Chemistry Blog

Mar 20

New Lab Time Lapse


Eight months ago the Hanson Research Group announced our first experiment on twitter. We set out to capture, via pictures, the transition from an empty space to a fully functioning lab. This involved two Brinno TLC200 time-lapse cameras programmed to take one photo per day. Last week we stopped the camera located in the support lab. Here are the results:

The support lab is predominantly dedicated to solar cell assembly so—from the right side of the screen and moving towards the left—you can see the following: a glass cutting mat, the pressure-heat, cell sealing apparatus and the box furnace. Here are a few things to note:

  • Every time the red handle on the cell sealing apparatus moves a solar cell was born.
  • The fume hood was largely used for storage until about the 6 month mark when we added a horn sonicator.
  • We decided to add a short pause whenever someone was caught on camera.
  • After the initial explosion of activity one of my favorite parts of the video is the dancing chairs.

We originally planned to let the support lab camera run for a full year but then decided to stop it early for two reasons. First, there is relatively low traffic in the area and most of the major changes were completed in the first 3 to 4 months. Second, we became impatient and decided that there were more interesting things in lab  we could capture. Follow us on twitter (@HansonFSU, #picpickoftheweek) to keep up with our future time-lapse experiments – and let us know in the comments if you have any suggestions for other things to capture.

Feb 27

Which science does the most magic?


A few weeks back  Vittorio had a pop at Sigma-Aldrich for marketing fluorosulfuric acid-antimony pentafluoride as ‘magic acid’.  Which got me wondering, just how common is magic in the sciences? And which disciplines are the most mystical?

“Magic’s just science we don’t understand” Arthur C. Clarke

So I checked. A search for ‘magic’ in titles of articles using Scopus pulls up 8,698 hits. That’s a far bit of magic. The Major Atmospheric Gamma-ray Imaging Cherenkov Telescopes (MAGIC) telescope accounts of 141 of them. And since we all know that acronyms don’t count as magic we’ll chuck them out. That leaves 8,557 magical articles.

Let’s also dismiss the arts, humanities and social sciences (not that I have anything against them, but a lot of their studies are investigating magical beliefs, and so they aren’t actually doing any magic). Which takes us to 7,223 articles.

I think we should also bin conference papers because they might have been written by a computer, and there’s nothing mystical about that (down to 6,467 now).

Which means the top 3 most spellbinding sciences are….

Medicine is the clear winner with 1,675 articles. Second there’s physics (and astronomy) with 1,397 publications, and coming in a close third we have chemistry with 1,348 papers.

So there you have it, medics do the most magic.

But hang on a second, there’s something not right here. I think there’s a secret coven tucked away somewhere. And I’m sure it’s made up of those trick solid state NMR spectroscopists and their MAS experiments, or Magic Angle Spinning to use the full incantation. These practitioners of the darker NMR arts manage 1,734 articles by themselves, whilst all the time disguised within the midst of medicine, physics and chemistry.

Who then is the master wizard, with 46 articles? It’s none other than the supposedly mythical Griffin.

 

 

Feb 20

GUEST POST: The Blogversation Continues: Turning Around Public Perception on Chemicals and Chemistry


Guest post by Luke Gammon

This is the second post in response to a conversation started by @chemtacular and @reneewebs (see an excellent summary by Reneé Webster of the conversation so far).

In October last year, Chemistry World wrote an article on chemophobia which asked “Is it the role of industry, working academic scientists or communicators to do the repair work?”. My view (as an academic scientist) is that we must all take on this responsibility. As a PhD student who relies solely on federal government funding (via taxes) I see science communication as a public duty. It is our responsibility to inform, educate and encourage the next generation of scientists as well as the general public.

We’ve all been challenged by @chemtacular to suggest a “course of action” to combat chemophobia and encourage education about chemicals. So, what can we do as individuals and what can we do as a community? Also, how can we encourage future generations and engage with the wider adult public?

Here is a quote from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from his New York Times bestselling book “The Black Swan”:

When you develop your opinions on the basis of weak evidence, you will have difficulty interpreting subsequent information that contradicts these opinions, even if this new information is obviously more accurate.

I see the central message here being about empowerment through access to information. It is up to us to provide the public with as much accurate information about chemistry as possible. We cannot simply correct those who are wrong, we must engage the wider community at local, national and international levels. Remember, knowledge is power.

There are many simple things we can do as individuals – write a blog, engage with your friends, family and even people you meet on the street! Tell them about the great chemicals in their everyday lives and ask them about their fears and concerns. “What’s the first word that pops into your head when I say the word ‘chemical’?”

Now, lets think bigger. Ask your local chemistry department about public outreach events or organise your own (Chemistry of chocolate or beer is always a hit!). Perhaps write an opinion piece for the local newspaper or appear on a local tv/radio program. In Melbourne there is a group called Laneway Learning which organises accessible “cheap fun classes in anything and everything”, including “The Delicious Science of Baking” and “Solar Power – how it works”. They’re always looking for people who might want to teach a class. There are so many opportunities for modern science communication. Go and find out what’s happening in your city.

We are part of a diverse, international and highly passionate online community of chemists (as evidenced by Reneé Webster in her excellent summary of the #chemophobia conversation). It is imperative that we leverage this network in our efforts to repair the public image of chemistry. We need to think big. What can we  do as a collective to stimulate change on a national or international level?

The West Virginia chemical spill is a good example of where lack of information spreads fear. An obscure chemical leaked into the rivers of WV and flowed downstream to taint the water supply. Residents were left confused and scared for hours. The online chemistry community scrambled for toxicity data on 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM). As it turns out, Eastman Chemical had performed a ‘suite’ of toxicity studies in the 1980s/1990s and has since released this information. We, as a community, need to encourage the public release of this kind of information. Internationally our laws and regulations regarding industrial chemicals should be robust and we can play a role in identifying problems in these policies.

Chemisty – the least shared science*

What about chemophobia in the media and beyond? The simplest way to combat the problem is at its most basic level and that is through education. We need good science education in primary school to get kids excited about doing science. This needs to be followed through to high school education too. How many people have you met that have said “I never GOT chemistry”, “too hard for me!” or “never got past year x science!”? As long as chemistry is viewed as an abstract and complex entity we will continue to lose this battle. We need to pick up our game and make chemistry more relevant, interesting and exciting to the wider society (see diagram below!).

Some of my most valuable classes were spent doing media and language analysis in English class, learning how to pull apart newspaper articles and radio transcripts. Perhaps we could encourage teachers to do critical analysis of some (basic) science news articles in a school setting. Some have suggested we could lobby for a large chemical body (eg. ACS or the RSC) to respond to poorly informed media coverage.

At the end of the day, I agree with Deborah Blum, Pulitzer-prize winning author and journalist, who says “Chemistry needs more journalists talking about it” and James Kennedy, of All-Natural Banana fame, who says “Chemistry needs a hero [like David Attenborough or Brian Cox]“. As long as we continue to promote chemistry and show its relevance, chemophobia in marketing and the media will start to lose some of its shine.

*Borrowed from the Sackler Colloqium on “Science of Science Communication II”

Feb 10

The Blogversation Continues: A New Approach to the Fear of Chemicals and for a Course of Action


This post is part of an on-going dialogue between chemists on Twitter in an effort to unite the chemistry community do something about negative portrayal of chemicals in a positive and productive manner. I responded to Renee Webster’s kick off post and we’ve gotten a lot of excellent feedback both on Twitter and from bloggers. I’d like to respond to all these amazing ideas by way of a response to bloggers Dr. Dorea Reeser (Chemicals Are You Friends) and Dr. Luke Gamon (A Radical Approach) who have upped the ante with their contributions to the blogversation. These posts are a wake-up call to the chemistry community by way of a completely new take on the situation.

Before I read these responses I wanted to figure out what to call the fear of chemicals in such a way that it didn’t lend itself to ridiculing people’s legitimate fear. I’ve argued that (#)chemophobia not only falls short of this but it perpetuates a negative image of chemicals. There was also the matter that (#)chemophobia inaccurately describes the way that the media and advertising capitalizes on this fear. I joined other chemists on Twitter in their search for alternatives but felt odd with our second attempt: (#)chemsploitation. Why is a term/hash-tag so important? I am of the opinion that it provides a way of checking that we do not damage our credibility with the way we represent ourselves. These responses elegantly change the focus on the debate on whether or not we need to get rid of (#)chemophobia.

Dr. Reeser explains that she avoids using the term chemophobia because it sends out the wrong message and because to those outside the debate and non-chemists, the term suggests something having to do with chemotherapy. She proposes the term/hash-tag (#)ChemMisConcept both to describe those that fear chemicals and those that perpetuate that fear. It meets all the criteria that I discussed in my previous response and has the added bonus of working in all contexts. The concept of chemical misconception(s) is as specific as it gets and this changes the way we approach the real problem: the fear of chemicals. This fear of chemicals is very real and rational considering that people have these misconceptions given the information they can access. Dr. Reeser reminds us that we have to acknowledge that chemical(s) include: dangerous substances which we should have a healthy fear of; substances where the danger depends on the dosage and those substances that are completely harmless. I agree that it is our job as chemists to explain which is which.

 

Dr. Gamon* agrees with Dr. Reese when he states that the energy that’s going into debating the word could be put to better use. He calls all chemists to take action with a cool head and in a respectful way and I couldn’t agree more. (#)Chemophobia just doesn’t serve this purpose and the term has outlived its use. Dr. Gamon reminds us that we are all brand ambassador, and I agree that we need to act like if we are going to take back the word chemical.

 

Dr. Gamon’s response agrees with a post Dr. Reeser directly cites, and I would be remiss for not addressing Chemophobia-phobia by Dr. Chad Jones* (@TheCollapsedPsi). Dr.Jones also suggest that we should hold ourselves, government agencies and other chemist/companies to higher standards. Education/information, policies and enforcement should be directly informed by evidence-based chemistry. I’d add that as chemists we need to make sure that this evidence is accurate. Dr. Jones and I don’t necessarily agree on our approach (we battle it out in #chemopocalypse, a podcast prosposed by @Chemjobber and had under the supervision of @ScienceIsntScary [link pending]) but I am 100% behind this idea.

 

Whether we have two terms to accurately define how people use the word chemical, is still insufficient to get chemists to act instead of react. In our pod cast, Dr. Jones warns that when we take on another term (say #chemsploitation) we run the risk of falling into the same attitudes as before. So as catchy as the catch phrases we have are, and whether or not we make sure to use them respectfully, they are still not inspiring action to reclaim the word chemical. Let’s retire them, accurately address the misconception and with taking back the word chemical.

 

Thus far @CompounChem’s marvelous info graphics are an excellent start. I enjoy them as a chemist and the non-chemists I’ve shown them to have loved understanding a little more about the chemicals that they enjoy every day (coffee, etc). They are a great way to start discussions. I am open to more ideas on how we can start educating folks about what chemical (and other appropriated words) really means, thoughts? What are some ways we can start doing this now? The more ideas we have, the merrier, and the more resources that we have to talk with different audiences. Do any non-chemists out there have suggestions for what they would like to see?

*The people that I refer to as doctors here have their doctorates or are close enough for me to respectfully add the title.

Jan 30

Wellcome chemical images


The UK’s leading medical research charity, the Wellcome Trust, have donated a treasure trove to the world; 100,000 images covering the history of all aspects of medicine, science and technology are now freely available to any and all.

The database contains pictures of weird and wonderful medical instruments, copies of historical documents and stunning examples of science related works of art from Van Goghs to cartoons. It’s a joy just to peruse the library jumping from one fascinating image to the next. But, being a chemist, I was of course, particularly drawn to the documents and apparatus depicting the history of my chosen field.

Take the paraphernalia of the great and the good which gives a wonderful insight into their lives, working habits and personalities.

Of course Watson and Crick are well represented. There’s the draft of their famous paper describing the double helix of DNA, complete with hand written notes and annotations. But a better testament to Crick’s temperament and modesty is a photo of some graffiti allegedly scrawled by him. It seems to be part of a exchange with Enoch [Powell?] whilst also suggesting Crick may have had ambitions beyond a mere Nobel Prize.

Francis Crick’s graffiti, date unknown

Francis Crick wall graffiti Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Francis Crick wall graffiti, Location and date unknown 'Keep the Lefties Out. Crick for God' Crick Papers Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK, see http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/page/Prices.html

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK,

 

There’s plenty of material on double Nobel Laurette, Marie Curie. Images of her laboratory are fascinating insight into her practices.

However, it’s her scruffy laboratory notebook that I find most interesting. Madam Curie was certainly a genius but her notes probably won’t pass muster with most PhD supervisors today.

Pages from Marie Curie’s notebook 27 May 1899 – 4 December 1902 

redit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Page from notebook. 27 May 1899 - 4 December 1902 Holograph note-book containing notes of experiments, etc. on radio-active substances. Marie Curie Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK, see http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/page/Prices.html

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK

 

Then there’s the equipment that highlights how science has progressed.

Take the X-ray spectrometer lovingly developed by the Leeds physicist William Henry Bragg. The 100 year old device is  the direct ancestor of equipment housed at synchrotron like the massive Diamond light source.

Bragg’s X-ray Spectrometer 1910-1926

Bragg X-ray spectrometer, England Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Bragg X-ray spectrometer, England, 1910-1926 Developed by William Henry Bragg (1862-1942), a professor of physics based in Leeds, England, this X-ray spectrometer was used by him and his son William Lawrence Bragg (1890-1971) to investigate the structure of crystals. The Braggs developed new tools and techniques to understand crystals. Their research was the basis of ¬X-ray crystallography, a technique that was used to advance chemistry, physics and biology. The Braggs won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1915. 1910-1926 Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc-nd 2.0 UK, see http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/page/Prices.html

Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc-nd 2.0 UK

Or the penicillin fermentation vessel, one of thousands originally used by Glaxo (now GlaxoSmithKline) to grow the penicillium mould from which the antibiotic was extracted. Later the mould was grown in fermentors. Now of course the antibiotics are made synthetically.

Penicillin fermentation vessel, 1940-45

Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Penicillin fermentation vessel, England, 1940-1945 Thousands of glass fermentation vessels like this one were used in Glaxo (now GlaxoSmithKline) laboratories to produce penicillin. The penicillium mould was grown on the surface of a liquid filled with all the nutrients it needed. This approach was superseded by the method of growing the mould within large industrial fermenters. The antibiotic was first used in the early 1940s and saved the lives of many soldiers during the Second World War. 1940-1945 Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc-nd 2.0 UK, see http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/page/Prices.html

Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc-nd 2.0 UK

And there’s a wealth of early infographics, like this table of chemical characteristics from 1799, which predates the modern periodic table and chemical notation. Instead the elements (along with light and combustion) have been given symbols which are then combined to represent the compounds formed when these element are reacted together. The result is a beautiful if confusing representation of the state of chemistry in the 18th century.

 

Chemistry: symbols of elements and substances. Coloured engraving by H. Ashby, 1799, after W. Jackson. 

Chemistry: symbols of elements and substances. Coloured engr Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Chemistry: symbols of elements and substances. Coloured engraving by H. Ashby, 1799, after W. Jackson. 1799 By: William Jacksonafter: Henry AshbyPublished: 26 October 1799 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK, see http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/page/Prices.html

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
. Coloured engraving by H. Ashby, 1799, after W. Jackson.
1799 By: William Jacksonafter: Henry AshbyPublished: 26 October 1799
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK

Finally the mundane but no less fascinating. How about a cunning 3D representation of the periodic table lovingly mounted in a jam jar!

L0002952 Model showing Periodic Elements of Chemistry Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Model showing Periodic Elements of Chemistry. From a model prepared at the Royal Institute of Chemistry Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK, see http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/page/Prices.html

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images From a model prepared at the Royal Institute of ChemistryCopyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK 

 

This post originally appeared in the Guardian.

Jan 28

Yes, there are chemicals in the shampoo!


‘Organic’ cosmetics manufacturers, the very epicentre of chemophobia, right? All those ‘chemical-free’ bottles of deodorants, shampoos and hair dyes.  It makes you want to pull your hair out just so there’s no need for their nonsensical products.  And here’s the latest from Daniel Field Organic and Mineral Hairdressing, tucked away in the FAQs is this gem.

Are there any chemicals in Daniel’s Watercolour [hair dyes]?

This is a question we are often asked and understandably so because there has been much discussion concerning the term “chemicals”.

Wait for it….

Many materials – both natural and man-made have a definite chemical composition; a common example of a chemical substance is pure water (H20) and so no manufacturer can claim that any product is devoid of chemicals – in fact all matter is made up of chemicals.

Well, that’s a turn up for the books!

And there’s more, the ingredients FAQs don’t shy away from ‘scary’ sounding names.

The nine ingredients for the dye pigments are as follows, followed by their safety ratings:

i. p-toluene diamine sulphate – PTDS

ii. m-amino phenol sulphate

iii. 2.4 diaminophenoxyethanol hcl

iv. p-aminophenol sulpahte

v. 4-amino 2 hydroxytoluene sulphate

vi. 4-amino -m-creosol

vii. 2-amino 6-chloro -4-nitrophenol

viii. 2-methyl-5-hydroxyethylaminophenol

ix. 4.5 diamino-1-(2-hydroxyethyl) pyrazole sulphate

 

Plus there’s real advice on the safety of each of the above.

All in all its very sensible. So bravo to Daniel Field, very well done indeed (edit: honestly no sarcasm here I really do think they’ve done a good job) ! You win the 1st Chemistry-Blog award for sensible chemistry information on an ‘organic’ product.

Now, what colour shall I have my hair?

 

 

 

Hat tip to @corrineburns

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