Guest post by JessTheChemist

In 1965 Robert Burns Woodward won the Nobel prize for chemistry for the synthesis of complex organic molecules, including natural products such as cholesterol, strychnine, chlorophyll, cephalosporin, and colchicine. Unusually, Woodward won the prize for excellence in the field of organic chemistry, and not for a specific chemical reaction. Not unlike many organic chemists I know, Woodward was extremely dedicated to his work. Rumour has it that Woodward first crystallized the steroid Christmasterol on Christmas day. I commend the work ethic but I really hope that none of you are working on Christmas day!

Woodward began his university life in 1933 at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A year later he was excluded because he neglected his studies. Another year later he was readmitted and in 1936 he received his Bachelor of Science degree. Astonishingly, it took just one more year for him to gain his doctorate from the same institution. (more…)

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‘I do not think it should appear in its present form’. Many a dejected researcher has read those words when their paper is summarily rejected by a journal. Rest assured, however, even the greatest scientific minds have read them on occasion.

Issue one of the Philosophical Transactions
© The Royal Society

In 1839, Charles Darwin submitted a paper on the geology of Glen Roy in the Scottish Highlands to the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions. He received a response from Adam Sedgwick, who would later become one of Darwin’s greatest critics. The Society Fellow admired Darwin’s insight but bemoaned his long-winded explanations, rejecting the paper in its present form. It was the only paper Darwin submitted to the journal.

Sedgwick’s critique of Darwin’s work forms part of a new exhibition at the Royal Society about the history of the Philosophical Transactions. Detailing the turbulent beginnings of the journal – which was first published during the Great Plague of London in 1665 – through to the modern publication, the exhibit shines a light on its colourful history. The extensive display, developed by the Royal Society and researchers at the University of St. Andrews, UK, also reveals the birth of the modern peer review process. (more…)

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Philip Ball, science writer and one of the judges for the upcoming Chemistry World science communication competition writes about the art of chemistry.

Philip BallOf all the sciences, chemistry has always seemed to me to be closest to the arts. It appeals directly to the senses: the shapes and colours of molecules, the smells, the tactile aspects of materials and instrumentation. It draws on intuitions and craft skills, for example in the practice of forming crystals or getting a reaction to work. And most of all, it demands creativity and imagination: ‘chemistry creates its own object’, as Marcellin Berthelot puts it.

Most of chemistry is not about discovering pre-existing forms and objects, but deciding what to make and how to make it. Molecular targets express ideas. Can we make something that fits into this hole or onto that surface? Can we create new atomic unions, unusual topologies, surprising bulk properties, new oxidation states? Can we design molecules to assemble themselves into new and useful (or simply pleasing or amusing) superstructures? The questions aren’t limited to what the natural world provides, but are circumscribed by our imaginations, which in principle need have no boundaries.

(more…)

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Guest post by Heather Cassell

It’s an inevitability – there’s a task that should be doing but you can’t build up the enthusiasm. Normally mundane jobs can suddenly seem much more interesting to do.

A suspiciously tidy lab bench
Image by Jean-Pierre from Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire, France CC-BY-SA

For me it is always report writing. Although I love putting all of my results into order and writing it up succinctly for my colleagues and collaborators, I find I can rapidly lose focus. This is when the procrastination sets in. It never seems to matter how near the deadline is, how interesting my results are, or how important the document is – I feel an overwhelming desire to tidy my desk. ‘It’s important,’ I tell myself, ‘because if my desk is tidy I’ll have easy access to the papers and results I need to finish my report’. Just as a teenager’s room is never tidier than exam time, a researcher’s desk might only ever be clear when there’s a report to write. (more…)

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In this first of a series of guest posts, Elizabeth Tasker writes about the how and why of her piece on cosmic chemistry, which was shortlisted in the 2013 Chemistry World science communication competition.

Elizabeth TaskerThere are some stories that beg to be written. When you find an experimental astrophysicist building a star-forming cloud in his laboratory, there is practically a moral obligation to remind the world that there are no boxes for ideas.

Astrophysicists usually come in three flavours: observers (telescope kids), theorists (‘The Matrix’ universes) and instrument builders (hand me a hammer). We cannot typically perform laboratory experiments since putting a star (or planet or black hole) on a workbench is distinctly problematic. The closest we come to hands-on experiments is through computer models, which is the toolkit I use when studying the formation of star-forming clouds. However, Naoki Watanabe had gone ahead and built his own cloud  in a super-cooled vacuum chamber. (more…)

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Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Excited, Mary Hunt tipped out the produce of her shopping: a large moulded cantaloupe. She had come across the cantaloupe by chance, and the ‘pretty, golden mould’ had proved irresistible. She had discovered the Penicillium chrysogeum fungus, a species that turned out to produce 200 times the volume of penicillin as Fleming’s variety. It was a serendipitous discovery, and vital at a time when the greatest challenge facing medicine was producing enough of the antibiotic to treat all of the people who needed it.

Hunt’s finding has been barely noticed beside the original accidental discovery: Fleming’s return from holiday to find a ‘fluffy white mass’ on one of his staphylococcus culture petri dishes. Fleming was often scorned as a careless lab technician, so perhaps the contamination of one of his dishes – which had been balanced in a teetering microbial tower in order to free up bench space – was not that unexpected. But Fleming had the presence of mind to not simply dispose of the petri dish, but to first stick it beneath a microscope, where he observed how the mould inhibited the staphylococcus bacteria. Competition between bacteria and fungi was well known and, in fact, when Fleming published in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology in June 1929, the potential medical applications of penicillin were only speculative. (more…)

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Guest post by Isobel Hogg, Royal Society of Chemistry

Can you explain the importance of chemistry to human health in just one minute? If you’re an early-career researcher who is up to the challenge, making a one  minute video could win you £500.

The chemical sciences will be fundamental in helping us meet the healthcare challenges of the future, and we at the Royal Society of Chemistry are committed to ensuring that they contribute to their full potential. As part of our work in this area, we are inviting undergraduate and PhD students, post-docs and those starting out their career in industry to produce an original video that demonstrates the importance of chemistry in health.

We are looking for imaginative ways of showcasing how chemistry helps us address healthcare challenges. Your video should be no longer than one minute, and you can use any approach you like. (more…)

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Guest post from Tom Branson

Last month’s Nobel prizes gave the world some new chemical heroes, but have also given me an opportunity to delve into the art of how to become a winner. Eric Betzig, Stefan Hell and William Moerner shared the prize in chemistry for ‘the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy’, which sounds, and indeed is, a very photogenic area of chemistry.

Through my exhaustive research of the prize winners’ websites, I found a handy list of journal covers on the Moerner group site. The other prize winners show off impressive lists of publications, but no helpful collection of cover art for me to plunder. So my apologies to Betzig and Hell: you may have Nobel prizes, but that doesn’t quite cut it here. Instead, let’s concentrate on Moerner and see what journal cover art can teach us about becoming a champion of science.

Moerner’s website shows nine journal covers, although it is not clear if this is an exhaustive list of the group’s artistic career. From this list, we can see that Moerner has a rough average of one journal cover per 38 articles published. Just for comparison, I’ve published a whopping three articles and had one featured on a journal cover, a much better conversion rate than Moerner. So does this totally non-scientific analysis suggest that I might be a dark horse for next year’s prize? (more…)

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Guest post by JessTheChemist

A few months ago I wrote a blog post about the first British Nobel prize winner, Sir William Ramsay, so I thought it was about time that I wrote about Britain’s first (and only) female winner of the Nobel prize in chemistry, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin. I first heard about Dorothy Hodgkin while I was studying at Durham University, through my ex-head of department and an amazing lecturer, Judith Howard. My most vivid memory of her is a second year lecture where she taught us about space groups using balloons, sticks and potatoes. As a postgraduate student in Dorothy Hodgkin’s lab, she carried out postgraduate research on neutron diffraction (mostly under the supervision of Terry Willis from the UK Atomic Energy Authority).

Dorothy Hodgkin was an inspiring woman. She broke boundaries in many ways, not least by joining in the boys’ chemistry lessons at school. (more…)

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Guest post by Heather Cassell

This blog post is inspired by my 3 month old and 6 year old who are both suffering from a cold and not letting me get much sleep.

Over the years I have found sleep deprivation can have a significant impact on my work in the lab. There are many ways to end up overly tired: a child could be keeping you awake, you may be unlucky enough to have insomnia, or you might have been up late doing something much more fun (in which case you get less sympathy). The sensible approach would be to take some time and get some sleep, knowing you will be more productive tomorrow. But often you simply don’t have that luxury, as there is important science to be done.

Sleeping on the job – not a good idea in the lab
©iStock

(more…)

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