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In Print: Pitch Drop Experiment Tests Our Patience

The Newscripts blog would like to be closer Internet buddies with our glossy print Newscripts column, so here we highlight what’s going on in the current issue of C&EN.


Wait for it: This pitch has an incredibly slow windup. Credit: Shane Bergin/Trinity College Dublin

They say that good things come to those who wait. This is not true for John S. Mainstone.

For 52 years, the University of Queensland, Australia, professor has been hoping to one day see a drop of pitch, which is a derivative of tar, fall to Earth. And for 52 years, Mainstone has been fruitless in his efforts. All that, however, may soon change.

As C&EN associate editor Emily Bones writes in this week’s Newscripts column, Mainstone’s pitch drop experiment–in which pitch is monitored as it slowly descends from the top of a glass funnel–will soon result in a drop of pitch actually falling. And to make sure no one, especially Mainstone, misses this magical event, the university has set up a live webcam to monitor the experiment.

Because of pitch’s viscoelasticity, which results in the material exhibiting both viscous and elastic properties, more than a decade can pass between individual drops, thus makes the impending drop especially exciting. What’s more, the impending drop could not come at better time for Mainstone, who is still attending to the salt that was rubbed into his wounds on July 11 when a replica of the pitch drop experiment at Trinity College Dublin actually captured, for the first time ever, a pitch drop on film. This event, recorded by Trinity physicist Shane Bergin and colleagues, can be seen in the video below.

“The existence of the Trinity College Dublin pitch drop experiment was certainly a great surprise to me–and apparently even to the locals in Dublin, too,” says Mainstone, who tormented himself by watching the replica’s video “over and over again” for “many hours.”

Don’t feel too bad for Mainstone, though. As he tells Newscripts, there is definitely room for improving upon Trinity’s pitch drop. “It was certainly a disappointment to me that their drop was so large that it ‘bottomed’ in the apparatus and thus led to the final rupture being generated bilaterally,” he says.

Here’s hoping that when Mainstone finally does see his pitch drop, it lives up to the expectations that he has been building up for 52 year long years.

John D. Roberts: The Seattle Veteran at NOS

The Seattle conference welcomed chemists from near and far. They came from Berkeley, from Harvard, and from everywhere in between. Thirteen of the most eminent among them readied talks about their cutting-edge research, which they hoped would send everyone home inspired to further their own work.

That meeting, the 16th National Organic Chemistry Symposium (NOS), took place fifty-four years ago. This week, the gathering is in its 43rd incarnation, and it’s back in the Emerald City. So is one of the original speakers from that 1959 meeting– John D. Roberts. As a young Caltech faculty member, Roberts gave a presentation entitled “Rearrangement Reactions of Small-Ring Compounds.” It was already his third NOS talk, but he returned as a speaker several more times, collecting organic chemistry’s highest honor, the Roger Adams Award, in 1967.

John D. Roberts

Roberts in Meany Hall, venue for both Seattle NOS meetings. Drahl/C&EN

Roberts, 95, is a pioneer in physical organic chemistry and nuclear magnetic resonance (J. Org. Chem. 2009, DOI:
10.1021/jo900641t). Conference cochair Paul B. Hopkins of the University of Washington made note of Roberts’ presence during opening remarks. “I believe Professor Roberts is the only one of us in attendance who was also there at the 1959 Seattle NOS,” Hopkins said, as the crowd gave Roberts an ovation. “But if I’m wrong about that, you’ll have to let me know during the coffee break.”

Later that evening, this year’s Roger Adams awardee, David A. Evans of Harvard, started his talk by thanking Roberts, who he called “inspirational,” “my teacher,” and “my friend of nearly 50 years.” When Evans was a college student at Oberlin, the school “had just gotten an NMR, so we spent the summer poring over John’s books” about the exciting new instrument, Evans recalled. He would get to know Roberts while earning his Ph.D. at Caltech. So Roberts could attend Evans’ award lecture, NOS organizers broke with decades of tradition and moved the Adams Award Lecture, held on Tuesday nights for as long as anyone can remember, to Monday evening.

Over a cup of black coffee, Roberts told C&EN about his experiences at NOS over the years. He reminisced about some of the scientific feuds that played out at the podium, including the epic cation controversy between Saul Winstein and H. C. Brown. Asked about the history of the meeting, recently published in the Journal of Organic Chemistry (DOI: 10.1021/jo302475j), which notes a decline in talks about his field of physical organic chemistry, Roberts is optimistic. “Physical organic is not dead–it’s just been co-opted by everyone,” he says. Problems in biochemistry, which might involve enzyme mechanisms or noncovalent interactions, are often very appealing to people trained in the field, he adds.

The last time NOS took place in Seattle, Microsoft didn’t exist, nor did ubiquitous Internet. Even in this connected age, though, Roberts values face-to-face contact. “I’m always surprised that some people don’t come to this meeting unless they’re invited to give a talk,” he says. “I just like to come. You have to learn about new things.”

Roberts wishes he could have stayed for the duration of this year’s meeting, but he left to attend to an important matter at Caltech–the arrival of a fresh crop of summer undergraduate researchers.

More: Watch a video interview with Roberts conducted by chemical historian Jeffrey I. Seeman.

Read: J. D. Roberts, “The Right Place at the Right Time” in Profiles, Pathways and Dreams (Ed.: J. I. Seeman), American Chemical Society, Washington, D.C., 1990.

Read: an interview with Roberts from Caltech oral histories.

UPDATED 1:30PM Pacific 6/26 – fixed DOI link to NOS history paper.

Amusing News Aliquots

Silly samplings of this week’s science news, compiled by Bethany Halford and Lauren Wolf.

Credit: Flickr user Breakfast for Dinner

Chemcraft nostalgia: Ah, the good old days of chemistry sets with cyanide and uranium dust. [iO9]

Meth-cooking chemist sets up early for the ACS meeting. [Philly Inquirer]

Using a 3-D printer to replicate your own brain in chocolate: hilarious and fun [Newscripts]. But using a 3-D printer to replicate your unborn fetus as a keepsake statue in clear “amniotic” resin? We think this might be crossing over into the Creepy Zone. [iO9]

Deep-sea squid breaks off its arms to confuse predators and then flee. And you thought Arm Fall Off Boy was a lame DC Comics superhero. Shows what you know. [Gizmodo]

Fish in Spaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaace. [WA Today]

If you’ve got a smartphone and 100 million yen, you could control this massive, gun-toting robot. [Guardian]

You can keep your fancy office espresso machine. The Newscripts gang would prefer this pancake-making machine any day. [BoingBoing]

Printed Icon Lives On

The 2010 Encyclopaedia Britannica, the last print edition.

Back in the April 2 issue of C&EN, we at Newscripts lamented the news that Encyclopaedia Britannica was no longer going to be issued in print format. Although the venerable encyclopedia will still be available online, we considered that the loss of the printed icon would be detrimental to tactile learning gained by leafing through the meaty volumes. In particular we noted that in the 1967 edition, the section on chemistry spans more than 50 pages.

“Yes, that is a loss,” comments Newscripts reader Robert B. “Brad” Spencer of Madison, Wisc., who is proud owner of five sets of Encyclopaedia Britannica, including a reprint of the first edition from 1771. Spencer sent along this scan (below) of the beginning of the article on “Chemistry” from the first edition.

The article has no chemical element symbols—they hadn’t yet been established. It is also absent any formulas or equal signs, and the “long s” was still in use in English.  “Chemistry was a recognized field of interest at the time,” Spencer observes. “But it was still largely an outgrowth of alchemy.”

This first article states that the four principles (or elements) are earth, water, air, and fire, Spencer notes.  “Not that long ago the belief in these was still dominant,” he says. “But also notice what follows: a statement that our senses cannot possibly determine the principles of which they are composed, so we should, in essence, give up.  As we know, there were already at that time individuals who were not so pessimistic about the ability to dig deeper, and they began a marvelous understanding of chemical reality.” Thanks for sharing Brad.

Gilbert Stork on How Not to Dispose of a Steak

Gilbert Stork as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, possibly thinking of the best way to get rid of the steak mouldering on his window ledge. Courtesy of Gilbert Stork

When writing about science, it’s easy to focus on the facts of discovery and leave out the actual scientists who do the work. This is a shame, since science is ultimately a human endeavor, spurred on by folks with colorful personalities that often compliment (and sometimes overshadow) their remarkable intellect. Now chemistry historian Jeffrey I. Seeman, of the University of Richmond, has put together a collection of witticisms by and about renowned synthetic organic chemist Gilbert Stork. It just went up online in Angewandte Chemie.

I know not everyone has access to Angewandte Chemie, and the article is on the long side, so I thought I’d poach some of my favorite tidbits for you, dear reader of this blog. Here’s the gem that gives this post its name:

“There was this one really idiotic time. I remember I was really scared that I was going to blow up the entire Chemistry Department at the University of Wisconsin. I had a steak on the window ledge of my office. It was the winter, and I used the window ledge as a refrigerator. You obviously were not supposed to be cooking steaks in the lab, but I had a small lab where I was usually alone in there, and so I had a steak. But I also was not aware that biodegradable material is biodegradable, and this steak was clearly degraded on the window ledge. And the question was, what to do with it? And I decided to toss the steak in a hot acid bath which we used to clean up glassware. So, it’s fuming nitric and sulfuric acid. It’s really aqua regia in that bath, in that heavy lead dish, and the steak.

“And then, as I just had thrown it in there, and it fumed furiously and red fumes of who knows what, nitrous oxide of various kinds were being produced there. I became frantically concerned because fat is glycerides. So, I’m hydrolyzing the fat to glycerin. You make nitroglycerine by taking glycerin and nitric acid and sulfuric acid, and obviously, I’m going to produce a pile of nitroglycerine and blow up the entire building with my steak.

“Now, what is an interesting point there, why didn’t it? And of course, the reason is kinetics. That is, the kinetics of oxidation of the glycerol at that temperature is much, much, much, I mean, infinitely faster than the cold temperature nitration of glycerin. And so the place was safe.”

Continue reading →

Your Chance to Host a PBS Program About Chemistry

This production still from "The Mystery of Matter: Search for the Elements" shows oxygen discoverer Joseph Priestley.

Think you’ve got what it takes to be chemistry’s Carl Sagan? Well, now’s your chance. Over the transom, we’ve received word that the folks at Moreno/Lyons Productions are searching for a host for their upcoming PBS special/multimedia project The Mystery of Matter: Search for the Elements. “In a nutshell,” notes the production’s webpage, “the project is about the human story behind the Periodic Table of the Elements.

The centerpiece of the project is a two-hour documentary that will feature dramatic reenactments with key chemistry characters, such as Marie Curie, Joseph Priestley, and Glenn Seaborg. These scenes will be knit together by an on-screen host…who could be you.

“Our hope is to find someone from the chemistry community,” Project Director Stephen Lyons tells Newscripts. “The host needn’t be famous, a Nobel Prize winner, or even a leading researcher. She or he might be a great teacher, for example, at the college or even community college or high school level. We’d like to find someone young enough to go on and serve as the host of later chapters in the continuing Mystery of Matter series, so preference will be given to candidates under 60. Minority candidates are strongly encouraged to apply. Since many of the host scenes will involve performing chemical demonstrations, candidates who already have that skill will have a leg up. But the most important qualification is that she or he be a gifted chemical communicator — comfortable on camera, at ease with chemistry, and able to present with authority, enthusiasm, and feeling for the very human story we’re telling,” Lyons elaborates on the Mystery of Matter webpage. In case you’re wondering about Lyons’ cinematic chemistry chops, his  previous work includes “Forgotten Genius,” the documentary about African-American chemist Percy Julian.

To let Lyons know that you (or someone you know) would make a great host, send a link to a YouTube video that features the candidate’s skills as a communicator of chemistry to: Chemistry.Host@gmail.com. Be sure to include a way for Lyons’ team to get in touch with the candidate.

A Lavoisier Painting’s Path

Lavoisier and His Wife, painting by Jacques-Louis David, photo by Drahl/C&EN

It’s a painting that most chemists would recognize instantly. Antoine Lavoisier, French nobleman and giant in early modern chemistry, sits, quill in hand, at a velvet-cloaked table topped with scattered instruments. Behind him, in a position perhaps symbolic of her role in Lavoisier’s legacy (if the play Oxygen is to be believed), is Madame Lavoisier.

I’ve visited the painting before– it hangs in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. But before that, as I learned on my travels on Tuesday, its home was Rockefeller University. The painting arrived in New York via descendants of Lavoisier himself. John D. Rockefeller purchased the painting from them through a dealer and gifted it to the university. In 1977, the university sold the painting to the Met for about $4 million, which funded professorships and graduate fellowships.

So how’d I get a picture of the painting this week while I was at Rockefeller rather than the Met? As Jeanne Garbarino, a postdoc in Jan Breslow’s lab, explained to me, when Sir Paul Nurse stepped down from Rockefeller’s presidency to head up the Royal Society, he had a high-quality reproduction made for the university as a gift.

Amusing News Aliquots

Silly samplings from this week’s science news, compiled by Bethany Halford and Lauren Wolf.

Aqua regia: a good place to hide stuff. Credit: flickr user willandbeyond

Aqua regia: Good for cleaning up around the lab, etching stuff … and dissolving Nobel Prize medals before the Nazis arrive. [NPR]

Forget the dreamhouse. “Barbie pagoda” fungus discovered inNew Caledonia. [The Observer]

When good compounds go bad.ClemsonUniversitychemistry professor John Huffman’s synthetic cannabinoids have taken on a life of their own. [LA Times]

Chemistry grad students, leave your cell phones at home. They’ll be blowin’ up because now they can alert you AND the authorities to the presence of hazardous chemicals. [Infozine]

Scientists developing pill to counteract effects of alcohol on brain cells, testing on drunk mice. Now why didn’t the Newscripts gang get invited to this party in the lab? [Telegraph]

Enjoying some fruit this morning? Here’s some news you didn’t want to hear. [NY Times]