Ever wondered why the media’s representation of chemistry and chemists never seems to hit the mark? The choice of stock imagery available might hold the answer.

Chemistry World dips into stock image libraries from time to time. These enormous repositories of images, driven by search engines, aim to provide an image for any and every possible topic you could imagine. The media is the biggest user of stock images thus libraries wield a surprising amount of influence in shaping views and perceptions. One of the larger libraries returns in excess of 215,000 images in response to a search for ‘chemistry’ and yet, surprisingly, there only seem to be seven prevalent categories…  

Coloured liquid in flask

1. Coloured liquids

Source: © D-Keine / E+ / Getty Images

Every lab I have ever visited is filled with people staring intently, longingly, at coloured liquids. So engrossed in fact that PPE is forgotten and they’re not remotely concerned about spilling anything on their smart business wear. Many researchers suffer chronic shoulder and back problems caused by holding their arms aloft for extended periods to make sure the vessel is always at eye level.

Chemical structure drawn on glass

2. Pretty structures

Source: © PeopleImages / E+ / Getty Images

You’ll encounter these everywhere in chemistry. Typically drawn on glass so the observer can interpret them easily in reverse, chemists will never let an egregious bond order or fantastic valency get in the way of a pleasingly abstract aesthetic. A nice alternative is a group of people holding a molecular model, awestruck by the revelations that lie within.

Scientist looking down microscope

3. Microscopes

Source: © sturti / E+ / Getty Images

You can’t move for microscopes in labs. They occupy every inch of available bench space that isn’t covered with flasks of coloured liquids and molecular models. They’re used as paper weights, door stops and occasionally to inspect your chances of making full professor or to find your funding.

Cloud of dye

4. Nondescript abstract stuff

Source: © millionsjoker / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Chemistry is full of mysterious, cloudy phenomena. Is it a solid, liquid or gas? Is it harmful or benign? All we know is that it is brightly coloured and makes for an excellent desktop background when you lack the imagination to choose a better one. Bottom line: chemistry is confusing, abstract, difficult, possibly magic and almost certainly not meant to be understood by the likes of you.

Scientists crowding around a chicken

5. Thoughtful huddling

Source: © Michael Blann / DigitalVision / Getty Images

If, rarely, there are no coloured liquids or microscopes to loiter around, many chemists resort to poultry. Many R&D projects have been put on hold while large groups of clever people attempt to unlock the secrets of chickens. More generally, you can spot a ‘thought huddle’ by looking out  for white-coated groups of chemists hunched over desks while avoiding eye contact with each other. 

Female scientist smiling

6. Incredibly happy women

Source: © sturti / E+ / Getty Images

One assumes women are a happy bunch because science is a meritocratic beacon of fair treatment and equity of opportunity where only intellect and ability matter and absolutely no other factors are involved in career success. Those who say otherwise are either brainwashed by the liberal media or trying to trick you into thinking about how other people’s experiences may differ from yours.

Female scientist holding flask

7. Prominent BAME scientist

Source: © FatCamera / E+ / Getty Images

Clearly, every lab has precisely one black, asian or minority ethnic scientist, who can often be found standing alone and smiling. Perhaps they are dreaming of a time when they can just hang out with everybody else rather than being pushed to the front whenever a photographer is nearby. Or maybe they don’t realise everyone behind them has dashed off to form a huddle without them.