science news

Bloggers are time wasters

Because we are aren’t we? Really what’s the point? We should be off writing grant proposals, research papers, and (if there is anytime left) maybe do a spot of teaching. Blogging’s not going to get us anywhere, nobody takes it seriously so ,frankly, let’s all just pack it in and get on with some proper work. And if by chance we do stumble across something important (possible plagiarism or fraud maybe) then really we’d best tell the big boys and they’ll sort it out. If we really feel the need to write something about it then we can report the situation once its all sorted out.

Message received and understood.

At least that’s what some members of the community would have us do. Take the commenter (going by the name of bloggersaretimewasters) who responded to Chembark‘s eloquent rebuttal of ACS Nano editorial attempt to put bloggers in their place.

I took the liberty to check out your website at Saint Louis University. I am not sure what the requirements for tenure are in your department, but I can assure you that if you keep up the meager publication output you have had so far (despite working in excellent labs at outstanding universities) you would find it difficult to obtain tenure at a serious and reputable University (though you would likely have a good shot at a community college).
I have also cross referenced the publication output and credentials of several other “bloggers”, like yourself. What you all have in common, besides the self-proclaimed notion that you are doing the community a huge favor by uncovering so many frauds left right and centre is… a modest publication output and an overall “low” scientific profile. By low I don`t mean that you keep a low profile out of modesty, mind you.
Bottom line. How about you people try to forge your careers through your own discoveries and original scientific inquiries, rather than try to get ahead by attempting to undermine the work of others? Ah wait, I guess many of you don`t do it because you are not able to. That`s too bad.
You are wasting a lot of time and resources… I guess it will not really hit you until you are denied tenure. It seems you have started your tenure track position very recently, so maybe you are still in time. Please consider this post as a wake up call, because the day your tenure is denied (through peer review, mind you, not by declared or anonymous bloggers) it will be too late… game over!


I’m sure this attitude is far from uncommon. The majority of the people who think along these lines probably don’t bother reading our “time-wasting” outputs so certainly wouldn’t bother commenting on them. But, in my experience, this is an increasingly archaic view point. I have a permanent academic position in a UK university. I was recently promoted to the Senior Lecturer (UK equivalent of Associate Professor) not despite my blogging and other engagement activities, but, in no small part, BECAUSE of them. And increasingly, certainly in the UK, the need for scientists and academics to effectively communicate their views and work to a wider audience is being recognised: Nature Chemistry highlights bloggers outputs in every issue and take a look at the success of The Conversation, a news site written entirely by academics and sponsored by top research Universities such as Warwick, UCL, and Bristol as well as agencies such as the Wellcome Trust. Or on a smaller scale Guru Magazine again written largely by academics and funded by The Wellcome trust.

Yes my publication list would probably be longer if I did less blogging. But the same goes for spending time with family. Maybe I should stop wasting my time with them as well?

By October 25, 2013 13 comments opinion, science news

Happy Berzelius Day

Today, August 20th, marks the birthday of Swedish chemist Jöns Jacob Berzelius (1779–1848).

I decided to write this post because, frankly, I knew nothing about Berzelius. He seems to be something of an “unsung hero”, despite his important contributions to science. I thought I’d take the opportunity to collect some key facts about this visionary chemist’s life.

The late 18th and early 19th centuries were formative years for modern chemistry. The names of many of the pioneers of that age – such as Lavoisier, Dalton, Avogadro, Volta and Faraday – live on in the minds of scientists to this day (mostly, perhaps, in the form of the units we use). Berzelius lived through much of this revolutionary (in more ways than one) period, and many of his discoveries and innovations have underpinned chemistry for centuries since.

Berzelius trained as a medical doctor, and found himself fascinated by the work of Volta and the latter’s invention of voltaic piles. Berzelius incorporated electricity into his medical research, investigating the effect of direct current on unwell patients. It turned out that giving his patients electric shocks did not improve their condition, but this result didn’t abate Berzelius’ scientific curiosity.

He was living in the golden (or should that be cupro-zinc?) age of electrochemistry. Berzelius was a systematic experimenter, able to collect and collate vast quantities of data and extract trends and conclusions in his analysis. His examination of the electrochemistry of metal salts led him to his theory of “dualism”. This theory proposed that all atoms bore a charge – positive or negative – and that compounds were formed by the neutralisation of opposite charges. This offered an early analogy to ionic bonding. However, the theory of dualism fell out of favour towards the end of Berzelius’ life, as its inability to accommodate new discoveries, including the developing field of organic chemistry, became clear.

It was around the time of Berzelius’ studies on dualism that John Dalton published his New System of Chemical Philosophy (1808), which introduced his development of atomic theory – that elements were made up of indestructible and indivisible atoms, which were identical for a given element. Dalton also published a table of a handful of atomic weights and associated atomic symbols.


Unfortunately, Dalton’s determinations were limited in terms of accuracy, and the majority of known elements were omitted. Berzelius systematically examined all of the elements known at the time, and published 43 atomic weights which have proven remarkably accurate (considering the pioneering nature of the work) when compared to modern values.

As he used so many elements and compounds, Berzelius began to find the chemical notation of the time to be cumbersome. Chemicals were typically represented by pseudo-alchemical symbols, making the construction and parsing of chemical formulae difficult and error-prone.

Berzelius changed all this, and, in a short paper, introduced the basis of the chemical notation we use to this day. He substituted the alchemical symbols for letters: C, Cu, O, etc. The proportion of atoms in a compound was denoted by superscript numbers: CO2. Nowadays, of course, we denote the proportions with subscripts, but in all other respects Berzelius’ notation has stood the test of time remarkably well.


Berzelius also discovered four elements: cerium, selenium, silicon and thorium, and in addition introduced several terms to the chemical lexicon – although their meanings have changed since: allotrope, polymer, catalysis and isomer.

Berzelius’ systematic identification of the chemistry of minerals, along with his many other discoveries, earned him the Royal Society’s Copley Medal in 1836, jointly with Francis Kiernan.

Berzelius’ legacy was doubtless cemented by his publication of numerous widely-translated textbooks. It is interesting to consider that these textbooks may have educated some of the big names of the next generation: Mendeleev, Clausius, Helmholtz, Joule, Bunsen, perhaps even Darwin. Whether or not they did, it is doubtless that they, in common with generations of chemists since, owe much to the discoveries of Berzelius and his contemporaries.

So, today let’s remember Berzelius, one of the “Fathers of Modern Chemistry”.

A bit of trivia:

Berzelius is the academic great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of Prof Martyn Poliakoff, of University of Nottingham and Periodic Table of Videos. Small world?

Like many chemists, Berzelius has a piece of glassware bearing his name. A tall and thin glass beaker is otherwise known as a Berzelius beaker.


Sources/further reading:

Periodic Table of Videos – Berzelius

For a review on Berzelius’ techniques and involvement with atomic weights, see W. MacNevin, J. Chem. Educ.195431, 207. (paywall)

All images are public domain.

Alleged Data Manipulation in Nano Letters and ACS Nano from the Pease group

Leonard Pierce III

A recent paper from Rajasekhar Anumolu and Leonard F. Pease in Nano Letters entitled, “Chopstick Nanorods: Tuning the Angle between Pairs with High Yield“, had a collection of very interesting TEM images. Below are a set of images from both Figure 4E and 4F.

The images below show the boundary of one nanorod apparently overlapping the adjacent nanorod. This is not the only type of artifacts that are visible.

1 3 4
Adapted with permission from Nano Lett., Article ASAP (DOI: 10.1021/nl400959z). Copyright 2013 American Chemical Society.
In other parts of the same figure, nanorod boundaries seem to be obviously different colors than the surrounding background.

5 2
Adapted with permission from Nano Lett., Article ASAP (DOI: 10.1021/nl400959z). Copyright 2013 American Chemical Society.
Image manipulation does not seem confined to only this manuscript; in the supporting information of another paper in a different journal, this time in ACS Nano, entitled, Fabrication of Highly Uniform Nanoparticles from Recombinant Silk-Elastin-like Protein Polymers for Therapeutic Agent Delivery, Figure S2C looks to me to be manipulated. My eyes can find a grey square and a grey ellipse added to the image.

Adapted with permission from ACS Nano, 2011, 5 (7), pp 5374–5382 (DOI: 10.1021/nn103585f). Copyright 2011 American Chemical Society.
Both Professor Pease and Rajasekhar Anumolu were contacted two days prior to publishing this story for comment. Professor Pease informed me there was an investigation underway at the University of Utah into this matter and strongly encouraged me not to publish this story until the University completed its investigation. No comment was received from Rajasekhar Anumolu.

Prior to publishing this story Jeffrey R. Botkin, Associate Vice President for Research at University of Utah, contacted me confirming that “the University of Utah was informed of this matter by the editor of the journal and the University is conducting a thorough investigation for research misconduct.”

Update (8/15): Nano Lett paper is withdrawn.


By August 13, 2013 85 comments science news

When is a Proton not a Proton?

A recent article in Accounts of Chemical research discusses this very topic as well as some other interesting facts revolving around protons, their structure and their generation. What does H+ signify? Well it means different things to different disciplines. If you are a physicist it refers to one of the fundamental elementary particles, if you are a chemist it refers to a hydrogen ion. So what is it exactly? Well it is a very strong acid about 1056 times stronger than 100% sulphuric acid! Its place in chemistry is well documented even although you can only add H+ to a molecule in the gas phase whereas only a solvated proton can be added in less gaseous media. This has great implications for biology especially where proton pumping is an important function, thus the structure H(H2O)+turns out to be a very important structure. This is especially so because the degree of solvation affects the rate of protonation particularly in proton/electron transfer.

According to Professor Reed, the author of this article a self – ionising acid, HA is very unlikely to form a H2A+ cation, the structure is better represented by the following equation:


In the last few years it has emerged that the H+ is a 2-coordinate species, however, even this may extend to multi-coordinate when hydrogen bonding is involved. So what is the structure of H+ in water? This turns out to be a very difficult question to answer, and several instrumental methods have been applied to solve this problem, including IR and x-ray crystallography. These two methods and lots of hours have turned up H13O6+ ions as the structure. The experimental evidence backing up this claim can be found in this paper, which is open access!

Talking about protons leads to the strongest acids known H(CHB11Cl11) or H(CHB11F11), however the latter species is very difficult to obtain due to the ease with which it gives up its proton. These acids can easily protonate benzene or better alkanes! They are very useful in the study of protonation due to the complete inertness of the anions that do not undergo the usual corrosive reactions associated with other types of super acids. The acid H(CHB11F11) protonates butane to give the t-butyl cation at room temperature. Ethyl chloride is also protonated by H(CHB11Cl11) with concomitant loss of HCl to give the diethyl chloronium salts which can be isolated.

Oxatriquinanes are tricyclic analogues of the H3O+ ion. These very strong acids can H-bond to the last lone pair of oxatriquinane, which is a tetravalent oxygen species with a 2+ charge and is an analogue of the H4O2+ ion.

The Oxatriquinane oxonium cation.



So if you are searching for a proton source not accompanied by the usual destructive counter ions try one of these carborane acids.

By August 8, 2013 6 comments science news