Chemistry in the news



‘As for monkshood and wolfsbane, they are the same plant, which also goes by the name of aconite.’ – Severus Snape, Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone by J. K. Rowling

In Harry Potter’s very first potions lesson he learnt about the magical properties of aconite. Muggle chemists, it seems, are only one step behind the magical world.

©istock

Aconitine – spelt slightly differently by scientists – has a highly complex structure that has never before been synthesised in the lab. But now, Duncan Gill from the University of Huddersfield, UK, has been awarded a £133,481 grant to develop a synthetic route to obtain this illusive molecule.

Attempts to make aconitine began after Czech chemist Karel Wiesner revealed its chemical structure in 1959. Weisner went on to publish several papers on the synthesis of alkaloids and terpenoids, an important initial step towards making the molecule. However, it wasn’t until last year that a major milestone was reached, when a team of researchers from the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Institute, New York, announced the total synthesis of the related compound, neofinaconitine. Building on the work of his predecessors, Gill will have to develop new chemical methods to reach his target molecule.

If successful, Gill, who has previously worked as a process chemist at AstraZeneca, will need to be particularly careful when handling this compound. Aconitine is a potent neurotoxin and has been dubbed the ‘Queen of poisons’. One of the most notable references to aconitine comes from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: it is the main ingredient in the toxic potion drunk by Romeo with fatal consequences.

The grant has been provided by the Leverhulme Trust and will be enough to employ a full-time post-doctoral advisor. Only time will tell if they can bring this fictional favourite to life in a laboratory setting.

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Last week I attended the British Science Association’s Science Communication Conference in Guildford, Surrey. The conference explored a number of avenues, from the role of design and data visualisation through to the relevance of the whole academic field of science communication. As you might expect for a conference populated almost entirely by communicators, there was as much discussion on twitter (under the umbrella of #SciComm14) as there was in person.

This tweet gained instant traction. It demonstrates neatly that in order to understand scientific reporting, one must first learn to speak the language of science. The image comes from a 2011 feature in Physics Today on communicating the science of climate change.

There are arguments for and against using ‘accessible’ alternatives, depending in part on the desired outcome of your communication. In a more formal educational setting, for example, it may be best to use these ambiguous words along with their scientific definition, so that they can be used in their full scientific context in future. Conversely, some words are tainted by association – chemical and nuclear both have negative connotations, so a push towards their scientific use may help to break that stigma. Whatever good intentions one has, insisting that ‘the public’ use ambiguous language in a certain way seems patronising and ultimately doomed to fail (after all, we still hear that evolution is ‘only a theory’). Protecting scientific language in this way may, therefore, reinforce the dividing line between ‘scientists’ and ‘the public’.

Thinking that now would be a good time to extend this list, I asked what other words people would like to see added. (more…)

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We had an unusual request to the Chemistry World office this week. A producer from Simon Mayo’s BBC Radio 2 drivetime programme wanted to know if it’s possible to make a diamond from human hair.

Pelé before the final game of his career, Giants Stadium, New Jersey, 1 October 1977. From elliberal.com.ar on a CC-BY-3.0 licence

The query was prompted by the news that Brazilian football legend Pelé had announced a range of diamonds, each made from a strand of his hair, to commemorate each of the 1283 goals he scored in his professional football career.

It seemed a fairly straightforward request – there’s plenty of carbon in hair and it’s certainly possible to make diamond industrially from a carbon source – so I volunteered to take the call. (more…)

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