Guest post by Andy Extance

In 1935, two scientists working at Princeton University in the US made a prediction that chemists and physicists are still striving to make a reality. Writing in the Journal of Chemical Physics, Eugene Wigner and Hillard Bell Huntington foresaw a strange-sounding form of hydrogen. Rather than its familiar molecular form, H2, with two atoms joined by a covalent bond, at high pressures hydrogen might switch to a metallic lattice of individual atoms.

Eugene Paul Wigner

Eugene Wigner

In researching my feature on high-pressure chemistry for the August issue of Chemistry World, this prediction came up regularly. Natalia Dubrovinskaia from the University of Bayreuth, Germany called it a point of honour, ‘like Fermat’s Last Theorem was for mathematicians’. That’s in part because, on top of the original predictions, later calculations suggested that metallic hydrogen should become a superconductor with relatively little cooling.

Today, research finally seems to be nearing this long-elusive goal. Yet while Wigner and Huntington are regularly cited in this work, their prediction doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Or at least that’s what Artem R. Oganov, from Stony Brook University in New York, US, and the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow, Russia, felt.  Oganov discussed the magnitude of the 1935 metallic hydrogen achievement with me in detail during our interview for my feature. He told the story so well, it deserves to be shared – and so we’re sharing it here. Oganov starts by explaining how great an achievement their paper was.   (more…)

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Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Was brandy first created as a tax dodge?

During the 15th and 16th century, alcoholic drinks were taxed by volume, since methods for assessing percentage of alcohol were relatively crude. This gave rise to a clever little corner-cutting idea: distil down wines for export, pay less tax, then add the water back in after delivery.

The process of distillation had been long known. It was usually performed in an alembic, or alchemists still apparatus, made of glass. Led by the Dutch, merchants started using these to boil down wine to between 35% and 60% abv, at which concentration they made an inferior-flavoured, very boozy concentrate.

Like all forms of preservation, the process left behind its own unique flavour, even after the concentrated drink was watered back down. The merchants accounted for this by calling the reconstituted wine brandewijn, or burnt wine to describe what they thought had happened to it. They might better have called it burning wine, for this was how they tested the concentrate – taking a portion and setting it alight, deeming the distillation adequate when their sample was entirely flammable . Often, several distillations were required, the first distillate being called the spirit of wine, and the improved distillate the spirit of wine rectified. (more…)

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Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

How do you create something? A picture, say, a performance, or a piece of writing?

You start with an idea, a shadow of the final opus, and you experiment, practice; you throw something down onto the paper and push the colours about until new words or shapes emerge from the writhing medley. Structures or sentences that may not be what you had imagined in the first place at all. And there, you have discovered something. Or created something. Where does discovery really begin and creation end?

Poring through over 100,000 medical recipes in ancient Chinese literature, researchers came across a tale of discovery – but this was no ordinary discovery. Shrouded in mystery, and written in even more mysterious prose; tangled, poetic, using words that turn away from their ancient meanings to become a new and powerful metaphor – this was the language of the alchemists. And the tale, told and retold, recoloured and refashioned, full of sparks and glints, already several centuries later than the events it describes, is the tale of flickering fire, the tale of how earth becomes light, a tale of metaphor. And there it is, pinyin, the fire medicine. (more…)

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Chemistry World was delighted to sponsor a poster prize at ISACS19 (Challenges in organic chemistry), held in Irvine, US, last month. Aubert Ribaucourt, a postgraduate researcher at the University of Oxford, UK, won the prize with his poster entitled ‘Total synthesis and structural revision of aruncin B.’

Aubert Ribaucourt

Aubert explains his work:

‘My doctoral research is focused on synthesising anticancer natural compounds, specifically inhibitors of anti-apoptic proteins; these proteins are present in every human cell but are often over expressed in tumoral cells, especially in the case of drug resistant cancers. (more…)

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Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple

– Jenny Joseph

Colour is a powerful thing. It communicates emotions, beauty and status, unleashes our creativity and draws our attention. Wearing purple may have seemed slightly eccentric to poet Jenny Joseph, but in ancient Rome, it was the colour of power – and no surprise: their Tyrian purple was not only a lasting dye that seemed to become more rather than less vibrant under the sun, but it reportably took as many as 12,000 snails to produce enough dye to colour the trim of a toga!1

Purple clothing – ©iStock

Up until the mid 19th century, all dyes were naturally produced – from minerals (yellow ochre), plants (indigo and turmeric), or animals (cochineal and Tyrian purple). Of course, some of these natural dyes had their problems. Making Tyrian purple required thousands of snails and a laborious process, other colours were inclined to fade or run, and some even broke down the fabrics they were used to colour.

Despite all of this, synthetic alternatives were not sought at the time: organic chemistry was not sufficiently understood to guess at a link between structure and properties, and in fact, by the mid 1800s, chemistry was still very much a private practice.

One chemical practitioner was August Wilhelm von Hofmann of the Royal Society. Hofmann was interested in quinine, an extract from the bark of the cinchona tree used to treat malaria. In the mid 1800s, he published a hypothesis for the synthetic production of quinine, and set one of his students the challenge of producing it. (more…)

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Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

How do you feel about Botox?

To some, it’s a routine fix, a gift in the battle for eternal youth, found at the tip of a needle. Others, perhaps understandably, feel rather uncomfortable at the thought of injecting their face with a potent neurotoxin, just 50 grammes of which could wipe out all human life.

A man recieving botox treatment – © Shutterstock

But how would you feel to hear that Botox was discovered by accident – that this potent neurotoxin, which acts by paralysing muscles into flaccidity, was at some point injected into somebody without knowing everything it would do? In a marriage between cosmetics and surgery, this is how Botox came about.

Of course, people have been looking for something like Botox – and for a long time too. Back in the 16th century, women would stir up a white paste of vinegar and lead and plaster it across their faces in the same vein as foundation today. Once the mask had set, they would be unable to make any facial expressions at all for fear of cracking it, but apparently it was still worth it, despite the massive doses of lead that would have been slowly poisoning them, and the rancid unpleasant smell of the vinegar. Slightly less bizarre (but bizarre all the same) was the later introduction of uncooked egg white glaze to the same result. This at least didn’t poison anybody, assuming the eggs were healthy.

Then, in the 1820s, there came ‘wurstgift’. This was not a cosmetic face paint, but the first discovery of botulinum, found by German scientist (and apparent masochist) Dr Justinus Kerner, who isolated it from sausages that were past their best. He was investigating the deaths of several Germans at the hands of blood sausages, and his analysis of the toxin included going as far as injecting it into himself to observe its effects. Dr Kerner was, in fact, the first recipient of botulinum toxin, or Botox. (more…)

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Another year means only one thing, another chance for some epic chemistry doodles to deface the front of our favourite reading material. So far, the first few months of the year have certainly not disappointed.

The Royal Society of Chemistry has made a strong start to the year; in Chemical Society Reviews some smart art quite literally added to the chemical toolbox, whilst another elemental superhero smashed the main group of the periodic table in a focussed special edition from February. Over at Chem. Comm. I spotted a delightful entry using a stained glass window to demonstrate MOFs forming ‘holey glass’.

Across the sea at Wiley, Angewandte Chemie continues to stack up the comical pictures in their ever growing art gallery. Every week they put out not just one, but four front covers! Because as we all know a magazine obviously has four fronts, including the front front, the inside front, the back to front, the inside out and probably some others. Angewandte also produces a frontispiece, which serves as yet another cover for a featured article. A particularly forceful recent entry announced the latest episode in the benzene chemistry saga as the Cubane Awakens.

One of my favourite covers from the start of this year, however, is from Green Chemistry where it appears that a new set of emoticons have taken over. (more…)

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Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Witches, everybody knows, don’t like to be messed with. Mess with them, and they’ll point their horribly gruelled finger at you and intimate that you will be next.

And no time nor place we know of now was worse than the Salem witch trials of 1762. Fingers were pointed all over the place, and the rope swung on the gallows. It lasted for a season, a miserable spring, and then it ended, but it was not forgotten.

Ergot infested rye – © Shutterstock

In 1976, Linnda Caporael published a paper that pointed the finger for witchcraft in a different direction – into the fields. They mostly contain rye in that part of Massachusetts, and it had been a warm, damp growing season, the kind that breeds moulds and fungus. Caporael indicated one fungus in particular: ergot, an alkaloid-loaded parasite.

At the time, the dark, fusiform fingers that protrude from the rye ears like they’re giving one-up to the heavens were thought to be simply sun-baked kernels, harmless. But this was far from the case, and in 1853 ‘ergotism’ was discovered, a long term cumulative poisoning from eating ergot.

Although they knew nothing of ergotism in Salem, it is possible that the accusers suffered from it. (more…)

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Guest post by Heather Cassell

Over the course of your life in the lab you can get to learn many different experimental techniques, and for most people this can be both very interesting and very exciting – the intrigue of novelty. But you can also get stuck using just a few techniques over and over, which can be frustrating and reduces the excitement to drudgery. Sometimes repetition is necessary if your experiment doesn’t go so well, if the process needs optimising, or if you have many similar samples to process in the same way. If the repetition is simply due to a large number of samples then perseverance is required to get the results you need. If the quality of your science depends on a little drudgery, then that’s what it takes.

Groundhog in Minneapolis – Image by Marumari at the English language Wikipedia, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL

But if there are problems with the experiment itself, a good place to start is repeating the experiment without change, to eliminate the possibility that something was set up incorrectly. (more…)

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What should we name the new elements? Chris Chapman, Chemistry World‘s comment editor, puts forward the case for his favourite…

The news that we have four new elements is, obviously, buttock-clenchingly exciting for chemistry name nerds. The four new confirmed elements – 113, 115, 117 and 118 – will now have a proper name instead of the tongue-twisting ununpentium and the like. This can be proposed by the discoverers, although the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (Iupac) will get the final say. According to its latest rules, currently out for consultation, the elements can be named after a mythological concept or character; a mineral; a place; a property of the element; or a scientist. The endings of the elements are already decided: 113 and 115 will end in ‘ium’, 117 ‘ine’, and 118 ‘on’.

© Everett Collection/REX Shutterstock

Captain America – © Everett Collection/REX Shutterstock

So here’s a suggestion to the Japanese Riken group (discoverers for 113) or the Russian-American collaboration who discovered 115. How about vibranium?

Vibranium, as any comic book nerd knows, is a key element that comprises Captain America’s shield, and gives the irritatingly squeaky clean hero a way to dink bullets away, or a handy Frisbee to take out some bothersome villains. It’s also the element that Tony Stark ‘invents’ in the abysmal Iron Man 2 to end his crippling palladium dependency. Bizarrely, in the movie in turns out the element’s structure was hidden by his father (John Slattery, playing exactly the same character as he did in Mad Men) in a diorama of a 1974 business expo. Tony proceeds to go on a drinking binge, hurl abuse at Don Cheadle and miraculously create the element at his Malibu pad with little more than his raw genius. (more…)

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