prices seems to somehow bestow on even some quite sensible people.

Look at the facts and circumstances – AZ has just been subject of speculation over a possible takeover. This inevitably leads to an increase in the share price as speculators look to take advantage of the premium price that any bid is bound to offer, or the rising price in the build-up (partly caused by demand arising from their own speculation).

Once the possibility of that short-term gain is removed – in this case by AZ shutting the door in Pfizer’s face – the price will inevitably go down, as those short-term investors seek to cash in their holdings and go off elsewhere in search of another stock that’s on the rise.

But here’s the important bit. AZ’s share price is still significantly higher than it was in the middle of April, before all this talk started. The only people who have actually lost money are the ones who bought their shares after 25 April, and sold them yesterday or today.

— Pfizer (red) and AZ (blue) over the last month (from Google finance)

It is slightly more revealing to look at Pfizer’s share price over the last couple of months, which overall is significantly down. This wasn’t helped by some decidedly mediocre sales figures in the company’s quarterly announcement at the beginning of May. And the further Pfizer’s price falls, the less valuable that combined cash-and-stock offer becomes.

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Categories: Education

Poster prizes galore at ISACS14 & 15

8 May, 2014 - 17:14

As well as sponsoring the prize for the best poster at ISACS13, this July, Chemistry World is also sponsoring prizes at two more events in the series, ISACS14 and ISACS15!

Challenges in Organic Chemistry, ISACS14, to be held in Shanghai, China, this August, follows the success of ISACS1, in 2010, and ISACS7, in 2012, and will feature experts in the field of organic chemistry and synthesis.

Two weeks after ISACS14, Challenges in Nanoscience, ISACS15, is taking place in San Diego in the US. It will bring together scientists from across the world to discuss the latest advances in nanoscience and will encompass a broad range of disciplines, including chemistry, biology, physics and engineering.

Talks from leading experts in both fields are complimented by extensive poster sessions that will provide many networking opportunities.  To take advantage of this opportunity to showcase your latest research alongside leading scientists submit your poster abstract by 2 June for ISACS 14 and by 9 June for ISACS15. The winning poster will be chosen by the ISACS scientific committee and each winner will be awarded a prize of £250 and a Chemistry World mug .

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Categories: Education

One word, many meanings

6 May, 2014 - 17:39

Last week I attended the British Science Association’s Science Communication Conference in Guildford, Surrey. The conference explored a number of avenues, from the role of design and data visualisation through to the relevance of the whole academic field of science communication. As you might expect for a conference populated almost entirely by communicators, there was as much discussion on twitter (under the umbrella of #SciComm14) as there was in person.

What scientists say and what the public hears. http://t.co/DVpu0ZME8L pic.twitter.com/Ku2bAXEyda

— Austin Frakt (@afrakt) April 28, 2014

This tweet gained instant traction. It demonstrates neatly that in order to understand scientific reporting, one must first learn to speak the language of science. The image comes from a 2011 feature in Physics Today on communicating the science of climate change.

There are arguments for and against using ‘accessible’ alternatives, depending in part on the desired outcome of your communication. In a more formal educational setting, for example, it may be best to use these ambiguous words along with their scientific definition, so that they can be used in their full scientific context in future. Conversely, some words are tainted by association – chemical and nuclear both have negative connotations, so a push towards their scientific use may help to break that stigma. Whatever good intentions one has, insisting that ‘the public’ use ambiguous language in a certain way seems patronising and ultimately doomed to fail (after all, we still hear that evolution is ‘only a theory’). Protecting scientific language in this way may, therefore, reinforce the dividing line between ‘scientists’ and ‘the public’.

Thinking that now would be a good time to extend this list, I asked what other words people would like to see added.

.@BenValsler control.

— Kirsty Jean Jackson (@kjjscience) May 2, 2014

 

This was a very good start. Control is a word with a number of definitions and wide breadth of meanings. The person in charge is ‘in control’, you might ‘take control’ of your career or fly a remote control aeroplane for a hobby. Conversely, an abusive partner is ‘controlling’ and a fire may become ‘out of control’. This emotionally weighted word means something very different to scientists; usually a variable that is kept constant to allow researchers to see the true effect of an experiment or model.

More suggestions came in throughout the conference:

.@BenValsler I also wondered if mutant should be on there too. People often think ninja turtles.

— Kirsty Jean Jackson (@kjjscience) May 2, 2014

 

@BenValsler towards the maths end there are loads eg implies. Public – suggests, insinuates; better – logically causes

— William Morgan (@wjsm) May 2, 2014

 

@BenValsler estimate – guess – ?

— IanManning (@IanGManning) May 2, 2014

 

@BenValsler @GinnyFBSmith For biochemists, “protein” is problematic. Many biochemists have tales of family thinking they work on nutrition.

— Eva Amsen (@easternblot) May 2, 2014

 

@easternblot @BenValsler ‘chemicals’ too- seen as a bad thing, but it’s impossible to have ‘chemical free’ food or toiletries

— Ginny Smith (@GinnyFBSmith) May 2, 2014

 

I’ve put these into a table, along with my suggested alternatives. Can you add some more of your own? Put them in the comments below and I’ll update the table over time.

Scientific term Public meaning Alternative choice
Chemical Additive, unnatural Substance
Control Exert influence over Comparison
Mutant Monster New variety
Implies Insinuates, suggests Leads to
Protein Dietary category Amino acid chain
Estimate Guess Approximation
Organic Without pesticides Carbon-containing
Abstract Strange, non-physical Summary
Nuclear Energy or weapon ?
Inert Motionless Inactive
Vacuum Suction or cleaner Absence of anything
Elements Weather Types of atoms
Experiment Play around with Test
Expression Turn of phrase ?
Chemist Pharmacist Chemical scientist
Stress Tension, worry Forces (in physics)
Significance Relevance, importance Measure of likelihood
Radiative Radioactive Transmits energy
Novel Book New/unique
Base Solid foundation, lair Alkaline

 

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Categories: Education

No smoke without fire for pharma mergers?

29 April, 2014 - 11:54

It’s spring. It’s the end of the financial year for many companies. And it’s the time of year when a lot of them hold annual shareholders’ meetings, so there’s a certain temptation to make announcements that will excite shareholders (or maybe that’s just me being cynical). Some or all of those things may be contributing to the media and rumour mills working overtime about mergers and acquisitions in the pharmaceutical and chemical sectors.

Its a deal

— It seems to be open season for pharma deals, but how many of them will actually go through?

For the last few years, things have been rather quiet in terms of pharma megamergers – in which already large companies crash together in the hope of finding ‘efficiency savings’ and ‘synergies’. Most of the more recent deals have been big companies snapping up smaller startups to acquire specific products or technologies that fit with their priorities. A lot of analysts and industry commentators have been making noises along the lines of ‘pharma has learned its lesson: megamergers cause a lot of disruption for not much overall gain’.

But then, in February, consultancy firm McKinsey put out a report that essentially said, ‘you know what, those mergers did actually do something positive, they “resulted in positive returns for shareholders”’. Whether or not this is a good thing for the overall health of the firms, and of their R&D pipelines is another discussion entirely.

The most recent deal that’s actually been confirmed seems to fit this model – Novartis, GlaxoSmithKline and Eli Lilly have agreed to a roughly $25 billion (£15 billion) three-way asset shuffle in an attempt to focus on what they’re best at, and slim down their sidelines.

It’s all getting a bit hostile

Then there’s Valeant pharmaceuticals gunning for Allergan, the makers of Botox (onabotulinum toxin A). Rather than engage in expensive and risky R&D, Valeant has built up its business by buying established products and squeezing all the value it can out of them. Last week, Valeant revealed that it had teamed up with activist investor Bill Ackman and launched a hostile bid to try and buy up Allergan’s shares. If it goes through, the deal would be worth somewhere in the region of $47 billion.

In response, Allergan has activated a ‘poison pill’ defence, which gives other shareholders rights to purchase additional shares if a single party builds up more than a 10% share in the company, weakening the aggressor’s ability to force a deal through. Allergan’s board has indicated that it might not be averse to a deal with Valeant, but doesn’t want to be bullied into a quick decision without making sure the terms are right.

From the point of view of Ackman, this is a slightly unusual alliance. It is much more common for an activist investor to build up an influential share in a target company, then try and force the board to sell (or otherwise influence the company’s strategic direction), rather than to team up with a prospective buyer.

Boxing with the big boys

There’s also Pfizer and AstraZeneca (AZ). The UK’s second largest pharma firm has confirmed that the world’s biggest drugmaker made a surreptitious pass at a merger deal late last year. AZ politely but firmly gave Pfizer the brush-off, but the behemoth is reportedly coming in with a second, much more brazenly public, offer. But AZ appears not to be for turning. As far as its board is concerned, AZ’s future is as an independent company – perhaps even a slimmed down version of today’s AZ that will follow GSK and Novartis’s lead, and ‘focus on what [it does] well’, in the words of chief executive Pascal Soriot. Whether the door is truly closed, or these are just the opening gambits in a long and drawn out battle, we must wait and see. But there are plenty of people who don’t share Pfizer’s confidence that the deal is such a good idea.

Smoke and mirrors

Businessmen whispering

— Coverage of business deals can get a bit like a game of Chinese whispers © Shutterstock

And then there are the more nebulous and speculative announcements. According to the rumour mill, US giant Merck & Co has been touting its over-the-counter medicines business for several months. A story from Reuters suggests that German firm Bayer and UK-based Reckitt Benckiser are vying to get in on the action, with a price tag somewhere in the region of $14 billion. Reckitt is already well established in the consumer products market, and, if a Bloomberg story is to be believed, Bayer is looking to divest its Material Science polymers division (with Evonik the potential buyer) and focus on healthcare, which would raise around $10 billion for acquisitions. That might follow the pattern of focusing on your core area within the industry, but it would certainly be a big change in direction for Bayer. Needless to say, none of these companies is saying anything official just yet.

Stories of this nature are always credited to ‘people with knowledge of the matter’ or other such disguised sources. That always makes me wonder just exactly how much ‘knowledge of the matter’ those sources actually have. Deals of this magnitude don’t happen quickly – there’s a whole lot of ‘due diligence’ to go through. Each company needs to check out the other’s claims and proposals, then there’s the twists and turns of political manoeuvring and boardroom negotiations. So there are opportunities for the right people to get hold of information.

But there are equally a lot of people who might gain from these nuggets of ‘information’. News outlets get to write breathlessly speculative pieces with sensational headlines; investors are happy because these disclosures often bump up share prices. While the chemists carry on working in labs and plants, with a growing sense of dread about whether their job will even exist next year.

And we’re still really no closer to knowing – is there a fire in the pharmaceutical sector, or is it all just smoke and mirrors?

Phillip Broadwith, Business editor

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Categories: Education

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