Chemistry Blog

Jun 27

Is the Coop bank fishing for an anti-science cause?

The Cooperative bank has had its troubles of late, mismanagement, scandal ridden executives and massive debts have seen an the organisation that prided itself on its ethical policy forced to reevaluate its self image.

At the moment it takes a stance, both through its investments and the customers its accepts, that supports communities, tackles povety, encourages responsible financing and protects the environment. One way that the Coop’s reevaluation has manifested is via a poll (aimed largely at its customers, but open to anyone) asking how the ethics of the bank should be manifested. Most of the questions seemed perfectly reasonable, asking participants to rank various activites, such as customer service, responsible lend etc. But when it came to the questions on environmental protections, they highlight chemistry, nanontechnology, GM foods and fracking as particular worthy of a mention.


Why these subjects in particular and why present them in such a leading fashion? It strikes me as a list of subjects that have been the most contriversial with respect to the environment in the last few years (or decades).

Personally I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Are they fishing for a particular area that they can easily fight? Afterall campaigning against GM or pandering to chemophobia is fairly easy to do without committing to anything in particular. However, making the bank carbon neutral actually requires some action. Or maybe its just a sloppy poll, but either way the bank needs to try a bit harder to come up with a meaningful and evidence based environmental policy.

Jun 19

Food for the souls of the most hungry

I’ve just come back from the Cheltenham Science Festival. It was a truly inspiring week of educating and entertaining science, maths and technology. Insights direct from Richard Dawkins (he didn’t claim he wanted to kill Santa), to  mesmerising talks from Sean Carroll, and the hugely entertaining Famelab final (a world wide science communication competition were contestants get 3 minutes to explain their science, check out their Youtube channel (dig deep enough and you’ll find me in there somewhere)) all made for an exhilarating few days.

Antibiotic resistance

Antibiotic resistance

All of this and loads more takes place in a grassy park crammed full of marquees adored with giant molecular models, surrounded by science buskers, set in an environment where the public mingles with some of the brightest minds in science (last year I stood behind James Watson in a queue for an ice cream (he had a soft ice and then complained when it was dispensed with a left handed twist)* meanwhile Peter Higgs wondered past).

I was lucky enough to do my bit too.  I helped volcanologists demonstrate what happens when lava flows through different types of rock (thermite makes a reasonable approximating to lava, although doing it in a marquee was a bit hair-raising). My show called ‘Ipads and Avatars’,  presented alongside a CGI motion captured monkey, was a big hit and great fun to perform. But, what I felt most proud of were my chemistry workshops for primary school kids. Quite simply the children played with Molymods and built models of chemicals found in food and drinks. Then we talked about how your body senses these chemicals. I introduced kids as young as 7 to concepts like chirality, valency, bonding and receptor proteins. And they got it! It was a real thrill to hear their excited chatter and exclamations about how much they loved chemistry.

TIMG_3220he Cheltenham Science Festival is a truly aspiration raising events for all ages, most especially for children. I’ve never experienced anywhere else with the same concentration of phenomenal science communicators ranging from Nobel laureates, TV personalities to equally inspiring PhD students. All of whom serve to highlight the joys, worth and excitement of science. And it really does work, the children who are lucky enough to live near to the festival and get exposed to it year after year, really do know their stuff.  One 10 year old sang the whole of the Periodic Table Song to me.

Now I want to help more children, especially those that don’t have supportive backgrounds, to experience inspiring events like Cheltenham’s Science Festival. Its the sort of thing that can make all the difference to a child’s choices in life by illustrating the worth of education and knowledge, then through it what is achievable. That’s why I’m raising money for The Children’s University. They work with children living in adverse situations, sometimes from families where there’s generations of unemployment with parents who encourage kids to live on benefits. Others are brought up in care or in a host of despairing situations.  In short the Children’s University is a charity that makes a real difference to young people’s lives by showing children from adverse backgrounds a world of opportunities.

Forgive me using this forum in this way, but please help support the Children’s University too by giving a little. And to add a little grist to the mill I’ll be hiking 100km around 18 peaks of Dartmoor in under 42hrs, whilst carrying 12kg pack and forgoing any electronic navigation aids  (the reason for this particular madness is another story).

Hopefully we can raise enough so that todays young people can be inspired by Richard Dawkins, who can tell them, in person, that he has nothing against Santa.

* The complaint about the ice cream may not be strictly true, but he was with me in he queue.

May 23

Making sense of chemical stories

Discussions on chemophobia (or whatever you want to call it) is a perennial favourite on chemistry blogs. But the conversation rarely extends out of our echo chamber. But now Sense about Science have joined the discussion with the publication of a guide entitled  Making Sense of Chemical Stories.

Sense about Science is a respected charitable organisation that  ‘equips people to make sense of scientific and medical claims in public discussion’. In short, they facilitate discussions between concerned/interested groups and relevant experts.  The aim of their guide is to bridge the disconnect between the lifestyle view (and popular definition) of chemicals and the realities of how chemistry is used to support the modern world. It does this by tackling common misconceptions about chemistry.

One of the key misconception that they address is that natural chemicals are somehow safer than man-made ones. The wrongheadedness of which is nicely illustrated by a pair of infographics  (designed by Compound Interest) that don’t shy away from admitting synthetic chemicals are often toxic but also make it clear that whether a chemical is naturally occurring or man-made tells us precisely nothing about its toxicity.

SAS - Natural vs. Man-Made Toxicity FINAL (1)


SAS - Dose Makes The Poison FINAL (1)

Making Sense of Chemical Stories is being promoted to the public, journalists, life-style press and policy makers. It, along with the infographics are freely available to download and distribute under a creative commons license. Or if you prefer a hard copy (or box full of them) email enquiries[ at ]senseaboutscience[dot]org  with your contact details.



May 21

Update: Photo Friday (#picpickoftheweek)

In January the Hanson Research Group (@HansonFSU) introduced Photo Friday, a twitter-based ‘best picture of the week’ (#picpickoftheweek). Since then my students have created an amazing collection of photographs depicting our research, equipment, and chemicals. I’d like to highlight my six favorite photos so far (in no particular order).

In the first picture a reaction mixture, under UV light, is cooled to -78°C using a dry ice-acetone bath. Emission is usually more intense when molecules are cooled because it slows vibrational relaxation (non-radiative decay).

rxnThe second picture shows a fluorescent dye in dichloromethane being poured into an Erlenmeyer flask under UV-light (365 nm).

PourPicture three offers a glimpse inside the excitation monochromator of our fluorometer. The device is composed of a grating, to disperse the white light (xenon lamp source) into its components, and mirrors to direct the monochromatic light toward the sample.

MonochrometerPhoto four is a very stylized look at one of our variable magnetic field cuvette holders. The knob you see in the bottom right is used to move the neodymium magnets closer or further away from the cuvette. With the magnets next to the cuvette we get a field of about 0.35 T at the point of emission. The dry ice adds an ethereal feel to the photo but more importantly allows us to see the laser beam.

Laser through magnetic fieldEmission from molecules bound to semiconducting films depend on the energy of the chromophore, the conduction band of the semiconductor, the solvent, and other variables. Photo five demonstrates how the distance between the molecule and the semiconductor can affect emission intensity.

Film emissionThe concentration gradients that occur when a solid dissolves in solvent is easy to visualize using fluorescent molecules, as shown in picture six. Eventually the color will even out but the process is relatively slow without stirring.

DissolveFollow us on twitter (@HansonFSU) for more more of our #picpickoftheweek.

May 18

The Rules

Here at chemistry-blog we feel the need for a sacred text setting out the etiquette to be followed by chemicals scientists everywhere.

Henceforth these shall be known as The Rules (an idea blatantly stolen for cyclists), and they shall set us apart from those that peddle particles or organisms.

The Rules have been distilled from precedents and consensus. However more may be required.

1) There is ONE periodic table. Do not tolerate poor imitations of Mendeleev’s genesis.

The ‘periodic’ tables of Muppets, Harry Potter, cocktails etc. are not periodic hence they are just tables.

2) DNA is a right handed helix. Should you see it depicted otherwise you must bring it to the attention of twitter immediately.

Amendment: Dear Reddit, yes I know Z-DNA is left handed and if the news outlet using the image has labelled it as such then you don’t have to inform twitter. Okay?

3) The rubber balloon was invented by Michael Faraday, it is therefore a perfectly acceptable piece of laboratory equipment. 

To avoid the embarrassment and bother of having to buy balloons form the party shop all chemistry departments/companies should stock them in their stores, where they shall be known as Faraday spheres.

4) Acceptable uses of liquid nitrogen include making ice cream.

5) Always wear your safety specs in the lab. Do not wear them (even on your head) in seminars, at lunch or wondering around campus.

An exception is made when you have a nice pair of wrap around specs and can’t find your cycling glasses, thus allowing you to adhere to cycling rule #39 whilst circumventing rule #36.

6) Do not use the phrase ‘chemical-free‘, ‘no chemicals‘ or similar, EVER!

Except of course when ridiculing those that do.

7) It never gets easier, yields just get better. 

8)  Chief Editors of Nature Chemistry are bestowed with the honour of being verbed.

9) Lab coats should be white.

Maybe you think that wondering into the lab looking like something from an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical makes you stand out from the crowd. It does, but not in a good way.

The only the exception is in undergraduate lab classes where it is acceptable for instructors and demonstrators to wear a splash of colour to distinguish them from the hoi polloi.

Amendment: Blue nomex coats are OK, but ONLY when you really need one.

10)  Zinc and cadmium are not transition metals. Keep up.

11) When taking part in a photo op do not don a lab coat and sit at the bench unless this is where you work.

If you have the title ‘Professor’ no-one believes that the lab is were you spend your day and frankly you look a bit awkward in your pristine coat, perched before a piece of equipment that you can’t remember how to use.

12) The journal PNAS is pronounced as you would expect. Stop trying to to pretend otherwise.

13) Sulfur is not spelt with ‘ph’ no matter which side of the Atlantic you are on.

14) Helium is for NMR instruments, stop putting it in Faraday spheres

15) Before you waste an afternoon in the library be sure to spend a month or two in the lab re-discovering something that’s already been published. 1

16) The structures in your graphical abstract are not to be arbitrarily coloured in, no matter how pretty it looks. 2

17) If you book the instrument USE the instrument.3

The booking calendar is not for letting everyone know when you think you might use the instrument unless something else comes up, like grabbing a coffee or writing an inane blog post.

18)  Clean out the god damn pump trap.4

It is not a place to conduct an unregulated experiment.

Contribute to The Rules through comments or twitter via the hashtag #ChemRules and together we’ll build our code of behaviour.

19) Always wash your hands BEFORE going to he bathroom.5

This also applies if you’ve been cooking with chile peppers.

20) Your lab coat is NOT a rain coat.

1 Courtesy of Cantrill (the noun not the verb). 

2 Good point, thanks Fluorogrol.

Well said Chad.

Thank you Alex.

5  A excellent rule suggested by a Rabbit on Redit.

May 15

Who knows reviewers’ identities?

A couple of posts ago I shared a pretty unpleasant experience I had after peer-reviewing a grant application. In short my anonymity appeared to have been breached and I received ,what I took to be, a thinly veiled threat from the grant’s author.

Some of the comments that followed thanked me for bring the case to light but were critical because I hadn’t gone far enough and named names. Therefore what had the post achieved? I take the point, but I’m still not prepared to name the persons or organisations.

However, I did contact the funding body involved who were willing to investigate the matter. They also suggested that I first file a freedom-of-information request asking for details on how anonymity is protected and with whom reviewer identities are shared.

For the sake of completion I asked the main science research councils in the UK (not just the one that was involved in my incident) for the same information (details below).

In short most committees (that’s typically upwards of two dozen people) are aware of the identify of reviewers. This is probably not news to most, but I figure its good to know who knows who you are.

In most cases identities are revealed in the committee meeting. Which made me consider how the reviewer knew my identify before the committee sat. Until I remembered that I had reviewed the grant twice (it had been rejected the first time, but a resubmission was requested). So a panel member from the first meeting must have made a note (mentally or otherwise) of my name and then shared it.

It strikes me that its rather too easy for reviewer anonymity to be breached. So what’s to be done? In the short term maybe its worth checking who is on a panel. Then if you know of a relationship between a member and the proposal’s author, that might result in a leak,  refuse to review the grant. In the longer term, should the system change so that reviewers are truly anonymous? And as for me, my next step is to take up the offer of that investigation.

And in case you are interested here are the more detailed responses from the research councils.

The BBSRC website provides a document called “Peer review and freedom of information’. Part of which states that the identify of reviewers is

‘…available to the members of the peer review body.’

I asked for clarification on what constitutes a ‘peer review body’. To which they responded

‘.. peer review body refers to Research Committees and any other ad hoc panels that assess grant applications.’

they added that

Their identity [of reviewers] is revealed to the peer review body only as part of normal business meeting

The other research councils have similar freedom of information documents to the BBSRC, however they are less clear on the policies with regards to reviewer identities. So I asked them directly if identities are revealed to panels/committees and how anonymity is assured.

NERC replied :

Panels see the reviewer names but they are required to keep all the business of the meeting confidential including reviewers names and which members of the panel introduce the proposal and we rely on them to do that. That confidentiality is set out in the Reviewer Protocols. These are available on the NERC website and part of signing up to the Peer Review College. Access to proposal information is via Je-S [ grant submission/review system] and panel members are required to sign up to the Reviewer Protocols before they can see the proposal information in order to review it. Details of the Reviewer Protocols can be found at:

The EPSRC‘s statement was:

Each reviewer has an anonymised reference for each proposal they are sent, but their identity is indicated in the meeting schedule provided to the panel members. Each schedule is customised so that if the panel member has a conflict of interest the reviewers remain anonymous for the affected proposal.

All panel members are sent guidance which includes our code of practice based on the Nolan Committee’s seven principles of public life – for further details please refer to the link below.

And from the MRC I received:

At the board/panel meeting itself the names of the reviewers are projected onto a screen for each application in turn.  This information is not provided in hard copy to any of the board/panel members.

At Fellowship panels, the information is provided to the chair of the meeting and the information is securely destroyed immediately following the meeting.  Other panel members may request the information at the meeting and may be provided with this information verbally at the meeting to enable better decision making.

The Biomedical catalyst panel meeting is currently the only exception to this as information is revealed to panel members prior to the meeting. This is because the meeting is jointly run with the Technology Strategy Board.


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