A silicon spoof

This post is a follow-up to yesterday’s (did you notice the date?) that looked at an April 1981 paper by Dietmar Seyferth and James J. Pudvin published in the (now defunct) ACS journal CHEMTECH. This article reports the isolation of vacant 3d orbitals when tetramethylsilane is pyrolysed at temperatures in excess of 2,000 °C. Although a spoof, the paper is written so well, and with such attention to detail (the authors even include the supplier name and catalogue number for the ultrapure silicon tetrachloride that they supposedly used in their experiments), that the joke is not immediately obvious.

As I said yesterday, I’d never heard of the paper until Scott Denmark told me about it — and he was also the one who kindly provided me a copy (I doubt even #icanhazpdf would have worked for this one). I’ve had it sitting as an e-mail attachment for quite a while, but I figured the time had come to write about it — and looking at the calendar yesterday, I couldn’t resist. When putting the post together, however, I figured I would do a little more digging and see what else I could find out related to the article, and this post is the result.

Dietmar Seyferth

Although there are two authors listed on the paper, only one of them is real — and that’s Seyferth. Seyferth was the founding Editor-in-Chief of the ACS journal Organometallics and served in that position from the very first issue in January 1982 until 2010. In 2010, a special issue of Organometallics was published in honour of Seyferth (the Seyferth Festschrift) which featured an autobiographical essay entitled, ‘Looking Back on Happy Years in Chemistry‘. This 34-page article is remarkable in many ways, not least because the last 27 pages contain Seyferth’s detailed curriculum vitae (including full publication list)!

There are some interesting stories in the first 7 pages, however, not least the one about the Seyferth template (which ‘sold well for a number of years but ultimately was done in by ChemDraw’), but also one describing the story behind the CHEMTECH paper I blogged about yesterday — I reproduce that passage here:

Not all of my writings have been serious in nature. No. 353 in my publication list has the innocuous title “The Generation of a Highly Reactive Intermediate in the High-Temperature Pyrolysis of Tetramethylsilane” but really is a spoof in which I, with a fictitious coauthor, J. J. Pudvin, report the isolation and reactions of pure silicon 3d orbitals. I presented this orally at an organosilicon conference at Iowa State University in 1975 to the great amusement of my audience. Then there also is the only partly published (anonymously, without my knowledge, in CHEMTECH) “Researchmanship, Or How to Get Your Ph.D. Without Actually Working”, written in my younger years and modeled on Stephen Potter’s Gamesmanship, Lifesmanship, and One-upmanship books which were very popular at Harvard in the 1950s. Here J. J. Pudvin made his first appearance.

Using my highly advanced Internet-searching techniques (OK, I Googled it), I managed to find what claims to be the text of that other piece in which Pudvin first sprang into existence — it’s well worth a read too. Other anecdotes about Seyferth can be found on this webpage that lists the faculty members in the department of chemistry at MIT during the time that the class of 1964 were there. I particularly like this one:

When one of the new scholars asked him [Seyferth] how long it took a student to complete a Ph.D. in his research group, the answer was “The bad students — three years; the good ones — five.”

Anyway, back to the CHEMTECH paper and those 3d orbitals. Checking on Web of Science, the paper has apparently been cited just the once, but I’m not sure if the authors citing it are aware of just what they are citing… here’s the relevant passage in the citing paper (the bit in red is the reference to the CHEMTECH article).

A citation to a paper that suggests it is possible to isolate d orbitals...

A citation to a paper that suggests it is possible to isolate d orbitals…

There’s also a mention of Seyferth’s paper in the book Organic Chemistry: The Name Game: Modern Coined Terms and Their Origins in the context of other spoof chemistry articles (most of which are in German it turns out). By the power of Greyskull Google Books, you should be able find large chunks of the book here.


Another interesting part of putting together yesterday’s post was learning about CHEMTECH, an ACS publication that I had never heard of before being told about the Seyferth paper. It was launched in 1971 and ceased to be in 2001 (the last issue of CHEMTECH was actually published in December of 1999, but it re-emerged in 2000 as Chemical Innovation — although that only lasted until December 2001). The editorial in the last-ever issue spells out the reason for its demise:

If you are a subscriber or a reader of the ACS news department in Chemical & Engineering News, you already know that CI is closing shop. In these times of slow economy and greater attention to the bottom line, it was almost inevitable. Even the redesign and renaming of this magazine 2 years ago couldn’t reverse the decline in subscriptions, especially the institutional subscriptions that are necessary to keep a magazine like this afloat. So we take our leave. In the spirit of Rodgers and Hammerstein, I can say that all of my memories are happy tonight.

I beg your pardon.

I beg your pardon.

As with the launch of many new chemistry publications, the arrival of CHEMTECH (or Chemical Technology as was its official title back then) was heralded in the pages of Chemical & Engineering News. I’m sure that the ‘technology of urea’ and ‘the R&D and manufacturing of mothproofing substances’ would prove to be fascinating, but something else included in the description of what this new publication was going to cover was something that you wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) see today (that said, it wasn’t appropriate back in 1971 either). Just in case you were wondering, I’ve highlighted in yellow the offending bit in the passage I’ve grabbed from the pdf… yikes.

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Some surprising silicon chemistry

Ever since Scott Denmark told me about a gem of a paper back at the Bürgenstock conference a few years, I’ve been meaning to blog about it. Well, today is as good a day as any* I suppose, so here goes.

The paper in question appeared in CHEMTECH (I bet that’s one American Chemical Society journal that many of you have never heard of) in 1981 and was written by Dietmar Seyferth and James J. Pudvin. The fairly mundane title ‘The generation of a highly reactive intermediate in the high-temperature pyrolysis of tetramethylsilane‘ belies some truly astonishing chemistry.

The paper isn’t online, but here’s the Web of Science entry so that you know I’m not making this up.

It's a real paper, trust me.

It’s a real paper, trust me.

The article begins by noting a previous study that reports the pyrolysis of tetramethylsilane (and other organosilicon compounds) at temperatures of between 650 and 750 °C to form of ‘carbosilanes’ — compounds with Si–C–Si bonds. Seyferth and Pudvin point to their interest in reactive organosilicon species and suggest that the pyrolysis of tetramethylsilane at much higher temperatures than those used in the previous work could lead to even more exotic intermediates.

They then set about testing their theory and describe an experimental set-up that enabled them to pass a feed of pure tetramethylsilane (a whopping 6.81 kg in a typical experiment!) through a flash-vacuum-pyrolysis unit that was capable of reaching temperatures of around 2,250 °C. An elaborate system of cold traps was used to collect the products, which were then analysed with a comprehensive range of techniques.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, large amounts of hydrogen and methane were formed, along with other higher hydrocarbon products. That didn’t account for the silicon atom sitting at the heart of each molecule of starting material, however, but that was recovered as a mixture of silicon carbide and elemental silicon. After fractionation of other residues condensed in the liquid-nitrogen trap, just under a quarter of a gram of an amber liquid (let’s call it compound 1) was obtained — and this is where the fun/weirdness began.

Three separate attempts to determine the elemental composition of 1 suggested that it contained no carbon, hydrogen or silicon. Molecular weight determinations gave a range of results (and were solvent dependent) and NMR spectra recorded in hydrocarbon solvents — even 50%-by-weight solutions of 1 — did not reveal any resonances (1H, 13C or 29Si) other than those arising from the solvent itself. What was strange, however, was that this mystery compound was interacting with the solvent, leading to shifts in their expected NMR signals.

It was also noted that compound 1 exhibited some unusual reactivity — when dissolved in carbon tetrachloride in the open laboratory, both hydrogen chloride and carbon dioxide were observed to be formed. On further investigation it was found that solutions of 1 in carbon tetrachloride reacted with water (or dilute sodium hydroxide) and that all of the carbon tetrachloride was consumed in these reactions.

Left somewhat perplexed by their inability to characterize compound 1, Seyferth and Pudvin decided to look at the silicon-containing products formed during the pyrolysis process. Chlorination of the mixture of elemental silicon and silicon carbide resulted in the formation of silicon tetrachloride and carbon tetrachloride, which were then separated by distillation. This led to the surprising finding that, “The carbon tetrachloride obtained was unexceptional, but the silicon tetrachloride had anomalous chemical and physical properties.”

It was found that the silicon tetrachloride was unexpectedly resistant to hydrolysis; even the reaction with boiling water was slow. The 29Si NMR spectrum of this silicon tetrachloride was also very strange in that the single expected resonance was shifted upfield by 0.15 ppm compared with a ultrapure commercial sample of the compound — and this observation was consistently reproducible. Other inconsistencies were found relating to the nature of the chemical bonding — the silicon tetrachloride produced in Seyferth and Pudvin’s experiment had longer Si–C bond lengths than would be expected based on other literature reports and they also exhibited an increased stretching frequency compared with commercial samples.

This led to the following (remarkable) conclusion, which I reproduce in full from the original paper:

The conditions of our tetramethylsilane pyrolysis were sufficient not only to break all Si–C bonds, but also to strip all of the unoccupied 3d orbitals from the gaseous silicon atoms which were generated at the high temperatures used. These then condensed and were isolated in the form of a dense amber liquid.

This is what d orbitals look like really close up. Image taken from the UC Davis ChemWiki (http://chemwiki.ucdavis.edu/). CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US

This is what d orbitals look like really close up. Image taken from the UC Davis ChemWiki (http://chemwiki.ucdavis.edu/). CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US

And this astounding finding explains all of the anomalous observations described earlier in the paper. Because compound 1 is simply made up of vacant 3d orbitals, there would be no NMR signal (there are no nuclei to resonate) and there is no elemental composition to even be determined. Moreover the induced NMR shifts observed for hydrocarbon solvents can be explained by the interaction of these 3d orbitals with the carbon atoms of the solvents and the subsequent effect on their valence electrons.

The reactivity of solutions of compound 1 in carbon tetrachloride are rationalized by Seyferth and Pudvin in terms of what they call ‘orbital grafting’. Whereas carbon tetrachloride is resistant to hydrolysis because there are no empty orbitals on the carbon atom of sufficiently low energy for uncharged nucleophiles (such as water) to attack, the grafting of unoccupied 3d orbitals to the carbon atom makes nucleophilic attack much easier — and hence the formation of carbon dioxide and hydrogen chloride from solutions of 1 in carbon tetrachloride proceeds readily under ambient conditions.

This hypothesis also explains the unusual properties of the silicon tetrachloride formed from the silicon residues following the initial pyrolysis. Because the silicon atoms in this form of silicon tetrachloride have been stripped of their 3d orbitals, this compound is much more resistant to hydrolysis. Furthermore, the absence of 3d orbitals also explains the unusually long (and weaker) Si–C bonds than would typically be expected. The donation of electrons from the Cl atoms into the 3d orbitals on Si is no longer possible and so there are no resonance contributions from a putative Cl=Si species.

Seyferth and Pudvin go on to calculate their isolated yield of 3d orbitals (using the rest mass of a 3d orbital reported in an earlier study) as 87%, which they say, “…attests to the efficiency of our pyrolysis process.” Not content with simply identifying the amber liquid, however, they go on to show how the availability of free 3d orbitals could have a huge impact in chemistry.

The first demonstration described in the paper is truly remarkable. Although tetraalkylammonium salts have no valence orbitals left free for further bonding, it is shown that in the presence of a stoichiometric amount of unoccupied 3d orbitals obtained from silicon, the tetramethylammonium ion can be reacted with methyllithium to give pentamethylnitrogen. This compound can be isolated as a liquid, although it is pointed out that it, “…rivals mercuric fulminate in its propensity for unexpected and violent detonation.”

As well as using the vacant 3d orbitals to create chemical curiosities, Seyferth and Pudvin show us a glimpse of the real-world potential too. Taking advantage of the orbital grafting phenomenon described earlier, the persistent environmental hazards posed by chlorinated and fluorinated hydrocarbons become less of a problem because these pollutants can now be more easily broken down by water. Moreover, it is shown that when nitrogen gas is added to an aqueous solution of 1 at 80 °C, it is possible to form ammonium nitrite — so vacant 3d orbitals can solve the problem of nitrogen fixation too!

The paper ends with a discussion of future directions, suggesting that the process is not just limited to silicon. In theory it should be possible to obtain vacant 5d orbitals from tetramethyltin, although initial experiments were unsuccessful. It is thought that the more reactive 5d orbitals could be grafting on to the silicon atoms present in the glass traps in the experimental apparatus. Intriguingly, although the hydrolysis of tetramethylsilane is assumed to give equal amounts of the five different types of d orbitals, Seyferth and Pudvin speculate that it should be possible to strip specific d orbitals from suitable transition metals that have partially filled shells. It is surely only a matter of time before pure samples of dxy or dz2 orbitals are obtained and put into bottles.

And finally, it is suggested that this procedure may not be limited to just d orbitals. Pure pz orbitals could be obtained from the pyrolysis of trimethylborane and an appropriate lanthanide or actinide compound could be the source of pure f orbitals. To reiterate the final sentence of the paper, “It is clear that a vast new area of chemistry has been opened.” Amazing. And who would have thought that d orbitals were amber in colour; I’d always assumed red and blue…


*Today is probably a slightly more appropriate choice than any of the other 364 days this year come to think about it.

**There will be a follow-up post soon with a bit more background to this one (it’s here).

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How to make sloe gin… and a little bit of chemistry

First, the recipe.

Making sloe gin really is as easy as 1, 2, 3… – it only requires three ingredients (a fourth is optional) and the particular ratio my recipe uses is 1:2:3 (sugar:sloes:gin). The recipe is easily scaled depending on the size of the container you plan to use.

For a 1.5 litre Kilner jar, I use the following:

250 g caster sugar
500 g sloes
750 mL gin

(a splash of almond extract is optional; make sure you use an alcohol-based one rather than oil-based).

I usually sterilize the Kilner jar with a sterilizing solution made up with the tablets that you can buy in any supermarket – I’m not sure this is absolutely necessary, but better safe than sorry. I leave the jar upside-down on some kitchen roll and let it air dry.

Once you’ve gotten hold of the sloes (more on that later), I get rid of any leaves/stalks, wash them in water, dry them, and then put them in the freezer in a plastic bag. Leave them in there for a day or two and this should split the skins. If when you take them out of the freezer the sloes haven’t split, just prick each one with a sharp knife (it’s less messy if you do it while they are still frozen… and it doesn’t take as long as you think it will). Some sloe-gin folklore tells you that you need to prick the sloes with a thorn from the blackthorn bush you picked the fruit from; alternatively you should use a silver needle. This is stupid, you don’t need to do it – a knife is fine.

Simply weigh 500 g of the frozen sloes into the Kilner jar, add the sugar, then the gin, and finally the splash of almond essence if you plan on including it. Close the jar lid and then give the whole thing a good shake. Store the jar in a dark cupboard and give it a shake each day until the sugar completely dissolves – this shouldn’t take more than a few days. After that, invert the jar once a week (or just whenever you happen to remember). Then wait. The longer the better.

Just add time.

Just add time.

If you don’t have weighing scales or a measuring jug then the following is a good approximation: pick the container you want to make your sloe gin in and fill it half full with sloes. Add sugar until it fills the gaps between the fruit and reaches the same level in the container as the sloes, and then fill the container to the top with gin (add your almond extract if you want). You don’t need to use Kilner jars; just something that forms a pretty good seal – old gin bottles or even plastic drinking water bottles will do. Some people say you shouldn’t use plastic, but I couldn’t tell the difference between a batch made in a plastic bottle and one made in a glass Kilner jar.

16 months (11 over fruit, 5 after filtering) from hedgerow to glass.

16 months (11 over fruit, 5 after filtering) from hedgerow to glass.

Whichever method you use, you’ll notice the gin take on a light pink colour quite quickly and it will get darker over time until it reaches a deep ruby red colour. Of the first batch I ever made, I filtered one jar after 3 months, another after 6 months and the final one after 11 months (I couldn’t hang on for the full year). As with the whole glass/plastic debate, you will see varying opinions on just how long you should leave the sloes steeping in the gin. All I can tell you is that the stuff filtered after 3 months was good, the 6-month vintage was great and the 11-month batch was amazing (that stuff in the glasses over there is some of the 11-month batch). I’d probably draw the line at 12 months; it may well be a case of diminishing returns at that point in terms of what additional flavour can be extracted from the sloes.

In terms of filtering, no fancy lab equipment is required, we use a kitchen funnel and coffee filters – and we simply filter into the gin bottles that we emptied at the start of the whole process. At this point, you’re desperate for a taste, and you should have one, but just a small one. If you can, put the lid back on the bottle, put it into a dark cupboard and try to forget about it for as long as possible. It will certainly be drinkable right away, but the taste improves with age and it just gets better and better.

So, that’s the process. Simple really. If you search for sloe gin recipes on the web you will find many different variations (amazing for something with so few ingredients), but this one works for us. These proportions give a fairly sweet liqueur (although I wouldn’t say syrupy), and if you don’t want it to be quite so sweet just add less sugar at the start (you can always add more if you taste it during the steeping process and decide it’s not sweet enough; what you can’t do is remove any sugar, so best to err on the side of adding less rather than more at the outset). Similarly, if you want a stronger sloe flavour, increase the proportion of sloes. You can also get a hint of the almond flavour straight from the stones in the sloes without needing to add the almond extract, but adding the extract enhances the flavour. Just experiment – do batches with and without almond extract (we do), and vary the 1:2:3 ratio to see what you like best. Play with the timings too; it’s hard to really do anything wrong.

Oh, and when it comes to the gin, we usually use Gordon’s (just keep an eye on when it’s on offer throughout the year and buy it when it is at its cheapest; a litre for £18 is not bad). Having said that, the batch I did with supermarket-brand gin tasted just as good and even though we didn’t do a blind taste test, I don’t think we would have been able to tell the difference. Just don’t waste money on anything too fancy – any delicate flavours in the original gin will be well and truly overpowered by the sloes – but on the other hand, don’t use dirt-cheap stuff either.

Whereas the sugar and gin are easily acquired at your local supermarket, you’ll need to get your walking boots on to get the sloes, but they are really not that difficult to find. Sloes are the fruit of the blackthorn bush, which is commonly used for hedges in the countryside; be careful when you go picking, however, because the thorns can be vicious (that’s why blackthorn makes for good hedges). Sloes are roughly 1 cm in diameter (or just a little larger) and are blue-ish/purple-ish/black-ish in colour. If you come across something similar, but are a little larger and are growing on a bush that has no thorns, you’ve probably found some bullace – see the photo below. Sloes, bullace and damsons are all types of small wild plum and it may well be that bullace developed over time from the sloe and, in turn, the damson developed from the bullace (or so Wikipedia tells me). And just to make things more complicated, there may well be hybrids of these growing out there in the wild too.

Sloes on the left, bullace on the right (I think).

Sloes on the left, bullace on the right (I think).

So, when do you pick the sloes? As with every other step of the process, there are myths and legends associated with this aspect too. The most common one is that you should wait until the first frost. If we had waited for the first frost, we wouldn’t have picked any this time around until December/January and there wouldn’t have been many left. I suspect in years gone by the first frost just happened to coincide with when the sloes were ripe, but we start picking any time from early September onwards. The answer to the question of when to pick the sloes is simply when they are ripe.

Warning – for those not interested in the chemistry, skip to the last paragraph, but for those who are, keep on reading. Sloes are really very bitter; you wouldn’t want to eat them or make any kind of dessert from them. The reason for this astringency is the presence of a variety of polyphenol compounds, some of which are shown below.

The compounds that make sloe gin taste like sloe gin.

The compounds that make sloe gin taste like sloe gin.

I found these in a 2014 paper entitled ‘Phenolic composition, antioxidant and antimicrobial activity of the extracts from Prunus spinosa L. fruit’ (PDF here) where an ethanol/water extract of sloes was analysed by HPLC. The phenolic compounds identified in the extracts were neochlorogenic acid (1), quercetin (2), caffeic acid (3), myricetin (4), peonidin-3-O-glucoside (5), antirrhinin (6) and chrysanthemin (7). It is also presumably the reactions of these compounds (oxidation, oligomerization, esterification and maybe others) that leads to the change in taste of the sloe gin as it ages.

If you don’t want to try making your own sloe gin, there are commercial versions available. Be warned, however. Of the three I’ve tried, Gordon’s sloe gin is probably good for stripping paint but little else; Sipsmith sloe gin isn’t bad, but by far the best (at least to my taste) is that made by SLOEmotion. Their sloe whisky is also quite special too (I’m making some of my own this year). When I get a chance, I’ll post recipes for damson gin and cherry plum gin too… the damson gin probably won’t last long this year!

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A quantitative analysis of how often Nature gives a fuck

After seeing this tweet the other evening:

I started to wonder just how sweary Nature has been over the years. For the purposes of this exercise, I’m just counting words that have been printed in the hardcopy of the journal (online-only mentions don’t count, sorry).

It turns out that the instance of ‘bollocks’ referred to in the tweet above is actually its sixth mention in Nature over the years. The first time ‘bollocks’ dropped into the journal was on April 16, 1998 in a piece by Martin Kemp about some photographs that had appeared in Nature’s pages the previous autumn. Kemp’s article was quoting what a postgraduate student was heard to have said (“What’s this bollocks doing in Nature?”) in the biology department’s tea room at Leicester University in response to Cornelia Parker’s pictures of navel fluff from (i) a sailor (while at sea), (ii) a farmer and (iii) an architect.

Kemp’s article soon prompted some critical correspondence from Ian Smith, who opened his letter with, “How lovely to see the word “bollocks” appearing, perhaps for the first time, in Nature,” before going on to suggest that Parker would not be any less eligible to evaluate the Leicester University student’s work than that student would be to evaluate hers – and so perhaps she should be invited to be an external examiner for his PhD thesis.

And so, this initimately related pair of ‘bollocks’ appeared in Nature within the space of two weeks.

The third, fourth and fifth appearances of the word ‘bollocks’ came in a single letter published in 2001, penned by *that* Leicester University student responding to the bollocking dished out by Smith in the pages of Nature almost 3 years beforehand. Although Magnus Johnson lamented the fact that his contribution to Kemp’s article would likely be the closest he would get to publishing in Nature, he described being responsible for the first time ‘bollocks’ appeared in the journal as possibly the pinnacle of his scientific career.

Anyway, never mind the bollocks, what about other swear words?

First of all, if we’re going to survey swear words used in Nature, we need some sort of classification of sweary-ness. This led me to a wonderful set of guidelines from the BBC categorizing different swear words according to whether they are likely to cause most offense, moderate offense or simply mild offense. Just imagine the posh radio 4 lady reading those guidelines out loud.

I think a more widely known (and in-depth) analysis of swear words is George Carlin’s seven dirty words – if you’ve never heard/watched the sketch, you can find it here (NSFW, not without headphones anyway). Of those 7 dirty words, only 4 have appeared in Nature, and the one that has appeared the most (more than 650 times) is in an ornithological context rather than any swear-y sense. So that leaves fuck, piss and shit (and variations thereof). I’ve found 48 shits (including 13 bullshits, 1 shit-stirrer and 1 nano-shit), 26 piss-derived expressions, and a grand total of 10 fucks. And this is how those fucks breakdown over time.


The 1937 ‘fuck’ appears in a section entitled ‘Societies and Academies’ and seems to list the titles of presentations made to them. Under the heading ‘Rome’, there is an entry that reads:

G. BORZINI: Observations on the parasitism of Sclerotinia libertiana sclerotiorum Fuck associated with other fungi.

From a little digging on Google, it seems that the thing in italics is a plant fungus and it was named for Karl Wilhelm Gottlieb Leopold Fuckel – the Wikipedia entry helpfully points out that in non-English-speaking countries, Fuckel was sometimes abbreviated as ‘Fuck.’ – although the fullstop is missing in this case in Nature.

The 1985 ‘fuck’ is similarly innocent. One of the authors of reference 11 cited in the paper Andean-trending mobile belts in the Brazilian Shield is one ‘R. A. Fuck’.

It’s only in 1989 that ‘fuck’ is first used in anger. While reviewing Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life, Richard Fortey repeats a quote (“Oh fuck, another new phylum”) featured in the book. The remaining 7 instances of ‘fucked’, ‘fuck’ and ‘fucking’ are also found in quotes rather than being the authors’ own words, and appear in news stories, news features or the Books & Arts section. So, that’s 8 deliberate fucks in roughly 145 years; one every 18 years or so, although it’s clearly not an even distribution. If the rate of usage continues to pick up as it has done over the past few years, expect to see more clusters of fucks in the near future.

Do note, however, that this level of sweary-ness is not a patch on just a single article published in the journal Chemical Communications. It might not sound terribly risqué, but the paper Electrochemical synthesis of metal and semimetal nanotube–nanowire heterojunctions and their electronic transport properties mentions perhaps the most offensive of Carlin’s 7 dirty words more than 50 times – there’s even a bunch of them shown in the graphical abstract that accompanies the article. Perhaps a different abbreviation for copper nanotubes would have been a better choice?

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What if (I read more books this year)?


I read many books in 2014. Some of them I read so many times that I could probably recite them word-for-word. These books typically involved a gruffalo or the offspring of a gruffalo, however. And if there was no gruffalo to be seen, you could bet there would be some other sort of talking animal taking centre stage. I realise now that I only read one book for myself in 2014, albeit a very good one. Even though I probably should have read To Kill a Mockingbird many years earlier, I finally got round to it. Thanks to Mike Watkinson for persuading me at the end of 2013 that it really should be the next book I picked up. And who knows, there might even be a sequel; or maybe not.

I’m not really one for New Year’s resolutions, but I figured a pretty easy one for 2015 would be to read more non-gruffalo-type books than I did last year (don’t worry, I will still read plenty of gruffalo-y ones to my daughter). And hence that picture at the top of this post – that’s the line-up for this year. After tweeting that pic, Freda suggested (instructed? demanded?) that I provide blog reviews…

I did reply to say that they would be brief ones if I did them… and because I’ve just finished the first book, here is a (brief) review of what if?:

It was bloody brilliant.

What’s that? Too brief? OK then… if you don’t know what ‘what if?’ is, then stop reading this blog post now, and go over here.

OK, now that you’re back, I’ll continue. Written by Randall Munroe, the creator of the equally-bloody-brilliant xkcd webcomic, what if? aims to provide, in Munroe’s words, ‘serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions’ – questions that are submitted to him through his website. These include questions such as whether you would need to dive to the bottom of a spent-nuclear-fuel pool to experience a fatal dose of radiation (answer: yes; you’d actually be fine at the surface) and what would happen if you built a periodic table from cube-shaped bricks, where each brick is actually made from the element it represents in the table (answer: it would get a bit apocalyptic)?

My one quibble is that there are a few simple chemical mistakes (ammonia isn’t an element, the spelling of technetium isn’t as constant as it should be, and its symbol is obviously not ‘Te’), but they are easily forgiven when you read passages like this:

There’s no material safety data sheet for astatine. If there were, it would just be the word “NO” scrawled over and over in charred blood.

There are a few other chemistry-related questions tackled by Munroe, including one of my absolute favourite ‘what if?’ questions: What would happen if you were to gather a mole (unit of measurement) of moles (the small furry critter) in one place? Well, if we did that here on Earth, the planet’s surface would apparently end up covered with a layer of moles 80 km deep. If we collected a mole of moles in space instead, this would result in a mole planet just a little bit larger than our moon. That’s a lot of moles (the furry ones, not the chemistry ones).

Other questions I really enjoyed in the book: If everyone on the planet stayed away from each other for a couple of weeks, wouldn’t the common cold be wiped out? (answer: no); What would happen if someone’s DNA suddenly vanished? (answer: it doesn’t end well… what did you expect?!); What is the farthest one human being has ever been from every other living person (answer: it’s hard to know for sure); When (if ever) did the Sun finally set on the British Empire? (answer: well, maybe you should read the book to find that one out).

Many of the questions are truly absurd, but the answers are truly fascinating and are laid out step-by-step in glorious (and easy-to-follow) detail. But it’s more than just that, the book is delightfully funny – not least the illustrations and the footnotes. In answering a question about how many Lego bricks it would take to build a bridge capable of carrying traffic from London to New York, Munroe uses six footnotes to discuss different styling of the word ‘Lego’ – and it’s brilliant. Just like the book itself.

Go read ‘what if?’ the book. And if you don’t do that, at least go and surf through the entries at the website – there are questions and answers there that are not included in the book (and vice versa), including another chemistry-themed favourite of mine: Extreme Boating.

Next up on my reading list: The Upside of Irrationality – deposited in my in-tray one day by Claire Hansell, who told me that it was a good book and that I should read it. OK then.

Posted in Book reviews, Life in general | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Not that Noble

From Justus Liebigs Annalen der Chemie in 1856…

Either this chap was publishing under a not-terribly-creative pseudonym, or someone at the editorial office got a bit confused…

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

I did a Nobel thing…

It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future – so said Niels Bohr (or maybe Yogi Berra, or Mark Twain or… boy, it’s hard to track down who *really* said something…).

Anyway, @carmendrahl and @laurenkwolf from @cenmag were kind enough to invite me to join a Hangout with @NeilWithers from @ChemistryWorld, David Pendlebury from @ThomsonReuters and @lilaguterman from @ScienceNews. It was hugely enjoyable and here’s the end result:

In the lead-up to the Hangout I figured I should put some thought into who I was going to name as my 2014 pick for the prize – I ended up with two pages of notes… (the scribbled-out stuff at the bottom of page 2 are notes that I made in the few minutes prior to the Hangout going live).

IMG_6403  IMG_6404

As I was trying to whittle down my shortlist to one particular pick, I put asterisks next to the ones that I liked the look of more than the others (I didn’t bother putting one next to Goodenough because I knew that this would be Neil’s choice). And when put on the spot by Carmen, I plumped for Grätzel…

The Hangout prompted a number of questions and comments on Twitter (you can find them by searching for #chemnobel), but here’s my favourite response to the 2-page shortlist that I’d put together.

And as Nobel-week begins, Rudy Baum (@cenbaum) has penned an editorial that rounds-up everyone’s picks from the Hangout. Come Wednesday, we’ll know if any of us got lucky and picked the winner!

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

100 chemists on Twitter

This is not a list of the top 100 chemists on Twitter. For a start, I’m not really comfortable defining ‘top’. Most followers? Most tweets? Shiniest avatar? Funniest bio? Most well-known in the real world? (Define ‘well-known’ and ‘real world’, go on, I dare you). Secondly, 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.

This is essentially a starter pack for those interested in hearing about some chemistry on Twitter (and was, perhaps obviously, inspired by the list that Science put out last week that didn’t have any chemists on it, amongst other problems…). I started writing down names and kept going until I got to 100. As with any list, its content is biased by the person who created it (me, so in this case you’ll find lots of journalists, editors and others that I regularly interact with on Twitter) and is woefully incomplete. I have no doubt that there are significant omissions; but 100 is a nice round number and so I stopped there (I also have a day job). 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.

There were some parameters though. I haven’t chosen any organizations, publications or research groups – I’ve tried to limit it to individuals. However, if you want to get lots of chemistry on Twitter, I do highly recommend @cenmag, @ChemistryWorld, @RealTimeChem, @periodicvideos and @NatureChemistry (FYI, I’m the editor of that last one, so might be a teeny bit biased). I also haven’t included any of the chemists who currently work on the journal, so apologies to @stephengdavey, @HansellThe, @RussJKJohnson, @NChemGav and @anneintokyo.

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

_byronmillerAndrew (@_byronmiller) NEW Twitter handle: (@andrewbissette)
Follow for chemistry and bad puns. Retweets do not imply endorsement.

alexfgoldbergAlex Goldberg (@AlexFGoldberg)
Process Chemist in Pharma. Will talk science enthusiastically, music loudly, and politics politely. Speaks 3 languages decently, and curse words in the rest [Bio update here on 26 Jan 2016]

annamappAnna Mapp (@AnnaMapp)
Chemical biologist

ashworthSHStephen H. Ashworth (@AshworthSH)
Works at a university. Teaches some chemistry.

awtaylor83Alasdair Taylor (@AWTaylor83)
Green chemist caring about the planet. Writes on chemistry, sustainability, policy & Higher Ed on my own blog, @medium & elsewhere

azaprinsFreda (@AzaPrins)
Every reaction needs a bit of TLC.

azmanamazmanam (@azmanam)
Earned my PhD from the UNC-Chapel Hill in synthetic organic chemistry. I am currently teaching organic chemistry at a midwestern Liberal Arts university.

barneygrubbsBarney Grubbs (@barneygrubbs)
Polymer Chemist at Stony Brook & Brookhaven National Lab.

bellatronicDr Bella (@bellatronic)
Organic chemist, expat, cat friend and reformed chocoholic. Patent attorney in training. President of Women in Chemistry. Views mine very own.

beth_halfordBethany Halford (@beth_halford)
Science writer. Expert pie maker.

bibianacamposBibiana (@BibianaCampos)
Magazines Publisher and Editor of @ChemistryWorld at the Royal Society of Chemistry

bstockwellBrent Stockwell (@bstockwell)
Professor of biology/chemistry at Columbia University, and author of The Quest for the Cure: The Science and Stories Behind the Next Generation of Medicines

carmendrahlCarmen Drahl (@carmendrahl)
Science reporter @cenmag. Chemistry PhD. Co-host of #speakingofchem chemistry show. Follow me for the latest in chemistry. Views my own.

carolynbertozziCarolyn Bertozzi (@CarolynBertozzi)
(No Twitter bio, but here’s a link to Bertozzi’s faculty page)

caverkatKat Badiola (@CaverKat)
Another chemistry doer in @mattoddchem’s lab @Sydney_Uni

chembarkChemBark (@ChemBark)
News, Analysis, and Commentary for the World of Chemistry and Chemical Research. The site is maintained by Paul Bracher.

chemconnectorChemConnector (@ChemConnector)
I’m the ChemConnector – connecting chemists and curating data across the internet. http://about.me/chemconnector

chemicalbiologyACS Chemical Biology (@ChemicalBiology)
ACS Chemical Biology Editor and UW-Madison Prof Chem Biochem

chemistinjapanJason Hoshikawa (@chemistinjapan)
Organometallic/Polymer Chemist – 1st year PhD student at Kyoto University. Tweets are my own. 有機金属・ポリマー化学、京都大学でのD1です。 ACS, CSJ, AXΣ (BH)

chemjobberChemjobber (@Chemjobber)
1. A blog to help chemists find jobs in a tough market. 2. Towards a quantitative understanding of the quality of the chemistry job market

chemprofcramerActivatedlyCömplex (@ChemProfCramer)
UMN Prof of Chemistry & Assoc Dean. Army vet. MOOC vet. Dad of 3. Downtown Minneapolitan. Singer/Whistler. Armed with a keyboard and eerily immune to shame.

chemtipsBrandon Findlay (@Chemtips)
I blog chemistry tips and career advice. Because chemistry is hard enough.

christhechangChris Chang (@christhechang)
(No Twitter bio, but here’s a link to Chang’s faculty page)

chronicleflaskKat Day (@chronicleflask)
Chemist(ry teacher), writer and blogger (advancing), potter (dabbler), balloon modeller (this week) bookworm (total) and mum (just out of apprentice stage).

claireeeyersClaire Eyers (@ClaireEEyers)
Wondering about the world.

commonchemistJennifer Novotney (@CommonChemist)
Chemistry communicator interfacing science and society

curiouswavefnCurious Wavefunction (@curiouswavefn)
Ashutosh (Ash) Jogalekar: Chemist and drug discovery scientist interested in the history and philosophy of science. RTs not endorsements.

davidkrollDavid J Kroll (@davidkroll)
Pharmacologist, science & medicine freelance writer, speaker, educator. Drugs from nature, drug safety, interactions. Science & journalism diversity advocate.

deborahblumDeborah Blum (@deborahblum)
Book author (The Poisoner’s Handbook). Blogger (Wired Science). Journalist. Professor (The University of Wisconsin). Chemistry Geek (Total).

declanflemingDeclan Fleming (@declanfleming)
RSC School Teacher Fellow (Bath Uni), Chemistry Teacher, Science Communicator, Photographer, Paraglider

derekloweDerek Lowe (@Dereklowe)
Drug discovery chemist and blogger

devillesySylvain Deville (@DevilleSy)
Bioinspired #CNRS researcher. Serial-freezer. Coffee drinker.

dichtelWill Dichtel (@Dichtel)
Associate Professor of Chemistry at Cornell University.

docfreerideJanet D. Stemwedel (@docfreeride)
Philosopher, lapsed chemist. I also blog @ http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/doing-good-science/

dr_ghillGrant Hill (@Dr_GHill)
Chemistry Lecturer at the University of Sheffield. My research is in the field of theoretical/computational chemistry.

drrubidiumRaychelle Burks (@DrRubidium)
Analytical chemist. Left Coaster in the No Coast Zone. Sarcastic & silly, abides social morays. Near meaningless disclaimer: tweets = personal ≠ professional.

drstellingDr. Allison Stelling (@DrStelling)
BA Chemistry (Reed College, OR) PhD Physical/Analytical Chemistry (Stony Brook University, NY) Research in brain tumor diagnostics (Germany)

emilyreactsEmily James (@emilyreacts)
‘Fun, lovable chemistry nerd.’ Formerly @chemistryworld, @RSC_Diversity. Tweets her PhD one day at a time via #TweetmyPhD. Plays roller derby. Eats vegan food.

emmastoyeEmma Stoye (@emmastoye)
Science correspondent at @ChemistryWorld. Journal-ising chem research & science policy. Views mine etc…

fluorogrolfluorogrol (@fluorogrol)
Organic chemist and editor. Enjoys pedantry, punctuation, and complex polycycles. European Chemical Sciences Correspondent for @CEN_Onion. Blogs intermittently.

free_radical1Free Radical (@Free_radical1)
Godless Commie Fur-ner Scientist

funsizesuzeDr Suze Kundu (@FunSizeSuze)
Nanochemist, literally and professionally. Teaching Fellow @IC_Materials. Science presenter. Love dancing / gigs / Muse / shoes. #BBCExpertWomen Tweets mine.

fxcoudertFX Coudert (@fxcoudert)
Physical chemist, experimentalist in silico & all-around hacker @ CNRS / Chimie ParisTech

innocentwalZoë Waller (@InnocentWal)
Lecturing. Chemistry. Pharmacy. DNA. Research. Cycling. Commuting. Molecule of the day. Legs. Shoes. Dresses. Cats. Dermatographia… Preferably all at once.

jakeyestonJake Yeston (@JakeYeston)
Deputy editor at @sciencemagazine, shepherding chemistry papers (views here all my own)

jaspevacekJohn Spevacek (@jaspevacek)
Polymer Chemistry, Physics and Rheology.

jburiakJillian Buriak (@JBuriak)
Professor of Chemistry, University of Alberta and the National Institute for Nanotechnology, Editor-in-Chief of Chemistry of Materials (ACS), running addict

jendtweetingJen Dougan (@JenDtweeting)
Human being, PhD, Chemist. Formerly of @unistrathclyde, @nanometchem, @RSC_Roadmap & @imperialcollege. Not a fan of mornings.

jessthechemistJess (@JessTheChemist)
Ex-chemistry post doc. Doting auntie. Board gamer. Identical twin. Squash player. All opinions my own etc.

jesswynn93Jessica Wynn (@jesswynn93)
Fourth year chemistry student at York Uni. Aspiring science communicator. Radio person. Geek. Feminist. Bisexual. Activist. Lefty.

jkemsleyJyllian Kemsley (@jkemsley)
Science reporter @cenmag. Views my own.

kara_l_brenKara Bren (@Kara_L_Bren)
Chemistry Professor @ U of Rochester. Loves transition metals, dogs, and travel

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKarl D Collins (@karlDcollins)
Chemist/teacher/blogger-opinions my own

kateybirtcherKatey Birtcher (@KateyBirtcher)
Sr Books Editor for #Chemistry at Elsevier & Academic Press. Wannabe foodie, successful wine enthusiast, intermittent runner. Opinions mine.

kayakphilipPhilip Skinner (@KayakPhilip)
Recovering chemist, now promoting scientific software (@ChemDraw, #Spotfire, E-Notebook…) @PKI_Informatics. All opinions my own. WW kayak and MTB for kicks.

kjhaxtonKatherine Haxton (@kjhaxton)
Chemist Herder, Keele Slime Lady, and Polyhedral Oligomeric Silsesquioxane Wrangler. All views are my own and RTs are not endorsements.

l_howesLaura Howes (@L_Howes)
Editor of Science in School. Previously science correspondent for @ChemistryWorld. Musician and OU student in spare time.

l_wang_cenLinda Wang_C&EN (@l_wang_cen)
Multimedia journalist at C&EN who likes to help Chemists and Chem E’s find jobs & grow in their careers. Oh, I also like taking pictures; those are my views.

laurenwolfLauren Wolf (@laurenkwolf)
Science writer for @cenmag. Cohost of #speakingofchem web series. Lover of science quirk. Ocean pee-er. Follow me for #chemistry #neurosci news. Views my own.

leecroninProf. Lee Cronin (@leecronin)
Professor of Chemistry / Nanoscience / Chemical Complexity. Applied work in energy and life science… …aiming for IMPACT beyond the normal reach.

leighjkboernerLeighKrietschBoerner (@LeighJKBoerner)
Writer of sciency things. Chem PhD. Mommy. Science editor of The Sweethome. Wisher. Hoper. Magic bean buyer.

lisamjarvisLisa Jarvis (@lisamjarvis)
#biotech & #pharma reporter for @cenmag. bit ‘o #science, bit ‘o business. interests: drug discovery, evolving R&D models, pharma-academe collabos, #raredisease

marcel_swartMarcel Swart (Eng.) (@Marcel_Swart)
ICREA Research Professor (English version, see @marcelswart for my version en català)

mattoddchemMatthew Todd (@MatToddChem)
I teach and research organic chemistry at the University of Sydney. Open science, catalysis, chirality, tropical diseases. See also @O_S_M

mrjdexterJohn Dexter (@MrJDexter)
Chemistry teacher; SLT member; 11 18 secondary deputy; believer. Views here maybe my own, borrowed or belong to no one.

mustlovescienceTien Nguyen (@MustLoveScience)
Science writer. Communications specialist @Princetonchem. 2014 @Open_Notebook Fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Chemistry PhD.

NeilWithersNeil Withers (@NeilWithers)
Features Editor for @ChemistryWorld, so expect chemistry during working hours (views my own tho). Formerly assoc ed on @NatureChemistry.

organometallicaOrganometallica (@Organometallica)
I am a scientist, and I study chemistry. It might involve metals. Tweets might involve chemistry, quite possibly not, though.

pbn2auJohn Arnold (@pbn2au)
Dad, United supporter, chemist

pchirikPaul Chirik (@pchirik)
Edward Sanford Professor of Chemistry Princeton University

peonorPer-Ola Norrby (@PeONor)
Organic chemist; Modeller; Husband; Dad; Apple addict; Singer; Haven’t been in the lab myself since the 80’s… At @AstraZeneca, but opinions my own

perditabPerdita Barran (@PerditaB)
Prof. Mass Spectrometry, Director of the Michael Barber Centre for Collaborative MS, this is personal – or as much as allowed.

peterscott1965Peter Scott (@peterscott1965)
Chemistry prof @warwickuni: chirality, catalysis, bioinorganic. @SyntheticPages, cycling, guitar, golf

profarnoPolly L Arnold (@ProfArno)
Liberty, Equality, Chemistry. and beer.

professor_daveDavid K Smith (@professor_dave)
Academic in York, YouTube chemist, fabulous gay husband of @t_witteringsam & dad-in-waiting. Science, education, politics & general nonsense. Views personal!

rachelpepRachel Pepling (@rachelpep)
Online Editor (aka, overseer of all things digital) for Chemical & Engineering News magazine (@cenmag), but views are my own. For example, Go Gators!

rayschaakRay Schaak (@RaySchaak)
Chemistry Professor at Penn State, Associate Editor of ACS Nano. All views expressed are my own.

reneewebsRenée Webster (@reneewebs)
doing it periodically on the table | header photo ©Kristof Hegedus

robajacksonRob Jackson (@robajackson)
Chemistry/Forensics Academic (Reader), researcher in Computational Solid State Chemistry; blogs on science, politics, music & real ale. Trombone player.

rotwangsrobotKathryn Harkup (@RotwangsRobot)
Science communicator, chemist and vampirologist. Currently writing A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie for @sigmascience

S_J_LancasterSimon Lancaster (@S_J_Lancaster)
Professor of Chemical Education, National Teaching Fellow, MOOC facilitator and cyclist. My tweets are my personal views not those of my institution.

sarahevertsSarah Everts (@saraheverts)
I’m a journalist who writes about research on art and artifacts, chemistry, sweat science & history. I love photography. My views are mostly landscape.

sci_entsMark Lorch (@Sci_ents)
Chemistry lecturer @uniofhull, science communicator & beekeeper. Blogs at http://t.co/vNgUZCyr76 & http://t.co/YmPGIbWnfr Fundraising for @ChildrensUni

sciencegeistMatthew Hartings (@sciencegeist)
Chemistry Prof @ American U teaches Chemistry of Cooking & Inorganic. Blogs about chemistry in society & kitchen chemistry. Research site: http://t.co/dO7PoxJu

seearrohSee Arr Oh (@SeeArrOh)
Chemist interested in reaching out to the wider world about everything science!

SellaTheChemist Andrea Sella (@SellaTheChemist)
Often grumpy chemist at UCL with interests in new materials, showing people chemistry live, and life on a bicycle. Views all my own. Büchner filter is off.

seneskaCharlie (@Seneska)
Scientist, chemistry PhD, knitter, geek. Currently working in academic-industry relations as Impact Co-ordinator. Hilarity still ensues.

serindabbSerin Dabb (@SerinDabb)
Editor at the Royal Society of Chemistry – interested in all things related to scientific data and publishing. And some generic life stuff too. Views my own.

SimonHigginsSimon Higgins (@SimonHiggins_60)
Synthetic chemist, electrochemist, teacher and researcher at Liverpool Uni. All tweets made are personal opinion and have nothing to do with my employer.

spscheungSamantha Cheung (@spscheung)
PhD chemist working in R&D Communications for @Syngenta. Tweeting about #science, #photography, #space, #design, and my life. Views are my own.

supersciencegrlSuperScienceGrl (@SuperScienceGrl)
IIIIIIII’m back, crazy lady. …Let’s get this show on the rhodium!

susanmvickersSusan Vickers (@susanmvickers)
Inorganic materials chemist with a passion for science communication, cooking, buttons & cheese.

syntheticadamAdam (@syntheticadam)
Just another tweeting, soon to be totally synthesising organic chemist. Views my own, the fluffy face isn’t. Apologies for the diversions from Chemistry.

tehshikyoonTehshik Yoon (@TehshikYoon)
Professor of Chemistry, University of Wisconsin-Madison

thecollapsedpsiChad Jones (@TheCollapsedPsi)
Physical Chemist. Podcaster for @Brachiolope. I brag about my kids, deal with it. Tweets are my own (I’m supposed to say that, right?)

tolma001William Tolman (@Tolma001)
Professor and Chair of Department of Chemistry at the University of Minnesota; Editor-in-Chief of Inorganic Chemistry; Dad; bicyclist; fan of Mpls

unstableisotopeUnstable Isotope (@UnstableIsotope)
Easily distracted by shiny objects. Eater of food. Chemist. Cat lap on demand.

v_saggiomoVittorio Saggiomo (@V_Saggiomo)
Holistic Chemist, Nerd, Ukulelist and Gamer, love for complex systems and stupid stuff http://t.co/dL8YsRIrMH https://t.co/R9KNwRes7B http://t.co/c2yxYDVR85

wbturnbullBruce Turnbull (@wbturnbull)
Synthetic Chemist – Synthetic Biologist – Scottish Borderer – Delighted to be United – Lots of Cake – Tweeting for myself

wpiburdetteShawn Burdette (@WPIBurdette)
CWRU B.S. ’97 – MIT Ph.D. ’03 – UC Berkeley postdoc 2003-05 – UConn Prof. 2005-11 – NSF CAREER award 2010 – WPI Prof. 2011- Bioinorganic chemist & photochemist

Posted in Fun, Housekeeping | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Animal authors

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

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

Steph Kerr then followed up on Twitter with this:

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

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

Posted in Fun, Journal stuff, Publishing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The heaviest naturally occurring element on Earth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Posted in Quiz time! | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments