Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

It is Christmastime, and the season of light: everywhere you look, particularly after dark, is the twinkle of hundreds of little lights. As 2015 approaches, the International Year of Light is also being kindled into action – a year designed to make us think about light technologies and global challenges in energy. So let’s start now, and out of the dark.

One of the earliest human light technologies was the match. What do you need to make fire? Oxygen, fuel and an ignition source – simple enough in theory, but not so much in practice. Fires just don’t start spontaneously. Before matches, ignition sources included flint and tinder, or a magnifying glass which, naturally, only worked on sunny days, when you are least in need of fire. But luckily, something was spontaneous: the accidental invention of matches.

Matches had nearly been discovered more than once. Having synthesised phosphorous in 1680, Robert Boyle showed awestruck onlookers how this new material created fire when rubbed with sulfur, but the combustion exercise was never put to practical use and remained merely entertainment for wealthy dabblers. He wasn’t the first to make such novelties either – as far back as 950 AD, Chinese ‘Records of the unworldly and strange’ mention ‘light-bringing slaves’ (later ‘fire-inch sticks’) that use sulfur to create fire fast from a small spark or dying embers. In 1805, a French chemist, Jean Chancel, dipped a wooden splint in sugar, potassium chlorate, and sulfuric acid, creating an explosion. It was expensive, dangerous and gave off a foul, poisonous odour. But all of these were chemical matches: they required mixing the right things together at the right time to create an exothermic reaction. The first friction match was created by accident, by apothecary John Walker in 1826. (more…)

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Chris Sinclair, whose piece on lasers won the 2012 Chemistry World science communication competition, writes about science and performing arts.

In 2012, I won the first Chemistry World science communication competition for my piece about using lasers to remotely detect methane gas in mines, reducing the risk of disastrous explosions. Having previously worked with lasers for my research, I was aware that 2012 was the 50th anniversary of the invention of the diode laser. Choosing this topic gave me the chance to learn about interesting contemporary applications of lasers in physical chemistry. Emily Stephens, the 2012 runner-up, wrote about gene doping – a topic that was linked to the London Olympic Games, which were of course one of that year’s major events. For both of us, writing about a topical subject with a human angle turned out well. (more…)

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Quentin Cooper, science journalist and one of the judges for the upcoming Chemistry World science communication competition writes about how in every scientist there is a bit of an artist.

I’ve been asked to write 300 words on the topic of science and art. No problem. Although I can sum it up in one: scientists.

The term ‘scientist’ was only coined about 180 years ago to overcome a problem caused by the then newly formed British Association for the Advancement of Science, more recently known as the BA and more recently still as the British Science Association. These days it is celebrated as one of the oldest and most prestigious public-facing scientific bodies in the world, making science more comprehensible and accountable, and encouraging engagement across society and between disciplines. But back in the early 1830s, their meetings attracted a ragtag group of biologists, geologists, naturalists and others across the sciences, and nobody knew quite what to collectively call them. (more…)

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Guest post from Tom Branson

Sometimes all the computer graphics in the world can’t make up for a good old hand drawn image. These sketches may never appear in shining lights on 10 metre billboards but they are often simple and clear enough to show you exactly what’s going on. That straightforward approach and a couple of other tricks were recently used to great effect for an article on the cover of Organic and Biomolecular Chemistry.

The cover shows ChemDraw images, a drawing of a cassava plant, and photos of the actual experiments to give a nice overview of the research. This kind of image is great for direct outreach and more literal communication of the scientific story. In an instant, anyone can see that the research involves taking something out of the plant, mixing in some other chemicals and observing a colour change. The graphic hooks you in with pretty colours, then offers something to get your grey matter around with the chemical structures. Check out the two corrinoid structures binding to either water or cyanide – that small difference creates the colour change. And as most people know, cyanide is the bad guy. If you would like to know more about the research itself, see the article in Chemistry World.

The image itself was designed by Rene Oetterli, a post-doctoral research assistant from the group of lead author Felix Zelder.  The work has a simple overall story to tell and this cover image communicates it very effectively. (more…)

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Emily Stephens writes about the how and why of her piece on gene doping, which was selected for the runner-up prize in the 2012 Chemistry World science communication competition.

I started writing my article for the 2012 competition just after the London Olympics had finished. There was a lot of controversy surrounding the legitimacy of some of the competing athletes’ achievements, in particular Nadzeya Ostapchuk, who was stripped of her gold medal following a drug test. While doping has been prevalent in competitive sport since the 1960s, I found the relatively new concept of gene doping fascinating.

Gene doping is extremely hard to detect, so future sporting events could potentially be won based on which country is most advanced in genetic medicine rather than the athletes’ natural sporting ability.

(more…)

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‘I do not think it should appear in its present form’. Many a dejected researcher has read those words when their paper is summarily rejected by a journal. Rest assured, however, even the greatest scientific minds have read them on occasion.

Issue one of the Philosophical Transactions
© The Royal Society

In 1839, Charles Darwin submitted a paper on the geology of Glen Roy in the Scottish Highlands to the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions. He received a response from Adam Sedgwick, who would later become one of Darwin’s greatest critics. The Society Fellow admired Darwin’s insight but bemoaned his long-winded explanations, rejecting the paper in its present form. It was the only paper Darwin submitted to the journal.

Sedgwick’s critique of Darwin’s work forms part of a new exhibition at the Royal Society about the history of the Philosophical Transactions. Detailing the turbulent beginnings of the journal – which was first published during the Great Plague of London in 1665 – through to the modern publication, the exhibit shines a light on its colourful history. The extensive display, developed by the Royal Society and researchers at the University of St. Andrews, UK, also reveals the birth of the modern peer review process. (more…)

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Philip Ball, science writer and one of the judges for the upcoming Chemistry World science communication competition writes about the art of chemistry.

Philip BallOf all the sciences, chemistry has always seemed to me to be closest to the arts. It appeals directly to the senses: the shapes and colours of molecules, the smells, the tactile aspects of materials and instrumentation. It draws on intuitions and craft skills, for example in the practice of forming crystals or getting a reaction to work. And most of all, it demands creativity and imagination: ‘chemistry creates its own object’, as Marcellin Berthelot puts it.

Most of chemistry is not about discovering pre-existing forms and objects, but deciding what to make and how to make it. Molecular targets express ideas. Can we make something that fits into this hole or onto that surface? Can we create new atomic unions, unusual topologies, surprising bulk properties, new oxidation states? Can we design molecules to assemble themselves into new and useful (or simply pleasing or amusing) superstructures? The questions aren’t limited to what the natural world provides, but are circumscribed by our imaginations, which in principle need have no boundaries.

(more…)

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Guest post by Heather Cassell

It’s an inevitability – there’s a task that should be doing but you can’t build up the enthusiasm. Normally mundane jobs can suddenly seem much more interesting to do.

A suspiciously tidy lab bench
Image by Jean-Pierre from Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire, France CC-BY-SA

For me it is always report writing. Although I love putting all of my results into order and writing it up succinctly for my colleagues and collaborators, I find I can rapidly lose focus. This is when the procrastination sets in. It never seems to matter how near the deadline is, how interesting my results are, or how important the document is – I feel an overwhelming desire to tidy my desk. ‘It’s important,’ I tell myself, ‘because if my desk is tidy I’ll have easy access to the papers and results I need to finish my report’. Just as a teenager’s room is never tidier than exam time, a researcher’s desk might only ever be clear when there’s a report to write. (more…)

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In this first of a series of guest posts, Elizabeth Tasker writes about the how and why of her piece on cosmic chemistry, which was shortlisted in the 2013 Chemistry World science communication competition.

Elizabeth TaskerThere are some stories that beg to be written. When you find an experimental astrophysicist building a star-forming cloud in his laboratory, there is practically a moral obligation to remind the world that there are no boxes for ideas.

Astrophysicists usually come in three flavours: observers (telescope kids), theorists (‘The Matrix’ universes) and instrument builders (hand me a hammer). We cannot typically perform laboratory experiments since putting a star (or planet or black hole) on a workbench is distinctly problematic. The closest we come to hands-on experiments is through computer models, which is the toolkit I use when studying the formation of star-forming clouds. However, Naoki Watanabe had gone ahead and built his own cloud  in a super-cooled vacuum chamber. (more…)

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Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Excited, Mary Hunt tipped out the produce of her shopping: a large moulded cantaloupe. She had come across the cantaloupe by chance, and the ‘pretty, golden mould’ had proved irresistible. She had discovered the Penicillium chrysogeum fungus, a species that turned out to produce 200 times the volume of penicillin as Fleming’s variety. It was a serendipitous discovery, and vital at a time when the greatest challenge facing medicine was producing enough of the antibiotic to treat all of the people who needed it.

Hunt’s finding has been barely noticed beside the original accidental discovery: Fleming’s return from holiday to find a ‘fluffy white mass’ on one of his staphylococcus culture petri dishes. Fleming was often scorned as a careless lab technician, so perhaps the contamination of one of his dishes – which had been balanced in a teetering microbial tower in order to free up bench space – was not that unexpected. But Fleming had the presence of mind to not simply dispose of the petri dish, but to first stick it beneath a microscope, where he observed how the mould inhibited the staphylococcus bacteria. Competition between bacteria and fungi was well known and, in fact, when Fleming published in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology in June 1929, the potential medical applications of penicillin were only speculative. (more…)

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