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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Communicating chemistry at #15acc

I’ve just had the honour of taking part in the Editors’ forum at the 15th Asian Chemical Congress. Here’s a pdf copy (click on the image below) of my slides for those of you who might be interested in seeing what I had to say…

Editors forum

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Editor, edited

I was very pleased to be asked to write the introduction for Scientific American’s feature timed to coincide with this year’s Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting — the 63rd incarnation of the meeting, and this one dedicated to chemistry. The feature (it’s here, but you’ll need to be a subscriber to read it) begins with my introduction and is followed by excerpts from 11 chemistry-related articles — written by Nobel Laureates — published in Scientific American over the years. I was told that the purpose of my essay was to introduce readers to topics covered by the excerpts, and I was encouraged to reflect on the history of chemistry and to seek out patterns or themes in the work being described.

The excerpts I was sent at the start of the process were taken from articles by Curie, Svedberg, Libby, Kendrew, Gilbert, Cech, Urey, Crutzen, Natta, MacDiarmid and Zewail (and a few others that did not make the cut). I was also given a copy of the introduction that was written for last year’s physics-focused Lindau-meeting feature, but it was hard to know where to start… Sum up the history of chemistry — and trends in research — in just 1,000-or-so words, and do it for SciAm’s audience; not the readers that I typically write for. The feedback on my first draft wasn’t too bad, but I was asked to include more current research in the piece, and a couple of iterations followed in which even more detail about contemporary chemistry was added.

The published piece can be found using the link at the start of this post, but I was curious how similar it ended up being to my first (unedited) draft sent to the SciAm editors. So, I decided to run both essays through a document comparison service (I used DOC Cop) and was somewhat surprised when it turned out that there was only an 8% correlation between the two pieces! The edits were fairly extensive, but I didn’t realise they were that extensive. Anyway, that being the case, I don’t feel too bad posting my original draft here on the blog — especially considering how different it is to what was actually published. Thanks to Gav and Vikki for feedback on the essay before I submitted it to SciAm.

The whole process was an interesting experience; I regularly rewrite/restructure News & Views articles and other content for Nature Chemistry without really stopping to consider what the authors will think about me — on occasion — taking their lovingly crafted sentences and paragraphs and editing them to within an inch of their lives. I’ve now seen it from the other side, so I hope I have a better appreciation of the editor–author relationship… I’m still very much an editor at heart though!

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A brief history of (Nobel) chemistry

Most definitions of chemistry are somewhat generic statements referring to the study of matter — its composition, structure, interactions and capacity for change. More specifically, however, chemists are typically concerned with the properties of matter at the level of atoms and molecules. As with other natural sciences, chemistry aims to increase our understanding of the world around us — from why a small molecule made up of just a few atoms can have profound implications for the Earth’s atmosphere to how a protein built from thousands of atoms can make strands of DNA in our cells.

It might come as somewhat of a surprise, therefore, that it was only at the beginning of the 20th century that the previously abstract notions of atoms and molecules were finally put on a solid experimental footing. Writing in the pages of Scientific American in 1913, Theodore Svedberg described how Ernest Rutherford’s work on alpha particles (the nucleus of the helium atom) and studies of colloidal particles suspended in liquid established the existence of atoms and molecules beyond reasonable doubt. Svedberg noted that the ability to count atoms (and determine their mass as a result) should even satisfy the skeptics.

Even though their physical reality was now accepted, it was not possible to see molecules directly because the vast majority of them have dimensions that are much smaller than the wavelength of visible light. Nevertheless, the development of X-ray crystallography in the early part of the 20th century enabled scientists to produce pictures of the three-dimensional arrangement of atoms in simple organic molecules and inorganic materials. The technique was improved and refined as the century wore on and more complex targets were identified, including molecules with biological relevance.

A pioneer of this field was Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, who received the 1964 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for using X-ray crystallography to determine the structure of compounds such as penicillin and vitamin B12. When it comes to biomolecules, however, these two examples are still very small — a molecule of vitamin B12 is built from fewer than 200 atoms, whereas most protein molecules are made up of thousands. The first protein to have its structure worked out by X-ray crystallography was myoglobin, a relatively small oxygen-binding protein found in mammals. Describing the discovery in the pages of Scientific American in 1961, John C. Kendrew likened the experience of seeing the first ever three-dimensional picture of a protein to that of the first European explorers catching sight of the Americas. Kendrew shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Max F. Perutz, who unravelled the structure of the related protein, hemoglobin, with the same technique.

Other techniques (such as nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy) can now be used to determine the three-dimensional structures of proteins and other biomolecules, but most are still solved using X-ray crystallography. Two of the last four Nobel Prizes in Chemistry (2009 and 2012) have been based, in part, on X-ray structural studies of collections of biological macromolecules, namely G protein coupled receptors and the ribosome. Although it is possible to determine the function of a biomolecule without knowing its structure, a three-dimensional picture of its atomic makeup might provide clues to how it works on a molecular level. This information can then be used to rationally design synthetic molecules — drugs — to modulate the activity of that particular biological target.

The exquisitely complex biochemistry of living systems has developed over billions of years and it is an intriguing question to consider its origins. A 1952 Scientific American article written by Harold Urey ponders the question of how the Earth came to be formed and speculates as to the composition of its atmosphere. In that same year, Urey and his student Stanley L. Miller performed what is now regarded as the classic chemical origins-of-life experiment. Simple chemical compounds (methane, ammonia, hydrogen and water), which they believed were likely major components of the Earth’s early atmosphere, were circulated inside a sealed glass apparatus and exposed to an electrical discharge intended to simulate lightning. After the experiment had been running continuously for one week, they found that some amino acids — the building blocks from which proteins are made — had been formed. Although the similarity of conditions used in the Miller–Urey experiment to those present on early Earth have since been called into question, interest in the possible chemical origins of life remains high and it is an active area of chemical research today.

Although the chemical composition of the atmosphere on the early Earth may offer some tantalizing clues to answer the fundamental question of how life began, atmospheric chemistry hit the headlines for very different reasons towards the end of the 20th century. The study of chemical reactions in the atmosphere, including those between ozone and the now infamous man-made chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), left no doubt that human activity had contributed to the depletion of the ozone layer. For their work on this topic, Paul J. Crutzen, Mario J. Molina and F. Sherwood Rowland shared the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The article by Crutzen and Thomas E. Graedel that appeared in Scientific American in 1989 pulls no punches when it comes to the potentially disastrous consequences of anthropogenic atmospheric change and recognizes, even then, that only a global effort between scientists, governments and the population at large can truly tackle such environmental issues.

One unique aspect of chemistry that extends its reach beyond the natural world is its ability to produce substances artificially in the laboratory through chemical synthesis. This concept was expressed succinctly in 1860 by the French chemist Marcellin Berthelot who wrote, ‘la chimie crée son objet’, which translates as ‘chemistry creates its object’. During the last century, synthetic chemistry became increasingly sophisticated and has enabled us to make useful materials and medicines that are either present in only small quantities in nature, or do not occur naturally at all.

Materials that have had a huge impact on our everyday lives are synthetic polymers — large molecules made up from repeating units of small building blocks (monomers) that are typically linked together in chains (that are sometimes cross-linked further into three-dimensional networks). Their trademarked names do not always betray their polymeric nature, but will probably be quite familiar: Nylon, Teflon, Styrofoam and Kevlar, for example. The properties of a polymer are influenced by the structure of the monomer unit and, in some cases, by the way in which they are connected to one another. In recognition of their development of catalysts that can control the orientation of monomers as they are added to a growing polymer chain, Giulio Natta and Karl W. Ziegler were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1963. Commercial plastics made using Ziegler–Natta (and related) catalysts are still produced on a massive scale today.

Writing in Scientific American in 1988, Alan G. MacDiarmid and Richard B. Kaner describe what they refer to as the next generation of plastics — polymers than can conduct electricity. Noting that many would have dismissed this idea as ludicrous just a few decades before, they described how some polymers could be turned into conductors by doping them with other chemicals. Despite the technological implications not being clear at the time, conducting polymers have gone on to find application in organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) and organic solar cells. In 2000, MacDiarmid shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Alan J. Heeger and Hideki Shirakawa for discovering and developing conducting polymers.

Chemistry is a diverse subject, and tackles problems that range from how atoms and small molecules can have a huge impact on the global environment to how complex molecular machines regulate the biochemical processes that sustain life. And chemistry can create artificial substances of its own that can open up new fields of study. With such a broad remit, it is hard to make guesses about what the future breakthroughs will be that may warrant recognition with a Nobel Prize. Nevertheless, they will undoubtedly offer new insights into how the world around us works or offer exciting new materials that could change our lives in significant ways.

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