Animal authors

Earlier today, I noticed that Sylvain Deville had taken to Twitter to point out an unusual canine co-author on a scientific paper:

This, of course, reminded me of the paper published by Andre Geim (in his pre-Nobel days) and H. A. M. S. ter Tisha. Spot anything odd about that last author? Well, it’s a hamster. Called Tisha.

Steph Kerr then followed up on Twitter with this:

So, that’s a dog, a hamster and a cat. Anybody know of any other non-human co-authors on scientific papers?!

UPDATE: Here’s Sylvain’s post on the same topic.

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The heaviest naturally occurring element on Earth?

OK, let’s make sure that we’re clear on the question first. By ‘heaviest’, I mean the element with the largest atomic number. By ‘naturally occurring’, I mean pretend that humans have never existed on this planet (probably would have turned out much nicer, eh?). Right, you can’t argue about the question anymore, and if you still want to, go and do it somewhere else – all I want now are arguments about the answer.

A lot of people (well, science-y types I guess) when posed with this question will say ‘uranium’.

But hang on, naturally occurring uranium can apparently undergo neutron capture reactions followed by beta decay to produce transuranium elements… but I’m struggling to find (primary) literature sources confirming just how far this process goes. Also note that plutonium is thought to be a primordial element (there might be some on Earth that has been around longer than the Earth itself) – the Nature paper is here and a potential rebuttal is here (thanks to Brett Thornton for pointing this out on Twitter).

After digging around Wikipedia for a while (and lots of the sources it links to), I’m fairly convinced that it is safe to say that neptunium and plutonium are found in nature – in naturally occurring uranium deposits and natural nuclear reactors such as the one found at Oklo in Gabon.

What about the next few elements though? Well, here’s what Wikipedia has to say:

Am: A few atoms of americium can be produced by neutron capture reactions and beta decay in very highly concentrated uranium-bearing deposits. [link]

Cm: A few atoms of curium can be produced by neutron capture reactions and beta decay in very highly concentrated uranium-bearing deposits. [link]

Bk: A few atoms of berkelium can be produced by neutron capture reactions and beta decay in very highly concentrated uranium-bearing deposits, thus making it the rarest naturally occurring element. [link]

Cf: Very minute amounts of californium have been found to exist on Earth due to neutron capture reactions and beta decay in very highly-concentrated uranium-bearing deposits. [link]

The Wikipedia page on californium also states that: It is the heaviest element to occur naturally on Earth; heavier elements can only be produced by synthesis.

Notice that the wording for all of these elements is very similar. And they all cite the same (and only) source – John Emsley’s book Nature’s Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements. I don’t have a copy of Emsley’s book to hand and so I’m still in the dark about primary literature sources to back up these claims (I’m not doubting the book, I’d just like to find the original sources).

When it comes to the next two elements, einsteinium and fermium, Wikipedia notes that: Einsteinium and fermium did occur naturally in the natural nuclear fission reactor at Oklo, but no longer do so.

The source of that claim? Emsley’s book. I really need to get my hands on a copy.

In fact, the Wikipedia articles kinda contradict themselves (I think). They say that einsteinium and fermium did occur in the Oklo reactor at some point, but each article also states that: Synthesis of einsteinium/fermium from naturally occurring actinides uranium and thorium in the Earth crust (sic) requires multiple neutron capture, which is an extremely unlikely event.

So, how far does neutron capture get you in nature? As far as fermium or not past plutonium?

I’ve kinda had this debate before (see here and here), but it was focused more on the number of naturally occurring elements, not the heaviest. Looking back at those posts does remind me to point out this link that states: All six of these elements (93-98) have been found in very small amounts in samples of uranium-rich pitchblende. Alas, there is no primary source to back up that claim either.

So, what is the heaviest element that has shown up on this notional human-free Earth that I’ve dreamed up? I think I’m sticking with plutonium for now, until someone points me in the direction of a literature source that says otherwise.

UPDATE: this pdf prepared by Argonne National Lab a few years back seems to suggest that anything above uranium does not occur naturally… but includes confusing phrases such as:

Although neptunium is essentially not naturally present in the environment, very minute amounts may be associated with uranium ores (huh, so does it occur naturally or not?!)


Essentially all the plutonium on earth has been created within the past six decades by human activities involving fissionable materials (but it does mention the Oklo reactor…)

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The molecular TIE fighter

Where did the inspiration for the TIE fighters in Star Wars come from? Well, we surely can’t rule out that George Lucas read this Zeitschrift für anorganische und allgemeine Chemie paper from 1953 and was particularly struck by the following figure…


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How the job market used to work…

For reasons that will become apparent in a few months (it’s not that exciting), I have spent a lot of today looking at papers associated with the discovery and early structural studies of ferrocene. I have come across wonderful footnotes (and notices) in some journals. Below is one from the Journal of Organometallic Chemistry that I thought I’d share. It’s from an article by Peter Pauson recounting how the story of ferrocene all began. If only it was so easy to get a job these days…! I’ll try and share a few more of these footnotes/notices if I get a chance.


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8 years

King's Cross didn't look like this 8 years ago.

King’s Cross this morning. It sure didn’t look like this 8 years ago.

On this day eight years ago, I arrived for my first day of work at Nature Publishing Group (NPG).

During my time at NPG, I have:

– helped to launch two journals (Nature Nanotechnology and Nature Chemistry)

– had three different bosses

– sat at five different desks

– given more than thirty external talks about publishing

– travelled just under 200,000 miles by train commuting to work

– spent roughly £30,000 on that commute (ouch)

– received somewhere in the region of 80,000 e-mails

I wonder what the next 8 years will bring?

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10 quick cover-letter tips for submitting scientific papers

This is more a list of don’ts than dos; there’s a serious blog post/editorial that needs to be written about how to write an effective cover letter, but for now, here’s a quick checklist for you all…

1. Send in a cover letter with your submission explaining why it’s as awesome as you think it is and why I should come to the same conclusion. It always puzzles me when there is no cover letter… this is your 10 minutes alone in a room with the editor, making your case for why she/he should care about the work.

2. This means not just copying the abstract of your paper and dropping it word-for-word into the cover letter. I’ll read the abstract when I get to the paper.

3. Ditto for the introduction paragraph(s) from the paper – these don’t belong in the cover letter either.

4. Ditto for the concluding paragraph(s) from the paper – you get the picture by now.

5. When your cover letter launches into the carefully reasoned explanation of why This Particular Journal is the most suitable forum for the publication of your paper, make sure the journal you’re actually submitting to is This Particular Journal otherwise you might look a bit silly. No editor should reject a manuscript based on an author revealing the Journal That Already Rejected My Paper in the cover letter, but you know what, it’s just polite to update your cover letter and it means that you don’t get the editor worrying about how closely you’ve been paying attention to the paper and the science itself (not just the cover letter).

6. Ditto the cover letter date. Why is the cover letter dated 5 weeks ago? Huh, weird.

7. If you’re going to refer to the editor of the journal by name in your cover letter, make sure you’ve got the correct editor name/journal name/journal office address combo.

8. Probably best to spend more time on why your work is so great than on why everyone else’s work in this area sucks.

9. If you’re going to give a list of particular sub-disciplines in your field where you think people will find your paper interesting (this seems to happen in chemistry a fair bit), explain *why* you think they will find the work interesting. It’s useless otherwise.

10. Suggest the names (and contact details) of experts who you think would be able to provide an impartial evaluation of the research described in your manuscript. Editors will almost certainly not choose a group of referees (there must be a better collective noun for ‘referees’ than ‘group’ – suggestions welcome in the comments) just from your suggestions, but they do provide a helpful starting point – it also makes it clear to the editor that you are aware of the community that is working in the areas of research described in your paper. Some journals allow you to name referees/nemeses who you’d rather we didn’t send your precious bundle of joy to – if this list gets too long or excludes everyone else who works in the same area, however, it tends to activate the big flashing red light (with really loud siren) installed in most editorial offices*. *Not really, but you get the point I hope.

BONUS: You remembered to update your cover letter and make sure it matches the journal that you are *now* submitting to. Did you update the supplementary information statement? You know, the one that often mentions a particular journal.

(UPDATED later in the day this entry was first posted to add a few more points following some Twitter conversation – also, for some great (tongue-in-cheek) examples of what not to do, look at #overlyhonestcoverletters!)

11. Do not leverage buzzwords, and avoid clichés like the plague. Your work is a paradigm shift? Really? You’ve shifted paradigms? (Thanks to @jermynation for reminding me about this one on Twitter). And unless you’re actually talking about *the* Holy Grail (which I doubt you are), don’t go there (sub req’d).

12. Again, thanks to @jermynation for pointing out that celebrity endorsements from Professor Big Shot aren’t necessary in cover letters either. If Prof. Big Shot has told you that your work is amazing (and they really meant it), just keep your fingers crossed that the stars align and we send it to them to review.

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Time out

VTWe have this great thing here in the UK called parental leave. So great in fact, I’m taking some. I’ve just closed my work laptop, turned off the work e-mail account on my iDevices and that’s it for the next 4 weeks. That’s 30 days of being unplugged from work. Four working weeks and five weekends in total (not that I’m counting). I’m going to stay offline as much as I can, although I might post the occasional photo to Twitter. In the meantime, enjoy the speculation about which biologist will waltz off with the Chemistry Nobel this year and try not to be too disappointed about it. See you in mid-October. Oh, and if you like the idea of working on the Nature Chemistry team for at least 6 months next year, have a look at this. Right, I’m off to spend some time with the two most important people in my life; those lovely ladies pictured in this post.

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