chemical education

Twitter Brain’s Chemistry Novel (and other book) recommendations

I’ve been looking for an easy to read book (fiction or non-fiction) to send out to chemistry students before they arrive at Uni. The plan is to have all our first years read the same book before they arrive. With any luck it will give them something to chat about and give our first few lectures a point of reference.

So I asked the twitter brain for its chemistry book recommendations, and here’s what it came up with.

  1. @Sci_ents @DrRubidium Anyone say Greg Benford’s Timescape? More physics but includes NMR, time travel, eco-disaster, and academics.
  2. @Sci_ents @DrRubidium I can recommend an author… Peter Watts.. his first series is chock full of science goodness including chemistry
  3. @sci_ents we’re partial to this one: Short stories about a deadly assassin who uses a different poison for each kill
  4. @ChemistryWorld @Sci_ents My friend told me to read “The Disappearing Spoon” by Sam Kean. I just checked it out from the library!
  5. @Sci_ents I enjoyed ‘The Girls of Atomic City.” It tells the story of the nuclear bomb development from the “blue collar” people working…
  6. @simonbayly @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld It was Mr Levi whom inspired me onto the chemical trail at age 14. Highly recommended reading.
  7. @BytesizeScience @Sci_ents Goethe’s “Elective Affinities” is a Classical example, but highly metaphorical. Downhill from there.
  8. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld Mr Tompkins by George Gamow
  9. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld The Periodic Table by Primo Levi isn’t a novel exactly, but it is one of the best books ever.
  10. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld @Sci_ents not sure if this counts but “cat’s cradle” by Vonnegut has some nice ideas
  11. @Sci_ents Interesting physics and chemistry in Reflex by Dick Francis. Not exactly concepts though, more application.
  12. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld not really a novel but The Periodic Kingdom by P W Atkins is a great read
  13. @Sci_ents The Documents in the Case, Dorothy L. Sayers. Not much chemistry until the clincher which is chemical concept. (DM for spoiler)
  14. @Sci_ents When I was undergrad, one grad inorg cume at WUSTL included question, “Who killed Missy Moonbeam in The Delta Star?”
  15. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld
    Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood by Oliver Sacks
  16. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld Susan Gaines’ Carbon Dreams?
  17. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld – Napoleon’s Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History, Penny Le Couteur
  18. @Sci_ents Not exactly fitting the criteria but Primo Levi’s Periodic Table comes to mind
  19. @Sci_ents Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table some named as best science novel ever
  20. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld or cat’s cradle if gravity’s rainbow is too much of a slogger
  21. @Sci_ents Emm short answer no. Long shot- Dune. Spice as a drug, water harvesting and terraforming. Best I can do ad hoc
  22. @Sci_ents A Whiff of Death (I. Asimov) — murder mystery set in Chemistry department… The Delta Star (J. Wambaugh) — similar plot.
  23. @Sci_ents @ChemistryWorld gravity’s rainbow, imopolex g


Did we miss any?

Guest Post: The Periodic Table of T-Shirts.

Guest post by Dr Simon Norris a Chemistry teacher at a school in the UK. As his alter ego The Cycling Scientist he has visited primary schools with his science road show. His current interests are using IT to enhance teaching and learning and using social media to create personal CPD for teaching colleagues.

It’s a simple idea. Have 100 plus T-shirts printed in various colours, each with one of the chemical elements on the front. Distribute them to chemists around the world, who get a photo of themselves wearing it, send it to me and I compile the Periodic Table of T Shirts. Advertise the project via Twitter, have the chemists of the world tweet and retweet about it, and the orders would flood in. Another great idea of mine which I would mull over for a few days, perhaps tell a few friends about, do nothing and the opportunity is lost. Except this time, I actually gave it a go and it‘s been a really enlightening experience. Here’s how it happened.

I happen to have three students in my house whose names are also the symbols of chemical elements. I thought it would be fun to get one of them a T-shirt with his name on in the style of a periodic table entry as he had been particularly helpful to others in the house. My students are quite used to my chemistry geekiness so they would not have found this particularly odd. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anywhere that sold them, despite enquiring to the #RealTimeChem community on Twitter. How difficult would it be to design a T shirt and get it printed by one of the many online printers? Far too easy! How difficult would it be to organise T shirts for the rest of the chemistry geeks out there and arrange them into a periodic table of chemistry geeks wearing T-shirts of their favourite element? As it turns out, not too difficult either!

It was going to be straightforward to publicise the project via Twitter with hopefully a few favourable retweets from the likes of @realtimechem, but I was still missing a repository for the ordering information and a space to keep track of who had claimed which element. I needed a website and a blog. How hard could that be? You’ve guessed it- not very difficult at all. I was ready with the website within 24 hours of conception of the original idea. All I needed now was Photoshop and I would be in business. With Photoshop installed on my PC in minutes, courtesy of our fantastic IT department, I set about designing the logos for the shirts. Not so easy! I had never used Photoshop before and hadn’t realised what a huge array of options there would be. However, the great thing about the web is that you are never more than a couple of clicks away from a helpful website and an instructional video. Working with layers: easy! My first logo was ready within a couple of hours and my first batch of T-shirts to test out the idea was ordered a short while later.

The difficulty came with the colour scheme. As a teacher, I know that synthesis is at the apex of the pyramid in Bloom’s taxonomy. All I was doing was creating a few T shirts in different colours to make a periodic table. Mendeleev and others did the hard bit surely? I learned more about the periodic table that day than I had learnt in a long time as a chemistry student and teacher (Steve Wheeler’s post on Learning by Making also exemplifies the same idea ). Should I make the logos different colours for solids, liquids and gases? No, that would be testing my resolve too far if orders did start flooding in. However, choosing the colours for the different groups couldn’t be too tricky surely. Transition metals were going to be emerald green, but what about Zinc, Cadmium and Mercury? The other metals would be dark green, but where should I draw the line and should I have a different colour for the metalloids? I had an order for a Carbon shirt from @stuartcantrill who had seen one of the early retweets from @realtimechem. He suggested an earthy shade and I looked at the palette on the supplier website. Paprika looked like terracotta on the website, but three days later when my Silicon shirt arrived, paprika looked more like salmon pink (sorry Stuart and anyone else that orders one of the non-metals). I’m still not sure whether Lanthanum and Actinium should be the same colour as the transition metals or the lanthanides and actinides respectively but as this is a collaborative project I’m sure someone will advise me!  In the end the completed project will look like the table below, assuming everyone follows the instructions and orders the right colour.

There is a huge amount of interest at my school, but part of me wants these shirts to go to real chemists. Surely there should be someone currently working with each of the elements or an affection for one from some past association. Of course, I chose mine because it’s a shortened form of my name and it’s my project and my rules! My student is also very happy with his shirt and that is great because that’s where the idea started. But I’ve certainly learned a huge amount already, and I hope that by the time the periodic table is complete with chemistry folk sporting shirts of their favourite element, I might have learnt even more.

If you want to appear in the Periodic Table of T Shirts, choose one of the elements for yourself, contact me via Twitter (@cyclinscience) or via my blog and then order it online following the instructions provided. Don’t be put off by Mark Lorch’s suggestion that we can then each contribute to a montage of the Lehrer Periodic Table song. Now that really would be a displacement activity too far for me. Over to you Mark, I’ve got lessons to plan!

By May 12, 2013 3 comments chemical education, fun

WWWTP – Chemistry Teacher Recruiters

This advert just popped up whilst I was reading something on the Guardian science pages. I clicked on it and it took me to the UK’s Department of Education who, in conjunction with the Royal Society of Chemistry are offering chemistry graduates a £20,000 bursary to start teacher training. Good news.

So what’s wrong with this picture? Take a look at the model molecule sitting on the bench behind the teacher? Its a bit fuzzy but it looks rather unlikely to me. I’d sort of hope that someone might have come up with something better to stick on an advert for chemistry teachers. Or maybe it’s part of some cunning plan to select just the most pedantic chemistry graduates.

UPDATE: I just spotted the same picture in a magazine with the Royal Society of Chemistry logo on it!


By March 13, 2013 0 comments chemical education

Replicating Rosalind Franklin’s DNA diffraction experiment.

The 60th anniversary of Watson and Crick’s DNA structure paper is fast approaching (25th April). So I’ve been hunting for nice DNA demos. My favourite so far is a replication of Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling’s diffraction experiment (which appeared in the same issue of Nature).  Franklin and Gosling’s paper featured the now famous photo 51, which contained the tell-tale information that led Watson and Crick to build their double helical model.

The neat thing is you can demonstrate the relationship between the patterns seen in photo 51 and diffraction off a helix using a laser pointer and a spring from a retractable ball point pen.

Just shine the laser through the spring, onto a wall about 3 meters away and you end up with pattern that is strikingly similar to photo 51.

It makes for a great lecture demo or a full lab class, were students can work out the structure of a spring from the diffraction patter. You can find full details in a really nice paper published in The Physics Teacher.

Photo 51

Diffraction pattern from a spring

By February 7, 2013 2 comments chemical education, science news