Twitter tips for beginners

A few months ago I wrote a post for an internal blog at work about getting started with Twitter… I figure enough time has passed that I can now share it with a wider audience. It’s sort of a Twitter-101, so those of you familiar with Twitter will know all of this, but maybe it’s something to point to when suggesting to others that they might like to dip a toe in the water. Many thanks to Anne Pichon (@AnneNotInTokyo) for proofreading the first version of this post and providing helpful feedback.

–––––––––––––––––––

As with most people, I suspect, I signed up to Twitter not really having any idea what it might be useful for. The trigger was one of Nature Chemistry‘s sister journals, Nature Materials, signing up to Twitter; after noticing that they had taken the plunge, in March of 2009 I created accounts for myself (@stuartcantrill) and the journal (@NatureChemistry). The journal account now has more than 200k followers and we use it to tweet about anything related to chemistry that we think our followers might find interesting.

Over this same period, I have also been tweeting a lot from my own account and the experience of handling a personal account and a ‘brand’ account at the same time has been interesting. What follows below is a mixture of ‘Twitter-101’ — some hints and tips for getting started — as well as some other things to think about if you plan on diving in to the Twittersphere.

1. Profile picture

Each Twitter account has a profile picture; for an organization this is usually a logo, but for personal accounts most people use a headshot. This literally puts a face to the account and makes it more human — others will know who they are interacting with and it can be helpful for recognizing people at conferences (assuming you want to be recognized at conferences, of course!).

Twitter is not LinkedIn, however, so you don’t need a rigid, formal headshot if you don’t want to use one. Choose something you are happy with that represents you — some people even use a cartoon version of themselves. Note to the more experienced users: do remember to update your profile picture once in a while, don’t keep using the same one from 10 years ago!

2. Username/Twitter handle

These are actually two different things. Your Twitter handle is the thing with the ‘@’ symbol in front of it and it can’t have any spaces in it. This is also how you are mentioned in the text of tweets (whether your own or others). Your username can be longer and can have spaces and punctuation in it; this appears on your profile page and also at the top of any tweet you write. When other people receive notifications of your activity, it will refer to you by your username rather than your Twitter handle.

I realise this might all sound a bit complicated, but you soon get used to it. For example, my Twitter handle is @stuartcantrill and my username is ‘Stuart Cantrill’; very similar, but not quite the same. The fact you have both can be quite handy for organizations (or people) with long names. For example, the journal Nature Communications uses its full name as its Twitter username, but its Twitter handle is @NatureComms. I recommend using something recognizable — but as short as possible — as your Twitter handle and then using your full name as your username.

3. Completing your profile

As well as your profile picture, you can also have a header image; this will appear at the top of your profile page. This is probably the least important part of your profile, but choose an image that you like or one that represents you or your interests. Do make use of the biography section. You get a limited number of characters, but here you can explain who you are and what you do.

You can tag related Twitter accounts into your bio; mine mentions my wife, my daughter and the journal I work on. You also get to add a location (it can be useful if people know what time zone you are based in if they are trying to contact you) as well as a link: this could be to your research home page or even to your LinkedIn profile if you prefer.

4. Follow other accounts

The way Twitter works is that you see a stream of tweets from accounts who you choose to follow, as such, you get to curate what you see in your Twitter timeline — apart from the sponsored crap that Twitter dumps into it, alas. There are ways around this; for example, you can set up a list of everyone you follow and just use the content produced by that list as your timeline (in fact, you don’t even need to follow the accounts on your list). Also, some Twitter clients filter out a lot of unsolicited timeline rubbish – I hear people rave about Tweetbot a lot, although I rarely use it myself.

You can follow and unfollow people whenever you like (so if you get bored of all my tweets about gin, you can simply unfollow me and my tweets won’t show up in your timeline any more). It’s also not a mutual two-way situation like being a friend with someone on Facebook. I can follow your account and you don’t have to follow mine and vice versa. You can also interact with accounts that you don’t follow. However, somebody will know if you follow them; it’s possible to see who follows an account and who that account follows.

Twitter will often give you suggestions of who to follow; start by identifying accounts you’re interested in hearing from and then you can expand your network by looking at accounts those accounts follow and so on. People you follow may start to follow back and eventually you’ll begin to build a network.

For example, my personal account mirrors my interests, so I follow a lot of chemists, but I also follow news outlets and journalists, I also follow accounts related to gin and wine, as well as accounts that tweet about publishing jobs and also accounts related to Formula 1. My Twitter feed is essentially a stream of content that I have tuned to suit my personal and professional interests.

5. Actually tweeting

You can just sit back and watch what other people say on Twitter; you never have to say anything. Part of why Twitter is useful, however, is because it makes it easy to engage with others. So, what are you going to tweet about? The first decision you need to make is whether your Twitter account is going to reflect your professional life, your personal life, or both. There is no right answer here and you should do what is right for you.

My own account is very much a mixture — in terms of what my interests are, I find it very difficult to separate my professional interests from my personal ones, so I tweet about everything: interesting chemistry, developments in publishing, our family’s summer holidays, my daughter’s maths homework, the most recent bottle of gin I really shouldn’t have bought and so on. I have been told by some people that they appreciate seeing that I’m a (relatively) normal human being, but I have also heard (generally through the grapevine) that some people think I share too much.

And this is why it is up to you what you do. Do what works for you; you shouldn’t feel any pressure to tweet about what fun stuff you did at the weekend if you don’t want to share that. Conversely, if you want to tell everyone that you went bungee jumping over a canyon filled with deadly snakes, go for it.

6. A picture is worth a thousand words (a moving picture is worth more)

Tweets are limited to 280 characters, but a tweet can also contain up to four images or, alternatively, a gif. People tend to notice tweets with images and gifs more than tweets that just contain text. If you want to plug your latest research paper, include a graphic from it. Tweets can also include links to websites and so, where appropriate, include a link to the thing you are talking about, whether it’s your latest paper, a story in Nature or an opinion piece in the Guardian newspaper that has made your blood boil.

7. Engage (if you want)

Again, you should use Twitter in the way that is most effective for you. Sit back and watch what other people say if that’s all you want to do. Or you can do that while also tweeting about things yourself.

What you can also do, however, is interact with other accounts’ tweets. You can ‘like’ tweets (you do this by clicking on the little heart), you can re-tweet someone else’s tweet so that it gets amplified to your followers (you do this by clicking on the arrows that go around in a cycle), you can also re-tweet and add a comment (this is called quote re-tweeting) and you can reply to tweets by others and engage in a conversation.

The more you engage (in a civil and constructive fashion) the more likely you are to get noticed and your network to grow. As with following an account, an account will be notified if you like, re-tweet or reply to one of their tweets.

8. Nice threads

Tweets are limited to 280 characters, so it teaches you to be economical with words. However, sometimes you want to say more than you can fit into a single tweet, and this is where threads can come in handy. If you have a series of connected thoughts or comments, you can link your tweets together in a thread — you can even do this in draft mode and have all the threaded tweets ready to publish at once.

Do not abuse threads though! If you want to write a 500-word blog post, the best thing to do is write a 500-word blog post rather than string together 100-or-so tweets. If someone is going to get bored by tweet number 12, they simply won’t read the rest…

9. Hashtags

A hashtag is a word or phrase (without spaces) that follows the ‘#’ symbol and if you include one in a tweet it will make it easier for others to find tweets related to that topic. Conference hashtags can be useful if you want to see what’s happening at a specific conference — all the tweets from #ACSSanDiego for example.

There are also topic-related hashtags, such as #RealTimeChem (where people describe the chemistry they are up to) or #chemjobs where someone is posting about an open position related to chemistry. The Royal Society of Chemistry even host a virtual conference on Twitter every year where thousands of people upload posters on a given day. The main hashtag is #RSCPoster, but then there are different hashtags for all of the individual disciplines.

Hashtags are also a good way to highlight belonging to a community or flagging content to a community that might be interested in a tweet — one popular example is #WomenInSTEM.

One word of caution, however, if a hashtag is too general or too broad, there is probably little point in using it. Using #chemistry or #science or #news as hashtags is not going to be all that helpful. And try to limit yourself to no more than two or three hashtags per tweet; if a tweet is mostly a string of hashtags, it makes the tweet really hard to read!

10. Tweeting *is* publishing

Read your organization’s social media policy and adhere to it (or question bits of it if there is anything you disagree with). Clearly it is not a good idea to say anything that would reflect badly upon your institution. When thinking about your own research, think about what you can and cannot put out into the public domain. Are you scooping yourself? Or would it be useful to solicit feedback on a particular research project from your contacts in the Twittersphere?

Similarly, if you run a research group, make it clear to your students what they can and cannot tweet about the work they are doing. If you are unsure about whether to tweet something, then you already have your answer. If you have any doubts, it’s probably best not to tweet the thing in question.

And remember, sure, you can delete a tweet, but it only takes a second for someone else to take a screenshot of your tweet and post it to their own Twitter account, so think carefully before hitting the tweet button.

11. It’s not all rainbows and unicorns

For the most part, my experience with Twitter has been largely positive, but as with any social network, there are individuals on Twitter who can be very unpleasant. Some people have experienced horrific online abuse and have been driven from the platform and the powers-that-be at Twitter HQ are not exactly great at policing Twitter.

If you come across unpleasantness (or worse) then you have some options. You can simply ignore the trolls (I appreciate this is not a coping mechanism for everybody and it depends on how many trolls there are and how active they are). You can mute accounts that you never want to hear from again. You won’t see what they say and they won’t know you have muted them — they will essentially be screaming into the void as far as you are concerned.

The next level is that you can block them. This means that they cannot see your tweets (they can, of course, log in to Twitter with a different account and get around that limitation) and they also cannot mention you or in any way interact with you on Twitter. Unlike muting someone, however, an account will know if you have blocked them. Finally, for really bad abuse that may violate the terms of service of Twitter, there is a report feature, where you can report abusive accounts to Twitter and they may take action (they may not).

As I said, my experiences have largely been positive, but I have blocked a handful of people. I also realise I am making this statement as a middle-aged white man and with that comes a hell of a lot of privilege that means I am unlikely to be anywhere near as much of a target as other demographics. In my experience, ‘Science Twitter’ is, for the most part, a friendly and supportive place, but beware of what you may be exposed to.

12. To sum up…

This post has, obviously, focused on Twitter, but some of the principles at least apply to other social networks. Over the last 10 years Twitter has led to real friendships, it has led to collaboration (a conversation on Twitter that I was involved in ended up leading to some research and, ultimately, the publication of a paper in PLOS One) and I’ve lost count of the number of conference and speaking invitations I have received by being active on the site.

Used in a constructive and positive fashion, Twitter can be a powerful networking tool and can open doors. It’s more than a broadcasting website where celebrities tell us what they had for breakfast; it’s a place where you have access to a highly curated set of professional individuals who you can ask for help and advice. I’ve even heard some users describe it as their support network, where individuals find comfort (and solutions) through shared experiences. As the kids say, however, #YMMV.

Feel free to add your own Twitter tips in the comments below.

Posted in Random | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Elements of research

I’ve seen a few periodic tables doing the rounds on Twitter where people have filled in the elements that they’ve worked with. This is not a new thing — I’ve seen these over the last few years — but with it currently being the International Year of the Periodic Table (#IYPT2019) and all, I think they might be cropping up more often than in the past. So, I figured I’d give it a go, and this is what I got:

It looks a bit pitiful to be honest. No iron? No zinc? And what about copper and nickel… anyway, for those of you playing along, here are The Rules:

1. These are my rules, if you don’t like them, come up with your own (theorists, you’re on your own here)

2. These are elements (almost without exception as compounds) that I *know* I’ve personally used in experiments during research (as an undergraduate student, as a graduate student and as a postdoc); I am also counting anything used in reaction work-ups.

3. I’ve not included anything I used when I was in teaching labs as an undergrad — mostly because it was a depressingly long time ago and I have no idea what I did or did not use. I could guess, but that seems like cheating. And who hasn’t done a barium flame test (as my wife reminded me earlier this evening)?

4. Trace impurities in your solvents/reagents don’t count. It’s the thing on the label that does.

5. I’m not counting what my reaction vessels, various analytical instruments or other machines/tools of the trade are made of.

6. I’m having argon though. I put it in many a reaction flask and it was there for a very specific purpose. And let’s face it, there’s no other way I’d be able to count it…

Posted in Fun | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Periodic car Scrabble

Sources: Elements (the periodic table, duh) | Scrabble words | International licence plates

Posted in Fun | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Promethium unbound

At some point in the last few years I volunteered to write one of the In Your Element essays that appear on the last page of each issue of Nature Chemistry. Anne, the editor who looks after the series, has been periodically (pun intended) reminding me of this fact and pointing out that I was running out of time (and elements) – the March 2019 issue will feature the last of the In Your Element pieces.

A while ago now I looked at the elements yet to be written about and just picked one — I decided to choose one that I knew essentially nothing about: promethium. If you want a potted history of promethium in roughly 700 words, then you can find my article here. The essays must fit on one page; this means that authors can’t just waffle on and so have to get to the point, but it also means that there isn’t a great deal of room for references. The sources that are directly relevant to specific points made in the article are cited, but there was plenty of background material that I could not cite – as such, I want to acknowledge those pieces here.

First up is A Tale of Seven Elements by Eric Scerri. This book covers seven elements — protactinium, hafnium, rhenium, technetium, francium, astatine and promethium — that were discovered in the first half of the 20th century. Chapter 9 focuses on promethium and provided a useful overview at the outset of my research for the essay.

The next source is an article in The Hexagon which is the (quarterly) magazine from Alpha Chi Sigma, the professional chemistry fraternity. The article ‘The Rare Earths – The Last Member‘ by James and Virginia Marshall is part of a series on ‘Rediscovery of the Elements’ and you should be able to find a pdf version of it here. There are some great historical pictures accompanying this detailed and informative piece on the history of the discovery (and naming) of promethium.

Another helpful article that delves into the early claims of discovery and the work conducted independently by Charles James at the University of New Hampshire and B. Smith Hopkins at the University of Illinois can be found in the 2006 Bulletin of the History of Chemistry article by Clarence Murphy (there’s a pdf here). It includes the story of how Hopkins published his claim for the discovery of element 61 first (in two papers in JACS) and that James was a referee for them. James published his own work shortly thereafter in PNAS.

There’s also a brief 2009 article in the Journal of Chemical Education by Lee Marek that covers the early naming controversy of whether the element should be called illinium or florentium. As I mention in my essay, this debate also played out in the pages of Nature. It all begins on June 5, 1926 when Hopkins and co-workers published The Element of Atomic Number 61; Illinium (on a side note, there’s no way you’d ever see a semicolon in a title in Nature these days…). Just over a month later on July 17, Nature published a letter from Bohuslav Brauner — not taking issue with the name, but with the fact that Hopkins had implied Henry Moseley had been the first to predict the existence of element 61. Brauner pointed to his 1902 paper predicting elements 43, 61, 72, 75, 85, 87 and 89.

Then, on February 26, 1927, Nature printed a letter from William A. Noyes — Chair of the Chemistry Department at the University of Illinois from 1907-1926 (where Hopkins did his work) — that disputed Luigi Rolla’s claims of priority in the discovery of element 61 and the suggestion that it should be called florentium. In a letter (Florentium or Illinium?) that appeared in Nature on April 30, 1927, Rolla responds and suggests that the fact that he and his co-worker obtained results related to element 61 in 1924 and deposited them in a sealed envelope with the Accademia dei Lincei in Italy means that they should be credited with the discovery (if only preprint servers had been around then, it could all have been so different!). On July 2, 1927, in a letter also entitled Florentium or Illinium?, Noyes responds by quoting Rolla’s own words back to him:

We believe, then, that the priority in the discovery of element No. 61 belongs instead to those who first had sure data as to its existence.

Noyes then suggests that because Rolla deposited the results in a sealed envelope rather than actually publishing them, this demonstrates they were not sure of their discovery at the time, unlike Hopkins and colleagues who, he says, were sure of their findings. That appears to be the last word on the illinium/florentium debate in the pages of Nature. Of course, neither claim proved correct and so both names were ultimately consigned to history, but not before illinium found its way on to many periodic tables, including the fairly famous one below (what’s that thing to the right of neodymium…?).

Another reference that was in an early draft of my essay (but ended up being cut) is a 1939 article in Nature by Emilio Segrè, simply called Element 43. This, of course, refers to technetium and the confirmation of its discovery two years earlier by Segrè and Carlo Perrier. Technetium was the first element to be discovered through its creation in a laboratory: rather than being found naturally on Earth (it does occur in nature in vanishingly small amounts) it was produced artificially — this is reflected in its name, which comes from the Greek word for ‘artificial’. In Segrè’s article he says that:

Artificial radioactivity has supplied chemistry with a powerful new instrument, and from the point of view of the discovery of new elements its most striking feature is that one is able now to create, by transmutation from other elements, the element one wants to study.

He notes that the first successes for this approach came with Fermi’s discovery of transuranic elements, but it also provided the breakthrough in the search for the four elements lighter than uranium still missing from the periodic table** — element 43 had been made in the cyclotron at Berkeley. Without saying as much, the implication is clear; if element 43 could be made in the laboratory, could the other three be obtained in a similar fashion?

**It should be noted that in Segrè’s Nature paper he refers to the four missing elements as:

…element 43, a lighter homologue of rhenium; element 61, a rare earth; element 87, a halogen and element 89, an alkali.

This appears to be a mistake, either on his part or the journal’s, ’87’ should be ’85’ (astatine) and ’89’ should be ’87’ (francium). The discovery stories for each of these elements are fascinating and I recommend Scerri’s book that I mention earlier in this post as a good place to start. When it comes to francium, you should also check out this New York Times piece — My Great-Great-Aunt Discovered Francium. And It Killed Her. by Veronique Greenwood.

The eventual discovery of promethium is described all too briefly in my essay and is covered in much more detail elsewhere, including the sources I mention near the start of this post. To summarize, it was isolated from the fission products of uranium during the Second World War at Oak Ridge in Tennessee. Because of security concerns, the discovery was only announced after the war was over, at the Fall National ACS Meeting in September 1947 in New York City. As noted in The Hexagon article by James and Virginia Marshall mentioned earlier, this meeting was overseen by the then president of the ACS: W. Albert Noyes, Jr, who, in a twist of fate, was the son of William A. Noyes, the former Chair of the Chemistry Department at the University of Illinois who had written to Nature to defend the claims of B. Smith Hopkins in relation to naming element 61 ‘illinium’! In the November following the meeting, the paper The Chemical Identification of Radioisotopes of Neodymium and of Element 61 by Jacob Marinsky, Lawrence Glendenin and Charles Coryell appeared in JACS. No name was suggested at this point for the new element, that came later…

At a regional meeting of the American Chemical Society in Syracuse that ran from June 28-30, 1948, small amounts of compounds of technetium and promethium (‘the yellow chloride and the rose nitrate’) were exhibited to the public for the first time according to a staff report in C&EN published on July 12. The meeting also saw a formal proposal as to what element 61 should be called: prometheum (note the spelling…). Suggested by Grace Mary Coryell, the wife of one of the discoverers, the reasoning behind the choice was explained as follows:

We propose, therefore, the name ‘prometheum’ (symbol Pm) for element 61 after Prometheus, the Titan in Greek mythology, who stole fire from heaven for the use of mankind. This name not only symbolizes the dramatic way in which the element may be produced in quantity as a result of man’s harnessing of the energy of nuclear fission, but also warns man of the impending danger of punishment by the vulture of war.

This is an excerpt taken from a C&EN article A Proposal of the Name Prometheum for Element 61 by Marinsky and Glendenin published just over a week after the meeting in Syracuse. The article notes that other claims were still ongoing (including one suggesting the name cyclonium) and there is even a footnote from the editor mentioning a request from B. Smith Hopkins (remember him?) to the board of directors of the ACS to appoint a committee to consider the various claims on element 61. Because element naming is an international matter it was decided to refer the matter to the National Research Council.

Yet again, the naming of element 61 then crops up once more in Nature, in a brief unsigned piece (I assume it was written in-house). It refers to the June 1948 meeting in Syracuse, but erroneously refers to the proposed name as ‘promethium’ (which is perhaps somewhat prophetic…). It concludes by saying that the brilliant work that led to the isolation of element 61 deserves international recognition and that ‘there is a great likelihood that promethium (symbol Pm) will take its permanent place in the table of the chemical elements‘. Before it gets to this point, however, it does take a little swipe at the details of the rationale provided for the choice of name:

Some may perhaps think the present proposal a little far-fetched, since there are more impressive effects of atomic energy known than the production of small quantities of a new rare earth, and classical students may take exception to the vultures — since Prometheus’ quarrel was with Zeus, the bird sent by his antagonist to torture him was, naturally, an eagle; but the etymology of this new name will soon be of as little importance as that of dozens of other element names which are much-less appropriate.

Wow. Snark was alive and well in the pages of Nature in the middle of the last century. For those of you who, like me, might need to brush up on your Greek mythology, the Wikipedia page for Prometheus can lead you down many wonderful rabbit holes and consume many hours of your time. Go there if you dare. The ultra-short highly simplified version of his story is that he stole fire from the Gods and gave it to humanity; this angered Zeus and so he had Prometheus chained to a rock and sent an eagle to feed on his liver, which would grow back each evening so the eagle could come back the next day and feast all over again. This went on until Prometheus was freed by Hercules. There are also links to Pandora and her famous box/jar and it was reading this page that I discovered that the alternative title to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is The Modern Prometheus. Just think, maybe element 61 could have ended up being labelled frankensteinium! And Shelley’s husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, wrote Prometheus Unbound, a drama based on the torments of Prometheus.

Anyway, I digress. The name for element 61 was confirmed at the 15th Conference of the International Union of Chemistry in Amsterdam in September 1949, apparently the same meeting at which the organisation changed their name back to the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC). However, the name agreed upon wasn’t the original ‘prometheum’ as suggested by Grace Mary Coryell, but ‘promethium’, with the ending changed from ‘eum’ to ‘ium’ to be consistent with the ending used for most other metallic elements (maybe that snarky writer in Nature did know best…). For some background on how element names end, see this Nature Chemistry essay from Shawn Burdette and Brett Thornton. Various other element names were confirmed (and spellings altered in some cases) at this meeting – see the C&EN article for more details.

As I was researching just what on Earth promethium is used for, I kept coming across pictures of luminous paint (usually exactly the same picture). If you do an image search for promethium, you just see loads of pictures that look like this. We illustrate each In Your Element article with an image and I really wanted to avoid using a glowing green blob. Fortunately, there are a lot of awesome Prometheus statues — another internet rabbit-hole that it’s very easy to get sucked in to. Have a look at the essay to see exactly which one we went with; it’s one that can be found next to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (there are more details about the statue here).

Here’s another of my favourites; this is a statue overlooking the Vidraru dam in Romania.

Anyway, back to the luminous paint. It turns out promethium-based paint was used to illuminate switches and panels in Apollo Lunar Modules and Lunar Roving Vehicles. A report on protecting against radiation during the Apollo missions — including both natural and artificial sources — can be found online (pdf here). It turns out that this isn’t the only link between promethium and space, however.

One of the first things I came across when researching the piece on promethium was an article in Discover Magazine called The Strangest (and Second-Strangest) Star in the Galaxy. It turns out that there are some really strange stars out there that appear to have odd elemental compositions, including some short-lived elements, including — you guessed it — promethium. There are a number of possible explanations for these observations and Jason Wright in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State University has written a series of blog posts outlining what they may be. Without giving too much away (you should really go and read these for yourself), the explanations range from neutron stars, to yet-undiscovered heavier elements in the island of stability, or, perhaps… aliens!

So there you go… digging out everything I needed for a roughly 700-word essay on an element that I didn’t really know anything about has also resulted in this 2,500-word blog post… something of a #longread I guess. Congratulations if you made it to the end!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Bad blood

Today marked the first day of the Infected Blood Inquiry here in the UK. It’s not typically front-page news and so you may not know the background to the story, but during the 1970s and 80s, some patients who received blood or plasma transfusions were infected with viruses such as HIV or hepatitis. Many (but certainly not all) of the victims were haemophiliacs – one was my Dad (here’s an old blog post about how it shaped me).

There are plenty of stories about the launch of the inquiry (BBC, Guardian, HuffPost to link to just a few), so there’s no point in going over what has already been said.

What did strike a chord, however, is that the proceedings began with a commemoration of the victims and their families (there’s a video here). I didn’t realise this was happening today and am not involved in any way, but it obviously got me thinking about my Dad and so I decided to dig out a few pictures and put up this post to mark the day and pay tribute to him.

Posted in Life stories, My story | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Getting into sloe business

I recently went to the 2018 Spring ACS meeting in New Orleans (#ACSNOLA). It’s a big chemistry conference and not only was I going in order to see some cool chemistry, but I was also asked to give a couple of talks: of course, neither of them about chemistry (not directly at least). On the Sunday morning I gave a brief five-minute intro to using Twitter and then helped facilitate a Twitter roundtable with Matt Hartings as part of a workshop covering a range of social-media platforms (including some that I am officially too old to have ever heard of).

On the Monday afternoon I talked in a session organized by the ACS Younger Chemists Committee (with some help from the folks at @cenmag, I think) entitled ‘Tales of Chemistry and Cocktails’. I assume I was invited to speak in this session because the organisers confused someone who posts lots of pictures of different gins on Twitter with someone who actually knows something about gin. Nevertheless, I was delighted and honoured to be asked to speak in this mini-symposium, chaired by Lauren Wolf, alongside two friends (and heroes) of mine – Matt Hartings and Raychelle Burks.

I figured I would post a copy of my slides (full pdf version here), but I realised that the talk doesn’t really make that much sense as a standalone file, so below are the individual slides and some notes for each one. (Apologies for those of you on sub-optimal internet connections; I realise this post may take a while to load).

1. Pretty much every sloe-based pun has been used, this is all I’ve got.

Look! It’s a title slide with a hashtag *and* a Twitter username…

2. It all started with a walk through the countryside one afternoon when my wife and I came across some berries that looked like those in the picture below. I had no idea what they were, but my wife was fairly sure they were sloes… well, I’d heard of sloe gin but had never really given any thought to what it actually was, but now I was intrigued.

An innocent enough question

3. Sloes are the fruit of the blackthorn bush – you can find these all over the place in the UK. They can often be found at the edges of farm fields; they form dense and thorny hedges and do a good job of keeping livestock in fields and people out of them. Sloes are not something you would ever want to eat; they are highly astringent. But… someone, at some point in the distant past, decided to soak them in gin and discovered that it results in a very tasty beverage. I applaud their curiosity.

Functional for farmers fencing fields from free-spirits; fortunately fabulous for foragers

4. For something that has very few ingredients, there are strong opinions about how to make sloe gin. My recipe can be found here, but if you are going to give it a go, just use it as a rough guide – change the proportions to get the taste you like. Don’t want it quite so sweet? Use less sugar (you can always add more later). Patience is essential though; soaking the fruit for longer (I typically go for 12 months) gives better results (IMHO). There’s an asterisk by the almond extract because this is an optional ingredient.

Time is the important one

5. No, you don’t need to wait until after the first frost to pick the sloes – just pick them when ripe. No, you don’t need to prick the sloes with a silver pin or with a thorn from the bush you picked the sloes from; this is chemistry, not witchcraft (even if the former sometimes feels like the latter when you’re in the middle of doing a PhD in it). Use a knife, or simply put the sloes in the freezer overnight – that’s a good way to split them. Don’t use too much sugar – easy to add more later, harder to get it back out if you’ve added too much. Don’t use a fancy, delicate or complex gin – you’re about to throw a lot of fruit and sugar in to it. And, as I already mentioned, leave the sloes in the gin for at least 6 months; a year is better.

Simplicity rather than superstition

6. There is even some scientific literature about sloes – prepare for SCIENCE! Sloes are about 60% water and, once that is gone, almost 90% of what’s left is a mixture of carbohydrates. The remaining 10% includes a lot of interesting organic chemistry.

The stuff in sloes

7. Sloes contain vitamins – a precursor to vitamin A as well as vitamins C (about 30% of what you typically get in an orange) and E (in its various different forms).

Vitamins that are ACE (sorry)

8. And there are minerals too! The levels of the bad ones (such as lead and cadmium) are quite low and, after a bit of Googling, seem to be nothing out of the ordinary for wild fruit.

Minerals too, even some nasty ones (but very small amounts)

9. I love the fact that this paper didn’t just analyse the chemical composition, but also looked at the physical properties of sloes. I have absolutely no idea why anyone would ever need to know what the terminal velocity of a sloe is – but should this ever come up in a quiz, you’re good to go!

Physical properties, ‘cos we all need to know a sloe’s terminal velocity

10. The antioxidant and antimicrobial activity of sloes stems from the phenolic compounds, including phenolic acids and flavonoids. One sub-class of flavonoids – anthocyanins – are responsible for the dark purple-ish colour of the sloe berries.

Some other organic compounds!

11. Here are the structures of the phenol compounds identified in one particular study.

The anthocyanins give sloes their colour

12. There are claims that the antioxidant properties of sloes may be useful in the food and pharmaceutical industries. But, while they do have antioxidant properties in test tubes, once in the body they are apparently metabolised rapidly and any significant antioxidant properties are lost.

Antimicrobial properties, but only in vitro

13. There is a whole paper dedicated to studying how the chemical composition of alcoholic solutions of various fruits change over time, at different temperatures and in the presence or absence of sugar – imagine writing the grant proposal to get this funded! The pictures shown on the slide are my own ‘samples’ of sloe gin. After 1.5 years the red colour persists, but 2 years later, the sloe gin is now more of an amber colour – RIP anthocyanins.

Colour changes over time because SCIENCE!

14. A lot of data… – a lot of compounds stick around, but the anthocyanins readily decompose it seems. Lower temperatures and the addition of sugar do seem to slow down the decomposition, however.

Never show a slide like this; what was I thinking?

15. Basically, there is a lot of chemistry going on. Lots of functional groups in the organic compounds from the sloes, not to mention a huge excess of ethanol and some dissolved oxygen probably comes in to the equation too. Likely some photochemistry happening as well… it’s basically a fruity alcoholic mess and it’s not surprising that the chemical composition changes over time, with one of the products ultimately being a brown-ish (presumably polymeric) precipitate.

Also a bad slide, too much text. Hopefully nobody has noticed

16. Bear in mind that in the study shown in the previous two slides, the fruit was soaked in 65%-by-volume ethanol for 21 days before being filtered, at which point the liquid was split into portions and either sugar or water was added before the samples were stored at either 15 °C or 30 °C. Making sloe gin is not quite so clinical. First of all, it’s *gin*, not just ethanol; hence the organic menagerie shown below (and that’s just a small selection of the flavour compounds in gin – and the exact profile depends on which gin you use). Also, you’re soaking the fruit for 6 months to a year, so all kinds of chemical chaos may ensue. Tasty chaos, of course.

Bruce wrote this for the 101st issue of Nature Chemistry

17. And are you sure that what you are picking are sloes? When wandering through the English countryside, there are all manner of small purple-ish fruits, ranging from sloes, through to bullace (of which there are different varieties), through to damsons (of which there are also a bunch of different varieties that come in different sizes *and* shapes – some are more oval, some are quite spherical…).

Nevermind the pun in the title

18. When I first picked the berries pictured below, I thought the ones on the left were sloes and the ones on the right were bullace. I’m now fairly sure that they are all just sloes, but they were slightly bigger on one bush than on another – and there are good reasons why sloes might come in different sizes too…

Sloes and big sloes or sloes and bullace?

19. Here’s a selection of small purple-ish berries foraged from around our village… there’s no reason why a bullace plant might not have crossed with a sloe plant at some point to make a hybrid that produces fruit slightly larger than a typical sloe, but smaller than a bullace. There are also things called cherry plums too (not actual cherries, but plums) which may well have got in on the act at some point, cross-fertilizing with other small members of the plum family to produce another hybrid. And damsons may well have formed directly from the sloe, perhaps via the bullace and maybe the cherry plum got involved at some point too, but it’s all debatable apparently. There’s more questionable parentage flying around than on your average episode of the Jeremy Kyle show.

It’s complicated

20. If you want to make sure you are making damson gin (rather than some other random-purple-ish-plum-sorta-thing gin), buy your own damson tree. If you need help picking damsons, small children come in handy (although those are harder to buy – this is one we grew ourselves). These damsons are the Shropshire Prune variety.

Damsons – and child labour

21. And just like with sloes, you can make damson gin (and damson whisky and damson brandy). Damsons are typically sweeter than sloes (some of them are not unpleasant to eat – and you will see damson jam, damson cheese* and other damson products). As a typical recipe for damson gin/whisky/brandy, take roughly 750-850 g of damsons, 150-200 g of sugar and 900-1,000 mL of alcohol. The protocol is pretty much the same as for the sloe gin recipe: wash the damsons, slit them with a knife, put sugar, fruit and alcohol in a 2 litre Kilner jar and then leave for 6 months (that’s enough for larger fruit; no need to leave for a year). Filter, bottle and enjoy – again, it will mature once bottled and will get better with age. [*note: not actually cheese, but good with cheese].

You can pretty much soak anything in gin (or whisky)

22. We did finally find bullace in the hedgerows of Cambridgeshire – these are white bullace, also known as golden bullace (even though they are neither white nor golden; was ‘green’ too much of a stretch?!). They ripen much later than damsons – in fact damsons have usually all fallen off the trees by the time bullace are ripe in October/November. The proportions for bullace gin (or brandy) are 900 g bullace, 250 g sugar and 1 L alcohol. Leave for 6 months, then filter.

More bullace – white/golden bullace in this case

23. One summer we noticed a lot of green plums in the hedgerows around the village (they were larger than damsons and so we figured they were small plums) and we just assumed they weren’t ripe yet… until we tried one. They were very sweet and turned out to be greengages. Before our daughter could devour them all, I rescued some for a little gin bath. Greengage gin: 800 g greengages, 100 g sugar, 1 L gin. Leave for 6 months, then filter.

What else was I going to title this slide?

24. These are cherry plums. You can find these growing in country parks and along hedgerows. They’re fairly sweet and you can make jam with them. Of course, you can also make infused gins too…

There really are lots of different types of plums

25. Cherry plum gin and cherry plum vodka (yes, you can use vodka!). 600 g of cherry plums (red, yellow, purple, whatever), 150 g of sugar and 600 mL of gin or vodka. Leave soaking for 6 months or so before filtering.

More plum gin!

26. If you are lucky enough to find wild cherries (and if you aren’t, you can always get some from a supermarket), then you can make your own cherry brandy (or cherry gin). Here’s the general recipe I use: 400 g cherries, 500 mL gin or brandy, 125 g sugar. You can filter these after 3-6 months. Once you’ve got the cherry liqueur, don’t throw the cherries away! Remove the stones from them and then coat in chocolate. If you take them in to work, you will gain many friends…

A bowl of cherries met a few bottles of gin and brandy

27. One day we stumbled across a quince tree and because I’ll pretty much soak any fruit in alcohol, we figured we’d give it a go. The best way to prepare the quince is to peel them, cut out the incredibly hard cores, and then grate them up in a food processor. The quince will start to go brown before your eyes (real-time chemistry – oxidation – in action), so have everything else ready to go; put the quince into the gin with the sugar in it, seal the Kilner jar and wait 6 months. Filter and you have something that is delicious (I often think of a quince as a bit of a cross between an apple and a pear). 450 g quince, 200 g sugar, 850 mL gin.

All the cheesy ‘quince’ lines have gone, even sloe, sloe, quince, quince, sloe…

28. After getting a copy of this book (probably as a Christmas present from my lovely wife), the one concoction I was eager to try was blackberry whisky. You can’t really go five yards in the English countryside in the late summer without finding a bramble bush covered with blackberries. Why anyone would spend a small fortune on them in a supermarket is beyond me. The recipe is quite simple – fill any container 2/3 full with blackberries (it helps if they are dry), then pour in sugar so it fills the gaps halfway up the pile of blackberries (this only works if the fruit is dry, otherwise just guess). Then, simply top-up the container with whisky – nothing fancy, just something blended and relatively cheap; the author of the Booze book (link above) has fairly harsh words to say about anyone who would use something expensive for this. Leave this for 6 months and then filter. Here, though, time really is key. The stuff will taste OK initially; might still be quite a harsh whisky edge to it though. Leave this for a year (two is better) and then something magical happens*. You’ll have a deep, smooth port-like liqueur that doesn’t taste of whisky or blackberries. It’s amazing. It might be my favourite of all these potions. [*note: not actually magic, simply chemistry…].

This stuff is amazing…

29. Instead of using whisky, you can also use gin or brandy with blackberries too. The whisky version is my favourite, but the other two are pretty good as well!

Gin is not the only fruit, err, I mean, booze

30. Note what the late, great Terry Pratchett said (or wrote – I’m not sure). Make sure that what you are picking is what you think it is and that it isn’t something deadly instead. If you have any doubts, do NOT eat what you’ve picked and certainly don’t soak it in gin and drink it (or indeed give it to your friends). For example, deadly nightshade gin wouldn’t be a good idea – the clue is kinda in the name.

Try not to die

31. If you’re a bit wary of foraging (especially after that last slide), then you can simply buy fruit from a supermarket or from a fruit farm and the chances are that it won’t kill you. In a similar fashion to the quince gin recipe above, you can also make apple gin – there are lots of different varieties of apples you can try and just vary the amount of sugar to taste (the recipe for the one below is as follows: 800 g grated apple (no idea what type they are – they’re from a tree at my wife’s parents’ house), 200 g sugar, 1 L gin and filter after 6 months). The one below on the right is a French drink called ’44’. You take an orange, make 44 incisions with a sharp knife and insert 44 coffee beans, put this in a jar with 44 sugar cubes and a litre of vodka (not gin!). Leave it for, you might have guessed it, 44 days, and then filter. As such, this one is quite quick and you end up with a sort of coffee-augmented cointreau type drink. This recipe was given to us by friends in France – here’s the original to prove it!

Like comparing two types of fruit I can’t quite recall the names of

32. You can also make interesting drinks with raspberries (that’s raspberry gin below – 475 g raspberries, 100 g sugar, 1 L of gin and filter after just 2 months). If you can find wild raspberries, then great – we never have, but the local fruit farm sells ‘seconds’, which are a bit mushy, but are great for this.

Hard to forage, easy to buy from a local fruit farm or supermarket…

33. All of this is not difficult; just experiment. Do small batches first just in case what you make ends up being revolting (we haven’t made anything truly awful yet, although we don’t speak about the cherry vodka that went wrong…). You’ll notice some variation year-on-year in terms of foraged fruit – some years the sloes are more widespread than others and damsons seem a bit fickle too. And some damsons make great infused gin and some just end up making OK liqueurs. The basic procedure for all of these recipes follows the sloe gin protocol in this post, it’s just the fruit/sugar/alcohol type and ratios that change!

Experiment! It’s not that hard…

Posted in Fun | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Joy provision

The July 2017 issue of Nature Chemistry is the 100th and the Editorial celebrates this milestone. I decided to have a little fun while writing it and was inspired by this story from @Helena_LB about including song titles from Metallica’s Black Album into one of her talks.

So, the first job was to find an album’s worth of song titles that could feasibly be included in the Editorial. Looking for some suggestions, I asked one of the other editors on the team (Gav), but the track listing of Nevermind by Nirvana would have been somewhat challenging… (‘Lithium’ would have been easy, ‘Territorial pissings’ somewhat tricky and ‘Smells like teen spirit’ downright difficult).

Since Nature Physics published a Joy Division-inspired cover in 2016, I’ve been a little envious (OK, consumed with jealousy), but the track listing on Unknown Pleasures would also have been hard to incorporate into an Editorial. (As an aside, if you are not familiar with the back-story to the cover of this album, then this is a great read). So, if not Joy Division, how about the band that followed: New Order?

I’m a New Order fan – I’ll admit that one of my ringtones is Blue Monday (and as another aside, if you haven’t seen this Orkestra Obsolete version, you *really* should). Looking through all the albums, the track listing of Republic seemed to be the most amenable to being hidden in roughly 800 words of a chemistry/publishing-themed Editorial.

The tracks are as follows: Regret, World, Ruined in a day, Spooky, Everyone everywhere, Young offender, Liar, Chemical, Times change, Special, Avalanche. Although you’d think ‘spooky’ might be one of the hardest to work in, that one turned out to be pretty simple thanks to the 1,000th Article featuring ‘one-thousand’ in its title. The most challenging were ‘young offender’ and ‘liar’… but I managed to pull together a first draft and they didn’t stick out like a sore thumb. I also got ‘Republic’ and ‘New Order’ in there too. After Gav was done with it, he had managed to add the record label: ‘London’ and also the studios where the album was recorded: ‘Real World’.

Here’s the published version with the 15 words/phrases highlighted.

There’s no Substance to this Editorial…

And just for good measure, ‘rise of the internet’ makes another appearance in a Nature Chemistry Editorial (see number 13 here).

Posted in Fun, Publishing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment