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.

By June 19, 2014 5 comments Uncategorized

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.

By May 21, 2014 0 comments Uncategorized

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.

21) Increased blood ethanol (to a concentration of 5.4mM) should be the reward for popping into the lab on a weekend or evening at the behest of a colleague who lives a greater distance from the lab than you.

Substituting caffeine for ethanol is permissible.

22) British queuing rules apply to the use of ALL laboratory equipment. No exceptions!

Not even if your sample, degrades or decays quickly.

23) Columns and reactions have improved yields if serenaded.  7 

“You can’t always get what you want” works particularly well. Be sure to include details in your methods.


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.

 @canageek, very true.

Thank you Luke and Alex.

By May 18, 2014 11 comments fun, Uncategorized

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.

By March 20, 2014 2 comments Uncategorized