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Tribute To A Numerical Inorganic Icon: Kenneth Wade

University of Durham chemistry professor Kenneth Wade, famously known for the borane electron-counting rule that bears his name, passed away on March 16 at age 81. Chemists at the University of Nottingham, led by big-haired chemistry professor Martyn Poliakoff, have prepared a lovely video tribute to Professor Wade as part of their Periodic Table of Video series.

wadeChemists use electron-counting rules to determine bonding patterns in different classes of compounds, such as the familiar octet rule for first- and second-row elements, the 18-electron rule for transition metals, and the Hückel 4n + 2 rule for aromatic compounds. However, these rules don’t readily apply to electron-deficient molecules such as boranes that utilize multicentered bonding–a pair of electrons shared between more than two atoms–so other rules have been devised.

In 1971, building on the collective observations of other chemists, Wade formulated his n + 1 rule. Wade’s rule states that a cage molecule with a geometry based on a closed polyhedron constructed of triangles with n vertices will possess n + 1 skeletal bonding electron pairs.

Wade’s rule and its corollaries have been refined and extended by a number of researchers. When coupled with spectroscopic studies and theoretical calculations, these rules have been successful in showing the structural interconnections between boranes, carboranes, other heteroboranes, carbocations, organometallic complexes, and transition-metal cluster compounds.

Hats off to Professor Wade.

Top 10 Chemistry Videos Of 2013

Although it’s our mission at Chemical & Engineering News to describe in words the wonders of chemistry, sometimes words just don’t do justice to the dynamics of a particular reaction or funky new material. Sometimes our prose just doesn’t capture a scientist’s excitement for research (or the time he spent playing the theme song to Super Mario Bros. with a chromatography column in the lab).

It’s those times when we turn to video.

Following are some of the Newscripts gang’s favorite clips of 2013. They’ve been collected from our blog and from our YouTube channel. Some we even homed in on and plucked from the roiling sea of inappropriate pop stars, prancercisers, and talkative foxes on the Interwebz last year.

And we did it all for you, dear readers. So pour something delicious into that mug that looks like a beaker, kick back next to your science fireplace … and enjoy!


Number 10: Alright, so this video isn’t technically chemistry—that’s why we’re ranking it last. But when a theoretical physicist uses the melody to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” to sing about string theory, we’re gonna take note. Did we mention the Einstein sock puppet?


Number 9: Unless you lived under a rock in 2013, you probably heard about a little show called “Breaking Bad.” In this clip, Donna Nelson, science advisor to the show and chemistry professor, discusses some memorable chemical moments from the series. (Alright, alright, we admit this video made the countdown not only because it’s awesome but also because we like hearing Nelson talk about C&EN.)


Number 8: Last year, the folks across the pond at the Periodic Table of Videos filmed a number of chemical reactions with a high-speed camera to learn more about reaction dynamics. This video, about a reaction called “the barking dog,” is their most recent—and one of our faves. It’s got historic footage of explosives lecturer Colonel BD Shaw and current footage of Martyn “The Professor” Poliakoff. Need we say more?


Number 7: Yo, yo, yo! These dope 7th graders made a hot “rap battle” video last year that details the historic tensions between Rosalind Franklin and the notorious DNA duo, Watson & Crick. Word … to their mothers, for having such creative kids.


Number 6: You couldn’t open your news feed in 2013 without finding at least 10 concurrent stories about 3-D printing. One stood out for us, though: Researchers at the University of Oxford printed eye-popping, foldable structures out of liquid droplets. Continue reading →

In Print: Balloon Returns Home, Earthshaking Stadium

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 this week’s issue of C&EN.

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Homeward Bound: Lyles holds AMET’s weather balloon as it prepares for one wild ride. Credit: Dahlon Lyles

Purdue University‘s Association of Mechanical & Electrical Technologists (AMET)–a hands-on STEM-oriented student organization that works on everything from robots to Rube Goldberg devices to rockets–expected the weather balloon that it launched on Nov. 16 to return to Purdue’s West Lafayette, Ind., campus. As this week’s Newscripts column describes, however, the trek back home was anything but predictable.

Takeoff of the balloon started easily enough, as this video from the balloon shows:

When the balloon reached an altitude of 40,000 feet, however, AMET lost all contact. As a result, the organization didn’t know the kinds of spectacular views their balloon was enjoying as it ascended to a height of 95,000 feet above Earth. That ascension is captured in the following videos:

Because everything that goes up must come down, the balloon soon plummeted back to Earth: Continue reading →

Aaaaaand They’re Off: The 2013 World Cell Race Results

Today’s post is by Nader Heidari, an associate editor at C&EN who loves watching cells race and paint dry.

On Nov. 22, cells raced down ultrathin channels, vying for the position of fastest cell in the 2013 World Cell Race. At speeds of up to 300 micrometers/hour, cells blew down the maze-like track, running into dead ends and occasionally getting confused and turning around. Many cell lines didn’t finish, but glory came to those who did.

This year’s victor (shown in the race video above) was MDA MB 231 s1, a human breast cancer cell line from Alexis Gautreau of the Laboratory of Enzymology & Structural Biochemistry, in France. Gautreau will receive a €400 voucher (that’s about $650) from Ibidi, one of the event’s sponsors. The winning cells weren’t the fastest, nor were they the smartest, but they prevailed because of their persistence and because they got a good head-start by entering the maze of channels more quickly than their competitors. Slow and steady wins the race!

In second place was MFH 152, a sarcoma cell line from Mohamed Jemaà in Ariane Abrieu’s lab at the Research Center for Macromolecular Biochemistry, in France. Although they were fast and accurate, these cells took too long to actually start the race, falling behind MDA MB 231, according to the race organizers.

Cell-racing fans don’t have to wait until late next year for another dose of mitochondria-pumping action: The organizers are looking to start the first “Dicty World Race,” tentatively scheduled for March 21, 2014. The stars of this show would be Dictyostelium, a type of slime mold. So keep an eye out for some pedal-to-the-flagella protist action!

Related Stories:

Cellular NASCAR

‘Breaking Bad’ Aliquots

Today’s post was written by C&EN Senior Editor Jyllian Kemsley, who, when she isn’t watching the TV show “Breaking Bad,” enjoys surfing the Web for “Breaking Bad” links and then writing about them.

The end is almost here, and the Internet is gearing up. With the series finale of “Breaking Bad” set to air this Sunday on AMC, media outlets have unleashed a barrage of retrospectives and stories about the hit TV show. What’s more, a surprising number of these tributes actually focus on the science behind the show.

Take, for instance, the above video in which Boing Boing counts down the top 11 “Breaking Bad” chemistry moments. Or, simply pick up this week’s issue of C&EN, in which I have a story about Donna Nelson, a University of Oklahoma chemistry professor who has spent the last several years volunteering as a science adviser to the television show. I connected Nelson with show producer Vince Gilligan after I first wrote about the show in 2008—something Nelson has graciously acknowledged in many interviews—and I enjoyed chatting with her as the series nears its end.

To help all of us get through the last few days before the finale, here are a few of my favorite “Breaking Bad” offerings from across the Web. If, like some of my colleagues, you didn’t get the memo early enough and are only on season two, tread carefully—I won’t promise no spoilers!

  • Wired interviewed some other “Breaking Bad” staff who help get the science right, researchers Gordon Smith and Jenn Carroll: “One day, Gordon and the writers asked me to figure out a way to knock out a surveillance camera, or—at the very least—to make a passerby invisible to the camera. As you might imagine, there aren’t many legal or convenient ways to go about this.”

Amusing News Aliquots

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

McGill University Masters candidate Timothy Blaise created this cover, "Bohemian Gravity," to go along with his physics thesis. Credit: Youtube/acapellascience

McGill University Masters candidate Timothy Blaise created this cover, “Bohemian Gravity,” to go along with his physics thesis. Credit: Youtube/acapellascience

Combine a physics grad student, musical talent, video know-how, and an Einstein sock puppet, and you get an awesome “Bohemian Rhapsody” cover about string theory (withvideo). [io9]

We’re going to need bigger Q-tips. Turns out whale earwax contains information about environmental contaminants. [NatGeo]

This just in from Boston: Red sports teams are more likely to win. [Seriously, Science?]

Not to be confused with terrifying snakes, there are now four new species of legless lizards to haunt your dreams. [CNN]

Did NASA just find Han Solo on Mercury? [io9]

Yahoo! has designed a 3-D printing search engine for the visually impaired–and, well, for anyone because it’s awesome (with video). [Gizmodo]

Watch the Ig Nobel Prizes Here

Break out your paper airplanes. Tonight’s the big night in Cambridge, Mass., as folks from five continents gather to claim their awards “for achievements that first make people LAUGH, and then make them THINK” at the 23rd First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony.

Who will win the coveted chemistry prize? What will this year’s mini-opera be about? How often will Miss Sweetie Poo, a cute but implacable eight-year-old girl, come to the stage to demand winners stop talking with the refrain, “Please stop, I’m bored.” All these questions and more will be answered tonight.

And, dear readers, if you’d like to watch the broadcast live you can join the Newscripts Gang for the festivities right here:

In Print: Chemical Makeup Predicts Wealth, Mailing Poop

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

Here’s a trick for appearing wealthy: Put on sunscreen.

As mentioned in last week’s Newscripts column, a team of researchers at the University of Exeter, in England, has identified nine chemicals that tend to appear more often in those of higher socioeconomic status and nine chemicals that tend to appear more often in those of lower socioeconomic status. As one of the team’s researchers, Jessica Tyrrell, explains in the above video, these 18 toxicants were identified after conducting an analysis of 10 years’ worth of data from the National Health & Nutrition Examination Survey, which monitors general health in the U.S.

Through its analysis, the research team noticed that benzophenone-3, a sunscreen ingredient, appeared more often in wealthier individuals. The same was true for arsenic and mercury, which the team believes are more prevalent in the wealthy since they consume more shellfish. Lead and cadmium levels were higher in poorer individuals given their higher rates of smoking and working in heavy industry, the team posits.

“We know that humans have low-level exposures to lots of chemicals, hence we have chemical cocktails in our bodies,” Tyrrell tells Newscripts. “Efforts need to be made to have a greater understanding of the health effects of these chemicals so that policymakers can make informed decisions about which chemicals need to be more tightly controlled.”

Moving from England to Spain, the second part of last week’s Newscripts column visits the town of Brunete, where a rather unorthodox approach was taken to encourage dog owners to pick up after their pets: The town mailed left-behind poop back to dog owners.

According to a New York Times article published last month, Brunete mayor Borja Gutiérrez came up with this idea after enlisting the help of a marketing firm to battle his town’s poop problem. The firm proposed having volunteers stake out popular dog centers. Volunteers could then nonchalantly approach negligent dog owners, pet their pooches, and ask for their animals’ breed and name. After waiting for an offending dog and its owner to leave, volunteers would scoop the poop and then head over to city hall to look up the offending dog’s registration information. Before long, a box of the left-behind poop was delivered to the door of the responsible party.

Here’s a video describing the process. At its beginning, be on the lookout for the remote-controlled poop figurines that initially roamed around Brunete in an effort to educate dog owners about their responsibility to pick up after their pets. Unfortunately, the figurines elicited more laughs than civic action, and they were soon discontinued.

As the video says, 147 packages were ultimately delivered to offending dog owners over the course of two weeks earlier this year. Gutiérrez says that the effort has resulted in a dramatic improvement to the cleanliness of his town’s parks and sidewalks.

To figure out if a similar program would work stateside, Newscripts contacted Ali Ryan, manager of the Portland Parks & Recreation Dog Off-Leash Program, which supports dogs and their owners in the Oregon city. “Here in Portland, we mostly rely on what we call ‘petiquette’ to encourage dog owners to do their duties regarding doody,” says Ryan, who laughs off the idea of mailing poop back to negligent dog owners. Instead, starting this month, Ryan’s city will begin issuing fines of up to $150 for scoop/leash law violations while also rolling out a citywide petiquette education campaign. “Our goal with all our many education and enforcement efforts is compliance with leash and scoop laws,” she says. “Ideally, folks [will be] alerted to the impacts of their behavior and stop doing it–no citation needed.”

Nerd Nite Globalfest

(OR How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Esoteric Minutia)

This post was written by Rick Mullin, author of the blog “The Fine Line,” business reporter for C&EN, and, apparently, a nerd.

I arrived early and waited outside with the first two nerds on the scene. We sipped our coffee next to the chalkboard indicating we had come to the right place: “Nerd Nite Globalfest” at the Brooklyn Lyceum.

Yes, I went to Nerd Nite Globalfest.

My business journalist colleagues demurred when the home office (C&EN headquarters in D.C.) inquired as to whether one of us in the Manhattan bureau might want to swing by the event for a day and see what it’s all about.  But I gave it a little more thought:  “Nerd Nite,” I said to myself. “A conclave of people so unlike me that I will have an opportunity to do some truly objective reporting.”

Or … not.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Nerd Nite would be an excellent place to assess the pop culture phantasmagoria into which science would seem to be sliding all helter skelter, what with the rise of science-y sit-coms and TED Talks. And what better place than Brooklyn, N.Y., to investigate the conflation of nerd and hipster—a troubling social phenomenon that threatens to turn the definition of nerd upside down.

I realized I had some strong opinions. But I kept them to myself while chatting with my two nerd companions, Cristina Romagnoli and Gunther Oakey outside the lyceum this past Saturday.

Romagnoli told me how she had attended a previous Nerd Nite in Orlando, shortly before moving to Brooklyn this summer.  “I felt that I’d found my folk down in Florida,” she said. And these folk told her about the Brooklyn Globalfest, which was obviously an ideal way to get back with her people in her new hometown. “So I showed up last night and met up with the five Nerd Bosses from Orlando!”

Oakey told a familiar story of grade school ostracism followed by nerd solidarity and collectivism in boarding school, after which things got even better. “Luckily, we are in the Golden Age of Nerdom, where movies and pop culture are all, sort of, glorifying nerds,” Oakey said.

Inside, I met organizer Matt Wasowski, who is the “Big Boss” of Nerd Nite. He explained to me how the series evolved from a regular gathering of scientists in a bar in the Jamaica Plain area of Boston in 2003. The bartender begged these people to stop talking, or to try to organize their endless science discussions into something like a monthly meeting, “and get it over with in one fell swoop.”

That worked. And the idea caught on, with Nerd Nites now taking place in more than 60 cities around the world, including Dublin, Sydney, London, Amsterdam, Santiago de Compostela (the capital of the autonomous community of Galicia in northwestern Spain), and most major cities in the U.S. The global event in Brooklyn succeeded in being at least continental, Wasowski said, as several people from Canada showed up along with folks from Austin, Ann Arbor, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and other metropolises.

The Nerd Night concept, Wasowski said, has also succeeded in branching out from “hard science” to disciplines such as history and art. On a typical Nerd Nite, three experts give a 20-minute talk meant to be entertaining yet informative.

“We are trying to strike a careful balance and keep it from almost being too fun,” he said.

What lay ahead for me on Saturday was not your typical Nerd Nite, however. It was a Nerd Whole Day. Continue reading →

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.

PitchDropTrinityPhoto-Pre2

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.