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Academic family: Sir William Ramsay

14 August, 2014 - 15:46

Guest post by JessTheChemist

‘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).



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

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

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

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

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Categories: Education

Meet our guest bloggers – Jessica Breen

14 August, 2014 - 15:24

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 - 11:21

Guest post by Heather Cassell

Mysteriously abandoned?

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 - 11:09

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 - 15:31

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.



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 - 15:11

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

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