Your views on textbooks, terminology and tailoring

Gender bias in textbooks

We would like to draw Chemistry World readers’ attention to our project. We aim to carry out a critical evaluation of the gender of scientists in Irish and British secondary school chemistry textbooks, in order to identify whether there is unconscious bias which diminishes the participation of women in chemistry.

Interest in this topic has arisen due to student responses to the question ‘Can you name any women in science?’ during six secondary school visits for talks, and Women in Science wikithons in the past year. We found that students struggled to identify women scientists (let alone chemists), defaulting to Marie Curie and maybe Ada Lovelace or Rosalind Franklin. In the UK, very few students are aware of Dorothy Hodgkin and the fact she is a British female Nobel prize-winning chemist. Similarly, chemistry textbooks in Ireland do not mention Kathleen Lonsdale’s name at all in the story of benzene.

The project aims to take a broad look at the gender representation of chemists in secondary school textbooks by analysing the distributions of scientist names mentioned and visual media presented. It has been funded by the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Inclusion and Diversity Fund. There is a survey for students at all levels in UK and Ireland secondary schools to provide a baseline reference for the current awareness of scientists in classrooms, which is now available on our website:

We would be very grateful if readers could make secondary school science teachers aware of the survey, or if those who are teachers could run the survey with their students.

Claire Murray MRSC and Michael Seery CChem FRSC
Didcot and Edinburgh, UK

Radio ga ga

If we wish to retain scientific literature in a state where it will continue to serve future generations, should we not ensure that scientific terms are not misused? The word, isotope, has been around for over a century. Literally, it means ‘the same place’ – meaning the same place in the periodic table – indicating the same element.

The word that worries me is ‘radioisotope’. When used in the plural, it is often to refer to a group of entities that are radioactive, but very rarely are these entities isotopes. The only term that is correct for such a group is nuclides – and if they are all radioactive, it would be correct to call them radionuclides.

It may be that the general public do not embrace the term nuclide, but perhaps this is simply because scientists are not using it where they should. When science has decided on its terminology, then it ought to adhere to it, so that others may become accustomed to it.

Samuel Logan, CChem FRSC
Portstewart, Northern Ireland

Editor: Does that mean we should rename atoms, given the term means something that cannot be cut into smaller parts?

Phenols be free

The report of gold-based catalysis that can turn lignin into aromatic compounds recalls the old proverb ‘All that glitters is not gold’ (Chemistry World, November 2018, p33). In fact, naturally abundant lignin is not difficult to depolymerise and without the use of a costly gold catalyst. Water alone, in a supercritical state, can do the job in a few seconds in quantitative yield. The products are a mixture of phenols.1

To use this remarkable chemistry in the associated very short reaction times required, the chemical engineering challenge has been to develop a continuous reactor that is economical, practical and scalable. One such, based on a conventional commercial extruder for plastics has been recently discussed2 and patents have been issued.

Thereafter, of course, a market must be found for a very large amount of mixed phenols. However, this will definitely not be in the food or fragrance industry, nor as pharma precursors. The most immediate opportunity will be as a partial substitute for the petroleum-derived phenol in the phenolic adhesives for large volume wood composites, such as plywood or oriented strand board. Pure phenol now sells at about 50 cents (40p) per pound or $1000 per tonne so the mixed phenols should be expected to command a somewhat lower price. A careful financial analysis shows that the total complete cost of the supercritical water treatment is about $200 per tonne of feedstock treated. Since the yield of mixed phenols is close to 100%, the profit potential is about $800 per tonne, diminished by the cost of the lignin feedstock.

G. Graham Allan, CChem FRSC
Seattle, US


1 G Brunner, Hydrothermal and Supercritical Water Processes, 2014, Elsevier

2 G G Allan and T E Loop, Chem. Processing, 2018, 80

Carry on up the Kofler

I was particularly interested in article on Kofler’s Hot bench which suggests that ‘it has had its day’ (Chemistry World, December 2018, p70). This is not the case: it is an extremely useful tool in the modern clothing industry.

Up until the mid-1950s, the structural interlinings that support and control the outer fabrics were sewn into the garments by a very laborious process called Baste stitching and lashing. This process was also extremely expensive because of the time taken to complete it. It was replaced by coating the interlinings with heat sealable resins, which were ironed onto the outer fabrics. Gradually the irons were replaced by heated fusing presses.

It was necessary that both the interlining and fusible resin manufacturers could establish the ‘tack point’ of these fusible resins ( the temperature at which the resin has reached its maximum degree of tackiness).The Kofler hot bench is an essential tool in achieving this.

The introduction of fusible interlinings into the clothing industry greatly improved the speed of manufacture on average it has reduced the cost of making an outerwear garment by 30%. I do agree, however, that it is rather a dangerous instrument to leave switched on and can give serious burns to those inquisitive enough to touch to heated surface.

Peter Judd CChem FRSC
St Albans, UK