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.

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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…

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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).

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Counting chemists

There’s a new paper out in PLOS One called A systematic identification and analysis of scientists on Twitter – yay! Being a big fan of science and Twitter, this sounds good. Unfortunately, I became aware of the paper because @Teachforaliving mentioned me in a thread on Twitter pointing out that chemists don’t feature all that prominently in the paper.

The introduction to the paper includes the following paragraph, with some fairly bold claims in it:

Here we present the first large-scale and systematic study of scientists across many disciplines on Twitter. As our method does not rely on external bibliographic databases and is capable of identifying any user types that are captured in Twitter list, it can be adapted to identify other types of stakeholders, occupations, and entities. Our study serves as a basic building block to study scholarly communication on Twitter and the broader impact of altmetrics.

The study makes a big deal of the fact that it finds scientists directly on Twitter by looking at the names of Twitter lists (rather than identifying scientists outside of Twitter and then using them as a starting point to build up a network of scientists that are on Twitter). The sampling method leads to the identification of 110,708 users included in 4,920 lists that contain recognized scientist titles in the list names. This sample is then refined by looking for scientist titles in the profile descriptions of the individual users and this gives a dataset of 45,867 scientists.

These are the top scientist titles from profile descriptions (Table S2 in the paper) – I’ve added the highlighting.

And these are the top scientist titles from the names of the Twitter lists (Table S3 in the paper) – again, I’ve added the highlighting.

Those numbers for chemists don’t look all that big to me (and others have said so on Twitter too). And if the sample identified in this paper is representative of Twitter as a whole, it means that there are something like 10-20 times more physicists on Twitter than there are chemists. (I’ve chosen to compare physics and chemistry because they are both traditional core scientific subjects, but admittedly that’s about as rigorous as my analysis gets).


(1) Maybe there are 10-20 times more physicists on Twitter than there are chemists.
(2) Maybe physicists are more likely to self-identify than are chemists (we’re a shy and retiring bunch after all…).
(3) Maybe the sampling method used in the study does not give a representative view of Twitter as a whole and picks up more physicists than it does chemists.

My analysis is far from scientific, but I figured I’d look at some other numbers… specifically follower totals (all correct as of April 14, 2017) for some accounts. Now, there are many reasons why any given account on Twitter has the number of followers that it does (bots, activity, awesomeness, other random stuff), but consider the following:

How about UK scholarly societies?

@PhysicsNews 154,125 followers (official account of the Institute of Physics)
@RoySocChem 22,852 followers (official account of the Royal Society of Chemistry)

So sure, the physicists seem to have the upper hand in the UK, but now take a look at the US:

@APSPhysics 53,204 (American Physical Society)
@AmerChemSociety 49,042 (American Chemical Society)

That’s closer. Now, how about their flagship journals?

@PhysRevLett 3,228 (flagship of APS)
@J_A_C_S 29,834 (flagship of ACS)

Hmm, interesting. Now let’s keep the publisher constant and look at Nature journals in physics and chemistry?

@NaturePhysics 134,791
@NatureChemistry 179,642

And how about we pit these two against each other:

@PhysicsWorld 147,845
@ChemistryWorld 410,104

Of course, it is not just chemists following the chemistry-related accounts and not just physicists following the physics-related accounts, but if there were an order of magnitude more physicists on Twitter than chemists, I think I would expect this to be reflected in the physics accounts listed above having, in general, larger numbers of followers than the corresponding chemistry accounts. Based on my totally unscientific survey of a small number of accounts, I would hazard a guess that the numbers of physicists and chemists on Twitter are not as different as the PLOS One study suggests. So, does the study overestimate physicists or underestimate chemists? Either way, my confidence in the study is not terribly high.

I’ve curated two lists here on this blog (totalling 199 chemists – was 200, but hey) and I have another list on Twitter that includes more than 300 chemists, so that’s well over 500 chemists in total. Also bear in mind the quite active #RealTimeChem hashtag (and the @RealTimeChem account itself). And for an example of the scale at which chemists interact with Twitter, check out the recent #RSCPoster event, for which the numbers are quite impressive.

The chemists are there on Twitter, perhaps some people just need to look a bit harder to find them.

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Periodic prose

It is, apparently, #WorldPoetryDay (on Twitter at least) and the question of writing a scientific paper in poetry form cropped up again (it does every now and then). And when it does, I usually end up digging through the dusty folders on my computer to find the few examples of chemistry poetry that I’ve come across over the years. To save me doing that again, I figured I’d just compile them into a blog post (and if you do know of any more examples, please point me to them in the comments below).

Let’s start with this classic from 1971 in the Journal of Organic Chemistry. A paper with the title ‘Comparative mobility of halogens in reactions of dihalobenzenes with potassium amide in ammonia’ doesn’t sound like it promises much in the way of literary sparkle, but take a look at how it starts:

This goes on for more than 2 pages…

The article is written in iambic pentameter and there’s an analysis of the whole thing over at the Poetry & Popular Culture blog.

The poetry even inspired the editor to insert this delightful footnote into the paper:

‘An uncertain future…’ is a delightful way of saying ‘don’t try this again…’

Next up is an Elizabethan sonnet that appeared in the correspondence section of the 17th December issue of Nature in 1981 under the title: ‘To trans, trans, trans-tricyclo [7,3,1,O(5,13)] tridecane’. The author is Howard Maskill, who we shall meet again very soon…

Shall I compare thee to a Shakespearean sonnet?

In 2001, Maskill writes back in to Nature to lament the fact that sonnets haven’t really caught on in the scientific literature:

Science in sonnet form just didn’t catch on.

But undeterred and inspired by some time spent in Japan, he suggests that perhaps haiku are the way to go instead:

Science gets the 5-7-5 treatment.

Maskill is not the only poet-chemist out there; Roald Hoffmann, recipient of the 1981 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, is also well-known for his writing outside of scientific journals, including books, plays and poetry. He has been known to combine the two, including this table-of-contents entry in Angewandte Chemie in 2009 (thanks to Neil Withers for pointing this one out a while back).

Solvated electrons FTW!

In 2014, we even got in on the act at Nature Chemistry. To celebrate our 5th birthday, each editor who had worked on the journal to that point chose their favourite paper and wrote a short piece explaining their selection. The article was introduced as follows:

With apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein…

And then later that year, we just couldn’t resist a little bit of Shakespeare-inspired verse when Claire Hansell penned an editorial about two-dimensional polymers:

C’mon, it’s not that Bard…

We’ll let Maskill have the final word, however, with this paper in Croatica Chemica Acta in 2014. He starts by explaining that he’s published a sonnet and a haiku in Nature, but that other forms of verse should be explored:

Even more poetic license…

The article contains three limericks, but the final one is arguably the best:

Maybe all TOC text should be written in limerick form? Or maybe not.

Know of any other scientific papers written in verse? Let me know in the comments!

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An elemental excursion

Last December I was fortunate enough to find myself in Sweden for almost a week to join in with the celebrations surrounding the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. It’s hard to put into words just what that was like (although I will try at some point in the hopefully not-too-distant future with a blog post). It was a busy week, but the day before the award ceremony and banquet on December 10th (it’s always on the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death), I had an opening in my schedule and an offer from Brett Thornton and Emma Karlsson to take me on a periodic-table pilgrimage.

Brett has coauthored a range of essays for Nature Chemistry over the years and Emma has provided beautiful illustrations (one example can be found here) for some of them. After discussing what the options were for some chemistry-themed tourism in and around Stockholm, I think it was Brett who pointed out that the small village of Ytterby isn’t all that far away. For the chemists reading this post, you’ll probably have some idea of the significance of Ytterby; for those of you who don’t, let me explain. There are now 118 recognized elements with a seat at the periodic table and 4 of them (just over 3% of them!) are named for this little Swedish village.

So, on Friday morning we set out by car from Stockholm and headed for a little place that has played a large part in the history of chemistry.

A sign-selfie with Brett and Emma.

Ytterby attained! A sign-selfie with Brett and Emma.

The story of Ytterby has been told by others on quite a few occasions and I’m not about to rehash it here. But to give you some context to the pictures below, here’s a brief summary: Ytterby is the home to a mine (closed since 1933) in which Carl Axel Arrhenius, a Lieutenant in the Swedish army (and no relation to that Arrhenius), found unusual heavy black rock in 1787. He sent samples to Johan Gadolin who analysed them and identified what later became known as yttria (yttrium oxide) which kicked off a chain of discoveries of new elements. Although originally named ytterbite, the new black mineral found in Ytterby was later renamed gadolinite in honour of Gadolin. It turned out, however, that yttria samples weren’t just yttrium oxide, but contained other oxides and, ultimately, was the source of ten new elements: yttrium, terbium, gadolinium, erbium, thulium, holmium, dysprosium, ytterbium, lutetium and scandium (see more detailed posts here and here).

So, shortly after arriving in Ytterby we found this sign, including a shout-out to the 1987 Nobel Prize in Physics for superconductivity in ceramic materials:

The front of the sign – how's your Swedish?

The front of the sign – how’s your Swedish?

If your Swedish isn’t up to it, there’s always the other side (although it’s not a translation of the Swedish, it’s just more information about the history of the mine). There’s also something a little funky going on with that formula – the first zero should actually be a capital ‘O’ and there’s a spurious minus sign at the end (once an editor, always an editor…):

The reverse side of the sign at the bottom of the mine steps.

The reverse side of the sign at the bottom of the mine steps.

We then climbed up a set of wooden steps to reach the top of the filled-in vertical mine shaft. There’s a pretty good view once you’re up there.

The steps leading up to the filled-in mine shaft.

The steps leading up to the filled-in mine shaft.

From the top of the steps there is a short path that leads into a small clearing that is surrounded on all sides by what’s still visible of the mine walls (presumably the shaft was not filled right to the top after the mine was closed).

On top of the filled-in mine shaft. Brett and Emma for scale ;-)

On top of the filled-in mine shaft. Brett and Emma for scale ;-)

I really don’t know a lot about rock formations or geology, but Brett and Emma pointed out a few notable features in the mine walls. The one shown below is sort of a star-burst pattern, which is apparently an indication of radioactivity. Perhaps my Google-fu is not up to it, but I couldn’t track down any more information about these patterns, so if any geologists are reading this, please comment and tell me more! There’s no doubt that Ytterby mine has relatively high levels of natural radioactivity though.

A starburst pattern in the rock of the mine wall.

A star-burst pattern in the rock of the mine wall.

There’s also a fairly big crystal (I think Brett said it was feldspar) to be found in the mine wall – thanks to Emma for providing scale!

A great big crystal in the mine wall!

A big orange-ish crystal in the mine wall!

And returning to my geological ignorance, I have no idea what any of this is, but it looks pretty:

One kind of rock that I can't identify forming seams in another that I have no idea about either...

One kind of rock that I can’t identify, forming seams in another type of rock that I have no idea about either…

There are also reminders of human activity at the mine, including a metal rod in the rock face and also some writing. I assume it’s not graffiti – if it is, it’s rather classy considering the use of Roman numerals. I wonder what the significance of 1864 was?

The writing's on the wall.

The writing’s on the wall.

After inspecting the walls for a little while, Brett said there was a plaque somewhere nearby denoting the mine as a landmark and so we set about looking for it. If you stand at the entrance to the clearing (facing the mine) there are some boulders to your left and a short climb up over these takes you to the ASM International sign:

This sign at the top of the mine sums things up pretty well.

This sign at the top of the mine sums things up pretty well.

We then headed back out of the clearing and walked up around the edge of the mine shaft by following a path to the right (which seemed to go through, or at least very close to, somebody’s back garden). This takes you up above the mine where there is a small ventilation shaft, which isn’t much to look at. On the other hand, the view from above the mine is quite stunning (or it was the day we were there):

The (pretty spectacular) view from above the mine.

The (pretty spectacular) view from above the mine.

Before the trip, Brett pointed out that a few of the roads in Ytterby are named for some of the elements and we set about finding as many of these as we could as we walked through the village to and from the mine. Here’s a Terbium Road selfie:

Just in case you're confused about how Terbiumvägen got its name.

Just in case you’re confused about how Terbiumvägen got its name.

And here’s Tantalum road:

And another road named for an element that was present in the Ytterby mine.

Another road in Ytterby named for an element that was present in the mine.

It’s not just elements that get in on the act, some roads are also named for minerals too. There’s Fältspatsvägen and also Gadolinitvägen:

I'll meet you at the corner of Gadolinite Road and Yttrium Road...

I’ll meet you at the corner of Gadolinite Road and Yttrium Road…

With all the sights seen, it was time for lunch and so we headed to nearby Vaxholm (which, incidentally, is where Carl Axel Arrhenius was stationed when he visited the mine at Ytterby and found the black stone that started the whole story). Apparently there is now a museum in the fortress that includes an exhibit about the Ytterby mine (we didn’t visit, but the folks from the Periodic Table of Videos have been there).

Vaxholm Fortress – built in 1544 to defend Stockholm from naval attacks

Vaxholm Fortress – built in 1544 to defend Stockholm from naval attacks and now the home of a museum.

Being in Stockholm for the Nobel festivities was an incredible experience and the opportunity to visit the Ytterby mine while I was there (which essentially amounts to a holy site for chemistry) made it even more special. Many thanks to Brett and Emma for being my tour guides that day. The next day was pretty special too, with the Nobel ceremony and banquet, proving that for some a visit to Sweden in December is not a rare-earth mine, but a gold mine…

Didn't expect to be getting quite so close to one of these last December...

Didn’t expect to be getting quite so close to one of these last December…

And I even got to hold it… although I had to give it back eventually!

So that's what the other side of a Nobel medal looks like.

So that’s what the other side of a Nobel medal looks like.

Posted in History of science, Life in general | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Another 100 chemists on Twitter

After someone (Per-Ola Norrby, I think) pointed out that my original list of 100 chemists on Twitter is now down to 99 (there’s 100 in the blog post, but the Twitter list only has 99 members now that one of those listed seems to have left Twitter…), I thought I’d finally get around to doing another list…

Just to head some of you off at the pass, here’s a reminder of what I said last time:

1. This is not a list of the top 100 chemists on Twitter (or the 101-200th best chemtweeps). It’s pretty much random – it’s not based on follower count, h-index or anything else silly like that.

2. Not everyone on this list is necessarily a card-carrying chemist, but they are all people who, more often than not, have something to say on Twitter about chemistry in all its many guises.

3. As with any list, its content is biased by its creator (me in this case). Feel free to leave comments, including the names of your favourite chemtweeps that I have inevitably missed, and to criticize, analyze and deconstruct this list to your heart’s content. Also let me know if any links are wrong/broken.

4. I think I’ve limited this to real people (rather than journals or blogs), but there are lots of other great chemistry Twitter feeds you could follow (also noted in the first list). Don’t forget about Compound Interest too…

[UPDATE: Ah, the perils of lists; you feel bad when you realise who you left out. Other suggestions of people to follow on Twitter after I published this list (will be first on the 3rd list of 100, I promise…): Brian Wagner (@DrummerBoy2112), Olexandr Isayev (@olexandr), Mark Stradiotto (@MarkStradiotto), Warren Piers (@wpiers1), Ragogna Group (@RagognaGroup), Matteo Cavalleri (@physicsteo), John Milligan (@ArsChemia), Jason Dutton (@DuttonChemistry), John Coupland (@JohnNCoupland), John Tucker (@JohnTuckerPhD), Sean Ekins (@collabchem), Scott Reed (@ReadScottReed), John LaMattina (@John_LaMattina), Valerie A. Schmidt (@v_a_schmidt), L.-C. Campeau (@DrLCsquare), Matt Cliffe (@MJCliffe), Adrian Roitberg (@adrian_roitberg), Thorri Gunnlaugsson (@ThorriGunnlaugs), Bill Wuest (@wmwuest)]

The list below is in alphabetical order of Twitter @names and can be found as a list on Twitter here.

aspuru-guzikAlan Aspuru-Guzik (@A_Aspuru_Guzik)
Theoretical Chemist, Quantum Information Scientist, Professor

dingleAdrian Dingle (@adchempages)
Chemistry Educator, Writer & Author | Currently adapting @sam_kean’s Disappearing Spoon | AACT | SCBWI | NASW | ABSW | RSC | ACS | apchemistry | CHEM NOT #stem

mulhollandAdrian Mulholland (@AdrianMulholla1)
Professor of Chemistry, University of Bristol. Computational chemistry, enzyme catalysis, biomolecular simulation, HPC, antibiotic resistance. Views my own, not RTs

cooperAndy Cooper (@aicooper)
Mostly science related

stoddartAlison Stoddart (@ali_stoddart)
Chief Editor (@NatRevMater). Dividing time between materials science and malbec. Mostly malbec.

williamsonAlice Williamson (@all_isee)
Lecture @sydneychemistry @Sydney_uni and research for @O_S_M. Science Communicator. Host of Up and Atom on @fbiradio #top5under40 #openscience #malaria

a_hardyAmanda Hardy (@AmandaChemist)
Schools and Colleges Officer @RoyalSocBio @UKBC_SB. Science teacher, Chemist. Love: Biology, Chemistry, all STEM Outreach & hands-on science. Views my own!

miloAnat Milo (@anatmilo)
Physical Organic Chemist, Catalyst Design & Data Science Enthusiast, Assistant Professor, Ben Gurion University

slaterAnna Slater (@AnnaGSlater)
Royal Society-EPSRC Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow @livuni anachronistically existing before my time (1st Dec). Furiously happy, occasionally happily furious.

mcneilAnne McNeil (@AnneJMcNeil)
U. Michigan. I’m a mom, scientist, and educator who is most happy doing anything with my kids, outside, reading, or learning something new.

aprahamianIvan Aprahamian (@aprahamian)
Chemistry Professor at Dartmouth College

berginEnda Bergin (@BerginEnda)
Chemist and Senior Editor @NatureComms. All views my own. But they will mostly be about science, so don’t get too excited.

yavuzCafer T. Yavuz (@caferyavuz)
Assoc. Prof. of Chemistry @EEWS_KAIST capturing CO2 with @PorousPolymers. Board Member @Chem_CP. Assoc. Editor at @RSC_Adv. ⛳️🚀

goodmanCatherine Goodman (@cate_goodman)
Scientific Editor at JBC. Interested in biological chemistry, science communication, reading, singing, adventures and cats. Opinions my own.

cruddenCathleen Crudden (@cathleencrudden)
researcher, scientist, chemist, mother, daughter, swimmer, tree hugger

arnaudCelia Arnaud (@celiaarnaud)
A science writer with broad interests in science, arts, and culture.

jeffries_elMalika Jeffries-El (@Chem_Diva)
Chemist, World traveler, Steelers fan, Cyclone, Crossfitter and Diva

mouseChem Mouse (@ChemMouse)
Crazy British cat lady and chemistry prof. Loves music, food and family.

leChristine Le (@christine_m_le)
organic chemist, advocate for #womeninSTEM, teacher, foodie, @Forbes 2015 #30under30; tweets about life in the lab & occasional food pics, views my own

holmesJess Holmes (@come_in_burned)
I’m supramolecular! Chemist. PhD abd. Teaching fellow at Unimelb. Education enthusiast. I value science and compassion. Views my own.

stephensonCorey Stephenson (@crjsteph)
Professor of Chemistry, University of Michigan

baumDana Baum (@dabaum77)
Chem prof doing fun stuff with DNA. Cat owner & pop culture/TV/social media junkie who enjoys running, cooking, & trips to Hawaii. My tweets are my own.

singletonDan Singleton (@dasingleton)
Organic Chemistry Professor Texas A&M Dynamic Effects in Ordinary Reactions

tavassoliAli Tavassoli (@DrAliTavassoli)
Professor of Chemical Biology

hardyMaggie Hardy (@DrMaggieHardy)
Chemistry @IMBatUQ & @QAAFI, wife, mother. On the hunt for new ion channel chemistries in venoms. Evidence-based. #Equity #Scicomm #612CC There will be spiders.

fockerHartreeFocker (@edsherer)
Predictive sciences for Process & Analytical Chemistry at Merck; firefighter; Chair COMP Division of the ACS; MN alum

slettenEllen Sletten (@EllenSletten)
Assistant Professor, UCLA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry

kayEuan Kay (@euanrkay)
Lecturer in Chemistry @univofstandrews. Research interests include supramolecular chem, nanomaterials and molecular machines.

fauldsKaren Faulds (@FauldsKaren)
Professor of Chemistry at University of Strathclyde- Interested in spectroscopy, SERS for bioanalytical applications and all things nano!

forganRoss Forgan (@forganross)
A whisky drinking, coast-to-coast commuting old bore masquerading as a young chemistry academic at @GlasgowUni on a @royalsociety URF. MOFs and stuff.

fosseyJohn Fossey (@fosseyjohn)
Chemistry lecturer, father of three, items posted are in a personal capacity

arnoldFrances Arnold (@francesarnold)
Innovation by evolution

gagliardiLaura Gagliardi (@gagliardi8)
(No Twitter bio, but here’s a link to Gagliardi’s faculty page)

gassensmithJ. J. Gassensmith (@Gassensmith)
Chemist, professor, and technophile

daviesGemma-Louise Davies (@GemmaLouDavies)
IAS Global Research Fellow, Department of Chemistry

gomobelFernando (@gomobel)
Chemistry ⋅ Science Communication Currently at @chemistryworld, @aragonradio and @rutaciencia_tv Views are my own 😉

willockHelen Willcock (@helen_willcock)
Polymer chemist.

mitchellDebbie Gale Mitchell (@heydebigale)
Chemist, spectroscopist, mother, Assistant Teaching Professor of Chemistry at University of Denver. (Tweets are my own).

gaedeHolly Gaede (@hollygaede)
Vocation: Chemistry Professor Avocation: Football Fan

howittJulia Howitt (@howitt_julia)
Applying environmental and analytical chemistry from the alps to the ocean. Charles Sturt Uni. Opinions my own.

tonksIan Tonks (@ianatonks)
Assist Prof of Chem @ U Minnesota. Runner. Lover of Organometallics, safety, music, backpacking and long car rides.

batteasJames Batteas (@jamesbatteas)
Professor of Chemistry Texas A&M University – Research in Nanotechnology – Yep, it’s all about the small things… – All views expressed are my own.

jensenJan Jensen (@janhjensen)
Computational chemist at the University of Copenhagen

jelfsKim Jelfs (@JelfsCompChem)
Royal Society University Research Fellow in Computational Supramolecular Materials Chemistry at Imperial College London. Views own.

frankeJenna Franke (@jennafranke)
Chicago native ⌬ Enjoys pretty colors chemistry, singing, & the great outdoors ⌬ 3rd year chemical biology Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley, Northwestern alum! ⌬

laaserJenny Laaser (@jennylaaser)
Asst Prof at Pitt Chemistry; former AAAS Mass Media Fellow. Chemistry, chemsafety, scicomm, and nerdery. Tweets my own.

shermanJes Sherman (@jes_sherman)
science. lasers. super kvlt metal. powerlifting. cats. nerd culture. invisible disability awareness. endless novelty seeking. transhumanism.

jorgensenWilliam L. Jorgensen (@JorgensenWL)
Professor of Chemistry – Yale University Editor of JCTC

desimoneJoseph DeSimone (@Joseph_DeSimone)
UNC-CH, NC State; Founder: @Carbon, BlueCurrent, Liquidia Technologies, Bioabsorbable Vascular Solutions, Micell Technologies La vita è bella

kalowJulia Kalow (@JuliaKalow)
reader, eater, chemist

nicolasJulien Nicolas (@julnicolas)
Director of Research @CNRS @u_psud @umr8612. Associate Editor @ChemMater, Adv. Board Member @PolymChem. Dad of 1. #Polymer #chemistry & #Nanomedicine.

kamatPrashant Kamat (@KamatlabND)
Prof. Kamat @ Researchers @NotreDame interested #photovoltaics #solar energy #nanomaterials #environmental #renewables and #publications & #peerreview process

gademannKarl Gademann (@KarlGademann)
Synthetiker and Organiker. Chemistry professor at the University of Zurich. Interested in how natural products influence our world and change how we live.

miricaKatherine Mirica (@KMirica)
Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Dartmouth College

gibsonMatt Gibson (@LabGibson)
@warwickchem @warwickmed Addressing healthcare challenges with biomaterials science. Infectious disease, tissue/cell storage, (glycoscience, ice and polymers)

ladybeakerAnna Ahveninen (@Lady_Beaker)
PhD student in inorganic chemistry at the University of Melbourne. Aspires to be a Real Scientist.

ohrstromLars Öhrström (@Larsohrstrom)
Chemist, Chem. Eng., Prof. of Inorg. Chem,, popular science author, IUPAC div II, åsikter and opinions sont les miens, På svenska, En français, In English

laerenLaura van Laeren (@lauravlaeren)
Chemistry PhD candidate at SU. Catholic. Always writing something. Sauvignon Blanc addict. Currently thesising, ranting may occur. (previously @laurajane0103)

gamonLuke Gamon (@lgamon)
Endeavour Postdoc Fellow at @Uni_Copenhagen | @SciFinder #FutureLeaders16 Alumni | Former chemistry PhD @unimelb/@Bio21Institute | SciComm, Biotech & Innovation

aronAron (@lonepair)
Virtual chemist / #おたく / Professor in Materials Design at @imperialcollege / #openscience

leinMatthias Lein (@m_onlein)
Either night or the Prussians will come. theoretical chemist, father, geek – possibly not in this order

stoermerMartin Stoermer (@MartinStoermer)
PhD in Organic Chemistry. Organic and Medicinal Chemist. May contain traces of football.

mceepMatthew (@MCeeP)
I’m a biochemist who spends his time blogging and cartooning @ErrantScience about my adventures in #PostDoc research. I also write a column for @LaboratoryNews

felletMelissae Fellet (@mfellet)
Freelance science writer interested in chemistry, materials science, science policy, engineering. Views my own.

franclMichelle Francl (@MichelleFrancl)
Chemist, writer, professor, mother, wife, blogger

davenportMatt Davenport (@MrMattDavenport)
Reporter & multimedia producer for @cenmag. Views are my own. Oxford commas courtesy of my employer’s style guide.

borduasNadine Borduas (@nadineborduas)
French Canadian postdoc with @krismcneill, studying the #atmoschem of clouds while #RealTimeChem-ing on the ski slopes with a soft spot for African elephants

brownNathan Brown (@nathanbroon)
#Scientist @ICR_London • #Scot • #Author • #Coder • #CompChem • #Chemist • #DataScience • #BigData • @Molomics • Fiancé is the Legoman • Tweets My Opinion

nevinsNeysa Nevins (@neysanev)
Computational chemist, GSK Fellow | I meditate walking between meetings.

gastonNicola Gaston (@nicgaston)
takes enormous delight in very small things | féministe ou la ferme | will always run for the bus | going for a Burton… | nolite te bastardes carborundorum

notmanNina Notman (@ninanotman)
Freelance science writer and editor specialising in chemistry

nothfTimothy (@NotHF)
Organic chemistry Ph.D. candidate who works on Au clusters.

winterJulia Winter (@OChemJulie)
Creating mobile technology for higher ed science. 20+ years in classroom. Have my own Julie/Julia thing going on. Founder @LearnAlchemie

farhaOmar Farha (@omarfarha5)
(No Twitter bio, but here’s a link to Farha’s faculty page)

matthewsPhilippa Matthews (@OrangePip86)
Scicomm and singing | @RoySocChem | @fairhavensinger | @sspiritsingers | Also I knit things | Views my own

spokoynyAlex Spokoyny (@organomimetic)
Chemist and whiskey aficionado.

paleyMiranda Paley (@paleymir)
Trained as a chemical biologist. Loving learning other areas of chem everyday as Managing Editor of @acscentsci. Views my own.

melchiorrePaolo Melchiorre (@Pamelck)
Husband to (@LornaPiazzi), Dad, Research Professor (@ICIQchem), Group Leader (@MelchiorreGroup) – Uses Light to Make Chiral Molecules / Tweets my Views

ballPhilip Ball (@philipcball)
This is me. On a good day. I write mostly about science.

thomasSarah Thomas (@PittaGirl)
Senior International Development Manager at the Royal Society of Chemistry, and world birder, especially pittas.

adamsDave Adams (@prof_djadams)
All views are my own!

elliotSJ Elliot (@Prof_SJE)
protein electrochemistry, redox enzymology, and science pedantry at a Hub University. Once an English major. (Once). Keep Calm & Carry Electrons

leighDave Leigh (@ProfDaveLeigh)
Royal Society Research Professor & Sir Samuel Hall Chair of Chemistry, University of Manchester, UK. european first, british second. molecules. machines. magic.

kennyPeter Kenny (@pwk2013)
Scientist, nomad, agnostic, heretic, slayer of soucouyants (and metrics), aspiring citizen of the world

sorensen-unruhRissa Sorensen-Unruh (@RissaChem)
Intro Chem, Gen Chem, & Organic Chem Prof. Chem Ed Researcher. Statistics PhD student. Human being in my own right. Lover of oxford commas. Tweets = Personal.

janszeSuzanne Jansze (@S_Jansze)
Love for chemistry/science/research, playing the saxophone, music in general and other interesting stuff.

reismanSarah Reisman (@sarah_reisman)
Professor of Chemistry, California Institute Technology

cadySarah Cady (@sarahdcady)
I love giant magnets.

skrabalakSara Skrabalak (@SaraSkrabalak)
Chemistry Professor at Indiana University – Bloomington. All views expressed are my own.

spainSeb Spain (@sebspain)
Lecturer in Polymer Chemistry @sheffielduni. Polymer chemist, guitarist. Opinions my own.

goldupSteve Goldup (@sgoldup)
I’m an Associate Professor and URF at the University of Southampton. All views my own.

silvermanScott K. Silverman (@sksilverman)
Chemistry prof at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. DNA catalysts. I try to compete as a 10k/5k runner, but others are faster. Penguins are great!

zingalesSarah Zingales (@SKZingales)
Chemist, Professor, Skeptic, Vegetarian, Ballerina, Gamer, Wine Snob, and Science Enthusiast #50BookPledge #RealTimeChem #WarEagle #GoBlue

camposLuis M. Campos (@soyluiscampos)
Assistant Professor of Chemistry Columbia University. Born in Mexico. American Citizen. Donald Trump is not my President.

bennettThomas D. Bennett (@ThomasDBennett)
Expatriate northern materials chemist in Cambridge. Views are my own, not yours.

thomasChristophe Thomas (@ThomasPolymer)
Professor, @ChimieParisTech, @CNRS, @psl_univ,,

easunTimothy Easun (@TimEasun)
Supramolecular photochemist, time-resolved spectroscopist, occasional twitterer. @ChemistryCU as a @royalsociety URF. MOFs etc.

viswanathanVenkat Viswanathan (@venkvis)
Asst. Professor @CarnegieMellon University, Advanced Batteries, Electrochemical Devices

patelVibhuti Patel (@VibhutiJPatel)
Science geek, BSc/PhD from @warwickuni, lover of all things arty-farty, hater of food waste. British by birth, Indian by heritage, European by feeling.

richardsVictoria Richards (@victoriajrich)
Inorganic and materials chemist. Senior Editor for @NatureComms. Views are my own.

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