chemical education

Shit Undergrads Say

I think we have all heard our undergraduates say the darnedest things and this video coming out of Stanford seems to do a good job summarizing some of the most common.

On a side note, if you ever see your undergrad directly sniffing chemicals please stop them.

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By December 23, 2012 0 comments chemical education

The Seven (deadly) Sins of Science

Professor W. F. v. Gunsteren has written a very interesting essay for Angewandte entitled “The Seven Sins in Academic Behaviour in the Natural Sciences”. In this piece he defines the seven sins as follows (taken from the essay) 

  1.  A poor or incomplete description of the work, for example, publishing pretty pictures instead of evidence of causality.

  2. Failure to perform obvious, cheap tests that could confirm or repudiate a model, theory, or measurement, for example, to detect additional variables or       to show under which conditions a model or theory breaks down.
  3.  Insufficient connection between data and hypothesis or message, leading to lack of support for the message or over-interpretation of data, for example,   rendering the story more sensational or attractive.
  4.  The reporting of only favorable results, for example, reporting positive or desired (hoped for) results while omitting those that are negative.
  5.  Neglect of errors found after publication.

  6.  Plagiarism.

  7. The direct fabrication or falsification of data.


Take the incomplete description of the work. Here the scientific journal(s) come in for some criticism; mainly for the restriction of journal space this in turn leading to more date being squeezed into the supplementary material. Interestingly this material is usually freely available while the actual article it corresponds to sits behind a paywall. So in my humble opinion this is a complete waste of time. Either one or the other but not both. The pressure on journal space makes the paper difficult to understand, says Gunsteren. Here I can only agree with him. Actually I wonder just how many referees read the supplementary material. Now you may not believe it, but when I was refereeing papers I always read the stuff that the authors deemed not necessary to put in the paper, and often came across some interesting discrepancies buried deep within and in sometimes in conflict with the actual text in the paper.

It has been said, “A picture is worth a thousand words”. This statement is certainly reflected in today’s publications where colourful diagrams and pictures litter the publication. If this actually helps clarity is open to question. Perhaps the pictures and cartoons should be relegated to the supplementary material and the actual data transposed to the main body of the text.

Moving on to sin number 4 “reporting of favourable results”. Well we all like to have our theories correspond to the observations, placing data in the paper supporting the hypothesis is very helpful in this regard. However, the tendency to omit negative results does not help the cause of science in moving forward. A negative result is also a result, and it’s reporting would actually help other to avoid making the same mistakes. No doubt in these days of fierce competiveness for grant money publishing negative results probably does not help you to obtain funding.

The word plagiarism rears it’s ugly head in sin number 6. This, of course, has recently been the cause of some spectacular events. Here one can think of the two eminent politicians who were discovered to have borrowed results and theorems from others without proper referencing. Self-plagiarism is a contradiction in terms says Prof. Gunsteren. Here I agree with him, how can you steal your own work or written word. You can’t. One recent eminent case makes the point 1-3.

Data fabrication or falsification is certainly the worst offence a scientist can commit. It is a cardinal sin that often ends in tragedy. One just has to be a reader of the Blog Retraction Watch to see just how often this occurs. One notable event in the world of organic chemistry, published in the pages of Angewandte in 2006, was recently retracted by the author of the paper in agreement with the journal editor. You can read all about it here. Over the years there had been several critical remarks about this paper and I’m sure everyone is conversant with the story and I will not go into detail again. But the question(s) remains: Why did it take so long? Why was it only recently initiated? I guess we will never find out, but retracted it was.

Not many members of the lay community are aware of the amount of fabrication that appears to be going on. Research is usually funded from the public domain and it is scandalous to think that this money is being wasted when fabricated data is published. I’m not sure how this can be avoided, as such data can be very difficult to detect. So it is really up to the scientific community working with the journal editors to try and root this out. Not an enviable task. Perhaps a reproduction of these “Seven Sins” on the header page of every journal might jog the memories of the authors. It will be interesting to see if this post receives any useful comments.


  1. R. Breslow, Tetrahedron Lett. 2011, 52, 4228 – 4232.
  2. R. Breslow, Isr. J. Chem. 2011, 51, 990 – 996.
  3. R. Breslow, J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2012, 134, 6887 – 6892.


By December 9, 2012 4 comments chemical education, opinion, science news

The Flagship of Chemistry (Total Organic Synthesis).

In an essay to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Angewandte Chemie our friend and mentor Prof. K. C. Nicolaou had penned an essay for this august event. Which can be seen here.

Not to be outdone in this essay he examines the flow of chemical knowledge from its emergence in the 5th century B.C. to the present day, 2,500 years or so. Stopping along the way of this long journey, he highlights the leading scientific personalities of each age together with their theorems discoveries.

Emerging out of this primordial soup of chemical knowledge is the science of organic synthesis the “Flagship” of which is “the art of total synthesis”. This “Flagship” was launched in the 19th century and sat in the harbour for quite a few decades until the scientists of the day got their collective acts together and came up with atomic theory. I suppose somehow like hitchhikers in the galaxy. Indeed in 1845 two of these eminent thinkers and, more importantly experimentalists put their heads together and came up with the answer to the ultimate question, and it was not “24”.

Laurent and Gerhardt started to unfurl the sails of the flagship, which had been sitting there gathering dust, recognising that the molecules synthesised to that day could be classified into a “homologous” box and a “type” box, the latter assuming that all organic molecules belonged to three different types. This suggestion paved the way for the connection between inorganic and organic chemistry. Kekulé was also busy on the organic side of the Flagship, thinking about structure and writing his 2-volume book “The Chemistry of Benzene Derivatives or the Aromatic Substances”. Much later on Pauling refined these theories in his book “The Nature of the Chemical Bond”. Which I suppose puts him in the middle of the “Flagship”.

Back to Kekulé; in 1860 together with Canizzaro he organised what must have been one of the first international conferences to deal with all the currently contentious ideas of chemistry, so the crew was assembling, with some dissention. But they did agree on atomic weights and chemical formulas. Indeed this august meeting inspired one participant, Mendeléev that he went home and came up with the periodic table.

The “Flagship” hauled anchor around the late half of the 18th century with work by Scheele (isolation) and Wöhler (synthesis). Liebig and his students also populated the crew refining many ideas of the day. Based on the new science of synthesis new industries sprang up. Perkin, trying to synthesise quinine actually obtained the first dyestuff. More of these were prepared and indeed it was said that the wealth of a nation could be measured in the value of Her dyestuff industry. It was a relatively short step from dyes to pharmaceuticals, Aspirin, introduced by Bayer, being the example.

Synthetic organic chemistry emerged as the driving force of the “Flagship” with many new reactions being discovered, mainly from German laboratories and by students or students of students of Liebig. This was helped along its way by the role of the structure of the various compounds. This vital part of chemistry is just as important today as it was then. I suppose the Admiral of the “Flagship” has to be R. B. Woodward, with numerous captains in tow not to mention a successor, E. J. Corey.

Everything considered I found this to be a very interesting perspective on the evolution of organic synthesis and especially the total synthesis of complex molecules. Prof. Nicolaou has done an excellent job in linking the various scientific discoveries over the years to a subject dear to his heart. If you are interested in the timeline of synthesis it is well worth a read.

A Chemistry Themed Christmas from the RI

A quick heads up. This year The Royal Institution is treating us to chemistry themed Christmas Lectures. Plus to get us in the mood they have  put up an excellent chemistry themed  advent calendar containing a host of favourite elements.

By December 2, 2012 0 comments chemical education, fun